The singular gecko

tokay

My first, and only, encounter with a Tokay gecko was with the individual in the photo above. I blogged some time back about seeing it in the Nameri Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.

The website of the Herpetological Society of Ireland informed me that I had seen the black-spotted form of Gekko gecko gecko: native to southern China and northern Vietnam. Northeastern India harbours the red-spotted form. That was a bit odd. So I wrote to John Dunbar, a herpetologist in Maynooth (Ireland) asking whether the two forms could share a forest.

John referred me to a paper which said that there is some evidence that the response of the two variants to humidity and temperature could determine their ranges. As a result the two kinds would not be found in the same forest. My sighting would challenge this model, and therefore could be interesting enough, scientifically, to be publishable. I was happy that a holiday could get me a footnote in a textbook on herpetology or ecology.

But due diligence required that I find the back-story of this singular gecko. I called up Sushil Ngate, my birding guide in Nameri, and asked him whether he knew anything more about this individual. According to Sushil, this gecko had been confiscated from a gang of wildlife smugglers who were caught in a village near the sanctuary. The gecko we saw was a lone specimen found with them, and the forest guards had released it in the location we saw. Presumably the guards did not know the details I learnt from John’s website. So this individual got to where he was by human intervention. There went my dream of fame based on a holiday snapshot.

But there is now scope for many more holidays masquerading as work. Where did the smugglers find this black-spotted Tokay gecko? Surely they did not capture it in Vietnam or China and bring it to India, or did they? If not, then is there a hidden population of these geckos in the vicinity? Can they be found? Isn’t it exciting when a scientific mystery intersects with a criminal mystery?

If you are travelling in the West Kameng Bioreserve, please look for these geckos and record them. I would love to hear from you, and see your pictures. I’m dying to know the resolution of this mystery.

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Assam Tees

The plains of Assam are amazing in various ways. Among the outliers are unexpected T-shirts. The example above came when we came to a temporary halt on the highway. A little pan-shop next to the tea stall was manned by this person with his striking shirt. If I had let my expectations be guided by the strikingly transnational merchandise on display, then the shirt would fit right in, and I would be fascinated instead by the pan he is putting together. Take your pick. This guy is sure of what he’s doing, and was happy enough to have his photo taken.

assamtshirtb

A couple of days later, at the border post between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, I saw this other person in a striking tee. Not wanting to intrude on the conversation, I took the long shot which you see above. The dyed hair and the shirt together gives the impression of a person who has put some thought into his appearance. So it makes me wonder. Are these tees an expression of a subculture?

Bugs, butterflies, and beetles of Nameri

bugb bug
bugc beetle
buttera butterb

Butterflies are not always the most colourful insects around. Among the six different varieties of insects that I clicked before breakfast in Nameri, the most colourful were the bugs. The butterflies resembled dry leaves, and you would have to look carefully at the litter on the ground in a jungle to find these two.

The rule of the thumb is that if it is colourful and moves slow enough for you to think you can pick it up, then it is probably poisonous.

Beasts of Nameri

tokay

A wildlife sanctuary should be full of fearsome beasts, and Nameri is no exception. The most fearsome are the leeches. The evening we reached our camp, we met a group of six French tourists with blood-drenched socks who were still removing leeches from their legs. Leeches are abundant when the forest is wet; our previous trip to Nameri had been in the dry months of February and March, when we had not come across these blood-thirsty creatures at all.

grasshopperOur five kilometer walk through the forest began with a sighting of the stunning Tokay gecko which posed for photos high up on the trunk of an immense tree. After that we saw a variety of insects. Large red bugs scampered through the dry leaves underfoot: their bright colours a warning to predators that they are poisonous if eaten. Large red ants foraged in military lines along the trunks of trees. I startled a huge grasshopper, which sprang away and then was still. It took a lot of searching to find and photograph it. It was interesting to see all this with the Victors, for whom it was their first visit to a jungle. In their company I noticed things which I’d got used to over the years. This also made me understand what Sushil Ngate, our guide, and the armed forest guard with us might feel walking through the forest with us.

The ground was often swampy. Some tree-tunks had been thrown across these patches on the route, and you had to climb over them to cross the slushy ground. We managed this with some help from the guards. I was happy that my body-core exercises paid off in a better sense of balance. I guess we get better and better at physical activities with age until the body fails. The path came to a little rocky stream which would eventually empty into the Jia Bhoroloi, and followed it for a while. As we approached the stream, we could hear alarm calls of a barking deer from inside the jungle on the other side of the flow. I wondered whether it was a leopard; they are shy creatures and hard to spot. Sushil said it could be.

bugWe walked on. Now the terrain turned grassy with damp patches: ripe with leeches. I’d tucked my trousers into my long socks, emulating the forest guard. He told us to walk quickly through this stretch and not stand in one place too long: that’s when the leeches begin to climb up you. As we crossed the next swampy ground, the guard pointed out a pug-mark in the mud: a tiger’s. It was fresh. The marks continued next to the path for a few paces and then disappeared in to the grass towards the stream. The alarm calls were explained.

