Archive for the ‘Great Grey Shrike’ Tag

North India part 6: Tal Chhapar and the Mumbar Gardens near Jodhpur: 27th-28th November 2019   4 comments

This is the 6th post on our wonderful trip to northern India in November 2019. The custom tour was arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who arranged an itinerary, accommodation, transport and guides to our specification that combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

After spending a day touring historic sites in Jaipur it was the turn to do some birding in the reserve of Tal Chhapar (yes that is the correct spelling!) a reserve near the village of Chhapar which is just under half way between Jaipur and the Pakistan border.

 

We were relatively close to Tal Chhapar on my Birdquest Western India trip in 2016 when we visited Bikaner, (as so often happens it was added to the itinerary the following year). There were two lifers for me here, one mammalian and one avian, the beautiful Blackbuck and the little-known Indian Spotted Creeper.

 

It was a 215 km drive from Jaipur and took over four hours. The village of Chhapar was quite unremarkable with a single busy main street and a few back streets like this.

 

We stayed at Raptors Inn, a private guest house run by local bird guide Atul Gurjar and his wife Sunita. They made us very welcome and provided great food. Margaret was very taken by this home stay and had a chance to ask Atul and Sunita about many aspects of Indian life including their cuisine. See more here

 

They tried their best to keep their boisterous children away from us but we found them most entertaining.

 

That afternoon we headed to a ‘gaushala’ a walled off area where the sacred cattle can safely graze. On route we passed this camel and buggy. There is clearly no law about using your phone whilst driving a camel in India! Here we were to search for the ‘semi-mythical’ Indian Spotted Creeper. Now I can’t say that I’ve been waiting to see this species all my life, I didn’t even know about of it until after it was split from its African cousin in the late 90s, but I have been wanting to see the area’s other attraction, the beautiful Blackbuck since I was a small child.

 

Finding the Indian Spotted Creeper took some time but there was no problem with seeing Blackbuck, up to 50 were on view. The females ,which are smaller, brown and white and have no horns were present but elusive, but the males were in rut and were bold and approachable.

 

Males would approach each other and then ‘parallel walk’, sizing each other up …

 

… sometimes disputes were resolved by this but often it ended up with an all out battle.

 

In due course Atul found a Spotted Creeper but it was in a line of trees by the gaushala wall. After a brief view and one very mediocre photo, it flew to some trees outside the gaushala where it could be seen but not photographed (there was a considerable drop on the other side of the wall so climbing over was impractical).

 

This was my first bird lifer on the tour and I was pretty pleased at this moment. This species and its African cousin are members of the Sittidae, the Nuthatch Family rather than Certhidae which contains all the (Holarctic/Oriental) treecreepers. Both photos by Prasad Natarajan see here

 

I think I said in an earlier post, when discussing the catastrophic decline in Indian vultures, that the only vulture we saw on the trip was Egyptian. That’s not quite true as we saw a single wintering Eurasian Griffon Vulture. How ever that doesn’t detract from my earlier statement that because of poisoning, the formerly widespread and abundant Slender-billed, White-rumped and Indian Vultures are now critically endangered.

 

Other raptors included this Black-winged Kite …

 

… and a beautiful Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Other birds photographed that afternoon included the punk-crested Brahminy Starling (above) and …

 

…  flocks of Indian Silverbills, small estridid finches, native to India but introduced to many other places.

 

There were a few ‘lesser whitethroats’ wintering. The taxonomy of this group has been controversial with between one and five species accepted at various times and by various authorities. IOC and HBW both now recognise three species, Hume’s Whitethroat which breeds in the mountains of Central Asia and winters in southern Baluchistan and SW India, Lesser Whitethroat which breeds from western Europe to east-central Siberia and winters in Africa and northern India and Desert Whitethroat which breeds in parts of China and Turkestan and winters in the Arabian peninsular and north-west India. This bird is a classic minula, ie a Desert Lesser Whitethroat, small, sandy with reduced grey in the crown.

