He is no chicken

It wasn’t hard to spot an ostrich in Kenya. As we drove out of the airport, the road passed next to the Nairobi national park and we saw an ostrich in the middle distance. In Amboseli we kept seeing ostriches every now and then, but they were usually in the middle distance or far away. Eventually, just before leaving the park we saw one right by the side of the road. Anthony pulled to a halt, saying “This one wants to cross.” Indeed it did. While it was deciding whether or not it should, I managed to snap off a series of photos. All our sightings were of the common ostrich (Struthio camelus). The number of presumed species has varied greatly over the years. Initially, many species were names based on variations in appearance. Eventually genetic studies seemed to show that there was only one species, but now with larger sampling sizes it seems that there are really two. We never went to parts of Kenya where one can see the second species, the Somali ostrich, which can be distinguished by its blue neck.

When tortoises decided to hunt ostriches, they lined up in two long rows. One of them steered the ostriches between them. Then each one asked the next “What are you doing?” and the next one answered “I’m hunting ostriches.” The ostriches heard this and ran and ran until they fell down exhausted. Then the tortoises came to where they had fallen and ate them up.
— Bantu folk tale

We enjoyed the safaris in Amboseli national park (in spite of the dust) and I’d wanted to write one post about the park and its keepers. Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of the entrance. Among my photos the gate appears only in the background of this shot of the ostrich crossing the road, so I will just pause here to acknowledge the great job being done by the gamekeepers.

You can see in this photo the remarkably muscular thighs of the ostrich. They enable it to reach top running speeds of about 70 kilometers per hour, and sustained speeds of over 30 kilometers an hour. You can also see the oddly elongated and clawed two-toed feet, so unlike those of other birds, adapted both to running and kicking hard in its own defense. I wondered how the bird manages to keep its temperature under control as it runs. When I read that the bird’s body temperature is around 40 Celsius, I realized that I should have asked how it stays warm. Perhaps by eating a lot. So, by all rights it should have crashed from habitat loss. Thatg it hasn’t is probably due to the fact that it is now extensively farmed for meat and leather.

What do you do with three in the bush?

One bush. Three species of birds. Three lifers. That’s got to be pretty amazing. I didn’t have a field guide when we saw them, so, although I knew I was looking at things I’d never seen before, I had no idea what they could be called. The bird sitting on top of the bush (featured photo) confused me completely. I could not put it into any of the slots I use when watching birds in India. Its beak seemed to indicate a seed eater; too large for a finch, sparrow, or munia, could it be a weaver? No, weavers are smaller and more colourful. But this was Africa, and I was a novice in this continent. I kept putting off looking for it in the field guide that I eventually bought. It turned out to be a Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver (Bubalornis niger).

Below the bush was a group of Yellow-necked Spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus or Pternistis leucoscepus). Anthony said that this was common, and was eaten sometimes. Why were there several birds all together? Was this like the jungle fowl, with one male trying to keep a harem together? Probably not; since both sexes looked the same, it seemed that male-male competition was not driving sexual selection. I found later that in this species pairs bond for life, but several pairs can nest in close proximity. I still have to figure out why.

This bee eater sat alone on an exposed branch of the same bush. A chestnut bellied bee eater, ventured Anthony. It was a good guess. But later, when I leafed through my book I realized that the guess was wrong. Flipping back and forth between illustrations confused me. Perhaps it was a Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus). Something still didn’t fit: the broad band of blue above its black mask. Reading the description I realized that what I had seen was the subspecies meridionalis which is distinguished from the other subspecies by exactly this feature. All three are common and widespread African species, but for The Family and me they were lifers.

Two birds in the bush

Kenya has about 1300 species of birds, probably slight in excess of the number of species of birds in India. I’d known about this for a while. During my preparation for the trip I tried to order a field guide but found it would be delivered long after our scheduled departure. As a result, we landed in Nairobi without any preparation, fearing that most birds we saw would be new and unidentifiable.

