Thursday, February 26, 2009

Magpie-robin Menezes

Mrs Robin at the campsite
With due apologies to Ranjit Lal, who in his delightful "Crow Chronicles", named the soulful singer of Bharatpur thus. I was given the book by Chitra before departing for Bharatpur, but my son wanted first dibs, and so I read it (actually am still enjoying it) on my return.

For anyone who has been to Bharatpur, the book is a must-read, as all the birds of Bharatpur are characters in a fast-paced adventure set in the sanctuary.  The characterisation is delightful, with the main protagaist being His Excellency Shri Khatarnak Kala Kaloota Kawa Kaw Kaw aka Kaw the crow!

I digress though.  This post is about that perky, jaunty little black-and-white bird that you cannot fail to see in Bharatpur, with its upright tail and its sad song.
Mr Robin, with his tail up

They sat on tree stubs, hopped on the path, flitted about the central camp area, where we would gather for chai and biscuits...we would see them early morning, in the midday, and towards sunset as well.

Somehow, I always saw the bird alone.  I wonder if thats its habit, solitary.

We all got pictures of this little bird, because it did not seem shy of humans, and was quite happy to pose.
Carthic took this

While the bird itself was busy, cheerful and jaunty its song I felt was somewhat plaintive. Hear it for yourself, and tell me what you think. This is the song that we would typically hear late in the evening, say at sunset.  I took this little video clip as a memory of the song, so dont expect to see the bird in great detail...its there though, that little shadow flicking its tail!

I also learnt that a bird call is different from a bird song. And magpie robins have an enormous range of calls and some songs as well.

Song performance rules in the Oriental Magpie Robin, is the title of a research study done on these birds in Nepal. The researchers studied the dawn-singing of around five Oriental Magpie Robins, and found that the songsters were quite original in their tunes! They switched songs/motifs, interacted and communicated through these songs, and in general kept Messrs Bhattacharya, Cirillo, Subba and Todt busy and fascinated!!

Birdsong is a learned behaviour, so that would mean that the Magpie-robins of Bharatpur would probably sing differently from their counterparts in Nepal! Well, why am I surprised - an Indian from Kochi speaks differently from her counterpart in Madras, doesnt she? We just assume that this is not true in the non-human world, dont we?

I wish I had known this before going to Bharatpur....I would have listened more carefully to the singing of these lovely, musical little songbirds, and maybe come back wit memories of different songs!  For now, though, I only have this one tune associated with the robins.

(If you want read more about Bharatpur, or go to the beginning of this serialised narration, click here.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The uncommon incident of the Common Crane

The Bharatpur story never seems to end, does it? To start at the beginning, click here.

Apparently, they are common somewhere, but to me and all of us who saw them, they were definitely uncommon and elusive!!

We were hot and sweaty, having pedalled away on the brick-lined, bone-jarring bund bordering the Ghana canal.  The early morning mist and cool air had long gone, and now we were thankful for the shade of the occasional tree that lined the bund, and against which my faithful purple steed  could be rested!

It was our last day at the sanctuary, and I had already seen my first munia ever, a tree full of yellow footed pigeons, and even several black Redstarts.  While the munias would just not sit still as they hopped from twig to ground to bush to twig, the pigeons just sat and stared!  They looked glum and disappointed like a bunch of Congress workers after their party had lost an election!  The redstarts had no time for us as they zipped and flew through the air, and I felt quite dizzy and tired just trying to follow them!

So, I had had my fill of excitement - or so I thought, and was just staring contentedly into the dry grassland, looking at some cattle moving around in a desultory fashion.  But not Divya. Ever vigilant, thats what she is, and she suddenly barked, "Hey Varun, there's some big bird, look past those cows."  So, while I was going, "where, I cant see, oh thats just a calf", etc etc, Varun the sharp-eyed declared that they were Common Cranes.

