Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

Encounters with hog deer

Through a gap in trees, I saw a female hog deer browsing (featured photo). I didn’t remember seeing hog deers before. The colour of the fur, the two lines of white spots flanking the spine, and less well defined lines of spots further down the body reminded me of a Cheetal’s colours. But this was much smaller, and looked more muscular. It took some time to notice us, then looked at us carefully, and decided we were no danger. Poaching is not unheard of in this forest, but this behaviour probably meant that poachers seldom target hog deer (Axis porcinus). I haven’t explored the protected forests below the Himalayas further west, which is also part of the range of this animal, so it is not unlikely that this was really my first sighting. A. porcinus are endangered because of tremendous loss of habitat, but they are fairly common in Kaziranga. After this first encounter, I kept seeing them again and again.

A very pleasant sighting was of a mixed group at a water hole (photo above). In a group like this my eyes first fix on the largest animal: the rhino. It was completely caked in mud and was grazing determinedly. We kept this rhino in sight, and it raised its head and sniffed at the air only when our jeep’s engine coughed a little. The baby hog deer was more than six months old, since it also browsed. The two adult deer were both female. The behaviour of hog deer is fairly plastic. When food is plentiful, as it is here, they are fairly solitary, with the males becoming territorial. Encounters between females are peaceful and occur by chance. When food is restricted, the deer do associate, but herding is uncommon.

The birds in the photo are very interesting. The large one on the right is one of the endangered greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius). At this distance I could not see the pouch which distinguishes it from the lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus). I had to resort to the secondary distinction, which is that the back feathers of L. dubius are an uniform colour, whereas the L. Javanicus has a lighter and darker shading on the back. Worldwide there are about 1000 of the greater adjutant storks, and Assam is one of the last breeding grounds, since it went extinct in Myanmar and Laos. The vulnerable L. Javanicus fares marginally better, since there are more than 5000 individuals left across Asia. These are among the largest of storks; so large in fact,that at an archaeological site in Vietnam, 6000 years old digging tools made of the bones of L. dubius were found. The nearby egret is barely larger than the bill of the adjutant.

It took me a while to encounter a male hog deer. Here is one: startled, and not quite sure whether to run. The antlers seemed to fork at the end. When I looked through binoculars I could see a nub of a branch lower down, but it was not very well defined. I’m fascinated by the association of birds with grazers. The two great mynas, identifiable by the tuft of feathers over the beak, sit on their backs not only for a better view, but also to jump on insects disturbed by the cropping. I’ve seen this kind of bird behaviour translated to urban settings, where a family of egrets spent a couple of generations following gardeners as they mowed a lawn.

I got a closer look at the antlers when I saw a male hog deer resting under a tree late in the morning. There was a small branch close to the base, with the main branch curving out to fork again at the tip. The difference between this individual and the other probably means that the antlers are slightly variable. Hog deer have disappeared from all of south east Asia in the recent past, except possibly in small patches in Tailand and Myanmar. Little is systematically recorded about it in Pakistan and Bhutan. There are conservation efforts in India and Nepal. I probably saw one of the few stable populations world wide.