Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Bird ringing in Point Calimere

I recently completed a yearlong Online course in Ornithology offered through Bombay Natural history society. During the course, I had the good fortune of visiting Bird migration study centre at Point Calimere and interacting Dr Balachandran, Deputy Director, BNHS. Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (PCWBS) is a 21.47-square-kilometre (8.29 sq mi) protected area in Tamil Nadu, South India along the Palk Straight where it meets the Bay of Bengal at Point Calimere at the southeastern tip of Nagapattinam District. The sanctuary was created in 1967 for conservation of the near threatened blackbuck antelope, an endemic mammal species of India. It is famous for large congregations of waterbirds, especially greater flamingos.[1] Bird Migration Study Centre was started in 2009 is involved in Research and Conservation of migratory birds. Bird Migration Study Centre located in Point Calimere, Tamil Nadu is a brainchild of Dr. S. Balachandran, Deputy Director, Bombay Natural History Society. The first ever bird migration project in India was started in 1950s by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)[2].

Bird ringing or Bird banding is the attachment of small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg or wing of a wild bird to enable individual identification.[3] Bird ringing is being done primarily to study the migratory patterns of birds.  Bird ringing is happening at four locations in India at present – Point Calimere (Tamilnadu), Chilka Lake (Orissa), Uran (Mumbai, Maharastra) and Pong Dam (Himachal Pradesh) Point calimere is a permanent Ringing station in India.

Let us look at the process of Bird ringing in detail.

Bird Capturing:

Birds are captured using a variety of techniques like claptraps and mistnets. Former bird trappers work closely with BNHS scientists, deploying their traditional skills for research. Knowing where to set traps, and selecting the right method for the species being targeted, is crucial for success. Leg-hold snares work well with waders such as sandpipers and godwits. Near invisible nets called mist nets work with some other species. A large proportion of the ringed birds were recaptured during subsequent seasons, proving that birds return to the same areas every year if conditions remain favourable. This is known as Philopatry [site fidelity].

Study and inference:

Once captured, the bird is studied if it is a juvenile or adult, if it is a male or female, the condition of the brood patch, the weight of the bird, the length of the beak, length of the shank,  length of tail feathers and length of the wing. The stage of moult of adult birds is also studied. All this information is collected in a datasheet. Some observations like the high number of juveniles in a give an indication that the breeding season has been a successful one and we can expect an increase in the number in that species. In addition, observation of adults and juveniles at the same time can indicate that there are two separate independent breeding populations. (This inference can be drawn from the established fact that juveniles usually migrate first and adults follow them).


Finally, an aluminium ring is being attached to the bird’s leg. The ring is engraved with a unique serial number and a short message – Inform BNHS. If it is an oceanic bird, the ring is attached to the upper leg (On large waders, the flags are usually both placed on the tibia On smaller waders one flag is placed on the tibia and one on the tarsus.) and if it is a passerine bird, the ring is attached to the lower leg.

Sometimes, even resident birds and local migrants are also ringed in order to determine their local migratory patterns and the duration of their lives. The rings are very light – less than 5% of the birds weight, and are designed to have no adverse effect on the birds – indeed, the whole basis of using ringing to gain data about the birds is that ringed birds should behave in all respects in the same way as the unringed population. The birds so tagged can then be identified when they are re-trapped, or found dead, later.

Release and aftermath:

The birds are released in their respective habitats so that they are not preyed upon. If the bird is recaptured anywhere in the world, the information is passed on to BNHS so that the research team can know of the migratory route of the bird. In addition, data collected over the years can let us know the changes in migratory patterns, success of breeding colonies, how long each bird lives and so on.

The role of a bird watcher:

Now, when you see a bird, watch it carefully, you too, may find one with rings. If you do pass the information to some senior birder in your area, you could help in bird conservation by doing your bit.

