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Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

Migrant Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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The cattle egret is a cosmopolitan species of heron found in the tropics, subtropics and warm temperate zones. It is the only member of the monotypic genus Bubulcus, although some authorities regard two of its subspecies as full species, the western cattle egret and the eastern cattle egret. Despite the similarities in plumage to the egrets of the genus Egretta, it is more closely related to the herons of Ardea. Originally native to parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, it has undergone a rapid expansion in its distribution and successfully colonised much of the rest of the world in the last century.

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It is a white bird adorned with buff plumes in the breeding season. It nests in colonies, usually near bodies of water and often with other wading birds. The nest is a platform of sticks in trees or shrubs. Cattle egrets exploit drier and open habitats more than other heron species. Their feeding habitats include seasonally inundated grasslands, pastures, farmlands, wetlands and rice paddies. They often accompany cattle or other large mammals, catching insect and small vertebrate prey disturbed by these animals. Some populations of the cattle egret are migratory and others show post-breeding dispersal.

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The adult cattle egret has few predators, but birds or mammals may raid its nests, and chicks may be lost to starvation, calcium deficiency or disturbance from other large birds. This species maintains a special relationship with cattle, which extends to other large grazing mammals; wider human farming is believed to be a major cause of their suddenly expanded range. The cattle egret removes ticks and flies from cattle and consumes them. This benefits both species, but it has been implicated in the spread of tick-borne animal diseases.

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The cattle egret was first described in 1758 by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae as Ardea ibis, but was moved to its current genus by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1855. Its genus name Bubulcus is Latin for herdsman, referring, like the English name, to this species' association with cattle. Ibis is a Latin and Greek word which originally referred to another white wading bird, the sacred ibis, but was applied to this species in error.

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The cattle egret has two geographical races which are sometimes classified as full species, the western cattle egret, B. ibis, and eastern cattle egret, B. coromandus. The two forms were split by McAllan and Bruce, but were regarded as conspecific by almost all other recent authors until the publication of the influential Birds of South Asia. The eastern subspecies B. (i.) coromandus, described by Pieter Boddaert in 1783, breeds in Asia and Australasia, and the western nominate form occupies the rest of the species range, including the Americas. Some authorities recognise a third Seychelles subspecies, B. i. seychellarum, which was first described by Finn Salomonsen in 1934.

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Despite superficial similarities in appearance, the cattle egret is more closely related to the genus Ardea, which comprises the great or typical herons and the great egret, than to the majority of species termed egrets in the genus Egretta. Rare cases of hybridization with little blue herons Egretta caerulea, little egrets Egretta garzetta and snowy egrets Egretta thula have been recorded.

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The cattle egret is a stocky heron with an 88–96 cm wingspan; it is 46–56 cm long and weighs 270–512 g. It has a relatively short thick neck, a sturdy bill, and a hunched posture. The non-breeding adult has mainly white plumage, a yellow bill and greyish-yellow legs. During the breeding season, adults of the nominate western subspecies develop orange-buff plumes on the back, breast and crown, and the bill, legs and irises become bright red for a brief period prior to pairing. The sexes are similar, but the male is marginally larger and has slightly longer breeding plumes than the female; juvenile birds lack coloured plumes and have a black bill.

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B. i. coromandus differs from the nominate subspecies in breeding plumage, when the buff colour on its head extends to the cheeks and throat, and the plumes are more golden in colour. This subspecies' bill and tarsus are longer on average than in B. i. ibis. B. i. seychellarum is smaller and shorter-winged than the other forms. It has white cheeks and throat, like B. i. ibis, but the nuptial plumes are golden, as with B. i. coromandus. Individuals with abnormally grey, melanistic plumages have been recorded.

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The positioning of the egret's eyes allows for binocular vision during feeding, and physiological studies suggest that the species may be capable of crepuscular or nocturnal activity. Adapted to foraging on land, they have lost the ability possessed by their wetland relatives to accurately correct for light refraction by water.

