Slow days

creepingby

The days pass very slowly. We have to wait till November to get to the mountains. Six weeks before we get to 4000 meters above mean sea level. It seems to be the right time to dig out a photo of this slow invader: the giant african land snail, which seems to have invaded India.

Hornbills in Nameri

I was reminded of Nameri and the Pakke Tiger Reserve since we began to discuss a trip to Tawang. One of my best memories from Nameri comes from February 3, 2009. Walking by the banks of the Jia Bhoroloi river just before sunset, we were transfixed by the sight of a huge flock of hornbills coming in to roost for the night. The beating of their enormous wings is a bass sound that you will not forget once you hear it. We stood in silence listening to the flock approach and settle on to trees. Every tree along the river that we could see had hornbills roosting on them. Here is a photo I took that evening: twenty-five hornbills in one tree.

At that time we had put them down as Oriental pied hornbills. But now looking at the photo I think they are all Wreathed Hornbills (Rhyticeros undulatus): the neck of the male is white in front, except for a yellow band just below the bill, and the back has some red; the chest is black, and there is no casque on the bill. Male Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) would have had a white chest, black neck, and the males would have a casque on the bill.

Interestingly, all the birds on this tree are male. My photos do show some trees which have both sexes. But this raises another question. A little reading shows that there are usually equal numbers of males and females in a population. During the breeding season (March to July) the female seals herself into a nest, in a hole in a tree, using her saliva and droppings. As a result, during the breeding season one sees more males than females. This photo was taken in early February, which is not the breeding season, so one should have seen equal numbers of the sexes. In trees with two sexes, the males and females sit paired up. Maybe I should have photographed several more trees to check whether there are also segregated roosts of males and females. I’m sure some scientist knows the answer to this question.

Note added

In the Wreathed hornbill, the juveniles all look like
males, and the females do not start changing their
coloration till after the 1st year. In the non-breeding
season, one sees these large flocks of young birds
which all look like males.
–Aparajita Datta (Nature Conservation Foundation)

Asking a scientist does work surprisingly often. I sent a link to this blog and photo to a leading
expert on hornbills, and received the reply alongside. So there are no gangs of juvenile males and females, the sex ratio is even, and my photo just includes many juveniles of both sexes, some adult females, and, possibly, the same number of adult males. I’d missed the adult females, until the expert pointed them out to me.

Semi

閑かさや Shizukasa ya In this stillness
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimi iru stinging the stone
蝉の声 semi no koe [is] the cicada’s trill

From “The Narrow Road to Oku” by Basho

Summer arrived in the last two days before I left Japan. How does one decide? For the record its not by the sun or the stars, nor by the heat and humidity, but by the cry of the cicadas.

Japan has a thing about these large and unprepossessing insect, named semi in Japanese, which are supposed to call only in summer. The monotonous ji-ji-ji sound which I heard while walking to lunch was probably the large brown cicada which the Japanese call the Aburazemi. If it makes you feel any better, the Latin binomial is Graptosaltria nigrofuscata. There weren’t too many of them, and it was too early in the season for kids to be out trying to catch them. But a few cicada do a summer make.

Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

Nanda DeviThe sky was clear, but the view was murky, when our alarms went off fifteen minutes before dawn. We gamely waited for the sun to rise, and saw the Nanda Devi peak faintly. As we sipped our early morning tea, the man who brought it told us that the view was brilliant a couple of weeks ago, but had turned murky since cyclone Hudhud struck the coast. I’d taken a record shot of the peak, and a little image processing could elicit this view.

We left for the Binsar sanctuary immediately. Just before we got into the car, The Family spotted a gray-headed warbler. It was a twenty minute drive to Binsar, and we had to wake the gatekeeper once we reached. There is an entry fee to the park but it turned out that you have to read the fine print carefully and argue the interpretation of the various rates at the ticket counter. We did not know this, and just paid single-entry fees. Just as we prepared to drive in two yellow throated martens streaked across a meadow in front of us. I thought to myself “Mongoose”, but did not voice it because I knew it was too large to be one. We identified it by a chart we found at the gate.

