Hot Days

In other years May would be a good time to travel to tigerland. In this hottest part of the year, with temperatures often in excess of 40 Celsius, leaves and small patches of water dry up, and animals come to a few larger ponds and water holes to drink several times a day. That is when you see tigers. Even if you don’t, these burning months of grishma are a good time to travel to jungles. You see flowers blooming in abundance and wildlife of many different varieties.

Whatever doesn’t come out for a drink stays home to avoid heat. A couple of years ago, we spent three days in Pench National Park, near Nagpur. We passed this Indian Scops owl (Otus bakkamoena) several times as it peered out of its hole. I recognize it by the fact that it is the only dark-eyed owl in central India. I like how the head and ear tufts perfectly camouflage it against the broken bark of the tree. The nuchal collar, ie, the ruff around its face, has a noticeable brown edging. This is another way to identify the bird.

This is also nesting time for many birds, like this Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). I find it amazing that larger birds make these untidy nests of large twigs, whereas smaller birds can make some amazingly beautiful structures. These simpler nests perch on supporting branches, I suppose because it is hard to make hanging structures which can take the weight of these birds. This simple idea of gets support (couldn’t help the pun) from the fact that larger birds like this buzzard nest at the junction of the trunk and large branches (as in the photo), whereas slightly smaller birds, like crows, find smaller junctions between branches.

Collarwali with her cubs, cooling off in Pench National Park

On some of these trips you get superlatively lucky. Either you have multiple sightings of tigers, or you have wonderful views of family groups resting in water holes. If you want to see something like this, then mark down this uncomfortable month for travel through the hottest parts of India.

In a Jungle

Vegetation makes up a jungle. I’ve written extensively about the animals which find a home in Pench National Park. But most of the time I spent in the jungle was spent looking at trees or bushes twined around each other. Here is a record mainly of the trees I saw in the jungle. This was a mixed jungle: mainly sal (Shorea robusta), followed by the crocodile bark tree (Terminalia crenulata), but also many other species, including the so-called Indian Ghost Tree. I end my stories of this hot season’s trip to Pench with photos of its dried up vegetation.

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.

The big misses

After all that driving around inside Pench National Park, there were still some major species of mammals that we missed seeing. One of the closest calls was a leopard. We heard a cheetal’s alarm call and then saw the deer. We heard a langur’s alarm call very soon after. Then nothing.

The cheetal was still alert, looking in the direction where it had just sensed the predator. You can see its tail mid-quiver in the featured photo. One movement from the hidden beast and it would go up, sending out a white flash of an alarm signal as it made an alarm call again. But nothing happened. We waited for more than half an hour, and then lost our patience. We weaved our way past the other waiting jeeps. Later, in the hotel, we heard that a minute after we left, the leopard had been sighted. That’s luck for you.

Dusk had fallen. We drove to a nearby water body, and saw nothing there. Later we heard that we had missed a shy two-year old tiger cub which was lying in the water where we went, and moved off as soon as a jeep came by. This happened as we waited for the leopard!

Wild boar spooked while crossing a road in Pench National Park

We did not exactly miss seeing wild boars. I managed to take the blurred photo which you can see above. These were part of a sounder which were crossing the road. They got spooked while crossing, and the rest of the group scuttled back into the undergrowth. In Pench wild board come out in such bad light.

We never saw a sloth bear, although there are many in Pench. The only reasonable view I’ve had of these bad tempered creatures was a few years back in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. One of them was demolishing a termite mound behind a copse of trees. I could see it between the trees. The one time I took photos of a sloth bear and its two cubs, they were running away across a meadow well after sunset. A lot of fiddling with the image could give me a recognizable picture.

Another wide miss was the Indian wolf, which apparently had made a minor comeback in this area. We never heard reports of anyone seeing them in the time that we were in Pench. The deer called the Barasingha is in the official checklist, but none of the guides said they had seen one. One of them was quite categorical that there were none here, "Go to Kanha," he said.

