Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Messenger from the Wilderness


Ever since the birding bug bit me I have been obsessively pursuing the feathered bipeds with undisguised glee. Suddenly, I found my species count had touched 300 plus! Then I splurged on audio equipment and even abandoned a not-so-bad Chinese made shotgun microphone for a Sennheiser! (More about that later)

On Fridays, messages flow in our birding gang's Whatsapp group about plans for the Sunday to follow. I found that I started missing my mother's yummy masala dosas and appam with stew! Moreover, I realized that Sunday, which was a day for relaxation found me out of the bed earlier than usual, loading up the car for a three or four hour birding session in Palakkad's hot weather! I had completely flipped for the birds!

Not only that, I had become specifically obsessed with two groups of birds, the nightjars and the warblers. One would only wake up at dusk and fly around in the dark and the other would skulk in the bushes rarely showing itself to be photographed decently! The nightjars have become like an obsessive disorder that despite any other program on Sunday mornings, I'd return in the evenings,  to a hillside in Malampuzha, that we had started calling 'Nightjar Valley', to await their arrival at dusk!

I am in love with the nightjar orchestra. The quartet, consisting of Indian, Jerdon's, Jungle and Savanna nightjars, start their performance at sunset and play till darkness falls. After that, they each go their individual ways, pursuing invisible insects in the air. I can't seem to get enough of them though I've recorded all four species many times over and this obsession culminated in a totally unexpected encounter this last Sunday (7th January, 2018).

Recording their calls is relatively easy, especially with my new possession, the Sennheiser ME67 long shotgun mic, but getting a decent photograph of these elusive birds is a challenge in the failing light of dusk. I have a powerful headlight and torch but even then it is very difficult to get a good picture especially since they are always on the wing. Then, it so happened, that on a previous Sunday evening I saw a nightjar in daylight; sitting, of all the places, on an electric wire! While that was unusual, it got me thinking about looking for them during the daytime. That is how I happened to be in a place to meet my Messenger!



The place we call 'Nightjar Valley' is essentially a hillside in the Malampuzha reservoir's edge, the slopes of which descend into the waterbody. These hillsides are the route mammalian denizens use to reach their water source, especially in summer. I have run into sambar deer while exploring the slopes.




Sometime last year we had seen the pugmarks of a leopard but except for the presence of their dried dung, never elephants.


Below the slope here, are small farms with human settlements and 'Nightjar Valley' itself is on the edge of these settlements so the animals have to traverse the length of the protruding hillocks to access the reservoir.

So, on Sunday the 7th January, 2018, I drove out to the place with a plan to look for sleeping nightjars. We had noticed that at dusk the calls started from a small patch of forest lying on the northern side of the slope and the birds flew into the 'Nightjar Valley' from somewhere beyond that. I had been on that slope many times and had once flushed a nightjar from almost underfoot. So with the fond hope of meeting my favourite bird in daylight I parked my car in Nightjar Valley and crossed the small patch of forest to the slope on the other side.

Once I reached the slope, I scanned the rock face for potential places. The edges of the boulders, among the leaf litter at bottom of the trees or roosting along a branch would be the most likely places for finding the nightjar. I started climbing the slope slowly in a crisscross pattern looking carefully at all the possible hiding places this master-of-camouflage could blend into. Then I heard it, a sharp crack of a breaking branch or bamboo from the next patch of forest to the right of the slope I was on. I saw the violent shaking of the top of a tree below me. Elephants!

I could feel the blood rushing into my head, and my ears felt blocked as the adrenaline rush started. Here I was, on a slope, all alone and below me was either a herd (the person I met a few days earlier, looking for his cows, had told me that there were three) or a lone elephant. I couldn't see anything at first. The canopy was too dense and the forest floor below was completely obscured. As long as the feeding was going on I knew where the elephants would be. I debated with myself if I should keep going up the slope on my quest or wait and watch for a while.Then, it occurred to me that if I reached the top and then the herd decided stop feeding and came onto the place I had been earlier, I would be stuck with no escape route!

I had to be sure of the number of elephants and their mood. I stayed on the edge of the slope peering carefully through the gaps in the branches under the tree that continued to shake under the herd's onslaught. Then I saw it, a small movement like a pendulum, through the leaves; an elephant's tail! From the position of the tail I knew it was facing away from me. I was downwind of the elephants where I stood. If I moved uphill I would give the elephants the opportunity to scent my presence and if they were annoyed by my intrusion, would be in deep trouble. Beside, I was already encumbered by my camera and bird call recording gear, hanging from various parts of my anatomy and in the event the elephants decide to show their ire on me, I would be hard put to make a fast exit.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to abort my nightjar expedition and withdraw to safety. If there was a mother with a young calf, I could be assured of an angry charge! Then, in my haste to turn around and make a safe exit I stepped on a pile of dry leaves. The sound of cracking leaves never sounded this loud to me before. Almost like jumping into a basket of crisply fried 'papadums'! I stopped in mid-step and also realized instantly that the sounds of feeding had stopped too! The herd realized that someone was spying on them!

