Sarus

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By Balasaheb Pratinidhi (Chitra Ramayana) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of a bird led to the birth of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Sage Valmiki headed out to take a dip in the river Tamasa. He decided to take a stroll before his bath, soaking in nature’s beauty. A little distance away were two birds, a male and female, completely engrossed in one other. Even as the sage watched, a hunter’s arrow killed the male. Overcome with grief (shoka), Valmiki uttered these words, which, even to his surprise, came out as a shloka – a verse perfect in rhyme and rhythm – and was the first ever Sanskrit verse.

मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥

mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam

http://ozcranes.net/images/valmiki.jpg

Source: ozcranes.net

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A Pelican and Other Birds Near a Pool, known as ‘The Floating Feather

The verse roughly translates to, “Oh hunter, may you repent for life and suffer, find no rest or fame, for you have killed one of the unsuspecting, devoted and loving krauñcha couple.” Of the several interpretations, one says the hunter is the demon Ravana, who separated the loving couple, Sita and Rama.

My Sanskrit teacher in school, Mrs. Sulabha V Hubli, explained ma nishada in great detail with its many meanings and interpretations, imprinting the epic scene on my memory. A few months ago, I had attended Shyamal’s talk, where he discussed Melchior de Hondecoeter’s 1680 artwork, Het drijvend veertje, one of the most accurate representations of the Sarus Crane. The Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) at the center of the frame got me thinking about this verse again.

Was it the Sarus that Valmiki referred to? In different literature, the  krauñcha has been described as a dove, flamingo, swan, snipe, curlew or even a Demoiselle Crane. The wiki for Demoiselle Crane has a reference to krauñcha and Valmiki. However, more recent studies have established the identity of Valmiki’s krauñcha pair as Sarus Cranes.

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Sarus Cranes in a grassland, Keoladeo National Park

As the story goes, the female lamented with a pitch and tonal quality so deep in emotion, that compassion welled up within Valmiki. Julia Leslie’s paper, A bird bereaved, does an exhaustive study of the verse, considering thirty two separate species, and eliminating all but one, the Sarus Crane.

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Sarus Cranes in Keoladeo National Park

Literature says the name Sarus came from the Sanskrit word sarasa, pertaining to lake, water. Sarasa explains the habitat of the crane – wetlands, grasslands, marshes and [un]cultivated fields. Another study talks about the word relating to any crane or waterfowl, but it also translates to crying or calling out.  In Tamil, the word sarasa is closely related to dance – which relates to the “dancing” movements of these birds, not only during the breeding season. They are famous for their fascinating display, with perfect poise and calling in unison. They jump, bow and circle around, stand in front of each other, swinging their necks. One may jump and descend flapping its wings. Oh, how I wish I could see this someday 🙂

We did see this graceful pair foraging in the fields at Lesser Rann of Kutch. How time flew, we never realized, for they were a treat to watch. That they decided to call, was an icing on the cake.

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http://indiapicks.com/Indianart/Images_MP/Mughal_Cranes.jpg

Source: Gallery of Indian miniature paintings, National Museum, New Delhi

While Valmiki’s Ramayana gave a poetic introduction to the tallest flying birds, Emperor Jehangir pioneered in noting its behavioral ecology and natural history, in early 17th century. Again, one of his notes also refers to a crane’s pining, its mournful notes, after its mate was predated. Although all cranes bond for life, it is the Sarus that is a symbol of marital fidelity. The Emperor was so interested in these cranes that he had also gold-ringed a few of them on their noses and legs!

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An etymology of krauñcha says that it is the one that gives out calls. This bird with its grey plumage is described as the one with the red head (raktamoordha). In fact, Valmiki’s description of  tamra sirsa (coppery head) aided in identifying the krauñcha in his story.

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There are references to instances where bereaved Sarus Cranes have pined away to death. You may call this poignant episode and the female lamenting as anthropomorphic. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. All I can say is,  most of mankind has transformed into a more vicious form of the hunter of Valmiki’s story. To make our lives better – be it in the form of more money, better infrastructure, real estate, agriculture – we destroy  homes of not only the Sarus Crane, but of many other wild citizens. We kill them without giving a second thought. The Sarus Crane will continue to lament. There are people who narrate those stories. But will the audience read, listen and care?

