Sarus

The_Killing_of_Krouncha_Heron

By Balasaheb Pratinidhi (Chitra Ramayana) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of a bird led to the birth of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Sage Valmiki headed out to take a dip in the river Tamasa. He decided to take a stroll before his bath, soaking in nature’s beauty. A little distance away were two birds, a male and female, completely engrossed in one other. Even as the sage watched, a hunter’s arrow killed the male. Overcome with grief (shoka), Valmiki uttered these words, which, even to his surprise, came out as a shloka – a verse perfect in rhyme and rhythm – and was the first ever Sanskrit verse.

मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥

mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam

http://ozcranes.net/images/valmiki.jpg

Source: ozcranes.net

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A Pelican and Other Birds Near a Pool, known as ‘The Floating Feather

The verse roughly translates to, “Oh hunter, may you repent for life and suffer, find no rest or fame, for you have killed one of the unsuspecting, devoted and loving krauñcha couple.” Of the several interpretations, one says the hunter is the demon Ravana, who separated the loving couple, Sita and Rama.

My Sanskrit teacher in school, Mrs. Sulabha V Hubli, explained ma nishada in great detail with its many meanings and interpretations, imprinting the epic scene on my memory. A few months ago, I had attended Shyamal’s talk, where he discussed Melchior de Hondecoeter’s 1680 artwork, Het drijvend veertje, one of the most accurate representations of the Sarus Crane. The Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) at the center of the frame got me thinking about this verse again.

Was it the Sarus that Valmiki referred to? In different literature, the  krauñcha has been described as a dove, flamingo, swan, snipe, curlew or even a Demoiselle Crane. The wiki for Demoiselle Crane has a reference to krauñcha and Valmiki. However, more recent studies have established the identity of Valmiki’s krauñcha pair as Sarus Cranes.

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Sarus Cranes in a grassland, Keoladeo National Park

As the story goes, the female lamented with a pitch and tonal quality so deep in emotion, that compassion welled up within Valmiki. Julia Leslie’s paper, A bird bereaved, does an exhaustive study of the verse, considering thirty two separate species, and eliminating all but one, the Sarus Crane.

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Sarus Cranes in Keoladeo National Park

Literature says the name Sarus came from the Sanskrit word sarasa, pertaining to lake, water. Sarasa explains the habitat of the crane – wetlands, grasslands, marshes and [un]cultivated fields. Another study talks about the word relating to any crane or waterfowl, but it also translates to crying or calling out.  In Tamil, the word sarasa is closely related to dance – which relates to the “dancing” movements of these birds, not only during the breeding season. They are famous for their fascinating display, with perfect poise and calling in unison. They jump, bow and circle around, stand in front of each other, swinging their necks. One may jump and descend flapping its wings. Oh, how I wish I could see this someday 🙂

We did see this graceful pair foraging in the fields at Lesser Rann of Kutch. How time flew, we never realized, for they were a treat to watch. That they decided to call, was an icing on the cake.

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http://indiapicks.com/Indianart/Images_MP/Mughal_Cranes.jpg

Source: Gallery of Indian miniature paintings, National Museum, New Delhi

While Valmiki’s Ramayana gave a poetic introduction to the tallest flying birds, Emperor Jehangir pioneered in noting its behavioral ecology and natural history, in early 17th century. Again, one of his notes also refers to a crane’s pining, its mournful notes, after its mate was predated. Although all cranes bond for life, it is the Sarus that is a symbol of marital fidelity. The Emperor was so interested in these cranes that he had also gold-ringed a few of them on their noses and legs!

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An etymology of krauñcha says that it is the one that gives out calls. This bird with its grey plumage is described as the one with the red head (raktamoordha). In fact, Valmiki’s description of  tamra sirsa (coppery head) aided in identifying the krauñcha in his story.

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There are references to instances where bereaved Sarus Cranes have pined away to death. You may call this poignant episode and the female lamenting as anthropomorphic. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. All I can say is,  most of mankind has transformed into a more vicious form of the hunter of Valmiki’s story. To make our lives better – be it in the form of more money, better infrastructure, real estate, agriculture – we destroy  homes of not only the Sarus Crane, but of many other wild citizens. We kill them without giving a second thought. The Sarus Crane will continue to lament. There are people who narrate those stories. But will the audience read, listen and care?

