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.)

Chambal diary: 2. Black-bellied Tern

Terns and Gulls are closely related and are usually associated with coastal areas. Indian inland rivers have breeding populations of a few species of terns that are specialized to reside and live off these rivers. The Black-bellied Tern is one such species. Good numbers of this species are found in the Chambal suggesting that conditions for breeding and feeding (mostly fish!) are currently good.

These birds breed in early summer on islands formed due to the reduction of the water levels. Dams, increased agriculture, and excessive accumulation of sand in the rivers can limit the formation of islands leading to reduction of breeding activity of birds like the Black-belled Terns. But enough lecturing - here are a couple more photos of this beautiful bird.

Two Black-bellied Terns mate on an island. Eggs will be laid on a small scrape on the sand, and both parents take turns to incubate eggs and to raise the chicks.

Black-bellied Terns are aggressive parents. Here one bird attacks a much larger egret - successfully - which strayed a little too close to the nest.

(Photos were taken on Apr 9, 2009 at the National Chambal Sanctuary, Etawah.)