Caracara, King of the Road Kill

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

 

Just as the song says, “sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.”  I was innocently driving my shiny new pick-up down a rural road when out of nowhere a crazy vulture swooped down and crashed into the quarter panel.  All I saw in the rearview mirror were fluttering black feathers, a new mangled roadside meal waiting for wiser vultures, and a sizable dent in my truck.  As I wrote the check to the body shop I began to reflect upon road kill and the avian community.

Black Vulture, Coragyps stratus                 click to zoom

It seems that there is a hierarchy of birds vying for the right to road kill.  One can sit by and observe the competition for the rotting carcass if you have too much time on your hands, or if like me, you are a little “bird-addled”.  My observations lead me to suggest this hierarchy arranged in order of increasing aggression:     Crows and Sea Gulls, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracara as “King of the Road Kill”.  Eagles also fit into this scheme somewhere but are not as frequently seen at the roadside.

A Choir of Gulls

Earlier this week I noticed a dearth of good Caracara shots in my photo library so I headed to the best place in southwest Florida to correct that, the wide open flatlands along Oil Well Road in Collier County.  The stately and dashing bird is often seen there perched on a fence post or lording over road kill.  I was not disappointed.

Oil Well Road

The name “Caracara” is derived from the sound of their harsh rattling call.  Our crested northern species, also called a “Mexican Buzzard”, is most commonly seen along our southern border and into Mexico, Central, and the northern parts of South America.  The very similar Southern Caracara is found from northern Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego.  Caracara belong to the Falconidae family but are quite different from other swiftly flying falcons.  They, instead are sluggish scavengers, finding most of their dead or dying prey on foot.

Southern Caracara, Caracara plancus

Caracara are found exclusively in the New World.  In addition to the genus “Caracara”, there are four other genera of caracara.  The dissimilar Chimango Caracara belongs to the genus “Milvago”.  These pictures of the Southern and Chimango species are courtesy of Andy, my esteemed colleague, world traveller, and bird photographer par excellence, who just returned from Patagonia.

Chimango Caracara, Milvago chimango

Oil Well Road extends due east, away from the settled gulf coast and into “Old Florida”, the land of the endangered Florida panther, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and also the Crested Caracara.  After years of exploration Humble Oil Company finally drilled a producing well here in 1943, but there are no wells obvious to me along the road today.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Some of the road is a new divided highway with most of the traffic heading to Ave Maria University.  This college town is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza.  The growing conservative Catholic university and surrounding town were literally built in the middle of nowhere, but seem to be growing as they celebrate their 10th anniversary this year.  Stop in there for a birder’s lunch and check out the impressive church in the center of it all.

The Oratory at Ave Maria

East of Ave Maria the traffic drops off and the road reverts to its two-lane rural character.  Wide grassy shoulders allow the birder to pull over and scan the roadside ditches for waders and alligators.  Wood Storks and Red-shouldered Hawks are plentiful here and you may catch sight of a Roseate Spoonbill.  It’s also where you’re apt to find the road kill and observe the avian clean-up crew at work.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

The Turkey and Black Vultures will not win many beauty contests but are perfectly adapted to their niche as scavengers.  The Turkey Vulture has an exquisite sense of smell and can detect that “dead skunk in the middle of the road stinking to all high heavens” from thousands of feet of elevation.  In fact the Black will often follow the Turkey Vulture to the carcass and then, being the more aggressive of the two, will chase its red-headed cousin away.  That is, until the Caracara moves in and displaces them both.

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

A perfect meal for a vulture is carrion that has been dead several days.  This allows the flies and maggots to tenderize the meat.  The scavenger’s strong gastric acid neutralizes the contaminating bacteria, and their featherless heads allows for effective clean-up after the meal.

Crested Caracara fighting over a dead snake

You won’t find Oil Well Road listed as a birding hotspot for south Florida, but don’t let that deceive you, especially if you are seeking the Crested Caracara.  Just be sure to pull far off the pavement onto the grassy shoulder to give those screaming 14-wheelers a wide berth.  And also, watch out for the lurking gators in the ditches.  They may look like they are sleeping in the hot sun, but could also be lying in wait for their next meal.

Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

 

Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.

 

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

The lovely light of the candle is synonymous with the lives of the bizarre and beautiful birds.  One pathway of evolution has resulted in the male’s flamboyant colors, tempting ornaments, and loud love songs, all to impress the female, even at the expense of his survival.  The other more conservative pathway has led to identical males and females of subtle camouflage coloration; the keep-your-head-down, blend in, and stay safe approach to life, with survival being the ultimate goal.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

The conservative approach follows the classic science of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  Darwin, however, later decided that a different theory was needed to explain the evolution of beauty; a process resulting in the dramatic bright plumages, long tails, striking crests, and unusual courtship behaviors.  The aesthetic evaluation of mate choice and pleasure become the goal of these birds, apparently trumping survival determined by the classic idea of fitness.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Richard Prum expertly describes the consternation and debate that Darwin caused in his lifetime over the concept of evolution by sexual selection, a debate that has lasted to the present.  The author takes up Darwin’s fight and supports his argument with fascinating accounts of avian courtship, emphasizing the central role of the female choosing a mate purely for the pleasure of it.  Detractors say that assigning charm, sensory delight, and aesthetic discernment to birds is far too anthropomorphic.  Darwin and Prum disagree.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

