Sunday, March 15, 2015

The ghoshala near Taal chappar

Our hotel at Sujjangarh
16th Jan 2015

We had checked in the previous night into Hotel Rich Garden at Sujangarh, the accommodation of choice in this little town.

The rooms were clean, as were the bathrooms (importantly!) the water in the taps was salty, and the food came from somewhere we didn't want to know I guess!

We had an early morning start, and as usual, it was quite an effort of mind over body to face the morning cold!

We went outside only to be greeted by a strange sight and a lot of roaring engines!  A bunch of bikers were on their way to the hills - Dharamsala, via Amritsar!

According to me, this was even more lunacy than ours!

Breakfast was not great - it just wasn't good quality food, and thanks to Lakshmi, we discovered a great place for lunch. (More about that later.)

I was glad to get into our warmer vehicles, as we headed to the outskirts of Taal chappar sanctuary, to the "cow shed area" or goshala.

Well, I expected to see some nice Indian cows, mooing in the morning, and a familiar rustic scene of milkmen and cow dung, but instead was greeted by this!

The Khejri-tree filled landscape, made ghostly by the morning mist

There was a silence filled only with our muffled laughs and whispers, as even the birds obviously felt  too cold to call.

I spent some time in juvenile games of blowing "smoke" and pretending to puff a cigarette, delighting in the morning air, as I was layered like an eskimo and not feeling miserably cold!

Suddenly Nabeel, our guide was making  frantic hand signals and asking us to follow him.

And so began our saga of creeping behind the tree creeper!
Our first sighting! The Indian spotted creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)

The first time any of us were seeing this bird, and it was an amazing sight.  Such a methodical and industrious hunt for food I have not seen.  It would fly to the base of one khejri tree, go peck, peck peck into the bark with its long thin beak, make its way to the top of the trunk, then fly off to the next, where it would repeat the same process all over again!

Through the binoculars, we got a clear sighting of its mottled or marbled back, so well camouflaged against the tree bark.  And that thin long, down-curved beak with which it extricated insects from the bark.

It was a fast worker, and no malingering at any point.  Now you saw it profiled on the left..... 

.....and in the blink of an eye it was on the right.
I know the pictures look brown and boring, but it was a marvellous sight, as it flitted from tree to tree, and we crept along with it.  We were told that there was a group endemic to the cowshed.  These birds do not migrate, and are residents in this patch.

The light had improved by now, and slowly we heard and saw some activity.  Bulbuls called and flitted in the branches, while large grey babblers noisily moved around in groups in the undergrowth.

A drongo flew into view, as if seeking our attention

It perched on the branch of the scrub, seemingly glad for the weak sun that had emerged.

Rose ringed parakeets screeched and settled in the khejri trees.
And then suddenly there were flashes of orange and yellow among the branches.  A group of small minivets brightened the trees like little christmas decorations!

The grey-black heads and the orange chests seemed to catch the sun.  Pericocotus cinnamomeus male

They moved in flocks and wouldn't sit still.  I heard the shutters of everyone's cameras madly clicking.
Through the binoculars they made for a breathtaking sight, with their little perky heads and long tails,....

....and when they flew it was a flash of brilliant colour.

The treecreeper came into view again, and with the brighter light, the colours of its feathers could be seen better.
Indian Robins hopped around on the ground, unmindful of our presence.

And so ended our outing to the Goshala - and no I did not see a single cow through the morning!

We then went off to the lovely Taal chapper grasslands, with the oh so beautiful blackbucks.

And then there was lunch at this lovely old house/mansion - hot rotis, dal and sabji of the most fresh carrot and peas, papad and a local pickle which was rather delicious.  We all burped contentedly after and then lazed around on chairs and in the verandah, feeling like rock pythons after a meal, not wanting to stir.

