More birds of the Terai

Springtime is the right time to visit the foothills of the Himalayas. All the birds which came down to the plains in the winter begin to move back up to their breeding grounds. Since they move up at different times, and are trying to get to different altitudes, a week in the Terai will yield a lot of sightings. This spring we took two trips: one to the east, to Manas NP in Assam, and one to the west, to Corbett NP in Uttarakhand. I got the featured photo of the stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) in Corbett.

Seeing the beautiful Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) in Corbett NP was like running into an old friend. We used to have this spectacular long tailed birds in our garden until insecticide killed its prey base. The females are equally beautiful, but lack the showy tail. The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) used to be another old friend with whom I seem to have lost touch. I was happy to see two of these jauntily crested fellow sitting on a tree in Corbett NP.

I’d seen the spangled drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus, also hair-crested drongo) first in Assam. This photo was taken in Corbett NP. You can see the spangles on its breast, but the long crest of thin hairs is not clearly visible. The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is perhaps even more common, but I liked the light on it as it came down to the Ramganga river for a drink in the evening.

This solitary Pallas’ fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) sat for a long while on a branch, looking around alertly without flying. Interestingly, they have been reported from all around Tibet: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Are they not found in Tibet? Or, like Afghanistan, is the lack of reported sightings just a gap in the data? The jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), on the other hand, seems to be only Indian, but widely distributed from the edge of the Thar desert east to Assam.

The Silver-breasted broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) that I saw in Manas NP was a lifer. A colourful and quiet little bird, it looked back at us, and did not fly away. The black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) was another lifer. Once a locally common bird in the eastern Himalayas, it has become extremely rare and is now reported from only three places in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and another in Manipur. It is a skulker, hard to spot in the tall grasses it lives in, and quickly leaves the locality when it is disturbed. I was happy to get this single photo.

This photo of the Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis, also Broad-billed roller) from Manas NP keeps confusing me. It isn’t a blackbird, just the usual dark blue dollarbird sitting in shadows inside Manas NP. In its breeding season it has the spectacular display flight of the rollers. I was happy to see the rolling and diving flight in Corbett NP.

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A crested kingfisher

My first, and till now, only, view of a crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) came as we drove across a shallow riverbed in the Dhikala range of Corbett NP. I’d looked at the bird and mentally classified it as a pied kingfisher when Adesh grew excited and pointed it out. Indeed it was much larger than the pied, and it had a wonderful crest. The moral is an old one: chance favours the prepared mind. I hadn’t done my reading, had no idea that there was a lifer possibly waiting for me, and if it was not for Adesh, I would have seen the bird and not recognized it for the special sighting it was.

You can see this bird in a wide arc across Asia, from Afghanistan in the west, across the lower Himalayas, and into China, Korea and across the sea in Japan. Southwards, it may be visible in parts of Bangladesh, and northern South-east Asia, into Vietnam. When I looked at the bird through the camera I saw a much finer pattern across its chest than a pied kingfisher would have. Of course its defining feature is the untidy crest. I don’t think I’ll mistake it for the pied kingfisher in future.

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Abandoned

Revenge photography is a thing. I should know. I took photos of this abandoned shoe on a dirt track in Corbett NP with a sense of vengeance. I blamed it for sitting in the middle of a track, and for being lost in a place where nobody walks. I was raging actually at the Smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) which had loped across the river bank and into hiding below an overhang without giving me a chance to photograph it. It is a threatened species, listed vulnerable by IUCN, and protected as a schedule 1 species in CITES. Each one of them otter know that it is its a duty to pose for a photo, not run for cover.

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A hard-to-get woodpecker

Spotting a pair of Rufous woodpeckers (Micropternus brachyurus) in Corbett NP wasn’t hard. But getting a clear shot was impossible. One skulked in deep shadows behind a trunk. The other mocked me by sitting in full view but visible only as a dark silhouette against a bright morning sky. “Common, you say?” they could well be saying, “Then see how easy it is to take our photos.” We’d heard them call as they flew in to explore the jungle around us, and they made no special effort to hide. Here, under the canopy they would hear a raptor far away, and then disappear into the leaves.

