Bar Headed Goose

The Bar-headed Goose is famous for an incredible performance – it is the highest-flying bird, reaching an elevation of ~7000m while migrating over the Himalayas

The Bar-headed Goose is famous for an incredible performance – it is the highest-flying bird, reaching an elevation of ~7000m while migrating over the Himalayas. At such an elevation, the atmosphere has a mere 10% of the Oxygen that is available at sea level. Unlike human beings, these birds don’t have to gradually gain elevation and acclimatize as they go either. How then are they able to achieve such a high-energy activity under high-stress conditions? The species has a range of metabolic adaptations that makes this possible. They have a higher capillary density, larger lung size than most waterfowl and also much higher hemoglobin levels.

These birds fly close to land, hugging the mountains as they climb up and crossover. Most interestingly, Bar-headed Geese do not use tail-winds, unlike other migratory birds. They have to accomplish this aerobic feat on their own. Which is why they mostly migrate at night when the air density is lower and so the energetic cost of flying is also less.

These photographs of Bar-headed Geese were taken by Arpit Deomorari. Arpit works with WWF-India as a GIS expert. He is a brilliant birder and has extensively explored the northwest regions of India.

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Bearded Vulture

The Lammergeier/ Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), is a majestic Vulture of the high Himalayas with a huge wing span reaching up to 9 feet

The Lammergeier/ Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), is a majestic Vulture of the high Himalayas with a huge wing span reaching up to 9 feet. This species belongs to the group of old world vultures and its nearest Indian relative is the Egyptian vulture.

The species is mostly found in very high-elevations of the Himalayas where the food availability is low. Because of the low abundance of mammal carcasses, these birds had to develop adaptations to make the most of every dead animal they found. The Lammergeier, therefore, became a specialized bone- marrow eater. However, it doesn’t have a bill that is strong enough to break a bone. Instead, the birds carry the bones in their mouths and fly high up and drop the bones on to sharp rocks. This enables them to shatter the bone and get the marrow within. The stomach of this bird secretes a strong acid with a pH level of 1. This helps them digest the dense marrow within 24 hours and gain even more nutrition than the meat would have provided.

This picture of the Lammergeier in its habitat was clicked by Shashank Dalvi in the little village of Chitkul, Himachal Pradesh in June 2015.

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Nicobar Megapode

The Nicobar Megapode (Megapodius nicobariensis) is an interesting bird, endemic to the central and southern groups of Nicobar Islands

The Nicobar Megapode (Megapodius nicobariensis) is an interesting bird, endemic to the central and southern groups of Nicobar Islands. Past records indicate that the species existed in Car Nicobar too, but has now gone extinct due to historic hunting pressure. In fact, in the past, the bird may have ranged all the way through the Andaman group of islands as well. The Nicobar Megapode inhabits forested areas, often along the coasts of these islands.

The most unique aspect of this ground-dwelling species is its nesting behavior. It has very large and strong feet compared to its body size, and with this, it builds a giant mound nest. The nest may be as high as 1 and a half meters with a circumference of 5 meters. The mated pair builds tunnels into the mound to lay eggs. On an average, a mound may have 4 to 5 eggs, each laid singly, with an intervening gap of 15 days. The pair maintains the nest and egularly cleans the surface of dry leaves and other debris.

The eggs may take 80-90 days for incubation and this varies based on the temperature around each egg within the mound. Interestingly, there is no parental care in the Nicobar Megapode. The chicks are precocious at birth and tunnel their way out of the mound after hatching and fend for themselves right from the beginning.

This picture was taken by Shashank Dalvi in the Great Nicobar island in December 2015. It required building a hide and then reaching the location before dawn and sitting for hours to get this image.

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Northern Shoveler

Speaking of various species in nature, each one exhibits a different character when it comes down to the area of their habitat, physical features, behavioral pattern, migration and so on

Speaking of various species in nature, each one exhibits a different character when it comes down to the area of their habitat, physical features, behavioral pattern, migration and so on. The way a particular species feeds or hunts for prey depends upon the physical aspects of that species. All the way from swooping down to catch prey on the surface to diving underwater, there are several differences in feeding behaviour.