Inskipp and Salim Ali were consulted, binoculars trained and a consensus was reached. Common Cranes they were.  See that black streak down the face, or is it a white streak on a black face?  But they are not common, I wailed.  So Varun placates me, "They are common in Europe, you see, they are only winter visitors here."  I was still miffed and truculent, and muttered militantly that we should give them our own name, and its not fair, etc etc.  

Anyway, common cranes they were, and a lovely family of four, mum, dad and two teenagers?  Now they were actually more than 600m away, (atleast I think so), and our binocs were at the limit of their capabilities.  Thankfully we had two large gunners with us, who crept a little ahead and got these photos.

Photo by CarthicGrus grus- thats their official name.

Like the Sarus, these too have an extended and elaborate calling and dancing behaviour.

The International Crane Foundation site says:
Mated pairs of cranes, including Eurasian Cranes, engage in unison calling, which is a complex and extended series of coordinated calls. The birds stand in a specific posture, usually with their heads thrown back and beaks skyward during the display. The male always lifts up his wings over his back during the unison call while the female keeps her wings folded at her sides. In Eurasian Cranes the male initiates the display and utters one call for every three female calls. All cranes engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors such as bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing, and wing flapping. Dancing can occur at any age and is commonly associated with courtship, however, it is generally believed to be a normal part of motor development for cranes and can serve to thwart aggression, relieve tension, and strengthen the pair bond.
This calling is seen in several crane types, and I do wish I had witnessed it!

Photo by SkandanWell, I guess I was lucky just to be in the right place at the right time.  After a while, papa crane kept looking watchfully and warily to his right, and then we saw a group of jackals in the grass.

A few minutes later, and the cranes were off, flying away from us, with the long graceful strokes of their wings.  With a wingspan of some 6-7 ft, it was quite a sight to see the four of them, in a similar rhythm, take off and fly in a "V".  It was another of those silence moments, where I was dumbstruck, though Varun kept muttering deliriously, fantastic, fantastic!

As we moved on, our eyes caught another two families of these cranes take to the air!  Where had they been hiding?  We had not noticed them at all!

And so ended the uncommon incident of the Common Crane.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bharatpur Photo extravaganza

Here are some links to photo albums of MNS members, who have uploaded their choicest (is there such a word?) pictures of our Bharatpur visit.

Mr Ramanan sends us his photos via email, and so maybe I should develop a special set for his photos?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Encounters with the Nilgai

My abiding memory of Bharatpur is the misty mornings as we set of on our cycles.  Visibility would be low, but the air would be filled with bird calls - duck, geese and lapwings.

The lanes would vanish into nothingness, and at times we would not be able to see the other members of our group who were just ahead or just behind.  

I think the beauty (and probably the cold!) of the mornings affected all of us, as suddenly we would all lapse into silence and just look, greedily drinking in the sights and sounds of the sanctuary.

The lovely road past Shanti Kutir is not used that much by visitors, and has some nice twists and turns, and along with the chill in the air, and the hanging mist, it suddenly reminded me of a scene from an old Sherlock Holmes novel.  Only somehow there was nothing sinister about the setting!

Nilgai was the most common type of antelope we saw, though there were some chital and sambar as well.   With no large predators in Bharatpur, the Nilgai have no security concerns, and are thriving well.  We would often come across herds of females and young ones, like this.  they are the largest antelopes in Asia, and are common in north India, though for me from the south, it was my first encounter.
Their brown coats give them a good camouflage in the dry, tall grass.  The females were my first sighting of the Nilgai, and I wondered why they were called a Nilgai - or blue bull - there was not a hint of blue!  

It wasn't long before I saw my first male Nilgai, though, and what a handsome creature it is!

As big as a horse and called Boselaphus tragocamelus, they look like creatures from the magical forest around Hogwarts!

All I needed was to see one fly, for the image to be complete.  Alas, that was not to be, but the members had close encounters with them one time or another!
Photo by Mr Ramanan

Mr Ramanan was almost knocked down by one male Nilgai as it came crashing through the undergrowth on one side of the track, and quickly lumbered through on the other side!  He did get this beautiful photo though, as it stood, all ears, ready to charge off at the slightest threat.  

