Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Conventional Birdwatching & the Science in Birdwatching

The conventional birdwatching is related to a science of identifying unknown birds in the field. Most books on the techniques of bird watching to beginners did convey this scientific approach to identify birds in the field. However with the advancement of the digital camera the theme for identifying new or unknown birds in the field is no longer in practice. Today a digital photograph is compared with an image in the internet or with an illustration in a field guide and the bird is described.

The system of scientific identification however is still practiced in the study of Ornithology and could be described as a methodology for identifying a bird species in the wild through a systematically developed comparison and elimination approach on six criteria. It could be further classified as fitting the observed bird into six predefined modules developed for the country. They are classified as Silhouette…Field markings…Posture…Size…Flight pattern the Habitatin which it is seen with the date and time included.


The silhouette in general is the back lit image of a bird viewed in black or very dark grey. This lets you to identify a general group of birds as hawks, owls, parrots, flycatchers, shrikes, storks, etc. whose members all share a similarity. Birds in the same general group often have the same body shape and proportions, although they may vary in size. Therefore the silhouette alone gives many clues to a bird's identity, allowing you to assign a bird to the correct group or even the exact species.



Field markings and characters

In order to describe a bird, ornithologists divide its body into topographical regions; the beak or bill, head, back, wings, tail, and legs. These regions are further divided as in the diagram giving with commonly used descriptive terms.

Birds display a huge variety of patterns and colors, which they have evolved in order to recognize other members of their own species. Birdwatchers also use these features that are known as field markings to help distinguish different bird species.

An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka 26-38n-5



Beak and Legs

The shape and size of a beak indicates the nature of its food and manner of feeding. Different beak structures have enabled birds to exploit different habitats and fit into a wide range of niches. Distinct beak shapes help identify some bird species, and some shapes help identify some common groups.

The legs though not very visible without a visual aid also relate to posture and habitat. This also could be grouped as branch grasping feet, predatory feet, swimming feet or wading feet. The length, colour and structure of the legs can assist in identification and is a very useful feature in identifying wetland birds.

An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka 26-38n-6


Posture or the stance of the bird when on the perch or on ground gives a clue to help place the bird in its correct group. Members of the thrush family would stride across the yard, take several steps then adopt to an alert upright stance with its breast held forward. All thrushes have similar postures, as do larks and shorebirds. This way one could short list the bird to a possible group from the other groupings.

Distant perched crows and hawks may look alike, but paying attention to their different postures will help one to differentiate one from the other

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By now the bird is assigned a group based on the silhouette, some field markings and its postural stance. The next step is to do a size comparison of the bird. However the sizing could be complicated at times with poor lighting or the distance to the bird. Size comparisons are most useful when an unknown bird is seen side-by-side with a familiar species. In the case of an isolated bird the sizes is compared with a commonly known bird species such as the House Sparrow, Common Myna, the Jungle Crow, as references.

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Equal in Sizes:

A crow-sized pigeon would be a Green Imperial Pigeon and a woodpecker of the size of a sparrow might be a Brown-capped Woodpecker.

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In-between Sizes:

Sometimes you need two reference birds for comparison. An Ashy crowned Sparrow Lark bigger than a sparrow but smaller than the Myna. A cuckoo is larger than a Myna but smaller than a crow.

Flight Pattern

Most birds fly in straight lines flapping in a constant rhythm, but certain bird groups have characteristic flight patterns that can help identify them. Birds of prey may be identified by the characteristic way they hold their wings when flying toward you. A flying accipiter such as the Shikra or Goshawks would typically make several wing flaps followed by a glide. The eagles and kites soar up in circular motion with the thermal currents and are generally not seen flying until mid-day. Barbets and Woodpeckers generally fly in a pattern of moderate rises and falls. The woodpecker flap wings at the fall while the barbet flaps wings at the rise.


In general, each bird species occurs only within certain types of habitat. It could be a dense forest as the Sinharaja, the scrub jungles in the low country dry zone, montane cloud forests in the central massif, and the rolling lands of the lower Uva Patna or freshwater marsh. For instance a given habitat will contain its own predictable assortment of birds and with time one can learn which bird to expect in a particular habitat.

It should also be noted that it is always possible to encounter an unfamiliar bird in a location considered outside its usual habitat. Migrating birds in flight often settle down when they are tired and hungry regardless of the habitat.

This is the general scientific methodology derived to identify a bird species in the field. However the notes taken in the field should be compared with a good descriptive bird guide to confirm the sightings. Viewing distant birds would be assisted by viewing aids; a suitable pair of binoculars or spotting scope. Nevertheless the general grouping of birds could be achieved even without viewing aids.

The other very important rule in the field is that the welfare of the bird comes first and not that of the birdwatcher. World birdwatching bodies have developed birdwatching ethics that are universally accepted and birders need to be self-disciplined in this aspect.

