Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Waterbird foods: Lesser Adjutant

Surprisingly little is known of many species of large waterbirds such as storks, ibis and spoonbills. The Lesser Adjutant is one such species. Until recently, it was thought to require tall trees in forests to nests. However, surveys in the lowlands of eastern and central Nepal during 2013-15 have found that practically all of the nesting in some of the rice-growing districts are on trees amid fields. Clearly, a lot is needed to be done in the field to understand this species better. Here is my bit.

With my colleagues, I observed Lesser Adjutants for many an hour in central lowland Nepal in the districts of Rupandehi and Kapilvastu. I restrict this blog post to some of the observations we had of the species feeding in the rice paddies.

As has been seen in eastern Nepal, and in Sri Lanka, Lesser Adjutants in Nepal frequent rice paddies during the monsoon. They steer clear of traffic on the roads, and keep at least 20-30 feet from farmers working on the fields.

One morning, we observed three stork feeding together - all three were exceedingly successful in finding earthworms in the flooded rice fields! We watched as each of them found and devoured 5-7 earthworms in just five minutes! The photo below shows one earthworm meeting its end between the massive beak of a Lesser Adjutant.

Another individual seemed an expert at finding insects in the rice fields. In the photo below, a Belastomatid (giant water bug) is swallowed with gusto.

Another individual, shown below, caught and devoured a freshwater crab that seemed too tiny to be of consequence, but clearly kept the stork's attention as it maneuvered the animal into its mouth.

With almost no time wasted the same stork also caught a fish, which nearly escaped. But,down the hatch it went!

Other colleagues and students have seen Lesser Adjutants in Nepal bring snakes to feed chicks at nests. Now, that must have been a treat for all!

(All photos from Rupandehi and Kapilvastu districts in lowland Nepal, Aug 2014.) 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bill Fence

Bird behaviour is fascinating to observe. It is no less fascinating to read about. Particularly since several behaviours have been given catchy names - some really spot-on.

Bill Fencing is one such phrase used for a behaviour that many storks exhibit. As the name suggests, they fence with their bills!

Fencing can start pretty small - appearing to be a friendly, even affectionate, touching and clicking of bills. Like the two Painted Storks below.

Quickly, it can escalate to an obvious joust that is not so friendly!

The point of bill fencing appears to be to grab hold of the beak of the opposition.

And then, if food or a prized foraging patch is involved, it can escalate to a full-on fight! Use of wings, beaks and even legs seem fair game. A stork below appears to be karate-chopping the other lunging stork!

Until the beak of the opponent is finally in hand. Or rather, in bill!

Then, the "vanquished" opponent either walks away, or, if feeling particularly adventurous, tries to disengage, and another bout of bill fencing ensues until the beak is in hand (or bill) again.

One bird, clearly tired of the forced bill-shutting (and perhaps finally alarmed at the dangerous jabs of the long bill so close to the face!), eventually flies away. And the winner, after some work, keeps the spoils!!


Better this I say than jabs to the body, bleeding wings, and gouged eyes. Maybe these happen too...

(All photos taken in 2015 from various locations in western Uttar Pradesh.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Wheat fields, flooding, snakes and storks

The setting of winter in the northern Indian landscape signals a major change in the crops. After harvesting the rice, farmers plant mustard and wheat. Unlike the rice, that requires to be flooded, wheat needs the soil to be just wet. Farmers achieve this by flooding the fields intermittently. This sets off an unanticipated set of events. Mice and snakes in burrows recently dried out are forced out again and again.

Large waterbirds in Uttar Pradesh seem to have figured this circumstance out - to their benefit. In this set of photographs, I share our observations of a Woolly-necked Stork successfully dispatching a keelback. 

We missed seeing how the stork actually caught the snake, but the photo below shows the bird with the struggling snake, shaking it violently. As we watched, the snake became visibly weaker and nearly stopped attempting to escape altogether. 
 A Woolly-necked Stork with its catch of the morning - a keelback - in a wheat field.

