10 steps: How to be a birdwatcher (hobbyist)

Before I tell you ‘How’, let me ask you ‘Why’. Why do you want to be a bird watcher? What is it that interests you about this hobby? Where did you hear about it?

You got inspired looking at wildlife/bird photographs on social media?

Your last hiking group had some birdwatchers, and their hobby fascinated you?

A family member or a friend who tells tales of birding adventures has got your attention?

Well for me, my first official bird watching trip was with my then girlfriend, now wife Varnica to the docks of Sewri, Mumbai. Every year hundreds of Mumbaikars gather to watch flocks of the migrating Greater Flamingos – feeding far away into the marshes, looking like pink blobs to the naked eye. We used one of the scopes set up by BNHS and that’s when I could actually see these beautiful birds in more detail. Their pink wings, big weird shaped beak and long legs amazed me. It was a different experience for me to see so many people come to this muddy, swamp area just to see these beautiful birds.

Since then with every trip, from mountains of Chail to thick forests of Kerala and Goa to marshes of Sundarbans, this hobby of watching birds has grown over me.

Greater Flamingos

Every birder has a different story of how they became birdwatchers. I am not at all talking about professional birdwatchers and wildlife photographers who study in depth the biology of the birds and their environments. I am just a hobbyist, who loves to be out in the wild, watching birds for enjoyment and love to learn about them through observation.

Looking back, I realize that my journey can be broken into the following phases.

A startup guide for New Bird Watchers :

Step 01 : Observe Different Type of Birds:

For birding too, education begins at home. I used to look outside my window and observe the birds visiting my balcony or sitting on the trees closest to my home and within my locality. While going out for walks, I learnt even more and got better in identifying birds. I started observing the differences between the birds based on their size, the sound they made and the colors on their body and much more.

House Sparrow enjoying its mid day snack at our window.

Step 02 : Tag along with other Bird Watchers

To up your game and try out your skills (and patience), its best to go on the field. Tag along with the best birder you know or join a group of hobbyists online. For me, I was lucky, my wife was my best guide and helped me grow better at this hobby. I learnt so many things while going on our early morning trips along lakes and sanctuaries. (Yeah!! Getting up early is the part and parcel of this hobby. There is no other way!)

Bird watching and Hiking at Singalila National Park

Step 03 : Invest in a Good set of Binoculars

Observing birds can be a lot of fun. They are such tiny creatures and it can get really difficult to spot them up in the dense trees. That’s where a good set of binoculars can come in handy.

Looking at them through these optical devices, you will be amazed to see the colors and details of the bird. You can observe and enjoy their behavior when they are nesting or feeding their young. It’s fun to watch smallest birds like the Weaver birds making their beautifully designed nest to impress their female mate or a woodpecker ‘head banging’ early morning in search of insects in between the cracks of the tree barks.

There is so much you can learn from these tiny beautiful creatures. I love to keep watching them, they can be quite entertaining. My current Binoculars are great for beginners.

Step 04 : Get a Bird Book

Once you have made frequent trips to many different locations, I’m sure you would have developed better understanding of the birds living in those areas. That’s a good time for you to invest in a bird book of the State or Country you are in.

Bird books have lot of important information about bird species which help you gain so much knowledge about them. Nowadays there are so many e-books available on birds online. They make it easier to birdwatch anywhere and everywhere. For me, to read about the bird’s details, of its habits and migration is part of the fun of the hobby.

I started with the book “Collins Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Sub-Continent“. Borrowed from my wife (her first childhood  birding book), it was great for me as a beginner. Simple write ups, big pictures and has the most popular birds in my country – India.

The illustrations in this book are amazing. It easily helps us distinguish between the similar looking birds out there.

Later, on my father in laws suggestion, the whole family started using the Ebook version of ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent‘ by Carol Inskipp. This book has a humongous collection of all Indian birds, with variants and deep details. My father inlaw, being a seasoned birdwatcher, has a lot of bird books in his collection but this Ebook was a great tool for our spontaneous bird spotting moments. 

Somewhere in between we invested in “A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India“. It’s not a field guide but can be used as an IDing guide. Unlike “Birds of the Indian Sub-Continent” this has more realistic photos and is helpful in differentiating one tiny brown bird from another. It’s well researched and is a very attractive book with lots of very interesting information about birds and that’s why it’s bulky and not easy to carry around.

A couple of years back I shifted focus from only watching the bird to photographing the bird. The “The Cornell Lab Merlin” app has now become more important than ever for me as it uses its vast database and helps identifying the birds easily by scanning my photos.

