The Advisory Boar (page 2)
contributed by Edward Buckley to John Ray's
"Synopsis Methodica Avium
et Piscium", the first one whose identity is not reasonably obvious
is the "Madrass Jay", in the bottom left corner. From the illustration,
I guessed that it was a Brahminy Myna, but a glance at the description
showed that it could only be an Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura.
I wrote to the
to ask for photographs of an Indian Pitta to post on this web page, and
once again, Sharad Sridhar sent me a selection of photos (including one
from Tamil Nadu, although the one below is from Karnataka).
Here is Buckley's description, followed by my translation:
12. Pica Indica vulgaris: Ponnunky Pitta; Gent.
Ponnandutty; Maderaspatensibus : The MADRASS-JAY.
Fig 10. Nostrati Picae glandariae affinis est. Linea
arcuata albida supra oculos. Alarum tegetes virescunt,
Scapis flavescentibus: juxta basin alarum macula coerulea:
Remiges & Cauda nigrescunt: Uropygium coeruleo maculatur:
inter femora usque ad caudam rubescit.
The "Ponnunky Pitta" above is another rendition of "Ponnangi pitta", the
Telugu name for the Indian Pitta. We are fortunate that Buckley thought
these names worth recording, although they are not given for all of the
species he describes.
Then he says: it is "related to our Picae glandariae [Jays]",
and has a "curved pale line above the eye" ("arcuata" means bow-shaped,
as in the beak of the Curlew Numenius arquata. Note that the more
brightly-coloured Blue-banded Pitta is named Pitta arcuata). The
"upper wings are greenish, with the feather shafts turning yellow", and
"near the base of the wing is a blue spot". The "flight feathers and
tail become black", the "rump has blue spots" (Uropygium being from the
Greek word for rump), and it "becomes red from between the thighs upto
The Pica glandaria that Buckley thought the Pitta was related to
now Garrulus glandarius (which is itself
described by Ray
in the main part of the book). I don't see any reason why he might have
inferred such a relationship (the birds certainly don't look similar),
but the Jay is mentioned in many of his other descriptions too.
The distinction between the colour of the upperwing feathers and their
shafts (as well as the blue spots on the rump, not ordinarily visible)
shows that the description was based on a specimen in the hand. Since
this was written in the seventeenth century, less than a hundred years
after the invention of the telescope, the good Doctor Buckley is quite
unlikely to have observed these details through a handy pair of Nikon
Another interesting aspect (also seen in the earlier description of the
Painted Snipe is the tendency to
describe changes in colour rather than colours in isolation. The wing
feathers "turn green", and the flight feathers "turn black", and so on.
I don't know if this was a general convention at that time, but Ray's
(generally much more detailed) descriptions earlier in the book do not
appear to use it often.
Anyway, the description together with the vernacular name allow us to
unambiguously identify the species involved.
Feedback is welcome, especially towards improving the translation.
One of the many treasures on
archive.org is a copy of the 1713
"Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium"
by the British scientist John Ray (or "Joannis Raii" in Latin). The book
is interesting not only because it predates and influenced Linnaean
taxonomy, but especially because it includes a few illustrations and
descriptions of "Indian birds about Fort St. George" (near Madras) at
the end, contributed by Edward Buckley, a surgeon at the Fort.
There are twenty-four captioned illustrations, most of which can be
identified easily (e.g. the Madras Sea-crow is obviously an Indian
Skimmer). But the illustrations aren't very lifelike—beaks in particular
being suspiciously similar—and some species (e.g. "Small Blue Jay" and
"Red Jay-Dove") aren't readily recognisable. Some of the descriptions
are quite detailed, however, and I tried to translate a few of them just
to see if I could identify the species involved. I meant to post some of
these translations, but never got around to it.
One of the species described is the Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula
benghalensis, which the book calls the Partridge Snipe. This is a
common species that I somehow missed seeing for many years until Hassath
and I encountered a pair in a puddle by the road at Basai. It is one of
the few species where the female has a much more striking plumage, and
is polyandrous to boot, with the offspring being raised by the male. I
was reminded of the description in the book by the lovely photographs
Sharad Sridhar sent me today.
