Fragments of abundance in Valparai

Lion-tailed Macaque in Valparai

En route from Pollachi to Valparai, scanning for sights of the Anaimalai hills near the horizon, I could find only a flat landscape. The roadside was dotted with Mayflower/Gulmohur trees (Delonix regia) which had started blooming mid-April. Bonnet Macaques made occasional appearances, only to be out-aped by their human counterparts indulging in acts of juvenile bravado on their motorcycles.

Nearing Azhiyar Dam one could sense a tourist spot approaching, thanks to the preponderance of Tempo Travellers and tourist cabs, and vendors with carts selling guava, tender coconuts and hot savouries. The fact that there is a rising megalith with 40 bends to negotiate on narrow roads and showboat novices displaying their skills on two- and four-wheelers prevent these visions from registering completely.

A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater on a Silver Oak in Valparai
A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater on a Silver Oak
Evening at the tea garden in Valparai
Evening at the tea garden
Not to forget the troop of Bonnet Macaques among the many primates we saw

Stopping to register at the forest checkpost just before the climb I find more tourists packed into cabs. Disheartened, I tell myself: They are not here to see the Valparai I am here to see.

We are in for a rather warm welcome. A subtle pact between El Niño and El Sol has kept the mercury up. Our host had mentioned that Valparai was not as hot as Bengaluru, however it doesn’t bring any comfort when Bengaluru was inching towards 40 degrees on the centigrade.

Rising up the hair-pin bends, Azhiyar reservoir shows up like a picture postcard, though being on the wheel on a treacherous track I can ill afford a rubber-neck. The drive becomes a pleasure as the breeze picks up and fellow-travellers on the road display restraint and prudence while driving.

The appointment with the Nilgiri Tahrs is missed as we reach hair-pin bend #9 during the hottest time of the day. However the shy Nilgiri Langur shows its silhouette and calls loudly as we ascend higher. Arriving at waterfalls, I notice that the tall trees have gone missing. We travel though what would appear, from above, to be a carpet of tea leaves.

Anticipations accelerate as I cross the statue of Carver Marsh, whom many consider the architect of Valparai. Will Valparai satiate my thirst for a commune with nature in this parched weather, I wonder. I see the NCF Information Centre on the way and stop to ask for directions from the friendly lady at the reception.

We pass through a fragment of rainforest and arrive at Iyerpadi. It’s all tea gardens here. A monotonous mosaic of tea and Silver Oak. As flock of Red-Whiskered Bulbuls land up on the lawn a thought arises, questioning the decision to travel 450 kilometres, the thought is drowned under a deluge of a sea of emotions that the call of a Southern Hill Myna evokes. I see the Hill Mynas thriving in the mosaic of tea and Silver Oak.

The mosaic of Valparai

A walk through the mosaic gives me a closer look. Details emerge. Rufous Babblers create a ruckus that would put their jungle cousins to shame. A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater, Orange Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback and Vernal Hanging Parrots appear as though they have been swirled out of a tea cup. Fireflies take over after sunset. A Brown Fish owl swoops down onto the roof. Taking a walk in the night I spot a Common Tailorbird that has fluffed itself, an Oriental Magpie Robin and a Spotted Dove in slumber. It is almost three decades since I have seen birds in solitary roost. I choose against getting a photograph for the fear of disturbing them.

Sunrise brings the Malabar Whistling Thrush and a half performance by a male Indian Peafowl. As I drive towards the Anamalai Club and arrive at a fragment of rainforest, the shy Nilgiri Langurs calling loudly take evasive positions in the tall canopies which barely allow light to pass. Malabar Giant Squirrels forage busily, while Bonnet Macaques are huddled. A Great Hornbill takes flight from one of the trees. I am distracted by a comical interlude provided by a motorcyclist who, after having walked up to the fence of a tea garden to get a picture of a Gaur with his cellphone, panics and slips upon hearing the animal grunt.

The excitement of the sightings dies down for some time as I spot a limping Palm Civet trying to cross the road. Back in the tea estate, I am treated to a sight of a Crested Serpent Eagle on a dead tree to my right and a Stripe-necked Mongoose in the tea bushes to my left. I drive on as visions of a sumptuous breakfast cloud other thoughts.