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Sugandhi

References

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The smart one

February already feels like peak summer down South in India.This heat is also an indication of the beginning of a change in one of the most beautiful and scenic places on Earth – Lakkavalli.

_46A8910The River Tern Lodge is alongside the Bhadra reservoir, and close to the Lakkavalli dam. As the summer sets in, the water levels recede, exposing islets in the reservoir. These islets make ideal homes for visitors from up North, the River Terns Sterna aurantia. They begin mating and then use the depressions on the island to lay their eggs. I watched them in their thousands last summer, as they flew over and around the reservoir. There was never a dull moment with the constant cacophony of the terns. The ones that went fishing would come back home, dip the fish in water and take it to their loved one. And that ritual was almost constant. Other birds would show up as well, like the pratincoles, gulls and ducks, but the terns ruled the rock.

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Small Pratincole

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Gulls

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Spot-billed Ducks

The terns were always on the lookout for the ‘big, bad birds’, the eagles and kites. A pair of Bonelli’s Eagles and a Brahminy Kite used to rest on a nearby tree. We would hear a sudden loud chorus of ‘scree, screeee, screee’ every other morning at around 11:00. We would rush out to see a flock of River Terns chasing one of the Bonelli’s Eagles. It was strange that the Bonelli’s Eagle would only come to the island every other day! The terns lifting off together to chase their predators was a sight to behold. One of my friends, Vinodh, was able to capture images of the eagles hunting River Tern chicks.

Terns attacking a Woolly-necked Stork

Terns attacking a Woolly-necked Stork

It was mid-May and yet another boat safari. We slowly drifted towards the island.The routine was regular. Apart from the terns, a few Black-headed Ibis’ Threskiornis melanocephalus would also walk about on the island. These birds usually feed on frogs, snails, fish, insects, worms and_46A0852 maybe other creatures they find in water. Dunking their curved bills in water, they probe for food. Now, when all the books and papers have also stated what the ibis’ eat, the River Terns would have also know that, wouldn’t they? The terns never bothered having the carnivorous ibis on the island – no harm in sharing fish with them, they must have thought.

_46A2067The chicks had just then learnt to move about. A few brave ones would wobble around the shallow end of the island, hurriedly and sloppily running away if a wave went too close by. A Black-headed Ibis, looking all innocent and friendly like it did every other day, tiptoed near the edge. _46A9973And gabak! Chick in beak! Probably the ibis picked up this chick that was already dead, or maybe it killed it – I’m not sure as it was all too fast. Now, the ibis didn’t seem to know how exactly to eat it. The chick was too big for it. After all, it is not meant to eat vertebrates – the books don’t say that. Who says one shouldn’t try a different taste? The ibis didn’t waste any time in learning something new, all by itself. We don’t know if ibis’ have eaten other chicks before, but some opportunistic birds are known to alter their diet. The ibis would beat the chick left and right on the ground – thwack, thwack, thwack – possibly in an attempt to swallow it in the form of pulp. Its beak and throat aren’t made for this kind of meal, but the ibis seemed to be adapting beautifully. The beating went about for quite a while and sadly, it was time for us to leave. Till date, the question still remains if the ibis did manage to eat the chick.

Ibis with Tern chick kill

There didn’t seem to be any hue and cry from the terns. Maybe the parents would’ve missed their young one later on, but would they blame the ibis ? Unlikely, because the ibis’ were there on the island the next day. For all we know, the smart birds had gathered enough expertise on how to steal a meal when nobody’s looking. That is, if they figured out how to finally swallow the chicks. As they say in our local language, Kannada, “ಹುಚ್ಚು ಮುಂಡೆ ಮದುವೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ಉಂಡವನೇ ಜಾಣ” (when there is chaos, when the situation is wild, whoever manages to get by is the smart one).

Rana

References:

Sunehri vultures

Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBuzzy, Flaps, Ziggy, Dizzy – my all-time favorite funny and brave vultures from The Jungle Book, always bored and always saying, “What we gonna do?” “I don’t know, what you wanna do?” Disney had these vultures resemble ‘The Beatles’, with mop-top haircuts, physical appearance, voice and style. The other vulture hero that immediately comes to mind is Jatayu, who tried to rescue Sita from Ravana, after the latter kidnapped her and was carrying her away to Lanka. Raja Ravi Varma‘s famous painting depicts this scene beautifully.