What to do when you find a tagged bird in India?[4]

Anyone who spots a shorebird with a flag or other colour markings, should please forward the following information:

1.           Name and contact address of observer(s):

2.           Species:

3.           Location (with latitude and longitude if available):

4.           Kinds of band(s) (metal ring/ flag/colored ring):

5.           Color and number of color band if observed:

6.           Position of bands:

·         Right or left leg:

·         Above the joint (type of marker / color):

·         Below the joint (type of marker / color):

7.           Date and time of observation:

8.           Number of birds of the same species spotted:

9.           Photo, if available, attached:

The above information can be sent or shared at:

1. Report the observation with any images obtained to Dr. S. Balachandran, Senior Scientist bnhsbala@rediffmail.com. BNHS maintains Indian ring recovery records and is the Key Banding Scheme Contact for India.

2. Wetlands International has developed a website to promote sharing of information on colour marking and satellite tracking of waterbirds. The key contacts for birds tagged in the Asia-Pacific region can be found on http://www.wetlands.org/listmenu.aspx?ID=325826a3-a72b-4763-86df-6fee3ab161dc

3. Additional tagging programme details are found at http://wetlands.tekdi.net/colorlist.php

4. For birds tagged in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, reports can be sent to Clive Minton at mintons@ozemail.com.au in case you cannot establish country of origin from lists such as are available at http://www.shorebird-network.net/leg-flags.html

[1] Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary. (2015, April 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:26, July 30, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Point_Calimere_Wildlife_and_Bird_Sanctuary&oldid=657074254
[2] Kumar, A. (2009, February 23). BNHS opens bird migration study centre at Point Calimere - The Times of India. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/BNHS-opens-bird-migration-study-centre-at-Point-Calimere/articleshow/4171970.cms
[3] Bird ringing. (2015, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:36, July 30, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bird_ringing&oldid=670873047
[4] K Sen, S. (2011, May 11). Birds of India: Migration and banding of birds. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from http://www.kolkatabirds.com/migration.htm

