Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bird watcher or twitcher?

The simplest definition for an ornithologist would be to say a zoologist who studies birds. The origin being from the Geek word 'orni's "bird", and the term is said to be in use in the popular English literature from sometime before 1839.

The most known ornithologist closer to us was the late Dr Salim Ali, India's greatest birdman. In Sri Lanka one is to find a similarity in, Capt: Vincent Legge who served the British army in Ceylon. However he is not referred to as an ornithologist though he deserves to be called one for the magnificent three v olumes of 'A History of the Birds of Ceylon' he published in the year 1880.

Both these personalities had one thing in common; they both took a liking for game hunting. Dr Ali in his autobiography writes how he first shot a house sparrow at the age of fifteen only to find the female come with another male the following day. This shooting went on till seven male birds were killed.

Years later having graduated from the Berlin University, in zoology he understood the reason for that extraordinary behaviour of the female house sparrow. Dr Ali for his part in trophy hunting has a few dozens tigers and Indian rhino, a man who never parted with his guns.

Capt Legge on his part was a bird lover and was in to specimen collection, which was to be a pass time of most colonial officials posted to the orient region. Legge's special interest on birds found him recording the specimens with the distribution of the bird in the country, their eating habits etc; This way, he derived the distribution of the birds in avifaunal zones within the country.

Compiling the sketches, maps and the notes he kept, Sri Lanka was gifted with the bible on the bird life in the country, the three volumes of A History of the Birds of Ceylon in 1880.

Other bird watchers

On his retirement he settled in Tasmania where his father migrated from Ireland. Of his vast collection of specimens, part was presented to the British Museum of Natural History; the part retained in Tasmania was later given to the National Museum of Sri Lanka in accordance to his wishes by the Trustee of the Tasmanian Museum in the year 1936.
Birds are special in the animal kingdom being the most widely distributed animal- form on earth, after the insects. Insects though, are not the type of animals that are loved by humans; their appearances are not the most pleasing to the human eye. Thereby most people take a liking to birds, making those people that appreciate them to be called bird watchers.

'Birding' or 'bird watching' is a hobby concerned with the observation and amateur study of birds. The term "birding" is of American origin; "bird watching" is the commonly used word in Great Britain and Ireland and by non-birders in the United States. This is a very popular pass time in the UK and is catching up in most Eastern countries as Japan, Korea Taiwan etc.

Since visual observation is routinely complemented with auditory observation, the term 'birding" is perhaps more accurate, and appears to be growing in usage.
Birding is one of the quieter and more relaxed outdoor activities. The most active times of the year for birding are in the migratory period, during which times the greatest variety of birds may be seen.

Birding in the early mornings is most common. These being the busiest time of the day, for many birds are at their hungriest, and thus less difficult to find. Success in locating the more "interesting" species typically requires detailed knowledge of their appearance, sounds, behaviour, and the most likely places to find them, in addition to good measures of stealth and patience.

Some birders are keen on seeking rare birds, and would opt to travel long distances just to see a new species in the hope of adding it to a "list," e.g., life list, country list, etc. In the UK, these fanatical birders are commonly known by the light hearted slang term of twitchers.
The word derived presumably from the frenzy that descends on them on hearing the news of a rare bird. Common equipment used for bird watching is binoculars or spotting scope with note books and field guides. However a twitcher will also have a mobile phone or pager in order to keep himself constantly informed of rare bird sightings.

Twitching has turned out to be a nuisance to the non birding population in particular as they would all flock in to a location in their hundreds just to see one rare bird in the locality of a private property where it may occur. This has lead to much discussion and criticism among the birding community and as a result birding norms too have been introduced.

Since of late, eco-tourism is being encouraged in the form of facilitating funding for conservation. The advancement of the information technology, giving knowledge on the occurrence of rare and endemic birds, bird watching and twitching has caught up in a global way.

There being so much money available in the travel trade a new sector has opened up for marketing the world's birding hot spots. This was first started in the South American countries such as Costa Rica and Venezuela and is catching up in the South and South-East Asian countries.

Bird fairs are held annually in the fall for prospective buyers of tours with guaranteed sightings of rare and endemic birds. Bird trips which are cheaper than the guaranteed sightings are for the general birder.

As a result of these tours a totally different kind of twitching is in practice to tick a world bird list. All the more a totally different bird person known as a "bird tour guide" has found the way into the birding field as the guarantor of the sighting. It is not surprising that in most of these bird fairs the fee of the tour is settled on the "guarantor guide" than the rarity of the bird.

The danger behind these guaranteed trips are that they are arranged for the least number of tour days to be affordable to the birder. As the time is limited, unethical practices are used in bringing elusive birds to the open.

The commonest form used in Sri Lanka is to re-play the tape recorded calls of the bird in order to bring it to the open. A tape played over and over in a day in the same location to please the visitors is definitely going to affect the instincts of the bird.

There are even instances where continuous flushing of the birds, and usage of light beams to locate them have been recorded. The worst case being, a laser beam used in describing a bird in camouflage to a dumb twitcher.

If bird based tourism was brought in to provide funding for the conservation of birds, these unethical practices in the bird tour trade is not going to do much for the conservation of the bird, except that the guaranteed tour trade and the "*guarantor guides*" being the beneficiaries of the funds that find the way in to the county.

However it should be said that not all bird tours are discouraged. The general bird tour marketed for the 'Birdwatcher' should be encouraged, while the "guaranteed tour" for the world list twitching be discouraged.

There is also the good side of it by many getting in the habit of looking for the rarer species. Altogether new bird species had been found the world over, while species that were thought to be extinct are being re-discovered.

Sri Lanka had her luck in the near past in discovering an all new owl species. This no doubt was a great discovery, for it being a nocturnal species. The sad part of it is that the distribution of the species and the occurrence is known to almost all the twichers world over, while general Sri Lankan birder is ignorant.

The sighting of the totally new species may have brought in millions to the bird tour trade, but what for the study and the conservation of the bird itself?

We are now informed by the present Important Bird Areas Programme (IBA) co-ordinator of a difference seen in the plumage in the bird Common Iora Aegithina tiphia occurring in the South East sector of the island.

It is heartening to note that the bird loving people have been encouraged to join in the observations rather than working on it covertly. This is thought to be the Marshal' Iora , Aegithina nigrolute but the chances of it to be an all new sub-species is not to be ruled out.
It is expected that the scientific study of the bird will be done in a true Sri Lankan way as we are capable and are geared for it technically. Let there not be vested interests in this discovery as was in the former.

Having read through, it is up to you to decide what you are when among the birds. An Ornithologist, Birder, Twitcher or a Guarantor Guide, as far as you love the birds and do not exploit them you may enjoy the beauty in them.

But if you have the longest list of sightings and the rarest birds in the list, I'm sure you will be a snob among the others. 

Published in the Sunday Observer Impact 2007 - 1 - 21

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