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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Waterbird foods: Purple Moorhen

Purple Moorhens could not be more appropriately named - their gorgeous colours stand out for miles in any wetland. They like to forage for food in open wetlands with grassy vegetation. Above, you can see individuals that have pulled out grass stalks, are using their legs as a dining table, and eating the soft shoot of the grass. They are experts at pulling out these shoots without breaking the grass ensuring they get most of the soft, juicy shoots.

(Photograph information: These are not from Uttar Pradesh for a change, but from the famed Keo
ladeo National Park at Bharatpur (Rajasthan), which due to the resident pairs of Sarus Cranes still qualify for this blog! Both were taken on 07 Mar 2009. Thanks to Anoop for being a sterling host at KNP!)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Waterbird foods: Black-necked Stork

Despite their large size and declining population, Black-necked Storks have received relatively little scientific attention. The most prominent study is that carried out by Gopinathan Maheswaran in the managed lakes in Dudwa Tiger Reserve in northern Uttar Pradesh. The storks there were seen to eat fish as their major food.

The unmanaged wet
lands amid agricultural fields in western Uttar Pradesh have the largest known population of this species. Here, observations show that fish is not likely their major food - frogs (and reptiles) are! The photographs above show (from top) newly fledged juveniles have already learnt to catch frogs, snails sometimes figure in the diet of juveniles, and large bull frogs make for a great meal and are literally beaten to death by adults before they are swallowed.

(Photo information: top: 21 Jan 2009, Etawah district; midd
le: 7 Apr 2009, Etawah district; bottom: 12 Apr 2009, Etawah district. I put together all the observations I had made over the years of food items that Black-necked Storks ate, and now have a note in the journal Forktail in case you are really interested.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Waterbird foods: Asian Openbill and Little Heron

Wetlands offer a range of foods to birds, and the monsoon is a fantastic season to observe birds getting their goodies. In this entry, two species are shown doing what they do best.

Asian Openbills are super-specialized in their food habits - they almost exclusively eat the large snails associated with flooded rice paddies. It is believed that this stork species has increased in numbers and spread closely following the increase of rice cultivation in Asia. Above, you can see a stork getting hold of a nice-sized snail, prising open the snail's lid, and pulling out the meaty snail for a doubtlessly yummy early morning snack.

The Little Heron (variously also referred to as the Green Heron and Little Green Heron) is not common in the inland areas of northern India. A neat, compact little heron, this species is an expert fisherbird. Above, a heron catches and hangs on to a fish beside a rice field - good start for a breakfast that will no doubt include many more fishies.

(Photograph information: Asian OpenbillLs: 8 Aug 2009, Mainpuri district; Little Heron: 5 Aug 2009, Bhadohi district.)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Monsoon = rice + new birds + wetlands

This year, 2009, the rains in the Gangetic flood plains are delayed as of July - the rains sort of began in mid-July, and have not really begun in earnest since. However, it has been adequate for most farmers to begin working on planting rice - farmers everywhere are ploughing fields (top) and fertilizing flooded fields in anticipation of regular rains later on.

With the rainy season, the plains witness the formation of wetlands, and the arrival of some species of birds that are absent here the rest of the year.

Three species of bitterns are found throughout Uttar Pradesh in the monsoon. This information was not known with certainty prior to this ongoing study. Above, a Cinnamon Bittern poses in the morning light beside a flooded rice field with few reeds growing on the edge. (I hope to post more on bitterns later on this blog.)

The stunning Paradise Flycatchers are supposed to be passing through Uttar Pradesh in the summer and monsoon season, though this is not known for certain and they may well breed here. Above, a male bird in full splendour calls out to a female in another tree in a roadside goose-berry orchard.

Finally, this Bronze-winged Jacana (remember the lily-trotters?) stands on lily leaves whose tubers were awaiting in dry mud for nearly 5 months to grow again.

(Photographs information: Farmer p
loughing: Allahabad district, 24 Jul 2009; rice broadcasting: Allahabad district, 24 Jul 2009; Cinnamon Bittern: Jaunpur district, 31 Jul 2009; Paradise Flycather: Sultanpur district, 25 Jul 2009; Bronze-winged Jacana: Jaunpur district, 31 Jul 2009.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chambal Diary: 6. River Lapwing

Previously aptly named the "Spur-winged Plover", the River Lapwing is a striking species with real spurs on its wings (see above) used during duels with fellow River Lapwings. These distinct more-or-less black-and-white birds share the riverside at Chambal with two other resident lapwing species - the Red- and Yellow-wattled Lapwings.

River Lapwings, as their name suggests, are found primarily along rivers. They find their food - insects, and other creepy-crawlies - in the sand and on vegetation along the rivers.

