The six seasons: 6

Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.

This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,

For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.

Quiet mornings

With the physical distancing of people in full swing, it seems that we are all beginning to find new connections to the world around us. I get up in the morning and hear a wonderful natural concert put up by the birds around us. There are familiar calls, as well as new ones I’m learning to recognize. You make a lot of new friends when you give them some time. The sun comes over the nearby rooftops as I put away the drying and make a tea. The concert in raga Lalit gives way to the long Bhairavi of the morning as I sit down with my tea. This is the new soundtrack of my mornings.

Among the most distinctive voices in the earliest raga are Coppersmith Barbets (Psilopogon haemacephalus, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat). They hang around the garden all the year round. Their monotonous call is a constant background to every morning’s concert. Even in ordinary times I hear them more often than I see them.

Grey hornbill in Mumbai

A pair of Indian Grey Hornbills (Ocyceros birostris, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat) visit the garden every year to nest, and bring up a new brood. Their arrival is a sure sign of the end of winter. I took the photo here a couple of years ago, in October, some time before they left the garden.

The call of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus, recorded by Paul Bourdin) is another sure sign of spring. The call of the koel has been part of the cultural landscape across India for centuries. There is even a 15th century poem by Uddanda Shastri about a koel who carries a message from a lost man to his lover, modelled after Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.


In the past I paid more attention to the spectacular colours of the Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo, recordings by Frank Lambert and Peter Boesman) than to its call. Now, as I try to tease apart the content of the mornings’ symphony, I am beginning to recognize it by its voice. How does the same bird have such a harsh call, and a beautiful singing voice?

The Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis recorded by Conrad Pinto) is such a beautiful bird that I’ve spent a lot of time photographing them, and I know its call fairly well too. But disentangling its voice from the morning’s background score is still a little difficult for me.

The lively chirping of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, recorded by Peter Boesman) starts later in the morning. I wonder whether they wake up late, or whether they are too busy foraging in the morning to vocalize much. Does anyone know? In any case, the sparrows’ chirps are a transitional point. After that the Lalit raga, the raga of dawn, dies down and there is a transition to the Bhairavi raga of the day.

This is the time of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri, recorded by Rajagopal Patil). These gaudily coloured and combative birds have free reign of the airspace around trees during the day, and fly about with their constant screeches. Portunately they are gregarious, and when they congregate on a far spot, other birds can still be heard in my neighbourhood.

I have a suspicion that there is a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus, recording by Peter Boesman) somewhere in the garden. In the middle of the morning I think I’ve heard the chirping of this bird. During normal days we wouldn’t be paying attention to birds at that time, so neither The Family nor I am sure whether we have seen one. After we can move freely, we will keep a watch for it.

The Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer, recording by Conrad Pinto) is a common bird, whose call I know from childhood. There are a few of them in the neighbourhood. I hear them intermittently during the day, and late in the afternoon, when I go for a walk, I pass a tree which seems to be a favourite hang out for a bunch of these loudmouths.

Perhaps the most annoying bird is the common myna (Acridotheres tristis, recorded by Peter Boesman). Their call is sweet enough, if heard from far. But one of them has decided that my shower is its day room. It sits on the window sill and lets off a full throated taan. This would also be wonderful, but due to some peculiarity, the space around the window acts as an amplifier which sends an incredibly loud version of the song through the aparment. I would give him a wonderful reference if he is seeking a position elsewhere; I really want to get rid of him.

There is little to be said for the Blue Rock Pigeon (Columba livia, recorded by Mike Nelson) except that it brings a certain gravitas to the daytime ragas. The cooing is often interrupted by the noisy beating of wings that you hear in the recording, as it takes flight from the slightest perceived danger.

No description of the sounds of an Indian city can be complete without including the House Crow (Corvus splendens, recorded by Peter Boesman), whose social behaviour, aggression, and intelligence are keys to their survival against much larger raptors. The typical raucous call that you hear in this recording is by far the most common vocalization of the crow. It has many others, including a throaty croak that sounds a little like it is trying to say nevermore while clearing its throat.

I suppose if I’m stuck at home for much longer I can produce a blog post with the birds that I hear less often. For now a dozen is enough.

Painted Spurfowls

When a pair of painted spurfowl (Galloperdix lunulata) emerged warily at the edge of the clearing in front of my hide, it was a lifer. I’d never seen these gamebirds before. The brightly coloured male with its spotted plumage, and the somewhat muted colours of the female were completely new to me. I noticed the wicked spurs on the legs. What are they used for? To battle other males for territory and breeding rights? Typically species with sexual dimorphism of this kind are not monogamous, although an authoritative book from 1928 is often quoted in evidence of monogamy. The pair advanced to the middle of the open area in front of my hide, pecking constantly at the ground. They eat seeds, grains, berries, tubers, and insects.

Another pair slunk through the grass and bushes behind, and the male jumped on to a big rock, (featured photo) leaving the female behind. That was a remarkable leap, and I wondered why it didn’t flap its wings at all to get some lift. Other jungle fowls do an ungainly flutter now and then, but apparently not the painted spurfowl. It would rather run fast than fly. A lone female ran about in the dust ahead of me, stopping to peck every now and then.

