Neither East nor West

Grey light, dusty fields. Dust in the air, dust on leaves. We drove through a dry grassland outside Chhapar village in Rajasthan. We’d passed several pairs of young blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) with horns locked in a silent tussle. Then we halted as one pair paraded past us, their heads in the air, their nostrils distended. I didn’t quite know what was happening, but there was a tension in the bodies of the two young males.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, // When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Ballad of East and West (1889) by Rudyard Kipling (written under the pen name Yussuf)

They paced each other, as they strutted very slowly past us. I tried to gauge whether they were equally muscular. They looked pretty well matched. Their coats looked equally glossy to me. Their horns were of equal length. I could not imagine either backing down. But one turned. I thought they had disengaged. But no. The other turned too, and they were back to pacing each other.

They stopped and faced off. I had been ready with my camera, but now I tensed for the battle. We war photographers suffer from constant adrenaline. One lowered its head. Were they about to start a battle? But it had moved slightly to the side. It turned, and they were back to pacing each other. The tension was unbearable.

Again, they lowered their heads. And finally, ninety seconds after I’d first seen them, they locked horns. But this was the equivalent of a probing sortie. They disengaged again. But the disengagement was short. In ten seconds they were back in a skirmish.

The next two minutes were a series of engagements and small halts as the two probed and parried. I show you photos of the actual engagements here, but there was a lot of backing off and parading between bouts. I could not see any signs of anyone having an upper, err, horn. But the war ended with one buck lowering its head in submission. Looking through the photos now, I realize that the winner had been slightly more aggressive all the time, forever trying to rise slightly on its haunches and bring its head down on the other’s. You could spot the eventual winner quite early in the skirmish, but it requires some experience and a keen eye. This grassland has no predators for the blackbuck. I wonder whether they would have fought as long and as hard in the days when tigers and cheetahs roamed these plains.

Familiars

Many years ago when The Family wanted to start birding, we discovered that the ship-breaking yard in Sewri was a place where we could watch water birds. We went there every weekend for several months and became familiar with the common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos). Because of its name, I thought it wasn’t of much interest. Later I realized that the name merely refers to how easy it is to spot. And only now I realize that it is a very special species. But before I tell you why, let me just say that when you start watching birds you accumulate many photos of the more common ones, and eventually you begin to see their special beauty. I’m very fond of the featured photo of the common sandpiper which I took in a patch of waste water runoff behind Chhapar village in Rajasthan. I’m equally happy with the photo below of the common redshank (Tringa totanus), another sandpiper, taken in the same place. The redshank’s piping call tells you immediately why the family is called sandpiper. These beautiful waders can be seen across Africa, Asia, Europe, and also in parts of Australia.

Across the American continents one sees the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius), very closely related to the common sandpiper. So closely related that there is still gene flow between these two species; hybrid lineages have been spotted now and then. It seems that the species split very recently in geological time. Usually when we look at two different species, say a tiger and a leopard, they are not able to produce viable hybrids. However, when you trace them back to their common ancestral population, the distinction becomes less clear. There is a point at which the ancestors of the leopards and of the tigers could not be distinguished at all. A little later they would have been distinct, but still able to interbreed. Only with the passing of time have they come to be as distinct as they are today. The two species of Actitis remind us that the split between species occurs gradually. It amazes me to see this creative act of evolution frozen in time.

A glimpse

Hearing old hands talk of birds you would think that a day’s walk in a forest would give you hundreds of species. At other times you might think that the only way to see that tiny rare brown bird with a marvelous voice is to crawl through leech-infested jungles. I’m no old hand, but I know that you discard most of what you hear. Still, many of them agree that a white-browed fantail (Rhipidura aureola) is often found near mango trees. My first view of them, a couple of months ago, must then have been untypical. I saw two flying about in a deep well outside the arid sanctuary land of Tal Chhapar.

The bottom of the well held a bit of water, but the walls and part of the bottom had been taken over by the invasive Prosopsis juliflora. Maybe they were nesting there, but it is more likely that the relatively damp cover hid insects, and they were hunting. They flew out now and then, and I got a closer and sharper photo when one sat briefly on a branch of the thorny Prosopsis bush. I never got to see it fan its tail. I thought that might be part of its courting behaviour, but I read later that it could fan the long tail to flush insects from cover. The bird is common and widespread in India and eastwards from Myanmar to Vietnam, so I have no doubt that I will see it more often in the future.

Two cisticolas, two grasslands

Cisticolas are easy to photograph once you have spotted them. Like many other insectivores, they like to perch somewhere and watch for insects in the neighbourhood. When they spot one they spring into action, and then come back to perch. If they change their perch, they’ll alight somewhere nearby, so you don’t have to move to sight them again. They are small birds, 9-12 cms in size. If you are photographing them with a zoom, then with judicious positioning you could try to get a nice bokeh.

