Beyond Watching Birds: From the Eastern Himalayas to the Cities

Ankita Ranjan, New Delhi. Contact: [email protected]

Birdwatching is such a waste of time”, proclaimed my Ecology professor who happens to be an eminent conservationist too. “It distracts your mind in the field, and you develop a tendency to chase these delusional flying creatures rather than focusing on important matters”, he took a pause and looked at our puzzled faces. He himself was known for his exceptional fieldwork abilities, which involved birds to great extent. But we kept silent as we were also aware of his disciplined attitude towards conservation. And that is what he expected from his students – unwavering attention in the field. “And also, a birdwatcher has her head buried in the sky. That won’t make walking on the risky Himalayan trails easier, right?”


Although none of us were avid birdwatchers, we were fond of them. It’s difficult for anyone to keep those emotions concealed while studying nature in the North Eastern India; a renowned birders’ paradise. Being a curious batch of Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development (EESD) course at TISS, Guwahati, we were gradually learning to appreciate and understand the natural wonders, birds being one of our favourite subjects. Also, our campus was situated nearby the mighty Brahmaputra which plays host to numerous bird species, both resident and migratory. So, as expected none of us agreed to our Professor’s advice and it dissolved in thin air. But I couldn’t stop imagining myself tumbling into some Himalayan abyss while trying to look for a bird. I was selected for a two-months internship with WWF-Arunachal Pradesh and I was expected to walk down several ‘risky’ Himalayan trails during my training. “No, I am not going to walk with my head in the sky”, I mumbled subconsciously as the class dispersed. Little did I know, several winged surprises were waiting for me in the mystic Eastern Himalayas, ready to capture not only my head, but my heart as well.


As soon as I entered Zemithang[1], I was greeted by a bird whose distinctive blue colour mesmerised me. My field supervisor informed that it was a Verditer Flycatcher, with its distinctive shade of copper-sulphate blue on full display. I thanked my stars for being accompanied by such an incredible mentor for a month. Apart from work schedules, what followed for rest of the month were mandatory morning and evening walks on a trail adjacent to the Nyamjang Chu River. The stretch was wide and so was the variety of birds around it. Being a rookie, I was completely dependent on my mentor for bird sightings and identification. She described the minute techniques like decoding a bird’s body parts into crown, nape, belly, feet and beak; observing its size and shape; spotting the dicey colour-coordination for accurate species identification; and then recording all the information into a diary or clicking a photo, if camera was available. She taught me how to refer a bird book and I rushed through the pages of the holy Grimmett and Salim Ali book for the first time. While discussing birding psychology, I learnt that a bird doesn’t give much time to perform all these vast rituals, a birder has to be fast but can’t afford to be reckless too. To be quick and patient simultaneously, became my new mantra which I revere for bird watching as well as for life.

VERDITER FLYCATCHER. Photo: Prasanna Kumar Mamidala/Wikimedia Commons


Easier said than done. This exercise took a lot of practice, tiresome walks and occasional frowns from my mentor. I would be fixing my binoculars or camera to shoot a bird, and it will fly away with a smirk on its beak. Quite often my mentor will ask me to look for a bird prancing on some bush, while I would be staring at some birdless branch for long. My speed was average, but I was enjoying the process. I remember my heart almost skipping a beat when I spotted a Scarlet Minivet for the first time. The coal coloured Black Bulbul perching in the middle of bright green grass looked like a surreal painting to me. I saw Magpies, Cibias, Thrushes, Barbets, Shrikes, Redstarts, Flycatchers and many more species. It was raining birds from the sky. Not to mention every single sighting was a lifer for me.

HIMALAYAN BLACK BULBUL. Photo: Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons


If not seeking them physically, I would be listening to stories and experiences about them. During one such storytelling session, I discovered that Monpas[2] considered the Black-necked Cranes as an embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama and hence the people have a cultural inclination towards conservation. Such insights helped me to explore various dimensions of birds and community interrelationships. I was becoming a ‘birdwatcher’ slowly, and the transformation seemed no less than Peter Parker becoming Spiderman to my melodramatic mind.