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Sugandhi

References

Celebrating art and natural history

Everyone would love to draw or doodle. If you master the art, every boring class or meeting can suddenly become that much more interesting. However, it’ll be better if you draw or sketch for the love of it, for you can create something you’ll cherish for a long time to come. SugSketch0002Apart from playing book cricket in classes or doodling during meetings, I enjoyed sketching. Of course, I hadn’t mastered it, I would only copy the masters. Bill Waterson, for example – as a tribute to the master, this one hung on my cubicle wall. The scan looks a bit yellowed, and sure enough, indicates that this is an “antique” artwork 😉

It was more fun to draw animals, though, but my sketches were mostly those of bears (Barney Bear), pigs(Porky Pig), Looney Tunes or stuffed tigers

SugSketch0003Apart from a postal course in art from Santhanu’s Chitra Vidyalayam, I didn’t dabble much with sketching, other than the occasional doodling while dawdling. Things changed, when I began watching birds. We learnt from experts and ornithologists; a common point everybody mentioned was to draw. Watch the birds, draw what you see, note down the details. Obviously, you may not be able to replicate the bird, but you can definitely observe its posture, the colors on its head, wings and beak, whether it walks or hops and a hundred other things that a bird can do. So there I was, back into sketching. My sketches were horrible, but that didn’t matter at all, because all that mattered was the learning.

This year, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (NGMA) was celebrating art & natural history, on the occasion of World Environment Day. It was a three-day event with two 20150606_110529workshops, a film festival and a conversation on animal illustrations in India. I was thrilled, because one of the workshops was for adults. Finally! I would get jealous of the kids who get to learn nature journaling from Sangeetha Kadur and Shilpa of Greenscraps – both very fine nature and wildlife artists and wonderful teachers, but who haven’t yet agreed to many of our requests to conduct workshops for adults 😉 At NGMA, there was a two-part workshop on scientific drawing of animals conducted by Ms. Tatiana Petrova. She is a Russian wildlife artist and 20150606_110800ornithologist, who recently completed her dissertation on the history of ornithological illustrations of Indian birds in lithographs of XIX century.

A few of her works were on display at the NGMA library.  Shyamal L and MB Krishna guided some of us through the display which ranged from watercolors and woodcuts to lithographs and oil pastels. Later, Shilpa explained what goes into making some of them, and that was an eye-opener. The cats, birds, geckos – mind-blowing art. I was glad I didn’t miss the event.

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During the workshop, she took us along the timeline of the history of art in the natural world – from imaginary creatures and crude drawings to precise representations, art in nature and wildlife has come a long way. She told us about the very same techniques that our mentors had taught us earlier, of how to draw the key features and a bit of the habitat, while on the field. Additionally, she introduced us to “schemes” – more like skeletal line drawings for insects/animals/birds – on top of which one can develop the final sketch.

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My incomplete sketches from the workshop: bird anatomy scheme, bird expressions and Khaleej Pheasant (while watching a video clip)

She said, most people make the mistake of drawing the legs from the belly, or the tail seems to be “growing” out of the wrong place. There were important points that she drove home – like the joints on the limbs which make for a much better sketch – simple techniques, simple because she made them look so but points which we would otherwise fail to note.

Day two involved an exercise of sketching while watching videos of animals and birds in action. Wow, doing a simple copy itself was a big task and this seemed impossible!

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Marmots from my A4 pages – drawn while watching a video clip played in a loop

But she gave us a few tips and tricks. More than the sketching experiment, I enjoyed watching her in action. She was fast, observing even the smallest details and producing art of the finest nature. Later, some of us (participants) exchanged “notes” and it was great fun to admire each other’s art 😉

The event ended with the ‘Drawn to the Wild: A Conversation on Animal Illustrations in India’ by  Shyamal and Tatiana. It was a journey they took us along, bringing to us the art that we don’t normally get to see. I am not qualified to even go ga-ga over Shyamal’s research and knowledge, but all I can say is that if you haven’t heard him yet, you really haven’t done the right thing. During the talk, Shyamal and Tatiana discussed many images, one of which was the one below. Note the Sarus Crane in the middle – I am mentioning this in particular, because two of our upcoming posts relate to cranes – Demoiselle and Sarus. Stay craned!

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Melchior de Hondecoeter Birds in a Park 1680″ by Melchior d’Hondecoeter – Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sugandhi

Further reading:

Painting the town red, green, yellow and every other colour

It is habba (festival) time in Bengaluru, with our city celebrating Neralu, the festival of trees. I got this opportunity to write about my experiences at Neralu for Citizen Matters. Thank you CM! Here is the link:

http://bangalore.citizenmatters.in/articles/painting-the-town-red-green-yellow-and-every-other-colour-neralu-bengaluru

I am posting the contents of the article here.

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It is that time of the year when some fellow Bengalureans will together paint the town red. Or yellow, purple, orange, pink, violet; name it and you’ll see the colour. Those Bengalureans are our beloved trees, getting into bloom, making namma Bengaluru look vibrant and pretty.

It was a nippy and chirpy Saturday morning, with the White-cheeked Barbets calling tirelessly. Being a ‘true South Indian’, I had to complete my ritual of one cup of strong filter coffee, even at the risk of getting late. I still managed to reach in time for Neralu’s opening activity, Katte Parichaya by Kiran Keswani and team at Doddamavalli Katte. If you thought this city doesn’t wake up early on weekends, you should have been there to see the crowd gathered in front of the Ashwath Katte, intently listening.