And so is the case when it comes to birds that prefer an aquatic habitat for their survival as the water bodies are their sources of feed and the surrounding areas provide them with a nesting environment. For birds such as ducks that live close to an aquatic environment or prefer one as their habitat, there are two types of feeders: Dabblers and Divers. The Northern Shoveler happens to be a dabbling duck who feeds at the surface.

This bird is a common migrant across the country. The name given is due to the characteristic shape of its bill. The tip of the bill is twice the length of the bill at the base. In short, it’s shaped like a shovel, which is where it gets its name. While catching prey, the birds engulf their prey along with water within the bill. However, the water flows out of the bill via the lamellae, the comb-like structures along the side of the bill. The rest of the material such as plankton and the plant material is trapped within the lamellae in the bill.

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Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher

There are always some species which are more often heard rather than seen, just like the Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher

There are always some species which are more often heard rather than seen, just like the Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher. The bird itself isn’t that attractive. In fact, it’s a rather dull looking, small sized bird. It has a brown upper body while it is white underneath with an upright stance. Its upper mandible is hooked. But what makes this bird special is that it is found in the dense evergreen forests of the Great and Little Nicobar Islands, and nowhere else in the world.

These two islands make the range of this species just over 1000-odd sq km. The bird was first described in 1903 when it was collected during an expedition to the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago. Then, the species disappeared off the birding map for seventy-three years only to be found by the late Humayun Abdulali who had been visiting the Great Nicobar Islands in 1977. Since then, the species was recorded only twice until 2015 when Shashank Dalvi and Vishnupriya Sankararaman managed to record the song of this species. They then realized that the bird was extremely common on Great Nicobar island and often overlooked due to its sedentary nature. This species usually inhabits dense undergrowth in the forest, often close to the stream.

Pictures by Shashank Dalvi and Gururaj Moorching.

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Japanese Sparrowhawk

Andaman and Nicobar islands are extremely rich with respect to Accipiter diversity

Andaman and Nicobar islands are extremely rich with respect to Accipiter diversity. There are two resident species on these islands. The Nicobar Sparrowhawk which has two endemic subspecies in Car Nicobar (A. butleri butleri) and Central Nicobar (A. b. obsoletus) respectively, as well as the endemic subspecies of Besra (A. virgatus abdulalii) from Andaman. Other than these two species, the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Chinese Sparrowhawk and Japanese parrowhawk are winter visitors to these beautiful islands. The Chinese Sparrowhawk is extremely common in Nicobar. However, sometimes one does come across the Japanese Sparrowhawk too (probably because it gets overlooked and most of the sightings wrongly get attributed to the much rarer (?) Nicobar Sparrowhawk). We were fortunate enough to encounter the Japanese Sparrowhawk on both our trips to these islands in 2015. They are short-winged compared to other species of Accipiters. However, the juveniles of these Sparrowhawks can be tricky to tell apart. The Japanese Sparrowhawk does show a very thin mesial strip, a thin supercilium and shows well marked underparts. On the contrary, the Chinese Sparrowhawk juveniles show unmarked carpals as shown in these images.

Japanese Sparrowhawk image is taken by Gaurav Kataria. Chinese Sparrowhawk images are clicked by Shashank Dalvi

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North Eastern Experience

For Bangalore based Gururaj Moorching, wildlife photography started very late compared to others in the field

For Bangalore based Gururaj Moorching, wildlife photography started very late compared to others in the field. But his sheer determination and commitment took him miles ahead.

This week, our birding expert Guru talks about birding in the Northeast. Here’s Guru:

I am often asked both by my birder friends and family, “How safe is the Northeast?” And I always reply, “Safer than any of our metros.” The bonus and perks are: clean water, rich oxygen and great people.

The infrastructure for birding and bird photography is all in place. You will find a network of comfortable and affordable home stays, great food, and well informed guides in all the 'Important Birding Areas'. I urge you to plan and discover the various habitats and its residents as well as local migratory birds.

