Threatened

Just as we were about to leave Bhandup pumping station, there was a ripple of excitement. A golden jackal (Canis aureus) had been spotted. It stood at the side of the road far from us and looked at us warily. I couldn’t believe that jackals still coexist with us in the middle of the city! These waste lands run all along the eastern coast of Mumbai, and connect to the wildlife refuges nearby, so I guess there is a constant flow of wildlife through this area.

Golden jackals are not usually considered to be threatened species. But a recent study of reports published in media revealed that there is a large cryptic trade in jackals. This is largely fueled by superstitious beliefs about jackal skulls. Most conservation efforts in India concentrate on tigers, rhinos, and elephants. The public is aware of the dangers these species face, and there is a strong opinion against trade in these animals. The authors of the study point out that the data on jackals indicates that similar threats to less charismatic species often escape public consciousness.

The waste land

Sunrise in Bhandup pumping station was spectacular. The vegetation dripped with water; either there had been a short shower late at night, or the ground was saturated with water and the vapour had condensed through the night. A shot against the rising sun gave the golden photo that you see above. The light changed rapidly, and part of the fun in photography was seeing the change.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

A current under sea

Picked his bones in whipers.

The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot

When I walk through the waste lands inside Mumbai, where nature has reclaimed the space abandoned by people, I do not quite feel as if I’m in a forest. You cannot forget the ghosts of the city: the boisterous boys cycling by in a rush, the distant infrastructure of ports, the paved roads falling into ruins. I am constantly reminded of the short fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.

Two hours later the light was beautiful, warm, and full. Perfect for catching this hovering honey bee (genus Apis). From its small size and colour, it was probably a red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). With an exposure of 2.5 milliseconds, my photo sees an invisible blur of wings! Wingbeat frequencies have been recorded for several kinds of bees and flies; the wings beat slower in hover, and the records say that there would be around one beat in about 2.5 ms for bees. Clearly that is not true for this one; that blur indicates a significantly faster beat. Human muscles cannot move that fast for that long. The biochemistry of converting sugar into energy is the same in insects and mammals, so it is the actual muscle which is different. Fascinating thing to follow up on.

Old favourites and a new acquaintance

I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.

Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.

Two shrikes

Three shrikes and you’re out. No birder will tell you this, but it’s true. I’ve never seen more than three kinds of shrike in a morning of bird watching. Last week’s outing to Bhandup Pumping Station was no exception. I heard a beautiful birdsong, one that was not familiar from the past six months of patient study, and found that it came from this long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, aka rufous-backed shrike).

I’d only heard the shrill harsh call of this bird, so common across India. That shriek gives the group its name. But this was a song. Quite different, and more enchanting. Why was it singing when the mating season was past? It was answered by other calls. So perhaps this was a territorial call. I recalled a paper I saw a month ago which said that bird calls had become more complex in the quiet of the anthropause. One of the results was a decrease in aggression among city birds, because the more complex songs seem to better convey meaning about territory.

A little later I walked down a side path where three boys went racing past me with bikes (and unmasked, perhaps because they were outside the gaze of parents). In the quiet after they left I looked around and spotted a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora). This was renamed two years ago, and some would recognize it by its older designation of southern gray shrike (Lanius meridionalis). The photo shows it in a characteristic high perch. The perch seems to be an important aspect of its territorial behaviour.

These were all the shrikes I saw that day. I never even reached the upper limit of three.

Flowers wake

I was extremely surprised when I realized that feral okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, aka bhindi) grew widely near the seashore around Mumbai. By most accounts, this plant originates in north-east Africa, and spread from there to South Asia and Arabia in prehistoric times, and then to the rest of the world in the modern era. There are several closely related edible plants, which seem to have been hybridized extensively over millenia and are genetically almost indistinguishable now. It is a bit surprising to find that it is as hardy as a weed, and grows in most unused land around the city. Perhaps the hot and wet conditions here suit it especially well.

This week, while watching birds around Bhandup pumping station, I spent a while looking at the flowers of this plant unfold in the morning. I had not realized that the flowers close at night, a behaviour called nyctinasty. Why would plants put on rapid bursts of growth at different parts of the petals at dusk and dawn to force the flower to open and close? There’s a lot of speculation about the function of nyctinasty in leaves. Okra leaves seemed to have remained open at night, so most of the speculations are ruled out. Since the leaves were dripping water at dawn, I guess the main function of the closing of petals must be to keep the sexual organs dry. Interesting that this question does not seem to have been investigated before.

