The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Kurosawa's Bush Warbler


One of my most enduring memories of Kurosawa's Sanjuro (a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo) is of Mifune's sardonic smile as he explains to a group of well-meaning but clueless young men that they're looking for corruption in all the wrong places. The other is of a cheerful bit of bird song, repeated throughout the film; and, indeed, in many other Japanese films by Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and others. I'd always wondered which bird was singing.

I posted to the naturerecordists list a couple of years ago, describing the call: a loud, fluty (fwEEEE) whitch-chit-chew. It was quickly identified as the Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone by someone in Hawai'i (where it is apparently a very successful invasive species). I learned later that the long, subdued whistle followed by an explosive jumble of notes is typical of a Cettia warbler's song; but I had never seen or heard one when I first watched Sanjuro.

I assumed the species was common in Japan (given how often its song featured in films), but once it was identified, I stopped thinking about it. There seemed little chance that I would ever hear it live (although C. d. cantuarians may occur as a vagrant to North-East India), and little else about the song to hold my attention… until now.

I had the opportunity to spend two days birding around Delhi with Mark Brazil (author of Birds of East Asia) this week, and one of the many subjects we discussed was Cettia diphone. To my delight, Mark told me that there was much more to the song of the Uguisu than I had imagined.

In Japan, the Uguisu's song is very well-known, and it pervades poetry and literature as a symbol of the spring revival; signifying rebirth, hope, and an end to the hard (winter) times. It is also called the "spring bird" and "poem reading bird", and its call is traditionally transcribed as "Hō ho-ke-kyo". In poetry, the bird is associated with the ume (sour plum) blossom, and is as evocative of spring as the cherry blossom. (Aside: the Uguisu's droppings are even powdered and used to lighten the skin, since they contain guanine.)

Its position in Japanese culture is comparable to that of the Nightingale in western Europe; and the bird's name used to be translated into English as "Japanese Nightingale", though it does not sing at night. (The only bird I can think of whose call is similarly well-known in Indian poetry is the Koel, whose incessant, plaintive song in early summer has also led to comparisons with the Nightingale.)

There are many other Cettia warblers in India. I've seen the Grey-sided Bush Warbler C. brunnifrons both in its wintering grounds and nesting near the tree line in Kumaon, but not heard its song (yet). Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler C. fortipes is also relatively common in the mountains, and other species may also occur. Now that I know something of what I have to look forward to, I always keep an ear out for them.

I may never hear Cettia diphone singing, but its song has brought me much joy.

Nikon Trailblazer Binoculars


I'm often asked about my binoculars, a pair of Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42s. (They are most often mistaken for the Monarch 8x42, but are a lower-end model.) Here's what I usually tell people about them.

A quick summary of the specifications: the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 is a waterproof, fogproof roof-prism model that measures 154x131mm, weighs 670g, and offers a generous 19.7mm of eye relief. The minimum focusing distance is 5m, and the field of view at a distance of 1km is 122m. It has dark green rubber "armour", twist-up plastic eyecups, a focusing wheel in the centre, and dioptre correction for the right eye.

I bought a pair in April 2008 after my earlier binoculars suffered irreparable damage in a fall. I chose them because they were (much!) smaller and lighter than my old pair, had better optics (BaK4 prisms instead of BK7) and better eye-relief; and they seemed the best value all round within my budget (<US$150).

After a year and a half of use, I am very happy with them. I adore the long eye relief (I wear spectacles) and large exit pupil. The focusing wheel is accurate and responsive. The build quality is excellent. The fog-proofing actually works as advertised. I didn't mind the extra size and weight of my old binoculars while I was using them, but I would find it hard to give up on this pair now (especially when I am hiking in the mountains). I do sometimes wish, however, that they could be mounted on a tripod, but the construction offers no convenient place for a threaded socket.

I can't comment on the Trailblazer's optical quality as compared to higher-end models, such as Nikon's Monarch series. I have only stolen glances through other people's Leica, Swarovski, and Monarch binoculars, not used any of them long enough to appreciate a difference. The optics are, however, noticeably better than any of the other binoculars I have used extensively (notably a Konica-Minolta 8–20x50 and Bushnell 8x40).

