White bark acacia

The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.

On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.

But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.

Desert flowers

Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.

The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.

Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.

The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.

The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.

Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.

Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.

Winds of time

Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.

The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.

But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.

Egret Ibis and Cormorant

The most relaxed part of bird watching comes when you are not really looking for a particular bird. You just stand in the open, soaking in the atmosphere of the shoreline, or the forest, or the open scrubland, while birds go past you, or go about their lives as you watch. Some of this happened to us every day during our trip to the Rann of Kutch.

The first day, on the drive from Bhuj to Nakhatrana, we spotted many birds on the road. You can see some of them in the slideshow above. On this morning’s drive we also managed to sight three of the passage migrants that we had gone to see. We spent a long time trying to look for the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). This is another of the passage migrants. We never spotted it, neither that day, nor the next. This was our big miss.

That afternoon, our first in the Rann of Kutch, we managed to spot two more of the passage migrants. After that we spent an hour walking about spotting birds, some which I knew well, others which I’d seen less often. At times like this you can concentrate on photography, especially interesting configurations. In spite of the heat, I felt very relaxed.

The next afternoon yielded the final passage migrant and the rare marbled duck. But apart from that we had a wonderful time watching waders and ducks. These are birds which one sees very commonly in Mumbai, but I’ve missed them in the lockdowns of the last years. It was nice to stand there and watch them foraging.

The morning of our second full day in the Rann of Kutch was spent in another fruitless hunt of the European nightjar. The saving grace of the morning was a sighting of a Painted Sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus). We had a really lovely time in the afternoon. The featured photo is one of the last I took on the trip. It shows a White-tailed Iora (Aegithina nigrolutea, also Marshall’s Iora). Everything we had gone to see was done, and it was time to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and its bird life.

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.

An equinoctal moon

Luna glided overhead as we looked for nightjars. It was easier to spot the triad of lunar seas, serenity, tranquility, fertility, than a savanna nightjar in flight. Certainly photographing them at night with my equipment was out of the question, even with the moon waxing to nearly three quarters. I turned my camera up to the moon.

Top to bottom: Seas of Serenity, Tranquility, and Fertility (detail)

The lunar seas of showers and of clouds had become visible a couple of days ago. These fancifully named seas are actually basalt shields, the frozen remnants of lava flows which were caused by an extensive bombardment by meteors around four billion years ago. The earth was also shaped by this shower, and very few fragments of continental crusts are older. Life began on earth soon after that. On the moon the lava seas in these enormous craters had solidified more than three billion years ago. By that time photosynthesis had begun on earth. Our atmosphere was changing even as the splotchy appearance of the moon took shape. The new photosynthetic life made the earth unlivable for most anaerobic bacteria and caused the first age of extinction.

Plato crater at lunar dawn, just north of the Sea of Showers (detail)

Near the northern end of the terminator, my camera could pick out the far edge of Plato crater catching the morning sunlight. This crater is as old as the sea of showers (Mare Imbrium) just south of it. If you were to stand inside that crater then and looked up at the cliffs on the far edge, what a sight the morning sunlight must be! At the southern end of the terminator you can see a jumble of craters. Just inside it, at roughly mid-morning, is the bright young Tycho crater, only a 108 million years old. The dinosaurs may have seen it forming. In a few days, the whole of the visible half of the moon would have day. That lunar day is what we call a harvest moon. It was still more than a week away.

In the next two days we were to cross the Tropic of Cancer several times, as we scouted for more of the winter’s birds passing through the Rann of Kutch. It was a funny astronomical coincidence. The Tropic of Cancer marks the furthest point north where the sun can be at the zenith. And we were near that at the time the sun was crossing the equator! As I took photos of the signboard someone remarked that it had seen better days. True enough. So had the moon, by my reckoning.

A Kutchi September’s shrikes

Masks and foreheads. Nape and wings. Over a couple of days I learnt to tell shrikes by these characteristics, instead of going by the tails and backs by which they are named. Darwin taught us that the gradations of Galapagos finches are evidence of evolution. I realized the central Asian shrikes are no less. The fine gradations between their plumage, and the minor differences in the feeding and nesting habits, are all evidence of evolution in the same way. The four species that I learnt to distinguish are the bay backed shrike (Lanius vittatus, an endemic native of India), the Isabelline shrike (Lanius isabellinus, whose range extends well beyond India, as I now learnt), the red backed shrike (Lanius collurio), and the red tailed shrike (Lanius phoenicurides). The last three share part of their ranges, and are called sympatric species because of that.

