Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The obliging monitors of Bharatpur

The Bharatpur story starts here.

Every now and again, we came across these large reptiles that obligingly posed for us, as they basked in the winter sun at Bharatpur. I thought they we re fascinating to look at. They look a hundred years old, with all that folded skin and dinosaur-like appearance!

The Indian Monitor, I think its called.  Its one of those ancient survivors - the species dates back several million years, I read somewhere. Around three feet long I would estimate that the one we saw were.  I think thats the average size of this variety.

All the ones we came across were solitary, and thats how adult males seem to hang out.  Not fond of company it would appear!  

After a while, this one got a bit annoyed and irritated with all the clicking and commotion and kind of walked off in a huff, into the bushes!  Its walk is clumsy and deliberate, and a sitting target I would imagine for poachers and hunters.  The eat all kinds of other insects and small creatures like frogs.  I do wonder if they form the food for some other creature.  I think their young are vulnerable to being eaten by larger birds and such, but I cant imagine anything wanting to eat one of these adults - would be terribly leathery dont you think?!

Photo by Sripad

Sripad got a good shot of its head.  See, its smiling for the camera - or is it a grimace?!

2nd HSBC Bird Race - All in a day: 131 species of birds spotted

Yes, I did it! Finally made a trip to Vedanthangal. All in the name of the bird race, which we took part in as (rather unimaginatively named) Sarus Cranes.

We ended the day with 60 species seen, whcih I thought was a great improvement from our forty something of last year!

Last year, we went to many more places inside the city. This year I toyed with the idea of green birding, but then there were added complications. Some of the team members needed to be back in half a day, and we had to see visiting family in the afternoon. It all seemed too complicated, and we chose the easy way out - we took the car. There were several teams who took on the challenge of only using public transport. Hats off to them! Maybe I'll get there next year!!

Our route was off in the morning to Vedanthangal, which is two hours away, returning via Muttukadu. Followed by lunch, siesta and some socialising with family, then off to Poonga, (no species added there), a strong bonus at the Madras Club where low tide revealed a bunch of waders, and back to the reporting venue, a trifle late actually as we crawled along in evening traffic.

I added three new birds - the glossy ibis, baya weavers and the brainfever bird.   Saw new parts of the city, enjoyed the company of kids - my friend's daughter who got all excited on spotting a bird in the bush or on the wire, my son who was all keen to go the previous day, then went through a patch of utter boredom before perking up at Vedanthangal (maybe he needed those sandwiches!!), and my Bangalore-based nephew who provided interesting sidelights about how Bangalore has so many kites (true) in the air, and that the winning team in their bird race there saw as much as 150 birds - probably also true!!  

Here's the article that appeared in the Indian Express.  I think the author meant dawn-to-dusk!

2nd HSBC Bird Race - All in a day: 131 species of birds spotted

More than five teams sighted more than 100 bird species. The Southern Grey Shrike was the rare bird of the day, seen enroute from Vedanthangal to Karikili

EITHER the bird population in Chennai and its neighbourhood has gone up in recent years or more and more people in the city are taking to ‘bird watching,’ as a hobby or for fun.
This is judging from the response to the bird watching competition on Sunday when the winning team spotted a record number of 131 species. The event was the Second HSBC ‘Bird Race,’ hooking the bird-watchers of all kinds- mostly students, professionals, housewives, and even tiny-tots and a group of physically challenged for a ‘dusk-to-dawn’ event.

The winning student team from the Madras Christian College that spotted 131 species had started its groundwork a month ago, making it clear that birdwatching is not just fun, but lot of hard work and planning. They had nicknamed their team as ‘the common house-crow.’ Reputed orinthologist Shantaram who had a hard time judging the competitive entries said this time the bird race had seen a record-breaking sighting of birds. More than five teams had sighted more than 100 bird species and eight to ten other teams had identified more than 80 birds. The Green Birding team, Iora, had seen 60 species.

The Southern Grey Shrike was the rare bird of the day seen enroute from Vedanthangal to Karikili by the Golden Oriole team.

A major number of participants this year was school students. It was intriguing to hear even tiny tots describe birds like the Paradise flycatchers, Red wattled lapwing, Indian Pitta and Spotted doves after racing them from dawn to dusk. A seven-year-old even had a warning for fauna lovers: “ Don’t cross the fence in marshlands, you might just sink into the mire.” Kumaran Sadasivan of the Madras Naturalist Society, leading a team of novices, could tell the name of the bird species just by hearing the call. The Guindy National Park offered a rare sight with children and adults seen freaking out at the occasional sights of spotted deer, blackbucks and star turtles too. “What better way to spend the Sunday?” the participants were heard talking to each other.