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This species gives a quiet, throaty rick-rack call at the breeding colony, but is otherwise largely silent.

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The cattle egret has undergone one of the most rapid and wide reaching natural expansions of any bird species. It was originally native to parts of Southern Spain and Portugal, tropical and subtropical Africa and humid tropical and subtropical Asia. In the end of the 19th century it began expanding its range into southern Africa, first breeding in the Cape Province in 1908. Cattle egrets were first sighted in the Americas on the boundary of Guiana and Suriname in 1877, having apparently flown across the Atlantic Ocean. It was not until the 1930s that the species is thought to have become established in that area.

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The species first arrived in North America in 1941 (these early sightings were originally dismissed as escapees), bred in Florida in 1953, and spread rapidly, breeding for the first time in Canada in 1962. It is now commonly seen as far west as California. It was first recorded breeding in Cuba in 1957, in Costa Rica in 1958, and in Mexico in 1963, although it was probably established before that. In Europe, the species had historically declined in Spain and Portugal, but in the latter part of the 20th century it expanded back through the Iberian Peninsula, and then began to colonise other parts of Europe; southern France in 1958, northern France in 1981 and Italy in 1985. Breeding in the United Kingdom was recorded for the first time in 2008 only a year after an influx seen in the previous year. In 2008, cattle egrets were also reported as having moved into Ireland for the first time. This trend has continued and cattle egrets have become more numerous in southern Britain with influxes in some numbers during the non breeding seasons of 2007/08 and 2016/17. They bred in Britain again in 2017, following an influx in the previous winter, and may become established there.

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In Australia, the colonisation began in the 1940s, with the species establishing itself in the north and east of the continent. It began to regularly visit New Zealand in the 1960s. Since 1948 the cattle egret has been permanently resident in Israel. Prior to 1948 it was only a winter visitor.

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The massive and rapid expansion of the cattle egret's range is due to its relationship with humans and their domesticated animals. Originally adapted to a commensal relationship with large grazing and browsing animals, it was easily able to switch to domesticated cattle and horses. As the keeping of livestock spread throughout the world, the cattle egret was able to occupy otherwise empty niches. Many populations of cattle egrets are highly migratory and dispersive, and this has helped the species' range expansion. The species has been seen as a vagrant in various sub-Antarctic islands, including South Georgia, Marion Island, the South Sandwich Islands and the South Orkney Islands. A small flock of eight birds was also seen in Fiji in 2008.

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In addition to the natural expansion of its range, cattle egrets have been deliberately introduced into a few areas. The species was introduced to Hawaii in 1959, and to the Chagos Archipelago in 1955. Successful releases were also made in the Seychelles and Rodrigues, but attempts to introduce the species to Mauritius failed. Numerous birds were also released by Whipsnade Zoo in England, but the species was never established.

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Although the cattle egret sometimes feeds in shallow water, unlike most herons it is typically found in fields and dry grassy habitats, reflecting its greater dietary reliance on terrestrial insects rather than aquatic prey.

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Some populations of cattle egrets are migratory, others are dispersive, and distinguishing between the two can be difficult for this species. In many areas populations can be both sedentary and migratory. In the northern hemisphere, migration is from cooler climes to warmer areas, but cattle egrets nesting in Australia migrate to cooler Tasmania and New Zealand in the winter and return in the spring. Migration in western Africa is in response to rainfall, and in South America migrating birds travel south of their breeding range in the non-breeding season. Populations in southern India appear to show local migrations in response to the monsoons. They move north from Kerala after September. During winter, many birds have been seen flying at night with flocks of Indian pond herons on the south-eastern coast of India and a winter influx has also been noted in Sri Lanka.

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Young birds are known to disperse up to 5,000 km from their breeding area. Flocks may fly vast distances and have been seen over seas and oceans including in the middle of the Atlantic.

