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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Birding the Extrordinary: Cranes, Flamingos and Ibises

[India, Winter 2013]

There was a time, as Audubon's "American Flamingo" 1838 watercolor attests, when pink flamingos, now sadly featuring only as gaudy lawn ornaments in the US, were quite numerous and found breeding off the coast of Florida.

Today, while the American Flamingo is the only one of 6 worldwide species found in North America, it is only casual to the US. In this post, we will feature the 2 species of Flamingo that are found exclusively in the Old World: the Greater Flamingo and the Lesser Flamingo; plus Cranes, and Ibises:
  • Lesser Flamingo
  • Greater Flamingo
  • Common Crane
  • Sarus Crane
  • Black-headed Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Red-naped Ibis
  • Eurasian Spoonbill
Lesser Flamingo is the smallest and most numerous species of flamingo in the world; there are about 3 million of them; with about 650,000 in India and the remainder in Africa.

However, despite a very large population, dramatic declines (at their strongholds in Africa) have resulted in the Lesser Flamingo's classification as "Near Threatened".

In India, they are a breeding species and found mainly in the Northwest of the country. At Sambhar Lake, they find the habitat they need: a shallow saline lake teeming with algae. Although not a breeding site, there were thousands of Lesser Flamingos there; if you're wondering what "thousands" look like, take a look at this:

Lesser Flamingos at Sambhar Lake

Of course, at this distance, not much is identifiable except what looks like flying stick-insects with pink wings.

Up closer, the characteristics of the flamingo become clearer: striking black and pink wings; the wings themselves bisecting a long, pencil-thin body with one end hooked downward.

Lesser Flamingos

Clear View of the Wing Pattern

The clearest key difference between the Greater and the Lesser Flamingo (other than size, because size determination can be difficult in the field), is that the Lesser's entire bill (i.e., not just the tip) is a dark red-black color.

In contrast to the Lesser, the Greater Flamingo is the largest of the Flamingos:

Greater Flamingo seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary

Greater Flamingo in flight

The wing pattern is similar to the Lesser Flamingo as is the overall structure; and other than the difference in the bills already noted, the body of the Greater Flamingo also shows more white and less pink.

Greater Flamingo Seen at Sambhar Lake

Earlier considered the closest relative of the Ibises and Spoonbills, recent genetic studies now suggest that Flamingos are most closely related to Grebes. Who knew!

Over to the cranes, the Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world, at 5 ft 9 in. it's about as tall as the average man in Italy; it is also taller than the any man of average height in all of Asia.

Sarus Crane near Sultanpur

Sarus Crane -- the world's tallest non-flightless bird

Sadly, classified as "Vulnerable", the Sarus global population -- which stretches from the subcontinent to Australia -- is in decline and currently numbers only 20,000 individuals.

The other crane seen in the area was the Common Crane -- its population is 10 times that of the Sarus.

Common Cranes seen near Sultanpur

Common Cranes, unlike the Sarus, are migratory: breeding in Northern Europe and Russia; they overwinter in North Africa and Asia. Common Cranes were extirpated from England and Ireland but are now attempting a tentative comeback.

Unlike the spectacular bugling of the cranes, the Threskiornithidae family consists of 28 species of Ibis and 6 of Spoonbill that are generally silent or, at most, will offer an unmusical croak or grunt. Of these, as mentioned before, fully 4 species can be found in India:
  1. Red-naped Ibis
  2. Black-headed Ibis
  3. Glossy Ibis; and,
  4. Eurasian Spoonbill
And, here they are:

Red-naped Ibis

Red-naped Ibis is found all over India and also in Southeast Asia. This is a black Ibis with glossy wings, a white shoulder patch and a red bonnet.

Red-naped Ibis seen at Sultanpur (with the odd cormorant)

Glossy Ibis seen at Keoladeo National Park (with the odd duck)

Considerably smaller than the Red-naped, the Glossy Ibis is a global species found in both the Old and New Worlds.

Black-headed Ibis

Unlike the Glossy, the Black-headed Ibis is restricted to India and SE Asia; it is classified as "Near Threatened" with a total population of about 20,000 adults.

Lastly, the bonus Spoonbill:

Eurasian Spoonbill

To American birders used to the flamboyant Roseate Spoonbill, the Eurasian is rather plain; but the "family resemblance" is obvious and unmistakable.

It is always a marvel to see a large congregation of birds; whether shorebirds, starlings, waterfowl or flamingos. The grand spectacle of thousands of birds creates the illusion of limitless abundance; however, huge concentrations can also be a dangerous weakness for the species. Indeed, this is true for the Lesser Flamingo as well.

