You do all kinds of things to fight boredom while you wait silently for a sleeping tiger to raise its head and look at you. We’d seen the back of one as it settled down in a little grassy hollow late in the morning. There was almost no chance that it would give us a sighting, but everyone decided to wait. Bored, I looked up. And spotted the orchid Checkered Vanda (Vanda tessellata) flowering overhead. It is widely used in folk medicine, and known to be neuro-active. I’ve heard stories of its use as a mild hallucinogen in old folk religion. It was too high up for me to try. Interesting that they flower in the heat of late May in Kanha NP. Big flowers, I thought, growing in clusters. I looked around. There didn’t seem to be another bunch of them around. It hadn’t kept me distracted for even half an hour. Back to the fruitless wait for the tiger.
Bamboos are a diverse group (Bambusoidaea) of evergreen flowering plants in the grass family (Pocaea), to paraphrase the start of the relevant article in Wikipedia. I’ve seen sentences like this ever since I became interested in mass flowerings. But somehow, my mind never grappled with the idea. I continued to think of all bamboos as the same. So, when I couldn’t get a nice photo of bamboo flowers in Tadoba Tiger Reserve last November, I continued to take photos in the next months. Even after I got a good photo in Kanha NP in May, it took some time before I began to examine it.
Comparing the photos, it becomes clear that the flowers do not belong to the same species. The silhouette in the center was taken in November in Tadoba, the first photo (and the featured image) was of bamboo flowering in May in Kanha, and the third photo was of bamboo flowering in early April in a garden in Lonavala. I wish I’d bothered to do the due diligence that every botanist chides me about: photograph the plant, not just the flower. I suppose the only way to redeem myself is by learning to recognize bamboos a little better. It would work best if there were a geographically appropriate field guide, but until I find one something like this generic guide will have to do.
Before a mad doctor convinced a majority of my neighbours that our gardens should be saturated with pesticide, we could see many Green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) outside our window. Now I have to travel to jungles to see this auld acquaintance. They are easy to photograph, since they like to perch in the open and keep an eye on flying prey. They make quick forays to catch a passing insect and come back to their perch.
I caught this particular one in Kanha NP, cocking its head before a flight. I’ve noticed this movement before. I think it moves its head to improve its fix on the prey just before pushing off its perch. Binocular vision has its limit for birds, because of the relatively small size of head. Moving the eye gives it better depth perception through parallax. I superposed the two separate shots to give a sense of how much head movement it makes in order to get a fix. I think it more than doubles the parallax that it would have if it didn’t do this.
Corbett NP in May turns out to be a great place for spotting several different kinds of bee eaters. I completed a checklist of three more of them. The Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is perhaps the second most widespread, being visible in the Terai grasslands and the lower Himalayas, both coasts of India, all through Bengal and the north-east, and eastwards through Myanmar all the way to Vietnam, south to Malayasia and, strangely, of all the islands of Indonesia, only in Java. I probably have several other photos of it from other places, but this was the only shot I have from Corbett NP.
I’ve seen the Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) less often, although it has a larger range: all of India south of Jammu and all of Punjab, including in Pakistan, eastwards into the Philippines and Papua New-Guinea. I remember seeing it in Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Assam. The photo above comes from just outside Corbett NP.
The Blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is the least common of these, and I have only a couple of photos. The photo in the triptych above comes from Manas NP. It is visible in the Nilgiris and the two coasts around it, the jungles of Odisha and central India, and in the Terai grasslands. Further east also, its range is fairly restricted: North-east of India, and Bangladesh up to Vietnam and the north of Malayasia. Unlike the other three, perhaps it shuns gardens and tended forests. Since the last September I managed to spot all the six bee-eaters that can be seen in India. I find the Blue-bearded the most interesting of the lot, not only because it is less common, but also because it is the only bee-eater seen in India which is not in the genus Merops.
Speeding through the jungle of Kanha NP, my eyes were caught by the many flowering trees. At one point I called a halt and took some photos. Our driver and guide were feeling bad for us because this was our last drive, and we hadn’t seen a tiger. They take it pretty personally. After the surfeit of tigers in Corbett, I wasn’t down in the dumps about it. So I started a conversation about trees and flowers, thinking it would cheer them up. It does usually, because they know many more of the plants than city people like us do.
In passing I wasn’t sure whether the tree was flowering or had berries. When we stopped and backed up I saw that they were buds. The yellow-orange colour was quite eye catching, but most of the buds were still not open. So I could not really see the shape of the flowers. I think these will become five-petaled flowers when they open up, but not seeing an open flower got rid of my main method of identifying the tree. The driver and the guide conferred and came to the conclusion that this was a tree whose leaves could be used on a wound. But that was all the information they had.