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A Griffon Vulture landing on a tree

Vultures have made many a folk tale or mythological story interesting. But the real life story of vultures themselves isn’t as glorious. Once seen in large numbers, these scavengers help in cleaning the ecosystem. In fact, Parsi Tower of Silence in many places has open-air concentric rings where human bodies are left, and vultures used to consume them within hours.

India was home to about 400 million vultures once upon a time. They were getting to feed on a large number of livestock carcasses. These numbers have slowly declined now, and it is attributed to Diclofenac. This painkiller is used to alleviate pain in cattle, but proves to be a killer to the vultures, who suffer irreversible kidney failures. Meloxamin has been tried and tested as an alternative to diclofenac.

“sunehri” Cinereous Vulture, tall, dark and handsome.

Red-headed Vulture

With so few vultures for us to see in our cities, we always need to head out to those pockets which still shelter these majestic birds. One such place is the Desert National Park, Rajasthan. We were in a jeep, totally awed by the desert and how different it was. Our driver suddenly pointed ahead, saying, “Sir, sunehri vulture!” It was a  Cinereous Vulture, not sunehri 😉 Sunehri roughly translates to “golden” in Hindi. Our vulture – all of dark blackish brown, having no trace of golden, did create a sunehri moment, nonetheless. A few meters ahead stood this Red-headed Vulture, a Critically Endangered species.

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Juvenile of an Eastern Imperial Eagle

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Feral dogs

Instead of a tan in the hot sun, we had a glow on our faces, thanks to being able to see vultures. We were fresh out of another vulture experience in Rajasthan, at Jorbeer in Bikaner. It’s a dumpyard for carcasses and also a protected forest area. I had heard from other birders who had been to a different carcass dumpyard about the overpowering stench, about how someone even decided to throw his shoes to forget that smell! Hmm, I started getting worried about mine – I really like this pair that I have. Everything about it is good – comfort, color, reliability. We had gone on a tour with Darter, and our tour leader Shreeram warned us against getting down from the car. The feral dogs at Jorbeer, notorious for their ferocity, had once outnumbered even the natural scavengers. It was sad to learn that we couldn’t walk around. But every cloud has its silver lining – I wouldn’t have to throw away my shoes 😉

I mentally prepared myself thoroughly to face the stench. We began seeing birds of prey like this drop-dead-gorgeous Eastern Imperial Eagle, Steppe Eagle and Griffon Vultures. Well, no stench so far.  So far, so good ? I didn’t know. I realized that we weren’t even close to the actual dump to smell anything.

Steppe Eagles and Griffon Vulture, birds of a different feather flock together!

Gulliver and lilliput?

Gulliver and lilliput!

Further ahead, we saw the huge and mighty Cinereous Vulture, also knows as the “Monk Vulture” translated from its German name of Mönchsgeier. A monk’s cowl is a long garment with wide sleeves and a hood. See this image in the wiki for cowl and you’ll know exactly why a Cinereous Vulture fits the name so well 🙂 Egyptian Vultures (ಜಾಡಮಾಲಿ  ಹದ್ದು) walking next to this giant appeared so tiny!

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Egyptian Vulture standing on carcass

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Intermediate Egret next to cattle-head

And then, the moment finally arrived. Mounds and mounds of dead cattle covered the ground. There were vultures in plenty, mostly the Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, the numbers reminding me of the pigeons back home. What was more surprising was to see egrets and different kinds of mynas foraging on the carcasses. We usually see mynas pecking nicely at flowers and fruits, and here they were, hopping around the mounds.  The non-scavenger mynabirds were making good use of the location and the situation, feeding on insects and such. We have seen mynas around garbage dumps quite often, but surely didn’t expect them here!

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Feeding frenzy

We watched the Egyptian Vultures tear away the bloody flesh. I was so well prepared, I got used to the smell in no time. But Rana had to literally use gag control 😉 He couldn’t drink water without rinsing his mouth thrice! In fact, even reviewing the images on camera made him feel the smell over and over again.

