Signs of Spring

Is it really the flowers that are the sign of spring? In the plains of India it is the heat which announces that the brief winter is done and calendrical spring has begun. In today’s springtime Delhi I had to take a little walk on the road in a blistering 43 degrees. In Bhutan ten years ago the spring temperature never rose above 15 degrees. So the weather is not a sign of spring.

Wasp in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Nor are flowers. I saw enough flowers in Bhutan that year to make it seem as if it is. But then every winter gardens across India burst into colourful life. It is not the flowers, but the profusion of pollinators which announce spring. Winter’s pollinators seem to be only butterflies.

Bee in Punakha, Bhutan

In spring every insect seems to jump into the role. Moths and wasps have backs dusted with pollen, just as much as bees or bumblebees. In Bhutan I even saw a fly pollinating flowers in spring!

A Himalayan Spring

We flew in to Paro on a wet and gloomy morning. This was the most wonderful weather that we could think of. The previous night in Kolkata was hot and sultry, like Mumbai. A place where spring means something was wonderful. Paro is at an elevation of only 2300 meters, so the local wild flowers are likely to be similar to Europe. I initially mistook the flower in the featured photo for a Forget-me-not. It is not that, but I don’t know what it is.

Just outside the airport we began to see flowers growing wild. This small but beautiful white flower was very common. I think this is some kind of a Himalayan wild rose.

Forget-me-not, Paro, Bhutan

When I saw my first Forget-me-not of the trip, I realized that it is hard to mistake it for something else. The problem is that you can mistake something else for it.

I saw this hardy little weed growing out of a crack in a metalled road. It was doing well enough to flower. Looking at the photo now, after almost a decade, I realize that the camera I had then was much better suited to macros than the one I have now.

This flower stumped me. All I remember about this is that it would grow into a small green fruit; the bush was full of them. I don’t know whether it is edible, or what it is called.

This flower is another enigma. Unknown flower, Paro, Bhutan Even more so than the previous one, since I do not even remember where in Paro we saw it.

We had to wait in Paro for a day for the rest of our group to meet up with us. We took our car and drove up to Chele La. At a height of 3700 meters above sea level, this is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. On our trip to Bhutan the previous year, we came to Chele La on the last day of the trip. Now, more or less just off the plane, I realized that I was not yet comfortable at this altitude. No headache, but I had to move slowly.

A species of primrose called Primula denticulata grows widely in higher parts of Bhutan and Sikkim. The long stalks of the plant with a globe-like inflorescence could be seen in many of the meadows. It is a beautiful colour when it catches the sun.

Rhododendron, Paro, Bhutan

The star of the season at these altitudes is the Rhododendron. You get it in all shades from white to dark red. Here is a close up of a pink rhodo. There were large groves of Rhododendron around the road as soon as we left Paro, and they came up fairly close to the top of the pass. We would see them again and again as we travelled through Bhutan than May.

I was happy, but The Family was very sad. The previous year we had our first view of Khaleej pheasants near Chele La. As we drove back down, we saw a pair run across the road and disappear. Now we were both equally happy.

A Green Mantis

Sometimes when I pass by a hedge I look down at the leaves, hoping to see an interesting insect. This small green mantis counts as one. As you can guess from the photo, it is a tiny insect.

You can identify it as a mantis by its triangular head and the bulging compound eyes on the sides of the head. If you look closely, you can see three grey dots on the head between these large eyes; they are the three simple eyes which these animals also have. The spiny grasping forelegs cannot be seen, presumably they are hidden below its body.

A mantis has to be a gardener’s friend. It eats other insects almost constantly, and is effective in controlling pests in a garden. If they were not so common in India, gardeners would probably buy them by box-loads and release them. It could be less dangerous than pumping a garden full of poisonous chemicals in order to kill insects. Unfortunately they also eat up all the probiotic insects: the ones that help to pollinate plants, for example. Still, it is better than pesticides.

Green jewel bugs

If you are the kind of person who looks closely at leaves and trees now and then, it won’t be long before you start seeing the aptly named green jewel bug everywhere. It is widely spread across continental Asia. I see it in gardens all the time. So I was not going to post the featured photo.

But there is something interesting about these true bugs: apparently they are not found in the islands of Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Japan. The photo you see above was taken in South Andaman near the Mount Harriet National Park. I wanted to put on record the fact that there are islands where it can now be seen. Whether it flew or was carried there by winds, or was introduced inadvertently by humans is unclear. Interestingly, the upper parts of its legs are orange, whereas the ones I’ve seen before all had green or black legs. There seems to be quite a bit of variation in form, size, and colour in this species, so I’m not sure how significant this colouration is.

It is fairly easy to photograph these, and other, metallic shield bugs. They are easily seen on upper surfaces of leaves, branches and flowers. They do not hide the moment they spot the huge eye of a camera looking at them. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that they can release bad-smelling chemicals when attacked, and therefore are not good things for predators to eat.

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.

