In a diverse geography such as India’s, birdwatching has always been a very popular activity. Although serious birdwatchers and researchers study the birds in their natural habitats round the year, there is an increase in the number of people going birdwatching during winter. The favourable weather makes travelling convenient and spending long hours in the open comfortable. Besides, this is also the time when thousands of migratory birds, including those arriving from distant countries, congregate, especially at the waterbodies across the country.
But, not many people know that birdwatching during the monsoon can also be equally interesting. It is not only the meteorologists or the farmers in India who look forward to the monsoon season. “Serious birdwatchers too wait eagerly for the arrival of the monsoon,” says Kolkata-based Sujan Chatterjee. Just before or at the start of the monsoon, many birds get ready for breeding. They might show variations in colour or acquire breeding plumage. They become active, start building nests and rear their chicks. For any avid birdwatcher, the monsoon is therefore an interesting time, says Chatterjee, who is an avid birdwatcher, conservationist and one of the founding members of Birdwatchers’ Society.
One of the most common birds to watch out for during the monsoon is the pied cuckoo (Jacobin cuckoo), which has long been mentioned in Indian folklore, where it is known as the chatak. For an agricultural country like India, the monsoon showers are very important for crops. Hence, the sight of the pied cuckoo, which is believed to be a harbinger of the rains, is believed to bring good luck in northern and central India. The grey heron, purple heron, open billed storks, cormorants, darters, the large, intermediary and little egrets and pelicans are some of the common birds which draw attention in this season. Another bird worth spotting is the pheasant-tailed jacana, the only jacana to sport a breeding plumage. They nest on floating vegetation. Among other things, the central tail feathers of this bird grow very long, often resembling a pheasant’s tail – the reason why it is named so. Their breeding season usually extends from March to July – a period which coincides with the monsoon, especially in southern India.
A bird highly prized by birdwatchers is the oriental dwarf kingfisher (ODKF). According to Mumbai-based Dr Caesar Sengupta, a medical professional who is well-known worldwide as a wildlife conservation photographer, “ODKF is a favourite among most bird photographers. However there are some other very photogenic bird species that one can encounter while looking for ODKF – one of which is the blue-eared kingfisher.”
Dr Sengupta, who conducts regular photography workshops and field expeditions across India, while talking of his favourite places, says, “I visit Sattal [in Uttarakhand] during winters as well as during the late summer or pre-monsoon [time] to click the summer migrants. I have been to the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary [West Bengal] in the east for monsoon bird photography. I visit places like Karnala, Chiplun [in Maharashtra], especially for species like ODKF, which is otherwise very difficult to spot during the rest of the year.”
According to Parag Gurung, a naturalist and ecopreneur, Latpanchar and its neighbourhood (in the northern part of West Bengal) is good for birding during the monsoon. “This is the time when you can observe birds such as the black baza, Jerdon’s baza, violet cuckoo, Asian emerald cuckoo [among others] which migrate to this region,” says Gurung. The birds usually arrive in late May and fly back starting late September. However, he also warns that the monsoon showers can be very strong, and birdwatching sessions depend on the weather. While it is difficult to predict how long one may have to wait for a birding session during the rainy season, according to Gurung, birders must budget for at least four days. Gurung, who runs a homestay in Latpanchar, also takes his guests for birdwatching in the buffer zone of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary (the main sanctuary remains shut in the monsoon season).
Delhi-based medical professional Dr Gopal Goel, a member of Delhi Birding Group, too agrees that for birdwatching, monsoon is a great time – only if it is not raining. According to him, in the Delhi NCR region, birders may visit Najafgarh Jheel, Chand, Jhanjhraula, Mandothi, Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Surajpur Pakshi Vihar, Yamuna Khadar, among other locations. A large number of water birds are sighted in these places, he says. Visitors to Surajpur Pakshi Vihar, from July to August, are likely to see the bristled grassbird, he adds. “Only one or two birds are seen, which generally stay hidden. But, during monsoon they come calling for their mates and can be identified,” states Dr Goel.
For wildlife photographers, especially those who love macro photography, the monsoon provides a great opportunity to capture insects, snakes, frogs, etc. However, observing birds, insects and snakes are all outdoor activities. As Kolkata-based mining engineer and wildlife photographer Sudipta De puts it, photographers, both amateur and professionals, invest in good cameras, lenses and other related gears, which are costly. Photography equipment can get damaged in the rain. Therefore, photography often takes a backseat during the monsoon. It is advisable to invest in gear that would offer some protection to your equipment, he says.
Because the heavy showers during the monsoon can hamper travel and disrupt viewing sessions, Chatterjee suggests that people need not always visit far-off locations. They may visit grasslands and waterbodies in and around the citiesand towns they live in. For example, Chatterjee says that the grasslands in Rajarhat (to the east of Kolkata) are excellent for birding, even during the monsoon. If there are kids who might be interested in going bird watching, the Botanical Garden (Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden) in Howrah (across the Hooghly from Kolkata) is a good place to visit, opines Chatterjee. It has a network of paved paths, even electric carts to take visitors on a ride, in addition to several visitor facilities. Hence, it is safe and convenient for first time enthusiasts.
Dr Sengupta, who is the founding director of DCP Expeditions, says that his organisation has been conducting free photo walks (since 2013) for all, every Sunday, in 52 different green patches in and around Mumbai. These locations include Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Maharashtra Nature Park, Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, Yeoor Hills, and others. In Dr Sengupta’s opinion, These photo walks not only help in documentation of the urban biodiversity but also help create a lot of awareness.
However, Chatterjee, a wildlife photographer himself, is rather circumspect about bird photography. According to him, many photographers do not value the birds sufficiently enough and go to any length to disturb the birds. In Dr Sengupta’s words, “The nestlings hatch during this time and the parents are busy feeding the chicks. Close proximity to humans can be detrimental and may also result in the parents abandoning the nests, in which case the nestlings will die without food, even before they learn to fly. This has to be kept in mind so as not to cause any kind of disturbance to the birds.”
Chandigarh-based Navjit Singh, who works to preserve bird habitats and raise awareness about the importance of saving these habitats, also points out that sometimes, photographers can be a ruthless lot, breaking rules for that ‘great’ shot. According to him, in places such as Bharatpur’s Keoladeo Ghana National Park, which is as much a birding paradise in the monsoon as in winter, forest guards keep a strict vigil so that the birds are not disturbed. “Monsoon is the time when the landscapes turn lush green, and there is plenty of food. The antics of the birds, as they go about their daily routine, are very interesting to watch.” But, he too cautions that disturbing the birds in their nests or otherwise is not acceptable. If anyone is a true wildlife lover, they will never do anything to harm the birds, he concludes.