If one looks up ‘birdwatching in Sikkim’ on Google, they’ll find a variety of results that range from blogposts by non-locals who gush over the natural beauty and the species that call the thick forests their home to tourist websites that offer packages solely for this activity.
It may even surprise many to know that Salim Ali, the most famous ornithologist of India once visited Sikkim to illustrate a book on Sikkim’s avifauna. Usha Lachungpa, a retired Principal Chief Research Officer at FEWMD and a founder member of the Sikkim Ornithological Society wrote a piece on the connection that Salim Ali and the Bombay Natural History Society had with the state which can be found here.
In spite of these results online, birdwatching as an activity has been hugely underrated in Sikkim. Here, a niche crowd of nature lovers have taken it up to educate themselves and those who are interested in hiking long trails to chance upon one glimpse of avifauna that is native to the state. Further, some religiously follow the flight of feathered friends they admire, whether it be in city parks or in dense forests and go so far as to chronicle their movement and presence via writing or photography.
Rozan Dhungel, an avid birdwatcher started as a bird guide in 2016, in his village which was listed as an eco-tourism spot. He recalls that in the beginning, he didn’t know the English names of birds or their scientific species since he was familiar only with the local birds and their names in Nepali.
He says that at the learning stage he found it difficult to find the English names of the birds so he decided to follow different Facebook pages to learn more.
Currently, he has created social media pages for those who wish to learn about or have a passion for birdwatching or bird photography. He says that this helps those who get confused when they find similar-looking birds at different altitudes but are different species. He regularly posts photos and videos containing information on the birds he captures through his photography and posts them to help other nature lovers.
When it comes to environmentalism and becoming an environmental activist, he’s of the opinion that it isn’t something exclusive only to those who have participated in big campaigns and believes that anybody can become one. However, he wishes he could become an environmental policymaker to further the cause for nature in the halls of the man-made.
But is there a bigger purpose for birdwatching? “Definitely. It is a major indicator to determine the direction of the flow of human civilization”, says Dhungel. Adding to this, he feels that it is important for everyone to take environmental protection and climate change seriously. “This is not only for the younger generation but important for everyone. To protect, we should first know its value and I suggest that if schools schedule one extra class for children on the importance of nature, then it would be a good step”.
Observing winged creatures isn’t limited to birds though. Sikkim is home to more than 700 species of butterflies, whose diversity has been aided by the state’s signature organic farming. Except very few venture into butterfly watching or even consider it seriously. But not Nosang Limboo.
Nosang Muringla Limboo, known also as ‘The Butterfly Man’, first discovered his love for nature as a student studying English Literature in college. Nature in poetry and how it was depicted fascinated him and once he graduated, he decided to experience this physically instead of only in theory.
“I took up photography soon after and while doing this, I met a field biologist called Tarun from Bangalore who was here to study Sikkim’s butterflies. I travelled with him as his agent, since we had just opened up a travel company. At the end of the tour, I realized I had taken photos of more than 200 species from three districts – South, East and North. I began to grow more interested so later I went to the West district myself, to photograph more butterflies. I walked throughout because there were no cars or bikes at my disposal,” says Nosang.
“Tarun had taught me the basics of photographing and identifying butterflies. There is a certain technique to photographing them since there are two angles one has to take the pictures from. Once the photos were taken, it was time to identify them and that was a bit difficult but I looked up for further information on the internet and came across a book that was physically accessible in the state library, which helped me.”
Nosang’s compiled work was self-published in October 2013, which was dedicated to the coming generation. After this, he got involved with the Sikkim Ornithological Society, the only registered organization in Sikkim for the conservation of birds.
“What made me sad later was the realization that our state’s butterflies interested people outside the state more than the locals. I was ashamed because it is something we should know”, says Nosang. “We have ancestral and traditional knowledge of our environment but we need to upgrade it. We need scientific knowledge too. Plus there is a lack of sense of belonging in our people. So we need more awareness and that is why SOS organizes independent events in places like Okhrey, Kitam, Uttarey etc. We do it in a big manner so that other people also take note and want to do it by themselves.”
Since the virus doesn’t seem to go away soon, it may interest people to look outwards and find that observing things in their natural habitat could be an activity that can be nurtured even while sitting at home or walking to a nearby forest or park. Not only would it decrease built-up stress but maybe, just maybe, it would ignite a flame for protecting one’s flora and fauna.
People like Nosang and Dhungel discovered their passion for environmental protection and conservation through interaction with nature. That should be reason enough for people to consider the idea of connecting with their natural environment in a way that increases knowledge of local species and also serves as a break from concrete structures.
The pandemic has given many people a reason to sit outside their homes and observe their surroundings, with the most familiar being avifauna. Some people began keeping out grains of rice or leftovers for birds when human interaction became low. This happened with stray animals on the streets too. Some began to find their green fingers and invested in gardening.
There is something to be said about the distance from people bringing one closer to nature, in whatever form it may come. Whether one takes a solitary hike through Tinjurey or simply sits on their balcony in a Gangtok townhouse watching birds flit through the air or watches a butterfly dance around a houseplant, there is a moment when the worries of viruses and traffic and vaccinations die down and everything feels quiet, everything seems at peace.