Some common birds in Hampi

This is a day when I need to keep my cool as I do some intense traveling to meetings. Just think of all the nice times spent in Hampi watching birds. Don’t dwell on the strenuous spotting, just recall the old familiars who appear when you least expect them. Some of them are dear to my heart because they are the first ones whose names I learnt, or ones which I have slowly got to be able to identify at a glance. That’s what my experiences friends call the jizz of the bird.

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In the gallery above you see a white-browed wagtail aka large pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), which wags its tail as it feeds, but runs quite fast when it thinks a human is close by. The spotted owlet (Athena brama), which you also see in the featured photo, is a familiar across most of India, although it seems to be unknown in the north-east and north-west. The laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a familiar across the villages and small towns of India, but sadly invisible in the cities. The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), seen here hanging upside down to eat molasses, is a true survivor, being found even in large cities. The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is my familiar; crowds of these spectacularly coloured birds hang about in wires around my flat, making short forays to grab an insect out of the air. They give me a lot of practice with my camera and binoculars when I’m home, and I’m always glad to see a familiar swoop when I’m away. The great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora), formerly called the Southern grey shrike,  Lanius meridionalis, is the odd one out. It should be a familiar, but it is not. I hope that I will be able to recognize it in the field more often now that I’ve spent so much time with it in Hampi.

The last temple

We walked up the central avenue of what is today called the Sulai bazaar to the Achyutaraya temple. During the time of Achyuta Deva Raya (1530-42 CE), when this was built, the bazaar was called Achyutapete, and the temple was called after its deity, Tiruvangalanatha. The shops in the bazaar were well-ordered, placed in cubicles that line the avenue. We reached the area by walking along a paved route by the southern bank of the Tungabhadra. The axis of the temple faces due north, to the river. To its west is the Mathanga hill, from which a path leads down, and behind the complex, to the south, is the Gandhamadhana hill.

As we came to the main gateway, the gopuram, it became clear what a grand temple this was. There were two gateways leading in, so there must have been two rectagular prakaras completely surrounding the temple. Inside the inner rectangle we could see the ornate outer maha-mandapa. One of the characteristics of the Vijayanagara style is the brick and mortar super-structure over the granite gateway. Religious architecture tries to build upwards, and the southern Indian style has been to build impressively tall gopura surrounding significantly lower temples. Although much of the upper brick structure of this temple is now gone, we could see the ruins of this style here.

Only fragments of the outer prakara now remain. The inner prakara seemed quite complete, as you can see in the photo above. Apart from the northern gate, which we entered by, it has gates to the east and west. From a path worn through the grass it is clear that a large number of people reach the temple by climbing down from the Mathanga hill, and entering from the western gopuram. Interestingly, the worn trace of human feet leads straight from the western gate to the northern. So it seems that most visitors just come for a walk, and not to see the still-beautiful ruins of this once-grand temple.

I’ve remarked on the oddities of Vijayanagara architecture before: for example the roughly dressed stones of imperial works versus the perfectly shaped blocks seen in temples. Another oddity is the change in the slenderness of pillars. The early Vijayanagara temples had pillars with slenderness ratio of 20, about the best that you can do with stone. Tis late era temple had pillars with slenderness ratio of about 6, comparable to Stonehenge! I don’t know what caused this change. But these squat pillars present a large surface for the low relief sculpture that you see everywhere in Hampi. These have a preoccupation with certain themes: yogis and dancers, elephants and cows, chimeras and ducks, celestial dancers and scenes from daily life.

One reason could be the landscape forced architects to work with granite. Granite is one of the hardest of stones, and requires corundum or diamond to work it. Vijayanagara had extensive diamond mines, so finding flawed diamonds to sculpt stone with may have been possible, but cutting and shaping it would have been hard, even with high quality steel. Materials could easily have shaped the architectural style. As I was lost in these thoughts, The Family spotted a pair of spotted owlets (Athena brama) nesting in the hollows in the brickwork of the gopura. The light was beginning to fail, but the owlets still looked sleepy. Sadly we could not finish exploring the full complex; we did not visit the shrine to the goddess at the back, preferring to go back before it became completely dark.

On the way out I paused to take a photo of the outer gopuram. Even without its top, it looked really impressive in this last light of the day. You can see the ruins of the orderly rows of shops in the Sulai bazaar beyond it. There was a guard outside, excitedly telling everyone who passed by about a leopard which he’d just come face to face with. It didn’t look like he was telling a story to hurry visitors away, and in any case we were in open country near a protected forest. Even if he had made up the story, the lack of lighting in this area was enough to drive us away.

Cuddle

It was almost closing time and we were hurrying back to the gates of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. On the side of the road near a dead tree where we’d seen Spotted Owlets (Athene brama) in the morning we saw a couple of people looking up. I’d not got a good photo of the owls in the morning, because they stayed in their nest and only looked out now and then. So I hopped off the rickshaw and ran down to the tree.

