Afghan sparrow

I never really learn to pay attention. Long ago, a very competitive bird watcher had challenged me to tell whether a nearby sparrow was male or female, and I vamped my way through the test. Males of birds are generally more colourful, and the bird we were looking at was pale and mousy. I guessed female, and although I was correct, I did not win the argument. Also, I didn’t go back and look carefully at the description of an Indian house sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus). Otherwise, when I saw the bird in the featured photo, I would have known instantly (by the lack of a black bib covering its chin, neck, and chest) that it was not your garden variety house sparrow. This is a the only migratory subspecies, the Aghan sparrow (Passer domesticus bactrianus).

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.


The loud chirps that came from a thicket near the lake in Khijadiya bird sanctuary probably belonged to a chat. As I was wracking my brain for the names of various chats, a very experienced birder exclaimed “Bluethroat!” I hadn’t even heard of Bluethroats (Luscinia svecica). I was to find later that they are found across the old world and even in the extreme northwest of the Americas. The one we saw had likely come down to winter from its breeding grounds in the northwestern Himalyas. It flew up from the thicket to sit in good light on an upper branch of a thorn tree. Its blue throat with a rufous band looked wonderful to me, but apparently it is much brighter in the breeding season. Isn’t that a great reason to make a summer trip to the western Himalayas?

The migration of some populations of the Bluethroat has been studied quite intensively during recent years, mainly by ringing birds. It seems that all birds from a certain breeding ground may not travel together in winter. However, the birds which winter in a certain area return to that place again in following years. Perhaps there is some competition between individuals to return to the breeding grounds earlier. These studies have been done in Spain and Africa. I wonder whether such fine differences also occur in the Indian population. I’m sure someone is even now writing a grant proposal to study such questions. I was happy to add one more bird to my life list.