Sunset brings out a vivid image of the tea garden in Valparai
Sunset brings out a vivid image of the tea garden
Valparai wakes up
Rufous Babblers were a common sight in Valparai
Rufous Babblers were a common sight
Black-rumped Flameback in Valparai
Black Rumped Flameback

Post lunch, heading toward Pudhuthottam, we come across the first troop of Lion-tailed Macaques. Followed by another less than a kilometer away. The NCF volunteer is diligently managing the crowd of passing tourist vehicles, two of which stop and I hear the occupants shouting “Pazha“. The plantain would have been handed out had it not been for the timely intervention of the volunteer. Seeing me take out my camera, he gestures to me and shows me the spot from which the light was falling through the canopy. He happily speaks about the troop, which numbered about 16 individuals, and told me about the other troops (one of which is 90+ strong). Another tourist van stops at the curve and the volunteer makes a sprint to dissuade the group from feeding the macaques. I wish him luck and thank him for his time.

A Giant Squirrel in the rainforest in Valparai
A Giant Squirrel in the rainforest

A vendor transporting plastic wares on his 49-CC two-wheeler stops and asks, “Tamil?” I shake my head to indicate no.”Malayalam?” I shake my head again. “Hindi?” I shake my head. Seeing him perplexed, I mention “lingua franca”. Disregarding my sense of humour as an editor would trash an abysmally poor piece of work, he mentions in Tamil that there is a Hornbill on a tree nearby which he can show me. I gesture towards the macaque on the tree of which I was trying to get a clear shot when he interrupted, when another passer-by stops to offer unsolicited assistance. The vendor airs his disappointment to the newcomer that I am taking pictures of a “kurangu” (monkey) while he is trying to show me hornbills. I say thank you with a smile straight out of a counterfeiter’s stencil and turn back.

Lion-tailed Macaque - looking up for the ray of hope?
Lion-tailed Macaque – looking up for the ray of hope?
Lion-tailed Macaques grooming
The treetop spa
Quite possibly the Alpha of the troop

After observing the macaque troop, I head to the NCF office at Valparai, where I chat with the friendly researchers. One of them turns out to be from my alma mater. We discuss hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, leopards and mainly elephants. I gain tremendous insight into elephant behavior — such as elephants licking building walls for the calcium. I am told about an interesting gecko residing in these parts that I may be able to spot at the place I was hosted. I lose track of time in the interesting conversations akin to ones we’d have with friends we catch up with after a long time.

The habitat in Valparai is conducive for Great Indian Hornbills
The habitat is conducive for Great Indian Hornbills
The reluctant peafowl. This was the extent it raised its feathers
The reluctant peafowl. This was the extent it raised its feathers

In a trek to the cross-hill I come across a pit dug by a bear the previous night. There are droppings of porcupines and other small mammals. Upon the ridge I spend time scanning for raptors, but it must be too early in the day for them to rise. By mid-day I am at the Nallamudi Pooncholai, a fragment of rainforest visible from a vantage on a cliff. A tree covered with moss is playing host to Orange Minivets, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers.

Jungle Striped Squirrel in Valparai
Jungle Striped Squirrel
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White Breasted Water hen near the water body
From atop the Cross Malai (hill)
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A Sloth Bear’s work

I stand by the cliff, hoping to get a glimpse of a group of Great Hornbills flying over the canopy below, as I had seen in one of the photographs online. With the sun beating hard, it’s time to head back. On the way I spot a pair of Stripe Necked Mongooses in the tea bushes, they retreat swiftly as a vehicle passes close to them.

Stripe Necked Mongoose were a common sight in Valparai
Stripe Necked Mongoose were a common sight too
Velvet Fronted Nuthatch at Nallamudi Pooncholai view point
Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher

The evening is a relaxed affair, but a gecko chooses to make its appearance, an interesting one with a striped tail. The next day as we descend we run into a herd of Nilgiri Tahr, pushing the count of mammal sightings in this trip up a notch. Interestingly the mammals due to which the Anamalais get their name had retreated to locations with ample waters and had not made their appearance. Next time perhaps, I return content that Valparai, with the rainforest peppered amongst the tea estates, turned out an abundance of rewarding sightings.

