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.
Three shrikes and you’re out. No birder will tell you this, but it’s true. I’ve never seen more than three kinds of shrike in a morning of bird watching. Last week’s outing to Bhandup Pumping Station was no exception. I heard a beautiful birdsong, one that was not familiar from the past six months of patient study, and found that it came from this long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, aka rufous-backed shrike).
I’d only heard the shrill harsh call of this bird, so common across India. That shriek gives the group its name. But this was a song. Quite different, and more enchanting. Why was it singing when the mating season was past? It was answered by other calls. So perhaps this was a territorial call. I recalled a paper I saw a month ago which said that bird calls had become more complex in the quiet of the anthropause. One of the results was a decrease in aggression among city birds, because the more complex songs seem to better convey meaning about territory.
A little later I walked down a side path where three boys went racing past me with bikes (and unmasked, perhaps because they were outside the gaze of parents). In the quiet after they left I looked around and spotted a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora). This was renamed two years ago, and some would recognize it by its older designation of southern gray shrike (Lanius meridionalis). The photo shows it in a characteristic high perch. The perch seems to be an important aspect of its territorial behaviour.
These were all the shrikes I saw that day. I never even reached the upper limit of three.
This is a day when I need to keep my cool as I do some intense traveling to meetings. Just think of all the nice times spent in Hampi watching birds. Don’t dwell on the strenuous spotting, just recall the old familiars who appear when you least expect them. Some of them are dear to my heart because they are the first ones whose names I learnt, or ones which I have slowly got to be able to identify at a glance. That’s what my experiences friends call the jizz of the bird.
In the gallery above you see a white-browed wagtail aka large pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), which wags its tail as it feeds, but runs quite fast when it thinks a human is close by. The spotted owlet (Athena brama), which you also see in the featured photo, is a familiar across most of India, although it seems to be unknown in the north-east and north-west. The laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a familiar across the villages and small towns of India, but sadly invisible in the cities. The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), seen here hanging upside down to eat molasses, is a true survivor, being found even in large cities. The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is my familiar; crowds of these spectacularly coloured birds hang about in wires around my flat, making short forays to grab an insect out of the air. They give me a lot of practice with my camera and binoculars when I’m home, and I’m always glad to see a familiar swoop when I’m away. The great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora), formerly called the Southern grey shrike, Lanius meridionalis, is the odd one out. It should be a familiar, but it is not. I hope that I will be able to recognize it in the field more often now that I’ve spent so much time with it in Hampi.