Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chestnut-capped Babbler

This is one of my favourite birds. It is an inhabitant of grasslands near water bodies. It is an absolute skulker and one has to be very lucky to get even the briefest glimpse of this bird.

The first indication that the bird is in the vicinity is its call. Then you see the grass stalks shiver unnaturally due to the bird moving around at its base. That's when the shiver of anticipation runs through you and the camera/binocular is ready to spring into action.

On your lucky day you will be witness to an unmatched dance over the grass stalks and on most days all you see are multiple ripples in the grass as the flock moves away from you.

I must have spent days stalking this bird in the last year or so but have been lucky to clearly just see it 3-4 times. What a show it was. All those lost hours are made in seconds and that is why this remains one of my favourite birds.

Please click on the photos for larger versions

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Adjutants

If there was one group of birds that stand out in my memory and signify the essence of Assam it would have to be the Adjutant Storks commonly called Bortokola in Assamese. There are two similar looking species the Greater Adjutant Sork (GAS) (Leptoptilos dubius) and the Lesser Adjutant Stork (LAS) (Leptoptilos javanicus). The Greater Adjutant Stork is bigger than the Lesser Adjutant Stork.

Both birds are basically waders and are found in wetland areas. In the summer they are often seen roaming around in the paddy fields just before they are tilled. The GAS is distinguished from the LAS by the existence of a neck pouch which may hidden in some cases. The GAS is a scavenger but also preys on frogs etc. The LAS is primarily a hunter but may also scavenge.

These birds were very common during my childhood but have sadly declined significantly in recent years. Habitat loss, hunting and better sanitation have been suggested for their decline.

These birds have been called ugly but to me they are symbols of this state of Assam and their decline and reduction to scavenging in garbage dumps is a sad reflection of the state of our environment.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birding in the Monsoon: White-breasted Waterhen

The word 'monsoon' traditionally refers to the season of rain brought in from the Bay of Bengal and heralds in the period of plenty for all. This is also a relief to us humans as it brings down the scalding temperatures that precede the monsoon. However, this year in Assam, we have had rains since March and areas have reported rains 400-500% more than last year. Therefore the word 'monsoon' has lost it significance to us this year. In fact we are battling with slush, mud, floods, dampness, smelly clothes and all the other not so pleasant things that the monsoon brings.

The monsoon is also the time of the most common yet shy bird of these parts, the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). It's loud mating calls can be heard with the coming of the pre-monsoon showers. Although shy by nature this bird is comfortable with human presence and can be seen even in urban areas near dense undergrowth and water.

In my neighbourhood it makes its home in tea garden drains and under bamboo hedges which form the boundary of my bungalow. They can often be seen pecking at the leftover grains washed down the drain after the utensils have been washed. When approached these birds tend to walk away or even run. Flight is used as the last resort.

They give birth to 6-7 chicks which are black feathered. In fact, today, I saw a mother proudly leading her brood for their first foray.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Regime Change

There has been a regime change in our Garden. One of the trees in our garden has several holes at different heights which are home to 2-3 species of birds at various times of the year. We call it 'The Apartment'. 
Last year, at this time, one of the holes was occupied by a pair of Spotted Owlets. One of the pair kept vigil from a nearby tree while the other occupied the nest. I think there were three chicks although I can't be sure. These Owlets were the top dogs of the Garden. Our dog also loved to pick up the remains of their nightly snacks that fell at the base of the tree.
This year the hole has been taken over by a pair of Indian Rollers amidst loud shrieks and screeches by both the occupiers and the displaced. The Rose-ringed Parakeets, who occupy the hole above them, also join in the general cacophony. I think they prefer the Owlets or maybe they are just status quoists. The owlets meanwhile sulk in our porch and are possibly awaiting for an opportunity to re-occupy the hole.

Friday, January 15, 2010

74 Not Out!

Just about a year ago, sometime in February 2009, I bought a Sony H50 which is a digital camera with a 15x zoom. While pottering around my garden with it I saw some some parrots (Rose-ringed Parakeet as I came to know later) busy going to and fro from a hollow in a tree in the garden. I began photographing these birds and when I got tired of them I started looking around for some other species; which is when I got the idea of
photographically recording the birds around my bungalow.

I live in Bokel Tea Estate and my bungalow is uniquely placed in many respects.

