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.