My own reliable Bird Guides

By seeing more birds and using these/books and apps, I have learnt a lot of bird names and behavioral properties of each species. Now I don’t have to use them so frequently, as I am able to identify many species with their characteristic features.

Step 05 : Maintain a Bird Journal

It’s fun to have a record of the birds you see on a trip on a given date. There will be times where you would not see more than a couple of birds (or zero!) but there would also be other days you will see so many birds that memorizing them will be impossible. That’s when a Bird Journal will come in handy. Make sure to carry one always with you to quickly jot down birds you see.

This practice is extremely helpful if I plan to revisit the place. If I am going in the same season, next year, I know what I should expect to see and what else I need to look for. If I am going in a different season, I know which birds have migrated in for the season and which are repeats from last season – those maybe residents. It helps me learn nesting and migration patterns of any location.

This can be done in a small notebook or online, like on The Cornell Lab, Ebird app.

My Bird Journal

Step 06 : Develop your Skills

Every day is a learning experience when you are on field, birdwatching. Observation is the key. Even though you have seen the bird a couple of times, studying its behavior will help you improve your skills. I like to study different habitats and locations. How do they find food? What are their habits and how do they make nests and feed young. I observe the size of the bird, study their wing patterns, how long or short its tail is. Sometimes, listening to the sounds of the birds help me identify them even without looking at them.

The fastest bird on earth, the Peregrine Falcon eating its prey under the Zuari Bridge in Goa.

Step 07 : Invest in a good Camera and Lens

After you have started understanding the different species of birds and you are serious enough to take this hobby to the next level (the fun part begins!), it’s time for you to treat yourself with a good camera and a decent lens.

You will find a wide range of options available in the market. Choose wisely as this will stick around with you for a long time. Of Course, as you get better at it, you can add many more lenses and cameras in your collection.  It would give you the advantage of capturing the birds you have seen digitally (and also show off your photography skills with friends and family!). I keep my gear simple and love my current Camera, Lens and Tripod

Never hesitate to get down and dirty to capture the shot you want! This is me trying to get a photograph of a White Wagtail at the entrance of Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
And this is the photograph I got!!

Birds are very photogenic, they can give the best, and sometimes most  hilarious  poses you can imagine. You can see some of my collection here.

This is what happens when you wake a little Spotted Owlet at 07:00 am in the morning.

Step 08 : Get efficient! Choose your own digital guides and apps

These days, there is a huge competition in the online industry. Like shopping on one of your favorite places like Amazon or apps for ordering groceries. So why should we birders stay behind?

There are so many apps just for bird lovers where you can get tons of information about birds with their detailed photographs. They also have a map system where you could find your favorite bird. eBird, Merlin, Vannya are leading the market right now.

I personally use ebird to list down the birds I have spotted in any particular location along with their count and actions. I use Merlin regularly to ID birds from my photos especially when I click similar looking brown tiny birds which are actually different species or a juvenile bird which does not have a photo in the bird book. So keeping a few of these apps is definitely a good idea..

Step 09 : Book a Guided Tour

By this phase, I was able to spot and ID most birds in and around my city. But what about when you go to a new habitat for a vacation? You have limited time, and don’t know the birding spots or bird perching/feeding grounds etc.. In such a situation, it’s always best to book yourself a guided tour for the best experience. There are many guided tours available which you can choose from based on your location and time of the year. These guides will help you see many birds you would have never seen before and you can learn so much from them and get inspired.

It’s always best to let your guide know what level of bird watcher you are, if you are a beginner or advanced and are you a photographer or only a watcher or researcher? It would be ideal to carry a list of birds you have already learnt about which live in this particular location, it would give the tour a target. A good guide will add the missing birds in your list :). These guides are generally locals who have lived in the area all their lives, observing the flora and fauna of the area. It’s best to trust them and be respectful. No one can guarantee spotting birds in the wild, and that’s half of the fun of this hobby. Its the best kind of treasure hunt!!!!

With our Bird Guide Loven (center) at Backwoods Camp – Goa.

Step 10 : Most importantly – Don’t Stop!

Practice makes Perfect! Yes it does. After getting yourself to this level, it’s really important to stick with it. In other words, Don’t stop! And if you are passionate about this hobby, I guarantee, you wouldn’t.

There are many factors which might make you feel discouraged, like:

Walking around a hot dry forest for 4 hours and not spotting a single new bird and your list only has pigeon, crow, mynah, bulbul and shrike!

Even after clicking 20 photos of a bird, none of the photos are sharp! or don’t look like those million amazing pictures on the internet or magazines.

