Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Collared Pratincole at Siruthavoor

Pratincoles are birds that live on the ground around water bodies and have a lapwing-like stature.

Skandan reports,
The scorching May month heat was about to put an end to our birding for a month.But our birding instincts forced Sripad and me for a drive to Siruthavoor today.

We were lucky once once again with this sighting of "*Collared Pratincole*". They are not so common here.

Oriental Pratincole & Collared Pratincole look very similar.
Collared ones
1) have Tail tip reaching the tip of the Closed wings at rest.
2) have White trailing edge in the primaries (visible in flight)
Collared Pratincole - Photo by Skandan
Collared Pratincole - Photo by Skandan

Pictorial differences between Oriental Pratincole vs Collared Paratincole.

Butterfly migrations in south india

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bandhavgarh - Land of Tigers

So we thought we had seen a lot of tigers at Ranthambhore, but here's somebody who has seen plenty too, and lovely photos to boot! Arun spent ten days at the Bandhavgarh sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Bandhavgarh has one of the highest tiger densities if I'm not mistaken, and also has a fort atop the hill within the sanctuary. However, the forests are evergreen sal (like Kanha) and not dhok like Ranthambhore.

Enjoy !

BANDHAVGARH - - Land of Tigers - arun - Picasa Web Albums

Friday, May 14, 2010

Plenty of plovers

Madras is a warm and hospitable place. The Lonely Planet does not think much of the city, but its one of those places that creep up on you and becomes home.

It seems to have affected the birds as well. A month ago, the MNS e-group was full of distressed emails about the pittas, which were refusing to leave, and quite tragically, dying for their loyalty. (The pittas need to go back to cool climes you see.)

And now, Skandan and his buddies have been lurking around the Adyar estuary and catching these plovers, that are usually only winter visitors to the city, coming in with the music season and the rustle of silks, and leaving well before the summer, mangoes and cotton!

We are well into summer and they are still here, and in breeding plumage to boot.

The plovers are medium-sized waders - birds that live along the water's edge, with short necks and kind of stubby bills. The non-breeding grey plover is , well, grey! The striking black chest is to attract the ladies!

The Lesser Sand Plovers were in the sand thankfully, being faithful to their name. And yes, there are Greater Sand Plovers, which are marginally bigger, with slightly longer legs and a more pointy beak.
Click on the picture above and spot the breeding males -the ones with the black mask around the eyes. The morose ones with brown upper necks are the females.
Its the one with the looong bill! What's it doing hanging out with the plovers, I wonder? The Terek sandpiper's bill is much longer than the common sandpiper, which is quite common. They are endearing birds to watch, slight bobbing up and down, quick stuttering darts along the ground and complete absorption in finding their food!
Pacific golden plovers. Photo by Skandan

Beautiful birds, both in flight and when they are in repose. The golden colours usually catch the evening sunlight beautifully, in the estuary. The striking white markings are prominent in the breeding males.

I love to watch tern acrobatics over the water's surface. They swoop and glide, and are constantly calling, and are fun to watch through the binoculars. This tern that Skandan has photographed, has a black head only during breeding, and its non-breeding plumage is just white and kind of dull grey or dirty white for the body!

I find the terns very confusing to distinguish during non-breeding, they all look similar!

Skandan and friends also found a Collared Pratincole at Siruthavur.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tiger spotting at Ranthambhore

Stunning cliffs and ravines make up the Ranthambhore terrain.
A few years ago, we visited Dungarpur. The palace, now a hotel (a wonderfully hospitable one at that), has a Shikar room. I walked in, and my stomach lurched I can tell you. Eyes of tiger, sambar, chital, leopard stared down from the walls. 99 tigers, the raja of old was supposed to have killed...its unsurprising that there are no tigers left in those forests.

1900 - around 40,000 tigers
As I wandered the dry forests of Ranthambhore under an April sun, my mind wandered. What an unlikely saviour the tigers had in Indira Gandhi. A PM who invoked Emergency, was insecure and power-hungry, arguably destroyed several of India's institutions...and yet, she banned all hunting in India in 1970, put a stop to fur and skins export, stood firm on Silent Valley, started mechanisms to monitor our forests and was the initiator of Project Tiger.
Dhok trees, dry and bare in the summer

And then Ranthambhore had (still has) Fateh Singh Rathore and Valmik Thapar. I came back to Madras and read about the formation of the sanctuary, the efforts needed to relocate the villages within the park, and I was truly humbled. It is because of the single-minded efforts of people like this, and the countless underpaid, poorly trained forest rangers and wildlife wardens that we cling on to our remaining forests and wildlife.

