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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.

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