Sunday, September 27, 2009

White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)

It was just about the beginning of the pre-monsoon in Dibrugarh (27° 29'N, 94° 54'E). A group of us had just finished lunch at a nearby dhaba when I heard this trilling bird cry. It was coming from a bird perched high up on a cell phone tower and since I was not carrying my binoculars, I could not identify it. A more knowledgeable friend identified the bird as a kingfisher, White-breasted Kingfisher to be precise. Although I respected her knowledge, I doubted that it could be one as there were no water bodies nearby. In any case the bird looked quite drab and I had always thought, no doubt aided by the Kingfisher brand of a prominent corporate group, that Kingfishers were brilliantly coloured birds.

My first view of the brilliant blue back of the bird came just a few days later as I was trying to photograph some pipits on a nearby paddy field. Just beyond the field there were two artificial ponds carved out during excavation of earth for a railway project. On the edge of one of the ponds stood a tree which made a perfect perch for kingfishers. Although the ponds were quite dry due to the monsoon not yet having started, I could see that this tree was being used regularly by a pair of these birds. Upon further scouting I discovered that they were nesting on the banks of one of the ponds.

I found these birds quite shy in the beginning but as the season progressed more of them could be seen in the area and I got good opportunities to photograph them. Soon mating calls became more strident and desperate and they could be seen on telephone poles, wires, bamboo fences and even on the roof of my law college right in the middle of town! In fact, during the monsoon, they would be one of the commonest birds to be sighted as one drove along the highway. A high degree of adaptability and a diversified diet ensures the proliferation of these species.

The other species that I have seen here is the pied kingfisher but it is extremely rare. Sadly haven't seen any of the other species.

Somehow this bird has always fascinated me since my childhood and seeing them at close quarters has dispelled the wrong notions I had of the bird, but the sense of admiration for this beautiful but deadly bird remains.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Day Tripping - Tezpur and Back

We had three days of scorching heat and it started pouring by 2:00 am on Saturday, 5th September. How typical of Dibrugarh, I thought, slightly disappointed. I was to go to Tezpur on official work and I had planned to do some birding and maybe take some photos on the way. Tezpur is around 300 km from Dibrugarh and I wanted to leave early morning and return the same day. The road basically goes westwards on the NH 37 till it crosses the Brahmaputra at Koliabhomora. Tezpur is a beautiful town on the North Bank of the river on the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. It is the gateway to Western Arunachal Pradesh and hence sees a lot of tourist traffic mostly making its way to Tawang.

The prime attraction of the journey for me was that the road marked the southern boundary of the Kaziranga National Park and offered an opportunity to see wildlife from the national highway itself. As I had official work at Tezpur and punctuality was of utmost importance I decided that all photographs would have to be taken from the vehicle and at no point would I go chasing after some bird.

I left Dibrugarh at around 4:00 am in the morning. It was still dark and the steady drizzle made driving a little difficult. Although it was too dark to see anything I knew from my previous experience that just after crossing Dibrugarh University there is a place which is usually inhabited by a flock of Slender Billed Vultures. Further down the road around 30 minutes from town is the village of Lezai which is full of water birds which can be seen from the roadside. I have, on previous occasions, seen egrets, bronze winged jacanas, lesser cormorant, lesser whistling ducks etc.

The first rays of the sun came out by 5:15 am. We had already reached Rajmai by then. Rajmai is close to the Panidehing Bird Sanctuary. I had gone there once a couple of months back to be bitterly disappointed as the place was full of domesticated buffaloes and other livestock. 

Things began to get interesting from hereon as we began spotting some birds in the paddy fields. We spotted a group of Greater Adjutant Storks huddling together. This bird, which was quite common earlier, is becoming a rarity now. The poor light did not allow a photo. As the sun became brighter my spirits rose and we could soon see a variety of birds amongst the paddy field. I must tell you a little about the topography. The road cuts across a landscape featuring paddy and tea plantations. Tea is grown in the higher areas (called baam mati) in Assamese whereas paddy is grown in the low lying land as it needs standing water. We crossed numerous rivers such as the Sessa, Dehing, Rajmai, Dhunseri etc. Most of these rivers are tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. At this time of the year paddy fields are a wonderful splash of fluorescent green, a colour that man has not yet managed to copy from nature. Amidst this sea of fluorescent green one can see dots of dark green which are unusally lone trees or bamboo groves containing little homesteads. Even more beautiful are the stepped paddy fields in undulating terrain which is quite unusual for Assam. However, to my mind, the most beautiful paddy fields are the ones tucked in between two tea plantations. The narrow strip of low land between tea plantations looks like a carelessly thrown string of green snaking its way into the horizon. It has to be seen to be seen to be believed.

The most abundant birds were the common mynas, sparrows, egrets (cattle and little), asian pied starling, common swallows, black drongos and the white breasted kingfishers. The starlings, swallows and kingfishers occupied the telephone lines running alongside the road while the drongos seemed to love the bamboo fence poles. I also saw flocks of herons sitting on bamboo fences and wild reeds on the the edges of the paddy fields. Some rarely seen birds such as the water cock, purple moorhen, lesser cormorant, red wattled lapwing and the lesser adjutant stork were also seen. My 'firsts' on this trip were the blue tailed bee eaters, common swallow and the bronzed drongo. I could also see several birds that I could not identify but the time constraint did not allow me to follow up.

Kaziranga, on the way up, was quite disappointing. I could see several asian open bill storks and egrets but no unusual birds. It had also become overcast now making photography very difficult.

As I settled in for my meeting in Tezpur, I had no reason to be really upbeat over the trip although I was not disappointed either as I had spotted some 'firsts'. 

