What Makes a Birder? Advait Marathe: Parallel Journeys

By John Bloomfield

In this ongoing series we examine what motivates people to enjoy birds and birding, from back yard birders to chronic listers of all ages and abilities.

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Coppersmith Barbet, taken by Advait Marathe.

One morning when he was a boy, Advait Marathe remembers standing on the balcony of his family’s home in Mumbai, India, where he spotted a brilliant bird: it was all crimson, yellow and green – a Coppersmith Barbet. Although the name was beyond him at the time, the sighting helped spark a journey as birder that paralleled a personal journey that took him from India to Indiana to Austin, where he is pursuing a career in information technology.

An accomplished birder and photographer, Advait and I met at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park on a drizzly summer morning. “This is one of my favorite places, a good place for birds and photography,” he told me. “Here and Hornsby Bend and Reimers Ranch, these are the places I visit most. During migration, I love Riata Pond, near where I live. And Mills Pond too, of course.”

As we began our walk alongside the prairie grass, we were treated to the sights and songs of Painted and Indigo Buntings. A vole braved out into the open, safe from raptors for the time being. We pointed our cameras at a Painted Bunting but the mist was too thick for a good shot. Advait sighed: “After two years I still don’t have a Painted Bunting photo that I like.”

As we walked together, Advait shared his personal journey with me as well as his evolution as a birder.

“No one in my family was into birds,” he said. “I picked it up on my own. I remember we used to do some birdwatching at summer camp, but I didn’t have binoculars, so it wasn’t the best experience.”

Eventually the binoculars came, and a small camera. A new world opened up for him.

Soon he was consuming field guides and doing internet searches to learn about what he was seeing. He began meeting other birders and was invited on field trips. Though his interest was growing, he had to balance it with Engineering Studies at the University of Mumbai. For a time, birding had to take a back seat.

But not for long. One day he was on Facebook when he stumbled onto some birding groups. He looked at me: “You know the ones, the ones where people share a photo and want to know what bird it is? So back to the field guides I went until I could start identifying them myself. That was when the birding really started to take hold.”

It didn’t hurt that Sanjay Gandhi National Park was a ten-minute walk from his house. With its abundant plant- and wildlife, caves and waterfalls, the park attracts more than two million human visitors a year as well as nearly 350 recorded bird species, including exotic bulbuls, drongos and sunbirds.

Advait began helping on bird surveys at the park, soaking up more information on field marks and vocalizations. “It kind of snowballed after that,” he smiled. “So, looking back, it wasn’t one thing but a progression of things that made me a birder.”

Moving to the U.S. for graduate school presented new challenges. In addition to the cultural adjustments, the process of learning new sights, sounds and bird behaviors started all over.

“Here I was at Indiana University, and I didn’t know anybody,” Advait continued. “There was the challenge of being in school full time again after working for a few years after college. Not having a car limited my ability to go birding. But once I had my schedule and coursework figured out, I started tagging along with some awesome people who took me under their wing, so to speak.”

One of his favorite places was Goose Pond, a preserve south of Terre Haute with more than 9000 acres of marsh and prairie habitat. “I remember one day seeing thousands of Snow Geese there, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.”

He did his first (and thus far only) Christmas Bird Count in Indiana with friends from Sassafras Audubon Society in Bloomington. “That’s when I first realized that no matter where I was, I could always check with the local Audubon chapter and go from there,” he said.

After two years in Indiana, it was another move, this time to Texas, another time to readjust, meet new people and learn the local birding landscape.

“I started going on field trips with Travis Audubon to places like Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls State Park and here at Commons Ford. “Meeting like-minded people and enjoying the birding here helped me de-stress and meet the challenge of being in a new place on my own.”

Advait remembered seeing a Black Scoter on his first visit to Hornsby Bend. “I was so new I had no idea it was a rarity. I just photographed it and moved on. Then someone comes up to me all excited and asked if I’d seen it. I said, yeah, it was floating over there. I showed him the picture and he was amazed.”

Advait met fellow newcomer Nick Komar on a Travis Audubon walk and the two began to bird together. “Nick was doing a big year, and he was happy to have me tag along with him. We saw some awesome birds, and I learned a lot from him,” Advait recalled.

Chestnut-collared Longspur, a rarity seen by many local birders earlier this year at Bob Wentz-Windy Point Park, taken by Advait Marathe.

Then came the pandemic. “Birding was one of the only things you could really do to get outside and enjoy yourself. I started birding at Riata Pond which is just a short walk from my home. During migration it was amazing, and in no time at all I saw about 125 species. The birding is great there in the springtime but not too many people know about it.”

Reflecting on his own journey, Advait offered some advice for people just getting into birding and photography.

“Start with an inexpensive option in terms of cameras. There are many great point-and-shoot superzoom cameras that you can pick up to get started. Once you start getting decent photos, think of upgrading, but you don’t have to spend a fortune picking up the hobby.

“Investing in binoculars is a game changer. Some may argue that looking through the camera lens is the same thing, but there’s no comparison. Invest in a field guide and a good birding app like Sibley Birds. Most of all, be patient. Learning birds can be challenging, but once you get the hang of it, it is so much fun.”

As we were wrapping up, we saw a pair of Western Kingbirds, then Advait spotted their nest, with the beak of a tiny bird protruding. Being able to experience the joy of that moment is what makes him a birder.

Featured image of Advait Marathe out in the field taken by John Bloomfield.