An odd bird

While birding in Hampi, I was so focused on a few new species that I didn’t remember taking these photos of the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus). It remains common in ruins and edgelands around towns, but rare in both parks and open spaces inside towns, and in dense jungle. In any case I’d seen it so often that I pointed my camera at it, took photos, and forgot about it until I went through my photos later. Then I realized that I’d caught my best photos yet of the southern variety of these birds. The shiny dark back is so much more attractive than the khaki and brown of the north Indian variety. The bird is slender in outline, and this plump shape is probably a territorially aggressive display by a male. Typically I would identify a male by a white patch on the shoulder, which I don’t see here. Perhaps it is hidden when the bird fluffs up. In any case, the bird is so common that I seldom give it much attention.

But perhaps I should, because of a long back story. Most African songbird groups evolved in the northern part, and migrated southwards in eras when forests expanded. Then, when forests contracted again, some of the isolated populations evolved into different species. Successive pulses of expanding forests led to songbird lineages populating Africa from north to south. In several of these lineages one can also trace the founding population to a migration event from Asia and India into Africa, over the Indian Ocean, through the Seychelles, and the “Lemurian” islands, which emerge in eras when the climate is dry and the ocean is low. The Indian robin is a different story. A molecular genetics study reveals that the small group of related birds in the African genus Erythropygia and their Asian relatives in genus Copsychus are odd birds indeed. These non-migratory birds have made the reverse journey from southern Africa to north, and then out of Africa to Asia. A whole clade inside Copsychus, including C. fulicatus, started with this unusual migration in the early Neogene. This is definitely an odd story, first pulished in 2014. I look forward to seeing either verification or dispute in future. In the meanwhile, I look at the Indian robin with more interest.

The wary mongoose

I was introduced to the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) by Rudyard Kipling’s collection called The Jungle Book. Soon after I saw one scurrying through bushes. Over the years I’ve seen them scuttling around human habitation, while being extremely wary of humans. When I was a child I’d once seen one of them battling a snake. What I remember of that tussle is that it darts about a lot. The common story of it being immune to snake venom is not completely wrong, but its main defense is exactly what I saw, extreme agility. Its stiff gray hair and loose skin is another line of defense against a snake’s fangs. But in all these years, it was only now, sitting inside a hide in the outskirts of Hampi, that I had my best view ever of this secretive animal.

Mongooses are a very diverse group of species. The 33 known species fall into 14 genera within the family Herpestidae. The Indian grey mongoose is in genus Herpestes along with 9 others of its cousins. It is said to be of least concern for conservation purposes. Perhaps because these intelligent and inquisitive creatures have colonized the edgelands and learnt how to utilize the trash left by humans. They are opportunistic eaters, said to eat almost any animal smaller than itself. Here I saw it pluck a banana off a post where it had been kept for birds, and carry it off to one side of the clearing. It was bold when it thought it wasn’t being watched. But as soon as one of my companions snapped off a series of loud shots with a camera, it looked around warily at the noise. We were well hidden, but it still carried its food off under some trees.

But its inquisitiveness kept bringing it back. Its favourite spot was on top of a flat stone where the morning sun illuminated it well and gave me a good opportunity to take lots of photos. It sunned itself, scratched its fur, brushed out its tail with the white patch at the tip, but never settled down to some sunbathing. It is too wary and cautious to sleep in the open. Good for me, I thought, since I managed to take several shots of it in leisurely activity. I like the photo above, with a hind paw raised to scratch itself with.

Red Adavadats

I thought this was a lifer, since I would have remembered seeing such a colourful bird before. But apparently it wasn’t. The name red avadavat (Amandava amandava) or red munia rang a bell, and it turned out that we’d first seen it almost a decade ago. It is very common after all. Still, having forgotten it completely, I will consider this sighting of one resting on a cactus at least partly a lifer. For purposes of identification, one has to remember that the bill can change colour, and turns from an orange yellow to a bright red to a dark brown or black according to season. I wondered whether this is due to a changing diet. But then birds which are bright red often are sexually dimorphic, with the female a bright yellow. That is certainly true of this bird. So the change in colour could also be due to the activation or disactivation of a gene. By the time I took a photo of the male, the female had hidden itself, and came out in the open only fleetingly.

This one inspected the surroundings from its perch high up on the cactus, and then, only after figuring out that the coast was clear, did it descend to the ground. It feeds on grass seeds, and was not attracted to the grains that had been left outside the hide I sat on. I mentally cheered, because its behaviour cannot be manipulated simply by leaving grains out in the open. Why did it visit then? Random chance, or because the company of many other feeding birds can help to warn it against preddators even when it is not looking?

A hot winter afternoon

Walking in the ruins that dot Hampi during a hot afternoon, I stopped to see an Indian bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera) putting on its spectacular aerial display. This consists of it flying up to a good height, and then diving with its wings and tails held out. This told me two things: first that it was a bushlark (generally I’m very confused about larks), and second that early winter is the mating season, at least in the middle of parched Karnataka. I managed to get a few photos of it as it paused between displays. The Family and others spotted the female that it was trying to impress while I was busy taking photos. Unlike a skylark, it didn’t pour on us a flood of harmony. Its call was melodious but simple.

On the other side of the path, three horses waited patiently under a tree, ready to be photographed. This looked almost like they were deliberately posed there with a motorbike. It wasn’t a shot that you could let go. Something nagged at me while I took the photo. As I reached into my backpack for a bottle of water, the spark connected. This looked like a scene from the sets of Sholay, the half-century old blockbuster. The incongruity of a motorbike and horses, and the parched landscape. That movie had been shot in Ramnagar, just a five hour drive away.

