Volume 9 - Issue 08
August 2011
Other Articles

Posted on: Aug 13, 2011




The period before the actual rainy season is an interesting time of the year in Puttaparthi and the surrounding areas. The little and large waterholes fill up to varying extents due to the brief spells of rains. The Bukkapatnam Tank, which is a huge reservoir of water in the peak monsoons, retains considerable amounts of water. This attracts fishing birds of various sizes. Though the amount of water provides the birds the necessary safety distance from humans and grazing animals, it is also sufficiently less to make these birds approachable for capture through a camera.

A winding, single lane road skirts the Bukkapatnam Tank. This is a two kilometre stretch of road that provides a bird enthusiast with ample subjects. Located at a short distance from Puttaparthi (6 km by road; it is only about 3 km as the crow flies), this place seems to open up a new world.

On one side is the large lake and on the other are the green cultivated fields. The monsoons have not yet arrived and so there are dry tracts of land which actually belong to the lake. The local farmers utilise these fertile pieces of land for a quick crop before the monsoons arrive and submerge them. There is a gentle breeze that is constantly blowing and huge trees there seem to be whispering to each other. The chirps and cries of the many birds that visit this tank add music to this heavenly atmosphere.

The occasional vehicle, with its horn and motor, disturbs the calm that exists but the peace around is so deep that soon calm descends. One feels like just strolling along the road, drinking in the serenity and beauty of the evening. A host of water birds are an integral part of this landscape-waterscape union. Let us meet today, two members from the storks!

Storks are large, long-legged, long-necked wading birds with long, stout bills. They have no syrinx and are, for most purposes, mute. Bill-clattering where they ‘clap’ together their beaks, thus, is an important mode of stork communication at the nest. Still, they have a single cry which they produce rarely, mostly at nest sites. Many species are migratory. There are 19 living species of storks in six genera.

Our first stork friend is the open billed stork.

The Open Bill Stork foraging for food

5) The Asian Open Bill Stork (Anastomus oscitans)

One look at the beak of the stork shows the origin of its name! Open Billy has a curved opening in the middle of its bill. There is a misconception that it uses this as a nutcracker to crush its favourite food - aquatic snails. However it turns out that Open Billy uses the upper part of its bill to hold the snail against the ground while it slices the muscle holding the snail to its shell using the lower part. Thus we see a lot of empty snail shells and not crushed ones at its feeding grounds. It uses the same trick even to open clams and mussels.

The Open Bill Stork is a relatively small stork and it soars with its broad wings. Huge numbers of these birds are reported at Uppalapadu, a village about 550 kms from Puttaparthi, near Guntur. However deterioration of habitat and ever increasing encroachment by the people of the village (that has now become a tourist attraction) has resulted in lesser and lesser stork visits there. Most probably, Open Billy has come to Puttaparthi environs in search of more habitats! With prayers that the Uppalapadu is made into a sanctuary, let's hope that we make the bird comfortable in Puttaparthi.

The Open Bill Stork in majestic flight

These birds breed near inland wetlands. They feed on molluscs (like snails), frogs and large insects. They are found in groups and are rarely solitary. They economise on flying efforts by moving between thermals of hot air for a comfortable, sustained flight.

It is very difficult to move near the bird and make a recording of its sounds. Just to complete our study of dear Open Billy however, we place an audio file of a downloaded recording. Note that this recording however, is not of the Asian Open Bill Stork but of its cousin, the African Open Bill Stork. And the background chirps heard are that of the chicks in the nest.

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Birds are also our true friends in the sense that they teach us many virtues. One of the most powerful lessons they teach us is to live in the present. In one of His dicourses to the students delivered in the auditorium of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Swami made a mention of this very quality of birds. On that occasion Swami said:.

The lesson it teaches is self-reliance. A bird perched on the leafy twig of a tree is not affected by the wild swaying of the twig or the storm which might blow it off because it relies not on the twig or tree but on its own wings for its safety. It knows it can always fly and save itself.

The bird is always happy and carefree, sporting as it pleases. Birds are not concerned about acquiring things for the morrow. They are content to make the best of the present, living on whatever they can get for the day. They do not worry about the careers of their children or the state of their bank accounts. They have no anxiety about the upkeep of houses or properties. Now, look at what man has made of himself. Sitting on the branch of the tree of life, he is worried about every little tremor in life; he is consumed by it, and loses his peace of mind.

If we can glean a few traits of these friends of ours, we will definitely have a more pleasant journey of life.

Meanwhile, as we continue our walk along the lake, there is one more stork that makes its appearance. Staying in groups of 5 or 6, this bird presents a very graceful sight as it forages for fish in the shallow waters.This next stork friend we meet is a very colourful personality.

Let us please welcome - The Painted Stork!

