Feathers fit for a queen

[I think this is my last topic from our Nepal and India trip. So my posts will become more erratic for a while, until after my next trip, to the Bale mountains of Ethiopia, in late February.]

The Common Kingfisher, Albedo atthis, is an accomplished fish catcher, but that is just the start. Preparing the daily catch for eating requires an additional set of skills:*

In Assam, this female caught a very wriggly fish:


So she then bashed it on the branch to incapacitate it:

Bue-eared Kingfisher

It was now stunned (moribund? dead? Who knows?) , so she rotated it to get the scales the right way round:

Bue-eared Kingfisher

And down it went, in one gulp:

Bue-eared Kingfisher

Common kingfishers range through Eurasia (including the UK) and North Africa, and are not threatened.  This is a female, because her lower bill is reddish, just visible if I zoom in to the max on the final shot.

Bue-eared Kingfisher

Kingfishers were valued (ie trapped) by the Victorians for their iridescent blue feathers. The Chinese took the use of kingfisher feathers in jewelry to an extraordinary level. This art form was called Tian-tsui (also spelled Diancui), and the demand for the feathers from Cambodian kingfishers was so huge that they became a major source of income for Cambodia, and contributed to the funding for Angkor Wat. They also came close to extinction.

Look at these astonishing pictures of a late 18th century hairpiece :

Photo from National Museum of Scotland blog

You can read about it here, and its restoration:


I don’t know which species of kingfisher these came from, but the Common Kingfisher is found in Cambodia.

*This fish-eating technique is basically the same as that of the Black-necked Stork, as you can see from this previous post.


But the kingfisher has added the step of dashing it against a branch to stun it, something that bee-eaters also do with their prey,

Twinkle twinkle great big bat

[Back to my Nepal and India trip..]

On the road between Nepal and the Indian border the driver suddenly pulled over on the verge, and pointed up.

Flying foxes

High in the trees there were hundreds of Indian Flying Foxes, Pteropus giganteus, one of the largest bats in the world. Like most bats they are nocturnal, but they seem to be quite alert even in the daytime. The odd one was flying around: their wing span can reach 1.5m, or nearly 5 feet.

Flying foxes

They huddle together in small groups for warmth (the mornings are cold in November):

Flying foxes

They wrap up inside their wings to keep the wind out, like the one on the lower left here:

Flying foxes

They have five claws on their remarkable feet, and claws on the ‘thumbs’ of their wings too:

Flying foxes

At the end of this post you can see a drawing of the wing anatomy.

And if I rotate one of the photos, you can see where they get their name:

Flying foxes

They are fructivores, sucking the juice and discarding the pulp.  Although they damage fruit farms, they also pollinate the trees. They are common in India, and essentially harmless, but they do carry disease, particularly the deadly Nipah virus, which can be transmitted to humans who collect and drink the date palm sap from near their roosts. One of the worst outbreaks was in Siliguri, not far from Darjeeling, where we spent a few days.

PS This drawing of the wing anatomy shows the claws on the feet and the wing joints:



*My title comes from Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Mad Hatter sings:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.


Very ugly ducklings

[A brief news report from England: back to India next time.]

I was wandering round Kensington Gardens in central London last weekend, and found a group of six swans. Two were adults, and four were last year’s young, still in their ugly duckling plumage. Two of them had the most peculiar wing feathers, stuck out at an angle and reduced to toothpicks :


They seemed otherwise fine, behaving normally, feeding alongside the others. I didn’t know if it was a strange moult, or a problem, so on the advice of my birding friend Jane I emailed The Swan Lifeline,  https://www.swanlifeline.org.uk, who confirmed it was a disease known as Angel Wing.


Jasmine and her colleagues sprang into action. By 11am the next day they had got permission from the Queen (via her representative, the park warden!) driven up to London, and met me at the water’s edge . They sprinkled food on the water, and as the foolish birds came over, they grabbed them with one swift expert scoop .


To my surprise the adult parents did not come to the defense of their young, just watched with interest.

Next step: tying the feet together with a piece of soft cloth.


then swaddling them in a custom-made red straitjacket.


And finally into a bright yellow carrier. Interestingly, by this point they are quite calm, just looking around with interest. And the rest of their uncaring family are polishing off the left-over food in the background.


Off they go to be looked after and eventually released somewhere safe from predators, probably a private lake with an island that foxes can’t get to.


There is a short video here: listen to the noise and fuss that the more aggressive male makes:

The cause of Angel’s Wing is not clear. One theory is that it is dietary, caused by too many carbohydrates, especially white bread. In Hyde Park these swans are fed by well-intended passers-by, often with not just bread but biscuits or cake too. But it may have a genetic component, since only two of the four cygnets were affected. Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_wing

Whatever the cause, there is no cure, and the wings will never grow proper flight feathers like these:


So these poor swans will never fly, which is why they must be protected from predators. They will be otherwise fine, and are even capable of breeding.



Janus butterflies*

Many butterflies have “tails” on their hindwings. This small Blue at Koshi Tappu in Nepal is a good example:


When its wings are closed it looks like this:


One hypothesis is that the combination of these long wiggly protuberances and the eye spots at their base mimics the antennae and eyes of a butterfly’s head. A predator is then confused, and instead of attacking the head it goes for the much less important hindwing. Mind you, a butterfly whose wings have chunks missing probably won’t fare so well either.

