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.

Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

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.

Flamingo town Bhigwan

Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) can be told from their lesser cousins by the shape of the neck. I told the bright but easily distracted man of 100 (in binary) that the necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of the letter S, and that of the lesser is like an inverted J. He looked at a flock of several hundred flamingos in front of us and declared in a jiffy that they were all greater flamingos. Eight year olds tire of repetitive jobs very quickly. It wouldn’t have mattered much if I’d phrased it as a game: find the lesser flamingo. He was probably right, but I won’t be surprised if an alert reader finds a lesser flamingo in these photos.

We’d been to Bhigwan many years ago, and when the young nephew said he wanted to go birding with The Family, we planned it again. Behind Ujani dam near Pune in Maharashtra, the extensive lake is named after the largest nearby town. As you can see, it is really close to the large colony of flamingos which were still there in March.

I’ve written about flamingos many times before, and there is little that I can add. Maybe I can remind you that their colour comes from their diet. They skim the bottom of shallow waters with their beaks and filter out snails and other molluscs to eat. From their shells they derive the brights colours which then collect in their otherwise white flumage. They were clearly well fed here, as their colour shows. The larger colony off the coast of Mumbai does not eat so well often.

I find their ungainly flight fascinating. They are too large to be prey to the usual eagles and falcons, so they’ve not had much need to become better flyers. They take a long run to get airborne, and I love to hear the sound of a large flock thudding through the water as it struggles to take to the air. Often just one or two birds taking off can spook a whole city into flight. Here I managed to capture the first two which took off as we approached. You can see what a large variation in reaction times the flock has. Two are beginning their run, the others have not yet reacted to us.

From a distance I watched another village of the flamingos take off. There were about a thousand birds in that group, and more than a minute passed before they all got off the ground. To see so many in flight together is a lovely sight, so we stood there and watched.

I wanted to record their loud squabbling, and our guide and boatman, Ganesh, told us that the morning is the best time for it. That turned out to be quite true. A bonus was the soft morning light. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the birds waking up as the sun rose.

Perhaps they feed in another part of the lake in the morning. They had slept at night in the same place where we saw them the previous evening. But, as the sun rose, they took off eastwards. Long skeins of white, red, and blacks spread out against the sky as they left.

Stretching and bending

Humans and giraffes, like most mammals, have 7 neck (cervical) vertebrae. The long-necked Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus of old) had 15. Flamingos beat all of them with 19 cervical vertebrae. So a flamingo has no trouble preening with its beak. I watched this Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) as it woke from a nap and stretched its neck to work on its feathers.

Birds have a larger number of cervical vertebrae than mammals, ranging from 11 to 25. So flamingos are not special. I don’t know where on this scale the neck of the Great thick-knee (Esacus recurvirostris, aka Great stone curlew) should be placed. Whatever the number, this odd looking bird doesn’t have a neck flexible enough to groom its wing feathers. I watched as this one stretched out its leg to do that.

I find the name thick-knee extremely good for field identification, as you can see in the photo where the leg is stretched out to preen the wings. The knobby knees are clearly visible. These knees can bend forward, unlike mammalian knees. I was quite struck by the fact that the bird woke from a snooze and began to stretch its legs and wings, which are modified arms. Of course that must feel good.

That flamingo did the same thing, but only with one leg. Its knees bend the same way as ours. Most birds sleep with one half of the brain at a time. You can see this easily in waders which roost out in the water by the fact that one leg is retracted while it stands on the other. The relaxed leg is connected to the sleeping hemisphere. I didn’t think of looking to see which leg this individual was stretching. I don’t think I will go back to Jamnagar soon, but there are flamingos in the waters around Mumbai in winter; I’ll keep a watch to figure this out.

The six seasons: 6

Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.

This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,

For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.

First view of Lake Amboseli

Our first view of Lake Amboseli was enchanting. The lake is very shallow but extensive. We drove past rapidly, since our guide wanted to show us large mammals. But even in that quick pass I managed to take several photos. I didn’t want to stop longer because we still hadn’t got ourselves a field guide for the birds of Kenya, and we would not be able to identify what we saw. In retrospect that was a mistake, because we could have taken photos for later identification.

Looking at them later I discovered more than 15 species of birds. Here you see three plains zebras (Equus quagga) and a considerable number of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor, respectively). If you look carefully at the photo you’ll see a black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and a Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus). The last species is found only in Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope northwards to Angola in the west and Kenya in the east. Although it is common, this was a lifer. We’d seen the other three in India.

Flamingos of the desert

Lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) are the most numerous of the flamingos, and the greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) are the most widespread. In India I often see flocks of lesser flamingos mixed in with a few greater flamingos. I found early on that the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the shape of the neck when it is relaxed: the neck of the lesser looks like an inverted letter J, and that of the greater like an S.

Flamingos are common across western India. I’ve been delighted more than once to look out of my window and see a flock flying past in the distance. Still, they are weird enough that it is always a delight to watch them. They stand around in groups, like humans, but in constant motion. Like humans they keep doing their own thing in groups: now walking away from the group, then joining up and walking with another bunch. All through this they constantly keep honking at each other.

We came across a bunch of them in a shallow pond in the Rann of Kutch. They were all active (not a single one stood on one leg, dozing with half a brain turned off). Although a small hamlet had grown up on the banks of the pond, I’m sure that the water was salty; flamingos like their water either salty or alkaline. Flamingos dominated the waters, although swifts and a few ducks held their own. The desert may seem like an unlikely place to find these birds, but a big population of flamingos breed in the Rann of Kutch.

The strange shape of their black-tipped beaks helps them to hold their head upside down and sieve water for the small algae, insects, and crustaceans that they eat. The pink of their beaks and feathers come from the molluscs that they eat, so you can tell the juveniles by their lack of colour. I’d seen flamingos numerous times before, but was happy to stand at this place and watch them again; they are fascinating.

Flamingos in Mumbai

There's always one going the wrong way

There was time when flamingos bred in the coastal flats of Gujarat and wintered around Mumbai. But like many such, some are now residents of the big city. The mud flats and tidal creeks of Mumbai are now their home. Their numbers increase with the usual winter influx. So this is a good time to take a boat through the creeks of Mumbai.

Most of these birds are lesser flamingos. The few greater flamingos can be distinguished by the shape of their necks. The necks of lesser flamingos are like an inverted letter J, whereas the long necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of an S. Sizes and colour differences between these two species are confusing. The only other consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the lower bill of the greater flamingo is always yellow.

The rest of the colour of the flamingo comes from the crustaceans that it eats. So it is interesting to ask why the flamingos of Mumbai are less colourful than their country cousins. Could it be that these creeks are now so polluted that the crustaceans are dying out?