Between Continents

I spent the Saturday crossing from one continent to another, probably overflying a third. I cannot tell because the flight data display was disconnected. Seldom does the tedium of flying for a day in an aluminium cylinder get broken by something happening outside the window. Break in tedium on a long flight But this time one had good reason to sit up straight in the chair. Another jet went screaming past us. I had just enough time to register the fact that it was trailing black smoke. I have no idea what happened, Whatever it was, it didn’t happen again for the next four hours of my flight from Delhi to Madrid.

Eventually, after a very long time, we passed over a harbour.
Clearly our long journey over the Mediterranean sea was to come to an end. Due to ongoing wars in parts of west Asia, flights from India to Europe now go west for a long time before turning north. So I came to the conclusion that we had seen the other jet somewhere over north Africa. Where was it? Why was it trailing black smoke? Was it a civilian or military aircraft? I think the only answers are guesses based on the fact that no passenger liner was reported to be in trouble during this time.

Spain is a deserted country. There are only 50 million people living in the half a million square kilometers which lie in the country. As a result it is mostly deserted. I saw this as we descended from the coast to the airport in Madrid. The first thing we saw this was in the emptiness of the land over which we had just flown. The photo above shows part of a river valley. In the photo above, you can clearly see a fan of tributaries merging into a single stream. The strange banding of colours you can see in the bottom half of the photo is due to polarizing glasses mounted on each window in a Dreamliner.

After about half an hour of flying over this kind of country, we seemed to pass over a cliff. On the nearer side of this huge cliff were forests and fields, and also an occasional lake. This was in total contrast to the barren land between the coastline and the divide. Now we began to slow and descend, and suddenly we were over summer’s bare fields and landing in Madrid.

New adventures begin now.

Two Singular Sights

In my penultimate post on Pench National Park, I thought I should show you the first interesting sighting in the park. This is the beautiful heron which used to be called the green-backed earlier, and now is called striated. I saw it at the first waterhole we came to. In the deadly heat this bird sat in the shade of a big log which had fallen across the water. It was not feeding. In fact, on reading about its behaviour, it seems to me that it could be responding to a threat: the outstretched neck and the upward pointing beak are gestures which it has been recorded making when threatened. However, I did not see any threat nearby (unless it was our jeep).

Nilgai in Pench National Park

The other photo I wanted to put here was of this lovely antelope: one of the few found in India. The male Nilgai in the photo has a characteristic blue pelt. The white patch on its nack with a tuft of hair below it, and the colour of its muzzle, look extremely elegant. Interestingly, this species exists only in South Asia, although a related fossil species has been found in Africa. DNA studies indicate that it could be one of the primitive ancestors of cattle. The name nilgai (Hindi for blue bull) then may be pretty accurate.

Finally, yes I know what the title of this post is. I’m not going to back down and say a plural sight. No. You can tell that I really meant two singular sights.

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 Wisdom of an Owl

On our first visit to Pench National Park, we drove up to a tree with a hollow to see an Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena). The thing about owls is that they can be spotted at, or near, their hollows during the day. If you can find a local expert, she will know exactly where owls can be seen.

One of the pair was visible. It blinked at us like the wise person of proverbs. The wisdom of owls is of little use to humans, and I’d not asked any questions. So the blinking had to do with something else. I looked closer, and found the two insects which were bothering it. You can see them hovering near the owl’s left eye in the featured photo.

Indian Scops Owl in Pench National Park

There is an ongoing ferment in the classification of birds due to the advent of molecular data. It seems that the genealogy of owls is especially open. The Indian Scops Owl and the Collared Scops Owl (O. lettia) have been separated into two species which can be distinguished in the field only by their call. With the further split of the Sunda Scops Owl (O. lempiji), what once used to be called the Indian Scops Owl has now emerged as a superspecies, made up of these three species. This is incredibly exciting, since the formation of these divisions is evidence of ongoing evolution. Indian bird-watchers are in a privileged position to add to this fascinating subject by keeping their eyes open to mixing between these three species.

The individual we were busy photographing thought it wise to keep quiet, and not give us a clue to what it is. The central Indian population of this superspecies is the Indian Scops Owl, which is what I believe this is. We watched it for a while. The companion did not emerge from the nest while we watched. Perhaps, in the photo above, one can see it inside the hollow. It is hard to be certain. The owl is so beautifully camouflaged, the streaks and mottling in its plumage echo the broken bark of the tree in which it nests.

Since we saw it in May, it is possible that the female had just laid eggs. If so, then at night the male would be foraging for large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers or small frogs, rodents or birds, and bringing it back to feed the female, and, later, the hatchling.

