The big misses

After all that driving around inside Pench National Park, there were still some major species of mammals that we missed seeing. One of the closest calls was a leopard. We heard a cheetal’s alarm call and then saw the deer. We heard a langur’s alarm call very soon after. Then nothing.

The cheetal was still alert, looking in the direction where it had just sensed the predator. You can see its tail mid-quiver in the featured photo. One movement from the hidden beast and it would go up, sending out a white flash of an alarm signal as it made an alarm call again. But nothing happened. We waited for more than half an hour, and then lost our patience. We weaved our way past the other waiting jeeps. Later, in the hotel, we heard that a minute after we left, the leopard had been sighted. That’s luck for you.

Dusk had fallen. We drove to a nearby water body, and saw nothing there. Later we heard that we had missed a shy two-year old tiger cub which was lying in the water where we went, and moved off as soon as a jeep came by. This happened as we waited for the leopard!

Wild boar spooked while crossing a road in Pench National Park

We did not exactly miss seeing wild boars. I managed to take the blurred photo which you can see above. These were part of a sounder which were crossing the road. They got spooked while crossing, and the rest of the group scuttled back into the undergrowth. In Pench wild board come out in such bad light.

We never saw a sloth bear, although there are many in Pench. The only reasonable view I’ve had of these bad tempered creatures was a few years back in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. One of them was demolishing a termite mound behind a copse of trees. I could see it between the trees. The one time I took photos of a sloth bear and its two cubs, they were running away across a meadow well after sunset. A lot of fiddling with the image could give me a recognizable picture.

Another wide miss was the Indian wolf, which apparently had made a minor comeback in this area. We never heard reports of anyone seeing them in the time that we were in Pench. The deer called the Barasingha is in the official checklist, but none of the guides said they had seen one. One of them was quite categorical that there were none here, "Go to Kanha," he said.

A close miss was a sighting of wild dogs. We kept running into jeeps whose passengers would say, "We saw a pack just minutes back. I’m sure they’ll be back if you wait here.". They never came back. The jungle is a chancy thing. You can be sure of seeing trees. Everything else is an extra.

The World’s largest Cattle

We saw a herd of about ten Gaur (Bos Gaurus) and stopped to watch. They looked around, saw us, and went back to grazing. Maybe they are used to humans, but part of the reason is also their sheer size. An adult can weight as much as a ton, so they seldom have to worry about other creatures. Tigers and leopards do attack Gaur, but they usually pick the youngsters. For a tiger against an adult Gaur, I would give them even odds. I’ve seen a tiger unable to drag away a Gaur which it had killed, because it was so heavy. I’ve also seen reports of tigers killed by Gaur.

Older Gaur calf in Pench National Park

The IUCN Red list considers the Gaur to be highly vulnerable to habitat destruction. If you want to know more about the natural history of Gaur, this is the best document to read. It claims that in the last 50 to 60 years Gaur population worldwide has decreased by 70%. Since it has decreased by only 30% in India, it must have decreased tremendously in the rest of its range. It was found in India and south-east Asia, but has gone extinct in Bangladesh in the last couple of decades. In parts of India, such as Valparai, it is still under threat.

The Bos genus, to which domestic cows also belong, probably diverged from other bovines about a million years ago. Earlier studies had claimed that the European Aurochs (which went extinct in the 19th century CE) are the original stock from which other Bos species diverged. However, recent findings in Eritrea seem to push the origin of Bos back to around 3 millon years ago, and indicate a close relationship between humans and Bos. These studies indicate that Bos and humans left Africa together. Tigers would have started preying on Bos only after their dispersal into Asia. So, the enmity between human and tiger predators of cattle seems to be ancient.

Gaur with young calf in Pench National Park

In a well-managed park like Pench, the Gaur population seems to be stabilizing, and probably also increasing. We saw evidence in the form of small calves (photo above) as well as older calves (photo before that). Interestingly, in the early part of the 20th century CE, observers reported that calves are born in August and September. Nowadays, it is common to see calves at any time of the year. The herd we saw followed the common pattern of having some females with calves, some sub-adults, and perhaps a few males. If you know enough about Gaur, then you would be able to tell the male from the female by differences in the horns. I’m not expert enough.

We stood there and watched the herd graze. It has been several years since we saw these wonderful creatures with brown coats and white socks.

The post-extinct Elephants

I read in a document from the Zoological Survey of India that the Ain i Akbari mentions wild elephants in the area that the Pench National Park now occupies. These annals of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar were written in the 16th century CE. I looked at my copy. Pench gets no mention, of course, but a larger geographical area around it is said to have these beasts. The ZSI document goes on to say that books from the 18th century about this area no longer mention these animals. The document concludes that elephants must have gone locally extinct in these centuries. It is interesting that the temperature minimum of the Little Ice Age occurred roughly at this time. This caused changes in rainfall patterns, and resulted in a sequence of droughts during the 18th century. Could it have been climate change of this kind that caused the extinction of the local population of elephants in this region?

Elephant patrol in Pench National Forest

So it is a little surprising to see elephants in the jungles of Pench, until you realize that there are only five elephants, and they are domesticated. The forest department uses them to patrol the jungle, especially areas which are otherwise hard to reach. We were in the usual open jeep when this patrol passed by. Our driver asked about tigers, and one of mahouts said that he’d seen one nearby and it might come down to drink water shortly. It didn’t. As they talked, I saw the elephant break one large branch off a small tree and munch on its leaves.