 

There were quite a few Lanius shrikes in the area, including this male Bay-backed, which looks like a Penduline Tit on steroids …

 

… and the more familiar Great Grey Shrike, although here of the race archeri. The ‘great grey shrike’ group has undergone a lot a changes during the last few decades. Originally one species, then three (Southern, Great Grey and Steppe), its now still three but a different three: Northern Grey occurs in North America and eastern Siberia, Iberian Grey occurs where it’s name suggests and all the rest are re-lumped in Great Grey again. The problem seems to be that genetics and morphology don’t match, maybe eventually more sensitive and innovative genetic methods will be able to divide this group further and so better match DNA to plumage.

 

Also present were a number of Common Woodshrikes. These are not related to true shrikes of the genus Lanius (see the two photos above) but instead are members of the Vangidae, an unusual Family which includes the vangas of Madagascar, the African helmetshrikes and shrike-flycatchers and Asian philentomas.

 

After we had our meal that evening we heard very loud music coming down the street. Atul and Sunita said it was a pre-wedding celebration, so we decided to take a look.

 

Although they had never met us before the villagers were most welcoming. First they brought chairs out into the street so we could watch the dancing in comfort, then they invited us into their house and where the ladies were keen to be photographed with Margaret.

 

Later we (well mainly Margaret) joined in with the dancing …

 

… and we were treated as honoured guests. The bride and groom-to-be had yet to arrive but everyone else seemed to be having a great time on their behalf.

 

Now I’ve heard of ‘a bull in a china shop’ but its not that often that you come across the ‘cow at the mobile disco’, well not this sort of cow anyway.

 

Atul was a bit hesitant about visiting the actual Tal Chappar reserve (Tal meaning low-lying land) as heavy rain had made the tracks unsuitable for vehicles. As a result the following morning we first visited a lake near the gaushala.

 

We found a few waterbirds we had seen earlier on like these Indian Spotbills but the River Terns we found were new for the trip.

 

Spotbill used to be a single species but has since been split into Indian and Chinese varieties. I think it looks rather splendid in the pale-yellow light of dawn

 

Eventually Atul relented and took us to the nearby Tal Chhapar, but we had to leave the vehicle at the entrance gate. In this low-lying hollow the mist persisted, producing some atmospheric views of the local Blackbuck.

 

As well as Blackbuck there were quite large numbers of Wild Boar.

 

However some of the piglets showed characteristics more typical of domestic pigs so there must be some interbreeding. Also seen were Common Cranes and Western Marsh Harriers, but unfortunately not Monties or Hen Harriers (I dare say we would have seen more if we could have stayed or if the visibility had been better).

 

Well we weren’t able to walk very far as we had huge great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making walking rather difficult. Back at vehicle we had a very close encounter with a male Blackbuck. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this magnificent antelope again, but if I don’t I can’t complain about the views we had this time.

 

So we returned to the other side of the road and explored another area dodging great herds of goats on route.

 

Here we found Indian Desert Jirds. We only saw about ten but their burrows were everywhere.

 

These little rodents are preyed on by many raptors including …

 

… Booted Eagles (although in Europe rabbits are their favoured mammalian prey) …

 

… and Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Tawny Eagles are know to be mainly a scavenger and a kleptoparasite but I dare say the odd Jird or two would make a tasty snack, if they were quick enough to catch one.

 

We had spectacular views of a Tawny Eagle being harassed by a pair of Lagger Falcons. Unfortunately in my photos either the eagle or falcon are blurred so I’ve included one from iNaturalist taken by Philippe Boissel see here

 

The little Shikra is in the genus Accipiter which feeds mainly on birds rather than rodents.

 

Rather commoner than the larger Gyps vultures but still declining severely is the widespread Egyptian Vultures.

 

We came across a group of four on our drive around.

 

Also seen was (yet another) Spotted Owlet.

 

Enjoyable as it had been it was time to leave Chhapar and heard to our next destination.

 

That afternoon we drove to Jodhpur and stopped for a short while at Mumbar Gardens near the city where there was an attractive temple and a wetland area caused by the damming of the local river.

 

We didn’t learn anything about the temple a this was just a short impromptu stop …

 

… but like all old Indian architecture it was very beautiful.

 

There were a few birds in the temple area …

 

… but most were in the overgrown water channel. These included a ‘water rail’, I hoped that it would be the recently split Eastern Water Rail (or Brown-cheeked Rail), after all the scientific name is Rallus indicus, but it proved to be the same one we get at home.

