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.

Urban Birding in Delhi, India

Common Pigeon, Columba livia

 

We must have been quite a sight in all our birding garb on the rooftop of the Leela Palace Hotel in the heart of Delhi.  I wonder what the sunbathers and swimmers in the infinity pool were thinking while Andy, Krishna, and I took countless photographs of the swarming kites while the pool guards were waving flags trying to shoo away the feral pigeons and these very same raptors.  To us, in the U.S., a kite was a great bird and it was several days in India before we realized that these scavenger Black Kites were a-dime-a-dozen.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Delhi was our gateway city to India and we wisely arrived a day early before our guided tour to get acclimated and try some urban birding.  When you fly into Delhi your plane does not break through the low-lying smog and dust until 1000 feet and you therefore do not get a feel for this sprawling metropolis of 25 million souls.  My first impressions were of mayhem, color, heat, and traffic as we took the cab to the Leela Palace, a spectacular oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the capital city.

Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi is the site of an ancient Hindu city dating back 3000 years.  It has had numerous names and captors with the Mughal Emperors ruling it from 1526 to 1857 when they were ousted by the British.  The Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.  Our formal tour took us to many impressive sites including the Red Fort, a massive sandstone edifice speaking to the prior authority and grandeur of the Mughal rulers.  The stately 16th century Humayun’s Tomb combined Mughal and Persian elements and was an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal.

Streak-throated Swallow, Petrochelidon fluvicola

Tiring of the Kites and having already ID’ed the Prinia, Bulbuls, Parakeets, and Streak-throated Swallows on the hotel grounds it was time to move the birding show onward.  I’ve tried urban birding in many of the world’s largest cities, but clearly Delhi was different. It is not a “walking town”.  Sidewalks are rare and I don’t believe I ever saw a crosswalk or pedestrian “Walk / Don’t Walk” light in the entire country.  The map showed a small green space directly across the street from the hotel but getting there was an issue.

Prinia (Plain or Ashy? You tell me.)

The busy street was a wide river of flowing and honking motor scooters, small cars, colorful trucks, and the motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, many of which stopped and tried to entice us onboard.  We later learned from a helpful Indian that the correct technique in crossing a street is to “walk like an elephant”, (get into a tight-packed group and move ahead slowly and purposely without stopping or wavering until you reach the other side).  It works.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Treron phoenicopterus

The small several acre park proved to be a real gem.  Several guards and caretakers at the entrance gave us an inquisitive  stare until they realized we were foreign birders and therefore safe.  There was a loud, repetitive, bird call booming right inside the gate that we assumed was piped in for effect until the guard pointed out the source, a perching Brown-headed Barbet.  The Groucho Marx mustachioed bird is apparently known for its loud call, especially on a hot day like we were enduring.  We don’t speak Hindi and they knew no English, but our new friends were eager to point out several other new birds in the park.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Greater Coucal, Centropus sinensis

By the time our session was ended we had seen in addition to the Barbet, a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Brahminy Starling, Common Myna, and more Prinias (were they Ashy or Plain?  I still can’t tell them apart).  It was a great start and introduction to Indian Birds. In one day we had added 16 birds to our life lists.

Red-vented Bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

A Dehli highlight for me was the visit to the last abode of Mahatma Gandhi.  His quarters were a small spartan room with a mattress on the floor and low writing table.  He was brutally assassinated in a nearby garden by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.  This quote was etched into a large boulder at the site:

“A leader of his people unsupported by any outward authority, a politician whose success rests not upon craft or the mastery of technical devices, but simply upon the convincing power of his personality.  A victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force.  A man of wisdom and humility…who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people…A man who has confronted brutality…with the dignity of a simple human being…Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948)

 

Our Passage to India: Birding the Subcontinent

Taj Mahal

 

Even in the predawn light with Venus shining low in the East, we knew it was going to be another hot day.  I was still getting used to the sights, sounds, and smells of India as we waited near the front of the line at the massive sandstone wall and wooden doors.  A chorus of uniformed schoolgirls passed by as a poor man hawked water bottles.  A stray riderless horse galloped by.  We just looked at each other and shrugged.  This was a different world.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

Three companions and I were at the gate of the Taj Mahal in Agra, patiently waiting for the doors to swing open and begin the race to the monument.  It has been described as “a teardrop on the cheek of humanity” and “the embodiment of all things pure” and was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth.  Our task was to see and photograph this beauty at dawn, unencumbered by the horde of tourists that would flood the site later.

