Migrant Watch Society

Flying oranges at the gardens of Theosophical Society

An Orange-headed Thrush at Indiranagar in Adyar. Photo: Vikas Madhav Nagarajan  

In her later years, celluloid diva Greta Garbo took great pains to keep her life under air-tight wraps, and curiosity about it kept mounting. In the avian world, there are birds that avoid getting noticed with an almost Garbo-esque resolve but find themselves swept into the spotlight.

In Chennai, right now, two ready examples are ‘quavering’ in the wind. Two sub-species of the Orange-headed Thrush (OHT) — geokichla citrina citrina, which breeds in the Himalayas, and geokichla citrina cyanota, which breeds in the Western Ghats — are found in the metro as migrants.

The basic difference between the two: Citrina citrina, the nominate sub-species, has an all-orangey head. And Citrina cyanota has its throat, chin and cheeks daubed in white, with a flourish of two black stripes from each eye downwards for added effect.

Though the OHT is retiring, largely sticking to undergrowths, especially those found in the shade of trees, conservation-birders would be ill at ease until they have a rough idea of how many of this local migrant are in attendance in their known habitats.

With dense woodlands as their habitats, in Chennai, the OHT occurs in sections of the Adyar-Guindy area, and Theosophical Society (TS) and IIT-Madras are among places offering them a suitable winter home.

Residents of both these campuses look forward to meeting with all their woodland birds, every winter, and OHT is one of them.

Flying oranges at the gardens of Theosophical Society

“This year I feel there have been more number of Pittas visiting the estate than the OHT,” records TS resident Geetha Jaikumar, and volunteers a snippet of additional information. “Interestingly, I have noticed that the woodland migrants — Pitta, OHT, Forest Wagtail, Brown-breasted Flycatcher and Asian Brown Flycatcher — seem to hang out together.”

Susy Varughese, a resident of IIT-M, has noticed an increased presence of OHT on the campus. “They particularly like damp conditions on the ground under trees, and that could possibly be a factor contributing to the increase in numbers,” she says.

A delight to the ears

These birds can put up a captivating singing performance; in their winter grounds though, they do not have a special incentive to launch into full-scale singing.

An audio record of an Orange-headed Thrush (citrina citrina), dated 22 April 1973 and credited to Edward W. Cronin Jr., an author of books on natural history, is parked on eBird. The bird’s ability to effect variations is evident, with the song resembling an ace whistler’s warm-up session before taking the stage in a global whistling championship.

The post is silent on the specifics of the location, placing it broadly in India. However, a few other records by Edward W. Cronin Jr. on eBird that are traceable to the northern section, particularly around the Himalayan range, suggests the Orange-headed Thrush’s song was likely heard and recorded in its breeding range.

Even in the wintering ground, twitchers with a practised ear for bird calls, would likely keep theirs pinned back for this songster. Sometimes, even that is not necessary, as a young resident of IIT-M found out a couple of days ago.

ALSO READ: Following the Indian Pitta from the Himalayan foothills to IIT Madras

Susy received an audio recording of a bird song from a young resident of the campus, 16-year-old Tarun R.

“He had recorded the call on January 15, around 6 a.m. inside the IIT-M campus near his house. It was a full-fledged song by an OHT,” explains Susy, and also shares the additional information provided by the youngster, a Class XI student of Kendriya Vidyalaya IIT-M: “Audio was recorded in Lenovo Ideapad Slim 3; I have trimmed the recording.”

The series of calls has the unmistakeable drift of a song, with whistles and quavers in place and also interspersed with a few grating notes.

To a question, Geetha says the Adyar Nature and Environment Centre (ANEC) located on the TS campus, has not made any attempt so far to record their calls, “which anyway are not commonly heard”.

While Geetha points out that she has seen both species at TS, Susy discloses that she has not sighted citrina cyanota (White-throated Orange-headed Thrush) at IIT-M.

“They usually appear around the second or third week of October and stay on until almost April-end. This was so in 2020 too,” says Geetha. “They are usually seen in the undergrowth. Haven’t noticed particular trees they are partial to but however they tend to be around the same patch of undergrowth.”

Susy says, “It is a bird that is drawn to ground that is sufficiently shaded by trees, moist and has undergrowths. Just like the Indian Pitta, the OHT feeds on earthworths, which are likely to found in damp soil that is not exposed too much to sunlight.”

A ground forager like the India Pitta, OHT is also called the Orange-headed Ground Thrush.

A rare find

Vikas Madhav Nagarajan, eBird reviewer, says citrina cynota is rarely seen in Chennai, as only small numbers of them are likely to fly into the metro. “I can count the number of cynotas I have come across in Chennai on the fingers of my hand — not more than five,” explains Vikas. “Cynota is a resident of the Western Ghats, but it also has local movement. During that local movement, it comes to Chennai. It is a ghats to plains bird. As part of its local movement, it comes to the plains.”

(‘Migrant Watch’ is a column about birds that visit Chennai during winter)

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