It was amazing to just stay there and watch the birds and dogs moving about so normally, when another species (read, humans) wasn’t able to bear it. Oh, well, I should probably rephrase it and say that some humans weren’t able to bear it. Another scene played out in front of us. Right next to the dump

Clothesline at Jorbeer

Clothesline at Jorbeer

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A place to lay out hide for drying

was a mini settlement. The clothesline indicated that people actually stayed there. A man walked right into the dumps as casually as we would stroll in a park. The dogs were unperturbed, as if he was one of their group. He joined a few other men a few meters behind.  We saw them tearing the hide off a freshly dumped body. Moving ahead, we saw hide being put out for drying – this probably smelt more than the carcass! Yet another perspective from a dump yard, with people trying to make a living out of what’s available. They bear the hardships. They are used to it. A dead animal providing so many others with food and/or livelihood – who says there is no life after death?

Sugandhi

References:

Knock knock!

Knock, knock.

Yes, thanks, we are ready!

This isn’t the typical knock-knock joke.  There is no “who’s there” that follows the knocks because we always know who’s there at that time. This is the usual sequence on any morning in any forest lodge we stay. A friendly staff member gives a wake-up call to all the guests. We grab a piping hot cup of tea or coffee and head out on a visit to the jungle.  Now, the choice of tea or coffee depends on the place.  I love coffee and I like the way it is made in Karnataka (up to Malnad, to be precise) and parts of Tamilnadu. In any other region, I would rather have tea.

Rana and I were at River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. We were all set to go before the staff knocked at the door, but were searching for our binoculars. That was when we heard a second Knock, knock.

Hmm, why are they knocking again? “Yes, yes, we heard you, we’ll be there.”

Knock, knock. “Just give us a minute, looking for binoculars”

Knock, knock, knock. Thump, thump. Rana said, “Open the door, maybe he wants to tell us something…”

I opened the latch. Tap-tap-tap, bumpI opened the door, there was nobody; I stepped outside ….still no one. I could only see a Red Spurfowl in the bushes.

inTheBushes

Later in the evening, as we were returning, we heard the tapping sounds again as we approached our cottage. We tiptoed, hid behind the cottage and saw a Red Spurfowl.  The cottage has glass windows. The bird was on the sill, pecking at it’s reflection!knockKnock

It was very interesting. Every morning and every evening, the group of Red Spurfowls would emerge from hiding. Those are the times when there is a general lull, when the guests have left for activities. One or two of them would start pecking at the glass. Maybe they were curious about the “other bird” that always showed up whenever they landed on the sill. Or maybe they wanted to get rid of this “new bird”  in their area and thus protect their territory.reflection

I don’t know the exact reason. But here’s something interesting in a 1963’s article titled “A Jungle Crow’s mysterious behaviour” (by Neelakantan, K. K in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, Volume 3 No. 5). A Jungle Crow used to come to a window in his house regularly, at different times of the day, over several days. It would peck at the dirty glass for sometime, and then ‘bite’ a toe on one of its feet and fall tumbling to the ground! It had repeated this many times on every visit. Strange are the ways of birds!

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A point repeatedly popped up in our related reading. Windows are the second largest human source of bird deaths. Window-kills range in billions across the world. Birds get confused by glass, polished surfaces, reflective panes – they try to fly to the skies, or the space beyond, never knowing that those are killer reflections.

Well, not all reflective surfaces are fatal. Some of them only lead to interesting behavior 😉 The next time you are at River Tern Lodge, look out for opportunity knocking at your door! And of course, don’t run out of your cottage or rush to it. Don’t send the spurfowls tumbling all over 🙂

Sugandhi

Postscript: Just now, Seshadri shared a link about two birds dying after crashing into windows at NUS. Sigh.

References:

The Shikra’s meal

In a fast-growing city like Bengaluru, real estate is an issue, not only for people but also for birds. We stay just a hop away from Vidhana Soudha, in the commercial hub and right in the middle of the central business district. The road is so congested that business establishments are taking a hit because of lack of parking space! If you can imagine that, you can also imagine the noise and pollution levels caused by traffic. But you may not be able to imagine that bird families continue to choose to make their home here, on this road. Three of them had their address on an African Tulip tree.

A Jungle Crow family had its nest of twigs on top of the tree. A White-cheeked Barbet couple found a hole further down, below the leaves.  A Common Myna family selected a hole on the side opposite to that of the barbets.  Barbets make neat, evenly circular holes in trees. In fact, these are near perfect, allowing no extra space when a barbet peeps out of the entrance 🙂 We didn’t see this pair excavating a new one. This must’ve been a nest they had made before and had ‘renovated’. White-cheeked Barbets are known to harass other species of barbets, taking over their nest sometimes.