Need for revisiting Nidification of Indian birds

I am sure we all have noticed an ominous disclosure in most online birding forums: “No Nesting pictures”. This is of course a well meaning and prudent notice. Nothing can do more harm than an over enthusiastic photographer who wants to photograph nests, eggs and fledglings. He might cause unnecessary alarm of the parent bird. This might result in abandoning of the nests with eggs and chicks in them. It disrupts the breeding success of our country’s already fragile bird populations. Even if the parent birds don’t abandon the nests, his actions might lead predators to the nest which then proceeds to devour the hapless chicks and eggs. In addition, in climbing towards the nest, he might accidentally break the branch on which the nest is resting again destroying the nest and its contents.
It might be surprising to our readers that not so long ago, collecting eggs of wild birds was the part of most school higher secondary zoology curriculums! Thankfully some educationist saw the futility of this exercise and did away with it. Our passerine birds will be ever so thankful to these anonymous educationists.
Despite all this, it is more important than ever to revisit our nesting knowledge. India has about 1300 species of birds. Roughly a third of this number is resident birds and rest is cross border migrants. It is quite unfortunate that despite the work of many naturalists, ornithologists and scientists, we still know so little about the nesting behavior of our resident birds.
Most of the nesting knowledge comes from Naturalist EC Stuart Baker’s Four Volume “Nidification of the birds of Indian empire” published in 1932 [1]. To critique on his work, for lack of better words, I will paraphrase the words of another author[2]One of the most controversial collections was that of E.C. Stuart Baker. He actually built up two collections, one of “Indian Eggs” and the other of “Cuckoo Eggs”. The first of these covered the Indian sub-continent, i.e. former British India. It was the most comprehensive egg collection ever assembled for this area. I can think of no species of the area for which the eggs are known and for which Baker did not have eggs. And there are species for which he had the only eggs known. Knowledge of the nidification of Indian sub-continent birds has hardly progressed at all since Baker’s time. The other collection, of cuckoo’s eggs, was scarcely less comprehensive. Needless to say it is based on the same area, where Baker spent most of his collecting life, but he also had eggs sent to him from other parts of the Old World - indeed everywhere where parasitic cuckoos occur. The problem with his collection is that his data are often suspect. His handwriting is difficult, but I have got used to it. He wrote with his left hand, not because he was left-handed but because he had no right arm. In his youth he was on a tiger hunt, and a leopard suddenly leaped out of the bushes and attacked him. The only thing he could think of to do was to plunge his right arm down the tiger’s throat with all the force he could muster. This action so startled the tiger that it stopped it for the few vital seconds necessary to allow the beaters to rush up and kill it. So, Baker lost his arm, but saved his life. When I began to curate the Baker collection, I discovered that in lots of clutches there were single eggs which did not seem to match the rest of the clutch. The difference was subtle but, when one had got used to it, distinctive. If you examined the writing on these eggs, sometimes one found that the date was slightly different from that on the rest of the clutch. But then again, sometimes one found the same anomaly on eggs which didn’t perceptively differ from those of the rest of the clutch. The question was always: is this a genuine clerical error, or is it an attempt to deceive? Baker lived in an era when egg collecting and the buying and selling of eggs were perfectly legal and indeed big business. Large clutches were more collectable and therefore more valuable than smaller ones. The temptation in front of dealers (and Baker “dealt” in eggs in a big way) was to add eggs that sort-of matched to existing clutches to make them into larger ones. A story is told of Baker, though it may be apocryphal. A visitor called to see him one day and the door was answered by one of his children, who said “Oh Daddy’s upstairs making up clutches”. As I said, I have no proof that this story is true, but it inevitably raised doubts as to Baker’s integrity. There were a number of suggestions over the years, by, I think, Charles Vaurie among others that the Baker collection was so unreliable that it should be destroyed. But the collection is so vast and so well written-up in the published literature that it cannot be ignored. All one could do was to go through it with a toothcomb and note carefully every little thing that seemed to be doubtful, which is exactly what I did. Future workers must take it from there”.
From this account, it must be clear to our readers the suspicious quality of Stuart baker’s work. Most of the ornithological works which followed used Stuart baker’s unreliable information without taking the effort to obtain firsthand knowledge. Salim Ali in his Book of Indian Birds chapter on “Some nests and nesting behaviour” puts his aspirations regarding our knowledge on bird nesting behaviours in the following words-“We have a great deal to learn about the breeding biology of even some of our commonest birds.  Egg collecting alone is not enough.  Some of the points on which detailed information is desirable are- (1) The share of the sexes in nest building, incubation and care of the young; (2) Periods of incubation; (3) Intervals between the laying of each egg in a clutch; (4) Nature of food and quantity fed each day to the young; (5) Behaviour of parents and young”[3]
When I visited Salim Ali bird sanctuary in Thattekad in February 2015, I had the opportunity to interact with Dr Sukadhan, the field ornithologists and one of the old timers who had opportunity to work alongside Dr Salim ali. During our inteation, he stressed upon the urgency in the need to revisit Nidification work of Indian birds considering the rapid decline in many species. Unless, we know adequately enough about the ecology of the birds and their nesting behaviour, it is difficult to come up with fruitful management plans for conservation and proliferation of our native bird species.
At the moment, as Coimbatore nature society, if we are to record nesting behaviour of our native birds, it is important to frame some guidelines and rules which will  enable us to make some meaningful observations  without disturbing the bird species. I have no doubt that we are up to the challenge and together, we can do it. We can we will.

[2] Walters, M.P. My life with eggs.
Zool. Med. Leiden 79-3 (1), 30-ix-2005, 5-18.— ISSN 0024-0672.
Michael Walters, Bird Group, The Natural History Museum, Akeman Street, Tring, Herts, HP23 6AP,
U.K. (e-mail: mpw@nhm.ac.uk).

