Gold and feathers

Sunset on Bhigwan’s lake was a quiet time. Fishermen and farmers were on the way home from work. Herdsmen had brought their cattle to water for a last time in the day. Distant sounds of traffic had quietened. We’d heard calls of birds all day. That was completely gone as the light turned to gold. This was a good time for bird photography on the water. An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) stopped looking for fish as soon as I’d clicked the featured photo and stalked to the hollow of the trunk and laid its head on its shoulder, preparing to sleep.

We’d been on open water most of the afternoon. Now, as we drifted close to the shore, I started noticing a completely different set of birds. There was a common redshank (Tringa totanus), its mottled and streaky feathers quite distinctive. I didn’t want the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) in the photo, but the boat was drifting slowly and there was no quick way of getting it out of the way, except by changing focus.

There were reeds near the shore. I’d seen Garganeys (Spatula querquedula) all day, dabbling in the open waters. The white streaks on the head are quite distinctive. But none had come close enough for a photo. I took one now through the reeds. Behind it were Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus, formerly known as the Indian subspecies of Purple swamphens). I would get photos of them later.

At this time of the day, the colour of the water depends very strongly on which direction you look at. As I turned my gaze westwards I saw a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) seated atop a mooring post sunk into the water. Behind it you can see one of the small villages dotted along the edge of the lake.

And finally, looking due west, on a sea of gold, a Brown-headed gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) had stopped its incessant daily flights, patrolling the water to keep it free of fish. Now it rested gently in the shallows. Later it would paddle closer to the shore and go to sleep on a sandbank. It was time for us to turn back too.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

A rigorous Medusa

Yet thought must see
That eve of time when man no longer yearns,
Grown deaf before Life’s Sphinx, whose lips are barred;
When from the spaces of Eternity,
Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.

Sphinx and Medusa (1975) Clark Ashton Smith

The rites of spring

In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

When we stopped to watch a yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus), The Precious protested, “Such a common bird.” She’d started birding before us but had stopped for some years now. She didn’t know how rare a sighting this is now. It was almost three years since our last view of these birds. Their homes, the arid grasslands which once covered the country are becoming rarer as humans begin to build on what the forestry department calls “wastelands”. And as the habitat disappears, this species, still classified by IUCN as being of least concern for conservation, has become a rarer sight. The Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary that we were in may be the best place to see this lapwing around Pune.

This bird was quite uncharacteristically silent as it stood still and looked around. It looked around as if it was confused. Then strode off into a nearby acacia bush. This behaviour is common with the lapwing: sudden stops and starts, as if it is an absent-minded professor who suddenly recalls an urgent appointment. I gave it no special heed. From the other side of the bush another lapwing popped out, and then crouched. “Hmm. Unusual,” I thought. The first bird came out behind it, looked around as it approached and jumped on to the croucher. They were mating I realized, as soon as the eight-year old with us said “They are fighting.” Coitus last for ten seconds or so in this species, as I can confidently say from the time stamp on these photos.

We’d completely missed the long courtship display that precedes it. Descriptions that I’ve read (see an easy to reach account here) call to my mind the many elaborate ensemble courtship dances that you see in Bollywood movies: with the hero and his male friends displaying in front of the heroine. Except that for the dancing lapwing cohort there is no designated hero; the female chooses. This was the peak of the mating season. If the grassland refuge were larger then we could have just wandered around till we saw another dance. But the refuge is small and closely bordered by agricultural fields.

I can’t spot studies of the behaviour of the Indian lapwings, so to understand whether they do indeed mate for life, I have to fall back on a study of an European species, the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). This is the very same one that was described by Tennyson in a passing line in a long and closely observed poem on spring. It turns out that lapwings, long thought of as monogamous (except by Tennyson), are actually both polygamous and polyandrous. One male lapwing reportedly defended two nesting territories! I wonder if that is also true of these. Maybe when I retire I’ll supplement winter and spring travels by spending the long summer days reading old Sanskrit nature poetry. Maybe I’ll learn something new.