Late in December 2009, as a birthday present to myself, I went on a solo
trek to Dayara Bugyal, a high-altitude alpine meadow in Garhwal. I meant
to write about the week I spent in the mountains, but upon my return, I
found the experience too overwhelming to try to describe all at once. A
year has passed, and now I can begin to appreciate some of the ways in
which the trip has changed me.
In retrospect, one of the most significant decisions I took was to leave
my beloved "Field Guide to the Birds of India" behind. I left many other
things behind because they didn't seem worth carrying 10km up a mountain
on my back, but I could have found place in my pack for the field guide
if I had tried. I consciously decided not to take it, which is why it
wasn't even in the car with me.
In terms of not being able to identify the birds I saw, I didn't suffer.
I doubt the field guide would have helped me to move more than two birds
to the "definite" list, and I'm not sure about those two. If I had tried
the exercise a few years ago, I may have learned more specifically about
identifying the birds I saw. In a very narrow sense, I could even claim
to have not learned anything new (apart from seeing a few new species).
But in fact, that trip marked the beginning of a fundamental change in
how I looked at birds. Somewhere along the way, my observations became
focused not only on identifying birds, but about describing the
birds I saw. It's a difficult change to explain. It's not that I didn't
observe birds carefully before—quite the contrary! But my observations
were structured according to the field guide, as I looked for features
I knew were useful to identify a particular species. I was fitting the
birds to their descriptions.
These days, I try to build up a more complete mental model of the birds
I look at. I'm more conscious of plumage features that don't contribute
(or rather, that are not documented to contribute) to identification. I
pay much more attention to age and moult state than before. When
I'm watching a bird, I think about how to describe it without reference
to the field guide. (I ask, "What would convince me if someone reported
seeing this species without photographic evidence?" and try to make my
mental model answer that question.) Described this way, it sounds like
a deliberate change, but it took me by surprise when I realised that I
was doing it (which was quite recently, long after my Dayara trek).
These changes began with my trying to compensate for not having a book,
and realising the extent to which descriptions are limited by the space
available (which only increases my admiration for Krys Kazmierczak, who
has managed in his book to put his finger on the crux of identification
for species after species). I had a taste of what it must have been like
to explore an area before reliable field guides were available, when one
couldn't know in advance which features were or were not important.
In the past year, I've also had the privilege of birding with a number
of people who are vastly more experienced and knowledgeable than I am,
and learning from how they looked at and thought about birds. I'm sure
that pushed me in the right direction. I may also have built up enough
field experience to begin formulating and expressing my own strategies
for observation and identification.
In any case, I feel I have made real progress as a bird-watcher, and I
am enjoying it more than ever.
Near the end of a hectic (but productive) work trip to Kolkata, Soma Jha
was kind enough to take me to the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary for a
few hours. I spent most of the trip in a daze, but we found an
interesting Phylloscopus warbler just as we were leaving.
It was a robust-looking bird with a long, slightly bulbous beak (i.e.
not straight and sharp) with a bright orange lower mandible. It had a
very noticeable yellow vent and undertail coverts, contrasting with its
white belly. Its throat and upper breast were the same yellow. It had a
long, pale supercilium and two distinct wing bars (the median bar being
thinner than the other). It had a pale crown stripe with distinct dark
stripes bordering it and extending all the way to the nape. These were
visible from behind the bird when its head was up. It was overhead and
the sun was against me, so I did not get a good look at the upperparts.
My impression was that the face was a bit dull, and that it was a dull
green above, with no contrast in the secondaries or tertials. I think
it had pale legs, but I wouldn't swear to it.
My first impression was of a Large-billed Leaf Warbler, but the yellow
vent and crown stripe eliminated that species. It moved around lightly
in the tree, and seemed quite short-tailed. It was silent during the
few minutes that we were able to observe it. Eastern Crowned Warbler
fits based on structure, but has only a vaguely yellow vent and white
throat (and a single wing bar).
