Birds of India

Articles: 50 birds I want to see
February 27th 2011 I Bikram Grewal

Bikram Grewal needs little introduction to the amateur birdwatcher in India. His illustrated book on birds of India has sold over 250,000 copies and been a source of inspiration for many new generation birders in India.
Bikram loves nothing more than going out to wild places to see new birds. I can vouch for that, having travelled across India in his company in search of rarely seen birds. Bikram's list contains 50 'hard-to-find' iconic species. But the birds he talks about the most in private are the Masked Finfoot, White-crowned Forktail, Asian Emerald Cuckoo and the Pale-capped Pigeon. These are not near-mythical birds like the Pink-headed Duck and the Himalayan Quail. They are Indian rarities that have recently been seen by others, and it just needs luck and perseverance to tick them off. Here is wishing Biks good luck in his quest to see them all
- Editor

50 birds to see before you die!

by Bikram Grewal

When the venerable editor of this splendid website asked me to name 50 birds I would like to see before I die, I went into deep panic, as it reminded me there wasn't much time left to fulfill my wish-list. After much soul-searching I came up with this list, which includes two birds presumed to be extinct. It is of course subjective and some of these birds I have seen fleetingly before, but would, very much, like to see properly again. The list is restricted to fifty birds, but needless to say I could come up with many more I have yet to see, before the 'Great Twitcher in the Sky' calls for me!

Part - 1

1. White-winged Duck (Asarcornis scutulata)

Credit: Lithograph Henrik Gronvold (Private collection)

Certainly India's rarest resident duck, now confined to stretches along the rivers of Assam and Arunachal. Prefers swampy pools in deep forests and tall grass. Their numbers are declining fast. Best place to see it is Nameri National Park in Assam. The Indian population is estimated to be between 300 and 450.

2. Jerdon's Baza (Aviceda jerdoni)

One of the most difficult raptors to find in India, This medium-sized bird of prey, has a patchy but widespread distribution in India. Several recent records from North Bengal. Little known and much sought after by birders.

3. Brown-capped Laughingthrush (Ianthocincla austeni)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

Rarely seen, esoteric and little-known laughingthrush, reported from Nagaland by Dillon Ripley in 1952 and not seen reliably till 2010 above Khonoma. Also photographed for the first time. Subsequent attempts have been unsuccessful. Shy and skulking, singly or in pairs.

Mrs Humes's Pheasant (Syrmaticus humiae)

Credit: Lithograph by Joseph Smith (Private collection)

Inhabits open, dry, subtropical evergreen (mainly oak), coniferous (chiefly pine) or mixed conifer-broadleaf forests on steep, often rocky hillsides interrupted by scrub and grassy clearings, Murlen and Blue Mountain National Parks, and Lengteng are the best places to see this almost mythical bird

5. Great Eared-nightjar (Eurostopodus macrotis)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

An exceedingly large and little-known nightjar, with ear-tufts and which has disjunct distribution. One population is found in the Northeast and the other in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Best seen in Periyar. Unconfirmed reports from Kumaon in Uttarakhand. Very few photographs available from India.

6. Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmea)

Credit: Lithograph J G Kuelemans (Private collection)

This charming little wader is every birdwatchers dream. True to its name it has a broad spatulate to its bill, though it is difficult to see side-on. It also has a different feeding action, running swiftly across mudflats, stopping to feed by sweeping its submerged bill-tip from side to side. Does not probe like other waders. This globally threatened bird is occasionally found on the Indian coast, feeding with others waders in small flock

7. Fulvous Parrotbill (Paradoxornis fulvifrons)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

One of the members of peculiar long-tailed birds with short deep bills, suitable for feeding on bamboo stems. Most members are found in the NE. Another equally rare member is the Spot-breasted Parrotbill recently seen in Nagaland and Mizoram. The Fulvous is little known and the best place to see is in Namdhapa, where it can sometimes be seem in hyperactive groups of up to twenty birds.

8. Nicobar Parakeet (Psittacula caniceps)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

An endemic resident of the South Nicobar Islands, but the logistical difficulty in getting there, makes this locally common bird high on any birdwatchers wish-list. Little studied bird, like the Long-tailed Parakeet, which too is found in the Andaman and Nicobar.

9. Asian Emerald Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx maculatus)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

Along with its cousin the Violet Cuckoo, these two small cuckoos are the most spectacular members of their ilk. Both are extremely rare migrants, but the Emerald Cuckoo is often seen in North Bengal, Nameri and the Panbari forests of Kaziranga. Usually confines it self to treetops from where it sings.

10. Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

Spotted Creeper has a thin pointed down-curved bill, which it uses to extricate insects from bark, but it lacks the stiff tail feathers, which the true treecreepers use to support themselves on vertical trees. Found sparsely in Northern India, it has become exceedingly difficult to see. Recent records are mostly from Rajasthan.

11. Blue Pitta (Pitta cyanea)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

A Personal favourite of mine. Very little is known about this bird in India with no recent records. Said to occur in the fabled South Assam Hills, but very few historical specimens traced. Recent records from Nagaland not substantiated. This is one bird I want to see before I die.

12. Ashy (Moustached) Laughingthrush (Ianthocincla cineracea)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

Little known laughingthrush found only south of the Brahmaputra, Very few records of India, till recently when photographed and seen by Shasank and Ramki in Nagaland on the indo-Myanmar border. Shy and skulking, it is normally found singly or in pairs in dense foliage or at the edge of vegetation. Little is known about its distribution in India.