Baya weavers

The wasteland behind Bhandup pumping station was full of chittering flocks of Baya weaver birds (Ploceus philippinus). They breed in monsoon, and the males were still in their startling yellow breeding plumage. They looked wonderful in the soft morning light. Among these birds the male makes the intricate hanging nest, mates, and then leaves the rest of the child bearing to the female. I began to wonder how the female chose the nest and its maker. When it comes to common birds, almost every question you ask will have been answered. I found that the question had been answered fourteen years ago.

The female’s choice mostly depended on the location of the nest: nests high up on strong branches in thorny trees were preferred. This preference cannot be unknown to males, so there must be intense competition between them. The result is that the female most often chooses males who are able to chase rivals off their chosen site, whether she means to do it or not. In captive flocks the males are seen to create a pecking order which is pretty stable, indicating that this kind of competition is resolved with a minimum of physical violence. Among equally desirable sites, the female chooses nests made of finer fibers. Since nesting occurs during the monsoon perhaps this allows nests to be better knit and dry. So male behaviour seems to be pretty strongly driven by the choices of females. I wonder whether it works the other way round too.

Grass flowers

I was looking for birds, and I found grass flowering. I’ve never seen this before. But then I’ve never been to wastelands inside the city immediately after the monsoon. I just wish I’d slipped a macro lens into my backpack.

This is the first time I’ve seen grass with what I would think of as a petal. Except that grass has no petals. The orange bits which protect the sexual organs are scales called lemma and palea. I learnt this today while, unsuccessfully, trying to identify the species of grass that I saw.

We’d started at 5 in the morning and reached Bhandup minutes before sunrise. The early morning stroll was our first attempt at bird watching outside our house in eight months. It felt good to be coming to terms with the epidemic while carrying on with life as usual.

There were at least three different kinds of grass I photographed. The one pictured above is probably Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus). Still have to figure out what the others were.

I found a nicely written introduction to grasses. Some parts of it are specific to the UK, but most of it is quite general, and useful no matter which country you live in.

The rest of the story

I’d started a story from the middle when I posted about flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai. In order to finish the story, I have to give you its beginning. We gathered before sunrise in the region between the Thane creek and the aeration ponds of the Bhandup pumping station. As The Night drove in, a flock of flamingos flew overhead. The sky was the light grey just before dawn. A coucal flew into the bushes ahead of us. As the horizon dipped below the sun, and the sky began to light up, we walked back down the canal.

We saw several birds on our slow walk. I’d seen most of the waders, and could still recall their names. I’ve just begun to notice the warblers, and the clamorous reed warbler which we saw was a lifer. One interesting thing about birds is that they are creatures of habit. If in addition they are territorial, then they tend to appear at the same time in the same place every day. We met birders who come to this place very often, and sometimes they told us to look out for some bird or the other, because it should appear soon. It usually works. Passing on socially acquired knowledge is characteristic of our species, isn’t it?

Eventually we went on to ducks and flamingos, but those are stories I have already posted.

An odd bird

At the point where you come to one end of the tidal creek in Bhandup the water is absolutely stagnant. Not even a normal high tide lifts the water enough for waves. This fetid water turned out to be a place where mosquitos breed in swarms. I had covered myself in anti-mosquito gel, but that was not enough to keep away these pests. They swarmed over me, even settling on my sturdy and loose trousers! Was it worth it? The only birds I’d seen on this stretch were sparrows, cormorants and bulbuls. These were not worth it. But a couple of other birdwatchers were coming back from further up this path with puzzled looks. “Do you know what this could be?” they asked showing a photo one had just clicked. To me it looked like a longer sparrow, maybe a thrush. But J. Multiflorum asked “Could it be a wryneck?”

Since I knew nothing of wrynecks, I couldn’t find any reason why it should not be. At precisely the point where the density of mosquitos was highest, next to a dry tree was another pair of birders with the same puzzled look, “What could this be?” The tree was bare. “It keeps coming back,” they said, as they helpfully gave us another tube of anti-mosquito lotion. Sure enough it was back soon, and I took a couple of photos of the bird in silhouette. A little larger than a sparrow, but quite a different bird. It hopped on to the ground and began pecking away. I managed to take a couple of photos in which it had its head up. Definitely not a sparrow, the colours were much more interesting. It was the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla).

Later I found that it is in the same family as woodpeckers, Picidae. It nests in northern Europe and migrates to Africa or India in winter; the only woodpecker which migrates so far. Unlike most waterbirds which migrate in large flocks, the wryneck migrates in little groups. I did not see it foraging on a tree, which it apparently does in a manner similar to woodpeckers, with its tail held rigidly to the trunk. Unlike a woodpecker, it slurps insects from the surface of the bark. I was happy with this sighting. I’d literally paid for it with my blood!