We shamelessly invited ourselves to dinner as well, which was a good thing as we met their lovely daughters as a result.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Short-eared owl seen

A rare winter visitor has caught the attention of birders in the city. It has a distinct pair of short ears and goes by the name Short-Eared Owl. Birder Prakash Gururajan spotted it on February 26 at Pachapalayam dry grasslands on Siruvani Road. “After that, I have made multiple trips to the grasslands along with the members of Coimbatore Nature Society to see the bird,” he says.
It’s a winter passage migrant and is likely spend a short time here till the food supply dries out.
“The short-eared owl hunts for the prey in the day time unlike the nocturnal ones. The body colours serve as a camouflage on the grasslands,” he says.
Prakash had spotted small birds like larks and pipits perched on the ground and in good numbers at the grasslands.

He returned there to see if he could spot some other elusive ones such as the Oriental skylark.
“In February, I spotted the ashy Pallid Harrier taking off from the ground. I trekked further down looking for a Pallid Harrier or a Montagu Harrier when I spotted a raptor like bird flying low at 150 meters distance from me and landed. I stopped at about 50 metres to ensure that the bird is not disturbed and photographed it through the grass. It was the short-eared owl. It stayed there till the crows and drongos chased it away,” he says. They are competitors for the same prey.

The birder says the CNS team has also spotted the Mottled Wood Owl, at Mathipalayam on Siruvani Road. “We have made frequent trips to record and study the habitat of these birds. I also spotted the Indian Pita, Malabar Whistling Thrush and Niligirs Laughing Thrush near the Paambu Sitthar caves at Marudhamalai.”

Prakash reinforces the need to protect the habitat. He says, “If the dry grassland is left undisturbed, these species will thrive in good numbers and help the ecosystem too.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Thar desert on a winter morning

12th/13th January 2015

As we trundled along the flat and straight roads into the desert, visibility was just beyond our noses, and it seemed that only mad hatters and Madrasis were out.  Even the Cinkara stopped and stared in surprise!
As we stared at the khejri-tree filled landscape, something moved in the morning light.  "Desert fox" said Nabeel excitedly.  And there it was, a diminutive little thing with a distinctive white tipped bushy tail.  Vulpes vulpes pusilla

The shy fox, got us animated, and I almost forget the cold.  We were still in our vehicle, and relatively warm.

We got out at Sudasari, and the wind made a mockery of my layers of warm clothing, the monkey cap and gloves I wore, and reminded me that I was meant to be in nice balmy Madras and not in this dreadful cold, looking like a cross between an eskimo and a penguin!

Even more ridiculous were the locals, wrapped in a shawl and walking around as if it was a nice pleasant morning.

The Graceful Prinia looked anything but graceful, as the wind ruffled its feathers, and (according to me at any rate)  it had a miserable look on its face!

The Eurasian collared doves wore their usual mournful look
All over the desert were these bushes - kair - Capparis decidua - once  a year, they produce these berries, which are pickled and eaten through the year.  Kair/sangri - my culinary discoveries on this Rajasthan trip.

The doves took flight and left the Trumpeter Finches, with their yellow beaks for us to see!  My numbed and gloved fingers tried to work the binoculars to focus on them.  Thankfully, they hung around long enough for my inefficient focusing, and for Sekar to take these pictures.  It was a lovely sight, some of them with the distinct pinkish hue.  

The absent sun was higher in the sky presumably, the wind abated a bit, and the walking had warmed me into a better humour.

And then this Bengal fox, which casually crossed the track behind us, improved my mood even further.  He had a cocky and casual air about him, quite unlike the desert fox which seemed to skulk around.  The bushy black-tipped tail is characteristic of Vulpes bengalensis.

He sat and stared at us for a while, scratching himself.  We were obviously not interesting enough as he ambled away in a bored fashion, probably looking for his next meal.
Up on a dune, starkly visible against the sand was a southern grey shrike!  

It flew and perched on the scrub for us all to see.  We didn't see his "larder" of insects, though.
And sudden;y, there loomed two healthy and green Khejri trees.  Prosopsis cinerarea.  The state tree of Rajasthan (and the national tree of the UAE I subsequently discovered!),   Their greenness was a possible indication that there was a water vein below.

