A field guide to field guides: Be it a title on birds or trees, for nature enthusiasts there are few tomes as useful

  • In this fortnight's Pages From The Wild column, Urvashi Bahuguna writes why field guides are the books related to nature she returns to most often — the ones that continually teach her new details and correct imperfectly remembered knowledge

  • Field guides showed this writer that she had not been noticing what had always surrounded her.

  • Bahuguna also spoke to others who use field guides to understand what makes it an integral possession.

In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.


The first field guide I read was Amano Samarpan’s Birds of India on an unbearably humid April afternoon in Goa. As I thumbed through the pages, I came across a photograph and description for the Indian Pond Heron. Samarpan had written, “Can stand for hours, hunched up, waiting for movement from edible sources like frogs, fish, crabs and insects.” Of the several ways in which the writer could have described the stillness required of hunters, the words “waiting for movement” struck me as particularly evocative. I never forgot it. When I see the Indian Pond Heron in the wild, it allows me to observe it quietly for whole minutes. It pays me no mind, it is waiting for movement from elsewhere.

Without Samarpan’s words, without the knowledge of which species I had chanced upon in the wetlands, I would not have noticed the bird’s statuesque stance, would not have stopped to admire the Heron’s patience. There is a surprising solace to be found in the learning of this language — perhaps even more so in the chasing of it when a species unfamiliar to me is sighted and must be identified. In the forests of Delhi NCR, I carry Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp’s Birds of Northern India. In Goa, I refer to the more expansive A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Krys Kazmierczak.

The field guide may appear a strange choice for a column on environmental writing, but truthfully, these are the books related to nature that I return to most often — the ones that continually teach me new details and correct imperfectly remembered knowledge. As I went from novice to a notch above in recognising birds, the guides showed me that I had not been noticing what had always surrounded me. What I naively believed were Orioles in the distance, the guide helped me learn were Baya Weavers engaged in the process that lends them their name. I spoke to others who use field guides to understand what makes it an integral possession.

 A field guide to field guides: Be it a title on birds or trees, for nature enthusiasts there are few tomes as useful

Field guides are the books related to nature that Urvashi Bahuguna returns to most often — the ones that continually teach her new details and correct imperfectly remembered knowledge

The writer Suchi Govindarajan acknowledges that one way to experience nature is to see a bird every day at her window and simply appreciate it. But when she can identify the bird and learn the bird’s call using a guide, she is able to hear it even before it arrives at her window. She says, “For me, it’s no different from getting to know a person. It’s like recognising someone by the sound their vehicle makes as it pulls up on the street, by the way they knock at your door, or even by the way they walk or laugh. It connects me to them.”

Wildlife researcher Bhavya Iyer, who uses a number of field guides, points out that until one starts distinguishing species, “every tree is just a tree, every bird is just a bird.” She finds the pride and happiness that comes from telling different species apart over time incredible. “It's enriching,” she says, “to know what different birds or animals or trees are found in an area, and why they are found there and not somewhere else, and how they interact with each other. At the risk of over-romanticising a natural phenomenon, it’s like realising that nature’s secrets are open for you to unlock, if you just try.”

Echoing Iyer’s thoughts, illustrator and IT professional Bhagya Sridhara says, “You can spend all your life without knowing anything about anything, but that’s not so interesting, is it?” She sketches the flora and fauna she comes across, such as beetles, spiders, butterflies, birds and more, which she shares here. She uses Isaac Kehimkar’s Butterflies of India, Milind Bhakare and Hemant Ogale’s Butterflies of the Western Ghats, Romulus Whitaker’s Snakes of India and more to identify species. “Like every person has a particular character, I feel every species has its own special character. I just like learning, that’s all… be it the most simple thing that people may not notice — like how certain species only grow when their environment is clean, how host plants play an instrumental role in butterfly breeding, little things like that.”

Software marketer, writer and natural farmer Ramya Coushik doesn’t have a DSLR to photograph the bird to view up close later. For her, the bird guide comes handy as a ready reference with its life-like and detailed illustrations in colour. She also reads S Karthikeyan’s Avenue Trees which provides information like whether a species is pollinated by butterflies, bats and the like, and whether they are a host species for certain butterfly larvae. For picking different varieties of climbers for planting in her family farm, she consulted TS Srinivasa’s Garden Climbers. Some guides serve more aesthetic purposes, such as Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats by Divya Mudappa and T R Shankar Raman from Nature Conservation Foundation and illustrated by botanical artist Nirupa Rao; Ramya “delights in reading about these magnificent trees and savouring the stunningly beautiful tree art.”

When poet and professor Nitoo Das was new to birding, there wasn’t yet a comprehensive online resource to help identify Indian birds according to colour, size, food habits, habitation, calls and songs, and more. It was impossible for her to correctly identify birds through online research. In 2011, a second edition of Grimmett and Inskipp’s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent was published and she’s carried it everywhere since. Within it are pressed leaves and flowers from places as varied as Khonoma, Masinagudi and Choglamsar. Her bookmarks are handwritten bird names from her wishlist. She loves the illustrations in the guide: “ID-ing from photographs is a difficult task because of the vagaries of photography. This is not to downplay the importance of photography in the identification process. Illustrations, however, are more pleasing to the (my?) eye, hold a place in the history of biological drawings, and, simply put, catch the ‘authentic’ bird more ‘truthfully’ than photographs.”

Chandan Tiwari, who curates the DelhiTrees Instagram account, uses Pradip Krishnen’s Trees of Delhi, apps and botanical WhatsApp groups to identify various trees around the city. He was drawn to learning about the local trees because they were so integral to humans and yet not very well known and understood by most. He ensures all the characteristics of a tree are clear to him — be it leaves, bark, flowers, fruits and the general design pattern of a tree. Once he has identified the trees, he expands his knowledge through Google. “Words may mean a lot,” he says, “Tree may have various names. The names may tell the primary characteristic of a tree, may relate to a place it origins, a particular quality of its leaf of flowers, about a person who may have discovered it. It may denote very many things and there is no uniformity thereto.” He organises this information in regular posts for his followers. He stresses that, “The IDs are just nouns, a way to communicate them. What is meaningful is how integral they are to life and how they benefit the world around us.”

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2020 10:48:50 IST