Jungle Babbler, Turdoides striata

Somehow a young Indian boy latched onto us as the doors parted and led our charge to all the prime photography spots.  He pointed out exactly where to stand for each shot and urged us onward to beat the rush of the other photographers.  I was breathing hard and sweating, but stunned by the beauty of it all.  There was no time to stop, that is until someone yelled, “White-throated Kingfisher in the reflecting pool.”  The boy couldn’t believe we were taking precious moments to stop and photograph a bird.  He didn’t realize that this is what birders do.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus

Why India?  This question has been asked by many of my friends, some of whom are world travelers but have never been drawn to the “Jewel in the Crown”.  It all started with three couples sitting around a table in Naples, Florida eight months ago.  One wanted to return to her homeland after an absence of 47 years, and her husband, my friend and colleague for many years, supported her wish.  Her brother and his wife, also of Indian heritage, live in the U.S. but have a home in India.  They were our invaluable planners and gracious hosts for the adventure.  My wife and I, with no Indian roots, were just along for the ride.

Common Myna, Acridotheres tristis

Four of our six are photographers and birders, anxious to see some of the 1300 bird species found in India.  Most of these would be life birds for us.  But we had non-birders on board and all of us wanted to learn about the history, culture, geography, people, and cuisine of this fascinating land.  With that in mind we decided to join a 12-day tour of the major sites of North India, followed by a 5-day respite at the home of our hosts in Central India, and finish with 5 days of hard-core birding in the foothills of the Himalayas and northern jungle.  The non-birder’s only stipulations were, “no tents or outhouses”.  It was agreed to.

White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis phoenicurus

I learned from Phoebe Snetsinger’s book, “Birding on Borrowed Time”, the value of doing your homework before birding a new land.  E-bird made that easy allowing me to download a list of all the birds seen in October at our numerous destinations.  These 350 birds became my study list and target birds for the trip.  I used the Princeton Field Guide, “Birds of India” by Grimmett et-al as my state-side reference.  This book is also available as a smartphone AP called, “Indian Birds”.  This was invaluable in the field and allowed me to leave the heavy book at home.  The program has a good listing feature which sorts your bird sightings by date and location.

House Crow, Corvus splendens

Birders and photographers always wrestle with what to bring on an overseas trip.  This was especially an issue in India where our internal flights had a 35# weight restriction on checked bags.  My camera bag included one body, the Canon 7DII, and two lenses, the Canon 100-400mm 1.4-5.6L IS II and the Canon wide angle EFS 10-22mm for scenery shots.  The I-phone 6 camera proved more than adequate for scenery and portraits when I didn’t have the time or energy to change lenses.  I avoided a mistake of a prior trip abroad when I packed only the Canon 70-300mm 1.4-5.6L IS lens; a sharp lens but clearly a compromise for both scenery and birds.  It just does not have the reach for bird photography.  I left the scope and tripod home and didn’t miss them.  Extra batteries and memory cards filled out the bag.

Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii

India is a mystifying land and will never be understood fully in a single month’s visit.  There is extreme poverty alongside obvious wealth.  There are modern high-rises right next to tin hovels, and shopping malls adjacent to open-air markets.  Unconstrained cows, dogs, goats, and monkeys are everywhere, city and country alike.  There is air and water pollution in the teeming cities, but majestic mountain ranges and dense jungles to the north.  The Indians seem to be a spiritual people with Hindu, Moslems, and Buddhists apparently interacting and living peacefully together.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

In the blog postings to follow I hope to convey more of these impressions as we birded each step of the way across the subcontinent.  For my Indian readers, forgive my naive impressions of your land and my pictures of your common and mundane birds.  Just remember for me, it is all, land, people, and birds, new and exciting.