Fauna enthusiasts had set out in groups of four from early morning to the most expected birding areas like Guindy National Park, Vedanthangal, Nanmangalam, Pallikaranai Marshland and un expected ones like Madhavaram Jheel too.

Kavas Mistry, HSBC manager of credit operations and a participant, said, “it is a very refreshing break from the routine credit and debit work that I do. I have now learnt to look at birds more attentively,” he said.

Shobha Narayan, associate vice president of HSBC, said: “I am a novice in bird watching. But this is the best way to break the programmed lives we lead. This is my first experience, and I will continue the practice. I hope this lung space of Chennai at the Guindy National Park remains untouched.” Another participant, Varsha Manoharan, said: “I have learnt the finer points of bird watching. One can actually spot 12 species of birds on a day at the house veranda itself,” she said.

The fact that warblers were seen more and heard less and the tailorbirds seen less and heard more, were only one of the many interesting facts that emerged during the bird race.

According to the organisers, compared to last year’s 40 teams, this year the event attracted 49 teams.

Physically challenged children had not ignored the competition. A group from Vidya Sagar participated too.

The new category of Green Birdie, which used only public modes of transport, had 11 teams participating.

Students of Olcott Memorial School in Besant Nagar discovered a bird sanctuary in their school itself by recording 46 bird species.

Guneet Singh, senior VP at HSBC, said that about 99 per cent of the participants had taken part in the unique race mainly for fun. Mangalraj Johnson, Chairman, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), being a bird watcher for about 60 years, remarked: “bird watching is contagious, and there is no cure from it.” Wildlife Warden, Karunapriya, said that with the fall in bird population from important birding areas like the Pallikaranai marshland, it was vital for the local people to proactively protect the places of bird habitation.


Pictures to follow!

Monday, January 26, 2009

More pythons

Mr Ramanan sent along more python pictures, and this pair are so spectacular that I had to share them.  

He revisited the python burrow that I wrote about about, a second time and saw them once more.  This time they were out of the burrow, and quickly slid in on the arrival of intruders. But before that he got these lovely shots.

A darker-skinned maleIf you click on the photo and zoom in, you can even see the heat sensors above the nostrils.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I saw the tallest flying bird!

The Bharatpur narration begins here.

The Sarus Crane - a common resident of north India, a bird I had not seen so far, and one that I will always remember when I think of my first trip to Bharatpur.

For seasoned naturalists and bird watchers, these birds are really no big deal, found as they are in agricultural fields, something like a cattle egret or a pond heron, in the south, I think!  But for me, it was my first time, so indulge me as I take you through my first views.

It was mid-morning, and a bunch of us stood around because we had seen a lot of raptor activity to the left of the road. Two Marsh Harriers circled in the sky, and then we spied two vultures perched in the tall grass, right at the edge of our binocular vision. Just the top of their heads were seen. And among them, was also the reddish head of a king vulture, which suddenly took off and sat on a dead tree, further away. As we trained our binos on it, through the corner of my eye, I saw something large (I mean really large) go gliding through the air, flying rather low, across the road to vanish behind the trees on the right-side of the road/bund that we stood on.
"Wasn't that Sarus cranes?", I exclaimed, but since everyone else was concentrating on the raptors, they seemed to have missed it and looked at me rather dubiously. Anyway, in order to check it out, just-in-case, we went to a gap in the bushes on the other side, amd the pictures you see on the left, are what we saw. A pair, (they are usually in pairs) some distance away, feeding in the marshes!  The pictures on the left are the view we had with the naked eye.  Clicked with my little automatic Sony Cybershot, I even went around a tree further down the road, to see if I would get a better shot. One lives on ambition and hope!
I realise that birdwatching would be no fun absolutely, without a good pair of binos.
The camera is optional really, but without a good pair of binocs, I would not have seen these large birds in their full detail at all, and all the several kinds of ducks would have looked the same.Thanks to my husband, I have a grand pair - 8x42 - that serve me well, and I enjoyed the red head, with the little bald patch on the top of these Sarus cranes.
An inquisitive Nilgai poked her head out from the back, wondering what the fuss was all about.

