Yeoor after Two Years

The most sweltering summer that I have ever experienced is in India. The temperatures soar above 30C and humidity above 70%. Yet this did not bother us from exploring our backyard – Yeoor Hills, after almost two years. My last visit was in August of 2009 with a fellow botanist and a friend, and my first visit for 2011 was with this plant-addict as well. We met after two years too, and decided Yeoor to be our place of meet – a good old place where we used to hang out often. We cannot say no to Yeoor, not in the peak monsoon season nor in the scorching heat, it is a place worth visiting in all climes.
Dry but not really
Imagining Yeoor in summer is not hard. The trees will be stripped of leaves. The soil will have little to no moisture and dust will blow and leaves rustle whenever the wind picks pace. This is what I pictured of Yeoor in the middle of May, but it was completely the opposite.

After reaching the top at 7 AM, we were greeted by an alarmingly large number of people with cameras. This isn’t surprising. When I talked to other naturalists who now call Yeoor their second home, they have also noticed this trend. And our reactions to this trend are alike – it’s admirable that people are taking more and more interest in exploring the wilderness, becoming aware of this natural richness crippling under the pressure from development. It is also a little concerning, for we not only need people seeking a wild adventure, but naturalists who know the ethics of being in nature. We don’t need just need camera armed photographers, but naturalists who know why and how to photograph (Read Be a Photonaturalist).
Trees along a dry riverbed
I was sure as hell glad to be back visiting this place. The change from Canadian to Indian forests was huge – they’re almost alien to each other, which is of course not surprising, but fascinating nonetheless. This time at Yeoor, I saw what I didn’t know I’d ever see. Thanks to Alok, I was able to see plants I would completely overlook in this seemingly barren month of May. There were plants that didn’t mind the heat or the lack of water. There were animals that were as home in this dry land as they are in monsoon. Yeoor was in its best figure as always, but there are things much concerning as well, about which we’ll talk at the end.
Cottonia peduncularis - Bee Orchid for its resemblance to bees
This being the flowering season for some deciduous trees, it was also the flowering and fruiting season of many Orchids. When we first stepped into the park, Alok spotted Bee Orchids – Cottonia peduncularis high up in the trees. All of them were considerable high up above, except this beautiful Bee Orchid which, amusingly, was on a Carissa shrub. A few yards further were Button Orchids – Acampe praemorsa, and on a thin offshoot branch just off the path were tiny Oberonia sp. of Orchid.
Vanda sp.
A little further, and mixed with a bunch of Button Orchids were Vanda sp. (testacea, probably). Only a botanist could stare way up there and notice these orchids, and thanks to the cameras we were able to observe them virtually closely.
Common Rose, Atrophaneura aristolochiae fluttering over Wrightea inflorescence
There were many trees flowering too, among which the brilliant white blossoms of Wrightea, attracted many insects including this dark Common Rose that stood out strikingly well against a bright background. Among trees, the blossoms of Paveta sp. and Pongamia pinnata were also a sight for sore eyes.
Blue Pansy, Juninia orythia
Summer is a good season to observe butterflies that don’t last until monsoon – these are some of the Pansies – the Yellow and the Blue Pansy. They are very common during summer, and vanish by the beginning of Monsoon – soon after they’ve laid eggs. Amongst others were Baronets, the sun loving butterflies common through summer and monsoon. Amongst Lycaenids, most common were Dark Ceruleans in their hundreds at a dry riverbed, laden with Pongamia pinnata flowers.
There is a flying leaf in this frame
Our interesting find was a large Southern Blue Oak Leaf, Kallima horsfieldi in its Dry Season Form. This butterfly was so well suited for this climate that we could initially track it only because it stood out of its rocky perch. In this picture, you can see how well camouflaged they can be, whether in the dry or wet season. There were several Spot Swordtails around as well, and as summer progresses many more will come out, and with the first showers, several thousands will be seen mud-puddling along rivers and streams.
A Sand Wasp, Family Crabronidae
The Hymenoptera were common, more so than Lepidoptera – as the Componotus sp. of ants tended to Treehoppers and the Potter Wasps collected nectar off flowers. One peculiar and interesting Hymenoptera I observed was the one pictured above.