It was the elaborate beauty of the Peacock’s tail with its eyespots that was so unsettling to Darwin.  How could his “Origin of Species” and survival of the fittest explain this impractical plumage?  His second book, “The Descent of Man”, introduced sexual pleasure and female choice as new and different driving forces in evolution.  As you can imagine, Victorian patriarchal England had significant issues with this revolutionary concept.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Prum has impressive credentials, first as a childhood birder from New England, then from years of fieldwork in the tropical jungles, and later as a professor of ornithology at Yale.  In the chapter “Beauty From the Beast” he describes the male Bowerbirds and their construction of architecturally elaborate bowers or bachelor pads.  These males build competing aesthetic structures which have no practical use other than to charm and attract a female mate.  The evolving male animal artists must match the corresponding evolution of female preference for their art to be successful.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The fossil record raises some interesting ideas about the origin of colorful feathers.  It seems that feathers evolved and adorned reptiles prior to other structural changes that would allow flight.  Recently electron microscopy has shown tiny color-forming melanosomes in the feathers of the theropod dinosaurs.  Were these early colorful feathers initially sexual ornaments that only later evolved to the avian structures of flight?

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

In the chapter “Manakin Dances” Prum describes the bizarre social world of South American Manakin leks.  A lek is a small, male-defended patch chosen as his personal stage upon which he performs to lure females.  The male, in turn, is chosen for mating by a discerning female who is impressed by his plumage ornaments, acrobatic displays, dancing skills, and acoustic signals.  It is female choice that drives male behavior and sexual evolution.

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

So why do I give this book only 4 stars out of 5?  To me the wheels seemed to come off a bit in Chapter 5, “Make Way For Duck Sex”.  The description of the ducks’ displays, female and male urogenital tracts (males are endowed with a long retractile penis), and the description of copulation, both consensual and otherwise, were fascinating.  But the author at this point begins to enter into a highly speculative correlation of avian behavior with human sexuality, including female autonomy, feminism, fashion, eugenics, and even homosexuality.  Although these are worthwhile topics, the jump from avian evolution which occurs over millions of years to human sociology and cultural evolution, which may change yearly, seemed somewhat farfetched and out of place.

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

But this book will have great appeal for birders and non-birders alike.  As I read other reviewers it is clear that birders favor the first half of the book and its wonderful accounts of avian behavior, while non-birders relish the second half which evolves into a parallel discussion of human sexuality and social issues.  Clearly the book will foster many interesting discussions and I can picture it as a popular book club selection.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The next time I am traipsing through the underbrush and see the brilliant crimson flash of the male Cardinal, the iridescent body of the Hummingbird, or hear the loud melodic call of the Carolina wren, I’ll remember Darwin and Prum and the millions of years of sexual selection that have created pleasure for both the birds and the birder.

Anhingadae, Anhinga anhinga

 

Family, genus and species.  The taxonomists were either suffering from an acute lack of imagination when they named and classified the Anhinga, or more likely they wanted to highlight the unique nature of this bird.  Anhinga, aka “Snake Bird”, “Darter”, “Water Turkey”, and “Devil Bird”.  This last moniker is derived from the Brazilian Tupi language word “ajina” which refers to a demonic spirit of the forest.

Female in flight

The Anhingadae family only contains a single genus, and that genus contains but one species, our Florida bird, in North and South America.  It does include three other Old World species, one each in Africa, India, and Australia/Asia.  Initially taxonomists thought the bird was closely related to cormorants, however newly discovered and unique characteristics have come to light.  This bird is the only bird, and probably the only vertebrate that has a single carotid artery (a great vessel extending from the heart to the brain).

Typical drying and warming pose

The Anhinga has an adaptation of the lower cervical spine that allows a rapid forward snap and recoil of the head and neck, effectively piercing underwater the tough side of the fish with its sharp bill.  The inside of the bill is lined with multiple barbs that tightly hold the flopping prey.

Riding low with small fish

This bird swims low in the water, propelled by webbed feet, with just the head and neck exposed.  Its diminished buoyancy is due to its dense bones, the ability to deflate its air sacs, and its unique feathers.  Anhingas lack the fine insulating feathers close to the skin which are found in cormorants.  Instead their feathers contain microscopic spaces that allow water to penetrate, making diving and underwater fishing easier.

The most common Anhinga pose is with wings widespread and drying in the tropical sun.  This also serves to warm the bird and overcome the disadvantages of its poor insulation.  You won’t find any Anhinga far from the tropics.

Female with catfish

I was birding in Eagle Lake Community Park, a local hotspot near Naples, with John, an enthusiastic novice birder.  A friendly couple from Detroit, (at least he was wearing a Tigers baseball cap) came up to us and asked, “what was that strange dark bird with the peculiar head?”  A quick check with the binos showed that the “head” was actually an unlucky sunfish impaled on the bill of a lucky Anhinga.

The dark bird with the peculiar head

As we watched the fish was beaten against a branch, I suppose to kill it.  The distracted snake bird did not notice a Great Egret lurking close by.  Just when the fish was ready for head-first swallowing the squawking egret pounced, wings spread wide, and the lunch was dropped back into the pond, satisfying no one.

Nesting Anhinga

The books say that these birds nest in diverse community rookeries, but I have seen them also nesting alone.  The males are entirely black and white while the females sport beautiful buff head and neck feathers.  Surprisingly you can also see these water birds soaring high in the thermals, often with the buzzards.  They’re the ones with the long fan-shaped tails.  Why are they way up there?  Its clearly not to locate fish.  Could it be purely for the joy of flying or is that explanation too anthropomorphic?  I’ll suggest it anyway until someone tells me something different.

