Colourless flamingos

Juvenile flamingos are not a bird enthusiast’s favourite. Unlike the well-fed adults, with their attractive pink colours, the young look dowdy and unremarkable. But, these young lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) presented a pretty picture as they fed in this stagnant stretch of water, green with algae. The algae are exactly what attracted these birds here. The lesser flamingo’s diet is largely made of algae, unicellular plants, and cyanobacteria that fill such stagnant pools. These microscopic organisms are rich in the beta-carotenoids associated with the chlorophyll that they contain. These carotenoids will eventually be deposited in the feathers of the flamingos, and turn them pink, red, or orange. What a marvelous transformation!

On a lark

When I saw the pair of ashy crowned sparrow larks (Eremopterix griseus) and took the photo that is featured, it was the end of a morning’s hunt. As soon as we arrived in this place. Adesh had identified a female by its call. I was excited, because I’d only seen the male of the species before. Even now I kept seeing glimpses of the male. Adesh was certain that the female had not left. Eventually, waiting paid off, and the female appeared in plain sight to sit with the male. I was struck by the differences in colouring and behaviour. Often, such differences point to different roles in the rearing of the young.

Apparently not in this case. From what I read, both sexes play equal roles in building nests, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The difference between the birds is a result of what Darwin recognized as sexual selection, the process of choosing mates leads to escalating behavioural and morphological differences between the sexes: the overt masculinization of the male and the overt femininization of the female, without other important biological differences. The different appearance of the male must be part of this process (although I am going out on a limb, guessing here, because no one has tested this idea out). The most visible difference in behaviour is the courting ritual of the male: the high flights, the trills let loose at the apex of the dive. So wonderful that Shelley wrote a long ode (Hail, to thee … that from Heaven, or near it, pourest thy full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art, and so on) to the lark. But when behaviour is different, and biology is almost the same, that’s when gender politics rears its head. Apparently the female works harder at feeding the young!

Lakhota lake

On our last morning in Jamnagar we went for a walk to Lakhota lake. The lake was originally a defensive position, but was expanded into a water reservoir for the town after successive failed monsoons in the middle of the 19th century CE. This was amazing in the morning: an island of serenity in the middle of this crowded and bustling town, full of gulls, ducks, and other water birds. I’ve posted photos of some of these birds earlier, and will continue to post others for a while.

The circular building in the middle of the lake (featured photo) is now called the Lakhota Palace. It was originally a fort, as the blank facade still proclaims. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had lost its purpose. Now it is an archaeological museum. I’d read about the recreation of a medieval Gujarati village inside the fort, and would have liked to see it. But when we arrived the doors to the causeway leading to the fort were firmly shut. It wouldn’t open for another three hours. By then we would be ready to drive out to the nearest airport, which was some distance away. This was a bad miss.

Standing outside the barred gate I looked towards the middle of the city, and saw this strange structure. It was also barred to entry. I found later that this was called the Bhujiyo Kotho, and was another medieval fortification. It is reported to have had a tunnel, now collapsed, connected in a straight line to the city of Bhuj. The tunnel would have had to go under the Gulf of Kutch, and I wondered whether this kind of engineering was possible in the medieval period in Gujarat. In any case, the fort had been badly damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, and has not yet been restored. It would be a massive effort to restore it.

So that left us with only one thing to do, which was to take a leisurely walk around the lake. At this time of the morning the place had quite a few visitors, all out for a morning’s walk. We met families curious about our binoculars and scopes, and Adesh Shivkar was in his element, telling children about ducks. Passing children were fascinated by the views of birds through the scope, and I realized again what a wonderful asset he is for conservationists.

After an hour of walking slowly around the lake, pausing every now and then to watch birds, we were ready for our breakfast. I looked back at the womderful broad promenade around the lake, and took a photo which tries to capture the serene atmosphere of that morning.

Not such a common babbler

The common babbler (Argya caudata, formerly Turdoides caudata) is a bird which I find hard to recognize by sight. When they are in their usual noisy foraging group, I can tell them from their voice (the recording linked below was made by Peter Boesman) and behaviour. Among the babblers they have perhaps the longest tails, and they are smaller and slimmer than the other babbler species. Certainly, their call is sweeter than the querulous grating calls of the other babblers.

At the end of a day’s bording outside Jamnagar, as we drove along a country lane, we spotted a lone bird on a meswak tree. We stopped the car. All four of us had puzzled looks on our faces. What could it be? Eventually, The Family asked tentatively, “Is it a common babbler?” We sheepishly agreed, thanking our luck that the more experienced people in the group were not close enough to have seen this piece of rank amateurism.

We’d seen a lone common babbler earlier in the day and paused to recall how to identify it: small, long tailed, overall dusty colour, streaked head and back, and a very distinctive white patch below the throat. But when confronted with a small brown bird, we were like absolute novices. The torturer there could have let out a song to help us, couldn’t it?

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.