Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tree list at Anna University

Led my first tree walk for Nizhal. Meaning, I was supposed to be the "resource person" as Shoba so sweetly puts it, spreading awareness about these trees! I went armed with my iPad. Why? Loaded on it was the Nizhal Siemens Gandhinagar Tree Guide, with more than 40 common trees of Chennai (all present in Gandhinagar, Adyar) identified via their fruit, flower, leaf or pod!

I used it successfully to identify the Mimusops elengi or bullet wood tree. I was very pleased at the fact that I was able to identify all these trees below that we found on our one hour walk. I would not have been able to do this about a year ago...probably only about five. Working at the PWD park and going for Nizhal's tree walks have really helped.

There were about 20 students of the college from the Youth Red Cross who came along with me. There were two other resource persons Latha and Yamini, who went to other parts of the large and green campus. These were the trees seen and talked about, along the western driveway just inside the main gate. This is the path I took.
  1. Mast tree (false ashoka) - identified by its profile
  2. Copper pod - pods and yellow flowers
  3. Gulmohar - smooth bark, small leaves, large pods
  4. Pongamia - with the leaf galls, a hardy local tree
  5. Rain tree - there were a few flowers. told them about the insects that make the "rain", and the thoongu moonji look of the leaves in the evening.
  6. Neem - the wonder tree, that everyone knew.
  7. Tabebuia - there are massive specimens that line the inner walls of the campus.
  8. Peepul - the fig wasp story told.
  9. Cassia yellow
  10. Cassia pink
  11. Bauhinia - we discussed the leaf shape, and there was some lovely purple blloms too.
  12. Mimusops elengi - this is the one that we went step by step using the guide (since I could not identify it straight off).
  13. Palmyra - TN state tree
  14. Banyan - a nice large specimen
  15. False rudraksh - hairy leaves and black rudraksh-like seeds.
  16. Nuna - the bark was a giveaway
  17. Java olive - with their palmate leaves and characteristic seed pods
  18. Subabul - the "conflict" tree, that does not allow other species to thrive, with the easily identifiable seed pods.
  19. Fishtail palm
  20. Golden cane palm
The Tree Guide is a handy tool for Chennai. It can be loaded on a smart phone or laptop and works well. Would you like a copy? Post a comment below, or fill in the feedback form at Nizhal's contact page. It costs Rs 150.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"My husband and other animals — Take me home"

The Hindu : Life & Style / Metroplus : My husband and other animals — Take me home

Rom's mother always said that a toad or two under the kitchen sink was all one needed to keep the house clean of cockroaches. Guess what, much like everything else on our crazy farm, toads just colonised our house en masse, in a scene not different from the tree frog invasion. Like walking on a forest path, every night I had to watch where I put my foot in the house. No matter how careful I was, the magnificently-sized, sticky toad turds just jumped out, and stuck themselves to the soles of my feet! Forgetting whatever I was doing, I was forced to hobble off to wash the offending black ‘toad-gum' immediately. After a few such nightly episodes, I threw the toads out of the house, but fearlessly they returned to face my wrath.

I collected them in a plastic container and took them to the edge of the front yard, about 250 metres away, and released them. They had the temerity to return. I marked them (identification), spun the container round and round (disorientation, I thought), took them on a long detour around the farm (confusing, I imagined) before letting them go 500 metres away. There! I proclaimed in smug confidence. They were back in 25 hours.

By now, the blighters knew what was in store when the she-ogre came for them. They squeaked in distress, pissed copiously in fright, and tried to evade capture. I almost relented, but now curiosity drove me on. 750 metres. Back in 30 hours. That's a fairly long distance for small creatures to navigate. Spun the bottle, took them down the long dirt path, across the road, into the jungle and let them go by a puddle. One km away. Success? While I succeeded in chasing them out of the house, I found a couple with tell-tale markings in the outdoor planters. Now I can't tell if all of them made it back or only some did. What do other creatures do when taken far from home? Here are some interesting facts I unearthed.