Upupa epops

I’ve only seen Hoopoes (Upupa epops, aka Eurasian Hoopoe) around human habitation. Apparently waste land around towns is an ideal ecology for this striking bird. It needs broken ground in which to forage for insects and small reptiles, and broken vertical spaces for nesting. One should be able to see it in the wild around broken cliffs, but I can’t say that I’ve ever spotted one near a cliff. I haven’t seen any Hoopoes nesting either, but that may just be because I haven’t looked. They are skittish, so to take a good photo you have to sneak softly and carry a big lens. I’d already practiced sneaky photography on yellow-wattled lapwings, so when I saw this Hoopoe in another part of the same field, I was ready. It turned its back to me, ready to fly, and kept two eyes on me. But I guess the ground it was on provided good food, so it didn’t quite take off.

I’ve never really seen anything else which is similar to a Hoopoe. As a child, I would lump it with woodpeckers, but a little observation tells you that it is totally different; it pecks on the ground and never drills into wood. There are three or four species of Hoopoes, largely in non-overlapping ranges across Africa, Asia, and Europe, but they are the only birds in the genus Upupa. There seems to be an emerging consensus that their closest relatives are the hornbills. Most hornbills evolved in Asia, but a dearth of fossil Hoopoes makes it hard to tell where they evolved. A first search led me to around 15,000 papers on this species, which I’ll try to skim before my next birding trip. I guess I’m not the only one who’s puzzled and fascinated by Hoopoes.

Two bulbuls

One of our targets in Hampi was the yellow-throated bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus). We had our sighting early one morning near a cliff face to the east of the ruins of the 16th century CE Krishna bazaar. The birds sat in the middle of heavy foliage, so that we could hear its melodious chatter long before we could see the crestless bulbul. There was one pair in the tree that we were looking at, and maybe a couple of pairs in the bushes near the top of the cliff.

This is possibly the westernmost population of this bird, which exists in fragmented habitats across the eastern part of the Deccan plateau. It has been suggested recently that range fragmentation makes it more susceptible to local extinctions than its IUCN label of vulnerable might lead us to believe. With the major climate variability that we are going through, I was happy that I have spotted them in a fairly accessible location.

The range of this species completely overlaps that of the more common white-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus). In the din that the yellow-throateds had set up, I was unable to distinguish the call of the white-browed. Fortunately, we were with a really experienced birder, who noticed the song, and pinpointed the bird. I could get off a bunch of shots in wonderful light. Although P. luteolus is said to be of least concern, I hadn’t seen one before. It has a touch of yellow near the base of its beak. Both this and the P. xantholaemus are said to have a yellow vent (I didn’t manage to see that), but otherwise they are easily distinguished. In particular, the P. lutelous has the characteristic bulbul’s crest, though a small one. It was a happy morning, with two lifers.

Yellow-wattled lapwing

In an open field in Hampi, surrounded by buildings, we saw a flock of skittish yellow-wattled lapwings (Vanellus malabaricus). I hadn’t seen one for years, although the IUCN red list calls it a species of least concern. They are said to be common over the whole of India and Sri Lanka, but birders talk of it as having become harder to spot in the last decade. They were wary of us, and would not let us approach closer than about 50 meters. Photographing them was a sneaky affair: inching jeeps close, getting off from the far-side door, and shooting from behind cover.

Grounds such as the one we saw would be the usual breeding ground for the birds, which lay well-camouflaged eggs in nests scratched into the ground. It was half a year past breeding season. The flock held many juveniles. They can be told by the fact that they have a brown cap instead of black. I suppose that proximity to humans brings dangers to the breeding grounds. Cows or goats could accidentally trample eggs. Rubbish dumps attract crows which also aggressively seek out and eat eggs of other birds. Human-animal conflict can come well-disguised.

Eagle-owl

We drove slowly along a canal outside of Hampi. The cliff face across the canal is said to be home to several eagle-owls (Bubo bubo, or the Eurasian eagle-owl). They are the largest of owls, widespread across the world, but this spot is far south of a widely reproduced range map that you see on the web. Years ago, my first sighting of this species was only a little north of here, again outside the popularly represented range maps, but well-known, and well-marked, in field guides. Actually, the eagle-owl can be seen almost everywhere in India except in some of the north-eastern states.

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Left to myself, I think I would have driven straight past the spot where I saw this guy sitting out in the open. You can see from the slide show here how hard it is to spot unless you stand right here and look. Often there are white streaks of scat on rock which indicate that a bird frequents a place, but there was no such indicator here. If it wasn’t for our local guide, who’d seen the bird here before, we would easily have missed it. It was mid-afternoon. The bird opened one orange eye to look at us. As we stood there taking photos, it opened both eyes warily. But after a while it was convinced that we were no danger, and closed both eyes and went back to rest.

Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

Shikra

Sitting on the steps of an old structure in Hampi, I saw a preening shikra (Accipiter badius). One way to tell the difference between the sexes is by the eye colour; this one, with its orange eyes, is a female. A male has a significantly more red eye. This is perhaps the smallest of Indian raptors, but I’m continually surprised by its weight. The leaf it sat on did not move up significantly when it flew away. Until then I was happy to see it preen, because that was one way of getting to see the details of its tail feathers.

I’m afraid this post will be short because I have to take a very inconvenient flight.