You spotted the rarest bird perched happily on a branch hanging over the river, you set up your tripod, camera and focus – all set!! and the bird flies away across the river to the next thickest of trees – thanks to the loud noisy college gang jumping into the water!!!!

At such times, it’s important to remember and count the amazing experiences that you had when you were out there, those are – priceless.

In conclusion, birdwatching as a hobby is easy but needs a lot of patience! It’s a slow paced activity so anyone can pick it up at any age.

It’s rewarding as well as relaxing at the same time. The quiet forest helps all individuals to reflect upon themselves and get away from their hectic everyday schedules.

Can be clubbed with other activities like Hiking, Camping, Nature walks and much more.

You don’t have to plan a bird watching trip (obviously that is better but not compulsory!), you can most probably enjoy it anywhere and everywhere. Each type of habitat attracts some kind of birds. In Himalayan towns, every dumpster hosts flocks of Leothrix and variety of thrushes where as here in Mumbai Crows, Pigeons and Kites are the dumpster kings! Birdwatching can be enjoyed from comfort of your home, like how I enjoyed capturing a few moments of the pigeons in my garden during ‘The Lockdown of 2020‘.

It’s a relatively cheaper hobby unless you start spending on expensive photography gear. Looking at those big lenses being used by professional bird and animal photographers on birdwatching trips make me drool too. but I know I still have a long way to go before I reach that level. 🙂

Blue Throated Barbet posing for us with a Palash flower (Flame of the Forest) in Gangtok, Sikkim.

Leave a comment here if you found this post helpful and if you have decided to pickup birdwatching as your hobby! 😀

Birdwatching in Bhigwan

Date of the trip: 26th Dec 2019 to 28th Dec 2019

Bhigwan had our attention since my father first recollected his birding getaways to the lake many many years ago. It is called Bharatpur of central India and let me tell you, it’s really not just hearsay. It is located at one end of the reservoir of Ujni dam on Bhima river. During the winters, the reservoir’s water attracts migratory birds from faraway lands. There are villages located at the banks of the reservoir. Each village offers a different view and experience of the reservoir’s water. Some of the most popular villages for birding are Takrarwadi, Bhigwan, Kumbhargaon and Diksal.

The star of the show, here and everywhere!!! majestic and fiery – Greater Flamingos!!

Best time to visit Bhigwan

Like for anywhere in India (except the Himalayas or the ghats) Summers is not the best time to visit this lake. Unless interest lies in photographing some egrets and random pond heron.

Monsoon, the water levels are too high and surroundings have overgrowth, not a preferred time, but can be a possibility.

Winters is by-far the best time. It’s when the migratory birds pass through, the weather is cool and humidity is low. Starting from November all the way to March. January and February being the prime time.

Winter on the lake is a chilly affair. 🙂

How to reach Bhigwan from Mumbai

Best way to get to Bhigwan is to self drive (or taxi) past Pune directly to the Bhigwan lake (google map route is good – A lakeside spot marked as Bhigwan bird sanctuary in Bhigwan). 

All other close by birding spots like Kumbhargaon and Diksal are also marked clearly on the map. Roads are fairly good as its highway throughout. There are small hamlets and sugarcane fields all along the way with some occasional water bodies.

The awkwardly looking Bhigwan lake is surrounded by industrial civilisation and many of these villages have fishermen which double up as tour operators. The two points marked are most popular as well as our destinations.

Where to stay in Bhigwan

(Actually – Phaltan, 50kms away – for Mumbaikar’s, this distance is nothing!)

After a quick trip to the lake to see where the road ends, we headed towards our stay for the night before the sun set. Village roads can be a bit risky to drive if you are not used to them. While researching, I read that many locals in the area provide boat ride / rooms and meals to the birders visiting the lake. There are many lodges close by like Anand or Satyajit lodge which provide economical stay. Kranti flamingo point (check map above) has a MTDC affiliated hotel too. For us, Christmas hangover and year end blues deserved more luxury, so we booked a room at Jaksons Inn in Phaltan, a little further from Bhigwan, beyond Baramati. It was a 45 mins drive on the country road, sugarcane fields on both sides. These surrounding areas are dotted with factories, it’s the sugar hub of the state. 

The only odd travel mates were the long tractors carrying the sugarcane harvest and some tempo trucks. They are long and rickety, fun to watch.!

By the time we reached Jakson Inn, the sun had set. After the day of travel, the comfort of a cozy room and a warm bath always refreshes us. A quick bath, and we headed down for dinner. This hotel has a tie up with many factories in the surrounding areas. The officials who visit the factories always stay here and the hotel is built with all amenities possible.

The secret of best experience is to ask for the hill view!!

