A red-tailed skink

I sat at the very edge of the protected forest near a rubber plantation in the neighbourhood of Thattekad in Kerala. In front of me two juvenile skinks ran along the leaf litter on the ground, and climbed over tree trunks and stones. The horizon was rising towards the sun, and we could see sunlight only on the tops of the trees around us. I guessed that these skinks were diurnal, but couldn’t figure out why I thought so. Had I seen them before?

A little search, and I figured that these were Dussimier’s skinks (Sphenomorphys dussimieri). That led me to the information that they are diurnal and eat insects. The IUCN red list says that they are widely distributed along the Western Ghats, and are not thought to be threatened. It also mentions that they are oviparous. That was puzzling, are some skinks not hatched from eggs? It seems so. Some skinks even have placenta, like true mammals! Not much seems to be known about skinks. It is not even clear whether most Indian skinks came with the drifting landmass when it separated from Africa, or migrated into it after it struck Asia. In fact, it is possible that there are as yet undiscovered skink species in the Western Ghats.

But the sight kept bothering me. Had I seen this species before? Some digging through my archives threw up the photo that you see above. Four years ago I’d seen a Dussimier’s skink 1500 kilometres north, in Matheran. That could be close to the northern limits of this species. In this photo it is clear that the species has four toes. The three black stripes, one on top, and two on the sides are distinctive. The red tail belongs to juveniles. I think it turns into the striped white and black in an adult. I’m so happy that I could trace down that itch in my memory.


Walking around a village

We drove a few hours from Kochi to Thattekad, and reached a home stay on the far side of the Periyar river. In the evening we crossed the river for a walk around Thattekad village. From the highway it looked like there was only a rain-forest nearby. Then I saw the little path worn away by regular use. As we followed the path, I realized that this was not a pristine rain-forest; it had been cleared for human use.

The word ecosystem comes to mind as you walk around the village. The network of species is not as dense as it would be inside the protected forest, but you can see it here very easily.

A speckled piculet pecked away at a bare tree: there were clearly insects running up the trunk. I’d never seen a piculet before.

Ants swarmed over tiny yellow flowers which I didn’t recognize. They pollinate the flowers even as they harvest nectar. Elsewhere, a deeper food chain: aphid colonies have taken over a patch of bushes, and ants run up and down them, clipping their wings and harvesting the honey dew which they secrete.

There were flowers which I did not recognize. The one thing which I did was the touch-me-not, familiar from my childhood. Its leaves curl up if you touch them. This was the plant whose name, Mimosa pudica, first introduced me to Latin binomials.

Above us a plum-headed parakeet hung upside down, feeding on tiny fruits. Parakeets disperse seeds widely, and are key players in keeping a forest alive.

As soon as you get away from a city you begin to see the web of life which covers our planet.

The Sri Lanka frogmouth

Frogmouths were in my bucket list. With their distinctive extra-wide mouths and pointed beak, they have to be on every bird watcher’s list of things to be seen. The Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) is the only one found in India. The nocturnal birds are hard to spot during the day because they are beautifully camouflaged as a mass of dry leaves, and usually sit in the shade under a canopy of a tall tree. As more birdwatchers become aware of it, it is being seen fairly far north in the Western Ghats; in 2012 it was even spotted in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Fortunately, they are creatures of habit. If they aren’t disturbed then they could come back to the same tree year after year. A good local guide will usually lead you to a pair fairly quickly.

“Look around. Even if the trek is slow don’t worry. Record everything you see. Closely watch dry trees and dry leaves, the Frogmouth may be hiding there.” — Salim Ali (1976) to R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the Frogmouth in Silent Valley, Kerala in 1976.

