Friday 28 January 2011

Marievale, Johannesburg, South Africa

Marievale is much bigger than Rondebult (the reserve featured in the previous post) and the expanses of water are up to 20 or 30 times wider. This gives more scope for open water species, but there are still a few small patches that would rival Rondebult for intimacy.
It took nearly an hour to drive between the two reserves because I had to keep stopping to look at Amur Falcons and to scan the agricultural areas on the approach to Marievale (approaching from the east to Google Earth ref; 26° 21” 49’S 28° 30” 28’E). The long grass beside the road and across the fields held Long-tailed Widowbirds and the ubiquitous Red and Yellow-crowned Bishops.
There has been a lot of rain recently which has made the reserve difficult to navigate. The roads here are unmade and pass through a marsh. Deep puddles left me unsure how far to push my luck and my two wheel drive sedan, so I just kept pushing until I wished that I hadn’t. The rank grass and sedges either side of the road were flooded attracting lots of ducks and herons away from the open water. White-faced Ducks and the large Spur-winged Goose could be easily seen, but most of the others were lost in the long grass. A flock of Ruff only became apparent when they took flight. A Goliath Heron on the road stood out well enough. It tried to take off, but struggled to lift its massive bulk. At the third attempt, it managed to get airborne and dropped over the reeds and out of sight.
The Red Bishops returned to bathe in a puddle after I had passed through it, so I got out of the car and sat in the trunk for a while taking pictures. The puddle was quite big and a good close up was hard to get. The birds flew if I tried to approach them on foot, so I got back into the car. It was at this point that I realised that I had locked the keys in the trunk. I was rueing my Devil may care bravado on the flooded roads and doubting that anyone else would be stupid enough to attempt to get this far.
A first sweep of the inside did not reveal a boot release switch, but luckily I found one at the third attempt by inverting myself in the driver’s seat. Embarrassed and upside down, but relieved, I took this as a portent to move back to drier, safer ground. Even the Shelduck hide was flooded so I retreated back to the tarmac of the approach road. Whiskered Terns were feeding a couple of youngsters and I found a Black Crake at last.
 From the Otter hide, I found an African Reed Warbler. They are said to be co-operative breeders which would fit with what I saw this afternoon. On both other occasions my sightings were of multiple birds. This one was very co-operative and flitted through the rank vegetation seemingly unabashed by the clicking camera.
Despite only a small part of the reserve being accessible, quite a few birds popped their heads up to be noted. If only to see which fool had ventured this far in, a Little Bittern looked out from his reedy haunt, but his camouflage rather let him down today.
I have visited Marievale before and a more detailed accounts can be found on the dedicated Africa page; also carry a good account along with many others for the region.

Bird Species; 53

Little Grebe 2, African Darter 2, Black-headed Heron 2, Goliath Heron 1, Black Heron 3, Intermediate Egret 3, Western Cattle Egret 6, Squacco Heron 3, Little Bittern 2, Hadada Ibis 6, Glossy Ibis 8, White-faced Whistling-Duck 10, Egyptian Goose 4, Spur-winged Goose 3, Yellow-billed Duck 20, Red-billed Teal 1, Hottentot Teal 1, Black-shouldered Kite 5, Amur Falcon 30, Swainson’s Francolin 1, Helmeted Guineafowl 3, Black Crake 1, African Swamphen 2, Common Moorhen 8, Red-knobbed Coot 200, Blacksmith Lapwing 12, Three-banded Plover 3, Ruff 40, Red-eyed Dove 6, Ring-necked Dove 15, Laughing Dove 8, Little Swift 8, Red-faced Mousebird 4,Crested Barbet 1, Plain Martin 30, European Swallow 80, Greater Striped Swallow 10, Cape wagtail 3, Common Bulbul 2, Common Stonechat 12, Levaillant’s Cisticola 5, Zitting Cisticola 4, African Reed-warbler 10, Common Fiscal 4, Common Myna 4, Cape Glossy Starling 2, Mossie 4, Southern Masked-weaver 40, Red Bishop 25, Yellow-crowned Bishop 40, Long-tailed Widowbird 15, Black-throated Canary 8, Yellow-fronted Canary 1.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Rondebult, Johannesburg, South Africa