Zitting cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis) are quite common across India, and found from southern Europe to northern Australia. I’ve been seeing them for several years, but got photos for the first time in February this year at the arid grasslands of Tal Chhapar in Rajasthan. Previously I’d only seen it near lakes; perhaps there was water somewhere close. The day had dawned cloudy but the sun was out when I spotted it. I noticed that it manoeuvres well in the air even though its tail is short and stubby.

My first sighting of a Golden-headed cisticola (Cisticola exilis) came a month later, across the country in the lush green grassland of Manas in Assam. This one is less widespread, but is found right across India, all the way down to southeastern Australia. Like C. juncidis, it is a small and light bird, less than 10 gms in weight, heavily streaked, and breeds in the monsoon. Both lay eggs in nests constructed by tying living leaves together. Off breeding season they are similar in looks, but this one has a golden-yellow band across the back of the neck, and has a significantly longer tail, which has a different shape. I should look out for it in the breeding season, when its head turns golden-yellow.

The grassy knoll: the whole story?

Did you really think that shot of a black buck (Antilope cervicapra) in the rolling grassland sanctuary of Tal Chhapar was a just a random photo? Did you stop to think why the photographer would take such a long shot of a random stranger? Prepare yourself for a mystery, and a possible conspiracy. Prepare yourself for the illustrated story of the grassy knoll. (How do they put it? Click on the gallery for an immersive experience.)

This is a never-ending story. The longer your follow it, the more it branches, and loops back on itself. The conspiracy gets bigger and bigger. Does it involve the whole grassland? Are the visitors what they seem? Are they part of the story?

A spiny tailed lizard

Hardwicke’s spiny-tailed lizards (Saara hardwickii, also Indian spiny-tailed lizard) used to be seen in the Gangetic plains sixty years ago. Its range then extended west into Sindh, perhaps even Baluchistan, and south to the Konkan. Now, you have to travel to Tal Chhapar or Bikaner to see it, although you can get an occasional sighting in western Rajasthan or Kutch. Development and poaching has taken a toll. The fat from its tail used to be rendered into oil and sold as a cure for impotence. Perhaps some have heard of sanda ka tel; this animal is the sanda.

In one scrub ground outside the grassland sanctuary of Tal Chharpar, the ground was pocked with their burrows. They are solitary creatures which nevertheless live in colonies. So outside each burrow, or half out of one, I could see a lizard sunning itself. They are like reclusive film stars. They would scuttle back into their burrows as soon as they sensed me, so I had to take their portraits with long lenses, hiding behind cover. From the photo of its tail you can see why the myth of its oil as a cure for impotence arose. I’m sure that we’ll find that they are vulnerable to extinction, and perhaps even highly threatened, if anyone bothers to do a census.

Their looks are deceptive. The adults exclusively eat plants: the local succulent ker (Capparis decidua) and grasses. Subadults and juveniles may supplement their diets with insects. It has been observed that they seal their deep spiral burrows completely and live underground during the short local monsoon. Perhaps this means that they have a larder inside the burrow. They also hibernate through winter, putting on fat in their tails in preparation. We saw them after their emergence in spring, when the fat was used up. They were ready to mate and lay eggs, but not a single one had started courtship when we saw them.

They are easy picking for the raptors of this area. We saw a large juvenile Eastern Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) feeding on one. It ate its head and body and flew away. A great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor) had been watching this more intently than us. As soon as the eagle flew away, it descended on the tail and began to peck at it. Historically, some tribes used to eat the lizard; it was said to have quite a bit of white meat on the body. Oil was then extracted from the tail. As the tribes moved to a more settled and urbanized life, the consumption of lizards has decreased, but the oil is still used. Since trade in the animal or its parts is forbidden under the CITES agreement, this constitutes poaching. But, the main danger to this species seems to be from the entirely legal process of habitat loss. Given the large number of birds that feed on it, I’m sure the loss of this one species will create hardships for several other species.

Raptor on the wing

Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) fall in the same faction with many raptors in the order Accipitriformes in the males being slightly smaller than the females. For Egyptian vultures the size difference is not remarkable enough for me to see it in the field. In the Indian subspecies males have wingspans between 39 and 49 cms, the females between 45 and 50 cms. The sky above Jorbeer sanctuary was full of these small vultures. They can be told from far away by the distinct white and black wing pattern, and by the odd wedge of a tail. If you pay close attention to the way the flock moves, you might find them flying largely alone, or, rarely two synchronized for relatively long times. That’s pair bonding for you; like a human couple out for a walk in a park.

Across the vast sweep of its range, from India west to south Europe, and down to sub-Saharan Africa, over the Arab peninsula, the birds have dwindled rapidly since the middle of the 20th century. The link with pharmaceutical use of Diclofenac in cattle is not clinically proved. But over many parts of its range the introduction of the drug has been rapidly followed by sudden drops in the population of these vultures. The recent bans on the use of this drug is allowing their number to rise again.