The stork picked up the weakly struggling snake, carried it over to a drier spot near the dike and began beating the head with its beak. The photo below shows the snake - that is hopefully dead by now - with its bloodied head.
The bloodied and hopefully dead keelback awaiting the swallow.

Storks swallow snakes headfirst, and whole. This is easier said than done when the snake is a mite bigger than the usual small prey items that storks swallow. The photos below, that took well over a couple of minutes, show the difficult process.

Head-first is how storks like to swallow snakes.

The biggish keelback presented a bit of a problem to the Woolly-necked Stork, but it managed.
In the keelback went, and the serious swallowing began!

After a few minutes, many many swallows later, the snake completely disappeared visible only as a bulge in the stork's neck (above).

Though a snake being swallowed by a stork is pretty commonplace, given that snakes are commonly taken prey by these birds, what we watched represented much more. Human habits (planting wheat and intermittently flooding them), animals attracted by crops (rats in burrows, that in turn attracted snakes), and other wild species (here, a Woolly-necked Stork) all came together to make for a memorable viewing. 

(Photos information: Taken in Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh; taken on 5 Jan 2013.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Out on a limp, as it were...

Injuries and physical deformities are commonplace in nature. Not all of these result in the death of the injured. Here are two somewhat unusual and amazing stories of injured birds.

This Black-winged Stilt, posing like it is stretching its legs, had an injured foot. Two toes appeared completely broken off, and at least one more was broken. The Stilt foraged like this in the flooded fallow fields for hours hopping around on one leg. It appeared to be avoiding getting the injured foot wet. After a couple of hours, the bird hopped over to a dry spot and relaxed its injured leg, before hopping back in the field to forage again. When a dog appeared, the bird took off completely normally and landed in another flooded area. Talk about taking things into ones stride!

 Among a flock of Little Stints, a tiny wading bird that migrates across most of Asia to winter in India, there was one with only one leg (in the left bottom corner). The bird hopped around foraging in the wet soils almost as fast as stints with both legs. This long-distance migrant seemed to be faring well with just one leg. Are two legs in fact better than one?

(Photo information: Black-winged Stilt taken in Aligarh district, May 09, 2010; Little Stint taken in Haryana, Feb 27, 2010.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Top soil makes bricks

Top-soil in farmlands are coveted items. It takes a very long time for top-soil to form, and is almost entirely responsible for providing the foods humans eat across the globe.

Strange as it may sound, top-soil is increasingly being sold across relatively vast areas in north India by farmers to maker of bricks.

Tall chimneys scattered across the landscape give away locations of the kilns that are fueled by fire wood, also taken from the immediate surroundings.

A new chimney is being constructed and marks the location of a new
brick kiln in Barabanki district.

The removal of top soil leaves behind brown scars, and also walls of mud.

Barren grounds in Etah are used to dry tobacco leaves after
the top-soil has been sold to make bricks.

While the effect of such removal on agricultural productivity remains unknown, the walls certainly have great utility for wildlife. Foxes use them to den, and bee-eaters and bank mynas use them to nest.

Bank Mynas make their condominiums in a sheer wall created
by removal of top soil for making bricks in Mathura.

Strange and unpredictable are the ways in which "new" habitat becomes available for wildlife in this human-dominated landscape!

(Photograph information: Chimney in Barabanki district photographed 20 Nov 2008; barren ares in Etah district photographed 14 May 2010; nesting Bank Mynas in Mathura district photographed 25 Mar 2009.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

The mad courtship of the Cotton Pygymy-goose

The Cotton Pygmy-goose is India's smallest Anatid (a group of birds comprising ducks and geese). The males are incredibly pretty, and the females are drab - characteristic of Anatids. One cloudy early morning, I chanced upon several small flocks spread out on a large lake. They appeared to be engaged in courtship. In this entry, I share my observation and attempts to photograph their mad yet delightful behaviour.

