She stoops to conquer

There’s one fabulous upside to traveling in a group of like minded people. I discovered it during our bird watching trip to Jamnagar in Febraury. You get pushed into doing things which you had not tried before. One of my travel companions, let us call him Knowledge, was a fashion photographer who had recently turned to bird photography. He was constantly trying to get birds in flight. Since we had to keep pace, instead of patiently waiting for him, I decided to also shoot in flight. My camera is not perfect for this, since the shutter lag is longer than I would have wished.

While Knowledge panned and took bursts of shots, I decided to concentrate on hovering birds. Beginner’s luck. I had a stroke of that when this black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) chose its restaurant. I was on a small cliff, overlooking a stretch of open land, and this was hovering just slightly above eye level. You can see this kite across India and all the way down to Sundaland and southern China on the east, and everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of the Iberian peninsula to the west. Moments after this, the bird swooped down to pick up something. I lost sight of it, but it must have caught something, otherwise it would have come up again to hover.

I noticed that its head had a bit of colour, its eyes were quite dark, and it had dark patterns on it back. An adult would have had red eyes, a pure white head, and no markings on the back. So this was a juvenile, certainly less than two years old. Thanks, Knowledge, for getting me to try out something different.

Spotted, a dabbler

I like watching the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), partly because you don’t have to strain your eyes to see it. It is a large duck, about the size of a mallard, and does not mind swimming in open waters. The yellow-tipped black bill has two orange spots near its base which give it its name. I don’t think I have ever noticed the subspecies which one finds in Myanmar and further east; it is supposed to lack exactly these same orange spots which give it is name. A spot-billed duck without spots!

These photos were taken at Lakhota lake, in the middle of Jamnagar. The wonderful morning light showed me the clear brown eyes of the duck. That’s a detail I don’t see so very often, although the bird can be seen dabbling away in small ponds and lakes all across India. Earlier in the morning, when there was a tiny haze over the water, I’d seen several of them preening. The photo above shows that characteristic flash of green, under a black wing edged in white, which lets you identify the spot-bill even if you can’t see its spots.

Before rapid genetics became easy, there was a confusion between the Indian spot-bill and a closely related species in China and to its east, now called the Eastern spot-bill. Eventually, observers in Hing Kong found that although both species can be seen together, they almost never cross breed. That observation led to the discovery that there are to species, something that molecular genetics now confirms. I love these painstaking field workers, and envy them. They get to spend their days in the sun, watching birds all day, with long breaks in the afternoon and night, perfectly in time for two large meals a day. It’s a wonderful life, in spite of the constant danger of being drained of blood by a friendly neighbourhood mosquito or leech. Some of my gurus in birding live such a life, earning some money by taking amateurs like us on birding trips. They have a bad time now, with the virus keeping them indoors. If the lockdown or even curtailed travel persists for long, say two months or two years, I wonder what happens to them, and a lot of others who are invested in hotels, restaurants, transport, wildlife guides, and so on.

It is sometimes said that spot-bills don’t mix with other ducks. That may be true in some small ponds at some time of the year. As the photo above shows, they have absolutely no trouble mixing with coots. The spot-bill is a dabbler, searching for food just below the surface, snagging minute crustaceans and vegetation in their bills when they upend. They don’t compete for food with divers or skimmers. In a large, reasonably deep body of water, many species always come together. The lockdown gives me an opportunity to go back in time, and arrange my photos. I think I’ll try to find some more photos of the spot-bill.

Oliver asks for more

It was early afternoon, and the glaring sunlight was not the best suited for photography. That’s when I spotted a family group of red-naped ibis (Pseudibis papillosa). I like to take photos of these birds, because, in the right light, their glossy feathers and the red nape are wonderfully photogenic. This was not the right light, however. I watched one of the adults pecking at the ground all by itself, and then noticed what the other pair was doing. The juvenile was packing at the beak of the other adult. This was behaviour that asks to be fed; begging!

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The breeding season for these birds extends from March to October, depending on the part of the country one is in. So this young one was probably about a year old, Since it was able to walk around pretty well, I guess it must have been fledged recently, or was about to be fledged soon. It kept begging, but the adult refused to feed it. This drama went on for a long time, and was still on when we left. It looked like an avian version of Oliver Twist asking for more gruel!

The dance of the cranes

It was quite dark when we started climbing the observation tower in Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. I could hear a lot of quarreling and squawking from behind the line of trees next to the road to the tower. As I climbed above the line of the trees a biting north wind hit me. The previous afternoon had been hot, and I’d neglected to bring my jacket with me. In an hour it would begin to warm up, but now, before dawn, the wind cut through my tee like knives. Still, there was this immense commotion which sounded like it was something to see. And it was.

As I reached the top of the tower I saw a very large flock of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) had gathered together. In the dim pre-dawn light the wet land seemed to be a charcoal drawing, all shades of grey. Sarus are the tallest of cranes, reaching up to a man’s chest or shoulders. And some of them were dancing. Early February is not breeding season, so this was not a courtship dance. I’ve never seen anything like this before, nor read about it. Was it aggression? Unlikely, since there was no food or sex involved. Was it exuberance? Perhaps, but one would have to eliminate many other reasons to establish that as a reason. I was happy to watch and take photos.

In a matter of minutes they began to take to the sky. Wave after wave of them passed overhead. There must have been an enormous number of birds roosting in this place. A lifetime ago, when cities were less crowded, you could see them in the middle of fields. Now they are excluded from many more places. The result is that IUCN now classifies them as vulnerable.

