Zone of silence

After lunch we set off to a part of the Keoladeo National Park which we hadn’t seen before. There were few people here in the lazy afternoon. In these flooded fields nature was also at rest. A Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) rested in the shade of a tree. A Small Blue Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) sat on a branch above it. Around them was a tremendous variety of waterfowl.

At the end of a long branch overlooking a deeper part of this water world, an Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) spread out its wings to dry.

In the water nearby the spectacular Red-crested Pochards (Netta rufina) made deep dives next to some very fashionably black Common Coots (Fulica atra),

Elsewhere in the shallows flocks of Greylag Geese (Anser anser) shared space with Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). Males of ducks are usually more colourful than females. The female is the primary caregiver for chicks, and, since ducks mostly nest on the ground, her colour is meant as camouflage.

When I zoomed out a bit I could see that this was part of a larger mixed flock. The Family probably has a record of all the waterfowl in this larger bunch, but in this photo I can easily see the distinctive white stripe down the head and neck of Northern Pintails (Anas acuta).

Zooming back even more, I could see the edge of human activity, in the form of cows wandering in to browse at the edge of the waterworld. Cows can sometimes step unwittingly on nests of birds, crushing eggs. This level of human interference is unavoidable in India. Bharatpur’s Keoladeo NP has done wonders for conservation within these human constraints.

In the clearing stands a boxer

One of the memorable sights from my trip to the Rann of Kutch was watching two bull nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) face off against each other. As we drove along, we saw a hefty male cross the road in front of our jeep. It gave no sign of being alarmed. It just kept an eye on us as it crossed. We followed and found that it had reached a clearing surrounded by a dense growth of acacia trees.

There was another hefty bull. It didn’t look very happy to see an interloper. To my eyes both bulls looked healthy and large, and both had a glossy pelt. In this region we had probably come across the two bulls during mating season, when they are more territorial than usual. In fact seeing two mature bulls together at this time was a little unusual. They usually mark out territories of 15-20 square kilometers each.

The interloper advanced to the middle of the clearing and came to a halt. The defender approached slowly, and at an angle. The interloper stood its ground as the defended began to circle him slowly. Clearly the two were sizing each other up. To my eye the interloper looked larger, but the defender had a glossier pelt. I didn’t know what the two bulls would look for in the other to make a judgement about whether it was useful to fight.

The tense circling was completed as the two came face to face, staring at each other. The decision was made without a fight: the interloper decided to leave. I had no idea what had convinced each about the possible outcome. I would think that a clear mismatch in sizes would have meant that a fight is avoided. If the sizes are well-matched, as they seemed to be, a fight could be avoided if one had no stake in fighting. Maybe that was the case; maybe the interloper had perfectly good territory, and knew that it was encroaching on another’s.

I find it hard enough to figure out what another person is thinking, and here I was trying to understand the mind of a nilgai. Quite unlikely! I interloper gave a last backward look at the clearing as it pushed through the brambles and disappeared.

Two Singular Sights

In my penultimate post on Pench National Park, I thought I should show you the first interesting sighting in the park. This is the beautiful heron which used to be called the green-backed earlier, and now is called striated. I saw it at the first waterhole we came to. In the deadly heat this bird sat in the shade of a big log which had fallen across the water. It was not feeding. In fact, on reading about its behaviour, it seems to me that it could be responding to a threat: the outstretched neck and the upward pointing beak are gestures which it has been recorded making when threatened. However, I did not see any threat nearby (unless it was our jeep).

Nilgai in Pench National Park

The other photo I wanted to put here was of this lovely antelope: one of the few found in India. The male Nilgai in the photo has a characteristic blue pelt. The white patch on its neck with a tuft of hair below it, and the colour of its muzzle, look extremely elegant. Interestingly, this species exists only in South Asia, although a related fossil species has been found in Africa. DNA studies indicate that it could be one of the primitive ancestors of cattle. The name nilgai (Hindi for blue bull) then may be pretty accurate.

Finally, yes I know what the title of this post is. I’m not going to back down and say a plural sight. No. You can tell that I really meant two singular sights.

Blue cows

Nilgai (meaning blue cow) and wild boars are original residents of India. I’ve seen paintings of both these animals in the Bhimbetka caves, so they have been part of the landscape around the earliest humans in India. For all that, they are not very dense on the ground. So one tends to stop and admire them when one comes across an individual.

In Ranthambore I saw a single large male almost as soon as we entered the park. The stately, slaty blue antelope was foraging at the periphery of a herd of Cheetal. The scene was quietly beautiful: the yellow-brown coats of the Cheetal were lit up in the morning sun, whereas the darker Nilgai stood in the shadows of the trees.

Nilgai browsing in Ranthambore

As I watched the Nilgai craned its neck up to browse on the low branches of the tree near it. I saw it eating the woody twigs along with leaves and recalled news stories of man-animal conflict because Nilgai ate up crops. Nilgai population outside of these protected areas is very sparse. So talk of Nilgai destroying crops over large areas sounds like a lame excuse to hunt a protected animal.

In recent years the decline in Nilgai populations has reversed, but recent decisions to allow their killing could easily endanger them again. I was happy standing with a group of people gawking at this animal out of our history in such a peaceful setting.