In Thattekad, at the edge of the protected rain forest, we saw lots of insect eating birds during the day: drongos, woodpeckers, bee eaters, and so on. At night the air would become full of insects. So it made instant sense when Adesh began to talk of nightjars and frogmouths, nocturnal birds which feed on insects. I would have loved to see frogmouths flying about with their gaping mouths open, hoovering up swarms of insects. When I looked up family relations between these birds I found that DNA studies place frogmouths, nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds together into a group called Strisores. Interestingly, these form a group of birds which diverged very early from the rest of birds, perhaps as far back as 70 million years ago! The night really calls strongly to this group.

I looked at the photos taken by J. multiflorum (one of which is the featured photo) and noticed the abundant facial bristles. What use are they? I could not find anything written about the function of these bristles. So little is still known about these birds! My last sighting of the day was of the legendary field biologist, R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the frogmouths in Kerala in 1976. He was sipping a coffee as we walked past, and pointed out an uncharacteristically silent racquet-tailed drongo.


An odd bird

At the point where you come to one end of the tidal creek in Bhandup the water is absolutely stagnant. Not even a normal high tide lifts the water enough for waves. This fetid water turned out to be a place where mosquitos breed in swarms. I had covered myself in anti-mosquito gel, but that was not enough to keep away these pests. They swarmed over me, even settling on my sturdy and loose trousers! Was it worth it? The only birds I’d seen on this stretch were sparrows, cormorants and bulbuls. These were not worth it. But a couple of other birdwatchers were coming back from further up this path with puzzled looks. “Do you know what this could be?” they asked showing a photo one had just clicked. To me it looked like a longer sparrow, maybe a thrush. But J. Multiflorum asked “Could it be a wryneck?”

Since I knew nothing of wrynecks, I couldn’t find any reason why it should not be. At precisely the point where the density of mosquitos was highest, next to a dry tree was another pair of birders with the same puzzled look, “What could this be?” The tree was bare. “It keeps coming back,” they said, as they helpfully gave us another tube of anti-mosquito lotion. Sure enough it was back soon, and I took a couple of photos of the bird in silhouette. A little larger than a sparrow, but quite a different bird. It hopped on to the ground and began pecking away. I managed to take a couple of photos in which it had its head up. Definitely not a sparrow, the colours were much more interesting. It was the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla).

Later I found that it is in the same family as woodpeckers, Picidae. It nests in northern Europe and migrates to Africa or India in winter; the only woodpecker which migrates so far. Unlike most waterbirds which migrate in large flocks, the wryneck migrates in little groups. I did not see it foraging on a tree, which it apparently does in a manner similar to woodpeckers, with its tail held rigidly to the trunk. Unlike a woodpecker, it slurps insects from the surface of the bark. I was happy with this sighting. I’d literally paid for it with my blood!


Three ducks. Umm.. four, no five

Within a space of about twenty minutes during a weekend outing in the creeks of Mumbai I thought we saw all three ducks that we got to see. The first that I noticed was the small Garganey (Spatula querquedula), whose male has the white band on the head that you can see in the featured photo. There were lots of these winter migrants swimming about, occasionally dipping their heads into the water to feed. They have the usual mottled brown look of most dabbling ducks, and I would have been hard put to identify them if it were not for two things. One was the conspicuous white band on the head of the male, and the other was that I had an expert birder with me who unhesitatingly identified it. I really have gotten rusty if I can’t recall the names of ducks instantly.

Amongst these Garganey were one of the most distinctive ducks which you can see in India. This is the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha). Seen from the front, its face looks extremely colourful: a red spot on the lores, and a black beak with a big tab of yellow on it. The rest of it is the common mottled brown of dabbling ducks, except for the very prominent white stripe on the wing. About twenty of them were dabbling in the water for underwater plants in the company of Garganey. Since these are non-migratory, you can bet that they are descendants of some of the original inhabitants of these islands. In the photo above you can see one of the ducks with its head down, but that’s not what it does while dabbling. It really drops its head under the water, so you only see its rump up in the air. I wished I had a GoPro under water to catch it with its neck extended looking for food.