I couldn't possibly outrun an angry elephant but I had to be sure in which direction they were headed. There was no way for them to circle around and pounce on me. I had the advantage of being on a higher level and could see them if they moved. They could either move to the right towards the road or up over the rocks towards me. The other two directions wasn't an option with almost vertical slopes on one side and steep forested slope towards the top of the hillock. Then, I heard the noise; dried leaves on the forest floor getting crushed under the moving pachyderms. The sounds were  moving to the left and towards the slope I was on. That would slow the herd, especially if there was a small calf. There was a relatively open part in the canopy just below and left of where I was standing and as I stared through the branches, following the sound of the crackling leaves, I saw what I had disturbed.


The first thing I saw was a pair of menacingly sharp white tusks. Then I saw the trunk, curling in different directions trying to pick up the scent of the intruder. It was a bull elephant! Fortunately I was still downwind and the elephant was moving very slowly, probably trying to be as noiseless as possible! I could see his grey hide and part of his ear through the branches and it seemed he was facing in my direction, perhaps even looking up and trying to locate the source of the sound which had disturbed him.


I knew it was time to move. The elephant could clamber up the slope without much effort, so it would be foolhardy of me to hang around longer. I carefully moved back towards the little forested patch below which my car was parked. This time I was careful to step only on bare rock so that the elephant would not guess in which direction I had gone.

After I reached the forest patch, I halted to listen for the sound of the elephant's movements. It was still coming up, but very slowly. I waited behind a tree about 75 meters from where I had been standing earlier. I knew all elephants were not dangerous and in case he was in a temperamental mood I had my escape route clear behind me. As the sound came closer, I saw something grey emerge over the edge of the slope a few feet below where I had been standing a little while earlier. Then the forehead and tusks came into view.


What a magnificent specimen? I have seen elephants at close range in Bandipur and Nagarahole but that was from the relative safety of a safari vehicle. I have never had an experience of a malicious charge. Mostly, it was mothers with little calves in tow that showed a tendency to get irritated and the mock charges were to scare you off. All the bull elephants only gave long hard looks before they went on their way. Some of them completely ignored us!

As this handsome bull emerged from below, I could see he was a young adult in his prime. My first concern was to see if he was in musth. My gaze went to the line between his ear hole and the eye. If he was in musth a wet patch can been seen starting from midway on this line, where the opening of the musth gland is, and flowing towards the mouth. It was a perfectly dry space on this tusker.


Then, as he reached the edge of the slope he looked in my direction, with ears forward. Perhaps he heard my camera clicking or he saw me standing there.


It was only once he reached the top that I realized how fortunate I had been. Here was a superb specimen of elephantine handsomeness and I had the privilege of setting my eyes on him at eye level, and on foot. It was my first face-off with a wild tusker on foot and all alone. I wasn't therefore very keen to provoke him into charging me. I stayed in the safety of the forest, partly hidden by some trees.


He had the most dignified look about him and I couldn't resist squeezing off a few more shots. He looked at me calmly and I could feel him telling me something. Almost as if he was a Messenger from the Wilderness. It seems, I had forgotten recently that there was more to nature than birds.  

Just on top of this slope is a flat rock with a small tree beside it, our Bodhi Tree. That was the rock on which my son and I had come and sat many a time just enjoying the feel of the winds blowing over us while we soaked ourselves in the the sights and sounds of the forest around us.Perhaps it was a wake up call; just a reminder that we forgot about Bandipur and our other regular haunts. Time has come for a revisit and also a revival of the Woodcrawler's Journal that has suffered a breakdown for nearly a year.

It seems the Messenger knew that I heard him. He turned, and walked off up the slope away from me. I too returned to my car, humbled by the experience. It is a rare privilege to encounter a handsome bull, all alone and on foot in a favourite patch of forest.


To those who think elephants are dangerous, I'll tell you that you are wrong. They are far more sensible than us humans and prefer to melt silently into the forest in the presence of humans but when we encroach into their territory and disturb them, they WILL retaliate. Don't forget, these gentle creatures, when provoked can be extremely angry and then it will be too late to regret.