You can see over 800 birds in the Northeast (which is 2/3rd of all Indian bird species). You’ll see colorful and sing song birds which come in all sizes and aren’t too difficult to spot and photograph, barring a few shy ones. A bit of patience and planning with the help of well informed guides will reward you with a pleasing haul.

Visiting the Northeast is absolutely safe, a whole lot of fun, and a wonderful way of appreciating the vast country that we live in while savouring lip-smacking food and experiencing the lifestyle of her people. The best part is, you can see 500 bird species in one visit instead of seeing one bird 500 times!

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Equipments

Guru Moorching, our birding expert for the week, here are his recommendations about the equipment you’ll need to carry, and other tips and pieces of advice for your Northeast birding expedition: Most times, a lighter camera gear is sufficient to make decent images

Guru Moorching, our birding expert for the week, here are his recommendations about the equipment you’ll need to carry, and other tips and pieces of advice for your Northeast birding expedition:

Most times, a lighter camera gear is sufficient to make decent images. In case you are a Nikon user, you could use a D500 with an ultra light 300mm PF lens with a 1.4 converter. In case you are a Canon user, I’d suggest a 7D Mark 2 with a 100 x 400 lens. I find that a monopod with a light and firm head is very useful. Tripods are not useful as the birds are generally close to you. Most habitats are such that all the cute and colorful birds are close and surround you.

Make sure you choose the right time to visit. A little homework on breeding schedules will help you study the proximity of the birds. A bit of research about the foliage, fall pattern and visibility will help you see the birds better.

Another thing you’ll absolutely need as much as a sharp eyesight is a sharp ear to hear the bird calls. This is absolutely meditative. I find that it helps with your psychological well being. Of course, your trusted and highly talented local guides will point out the birds to you. Personally, it makes me proud to be able to appreciate the vocalisation and identify the species. Also, don’t forget to check with 'Vannya' while you embark on offering our mind and soul a visual as well an aural treat!

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Bristled Grassbird

I saw my first Bristled Grassbird in 2003 at Panna Tiger Reserve where it was wintering in the central Indian landscape

I saw my first Bristled Grassbird in 2003 at Panna Tiger Reserve where it was wintering in the central Indian landscape. At that time, it was one of the very few sightings of this species from its wintering grounds. Fast forward to 15 years into the future, we now know many more sporadic records dotted across southern India. But the bird remains very shy and difficult to observe. However, it is an extremely easy bird to see in its breeding range in the Terai landscape (Western Himalayan foothills to northeast India) and Western India (Rajasthan and Kutch). The birds arrive to their breeding grounds during the monsoon months. The very first thing the males do is establish territories. The typical territory of a Bristled Grassbird usually has a couple of bushes with nice vantage points overlooking a patch of grassland. After this, males usually show two kinds of displays. In an aerial display, a male usually flies over the territory and sings. In the second display it perches on the bushes and sings (See picture). This species, like all other grassland birds, is under severe pressure. The Terai grasslands have always been overused by humans and they tend to be under-represented in conservation movements. The burning of grasslands for the management of herbivore populations also coincides with the breeding of Bristled Grassbirds and other grassland species. There are some erious conservation challenges to overcome for the long-term survival of this species. - Shashank Dalvi

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The Blyths Kingfisher

It had almost been an end to long tiring road trip to Arunachal Pradesh, the last destination to cover the species we have been craving madly; none other but the mystical forest kingfisher –Blyth’s Kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules)

It had almost been an end to long tiring road trip to Arunachal Pradesh, the last destination to cover the species we have been craving madly; none other but the mystical forest kingfisher –Blyth’s Kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules). Pakke Tiger Reserve, the place, which has produced a good number of sighting of this bird this year, was our last chance to find this elusive bird. Though not originally in the itinerary on our almost 40 days trip it made its place for two birds Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulates) and Blyth’s Kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules). Reaching Pakke again was still not enough to reach to the bird. We have experienced why this bird has really been so elusive.