A young Anhinga chick

I learned something birding with John this week. He reminded me of the genuine enthusiasm one has when seeing, actually seeing, a bird for the first time.  He had a set of new and decent binoculars and could now see the red and yellow epaulets of the Red-winged Blackbird and the golden eye of the Boat-tailed Grackle, both never noticed before.  Even at 60+ years it’s not too late to become a birder.

John also prompted me to call out the field marks, relative sizes, behavior, and songs of the common birds.  Specifically, how do you know its an “x” and not a “y”.  He and I were partners in a radiology practice up north and are not strangers to observing details and using pattern recognition techniques.  When an experienced radiologist first sees a chest x-ray he almost immediately knows if its normal or abnormal; no need to study the individual structures such as heart, lungs, bones, etc.  Your eyes and brain just know it’s normal.  And if it’s abnormal you also quickly know why; pneumonia, congestive heart failure, tumor, etc.

It’s only for the few rarities, both on chest x-rays and during birding, that one resorts to more careful observation of the specific “field marks”, goes to the books, or consults a colleague.  John and I have lived this routine in medicine for years and he, therefore, is perfectly suited to use the same technique in the field and become a seasoned birder.  First learn the specific field marks and behaviors of the birds and eventually your mind will ID the common birds subconsciously.

Lastly, John reminded me of the fun of birding with a novice. The Anhinga and the 30 some other common birds we saw that day were a great start. His excitement was contagious and the questions and banter were stimulating.  I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching; maybe it’s a new calling.

Night Herons

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

 

If you’re looking today for action photos of birds or acrobatic flight shots, you’ve come to the wrong place.  The hunch-backed, thick-necked, short-legged Night Herons will not tear up the dance floor, but on further review they do have some interesting characteristics.  The Bird-naming Gods nailed it with the “Night” part, but not so much with “Heron”.  These birds are clearly nocturnal; I’ve only infrequently seen them foraging or flying in daylight.  But their body type is not typical of the long-legged and graceful posture of most other herons and egrets.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The world’s Night Herons are divided among three genera with the most cosmopolitan bird, the Black-crowned Night Heron (BCNH), found on all continents except Antartica and Australia.  It belongs to the genus Nycticorax which has a Greek origin meaning “night raven”.  This refers to its croaking wock wock Raven-like call.  The BCNH is also our most common and widespread Night Heron in the New World, found from Canada to Patagonia.

BCNH                                                  click on any photo to zoom

The genus Nycticorax also includes the extant Rufous or Nankeen Night Heron (N. caleconicus) found in SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and at least five extinct endemics that didn’t survive on Bermuda and the Ascension and Mascarene Islands.

YCNH

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (YCNH) belongs to the genus Nyctanassa and is found exclusively in the New World and primarily in the SE United States, Mexico, and Central and northern South America.  For completeness I mention the the third and last genus of Night Herons, Gorsachius.  It contains four species only found in the Old World, three in Asia and one in Africa.

YCNH, juvenile with black bill

So what’s so special about these herons, other than their nocturnal hunts?  You will on occasion catch them foraging in shallow wetlands in daylight, especially during nesting season when they are struggling to satisfy their famished young heronettes.  Night Herons are one of the few bird groups to employ “baiting” techniques to attract small fish.  They spread small twigs and food on the water’s surface to lure the unsuspecting.  If that doesn’t work they also vibrate their bill in the water to attract the curious but less intelligent Pisces.

BCNH, juvenile with yellow in bill

There’s no problem IDing the adult birds.  You’ll usually find them snoozing in shrubs along the water’s edge at about 3 to 15 feet elevation.  The juveniles are not so colorful and quite similar to each other, but if you pay attention to their bills the ID becomes easy.  If there’s yellow in the bill you have a BCNH and if its entirely black, the bird is a juvenile YCNH.  Guide books also mention the different patterns of white spots on the brown plumage, but those field marks have not been as obvious or useful for me.  The juveniles will obtain the adult plumage in their third year.

YCNH, juvenile

BCNH tend to nest in large rookeries, often with diverse species, while the YCNH tends to nest alone or in small groups.  It’s the courtship displays of the BCNH that are most interesting.  Apparently due to hormonal fluctuations the male becomes aggressive and begins a “Snap Display”, clicking his bill while crouching and pacing in his staked out territory.  This is followed by the “Stretch Display” as he extends his neck fully, bobs his head, and begins hissing.  For some reason all this commotion attracts curious females and spurs on nearby males to start their own competing displays.  But wait, it’s not over yet.

BCNH, my only flight shot of these birds so far.

The male initially rejects the females, taking his sweet time to pick the perfect mate.  Monogamous pair formation occurs when one lucky female is finally allowed to enter his territory and rewarded with mutual preening and billing.  Finally, at or near the time of copulation, the legs and feet of both partners turn pink.

BCNH, Hmm…aren’t those legs and feet a little pink?

I’m fortunate to see the two species of Western Hemisphere Night Herons all year long in my patch in SW Florida, and was also surprised to recently see the BCNH at dusk on the Ganges River.  We had a nesting pair of YCNH’s on the edge of the mangroves of Clam Pass in Florida for the last two seasons, but unfortunately their favorite tree did not survive the recent hurricane and I have not seen them this year.  But from now on, whenever I do see a Night Heron, I’m going to pay more attention to leg and foot color.  That observation offers just another glimpse into the private lives of these interesting birds.

