More birds of the Terai

Springtime is the right time to visit the foothills of the Himalayas. All the birds which came down to the plains in the winter begin to move back up to their breeding grounds. Since they move up at different times, and are trying to get to different altitudes, a week in the Terai will yield a lot of sightings. This spring we took two trips: one to the east, to Manas NP in Assam, and one to the west, to Corbett NP in Uttarakhand. I got the featured photo of the stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) in Corbett.

Seeing the beautiful Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) in Corbett NP was like running into an old friend. We used to have this spectacular long tailed birds in our garden until insecticide killed its prey base. The females are equally beautiful, but lack the showy tail. The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) used to be another old friend with whom I seem to have lost touch. I was happy to see two of these jauntily crested fellow sitting on a tree in Corbett NP.

I’d seen the spangled drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus, also hair-crested drongo) first in Assam. This photo was taken in Corbett NP. You can see the spangles on its breast, but the long crest of thin hairs is not clearly visible. The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is perhaps even more common, but I liked the light on it as it came down to the Ramganga river for a drink in the evening.

This solitary Pallas’ fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) sat for a long while on a branch, looking around alertly without flying. Interestingly, they have been reported from all around Tibet: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Are they not found in Tibet? Or, like Afghanistan, is the lack of reported sightings just a gap in the data? The jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), on the other hand, seems to be only Indian, but widely distributed from the edge of the Thar desert east to Assam.

The Silver-breasted broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) that I saw in Manas NP was a lifer. A colourful and quiet little bird, it looked back at us, and did not fly away. The black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) was another lifer. Once a locally common bird in the eastern Himalayas, it has become extremely rare and is now reported from only three places in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and another in Manipur. It is a skulker, hard to spot in the tall grasses it lives in, and quickly leaves the locality when it is disturbed. I was happy to get this single photo.

This photo of the Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis, also Broad-billed roller) from Manas NP keeps confusing me. It isn’t a blackbird, just the usual dark blue dollarbird sitting in shadows inside Manas NP. In its breeding season it has the spectacular display flight of the rollers. I was happy to see the rolling and diving flight in Corbett NP.

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Bee eaters

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.

Capped langurs

Capped langurs (Trachypithecus plieatus) are found in a narrow geography: Assam and eastwards to Myanmar, and northwards to Bhutan and a small part of Tibet. In Manas NP we mostly saw them in upper branches of trees, munching on leaves. Their diet is mostly leaves, with a little variety provided by seasonal flowers and fruits. Once I saw two bands tried to claim the same tree. After some hissing and chattering one group gave way. Unfortunately, I was taking a video of something else while this conflict was on. There are multiple subspecies, but north of the Brahmaputra and west of Jia Bhoroloi, where we were, is the domain of Trachypithecus pileatus tenebricus. A description of tenebricus that I read was very accurate for the individuals we saw: “hairs radiating from the forehead to form a shaggy cap.”

They looked really confident in the trees, where they spend most of their time foraging. As our jeep moved along a path in the jungle, I saw a band of about ten jump from the canopy on one side of the path to the other. The forest department makes sure that the paths are narrow enough for the monkeys to cross. Although this is one of the commonest monkeys in this region, their numbers have fallen enough that they are already classed as vulnerable. You don’t want to cut up a population into even smaller pieces by putting uncrossable barriers in their way.

I took this photo after the conflict between two bands that I mentioned earlier. The mother and young are alert to danger. The young take about half a year to begin to let go of mamma’s apron strings. I guessed that the little one here was younger than that. It would have gestated for 200 days or so, and, was likely conceived the previous May, at the end of a short mating season which lasts through April and May. There is another mating season which lasts from September to January, but a child conceived in those months would have not been clinging to the mother so closely. Females take care of absent mothers’ young, which perhaps explains the lack of annual pregnancies. You can learn a lot about a pack by just sitting and staring at them.

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

Leafbird

When I looked up to where The Family was pointing I could not spot a bird at all. Then I realized that it wasn’t a leaf next to the berries on the bare tree, it was a Golden-fronted leafbird (Chloropsis aurifrons). This wasn’t my first view of the bird, but I’d always thought that this family is called leafbirds only because of their colour. I realized now that there is another possible interpretation of the name. I was seeing a male. The golden front (forehead) is in deep shadow so you can’t really see its colour, but the black bib with the blue patch in it, fringed with more gold becomes an identifier once you put it together with the fact that we saw it in Manas NP. It is a common bird, not of conservation concern (yet), since it is found all over peninsular India, the lower slopes of the Himalayas into Nepal and Bhutan, and eastwards on the Asian mainland into Vietnam.