Gecko in Valparai
Night reveals a charming gecko
Another sunset
Nilgiri Tahr seeing us off
Nilgiri Tahr in Valparai
Researchers think that Tahr are more closely related to sheep than goats

Note: Human-elephant conflict continues to be a matter of concern in Valparai. Nature Conservation Foundation’s Elephant Information Network has recently introduced a novel voice announcement system aboard Tamil Nadu government buses to inform passengers about the movement of elephants on their routes. Read more about it on EcoLogic, the NCF blog, and watch this video.

Posted from Valparai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Summer in the Nilgiris – an escapee’s photo-diary

Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris

As cruel April broils the Deccan plateau, the Nilgiris are brimming with escapees. If weekends see city roads bereft of cars, you know where to find them — up near Sim’s Park in Coonoor or jostling for space near the Ooty Botanical Gardens. While the glens and vales of the Nilgiris cope with the torrent of tourists, the resident and endemic birds have the hills to themselves. Most of the migrants have returned to their northern homes, save a few lingering warblers.

Culpable I am, for I too was one among those that escaped the torrid plains to seek refuge in the Nilgiri summer where the higher you go, the cooler it gets. Three days I spent cocooned on a hillside noshing on farm-fresh cheese (at Acres Wild, Coonoor) in the company of friends — and when I tired of them, the birds that make their home here.

Oriental Magpie-Robin in the Nilgiris
An Oriental Magpie-Robin forages and gets lucky
Oriental Magpie-Robin in the Nilgiris
This was the male’s singing perch

Mornings we rose to the singing of Oriental Magpie Robins (so soulful that one of my friends asked, “Is that a nightingale?”) while the crisp crowing of the Grey Junglefowl echoed in the valley. Blackbirds made every interlude a throwback to The Beatles, warbling and whistling and chirping ruminatively in the shrubbery. Crows and mynas were relatively uncommon thanks to the relative paucity of garbage in the neighbourhood, and when they did appear it was a joy to see them — imagine that! Hole-nesting hoopoes and barbets rent the air with their penetrating calls. Long-tailed Shrikes, ever vigilant, took charge of the lampposts. Dusky Crag Martins, swooping low, cleaned up even the remotest threat of pestilence from winged insects.

Dusky Crag Martin in the Nilgiris
Notice the gape on this Dusky Crag Martin? Signs that it left the nest recently. Later, I saw its parent stuff some food in its mouth.

It was nesting time, feeding time and foraging time for birds in the Nilgiris. Hoopoes were busybodies, poking among the leaves picking out grubs from the earth. Pied Bushchats worked overtime at their nests in the gazebos, stuffing their bills with grubs and caterpillars. The Magpie Robins kept them company. Jungle Babblers and the occasional flock of Rufous Babblers patrolled the yard, raising one too many unnecessary alarms. In the eaves, Dusky Crag Martins brought mud from the streams to cement their nests. Occasionally, a pair of Little Swifts joined them — their shiny white rumps standing out in the crowd of sooty swoopers.

A Hoopoe in the Nilgiris
This Hoopoe was observed carrying food to its nest

Besides the all-too-common Red-vented Bulbuls and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, I caught sight of a Grey-headed Bulbul (a lifer) and, on one occasion, a Yellow-browed Bulbul that had flown up from the lowland forests. Both were too quick for my camera. A small party of Common Rosefinches favoured the lantana bushes by the milking shed. At a bend in the road where the undergrowth offers plenty of good cover and escape hatches, a pair of Blue-breasted Quails (aka King Quails) hesitated at my approach and melted away before I could shoot them. A Black Eagle scouted the hillside, disappearing among the treetops in search of its meal.

Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
A Long-tailed Shrike keeps vigil
Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
Quite fetching up close, no?
Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
And this is how I saw the Long-tailed Shrike every day, guarding its fief from its vantage on the lamp post

The female rosefinch isn’t much to look at, and a novice can be forgiven for mistaking it for a female house sparrow. Yes, this is to underscore the point that I’m not a novice. I followed the female, and she showed me to the male. Quite a dodgy customer, he wouldn’t sit still for a minute. But here’s a very poor record shot.