_46A2651Kiran and team spoke about Katte and the trees (that sounds a bit like ‘Swami and friends’, doesn’t it?), sharing interesting stories and facts, such as the Hindu divine trinity, paganism, the innumerable uses of the Peepal tree, community space, and even the ‘marriage’ between Peepal and Neem! Tree lovers gushed with pride, pointing to the crowd to crane their necks and have a look at the Mahua tree standing tall next to the Bisilu Maramma shrine. I smiled at the canopy, at the green leaves fluttering against the pleasant blue background.

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Business was as usual at the santhe, but this time, with a difference, because the vendors and customers had lent one of their ears to Neralu. The Parichaya was an interactive session, with many experiences exchanged, from Kattes in different parts of the country and ‘somari (lazy) Kattes’ to college Kattes.  It took me back to my school days, when we, siblings, had to gather the fallen twigs of the Arali mara (Peepal) once a year, for one of the rituals at home. For the twig-gathering, we would visit three Kattes nearby, the ones near Dodda Ganesha temple, Bull Temple and Mallikarjuna Swamy temple.

The Neralu team had made these colourful Katte postcards to be posted to friends and family, inviting them to Neralu. What a lovely concept! Kids rushed to write on their cards and post them in the cute little Neralu letter box.
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This old lady, frail and beautiful, picked up a card and examined it for a long while. Could she send it to someone? Did she keep it for herself? I’ll probably never know, but I’ll cherish the memory; that she had a Neralu card with her.

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I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out to National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). It was so open, so inviting, and so green. It was indeed festival time! There were maps to guide us to different ‘in-tree-esting’ activities, and friendly volunteers were running around, just like busy ants on trees. I even got my wrist stamped with Neralu.

The first floor had me soaked with information and titbits, as I walked in awe, looking at the selections from a larger exhibition on the lesser-known flora and fauna of the Western Ghats. Sigh, I wish I had at least nine lives to see all of those in person. My family and I walked over to the photo project. Over 40 photographs were on display, each telling a different, lovely, picturesque story about trees. One of the photographs was mine and Rana’s. I quietly danced a little jig! 🙂

My next morning was again a Neralu morning at MN Krishna Rao Park. The Kaleido group ran around the park, announcing “Banniri banniri, natakava nODiri”, inviting everyone to watch their play. The artists clad in red and black entertained the crowd, with witty dialogues and thought-provoking concepts. We didn’t need a laughter club that day to laugh out loud! I felt my eyes going moist when the artist said he moved out of Bendaluru to Neraluru. With my garden city boiling and baking, the name Bendaluru hurt.
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pic_article_Neralu_Sugandhi__4_The crowd split into two groups for the tree walks. I joined the one led by Narayan. He made it very interesting, sharing stories from his grandparents, and asking us to name the trees based on what we felt, telling us how to differentiate between the Teak and Kanaka Champa. He took us to the Mast tree and asked, “Which tree is this?” Pat came the answer, “Asoka”. He asked, “Do you think Sita would’ve had any shade under this tree?” Now, that question made sure that nobody from his audience will ever mistake the Mast tree for the Asoka!

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I had to excuse myself at this point, for I had to run to one of my favourite Neralu activities – Yoga under trees. The instructor, Namrata Sudhindra, was brilliant. She taught us asana after asana, without a break, and I didn’t realize how time flew. It was peaceful under the shade of the trees, and as she promised, I can still feel the energy flowing through me. [Image courtesy: Sudarshan Gadadhar]

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One of the vendors at the Katte Santhe

Unless we know about trees, we will never learn to respect or treasure them. We need to celebrate trees and our natural heritage. Neralu is becoming addictive, a habba that we all look forward to. This is the second year in succession that Bengaluru is celebrating trees. Here’s kudos to the team bringing this festival to us. Do catch the rest of the Neralu activities on February 14th.

Sugandhi

2 bin 1 bag

Bengaluru, once known as garden city, is now notorious as the garbage city. Thousands of tons of solid waste are generated in our city, everyday. Have a look at these shocking images from Mandur landfill. The residents protested enough and their voices were heard. 20141203_164556Dumping has been stopped at Mandur. But the day isn’t far away when some other area becomes a Mandur, unless we take responsibility.

That’s exactly what proactive citizens from Bellandur ward in Bengaluru did.  They formed a group called Kasa Muktha Bellandur, KMB, began managing their waste responsibly and are also being humane to people who handle waste. They began a citizen initiative called 2bin1bag, to segregate garbage at source. The entire process is well documented on their website, the formula itself is very easy and it instantly cuts down on plastic bags. It also ensures that very little goes to the landfill, because if we manage waste, then 95% of it can either be recycled or composted. They have tied up with other groups and vendors who manage garbage – which means that a vendor would actually *pay* to collect dry and/or wet waste from your homes!

