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Long-tailed Shrike

Lanius schach

Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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The long-tailed shrike or rufous-backed shrike is a member of the bird family Laniidae, the shrikes. They are found widely distributed across Asia and there are variations in plumage across the range. The species ranges across much of Asia, both on the mainland and the eastern archipelagos. The eastern or Himalayan subspecies, L. s. tricolor, is sometimes called the black-headed shrike. Although there are considerable differences in plumage among the subspecies, they all have a long and narrow black tail, have a black mask and forehead, rufous rump and flanks and a small white patch on the shoulder. It is considered to form a superspecies with the grey-backed shrike which breeds on the Tibetan Plateau.

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The long-tailed shrike is a typical shrike, favouring dry open habitats and found perched prominently atop a bush or on a wire. The dark mask through the eye is broad and covers the forehead in most subspecies and the whole head is black in subspecies tricolor and nasutus. The tail is narrow and graduated with pale rufous on the outer feathers. Subspecies erythronotus has the grey of the mantle and upper back suffused with rufous while the southern Indian caniceps has pure grey. A small amount of white is present at the base of the primaries. The bay-backed shrike is smaller and more contrastingly patterned and has a more prominent white patch on the wing. The sexes are alike in plumage.

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The genus name, Lanius, is derived from the Latin word for "butcher", and some shrikes are also known as "butcher birds" because of their feeding habits. The specific schach is an onomatopoeic name based on the call. The common English name "shrike" is from Old English scríc, "shriek", referring to the shrill call.

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A number of subspecies are noted within the widely distributed range of this species. Stuart Baker in the second edition of The Fauna of British India considered Lanius schach, Lanius tephronotus and Lanius tricolor as three species. He considered nigriceps as synonymous with tricolor and included erythronotus as a race of schach. Other treatments were proposed by Hugh Whistler and N B Kinnear where tephronotus was considered a subspecies of schach and nigriceps and nasutus grouped together. Another treatment considered tricolor as a subspecies of L. tephronotus. It was subsequently however noted that tephronotus and schach co-occurred in the Kumaon region and so the two were confirmed as distinct species. Molecular distances also indicate that they are distant enough. The erythronotus group have a grey head which continues into the back with a gradual suffusion of rufous. The westernmost population from Transcaspia named by Sergei Buturlin as jaxartensis and said to be larger, is not considered valid. A very light grey form from western dry region of India named by Walter Koelz as kathiawarensis is also considered merely as a variant. In southern India and Sri Lanka, subspecies caniceps, is marked by the rufous restricted to the rump, light crown and the pure grey on the back. Biswamoy Biswas supported the view that nigriceps (having upper mantle grey and lower mantle rufous) was a hybrid of tricolor and erythronotus.

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Subspecies longicaudatus has a greyer crown and is found in Thailand and Burma. The nominate subspecies is found in China from the Yangtze valley south to Hainan and Taiwan. Some individuals of the nominate form show melanism and were once described as a species fuscatus. Island forms include nasutus (Philippine Islands from Mindanao to Luzon and north Borneo), suluensis (Sulu Island), bentet (Sunda Islands and Sumatra other than Borneo) and stresemanni of New Guinea.

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The species is found across Asia from Kazakhstan to New Guinea. It is found mainly in scrub and open habitats. Many of the temperate zone populations are migratory, moving south in winter while those in the tropics tend to be sedentary although they may make short distance movements. Subspecies caniceps of southern India is found in winter in the dry coastal zone of southern India. Subspecies tricolor migrates south to Bengal in India. They are found in scrub, grassland and open land under cultivation. A survey in southern India found them to be among the commonest wintering shrikes and found at a linear density along roadsides at about 0.58 per kilometer, often choosing wires to perch.

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This species is a rare vagrant to western Europe on the strength of two accepted records in Great Britain on South Uist in November 2000 and the Netherlands near Den Helder in October 2011. A bird matching the features of caniceps was seen on the island of Maldives. It has also occurred as a vagrant to Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Hungary, Japan and Sweden.

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This bird has a characteristic upright "shrike" attitude when perched on a bush, from which it glides down at an angle to take lizards, large insects, small birds and rodents. They maintain feeding territories and are usually found single or in pairs that are well spaced out. Several members have been observed indulging in play behaviour fighting over perches. The usual calls are harsh grating and scolding calls, likened to the squealing of a frog caught by a snake. They are capable of vocal mimicry and include the calls of many species including lapwings, cuckoos, puppies and squirrels in their song. This singing ability makes it a popular pet in parts of southeast Asia.

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Long-tailed shrikes take a wide variety of animal prey. On occasion, they have been noted capturing fish from a stream. They also take small snakes. It sometimes indulges in kleptoparasitism and takes prey from other birds. It also captures flying insects in the air. They sometimes impale prey on a thorny bush after feeding just on the head or brain. They have been reported to feed on the fruits of the neem in Kerala, even attempting to impale them on a twig.

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The breeding season is in summer in the temperate ranges. The nest is a deep and loose cup made up of thorny twigs, rags and hair. This is placed in a thorny bush, trees such as Flacourtia and wild date palms (Phoenix). The usual clutch is about 3 to 6 eggs which are incubated by both sexes. The eggs hatch after about 13 to 16 days. Young chicks are often fed with pieces of small birds captured by the parents. A second brood may be raised in the same nest. They are sometimes parasitized by cuckoos such as the common cuckoo (Dehra Dun), common hawk-cuckoo, Jacobin cuckoo and the Asian koel in Bangladesh.

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Long-tailed Shrike, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Long-tailed Shrike, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Long-tailed Shrike, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Long-tailed Shrike, 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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