elephant

We walked single-file through the forest with the guard and Sushil leading, and The Victor bringing up the rear just behind me. Suddenly The Family pointed into the foliage and said “Elephant”. I peered at the shadowed bulk. Sushil and the guard noticed a baby and told us to be quiet and keep walking. I saw the mother quickly move to stand between us and the baby, and turn her head to watch us. If she decided to charge, the guard’s gun would have been useless. More than that, I would not have wanted an elephant to be hurt in its natural habitat only because we intruded on it. We walked quickly past, but I managed to click a photo in passing. The mother kept turning to stay between the baby and us; so the small elephant is visible in the photo only as a shadow.

By the end of the walk I had collected two angry and unfed leeches on my shoes. The Victors and The Family were not so lucky. In the last stretch of the walk they picked up a leech each. We sat in the visitor’s refuge and inspected our wounds, and got rid of the blood-suckers.

Birds of Nameri

grayheadedpigeon rubythroat

Waking rested at 5:30 AM on the first morning of our holiday surprised me. The previous day had been long, and I’d fallen asleep before 10 PM. The Family and I were ready for our first morning’s birding when our local guide, Sushil Ngate, arrived at 6. The sun had risen about the same time as us, and we could hear many bird calls as we stepped on to the road to the Jia Bhoroloi river.

Almost immediately we saw some pigeons foraging. Sushil and The Family immediately stopped to turn their binoculars on them, and started talking about the colours. I’m only armed with a camera on such occassions. I found the birds, but against the bright sky, the colours were muted. Only later with my laptop could I see the bright colours which you see above. These are the Grey-headed green pigeons, lifers for both of us. Sushil was quick to pull out his copy of the 4th edition of Grimmett to check. The Family turned as green as the pigeons with envy; we have only the 3rd edition.

We’d barely walked a few paces when Sushil came to a halt. We saw him turning towards a trilling bird call. This little bird was in the bush nearby and I could spot it with my camera immediately. The red throat moved as it sang. I caught a few clear shots of another lifer.

A third lifer came immediately: an Indian pygmy woodpecker pecking away on a far branch, too far for a good photo, but near enough for us to see it clearly. In an hour’s walk we also had views of other old favourites like Imperial green pigeons, black-headed orioles, long-tailed shrikes, common stonechats, Indian cormorants and large cormorants. Finally, as we reached the river we had another lifer: a black stork circling lazily overhead.

cormoranttreeAfter breakfast we met the Victors and went rafting down the river. There were a few water birds around: the cormorants and the ubiquitous Indian pond heron, some egrets. We had our fifth lifer: the crested kingfisher which zipped past us just above the water. Apart from the lifers, we saw about three trees full of cormorants (a photo on the left). Can you count the numbers sitting on this single tree?

A walk in the forest in the afternoon gave us views of the lovely black bulbul, bright in its yellow and black feathers, the bright verditer flycatcher, and close views of two oriental pied hornbills flying above us. We got the sixth lifer of the day: a velet-fronted nuthatch. All in all, it was a small bird-list, but full of lifers.

Bird list for Nameri (6 November, 2015)

The bold-faced entries are lifers.

  1. Ashy-headed green pigeon
  2. Siberian ruby-throat
  3. Olive-backed pippit
  4. Black Stork
  5. Crested Kingfisher
  6. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  7. Common stonechat
  8. Peregrine falcon
  9. Common kestrel
  10. Black-hooded oriole
  11. Gray-capped pygmy woodpecker
  12. Oriental pied hornbill
  13. Great cormorant
  14. Indian cormorant
  15. Common sandpiper
  16. Indian roller-bird
  17. Black-crested bulbul
  18. Red-vented bulbul
  19. Red-whiskered bulbul
  20. Long-tailed shrike
  21. White wagtail (formerly pied wagtail)
  22. Oriental magpie robin
  23. Lesser adjutant stork
  24. Imperial green pigeon
  25. Verditer flycatcher
  26. Spotted dove
  27. Oriental turtle-dove
  28. Jungle myna
  29. Chestnut-tailed starling
  30. Large cuckoo-shrike
  31. Crag martin
  32. White-throated kingfisher

Crossing the Brahmaputra

trucks

As our flight came in to land in Guwahati, I peered over The Family’s shoulder at the lush greenery and little ponds brimming over with water below. The flight was on time. As we collected our baggage and walked to the exit, The Victor pointed out a kiosk which said "Arunachal Tourism". Our plan was to spend a couple of days in Assam, and then cross the state border to Arunachal. That requires a permit. We were very happy to find that it could be obtained right at the airport. We collected the permits, and went out to look for the man who would drive our rented car for the next ten days: Mr. Avatar Singh.