*Update 31 May 2011: This wasp is a Sand Wasp in the Family Crabronidae, Subfamily Bembicinae, genus Bembix. They are known to commonly predate on flies. Sand Wasps are pretty common at Yeoor Hills, but this was the first time I saw this specimen. Thank you Bug Eric and John!
Trithemis aurora, female
The dragonflies were common as well – and surprisingly we could see only females. I’m not sure why this is the case, and it’ll be interesting to look at this from a scientific perspective. We sighted a Darner as it quickly zoomed into the opposite direction. More cooperative, as always, were the Libellulids – the Skimmers. I photographed this pretty Trithemis aurora lady for the first time as she sat patiently in the dried thickets.
Owlfly - press their antennae and wings against the stick and raise their abdomen
to mimic an outward stick
A lone Owlfly fluttered as we were photographing Orchids. Although they are more common during Monsoon, seeing one at this time of the year is a new record for me. The larvae look similar to Antlions. I haven’t come across any articles regarding the life-history of Owlflies in India, which will be really interesting to study. The larvae and adults both are predatory, perhaps also feeding on agricultural pest insects, therefore their importance to us is valuable, but there seems to be a serious lack of knowledge about this interesting insect in India.
A male Calotes rouxii guarding his territory
Our aim was also to find snakes, but the high temperatures might have kept them hidden from out sight. Nevertheless, we observed many lizards, specifically Calotes – two of them fighting over something, either a female or a territory, and one brightly coloured male Calotes rouxii flaunting himself from the tallest peak – a large boulder – in his territory.

We also caught a fleeting glimpse of a Flameback Woodpecker, a Rose-ringed Parakeet, a yet-unidentified hawk (probably Shikra), and a flock of Storks, perhaps Open-billed Stork, catching the thermals high in the sky.
Goats entering the National Park
We were only there for four hours, and the time was well spent. There is a lot of activity going on even during May – whether it is plants or animals. But unfortunately, nothing is as harmonious as it seems. Just as we were exiting the park, we saw a horde of goats coming in to feed on the vegetation, led by two kids. We decided not to talk to them since they wouldn’t have known a thing. Grazing of domesticated animals is not permitted in Protected Areas, but it is still carried out all over the world. Here at Yeoor, the main reason is the lack of public awareness of the laws. We also saw liquor trash and bonfires deep inside the park. This mostly happens because the park is not protected all year round. It is only guarded against visitors in monsoon months – because there is a large influx of picnickers who flock to enjoy the seasonal waterfalls. If only the Forest Department was more stringent throughout the year, we would see less and less of damage inside the Protected Area. Unfortunately, it also means that we naturalists cannot visit the park since it will be closed to general public, but we need to sacrifice something to protect something! The situation outside the park is even worse as large strips of lands are being cleared for housing. Trucks are pouring in to remove the trees and soil – and take it where? There are more concerning questions outside the park than inside.

Only recently, many posters about the biodiversity of Yeoor were put up all along the roads – a great initiative to increase public awareness directed towards visitors. What more needs to be done is the  education of resident villagers (villagers who were living here before the area was declared a National Park), because they play a rather crucial role in the protection or destruction of this forestland. It is them who can bring a serious change to the increasing vehicular and invasive traffic into the forests. I hope that you and I can gain the villagers’ trust instead of dissing them for causing destruction, for when it comes to wildlife conservation; we need more friends, not enemies.

How to Point-and-Shoot: Birds

Every bird watcher, amateur or expert, carries two key items while out birding – a binocular and a notepad. Without these, you cannot see a bird nor record it. If you do see a bird that you can’t identify without the aid of binoculars, it becomes hard to identify it later without noting the details on a paper. These were the primary tools used in the past by most famous birders, and are still the precious possession of any bird watcher.

