Saturday, 24 December 2016

When Santa came calling... Chestnut-headed Tesia

It was some time since I got any lifer - and with Christmas around the corner - the hunt for the Santa was on. One elusive bird was recorded and reported by Mr Rajive of Chandigarh bird club that I was very very interested to hunt down was this Chestnut-headed Tesia. He was kind enough to give me the location but added that he will not be able to go during working hours. The bird is known to be a pain to find as it is a ground loving warbler and just runs around in the underbush most of the time. I rang up Mr Narbir Kahlon - an avid birder to come along and he agreed. He had seen the bird previously on number of occasions but was ready to help me out. 

As it happens during birding - was up at 4 am, ready at 5:15 and on road at 5:30 after picking up Mr Narbir - the sunrise being 07:25. The expected location was 1:45 travel from Chandigarh towards the hills. We reached the spot - spot on as planned and got the chairs and tripod out. Mr Narbir chose the location that was the best as per him and we started the stakeout. It took us 2 hours of waiting roughly - not speaking to each other than an ocassional nod before a group of Red-billed Lieothrix came about - a group of about 20 strong and gergarious. In between I saw a bird that I thought was Tesia and all my senses were on full alert. The bird was too fast, too small and remained in the thicket occasionally pearing with beautiful black eyes at me. I peared in my camera view finder and let out about a hundred shots. The bird was still too bloody fast, the light too low. I took times out from my shooting and rang up Mr Narbir who was sitting a few feet away out of my sight. He did not pick up the call and my shooting continued firing off anothr few hundred shots after ranpling up the iso to 3200. I took another breather, rang up Mr Narbir - he picked up the call and in hushed tones told him - the bird is there in front of me and continued shooting. Another hundred shots down the line I got one that showed the bird that can constitute as a record shot and the bird too hopped away - this entire episode would have take a minute at the most - that includes the call I did. We waited another hour trying to see the bird but it did not show itself thereafter.

The only shot I would consider a record shot - unless you count the ones below as acceptable.
The hide and seek the bird played.
I do not have enough hair on my head to pull out otherwise I would have been bald by now...
Even at 3200 iso the shutter speed was not coping up to catch the bird as i pulled trigger.
Finally the full bird in sight but too hazy... guess the 'beggars cannot be choosers' quote applies...
The range of the bird virtuall covers the himalayas - me looking for it at the western tip of the range...
This bird is a 8 to 9 cm 8 to 10 gm small upright and almost tailess ground loving warbler is how this bird is described in the Handbook of World Alive. The habitat is undergrowth of Broadleaf forest and mixed broadleaf and conifer forest, also bamboo, preferring dense and moist areas of ferns, nettles and thorn-scrub along damp streams in valleys and ravines. Even this book lists it as "extremely difficult to see".

Finally to sum it up - what better Santa Gift did I ever expect other than this small one wearing the red Santa Cap - ๐ŸŽ…. A lifer worth the score...



Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Pharaohs Chicken - 5000 years and loosing...

I always wanted to find out why the Egpytian Vulture was called Pharaohs Chicken. I trolled and searched the web for information and could not find the story behind the name of this bird.

Wise and getting old...


My search for the reason of the name of this bird took me to google books that have a vast number of books that are scanned on put online. As I looked for the basis of name of this bird - I never really got the answer I wanted but then discovered the reason why this bird shared the hieroglyphs the walls with Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt. The answer I got was in the book called The Child's Companion and Juvenile Instructor dated 1862. Reproduced below is what it wrote about the Egyptian Vulture...

Among the many objects sculptured on the ruins of the temples in Egypt is that of a bird, which is now known under the name of Pharaoh's Chicken. It belongs to the vulture family, and in size is rather larger than a raven. It is found in the different parts of the world. In South Africa the natives call it 'ourigourap', which means 'the white crow;' but the Egypt is it's chief place of abode, where in former days it was regarded as a sacred bird, and at the present time is held in much esteem, for it is the scavenger of the dirty streets in all the cities. It is contrary to the law to kill it, and even disturb it. These birds quietly perch themselves on the roofs of houses in the most noisy parts of the towns and from thence they fly among the crowd, feeding on all the refuse cast into the streets. To all Egyptian villages a pair of these birds belong, and they not only clear away all the refuse but also destroy snakes and lizards, which would otherwise abound.
Range of the bird - a total of three sub-species... (The colours just represent the winter, summer and year round range)

All in all the bird was so important that inspite of being a scavenger, the work done by this bird was recognised and rewarded by elevating its status. Over a period of time like it always happens, the topsy-turvy takes place and the bird - being the same scavenger that it always was is looked down upon and so much so that the decline has listed this bird as Endangered. The factors responsible for  its decline include strychnine and pesticide poisoning and direct persecution, electrocution on non-insulated powerlines, reduction in availability of food due to decrease in amount because of large-scale livestock farming and decline in use of traditional municipal carcass dumps and vulnerability of breeding areas.