“Slim Fingers Beckon”

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

 

Most birders have a sentinel patch or first sighting that opened up the world of birds for them.  It may have been a solitary moment in the wild or just a momentary glance out the kitchen window.  It might have been the inspiration of a gifted bird guide or perhaps the emulation of a parent or friend.  In any case, I’ve found that many birders fondly remember that moment.

from Arch Merrill’s “Slim Fingers Beckon”

For me this moment occurred some 50 years ago while traipsing through the fields adjacent to our family cottage on the shore of Keuka Lake in Upstate New York.  What is that secretive bright yellow bird with the black mask that suddenly popped up from the grass, took a look at me, and quickly dove back into cover?  This was not a usual feeder or yard bird, but something entirely new.  Petersen’s bird guide clued me in; it was the Common Yellowthroat, clearly illustrated on that page.  I was hooked and a birder was born.

The name of this post is the title of Arch Merrill’s venerable and folksy tale of these Finger Lakes, written in 1951.  The six major lakes from west to east are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles.  Each are long, narrow, and deep, oriented north and south, and cover a large area of central New York State.  Old Iroquois legend claims the “fingers” were formed when the Great Spirit pressed his hand onto the gentle rolling hills, blessing this land for the Iroquois Nation.  Our current scientific lore describes their origin from the gouging, retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

Today these lake are lined with cottages.  Some are palatial, but most, like ours, are more modest gathering sites for generations of families.  The clear lakes are dotted with pleasure craft and the bordering hills are adorned with vineyards and numerous small wineries.  There are quiet shaded glens and impressive waterfalls.  For a few short months of every year there is no place that I can think of that is more suitable for pleasant living.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

I was beckoned back to the region this September for the 40th reunion of my medical school class in Syracuse.  The cottage was perfect lodging for the occasion and gave me a chance to spend time with my New Mexican brother who was also responding to the lure of our childhood home.  He, in fact, had trailed an old classic sailboat across the continent to renew our joys of tacking back and forth between Keuka’s shores.

A classic New Mexican beauty, Classico novus mexicanus

There are two 50-75 acre fields adjacent to our cottage.  One is mowed yearly and the other has been left untouched for 40 years.  These represent a laboratory model of ecological succession, comparing the results of a yearly disturbance with the progressive succession of plant life in an old undisturbed field.  By September the mowed field had become an array of typical grasses, weeds, and wildflowers with Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Batchelor’s Button most prominent.  We have observed the succession in the other field from these initial weeds and grasses to later clumps of small Sumac, Cedar, and Pine.  Years later we now have crowded stands of tall trees including Sweet Gum, Cottonwood, Birch, and Red Cedar, all intertwined with Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper.  These fields and the dirt road which divides them are my sentinel patch.

Mowed field to the left of road and unmowed to the right

“Field” after 40 years of no mowing or disturbance

Over these 50 years the patch list has grown to a modest 56 avian species.  Birding was slow last week but my non-birder brother reported seeing a Golden Eagle.  I wondered if it may have been an immature Bald.  I got a brief distant look at the large dark bird and it was clearly an eagle, but the exact ID was still indefinite; maybe it was a Golden.  The hedgerow along the dirt road did yield a Wilson’s Warbler with its fading black cap, a new bird for the patch.

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

There was standing room only at the feeder with Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold and House Finches, and Downey Woodpeckers most numerous.  I heard but did not see a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its been several years since I spotted the sentinel Common Yellowthroat there.  It seems that neither field habitat is conducive to its needs.  It all makes sense; field succession begets wildlife and bird succession.  Nothing stays the same.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

They say that you can never go home.  That’s not entirely true as long as you allow some inevitable newness to creep in among the vestiges of the old. Just as fields undergo succession and medical students age, our childhood haunts and homes will never be exactly as we remember them.  The cottage is a perfect example of this.  My sister and her husband have “modernized” it, while faithfully preserving some past structures, furniture and pictures as a reminder of 60 years of family history.  It remains a lure for us to come home and for future generations to enjoy.  The lakes, fields and hills continue to beckon the birds as well as us crazies that yearn to observe and photograph the same species, every year, over and over again.