The general factsheet on ethical birdwatching is as below:

Promote the welfare of birds and their environment

• Support the protection of birds and their habitat
• Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger
• Avoid using methods such as flushing, spotlighting and call playback, particularly during nesting season when birds may be called off incubation duties, or even abandon the nest altogether
• Be aware of the impact photography can have on birds - avoid lingering around nests or core territories for long periods and limit the use of artificial light
• Avoid handling birds
• Report rare bird sightings to conservation authorities and consider the wellbeing of the bird before making this knowledge more publicly available
• Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist- avoid leaving litter along a birding trail and otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum

Respect the law and the rights of others

• Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission
• Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas
• Consider and respect the rights of landholders
• Practice common courtesy in interactions with other people

Group Birding Ethics

• Lead by example and know your audience – encourage others to employ ethical birding practices
• Report bird sightings – all data are useful to bird conservation and wherever possible, should be reported to ornithological databases in the country example Universities, Natural History Museums, etc. [in Sri Lanka, FOGSL ]
• Impart knowledge – share what you know about birds and their habitats
• Get involved – encourage birders to engage local communities and get involved in conservation initiatives at their favourite birding locations
• Consider the birds – always put the health and well being of birds first- consider the impact you as an individual and the group are having on birds and their environment

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Coolidge Effect .....?

Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl Gallus lafayetti 

Just into a good read “Why did the CHICKEN cross the world?” by Andrew Lawler ….it is so strange that we who are interested in birds seem to have just forgotten the most closely associated bird in our everyday life…..

There are 20 Billion chickens living in our planet at any given time. The closest competitor in the wild being the African Finch numbering a mere 2 billion or so……..

And most of us did not know that the domestic chicken is a descendant of the Jungle Fowl…Charles Darwin in 1855 researching on his theory of “Natural Selection” set aside his barnacles and turned to collecting and examining poultry…he had a lot to learn and he says …” I was so ignorant I did not know there were three varieties of Dorking Fowl nor how do they differ,”………he opened his correspondence to all researching on avian fauna and it was Edward Blyth the British ornithological researcher in Calcutta having researched in the four species of Jungle fowl cleared that it cannot be a descendant of the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl Gallus lafayetti first cataloged in  1830…..not of the Javan species the Green Jungle Fowl Gallus varius   for it lacks a single comb and not from the Gray Jungle Fowl Gallus sonnerati in a restricted area to the south in the Indian peninsular ……it is related to the Red Jungle Fowl Gallus Gallus  of the Himalayan foot hills…..

Initially a sacred and venerated bird used in godly sacrifices but later turned to poultry.

Now for the interesting part…..the male bird is called the Cock bird but did you know that the “Cock has no Cock?”......a casual spectator may be of the opinion that when the rooster mounts the hen there is penetration as when the mammals mate. The act is over in lesser time than a Pilipino cock fight lasts…A healthy rooster can produce more than 8 billion sperm in every ejaculation…which takes a few seconds but the sperm installed in the hen’s single ovary can fertilize eggs up to a month it is said……………

However Biology can’t explain why our favored slang word for the male organ refers to a bird that lacks one? The American blush at the word bandied about shamelessly by the Canadians, Australians, British and other English speakers who still uses it without hesitation to describe the male chicken……… the American he is the Rooster derived from its favored perch overnight from where it crows…to the American the haycocks became the hay stacks, weathercocks became weathervanes and the water cocks became the faucets while the cockroach became plain roach.

However to the British Doctor from the Victorian era….. Cock is the preferred descriptor of the human organ over the more contemporary term penis, adopted from the French but which originated in Latin….

It is most likely it acquired this “indelicate anatomical significance” due to the extreme randy behavior of the rooster---- research demonstrates the male chicken [rooster] prefers new partners to its familiar ones…..Scientist call this salacious behavior...the "Coolidge effect"……after the 30th US President Calvin Coolidge…………

During separate visits to a chicken farm in 1920 Mrs. Coolidge remarked on a rooster busy mating and she was told by the farmer that this behavior took place dozens of time daily……..”Tell that to the President when he comes by” she said coolly……when the message was relayed to the President he asked if the rooster mated with the same hen. He was told no, that the male preferred a variety of partners……”Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge” he responded….   

Now isn't that interesting?     

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Bridge to nowhere…but to Watch Cranes

Bridges generally span waterways providing pass-over links to roadways. But this particular bridge in Fort Kearney in Nebraska built over the river Platte River is to nowhere, but to watch cranes.  

The Sandhill Crane stopover here on its back migration from Mexico and Texas to Canada and Alaska.

Central American Flyway
The arrival of the Sandhill cranes and millions of other migratory birds in the Platte river valley is one of the greatest spectacles in the continent. Each year during the months of March to early April this spectacle takes place. More then 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Crane populations converge around Kearney in Nebraska where the central American bird flyway becomes narrowest. They converge with multitudes of other migrant birds at a staging-post where they find safe roosting in the Platte River valley. The fields around here are harvested by then and the waste grain scattered in the fields provide supplementary  energy needed for their last nonstop flight from here to Alaska, Canada and for some even to far away Siberia………..

Sandhill Cranes foraging in harvested fields
A bird is generally named in its birth habitat; but in this case it is different and the Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis is thus named for its association in such large numbers in a single locality in the Sand Hills  region of the American plains in Nebraska. However its scientific name is derived with its breeding grounds in Canada, thereby giving prominence to its Canadian birth origin.

roosting cranes

Adults Sandhill Cranes are generally of a grey plumage during the breeding season while in  migration the plumage is usually worn and stained, and looks nearly ochre. They have red foreheads, white cheeks, and long, dark, pointed bills and in flight, their long, dark legs trail behind, and their long necks keep straight. Immature birds have reddish-brown upper parts and gray under parts. Their sexes look alike.