Our guide Lobsang Tsering, proving his dedication for great birding had found out his own local resources to finally reach to this bird. On the next day of reaching Pakke under the shadows of thick pre-monsoon clouds, we did start our last track. But reaching to the banks of Pakkeriver we realized that the journey is not going to be smooth. The bridge over the river was broken and the challenge was to cross the river through its vast bed. This is why we love to travel in my Mitsubishi Montero, a good 3.2 ltr. engine with super-select 4x4. We would not let the bird go for any obstacle in the path now. With this determination, we had started crossing the mighty river which had started flowing with the onset of monsoon. A bit of hardcore off-roading finally took us to the other bank of the river. Started then the next level of an ordeal, when we parked the car and started walking down. The monsoon had made all the forest streams alive running with its full zeal. For us, it became a matter of art to stabilize ourselves on slippery rocks with all the equipment on our shoulders to add to the burden of balancing. But for the love of adventure and quest for the kingfisher such adventure would definitely qualify for a isadventure. Finally, after walking for a couple of kilometres crossing one after another stream we could reach to a spot where the kingfisher used to be seen. Mind it, no guarantees of seeing the bird even after so much of pains. And then the wait begins. An hour passes by and there is no sign of the bird and it starts raining. It feels like your all dreams to see this bird are being washed away with each pouring drop. Finally, as we all came out of our hidings and start deciding to walk back. There is a bird..where is it.. it just flew passed by you like a bullet.. did anyone see it.. nope.. but the distinct call made me confident that it was Blyth’s.. nope it was not a call of Common Kingfisher. That moment that feeling probably is beyond words. Each muscle, each tissue of your body tightens, each nerve feels that extra throw of blood and the whole system is now so absorbed. The brain ignores all odds and even in pouring rain, you set yourself back to the spot. The bird proves true to it’s shy and secretive nature. We sit there drenched completely in water for another hour but there is no sign of the bird anywhere. But the sheer determination not to move even a single muscle. And then there is a sound, the call from the distance piercing through the ears and there is this flight like a bullet in a moment and the next moment by the time we blinked our eyes we see the bird sitting across the stream on the dead wood. If there is a heaven on earth it is here. The elegant bird holding a fish in it’s beak looks at you and the finger on the shutter freezes. The mystical and mythical bird posing for you is the feeling which even thousand words would not justify. The bird flips its tail to bid you goodbye and we head back leaving the bird and it’s habitat with the feeling of gratitude towards nature and its jewel. We may add only one technical part to this mesmerizing story. Use the equipment you are most comfortable with, never forget to check whether you are carrying all essential equipment (I had forgotten both my batteries of D5 body and ultimately I had to shoot with D500 body with nikkor 800 mm f/5.6 lense). And lastly never ever give up, you never know what next moment in the jungle has in the store.

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Sea Gulls - Part1

Field work is never without an element of comic relief

Field work is never without an element of comic relief. In my case, a very great deal of it comes from an unlikely bunch of creatures – sea gulls. Over the course of the time I have spent near or at sea so far, they have delivered generous doses of surprise, shock, awe and sheer entertainment on a
regular basis.
So we're going to do this in three parts.

Here's Part 1 - Crowd Power.

But first, a quick, straight-faced ornithological introduction to gulls – belonging to the subfamily Larinae (within the family Laridae), these are birds that breed inland in summer (some as far from here and Central Asia) and scatter out to other inland waterbodies, coasts, and offshore waters in the winter. A number of large and small gulls occur in India and are reasonably widespread throughout the country in winter. All of these have the general appearance of a plump seabird with a white head and underside, grey upperparts, and a yellow/orange/red bill. If you find this very broad, general description unhelpful, you might want to know that experienced birdwatchers and even ornithologists often fail and give up hopelessly when faced with a gull to identify (beyond saying it is, well, some large/small gull). Let alone identification, for many species of gull, there isn’t even a consensus on where they fit into the family and whether they are distinct from other species or not.

