The Advisory Boar

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

Birds named after their habitat

2010-09-20

One of the most interestingly-named birds regularly seen around Delhi is the Zitting 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 platyurus.

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 about them).

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.

Other names

Here is an assortment of Latin specific names:

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.

Rohan Chakravarty is an excellent cartoonist

2010-08-21

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 greenhumour.blogspot.com. Should anyone I know need the services of a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, I know whom to recommend now.

Trip report: Basai, 2010-08-01

2010-08-01

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.

Trip report: Okhla Bird Sanctuary, 2010-06-20

2010-06-20

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.

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Trip report: Sultanpur National Park, 2010-06-12

2010-06-12

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.

Basai

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.

Sultanpur

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.

Trip report: Asola Wildlife Sanctuary, 2010-06-02

2010-06-02

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.

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Seeing all of India's vultures

2010-05-20

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, causes 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.

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Harike, January 30–February 1 2010

2010-02-07

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 waterfowl survey.

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.

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One afternoon on the Chambal

2010-01-25

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).

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Pong Dam waterfowl census, January 15–17 2010

2010-01-19

I have wanted to visit the Pong Dam 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.

Geography

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 southern edge.

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.

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