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Home >> Birding Banter >> Photographing the Pheasant-tailed Jacana
 

Photographing the Pheasant-tailed Jacana

Apr 19, 2006 at 01:33 AM
 
Photographing the Pheasant-tailed Jacana - Peter Jackson
 
Here is my account and records of a 24-hour Delhi bird count at the beginning of March 1970.
I am not a “tick-hunter” a compiler of lists of birds seen, just
for the sake of it. But there were many times when I took friends out around Delhi during the winter when we did tot up our score. We often found that it was more than 100. Inevitably, I began to think of how many birds one could see in a day. From our Delhi checklist I reckoned that it should
be possible to top 150. The day was constantly put off until, on 1 March 1970, I awoke with the realisation that I was leaving India in July, the winter was passing, and the chance might be lost for ever.
I got off to quick start as I left the bedroom our resident house
sparrow sped across the living room to feed its nestlings on top of the almyra. Before I was in the car I had the house crow, green parakeet, common and brahminy mynahs and the pariah kite. As I turned down Prithviraj Road, heading for Mehrauli, blossom-headed parakeets flew alongside. I
wished I had taken a portable tape recorder to note birds while driving, but I had to keep the list in my mind for the next stop. The first halt was at Mehrauli, where the dry, stony landscape, the rocks and the ruins produced some 20 more species, including the rufous-fronted wren warbler, the blue rock thrush, brown rock chat, yellow-throated sparrow and dusky crag martin I had relied on others noted could have been picked up elsewhere.
My route went on to Gurgaon, noting pale harrier, white-necked stock, white-eyed buzzard and steppe eagle, among others, on the way. From Gurgaon I turned west, taking the old Farrukhnagar road via Dhankot to Sultanpur, a magnificent jheel. All along the road I had to stop to write
down what I had seen whenever the list waOnly seven minutes after I entered my hide, the pheasant-tailed jaçana returned to its floating nest on the calm waters of the Anchar lake in the Vale of Kashmir. It was a great moment. Several times I had spent days crouched in hides, watching through a small hole as jaçanas delicately "walked on the water", their elongated toes supporting them on the broad leaves of the water lilies, but always out of range of my camera, never returning to their nests. They flew around uttering their mewing calls, which haunted me. I had despaired of photographing this beautiful bird, with its chocolate brown and white body plumage, white head and breast and yellow nape, and a long curved tail. I had to keep trying. My shikari, Sultana, located yet another nest and over three days moved my hide closer and closer until it was just three metres away.
It was July 1959, and in those days a large format camera was considered essential for good bird photographs. I had equipped myself with a Linhof Technika, which could be focussed with an image on a ground-glass screen, making it possible to compose the picture. The jacana performed as
I desired. It returned to the nest from the left, re-arranged its four chocolate brown, pointed eggs and brooded, moved off and returned from the right. Then it began to pull at the lily leaves a short distance further away from the hide, presumably feeding on insects. I joyfully snapped
picture after picture, until I decided that enough was enough.
For a last shot; I waited until the jaçana approached the nest. My finger was on the trigger as I tensely waited for the bird to get into a good position. To my astonishment, it leaned over the nest, lowered its head, and pulled one of the eggs into the water. It backed away, tapping the floating egg along with its bill. It moved to the spot where I thought it had been feeding and nudged the egg onto a pad it had constructed of lily leaves. Then it returned to collect the remaining eggs, one by one, and floated them safely to the new nest.
It had long been known that jaçanas built second nests and moved their eggs. The late Colonel Boyle had photographed one carrying an egg under its throat (also on the Anchar Lake), but no one was known to have actually witnessed eggs being floated to another nest. Obviously, I was taking historic photos, but it was not easy. My Linhof was perfect for
static photography, but far from adapted to this situation. I had to put a dark slide in the film magazine before removing it from the back of the camera; replace it with the ground-glass screen; open the lens; decide where the bird and egg would be when I had carried out the operation in reverse, focus on the spot, and then set up the camera again. Six times I went through the complicated procedure until my film was finished. I got out of the hide and waded to the shore, breathing deeply and with a sense of accomplishment.
It was a tense time, waiting for the films to be processed, but,
at last, I had the photos of this extraordinary event. I sent copies and an account to Salim Ali at BNHS. In due course, he included the record in the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan Vol. 2 (p. 200)
-------------------------------
Before the second world war, Colonel Boyle, who died only last year at the age of 100, photographed a jacana removing an egg from its nest by wedging it between the bill and its breast and retreating backwards. I have never seen the photo.

In recent times, Ashish Chandola filmed a jacana moving its eggs in Sri Lanka in the same way I saw.
 
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