The crane migrates southwards in winter, all the way down to specific locations across North America. The Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is famous with other  localities in the state of Texas. In New Mexico an annual Sandhill Crane Festival is held in November to celebrate their arrival annually.

The migration of the crane has been taking place from time immemorial and science have now reviled this through fossil records from Nebraska accounting to a period of over 2.5 million years.

They are generally herbivorous but would adapt differently to availability of food. They usually live in pairs during breeding and only flock together during migration. The female would lay a single egg and would raise one brood per year and the juvenile would be fed rigorously by the parent birds up to a month after hatching. The young become independent within 9 to 10 months.  

Every year a large number of birders come over to Kearney Bridge and surrounding areas to watch this spectacular event during the month of March. 

From around 4:00 p. m. they start circulating 

I was fortunate to have been there in March 2017 and the gathering of the cranes was definitely a breathtaking experience. Interested birders and photographers start to converge on the bridge for the event every evening from early as 2:00 p. m. for the climax which takes place around 6:00 p. m..

One could hear the trumpeting of the cranes with the elongated “R” syllable ……….and they start circling overhead from about 4:00 p. m. when they keep passing over the bridge from time to time. Its only when the time is about 6:30 p. m. and the sun setting in the west of the bridge and the sky goes in to a riot of indigo that the calls intensify an the birds start to congregate low silhouetting the colorful sky and the landing commence in the far eastern side of the bridge on the sand islands formed within the Platte River……..





This particular day we were eagerly waiting for a special event that we may witness while on the bridge. A solitary Bald Eagle was also eagerly waiting in the water in close proximity to the crane roosting area possibly to predate on them.

A Bald Eagle also waits patiently for the Cranes
The cranes seeing the eagle, they would not land for a long time and the frustrated eagle having waited all this while took off in the fading light to its nightly roost….no sooner the Sandhill Cranes descended to settle in the sands with darkness blanketing all around….

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The spectacle lasted for over an hour and the racket they made while in the air is now dying down. And by 7:30 p. m. it was all over... silence took over from here and the people started moving out. Far away beyond the Sandhill Cranes it was the White-tail Deer coming stealthily into the river for its evening  drink  before venturing  into their nightly foraging grounds……. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Birdwatching in Armchair Comfort

It was just after the Spring break in 2017 and we are invited by Linda; my daughter’s friend to spend a weekend with them in Panora in Iowa. The weather was still in a more wintery spring with heavy overcast skies but a rain free weekend is predicted.

We arrive late Friday evening in remote rural Panora in the state of Iowa to be greeted by Linda and Jeffrey who are with Bonnie in her large and comfortable country home which is more suited for a guest house. Everything is arranged and taken care of, we only had to bring  the thirst quenchers to keep our spirits high.

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The house located on a hill overlooking a water front far below which was not visible in the dark night; but the lights of the abodes on the opposite bank was an indication what an exciting weekend is to dawn tomorrow. Linda had cautioned us of  the roaming deer that we might encounter on the last stretch of the dirt road about 5 miles. She was very correct when we saw them against the headlights…. some were crossing  our way while some were grazing the shoulder.

Exchanging pleasantries and  pranking with their two pet dogs and ours who also went along we retire for a an exciting morning to come. 

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Up following morning out on the timber deck extending from the bedroom into a large water-body the vista was just breathtaking………..the sun was barred behind the clouds and it was a cool dry morning, gloomy and overcast. Excepting for a few Canada Geese honking aloud from the lake below it was pin drop silence. A very unusual feeling, away from the general  urban habitat encountered all this while.

Down stairs we walk into a country style breakfast done by Linda…..waffles topped over with maple syrup and black berry sauce to be had with steaming coffee.

IMG_6214Bonnie tells me that since I’m a bird fan she has put up the bird feeders and if I’m lucky they would come up as she does not have them up regularly, as the nightly visits of vessels and raccoons that make a mess of the seeds and the feeders as well…... There was a North American bird guide by National Geographic Society and another illustrated guide and two small binoculars sitting on the coffee table over looking the feeders…this is going to be a pampered session of bird-watching .

I go down the hillside to the boatyard that is still not functioning being just after the winter freeze. The water is still icy cold. I wonder into the woods while the sky is still favorable for ambling in the open. Plenty of bird-life around was heard in the thickets. The clear  sound of a couple of woodpeckers that kept on drumming on the hollow trees  carried their melody far into the otherwise quiet woods.

Black Capped Chickadee, White breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Blue Jay,Song Sparrow & Dark-eyed Junco


I had to keep away from the waterline to avoid getting bogged down when I startled a rabbit that vanished in a swift before I could make my mind of what it was. Far into the thicket I cloud just make out the profile of a lonely young buck nibbling the fist blades of grass that has just sprung  after the first rains in spring.

Wondering further I would be startling the buck as well….when I decide to leave the habitat for them and its time to get back when the chill and the breeze has built-up and the signs of a shower was on its way.

Back on the deck everybody are wrapped up sitting around a modern day out door heater run by a portable gas container and sipping into cold beer. I too join them with a pint, jacketed in-order to comfort the palm in the cold weather. 

Everyone are eager to see the birds coming on to the feeders installed a few feet away from us……….with no birds yet and the beer running down smooth we turn to the indoors to avoid a heavy drizzle that has now turned to a moderate rain.

Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker

All hopes of seeing anymore birds other than what was seen in the woods it would be like, when all of a sudden a chickadee came over to the feeder while we were indoors. Now with the rains ceased and a continuing drizzle the visitors became numerous  and their frequency of the visits increasing.

