Monday, 29 February 2016

An Obsession of a Bird...

I will start by saying that the bird that I intend to hunt is a common one. Common for all expect for me. The bloody Wallcreeper - spoiler alert - the name is just 'Wallcreeper' and not Bloody Wallcreeper - though I would love to call it by that name. 

Distribution map (courtesy Wiki)

The bird is found commonly throughout the high mountains of Eurasia ranging from the elevations from 1,000m to 3,000m. The bird is contested whether it is a treecreper lineage or the nuthatch. I believe that the last word out said that it is more related to nuthatch than treecreeper. 
There are two subspecies - T. m Muraria, and the second one found east of Turkmenistan - T. m. nipalensis. This is slightly darker and the one I was hunting.

This picture is to give you the habitat and the relative size of the birds with the backdrop of stones and bare mud cliffs/plains

The colour of the bird blends perfectly with the stones etc

Its a small bird that is 15 to 17 cm long and has blue-grey plumage. The most striking past of the plumage are the beautiful crimson wings that are largely hidden when the wings are folded. I started a serious hunt for this bird in 2012 - the year I hung my uniform and took pre-mature retirement from army and took on birding as a serious pastime. That year passed with me trying to get a call from the nearest birder of Chandigarh Bird club - giving me the last location it was spotted during the monthly Club meetings. I used to - more often than not head up the very next morning and return empty handed. The habitat of this bird starts from a place enroute to Simla and was commonly reported from the road Kumarhatti - to - Nahan. The spot was roughly 85 km from my home and the stretch was about another 80 km drive from there. So roughly each trip for this bird was costing me 350 odd km up and down. The year was a washout. ...and so was the next one 2014. 

The ability of this bird to stand from stones that are near vertical is a treat to see - especially when it jumps from one rock to another with virtually no visible foothold.
By 2015 beginning I was more evolved as a birder in a sense that I was making full use of technology - used eBird and other apps sucking data from the growing community of birdwatchers in India and looking up the latest sitting of the bird and rushing up the spot whenever I could. Still every search for the bird was unsuccessful. Meanwhile our active group of birders of the club started posting the pictures as and when they sighted it - to start with - to help me tell the location - and when I used to return empty handed over and over again - it was mostly reported to 'Taunt' me. 

By 2016 the situation got fairly out of hand when I went all the way to Sikkim for birding and for every Lifer I used to report from there - I used to be replied by one of the club members putting up a picture of Wallcreeper and a lucid description of how it almost came and sat on the camera. On 26th Feb the bird club was hosted by one of the members - Ms Saroj Gulati with cocktails and there was an applause - and a dozen smart phones thrust under my nose for me to see the wallcreeper they clicked. That was it - and I declared - I am out hunting wallcreeper and if I bloody find one I will skin it and keep it stuffed on my wall (pun intended). I was given company by Mr Jasbir who too was not in limelight - but was hunting for the same bird. Next day - 0545 - well before the day break we were on the road - intending to hit the birding spot for wallcreeper by sunrise. The 85 odd km to Kumarhatti was event-less - me staring at the road and the sky that was lightening up - alternatively. We were at the intended place as the sun peeped above the mountains. The light was enough - the place right and I shifted the car to the slowest 10 km/hr possible - staring hard at the cliffs to try and sight any hint of movement, a flash of red or sound to give away the bird.

We did this for next 60 odd km and the luck seemed running out. Finally I decided and called out loud to Mr Jasbir who was accompanying me - this is the last km we do - and then turn back irrespective of the results. The next km passed as luckless as others before it and I did a determined turn back with a curse beneath my lips. Well turn back did not mean that I intended to rush back - I did want to continue back looking out for the bird. My disappointment might have been quite evident - considering what Mr Jasbir shared on the Bird Club group.  All the same the cliffs were my side and I do pride myself as a fairly good spotter and just 4-5 km on our way back I said - 'Got it' and bought the car to standstill on the side of the road. Mr Jasbir was looking out frantically asking - where? where? I reversed the car, parked it and got out - there - it was a grey speck of a bird sitting on a stone - and there - 3 years of looking for this bird and after clocking 3,500 plus km in ten odd trips made targeting this bird was all in front of me. I stared at the bird and alternately clicked it. I do not remember checking the settings on the camera other than one odd look at the play back screen showing that I was indeed getting the bird.
Wallcreeper showing off the Crimson and polka dots.

