Friday, December 14, 2007

Trivial matters

I revert again to talking of British books on wildlife. First, I must admit I have a weakness for off-beat publications – frivolous books that are about ‘nothing’ but for a nebulous central idea, quirky funny books with self-belief. Precisely one such is The Wildlife Companion. Edited by Malcolm Tait and Olive Tayler, this is an assortment of the most delightful trivia on wildlife you might wish to come across.

Nothing is too sacred, or too trivial for this book. Random notes by naturalists feature here: you can admire Peter Scott’s career in conservation or scoff at Aristotle for imagining that redstarts turned into robins in winter. Then there are myths and fables associated with flora and fauna, puzzles, quotes and of course trivia. You would learn for instance of Campsicnemius charliechaplini, a fly with a tendency to die in the bandy-legged position and that an owl has 14 neck vertebrae twice as many as most mammals and that swans have 25. Dead useful for all that necking they do.

Like I said, more trivia than you could possibly remember. To underline this, each page number gives you a little nugget: for instance, on Page 20 you will find ‘20 Time, in minutes that a grey seal can stay submerged’ or if advance to 32, you would discover that this was the ‘amount, in billions of dollars, spent on their hobby by us birdwatchers in 2001’. And the pages are sprinkled with a series of hilarious jokes on talking frogs.

With its broad, all-enveloping stance, The Wildlife Companion links Hannibal, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Pliny the Elder, cockatrice, Siegfried Sassoon and Shakespeare among a diverse number of other things… the writers evidently agreeing with John Muir when he says, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Sunday, December 09, 2007

This is How

With at least three wildlife channels on Indian television, it’s surprising I hadn’t watched anything of Bill Oddie before. But the British Library had a nice set of episodes called Bill Oddie’s How to Watch Wildlife and I borrowed it with great alacrity. Eight episodes later, I couldn’t bear to return the DVD.

In each episode, How to Watch Wildlife takes the viewer to a special location – most are geographic as with the Scottish Highlands or the Orkney Islands, and some are habitat-driven like the episode based on homes and gardens. In each, Oddie with infectious charm takes us through leisurely tours of his favourite haunts. He’s not the most glamorous of blokes, compared with… say for instance the charismatic David Attenborough. Short, podgy, wheezy and frequently off-balance, Oddie doesn’t quite match my mental image of the naturalist who is inexplicably tall, lithe and rangy. Still it took very little time to become thoroughly used to this man and very little more to become thoroughly fond of him.

How to Watch Wildlife isn’t an action packed series, with one thrilling visual after the other. It has long stretches of silence, of Oddie just walking past looking hither and thither, to the background of winds rustling and brooks gurgling. During most episodes, an expert is brought in – a coleopterist to tell us about the beetles in that area, or an arachnologist, to point us to a remarkable water skating spider, or an ornithologist to show us Golden Eagles in action.

It seemed to me that Oddie was showing us exactly how to watch wildlife: don’t rush it, savour every moment, don’t hesitate to ask others who know more and most importantly, by example, he shows us how never, ever to abandon the delight and the wonder. He says as much, walking past the nature-style silence of Dorset River: “It’s an important thing actually, when you’re out looking for wildlife, don’t get obsessed, ‘I must see wild creatures’. In a sense, this is all wildlife, this is all alive and it’s all wild… This is the Wild Life, put it that way.”

Most fascinating man, Bill Oddie. A glance at his Wiki page reveals a man of varied talents for music, television and entertainment apart from wildlife and conservation. Bit saddening to know that he has suffered nearly all his life from clinical depression, heartening at the very same time to see it hasn’t debilitated him.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A reddish start

Winter, in my neck of the woods, has been disappointing this year. The Small Green Bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) that come by the swarm by October have just trickled in. There is no sign of the dark-coloured mystery warbler that came last year in winter and stayed till March. Regular lookouts for MigrantWatch have not yielded even one of the nine migrants on the watchlist. I was banking on seeing the Common Swallow (Hirundo rustica) overhead, and harboured some hope that the Rosy Starling (Sturnus roseus) might join its cousins in our environs. So far, zilch. It was all beginning to get personal.