Gold Finch, Red Cardinal and White breasted Nuthatch 

The White-breasted Nuthatch was a selective bird opting its favoured seeds and was in the habit of throwing the other seeds all-around attracting other birds that picked them off the floor.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker 
The highlight was when the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker the largest bird to visit the feeders overshadowed the other birds .  By early evening now with the rain gone the dogs napping within the house get excited and are eager to go out on the deck when we see five deer just below the bird feeders nibbling on the seeds dropped by the birds. We quieten the dogs and watch the deer go pass into the woods. 


White-tailed Deer
With light fading the activity at the feeders also came to an end. It was our turn on the deck now. The BBQ spit on the far end is sizzling and the outdoor heater set on full glow… we toasted for a memorable weekend with a round of Margarita done to a home recipe laced down with crystal clear Mexican Tequila…..  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Who is a Birdwatcher, Birder, an Ornithologist?

If there is any hobby, a pastime that has been attracting people in a big way other than for competitive sport…... it is said to be for birdwatching. 

While this stands true in most countries, it is also sad to note that many personalities who have been in to big time birdwatching and account for a large list of birds seen, tend to go into a self–deception of his achievement leading to snobbery…………

As such I was curious in exploring to find the true definition of the types of people who mingle about with birds. There had been others in my path before …………...

The best description that I came across was that of Dale Forbes ……

Birdwatching could be described as a division of entertainment where one is out to see birds in their common living spaces aided with or without equipment such as binoculars, spotting scopes or field guides. The expression "Birding" is more centered on finding and study than just general viewing. Ornithology is portrayed as the logical life-investigation of birds.”

Elaborating further on the personalities, he goes on to imagine the various divisions occupying a lonely forest bench opening out to a beautiful forest vista….

The Birdwatcher

The birdwatcher sits at the bench, and hopes that the most exciting bird is to come up to him providing the glory of observation at the ease and comfort being on the bench. He is of the notion that running about looking for them will only scare them off. He is the bench sitter type.

The Birder

The birder seeing the bench will enjoy the beautiful forest and the occasional bird that would come over but would decide the best birds are else ware and would scurry off to find them. He is the bench appreciator type.

The Twitcher

The twitcher would account the bench only as a landmark to a very rare bird sighting in this location. He would after many years of chasing behind rare birds end up as a bench sitter

The Bird ringer

For the bird ringer the bench would be a field station where he will install his nets in close proximity so that he could make a net-check every 30 minutes; extract the birds and carry them to the seat to ring them and release them.

The Ornithologist

The field ornithologist will demarcate his sampling sites so that as many point sample sites coincide with these bench sites in the forests. That way he can count the birds while he also has a cool spot to sit and relax.

The academic ornithologist on the other hand would wish to be sitting on the bench and playing with the theories….. rather than sit at an office computer hidden behind stacks of books and tall racks filled with journals and literature.

I would add another type to the list

The Bird Guide

The bird guide would bring his clients over to the bench to show the birds that had been seen by others while sitting here. If he is not lucky with the birds he would then describe the type of people who had seen them while sitting here in order to please his clients. He is the bench seller type.

So it is up to you to choose to the class that you best suit when among the BIRDS

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Is Digital Photography Blurring the art of Birdwatching in Sri Lanka?

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] is completing 40 years of Conservation "Together for Birds and People" in  2016 / 2017 . This achievement was commemorated with the BirdLife Asia Council and the BirdLife International Global Council meeting up in Sri Lanka. A highlight of these events was the Bird Fair at the Thalawathugoda Wetland Sanctuary on Sunday the 20th November 2016. Much of the FOGSL’s pioneers and the present membership and the general public was at the venue braving the inclement weather making the occasion a well-attended and a successful one which included expatriate birdwatchers.

Picture courtesy - Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka - Public Group  Facebook

I was there with my bird friendly buddy Wilson Kulasuriya and met with two pioneer FOGSL founder members. We represent the early membership of FOGSL and were of the old school of birdwatchers in Thalawathugoda that day. The following day photographs of us in discussion was posted in social media captioning “Friends make life a lot more fun. So here's to the crap we talk............”

Yes we did talk crap….but it was more based on the subject on birdwatching and we did question as to, if the birdwatcher today did really enjoy watching birds the way we did then? For it keeps us amused to this day seeing the same bird over and over again. It was a time when resources were scares; field glasses being an expensive piece of equipment but the techniques that were derived for birdwatching itself was to be exciting and interesting.

Much of the locals that frequented the venue that day did not carry binoculars or a spotting scope but almost all of them had a camera with them. A few did carry extremely expensive cameras while most others did carry a simple point and shoot digital camera which wouldn’t be of any use on a bird sitting a few meters across the waterway.

In comparison all the expatriate birders did carry field glasses and a field guide of the common birds in Sri Lanka that was available for sale at the Bird Fair………..but some of them did carry expensive cameras alongside their field glasses as well.

This was a clear sign of the impact of posting bird photographs on social media that has had on the general public and the confusion of the new birdwatcher over photography and birdwatching.

The origins of Birdwatching

The four seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter in the temperate zone did have an impact on the fauna and flora in the region. This seasonal change in the climate also had a significant effect on humans as well. As a result, man started to observe these changes of the climate in relation to the behavior of the fauna and flora that had adopted to these changes by instinct.

