Sunday, 25 March 2012

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela)

                For a birder, raptors or birds of prey are one of the most difficult birds to identify.  Among those magnificent and powerful carnivores, the Crested Serpent Eagle stands out. You are sure not to mistake it for any other bird once you’ve seen it.  As its name suggests, it has got a small crest on the head. But, this crest is not always visible.  The bird has got a loud piercing voice which is quite obvious.  And, it usually make the call while it is airborne. 
                The call of the Crested Serpent Eagle reverberates  almost all the forests in Kerala. Infact, this is the dominant raptor here. These birds have a special affinity towards snakes. Besides snakes, they can satisfy their belly with small lizards, birds etc.. 
                Trekking through the forests of Kerala will definitely cross your paths with this predator. But, photographing this bird is a difficult task if you are on foot. They can detect minute disturbances in the forest ground and will take off immediately on detecting your presence.  Still I remember the day I missed a good chance to capture the beauty of this bird in my camera. Myself along with the friends were wandering through some tea estates near Valpprai (Kerala – Tamilnadu border) and I spotted a large bird about 300m from us. And, it was not difficult to identify it as the Crested Serpent Eagle. Equipped with my camera, I wriggled through the 1m high tea plants. Decided to stoop as much as possible to avoid detection by the bird. Covered around half of the distance and I peeped through the bushes to see the bird. The bird was still there. Without making any noice, popped the lense above the tea plants and got ready for the shot. While doing so, my leg accidently hit on a small twig which made a feeble crackling sound. And, it was enough to make the hunter alert and with a swift movement took to wings leaving me disappointed. At the same time, I could watch the beautiful patterns on its outstretched wings.
                Thereafter, I got some excellent chances to photograph the bird while on the vehicle. And the best one was at Bandipur when a bird did not bother to move at all for about 10 minutes.  A trip to the forest is not complete without the sighting of this majestic bird.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Vernal Hanging Parrot

Vernal Hanging Parrot

How many parrots are there in India? Any guess? But, before that, what is the difference between a parrot and a parakeet? Most of us will relate the parakeets with a small bird while the parrot will be bigger. But, the best way to identify a parrot from a parakeet would be its tail. The parrot has got a square tail, while the parakeet will be having a graduated tail. Incidentally, there is only parrot in India – the vernal hanging parrot (Loriculus vernalis).
Vernal Hanging Parrot male
            Almost the size of a house sparrow, these resident birds are strictly arborial. The green colour of this tiny bird makes it pretty difficult to locate. The male bird has a crimson patch on the rump and a bluish patch on the throat. The females haven’t got thse patches. They are very fond of nectar, flowers and small fruits. Some times, they ransack the container placed on top o f the coconut trees for collecting the sweet liquid which becomes the toddy afterwards. After quenching the thirst, it is usual that the culprits fall into the container.  The birds seem to flock on Butea monosperma (plasu or flame of the forest) to drink nectar. Coconut flowers are also their much favoured diet.
Vernal Hanging Parrot female
            They usually make sound likes ‘tiriri tiriri’ while flying. Once they settle on a tree, generally they walk along the stem and search for the food. Its always fun to watch these gymansts of nature in action.

           Small cavities of trees are favoured by the bird to build nests. It is said that they use to tear the leaves and insert them on their wings to carry them towards the nest to decorate.  This stunning beauty has the unique ability to sleep upside down hanging from a favourable branch.

             The best time to watch and photograph these birds should be March to June. On my numerous visits to the Ponmudi hills, I was blessed with some real good opportunities.  Once, they allowed me as near as about a couple of meters. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Velvet-fronted nuthatch
            Most people would hold the woodpeckers as the best walkers on trees. Those birds can move along the trunks like lizards with their head always pointing upwards. But, imagine a bird which has far superior gravity defying acts !! - A bird which can move upwards and downwards regardless of the position of its head !! A bird which can move along the barks with unmatched easiness and that too without using its tail for support !!!  Well, you don’t have to go anywhere else to find those. Nuthatches can surprise you with their remarkable ability. In Kerala, you can spot 2 types of nuthatches – velvet-fronted nuthatches (Sitta frontalis) and chestnut-bellied nuthatches. The first one frequents open evergreen forests while the second one prefers dry forests. A bundle of energy, the velvet-fronted nuthatches are extremely vocal and you can readily recognize their ‘sit sit sit’ call if they are around.  They have the size of a small sparrow. However, they are slimmer than the sparrows. Powered by strong claws, they can walk around the trunks and twigs in whatever way they wanted. Its always fun to watch these birds’ actions. They can even make a walk around a branch. Flight is short and bouncy.
Velvet-fronted nuthatch male

Velvet-fronted nuthatch male
            The velvet-fronted nuthatches feed on a variety of insects, spiders and on small seeds (the name, ‘nuthatch’ might have got from their ability to break open the nuts). All their acrobatics are in search of these. These birds prefer to forage along with a hunting party. You won’t notice these little beauties very easily. Most of the time, they will be in shadows and once the sunlight falls on them, the brilliant colours flashes before our eyes. I still remember the first time I saw these birds at Arippa. They were very high upon some tall tree and I was amazed watching those silhouettes. 