Common Rosefinch in the Nilgiris
That’s the male Common Rosefinch in the centre and his dowdy female companion to the left

Of House Sparrows there were quite a number. They, too, were nesting in the eaves. Most of the time they pecked about for seeds but every so often, a female was seen carrying a juicy green caterpillar — protein for her little ones.

Male House Sparrow in the Nilgiris
Two Male House Sparrows, one with a lantana berry
Female House Sparrow in the Nilgiris
A female House Sparrow bares her no-makeup morning face

A bulbul too many

In the early days of birding, the sight of a bulbul would get my blood up. I’m talking of age seven or eight. Sad to say, as I grew older, the ubiquity of bulbuls diminished their appeal. Birders find them quite annoying, actually, especially when they are busy in the field looking for other birds. Both the Red-vented Bulbul and the Red-whiskered Bulbul have become so abundant that birders rarely give them a second glance, and this after ignoring them the first time.

On this trip to the Nilgiris, I was feeling quite charitable. So I let my attention, and my camera, dwell a bit on these bulbuls. They are all over the Nilgiris in such great numbers that you can be forgiven for wanting to exchange your camera for a pea-shooter. Anyway, the effort paid off, as it was thanks to these pains in the butt that I discovered the Grey-headed Bulbul for the first time. Then again, I shouldn’t have been so large of heart, for the moment I had trained my lens on my lifer, a Red-whiskered Bulbul chased it into the shrubbery.

Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Now, when a Bulbul perches like that, you can’t help but notice it
Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
A very thirsty Red-vented Bulbul seeks some moisture
Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Manning the crapping post is this Red-vented Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Truth be told, Red-whiskered Bulbuls are actually quite fetching
Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Nilgiris
And they pose quite well

The Rufous Babbler showed up when I was cleaning my glasses. I’m extremely vulnerable to deception in this state and when I heard an unfamiliar call and saw a babbler-sized bird on a rock, I shot blindly. I identified the bird later from the photographs and felt a frisson of satisfaction. Learning to rely on one’s senses, made rusty and decadent by an overdose of civilization, is what half the joy of nature observation is about.

Rufous Babbler in the Nilgiris
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is this Rufous Babbler that came to visit

The old man of the Nilgiris

Of course, the birds didn’t steal all the thunder on my sojourn in the Nilgiris. My eye was drawn to a robust male Peninsular Rock Agama on the wall of the cheese-making hut. He sunned himself gloriously in the early part of the day. In the evening, I chanced upon the missus — a plump, probably gravid female.

Peninsular Rock Agama in the Nilgiris
A male Peninsular Rock Agama on the wall of the cheese-making cottage
Peninsular Rock Agama in the Nilgiris
The smaller, less colourful female

While the birds brought up their young, and other creatures made the most of summer to increase their tribe, the bees made honey. And the occasional bee-eater did stop by for a bite.

A bee in the Nilgiris
Bee-come or Bee-gone?

Mama Bushchat steals the show

Despite gaudier distractions in the Nilgiris, my eye travelled always to the female Pied Bushchat that made so many trips to its nest up in the ceiling of the gazebo without as much as anyone noticing. Anyone but me, I guess. She would be seen foraging near the gazebo, keeping a low profile but all the while toiling industriously. I did see her mate occasionally but he was mostly strutting or primping and being all dandy in his black-and-white tux.

Here’s a series of pictures of the bushchat foraging for its nest. I did spot the nest but I took care not to disturb it or photograph it. I also saw the hoopoes and the dusky crag martins at their nests in the Nilgiris, but no photos of those. If you’re disappointed, here’s something you should know if you’re a nature photographer or inclined to be one: remember never to photograph or give away the location of nests — that kind of trophy-hunting is a no-no, tempting as it may seem (more information on ethical wildlife photography in this post on Conservation India). There’s a good reason for that.

Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
The elegant takeoff
Pied Bushchat female in the Nilgiris
The female Pied Bushchat takes a break from parental duties
Female Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
But not for long. Here she is seen foraging again and stuffing her bill
Female Pied Buschat foraging in Nilgiris
That’s a whole beakful!
Pied Bushchat in Nilgiris
And then some!
Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
Here she is, waiting patiently for the right moment to slip past our eyes

No sign this time of the usual endemic species reported from the Nilgiris – the Black-chinned Laughingthrush, the Nilgiri Flycatcher or the Black-and-Orange Flycatcher. But then, these were the birds I saw without barely moving a muscle. Lazy birding does have its rewards.

Posted from Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India.

Ranganathittu – revisiting an old birding haunt

Ranganathittu - Group Photo

Ranganathittu, with its wealth of breeding birds year-round, should seem like the quintessential birders’ haunt. To my surprise, I have come across many birdwatchers who tend to diss and shun this riverside bird sanctuary, the largest in Karnataka. Apparently they are turned off by the crowds, the un-challenging photographic pickings, and the apparent artifice of the environs. Each of these complaints has merit, and each deserves dissection.

Ranganathittu - Group Photo
A quintessential Ranganathittu group photo. Don’t miss the croc in the foreground – it’s the only one looking at the camera!

Ranganathittu, being on the busy Bangalore-Mysore highway and close to Srirangapatna and Sangam, gets a lot of tourist traffic. The boat rides in the river offer many people some of their first glimpses even of common birds like Herons, Cormorants and Spot-billed Ducks, but in a dramatic setting these sightings become memorable. In a sense, crowds are good for Ranganathittu, as long as they are managed, entertained and informed. If at least one in twenty tourists return slightly sensitised (am I being delusional?) we consider that a win. One hopes, however, that the boatmen/guides would not fib so much about where the birds migrate from – that needn’t be the selling point. At random, I was informed that Spoonbills come from New Zealand and that Painted Storks come from… where else but Siberia, that most maligned of birding El Dorados! Out of courtesy (and the fact that boatman was in control) I restrained myself from calling his bluff by gently suggesting that most birds are locally migratory and that not all need to come here from far away.

AsianOpenbill-002
An Asian Openbill stork makes a pretty portrait at Ranganathittu
AsianOpenbill-003
Asian Openbills at a roost
An Asian Openbill incubates on its nest at Ranganathittu
An Asian Openbill incubates on its nest at Ranganathittu

Now, about photographers finding these subjects dull. It’s trying enough having to travel with photographers and their phallic lenses on wildlife safaris. The birds at Ranganathittu offer great nesting shots. The nests are often exposed, as are the chicks. This shouldn’t pose a big ethical quandary for the birder. This being a sanctuary, one imagines that the disturbance caused to the birds is minimal. Stepping off the boats onto the islands is prohibited, and that keeps the hungrier photographers from getting adventurous. Usually, groups of ten tourists get their own boat. For a little extra, the boatman will take you to the far corners of the river as a bonus.

An Indian Cormorant at Ranganathittu
An Indian Cormorant at Ranganathittu
Little Cormorants at Ranganathittu
Little Cormorants at Ranganathittu

The islands in Ranganathittu are reinforced by sand-filled plastic sacks. Some of these are exposed and diminish the aesthetics and ‘natural’ quality of the landscape. An eyesore, yes, but perhaps a necessary one. During the monsoon, excess water in the Krishna Raja Sagar reservoir is released into the river, often causing floods. Serious flooding tends to erode the islands and wash away nests. In recent years, some terrible avian casualties have been recorded here.

That much said, Ranganathittu continues to be a great destination for birders. Can you think of getting that close to the near-threatened Great Thick-knee anywhere else? Or being able to observe Black-crowned Night Herons nest and roost and hatch their improbable-looking young? Or to marvel at the mystery of marsh crocodiles as they swim and bask. On the bank, the gardens offer the chance of intimate encounters with Stork-billed Kingfishers, Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers and Indian Grey Hornbills.

Rose-ringed Parakeet at Ranganathittu
A female Rose-ringed Parakeet at Ranganathittu
Stork-billed Kingfisher
Stork-billed Kingfisher
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher – this one’s a regular on the riverbank

I was at Ranganathittu last weekend after eleven years. I was glad to see the Eurasian Spoonbills, which seem to thrive only in riverine habitats such as this. The nesting Spot-billed Pelicans and River Terns made for splendid viewing. And, just as a bonus, the boatman rowed us past the mud nests of the Streak-throated Swallows.