Spring as the name suggests is the time that the flora gets into new foliage and flower for fruiting. It is in this time that the insects are busy pollinating the flowers aiding fruiting. Birds and other animals contribute to the propagation and the distribution of the seed by consuming the fruit as fodder and dispersing the seed away from the parent plants.

In line with this new seasonal abundance in food, the birds and other animals take advantage in breed their own kind. The breeding season for birds commences with the selection of a prospective partner followed by nest building. It’s time to nurture the young before the next seasonal change when all these food resources would be gone. Most birds being omnivorous exploit on the increase of the insect population which is a good source of high energy protein for the young fledglings.

Summer following spring the fledglings are now young birds going about following and imitating the parent birds learning the instincts of survival from them.

Come autumn or more commonly known as the fall, flora takes to change once again preparing for the cold winter that is to follow. Flora starts to shed its foliage. This is a signal for the birds and other animals to get ready for the harsh winter to follow. Many of the juvenile birds are now strong and fit to brave the oncoming the winter. Some would fly away to warmer lands in the south closer to the tropics while some would brave the winter.

In the winter the snowfall makes the habitat to change to a glow of white. The hedgehog the foxes and many other mammals go into hiding. They are hibernating. Most birds have left the habitat. Those that stay over have stopped singing and are inactive conserving their energy to survive the harsh climate.

This change in seasons created curiosity on humans living in these regions. Science was yet to understand these changes with the positioning of planet earth traversing around the sun. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that migration as an explanation for the winter disappearance of birds from northern climes was accepted.

The bird migration did create new social cultures in humans in these two regions. There was people in the tropics waiting for the ducks, geese and other song birds to come in the winter. They were thought as god’s wishes in providing a seasonal food source for those in the tropics.

The birds that braved the winter has changed plumage color to avoid predation. New birds have come over to these temperate zones from the colder Arctic regions. Again it was thought to be god’s wishes that changed the birds in the habitat. A classic example is that the Robin in the garden would be changed to a Redstart [a bird similar in size and had orange color as in a Robin] people thought it was gods wish to change the birds in winter. It was only that the Robin has gone south and the Redstart too has come down south to take the place of the Robin.

Picture courtesy- Ragnar Kinzelbach Source:
It was not until 1822 when a White Stork was discovered in Germany, with an arrow in its neck. This stork had flown all the way to Germany with an arrow in its neck and the arrow was traced to central Africa. This is how bird migration was scientifically understood. Until then people thought the Barn Swallows turned into mice, or birds flew to the moon or other such crazy things. Germany has recorded 25 such arrow stork known as ‘Pfeilstorch’ says, Ragnar Kinzelbach of University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany where one such stork is preserved as an exhibit.

So it was basically during this time that people started noting and recording of the birds coming in and disappearing. They started to note the change in the plumage during the breeding season and before the disappearance in the winter. The breeding season needed the males to be colorful in order to attract a prospective female, while in the migration needed extra energy and the plumage turned into drab color when the genetics would take way the extra color which is now conserved as energy and suits the tropical habitat preventing predation.

Thus commenced man’s interest in birds which eventually turned in to a pastime or hobby known as Birdwatching. 

Origins of Birdwatching in Sri Lanka

Birdwatching was not a pastime that existed in this country until the Colonial British came over and started documenting the Natural History in this region. The period of 1840 -1880 was the time that the knowledge of the county’s avifauna was firmly established by four persons. They were Robert Templeton, an Iris surgeon in the Royal Artillery, Edward Frederick Kelaart born in the island to German and Dutch parents, Edgar Leopold Layard an Englishman and William Vincent Legge, an Australian artillery officer. Of them Templeton, Layard and Legge were specimen collectors. Templeton collected specimens for Edward Blyth, the curator of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Museum in Calcutta, and a major figure in developing ornithology in India and Ceylon as was called then. Kellaart did study the whole of the natural history on the region with the aid of the specimens collected by others.

The most significant of these four was Capt. William Vincent Legge, who devoted all his spare time to birds and the result being the comprehensive documentation of the birds in the country “A History of the Birds of Ceylon (1880),".  This book is a standout among the nineteenth century ornithological publications, as it is a descriptive one compared to the systematically situated ornithological writings of the others during this period.

However the significant ornithologist of the first half of the twentieth century in Sri Lanka was William Watt Addison Phillips an English tea planter. He came to the island in 1911 and stayed until 1957. His great care and perseverance in collecting specimens, and his broad ranging knowledge of the mammalian and the avian fauna, made way to identify and name several new species.

So it is evident that even in this country the earliest form of bird identification was related to specimen collection where the skins were preserved by taxidermy and it was big business as these skins ended up as collector items with a high price tags. It was only after the amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in the 1960 s, did it outlaw the shooting of any wild bird on the island, excepting for ducks for a limited period during the year as game birds. And so did the specimen collection come to an end. However even this concession is done away with today and if a museum or a university is in need of a bird specimen, permission would be granted only to the discretion of the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation who will issue a permit in this regard.

Thus ended the period of shot gun ornithology in this country. 

