Spotted, a dabbler

I like watching the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), partly because you don’t have to strain your eyes to see it. It is a large duck, about the size of a mallard, and does not mind swimming in open waters. The yellow-tipped black bill has two orange spots near its base which give it its name. I don’t think I have ever noticed the subspecies which one finds in Myanmar and further east; it is supposed to lack exactly these same orange spots which give it is name. A spot-billed duck without spots!

These photos were taken at Lakhota lake, in the middle of Jamnagar. The wonderful morning light showed me the clear brown eyes of the duck. That’s a detail I don’t see so very often, although the bird can be seen dabbling away in small ponds and lakes all across India. Earlier in the morning, when there was a tiny haze over the water, I’d seen several of them preening. The photo above shows that characteristic flash of green, under a black wing edged in white, which lets you identify the spot-bill even if you can’t see its spots.

Before rapid genetics became easy, there was a confusion between the Indian spot-bill and a closely related species in China and to its east, now called the Eastern spot-bill. Eventually, observers in Hing Kong found that although both species can be seen together, they almost never cross breed. That observation led to the discovery that there are to species, something that molecular genetics now confirms. I love these painstaking field workers, and envy them. They get to spend their days in the sun, watching birds all day, with long breaks in the afternoon and night, perfectly in time for two large meals a day. It’s a wonderful life, in spite of the constant danger of being drained of blood by a friendly neighbourhood mosquito or leech. Some of my gurus in birding live such a life, earning some money by taking amateurs like us on birding trips. They have a bad time now, with the virus keeping them indoors. If the lockdown or even curtailed travel persists for long, say two months or two years, I wonder what happens to them, and a lot of others who are invested in hotels, restaurants, transport, wildlife guides, and so on.

It is sometimes said that spot-bills don’t mix with other ducks. That may be true in some small ponds at some time of the year. As the photo above shows, they have absolutely no trouble mixing with coots. The spot-bill is a dabbler, searching for food just below the surface, snagging minute crustaceans and vegetation in their bills when they upend. They don’t compete for food with divers or skimmers. In a large, reasonably deep body of water, many species always come together. The lockdown gives me an opportunity to go back in time, and arrange my photos. I think I’ll try to find some more photos of the spot-bill.

Three ducks. Umm.. four, no five

Within a space of about twenty minutes during a weekend outing in the creeks of Mumbai I thought we saw all three ducks that we got to see. The first that I noticed was the small Garganey (Spatula querquedula), whose male has the white band on the head that you can see in the featured photo. There were lots of these winter migrants swimming about, occasionally dipping their heads into the water to feed. They have the usual mottled brown look of most dabbling ducks, and I would have been hard put to identify them if it were not for two things. One was the conspicuous white band on the head of the male, and the other was that I had an expert birder with me who unhesitatingly identified it. I really have gotten rusty if I can’t recall the names of ducks instantly.

Amongst these Garganey were one of the most distinctive ducks which you can see in India. This is the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha). Seen from the front, its face looks extremely colourful: a red spot on the lores, and a black beak with a big tab of yellow on it. The rest of it is the common mottled brown of dabbling ducks, except for the very prominent white stripe on the wing. About twenty of them were dabbling in the water for underwater plants in the company of Garganey. Since these are non-migratory, you can bet that they are descendants of some of the original inhabitants of these islands. In the photo above you can see one of the ducks with its head down, but that’s not what it does while dabbling. It really drops its head under the water, so you only see its rump up in the air. I wished I had a GoPro under water to catch it with its neck extended looking for food.

The third was a little further out in the creek, where the mud flats began. This was the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata). Like the Garganey it nests in the northern latitudes and prefers to winter in warm climates with more food. The thick flat bill which gives it its name is distinctive. The brown mottled female only has some white on the tail (photo above), but the male is distinctive with its iridescent green head and white neck and belly. Maybe their feeding time was over, because I saw most of them standing in the mud, well away from the water. But I was lucky to see several take off into the air. They are quick off the ground (or water): a couple of steps, and a twist and with powerful beats of their wings they are off, as you can see in the photo below. Quite a sight when it happens in front of you.

The fourth duck was quite a surprise. I saw three of them far out in the tidal mudflats walking among a flock of flamingos. We passed them at a clip, and I couldn’t take a photo. Later, when I was going through my photos of the morning, I found a lone ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), somewhat out of focus, among flamingos in another part of the creek. Finally, just now before hitting the publish button I looked closely at three photos from that day with crowds of ducks, and found the common teal (Anas crecca) hidden in plain sight.