It is a rather widely distributed species. There is a population along the Western Ghats down to Sri Lanka. This population perhaps goes up along the east coast of India to Andhra Pradesh and central India. There is another population along the Himalayan foothills, where I saw this pair, and their habitat continues through Bengal, Assam, and Myanmar all the way to the coast of south China. There are related populations all over continental south-east Asia, and in the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. When I get better photos I can begin to explore the differences between the various populations.

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An odd nest for a lapwing?

While driving along a track in the grassland of the Dhikala range in Corbett NP, we spotted a pair of Red-wattled lapwings (Vanellus indicus) at a nest. They usually nest in scrapes on the ground, but I’d never seen one before. Still, the location in the middle of a track seemed oddly exposed (featured photo). The pair had chosen the grassy part where the wheels of jeeps would seldom reach, so that the danger of accidental crushing of the eggs by passing vehicles was minimized. Lapwings are known to keep guard around the nest and mob larger animals to protect their nests. I supposed that this is the way they ensure that deer or elephants do not crush their eggs (I would dearly 🙂 love to watch two lapwings trying to budge an elephant from its intended path). The very next day I saw a lapwing determinedly stand its ground in front of our jeep, forcing us to skirt it (photo below). We looked for its nest, but it must have been hidden in the grass nearby. So at least with us this behaviour succeeded.

Ground-nesting birds lose eggs to predators, and this is no exception. A count in the grounds of the Delhi zoo showed that over 40% of their eggs are taken by predators, mainly mongoose, crows and kites. It is now known that crows can discover nests by watching humans, so the extreme hands-on process of counting, as described in the article, may have caused more loss of eggs than is normal. Still, even inside Corbett NP there must be a significant number of predators on the watch for eggs. One response from the bird is camouflage: the eggs are the colour of the dust you see here, with splotches of black, which make them hard to spot among leaf litter and grass.

Like many others, I make it a principle not to go to a nest and take photos of the eggs, so that we don’t lead predators like corvids to one. But I kept worrying about the selection of such an exposed site. I later found a report of a pair nesting on the open roof of a bungalow. There was an even older report of a pair nesting between the tracks of a frequently used railroad. I wonder whether V. indicus protects its eggs by active deterrence rather than subterfuge. The very presence of two adults would alert egg-stealers of the location of a nest, even if it is hidden. So it is possible that these sightings of relatively visible nesting sites is no accident. Clearly there is much still to be understood about even such a common species of bird.

Elephant moods

Watching elephants is a pleasure. There are the tuskers, large and lonely, sometimes aggressive, but generally walking about the jungle doing his own thing. Then there are the matriarchal herds, incredibly social, but completely focused on bringing up the young. It’s a completely different social grouping than that of the apes and monkeys, but it works well enough.

The baby that you see in the featured photo caught my eye because of the grassy mud on its back. I’d not seen grass on an elephant’s back before. I looked at the others in the group. They all seemed to have it. I’m sure it helps to keep them cool, but will this innovation stick? It’ll take several visits to Dhikala range in Corbett to see the fate of this invention.

Early in the morning, a couple of days before, I’d seen a group of elephants suddenly tense. They immediately assume a protective stance around the youngest. It turned out that there was a tiger in the grass nearby. When it passed, they went back to grazing. Notice the opportunistic myna hunting the insects displaced by the elephants.

When I first came to this family group I was surprised to see a bull tusker with them. It turned out to be a chance meeting. As you can see, the group had dropped into a protective formation around the cub. In formation, they crossed the road in front of us. The bull moved away from them. Only when the bull was far enough did some signal pass between them, and the cub was allowed to move away from protection.

The bull was headed for water. We saw it move in a straight line. These lords of the jungle do not change their line of travel for any lesser creature. I watched it as it crossed the vast landscape towards a tiny pond which was invisible for us. It knew its territory very well, probably carried a map inside its head.

Once it reached the small pond in the middle of the wide open expanse, it got all the fun that it could. It drank water, squirted jets all around it, rested its trunk on its tusks, and then just lay down on the wet grass. For more than an hour I kept turning around to watch what it was doing. Eventually, as the morning got warmer it moved away.

