Pangshura

In my earlier visit to Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of birds that I’d not registered how many other animals find a home in this wetland reserve. I don’t know much about turtles at all, and the variety here is a good place to start figuring out how to identify fresh-water turtles. The Indian Roofed Turtle (Pangshura tecta) is one of the easiest. I’ve seen them being sold as pets, but the individual you see in the photo was larger than the ones I’ve seen in shops.

I had to learn two technical words in order to start identifying turtles: the carapace is the hard shell on top, and the plastron is the hard underside of the shell. The plastron of the Indian Roofed Turtle is a yellow-orange in colour with the irregular black spots which you see in the photo. An additional identifier is that the neck has longitudinal yellow streaks, which you can see in spite of the fact that the neck is not fully extended. Since females grow to be larger in this species, this individual is likely to have been one.

A turtle’s life is slow and measured: slow maturity, taking 10-10 years, long and modestly fecund life, so that enough offspring are produced to fit into what were historically stable ecosystems. I’m not sure what the lifespan of this species is, but it is unlikely to be much longer or shorter than the usual lifespans of Indian turtles, which is about 60 years.

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Rosy Pelican

Once upon a time the Rosy Pelican beer was quite common. I would look at the very rosy pelican on the label and wonder about the bird. It didn’t occur to me then that one did not have to travel far to see those birds. There was an attempt to revive the beer again in the early years of this century before it followed the Dodo into oblivion. I was reminded of this old favourite amongst lagers as I stood by the ponds of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park and watched flocks of Rosy Pelicans (aka Great White Pelicans, Pelecanus onocrotalus)

Unlike the very similar looking Dalmatian Pelican, the Rosy Pelican is not a loner. Apart from the fact that they are gregarious, I eventually found that the easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the eyes. The Rosy has a large pink patch around the eyes, as you can see in these photos, whereas the Dalmatian has round yellow eyes and no eye patch. In size they seemed about similar. The bills are also similar (except that the Dalmatian’s may be more orange in colour than that of the Rosy). The Rosy Pelican is named for the yellowish or pinkish feathers of the neck and breast, a feature which I found needs mellow light to see clearly. The really major difference is that the Rosy Pelican is one of the decreasing number of species which are not yet endangered.

Earlier in the day I’d seen a solitary pelican foraging in a body of water, accompanied by a Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus). It seems that Pelicans catch more fish with less effort when they are alone, but, paradoxically, prefer to be in large flocks. In their breeding grounds in Africa, Pelicans may take 10-25% of the stocks of fish in lakes, setting up potential conflict with humans. The rosy colour of the neck feathers apparently comes from ferric oxide in the silt in its African habitats. This may partly explain why the individuals I saw had paler feathers than in the stock photos one sees. The label on the beer bottle definitely took artistic license with reality.

These birds are good fliers, migrating every year from their main breeding grounds in Africa to winter in India, stopping to feed multiple times on the way. When you see them on the wing, they seem to glide effortlessly, moving their wings with great economy. On our last evening in Bharatpur, as we passed the huge marsh where I’d seen Cheetal and Pelicans foraging together I had the exciting view of a flock of Rosy Pelicans taking off. As they fly, the black edges of the wings can be seen clearly. When the wings are folded, these black primary feathers are hidden under the whites of the remainder of the wing. They took off with great flaps of their wings, but once they leveled off in flight, I was impressed by the elegant economy of their motion.

Skimmers and Gharials

The one thing common between the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicolis) is that both eat only fish. That is if you don’t count the fact that both species are declining in numbers. The Skimmer is classed as vulnerable by IUCN, and the Gharial is said to be critically endangered. We took a boat ride on the Chambal river, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, through the National Chambal Sanctuary to see them.

This was my first good view of Skimmers. As you can see, they are so distinctive that you won’t forget them once you’ve seen one. The general black and white colour is in contrast to the bright orange bill, distinctly down-curved, with the upper bill shorter than the lower one. We saw a small flock skimming across the river, lower bill occasionally dipping into the water. I couldn’t see whether they caught any fish. Although they passed pretty close to the boat, a small boat riding high on waves is not a good perch from which to take photos. I pressed the shutter button down, but the boat yawed a bit and I got a shot of the blank sky. Some people think that skimmers could be largely nocturnal. From the fact that flocks of skimmers were mostly resting, they could be right. There are said to be between 6000 and 10000 of these birds left in the world. We probably saw about 1% to 2% of the world’s population of skimmers.

Gharials used to be common enough once that it takes an effort to understand how severe the crisis in their conservation is. A decade ago there were only about 250 mature individuals left in the wild, now the numbers are estimated to be up to between 300 and 900. The few individuals we saw were about 1% of the world’s population of gharials. The tri-state agency which is supposed to look after the conservation of these grand ancient animals perhaps has more employees than the total number of gharials across the world. Their long snout, and the tightly interlocking teeth used to give me a fright when I was a child, until I realized that they would much rather be left alone to fish. I don’t think any of my nieces or nephews has even seen a gharial. What an impoverished world we are leaving to the coming generations.