White-cheeked Barbet amidst the branches.

White-cheeked Barbet (Click for a larger image)

It was interesting that the barbets and the mynas were staying there, despite the fact that the Jungle Crow was a potential enemy. There was also a female Asian Koel who visited this tree often – she must’ve used the Jungle Crow’s nest to lay her eggs. (Such behaviour is called brood parasitism. You can view an animated description of the same in the Indian movie, 3 idiots).

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Days went by and the young ones of the Jungle Crow were now visible in the nest. Whenever they were awake, they always seemed to have their mouths open. Doesn’t it ache, we wondered! One of the parents would come with some food every now and then, regurgitate and feed them.

Common Lime on the tamarind tree

Common Lime on the tamarind tree

We did not see the myna chicks as we were travelling during that time 😦 However, the White-cheeked Barbet couple used to sit on the nearby gulmohar and tamarind trees. They would call almost all day, going ‘Guturu, guturu’. Did you know these barbets call without opening their beaks?  We never saw the young ones and the sound of the barbets gradually reduced over the months.

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Meanwhile, the Jungle Crows grew up healthily. There were a couple of torrential rains and heavy wind, but the family and its nest survived all of that.

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Gulmohar tree in full bloom

A couple of months went by. By now, the gulmohar (Kattikai mara) was in full bloom.

It was one of these days when we were in the middle of some ‘serious discussion’ at around 11 AM.  We heard a shrill scream. All discussion abandoned, we ran to the balcony and saw a rather small raptor fly onto a ledge on the adjacent building. It was a Shikra!

It is not rare to see one in places where people stay, but amidst all that traffic, all that noise, here was a Shikra, ready to enjoy a nice midday meal. And just what was its meal ? One of our young neighbours, a tiny little barbet chick. We hadn’t seen the young ones before – and we got to see one of them now, as a meal. The barbet continued screaming for some time, while the Shikra pecked and plucked at it. Despite knowing it had audience,  it went about eating. After some time, it decided to have a change in venue, picked up its meal and flew onto the Gulmohar tree.

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Two days went by and the air was filled with the same shrill screams. It was a young barbet, again ! But this time, two Jungle Crows had caught hold of it. They didn’t want to have audience and flew away to a different tree, to enjoy their meal in peace and privacy.

The Shikra was one of the birds used for hawking or falconry (natives used to train birds of prey for their sport of hunting). It is rather slow compared to others birds used in a falconry. Apparently, a tame Shikra cannot even attempt to catch a bird, unless someone ‘throws’ the Shikra at a prey it is supposed to catch! However, falconers (hunters) usually have shikras with them, because shikras are very brave, can catch big birds now and then and can be trained easily.

_46A3097A Shikra’s normal diet contains lizards, mice, insects and small birds. Of late, there are bats visiting our African Tulip tree. I have read of instances where Shikras have fed on bats. Will it come to feed on the bats, I wonder.

Rana

References:

  • Notes on the falconidae used in India in falconry
  • Wiki notes on Shikra
  • Stray bird notes from Rishi Valley
  • Muni, M. and Hegde, V., 1998. Indian Shikra preying on Short-nosed Fruit Bats. Bombay Natural History Society, 95(2): 338-339.
  • Zarri, A. A., 2001. More information on shikra Accipter badius (Gmelin) feeding on shortnosed fruit bats Cynopterus sphinx Vahl. Bombay Natural History Society, 98(1): 106-107.
  • Agoramoorthy, G., 2001. Predatory attack on bats by barn owl Tyto alba and shikra Accipiter badius in Tamil Nadu state, south India Bombay Natural History Society, 98(1): 107-108.
  • Yahya, H. S. A., 1989. Breeding biology of barbets, Megalaima spp. (Capitonidae- Piciformes) at Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala. Bombay Natural History Society, 85(3): 493-511.

The Black Bittern

I just returned from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Bhadra always springs a surprise or two in sightings. In my case, there were a few more than just two. Hopefully, in the next few months I shall be documenting these wonderful experiences. I will begin with one of the rare sighting at Bhadra, and a first for me.

Have you ever played the game Passing the Password or Chinese Password as a kid? At first, the news came that a Black Pitta was seen. Black Pitta ??! We looked in the Wiki, Google, several editions of field guides and books on birds, just in case any of the Pittas has had a change of name 😉  We went repeatedly in search of this bird and finally found it after a couple of days. The name of the bird had been passed around 3-4 people and by the time we heard about it, the Black Bittern had been rechristened as the Black Pitta !

