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.

Birds of the deep desert

A tawny pippit

When The Family said “Let’s go birdwatching in the desert”, I gulped. The only birds I associated with the deep desert were vultures (circling overhead as you drag yourself towards a mirage across dunes after your jeep has run out of petrol). So it was a wonderful adventure to find beautiful birds like trumpeter finches, sandgrouse, common kestrels and the last stand of the great Indian bustard. My biggest discovery was that the desert is alive with a completely different kind of vegetation and animal life.

The short trip with Adesh, Mandar and the rest of the small group of friends turned out to be full of surprises. Here is a gallery of new birds that I saw, and a few old friends. Click on any of the pictures to go to the gallery. Tiny seeds and insects can keep a huge population of birds alive. I didn’t have the time and the lenses to capture the insects of the desert. That will be another wonderful trip.