Standing in the kitchen of the Mother of Niece Tatu, I heard a chirping and twittering. I looked out and a nearby tree seemed to be full of motion. MONT said, “That tree is full of nests.” The Family went off to unpack her binoculars while I picked up my camera. The kitchen looked out on an open green space bounded by trees below several apartments, with a low house set in the middle of a clearing. Perfect terrain for urban bird-watching. One of the first birds I saw was a small sparrow sized bird on the roof of the house below us (featured photo). I’d never seen anything like this before.

We saw it in close association with a red bird of similar size. “Male and female”, was The Family’s guess. We saw a little brown on the back of the bird, and the noticeably white eyes. Later we would find that the two were indeed the male and female of the Red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), also called the Somali firefinch. It is a rather common bird, whose habitat stretches east-west across sub-Saharan Africa and in a very wide band down the east coast of Africa all the way to South Africa. Although it is so common across Africa, and its call is part of the soundscape of the continent, this was a lifer for us, since it is not found outside of Africa.

The tree had a very large number of a noisy brown long-tailed bird with a very stylish brown crest. We could see them flitting through the leaves without settling into an exposed branch. I managed to take a few shots which could together give me a picture of the whole bird. Later I would find that it was another very common bird of Africa, the Speckled mousebird (Colius striatus). We were excited by these two lifers although they happen to be among the commonest birds of East Africa, and in larger parts of the continent.

But Father of Niece Tatu had broken out a pack of Tusker’s Malt, and we left the birding to go on to another lifer.

Peg-leg Bill

Technically this bird is a Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), but its one-legged stance somehow reminded me of a pirate. It stood in the shallow waters which spill through parts of the Rann of Kutch, looking for insects. It eats molluscs, fish, frogs and leeches too, but I don’t think that the briefly flooded desert would have any of these. Why did it stand one one leg? A study on flamingos (would that be a study on scarlet?) performed by two people in Pennsylvania in 2009 suggested that water birds raise one foot out of the water to keep from getting too cold. This was an easy thing to understand, and was reported in lots of newspapers and magazines. A year later another study, this time from New Zealand, on many kinds of waders, including flamingos and spoonbills, found that birds stand on one foot regardless of the temperature of the water. So they concluded that the reason for standing on one leg could not be to maintain their body temperature, and instead suggested an interesting different reason for this habit.

It was a winter afternoon, and it was quite warm in the desert. Most of the spoonbills that I saw were still and resting. Only a few strode around the shallows looking for food. Most of the drowsy birds stood on one leg. This reminded me of the suggestion by the New Zealanders. They put together two earlier observations. The first is one that found in 2009 that flamingo (and perhaps other waders) anatomy makes it easier for them to stand stably on one leg than on two, so much so that even dead birds can be more easily balanced on one leg. The second is a landmark study from 1999 which found that birds sleep with one half of their brain on! During this period of sleep, as the bird switches awareness from one hemisphere of their brain to another, they see from one eye, or the other. The New Zealanders observed that waders switch from one leg to another occasionally while sleeping, and suggested that when one hemisphere of the brain sleeps, the leg which is controlled by it is retracted out of the water to help the birds balance more easily while asleep. I find this a wonderfully economical explanation, which puts together two surprising facts about the anatomy and physiology of birds. The next time you see a bird standing on one leg, stop for a moment to check whether it could be half asleep.

Common birds of San Francisco bay area

I was doing some archaeology with my photos and found some which I’d taken of birds in the San Francisco bay area eight years ago. This surprised me immensely because I did not think of myself as a bird watcher in those days. Maybe it was because The Family had already started carrying binoculars and field guides to birds on our holidays that made me take these photos in backyards and walks. I took the featured photo out of a kitchen window one morning while making a tea. I think that is a Western Wood Peewee (Contopus sordidulus). I have a couple of other photos, all of the same quality, but together they seem to defy an alternative identification.

In the same patch of ground at the same time I also spotted this small yellow and black bird. Again I have several photos, none of them very good, but all together indicating that this is perhaps the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). It is certainly small enough to be one, and the colour makes it unlikely that it is anything else.