[3] Dr Salim ali “ Book of Indian Birds”

My observations on the nesting of Tailor bird

I would like to share an interesting incident which had happened in my home a few months back with my birding friends. It was September 13th 2014. My home normally has quite a lot of human traffic because my office also functions out of my home. In addition, owing to my large family both from my fathers and mothers side, we have no dearth of visitors every day. In front of my home is a Beach Cordia (Chordia Subchordata) [1]tree. That day morning, my mother had observed a peculiar looking leaf. It was looking quite diseased from a distance and my mother asked me to take a closer look.

When I approached the leaf, I could hear a hissing sound like the one made by a snake. For a moment I was alarmed and looked around to see if there was any snake nearby. It took me a moment to realize that the sound was coming from the leaf. When I took a closer look, I found that it was not a diseased leaf but an active nest of a Common Tailor bird! (Orthotomus sutorius) (Tamil: தைலக்குருவி). A dry brown leaf was attached to a healthy green leaf. Two leaves were brought together quite expertly and joined together at their margins with ‘rivets’ with punches made by the bird’s beak. Inside were two tailorbird fledglings sitting smugly in comfortable bed of fibers, feathers, down and spiderwebs.

I was so surprised to find the nest in such a high traffic area. However, the nest wouldn’t have been discovered unless a person was very observant.

I decided to leave the fledglings alone and instructed my family members not to disturb the nest or the area near the nest. It was a moment of great joy to me and my family members to find that the bird had chosen to build a nest right inside my house. While keeping a distant watch of the birds, I tried to look up some facts about the breeding information of the common tailor bird.

It is fairly easy to tell apart the male from the female during the breeding time. The breeding season is March to December peaking from June to August in India, coinciding with the wet season.[2]This matches with my nesting observation in September, which happens to be the rainy season in my area. They generally nest in large leaved plants, once a nest has been observed in a brinjal plant[3]. It is general believed that the female is responsible for making the nest but I did not have the good fortune of witnessing the nest building activity so I cannot confirm this. It is also believed that the male feeds the incubating female. This again is an unconfirmed belief. It is quite surprising that we know so little about the nesting habits of one of our most common garden birds. As I mentioned in a recent article to Coimbatore nature society, it is more important than ever to revisit the nidification (pertaining to the nest) work of Indian birds. Ornithologists and naturalists seem to agree that the Tailor bird lays about 3 eggs. I could only observe two fledglings in the nest. This was a time in which, there was a glut of caterpillars from the tree. (I haven’t yet identified the species of the butterfly) It is of no wonder the bird chose this timing for raising its chicks.

However, to my surprise, I could find no mention in literature about the hissing sound of the fledglings. It was quite remarkably similar to a snakes sound. It was perhaps a defence mechanism to thwart predators from approaching the nest.

Some three days after I had observed the fledglings for the first time, I looked at the tree and could not see the leaf. I went closer to see where the leaf went and I saw that the leaf attached to the tree had withered away and had fallen to the ground along with the chicks still in them. I don’t know for how long the chicks had being lying there crying for help. The tailor bird was also looking at it from some distance away. It was hopping about nervously with helplessness written in its face (If there is such a thing). There was absolutely no way that it could pick up the leaf and take it to a safe location considering the weight of the nest and the fledglings.

Now, from my extensive readings, I had come to an opinion that I should not step in nature’s way. However, I decided to make an exception to the rule for the sake of these hapless chicks and intervene. I picked up the nest along with the nest and with a help of my wife, a plastic chord and some scissors (No prizes for guessing which was more helpfulJ), I hung the stem of the leaf to the branch closest to the location of the original nest. I wanted to see whether the parent bird would still continue to feed its chicks. If one of M Krishnan’s essays, he had mentioned that the tailor bird would abandon its nest if it has been discovered. I wanted to check this theory out. From some distance away, I placed my camera equipped with a 150-300mm zoom lens mounted on a tripod and set it to video record mode. My DSLR camera, for some strange reason, only permits shooting 20 minute videos. I was happy to know that the parents was still making their runs to feed its chicks, but it was doing so at the rate of 5- 6 times in the observation window of 20 minutes (imposed by my camera).