And now that I have got that account off my chest, and showed you my efforts with the camera, let me also show you some lovely pictures from the cameras of Mr Ramanan and Sripad.  This series of pictures that follow are pieced together, from two or three different instances, and so the light differs.

But, they give you an idea of what I saw through my binocs.  These 5 ft + birds are famous for pairing for life, and participating in a courtship dance.   As I watched through the binocs, the pair were busy digging vigorously in the mud for insects, roots and other such food.


Photo by Mr Ramanan
Suddenly, the larger bird (the male) stalked up rather purposefully towards the female, who spread her wings.  While we along with Mr Ramanan saw this view, 
Photo by Mr Ramanan
Sripad was at another point, and this is what he saw!

Photo by SripadPhoto by Mr Ramanan
Photo by Sripad
Photo by Mr Ramanan
And as our racket increased, off they went, to quieter locations, away from us gawking tourists.  What a life for these stars, never a moment away from the flashbulbs and cameras!!
Photo by Mr Ramanan
So, it was that I did witness the courtship dance of the Sarus cranes, but I think it was the off-season abridged version, not the full show reserved for the breeding season!  I believe, when it is the season, both partners have an extended, elaborate circling and flapping wings option, and lots of bowing and scraping!  Must be some sight.

Below, the National Geographic short video on the Sarus Crane.  Its shot in Nepal, and talks about the crane conservation efforts there.  If you can tolerate the atrocious accent of the voice over (it annoyed me greatly), its quite a nice, short video, and you get to see the chicks, and the nesting habits, as well as some moving shots of these big birds.


I found the article, Working with the Sarus Crane, by K S Gopi Sunder fascinating and educative. Mr Gopi Sunder's efforts to follow the birds and pretend to be a crane make for amusing reading, while at the same time throwing light on their nesting behaviour.

I have one question, and its been nagging me ever since my return. These birds are monogamous and pair for life, so what happens when one of the pair dies?

Update:
This post is included in I and the Bird #93: The Compelling Nature of Birds hosted by Vickie Henderson.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Python!

The Bharatpur "saga" begins here!

Python in the thicket spotted near the temple
Let me say at the outset (or have I said this before?), that I have a morbid, irrational fear of snakes, and I would most definitely prefer to see them on TV than to have a personal encounter with one!

But Bharatpur is famous for the Indian Rock Python and Whitaker has classified them as "harmless" (how could a snake that hugs its prey to death be called harmless, anyway?), and so how could I come away without a peek? 13-year-old Adhi had said on the train that the only reason he was coming to Bharatpur was the see the "hibernating Indian Rock Python"!!

Very reassuringly, Whitaker's book reports that there are no known incidents of a human being eaten by these snakes! Made me feel a lot better, I tell you. These snakes have a "territory" of sorts and favourite burrows, where they sleep, catching the sun in the day, and hunt at night.

So, we set off for the Jatoli checkpost where there were reportedly burrows of these snakes. The path was stony, dusty and uneven, and it seemed safer to wheel the bikes along these narrow paths rather than risk shooting off into the marsh on either side.

Parking our bikes at the checkpost, we went with the forest ranger from there into the scrub on the right. We only saw an empty burrow. No snake. I looked nervously around my ankles and into the surrounding bushes, and hissed to Divya (who seemed least bothered), "what if its there in those other bushes?". I have to tell you that Divya has been on a couple of trips to Agumbe, where they do research on the King Cobra, another of Whitaker's projects, and so has seen those definitely-not-harmless reptiles doing various things (like eating each other up), and this was definitely passe for her!

So, we headed back, and the ranger decided to take us into the left side. I desperately wanted to tell him, bhai sahb, chodiye, koi baath nahin, hum, vaapus chalte hein, but the others were off behind him before I could open my mouth! And so I reluctantly followed, too nervous to lag far behind, and too nervous to go to the head of the line!

And this is what we saw:
We had obviously got too close. Their heat sensors, close to their nostrils must have been sending loud alarm bells. In a flash, these two slithered further into the burrow, and out of sight! Who said they move slowly, these were gone in the blink of an eye, quite literally. All of us, with the sole exception of Mr Ramanan, jumped two feet away in alarm!

The adult also slithered in!End of show, folks!

As we headed back (me, in relief and triumph!), Mr Shivkumar began a yarn about his erstwhile pet python that he had many decades ago.... he would feed it rabbit that he bought from Moore market...and then gave it away to Harry Miller....for the sake of the python, not out of fear for himself, he emphasized!

