Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sometimes we can sing like a Whistling Thrush!!

Before I get into this I must say that I was quite disappointed with Blue Whistling Thrush, accentuated by my experience with whistling music of Malabar Whistling Thrush for over a year in Western Ghats. Malabar Whistling Thrush was such an exhilarating presence that defined my mornings, of all the birdcalls this one is right there on the top. Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus) in comparison falls short, a rather large bird he lacks the fine tuning sweetness in the call, that made Malabar specie so very endearing. 

Sometimes we can sing
like a whistling thrush
And sing all day long  
And fly back home
When it is time to go
Till then we can sing
All day long    

Five Heritage trees of Mysore

This 260 year old Banyan tree at T.Narsipur road is a spectacular sight. What is interesting about this Banyan tree is that its aerial roots are clustered in the centre, unlike other Banyan trees where the aerial roots tend to spread and so the tree moves horizontally like using stilts. Some of the awe inspiring old banyan trees I have seen are, of course starts with the one at Alipur (in Kolkota), incidentally the botanical name Ficus bengalensis originates from this one.  Then there is one at Theosophical society in Chennai, at Rishi Valley school Chitoor AP, Dodda Alada mara in the outskirt of Bangalore, Ramohalli on the way to Mysore… 

Which was the wood,
Which the tree from which
They (the Gods) shaped
Heaven and earth?

(from RigVeda)
There are about 750 species of Ficus, India has about 115 of it. Ficus don’t produce flowers but figs which are pollinated by tiny wasps, an 80 million year coevolution. 

The second tree is also a Ficus, Ficus Religiosa  -the 160 year old Peepal tree at Manasa Gangotri. Peepal is also referred to as Bodhi tree as Budha got enlightenment under this tree hence ‘religiosa’, also sacred to Hindus. This one is truly spectacular, probably one of the grandest Peepal tree I have seen so far.

The third one is also at Manas Gangotri, in the nursery (must add quite difficult to locate this one) is the 300 year old Tamarind tree: Tamarindus indica. The tree is in a sad state, hit by lightening and general decay.  Not many may be aware that Tamarind originated in central Africa. Dakar, the capital of Senegal means tamarind in Senegalese. Incidentally world’s largest auctioning centre for tamarind is in Chintamani AP. There is a rather famous Tamarind tree, in Gwalior, at the tomb of singer Tansen. It is believed that if you eat the leaves of this tree you will have voice as melodious as Tansen’s, so you will find many wanna be singers munching away to glory!!

The fourth tree is the majestic Silk Cotton tree: Bombax ceiba, right in the middle of the city, behind the city bus stand, planted by Curzon about 100 years back, therefore Curzon Park. Its trunk gives a faint recollection of Baobab. In the month of March this common avenue tree (particularly in Delhi) blooms and is in riot of five petal red, there is a huge one at the entrance lawn of Teen murthi bhavan. Bombax cieba flowering is also the pattern for Rosy Starling migration. 

The fifth one is the ubiquitous Neem tree: Azadirachta indica, this one at Crawford hall reckoned to be more than 100 years old. There is a neem tree at shirdi under which Saibaba sought refuge and gained repute as a healer. 

Most part of neem are of value and has been ingredient of traditional medicines and insect repellant, therefore venerated and considered a divine tree, it was carried to Fiji, Mauritius etc by Indian immigrants. Only few decades back the day began for most Indians with a tooth brush by neem twig!!  


There are walks conducted in many parts of the world, some to do with heritage, nature so on. Walks specifically designed to know about trees is not very common, indeed quite unique in many ways. I have been quite fortunate to have attended two walks conducted by maestros in the field. 

Pradip Krishen at Delhi ridge of Aravalli range, Raisina hills

This happens to be predominantly Acacia forest just behind the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Pradip krishen comes with a huge reputation, having authored what is arguably a seminal book on trees Trees of Delhi (recently I got a mail on his second book, Jungle Trees of Central India is out). I had met him at Narmada Valley in 1998, I used to be with group of young journalists during those long walks. Words began to do the round that Pradip Krishen has lost it ‘the guy talks only about trees’, avoid him. I recall quite distinctly we had sat for lunch at one of the huts, and he pointed to a tree and started talking. We had good laugh in the sidelines. Much water has flown through Narmada (and the dams), I have become wiser and realize the guy was a valuable presence. So here we were a motley group waiting for Mister Pradip Krishen to turn up, our man was late. That should have given the inkling of things to come. He emerged from his vehicle with a scowl and three dogs. So began our ordeal, he did speak about few trees but was mostly laconic and withdrawn, and had to be prodded constantly, some of the ladies did amazing job of it (being over the top delhiite works sometimes, this surely was the occasion!!). Mr. Krishen was curt, and after few mishaps with the ladies said something to the effect “you must have read that in my book” meaning “you philistine don’t ask too many questions”. He was back in the cuddly world of his dogs, tired one lady even suggested that she can hold his dogs from him “for godsake”; our man was not easily to be parted. So we gave up and formed sub groups and carried our little walks and private anguish. 

