Thursday, June 21, 2012

My kind of birding


In recent years I have often heard a refrain that one sees the same species of birds on field trips. Initially I would get cross at such an observation, which was remiss of me, for everyone does not think the way I do, and that’s okay. Later I was bemused, for how could new species be ordered up for a birder? Now I am concerned, for I think this is a symptom of a deeper malady.
            I have been birding for a little over three decades, and never have I been put off by the prospect of seeing the same common species on a birding outing. When something new turned up during outings or a rare bird was sighted, we were ecstatic. The excitement ignited a sense of awe in the entire group. But I cannot recall even one instance of a birder complaining about the lack of species novelty. So this lament is new to my ears.
            I feel that it is a symptom of a syndrome often called boredom, which is particularly prevalent in the digital generation for whom the predilection to channel-surf through life’s situations is an overpowering need, and this gives them a false sense of control over their lives, of the desire to change a situation at the mere press of a button. The downside of this is an ever-decreasing attention span. If this phenomenon begins to seep into one’s very nature, then activities that are not considered ‘essential’ in the life of a person, say leisure, inevitably fall prey to a ceaseless, futile hunger for novelty in whatever one does. Given such a bent of mind, and with the mind-bending peer pressures rampant today, how long will it take, I often ask myself, before this malady leaches into the more essential areas of the fabric of one’s life? I see signs of it daily in traffic snarls. Tempers flare at the avoidable inconvenience, but people do not hesitate to slip out of their lane on spotting a chance for a quick exit. If everyone stuck to traffic rules, the flow would, undoubtedly, be smoother.
            Leisure activity, as I was saying, is the first victim of such aberrant behaviour. I am of the firm belief that the constant desire to spot at least one species never seen before, and the paradoxical moaning that follows the no-show of a new species is a symptom of the channel-surfing mindset. I am concerned about such an overpowering desire for novelty, when a dynamic activity like birding, becomes suspect of being mired in stagnation, and the disgruntled birder actually begins to wonder whether it would be worth the while to spend another mundane morning tramping through the countryside, chasing the same old birds!
            Bird watching is not an eternal quest for rarity, though no birder denies the thrill of sighting one. It is not about racing all over the landscape and tallying a century of birds before lunch, though no birder will deny the special joy of such a ‘ton.’ It is not twitching for the most number of species seen, though there have been many that have basked in the sunshine of that self-indulgent high-life (they truly miss the woods for the trees).
            Bird watching, in its essence, is the fine art of becoming invisible; of merging into the surroundings in such a manner that the breath which Nature has held back upon your entry into Her parlour, is joyfully exhaled, and normal respiration restored; in such a way that the frozen statues of animate wildlife, interrupted by your brashness, are coaxed into resuming their activities; in such a way that your aural and visual senses are drenched with the buoyancy of life; in such a way that you get outside yourself and become a part of the pageant around you.
            This does require the cultivation of a patience that slows down your pace to that of the elemental cycles dominating the flow of life in an immaculate world run entirely without human help. It requires the marshalling and re-aligning of vision, and a new focus of hearing so that you absorb every single sound and identify its source, and gradually its nuances, its cadenzas. It demands the preoccupation with stillness.
            What are the rewards of this exercise? I can think of at least two that will last you a lifetime. One, you would have begun to notice things about your surroundings that you never knew existed, bringing you immediate, immeasurable joy. Two, you would have wound down your restless inner dynamo to such an extent that you would discover a quietude, a stillness within you; a fount for a fresh view of your surroundings, a new approach to life, based on re-energised sensitivities. But first you must do this.
            Then suddenly a new world opens its doors to your mind’s eye. You remain standing in front of a fruiting neem, while the large group of birders moves on, having identified one or two species. You inhale the aroma of its foliage. A fluty whistle from its canopy leads your eye to the Iora. He is dressed in breeding regalia—jet cap and coat, deep canary shirt, white epaulettes. He courts a hen iora with song, he postures, he patrols; his aria persuades her and dissuades rivals from his territory. You do not exist in his scheme of things, just in your own sensory world, as a witness. You stay with him as he perambulates the leafy canopy, lifting his warbling beak skyward, fluffing his velvet beret, vibrating his dark tail, standing on tiptoe in the fervour of his operatic song. You are trapped by its intensity. You are mesmerised by its elemental simplicity, by the realisation that the Iora’s entire world, in that moment, is its song, and that he has enmeshed you in it, albeit momentarily, till your focus expands to take in the larger picture, the shining curved leaves of the neem, the soft yellow fruit-pods, the darkened bark, damp from last night’s rain, the tangled undergrowth.
            A movement you spy, from the corner of your eye, and realise it is an Ashy Prinia that’s flown into the Iora’s neem, and you stay with it. As your senses expand, your absorption of the drama around you becomes acute and before you are aware of it, you are invisible to yourself, a part of the very landscape you’ve come to partake, all eyes and ears, inhaling its scents, feeling it on your skin. If you become aware of yourself, the spell is broken and the pageant melts away into simple, mundane, two-dimensionality. The trick is to be yourself invisible, but completely present in your surroundings. Now you are on the path to my kind of birding.