I am still undecided as to whether to believe him or not....Anybody can corroborate the story?!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The second Bird race coming up on Sunday!

Madras Naturalists' Society (MNS) along with HSBC and India Bird Races is organising Chennai's Second B*ird Race* on January 25th 2009.

*The Bird Race is a dawn-to-dusk event where teams of bird-watchers willspend the entire day birding in and around Chennai (within a specified geographical limit to its outer boundaries). The participants will try and record as many species of birds as possible and learn about the finer points of bird-watching from the experts and the experienced. *

Each Team will consist of *04 (four) persons* and each Team *must include a good birder* who is familiar with the site's/region's avifauna. You are *free to constitute your own Team,* but must ensure at least one of you is a proficient birder, familiar with the region's birdlife, and who can be the Team Captain.

You need to send a mail to either mns_memb...@... or birdr...@... to register, giving brief details of whether you will form your own Team (in which case you need to include your team members' names) or would like us to form a Team for you.

For further information do visit *www.indiabirdraces.com*

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cycling (mis)adventures at Bharatpur

Continued from here.
So it was that we set off for the bird sanctuary after a heart breakfast on the morning of the 13th.  The sanctuary is about 500m down from the hotel, on the Jaipur highway.  The short walk to the sanctuary gates is dusty and unpretty, with the roadside lined with hotels and motels - Pelican place, Sunbird, Birders Inn and many more.

On reaching the gates, my first learning was that it was not pronounced key-o-la-dee-o, but kevladev!  I never understand why Indian words written in English are not spelt phonetically.

The entrance to Kevladev


The park is open from 6am to 6pm and one is free to stay on the whole day, which is what we did mainly. Entrance for Indians is Rs 25.

Getting around, unlike other sanctuaries, works out very inexpensive.  So, we could either cycle, take a rickshaw or go in an electric "car". The rickshaw is Rs 50 per hour for two, and the rickshawwallahs are excellent guides, courteous and untiring. The cycles are even cheaper - Rs 40 for the whole day, is what we paid.
So, with cheer and enthusiasm we chose our bikes. Our good mood slowly changed to consternation, apprehension, and then pure pain, by the end of the day.
I dont know what we were expecting..probably classy, Firefox bikes, with cushioned handles, gears and easy driving comfort!
Instead what we got were rickety, rackety, old cycles, seats as hard as can be, brakes non-existent, and oh so heavy!!
Sore butts, weary shoulders and aching thighs - that was our physical state by midday! On top of that, it was dangerous to ride too close to Raji and Sheila - somehow they could never ride a straight line, and their bikes seemed to have a mind of their own, veering left and then right. The paths we were cycling on were narrow bunds and so the behaviour of their cycles was quite likely to send others in to the lake to join the painted storks and spot-billed ducks!!

Then there were others like Mr Shivkumar and Mr Chari who claimed their seats were tilted backwards, and so they had to battle just to stay in the saddle so to speak!
The gunners (men who had cameras with these humongous lenses and tripods, so that they resembled AK47s!) had wisely chosen the rickshaws to transport themselves and their cameras. Of course, they had to complain about something isnt it? So Carthic and Sripad tried to convince us that their shoulders were aching carrying their tripods or monopods, while all the walking had made them weary!
The electric car- I did not find out the rate for this
My dear friend Raji had a fall towards the evening as we headed back. I've already mentioned her rather unsteady driving skills, well this time she decided to avoid a group of walking visitors (who were actually quite a distance away), and so went into the bushes and lay down rather gracefully on her side. At that moment I was admiring a nice night heron by the side of the road, and turned around to find these visitor boys heaving at her backpack(in an attempt to pull her up!) Ay, ay what's happening, we all rushed, and Vijay helped her up, to find that she had grazed her left palm quite badly and was also a bit shaken, and probably very tired.  She was bundled into a rickshaw, back to the main gate, and Kumar showed great ability in riding his cycle with one hand and dragging hers back with the other.

The night of the 13th, it looked like no one was going to bike the next morning! We all just tumbled into our beds, dog tired, after a tasty, hot dinner and bath.

What birds did you see, you ask? Oh plenty, including the majestic sarus cranes, but that's for another account. I need to get the cycle story of my chest!