Bird organizations in Sri Lanka

The first organization for Birds and Ornithology in the country was originated as the Ceylon Bird Club in the year 1943 with seven members that including G. M. Henry and W.W.A. Phillips; the two foremost ornithologists of Sri Lanka. Both Henry and Phillips did their own publications and are reference books on the subject to this day. The club became the stage for the English expatriate naturalist and the membership never exceeded over twelve people in the early days. This situation changed by the 1950 s with much of the British leaving the country. The first local member to be invited to join the club was E.B. Wikramanayake who was introduced by Phillip himself before he left the country.

The Ceylon Bird Club continues to this day with its local membership but prefers to maintain its restrictive membership policy just as then.

This restraint on its membership policy did lead to the founding of a second bird organization in the country the “Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka” (FOGSL) in 1976 in the University of Colombo.

Impact of Digital Photography on Birds

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photography is as old as birdwatching in the world. The invention of the Single Lens Reflex Camera [SLR] with interchangeable lenses in the mid 1960 s revolutionized wildlife photography the world over. However it was the interchangeable telephoto lenses that were produced as optional accessories for the SLR cameras that had a fixed focal length which amused and enabled the wildlife enthusiast to get his distant subjects on to the celluloid film in his new camera. These lenses just as they were very advantages in the field did have its draw back as well. If your subject was in a close range position one had to run away from the subject in order to get the animal into the frame of the film in the camera. If was fun to see people backing away from elephants then, in order to get them in full into the frame.

It was not until the invention of the auto / manual focus zoom lenses which could vary the focal length and the angle of view as well, did wildlife photography become popular and open up a new era in the world of Natural History.

In 1999 Nikon of Japan introduced the Nikon D1; the first digital SLR camera with 2.74 megapixels, with an introductory price tag under $ 6,000 which was affordable to many, did wildlife photography go viral.

Bird photography in Sri Lanka

Bird photography was not possible to many in this country even with the first SLR camera being introduced in the 1960 s.  However it could be said without any doubt that the father of bird photography in Sri Lanka is none other than Dr. T. S. U. de Zilva, who made bird photography his pastime and passion. He ran a prospective medical practice in Kurunegala, which also financed his pastime.

Restricted with the fixed focal length lenses of the 1960 s, he published a wide range of photographs of the birds in the wetlands of Mannar and Chilaw.  Long range camera shooting was favorable in these locations with the extra lighting that was needed for the telephoto lens.

Picture courtesy - M.A. Pushpa Kumara Sunday Times

Known as the “ge aran ena mahaththaya” meaning the person who comes with his house. He carried his bird hides done of canvas and jute, and ventured into the remotest countryside to photo record nesting behavior of rare birds. It would take hours for him to install the hides elevating him to be in line with the bird and would sit for days inside them to get his prize photo. The only record of the very rare Broad-billed Roller nesting has still not been recorded since his record 40 years ago. This was not the digital era then and colour film processing was not heard of in the country. All his exposures were on positive colour slides that was very costly and was processed outside the country.

Dr T S U de Zilva had completed his task of bird photography with his limited resources and equipment by the time the DSLR came in the country in 1999. He had done much photo recording of bird behavior then when compared to what is taking place now in the most viral way. However it must be noted that he discontinued his habit of photographing nesting behavior of birds when it was to be reprehended in line with the general practice of ethical birdwatching that were to be introduced lately. The in-depth advent into science did need the restriction of man’s intervention with breeding birds and in divulging of habitats of critically endangered and rare birds. 

Social Media and Digital Photography the Changing Face of Birdwatching

Today the tripod carrying birdwatcher is joined by the long lens caring bird-photographer. This decade has brought about a significant change in the world of birdwatching and its effects are felt even in Sri Lanka.

Birding as it is preferred to be called today adding the auditory factor in identifying them is the art of locating birds and identifying them and listed for science and reference. A pastime developed over 50 years ago, and it is questionable if it is practiced the same way today.

Much has been the concern on the ever increasing bird-photographer in relation to birding in the western world, and it has come under research. It is time that a study is undertaken to identify and analyze the Sri Lankan bird photographer in relation to birding and to take the best use of his input in to the science of ornithology in the country.

The two basic questions that any old school birder would have for the new class of birder cum bird-photographer would be….

  • Were you a birder first?  or a photographer first?
  • What do you do with these photographs?

Based on research done in the west which is applicable to this country as well it is noted that there are six types of photographers that have been identified of the lot that mingle with birdwatching.

  1. The first is the photo-identification type. A digital photograph is a very a valuable source of information for identification and would aid in learning new avifauna by developing analytical comparisons in identifying juveniles in groups of shore birds etc. Therefore many a birder today is equipped with a Digi-scope. An adapter camera that could be fitted to a spotting scope. Even a poor quality picture would give much information, compared to a field sketch in terms of identification and evidence of justification on a sighting.
  2. The second is the photo-listing type. This is the replicate of a Twitcher.  One who would travel a long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked or accounted on a list. There are those who now list birds in photographs and it is noted that most of the British twitchers have started all over again to list them in a photo list.  Photo-listing a country list takes a long time unlike a visual list. However, many photo listers are new to bird-watching and have embraced the practice of listing because it gives them an opportunity for photography as a pastime.
  3. The third bird-photography practice is a photo-collector. More like in to butterfly collecting. These are the type that keep collecting quality collections of birds in different plumages and unique behaviour of species in courtship etc. Just as the butterfly collector who kept on collecting the same species to replace the old one for colour fading etc. This type would keep collecting photos of the same species every time one is encountered.
  4.  Amateur bird photographer is the fourth type. Amateur photographers are people striving to perfect the practice of picture taking. Many people with an interest in photography are getting into birds because birds occur everywhere and the photographing equipment is affordable. The Web is full of inspiring photographs for the armature to take as samples. As many birds are photogenic, one can practice the art of composition, pose and lighting by experimenting with them.
  5. The fifth is the trophy-hunter type. This is a dangerous type. A variant of the armature but is for taking impressive photos of iconic species. A diving kingfisher, a sea eagle catching a large fish while on flight. He would pay anything for a hide on a classic species. Would even lure bird to preferred background by baiting. Such bird-photographers are aggressive and would appear in locations by force.
  6.  The sixth is perhaps the most intriguing, the photo hunter. These are the ones who adorn in camouflage gear and travel around the country photographing birds with top of the range photography kits. Ask them what they do with the photos they would response as Nothing. When a memory card is full they just buy another. This is the hunting instinct of these photo-hunters, who would be satisfied with tracking down their quest and getting the shot.

