15 May 2012

Let's go birding

Soaring: The Brahminy kite. Photo: The Nature Trust
Soaring: The Brahminy kite. Photo: The Nature Trust
Take time off to look at the birds. Try to identify them and get to know their habits.
It's blazing hot, the migratory birds who left their countries to escape the harsh winter, realise that it's time to return home due to their internal clocks. Some who came in late, like the Plovers, have overstayed but will leave shortly. But then who is here to brave the summer heat? It's just the local lot. Most of them now are in breeding plumage. Their ordinary colours have vanished and now they are “dressed” in bright colours. Check on the normally white cattle egrets and pond herons, now clad in a different hue. The cattle egret builds nests near water bodies and does not mind socialising with other wading birds. Their nest looks like a platform of sticks and they are built on trees or shrubs. Cattle egrets are commonly seen in wetlands and rice fields. They accompany cattle, and pick insects off the larger animals. Some populations of the Cattle Egret are migratory and others show post-breeding dispersal.
The pond heron appears to have a hunched look because of its short neck. It has a short thick bill and buff-brown back. During summer, the adult birds have long neck feathers. When they fly, the white of their wings makes them stand out, instead of the usual dull look.
There are more ground nesting birds in bright colourful plumage, like the kingfisher, the red wattled lapwing and the tree pie amongst others.
Did you know that there are 90 varieties of kingfishers around the world? They prefer to perch on a high branch as it gives them momentum to dive deep into the water to get their prey. They are known as “cavity nesters”, making their nests in holes dug in the ground. These holes are usually in banks on the sides of rivers, lakes or ditches. Some nests are a small chamber at the end of a tunnel in a termite hill.
Don't miss out on the mynahs, the shrikes and the pied bushchat. Shrikes catch small insects and impale them on thorns. This is more convenient for them to tear it into small pieces and it is a kind of a “store house” so that they can return to it later.
While watching the birds, it's interesting to note their behaviour too, especially as it's the time for nest building and most of the juniors have arrived. The parents can be seen, taking turns to bring in the food for the chicks and feeding them. Their protection of the chicks would put any security service to shame, judging by their vigilance around the nest. They have sharp alarm calls.
The birds are also masters of camouflage. The red wattled lapwing would build its nest between three or four stones and lay its eggs. Plenty of grass is inlaid so that the eggs are not discovered. Another clever tactic would be to distract intruders by flying around a spot away from the actual nest. The red-wattled lapwing has a peculiar alarm cry “Did he do it?” Some of the local names are titeeri (Hindi), titodi (Gujarati), yennappa chitawa (Telugu) and aal-kaati (Tamil, meaning “human indicator”). The wetland birds too can be seen with their young, like the glossy ibis, the open bill storks, the pelicans, the Indian moorhens, the peasant-tailed jacanas, the purple herons and the coots.
It is commonly thought that birds vanish during summer as there is less water. But for the birds, when there is less water, it is easy for them to get their prey. This is especially seen in flamingos. When the waters go down, around 2000 of them “congregate” at the Pulicat Lake, near Chennai.
So set out this summer to spot those birds.
Some tips
Begin at home. Watch your home garden or the trees around your place. Check out the parks for birds.
Keep a bird feeder and water baths for them. Or scatter some grain.
Observe the birds that visit you. Take pictures and make notes of their appearance and behaviour. Check it out with a bird guide.
When you visit bird sanctuaries, the best time for bird spotting would be early morning or the roosting time t around 4.30 – 6.30pm.
Go about silently, do not disturb the birds or point at them, This would scare them off. When you want to take photographs keep them in your view, but slide up slowly to do it, from behind bushes or trees.
Listen to their different calls, and record them so that you can identify them later.
Mr. Thirunaranan, The Nature Trust. He has been “birding” for many years.

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