Sunday, March 30, 2008

Just in time for 14 inches...

I arrived back in Wisconsin last week and quickly began trying to readjust from the 12 hour time difference from Thailand. Imagine my dismay to wake up to a good 7 inches and have it snow the entire next day! I thought I had managed to escape most of the winter...apparently wrong! The saving grace of the tardy snowfall was the large blackbird flock that was attracted to the feeders. Mostly Red-wingeds, but a few grackles, along with a single female Brewer's Blackbirds were also present. This was the first time I can recall ever seeing a Brewer's at the feeders at my folks house.
Spent the ensuing week readjusting to the US, presenting my internship powerpoint in Grand Rapids, and visiting with friends and family. I'm posting this from a coffee shop in Yuma, AZ. I begin solo point counts in the morning. Lots of really cool birds that I've only seen a handful of times before. Sleeping out in the open without a tent, something that you cannot do in WI or MI in the summer. The stars are incredible. I'll try to get some pix and I'll also try to do a few back entries of are lacking though.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Birding in Thailand

I'm currently in day 4 of 10 in a whirlwind birding tour of Thailand and have had almost no time to sleep much less spend time on a computer. I will try to update my final day in India, my transit in Sri Lanka, and some of the highlights of birding here in Thailand when I get a chance... 100 lifers and counting though...this place is incredible!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Western Ghats: the hillstation of Valparai

The past three days I spent birding the Valaparai area of the Western Ghats with Relton. Valparai has by far some of the best birding that I've experience in the ghats. The elevation is higher than in Topslip (3000m versus 2000m) which provides more moisture and cooler temperatures that in turn support more of the evergreen community. There are a whole host of birds that call this evergreen habitat home, among them some extremely local endemic species. It was these birds that we were primarily targeting during our time in Valparai, and we were fortunate enough to observe the very uncommon White-bellied Shortwing at close range. This is one of the rarest birds that I've seen in my life as their limited habitat is being fragmented and cleared for plantations of tea and coffee. They are listed as globally vulnerable by Birdlife International with an estimated global population between 10,000 and 20,000 birds. This was only the second occasion that Relton had ever seen one while not mistnetting, so I count myself as extremely fortunate to have seen one!

During our time there, endemics such as the Black-and-orange Flycatcher, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, White-bellied Shortwing, and some difficult species like Scaly Thrush, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, and Orange-headed Thrush were all seen well and were all new for me. I also saw many other flycatchers and specialties that I had seen last year, but that are globally quite uncommon; Nilgiri Flycatcher, Indian Swiftlet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Whistling Thrush (photo below), and a good raptor in the form of a Common Buzzard (ubiquitous though it may be in the UK and throughout much of northern Eurasia, it’s a rare winter visitor this far south). I also got a nice photo shot with a pair of Greater Flamebacks (left)...unbelievably cooperative!
We spent our two nights in Valparai driving roads through the more rural parts of the area in between coffee and tea plantations and isolated patches of the remnant native evergreen forest looking for owls. It was literally in the 11th hour on our second night that we finally saw our first nocturnal bird, an Oriental Scops Owl, perched on top of a small cement post by a grassy ditch. We saw a nice variety of mammals including Sambar Deer, Barking Deer, Porcupine, Giant Flying Squirrel, Black-naped Hare, and Bandicoot Rat (enormous!).
On our way back down the famous 40 hairpin turn into the lowlands we stopped when we heard birds and located several nice mixed flocks. Most of the species were the same ones we had recorded at higher elevation, but this was the only time we recorded Black-lored Tit, a brightly colored and crested relative to the chickadees and titmouse of North America. We also had the good fortune of simultaneously arriving at the same large snag as a Crested Serpent Eagle, a widespread bird in the hills and mountains of India, but this bird would have definitely flushed if it had already been present and we had then pulled up and stopped. It was extremely cooperative despite the passing buses and trucks that were politely letting us know that they were present by the incessant use of their horns (opening photo).

Monday, March 03, 2008

My first Pratincole!

