Humdinger

It is frustrating to run through ploughed fields while bent double, camera carefully held in your hand, so that no harm comes to it even if you stumble. It is even more frustrating when your quarry flies off as soon as you reach camera range. That’s what was happening to me that morning in early January when I tried to take photos of the very rare Sociable Lapwings. Finally, crouched uselessly behind a berm, I began to take photos of the fields.

The landscape between Ahmedabad and Nal Sarovar is totally flat, and used to be barren. In the last twenty years irrigation has converted this to farmland. Now I saw farmland broken into rectangles bordered by berms. Trees dotted the fields. Next to berms ditches held water, which slowly soaked into the surrounding land, keeping it moist and preventing it from turning wholly into dust. Farming here is hard work. In one of the fields a woman was working, bent double most of the time. I reconsidered my frustration at my enforced posture.

Almost simultaneously, there was a whisper from Adesh. “Keep your head down,” he said, “Sarus ahead.” There was a small flock of around 15 sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) in the field ahead of us. This could be more than a thousandth of the world’s population of cranes. There were about of the same number of birders in the field, and we would be about a billionth of the world’s population of Homo sapiens. As you might expect, the bird is now classified as vulnerable, mainly due to loss of habitat. When I was a child I would see them occasionally standing in paddy fields, looking enormous (I suppose I must have been shorter than the meter and a half height of a full grown male). Since then I’ve only seen them at long intervals. What’s special about them? They are the tallest of flying birds. That big adult in the center of the photo could easily weight 40 kilograms.

One of my vivid very early memories is the sight of Nilgai running through fields dotted with egrets and Sarus, glimpsed from the window of a passing train. I don’t think the plains of north India will see this sight again very soon.

How common is a common babbler?

I head Mandar say “Common babbler!” By the time I finished whatever I was doing and turned to look at where he’d pointed, the bird was somewhere else. I could hear its chittering call, and found it was in a thicket of bushes. It was early January, and the branches were pretty bare. Once you saw the bird you would not lose it even though it was hopping around. The golden background and the red branches of the bush would make for a pretty picture, I thought, if only I could focus on the bird carefully. The result that you see below is fair enough, although I would have wished it to be a tad sharper. It was one of a small group, as is common with babblers. One of the birds soon flew to the top of a low tree, even closer to me, and I managed to get a good photo.

Had I seen it before? Very likely, although I was not totally sure (as an occasional birder my record keeping is terrible). I have the general impression that the jungle babbler (Argya striata, earlier Turdoides striata) is more common than the common babbler (Argya caudata, earlier Turdoides caudata). However, both are so common that population estimates cannot be found. The common babbler can be found below an altitude of 900 meters across India (I haven’t seen reports of sightings either from Bangladesh and the north-eastern part of India), and as far west as Iraq. It’s not a bird that I recognize out of the corner of my eye, like a house sparrow or a spotted dove. So I have a feeling I did not see it growing up.

There is a report of a range extension of the common babbler eastwards in India in 2013; this makes it seem possible that over my lifetime it has been colonizing new areas. It evolved during the hot period of the mid-Miocene, and inhabits tropical shrub-land or grassland, and also thriving in land degraded by humans. It is not unlikely that as we clear more land for houses and agriculture its range expands into these newly degraded areas. On the other hand it is more likely that I saw these birds but did not register them consciously when I was a child. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the common babbler were not so common at one time?

Into the blue: a rare bird

The IUCN red list says that the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius, also called the Sociable Plover) is critically endangered. It goes on to record that there are around 11,200 adult birds of this species alive. It used to winter over a large part of north-western India, and in earlier times could be spotted in the vicinity of Mumbai. The first reports of V. gregarius in India date back to the beginnings of the keeping of records of bird sightings in the mid- and late-19th century CE. In this century the sudden decline of these birds has resulted in larger awareness, and meticulous counting and recording of flocks. Nowadays they are mostly visible in semi-dry areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

I was with a group of birders traveling to the Rann of Kutch in January this year, when we took a detour to Nal Sarovar. This is a lake near Ahmedabad, and well-known to birders of the city. But our target was not the lake. Flocks of Sociable Lapwings had been seen in fields nearby. They are field-nesting birds. In their nesting range in Kazakhstan they have been observed to preferentially nest in grazed fields, and therefore remain close to the sparse human habitation of the area. A very detailed study of the mortality of chicks concluded that only one out of 8 eggs survives to become a fledged bird, and that the greatest danger to a nest is accidental trampling by livestock.

Sure enough, the birds were in cultivated fields full of the stubble left after harvesting. We saw a flock of over 50 birds. Looking at recent bird counts, this is unusual. They were disturbed and skittish, not allowing us to come very close. Walking across plowed fields is difficult, so every time they settled somewhere we took a while to reach them. Then they would fly again. I got a few bad shots, as you can see, but enough to enable us to recognize the birds as plovers (which the lapwings are), and to get a sense of the colours and identifying marks. Although I was unhappy with the photos, I was happy enough with the sighting.

The reason why these birds prefer grazed land was found in the early 20th century by Salim Ali, who, by combining field observations and examination of the contents of the stomachs of these birds found that they eat insects which they can peck at easily when the ground is grazed. The remarkable decline of this species in the 1990s has therefore been attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the corresponding decrease in large-scale mechanical collectivized farming and rise hunting of natural grazers. As a result of these changed practices the birds now remain close to cattle which trample on their nests while grazing.

It seems to me that the agricultural practices of the Soviet Union may have led to a population explosion in Sociable Lapwings, and the current decline may be a return to older levels. If one can find bird counts from the 19th century then one can check out this line of reasoning. This also raises the question of long-term management of ancient farmed landscapes of the old world, which harbour many species which have come to depend on this anthropogenic landscape.