The third was a little further out in the creek, where the mud flats began. This was the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata). Like the Garganey it nests in the northern latitudes and prefers to winter in warm climates with more food. The thick flat bill which gives it its name is distinctive. The brown mottled female only has some white on the tail (photo above), but the male is distinctive with its iridescent green head and white neck and belly. Maybe their feeding time was over, because I saw most of them standing in the mud, well away from the water. But I was lucky to see several take off into the air. They are quick off the ground (or water): a couple of steps, and a twist and with powerful beats of their wings they are off, as you can see in the photo below. Quite a sight when it happens in front of you.

The fourth duck was quite a surprise. I saw three of them far out in the tidal mudflats walking among a flock of flamingos. We passed them at a clip, and I couldn’t take a photo. Later, when I was going through my photos of the morning, I found a lone ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), somewhat out of focus, among flamingos in another part of the creek. Finally, just now before hitting the publish button I looked closely at three photos from that day with crowds of ducks, and found the common teal (Anas crecca) hidden in plain sight.


Flamingos in Mumbai

There was time when flamingos bred in the coastal flats of Gujarat and wintered around Mumbai. But like many such, some are now residents of the big city. The mud flats and tidal creeks of Mumbai are now their home. Their numbers increase with the usual winter influx. So this is a good time to take a boat through the creeks of Mumbai.

Most of these birds are lesser flamingos. The few greater flamingos can be distinguished by the shape of their necks. The necks of lesser flamingos are like an inverted letter J, whereas the long necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of an S. Sizes and colour differences between these two species are confusing. The only other consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the lower bill of the greater flamingo is always yellow.

The rest of the colour of the flamingo comes from the crustaceans that it eats. So it is interesting to ask why the flamingos of Mumbai are less colourful than their country cousins. Could it be that these creeks are now so polluted that the crustaceans are dying out?


Flowers and birds of Munnar

The accessible part of Eravikulam National Park is a disappointment at first sight. It is a narrow sliver of protected land between plantations. A black-topped right of way cuts through it. If you look at everything on the way carefully, it might take you an hour to walk up the road, and another hour to walk back. In spite of this, it is a jewel of conservation. The number of birds and plants you see on this walk is immense. It is only when you see this variety that you realize that the park spreads far, and tourists are allowed only into this little stretch. As usual, what I managed to photograph is a small part of what I saw.

The walk is up the flanks of the “Elephant” whose head is Anamudi. Rising to 2695 meters, this is the tallest peak in India outside the Himalayas. I did not look for the famous butterflies or amphibians of this region. Nor did I look at the insects which must be ubiquitous, given the number of insectivorous birds that we saw.


Winter kept us warm

We were mesmerized by the wonderful colours of the forest before cruel April paints everything an uniform green. The Malabar rain forest flowers in January and February. Fruiting had already begun, and the peak fruiting time is a couple of weeks away still. Some birds, like the Hornbills, pick that time to breed so that the hatchlings have enough to eat. But right now, the forest and its birds blazed with colour. The featured photo shows a green warbler wintering in this forest. Its olive and yellow feathers make it look like a leaf against the warm red of the flowers.

The tiny crimson-backed sunbird (Leptocoma minima) was visible as it flew among the trees, but it so small, that it is hard to spot when it settles down. This endemic bird feeds on nectar. In spite of its size, it is intensely territorial, defending its patch of flowers from others. It had begin nesting already. I watched it flying from the trees to its nest hidden in a patch of dry bushes. The nest was incredibly well camouflaged (see the photo on the side). The female was not visible. I guess it was too early for the chicks to have hatched.