This species is adapted very well to river systems. They lay and incubate their eggs in a shallow scoop in the sand on river-banks and islands, much like their neighbours the terns and skimmers. Above, a lapwing incubates eggs beside a sleeping Comb Duck.

They are watchful parents. Here, one adult watches cautiously after ensuring that its chicks are well hidden among the scattered rocks on the island.

3-4 eggs are laid in the simple scoop - above a lapwing adjusts the eggs in the nest. Eggs are cryptically coloured: if the incubating bird were to walk away, it is exceedingly difficult to spot them on the sand.

ll photos taken in the National Chambal Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh on 9 Apr 2009.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chambal diary: 5. Little Tern

The Little Tern is the smallest of the resident terns in the Chambal - tiny compared to the much larger skimmers and river terns. Instead of a neat full black cap, they have a white forehead, and a streak of black serving as eye-patches. Their legs are also much less colourful compared to their fellow terns and skimmers.

In this entry, I describe the nesting behaviour of this species of terns. Most of this behaviour is common with the other terns and the skimmer. This blog entry gives a snapshot into the part-ritual and part-politics that is an inherent part of the terns' lives.

The first thing to do for the males is to find a female who does not chase them away. A gift of a fish is mandatory to beginning the courtship ritual. Birds paired initially like this spend a long time - sometimes hours - standing in the position showed above calling to each other. The male ensures that the female does not snatch the fish away, but keeps it as tantalising bait until the female is ready to mate.

Competition for mates is common! Here, a male with a much larger fish tries to break up the courtship, but the male and the female bird that have bonded scare away the interloper. Clearly, size of the bait-fish is not everything!

After much posturing and courtship, the female finally allows the male to mate with her, and the male relinquishes the fish.

Mating itself lasts a very short time.

It appears to be the males' job to choose the spot where the female will lay their eggs. It is also his job to create the depression in the sand that will serve as the nest. The bird uses its belly, wriggles around in a circle until a depression is formed. The female watches over the whole exercise carefully.

Nests are located some distance from each other, and pairs are fiercely protective. There is a lot of jousting for space - both on the sand and in the air. Observing birds that nest in riverine islands is very rewarding. There is seldom a boring moment. Obsevers need to be very careful not to disturb the birds. It is less important to get full-frame photographs, for example, than it is to ensure that the birds are not disturbed.

Islands in the Chambal are exceedingly important for populations of a range of species, and here is to wishing that it continues to be do!

(All photos were taken on Apr 10, 2009 at the National Chambal Sanctuary, Etawah.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chambal diary: 4. Indian River Tern

Gracefully proportioned with long wings, a fish-shaped tail, bright legs and yellow bill, the Indian River Tern is a sight for sore eyes.

It resembles the Black-bellied Tern, but is larger with a conspicuous white belly that allows easy differentiation of the two species. The habits of the River Tern are very similar to that of the other terns in the Chambal and the Indian Skimmer - it is also evolved for a life in clean rivers with plenty of fish and islands to breed on.

Human use of the river does not appear to affect the tern population in the Chambal suggesting that the islands are undisturbed during the breeding season, and that the fish populations are adequate.

hotos were taken on Jan 18 and Apr 09, 2009 at the National Chambal Sanctuary, Etawah.)

Chambal diary: 3. Indian Skimmer

Skimmers are unique in having a longer lower mandible relative to the upper - a bird with a permanent pout if you will. They use this amazing "device" to literally skim the water surface (photo below) snapping the beak shut when they come into contact with a fish. The Indian Skimmer is therefore very easy to identify being the only skimmer species in India. They, like the Gharial, are exclusive fish-eaters.

One of the largest known populations of the Indian Skimmer is located in the National Chambal Sanctuary. They, like the other terns, use the islands to nest in. This charismatic, attractive species is a superb indicator of undisturbed rivers. Here are some Skimmer photos showcasing its habits.

Skimmers, fortunately, never have to go far to bathe!

Pair-bonding prior to mating and egg-laying is very important. Above, a male (larger bird on the left) gives the smaller female a gift of a fish before they set up their family for the year.

Both parents take turns to incubate eggs, and feed chicks. The two pictures above show a nest-change - one bird settles in on the eggs after feeding, and the other takes a break. The bird coming in wets its breast and belly feathers before restarting incubation duties to ensure that the summer heat does not bake the eggs. Small Pratincoles also incubate eggs of their own beside the skimmer's nest.

In the absence of directed persecution, Indian Skimmers appear to be able to persist in the presence of some human disturbance. The National Chambal Sanctuary is bounded by villages along its entire length whose people use the river in various ways. So far, this use does not seem to be affecting the skimmer population.

The Indian Skimmer and The Gharial - two species entirely reliant on unpolluted rivers with good fish populations and islands in the summer months to breed on.

(All photos were taken in the National Chambal Sanctuary, Etawah on Apr 9 and 10, 2009.)