Meadow in Binsar
This is one of the best birding spots in Binsar. There is an old bungalow hidden above the upper meadow. The meadow below the road drops off to a small temple.

The gatekeeper told us to go to the Tourist Department guest house where we could find a guide and walk up to highest point in the sanctuary: Zero Point. We drove up slowly, keeping an eye out for the birds we could hear all around us. Most of the way the road stuck close to rock walls, allowing only limited angles of view. We saw a couple of whistling thrushes before we arrived at the beautiful sunny meadow you see above. There was water trickling down one side, and the combination of trees and open grass meant that this could be a good spot for birding.

Streaked laughing thrush
Streaked laughing thrush

It was. We kept coming back to the place and saw a large part of our eventual bird list here. I see that we noted down mountain hawk-eagle, Himalayan buzzard, Himalayan vulture, gray-backed tit, brown-fronted woodpecker, scarlet Minivet, streaked laughing-thrush, white-throated laughing-thrush, rufous Sibia, great Barbet and a dark-sided flycatcher as being in this one place in one day! Three of them were lifers.

We approached the meadow from three different directions on the succeeding days with our guide around Binsar, Sundar Singh, and saw black-headed Jays, Eurasian Jays, red-billed blue magpies, green-backed tits, a crested serpent eagle, and a white-tailed nut-hatch. This was also the meadow where I lost my footing and slipped down a slope to sprain my leg and bring the holidays to an end. But that was four days later, and just a day before we were supposed to leave.

But on our first visit we continued up to the guest house and asked for guides. One told us to order our lunch before going off on our walk. We did that, and then he told us to have tea before going on a walk. It was getting pretty late, and we were impatient. While we had tea The Family asked the chaiwalla whether there was a guide who could take us up immediately. That was how we met Sundar Singh.

vista

The protected oak forest of Binsar is not where you go to view mammals. Rather it is a lovely place for birds and insects, and walks. The easy 500 meter walk to Zero Point was a good start. The shaded path is bordered by mossy trees, and in the leaves and mud around, you can spot insects and slugs, if you pause to look. The morning’s haze had got worse when we reached the top, about 2500 meters high. The high Himalayas were not visible at all. In fact, we never got a good view of the Nanda Devi range during the week. We walked back in time for lunch. As we waited, we saw an Eurasian Jay for the first time in our lives, and a black-headed Jay soon after.

grassyellowBeing able to spot something in the wild is a matter of practice. In the last decade The Family has grown adept at spotting birds. I forget to look unless I’m with her, and even then I often do not spot the odd colours and shapes that are tell-tales for her. But I’ve become used to following a butterfly with my eye as it flutters by to see where it lands. As a result I managed to photograph this pale clouded yellow (Colias hylae) while telling her to look at it. She looked at the camera display and back at the bush before she saw it.

We loved Binsar and kept going back to it. The next day we climbed up to the Zero Point and then followed Sundar on a six kilometer hike through the forest and back to our favourite meadow. After the first view of the martens we did not see any mammals for a long while. From Zero Point we heard the distant cough of a leopard in a valley. Occasionally we heard the bark of the Muntjac. On our fourth day in Binsar we saw a leopard kill by the road. A family of jackals was feasting on the remains but ran away when it saw our car. I tried very hard to take a long shot of the jackals, but they were too wary.

kill scalybelliedwpInstead we saw more birds: spectacular Koklass pheasants with their green heads stalked a slope, unaware of us standing on the road to watch them, and two scaly-bellied woodpeckers, the male with a red head easily told from the black-headed female, foraging in the grass, unconcerned by the car standing nearby. There were many butterflies to be seen, from the ubiquitous Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), sulphurs, grass yellows, to the unsual and unidentified. Binsar remains a place which we could visit again.