My experience in Malampuzha was unexpected, though not entirely. I don't claim to be an expert in jungle craft but I've acquired some knowledge and minor skills that could get me out of many tricky situations. Remember, don't try anything foolhardy. Keep a safe distance if you know you are in the vicinity of elephants, especially herds with very small calves.

The latest idiotic trend is to try and take a selfie everywhere, including in the presence of wild elephants. That is outright stupid. Not only that, the flash in a camera, mobile or otherwise is very irritating to elephants and all wildlife in general. You can get yourself into trouble if you 'flash' at a pachyderm.

Next time you run into an elephant herd in the wild, remember that if you give them their space, they will almost surely ignore you and continue with their business of feeding. It is only when you deliberately provoke them that they react violently.

My instinct tells me that 2018 promises to be a great year for the Woodcrawlers of the world.

Happy Woodcrawling!

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Indian Pitta - A Little Bundle of Colour

The Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) must be one of the most beautiful birds in India, with so many colours packed into a diminutive body (19 cms). It has a stubby tail so it looks like someone cut the tail feathers off! More often heard than seen, as it forages in the dense under bush, I have not encountered many in two decades of woodcrawling!


The first time I ran into this diminutive but colourful bird, was in Silent Valley National Park, some 2 decades ago. Those days, I had an film SLR with a lens that was blind in low light.  It is a different matter that I wasn't even an amateur photographer then. I am guilty of purchasing a 2x teleconvertor without even knowing if it would match my 70-210 mm lens! Consequently the photograph I got was a blurred green lump deep inside a bush!

A decade or more later I had a brief glimpse of my second one, in Malampuzha, but the bird disappeared even before I could say "Pitta"! After that, it has been a long gap of hearing them but not seeing one. Then, sometime last year, I had another encounter with this little bird in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. At that time too, the bird was inside a patch of lantana and the noisy safari vehicle only ensured that it disappeared deeper into the undergrowth.

So, on Sunday the 5th February 2017 evening, when my son and I were going, to what some of us call the 'nightjar valley', the pitta was the last thing on my mind. 

As I turned off the main road into the patch of forest I was forced to brake suddenly. There were three birds on the track ahead, an orange headed thrush right in front, an red-vented bulbul in the middle and another grey-green one further off. All of them were busy foraging among the fallen leaf litter and seemed to consider my presence  an intrusion.


In fact, the orange headed thrush kept coming towards us, without any display of shyness, that it was in danger of being run over!. It was giving us a look that said, "Get out of my way you moron. You are driving over my dinner!"


Then it struck me that the third bird, further up the track, wasn't another thrush. The colours weren't matching!  As realization dawned, I was felt that familiar tingling that I get when I sight a tiger or a leopard because, to me, the Indian pitta is like a tiger or leopard of the bird world, rarely sighted and photographed. I had one in my sights but I was in an awkward position and in any case too jittery to shoot in failing light!



The bird was on my left and my car was facing the other way. I told my son to jump into the back of the car and grab the camera and fire away. After all it is not every day we run into a pitta willing to wait for us! The bird itself was unconcerned by our presence, throwing up the dried leaves and perhaps, searching for some succulent caterpillar or spider under them.


Meanwhile, the orange-headed thrush was almost under my car now and I hopped out to see if it was in danger of becoming a roadkill! It was within touching distance before it decided that I wasn't about to budge, and flew off to some other place grumbling about inconsiderate humans!


While the thrush had me engaged for a little while, the pitta seemed to have no interest in the proceedings. It was hopping about from one side of the track to the other, as it went forward, lifting up leaves and peering under them. It seemed it wasn't having a good day as we didn't see it catch anything. Since it wasn't appearing disturbed by our presence, I asked my son to walk ahead slowly with me rolling along behind him. The pitta had reached the end of the track and turned to fly back but realizing that there were some obstruction in its path, it chose to skirt us and land on a tree behind us, instead.



Now, the car and I were in the way of my son who had the camera. On the narrow track, he couldn't cross to the bird unless I reversed. I decided that reversing the car would spook the bird so I killed the engine and took the camera. As I stepped out from behind the car, the pitta decided to fly back onto the forest floor again!



The Indian Pitta is a ground bird, found foraging in leaf litter or in the under bush. They do roost on trees but make a nest on the ground or lower branches.Their call is a distinctive, two note whistle (whee - tiu) , that sounds like someone is choking the bird! They call at dawn or dusk, and the Tamil name, "aarumani kuruvi" (six o'clock bird) is apt for them. You can listen to the call here on the link from Xeno-Canto. They breed in the north-western Himalayan foothills and central India, but migrate south for winter. They are tiny birds and flying long distances exhausts them and sometimes they end up inside homes or offices!


