The Advisory Boar (page 4)
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.
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
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
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
USA web site. Online stores based in the USA, such as
offer the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 for ~US$130–150. The recently-introduced
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).
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?
Yes, I think so
…the bird turns, flies towards us…
Me, looking at the mottled whitish underparts with a dark hood:
no. It's a Short-Toed Snake Eagle!
Yes, you're right
…the bird circles overhead…
That isn't just a Honey Buzzard, is it?
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.)
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.
It's a Brown-throated Thrush. Your father doesn't teach you
But it was the opposite. He had already taught me:
See that bird?
It's a Spencer's Warbler. (I knew he didn't know the
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.
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.
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
of the species, including
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)!
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
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.