It is in the middle of a tea garden with its tea bushes and numerous shade trees. For those not familiar with tea estates, tea bushes come up to about the midriff of a man of average height. The bushes are dotted with what are called shade trees as too much direct sunlight is not good for leaf productivity. These bushes and trees provide excellent cover for numerous mammals such as leopards or panthers who use the drainage system for hiding their cubs and to generally move around unnoticed. I have also seen wildcats, mongoose, hares, flying squirrels, monkeys and not to mention snakes. Needless to say it also provides excellent cover for numerous birds.

At the edge of the Estate are paddy fields and villages. These provide a slightly different environment with a lot of small and medium ponds which host some water birds. During the monsoons the water covered paddy fields also play host to a number of these birds. The houses in the villages have their own fruit bearing trees and bamboo thickets which also provide cover and food to a large number of birds. Added to the above is the fact that the bungalow is quite close to Dibrugarh town and hence we also have birds which are found in an urban setting.

I have, so far, recorded 74 species and they are listed below. All of these have been recorded within a radius of 2 km from my bungalow and most of them happen to be chance encounters during my morning walks.

Needless to say there are several other species that I have not yet seen or even if seen have not recognised. Hence the search goes on and I hope to score a century soon!!

1. Ashy Drongo
2. Asian Barred Owlet
3. Asian Koel
4. Asian Openbill
5. Asian Pied Starling
6. Besra
7. Black Drongo
8. Black Kite
9. Black-hooded Oriole
10. Blue-throated Barbet
11. Bronze Winged Jacana
12. Brown Shrike
13. Cattle Egret
14. Chestnut-tailed Starling
15. Cinnamon Bittern
16. Common Cuckoo
17. Common Kingfisher
18. Common Myna
19. Common Tailorbird
20. Coppersmith Barbet
21. Cotton Pygmy-Goose
22. Daurian Redstart
23. Eurasian Hoopoe
24. Forest Wagtail
25. Great Egret
26. Greater Flameback
27. Grey-backed Shrike
28. Grey-breasted Prinia
29. Hair-crested Drongo
30. Hill Myna
31. House Crow
32. House Sparrow
33. Indian Cuckoo
34. Indian Pond-Heron
35. Indian Roller
36. Intermediate Egret
37. Jerdon's Baza
38. Jungle Crow
39. Jungle Myna
40. Large Cuckoo-shrike
41. Lesser Adjutant
42. Little Egret
43. Long-tailed Shrike
44. Oriental Honey-Buzzard
45. Oriental Magpie-Robin
46. Oriental White-eye
47. Paddyfield Pipit
48. Pheasant Tailed Jacana
49. Plaintive Cuckoo
50. Purple Swamphen
51. Red-breasted Flycatcher
52. Red-vented Bulbul
53. Red-wattled Lapwing
54. Red-whiskered Bulbul
55. Rose-ringed Parakeet
56. Rufous Treepie
57. Rufous-tailed Shrike
58. Scaly-breasted Munia
59. Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
60. Siberian Stonechat
61. Spotted Dove
62. Spotted Owlet
63. Tickell's Leaf-Warbler
64. Watercock
65. White Wagtail
66. White-breasted Waterhen
67. White-rumped Munia
68. White-throated Kingfisher
69. White-vented Myna
70. Yellow Bittern
71. Yellow Wagtail
72. Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon
73. Lesser Whistling-Duck
74. Jungle Owlet

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Captive Prince

One of the hazards of staying in a tea garden is the threat from a variety of wild animals ranging from the smaller feral cats to large leopards. There have been reports of even Royal Bengal Tigers being sighted and I have myself seen a rhino which had strayed into a Tea Estate. The fact is that due to habitat shrinkage and tea gardens being one of the few remnants of green cover we are right in the forefront of the man-animal conflict. The biggest threats come from wild elephants and leopards.In fact just about two years ago, our Mali's son was mauled and killed by a Leopard in front of our bungalow, tragically just 40 - 50 metres from where he was working. Apparently the kid had gone into the Estate to pick some berries where he was attacked.

So when, just around a couple of months ago, fresh sightings were reported the people around got pretty worried. I was cautioned about my morning walks in the Estate especially where our pet was concerned as Leopards appear partial to dogs. I had spotted some mongoose, flying squirrel and even a wild cat once but I really did not take the reports of a leopard seriously. 