Common punch
A common punch (Dodona durga), seen near Zero Point. Thank you for the ID Peter

Competitive grazing

In Valparai we saw four different kinds of wild plant-eating animals: the huge Gaur (aka Indian bison), the shy barking deer (Indian Muntjac), the rare Nilgiri tahr, and the Nilgiri langur. There were also domesticated cows and buffalos, and a very small number of domestic goats. If all the grazers eat the same food, then the one that eats fastest could starve the others to death. There is the unlikely possibility that the common food plant grows really rapidly, so no species dies out. The more likely possibility is that the different animals eat different plants. In fact, as I looked this up I found that biologists use the word grazing for eating grass, and browsing for eating shrubs and bushes. So avoiding conflict by eating differently is well recognized.

A herd of Gaur feedingWe frequently saw family groups of Gaur grazing among tea bushes, heads down, except when they looked up to keep an eye on us. In forests we found Gaurs to be more cautious, but here on the tea estate they seem to be used to humans. On watching closely, it appeared that Gaur did not touch the tea, preferring to eat grasses, and perhaps other plants, which grew around the tea. I walked among the tea bushes at one point and found that the paths had little other than grass. So this cousin of cattle was eating mainly grass, although they are known to eat a variety of plant material. Maybe they don’t like tea; I don’t much like Nilgiri tea myself.

Barking deer: Indian MuntjacThe barking deer (Indian Muntjac) is a very shy creature. We were lucky to spot one from a road above a sunken meadow. It did not bolt because it never noticed us. It moved through a patch of tea, over the grass, which it completely ignored, looking for something else. An article in the journal Mammalia explains that 80% of its diet comes from shrubs, flowering bushes and trees. Grasses make up only a small part of its diet. The Gaur and the Muntjac occupy the same range but eat differently. This is the classic strategy of two herbivores in the same geography: one grazes, the other browses.

Nilgiri tahr We saw a family of Nilgiri tahr which munched on grass for a while, but then started eating flowers of Lantana bushes growing by the road. An article in the journal of the BNHS claims that this is common. The tahr eats mostly grass, but also a wide variety of flowering bushes. It avoids competition with other herbivores by the fact of being nimble and eating in places where the others cannot reach.

Langurs follow the same strategy. They browse leaves high up on trees, and so avoid competition with other wild herbivores in these places. Domesticated cattle are not so lucky: they eat the same plants that Gaur eat. Sometimes they are seen feeding side by side, and apparently there is occassional conflict. The Gaur is huge: often over a ton in weight and its shoulders are man-high. In a conflict, it is bound to win over domestic cattle. This does not appear to be a serious problem in Valparai, since most people here are involved in tea production and not farming.

A shy johnny

Malabar langoor The Nilgiri langurs we came across were very private. There was a large tribe of them foraging on trees by the road near Valparai. As soon as our car stopped, the nearest ones fled further into the forest. I got off and tried to photograph the ones in the next tree, and they fled as well. This happened over and over again. I got a couple of shots of one by hiding behind a thick bush and sighting through a narrow opening between its thorny branches. The only clear shot was of one sleeping on a high branch of a tree very far away (below).

A sleeping Nilgiri langur
A Nilgiri langur sleeps on a branch of a tree as far from a road as it can get. I guess it finds this posture comfortable.

These monkeys have a glossy dark body with a light golden brown head, and would look lovely in photos. The morning light was just right, but the subjects were shy. This was so frustrating and strange! The lion-tailed macaques we saw would walk right next to us without even looking at us. So it could not only be the indirect conflict of lost habitats which was influencing the behaviour of the langurs. I just had to google this.

The answer was simple: exactly as I’d thought, they were traditionally hunted, as they continue to be. Traditional medicine uses their body parts as medicines and aphrodisiac. Since the passage of laws protecting them the trade has gone underground and presumably trade volumes of so-called medicines have decreased.