14th morning 7.00am and we are back, earlier and even colder at the park entrance.  Only my nose and cheeks were uncovered and by the time we reached the park I had to rub my nose to warm it up!  Bottoms seem to have been miraculously healed overnight, as everyone was game to cycle again!  Of course people had come "prepared" in many ways - one member was wearing several underwear to give him cushioning, extra towels had been brought to line the seats, and more importantly bikes were selected for sitting comfort!

Much to my dismay, my cycle no 22 of yesterday has been taken.  Then, I discover my purple steed.  It was to remain my faithful companion for the next 3 days, taking me through potholes and ruts, around twisty lanes and bricked paths!  Never mind that it had no stand, so it always had to be rested against a tree or post (though quite often it just lay on the ground), and no matter that it had no brakes - I just had to use my feet.  The no-brakes also had an advantage, others got out of my way in a hurry!!

And of course everyone knew where I was.  "Oh, there's her cycle, she must be in the area!"  

That red bag hanging from the handlebars also gained importance - it became the lunch bag for the group, as Vijay would wake up early, rouse the cooks into action and carry some 50 aloo parathas for our breakfast and lunch.  Now with 50 parathas and pickle to go with it, the bag was rather heavy to carry on the cycle, so it was given to the gunners who took the rickshaws.  The "pantry car", as the rickshaw was promptly christened, was ordered to report at the Keoladeo check post where we would all assemble to eat, lounging on the grass in the sun, with resident babblers, sparrows, magpie robins, starlings and mynahs for company, as also squirrels and a resident dog.

Of course, we ensured that Arun's rickshaw was not the pantry car, since then we would get breakfast at lunchtime, and lunch at tea time  as he lost track of time chasing the Maratha woodpecker, black-capped kingfisher or some other such exotic bird!

As a result of his latecomings, the dog ran off with his parathas one day.  (The next day, after being fed 5 aloo parathas, we found the dog missing until well past lunch!  It had probably learnt his lesson, or felt like a hibernating Indian rock python!!)

As we wandered day after day, the rickshaw guides, chai shop wallah as well as other serious visitors all became friendly.  So it was that on the final day when my purple steed developed a flat in the middle of nowhere, the rickshaw wallah advised me to go back to the checkpost, where I could get it fixed.  It was a fifteen minute walk back pushing the cycle.
The "adda" around my injured steed
As I looked at the tyre tube, it inspired no confidence, so many patches, that I doubt there was any original tubing left!  One puncture was fixed, and as I waited chatting with some others, the tyre deflated again!  Again the whole thing was redone, after which I decided that I should just head back rather than wander the trails again!

So, without a last look at the Sarus, Divya and I returned, stopping to check out the Dusky Eagle Owl nesting off the main path, and pausing to admire a brown-headed barbet eating fruit of a Ficus tree.

Click on the map for a better view.  
The Saras hotel is at the left most tip of the map, where the downnward-pointing arrow and the right-pointing arrow intersect.  To the left is the city of Bharatpur and market.  The cycles were hired at the main gate.  I estimate that from the Main Gate to the inner gate/Visitor Centre would be a say 3 km ride through open scrub.  The Bharatpur Ashok is located in this stretch - the only hotel inside.

The spot marked with the temple was the area where we met for breakfast and lunch, and also the place where my punctures got fixed.  Jatoli was where we saw the pythons.  The Sarus Cranes hung around on route 4, just at the bend.

We cycled along trails 1, 2 and parts of 4, but not 3.  Hmmm, we seem to have overlooked that. We also did not go to Kadam Kunj and the secondary lake there.  In hindsight, maybe we should have cycled that route one day.  

Next time!

Update:

Photo by Mr Ramanan - his bike had other uses as well!

Mad Madrasis - stuck on the train!

Continued from here.

11th & 12th January 2009

Am off in dreamland when there's a lot of yelling and shouting, scraping and pulling. Passengers getting on at some other station I thought, sleepily and tried to go back to sleep, but they created quite a racket for quite a while. Morning came, and I peeped down to see Sheila sitting up in her berth with a scowl on her face - being closer to the racket, I think her night's sleep had been ruined somewhat!

Anyway, got some chai and looked out of the window to discover to our horror that our window was completely messed up, and we could see nothing through it. the grime was in-between the outer and inner windows and so there was no redemption for us. We looked to the other side, and the noisy lot were firmly ensconced behind curtains that never opened that whole day!