Do you find Dalmatian Pelicans in Dalmatia?

I understand that the pelicans named after the Dalmatian coast of Croatia have not been seen there since the 1950s, and may be considered to be locally extinct. I was not aware of its immense population crash in the previous century when I admired this lone Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). When The Family called out to me, I came running with my camera ready, but I caught the featured photo seconds after a fish had disappeared into its gullet. There is really no understanding of why there was a major drop in the population of one of the largest freshwater birds in the world, but it now has only two breeding populations: a very small one in Mongolia and another larger one somewhat further west in Russia. The ones I saw in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park were winter migrants.

I read the usual stories of hunting (mainly in Mongolia), habitat destruction by draining of swamps (mainly in Russia), and widespread disturbance of nests due to human activity having pushed it into the near-threatened category of the IUCN red list. But interestingly, there have been many investigations in their mysterious decline. It seems that intense parasite infestation is one reason. This was found in other pelican species too. Current thinking rates this as a more significant factor than chemical pollution. This kicked off studies of parasite epidemics and climate change, since the realization that the immune systems of host birds may be stressed in warmer climates.

If you thought that the end result is the disappearance of this species, you could be wrong. It seems that 6000 to 8000 years ago, when the temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today (a time called the Holocene temperature maximum), these pelicans could be found as far north as Denmark. This could happen again, as animals move to parts of the globe more suited to their lifestyles. As the earth warms, egrets have begun nesting and breeding in England in this decade. Strange to think that the tropical birders’ paradise we watched could be in northern Europe in a century.

Splash!

On late winter afternoons Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur looks beautiful and calm. It is a lovely time to be outside, watching shadows lengthen slowly over still waters. The Family scanned the surroundings; she’s very good at spotting hidden birds. I am visually lazier, looking at open spaces, attention on obvious things like that huge tree jutting out of a little islet in the pond. I wondered whether the tree created the islet or it sprouted on an already existing mound. The green moss on the blue water looked nice, so I raised my camera to take a photo.

One edge of the island was crowded with Common Coot (Fulica atra), which are highly visible winter migrants because of their distinctive white bills. You can see them in flocks like this, or paddling singly or in pairs in ponds across India in this season. It seems that they are extremely territorial and aggressive in their breeding range in the northern latitudes, so I find it a puzzle that they flock together like this while they winter in India. The answer, it seems, is in the cost of vigilance. Watching out for predators takes time away from other activities. Many eyes watching out would improve the ability of flocks to feed better, even with more competition for food due to flocking at the same place. The island also had other birds; you can see a Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) near the edge of the frame.

At this time of the afternoon the birds are quite active, probably getting a large meal before settling in for the night. I tried to get extreme close ups, but the level of activity was so high that the birds kept disappearing under water leaving only large splashes on the surface. I’ve often seen long leaves hanging from the bills of coots when they come up again. It seems that they feed on leaves and seeds more often than on invertebrates. When I found this I wondered whether they can be as bad as some more common herbivores, which can denude a landscape if their numbers increase. Very often, when you ask a question someone else has asked it before. So I could get an immediate answer: no. Good to know that this abundant and un-endangered bird is not the cause of the disappearance of other species. You can say that in this respect they are pleasantly inhuman.

Ibis Ibis and Ibis

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.

Rocky python

No, definitely not Monty. The large snakes that I saw in Keoladeo National Park were the non-venomous Indian Rock Python (Python molurus). There was quite a population of them around. I was most surprised by the one up in a tree. Had it gone up there to look for nesting birds? Apparently they’ll eat any animal, but have a slight preference for mammals. Perhaps because you can eat mammals without having to climb trees or fly. They are practically comatose after a meal. We saw one at the side of a road. It looked dead, but after some time it moved slightly. Only then I realized that there was a bulge a little way below its jaws, meaning it had just eaten.

Elsewhere I saw one slowly emerge from a burrow (they are known to take over abandoned burrows of other animals) and crawl away towards a thicket. It moved very slowly, and with only minor undulations. This was a large animal, easily half again as tall as me, so likely to be an adult. They lack eardrums, so we could talk as much as we wanted without disturbing the animal. However, they feel vibrations through the ground, and therefore are sensitive to movements. The fact that this one crawled away from us could mean that it had detected our footsteps or impatient shuffling. They are quite shy, and will try to flee if approached.

Interestingly, someone has studied their social behaviour. it was found that the males have a simple dominance hierarchy with different individuals strictly ranked. Social hierarchies are used by many animals to defend territory or mating rights, often without actually fighting. Some time ago I’d seen two male nilgai establish a hierarchy without any contact. Apparently pythons are less adept at such conflict avoidance, and have to fight to establish dominance. Given how few there are, it is something that I don’t think I’ll ever see.

Pythons branched away from other snakes about a 150 million years ago, but share with many other snakes the ability to sense infrared using something called a pit organ (you can see it in the two photos of python heads above). What sets the rock python apart from its other cold-blooded cousins is that the female can control its body temperature when incubating eggs. A classic study found that it does so by rhythmic contraction of muscles to generate heat. These fascinating creatures are now classed as near threatened by IUCN, which means that it is slowly being squeezed out of existence by our need for space. How many more human generations will see them before they go the way of the dodo?