Another interesting fact about this bird is its ability to use stones and sticks as tools. When this bird comes across an egg - it takes a pebble of appropriate size and swings it repeatedly at the egg till it breaks. Surprisingly - it is also a known fact that it prefers round pebbles to jagged ones. Another is the use of twigs to roll up and gather strands of wool to use for lining the nest. 

Such an interesting bird that has been a part of our history for 5000 years and a bird with such service to humankind for all those years is declining at the hands of humans only... Let us spread awareness and make sure that we do not let them loose when we are at the helm of our affairs...

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Saturday, 17 December 2016

Did you water your children today ? - Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse...

Okay I admit - the heading is somewhat crazy - but you will see what I mean just a litte later. I am sitting here in an airport and like it happens somethimes - the crazy lady on the the hooter shreaks - hey man - your flight is delayed. Being a regular traveller I do not hold my head in my hands, I do not curse my luck nor crowd around the info desk - if it is late - it is late and nothing will reduce the pain other than enjoying another hot coffee. I must also admit - every such delay is utilised by me to write another blog. After all - what better way to spend time by a compulsive blogger than write another one?

I will tell you the background to my picking this species to talk about today. Sandgrouse is a bird that I remember seeing in hundreds while I was a young Captain in Army and doing patrolling or out for camping in Rajasthan. They used to come in flocks - settle down at the edge of water in a pond or canal - drink water take a bath and fly off. Take a bath - come off it ! Often out on patrolling those days I used to consider myself lucky to take a bath every other day. It was early 90s and at that time I did not have a camera and was birdwatching with help of Army issued binoculars - the world war variety in vouge in Indian Army those days.  It was a sight that I remember and miss. I believe there are still places in India where you see hundreds of Sandgrouse do the same thing but I have not come across them in those numbers anytime afterwards. Infact I did go to the same desert both early and late in 2000s for firing excercises and pattroling but could never see the birds in those numbers ever again - maybe a handful few here and then. In these 20-30 years the desert was turning green with waters in the Indra Gandhi canal trasporting water from Harike in Punjab to Thar Deserts of Rajasthan and the entire countryside changed. There was crop being sowed where there were sandunes earlier.

It was later when I started studying the birds in detail that I realised the story of mystery baths of the Sandgrouse. The birds are inhabitants of dry Steppes of Central Asia. The birds diet is primarily seeds and sometimes include green shoots, leaves and bulbs in the right season.  This diet makes them thirsty and being inhabitants of drier regions of the world they tend to travel tens of miles to have a regular drink of water. Some species of Sandgrouse travel 100 miles (160km) to have their full of water every day. The sand grouse lay eggs and after 20-25 days of incubation the chicks are hatched. The birds are not fed by the parents but are guided as to what seeds to eat and what seeds to avoid. The chicks fend for themselves as far as food is concerned but at that age they are not in a condition to make long flights with the parents to water holes. The parents go to the watering holes and - what I thought was a bath was infact the parents soaking the down feathers of the breast with water for the children to drink till the time the chicks are big enough to make this journey.

It was January 2016, the year fast passing by, when I saw a small flock next to a lake in Telangana that my memmories of this bird came flooding back. Presenting one of the eight (or nine if you consider one vagrant) Sandgrouse of India - the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse...
The burnt grass made it slightly easier to pick out the birds...  (Female)

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Male)

Another female bird...
Distribution of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse


Hope you get the meaning of the heading - Did you put in enough effort for your children today ?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

White-capped Water-redstart...

I have to admit - I absolutely adore this little bird. It is available in my area all along the Himalayas virtually throughout out the year. It does disappear - but I feel that is more to do about me not searching for it than it disappearing. And as the name suggests it is a Redstart that has a white cap. The cap is white so pure that one wonders what washing powder it uses ๐Ÿ˜€. 

The bird quickly hops from branches where it perches for very short time to go down to water and rocks among them... 
It is not a shy bird but definitely gives a challenge to click it at eye level... 

The distribution map places this bird as Indo-Chinese endemic - wonder if it counts...
The birds I have observed in and around my area seem to be altitudinal migrants, coming down to the lower hills/ foothills in winters and going up to higher levels during summers. That may be the reason I miss seeing them in the middle of summers generally. Most of the sightings are near the source of water, streams seems to be preferred but also sometimes near or in villages. 

