Category “Wintering grounds”

Misfit Migrant: the Spot-winged Starling

Saturday, 11 August, 2012

By Raman Kumar

While the details of bird migration are still somewhat mysterious, the broad patterns are reasonably well-understood; for example the direction of migration. The main reason why most migratory birds follow a north–south path is simple: they follow the seasonal patterns in availability of food and breeding resources. Most migratory birds follow this general pattern: (1) breed at higher latitudes during spring-summer; (2) when days start to get shorter and conditions harsher, fly to kinder regions in the tropics.

But there are some species of birds that scoff at these conventions; instead of migrating along a north–south trajectory, these birds move east–west. Among the more celebrated of such “misfits” is the Pied Cuckoo which shuttles east–west between northeast Africa to north and central India. However, there is a lesser-known bird that shows this kind of unconventional migration – the Spot-winged Starling (Saroglossa spiloptera).

This starling, formerly known as Spottedwinged Stare, is unfamiliar to birders from peninsular India because its distribution is limited to the sub-Himalayan and Himalayan region. Unlike mynas and most other starlings the Spot-winged Starling is sexually dimorphic: the male is a dark brownish-and-chestnut and the female is markedly paler. Both sexes sport a prominent white wing patch, giving the bird its name.

In the Western Himalaya the Spot-winged Starling appears in late spring, feeding at fruiting and flowering trees. Small groups are often seen guzzling nectar from the blossoms of trees such as the Indian Silk Cotton. The Spot-winged Starling usually chooses open forests at elevations near 1000 m in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for breeding. Birdwatchers have seen Spot-winged Starlings at roughly the same spot in successive years, suggesting that they may remain faithful to the same place year after year, but this remains to be verified.

Sightings become rarer in June and by July the bird virtually vacates its breeding quarters. This is the period when the Starlings are believed to make their eastward passage through Nepal and Sikkim. After this hopping flight of thousands of kilometres they set up their winter home in sub-Himalayan Assam at about 300 m elevation.

Why do they make this unusual journey? Why don’t they winter in the terai closer to their breeding grounds? Do they breed in areas in Central Himalayas? In their 1983 epic Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley have described the distribution of the Spot-winged Starling as “equivocal and imperfectly known”. Ornithologists haven’t added anything much beyond this and the status of this starling remains shrouded in mystery.

Have you seen this species? Where? Do add your sightings to the MigrantWatch database so that collectively we can better understand the migration of this odd species.

Here is the data page for Spot-winged Starling. At the time of writing, there were no records of this species in the database.

Manipal in winter

Wednesday, 28 December, 2011

By Ramit Singal

Ramit Singal is an engineering student studying in Manipal. He has been interested in birds ever since he was gifted Martin Woodcock’s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent about 10 years ago. Birding is now a serious hobby of his. He tries and devotes as much time to birds as possible and is trying hard to make birding an established hobby amongst students within his campus. He has been in Manipal for 2.5 years, and he (irregularly) maintains his journals at

Manipal is a small town located in the Udupi district of Karnataka, and situated quite favourably at an equal distance from the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west. Manipal is best known for its university, but it is also endowed with a diverse range of habitats and, as a direct consequence, a diverse population of birds. The area hosts nearly 190 species of birds, a good 40 of which are seen only during the winter months. However, not all of them are migrants that cross international borders, or are palaeartic – many are local migrants or those that breed in the northern plains but winter in the south (Eg. Blue-tailed Bee-eater).

In terms of migrants which are palaeartic – the number drops down slightly and becomes 30, still fairly impressive. This ’30’ includes all forms of birds – waders, warblers, raptors, etc but Manipal has thus far failed to attract any wintering waterfowl, despite suitable habitat being available.

While I will get down to the nitty-gritties of the species and the frequencies of their sightings later, I want to put down a few words regarding the habitats in Manipal. There are three main different types of birding locales in this small town, all within one kilometre of the other. One of the most productive is the man-made Manipal Lake – a waterbody that dries up on the shores just in time for incoming waders to reap the benefits of the now available mudflats and vegetation. Another – and my favourite site in the region – is the Eshwar Nagar woodlands. These are basically the forests of yore, of which only a few fragments remain – the rest being grasslands (what were old paddies) or cultivation. However, there is just about enough in the area to keep it going and flourishing as a birdwatching site. Lastly, and the only site with any tourism in Manipal – End Point. This region is the edge of the plateau between the ghats and coastal plains and comprises of scrubby laterite hillsides and secondary forests.

As the monsoons end in mid September and leave behind massive puddles in the laterite patches of End Point, the first waders – usually sandpipers and sand plovers are seen. They depart as soon as the water dries up, leaving behind the right habitat for the incoming flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks and other such birds – wagtails and pipits. The waders instead move on to the much wetter and much richer ecosystem of the Manipal Lake. Aggressive Ashy Drongos also start taking over every suitable perch possible. This is also the time when the open areas within forests get their first Brown Shrikes, which are noisiest at the start as they mark out their territories for the coming winter. By the time October’s first week ends, wintering and on-passage Brown Flycatchers, Bright Green and Greenish Warblers, Booted and Blyth’s Reed Warblers, and Barn Swallows can be seen anywhere – every garden and compound. The Bright Green Warblers (subspecies nitidus of the Greenish Warblers; but often considered a separate species) are the most common winter migrants in the region, closely followed by the Acrocephalus/Hippolais warblers and Ashy Drongos.