A close miss was a sighting of wild dogs. We kept running into jeeps whose passengers would say, "We saw a pack just minutes back. I’m sure they’ll be back if you wait here.". They never came back. The jungle is a chancy thing. You can be sure of seeing trees. Everything else is an extra.

Jackals and wolves

The IUCN Red List tells us that the golden jackal (Canis aureus) "is fairly common throughout its range with high densities observed in areas with abundant food and cover. They are opportunistic and will venture into human habitation at night to feed on garbage." It is true that in small towns and villages you can still hear the call of jackals, and travelling on a highway at night you can see one lope off into the darkness now and then. However, the few times I’ve had good sightings of these shy creatures have been inside protected forests like Pench National Park.

If you go by the call of the jackal, you may be fooled into thinking that they are nocturnal. However, both the jackal sightings I had in Pench were in the middle of the day. The first time was the fight between a jackal and a gray langur, and the second time I just saw one trotting away next to the track our jeep was following (featured photo). A study which tracked many jackals using radio collars explains how this can happen. A jackal is actually diurnal, but also active at dawn and just after dusk.

The Red List says that the jackal’s habitat includes Africa, the middle east (from where it has moved into Europe in modern times) and India. Usually it is fairly reliable and up-to-date on these questions. However, this seems to be an exception. Startling new DNA data published in 2015 showed that these two populations are different species which diverged about a million years ago. It was suggested that the African species, Canis anthus, be called the African golden wolf, whereas the Eurasian jackal continue to be named Canis aureus.

It was the jackal—Tabaqui, the Dish-licker—and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.
—Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

An older paper gave me some background to understand this. It turns out that among dog-like animals, the jackal is the basic form, which has differentiated into wolves a few times in history. Dogs, of course, are very closely related to wolves. As a result, dogs easily hybridize with wolves, but crosses with jackals are unviable. The group of jackals, wolves and dogs is sometimes called a species complex, because of their close relationship. In any case, the new finding was so startling that National Geographic called it the first discovery of a new canid species in 150 years.

I enjoyed watching these graceful creatures. Although they may not be immediately threatened, their habitat is slowly disappearing. For some time they may adapt to human presence, but as forests are replaced by parking lots, they will inevitably go the way of the dodo,

The Wisdom of an Owl

On our first visit to Pench National Park, we drove up to a tree with a hollow to see an Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena). The thing about owls is that they can be spotted at, or near, their hollows during the day. If you can find a local expert, she will know exactly where owls can be seen.

One of the pair was visible. It blinked at us like the wise person of proverbs. The wisdom of owls is of little use to humans, and I’d not asked any questions. So the blinking had to do with something else. I looked closer, and found the two insects which were bothering it. You can see them hovering near the owl’s left eye in the featured photo.

Indian Scops Owl in Pench National Park

There is an ongoing ferment in the classification of birds due to the advent of molecular data. It seems that the genealogy of owls is especially open. The Indian Scops Owl and the Collared Scops Owl (O. lettia) have been separated into two species which can be distinguished in the field only by their call. With the further split of the Sunda Scops Owl (O. lempiji), what once used to be called the Indian Scops Owl has now emerged as a superspecies, made up of these three species. This is incredibly exciting, since the formation of these divisions is evidence of ongoing evolution. Indian bird-watchers are in a privileged position to add to this fascinating subject by keeping their eyes open to mixing between these three species.

The individual we were busy photographing thought it wise to keep quiet, and not give us a clue to what it is. The central Indian population of this superspecies is the Indian Scops Owl, which is what I believe this is. We watched it for a while. The companion did not emerge from the nest while we watched. Perhaps, in the photo above, one can see it inside the hollow. It is hard to be certain. The owl is so beautifully camouflaged, the streaks and mottling in its plumage echo the broken bark of the tree in which it nests.

Since we saw it in May, it is possible that the female had just laid eggs. If so, then at night the male would be foraging for large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers or small frogs, rodents or birds, and bringing it back to feed the female, and, later, the hatchling.