I am sure you will not believe this, but the lady on that berth did not show her face that whole day. So what, you say? Well, she had a three-year old son who was busy running the corridors and she kept shouting instructions to him all the time, from behind that curtain! Our faces were not that bad looking, we thought!! AND WE HAD NO VIEW OF THE COUNTRYSIDE!!

So, I took refuge in Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence, and was magically transported to Fatehpur Sikri and the land of Akbar. Lunch time and we were at Nagpur, and did the customary thing of buying santras - oranges. Lovely, juicy ones though they did not look promising from the outside.

Itarsi in the evening, and then we ground to a halt....and the bad news percolated through the coaches. Goods train derailed...train being rerouted....long delays...Even then we did not realise what it would mean. We groaned at the thought of maybe a four hour delay, but also were secretly pleased since it meant that we did not have to get off at Mathura at the scheduled 2:45am, but at a more civilised, warmer hour.

It turned out that we were being re-routed around Hoshangabad in a kind of rectangle, going east to Khatni (where we stood for four hours), before coming back to Bina (which is on the original GT line.   So we trundled along for the whole of 12th, when we should have been inside the sanctuary. We had all the time in the world to be social.  There was a family also returning to Mathura, where the couple had jobs currently.  They could not believe that we were travelling all this distance to go to see some birds. The man looked at me pityingly and remarked how he had gone last winter, and only saw crows!

By afternoon desperation had set in. I purchased a Rs 20 version of Ludo, and we foursome played for something like 2 hours, with Arun very deliberately esuring that we were all sent back to the starting blocks again and again. The delay was so long that even the lady-behind-the-screen emerged! Her little boy, noisy and full of josh, was alternatively khatti with us and meeti!  But we got so fond of him, that we bid him a fond farewell that night before he went to bed!

Finally, when we did get to MTJ, it was 12:30 am on 13th - a 22 hour delay, which meant that we had been on that train for something like 53 hours! An aromatic, sleepy and relieved bunch we were when we did get off.

Saras at Bharatpur

A huge bus carried us all to Bharatpur, about an hour away, and we dozed fitfully, unable to see anything out of the windows. e stumbled out and into the hotel, as Vijay had already allotted rooms and roommates. I was to share with Divya, while Raji and Sheila occupied the room next door.

Saras is an RTDC hotel, and given some of the places we have stayed in earlier, this was the height of luxury, a nice large room, and more importantly, a clean bathroom!
The hotel from across the road, as seen in the morning light
A standard, non-AC room

Our bathroom!
Determinedly, Divya and I braved the cold and had a warm bath at
2am!! The warmth of the bath deceived me, and I got into bed insufficiently covered, and had to get up, shivering, put on more layers before sneaking back under the rug.

6am: Thud, thud thud went someone on the door. Open up to find a smiling Rajput with a tray full of steaming tea, "Good morning madam, aapki chai!" Sigh! I envied Divya as she slept through all of it, and woke up only on my persistent and vigorous efforts!

The only good thing was that we were bathed and clean, and so felt very virtuous as compared to the other sleepyheads who were looking to have a morning bath before we set off for the sanctuary at 8:30. A late start was the concession for the first day.

Biking adventures, up next!

The winter adventures of the Mad Madrasis

10th January 2009
Last year, we were struck by summer madness, going into the Melghat forests at temperatures above 100 degrees F. So this year we had to opt for cooler climes isn't it? Being good Madrasis, most of us are quite comfortable in the humid, warm conditions of our city, and the very thought of going off to Bharatpur, Rajasthan in the winter brought its own set of problems, frantic phone calls and last minute shopping.

"Have you got gloves"?
"Hey dont forget the monkey cap."
"I am bringing my thermal underwear."
"My jacket is a bright blue," wailed another.
"Lets not set out at 6 am...I mean even the birds feel cold, dont they?!"

So it was with excitement and apprehension that we set off to catch the Grand Trunk (quite inappropriately named a Super Fast) to Mathura Junction, each laden with enough warm clothing, for three atleast!! Little did I realise that just catching the train would be a mini adventure in itself!

