Rare and threatened

On a very hot day we drove to the Banni grasslands. Parts were under water at this time. But the shimmer on the roads was mirage. This isn’t an unusual sight in India, but this was my first view of this common mirage after almost two years. As you can see from the featured photo, the hot air blurs every photo a bit. It felt like resuming an old and forgotten life. There had been reports of sightings of marbled ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris, also called marbled teals). They’ve become rare and threatened in recent times, but even so, for us this was very rare. India is far to the east of its normal range. Sightings are few and scattered, so it is always worth making the effort of going to look for them.

October had tracked them over the last weeks, spotting more every day, and was convinced that we could see a group of them. Their normal range straddled the Mediterranean until recent years, when falling numbers restricted them to two populations: the Maghrib and the Asian. The Maghrib population breeds in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, with some having been spotted as far north as the UK. The Asian population breeds mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran. There is some evidence of movement in the population, with scattered sightings from India, northwards as far away as Kazakhstan, and south to Egypt. A study in the Maghrib found that they could be attracted to wetlands near coasts which have diverse vegetation. That could be the reason why it has occasionally been sighted in India as far south as Goa. The attraction to vegetation is possibly due to its stronger dependance on seeds than other dabbling ducks.

We had a bit of misfortune. After much scanning we could see only one duck, and the sound of our cars on the shore sent it swimming away (my photos are all at extreme range; fortunately the air over the water was not as warm as that over the road). I saw it upending once, and dabbling often as it swam. The bird is sensitive to disturbance, which could be a survival tactic learnt in recent years. I had my lifer, possibly my only sighting, unless I go birding in Shadegan or Alicante. Even our attempts at keeping a distance, taking photos with a 6000 mm equivalent lens, was enough to disturb this individual. Later we heard reports of another group of birders who had entered the waters here to get “good photos”. Perhaps it was this encounter which had driven the birds away. October tells us that have not come back to this site till now. Man-animal conflict extends to “bird lovers” who are more in love with counts and photos than with birds.

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