The six seasons: 6

Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.

This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,

For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.

Colourless flamingos

Juvenile flamingos are not a bird enthusiast’s favourite. Unlike the well-fed adults, with their attractive pink colours, the young look dowdy and unremarkable. But, these young lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) presented a pretty picture as they fed in this stagnant stretch of water, green with algae. The algae are exactly what attracted these birds here. The lesser flamingo’s diet is largely made of algae, unicellular plants, and cyanobacteria that fill such stagnant pools. These microscopic organisms are rich in the beta-carotenoids associated with the chlorophyll that they contain. These carotenoids will eventually be deposited in the feathers of the flamingos, and turn them pink, red, or orange. What a marvelous transformation!

First view of Lake Amboseli

Our first view of Lake Amboseli was enchanting. The lake is very shallow but extensive. We drove past rapidly, since our guide wanted to show us large mammals. But even in that quick pass I managed to take several photos. I didn’t want to stop longer because we still hadn’t got ourselves a field guide for the birds of Kenya, and we would not be able to identify what we saw. In retrospect that was a mistake, because we could have taken photos for later identification.

Looking at them later I discovered more than 15 species of birds. Here you see three plains zebras (Equus quagga) and a considerable number of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor, respectively). If you look carefully at the photo you’ll see a black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and a Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus). The last species is found only in Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope northwards to Angola in the west and Kenya in the east. Although it is common, this was a lifer. We’d seen the other three in India.

Flamingos of the desert

Lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) are the most numerous of the flamingos, and the greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) are the most widespread. In India I often see flocks of lesser flamingos mixed in with a few greater flamingos. I found early on that the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the shape of the neck when it is relaxed: the neck of the lesser looks like an inverted letter J, and that of the greater like an S.

Flamingos are common across western India. I’ve been delighted more than once to look out of my window and see a flock flying past in the distance. Still, they are weird enough that it is always a delight to watch them. They stand around in groups, like humans, but in constant motion. Like humans they keep doing their own thing in groups: now walking away from the group, then joining up and walking with another bunch. All through this they constantly keep honking at each other.

We came across a bunch of them in a shallow pond in the Rann of Kutch. They were all active (not a single one stood on one leg, dozing with half a brain turned off). Although a small hamlet had grown up on the banks of the pond, I’m sure that the water was salty; flamingos like their water either salty or alkaline. Flamingos dominated the waters, although swifts and a few ducks held their own. The desert may seem like an unlikely place to find these birds, but a big population of flamingos breed in the Rann of Kutch.

The strange shape of their black-tipped beaks helps them to hold their head upside down and sieve water for the small algae, insects, and crustaceans that they eat. The pink of their beaks and feathers come from the molluscs that they eat, so you can tell the juveniles by their lack of colour. I’d seen flamingos numerous times before, but was happy to stand at this place and watch them again; they are fascinating.

Flamingos in Mumbai

There was time when flamingos bred in the coastal flats of Gujarat and wintered around Mumbai. But like many such, some are now residents of the big city. The mud flats and tidal creeks of Mumbai are now their home. Their numbers increase with the usual winter influx. So this is a good time to take a boat through the creeks of Mumbai.

Most of these birds are lesser flamingos. The few greater flamingos can be distinguished by the shape of their necks. The necks of lesser flamingos are like an inverted letter J, whereas the long necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of an S. Sizes and colour differences between these two species are confusing. The only other consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the lower bill of the greater flamingo is always yellow.

The rest of the colour of the flamingo comes from the crustaceans that it eats. So it is interesting to ask why the flamingos of Mumbai are less colourful than their country cousins. Could it be that these creeks are now so polluted that the crustaceans are dying out?