The insides of the ears have a distinct marking, and the adult males are usually off on their own.  A single lone female is unusual, as is this photo by Sripad, where the pattern on the hooves are so well seen.

Photo by SripadOn one occasion, as Divya and I followed Sripad and Carthic, (or was it Skandan?), a male Nilgai emerged on to the path from the marsh on the right side behind the pair of riders in front, and ahead of Divya and me.  We stood stock still, and there was a period of eyeball-to-eyeball contact, before it dashed off to the left of the path, only to find its way blocked by undergrowth.  At this point, it panicked and charged back from where it had initially come, and then we heard it sloshing through the marsh, probably grumbling at us all the while!
I dont know whose photo this is, but its not mine!Oh yes, and like rhinos, Nilgai have interesting toilet habits - they have a centralised dropping area, like what you see below!  So if you want to see one of them, I guess all you have to do is hang around one of these spots!  They all have to go at some point dont they?

Now I could not bring myself to finish this post with that picture, So I have this magnificent photo by Carthic.

Photo by Carthic
How could people actually hunt these handsome creatures?  And that too for "sport"?  Okay, they are not endangered, but would any sane person want to hunt them?

Why am I ranting?  Well there are scores of ranches in Texas that advertise Nilgai hunts, as a pastime and sport.  (Do a google - there are scores of them.)  Yeah right, some sport, you have a gun as long as his body and what does he have - just strong legs to run, and run and run.  

I have this nightmare that one day, all this senseless killing and mindless hunting will be reversed upon us, as the animal kingdom gains it karmic revenge....

In India too, they can be hunted.  They are not endangered.  And as they run out of space to graze, they come into farmlands to graze.  In Rajasthan and Gujarat, Nilgai have become a menace to farmers.  But given their resemblance to cows, they are not killed, reportedly, though in these states you could hunt them I believe.

An article on the Nilgai by the Wildlife Institute of India,  writes, 
Although there has been a reduction in the overall range of nilgai, the existing populations seem to be doing fairly well. This is largely because of they are a protected species under the law, and more importantly the protection they acquire from being considered sacred due to their resemblance to domestic cows. Moreover, gradual degradation of dense forests into open scrub and thickets, increasingly bordered by agricultural fields, has offered favourable habitat conditions for the increase of nilgai numbers. Invariably, in such situations, nilgai become serious pests as crop raiders and a major issue of human-wildlife conflict. Possible solutions voiced include a selective culling programme linked to licensed hunting permits. However, throughout the range of the nilgai, most farmers are Hindus, and in Rajasthan and Haryana, many of them are Bishnois, a sect that rigorously protects all animals. Bishnoi farmers prefer to tolerate the raids on their crops rather than permit the slaughter of nilgai. So it is highly unlikely that any scheme to cull or ranch nilgai either for hunting or for local consumption will ever work in India (Kyle 1990). This attitude may however change, when the number of people living off the land increases, when the local people begin to believe nilgai are vermin or a source of meat. Relocations of problematic nilgai, for the time being, seem the safest solution.
Another example of the human-animal conflict, which can only get worse with time.

Is there a humane and sensible solution?

(To start at the beginning of the Bharatpur narration, click here.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spot that bird

An account of the bird race, by the winning team that appeared in The Hindu.
Spot that bird

There are more birds in Chennai than we thought…That’s what the Bird Race showed. NINA SIMON

With two bikes between four of us, Arun, Hopeland, Rajkumar and I spent our time after an unfair Saturday at college (they don’t call it a weekend for nothing!) criss-crossing the city searching for birds. January 29 was the bird race held by the Madras Naturalist Society and we were in a hurry to finish our homework and be free. Arun named our team “The Common Crows” as we entered the race.

“D day”: I never wake up in time; my college attendance or rather its lack is proof. So Arun had to leave home at 3.00 a.m. to wake me up! At 4.30 a.m. we were on the road, cold wind whipping our skin and the first bird we saw was the common crow! Soon we were on the East Coast Road on the way to Vadanamali Village.

