There was a slight movement on the branch above us, well over fifty feet high. We were craning our necks and it was difficult to see anything through the dark canopy in the fading evening light. For the next few minutes there was no activity. For the motley group of bird-watchers, gathered below the BBT (Big Banyan Tree) in Rishi Valley, it seemed like ages. The excitement of locating the bird responsible for the movement was palpable.
‘What bird could it be, Sir?’ asked Aditya.
‘Is it new to our bird list?’ queried Ashima.
‘Have you seen it earlier?’ Rishab wanted to know.
‘Guys, we must keep quiet and try to locate the bird again, ’ advised Gautam, the 11-year-old expert.
‘There it is moving again, I just saw it. It flew to the branch on the left after trying to catch something.’This was sharp-eyed Tushin.
‘Ah! There it is. I see it clearly. It is greenish in colour.’ ‘Wow, what a massive beak.’ ‘It is about the size of a parakeet.’ ‘Yes, did you notice the blue streak running down from the throat to the belly?’ ‘What is it, Sir?’ The observations and questions kept pouring in and I was flooded with the excited curiosity of my young friends.
This is the kind of thrill bird-watchers get when they see something new, irrespective of their age and experience. Today they had good reason to be excited – the bird that they had spotted was indeed a rare visitor to these parts and the 201st species for the Rishi Valley checklist of birds. It was the Bluebearded Bee-eater, a bird of wooded areas, generally seen in the dense forest areas of the Western Ghats and other hills. The nearest locality it had been earlier seen in was some two hundred kilometers to the south, in Tamil Nadu.
In my three years’ stay in Rishi Valley, I have been taking several students, teachers and visitors out watching birds on weekends and during weekdays too. After all, when all you have to do to watch birds in Rishi Valley (or for that matter anywhere else) is to keep your eyes and ears open, why restrict bird- watching to the weekends? I often notice birds when I look through the windows of my classroom. I hear their trills, chirrups and whistles even if I am in the company of my garrulous students. Having been involved with bird-watching for much of my youth and adult life, it gives me great satisfaction to realize that there are at least a few others in the school as sensitive to the presence of birds around them. Often these happen to be the youngest of the children.
I wonder why it is that, as we grow older, we often lose our sensitivity to nature? Where do we misplace that sense of wonder and amazement that was a part of our youth? Why do we cut off our ties with our natural environment and live in isolation in our own worlds? Through the bird-watching activity I have been trying to work on these questions, as I attempt to sensitize as many children and adults as are willing to nature. It has been my fortune that I have been afforded the opportunity to interact not only with children of Rishi Valley School but also other K- schools, each located in its own unique surroundings.
Bird-watching is perhaps the easiest way to entice people to nature. With their diverse plumage, colouration, highly developed vocalization skills and their agile movements, birds could be considered the ideal spokespersons of the natural world. Besides being easily seen at all places in all seasons, they also pose the right kind of challenge to their admirers to identify and name them correctly. Moreover, by turning up at unexpected places at unexpected times, as in the case described at the start of this narrative, birds can ensnare for life anyone with the right kind of outlook and patience.
And people who begin to watch birds soon become sensitive not only to them, but also to the surroundings in which they are found. ‘What birds could be found in a given habitat?’ or, ‘In which habitat is this particular bird seen?’ are the kinds of questions a birdwatcher begins to ask after a few months of commencing this hobby. A serious birdwatcher soon stops to watch not just the appearance of the bird but also its behaviour, its interactions with other organisms or its surroundings, and so becomes aware of its ecological requirements. He soon begins to appreciate its role in nature, and understand the need to preserve its habitat. Questions about its adaptations to various habitats and its geographical distribution also arise. Each question and each new insight leads to others and finally he/she is able to appreciate the interconnectedness of living beings with each other and their surroundings.
Bird-watching is not a costly hobby. Anyone with a little time to spare can afford it. The relaxation it provides and the educational and aesthetic values it dispenses, are invaluable in the present day context of an increasingly crowded, competitive and materialistic world.
Fortunately, we now have a range of good books and field guides to assist birdwatchers in identifying birds and learning more about them. Binoculars, the only expensive item in the equipment list of birdwatchers, are also now freely available in our country. In addition, there are audio cassettes of bird calls, CD-ROMs, websites, journals, video films and other educational aids available in the country for those interested in pursuing the hobby. Our own Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History, located at Rishi Valley, also offers a home-study course in ornithology. Special training opportunities, such as in ringing or counting birds, are available for amateurs in the form of field courses offered from time to time by the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai. For those serious in pursuing a career in birds, there are several specialized degree and doctoral programmes offered by leading universities and research institutions.
So the next time you notice a flutter in a bush or hear a captivating melody from the treetops, why don’t you stop by and look for its source? After all, it is never too late to take to bird-watching and rediscover your links with nature!