On a lark

When I saw the pair of ashy crowned sparrow larks (Eremopterix griseus) and took the photo that is featured, it was the end of a morning’s hunt. As soon as we arrived in this place. Adesh had identified a female by its call. I was excited, because I’d only seen the male of the species before. Even now I kept seeing glimpses of the male. Adesh was certain that the female had not left. Eventually, waiting paid off, and the female appeared in plain sight to sit with the male. I was struck by the differences in colouring and behaviour. Often, such differences point to different roles in the rearing of the young.

Apparently not in this case. From what I read, both sexes play equal roles in building nests, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The difference between the birds is a result of what Darwin recognized as sexual selection, the process of choosing mates leads to escalating behavioural and morphological differences between the sexes: the overt masculinization of the male and the overt femininization of the female, without other important biological differences. The different appearance of the male must be part of this process (although I am going out on a limb, guessing here, because no one has tested this idea out). The most visible difference in behaviour is the courting ritual of the male: the high flights, the trills let loose at the apex of the dive. So wonderful that Shelley wrote a long ode (Hail, to thee … that from Heaven, or near it, pourest thy full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art, and so on) to the lark. But when behaviour is different, and biology is almost the same, that’s when gender politics rears its head. Apparently the female works harder at feeding the young!

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”.