Birds of the Kumaun Himalayas


It is not an overstatement to claim that the Indian subcontinent is a creation of the Himalayas. As a barrier, it has protected this landmass from being encroached upon by the cold northern deserts, and has nourished it by harnessing the potential of the Monsoon winds. The rivers that flow down it has, over the years, created a vast plain which supports at east a 10th of the world’s population.

But this post is about the winged little beauties that the lower Himalayas support. From Pangot in Uttarakhand to Eagle Nest in Arunachal Pradesh, the thick forests that carpet these slopes make some of the most diverse bird habitats in the world. Couple of months back the girlfriend and I took some time off and trudged up the pugdundees to the wonderfully secluded Jilling Estates in the Kumaon Himalayas. The aim was to spend as much time as possible far from the ‘civilised world’ and of course look for birds.

One of the most common birds in these parts is the  green-backed tit (Parus monticolus). One colourful individual had his eye on a hole in an apple tree right in front of the bungalow we were staying in. Unfortunately, a pair of Russet sparrows (Passer rutilans) had already moved in. Not willing to give in without a fight, the tiny tit tried its best to dislodge the sparrows and failed. Undeterred by this failure, the tit returned every morning, only to be driven off.

The hills around the cottage were also home to quite a few verditer flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus). Electric blue, with an almost zorro-like black mask around the eyes, they appear as mere blue streaks darting through the foliage.  Thanks to my utterly slow lens, photographing an individual up close (or any other bird for that matter) is next to impossible. These are what I managed to shoot:

The biggest surprise at Jilling was how the birds seem to come to you, right at the doorstep. One morning, I looked up from my thriller to find two black eagles riding the thermals right above the bungalow. I ran inside to grab my camera, determined not to miss the eagles like i missed the red-billed leiothrix earlier that very morning. Fortunately as I reappeared, lens in hand, the eagles were still airborne and I managed to get a few shots off before they disappeared over the ridge, graceful in flight.

The bird I had the most fun chasing after was the flamboyant Indian black-lored tit (Parus aplonotus). Bright yellow, with a kohl-black streak down its breast, this bird carries around a large crest, not unlike Jim Carrey’s character in the Ace Ventura film series. The first couple of days at Jilling I could see them darting around the apple orchard… never still, never resting.  Eventually i did run into a rather restive individual who did not complain as I got close to him. If only all other birds shared this one’s virtues….

To be honest, I am better at spotting birds in the jungle than shooting them. I am still honing my skills at being a photographer of birds, but I am limited by my equipment. So here’s a look at the other birds I managed to shoot while at Jilling.

For every bird I shot, four got away. If you love birds but love the mountains even more, you must go to Jilling. I wish I never came back!

Bharatpur 2013


Something remarkable has happened over the last year and a half. Due to reasons I cannot explain properly, I have found myself drawn to one of nature’s best creations – birds. Over the last year or so, i joined online groups, went for birding walks, bought books and read them from cover to cover. I really surprised myself when i started waking up before sunrise on weekends to go for birding walks.

The timing could not be better. My eight year old Nikon D80 was in its dying days and it was time to upgrade. So i invested in the brand new Nikon D7100 and the Sigma 50-500 OS HSM telephoto lens. Now that I have read the books, shot some birds in my garden and in and around Delhi, it was time to take a trip to that Mecca birders call Bharatpur.

Last time I went to Bharatpur was over two and a half years back. Back then I could not tell the Sarus crane from the Painted Stork. But now i can do just that. Not much else. Bharatpur was in a bad shape in the February of 2011 when i was last there. The water levels were almost at an all-time low. Feral cattle had taken over most of the pastures. Politicians were , well politicing on the much needed water and the whole thing was a big, big mess. Fortunately, the water issues have been resolved. Now water will come in from Chambal as well as from a dam nearby in Rajasthan. The canals were full and so were the marshes. When I went in the beginning of November, the numbers of migratory birds were not large but i think if they can maintain the water levels for a few more years, the numbers will steadily increase.

THE HABITAT

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It was the first day of the boat rides. The water was quiet and quite spectacular
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The channel opens up on the main swamp, which is guarded by a flock of fierce and fearless cattle egrets
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Other people
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Still waters
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This algae turns red around February. Even more spectacular
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View of the heronry from the watchtower
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Perfect habitat for munias
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One of Bharatpur’s many tree tunnels
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Another swamp from another watch-tower. Hendrix was playing on my headphones. Guess the track 😛
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I check out some nilgais. They reciprocate
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Stranded tree
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Mirror-like water
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Quiet little corner
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Marooned Nilgai

THE GUIDE

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In the numerous recent Delhibird walks, I met Mr Ajay Maira who was kind enough to point me in the direction of one Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917). I was with him from sunrise to sunset for three days and not for a moment did the smile fade from his face. He knew his birds, drove the rickshaw at a languid pace and was quick with a joke.  I cannot recommend him enough.