Though I clicked this bird many a times over years but it never gave me a eye level shot. Last visit to Renukaji last month (Nov 16) - and seeing these birds made me absolutely determined to show patience and bag this bird for good. Luckily the birds obliged and here I am with two shots that I think are good for me. The problem is the camera got tricked with the dark black colour and the eyes seem to be reflecting too much light. I did not really want to photoshop the picture and make them unreal so some other time perhaps.


Birds in my Yard... Nashik





As expected the stay in nashik for whatever time - was likely to be a busy one. All the same I am lucky enough that there are enough birds in my yard to keep me busy and occupied. This sunday was a great one with goo sightings. Though the birds did try their best to test my paitence - but then I could shoot a couple of them to my satisfaction.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Citrine Wagtail... that beauty of a wagtail...

India has seven wagtails seen in the country and barring one all come to visit Indian Subcontinent in winters each year. Well - it is difficult to declare a bird more beautiful among others but then there are times when someone needs to be crowned.

Well again before I am bullied - the disclaimer from me - this choice is mine and mine alone and has no scientific basis. If you have a choice I will respect it - just let this be my choice. ๐Ÿ˜€

So here goes - the most beautiful wagtail in India is the Citrine Wagtail. A yellow cloak that can beat any ladies best of the dresses and of course a black so pure.

The beautiful Citrine Wagtail
The problem with this bird is that out of the wagtails this one is seen only off and on fairly rarely, the White-browed Wagtail being most common and the Forest Wagtail most elusive. This one is just a notch above the Forest Wagtail in my sighting list. There are three Subspecies of this bird and the one pictures above is calcarata, signified visually by absolutely dark black upper body. The other two subspecies have greyish instead of dark black and small variation in wing patterns. The female is also as beautiful but has a somewhat greyish head and ear coverts.
The distribution of the species...
The range as one can see from the map is really huge with birds coming to lower Iran, Afghanistan and India all the way to south China for wintering. There have been a record few records - far in between from Africa too. 
Another male bird.
 So next time you see a wagtail - look carefully - you might sight the bird that I have voted as the most beautiful wagtail. Also please remember - next time you litter a river, stream or stop the flow of the water - you might be pushing this bird to the edge. Do follow the blog or Google Plus for more birding stories from India and around the world.


Monday, 5 December 2016

River Lapwing - Near Threatened...

I have seen Lapwings in three countries I have visited and to my mind Lapwings can be divided into two distinct types - the first ones the have successfully adapted to human way of life and live in close proximity - irritating but survivors. The second are the shy birds avoiding humans and not comfortable in their proximity and these are the ones who have suffered the most at the hands of humans. I will not say the there are prosecuted by humans but indirectly have suffered by actions of humans.
River Lapwing
Today I speak about such a bird that has suffered in the hands of humans - not directly but indirectly - mainly because of degraded and highly polluted quality of water in the rivers and streams, redirection of water via pipelines and brick-lined canals. Infact many a places in Punjab the brick lined canals are also a story of the past - the water canals are being replaced by underground pipelines leaving little or no flowing water for the birds at all. Next big problem has been of hydro-electric power schemes that stop water when most required and on other times release water without warning.
For a bird with such a wide range - it is nothing but sad that it is struggling to survive.
I have been so far been lucky to see this bird at not less than two to three locations close to my house (50 - 100 km range) - but each subsequent visit the quality of water is visibly degrading. I will not say that I am seeing any less birds but then I am just observing them and not doing so in any scientific manner. 

The status of this bird is unlikely to be more than 15000 birds and Annual Asian Waterfowl count has never produced more than 500 birds. 

The bird has its crest being displayed during breeding season and on other times when trying to ensure the territorial supremacy. Once again it is pleasure observing the bird with its crest up.
Ah hoy ! Crest up ! Crest up !
Before you move on look at the feet of the bird - no hind toe...



Sunday, 4 December 2016

Indian Scimitar Babbler and the White-browed Scimitar Babbler...