Amidst huge flocks of Chestnut-tailed Starlings, the Eshwar Nagar woodland throws up the most fascinating birds every now and then. Apart from the recent Broad-tailed Grassbird, the winters bring to it the odd Black-naped Oriole and varying populations of Oriental Turtle Doves. It also holds the largest numbers of Green(ish) Warblers and Blyth’s Reed Warblers – the latter probably because of the extra bit of moistness early morning :-). Almost 90% of all Brown Shrikes in Manipal winter in this patch and Marsh Harriers patrol the nearby paddyfields for the odd waders, crakes, and possibly Lesser Whistling Teals.

The open grassland and scrubby vegetation that the laterite hillsides of Manipal naturally provide are good areas for the Common Stonechat – a regular but scarce visitor, a status it shares with the Tree and Blyth’s Pipits – both of which are also found in similar habitats (although the Tree Pipit does like the presence of trees around it a lot more :-). As the sun rises, the Booted Eagles also rise up with it. The Common Kestrel is a rare winter migrant here, this is the right habitat to find one. All of these arrive post mid-October in general.

Due to human intervention, these same hillsides have been flattened at the top of End Point, but this move has put the habitat in good favour with passage flocks of over 500 Greater Short-toed Larks especially on return migration in February, as well as birds like the Grey-necked Bunting, which stayed for >3 weeks in Feb 2011, and Yellow and White Wagtails, the latter of which is the commonest wintering wagtail and is present in very good numbers from late November onwards. The Grey Wagtail is surprisingly rare, only seen around the discharge streams coming from the Manipal Lake. Manipal has several fields and grounds for sports that are used in the early mornings by birds. Their moist surface again brings together a few wagtails and waders – stints and Redshanks being especially fond of such habitats.

Speaking of man-made habitats, of note perhaps is the Peregrine Falcon (subspecies calidus) that stayed for a week in October 2009 and perched regularly on the boys’ hostels in the engineering college’s campus!

All in all, while the number of migrants may not be astounding, Manipal never fails to throw in a new surprise each winter. Its geographical location makes it an ideal place for getting the odd bird on passage between the extreme south and the west. All it really needs is more eyes to be on the lookout for any unusual sightings in its very varied landscape.

Here are links to Ramit’s MigrantWatch sightings and photographs.

Ousteri: Threatened Bird Area of Pondicherry

Thursday, 16 June, 2011

By Aju Mukhopadhyay

Born in Kolkata and settled in Pondicherry, Aju Mukhopadhyay is a bilingual poet, critic and author of fiction and essays. He has authored 28 books and received several awards for his work.

Usud-eri or Ousteri, as it is usually spelt, is the large water-body in Ossudu village, north of Kaveri River, some 10km from Pondicherry town. The tank, constructed during the Vijayanagara dynasty some 500 years ago, is connected through the Suthukanni channel to Gingee and Varaha Rivers. Once upon a time Ousteri would have some thousands of winged visitors during the full migratory season (between November and the beginning of February).

In 1995 the lake recorded some 20,000 birds and in 1998 it went up to 25,000 birds of 44 species (BNHS, 2004). In addition to residents like Little Cormorant and Common Coot, Cotton Teal, Spot-billed Pelican, Spoonbills, White Ibis; migratory species like the Eurasian Wigeon were recorded in large numbers (up to 4600 individuals!).Various species of ducks, herons, cormorants, hawks, kites, darters, terns, kingfishers, lapwings, flycatchers were abundant.

Ousteri Lake has been designated as one of the important wetlands of Asia by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Bombay Natural History Society has also nominated it as an Important Bird Area. The lake has also been declared as a bird sanctuary by Government of Pondicherry.

The lake, however, faces numerous threats. Dredging and de-silting by the authorities has caused removal of some useful weeds that the birds would nest on. Trees have been uprooted to make the spot suitable for a children’s park; only a few trees stand on the lakeside giving just a handful of tree-nesting birds the opportunity to breed here. The lake is also facing problems of poaching, fertilizer poisoning, plastic waste pollution and inflow of various other pollutants that also flow in from nearby manufactories. Motor and pedal boats regularly ply in the lake when the water level is sufficiently high and that also happens to be the bird season. A big hospital has been constructed nearby and a restaurant-cum-bar has grown ostentatiously.  Further urbanization, as has been proposed, around the lake will only add to the commotion and noise and additional pollution. Apathy and reluctance on the part of the authorities to run it as a real bird sanctuary are visible.

Although the Government declared it a bird sanctuary in 2008, no positive action was taken to match the declaration. The Government has formed a committee that will take suitable action and will look into rights of different individuals and groups around the lake. The authorities have assured us that all-out action will be taken to maintain the integrity of the lake as a bird sanctuary once all the formalities are over. We hope that the lake will see better days in the coming years.