To a better botanist the leaf shape might be enough to yield an identification. I remembered to take a photo of the leaves: palmate, entire, emarginate. I know the words, but they are just words to me, not keys to understanding the world. It could be a bauhinia, but this genus has spectacular orchid-like five-petaled flowers. Could these buds open up into something like that? A better botanist would be able to give an answer.
On second thoughts, I might have been confused by the way the trees grew cheek to jowl. If I look at the leaves on the flowering branch, they are pinnate (also entire, acute, and possibly emarginate). On looking at the photos, it seems possible that the flowering branches were poking through a bauhinia towards the sun, but belonged to a different tree altogether. It would make sense, since the guide and the driver knew about bauhinias and their many uses, but were a little unsure about the flowering tree.
Harsh cries ring through the jungles of central India in summer: the call of the peacock. I normally ignore the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus). They are commoner than crows and pigeons when you enter the open jungles of this region. But as the monsoon’s breeding season approaches I keep a watch for the mating display of the male. If you are lucky enough, you can get a photo that is worth the halt. Sometimes you see a lek: a group of males all displaying together, for the benefit of a seemingly uninterested female. This is perhaps its core behaviour. The female selects a mate based on the size and colour of the train. Growing a large train takes energy, in terms of health and food, and the ability to escape predators. There’s no faking it. At the same time, the female’s preferences selects the biggest trains, and therefore the offspring are likelier to have big trains. Repeated for generations this pushes the species into the direction of males with more spectacular trains. Since the genus could be recognized in 18 or 19 million years old fossils, most species in the genus have evolved towards bigger trains.
Unfortunately the only peacock I’ve seen is Pavo cristatus, the Indian peafowl. Native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, breeding populations have been introduced in Singapore, Taipei, the UK, and the USA, largely in Florida. I’ve yet to see its larger cousin, the Green peafowl (Pavo muticus). It is disappearing fast in Myanmar, but I suppose on a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, or even in the extreme east of India, I could plan to visit its habitats. It is a little astounding that viable hybridization between P. cristatus and P. muticus can be established. It seems that the reason is that in birds cellular evolution is slow, and two species like this, which have separated only three million years ago have not changed sufficiently for their crosses to be unviable. I wonder whether anyone has tried crossing the Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis) with either of the Pavo.
An interesting thing about the feathers is that they never fade. That is a clue that the colours are not due to pigments; pigments would oxidize over the years and change. The iridescent colours are due to, well, iridescent diffraction of light. Microstructures in the feathers produce the specific wavelengths that are seen, and a little change in the shape and size is enough to change colour. I’m surprised that a comparative study of the feathers of the peafowls has not been done. It seems that feathers don’t fossilize well, otherwise it would have been possible to examine the feathers of the extinct European peafowl (Pavo bravardi in the south and Pavo aesculapi in the north) and tell their colours. It is strsnge that so little is known about birds as spectacular as these.
One species that I find most confusing in the field is the Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). The least confusing aspect is that there are two morphs. The one you see in these photos is called the light morph. The dark morph does not have the streaked white chest, and is much darker uniformly. But more than that, the field identification is rendered more confusing because of controversies about subspecies and cryptic species. This has left a legacy of birders looking at multiple characteristics and distinguishing between features which could perhaps be widely variable without distinguishing species or subspecies. I will not enter that controversy (you can read a condensed version in its Wikipedia article) but will go with the Linnaean wisdom: if two things have the same binomial, they are one species.
It’s a common enough bird, easily spotted across India, south of Jammu, below the Tibetan plateau, and eastward across Asia right up to Banda Sea, in central and South Vietnam and the Philippines. What was uncommon about this sighting in Kanha NP was that I found it in a little muddy pool drinking water in great gulps. It looked up as we stopped, but after that it didn’t pay us much attention. It is the apex predator in its own niche, after all. I’d never seen it drinking water before, so I didn’t know whether it was extra thirsty because of the heat or what looked like an orgy of drinking was normal. But then, just a week before, I’d seen a small but feisty Jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) drive one away by flying directly at it. I wouldn’t have thought that was normal either, except that a much more experienced birder said that he’d seen smaller raptors shooing away bigger ones before. The longer you watch birds, the more interesting behaviour you see. I suppose all that it means is that, within their physical limits, creatures have more autonomy and adaptability than they were once supposed to have. Hawk-eagle, thy name is change.
Kanha is one of the most beautiful national parks. The first thing you notice are the enormous sal trees (Shorea robusta) forming patches with closed canopies. Then you notice that they are actually stands of trees in a larger grassland. The stands are carpeted with fallen leaves. The sunny grasslands are full of herds of chital (Axis axis, spotted deer). At the edges between the open grasslands and the forest are the more cautious sambar (Rusa unicolor) and barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, swamp deer). But if you look closer you see the species that shapes the landscape by removing litter and tilling the ground: termites. Some are visible by their mounds dotted throughout the forest, others hide in living trees and dead logs.
