The long take off

Look out of your window and watch a bird take flight. You might see it push off from a perch and gain lift with hard strokes of its wings. Or you might see it drop, open its wings into a glide, and then begin to beat them for lift. On the surface of water neither method works. Water is too level to drop into a glide from, and too fluid to push against. So water birds have the ungainly take off that airplanes do. On Bhigwan lake we watched the long runs of coots (Fulica atra) as they scattered from approaching boats. They don’t flee from perceived danger; they take off in the direction that they face, sometimes towards the approaching boat. Perhaps it would take them longer to turn than to take off. I should time them.

The bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), those champion fliers, have even longer runs to take off. But the longest runs that we saw were those of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). The flight of birds is quite different from that of an aircraft of course, but still, a greater weight would require a longer run for take off, unless the musculature and wings of two birds are very different. So a flamingo needs a longer runway than a coot, just as a Dreamliner needs a longer runway than a Cessna Skyhawk. A practical benefit of understanding this is that if you want to find coots and small ducks you could just drop by a small pond, but you need to find lakes if you want to watch geese and flamingos.

Herning coots

Decades after I’d first come across the phrase “haunt of coot and hern” I looked up the meaning of hern. A hunter! That fits me when I’m trying to take photos of birds. So the result of my herning coots are the photos you see here. The common coot (Fulica atra, also called the Eurasian coot) is something I learnt to spot long back. The reason is that when you look at a distant pond full of water birds, the dark plumage broken only by the white patch on the forehead is extremely easy to recognize even without gear. The common coot is a resident, and therefore visible all year round. But even in winter, when every water body is crowded with migratory visitors, it remains the easiest bird to identify. I took photos of them at the Lakhota lake in the middle of Jamnagar.

It seems that they often lay their eggs in the nests of other coots. This parasitic behaviour improves their own chances of reproducing, because they can go on laying eggs without having to take care of the young. Perhaps as a defensive mechanism, they are aggressively territorial during breeding season; both the male and the female challenge and chase encroachers. They are seen to be ruthless to their brood. Chicks which demand food are often pecked quite brutally. More chicks die of starvation than the numbers killed by raptors. Could this whole cascade of behaviour result from some individuals deciding to cheat?

One of the coots had now come up quite close and I got a look at its feet as it propelled itself underwater. You can see that they are not at all like the webbed feet of ducks. Coots have fat lobes on each toe, as you can see in the two photos above. The combined surface areas of the lobes must be rather big, because coots seem to swim as efficiently as ducks. I’ve seen coots upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but I’ve also seen them submerge completely to forage underwater. You can see that a coot’s head is streamlined for diving.

In the long shot above, you can see how easy it is to spot coots in a bunch of ducks swimming about in the distance. That white patch shows up very clearly. The other detail you can see is the wake behind a coot as it swims. It seems a little wider than that of the common pochard, perhaps indicating that a coot’s legs sit relatively forward in its body; I don’t think I’ll get to measure a coot, but I’m sure someone has already done that. You can also see that the wake is quite as complex as that of the pochard; the forward and backward strokes of the feet as it swims must be different. It is always interesting to watch birds swim.