Pradip Krishen is a  perceptive writer (also an award winning film maker), and the book is a must have. I would rate it as one of the top ten Indian books of last few decades in all genres put together. But as a Nature walker, he is eminently unsuitable. He gave the impression of a snob who had come for a walk with his dogs and we are intruding into his privacy! To know that we paid for it, made us feel cheated. Please avoid, it is a waste of time and money.   

Vijay Thiruvady at Lal Bagh, Bangalore

Like Pradeep Krishen, Vijay Thiruvady is an alumnus of St. Stephens (Delhi). Mr. Thiruvady has been conducting tree walks in and around Lal Bagh for many years now, with passion and enthusiasm intact, if not amplified. He too has written a book on trees Heritage Trees (of Bangalore), credited to Pradeep Krishen in no less way.  Talking of books on trees, Forest trees of the Western Ghats by SG.Neginhal is another book of repute. 

Mr. Thiruvady is immensely knowledgeable, interactive and having travelled across the globe, he is able to regale his audience with useful anecdotes and information. I have gone for tree walk with him more than few times (they have made it free for me!!), everytime there is something new to learn and observe.  His walks are rated as top ten walks around the world by reputed chroniclers, finds mention in Lonely Planet guides so on. His walks are carefully planned and executed with finesse, he impresses me every time. The latest one, the other day, was about fruiting Calabash tree and how it was used as a currency in Haiti. Gourde is still the currency of Haiti, though it refers to coins not the actual calabash gourd!! I was aware about gourd shell being used as musical instruments but as a currency was interesting indeed. The walk ends in a breakfast at MTR, and useful information about how rava idli –the signature dish of MTR, was started during the Second world war, as there was shortage of rice. MTR on Sunday morning is like Kumbh mela in Benaras, but for tree walkers space is reserved, that in itself is not a minor achievement! Overall tree walks by Mr. Thiruvady is an agreeable experience and strongly suggested if you are in Bangalore on weekends (you may also visit their website http://www.bangalorewalks.com for details)

I have learned many things from Thiruvady walks and tried to work it out in my Nature walks (I have taken out few hundred people so far), while Pradeep Krishen’s book is a treasure. When birders go for a walk they talk only about birds and miss the trees and insects, while tree walkers don’t see the birds at all!! So it is important that you keep changing the groups and terrain.  

Few lines from the poem The Sounds of the Trees by Robert Frost 

Sometimes when I watch trees sway, 
From the window or the door. 
I shall set forth for somewhere, 
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice 
And tossing so as to scare 
The white clouds over them on. 
I shall have less to say, 
But I shall be gone.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sarus cranes: the tallest flying birds


Sarus cranes are seriously tall birds towering about 5.9feet, but rather than intimidating presence they are self effacing to the point of shy. If you are travelling in north India by train, in particular the rice belt of UP (it also is the State bird of UP), keep an eye out for Sarus cranes, you are very likely to see a pair or atleast hear the characteristic trumpet calls. Sarus is India’s only resident breeding crane specie and prefers marshy wetlands, the name Sarus comes from Sanskrit ‘Sarhans’ meaning birds of lake. These are Vulnerable species and are found in patches of central India and limited regions in East Asia and strips of northern Australia. Sarus crane (Grus antigone) was once a well known sight in India, though in recent times it has declined rapidly. A survey in 1980s pegged the numbers at 12,000 while by late 1990s it had reduced to as low as 2000. I am not privy to latest figures, it must be precariously low. Less than 2000 is not Vulnerable, it is Critically Endangered, I guess IUCN needs to update on this one. The main cause of decline seems to be wetland destruction, these birds are generally found where industrial and urban sprawl has not taken place, and where agricultural practices are still traditional. The shift to cultivation of sugarcane, indiscriminate use of pesticide and criss-crossing power cables seem to be having a detrimental effect. Cranes are indicator species, indicating the health of wetlands and ecosystem. 

