The Peacock – The National Bird Of India

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

On my last trip to India, I was fortunate enough to have some great sightings of India’s national bird, the peacock (or rather more correctly, the Indian Peafowl (to be fair to both sexes))! In the United States, these birds are often relegated to free roaming status in zoos, so it was nice to see some in their natural habitat.

An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.

While feathers from the peacock are sought after due to their amazing colors and iridescence, I saw peahens showing off as well.

An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.

One thing that became apparent as soon as I started photographing was that these wild peacocks were extremely skittish and agitated. Any time I tried to approach on foot, they would scamper off into the jungle.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

Only by shooting from the window of a car was I able to get close. The “mobile blind” technique often works well with many types of wildlife, though it is essential to have an experienced driver who knows how to slowly creep up on the subject without spooking it.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

When you can catch the peacock feathers in the right light, the brilliant colors almost glow. Here you have to be careful about light angles, because at the wrong angle, you can get unwanted glare from the reflective surface of these iridescent feathers.

An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.

I looked for opportunities like the shot above to showcase peacocks off the ground. Here the males can let the full glory of their tail feathers hang to the ground. This was taken at a meditation center in southern Tamil Nadu that doubled as a sanctuary for these wild birds.

An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.

While I photographed many peacocks over the course of three days, one shot I wanted but didn’t get was that of a male displaying to female. I did see this display in action, but wasn’t able to photograph it well as the birds were stationed behind a wire fence. I figure its always good to want more – all the more reason to keep me coming back in the future!

Red-headed Finch

A male red-headed finch carries nesting material, Windhoek, Namibia.

Red-headed finches are a medium sized finch with a beautiful feather pattern on the body. The males display a bright red head, while the females have a grayish head with slightly duller body colors.

I came across a wild colony in Windhoek, Namibia, where it appears that they took over a set of old nests abandoned by some kind of weaver.

A male red-headed finch perches on a nest, Windhoek, Namibia.

The nests were hanging from the branches of a tree, with a small entrance on the underside. This species is known to take over and retrofit nests of other species, though they also build their own.

A female red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

I was not able to find much information on this bird, other than to read that they are occasionally bred as caged birds.

A male red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

It is birds like this that makes traveling to other parts of the world so much fun for me. When I arrive in a new area, even the most common species are new and interesting.

Tufted Gray Langur

A tufted gray langur poses on a rock, Mudumalai National Park, India.

One of my most challenging subjects from my recent India trip was the tufted gray langur. Any animal that has a mixture of very light and very dark colors is an exercise of balance. It takes just the right kind of light, and the perfect exposure to get enough light to see details in the dark areas, while making sure not to blow out the highlights. In the case of the gray langur, I had to make sure the black face was bright enough, while the white hair surrounding the face still rendered in fine detail.

In the portrait above, I was fortunate to have diffused afternoon sunlight directly lighting the face. This helped keep the contrast of the scene low and caught all the details of his solemn expression.

A tufted gray langur clings to the top of a tree, Mudumalai National Park, India.

The langur seemed to live more wild than the ubiquitous macaques. They have extremely long tails, as can be seen in the photo above. Gray langurs have superior eyesight which allows them to sit in the tops of trees to watch for predators from a distance. They are often seen near herds of chital, as each species can warn each other of approaching predators. In fact, one morning in Mudumalai National Park, we did hear the treetops go wild with monkey calls. About 30 seconds of waiting earned us the growling of a tiger in the thick underbrush. We never did sight the tiger, but the langurs certainly alerted us to its presence.

A tufted gray langur sits on the ground for a portrait, Mudumalai National Park, India.

In all, I only spent a few short moments with these monkeys. In the future, I hope to capture active interactions between family members, as I have in the past with macaques. The unpredictability of wildlife always gives me reasons to keep going back for more.

An Early Ooty Morning

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

There was a chill in the air as I walked down the four flights of stairs to the garden below. Then I remembered that I was close to 8,000 feet of elevation, which also explained my slight shortness of breath. I was in the hill station of Ooty, a mountain top town surrounded by tea plantations. My friend Frans Xavier generously offered to play host to his home state of Tamil Nadu, India for a few days, and this was our first stop on the way from Coimbatore to Mudumalai National Park. We had flown into Coimbatore the day before where we met Frans’ good college friend Frank. This was truly the best way for me to see such a beautiful part of India, with two locals showing me the way!

A female house sparrow eats a grub from the ground in the early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

But of course day one saw me up at dawn, anxious to see which birds I could photograph before we hit the road later that morning. At first I spied one of my regular usual suspects, the house sparrow. Here is a female in the grass, just pulling a fat grub from the earth. I suppose this was the epitome of the “early bird!”

Unfortunately, what was once a common species throughout India, the house sparrow is rapidly disappearing, due most likely to urbanization. It is the typical story we see over and over in this planet’s wild places – loss of habitat.

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I slowly wound my way through the garden, which was terraced – carved into the side of a steep hill. My journey was very quiet until I got to the very bottom, at which point the manicured garden met the thick, wild forest. It was alive with bird song, monkey calls, and other unidentified animal sounds that could only be attributed to the beasts of my imagination. At this point, I struck gold (at least from a bird photographer’s perspective). I was eye level with the tops of several bushes, thick with red-whiskered bulbuls.

Two red-whiskered bulbuls perch on a berry bush in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I had photographed this bird on two occasions in a trip to India last year, but this was by far the most I had seen at once. From my position, it was difficult to move as I was perched on the side of a very steep hill. Any time I tried to move closer to the birds, I ended up underneath them, as I dropped in elevation. So I was pretty much stuck at a fixed distance from the bushes, which fortunately was close enough.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

In addition to the bulbul clan, I found a couple of male pied bush chats (a new species for me), flitting up and down the hill. These guys proved to be more skittish than the bulbuls, most likely because they weren’t busy gorging themselves with berries.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

After about half an hour, the birds were clearing out and the world around me was stirring. I was happy with my haul – an excellent start to wonderful trip.