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RV Matters!

December 2022 was a hectic month for birdwatchers. With the Percolation Tank receiving copious supply of water, it began overflowing for a third consecutive year! With the increase in water in the Valley, a lot of our attention went to the birds at the Percolation tank and so we had several water and waterside bird sightings.

We had three sightings of the Lesser Whistling-Duck – a flock of 6-7 birds and a pair of Spot-billed Ducks were seen twice. Little Grebes (Dabchicks) were regularly seen and at least three to four pairs were noticed. I suspected they were nesting but was not able to locate any nests. The number of Eurasian Moorhens suddenly jumped from a pair to ten birds by the last week of December. A dozen Eurasian Coots, thus far absent here, suddenly turned up in the last week and made their presence felt by their loud cries and active movements involving chasing off their rivals and pursuing them as they swam and took off – half-walking and half-flying – on the water, thereby churning the otherwise calm waters.

Another waterside bird that rarely visits the campus, though quite common elsewhere – the Wood Sandpiper turned up on Christmas eve, and gave the Green Sandpiper company for some time. The pair of Greater Painted-snipe that had disappeared from view after the paddy crop came up again was seen in the harvested field by the last week of the month.

Cormorant numbers touched an all-time high of 30+ birds in the last week of the month. The new arrival to the campus – Greater Cormorant – was seen in the last week alongside its Little and Indian cousins. The duo appeared to be immature birds. On 18th December, a large flock of 24 Black-headed Ibis were seen in overhead flight and a flock of Glossy Ibis was seen winging its way over the campus the following week. The grey Heron, Black-crowned Night Herons, Indian Pond-heron, Cattle and Little Egrets were among the other waterbirds noticed here.

Though we never got to see the Black-capped Kingfisher again, we have had the Pied Kingfishers return to the campus, after over two decades and though not seen always, they keep visiting the Percolation tank and perch on the wires (that Mr S Rangaswami had thoughtfully put up for them in the 1990’s!) There have been a few sightings of the colourful Common Kingfisher too.

Among the local migrants, the Indian Pitta has been sighted (or rather heard) fairly regularly. The Large Cuckooshrike, a bird that had been absent for 2-3 years has once again returned to the campus. Indian Golden and Black-naped Orioles too are back, though not in as good numbers as in earlier years. Indian Paradise-flycatchers too are back but I haven’t seen them as frequently as in the past years. Two Black-naped Monarchs have turned up this year. With the Eucalyptus trees beginning to bloom, the Hair-crested Drongos are back.

Among the long-distance migrants, we have been seeing the Lesser Whitethroats, Booted, Blyth’s Reed, Green and Greenish warblers. A single Paddy-field wabler too was seen along the stream carrying the spill-over waters of the Percolation tank. Among the flycatchers, we have been sighting the Asian Brown, Blue-throated, Taiga and the Verditer Flycatchers. Small numbers of Tree Pipits and common Rosefinches have also been seen.

 - Santharam / 18 January 2023

RV Matters!

It has been a busy month for me, having had to travel twice out of the campus and so I could not catch up with my contributions to this web-page. I shall try to give a birds’ eye view of things that took place since I last wrote.

 It was a matter of great joy that we managed to add three species of birds to the live bet soccer list in the span of a little over a month. I had already reported the sighting of the Knob-billed Duck on 29th August (more on this bird below). The Oriental Darter was the next to turn up on 27th September at the Percolation tank. Until the 15th October we had been seeing single birds here on a regular basis but on 16th, we noticed two birds (apparently the birds were taking turns to show up here – the adult bird with its darker neck and the juvenile bird with its whitish neck). This species is classified as “Near Threatened” because its population is suspected to be in moderately rapid decline owing to pollution, drainage, hunting and the collection of eggs and nestlings, according to the BirdLife live bet soccer.

The third addition was made on the morning of Gandhi Jayanti when Jai Shree akka pointed out a bird sitting on a dry branch of a tree again at the Percolation tank. It turned out to be a Black-capped Kingfisher, a stunningly colourful bird. Seeing our enthusiasm, the bird decided to come closer and pose for us from the concrete post and affording us all with excellent views. The Black-capped Kingfisher is known to be mainly a bird of the coastal wetlands and mangrove forests. Yet, this species is known to wander inland and turn up at some unexpected locations as it did here in Rishi Valley.