Knock, knock, knocking

Two of my early memories merged together very strangely. One is that of the boy who could not keep up with the Pied Piper of Hamelin and spent his life trying to find the place where the piper was leading his friends to. The other is Bob Dylan’s song from which the title of this post is taken. When I hear a woodpecker knocking madly at a tree, they trigger this little chunk of memory in me. As I sat after lunch under a tree in the jungle in Bhitarkanika, I heard the drumming sound of a woodpecker, and came out to look. I saw this wonderful flame back woodpecker searching for its version of paradise.

If I were to hit my face rapidly and at high-speed against a tree, I would knock myself out in a few tries. The reasons that a woodpecker survives are visible in the photo. They have to do with modifications to the spine and the way the head is attached to it.

The most visible adaptation is the shape of the head. The elongated wedge shape of the head is due to two factors: first the bones at the front of the skull have thickened, and the muscles at the front, which anchor the beak, are immense and serve as shock absorbers. It seems that there are also adaptations in the way the brain is attached to the skull which prevents it from slowly being battered.

Another easily observed adaptation is the wide shoulders. This is due to the enlargement of the first set of ribs. The expanded ribs anchor very strong muscles which serve to hold the neck steady. The woodpecker strikes only at right angles to the surface, so that the beak and neck muscles can damp the recoil. A sideways strike would twist its neck.

A third adaptation is visible in the photo: the stiff black tail feathers. These balance the woodpecker in its vertical stance on a tree as it drums away. Apparently the last few spinal bones are fused to stabilize the woodpecker. The toes are also adapted to hold on to trunks of trees.

All of these features are generic to woodpeckers. The shape of the head, the wide shoulders, the stiff black tail feathers, just a glimpse of these is enough to tell you that the bird you are looking at is a woodpecker.

Woodpeckers may have begun to evolve about 40 million years ago, when the shifting of continents began to create today’s weather. The resulting spread of angiosperms and the conversion of sub-tropical forests to deciduous forests created the conditions which we see today. This opened up the ecological niches which the woodpeckers fill today. So many changes are required to adapt to a lifestyle based on digging insects out of the bark of a tree!

Startled by a tree frog

On a day’s visit to Chennai, I was startled when a seemingly formless wet and brown thing jumped out from the toilet. Then, as it jumped around the walls, it resolved into a tree frog. Its colour would let it hide on the bark of a tree. I didn’t have my good camera with me, only my phone. I took a photo, eased out, and switched off the lights. The next time I went in, the frog was gone.

Adaptation

One of the most striking things about wild animals is how easily they adapt to circumstances; a fancy term for this is behavioural plasticity. When I saw a group of Cheetal, apparently grazing in the mud next to the tidal creek, I was a little surprised. These animals are grazers, mostly dependent on grass. Cheetal grazing on fallen leaves, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha But the individuals I saw were eating fallen mangrove leaves. You can see them feeding in the photo alongside. In the featured photo you can see its whole body aligned along the tide line where fallen leaves have gathered. The strong reliance on a leafy diet struck me as an adaptation.

Another odd fact was that there were so many Cheetal near brackish water. These deer drink a lot of water, and I could not imagine them drinking sea water. It gradually dawned on me that there must be fresh water inland. Amar, our boatman, and Bijaya, our guide for the day, told us about ponds and wells which give sweet water. Around these there are also grassy meadows where we saw some deer.

We also saw small bands of rhesus monkeys on the muddy banks of creeks. Strangely, they seemed to be grazing in the mud. Bijaya said they were eating grass. Possibly, because they were certainly not picking up fallen leaves. I never came across them inside the forest, so I don’t know what fruits they eat. Mangrove fruits are unlikely fare for monkeys, but maybe they have adapted. Animal behaviour is so plastic that every niche yields delightful surprises.

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.

The elusive fishing cat

We got off the boat on a rickety jetty badly in need of repair. Behind it the trail disappeared into the forest. As walked through the mangrove forest in the morning, we noticed tracks (featured photo). The ground was unevenly wet, and there was a small section of the path along which there were a few pug marks.

It looked like a small cat had walked by. It couldn’t have been very heavy if one was to judge by how deep the marks were. One way to gauge the weight in mud like this is to push your fingers into the ground. The amount of effort it takes to push in your fingers to the same depth gives you an idea of the effort you would make to hold the dead weight of the animal in your arms. The marks could not be very old either, since it had rained quite heavily at night.

In any case, Bhitarkanika National Park is not known to hold large cats. It could have been one of the three smaller cats: the jungle cat, the fishing cat and the leopard cat. I haven’t seen any of these. They are shy creatures, like all wild cats, and their small size makes them harder to spot than their more famous relatives: tigers and leopards.

Bijaya was certain that it was a fishing cat. But I was not certain that my luck would take me so close to one. A recent census of wildlife inside the park had spotted three fishing cats to eleven jungle cats. Although the census was very likely to be incomplete (it had counted a single hyena) it perhaps can be taken as an indication that there are about four times as many jungle cats as fishing cats in the forest. Unless someone can tell me something about the shape of the pug marks which identifies the species, I think it unlikely that we saw a fishing cat.