BE Rajendran, former Associate Vice President (Human Resources), JSW Steel, Salem.
You have to retire one day if you are employed. It is therefore imperative that you plan for it. While you concentrate on planning for financial security, social security, health, etc. you invariably neglect on how to plan your time after retirement.
I spent a lot of time, musing on what I should do when I retire. I did not want to take up any further employment. I decided that after retirement, I should do things that my busy office schedule did not allow me to do for the last 38 years! So, what did I miss during my working days? I concluded that they were gardening, photography, nature trips, reading and travelling. I discovered that among the above all can be started impromptu photography. I felt photography needed more preparation as it was a costly hobby!
I always had a keen interest in photography, what with digital cameras making it so affordable. But thumbing through the National Geographic magazines, which I could afford during my employment, I felt I must concentrate on Nature Photography. And it was my dream to own a DSLR! I started acquiring my equipment a year before my retirement. But I relied on my own understanding through reviews (which proved to be costly on hind sight) and an eye on my budget. A year’s extension of my retirement date by the management was a bonus and I started practicing to do bird watching and learning the nuances of photography.
FIRST TRIP TO THE SHEVAROYS
I was introduced to one of my colleagues in the office, Thirumalai RT Venkataraman who had already established himself as a bird photographer. He took me on my first birding trip in October 2017 to Yercaud in the Shevaroy Hills. He also introduced me to another young seasoned birder who readily added me to the WhatsApp group of the Salem Ornithological Foundation.
I shall never forget that day! It launched me into a world of birds! When you get immersed into bird watching, you forget your sense of time and space. I discovered the beauty of a male Indian Peafowl sitting majestically on tree top! We spotted few Red-rumped Swallows. I never knew swallows has red rumps. The photograph revealed it all. We saw a Shikra, but before I could get ready with my camera, it had flown away. We were more lucky with the Jungle Owlet and with the Crested Serpent Eagle. These two birds loved to pose for the photograph till they lost confidence (as you greedily came closer) and flew away. To me it was a taste of better things to come!
The first thing I did was to buy myself a couple of books to help me identify the birds. The Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp, was the standard book that everyone recommended. This book had drawings of almost all the birds of the subcontinent. The other was ‘A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India’ by Bikram Grewal et. al. which had wonderful photographs. A cursory glance of the book indicated that the Himalayas and the North East had the most variety and because of the climate, the most beautiful birds. I made a mental note to visit these areas, which is yet to happen!
MARSHLANDS OF CHENNAI
I discovered that my daughter’s flat in Perungudi, Chennai overlooked a barren private land which was a neglected swamp. The few coconut trees there attracted Asian Openbills and Painted Stork to rest in the afternoons. The swamp below attracted Indian Spot-billed Ducks and a variety of Egrets and Herons. My daughter introduced me to the Perungudi Lake, Pallikaranai swamp and later to the Perumbakkam Lake. The myriads of bird there left me speechless and overwhelmed me by their numbers. I just concentrated on getting good pictures of the birds closer to me. The Grey-headed Swamphen (formerly Purple Swamphen) was always a very colorful subject which was not very shy. The Black-winged Stilts and the Purple Heron were other steady subjects which let you have multiple shots for a good picture. Each outing lasted between two to four hours. And still I was reluctant to leave until my daughter called to chide me for not coming in for breakfast! I discovered that the camera with the 400 mm lens was heavy and became heavier as the time went by. I was past sixty and my hand shook spoiling a lot of shots.
I was new to the field and trial and error was the mode. On advice from fellow bird watchers and camera-savvy friends, I bought a tripod and a 2X lens. The tripod was okay for the birds on the lake, but for flying birds or fast movements, the tripod restricted you. The 2X lens was a disaster. However I started improving over time. I lost many sightings because of my inability with the camera. But that did not take away the joy of having sighted the bird!
DIVERSITY OF TRIPS
My brother saw a couple of my photographs and informed me that Dr Arulvelan Thillainayagam, his classmate was very active in birding in the Coimbatore region. I knew Dr Arul from his college days, so getting across to him was no problem. He arranged a trip for me to Valparai with Selvaganesh K. Then we went on a trip to Pondicherry, where I met Dr P Jeganathan and a variety of Harriers for the first time. There was also this unforgettable trip to Kozhikode where I first encountered the Western Reef Egret and the Stork-billed Kingfisher. My cousin from Madurai was a great help in accompanying me to sites around Madurai. It then became customary to pack my photography gear into the car whenever I travelled.
ONE WITH NATURE
The question everyone in the family and friends circle kept asking was what is in it for you? Well, the first most satisfying thing about bird watching is that it makes you spend more and more time with Nature. I will drive down to the remote corners of Yercaud early in the morning only to find the birds are earlier than you. It is, I discovered the least disturbed part of the day for the birds and they went about their business of finding food, courtship, territorial squabbles etc. without really being disturbed by the presence of man. The color of the forest changes from the misty grey of the early morning to various hues of yellow and green, as the sun rises and pierces the canopy of tall trees to reach the ground. It’s a place and time when you hear only Nature’s sounds! The breeze in the trees, the numerous bird sounds, the rubbing of bamboo in the wind, the rustle of a falling leaf. You have visited the fringe of paradise! Just witnessing this you become a better person wanting to be part of this harmony. You discover an inner peace!