Left: Black-capped Kingfisher and Right: Brown Shrike (migrant)

The winter migrants have been steadily arriving since early September. The Grey wagtail was among the first birds (from Himalaya) to touch the valley on September 2nd. This was followed by another Himalayan migrant – the Greenish warbler, seen first on 3rd September. Since then, we have had a spate of migrants – both local (like the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, White-bellied Drongo and the Indian Paradise-flycatcher) as well as long-distance migrants (Lesser Whitethroat, Brown Shrike, Large-billed warbler, Taiga Flycatcher, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Ashy drongo, Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher and Blue Rock Thrush, to name some) turning up in the valley. More birds are expected over the next few days including the much-anticipated Indian Pitta.

The Knob-billed Duck surprised us by nesting on the hollow of a topless coconut stump. The nest at an height of some 7 m was fuly exposed to the elements and hats-off to the patience and dedication of the female (who had to take care of the nest single-handed), after a gap of four weeks of incubation, at least four chicks emerged on the morning of 12th October. I was fortunate to witness one of Nature’s miracles as the just-hatched ducklings jumped down to the ground responding to the call of their mother without any hesitation. I was lucky to capture the event for posterity on my camera. You can read more details about this and see the video clips and photos here:

- Santharam/17 October 2022

RV Matters!

The Baya Weaver colony that has about half a dozen nests built on a Ficus plant growing inside the Malli Baavi has been active over the past few weeks. In the first week of September, the adults were seen bringing in insect food to feed their young (identified by an entomologist-friend as “Orthoptera - probably Acrididae (short-horned grasshoppers)”).

What was interesting to note was that not only the females were bringing in feed for the nestlings but also the male birds! We are often given to understand that the male Baya initiates the breeding activities and starts building a nest and half-way through the nest construction, the females inspect the structure. If approved by the female, the nest is completed by the male with female helping with the interiors and then she lays her eggs. The male then abandons the nest and his mate and builds yet another nest attracting a second mate and so it goes. Salim Ali says on one rare occasion, a male secured five females, one after the other!

It is usually the female who looks after the chicks. The males are occasionally reported to feed their young ones. In this case, I found females and two or three males carrying food in their beaks. The insects were freshly caught from the nearby paddyfield.

Though the weaverbirds are predominantly granivorous birds, often feeding on paddy and other cereals as well as grass seeds, the young birds are fed on diets consisting of insects and arthropods.

I was surprised to see the males taking care of their young and was wondering under what circumstances they feed the young. Could it be that these males did not get opportunities to mate with multiple partners (due to limited resources availablity?) and so they settled down to take of their chicks? Or were these males who did not     get an opportunity to mate because of shortage of females or other resources? It is also known that older offsprings of several bird species   assist their parents raise young ones and these birds are rewarded with mating opportunities later on.

There are several life history details we are still not aware of even of those common species we encounter so often in our neighbourhood. These are great opportunities for any curious student of natural history who can learn and contribute a lot to our knowledge through careful observations.

 - Santharam / 22 September 2022

RV Matters!

After seeing the Knob-billed Duck in the campus, there was yet another sighting of ducks at our Percolation tank. I had visited the tank on Friday (September 2) morning, enjoying the scene in front of me. It was a clear morning after rains (mostly during nights) over the past few days. The water-level in the tank was visibly up by atleast a couple of feet. I got down to the water’s edge looking at the clear blue skies and the play of light and shade on the vegetation and the nearby hills, reflected in the still waters.

As I was taking in the scene, I noticed a couple of darkish birds circling and descending to the edge of the tank at the opposite end. With my binoculars, I could confirm their identity as the Lesser Whistling-Duck as the birds stood still on the shore.Though seen here a couple of years ago, I was excited to see these newcomers as waterfowl have not been too common in our campus.

These are also, like the Knob-billed Duck, a resident species and nest in hollows of trees. “A shrill wheezy whistling seasick, seasick constantly uttered on the wing” is how Salim Ali describes its calls.

