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  • Ian Hearn

Spring Birding Around Sangla

The sky was cloudy and the air moist when I began my morning birding. A soft rain had just fallen, and there was a dampness in the air. Koels and cuckoos and doves alike were singing, and the “pheer-pheer-pheer” of one of the local bee-eaters carried across the fields.

Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler

As I walked through fields, I accidently flushed several pond-herons and a waterhen. The waterhens are slim and nondescript, and the pond-herons are almost perfectly camouflaged against the grass until they take flight and show their all-white wings. In the distance I heard a pair of coucals singing their resonant duet, and several Blue-throated Barbets singing their monotonous song.


I was heading to a place that I hadn’t been to since winter – a secluded grove of trees about a twelve minutes’ walk away. The area was a steep ravine that was filled with bamboo and Himalayan Alders. A small creek trickled through the center of it, thick undergrowth grew on the sides, and Lantana skirted the edges. Though it’s an invasive species in Nepal, Lantana provides food for many birds, including bulbuls, warblers, white-eyes, tits, and babblers, and the thick cover that they offer attracts rubythroats, flycatchers, warblers, and other passerines.


During a trip in late December to the ravine I had found a Pygmy Cupwing, and though I entertained little hope of finding one now, I did expect that there would be a Blue-throated Flycatcher or two, and maybe even a thrush. I was right – there was a pair of Blue-throated Flycatchers, but there were no thrushes, or anything else that was outside the realm normality.


Tailorbirds, koels, drongos, white-eyes, and barbets were all present, and there were four Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters that flitted around after insects. Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are slim, medium-sized birds, and they like to hunt from open, exposed perches. During the morning they can be found perched lower to the ground, but in the afternoon hours they prefer the tops of trees. Morning then, is the obviously better time to photograph them, when one can get not just better angles, but better backgrounds, too: a bird with a green or brown background often looks better than against a light-colored sky.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

Apparently someone else had apparently decided to visit this grove, too: I heard the loud, nasal cries of a Shikra and soon spotted it flying quickly through the trees. Four Ashy Drongos immediately took up the chase, following it closely and lending nasty-sounding remarks. I admired the audacity of the drongos; for if the thought ever entered the Shikra’s head, it could have probably turned around and made one of them dinner. But no, the drongos are ever ready to chase any threat from their territories.


Despite whatever our feelings of the Shikras and other such hawks are, it’s impossible not to admire their fortitude. They have to hunt for their own meals using stealth and speed, when all of the avian world hates and fears them. And they have to be able to pounce quickly on an unsuspecting bird, despite an advanced alarm call system that can travel in front of them up to eighty miles per hour.

A male Shikra from a previous birding trip

Since a male Shikra has been staying around my area for several weeks now, I’ve had the chance to observe him and his various hunting techniques. He often chooses to do to one of two things: either wait quietly in cover till he gets a chance at a bird, or soar high in the sky and then dive down using a surprise attack element. Since most birds aren’t comfortable and won’t resume their lives until they know he’s left their area, the first option seems harder. But I had a chance to observe the latter option during some afternoon birding about a week ago.


There had been a Shikra high in the sky, soaring in circles above me. It would have been hard to find him, except for the fact that a group of Barn and Red-rumped Swallows was circling around him, giving their sharp, two-syllable alarm calls. I didn’t think much of it, but then, a few minutes later a watchful myna gave three successive “weet” alarm calls, loud and pronounced. A group of birds that had been feeding in some bushes all ducked into cover at once, because all songbirds, no matter what kind, know the language of danger. Suddenly, the air was alive with intensifying alarm calls, the loud hoarse ones of bulbuls, and the sharp high ones of swallows. A blur of blue-gray shot into the bush where all the birds had been, and it took me a moment to realize that it was the male Shikra that I had just seen in the sky minutes ago. He had only narrowly missed catching a bulbul.


I moved on from the ravine through some fields and added Red-wattled Lapwing and Paddyfield Pipit to my list. Some kites circled over, and more swallows flew overhead. A Rufous Woodpecker called from the grove behind me (after I had left, of course) and a Gray-headed Woodpecker’s call notes drifted in from the distance.


After fifteen minutes or so of walking, I reached my second stopping point, the same place where I had searched in vain for Indian Paradise-Flycatchers. There was the pair of Plumbeous Redstarts on the river where they always were, and I could hear the male’s loud seeeeee calls long before I saw them. There were two other female redstarts, too, or at least I thought they were females at first. Upon closer examination, they looked like they were fledglings instead, and the closer one had a little rufous on his tail, which suggested he was a young male bird.

Plumbeous Redstart, female

Instead of crossing the river and climbing the ravine to my left as I usually did, I continued up the side of the river to see if I could find any forktails. Four days before I had found and photographed Spotted and Black-backed Forktails, both within a few hundred meters of each other. It was a nice find, because Spotted Forktails are fairly common and shy, and Black-backed Forktails are very uncommon and a record in May was very unusual.


I heard more Verditer and Blue-throated Flycatchers, but found no forktails, so I circled up to above the river and waited and listened. A few colorful minivets flew overhead calling their “sweet-so-sweet” calls, but since they made no indication of landing, I did my best to ignore them.

Gray-hooded Warbler

Suddenly, the loud hollow oop-oop-oop call of a Greater Coucal irrupted near me. I looked up to see the bird fly onto an exposed branch in front of me, and I took several photographs of it and then slowly moved forward. But just as I was snapping my fifth photo of the coucal, something caught my eye to my left: a large, gray-green bird with a long, white-tipped tail flew into some trees in front of me. It was a Green-billed Malkoha, and there was a pair of them.

Greater Coucal

Green-billed Malkohas are uncommon in the Kathmandu valley, and they are most likely often overlooked, too. Because of their secretive habits, their uncommon abundance, and their long, gray tails, they are a nice bird to find here. During the winter I had seen them three or four times, but during the breeding season they become more secretive than ever, and retreat to thickly wooded areas. They almost always stay in cover but they don’t mind flying across large open spaces, so more often or not they are flying when I see them first.


These particular malkohas felt inclined to stay within the habits set by their kind, so I was only able to get three or four shabby photos of them before they flew into more cover. But since I hadn’t come out looking to photograph malkohas, and hadn’t even expected to find any, I was happy enough to leave it at that.

My horrible Green-billed Malkoha photo

eBird: https://ebird.org/checklist/S69399092


#lockdown

#sangla

#malkoha

#jhor

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All photos © 2020 Ian Hearn

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