Scimitar babblers are a great set of birds to see, the problem, however, is that they are fairly secretive in their existence and do not really reveal themselves eagerly. That being said - there is only one Scimitar babbler in the peninsular India - the Indian Scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldii). The second one is the White-browed Scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus schisticeps) that is very close in appearance and vocalisations to the Indian Scimitar-babbler. I am privileged to see both the birds and see them will enough appreciate the little bit of differences they have with each other.  Also I must add that - there are not less than ten Scimitar Babblers in India, it is the peninsular India that has only one. The others are residents of North India (Himalayas) and East India. 
Indian Scimitar-babbler

For us, the birdwatchers these Scimitar Babbler are a prized find anytime and every time. Though I have seen these birds a number of times but like I said - to find and see it at anytime is still a treat. I saw a total of four birds while birding in the Nalamala forest recently. Before I post the pictures a small introduction to this bird would be in order. Earlier these birds were clubbed together under the White-browed Scimitar Babbler but have now been split into two - namely the Indian Scimitar Babbler and the White-browed Scimitar Babbler. The dividing line is the rough line running parallel to the Himalayas from north Rajasthan to Orrisa. Had it not been for the totally separated areas where these birds are found - I wonder how I would have been seeing these birds any different from one another.
Indian Scimitar-babbler
White-browed Scimitar-babbler

White-browed Scimitar-babbler

White-browed Scimitar-babbler

White-browed Scimitar-babbler                                                                     Indian Scimitar-babbler
Okay jokes apart - the birds could have been differentiated in field but seriously would have been a pain if they were found in the same region. Just hear the sounds and you will appreciate more as to what I am saying.


Monday, 28 November 2016

PokemanGo - the birder's way of the game...

It was about six months ago that we were sitting spending some family time with my wife and my two kids. Suddenly my son - half immersed in his mobile went out of the room only to return after fifteen odd minutes. His return was with a smile on his face and mobile in his hand. He spoke to his sister in hushed but excited tones. She too showed signs of great excitement and my casual enquiry to it was dismissed by both of them simultaneously replying - brother-sister talk - out of your syllabi. My raised eyebrows were not even acknowledged by either and I thought it was the end of the matter.
My target bird vs PokemonGo dragons...

My children's target Pokemon
A few days later one night after dinner once again as we were sitting chatting - my brother and his kids too in our house. Once again I saw the same hushed talk and excited look in all of the kids eyes. Suddenly my daughter asked for my car keys. Well she is an adult so as to say and owns a drivers licence so I just handed over the keys with a question - where too ? It's almost midnight - once again a simultaneous reply was - we will be back soon by all four kids. To hell with it I thought and let it slip. They returned after about an hour and were jumping up and down as if they have achieved something of great significance - my reaction was that of a father and an uncle - guys you are grounded if I do not understand why and where you went now. They did not skip a heartbeat and all were jumping around me and shouting all at the same time. They have captured 'Charizard' - and as expected I had no idea what they are talking about. After the party ended - before dropping down dead in bed I did some research. Well PokemanGo was a virtual reality game where in characters appear on random places overlaid on google like maps and you have to go and capture the virtual characters. 

Bloody - like hell I realised I have done that my entire life... scanning bird reports, web logs to see what bird has been sighted where and then rush to take snaps and log the sightings. Well there was a basic difference between my child and myself in the same game we were playing with different names. I hit bed early - rise early and am in the womb of nature savouring the fresh air, appreciating nature and God's creation. That led me to be more responsible towards mother nature and sometimes am ashamed when I am given more than one napkin in a restaurant that I have to throw in the dustbin without using, or forgetting to tell the retail that I do not want a copy of the credit card slip - lest I throw it in the dustbin without even glancing at it. Birding has taught me to respect nature, be careful in wasting resources - be it paper, gas, or anything else. I do not litter the country side and carry my own waste bag to dispose off the garbage I create while out of house. Then ofcourse - there is this one little thing more about the difference between my kids game and mine - I have struck with it for better of 25 odd years nurturing it - my kids have already moved on after playing this game for a month.

I am sure that there will be things we can do to coax our kids towards nature and respecting nature. I wonder what will happen to this world with kids who have no exposure to nature and are living lives with no connect with their surroundings. After all it will will be they who inherit this planet and take decisions to protect it for their siblings and generations to come. I wonder if we are doing all we can to pass on the batton to our kids and telling them that winnings are not in a virtual world with PokemanGo but the very world we live and inherit.

And here's the game I played...

Slept at 9 pm sharp. Got up at 3 am, brushed my teeth, took a shower had a cup of tea and hit the road.



Sighted this wonderful sight with a breath of fresh air and blessings of orange lit morning sky...

you can run - but cannot hide - Lesser Yellownape

Would not have let this fiery dragon of the pokemon go scot free...
White-capped Redstart
Greeted the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker that started to peck for the Breakfast

Heard the Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler calling a hundred yards away - tracked it down and bagged it...
Caught a Common Tailorbird that was calling another kilometre away...
...another two km down the road captured these Chestnut-eared Buntings resting and sitting hidden beneath a bush...
...captured this pokemon dragon that had kept an eye on my movements from the top of the hill another 5 km ahead...
Asian-Barred Owlet
Caught another pokemon flirting with me - coming in sight and out another few km down the road...
Finally reached home from in the evening from a very satisfying game - took a bath and sipped on my favourite Single malt,,, satisfied and tired like hell...