We’d arrived in Kutch to watch the migrations of the red backed and red tailed shrikes, little knowing that backs and tails do not really distinguish them. Out first lesson: the males of the red backed shrike (L. collurio) is very similar to the native bay backed shrike (L. vittatus). There are two things you have to look out for. The first is that L. collurio‘s eye mask narrows over the forehead but that of L. vittatus does not. The second is even more subtle: a white patch on the wings tells you that you are looking at L. vittatus. Look at the first two photos in the gallery above to see the differences (as always, clicking on a panel will take you to a full sized photo).

The featured photo shows a red tailed shrike (L. phoenicurides), but it took me some time to recognize it for what it is. Individuals can differ in the amount of red in the back and tail, and when you see lots of them together, it may get hard to tell them apart. I learnt to look at the head and nape. These are completely blue-gray in L. collurio, but have more of a red tinge in L. phoenicurides. In other words, to tell the red tailed shrike, look for a red head!

Isabelline shrike, Lanius isabellinus

The red tailed shrike (L. phoenicurides) breeds in central Asia, through an arc from Afghanistan to Mongolia. The Isabelline shrike (L. isabellinus) has a wider range, breeding as far west as Ireland, and southwards in Asia into India. Russian ornithologists apparently distinguished between the two for quite a while, but it was only about a decade ago that West European scientists agreed to split the species. The crucial observations were the rarity of cross breeds, or, in the language of modern biology, the absence of gene flow between the two populations (note however, that there are photos of courtship between the two species). Although the two have very similar colours, the mask over the eyes of the male L. phoenicurides is definitely more pronounced. The females of both species lack the distinct mask. But both sexes have a red head in L. phoenicurides. Again, click the photos in the gallery to see the differences.

Red tailed shrike, Lanius phoenicuroides

What about their behaviour? Shrikes are called butcher birds for a reason, and I saw that behaviour clearly in my first sighting of the red tailed shrike. It had just caught an insect, and was busy impaling it on a thorn. Like a butcher, it keeps a stock of carcasses. All sought out higher perches, their favourite being two to three meters off the ground. This was perfect for photography. You can see them either sitting on wires, or on thorny bushes. The latter are perfectly suited for their lifestyle. A study made almost exactly two years ago in Oman on migrating individuals of L. collurio and L. phoenicuroides could not find any differences in their foraging habits. I guess one would need a longer and wider survey to find any differences, since they are so subtle.

The immature birds present an equal challenge in identification. I eventually managed to figure out the differences between juvelines the red backed (extreme left) and the red tailed (middle) shrikes. The old rule again: look for a red head to tell the red tailed. But surprisingly we also spotted a long tailed shrike (Lanius schach). This one breeds in India and to the east, and we saw only this one specimen. So the Rann of Kutch may be on the western border of its range. Thinking of immature birds and breeding, also brings to mind the ability of shrikes to distinguish between their eggs and those of others. A recent attempt at constructing the evolutionary tree of the shrikes mentions that this may point to past brood parasitism. Cuckoos have created similar cognitive abilities in some other birds as well.

Red tailed shrike, Lanius phoenicuroides

Kutch was a major learning experience for me. I’d only seen the Isabelline and bay backed shrikes earlier. They are easy to distinguish. Seeing the two passage migrants, the red backed and red tailed shrikes brought home to me how recent the evolution of the shrikes must have been. Of course, all birds that we see today evolved fairly recently. They are the remnants of the dinosaurs after all. But the evolution of some shrikes could be even more recent than of humans. That surprised me no end.

Don’t judge a bird by its cover

A small, nondescript bird. Easily spotted sitting on exposed high ground. Unremarkable call. What’s the fuss about spotted flycatchers (Musciapa striata), you may ask. I didn’t see it in the field either, when I took several photos of this bird. But consider this. The bird is less than 20 grams in weight, smaller than 15 cms in length. Despite that, the individuals that I saw were on an annual journey from Mongolia to Tanzania. I couldn’t think of walking that distance! It isn’t an easy life, not many birds live longer than a couple of years, although they are known to be able to live as long as eight years. And if that wasn’t enough, they raise two broods a year, all within the space of three months.

M. striata breed in Europe as far north as Sweden and Finland, and even across Gibraltar in Morocco and Tunisia, and in an arc north of the Caspian, eastward into Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. The western population spends most of the year in sub-Saharan west Africa; the eastern population in east and south Africa. In September you can see it pass over a swathe of land that includes Turkey, Georgia, and western India. This little bird had drawn us for a couple of days to the Rann of Kutch.

I was very happy to be able to photograph it when some of the other birds gave me a hard time. Once you found its perch, you could be sure that it would return there after a sally. I didn’t get to see its prey. The air was full of large dragonflies. They couldn’t possibly be swallowing them on the fly. So maybe they were picking out something smaller, or maybe I just happened to miss them feeding. If the latter, then they seem to miss an insect on most of their hunting sallies.