You may question my motives for visiting Rondebult Bird Sanctuary when the wonderful reserve at Marievale is so close. Both are wetlands to the south-east of Johannesburg with extensive reed beds and similar species lists, but each has their own appeal. Rondebult for example is much smaller and therefore much more intimate than Marievale. Small patches of water among the reeds are each served by their own hide and the birdy action usually happens within easy reach of a decent telephoto lens. For a photographer, Rondebult can be very productive, but there weren’t any today, only me.

I collected keys to the hides from the security post (more accurately, a lady with headphones audible over the traffic, dozing in the shade) and proceeded into a small grassed area planted with trees. Domesticated geese and peacocks shared the lawns with Kurrichane Thrush and African Hoopoe. Large-billed Weavers mixed with Common Bulbuls in the trees.

At the first hide, the key fob matched the colour of the security gate that ensured exclusivity for bird watchers. Each hide was furnished with a gate and a separate key. The colour co-ordination was only coincidental on the first gate and I had to resort to trial and error for the others. In a country where personal security is a full-time consideration (and at a site where the security lady was deaf and asleep), being able to lock myself into a hide made for a very relaxing stay. I assume that there is more than one set of keys in case 2 birders have seperate agendas.
A small island in front of the hide held a family of Blacksmith Lapwings, Cape Sparrow and a Black Heron fishing with its characteristic umbrella technique which shades the water reflections and enables it to see its prey more easily.

The second hide was very close and looked out onto the same body of water. In the reeds, a Large-billed Weaver appeared to be trying to tie three stalks together as a base for its “finely woven oval nest” (Hugh Chittenden, Roberts Field Guide 2007). This nest is built by the male. The females’ involvement is limited to the soft interior furnishings. I assume therefore that this is a precocious immature male which looks very like the female until he attains his adult plumage.
Out on the water, Red-knobbed Coots were the most populous bird with Egyptian Goose and Dabchick adding a little variety.

The most conspicuous birds were the colourful weavers. Southern Masked Weavers, Southern Red Bishops and Yellow-crowned Bishops are obvious and abundant near any water during the austral summer.
Rondebult provides them with everything that they need; reeds and water, therefore a constant chizzing and wheezing of performing males provided the sound track for the morning. The third hide opened onto a tract of long grass before the water. Weavers were collecting seed heads and carrying them away rather than feeding on them there and then, so the assumption here is that this female Southern Masked Weaver had selected a likely male and was lining his nest.
But even the combined colonies of gregarious weavers were outnumbered by a large roost of European Swallows in the reeds opposite the fourth hide. I guessed at about 200-300 until something disturbed them and the hirundine cloud that erupted from the reeds must have numbered 1000+. A Little Bittern went up with them and ‘quarked’ across the water to hide further along.

A couple of ducks dropped in for a quick visit. The Red-billed Teal swam out of sight around the corner while the Fulvous Whistling-Duck took one look and was gone.
I left the remaining hides until my next visit. I had arrived at 10.00 and had lost myself to the day very quickly. Since Marievale was so close, it seemed the perfect opportunity to compare them under the same conditions. Neither would really get a good chance to shine during the heat of the day, but such is the lot of a birder who must conform to airline schedules (my plane had not landed until 08.30 and I had been very lucky to disembark, hire a car and get into a hide by 10.00. The airport is south-east of Johannesburg and our hotel is to the north of the city. It makes sense and saves time and mileage to bird the reserves to the south straight from the flight).

