The battle of the sexes

You can tell that I’m a pretty amateurish birdwatcher because I can’t yet look at a bird in passing and ask “Which wheatear was that?” I have to look carefully at birds like this before I can say that it is a desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti). Then I have to look carefully again and again at the quite differently coloured bird below, and ask The Family “Is that a female of the desert wheatear?” That’s why I’m quite in awe of the great field ornithologists like Salim Ali and Evigeniy Panov who could reputedly identify birds that flew across the periphery of their vision.

Entirely through behaviour and ecology, Panov argued that the blackstarts (genus Cercomela) and wheatears (genus Oenanthe) are related. Along broad lines his hypothesis was proven correct by molecular methods, although he continues to dispute the details. Genetic studies depend a lot on which genes are sampled, and a true picture emerges only when many genes are studied together, and Panov may perhaps yet turn out to be correct even in some of the smaller details. In any case, his observations seem to be driving much of the more recent work on the evolution of chats and wheatears.

The female is hard to spot. Panov tells us why this should be expected. Desert wheatears are opportunistic nesters. They nest in the mouths of holes dug by rats and Jirds when possible, in any other cover which is available, and even in open ground if no cover can be found. The female incubates the egg entirely without help from the male. Since this can be entirely exposed, it is useful to have colours which help her to fade into the background. Even in the photo above, she does not stand out. Before you mentally label the father as an useless pig, remember that mammalian mothers have to incubate their fertilized eggs with absolutely no help from fathers. At least some species among our theropod dinosaur cousins, the birds, have distributed the job better. I’ve learnt one trick from Panov for distinguishing it from the female of the Isabelline wheatear: look for a rapidly wagging tail with changes in rhythm.

A Kutch of birds

Soon after sunrise the chill of a northern January is baked out of the air of the Rann of Kutch. An hour after that heat shimmers make it difficult to focus on the flat ground. By mid-morning mirages begin to appear, making the strange desert look even more strange. Very often I found it hard to spot birds on the ground.

The Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) is well camouflaged against the broken muddy floor of the desert. It wasn’t just the heat haze which made it difficult to see. I was staring at it without seeing it for a while. Then, when it moved its head, I could suddenly resolve it out of the background, and take a photo.

The beautiful Bay-backed shrike (Lanius vittatus) presented no such problem. It sat, as it always does, on a thorny bush, in the open, better to see and be seen. Shrikes keep sallying and returning to their perch, so once you see them they are easy to photograph. They have a habit of storing part of a catch on braches where they sit, which is perhaps why they return to their perches. It was sitting on a thorny branch of a bush, and I quickly scanned it for any signs of cached food the shrike may have placed on the thorns. I couldn’t spot any. Maybe the bird hadn’t found much to eat that day.

In my recent trips into deserts I have finally begun to recognize wheatears. This Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti) sat high up on a thorn bush scanning its surroundings for the insects that it eats. I’m happy with these insectivores, since they always sit in the open and give people like me many good opportunities to take photos. Not like those rascals, the warblers, which tweet at you from thickets.

A year ago I’d seen Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus) for the first time. I hunkered down next to a shallow pond and waited for a huge flock of sandgrouse coming in to the water. Photography was hard then, because the grouse dip into the water quickly and take to the air again. This time I saw them hunkered down in the sparse grass in the desert, sitting completely immobile.

If I’d not been with experts, I would have had a tough time telling this Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark (Eremopterix griseus) from its confusing cousin called the Black-crowned Sparrow Lark. Our jeep parked near it, and it did not consider us a threat. We had a long time to look at it and take photos. Eventually I decided that the best way to tell the difference was from the fact that this one did not have a black patch at the nape, which the other species does.

The Rann is marshy, dotted with extremely shallow sheets of water near which it is dangerous to drive. Jeeps bog down easily, and begin sinking in these places. Parked at the safe edge of one of these patches I took a photo of this flock of Greylag geese (Anser anser). They are very common birds, widely seen in India in winter. I would not mind a tee with the slogan “The Anser is Goose”.

Birds of the deep desert

A tawny pippit

When The Family said “Let’s go birdwatching in the desert”, I gulped. The only birds I associated with the deep desert were vultures (circling overhead as you drag yourself towards a mirage across dunes after your jeep has run out of petrol). So it was a wonderful adventure to find beautiful birds like trumpeter finches, sandgrouse, common kestrels and the last stand of the great Indian bustard. My biggest discovery was that the desert is alive with a completely different kind of vegetation and animal life.

The short trip with Adesh, Mandar and the rest of the small group of friends turned out to be full of surprises. Here is a gallery of new birds that I saw, and a few old friends. Click on any of the pictures to go to the gallery. Tiny seeds and insects can keep a huge population of birds alive. I didn’t have the time and the lenses to capture the insects of the desert. That will be another wonderful trip.