31 comments:

ramya ravi said...

wonderfully written Asheesh and captures the malady of the digital age while offering a splendid soulful solution. lovely.

Sharada said...

Aasheesh Uncle!

Am so glad you raised this. :) It resonates just right. The other day I got into a battle with a dear friend of mine upon hearing him point out that "I understand they have their place in the ecosystem and everything, but birds are just, so pointless!"

I was really aghast for several days after that. Heh. He said, something is enjoyable only if there is a challenge unto it. When he pointed out next that swimming, a sport I thoroughly enjoy, was pointless too, it became apparent what it was that gripped him and so many of us. Something that is characteristic of all of us as toddlers. Constantly tiring and picking up something new without ever engaging deeper. Mathiessen, if you remember in that interview at UPenn said it was what Zen Buddhists call, a monkey mind.

As human beings we are forever challenging ourselves, pursuing something new when things get static and stagnant.Which is why we travel, pick up new hobbies and constantly re-invent ourselves. I suppose, digital media is a new panacea for our ever restless natures. It is instantly gratifying. It is fast and constantly changing forms.

Your post highlights the loss of an ability to re-invent, involve and look deeper and beyond the obvious. An interesting, new development over the matter of a decade of the peak of the digital era. The more time we spend with something, the better we know it, the more fascinating it becomes. And it holds so true for birding. Unfortunately, like my friend, we have grown to see no point in doing something unless it has a goal and makes us feel like we have accomplished something or beaten someone in this race. Perhaps, which is why we are beginning to see Birding or Natural History as not another labour of love, but another competitive sport, where one's worth is validated by achievements. And how it looks compared to another's highlight reel of a species' life list. :)

Sheetal said...

...in such a way that your aural and visual senses are drenched with the buoyancy of life; in such a way that you get outside yourself and become a part of the pageant around you.

How can you say that you are not ready, Aasheesh? you are!

You say: The trick is to be yourself invisible, but completely present in your surroundings. Now you are on the path to my kind of birding.

I hear (and am able to follow only faintly) echoes of that every day, these days. That is the effort and you're practised already.

Loved this.

Voltaire said...

Hi, Asheesh, a very sound and hard hitting argument to open the eyes and ears of those who call birding Routine / boring just because, you could not see a new bird on that day. Well done. Good show. Congratulations.
I for one thoroughly enjoy every Birding trip I go ( of course, they are very few and with long intervels.) I cannot still recognise a bird either by its sounds / songs or by its looks. Yet I feel a thrilling joy, just watching the winged creature in all its majesty, happily flying and hopping from tree top to tree top in its own way. Thats enough, I feel. As you said you become a part of Mother Nature and her Birds, which exist and run their own cycle without any Human Help.
Ramchander ( Parsa V R Rao )21/ 06 / 2012

Nimesh Ved said...

Absolutely agree with your thoughts - you have put them across amazingly . .

Asif husain said...

Amazingly well written Aasheesh bhai . very true and hope the advice you gave gets implemented by all who read your Blog . Thanks for sharing -:)

Australopithecus said...

That was great.
I have a question, perhaps somewhat related. With so many people with cameras on birding trips, does it not also have an effect on the actual "process" of birding?For the camera persons themselves. I noticed this happening to me, a few months ago, armed with only my point and shoot, I was so engrossed in taking pictures of a lovely sunset that i almost forgot to just take the sight in. Luckily, I came to my senses in time.

Not to write of my lens wielding friends completely.. photography, I do agree is important in all sorts of ways while birding.

Aasheesh said...

Thank you all. So happy you enjoyed this essay. I had to get it off my chest.

Australopithecus, when I came to the fork in the road I chose binocs and scope, not camera. To enjoy either we has to choose one.

Subbu said...

I agree with you Aasheesh. Very rightly put...

The present generation of birders who have gone `digital' hardly know what birdwatching is and the true joy of being charmed by birds; learning them the hard way and the joy of doing it - the way we have come though those times, when some of us did not even have a decent pair of binoculars!

rajeshramesh90 said...

I think I should make my birding friends read this :) Simple and captures the essence! Superb article Sir!

bikram said...

Excellent! Extremely well written! I do agree that we are in the era where things are available very easily on top of that we are driven totally by achievment psychology. From the very early age all are exposed to this combination of easy availibility of resources and we need to do some thing better than others. The understanding that birding is not a competitive hobby is often forgotten and the ability to absorb the beauty of observing the nature in its natural surroundings is often missed. We all want to see birds shown in descovery or national geography with all their splendour, forgetting the days and days they spend to take those photograpghs and expect in minutes we should see some thing comparable.

GT said...

Very well written Asheesh.... i completely agree with you about one living the current moment better...

FreeSpirit said...