I find their appearance completely unmistakable whether they are sitting or on the wing. The white plumage with a black edge on the wing, and bare yellow face with a white mane are striking. If you want confirmation, you could take a look at the pink legs, or the black tip to the beak (but only in the Indian subspecies N. p. ginginianus). We saw them just before their breeding season, so the slightly more orange flush on the faces of one of the individuals in the photo above could be the onset of the little seasonal change that there is in breeding males.

Pair binds last for more than a season. Sex roles are pretty well defined. Although the parents take turns to incubate the eggs, the father does more of the hunting to feed mother and child. As a result, even the yearling that you see in the photo above, with its still immature colouration, and the legs just beginning to turn from the juvenile brown to the adult pink, still sticks close to the mother. I saw a very few of these birds hunker down with belly to the ground. I wonder what that means. Thermo-regulation? Or a position of rest?

Not such a bad morning

We were led a merry chase by the Indian spotted creeper (Salpornis spilonota) that you see in the featured photo. Not having seen it ever before, I had no idea what it was. But the wonderful thing about birding groups is that there are others who are generous with their knowledge. It flitted from one tree to another, until we gave up and stopped in place. Then it came and crept slowly up a tree in front of us for just long enough for everyone to get a few nice photos. I got in a first photo which shows it exploring cracks in the bark of a tree for insects. Its curved bill has evolved to help it do just that.

Our first morning in Tal Chhapar sanctuary dawned cloudy, with lots of ground haze. The light was terrible. Now in the late morning there was still a haze, making the light tricky. We’d spent the early morning inside the sanctuary, with reasonable results, and then decided to explore the scrubland outside the grassy sanctuary for more birds. I’ve already posted photos of some of the raptors we saw here. This post is about the rest of the birds from that morning.

This yellow-crowned woodpecker (Leiopicus mahrattensis) circled a tree trunk making a loud rat-a-tat with its beak as it probed for insects. It refused to come into the patches of the trunk which were clearly visible. Not only that, it refused to stay in one place long enough for me to move to another position. The result is that I never got a photo of its colourful yellow crown, only of the red on the back of its head. Not much of a loss though, since this species is the most widely distributed of Indian woodpeckers, and I’d learnt to recognize it even before I started watching birds.

Then there was a rufous-fronted prinia (Prinia buchanani) which sat on a bush of the chuniya muniya berry for a long time, hopping from branch to branch, not seeming to care much about the presence of a camera. But it was cunning. It never showed itself in full, managing to hide effectively behind the bare branches and sparse leaves of the bush. The morning had already got quite warm and uncomfortable under the clouds, and this last debacle completely wiped us out. We decided to go back for lunch.

The morning had started wonderfully with a lifer. A Stoliczka’s bushchat (Saxicola macrorhynchus, aka white-browed bushchat), classed vulnerable due to habitat loss, had spent a long time in the grass near us without getting spooked by us. I had a grand view of the way it sat comfortably on upright stalks of grass, one claw above another as it grasped the stalk. It would make quick forays into the air to catch passing insects, and return to perch nearby. The light was awful, and the strongly patterned dark brown, buff, and white bird looked blue in the camera. But I could see the white brow and the shape of the bird quite clearly. Birds look quite puffed up on cold mornings, as they trap as much air as possible under their feathers for insulation. The shape would change later in the day and the bird would look much slimmer. Unfortunately I did not see it again.

All the while I was hearing a nasal squabbling of a bunch of birds in the grass on the other side of the track. After I was done with the chat, I looked around to assess the noisy group of large grey babblers (Argya malcolmi). They seemed to be getting into each others’ way constantly. The bright yellow eyes on the grey body makes them look like the prototype Angry Bird, I always think. One remained on the stump long enough for a good shot in the bad light.

The ground mist was thick in places. I heard the desperate call of a black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus) emerging from the curtains of mist. A male had climbed a little hill of litter and was, in the words of Leonard Cohen, leaning out for love. We watched for a while and figured that Cohen was right. He’ll lean that way for ever.

Further on, a variable wheatear (Oenanthe picata) was standing perched on a little thorn bush, watching out for passing flies. It is common through the Thar desert. The reason it is called variable is that adults appear in three morphs. They may have either a black or white crown, and either a black or white belly. The morph in the photo is a picata, with a black crown and a white belly. A morph with a white tail and white belly is called the capistrata, and one with a black tail and black belly is called a opistholeuca. They all have black neck, back, wings and tail, and a white rump. Why all three varieties are common was first explained by the great statistician Robert Fisher (unfortunately, he held distasteful views on race and the pseudo-science of Eugenics).

