The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

The Madrass Jay

Edward Buckley's seventeenth-century Latin description of a bird specimen is detailed enough to identify it as an Indian Pitta.

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The Partridge Snipe

One of the many treasures on is a copy of the 1713 book "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium" by the British scientist John Ray (or "Joannis Raii" in Latin). The book is interesting not only because it predates and influenced Linnaean taxonomy, but especially because it includes a few illustrations and descriptions of "Indian birds about Fort St. George" (near Madras) at the end, contributed by Edward Buckley, a surgeon at the Fort.

Appendix from Synopsis Methodica Avium

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Life without field guides

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.

Yellow-vented Warbler at CKBS, Kolkata

A possible first record of Phylloscopus cantator from Kolkata.

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Pipits for the new year

A flock of Blyth's Pipits seen several times near Sultanpur was the next surprise in a winter that finally rewarded the years I've spent looking at Paddyfield Pipits.

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The last bird song

I remarked to a friend, in jest, that if I went camping in the Great Rann of Kutch, nobody might ever hear from me again, but I'd die happy if there were larks singing (the Rann is known to host more than a dozen species of larks). She responded by sending me the following Haiku (which I had never read, and which nobody seems to know the original author of):

Small bird forgive me,
I'll hear the end of your song
In some other world

How astonishingly apt.

Armed robbery outside a Delhi Metro station

Ramit was robbed of his mobile phone by four armed men while waiting for me outside the New Ashok Nagar Metro Station. The Delhi Police were nowhere to be found.

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Richard's Pipits for christmas

A sighting of Richard's Pipits at Dadri made for an excellent morning despite the cold and foggy conditions.

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Red-throated Pipit at Basai

I saw my first ever Red-throated Pipit at Basai, near Sultanpur.

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Birding in Karnataka, 1–22 October 2010

I'm back after three weeks spent in Karnataka, a state in which my bird-watching experience has been woefully limited until now. With my family, I spent a few days in Bangalore en route to and from Madikeri in Coorg. I also did a hectic two-day birding trip to Manipal and Karkala, but spent most of my time sipping a fine blend of robusta and arabica coffee in a chair on my hosts' front verandah in Madikeri, watching the birds who visited the garden.

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