Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

The rites of spring

In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

When we stopped to watch a yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus), The Precious protested, “Such a common bird.” She’d started birding before us but had stopped for some years now. She didn’t know how rare a sighting this is now. It was almost three years since our last view of these birds. Their homes, the arid grasslands which once covered the country are becoming rarer as humans begin to build on what the forestry department calls “wastelands”. And as the habitat disappears, this species, still classified by IUCN as being of least concern for conservation, has become a rarer sight. The Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary that we were in may be the best place to see this lapwing around Pune.

This bird was quite uncharacteristically silent as it stood still and looked around. It looked around as if it was confused. Then strode off into a nearby acacia bush. This behaviour is common with the lapwing: sudden stops and starts, as if it is an absent-minded professor who suddenly recalls an urgent appointment. I gave it no special heed. From the other side of the bush another lapwing popped out, and then crouched. “Hmm. Unusual,” I thought. The first bird came out behind it, looked around as it approached and jumped on to the croucher. They were mating I realized, as soon as the eight-year old with us said “They are fighting.” Coitus last for ten seconds or so in this species, as I can confidently say from the time stamp on these photos.

We’d completely missed the long courtship display that precedes it. Descriptions that I’ve read (see an easy to reach account here) call to my mind the many elaborate ensemble courtship dances that you see in Bollywood movies: with the hero and his male friends displaying in front of the heroine. Except that for the dancing lapwing cohort there is no designated hero; the female chooses. This was the peak of the mating season. If the grassland refuge were larger then we could have just wandered around till we saw another dance. But the refuge is small and closely bordered by agricultural fields.

I can’t spot studies of the behaviour of the Indian lapwings, so to understand whether they do indeed mate for life, I have to fall back on a study of an European species, the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). This is the very same one that was described by Tennyson in a passing line in a long and closely observed poem on spring. It turns out that lapwings, long thought of as monogamous (except by Tennyson), are actually both polygamous and polyandrous. One male lapwing reportedly defended two nesting territories! I wonder if that is also true of these. Maybe when I retire I’ll supplement winter and spring travels by spending the long summer days reading old Sanskrit nature poetry. Maybe I’ll learn something new.

Yellow-wattled lapwing

In an open field in Hampi, surrounded by buildings, we saw a flock of skittish yellow-wattled lapwings (Vanellus malabaricus). I hadn’t seen one for years, although the IUCN red list calls it a species of least concern. They are said to be common over the whole of India and Sri Lanka, but birders talk of it as having become harder to spot in the last decade. They were wary of us, and would not let us approach closer than about 50 meters. Photographing them was a sneaky affair: inching jeeps close, getting off from the far-side door, and shooting from behind cover.

Grounds such as the one we saw would be the usual breeding ground for the birds, which lay well-camouflaged eggs in nests scratched into the ground. It was half a year past breeding season. The flock held many juveniles. They can be told by the fact that they have a brown cap instead of black. I suppose that proximity to humans brings dangers to the breeding grounds. Cows or goats could accidentally trample eggs. Rubbish dumps attract crows which also aggressively seek out and eat eggs of other birds. Human-animal conflict can come well-disguised.