Elephant moods

Watching elephants is a pleasure. There are the tuskers, large and lonely, sometimes aggressive, but generally walking about the jungle doing his own thing. Then there are the matriarchal herds, incredibly social, but completely focused on bringing up the young. It’s a completely different social grouping than that of the apes and monkeys, but it works well enough.

The baby that you see in the featured photo caught my eye because of the grassy mud on its back. I’d not seen grass on an elephant’s back before. I looked at the others in the group. They all seemed to have it. I’m sure it helps to keep them cool, but will this innovation stick? It’ll take several visits to Dhikala range in Corbett to see the fate of this invention.

Early in the morning, a couple of days before, I’d seen a group of elephants suddenly tense. They immediately assume a protective stance around the youngest. It turned out that there was a tiger in the grass nearby. When it passed, they went back to grazing. Notice the opportunistic myna hunting the insects displaced by the elephants.

When I first came to this family group I was surprised to see a bull tusker with them. It turned out to be a chance meeting. As you can see, the group had dropped into a protective formation around the cub. In formation, they crossed the road in front of us. The bull moved away from them. Only when the bull was far enough did some signal pass between them, and the cub was allowed to move away from protection.

The bull was headed for water. We saw it move in a straight line. These lords of the jungle do not change their line of travel for any lesser creature. I watched it as it crossed the vast landscape towards a tiny pond which was invisible for us. It knew its territory very well, probably carried a map inside its head.

Once it reached the small pond in the middle of the wide open expanse, it got all the fun that it could. It drank water, squirted jets all around it, rested its trunk on its tusks, and then just lay down on the wet grass. For more than an hour I kept turning around to watch what it was doing. Eventually, as the morning got warmer it moved away.

The previous evening we’d been bullied by another tusker. We’d driven on to a path when we saw a tusker coming down it. It moved at a steady pace. There were no warning calls, no displays of threat. But the pace was relentless. The message was clear. We had to back up until a crossing, and then move to the side. In these grasslands tigers and elephants are co-equal. They give each other a a wary respect, and do not meddle.

A bristled grassbird

Another grassland, another grassbird. We noticed the bristled grassbird (Schoenicola striatus) in Dhikala range of Corbett NP because of its aerial display. It is named for its distinctive bristles above its beak, near the end of the gape line. It hasn’t come well in this compressed photo; you can see it only as a dark smudge just above the beak in front of the eyes. It was nesting season, and its aerial display was different enough from the skylarks’ that it caught attention. It touched down on a stalk of grass and turned its head to look all around as it sang. Then in a moment it had hopped down into the tall grasses in the patch and was gone.

The ground was reasonably wet because of the rains. Perhaps it had built a nest in the grass. It population has declined fast in recent years as wet grasslands are drained and given over to humans. This is the sad fate of most grasslands in our country. In my childhood trains used to chug through grasslands: Chital and Sambar would look up at its passing, while Nilgai bounded through, looking for Acacia to browse on. You would hear stories of yellow-green eyes staring at you from low in the grass. Perhaps a tiger, maybe a leopard. I hadn’t seen one, but enough people had for this not to be a tall tale. The word grassland was not part of the vocabulary. For the lack of a name, they were not set aside for conservation, and nearly disappeared. With them went the tigers, elephants, bustards, and lesser species, like this grassbird.

Now, perhaps with the renewed protection to Terai grasslands, following the success of Project Tiger, these species will find a haven. But this bird may be migratory: flying from its Terai nesting sites to the south and west in winter. Trying to find its true wintering grounds is a little confused by the limits of citizen science. The profusion of birders along the coast has resulted in a large number of sightings reported around the large cities in winters, but it is likely to be more common in the grasslands of Bengal and peninsular India, south of the Narmada, from where it is not reported equally often to eBird. The peninsular grasslands are hubs of human activity, and not protected. At the moment all that is properly established is that the population of Bristled grassbirds has crashed in recent years, and not yet stabilized. That earns it the status of vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, in the slippery upper slopes of the road to extinction.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

What wings dare

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

The Tyger (1794) William Blake

Milkweed butterflies, like common crows (Euploea core) and common tigers (Danaus genutia), lay eggs on trees full of toxins. The newly hatched caterpillars then feed on the leaves of these plants and concentrate the toxins in their bodies. The toxins remain through their metamorphosis into butterflies, and make them undesirable prey. I’d assumed that just as they lay eggs on different plants, the adults must take nectar from different plants. I was surprised to find many individuals from both species feeding on one plant. I suppose that there are species of plants whose nectar attracts one or the other, but not both, species of butterflies. Otherwise the crows and tigers would be in competition. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but one eventually wins, and the other has to find a less desirable range. There is no evidence for that happening to one of these species.