Like I mentioned earlier - do not consider this - its natural pose. These flicks of wings shorter than heartbeat that have been captured by 10 frames per second - pressed shutter with about 40-50 frames at a time.

Just could not help it but post this one more picture of the Bird flickering its wings.
The bird was hopping around for the next 15 odd minutes we were there staring at the bird and did some flip of the wings to show the famous Crimson red and the polka dots that my wife described them as - as I showed the pictures to her. after I had photographed the bird I played back some recorded bird songs of the wallcreeper - and to my dismay the bird was not interested. Perhaps the territorial fights were not the norm this time of the year. For getting the Crimson (the bird flickered its wings every once a minute or so) I clicked in rapid mode till the time the buffer of the camera (7D Mark ii) used to run out and do it over and over again. So the pictures with crimson that you see are not the norm you will see the bird as but a frozen milliseconds when the bird flicked the wings.

Colour of the bird vis-a-vis rocks of its habitat

Still cannot find the bird ? Don't despair - it may be napping in one of these crevices in the rocks.
 So here comes an end to a hunt for a bird that will remain in my memory for a long long time to come and surely I will miss the snickers of my Birding Pals.

The Birdwatch Jan 2016 Edition took out this supplement of 13 most Desirable birds to see in the world and Creeper turned out 11th on that list. Presenting here the clipping of the page.

Just came across this article in a Birdwatcher's Magazine that I subscribe. This bird is one of the 13 most desirable birds to see in the world.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Tale of two beautiful birds...

Okay - my every story starts the way this one is going to...
'I had gone birding yesterday... and 'What-a-Day'  it was... '
It was the Big Birding Day yesterday. I was teamed up with Mr Sriram, who has been kind enough to let me tag along for past few birding trips. The place chosen was Uma Maheshwaram Temple on the edge of Nallamala forest, a tiger reserve. I crossed all my possible fingers praying that I should not get some errand on "The Day" - well the wish was granted and we started early to make sure the first morning chirp was greeted by us. The 'Start Early' has never been a problem with any of the birders I have ever come across so I was not going to be any different. I was up and ready and at the place of my pick up at 0320, ten minutes before the designated time. I was picked up and off we went to our chosen place of birding. I was excited like a little kid going to the first day of the school. I had been perpped up by our team leader who had spoken in detail what to expect - and there were two birds would have I would have loved to have in my "lifer" list today. The birds were - Painted Spurfowl and Yellow-throated Bulbul.
The temple was on top of a plateau and I was told that the temple disposes of refuse and waste there only and the birds frequent the place. The spurfowl and bulbul I have mentioned both are not really common sightings by any length - especially the bulbul that has been placed on IUCN (3.1) list of Vulnerable birds threatened by extinction.

 The sunrise was 0646 and we were at the temple gates by 0600 waiting for the birds to start calling. With the horizon lighting up the birds as expected started calling out and we prepared our gear for a great birding day. 
I was so excited to see the first Yellow-throated Bulbul that I started firing off the camera with vigour ramping up the iso to 6400 and getting only blurs. In the brief periods of silence my camera with 10 fps must have sounded as a machine gunner firing off at some poor soul in the heat of the battle. I can now tell because Mr Sriram placed a hand on my shoulder and said - wait for some better light - they all will remain here only. Each minute of waiting was like a year of the life passing by and then I saw some other moment nearby - Painted Spurfowl. I let go another burst of 50-100 shots before I told myself to calm down, take a long breath and wait for the sun to rise. looking back the 6400 iso was producing pictures distorted that I would have placed them in some modern art exhibition and possibly they would have made the grade ;-)
The sun rose and I was running to and fro once again searching for birds and not knowing what to shoot and what to do. I used to go to place a and the sounds would come from the other corner - and walk those 100 yards to that side and the sounds were suddenly coming from the other side.