So, our blog is Aranya Parva, and what does the “book of the forest” have to do with garbage? A forest definitely doesn’t have to do anything 20141203_170112with garbage, but the sad reality is that forests are being taken over for garbage dumping. We cannot write about the forest if forests no longer remain. And hence, this blog post.

Sugandhi and I got an opportunity to work with  the KMB team  on a short film that explains how easy it is to segregate 🙂 We made the film in English and Kannada, with one professional artist and some first timers, including a very smart young boy and a lovable, well-behaved puppy! There were two Malayalis who managed to speak well in Kannada, and there was one father-in-law, mine. I’ll stop the description there 😀 It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience where we learnt a lot. Please watch these films, share them widely, and more importantly, begin segregation 🙂

We are also in the process of gathering volunteers in our ward. Hopefully, our street will hop onto the 2bin1bag bandwagon soon. Until then, adios!

English version:

Kannada version:

Please take a moment to sign this petition and help the KMB volunteers take this plea to BBMP to ban plastic in Bengaluru.

Rana

References:

The precious “plastic”

2013, the year when most of Malnad or Malenadu region in Karnataka experienced torrential rains, close to 50% in excess. The eastern and western slopes of Western Ghats form Malnad, which, in Kannada, means a hilly, rainfed land. Parts of Shimoga, Chikmagalur, Uttara Kannada, Coorg, Hassan and Belgaum districts constitute the extremely beautiful Malnad.

The Western Ghats always take our breath away. Looking at the green blanket, we felt a surge of emotions. We were overjoyed to experience heaven – it didn’t require us to be too good either! We were teary-eyed, wondering how can people destroy the rich Western Ghats with such ease. The entire valley was covered with mist and fog, and we waited for that occasional drop of sunrise to lift the veil and show us some green.

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Jagara Valley

_MG_0013Birds played hide-and-seek in the thick foliage, but they couldn’t hide their songs. It took no effort for us to get lost in the mist and melody. There were insects galore, some very still and camouflaged, some very busy. The bejeweled leaves and the tiny flowers glowed.

_MG_0068While we were in the Muttodi area, we happened to pass by the Seegekan forest rest house. We stopped to take a photo of this lovely rest house seated on a picturesque hilltop. While I was watching woodpeckers from my binoculars, I heard a loud thud. I couldn’t see anything or anyone. After a few minutes, Rana called out to me, “Hey, come here. ಹುಷಾರು, ಇಲ್ಲಿ ತುಂಬಾ ಪಾಚಿ ಇದೆ (Be careful of the moss)”. Ah, so he was the source of the thud. I went that way and saw the skid pattern on the step. It looked like a big brush stroke!  Carefully and very slowly, I stepped next to the “brush stroke”. THUD! It was a louder one this time with a bigger “brush stroke”. I went up in the air and landed right where it hurt most. The whole scene reminded me of cartoon shows with banana peels. The caretaker of the rest house came running. He felt terrible on seeing me sprawled out, despite the fact that I was giggling away. Rana felt jealous, because only I got sympathy although he led the way in falling 😉

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The caretaker began talking about how difficult it gets to dry clothes in the monsoon, and that he has to dry them within the walls of his home or the rest house. We admired the variety of insects a towel had attracted. He had tied a plastic wire from a window to a nail in the wall. I looked up and saw a bright yellow insect, which looked so much like a plastic toy. Obviously, he wouldn’t have decorated his clothesline with insect decorations. The yellow was too bright to resist.

 

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After returning home, I posted the image on Facebook, seeking help to identify it. Pat came the answer from Shyamal, identifying it as a dobsonfly Nevromus austroindicus. Very few people have seen this insect. In fact, they gave it a name and formally described it as recently as in 2012! The specimen was from Karnataka. Shyamal has described it as a living fossil in his blog. The males have spectacularly long, tusk-like intimidating mandibles. This is a classic case of how looks can be deceptive. Although these pincers are long, they are weak and help only during the mating season; to fight away other males and to impress the females. The females, like the one we saw, have short, sharp pincers. If we try to mess around with them, we must also brace ourselves to lose some blood.upClose

Dobsonflies belong to the order Megaloptera (“large wings”), family Corydalidae and are holometabolous (having a complete metamorphosis: eggs -> larva -> pupa -> adult). Their larvae also have short, sharp pincers. A bite can be quite painful!

Dobsonflies are more common in the Americas. The anglers there are known to use these larvae as bait. They call these larvae by many names such as “go-devils”, “hellgrammites” or “grampus”. The larvae take years to grow, primarily feeding on aquatic insects, before they pupate.

