More birds of the Terai

Springtime is the right time to visit the foothills of the Himalayas. All the birds which came down to the plains in the winter begin to move back up to their breeding grounds. Since they move up at different times, and are trying to get to different altitudes, a week in the Terai will yield a lot of sightings. This spring we took two trips: one to the east, to Manas NP in Assam, and one to the west, to Corbett NP in Uttarakhand. I got the featured photo of the stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) in Corbett.

Seeing the beautiful Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) in Corbett NP was like running into an old friend. We used to have this spectacular long tailed birds in our garden until insecticide killed its prey base. The females are equally beautiful, but lack the showy tail. The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) used to be another old friend with whom I seem to have lost touch. I was happy to see two of these jauntily crested fellow sitting on a tree in Corbett NP.

I’d seen the spangled drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus, also hair-crested drongo) first in Assam. This photo was taken in Corbett NP. You can see the spangles on its breast, but the long crest of thin hairs is not clearly visible. The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is perhaps even more common, but I liked the light on it as it came down to the Ramganga river for a drink in the evening.

This solitary Pallas’ fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) sat for a long while on a branch, looking around alertly without flying. Interestingly, they have been reported from all around Tibet: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Are they not found in Tibet? Or, like Afghanistan, is the lack of reported sightings just a gap in the data? The jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), on the other hand, seems to be only Indian, but widely distributed from the edge of the Thar desert east to Assam.

The Silver-breasted broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) that I saw in Manas NP was a lifer. A colourful and quiet little bird, it looked back at us, and did not fly away. The black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) was another lifer. Once a locally common bird in the eastern Himalayas, it has become extremely rare and is now reported from only three places in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and another in Manipur. It is a skulker, hard to spot in the tall grasses it lives in, and quickly leaves the locality when it is disturbed. I was happy to get this single photo.

This photo of the Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis, also Broad-billed roller) from Manas NP keeps confusing me. It isn’t a blackbird, just the usual dark blue dollarbird sitting in shadows inside Manas NP. In its breeding season it has the spectacular display flight of the rollers. I was happy to see the rolling and diving flight in Corbett NP.

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A crested kingfisher

My first, and till now, only, view of a crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) came as we drove across a shallow riverbed in the Dhikala range of Corbett NP. I’d looked at the bird and mentally classified it as a pied kingfisher when Adesh grew excited and pointed it out. Indeed it was much larger than the pied, and it had a wonderful crest. The moral is an old one: chance favours the prepared mind. I hadn’t done my reading, had no idea that there was a lifer possibly waiting for me, and if it was not for Adesh, I would have seen the bird and not recognized it for the special sighting it was.

You can see this bird in a wide arc across Asia, from Afghanistan in the west, across the lower Himalayas, and into China, Korea and across the sea in Japan. Southwards, it may be visible in parts of Bangladesh, and northern South-east Asia, into Vietnam. When I looked at the bird through the camera I saw a much finer pattern across its chest than a pied kingfisher would have. Of course its defining feature is the untidy crest. I don’t think I’ll mistake it for the pied kingfisher in future.

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Abandoned

Revenge photography is a thing. I should know. I took photos of this abandoned shoe on a dirt track in Corbett NP with a sense of vengeance. I blamed it for sitting in the middle of a track, and for being lost in a place where nobody walks. I was raging actually at the Smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) which had loped across the river bank and into hiding below an overhang without giving me a chance to photograph it. It is a threatened species, listed vulnerable by IUCN, and protected as a schedule 1 species in CITES. Each one of them otter know that it is its a duty to pose for a photo, not run for cover.

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A hard-to-get woodpecker

Spotting a pair of Rufous woodpeckers (Micropternus brachyurus) in Corbett NP wasn’t hard. But getting a clear shot was impossible. One skulked in deep shadows behind a trunk. The other mocked me by sitting in full view but visible only as a dark silhouette against a bright morning sky. “Common, you say?” they could well be saying, “Then see how easy it is to take our photos.” We’d heard them call as they flew in to explore the jungle around us, and they made no special effort to hide. Here, under the canopy they would hear a raptor far away, and then disappear into the leaves.

It is a rather widely distributed species. There is a population along the Western Ghats down to Sri Lanka. This population perhaps goes up along the east coast of India to Andhra Pradesh and central India. There is another population along the Himalayan foothills, where I saw this pair, and their habitat continues through Bengal, Assam, and Myanmar all the way to the coast of south China. There are related populations all over continental south-east Asia, and in the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. When I get better photos I can begin to explore the differences between the various populations.

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An odd nest for a lapwing?

While driving along a track in the grassland of the Dhikala range in Corbett NP, we spotted a pair of Red-wattled lapwings (Vanellus indicus) at a nest. They usually nest in scrapes on the ground, but I’d never seen one before. Still, the location in the middle of a track seemed oddly exposed (featured photo). The pair had chosen the grassy part where the wheels of jeeps would seldom reach, so that the danger of accidental crushing of the eggs by passing vehicles was minimized. Lapwings are known to keep guard around the nest and mob larger animals to protect their nests. I supposed that this is the way they ensure that deer or elephants do not crush their eggs (I would dearly 🙂 love to watch two lapwings trying to budge an elephant from its intended path). The very next day I saw a lapwing determinedly stand its ground in front of our jeep, forcing us to skirt it (photo below). We looked for its nest, but it must have been hidden in the grass nearby. So at least with us this behaviour succeeded.

