Photograph of a galaxy frog from the field guide. Photo: David Raju.
When you hold a good field guide in your hands, you get this exhilarating feeling – of the anticipation of discovering some of the amazing creatures so beautifully depicted in the book, the excitement of finding them in that niche the author has so well described.
I got the same feeling when as a youngster I received my first copy of The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali. I can never forget the smell of the pages of that tattered second-hand book. I used to keep that book next to me in bed and dream of all the beautiful birds illustrated in the book – the ruddy sheldrake, the pharaoh’s chicken, the pheasant-tailed jacana, the scarlet minivet…
Such is the power of good field guides, and I had a similar experience when I first laid my hands on the immaculate Photographic Field Guide: Wildlife of South India, authored by Surya Ramachandran and David Raju.
Reading through it, my mind was flush with images of the Nilgiri forest lizard, the Hampi rock gecko, the Nagarjunasagar grass skink, the Madurai shieldtail, the water-drop bush frog, the Cochin forest cane turtle… The list of these incredible creatures is endless, and this book brought so many of them alive, and will no doubt do so for any keen nature and wilderness enthusiast. With this book, anyone can go exploring their backyard to discover and marvel at all these extraordinary animals.
Photographic Field Guide has a top-notch print quality and paper, making it stand out in the small niche of nature guidebooks in India. Its design is excellent and thoughtful, pleasing to the eye and makes liberal use of images – an astounding 1,800 of them. To an exploring enthusiast like me at least, the cover image of a surprised melanistic leopard and her partner gazing intently into the camera is utterly captivating.
Unlike with most other books, a field guide’s physical properties are also important. This book is sized just right, to hold and leaf through the 360 pages when on the move. It weighs just about one kilogram, and is quite practical to be tucked away in your backpack and actually used in the field.
There are many chapters that different readers may find interesting; here are some that caught my eye.
The chapter on ‘Topography and Rainfall’ has excellent maps. I especially liked the rainfall map with its blue tones denoting the quantum of rainfall across South India. The map showing the physical features could have been better detailed, with the Palghat and Shencottah gaps prominently depicted, as the distribution of many species, especially amphibians, are divided by these gaps. I also felt the Moyar gorge and B.R. hills could have been shown on this map, and even Mullayanagiri, which at 4,956 feet is Karnataka’s highest mountain.
The chapter on ‘Mammals’ has a good identification key, as well as lovely pictures, especially of elusive creatures like the honey badger, pangolin and mouse deer. My favourite section is of the almost forgotten bats and ignored mice. I really liked the dark background for the bats and the blue for the coastal mammals. Even the pictures of the smaller or lesser mammals like the Nilgiri marten are good, although pictures of the smooth-coated otter and stripe-necked mongoose could have been better, considering the authors have set such high standards!
I also liked the cameo appearances of the Toda buffalo and the sketch of the Malabar civet by Sathyan Meppayur.
My biggest grouse here is about the dhole getting only one fifth of a page while the gaur and the leopard get half a page each, and the Nilgiri tahr gets an entire page. The dhole, one of India’s most charismatic and endangered large predator species, deserves better, one would think!
In addition, the ‘best viewing’ parts seem rather arbitrary. For example, the ‘best viewing’ for the wolf is listed as Rollapadu, where wolves disappeared from long ago, and Bidar, an entire district. The same is true for the sites the authors recommend for spotting tigers.
The chapter on ‘Birds’ has excellent pictures overall, but specially of ducks, crakes and pelagic birds. I for one didn’t know we had so many pelagic birds off India’s coast, like frigate birds, storm petrels, skuas, etc. and which I thought one could spot in faraway areas like the Arctic and the Antarctic. I also loved the sections on terns and gulls (two pages each), raptors, nightjars and woodpeckers, with most males and females depicted in pairs in a single frame – potentially useful for amateurs in the field.
I also loved the sections on sholakilis and chilappans, of which many readers can learn from this book. The sections on warblers, wagtails and rare flycatchers are also likely to be helpful.
The chapter ‘Butterflies’ provides a good introduction, including highlighting the threat of collectors, which is often ignored, to the accompaniment of some lovely pictures. My favourite portion is about the Malabar tree nymph. I can’t forget the time when I saw six or eight of them in Dandeli, floating like mythical nymphs in a bamboo glade.
I also really liked the section on evening browns, bush browns and the rings, as well as beautiful pictures of the sailors, pierrots, blues, silverlines, banded awls, bobs, swifts and darts. The large photos of skippers do ample justice I thought to these otherwise diminutive butterflies.
The section on ‘Dragonflies and Damselflies’ highlights the marvel of migration of the globe skimmers, with amazing pictures of these beautiful but often ignored creatures – even by naturalists’ standards. It’s relatively easy to get good pictures of butterflies that are in any case beautiful and found in good light, but getting good pictures of dragonflies is very challenging. So the lovely images are sure to make readers fall in love with these dainty creatures. I really wonder how these photographers managed to get pictures of these high-canopy flying specialists. There are also similarly nice sections on the blue coloured marsh hawks and red dragonflies.
Some of my favourite sections of the entire book are in the chapter on ‘Reptiles’: geckos, skinks and shieldtails. The amazing pictures and species descriptions here incorporate the latest taxonomic research and can excite any naturalist, motivating them to look for these enigmatic creatures.
You don’t have to venture into national parks and contend with frustrating restrictions to spot most geckos and skinks. At the same time, some are highly range-restricted – like the Meghamalai rock gecko, which is found only between the Palghat and Shencottah gaps. Add to them the excitingly named Dravidogeckos – the Wayanad dravidogecko, supposedly found only in Lakkidi village in Kerala. I am catching the next bus to Wayanad!
This said, the ‘Further reading and references’ section is too exhaustive – to the point of being overkill, perhaps.
Finally, it would be great to have a small section on spiders as well as one on trees. Ramachandran and Raju could cover only the main flowering forest trees if they wish, especially since trees already have the attention of visitors to wildlife parks. It will also be useful to have a measuring scale on the end cover to help explorers make quick measurements in the field.
In all, Photographic Field Guide is a beautifully produced book and sets without a doubt a high benchmark for such publications in India and Asia. Ramachandran and Raju have done a fantastic job by combining great research with good maps, stunning pictures and an amazing design.
The point about research is noteworthy because the duo has made efforts to include a lot of good, recent taxonomic research conducted in South India, especially in the Western Ghats. The presence of these findings in a popular field guide, now available to so many enthusiasts, will go a long way in encouraging people to rediscover nature’s marvels on their own. This book is sure to be up there among the best guidebooks of the world, and in my bookshelf.
Sarath Champati is a freelance naturalist, wildlife enthusiast and consultant who has worked with the forest departments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He was part of the core team that produced the blue-chip wildlife documentary ‘Wild Karnataka’.