Very little is known about this Western Ghats species Nevromus austroindicus. The fact that it has been described so late shows the lack of information about it. Corydalidae adults are known to live for a very short span, maybe a couple of days or more, and only to mate. When you learn of such facts, it just bumps up the wow factor! Western Ghats hold a treasure trove of biodiversity. New species are still being discovered, like the 14 new species of dancing frogs, or the frog that does “pottery”, and many more still hidden. The overwhelming desire to be a developed country should not result in Western Ghats becoming a mere memory.

Sugandhi

References:

The lemon tree

You must’ve heard the German musical band, Fool’s Garden,  singing

I wonder how
I wonder why
Yesterday you told me ’bout the blue, blue sky
And all that I can see is just a yellow lemon tree
I’m turning my head up and down
I’m turning, turning, turning, turning, turning around
And all that I can see is just another lemon tree

I don’t see any lemon tree in the song’s visuals! I wonder how anything could be boring, especially when one can see a lemon tree. One such lemon tree is next to the staircase leading to the reception at River Tern Lodge. Vijay, one of the naturalists at the property had told us about the treasure he had discovered on it. Usually one would expect to find treasure buried beneath trees, but some kinds of treasure are found on trees.

Blue Mormon caterpillar

“Where did it go?” What? Did we lose the treasure before finding it? “Ah, there it is”, he said with a deep sigh. The green gold had crawled away to a different leaf. The caterpillar of the Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor) butterfly was big, green and with a different gait. Apparently, it has this halting walk because it stops to weave silk on whatever it moves on to have a good, strong hold on the surface. This one’s quite similar to the caterpillars of Common Mormon and Malabar Banded Swallowtail, its greenish head being a key differentiator.

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Before we could thank him for discovering this beauty, he said “there’s more!”. Did he just wave his hand like a magician? For, caterpillars of all sizes and colors, suddenly came into view. We had glued our eyes onto one green gold, but there was more! In school, we learn about the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle. But in the larval or caterpillar stage itself, it transforms many times, each form being known as an instar

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Bird poop mimic

Another instar was nicely bathed in olive-green. Now, a skillful make-up artist can dramatically change the appearance to disguise anyone – and I mean a real disguise, not the kind where adding a moustache is supposed to fool onlookers and viewers. These caterpillars seem to ‘hire’ such make-up artists to add a dash of whitish patch here and there, to make them look like bird poop. Their disguise (mimicry) is near-perfect, because the shine adds a feeling of freshness to the poop 😉 This gives them ample safety from their predators, at least from the kind that doesn’t feast on poop.

By then, a group had gathered behind us, in true Indian style – always hungry forBlueMormonPupa what someone else is doing. But I am glad that hunger existed, because everyone in the group was excitedly looking for a caterpillar here, a spider beneath the leaves, listening to the ‘tik-tik-tik’ sound in the distance or some hiccup-like sound near the gate. Vijay got us to focus on another stage, the pupa, hanging delicately.

BlueMormonLarvaInstar1Lokesh had also joined us. He is one of the folks who takes people on boat safaris and never fails to amaze us with his skills of spotting *and* identifying wildlife from a great distance. He was frantically asking for some torchlight, for he had found eggs, which were later identified to be those of a different butterfly. We also saw the adults, two males and a female, in the next couple of days.

We had seen the large and stunningly beautiful Blue Mormon in various stages of its life. And most of the stages were on the lemon tree. The “stationary” lemon tree was full of life and had attracted a decent sized crowd. There were people who had just finished a safari, heading to grab a cup of tea, but had joined the lemon tree group. But nobody spoke about large-sized mammals, nobody remembered the tea. The lemon tree was silently glowing, because of the enlightenment it was giving to the hungry folks in front of it – hungry to learn about the stories it had to share.

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Rana

p.s: This post has also been published as a story on JLR Explore.

You can also read a similar experience we had with the Common Mime in the same campus.

References:

  • India, a Lifescape: Butterflies of Peninsular India – by Krushnamegh Kunte
  • Wiki
  • I found butterflies (Saji, K., H. Ogale, R. Lovalekar, R. Das & T. Bhagwat. 2014. Papilio polymnestor Cramer, 1775 – Blue Mormon. In K. Kunte, S. Kalesh & U. Kodandaramaiah (eds.). Butterflies of India, v. 2.00. Indian Foundation for Butterflies)

The smart one

February already feels like peak summer down South in India.This heat is also an indication of the beginning of a change in one of the most beautiful and scenic places on Earth – Lakkavalli.

_46A8910The River Tern Lodge is alongside the Bhadra reservoir, and close to the Lakkavalli dam. As the summer sets in, the water levels recede, exposing islets in the reservoir. These islets make ideal homes for visitors from up North, the River Terns Sterna aurantia. They begin mating and then use the depressions on the island to lay their eggs. I watched them in their thousands last summer, as they flew over and around the reservoir. There was never a dull moment with the constant cacophony of the terns. The ones that went fishing would come back home, dip the fish in water and take it to their loved one. And that ritual was almost constant. Other birds would show up as well, like the pratincoles, gulls and ducks, but the terns ruled the rock.