I have not noticed any obtrusive distortion or chromatic aberration. The 5m minimum focus distance occasionally annoys me, but I wouldn't want to trade the much longer eye relief for the close-focus capabilities of the Monarch 8x42 (despite its lighter weight… but much heavier price).

In summary: I would recommend the Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42 without hesitation.


I think the Trailblazer ATB series is a USA-specific one. The official Nikon dealer in India denied that such a model existed when I asked in mid-2008, and I can find it described only on the Nikon USA web site. Online stores based in the USA, such as Eagle Optics, Optics4Birding, and OpticsPlanet offer the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 for ~US$130–150. The recently-introduced Sporter EX 8x42 model looks identical and has the same specifications, and it seems to be available at least in Europe (albeit at a much higher price).

Three-in-one Raptor


While driving back into town from a very productive trip to Sultanpur, Clive Harris (a "Delhibirder-at-large", and one of my favourite people to go birding with) spotted an interesting-looking raptor (i.e. not a Kite) soaring, and we stopped to have a closer look.

…the bird circles, flying away from us…

Me, looking at the thin, upraised wings: Is that a Harrier?

Clive: Yes, I think so

…the bird turns, flies towards us…

Me, looking at the mottled whitish underparts with a dark hood: Wait, no. It's a Short-Toed Snake Eagle!

Clive: Yes, you're right

…the bird circles overhead…

Me, embarrassed: That isn't just a Honey Buzzard, is it?

Clive: Yes, that's what it is.

It turned out this individual was a pale juvenile in heavy moult, explaining the unusually thin-looking wings and strangely bleached plumage. It wasn't until we saw the shape of the body with its small head and protruding neck and the diagnostic pattern of banding on the tail that we could identify it with confidence.

Raptors are difficult.

(Other highlights from the trip: Delhi and Haryana's first record (as far as I can tell) of Whistler's Warbler Seicercus whistleri, Sultanpur's first record of the Orange-Headed Thrush Zoothera citrina, and its second recent record of the Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia; and at least two Moustached Warblers Acrocephalus melanopogon, my favourite Acrocephalus and a regular winter visitor to the reed-beds at Sultanpur.)

Bird watchers and purple prose


Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

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Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher


I came across a quotation from Nissim Ezekiel's poem, "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher" in a book, and the title was so interesting that I just had to look it up. I found it in the minstrels archive, and it's such an intriguing poem that I'm quoting all twenty lines here.

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering—
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

— Nissim Ezekiel

I have read some other poems by Nissim Ezekiel (one was a part of my high school English curriculum), but I can't remember another one that made me sit up and pay attention. I love the idea of tying poetry, love, and bird-watching together through the patience and caring that each requires; and I love the unhurried, graceful way the poem segues between each activity and the feelings it evokes. I think the ending is a bit forced (did anyone mop the heart's dark floor or were they too busy eyeing up the slowly turning women?), and detracts from the light tone established by the first stanza. I notice, too, that poetry, love, and bird-watching are presented as implicitly male pursuits.

Myths of light with darkness at the core? Not so much. But patient love relaxing on a hill is a different feeling, one that I can recognise and will remember.

The ethics of being a bird guide


This winter, I may get an opportunity to act as a guide to bird-watchers visiting India. I've done it before, but this is the first time I've thought of it as a possible part-time job rather than just an occasional distraction. With this shift in perception comes a difficult ethical question.

In theory, by travelling somewhere as a guide I am taking away an opportunity for local guides to benefit from ecotourism in their own area. (Alas, by living in a city, I would seem to have given up the right to claim to belong to anywhere outside my apartment.)