Green-pigeons and a green pigeon

Orders, families, genus, species: nested labels for life forms that we learn in school. Birds in the genus Treron are called green-pigeons. I tell them by the green or yellow chest feathers. But let’s step back. The order Columbiformes contains a single family Columbidae in which all doves (subfamily Clavarinae and Columbinae) and pigeons (part of subfamily Raphinae) are placed. Several of the Raphinae have green feathers on their wings or tails. But of these, only genus Treron have yellow or green chest feathers. The one I know best is the state bird of Maharashtra, the Yellow-footed green-pigeon (Treron phoenicopterus). It was one of the first birds I saw in Manas NP in Assam, far across the country. You can see it in the featured photo. Unfortunately its feet are in shadow, so the bright yellow looks gray in the photo.

The other Treron I got a photo of was the Pin-tailed green-pigeon (Treron apicauda). Its tail comes to a pointed end, as you might expect. Its feet are decidedly pink. We came across it pretty late in the evening, when the light was not great. Teasing out the colours of the feathers was hard. I’m happy I got enough for the identification in the photo. A better photo in good light is something I look forward to. For now I’m satisfied with this lifer.

For me this Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea), the state bird of Tripura, was the high point of pigeonry, but also my greatest disappointment. It is something I’ve sighed over before. Although you can see it along the west coast, south of Mumbai, along the east coast, and then through Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar, into Assam and the north-east, I have seldom seen it. I was very excited to see it finally on our third day in Manas. The tail was green right to its tip, so I know it wasn’t the confounding Mountain Imperial Pigeon. But taking the photo was hard. I could only photograph it from almost directly below it. If I moved further to get it jewel-bright green wings and tail it would be obscured by the neighbouring branches. I shot off a rapid series of photos, and found that in the last ones it looks down, notices us and pushes off the branch into flight. I’ll have to wait longer for better photos.

Two sub-Himalyan wildflowers and a stranger

From the plains the Manas National Park begins to rise as it crosses the border with Bhutan. In late March the forest was full of the graceful flowers of Clerodendrum wallichii. It has lots of fanciful names, but the one I like most is Nutan bleeding heart. Is that a reference to the film star Nutan, active in the 60s and 70s? I forgot to ask for the local Bodo name of the flower. A little further south the Khasi call it Horrandieng, and their neighbours, the Garo, call it Bolungre. Although Assam and the north-east are home to it, I’ve seen the flower escaped from gardens and growing wild in the Sahyadris. You know it is not local because in Maharashtra it is called Clerodendron. I suppose it is one of the flowers that now grow in temperate gardens.

In one spot I saw this Euphorbia cactus. I don’t think it is native. There are no cacti in this humid jungle. I suppose at some time there might have been a forest guard outpost here. The guards are local recruits, and treat their outpost as their home. To many of them the notion of protected biosphere means prevention of poaching, and perhaps, at a stretch, foraging. The notion that planting a garden, or releasing smuggled exotics into the wild is quite as undesirable has not yet been widely understood.

Among the flowers that I could not recognize were these tiny whites growing on vines in some spots. They seemed to prefer shade, but that is all I could tell. When you take a jeep through a jungle there is much that you can miss. Most drivers are tuned to large animals. A few have concentrated on the category of visitors who want to watch birds. I haven’t yet found a driver who will point out flowers and trees and fungi. And no one notices insects.

Local colour

False news of an impending insect apocalypse has long been debunked. Insects are not declining globally any faster than everything else. On a drive through Manas NP I took a few photos of the colourful insects that I saw in passing. The bee in the featured photo had beautiful wings of a kind I’d never seen before. Most insect colours are not due to pigments, but due to nanostructures on the wings or chitin, but they are equally tuned by evolution. Some time I need to find more about why and how insects use colour.

Exactly this issue has been studied extensively in butterflies. Bright colours in butterflies and caterpillars signal to predators that they are poisonous. This gives rise to a whole evolutionary chain of cheats: mimics which are not poisonous, but evolve colours which advertise, falsely, that they are. This drab looking butterfly, a blue crow (Euploea mulciber) seems to be an exception, because all crows and tigers are poisonous. But when it opens its wings you can see a deep blue colour in the forewing. Still pretty drab, you may think. But that’s because you are not a bird. Birds have colour receptors for ultraviolet in their eyes, and to them this butterfly would be a dazzling blue, advertising how poisonous it really is.