I would have liked to end this essay on a happy note.  It would have been perfect to report that a new generation of tailor birds were seen hopping about in my garden. However, it was not to be. Honestly, I do not know what became of the fledglings. On the morning of September 18th, I observed that the nest was empty. The nest was intact, but there was no sign of the fledglings. Had they learnt to fly and left it overnight? Were they caught by a predator? I like to wish for the former option. I concede that I can never know the answer to the question. All through the rainy season, I kept hoping to see another nest being built so I could make better notes, but my wait was futile. Well, tomorrow is another day.

[1] Valke, D. (n.d.). Cordia subcordata - Beach Cordia. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from http://www.flowersofindia.net/catalog/slides/Beach Cordia.html
[2] Common tailorbird. (2014, November 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:41, August 1, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Common_tailorbird&oldid=634389278
[3] Baker, E. (1932). The nidification of birds of the Indian empire, (1st ed., Vol. 2, pp. 370-372). London: Taylor and Francis.

Intriguing mystery of the bank myna

Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus), is a lively bird for those who have come across it. It’s not a bird you would come across in our parts. At present, its habitat is restricted to the Gangetic plains in the north of our country. For the casual reader, the name doesn’t mean much but a closer look reveals an intriguing mystery. The species name of the bird is based on the name given by Latham from a description by Pierre Sonnerat who described Le petit Martin de Gingi in 1782, referring to Gingee near Pondicherry in southern India[1].  The French ornithologist also goes to add that this bird occurs throughout the coramendal cost. This means that in the 17th century this must have been a common bird in our state, at least in the costal locations. However, this bird clearly is not present in our state off late. Does it mean that this bird has become locally extinct because of habitat destruction or human intervention?

The mystery doesn’t end there. In a following publication in 1863, Ornithologist Thomas C. Jerdon noted that the species did not occur in southern India[2]. It could mean two things: One, that something must have happened between 1782 and 1863 that must have caused the bird to become locally extinct.  How this could have happened? This was a pre industrial era where human intervention into the natural order was minimal. Hunting of birds was also quite restricted compared to the excesses in the 19th century and immediately after Independence. Ofcourse, One cannot rule out the possibility of a natural cause like disease or food shortage casuing the bird population to decline or causing them to migrate.

Of course, it is also entirely likely that the original description of Pierre Sonnerat could be inaccurate. Pierre Sonnerat is credited with the first scientific description of our Grey jungle fowl to the world. He is also credited with the first scientific description of the Lychee tree. He is the person who misinterpreted the call of a helpful Malagasy guide who had spotted a lemur and shouted "indri!" ("look!" in Malagasy). Sonnerat took this to be the animal's name, and it is still known as an Indri (Indri indri) today (the actual Malagasy name is babakoto). The birds Dacelo novaeguineae and Pygoscelis papua[3], neither of which are found in New Guinea (Papua), were also misnamed due to Sonnerat. Hence it appears that it is quite possible that Pierre Sonnerat might have made a mistake in describing this bird in the first place.

Futher complicating matters is an isolated sighting of this bird in 1914 at Vandalur near madras[4]. Many observations in the recent years are also pointing to the fact that the bird is extending its range down south[5][6].

With all these complex issues, it is difficult to come to a satisfactory conclusion on this bird. It remains an intriguing mystery. However, there is no doubt that it’s a reason to rejoice if the bird should extend its range and make its home in our state. Lets keep our eyes out during the next birding trip!

[1] Sonnerat, Pierre (1782). Voyage aux Indes Orientales et la Chine. Volume 2. p. 194
[2] Jerdon TC (1863). The birds of India. Volume 2. Part 1. Military Orphan Press, Calcutta. pp. 326–327.
[3] In his 1776 book on New Guinea, Pierre Sonnerat claimed to have discovered three species of penguin on the island, so this species was named accordingly. In fact Sonnerat had stolen the skins from the collection of fellow naturalist Philippe Commerson. There have never been penguins in New Guinea, and Sonnerat never travelled as far east as New Guinea.
[4] Raj,B Sundara (1914). "The occurrence of the Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus) near Madras". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 23 (1): 155
[5] Taher, Humayun; R. Sreekar; Sivaji Anguru & Siraj A. Taher (2009). "Range extension of Bank Myna Acridotheres ginginianus in southern India with new records from Andhra Pradesh". Indian Birds 5 (5).