However, due to the concerns expressed by workers who have to go into the Estate to pluck, one cage was organised and, under the supervision of the Forest Department, placed in the tea bushes in front of our Bungalow. Every morning, I would go upto it and have a look to find the goat (the bait) sleeping peacefully. However one morning I found that the goat had been killed. Apparently, a pair of leopards had come upto to the cage, without entering it, had pawed the goat to death through the cage bars. It was then I actually started beliwving that we had a wild cats roaming around. However the animals refused to be trapped and goats began disappearing from the labour lines regularly.

Continuous rain kept me in for some days and just some days ago (19th November 2009), I got a call early morning informing me that a leopard had been trapped. I rushed out to the sight and soon a healthy crowd had gathered there. The local police and Forest Department were informed as people sometimes tended to hurt captured animals. I was most worried about the leopard hurting itself as it hurled itself against the bars.

It was a magnificent animal and a part of me was sad to see it captured. However relocation was possibly the best of a bad bargain.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Walk in the Beel - I

Ever since the people working in my Office became aware of my interest in birds they have been telling me, "Sir, aapuni Maijan Beel jabo lage. Taat dher sorai pore". Sir, you should visit Maijan Beel. Lots of birds are there.

A beel is an Assamese term for a lake or water body. These are usually inland low lying areas which get filled up due to the water overflowing the Brahmaputra during the monsoons. Several beels dry up during the winter but the larger ones are perennial containing vasts pools of swampy water forming the perfect habitat for birds of different varieties. If I am not mistaken most of the famous birding hotspots in Assam including Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikhowa etc are basically large beels. Villagers often fish in these waters and some have even been known to have wild ducks in their diet. I must hasten to add that, by and large, wild birds are not on the menu in Upper Assam.

As the monsoon intervened and being busy with work I could not really visit the Maijan Beel although it is barely 5 km from my place. Last Sunday (22-11-2009) I finally decided that the Beel ought to be looked at.

There are basically two beels and they are most probably interconnected. The smaller 'S' shaped beel lies within Maijan Tea Estate while the bigger one lies just outside the Estate towards Dibrugarh town. Just to give an idea of the topography; Maijan Tea Estate is located near Dibrugarh Town on the banks of the Brahmaputra and suffers an annual flooding from the river. It has lost a lot of land to the river and is still doing so. In fact, during the massive earthquake of 1952, the river changed course and swallowed up vast areas of the Estate and where the river now runs used to be planted with tea bushes.

As I lived behind the Estate I reached the smaller beel first. The sun was just coming up as I reached the beel and I could see several small canoes already out on the beel. As I sat there and soaked in the sun I could see several species of water birds on the beel. Asian pied Starling, Lesser whistling Duck, Bronze winged Jacana, Purple Moorhen, Grey Wagtail and the Common Stonechat were the most abundant species. I also saw the White breasted and the Common Kingfisher and the Little Cormorant. There was a ridge running alongside the beel, possibly used by man and cattle to walk around it and also to dam the water in. It was broken in several places by the water and hence it was not possible to circle around the entire beel. Will try that the next time!! While the high ridge is a good vantage point for spotting birds, the birds spot you too.

I visited the larger beel next. I had to drive across the Tea Estate and exit towards Dibrugarh town through the main entrance. It was similar to the smaller beel except for the size. This beel had a dyke built to protect Dibrugarh town and it looks motorable on a two wheeler and hence will try that one too the next time. Having had a look at the beels, I drove off towards the river. This area was scrub land and i could see that Tea had once been planted here. This is where I spotted the Common Kestrel, first for me here locally.

Having done the reconnaissance for a future visit I drove back home. I spent around 2 hours on the trip and  the birds spotted by me were:

Jungle Mynah
Common Mynah
Grey backed Shrike
Long tailed Shrike
Bronze winged Jacana

Grey Wagtail
Common Stonechat
Asian pied Starling
Purple Moorhen
Cotton pygmy Goose
White breasted Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher
Little Cormorant
Common Kestrel
Indian Treepie
Jungle Crow
Indian Roller
Lesser whistling Duck
Indian Roller

There were several other species that I could not identify. Have left them for the next visit.