Nigel Redman: A Birds of India Interview
Nigel Redman talks to Bikram Grewal about his birding experiences in India and shares his insights on publishing books for birders.
Nigel Redman. Nigel's portrait courtesy Birdquest
BIKRAM: What drew you to birds and how did your passion grow?
NIGEL: I have been interested in birds for as long as I can remember. I was writing descriptions of birds seen in my garden at the age of 7, and within a couple of years I was a fully-fledged birder. I started birding with a school friend and this friendship fuelled my interest. A few years later, a schoolmaster called Tony Holcombe did a lot to encourage our interest by taking us on our first birding trips to the coast, as well as regular Sunday morning outings to a local bird reserve. His enthusiasm and knowledge were truly inspiring. More than 40 years later, he lives only a few miles from me and we are still in touch!
What made you, an Englishman with no previous links with India, first decide to come here to watch birds?
It was the hippy trail, if I am completely honest! Several of my friends had travelled out to India and Nepal in the early 1970s, and I was desperate to do the same. But I wanted a legitimate reason to do it, so a birding friend called Chris Murphy (whom I had met in 1973) and I decided we would travel overland to India, but to watch birds. We set off in September 1978 and hitchhiked quickly through Europe. In Istanbul we joined a hippy bus that was heading out to India. We were on the bus for 3 weeks and left it in Kabul. We then spent a full month birding our way around Afghanistan before travelling over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Local buses took us to Amritsar and finally a train to Delhi. Here we bumped into a group of four English birders in a VW minibus (including Richard Grimmett and Frank Lambert), and for the next 3 months we all birded together in northern India and Nepal. Later Chris and I went to Thailand and then back to Nepal before we headed home. We had spent 10 months in Asia, watching birds almost every day, and had seen over 1000 species.
Where did you go on your first trip in India and what made you decide on that region?
Chris and I visited Harike near Amritsar on our way to Delhi and then spent a few days exploring Delhi and surrounding areas such as Sultanpur. Our primary focus on that first trip was Bharatpur, but we also visited Agra for the Taj Mahal of course. We didn’t see very much of India on that first visit as we were keen to get to Nepal. Chris and I then spent almost 5 months there! The Himalayas were the big attraction.
Is it true that it was you who found the Blue-fronted Robin in a spinach patch in Lava in North Bengal, and that resulted in making it a birding hotpot?
It’s partly true! Lava was already known as a good place to see birds, at least to a few, but I was lucky enough to find this skulking species in someone’s kitchen garden in Lava. The garden was right on the edge of a steep forested gully, so the robin could easily escape back to cover. It was a bird I had longed to see, having seen a great many Himalayan species by that time, and it was in that garden two days running at least. It’s quite possible that this sighting helped put Lava firmly on the birding map, though I hadn’t really thought about that before.
You have made several trips to India, over the years. What changes have you observed in the habitats?
I have visited India about a dozen times now since that first trip in 1978. It’s still a fabulous place for birds, but there are real pressures on its forests, wetlands and grasslands. It’s sad that Siberian Cranes no longer visit Bharatpur, and that Bharatpur suffers regular droughts. In Nepal the destruction of forests is truly heartbreaking. I haven’t been there for a few years now, but even when I was last there, I noticed considerable changes in the forest extent. But it’s not just habitats; two of the really big changes over the past 30 years are the catastrophic declines in numbers of Tigers and vultures. Both should have been entirely avoidable.
Which of all the birds you have seen in India is your favourite and why?
That’s a hard question! There have been so many highlights. Maybe the flock of Siberian Cranes at Bharatpur in 1978? It’s tragic that this population is on the verge of extinction.
And which ones are you still dying to see?
There are still too many! Rusty-bellied Shortwing comes to mind in particular. It was almost unknown in the days of my earlier trips, but was later found to be regular at Lava, once its song became known. It would complete the shortwings for my list! Then there are a number of eastern Himalayan birds that I still need, and Jerdon’s Courser…!