They have a buffet for all meals as there are no proper restaurants around and have an amazing menu. I think I have never loaded up on fish preparations as much as I did in their buffet. Kudos to their chef, for churning out such excellent dishes. The staff was ever smiling, helpful and took care of all our needs. They were surprised with our request though, packed breakfast at 6 AM was not a very popular request I believe. :). More birders should come to stay here perhaps!

One of the best things about this hotel is that they have taxi and tours facilities for many tourist spots around the area, so you do have options, in case you want a day off from birding

Birdwatching at Bhigwan

Depending on the time you reach (we reached around 1pm), there is a scope of great birding on the way after you pass the houses in Bhigwan town and drive through the forest towards the lake on the kaccha mud road. We started driving really slowly, windows down and eyes and ears alert.  There were many bird sounds coming from the dry forest and soon we spotted a large flock of yellow wagtails and silverbills hopping on the ground, carefree! A flock of rosy starlings covering the dead tree like leaves was a stunning sight. A yellow crowned woodpecker crossed the road and made us chase it from tree to tree.

Yellow crowned woodpecker – made us hop tree to tree with it.

While chasing the woodpecker we accidentally got too close to ground nest of rock bunting. In our defense, it was right there on the road side!! We were alerted very furiously by Mr Ashy crowned sparrow lark swishing swooshing in front of our faces trying to distract us and mumma Lark twittering continuously on a rock at the side. The eggs were well camouflaged with  the surrounding rocks, we were relieved that we did not step on one, we would have felt extremely guilty.

Dry terrain on the way to the lake. Walking on this mud road gave us the taste of rich bird population of this place.

The sun was right above us and it was very hot so we decided to circle back later and for now go ahead to the lake to find out details of the boating tours. It was too hot for a productive birding trip into the water and the light was also not too great for photography. As suggested by the operator we decided to return the next morning.

Magical birding morning. Thick haze and chilled gusts of wind.

We reached the lake only by 8 AM the next morning. It was covered with thick mist which was just beginning to clear out. There were many families, photographers and couples on boats trying to cruise in the mist mainly to see the Greater flamingos. Poor birds, at one point there were around 15 boats and cameras pointing towards them. Thankfully most boatmen who are also bird guides here have sense to keep distance from these birds so as not to intimidate them.

These painted storks were so much at peace with our presence that they dint even bother to walk out of the lake. Boatmen know exactly what kind of tourist are you. They get only the selected few to this corner who can appreciate these meditating birds.

For us the main highlight was the cluster of painted storks. They are not the main attraction here and are often overshadowed by the tourist magnets, the Greater flamingos. They were not snooty like the flamingos and gave us full opportunity to photograph them in detail. They stood there feeding themselves, not caring for our approaching boat. It was an excellent feeling. We did see so many of them nesting at Bharatpur but had never imagined that we would be just a couple of feet away from them and they would not mind!

As sunlight started tearing through the mist, we spotted various waders, grey herons, ibises, painted and open billed storks, ducks and tiny weed birds.

What you lookin at, chimp???? common ringed plover – threatening our boat!

For afternoon birding we headed towards ‘Kranti flamingo point’, Kumbhargaon. Its close to Agneepankh flamingo viewing point (Agneepankh being the hindi name for Flamingos, the deep fiery red visible when they fly gets it this name) but we wanted to checkout the MTDC hotel there, incase in future we want to stay closer to the lake. If you follow google maps, you would eventually reach this place. It’s a multi storey grey building, lodge kind of a place, affiliated by MTDC. It was not looking very appealing and we did not enter it. Instead we met the owner in the parking lot and he summoned Rahul, a boat rower who doubles up as a bird guide.

Each village is assigned one colour which they need to use on their boats so that they are easily identifiable in the hazy vast expanse of the lake. These are blue, from Kumbhargaon. Horse bowhead seems to be a common design though.

Rahul was much better informed guide compared to the morning one and understood bird behavior better. A photographer himself, he had a good angle/lighting sense and was able to predict a lot of bird perch positions to get the perfect bird picture. We were not very sure if it was a good idea to go for a late afternoon birding trip but Rahul did not disappoint us at all. We were able to check off most water – birds from our Bhigwan bird list pending from the morning trip. The gem of the trip was the excellent observation of an Osprey perched on a fish net pole doing his noon poop business. A colony of Shovelers covering a small island entirely and zooming over and around it also provided us with amazing photos.  A lonesome Bar Headed Goose and a couple of Garganey Teals were grooming themselves in the sun. I think this may be nesting/ juvenile nursery for Black Headed Ibis as there was a variety of age groups here. There was a surprise sighting of Woolly Necked Stork here, we were not expecting this one!!

