Brown fish owl

We had a wonderful sighting of a brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) sitting in the canopy of a large tree. It would have been invisible from above. As we drove close to the edge of the road, we could look up and see it clearly. It was trying very hard to ignore us and continue to sleep. The fish owl does not have the deep bowl-like face which is so characteristic of many owls. That bowl is acts as an antenna to focus sound, since hearing is very important to most nocturnal hunters. The fish owls are less dependent on sound since they feed on crabs and molluscs. A study in Melghat Tiger Reserve found that they also eat insects and rodents, so hearing cannot be unimportant. I’m sure that they are fairly opportunistic, and will change to fish and frogs if they are abundant.

We have usually sighted this fleetingly at night: on tree stumps or flying about. I had a wonderful view of it sitting in the middle of a lawn in Valparai, but the light was not good enough for a photo. This one, with its head tucked in, looked more squat than the others I’ve seen. One does see the related tawny and buff fish owls in Assam, but this was not one of those rarer birds. As we watched, it opened its eyes. My hand shivered slightly as I saw those sleepy yellow eyes looking at me.

All owls present in the world today diverged from a common ancestor more than 9 million years ago. This was a time when great geological changes were afoot, including the continuous raising of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys sea, so changing the global climate. The fish owls (genus Ketua) could have diverged later, but they are so closely related to other owls with prominent ear tufts (genus Bubo), that they are now included in the same genus. There have been contemporary local extinctions of the brown fish owl, notably in Israel where the poisoning of rats led to a local extinction of K. zeylonensis. There are still people alive in Europe who have seen brown fish owls, although they are now extinct. They were spotted again in Anatolia five years ago. It can be found now in a large range from Asian Turkey to south-east Asia. This is the reason it is considered to be not of concern for conservation work.

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Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.

Malkohas, Coucals and Cuckoos

The featured photo is not spectacular, but I’m really fond of it. Until now it’s the only time I’ve seen a Malkoha sitting in the open. All my previous sightings have been of these birds skulking in deep shadows, or breaking out momentarily as it flits from one hide to another. This is the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis), a lifer for me. The photo does not show the patch of bright colour around its eyes. The Wikipedia page on this bird contains a wonderful photo, so I have hope that one day I will be able to get a better photo.

A day before I took that shot, we stopped as one of my companions thought that she had seen a Malkoha. I took a few shots of the bird hunkered down behind a lot of criss-crossing branches. After looking at it carefully, we concluded that it was really an Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus). This is not an unusual error. Malkohas (genus Phaenicophaeus) belong to the family Cuculidae, which also includes cuckoos. Many of them are skulkers and hard to photograph.

Earlier in the second day I’d had a hard time trying to photograph another member of this family: the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis). This is widespread, seen even in Mumbai, but I’ve only managed a couple of good photos of it. This time around I got the rust coloured wings and the long tail which gives it the alternate name crow pheasant, but not its dark coat and bright red eyes. The Lotos had stopped us to photograph this bird because she’d never managed to get a good photo; I hope she got something better than mine.

These birds can drive you cuckoo.

The real chicken

All the chicken that you eat has probably descended from this colourful bird found in all jungles that I have visited. The red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) was domesticated in India about 7000 years ago, and the wave of domestication spread east and west from the Ganges basin. It is likely that the yellow legs of domesticated chicken were derived from a hybridization with another wild species called the gray jungle fowl.

I haven’t often seen one of these birds on a tree. So this one on a tree in good light was definitely something to be photographed. Its glossy black tail showed highlights of green and purple in the light. Note the gray legs; that sets it apart from domesticated variety. The domestic variety is also smaller and less brightly coloured. As I watched, this bird flapped its way down from the tree. Its flight is so ungainly that I wondered how it got up there in the first place.

Two turtles

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. –Richard Feynman

Watching turtles is a little frustrating. Although there’s a large variety in India, there are few guidebooks or websites which tell you how to identify what you saw. We stopped to see a few of these large turtles on our first sortie into Kaziranga. I didn’t know what they were when I took the featured photo. I have a tentative identification of it being the Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) through its size and colour. The hind edge of the shell is deeply serrated, as you can see. I’m sure that this should be an aid in identification, but it does not seem to be mentioned in any guide. If it is indeed the Indian black turtle, then it is near-threatened. This means that it could still be fairly common inside a sanctuary, so there is a good chance that this is what I saw. But you can always fool yourself.

The common Indian roofed turtles (Pangshura tecta) are relatively small turtles which love to climb out of the water and bask in the sun. It took me some time to decide whether the photos above are of P. tecta or the endangered Assam roofed turtles (Pangshura sylhetensis). Both are found in forest streams. The reptile database is pretty useless as an identification tool because its photos are not curated by experts. Eventually it was Wikipedia which convinced me that I’d seen the rarer variety. The article on P. sylhetensis says that its shell is serrated at the hind edge, as these are. The upper shell of this species is also darker. It is so nice to be able to see an endangered species that you want to believe that you have. So I’ll have to wait a little longer for some experts to tell me whether or not I have. Given the rarity of P. sylhetensis, (the IUCN page claims that only a few specimens have ever been seen) the chances are that I’m fooling myself.

Entering the whirlpool

My introduction to nature came first through the stories by Jim Corbett. These would often feature him sitting in a hide with a goat tied nearby as a lure for tigers. Seeing a goat at an entrance to Kaziranga, I was reminded of this.