We saw the Black Bittern, Dupetor flavicollis, standing in a pond. It was there in its typicalClose-up and streaks style, with its neck drawn in and standing with a ‘hunched’ back. The adult is largely black in color. It has a very noticeable yellow cheek patch and the underparts have dark, heavy streaks. It is a solitary bird and prefers to be around dense swamps, inland swamps, overgrown seepage nullas in jungles. It is very shy, skulks around its habitat during the day, and is mostly nocturnal and crepuscular (i.,e active in twilight, like bats). All of these make it very difficult to see a Bittern.

During breeding, it chooses reed beds. The season is typically between June – September and this is when one can Black Bitternhope to hear its loud booming call. Apparently, the call is so loud that one can hear it even a kilometer away! This bird lays 3 – 5 eggs in nests on reed platforms in shrubs, bamboo clumps or sometimes in trees.

Black Bitterns feed on insects, fish and amphibians. When they arBlack Bittern habitate startled or disturbed, they freeze.

In chemistry, bit-tern is a bitter solution remaining in salt-making after the salt has crystallized out of seawater or brine. Most of the Bitterns have a color similar to this solution and hence, they get their name (Ref: Pakshi Prapanchada Vaividhyate-VismayagaLu; Dr. J C Uttangi, Dr. V K Deshpande). This Kannada field guide refers to the Black Bittern as Kari Javugu Pakshi, while another one refers to Bittern as Guppi.

I haven’t had enough of this bird. I hope to see it again and hear its booming call or see its twilight flight. Waiting…. 🙂

Rana

Regurgitate !

Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others – Benjamin Franklin

Our Chemistry lecturer in college was quoting this line quite often. I forget why this was one of his favorites, but I sure do remember it every time I come across an extremely ‘generous’ host. I had visited a friend’s home for some work, on a summer afternoon, after a heavy weekend lunch. His mother offered me a plate of ‘thaTTe’ idlis, the b.i.g kind. I politely refused, stating nothing but the truth that I had just had my fill. She returned my refusal, equally politely. The plate remained with me. I could feel my eyes swelling up – I am not used to having 2 big meals, one right after the other. How I wished I never had to go there. How I wished she wasn’t such a ‘nice’ lady. How I wished I had the powers of a bird of prey! I could’ve just regurgitated a pellet then, and be done with this traumatic experience 😉

But then, many birds of prey regurgitate – for a different reason and not because they are force-fed. Birds don’t have teeth and they swallow their food, either all of it shortEaredOwlLookingAroundor in parts. In some cases, predators would tear their prey into pieces and swallow them, one by one. In go the skull, hair, feathers, bones, fur; some of these are undigested or partially digested. After digesting the rest of the meal, the birds would regurgitate undigested or partially digested material in the form of pellets. Neat!

And how cool it is to see a

Mascara-lined captivating eyes of the Short Eared Owl

Mascara-lined captivating eyes of the Short Eared Owl

bird actually do that! At the Little Rann of Kutch, India, Rana and I headed to a grassland and saw a group of Short Eared Owls. The group was distributed across the land, with each owl choosing to rest under a different tree. They were just beautiful, with eyes so captivating that we couldn’t take our eyes off them. Wikipedia has given a very interesting description about the black rings around the eyes. They look like Mascara! Sigh, some creatures seem to have everything nice, and for free ! They have tufts of feathers that resemble ‘ears’ and hence, they get their name.

Click on the images for a larger version.

One such owl sat oreadyToRegurgitaten the ground, looked up and down, and suddenly opened its mouth wide. Out popped a neatly packed pellet and the owl went about its routine. How many things can you appreciate about one moment – the bird itself, its Mascara-lined eyes, the fact that it chose that very moment to regurgitate? 🙂

Short Eared Owl regurgitating a pellet

Short Eared Owl regurgitating a pellet

Pellet on the ground

These pellets are not just cute-looking packages, but also a wealth of information. Researchers gather pellets and other tell-tale signs around roosting sites of birds. A roosting site is where a bird would perch on or rest at, during night. The bones, hair and other items found in a pellet would help in finding out what the prey was, and in turn, give clues about the birds roosting there. In addition to this, there maybe feathers or other signs to add to the findings.shortEaredOwlHabitat

It is a pity that such beautiful creatures are being traded, abused, killed. Here are some reports related to the illegal owl trade in India, including having them as pets. I quote a line from one of the links: Owls are as important to our ecosystem as the Tigers or any other better known charismatic species. The least we can do is just let them be.