Here’s a link to my eBird checklist of birds seen at Ranganathittu last week.

Adult Eurasian Spoonbills are rather regal in appearance
Adult Eurasian Spoonbills are rather regal in appearance
The adult stood out against the nursery of little ones
The adult stood out against the nursery of little ones
An adult Eurasian Spoonbill in breeding plumage shows its yellow breast patch
An adult Eurasian Spoonbill in breeding plumage shows its yellow breast patch
Young spoonbills, almost fledged, at the nursery
Young spoonbills, almost fledged, at the nursery
A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron surveys its little fiefdom
A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron surveys its little fiefdom
Black-crowned Night Heron
Okay, make that two
A reedy whistling gave away the location of this Greater Thick-knee, also known as Great Stone-Curlew
A reedy whistling gave away the location of this Greater Thick-knee, also known as Great Stone-Curlew
Great Thick-Knee - a pair
And then its mate emerged from behind the rock. There are eight known nesting pairs of this bird, classified as Near-Threatened
The Spot-billed Pelicans were nesting
The Spot-billed Pelicans were nesting
The nests of the Streak-throated Swallow
The nests of the Streak-throated Swallow
A marsh crocodile watches from the river
A marsh crocodile watches from the river
A river with reed beds always inspires poetry
A river with reed beds always inspires poetry
The last boat ride before the closing bell
The last boat ride before the closing bell
Painted Storks were also ready to nest
Painted Storks were also ready to nest
Painted Storks always look like European dignitaries, don't they?
Painted Storks always look like European dignitaries, don’t they?
The Great Egret is a picture of grace
The Great Egret is a picture of grace

Posted from Karnataka, India.

Winter birding – it isn’t over until it’s over

Winter Birding - Seasonal migrants like Rosy Starlings add some panache

Winter birding for me this year has been fairly assiduous and — even if Spring be far behind — it has sprung more than its share of surprises. I stuck with backyard birding at my neighbourhood haunts this season, adhering to a few time-tested Seasonwatch and Migrantwatch principles. While the cold of winter lasted only a few weeks in Bangalore, the morning chill has persisted somewhat and the dryness in the air has been compounded by the stench of smog from burning refuse and smoking heaps of dry leaves. Overall, no happy carbon points there.

KKHLake-003 KKHLake-001

The faint notes of cheer, then, come from how bird diversity has changed dramatically at the same location within a matter of weeks. Since the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend, I haven’t been able to devote much time to birding. On March 7, I returned to Kaikondrahalli Lake, where earlier this year my excitement peaked at the sighting of two Northern Pintail drakes, and took a quick walk along the trail around the lake. It proved to be a day of exciting new finds.

For me, the excitement of changing seasons is always marked by the flowering of trees (you should check out The Green Ogre series on flowering trees if you haven’t already) and I couldn’t help but be charmed by this Java Cassia (Cassia javanica) in riotous bloom beside the lake. Nearly all species of Cassias are beautiful in flower but the Java Cassia is a particular favourite of mine. Its dense, frothy clusters of flowers are very fetching.

Cassia-001

Cassia-002 Cassia-003

Winter birding count drops, but the surprises are rewarding

I’m quite chuffed at the diversity of duck species that I have sighted at this lake over the last few years. From a post-monsoon sighting of Lesser Whistling Ducks two years ago to Common Teals four winters ago, I have kept my hopes up. This year’s winter birding has yielded the aforesaid Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers and today’s sighting of Garganeys (Anas querquedula) — a first for me at this location. There were fewer Blyth’s Reed-Warblers than the last time. And the Rosy Starlings swarmed in to claim every plum roosting spot. Among today’s happier sightings was a flock of fifty or more Glossy Ibis, which circled the lake a few times before departing. Not a single bird landed. A large flock of Black-headed Ibis had already claimed the prime roost on the island in the middle of the lake.