The state of the Bahour Tank that lies north of Pennaiyar River, about 22 km south of Pondicherry is better as it has not been ‘developed’ for tourism.  As a matter of fact there is no indication anywhere to show that it is an Important Bird Area, either on the way or near the site. The water body was full when we visited it and we are told that more birds will visit it when the water levels go down. By March, however most of the water will be drained for irrigation. The field next to this tank is big and birds often congregate here. If this site is neglected it may get degraded and soon also become unsuitable for birds.

Nature and wilderness, whatever remains of it now, are being systematically destroyed in favour of commercialism, entertainment and so called tourism. If managed well these lakes could attract many keen bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts in addition to harbouring a fantastic collection of bird life.

References –

Important Bird Areas of India. 2004. BNHS, Mumbai. (pp. 833-837)


You can contact Aju Mukhopadhyay at ajum24[at]

You can view sightings from Ousteri Lake on the  MigrantWatch database.


Other related links –

Chari, S. & A. Abbasi. 2005. A study on the fish fauna of Oussudu – a rare freshwater lake of South India; International Journal of Environmental Studies; Volume 62, Issue 2, 2005, Pages 137 – 145

Chari, S. Abbasi, A. & S. Ganapathy (2003) Ecology, habitat and bird community structure at Oussudu Lake: towards a strategy for conservation and management; Aquatic Consevation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. Volume 13, Issue 5,  Pages 373–386.

The Destruction of Ousteri Lake

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]

On The Other Side of Migration

Monday, 3 August, 2009

On The Other Side of Migration
By Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi

Four months of meticulous notes on all the birds that I could see around my camp-site and my bird list was only EIGHTEEN! Winter months in the Trans-Himalayan region are a dream for the beginner bird-watcher. Unlike birding in the rainforest, where you are swamped by some 50-60 species who fly from tree to tree in an obvious attempt to make sure that you only get glimpses of them, birding in the Trans-Himalayas in the winter was a lot of fun. On the down-side it can get cold, very cold.

I study a mountain ungulate called the Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) in Spiti, Himtibetan-snow-finches-edachal Pradesh and on the side I watch and keep notes on birds – mostly opportunistic sightings. For instance, once on a cold February morning when I opened the door to my base-camp I had a flock of Tibetan Snow-Finches rushing inside. I won’t blame them – it was -35° Celsius outside.

The Trans-Himalayas are not a great place for birds to hang out in the winter – and the species counts in winters hover around a twenty-two or so. But as spring approaches the place starts to change in more than one way. I had a chance to witness this winter to spring transformation in Spiti last year.

My first taste of spring was rather unpleasant – a fruit fly in my soup. The first obvious sign of approaching spring was not the appearance of any bird but actually the disappearance of one – the Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris). As the days started to get warmer the Alpine Accentor disappeared from vicinity of the camp, but I kept seeing it higher up in the mountains at about 5000m till 1 March and that was the last I saw of the bird that winter.

grey-wagtail-edMy first real spring bird sighting was on 8 March when I went to the village of Kibber (4200m) to restock the camp provisions. There are two willow trees in the center of the village. As I walked past them I heard the familiar chirp of a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The common house sparrow migrates to lower altitudes during winter. Later in the day, as I was passing by a half-frozen stream that cuts across the village I was warmly greeted by the sharp Chi-chee-Chi-chee of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). A week later on 16 March I heard the village kids running around the camp shouting kakche-kakche; crow!!! But why were the kids so excited about the Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)? Later, I found out that traditionally the crow is seen as a sign of the arrival of spring. I guess the White Wagtail and Sparrows are too small for them to notice or perhaps the early arrival of White Wagtail and Sparrow is a recent phenomenon.

Of all the species that were going to arrive with spring I was most excited about the Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochrurus). This was the first migratory bird that I learned to identify. But I had to wait a bit longer. On 23 March I saw a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) sitting in a snow-hole as if it was just emerging out of winter hibernation den. A few other altitudinal migrants such as the European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and Fire-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus) arrived in the first week of April. On 8 April came the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). Unfortunately, I then had to return to the plains before the first Black Redstart arrived. Later a friend told me that they arrived on 6 May.


I was back in Spiti in September and I knew this time I would get to see who leaves when. But before they all flew off again I had some good sightings. First it was a Eurasian Sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus) hunting a Black Redstart, then a I saw a Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) on the streets of Kaza (3800m) and finally a Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) at 4400m. Meanwhile the Bluethroat (Luscina svecica) paid a transit visit.

And then it was time for the goodbyes. My last sighting of the Grey Wagtail that year was on 25 September. It had snowed some two feet that night but the morning was bright and the wagtail hopped around on the snow. The Black Redstarts were gone by the 15 October. October 21 was the last time I saw the White Wagtail that winter and by then the night temperature was already down to -5° Celsius. And then I was once more with my faithful eighteen friends.


The winter residents:
Golden Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeier, Red-billed Chough, Yellow-billed Chough, Raven, Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Plain Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snow Finch, Alpine Accentor, Brown Accentor, Robin Accentor, White-winged Redstart, Great Rosefinch, Hill Pigeon, Himalayan Snowcock, Horned Lark, Wallcreeper