Don’t You Wish You Could Molt?

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

 

The late August birding in my patch was slow, very slow.  When that happens you can always resort to photographing butterflies, moths and plants, but where were all the birds?  There were several possible explanations.  Fighting over territories, mates, and nesting sites were yesterday’s battles.  The birds are now more interested in fattening up for winter or migration.  Almost all the new birds had already fledged while the swallows had left the patch and were flocking inland prior to their trip south.  The maniacal keeehahh of the perching Red-tailed Hawk may have had something to do with the quiet, but it was more a threat to the squirrels and rabbits who were having a banner year, than to the songbirds.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Then it occurred to me.  Maybe they were molting, molting in private, hiding in their embarrassing and more vulnerable states.  I don’t know about you, but molting has always confused me.  Consider this post as a back-to-school course, Molting 101; my attempt to shed some light on this critical avian process.

Tiger Swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus

American Painted Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense

Feathers are dead appendages with no innervation or blood flow.  They are an amazing and complex adaptation for flight, insulation, and display, but their fragility necessitates periodic replacement.  They can be preened, cleaned, and rearranged, but they cannot be repaired.  Every feather has a rudimentary replacement in its follicle waiting for a stimulus to grow and push out the worn, frayed, precursor.  The simple annual cycle for birds is to breed, molt, and survive the winter or migration, and then start the same cycle next year, all over again.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Two sets of terminology are used to describe molting and the resultant plumages.  This adds to my confusion.  The traditional, used since 1900, describes the adult’s two plumages as “winter” and “breeding”.  Shortcomings of this system occur since many of our birds winter and may breed in South America where it is actually summer.  And other young birds in breeding plumage may not actually breed for several years.  Thus, in 1959 the second and preferred terminology was proposed.  In this system adult birds molt into their “basic” plumage just after breeding, and then in spring will molt into their “alternative” plumage, prior to breeding.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

But it gets more complicated as each bird species has its own molting schedule and various numbers of yearly molts depending on its lifestyle.  Sedentary arboreal birds may stick to the standard molting script, whereas birds attempting long difficult migrations, or those living in harsh environments such as a desert or the Arctic, may undertake more frequent molts.  Birds wintering in cold climates may add up to 50% more feathers to their basic plumage compared to the alternate garb.  All this for added insulation and winter survival.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

Then there are the juveniles who molt out of their natal down into a juvenile plumage before fledging, and later molt into the adult basic plumage.  The progression to adult may occur in the first year for many, or may be spread over several years as seen in the gulls. They molt into first, second, and third winter, and for some even fourth winter plumages before obtaining the basic plumage.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Birds have evolved two major molting strategies.  Ducks, loons, grebes and others are called synchronous molters and get it done, all feathers, all at once.  This results in a month of flightless vulnerability often spent on an isolated pond or lake away from predators, but does not interfere with flight or life for the remainder of the year.  The other strategy is to gradually molt a few feathers at a time in a defined reproducible sequence, specific for each species.  This method has a minimal impact on flight and other routines of life.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Molting is one of the most energetically costly events in a bird’s life.  It generally, therefore, does not overlap with the other demanding activities of reproduction and migration.  There are some examples, however, when molting does occur simultaneously with egg laying and incubation, but in these circumstances the molting process is much prolonged.  Very little is known about what factors trigger a molt.  A single lost feather is rather quickly replaced, but what triggers a generalized molt?  One theory suggests it is related to the changing length of daylight.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

My philosophy for understanding molting, and just about everything else is “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid).  So with that in mind, just remember that most of our birds have their most important molt in late summer, after breeding, replacing all their flight and body feathers with basic plumage in preparation for either winter or migration.  They will also undergo a second, partial, prenuptial molt in spring, often into a striking, colorful alternative plumage, enhancing their breeding opportunities.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius (in juvenile plumage)

Don’t you wish you could molt, or maybe you do?  I keep one basic and practical wardrobe, only requiring some minor cleaning and preening, and the alternative wardrobe for “date night” or other special occasions.  This latter plumage, like the birds, is colorful and designed to impress and turn heads.  Don’t I wish.