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Some observations on the Indian Courser

17/06/2016 4:20-5:15 PM

We were welcomed into the location by a white-eyed buzzard with a lizard kill and a flock of mynas. We first sighted the Indian courser in its previously sighted location. Before we sighted the courser, we could observe Yellow-wattled lapwings in good numbers and in various stages of development. We also saw several Yellow-wattled lapwings brooding over eggs at several locations. The entire landscape had short grass perhaps no taller than the courser itself. The location had a functioning quarry and several Lorries were commuting from the location. The location itself was a divided into residential plots. It is only a matter of time before the entire place becomes developed. There were no tall bushes except for some Prosopis Juliflora shrubs. We could see several Ashy-crowned sparrow larks also foraging on the ground. The soil could be called as red sandy soil. It was perhaps nutrient deficient and unfit for agriculture.

We could finally see the chick and the courser. We could not tell whether it was a male or female. They were feeding cautiously with a sharp lookout for threats. They were apparently unperturbed by vehicles as the quarry activity proceeds for the entire day and the Lorries kept coming and going. The chick was periodically coming to its parent and was demanding food. This was surprising as it was a fairly fully grown chick and it could forage well by itself.

The Indian courser is a striking bird with striking white coloured legs with three forward pointing toes. A white supercilium which extends on either side of the face beginning at the top of the beak, joining and ending at the nape is very striking. The sharp downcurved beak sets it apart. The crown is dark chestnut colour. The chest area is light brown in colour. The shoulder and tail are grey in colour. The vent is white in colour. The chick has a cryptic plumage with alternate spots of white and dark brown. The white pattern above the eye is visible in the chick but the black eye stripe is not very prominent.

The adult Indian courser is much smaller in apperance compared to the yellow-wattled lapwing. It prefers to run rather than fly. In flight also it appears very similar to Yellow-wattled lapwings.

The chick and the adult were very close to each other and were seldom separated by more than 10 feet from each other. In all the time I saw the bird, I never heard it call.

The adult after some time laid down on the ground and ruffled its feathers. We could see the chick limping. We are not sure of the reason for its limping. It perhaps got injured somehow. We took pictures of both the birds and decided to leave them in peace. We were told about another set of coursers further into the road. Though we went further, we could not see any more coursers that day.

We could also see two francolins in a peculiar dark coloration. (See picture) I was confused whether these could be melanistic variants of Grey francolin. They could also got this coloration by dusting in dark / black soil.

18/06/2016 12:00-1:00 PM
Having seen the Indian courser at a close range, I decided to go to this location again during mid-day on my way back from another birding session at Anaikatti. This time, I saw the same pair of coursers almost at the same location I saw them yesterday. Wanting to explore further, I drove very slowly ahead along the mud path.

Almost a half a kilometer away from my first location, I came across a bigger flock of Indian coursers. This flock had almost 8 eight individuals: two adults and rest were chicks in various stages of development. I could observe a chick demanding food from the adults in a peculiar manner. It was bending forward and touching the ground with its beak like a human prostrating in front of deity.
One of the sub adults, perhaps wanting to distract my attention from the chicks, dropped down its wings. Ornithologists call this behavior as “Broken wing display” and is used to distract attention away from chicks by feigning injury. I looked up several sources to know more about this behavior but I could not come across any source mentioning this behavior in coursers. This behavior is well documented in lapwings.

I could see another adult Indian courser which was injured and had lost one of its leg below its knee. This made me think about the other Indian courser I saw earlier the previous day. The high
frequency of leg problems were perhaps linked to genetics. As Indian coursers are quite rare and we have a very little population left, lameness was perhaps a result of inbreeding.