Best Photos of 2017

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

 

It’s a bone-chilling 16 degrees on New Year’s Day 2018.  San Domingo Creek is frozen all the way across to the islands, an unusual local occurrence.  I see 13 Tundra Swans among the myriad of geese hunkered down on the ice to protect from the northern blast.  My birdbath heater cannot keep up with the deep freeze so I make frequent trips outside with pans of hot water and a hammer to break up the ice.  Birds need fresh water, even more than seeds, when it gets this cold.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

At year-end I like to review the photos of the previous 365 days and pick some winners.  “Best” is hard to define.  Some are favorites because I remember the effort or circumstances of their origins.  Some are photographically good but others perhaps not so, but make the cut for other reasons.  I tried to choose a variety of flight shots, feeding birds, international birds, portraits, etc.  Hope you enjoy the gallery.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The lead photo is a colorful Roseate Spoonbill trawling for breakfast in a Florida swamp.  Along with the unusual pink hue I think the disturbed water and reflection make it a winner.  The mergansers’ reflections in the water of the Florida drainage ditch and the pleasing green background earned those birds a place in infamy.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

You all know that flight shots require a little skill and a lot of luck. I caught the Brown Pelican just at the apogee of his dive when motion was minimal, but missed his splash down seconds later.  The flyby of the Sandwich Tern is included.  I like the blurred horizon on the Gulf of Mexico and the exposure and sharpness of this less common tern.

American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla

One could easily fill the entire year-end blog with the colorful warblers seen last May at the famous Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ll limit myself to just three.  Just think, these birds in alternate plumage just travelled 1000+ miles from Central or South America to the shore of Lake Erie and most still had miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds.  I was lucky enough to catch them at their rest stop.  The squawking American Redstart was telling me to back off and let him rest.  I chose the Chestnut-sideds for their unusual poses.  The obscuring leaf reminds me of the flitting, feeding frenzy of these beautiful birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

When you are lucky enough to find an owl in good light you can usually get a decent shot.  But the birds tend to be still and boringly cooperative; you’d rather some action and not just another portrait.  The Spotted Owlet from Rajasthan India was included not for its action, but rather for the filtered sunlight exactly striking the eye.  For owl shots, its all about the eyes.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

As readers of this blog know (and may be tired of being reminded) we spent October in India.  Just like Magee Marsh I could fill this gallery with the Indian lifers, but I’ll spare you and just post a few.  The Brown-headed Barbet is the strangest creature with its Groucho Marx nose and pose.  The Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Bank Myna are common birds in India but I liked these open-mouthed shots.  I spent some time trying to photograph the elusive Wire-tailed Swallow when one landed right in front of me in perfect light, practically begging for a picture.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Bank Myna, Acridotheres ginginianus

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

The last Indian birds are the upside down Lesser Goldenback, and the more conventional poses of the Jacobin Cuckoo and Crested Kingfisher.  Sometimes boring is beautiful.

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Feeding shots are always fun.  That Snowy Egret caught the large insect on Vanderbilt Beach in Florida and spent the next 20 minutes killing it and figuring out how to swallow it.  It was quite a spectacle and that particular meal may have been a first for the egret.  The Royal Tern had an easier time swallowing the small slippery eel.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The same beach was blessed with a huge flock of shorebirds last November.  I planted myself right down into the sand and slowly inched forward to get some eye-level shots of the action.  That Sandwich Tern nearly landed on the backs of its companions.  The knife-thin bill of the Black Skimmer seen head-on is a favorite.  I was relishing my position within the flock when a young giggly humanoid raced forward and ended my session.  I at least captured the chaotic flock as it took off for a quieter stretch of sand.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

This is the time of year that birds think about pairing up.  I caught these two Cattle Egrets likely on a first date, sizing up the possibilities.  The Red-shouldered Hawks were caught further along, probably “in the act” or at least during serious preliminaries.  There was just no privacy on that treetop.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

I’ll end 2017 with a boring portrait of a Tricolor Heron, saved from the delete bin by the beautiful texture and detail of its close-up feathers captured on the field of green.  It’s now time to bundle up and head out to start the 2018 collection.  You never know what may turn up.  There’s a rumor that Snowy Owls have been spotted on Assateague Island.

Tricolor Heron, Egret tricolor                     (click on images to zoom)

 

 

Birding Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve

 

The Anglo Saxon name “Jim Corbett” practically leaps off the map of northern India, surrounded by all the Indian names of towns, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Who is this person and why is his name given to India’s oldest and most prestigious national park?  I sought to answer this question as we began our final three days in India, birding and hiking in and around the park and tiger preserve.

Green-billed Malkoha, Rhopodytes tristis

The park is 260 kilometers northeast of Delhi in Uttarakhand, covering 1300 square kilometers of forest, low hills, grass and marshlands, and a large lake.  It is home to 650 species of birds and a relatively large populations of tigers, leopards, cobra, and other wildlife making safaris one of its prime attractions.

Grey Bushchat, Saxicola ferreus

The realization of being in an actual jungle dawned on me at our first breakfast at Jim’s Jungle Retreat when I asked about all the “barking dogs” which kept me awake at night.  “Those aren’t dogs”.  “They’re barking deer warning each other about a prowling tiger near by”.  I paid a little more attention to my surroundings, kept up with the group, and snuck an occasional glance over my shoulder throughout the remainder of the trip.

Our Veranda and Lodge

Jungle Jim was a great accommodation.  http://www.jimsjungleretreat.com  This several acre compound featured 18 comfortable individual residencies, each designed and furnished in a late 19th or early 20th century style.  Ours was elevated 15 feet off the jungle floor and had a large wrap-around veranda with a picturesque view of the surrounding forest and fields.  It was a great temptation to just bird, read, and meditate on this porch and skip the jungle treks, but I didn’t yield to it.