 

Our Flying Feathered Dinosaurs

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

 

 

The guttural squawk of the spooked Great Blue Heron as he arose from the shore of the brackish swamp took me back 200 million years, until my ringing cell phone jarred me back to the present.  I suspect that the heron somewhat resembles its Mesozoic ancestors;  large bird with wide wingspan and slow, flapping, straight line flight.  But who knows for sure?  The fossil record is spotty and the origin of birds has been hotly debated in academia for centuries.  This is not a “settled science”.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Remember the Genesis story.  Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.  Let the skies be filled with the birds of every kind, each producing offspring of the same kind”…And God saw that it was good.   It was and is very good.

GBH, click on any to zoom

In the 18th century some thought that fish and their scales were the precursor of the birds and their feathers, but by the mid 19th century scientists began to notice the many reptilian characteristics of birds.  Note the common three fingers hidden by the wing, and just substitute the heavy teeth with a lighter beak, add some feathers, and you have a bird.  But its not that easy.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

 

A big break came in 1861, just two years after the publication of the “Origin of Species” by Darwin, when Archaeopteryx (Greek for “ancient wing”) was uncovered in a limestone quarry in Bavaria.  This 150 million year old Crow-sized fossil had the tail, spine, and claws of a reptile, but the wishbone and feathers of a bird.  Was this the transitional link?  Let the debate begin.

Archaeopteryx lithographica

The fossilization of birds is a very rare event.  Birds have thin, hollow bones and delicate feathers.  For a fossil to form the sediment must be oxygen-free and very fine in order to bring out the subtle detail of soft tissues and feathers.  That’s why Archaeopteryx was so exciting.  Later, in 1926 Heilmann published “The Origin of Birds” which suggested that birds and dinosaurs were related and shared a common bipedal reptilian ancestor 230 million years ago, but birds did not evolve from dinosaurs directly.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Feathers evolved long before flight so clearly they must have offered some other survival advantage.  Many of the early feathered dinosaurs were much too heavy for flight and lacked other skeletal features that flight required.  The symmetrical dinosaur feather (birds have an asymmetric feather with a hollow core) were more likely used for insulation or for courtship display.  What female dino could possibly resist a male feather dance, or was it the female doing the dancing?  We’ll never know.

Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus, with unfortunate songbird in its talons.

Luckily there were numerous fossil discoveries in China and Spain in the late 20th century that shed new light on the origin question.  As a result, the current consensus is that birds did indeed evolve directly from Theropod dinosaurs, a group that includes the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, but also a group of smaller, lighter, bipedal, raptor-like “dromeosaurs” that share many characteristics with early birds.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Tryngites subruficollis

The early to mid Cenozoic Era (37 to 65 million years ago) was a heyday for the birds.  The evolution of angiosperms (flowers) and grasses, and the mild climate were ideal.  Its been estimated that since their origin in the Mesozoic Era the Earth has hosted 150 thousand different species of birds.  There were two mass extinctions, however, that severely thinned the ranks.  The earlier was in the Cretaceous Period and took out many groups of toothed, aquatic birds along with all the dinosaurs.  The latter was in the Pleistocene epoch, 1.5 million years ago, a time of great climate upheaval with ice and glaciers covering vast areas of North America.  Of the 21 thousand bird species present at the outset of that epoch, only 10 thousand remain today.

By 20 million years ago most of the modern bird families and genera had appeared, but what are the most ancient birds?  Which are the true “early birds” that have survived the longest?  Only two major bird groups date back to the late Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era, 65+ million years ago.  They are the Suborder Charadrii (shorebirds and gulls), and the Super Family Procellarioidea (albatrosses and petrels).  The others all came later onto the scene.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

There’s something about the dinosaurs that fascinate children, including me.  They learn the long names in kindergarten and play with their plastic models.  Maybe its their size or power, or maybe its because they ruled the Earth for so long and then disappeared so quickly and mysteriously.  Was it a comet strike or something else?  In any case, I’m so happy that some of their feathered offspring survived and continue to bring us newcomers, Homo sapiens, much pleasure today in the Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period, and Holocene Epoch.

