Thursday, March 31, 2022

An Omicron Interlude

 Waters of Life took a small hit. Somewhere in late February I was jumped by a virus. Came and went like a normal cold. However, as weeks went by I was finding myself afflicted by unusual symptoms. 

Severe back ache, heel pain, exhaustion by the end of the day, overwhelming sleepiness and much more. I realize, I'd been kissed by Omicron. 

My heel still hurts but the back is better. I couldn't sit on my worktable too long and so I was forced to abandon my typing and editing. 

Things are improving now and hopefully by the next week I should be able to revive the grebe story.

See you soon

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Waters of life (Part 3) - The Little Grebes (Episode 1)

One lockdown passed by quickly and another followed in 2021 but lessons learnt in the previous year made me a little bolder and more inquisitive. 

A bereavement in the family meant I was again stepping out regularly despite the restrictions and I had many an opportunity to stop at the pond where I had seen the whistling duck and jacanas raise a family. 

13th to 17th June, 2021

 My old friends were there. The whistling ducks, jacanas and a pair of Eurasian moorhens already seemed to be busy courting again. The onset of the monsoon had set the mood and it was time for romance under the rain. If Raj Kapoor were alive, he'd have material for a movie!

Lesser whistling ducks

Bronze-winged jacana

Eurasian moorhens courting

In another corner of the pond a slight movement caught my eye. On a mound of vegetation, natural or created, I didn't know; there was some frenzied activity going on. Two little grebes were preparing to start a family. This, then, was going to be an unforgettable monsoon for me!

Little grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis) or dabchicks are, as their name suggests, little. Being the smallest species of the grebe family, they are around 10 inches from the tip of their bills to the virtually non-existent tail. Found in open water bodies with vegetation, they are plump little birds always busy swimming around, diving underwater in pursuit of food and then surfacing a considerable distance away. 
Dive ready





Back again!

They are designed for swimming and diving. Their short legs are placed far behind on their bodies and therefore they are not good for walking but make their mobility in water effortlessly excellent. While they are well adapted for a life in water, they are reluctant to use their wings. Even if alarmed, they will dive and re-surface at another part of the waterbody instead of flying. To take off, like many water birds, they need a running start and once airborne they can fly for reasonably long distances. This option is used when they migrate between waterbodies. 

Little grebe - nest building

They build nests on a raised or floating platform of aquatic plants and weeds that are anchored to the reeds or underlying plants. These nests are usually located at the edges of the waterbody and during nest building, more than one site maybe worked upon, before one of them is finalized for egg laying. A nest, floating or otherwise, will be about half a meter in diameter and few inches high. 

When I saw my pair of grebes the first time I wasn't sure if the eggs were already laid. They were busy bringing weeds and packing the nest's edges. Some bits were being used to line the central part. Whether it was part of ongoing nest construction or to conceal the eggs, I didn't know. Grebes usually cover the eggs with vegetation before leaving to forage. Perhaps, there were eggs that I couldn't see. One or the other was getting onto the nest and lying on it. That indicated to me that incubation was going on.

Your turn darling!

In the last photograph above, the whitish things seen at the top edge of the nest seemed to be the eggs. I wasn't sure but the behaviour of the pair seemed to suggest that it was incubation stage in progress.

Meanwhile the moorhens were also busy courting and one of them also seemed to be in a nest. 

Moorhen in nest

However, both of them seemed prone to spend more time outside the nest than on it. They were busy all around the pond, not just in the vicinity of the nest. Maybe the eggs weren't laid yet.

Last year's survivor was also in the pond, looking rather forlorn as any attempt to get close to the adult birds resulted in a rather stern response from the parents. 

Immature moorhen

All this mattered little to the grebes. They had a family to bring up so they were busy taking turns at the nest. Either of them would make forays into the water to collect fresh material for the nest.

Even if they did leave the nest, it wasn't for very long and never too far from it. 

They were back quickly to resume the task of incubation. 

I knew that I wouldn't have to wait very long. Average incubation period for little grebes are about three weeks or slightly more and if the eggs had been laid few days before I discovered this pair, I would see my first chicks very soon. It was just a matter of patience and dear reader, that goes for you too. 

The eggs will hatch in the next episode! 

Meanwhile, enjoy this video!

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Waters of Life (Part 2) - The Survivors

October 2020

The first lockdown with a very strong monsoon in 2020 pretty much ensured that any exploratory intentions I had was drowned in the deluge. Not wanting to get my gear wet and also the desire to avoid confrontations with the keepers of the law, I didn't move out much after that preliminary trip in July. By October the intensity of the lockdown was relaxed a bit and restrictions on movement was also not being imposed too strictly. As the monsoon was on the wane I decided that my exploratory trips could restart. How much difference a three month gap makes to life in a pond was revealed to me then!

Malampuzha reservoir was brimming and most water bodies were full. Migrants had already reached in expected places but Malampuzha was proving to be a disappointment for the ducks and snipes as the water levels had not started receding. However the ponds were teeming with new life. 

Common kingfisher

Eurasian moorhen

When, I returned to the Polpully pond, I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. The whistling ducks had a family! 

Lesser whistling ducks

The adults were escorting two 'zebra' costumed chicks. It appeared that they were the only surviving  chicks from a larger brood. The parents were on high alert looking skyward when a kite took a glide that seemed too close for comfort. It seemed that the threat wasn't only from the air but also from neighbours!

In the middle of foraging, one of the pair suddenly took off and landed in the middle of three other ducks which seemed to have swam too near the chicks.

The intruders, taken by surprise at the intensity of the attack, scattered in all directions.

The scuffle finished as quickly as it started but the provocation for the attack was a mystery to me. Were the parents under the impression that the approaching ducks were a threat to the two chicks? Did the strangers have any malafide intentions, perhaps kidnapping the chicks? I couldn't quite figure out the reason for the unprovoked threat display. 

Within seconds, all was calm and the chicks and parents continued foraging again as though nothing happened.

I hoped that the two chicks would survive in that tough environment. While researching about chick survival rate, I was surprised that there is scanty information specific to this species. From available information (link here) and other sites it seems that the number of eggs laid is on the higher side (8 to 14) and this is probably to offset the low chick survival rates. 

The chicks in this location were probably vulnerable to predation as starvation in this pond seemed unlikely. There were kites, serpent eagles, herons, snakes and turtles sharing space around the same pond with the ducks. It was therefore quite possible that the other chicks, who seem to have a tendency to wander off , may have fallen prey to one of them.  

The pond was also home to a family of bronze-winged jacanas who also had a juvenile with them. The young bird would have also been a Survivor as the usual clutch for this species is 3 to 4 eggs. 

Bronze-winged jacana

Bronze-winged jacana juvenile

The Survivor

Monsoon in the pond seems an interesting period and the activity in the pond should be worth watching. Three different species were seen courting and two had raised families in the monsoon season. There were other birds around the pond and as long as the habitat remained undisturbed there would be surprises in the coming seasons!

This is the second post in the series, 'Waters of Life'. The first part is here.