Gold and feathers

Sunset on Bhigwan’s lake was a quiet time. Fishermen and farmers were on the way home from work. Herdsmen had brought their cattle to water for a last time in the day. Distant sounds of traffic had quietened. We’d heard calls of birds all day. That was completely gone as the light turned to gold. This was a good time for bird photography on the water. An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) stopped looking for fish as soon as I’d clicked the featured photo and stalked to the hollow of the trunk and laid its head on its shoulder, preparing to sleep.

We’d been on open water most of the afternoon. Now, as we drifted close to the shore, I started noticing a completely different set of birds. There was a common redshank (Tringa totanus), its mottled and streaky feathers quite distinctive. I didn’t want the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) in the photo, but the boat was drifting slowly and there was no quick way of getting it out of the way, except by changing focus.

There were reeds near the shore. I’d seen Garganeys (Spatula querquedula) all day, dabbling in the open waters. The white streaks on the head are quite distinctive. But none had come close enough for a photo. I took one now through the reeds. Behind it were Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus, formerly known as the Indian subspecies of Purple swamphens). I would get photos of them later.

At this time of the day, the colour of the water depends very strongly on which direction you look at. As I turned my gaze westwards I saw a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) seated atop a mooring post sunk into the water. Behind it you can see one of the small villages dotted along the edge of the lake.

And finally, looking due west, on a sea of gold, a Brown-headed gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) had stopped its incessant daily flights, patrolling the water to keep it free of fish. Now it rested gently in the shallows. Later it would paddle closer to the shore and go to sleep on a sandbank. It was time for us to turn back too.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Terning gullible

Evening fell on Bhigwan lake as we gave up our search for the Taiga Bean Goose and drifted gently to a spit of land where a mass of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) were preparing to roost. The noisy squawks and squabbling of a typical gull colony had died down. A few had gone to sleep, tucking their heads down on their shoulders. When these birds sleep, their knees lock so that they don’t keel over. Most species of birds alternately put one hemisphere of their brains to sleep: the eye that faces out from the shoulder is connected to the hemisphere which is awake.

Brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Most of these birds still had the winter’s white head with just a small dark “ear muff” colouring well behind their eyes. But in a very few the head had turned that rich dark brown which signifies that they are ready to breed. It was the middle of March, and the day had been very hot, so it was time for these birds to begin their flights back to Ladakh, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, where they breed. On days like that I wish I was ready to fly off to these cold high plateaus too.

River terns (Sterna aurantia)

As we drifted we saw, for the first time that day, a group of river terns (Sterna aurantia). All of them had developed the fully black caps and the bright bills which denote the coming of spring. Appropriate enough, since Holi was just three days away. We’d last seen them in masses from a boat on the Chambal river. It was good to see them here, closer to home. Since they are resident birds, there will be opportunities of seeing them over the breeding season, which continues till the beginning of the monsoon. In most species of terns individuals do not begin to breed at the end of their first year. The river terns seem to be an exception. You might expect that this would make them less vulnerable to habitat loss, but we seem to have taken care of this roadblock to extinction by polluting most water bodies around us.

Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini)

When you spend enough time staring at a flock you see the little things you may have missed at first. There was a Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini) hiding among them. Once considered a separate species, it is now treated as just another subspecies of lesser black-backed gulls. The rest of the species breeds in the west of Europe, but the population which includes the individual we saw comes from the far northern tundra of Russia, breeding along the coast of the Laptev Sea. This sea contributes most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Its harsh climate made for a very weird ecosystem. But now, as the world warms and the sea ice production falls off, this gull is seeing its breeding grounds become subject to the fastest changing climate in the world. It lives at the thin edge of climate change. On that peaceful, rapidly cooling, evening I wondered how the bird life of Bhigwan would change in the lifetime of the eight year old youngster who watched all this with me.

Harbour line

Another Monday! Another day to quietly nurse the hangover of a lovely Sunday spent in the open air; the pleasant drowsiness of waking in the morning after spending a day walking through air so polluted that you can cut it with a butter knife. My lungs feel more tired than my muscles, but it was a nice weekend.

This post is a guest post in spirit, with photos by The Family. She took them from a launch which puttered through Mumbai’s harbour. Strange creature! You can see the gulls craning their necks to look at it.

The weather’s been a little cooler than normal but does that mean it is winter? You wouldn’t know till the brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) arrive. They have spent the summer in the cooler altitudes of the Himalayas, and the cooler latitudes of Central Asia, China, and Mongolia, and in the last month they have arrived here ahead of the displaced polar vortex which is currently shedding snow across the Himalayas.

I like this lovely shot of Mumbai’s skyline at sunrise with a whole bunch of gulls following the boat in hopes of a snack. Why call these birds brown or black headed, when they clearly have clean white heads? That’s because they have brown or black heads in the summer breeding season, something that we’ll not get to see in Mumbai. In these waters they have black-tipped yellow beaks, white heads, and a small comma of black on the head behind the eyes. The patch of black on the head distinguishes these two from the slender-billed gull, which has sometimes been seen here. The beak of the brown-headed is distinctly stouter, but that may be hard to see when the bird is flying.

An easier way to tell the difference on the wing is to look at, er, the wings. Both have black-tipped wings, but the mature brown-headed gull has a patch of white inside the black. The wing colour of the immature black-headed gull is more brown than black. It is a pity that the harbour is not the center of Mumbai’s leisure life. The western shoreline: Backbay and Marine Drive, the Worli seaface, and Madh island get mentioned a lot. But to enjoy the sea you need to be in the water, and there is no place other than the harbour where you can do it.