The previous evening we’d been bullied by another tusker. We’d driven on to a path when we saw a tusker coming down it. It moved at a steady pace. There were no warning calls, no displays of threat. But the pace was relentless. The message was clear. We had to back up until a crossing, and then move to the side. In these grasslands tigers and elephants are co-equal. They give each other a a wary respect, and do not meddle.

Bee eaters

Before a mad doctor convinced a majority of my neighbours that our gardens should be saturated with pesticide, we could see many Green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) outside our window. Now I have to travel to jungles to see this auld acquaintance. They are easy to photograph, since they like to perch in the open and keep an eye on flying prey. They make quick forays to catch a passing insect and come back to their perch.

I caught this particular one in Kanha NP, cocking its head before a flight. I’ve noticed this movement before. I think it moves its head to improve its fix on the prey just before pushing off its perch. Binocular vision has its limit for birds, because of the relatively small size of head. Moving the eye gives it better depth perception through parallax. I superposed the two separate shots to give a sense of how much head movement it makes in order to get a fix. I think it more than doubles the parallax that it would have if it didn’t do this.

Corbett NP in May turns out to be a great place for spotting several different kinds of bee eaters. I completed a checklist of three more of them. The Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is perhaps the second most widespread, being visible in the Terai grasslands and the lower Himalayas, both coasts of India, all through Bengal and the north-east, and eastwards through Myanmar all the way to Vietnam, south to Malayasia and, strangely, of all the islands of Indonesia, only in Java. I probably have several other photos of it from other places, but this was the only shot I have from Corbett NP.

I’ve seen the Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) less often, although it has a larger range: all of India south of Jammu and all of Punjab, including in Pakistan, eastwards into the Philippines and Papua New-Guinea. I remember seeing it in Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Assam. The photo above comes from just outside Corbett NP.

The Blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is the least common of these, and I have only a couple of photos. The photo in the triptych above comes from Manas NP. It is visible in the Nilgiris and the two coasts around it, the jungles of Odisha and central India, and in the Terai grasslands. Further east also, its range is fairly restricted: North-east of India, and Bangladesh up to Vietnam and the north of Malayasia. Unlike the other three, perhaps it shuns gardens and tended forests. Since the last September I managed to spot all the six bee-eaters that can be seen in India. I find the Blue-bearded the most interesting of the lot, not only because it is less common, but also because it is the only bee-eater seen in India which is not in the genus Merops.

The threatened Jackal

We were watching birds in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP when I saw a sleek shape lope past on a parallel path. Our driver-guide was quicker than me, and immediately backed our jeep at speed. “Don’t worry, you’ll get a good photo,” he told me as I tried to focus through the bumps. Golden jackals (Canis aureus) like to travel on human roads, their adaptability is part of their tragedy. They are still seen as not needing the helping hand that we hold out to tigers and leopards, although they are disappearing faster. Our guide was right. The jackal turned with the road it was on, and came to a halt at the junction with the road we’d taken, just perfectly positioned for a close shot. It decided that we were a threat, and abruptly changed direction to backtrack. But there was another jeep ahead of us, so it came back, crossed the road, and disappeared into the growth next to it. I got a few good shots. The afternoon light was terrific, and these were about the best shots of jackals that I’ve ever got. The best of the driver-guides whom I’ve met in national parks in India know animal behaviour inside out. It is a pleasure to be with them.

Don’t you find yourself with some sympathy for underdogs? The beautiful Golden jackals are the underdogs of Indian wildlife, and they need all of our sympathy. Not as charismatic as the tigers or even leopards, not as impressive as the elephants and rhinos, they are slipping through the safety net of public sympathy towards extinction. The invention of key conservation species like the giant panda and the tiger was supposed to buy forest workers some breathing space, as they regenerated the habitats around the advertised species and made it safe for other, less saleable, creatures. Unfortunately, stardom has skewed these projects, and they are now geared towards the big few rather than the whole biosphere. As a result, the jackals of this world continue to suffer threats.