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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Beasts and Beauties: Frogmouths, Nightjars and Sunbirds

[India, Winter 2013]

Beauty, it is said, lies in the eye of beholder. In nature, however, form follows function; and, the honing of avian features over time are a testament primarily to the evolutionary adaptability of the species that ensures its continued survival. Thus, human notions of aesthetics in relation to how birds look are both superfluous and irrelevant.

First, presenting two feathered shapes, roosting invisibly in the thickets:

Barely discernible as birds, this is a pair of Ceylon Frogmouths. Frogmouths are nightjars "on steroids" -- nocturnal, cryptically plumed with big mouths ("as big as a frog's gape"). And, this planet has 15 fantastic Frogmouth species that are found not only in the Indian Subcontinent but also in SE Asia and Australia.

Ceylon Frogmouth seen at Mollem National Park

The Ceylon Frogmouth is endemic to the subcontinent where it is found in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka (hence its alternate name of Sri Lanka Frogmouth). The male is grey (on the right); while the female is reddish brown.

And while they would be unlikely entrants to an avian beauty contest, these Frogmouths are perfectly adapted to their tropical environment and, though generally scarce, they are successful and populations trends are stable.

Grey Nightjar seen at Keoladeo National Park

The Grey Nightjar is another subcontinental endemic which is also known as the Jungle Nightjar. It is a typical nightjar that roosts during the day and is active at night and twilight.

Now for a group of birds that are at the other end of the "beauty" spectrum -- sunbirds are tiny, colorfully iridescent birds that are active during the day. They are the ecological twins of our hummingbirds but found in the Old World.

The Crimson-backed Sunbird is a 3-inch nectar-feeder endemic to the Western Ghats region of India.

Crimson-backed Sunbird seen at Mollem National Park

It is somewhat similar to the Purple-rumped Sunbird (below) which is larger and has a whitish vent.

Purple-rumped Sunbird seen at Goa

The photo above also shows the reddish eyes of the Purple-rumped Sunbird compared to the dark eyes of the Crimson-backed.

Purple Sunbird seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat

Purple Sunbird is the most commonly observed sunbird in India; in appearance, the color purple is not discernible unless bright lighting illuminates the metallic purplish iridescence of the feathers.

Finally, a Sand Martin -- also known as a Bank Swallow; seen over the Chambal River.

This concludes this selection of species that perhaps challenge our notion of aesthetics; but also excite our wonder: from the fabled frogmouth to the ecological twins of the hummers.

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