Intrigued, I searched for elephants in Pench and found the following paragraph in a book for a former forest ranger, R. C. Sharma, in a book called "The Wildlife Memoirs, a Forester Recollects".

R.C.Sharma, memoirs

This is a possible clue how climate change could eventually lead to disastrous denudation of flora, which cause large herbivores to die out. I’m sure an event like this has cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. The landscape that we see in Pench today must have been shaped by the climate of three centuries ago.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.

The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

A complete unknown

Walking through the mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika was amazing and humbling. I did not know a single tree or plant. The flower that you see in the featured photo was widespread. I’d first seen it in Andaman, where it had confused me a lot. I photographed one at night and thought it was pink. Then I saw a bush in the morning with yellow flowers. I thought maybe pink I saw at night was a trick of the light. Now I saw both pink and yellow flowers on the same bush. Bijaya, who was guiding me through the forest, said that the flowers are yellow when they bloom, and then gradually turn pink before they fall off. He didn’t volunteer the name of the plant, and I did not ask.

A part of the Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

I had read nothing about mangrove species and the trees inland of them. Bhitarkanika is a diversity hotspot, even more so than the Sunderban. I walked between the colourful trees that you see in the photo above, knowing nothing of why they grow together, what they are, and how they are used by villagers nearby. Still, it was a restful walk, and a great respite from the city.

Lesser Adjutant Storks

In my days as a couch potato, I’d read an unlikely book by Douglas Adams, who, in collaboration with Mark Carwardine, went round the world looking for species on the verge of extinction. Not only do I still have Last Chance to See on my bookshelf, I go around the country now with a mental list of endangered species which I want to see. The Lesser Adjutant Stork is one of these, and Bhitarkanika is its only known nesting site outside north-eastern India.

The IUCN Red List classifies it as vulnerable (to extinction) because it is "rapidly declining as a result of a variety of threats including hunting pressure, loss of nesting trees, conversion and degradation of wetlands and agricultural changes". It is thought that the disappearance of this species from the Sunderbans is due to degradation of mangrove diversity in the region.

It is one of the most spectacularly ugly birds I’ve ever had the opportunity to see. It is also huge. As we crossed the Brahmani river, The Family spotted some huge birds in a field far away. We stopped to look. They were these ugly storks. The Lesser Adjutant (and its cousin, the Greater Adjutant) is called হাড়গিলে in Assamese and in Odiya (meaning bone eater). When I consulted older people in my family, they remembered the name and the bird. At one time it was probably common in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. It can now be seen only in protected forests and wetlands, where it eats small animals and crustaceans. Its local name probably comes by association with the Greater Adjutant, which often scavenges around human habitation.

We saw these birds several times in the protected forest. They were wary of our boat, and tended to fly whenever we came within camera range. Eventually I caught a juvenile sitting on top of a tree. The juvenile has much more down on its bare neck and head than the adult. Apparently these birds have extremely sharp vision, and this one could have been sitting there to scan the area for food.

One never knows which sighting of this bird could be the last.

The mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika

When India joined the Ramsar convention for protection of wetlands in 1982, Bhitarkanika National Park was not the among the first places listed. The 65,000 hectares of this park was listed under the treaty twenty years later. The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are larger in area, but Bhitarkanika has more species diversity: only three of India’s 58 species of mangroves have not been seen here.

Mangrove forests stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. The intricate root system of mangroves also makes these forests attractive to fish and other organisms seeking food and shelter from predators.
NOAA website

When you pass through the tidal creeks which thread the wetlands, the mangroves appear as a dense forest wall surrounding you. There are designated trails through the forest. If you take these, you find that the forest is thin, and hides open wetlands. Interestingly, there is freshwater very close to the sea here. The sparse villages around the region have a tradition of creating ponds around each home, so recharging the groundwater that they draw. Unfortunately, this traditional conservation measure has been undone recently by the increased shrimp farming in this area.

Boat in Khola creek in Bhitarkanika national park, Odisha

The mangroves are drowned by the tide surging up and down the creek twice a day. Most trees which stand with roots in water would die. Mangroves have solved this problem in two ways. First, they have evolved unique physiologies which allow it to filter out salt from the water and excrete it. Second, some of them stand in an interlocking mass of prop roots to hold them out of the water while thers have snorkels called pneumatophores (photo below: the spikes amongst which the whimbrels is foraging). This area is the delta of a complex of muddy rivers. The mangrove roots hold back the soil and slowly build up the land. Bangladesh is said to have created 120,000 hectares of new land in the Bay of Bengal by planting new mangrove forests.

Whinbrel among mangrove roots in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

As temporary refugees from a city, we breathed in the clear air of the forest. The Family was reading a study which claimed that mangroves lock up more than a 100 kilograms of atmospheric carbon per hectare per day, and is one of the most efficient ecologies for soaking up greenhouse gases. The three decades-long conservation effort in Bhitarkanika started before the Indian Ocean tsunami taught coastal countries the wisdom of replanting mangroves. Now this may serve as an ark which repopulates the disappearing mangrove forests along the coast of India.