These species have adapted well to urban living, and are not considered to be under threat. So there are ample opportunities to observe it in the wild. Especially interesting are observations in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, which lie on the dividing line between the ranges of the Indian and Collared Scops owls. With enough observation, one may gain much knowledge of the process of evolution from this owl.

Angry birds

The jungle babbler (Turdoides striata) is rather common. You can see them easily in any jungle or copse of trees near farmlands. They travel in flocks of several individuals which chatter constantly with each other. Listen to their constant calling, and you can follow the sound to see them hopping from branch to ground and back again, looking for insects to eat. They are supposed to have beautifully coloured eggs, but I’ve neither seen an egg, nor a nest.

The uniform grey specimens with yellow beaks which we saw in and around Pench National Park belong to the subspecies T. striata orientalis. These are the quintessential angry birds. They look so much like some of the birds in that game that I wonder if the creators took inspiration from these birds. Apparently they coexist with T. striata somervillei, which are a little darker and have a rufous rump and tail. I didn’t notice any, but they could have been around in Pench.

Jungle babbler in Pench National Park

I’ve most often seen these birds flit about in the semi-darkness beneath trees with a heavy canopy, making it hard to photograph them. I was lucky with these specimens. It seems that the more birds there are in a pack, the larger the area they commonly use for feeding. I saw the individuals in these photos perhaps just after their breeding season. A large fraction of the female chicks (but less of the males) usually leave the flock at the end of a year. As a result, flocks are a mixed group of related and unrelated individuals. The related birds would usually be the males. This means that territory is inherited by males within a flock!

The mixture of genetically related and unrelated birds in a flock would also make babblers an useful group for studying the spread of altruism. Indeed, non-breeding members of the group share time in incubating eggs, although they do not participate in the building of nests. Are these helpful non-breeders related to one of the breeding pair? I don’t know of a study.

Many such unanswered questions make the babblers an interesting group of birds for further study. DNA analysis indicates that the group as a whole may have evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago in the middle east. From here the group probably radiated out: one branch into Africa and another into southern Asia. Understanding the natural history of the evolution of families may eventually depend on our understanding babblers better. In fact, angry birds defending their eggs may not be such a bad metaphor for babblers.

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.

All happy families are alike

The opening words of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, are the title of this blog post because they apply to tigers as well as humans. When you see the famous tigress T15 of Pench National Park, known locally as Collarwali, with her cubs, you can hardly question this insight. I hope the featured photo captures this sense of ease within the family.

It was 42 degrees in the shade. The mother eased herself into the water. The cubs came running, and walked into the water. They nuzzled their mother, and she licked them. I’ve never seen The Family look more content than when she is watching tigers. She stood up on the seat of the open jeep, binoculars glued to her eyes, as I stood next to her and clicked away. The field of view was restricted because we had to look between trees to see the tigers. Still, it was a magnificent view.

Tigers love water. The mother took a long time cooling off. The cubs are smaller, so the heat affects them more easily, but they also cool off faster. They sat quietly in the water for a while, drank some. But soon they were climbing and scrambling over the mother. Very soon after that, like the impatient six month-olds that they are, they were out of the water and exploring their surroundings. The mother continued to sit in the water for a while. In the photo below you can see the streaks of mud left on her coat as the cubs clung to her.

Collarwali continues to sit in the wter in Pench National Park

Collarwali is a legendary mother because she has brought up six different litters, and managed to keep most of her offspring alive in the time that they were with her. This requires continuous hunting and feeding, especially in the last year or more. Tigers are quick breeders, but the cubs cannot live without a large base of prey for the mother. Pench, and a few other national parks have succeeded in stabilizing and then increasing the tiger population by keeping the rest of the ecosystem stable: the deer that the tigers feed on, the vegetation that the prey eat, the insects and birds which pollinate and disperse seeds, and many other strands in the web.

The Family was thrilled by this display of affection between the mother and the cubs, and very surprised when she found that the bond breaks completely when the cubs are about two years old. During this time the mother teaches them to hunt. I found it surprising that hunting is a learnt skill, not an inborn talent. To begin with, the cubs are taught to hold still so that the prey can come up to them. At the end they even have to be taught how to bite the neck of the prey to finish the kill.

The mother and children have to bond in order for this skill to be transmitted. But when the cubs are large enough to hunt for themselves, the mother pushes them out of her territory. They have to range out to find an unoccupied area, or take one over from an older tiger grown too feeble to protect its own range.