I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how high the termite mounds were. It sounds silly, but then I was in a jeep which spent three days rushing through the forest in search of tigers. Most tourists holiday in nearby resorts, and spend their times in swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, making a couple of forays into the jungle. Of those who come to the forest, most are interested in tigers. So tigers are a boon to the locals who make their living on tourism, and their behaviour is geared to such people. A very few visitors come to the forest to see more, and the guides and jeep drivers are happy to talk to them about their own experiences. But you just cannot get off jeeps to make measurements. So I had to improvise by taking photos of termite mounds with different things to give a scale. Everything simplified when I saw two people, forest workers, walking between two mounds. That photo clearly told me that the large mounds were about two meters high. I saw the Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, hanuman) crouched behind a smaller mound. These langurs are about a meter tall. So that sort of verifies my estimate by eye that the larger mounds are twice as tall.
I’ve found termites (order Blattodea, infraorder Isoptera) fascinating for a while. They are cockroaches (order Blattodea) which adapted to eating wood by harbouring a microbiome of bacteria, protists, and fungi in their stomach. In fact, the study of termites gave the first clue that many animals could have flourishing ecosystems inside them, a discovery that is now increasingly used in treating human disorders like Type II diabetes. In a forest they munch up fallen logs and leaves and are important recyclers. But they bore into trees and wood, which makes them pests for us at home or in farms. This bunch of cockroaches also developed eusocial behaviour some time in the Triassic or Jurassic, becoming differentiated into castes of workers, queens, and kings. When I was young I would see yearly swarming of termites, as a queen and her retinue set off from their old palace in search of a new home. So I know that a termite is only a couple of millimeters in size. The mound is a thousand times larger. Calling it a palace is shortchanging the mound, because I know of no human queen who lives in a two-kilometer tall palace. Perhaps one should compare it to a medieval citadel, a city which houses the court and also all the industry which supports it.
I’d spent some time photographing termite mounds up close in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP. You can see from these photos that they have a contoured surface which is rather smooth. The material glitters in the sun, which makes me think that bits of minerals in the soil, or insect chitin could be incorporated into it. I found an interesting group of papers which studied the strength and engineering of these mounds in a non-destructive way. They found that two castes of termite workers continually build pellets of wet mud. Other castes of workers then cement these “bricks” into walls using liquids that they secrete from the body. The wetness of the mud allows the suspended granules of mud to settle into any cracks in the walls that need repair, and the termite-spit then makes it proof against the hard monsoon of this part of India. Another paper led me to believe that the two meter tall termite citadels could be several hundred years old.
But which termite made these mounds? I’m as sure as I can be, without a photo of a termite, that they are made by Odontotermes obesus. I wish this common forest termite in had an easier name. This is the species which builds these tall conical mounds with flutes which look like Gaudi could have dreamt them up. But I’d seen and photographed other shapes too. Not knowing enough about termites, I’d assumed that they were merely citadels in the early stages of construction. But apparently not. Very often, the shape of a mound tells you with certainty which species built it. But Chhotani, in his 45 year old gem of a paper on the termites of Kanha NP tells us of multiple species which can be found in the mounds and fungus gardens of O. obesus. And more interestingly, he describes four different shapes of mounds, all of which seem to be built by O. obesus. With this observation he speculates that when there are more detailed studies one would find that what we call a single species now will be resolved into multiple species, each one building a mound of a given shape. Unfortunately, the study of termites in India is in its infancy. Even a paper from five years ago, which claims that there are 286 species of termites in India, making up 10% of the world’s termite biodiversity, added six new species. I was not surprised that no one has performed a gene profile of O. obesus from Kanha to check Chhotani’s conjecture. So we don’t yet know whether we can really tell the species of a termite from the shape of its mound. There are so many angles to termite life, so many loose ends in their story, that one really has to look at several pictures to piece them into one view of these shapers of jungle landscapes.
Some weeks are hectic, and you wait impatiently for the weekend to arrive. Even when you are in isolation. Like this tiger cub in Kanha National Park, waiting for its mother. The white ear tufts are characteristic of the Bengal tiger.
I was behind the curve on this one. The third Friday of May is National Endangered Species Day in India. Fortunately, I can retrofit this post. There are degrees of danger: IUCN has categories which run from near threatened (NT), vulnerable (VU), endangered (EN), critically endangered (CR), to extinct in the wild (EW) and extinct (EX). The three categories VU, EN, CR will lead to extinction without human intervention and help.