An author must be reasonably old is the general assumption. But Ramit Singal, a lanky, soft-spoken youngster is an exception. He became an author at a very young age of 22, when he published his book – A Birder’s Handbook to Manipal.
At an age, when most other youngsters would be busy working hard to build their careers in the corporate world, Ramit, an engineer, went to pursue his interest in wildlife with passion. He currently is involved in surveying the not so well known laterite landscapes of the region and disseminating the findings among people to create awareness through various channels. For his efforts, he was conferred the Carl Zeiss Award recently.
JLRExplore talks to Ramit Singal about his work and more.
Trying to spot birds during Amur Falcon surveys in Umrangso, Assam in November 2013
- When and how did bird watching begin?
It’s hard to remember now. My father gifted me the Collins’ Birds of India by Martin Woodcock when I was 12 or 13 and I recall using it to identify birds (without binoculars) in Chail, Himachal Pradesh in 2004. But I reckon it was only about 2 years later when dad took up bird photography and we got a fast internet connection (and hence, access to email-based birding forums) at home that I began to take it seriously.
- How was the transition from Delhi to Manipal for you?
Quite interesting! Culturally, there is a huge difference between the two places. The weather was a big change also – with a lot more rain and incredible amounts of humidity! It was nice to be able to go alone and explore the areas around my campus, meet locals and engage other students who had never tried birding as a hobby.
The birds and birding were different too. This was my first time in South India as a birder, so it was great – I kept getting lifers! Getting used to blue skies, lush forests, easy access to the Ghats and the coast was the best part. However, I did face some difficulty in trying to learn how to watch birds in densely forested regions, and only in Manipal did I truly understand and learn how to bird “by the ear”.
Ramit on a typically hot and humid birdwalk in Manipal
- Please tell us about your book on the birds of Manipal.
One of the things that was very different in Manipal, as compared to Delhi, was that there was no record-keeping or documentation of the birdlife in the region. So, I was very intent on keeping proper lists and notes of everything I saw and observed. The birding community in Manipal was in its nascent stages when Prabhakar Sastri, a mentor and guide to me, encouraged me to present the documentation to Manipal University Press to get it published. It was designed to be an atlas – each species accompanied by a map showing breeding and occupancy data, a calendar to show seasonal variations as well as general details about the species, its behaviour and notes on its distribution in Manipal.
At the time, the book was supposed to act as a documentation to provide baseline data to anyone who wished to work on the avifauna of the region later. It was very nice to know that it became the “choice” field guide for several people in Manipal.
At the release of “A Birder’s Handbook to Manipal” alongside Manipal University’s Vice Chancellor Dr. VinodBhat – Apr 2013
- Currently, you are doing some work with support from Rufford Small Grants. Can you tell us some more about this?
While in Manipal, I especially fell in love with the laterite landscapes of the region when I studied here. Unfortunately, even in the four years I was in college – I saw over half of the original grassland and scrub around the town taken over for construction and mining. I wanted to do an exploratory search to find out what all this habitat played host to with regards to birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. The project is in place currently to conduct the surveys and disseminate the information through workshops in schools and colleges as well as via social media. I try and engage as many locals and college students in the project and give them job roles that will hopefully also be relevant in their career of choice.
Ramit and the team taking a break from surveys in the laterite grasslands around Manipal
- You are a part of the team that worked on an audio guide to the amphibians of the Western Ghats. How did you get involved in this effort?
Mandookavani happened completely by chance. Gururaja KV and his team asked me to contribute a couple of frog call recordings. I happen to enjoy frogging “by the ear” also – it is an easy, non-invasive method of identifying frogs and I have been recording frog calls for two years now. As it happened, I had a bunch of recordings that were not part of the original list for Mandookavani. So, I sent them across too. As such, I never intended on getting involved but I am very thankful to Guru, Ramya, Seshadri and Sudhira for involving me instead!
