Feast of colours

Splendid pictures of a wide range of birds with well-researched and accurate descriptions make the book stand out.

Published : Jan 31, 2018 12:30 IST

FOR several decades Salim Ali’s was the only Indian name that figured in the world of ornithologists or in general knowledge books for schoolchildren. Today, inspired by Salim Ali, thousands of people have taken to bird study, birdwatching and bird photography. Bikram Grewal is one such avid birdwatcher who has quietly but persuasively kept his lens focussed on the birds of the subcontinent. Dividing his time between Delhi, Dehradun and the Sunderbans (West Bengal), he has never shied away from doing the hard yards when it comes to birdwatching. He has been rewarded richly for his patience, not just in the form of rare sightings of birds but also in delivering more than 20 books on birds in a couple of decades.

If Mike Pandey is the foremost film-maker on wildlife, Grewal is arguably the keenest birdwatcher-author around. Not for him a shoot standing near a window at his home, hotel or office. Much like the famed film-maker Bimal Roy who once asked his sound recordists to go out at the crack of dawn to record the sound of birds for two characters in his film Bandini , Grewal revels in the natural—nothing contrived, no set-up photography for him. He brings to his work a rare insight, revealing the bird life as smoothly as a bird opens its wings to fly.

Not unsurprisingly, Grewal has now added to the enviable collection a book aptly called A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh . This book comes almost half a century after Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley brought out their classic Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan that listed over 1,200 species.

Interestingly, the number of bird species sighted is only increasing, helped no doubt by the vast range of habitats available in the subcontinent. From the Thar desert of Rajasthan where temperatures often go beyond 500 Celsius to sub-zero temperature of the Himalayan belt to the relentless rainfall of Cherrapunji, there is space for all varieties of birds.

As pointed out in the introduction to Grewal’s book by Tim and Carol Inskipp, J.K. Tiwari sighted a flock of pale rock finches ( Carpospiza brachydactyla ) in Gujarat. This bird had been previously recorded only in West Asia. In 1995, a new passerine bird species, Bugun liocichla ( Liocichla bugunorum ) was sighted by a birdwatcher in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2004, a group of birdwatchers re-discovered the rusty-throated wren-babbler ( Spelaeornis badeigularis ) in the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh. The bird is now being documented for its song and habit range.

Dispelling doubts

Going beyond the well-researched introduction, one finds that the book lives up to the expectations of a mind curious about birds as also the more discerning ones keen to dispel doubts about a rare species. The text is understandably secondary to the visuals, but the handful of words that accompany each picture open a nice little window to the species. For instance, at the beginning we get to know about the snow partridge ( Lerwa lerwa ), which, as the name suggests, is a resident of the Himalayan region. A rather plump bird, the snow partridge moves in a small group of six to eight and, interestingly, roosts not on trees but under rock ledges. It feeds on lichens, mosses and shoots.

Keeping it company is the Tibetan snowcock ( Tetraogallus tibetanus ), a noisy bird with a luxuriant streaked plumage. Also in the region is a rather largish grouse, the Himalayan snowcock ( Tetraogallus himalayensis ). It grows up to 72 centimetres in length, with the female slightly smaller and both sexes looking alike. It is found in Kashmir, the Kumaon range in Uttarakhand and in western Nepal. Another bird in the region is the relatively smaller chukar partridge ( Alectoris chukar ). This bird inhabits rocky hills and can be found foraging in open grounds.

In the foothills of the Himalaya, one can find the grey francolin ( Francolinus pondicerianus ), a small bird measuring not more than 30 cm long with a pale face and orange cheeks and forehead. The bird can be heard from a distance as one or more birds make repeated noisy calls.

In the central and western parts of India, other types of francolins are found. For instance, the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh region is home to the black francolin ( Francolinus francolinus ). The authors describe it as “a handsome, jet-black bird with stub tail.... Black tail has narrow white bars. Female similar to male but paler with wider brown bars on the lower back.” The finely textured painted francolin ( Francolinus pictus ) is another bird that can be sighted in central India. The bird is noisy in the breeding season, which falls during the monsoon.

From Madhya Pradesh towards Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and the Tamil Nadu-Kerala belt, one can find the jungle bush quail ( Perdicula asiatica ). Blessed with a trilling, musical sound, this bird stays on the edge of forests. In the Malabar region, the rufous woodpecker ( Micropternus brachyurus ), with a mix of brown-and-black feathers, makes a lot of noise. The bird gets into active sound mode between January and April. It is distinct from the white-bellied woodpecker ( Dryocopus javensis ) found along the Western Ghats. This variety warbles on in winter. It lurks around the crevices of branches in trees for a possible feast of insects.

The authors reserve a nice little section for babblers. Babblers come in all varieties, ranging from the long-tailed wren-babbler ( Spelaeornis chocolatinus ) and the Chin Hills wren-babbler (Spelaeornis oatesi) of Nagaland and Mizoram respectively to the dark-fronted babbler ( Rhopocichla atricepsi ) of southern India and the orange-billed babbler ( Turdoides rufescens ) of Sri Lanka. Each one of these is a small bird with a distinct call and known for its adaptability.

Similar attention is given to the thrush, a species that is not too difficult to ignore in many parts of the subcontinent. Yet, the authors use a fine toothcomb to put together the details of the Kessler’s thrush ( Turdus kessleri ) found in the winter in Arunachal Pradesh and the grey-sided thrush ( Turdus feae ), facing extinction across the world, but spotted in evergreen forests (it is said to feed on nectar and berries). Not faced with possible extinction are the red-throated ( Turdus ruficollis ) and black-throated thrush ( Turdus atrogularis ). Confined to forests and forest fringes in northern India, along the Himalayan belt, they are actually winter visitors. Interestingly, the black-throated thrush flies into forests if disturbed, much like the eye-browed thrush found in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. More amenable to the human world is the hardy dusky thrush ( Turdus eunomus ) that arrives in the same belt in winter from Siberia. It is a strong flier and feeds on cultivated land.

Common quail

Amidst all these not so easily spotted birds, the authors keep in view the relatively more easily found common quail( Coturnix coturnix ) . Its geographical range extends from north to north-eastern India, and the bird can be easily spotted during the winter. About 20 cm long, the bird is not a happy flier and prefers to nest in grassy patches. Another quail that comes calling in winter in these parts is the Japanese quail ( Coturnix japonica ) , which has a soft voice and is cultivated as a table bird. Much like the rain quail, or black-breasted quail ( Coturnix coromandelica ) , which is found from Himachal Pradesh to Tamil Nadu this bird’s habitat includes agricultural fields, grassy lands and bushes.

The 792-page book is not the coffee-table variety, books that one can feast ones eyes upon, admire the photographs, let out words of admiration, skip a few pages and finish reading.

A Pictorial Guide is meant for those who prefer their books to be thoroughly researched and expressed concisely. The authors use words that are both appropriate and accurate. There is not a sentence that need not be there.

The book has been skilfully edited by Ipshita Mitra. In fact, the text is characterised by such brevity that at times one wished there were a few more words. The authors should have included some information to enable easy recognition of birds in case one is privileged to come across a particular species. That could as well be nitpicking. The book, though, is a visual treat. Meticulous research and precise presentation make the book a reliable guide to the birds of the subcontinent. The reader should soak in the description and picture of one bird at a time and then move on to the next image.

The book contains an extensive bibliography and maps with useful information on sanctuaries and parks.

Bikram Grewal’s name appears in a bold font on the jacket of the book while the names of his fellow authors appear in plain font. It is not without reason, as in Grewal we have another birdwatcher who will become a part of general knowledge in the years to come.

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