I slowly moved along the wooded bund to the north-eastern end of the tank and quietly walked down to the water, taking care not to take the birds by surprise. But the birds had spotted my movements and quietly slipped down into the water. Yet they did not show any undue alarm and went about preening themselves. Encouraged by their friendly attitude, I stealthily approached them and managed to take a few shots with my camera. They seemed aware of my presence and yet did not mind my intrusion, allowing me observe them. Since I had to get back, I slowly backed out. The birds too decided to shift to the opposite side of the tank and took off.

 -  Santharam / September 5, 2022

RV Matters!

This morning, I went out with my brand new camera, eager to try it out and see how it performs. This was despite the overcast skies with dark grey clouds hovering low over the valley. The soil was wet and squishy after the rains, last night. I was not too hopeful about getting any photographs given the light conditions. Yet, I proceeded to the paddy fields near Malli Baavi, which has been attracting several birds over the past few weeks.

 The bird activity here was much low today as expected, with fewer Pond-herons and no Lapwings. A few waterhens were heard calling but from the cover of vegetation. There was some activity at the Malli baavi where the Baya weavers were nesting. A Black-crowned Night Heron flew from the Percolation tank, calling.

Walking ahead, I caught sight of a largish bird with white underparts, perched on a dead tree stump, bordering the paddy fields, close to the coconut grove. Without binoculars, I initially thought it could have been the Night Heron that just flew past. It was about 250 metres from where I stood and I was not sure if I would get a good enough photo. I zoomed the lens to the fullest extent possible (1200 mm) and clicked four shots. Just as I finished, the birds stretched out its wings and took off.

Through the lens, I could make out the bird was not the heron but a duck. The name “Knob-billed Duck”, a resident duck, came to mind but I immediately dismissed it knowing it to be uncommon and never before reported in our area. But when I downloaded the images on my computer, I realized my first guess was on the spot. I could not believe that this duck turned up in our campus. The bird gets its name from a black knob-like structure on its bill, found only in male birds.

Until the past two decades, this bird was rarely seen in its native haunts in southern India except in some waterbodies in southern Tamil Nadu. Now, in the past two decades, their numbers have been on the rise and these ducks are regularly seen in the wetlands of Chennai and surroundings as well as around Bangalore. It is also making a come back in Sri Lanka in the past two decades or so, after its near total disappearance in the 1960’s. Let us hope to see this bird more regularly in our campus in future.

 - Santharam. 29 August 2022

RV Matters

I was watching birds at the paddy-fields in our School campus, that had recently been transplanted and were covered with a sheet of water on the afternoon of 16th August 2022. A Little Egret was foraging all by itself and behind it were White-breasted waterhens, calling loudly and moving about in the edge of the fields, close to the Percolation tank bund. Several Indian Pond-herons were scattered across the fields, standing still, looking for prey. A record number of seven Red-wattled Lapwings were seen in the fields to the east of the pathway between the fields, often calling. Nearby was a pair of White-browed wagtails, wading in the shallow water, calling and feeding.

My attention was then drawn to two brownish lumps which could easily have passed off as clods of mud or vegetation. Focussing my binoculars, I could see they were the elusive pair of Greater Painted-snipe that have been playing hide-and-seek with us since past few months. They were right out in the open without any vegetation cover but for the thin blades of the newly transplanted paddy. Since I always wanted to see these birds I felt good to see them in full view.

I decided to approach them from the bund which had some tree-cover, hoping to get a better and closer view. As I approached them, I momentarily lost sight of them because of the leafy vegetation cover. I viewed the spot they were last seen a few minutes later but I could not see them. Had they taken flight sensing my approach? I spent a few minutes looking for them and regretted disturbing them. I moved a few paces and turned back to have a last scan of the fields, trying to locate where they could have flown to. And then I saw them!

The birds had not moved an inch from the spot I had first seen them and were very much there all along! They only had squatted in the water and remained still! They had blended so well with their surroundings. It was remarkable that despite being in full view they were easily overlooked and that too in good light! Not wishing to prolong their agony, I just moved away, wishing the birds will continue to remain in the campus for the next few months, offering more opportunities to study them.

Can you spot the Greater Painted-snipe pair now?