Today I observed a Indian courser trying to withstand the strong wind. When it had trouble, it opened up one of its wings in an effort to stabilize itself. (Right wing in this case)

 I also encountered in the same location some four chestnut-bellied sand grouse and a juvenile Rufous-tailed lark.

Though Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse is very well documented in these parts,
Rufous-tailed larks are very rare and I had observed two adults in 19/09/2015 in my Village (Palladam Puliampatti). The fact that this was a juvenile perhaps conclusively proves that Rufous-tailed larks are residents to our district. We just need to look out for them more.
In addition we could see some paddy field pippits, Richards pippits, Ashy crowned sparrow larks and large grey babblers.

Sighting of an Indian Eagle owl in my Village

Some experiences are as magical as one in which we sight an owl. Sighting an Indian Eagle owl warrants a separate blog article for itself.

              Since June 2014, I have been maintaining records of birds sighted in a patch of land owned by my family in Palladam Puliampatti Village. I started this as it was a course requirement for my ornithology course in Bombay Natural History society. In the course of one year, I recorded close to 49 species in this patch. This variety of life encourage me to take this up for a long term study. After my ornithology course concluded, I kept revisiting the site to record the changes in this location. Initially, I wanted to go for planting of trees in this patch to further supplement the wildlife found here. Now, two years and 79 species later, I doubt if such a step would be disastrous for the scrubland and grassland species of birds found here. We will leave this debate for the moment and get back on track for the sighting.
               I visited this track of land on 12th July 2016 at around 7:45 am. I wanted to take a different course from my normal track and see if would yield me more species sightings. As I walked on the edges of my land, I noticed some thing peculiar. In the adjoining ravine, I saw a Red-Wattled lapwing crouching suspiciously. The position resembled a false brooding position I had witnessed in Yellow-Wattled lapwings. Suspecting that its nest might be nearby, I decided to visit the ravine.

When I stepped into the ravine (This is not a natural ravine but one formed by illegally excavating the land of soil for road constructing in a nearby school), I searched in futile for the Red-wattled lapwing and its nest but in my search, I could see a short figure moving at some distance away. Through the viewfinder I could see that it was an Indian eagle owl! I was super excited. I had seen this bird flying through my farm a few months before and was searching for its roosting location.

I knew that the scrub land was a potential locality for the eagle owl. It never crossed my mind that I should probably check the ravines adjacent to my land. I took a few quick pictures and when I approached closely, the bird flew away from me. In flight, it was wondrous to see the bird with huge wingspan in proportion to its body. Indian eagle owls are usually seen in pairs. However, I could only seen one bird in this location.

I checked the shrub in which it was roosting and I could see that the shrub also contained a few empty creamy white eggshells and couple of regurgitated pellets. These eggshells seemed to be from a recent brood of the Indian Eagle owl!. Most birds dispose of the eggshells from their nests so that the eggshells don't give away their nesting locations. Perhaps the Indian eagle owl was confident that it could fend off any possible dangers to its brood. I also doubted if the eggshells were very recent. They usually nest between November and April and chicks are dependent on its parent for nearly six months. There were no sign of its chicks or its mate. Cursory glance of the pellet also revealed that it was a leftover from a meal of rats or bandicoots. I rechecked the site and adjoining ravines for the bird for the following two days but there were no sign of the bird. The roosting site itself in which I found the bird was by itself seemed to be sparingly used. As mentioned earlier, I could only see two pellets and very few droppings. It was perhaps one of the many roosting sites of the bird. I decided to try my luck after November, at which time, I hope the nesting site would be reused by the bird.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Observations on Yellow-wattled lapwing Nesting

Yellow-wattled lapwings, in general,seem to prefer a drier habitat compared to their cousins, the Red-wattled lapwings. They are plovers like their cousins. The reason for their yellow wattles is unclear.

