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:

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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:

The twig

“Hey, look what we had missed!” exclaimed our friend. We were on a walk along the muddy path to the bridge which connected the 2 beautiful islands at River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. A walk on a path may sound normal to some, romantic to a few others, routine to the rest. But nature has many a surprise in store and a walk is always interesting and fun. We saw a pair of grasshoppers mating; and they were jumping to different locations while “on the job” 😉 A few meters ahead we found seeds of a tree that had the same fragrance as soap nut; and we passed by a mistletoe tree (you read it right, we passed by it. Rana and I didn’t stand under it then, we had audience ;))

Caterpillar in an earlier moult

Please click on the images for a larger size

It was a rather humid day. We were dripping with sweat, and we were not even walking fast. Along the path, we stopped to see this colorful caterpillar, which would ultimately turn into the Common Mime butterfly. But this one wasn’t there yet. It had some more eating, growing and shedding to do.  When the mother lays eggs, she chooses plants on which the caterpillars can feed (host plant). Different species of butterflies have different host plants.  The caterpillars do complete justice to the feeding! They eat the leaves, munching their way to grow bigger and bigger. In fact, grow is an understatement. They outgrow and shed their skin.  The shedding of the skin is called moulting and the skin left behind is a ‘moult’. This colorful bright one had probably moulted twice or thrice before and was now in this form, all in black and orange, with white patches.

Pre-pupatory caterpillar with moult

We reached the bridge and were about to head back. Seeing the voracious feeder had made us hungry. It was then that we saw what everyone had almost missed – two fat and bright caterpillars. A quick check confirmed that they were indeed what we believed them to be – caterpillars of the Common Mime butterfly, very different from the other one, which was a much ‘younger’ caterpillar.  We found the black-orange-white moult next to one of them. They eat the moults, by the way. If this change was dramatic enough, the transformation to a Common Mime pupa is phenomenal.

Before we get there, let me share a few tidbits about butterflies.They face several threats from predators, parasites and parasitoids. Three main techniques that they use to protect themselves are:

  1. Camouflage (click here for some brilliant examples of insect camouflage)
  2. Unpalatability – some of the butterflies feed on certain ‘toxic’ plants and hence, become distasteful for their predators. If a predator, say a bird, tries to eat an unpalatable butterfly, it experiences strong heart beats and may vomit. The bird won’t forget this and surely, it’ll avoid such a “bitterfly” 😉
  3. Mimicry

Alseodaphne semecarpifolia

The Common Mime butterfly is a ‘harmless’, palatable butterfly, using mimicry for protection. It resembles either the Common Crow or the Blue Tiger, both unpalatable butterflies, and in turn, ‘visually cheats’ its predators.  However, its pupa uses camouflage for protection. We were all set to witness this transformation. The excitement was too much to handle, but we had to wait.

The Common Mime usually chooses saplings with fresh leaves and lays its eggs on the surface. These caterpillars were on the leaves of Alseodaphne semecarpifolia (known as Mashe / Nelthare / Karuvadi in Kannada).  The caterpillars munched on the light green, fresh leaves and got plumper by the day.

Pre-pupatory larva, bent

A few days passed after which the munching seemed to have stopped. They had moved on from the surface of the leaves to rest. One was on a stem and the other was on a twig.  These pre-pupatory caterpillars slowly changed their posture and appeared ‘bent’.

Many hours passed. It was 5:30 in the morning; all of a sudden the transformation was there for us to see. We missed the very first bit, but the rest was no less fantastic. Click here for a short video of the transformation from caterpillar to pupa stage.

Closeup of 'twig on twig'

There, in front of our eyes, was a bright caterpillar, twisting, wriggling, squirming and transforming to a ‘burnt and broken twig’! The pupa stood suspended from the twig with a silk girdle. It was like seeing a graceful trapeze artist hanging.

Camouflage is a widely used survival technique by many adult butterflies. This is one of the cases where a pupa uses camouflage.  It looks like a dead twig with the top broken off irregularly. It is black, brown and blotched all over. To add to the ‘effect’, the bottom segment appears as it is growing out of the branch or twig! A perfect camouflage, one of nature’s many wonders.

Closeup of the 'twig' on a stem

The 'twig' on a stemThe twig

We got to see two moults of the caterpillar and also its transformation to a ‘twig’. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in our lives. The sheer genius of the camouflage speaks for itself.

Sugandhi

Link to video: http://youtu.be/E8zjn-UCjoY

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to Karthik M V, Vijay, Ravi and the staff of River Tern Lodge, Bhadra.

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