Here is an entirely different Nepalese butterfly, with similar wiggly tails, though the eye spots, at least on the upper side, are not so obvious.:


And this one in Ecuador has gone overboard:


Since Darwin’s day, eye spots on butterflies have been thought to pay a role in confusing predators (and attracting mates). Butterflies and moths can have eye spots without fake antennae, as this Grand Paon de Nuit (Grand Peacock of the Night) , Saturnia pyri, near Carcassonne, France, so dramatically displays:

Saturnia pyri, Grand Paon de Nuit (Great Peacock of the Night).. Top side.

They can also have fake antennae without eyespots, as this Swallowtail butterfly in Maine shows:


In 1980, scientists from the Smithsonian showed that the more “false head” features a butterfly had, the more likely it was to be attacked on that part of the wing, so apparently deception works!

* Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, the past and the future, and he was always depicted with two faces. He is also associated with deception, which is why I chose his name for my title. I am not the first person to think of this link. This moth’s scientific name is Automeris janus:

phpthumb.php(Thanks to the lepbarcoding.org website for this photo. The URL refused to copy, so I hope the unnamed photographer will forgive my use of this photo.)

The tails of two squirrels

The Malayan Giant Squirrel , or Black Giant Squirrel, Ratufa bicolor, is a squirrel on steroids. Far above in the canopy it looks more like a monkey, being a total of 1.2 meters long, half of which is tail. This one’s tail looks just like a long ponytail, still wet from the shower


They live in forests from eastern Nepal and northeast India (where I photographed this one) all the way through southeast Asia to western Indonesia. They are almost entirely arboreal, rarely descending to the ground.

Malayan Giant Squirrel

They eat seeds, fruits, and leaves, and have ear tufts like our British red squirrel:


Like most solitary squirrels, they are polygynandrous (a new word I learnt while researching this); not only do the males mate with multiple females, but when the female is in season she mates with five or six males, and a litter may have several different fathers. Despite the orgies, numbers are thought to have dropped by 30% in the last ten years because of habitat loss*, and it doesn’t help that until recently they were sold in large quantities in the food markets in Vientiane in Lao.

More familiar in scale, but quite cute, is the Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel, Callosciurus pygerythrus, so called because each hair has two light yellow rings, giving its coat a hoary or grizzled look.

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

Although it is a smallish squirrel, about 40 cm from head to tail-tip, its tail is also impressive, and nearly as long as the rest of its body. Unfortunately it has arranged its tail behind the tree trunk, but if you look carefully you can just see the tip emerging in the top right-hand corner of the next photo:

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

It is common and not threatened, despite also being widely eaten in some areas of Lao. The ones in the foreground of this photo look like Hoary-bellied squirrels to me:


*The Malayan Giant Squirrel is classified as Near Threatened, mainly due to deforestation, since they live high in the canopy of tall trees.

A reader asked me what the huge tail is for, since it seems more of a liability than a plus. I have poked around to find an answer, and as I suspected it is probably mainly used as a counterweight when leaping through the canopy, but it may also attract mates (a lot of them!), and in other species of squirrel it is known to be used in communication.

The Takshak

The Tokay Gecko, Gekko gecko, is a sizable lizard, whose eyes I discussed in a blog last year. I had never seen one in the wild. Our guide pointed to a tree trunk, and said “Look!”. We gazed blankly at some nice bark, apparently devoid of life.

Tokay Gecko

Eventually, deep in the tree, we saw what he was pointing at:


But he kept pointing, to a different crack a foot or two away, and then we saw the really wonderful thing:


There were three babies and several eggs, deep inside the tree. The freshly laid eggs have a sticky surface that adheres to the tree, and both adults guard the eggs through 2-6 months of incubation. They will grow as large as 35cm, with a ferocious bite.

Tokay geckos show this blue-grey coloration in low light, becoming grey with red-orange spots in bright light.

They are called takshak in Assam, where we saw them, after sounds they make in the mating season.. you can I hope hear it if you click on the link below:


Buffalo romance

[Like my last post, this concerns an animal whose descendants are common farm animals. But it is also a Brief Encounter for the New Year!]

Water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, have been domesticated for around 5000 years,  but their progenitor the wild water buffalo, Bubalus arnee, is now rare. The IUCN Red List considers them Endangered. The global population is estimated at 3,400, and 90% of these are in Assam, especially in Kaziranga.

We saw them in Koshi Tappu in Nepal, which has around 400, and of course in Kaziranga. They are huge, the males weighing up to 1200Kg or 2600lbs.

In Koshi Tappu, we followed one along a park road and you can get a sense of his size and power, and those horns, which can spread up to 2 meters, the largest of any living bovid:

Wild Water Buffalo

In Kaziranga, a male is scenting to see if a female is receptive.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

He follows her out into the lake, still checking her perfume. The Greater Adjutant Stork is unimpressed, but then he is nearly five feet tall, up to the shoulder height of a smallish wild water buffalo.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

The female buffalo’s pheromones seem to be sufficiently fragrant to win his approval..

Wild water buffalo, scenting

But they will go somewhere more private for consummation. And months later (about 320 days gestation, and a few months more) this will be the result; they are brown at birth and don’t start to darken till about 6 months of age:

Wild water buffalo

One of the threats to the wild water buffalo is interbreeding with the domestic population, and indeed we watched them wandering in amongst domestic herds, but these are all wild.

PS Note the cattle egret following the baby around, hoping for insects disturbed by its hooves.

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