Ranthambhore offered me a glimpse of my first tigers in the wild. I have seen them angrily pacing in the Mysore zoo and gone away unhappy and somehow ashamed. Ashamed because my fellow Indians taunted and teased them. My son then burst out that he was never going back to a zoo in his life....and we haven't.

T 17, the tigress we saw several times, cooling off at the Padam lake. behind her are crocodiles on the mud island!

Ranthambhore -the forest was dry and hot, the landscape for the most part bleak, almost like we were touring a nuclear holocaust area, the dhok trees stood bare, the herbivores were listless. But then I saw the tiger, and I was spellbound. She was far away, sitting by the banks of the Padam lake. It was a strangely serene scene. Jogi Mahal was to our left, the huge banyan tree behind. The crocs lay on the little mud island in the middle, egrets stood stock still, while the stilts moved around in their usual self-absorbed fashion. And the peafowl moved uncaringly close to the tigress.

She was not in a hunting mood, and the jungle was aware of this. After a while, she stood up, and a feline stretch later, strolled into the elephant grass, and vanished from sight. This was T17, we were told. Just google her, and you will find that she's widely photographed. Daughter of the famous Machli. My view was rather different from this one, also at Jogi Mahal:
"One massive male that Fateh and Valmik named Genghis introduced in 1983 a method of killing never before observed anywhere else on earth. He routinely hid in the eall grass that lines the largest of the lakes, then stormed out into the water to snatch an unwary sambar before it could make it ack to solid ground - and he performed this spectacular feat in full view of the guests sipping tea on the verandah of the Jogi Mahal. "
Tiger and Tigerwallahs, Geoffrey C Ward

What stars these are, the tigers of Ranthambhore! Each with a story and a lineage. I was hooked. Yes, the Thicknees and Buntings were delightful and all that, but this was something else! That was sighting number one for me.

Many ravines, dry dhok trees, scurrying peacocks, moulting sambhar later, we arived at the edge of a cliff, and this is what we saw below. A brother and sister duo of tigers, orphaned at birth. Their mother killed in a fight with another male tiger.

Their survival itself was a miracle according to the guides, since they had not yet learnt to hunt proficiently. We were told that they hunt together and kind of hang out together as well.

videoA short video- listen to the howling wind.

The jeep in which my husband and son were, saw them kind of gambolling and pawing at each other! By the time we arrived, we just saw the one sitting in the grass below, and after a bit she kind of rolled over and slept, sprawled like she had no care in the world.

A loud laugh from one of us, and the head came up and she stared at us, before dropping off again - its only those pesky humans.

The male tiger (I think), the one we did not see initially, but saw later as he slept on his back under a tree!

The male had wandered off and we did not see him at all. We hung around on the top of the cliff, a strong wind whipping the sand into our faces. Our jeep was right at the edge, and the wind was making me nervous, never a good one for heights you see.

But we were rewarded for our patience. The male appeared on the other side of the water, loped off to a tree, sat down, and then like a puppy dog, kind of rolled on his back and went to sleep with his feet in the air! I am not kidding! He was too far away to get a shot, but we were able to see him with our binoculars.

The stripes, so evident and clear are such a wonderful camouflage in this straw-coloured grass. We saw him moving and then settling under the tree. Those who did not, found it very hard to even find him.

Just like sighting Number three, asleep under this rocky outcrop. T17 again, radio-collar giving her away. Its amazing the amount they sleep!
Was this T 17 again? It was a radio-collared tiger.
In fact, Ranthambhore made it easy to lose sight of the fact that while tigers are beautiful, they are never cuddly. I once spent a whole afternoon watching four tigers sleep off a meal. They were dozing in the shade; I was sitting in the sun. No human sound seemed to disturb them: our restless shifting in the jeep had no effect on the loud, steady, bellowlike sound of their breathing, neither did the voices of the road crew passing in the distance, nor a series of blasts from a rock quarry outside the park. After the third hot, drowsy hour, it was all I could do to stop myself from getting down to sleep alongside them. Then, the gentle flutter of a tree-pie's wings hopping too close to the kill brought the tigress roaring to her feet - and me to my senses. Even the minutest threat to her kill offered by a small bird had demanded action; so might I have had I actually got down. But siting in the jeep, neither menace nor potential meal, I was just part of the landscape.
Tigers and Tigerwallahs, Geoffrey C Ward,

Our canter moved on then as we heard of another tiger further down in the ravine. A langur gave an alarm call, and the sambars stood alert with their tails in the air. We stopped and waited, as the guide hissed that it was probably a leopard. But after 10 minutes and no movement, we trundled along further, and came upon a clearing with about five jeeps wedged in, but no tiger.