Changeable Hawk Eagle, Nisaetus limnaeetus

Bopanna, our guide, continued to push us to see as many birds as possible, starting at dawn and birding until dusk.  Looking back I appreciate his energy, but remember one evening in failing light we all sat high in a treehouse, waiting and listening for owls. I admit to dozing off; the only owl-like sounds I heard were growling stomachs, anxious for Jungle Jim’s evening buffet.  Someone in the group did miraculously sight a Jungle Owlet on our way to dinner.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnonotus leucogenys

I don’t recall all the names of the sites we visited in and around Corbett NP, but the local guide did escort us to a variety of habitats including forests, riverine regions, and fields.  I fondly remember a walk through the humble village and fields adjacent to our compound where we saw the Paddyfield Pipit as well as people harvesting the fields by hand–no mechanized assistance here.  School children were returning home while mothers hung out the wash, all a colorful glimpse of rural Indian life.

Village birding in Dhela

Paddyfield Pipit, Anthus rufulus

Two birds from Corbett stand out for me.  The bizarre Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a large blackbird with two long tail streamers, each terminating in a small twisted racket.  I can’t imagine any earthly use for such an appendage, except perhaps as a sexual lure.  It must hamper maneuvering through the forest but if it enhances mating, perhaps it benefits the species as a whole.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

The other bird is the Crested Kingfisher.  All of us but Andy had seen and photographed this great bird earlier in the trip but on one our last days we luckily spotted another one perched near the river as all Kingfishers like to do.  The plan here is to fire off a few shots, check photographic technique, make adjustments, and move closer ten feet.  Repeat again and again, getting as close as possible before spooking the bird.  The ultimate goal is to catch a shot with the bird launching and flying away.  Bopanna warned us to change our settings and prepare for flight, but even with that admonition most of us missed it.  Oh well.  At least Andy got his bird.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Edward James Corbett (1875-1955) was of Irish ancestry but born in Nainital, India where his father was postmaster.  He left school at age 17 and joined the Bengal and North Western Railroad where he became an accomplished manager and problem solver.  His leadership style fostered respect among the locals and his successes were many.  My knowledge of his life is based on an engrossing book of his short stories, “Jim Corbett’s India”, edited by R.E. Hawkins.

Corbett’s fame is due to his skill as a hunter, tracker, and killer of man-eating tigers and leopards, and his later conversion to naturalist, conservationist, and photographer.  He authored six books including “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, “Jungle Lore”, and “My India”.  Corbett persuaded India to create the Hailey National Park in the 1930’s which was later named for him posthumously in 1957.

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

For the listers out there here are our final stats from India.  We saw 57 birds around the hotels, palaces, and park during the initial tour, and added 35 during the interlude at Hyderabad.  Bopanna guided us to an additional 33 species in the Himalayan foothills, and 46 more in and around Corbett NP.  That gives a grand total of 174 different birds, of which 148 were “life birds” for me.  This of course just scratches the surface of 1200 species possible on the sub-continent.

Nepal Wren Babbler, Pnoepyga immaculata

Our passage to India left me with memories for a lifetime.  These are rekindled by the photos, writing this blog, and a few souvenirs accumulated along the way.  My favorite is a picture of a White-throated Kingfisher, uniquely painted on an antique document by an artist Suzanne met in Jaipur.

This picture and bird hearken back to our mad dash at dawn in Agra, trying to be the first to photograph the deserted Taj Mahal, right at sunrise.  I hit the brakes when I saw the kingfisher perfectly perched in the reflecting pool, just too tempting to pass by.  At that exact moment I had to answer the key question nagging me for the entire trip.  “Was I in India, halfway around the world, for the culture and enchanting sites, or was I there for the birds”?  My definitive answer was simply “YES”.  I took 15 seconds to fire off a few shots of the bird and then resumed the charge to the monument, catching up with my companions in time to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise.  You CAN have it all.

Birding in the Himalayan Foothills

 

What a difference 6500 feet of elevation make.  The 100 degree heat of Delhi succumbed to the mountains as we made our way to the northeast.  Along with the heat we escaped the urban sprawl and traffic and saw the rural plains and villages of India’s north country.  After 7 hours in our small van packed with 6 travelers, all our luggage, and a driver and guide, we began the ascent up the switch-backs.  Not just a few; there must have been hundreds of hairpin turns on the narrowing, poorly guard-railed road.  Each turn was taken with horn blaring to warn unseen oncoming traffic.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnontus leucogenys

The flora was also changing, now with a distinct alpine flavor typical for the elevation.  The Himalayas are relatively young in geological terms and the fastest growing mountain range on Earth.  Mount Everest is growing at a whopping rate of one centimeter a year due to the northward migration of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Eurasian plate.

White-throated Laughingthrush, Garrulax albogularis

Our destination was not the high snow-covered peaks but rather the more modest foothills and their unique avian fauna.  For me, an eastern North American who grew up near the Adirondack, Green, and White Mountains, the term “foothills” does not do justice to their size.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Streptopelia orientalis

Unfortunately fog and clouds covered the distant high peaks most days, but one dawn as we were traveling on a north-facing switchback the sky cleared and we got a brief glimpse of majestic Nanda Devi at 24,500 feet.  People have said that the view of the Himalayas from northern India is one of the greatest sights on Earth.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Our abode was the Mountain Quail Lodge near the hamlet of Pangot in the state of Uttarakhand. www.mountainquaillodge.com  The rustic lodge and cabins are within a conservation preserve and exactly what I had hoped for.  The five star resorts of our earlier tour were fantastic but when hiking and birding in the mountains I needed to feel more of the simple charm of the forest and hills.  We stayed in 3 quaint log cabins, each with a wood stove stoked every evening by an attendant.  A bracing shower each morning was a stimulating wakeup call.  The service and food were just superb.