Afterwards I stood in the kitchen with my tea and photrographed this dove. I hadn’t seen anything before which looks like this. It is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). The birds I saw were all common birds, with a large range and stable population. They are of no concern to conservationists. I found them interesting then, because I knew nothing of New World birds. I have a memory of planning to identify them later. I could hardly have thought that the plan would mature almost a decade later.

The commonest of American birds was new to me. I found now that I have several photos of the American robin (Turdus migratorius) apart from the one you see above. This has a much more faded red in the breast than the variety I’ve seen on the east coast. Perhaps that means it belongs to the subspecies propinquus, which is one of the two subspecies which one can see in this area. I suppose I spent a bit of time photographing this bird because it looked different from the robins I’d seen before.

Identifying the bird which you can see in the photo above was not easy, although I have several photos. The reason, as ARKive says, is that the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) “from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour”, although it is one of the commonest birds in North America. If you look through the photos in that site, you see how different they can look. Although the Wikipedia page has several photos, none of them look like this.

I spent quite a while looking at this common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and because I thought that I’d seen something quite similar halfway across the globe. My impression was correct. The web page of the Audubon Society says that it was brought to the Americas in the 1890s, and has since spread across this new habitat. My photos show the typical feeding behaviour of this adult male: poking at the grass repeatedly and eventually tugging its prey out of the group (photo above). I didn’t seen any flocks, though.

Finally that little song bird that is so common that I ignored it until it sat down on garden furniture right in front of me. This is the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), which can be found everywhere from central Canada to Tierra del Fuego. That probably makes it one of the commonest of American birds. I wasn’t really looking for birds during that trip, and it is just chance that I took these photos. As a result, I have photos of the commonest of birds in the Bay Area.

The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bhitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

A dark and stormy day

It was a dark and stormy day. Well, not stormy as much as rainy. But the wind was strong enough to ruffle the feathers of a common sandpiper by the sea-shore (featured photo).

In any case it was a dark and wet day when we met up with a lone birder standing by a bend in the Great Andaman Trunk Road near its end in Chidiyatapu. We had a scope, binoculars and cameras. He had a scope and binoculars. The first words he said were "Andaman shama". When you hear a call like that it confirms that you have met a birder.

We spent about half an hour in that one spot by the road. It was not very early, but since the day was pretty dark, the birds were feeding late. In a short while we saw not only the Andaman shama, but also the bright scarlet minivet with its yellow companion (The Family’s favourite), a small minivet, a couple of black-naped orioles, a spot-breasted kingfisher, an Indian fairy bluebird, an Andaman treepie, an Andaman drongo and a white-headed starling. Mark Smiles, the birder we met on the road, was a fantastic spotter.

Boat at Chidiyatapu

We were off to Chidiyatapu for breakfast. Since Mark also wanted to go there, we gave him a lift. At Chidiyatapu we saw two different kinds of kingfishers, three kinds of parakeets, and the Andaman flower-pecker before Mark left. The sea was calm (see photo above) as we settled down for breakfast. It had been a most unusual trip to Andaman till now.

Birding at night

Shaktivel had a plan. Gokul, Senthil and Shakti wanted to do night birding in Chidiyatapu. We’d had a long day: waking at 3:30 in the morning to catch our flight, only to cool our heels in Chennai for a delayed flight to Port Blair. We’d not had a great lunch either. So after sunset in Sippighat, Infinity Cafe in Chidiyatapu, South Andamanwhen Shakti told us about the evening’s plans, The Family and I voted to eat something first. Senthil started on the drive to Chidiytapu. On the deserted road through a bit of deserted forest we spotted a lone birder with a scope. Our meeting with him the next day was interesting enough for a separate post. When we reached the waterfront it was just a little after six, but it was completely dark. We were thrilled to see a line of small eateries. We stopped at Infinity Cafe and ordered a bunch of assorted bhajiyas.

