Not pheasant, nor a crow

I don’t know who wrote which part of the Wikipedia article on the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis), but the statement “They sunbathe in the mornings singly or in pairs on the top of vegetation with their wings spread out” is absolutely correct. That’s how I saw this one individual whose photos you see in this post. The Coucal is often called a Crow Pheasant, but it is neither; it is a non-parasitic cuckoo.

It is extremely widespread; I’ve seen it in Mumbai, in Kerala, in Assam, and this sighting was in Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. It is found further east all the way to the Philppines, but northwards is restricted to the Yunnan province of China and southwards to the northern parts of the Malay peninsula. The coucal is one of the few birds in which males perform most of the work in building nests, incubation, and feeding the young. Consistent with this, the females are larger in size. The reason seems to be that they depend on seasonally available food, and the female, which lays many eggs, has to spend more time foraging for food.

I hadn’t got a good photo of a coucal for several years, but this individual seemed to welcome paparazzi. It went about its sunbathing without paying any attention to watchers. I got in several good shots, a sample of which I post here in the hope that some unscrupulous tabloid offers to buy the whole set off me. Baby you’ll be famous, I’ll chase you down until you love me.

Changing minds, changing the world

The Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur is the one bird sanctuary that most travellers in India would have heard of. It is a marvel of conservation efforts, and is reputed to be one of the most diverse wetland areas in the world. There are claims that more than 100,000 tourists visit every year. I can believe that after seeing how many houses in Bharatpur have become hotels over the years.

After years of disagreement, the local population now seems to be quite invested in the well-being of the park. It brings business, and water-sharing agreements between the park and the surrounding farmlands now ensure that there is no friction even in years, like this, when rainfall has been less than usual.

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A very striking, and welcome, development was this series of beautiful paintings in a naive style which I saw on the walls of buildings and structures, inside the park, which belong to the forest department. They did not look weather-beaten; either someone has done these paintings recently, or people have been taking care of them. They weren’t there when we visited this park almost exactly twenty years ago. Painted storks were the first birds we had seen then, and they appear among the species painted here. The few Siberian Cranes (Grus leucogeranus) that we saw then remains one of the highlights of that visit. This population is now extinct, and they are not remembered in the paintings that you see.

Near the entrance, a marble plaque proclaims the status of the park as a world heritage site. The story behind the park and its status is more gnarly than this simple plaque would lead you to believe, but the gain for conservation is clear. There is more money for upkeep now, and almost 50% of the annual visitors are foreign tourists.

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There aren’t too many facilities for visitors inside the park. Around the entrance are shops and a visitors’ center. An Interpretation Center is some way in. Further in, near the offices of the Forest Department, there is a car park, a small canteen, and a small guest house. I liked the lawn in front of it; I should remember to book a room in it if we come here again. I liked the decrepit gate near the guest house (it’s part of the slide show above).

Much further in is the Keoladeo temple. Near it is are eight marble plaques of infamy. This park was built as a duck shoot in 1920, and the plaques record a succession of panjandrums who shot down hundreds, sometimes thousands of birds in a day. This grand parade of hunters began in 1921 with the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and continued with various Maharajas and Viceroys. In the years after independence more dignitaries came to hunt: the Shah of Iran, the kings of Nepal and Malaya, a party of senators from the US, until 1964 when the last name, of the chief of army staff, General J. N. Chaudhuri, was inscribed. A little distance away is an account of changing attitudes to this area. In 1967 the area was declared a protected forest, and it became a National Park in 1981. Four years later it became a World Heritage site.

I was there with a group of bird watchers. Over dinner there was some discussion of the history of the park. Attitudes towards wildlife have changed so far that some people are very offended by the record of the shoots. I agreed with their opinion about the importance of conservation. I understood their emotions, but I could not agree with the idea of removing these plaques. I think it is important to record our history truly, so that we can continue to appreciate the hard work needed to change people’s minds, and through it, to change the world. These eight marble plaques are a lesson to us, and to the next generation, that changes may take a lifetime or two, but if enough people are convinced, then it will happen.

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.

Huddle

The Green Bee-eater (Merops oientalis) is not exotic. I see many from my balcony every day, sitting on wires and making erratic dashes to pick up flying insects. Somehow I’d never seen them roosting in groups before. This group huddled together on a winter morning looked very funny and I clicked a burst of photos. In spite of seeing them every day, I hadn’t thought to check out their roosting habits. I read that there could be hundreds of them roosting together. These six hoods huddled up against each other are nothing compared to such large groups, but they are a funny sight at 8 o’clock on a February morning when other birds are already extremely active. They looked like a really sleepy volley-ball team. The early bird may get the worm, but the birds which eat insects need not wake up until insects are warm enough to fly about. Bee eaters can sleep late, it turns out.

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!

Cuddle

It was almost closing time and we were hurrying back to the gates of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. On the side of the road near a dead tree where we’d seen Spotted Owlets (Athene brama) in the morning we saw a couple of people looking up. I’d not got a good photo of the owls in the morning, because they stayed in their nest and only looked out now and then. So I hopped off the rickshaw and ran down to the tree.

Two owlets were perched on one of the dead branches. The fading light of the sun had brought them out of the hole in the tree where they nest. These owlets are creatures of dusk and night, and the pair was true to form. This was my first day with the new camera and I was happy to have a pair of birds which wouldn’t move, I thought.

I zoomed in to one, and caught it wagging its tail. “Owlet or dog,” I thought to myself. The illumination wasn’t perfect; the sky was bright and the birds were almost in silhouette. I thought that if I zoom in a bit more I would cut out the contrast between the lit sky and the bird, get more detail. I was worrying about the instrument and not paying attention to behaviour. So when I zoomed in a bit more I was totally surprised by what I got.

