Bee eaters

Before a mad doctor convinced a majority of my neighbours that our gardens should be saturated with pesticide, we could see many Green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) outside our window. Now I have to travel to jungles to see this auld acquaintance. They are easy to photograph, since they like to perch in the open and keep an eye on flying prey. They make quick forays to catch a passing insect and come back to their perch.

I caught this particular one in Kanha NP, cocking its head before a flight. I’ve noticed this movement before. I think it moves its head to improve its fix on the prey just before pushing off its perch. Binocular vision has its limit for birds, because of the relatively small size of head. Moving the eye gives it better depth perception through parallax. I superposed the two separate shots to give a sense of how much head movement it makes in order to get a fix. I think it more than doubles the parallax that it would have if it didn’t do this.

Corbett NP in May turns out to be a great place for spotting several different kinds of bee eaters. I completed a checklist of three more of them. The Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is perhaps the second most widespread, being visible in the Terai grasslands and the lower Himalayas, both coasts of India, all through Bengal and the north-east, and eastwards through Myanmar all the way to Vietnam, south to Malayasia and, strangely, of all the islands of Indonesia, only in Java. I probably have several other photos of it from other places, but this was the only shot I have from Corbett NP.

I’ve seen the Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) less often, although it has a larger range: all of India south of Jammu and all of Punjab, including in Pakistan, eastwards into the Philippines and Papua New-Guinea. I remember seeing it in Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Assam. The photo above comes from just outside Corbett NP.

The Blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is the least common of these, and I have only a couple of photos. The photo in the triptych above comes from Manas NP. It is visible in the Nilgiris and the two coasts around it, the jungles of Odisha and central India, and in the Terai grasslands. Further east also, its range is fairly restricted: North-east of India, and Bangladesh up to Vietnam and the north of Malayasia. Unlike the other three, perhaps it shuns gardens and tended forests. Since the last September I managed to spot all the six bee-eaters that can be seen in India. I find the Blue-bearded the most interesting of the lot, not only because it is less common, but also because it is the only bee-eater seen in India which is not in the genus Merops.

Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

Bee-eating competition

The bridge over the Periyar river in Thattekad puts you at eye level with electricity cables running parallel to it. That makes it a great spot for bird-watchers, because so many birds like to sit on such wires. Bee eaters are probably the most colourful of these. The blue-tailed bee eater (Merops philippinus) sat there quietly, in the usual style of bee eaters, giving us ample time to click photos. I’ve seen these birds before. They are common over India, breeding in North India, and wintering in Southern India. I don’t know whether anyone in India has studied their migration in any detail or even counted their population.

As I looked at the individual whose photo you see above, the question in my mind was how it survives competition with the ubiquitous drongos of these forests, and the many mynas. I was almost sure that some ecologist would have studied this question, but I could not find an answer. These three kinds of birds eat more or less the same insects. Mynas and drongos are both aggressive feeders. They survive in the same forest although their prey base overlaps, because the overlap is rather small. Mynas eat many things which drongos don’t, and there’s also sauce for the drongo which is not saucy enough for mynas. But everything that a bee-eater eats is also prey for drongos. Moreover, bee eaters seem to spend little effort in hunting. They sit on these wires, or high up on trees, and make little sorties now and then, when an insect flies by. Theirs is a passive hunting strategy, no seeking out prey. Maybe that is the reason why they are much less common than drongos in these jungles.