A study showed that they are able to tell the difference between their own eggs and eggs of other species introduced into their nests. This marks it out as fairly special, since most birds are unable to do this. This ability has been interpreted as the result of a past evolutionary arms race where the ability to distinguish eggs evolved in response to nest parasitism by cuckoos. Support to this idea is given by the fact that currently parasitized species are able to distinguish eggs with some, but lesser success. The group also tested whether such an ability to distinguish eggs is related to special discernible patterns on the eggs. The lack of visual patterns shows that it is cognitive abilities which have evolved, and not egg shape, size, or colour. It is interesting, though, that the birds are not able to distinguish between their own chicks and chicks of other species placed in their nests. As Mullah Nasruddin pointed out, it doesn’t do to judge a person by their coat.

Blue cheeked and other bee eaters

Tolstoy may have forgotten to write “Bee eaters are all alike.” But that’s why it was not hard to tell that the birds playing possum in sand banks were bee eaters. Finally, after two days of search we saw the blue-cheeked bee eaters (Merops persicus). On the basis of genetics, it seems that bee eaters can be divided into two main clades. One consists mainly of species which nest in Africa, and the other of species that nest in Europe and Asia. The latter are mostly migratory. Climate change may be affecting these patterns (some European bee eaters, M. apiaster now breed in South Africa), but the patterns hold for most species. M. persicus is a borderline case, what Tolstoy may have called an unhappy bee eater. One subspecies breeds in north Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) but migrates to west Africa (Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone etc) in winter. Another may be called Central Asian (since it breeds in an arc from Kyrgyztan in the north to Turkey, Greece, and Egypt in the south) and winters in east and south Africa. This was the subspecies that we had gone to Kutch to see.

There is an increasing appreciation of the European bee eater as an ecosystem engineer, since it nests in deep burrows. These serve to change the characteristics of the soil, and provides space for nesting to secondary species. In addition, their foraging provides controls insect population and provides food to other species. But these characteristics are all true of both the blue cheeked bee eater (M. persicus) and the little green bee eater (M. orientalis). A little reading convinces me that there is a case to be made for this whole genus to have similar nesting and feeding habits. So it is possible that all bee eaters could be ecosystem engineers. Certainly, studies should give interesting results. Due to their conflicts with humans in areas where bees are cultivated, this might be quite an important topic.

Having seen migrants arriving and leaving together, often flying in formation, I’d begun to think that migration must involve gregarious birds. But just the day before I’d come across a long-distance migratory bird, the rufous-tailed scrub robin, which was territorial, even for rest breaks during its migration. The bee eaters, however, are communal. A large flock was sitting on electrical wires, acacia trees, and flying down to a nearby sand bank for a sand bath. Do they fly together? I don’t know. Although seeing them taking sand baths cheek by jowl, I would think they might. They are such unlikely travellers. When you see them flying, they are on short flights, usually to catch food before returning to their perch. Here they seemed to be having fun hopping down for a communal sand bath, behaving a bit like a group of children at a swimming pool.

The whole bunch of birds had their beaks open, tongues out. Seeing one such bird supine on the ground, The Family had come to the conclusion that it was dead, and was very surprised when it flew up to a nearby tree. I didn’t notice much sound from the group, so the open mouths and wagging tongues were not producing calls. I suspect that this was their way of cooling off, much as a dog will pant to cool down. I initially thought that the dust bath was also part of their attempt to cool down. It may have been partly that, but it is more likely that this for the usual reasons: getting rid of parasites and cleaning the feathers. I haven’t noticed this behaviour amongst our resident M. orientalis, but I must look more carefully at them. Thinking of all the bee eaters I’ve seen, I think Tolstoy missed a great opportunity by not writing a sentence about the genus Merops to rival the opening of Anna Karenina.

A desert landscape

Was I looking at the great Rann of Kutch or a microsoft windows display? The Family’s sister had made a film in this area. When she saw the shot that you see above, she said she couldn’t believe it. The peak is an ancient Cretaceous volcanic plug called the Dhinodhar Hill. The area is supposed to be more wet than many parts of the Rann, but the scene before us was definitely an effect of the monsoon. Sharad ritu, the fourth of the six seasons, is a beautiful time in the desert. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, green fields, and the sight of migratory birds arriving.

I stood on the embankment of the Bhuki dam and took this photo. On one side was a small cliff created by past quarrying. The stone looked like shale,. If one had time one could look for fossils in there. The sedimentary rocks here come mostly from the Triassic period, after the breakup of ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The volcanic plug in the distance came from the time when the Deccan traps were laid down. These two times bracket the era of the dinosaurs. We had arrived here to see the last shrunken but diversified remnants of the dinosaurs: birds. Weird!