Nowadays, a new age of bird watchers is emerging; one that not only uses their eyes to sight a bird, but also a digital eye to capture it. This is the age of bird watchers with rather sophisticated tools – cameras. And just like cameras, bird watching has become more and more popular amongst people. However, when it comes to research, a camera is still a secondary option over the primary binoculars and notepads. This is rather debatable, as someone might consider camera to be more reliable when it comes to providing a proof for the existence of a bird in the area in question, or an answer to the identity of an unidentified bird. But while photographing a bird, there are many mistakes bound to happen, such as the camera failing to focus, thereby delaying the opportunity to even catch a glimpse, or the image being too poor in quality. If you point your binoculars, there’s a higher chance that you will see the bird to note its characteristics and behaviour for future reference. Therefore, although a camera is a helpful tool, it is still optional when it comes to research. Ideally, making bare-eyed observations and noting the identity of the bird (including the number of birds observed, behaviour and the habitat) first, and then photographing the bird (if possible) is a good scientific approach to bird watching.

Bird photography is more cherished by people than reptile or insect photography. This turns this fine hobby into a competition amongst bird photographers, as everyone tries for that perfect shot. But only a photographer knows how challenging it is to capture these moments with optimal results. After getting my first digital camera, it took me several years to get a hang of photographing birds, and even today, I fail most of the times to capture a decent photograph. Take my reflexes which are probably too slow to follow a bird’s movement and multiply it with the slowness of a point-and-shoot camera, and you get a really bad image of a really common bird, yet sometimes we can capture really satisfying photograph with such cameras. In this article, I will talk about how to photograph birds using a point-and-shoot camera through a little bit of experience I have had with this subject.

Knowing one’s camera is very important. Point-and-shoot cameras are notorious when it comes to photographing distant objects, and when that object is a hyperactive bird, there are more chances of missing that right shot. Cameras with more than 10x optical zoom (ideally, 15x+ is better) and more than 7 megapixels works well for bird photography. In case of optical zoom, as the magnification increases, the image quality considerably decreases. Therefore, a bird image taken real close at 1x zoom shows more details than that taken at 15x since at higher zoom, light reaching the sensor decreases, rendering darker and noisy images. This is due to the small size of the sensor, which is what is primarily responsible for low grade images with many Point-and-shoot cameras compared to dSLRs which contain a large sensor. But worry not, for this isn’t as important as the weather is when it comes to bird photography!

Some point-and-shoots come with an extra, adaptable Tele-Converter (TC) lens which has to be bought separately. A TC lens optically magnifies an image, just like a magnifying glass. Such lenses give an extra 1x or 2x reach which aid in photographing distant objects. From my experience, using them in dull weather, especially on an overcast day or before sunrise and after sunset is tough. It is also a pain when it comes to screwing it onto the camera and removing it whenever not required. But it is excellent to achieve a subtle, plain background as it greatly narrows the depth of field. Images might turn too dark or soft with the use of TCs, but under ideal lighting, they can yield great results.
1. Tree Swallow
Exif: 10/3200sec F4.5 ISO100 at 78.00mm, TC
The above image of a Tree Swallow was made using a 1.7x TC attached to Sony H7 camera. It looks a little soft, but sharp enough to see details on the swallow’s feathers, with a rather subtle background of tall grass close behind. This is an ideal example that shows the effect of a TC, but what really kept this image from being too bright or too dark is the weather. Tree Swallows have highly reflective feathers, which shine under harsh sunlight. On that day, the light was well diffused to bring out the true colour of its feathers.

So you can see, weather plays a crucial role in point-and-shooting birds. Except in a few cases, a bright sunny day is mostly preferred over a cloudy sky. If it is too dark, you may have to increase the ISO, and anything beyond 400 (in case of my camera, 200) will lead to higher noise. Although this can be avoided by considerably lowering the shutter speed, this is likely to amplify the camera shake, leading to an out-of-focus photo. Let’s focus on the ideal conditions for now.
2. Cedar Waxwing
Exif: 10/5000sec F5.6 ISO200 at 78.00mm, TC
This image of Cedar Waxwing was made one early evening in March when the snow was slowly starting to melt. It was one of the rare moments when the sky was clear, the light perfect and the bird cooperative. Under such conditions, I keep the ISO under 200 and increase the shutter speed to be able to capture any movement, especially the flight. If the bird is curious, such as this Waxwing that came pretty close to check me out, stand still or stoop down while aiming for the bird. Any sudden movement can scare it away and if it is a flock, the entire flock will vanish in seconds.