I could describe it in words, but the photo is enough. And if you still need an explanation, who can do better than Sulpicia, one of the few woman poets of Rome whose words have come down to modern times.

Si me cadurci restitutis fasciis
nudam Caleno concubantem proferat

If you were to untangle the sheets of my marriage bed
You would find me lying nude with my husband Calenus…

The wagging of the tail was clearly pre-mating behaviour. The couple stayed together after mating. It is hard to tell the sexes apart in spotted owlets, and I could tell this only by their actions during mating. The male spent a while preening: fluttering its wings, seeming to smoothen them out. After that it was time to come back close to each other. I hadn’t realized that while I was taking the photos The Family had followed me down to the base of the tree and was standing next to me. She asked “Did you get photos?” I hadn’t set the camera to burst shoot, so I had only a single shot of the act of mating. This was brief, lasting maybe a couple of seconds. But after that the couple cuddled for a long while, and I had the time to take many shots (above and the featured photo).

I always find myself reading about bird behaviour after seeing it in the wild. This was no exception. Unlike most of the migratory birds in the park, these residents breed in winter. Their breeding season starts in November and ends in April, so our trip in early February coincided with the middle of the season. I could not find a record of mating behaviour, so nothing that I saw is nuanced by other observations. The pair did not call at all during this time. They touched each other continuously, running their beaks through each others’ feathers now and then. We wanted to stay and watch longer, but the gate would not stay open for us, so we had to leave.

An amazing railway station

When I got on to a train to Bharatpur in early February I realized that I don’t travel much by train any longer. Most of my travel for work is done between cities connected by flights. When I make a trip far away, I try to maximize my time at the destination by flying as close to it as possible and then taking a car. These are high-impact ways of traveling. It is not unlikely that trains have smaller environmental impact.

Railway stations have changed a lot. The station in Mumbai was vast and much better organized than it used to be. But what was amazing was the station I got off at half a day later- Bharatpur in Rajasthan. This town has now defined itself by the Keoladeo National Park next to it. The park is one of the most famous birding spots in the country; if you tell anyone that you are going to Bharatpur they will immediately respond with “Birds.”

This incredible feat of conservation is celebrated in the railway station. Murals of lotus flowers and buds, metal cutouts showing deer and tigers, and paintings of birds decorate the station. If you ever rolled past the station in a train you would not miss the connection to nature that Bharatpur now professes.

Murals of owls, herons and foxes greeted me as I got off the train. My phone was not working so I waited while The Family took the photos which you see here. We were a small group of birders, most of whom we had met for the first time the previous evening as we boarded the train. Several of the others also had their phones out to take photos of the station.

We gaped at this large mural of painted storks in their nest. It seems that serious birders don’t take out their big lenses for stuff like this, although they should. I was pretty impressed by the four species which stood by the side of the nest in homage. A skein of flying painted storks were the first birds that were pointed out to us by our rickshaw-guide when we came here in the last century in the days before we had taken up birding.

Does Bharatpur have tigers? There are no residents, but occasionally one strays in from Ranthambore or Sariska, and its removal is a nine-day wonder.

Our transport had arrived, and the spree of photography had to be cut short. As The Family took a last photo I thought that it would indeed be worth a note in a wildlife magazine if we could get a photo of a Brahminy Kite fishing. That Kingfisher off on the side seems to have turned green with envy.

A purple sunbird

You don’t go into a national park to look for a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus). But if you find one sipping nectar from flowers right by the road, you do stop to take a photo. This may be a common bird, but it looks beautiful, and is more than a little mysterious. Does it migrate locally? A Purple sunbird banded in Bharatpur is said to have been recovered in Dehra Dun. Mysterious or beautiful, this one was a minor star. I counted more than a dozen birders with long lenses clustered together taking a photo of this heedless individual. It fluttered from one bunch of flowers to another, perching delicately each time before dipping its curved beak into the flowers to sip at the nectar.

It was February when we saw this individual in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. There are major differences in colouration between the male and the female, breeding and non-breeding males, and eclipse and breeding plumage in adult males. This was a adult male whose plumage was readying itself for a breeding season which would start in a couple of months. Surprising genetic information comes from the Purple Sunbird. An ancient version of the Hepatitis B virus was found to have inserted itself into its genome, and that of many other species of birds. A comparison of these genetic fossils and modern Hepatitis B viruses show that it switched from birds to mammals about 10 million years ago. Even this common bird teaches us about the incredible history of life on earth.

Not a fussy eater

I like this guy, but I can’t say I like his eating habits. This White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) sat on a branch hanging over the edge of a swamp in Bharatpur and kept darting down to the water and coming back to its perch. This is one of the species of Kingfishers which does not live by fish. It mostly eats insects, although it isn’t finicky. About one sixth of its diet consists of vertebrates, perhaps occasionally other birds.

I was curious about what it was eating now, and I had a new camera. It wasn’t hard to get a series of close ups. What was that it had picked up? Was it a water strider? The legs were long, but the body was even longer. Probably not a water strider then. Also, it hadn’t darted down to the surface, but had snatched up the morsel of food from the air. Could it be some kind of an Orthoptera, a grasshopper or cricket? The body was rather thin. Its wings, if it had any, were folded. I wished I’d seen its head and antennae.

A bunch of field biologists found that H. smyrnensis spends about half of the day scanning its surroundings for food, and only about a quarter of daylight hours actually feeding. It seemed to me that the time spent in feeding was less. This Kingfisher did not give me much of a chance to continue my differential diagnosis of its diet. The long-bodied insect was gone in a jiffy. Was the process of eating over? Apparently not. The tongue of a White-breasted Kingfisher is a marvelous organ, well-adapted to its diet, breaking down its hard shell slowly while it sits and scans the surroundings for the next morsel.