So, Sheila, Raji and me get into a cab and set off. Discover that none of us have any palliatives for an upset stomach. Did, what we thought was a quick detour to the Arya Vaidya Sala, to pick up some churan powder, and head off via the beach. Only to run into a traffic jam courtesy the Chennai Sangamam opening. (Later, Vijay was to tell us, sarcastically - "Dont you women read the papers? I mean there was a full page ad announcing this, and quite clearly the Marina was to be avoided!") Departure was 7.15pm. It was 6.50 and we were still somewhere near Presidency College with no way forward or back. Arun calls to tell us cheerfully that he's on the train! Further panic. I ask him which platform thinking that we could just run off to that platform - "I dont know, I just followed Vijay", he said!! Find out, I growled at him, by which time we had reached the bridge opposite the station. Ah good, home stretch now I thought, and relaxed, only to find our cabbie veer left. "Ayyo, rightu paa", we yelled in unison, while soft-spoken Sampath (the driver) says "Ille maa, taxi ellam suthi poanu!"

7:02 pm. Get down near the side entrance. Huge evening crowds of daily commuters mingle with domestic travellers, and there is hardly room to move! And of course, the side entrance is shut, funneling the crowds further into the front entrances. Just as we round the corner I hear a huge thud, and turn around to find Sheila on the ground!! She caught her foot on the edge of the path and went down, luggage and all! We give her a hand up, and she tentatively tests her foot. She's a bit shaken and also panicked. (Later I discover that her watch is set 5 minutes ahead!!) So, we pick up her bag also and make a run for it!! And then we see metal detectors.... my heart sinks. I look straight ahead, hurry through those detectors and make a straight dash for platform 11. Round the corner, and we see the waiting train. Thankfully, as we were booked by AC, our coach was one of the earliest, and we heaved our bags in, sinking into our seats with relief. 7.08pm! Sheila then informed me that there was a baggage check just past the metal detectors that I had bypassed, and the cops had looked on helplessly as we ran...I guess we didn't look suspicious! (My hard-to-impress son scoffed, why the hurry, ma, you still had another seven minutes!!! Well by James Bond and Bruce Willis standards, I guess seven minutes is a lifetime, but not for me, oh no thank you.)

7.15pm, and we set off. Bang on time. Vijay comes by, and we learn that there are some 27 of us MNS members spread out through the train, with another few expected to join us directly there. Wow, that's a large group!

By this time, Arun has cooerced our fourth fellow passenger (a young man) to exchange berths with him, so he has us three ladies to guard his luggage and camera!! Then, he decides that we all eat too much since we had brought nice tasty khana from home, while he was planning to make a meal of oranges!! Never mind that he bought a packet of namkeen from the railways seller, and filled his stomach with other assorted goodies from his humongous suitcase!!

We retired for the night, blissfully unaware of the further misadventures to follow!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Of legs, tails and beaks!

Start from here.
White-browed wagtail atop the ornate gate to the lake
'Tis the season, for the birds, tra la la la la, la la la la!

Its not only NRIs and foreign tourists who throng the country at this time of the year. Lakes all over India play host to visiting dignitaries of the feathered variety.  The regular resident birds dont seem to mind this intrusion, and they all seem to "hang out" together.

Well, thats the impression I got anyway at the Ghaibsagar lake, alongiside Udai Bilas palace, Dungarpur!


There were so many birds that I saw for the first time, that the reunion became quite a rewarding "birding" expedition for me.
White-browed wagtail, by the swimming pool

As we strolled around on the first evening we were there, sans camera, there were so many lovely sightings. Among my favourites were the only pair of Mallard ducks that stood out against the lake temple wall, as they bobbed on the water preening themselves. The evening sun bounced off the brilliant green head of the male.  The next day they were gone, probably to another lake?

Another breathtaking sight of that evening was the pair of White Storks that came gliding down to a tree overlooking the swimming pool, and perched themselves on a branch just above our heads. These birds are HUGE, and yet so graceful. Later in our visit, the manager showed me their nest on another tree, high up - an untidy affair. Obviously, the chicks dont have a fear of heights!


A common sight through our stay were the Purple Moorhens. they usually hung around at the swimming pool end of the lake, in the shallow waters by the shore.  Though they are common in lakes across India, this was the first time I was seeing them, though they have such a characteristic look that identifying them was a breeze.  Well, they are purple and do look a bit hen-like!

But this I have to add:
"Male has ludicrous courtship display, holding water weeds in his bill and bowing to female with loud chuckles."
That is how Salim Ali describes them, and I wish I had come across this behaviour!  Sadly, the moorhens I saw were solely obsessed with poking around in the undergrowth and scrabbling for food!
Purple Moorhen

The mystery of the spidery legs!