And then there were the flies. An iridescent blue-green blowfly (family Calliphoridae) landed on our jeep and crawled over the guard rails. I’m sure we’d deposited our sweat on it, and this was busily lapping up the salt. You would expect jungles to be full of blowflies. Their maggots feed on carrion and excrement, and there is no dearth of those in a jungle. The striped black and yellow insect which hovered around us gave me a bit of a scare. I thought it was a wasp and tried to bat it away, until I found that it was a hover fly (family Syrphidae). This nectar drinking pollinator mimics a wasp’s colouration for safety from predators. It wouldn’t work unless there were wasps in the jungle. Although I didn’t see one, the hover fly told us that they must be around. Traveling by jeep through a forest you miss most insects. I was fortunate to have at least caught a few of the more colourful ones.

The invisible Florican

Bengal Floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis) are said to be critically endangered. What does that mean, you ask? IUCN will give you one answer. There are less than 1000 individuals left of this species, the only one of its genus. When the last of these grassland bustards dies, not just the species, but the whole genus will disappear. I look at it in another way. Cornell’s ebird application is used by many birders to record their observations. Take a common Indo-Malayan bird like the white-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). It has been reported on ebird 520,415 times when I wrote this. The Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) is perhaps as common, but has been reported only 10,852 times because it is a nocturnal bird; harder to see and identify. The Bengal Florican has been reported 1,037 times, twice by me. There were seven people with me in Manas NP when we saw this bird, so the same sightings may have been reported about ten times more. It is truly rare.

We’d planned our trip for March, which is the breeding season of the bird. Our visit to the eastern range of Manas, the grassland, started early in the morning because the birds are active in the mornings and evenings. The grass was tall, as you can see from the featured photo of the peacock (Pavo cristatus). Floricans would have been entirely hidden. We scanned the grassland fruitlessly for a long time. Then we heard the harsh but faint clicking of the Florican. One came flying low over the grass at a distance. Immediately, another one jumped out of the grass, clucking. The males are territorial. There was a long aerial chase around the horizon. Neither bird came near us. I got a few distant shots of the birds in flight. You can see the white primaries, splayed out like fingers contrasting with a dark lower surface of the wings. The upper surface is completely white, and the body is jet black. As a photographer I was disappointed, but as a birder I was very happy to see this long display of territorial aggression.

The next morning we started much earlier. Perhaps the birds would be more active in the morning. We were either correct or lucky. As soon as we got into the open grassland we spotted a peacock and a Bengal Florican on the road in the distance. The grass was clearly so high that the Florican would be lost in it if it moved away. So we stopped at a distance to get a first shot. The scene was dreamy in the morning fog, and I could not believe in my continuing run of luck: good as a birder, bad as a photographer.

We couldn’t approach too close without spooking the birds. But as long as we kept our distance, we had ample opportunity to take photos. The light was bad because of the fog. But I had a wonderful view of the male: black head and neck, long like any other bustard, dusty speckled brown body and wing coverts, with the white primaries of the wings showing. I’ve consciously traded a long zoom, 2000 mm, for a large sensor, and I’m usually happy with it. But in this light I wished I had a camera with a better sensor. Still, I must count myself satisfied with my first sighting of this rare bird, one in five hundred of all reported sightings. As our grasslands disappear, places like Manas and Kaziranga are the last redoubts of the once common species that abounded through most of India.

Fire and forest

One day in Manas National Park I took the photo of forestry men on foot. The smoke behind them tells you that they were going about their summer job (white hot March is summer in Assam, just before the onset of the monsoon) of setting controlled fires to manage the grassland habitat. Forest and fire. The two words don’t seem to go together, but that is the legacy of English: both the language and the empire. When the English came to India and saw these ancient grasslands, they didn’t have the language to understand them. They hadn’t yet seen the grasslands of South America or Africa. In North America the destruction of grasslands had begun (think Johnny Appleseed). The English invented the phrase “degraded forest” to describe these grasslands.