The zoological name Grus antigone is quite interesting. In Greek mythology Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, she defied masculine authority, though she ended up killing herself. Fidelity is one factor that has seen to it that this bird is treated with care since time immemorial by Indians, not to forget it was the pain of the Sarus crane that inspired Valmiki to write Ramayan. British crusaders though had different take on affairs of the world (they still do, with ‘sexed up’ versions!!) and went on shooting spree, even keeping records as matter of pride. There is a novel by Khushwant Singh I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale wherein the central character is instigated to kill the Sarus crane “…if you are going to funk shooting birds, you will not do much when it comes to shooting Englishmen. You will say ‘why kill this poor chap, his widow and children will weep’ or ‘his mother will be sad’…this is what is meant by baptism by blood; get used to the idea of shedding it. Steel your heart against sentiments of kindness and pity. They have been undoing of our nation. We are too soft.”  

Jehangir the Mughal king was an avid observer of avian specie so much so many have pointed out that he would have done remarkably well, and happier man, as the head of BNHS or curator of a natural history museum. He had a keen temperament of a scientist, he tried personal observations and experimental approaches to understand natural phenomenon. Here his observation of nesting Sarus cranes “…a strange thing is that on the other days the pair of Saras cranes took five or six turns sitting on their eggs, but during this twenty four hour period while it was raining and cold, the male sat on the eggs to keep them warm continuously from dawn until midday. From the midday until the morning of the next day the female sat continuously –lest the eggs are damaged or spoiled by the cold while they were getting up and sitting down. In short, what a human being comprehends by the guidance of his reason animals do by an instinct made innate in them by eternal wisdom. Even stranger is the fact that at the beginning they kept the eggs next to each other under their breasts, but after fourteen or fifteen days had passed they made enough space between the eggs so there wouldn’t be too much heat and eggs wouldn’t be spoiled…”    (from The Jahangirnama

(the picture of painting herein is a miniscule portion of a Pahari miniature (1750-60), taken at National Museum, Delhi)

Stopping by the Woods

I was reading Stopping by the Woods on a Sunday Morning, it was one of the earliest articles written (1930) by Salim Ali where he exhibits skills required in tracking bird nest. He meticulously locates nests of Purple-rumped Sunbird, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Tailorbird, Fantail Flycatcher, Common Iora and Baya in the outskirts of Mumbai. Notes Salim Ali “…the trick of locating nests, therefore lies not so much in traversing miles of likely country as in keeping an ever-watchful eye as you slowly saunter along, and patiently waiting for the birds to give away their secrets of their own accord”. He also writes “we shall select some Sunday morning late in August for a jaunt into the exquisite country surrounding the city. The heaviest blast monsoon is blown over, and we may now look forward without undue optimism to fine weather. The air is delightfully cool, the sky thinly overcast; banks of threatening nimbus drift across the heavens resulting only in occasional drizzles which help to subdue the uncomfortable steamy vapour that begins to rise immediately after the sun peeps out of his cloudy veil”…. “A monsoon ramble through the woods will delight anyone who has the eyes to see and the soul to wonder at the romance and charm of this other world within our world. The electrification of the suburban railways has thrown the delightful country in the environs of Bombay within the comfortable and speedy reach of everybody. To the lover of the out-of-doors, the opportunities are such as might rightly be the envy of the less fortunate dwellers of almost every one of the other large cities in the country. Yet, how few are there who will sacrifice their Sunday morning sleep.”  

Reading this piece ofcourse reminded me of Robert Frost, the title is undoubtedly influenced by one of his famous poems Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. The last few lines you could find at the table side of Nehru at Teenmurthi Bhavan indeed that is how I first heard about this poem.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The more you know, the more you wow!


Bluethroats (Luscinia svecica) are seen wintering in the reeds and bushes along the swamps, not quite unlike from where it migrates; in Europe Alaska region they inhabit edges of wet forest, often near water. He tends to freeze and remain motionless to avoid detection so gave me enough opportunity to click some good pictures. Bluethroat can be spotted along the swamps of Indian plain during winter, except the south tip. A rather shy insectivore, forages in the low vegetation and can be spotted scampering across the ground at water edge.

Before I get into something else these lines I thought were hilarious “…when the spring ran hot and strong in blood, and the manically manicured market gardens were washed in silver light, the Chinese cuckoo sang all night. ‘One more bot-tle! One more bot-tle!’ If ever a bird sang the national anthem of a place, it was the Chinese cuckoo. In those boozy days at the far end of the empire’s tether, it was a recommendation we seldom rejected” (Simon Barnes, How to be a (bad) Birdwatcher). 

