The 21-year-old Ramit Singal, who has mapped 206 species of birds in his university town of Manipal, talks about how his passion took wing.
As I waited for the official book launch of A Birder’s Handbook to Manipal (Manipal University Press, 2013) in the open-air amphitheatre in Manipal, the author Ramit Singal, a wiry, bespectacled, shy 21-year-old lost in his beard, kept identifying all the varied twilight bird-calls all around us. His ear seemed more attuned to bird-call than the human gabble of congratulations. Singal’s book lists 206 species of birds found in Manipal, the coastal university-town. Nestled in the rich bio-diverse valley of the Western Ghats, the region hosts “many endemic and rare species”, threatened by the accelerated development of the last decade.
Even as the publishers spoke about the 206 birds documented in the book, Singal gently interrupted to say that he had already identified several more even as the book had gone into production. His enthusiasm was infectious, clearly mirrored in the book on display. Most of the photographs are taken by him, and it comes with a CD that has 81 bird-call recordings. You play the CD, click on a neatly numbered and indexed photograph of a bird, and you can hear its call. You can then cross-check the bird’s image in the book, and read a description of its behaviour, habitation, physical description, tolerance for human beings, and the ideal time and location to watch the bird. The last is conveniently eased by a schematic map with 50 grids, which lets you pinpoint the exact spot and month to spot a particular bird in Manipal. All this makes the book especially appealing even to the most amateur bird-watcher.
The amphitheatre made an unusual venue for the book launch, as we sat around talking about the book and being constantly interrupted by bird calls, which Singal (and many others) joyfully identified. “How did you begin?”I asked the writer later, thinking it was not the most common hobby or the easiest. Indeed, it seemed very demanding of time, attention and labour. He said he began when he started to accompany his father, a keen wildlife photographer and a doctor by profession, on vacations and bird walks. The father and son related to each other, says Singal, “more over birds than football”. As the boy grew more adept, he half-chose Manipal more for its birds and proximity to Agumbe (think birds, but also King Cobras) rather than for its engineering course. “Though the engineering unexpectedly came in handy! For the call recordings, I used a camera or sometimes a cellphone. I used an umbrella to focus the sound, and using a certain lesson in signal processing, I learnt to process the sound recordings,” he says.
Singal, unusually for a bird-watcher, suffers from visual difficulties — it’s hard for him to differentiate between red and green. Initially, he needed to refine his ear and often relied on others to sight a bird. “But now I can do it alone,” he says, “not just by sound, but increasingly by movement, flight patterns, overall shape. Sometimes, I identify a bird by sighting just a beak.”
The book is inspired by The Atlas of the Birds of Delhi and Haryana, and one of the authors, eminent ornithologist Bikram Grewal, has written Singal’s Foreword. The Atlas was an inspiration in many ways, explains the writer, with its collaborative approach and the way it mapped the distribution of birds over a small, well-defined geography in a way that had not been done before in India.
Singal realised he had become more than a hobby birder when he began birding every day and not just on weekends. “It was tempting to do it here, a rich region, only thinly documented. It felt good being so quickly recognised. I would put up photos on online forums, and these have grown alive with Twitter over the last few years. It’s all become easier now — digital photos, access to DSLRs, their crashing prices.”
Increasingly, bird-watching is offering an escape from urban living, as people want to explore an alternate life. What more easily symbolic of our dreams of flight than birds? Besides, as Singal says, you have to travel far from home to find tigers, but birds are in your backyard. And birds have a glamour that frogs or insects might lack. The other excitement is that India, unlike the West, is so poorly documented that there is a new subspecies to be discovered every other month, an attractive incentive for young, eager amateurs or researchers.
It was dark now and the crowd had dispersed. As we left, the calls of a pair of roosting, spotted owlets made a fitting farewell.