These species have adapted well to urban living, and are not considered to be under threat. So there are ample opportunities to observe it in the wild. Especially interesting are observations in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, which lie on the dividing line between the ranges of the Indian and Collared Scops owls. With enough observations, one may gain much knowledge of the process of evolution from this owl.

Angry birds

The jungle babbler (Turdoides striata) is rather common. You can see them easily in any jungle or copse of trees near farmlands. They travel in flocks of several individuals which chatter constantly with each other. Listen to their constant calling, and you can follow the sound to see them hopping from branch to ground and back again, looking for insects to eat. They are supposed to have beautifully coloured eggs, but I’ve neither seen an egg, nor a nest.

The uniform grey specimens with yellow beaks which we saw in and around Pench National Park belong to the subspecies T. striata orientalis. These are the quintessential angry birds. They look so much like some of the birds in that game that I wonder if the creators took inspiration from these birds. Apparently they coexist with T. striata somervillei, which are a little darker and have a rufous rump and tail. I didn’t notice any, but they could have been around in Pench.

Jungle babbler in Pench National Park

I’ve most often seen these birds flit about in the semi-darkness beneath trees with a heavy canopy, making it hard to photograph them. I was lucky with these specimens. It seems that the more birds there are in a pack, the larger the area they commonly use for feeding. I saw the individuals in these photos perhaps just after their breeding season. A large fraction of the female chicks (but less of the males) usually leave the flock at the end of a year. As a result, flocks are a mixed group of related and unrelated individuals. The related birds would usually be the males. This means that territory is inherited by males within a flock!

The mixture of genetically related and unrelated birds in a flock would also make babblers an useful group for studying the spread of altruism. Indeed, non-breeding members of the group share time in incubating eggs, although they do not participate in the building of nests. Are these helpful non-breeders related to one of the breeding pair? I don’t know of a study.

Many such unanswered questions make the babblers an interesting group of birds for further study. DNA analysis indicates that the group as a whole may have evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago in the middle east. From here the group probably radiated out: one branch into Africa and another into southern Asia. Understanding the natural history of the evolution of families may eventually depend on our understanding babblers better. In fact, angry birds defending their eggs may not be such a bad metaphor for babblers.

The World’s largest Cattle

We saw a herd of about ten Gaur (Bos Gaurus) and stopped to watch. They looked around, saw us, and went back to grazing. Maybe they are used to humans, but part of the reason is also their sheer size. An adult can weight as much as a ton, so they seldom have to worry about other creatures. Tigers and leopards do attack Gaur, but they usually pick the youngsters. For a tiger against an adult Gaur, I would give them even odds. I’ve seen a tiger unable to drag away a Gaur which it had killed, because it was so heavy. I’ve also seen reports of tigers killed by Gaur.

Older Gaur calf in Pench National Park

The IUCN Red list considers the Gaur to be highly vulnerable to habitat destruction. If you want to know more about the natural history of Gaur, this is the best document to read. It claims that in the last 50 to 60 years Gaur population worldwide has decreased by 70%. Since it has decreased by only 30% in India, it must have decreased tremendously in the rest of its range. It was found in India and south-east Asia, but has gone extinct in Bangladesh in the last couple of decades. In parts of India, such as Valparai, it is still under threat.

The Bos genus, to which domestic cows also belong, probably diverged from other bovines about a million years ago. Earlier studies had claimed that the European Aurochs (which went extinct in the 19th century CE) are the original stock from which other Bos species diverged. However, recent findings in Eritrea seem to push the origin of Bos back to around 3 millon years ago, and indicate a close relationship between humans and Bos. These studies indicate that Bos and humans left Africa together. Tigers would have started preying on Bos only after their dispersal into Asia. So, the enmity between human and tiger predators of cattle seems to be ancient.

