Lakhota lake

On our last morning in Jamnagar we went for a walk to Lakhota lake. The lake was originally a defensive position, but was expanded into a water reservoir for the town after successive failed monsoons in the middle of the 19th century CE. This was amazing in the morning: an island of serenity in the middle of this crowded and bustling town, full of gulls, ducks, and other water birds. I’ve posted photos of some of these birds earlier, and will continue to post others for a while.

The circular building in the middle of the lake (featured photo) is now called the Lakhota Palace. It was originally a fort, as the blank facade still proclaims. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had lost its purpose. Now it is an archaeological museum. I’d read about the recreation of a medieval Gujarati village inside the fort, and would have liked to see it. But when we arrived the doors to the causeway leading to the fort were firmly shut. It wouldn’t open for another three hours. By then we would be ready to drive out to the nearest airport, which was some distance away. This was a bad miss.

Standing outside the barred gate I looked towards the middle of the city, and saw this strange structure. It was also barred to entry. I found later that this was called the Bhujiyo Kotho, and was another medieval fortification. It is reported to have had a tunnel, now collapsed, connected in a straight line to the city of Bhuj. The tunnel would have had to go under the Gulf of Kutch, and I wondered whether this kind of engineering was possible in the medieval period in Gujarat. In any case, the fort had been badly damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, and has not yet been restored. It would be a massive effort to restore it.

So that left us with only one thing to do, which was to take a leisurely walk around the lake. At this time of the morning the place had quite a few visitors, all out for a morning’s walk. We met families curious about our binoculars and scopes, and Adesh Shivkar was in his element, telling children about ducks. Passing children were fascinated by the views of birds through the scope, and I realized again what a wonderful asset he is for conservationists.

After an hour of walking slowly around the lake, pausing every now and then to watch birds, we were ready for our breakfast. I looked back at the womderful broad promenade around the lake, and took a photo which tries to capture the serene atmosphere of that morning.

Spotted, a dabbler

I like watching the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), partly because you don’t have to strain your eyes to see it. It is a large duck, about the size of a mallard, and does not mind swimming in open waters. The yellow-tipped black bill has two orange spots near its base which give it its name. I don’t think I have ever noticed the subspecies which one finds in Myanmar and further east; it is supposed to lack exactly these same orange spots which give it is name. A spot-billed duck without spots!

These photos were taken at Lakhota lake, in the middle of Jamnagar. The wonderful morning light showed me the clear brown eyes of the duck. That’s a detail I don’t see so very often, although the bird can be seen dabbling away in small ponds and lakes all across India. Earlier in the morning, when there was a tiny haze over the water, I’d seen several of them preening. The photo above shows that characteristic flash of green, under a black wing edged in white, which lets you identify the spot-bill even if you can’t see its spots.

Before rapid genetics became easy, there was a confusion between the Indian spot-bill and a closely related species in China and to its east, now called the Eastern spot-bill. Eventually, observers in Hing Kong found that although both species can be seen together, they almost never cross breed. That observation led to the discovery that there are to species, something that molecular genetics now confirms. I love these painstaking field workers, and envy them. They get to spend their days in the sun, watching birds all day, with long breaks in the afternoon and night, perfectly in time for two large meals a day. It’s a wonderful life, in spite of the constant danger of being drained of blood by a friendly neighbourhood mosquito or leech. Some of my gurus in birding live such a life, earning some money by taking amateurs like us on birding trips. They have a bad time now, with the virus keeping them indoors. If the lockdown or even curtailed travel persists for long, say two months or two years, I wonder what happens to them, and a lot of others who are invested in hotels, restaurants, transport, wildlife guides, and so on.

It is sometimes said that spot-bills don’t mix with other ducks. That may be true in some small ponds at some time of the year. As the photo above shows, they have absolutely no trouble mixing with coots. The spot-bill is a dabbler, searching for food just below the surface, snagging minute crustaceans and vegetation in their bills when they upend. They don’t compete for food with divers or skimmers. In a large, reasonably deep body of water, many species always come together. The lockdown gives me an opportunity to go back in time, and arrange my photos. I think I’ll try to find some more photos of the spot-bill.

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!