When you remember just a few birthday parties, anything resembling one seems like a grand thing. The Newphew was understandably excited about his coming “half birthday“, especially with an aunt willing to indulge every whim. Having heard of the pleasures of birding from his once-a-birder mom, he had asked for a day’s birding with his aunt. So off we went to Bhigwan near Pune for a full day’s birding: from before sunrise to after sunset.

The lake is extensive, created by the damming of the Bhima river at the Ujani village. Typically the backwater of a dam is known by the name of the dam, so this could have been called the Ujani lake. However, in this case the backwater is named Yashwant Sagar. But by a truly Alice-in-wonderland twist, most birders know this as Bhigwan lake, by the name of the town of Bhigwan on the lake. The lake covers around 350 square kilometers of area. When the dam was finished in 1980, it submerged 82 villages and their surrounding agricultural land. Now trees and electric pylons break the surface of the water, providing perches for the tens of thousands of birds, many migratory, which come to this lake every winter.

The Newphew is exactly at the age where he finds it hilarious that the white branches of trees are normal branches covered with bird droppings. He was excited by the masses of black cormorants on the “poo trees”. And he grew even more excited when we pointed out the few great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) sitting among the darker Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis).

The excitement multiplied when he located the single oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster, aka Indian snakebird) sitting on one of the trees filled with cormorants. One of the characteristics of eight years olds is their discovery that they can be contrary. He had packed his own binoculars when he packed his backpack for the trip, but he’d refused to use them on the boat. Their cloak of contrariness falls away when they are excited. The Newphew dropped his act of contrariness and stared at these birds with his binoculars.

With the breaking of the ice, he was ready to see more. And we saw much more: grey herons (Ardea cinerea), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), Asian openbills (Anastomus oscitans), Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at breakfast, and many more. Before lunch he sat down and, with our help, made a list of all the birds that he’d seen in the morning. He couldn’t stop telling everyone that he’d seen 58 different species before breakfast, including the very rare sighting of a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis).

There was a session of bird watching planned for the evening and another safari at night. This was the height of excitement for him. At the age of 8 1⁄2 he was tasting La Dolce Vita. By the time night fell and he helped to pin down an Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) in crossed beams of light he was in a state of extreme hyper-alertness. He took time to fall asleep, but then slept through a rooster’s untimely calls that kept us awake at night.

And for us too, this was a day of excitement. Not just because we’d seen almost 90 species of birds in the day, but also because we’d shared this world with a new person. Our familiar natural world is part of the great succession of life on the planet. As we make it uninhabitable for the life that shares the cenozoic era with us, our time is as limited as the species we help to wipe out. Hopefully, by making enough of the screen-bound generation into nature lovers, we can postpone the great extinction of our times and the resulting birth of a post-human earth.

Zone of silence

After lunch we set off to a part of the Keoladeo National Park which we hadn’t seen before. There were few people here in the lazy afternoon. In these flooded fields nature was also at rest. A Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) rested in the shade of a tree. A Small Blue Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) sat on a branch above it. Around them was a tremendous variety of waterfowl.

At the end of a long branch overlooking a deeper part of this water world, an Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) spread out its wings to dry.

In the water nearby the spectacular Red-crested Pochards (Netta rufina) made deep dives next to some very fashionably black Common Coots (Fulica atra),

Elsewhere in the shallows flocks of Greylag Geese (Anser anser) shared space with Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). Males of ducks are usually more colourful than females. The female is the primary caregiver for chicks, and, since ducks mostly nest on the ground, her colour is meant as camouflage.

When I zoomed out a bit I could see that this was part of a larger mixed flock. The Family probably has a record of all the waterfowl in this larger bunch, but in this photo I can easily see the distinctive white stripe down the head and neck of Northern Pintails (Anas acuta).

Zooming back even more, I could see the edge of human activity, in the form of cows wandering in to browse at the edge of the waterworld. Cows can sometimes step unwittingly on nests of birds, crushing eggs. This level of human interference is unavoidable in India. Bharatpur’s Keoladeo NP has done wonders for conservation within these human constraints.

The Drying Darter

Although the Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a common sight across India and further south east, down to Brunei, it is classified as near threatened in the IUCN red list. When you look at the reasons, they are the same depressing lot: habitat loss due to human activity such as damming of rivers and creation of other water management systems, pollution and effluents. Like much of threatened wildlife today, they are accidental road-kills on the way to progress. It is nice to have a place like Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park where you can forget these problems for a day or two and look at darters in water.

I stood next to a small body of water and watched one dive into the water, for a while only its long neck could be seen at the apex of a clean wake. Could this be the reason they are also called snakebirds? Then it was gone, completely submerged. It had turned under water, because it came up in a completely different direction, near a dead tree with only a few branches jutting out of the water. It hadn’t caught a fish, so I couldn’t get a photo of it tossing its catch in the air before catching it in its beak, like a chef with a pizza. Instead I admired the way it managed to camouflage itself against the branches.

It doesn’t need to. It is large enough that adults don’t have natural predators among birds (chicks can be taken by raptors). It is same from most other hunters because it mostly nests and roosts in trees sticking out of the water, like the perch it now pulled itself up to. I had a wonderful view of the large webbed feet with which it grasped the branches. It craned its neck to look around. Why is it so alert to its surroundings when it is out of the water? It is certainly not looking for things to eat, since its food is all below the surface. I keep wondering whether it has predators.

You usually spot a darter by its very characteristic pose, when it perches on a tree or sits at the edge of water with its wings spreads out to dry. A sight like this always raises the question why a duck does not need to dry its feathers whereas cormorants and darters do. It was once believed that this was due to special properties of a “preening oil” which covers the surface of feathers. In the 1940s textile industries did some research on the waterproofing properties of this oil, and quickly realized that it is no better than commercially available waxes and polishes. Today we understand that it is the spacing and width of individual barbs in feathers which determine whether they get wet when immersed in water. There are conflicting demands on feathers from a bird’s ability to fly and its ability to resist wetting, and different genus of waterbirds have responded to these conflicts in different ways. There is more subtlety to the darter’s characteristic posture than appears at first glance!