We set out fortified. Shakti handed a torch to Gokul and a head lamp to me. The Family did not want a light. Senthil took a turn on to a side road and almost immediately Gokul’s torch found an owl sitting on a dead tree. It was half turned from us, so we could see both the brown back and the streaks across the chest. It was a brown hawk owl. It sat there for a long time, and eventually tired of the bright lights and flew off.

We walked along the road. Most of the time our lights found common birds roosting: brown shrikes, as in the photo here, or red-cheeked bulbuls. We passed a bridge under which swifts nested. We refused Gokul’s offer to clamber down in the dark, but saw them the next morning.Brown Shrike roosting at night We heard a musical hooting in the distance. Our companions knew that this was the call of a Hume’s Hawk Owl. Out came their bluetooth speakers, as they started playing their recorded calls of this bird. It clearly wasn’t attractive enough, since the owl made no move to come nearer. We heard it sitting in a fixed spot. Eventually a further Hume’s Hawk Owl also started calling. Gokul walked into the woods to look for them, but came back without having seen anything more. A different, softer chirruping call started up; probably an Oriental Scops Owl. But our luck had run out. The Family and I were dead on our feet, and begged off. Shakti, Gokul and Senthil reluctantly called off their hunt.

We finally reached the hotel at nine. It had been a long day. We decided to skip dinner, fell in bed and were instantly asleep. We’d had a fantastic first day in the Andamans, and we had another long day planned.

Breakfast at Kosi Bazar

Just after the Almora-Gopeshwar road crosses the Kosi, a little road-side bazar has sprung up, invisible on maps and satellite photos available to you and me. For a couple of hundred meters, the road is lined on both sides by shops. The owners walk here from nearby villages early in the morning and leave late at night. The shops were just opening as we came by at 7 in the morning. We had passed a kill some distance down the road. The shop-keepers told us that the cow was prey to a leopard which had been seen in the area several times that week. In the animated conversation we were told the puzzling story that leopards drink blood. Could this be a misinterpretation of the reason the leopard hangs on to the neck of its prey? A leopard kills by holding the prey by its neck until it chokes to death.

A limited menu is painted on the wall. Below the trees at the back is a little herb garden

We found three eateries next to each other and checked out possibilities. If you read Hindi you can see in the photo above that the menu is limited. Breakfast is the most varied: pakodas, puri-chhole or alu parathas with tea or coffee. For lunch you can get rice with vegetables and kadhi or with rajma beans. Dinner is just roti and vegetables with yoghurt. This man was just starting up. He had tea on the boil, but the dough was still being kneaded by the old gentleman at the back. Another helper had finished peeling potatoes and was rapidly chopping up a kilo of onions. Large bowls of yogurt had set overnight, but the huge containers were still to be filled with the day’s vegetable curry.

A multipurpose room
A multipurpose room: gas cylinders, sacks of potatoes and onions, and a fridge surround the tables. The major local god is Golu dev, but it is Lakshmi who finds a place in shrines like these

Lesser yellow-naped woodpeckerThe process had reached further next door. The table by the road was already taken, but the inside room was empty. We sat down next to a Pepsi cooler full of an eclectic collection of things which need to be cooled. Those large clay bowls you can see next to the window are used to set yogurt. We opened out the window so that we could look out to the trees next to the river. We saw a lesser yellow-naped woodpecker just sitting here: a lifer for all of us.

A caption
Alu parathas with bowls of sabji ready to serve. The yogurt in the large bowls was set overnight. The yellow paste in the steel bowl is yogurt with haldi, a local speciality

Meanwhile our patron was busy making fresh parathas with thick layers of potatoes inside. The yogurt was thick and fresh, and the mixed sabji which came with the parathas was hot and spicy. If we had breakfast like that every day at home we would be spherical in no time. We’d asked for tea, and we found that our three cups were bottomless. It was a lovely roadside breakfast, and one that lasted longer than the time we had allotted. The morning’s birding here was the best we had that day.

We went on to Kausani, where we saw no birds. There was a cloud cover so we never saw Nanda Devi or any of the other peaks either. On the way back we stopped again at the same shops in Kosi Bazar and had our afternoon tea. The birds were still there.