The common black drongo (Dicurcus macrocercus) with its black feathers is not colourful. But sitting on a dry stump in the forest, its glossy black coat looked wonderful against the brown and yellow background of the forest in winter. Drongos have interesting calls, since they are great mimics. They eat insects, and are known to mimic the call of a raptor in order to scare away other birds who have just caught an edible tidbit. This one was probably a juvenile, since its colour is a little brownish, and not the glossy black of the adult. It sat quietly and then flew away. This was quite unlike the loud, bullying behaviour of the adult. In fact the adult is known to drive away larger predators by being aggressive.

This golden oriole (Oriolus kundoo) looked wonderful against the green and brown of forest canopy where it sat. I was not sure whether the colour was entirely its own, or had been enhanced by what they ate. Orioles derive some of the carotenoids which colour their feathers from their diet. An interesting thing about these birds is that their colouring is almost completely directed at the selection of a mate; camouflage does not seem to be a word in their dictionary. Orioles will begin to nest in April. They often choose to nest close to drongos, depending on the drongos’ aggression to keep its neighbourhood safe.


The giant squirrels of Malabar

I first saw the Malabar giant squirrel three years ago in Valparai, napping in the upper branches of a tree late in the morning. If you look up descriptions of this squirrel you’ll find that they eat in the morning and evening and sleep the rest of the time. When I saw one again, early morning in Thattekad, it was very active in the upper branches of a tree. It scurried along, eating flowers and berries. Like all squirrels, it is quite dextrous with its front paws. I saw it grasp distant twigs and bend them to its mouth. It jumped from one tree to another, a couple of meters away, and I followed it. It scurried between the middle and top of the canopy, offering many opportunities for photographs. It seldom comes down to the ground, so most photos you will see of this squirrel have trees or sky in the background. By hoarding fruits and nuts, the giant squirrel disperses seeds widely. It seems that they may have had important influence in the evolution of some trees.

The lovely beige, tan and black colour of the coat are characteristic of the southern population of these squirrels. The beige stripe down the tail, spreading into a beige patch at the end of the tail marks out the subspecies Ratufa indica indica. In the area around Thattekad there is an overlap of the ranges of the R. indica indica and the Ratufa indica maxima, of which you see a photo below. Two or three other subspecies are named, and there is some talk, on and off, about elevating them to species. Even before this debate can conclude, one of the subspecies, R. indica dealbata has become extinct. In its original habitat of Gujarat, the forests have given way to plantations. Local extinctions have also been documented in parts of Karnataka, So, although IUCN has reclassified the giant squirrel from “near threatened” into “least concern”, there are many surveys in recent years which indicate that it should really be classified as “vulnerable”.

At the edge of the forest, I saw a squirrel eating coconuts. As forests are cleared, behaviour like this will bring it in conflict with humans. Currently the squirrel is protected by law, but the law is never very much of a deterrant in man-animal conflicts. Very little is currently known about Ratufa indica. A captive animal in a zoo was observed to live up to 20 years. It is guessed that they breed all through the year. Usually two, and rarely three, pups are seen together with the mother. Not much is known about their relationships to other squirrels. There is some evidence that Ratufa may have existed 30 or 40 million years ago. Perhaps the long summer of the squirrel has passed.


Birds in the city

A city as crowded as Mumbai has barely enough space for people. When houses are needed, swamps and mangroves are easily filled in. When parking space is in short supply, green spaces will be even harder to come by. It is natural that human institutions, when unchecked, will satisfy human needs above all. As a result, birds are pushed to the periphery of the city. These are the spaces that no one likes to go to.

If you are not going out of the city on a weekend, you might join other enthusiasts for a boat ride in the backwaters of Mumbai. The city has turned its back to these waters long ago. They are shallow tidal creeks which are not of much use to ships and trade, and the hunger for apartment blocks has not grown so acute that they need to be filled in. The refuse of the city washes in here: plastic and other garbage, chemical pollutants. The sea breeze does not disperse the smog, so the backwaters are perpetually hazy. In spite of this, life finds a toe hold. I drifted through these parts of Mumbai yesterday with The Family and friends and came back with photos which show that birds still survive just outside human spaces.