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Bachchoo Singh
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Finds me Sarus cranes to shoot then goes to fetch his rickshaw

THE BIRDS (and some amphibians, reptiles and mammals)

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I think it is safe to say that I am more of a photographer than a birder. Apart from a handful of birds that I could identify (sarus cranes, painted storks and a few others :P), i was dependent on my field guide and of course, on Bachchoo Singh. I could have really used a tripod though. The camera and the lens together weigh close to 3kgs and getting the frame right was a challenge, especially at 500 mm. Anyway, here’s what came out of the trip:

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Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant (Centropus sinensis)
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Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) – not the best of shots, but i love this one
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‘What have you got there? Is it for me?’
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Portrait of a bee-eater
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A slightly cock-eyed White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) also known as the White-breasted Kingfisher
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Woolly-necked Stork, Bishop Stork or White-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus)
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Painted stork with chicks. The mothers open their wings thus to protect the chicks from direct sunlight. In this case the mother clearly does not know where the sun is. Or maybe she is just sunning herself.
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Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata)

I love munias especially so because due to their small size and the constant state of motion they are in, they are extremely difficult to photograph. On this trip, i also saw a few Red Avadavats or the Red Munias but could not photograph them. A couple of silverbills did pose for me.

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The Indian Silverbill or White-throated Munia (Lonchura malabarica)
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Cosying up
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One comes closer
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I wish this was a better shot.
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Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia)
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The resident Comb Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos), males
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The Himalayan, or the White-cheeked Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
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Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), male
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Shikra (Accipiter badius). About the size of a small crow, it is one of my favourite birds of prey. Packs way too much punch for its size. I have seen it chase off Oriental Honey Buzzards with are about four times the Shikra’s size.
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Shikra, this time viewed from the back
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Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), also called the jal-mor (water peacock) in Hindi on account of its stunning colour
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A male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was kind enough to pose for me

House sparrows which we have seen all around us are undergoing an alarming decline in numbers, especially in human-inhabited ares due to human activities. Read this to know more about the decline and how you can help.

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The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
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Portrait of a Great Egret (Ardea alba)
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Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), back view
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Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), front view
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Was stalking this Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) for over 45 minutes in very bad light conditions hoping for a record shot. Just when i had my lens trained on it, it decided to fly. This is what came of it
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Finally the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) decides to sit so i could get off some shots
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Why did the chicken cross the road? Ask the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
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Common Babbler (Turdoides caudata)
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Oh the colours – Back view of White-breasted Kingfisher
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Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as Chandana. Popularly also referred to as Mithoo
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Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) male
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Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) or Mahratta woodpecker, female
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Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) female. It is known in Bengali as ‘Moutushi’
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A male Pied Bush Chat (Saxicola caprata
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Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
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Oriental Darter or Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster ). Also known as the snakebird on account of its serpentine neck
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A snakebird, or the Indian Darter pokes its head out of the water while hunting
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A group of great cormorants strike a pose
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Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) keeps an eye on the surroundings
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Just before some poor fish gave its life
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Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), flying away
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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shares its hunting spot with an Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
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Grey heron with neck retracted
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Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ as it is known in Bangla. Also, the national bird of Bangladesh
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Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ female
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Another one. I love these birds
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Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
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A bunch of pretty ladies. A brood of Purple Swamphens
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Hoopoe, pronounced huːpu (Upupa epops). Looks like a woodpecker, but isn’t one
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Portrait of a Hoopoe
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A baby python sunning itself
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Could have lost it in all the vegetation
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A water snake, at a water hole
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A monitor lizard
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Close-up of the monitor lizard’s head
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In Bengali, we call these fish ‘Shole’. Tastes great in a coriander based jhol (gravy)
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Chance encounter with a pair of male nilgais
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Another male Nilgai.
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Nilgai female with calf. So beautiful!
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Close encounters of the blue kind
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Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) or Indian pond terrapin
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A beautiful little butterfly
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And a beautiful little lizard

In the three days that i spent inside Keoladeo National Park, two sightings stand out. The first was a creature I had seen a lot as a child growing up in north Bengal (for images of north Bengal, or Dooars as it is better known see this, this, this and this). The sun had just come out and i was walking beside Bachchoo Singh, trying to shoot a pair of grey headed canary flycatchers. Suddenly this black shape slithers out of the grass on the left side of the road. It was a common cobra. The same creature that almost left me fatherless, but that is a story for another day. As i drew closer, it showed absolutely no sign of fear and started to cross the road.

I could tell that it had just molted and the scales were shining in the morning sun like thousands of little amethysts. I probably got a little too close when without warning, it spread its hood. I was fortunate to get the perfect light and just had time to get off a few shots. here are the results:

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Eyes glinting in the sun
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Close look at the skin
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When you see this, back off
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last shot before it slithers back into the thicket

Now the second encounter: Sarus cranes. I have been an admirer of these beautiful birds for years now. Even before i got into birding. So far, I have always viewed them from a considerable distance, at Sultanpur and Basai. This time,however, i was determined to observe them from up close.