On closer examination, we found that they had pods.  Those red legumes are what we were eating as "sangri" at dinner times - I quite loved it actually.  
I guess they are like our coconut tree.  Every part is used.  But, excessive cutting of the tree branches for fodder is leading the the death of khejri trees in Rajasthan.  Later on, on the highways, we came across these trees with all their branches completely lopped off.

Bui - Aerva javanica - is the cotton of the desert, used to stuff pillows and mattresses, and grows widely in the desert in arid conditions.  
We saw the arid scrublands of the fringes of the desert and we saw the sand dunes as well.
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Unfortunately, there was cloud cover in the evening, and we missed the sight of the setting sun adding colours and hues to the sand dunes.  They were still beautiful, in their vastness, and the endless and infinitely different patterns that the winds created on the dunes.  The sand is soft, and powdery, quite different from the feel of the beach sand that I am used to.

Our desert "caravan".  (Note the rickety plastic stool.  We used that to hoist ourselves onto the cart.)

Bui to the left, khejri in the centre and khair to the right, and the beautiful sand patterns in the foreground.

It was time to say goodbye to the desert, and the "ships of the desert"!

Raju, the camel with the sweetest face and those most lovely eyes.  We saw some wild camels on the way, and they were the darker colour that Raju was.

Jaisalmer DNP and the vanishing GIBs

I read the news today, oh boy
about an unlucky bird
that's not making the grade

and yes the news was very sad
so I just had to post
having just seen two.

I wonder

(Apologies, John and Paul)

Spot them.  Ardeotis nigriceps.  Threatened, endangered.  On the verge of extinction.  At the Desert National Park
Called Godawan in Rajasthan, we saw two male birds, with their white necks and black caps.  

See Kumar's pictures here:

Venkat's pictures here:!i=3862871966&k=WKm2BkK

It was cold misty morning in January when we set out from our tented accommodation in Sam village, into the Desert National Park, Sudasari, in search of the Great Indian Bustard.

These large birds are under stress from hunting and habitat loss.  At one time, they reportedly were found across peninsular India.  And now, they are isolated to two pockets - one in AP and this outpost in Rajasthan.  They need the grasslands for their survival.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The beautiful bee eaters

The beautifully colourful bee eaters. I never tire of seeing them, as they flash through the air in search of insects or sit on wires sunning themselves. Every trip I've made into the forests is "greened" with a sighting of these birds. And even the backyards of Chennai for that matter.

I remember the one sitting on the wires at Siruthavoor, swooping, picking up insects, and munching them with glee.

At Bahminidadar in Kanha, among the tall brown grass of the plateau, there were these bee eaters perched on the grasses, a spot of green against the brown.  That sight has stayed with me all these years, and everytime I relive that moent of driving in the jeep, the grass crowding us on either side, and these flashes of green that made me gasp with wonder.

So I was especially thrilled to received these pictures from Mr Ramanan, a veritable bee eater photo festival!

The blue-tailed bee eater, seen at Sholinganallur.  A little bigger than the green bee eater.  Merops philippinus

The same chap.  They love to sun themselves and also watch for insects from these perches.

Notice the beak.  Sharp and pointed to catch those flying insects.  They generally bang about their insect morsel before eating it, to get rid of the venom.  They love bees incidentally.

Mr Ramanan photographed this pair of blue-tailed beeeaters at Corbett.  They are pretty gregarious birds, hang around in large groups, and are also monogamous for a season, so this may have been a "pair"?
The smaller green beeeater, seen at Corbett.  Merops orientalis, the more common one that we see around our cities as well. seen at Chennai near the marshes.

The chestnut headed bee eater seen at Thengumaragada, Kotagiri, Nilgiris.  Merops leschenaulti.  I have not yet seen this bird.  The chestnut head glints in the sun!

And neither have I seen this one.  The blue bearded bee eater!  Nyctyornis athertoni.  Amazing isnt it?  It is o the largest bee eater in India I'm guessing at about a foot in height, with a different square-ended tail.

Check out the beard feathers in this profile shot!  They are supposedly loners, and have a loud cackling call.
Little birds, with prominent sharp beaks, the bee eaters are a delightful introduction to birding, as they are active and busy and not so shy either.

Maybe this year I will see the bearded fellow?