A bristled grassbird

Another grassland, another grassbird. We noticed the bristled grassbird (Schoenicola striatus) in Dhikala range of Corbett NP because of its aerial display. It is named for its distinctive bristles above its beak, near the end of the gape line. It hasn’t come well in this compressed photo; you can see it only as a dark smudge just above the beak in front of the eyes. It was nesting season, and its aerial display was different enough from the skylarks’ that it caught attention. It touched down on a stalk of grass and turned its head to look all around as it sang. Then in a moment it had hopped down into the tall grasses in the patch and was gone.

The ground was reasonably wet because of the rains. Perhaps it had built a nest in the grass. It population has declined fast in recent years as wet grasslands are drained and given over to humans. This is the sad fate of most grasslands in our country. In my childhood trains used to chug through grasslands: Chital and Sambar would look up at its passing, while Nilgai bounded through, looking for Acacia to browse on. You would hear stories of yellow-green eyes staring at you from low in the grass. Perhaps a tiger, maybe a leopard. I hadn’t seen one, but enough people had for this not to be a tall tale. The word grassland was not part of the vocabulary. For the lack of a name, they were not set aside for conservation, and nearly disappeared. With them went the tigers, elephants, bustards, and lesser species, like this grassbird.

Now, perhaps with the renewed protection to Terai grasslands, following the success of Project Tiger, these species will find a haven. But this bird may be migratory: flying from its Terai nesting sites to the south and west in winter. Trying to find its true wintering grounds is a little confused by the limits of citizen science. The profusion of birders along the coast has resulted in a large number of sightings reported around the large cities in winters, but it is likely to be more common in the grasslands of Bengal and peninsular India, south of the Narmada, from where it is not reported equally often to eBird. The peninsular grasslands are hubs of human activity, and not protected. At the moment all that is properly established is that the population of Bristled grassbirds has crashed in recent years, and not yet stabilized. That earns it the status of vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, in the slippery upper slopes of the road to extinction.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Into the blue: a rare bird

The IUCN red list says that the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius, also called the Sociable Plover) is critically endangered. It goes on to record that there are around 11,200 adult birds of this species alive. It used to winter over a large part of north-western India, and in earlier times could be spotted in the vicinity of Mumbai. The first reports of V. gregarius in India date back to the beginnings of the keeping of records of bird sightings in the mid- and late-19th century CE. In this century the sudden decline of these birds has resulted in larger awareness, and meticulous counting and recording of flocks. Nowadays they are mostly visible in semi-dry areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

I was with a group of birders traveling to the Rann of Kutch in January this year, when we took a detour to Nal Sarovar. This is a lake near Ahmedabad, and well-known to birders of the city. But our target was not the lake. Flocks of Sociable Lapwings had been seen in fields nearby. They are field-nesting birds. In their nesting range in Kazakhstan they have been observed to preferentially nest in grazed fields, and therefore remain close to the sparse human habitation of the area. A very detailed study of the mortality of chicks concluded that only one out of 8 eggs survives to become a fledged bird, and that the greatest danger to a nest is accidental trampling by livestock.

Sure enough, the birds were in cultivated fields full of the stubble left after harvesting. We saw a flock of over 50 birds. Looking at recent bird counts, this is unusual. They were disturbed and skittish, not allowing us to come very close. Walking across plowed fields is difficult, so every time they settled somewhere we took a while to reach them. Then they would fly again. I got a few bad shots, as you can see, but enough to enable us to recognize the birds as plovers (which the lapwings are), and to get a sense of the colours and identifying marks. Although I was unhappy with the photos, I was happy enough with the sighting.

The reason why these birds prefer grazed land was found in the early 20th century by Salim Ali, who, by combining field observations and examination of the contents of the stomachs of these birds found that they eat insects which they can peck at easily when the ground is grazed. The remarkable decline of this species in the 1990s has therefore been attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the corresponding decrease in large-scale mechanical collectivized farming and rise hunting of natural grazers. As a result of these changed practices the birds now remain close to cattle which trample on their nests while grazing.

It seems to me that the agricultural practices of the Soviet Union may have led to a population explosion in Sociable Lapwings, and the current decline may be a return to older levels. If one can find bird counts from the 19th century then one can check out this line of reasoning. This also raises the question of long-term management of ancient farmed landscapes of the old world, which harbour many species which have come to depend on this anthropogenic landscape.

Engineering macaque safety

Lion-tailed macaques are found only in the western ghats of India. They were in the list of most endangered monkeys and apes till 2012. In that year the IUCN found that various state governments had taken conservation steps and the population had turned around. Now it is classified merely as endangered.

Our guide, Murugan, is full of information about the local wildlife. Whatever I can check independently is fairly correct. According to him there are three tribes of macaques in the locality. The largest has about 90 members, then there is another with about 35. The one which we saw is the smallest, with about 20.

A villager led The Family to where some members of this band were exploring a trash heap. They dug through it fairly systematically and found various discarded fruits and vegetables to eat. The Family shares trips with her phone. She approached less than a human body length to take photos. I was tense, but these macaques are so used to humans that they ignored her.

Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.
Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.

Man-monkey conflict usually arises due to such closeness. One sees evidence of this in cities, where monkeys have discovered high energy foods like potato wafers, biscuits and aerated drinks. I had seen such a conflict once when my niece, then five years old, would not let go of a bottle of Pepsi which a bigger langoor wanted. An undiplomatic incident was averted when she obeyed her mother’s instructions to let go.

Nothing like that happened here. The only danger we were in came when two male macaques started fighting, and forgot that a human was between them. The same villager shooed them away. The Family decided to tip him for saving her. Normally I don’t like to tip for normal human kindness. But maybe she was right in this case: when you set up an economics where the well-being of the macaques brings cash rewards to local villages, then it could lead to innovative non-zero sum solutions to possible future conflicts.