LIVE DOCUMENTARY & RARITIES
You just sit in a selected spot and keep still and watch. It is like sitting before your TV and watch the drama as a variety of actors enter and exit. The Bulbuls, which I find are the most daring, will be first to get used to your presence. Then you will find the Mynas. Then, the Drongos. You can watch the whole parade if you can sit still longer. The Minivets, Orioles, Leafbirds, White-eyes, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, the melodious Shama, etc. I keep clicking at every visitor.
The next most satisfying thing for me is the joy of spotting a rare bird for the first time! To me the definition of ‘rare’ is different from that of a seasoned birder. To me any bird which I am seeing for the first time is rare! The Red-rumped Swallow, Jungle Owlet, Crested Serpent Eagle were some of the rare birds I spotted on my first birding trip. There were many birds I have seen before but did not know their name. I spent hours going through the photographs trying to find their names. Some of the Lapwings, Waders, Babblers and Warblers fell in this category. I would sometimes land birds I have never seen or heard about. I just post the pictures in the SOF WhatsApp group and help pours in! Some of my great moments were taking pictures of the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Greater Painted-Snipe and of course the Blyth’s Reed Warbler which is always heard but eludes the camera.
The third great benefit for me is the enormous amount of exercise you get! In each session of two to four hours you walk quite a bit, easily four to five kilometers. And don’t forget that you walk about carrying about three to four kilos of camera equipment!
Bird watching has taught me a few things in life:
- Always be alert! You develop a wide angled vision and be sensitive to any slight movement in the surrounding
- You have to develop an acute hearing. To tune yourself to bird sounds over the omnipresent jungle sounds
- Immeasurable patience. You have to wait and wait for things to happen. To get a good photograph. Any sudden movement alerts the bird.
- A fundamental to bird photography is ‘Who spots the other first?’. If the bird spots you first, you lost the game. Of course some birds are used to you, but believe me, they wouldn’t be rare. They also ignore you or lesser bothered if you are far away. Then the zoomand your photographic ability come into play.
- You have to be quick on the draw without alerting the bird. Easier said than done! Your camouflage and your equipment’s camouflage helps but you have to be quick to get your camera going. Many times I have discovered the camera has gone to sleep mode! The process of focusing and zooming in are loss of precious milliseconds. If the bird is in a hurry, you lost him and no one would believe you if you had spotted a rare bird.
Practicing the above made me a fitter person. Many times I used to feel like a hunter on the prowl!
Bird watching has also made me aware of how much we (my generation) have degraded our environment. The ubiquitous House Sparrow, which used to build and raise its young ones in my house in Anna Nagar, Chennai has all but disappeared in urban areas. The lakes and water bodies have been encroached upon without any qualms. In the three years that I have been birding in Salem, encroachment in the Kannankurichi Mookaneri Lake has been so rampant that the habitat of the several migratory birds including the Baillon’s Crake has disappeared. In Perungudi, Chennai I reached the rear side of the Pallikaranai swamp on foot. You have to pass through narrow streets to reach the water edge. I was approached by many if I wanted to purchase a plot of land there. They promised to get me patta in three years! Lorries after lorries are dumping all kinds of solid demolition debris into the lake and reclaiming land. The birds are going about their business at a safe distance. I was amused to see a large compound built in the middle of the lake. But for how long before the Pallikaranai swamp and other water bodies disappear.
RAY OF HOPE
In these difficult times you are made aware of the struggle the birds are waging trying to find suitable spots to feed. It is a great lesson for us that so many varieties of birds, from the small Prinias and Warblers to the bigger Storks and Herons and even Flamingos share the same limited space and coexist in harmony. Each species went about their business, not stepping on each others’ toes. The occasional squabbles settled in a spirit of give and take. There is not much that we can say about ourselves on sharing space with each other.
Most of the bird watchers I know are registered with the international citizen science initiative called eBird. Professionals and volunteers collate and analyse the data and come up with all kinds of interesting data about the number of species, habitats and migration routes of birds in different locations to enable or suggest to policy makers the conservation measures needed to protect the avian habitats. I was always confused whether I was a bird watcher or I was a photographer! I have become reasonably active on the eBird since December 2019. It really improves your accuracy of reporting. Even if you report it wrong, there are volunteer friends who check your list and report back that you may have got it wrong!
The funny thing about bird photography that you may be clicking the same bird at different places in different poses! The place is different. The light is different and the feel is different. Just as every individual human being is different, every bird is different. When you edit the picture with good details, showing the color and majesty of the bird you want to reach out and touch it and feel its softness. That is the beauty of God’s creation. Yes, the picture definitely brings you closer to the creations of God!