Velvet-fronted nuthatch female

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Malabar Parakeet

           The Malabar Parakeet (Psittacula columboides) or the Blue-winged parakeet is a beautiful parakeet endemic to the Western Ghats. Normally, you can see this bird only where there is some green cover. The call is a harsher ‘kreek kreek’ sound than a rose-ringed parakeet. They often come in flocks and their screeches can be heard from some distance. More often, these garrulous birds prefer the canopy. Like other parakeets, these birds also nest in holes of tall trees. Though these birds are protected by law, illegal pet trade is still rampant.
Malabar Parakeet male

          It is quite easy to distinguish between the male and female of this species. The male will be having the crimson red beak, while the female will be having a black one. 
Malabar Parakeet female


    I’ve been to so many jungles and forests in Kerala and I’ve seen this bird almost everywhere. Except a couple of occasions, they kept a distance from the humans. The most awaited moment came for me when I got a chance to visit Pamba, the base camp for the famous pilgrimage centre Sabarimala. It was off-season, and the Vadasserikkara – Pamba stretch devoid of any din and buzzle was a marvel. I was told that the elephants were usual on the road. And so, was driving with eyes wide open. When we reached Pamba, it was raining buckets. Decided to use the comforts offered by Unni sir’s brother, who was the priest there. Even though it was drizzling, I was having my one eye towards the shrubs nearby. Some tailor birds and robins were showing all kinds of gimmicks and it was real fun. And then, I found some parakeets landing over a shrub with their blue patches shining even in that shadows. Only a photographer knows the dilemma at that time. You are witnessing a dream sight and you cannot take your camera out !!! Couldn’t wait long. Took and umbrella, slowly got near them and took some shots. May be because of my proximity, the birds took off and sat on an isolated shrub. It was just about perfect for my camera.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Black Baza

          Black Crested Baza (Aviceda leuphotes), one of the most beautiful raptors I’ve ever encountered, prefers broad-leaved forests. The colouring is so spectacular that you wont mistake it for another raptor.  No concrete  studies have yet been done on this species. Sighting of this bird itself is a prized moment for many a birders. These birds are supposed to be migrating from Burma or Thailand or China. The diet for this bird consists of small lizards and insects.
            These birds like to sit on bare branches on top of the trees and wait for the prey.  They usually nest from April to June. The nest is made of small twigs.

            Black Baza is the darling of Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, located in Kerala. It is considered as one of the rarest birds spotted from there. Various surveys from Arippa Bird Sanctuary in Trivandrum also spotted this bird. I was longing to see this bird for a long long time. Every time, I visited Arippa, which is about 55 kms from my home, I was searching for some flash of black and white on the trees. But, such was my luck on spotting this bird that, on numerous occasions, my fellow birders saw this bird and on the same day, I was deprived of that cherished moment.
            Towards the end of 2010, myself along with Susanth sir and Abhiram Sankar decided to have a go at the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary. I was quite thrilled as it was my first visit to the famed Sanctuary. But, something went wrong in the beginning itself. The sanctuary was closed for the public owing to some disputes between the locals and the Forest Department. Our only option was to go to Munnar and surrounding areas or wandering in the nearby areas of the Bird Sanctuary. Reluctantly, we sought the help from a local guide ( - the only time I went with a birding guide -). Mr.Sudheesh, a young man of around 30 was going to be our guide for the next couple of days. The forenoon passed without much of interesting sightings, except the Ceylon Frogmouth. In the afternoon, Sudheesh wanted to show us the crested tree swift, a beautiful bird. And he was telling us that black bazas do occur at the place rarely. When we entered the semi-deciduous patch, my eyes were wandering with excitement. Walked for a couple of hours – no black bazas. Sudheesh was pointing to some trees where he spotted the bird before. It was time to return and we proceeded towards our stay. As we were nearing the road, a medium sized black bird appeared from nowhere. ‘The black baza !!!’, yelled all of us in excitement. The bird was sitting on a tall tree with lots of green cover, with its back towards us. We watched in amazement at the bird’s beauty.
            We approached with cautious steps towards the bird. But, the cunning fellow spotted us and flew away to another tree and hid there. I walked towards the tree. Took the camera and set it to take action shots. My aim was to get atleast a flight picture. But, there was a serious disadvantage for me. The Sigma 170-500 I was using was quite old and focusing was really slow. After a few more cautious steps, I saw the bird sitting quietly on the branch of a teak. Pointed the lens toward the bird and took some distant shots. With thumping heart, took a few more steps and the bird looked agitated. I knew instantly that it was going to fly. Somehow, made the lens focus and took a couple of flight shots. I was over the moon !! The bird disappeared in some dense greenery. There was no way to go near. Some kind of thorny bush was all around. I was wearing a jeans and thinking that it would prevent some of them (very often I do that .. hehe.. ), I ventured into the bushes. But, avoiding the thorns proved to be a futile attempt. Soon, I disappeared from the fellow birders and was looking here and there for any trace. My heart stopped a second when I realized that something was right above where I was standing. The pearl of the forest was sitting very causally on a small bare branch. I forgot the pain caused by the thorns. Immediately, got the bird in my camera view finder and clicked with excitement. After sometime, the bird flew away..  Thereafter, I couldn’t locate it.  But, I got what I wanted – a decent image of the black baza.. All of us were happy that day. And, as so often happens, the birding friends demanded a special treat from me J.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Black-naped Oriole

