Late in December 2009, as a birthday present to myself, I went on a solo
trek to Dayara Bugyal, a high-altitude alpine meadow in Garhwal. I meant
to write about the week I spent in the mountains, but upon my return, I
found the experience too overwhelming to try to describe all at once. A
year has passed, and now I can begin to appreciate some of the ways in
which the trip has changed me.
In retrospect, one of the most significant decisions I took was to leave
my beloved "Field Guide to the Birds of India" behind. I left many other
things behind because they didn't seem worth carrying 10km up a mountain
on my back, but I could have found place in my pack for the field guide
if I had tried. I consciously decided not to take it, which is why it
wasn't even in the car with me.
In terms of not being able to identify the birds I saw, I didn't suffer.
I doubt the field guide would have helped me to move more than two birds
to the "definite" list, and I'm not sure about those two. If I had tried
the exercise a few years ago, I may have learned more specifically about
identifying the birds I saw. In a very narrow sense, I could even claim
to have not learned anything new (apart from seeing a few new species).
But in fact, that trip marked the beginning of a fundamental change in
how I looked at birds. Somewhere along the way, my observations became
focused not only on identifying birds, but about describing the
birds I saw. It's a difficult change to explain. It's not that I didn't
observe birds carefully before—quite the contrary! But my observations
were structured according to the field guide, as I looked for features
I knew were useful to identify a particular species. I was fitting the
birds to their descriptions.
These days, I try to build up a more complete mental model of the birds
I look at. I'm more conscious of plumage features that don't contribute
(or rather, that are not documented to contribute) to identification. I
pay much more attention to age and moult state than before. When
I'm watching a bird, I think about how to describe it without reference
to the field guide. (I ask, "What would convince me if someone reported
seeing this species without photographic evidence?" and try to make my
mental model answer that question.) Described this way, it sounds like
a deliberate change, but it took me by surprise when I realised that I
was doing it (which was quite recently, long after my Dayara trek).
These changes began with my trying to compensate for not having a book,
and realising the extent to which descriptions are limited by the space
available (which only increases my admiration for Krys Kazmierczak, who
has managed in his book to put his finger on the crux of identification
for species after species). I had a taste of what it must have been like
to explore an area before reliable field guides were available, when one
couldn't know in advance which features were or were not important.
In the past year, I've also had the privilege of birding with a number
of people who are vastly more experienced and knowledgeable than I am,
and learning from how they looked at and thought about birds. I'm sure
that pushed me in the right direction. I may also have built up enough
field experience to begin formulating and expressing my own strategies
for observation and identification.
In any case, I feel I have made real progress as a bird-watcher, and I
am enjoying it more than ever.