Unfortunately, Soma was able to get only one unclear photograph, but it
shows the yellow vent and throat clearly, and the consensus is that this
can only be a Yellow-vented Warbler Phylloscopus cantator. I was
a little doubtful because it is described as a small bird (and looks
like it in the photographs on OBI), but perhaps its size is somewhere
in-between delicate warblers like Lemon-Rumped and larger ones like
Update (2011-01-24): Amitava Sengupta got a good photograph of a
Yellow-vented Warbler at CKBS. His photo (posted here with permission)
confirms my impression that it was not a delicately-built bird.
The Yellow-vented Warbler is known to occur in the North-east and in
southern Sikkim, and has been seen in the forests near Dhaka, so it's no
stretch to imagine it visiting Kolkata. But I do not know of any earlier
records from the area.
Krys Kazmierczak and I saw a couple of large, heavily-streaked Pipits in
the grassland behind Sultanpur on the 2nd of January. We weren't able to
get good scope views, but we saw (and heard) enough to be sure they were
not Paddyfield Pipits; given the Richard's Pipit sightings only a week
before, we concluded that these must be the same species.
I still had some doubts, however, because the birds didn't look as large
in flight or on the ground, and the fine dark streaks on the breast were
more well-defined (besides the habitat being so different). Since I had
not managed a good look at them, I returned to Sultanpur with my friend
Ram (on his first birding trip around Delhi) and Sharad Sridhar.
Indeed, the birds at Sultanpur turned out to be Blyth's Pipits Anthus
godlewskii, another species of which there are few reliable records
from North India. Sharad was able to get some excellent photographs with
his new camera.
I remarked to a friend, in jest, that if I went camping in the
Great Rann of Kutch,
nobody might ever hear from me again, but I'd die happy if there were
larks singing (the Rann is known to host more than a dozen species of
larks). She responded by sending me the following Haiku (which I had
never read, and which nobody seems to know the original author of):
Small bird forgive me,
I'll hear the end of your song
In some other world
How astonishingly apt.
Ramit was robbed of his mobile phone by four armed men on two scooters
with no license plates at 0730 this morning, while waiting outside the
New Ashok Nagar Metro station for me to pick him up on our way to the
Okhla Bird Sanctuary. When he handed over his phone, they immediately
discarded the SIM (which he recovered), and left. Fortunately, Ramit
was not hurt.
We drove to the Police Chowki nearby, but there were no policemen there.
Some hours later, we returned to the Metro station and spoke to the CISF
personnel in charge of security. They said they would have tried to help
if we had reported the crime immediately, but that they were responsible
for security only inside the station premises. The CISF superintendent
told us to file a complaint at the Yamuna Bank police station, and also
said there had been other thefts in the area recently, but the Delhi
Police personnel deputed to patrol the outside of the station never
turned up as scheduled.
I submitted a report of the incident as feedback on the Delhi Metro web
site, and also called them up and spoke to a Ms. Rita Kumar at the DMRC
to report the robbery. She promised to "forward" the information I gave
her, for whatever that is worth, but again said that incidents outside
the station were solely the problem of the Delhi Police.
Aside: the Metro station in question is (like many others) an elevated
structure built around a platform. The road passes under it, and Ramit
was waiting there on the sidewalk in front of a pillar with a "Station
Entry" sign on it. While it may technically be outside the premises of
the station, it seems somewhat irresponsible for the DMRC to wash its
hands of security directly underneath the station, barely thirty metres
from the entrance.