Then suddenly this morning, a rustle in the entangled clump of hibiscus and lime. Quite expecting the Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius), I looked. A Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)! Never seen before in our gardens and so we made sure, turning the pages of the field guide with fumbling hands. Mrs Black Redstart, it was. The quivering tail, the keen black eye, the glorious orangey-red…

She looked around pretty much like a prospective tenant trying to decide if the place would do. If she needed help making up her mind, we urged her on, wanting her very much to settle in our favour. Come again, bring the husband and stay the winter. The rents are low and we’re peaceable neighbours. She will come again, I think, she had the air.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Purple Sunbird (male)
Purple Sunbird (female)

'Walk the line' Crow-Pheasant

Blue-tailed Bee-eater.
It feels great to actually have something to put up on urban babblers after an eternity! All the photos were taken by me except for the one of the Coucal doing the tango, which was taken by my friend, Sanjana Sharan. The two sunbrirds were clicked attempting to build a nest in our backyard, which they abandoned later on. The Blue-tailed bee-eater was photographed at ICRISAT.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A flurried word

It’s a ball of fur…it’s a silver Snitch…no, it’s a Bulbul!

Since I started looking, I’ve seen quite a few birds do that fluffing out trick they do. But the Bulbul outside my window just now was something else! Some rapid movement caught my eye and I turned to look. All I could see was a greyish globe shaking violently. When my eyes adjusted to the movement I saw a small black head peeking out of the churning ball. I watched fascinated for more than a minute while this flapping grey ball just became bigger and bigger. And then suddenly within a blink of my eye there was nothing. The bird had evidently swooped down behind a wall, but it certainly felt as if it counted disapparation among its talents.

I am not complaining. A little morning-magic can last the whole day.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Rangrej mere, sab kuch rang de...

This is an article I wrote for Jetwings in their March 2007 issue. They were having a Holi/Colours special and I thought it would be a nice idea to include some colourful birds.


Birds of a feather

By Sheetal Vyas

India is the land of colours, we hear all the time. There is colour in our culture, our traditions, our clothes. Even nature is colourful in India. We have vivid landscapes, flowers in rich, deep hues and getting to the point of this article, birds in every hue.

The Indian subcontinent offers a rich variety of bird species. Making up about 13% of the world’s species, there are close to 1300 species found here. They are everywhere: out in the open grasslands, in our forests, our water bodies and our gardens, feathered bipeds are plentiful and varied. Birds come in an astonishing range, some with wing-spans the size of a tall man, some no bigger than a fist. What’s more, they come in an impressive array of colours – iridescent blues and purples, greens that shock the eye, and yellows to out-dazzle gold.

What is the point of so much colour in birds? Well, the answer is complex, and the subject is still being studied. However, the primary reason appears to be communication. Colour announces species and sex as well as status and health of an individual. In birds, as with so many other forms of life, the male of the species is often more beautiful, more ornate. The female, Nature seems to tell us, simply needs to be; it is the male who is put to the trouble of being attractive. Quite opposite the state of human affairs but of course, that is a different story.

If we were to start cycling through the most colourful birds of our country, first honourable mention must necessarily go to India’s National Bird, Indian Peafowl. Symbolising vanity through the ages, the peacock is a truly exquisite bird. The male, which can be as big as 230 cm from tip to tip, sports a long neck of a most brilliant turquoise-tinged blue, with a royal crest on the head. The tail is a long affair, trailing back lavishly, made up of predominantly green feathers, each with an ‘eye’, a concentric pattern of yellows, blue and black. Scientists use words like structure and interference to explain precisely why this graceful bird shimmers as it does, but that doesn’t take away our delight at such beauty. Oh, the peacock knows it’s beautiful. If you are lucky, it will sometimes choose to wow you by bringing up that remarkable tail in a breathtaking fan and dance… slight movements back and forth, and a delicate frisson calculated to catch the light over its iridescent feathers. Once seen, never forgotten.