Tigers are lonely hunters.

Return of the Spy in the Jungle

We chanced on a small bunch of jeeps whose passengers were excitedly looking into the darkness below some bushes along a ridge line. It was a tigress and her cubs. We caught sight of her. Just as I was trying to get photos, a ranger came along and told us to move. Our guide figured out that the tigress was headed for a nearby waterhole, and drove there. I’d never seen rangers trying to control jeeps, so we discussed this with the driver and guide. I learnt that in Pench National Park the rangers try hard to balance tourists’ needs and the animals, especially when cubs are involved. Tourists are allowed only in about 20% of the park’s area, but this area contained the range of two tigresses with three cubs each.

Gray langurs on the alert in Pench National Park

There was a group of gray langur sitting in the shade around the waterhole. When we reached the waterhole we saw that they had probably sensed the approaching tigress. They were on the ground still, but looking in the direction from which we knew that the tigress was approaching. Interestingly, there had been no alarm calls. This meant that there were no deer or monkeys along the route the tigress and her cubs were taking.

The tigress we had seen was called collarwali by all the guides, because when she was four years old she had been fitted with a radio collar. Her official designation is a simple T15. I suppose she managed to get rid of the collar soon, because she was without one now. Collarwali is legendary, she has raised 26 cubs in seven litters. Although she is twelve years old, her confident walk and glossy coat indicate that she is in her prime. As a cub she starred in David Attenborough’s documentary Spy in the Jungle.

Gray langurs scatter as a tigress appears in Pench National Park

Within a couple of minutes (although it seemed longer) the band had seen the tigress and ran for the trees. You can see that the monkey in the foreground is running scared, with its tail held out straight behind it for balance, as it picks up speed. One just behind it has not taken off yet, its tail is still curled over its body as it looks in the direction of the approaching tigress. The others are equally divided between those still keeping an eye on the danger, and those searching for a safe tree nearby. Seconds after this, the langur had all fled. Collarwali came into view, climbing up from the ravine, majestic, well-fed, coat a glossy yellow-orange (see the featured photo).

There’s nothing else in the world like a tiger in motion.

The Tale of the Jackal and the Monkey

If you strain your eyes a bit, you can see the bloody cut on the muzzle of the jackal, just below the eye, in the featured photo. The incident that ended with this photo is a wonderful story: every bit as interesting as the folk tales you get to if you Google monkey versus jackal.

Jackal in the distance in Pench National Park

Early in the afternoon we reached a part of Pench National Park which is at the edge of the reservoir formed by the Totladoh dam over the Pench river. It has been a long and hot spring. There was little water to be seen. We came to a stop at a high point which would be the edge of the water after the monsoon. Below us was a small shallow body of water. On the far side we spotted a jackal trotting along (photo above). As it approached the water, it came within extreme range of my camera. I thought I would get a better photo as it came to drink water.

Through the viewfinder, I saw it speed up. I heard our guide say, "It’s going after that monkey!" I looked up and saw the jackal racing after a young langur which had come to drink water. The nearest tree was quite a way off. When I spotted the langur, it was already in flight: away from the water through a patch of rocky grass towards the nearest trees. The jackal was sprinting fast.

Monkey versus jackal in Pench National Park

The langur hopped on to an outcropping of rock. But it was easy for the jackal to climb this. The Family, the guide, and the driver, all were following this unusual incident with their binoculars glued to their eyes. I had only my camera. I could hear their excited chatter as I looked through the viewfinder again.

The jackal was snapping at the monkey, as it hopped desperately from one rock to another. I completely forgot that I could set my camera to record video. This was happening at the extreme range of my zoom, equivalent to 1200 mm. I shot off a series of photos, trusting in my luck, as the chase became desperate. In my excitement, my hand was not at its steadiest. The best photo I have is the one above: where you can see the reddish blur of the jackal’s fur on the far side of the langur, as it tries to bite the monkey’s rear leg. This was just before the jackal caught the langur’s tail!

We thought this was the end of the story. I was waiting to see whether the jackal would drag its kill towards us or away. But the desperate langur smacked the jackal across the face. It let go of the tail and jumped back. The langur remained perched on the highest rock. The jackal walked away.

As it emerged from the tall grass into full view, we could see its bloodied muzzle. It stood there, far from the water, and in the open for a long time. Our guide said "It cannot face its brothers any more." This time around the trickster did not win.

This was such an unusual sighting that it overshadowed the tales of sightings of tigers and leopards which were being exchanged when we returned that evening to our hotel for tea.