The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

The Madrass Jay

2011-05-06

Of the twenty-four illustrations 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 delhibirdpix list 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).

Indian Pitta

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 tail".

The Pica glandaria that Buckley thought the Pitta was related to is the Eurasian Jay, 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 binoculars.

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.

The Partridge Snipe

2011-05-02

One of the many treasures on archive.org is a copy of the 1713 book "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.

Appendix from Synopsis Methodica Avium

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.

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Life without field guides

2011-02-20

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.

Yellow-vented Warbler at CKBS, Kolkata

2011-01-20

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 Large-billed.

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.

Yellow-vented Warbler photograph

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.

Pipits for the new year

2011-01-08

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.

Blyth's Pipit photograph

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The last bird song

2011-01-05

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.

Armed robbery outside a Delhi Metro station

2011-01-04

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 detail.

Richard's Pipits for christmas

2010-12-25

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.

Richard's Pipit photograph

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Red-throated Pipit at Basai

2010-12-15

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).

Red-throated Pipit 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 the breast.

Birding in Karnataka, 1–22 October 2010

2010-10-25

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.

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