Before we dive into the particulars of photographing birds, it is important to learn a few things as a dedicated naturalist and a concerned photographer. You may come across an opportunity to photograph a rare bird. It can be overwhelming to sight one, but it is important to keep our excitement from disturbing the bird. By keeping your movements slow, try to get photographs from as far as possible and leave it alone. Also, it is not recommended to reveal the location of an uncommon or rare bird to others (except perhaps a researcher) because such subjects are like magnets, and the more people flock to see it, more likely it is that the bird is disturbed from its preferred habitat. Likewise in case of nests, which one is more likely to stumble upon in the wilderness, always try to keep as much distance as possible so that the parent birds do not consider you a threat. In case of some birds, they will abandon the nests, eggs or even hatchlings if disturbed! You can easily photograph the parents feeding the chicks and observe how they take turns to incubate eggs from far a safe distance without the use of flash. If you accidentally stumble too close to a nest, always photograph without the flash. Using direct flash on hatchlings is strongly discouraged; hence always make sure to keep it off, even if it affects the quality of the photograph. It is also wise to keep the location of nests secret, as they are also likely to attract public attention. These are a few things any nature photographer must remember at all times.

Now let’s talk about a few main pointers while you’re out looking for birds. It is better to wear drab clothes that match the shades of earth – not super camouflaging clothes per se, but something that doesn’t make you stand out from the background. Keep quiet or talk in whispers so that you don’t spook the bird accidentally. If you see a bird perched nicely, but is too far out of the reach of your camera, take a few record shots before moving in. Don’t rush. Keep a low profile and make use of any shelter – a tree, bushes or thick undergrowth, so that the bird doesn’t notice you.
3. White throated Kingfisher
Exif: 1/160sec F4.5 ISO80 at 78.00mm, TC
The White-throated Kingfisher is a common bird of India, but they are very wary of humans therefore rather difficult to approach closer. One day, I was fortunate to see one perched on a Mango tree at the edge of a lake. I decided to stalk closer by hiding in tall grass. I took the cover of a large tree just behind its perch and made this photograph. This is the closest I could get to a Kingfisher. Although I am not satisfied with this photograph, thanks to the wayward branch that blocked the bird and the out-of-focus grass blade, I am glad I achieved eye contact with the bird (about which we’ll talk a little later). Although all these steps are easily learnt on occasional bird watching trips, as a photographer, you should always have your camera ready. Change the settings if you’re using Manual Setting before getting down to stalking. Keep your finger on the Shutter Release button and go for it. Also, don’t forget to remove the lens cover beforehand, because it is likely to happen in all the excitement!

Let’s take a detailed look at the Manual mode for different weather conditions while composing a photo:

P Dark weather poses a challenge to photograph birds using a point-and-shoot camera. It can be avoided by keeping the ISO of 400 or more, which may produce a noisy image, but these can serve the purpose of a record.
4. Catbird
Exif: 10/800sec F4.5 ISO400 at 78.00mm, No flash
I photographed this Eastern Catbird on a clear day, but the overgrowth was so thick that light barely reached the understory. Therefore, I had to boost the ISO in order to obtain this record shot. Under such conditions, it is inevitable to avoid image noise, but it is possible to reduce it to a bearable level.
5. Spotted Dove
Exif: 10/3200sec F4.5 ISO400 at 77.70mm, Flash
The image of the Spotted Dove was taken under similar conditions under dim light. In this photograph, you might notice lesser noise as compared to the Catbird. This is not because there is less clutter in the image, but because of the use of flash at the ISO at 400, which illuminated the bird and brought out more details. I wish I had taken a photograph of the Catbird with the use of flash, which would have helped rather conclusively that the flash on a point-and-shoot camera is not always useless on far-away objects. I use the flash at +2EV, the brightest flash setting which can be changed under Manual mode.