Today (March 2) Relton was coming out to Pullambadi to visit and he was supposed to be arriving around 10AM. For this reason I tried to hurry through the survey so I could get back a little sooner. I actually debated not going out as this was my seventh consecutive morning heading out and I was getting a little tired of it (especially after the day before hadn’t yielded much). I’m very glad I did though because I was rewarded with my first ever sighting of a pratincole! Pratincoles are technically shorebirds, but they appear to be sort of a cross between swallows and terns and are extremely long-winged and actually catch insects on the wing much like nighthawks or gull-billed terns. This is a family of birds (seven different species) that are found throughout the old world (Africa, Asia, Oceana, and southern Europe) but that do not occur in north or south america. Ever since I’ve been interested in birds, I would see photos of various pratincole species near watering holes in Africa or see them flying around in the background of discovery channel specials on large mammals in Kenya (yes if you are hardcore enough, bird-watching will have you closely examining any and all videos and photos for any inadvertent capture…there’s no on/off switch…). There is a species of pratincole that is a resident bird in the Indian subcontinent, the Small Pratincole, that had been recorded at Karaivetti in the past but I had not been able to find this particular species despite constant vigilance. Imagine my delight when I looked up, (from my daily search for the crakes) in response to an odd shorebird call, to see a pratincole flying over! I knew that this bird wasn’t the species that I had been expecting because there was too much chestnut on the underwings and the Small is basically black and grey. Two more pratincoles of the same species called and flew over me on their way over the lake following closely behind the initial bird and I rushed to my backpack to grab the field guide to check which species this was. The only other species that was reasonably expected was the Oriental Pratincole which is not common in the southern subcontinent, but they regularly winter in Sri Lanka, so they are transient migrants throughout the rest of the region. Another species, the Collared Pratincole looks similar to the Oriental Pratincole but is quite a bit smaller. This would also be a much rarer record. While they do breed near Pakistan, there are only a smattering of records throughout the rest of India and Sri Lanka. I was fumbling through the field guide and finally got to the page just in time for another two pratincoles to fly over. By their size (similar to the very common Whiskered Terns) and their lack of any white on their wings, I was able to determine that they were definitely the more likely Oriental Pratincole, a new species for me and for Karaivetti! Unfortunately I was unable to get photos of this sharp looking species, but this one so impressed me that I'm going to send you to another site to see this species - gorgeous bird!
Later in the day I finally saw a Pied Harrier as well, a species that while not abundant, occurs in small numbers in the more open grasslands and cultivated areas of the subcontinent. Best photo I have to offer is of the much more common Eurasian Marsh Harrier which I typically will see 6-8 of in a morning there (left). A different individual Ruff was present at the other lake, only one prior record excluding my sighting of 24 several days ago. I was able to get some video of the bird as it sat and preened through my scope, but it was beyond the range of still photos.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this actually was my final day conducting the survey at Karaivetti. Relton and I are going to be going up to Valparai in the Western Ghats tomorrow for three days of birding the humid rainforest (should see some nice endemics and other specialties). I will then be back in Trichy for a single day and leave for Thailand on the 8th. So I spent the afternoon packing up my stuff and getting ready to leave Pullambadi and my gracious hosts and new-found friends.
We actually returned to Trichy via some grasslands and open scrub habitat in an attempt to locate Eurasian Thick-Knee and possibly sandgrouse. We struck out on both counts, but did have some nice looks at Small Minivet, Short-toed Snake Eagle, and White-eyed Buzzard (on right).