Or so I thought, until we looked past the jeeps into a cave covered with roots, and saw a massive head! And even more massive paws.
Kumbakarna, or so I thought as he slumbererd on and on!
And so it was, he slumbered on an on. and we waited and waited. The cliffs around us were spectacular. Parakeets screeched all around. But the tiger slept.

In one of the jeeps was a professional photographer. He was its sole occupant. We had seen him earlier, and he was also staying at the same place that we were. Anyways, whenever we saw him in the park he was asleep! With a cap over his face, sprawled on the back seat. He had a long, threatening looking camera lens, and the guide looked out for him. We were told that he would wake up only when the tiger woke.

So we wondered whether the opposite would work, we wake him and the tiger would awake? Mr Swami suggested we have a roaring competition to rouse the tiger (fear not, we didn't), a magpie robin entertained us with his music.

Usha took refuge under her orange dupatta, looking like a giant anthill which had been smeared with turmeric, my son amused himself by taking a series of self-portraits on our digicam (I discovered this later of course!). And still he slept. Some of the jeep drivers banged their doors shut louder than was necessary, and it reverberated through the forest.

Suddenly there was movement, and a hush fell over the waiting crowd. The tiger needed a pillow, and moved himself into a more comfortable position. It was 5:30 in the evening, time was running out, we would have to leave soon, since the park rules were that we needed to be out of the park by 6.30.
Suddenly, an eye opened. I took my binoculars up, and was completely disconcerted to find myself eyeballing the tiger, as he stared at us. There is nothing friendly about a tiger looking at you, I can say. I think that if I was caught in front of a tiger, I would be too terrified to even run.

And here were we, in various jeeps and canters, most without an escape route. All it needed was an annoyed and irritated tiger to lash out with that almighty paw, and we would have a tragedy on our hands. We left before the tiger left its den, sadly (or may be thankfully?!).

In the name of tourism, me thinks we are pushing our luck, crowding tigers with our jeeps, flashbulbs, and raised voices. The tiger does not attack a jeep is the old adage, and I for one am least convinced about this.

In a way, I was relieved that all our encounters were from a safe distance, no harm to us, and no disturbance to the tiger.
Spot the tiger! T17 again rests at the base of the tree in the rear!

Sighting number five was outside the park, from the buffer zone. Our jeep driver raced there, upon hearing that a tiger had just moved from Padam lake into the undergrowth, and so we went in order to catch her, as she emerged on the other side. We parked ourselves and sat, and after a while I stared dreamily out, the heat making me feel that the lake was a nice place to be in (no thought of crocodiles on my mind of course), when I saw some stripes walking past. "Ay, tiger, tiger!", I exclaimed most unimaginatively, and soon there was a rush of canters and jeeps around us. Its in the thicket in the picture above. Try look for it! Else take my word!

The ones that got away, or the sightings we did not have!
Of course, there were other members of our gang of 27, who had different encounters, and wonderful pictures to boot. Here is one such, as narrated by R Shantaram.
A Gypsy came rushing up to the group of vehicles. The message was crisp: at Lakharda, near Mandu Point, a pair of tigers had dragged a kill across the road from a waterhole. The race was on. Canters galloped, Gypsies careened, as every vehicle tried to be the first on the scene, to grab the best spot for watching the tigers. But even before we reached there, four or five other vehicles had cornered the vantage points. Not that we were complaining.
Lakarda male- Photo by Mr Ramanan
We had a wonderful view, as the male tiger (T 28) – a large 4-year old – got up, crossed the road up ahead of us and walked towards us, stopping at the waterhole, where he slaked his thirst. Strolling back, he went about 25 feet away from the road and lay down, sated, needing some peace and quiet, now.
Lakarda female-Photo by Mr Ramanan
The tigress (T 19) was still feeding at the kill, but soon, she needed water as well and so cut across the road to the waterhole. Maybe the male felt protective, for he too got up and circled the vehicles, getting to the waterhole. He saw that the tigress wasn’t too worried about the crowd of onlookers – there were close to a hundred people, standing up on the seats of their vehicles, trying to get pictures the best they could – and had settled herself quite comfortably into the small waterhole, so he wandered back to the other side of the road. The tigress continued to lie in the water, soaking herself for a while, allowing everyone to take a good look at her. When she had enough of it, she got up, intending to walk back to her kill the way she had cut across the road. But by now there was a double line of vehicles blocking that path, so she had to go around, behind the last vehicle.
Photo by Mr Ramanan

