Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ranthambhore cleanup - birds

As I had limited wifi and time in Ranthambhore, my 'real-time' blogposts from there were rather brief. I did photograph a lot, so here is a collation of some photos taken during the 2.5 days of safari there, mainly of common birds.

Asian Openbill

Grey Francolin - very common

Great Thick-knee. Great indeed

Plum-headed Parakeets came in to drink by the park gate

Black-rumped Flameback

Common Woodshrike

Indian Robin - female. The smart male wouldn't pose

Red-vented Bulbul. Abundant but very neat

Large Grey Babblers doing their thing 

One of many Red-breasted Flycatchers

One of fewer Taiga Flycatchers

Chestnut-shouldered Petronia - huge numbers of them

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Existential thoughts on birding in rubbish dumps

After two brilliant days, birding on our last day in Kaziranga (21 Feb) was hampered by the torrential rain that had started the previous afternoon. We left late in the morning after the rain had paused. We headed over to Diring Tea Estate, the main haunt for Blue-naped Pitta and a few more 'hill' species. We were hoping for good activity after the rain, but in fact it was pretty slow and birds didn't play ball - quite many species were 'heard-only'. Check our eBird checklist here. We heard one pitta right at the start of the trail, but couldn't locate it. No other birds were vocal in the degraded forest. Same for Oriental Scops Owl - three singing birds but we couldn't find any of them. We did add some species but nothing out of the ordinary. And it was nice to bird on foot after sitting in a jeep for so long.

Diring Tea Estate

Nest stop was Kaziranga Beel, a small wetland outside the reserve. Due to the heavy rain access to the wetland itself was flooded, and we didn't see too much there either. At least I could get down to ground level to photograph the small goose flock, in bad light. Good hirundine activity is evident by the photobombing birds.

Ruddy Shelducks and Bar-headed Geese (and Barn Swallow)

Bar-headed Geese are very pretty, aren't they? (and Sand Martin)

We had a couple of Bengal Bushlarks that were new to the trip:

A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills entertained us by the main road:

In the afternoon we returned to the eastern range of Kaziranga NP. It was somewhat slower than previous days, and we really did not add too much. Two-barred Warbler and Black-throated Thrush were new trip birds. This White-fronted Goose was a good local record:

Indian Pond Heron on a mobile rock

On Feb 22 I started the long journey back home. Before flying out of Guwahati I had time to check the rubbish dump that holds the world's largest concentration of the Globally Endangered Greater Adjutant, the Asian Marabou counterpart. We had scoped them on the rubbish dump from a huge distance after landing in Guwahati a few days earlier, but I was hoping for better views. So I asked my driver to make a quick detour towards the rubbish dump. I thought I'd get views from outside the dump, but suddenly I found myself in the epicentre of disgust and misery. We were surrounded by hundreds of people rummaging through the rubbish, including young children. 


And I was there to watch and photograph birds. Globally Endangered birds. I have birded in many rubbish dumps and sewage ponds before, but this was something else. My brain was swinging between operation as a wildlife photographer, and feelings of a distressed western tourist just wanting to get away from these horrible scenes. In India one cannot escape from extreme poverty, but this type of extreme poverty is normally witnessed out of a passing train window. I was not expecting a close encounter with those miserable people. In the back of my brain I knew they exist, but my western brain normally avoids thinking about them. In this case, I was walking between those miserable people, carrying optics that cost much more than these people will ever earn, trying not to get my clothes dirty before boarding a flight. I felt so disgusting, and even much more now while I sit in front of my desk in the UK. 

I felt a sense of 'duty' to document the adjutants when I was there, that's why I went there, no? So I fired off some shots in bad light conditions, and asked the driver to get me the hell out of there.

This is the general scenery where the adjutants hang around:

I found it horrible to see people, cows and birds 'working' together on the same pile of rubbish:

Here are my photo objects. Not many birds can be described as ugly. In this particular setting, to my eyes these Greater Adjutants are genuinely ugly.


With Black-eared Kites - many on the rubbish too

After this distressing and surreal experience, I wanted to cleanse my brain a bit, so returned to Deepor Beel for an hour of quieter birding. Again it was good with large numbers of waterfowl, but nothing too exciting there. 