Finally, another hour passed by when the birds were stationary, light was good and I got my photographs that I was expecting. The photography out of the way and now was the time to sit and really enjoy the birds. We spent more than four hours there, most of my time was admiring, staring and enjoying the every moment I spent with those 'Lifer' of mine.
Painted Spurfowl (Male) Notice the spurs on the legs - what gives this bird its name.

Painted Spurfowl

Painted Spurfowl (Female)
Same bird - the Painted Spurfowl (Male)
yellow-throated Bulbul

Yellow-throated Bulbul

Yellow-throated Bulbul
As you might have noticed I have not talked about the birds. Well I do not intend to also - but then a small footnote may be okay. The southern range of the both the birds is shared. They live in the rocky places that are now so often mined for granite. Mining - and that too in a reckless manner is leading to a great loss of habitat, especially for the bulbul as the bird is only restricted to the South India. It may or may not be a reason to stop mining altogether but a review may be in order to co-exist with the rest of God's creations also.
Before starting the climb for the temple - the scene that would have greeted us. Well like you would have guessed it, we crossed this place in pitch dark so saw this on our way birding back.

I live by a strong belief: we will not obtain Nirvana by praying alone. We all have to play a small part in the scheme of things to appreciate nature and GOD's creations...

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Black-bellied Tern... Endangered...

Black-bellied Tern
I saw this bird for the first time... I was on a birding trip along with a group from Hyderabad Birding Pals, who had planned a visit to Pochram Wildlife Sanctuary on 31st January. I went along courtesy a great birding pal I have made - Mr Sriram Reddy, a computer wiz kid by day and ... a birder on weekends. 

...the tern showing off its belly as if to say - here comes the - Black-bellied Tern

So we went and starting birding with hundreds of migrants and just got too involved looking at the other birds, that it was only when one of the members asked us after our second hour of birding - did you see the Black-bellied Terns ? It hit me like a rock - had we missed the "Endangered Terns" - what the hell !!. The lake is a huge water body - but yes we could find the terns flying and a group crouched - lying down at a far distance. The distance was too great to tell what those terns were..  

Almost like out a dream one tern came close enough to be recognised and it started my begining of 600 shots or so of this beautiful birds (I could count about 4 birds).

Going around we came across the group still lying down and shooting the birds. Here I just lost my morale... To the uninitiated, the Ego of today's birder can be related to the focal length of the lens he carries. Well I was proud of my 100-400 - and there on the ground I saw 500mm (f4), 600mm (f4) among others - so I could not have lied down next to them with or without humility for sure so just wandered off.

This is the typical feeding of this bird - to skim surface of water to pick up insects, tadpoles, small fish over the water surface.
Did I get it ??

Okay - coming back to the birds - the Black-bellied tern is found near large rivers in the Indian Subcontinent - the range extending from Pakistan, Nepal and India, to Southern China, Thialand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In its Eastern range the bird is very scarce and that is the reason it has been assessed as Endangered.

This bird is almost never found around the coasts - its typical habitat being lowland rivers and marshes and other water bodies. The flight of the bird is with graceful with a lot of beating with its long and elegant wings. The birds that have been pictured are highly cropped images (remember the ego and the relation with the length of the lens part I talked about?) The breeding season starts in Feb till Apr and that is the reason that the birds are so brightly coloured.

The bird range and the numbers are suffering mostly due to - so called economic development that results in drained marshes, redirected rivers, sand poaching and it requires sand pits to breed. The eggs are poached by the man friendly animals like dogs, cats, crows, and lastly the pollution. Oh one has to see the water bodies of developing nations like India to get an idea what pollution and untreated affluent thrown in water bodies means.