A pair of painted storks gliding across thermals

6) The Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala)

The Painted Stork is a large wading bird in the stork family, found in the wetlands of the plains of tropical Asia, south of the Himalayas in South Asia and extending into Southeast Asia. Its broad yellow beak simply cannot be missed. As a fledgeling and a juvenile, the bird is not so pretty to look at but it seems to metamorphose as it grows. Developing a reddish orange head and a proud black breast band with white scaly markings, it also displays a lovely pink at its tail feathers.

We notice a somewhat peculiar characteristic that nature has made in general. Almost all of the tiny birds are ‘camera brave’ if we may use the term. The larger birds are all camera shy! This works out fine for the photographer as he/she needs closer approach to shoot the little ones. Though a photographer wouldn’t mind a closer approach with larger birds too, somethings cannot be helped.

A delightful sight of the Painted Storks wading in the Bukkapatnam Lake

The Painted Stork is a real high flier! It soars and glides across thermals. Near Puttaparthi, they have a predictable flight and feeding pattern. In groups of five or six, the bird keeps feeding in shallow waters of the Bukkapatnam Tank, waiting patiently before making its move. When it feels threatened by anything (esp. human presence), it takes off and flies in a spiral, upwards. They seem to fly around their feeding area in circles as they gradually gain heights. Makes one wonder as to why they do not take off straight towards their destination. Soaring in the skies, they land at the Enumulapalli Lake which is a few kilometres away.

A flock of Painted Storks flying across the skies, a show of freedom and bonding

A satellite image showing the position of the two lakes in the neighborhood of Puttaparthi

And so, here is a picture of these storks after they have settled in the Enumulapalli Lake. Thus, they keep flitting between these two water bodies. The Red Wattled Lapwing (Part 1) and the Black Winged Stilt (yet to be introduced) are two pestering friends!

They scream alarm calls with the slightest intrusion and off go the painted storks! Thus it is vital that the photographer familiarises himself with the nature of these birds and allows the birds to familiarise with him. Camouflage clothing and very slow, measured movement is an absolute must in photographing these camera-shy birds.

As peaceful on the ground as in the skies. The Painted Stork at the Enumulapalli lake, a picture of calm and serenity

The menu for these birds is mainly fish. The preferred depth is about 12 to 25 cm of water and deeper waters are avoided. They feed mainly on small fish which they sense while slowly sweeping their submerged half-open bill from side to side. They walk slowly and disturb the water with their feet to flush fish - they seem to literally fish in troubled waters!  They spice up their menu with some frogs and the occasional snake. They communicate with each other through "bill clapping" and it sounds something like this.

(Listen to the Sounds of the Painted Stork)

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They make open nests on top of trees and regurgitate fish to feed the hatchlings. They spread out their expansive wings to shield the young ones. In countries like Thailand, this stork was nearly decimated as chicks were taken away for trade. India however, is home to the largest secure population of these birds and that is mainly due to the protection afforded to these birds during their nesting season by the local villagers! Hats off to these ‘illiterate’ people who show signs of better education that most of the literate ignoramuses.

After this splurge of colours, we conclude today’s trip to the lakes with a black and white friend - the Pied Kingfisher.

7) The Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

The Pied Kingfisher is a water kingfisher and is found widely distributed across Africa and Asia. Their black and white plumage or feathers, the crest and the habit of hovering over clear lakes and rivers before diving for fish makes it very distinctive.

Puttaparthi and the surrounding regions have a large stock of white-breasted kingfishers and the pied kingfisher is quite a rarity.

This kingfisher is about 17 cm long and is white with a black mask. Males have a narrow second breast-band while females have a single broken breast band. The bird can be seen often, hovering above the water, rapidly beating its wings (about 8 times a second) as it waits for fish. And when it spots the prey, it swoops down like a missile and within a fraction of a second, returns triumphantly with the fish in its beak.

The Pied Kingfisher perched on a wire near Enumulapalli lake, ready for quick swoop

When not foraging, they have a straight rapid flight and have been observed flying at nearly 32 mph.They can deal with prey without returning to a perch, and so can hunt over large water bodies or in estuaries that lack perches that are required by other kingfishers. And this quality of theirs, makes them a bit more difficult to photograph compared to the other kingfishers.

The breeding season is February to April. Its nest is a hole excavated in a vertical mud bank about five feet above water. The usual clutch is 3-6 white eggs. As they perch, looking out for fish, one can hear their occasional calls.

( Listen to the Call of the Pied Kingfisher)

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As we have said repeatedly, Puttaparthi is home to so many species of feathered friends. Our list of identified birds has already crossed the fifty mark! And soon we shall introduce you to all of them. So, until we meet next week, Sairam!



- Radio Sai team

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