Bird species; 41

Southern Ostrich 2, Little Grebe 2, Long-tailed Cormorant 6, Black Heron 2, Cattle Egret 8, Little Bittern 4, Yellow Stork 1, African Sacred Ibis 4, HadadaIbis 12, Glossy Ibis 15, Fulvous Whistling Duck 2, Egyptian Goose 12, Yellow-billed Duck 8, Red-billed Duck 1, Amur Falcon 2, Common Moorhen 3, Red-knobbed Coot 30, Blacksmith Lapwing 8, Grey-headed Gull 120, Red-eyed Dove 4, Ring-necked Dove 6, Red-faced Mousebird 2, European Swallow 1000, Greater Striped Swallow 10, Cape Wagtail 2, Common Bulbul 10, Kurrichane Thrush 2, Levaillant’s Cisticola 4, Zitting Cisticola 2, African Reed Warbler 8, Common Fiscal 3, Common Myna 30, Cape Glossy Starling 2, House Sparrow 20, Mossie 4, Southern Masked Weaver 25, Yellow-crowned Bishop 25, Southern Red Bishop 30, Large-billed Weaver 8, Yellow-fronted Canary.

Monday 17 January 2011

Bannerghatta National Park, Bangalore, India.

Bannerghatta National Park lies about 20kms as the House Crow flies south of central Bangalore in Karnataka State, India and takes about an hour or so by cab, providing that you set out before the city awakes. Once the city was up and running, it took an hour and 50 mins to return.
Bannerghatta Temple detail

From Google Earth, it looks like a beautiful wilderness of forest, lake and mountain. Sadly, Google Earth does not tell the whole story. Bannerghatta NP quite possibly is a beautiful wilderness, but it is only accessible in a packed, official bus with tiny barred windows which takes passengers through the park and includes the compounds which house the lions and tigers.

By the park boundary is a zoo with the surrounding stalls and paraphernalia associated with tourist attractions. We arrived here in time to see a flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings passing through. The small party also included an Oriental Magpie Robin and a Black Drongo  In the distance, the compounded lions were roaring to greet the day. We tried various ways to access the park, but no entry signs and dead ends frustrated our efforts. Eventually we ended up at the Butterfly Park and stopped to check out some action in a grove by the lake.
Small Minivets were chasing each other through the thick foliage of a mango tree. Purple Sunbirds vied for prime position on the protruding shoots while Purple-rumped Sunbirds seem to prefer lower growth. The bright green of the Golden-fronted Leafbirds showed up through the darker leaves, but nothing would sit still to have its picture taken.
Here I met a couple of locals who told me that private vehicles were not permitted in the park and that walking was prohibited on account of the wild elephants that migrate through. They informed me that the tourist bus ran from 10.00, but I couldn’t get excited about that prospect.

I resigned myself to mooching about on the peripheries of the park and trying to salvage something from the day. Opposite the Butterfly Park, a path cut between eucalyptus plantings on the right and more natural, indigenous second growth on the left. Grey-breasted Prinia were common in the low tangles with one Ashy Prinia while Black Drongo and White-bellied Drongo perched higher, looking for insects.The path led out onto some beds of rock that looked as if they commonly play host to parties. There was a lot of litter and signs of camp fires. I walked a little way on and realised that inadvertently (honest!), I had somehow strayed into the park. A pile of large droppings and a rustling in the nearby bushes brought back the warnings of wild elephants and added a frisson to a day that had been otherwise disappointing up ‘til now.

The dung was very dry and probably months old. The bushes were too low to conceal even a small elephant, so the excitement was short-lived. A fine view was to be had across a valley to a bald rock with a viewing platform on the top. The rock beds and low bushes gave me good sight lines so I was confident that I was unlikely to be surprised by any animals and in return, with the wind carrying my scent ahead of me and the noise caused by my natural clumsiness, the animals were unlikely to be surprised by my presence. The lions were still roaring and kept it going throughout the morning.
 The Butterfly Park opened at 10.00 and I paid IR50 (@ IR66 = £1) to visit the surrounding gardens and domed exhibit. The garden offered the best bird watching of the day with some mammals thrown in to add some extra value. Oriental White-eye was very common here and a White-breasted Kingfisher flushed ahead of me. From a leaf-bare tree a Green Bee-eater hawked for insects.

