Jainy Maria Kuriakose is a familiar figure in the field of bird photography, her photographs acknowledged for their exquisite portrayal of avian ecology. Jainy ventured into the world of bird watching around a decade ago. Before long, this interest evolved into a deep passion, prompting her to leave her job at a major IT company in Bangalore and transition into a full-time bird photographer. Her journeys have taken her far and wide, spanning destinations as diverse as the arduous mountain terrains of Bhutan, to the dense rainforests of Papua New Guinea and the wetlands of Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Today, her photographs grace prestigious exhibitions, publications, and online platforms, inspiring both seasoned photographers and aspiring naturalists. In this interview, Sangeeta Sharma endeavours to trace Jainy Kuriakose’s journey and understand the elements that persistently fuel her passion and determination in this field.
Jainy, what led you to pursue photography and focus on birds? Was it a difficult decision to leave your corporate job?
I had a wonderful childhood in our family farmhouse in Kerala, a well-wooded place with several local fruiting trees, waterbodies and paddy fields. My grandmother used to tell me beautiful stories featuring Emerald Doves, Plum-headed Parakeets, Red-wattled Lapwings and Mottled Wood-owls, instilling a love for birds in me. Later, after completing my studies and securing my first job, I had many opportunities to learn about birds and their habitats. This rekindled my ingrained passion, and eventually, I had no qualms on giving up a corporate ambience.
Does bird photography necessitate any special knowledge or skills?
I don’t think that any specific skills or knowledge in birding or bird photography are required, to get started. We simply need to enjoy the process – the course of knowing a bird species, its habitat, behaviour, and tracking and finally photographing it. We learn as we progress along the road. Every birding experience should be an enriching one and should equip us with a new field tip or a skill.
What aspect of bird photography do you particularly enjoy and find inspiring?
I like the whole gamut associated with the activity of bird watching – right from considering the location to travel to, identifying the target species, the naturalist to work with, putting in efforts in the field to capture the desired species, and finally, the fruitful conversion to a beautiful photograph. The prospect of adding a new bird to my species list has always been a matter of sublime happiness to me. Thus, I enjoy birding, photographing, and twitching – all with the same level of passion. I draw my inspiration from the birds that I am yet to see, the terrains I am to yet to compass, and peoples’ cultures I am yet to relish.
What are the challenges associated with bird photography?
I believe I have been too focused to be bothered about facing challenges in bird photography. However, it is not easy to coordinate travels for targeted species, the main hurdle being obtaining relevant and authentic information on the location of the species. People used to be very secretive when it came to sharing the right information. Thus, in my early birding years, all I had was an invincible appetite and confidence that propelled me to see these avian wonders.
Can you share some interesting anecdotes from the field?
I have had several interesting experiences in my quest for birds. An unforgettable one is the sighting of a Blyth’s Kingfisher from Namdapha National Park in 2014. The only data point we had was a sighting recorded from the same area in 2004. We had to start the trek as early as 3 am, cover about 20 km, and cross the Namdapha River at two places on elephant back to reach the spot. Reaching the place at 2.30 pm, the local guide Japang ji and I waited on a riverside rock for possible sightings. Nearly an hour and a half elapsed without any activity, and as daylight waned, our time constraints grew more pressing. Just as I readied to leave, disheartened, the kingfisher suddenly streaked past me. I tracked its perch on a rock in the river, approximately 200 m away; I then navigated through slippery boulders to close the gap. The bird relocated to a branch hanging over the river, and I managed just enough to click a record shot of this coveted species. Four years later, I took a better photograph of the kingfisher at Pakke Tiger Reserve, but the memory of that first sighting remains indelible in my mind.
Another serendipitous sighting was that of the Yunnan Nuthatch from Walong in Arunachal Pradesh. Scant birding data was available from the area. Led by information from a researcher working on the flora of that region, we went to the ‘Helmet Top’ area. One of the first birds we saw there was the eastern subspecies of Koklass Pheasant. As we descended, we observed Black-browed Bush-tits and Godlewski’s Buntings, before stumbling upon a flock of nuthatches, chirping and gleaning grubs. As I clicked away, Chewang (my naturalist) and I conferred about all possible identification pointers, but we could not match it to any nuthatch species, eluding even the field guide. On reaching Bangalore, I immediately checked with the Oriental Bird Images database, and discovered that it was the Yunnan Nuthatch. It was the first sighting for India, and this led to adding Walong to the Indian birding map.
You have explored a vast array of bird species spanning the globe. Which bird would you hold special?
Of all the birds I have photographed from India and other countries, my favourite remains the elusive Western Tragopan. It is one of the rarest living pheasants, and is extremely range restricted. The sighting of this resplendent bird after immense hard work evoked an unmatched emotion – the only bird sighting that has teared me up so far. One of the pictures that I clicked of this beautiful bird made it to the cover page of the prestigious journal BirdingASIA.
What changes have you observed in the birding world since you took up bird photography?
In the initial years when I started birding, good naturalists and bird guides were quite few and far between. Photographic records available were very limited for most species, and traveling to unexplored places for many species presented a challenge. Things have improved manifold since then. Today, technological advances in gear and equipment have made significant progress in terms of light weighting, with excellent ISO performance and the flexibility to shift between still and video modes. eBird has also revolutionised birding globally, becoming the go-to platform for many birders for sightings documentation.
What would be your advice to budding bird photographers?
I would like to urge budding bird photographers to follow their heart and passion. It is a relaxing and therapeutic activity that inculcates patience and perseverance. One should be willing to learn from other birders and photographers, developing a unique style of one’s own at the same time. Also, in this age of social media, it is very important to stay focused and not get distracted by ‘likes and hits’. We should endeavour to be humble and respect wildlife with the utmost reverence. Bird photography, to a great extent, is subjective as well – what is ethical for one may not be the same for the other. From my personal experience over these years, I can say that I have bettered my approach and perspectives in the field. I have always tried to stay away from nest photography that could prove detrimental to the species. My usage of playback calls, if at all, is also with extreme discretion. I have worked with several good naturalists and bird guides across India, and I do not think anyone would have a concern against me on that front.
How do you think photographers can contribute to the conservation of nature and wildlife?
Photography is a very powerful tool to augment nature and wildlife conservation efforts. While vivid visual content generates a ‘wow’ factor in viewers, it could also sensitise them towards the nature and environment they live in. Photographers travel to far-flung areas for birds and wildlife, and this helps spread significant awareness among the local people who are the custodians of the wildlife in their area. Engaging local guides and drivers, paying for food and accommodation etc. generate a steady income for the local people. This could open further avenues to address various conservation issues.
What are your future plans?
Narcondam Islands in the Andaman & Nicobar archipelago is one place that I would really love to travel to, in India. It is the only place to see the Narcondam Hornbill, which probably would be one of the last hornbill species left for me to observe in India. I have been trying to get there for the past ten years and not been very successful due to various reasons. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to see these beautiful birds soon.