Gaur with young calf in Pench National Park

In a well-managed park like Pench, the Gaur population seems to be stabilizing, and probably also increasing. We saw evidence in the form of small calves (photo above) as well as older calves (photo before that). Interestingly, in the early part of the 20th century CE, observers reported that calves are born in August and September. Nowadays, it is common to see calves at any time of the year. The herd we saw followed the common pattern of having some females with calves, some sub-adults, and perhaps a few males. If you know enough about Gaur, then you would be able to tell the male from the female by differences in the horns. I’m not expert enough.

We stood there and watched the herd graze. It has been several years since we saw these wonderful creatures with brown coats and white socks.

Tiger Culture and Biology

Just before dusk the tiger called Collarwali in Pench National Park made a kill. She was walking with her three cubs when she suddenly changed direction. There must have been a signal to the cubs. Instead of following her, as they normally do, they stayed together, milling around for a while before disappearing into bushes. I managed to take a photo (see below) of the three of them together just before they walked into the undergrowth. You can see how the good a camouflage their coat makes. Another two steps into the bushes made them essentially invisible.

Collarwali's litter of 2017 in Pench National Park

A hunting tiger uses this invisibility. Our jeep rolled forward slowly until we were directly behind the tigress. She was positioned in front of a little gap in the bushes. Although we could not see beyond it, she must have seen prey nearby, because she was totally still. I clicked a series of photos, and there is no difference between them at all. Her tail was down, she was perfectly balanced for a quick take off, as you can see in the featured photo.

The tiger is not born knowing how to hunt. Mothers teach their cubs this skill through a series of exercises which begin when they are about a year old. The first exercise is to hold still, as she was doing. Then come lessons in stalking and sprinting. Finally the cubs are taught how to bite through the prey’s neck to kill it. Then, at about age two, when they have learnt all this, they are driven out by the mother to find their own hunting range, and defend it against other tigers.

Later The Family and I argued our way through to some understanding of how such learning could have developed. The tiger is born with the muscles, claws and jaws which enable it to hunt. It is also presumably born with the mental equipment which enables it to stalk prey. What exactly does it have to learn?

Later we came across an article written by Rafael Nunez in which he asks a similar question about the human ability with arithmetic. The number 77 is odd and the product of 7 and 11. Is this knowledge hard-wired genetically into human brains? No, we know that children have to be taught this. Nunez argues that there are biologically evolved preconditions necessary for us to learn such things. He writes "I suggest that numbers and arithmetic are realized through precise combinations of non-mathematical everyday cognitive mechanisms that make human imagination and abstraction possible." There is, possibly, a similar kind of mechanism at work behind a tiger cub’s ability to learn hunting. We think of human learning as cultural. In an intensely solitary creature like a tiger, do we see the rudiments of culture and learning? We speculated about all this later.

At that time, as the horizon moved up rapidly to obscure the sun, we were silently focused on the still form of the tigress. Then, in the blink of an eye she was gone, crashing through the bushes, and out of our sight. We learnt later from forest rangers that she had made a kill. The next day there were many jeeps clustered around this area hoping to catch a glimpse of Collarwali and her litter as they came back to feed.

The earliest tiger remains were found in southern China, and are about 2 million years old. However genetic studies of different tiger populations indicate that the Indian and Sumatran tiger diverged from the Chinese stock about 12 million years ago. At this time the collision of the Indian plate with Asia had already raised the Himalayas, and the collision of Africa with Eurasia caused a fall in sea levels around the planet. As a result land bridges opened up between many previously separated geographical areas. At the same time there was a global cooling, causing aridity in formerly wet zones. Northern parts of Asia and Europe began to get their ice cover at this time. Extensive grasslands formed a little before this, leading to an explosion of grazing animals, and the evolution of fast hunters. It is likely that ancestral tigers moved into new ranges during these climate changes and then became isolated into the populations we see today. This era could well be ending today.

When we travel I seldom think of the future beyond our own brief lives. The one exception is when we watch tigers. These sleek animals are so elegant, such perfect hunters, that I hope that future generations get to enjoy the thrilling sight of a tiger walking past them.