Two owlets were perched on one of the dead branches. The fading light of the sun had brought them out of the hole in the tree where they nest. These owlets are creatures of dusk and night, and the pair was true to form. This was my first day with the new camera and I was happy to have a pair of birds which wouldn’t move, I thought.

I zoomed in to one, and caught it wagging its tail. “Owlet or dog,” I thought to myself. The illumination wasn’t perfect; the sky was bright and the birds were almost in silhouette. I thought that if I zoom in a bit more I would cut out the contrast between the lit sky and the bird, get more detail. I was worrying about the instrument and not paying attention to behaviour. So when I zoomed in a bit more I was totally surprised by what I got.

I could describe it in words, but the photo is enough. And if you still need an explanation, who can do better than Sulpicia, one of the few woman poets of Rome whose words have come down to modern times.

Si me cadurci restitutis fasciis
nudam Caleno concubantem proferat

If you were to untangle the sheets of my marriage bed
You would find me lying nude with my husband Calenus…

The wagging of the tail was clearly pre-mating behaviour. The couple stayed together after mating. It is hard to tell the sexes apart in spotted owlets, and I could tell this only by their actions during mating. The male spent a while preening: fluttering its wings, seeming to smoothen them out. After that it was time to come back close to each other. I hadn’t realized that while I was taking the photos The Family had followed me down to the base of the tree and was standing next to me. She asked “Did you get photos?” I hadn’t set the camera to burst shoot, so I had only a single shot of the act of mating. This was brief, lasting maybe a couple of seconds. But after that the couple cuddled for a long while, and I had the time to take many shots (above and the featured photo).

I always find myself reading about bird behaviour after seeing it in the wild. This was no exception. Unlike most of the migratory birds in the park, these residents breed in winter. Their breeding season starts in November and ends in April, so our trip in early February coincided with the middle of the season. I could not find a record of mating behaviour, so nothing that I saw is nuanced by other observations. The pair did not call at all during this time. They touched each other continuously, running their beaks through each others’ feathers now and then. We wanted to stay and watch longer, but the gate would not stay open for us, so we had to leave.

Birds of Ranthambore

Any place in north India is full of migratory birds at this time of the year, and a forest with lakes is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Unfortunately, in Ranthambore most tourists, and every guide, spend most of their time driving around at high speed looking for tigers. As a result, you tend to miss the birds.

The Family, who is a much better birder than me, threw up her hands and refused to look at birds. I was left on my own. I’m a terrible spotter, and certainly from a speeding jeep I could not see any of the little warblers I could hear. The only small bird I saw was very distinctive, and I could later identify it as a common chiffchaff. This was a lifer. Everything else I identified was something I’d already seen before.

Spotted owlets in Ranthambore

The one bit of birdwatching where local expertise is really helpful is in spotting owls. Typically, these nest in the same place over years. You could spend a long time looking for the nest, or ask a local. One of our guides knew where to find spotted owlets (above) and a oriental Scops owl. That was handy.

    Darter in Ranthambore
    Darter

  1. Peacock
  2. Jungle babbler
  3. Yellow-legged buttonquail
  4. Red-vented bulbul
  5. Rose-ringed parakeet
  6. Common myna
  7. Bank myna
  8. Pied myna
  9. Spotted dove
  10. Eurasian collared dove
  11. Common drongo
  12. White-bellied drongo
  13. Indian magpie robin
  14. Purple heron in Ranthambore
    Purple Heron
  15. Indian roller bird
  16. Rufous treepie
  17. Pied kingfisher
  18. White-breasted kingfisher
  19. Bay-backed shrike
  20. Southern grey shrike
  21. Red-wattled lapwing
  22. Common cormorant
  23. Great cormorant
  24. Indian darter
  25. Purple heron
  26. Common moorhen
  27. Eurasian coot
  28. Crested serpent eagle in Ranthambore
    Crested serpent eagle
  29. Black-winged stilt
  30. Black-shouldered kite
  31. Shikra
  32. Black-headed ibis
  33. Woolly-necked stork
  34. Yellow-footed green pigeon
  35. Oriental Scops owl
  36. Spotted owlet
  37. Crested serpent eagle
  38. Common pochard
  39. Common teal
  40. * Common chiffchaff

One sighting that momentarily energized The Family was of a black headed Ibis. She sat up, looked around and spotted a lump on a tree. We looked closer, and it turned out to be the woolly necked stork which you see in the photo below.

Woolly necked stork in Ranthambore

From our speeding car we saw a mass of small birds flitting above a field next to the Jaipur-Indore road. They were probably Dusky crag martins, but it was hard to be sure. In far corners of some of my photos there are two more birds: perhaps the Eurasian wigeon and the Northern pintail, but they can be barely made out. I won’t count them in the list.