The Advisory Boar (page 3)
One of the most interestingly-named birds regularly seen around Delhi is
Cisticola Cisticola juncidis. It has an onomatopoeic common
name—its call being a loud "zit zit"—that includes its Latin generic
name Cisticola, from the Greek name kistos for the "rock
rose" (a small red-flowered shrub) and Latin cola for "dweller"
(from colere "to dwell"). The specific name is from the Latin
iuncus for reed. (For some reason I can no longer remember, I
used to think that cistus meant basket, and referred to the bird's
basket-shaped nests, but I was wrong.)
Cisticola is the most familiar such name, but there are many
other birds named after their dwellings (a special case of bionyms).
Thanks to a borrowed copy of James A. Jobling's wonderful "Dictionary of
Scientific Bird Names", I can look up all of the -cola names
(both generic and specific) extracted from a checklist. Here's a
selection of the interesting ones.
Names related to plants
Not surprisingly, many habitats are described in terms of plant names.
Bambusicola is the self-explanatory genus of Bamboo Partridges.
Cryptosylvicola and silvicola both refer to the Latin
silva for forest; nemoricola is from the Latin
nemus, also for forest or wood, and Hylacola is from the
Greek name for the same thing. dumicola comes from the Latin
dumus for thorn bush (while Dumeticola and other forms
such as dumetorum derive from dumetum for thicket).
Reed and grass dwellings were taken particularly seriously.
Arundinicola is from the Latin Arundo for "reed", a name
shared by a genus of grasses (cf. Arundo donax, the Giant Cane).
Graminicola is from the Latin gramen or graminis
for grass, herbicola is from herba also for grass, and
Schoenicola is from schoenus for rushes or reeds. Perhaps
these terms applied to different species of grasses at one time, but the
distinctions are now lost.
Some of these names are used for birds seen in India: the Mountain
Bamboo Partridge Bambusicola fytchii (after Major General Albert
Fytche), Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola, Blyth's Reed Warbler
Acrocephalus dumetorum, Rufous-rumped Grassbird Graminicola
bengalensis, and Broad-tailed Grassbird Schoenicola
Names used for both genus and species
I am fond of names that are used for both genera and species (see
this post for more
- Fluvicola from fluvius for river
- Limicola from limus for mud
- Monticola from montis for mountain (also
- Pinicola from pinus for pine tree
- Rupicola from rupes for rock (also rupestris)
India has a fair selection of birds that use these names: the
Streak-throated Swallow Hirundo fluvicola, Eurasian Crag Martin
Hirundo rupestris, Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola
falcinellus, four Rock Thrushes of the genus Monticola, and
the Long-billed Thrush Zoothera monticola.
Here is an assortment of Latin specific names:
- agricola means field-dweller
- andaecola/andecola/andicola all mean Andes
- arenicola and deserticola both mean desert dweller
- alticola is from altus for high (altitude)
- domicola is from domus for house (domicile)
- humicola is from humus for ground
- latebricola is from latebra for hiding-place
- nubicola is from nubis for cloud
- paludicola refers to palus for marsh
- pratincola means meadow-dweller (cf. Meadow Pipit Anthus
- rusticola is from rusticus, and means country-dweller
Two especially odd (and unrelated) specific names are larvaticola
and raricola, both given to parasitic species and referring to
their host species.
Finally, another familiar name is Saxicola (the genus of
Stonechats), from the Latin saxum for stone.
When I wrote a page about
myself as a birding guide, I asked a
number of people for feedback. More than one person suggested that the
page would benefit from a photograph (or three) of myself, perhaps with
clients. Although I agreed in principle, I couldn't bring myself to do
anything about it—adding a mugshot sounded so boring.
I liked Hassath's idea of using a cartoon much better, but even though I
could imagine a few suitable cartoons, I had—as usual—no idea how to put
them down on paper. So I did nothing, and the weeks passed by.
The other day, I happened to see Rohan Chakravarty's
bird cartoons on
the KolkataBirds web site. The style wasn't exactly what I had in mind
for my own web page, but I liked the illustration, especially the birds'
expressions. I knew Rohan in passing from the delhibird mailing list,
and I decided to ask him if he would be interested. He was.
I explained the style I wanted: black-and-white to fit the fairly sober
mood of the page, more lines than solid areas; something very much like
the New Yorker
cartoons. Rohan and I discussed a few ideas, and quickly settled on
a concept for one wide panel and one square panel, and an approximate
price. I told him I was in no particular hurry, and swapped the subject
out of my mind.
To my surprise, however, Rohan completed the assignment in no time at
all, and the cartoons he sent me the next day were brilliant. I had not
expected the first draft to match what was in my head, let alone improve
on it, but it did; and I was able to use his illustrations without any
changes on my web page, where they look
great even a week later.
Rohan's blog is at
Should anyone I know need the services of a freelance illustrator and
cartoonist, I know whom to recommend now.
At the end of a hectic and stressful week, Hassath and I spent a
pleasant morning at Basai.