The gate was an elaborate affair. We counted off what we’d seen already: rhinos, elephants and wild water buffalo were three of the “big five” here. The gate also showed the elusive swamp deer, barasingha. We had only a little glimpse of one on this trip. Pelicans, shown in flight around the gate posts and holding the sign, are not usually counted among the main attractions. But where was the real big one: the tiger?

It made a brief and almost unnoticed entrance at the bottom of a signboard full of the rules which bind you and protect the forest. If you don’t stand there and read the whole thing you may miss the fact that Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve. In fact it has the highest density of tigers in the world, but they are seldom spotted because of the tall grass that they can hide in. The goat was only a decoy, after all.

The central zone had a less impressive gate: just a boom which could be raised or lowered. But I liked the owls which showed the opening and closing times for visitors. We never did get to see the tiger, but we saw so much here that I didn’t regret the trip at all.

You are not food!

A crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela) sat in a branch of a tree which arched over the track our jeep was on. We stopped a distance away and examined the bird. S. cheela is widespread and not uncommon, but one always stops to pay our respect to this hunter. The black crest gives it a hooded appearance, and the streaked and spotted feathers look good in sunlight.

It was midmorning, so it must have fed already, but it was on the lookout for some tidbits. It perches on trees until it sees prey, then swoops down to pick it up. It looked at us, and decided that we were neither food nor a threat. It ignored us completely after that. Our jeep could then creep forward until we were directly below it, and I could take the odd angled photo that you see here. I’ve never seen one eating a snake, although that is their main prey. Occasionally I’ve seen one with a large lizard.

Our jeep rolled on.

The common Indian roller

Wildlife watching is frustrating. There are times when the light is just brilliant, the air is particularly clear, and you can see tiny details on branches of far away trees; but there are no birds to be seen. This was such an unfortunate afternoon. We drove out into Kaziranga for our last outing of the trip. The Family was feeling a little ill, and decided to stay in bed. The morning’s haze had disappeared, and the air was cool. Golden light seemed to drip over the whole jungle. The only thing visible was the Indian roller (Coracias benghalensis) which you see in the featured photo.

The roller is a beautiful bird, but you can see it outside of cities very easily. Strangely, I don’t have a good photo, so I take every opportunity to take one. It had light behind it, and the tail was covered, but the colours came out pretty clearly. If it had decided to sit on the other side of the trail, then in the better light you would be able to see the lilac feathers in the throat more clearly. You need to peer at the photo rather closely to notice that there is a change in colour between the breast and neck. What you can see very clearly are the talons.

The bird sat quietly. It wasn’t interested in giving us a demonstration of the wonderful acrobatics which it gets its name from. We were in the middle of the breeding season, so perhaps it had found a mate. But there was no nest in sight. We moved on through the seemingly empty jungle.

Don’t fix what aint broke

Kaziranga is a star when it comes to wildlife conservation. The number of endangered and vulnerable species which we saw in two days is a testament to its success. So is the fact that it has been an UNESCO world heritage site for over 30 years. As a result, I was intrigued when I saw reports on it in The Telegraph, The Times of India and Scroll. It seems that the union government’s plan to give over management of the park to a private company, is unacceptable to locals as well as to the state government.

In our recent visit to Kaziranga, we saw enormous involvement of locals in the sanctuary. It wasn’t just the hospitality industry. A drawing competition in a school was dedicated to wildlife. Advertisements branded themselves by the local animals. Some of the drivers were wonderful wildlife guides. Social involvement in the refuge seems very deep. I can understand the consternation about handing stewardship of the park and tourist facilities over to a single company.

Here is a summary of the uniqueness of Kaziranga, extracted from the UNESCO site: “The fluctuations of the Brahmaputra River result in spectacular examples of riverine and fluvial processes in this vast area of wet alluvial tall grassland interspersed with numerous broad shallow pools fringed with reeds and patches of deciduous to semi-evergreen woodlands. Kaziranga is regarded as one of the finest wildlife refuges in the world. The park’s contribution in saving the Indian one-horned rhinoceros from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century to harbouring the single largest population of this species is a spectacular conservation achievement. The property also harbours significant populations of other threatened species including tigers, elephants, wild water buffalo and bears as well as aquatic species including the Ganges River dolphin. It is an important area for migratory birds.”

The last of the wild

A trip through Kaziranga is both exciting and sad. In the short period of two days I was excited by the fact that I could photograph and see so many different species. Sadly, many of these were vulnerable and even endangered in the rest of the world. Among the endangered species was the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), whose photos you see above. This is not the same as the domestic species, Bubalus bubalis. During the ice ages, B. arnee roamed over all of Europe and Asia. The dry climate after the ice-ages restricted them India, south and south-east Asia. Now, they are extinct in Bangladesh, Malayasia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The last refuge of these ancient animals are the sanctuaries of north-eastern India. IUCN accepts counts which may put the current population at about 4000 individuals. Kaziranga counted about 1400 in its last wildlife census.

I saw this herd resting in an open meadow in the mid-morning. Luckily, there was a Varuna tree (Crataeva nurvala) in flower just behind them, providing a nice completion to the photo. Like elephants, the herds are led by an older female.

The next day was my last sighting of wild water buffalos. They were busy grazing in a patch of tall grass next to a stream. Flat, well-drained land is their preferred habitat. When I was a child they would still make long journeys across the country. With the urbanization of India, those days are long gone. The photo which you see above captures the sight which remains in my memory: the sun setting finally on herds which evolved in the times of the Mastodon.