They passed north of the tower and headed over to their feeding grounds to the east. Now the sky was beginning to turn from gray to pink. I had been hoping that I could take a photo of them flying into the sunrise, but missed that by a minute or so. The sun came up just after they had vanished into the distance. Too bad. It would have been such a wonderfully cliched image!

The sun was yet to make a difference. If anything, the wind seemed to be stronger. I turned back to look at the wet lands to the west. With the cranes gone, and the sun above the horizon, the place looked different. Not worse, just different.

Comb duck

After some looking at the duck you see in the photo, I decided that its usual name, knob-billed duck, fits it perfectly. I have no use for the alternative African comb duck or the Latin binomial Sarkidiornis melanotos. It is large, among the largest of ducks, and easily told at a distance by the black stippling on the head and neck, even if you don’t see its knob. The female lacks the knob, may have a duller wing, and is generally smaller, but is otherwise similar in appearance. On this morning at Lakhota lake, I didn’t see it upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but several of them dipped their beaks into the water, perhaps filter feeding. I was happy to get that drop of water at the end of this one’s bill.

I’ve learnt to let sexual dimorphism in birds signal strange mating behaviour. Typically they nest in holes and hollows in trees, above a man’s head, but usually not too far above. But it has been known to appropriate the nests of other species for itself, even if they are much higher: vultures’, eagles’, storks’. Each female lays a clutch of 7 to 12 eggs. But one of the oddest things about this bird is that they breed in “dump nests” where several females deposit eggs, and once as many as 54 eggs have been found in such a nest. This suggests the possibility of polygyny among these birds. There are other waterfowl in which polygyny has been observed. Like several other birds in India, they breed late in the monsoon. This is an added reason for me to start thinking of a late monsoon birding trip, something which most birders think is a wild and useless trip.

The center of Jamnagar

The Jamnagar-Junagadh highway passes right next to the now-dilapidated palace of the Jamsahib of Jamnagar. I decided to follow it because it passed through a wonderful two-storeyed curved arcade pierced by a huge ceremonial gate (see the featured photo). I believe that this area was remodelled in the 1920s by Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and then Jamsahib of Jamnagar. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a source for the urban history of Jamnagar, so I can’t really say much about this gate. I passed through it and saw a wonderful, and undocumented, school building.

After that I walked back through the gate, around the curve of the arcade, and then abruptly I came to a narrower side street. This was chock-a-block with scooters, and I had to duck out of their way very quickly. I found myself in another spacious arcade. It was the middle of the lunch hour, so there was space to stand and take a photo. I’m sure that at other times this arcade would be jam packed with shoppers.

I looked for a break in traffic and walked out to take a photo of the elegant arches running down the face of the arcade. Could these have been made in the 1920s? Or were they from an earlier period? I wish I could find out somewhere.

Opposite me was the incredibly colourful Jumma Masjid. I couldn’t find anything about this ornate structure. I gazed at it for a while, and then decided that I didn’t have the time to go in. We had to leave for a birding trip very soon. I’m sure the interior of the mosque would have been worth photographing.

As I moved back towards the palace, I passed a small temple with a very ornate gateway. Again, I would have liked to have gone in and looked, but time was too short. I had to get back. I haven’t discovered yet anything about these structures. Neither the state tourism department, nor the world’s most reliable encyclopedia mentions any of these structures. Since I couldn’t find anything about the palace either, I think these places are all in good company. Unfortunately.

A hidden koel

On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.

I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.

I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.

As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.

A Tern’s turn

On our last visit to the Gulf of Kutch during our trip to Jamnagar, I was dismayed to see this bicycle parked near the tide line. Two children had come out here as the tide receded, and were playing at the edge of the water- skipping from one rock to another. Their presence had driven the birds out into far shallows. Although it was going to be hard to take photos, we hung around for a while. I spotted a whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida) circling over a spot out over somewhat deeper water.

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I hadn’t tried to shoot photos of a tern at hunt ever before. Nor had I ever watched one closely as it hunted for fish. Now I was mostly fussing about focus and distance, but through the viewfinder I followed it as it hovered over one spot, looking straight down. This behaviour is a boon for photographers, since it allows you to fix the focus. It moves very quickly when it spots a fish and dives. I was lucky to get a few shots of it as it dived, but missed the moment when it picked up its prey. It seems that it likes to wait until the fish is at the surface. Its bill may have broken the surface, but without much of a splash. Unfortunately it winged away from me immediately after, so I didn’t get a shot of it with the fish in its beaks. The next time I see this, I’ll know that I can zoom in a bit more, since its motion is fairly predictable.

Sweets of Jamnagar

I walked into a shop with tall glass and steel counters filled with trays of sweets. Just another sweet shop. But instantly the little boy inside me took over my eyes and legs, and I began to look at the sweets one by one. The adult keeps hold of the wallet, so the little kid doesn’t get everything he wants, but the eyes belong to him. The thick disks of kaju katli topped with beaten silver sheets of warq, always tastes good, not as sweet as marzipan, and also richer and creamier because the almonds have been replaced by cashew. Behind them you can see a few stray pieces of kesar peda, rich with almonds and pistachio, dyed in saffron. It is another staple of Gujarati sweet shops.

Less common are the thabdi penda, basically sweetened milk with added fat, boiled until it turns into a brown mass. Crushed cashews and almonds had been added to it to give you the healthy statins that would keep your heart from immediately seizing up when you eat this. Very considerately, slivers of almonds had been added to the laddoos on display. I am overwhelmed by the generous spirit of mithaiwalas, the way they keep tweaking recipes to make it healthier for you. The Family had finished buying the farsan to take back with us. The boy was happy. It was time to go.

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.