In Namibia, out of eleven marked leopards that were moved 800 very long km, six returned home over a period of five to 28 months. Let me put it this way: if these cats had been taken from Chennai and released somewhere a bit north of Goa, they were able to walk right back! In the U.S., most of the 34 black bears that were moved about 200 km from their home territories returned successfully. In India, an elephant translocated from the Terai to Buxa Tiger Reserve, a distance of about 250 km, returned in less than 2 months. Salt water crocodiles in Australia were shown to home back after being moved 400 km. Put me in Bangalore, and I'm lost immediately.

However, the distance record for homing is held by seabirds such as albatrosses and shearwaters. An albatross taken from an island in the central Pacific and released about 6500 km away in the Philippines returned in a month, two others returned from Washington State, 5,000 km away.

It is not just the larger animals who have this amazing skill. In the U.K., bumblebees found their way home after being randomly dropped off 13 km from their hives. So what's a km to a toad, eh?

The fact that these animals, birds and insects return home is well-documented. But, how do they find their way through unfamiliar terrain over long distances?

Since these animals are frequently moved in covered vehicles on the outward journey (or a closed plastic container), it is unlikely they remember the route. In many cases, the animals return journey did not follow the road they were taken out on at all, but instead, took a more direct path homewards. So, how do they do it?

(To be continued)

(The author can be reached at

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Navaratri fortnight

Cloudy skies

Sweaty, hot,
mosquitoes swat.

Lightning, thunder
leaves asunder

Cooling rains

Window sill
bulbuls trill.

Sunny day

Heat abated
pitta spotted.

Swallows tease
southerly breeze.

Brilliant moon
Dusk so soon.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A tiger spotted at Bharatpur

Bharatpur is home to the Keoladeo bird sanctuary. The article below was sent to the MNS e-group, and I was immediately transported back in time to the winter adventures of the Mad Madrasis, our 53 hour train ride to get to Bharatpur, and our daily cycling (mis)adventures at the park.

And now a tiger, identified as T7 has been spotted on camera (but not in person), devouring a boar, and suspected at having killed a nilgai as well. He seems to be a maverick tiger, sort of lone ranger, outlaw type, having made his way from Ranthambhore.

The male tiger that intruded into the Keoladeo National Park bird sanctuary near Bharatpur in Rajasthan this past Sunday is seemingly enjoying his stay and is in no hurry to leave. The animal, now confirmed as T-7 of Ranthambhore National Park, which announced his arrival in Keoladeo with the killing of a blue bull, has over the past two days hunted a wild boar and a calf of feral cattle and fed on the former ignoring the calf. Though the bird sanctuary staff has been keeping a vigil, the tiger has not made an appearance before the humans so far.

“The tiger continues to be in Keoladar area of the sanctuary where the grass is standing tall. No one could spot it so far despite a strict vigil. However, we have now with us a set of 25 photographs of the animal eating the wild boar, taken with the help of a trap camera,” informed Anoop K.R., Field Director of the National Park, speaking from Bharatpur on Friday.

“The tiger seemingly consumed the wild boar fully though some of the photographs show a hyena in the background,” he said.

The tiger was on the run for the past fortnight after attacking and injuring over half a dozen persons at Mathura in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Curiously this is the same tiger, estimated to be around four years old, which had badly mauled a range officer in a village on the periphery of Ranthambhore National Park a month back. Even prior to this, T-7 has been shuttling between Ranthambhore Park and the neighbouring sanctuary of Kailadevi before choosing the long haul to the Rajasthan-UP border. Experts are of the view that going by its past behaviour the animal is not to remain in the 29 sq km area of the sanctuary for long.

“I have watched this tiger closely. He is not to stop here for long,” said Dharmendra Khandal, Director of Tiger Watch at Ranthambhore. Dr. Khandal, who confirmed the animal in the picture as T-7, said the authorities should devise a plan for shifting it to any tiger sanctuary, preferably not Sariska. He was dismissive of taking it back to Ranthambhore or Kailadevi as the former was already “saturated for tigers” and the latter did not have an adequate prey base.

“We can exchange it for a tigress from Madhya Pradesh. The animal can be shifted to Kuno, Panna or Kanha. This could be a gene pool exchange which will benefit the tigers from both the States,” he argued.

There have been reports in local newspapers about the Rajasthan forest authorities planning to shift T-7 to Sariska to join the already existing five tigers, relocated from Ranthambhore. “There are already two male tigers in Sariska now and another male is not of any additional relevance,” he pointed out.

