Once upon a time, the story goes, every part of India was teeming with birds. I’ve heard this story from my grandmother. So it is nice to spend a weekend in a place where this could almost be true. The moment we get out of the village and into the fields around Bera, we began to see birds. There were the passage migrants which we had also seen in the Rann of Kutch, and the utterly familiar endemics.
This was a varied habitat; the edge of the Thar desert, but the dammed river nearby held water. Ibises and herons, wagtails and sandpipers could be seen there. In the thorn bushes we saw francolins, bushchats, and larks, as well as doves, fork-tailed drongos, and bulbuls. The small birds of prey, black-winged kites and shikra, told us of the numerous rodents in the area. Nightjars and owls could be seen at night, flying from the headlights of the jeep. We were told this was early for the winter migrants; they arrive in November.
Bera is known only for its leopards. But it turns out to be a good place for birds too. We did not see anything we hadn’t seen before, but we did spot some passage migrants without really looking for them. I’m sure there is much to discover here.
I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.
Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.
When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.
Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.
The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.
Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.
The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.
Of the three different kinds of Ibis you can see see in India, the one I’m most familiar is the Black-headed Ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), which inhabits the tidal marshlands around Mumbai. That’s why it was nice to visit the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur where I could see all three kinds present in India (there are 28 different species of Ibis in the world!). This is not the breeding season for any of them, so the adult birds which you see here are in their non-breeding plumage. The Black-headed Ibis in the featured photo stood out of the marsh-land vegetation which it sat on. I watched as it groomed itself carefully. The breeding populations of this bird are mainly in India, although migrants are found in various parts of Asia, including a population as far north as Manchuria. In spite of its distribution, the worldwide population is decreasing, and the bird is now classed as near-threatened.
Nearby, a Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) poked around in the shallow waters, looking for food. These birds mainly breed over most of Africa, but are extensive migrants to India, and can be found also in parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and Southern Europe. They are unlikely to be fussy eaters, and probably feed on different molluscs and insects when they travel. A study in Spain, where a breeding colony has recently been established, found that during the non-breeding season they poke around in paddy fields and eat waste rice.
I came across this Red-naped Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa) on a visit to the nearby Chambal Bio-reserve, and took this photo from a passing boat. The curved bills of Ibis are used to feel out the mud under water to find food, so they are called tactile foragers. Red-naped Ibis breed only in India, and do not seem to be reported outside this geographical area. With constant degradation of wetlands, they are now found in all kinds of microhabitats, waste water and garbage dumps, as often as their natural habitats of fresh-water wetlands and grassland. If Ibis Ibis and Ibis were a law firm, I’m almost certain they would sue us for muscling in on their living space.