Getting too close to birds either to watch or to photograph is never encouraged. This owl is stressed by disturbing its day roost. It is sad to note that this is happening in Sinharaja very often now mainly due to photography and guaranteed sightings .

Enhancement through Social Media 

Photography is the key ingredient to the design and development of social media. Facebook and photo sharing platforms like Flickr are essential to this pastime. They have turned out to be storehouses in sharing and discussing and even showing off ones photos. They buildup friendship and grouping for broadening the appeal for bird photographing and bird watching. Thus the social media would respond better, contributing with photos that add value significantly to the visual appeal of many of the blogs on birding.

Looking Ahead

The number of bird-photographers is rising steadily and will continue throughout. However over the decades birders have developed a strong voluntary code of conduct that govern their behaviour particularly in relation to disturbing birds. The need to keep secret the location of rare breeding birds. The need to respect the rights and privacy of landowners etc. But the new entrant bird-photographers are unaware of these informal rules and understandably want to get close to the bird for a close up shot. This is leading to some ill feeling between the old birder and the new bird-photographer. There needs to be better relationship between birders and bird-photographers in getting in the same wavelength on such matters concerned.

Concerns of Science

One dimension that seems missing in bird-photography is the link with science. As discussed, Birdwatching is related to the science of ornithology. The approach to identifying a bird species in the field is according to a scientific method. The birding generations across the world did go in search of new species but also fed their observations back to BirdLife International who in return used their knowledge to assess the extinction risk of bird species. This was an accomplishment that contributed immensely to the effectiveness of the international conservation policy.

However Bird-photographers should also be able to submit their observations to the science of conservation. But it is questionable as to whether even a little thought has been given to the scientific usage of these valuable ‘digital bird specimens’ that are retained in social websites and in personal computers the world over.

The author was present at Fort Kearney State Park Nebraska to watch Sandhill Cranes roost on its back migration to Alaska. Over 200 birders and photographers came on this bridge almost 2 hours before the birds, to watch this event that is possible for a limited period every was amazing to see everybody talking in hush voices through self-discipline and abiding by the restrictions laid down by the park..........Note the signage on the bridge is again for the occasional eccentric birder and the photographer....

The Local Bird Photographer 

Based on the above cross section of bird photographers the number of locals that fall in to the first two groups are a few of the professional bird guides and a few other who have stared as birdwatchers and who has had a knack for the outdoors and engage in photography as a hobby as well. The much preferred piece of equipment of these two groups would be the camera attached digi-scope as the unit could be used either way.

However the second category, the twitching type seem to override the first and is not encouraged at all. It is noted that the trend of rushing and amassing to rare bird sightings is taking place in a very disturbing and ad-hock manner by them. This was seen when a Forest Eagle Owl nesting at Singaraja was posted in social media, which should not have been permitted in that page. These twicher type photographer flooded the vicinity to such an extent that the adults almost abandoned the nest. It is general ethics that nest sites should not be photographed and more over its location divulged, in the case of rare and important birds. This is a clear indication of ignorance of bird knowledge and their behavior by the bird-photographer.

This same behavior was also seen when a very unusual winter visitor, a Blue and White Flycatcher did appear in Sinharaja and was posted in social media.

Twitching or going after birds is therefore not encouraged though it is the most commonly happening practice all over. The impact of it is to be seen in the very delicate habitats as Sinharaja and other such rainforests where endemism is high. Almost all the identified day roosts of the Endemic Owls and the Frogmouth are on barren ground with no undergrowth, devoid of vegetation due to so much foot traffic as almost everyone visiting is with a camera and are guided for photography with hardly any scientific interpretation of the forest explained to the visitor by the so called forest guides.

The amateur photographer is the one that should be taken care of in molding them to blend with the scientific knowledge of birdwatching. It is noted that this lot is increasing in a very high speed as many of the young today are attracted to social media websites and get attracted to bird photography. They keep on stuffing the web pages with bird photos with no account of location where the bird was seen or dates etc. This is the type that needs to be educated and made aware of the importance of birds and the need for its conservation linked with ornithology. 

The trophy hunter and the photo hunter in this country is not that very much active I feel but there are cases where unethical practices in luring rare birds by baiting taking place around the rainforest areas for photographers. A locality around Sinharaja is known to lure the Sri Lanka Spur Fowl in this manner.