While driving to Basai, we saw a fat White-throated Kingfisher trying to
kill a very large (and very resilient) insect. It grabbed the bug from a
puddle in the road in front of us and smashed it repeatedly on the road;
but the unwilling victim kept trying to crawl away, only to be grabbed
and subjected to the same harsh treatment again.
A little further on, I almost overlooked my first pair of Greater
Painted-snipe in a shallow pond by the road. I've been hearing reports
of this species for years, but never had any luck looking for
them, so it was a pleasant surprise to get such a nice view.
Other highlights included a lone Whiskered Tern in flight over Basai, an
adult and a juvenile Oriental Pratincole, Pheasant-tailed Jaçanas
everywhere, some very dark Ruffs, and dozens of Little Egrets—some still
with plumes and a patch of purple skin in front of the eye—fighting each
other in a flooded paddy field.
Apart from the Ruffs, there were a number of other waders, including
Wood, Green, and Marsh Sandpipers, Little Stints, and Redshanks. There
was also an unusually large number of Cormorants at Basai—I guess these
are the birds that usually feed at Sultanpur, but have been forced away
because the lake was drained.
Speaking of which, Sultanpur is still closed.
To round out an unusually active midsummer of birding, I went to Okhla
this morning (with Ramit and Dr. Singal). Once again, it was very hot
and humid even early in the morning, and we spent only a short while
there. Despite having the beginnings of a flu, I had a pleasant visit.
This is a brief report of a visit to Sultanpur and Basai this morning.
We (Ramit, Ammu, and I) did not spend much time there, because it became
very hot by 0830.
Highlights included a dozen or so Whiskered Terns assuming breeding
plumage, seen hawking over the water and perched on wires overhead, next
to many Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. A solitary Temminck's Stint was feeding
with a loose flock of Black-winged Stilts; and we saw a few Green
Sandpipers in flight later. We also saw several Pheasant-tailed Jacanas
and a single Shaheen Falcon.
Other notable sightings included huge flocks of Glossy Ibis, a few
Black-headed Ibis, and one Black Ibis. There were several Cattle Egrets,
and Pond Herons in breeding plumage, and a few larger Egrets in the
distance. Oriental Skylarks were, as usual, seen everywhere in the
fields, and Grey and Black Francolins were heard calling incessantly.
Many Pied Starlings were seen collecting nesting material.
I also saw my first Small Pratincole here.
Unfortunately, the lake in Sultanpur is completely dry. Park officials
claim (contradicting each other) that this is either due to a shortage
of canal water to flood the (once seasonal, now artificial) wetland, or
an intentional measure to "control" the large, predatory fish that were
eating all the smaller fish and had become too big for the birds to eat.
Whatever the reason, there are hardly any birds there at the moment. We
saw a pair of Golden Orioles near the entrance.
The flats behind the park had several Red-wattled Lapwings with chicks
in various stages of development, and a few Yellow-wattled Lapwings. We
did not see any Coursers today. There were the usual few Crested Larks
and Paddyfield Pipits near the puddles in the grass, and Ashy-crowned
Sparrow Larks in the dry fields.
As we drove up to the flats, I started to tell a story about how, on a
trip to Sultanpur last winter, I told a friend that I had once seen a
solitary Red-collared Dove in a huge flock of Collared Doves on the
flats; and when my friend looked out of the window, he saw exactly the
same thing. While I was telling this story, Ramit glanced out of the
window… and what should he see but a flock of Collared Doves with a
single Red-collared Dove in their midst.
On a surprisingly mellow June morning, Hassath and I took Soma, a friend
visiting from Calcutta, to the Asola wildlife sanctuary near Tughlaqabad
in Delhi. Despite a late start due to car trouble, we arrived before the
sun was up, and spent a little more than an hour in the scrub forest.
This is a brief report.
When I was very little, we lived in a house in Alipore (near Calcutta)
where we used to see (and smell!) many vultures, and I never outgrew
my fascination for these huge birds. Now, many years later, I consider
myself very fortunate to have seen every species of vulture that occurs
in India, because these birds that used to be everywhere are
now critically endangered, and may be on the verge of extinction.
The introduction of Diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug)
for veterinary use in the late 1990s was responsible for a catastrophic
decline of vultures in India and Pakistan. The drug, ingested through
the carcasses of livestock,
renal failure in vultures. The veterinary use of Diclofenac was
eventually banned (but is still prevalent, because the alternative drugs
are more expensive), but 99.9% of the population—tens of millions of
birds—was already gone by 2008.
Vultures play a critical role in the ecology, and their sudden absence
will mean—at the very least—that rotting carcasses pose a much greater
risk to human health than before. There are many vulture conservation
efforts across south Asia now, including captive breeding programmes in
India and vulture restaurants in Nepal and Cambodia. Some of these have
had promising results, and there is some reason for hope. Nevertheless,
I find it terrifying that such a common bird has been all but wiped out,
not just within my own lifetime, but in a single decade.
This post is about all the vultures I've seen.