Of course, the real picture isn't nearly so clear. India is a big place, and there aren't enough good guides to go around (as many a disappointed trip report will testify). A few well-known and accessible hotspots like Bharatpur have a concentration of experienced guides, but things are very different in less developed birding areas. Even if there are a couple of good guides somewhere, they are often booked months in advance (usually through travel agencies); and for each one of those, there are many whose interest in birds goes no further than being able to find a few key species. There ought to be plenty of room for me to fit in.

But there's another way to look at the question: unless local people can profit directly from ecotourism, any long-term conservation initiative in the area is less likely to gain popular support, and thus less likely to succeed. Seen in that light, there is no longer any doubt that being a wandering guide comes with a responsibility towards local guides, at least for anyone who cares about birds and the environment.

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Feynman on bird identification


Identifying birds requires a systematic approach, an obsessive attention to detail, and a good memory. Ever since I became seriously interested in bird-watching, it's one of the things I've been drawn to, and I have answered many "What's that bird?" questions on mailing lists in the past few years.

But answering that question is only the first step towards learning more about the bird and the world it lives in. I am always amazed when I see people treating identification as an end in itself, observing a bird only until they think they know its name, and losing all interest in it thereafter.

Richard Feynman writes about his encounter with bird-watching in The making of a scientist (from the autobiographical What do you care what other people think?; emphasis mine):

One kid says to me, See that bird? What kind of bird is that?

I said, I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.

He says, It's a Brown-throated Thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!

But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: See that bird? he says. It's a Spencer's Warbler. (I knew he didn't know the real name.) Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing—that's what counts. (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

(He goes on to describe how the two Feynmans wondered why birds preen their feathers, and watched to see if birds that had just landed preened more than ones that had been on the ground for a while; and he concludes with the elder Feynman's explanation that wherever there is a source of food, some organism exists to exploit it.)

I wish I could tell this story—including the schoolyard dialogue so reminiscent of some mailing list discussions—to all the people who take bird identification so seriously that they become hostile and withdrawn if anyone disagrees with them, and to people who think that being able to identify obscure species is all there is to bird-watching.

Greek and Latin Scientific names


My recent comment on names which mean the same thing in different languages reminded me of something slightly different: generic and specific names that mean the same thing; one in Greek, the other in Latin.

The Common Raven Corvus corax, revered in ancient cultures around the world, bears its own name in both languages, Corvus being the Latin name for the Raven, and corax likewise the name in Greek (even the name "Raven" comes from an ancient Proto-Germanic name applied to the bird). The related Carrion Crow Corvus corone and Hooded Crow Corvus cornix both take their specific names from Greek words for "crow". All three names were assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.

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Overloaded generic names


The Slender-Billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris has always felt somewhat mystical while flipping through the Babblers in any field guide. I've never seen one, but the photographs posted to the delhibirdpix list by Sujan Chatterjee in May 2008 and Ramki Sreenivasan a year later, both taken in Arunachal Pradesh, have stayed in my memory.

Unfortunately, I can find only one of these photographs on Google Groups now, and I can't figure out any sane way to link to that post here. But Google Images finds many photos of the species, including Sujan's photo.

Anyway, Xiphirhynchus superciliaris was somewhere at the back of my mind when I recently encountered a casual reference to the unrelated South American genus of Woodcreepers: Xiphorhynchus. These are essentially the same word, derived from the Greek xiph- (for "sword") and -rhynchus ("snout" or "nose", meaning beak)!

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Dual-use scientific names


A long time ago, I was delighted to notice—by accident—that the Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon Treron phoenicopterus has, as its specific name, the same name given to the genus of Flamingos. And what a name it is! Phoenicopterus, meaning "crimson-wing", from the Greek φοίνικ- (phoenic-, for "blood red", the root of Phoenix and Phoenician; itself derived from φόνος, fonos, for "slaughter") and pteron (for wing).

This weekend, armed with a not-terribly-recent checklist of birds and a little spare time, I wrote a small Perl script to look for other names given to both a genus and a different species (that is to say, I ignored the relatively better-known examples of one bird having the same generic and specific name, such as Coccothraustes coccothraustes and Pica pica). Here are some of the most interesting results.

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