Avian Acrobats of Summer

 

It was just a Sunday afternoon jazz concert at the local high school and birds were the furthest thing from my mind, but when we drove into the parking lot I immediately noticed the flock of Least Terns greeting us jazz aficionados from the roof, singing their own raucous, high-pitched medley of zzreep and kvick-kvick.  Mental note:  Come back soon with binoculars and camera.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

The Least Tern is our smallest tern and a summertime resident along the coast.  It has a distinct white forehead patch.  They are endangered due to competition for nesting sites on the sandy beaches from sunbathers and developers.  As a remarkable behavioral adaptation the terns have moved their nesting colonies to flat gravel roofs, including our local school and Acme Supermarket.  The sunbathers have not yet followed them there.

Least Tern

I did return to observe the terns on a hot, sunny morning, timed so the sun would be behind and photography ideal.  Birds in flight, and especially these terns, present many challenges.  My best advice is to take hundreds of shots to get a few “keepers”.  You’ll need to keep exposure time faster than 1/1000 sec. and may find multiple exposure bursts helpful.  A white bird on a bright background is easily over-exposed so tend to your exposure compensation adjustments and check your results frequently.

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The sleek Least Terns do not do straight line flight but rather display a full acrobatic repertoire of twists, turns, barrel rolls, and hovering.  They almost seemed to relish confounding the earthbound photographer with the funny hat and large lens.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

According to Frank Gill in his textbook, “Ornithology”, “flight is the central avian adaptation”.  The ability to hover, dive, soar, fly upside-down and backwards, all require constant wing and tail adjustments, and set Aves apart from other classes of animals.  They’ve mastered the physics of lift, buoyancy, thrust, and drag.  Think of their refined brain and nervous system sending and receiving messages from specially designed bones, muscles, and feathers, all making this possible.  Flight, after all is the most energy efficient way of getting from point A to point B; more so than walking, running or swimming.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

In addition to the Least Terns there are other avian acrobats that highlight my summer birding.  The Osprey is the dominant bird-of-prey along our shoreline.  When its soaring flight changes to a hover you know it has spotted a fish and you need to be camera ready for a high speed dive. Just before impact the feet and lethal talons come out and enter the water first.  I’m still trying to capture that perfect splashing shot of impact.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

I’ve described our swallows and their acrobatic feeding frenzy over the lawn in a prior post on 8/1/2016 called “Where Have All the Swallows Gone?”.  At our location the “Barnies” seem to fly low, just over the lawn, while the feeding Tree Swallows seek insects at higher elevations.  Add an occasional Purple Martin and Chimney Swift and you have quite a show.  I find these birds the most difficult acrobats to photograph due to their rapid and erratic changes of direction.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Let me add two more colorful performers to the list, the American Goldfinch and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  My mother first pointed out to me the characteristic undulating flight of the goldfinch some 60 years ago.  I have yet to figure out the reason for this roller coaster ride and have concluded that perhaps the bird is doing it for pure pleasure.  In any case this allows the ID of the bird from great distances, without even seeing the striking yellow and black coloration.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

The “Hummers” are the world’s smallest birds and the flight of these iridescent gems is truly remarkable.  Slow motion analysis has shown a figure eight rotation of the wing allowing both the upper and lower surfaces of the wing to face downward and supply buoyancy and lift with each of the 80 beats per second.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Last week Suzanne and I sat down to a sunset dinner of crab cakes, steak, watermelon salad and chilled white wine on the screened, waterside porch.  The air was still and the evening quiet following the recent heavy rain.  I’m innocent; birds and birding were not on my mind when suddenly a mixed flock of 40 or 50 Laughing, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls invaded our airspace and put on a captivating display.

This was not a short flyover but rather a sustained airshow of erratic, criss-crossed flight, rapid turns, and many near-misses with other gulls.  They were unusually quiet for gulls, only squawking to ward off a collision.  Seeing them periodically open their beaks and bend their necks we concluded they were feeding on an invisible-to-us swarm of insects arising from the moist lawn.  The spectacle ended as suddenly as it had begun, leaving both of us happy to have witnessed another show of the avian acrobats of summer.