Comb duck

After some looking at the duck you see in the photo, I decided that its usual name, knob-billed duck, fits it perfectly. I have no use for the alternative African comb duck or the Latin binomial Sarkidiornis melanotos. It is large, among the largest of ducks, and easily told at a distance by the black stippling on the head and neck, even if you don’t see its knob. The female lacks the knob, may have a duller wing, and is generally smaller, but is otherwise similar in appearance. On this morning at Lakhota lake, I didn’t see it upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but several of them dipped their beaks into the water, perhaps filter feeding. I was happy to get that drop of water at the end of this one’s bill.

I’ve learnt to let sexual dimorphism in birds signal strange mating behaviour. Typically they nest in holes and hollows in trees, above a man’s head, but usually not too far above. But it has been known to appropriate the nests of other species for itself, even if they are much higher: vultures’, eagles’, storks’. Each female lays a clutch of 7 to 12 eggs. But one of the oddest things about this bird is that they breed in “dump nests” where several females deposit eggs, and once as many as 54 eggs have been found in such a nest. This suggests the possibility of polygyny among these birds. There are other waterfowl in which polygyny has been observed. Like several other birds in India, they breed late in the monsoon. This is an added reason for me to start thinking of a late monsoon birding trip, something which most birders think is a wild and useless trip.

A hidden koel

On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.

I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.

I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.

As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.

Herning coots

Decades after I’d first come across the phrase “haunt of coot and hern” I looked up the meaning of hern. A hunter! That fits me when I’m trying to take photos of birds. So the result of my herning coots are the photos you see here. The common coot (Fulica atra, also called the Eurasian coot) is something I learnt to spot long back. The reason is that when you look at a distant pond full of water birds, the dark plumage broken only by the white patch on the forehead is extremely easy to recognize even without gear. The common coot is a resident, and therefore visible all year round. But even in winter, when every water body is crowded with migratory visitors, it remains the easiest bird to identify. I took photos of them at the Lakhota lake in the middle of Jamnagar.

It seems that they often lay their eggs in the nests of other coots. This parasitic behaviour improves their own chances of reproducing, because they can go on laying eggs without having to take care of the young. Perhaps as a defensive mechanism, they are aggressively territorial during breeding season; both the male and the female challenge and chase encroachers. They are seen to be ruthless to their brood. Chicks which demand food are often pecked quite brutally. More chicks die of starvation than the numbers killed by raptors. Could this whole cascade of behaviour result from some individuals deciding to cheat?

One of the coots had now come up quite close and I got a look at its feet as it propelled itself underwater. You can see that they are not at all like the webbed feet of ducks. Coots have fat lobes on each toe, as you can see in the two photos above. The combined surface areas of the lobes must be rather big, because coots seem to swim as efficiently as ducks. I’ve seen coots upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but I’ve also seen them submerge completely to forage underwater. You can see that a coot’s head is streamlined for diving.

In the long shot above, you can see how easy it is to spot coots in a bunch of ducks swimming about in the distance. That white patch shows up very clearly. The other detail you can see is the wake behind a coot as it swims. It seems a little wider than that of the common pochard, perhaps indicating that a coot’s legs sit relatively forward in its body; I don’t think I’ll get to measure a coot, but I’m sure someone has already done that. You can also see that the wake is quite as complex as that of the pochard; the forward and backward strokes of the feet as it swims must be different. It is always interesting to watch birds swim.

A webbed swisher

I’ve seen the common pochard (Aythya ferina) so many times that I should really know its name. But I always forget, and The Family or someone else has to remind me. There could be a little difficulty in telling it from an Eurasian wigeon from some angles, but the snow white back of the pochard is characteristic, just as the buffy crown of the wigeon is a clear distinction. As I stood near the Lakhota Lake of Jamnagar and watched the mellow sun of the morning light up the red iris of these birds, I realized that I’d not noticed their eyes before.

I took a close up (featured photo), and then zoomed back a bit to take another shot. Pochards are diving ducks (although they will also turn upside down sometimes to dabble just under the surface), and their heads are streamlined wedges, unlike the round heads of dabbling ducks. Their legs are placed a little further back in their body so that they can more easily propel themselves under water. The result is that as they swim, the wake opens up at a rather small angle, as you can see in the photo above. Whenever I look at water waves, I lose myself in the intricacies of the ripples. Does the wake look braided to you? It does to me, and I wondered whether this appearance had anything to do with the way the pochard paddles in the water.

I couldn’t get a photo of a pochard’s legs moving under water, so I took a photo of another duck with webs strung between three of its toes. This is how a pochard’s feet also look. When you look at the photo above, you see that the ripples are asymmetrical: on one side the crests are closer together. It would look the same for a pochard. So, as it swims, on every stroke of its feet, a pochard must be twisting its leg slightly away from its body on one half of the stroke, and then back towards itself on the return stroke. This is probably what gives that braided look to the wake. If you manage a careful look at a pochard swimming, could you please leave a comment here to tell me whether I’m correct or not?

These winter visitors to India breed in the northern parts of the continent. The female is very drab in colour, and I find it hard to identify. I scanned the lake and saw that male and female pochard were usually close together. Near a roosting male I spotted this drab coloured bird of about the same size, and head shape. This must be the female of the common pochard. As usual with roosting birds, half its brain is asleep. The eye that faces away from the body is connected to the hemisphere of its brain which is awake an alert to danger. How wonderfully different are bird brains from the mammalian organ!