Nowhere as widespread as peafowl, but equally spectacular is the Himalayan Monal. The pheasant family is known for colour and glorious plumage, and the National Bird of Nepal is one of the more vivid examples. Sometimes called ‘the bird of nine colours’, the adult male is a live colour palette and sports a metallic bronze-green and purple with crimson and yellow on the neck, green on the shoulder, white on the rump with a bright cinnamon tail. A hardy bird that can be seen at heights up to 4500 m!

You’ll have to go the Himalayan belt to see Monal in the flesh, but there are other colourful birds that will come to you. If you’re fond of the colour green, there are the ubiquitous parakeets, the shrillest visitors to any garden. The commonest of these, the Rose-ringed Parakeet – Tota to you – is a darling of a bird. Fruit-eaters, they are, and if you have a guava or mango tree, they’re sure to turn up in some numbers squawking and shrieking companiably. There is another greenish bird that is capable of setting up an equal din – the Common Tailorbird. A charming little fellow with green upper body, rufous head and a perky upright tail, this warbler is a notable nest-maker. If you keep an ear cocked for a persistent cheeeup, this one is easy. Giving these ones a run for their green are the leafbirds and the green pigeons.

If green blends into the foliage, orioles have a yellow that will stop you in your tracks. The field guides call it golden and verily, as beautiful as a sunbeam. When people see their first oriole, there is often a feeling of disbelief; that we should not only share space with something as glorious as this, but actually get to see it! Also among the yellows are the weavers, commonly-found sunbirds and the beautiful ioras.

Then there are the blues and the purples. If you drive by the countryside, and glance at the wires, be sure to look out for this flash of cerulean blue. Chances are it will be a White-throated Kingfisher. As it sits, it is the white throat and distinctive beak that draws the eye, but as it lifts! the blue is breathtaking. The Indian Roller is another that’s dullish at rest but it is stunning in flight, shades of azure glinting in the sunlight. In fact, in Andhra Pradesh it is considered auspicious to see the Roller during Dussera, and it is often captured and brought around in cages so that the populace can see them. A list of bluish birds is incomplete without mention of the Verditer Flycatcher and the very common Purple Moorhen.

Moving now inevitably to the reds and oranges. Along moist reeds and grasses in many parts of India, you might chance upon the Red Munia. In breeding, during the monsoons, the male takes on a dramatic red stippled with brown and white; unfortunately, its bright colour also makes it a very popular cage bird. There is also a smallish forest bird found mainly in Indian hills that redefines the colour red – the Scarlet Minivet. The male of this one is so spectacular, it hurts the eye. Cousins Small Minivets are found all over the country, and if they’re a more diluted red, they have the most interesting shades of orange thrown into the mix.

Of course, colour isn’t the only interesting aspect of birds: there are sober-coloured birds that are as fascinating. Still, the colourful ones lend the glamour; they reel us in, dazzling us and luring us into their world, inviting us to see if we will, what bustling activity lies behind the romance. And with watching birds, starting is all it takes to keep going.

What causes the colour?
Bird colour is caused by two systems that work together – chemicals and structure. By chemicals, we mean pigments that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. Melanins, carotenoids, and more rarely porphyrins are deposited in the feather and are responsible for most bird colour. Parrots, easily the most brightly coloured of all bird families, have a pigment all to themselves: psittacins, which they manufacture to colour their plumes.
Curiously though, no pigment ever turned feathers blue – that is all the work of the structure of the feather. Structure is what makes up a feather, small branches called barbs and barbules that scatter reflected light. Green is even more special, in fact one of the most complex colours birds produce, because it combines blue structural colour overlaid with yellow cortical pigment.
Iridescence, the rainbow effect, is again because of structure, where the barbules in the feather are arranged like reflectors, spaced and shaped so cleverly to give off an array of hues. And you thought colour was easy!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hello again!

The large-billed reed warbler (Acrocephalus orinus) really seems to be coming out of the woodwork. After the finding in Thailand, another specimen was discovered in the collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, in a drawer of Blyth’s Reed-warblers, specimens collected in India in the 19th century.
Now another sighting has been reported from Narendrapur Sanctuary, though still unauthenticated. The full story's here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Somethin' preyin' on your mind...

Pointing you in the direction of birder Jochen, who reviews about half a dozen field guides on raptors here, on his blog Bell Tower Birding.