A small flash of blue

Alcedo atthis
Had laryngitis
When asked why it sat on dry branches, it said “I don’t have a clue.
Is it because I’m feeling small and blue?”

An instant gratification from getting a monster zoom is that one of my first hundred photos was that of a Small Blue Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). This is one of the large clade of kingfishers seen in India. They like to sit on exposed branches, constantly surveying the water below them, making occasional dives to pick up food. As a result they are easy to photograph if you have the right equipment. Since they are shy of people, it is also hard to get a good photo without one of these monster cameras. I had to move on before it turned its back to me to give me a view of its fantastic electric blue feathers. Here you see it bobbing its head to gauge the distance to a possible prey. The fish must have dived immediately, so I didn’t get to take a photo of a kingfisher eating.

Not pheasant, nor a crow

I don’t know who wrote which part of the Wikipedia article on the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis), but the statement “They sunbathe in the mornings singly or in pairs on the top of vegetation with their wings spread out” is absolutely correct. That’s how I saw this one individual whose photos you see in this post. The Coucal is often called a Crow Pheasant, but it is neither; it is a non-parasitic cuckoo.

It is extremely widespread; I’ve seen it in Mumbai, in Kerala, in Assam, and this sighting was in Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. It is found further east all the way to the Philppines, but northwards is restricted to the Yunnan province of China and southwards to the northern parts of the Malay peninsula. The coucal is one of the few birds in which males perform most of the work in building nests, incubation, and feeding the young. Consistent with this, the females are larger in size. The reason seems to be that they depend on seasonally available food, and the female, which lays many eggs, has to spend more time foraging for food.

I hadn’t got a good photo of a coucal for several years, but this individual seemed to welcome paparazzi. It went about its sunbathing without paying any attention to watchers. I got in several good shots, a sample of which I post here in the hope that some unscrupulous tabloid offers to buy the whole set off me. Baby you’ll be famous, I’ll chase you down until you love me.

Changing minds, changing the world

The Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur is the one bird sanctuary that most travellers in India would have heard of. It is a marvel of conservation efforts, and is reputed to be one of the most diverse wetland areas in the world. There are claims that more than 100,000 tourists visit every year. I can believe that after seeing how many houses in Bharatpur have become hotels over the years.

After years of disagreement, the local population now seems to be quite invested in the well-being of the park. It brings business, and water-sharing agreements between the park and the surrounding farmlands now ensure that there is no friction even in years, like this, when rainfall has been less than usual.

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A very striking, and welcome, development was this series of beautiful paintings in a naive style which I saw on the walls of buildings and structures, inside the park, which belong to the forest department. They did not look weather-beaten; either someone has done these paintings recently, or people have been taking care of them. They weren’t there when we visited this park almost exactly twenty years ago. Painted storks were the first birds we had seen then, and they appear among the species painted here. The few Siberian Cranes (Grus leucogeranus) that we saw then remains one of the highlights of that visit. This population is now extinct, and they are not remembered in the paintings that you see.

Near the entrance, a marble plaque proclaims the status of the park as a world heritage site. The story behind the park and its status is more gnarly than this simple plaque would lead you to believe, but the gain for conservation is clear. There is more money for upkeep now, and almost 50% of the annual visitors are foreign tourists.

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There aren’t too many facilities for visitors inside the park. Around the entrance are shops and a visitors’ center. An Interpretation Center is some way in. Further in, near the offices of the Forest Department, there is a car park, a small canteen, and a small guest house. I liked the lawn in front of it; I should remember to book a room in it if we come here again. I liked the decrepit gate near the guest house (it’s part of the slide show above).

Much further in is the Keoladeo temple. Near it is are eight marble plaques of infamy. This park was built as a duck shoot in 1920, and the plaques record a succession of panjandrums who shot down hundreds, sometimes thousands of birds in a day. This grand parade of hunters began in 1921 with the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and continued with various Maharajas and Viceroys. In the years after independence more dignitaries came to hunt: the Shah of Iran, the kings of Nepal and Malaya, a party of senators from the US, until 1964 when the last name, of the chief of army staff, General J. N. Chaudhuri, was inscribed. A little distance away is an account of changing attitudes to this area. In 1967 the area was declared a protected forest, and it became a National Park in 1981. Four years later it became a World Heritage site.

I was there with a group of bird watchers. Over dinner there was some discussion of the history of the park. Attitudes towards wildlife have changed so far that some people are very offended by the record of the shoots. I agreed with their opinion about the importance of conservation. I understood their emotions, but I could not agree with the idea of removing these plaques. I think it is important to record our history truly, so that we can continue to appreciate the hard work needed to change people’s minds, and through it, to change the world. These eight marble plaques are a lesson to us, and to the next generation, that changes may take a lifetime or two, but if enough people are convinced, then it will happen.