 

Perhaps the most notable feature of the temple was the very approachable Hanuman Langurs.

 

The next post will cover our visit to the city of Jodhpur, the nearby Bishnoi villages and a nearby lake where Demoiselle Cranes gather.

Birding/Ringing in the last week – 16th – 22nd February 2015   Leave a comment

 

 

During the last week I have rather busy with paperwork and all of Wednesday was taken up with a trip to London (see next post) but we have got out a few times for birding or ringing.

 

IMG_2583 New Forest

On the 16th we went to Blashford Lakes near Ringwood but saw little of note. It appears that many waterfowl are already leaving for their breeding grounds. Winter seems to be getting shorter every year, which might sound like a good thing, but isn’t from a birding perspective. Later we continued to an area of the New Forest where Hen Harriers are known to roost.

IMG_2589 Fallow Deer New Forest

Surprisingly, in spite of staying until dark we didn’t see any harriers but a Merlin put on a good show as did this herd of Fallow Deer.

IMG_2592

This is a bachelor herd of about 25 males. Unlike Red Deer which shed their antlers after the rut in November, Fallow Deer (a species introduced to England by the Romans) shed their antlers in April/May.

IMG_2596 Great Bustards

We had heard that three Great Bustards were spending the winter along the Purbeck coast. These birds are from the re-introduction program on Salisbury Plain, an ambitious and worthwhile project which is returning this magnificent bird to its former home. On arrival on the morning of the 22nd we saw the birds in the distance but after a while they took off and flew towards us…..

IMG_2602 Great Bustards

…. giving good flight views before settling in an other field. An adult male Great Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. As far as I am aware this group consist of an immature male and two females. I really hope that this enormous, stately bird becomes re-established (the native population was shot out in 1832) and that winter occurences in Dorset become the norm.

A distant Great Grey Shrike

We continued on to Mordon Bog/Sherford Bridge area where we met a couple who had just relocated the highly elusive wintering Great Grey Shrike. Two or three Great Grey Shrikes have been found this winter in Dorset with the same or slightly more in the New Forest, however they are often elusive and highly mobile, often flying for half a mile or so before perching. Our views were distant and brief so I have included a photo of another distant, but more co-operative individual, that I photographed in the New Forest in 2012.

IMG_2574 Bufffinch 5f

I spent a morning ringing at Holton Lee on 17th and Feet’s Lane on 21st. The former was predictably busy with common species like tits, Nuthatch etc trapped. After four winters of ringing there we are building up an interesting picture of the site fidelity and longevity of the birds, with retraps of several individuals that were hatched in 2011 or earlier. This female Bullfinch was ringed at Fleet’s Lane. The grey, brown edged alula and primary coverts indicate it is a first year bird, however the best ageing characteristic is brown edging to the carpal covert, a small feather that can only be seen on the closed wing.

Firecrest-no6

We also retrapped a Firecrest that had been ringed earlier in the winter at Fleet’s Lane showing that it is remaining site faithful throughout the winter.

IMG_2568 Chiffchaff

Our main reason to ring at the Fleet’s Lane site is to study wintering Chiffchaffs. Chiffs, normally a summer visitor arriving from late March onwards and departing from September to October, have become an increasingly common bird in winter. Nobody knows if the wintering birds are British breeders that have opted to stay for the winter or migrants from elsewhere. We have retrapped three or more birds over a number of winters, showing winter site fidelity and have failed to retrap wintering birds after March indicating that they depart to breeding grounds in spring. This individual is typical of the nominate western European race colybita.

IMG_2569 Chiffchaff best

This individual is slightly duller but is still typical of colybita …..

8224SibeChiff1

…. but this bird, photographed by Ian Ballam and used here with permission, is more typical of the Siberian race tristis. I presume that this bird, which is still showing well, is the individual ringed by others in our group on 27th January. The grey tones to the upperparts, pure white belly, very fine wing bar and green edging to the primaries all indicate tristis. If it is the same individual then it was sound recorded on the date of ringing and shown to give the characteristic lost chick call of tristis. So we know that at least some of the Chiffchaffs that winter in the UK come from the eastern side of the Ural mountains, the cloest breeding grounds of tristis. Some consider tristis to be sufficiently differentiated to be considered a separate species.