Evening on the lake

As evening fell the activity on Bhigwan lake changed. Work began to wind down. I noticed a boat low in the water with a couple in it, the man rowing. I waited until I could take a silhouette of the boat against the setting sun. They could be farmers returning from the field. This is Baramati district. The large farmers here grow sugarcane. So, if they are farmers at all, then perhaps they are small-holders, they could have been reaping the winter’s produce. All around the lake we’d seen small patches of various grains ripening.

Just a little earlier we’d seen herds of cows being driven home. They walked out into over a long finger of land into shallows on the lake to take a last drink of water in the evening. Around the muddy banks of the lake, in the shallows where no agriculture was done, we’d noticed grass growing. The lake in this season is a good place for cows and buffalos. It yields both grass and water in the commons, no need to buy expensive fodder.

But herding and agriculture are fringe activities, so to say. Fishing is the work that we’d watched all day. At lunch we’d eaten fresh tilapia from the lake. I was surprised; tilapia is not a native species. It seems to have been introduced to the lake after Ujani Dam was built. The presence of herons, gulls, terns, and flamingos on the lake was a clue that there were other fish, as well as crustaceans, here. The traps that the fishermen were laying were for shrimps. The catch of tilapia is so large that, in the day I spent there, I couldn’t figure what other fish is found in the river and lake.

The long take off

Look out of your window and watch a bird take flight. You might see it push off from a perch and gain lift with hard strokes of its wings. Or you might see it drop, open its wings into a glide, and then begin to beat them for lift. On the surface of water neither method works. Water is too level to drop into a glide from, and too fluid to push against. So water birds have the ungainly take off that airplanes do. On Bhigwan lake we watched the long runs of coots (Fulica atra) as they scattered from approaching boats. They don’t flee from perceived danger; they take off in the direction that they face, sometimes towards the approaching boat. Perhaps it would take them longer to turn than to take off. I should time them.

The bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), those champion fliers, have even longer runs to take off. But the longest runs that we saw were those of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). The flight of birds is quite different from that of an aircraft of course, but still, a greater weight would require a longer run for take off, unless the musculature and wings of two birds are very different. So a flamingo needs a longer runway than a coot, just as a Dreamliner needs a longer runway than a Cessna Skyhawk. A practical benefit of understanding this is that if you want to find coots and small ducks you could just drop by a small pond, but you need to find lakes if you want to watch geese and flamingos.

When you remember just a few birthday parties, anything resembling one seems like a grand thing. The Newphew was understandably excited about his coming “half birthday“, especially with an aunt willing to indulge every whim. Having heard of the pleasures of birding from his once-a-birder mom, he had asked for a day’s birding with his aunt. So off we went to Bhigwan near Pune for a full day’s birding: from before sunrise to after sunset.

The lake is extensive, created by the damming of the Bhima river at the Ujani village. Typically the backwater of a dam is known by the name of the dam, so this could have been called the Ujani lake. However, in this case the backwater is named Yashwant Sagar. But by a truly Alice-in-wonderland twist, most birders know this as Bhigwan lake, by the name of the town of Bhigwan on the lake. The lake covers around 350 square kilometers of area. When the dam was finished in 1980, it submerged 82 villages and their surrounding agricultural land. Now trees and electric pylons break the surface of the water, providing perches for the tens of thousands of birds, many migratory, which come to this lake every winter.

The Newphew is exactly at the age where he finds it hilarious that the white branches of trees are normal branches covered with bird droppings. He was excited by the masses of black cormorants on the “poo trees”. And he grew even more excited when we pointed out the few great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) sitting among the darker Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis).

The excitement multiplied when he located the single oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster, aka Indian snakebird) sitting on one of the trees filled with cormorants. One of the characteristics of eight years olds is their discovery that they can be contrary. He had packed his own binoculars when he packed his backpack for the trip, but he’d refused to use them on the boat. Their cloak of contrariness falls away when they are excited. The Newphew dropped his act of contrariness and stared at these birds with his binoculars.

