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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Flycatchers (including Wheatears, Chats and Shamas), Starlings, Drongos and a Fantail

[India, Winter 2013]

Starlings are not native to the New World and the European Starlings we see in America are proof of both our ignorant sentimentality (wanting to establish all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare in the US) and our contempt for ecological balance in nature (a trend that's reared its ugly head again with the invasion of (as in human introduced) Burmese Pythons in the Everglades). In any case, here (where 60 starlings released in 1890 now number 150,000,000), as well as the rest of world, starlings are a successful and widespread family found natively or invasively across much of the globe.

In addition to Starlings, another very wide ranging family deserves to be highlighted here: the (Old World) flycatchers.  Finally we conclude with flycatcher-like species: the Drongos and the Fantails.

  • Common Myna
  • Asian Pied Starling
  • Jungle Myna
  • Brahminy Starling
  • Rosy Starling
  • Common (European) Starling
  • Black-naped Monarch
  • Verditer Flycatcher
  • Asian Paradise Flycatcher
  • Red-breasted Flycatcher
  • Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
  • Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
  • White-rumped Shama
  • Bluethroat
  • Indian Robin
  • Oriental Magpie Robin
  • Desert Wheatear
  • Isabelline Wheatear
  • Pied Bushchat
  • Brown Rock Chat
  • Siberian Stonechat
  • Black Drongo
  • Ashy Drongo
  • Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo
  • White-throated Fantail
Starting with the Starlings: the Common Myna:

Common Myna seen in Rajasthan

The Common Myna is native to the subcontinent but has been introduced to Australia, Hawaii and other countries for the purpose of controlling insects. However, the Myna population has exploded and  they themselves are now considered invasive pests -- at the same scale as Rock Doves or European Starlings in the US.

Next, the Asian Pied Starling (aka Pied Myna): this Starling is found in the Subcontinent and SE Asia, not as ubiquitous as the Common Myna, but still easily seen. The white cheeks are prominent.

Pied Myna seen in Rajasthan

The Jungle Myna, unlike the Common and the Pied, generally avoids human habitation. The Northern race are greyer and have a yellow iris while the Southern race (shown below) are browner and show a blue iris.

Jungle Myna seen in Goa

The next starling, unlike the preceding ones, is a winter visitor to India. The Rosy Starling is seen in the West of the country and their roosting flocks in the evening are enormous; frequently, 10,000 or more birds. 

Rosy Starling seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary

Rosy Starling seen in Jamnagar

Brahminy Starling is a flamboyant resident starling and near endemic of the Subcontinent. It's probably the easiest to identify with the prominent black crest, dark salmon underside and grey upperparts.

Brahminy Starling seen in Rajasthan

Brahminy Starling seen in Rajasthan

The European Starling -- known here as the Common Starling is a local winter visitor to Northern India.

Common Starling seen in Haryana

Here, the Common Starling, seen in the winter sun in Haryana, not as an invasive species that dislocates native ones, but as part of its normal winter range, looks strangely resplendent.

Switching gears to the Flycatchers:

The Black-naped Monarch is a 6 inch blue flycatcher with a white belly.

It is found in dense forest habitat in India and SE Asia.

Black-naped Monarch seen in Goa

Black-naped Monarch seen in Goa

Verditer Flycatcher breeds in the Northern hills and winters across the subcontinent. This brilliant turquoise flycatcher was observed in Keoladeo National Park.

Verditer Flycatcher seen at Bharatpur

Seen for a fleeting moment only was this female (or juvenile) Asian Paradise Flycatcher. The male is absolutely spectacular (see this photo from 2012).

Asian Paradise Flycatchers seen at Goa

Breeding in Europe and Central Asia, the Red-breasted Flycatcher overwinters in India. In winter plumage, the red of the breast is hardly visible.

Red-breasted Flycatcher seen at Bharatpur

The impressively named Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher belongs to the Fairy Flycatcher family that includes species in Africa as well as Tropical Asia.

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher seen at Bharatpur

The British ornithologist Samuel Tickell (born and served in the British Army in colonial India) has a handful of birds named after him; and one after his wife: Tickell's Blue Flycatcher:

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher seen at Goa

The male is a brilliant blue on the upperparts contrasting with red-tinged underparts; it ranges from India through Indonesia.

Now the shama -- shama's are magpie-robins (flycatchers belonging to genus Copsychus or Trichixos).

White-rumped Shama seen at Goa

From the side, the origin of its name may not be obvious, but take another look (this time from the back):

The Bluethroat is a breeder of Northern Europe and Russia; it winters in India where it is not uncommonly found.

Bluethroat seen in Haryana

The male is instantly recognizable; earlier considered to be a thrush, it is now classified with the Nightingales and (some) Old World Robins, such as the Indian Robin:

Indian Robin seen at Haryana

The Indian Robin male has brown upperparts contrasting with an all-black body. On the other hand, the Oriental Magpie-Robin (another flycatcher formerly classified as a Thrush) shows a white belly and prominent white markings on the wings; it is a common inhabitant of forests and even suburban gardens.

Oriental Magpie-Robin seen at Bharatpur

Now for the Wheatears: there are 22 wheatear species; again, formerly classified as Thrushes, they are now placed in the Old World flycatchers. Presenting first the Isabelline Wheatear:

Isabelline Wheatear seen in Haryana

Another Central Asian species that winters in India, the Isabelline Wheatear is a perfect isabelline color (sandy-fawn, parchment colored) that blends in perfectly with the earth.

The Desert Wheatear is a striking species with shades of pale beige contrasted with a black mask and primaries.

Desert Wheatear seen in Rajasthan

The female of the species (shown below), lacks the black accents of the male.

Like the wheatears, the chats were also considered thrushes and there about 30 chat species. The first one, the Pied Bush Chat, ranges from West Asia to SE Asia.

This is a small, black flycatcher showing white on the wings and lower belly and vent.

The Brown Rock Chat is a species endemic to the subcontinent; ranging widely across India. A nondescript bird, it is the "posterchild" for deserving the "little brown job" description.

Brown Rock Chat seen in Haryana

The Siberian Stonechat is a chat that breeds in Siberia and winters in India. The male has a dark head with a tawny, streaked back.

Siberian Stonechat seen in Haryana

We conclude with the Drongos and a Fantail. There are 25 species of Drongos found in Asia and Africa. The Black Drongo is an all black passerine formerly placed with the corvids (crows and jays). Like our Kingbird, it is a fearless protector of its territory and has earned the title of "King Crow" for its habit of attacking intruding crows.

Black Drongo seen in Rajasthan

Note the tiny white spot at the base of the bill on the Black Drongo which is diagnostic.

Ashy Drongo is another black drongo with a forked tail. Note however the crimson eye, the less glossy black back (contrasting with the intense black of the face) and lack of white rictal spot.

Ashy Drongo seen in Goa

The final bird to be profiled here is the spectacular Greater Racquet-tailed (also spelt Racket-tailed) Drongo.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo with prey seen in Goa

A closer look shows the crest, strong bill and glossy sheen on the back.

And, of course the magnificent streamers of the tail.

Finally, the Fantail -- the White-throated Fantail is an insectivorous bird that can be observed hunting for prey by flitting about and energetically fanning its tail.

White-throated Fantail seen in Goa

Note the absence of any white spots on the wings that would otherwise confuse it with the similar-looking White-browed Fantail.
This concludes a broad spectrum of avian species from the mynas (renown for their intelligence and abundance) to the flycatchers, drongos and the Fantail.

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