- Santharam / 17 August 2022

RV Matters

We always associate woodpeckers with wood-boring beetles and their larvae, ants, termites and a host of other bark-inhabiting insects which they are known to feed on. But do you know that these birds have a sweet tooth (I mean a sweet beak!)?

 Here is a Lesser Goldenbacked woodpecker (aka Black-rumped Flameback) making a meal of a ripe Papaya fruit and also competing with a Rose-ringed parakeet in our vegetable garden.

More recently (just earlier this week), I found a bird relishing a ripe custard-apple on a tree near the Malli Baavi.

I have, elsewhere, seen these birds probing flowers like the Red Silk-cotton and Coral trees for nectar. Ripe mangos too are reported in the list of food items consumed by this bird. I have also seen photographs of this woodpecker eating a sapota or chikoo fruit. Other species of woodpeckers too attracted to fruits and nectar.

Bird-lovers and photographers across the world often use ripe cut fruits to attract a variety of birds in their backyards.

- Santharam /12 August 2022

RV Matters

 Rishi Valley Rock Gecko

 Rishi Valley Rock Gecko

On 24th July as we were watching birds, we came across this little gecko resting on the underside of a piece of loose rock close to the scrub jungles on the hill adjacent to the school campus. Instead of running away, the gecko took refuge under my shoe and after remaining still for a while, I slowly took out my camera, moved my leg and shot some photographs. I then sent the pictures to Ishan Agarwal, a former student of RV and an authority on geckos in India. He immediately responded and said this was the Rishi Valley Rock Gecko (Hemidactylus rishivalleyensis), a new species described by himself and his colleagues in 2020!

Apart from Rishi Valley, Ishan and colleagues have reported this species from the environs of Kaiwara, Chickballapur District, Karnataka; near Vellore, Vellore District, Tamil Nadu and Yelagiri, Tirupattur District, Tamil Nadu. According to their observations: : “The species has been observed on granite boulders at night and in crevices in the daytime. The species appears chiefly nocturnal and strongly rupicolous. Sympatric geckos at the type locality include Cnemaspis graniticola, C. rishivalleyensis sp. nov., Hemidactylus giganteus, H. triedrus, H. frenatus, H. Leschenaultii.”

Rishi Valley seems to be a biodiversity hotspot for geckos.  In the paper cited below, the authors mention that “Four endemic geckos now have their type localities within 10 km of each other, Cnemaspis graniticola and Cyrtodactylus rishivalleyensis from Horsley Hills and the two new species from Rishi Valley” (viz. Cnemaspis rishivalleyensis and Hemidactylus rishivalleyensis).

Ishan Agarwal, Tejas Thackeray and Akshay Khandekar. 2020. Geckos in the Granite: Two New Geckos (Squamata: Gekkonidae) from Rocky, Scrub Habitats in Rishi Valley, Andhra Pradesh, India. Zootaxa. 4838(4); 451–474. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4838.4.1

- V. Santharam

RV Matters!

It has been a wet July in Rishi Valley this year after a long time. I remember having experienced similar weather condition in 1998-99. Having rained earlier in the month of May, the valley has maintained its greenery through the summer months. In fact, there is still water flowing under the first and second bridges and there are bullrushes growing in the area that has provided shelter to a pair of White-breasted Waterhen and the Eurasian Moorhen, which occasionally show up as they venture out of the vegetation, foraging in the open shallow water.

 The wooded areas too have regained their foliage and most areas have dense undergrowth, especially of those species that are exotic and invasive in nature (Lantana and Parthenium). The burnt areas of the Biodiversity are regaining their grass cover.

Early this morning I was at the Biodiversity Park and the birdlife was active since the sun was out after a long time. There was a trio of Long-tailed shrikes on a tamarind tree, calling; the Yellow-eyed Babbler pair was active among the grass stalks as they moved about calling.

The nesting colony of Baya weaverbirds  was abuzz with birds coming in and flying out. Over 25 nests were built on the Prosopis tree next to the fields and they represented every stage from the first to complete one. There were only four nests that were complete with the entrance tube, though. A few nests seemed to be experimental ones, constructed by inexperienced males and were of odd shapes. There was a double-storey nest too!

