(Admission: This photograph is not of a quality acceptable to be publicised. It is only a memento of a fleeting, yet striking incidence that I have often read about, but never had an opportunity to experience first-hand until now.)
The Lotus Lake is a small, neglected, natural water body within the bounds of Aarey Forest which is filled up to its brim during the monsoon, a vast cricket ground with a brown spinning pitch down its centre at the height of summer, and littered with construction debris and religious offerings practically all round the year. With a tree-lined motorable road on its Western boundary and a copse of tall trees on its Northern bounds, this 3.5 acre pond has an impenetrable thicket of shrubs on the Eastern side and a barely negotiable marshy shore to its South.
Twilight still ruled on that Sunday morning as Junior and I squished through the marshy Southern banks towards the water edge. The air was thick with haze and the winter chill had taken a fairly strong grip over the forest. Having spent the better part of an hour observing a deceit of red-wattled lapwings (Vanellus indicus), broods of white-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus), a couple of little cormorants (Microcarbo niger) and the odd glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) besides trying to study bird tracks – and even a couple of leopard pug marks – in the sludge, we decided we had had enough of the cloggy mud clinging to our shoes.
Even though it was past the hour of sunup the light was not much better as the winter gloom and cloud cover were seemingly decided upon making no concessions. We wandered around to the Western side of the lake where we could watch a minor congregations of cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and a couple of little egrets (Egretta garzetta) from as close as 50 metres standing shielded by the trees, and, more importantly, on dry and higher ground.
As we watched the egrets an interesting action of one particular little egret caught my eye. This bird was shaking and vibrating one foot at a time in the shallow waters, stirring up the muddy sediments, probably trying to force its prey into breaking cover (watch the video here). By the rate at which it was dipping its beak into the waters to grab fish, the shake-a-leg seemed to be yielding rich dividends!
Just then a white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) swooped down into the water close to the egret’s feet, dipping its beak in the water – obviously looking to grab a bite for itself – and quickly returning to a perch on a low branch of a tree immediately to our left. This was repeated a few times and the egret did not seem to mind. It was at one of the last such passes that I broke out of the trance and managed to get this one click before both birds decided that they had had enough (of us or the fish, we could not tell).
The live lesson in commensalism with the kingfisher using the egret as its personal beater had made our day and we began walking up the road to the New Zealand Hostel debating whether a free lunch did indeed exist in nature!
[Framed: A commensal relationship between a little egret (Egretta garzetta) and a white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) at Lotus Lake, Aarey Forest, Mumbai]
– Narendra Nayak © 2021