It was midday as we drove out of the airport parking lot in a large Innova. I had the seat next to the driver. As we negotiated the traffic in Guwahati I thought we had a taciturn Avatar. Only when we hit the highway did Mr. Singh start to talk. He told me the route he was going to take, south of the Brahmaputra, crossing it near Tezpur. He was radiated happiness when he saw me looking at the map on my phone. He thought he hd found a kindred soul, and told me more details about the route. Suddenly I found he had crossed to the wrong side of the highway. Twenty meters on he drove into a petrol station. He grinned at me and said that this side of the highway was in the state of Meghalaya and petrol was cheaper here. Clearly, from the number of trucks parked in a bay next to the pump.

adjutant

Very soon The Family screamed us to a halt. Even Avatar had to pay heed to her command to back up. Not having done any birding before, Mr. and Mrs. Victor had little idea of what was going on. When the car had backed up enough, I followed The Family as she walked a little further back. There was something interesting and enormous on a large nest at the top of a tree. The Victors had followed us, and we gazed at the bird which resolutely turned its back at us. Having seen things like this before, I knew it was an adjutant. As I focussed my camera, I heard multiple gasps: another adjutant had raised its head above the foliage. As the two birds glared lovingly at each other, we completed our identification: they were lesser Adjutants (Leptopilos javanicus). Our holiday had truly begun.

taxi

The highway is part of the Golden Quadrilateral which connects India with a continuous four lane highway. Here it passes numerous little towns and villages. There were many state transport buses plying the highway, but clearly not enough to take care of all the people who needed to travel. The road was full of multi-utility vehicles, with people packed in as densely as a black hole. Our car kept overtaking them too fast to photograph. Avatar kept up a non-stop stream of highly personalized information on whatever we passed, for example that these MUV-buses went so fast that it was clear that the drivers could not care less for the state of their cars. As I tried to photograph the vehicles we passed, I realized that the Avatar was not one who slows down for a passenger. On the other hand, he did slow down at every speed breaker on the road.

brahmaputra

As the shadows began to lengthen, our long eastward drive turned north on to a well-surfaced two-lane road. We reached the Brahmaputra. This river arises in the Tibetan plateau, where it is called the Tsangpo. As it crosses into India its name changes to Siang. In Arunachal it meets another, almost equally large, river called the Lohit. The meeting of the two creates the incredibly wide river which we crossed as the sun was about to set. In winter it is a braided stream flowing around huge sandbanks, presenting a tranquil picture in the sunset. But every year during the monsoon it floods, and the human cost is tremendous.

night

Night fell as we passed the town of Tezpur and continued along the highway. There seemed to be deep jungle around us. Avatar Singh knew the eco-tourism lodge that we were headed for, but he wanted me to look at my GPS for the correct turn off. We found it, and drove a couple of kilometers in. It wasn’t the jungle it had seemed to be just a few minutes ago. We passed a few huts and soon we were driving through a large village: there were small fields and clusters of houses. Eventually we came to a signpost which assured me that Avatar knew where he was going. Soon enough we came to a gate I remembered. Our dash across India had come to an end. We were two time zones away from Mumbai. The dark night would have been early evening at home; we might not be back home from work yet.

We found our tents and gathered for an evening’s tea. Permits were needed for a walk into the forest the next day. A river rafting trip had to be arranged. But most important: we had to find someone with a knowledge of where to find the local birds. We would wake at sunrise.

Birdlist for NH 37 and 37 A (5 November, 2015)

It is hard to identify birds with certainty when you barrel down a highway; for example, was the bulbul you passed a red-vented or red-whiskered? So the birdlist here is just indicative.

  1. Lesser adjutant stork
  2. Asian open-billed stork
  3. Black kite (formerly pariah kite)
  4. Little blue kingfisher (formerly common kingfisher)
  5. Long-tailed shrike
  6. Oriental turtle-dove
  7. Spotted dove
  8. Little egret
  9. Drongo
  10. Bulbuls

5 kilometers up?

ArunachalOn Thursday we leave for our annual pilgrimage to the Himalayas.

This year’s trip is to a region full of the history of a half-century old conflict. We trace the lower end of the route which the Dalai Lama took to escape to India in 1959. Then, in 1962, the Republic of India had its biggest military defeat when the Chinese army came down this route, and then withdrew.

Four of us will fly to Guwahati, in Assam, and try to drive to the Chinese border crossing in the Bum La. On the way we cross the Brahmaputra river, drive past Tezpur, cross to Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, drive along the river which changes its name from the Jia Bhorloi to Kameng as we cross a state boundary, have lunch in Bomdila, touch Dirang, cross the high Se La, and rest for a while in Tawang.