There is reason for the authorities at Van Bhavan, the Forest Department headquarters here, and at Keoladeo National Park to worry as T-7 is a tiger with a past. The young cat has attacked a good number of people and has seemingly lost its fear of human beings. Keoladeo is a bird sanctuary where the visitors normally move either on foot or on bicycles and cycle rickshaws. “T-7 is no more afraid of the presence of humans. That is not going to help much as it has a history of attacking humans,” Dr. Khandal observed.
Its travelled a fair distance!

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I have forgotten the darkness of the night

Monday evening, and I was out for my evening walk by the beach. My iPod to lighten the drudge that the evening constitutional has become, the zippy music puts a zing in my step that is otherwise laboured and bored as I sweat myself through another exercise routine!

Dont get me wrong, I do love the shore and the magical colours of the evening sky and the water, but without the music (or good company), I would rather just sit by the shore and take it all in!

This Monday evening however, as the sun set, darkness also descended. It dawned on me that the power had gone, streetlights were off, and the matchbox flats all around were dark. The odd apartment with an inverter or a genset looked like an incongruous, out-of-season Deepavali display.

I want to record the strange feeling that overcame me, as I stumbled along the dark path, unsure of my footing.

One, I felt foolish and inadequate as the street dogs and stray cats darted around confidently while I kind of walked blind.

Two, it seemed that the roar of the water was much more (I had turned off my iPod) than normal as a hush descended, no motors, TVs, fan whirrs I guess, and more laughter and chatter floated in the air.

Three, it brought back memories almost fifteen years ago of a night in the Himalayas when we trekked through the Great Himalayan National Park and darkness descended and we were nowhere near our destination. That pitch black, I next experienced at Mamandur on a night walk again. Its a weird feeling, like walking around blindfolded, and for a city dweller like me, I realise how I have lost touch with all my other senses, in order to navigate.

Four, my mind rambled (it does that all the time) to how night lighting has changed the way we live, changed the planet, and how every other species has had to adapt to this human intervention. We love lights, it makes us happy and cheerful, the more neon signs there are, we feel we have progressed and we are prosperous.

Will we willingly reduce our night lights, for the sake of all those other creatures, lights in advertising hoardings, buildings and public places? Maybe we need a green tax on unnecessary night lighting...or am I being a killjoy?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nizhal's tree walk at Sembium Gardens

(Due apologies to a kids nursery rhyme)

Bus driver bus driver, can we have a ride?
OK, OK step up inside.
Round the bend, up the street, madly we go
Screeching and horning
Hold on tight!

Conductor sir, may we alight
We seem to have reached and we are alright!
Into an auto, squeezed up tight
We reach Sembium gardens, much to our delight!

Shoba is there, as usual giggling
And Arun is there to take us treewalking.

Buttress roots
New palm shoots
Subabuls are plenty
Rain tree flowers so dainty.

But where are those birds that I came to see?
Have they all gone off to have their morning tea?
Mosquitoes attack bare legs with glee
Sending my son on a hopping spree.

Coffee and biscuits, a welcome break
The caffeine ensuring we were all awake
To see Saraca indica
Which is the real ashoka
And not Polyalthia longifolia,
Our common false ashoka!

At last I see herons in the pond!
And is that a coot and moorhen beyond?
Parakeets in the raintree screeched
A flameback in the cordia, knocked

And to go home we turned around
Oops, the same mad bus driver we found!
Round the bend, up the street, madly we went
Screeching and horning
Held on tight!

The rains, trees and insects

Seen at GNP -
Pranav of MNS helped me id this!

Hi Ambika,
This is a short horned grasshopper (Acrididae) in the subfamily Oxyinae- most probably Oxya hyla hyla. I don't think there is a common name beyond "Short horned grasshopper"(which refers to thousands and thousands of other species), so these two will just have to be satisfied with the binomial name mentioned above.
Yes, they are a mating pair- the males are always smaller than the females. There is another subspecies- O. hyla intricata , which looks similar, with a deep brown shade above, instead of green. The two subspecies have been noticed mating with each other, but these two specimens seem to have stuck to their own kind... grasshoppers are strict vegetarians. In fact, they are despised for this very fact- the grasshopper in your photo is an infamous pest of rice...