As dawn appeared we searched the bushes for lark, whimbrel, curlew, sandpipers and other birds found near the backwaters. We ticked more birds than we expected on our checklist but a fast fading “flamingo pink” sky told us that we had to get back on the road. This time to Pallikaranai spotting 46 species and seeing an eagle hunt a snake and feed on it.

Next visit: Sholinganallur where we spotted wagtails, pintails and greb along with a few raptors.At 9.00 a.m. we passed through Nanmangalam to see the booted eagle. Reaching Ponmar by 10.30 a.m. we got to see harriers up close perched on the electric cables as we searched for paddy birds while allowing our bikes to cool down. We visited Arun’s old friend the barn owl at Vijayshanthi Apartments too. We then spent a stiff one hour on the 365-acre campus of Madras Christian College since we knew where to find the birds (we study there).

Above us a Montagu’s harrier hovered in the air trying to find prey in the dense scrub jungle below. We spotted the yellow wattled lapwing, which made our day! Hopeland had to write down the birds we spotted sitting on a moving bike because we had no time.

It was already 12.30 p.m. and our next stop was one—and –a- half hours away! We reached Vedanthangal and set ourselves spotting birds: in no time we’d ticked off painted storks, pelicans, open bills, cormorants, darters, greb and a whole list of water birds from our list.

We drove back to the city just in time for a rush-hour traffic jam. Looking like vagabonds we limped past the President Hotel parking lot trying to look a little bit more presentable only to find that we were not the only ones around. Kids of eight and 10 were talking about their passion for birds, rattling off bird names; and old men and women were acting like children comparing notes like secrets!

All through this race I had only one thought other than spotting birds: “would we win?” But now I realised it didn’t matter for the experience of driving 310 km and spotting 131 species and sharing my experience with the rest was a trophy in itself. After the meeting and dinner hosted by the Madras Naturalist Society each of us walked out with a treasury of tales and a satisfied smile.

Each of us had contributed to a conservation movement that might one day save the birds of our city. If you have ever heard the owl hooting at night you will understand the satisfaction I got that day!

Nina Simon is a IInd year student of Zoology, Madras Christian College

Well, they must have had some sore butts after that, with 300+ kms under their belts, in a day!

Plans for an elevated road?

Madras Musings - We care for Madras that is Chennai

Government has announced a plan to build an elevated road connecting the Marina Light House and the East Coast Road (ECR). It has been announced that the proposed plan will improve connectivity between the city and the ECR and will ease traffic mobility. However, as is consistent with most Government plans of such a nature, environmental and aesthetic concerns have been given the go-by.

The entire road in its final form will extend 9.7 km and will be at a vertical clearance of 5.5m. The first phase will be for 4.7 km and will link the Light House on Kamaraj Salai (Beach Road) with Besant Nagar. A consulting agency has submitted its feasibility report and the estimate is that the first phase will cost Rs. 430 crore.

The route will begin from near the Gandhi statue, turn east near the Light House and run along the existing San Thomé Road bypass by the sea up to Srinivasapuram. From there it will cross the Adyar Estuary, run parallel to the broken bridge, pass the Theosophical Society campus and finally connect Besant Nagar near Elliot’s Beach. In the second phase, the elevated road will run along Besant Nagar Beach Road, close to Velankanni Church, and then run parallel to the coast before joining the ECR. Around 500 homes, 14 commercial buildings and three religious buildings will be affected by the plan.

The report does not look at what will happen to the already fragile ecology of the area. It also has not taken into cognisance CRZ guidelines which do not allow for such constructions along the coastline. The broken bridge which this road will pass close to is testimony to the destructive potential of cyclones and high waves in this region – not to mention the corrosive elements. Constructing a road in precisely the same area is nothing short of short-sighted ness.