In the meantime, our pitta decided that it was getting too crowded and uncomfortable for foraging, with two-legged creatures and four-wheeled contraptions running around in its territory. Passing motorists had also started stopping to see what I was up to, hopping around among the leaves on the forest floor! I had no sort of cover and was stepping from tree  to tree, trying to hide as much as possible, till I got sufficiently close. Unfortunately, the dried leaves crackling under my feet as I walked wasn't aiding my cause! The bird flew off again but this time, as if taking pity on us, it landed on a thick vine. The perfect perch!



I positioned myself as best as I could behind a thin tree, hoping it would hide my bulges! The bird was getting skittish with all the disturbance and I did not want to spoil its dinner any more than I already had. Cranking up the ISO, ( I had no time to dig out my monopod) I clicked as it posed for me, in all possible angles. Profile view, rear view and front view; I couldn't have asked for more.






I had finally got my pitta. An unexpected bonus, on my search for more nightjars, in Malampuzha. So tiny but packed with so many colours. In Sri Lanka, apparently, they interpret its call as a complaint by the bird of the theft of its clothes by a peacock! ("The Sinhalese interpretation of its call is that the bird is complaining about the theft of its dress by a peacock: “Evith giya, evith giya, ayith kiyannam, methe budun buduwana vita ayith kiyannam,” which translates as: “Came and went! Came and went! I’ll still be complaining when the next Buddha comes! I’ll still be complaining!” - Source  Wikipedia)

I wouldn't doubt that. It still is a beautiful bird, one of the prettiest around and perhaps any more colours would have made it too gaudy.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Eight of a Dozen - Kingfishers around us

It has been a very long gap between my last post and this. In fact, the third part of the series, "Evolution of a Birder" lies incomplete! I will complete it this month but before that here is a small, colourful introduction to what has been my obsession for the whole of last year.

An introduction to the kingfishers

Some of the most common birds, besides the crows, eagles, kites and mynas that we run into very often, are the kingfishers. Of all the above-mentioned birds, they are perhaps the most vividly coloured and some of them, could vie for the top spot as the most beautiful! Their name itself is misleading. Kingfishers don't live on a diet of only fish. That qualification should go to the cormorants and darters. Kingfishers survive on a varied diet of insects, lizards, snakes, fish, crabs and even small mammals or birds!

 There are a dozen different types of kingfishers on the Indian subcontinent. The list, in alphabetical order,  reads like this.
  1. Black-capped KF
  2. Blue-eared KF
  3. Blyth's KF
  4. Brown-winged KF
  5. Collared KF
  6. Common or the small blue KF
  7. Crested KF
  8. Oriental-Dwarf KF
  9. Pied KF
  10. Ruddy KF
  11. Stork-billed KF
  12. White-throated KF
Of the twelve I have had the fortune to see and photograph eight; some very frequently and some very rarely. Here then is an introduction to the colourful eight. I will dispense with the alphabets here and go in an order in which, the chance of running into a particular species is more.

1.White-throated kingfisher


Perhaps, the most widespread species of kingfisher in India will be the white-throated and deserves to be called the 'common kingfisher'. Unfortunately, that name is reserved for another species, that will follow a little later. The white-throated is so called because of the large white patch running from its chin to breast.

In the pond in my compound, in Palakkad

The rest of the body is a deep chestnut brown with turquoise blue wings and tail. This bird is slightly bigger than the common myna, about 28 cm, (birds are measured from tip of its bill to the tip of its tail), because of its long coral red bill.

Overlooking a waterhole in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

It is a common urban visitor and can be seen anywhere from forests to parks and gardens. It is not particular about its diet and can pick off anything that can fit its throat, though insects, reptiles, crabs or fish are on its favoured menu.

Through my bedroom window, Palakkad

They will sit patiently on a perch before making a quick swoop to pick up its prey. Sometimes, they can be found walking on the grass looking for worms and insects and proving their adaptability.

In Malampuzha reservoir area, Palakkad
 They have a distinctive, loud cackling laugh like call that you can recognise even if you heard it once.

2. Stork-billed kingfisher

After the white-throated KF, the stork-billed is the other kingfisher that you can run into even in an urban environment. It is the size of a rock pigeon (around 38 cms) with an unmistakably enormous red beak. It has dull brown head, yellowish neck and brownish yellow chest and belly.


On a mango tree overlooking the pond in my compound, Palakkad

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

 Unlike the white-throated, it prefers the vicinity of water bodies and wooded areas. Rarely seen in built up areas unlike the former. It perches very quietly and more often heard than seen. When spooked it flies laboriously. Like the white-throated, its diet not confined to fish.
On a fallen coconut palm leaf, at home, Palakkad
 This was shot in my house and in the picture below, of the same bird, you can see the protective membrane; the nictitating membrane, sweeping the eye clean and moistening it.