Streaked Laughingthrush, Garrulax lineatus

It was our lucky day when Krishna engaged Bopanna Patada as our guide for the last 5 days of our India sojourn.  He was so much more than a birding guide, also arranging our lodging, meals, driver, and van.  Bopanna’s home patch is southern India so he supplemented his expertise with a local guide to direct us to the birds and hotspots around Pangot.

Bopanna and companions

In addition to his impressive birding skills he is also an excellent photographer and not shy about critiquing our techniques.  He showed me a better way to hold and stabilize my telephoto lens and encouraged me to move around more often to obtain differing views of each bird.  Check out his website:  http://www.indiabirding.com

 

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Dendrocopos hyperythrus

Its not easy being a successful birding guide.  One has to assess the interest level, expertise, and stamina of the clients, all of which vary within the group.  Bopanna clearly wanted us to see as many birds as possible in the five short days, but was also cognizant of our aging legs.  We started birding early each morning after tea, packed a breakfast and/or lunch for the trail, and pressed on until dusk.  Upon returning to the lodge we found a welcome Indian supper and a bed warmed by hot water bottles, a perfect touch for tired bones.

Striated Laughingthrush, Garrulax striatus

The wooded hillsides and rocky trails could have easily been confused with our local forests, that is until a family of noisy large monkeys swung by overhead.  The birds also were clearly of a different world.  I remember one tree that simultaneously contained 4 different woodpeckers, all life-birds for me.  There were Laughingthrushes, Barbets, Minivets, Old World Warblers, and Greenfinches galore, each called out by a guide as we struggled to keep up with the action.  One of my favorite birds was the colorful Great Barbet, so different than anything seen stateside.

Great Barbet, Megalaima virens

At the end of a long climb we arrived at a spectacular lookout where we spent some time scanning for soaring birds.  It was difficult to not be distracted by the picturesque valley and distant mountains.  There were terraced farms on the near slopes, colorful cottages balanced on the precipices, and school children returning home, but mostly one saw unspoiled wilderness.

The quiet was frequently interrupted by “Griffon Vulture at 12:00” or “Kestrel coming in low over the road”.  Even Bopanna got excited when we saw a stealthy Koklass Pheasant on the roadside.  The attached picture of this bird was obtained by him with my camera, out the windshield of the van.  Before the mountains and Bopanna we had already seen 92 Indian birds.  He added 33 more not previously seen, with many more yet to come.

Koalas Pheasant, Pucrasia macrolopha

I could have stayed at the Quail Mountain Lodge for weeks and was reluctant to climb back into the van to start the rollercoaster descent from the mountain.  Pangot just seemed so peaceful and essential Indian to this traveler.  But travel is all about moving on–there’s always more to see.  Our last stop would be the jungle, home of the Bengal Tiger, and Jim Corbett National Park.

The Birding Wives, “don’t step back!”

 

Birding Hyderabad, India

Painted Storks, Mycteria leucocephala

 

Hyderabad is the furthest south in India we travelled during our month on the subcontinent.  It’s another of those large cities that rival the size of New York (over 7 million people) that I had never heard of before planning this trip.  My bad.  Hyderabad is located on the dry Deccan Plateau of central India in the state of Telangana and historically known as the diamond and pearl trading center of the country.  Its rainfall is limited and erratic and when we visited it was hot, dry, and dusty.

Spot-billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis

Despite the heat it was a welcome respite at the end of our formal tour; a chance to settle into the lovely modern home of our hosts, Krishna and Shubha, do some laundry, review hundreds, no, thousands of bird shots, and pour over bird guides to ID the unknowns.  One of the highlights of the visit was meeting Shubha’s large extended family at a wonderful Indian Sunday brunch.  I don’t remember all their names but I do remember their warm reception of us travelers, the obvious affection the family members show for each other, and the delicious food.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Hyderabad displays new and old India in stark contrast.  There are soaring hi-tech high rises adjacent to poor hovels, and new shiny shopping malls next to traditional open air food markets.  This city is not on the typical tourism circuit and there were fewer western faces on the streets.  I noticed several school aged girls in the mall watching me closely and sheepishly ask Shubha if I was the famous visiting Christian missionary.  She assured them I was not.

Scaly-breasted Munia, Lonchura punctulata

We targeted 3 birding hotspots around Hyderabad to sample the local avian fauna; Ameenpur, a small lake just northwest of the city, the Osman Sagar reservoir west of town, and the ICRISAT Campus.  This latter site was my favorite, both for the incredible birding, but also for the significance of the institution itself. The “International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics” is a non-profit organization in Sub-Sahara Africa and India working to equip and educate the rural poor in establishing sustainable agricultural practices and create profitable farms in these drylands.  Check out their website:  http://www.icrisat.org

Yellow-billed Babbler, Turdoides affinis

The campus of ICRISAT is a spacious area of experimental fields,  irrigation ditches, wetlands, and research buildings connected by dikes and gravel roads, i.e. a birder’s paradise.  The facility is gated and prior permission is necessary for entry.  This was graciously granted by Senior Manager MM Sharma who took us on a preliminary tour before releasing us to our independent exploration.

Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus

The Weavers are an interesting family of gregarious birds, most commonly found in Africa and Asia and known for their polygamous lifestyle.  I was surprised to learn that they are a close relative to the famous and long-suffering House Sparrow which plague almost all our world’s urban centers.  The Weavers are aptly named given their large hanging communal nests.  We saw several Baya Weavers and their handiwork in the fields of ICRISAT.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Close by we found a striking Jacobin Cuckoo, perhaps my favorite bird-of-the-day. I added the Black-headed and the Red-naped Ibis to my growing life list of Ibises (The White and Glossy are common here in Southwest Florida).  I was also happy to see the Darter, a close cousin of our similar Anhinga of Florida.  Overall I added 26 birds from these three sites to my life list.

Indian Roller, Coracias benghalensis

India’s many colorful birds contribute to your visual impression of the entire country.  Saris, storefronts, markets, and even the trucks create a kaleidoscope of color, further enhanced by the birds.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Helen Czerski succinctly described the origin of a feather’s color.  There are two different mechanisms that account for our perception of color in birds.  In the first the color is caused by a pigment, a molecule that absorbs some of the wavelengths of light in the color spectrum and reflects other wavelengths.  It’s the reflected wavelengths that result in the perceived color.

Long-tailed Shrike, Lanius schach

The other mechanism depends on the molecular structure of the protein in the feather.  There are microscopic spaces or cavities of various sizes in the keratin protein.  The different wavelengths of visible light bounce around within these cavities, some cancelling each other out, while others escape the cavity and give us the perceived color.  This structural mechanism is the only way we see blue color in birds; there is no blue pigment.  Some birds and feathers are colored by both mechanisms.

Asian Openbill, Anastomus 0scitans (and Barn Swallow)

Our final dinner in Hyderabad was a night to remember.  Shuhba and Krishna did not say much about our destination as we navigated through the heavy traffic.  There are 3.5 million licensed vehicles in the city and a whopping 77% are scooters and three wheelers.  I think we saw most of them that night, but it was all worth it.  There were oohs and ahs as we climbed the hill and finally saw the spectacular Falaknuma Palace at the peak, overlooking the city lights to the north.  This impressive palace was the home to the ruling Nizam of Hyderabad and built in 1884 with a strong influence of 19th century Tudor and Italian architecture.  A wonderful tour of the palace was followed by an elegant dinner and was a memorable conclusion to our Hyderabad respite.

Falaknuma Palace

My intrepid travel companions

Just like the British custom, it was now our time to finally escape the heat and head to the hill stations in the cooler foothills of the Himalayas.  Lower temperatures, new habitats, and different birds beckoned us north where we would meet our bird guide and driver for the remainder of our Indian sojourn.

 

 

Birding Rajasthan India

 

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

 

Prior to this trip India conjured up jungles, heat, and humidity, to my naive mind.   I got the heat part correct, but in addition to the jungles there are vast, dusty, and arid deserts, especially in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest bordering Pakistan.  I was lucky to have a front, wide-windowed seat on our tour bus ride from Agra to Jaipur.  The driver’s name was Veer and his assistant was Ram, perfect monikers and appropriate for our survival in the Indian traffic encountered on the 200 kilometer trip into the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.  You’re not just dodging other cars, buses, trucks, and motor scooters, but also cows, goats, dogs, camels, and even an occasional elephant.

This is the colorful land of the Maharajas and their ancient forts and lavish palaces.  We spent two nights in Jaipur, the pink city, and three in Udaipur, the romantic city on the shore of Lake Pichola.  I could spend the entire post extolling their beauty, but after all this is still a birding blog.  I tried birding while sight-seeing, even from the back of a lumbering elephant, but to no avail.  The best birding was on the grounds of our hotels in the early morning before breakfast, or in the late afternoon after returning from the sights and shops.

The Oberoi Udaivilas

The two hotels Tauck selected for our tour of Rajasthan, The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur, and The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, are among the best hotels in India and in the entire world.  You feel like Rajput royalty as you wander, open-mouthed, in the gorgeous landscaped gardens, between reflecting pools and meditation sites.  I admit this was “soft core” birding, never far from a pool-side bar, chaise, or dining veranda, but the birds were plentiful, colorful, and almost all were life birds for me.

Coppersmith Barbet, Megalaima haemacephala

My first bird in Jaipur was a posing Shikra, right outside our room.  The widespread resident accipiter is very similar in size to our Cooper’s Hawk.  I was concentrating on the hawk when a couple of helpful British twitchers pointed out a Spotted Owlet on a nearby tree.  The owl hung around that tree for both days and we took far too many pictures of the photogenic bird.

Shikra, Accipiter badius

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

The shots of the Lesser Goldenback may have been the star of Jaipur, however the Asian Koel and a family of rummaging Grey Francolins were close runners up.  We saw 15 different birds at that hotel.  I was truly amazed and appreciative when a hotel staff person, observing my interest in the birds, presented me with a lovely book of birds photographed on the hotel grounds by other employees.  Hospitality extraordinaire.

Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus

The setting of The Oberoi Udaivilas on the shore of Lake Pichola was even more impressive and the birds more abundant.  I elected to forgo a shopping spree in town to have more time to explore the hills, gardens, and shoreline of the property.  The Wire-tailed and Streaked-throated Swallows were found perched on a lakeside fence.  In the trees near a children’s playground I found an Indian Golden Oriole, Common Iora, Coppersmith Barbet, Common Tailorbird, and many Purple Sunbirds.

Common Iora, Aegithina tiphia

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

I’d always wanted to see a Bee-eater (they really eat bees after carefully extracting the venom), and was rewarded with a beautiful pair.  The bird-of-the-day was a Indian Grey Hornbill flying in for lunch carrying a doomed lizard.  This is a bizarre appearing bird with a prominent dark casque arising from the upper mandible.  The casque is apparently a call resonator, but some hornbills are known to use it as a battering ram against other hornbills.

