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Winter is Coming and it is a Game of Droves

A few days ago, JAWAI and the rest of India celebrated Diwali with characteristic gusto. Occurring on the cusp of summer and winter Diwali is also a reminder that winter is coming and it is a game of droves as the cooler temperatures attract a whole range of birdlife that migrates to Rajasthan, and Jawai. Predators, waterfowl and other kinds come roving to the Jawai Bandh and its surrounding scrubland. So here is a list of some of our favourite winter visitors:

 

Greater Flamingo, Phoenicopterus roseus:

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Wading the waters of the Jawai Bandh, a group of flamingoes take off from the surface of the water to find a better spot to feed. Photograph by Adam Bannister.

As you look across the reservoir with the sun setting behind the dam and as the light dances on the water, you see the flashes of pink and white from the flamingos, this is a picture you will keep in your treasure trove of memories for a long time.  Jawai is gifted with an incredible backdrop against which sightings of these birds, towering over the water as they feed, become a unique almost surreal experience for any onlooker.

 

Their visit tends to be in the early months of the year when the water from the reservoir has receded, leaving in its wake these stretching mudflats. Their kinked bills allow them to feed on small fish, crustaceans (which give them their pinkness) and even something as small as plankton while with their webbed feet, they rake up the mud at the bottom.

 

Eurasian Hobby, Falco subbuteo:

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The Eurasian hobby know for its huntings skills using rapid movements to out-manoeuvre its prey, perches itself on a vantage point looking over the JAWAI landscape. Photograph by Vedant Thite.

The Latin name suggests this bird is inferior to a falcon, however, watching this bird in action, you’d be left scratching your head as to why that could be. This slim, moustachioed bird has short pointed wings, not so different to the shape of a swift’s. Being a monomorphic species, both male and female adults exhibit a grey upper part, cream underbelly with bold black stripes and bright rufous thighs.

 

The best time to see these magnificent birds is in the evening and early mornings just after the sun has set and as it rises again. With an acrobatic flight to out-manoeuvre their flying prey, which range from dragonflies to small birds and bats, their hunting habits are a performance where you’ll be sure to ask for an encore.

 

Their mating habits are also a spectacle as the male and female will perform fly-by food passes at staggering speeds. After a successful courtship they will not build their own nest but recycle old nests of other birds to lay their eggs.

 

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus:

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An Osprey heads back to his nest in the granite hills with the mornings first catch. Photograph by Vedant Thite.

Almost double the size of the Eurasian Hobby, the osprey is a pan-Indian winter visitor which staggeringly, has been known to journey all the way from Europe.  Their distinctive brown stripe across their deep yellow eyes will amaze any onlooker. Tradition has it that fish were so mesmerized that they submitted themselves to be caught (see Shakespeare, Coriolanus Act 4, Scene 5). Jawai Bandh is teeming with all kinds of fish, making it a favoured spot for these bright white-bellied birds. The morphology of these creatures has allowed them to be quite the apt fisher with reversible outer toes and barbed pads on their feet to be able to grip onto slippery prey.  Their ability to hold their position in the sky as they scan the water is remarkable. Its oily plumage allows the bird to submerge into water and it is a wild sight to see them plunge feet first into the water from great heights and emerge victorious with a catch.

 

Ospreys are also known for their building skills as their nests which are huge towers of sticks above which the male will partake in the ‘sky-dance’ or ‘fish-dance’ whereby he hovers high above his nest either with a fish or nesting material in his talons.

 

As their arrival is fast approaching, birders are twitching to get a sighting of these imposing raptors.

 

Ruff, Philomachus pugnax:

If there were a prize that could be to a bird with such pomp, it would surely go to the Ruff. With a small head accentuating its mane of buff feathers (of black and white barred) that give them their name, they are the Liberace of the waders. They gather around in marshes and other water-bodies and the males will parade around the females and proceed with their flamboyant courtship of wing flutters, jumping up, standing erect and crouching down to name a few moves.

 

Bar-headed Goose, Anser indicus:

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Known as world’s highest flying birds and after crossing over the Himalayas into India, the migratory Bar headed Geese, also known as the Hamsa of Indian mythology stop over at the Jawai Bandh. Photograph by Jaisal Singh.

With a black tipped beak and two horizontal black stripes on the crown that contrasts against the bright white head, the bar-headed goose is a big favourite of ours. It is capable of flying at altitudes of a little over 21000 feet as thousands come to the high lakes in the Himalayas to breed. This migration has been classed as the world’s highest migration. They have adapted in certain ways to aid their high-altitude flight with the ability to hyperventilate without becoming dizzy. This rapid breathing increases the quantity of oxygen that flows around their body. To deal with this rise oxygen intake, the bar-headed goose has evolved to have more capillaries and more proficient red blood cells than other birds.

 

They come down from the mountains and roost by lakes and reservoirs such as the one at Jawai. They mainly feed at night in the cooler temperatures and rest on the sandbanks during the day.

 

With its stunning and hugely surprising résumé, you can see why we love this bird so much.

 

Sarus Crane, Grus Antigone:

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A pair of Sarus Crane with their young one foraging in a chickpea field. Photograph by Jaisal Singh

The biggest of the cranes found in the world, the Sarus Crane can reach to heights of 1.6 metres, almost the height of the average human. Its scarlet vermillion head with a distinctive white crown gives the giant its regal appearance.

 

Not only in its size does it stand apart from the other cranes but also in its nature. These cranes are monogamous and are celebrated in India for their loyal attachment to their mate. What is even more unique about these cranes is that they are not gregarious, they will either stay alone or with their pair. Yes, there have been many sightings of a group of Sarus Cranes, but on closer inspection, these groups will be a gathering of pairs of cranes who have briefly come together in the same area. Their courting ritual is again as elegant as they are, they dance and jump in front of the female to attract their attention with a trumpet call and their bill skywards and, if accepted, it would be immediately relayed by the female (known as a unison call).

 

Short-toed Snake Eagle, Ciraetus gallicus:

This reptile-eating eagle has incredible vision like most eagles and will soar high above as it scans the floor below for prey. As the name suggests, their main source of food is snakes and lizards although it has been seen feeding on small birds.

 

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A migratory squadron of pelicans look for a perfect landing spot amidst the Jawai Bandh. Photograph by Vedant Thite.

It’s true beauty, however lies in its variety. The adult can have two very distinct forms of plumage: a dark shade and a lighter shade. As you sight the bird from below, the darker plumage of the snake eagle has white under wings and belly with black stripes while the lighter plumaged eagle has a plain white belly and wings. The width of the head that carries their bright yellow eyes is also something to admire as when perched, it can seem slightly disproportionate to its body. Nonetheless, it’s physique and stature is nothing less than that of an imposing eagle.

 

Dalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus:

 

These massive pelicans, the biggest of their kind, can be found either alone, in small flocks or in their multitudes here at JAWAI. And being classed as vulnerable by the IUCN since 1994, a sighting of one of these birds is a memorable event.

 

In breeding season, their bills, which can grow to 45cm in length, turn from an off yellow to brilliant orange pouch with which, as a team, they drive the fish to shallower waters before scooping them up. As they stretch out their vast wings, from the shoulder to the tip, each feather is darker than the previous until the tip is a dark black. Their immense size and beauty makes it impossible not to put it on our list of favourite winter visitors.

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