Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Birding for beginners: India

n a trip for the glorious Indian nuptials of Roald Dal and Radish, some bright-eyed eco-geeks took the wonderful opportunity to travel across the world and, after the feasting and dancing, attempt to see as much of the local wildlife as possible. For a few of us, it was the perfect chance to practice our novice birding moves.

Lesson 1 for the reluctant birder is a simple one; leave the country. If you happen to be someone who feels a little overwhelmed by the brownness of the UK's finest avian residents, the perfect way to muster some enthusiasm is to go elsewhere. Luckily for us, India offered up a range of winged beauties, vivid colours and fancy shapes to make the shallowest wannabe birder go 'ooooh'.

There were numerous lessons learnt on our travels but only some come with photographic evidence, taken by Laveesh, finest hat-wearing ecologist in the land. Ready with bins, book, pen and camera we identified 93 species, and saw a few more. Here are just a few of the birds, and lessons, for your pleasure...

Seeing large charismatic species gives you confidence - White-bellied Sea Eagle, Goan coast
It's ok to have a favourite when it wears zebra stripes - Orange-headed Thrush, Goan Ghats
Watching birds tackle their prey makes them much more interesting, doubly so when you're on a tropical beach - Common Sandpiper, Goan coast
Hoopoes will always bring a smile to your face, even when tired and dehydrated - Hoopoe, Hampi
Learning to love herons will make your stay next to paddy fields much more rewarding - Indian Pond Heron, Hampi
When you are this handsome, you do not shy away from your public - Plum-headed Parakeet, Hampi
All birds are fond of ruins and elephants. Fact. - Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, Hampi
One can never see too many species of Kingfisher - Stork-billed Kingfisher, Keralan backwaters
Wherever you are in the world, Cormorants look like crooked umbrellas - Little Cormorant, Keralan backwaters
A bird requires impeccable balance when residing on spindly vegetation  - Purple Heron, Keralan backwaters
Birding is easiest when you breakfast on the balcony - Red-whiskered and Red-vented Bulbuls, Keralan Ghats
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, birds will turn their back on you - female Scarlet Minivet - Keralan Ghats
And sometimes, they are attention seeking posers - male Scarlet Minivet - Keralan Ghats
All roads lead to India for the chickens who crossed them - Grey Junglefowl - Keralan Ghats
Night birding is best with good hearing - Jungle Owlet (we think!) - Keralan Ghats

And finally, the lesson that holds true everywhere, there is always something small and brown that you can't identify!

An unknown Prinia? - Hampi
Naturally, some of the most exciting sightings were imprinted not in pixels, but only our minds, and we jumped around with glee seeing wonders such as a very unexpected chestnut coloured female Sri Lanka Frogmouth, and the Malabar Trogon.  We admired the punk-crested Black Lored Tit, watched open-mouthed as the huge wingbeats of a pair of Great Hornbills echoed above us in the Western Ghats, and saw a Black-rumped Flameback woodpecker scamper up palms in the backwaters. We learnt that the best way to pronounce 'Drongo' was with an Australian accent, and preferred to call the Greater-racket tailed Drongo the 'fancy-tailed'. Rufous and White-bellied Treepies made us happy, the tails of Asian Paradise Flycatchers and blue flashes of Velvet-fronted Nuthatch causing much geeky joy. We also saw an awful lot of Egrets.

Our final few days were spent around Kumily and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, an area whose hills were etched with tea plantations and spice gardens were tucked into lush grottos. Before leaving we packed our bags with sweet and pungent vanilla, conker-like nutmegs and tiny green rugby balls of cardamom. Since returning from India my favourite way of using some of these aromatic delights has been in a cardamom and orange syrup cake.

It's a version of wonder cake, the extravagantly named recipe I wrote about last February. Follow the recipe as suggested, using ground almonds and vanilla essence. In addition, finely grind the seeds from 5 cardamom pods and grate the zest of one orange and add to the dry ingredients before adding the oil etc. When you've stirred it all together, sprinkle flaked almonds over the mixture before baking.

While it's in the oven prepare the syrup, bash two cardamom pods and add to a pan with 40g sugar (granulated or caster) and the juice of 1-2 oranges. Put on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and then set aside for the flavours to develop. When the cake is cooked and a golden brown, remove from the oven and pierce all over with a skewer in between the almonds. Strain the syrup and pour over the hot cake, it should be absorbed as you pour. Allow to cool before slicing. It is a very aromatic and sticky cake, good with hot black coffee and memories of India.

First attempt - no flaked almonds, but it's nicer with!