Despite his traumatic morning, Ramit (who says he has been mugged before
in Nairobi) wanted to stick to our plan, and we had a nice bird-watching
session at Okhla and Khadar. Notable sightings include the first Citrine
Wagtail of the black-backed calcarata race this season, close-up
views of Black-breasted Weavers, four Ferruginous Pochards, and a number
of White-tailed Stonechats, Striated Babblers, and Graceful Prinias. I
also relished the opportunity to study various species of grasses in
Dr. Singal, Ramit, and I reached Akbarpur beel (pond) in Dadri early on
a foggy christmas morning, and walked around the shallow wetlands amidst
an expanse of agricultural fields, large portions of which have now been
purchased for the construction of some residential highrise.
At about 0745, I saw a large pipit flying past. The distant view I had
after it landed surprised me, because the bird stood out next to a big
tussock of grass. Another bird flew past to join the first one soon
afterwards, and its loud flight call drew our attention immediately.
We followed and flushed three birds from the grassy margin of a big open
field near the water, with soft wet mud and ankle-high grasses and other
vegetation. They flew into the field, where we were able to observe them
closely for several minutes as they moved around. They maintained their
distance, but were quite cooperative. (Later in the day, we flushed two
more birds on the other side of the lake, but didn't get a close look.)
The poor light and high grass didn't help, but Dr. Singal managed to get
a few photographs that were just about sufficient to confirm that these
were Richard's Pipits Anthus richardi.
On a late morning visit to Basai yesterday with Hassath, Pooja, and
Ramit, we saw a small pipit in the hyacinth just off the road, perhaps
6–8m away from us in excellent light. It was clear even at first glance
that the bird wasn't quite right for Rosy Pipit (which I have seen often
in winter and on their breeding grounds). We watched the bird for about
a minute as it fed near a Citrine Wagtail.
The most striking difference was its plain face with pale lores, no dark
eyeline, and hardly any supercilium. The beak was short and conical, and
the lower mandible (at least) was pale. It was heavily streaked, but
looked cleaner and brighter than Rosy. The streaks along the flank were
thick and dark throughout their length. The colour of the upperparts was
brownish, not the waxy greyish or olive typically shown by Rosy, and the
rest was whitish with no yellow tinge, including the margins of the
median coverts and the tertial edges. The legs were pale pink. I tried
to see the hindclaw and rump on general principles, but didn't get a
good look at either. The call was a striking tsweeep, which
reminded me of a Tree Pipit, with none of the raspiness of Rosy's call.
Ramit was only able to get one poor photograph, but it's good enough
to differentiate from Rosy and Tree Pipits, and confirm our eventual
identification as Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus (a
possibility which struck me only about an hour after we saw the bird,
at which point we realised that the descriptions and illustration in
the field guide matched our recollections and Ramit's photograph).
There are no recent records of Red-throated Pipit in the Delhi area, but
it is more likely overlooked than absent. I would be grateful for any
information about other records in North India.
Other sightings included Eurasian Hobby and Red-necked Falcon, hundreds
of Bar-headed Geese, many Common Snipes, flocks of several hundred Barn
Swallows, and a few House Sparrows of the migratory parkini race,
the males with a yellow beak, small black bib, and fine dark streaks on
I'm back after three weeks spent in Karnataka, a state in which my
bird-watching experience has been woefully limited until now. With my
family, I spent a few days in Bangalore en route to and from Madikeri in
Coorg. I also did a hectic two-day birding trip to Manipal and Karkala,
but spent most of my time sipping a fine blend of robusta and arabica
coffee in a chair on my hosts' front verandah in Madikeri, watching the
birds who visited the garden.
The bird of the trip was undoubtedly the Greenish Warbler. These birds
are usually seen only in passage through Delhi, so I relished the chance
to observe them at length. I heard many of these birds singing—probably
individuals who had arrived in the area recently. (Siberian Chiffchaffs
and Hume's Warblers—both rare in the south—also sing for a while after
they arrive in Delhi. Like them, I'm told Greenish Warblers also start
singing again just before the spring migration.)
Although I did so little "serious" birding, I ended up with a total of a
hundred and sixty species, of which nearly fifty were new to me. Despite
(or perhaps because of) the length of this trip, this report is just a
brief summary of the birds I saw.