Among the residents, there was a large number of Black-crowned Night Herons, including a number of juveniles. The Little Egrets were fewer in number, the Cattle Egrets even less numerous, the Spot-billed Pelican was MIA, and a great many of the sandpipers I had seen on my previous outing here were conspicuous by their absence. No Painted Storks or Asian Openbills, either. The small flock of Black-winged Stilts was still there in the swamp behind the lake. It is a matter of time before this rich bird habitat, with its clumps of tall reeds and bulrushes, will be lost to real estate development. And I wonder what will happen to our winter birding then.

A big flock of Glossy Ibis in overhead flight
A big flock of Glossy Ibis in overhead flight
A Eurasian Coot forages
A Eurasian Coot forages
An Indian Cormorant appears to be in a meditative mood
An Indian Cormorant appears to be in a meditative mood

A thank-you note to the unnamed one who stopped to pee

For today’s happy sighting of Garganeys, I must thank a well-dressed middle-aged gent who stopped to relieve himself beside the path at the back of the lake. I was alternating my observation of the acacia grove canopy with my surveillance of the wetland at the back of the lake when the aforementioned gentleman stopped next to me. I took my eyes away from my binoculars for a second, my heart warming to the imagined happenstance that I had company to watch the Black-winged Stilts in the swamp. No sir, this man only wanted to pee. And when I protested and asked him to go find a toilet (I’m not sure there is one here although Kasavanahalli lake has a few chemical toilets) he began arguing with me as he did his business, saying that he was a diabetic and needed to go. Grumbling, I moved on and saw a few young people with long camera lenses watching the stilts on the water. It was a movement ahead of them, in the orange setting-sun light, that caught my eye. A juvenile Bronze-winged Jacana was feeding on the edge of the swamp but out on the open water was a duck with a prominent white crescent on the side of its head. Only one duck seen in these parts has this distinguishing feature – the Garganey.

A Garganey drake is quite unmistakable in the field
A Garganey drake is quite unmistakable in the field
It's a very fetching duck, isn't it?
It’s a very fetching duck, isn’t it?

Garganeys, which visit us in winter from their breeding grounds in Europe, are always on winter birding checklists in Karnataka. However, while other birders have observed it here at Kaikondrahalli Lake, it has never graced my checklists. Until today, when this small flock of five birds – three drakes and two ducks – gave me that privilege. Later, as I walked the perimeter of the lake on its western edge, I saw more of these small dabbling ducks in the middle of the lake. Near them, among the numerous resident Spot-billed Ducks, was a single male Northern Pintail and two female Northern Shovelers. I was able to identify them well but the pictures that my trusty Lumix FZ200 gave me weren’t good for anything except grainy record shots.

As with the last time, the Rosy Starlings arrived in formidable clouds at roosting time and arrested the attention of even the most passive of evening walkers. I’ve grown so fond of these birds that I miss them when they go away.

Rosy Starlings are always great to watch
Rosy Starlings are always great to watch
And that's just a part of one tree
And that’s just a part of one tree
Finally, one Rosy Starling sat still
Finally, one Rosy Starling sat still

Winter Birding - Seasonal migrants like Rosy Starlings add some panache

Once again, Kaikondrahalli cemented its place in my heart as my favourite lake in Bangalore. Every year, my winter birding checklist has been swelling and most of it thanks to this one lake that, despite being hemmed in on all sides by the scourge of urbanisation, still hosts migrants every season.

See the full eBird checklist

Posted from Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.

Great Backyard Bird Count – it’s a wrap

Great Backyard Bird Count - Rosy Starlings at Kaikondrahalli Lake

The Great Backyard Bird Count came to a close yesterday and there were three things that stood out for me. One: the birding wasn’t exactly great but it was satisfying. Two: I stuck to the backyard of my immediate neighbourhood, not foraying too far from where I live. I did this for a reason. Often, it’s tempting to go to bird-rich habitats and notch up a big count. I was keen to survey and re-survey the same stretch of the backyard – old, familiar haunts – to see what kind of bird diversity I could dig up and compare it with years past. Three: The count fell below expectations and a lot of the species I had surveyed during years past (when I didn’t keep such a meticulous checklist) were absent. These include winter waders and migratory ducks like Garganey and Common Teal, which I have observed at these locations on past occasions.

