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!

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.

Flamingos in Mumbai

There was time when flamingos bred in the coastal flats of Gujarat and wintered around Mumbai. But like many such, some are now residents of the big city. The mud flats and tidal creeks of Mumbai are now their home. Their numbers increase with the usual winter influx. So this is a good time to take a boat through the creeks of Mumbai.

Most of these birds are lesser flamingos. The few greater flamingos can be distinguished by the shape of their necks. The necks of lesser flamingos are like an inverted letter J, whereas the long necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of an S. Sizes and colour differences between these two species are confusing. The only other consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the lower bill of the greater flamingo is always yellow.

The rest of the colour of the flamingo comes from the crustaceans that it eats. So it is interesting to ask why the flamingos of Mumbai are less colourful than their country cousins. Could it be that these creeks are now so polluted that the crustaceans are dying out?

Flamingo watch

airoli

Around winter the tidal mudflats north of Mumbai’s harbour begin to turn pink with the arrival of flamingos. Every year there is a little item tucked away somewhere in a corner of a newspaper about the appearance of these migratory flocks. This year there was no news. I asked a few friendly birders, and they didn’t seem to know either. A few weeks back I’d stopped at a creek, but it was high tide. The mud was covered with water, and you don’t see any wading birds at that time.

I looked up the tide tables a few days ago, and found that over the weekend low tide was around noon. So on Saturday The Family and I made our way to Airoli bridge. This connects the northern suburb of Mulund to Airoli on the mainland. I’d only been there once before, very early in the morning several years ago. It was low tide, there was no traffic, and there were lots of flamingos visible. Now, at midday, there was a constant stream of traffic. It was very hard to stop, although the tide was out, and the mud was full of a mixed bunch of greater and lesser flamingos. Between them many other waders fed in the mud.

bhandup

We decided to take our chance at the Bhandup creek. Over the years much of this area has been fenced off, and now only a little field was accessible to the public (photo above). This gave a view on to a narrow sliver of the creek. At low tide this had shallow water with some exposed mud. Although there were no flamingos, there were a few waders visible in the distance.spoonbills We took turns to step out on to a little spit of land which gave some sighting.

There was a cormorant on a tree stump, a large group of spoonbills (photo above), a lone black-headed iris, some stilts, and, far away, the dark silhouette of a reef egret. The light was terrible. Reflections off the water made everything look monochrome: it was hard to see the yellow beak of a large egret, or the green legs of a green shank. All my photos looked like they were in black and white. Above us, a pariah kite circled slow and low. raptoraWhen it moved off we saw some gull-billed terns fly in to land in the water. Far overhead an open-billed stork flew in a lazy straight line off towards the west.

The Precious had brought along her two-year old, who was busy picking up sticks and stones to fill his pockets with. It took some time to bundle him back into the car, climb in and move off. Some newbies were just coming in. They stopped to ask where the Bhandup birding area was, and looked disappointed when we said that this was it. We were just about to pull away when I saw above us this magnificent sight: an immature Shikra sitting on a dry tree (photo here). Although the trip ended well enough, I was left wondering how it is that in a city built on the sea, most of us have such restricted access to the sea front. I can think of only three spots now where one has access to the mudflats.

Our final bird list was not larger than my laughable list from December.

  1. Lesser flamingo
  2. Greater flamingo
  3. Western reef egret
  4. Great egret
  5. Asian open-billed stork
  6. Black-winged stilt
  7. Eurasian spoonbill
  8. Black-headed iris
  9. Common green shank
  10. Cotton pygmy-goose
  11. Gull-billed tern
  12. Shikra (juvenile)

Writing a bird list is meaningless if you can see more in an afternoon sitting on a balcony. A few years ago we could not even have written down lists without twice as many water birds. Are the mangroves and mudflats hidden behind the fenced off sea-coast slowly dying?

A drain inspector’s report

saltpans

When you travel along Mumbai’s eastern artery, past Chembur and towards Thane, you see empty lands on the eastern flank of the city, broken occasionally into the regular grid-work of salt pans. This neglected part of the city hides some of its best bird-watching spots. One which has attracted much attention in the last few years is the Bhandup Pumping Station.

sludge

Few people used to know how the city disposes of its considerable volume of sewage. Now, most birders in the area know that this involves a network of aeration tanks which allow the material to be degraded by bacteria until it is deemed safe enough to be pumped into the sea. One of the places where this is done is the Bhandup station. A fantastic bonus (to misuse a phrase invented by Elisabeth Lloyd) is that the local enrichment of the sea water increases the population of marine species, so attracting water birds, and birders, to the location.

weed-holder

I’d been there with a bunch of very good birders a couple of years back. Today, alone in a taxi on the highway, on a whim I asked the driver to turn in to the pumping station. We found our way in. When the sounds of the highway faded to a distant roar, I stopped the taxi and got off. There was a narrow path through the grass towards the east. I told the driver that I was going to walk in, and he could either stay with the car, or come with me. He elected to walk with me.

grass

On our drive in we had seen many boards announcing that the area was a protected wetland. As soon as the engine was switched off, I could hear a variety of bird calls around me. I saw a flock of small birds descend on the path to pick at something. I took a couple of long shots: they turned out to be a mixed flock which disappeared into the tall grass as soon as I moved on to the path. I’m a terrible spotter; when I’m birding with The Family I’m totally at her command. Now I could barely spot anything apart from occasional small birds through the thick of the grass (you can see one between the stalks in the photo above; it was a little larger than a sparrow, rust on top and a blue or bluish grey below).

tree

I could hear the sound of water birds splashing around to my left. Mangroves obscured my view. Above me I could see various birds flying: egrets mostly, but also some swifts, various gulls and terns, a stork. The gap to the sky was small, along most of the path, so these were flashing glimpses. However, because we were also obscured by the trees, several of the birds flew very low overhead. I saw a small egret fly an arm’s length overhead. Away, to the right, I saw the electric blue of a kingfisher flash by. My companion was marvelling at how the place reminded him of his village. A family of common coots swam past. I saw a cormorant drying itself. My bird list did not grow much.

redventedbulbul

The light was wonderful. The few birds I managed to photograph looked spectacular in this light. I had to agree with the taxi driver, if you forgot that we were walking across a narrow causeway between two arms of a creek then the foliage looked like it could be a village well outside of town.

When I got home, The Family was preparing for a presentation she has to give tomorrow. She laughed at my small bird list, and agreed to come with me next week.

My pathetic bird list

Part of the reason the bird list is so small is that the tide was high. At low-tide you see many water birds picking at food in the exposed mud.

  1. Red-vented bulbul
  2. Oriental turtle dove
  3. Indian robin
  4. Magpie robin
  5. Little blue kingfisher
  6. Little egret
  7. Large egret
  8. Grey heron
  9. Indian pond heron
  10. Indian cormorant
  11. Common coot