Each female - apparently unpaired as yet - was chased by 2-4 loudly honking males across the lake. Females appeared to be attempting to escape the loud and boisterous masculine efforts. But they kept up with her as she weaved around the lake. Above, the female is being pursued by four gorgeous males.

The female landed several times, perhaps tired, perhaps attempting to dissuade the males from further pursuit.

The female attempted also to take off again several times, and her troubles only grew as a result. All the males, honking their protest, gave chase.

They tried to ward her off, and females seldom managed to fly free again after the first landing.

The nearest male then physically dunked her back onto the water! Above, the female is on the extreme left hidden by the male who is pecking at her to force her to land on the water again.

The female then was in real danger of being drowned as the enthusiastic males rushed at her, frequently landing on top of her. The female was under water many times, as the males splashed around vying for her to choose them. The water churned madly as the males appeared to be nearly killing the female they were fighting to get.

Then suddenly and quite mysteriously, a partner had been chosen. He swam around her in slow circles with head bent forwards in a graceful bow, and the other males swam away honking their obvious disapproval.

Was this going to be her partner for the year? What was better about him compared to the other males who appeared as robust, noisy and interested? Another bird mystery that awaits study.

(All photographs taken on 02 May 2010 at Samaspur Bird Sanctuary, Rae Bareli.)

Friday, April 30, 2010

De clay is good

Clay is sticky, holds water for long periods, and accumulates in wetlands each year. Clay also breaks up into dry blocks in the summer making it easy to collect!

Wetlands in the Gangetic flood plains have a lot of silt and clay in the water that are continually churning due to water flows and human activity. The finer silt settles down, and on top of it the coarser clay is layered. This can "kill" the wetlands - making them easier to convert to croplands, filling up the depression, and holding up moisture that would otherwise have likely percolated to the ground water store.

The ancient practice of removing clay during summer in Uttar Pradesh by the people keeps wetlands from dying. Block by pain-staking block of dried clay is broken off, and ferried by hand to the road where a bicycle awaits.

Entire villages stockpile the useful clay. They are used to repair damaged walls of mud-huts, fill up leaks or as a natural cement for brick-houses, to make clay-bricks, or to make dykes of flooded paddy fields. Villages therefore benefit from maintaining village ponds, and collecting clay is often a community activity. The following year(s), the process of soil accumulation begins all over again in a now-deepened wetland. Unwittingly, natural habitat for a variety of birds and flora is maintained.

Newer "technology" has allowed many people to build houses that do not need annual maintenance. In such areas, village ponds like the one above likely require the clay to be removed, but is not paid attention to. The landscape ends up losing precious wetland habitat, and the people lose opportunities to work together.

(Thanks to Shyamal for a lesson in Soil 101. All photographs taken on 30 Apr 2010 at Rae Bareli.)

Post-script: Illegal usurping of community wetlands can lead to unfortunate disputes - for a recent story on a shoot-out due to clay removal, read this.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mud puddlers

Wet mud and butterflies - the two do go together.

Two-spot Grass Yellows bustle on wet mud

Male butterflies drink up moisture retaining only nutrients that are dissolved, and quickly get rid of the water that would otherwise weigh them down.

Common Mormons (background) and Common Gulls (foreground) puddle together

The nutrients are passed on to females during mating, and improve the chances of the eggs surviving.

Common Lime butterfly gets its share of nutrients

Nutrients are also obtained from over-ripe fruit, sap, dung, and rarely, even blood.

(All photographs were taken on 18 Apr 2010 at Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Getting an earful

Bank Mynas and water buffaloes hit it off just great. The buffaloes have plenty of treats walking around on them for Mynas to actually be territorial on the buffaloes' back.

But the real battles are fought at the ears, for the ears, and going by how the buffaloes endure the vociferous battles taking place at their ear, it must be good for the ears.