Rediscovering two birds and the story behind it… 

There are two birds in Indian subcontinent that were thought to be extinct but emerged miraculously from oblivion to the delight of everyone, particularly the ornithologists. Jerdon’s Courser by Bharat Bushan in 1986 after 187 years (you may also visit http://iseeebirds.blogspot.in/2011/04/in-pursuit-of-jerdons-courser.html) and Forest Owlet by Pamela Rasmussen in 1997 after 133 years, both are fascinating stories. Here are some excerpts…

…I had been waiting at the Renigunta airport to meet Dr Salim Ali, to escort him to Suddavatam near Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh. The Jerdon’s or Double-banded Courser had been rediscovered three days previously and had made great ornithological and natural history news all over the world. Dr. Salim Ali, the President of the Bombay Natural History Society, was the Principal Investigator of the Endangered Species Project…
On his arrival at Renigunta, I went with all the pride that I could muster at being able to talk to Dr. Salim Ali about the rediscovery of the Jerdon Courser. He had barely walked four steps when he turned to me and said, ‘What is your name? Are you from the forest department?’
Bang! That was the end of my pride and ego. I had met Dr Salim Ali atleast five times and presumed that I had impressed him to remember me. And now he did not even remember my name, or worse, that I was from the BNHS! I turned helplessly to Mr. P.I.Shekar, his Man Friday, who was walking behind us, lugging all sorts of shapeless cabin baggage. Mr. Shekar was laughing and enjoying my discomfiture. Realizing that there was no help from that quarter, I patiently explained that I was from the BNHS and had participated in the rediscovery of the Jerdon’s Courser. The ‘Old man’ did not even smile and in a very serious undertone told me (I remember his words to this day) ‘Are you sure it is the Jerdon’s Courser? If you are wrong, I will not bother to hang you from the nearest palm tree. You should do it yourself!’
Well, up to that point I had been very certain that the bird I had seen in Cuddapah was the Jerdon’s Courser. But the menace in Dr. Salim Ali’s voice made me very very uncertain. Was the bird indeed the Jerdon’s Courser? What if it wasn’t? And now this ‘rediscovery’ thing! What if I was wrong? I did not speak for an hour. Just escorted him mutely, until Mr Shekar, now shaking with silent and uncontrollable laughter, told me relax, to watch the Old man’s eyes to see how he was enjoying himself at my discomfiture. Dr. Salim Ali, guessing at the exchange, smiled and said, ‘So? That bird is the Jerdon’s Courser? Congratulations. Are you going to give me a party? Chilly Chicken?’  

Ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen felt both panic and elation one morning in 1997 when she gazed, only half trusting her eyes, at a long lost species of bird perched in a bare tree in western India. Panic because, Anthene blewetti the forest owlet that Rasmussen had sought for two weeks from one side of India to the other, might fly off before it could be positively identified and captured on film. Elation because the chunky, 9-inch-long owl that she was staring at was a species that had gone unseen by any scientist for 113 years.  Seven stuffed skins in a handful of museums were all that seemed to remain of a species that several experts had crossed off as extinct.
Fortunately, the forest owlet was not only alive, but ‘absurdly cooperative’, says Rasmussen, a museum specialist in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History. ‘It just sat there,’ she says…

…If nobody had looked in the right places, maybe the owlet still existed, Rasmussen reasoned. In November 1997, she headed for India with Asian owl expert Ben King of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and with Virginia birder David Abbott. The owlet hunters concentrated on forests near sites where the bird had been collected by Davidson and others more than a century before. 

Near the end of the their stay, they were searching in the foothills of the Satpura Range, northeast of Bombay, by 8.30am on November 25, they had been in the forest for hours. It was hot, and Rasmussen was uncapping a water bottle when King quietly said. ‘Look at that owlet.’
‘And terror struck,’ she recalls. She dropped the bottle. For a split second, she struggled to decide whether to aim her binoculars or video camera at the bird. ‘It was like this huge decision –what am I going to do first?’ but there was time to do both, as the forest owlet, missing no more after 113 years, sat tamely in the sun flicking it tail for 30minutes. 

…but nothing she learns about the species seem to top the thrill of finding the bird itself. ‘It is certainly the most exciting bird related experience I’ve ever had,’ she says.
‘It was incomparable. And afterwards, we were all just grinning,’ Rasmussen says, still smiling at the memory of the tail-wagging owlet that flew back from oblivion.   

So those were some interesting write-ups on rediscovery of two amazing birds. Some others like Pink headed Duck, last spotted in 1950s and was not uncommon, is now almost extinct. It is believed that they do exist somewhere in the inaccessible swamps along the India-Myanmar border. The next one is Himalayan Quail, last spotted in 1876, and could be surviving in higher terrains of Himalayas. The hunt is on...    

From my scribble pad…    
The day

Every day the sun is dissected at my window
into rectangular boxes. 
It lies on the mosaic floor, climbs the wall
squiggles in the cupboard
and takes baby steps into the night.

In the bylanes of a village
a child plays in the mud
a cow licks the child
the child playfully holds cow’s ear.
Time stops.