Sometime the jungle is peaceful and quiet. The trail broke out from thickets into an open meadow. It was early morning. A golden sun. A small herd of chital (Axis axis, also called spotted deer) grazed in front of us. A sambar (Rusa unicolor) walked through the herd. Chital are easily spooked, but this herd did not mind us. Sambars are alert. It looked up at us briefly and went back to breakfast.
The scene before me was a very clear illustration of how these two species of deer manage to live in the same forest without conflict. The chital is largely a grazer, the sambar a browser. The chital is an under-rated ecosystem engineer. Its grazing keeps small plants from growing too high and smothering jungle seedlings before they can reach their full growth. They also keep the spaces under trees clear. A jungle looks very different from a garden gone wild because of these grazers.
This difference between the two kinds of deer is also reflected in their sizes. The small chital cannot possibly reach the lower canopy. I waited for the sambar to flick out its long tongue, as it does when it wants to reach a leaf too high even for its long neck. But this canopy hung low enough that it could just use its lips.
The little group fed peacefully. No smell or sound of a predator bothered them that morning. On a stump nearby I saw a black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). It is as dark as a crow, as intelligent and aggressive, and an incredibly good mimic. It is hard to get a good photo of a drongo because of its colour. I was lucky here. It sat in full sunlight for this portrait before it rushed off to its next appointment.
The difference between artificial and natural objects appears immediate and unambiguous to all of us. Analyse these judgements, however, and it will be seen that they are neither immediate nor strictly objective.
Jacques Monod (Chance and Necessity)
On the last afternoon, after our last safari in the forest, The Family and I took a walk through the fields outside the village. Hedges and trees around the fields of ripening wheat were full of birds. We stopped to look at a thorn tree in the fields, close to the lake’s edge, from which four incomplete nests of Baya Weavers (Ploceus philippinus) dangled. There was quite a bit of activity, with birds landing on the tree or nests, and going in and out of them.
As I watched this activity, I began to doubt my identification. I’d thought Baya weavers were unambiguously identifiable. The females are drab, the size and colour of sparrows, but with a little more dark on them. The males have gold on the head and neck. There were females at the nest, but hardly any males. November is also the end of the breeding season in parts of India. I thought that if this were indeed a Baya Weaver’s nest and in use by the females, then it should have had a completed entrance tunnel by now. Would the nest be incomplete in November, and be visited by females with no males in sight? I began to doubt my identification. At the same time, I could rule out all other weavers by either colour or nest shape. What was going on? It was time to consult The Commander.
Elegance is best left to cobblers and tailors
Albert Einstein, quoting Ludwig Boltzmann
He assured me that my identification was correct. This was the Baya weaver. Since the entrance tunnel was missing, either the nests had been abandoned because no female had selected it, or the local breeding season was not yet over. A close look at the nests shows that the material at the edge of the opening is still green, so it could be that the nests are still being inspected by the females. Perhaps in this region the breeding season is not over. The ample water in the region could be a reason why the birds breed in winter when the crops are ripening. When you observe the world, little is rule-bound. There are local circumstances and caveats which constantly have to be taken into account. Pity the poor scientists who have to disentangle these accidents to get the underlying nature of things.
I am quite fond of this photo I took immediately after we walked away from the nests. It shows a Black Drongo (Dicurcus macrocercus) and a Baya Weaver. These two birds act in ways which we often think is special to humans. The drongo often warns other birds of danger, but can be a liar and a cheat: often giving alarm calls to make other animals flee so that it can steal food from them. The weaver is an architect and starts to build complex knotted nests in its search for a mate, abandoning it half built if no female likes it. Is there really an yawning gap between humans and the rest of the natural world?
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.
Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),
On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?
At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the primitive animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I guess that this was the larva of a Geometrid moth.
Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.
Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: “I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected.”