A brown furry shape flashed across the road before stopping on a rock and looking back. It was a Common Mongoose. Shortly after this encounter, I found that I was being followed by a troupe of Bonnet Macaques. Often curious and eager to be fed, they were well behaved and passed me by without incident.
The butterfly exhibit is a large airy walk-through dome. It is well planted and maintained, but sadly lacking in butterflies. It brought the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch to mind, uncontaminated as it was by des beaux papillons. Perhaps January is low season for butterflies, there were only a few plants carrying flowers and the interactive displays and pin-boards in the adjacent room were poorly lit as if visitors were not expected. I had only limited success with dragonflies later in the day despite the temperature reaching 25C and only a few flowers were blooming so a seasonal decrease in butterflies is quite possibly an explanation for the disappointing show today. I would bet that with a few butterflies and a 60W light bulb, this could be a great exhibit, even the pin-boards (dare I say it) were well presented.
From the exit door, it was possible to look through a gate into the park. The line of eucalyptus trees on the horizon is where I had strayed earlier in the day. I retraced my steps towards the entrance gate and was stopped by a small brown warbler in the bushes by the path. I was not able to identify it straight away, so tried to get a picture for perusal later on.
A bird that I assumed to be a Red-flanked Blue-tail flew into a tree in front of me, pumping its tail as it sat on the branch, but I didn’t pay it much attention as I was concentrating on the warbler. As I wrote up my list later in the day, I realised that the blue-tail should not have been within a thousand miles, leaving my sighting in serious doubt. Luckily, I had had the camera in my hand at the time and had taken a photo which would not normally grace a post, but which gave me the ID for a Tickell’s Flycatcher.
 I settled for Blyth’s Reed Warbler on the little brown job (if your thoughts are different, please let me know). A second warbler, the Common Tailorbird came out to see what the pishing was all about, but a third, a phylloscopus sp. escaped me.
I rounded out the day with a bit of dragonfly spotting. The afternoon had turned hot and I was hoping for some new and exciting species from southern India.
Green Skimmer

Only a very few specimens of common and widespread species were found before I was interrupted in the most unexpected of ways. Often people will stomp up behind me to ask what I am up to. Some throw sticks into the water for their dogs to retrieve. Herons and coots have eaten my dragonfly subjects before now while I have been trying to photograph them, but I have never been interrupted by an elephant.
It was a domesticated elephant I hasten to add and may well have been responsible for the droppings that I had seen earlier. Her mahout had brought her to the lake for a drink and a bathe. She took the opportunity to eat some of the lilies while she was in the water. It was a charming sight and I even got a warm wave as they left, but it was not enough to entice me back to Bannerghatta NP.

My driver stayed with me for the day and we had just decided to call it a day when A couple of larks flushed from the nearby brush up onto the overhead wires. Larks and pipits scare me along with immature gulls and brown warblers, but I managed to get a decent picture. After hours of poring over field guides and trawling the internet for images, I have decided that my first lifer of the year should be a Rufous-winged Bushlark.

My purpose in writing the blog is to give people ideas of how best to use their time during a quick visit to a city. When time is precious, there are better places to go than Bannerghatta NP. I spent the day on the peripheries, not keen to be crowded into a bus with poor viewing opportunities to see caged animals. However, if you do choose to go, a private cab from the centre of Bangalore will cost up to IR2000 and will take between one and two hours, depending on the traffic. Please let me know about the Butterfly Park in a different season and let me know if you see any wild elephants.
To be fair and to put the bird watching into perspective, the list below of 39 birds was seen in a very small area from the lakeside (at Google Earth ref; 12 47' 54"N 77 34' 37E) about 300m to the west along the track opposite and in the gardens of the Butterfly Park. If decent access could be gained into the forest beyond, I am convinced that the list would be much longer and more exciting. Looking back over my records of trips, this is actually the best bag of birds that I have seen in the environs of Bangalore. So if I could find a way to access the park in a way that would be conducive to bird watching, I would return. I look forward to suggestions on a post card please.