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The joy of Birding...

It has been slow birding for me. Birding and blogging in last few weeks have been minimal due to many reasons and one of the most hard-hitting was - my son ran away with my trusted laptop. Umm - ran away may not be technically correct as he did ask for it and I had some very ulterior reasons for handing over that to him. Well - I had a trusted 2012 model MacBook pro and have been addicted to apple. Now with the new MacBook pro around the corner - and him asking for my laptop gave me a certified reason to upgrade. What I did not anticipate was the one month delay between handing over the device to him and me getting my dream machine.

Other than that - I did do four birding days in Oct and the winter birds that I was so badly looking forward to had not arrived and I was getting mad with every passing day. Well today when I woke up to chilly morning - I had a feeling that I am going to have a rocking day - and rocking day it turned out to be...

The sunrise was 6:53, the travel time to Chakki Modh (one of my favourite birding spots near my city) was about an hour. I was up at 4:45 am and hit the road at 5:30. The chill was great, I rolled down the car windows and took a long whiff of the north Indian chilly winter morning, - the traffic lights were still blinking yellow and sun was yet to light up the horizon. I was hitting the hills when orange started filling in the sky. At sunrise was standing at the closed tea shop and the movement of the birds were as ecstatic as I was trying to look and identify the warblers flirting with me and the thick bushes. I identified two of them, the Grey-hooded Warbler and the Sulpher-bellied Warbler before I saw another two varieties but had to give up as they were hardly giving me sightings to click a picture for ID or for me to notice the markings on the wings in the detail I wanted.

The light still not too great - but I ramped up the auto iso to 6400 on my Nikon D500. I had started getting some very acceptable shots at 3200 iso so decided to test it at higher. Well I ramped it up in a manner that the camera will go up only if the conditions so deserve. As I picked up the camera and put it to my eyes - there were three birds a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, a Red-billed Leiothrix and Indian Tit (renamed Cinereous Tit). I was in a fix, I did not have a worthwhile picture of the flycatcher, but the Leiothrix and the Tit were on a perch too good the miss. I quickly focused on the Lieothrix and let go - swung the camera to shoot the other two - the Flycatcher was upset and disappeared in the thicket never to be seen again and the Tit too flew off and was nowhere as great a setting that I hoped for. All the same no regrets, this is the way with the birds. You only get what you deserve, nothing less, nothing more. I moved on to get great sightings of the warblers and decided to move on. The plan was simple - keep the windows rolled down and hit the brakes hard if I see or hear anything. I was virtually hitting brakes every few yards.

Eventually, I reached a small stream littered with great Indian past-time of mucking up the countryside. Before I could curse anyone a White-capped Redstart sat in front of me. I parked the car and stared at the beauty. It is one bird that I have seen so very often but cannot help but admire the beauty. Finally when I did pick up the camera to capture it - it decided to fly off - but not before a record shot. As I lowered the camera a Plumbeous Water Redstart took its place on the same perch. It did not give me time to reach out once again for the camera - I was determined and followed it along the stream where it gave up and posed for me to my heart's content.

I went another 5 km and evey yard was a bird to admire. Spotted Forktail that gave me great opportunity to really observe the forks and the spots, the Whiskered Yuhina, the Fuvolous Woodpecker pair that was playing with each other that sounded like a tap-dance, the Striated Prinia that was deep in bush but surprisingly when I whistled it came to the top branch to investigate. Oh I really can go on and on with this story telling but had to sadly turn back home and 11 was my time I had set for myself. 5min to 11 I reversed the car on the narrow road that once almost gave me a heart attack when a tyre went off road and the car sensor was shouting on top its voice to behave myself...

I sighted 37 species that I identified and another two warblers I will hunt on my next visit. Oh - the Birding and Indian winters - God's gift to birders...

The first click of the day - Red-billed Leiothrix @3200 iso
Grey-hooded Warbler
...the unidentified warbler
Great Barbet
Grey Bushchat
White-capped Redstart... 
Plumbeous Water Redstart
Russet Sparrow

Verditer Flycatcher
The tap dancing Fulvous Woodpecker

White-throated Fantail
Striated Prinia that responded to my whistle... what a dope
Finally on top of the view point to investigate my whistle
Spotted Forktail that showed its spots and the forked tail... what a sight...