Although both these birds were pretty close, if not too far, the same technique can be used on birds 10 meters away. But only a strong flash won’t produce decent results, you need to have a lower F number (at about F4.5 to 5) and a slower shutter speed, so that the flash light that bounces back from the object is well received by the sensor in the camera. If the shutter speed is higher, the image is likely to turn dark. This technique doesn’t work while using a TC, since the TC blocks the light from the flash. In such a case, a homemade flash diffuser works well (about which we’ll talk in a few months). The use of flash however does not allow you to use the multiple frame mode.

P I always thought that sharp birds-in-flight images were impossible using a point-and-shoot camera. While this is not the case, it is indeed rather difficult to capture a bird in flight compared to a dSLR camera. If you’re out in the open, chances of photographing birds in flight are more. In order to do so, keep your zoom initially to a minimum (0x or 1x) and focus on the bird. Once you’ve spotted it on your viewfinder, keep tracing its path and zoom in gradually, and shoot away. It’s important to keep the “Multiple/Burst Frame mode” on so that you can capture multiple images per second.

When photographing birds in flight, shutter speed is most important – you don’t want it to be too slow, which will blur the bird, nor too fast, which might underexpose the image. The right shutter speed can be decided under the weather conditions. As always, a sunny day is always perfect while photographing birds in flight, since you can keep a higher shutter speed at a lower F number and lower ISO (ideally ISO 200). However, the position of sun is also important – always try to keep the sun to your back if you need a clear, bright image of the bird, or with the sun facing you, which works best for silhouettes.

Point-and-shoot cameras are not made for birds-in-flight photography because of their auto-focus. Once you focus on an object and press the shutter release button half way, the focus is locked in. Now if the object moves, the shutter speed will shoot only at its area in focus, thereby producing a blurry image since the object is not in the area-in-focus anymore. If you don’t get any image with the bird-in-flight in focus, try zooming out a little, I zoom out at about 10X instead of 15x, since it becomes easier to stalk the bird’s flight (see the image of the Bluebill).

P You will come across many occasions where the bird is sitting prettily on the ground with the undergrowth not too thick – especially near any wetland or coastal areas. If you see birds in such an area, lie down on your stomach and try for a ground-perspective photograph. This technique works well for ground dwelling, wetland and shore birds.
6. Dunlin
Exif: 10/3200sec F6.3 ISO100 at 78.00mm, TC
This Dunlin was photographed in the same way. By keeping a low profile, the birds are likely to consider you a lesser of a threat, giving you an increased chance to approach closer. Such a technique produces excellent results, especially with respect to subtle out-of-focus fore- and backgrounds. You are bound to get a dirty shirt, but the photograph is worth it!

P There are a few things that bird photographers absolutely adore. One is eye-contact with the bird, and the other a glint in their eye. While these two things are not always in our hands, the birds are often the first to spot you – giving you the eye-contact, and the sparkle in the eye can be captured if the sun is behind your back and facing the bird. The eye-contact is not always necessary, especially for images of birds engaged in some actions – whether calling, eating, or in flight, but if the bird is just standing there, as this super-cooperative Dunlin, the eye contact is catchy, and draws the viewer’s attention.

In case of the glint in the eye, called catch-light, it gives life to the rather dark eyes. Point-and-shoot cameras are not as good when it comes to capturing the minutest details, especially the eye colour, unless you’re too close to a bird. Thus the eye appears dull and underexposed, as in the image of the Tree Swallow, but a catch-light gives a sparkle to the eye, as can be seen in most other images displayed here. Therefore, personally, I find catch-light to give an additional charm to the image as a whole.

