A typical question that I get asked when a stranger finds out that I’m a birdwatcher is, “What is the difference between a dove and a pigeon?” I’ll usually give a facile answer, “They are closely related. Doves are generally smaller.” But the difference is actually more complicated. Take the spotted dove (now called the Spilopelia chinensis). Its name reflects the confusion. It was once thought to have been a dove, and was given the Latin binomial Streptopelia chinensis. Following a multi-species gene study at the beginning of this century, it is now thought to be a small pigeon. It has been placed in a different genus accordingly.
It is such an utterly common bird that I normally ignore it, but just before sunrise inside Tadoba’s buffer zone, the bird strutted in such a wonderful rosy light, that I clicked the two photos you see here. How common is it? I can see records of it being spotted (yes, I will avoid the bad pun) all across Asia, south of Mongolia and east of Aghanistan, except in Tibet and Xinjiang in China, Japan, and Korea. Since the 19th century it has been reported southwards everywhere in Australia from where it spread to New Zealand, into Fiji, and Hawaii.
It has now been reported across the Pacific in California, from as far north as Sacramento, and as far south as San Diego. Why has it not crossed state lines? Could that be because it is a recent arrival in the US? A little search led me to a claim by Audubon that they were introduced in 1917. I’m not sure whether I believe that date. They breed fast, fly well, and manage to avoid raptors in their native range. So in a hundred years I would have thought it would spread further. There’s a small mystery here.
The end was abrupt. We walked back from the edge of the last lake, and then there was nothing else to do. We piled into the car, nosed on to the road, and realized we had started on our journey back home. It would be a day and more before we reached Mumbai, but our holiday was over.
Perhaps I had come to appreciate the mosaic of pine grasslands and oak forests that dot the lower Himalayas, perhaps I had learnt a little more about the wildflowers that grow here. But as we left the lower edges of these sal forests, all I felt was that I hadn’t yet recovered from the first lockdown. I had not looked at the news at all, and was determined to go off to the upper heights of Sikkim before the Rhododendron season was over. The Family looked quizzically at me every time I said this. She had tried to tell me that Mumbai was already in a second lockdown, but I’d not paid attention.
It was early afternoon, the worst time of the day for birds. Still, on the way out from Sat Tal we kept our eyes out for some. I missed a wedge-tailed green pigeon lurking in the undergrowth next to the car as The Family brought us to a halt. They scoot when disturbed, so if you have missed one you don’t see it again. It would have been a lifer for me. I did manage to get shots of two of the more common birds. The featured photo is of a verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) I saw at a stop, whose distinctive colour is called copper-sulphate blue in the Wikipedia article and turquoise-blue in eBird. The spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis, earlier Streptopilia chinensis) that you see preening in the photo above is even more common.
These stops didn’t delay us much longer. In no time we were speeding past Bhim Tal. We stopped at the last bend in the road before we lost sight of the area, and walked out on the narrow verge. We looked back at the lake district of Kumaon. I hadn’t even noticed the jacarandas before. Now I took a last shot of one against the fields of the valley. Then we were back in the car, turning the bend.
The clunky construction, pre-winter, has to be replaced by the correct description of hemant as autumn. As the sun trends south, the days begin to get shorter, and the mix of vegetables changes to more pumpkin, potatoes, and onions. Fruits become less interesting, lots of apples (how I miss the flavourful Himachali apples, which have given way to large tasteless apples shipped from far away), bananas, and papaya. There’s the delicious coincidence of a singer called Hemant crooning melancholy songs about fallen leaves. But this is a warm country, and spotted doves cooing in fruiting papaya trees is a common sight in some parts of the country.
As a result the cultural significance of hemant is not at all like that in the mid-latitudes. This is the time of Diwali, of indulging in laddoos and barfis, while telling yourself that one more sweet cannot do much harm. Diwali is also the season of insects. When I look at my personal photo archives, I see that an enormous fraction is of insects: beetles and moths, katydids and bugs. I’ve not been able to identify most of them. The brown insect that you see in the photo above is a long-horned grasshopper (family Tettigoniidae), and probably the variety called a cone-head (subfamily Conocephalinae). But while there are large tribes of amateur birders and butterfly spotters, there’s no tribe of amateur insect hunters. So it is hard to do find field guides which will help me sort through my library of photos of these insects of hemant ritu.
This is a time when we used to bring out our cricket kits, the wickets, the pads and shop for a good bat. Now this is the season when we take long trips to obscure places. In the last years we have been taking roads to the highest points in India. This is the time when you can reach as far as the high border with China before the passes are closed for winter. This is also the time when the migrant birds begin to arrive, and their first stops are the high ponds and meadows of the Himalayas. The photo of the half-frozen lake reflecting prayer flags was taken very close to the border of India and China at an altitude of 4.6 kilometers on the day of Diwali. The black-necked cranes were late that year, and we missed them yet again, but the drive through this high desert made up for it. Hemant is a time for travel.
Ruins and villages may be closer to nature than cities, but they are not exactly forests. The birds that you see in such places are ones which have adapted to profit from the disturbances that humans create. Around Mandu we saw several birds, but a bird watcher in a city will see most of them. The featured photo shows the green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), common across a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia: from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east. I love this colourful and commonly visible bird. I hadn’t realized earlier that it is appropriate for Independence Day; it has the colours of the flag.
The white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is another common and widespread bird, being found across Asia, from Turkey to the Philippines. It has learned to supplement its diet by scraps of meat from kitchens, and is now commonly seen around human habitation near water. It allows a photographer to get reasonably close, so this shot against the sky is not among the best I have.
The red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is not easily visible inside a city. But this large wader is common in wetlands anywhere in southern Asia, from Iraq to the Philipphines. I saw these large birds everywhere in Mandu, even in Jahaz Mahal. This photo was taken in the garden just outside the palace.
Although this is not a high-quality photo, I’m fond of it because I caught two different species in the same shot. The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is common is various terrains, including cities, across Asia. It has been introduced in Hawaii, California, Australia and New Zealand. The other bird is a coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) was common in our garden till recently. It is a common Indian bird.
Like the rose-ringed parakeet, the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is another species which I notice around ruins. I watched this one as it hopped and flew along ruined walls in Mandu. Unlike the parakeet, it does not take to gardens inside cities. We were not really looking for birds, but were happy to have this added extra.
I’d started a story from the middle when I posted about flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai. In order to finish the story, I have to give you its beginning. We gathered before sunrise in the region between the Thane creek and the aeration ponds of the Bhandup pumping station. As The Night drove in, a flock of flamingos flew overhead. The sky was the light grey just before dawn. A coucal flew into the bushes ahead of us. As the horizon dipped below the sun, and the sky began to light up, we walked back down the canal.
Eurasian Marsh Harrier feeding
The female of the baya weaver bird
An Eurasian Marsh Harrier searching for prey
Could that be a clamorous reed warbler?
A red wattled lapwing forages above the water line
Common sandpipers foraging
This female golden oriole just refused to turn its head!
White eared bulbuls
Indian cormorant, in its usual pose
A common sandpiper goes down to the waterline
We saw several birds on our slow walk. I’d seen most of the waders, and could still recall their names. I’ve just begun to notice the warblers, and the clamorous reed warbler which we saw was a lifer. One interesting thing about birds is that they are creatures of habit. If in addition they are territorial, then they tend to appear at the same time in the same place every day. We met birders who come to this place very often, and sometimes they told us to look out for some bird or the other, because it should appear soon. It usually works. Passing on socially acquired knowledge is characteristic of our species, isn’t it?
Eventually we went on to ducks and flamingos, but those are stories I have already posted.