The painted spurfowl is found everywhere on the plains of India, and breeds from late winter to the beginning of the monsoon. The male shares in the rearing of the chicks, again unusual given the flamboyant colouring of the male. Given that it’s so widespread, I wonder why I haven’t seen it before. I asked The Family, and it turned out that she has seen it before, on a trip on which I didn’t go. So have I seen it earlier, or not?

Teetar

When I was a child, door to door vendors would sometimes arrive at our house with Grey Francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus, तीतर) in large baskets. This was a very special treat, like quail. For a brief while these game birds were farmed. In the 80s there was a specialty shop near the Taj in Mumbai which stocked game birds including तीतर (teetar). With the increasing industrialization of food, and the homogenization of tastes that followed, these farms either shut down or turned to battery farming of chicken. As a result my memories of game birds had faded over the years.

Sitting in a hide inside Daroji Bear Sanctuary, one of the first things I saw was a bunch of these game birds pecking their way silently across the rocks. These birds are found right across the plains of India and Pakistan, and in the coastal areas of Iran, north of the Gulf of Oman. The IUCN red list classifies as of least concern for conservation. The plains of India are heavily urbanized, so this seemed a little odd to me, until I realized that their habitat are these rocky and barren scrublands, which are of least concern to developers, at least for now.

From another hide the next morning I saw more them pecking at grains left as lure. There are some species of birds and animals, which, although widespread, have extremely low genetic diverstiy. They need special conservation effort. Given the long history of domestication of तीतर, I wondered about this. I found later that the genetics of the Grey Francolin has been studied mainly in one population in central Pakistan. This population shows high genetic diversity. If this can be verified in other populations across the range of this bird, then it would be further reason to believe that the Grey Francolin is one of the lucky species not to need special protection from us.

I leave you with a video of these birds which were once a common sight in cities, but which you now have to travel far to see.

A bad decision

As I was packing for a trip to Guwahati in early December, The Family asked me “Aren’t you packing your camera and binoculars?” I wasn’t planning to. I thought of this as a quick trip and wall-to-wall meetings, fly in for a couple of days of intense discussion and then get back home. No time to visit the wonderful birding spots around Guwahati. How was I to know that I would be living in a wonderful room overlooking a lake full of migratory birds?

Perhaps if I hadn’t spent all of November traveling from one meeting to another I would have paid it some thought. If you spend even a couple of hours outdoors in winter in India you can’t miss migratory birds. If you are fortunate enough to have breakfast at a window overlooking even a little waterhole, let alone a large pond, it’ll be like watching a documentary by a famous narrator. The naked eye and a phone camera are better than nothing, but certainly not adequate. Also, given that several of the birds were unfamiliar, I really wished I’d at least packed my field guide.

The days were pleasant and sunny, the air full of the squawks and trills of birds. My surroundings were beautifully manicured, but lacking the hectic life of Guwahati’s center. The birds which do these long migrations are usually larger creatures. Small songbirds seldom migrate long distances, although they often do local vertical migrations which are specially noticeable in Bihar, Bengal and Assam. No more traveling without all my optics in my backpack, I promised myself.

An odd bird

While birding in Hampi, I was so focused on a few new species that I didn’t remember taking these photos of the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus). It remains common in ruins and edgelands around towns, but rare in both parks and open spaces inside towns, and in dense jungle. In any case I’d seen it so often that I pointed my camera at it, took photos, and forgot about it until I went through my photos later. Then I realized that I’d caught my best photos yet of the southern variety of these birds. The shiny dark back is so much more attractive than the khaki and brown of the north Indian variety. The bird is slender in outline, and this plump shape is probably a territorially aggressive display by a male. Typically I would identify a male by a white patch on the shoulder, which I don’t see here. Perhaps it is hidden when the bird fluffs up. In any case, the bird is so common that I seldom give it much attention.

But perhaps I should, because of a long back story. Most African songbird groups evolved in the northern part, and migrated southwards in eras when forests expanded. Then, when forests contracted again, some of the isolated populations evolved into different species. Successive pulses of expanding forests led to songbird lineages populating Africa from north to south. In several of these lineages one can also trace the founding population to a migration event from Asia and India into Africa, over the Indian Ocean, through the Seychelles, and the “Lemurian” islands, which emerge in eras when the climate is dry and the ocean is low. The Indian robin is a different story. A molecular genetics study reveals that the small group of related birds in the African genus Erythropygia and their Asian relatives in genus Copsychus are odd birds indeed. These non-migratory birds have made the reverse journey from southern Africa to north, and then out of Africa to Asia. A whole clade inside Copsychus, including C. fulicatus, started with this unusual migration in the early Neogene. This is definitely an odd story, first pulished in 2014. I look forward to seeing either verification or dispute in future. In the meanwhile, I look at the Indian robin with more interest.