Crowd Power - 
Gulls are generally people-friendly birds – none more so than the gluttonous gulls at the Gateway of India, that know how to get a sumptuous snack from the merry, food-wielding tourists who throng their metropolitan wintering grounds. For a long time, I referred to them as “gaatiya gulls” (after their apparent addiction to gaatiya and similar snacks), only to find later that this nickname was in common widespread use already. My introduction to gulls happened in much the same way in
Mumbai, but this was just the beginning…
The second kind of experience I had with these birds was a similar but rather traumatising one. It happened on the other side of the world, in Florida. I had taken a halt at a deserted beach during a long bicycle ride, and after checking to make sure there weren’t any hungry gulls around, I pulled out
a pop tart from my backpack. No sooner had I taken one bite of it, than a huge flock of laughing gulls (that’s what the species is called; surprisingly, it has nothing to do with evil laughter) appeared out of nowhere and descended upon me. I did not care to count their numbers, but much like the legendary shower of arrows shot by the archers of the Persian Immortal armies, they were so numerous that they almost blotted out the sun. I had no choice but to toss the pop tart high up over my head, never to see it come down again, and make a dash for cover. These dense flocks are not an unusual thing. Here on the coasts of India, multiple flocks of wintering
gulls seem to come together to form maddeningly huge flocks (I have taken to calling them ‘superflocks’, even using this term on my survey data sheets where I record bird presence). These flocks are often so vast and dense that they appear on the horizon as a sort of fast-moving, swirling cloud. Having them approach the survey boat is nothing short of a nightmare. I have actually had to pause or discontinue surveys after running into gull superflocks. The data sheets say “low visibility due to gull superflock”, or simply “gullstorm”. It is literally like running into a snowstorm – you cannot see dolphins a mere few metres ahead, even if you are positively sure they are present. - Abhishek Jamalabad

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Sea Gulls by Abhishek Jamalabad - Part II

Sea Gulls by Abhishek Jamalabad - Part II ‘Intelligence’ - A little reading up tells me that gulls are actually known for their intelligence compared to most other birds

Sea Gulls by Abhishek Jamalabad - Part II

‘Intelligence’ -

A little reading up tells me that gulls are actually known for their intelligence compared to most other birds. Yet, whenever I’ve seen them with other animals around, they have seemed quite the simpletons in the lot, often making utter fools of themselves.

On one of my earliest boat-based surveys off Karwar, we came across an almost unbelievable sight. An immature lesser black-backed gull was trying hard to stand steady on a floating log. The log, being cylindrical, kept rolling on the water’s surface. So the gull was actually jogging on the rolling log, wings held out to maintain balance – it was actually effectively using the log as a treadmill. Whether this is a sign of intelligence or, well, a lack of it, I don’t know. The way this ended points to the latter possibility – the log progressively rolled faster and faster, until the gull couldn’t keep up and plonked in on its backside.

As mentioned at the start of this article, gulls are real schemers when they want to get food, but at times, they also seem to be phenomenally bad at it – at least when they have to catch their own fish. Large gulls sometimes attempt to chase terns to make them drop their catch, but the gulls are nowhere near as good as certain other seabirds when it comes to this strategy, and their half-hearted chases usually end in failure. Even more interesting (and amusing) is the way they simply let go of opportunities. Once they spot a fish near the water’s surface, gulls (sometimes two or three of them together) often seem to hover above their prey, looking intently at it, as if trying really hard to decide whether to grab it or not. And more often than not, an instinctively smarter tern zooms in on the scene from between the pondering gulls, plunges in, grabs the fish, and flies off, leaving the half-bewildered, half-angry gulls squawking and cawing in protest.

Even prey fish seem to put a gull’s reputation to shame sometimes. Gulls do sometimes attempt to dive for fish, but they seem to plan it rather badly. Sardines, favourite prey fish of most gulls, swim along the water’s surface in a straight line with intermittent leaps when startled by a net or boat. This is when the fish is most visible and easiest to target for a bird on the wing – an easy buffet for kites, terns, and an assortment of other seabirds that pluck the fish off the surface. Gulls, however, with their awfully mistimed dives, often end up plunging in a foot or two ahead of the fish, sometimes giving it enough of a warning to change course. However, behind every unsuccessful gull, there are several other gulls, and at least one of them gets the fish. (I have to admit that the clumsy gull pictured below had the reflexes to swing around and snap up that sardine – so these clumsy habits don’t always lead to failure.)

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