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Small Pratincole

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Gulls

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Spot-billed Ducks

The terns were always on the lookout for the ‘big, bad birds’, the eagles and kites. A pair of Bonelli’s Eagles and a Brahminy Kite used to rest on a nearby tree. We would hear a sudden loud chorus of ‘scree, screeee, screee’ every other morning at around 11:00. We would rush out to see a flock of River Terns chasing one of the Bonelli’s Eagles. It was strange that the Bonelli’s Eagle would only come to the island every other day! The terns lifting off together to chase their predators was a sight to behold. One of my friends, Vinodh, was able to capture images of the eagles hunting River Tern chicks.

Terns attacking a Woolly-necked Stork

Terns attacking a Woolly-necked Stork

It was mid-May and yet another boat safari. We slowly drifted towards the island.The routine was regular. Apart from the terns, a few Black-headed Ibis’ Threskiornis melanocephalus would also walk about on the island. These birds usually feed on frogs, snails, fish, insects, worms and_46A0852 maybe other creatures they find in water. Dunking their curved bills in water, they probe for food. Now, when all the books and papers have also stated what the ibis’ eat, the River Terns would have also know that, wouldn’t they? The terns never bothered having the carnivorous ibis on the island – no harm in sharing fish with them, they must have thought.

_46A2067The chicks had just then learnt to move about. A few brave ones would wobble around the shallow end of the island, hurriedly and sloppily running away if a wave went too close by. A Black-headed Ibis, looking all innocent and friendly like it did every other day, tiptoed near the edge. _46A9973And gabak! Chick in beak! Probably the ibis picked up this chick that was already dead, or maybe it killed it – I’m not sure as it was all too fast. Now, the ibis didn’t seem to know how exactly to eat it. The chick was too big for it. After all, it is not meant to eat vertebrates – the books don’t say that. Who says one shouldn’t try a different taste? The ibis didn’t waste any time in learning something new, all by itself. We don’t know if ibis’ have eaten other chicks before, but some opportunistic birds are known to alter their diet. The ibis would beat the chick left and right on the ground – thwack, thwack, thwack – possibly in an attempt to swallow it in the form of pulp. Its beak and throat aren’t made for this kind of meal, but the ibis seemed to be adapting beautifully. The beating went about for quite a while and sadly, it was time for us to leave. Till date, the question still remains if the ibis did manage to eat the chick.

Ibis with Tern chick kill

There didn’t seem to be any hue and cry from the terns. Maybe the parents would’ve missed their young one later on, but would they blame the ibis ? Unlikely, because the ibis’ were there on the island the next day. For all we know, the smart birds had gathered enough expertise on how to steal a meal when nobody’s looking. That is, if they figured out how to finally swallow the chicks. As they say in our local language, Kannada, “ಹುಚ್ಚು ಮುಂಡೆ ಮದುವೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ಉಂಡವನೇ ಜಾಣ” (when there is chaos, when the situation is wild, whoever manages to get by is the smart one).

Rana

References:

Sunehri vultures

Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBuzzy, Flaps, Ziggy, Dizzy – my all-time favorite funny and brave vultures from The Jungle Book, always bored and always saying, “What we gonna do?” “I don’t know, what you wanna do?” Disney had these vultures resemble ‘The Beatles’, with mop-top haircuts, physical appearance, voice and style. The other vulture hero that immediately comes to mind is Jatayu, who tried to rescue Sita from Ravana, after the latter kidnapped her and was carrying her away to Lanka. Raja Ravi Varma‘s famous painting depicts this scene beautifully.

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A Griffon Vulture landing on a tree

Vultures have made many a folk tale or mythological story interesting. But the real life story of vultures themselves isn’t as glorious. Once seen in large numbers, these scavengers help in cleaning the ecosystem. In fact, Parsi Tower of Silence in many places has open-air concentric rings where human bodies are left, and vultures used to consume them within hours.

India was home to about 400 million vultures once upon a time. They were getting to feed on a large number of livestock carcasses. These numbers have slowly declined now, and it is attributed to Diclofenac. This painkiller is used to alleviate pain in cattle, but proves to be a killer to the vultures, who suffer irreversible kidney failures. Meloxamin has been tried and tested as an alternative to diclofenac.

“sunehri” Cinereous Vulture, tall, dark and handsome.

