Terning gullible

Evening fell on Bhigwan lake as we gave up our search for the Taiga Bean Goose and drifted gently to a spit of land where a mass of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) were preparing to roost. The noisy squawks and squabbling of a typical gull colony had died down. A few had gone to sleep, tucking their heads down on their shoulders. When these birds sleep, their knees lock so that they don’t keel over. Most species of birds alternately put one hemisphere of their brains to sleep: the eye that faces out from the shoulder is connected to the hemisphere which is awake.

Brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Most of these birds still had the winter’s white head with just a small dark “ear muff” colouring well behind their eyes. But in a very few the head had turned that rich dark brown which signifies that they are ready to breed. It was the middle of March, and the day had been very hot, so it was time for these birds to begin their flights back to Ladakh, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, where they breed. On days like that I wish I was ready to fly off to these cold high plateaus too.

River terns (Sterna aurantia)

As we drifted we saw, for the first time that day, a group of river terns (Sterna aurantia). All of them had developed the fully black caps and the bright bills which denote the coming of spring. Appropriate enough, since Holi was just three days away. We’d last seen them in masses from a boat on the Chambal river. It was good to see them here, closer to home. Since they are resident birds, there will be opportunities of seeing them over the breeding season, which continues till the beginning of the monsoon. In most species of terns individuals do not begin to breed at the end of their first year. The river terns seem to be an exception. You might expect that this would make them less vulnerable to habitat loss, but we seem to have taken care of this roadblock to extinction by polluting most water bodies around us.

Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini)

When you spend enough time staring at a flock you see the little things you may have missed at first. There was a Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini) hiding among them. Once considered a separate species, it is now treated as just another subspecies of lesser black-backed gulls. The rest of the species breeds in the west of Europe, but the population which includes the individual we saw comes from the far northern tundra of Russia, breeding along the coast of the Laptev Sea. This sea contributes most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Its harsh climate made for a very weird ecosystem. But now, as the world warms and the sea ice production falls off, this gull is seeing its breeding grounds become subject to the fastest changing climate in the world. It lives at the thin edge of climate change. On that peaceful, rapidly cooling, evening I wondered how the bird life of Bhigwan would change in the lifetime of the eight year old youngster who watched all this with me.


In this sweltering heat of Mumbai it feels nice to look back at the photos of the winter that’s just gone by. The many winter visitors include these gulls with stars in their tails. Once you notice that, you have narrowed the identification down to three: Mew gulls, Caspian gulls, and Heuglin’s gulls. Mew gulls are the smallest, and very rare in India. This was too big. The Heuglin’s and Caspian are about the same size, and distinguished by the shape of the head (Heuglin’s is broader) and the darkness of the wings (Heuglin’s is darker). This could be Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini). I consulted an oracle, and it was.

Hectic times on tidal flats

Little Warsaw (there’s a long story there) of Jamnagar stands near a tidal flat. We reached when the tide was coming in. A group of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) was foraging in the low waters. They are wonderful to watch at all times, so it was a while before I took my eyes off them to look at the tourists basking on a spit of sand beyond them.

They were mostly Crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) winter visitors from Sri Lanka and Maldives. You wouldn’t think anyone would leave those Indian Ocean islands to come and winter in Gujarat. There has to be a story there; one that I intend to follow up some time. As they roosted, a noisy flock of Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) came flying in. As they picked their way between the roosting Craab plovers, I noticed some distinctive Heuglin’s gulls (Larus fuscus heuglini) floating behind the islet. The gulls roost in the water.

A knot of locals were sitting by the shore when we arrived, and now they decided to wade out. Their village was probably on the far side of the flats, and they seemed pretty sure of the route to follow. I heard more commotion, and I took my eyes off them. A bunch of elegant Eurasian Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) came flying in. The Crab plovers were beginning to get crowded out. There was a lot of squawking and crying from the mixed bunch on the island. The villagers had turned in the meanwhile. They were definitely following a fixed route.

The Great Knots were alert to the approaching humans, and took off in a flurry of wing-beats. The Crab plovers had given up on their sleep and were on their feet. The villagers were very close to the islet when they birds took off. As the humans crossed the sand on their way home, a few brave plovers stood their ground. When they were gone, the Crab plovers came back to reclaim the island for themselves. They wanted to spend the afternoon roosting. We were off for lunch.