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.
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.
On late winter afternoons Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur looks beautiful and calm. It is a lovely time to be outside, watching shadows lengthen slowly over still waters. The Family scanned the surroundings; she’s very good at spotting hidden birds. I am visually lazier, looking at open spaces, attention on obvious things like that huge tree jutting out of a little islet in the pond. I wondered whether the tree created the islet or it sprouted on an already existing mound. The green moss on the blue water looked nice, so I raised my camera to take a photo.
One edge of the island was crowded with Common Coot (Fulica atra), which are highly visible winter migrants because of their distinctive white bills. You can see them in flocks like this, or paddling singly or in pairs in ponds across India in this season. It seems that they are extremely territorial and aggressive in their breeding range in the northern latitudes, so I find it a puzzle that they flock together like this while they winter in India. The answer, it seems, is in the cost of vigilance. Watching out for predators takes time away from other activities. Many eyes watching out would improve the ability of flocks to feed better, even with more competition for food due to flocking at the same place. The island also had other birds; you can see a Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) near the edge of the frame.
At this time of the afternoon the birds are quite active, probably getting a large meal before settling in for the night. I tried to get extreme close ups, but the level of activity was so high that the birds kept disappearing under water leaving only large splashes on the surface. I’ve often seen long leaves hanging from the bills of coots when they come up again. It seems that they feed on leaves and seeds more often than on invertebrates. When I found this I wondered whether they can be as bad as some more common herbivores, which can denude a landscape if their numbers increase. Very often, when you ask a question someone else has asked it before. So I could get an immediate answer: no. Good to know that this abundant and un-endangered bird is not the cause of the disappearance of other species. You can say that in this respect they are pleasantly inhuman.
After lunch we set off to a part of the Keoladeo National Park which we hadn’t seen before. There were few people here in the lazy afternoon. In these flooded fields nature was also at rest. A Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) rested in the shade of a tree. A Small Blue Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) sat on a branch above it. Around them was a tremendous variety of waterfowl.
At the end of a long branch overlooking a deeper part of this water world, an Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) spread out its wings to dry.
In the water nearby the spectacular Red-crested Pochards (Netta rufina) made deep dives next to some very fashionably black Common Coots (Fulica atra),
Elsewhere in the shallows flocks of Greylag Geese (Anser anser) shared space with Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). Males of ducks are usually more colourful than females. The female is the primary caregiver for chicks, and, since ducks mostly nest on the ground, her colour is meant as camouflage.
When I zoomed out a bit I could see that this was part of a larger mixed flock. The Family probably has a record of all the waterfowl in this larger bunch, but in this photo I can easily see the distinctive white stripe down the head and neck of Northern Pintails (Anas acuta).
Zooming back even more, I could see the edge of human activity, in the form of cows wandering in to browse at the edge of the waterworld. Cows can sometimes step unwittingly on nests of birds, crushing eggs. This level of human interference is unavoidable in India. Bharatpur’s Keoladeo NP has done wonders for conservation within these human constraints.