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).

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