Red Adavadats

I thought this was a lifer, since I would have remembered seeing such a colourful bird before. But apparently it wasn’t. The name red avadavat (Amandava amandava) or red munia rang a bell, and it turned out that we’d first seen it almost a decade ago. It is very common after all. Still, having forgotten it completely, I will consider this sighting of one resting on a cactus at least partly a lifer. For purposes of identification, one has to remember that the bill can change colour, and turns from an orange yellow to a bright red to a dark brown or black according to season. I wondered whether this is due to a changing diet. But then birds which are bright red often are sexually dimorphic, with the female a bright yellow. That is certainly true of this bird. So the change in colour could also be due to the activation or disactivation of a gene. By the time I took a photo of the male, the female had hidden itself, and came out in the open only fleetingly.

This one inspected the surroundings from its perch high up on the cactus, and then, only after figuring out that the coast was clear, did it descend to the ground. It feeds on grass seeds, and was not attracted to the grains that had been left outside the hide I sat on. I mentally cheered, because its behaviour cannot be manipulated simply by leaving grains out in the open. Why did it visit then? Random chance, or because the company of many other feeding birds can help to warn it against preddators even when it is not looking?

Five birds of the afternoon (and then some)

In India I’ve grown used to seeing a couple of lapwings, and it was great to be in a new continent where I doubled my count. I first saw the African wattled lapwing (Vanellus senegallus, featured photo) near a small waterhole. Lapwings are waders, as you can tell by their long legs, but it is not uncommon to find them walking in fields. I got this photo as it walked along the track that a Landrover had taken.

It took me quite some work to identify the white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata) that you see in the photo above. You say you don’t see them? That is because you haven’t yet read the small print in the field guide which says “the face may be stained due to contact with muddy water.” They are the ones with the tall black necks, looking entirely unlike most photos you find on the web. The other ducks there are Hottentot teals (Spatula hottentota). I don’t know why these two species are so closely associated here. Is that normal? I wouldn’t know unless I see them more often, or talk to a local expert. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do either.

The red-necked spurfowl (Pternistis afer) is supposed to be common, but we saw a group of them only once. I later realized that I did a good thing in taking many shots, because a look at its red feet was needed to clinch the identification. The grey-breasted francolin looks pretty similar. Although its habitat is a little more southwards, it is always possible to have a vagrant bird or two.

I saw this bush pipit (Anthus caffer) in a, yes, bush right next to the trail. Stephen hit the brakes instantly when I said I wanted a photo. Luckily I took many as it looked around, and hopped about in the bush. I find pipits and larks hard to identify; they have strongly patterned feathers, and you have to notice little details to tell the species without making mistakes. In a new continent without a bird guide, the only way out was to take lots of photos, and hope one had enough details to sit down with later.

I’d seen a yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) just as the wildebeest started crossing the Mara river, and not managed to take a good photo. So I was very happy to see one again as we left the Mara triangle on our way back to Nairobi. This time the light was good, and the photo came out sharp.

Cleaning Crew

When you have a game reserve with almost one and a half million wildebeest and nearly a thousand lions, you should expect that some of the antelopes die every day. The cleaning crew will be seen on the grasslands of Maasai Mara fairly often. The featured photo shows a constant member of the work gang: the Marabou stork. I first saw one in Nairobi; a large number of them gather in the neighbourhood of the National Stadium, but I couldn’t get a good photo in the traffic. My next sighting was in Amboseli, but at a distance, through a heat haze which made my photo a little blurred. It was only here that I got my first good photo of the Marabou stork. They are perhaps the only species of birds which completely lack a voice box.

The cleaning crew sat on a berm, and below them in the ditch was the remains of the wildebeest they were cleaning up. How did it die? It could have been chased into this place by a predator, where the high wall on one side did not allow it to escape. It could have been killed elsewhere and dragged here. Or it could have fallen down and broken its neck. The Family speculated that it could also have had a heart attack. It is unlikely that we would ever find out. We wouldn’t even have noticed it if we hadn’t spotted the cleaners sitting there.

The crew contained a few white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus). This was our first view of this critically endangered species. You can tell them from the back by the white wings covering a darker body. The face is uniformly black, and lacks any yellow in the beak. You can see a couple very clearly in the group photo of the cleaning crew. Off on one side, a large vulture examined me as I took its photo. It turned out to be another critically endangered species, the Rüppell’s griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii), one of the most remarkable fliers among birds. We’d met some earlier in the morning in another part of the reserve.

Two more birds

On our way out for a second drive in the morning, the first thing we saw was a Cape buffalo, one of the fearsome five out of hunters’ legends from the late 19th century. It stood placidly munching its cud, and I wondered about its fierce reputation. I was to see it in action before the day was out. It was only later that I realized that the shot that I took for the record (below) had my only shot of a yellow–billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). What a miss! I should have looked more carefully and taken a close up of the bird.

Almost immediately I looked down at the grass and saw another bird. I took a shot, but could not identify it until a very experienced birder told me it was a pipit. Then the field guide told me that it was the African pipit (also called the grassland pipit, Anthus cinnamomeus). It turns out to be the most common pipit of East Africa, and therefore continues my unbroken stream of spotting only the commonest of African birds.