Bird species; 39

Little Grebe 1, Little Cormorant 1, Little Egret 1, Cattle Egret 7, Indian Pond Heron 1, Black Kite 100, Brahminy Kite 1, Red-wattled Lapwing 3, Spotted Dove 12, Rose-ringed Parakeet 15, Greater Coucal 1, White-throated Kingfisher 2, Little Green Bee-eater 6, Grey Wagtail 1, Rufous-winged Bushlark 2, Small Minivet 6, Red-whiskered Bulbul 15, Red-vented Bulbul 1, Golden-fronted Leafbird 3, Oriental Magpie Robin 4, Indian Robin 3, Grey-breasted Prinia 4, Ashy Prinia 1, Blyth’s Reed Warbler 2, Common Tailorbird 3, Tickell’s Blue-flycatcher 1, Asian Paradise Flycatcher 1, Great Tit 1, Purple-rumped Sunbird 6, Purple Sunbird 15, Oriental White-eye 40, Brown Shrike 1, Black Drongo 8, White-bellied Drongo 3, Rufous Tree-pie 3, House Crow 300, Large-billed Crow 80, Common Myna 4, Chestnut-tailed Starling 25.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Delaware River, Philadelphia

A trip to Philadelphia was affected by snow. This post is an account of a very brief skip out from the hotel to have a look at the Delaware River.
From my room, I could see that small ice floes were beginning to form on the river and birds were using them as rafts and getting a free ride upstream. The Delaware is tidal at Philadelphia and the incoming flow had reversed the direction so that it appeared to be going inland.
Most of the hitch-hikers were gulls and immature ones at that. Did I really want to go out in the snow and frustrate myself over immature gulls? But then I saw a male Bufflehead floating by and decided that I couldn’t predict what might be next, so out I went. Perhaps a closer inspection might reveal rails and kingfishers who had journeyed from their frozen freshwater haunts to a place where the water remained clear from ice?
A Song Sparrow looked nearly as red as the Fox Sparrow from New York last week. It dived into a snowy bush when it saw me coming, but sat up high enough for a good view.
Ring-billed Gulls and Greater Black-backed Gulls were the birds conserving their energy and letting the ice and the river do the work.
In a small dock, near Penn’s Landing, 8, Ruddy Duck were pretending to sleep, but were fully alert to my approach and sidled away with their heads still tucked firmly under their wings.
The only other birds to show today were some starlings, House Sparrows and a flock of Canada Geese that came flying in and landed just ahead of me.

It wasn’t a big day, but I was pleased to get out if only for a very short time. In the nearly two years that I have been blogging around the world, the weather has not yet prevented me from going bird watching, so it would have been a bad precedent to allow.

Bird species; 9

Canada Goose 20, Bufflehead 1, Ruddy Duck 8, Mallard 4, Ring-billed Gull 25, Greater Black-backed Gull 6, Starling 2, House Sparrow 6, Song Sparrow 1.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Out-of-towners. Central Park, New York