The author has had his own experience once being a member of a birding group in Mannar. It was so intriguing to see the photographers waiting patiently till everyone else had had a view of a flock of Flamingo in the saltern through viewing aids. Then the question was asked, have everyone had enough seeing the Flamingos? And they started to stalk up to the birds. But the birds seeing them approach did push away from them, leaving the rich feeding ground. One would say this is fair by the birdwatcher …….but it is also a clear indication that the photographer not respecting the welfare of the bird which should be the priority.

It is time that the birding organizations in the country think about this in a very serious way and draw up a set of guidelines in par with those for the birdwatcher in relation to the photographer. For it is no point in brushing aside them to be different to the birdwatcher. The impact that the digital lens has against conventional birdwatching is immense and mighty.

However the administrators managing these social websites has a very big responsibility on them in allowing these postings on the web. They need to familiarize themselves with the internationally accepted guidelines on publishing of bird information in the media. Should nesting behavior be it photographic or video be allowed on the web? Should locations and habitats of rare migrants and critically endangered species be divulged in the web? This is food for thought and to be researched in this country now.

Finally it could be concluded in saying thus, birdwatching has come a long way, from killing them for their skins for the specimen collector………. to observing them with purpose built optical instruments for leisure…….and now  back again to the hunting era, shooting them with digital cameras?

Some noteworthy incidents of Bird-photography in the Local Social Media

This photograph came in social media as captioned “the mystery bird”…..most possibly posted by an amateur photographer. This is a classic example of how photography could be used in identification when it is complicated. It has a comparison of a known species to the unknown. The stance of a Staling or a Myna, but no guide book would show a bird of this plumage. Most juvenile birds are not illustrated. This is a first winter of juvenile Rosy Staling ….

Picture courtesy - Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka - Public Group  Facebook

Another unusual bird, where photography did help in identifying a first winter juvenile of a Golden Oriole sighted and identified by a FOGSL member.

Picture courtesy - Enoka Priyadarshani Kudavidanage, Facebook page

This is an example of a case where the picture of the bird on the left [Grey-bellied Cuckoo] was posted in social media identified as the bird on the right [Juvenile Sirkeer Malkoha]. The posting said the bird was so identified by two of Sri Lanka’s most eminent personalities on birds which did embarrass them two and other birders as well. The author did get in touch with the person concerned and managed to resolve the matter by posting these two pictures explaining the mix up.

But it is sad to note that the person concerned, also a very proficient conservationist said goodbye to his habit of birding as a result. However this again is a classic example of trying to identify birds through photographs only. Even though today’s photography is of very high digital technology, it has its own flaws with the equipment not in its proper settings. Both these photos seem to enhance more on the bluish grey. The otherwise brown coloration of the Sirkeer on the right is shown to be in a bluish tint of grey. This is why field notes are as important in identification even with the highest photographic technology possible.

Picture courtesy - Srilal Miththapala

Efforts in make best use of Bird-photography with Birdwatching

People have been looking at the aspect of combining birdwatching with bird-photography to make the best use of the millions of photographs that are available with individuals and in web sites.

The Merlin Bird Identification Application developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is a very versatile software application which is available free to be downloaded from the internet and most App stores. Currently it is done for all birds in North America including Canada and part of the northern most islands in the region and is being extended to the Mexico region as well.

It is a blend of the science of bird identification techniques used with bird photographs as in a photographic guide to the bird in the region.


One needs to enter only a set of basic criteria of the bird into the App in your Smart Phone. The date from a drop down calendar, the location the township again from a dropdown in alphabetic order, the size of the bird based on the scaled silhouette of four known birds and their in-between, three colours of the bird from a given colour pallet, if the bird was in on the ground, on a tree or in water.

Picture courtesy - 
All this data fed into the app, it would give a series of bird pictures that would qualify your bird with the name both scientific and general. One could now identify you unknown bird while you see the bird and a picture of it in your Smart Phone to compare with. However this App has out done the need to carry a bird guide and one is with your bird at the touch of a finger. 

It’s time that such versatile means to blend science with photography bringing about a good and healthy relationship within the birding community.   

The general Guidelines on ethical bird-watching that needs to be applied to the photographer as well

Promote the welfare of birds and their environment

• Support the protection of birds and their habitat
• Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger
• Avoid using methods such as flushing, spotlighting and call playback, particularly during nesting season when birds may be called off incubation duties, or even abandon the nest altogether
• Be aware of the impact photography can have on birds - avoid lingering around nests or core territories for long periods and limit the use of artificial light
• Avoid handling birds
• Report rare bird sightings to conservation authorities and consider the well-being of the bird before making this knowledge more publicly available
• Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist- avoid leaving litter along a birding trail and otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum

Respect the law and the rights of others

• Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission
• Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas
• Consider and respect the rights of landholders
• Practice common courtesy in interactions with other people

Group Birding Ethics

• Lead by example and know your audience – encourage others to employ ethical birding practices
• Report bird sightings – all data are useful to bird conservation and wherever possible, should be reported to ornithological databases in the country example Universities, Natural History Museums, etc. [in Sri Lanka, FOGSL ]
• Impart knowledge – share what you know about birds and their habitats
• Get involved – encourage birders to engage local communities and get involved in conservation initiatives at their favourite birding locations
• Consider the birds – always put the health and wellbeing of birds first- consider the impact you as an individual and the group are having on birds and their environment

The views expressed here are limited to those of the author and should not be interpreted  as those of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka or any such organization for birds.