Three birds that checked into Chennai and stayed on – The Hindu

Chennai News

The fulvous whistling duck, the Asian pied starling and the Bengal weaver are the latest pin-ups for range expansion in these parts. Find out when and where they fell head over claws in love with the city

It seemed a bad fit; the choice of habitat raised ornithological eyebrows. There was even an acute sense of being let down, as the news of Bengal weaver (Ploceus benghalensis) sightings out of the species’ range had whipped up a jumbo-sized expectation. Obviously, there is always a wee bit more going on in those tiny birdbrains than all the ornithologists put together can figure out.

This was in January 2015, by which time reports of Bengal weaver sightings in and around Chennai made the hottest birding topic. Ornithologist V Santharam had joined with eBird reviewer Gnanaskandan Keshavabharathi and the duo along with two other birders headed to Nayapakkam in Thiruvallur district. In those early days, Nayapakkam Eri promised a sure-fire Bengal weaver sighting.

At the waterbody, the bird was waiting to hold court, and recalling his first impressions, Santharam says “When I saw the habitat, I was quite struck, because that kind of lake is all over Chengalpet district — waterbodies with some kind of coarse grass growing in them. It did not look attractive for birding. In the past, we had gone to such places and not seen much, and we were surprised to note that this is the kind of habitat used by this bird. The streaked weaver is drawn to typha, and the Bengal weaver seems to be drawn to more open, less dense vegetation. The shape of the Bengal weaver’s nest is different from the Baya weaver’s and it is not built on tall trees, but on shrubs and even grasses. At Nayapakkam, we saw an abandoned nest. Though it may not be common, the Bengal weaver is being seen in many places.” Gnanaskandan remarks that the species is all over Chennai region.

Pied Mynah: Making its presence felt

The first recoded sighting of the Asian pied starling near Chennai is from August 2010 when Gnanaskandan Keshavabharathi and his birder-friends documented the species near the Poondi reservoir. Three years ago, the routine followed a pair of pied mynahs — as the Asian pied starling is also called — at the Ram Nagar swamps (Madipakkam) — an informal name given to water-filled vacant spaces — was much studied. The credit for documenting the movements and even their love life goes to birder Aravind AM who would say unfailingly his howdy to the pair during his morning walk every day. Other pied mynahs successfully stole the spotlight from this famous pair, as the latter soon began to put in more than an appearance in other parts of Chennai, notably at Kamakotti Nagar in Pallikaranai where birder Sundaravel Palanivel was documenting the birds’ increase. Gnanaskandan Keshavabharathi, eBird reviewer, notes that the species is regularly seen at Karapakkam, and also logs in at many parts of north Chennai, and in Thiruvallur district. He puts it down as much to the increase in the number of birders in these parts as to a spurt in pied mynah numbers. Gnanaskandan points out that Thiruvallur is the immediate door these birds would have to push open as they expand their range into Chennai, its surroundings and further south. Ornithologist V Santharam notes: “The previous outer limits of the Asian pied starling’s range was the Krishna river. Now, it is also being reported from southern Andhra Pradesh. The first time I saw the Asian pied starling, I was on a train headed for Orissa. It was early morning and the train just crossed Krishna river and was entering the Vijayawada station, and there I saw the pied mynah for the first time.” The much-studied pair of pied mynahs at Madipakkam would never miss rummaging in the trash found in an open plot. Gnanaskandan explains that poking around in garbage is a typical starling behaviour. “The biggest flock of rosy starlings I have ever seen has been at the dump section of Pallikaranai.”

Fulvous whistling duck: Putting a cousin in the shade

Unlike the Bengal weaver and the Asian pied starling, which have been clawing their way through Andhra, before checking into Chennai and advancing into the further reaches of the south, the Fulvous whistling duck’s range expansion does not follow a clear-cut geographical progression. Ornithologist V Santharam explains: “In south India, it was always reported, but nobody knew how common it was. Professor KK Neelakantan was on the lookout for it; he said he had once seen it in Kerala and he even mentioned it in one of the books he authored. But it was definitely not very common in south India those days, even after making allowance for the possibility that it could be mistaken for the lesser whistling duck. If you look at its distribution, you would see that it is fairly widespread — it is found in different countries and different continents. It is found in North America, south-east Asia and Kolkata was one of the places where they used to see large numbers of this species. In India’s north-east, it is fairly common.” And we can add Chennai to the list.

The bird was first sighted and documented in Chennai in July 2009, by eBird reviewer Gnanaskandan Keshavabharathi when he was birding in Pallikaranai Marsh along with a birder-friend. “There was a flock of seven birds when we first sighted the species at Pallikaranai in July 2009; and in the next few months, we started seeing big flocks. In the Sholinganallur IT SEZ, in 2011, we found evidence of the fulvous whistling duck breeding in Chennai,” says Gnanaskandan, adding that the Fulvous whistling duck has now put the lesser whistling duck in the shade, in Chennai, being found in plentiful numbers. “In contrast, lesser whistling duck sightings have become sporadic,” remarks Gnanaskandan. “The fulvous whistling duck has pushed its way up to Madurai.”