Halcyon days

Halcyon Smyrnensis is a wonderful name for the white-breasted kingfisher. The OED says of the halcyon that it is “a mythical bird said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming the wind and waves into calm.” It certainly charms me to a halt every time I see it. The bright flash of blue on the back and the large white bib bracketing a chestnut colour that cascades down from its head, and the red beak and legs, are something that always makes me raise my camera for a shot. I was very lucky with the light near Tadoba lake. I got the glint in its eye as it turned its head.

Izmir, formerly known as Smyrna, is perhaps where the earliest reports of this bird to reach Linnaeus originated. That seems to be the origin of its specific name. It is found in Turkey and a broad band eat of it all the way to Indonesia, avoiding only the desert to the south of the Gulf of Oman. I see scattered records of sightings down the Red Sea, in Alexandria, Mecca, and Medina, even in Riyadh and Muscat. I’m not really surprised, since I’ve found it eating all kinds of things: snails, insects, and even stolen scraps of meat.

Not a fussy eater

I like this guy, but I can’t say I like his eating habits. This White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) sat on a branch hanging over the edge of a swamp in Bharatpur and kept darting down to the water and coming back to its perch. This is one of the species of Kingfishers which does not live by fish. It mostly eats insects, although it isn’t finicky. About one sixth of its diet consists of vertebrates, perhaps occasionally other birds.

I was curious about what it was eating now, and I had a new camera. It wasn’t hard to get a series of close ups. What was that it had picked up? Was it a water strider? The legs were long, but the body was even longer. Probably not a water strider then. Also, it hadn’t darted down to the surface, but had snatched up the morsel of food from the air. Could it be some kind of an Orthoptera, a grasshopper or cricket? The body was rather thin. Its wings, if it had any, were folded. I wished I’d seen its head and antennae.

A bunch of field biologists found that H. smyrnensis spends about half of the day scanning its surroundings for food, and only about a quarter of daylight hours actually feeding. It seemed to me that the time spent in feeding was less. This Kingfisher did not give me much of a chance to continue my differential diagnosis of its diet. The long-bodied insect was gone in a jiffy. Was the process of eating over? Apparently not. The tongue of a White-breasted Kingfisher is a marvelous organ, well-adapted to its diet, breaking down its hard shell slowly while it sits and scans the surroundings for the next morsel.

Free birds

Ruins and villages may be closer to nature than cities, but they are not exactly forests. The birds that you see in such places are ones which have adapted to profit from the disturbances that humans create. Around Mandu we saw several birds, but a bird watcher in a city will see most of them. The featured photo shows the green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), common across a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia: from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east. I love this colourful and commonly visible bird. I hadn’t realized earlier that it is appropriate for Independence Day; it has the colours of the flag.

The white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is another common and widespread bird, being found across Asia, from Turkey to the Philippines. It has learned to supplement its diet by scraps of meat from kitchens, and is now commonly seen around human habitation near water. It allows a photographer to get reasonably close, so this shot against the sky is not among the best I have.

The red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is not easily visible inside a city. But this large wader is common in wetlands anywhere in southern Asia, from Iraq to the Philipphines. I saw these large birds everywhere in Mandu, even in Jahaz Mahal. This photo was taken in the garden just outside the palace.

Although this is not a high-quality photo, I’m fond of it because I caught two different species in the same shot. The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is common is various terrains, including cities, across Asia. It has been introduced in Hawaii, California, Australia and New Zealand. The other bird is a coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) was common in our garden till recently. It is a common Indian bird.

Like the rose-ringed parakeet, the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is another species which I notice around ruins. I watched this one as it hopped and flew along ruined walls in Mandu. Unlike the parakeet, it does not take to gardens inside cities. We were not really looking for birds, but were happy to have this added extra.