I admit I was not prepared for Mumbai. In my defense, I don’t know that anyone really can be. The city is massive, and crazy, and filled with people and buildings that at once seem modern and equally apt to fall apart in a strong wind. I had a 10 hour layover at the Mumbai International Airport, which in and of itself wasn’t so bad except that a series of armed guards won’t let you into the terminal until two hours before your plane is scheduled to depart. I had intended to try to do some birding somewhere while I was there, but with no place to leave my bags during the 8 hour interim, that plan was rapidly devolving into the prospect of sitting on curb for most of the day.
I had been traveling with a Portuguese/English travel writer, and not being a birder he was willing to sit by and watch my suitcase while I took off for a few hours to nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the hopes of seeing something, anything, other than the Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows that make Mumbai no different than any other major city in the entire world. This changed everything.
I grabbed a cab, who almost certainly ripped me off, and headed north along the main thoroughfare towards the park. Driving in Mumbai is an experience unto itself. The same highway on which massive semi trucks barrel across the potholed surface also hosts cyclists putzing along in the middle of the road. There are no lanes, only right of ways shared by everybody. It is hair-raising to be sure, but enough that all you can really do is sit back and enjoy it, and my driver delivered me to the entrance of the park for only about $5 so I couldn’t complain. It’s India, if you worry too much you’re sunk.
I had done a bare minimum of research on the park before I left for the airport. Learning little more than the fact that the park has the highest concentrations of tigers in the nation. It’s an odd thing to be birding in a place where there is a very real, if exceptionally distant, chance of being eaten by an alpha predator. Fortunately, the entry way to the park was packed with people, like almost every part of India is, and there were no big cats, and exceptionally few birds but for the Oriental Magpie-Robins that hopped around a garden.
Without any sort of map or guidance, I sort of wandered the main paths looking for any sort of movement. An odd sound caught my ear and I paused to seek it out to find a gorgeous Coppersmith Barbet perched motionless on a almost bare tree. As this was one of my targets, I was pretty stoked.
The birds were pretty quiet around the masses of humanity, so it was with some trepidation that I wandered up a dry creek bed deep into tiger country in search of anything else. A flowering tree with huge orange blossoms attracted a nice variety of birds including Greater Coucal, Asian Koel, and Indian Jungle Crows with their enormous bills and deep voices. Good stuff.
Some smaller birds turned out to be Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a total brain bird. Until now I had managed pretty well identifying Indian species. Nothing had completely thrown me given the research I’d done beforehand. This odd species floored me, however, though I was able to guess at the family. They’re smaller than the Euro Starlings, though the shape was familiar.
A troop of Rhesus Macaques escorted me down the path as I returned to the entrance to catch a cab back (worth a blog post in their own right). The locals undoubtedly thought I was something of a nutjob as I paused to photograph them. A single Little Cormorant perched over the pond on my way back, the best opportunity I’d had to photograph one since I’d been there and a good enough last bird of the trip, if you don’t count the Rock Pigeons at the airport, and why would you?
I took an open air jitney back to the airport, a truly Indian experience, and made it back to the airport dusty and exhausted, but with a better sense of the country that I was going to be leaving. There’s truly no place like it, the modernity and the poverty crammed so abruptly against each other. I hope I get to come back some time, I remain insufficiently overwhelmed.
Everyone, birder and non, knows about robins. But do they know that the word “robin” refers to several birds over multiple families that are not really that closely related?
There’s all this and more at the most recent I and the Bird. Up now at 10,000 Birds.
There were more than just larks in the area surrounding the Tent City, and depending on the direction you walked you could pick up any number of interesting species even if the total count was fairly low. One side of the site faced out towards the Great White Desert, a massive salt pan the size of New England. The other side faced the more or less habitable village of Dhordo. You could always tell where people lived because of the proliferation of a short, spiny tree the locals called gando bawal, the mad tree.
As the story goes, the local prince of the area now called Gujarat brought the trees over from Africa 400 years ago to slow the expansion of the desert. It worked, more or less. Now they’re everywhere, a monoculture that makes any of the dense thickets impossible for anything other than camels to move through. The locals put it to good use though, instead of barbed wire, livestock are placed in corrals made by stacking the prickly limbs of the tree. Inside these corrals the shrubs are grazed clean, making the interior more like the native tussocky scrub you find elsewhere but more protected from the elements. It’s not much of a surprise that the skulky birds like this sort of microhabitat. We heard francolins, both Black and Gray, crowing from these openings, even catching a glimpse of the second species. But the most exciting find was a trio of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse tucked in behind a sand hill and nearly invisible.
