Bhadra Tiger Reserve is located in the Western Ghats in Karnataka. The region is home to nearly 300+ bird species. While many birds seen in the Western Ghats are residents and endemic species, the place also attracts a lot of migrant bird species during winter and summer. Working as a naturalist at Bhadra Tiger Reserve, I have had the chance to see some of these visitors.
One winter morning, on a boat safari in the Bhadra backwaters, we saw lots of birds. When we reached the far end of the backwaters, we saw some Spot-billed Ducks sitting on the banks and a big grey bird at a distance. What I saw through my binoculars left me very surprised, because the big bird was a Bar-headed Goose. It was my first sighting of this bird in the area around the Bhadra backwaters.
Bar-headed Geese are one of the highest-flying birds. They migrate from Tibet, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and fly over the Himalayas to spend winters in parts of South Asia. They are pale grey in colour, with black bars on the head. They have slightly larger wings when compared to other geese; this is believed to help them fly at high altitudes. They mainly feed on grass and roots. During winter, they visit cultivated fields, where they feed on barley, rice and wheat, and may end up damaging crops too. In India, these birds fly in from the north and migrate all the way down to Tamil Nadu.
It was a summer day, and I set out on a jeep safari with some guests. We drove towards the backwaters of the Bhadra reservoir and saw some birds and Wild Boars. As we started to drive back to the forest, I saw a bird fly above our vehicle. At first, I thought it could be a Shikra, but the colours of the bird were different. I could only see orange-coloured feet, the underparts and a greyish body. After a few seconds, it perched on a dry branch. I asked our driver to approach the bird slowly, while I took photographs of the bird for the record. I had some trouble identifying the bird, but I suddenly remembered that a guest had seen a female Amur Falcon while on a boat safari last year, and he had shown me some of the pictures of that bird. I flipped through my field guide and there it was; the bird we were watching right then was an Amur Falcon.
Amur Falcons breed in south eastern Siberia and northern China. These raptors migrate in large numbers across India and over the Arabian Sea to spend the winter in southern Africa. The migration route of these falcons is estimated to be about 22,000km long. Males are dark grey with reddish brown thighs and under-tail coverts, a reddish orange eye-ring and feet. Females are duller above, with dark scaly markings on white underparts, an orange eye-ring and legs. The wings are long, as they are in most falcons. These birds mainly feed on insects, small birds, and amphibians. During their migration over the sea, it is believed that they feed on migrating dragonflies.
While out on the boat on a winter morning with some guests who were very keen on photographing water birds and raptors. We saw cormorants, egrets, herons, Ospreys and fish eagles on that safari. At a far distance, we saw a small bird sitting on a dry branch. When we approached the bird, we realized that we were looking at the world’s fastest bird, the Peregrine Falcon. It sat there for a few minutes and gave us some good opportunities to take photographs. It then seemed to spot something and took flight.
Peregrine Falcons are the fastest birds on the planet; they can dive on their prey at a speed of about 280-300km/hour. They strike their prey mid-air with their talons, but they generally kill with their beak by severing the backbone. The adults have blue-grey wings, dark brown backs, a buff coloured underside with brown spots and white face with black tear stripes on their cheek. They have a hooked beak and strong talons. They prey on other birds, small mammals, reptiles, insects, and amphibians.
Again on a boat safari in the backwaters of the Bhadra, we saw elephants, some water birds and raptors like Osprey, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Brahminy Kites. On our way back to the resort, I saw a bird sitting on the banks. When we approached the bird, it flew away and sat on the branch of a tree nearby. I looked at the bird through my binoculars and realised I had never seen it before. Back at the resort, I used my photographs as reference, scanned the field guide, and discovered that we had seen a Eurasian Sparrowhawk. My friends and colleagues, with whom I had shared the photographs, confirmed that the ID was correct.
Eurasian Sparrowhawks are small birds of prey. They are adapted to hunting in confined spaces like dense woodlands. Males have a bluish-grey back and wings and orange-brown bars on their chest and belly. Females and young birds have a brown back and wings with brown bars underneath. They have bright yellow or orange eyes, long yellow legs, and long talons. These birds mainly feed on other birds.
I headed out of the resort on a safari with guests one morning. We were on a road that’s commonly known as the Canal Road, which leads to the forest entry gate. All the guests were keen on birding. We stopped to see grey hornbills sitting on bamboo and stopped to take photographs. When we drove ahead, we saw a bird of prey sitting on the top of a bamboo branch. Only the wings were visible, a shade of bluish-grey, and some bars on its belly. When it turned around to look at us, we noticed its rufous crown and nape; and that’s how we knew that it was a Red-necked Falcon.
Part of the falcon family, Red-necked Falcons hunt in pairs, during dawn and dusk. They prey on birds found in open areas. They fly at their prey with great speeds. These birds are classified by IUCN as near threatened; their population has been declining because of habitat loss.
On an evening safari with guests who were more interested in seeing big cats and raptors, we ended up seeing birds like Crested Serpent Eagle, Shikra, Malabar Pied Hornbills in the first 30 minutes. When we drive towards the backwaters, we heard alarm calls by Spotted Deer. We waited for a while and drove back into the forest when a guest saw a black bird sitting on top of a tree. It then flew down to a lower branch, giving us a good view of a prominent crest and black body. It was a Black Baza! I took some photographs of the bird before it flew away.
Black Baza is a small and distinctively coloured raptor, found in the forests of south and south east Asia. Many populations migrate to the Indian region, wintering in south India and Sri Lanka. These birds have short, stout legs and feet with strong talons. They spend most of their time perching on bare branches of tall trees that rise above the canopy. Males have white scapulars and secondary coverts while females have several chestnut bands on the underside. Their heads are pigeon-like with a long crest. They mainly feed on large insects, frogs, reptiles and small birds.