P To be artistic is every photographer’s right. If you’re out early during sunrise or late during sunset, don’t be depressed, there’s plenty of opportunity to capture silhouettes of birds! It may not be ideal when it comes to research purpose, but it sure dose make a great cover for the report!
7. Black Kite
Exif: 1/1000sec F8.0 ISO80 at 78.00mm
The image is of a Black Kite on an early morning. The sun had just risen in the opposite direction; hence I was facing the dark side of the bird. Such images are possible when the background is clear, either against the backdrop of the sky or any distant, light coloured object. It works best for any bird. In such instances, to bring out more contrast, increase the F number (at about F6) and decrease (slower) the shutter speed, at an ISO of about 80 or 100.

P On some excursions, I seriously considered using a tripod, but is it worth it? Most often, a tripod weighs more than any point-and-shoot camera; therefore it is likely to weigh you down on long treks. It is also easier to take hand-held photographs of birds, since maneuvering the camera on a tripod is not as effortless. Tripods are more suitable in conditions where the bird is stationary, since you get more time to compose the image, but the same image can be made without the tripod as well. A tripod is actually ideal for a dSLR camera with a long range lens since it helps you reduce the camera shake.

P There is a trick to bird photography using a point-and-shoot camera. We talked about using a magnifying lens to photograph minute objects in How to point-and-shoot Butterflies article, but in case of birds, you can use a telescope to photograph distant objects. This is called digiscoping. A Spotting-scope works well. Adjust the telescope to where the bird is. Place the lens over the telescope’s eyepiece, and photograph without zooming (at 0x). This trick works well with smaller point-and-shoot cameras since they have a smaller lens diameter. Some Spotting-scopes nowadays come with an adapter to place your camera onto, making it easier to photograph. It works well for birds that are stationary because the focus of the telescope is set to a fixed distance.

P Composing a bird photograph can increase the essence of the image. In my experience with this subject, I have had very little output with artistic compositions, since I almost always try to get the bird in the frame before it flies off, and then consider making compositions.

Only recently, I discovered that point-and-shoot cameras work really well while photographing birds in their habitat. This is the form of composition that many photographers overlook, since their primary focus is almost always the bird, but sometimes, you have to think differently. A bird image that equally emphasizes on its habitat speaks a lot more about that bird than a plain portrait of the bird. It is here that you can practice your artistic skills – by considering the weather conditions as well as the type of habitat.
8. Bluebill
Exif: 10/5000sec F4.5 ISO80 at 19.00mm
Point-and-shoot cameras, thanks to their wider range of zoom (from 2.8 to 78mm on my Sony H7) can be used to take wide-angle photographs. This means that you can have a sharp background along with the object you’re actually focusing on (here, a bird). Instead of zooming in, try zooming out (10x or less), and use the multiple frame burst option. This habitat photograph of a male Bluebill was taken similarly from a stationary boat.

When it comes to bird photography, you don’t have to travel far and wide, unless you’re looking for a specific bird, for you’ll find them all around you. One easy way to attract birds is to put out bird baits. Bird baiting attracts a variety of birds – from small passerines to raptors. Some professional photographers have also created natural perches with bird food on them to get excellent photographs. You can also visit local parks where birds are more tolerant to the people around.

Lastly, practice and practice! Photograph birds from your balcony or in your backyard – even photographing the commonest sparrows and crows will make you better at it.
9. Canada goose gosling
Exif: 10/4000sec F5.0 ISO80 at 78.00mm
In Canada, I had a great opportunity to photograph Canada Geese, which are very common and very people tolerant. It was with these birds that I practiced in my free time, trying out different compositions and tricks. During a round-up of a few hundred geese for bird banding at a local park, I photographed this gosling as it shook its head, protesting our presence.

Bird photography is not always about the pleasure of viewing. Many photographers have made images that have made a long lasting impression – not only as a piece of art, but also as a startling reminder that we need to protect them. The value of bird photography is in wildlife conservation and research, perhaps more than it is on the wall. It is a means to record evidence of the existence of birds in cases where the habitat is prone to be razed for development. It is a means to educate friends and families, so that next time they see a bird – they at least know its name. If you practice bird photography, do try to donate your images to NGOs with educational or conservation causes. Many Protected Areas lack photographs in their offices, try to approach them and donate yours, and you will ultimately help someone respect the natural world a little more.