In a recent poll about most influential people in birdwatching, I saw your name pop up because of your being the natural history commissioning editor for A&C Black as well as Poyser. What do you make of it?
I have been in publishing for many years now, and I feel honoured to be in such a position. I love bird books, so what could be better than being closely involved in publishing them. I get to choose what to publish and who will write them, but most of all I spend my professional life working with the cream of world ornithology. Of course I did know quite a few of them before I got into publishing, which I suppose might have helped in getting the job!
You were great friends with Christopher Helm, the legendary publisher of bird books. Tell us as a little about him.
Christopher was an amazing polymath and a dear friend. He was highly intelligent with a wide range of interests that included cricket, opera, bridge, gardening, good food and wine, and of course birds. But he is best known as a visionary publisher. Most birders know of him for various groundbreaking bird books such as Seabirds and Shorebirds, followed by a raft of field and identification guides which bear his name, but he started out as a pioneering academic publisher who also dabbled in cricket and gardening books.
Wearing your publisher’s hat, you have been involved with many books on Indian birds. Your authors include Richard Grimmett, Tim and Carol Inskipp, Krys Kazmierczak and Rishad Naoroji. Are books about Indian birds good sellers?
Yes, they are. The Pocket Guide to Birds of the Indian Subcontinent has sold over 30,000 copies, and has spawned no fewer than six spin-offs. India is a popular destination for birders, but the books also sell well in India. Sales of Rishad’s Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent were more modest of course, but it was a groundbreaking book!
I understand that a new edition of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent is due soon. Are there any major changes in it?
Yes, a brand new edition will be published this autumn. It’s such a major revision that it’s almost a new book. There are many new species (some newly discovered, others as a result of taxonomic changes) and the text has been completely rewritten. Many of the plates have been replaced or repainted, and the maps are all new. Lastly, the whole book has been rearranged into a true field guide style with text and maps opposite the plates – and the sequence of families will be a more familiar one than before!
[Editor's note: A new edition was published in November 2011 after this interview was recorded]
You are yourself a popular author. Your book (with Simon Harrap) Where to Watch Birds in Britain was hugely successful. Any plans to do such a book on India?
Sadly not. I have no doubt it would sell, but India is a large country with many fantastic places to watch birds. It would need a huge book to cover it adequately. There is already A Birdwatcher’s Guide to India by Krys Kazmierczak and Raj Singh (not published by A&C Black!) but this is a little out of date now. Perhaps it is time for a new one…
Your new book (co-authored with Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe) Birds of the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra deals with an area that is politically disturbed in parts. Would only the armchair birder buy such a book?
Far from it! Ethiopia has been a popular destination for birders for many years and now, believe it or not, Somaliland (that’s the north-western part of Somalia) is just opening up as an accessible and safe area to visit. It’s true that few birders get to Eritrea, but hopefully that will change too in time. Actually, the book is not so new now. It was published almost two years ago, but the first edition is almost sold out. So I’m currently working on a revised edition for publication in the autumn.
Now wearing your hat as a bird-tour leader, you have visited many countries. Which one is your favourite and why?
I have many favourites. I must single out Kenya as perhaps the ultimate birding destination (where else can you see over 800 species in a 3-week trip, and see them all well!). But my all-time favourite place has to be Bhutan – such a beautiful country with fabulous birds, incredible scenery and delightful people. I can’t wait to return. But I can’t not mention places like Morocco, Russia, Ethiopia, Yemen and of course India and Nepal – they have all played a significant part in my life and are fantastic countries for birds.
Which bird would you like to see the most?
There are quite a few! Pink-headed Duck would be amazing, assuming it still exists.
Which country, which you haven’t been to, would you like to visit?
I need to see a lot more of South America. I have only really been to Venezuela, so Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or Argentina would all be very high on the list.
Any immediate plans to re-visit India?
Sadly, no, but I will be back one day.
Nigel, many thanks for talking to us. May your travels increase and you finally see the Rusty-bellied Shortwing!!