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Cattle Egret, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Cattle Egret, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Cattle Egret, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Cattle Egret, Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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Wings over Valparai

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The Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Valparai area in Western-Ghats of Tamilnadu are both perfect bird watching destinations. Birders will marvel at the array of colorful birds like Hornbills, Thrush Family, Flycatchers, woodpeckers and of course the sighting of our national bird, The Indian Peafowl.

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There are more than 350 species of birds found in Anamalais. The list includes resident birds, winter visitors and endemic birds of Anamalais. Nearly 5 % of birds found in Anamalai Tiger Reserve are endemic to Western Ghats

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What is birdwatching?

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Birdwatching or birding is the observation and study of birds with the naked eye or through a visual enhancement device like binoculars. Birding often involves a significant auditory component, as many bird species are more readily detected and identified by ear than by eye. Most birdwatchers pursue this activity mainly for recreational or social reasons, unlike ornithologists, who engage in the study of birds using more formal scientific methods.

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What do you need for birdwatching?

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• The most basic equipment required for bird watching is your eyes. That´s true but you will soon need to have more items with you if you intend to make this a pastime or serious hobby. How far you go is a matter of taste and budget.

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• The most useful thing that you can carry is a notepad and pencil. Use this to make a note of location, time, date, weather and habitat. Do a list of the birds that you see and know. Do a drawing or write down a description of those that you don’t. You can look them up later in you field guide. Your notebook should become a diary of where you have been and what you have seen. It will become a useful record as time passes.

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• A Field guide is a book, normally illustrated with drawings or photographs, which provides descriptions of birds that assists you in their identification. The descriptions use several factors to help you determine the exact bird that you are looking at. As soon as you see a bird that you do not recognize you will need to have access a good field guide. There are many to choose from. They come in various shapes, sizes, weight and cost.

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• Sites guides. These give locations where you can watch birds, the species you are likely to see and the best time to watch.

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• Binoculars. These are pretty essential and buy the best that you can afford. A good pair well looked after will last you a lifetime. Take time to choose ones that suit you.

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• Clothing. Bird watching being primarily an outdoor pursuit, it is sensible to have lightweight but warm and waterproof clothing. You will be more comfortable if you wear the right type of clothing for the conditions you are in.

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• Telescope. If you want to get a really close look at birds then you will need to get a bird watching scope and tripod. These are more expensive than binoculars but if you get to be serious about bird watching you will soon want to have them.

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• Camera. A simple point and shoot digital camera is good if you are close to birds, especially if you have a zoom lens. If not close enough to shoot birds it is still good to take general views or mementos of your day out. More expensive cameras, with telephoto lenses, can bring you close in to the birds.

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• Digiscoping. You can take pictures via your Scope–using it as a telephoto lens. You will need attachments for your scope.

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Code of birding ethics

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1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.
1. (a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.
1. (b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
   Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
   Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.
   Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.
1. (c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.
1. (d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

2. Respect the law, and the rights of others.
2. (a) Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.
2. (b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad.
2. (c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

3. Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are safe.
3. (a) Keep dispensers, water, and food clean, and free of decay or disease. It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.
3. (b) Maintain and clean nest structures regularly.
3. (c) If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to predation from cats and other domestic animals, or dangers posed by artificial hazards.

4. Group birding, whether organized or impromptu, requires special care.
  Each individual in the group, in addition to the obligations spelled out in Items #1 and #2, has responsibilities as a Group Member.
4. (a) Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience, except where code 1(c) applies. Be especially helpful to beginning birders.
4. (b) If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

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Other highlights for the avid birder will be the sighting of The Great HornBill or Thrush. Learn more about the endamic, migrants and other birds in and around valparai by checking out the list

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The below list is created in the guidance of Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Cinchona Government High School, Valparai who teaches English. Along with his students, won ebird’s Great Backyard Bird Count challenge, 2017. They contributed 360 checklists of birds, the highest number in the bird count challenge, and recorded 111 species.

Images and Data courtesy Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia and ebird.org

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List of Endamic Birds of Western-Ghats you can see in Valparai

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List of Migrant Birds that can be seen in Valparai

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List of Other Birds you can see in Valparai

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