Red-headed Vulture

With so few vultures for us to see in our cities, we always need to head out to those pockets which still shelter these majestic birds. One such place is the Desert National Park, Rajasthan. We were in a jeep, totally awed by the desert and how different it was. Our driver suddenly pointed ahead, saying, “Sir, sunehri vulture!” It was a  Cinereous Vulture, not sunehri 😉 Sunehri roughly translates to “golden” in Hindi. Our vulture – all of dark blackish brown, having no trace of golden, did create a sunehri moment, nonetheless. A few meters ahead stood this Red-headed Vulture, a Critically Endangered species.

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Juvenile of an Eastern Imperial Eagle

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Feral dogs

Instead of a tan in the hot sun, we had a glow on our faces, thanks to being able to see vultures. We were fresh out of another vulture experience in Rajasthan, at Jorbeer in Bikaner. It’s a dumpyard for carcasses and also a protected forest area. I had heard from other birders who had been to a different carcass dumpyard about the overpowering stench, about how someone even decided to throw his shoes to forget that smell! Hmm, I started getting worried about mine – I really like this pair that I have. Everything about it is good – comfort, color, reliability. We had gone on a tour with Darter, and our tour leader Shreeram warned us against getting down from the car. The feral dogs at Jorbeer, notorious for their ferocity, had once outnumbered even the natural scavengers. It was sad to learn that we couldn’t walk around. But every cloud has its silver lining – I wouldn’t have to throw away my shoes 😉

I mentally prepared myself thoroughly to face the stench. We began seeing birds of prey like this drop-dead-gorgeous Eastern Imperial Eagle, Steppe Eagle and Griffon Vultures. Well, no stench so far.  So far, so good ? I didn’t know. I realized that we weren’t even close to the actual dump to smell anything.

Steppe Eagles and Griffon Vulture, birds of a different feather flock together!

Gulliver and lilliput?

Gulliver and lilliput!

Further ahead, we saw the huge and mighty Cinereous Vulture, also knows as the “Monk Vulture” translated from its German name of Mönchsgeier. A monk’s cowl is a long garment with wide sleeves and a hood. See this image in the wiki for cowl and you’ll know exactly why a Cinereous Vulture fits the name so well 🙂 Egyptian Vultures (ಜಾಡಮಾಲಿ  ಹದ್ದು) walking next to this giant appeared so tiny!

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Egyptian Vulture standing on carcass

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Intermediate Egret next to cattle-head

And then, the moment finally arrived. Mounds and mounds of dead cattle covered the ground. There were vultures in plenty, mostly the Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, the numbers reminding me of the pigeons back home. What was more surprising was to see egrets and different kinds of mynas foraging on the carcasses. We usually see mynas pecking nicely at flowers and fruits, and here they were, hopping around the mounds.  The non-scavenger mynabirds were making good use of the location and the situation, feeding on insects and such. We have seen mynas around garbage dumps quite often, but surely didn’t expect them here!

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Feeding frenzy

We watched the Egyptian Vultures tear away the bloody flesh. I was so well prepared, I got used to the smell in no time. But Rana had to literally use gag control 😉 He couldn’t drink water without rinsing his mouth thrice! In fact, even reviewing the images on camera made him feel the smell over and over again.

It was amazing to just stay there and watch the birds and dogs moving about so normally, when another species (read, humans) wasn’t able to bear it. Oh, well, I should probably rephrase it and say that some humans weren’t able to bear it. Another scene played out in front of us. Right next to the dump

Clothesline at Jorbeer

Clothesline at Jorbeer

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A place to lay out hide for drying

was a mini settlement. The clothesline indicated that people actually stayed there. A man walked right into the dumps as casually as we would stroll in a park. The dogs were unperturbed, as if he was one of their group. He joined a few other men a few meters behind.  We saw them tearing the hide off a freshly dumped body. Moving ahead, we saw hide being put out for drying – this probably smelt more than the carcass! Yet another perspective from a dump yard, with people trying to make a living out of what’s available. They bear the hardships. They are used to it. A dead animal providing so many others with food and/or livelihood – who says there is no life after death?

Sugandhi

References:

Gulandi

It was mid November and drizzling all day in Bangalore . Were the Gods crying to see another God (Sachin Tendulkar)  retiring ? Or maybe they shed tears because they don’t have such an option 😉 Well, whether or not they were crying, the effect was on the temperature.  I cuddled up inside my blanket, feeling  toasty, shuddering to think of how cold Bharatpur would be in two weeks’ time.

Bharatpur wasn’t cold at all, by its own standards. We didn’t need our jackets, although it was early December. Trying out a couple of rides on the cycle rickshaws, we decided to walk around the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (read “Kevalaadev”). With all the walking, cold went out of my dictionary.

BharatpurPanorama1

Click for a larger view of the panorama

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is an extremely picturesque place with different types of habitats. Towards afternoon, we walked towards the grassland area. The migratory birds were not in great numbers, maybe because it wasn’t cold enough. We thought of stopping for a brief fruit-break, to eat some Kinnow, a citrus fruit with a striking resemblance to orange fruit. Our guide hushed us and pointed to the bushes.