I was looking at distances and elevations today. Our plan involves driving about 200 kilometers to Nameri wildlife sanctuary in a day. This involves a net climb of 10 meters. After a couple of days, we drive another 160 kilometers to Dirang. This little town is at an elevation of 1497 meters. That’s not much, but on the way we cross Bomdi La, which is at 2217 meters. We spend a couple of nights in Dirang. The rare Black-necked cranes winter here, and we hope we are lucky enough to see them.

On Monday morning we do a 30 kilometer drive to Tawang, over the Se La, which is at a height of 4114 meters. I hear that the pass already has snow, but we plan to get off the car and walk to the nearby lake. This will test our altitude readiness. Tawang is at a height of 3048 meters, and should not present a problem. In any case, we plan to spend at least a night and half a day in Tawang before moving out. Our main objective, Bum La, is apparently fairly snow bound. The last 65 kilometers’ drive will take us to a height of 5029 meters. I want to take it slow, so that I enjoy the pakoras and tea which one can get there.

The last time I went above an altitude of 5 kilometers, I was unable to enjoy the view. This time we are taking frequent breaks, and giving ourselves time to rest and walk. I hope the snow does not prevent us from reaching Bum La, and I hope this time I can walk around without getting sick.

Wish me luck.

[Note added later: the experience was better than our expectation]

So much to do, so little time!

The distance between Guwahati and Tawang is supposed to be about 570 Km. Not much, you would think, but we are informed that even in good weather it would take us at least 14 to 15 hours to do this trip. Clearly, this is not something that we should try to do in one day in November. We need to break this journey up, so that we do interesting things on the way, and still have enough time at Tawang.

My friend, The Victor, is great at planning road trips. He figured that Nameri National Park, which is almost halfway, 220 Km from Guwahati, should be a 5 hour drive. We reach Guwahati at around 11; so we should be in Nameri at five in the afternoon, allowing an hour’s stop for lunch on the way. Since sunset is just after 6 in this region in November, we might get in an hour of birdwatching in Nameri on our first evening, provided we do not dawdle over lunch. If we are a little delayed, then we might do our birdwatching on the way, and reach Nameri after sundown.

We plan to spend two nights in Nameri, so we should get one morning and one evening of birdwatching for certain. Then we leave for Dirang, where we plan to spend the night. This is a 165 Km stretch which begins to climb, and should take us 5 hours to do. Since a check for permits is involved as we leave Assam and cross to Arunachal Pradesh in Bhalukpong, there might be queues which eat up time. Still, it would be safe to give ourselves 6 hours of driving. It should be enough to leave by 10 in the morning, which means we might be able to get in another quick morning of birdwatching in Nameri.

There may not be spectacular things to see in Dirang. It is supposed to be good for birdwatching, probably also in November. Although a dzong (monastic fort) is mentioned, the descriptions do not sound great. There is a mention of a gompa (temple) and great views on the way to the dzong, Since this is very close to Dirang village, we might do it in the morning before we leave for Tawang. The road distance is about 200 Kms, although the straight line distance is about a fourth of this. The road is full of switchbacks, so we should expect to take around 6 hours if the weather is good. This is reputedly the most unpredictable part of the journey.

We plan to spend three nights in Tawang. Half a day will go to see the monastery, which is the largest Gelugpa monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa. I wonder how much it has changed since the Dalai Lama was welcomed here in 1959 when he finally left Tibet. We’ll take a day’s trip to Bum La and the Shangetser Tso (lake). I’ve read about a Takhtsang Gompa in this region, if this is anything like the Dzong which goes by the same name in Bhutan, then we must try to find it. We could try to find the Nuranang waterfall on the way, although it seems to lie a little away from the main road. I’ve seen some lovely photos of the Pangateng Tso, so that is another place we could try to visit. But really, the place The Family and I would like to go to is the Eagle’s Nest wildlife sanctuary. Our three nights in Tawang may not give us time to do everything in this list. We’ve heard much of Monpa food, especially the thuppa and the fish. We should be able to find this kind of food once we start climbing.

We return by the same route. The first day we plan to spend seven to eight hours on the road and halt at night in Bomdi La. The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary near Bomdila is supposed to be wonderful; in November we may not see too many orchids, but we might spot a red panda or two. Bomdila is the gateway to the rest of India, as the Indian public learnt when this town fell to the Chinese in November 1962. From Bomdila the drive to the Brahmaputra is short. Unlike the Chinese army, which pulled back from this town after declaring an unilateral cease-fire, we will press on southwards. We’ll probably take a look at the Bomdila monastery before we start on the drive back. We’re planning to stay in a small tea estate for a night before getting back to Guwahati to catch our flight.

The great unknown in all of these plans is the state of the road. We don’t drive very hard on most of the days. In spite of that, mountain roads are unpredictable. There’s only so much planning that you can do. Once you are on the road, things tend to change. That’s part of the fun.

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.