It also hs a very distinctive call and serves as my alarm most mornings!

3. Common kingfisher or small blue kingfisher

The name is a misnomer. It is called so because it is the only kingfisher found in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the name stuck, though it isn't as common as the previous two. To put it in perspective; I see one or more white-throated at home DAILY. The stork-billed makes its appearance thrice a week at least but the so-called common is seen once in two months! I maybe wrong, if I take into account, its frequency outside of my house but it definitely is not as common as it is made out to be!

The small blue kingfisher seems such an appropriate name for this beauty. My pond at Palakkad


Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

It is one of the smaller kingfishers, measuring about 18 cms, Predominantly a brilliant shade of blue on the head, back and wings with a rusty orange cheek, chest and belly. It has a whitish chin and throat with a white patch on the neck. The bill is black unlike the previous two species.

Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad
 This beautiful bird makes a very shrill chee-chee sound as it flies and is also found around water bodies.
Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

4. Pied kingfisher

This beautiful, black and white kingfisher is found around water bodies, flying up, hovering in mid-air then plunging straight down after some unfortunate fish it has laid eyes on.
In Walayar reservoir, Palakkad

In Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad


Once the fish is caught it is swallowed whole, head first, without any fuss.


With a catch in Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

In Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

It is about 25 cms with black-and-white plumage, a long black bill and feet. It has a small crest not always visible when wet and usually found in pairs.

The small crest is visible. Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

The small crest is visible. Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad
The kingfishers described above are the commoner ones that most of us are likely to encounter in our lives. The four that follow after this are rare and can be seen if we go searching for them in the areas they are likely to be found.


5. Black-capped kingfisher

Found on the coastal areas, mangroves and inland along the rivers. My first and only sighting was very brief and insufficiently long for a good photograph. Saw it from behind in the Seethanadi Nature Camp. About the size of the white-throated KF (30 cms), and as in its name, it has a black cap with a white collar and throat. The belly is rufous, with a deep blue wings and tail with a purplish tinge. The beak is coral red like the white-throated KF.
Black-capped kingfisher in Seethanadi Nature camp, Hebri, Karnataka.

6. Collared kingfisher

Another rare bird confined to some very limited coastal areas and Andamans. My sightings were on the Havelock Island and Chidiya Tapu in the Andamans. It is slightly smaller than the white-throated KF (about 24 cms) with a blue-green head and white collar. The underparts are white and wings are also blue-green. Its beak is black and smaller that the white-throated KF.

Collared kingfisher, Havelock island, Andamans.

7. Blue-eared kingfisher

One of the smallest kingfishers, at around 17 cms, it is only bigger than the ODKF. It has a very limited range and confined to the Himalayan foothills, the north-east and the south-west of India. Similar to the common KF but with darker blue upper parts and a brilliant blue back and tail. The dark wings have a brillant blue spangling.The underparts are orange-brown like the common. This has blue ear coverts, unlike the common KF which has is rufous.


Blue-eared kingfisher in Malampuzha, Palakkad
 They are usually solitary, and sit quietly along streams and pools, flicking its tail and bobbing its head occasionally.

Tail flick, blue-eared kingfisher in Malampuzha, Palakkad

8. Oriental-dwarf kingfisher

 The smallest, and to me the most beautiful of India's kingfishers. This tiny beauty has been appropriately called the "Jewel of the Western Ghats". At about 13 cms this is the smallest of our kingfishers. It is a resident of the western ghat area and summer visitor to the north-east. Unarguably, the most brilliantly coloured of our kingfishers, it is like God threw all the colours in his palette on its tiny body.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher, Malampuzha, Palakkad
A bright orange head, with black 'khol' lined eyes, iridescent purple, black and blue wings, mauve back, chestnut tail, white chin, an orange-yellow underside and tipped with a disproportionately large coral-red beak! That is how colourful this little bird is.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher regurgitating, Malampuzha, Palakkad

Like the blue-eared kingfisher, the ODKF is also solitary or occasionally in pairs. This bird is so tiny, it is often seen only when it flies past from its perch. A flash of orange, before it disappears into some dark spot again. It's discovery in Malampuzha, along with many other species, has elevated the area into a birding hotspot.

These are the eight species of kingfishers I've been privileged to see and photograph. The remaining four are on my wishlist and to add them to my list I will have to move out of my comfort zone and travel north east and along the foothills of the Himalayas. Hopefully, I will add the rest of the dozen not too far into the future!