Indian Grey Hornbill, Ocyceros birostris (look closely to see the tail of the lizard hanging from the beak)

Common Tailorbird, Orthotomus sutorius

Udaipur was our last stop before returning to Delhi and bidding farewell to our touring companions.  In just twelve short days you develop some warm friendships that you hope to maintain, but know that it may not happen.  Our Tauck Director for the “Spotlight On India” tour was superb, blending his extensive knowledge of Indian history and culture with countless practical dietary, shopping, and general travel tips.  Peter Pappas has directed tours in 165 countries and all 7 continents, but claims that India is his favorite destination.  I believe him since his love for the land and its people is clearly evident.  He is highly recommended if India becomes your destination.  http://www.tauck.com/tours/asia-travel/india-travel.aspx

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

Purple Sunbird, Cinnyris asiaticus

But we birders, all six of us, were not yet ready to leave the subcontinent.  As good as the tour was, we wanted time to relax, process photographs, and do some laundry before setting off again to discover parts of India off the beaten track.  We looked forward to new birding hotspots and many more birds.  While our friends boarded International flights for home we took a local Air Indigo flight to Hyderabad.  Stay tuned.

Mother Ganges and Varanasi India

 

I know that this is a birding blog, but sometimes life distracts even us birders.  I was jarred from my birding world back to the stark reality of life and death along the Ganges River with its vivid colors, smells, and sounds creating a spiritual impression that will not be soon forgotten.

Our tour bus parked perhaps a kilometer from the river.  The guide said it was the closest lot available, but I’ll bet he really wanted us to experience the sacred city of Varanasi up close and personal.  We marched along the crowded narrow streets dodging cows and their manure.  Monkeys swung from colorful storefronts while hawkers and beggars added to the confusion.  We walked shoulder to shoulder with the Hindu pilgrims, all making our way to the river and the multiple ghats, the large well-worn steps leading down to the water’s edge.

At Varanasi the Ganges is wide and slow flowing.  In the fading light we could still see the opposite shore, peaceful and undeveloped, while our side was a chaotic mixture of temples, hotels, merchants, hawkers, snake charmers, pilgrims, lepers, meditators, and bathers.

We stumbled down the ancient steps and climbed aboard the old wooden boats that would carry us downstream.  It was a relief to leave some of the noise and commotion behind.

I was surprised when our small boat chugged close by a Black-crowned Night-Heron perched upright on a buoy.  I tried to get the attention of my travel companions but they were understandably mesmerized by the scenes ashore and temporarily not interested in birds.  I quietly added the bird to my list and then joined them in observing the more important events on the riverbank.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Mother Ganga (the Ganges River) is the most sacred of India’s rivers flowing from its source in the Himalayas southward, past Delhi and the Red Fort, past Agra and the Taj Mahal, and past Varanasi before emptying into the Bay of Bengal many miles downstream.  If you are Hindu, Varanasi is the most sacred place to die and be cremated.  It is said to be the oldest city on the planet with ancient spires reaching heavenward.

As the current slowly took our boat onward in the fading daylight we witnessed Hindu ceremonies, prayers, and the ringing of the Brahman bells onshore.  There were bathers immersed in the greenish brown water and others drinking and bottling the sacred water to take home.

Further downstream we came upon a large crowd surrounding multiple flaming pyres.  The smell of burning wood and flesh hung in the air as each fire died and another funeral procession descended the ghats to light another.  It was an eerie other-world experience with our flotilla of wooden boats, manned by the curious but reverent visitors, floating just offshore, close enough to observe but not too close to interfere with this ancient cremation ritual.

Hinduism is practiced by about 80% of Indians with Islam the next most prevalent religion at 15%.  Scholars have struggled to clearly explain this ancient non-proselytizing faith which has no single founder or central authority.  The Vedas dating back 3000 years are the sacred texts and there are innumerable deities.  Brahman is the one and ultimate source of existence and all the other gods and goddesses are manifestations of him.

Vishnu, the Preserver. He is a member of the holy Trimurti of Hinduism. The others are Brahma, the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer.

Without fully understanding Hinduism I can at least list some of the tenets of the faith.  There seem to be four main values that in ascending order of importance are:  1) Artha, which is wealth and possessions.  2) Kama which is pleasure and includes good health and long life.  3) Dharma, which is duty, righteousness, love, and forbearance.  4) And lastly Moksha or enlightenment and the release from finitude and imperfection.  This last level is the supreme spiritual ideal that when reached, frees one from the perpetual wheel of existence, death, and reincarnation.  In Hinduism no one is doomed and all have the potential of rising to this ultimate level of nirvana.

Aum, the most important symbol of Hinduism, representing Brahman, the Almighty. It’s the sound heard at the creation of the universe.

Other features include ahimsa, the respect and avoidance of injury to other living creatures and mother Earth.  Cows and snakes in particular have long been worshipped, the cow for its fertility and nurturing milk.  The snakes, especially the Cobra are cherished for reasons not completely clear to me.  You could spend a lifetime exploring Hinduism and its myriad deities and beliefs.

So there you have it; a non-birding interlude in our journey to India.  One cannot travel to this fascinating country without noting the spirituality of its people, from the ornate and massive temples to the small shrines you may encounter on any street corner or even in the remote glens of the Himalayas.  Even a non-believer is impressed and affected by all this.  I wanted to share the experience in order to present a more complete picture of India.  The next post will be for the birds.