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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.

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