The light was becoming better as the heat began to burn some of the mist. In the brief clear time before the prevailing breeze threw a pall of dust into the air, we made for the place where we’d seen long eared owls (Asio otus) the previous evening. Their breeding range is far to the north, in Mongolia and Kazhakstan, Sakhalin Islands and Japan, Russia, Ukraine and Poland, Germany and Norway. They migrate a little way south in winter, the central Asian residents into Kashmir and the high valleys to its east and west. A bunch of five had strayed into the desert of Rajasthan this year. Social media advertises these vagrants very rapidly nowadays, and we found them easily. Four of the five were active and shy, but one remained on its perch. This stolid individual is perhaps the most photographed of all Asio otus in the world today, its lovely ear tufts, and its droopy eyes the star of the owl collection of many bird photographers. It seemed to enjoy its celebrity-hood, turning its profile from one paparazzi to another. The Family said she was tempted to ask for its autograph. It was a lifer for us, of course.

As we exited the grassland sanctuary, I got a nice shot of this Great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor). During the pandemic I’ve seen this bird on every trip I’ve made, but I still stopped to take a photo. The Family frowned at this extravagance, but admitted that the result was not too bad. “It doesn’t have that lively spot of light in its eyes,” she said, not willing to give ground entirely. The early morning was fine for me, with two lifers, and another, the treecreeper, later. Not a bad morning at all, I thought.

At one with the Wind

Compacted sand dunes were held together by clumps of grass. Thorn trees threaded through them. This scrubland battleground was pitted with holes which hid mongoose, jirds, gerbils, rats, foxes and cats. We chanced upon a small cat sitting in the open. I’d barely taken one photo when another jeep appeared. It could take one jeep in the neighbourhood. But the second one sent it streaking for its burrow.

The desert is full of these secretive middle sized predators, and one common thread runs through their different behaviour. They avoid humans. There’s no doubt that this is why they survive when their larger and faster cousins, the tigers and the cheetah, were hunted to extinction a mere century ago. When I saw the cat I was a hunter with my camera, continuing to edge up on it to improve my shot, as it sat in a burrow, ready to dive. Only now, as I look at those photos do I realize that it must have been terrified.

There is much confusion on what to call this species. Desert cat or Asiatic wildcat? And the binomial is equally confused: Felis lybica to go with the Asiatic wildcat, or Felis lybica ornata, to distinguish the population which lives in the desert of Rajasthan, disconnected (as far as we know) from the other Asiatic populations? There is even confusion about whether the Asiatic population is a subspecies of the African, which should then be called Felis lybica. Or whether the European population, which is usually called Felist silvestris, should be distinguished. Or does the familiar house cat, Felis catus, interbreed with these often enough that they are all one widespread species. In this deep confusion are added new photographic records of the desert cat far to the east, in the protected forests of central and eastern Madhya Pradesh.

The desert cat has complex markings on its back, and we slowly circled trying to see its back. But the cat kept turning to keep an eye on us. Its long and tufted ears twitched, it raised its head to sniff the wind, and it blinked the eyes with the characteristic vertical slits. We never got to see its back. So eventually, although I think it is a desert cat that we saw, do we really know what it is?

The battle of the sexes

You can tell that I’m a pretty amateurish birdwatcher because I can’t yet look at a bird in passing and ask “Which wheatear was that?” I have to look carefully at birds like this before I can say that it is a desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti). Then I have to look carefully again and again at the quite differently coloured bird below, and ask The Family “Is that a female of the desert wheatear?” That’s why I’m quite in awe of the great field ornithologists like Salim Ali and Evigeniy Panov who could reputedly identify birds that flew across the periphery of their vision.

Entirely through behaviour and ecology, Panov argued that the blackstarts (genus Cercomela) and wheatears (genus Oenanthe) are related. Along broad lines his hypothesis was proven correct by molecular methods, although he continues to dispute the details. Genetic studies depend a lot on which genes are sampled, and a true picture emerges only when many genes are studied together, and Panov may perhaps yet turn out to be correct even in some of the smaller details. In any case, his observations seem to be driving much of the more recent work on the evolution of chats and wheatears.

The female is hard to spot. Panov tells us why this should be expected. Desert wheatears are opportunistic nesters. They nest in the mouths of holes dug by rats and Jirds when possible, in any other cover which is available, and even in open ground if no cover can be found. The female incubates the egg entirely without help from the male. Since this can be entirely exposed, it is useful to have colours which help her to fade into the background. Even in the photo above, she does not stand out. Before you mentally label the father as an useless pig, remember that mammalian mothers have to incubate their fertilized eggs with absolutely no help from fathers. At least some species among our theropod dinosaur cousins, the birds, have distributed the job better. I’ve learnt one trick from Panov for distinguishing it from the female of the Isabelline wheatear: look for a rapidly wagging tail with changes in rhythm.