With the breaking of the ice, he was ready to see more. And we saw much more: grey herons (Ardea cinerea), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), Asian openbills (Anastomus oscitans), Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at breakfast, and many more. Before lunch he sat down and, with our help, made a list of all the birds that he’d seen in the morning. He couldn’t stop telling everyone that he’d seen 58 different species before breakfast, including the very rare sighting of a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis).

There was a session of bird watching planned for the evening and another safari at night. This was the height of excitement for him. At the age of 8 1⁄2 he was tasting La Dolce Vita. By the time night fell and he helped to pin down an Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) in crossed beams of light he was in a state of extreme hyper-alertness. He took time to fall asleep, but then slept through a rooster’s untimely calls that kept us awake at night.

And for us too, this was a day of excitement. Not just because we’d seen almost 90 species of birds in the day, but also because we’d shared this world with a new person. Our familiar natural world is part of the great succession of life on the planet. As we make it uninhabitable for the life that shares the cenozoic era with us, our time is as limited as the species we help to wipe out. Hopefully, by making enough of the screen-bound generation into nature lovers, we can postpone the great extinction of our times and the resulting birth of a post-human earth.

The same old story

And she turn’d—her bosom shaken with a sudden storm of sighs—
All the spirit deeply dawning in the dark of hazel eyes—

Saying, “I have hid my feelings, fearing they should do me wrong”;
Saying, “Dost thou love me, cousin?” weeping, “I have loved thee long.”

Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.

Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.

Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The couple in the featured photo are Ruddy Shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea). This may be the most treacly sweet photo I have of them, but my most memorable sighting of these birds was in a Himalayan lake at an altitude of slightly more than 5 Kms above sea level. The oxygen levels are so low at that height that my brain stopped functioning, and I could not get the dust cap off my camera. They are thought to pair for life. The second photo shows a pair of Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) with the elegant long black crest feathers that they sport in spring. From their behaviour it didn’t look like they were a mated pair. I took both these photos from a boat on the backwaters of the Ujani dam near Bhigwan in Maharashtra.

Doors of Kumbharwada

A day and a half of bird watching took us to a site well known to local birders: the backwater of a Ujani dam next to the village of Bhigwan. We stayed at a farmhouse in the nearby village of Kumbharwada. Just before we left in the morning today, I walked around the yard clicking photos. In the morning light the old doors of a wing of the main house looked grand.

I stepped closer for details. The texture of the weather beaten paint, the sunburnt wood below it, the rusted iron handle, kept smooth and polished by the touch of many hands, the old-style lock hanging from it, all looked wonderful in the morning’s light. Do notice the loop of thread from which the key to the lock hangs.

From the road you see little of the house. What was most noticeable was the number of means of transport parked in the entrance area: one of several SUVs, with the supplementary means of transport being the numerous motor bikes. I would also count the cow in the background as an emergency means of transport, should it be needed.

I walked back to our car which was parked in a new block around the yard. This was clearly extremely new. The paint on the walls looked like it may have been a year old. Two green patches of lawn were startling in this yard which was otherwise bone dry. The farmer had created an enclosed garden to one side of this block, and planted rushes around the ditch which carried away the waste water of the farmhouse. All this was well thought out. As an enthusiastic birder, he had created little environments which attracted different birds. We saw sunbirds, bulbuls and mynas in the garden. The rushes were full of warblers and pipits. But for today I will star the doors of the rooms in this block: wonderful designs obtained by crossing 1920s vintage futurism with the op art of the 1960s.

But I could not leave the farmyard without a tribute to the intrepid mouser who kept away the freeloaders who would otherwise venture in from the fields. I felt some respect for him, not the animosity I felt when I saw the rooster strutting around the yard. That guy had woken me up at three in the morning, practicing his monotonous call for two hours. Seeing him as I had my breakfast, I felt again a desire to wring his neck. Rooster soup for breakfast would perhaps save others from my fate, I thought.