We watched as they slowly realized we were there and crept away towards a pile of thorny scrub, but they were in no danger from us separated from us by a five foot tall fence of limbs featuring thorns three inches long. Mad tree, indeed.
In this formidable thickets we’d find lots of Common Babblers, the second species of babbler for the trip following the Jungle Babblers in center city Ahmedebad. This was a family completely foreign to me, being only present in the Old World. They behave something like towhees, but with songs reminiscent of a melodious Winter Wren. And more, they travel in large flocks of up to a dozen, which is disconcerting for such a large bird.
I was intimidated by Old World warblers going into this trip, having had practically no experience with them aside from an apparent Willow Warbler from Great Britain when I was 15. I can say now that I was completely right to be scared of them. They are every bit as difficult as advertised, and made even worse by the fact that they’re distribution in this part of the world is far from settled. The most common species we came across in the vicinity of the Tent City was Syke’s Warbler, which used to be conspecific with Booted Warbler but hell if I know how to tell them apart. I went with range as the determining fact, but sweet fancy jesus these birds are tough.
The British birders I was hanging around with had a little better sense of what to look for here. Apparently the legs and the primary extension are important. I am not used to looking closely at the legs of anything in North America save gulls. That’s my own failure as a birder, I guess, but it also sort of explains why the average British birder is probably more skilled than the average North American birder.
Red-wattled Lapwings are colorful, loud, and extremely common. Fortunately, one never really tires of looking at them.
More on India to come. I’m still working my way through it!
As I mentioned in the 10,000 Bird post posted earlier this week, I’m vacationing with my wife’s family on the Caribbean island of Aruba. If you, like me before I learned we’d be traveling here, have no idea where this place is, let me break it down for you. The islands of the Caribbean are broken more or less into manageable clusters. The Greater Antilles include the big ones, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Being so large and lush, they offer quite a bit for the would-be Caribbean birder with several endemics and near-endemics of not just birds, but mammals, bugs, herps, and all the major animal groups. I’ve never been to any of these islands.
The Lesser Antilles are then, as you can imagine, the smaller volcanic islands that run in an arc from Puerto Rico to the northern part of South America including the tiny nations of Grenada, Barbados, and Saint Vincent and its many Genadines, among others. That leaves the tree deserty, wind-blown islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire as the remaining Netherlands Antilles.
There is no test and please don’t feel bad for not knowing all this. I had not given the West Indies a whole lot of thought beyond their role as a Florida vagrant factory until I was looking at coming here. But having spent a few days on what is arguably the worst West Indian island for birding, even I can see the appeal of the nature down here and it has me wanting to see more. But what else is new?
Anyway, Tuesday morning was my planned day for real birding. I had contacted a local through the Birdingpals website. I’d never used it before as a traveler. My own name is listed among many other North Carolina birders and even so I’ve been contacted for information on places to go, though I’ve never taken anyone out and around because of it. Aruba, however, has only one name and not expecting much I emailed her asking only for some info on where to have a nice morning in the field and ended up spending the entire first half of the day with Olinda Rasmijn, Aruban native and apparently the nature lady on the island.
She didn’t use binoculars, so I have to say I didn’t know quite what to expect. But what she did know was where the birds were. And our first stop, a ephemeral salt pan not more than 150 meters north of our hotel, turned out to be amazing, highlighted by a quarter of American Flamingos.
I don’t know the status of flamingos down here, but I they looked wild enough for me. It was about here that I realized that my copy of Bart De Boer’s Birds of Aruba, Curacao, & Bonaire was going to be an issue. I’d received a review copy some time ago but had decided not to review it as I found it significantly wanting. The illustrations are absolutely terrible, but in trying to use it here I realized that the information on the opposite side of the page was completely wrong too. Roseate Spoonbills, of which I was looking at no fewer than five individuals, were listed as a “rare visitor from South America”. I asked Olina if this was a good birds and she just said, “They’re always here”. Well, then.
As it turned out in conversations with Jeff Wells of the excellent Birds of Aruba website, who keeps excellent records of the island’s birdlife, De Boer had not even asked him for advice. An oversight to be sure.
