Unusual flight path: Conversations with a great Indian twitcher
He’s like a modern-day Indiana Jones, except instead of gold and hidden treasure, he chases rare birds. By day, Atul Jain, 55, is a senior executive. But also by day, he will hop on a plane at a moment’s notice and chase a rare sighting if there is one to be chased.
Jain is a twitcher based in Delhi and fell in love with the chase in 2001, when he spotted his first rare species, the wild emerald dove, at the Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh. “That absolutely beautiful bird is the reason I’m a birder and my life’s aim is to spot as many bird species as possible,” he says.
Last week, he spotted his 1,177th bird species, all the way south in Munnar. It was the rarer-than-rare Eurasian blackcap, a common warbler in Europe, sometimes seen in Kenya, but never in India before.
“The furthest east it had been seen was Iran,” Jain says, two days after the sighting and still exhilarated by it. “Our theory is, because of the cyclonic winds in the Bay of Bengal, this lone bird was swept off course and landed in Kerala. Lucky for us!”
Jain got a tip from a friend that the bird had been sighted there, so he did what he normally does in such cases: picked up his backpack and headed out. He flew from Delhi to Kochi, then drove three hours to Munnar. An hour later, he had spotted it and was headed back to the airport to return home.
Jain takes at least 15 such impromptu trips a year, based on alerts that come to him mainly via five birders’ WhatsApp groups. “My office is very accommodating about these trips,” he says. “The family suffers a lot. My wife is a photographer. She sometimes accompanies me. But she and my daughter tell me I spend too much time bird-watching. Also, I spend a lot of my savings on it. On the Munnar trip, the one-day cost was about ₹26,000. But I’d rather spend money on wildlife than on a fancy car.”
Incredibly, for 2021, Jain prefers not to record his sightings in photos or videos. That’s not what being a twitcher is about, he says.
“When you’re watching birds through binoculars, you’re actually looking at the whole surroundings, not only that bird. For example, while watching for the Eurasian blackcap, I spotted more than 20 other types of birds. There was a brown fish owl, red-whiskered bulbuls, white-cheeked barbets etc. You see the whole ecosystem, which you will miss if you’re photographing because your focus is purely on one bird.”
Jain does maintain a record of all his sightings, and uploads the details to the eBird international database so that other bird-lovers know where to look (data on eBird is also helpful to researchers studying ecology, migration patterns and changes in bird populations).
Some of his most exciting finds have been the Derbyan parakeet, which a group he was part of managed to trace and photograph in Walong, Arunachal Pradesh, in 2014. “It hadn’t been photographed in India before that. We made aloo ka paratha and danced in glee to celebrate,” Jain says.
In 2017, he was part of a group that went to Galathea Bay in the Nicobar Islands, to see the rare Nicobar megapode only found there. “We had to get special permission, take a helicopter, then cross a swamp with the water up to our necks, then set up camp and wait all night without making a sound, but we did see it,” he says.
He’s not above a bit of subterfuge. In 2018, he was part of a group that headed to the volcanic Narcondam Island in the Andamans. “The whole island is just about 1 sq km. No birder is allowed there; we also didn’t get permission. So we got an angling permit, which lets you fish near the island in a sailboat,” Jain says. The bird they wanted to see was the Narcondam hornbill, found only on that island.
“We saw it, photographed it, ate food with the local police, and from there saw the live volcano of Barren Island at night. There was glowing lava, ash going up into the air. It was mesmerising,” Jain says.