The ground was beginning to poke through from its suffocating blanket of snow and the newly revealed leaves were being scratched over by a flock of White-throated Sparrows.
The workers in New York’s Central Park had done a great job of keeping the park accessible, though there was still a little ice to be cleared from the paths. The snow had been sitting for a while now and had developed a crisp surface that was impenetrable for the sparrows, so they had to find clear spots to forage.
A Carolina Wren called and allowed a very close approach as it posed for a picture.
They were accompanied by many other species that one might expect to see in Central Park including, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and a Fox Sparrow that stayed aloof from the white-throats, feeding by itself and remaining within a very small area.
A volunteer group (known in Marie Winn’s book ‘Redtails in Love’ as “The Regulars’’) maintain a feeder station close by, but this large party of birds kept me entertained until the cold in my toes prompted me to move them along. I headed towards the well stocked feeders and watched for a while.
All the previous species were present as were Downy and Red-breasted Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos and of course, wherever there are feeders, you will find Squirrels.
Each time I visit the feeder station in Central park, The Regulars (if they still go by that name) are trying out new ways to stop the squirrels from spilling all the feed onto the ground and losing it to the snow. Don’t think that the squirrels are being excluded, there is plenty of free scattered food on the ground already that they can take advantage of, but the rest of the feed needs to remain accessible when the next fall of snow comes.
All the water sources in the park were still frozen over and the birds resorted to eating the snow. I wondered what this Brown Creeper was doing out of his tree, but didn’t see the ice in its mouth until I was editing the photo. Remember to leave out water at your feeders as well as food.
A small striped bird on one of the plastic containers made me consider Pine Siskin for a moment (one had been reported and it was still fresh in my mind). I felt that it was smaller and slimmer than a House Finch, but as an out-of towner, it sometimes takes me a while to get my eye in. I did not see its bill, nor did I see any yellow.
Suddenly all the small birds ducked for cover as a Cooper’s Hawk flew in and settled high in a tree overlooking the feeders. I had the strange feeling that the buffet had been set and the diner had now arrived.
The bold Tufted Titmice were the first to return under the gaze of the hawk. They were followed by chickadees and goldfinches, but the nuthatches were reluctant to come back while the danger lurked.
I am not familiar enough with North American feeder hierarchy to make this as a statement, just an observation. There did seem to be a pecking order among the species with Tufted Titmouse claiming seniority over the chickadees for example while the larger size of the woodpeckers gave them rights to the seat at the head of the table.
Within species (notably the American Goldfinch on this occasion) there was also competition, with the rights to a black-seed sock being hotly contested.
There were other out-of-towners in the park today. A Varied Thrush had been reported back in November and was said to still be around, remaining faithful to the area close to the facilities at Maintenance Meadow. A birder was there before me and was peering intently at something. It was not the thrush, but as he turned to move off, a bird flew across the meadow, flashing an orange crescent in her wing as she went. She landed high in a tree on the other side, but was still visible enough to confirm as the Varied Thrush (This photo has been photo-shopped to remove obscuring branches. Hence the PS). 
A while later, as a small group of birders began to gather to see her, she flew down out of the tree and into the spot where she is most frequently seen, to the right of the toilets. Now I was able to see her better and confidently put her down as a female. A few other birders passed as I watched and one invited me to join him as he went looking for the Red-headed Woodpecker, another out-of-towner that had extended its stay.
This was Matthew (of Prothonotary Warbler fame). He works at the New York Public Library although his status there during migration changes from employee to rumour, he tells me. He was looking for additions to his fresh 2011 list during his lunch hour and was able to put me right on a few pronunciation issues. I suffer from Irritable Vowel Syndrome which provokes me to extend, shorten or 'round-mouth' a syllable without warning and without regard to local custom.
'Kall-ee-ohp' for example is actually 'Kah-lye-oh-pee', as in the hummingbird and imagine how English 'prothonotary' must sound when every 'O' is pronounced long as in 'home'.

We were headed to an area north of the 66th St. crossway at the south-east corner of Sheep Meadow. On the way, a couple of Peregrine Falcons cruising on the west side of the park caught our attention. As we watched, it occurred to us that we were looking at different birds and that there were 3, or even 4 falcons there.
Matthew gets the credit for spotting the woodpecker, which disappeared into a hole in the branch of a Locust Tree shortly after. In one of the photos, a few red marks were just visible as this young bird starts to take on its adult plumage. Matthew had to get away to renew his acquaintance with the library, so I began to head home.
A Red-tailed Hawk flew over and landed in a tree close by. One of the parks many visitors that feed the birds with nuts and scraps thrown to a waiting throng was just beneath the hawk and I wondered if it had stopped to see if any slow, nut-filled birds were ripe for the picking.
These pictures may be of interest to the many enthusiasts that follow the movements of the hawks. I heard that Pale Male’s mate has not been seen since mid-December and the young birds are being eagerly tracked by the followers. This young one has yet to show any red in its tail.

