I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.
Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!
Pamban island is supposed to be a good place to watch migratory birds starting in October. We were probably a couple of weeks early, but The Family had packed her binoculars. As it turned out, the beaches were so wonderful that we forgot to take time off to go look for birds (yes, you’re right; we are not natural born birders). On the occasional mud flat next to the sea in Dhanushkodi we saw very few birds: some sandpipers, no egrets, kingfishers, herons or gulls. If the migrants had already started coming then we should have seen some.
We saw lots of crows and black kites (Milvus migrans) beating against the wind. Looking closely at them I realized that there were several Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) amongst them. These are close relatives of the more common black kites. I eventually took a photo of one at a tiny pond next to the road in Pamban town. These strikingly coloured scavengers are found in an arc of land from India through south eastern Asia all the way to Australia. It has been a long time since I saw them. Interestingly, although their numbers are decreasing rapidly, they have still not fallen catastrophically enough to move them out of the “Least Concern” category of the IUCN red list.
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.
Seven black shouldered kites with flamingos and a grey heron
There’s always one going the wrong way
Part of Mumbai’s flamingo colony
One greater flamingo in a crowd of lesser flamingos
Flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai
Flamingos take off line planes: with a long run up
Flamingos with a flock of plovers
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?