On a dinosaur hunt

As our boat made its way down a tidal creek in Bhitarkanika, we spotted a monitor lizard on the mud bank and halted. The meter long lizard was well aware of our presence, but did not judge us to be a threat. As it made its slow way along the bank, I asked Amar whether he had ever seen it move faster. He said that he had seen it run. I later found that it can crank up its speed to a little over Usain Bolt’s!

The monitor lizard can be spotted in various parts of India, but the only previous photos I had were in zoos. I was happy to keep clicking, and even happier that I managed to get a photo of it flicking its forked tongue (featured image). This enables lizards and snakes to sample chemicals which are not volatile enough for a nose to pick up. Monitor lizard in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha It is believed that the forked tongue allows these animals to follow a chemical trail. One of the components of the diet of a monitor lizard is bird’s eggs. Kingfishers lay eggs in holes in the mud near a creek. Maybe this creature was trying to locate such a nest. The next day we came across a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of green bee eaters. It crept slowly across an open patch in the ground and disappeared into a bush. I couldn’t figure out whether the birds had driven it away from nests, or whether it had created a diversion while its mate raided the nest.

Popular literature and movies portray dinosaurs in the shape of these giant lizards. But monitor lizards are not the descendants of dinosaurs; they are distant cousins. In 2012 the rediscovery of a new fossil along with molecular and fossil phylogenetic studies concluded that monitor lizards arose in Asia by the late Miocene epoch, and evolved along with mammalian competitors. The dinosaurs had by then evolved into birds. In India, the Himalayas had already risen, and the monsoon had set in.

What we saw on both occasions was a lizard on a dinosaur hunt!

Clades of Kingfishers

After reaching the Bhitarkanika National Park, we learnt that the brown-winged kingfisher is called the king of the forest. It was abundant. The flash of its orange and blue colouration easily visible, and often, in the green of the mangrove forest. This was one of the seven species of kingfishers we saw in a day.

So many species gave me some pause. How did they evolve? How are they connected? The current understanding of the evolution of kingfishers is that they probably radiated from southern Asia, speciating rapidly as they filled new niches in Australia and the Pacific islands. The Americas are likely to have been populated through two independent migrations from the Old World landmass. Studies are incomplete, and especially in the biogeographic ranges of Asia and India there is much that remains to be discovered.

There are three major clades of Kingfishers: Alcedininae (river kingfishers), Halcyoninae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylinae (water kingfishers). All three are present in Bhitarkanika national park. As far as we can tell today, the river kingfishers diverged from the base of the evolutionary tree. The branching between the other two clades came later. The small blue kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the white-breasted kingfisher and the pied kingfisher, representatives of the three clades are widespread in India. Somehow I didn’t have a good photo of pied kingfishers before, and I managed to get a fairly good one on this trip (below).

Lesser pied kingfisher, Ceryle rudis, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India

Here are the seven species we saw, listed in the three clades. The name in italics is the genus to which the different species belong.

  • River kingfishers (Alcedininae):
    • Alcedo: Small blue kingfisher
  • Tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae):
    • Halcyon: White-breasted kingfisher, Brown-winged kingfisher, Stork-billed kingfisher, Black-capped kingfisher
    • Todiramphus: Collared kingfisher
  • Water kingfishers (Cerylinae):
    • Ceryle: Lesser pied kingfisher

We’d seen stork billed kingfishers during our trip to Andaman in December. They did not seem to be particularly common there. They seemed to be even more rare here. We saw one briefly sitting with a pair of brown-winged kingfishers. They have similar bright orange coloration, with long red beaks, and it takes a moment to realize that the stork billed does not have a brown wing. I did not get a photo here at all. The ruddy kingfisher is seldom spotted here. One of the cooks at the hotel we stayed in was very interested in birds, and kept asking us whether we’d seen this. He told us that he has never managed to spot it. This agrees with Gopi’s checklist, which states that it is a vagrant. We never saw one.

Collared kingfisher, Todiramphus chloris, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India

I’d first seen the collared kingfisher in Andaman. They are quite common here, and I managed to get a better photo than I’d got in December (above). Black capped kingfisher, Halcyon pileata, in Bhitarkanika national park, India It took me some time to spot the black-capped kingfisher. Our boatman, Amar, kept pointing them out to us, and I couldn’t see them at all for a while. Then I realized that they flit between the dipping branches of mangroves and the water. After that I caught sight of many. Eventually, the best photograph was of one which sat on a mooring pole for boats (alongside). The splash of lilac near the base of its tail is barely visible when it is perched, but is a beautiful sight when it flies.

Which part of Bhitarkanika is best for sighting of kingfishers? We found that the backwaters between the jetty in Khola village and Dangamal is a great place for these birds. We spotted all seven species in a single one hour boat ride between these points. You can also see them almost anywhere near the waters.