An important reference seems to be the 2011 studbook, but arkive is a good place for a shorter description. I learnt from the studbook that the classification of langurs is still an open question. There may be as few as 5000 individuals, and even the higher estimates still give a total population of no more than 15000. It is a pity that this beautiful monkey is so hard to see.

Super Sunday

Nilgiri tahr Malabar parakeet
Black-winged cuckoo shrike Malabar langoor

Valparai is a good base for birding and wildlife sighting. Although the ecology in the immediate neighbourhood is massively disturbed by the monoculture of tea, it is a buffer zone for the nearby Annamalai tiger reserve forest. With the boom in nature tourism in India, tea estates in this region have begun to create boutique hotels which are geared to this traffic.

In our last few hours we had a number of lucky sightings. Going from left to right and top to bottom are pictures of one of the endangered Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) a small herd of which crossed the road as we drove back to Coimbatore airport, a Malabar parakeet (aka the blue-winged parakeet, Psittacula columboides) seen at a distance and against the light but a lifer, a view of the confusing grey-bellied cuckoo (Cacomantis passerinus; thanks for ID help Doe-eyes), a member of a very shy band of the black-bodied Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus johnii) which is slowly losing its habitat to humans.

muruganguideLike us humans, most animals and birds seem to have a fairly routine life. So an individual will usually be found at one or three usual places. That’s why a local guide helps. S/he knows where a hornbill has been nesting, or parrots come every day at a certain time to feed. We were lucky to have Murugan with us. He was a fount of local knowledge, and had enough interest in birds to be carrying a well-used copy of a Tamil edition of “Birds of Southern India” by Grimmett and Inskipp. More than that, he never tried to hurry us on to somewhere, but neither did he stop suggesting what he knew would be great sights. I wish we knew more than a few words of Tamil. It would have been good to have longer conversations with him.

Engineering macaque safety

Lion-tailed macaques are found only in the western ghats of India. They were in the list of most endangered monkeys and apes till 2012. In that year the IUCN found that various state governments had taken conservation steps and the population had turned around. Now it is classified merely as endangered.

Our guide, Murugan, is full of information about the local wildlife. Whatever I can check independently is fairly correct. According to him there are three tribes of macaques in the locality. The largest has about 90 members, then there is another with about 35. The one which we saw is the smallest, with about 20.

A villager led The Family to where some members of this band were exploring a trash heap. They dug through it fairly systematically and found various discarded fruits and vegetables to eat. The Family shares trips with her phone. She approached less than a human body length to take photos. I was tense, but these macaques are so used to humans that they ignored her.

Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.
Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.

Man-monkey conflict usually arises due to such closeness. One sees evidence of this in cities, where monkeys have discovered high energy foods like potato wafers, biscuits and aerated drinks. I had seen such a conflict once when my niece, then five years old, would not let go of a bottle of Pepsi which a bigger langoor wanted. An undiplomatic incident was averted when she obeyed her mother’s instructions to let go.

Nothing like that happened here. The only danger we were in came when two male macaques started fighting, and forgot that a human was between them. The same villager shooed them away. The Family decided to tip him for saving her. Normally I don’t like to tip for normal human kindness. But maybe she was right in this case: when you set up an economics where the well-being of the macaques brings cash rewards to local villages, then it could lead to innovative non-zero sum solutions to possible future conflicts.

Fabulous Friday

gaur sittingmacaque
greathornbill malabarsquirrel

The lush green valley of Valparai is a good place for wildlife and birding. The morning’s outing gave us a small bird list, but with a couple of “lifers” (birders’ shorthand for seeing a bird for the first time in one’s life). I put together four great sightings in the photos above. Going left to right, top to bottom they are a bull Gaur (also called the Indian Bison Bos gaurus) keeping a wary eye on us, one of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus, this band feeds on garbage heaps around villages), a juvenile great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) with its deep calls and immense flapping wings, and the Malabar giant squirrel (Ratufa Indica), not endangered, but rare.