The millions of Lesser Flamingos that breed colonially in East Africa, are seriously threatened by disturbance and pollution resulting in large population declines; and once a breeding site is abandoned, the species may never come back -- a fact known tragically too well to American birders who can only imagine the spectacular sights of American Flamingos in Florida that Audubon observed in the 1800's.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Rails, Jacanas and Grebes

[India, Winter 2013]

While grebes and rails are well represented in the US, the Jacanas are birds of the tropics; found in Central and South America, Africa, Australia and Asia.

In this motley collection of bird families, some spectacular species were observed:
  • Bronze-winged Jacana
  • Purple Swamphen
  • Slaty-breasted Rail
  • White-breasted Waterhen
  • Eurasian Coot
  • Great-crested Grebe
  • Little Grebe
Speaking of spectacular, the Bronze-winged Jacana is a metallic Blue-black with (predictably) bronze wings. A powder-blue frontal shield, white eyebrow and trademark yellow gangly toes complete the description.

Brone-winged Jacana seen at Carambolim Lake, Goa

Aptly known as Jesus Birds for their (apparent) habit of walking on water, the Jacanas' miraculous powers stem less from any divine connection and more from their ability to "lily trot" on floating vegetation by virtue of their huge feet. There are only 8 species of Jacanas in the world.

The Bronze-winged Jacana, unlike most bird species but like other members of the Jacana family, is a reversed sex-role species -- i.e., the females rule! Indeed, the females are larger, maintain a harem of males for mating and it is the "weaker sex" (i.e., the male) which is responsible for incubation. This species ranges from India through Southeast Asia.

The next species, the Purple Swamphen, is a large rail that is found from the Mediterranean through Asia, Africa and all the way to Australia. While not native to the US, it is now considered established in Florida and was added to the American Birding Association checklist in 2013. Attempts at eradication of the species in Florida have failed and concerns remain that the Purple Swamphen may have a detrimental impact on the smaller, native Purple Gallinule.
Purple Swamphen seen at Carambolim Lake, Goa

Unlike the dazzling Swamphen, the next rail is much more cryptically colored: the Slaty-breasted Rail:

Slaty-breasted Rail seen on the banks of the Zuari River, Goa

Thanks to a well developed birding infrastructure, Goa offers several opportunities for guided tours. The Zuari River tour operated by Mr. Kamath offers a chance to see a variety of choice species including this rail.

Shy and difficult to photograph, the Slaty-breasted was seen fleetingly amidst the mangrove roots. However, even a cursory look would allow the American birder to identify this species as a rail given its resemblance to our rails.

White-breasted Waterhen

The next rail, the White-breasted Waterhen is a widespread and common species and was seen well in Rajasthan and Goa. It is much smaller than the Swamphen and looks like a coot with a white face and breast.

Eurasian Coot

Talking about coots, these aquatic rails range globally but their epicenter is in the Americas where the greatest species diversity occurs. In India, Eurasian Coots were encountered in abundance on practically every lake or pond.

Great Crested Grebe seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary

The last family to be visited in this post are the grebes. And, the two Old World stalwart species were both well seen: Great Crested and Little Grebe.

Little Grebe seen in wetlands in Haryana

Great Crested Grebe is the largest member of the Grebe family found in the Old World; it ranges widely across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The Little Grebe, on the other hand, is the smallest. It has a similar distribution excepting Australia.

This concludes this fine assortment of Jacanas, Rails and Grebes; taxa which are mostly familiar to the American birder except perhaps the Jacanas; although occasionally, the Northern Jacana is a vagrant to Texas and Arizona.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: 7 Kingfishers and 5 Shrikes

[India, Winter 2013]

Most American birders are familiar with a singular Kingfisher (the Belted) and a lone Shrike (the Loggerhead); thus, it is always a delight to come across additional species in these families that seem both familiar yet exotic.

In this trip to India, a total of 7 species of kingfishers were observed (compare to the mere 6 species found in all of South and North America; and the single kingfisher [alcedo atthis] found in all of Europe) plus 5 species of shrike:

  • White-throated Kingfisher
  • Pied Kingfisher
  • Stork-billed Kingfisher
  • Common Kingfisher
  • Collared Kingfisher
  • Black-capped Kingfisher
  • Blue-eared Kingfisher
  • Bay-backed Shrike
  • Isabelline Shrike
  • Southern Grey Shrike
  • Brown Shrike
  • Long-tailed Shrike
Unlike some families (the humble sparrows come to mind!), the Kingfishers are colorfully distinctive, with prominent, "weaponized" bills, short legs, and dark eyes. While generally associated with water, many species are perfectly suited for forest or even dry environments.

