New Delhi: It began with parakeets, the brash, busybody rose-ringed parakeets of Delhi, with their lipstick red beaks and their irrepressible chatter, gossiping in the crevices of 15th-century tombs.
Then one morning while I drank coffee, a shimmering blue-black sunbird came to drink nectar in my garden. At twilight one day, I looked up to see a hornbill perched on a neighbor's tree. An interview with the prime minister of India was repeatedly interrupted by the calls of a cantankerous peacock in his garden.
And so went my discovery of the birds of India. It was an accumulation of accidental discoveries. A friend in Mumbai recommended that I check out the flamingos dancing in the stinky, mucky mud flats of Sewri. Then one day, not far from the Taj Mahal, a pair of sarus cranes, the tallest flying bird in the world, stood in a shallow pond. On a trip to the outsourcing hub of Bangalore, I was urged to drive off the highway to see pelicans roosting in banyan trees. And trekking across the Himalayan plateau called Ladakh one summer, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a black-necked crane flying across a still blue lake.
Most improbably of all, on a trip back to that clattering, honking, riotous city called Calcutta, where I was born, I woke up one morning to songbirds.
From the cold lakes of the Himalayas to the sand dunes of western Rajasthan to the tropical rain forests in the south, India hosts a dizzying variety of birds, like a dizzying variety of everything else. Residents and visitors, common and rare, more than 1,200 species have been recorded in India, which puts it somewhere between the United States (just under 900 recorded species) and Colombia (more than 1,800 species).
Several bird species in India are, however, endangered and their habitats are increasingly threatened, as this rapidly modernizing nation expands roads, mines and steel plants into environmentally sensitive areas. It helps that farming is done largely without the thrashers and tractors that ravage nests in more industrialized countries. Most of all, it helps that birds, just like millions of Indians, adjust to difficult conditions: They roost on rooftops. They hide their chicks in rice paddies. They fly away when they must.
"We think of nature as pristine," said K S Gopi Sundar, an Indian ornithologist who studies cranes. "But it's amazing what nature can do."
Birding has taken me to some of the most extraordinary landscapes in this country - mangroves and desert, rain forest, cloud forest, mountains and miles and miles of coast.
But even in ordinary surroundings, birding has taught me to appreciate the rewards of being still. You hear a call. You look for a flutter. Suddenly something astonishing comes. And then goes.
What follows is a sampling of birding spots in North and South India. (The northeast and the Andaman Islands, two of India's most important but least accessible birding areas, must be left for later.)
In an age of so much inconsequential tweeting, it's worth recalling the advice of yogis: Sit still, they say, so still that a bird can land on your head.
North India: Delhi, Rajasthan, Himalayas
India's crowded, boorish capital is an improbable haven of birds - and a natural place to linger for a few days, before venturing out to the wilds of the north.
In city parks, hoopoes and hornbills are plentiful; the haunting call of the koel can break the stillness of a muggy afternoon. Owls are everywhere. And on the flood plains of the Yamuna River, now a filthy drain that swallows the sewage of Delhi, a city of an estimated 18 million inhabitants, sits one of North India's richest nature reserves, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary. At daybreak one scorching Monday at the end of May, I persuaded Mr. Sundar, the ornithologist, to take me there. A flock of garganey ducks was still hanging around before making its way to northern China. A purple heron - "rakish, with long thin neck" in the words of the Oxford "Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent" - landed in a clump of water hyacinth.
Mr. Sundar pointed to a tailorbird stitching its delicate, egg-shaped basket of a nest. In a bird version of "MasterChef," if you will, the males of the species compete to construct the finest nest. The female chooses a nest (and nest-maker) of her liking.
Winter is the best time to visit Okhla, particularly for water birds: storks, flamingos, geese that can fly over Mount Everest. But even in the peak of summer - not exactly prime birding season - Mr. Sundar pointed out at least 20 species over the course of two hours: a yellow-footed pigeon, an oriole, a pair of partridges that waddled across the road just as we drove out.
The road out of Delhi offers three distinct birding habitats: plains, desert and hill. The first option: Hire a car from Delhi and take an extra couple of days on the well-trodden trail connecting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur to visit Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, the former duck-hunting grounds of maharajas and now the country's best-known bird park.