I've had a hectic start to the new year as far as bird-watching and
travel are concerned. I went on a solo trek to Dayara bugyal in
Uttarakhand in late December, participated in the annual waterfowl
census at the
Pong dam reservoir in
Himachal Pradesh in mid-January, did a lightning weekend trip to the
Chambal river in UP a week
later, and went to Harike in Punjab at the end of the month for another
I've had a great time, of course, and it's been wonderful birding in new
places, but it's also been demanding and tiring. My memories of the time
I spent at Harike are already fragmented, and I don't feel up to writing
another exhaustive report. Instead, here's a selection of the more vivid
moments that I will remember the trip by—not in any particular order,
and with no attempt to fill in the fuzzy grey areas in between.
What happened at Harike?
The survey was organised by the Avian Habitat and Wetland Society in
Chandigarh, with the support of the Punjab Wildlife Department. Nearly
fifty volunteers from different parts of the country had arrived at
Harike by the evening of the 30th. The next two days saw teams going out
to different parts of the sanctuary on foot and in boats to record the
species they saw, and count the waterfowl. Outside the two hour survey
sessions in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, participants were free to
explore the area on their own.
I packed a bag and pulled on my boots at a few hours' notice this last
weekend for a trip to the Chambal river with Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Pandit
and Devashish Deb of Delhibird.
We reached Agra at 2200 on Friday after a stressful drive through dense
fog, and stayed the night in a forest rest house. The next morning, we
heard both Hume's Phylloscopus humei and Brooks's P.
subviridis Leaf Warblers calling outside our window; but it was
still foggy, and Devashish's attempts to locate the latter species in
the scrub resulted only in grainy photographs of a Lesser Whitethroat.
We left after 0900, took the road towards Etawah, and drove some 70km to
a village named Bah (no, really!), where Mr. Pandit had booked rooms at
the forest rest house. We learned that we needed to hire a boat from the
Chambal Safari Lodge (at Jarar, a few kilometres before Bah), so we went
back to the lodge around midday to meet the proprietor, Mr. R. P. Singh.
It turned out that a boat was only available from 1400 that afternoon,
and not at all the next day.
Birding at the lodge
The lodge stands on lightly forested land adjoining agricultural fields,
and we spent the next couple of hours walking around while waiting for a
boat to become free for us. The lodge building has a thick Bougainvillea
creeper clinging to the edge of the tiled roof, and I spotted a Greenish
Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides almost as soon as we walked
in. It hopped in and out of the tangled mass of foliage for a good while
in the bright sunlight, giving me an unusual opportunity to study it at
some length (and giving Devashish an excellent photograph).
I have wanted to visit the
reservoir in Himachal Pradesh for a long time, having read about it
in Jan Willem den Besten's book Birds of Kangra, and in many
other birders' trip reports over the years. Apart from being an area of
remarkable avian diversity, it held a special attraction for me as one
of the few reliable wintering sites for Skylarks Alauda arvensis,
a species I have yearned to see for as long as I can remember.
I knew about the census conducted by the Forest Department every winter,
but I never quite got the timing right to participate in previous years.
I'd forgotten about it this year, and was planning a trip to Tal Chhapar
Sanctuary in Rajasthan on the weekend of 15–16th January; but a friend
forwarded the census announcement to me, and I changed my plans at the
last minute to pay a long overdue first visit to Pong Dam.
The Pong Dam lies over the Beas river in the southern end of the Kangra
district. The reservoir is a Ramsar wetland, and it is much bigger than
I had ever imagined, covering an area of some 250km² even at times
when the water level is low. It is roughly triangular, with the dam at
its south-western corner. The Beas flows in from the south-east corner,
past the town of Dehra Gopipur, and some small tributaries join in along
the northern edge. Nagrota Surian, the best-known point of access to the
lake, is close to the north-western corner (30km from Dehra); Haripur is
halfway along the northern edge, and Dada Siba is halfway along the
The entire area is towards the tail-end of the Shivaliks. The reservoir
itself is in a bowl whose altitude is a little more than 400m above sea
level, set amidst low rolling hills that are at most a couple of hundred
metres higher. Further to the North—enclosed in mist but forever in the
background—is the Dhauladhar range, rising like a snow-capped wall above
the edge of the plains. The range of habitats available for birding is
extraordinary: deep open water, shallow water, mud and sand flats, wet
and dry river beds, marshes, agricultural fields, and light forest.
Three days on the reservoir
I contacted the organisers by email to express my interest, and received
instructions to arrive at Dehra Gopipur, where I would be met by someone
from the Forest Department. When I arrived, I was driven to the PWD rest
house by Mr. Ramesh Kumar (the forest guard assigned to be with my group
during the survey), who introduced me to the other members of the group
(who were staying in the adjoining rooms) and told us we would leave for
the Dada Siba area after breakfast at 0900.
My group would, along with more than twenty other groups in different
locations around the reservoir, spend the next two days covering our
assigned area first on foot and later by rowboat, counting species and
individuals, and submitting our results at the end of each day on the
standard AWC census form. These results would be collated, and a total
number announced at the end of this exercise.