What Birdwatching taught me about Writing


I had recently gone out to dinner when something unexpected happened. We were at the local golf club, with our table overlooking the course. While dining, a persistent “cheevak cheevak cheevak” made my head turn. In the dark, I observed a small shape fluttering around a pole in the course. Even in the dim light, I smiled, for I knew that bird was a spotted owlet.

This little avian is a very amusing creature. They live communally, in holes of trees or in metal poles in cities. As I watched that bird leave its perch and fly out into the night, I was reminded of how this very bird kindled my interest in birdwatching.

I was in Rishi Valley School when a friend told me a pair of spotted owlets had been seen near the school building. This boarding school was situated in rural Andhra Pradesh, surrounded by nothing but scrub jungle. It was a nature lover’s paradise, with birds and snakes at every turn. It was even declared a Bird Preserve in 1991.

I was fascinated by the news my friend had brought me. My image of owls, until then, was of these wide old figures (like in Winne the Pooh) that fly about at night, hiding from humans. So I was not going to pass up this opportunity to see one.

I went with him and peered into the trees near the academic block. At first, I didn’t see anything, but soon enough, one grey blob jumped down from the higher branches onto an overarching bough. It bobbed its head up and down, its bright yellow eyes staring right at me. It glared at us, even as we hastily walked backwards, barely controlling our glee.

A spotted owlet, shot by my friend Thomas Job.

I returned every day to say hello to my new friend. It became so frequent that one teacher had to tell me that repeated disturbance would make it find another place to roost.

This tiny raptor had moved me in a way that I find hard to articulate. This manifested in a newfound interest in birdwatching.

I earlier was interested in birdwatching because, as a wildlife enthusiast, it is a necessary skill. But I never approached it with much enthusiasm. Much like studying subjects in school, I did it thinking it would benefit me in the long run.

This all changed when I saw the spotted owlet. Suddenly I was looking everywhere for birds. I ventured out on Sunday mornings to see what birds I could find. My ears became tuned to identify separate bird calls. Back in my home in Bangalore, I’d look at the skies in wonder, watching raptors soaring above.

Brahminy Kite in Flight Fine Art Photography. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Kochi, Kerala, India
Brahminy kites were one bird that I’d watch from my home in Bangalore

Raptors are the predators of the birding world. With their size, sharp beaks and fearsome claws, they are a beauty to watch. Thus I was initially attracted to them much more than songbirds (like bulbuls, tailorbirds etc.). This reflects our fascination with the dazzling and our tendency to overlook the mundane.

We live in an increasingly closed world. Everyone today is glued to their cellphones and is thus impervious to what is happening around them

During the early days, each birdwatching session uncovered a new species of me. I’d walk around the school campus with eyes scouring the bushes, hoping to sight something new. Bulbuls, babblers, prinias—my list of sightings just kept growing.

Once your ears become trained to pick out bird calls, it is hard to shut them out. In Rishi Valley, I remember sitting in class amused at the cackling of parakeets in the neighbouring trees. In the hostel, I’d wake up at odd hours of the morning to the calls of peacocks and find it hard to sleep afterwards. This was the small price to pay for the wealth of exposure birdwatching brought me.

Female Sunbird. Shot in Munnar, Kerala, India by Ishan Shanavas

Bird watching was a passion that developed only after I pursued it. It didn’t captivate me organically. I find this insightful, for it demonstrates that many hobbies implore you to put yourself out there and move out of your comfort zone. Only then will you expose yourself to the serendipity that life has to offer.

I find a striking parallel to my experience with writing. I developed an excitement for writing only after I put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Had I not been comfortable exploring new mediums of creative expression, I wouldn’t have discovered this facet of my personality.

As children, we are open to trying new things and putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. It is how we learn. It is the fiery crucible of awkwardness and unease in which we forge our most fascinating abilities.

I worry that we, as a people, have become too short-sighted. Many people I meet lack the enthusiasm visible in young toddlers. Few strive to obtain new hobbies. We have simply become too complacent. This is sad because innovation and growth only occur when we do new things and push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Hardship fuels development.

Orange Minivet in flight. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Wayanad, Kerala, India

Bird watching made me more observant and curious. This was highly fortunate for me, as we live in an increasingly closed world. Everyone today is glued to their cellphones and is thus impervious to what is happening around them. Every time I board the metro in Bangalore(India’s rapid Transit), I see passengers with their backs hunched over, furiously thumbing at their smartphones. They are unreceptive to the stunning views of the city that are only visible from the train’s windows.

With becoming more observant, I noticed that my writing became more vivid. I began to include more descriptions in my articles, adding flair and life to the piece. I included contextual details, making my writing more readable.

Bird-watching has given me immense joy. I urge everyone to try out this vocation. You might be surprised at how you receive it.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

2 thoughts on “What Birdwatching taught me about Writing

  1. Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I still vividly remember the day you showed me that Spotted Owlet out of nowhere in Rishi Valley. It’s cool to see how your keen eye for birdwatching has also translated to other aspects of your life.

    Like

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