Cricket; an exposé

While speaking with my parents earlier this week my dad suggested that I ask my hosts to take some action shots of me during the daily cricket match that takes place every evening at 5PM. He took quite a few photos, but here are some of my favs, that capture the spirit of the game here in Pullambadi. We play a fairly highly modified version of the game due to the skill level of the players (not too high, myself included!) and the lack of players to adequately defend against a full field. For this reason we actually play only half a pitch and we can not hit the ball at angles behind the batter like you can in real cricket. We also usually have someone from the same team that is batting be the keeper (catcher) due to a lack of people. This takes away a sizable advantage for the defending team as there are many tipped balls that if caught by the keeper are outs. When the keeper isn’t on their team, those don’t count… We also do not play the rule where if the ball strikes the shin’s or foot of the batter on its way to what would have hit the wicket, that would normally be an out. Thus many of the boys stand in front of the wicket and act more like goalies than batters as their shins take the brunt of what should be outs since their batting skills aren’t as good! The bowler is actually standing behind a makeshift wicket that is composed of a footlong section of hollow cement pipe and a large rock. So this is what the other batter is standing behind prior to running after a good hit (or shot as they like to refer to it). I’m amazed at how addicting the game has become during only my month here. When a match is on the tele I actually have to tear myself away. Speaking of which, India pulled off a major upset over Australia (again) in the first of three matches for the championship in Sydney. Very impressive, you should have heard Alan yelling with excitement as India’s star batter broke the coveted century mark of runs for the first time in Australia in his 18 year career! I realize that most if not all of the people who are reading this have almost no idea about the rules and terminology of cricket and I apologize, but I feel that I have to devote at least one blog entry to something that I spent a significant amount of time doing here. I basically went from having only the slightest idea of how it works, to arguing the rules with the best of the boys by the time I was done… I have to say that I think it’s a shame that the game isn’t more widespread in America, I feel that the game is much more fun than baseball. Oh yeah, and due to the fact that each batter can only bat one time, each out is much more significant than in baseball. For this reason the boys will throw the ball ecstatically into the air after a catch or excitedly surround the bowler if he gets a wicket against a batter (like I do against one of the boys below).
Also, pointing a finger up signifies an out. The boys excitedly yell it as “outaa” and I think that as I look back upon my stay here, that will be one of the first things that will come to mind.
I became surprisingly attached to many of these boys during the course of the past month and the look on their faces as I got into the vehicle with Relton and his family on my final afternoon there was rather touching. And that’s as mushy as I’m going to get on that topic. I am going to buy a new bat and send it to the school for them as a final present from their American guest.
The birding was surprisingly slow today after the nice shorebird diversity yesterday. A weather system actually had moved through overnight and I had to dodge a few rain showers during the morning. I suspect this was part of the reason that many of the shorebirds had moved out. In America shorebirds typically move out before a front hits, I don’t see why it would be different here. A Temminck’s Stint was still hanging around, the Baillon’s Crake was seen again, and my first Common Iora of the survey was noted today (on the checklist but had eluded me up until now).
The closing photo depicts a scene seen all too often as the keeper usually wasn't too good and apparently the concept "let nothing get past" hadn't caught on among these fellows (and there were occasional balls that got away from the bowler)... The backside of the schoolyard or boundary as it's called in cricket.

Shorebird bonanza!

While you weren’t able to read my last blog post due to some difficulties with the telephone lines here, my final sentence ended up being prophetic as today (Feb. 29) I definitely saw good diversity and decent numbers of shorebirds for the first time in a month of conducting this survey. I ended today with 20 species of shorebirds represented by a grand total of 322 individuals. The most noteworthy species of these were probably Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Curlew Sandpiper (11), and Ruff (24) which had all been recorded on just one prior occasion. They are definitely not common at this inland site, but I think that when the habitat is suitable, like this lake is at the moment, they are probably fairly regular migrants through the area. The Broad-billed Sandpiper was doubly exciting for me though because it was the first time I’d ever seen this species! Larger shorebirds were observed roosting on islands in mixed flocks (Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, and Marsh Sandpipers). Three species of plovers were present along with both Little and Temminck’s Stints.
The species total of 20 species is quite good and I can’t think of too many occasions when I have recorded this many species in one day. To put this total in perspective, here are my best recollections of my highest personal single day tallies of shorebird species from each significant birding locale I’ve been to; 17 in coastal Norfolk, UK during March, 20 at Point Calimere, Tamil Nadu (a coastal site so more expected), 21 in coastal Ecuador in January, 24 at the Salton Sea in CA during Aug, ~25 is my highest in WI in mid-May, and ~30 on the upper coast of TX during late April. All of those totals represent solid day’s worth of effort to find that many species and with the exception of Wisconsin, they all involve salt or brackish water.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful but I relocated the wagtail flock and something flushed the group and they all landed close to each other allowing for 14 of the birds in one frame (below)! Unfortunately, the distance involved with most of these shorebird species prevented me from getting even semi-decent photos, I can offer a shot of the habitat with a flock of Black-headed Ibis probing the deeper water/muck (opening photo). This sort of edge is present around about half of the lake and this is where the majority of the shorebirds are located.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Wagtail congregation