My most favourite "discovery" of the weekend was this cute and strange looking bird that we spied on the next morning. She (well she just looked like a she!) was so busy walking on the lotus leaves that she had no time for us! We were so close we could see those amazing feet of this bird, so clearly!

I had this sudden vision of Thumbelina on a leaf seeing the manner in which this bird hopped from leaf to leaf, staying afloat, and balancing on its spidery legs.
But what could it be?  I had not seen anything like this before.  There was no expert around and so I was on my own as far as solving the what-is-it mystery went.  I pored over my Salim Ali bird book, looking and marveling through my binos, checking out the waders and rails and crakes.  But nothing matched. There were some birds with spidery legs, but the plumage just did not match.

As my husband clicked away, he heard a shout of discovery, as I found it!  It was a baby, well not quite a baby, maybe a teenager, and so as with most teenagers was not "dressed" appropriately!!  Had me fooled.  So, here was an immature bronze-winged jacana.  If you want to see what the adult looks like click here.

Immature bronze-winged Jacana

On our return, while mentioning my prized discovery, Mr C Ramakrishna of MNS (aka Bobjee uncle) brought to my notice that the female jacanas are polyandrous!  Hmmm, thats interesting I thought!

While that teenager walked effortlessly across the leaves, there was this egret who was making rather heavy weather of walking-the-leaves.  Everytime it settled on one, the leaf would begin to sink, and the egret would then take off with an angry squawk, and try another leaf, with much the same effect!  Finally, probably out of irritation and frustration, it hung to one of the several lotus stems sticking out of the water, only to have it bend under its weight!

It was all quite amusing for us onlookers, but that was one unamused bird!

The untiring river terns
All through our stay at Udai Bilas, we saw these river terns, flying ceaselessly back and forth, swooping down into the water, and then coming up with something - a fish or frog? - with a strong call.  I saw terns chasing one another - probably one without a catch was trying to steal from one which had caught something.

Competing with the river terns in aerial acrobatics were the Pied Kingfishers.  Though I saw them first on our trip to Penchalakona, I really enjoyed their hovering and swooping displays over the lake at Dungarpur.  
A lovely picture of its black cap, forked tail and yellow beak.  We also saw dozens of them sitting on the shore, sunning themselves.
The picture below has an Indian darter (the big black bird), whistling teals (the brown ducks) and the river terns (smaller, white birds in the foreground).  There's also a single common coot, to the left of the darter.  The lake was actually full of flocks of Common Coot, and the Whistling Teal. I could not identify these ducks, (my excuse - they were too far away!) but our host Harsh, who's a keen birder, helped me with that one!

The Darter spent many an hour posing like this or similar positions.  Do they need more sun on their wings and therefore strike this pose or is it showing off, you think?!  We saw them in the water, with just their long necks and beak out of the water, and even saw one eating a fish.  
This picture above was obviously when the Darter got tired of holding its wings up!  Darters I noticed hang out by themselves, unlike the cormorants who seem to like company.  If I'm not mistaken, the other large bird on the left is a Grey Heron with that black crest and hunched pose.

The ducks that I did identify were the Spot-billed ducks, that were also in plenty on the lake.  
Spot-billed ducks
The yellow-tipped bill, orange legs and the little green markings on their wings helped me (I hope) correctly identify these birds.
The sunning stone

Close to the lake temple was some exposed stone.  It would probably be submerged when the lake was full, but when we were there it served as a good perch and sunning spot for the cormorants and ducks.

Great Cormorants with an egret, and coots in the waterNo effort and Nine new birds over a weekend.  Not bad for a beginner, I thought!  An experienced birder would have put together a more exhaustive list than mine below, as the surrounding hills were also full of garden birds, but I could not distinguish between all those brown warblers, prinias and larks.  

Here's my Dungarpur list:
  • Lifers for me - Bronze-winged Jacana, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Lesser Whistling Duck, Mallard, Comb Duck, Purple Moorhen, River tern, White Stork
  • Little Grebe
  • Red wattled lapwing
  • Great Cormorant
  • Indian Darter
  • Large Egret
  • Little Egret
  • Pond heron
  • Common Coot
  • Grey Heron
  • Black Kite
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Lesser Pied Kingfisher
  • White Breasted Kingfisher
  • Small bee eater
  • Plum-headed parakeet
  • Red vented bulbuls
  • Jungle Prinia
  • Tailor bird
And to cap it all, we saw this mama boar, with a very multi-coloured litter of babies!