If you're spending a day in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, drive two hours to Bharatpur by nightfall and retire early. There are a variety of inns within a mile or two of the sanctuary - as well as a spartan state-run lodge right inside the park. The Birders Inn, where I spent one Christmas Eve, offers clean, unremarkable rooms encircling a pretty garden. The Laxmi Vilas is a renovated 19th-century palace. No matter where you stay, the real charm of Bharatpur is to wake up before dawn and head into the park. Songbirds stir themselves awake. Sambar deer come to drink at a pond. Painted storks spread their pink-dipped wings and alight from their roosts.
If the rains are good and Keoladeo's lakes are full, the park in winter can host close to 400 species.
A road trip across the North Indian plains usually takes you along a noisy highway, past fields, markets and truck stops. But if you time it right (mornings and evenings are when birds are most likely to reveal themselves), you may well spot the sarus crane in a paddy field, standing nearly five feet tall on spindly pink legs. It is considered good luck for a newlywed couple to see a sarus on their wedding night. Locals believe the sarus mates for life. This is probably apocryphal. But how can seeing a sarus on your honeymoon be anything but a boon?
A second option takes you to the Kumaon Hills, a favorite of many birders because it covers such a wide variety of landscapes: the grasslands and gently rolling hills of Corbett National Park, the alpine woods just above, and then, farther up into oak and rhododendron forests that stretch up to an elevation of 8,000 feet. The rhododendron blooms from February to April, painting the forest red and drawing flocks of nectar-thirsty warblers. The village of Pangot, at about 6,500 feet, is a decent base from which to explore the hills.
The drive up the razorback hills to Pangot is a tricky venture. You may be rewarded by the sight of the reclusive cheer pheasant crossing the road. But you might also find that unseasonal rains have shut the road for fear of landslides. My one trip to Pangot, at what I thought was the tail end of a monsoon, was blanketed by rain. The tour group I used, Asian Adventures, did not warn me in advance of the roads or the rain, and I spent a wet weekend cooped up in a cabin in their Jungle Lore lodge without much electricity; the power was out, and soon the generator conked out too.
In all that rain and wind, the birds hid from view. But they couldn't hold back their song. As I walked through the forest during an early morning dry spell, they sang and sang, like a choir performing for a blind woman in the mist. My guide could identify each bird by its call. A pair of rufous sibias screeched at each other from across the trees. A gray-headed canary-flycatcher trilled. White-throated laughingthrush giggled like schoolgirls. "Birdsongs," says the blind narrator of "To the Wedding," a novel by John Berger, "remind me of what things once looked like."
The wind shook the rain off the trees. Two men, their bald pates shining, walked slowly up the gravel road, hands clasped behind their backs. The smoke of cooking fires rose up through the dark, damp forest. This is one of the great rewards of birding: In searching for birds, you end up hearing, seeing, smelling a great deal more.
In pursuit of a less rustic sensory feast, I went this winter to a luxury camp, Chhatra Sagar Nimaj, erected on the banks of a dam in parched western Rajasthan. I woke up before sunrise to the twitter - "see here, see here" - of a small, reclusive gray francolin. Mist hung above the water as I stepped out of my tent. Terns dived in for fish. A cormorant sat on the steps of the dam, jerking its neck forward and back, as if peering into the future, and then nervously turning right back to the past - or, more likely, just hunting for fish.
Even if not a storied birding destination, Chhatra Sagar can be a lavish one for the senses. A hundred years ago, a local Rajput noble known as Thakur Chhatra Singh dammed a stream that ran through his fields to store Rajasthan's most precious resource: water. Ten years ago, his descendants cleverly leveraged it to draw tourists.
The reservoir, full this year, thanks to good rains, is the centerpiece of the resort. Thirteen spacious tents face the water, including two that sit on a nearby hill.
On a guided walk along a dirt trail that encircles the reservoir, I could see through my binoculars a flock of bar-headed geese pecking at the grass on the far edge of the water. An antelope, known in Hindi as nilgai, ambled ahead of us on the path; it had lost one of its horns, presumably in a neelgai version of a barroom brawl. At night, from my tent, I heard jackals.