13. Red-Mantled (Blyth's) Rosefinch (Carpodacus grandis)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

One of the rarest of the several Rosefinches found in India. Known to winter erratically in the hills of Uttarakhand. No records from elsewhere. Prefers juniper and pine forests. Seldom seen and more studies required.

14. White-crowned Forktail (Enicurus leschenaultii)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

The largest and the rarest of the five species of forktails found in India, it is restricted to the NE. Prefers lower altitude than the others. Not uncommon. Recent records from Mishmi Hills and the lower parts of Eaglenest. Also Namdhapa.

15. Manipur Bush-quail (Perdicula manipurensis)

Credit: Lithograph by R. Bowdler Sharp (Private collection)

Endemic to northern West Bengal, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya, north-east India, its range apparently previously extending into Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet districts in Bangladesh. No reliable records recently. Unconfirmed report, from Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, India, in March 1998, and from Manas National Park, Assam, not accepted by all.

16. Sociable Plover (Vanellus gregarius)

Credit: Lithograph by unknown artist (Private collection)

Previously thought to be exceedingly rare, this migrant makes sporadic appearance in India, to Gujarat mostly. A few turn up in Bharatpur every year. A recent discovery of a superflock of over 3000 birds in Turkey has caused major excitement in the birding world.

17. Narcondam Hornbill (Aceros narcondami)

Credit: Lithograph by C P Cory (Private collection)

Arguably India's rarest Hornbill, being restricted only to the small island of Narcondam in the Andamanese sea. Highly threatened due to human disturbance, and who have brought mice and other animal to this island. Less than 400 birds remain, precariously on the edge.

18. Beautiful Nuthatch (Sitta formosa)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

This rather large nuthatch has black upperparts streaked with blue and rufous-orange underparts. In flight a white patch at the base of primaries contrast with blackish underwing-coverts. Although its habits are apparently similar to those of other nuthatches, its actions are slow and deliberate through its dense forest home. Resident in East Himalayas and the Northeast hills.

19. Slaty-bellied Tesia (Tesia olivea)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

This active bird is very similar to the Grey-bellied Tesia in coloration with olive-green upperparts and grey underparts. Its song is four to six whistles followed by a sudden explosive, tuneless jumble of notes! Keeping close to the ground, it is always on the move, hardly stirring the vegetation as it hops. Prefers moist, dense tropical and subtropical forests in east Nepal to Arunachal Pradesh.

20. Masked Finfoot (Heliopais personata)

Credit: Lithograph Zoological Society of London (Private collection)

This large, grebe-like bird has a huge yellow or orange bill and day-glow green legs and feet. While the female is similar to the male with its black forehead, throat and foreneck, it also has a white center to throat and foreneck. It makes a high-pitched bubbling sound and a loud grunting quack, moving around in pairs or in family parties. Territorial, shy and retiring it swims well and will sink underwater when alarmed. Was formerly a rare resident or visitor to Assam and the Sundarbans.

21. Striated Yuhina (Yuhina castaniceps)

Credit: Lithograph by J. Gould (Private collection)

This fast-moving forest-dweller is differentiated from the other Yuhinas by not being as crested and also being the only one to show white on the tail. Its main plumage feathers are very short white supercilium. Found in parties of up to thirty birds, sometimes with other insectivorous species in West Bengal east to Arunachal Pradesh.

22. Pale-capped Pigeon (Columba punicea)

Credit: Lithograph by Henrik Gronvold (Private collection)

Perhaps the rarest and least known pigeons in India, it rarely turns up in any bird reports. Records of the species exist from Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, Assam and Andhra Pradesh (Araku valley). Perhaps the best place to see it is Dibru-Saikowa in Assam and Simlipal in Orissa.

23. Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath)

Illustration provenance unknown (Private collection)

One of India's great mystery birds, little is known about its status in India. Whether it breeds in India or is a vagrant from Africa is uncertain. This very large heron occasionally turns up in the NE and E India. Last reliable records are from Deepor Beel, in Guwahati and the Sundarbans.

24. Pink-headed Duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea)

Credit: Lithograph by Henrik Gronvold (Private collection)

Presumed extinct. This species has not been conclusively seen in the wild since 1949 (Though some claim it was last seen conclusive in the wild in 1935 in Darbhanga in Bihar); always rare, it is likely to have declined severely through a combination of hunting and habitat loss. Said to have been Locally but sparsely distributed in the wetlands of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and occurred rarely in Nepal, with most records from northeast India, Bengal and Bihar and adjacent Bangladesh.

25. Himalyan (Mountain) Quail (Ophrysia superciliosa)

Credit: Lithograph by W Foster (Private collection)

Presumed extinct. J. E. Gray first described the species in 1846 from living specimens in the personal collection of the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, and he gave the locality as "India" with a query. It was not until 1865 that it was first found in the wild by Kenneth Mackinnon who shot a pair in November, in a hollow between Budhraj and Benog, behind Mussoorie, at about 6,000 feet (1,800 m) elevation. Two years later, again in November, five specimens were obtained near Jaripani. In December 1876, Major G. Carwithen obtained a specimen from the eastern slopes of Sher-ka-danda, close to Nainital, (2,100 m). Hutton observed that they occurred in small coveys of six to ten, and kept to high grass and scrub and were difficult to flush, and had a shrill whistling note when flushed.


Edited by: Sumit Sen
Kolkata, India
February, 2011


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