Once upon a time, there was a teenage school student of a reputed English medium school at Park Street who was having his lunch during the tiffin-break when the chirping of a small, colourful and rarely seen bird from a tree top caught his attention. He gazed at it for a long time until his mates reminded him that the break was over and it was time to get back to the class.
The encounter with the bird, however, didn’t end there. After school, he rushed back home and took out one of his prized possessions — a guidebook on birds by renowned ornithologist Hugh Whistler — from the book rack and started flipping through its pages to find out what bird he had just spotted.
“I soon identified it as a Nuthatch and quickly noted down the date, time and place where I spotted it. Now we don’t get to see that bird in and around Kolkata anymore,” said Sumit Sen who is now in his late 50’s and considered one of the eminent faces in Kolkata’s birding circle.
“Bird watching is a citizen’s science. All you need is a passion for wildlife, time to spare, a little background homework and some basic items such as a good field guide and a note book to document your observations. A pair of binoculars would be an added advantage, and a camera helps you authenticate your sightings,” said Sen.
This hobby and love for wild birds and animals with a passion to conserve them, has dragged several citizens into this area, some of whom later turned out to be eminent birders such as Kaishal Mukherjee, Sumit Sen, Sujan Chatterjee, Subhankar Patra and Radhanath Pole. Many of them have made it to the international arena and are now known for their photography skills and conservation efforts.
“During the pre-internet days even the city’s birders hardly knew each other. It was through a few nature clubs and photography exhibitions that they got to interact with each other and this circle got bigger. In 1978, I started Prakriti Samsad with a few men who were interested in nature, wildlife and birding. Since then regular trips are being held. Even now we go to the Santragachi Jheel in January every year to conduct birding trips and a census on migratory birds,” said Kushal Mukherjee, vice-president of Prakriti Samsad — one of the city’s first nature clubs. But then came the Internet and things started to change gradually. City birders got to interact more through groups and photo posts and found that some had already started interacting with their foreign counterparts and were sharing photographs.
“This gave rise to a new genre. A new tribe of bird photographers surfaced overnight with one intention – to get social recognition. And what could be better than posting a bird’s photograph on a social networking site to attract a lot of ‘likes and comments’ within minutes?” pointed out a veteran.
Rather than treating it as true bird watching, a section of citizens got attracted to this field as a new-found hobby. Their population started to shoot up and now they number in the thousands.
“They find this new hobby a lot easier than true bird watching. There is no need of basic homework, no need to adhere to ethics, no need to watch and observe the birds and no need for documentation. Just find them, zoom in and click their snaps, post it on their networking pages and ’likes’ and ‘comments’ would follow,” the veteran added.
Even though a section of bird watchers oppose this sort of unbridled practice, several others have welcomed them. For one, because once you are into this field it will be easier for veterans to transform a hobbyist into a true birdwatcher through minimal training, rather than training a man who has no prior attachment, love or passion for birds and wildlife. “Some birdwatch- ers feel that when you get to see so many birds, why the need to take the pain of visiting the same venue every time? This has given rise to a new concept, armchair bird watching, which is bird watching sitting in front of your desktop,” said Sen.
“You cannot keep it going unless you also work towards their conservation. This does not only include conservation of birds but conservation and protection of biodiversity too. So a true bird watcher and true bird photographer has to be a conservationist first,” said Mukherjee who had a major role in the movement that led to the formation of the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary on the city’s southern fringes.