The proposal will also ring the death knell for the entire Adyar estuary which was in the past considered a bird sanctuary. At present there is an ongoing project to develop what is left of the Adyar Creek as a natural estuarine park. What will the fate of this project be once a road cuts across the park and the estuarine area? The proposed road will affect what is an environmentally important region which has been recogni sed as such by the State and the Centre. The corridor is also to be located in the breeding ground of the Olive Ridley turtle.

The matter is not likely to end here, for it appears to be the opening for further land development. In the past, when the question of constructions close to the coastline near Quibble Island was investigated, the Government granted permission for the development stating that all this was taking place alongside an existing road and so the area did not come under CRZ guidelines. Now with another road being proposed along the sea coast itself, it is more or less certain that in future further reclamation and development will take place along the coast, citing the presence of the elevated road as an excuse. This will play havoc with the coastline and will also create a Shanghai-type of beachfront for the city. The question is, is this what we want?

Not surprisingly, the proposal has come in for scathing comment. The opponents have pointed out that the Government is spending vast amounts on beach beautification quite unnecessarily. If only this amount was spent on cleaning up the city’s waterways and making them navigable there would be ample scope for good connectivity from city centre
to the ECR. Where then would be the necessity for an elevated road? A waterway costs only one tenth of a roadway to maintain and is also more economical when it comes to fuel consumption. It would be the ideal solution for a city already polluted. But the present trend is more towards building massive flyovers and roads, all catering to a motorcar-using population when the majority that uses public transport and would benefit from a waterway is being neglected. When will those in power ever change this trend?

There seem to have been rumours of this since 2006. I came across this article the The Hindu.

Silence over project irks Information Commission

Friday, February 6, 2009

Vickie Henderson Art: I and the Bird #93: The Compelling Nature of Birds

Vickie Henderson Art: I and the Bird #93: The Compelling Nature of Birds

Take a look at Vickie's blog.  It hosts the 93rd birding blog carnival, and she has lovely whooping crane paintings as well!  The post on Sarus Cranes, I saw the tallest flying bird! is included in this carnival!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The bird that craved for a ramp

Darter, Snake bird, Pambuttara, Anhinga melanogaster...but to me it will always be the "fashion model" bird!  The waters and trees of Bharatpur are full of them. So "common" were they, that after a couple of days I stopped looking at them. Can you imagine, such a gorgeous bird, and I wouldn't give it a third look.
Photo by Mr Ramanan
A fashion critic could write," She had a lovely long neck, and the black silk saree 
with its beautiful white embroidery stood out under the ramp lights
."!!  (The only thing is I dont know if its a she or a he!)

Isn't the photo above amazing?  All the features of the bird - its long snake-like neck, dagger-like bill and the wedge-shaped tail feathers - have been caught so well!

Photo by Sripad They adorned the trees all over, catching the sun to dry their wings. Everybody got great shots of these birds, and as I wondered about their vanity, Mr Chari gently mentioned that they were drying their wings because unlike water off a duck's back, the Darter's feathers do get wet, as they dive into the water in search of fish.

So it is that they spend their days, alternatively diving for fish and drying their wings!
Photo by Carthic

By the end of three days, I was able to do a pretty good imitation of the bird - ask Sripad!
Photo by Mr Ramanan
They are loners, hanging out on the trees alone, which is how we saw them most of the time.  Click on the photo to the left, and see its feet - duck like!

Carthic captured another unusual pose of this bird, as it stared into the water looking for fish.  Its got special neckbones that allows this almost unnatural-looking posture.

Photo by Carthic

One mid morning, we came across this Darter, with an abnormally white neck. Old and grey I thought, but it was actually young and immature!!

Its the same bird, folks!

These shots are of the Snake-bird in the water.  It swims with its whole body submerged, looking like the periscope of a submarine!

As it swims, it keeps a keen eye out for the fish, which it chases with speed, shooting its bill out to spear and catch the hapless fish.  When we visited Dungarpur, in December, we saw this piece of hunting action.  The pictures below are from Vedanthangal.