I had the opportunity to study closely the nesting behaviour of Yellow-wattled lapwings. They tend to nest on the open ground. the nest is just a scrape on the ground. I had the opportunity to study five active nests from an unobstructive distance away. They lay 3-4 eggs in a clutch. (In birds of Kerala, Dr Salim Ali mentions that the nest contains invariably 4 eggs but I could see two nests with just 3 eggs. I visited again a day after and three days after to see if the clutch would contain another egg. No, there wasn't any new egg).

Spacing of the nests seem to be highly variable. On two occasions, I have seen them nesting barely 25 ft away from each other. It does seem that both the parents partake in the nesting duty. The chicks are born nidifugus (ie., they are able to see, walk and find their own food on birth). However, it seems that the parent broods on the chick for sometime after its birth.

I once walked close to a yellow-wattled lapwing which appeared to be brooding. The parent, when approached too closely, walked away, revealing two very small chicks. The Yellow-wattled lapwing uttered a single note call hearing which the chicks remained immobile in their positions. Since the chicks are very cryptically plumaged, It is very difficult to spot them in an open ground. They seem to perfectly blend with their surroundings.

When I tried to approach the chicks, the parents became very agitated and started calling frantically and flew towards me menacingly. They only became calm after they saw me leave. I could not witness the broken wing display of Yellow-wattled lapwings.(For a detailed discussion of Broken-wing and other distraction displays please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distraction_display) Again, I could see no sign of the egg shells. The parents had either disposed of the egg shells or had consumed them to supplement calcium in their diets. This raises an important question: If the chicks are born Niudifugous, and the parents and chicks start looking for insects away from the nests, is there a need for nest concealment? do they reuse the same nesting sites?

I must mention here that the response by Yellow-wattled lapwings when their nests or chicks are approached were many and varied. Once when I approached a nest, the brooding lapwing simply moved some distance away and sat down in different place like it was brooding in that location. (See picture below). The practice resembled 'false brooding'. There were many occasions where the bird simply walked away while keeping a watchful eye over the nest from a safe distance without crouching down.

On one occasion, a lapwing with chicks, collected both the chicks under its wing and crouched low to the ground.

In another occasion, when I walked upto a parent with four newly chicks (Undoubtedly from one of the nests I have been observing), the parent uttered a single note call. hearing this call, all the four chicks lay flat on the ground and were immobile.

Their nesting practices raises many questions. How are they able to protect their nests against predators like crows, kites, buzzards and feral dogs? how do they make sure that nests are not accidentally trampled by grazing animals?

I could observe that the Yellow-wattled lapwings do not abandon their nests even after their nests with eggs or chicks have been discovered. I also observed that they are not very aggressive when the nest contains only eggs. Their behaviour changes only when chicks are present.

The effectiveness of their plumage can be appreciated in summers or post summers when the grasses dry out and Yellow-wattled lapwings begin to blend well with their surroundings.

I could also see Yellow-wattled lapwings are affected by mites the same as Pipits are affected by Mites.

I visited the breeding site on 10/07/16 when it was raining. I wanted to observe f the parent was brooding on the eggs even during the rains and I could observe the dedicated parents on the job unmindful of the rain. I even observed several lapwings collecting insects in the rain. Rain seems to be only a minor inconvenience in their scheme of things.

One of the nests I have been observing from 18/06 had finally hatched on 14/07. So The incubation period of the eggs should be greater than 26 days. (Greater than 26 because I don't know when the eggs were first laid) It appears that all the eggs hatched simultaneously.(I visited the site of 12/07 and still saw the eggs being brooded by the parent) . It was fascinating to me that all eggs hatched simultaneously even if they were laid a few days apart. I am sure that bird has been brooding on the eggs since they were first laid, then how is this feat of simultaneous hatching achieved?

Questions that remained with me:
1) How long are the eggs incubated?
2) What is the breeding success rate?
3) How long are the chicks dependant on their parent?
4) Do all the eggs hatch simultaneously?
5) Do Siblings from previous brood assist it brooding later clutches?
6) How many broods do a couple raise in a year?
Some of these questions can be answered only if the birds are tagged or colour coded.