Life without field guides

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2011-02-20

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.