I was on the look-out for the pair of Red-necked Falcon which was seen in the area through the dry months but was not fortunate enough to see them. However I was lucky to see a single Alpine swift as it flew high above, across the valley. This is a bird that can be seen in the valley on rare occasions, especially in the monsoon months. A pair of the endemic and rare Yellow-throated Bulbuls was seen and heard as they flew from a neem tree at the edge of the fields. Usually one associates these birds with the scrub-covered rocky hills and these birds were in the midst of cultivation. Perhaps shortage of food in the hills forced the birds out of their preferred habitats.


- V. Santharam

RV Matters!

 After a gap of Two years and four months, the Indian Roller has returned to the campus!
Last week, a pair was seen perched on a coconut frond in the Vegetable Garden area as seen from the bund of the Percolation Tank. They looked perfectly at home and looking at them one would never guess they were absent from the campus on a long sabbatical!
One wonders where these birds had disappeared over this long period and again what prompted them to come back (certainly not the COVID scare as someone suggested!). It was possible the severe competition for cavities on the coconut trees among Rose-ringed Parakeets, Common Mynas and the Indian Roller may have forced the Rollers out.

Hugh Whistler in his “A Popular Handbook of Birds of India - 1941” writes about this bird:

this Roller is one of the best-known of our Indian birds. It is a bird of open country, avoiding heavy jungle and preferring cultivation. There is very little variation in its habits; except in the breeding season it is found singly, but is so common that single birds will be met all over the countryside every quarter mile or so. It chooses an elevated open perch on which to sit, a dead bough of an ancient tree, the woodwork over a well, a ruined building, a telegraph post or wire, or in default of something better, a thorn bush or stone heap. On such a spot it sits motionless, the bright colours concealed or blending with the variegated tints of an Indian landscape; but all the while the large dark eyes are watching the ground in every direction; and a grasshopper has only to walk along a blade of grass, or a cricket or mouse to emerge from its burrow, and the Roller has launched itself straight at the spot to capture the toothsome morsel, settling on the ground beside it, and then fiying back to its perch. To my last day in India I shall never lose the thrill that comes to me every time that I see the sudden transformation, as the dark lumpy bird reveals the banded glory of its wings and tail.

In early February the Roller betrays the secret of its name;  its sedateness is exchanged for the love flights in which it rises and falls in the air with wildly flapping wings and harsh grating screams, advertising to all and sundry that Spring is in the air. The ordinary flight is strong and buoyant with slow but continuous flapping of the wings; occasionally it pursues insects on the wing, but this is not usual.

This bird is sacred to Shiva, who is said to have assumed its form.”

We have, since, been seeing them on all the trips to the Percolation Tank. Last evening around 6:15 pm, I could not locate the birds on the coconut trees. Casually, I ran my binoculars over an east-facing cavity and there, perfectly framed, sat the Roller, posing for my photograph. I took a shot even though the light was poor since the sun had just set and I was shooting against the light.

- Santharam
5 April 2022

RV Matters!

As the water started receding in the Percolation Tank, new shorelines have formed and new habitats and feeding opportunities have opened up for birds and other organisms (though these may be only available for a short time).

One morning, last week, five Glossy Ibises turned up at the shallow end of the tank for foraging. I happened to be lucky to see them since these birds have never before been seen here. We had sighted a lone individual in flight in 2018 at the wetland near the Mouth of the Valley.

There were other birds giving the Ibises company - Cormorants (Little and Indian), Egrets (Intermediate and Little), Indian Pond-heron, Red-wattled Lapwings, Eurasian Moorhens and a lone Green Sandpiper.

Even as I shot a few frames and was observing them, the birds took off along with the Cormorants, heading east. I was hoping they would turn up again at the tank and on my next visit last evening, three birds were again seen in flight over the Acacia trees in the tank.

Glossy Ibis is one of the few species whose population seems to have exploded in the past three-four decades. I still remember how in the 1980’s when the birds first started showing up, especially in the southern India, they made headlines among the members of the ornithological community. But soon their populations expanded rapidly and these days we see them in large numbers across the country.

- Santharam
27 March 2022