IMG_1582 Woodcock

The only other ringing I have done this week is joining one of other group members near Corfe Castle  catching Woodcock at night . This is a very interesting species to ring, as the breeding grounds can be far to the east in Siberia, even on the same longitude as Burma (but of course much further north). As Woodcock are regularly shot for food, both when wintering in the UK and on migration , then the ringing return rate is high.

IMG_1583 Woodcock

Sometimes after processing the birds can be placed on the ground and remain still for long enough for photos to be taken.

IMG_1585 Woodcock

We ringed two individuals and saw at least 15, however most flew long before we could get near them. We also saw a Jack Snipe which stayed hidden until the last-minute before erupting at our feet.

IMG_1563 Raven TOL

As I mentioned above, Wednesday was spent in London, after the necessary tasks were performed, Margaret and I spent the day in the Tower of London where the pinioned Ravens performed for the crowds. More of our visit to the Tower in the next post.

 

27th March – A conservationists nightmare? A Great Grey Shrike eating a Sand Lizard.   Leave a comment

Great Grey Shrikes are scarce winter visitors to the UK from northern Europe involving perhaps under a hundred individuals. Although they arrive mainly in November and depart in late March to early April, I have always found them to be easiest to find in March, whether this is due to additional birds that have wintered further south passing through the UK or is merely an artifact of my birding schedule is open to debate (earlier in the year I might be looking for wintering wildfowl, later for spring migrants on the coast).

I have seen at least one Great Grey Shrike annually in all but seven years since I first moved to Dorset in 1978 (although many of those were in the New Forest), almost always on heathland or young conifer plantation. They can however be very hard to pin down, showing well for while then flying a long distance to the next feeding area, or seemingly disappearing for long periods only to emerge on top of small conifer for all to see. Such was the bird that has been hanging around the Sugar Hill area of Wareham Forest. Today I made my fourth visit to the area and after an hour or so of searching saw it well.

Great Grey Shrike complex has a circumpolar distribution (known as Northern Shrike in North America) with some populations reaching as far south as the Sahel region south of the Sahara. However there have been several recent attempts to carve it up into a number of species. First all the southern forms were split off as Southern Grey Shrike, then the Iberian population was found to be genetically distinct and considered a full species by some, then the migratory population of Central Asia was split as Steppe Grey Shrike and most recently a completely different arrangement based on molecular methods has been proposed (but not yet universally accepted as the genetic groupings do not correspond to plumage characteristics). Currently the IOC, whose list I follow, accepts just three species, Great Grey/Northern, Southern and Steppe Grey, but fortunately I have see all the proposed ‘species’ in that study!

 

IMG_1251-Holton-Lee

Wareham Forest is a large area of coniferous plantation to the west of Wareham that was first planted after WW1. After widespread harvesting now contains a lovely mosaic of habitats, small areas of deciduous woodland, heathland and boggy area that were never planted, cleared areas and recently replanted conifer belts. Great views over the forest can be had from the Iron Age hill fort of Woolbarrow.

IMG_1250 Wareham Forest

Rotational felling and in this case, burning of the brash, has given Wareham Forest a wide diversity of habitats. In other cleared areas the brash still lies on the ground ….

IMG_1245-GGS

… such as the area known as Oak Hill (not that there are many oaks there now) where I finally caught up with the Great Grey Shrike. I watched it for a while then it vanished only to return a short while later with a Sand Lizard in its bill, a bit of a conservationists nightmare as the Sand Lizard is an endangered species in a UK context.  Unusually for a passerine, shrikes are predators of lizards, small birds and even rodents as well as large insects. They often store their prey on thorn bushes (these days often on barbed wire) earning them the colloquial name of ‘butcher birds’ or as Margaret calls them ‘jacky hangman’.

IMG_1253-Holton-Lee

I later called into our ringing site at Holton Lee to collect a few guy pegs I had left in situ as we don’t intend to ring at this site again until next autumn. A herd of Sika were grazing on the edge of Lytchett Bay.

IMG_1264-Goldfinch

There were plenty of birds still visiting the feeders including this Goldfinch and also a number of Lesser Redpoll.