Very well put. One of the greatest testimony I witness to the boredom phenomenon is lack of appreciation for lovely peacocks by lot many birders. There was a time when as a child or as a beginner birder, everyone would have stood still in the tracks and marvelled at the lovely riot of a colour with it's flowing trail on a banyan tree but as the years of experience increase, the sense of achievement by spotting a peacock is diminished. Since childhood, parents teach success as beating others and standing out and winning trophies but not merging with the sorroundings and losing yourself in the woods. How many parents do that ? Unfortunately not many. Till we increase this appreciation of nature itself as a trophy in our children, the breed of birders challenged only by rarer, threatened birds and the count of birds in their list will always be overwhelming.
Sorry about rambling here but liked every word of your article.

Sushmita Jha said...

Asheesh, congratulations for a very deeply felt and well written essay. I am glad you got it off your chest! And bravo for stating the unsaid. The birding craze today is largely a photography craze with 'success' of good images as the tag - the images actually capture an extension of the photographers' ego. No doubt photographers do a great service and give us all a lot of pleasure. Birding is also alas a 'competition' for many - not that they too do not enjoy birding moments as you describe.
Your thoughts and expression about being invisible yet all there - one with Nature - is extremely evocative. Thanks for sharing.

kiran srivastava said...

After many years birding it dawned on me that only patience rewarded me with wonderful sightings! The only time I used my mobile was to excitedly tell a friend what I was watching whilst in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Cheers!

Snigdha Kar said...

Very well written and so true. For some reason, I enjoying watching crows......

TITLI said...

Well written Asheesh. In today's speedy world, style over substance is the norm. And its great that you can point this out so succinctly to fellow birders!

Senthil K. Chellapandian said...

Its True ..... :)

Senthil K. Chellapandian said...

yes .. Very true ..

Dinakarr said...

Beautiful piece! Many thanks for this..

Raju Kasambe said...

Dear Aasheesh,
I think you have explained very well the difference between the "Birdwatchers" and "bird photographers" by taking the mediatation to a philisophical level. This could be the reason, I did not carry my camera with me when my friends had the bigger ones with them.
Somebody said in another article, are we watching life through the view finder? Isn't life bigger than that? Thanks for sharing such a nice article!! Kudos to you!

molarbear's posts said...

I would add further to this lovely piece by saying that it was this kind of "leisure" birdwatching that led me into being interested, not just in birds, but the whole picture...the tree that the bird is on, the grasses around, the insects that abound...now I am perfectly happy to go on a nature trail and return content and happy, because there is always a lot to see and learn.

When people ask me, "Why do you go to the same places again and again?" My reply is, "They are never the same."

Deepa.

kale_v said...

Excellent !
Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts !

Garima said...

Enjoyed this piece very much. Very well written and captures the essence of what makes birding such a pleasure. Thank you for sharing!

Unknown said...

Really an excellent piece of article, which unfolds the meaning of Bird-Watching.I live in a rural area and often go for Bird-Watching in the fields. The innocent farmers ask me "What are you doing? I say "I am looking at birds." They say -"What about birds. Birds are everywhere and we all see them every day. So what is the fun of looking at them." I tell them, Yes Birds are everywhere and we all see them every day. But they are just like our children to me. We see them every day. But we never say -oh! I have already seen you and you go away! Rather we always hug, embrace and kiss them and play with them. So we are never tired of looking at our children and birds. This is just like a meditation to me. When Bird-W hatching, one is turned off from the rest of world!
Dr P S Sangwan.

Piyush Dogra said...

Wow.. Simply wow..
Amazingly written.

Enjoyed every bit of it.

Anurag Ghatole said...

Truly My kind of birding, But I dont deny being taken in by the rare occasions of spotting a rarity. As much as we love to slow down the frenzy around us, our generation is marred by this constant speed we have to face which someday makes the birder in us dormant. Its articles like these and people like you sir, who bring us back to our roots and to something we so eternally love! Plainly and simply put watching everything without existing around it.

anuradhapati said...

As you can see, I have been reading up all that you have been writing. This was so good, once again.

This perspective is so hard to get. Our education/ society do not teach us to connect, it tells us to compete, to excel. To be the first to spot an exotic bird and take a photograph! I once attended a biodiversity camp of BNHS, coming from my little bit of work on forests/ forest based communities. A group of successful doctors were also attending the same. They obsessively wanted to beat everyone else in identifying the birds.

I felt the cause was already lost.
What can one do differently for this kind of discussions to happen more?

Aasheesh said...

Anuradhapati, thank you for the deep reading of my blogposts, and taking the time to comment on them. It's a privilege, really, and a vindication of sorts for putting up one's thoughts.
Regarding your query, I feel that connecting with nature is a very personal thing, and happens either naturally, or through the casual, or even active advocacy of a group of friends, or through reading, etc. Such a connect does increase with greater time spent in natural environs.

Prem Palanivel said...

Wonderfully written, capturing the 'zen' of birding.

Harsh Bhargava said...

Superbly written Aasheesh, 'channel-surfers' wake up!