Free birds

Ruins and villages may be closer to nature than cities, but they are not exactly forests. The birds that you see in such places are ones which have adapted to profit from the disturbances that humans create. Around Mandu we saw several birds, but a bird watcher in a city will see most of them. The featured photo shows the green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), common across a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia: from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east. I love this colourful and commonly visible bird. I hadn’t realized earlier that it is appropriate for Independence Day; it has the colours of the flag.

The white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is another common and widespread bird, being found across Asia, from Turkey to the Philippines. It has learned to supplement its diet by scraps of meat from kitchens, and is now commonly seen around human habitation near water. It allows a photographer to get reasonably close, so this shot against the sky is not among the best I have.

The red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is not easily visible inside a city. But this large wader is common in wetlands anywhere in southern Asia, from Iraq to the Philipphines. I saw these large birds everywhere in Mandu, even in Jahaz Mahal. This photo was taken in the garden just outside the palace.

Although this is not a high-quality photo, I’m fond of it because I caught two different species in the same shot. The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is common is various terrains, including cities, across Asia. It has been introduced in Hawaii, California, Australia and New Zealand. The other bird is a coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) was common in our garden till recently. It is a common Indian bird.

Like the rose-ringed parakeet, the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is another species which I notice around ruins. I watched this one as it hopped and flew along ruined walls in Mandu. Unlike the parakeet, it does not take to gardens inside cities. We were not really looking for birds, but were happy to have this added extra.

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A remarkable bird

I’ve never paid much attention to the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). After all, they are common as dirt. If you go past villages, you see them trailing after cattle. If you go driving through jungles you find them following rhinoceros, elephants and herds of deer. In cities I’ve seen them following lawn mowers. In the monsoon, they put on their mating finery. The pure white feathers turn a bright ocher on the head and neck, and their beaks and legs turn into the same colour. Once I was photographing a bunch of them inside IIT when a girl stopped by and asked “Are they very rare?” I told her, “Not very,” and she left a little disappointed.

But this very common bird turns out to have an uncommon story. Until the middle of the 19th century CE, the bird was restricted to the tropics and sub-tropics of Asia and Europe. Then it began to take over the world. It was seen in the Cape province of South Africa in the early 20th century. At about the same time it was sighted in South America; then in 1933 it was reported in Old Providence Island in the Caribbeans, and spread to North America soon after. In the 1940s it touched down in Australia. There is no record of these birds being transported across the seas; to the contrary, there are scattered observations of small flocks spotted crossing oceans. In the 21st century it has spread from its original habitat in Spain and Portugal to northern parts of Europe.

If these birds are able to cross oceans, then they must have done so in the remote past as well. So the new thing is not its dispersal across the world, but its recent establishment in almost all continents. It seems likely that this has something to do with ecological changes brought about by humans. The scientific speculation that it has spread following cattle brought by humans, (and the conversion of forests to pastures) has gained currency since it was first applied to observations made in the Caribbeans. But England and Ireland, where the egrets established themselves only in 2008, have had cattle through recorded history. So cattle raising cannot be the only trigger for the century of expansion of the cattle egret’s range. Could it be that climate change, in the form of hot summers and mild winters, also has something to do with the spread of the egret?

Utterly common butterflies

When you spend a weekend walking through ruins overgrown with wild flowers and creepers, you are bound to come across a few of the commonest of butterflies. I saw Pioneers (Belenois aurota) in large numbers. The Indian cabbage white is often also found in similar places, so I needed to take a closer look at the brown markings on the wings to make sure which one I’m looking at. The pattern that you see in the featured photo marks this out very clearly as a Pioneer. The cabbage brown would have smudges of brown at the edges of the wings, without the enclosed white dots. The Pioneer is found in a wide geographical arc from South Africa to India, including Madagascar and Sri Lanka.

I passed through a garden where a sunny patch had attracted a large number of the Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe). Their colours are extremely variable, ranging from chalky white to a pale green; nor do they have any clear markings for identification. This bunch was pale green to my eyes, but the camera seems to have caught a different colour. A butterfly’s colour has more to do with the diffraction of light rather than pigments. The difference between the photo and what my eyes saw is a wonderful reminder of this fact.

Perhaps the commonest of the butterflies that I took a photo of is the common grass yellow (Eurema hecabe). I’ve seen these small and bright yellow butterflies flying between cars on roads when verges or dividers have grass. Sometimes they appear as unbilled extras in movie sequences shot in grassy meadows. The underside of the wing has the more muted colour. Like the Pioneer there are distinct wet and dry season forms with different colours and p[atterns. Since a butterfly lives for less than a month, the seasonal changes are due to environmental factors changing during the development of the butterfly. These are such wonderful systems in which to study the question of nature versus nurture!