To understand the fallacy in this, I reached a little further back into history. Grasses evolved about 75 million years ago in ancient Gondwanaland, before the dinosaurs dwindled due to a series of volcanic eruptions that tore that super-continent apart into the Americas, Africa, India, and Australia (that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs after this is another story). How did this evolutionary marvel spread across the world? One theory is that geasslands spread across northern Gondwanaland (present day South America, Africa, Asia, and India) before its breakup. This theory runs into problems with the evolutionary clock. In order for this early spread to have hppened, many families of grasses would have had to evolve earlier than they are known to have. The second theory is that the evolution of grasses happened in the isolated island-continent of India before it met Asia, and the grasslands spread from there outwards to the rest of the world after the contact. This theory has to contend with major geological barriers to its spread. Perhaps neither theory is right, but nevertheless, India is home to some of the oldest grasslands in the world, and also to some of the most ancient grazing animals in the world (Bharattherium bonapartei is one of them). In order to begin preserving this heritage, we have to give up notions encapsulated in phrases like “degraded forests”, “dry scrubland”, and “wasteland”. The lack of trees is not lack of biodiversity. The rich grasslands of Assam are evidence of it. Look at the bottom of the photo above: the number of varieties of grasses and herbs you see is more than that of the trees above them.

There are other aspects of grasslands which should concern us in this era of a changing climate. Grasses evolved new pathways of photosynthesis to deal with hot and wet weather: the technical name is C4 photosynthesis. In contrast, the grasslands of the Himalayas have many species which use the older C3 photosynthesis. In the ancient battle between forest and grassland, our inadvertent tuning of the atmosphere has shifted the balance. Grasslands are also prone to fire, and trees and grasses which grow in them have evolved to use it. Often seeds lie dormant until the heat of a fire starts new growth. When the ancestors of humans responded to an ancient climate crisis, 2.5 million years ago, by adapting from arboreal to grassland life, they would have encountered fires very often. The use of fire distinguishes Homo habilis and its descendants, us, from all our remaining cousin species of apes. The forestry men I saw were using an old human technology to maintain the environment that gave us this technology.

The language I use to deal with the wild spaces around me is wrong. The culture surrounding it is wrong. Still, that’s what I’ve grown up with. I cannot name the grasses that I see. But I can name the flowering trees. I recognized the beautiful purple flowers of Bauhinia variegata as soon as I saw them. The orchid tree, as it is sometimes called, grows from sea level, here, up to the lower heights in the Himalayas, and eastwards across South-East Asia and Southern China. It was one of the several flowering trees that I recognized in Manas.

The road to Bhutan

Bhutan was locked away from the world. This is one of the responses that countries have taken in response to the pandemic. The Manas National Park of Assam is part of a larger biosphere reserve that includes the Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan. It is a wonderful idea in these changing times. As the climate changes, one expects species to begin migrating up into the cooler heights, and this biosphere reserve is one of the corridors through which species will manage this. But on this hot day I was an individual in a species which was barred by closed gates. Seeing a small group of Indians on the road, a masked border guard came to watch.

We had no intentions of crossing. This was just a little walk after lunch to a point where I could indulge my romantic memories of a trip made fifteen years ago. Bhutan has changed since then, become a democracy, and bristles at India’s inept advances. I remember the wonderful experiences I had with the utterly friendly Bhutanese long ago, and would, in spite of the changes, like to go back there. Often people do not change, only governments come and go. I circled the border marker as wonderful memories of Bhutan passed through my mind.

The Family and I had long talked of entering the Manas biosphere reserve through Assam and going over to the Bhutanese side to see how the wildlife changes with altitude. We would have done it earlier, except that this was then a disturbed region. On the Indian side, Bodo tribesmen were in revolt against the Indian state. On the Bhutanese side, the Nepali insurgents had hidden away in these forests. Now the Bodos manage the Indian side of the forest, having come to a settlement within the Indian federation. On the Bhutanese side the ethnic conflict has been shut down by the military. But then the world has been struck by a virus and passage is again blocked. I wonder though, whether no wildlife can become a cross-border reservoir of the virus. After all, these forests do have pangolins. The only safety seems to be in the uncertainty of vaccination.

We were a group of birders, eight in all. We spent a while there, loitering at the border. Each of us had to take photos of the border marker. Having taken my photo, I walked around the perimeter of the border guard’s post, at least the part I was allowed to. The fibre glass tiger glared at me as I looked at the old familiar signboards from Bhutan enforcing discipline. Interestingly, unauthorized research was deemed almost as offensive as poaching!

The pre-Buddhist traditions of Bhutan include customs derived from an animist belief system. This is reinforced by the Tantric stream of Bhutanese Buddhism. One visible result is the use of skulls as symbols. I wonder which animal’s skull guards this border. Certainly a carnivore’s, given the long (broken) incisor. But not a tiger’s, the jaw is too long for that. Perhaps not a jackal’s either, since it would have had tearing teeth all the way to the incisor. There are bits of Bhutan which are still a mystery to me.