Flamingo town Bhigwan

Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) can be told from their lesser cousins by the shape of the neck. I told the bright but easily distracted man of 100 (in binary) that the necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of the letter S, and that of the lesser is like an inverted J. He looked at a flock of several hundred flamingos in front of us and declared in a jiffy that they were all greater flamingos. Eight year olds tire of repetitive jobs very quickly. It wouldn’t have mattered much if I’d phrased it as a game: find the lesser flamingo. He was probably right, but I won’t be surprised if an alert reader finds a lesser flamingo in these photos.

We’d been to Bhigwan many years ago, and when the young nephew said he wanted to go birding with The Family, we planned it again. Behind Ujani dam near Pune in Maharashtra, the extensive lake is named after the largest nearby town. As you can see, it is really close to the large colony of flamingos which were still there in March.

I’ve written about flamingos many times before, and there is little that I can add. Maybe I can remind you that their colour comes from their diet. They skim the bottom of shallow waters with their beaks and filter out snails and other molluscs to eat. From their shells they derive the brights colours which then collect in their otherwise white flumage. They were clearly well fed here, as their colour shows. The larger colony off the coast of Mumbai does not eat so well often.

I find their ungainly flight fascinating. They are too large to be prey to the usual eagles and falcons, so they’ve not had much need to become better flyers. They take a long run to get airborne, and I love to hear the sound of a large flock thudding through the water as it struggles to take to the air. Often just one or two birds taking off can spook a whole city into flight. Here I managed to capture the first two which took off as we approached. You can see what a large variation in reaction times the flock has. Two are beginning their run, the others have not yet reacted to us.

From a distance I watched another village of the flamingos take off. There were about a thousand birds in that group, and more than a minute passed before they all got off the ground. To see so many in flight together is a lovely sight, so we stood there and watched.

I wanted to record their loud squabbling, and our guide and boatman, Ganesh, told us that the morning is the best time for it. That turned out to be quite true. A bonus was the soft morning light. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the birds waking up as the sun rose.

Perhaps they feed in another part of the lake in the morning. They had slept at night in the same place where we saw them the previous evening. But, as the sun rose, they took off eastwards. Long skeins of white, red, and blacks spread out against the sky as they left.

A feathery mystery

Social media is a wonderful source of information. As we drove to Bhigwan lake, one of The Family’s friends wrote to her about the stray bean goose which had been sighted there, adding that it came from Finland. Bean geese have been spotted in India four times before (most recently a solitary bird in Corbett NP in 2012, and a group near Jaipur in 2017), so it is a pretty rare sight. Neither it, nor the bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) it was with were tagged, so there is no chance that anyone can tell you definitely where it came from and exactly what it is. The staccato definiteness of social media means that it is also a wonderful source of misinformation. But then, a Puneri newspaper reported that it is definitely a Tundra bean goose (Anser serrirostris). I’ll tell you in this post that both stories are wrong. The bird is very likely to be a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis johanseni) from the west-Siberian taiga. I know this is a long post, but I hope you’ll read it through. I would understand though if you just look at the photos.

This is a mystery in two parts. What exactly is the grey-brown bird and what is it doing in a lake in Maharashtra? And with any mystery, you unravel it by looking for the means, the opportunity, and the motive. The big clues here are the appearance of the bird, and the fact that it seems to be associated with a group of four bar-headed geese (the local guides know this very well, and alert each other about the appearance of the bar-headed geese in any part of the lake). By examining the means and opportunity of its travel to India, I think we reach an identification. So let’s handle that first. From its gross appearance (brown and grey feathers, black bill with orange band across the middle, orange legs and feet) it could be a Tundra or a Taiga bean goose. You’ll see in a photo later that the upper wing coverts differ from those of the Tundra bean goose, making this ID unlikely. It is the same size as bar-headed geese which makes it unlikely, in a statistical sense, that it is a east-Siberian Taiga bean goose (A. f. middendorffii).

But first let’s turn to the bar-headed geese, because there is no confusion about them. There are two separately breeding populations, the western ones breed in central Asia, from Kashmir north to Kyrgyzstan and migrate south to western India in winter. The eastern population, from Mongolia and China, migrate in winter over the Himalayas, flying at a height of about 9 Kms above sea level to come to eastern India. No other bird is known to be able to fly that high. The fact that vagrant bean geese have never been sighted in eastern India is likely to mean that they cannot match bar-headed geese in their record breaking flights.