A rich ecosystem is full of creatures utilizing every resource, and individuals of one species are a resource for another. The caterpillars are parasites on their host plants, but the adults have reached a sexual mutualism with nectar yielding plants. The plants require butterflies for fertlization, and the butterflies are unable to lay eggs without the sugar that the plants supply. These butterflies have their own parasites: tiny flies (tachinids) and wasps (chalcids). They lay their eggs in caterpillars. The parasitic maggots hatch and eat their hosts from inside. Although I haven’t seen the parasites yet I remain hopeful and ready with my camera; the adult flies and wasps are big enough that I could photograph them. On the other hand, the only symbiotes of these two which have been studied are really tiny: bacteria from a genus called Wolbachia which live entirely inside the cells of the butterflies and influence their reproductive strategies. There is no chance that my camera will ever catch these.

The jungle was full of such lovely small things. The photo of the spider web that you see was taken on a path called thandi sadak (cool road). It was surrounded by fields full of this plant that some would recognize immediately; they grow wild across the hills and are a target for foragers. The spider itself was too small to be seen. There’s a lot of literature on how cannabinoids influence spiders. You can actually see a typical example here: some of the space between the spokes have not been filled in. I’m not sure that spiders munch leaves, but they could be eating insects which have taken up toxins from the plant. Although chital (Axis axis, spotted deer) grazed in neighbouring patches of grass, they did not venture into fields of Grass.

Less spectacular than the crows and tigers, but equally abundant, were these common sailors (Neptis hylas). They have an interesting flight: a couple of wing beats and then a long glide, then again a wing beat or two. I would like to weigh them, because the flight pattern could mean that the wings are large compared to the weight, like a glider’s. They are not milkweed butterflies, and there is no record of them being distasteful or poisonous. That’s why it puzzles me that there are so many of them in the jungle, and there seem to be no predators. A low body weight could also imply that they are too small a portion to be worthwhile for birds to hunt. Perhaps also their fecundity, eggs hatch multiple times a year, keep their numbers high although they are edible.

A dark shape flew into the leaf-litter below the where the sailor was sunning itself. The moment it stopped moving it disappeared. I searched the ground and couldn’t see anything. Then there was a tiny movement in the ground, and I could focus on it. This was a Prosotas butterfly, possibly the common lineblue (Prosotas nora). I always have to look at the lineblues carefully to figure out the species, and the strong sunlight with dark shadows, and the odd angle I was looking at it prevents me from making a firm identification. But this is was a happy sighting: here was a non-poisonous butterfly which took good care to camouflage itself. Even in the photo, you could mistake it for a dried leaf if you just glance across it quickly.

The buffer zones of these protected forests are set up to attract large numbers of eco-tourists, so that residents have a stake in keeping the jungle protected. But since the average person is interested only in large animals, tigers or elephants and deer, there is little opportunity for those interested in small things like insects to observe them. From the back of a jeep I saw only the small creatures that I already knew. Seeing the familiar in a new setting can always show you new behaviour and raise new questions. So I found myself happy even with these limited opportunities.

The woodpecker and the (w)hole

Grasslands in the Terai are interspersed with deep jungles of mixed trees. This is where tigers come for shade and rest after a night out eating and drinking in the sea of grass. But you also find herds of chital, and lone sambar and barking deer moving through the undergrowth. If you are lucky you’ll see a mongoose or a pangolin. We drove slowly along paths under the towering trees and stopped when we heard a woodpecker’s call. Which one? Ahead of us, on a massive trunk sat a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus), a lifer for me. Maybe. Because I’ve seen and photographed lots of birds before I started taking an interest in them. I confused myself for a while, “But it doesn’t have the red patch at the front of the head.” The Family was practical, “Must be the female.” It was. I admire pragmatism, especially in the heat of the field.

The lady inspected a hole in the tree, and its surroundings, like a finicky house hunter. I found later that this is one of the commoner woodpeckers in the world, once having lived in a swathe of land across Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where the climate is neither too hot, nor too cold. When I put my observation into eBird, it demanded verification. The species has been reported often from the Terai and the lower slopes of the Himalayas, but is still considered rare here. As the weather warms they’ll move north (there are already sightings in northern Finland and Norway, as far north as Tromsø) and up-slope, becoming rarer still in India.

As we watched a jeep with two young couples came to a halt next to us. “Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of dust. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken I saw that this tree was being strangled slowly by a fig. I can’t tell the difference between three of the commonest strangler figs in this region: Ficus beghalensis (banyan), Ficus virens (pilkhan) and the immense Ficus altissima. Parakeets and hornbills, of which there are several species here, eat their fruits. Their droppings contain viable seeds that take root in some of the other trees. As the host dies, there are more and more holes in its trunk, attracting Picus canus and several other species which are looking for nesting holes. This area was full of trees being strangled, and sure enough, I could hear the screech of parakeets flying high overhead. Eventually, one of the figs will win by growing faster, throwing its deadly shade over the the remaining, clearing trees from the space under it. A small grassland will nucleate under the tree and spread.

I’m happy that a generation ago, when the Beatles sat in an ashram not far from here and composed their eco-anthem, The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, someone had the foresight to start Project Tiger in these jungles. That has preserved this wonderful cycle between jungle and grassland for the rest of us to enjoy. The shade of these trees were filled with the clicking and chirping of insects, the trilling and the cackle of birds. I was glad I’d stopped here. I took off the mask and breathed the smell of the forest.

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