           Golden beauties, the orioles – even the non-birders will take a curious look at these winged beauties. We’ve got 3 types of yellow orioles here in India !!!  One is a resident and the other two are migratory. A keen observer can easily identify all of them. Among these three, the black-naped oriole (Oriolus chinensis diffuses) is a migratory bird coming all the way from North East China, Siberia, Vietnam, Korea and Ussuriland to escape from the intolerable winter season. The rarest of the 3 orioles found here, the black-naped has a black stripe over the eye which extends upto the back of the head. The males and females are almost similar except that the wing linings of the females are a bit greenish.  The juvenile has streaks over the body.
            These birds can be seen looking for insects and small fruits. Rarely do they venture onto the ground. The call is a fluting weela we oo or weeoo or a grating cat like kerach..  They are difficult to spot from the canopy. The nest of this bird is like a deep cup on the fork formed by some twigs.  Incubation is the exclusive right of the females and the males actively do feeding and guarding.
            The best method to distinguish among the orioles is to watch their heads. The Black-hooded orioles will have the entire head covered in black, the Black-naped has got the stripes over the eyes which extends upto the back of the head and the Eurasian Oriole doesn’t have the black stripe that extends upto the back of the head. There are several sub-species for the black-naped which are not generally seen in India. They are distinguished by the patterns on the wings.
            The Black-naped are over-looked for Eurasian orioles most of the time. Due to the bird’s reluctance to meet the ground, taking eye-level pictures will always present the photographer a serious challenge.   

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Malabar Trogon

         The Malabar Trogon (Herpactes fasciatus) aka Theekkakka ('Theekkakka' means ‘fire-crow’ – ‘Thee’ means fire, ‘kakka’ means crow) are found in forests all over Peninsular India. Once you spot this bird, you’ll fall in love with it. Similar to the size of a house crow, the trogons likes to sit still for some time, having an eye on the possible food targets.  If you can keep still for some time on trogon’s territory, you can easily find them out. Because, they wont sit for a long time on the same spot. Generally, they would resort to  short flights to some nearby branches.  While flying, the first thing that catches your eyes will be the edge of the tail, which is white. So, if you can wait patiently for some time, you’ll definitely note them . It would look like they are very reluctant to fly. The call is often a persistent ‘cue cue cue… ‘.

Trogon Male

Trogons have a bluish bill and the skin around the eye is also blue. You wont note it most of the time because, the bird prefers shadows and very reluctantly come to the open.  The males have darker head and the belly is crimson red. These birds are monogamous.

Trogon female

           The female has got dull colours, with its belly somewhat brownish yellow.  

Trogon with its back towards the camera :)

 Once the trogons know that we are watching them, they will sit in such a position that the belly is not seen to us. The upper part has got olive brown colour and its very difficult to locate them from the bushes.

            They often build their nests, a hole, on dead or weak stems. Both the male and the female actively participate in the building process. These magnificent birds feed exclusively on insects.

            Photographing the trogon is a difficult proposition altogether. The first thing is that they wont be sitting on good perches. They would invariably sit in the shadows. Other thing is that, once they detect the camera, they wont show their bellies !! .. So, most of the time, your best shot will be the first shot when you happen to see this bird. This bird also likes to hunt with the other birds (in hunting parties). I’ve seen them with the drongos, woodpeckers, bulbuls, babblers etc.. The only thing is that these are like back-stage actors. While the drongos, orioles, bulbuls etc.. enliven the front-stage, the trogons go about their business in a very quiet manner. It seems they dont like the limelight.