I am so fascinated by owls, I just got myself one, legally – here is an image of my new acquisition. I do hope that we get to continue to see and hear owls being free, being in the wild, rather than in these forms.

owlPendant

Sugandhi

Swallow crossing – go slow

We are very familiar with pedestrian crossings. It is a different matter on how we use it, either as pedestrians or as motorists, but these crossings exist for a reason.  Now, there are zebra crossings, toucan crossings, pelican crossings, puffin crossings – not for zebras or toucans or pelicans or puffins, but for humans. These crossings help pedestrians and/or cyclists get across the road, hopefully safely.

I propose a new name to be added to this list and would like to call it the Swallow Crossing. This one would have to be for the fast-flying, insect-eating, small birds, the Barn Swallows, at the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary, Pulicat Lake, Sriharikota (in the State of Andhra Pradesh, India). During one of Sugandhi’s and my recent trips along the lakeside, we saw a good number of these birds, flying from the river bank to the tarred road that has the lake on either side. Flying at about 11 – 20 m/s from one side to the other, they seem to brave the wrath of speeding vehicles that zip across from the main land to the space research center.

The Barn Swallows typically feed while flying, and they feed on flying insects. The banks of the rivers were full of mosquitoes. At first, we were wondering if the swallow colony was flying around to feed on them. But a couple of rounds up and down the lake seemed to tell us a different story. The swallows would get to the road whenever a vehicle was approaching closer. Barn Swallows are also known to display a behavior called ‘mobbing’ – they co-operate in groups to drive away predators. Were they mobbing the motorists ?

Whether they were mobbing or were feeding, they were getting across to the road every now and then. It was challenging to get a still image of the swallows that had decided not to be still, even for a moment ! Unless they were dying, or dead…

I saw one of them by the roadside, just hit by a passing vehicle. It did seem to be moving its eyes, but the rest of its body was motionless. All we could do was move it to the side, so that it can at least pass away in one piece and in peace.

The Barn Swallow is a small bird. Its conservation status says ‘least concern’. But, that doesn’t mean that its life is taken for granted. A ‘swallow crossing’ might help us to slow down on such roads. It might help save the life of at least one Barn Swallow. Maybe the size and status of a swallow doesn’t matter here in the space research town, but Life is still precious.

 

Rana

The tiniest bird I had ever seen

The 'frog' across the road

…. was dead.

It was a rather hot afternoon in June, 2012. Savouring a cup of yummy mango-flavoured  yogurt, I was on our customary post-lunch, grab-some-Vitamin-D walk with Rana and two of our colleagues, Dileep & Amit. I thought I spotted something on the ground and stopped to see. A few cars were zipping past, headed out from the basement towards the gate. I waited to get across and have a closer look. It looked like a frog, and it seemed rather unusual, as Bangalore was desperately waiting for rains.

I bent down and saw that it was a tiny bird. It was so frail, I could almost see what was behind its skin. There were ants all over its body, trying to transport it elsewhere. I had seen ants carrying dead moths, bugs, cockroaches, geckos/lizards – but never had I seen them carrying a dead bird. I know that the bird was just bigger than a Rs. 5 coin, but that’s big for an ant ! It was as long as my thumb, and that was fascinating (while you look at the image, please ignore the colour on the nail :D)

I called out to my walk-mates, who seemed to have forgotten me, and were admiring other kinds of life around them 😉 We couldn’t identify which bird it was – although, going by the slightly yellow-ish beak and the little black patch, we guessed it might be the little one of a Common Myna. The campus has Common Mynas aplenty. They roost on the ledges and start singing, almost every time we walk below the ledge.

This dead bird and the ants got me googling a bit. I found more questions – people around the world asking why we don’t see so many naturally-dead birds. That was a dandy thought. The highways show us many dead birds, killed by road accidents. Even this one we found would either have been blown away from its nest by a strong wind, or it could be possible that a predator had picked up its little snack and dropped it en-route to its home.