Black-necked Crane by Abhinava via Wikimedia Commons
A pair of BLACK-NECKED CRANES. Photo: Abhinava/Wikimedia Commons
BNCR_eBird distribution map
eBird map showing the distribution & abundance of Black-necked Cranes in the world

Amidst everything, there was an inner realization of attaining a sense of synchronization with nature. I was observing more shades of colours. I was hearing more vivid calls. I was having an extremely good time during training. My mind was swarming with ideas, while my body felt fit and active like never before. I was happy and made real efforts to spread that happiness to people around me. I was learning the ways of a traditional Monpa life while eating their food, drinking their beverages and praying to their Gods. Mountains were coming alive for me. What started as a humble birdwatching practice, became one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I was completely enchanted by the magic of nature, which was much more vibrant than I had imagined.


It has been five years to these incidents. Being city-bound for most of this time period, my interaction with nature has reduced. Still, one aspect remains intact. My affinity with these ‘delusional flying creatures’. While walking down the busy streets of Delhi or Bangalore, my eyes search for the sight of a bird on trees, power cables or even in the nooks of high-rise buildings. Now I don’t need an exotic Minivet to make me happy every time, I am content with Pigeons and House Crows also. Of course, the occasional sight of a Kingfisher or a Sunbird tickles excitement. But I feel once we start admiring the beauty of the ‘otherness’ nature endows us with, we take every living being as a silver lining. Common city birds have become a source of my everyday joy, playing their gimmicks on my window, filling my heart with awe.

The adventures during sporadic field trips are stacking into my cherished albums. Though I am still not proficient at bird identification or camera skills, I love gazing at them in their natural habitats, performing their regular chores. Watching a long-legged, herculean Greater Adjutant (locally called ‘Hargilla’) stalking over the rain-soaked paddy fields in Majuli[3] was a majestic moment. Two Little Cormorants preening their feathers, taking shade under the winged umbrella of an Indian Darter at Charotar wetland[4] made me wonder about the cross-species connections. Then there were times when I became witness to a Kingfisher brutally attacking a Bee-eater or a raptor killing some small bird. Nature can be as fierce as it is forgiving. The quest for survival is a mandatory lesson and I feel blessed to learn it the bird way.

1 Darter by Samyak Kaninde
ORIENTAL DARTER. Photo: Samyak Kaninde


When the planet is hit by chaos and despair due to coronavirus pandemic, anxiety has become a normal human reaction. Cooped up in homes, we are panicking to fast-forward into a certain future. But in present, a male Asian Koel sings melodies on the Gulmohar tree outside my balcony in Patna. Slowly, I am shifting my focus from widespread negativity to the tweaks and chatters of birds around me. My regular visitors include Purple Sunbirds, White-throated Kingfishers, Common Mynas, Black Drongos, House Crows; to name a few. They have become the saviours of my sanity in these times of need.

I am fortunate to have forged this kinship beyond human world which never lets my solitude become loneliness. Reflecting at my relationship with birdwatching, I can say that it is not a mere hobby, rather a crucial part of my life now. Every intentional or unintentional session has given me profound experiences. It has given me some like-minded friends. It has given me the gift of being a lifelong seeker. It has given me hope. I rejoice the moment when I buried my head in the sky, but I am glad I listened to my Professor partially and kept my feet firm on the ground. And honestly, I have tripped at times while birdwatching, but never fallen into any abyss. I am alive, more than ever.

WTKI_Ganeshwar_SOF archives

[1] Zemithang is a scenic valley situated in Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh. This valley serves as a wintering habitat of the vulnerable Black-necked Crane.

[2] Monpas are an ethnic group of people who reside in Zemithang valley and other parts of Tawang region. They follow Tibetan Buddhism.

[3] Majuli is the largest river island in world. Situated on the River Brahmaputra in Assam, it is a hub of Neo-Vaishnava culture initiated by Assamese saint Srimanta Sankardeva.

[4] Charotar is a region in central Gujarat. It is famous for its wetlands, crocodiles and other biodiversity.