At sundown, a full bar was laid out under the stars. An inventive kitchen created a meal for a spice-averse Western palate: peas dipped in coriander pesto and a local delicacy of smoked, lightly curried lentil cakes. The spacious tents were equipped with space heaters, often fired by a generator, I later learned, because the electricity supply here, as in much of rural India, remains erratic.
Guests are served bottled water, a common amenity in luxury hotels in India, but excessive, it seemed to me, in a place where locals use and re-use everything nature gives them. (Properly filtered water is safe to drink across India.) And the service was characterized by too much ritual servility for my liking. Waiters bowed, holding trays laden with juice and rose petals, and a porter was deployed to haul a scope and guidebook during our walk, along with bottled water.
Western Ghats: Goa and Kerala
The Western Ghats is a mountain chain that runs nearly 1,000 miles parallel to the Arabian Sea, from just above Mumbai to the tip of the Indian peninsula. It contains craggy hills, tropical evergreens and several rivers that pour down into peninsular India. So rich is its variety of birds, snakes, frogs and butterflies that the Western Ghats is considered a global biodiversity hot spot in urgent need of conservation. Mining poses the greatest threat.
"You pick any spot in the Western Ghats," said Rajah Jayapal, an ornithologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in India, "and you will see no less than 300 species."
The Western Ghats also run through two of India's most popular tourist destinations: Goa and Kerala.
Goa is a treasure trove of birds. There are shorebirds, forest birds, birds that forage in the mud flats along the Zuari River, great raptors that hover over paddy fields. I have spent entire mornings in a friend's garden doing nothing but listening to bird songs: orioles, coppersmith barbets, Malabar trogons.
But the richer bird habitat in the Western Ghats lies in Kerala. Like the Kumaon range, it offers a variety of landscapes. You can fly into the spice coast port city of Cochin, drive past paddy fields and within two hours reach a low-altitude deciduous forest. After a day or two here, you can take a narrow, winding highway to highland cloud forests near Munnar. Then, a half-day's drive east and you're in the Indira Gandhi National Park in the Annamalai Hills, with its tropical wet evergreens that shelter the great hornbill.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I went with friends to the edges of the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, a mosaic of 11 habitats packed into about 50 square miles about a two-hour drive from Cochin. Salim Ali, India's most famous ornithologist, identified Thattekkad as having one of the richest concentrations of bird diversity in the country. But alas. The sanctuary was closed when I went - a fact disclosed by the tour operator, Kalypso Adventures, only after I had already reached its camp.
At the Hornbill Camp on the banks of the Periyar River, the tents were clean and comfortable, with a pair of lounge chairs on the porch, facing the river. Unwittingly, our visit coincided with one of Kerala's most important Hindu pilgrimage seasons. So, at 5 a.m., I was jarred awake not by songbirds but by Hindu hymns blasting from loudspeakers at a nearby temple.
The clouds hung low as we drove uphill into the forest that morning. We parked and walked, following the droppings of elephants that must have passed by earlier that morning. A pair of white-bellied treepies flew ahead.
The Malabar parakeets - smaller and screechier than their cousins in Delhi - flitted through the forest. We watched three hill mynahs fly overhead when we heard the long, lilting song of the Malabar whistling thrush. We found the thrush, nearly as black as a crow, with a streak of blue across its head, sitting in a tree, just below a woodpecker. Our guide, Jijo Mathew, reckoned the thrush was happy to be singing like this. I couldn't argue. So was I.
Late in the day, as darkness crept over a grove of ailanthus, Mr. Mathew extracted an MP4 player from his backpack, hooked it up to a small, plastic Radio Shack speaker and played an unusual track: the territorial call of a jungle owlet, going "kook, kook," like a terrified kitten, drowning the silence of the forest.
The trick worked. Being territorial creatures, an owlet is irked by another owlet in its lair. And so, just as Mr. Mathew had intended, the recorded call prompted a real jungle owlet - indeed barely bigger than a kitten, with big curious owl eyes - to reveal itself. It fluttered in the trees. Then it came and sat on a branch right in front of us. Owlet stared long and hard. We stared long and hard back.
The forest soon grew dark. Owlet disappeared from view. Mr. Mathew dug into his bag of tricks and pulled out a flashlight. He shone the light across the forest, searching for small, bright eyes in the dark.