Indian Bush RatThere it was, one of the cutest looking rodents. We settled down a few meters away, taking care not to have any sudden movements, and watched the nibbler in action.

It would pick a leaf, nibble, run back into the bush. It would come out almost immediately, pick another leaf and go karrum-kurrum on it. We “Whatsapp”ed a picture to a very knowledgeable friend, who instantly identified it as the Indian Bush Rat (Golunda ellioti).

_46A3488I saw Shyamal‘s edit on Wikipedia about the genus name being derived from Kannada’s local name of Gulandi. [Sugandhi suddenly realized it rhymes with her name. Now, please don’t tease Gullu too much about it ;)]

One of the papers referred to in the wiki mentions its Tamil name as Utu-elli. Sugandhi and I have been trying to find Kannada books referring to this rodent, and our search continues. Some books on Coorg coffee have referred to it as the Coffee Rat, a pest coffee-growers are wary of.

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Harriers (birds of prey) and snakes feed on the Indian Bush Rat. One of the studies carried out on the Jungle Cat, Caracal and the Golden Jackal indicates Golunda ellioti as their most important prey. The statistics: it forms 47% of total rodent intake in Jungle Cat, 40% in Caracal and 56% in Golden Jackal. These numbers show how important this little fellow is in the food chain, at least for all of these predators. The Indian Bush Rat is widely distributed in India, the only existing member of its genus Golunda. 

Here’s an interesting note from an old report on coffee estates in Coorg. It says the Coffee Rat is seen in huge numbers in one season and sometimes disappears for years. The native people believe and attribute the cause to bamboo seeds! The rat feeds on bamboo seeds, apart from other plants. Now, bamboo flowers once in forty years or sixty years. With so much food available then, the rats are also available in plenty to feed on the seeds! When they finish consuming all of this food stock, they move on to other delicacies, like coffee.

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Rana

References:

Knock knock!

Knock, knock.

Yes, thanks, we are ready!

This isn’t the typical knock-knock joke.  There is no “who’s there” that follows the knocks because we always know who’s there at that time. This is the usual sequence on any morning in any forest lodge we stay. A friendly staff member gives a wake-up call to all the guests. We grab a piping hot cup of tea or coffee and head out on a visit to the jungle.  Now, the choice of tea or coffee depends on the place.  I love coffee and I like the way it is made in Karnataka (up to Malnad, to be precise) and parts of Tamilnadu. In any other region, I would rather have tea.

Rana and I were at River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. We were all set to go before the staff knocked at the door, but were searching for our binoculars. That was when we heard a second Knock, knock.

Hmm, why are they knocking again? “Yes, yes, we heard you, we’ll be there.”

Knock, knock. “Just give us a minute, looking for binoculars”

Knock, knock, knock. Thump, thump. Rana said, “Open the door, maybe he wants to tell us something…”

I opened the latch. Tap-tap-tap, bumpI opened the door, there was nobody; I stepped outside ….still no one. I could only see a Red Spurfowl in the bushes.

inTheBushes

Later in the evening, as we were returning, we heard the tapping sounds again as we approached our cottage. We tiptoed, hid behind the cottage and saw a Red Spurfowl.  The cottage has glass windows. The bird was on the sill, pecking at it’s reflection!knockKnock

It was very interesting. Every morning and every evening, the group of Red Spurfowls would emerge from hiding. Those are the times when there is a general lull, when the guests have left for activities. One or two of them would start pecking at the glass. Maybe they were curious about the “other bird” that always showed up whenever they landed on the sill. Or maybe they wanted to get rid of this “new bird”  in their area and thus protect their territory.reflection

I don’t know the exact reason. But here’s something interesting in a 1963’s article titled “A Jungle Crow’s mysterious behaviour” (by Neelakantan, K. K in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, Volume 3 No. 5). A Jungle Crow used to come to a window in his house regularly, at different times of the day, over several days. It would peck at the dirty glass for sometime, and then ‘bite’ a toe on one of its feet and fall tumbling to the ground! It had repeated this many times on every visit. Strange are the ways of birds!

RedSpurfowlOnTheRoad

A point repeatedly popped up in our related reading. Windows are the second largest human source of bird deaths. Window-kills range in billions across the world. Birds get confused by glass, polished surfaces, reflective panes – they try to fly to the skies, or the space beyond, never knowing that those are killer reflections.

Well, not all reflective surfaces are fatal. Some of them only lead to interesting behavior 😉 The next time you are at River Tern Lodge, look out for opportunity knocking at your door! And of course, don’t run out of your cottage or rush to it. Don’t send the spurfowls tumbling all over 🙂

Sugandhi

Postscript: Just now, Seshadri shared a link about two birds dying after crashing into windows at NUS. Sigh.

References:

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