Many years ago when The Family wanted to start birding, we discovered that the ship-breaking yard in Sewri was a place where we could watch water birds. We went there every weekend for several months and became familiar with the common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos). Because of its name, I thought it wasn’t of much interest. Later I realized that the name merely refers to how easy it is to spot. And only now I realize that it is a very special species. But before I tell you why, let me just say that when you start watching birds you accumulate many photos of the more common ones, and eventually you begin to see their special beauty. I’m very fond of the featured photo of the common sandpiper which I took in a patch of waste water runoff behind Chhapar village in Rajasthan. I’m equally happy with the photo below of the common redshank (Tringa totanus), another sandpiper, taken in the same place. The redshank’s piping call tells you immediately why the family is called sandpiper. These beautiful waders can be seen across Africa, Asia, Europe, and also in parts of Australia.
Across the American continents one sees the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius), very closely related to the common sandpiper. So closely related that there is still gene flow between these two species; hybrid lineages have been spotted now and then. It seems that the species split very recently in geological time. Usually when we look at two different species, say a tiger and a leopard, they are not able to produce viable hybrids. However, when you trace them back to their common ancestral population, the distinction becomes less clear. There is a point at which the ancestors of the leopards and of the tigers could not be distinguished at all. A little later they would have been distinct, but still able to interbreed. Only with the passing of time have they come to be as distinct as they are today. The two species of Actitis remind us that the split between species occurs gradually. It amazes me to see this creative act of evolution frozen in time.
I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.
Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.
I’d started a story from the middle when I posted about flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai. In order to finish the story, I have to give you its beginning. We gathered before sunrise in the region between the Thane creek and the aeration ponds of the Bhandup pumping station. As The Night drove in, a flock of flamingos flew overhead. The sky was the light grey just before dawn. A coucal flew into the bushes ahead of us. As the horizon dipped below the sun, and the sky began to light up, we walked back down the canal.
A common sandpiper goes down to the waterline
Eurasian Marsh Harrier feeding
This female golden oriole just refused to turn its head!
Common sandpipers foraging
An Eurasian Marsh Harrier searching for prey
Indian cormorant, in its usual pose
A red wattled lapwing forages above the water line
The female of the baya weaver bird
White eared bulbuls
Could that be a clamorous reed warbler?
We saw several birds on our slow walk. I’d seen most of the waders, and could still recall their names. I’ve just begun to notice the warblers, and the clamorous reed warbler which we saw was a lifer. One interesting thing about birds is that they are creatures of habit. If in addition they are territorial, then they tend to appear at the same time in the same place every day. We met birders who come to this place very often, and sometimes they told us to look out for some bird or the other, because it should appear soon. It usually works. Passing on socially acquired knowledge is characteristic of our species, isn’t it?
Eventually we went on to ducks and flamingos, but those are stories I have already posted.
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.
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.