That Gypsy suddenly gunned its engines and reversed, keeping abreast of the tigress – thankfully, it was only for a few seconds and the big girl was allowed to get across before she could build up her anger. We had been there for almost an hour, though it seemed but a few minutes, and the drive back was quick, for we had been lucky, to have seen two tigers on our first safari.
Read more of Shantaram's Ranthamhore trip diary here.
Usha recounts her tiger sighting number 1, as also narrates The jungle experience of a lifetime

I also found these wonderful "tiger" links -

The truth about tigers, is Shekar Dattatri's all you need to know about tigers website. He also has made a documentary on what common urban people can do to help. Unfettered tourism in and around our parks has been blamed as bad for long-term tiger health. I found this essay interesting The tourism conundrum - an insider responds and Travel Operators For Tigers are a group of tour operators looking to be responsible. The Forest Survey of India has a lot of stats on India's forest cover. There are beautiful pictures at Machali - one of Ranthambore's stars.

And please oh please save us from the Chinese tiger farm.

A tiger is a sturdy animal and breeds well, if we let it. How many tigers can India support? How much territory are we willing to give them?

And on a personal level, should I be taking countless jeep rides through the forest? Here's my wish list:
  • Each sanctuary/park in India should make it compulsory that every visitor attends an initial orientation, where everyone clearly knows the do's and dont's of forest behaviour, tiger-spotting etiquette, and safe behaviour.
  • There should be an upper limit as to number of jeeps allowed per day into the sanctuary.
  • There should be strict rules regarding how many vehicles can surround a tiger - dont you think this is both safe and courteous?
What do you think?
There is no point making us sign indemnity bonds (which we did by the way) and then setting us loose inside the forest!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Courtship in front of the ladies toilet

Let me tell you a story
No, this one's not hoary
A moment of glory
But a setting so corny.

In the forests of Ranthambore,
Peacocks galore.
One morning, Mr Pavo cristatus
Was trying to impress his missus.

That was all very well, I thought
But pay more attention, he ought
To the venue for his courtship
in order to make her heart skip.
Of the toilet behind
he seemed completely blind
But the peahens did seem to mind
As they ignored him and dined
On seeds, insects and anything they could find!

Now the men in our group expressed sympathy
And they did not think the peacock blameworthy
But rather thought the peahen typically hard-to-please
For his fanciful display, she should be begging on her knees!

What a sight it was, those magnificent feathers in a train.
Wonder and awe we expressed, again and again.
A fan of blues, such iridiscent hues
Caused by nanostructures in their barbules.


The wild peafowl roost in trees
And gather in groups called parties.
But nests they make on the ground
Though, so far not one have I found.

Twenty years is their typical life span
Thats the age of a young man!
I will always remember their loud, piercing cries
And the flashes of blue as they took to the skies.

But most of all, I will remember this dance
A beautiful, incongruous, unsuccessful romance?


These peafowl we saw on our recent trip to the Ranthambore National Park, one of India's well known tiger reserves in north India. Situated in the eastern part of Rajasthan, the closest railhead is Sawai Madhopur, 11 kms away, while the closest city would be Jaipur, about 180 kms away.

We went in late April, when the day temperatures hovered around 43 -45 degrees C, and the dry hot winds came rolling in off the Thar desert (or so I thought anyway!). The water bodies were shrinking and the local dhok trees (Anogeissus pendula) completely dry. Ideal animal sighting conditions, though not ideal human comfort weather!

The peafowl were a delightful distraction all across the park, and their alarm cries were also very useful in tiger tracking.

Watch this blog for more on tiger, leopard and the birds of Ranthambore!

Thanks to Corey of 10,000birds.com, I came across this interesting article of how peacocks happen to now roam wild in Arcadia, LA!