Let's start with the Alcedo Atthis:

Common Kingfisher seen at Arpora Salt Pans, Goa

Common Kingfisher seen at Bharatpur

The Common Kingfisher ranges from Ireland to Japan and from Russia to North Africa, India and Southeast Asia. This huge expanse supports 7 subspecies which differ in minor aspects of color and size.

At 6" long, this sparrow-sized kingfisher is also known as the River Kingfisher for its dependence on
water; eating more than half its body weight in fish every day.

Common Kingfisher seen at Bharatpur

Generally unmistakeable in India in most of its range; however, it pays to look twice: look carefully at the following species:

This kingfisher is the same size as the Common but a closer inspection reveals a couple of key differences: more cobalt in the blue; and, crucially, it also lacks the rufous patch on the ears. Indeed, this is the Blue-eared Kingfisher (observed in Goa). This is a forest-dwelling kingfisher and much more scarce than the Common.

The Blue-eared Kingfisher was a special sighting -- we were a group of about 10 birders (myself from the US, 4 from Denmark, 1 from Switzerland, 1 from Lebanon and the rest from India). Brought to a heavily wooded stream behind an abandoned 800-year old Shiva Temple, I was fortunate to be the only one who managed to get a photograph before it flew off! A favorite species of mine from the trip!

The next kingfisher, the White-throated Kingfisher is perhaps the most commonly seen across India. This large kingfisher is aptly named with a white throat (extending down to the breast) and a blue back on a brown body. The massive bill is a bright red.

White-throated Kingfisher, Bharatpur.

The White-throated is much more eclectic in its diet -- feeding on lizards, insects and even small birds in addition to fish.

About the same size as the White-throated, the Black-capped is one of the "tree kingfishers". It is found inland as well as coastally.

Black-capped Kingfisher; seen in the mangroves of the Zuari River

The Black-capped is a handsome kingfisher with a brilliant cobalt back, a black cap, a white-and-rufous breast and a huge red bill.

While the Black-capped is impossibly skittish, the Collared Kingfisher (aka the Mangrove Kingfisher) was much more cooperative.

Collared Kingfisher, Zuari River, Goa.

Hued entirely in turquoise and white, this striking kingfisher ranges widely from Northeast Africa, through the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and all the way to Australia and Polynesia. This enormous geographic swathe encompasses 50 subspecies.

In contrast, the Pied kingfisher, although considered the third most numerous in the World, is confined to Africa and Asia.

Pied Kingfisher, Sultanpur National Park

The Pied Kingfisher prefers to hover for prey -- usually fish. Males and females can be told apart by the number of bands across the breast (males have two; while females have one).

The 7th kingfisher species is the Stork-billed; larger than our Belted, it is about the same size as the Ringed Kingfisher of the Americas. This large kingfisher was seen in very poor light in Goa.

Moving on to the 5 shrikes; like the Kingfishers, Shrikes are instantly recognizable. Unlike the former, however, there are only a third as many Shrike species in the world (31 vs. 90). This Shrike family stronghold is in Eurasia and Africa with South America and Australia having zero species and all of North America having a mere two (Loggerhead and Northern).

Brown Shrike, Goa.

The Brown Shrike is an Asian species which winters in India. It bears the familiar hallmarks of the family -- black eye-mask, a powerful bill that ends in a hook, and a longish tail.

Isabelline Shrike, Sultanpur National Park

A paler version of the Brown, the beautiful Isabelline Shrike is another winter visitor to India. The sandy (hence "Isabelline") hues of this species are absolutely stunning.

Isabelline Shrike seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat

Unlike the Isabelline, the Bay-backed Shrike is a resident species in India. This smallish shrike shows white wing patches on black wings, a prominent eye mask on a grey head with a brown band separating the continuation of grey into the back.

Bay-backed Shrike, Sultanpur

Easy to confuse with the Bay-backed is the Long-tailed Shrike:

Long-tailed Shrike, Sambhar Lake

Note that the head and back are entirely grey and the breast is much paler than the Bay-backed Shrike.

Long-tailed Shrike, Sambhar Lake

This is another resident Shrike of the subcontinent and can be commonly found in scrub habitat.

Southern Grey Shrike, Sambhar Lake

The Southern Grey Shrike is closely related to our own Northern Shrike with minor differences in color (and breast pattern). Like other shrikes, The Southern Grey is also carnivorous eating rodents, small birds and large insects.

One of the joys of global birding is the opportunity to expand one's avian horizons beyond the familiar. Yet, the presence of similar species in different countries shows how connected life is across the planet -- and it is indeed remarkable that while colors, patterns, vocalizations and physical dimensions of species may change, they still remain faithful to the unique characteristics of their taxonomic family.