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.

Western Reef Egret

There was only one kind of dark egret wading through the tidal waters in the Gulf of Kutch. That was the western reef egret (Egretta gularis), which would stir up the water delicately with its long toes, before becoming totally still and gazing down at at. The thing about traveling with expert bird watchers is that you get to learn little snippets like the fact that there is a “morph” of the bird with white feathers. I’d seen and read about birds changing colours around their breeding season, so I didn’t pay it much attention. It was only later that I read a report which made it clear that the different “morphs” of E. gularis are like human skin colour, fixed at birth and unchanging. So it makes sense that someone would write a long article about how to tell the difference between the white morph of E. gularis and the little egret (Egretta garzetta). So next time I see a small white egret I’ll carefully look to see whether the beak and the forehead are in a line, and whether the back of the head is blunt. If it is, then I know it must be E. gularis. But if the head is more rounded then it has to be E. garzetta.

I watched one hold its body quite still as it gazed intently into the water. Occasionally it would move its head forward a little, and I would wait for it to strike. But it didn’t. I was surprised later to see a paper which had studied these motions of the head to determine how the bird corrected for refraction of the image of its prey in the water. Apparently, this slow forward motion of its head scans a range of angles, allowing it to determine the true position of the prey. At the moment it decides to strike, its beak moves in a straight line towards the prey, piercing through the water to catch it with slightly parted beaks. I wish I had managed to catch it in action.

The joy of mucking about

I thought I was not much of a beach person until a few years ago, when I realized that I actually like beaches which are long and shallow, on seas which are not dead. There are beaches which fit all these descriptions along the Gulf of Kutch near Dwarka. Due to its peculiar shape, the Gulf of Kutch has huge tides twice a day. On one of the days I was nearby, the sea level changed by 8 meters between high and low tides at the end of the Gulf. The coastal shelf is very gentle, so this allows you to walk kilometers into the sea at low tide.

At the Marine National Park near Dwarka, I went for such a walk. This is what I enjoy about beaches, being able to walk for long times at the place where the water and land meet each other. Such places around India are full of hermit crabs which have donned the shells of dead sea animals. Every shells that I saw was on the move. I’d first noticed these zombie shells in the Andamans, where I fell in love with beaches.

I made my way back to the tide line when the horizon started tilting up to the sun. The tide was beginning to turn and I was keen to get away from the slippery rocks and corals while there was still light. The long shadows of the evening threw the tracks of the hermit crabs into clear relief. They seem to be constantly on the move, foraging for food, and occasionally searching for a better shell to move in to. I thought it was a day well spent, doing little other than turning rocks over to inspect whatever is hiding below it.