Lesser Whistling-Ducks

Bronze-winged Jacana

The last new trip bird - my only Brown-headed Gull of the trip:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kaziranga - rhinos, hornbills and more

Our next day in Kaziranga NP (February 20th) was just as good. In the morning we returned to the central range, and again had tons of birds - almost 160 taxa. In the afternoon we went to the western range but got rained on, so birding was somewhat slower. Birding in Kaziranga is simply damn good. There were new birds to be seen constantly, both in the woodland and on the water. But with all respect to LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs), photography that day was dedicated to large, colourful beasts.
Kaziranga has the world's largest population of Greater (Indian) One-horned Rhinos (Rhinocerus unicornis) - about 2400 animals in 2015, two thirds of the global population. They are massive and they are very obvious. With their size and armour, they do not worry about humans too much, and if an animal is grazing close to a track there is no problem to approach it for a selfie 😉
They are amazing animals - they have the attitude of a dinosaur. In Kaziranga they are constantly followed by birds sitting on them or around them. Here is a male (I think) escorted by an Eastern Cattle Egret (photobombed by a cheeky Pacific Golden Plover in the back):

With Common & Jungle Mynas:

We were a bit too close to this one. It snorted in anger and we backed up - a couple of weeks ago my friend's jeep was rammed by a raging bull so we took no chances.

Buffalos are pretty impressive animals too, especially the huge-horned bulls (here with Great Mynas and a Hog Deer):

In the woodland there were fewer mammals than in Ranthambhore, but still large numbers of deer. We missed a Tiger sighting by a couple of minutes. This Himalayan Hoary-bellied Squirrel is almost as exciting, isn't it?

There were too many birds to watch and photograph on the 20th, but the obvious highlight was Great Hornbill. This bird is out of this world. Huge, and colourful, and almost human in its expressions and behaviour. We watched a pair checking out potential nest sites (large tree cavities) - they will start building their unique nest soon. I have seen many in the past, and they will never end up on Shetland, but I still think they are stunning and very sexy birds. 

The 3D structure of their helmet is incredible:

I didn't know that Great Hornbills have eyelashes. Few birds have eyelashes, that are modified feathers rather than hairs in mammals. They really give them a human feel.

The Southern Ground Hornbill is one more example for a bird that has eyelashes - I photographed this one in Masai Mara, Kenya, December 2008:

Back to India 2017: another birding highlight for me was Pallas's Fish Eagle. It appeared in the bird books of my childhood, and is a rare vagrant to distant parts of the WP. It's a bird I had always wanted to see and is Kaziranga I had my first encounters with them. They are quite common and we saw about 10 every day, but never f they posed properly.

Pallas's Fish Eagle

Harassed by Eastern Jungle Crows

I'm out of here!

River Lapwings are such funky birds!

We did quite well Asian Barred Owlets:

Minivets are among my favourite bird families. They are birds of joy! We saw several species, typically mobile in canopies, but one small flock of Scarlet Minivets came down and close. The stunning red males kept their distance, but some females gave themselves up to us:

White-rumped Shama is another common and charismatic bird of the Himalayan Foothills:

The wet fields and short grasslands in and outside the park are full of pipits and wagtails. It was nice to refresh my field experience with Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and with some eastern White Wagtail taxa. This is alboides, we also had leucopsis and personata, and something like baicalensis. Not easy to photograph these birds inside the park.

Motacilla alba alboides
Grey-backed Shrike

Other birding highlights included again a nice diversity of leaf warblers - I was especially impressed by the stunning Yellow-vented Warbler (Phylloscopus cantator), sadly it didn't pose long enough for a photo.
Scenically, Kaziranga is less dramatic than Ranthambore - it is very flat. But I really liked the vast expanses, wetlands and woodland.

This trip to India was very short, and focused on wildlife. But even in the tight bubble of 'normality' we had created around ourselves, the human diversity and complexity of India was ever apparent. The national parks and full of Indians like this: 

And just outside the park, villagers work their land in a way that is probably not very different to how their great grandparents did. More on this in following blogposts.

Our complete eBird checklist for 20/2/17 is here.