Posing for that perfect reflection, Bar headed goose.

Bird guides in Bhigwan

As an independent birding trip, it is an excellent choice. Birds here are not shy and the guides are very cautious of the distance. They participate in many rescues too. The boat man/bird guide was not very well acquainted with the bird names but was very enthusiastic to learn. He informed us that they undergo training for being guides but it’s not a comprehensive one. A boost in number of birders to this hotspot may be the encouragement they need. The only tourist who come here are locals from surrounding cities like Pune or Baramati interested in boating or flamingo sightings. They haggle a lot on the costs and don’t give positive online reviews if they don’t see flamingos, mmm.. I dont think that’s fair. There is an amazing collection of birds waiting to be spotted, listed and photographed in and around this huge lake and overshadowing them with one species of bird is unfortunate.

We just kept following these boards to the lake and met him. He leads a team of bird guides/boatmen and can take care of your bird list easily. Sorry for the wonky photo 😉

Send us an Email if you need Rahul’s contact information.

Cost of a birdwatching trip in Bhigwan

We took the whole boat to ourselves:

Rs 800 per boat ride (no time limit 3-4 pax occupancy)

Close encounters with the ringed plover, lark and painted stork:


Witnessing poopy Osprey hunt:

A million-dollar moment

Fire up!!

What to eat in Bhigwan

Lunch options in Bhigwan town are limited to local restaurants serving local cuisine. Fishing is the primary source of income here and has a strong presence in their food scene. All restaurants, although not fancy looking, have tasty set meal thalis for meals.

Ideally we would have asked our guide for recommendations, we forgot – so a quick google search got us to this place closest to where we were on the way to Kumbhargaon. Bhigwan fish curry is the town specialty and everyone seemed to serve it in set meal thali.

Like any regular Indian town, Baramati and Bhigwan have the morning hustle bustle in the market along the main road. Samosa pav/ Vada pav and hot tea are readily available. We got our breakfast packed from Jakson inn so we just bought a cup of hot tea on the way.

Road side sugarcane juice stalls are absolutely a ‘not to be missed’ if you are coming here in the harvest season, how we did.

ppsstt…There is also a missal pav joint right outside Jakson Inn which serves memorable misal pav.

Is Bhigwan worth visiting?

In conclusion, Bhigwan is not as commercial or well developed like Bharatpur, but it has its own charm and its own list of birds. We felt, it was a better place to photograph birds as we were much closer to birds and they don’t mind close proximity with humans.  It is not cramped with tourists making random noises to disturb the birds. The boatmen here are very enthusiastic and pro navigators. They are still new to the business and still need a lot of training to unlock full potential. For example, the forest before the lake has so many species of land and forest birds but they were completely oblivious to it. They must certainly be trained to know what gem of a place they live in.

Beautifully painted oars of our boat. Its quieter than the motor boat making the morning birding a peaceful experience..

The lake is surrounded by villages and sugarcane fields, no proper tar roads and food stalls like other more commercial sanctuaries, no picnic spots or souvenir shops and maybe that is why birds are more calm and human friendly here.

Walking around the lakeside village.

Downside is the constant stench in the air and neon green pigmentation in the water due to paper and sugar factories. I think the efforts are good and if the place is promoted in the correct way, it may evolve into a more popular and well maintained birding spot. That may pressurise the authorities to take action against water pollution too. Water pollution results in less and less migratory birds each year. This humongous lake is a safe haven to many bird species, pollution problems here need to be a red flag in the tourism and environment sector.

The pollution in the lake froths on the shores.

Without a doubt, it’s a thumb’s up place and we would certainly re-visit soon.

Every one march to the left… now everyone march to the right! yes, you hear me… keep your beaks up… turn your beaks down! lift your left leg up and scratch your wings… lovely!!! that’s the way, boys and girls – you dance like a flamingo!!

While returning to Mumbai we took the route via Mayureshwar sanctuary (detailed blog a bit later!) and spotted a couple of Red Naped Ibises looking for insects in the empty dry harvested fields. Looking outside the window, glaring into the open expanse of fields has never been more rewarding!!

Next time hopefully we will be able to spend more time at Mayureshwar too.

For more visual treat, make sure you follow us on Instagram 

To see awesome bird pictures of this trip, check Sunny’s Instagram account!

Check out our bird-list here

Let us know in the comments below if you have been to Bhigwan. Where did you stay? Where did you eat? Did you go for birdwatching or for any other purpose?

If you are planning to go, add any questions that you may have, below!