The woodpecker and the (w)hole

Grasslands in the Terai are interspersed with deep jungles of mixed trees. This is where tigers come for shade and rest after a night out eating and drinking in the sea of grass. But you also find herds of chital, and lone sambar and barking deer moving through the undergrowth. If you are lucky you’ll see a mongoose or a pangolin. We drove slowly along paths under the towering trees and stopped when we heard a woodpecker’s call. Which one? Ahead of us, on a massive trunk sat a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus), a lifer for me. Maybe. Because I’ve seen and photographed lots of birds before I started taking an interest in them. I confused myself for a while, “But it doesn’t have the red patch at the front of the head.” The Family was practical, “Must be the female.” It was. I admire pragmatism, especially in the heat of the field.

The lady inspected a hole in the tree, and its surroundings, like a finicky house hunter. I found later that this is one of the commoner woodpeckers in the world, once having lived in a swathe of land across Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where the climate is neither too hot, nor too cold. When I put my observation into eBird, it demanded verification. The species has been reported often from the Terai and the lower slopes of the Himalayas, but is still considered rare here. As the weather warms they’ll move north (there are already sightings in northern Finland and Norway, as far north as Tromsø) and up-slope, becoming rarer still in India.

As we watched a jeep with two young couples came to a halt next to us. “Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of dust. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken I saw that this tree was being strangled slowly by a fig. I can’t tell the difference between three of the commonest strangler figs in this region: Ficus beghalensis (banyan), Ficus virens (pilkhan) and the immense Ficus altissima. Parakeets and hornbills, of which there are several species here, eat their fruits. Their droppings contain viable seeds that take root in some of the other trees. As the host dies, there are more and more holes in its trunk, attracting Picus canus and several other species which are looking for nesting holes. This area was full of trees being strangled, and sure enough, I could hear the screech of parakeets flying high overhead. Eventually, one of the figs will win by growing faster, throwing its deadly shade over the the remaining, clearing trees from the space under it. A small grassland will nucleate under the tree and spread.

I’m happy that a generation ago, when the Beatles sat in an ashram not far from here and composed their eco-anthem, The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, someone had the foresight to start Project Tiger in these jungles. That has preserved this wonderful cycle between jungle and grassland for the rest of us to enjoy. The shade of these trees were filled with the clicking and chirping of insects, the trilling and the cackle of birds. I was glad I’d stopped here. I took off the mask and breathed the smell of the forest.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


  1. This is what the lesser crane tourists do, exactly. ‘“Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, ‘ As if there were only ONE thing worth seeing.

    In the Laguna Mountains (all of the Souther California mountains) the woodpeckers make holes and stash acorns in them for the future, huge “refrigerators” of food between seasons.

    It’s very lovely that this area has been preserved. I enjoy these posts so much.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know. My theory is that there are destination people like that tiger tourist and there are experience people like a guy I met in 2021 during crane season. When I’m walking out there people will ask, “Where are the cranes?” A car came up, stopped, rolled down the window. I said, “Are you looking for cranes?”

        The man said, “Oh I’m happy to see anything!” I told him I’d been watching a couple of Harris Hawks hunting and pointed. 🙂

        I’ve seen magic happen with the Lesser Crane Tourist, too. Once a car stopped and asked about the cranes and I said, “Well, there’s a bald eagle hunting over there.” The drive said, “Bald eagle?” Amazed. “I had no idea.” He got out of his car to watch and got to see hundreds of cranes all take flight at once to evade the eagle.

        Maybe the Lesser Crane Tourists (and the Tiger Tourist) are just beginning their education in wonder.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I hope that the destination category is the same as a novice category. But it is hard to get some of them to make a second trip and start them on the way to enlightenment. A very few have an encounter with a guru who sets them on the right path. For others, the search is hard

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks – LOL
    Can’t agree more!
    Sometimes I’m quite glad about using any mask whether N95 or not. I don’t have to smile at everyone that being one of them. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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