[Note - due to some technical difficulties including more prevalent brown-outs than normal, the phone line rusting through, and an earlier than expected exit from Pullambadi, I have been delinquint in my blog posts. I apologize. This post was written on the 28th...]
Today was fairly standard day with no truly noteworthy species being noted (and I didn’t see my “reliable” crake after I quoted the high percentage of success yesterday…). The highlight for me was a flock of ~20 Yellow Wagtails I noticed foraging in a series of freshly harvested rice paddies. There were local villagers still working fairly close to where the wagtails were and the birds seemed semi-oblivious to the precence of people, so I thought I had a good chance of getting some good photos of the species (which I hadn’t had any luck photographing up to this point). I vaulted the acacia thorn poor-mans fence (piles of extremely thorny branches placed around fields to keep out goats and cows) and made my way out the bund to the edge of the wagtail flock. I then sat down and waited for the birds to get close. After about fifteen minutes several of the birds had made their way sufficiently close to me that I was able to get some pretty good photos of this highly variable-plumaged species. There are three different ages with identifiable differences in plumage (hatch year, second year, and adult), each gender also looks different at every one of these ages. Add in the fact that there are at least seven different subspecies present during the winter in India and variability in plumage that appears to rival gulls, identifying these birds to age and subspecies is proving more than I’m up for! I am getting more comfortable identifying wagtails at least to species, but thus far I’ve only been dealing with Grey, Yellow, Citrine, and the very different looking resident White-browed. This year I haven’t seen any of the White Wagtail complex that seems to be alternately split into several different species and then re-lumped back into subspecies every few years on both sides of the Atlantic (the Brits and Americans have different listing authorities…go figure eh). All this preamble is just to give some sort of an idea of the complexity of this species group. At the same time, I have to say that I’m quite a fan of wagtails in general. Their behavior, calls, and plumage all are fairly unique. They appear similar to the pipits that I’m accustomed to in some respects, but they are much more vividly marked. They also apparently gather in fairly large flocks during migration (roosting in reedbeds like swallows). I’ve only had the good fortune of observing one such large flock (in excess of 400 birds), which I observed flying north fairly high up over a vantage point near Kamaraj Dam in the foothills of the Western Ghats last year. The flock of Yellow Wagtails I observed today is thus actually the largest flock I’ve noted where I was actually able to study the birds. Their habitat preference I noted was quite a bit different from the Grey and Citrine Wagtails I’ve been seeing with some regularity along the margin of the lake. These birds were foraging in dried out paddy field among dried stalks of rice. Perhaps this apparent propensity for drier habitat has been part of the reason I haven’t seen too many Yellow's thus far.
I actually do not have the guide to wagtails (yes they most definitely merit their own field guide!) and the India and Thai guides I have here really don’t do the various subspecies justice… Here are three different individual Yellows I was able to photograph this morning though. Any thoughts/comments as to the age/gender/subspecies of these birds would be most welcome! Side note: the third bird pictured I'm unsure of, it may be a Grey Wagtail, but I think the fact that it has a yellow throat puts it more firmly in the Yellow camp. I could definitely be wrong though (on right).
Alan had the misfortune of developing a puncture today so he was only with me for the first hour or so of the survey before he went into the village of Karaivetti to have it patched. He had ridden on the bike too long before he noticed the flat and there were too many holes to actually just patch it. So a new tube was driven in from Pullambadi by one of the drivers at the school. This took the better part of the morning and I didn’t see him again until I returned to Pullambadi at 12:15PM. The water level is rapidly dropping at the other lake and I think I might actually see some interesting shorebirds there before I’m finished with this survey.