Photos by Sekar
Salim Ali mentions another interesting feint.  If surprised while perched on a tree, it drops down through the branches, almost as if shot, into the water, surfacing at a safe distance.

They are found all over India - where's there's freshwater fish fish there's likely to be a Darter as well. 


On reading this, Mr Ramanan sent the following great sequence, shot at Vedanthangal. He adds:
As you have narrated about the hunting sequence of the darter, I thought I can share some of it here with you.The darter, unlike cormorants that hunt in flocks, hunts alone using its beak as a weapon to pierce the fish and bring it up. As it has to swallow the head part of the fish first, it tosses and sees that the head goes into mouth first. After feeding, it spreads its feather to dry and also cleans it beak as it contains lot of oily secretions derived while swallowing the fish. These all are 'ACTION SHOTS' for a greedy photographer like me. I have some of them here, which I have photographed at Vedanthangal on various occasions.

Exactly as we saw in Dungarpur!  Thank you Mr Ramanan!

(This is part of a series of posts on a week spent at the Keoladeo sanctuary, in Bharatpur Rajasthan.  To start at the beginning, click here.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Baya weaver and other discoveries

Here are the birds that I saw for the first time during the Chennai Bird Race. The Baya Weavers were in a palm tree, on the road to the Vedanthangal sanctuary, after the turn-off from the highway, before the temple.

The tree was full of these birds and their nests!  I've seen empty nests before, close to Pulicat, but this was the first time I saw the birds and the nests in use.  We saw a couple of males who have a lovely yellow cap and breast during breeding, but I think this one is a female.

Mr Baya is rather industrious.  He weaves this nest from paddy reeds and other grass.  He also has a regular harem, with several wives and a separate nest for each one!  Now the interesting thing is, he weaves several of these halfway (like the one in the picture) and then has to await approval of the Mrs!  A prospective Mrs Baya comes along takes a look inside while the anxious male waits outside.  If she approves of his weaving skills, she occupies the nest, completes it, and then lays the eggs inside, taking full responsibility of incubating them! Then, our cheery Mr Baya goes off and looks for more wives with more half-finished nests!!  

What interesting lives in my environment, and I didn't know about this until now!  The finished nest has a passage that goes upwards into the egg chamber, and its so secure that snakes cannot get at the eggs.  Click here for more details on the nest and some great pictures and drawings of completed nests.

The Glossy Ibis was my second new "discovery" at Vedanthangal, actually in the fields surrounding the protected sanctuary. This is the adult in breeding plumage, and the sun caught the colours quite spectacularly.  

The Glossy Ibis, if I'm not mistaken, is a winter visitor, and a glamorous one at that.  As I watched it, intent on feeding in the fields I had this image of a serious and ponderous gent all dressed up for a music kutcheri but more interested in the newspaper in his lap!
The slow, stalking movements take away from my pre-conceived image of grace! Quite similar to the painted stork, so beautifully captured in this photo taken within the sanctuary. Such lovely colours and such an elegant pose - like a fashion model on the ramp, but then there's an awkwardness to their gait and a certain silliness when they clack their beaks that takes away from the image!  Maybe thats why Ranjit Lal christened the Prime Minister in his Crow Chronicles as Pinky Stink Tainted Storkji!

I am reading the book, set in Bharatpur, and the bird personalities are so apt, that I think I'm going to write a couple of posts based on that book!

And late in the evening, I finally saw a Common Hawk Cuckoo, also known as the Brainfever bird!  In Kanha, in the summer of 2005, they called out to us, from all over the forest, but maddeningly, I never did get a good sight of them, as they hid in the foliage, or took off just when I sighted them.  So, four years later, I look up into the foliage, and I saw a juvenile just sitting there, quietly.  No call.  I would've missed it entirely if I had not glanced upwards.  They call mainly in the summer and are largely silent in the winter.  

Sripad's got this great shot as it feeds on its favourite food - hairy caterpillars!  

Brain-fever bird

For more of Sripad's bird race pictures click here.  

For more of our pictures from Vedanthangal, click here.