On the first and second days at Bharatpur I heard their calls numerous times, saw them fly past and watched them for hours again from a distance. So I decided to devote my third and last day entirely to these most elegant of birds. As we entered the park at 6:30 am on a chilly November morning, we headed straight to the grasslands by the painted stork colony where they usually spend the mornings. Sure enough, there was a couple there, but again, at a considerable distance.

There were three other pairs in the general area and they were taking turns answering each others calls. On Bachchoo Singh’s advice, i started following one of the distant calls along one of the trails branching off from the main road into the sanctuary. I walked for some 3 kms and with every step the call kept getting closer and closer. Then i turned left and BAM! there was a crane barely 30 feet from the trail. It took me the better part of five minutes to actually register what I was seeing. It was a female and she was so close that i did not have to employ the 500 mm end of my lens. The light was perfect too! The first shot below is from the original couple i viewed from a distance. The rest are from the close encounter.

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Responding to a call
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Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Grus Antigone
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The ballerina
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Spreading her wings. I was late with the shot here
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In her habitat

Thus ended a most satisfying trip to the paradise for birders. Here’s hoping that the water levels remain true and the bird numbers remain large. Also it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of Siberian cranes re-visited their old haunt.

Here’s to high hopes.

SPECIES SEEN

1. Black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) Resident, Breeds

2. Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) Resident, Breeds, very common

3. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Resident Common

4. Lesser Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica) Resident Common

5. Greylag Goose (Anser anser) Migratory, very common

6. Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) Resident, common

7. Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) Resident, common

8. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Migratory, very common

9. Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) Migratory, very common

10. Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) Migrant, common

11. Brown-capped Woodpecker (Dendrocopos nanus) Resident

12. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) Resident

13. Back-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense) resident, breeds

14. Indian Grey-Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) resident, breeds

15. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) Resident and migrant

16. Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) Resident, common

17. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) common resident

18. White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) resident, very common

19. Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) LM, U

20. Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) Resident common

21. Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) passage migrant

22. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) R,O

23. Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) R,C

24. Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) R,C

25. Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) R,O

26. Dusky Eagle-Owl (Bubo coromandus) R,C

27. Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) R,C

28. Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) R,C

29. Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) R,C

30. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) LM,U

31. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) R,C

32. Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) R,C

33. Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) Resident, breeds, common

34. White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) Resident, very common

35. Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) breeds

36. Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) R,C

37. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) RM,C

38. Common Coot (Fulica atra) very common migrant

39. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) M,C

40. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) M,O

41. Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus) R,C

42. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) LM,C

43. Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) LM,U

44. Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus) ?

45. Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) R,C

46. Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) Migrant uncommon

47. Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) R,C

48. Black Kite (Milvus migrans) R,U

49. Crested Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis cheela) LM,C

50. Eurasian Marsh-Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) M,C

51. Shikra (Accipiter badius) R,C

52. Oriental Hobby (Falco severus) M,U

53. Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) R,C

54. Little Cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger) R,C

55. Indian cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) R,C

56. Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) R,C

57. Little egret (Egretta garzetta) R,C

58. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) R,C

59. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) R,C

60. Great egret (Casmerodius albus) R,C

61. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia) R,C

62. Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) R,C

63. Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) R,C

64. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) R,C

65. Little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) LM,U

66. Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) LM,O

67. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) LM,C

68. Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus) R,C

69. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia Linnaeus) RC,O

70. Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) R,C breeds in large numbers

71. Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) R,C, breeds

72. Wooly-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus) R,C, breeds

73. White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) M,U

74. Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) R,C

75. Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) M,U

76. Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) R,C

77. Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) LM,C

78. Rufous Treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) R,C

79. House Crow (Corvus splendens) R,C

80. Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) R,C

81. Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) BM,O

82. Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) LM,O

83. Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) R,C

84. Common Woodshrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) R,C

85. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) M,U

86. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) R,C

87. Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) R,C

88. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) M,C

89. Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) R,O

90. Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata) R,C

91. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea) LM,U

92. Indian or Brown Rock Chat (Cercomela fusca) R,C

93. Brahminy Starling (Sturnus pagodarum) R,C

94. Rosy Starling (Sturnus roseus) M,O

95. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) M,O

96. Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) R,C

97. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) R,C

98. Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus) R,O

99. White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) R,C

100. Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) R,C

101. Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis) R,O

102. Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) R,C

103. Oriental White-Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus) R,O

104. Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) R,C

105. Common Babbler (Turdoides caudatus) R,C

106. Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striatus) R,C

107. Purple Sunbird (Nectarinia asiatica) R,C

108. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) M,O

109. Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava) R,C

110. Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica) R,C

Symbols used(in alphabetic order).

? = status or source or occurrence unknown or doubtful

C = Common

Evans = Bharatpur Bird Paradise by Martin Evans

HA = Checklist by Humayun Abdulali and Pandey

Handbook = Salim Ali & S.D. Ripley’s Compact Handbook

LM = Local Migrant

O = Occasional

PM = Passage Migrant

R = Resident

SM = Summer Migrant

U = Uncommon

VSS = Flora and Fauna by V.S. Saxena

VSV =VSVijayan(BNHS publications or Ramsar site booklet)

WM = Winter Migrant(Migratory in the list usually refers to this category)