Aaaanyway. Our morning was spent out and about at several of the hotspots on the western side of this tiny island. We saw Caribbean Coots and White-cheeked Pintails and loads of wading birds. I caught a couple glimpses of Venezuelen Troupial, an impossibly large oriole with a shocking patch of bare blue skin around the eye. No photos, but I will not leave this island without on. I finally got a good photo of one of the amazingly blue Aruban Whiptails, one of the island’s endemic reptiles.
Best bird of the day was arguably the incredibly cute Burrowing Owl Olinda showed us at Spanish Lagoon on the south coast of the island. He popped up on the other side of a hill and stayed stock still as I came around on him. I took a few photos, then stepped away, as it kept its eyes on me the whole time. These guys are the national bird of Aruba, even though there aren’t that many of them around anymore.
After a whole morning in the field, eBird puts me as the top birder on Aruba for 2013, which means I should probably just go for the big year. I’m unlikely to get more than a handful of species more, though who knows what I could turn up this early in migration. I’m at 53 species for the trip, which is 3 more than I expected. not a bad haul. On to the record!
I still have things to say about India. Can you believe it? This dragging-your-feet-on-doing-anything stuff is paying off. I still have, at minimum, two posts in addition to this one.
Our lodging for the Global Bird-watching Conference was Tent City, an itinerant lodge in the middle of a desert near the town (and I use “town” very loosely) of Dhordo. Here are some things I learned about this site while staying there. First, the entire complex is set up specifically to serve as a site for a several week long festival called Rann Utsav, about which I know absolutely nothing. My best guess is that it is some sort of west Indian Bonnaroo with dancing and music and sleeping in tents without bathing, but I could be way off there because that sort of sounds like normal India to me now.
Anyhow, the remarkable thing about this site is that once Rann Utsav is over the whole place, 400 sleeping tents and a dozen big tents and countless other small buildings, is packed up and sent into storage till the next year. All of it. That completely blew my mind until the very last day of the conference when I watched these things come down with a speed that I did not expect from anyone in this country given my previous experiences. It was remarkable, but I get ahead of myself. Here’s my accommodations while I was in Kutch.
We were all there for a conference, but get any number of birders together and they’re going to find opportunities to look at some birds. So on a couple of the mornings before the sessions were to start I headed out with a few other, mostly english-speaking, birders (3 Brits and a couple South Africans usually), to look at stuff. And most of the stuff we saw were larks. And most of the larks we saw were Greater Short-toed Larks which apparently winter in this part of India in huge numbers, most of which, it seemed, were on the outskirts of the Tent City.
Like most larks they were tough suckers to get a photo of because if you spook one you spook the 250 closest to that one, but I did manage to get close to a few.
I’m told that there was the possibility of Bimarcated Larks as well, which the Brit birders awesomely called “Bimarks” and which took me at least 45 minutes to realize what they were referring to (note to self: lay off nick-names of birds when around new birders), and I hadn’t realized were possibilities. This is one of the things you have to realize when you’re birding Central Asia, that the distribution of birds is not as hard and fast as it is in North America. We know are birds well and we know generally where they are supposed to be. Not many people bird Central Asia, particularly once you get into the -stans, so the field guides that you’ve come to accept as the biblical truth of status and distribution are really just suggestions at best. Long story short, I probably should have studied up on my Bimarks so I could have been more useful. Instead I stood there cursing the damn larks for spooking again. But you live, you learn.
As cool as the Short-toes were, and they are pretty sharp little birds, the coolest lark by an enormous margin were the Crested Larks, which I was totally stoked to see a ton of after missing them at Chhari Lake the day before. Crests are a fine feature for birds, and more species should try to get some, but they really make this bird because without it they would be sort of a streaky, dare I say boring, species. But then there’s that crest and you’re like, now this is a bird that knows where it’s at. Now I will continue to look at you.
I was fortunate to get several nice shots of a Crested Lark as it strutted around in this field amongst the dead grass and cow patties (dear god I hope they were cow patties). Enjoy.
See? Crests = super great. Without a crest it’s just a big-billed pipit which, I feel as a birder on a continent with significant pipit deficiency, I just can’t appreciate the way I’m supposed to.
More on birds around Tent City to come. Eventually.