The return trip was unbelievable although not from a birding point of view. We left Tezpur at around 3:00 pm. As we drove along the road near Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, the vehicle ahead of us screeched to a halt. The passengers got out and began pointing towards the Park. As I got out my car I saw what the excitement was all about. A herd of wild asiatic elephants was crossing a little stream around half a kilometre from where we stood. The main herd consisted a mixed group of adults and calves numbering around 30 with a few bulls following them. The leading matriarch seemed a little apprehensive about crossing the stream. 

The calves had no such inhibitions and were splashing around in the stream to the consternation of the attending mothers. After half an hour or so the matriarch finally took the plunge and began plodding towards us. It was only then we realised that were parked right on the elephant corridor and it was this that was bothering the matriarch. We scrambled on to our vehicles and fled before we became the latest victims of the human-animal conflict. 

Further down the road the entire convoy of vehicles again screeched to a halt. This time it was the Indian One Horned Rhnicerous, the most famous denizen of Kaziranga munching along the highway. Further down where the grassland merged into the forest there was a nilgai grazing. Unlike the elephants the rhino was least bothered by our presence. I marvelled at the power of nature. For that brief period of half an hour or so we were not strangers driving to diffrent destinations but friends admiring the beauty of nature. We shared our knowledge and previous experience of these wonderful animals laughing and smiling all the time. Even at this day and age nature has the power to make humans of us all. As drove off separately and darkness fell I fell into a deep sleep till I reached home.

Of all the wonderful birds and other animlas that I saw on my trip my lasting memory as I write this is of that brief period of time when the beauty of nature made friends of a group of total strangers.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lesser Golden Backed Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense)

This is surely the punk of the birds of my area. With a flaming red top and a brilliant golden yellow back it stands out in the sunshine like a punk under the neon lights of a nightclub. It has a string of spots down its side from the breast which gives the appearance of a chain of a gentleman's hand clock securely tucked into the breast pocket.

This species made its appearance in the tea garden sometime just after the onset of spring. I heard its trilling call long before I actually spotted the bird. Of course I did not then know that it was cry of a woodpecker.

My first glimpse of this bird was when I saw this creature jump from one tree to another. I say jump because at first I mistook it for a flying squirrel or a monkey. It has a very peculiar looping flight which I learned to identify later. It also crawls up and down branches rather than hopping like other birds. As I approached the creature it shifted ever so slightly so that it kept the trunk of the tree between it and me. It was only when I took a full circle that I realised I had been spotted and very cleverly evaded. As it was a very overcast day, as it usually is in Upper Assam, the brilliance of the bird's colours was not discernible.

As I began to be able to identify call of the bird I started to track it down from the source of the call. However the nifty trick of keeping a tree branch between it and me did not allow a clear line of sight for a photograph.

It was only when nest building started in earnest that I finally managed a half decent photograph. I waited near dead trees and waited for sound of the hollow thumping to start. This would give the position away and it would be so busy pecking away that one could manage to approach close enough for a photo.

As the intensity of the monsoons picked up I noticed a substantial drop in the number of woodpeckers but now as I write this, their calls have become more frequent.

This is undoubtedly one of the prettiest birds that I have seen here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


One grey overcast morning I was on my usual morning walk when I saw this strange bird sitting on a low branch. Due to the flat terrain in most of the tea growing areas in Assam, shade trees are planted intermittently with tea bushes to provide them some respite from the sun. Branches of these shade trees are lopped of annually prevent the foliage from casting too much shade on the tea bushes. On one of the trees one branch jutted almost perpendicular to the main trunk. 

The bird, black in colour, was perched on this branch. Every now and then it would swoop into the air and take a sharp loop like a fighter plane trying to shake of a pursuer and land on the same branch. It was an exhibition of skilled aerial acrobatics. As I moved closer I could discern that the bird had a sleek body and a forked tail like that of a fish. My neghbour who is an enthusiastic birder informed me that the bird is a Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). I must admit that I had never heard of a drongo before.

Over the next few weeks the Black Drongo became a regular in our area and we could dozens of pairs of them readying for nesting. The bird prefers branches at medium heights from where it can indulge in its acrobatics.

Some month or so after I spotted the first Black Drongo, I saw the second species which is called the Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus hottentotus). This species of drongo is very vocal and flies around in pairs. It has a constant sweet twittering like a cracked metallic bell. The most remarkable feature of this bird is its tail which it can spread out like a fan and hence the name 'spangled drongo'. The tale is curved outwards at the two ends and when in flight the bird looks very much like a WW I or WW II airplane like a Spitfire or Hurricane. I have also noticed a remarkable behaviour in this species. It puffs up it chest and flies vertically into the air from its perch with a whistling call. The takeoff is quite similar to a diver taking his vertical leap from the board before curving into his dive. This bird is shyer than the Black Drongo and is easily startled.

The third species of Drongo that I have seen here is the Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus). I have seen it most often in wooded areas bordering paddy fields and it can often be seen hovering over these fields hunting insects etc. They love electricity or telephone poles and use them as vantage points. I find it very difficult to distinguish this from the black drongo, but I understand that it has reddish eyes.

The last species of drongo that I have seen is the Crow Billed Drongo (Dicrurus annectans) which is a much larger species. I saw it on my way back from Panidehing Bird sanctuary near Sivasagar.

Although Drongos look black in colour, they are actually blue-black and it takes good light and a very skilled photographer to bring out the blue black colour. Needless to say, all my drongos look black. They are extremely feisty birds and I have seen a pair of them chase away a goshawk which dared to stray near their nest. The adolescents also roam around with a constant chatter and often get into fights with groups of bulbuls or mynas.