At the release event for Mandookavani with Dr. Subramanya and co-authors Gururaja KV, Seshadri KS, Ramya Badrinath in April 2015
- You are among the youngest recipients of the prestigious Carl Zeiss Award for your contribution to conservation. Your thoughts?
It has been incredibly hard to wrap my head around it. Honestly, I still feel very overwhelmed and to receive an award that has previously been received by some of the best in India is an absolute honour. It feels great to have my work acknowledged by anyone – and this is extra special. It encourages me to move forward, and strengthens my resolve to grow and continue doing the work I am doing at the moment.
Receiving the Zeiss Conservation Award from Sh. Suresh Prabhu, Railway Minister of India in April 2015
7. You are an active member of the e-Bird community. What according to you is the importance of such documentation?
Citizen Science is something that fascinates me a lot. I was first introduced to the concept through Migrant Watch and since then, it has been heartening to see a number of projects on various subjects take up the movement. eBird is an extension of the same and while initially I got on board with the intent of just adding whatever I could to the database, I now value it much more for the way it presents the same data. The relative standardisation of data and integrated maps, lists, tracking makes it such a nice tool to use for birders and scientists both!
- Can you share one memorable experience from your time in the field with us?
There have been many! Recently, I was tracking leopards using their scat for evidence along one particular stretch (Alas! Laterite surfaces don’t allow pugmarks) using my (one and only) camera trap. After about two months of trying to map out routes, I returned to the trap one morning and was thrilled to find not one, but three leopards captured on the camera. They were a female and her two cubs – all less than half a kilometre away from habitation in Manipal. That felt brilliant.
- What is your most favourite place in India to watch birds? Is there any place you wish to travel to?
As a birding site, I really enjoyed DihingPatkai WLS in Assam, but nothing compares to the feeling of having a good birding session in Manipal or in the fields and wetlands around Delhi.
I haven’t visited as many places as I’d like and I would love to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the near future.
Hiking through the dense forests around Cherrapunji, Meghalaya in October 2013
- You are an engineer turned bird specialist turned amphibian expert. How has this journey been?
It’s been fun although I doubt I am either a specialist or an expert in either engineering or birds or frogs. I was never much of an engineer, and my interest in most subjects waned with time. All the while, however, I was becoming a better birder each day. When there were no birds, I would start noticing other things around me – amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, flowers, etc; though I wasn’t any good with any of them. It was only when I got a chance to work with Centre for Wildlife Studies in a team comprising of ShashankDalvi and Vishnupriya that I started to learn more about amphibians (and a lot of other things also, including birds). It was entirely their willingness and enthusiasm to share knowledge that has now turned me into a person who looks at birds when there are no frogs to look at.
The best part of the whole experience has been that it has always felt so diverse and new. I still know very little and it is exciting to know there is much more to learn.
Photographing the Dancing Frogs in the forests of Coorg, Karnataka
- Birdwatching, writing a book, studying frogs – who inspired you along the way?
I look for inspiration everywhere. My free-spirited and sincere family has always been a source of inspiration. Over the years, I have learnt immensely from birding with Abhijit Menon-Sen, Shashank Dalvi, Saurabh Sawant and the fantastic people from birding clubs in Delhi and Bangalore. In Manipal, my mentors and friends – Prabhakar and Savita Sastri are people I look up to all the time. I’ve been fortunate to have had the company of the likes of Krithi Karanth, Dhritiman Mukherjee, Ramki, Subramanya, Gururaja KV et. al. at various points of my life. Everything has played its part in some way or the other – from Gerald Durrell and his books to the many kids and students who share their aspirations, joy and optimism with me.
- What next? What more surprises can we expect from ?
Haha, I am not sure yet. I want to do a lot of things but nothing concrete is planned as of now. I am currently focused on ensuring that birdwatching and conservation-based activities in Manipal keep growing sustainably. Meanwhile, I am always keen on taking up projects that interest me and I can allow time for.