Common Quail

The Wikipedia page for this bird says the following.
“…It is notoriously difficult to see, keeping hidden in crops, and reluctant to fly, preferring to creep away instead. Even when flushed, it keeps low and soon drops back into cover.”
This is so true. Like with so many other birds, I have been trying to spot this little fellow for a long time. Last year, when I managed to spot the bird for the first time, it ran straight towards me and crouched so near to me that it proved to be too close for my 500 mm lens. I was happy that I was at least able to spot the bird in the wild.
I went out again, with a couple of friends, in the last week of November. This time, our guide was more sure than ever that we would be successful in our endeavour. We drove out towards Jhajjar which is some 40 kilometres from Gurgaon and en route, drove off the road on a non descript mud path. We nudged further for another 15 minutes or so, driving slowly through the shrubs we spotted this little bird digging in the dirt on a mound not 20 feet from us. We immediately stopped the car and killed the engine. It was difficult to see him at first.

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The foreground was very neat and could afford us a clear shot. And somehow, we were confidant that she would walk up to it. To get here, the bird had to cross a narrow passage with grass on either side. I trained my lens at this spot and waited. And while waiting for the Quail to come closer, we had a two more beautiful surprises. A Rain Quail walked up to the top of the mound, stood there for a couple of seconds and as quickly as it came, disappeared into the brush. Even before I could grasp what had just happened, a flock of Alexandrine Parakeets landed on a bush in front of us and posed for a couple of really nice shots. I could not believe my luck! While all of this was happening, the Quail had decided it was time to walk up to the mound and claim her 15 minutes of fame!

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She posed for a few brilliant shots on the warm evening sun and went back digging for more seeds and insects.

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Many of you might be aware that the Quail is a fairly popular game bird and often finds its way to dinner tables across the globe. I have read it is still popular amongst hunters and hobbyists. Most details relating to this bird in the old books are in context to hunting. So I will spare you the details. Except for this one -I find it rather fascinating. In the older times (not sure if this is still practiced), the good folk of Nepal, used to dress up their heads with horns of cattle and move around in a swaying fashion around this fields. This allowed them to get close enough to the Quails who mistook the men for cattle. This technique apparently helped the men to efficiently drive the flock of birds in nets near by!

 

 

 

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Ashy Crowned Sparrow Lark

Called Eremopterix grisea, the name literally means “ a grey desert bird”.

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A very common bird usually found in the open fields, the Ashy Crowned Sparrow Lark can be a tough one to find sometimes. As you can see in the pictures, the female of this species (in the pic below. The one in the pic above is a male) is so  well camouflaged that it sometimes becomes very difficult to spot them (especially in the dry summers months of northern India). Cute as this bird is, it is actually associated with a sad bit of history. I was reading Jerdon’s account of this bird and he writes that in the winters these birds collect in large flocks and when they do, are shot for the table as the “Ortolan”. Not knowing what an Ortolan is, I did a little bit of research on the internet. What I found was, well, let me just say was not suitable for my palate. Commonly practiced in Europe and west Asia, this is a type of dish that is made with the Ortolan Bunting (a small bird considered a delicacy in those areas). The dish involves capturing the bird live, blind folding it (this fools the bird into thinking its night time), and feeding it with a large amount of grain so that they become very fat. After this, the bird is drowned in brandy, roasted, beheaded (all in quick succession) and eaten whole (bones and all!). And this is usually done with a cloth covered over the face (to save one the shame of being caught picking a bone out of ones teeth while there is a mouthful of Lark gut!).

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I got these shots (both above and below) when I was out birding in the outskirts of Gurgaon. I was in my car when I saw this little lady having a mud bath. I almost missed her thanks to the near perfect camouflage. The picture looks like a ground shot – it is not. I was in the driver’s seat of my car when I got this one. Its the long lens that’s giving the effect.

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Black Kite

The Latin name of this bird is Milvus migrans literally translating to “moving or a wandering kite”. Apt, considering how they seemed to leave Bombay for Poona with the British during the monsoons!

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It was a treat to watch this kite feed. It gave me a sense of how strong the bird really was. It was gripping the dead animal with its claws while ripping the flesh off with its strong beak. I could see the strong muscles on its legs strain when it was tearing the flesh off of its prey.
For long, I long considered this a boring bird simply owing to its  abundance. But reading some of the accounts from Blyth, Jerdon and Oates rekindled my interest in it.

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In the earlier days, when travel was cumbersome and men moved between large distances on foot or horse back, camping from place to place, large populations of kites were known to follow them. Moving and resting along with the caravan. Jerdon notes that every tent was visited by one or more kites every day looking for bits of food to pick up. It was even common for the kites to swoop down on unsuspecting cooks and snatch away food between the kitchen and the hall! A testimony to their fearlessness and agility.

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Kites seem to be interested in scavenging only on corpses that they can easily carry and feed in flight and unlike vultures and crows, they shy away from sitting on a large corpse and feed along with their kin. They also occasionally hunt. Here is an interesting account from EHA on the topic.
“….It does not insist that life shall be extinct. Any bird or little animal which is sickly, wounded, or young enough to be picked off the ground with a swoop, is welcome. Chicks not over a month old are particularly eligible, as everybody knows to his sorrow who has tried to keep poultry in India. When a Kite becomes a confirmed chicken-eater there is nothing to be done but to shoot it, which is a pity, for they deserve to be protected.”
This is fascinating. I never realised birds could be considered a threat to livestock! I have heard of leopards and tigers being hunted down for such reasons. But never a Black Kite.

Steppe Eagle

The Latin name of this bird is Aquila nipalensis literally translating to an Eagle from Nepal (the first specimen was collected and described from Nepal).

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I was really excited to see this bird. Just the sheer size of it is jaw dropping. It’s not that I have not seen Eagles before; its just that I have never spent so much time watching one.
I almost did not notice this one sitting amongst scores of Black Kites. To be honest, I find it very difficult to tell the difference between the various Eagles when I spot them in the wild. They all look so alike!

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The minute one hears of an Eagle, one expects a big bird that dwells in deep forests. A bird that is regal in appearance and size. A powerful and fearless bird that hunts large prey. Well, at least, that’s the image I had in my mind. And the Steppe Eagle came really close to shattering it.
The first disappointment came when I saw it in the company of Kites. Why was the mighty Eagle hanging around with Kites? The Kites are scavengers with no specific taste for hunting while the Steppe Eagle was…well…an Eagle! A mighty Eagle.
I read later on that the Steppe Eagle is big on scavenging too. Turns out it does not prefer to hunt all the time. Only when absolutely necessary, I guess. Why waste all that energy in chasing really fast rodents while it can just wait for one to die and then swoop down for breakfast?
Anyway, while I was watching the bird circle above me, this happened (not a great picture, I agree)

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The Steppe Eagle, along with the other Kites took to the air and while casually circling around, a Kite, clearly with the intention of annoying the Eagle, decided to claw at the mighty bird. I expected the Eagle to retaliate in grand fashion. But instead, it decided that the Kite was too insignificant to deserve its attention and simply carried on circling around.

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I came back home and started reading about Eagles in general. Both Oates and Jerdon describe Eagles as follows. “…The typical Eagles…have acquired a reputation for courage which they scarcely deserve, as they are much less courageous than the comparatively small Hawks and Falcons” Jerdon however goes on to confirm that the Eagles are certainly more courageous than the Kites and the Buzzards.

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