The various answers to that question indicated that if a bird feels sick, it usually retreats into a hideout (a hole in a tree, maybe). Thus, it protects itself from being somebody’s meal, since the sickness will not allow it to escape soon enough. If it does get better, it will fly back to its normal life. If not, it will die there and some scavenger will ultimately find it. Or, they may fall into bushes where the scavengers find them sooner than humans do, by virtue of their superior sense of smell.

The other question was about the ants. I stumbled upon a thought / quote:

When a bird is alive, it eats ants.
When a bird is dead, ants eat the bird.
So, time can turn at any time, don’t devalue anyone in life.
You may be powerful but time is more powerful than you.
“One tree makes one thousand of match sticks,
but one match stick can burn one thousand trees”.
Do good & Good will follow you

–Anonymous

Ant colonies have well-defined responsibilities. These ants that I found were probably the ‘worker’ ants, who have this duty to search for food. When they set out from home, they leave a scent trail (pheromones) behind them. The ant that finds the food returns on its own trail, leaving behind a stronger scent. Others are likely to stop searching when they find this stronger scent, and they get onto the same trail. They may pick pieces of food and carry them back, one piece each. Or, in cases like these, when the food is ‘big’, the worker ants ‘recruit’ others to help them. They form a team and carry all of the food in one go. And that is what we saw, that afternoon in June.

It was just a short walk around the campus. It taught us the behaviour of birds. It gave us an insight into the life of ants. We headed back, thinking life is beautiful.

 

Sugandhi

Mr. Phelps

The first words that come to mind when you utter the word ‘Bangalore’: Bad traffic. Chaos and confusion, clamor and commotion – everyday of commuting has been a pain. But didn’t someone say, “Every cloud has a silver lining” ?

We would sit in traffic jams and spend our time appreciating the colorful chestnut-and-white Brahminy Kite. The colors never cease to amaze us, and also the fact that the birds have probably adapted to feeding off the bad waters in Bangalore.

All we wanted was a decent photograph of this stately raptor. While we were waiting for that opportune moment, my parents returned from a short trip to Singapore and were proudly showing off their day with the birds. Here we were,  waiting for just-one -image, and my father had actually posed with one! If that wasn’t enough, to add salt to our ‘wounds’,  my aunt wrote about the Garuda family outside her house.

Patience – we told ourselves.

It was the Indian Independence Day, and we headed out for some independence for ourselves, to free ourselves from the pollution. It was Sugandhi’s turn to drive and I sat navigating, and looking out for birds of the feathered kind, and of the other kind ;). I saw something and shouted, “Stop!”. She mouthed many a bad phrase, stopped and reversed the car. Her anger turned to surprise and then to delight when she saw what made me shout. In the fields, in a puddle of water, was a cozy little family of Brahminy Kites (2 Adults and 2 Juveniles). It was the first time that we saw these birds in water, having what seemed like a nice swim !

Birds are warm-blooded, warmer than most other creatures, including us. Although their body temperature doesn’t change so much with the changes outside, they also have their ‘bad days’, when their body heat can get quite high.  Extreme body heat, extremely active and the birds can still afford to say ‘no sweat’. Literally, because they cannot sweat, as they have no sweat glands. These feathered friends of ours have found out many ways to get rid of that body heat. One such is to do what we would also love to – get into water and splash around. This gets their feathers wet and brings down the extra heat in the body.

Now, it is said that the young ones of a Brahminy Kite, when they go a-fishing, may sometimes land in the water but manage to swim and take off without much trouble. There is a reference to such a behavior way back in 1926 by Prater SH; Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus swimming, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. We are trying to get our hands on it to compare notes.

Well, this family seemed to have settled in water, rather than just having landed in!  One of the younger ones seemed to be playfully busy looking for a snack.

This was an inundated  field, a typical place for a Brahminy Kite, and that ‘pool’ had all the characteristics of a ‘bird bath’. It was shallow enough for their size, had more than stones and pebbles below for them to stand on, with enough open space around for them to escape if they sensed any danger.

Of course, they used it more than like a bath. Here is one series from what we now call “The Phelps Family”. One breath to the right, one to the left, look ahead and take stock of the situation. And start all over again. It was fantastic to watch the swimmers.

The days have gone by and we have our collection of images of this kleptoparasite. Our patience has paid. If not anything else, we will continue to enjoy the company of our Garuda in the midst of traffic woes.

Rana

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