Ground-nesting birds lose eggs to predators, and this is no exception. A count in the grounds of the Delhi zoo showed that over 40% of their eggs are taken by predators, mainly mongoose, crows and kites. It is now known that crows can discover nests by watching humans, so the extreme hands-on process of counting, as described in the article, may have caused more loss of eggs than is normal. Still, even inside Corbett NP there must be a significant number of predators on the watch for eggs. One response from the bird is camouflage: the eggs are the colour of the dust you see here, with splotches of black, which make them hard to spot among leaf litter and grass.

Like many others, I make it a principle not to go to a nest and take photos of the eggs, so that we don’t lead predators like corvids to one. But I kept worrying about the selection of such an exposed site. I later found a report of a pair nesting on the open roof of a bungalow. There was an even older report of a pair nesting between the tracks of a frequently used railroad. I wonder whether V. indicus protects its eggs by active deterrence rather than subterfuge. The very presence of two adults would alert egg-stealers of the location of a nest, even if it is hidden. So it is possible that these sightings of relatively visible nesting sites is no accident. Clearly there is much still to be understood about even such a common species of bird.

The threatened Jackal

We were watching birds in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP when I saw a sleek shape lope past on a parallel path. Our driver-guide was quicker than me, and immediately backed our jeep at speed. “Don’t worry, you’ll get a good photo,” he told me as I tried to focus through the bumps. Golden jackals (Canis aureus) like to travel on human roads, their adaptability is part of their tragedy. They are still seen as not needing the helping hand that we hold out to tigers and leopards, although they are disappearing faster. Our guide was right. The jackal turned with the road it was on, and came to a halt at the junction with the road we’d taken, just perfectly positioned for a close shot. It decided that we were a threat, and abruptly changed direction to backtrack. But there was another jeep ahead of us, so it came back, crossed the road, and disappeared into the growth next to it. I got a few good shots. The afternoon light was terrific, and these were about the best shots of jackals that I’ve ever got. The best of the driver-guides whom I’ve met in national parks in India know animal behaviour inside out. It is a pleasure to be with them.

Don’t you find yourself with some sympathy for underdogs? The beautiful Golden jackals are the underdogs of Indian wildlife, and they need all of our sympathy. Not as charismatic as the tigers or even leopards, not as impressive as the elephants and rhinos, they are slipping through the safety net of public sympathy towards extinction. The invention of key conservation species like the giant panda and the tiger was supposed to buy forest workers some breathing space, as they regenerated the habitats around the advertised species and made it safe for other, less saleable, creatures. Unfortunately, stardom has skewed these projects, and they are now geared towards the big few rather than the whole biosphere. As a result, the jackals of this world continue to suffer threats.

Clever little mynas

One morning in Corbett NP I was watching a herd of elephants walk through tall grass and noticed that a flock of common mynas (Acridotheres tristis) followed them. Sometimes they sat on the elephants, hitching rides on their back, ears, tusks, and even, once, on a trunk. At other times they swooped and swerved between the bulky herbivores. I’d seen them in association with other large herbivores before: gaur (Bos gaurus, the Indian bison), Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), and even sambar (Rusa unicolor). I knew something about what they were doing: rendering a service to the host by picking ticks off them, and also keeping an eye on the many insects thrown up from vegetation by the passing of these large animals. This mutually advantageous behaviour is unlikely to be genetically programmed, partly because the birds seem to be able to generalize from one large herbivore to another. In every jungle, the mynas find more than one large herbivore which provides the same opportunity for mutual benefit. If humans did something like that, we would call it cultural learning.

Later that day when I saw a sambar (Rusa unicolor) in the distance with a myna on its back, I didn’t think much more about it. But now, looking at the photo I realize that it was a jungle myna (Acridotheres fuscus), easily told from the common by the tuft of feathers that it has over its beak. So this mutualism between herbivores and birds is deeper. In Africa I’d seen oxpeckers (genus Buphagus) riding on herbivores; it is still an open question whether there is an element of parasitism in this relationship. Oxpeckers are not in the same family as mynas, but may be closely related. So this mutualistic behaviour between some mammals and dinosaurs could have evolved earlier, and the culture could have passed on even though the species evolved into new ones. This may seem weird, but then humans may have inherited the culture of using hearth fires from ancient ancestors called Homo erectus. I wonder whether there are other examples of cultures being preserved for times long enough for biological evolution to disperse it across multiple species. For example, was the use of tools a discovery made so far back in our ancestry that both chimpanzees and humans took the idea from a common ancestor?

Chital

We crossed the last river bed on the way back from Bijrani range in Corbett. This was goodbye. We stopped to see a Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), our last addition to the trip’s list of birds. A family of chital (Axis axis) was grazing between the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. A healthy buck (the featured photo), a doe, and two fawns (photo below) ranged slowly over the stones, picking delicately at small shoots. Strange that they would venture here for such slim picking; they must find these leaves delicious.

Chital lie in a genus of their own, Axis, the last remnants of a five million years old twig on the tree of life. Fossil Axis are found from Iran eastwards to Southeast Asia. They are most closely related to the Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, the swamp deer). Once these were common in the Dhikala range, north of this river. But when its homeland was inundated in the 1960s by the floodwaters gathered behind a dam in the neighbourhood, they went locally extinct. The Chital are now only found in India; a landscape with wild chital tells you definitely that it was taken in India. When they become extinct, a five million year old story will come to an end.

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