Common birds of San Francisco bay area

I was doing some archaeology with my photos and found some which I’d taken of birds in the San Francisco bay area eight years ago. This surprised me immensely because I did not think of myself as a bird watcher in those days. Maybe it was because The Family had already started carrying binoculars and field guides to birds on our holidays that made me take these photos in backyards and walks. I took the featured photo out of a kitchen window one morning while making a tea. I think that is a Western Wood Peewee (Contopus sordidulus). I have a couple of other photos, all of the same quality, but together they seem to defy an alternative identification.

In the same patch of ground at the same time I also spotted this small yellow and black bird. Again I have several photos, none of them very good, but all together indicating that this is perhaps the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). It is certainly small enough to be one, and the colour makes it unlikely that it is anything else.

Afterwards I stood in the kitchen with my tea and photrographed this dove. I hadn’t seen anything before which looks like this. It is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). The birds I saw were all common birds, with a large range and stable population. They are of no concern to conservationists. I found them interesting then, because I knew nothing of New World birds. I have a memory of planning to identify them later. I could hardly have thought that the plan would mature almost a decade later.

The commonest of American birds was new to me. I found now that I have several photos of the American robin (Turdus migratorius) apart from the one you see above. This has a much more faded red in the breast than the variety I’ve seen on the east coast. Perhaps that means it belongs to the subspecies propinquus, which is one of the two subspecies which one can see in this area. I suppose I spent a bit of time photographing this bird because it looked different from the robins I’d seen before.

Identifying the bird which you can see in the photo above was not easy, although I have several photos. The reason, as ARKive says, is that the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) “from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour”, although it is one of the commonest birds in North America. If you look through the photos in that site, you see how different they can look. Although the Wikipedia page has several photos, none of them look like this.

I spent quite a while looking at this common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and because I thought that I’d seen something quite similar halfway across the globe. My impression was correct. The web page of the Audubon Society says that it was brought to the Americas in the 1890s, and has since spread across this new habitat. My photos show the typical feeding behaviour of this adult male: poking at the grass repeatedly and eventually tugging its prey out of the group (photo above). I didn’t seen any flocks, though.

Finally that little song bird that is so common that I ignored it until it sat down on garden furniture right in front of me. This is the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), which can be found everywhere from central Canada to Tierra del Fuego. That probably makes it one of the commonest of American birds. I wasn’t really looking for birds during that trip, and it is just chance that I took these photos. As a result, I have photos of the commonest of birds in the Bay Area.

A Laughingthrush

I just found what I’ve been doing wrong all these days: laughingthrush should be one word! I’ve seen several of them before, and thought of them as a variety of thrush, but apparently they are all classed as one separate genus, the Garrulax. We saw this Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus) on our aborted trip to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park. It was quartering a ledge below the path we were on, examining the ground very closely. This behaviour clearly meant that it was an insect-eater looking for its next meal. Traditional classifications place 45 species into this genus, but recent genetic studies indicate that these birds and the babblers have to be re-classified. This causes a confusion about whether to call the bird Garrulax lineatus or Trochalopteron lineatum.

No matter what biologists call it, the Streaked Laughingthrush is common across the Himalayas and can also be found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My first sighting of the bird was ten years ago, in Bhutan. But I should rethink that, since the Bhutanese subspecies is now said to be a separate species, the Bhutan Laughingthrush. Avibase records four subspecies. The region we were in showed a very high number of reports of this bird. Looking at the map of the reports, I wonder whether the density of sightings has to do with the number of birds or the number of watchers. It is quite possible that the bird is evenly distributed across the Himalayas. A survey in Uttarakhand found it at all altitudes they surveyed: from urbanized areas at an altitude of about 500 meters, to forests at heights of over 2 Kilometers. Studies like these lead to the IUCN’s classification of this bird as being of least concern for conservation action.

Brown fish owl

We had a wonderful sighting of a brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) sitting in the canopy of a large tree. It would have been invisible from above. As we drove close to the edge of the road, we could look up and see it clearly. It was trying very hard to ignore us and continue to sleep. The fish owl does not have the deep bowl-like face which is so characteristic of many owls. That bowl is acts as an antenna to focus sound, since hearing is very important to most nocturnal hunters. The fish owls are less dependent on sound since they feed on crabs and molluscs. A study in Melghat Tiger Reserve found that they also eat insects and rodents, so hearing cannot be unimportant. I’m sure that they are fairly opportunistic, and will change to fish and frogs if they are abundant.