I joined Joe, who was feeding the birds from a rock south of the crossway and sat a while, trying to get a photo of a Blue Jay, but they retrieved the peanuts too quick and were gone before I could focus.
Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches were both bold enough and kind enough to wait until I had time to compose the shot.
Joe was the third person feeding the birds and animals that I had seen today in Central Park. I would like to sing their praises and acknowledge the contribution that they and the millions of individuals and groups that keep feeders, make to the survival prospects of the fauna when the weather turns inclement.

Bird species; 28

Mallard 30, Wood Duck 1, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Peregrine Falcon 3, Red-headed Woodpecker 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 5, Downy Woodpecker 3, Carolina Wren 1, Northern Mockingbird 2, American Robin 25, Varied Thrush 3, Black-capped Chickadee 12, Tufted Titmouse 35, Red-breasted Nuthatch 3, White-breasted Nuthatch 7, Brown Creeper 4, Blue Jay, 30, American Crow 8, Common Starling 12, House Sparrow 50, House Finch 6, American Goldfinch 30, Eastern Towhee 2, Fox Sparrow 1, White-throated Sparrow 50, Northern Cardinal 6, Common Grackle 3.

Follow the links below for other posts from New York;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for other posts from the region

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Meet the Family

This is an article that was originally posted as a contribution to 10000 Birds.

If ever a family were designed to catch the eye, it is the rollers. They perch conspicuously, perform dramatic display flights and boast the most stunning plumage. They are a photographer’s dream and nightmare in one bird. The fantasy would be to catch the colours and the light to show a roller in its true majesty. The nightmare is the dawning of reality, when it becomes clear that the incredible colours cannot be reproduced my mere mortals.

At rest, they are fantastic looking birds with turquoise, lilac and cinnamon colours and in some species, trailing tail feathers and pennants.

Lilac-breasted Roller
But when they fly…..

Having tried many times, I have never attained the level of photograph that would satisfactorily describe a roller in flight. Patches of electric blue in the primaries, prime coverts and tail are set against a swathe of indigo.
The breath-taking shock of the colours when the bird takes flight or flares as it comes into land, is enough to make the toughest birder gasp. Even if I am watching a perched roller and am prepared for the flash of colour when it flies, the vivid brightness still catches me by surprise.

If the incredible colours of the plumage were not enough, rollers also have a superb display flight that I was lucky enough to witness last week in Dubai.
Am I right in thinking that Dec 31st or New Year’s Eve is the seventh day of Christmas and traditionally celebrated by the gift of “seven swans a-swimming” from my true love? During a visit to Safa Park, I was treated to the spectacle of seven rollers rolling. These were Indian Rollers.

Indian Roller Photo by Arjun Haarith

The anticipation of midnight fireworks from Burj Khalifa and Burj el Arab to welcome 2011, was trumped in the afternoon at a city park by a flock of birds. They would climb to about 30 meters and use their momentum to carry them over into a dive with marked similarity to a rollercoaster cresting the top of the first drop. Two male birds were displaying for a female adjudicator, perched in a nearby palm tree for the first show, while five more were showing off in a reprise outside the park.
Multi-million pound fireworks displays were as nothing to the show put on by the rollers.
Despite being so obvious, the rollers can be timid and will not always consent to close approach. Using a car as a hide, it is sometimes possible to get reasonably near, but the bird is often perched high which makes for a bad angle and poor lighting.

I wish that I could lay claim to the photograph above, but it was taken by Arjun Haarith who very kindly consented to allow me to use it here.

The Coraciidae is an old world family of birds, commonly and collectively known as the Rollers. From Europe, through the Middle East into Asia and south into Africa, rollers are conspicuous and easily seen. One species, the Dollarbird, even makes it as far as Australasia.

They are split into 2 genera.

Birds from the genus Eurystomas (which includes Broad-billed Roller and Dollarbird ) feed mainly on insects caught on the wing and do not participate in the dramatic courtship displays of the Coracias rollers.
The Coracias species (which include Lilac-breasted Roller, European Roller and Indian Roller) swoop down to the ground from a prominent perch to catch their prey.