Archive for December, 2010

Kestrels of Saiha

Wednesday, 22 December, 2010


By Nimesh Ved
Nimesh Ved works in conservation education across different segments of society in south Mizoram. While doing so, he finds himself lucky to expand his awareness and appreciation of wildlife in north-eastern India.

Saiha, at the southern tip of Mizoram, has offered me many sightings of avian migrants during my three years of working here as the head of the Samrakshan Trust’s conservation education efforts. A sighting of the Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus was one of my first contributions to the MigrantWatch database last year; and this year too they came back to Saiha to fill my winter months with some memorable sights.

My first sighting of kestrels in the current season was when we saw two of them take small dives in mid-air, turning (almost!) on their sides and catching insects; this spectacle went on for 15 min. It was fun to see small insects disappear amidst this ‘dance’ of the kestrels; as I write I recall Kipling’s eloquent narrative of the ‘Dance of Elephants’ in his ‘Toomai of the Elephants’. We just sat there at our base-camp and soaked in this sight.

On later occasions, we have heard their high-pitched calls at about 6 in the morning, as if chastising us for not making an early start to the day.

One evening at about 4 pm we saw about 20 to 25 Kestrels flying in circles about 30 feet above the ground. There was a fire in the valley and they were presumably enjoying feeding on the insects that fled the fire. It was mesmerising to see the kestrels moving around in joy like children coming out of school. This also led me to look up literature on the Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni that I thought was a part of that day’s excitement.

Confusions on raptors has often led me to Rishad Naoroji’s book Birds of Prey of the Indian Sub-continent and here I found some of the day’s observations to be in consonance with his notes on the Lesser Kestrel – “Essentially insectivorous, highly social and flocking species”; “Taking prey (mostly insects) more often on the wing than the Common Kestrel, otherwise hunts similarly but mostly in small groups or large loose flocks, 10 m to 15 m above the ground”; “In Africa catches insects disturbed by grass fires in the air”. Next I checked up the web to confirm calls of the Common Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel. While most of the calls I had noticed belong to the Common Kestrel, the call I had heard today (15 Nov 2010, 1:45pm) was that of the Lesser Kestrel, which has a lower-pitched and harsher voice.

How exciting to confirm that the rare Lesser Kestrel visits Saiha! It would be wonderful to know where they come from and how long they spend here.

Some notes on Kestrels from the literature
About Indian Birds by Salim Ali and Laeeq Futehally ~ ‘There is only one bird which can really remain quite stationary, in the air, even when its wings do not move, and that is the kestrel.’
A Pocket Guide to the Birds of Mizoram by Anwaruddin Choudhury ~ Common Kestrel is a common winter visitor to Mizoram.

Relevant Links
BirdLife International’s summary sheets on Common Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel
Calls of Common Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel
MigrantWatch data on Common Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel.

Nimesh Ved blogs here. He can be contacted at nimesh.ved [at]

Take care: we share the air

Thursday, 9 December, 2010

by MigrantWatch Admin

Watching birds often starts as a relaxing pastime and sometimes progresses into contributing to the science of ornithology. But in Israel, enthusiasts who look for migratory birds go a step further – they save lives.

Israel’s airspace is stretched to the limit, on the one hand by the national air force, which is one of the world’s biggest and on the other by heavy commercial air traffic. Twice a year, this airspace is also packed with some 500 million migratory birds, which use this narrow bottleneck of land at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa to move between their winter and summer homes. The bird densities recorded during this period are the highest anywhere in the world.

This swarm of flying objects – natural and manmade – obviously leads to a high risk of mid-air collisions, accidents and even fatalities. The picture here shows a migrating Common Crane that crashed into a military helicopter in Israel. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

But a novel initiative by scientists at the Tel Aviv University and the Israeli air force has, over the years, dramatically reduced financial losses and the loss of lives resulting from bird hits. This is achieved through a network of volunteer birdwatchers who provide constant updates over the phone to a central information repository on numbers, altitude and direction of movement of migrating bird flocks. This, combined with radar sensors, satellites, and military drones gives the air force an incredibly detailed picture of bird movements, thereby giving their pilots a chance to plan their own routes accordingly.

Not surprisingly, pilots quickly learn this motto: “Take care. We share the air.”

More reading

Note: In India, airports try to minimise the risk of bird strikes during take-off and landing by habitat management, removal of food sources (for scavenging birds) and by scaring birds away. See this link for some summary information about bird strikes in India.