(Photograph details: Mynas on buffaloes - shot at Basai wetland in Haryana on 6 Sep 2008; the vocal battle for the ear - shot at Etawah on 12 Feb 2009.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Debugging with ash

A woman in central Pratapgarh district throws handfuls of ash from the kitchen stove on ripening rice. Many farmers in Uttar Pradesh still limit the use of chemical pesticides, or continue using traditional materials, like ash, alongside chemical pesticides to control insect pests on rice. A Zitting Cisticola sat undeterred (not visible here), presumably near its nest, as a cloud of ash fell on and around it - now that would have been an excellent photo to get!

(Photograph detai
ls: 23 Sep 2008; Pratapgarh district.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A leucistic lapwing

Albinism - reduction in the melanin content (black colouration) causing whiteness - is a well-known condition in many animals. However, leucism - a reduction in all types of pigments, not just melanin - is probably more widespread and often confused to be albinism. Here, a Red-wattled lapwing, normally textured brown-grey on the wings (see previous post), displays leucism. The black on the neck and face, and on the flight feathers, are normal - this is not a condition of albinism for sure!

(Photograph detai
ls: 9 Dec 2008; taken in Rae Bareli district.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of Owlets and Owlings

The young of an owl is an owling, while the owlets are a group of small owls. Uttar Pradesh's non-forested areas still retain several species of owls and owlets who appear to breed quite nicely as evidenced by the regular sightings of owlings. Here are two species that I was able to photograph.

Jungle Owlets may not be very appropriately named since they occur in a wide variety of habitats, many outside what may be considered a "jungle". This fellow was calling away on a Eucalyptus tree in the middle of a wheat-and-vegetable landscape.

The Spotted Owlet is perhaps India's most common and widespread owlet. The adult (top) is coming to terms with the early-morning lighting in the canopy of a Neem tree - the pupils of each eye are dilated differently. The owling of the Spotted Owlet (above) appears obviously teenager-ish, and is ready to begin hunting on its own at a few months of age. This particular one, however, was still depending on its parents to do the work.

(Photographs information: Jung
le Owlet: 09 Dec 1998, in Rae Bareli district; Spotted Owlet: adult - 24 Jul 2009, in Sultanpur district, owling - 04 May 2009, Sultanpur district.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Body language

Cranes have among the largest non-vocal communication repertoires in the animal kingdom. Body language is exceedingly important. Here are a few Sarusy gestures that other cranes would know the meaning of instantly.

Wing half-open, an exaggerated walk with legs raised higher than usual, this crane walks up very meaningfully to another Sarus that had landed uncomfortably close to an active nest. The interloper got the message rather quickly!

Crane employ a large number of threat postures increasingly aggressive in their meaning. This female (right extreme) gives a classic ruffle-threat combined with a bow to the pair adjacent to her territory while her partner engages them at closer quarters.

This rare bow-threat is carried out with elan and grace successfully dissuading a pair flying overhead from landing in this crane's territory.

large body size and incredible physical prowess poses a great risk of physical injury should they need to joust physically each time a disagreement occurs. Non-vocal postures with specific meaning, like the three above, are a safer alternative for all concerned.

(Photographs information: Top: 10 Ju
l 2008, Mainpuri district; middle: 28 Nov 2008, Etawah district; bottom: 07 Sep 2009, Farrukhabad district.)

Monday, September 7, 2009


All birds stretch their wings to get the blood flowing and stretch tired muscles. When the world's tallest flying bird does it, the simple activity becomes a spectacular sight! The world is truly its oyster.

(Photo detai
ls: All photos taken on 07 Sep 2009 in Farrukhabad district.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Morning with the Sarus

Walking around in the flooded rice paddies during the monsoon can be magical. The Sarus make it more so. Here are two photographs that underline this statement.

The rains ensure that there is plenty of wet, grassy wetlands to forage in. This Sarus was part of a flock of 45 that landed in this wetland and surrounded us for a fantastic few minutes.

Real estate is serious business in the bird world. On a cloudy and otherwise dull morning, a pair of Sarus landed a few feet ahead of us and proceeded to unison call (photo above), gesture threateningly and finally succeeded in chasing away another pair that had landed in their territory.

(Photographs were taken in Etah district on 28 Aug and 29 Aug 2009 respective