Great Backyard Bird Count - Paddyfield Pipit
A Paddyfield Pipit at Agara Lake

Great Backyard Bird Count across three neighbourhood lakes

Starting Saturday morning and through Sunday morning and evening, I walked beside three wetland habitats in my neighbourhood. Kaikondrahalli Lake, Kasavanahalli Lake and Agara Lake fall within a 3-4 kilometre radius. Of these, Kaikondrahalli Lake has the most bird diversity and range of habitats from open water to reed-beds and shallow swamps. Kasavanahalli has been ‘beautified’ to an extent, to the effect that a lot of the shallow reed beds and swamps — which are essentially part of a wetland habitat — have been compromised. Agara Lake, though larger, is heavily polluted and disturbed. I expected the bird diversity here to be very low. However, all of these habitats, when surveyed during the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend, yielded an average of over 45 species each.

Blyth's Reed-Warblers were the most numerous of the wintering warblers
Blyth’s Reed-Warblers were the most numerous of the wintering warblers at Agara Lake
A Cattle Egret forages in unusual solitude
A Cattle Egret forages in unusual solitude

I shall devote some part of this post to the results of Sunday morning birding at Agara Lake. I remember birding with Arun at Agara Lake nearly eight years ago and seeing an Indian Spotted Eagle on the artificial island which is now the roost of two species of cormorants – the Indian Cormorant and the Little Cormorant. Notably, the Little Grebes that were absent at the other two lakes were seen here. Only two individuals, though, including a juvenile. Only the resident Indian Spot-billed Duck was seen in unflattering numbers. No migratory ducks were seen at this lake (in the past I have seen Northern Shovelers in large numbers here). A Western Marsh Harrier was the only migratory raptor noted here. Even sandpipers were seen in very low numbers. A single Black-headed Ibis and flock of Red-naped Ibis, numbering about 14, passed overhead. Notable, however, was the sighting of three individual Zitting Cisticolas. In the past, this bird (known to those who have grown up on Salim Ali field guides as Streaked Fantail Warbler) used to be fairly numerous in lake reed beds. Of late, it has been hard to come by. A single Brown Shrike, also a winter migrant, was seen. A Paddyfield Pipit and an Oriental Skylark were also sighted.

Great Backyard Bird Count highlight – Rosy Starlings spectacle

At Kaikondrahalli on Sunday evening, nearly everyone was a birder thanks to an enormous flock of Rosy Starlings that electrified the atmosphere here at roosting time. There must have been at least five thousand birds and this is a conservative estimate, because the great flock split and rejoined and spread out across the lake to claim every available roosting spot. It was a real estate takeover on a massive scale and soon the egrets, Black-headed Ibis and cormorants were edged out and they were flying all around the lake looking for parking. The chirping and warbling of the huge flock reached fever pitch and the mood was like a cricket stadium on a good day for India. Suddenly, the entire flock would fall silent only to begin chattering again in a few seconds.

Rosy Starlings occupy all the seats on this burdened tree
Rosy Starlings occupy all the seats on this burdened tree
Branches creak under the sheer weight of these tiny birds
Branches creak under the sheer weight of these tiny birds

A lone Painted Stork was the only other surprise at Kaikondrahalli yesterday, besides a Pheasant-tailed Jacana in non-breeding plumage. Notable is the absence of Pied Kingfishers at this time of the year. My old friends the Northern Pintail and the female Northern Shovelers were there, too.

White-throated Kingfisher at Kaikondrahalli Lake
White-throated Kingfisher at Kaikondrahalli Lake
A Spotted Dove in the evening light
A Spotted Dove in the evening light

Across the world, the Great Backyard Bird Count has so far turned up nearly 83,500 checklists and 4,515 species at the time of writing this post. Over 9 million individual birds were counted. From India alone, the Great Backyard Bird Count website registered over 3,300 checklists and 640 species. The enthusiasm is great to share, and eBird checklists always help in understanding recent sightings in the neighbourhood.

Much as I enjoy birding in a small group, there’s nothing I cherish like birding solo. The rewards are harder won, but personally it’s about the space the activity allows for meditation, quiet reflection and the joy of discovery as old, disused neurons fire away. There are more birding events coming up and I’m looking forward to bringing the backyard into focus again.

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