Tundra bean geese have two breeding populations. The western population can be found around the Kara sea, between Novaya Zemlya in the west and the Taimyr peninsula in the east. The eastern geese breed on the shore of the East Siberian sea. They have no well-defined wintering grounds, migrating in small groups to the balmy south in Scotland, northern Germany and Poland, or Mongolia and the Russian planes. The group that came to Jaipur was a statistical fluke. It would be even more of a fluke if a single bird got separated from its group, found bar-headed geese, and flew with them. Piling one unlikelihood over another is uncalled for, since the appearance and call of the animal already told me that it was not likely to be a typical Tundra bean goose.

The Taiga bean goose is a different beast. There are three subspecies, corresponding to three breeding populations. The Anser fabalis fabalis breeds in the north of Sweden, Norway, in Finland, and east into north-western Russia. They migrate to Germany, Denmark, Scotland and England in winter over the winter flyway. The central population, A. f. johanseni, take the central flyway in winter, south from the vast steppes of central Russia, to central Asia at the northern end of the range of bar-headed geese. The eastern subspecies, A. f. middendorffii, takes the eastern flyway from the Asian parts of Russia to winter in China, Korea, and Japan, far to the east of the breeding grounds of bar-headed geese.

Consider now the means and opportunity! Only the central population of Taiga bean goose, Anser fabalis johanseni have the opportunity to become separated from its own group and be incorporated into a flock of the western population of bar-headed geese. Since these bar-headed geese do not fly at record breaking heights, the bean goose we saw also had the means to fly with its accidental companions to a lake in Maharashtra. We confirmed that by call and appearance it resembles Anser fabalis, and eliminated Anser serrirostris not only by these classic clues that birders look for, but also by the means and opportunity to be incorporated into a flock of bar-headed geese.

How can a bird be identified?

Usually by its appearance and call. But in some cases this is complicated by an unusual similarity of two species.

Then one often relies on other clues, like where did one see it? This works if the ranges of two birds do not overlap. But if it is a vagrant, then you don’t know where its range is.

But sometimes birds are tagged by ornithologists. If a bird is tagged, then the tag will usually tell you about its history. If it is not, even then there are other tests, such as DNA matching. But these are invasive methods.

What’s the lost goose?

From its appearance it seems to be either a Taiga or a Tundra bean goose, but more likely to be the first.

Since it’s in a group with bar-headed geese, it should have come from a region where they can meet. This is only possible for the west-Siberian Taiga bean goose, Anser fabalis johanseni

And the deeper mystery? The motive? One can be even less sure, but I suspect that it was entirely by chance. A member of one migrating flock found another quite by chance on a major migration highway. Will it ever go back and find a mate? The chances are slim, but, for its sake, I hope it does. Its habits are slightly different from those of the rest of its flock. They flew and swam together, but it strode off by itself to walk on the land, and pick at food. The bar-headed geese never left the water in this time. They called just before take off, and it wheeled smartly and joined them in flight. I hope it finds a mate eventually.

But behind this individual lurk larger questions. Why are we seeing so many vagrants now? There is certainly a disruption of migration patterns, with species creeping up in altitude and latitude as the earth warms. This gives more opportunity for accidental meetings between different migrating species, producing solitary vagrants. Is it that, or does social media also alert us to events which we might not have noticed before? After all sailors in the 18th century recorded three egrets flying over the Tasman sea, but the world did not rush to view them. But I think there is an even larger question. The behaviour of the geese that I saw seemed to have purpose. They did not behave like malfunctioning automatons. The bean goose went off from the bar-headed to search for its food, but they called before taking off, and it responded to that call. The bean goose was accidentally separated from its own flock, why has it not got separated from this flock of strangers? Why do they call to it as they are leaving, and why does it respond? The answers could nuance our understanding of the separation between us and the rest of nature. In the coming climate cataclysm, who is to say that understanding such inter-species cooperation might not become a matter of human survival?

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