No fear of flying: A new pictorial field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2016 08:08 IST
Flamingos at Basai village, Haryana. A number of migratory birds visit this site every year from August to February. These were spotted in August 2015. (Abhinav Saha/HT)

The weekend after I got my copy of A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh by multiple authors, I used it during a quick one-day birding trip. 800 pages of glossy paper give this field guide substantial heft. Fairly well-organized, it has a crisp introduction, and beautiful photographs for most of the 1200+ bird species found in our region. The introduction by Carol and Tim Inskipp, well-known for their bird guides, including one that is very popular among Indian birders, offers a succinct view of the state of bird life in the subcontinent. It includes a concise history of birding in the area and the personalities who play key roles in it. It’s a great read for anyone trying to get a grip on the vast range of our birdlife, their environs, and what is being done to ensure the survival of these birds. Towards the end, the Inskipps make a good point about the lack of scientific data to actually say whether Indian birdlife is improving, suffering or changing.

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This field guide includes not just an index but a complete checklist of birds and a taxonomic checklist of birds and their IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) status. One of the book’s nicer aspects is that the latest taxonomic conventions have been followed. This means it includes the latest accepted scientific names. Older birders like me who used the BNHS Oxford Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent as beginners still refer to some birds the old way. This book is great to transition to the newer names and taxonomic organization.

The full-page interludes with a single species are nice but tend to affect usability as it makes the reference inconsistent. I’d have preferred each species referred to in a consistent manner — layout, inset images, and so on. However, this book is a joy to browse with its beautiful images of birds in their natural habitats including photographs of some exceedingly rare ones. Some of the full page images are especially gorgeous. Identification of birds in the field is aided by the accurate colour rendition of bird images; something very important for a photographic guide. Incidentally, there are some critically endangered birds in India that still haven’t been photographed.

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Still, usability as a field guide is where this volume fails. And it is a major failing. The weight of the book would make it uncomfortable to refer to in the field for extended periods of time, or perhaps even carry in a backpack with a camera and binoculars (as I realized). The graphic layouts and the smaller inset photographs are not consistent. The inset photographs could be sex related (gender, breeding/non-breeding), the bird’s growth stage (juvenile, sub-adult), morphological (morph), or just a different image of the same species. Surprisingly, there is no index to the graphic layout. The book just jumps from the introduction into references for each species. There is no guide to understand the layout, range map and description and use of inset photos. Then, the layout for each species includes a difficult-to-read range map allowing for identification by eliminating species that aren’t found in your geography. All this is jarring.

A kingfisher holds a prey at Dal Lake in Kashmir. (Getty Images)

One of the issues of photographic guides is the selection of images. Despite the now substantial number of bird images to choose from, it’s difficult to maintain the quality of images while trying to stick to a standard layout. For example, you couldn’t possibly find images of every bird species as a juvenile. It would have helped if the authors had included a table of characteristics to aid in the identification of bird groups that are difficult to identify — larks, wagtails and warblers. Even experienced birders struggle with identification within these groups. Also missing are pictures of birds in flight, especially accipiters. In the field, one is likely to see these in flight and positive identification is difficult based on photographs of them at rest. At the price, this book offers good value. The fantastic introduction and images and the revised checklists balance out the usability flaws. This would make a good second or third field guide for a birder. I wouldn’t make it my primary field guide; there are better, lighter and better designed books for that. All said, this is a good book to add to a collection of bird books, or to use as a comparative reference.

(Abhijit Kadle is an avid birdwatcher and collector of books. He presses buttons for a living.)

A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh, Nikhil Devasar and Garima Bhatia

PP791, Rs 1500

OM Books


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