June 2011: It disappeared in a flash of striking wing patterns but, just for a second, I had a view of black wing feathers with a white base and a white tail with black outer feathers. I stood mesmerised, wanting to savour more of this attractive bird in the arid desert landscape.
Last winter, I spent some time in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, photographing its wildlife, particularly its splendid birdlife. I wandered the Rann in four phases – for four days in October, 20 days in November, 15 days in February and 30 days in March. During my time there I was lucky to spot the Greater Hoopoe-lark or Hoopoe-lark Alaemon alaudipes on several occasions. I did not see any in October but spotted several in November, a few in February and just two in March. According to the IUCN, the status of the Hoopoe-lark is of ‘Least Concern’. The species has an extremely large range and hence does not approach the thresholds for ‘Vulnerable’ under the range size criterion and though the population is decreasing, it is not rapidly enough to touch the threshold.
The Hoopoe-lark is found in desert, semi-desert grassland and shrub land habitats. In India, it is a winter migrant and breeds in the western semi-desert area, especially in the Greater Rann and Little Rann of Kutch. It nests on the ground but not in smooth areas and always in well-hidden depressions in the ground or low bushes.
Finding a Hoopoe-lark is not easy in the austere habitat of the Rann thanks to its ability to camouflage itself so effectively. I was mostly able to spot them only when they were in flight and that too thanks to their distinct black and white wing pattern. Rezwan, a local naturalist, who drove me around in my jeep, had a superb eye for Hoopoe-larks. He rarely missed spotting one during our excursions. He would drive slowly, carefully scouring the ground for nests. The photographs on this page are as much his labour of love as mine.
In November, we found several breeding pairs in different areas in the Rann. We usually entered the Rann from either Bajana, Ginjuwara or Odu. As with past visits, we spotted most of the individuals on the Ginjuwara side. We found several pairs and even a nest near the salt pans. The nest was usually cup-shaped and made up of small sticks. These birds have been found to prefer open grounds away from vegetation early in the season but choose to nest under or in small bushes as the season progresses, perhaps to cope with higher temperatures. We also recorded a nest with two eggs in a remote and interior part of the Rann, on the way to Madok, about 70 km. from Ginjuwara. However, on a subsequent visit after a week, we found the nest empty, leaving us wondering whether this was a breeding success or a sad ending.
|ABOUT THE HOOPOE-LARK |
The Hoopoe-lark is a sandy grey, long-legged and slender-bodied bird with a down-curved bill. It has a white underside and spotted breast. It has dark markings on its face with a line through the eye and whisker-like lines from the base of bill under the eye. The female is slightly smaller than the male.
A TOUGH LIFE
Achieving breeding success is not easy for the Hoopoe-lark. We found two breeding individuals toward the end of March, possibly a second try for the season, and hoped the chicks would be luckier this time around. Apart from natural predators such as the desert fox, Peregrine Falcon and other raptors, there are way too many vehicles on the move in the Rann. And unlike it was for Rezwan, lark nests are not the concern of most who drive vehicles here. We saw tyre marks on almost all the nests we discovered!
In the last few weeks of our visit I had been photographing a desert fox family and we spotted an active female Hoopoe-lark near their den. The bird was digging for insects, indicating that a nest could be nearby. We returned after a couple of days and as we observed the fox and its pups, we noticed that the bird was restless and behaving unnaturally. We decided to investigate and slowly moved forward to find that the vixen had killed a lark chick to feed its pups.
We saw pairs and single birds, mostly foraging and probing and digging the ground. We were not fortunate to see the courtship display of the male. The male rises up with fluttering wing-strokes and then dives down with closed wings. The display is accompanied by a song comprising rising and falling notes of trilled whistles and clicks.
Earlier in February, as we explored the Rann in the Ginjuwara area, Rezwan spotted a lark. It dug around for an insect grub but did not eat it. Instead we found it moving about erratically and surmised that it had a nest nearby. We followed it for a few minutes from a respectful distance and switched off the engine the moment the bird reached its nest. I crawled on my elbows and positioned myself under the jeep, spending the next two hours watching the birds. There was only one chick in the nest and it kept its eyes closed, perhaps to merge better with its surroundings and only opened them when its mother approached close. We imagined that the dry and cracked habitat was devoid of life, but the lark knew better. Every few minutes it managed to collect an insect, all within a 50 m. radius. The chick was very well fed! Interestingly, the mother never approached the nest directly, choosing instead to head in the opposite direction, returning to the nest in a zig-zag fashion. We were watching an ancient predator evasion strategy at work. After almost an hour and half of this, the mother let the baby out of the nest and began feeding it on the trot. The chick would walk a bit, then sit in a small depression, eyes closed, and then get up and walk some more. I delightedly realised that I was privy to the chick’s very first steps. Almost at the same time, the mother lark spotted me and promptly charged at me, opening its wings and screeching loudly. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had overstayed my welcome.
When I checked on the family the next day, I found the chick walking confidently, taking food from its mother every few minutes. It would soon grow up, bring up a family of its own and take on the world!
by Dhritiman Mukherjee