Monday, 6 January 2014

The Lesser Florican

It was similar to a theatre performance.

It had all the ingredients of an epic romance, including a love struck male, the persistent wooing of the flighty female and a noble sacrifice for the power of love. It even had an enraptured audience, albeit with binoculars instead of the customary popcorn.
This open air theatre was set in a rather unusual location, somewhere behind the Mung crop fields in the hot, arid landscape of Rajasthan. A small group of avid birders from Nature India, were fortunate enough to get prime tickets.The star of the show was none other than the majestic Lesser Florican, and its spectacular display was nothing short of magical.

This elusive bird is critically endangered, and the scrub grassland of Sonkhaliya, Ajmer is one of the few places they are found. During the monsoons, the male Lesser Florican exhibits a unique courtship display, jumping about 2 metres in the air. It shows off its magnificent breeding plumage with a peculiar knocking or croaking call. Each male holds a territory of about 1-2 hectares, and the breeding system is said to be a dispersed lek.
The jump is much like that of a graceful trapeze artist. At the apogee of the leap, its neck is arched backwards and the legs folded as if in a sitting posture. He repeats the performance several times for a period of a few days. 

I don’t know if the male we saw managed to attract a female, but his display definitely lured us in. He played pretty hard to get, and on the first day of our trip, we saw a male specimen far out in the fields, enough distance to see through the scope but not enough for a photograph.

We decided to focus on the other scrubland birds, hoping for a better sighting the next morning. We saw a wide variety including the Indian Bushlark, Singing Bushlark, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Rock Bush Quails, Yellow-crowned woodpecker, Southern Grey Shrike, Ashy-crowned sparrow lark, Rufous-fronted Prinia, Grey Francolins, Eurasian Thick-knee, Red-rumped swallow, mynas, babblers, weaver birds, lapwings and doves. 

Red Sand Boa

The second day of our trip, we were much luckier. We caught a close glimpse of the Lesser Florican as he strutted in and of the grasses, teasing us with his little game of hide and seek.

We just couldn’t get enough of this majestic bird. Each of us waited with baited breath for every leap, each more spectacular than the last.

It was with a strange reluctance that we drove away putting our cameras into our bags, wishing we had captured the beauty of just one more jump. The performance was much more than just a show, and I was surprised to find that this beautiful bird had made its way into my heart.

Though the Lesser Florican might not garner as high TRP’s as that of the Indian tiger, its conservation status is even more deplorable than that of the latter. So little is known about this bird, and I do hope that more efforts are taken to protect against the exploitation of its grassland habitat.

An interesting example of grassroots conservation was the shift to Mung cultivation from gram cultivation by the farmers of Sonkhaliya. Mung crop needs lesser spray of chemical pesticides, and is less damaging to the birds. This practise resulted in an increased population, and is a promising sign for the bird’s future.

However this flagship species is greatly threatened like the Great Indian Bustard, the Indian Wolf, and the Royal Bengal Tiger.

If we do not take the required efforts soon, we might lose much more than just our Indian heritage. We lose a vital link in the natural order of things, which is sure to have unforeseen yet far reaching repercussions.

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