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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Landfowl and Waterfowl

[India, Winter 2013]

Landfowl have not fared particularly well in the US (or anywhere else for that matter) -- these "gamebirds" have been the target of relentless hunting, and, regrettably, have (literally) lost ground to the inexorable march of human "development".

Some landfowl species have paid the ultimate price -- the Heath Hen became extinct in 1932. Our current non-extinct Prairie Chickens are classified as "Vulnerable" or "Endangered". Even the familiar Northern Bobwhite which people remember as near ubiquitous just a few decades ago is now "Near Threatened" having suffered a catastrophic decline of 82.4% over the last 4 decades (yet they are gleefully shot across the US annually).

The Sage Grouse species numbers are testament to another depressingly familiar narrative with the result that they too are equally at risk with Gunnison's classified as "Endangered" and Greater Sage Grouse as "Near Threatened". Clearly, something has to change if we wish our future generations to be able to enjoy these signature species of the US.

Waterfowl, on the other hand, have generally fared much better in the US, and thanks to money-spinning "management practices", an enormous number can be shot every year without any particular species hurtling toward extinction (excepting, of course, the Labrador Duck which died out in the late 1800's).

Regrettably, the situation is not much different in other parts of the world for landfowl and waterfowl; including the following species that will be profiled here:

Landfowl and Allies:
  • Grey Francolin
  • Black Francolin
  • Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
Waterfowl and Allies:
  • Ferruginous Pochard
  • Red-crested Pochard
  • Eurasian Wigeon
  • Common Teal
  • Pintail
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Common Shelduck
  • Ruddy Shelduck
  • Gadwall
  • Greylag Goose
  • Bar-headed Goose
  • Cotton Pygmy Goose
  • Lesser Whistling Duck
  • Comb Duck
  • Spot-billed Duck
  • Oriental Darter
  • Great White Pelican
  • Great Cormorant
  • Little Cormorant
Starting with the Landfowl: The Francolins are about 40 species of pheasant-like birds found in Asia and Africa (their stronghold).

Black Francolin seen near Sultanpur National Park

While Black Francolin is fairly common in suitable habitat in India, a fellow birder, the naturalist and researcher Sayam Chowdhury (currently researching the Masked Finfoot and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper) tells me that they have been extirpated from his native Bangladesh due to hunting.

Black Francolin (male)

The male is a striking specimen -- white cheeks on a black face, black, boldly-spotted underparts, chestnut neck, and an intricately patterned back. Predictably, where the handsome Black Francolin has been successfully introduced (eg., Hawaii, the SE US), it has not been for any altruistic purpose but to slake man's thirst for the hunt.

The Grey Francolin lacks the bold coloring of the Black Francolin; instead, it is replaced with delicate, fine barring on the male.

Grey Francolin seen near Sultanpur National Park

The Grey Francolin is much more common than the Black; it is known in the North of India as "Teetar" approximating its loud call.

Population trends for the Grey Francolin are stable; its stronghold is the Indian Subcontinent but smaller populations are found in Iran. Unfortunately, it is now quite rate in Bangladesh where hunting has decimated numbers.

Now the Sandgrouse -- as the name hints, the Sandgrouse family of 16 species was earlier placed with the Grouse and Pheasants. However, this has more to do with convergent evolution rather than genetics and they are now placed in the Pteroclididae.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse are, like the rest of their ilk, gregarious seed-eaters. Superbly camouflaged against the earth, one becomes aware of their presence only when, magically, the ground murmurs and trembles and then explodes into flight.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (male)

Shaped like a gargantuan pigeon, the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse prefers dry habitat but is extremely reliant on water and often the best place to see them is near a watering hole.

Two males drinking

Two females drinking

These Sandgrouse are powerful flyers; and given their gregarious nature, they are strong flockers as well.

And now for the waterfowl:

Bar-headed Goose

If you've seen the documentary "Winged Migration", you will be already familiar with the migration heroics of Bar-headed Geese. Not only do they fly a long way to get to India, but in doing so, they fly over the towering Himalayas -- reaching heights that easily rival the cruising altitude of commercial jetliners.

Bar-headed Geese seen in Haryana

This is an attractive Central Asian goose that is a common winter visitor to India (hence Anser Indicus) but is under severe hunting pressure.

Comb Duck seen at Bharatpur

The Comb Duck, on the other hand, is a resident species and the male sports a distinctive knob on its bill.

Cotton Pygmy Goose seen at Bharatpur

The Cotton Pygmy Goose is another resident species; this duck has earned its moniker by virtue of its size -- it is the smallest species of waterfowl.

Common Shelduck seen in Haryana

Common Shelduck is an unmistakable species; looking more like a goose, this duck ranges commonly across Eurasia and overwinters in India, China and North Africa.

Common Teal seen in Rajasthan

The Common Teal is very similar to our Green-winged Teal but is considered a separate species.

Eurasian Wigeon seen in Haryana

The Eurasian Wigeon is a rare visitor to the US; it is a cousin of the American Wigeon.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck is a "Near Threatened" species of diving duck. It is a striking species with a dark chestnut coat and pale iris.

Red-crested Pochard with coots and a Gadwall

It was a pleasure seeing a Red-crested Pochard for the 2nd time in 2014. The first sighting was in Switzerland. And, indeed this is a European duck that is a common winter visitor to the subcontinent.

Great Cormorant seen on the banks of the Chambal River

Great Cormorant is an abundant cormorant equally comfortable in marine as well as freshwater habitat. It is larger than the Double-crested Cormorant of the US.

Little Cormorant seen at Bharatpur

Little Cormorant was the 2nd species of cormorant observed. Luckily, unlike the nomenclature of the Egrets (with Great, Little and Intermediate), there is no "Intermediate Cormorant" -- just the Great and Little.

Greylag Goose seen at Bharatpur

Greylag Goose is a widespread goose of the Old World; it is the ancestor of all domestic geese and feral flocks exist in the US.

Great White Pelicans seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary

The Great White Pelican is the 2nd largest species of pelican in the world (only the Dalmatian Pelican is larger). They are opportunistic feeders; preying largely on fish but also, as famously documented in South Africa, chicks of other birds.

Lesser Whistling Duck

The Lesser Whistling Duck is a common waterfowl of marshes and wetlands in India.

Lesser Whistling Duck seen in Goa

At Carambolim Lake (Goa) there were thousands upon thousands of these ducks -- "whistling" high-pitched squeaks as they flew, circled, and landed.

Northern Pintal seen in Haryana

The next two ducks -- the Northern Pintail and the Northern Shoveler require no introduction -- both are common ducks ranging in America, Europe, and Asia.

Northern Shoveler seen in Haryana

Oriental Darter seen at Marine National Park, Gujarat

There are 4 species of Darters in the World: The Oriental, American (aka Anhinga), African and Australasian. The Oriental Darter has a distinguishing white lateral neck stripe but otherwise bears a strong resemblance to our own "snakebird".

Ruddy Shelduck is an attractive orange-brown duck with a whitish head. The migrate to India for the winter from Central Asia and Europe.

Spot-billed Duck (right) with Comb Duck (left)

Finally, the Spot-billed Duck -- this is an Asian duck with characteristic yellow tip to the bill. They are typical dabblers and are classified as "Least Concern".

This concludes a (rather long) review of landfowl and waterfowl observed in India with a fair amount of similarity to our own species. In the US, the increase in numbers of the Wild Turkey (from 30,000 in the early 1900's to the current 7,000,000) is truly heartening. However, the success of the Turkey conservation program has not been paralleled with other gamebird species such as Quail or Grouse and they remain at risk. 

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