We have usually sighted this fleetingly at night: on tree stumps or flying about. I had a wonderful view of it sitting in the middle of a lawn in Valparai, but the light was not good enough for a photo. This one, with its head tucked in, looked more squat than the others I’ve seen. One does see the related tawny and buff fish owls in Assam, but this was not one of those rarer birds. As we watched, it opened its eyes. My hand shivered slightly as I saw those sleepy yellow eyes looking at me.

All owls present in the world today diverged from a common ancestor more than 9 million years ago. This was a time when great geological changes were afoot, including the continuous raising of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys sea, so changing the global climate. The fish owls (genus Ketua) could have diverged later, but they are so closely related to other owls with prominent ear tufts (genus Bubo), that they are now included in the same genus. There have been contemporary local extinctions of the brown fish owl, notably in Israel where the poisoning of rats led to a local extinction of K. zeylonensis. There are still people alive in Europe who have seen brown fish owls, although they are now extinct. They were spotted again in Anatolia five years ago. It can be found now in a large range from Asian Turkey to south-east Asia. This is the reason it is considered to be not of concern for conservation work.

Fibonacci’s flowers

I love the sight of flowering cosmo. You find them growing in gardens, but they often escape and grow wild. As you can see, these are typically eight-petaled. On the other hand, all Himalayan wild flowers that I photographed on a trip a couple of months ago turned out to have five petals. Eight is the number that follows five in the Fibonacci sequence of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. Each number after the first two is obtained by adding up the two previous numbers. Works on aesthetics are full of the mystical properties of these numbers, and the relation they bear to the Golden Ratio, which is the ratio (1+√5):2. If you are interested, I can point you to one or two.

Is the number of petals in a flower always a number out of the Fibonacci sequence? Of course not. Primroses and Gentian have four petals. The ginger and onion families have flowers with six petals. I’m sure they are no less beautiful than five or eight petaled flowers. So it is surprising to find web sites on popular mathematics which make the unprovable claim that most flowers have a Fibonacci’s number of petals. This is a hollow claim because we don’t know what “most” means: is it 90 out of hundred or 51 out of a hundred. Should we count the number of flowers, or the number of species of plants? “Most” is a weasel word. Even so there are some impressive attempts to debunk this claim.

The most impressive amongst the scant evidence for Fibonacci’s flowers is the sunflower, which has 21 petals. There is a missing number, as you may have noticed: the even more mystical 13. Looking through the collection of flowers which I photographed, I can offer the example of a thirteen petaled gazania in the photo below.

I don’t have the legendary patience of a botanist, so I have never managed to count petals up to the next number in Fibonnaci’s sequence, which would be 34. But it seems that I don’t need to play along with this myth. All the photos that you see here are of compound flowers. Each one of the structures that we think of as petals is a separate flower and the cluster of rods at the center are also separate flowers. The central ones are called ray flowers and the ones we think of as petals are called disk flowers. You can easily look at the gazania in the last photo more closely and see that the ray flowers have five petals each. The cosmo also seems to have five petaled ray flowers. The disk flowers are also five petaled, but you have to look at the underside of the flower to see how they have fused together.

Contrary to mystics, botanists find that the number of petals is three, four, five or six. Some counts say that 70% of all flowering plants have five petals. I don’t know how precise this census is. Such percentages depends again on what you count: flowers, species or genus. But one thing is certain. Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio may be nice stories, which have little to do with the budding of a flower.

Now, there might be an escape route for the Fibonacci fans; so let me quickly close that. Could it be that the number of disk flowers in a compound flower is a Fibonacci number? After all that is the number of “petals” most of us count. It seems that this story also fails. In the photo above I show you a spectacular water lily. If you count the petals, you will find a number between 21 and 34: definitely not a Fibonacci number. In fact, if you count the petals of the gazania in the photo I showed, maybe you can catch me out on a fib.

A water redstart

If there was one uncommon bird which I was sure of seeing in Himachal Pradesh, it was the Plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa). Sure enough, the first time The Young Niece and I walked down to see the Falachan, I saw this bird sitting on a boulder on the bank of the river. I pointed out to her the chestnut tail and the slate blue of the male, and the black-and-white tail and gray spotted breast of the female. She learnt that the up-and-down wagging of the tail is another way to recognize the female and the juvenile.

I’d first seen it hopping around from stone to bank and back near a roadside stream in Bhutan. Since then I’ve seen it on every trip to the Himalayas. It seems that this bird does not mind humans, and goes about hunting insects in the air and on the ground near a river even close to habitation. It is altitude bound, being usually found between 2 and 4 Kilometers above sea level, but is common in this habitat.

Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.

Some Assamese Butterflies

I have posted earlier about some of the butterflies and moths which I saw in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. There were many more which I saw. Here are some of the others. I recognize several of them, but I’ve not managed to identify two. They are also thrown in here, in case you feel up to helping me out.