Tadoba Diaries – Taming the Tree Shrew, third time lucky

Indian Tree Shrew

It was yet another tiger safari, but it was back in December 2014. I can’t say if what I saw was the tail, or a leaf, or my eyes playing tricks to satiate my wish. But our naturalist and our driver at BR Hills told us that a Madras Tree Shrew had run across the dirt track. After a few desperate glances to get a better look at the tree shrew that our naturalist had mentioned, we got distracted by a Square-tailed Bulbul and an Asian Fairy Bluebird.

I had been eager to see the tree shrew on that trip. I had digested pages of information about tree shrews from the internet. Every time I’d think of the tree shrew, I’d be reminded of the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. I soon realized why — the Madras Tree Shrew goes by the name Anathana ellioti and the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai is called Elliot’s Beach. While the beach is named after Edward Elliot, a former chief magistrate of Madras in colonial India, the tree shrew is named after the noted ethnologist and naturalist Sir Walter Elliot; both had served notable stints in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

The vision that I used to see when I would think of the Madras Tree Shrew until I finally saw one

During the peak monsoon of 2016 we hosted a friend visiting Bengaluru and then headed off to Galibore, hoping to see the Kaveri (Cauvery) river in spate. As the monsoon was a weak one, there was no gushing river to walk along and we chose to explore the scrub. My vigilant spotter sensed a movement in a tamarind tree and said, “There is something furry in that tree and it is not a palm squirrel.”  Our naturalist homed in and declared, “Indian Tree Shrew — very rare sighting.”

It was rare for two reasons: one — the race of tree shrew we had seen was rarely seen; two — within ten seconds of our spotting the tree shrew in the shadows of the tree, it slipped into a hollow and made itself sparse. The tree shrew made another fleeting appearance on another tree after we had moved a hundred feet. That was the last we saw of it.

“We saw the tail of the Madras Tree Shrew, but at least we got a glimpse of the Indian Tree Shrew!” I consoled myself.

I returned home and read about the Indian Tree Shrew. While doing so, I pictured the vivid imagery of Karl Schmidt’s memorial, that whitewashed relic on Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, Chennai. I re-read the zoological name of the Indian Tree Shrew — Anathana ellioti — only to realize that it was the same species of the tree shrew revealing its anatomy in installments: the tail at BR Hills, the torso at Galibore…

Cut to Tigerland, 2017. On our third safari, our guide wanted to go after the less-seen tiger in the Wagdoh area along the Andhari river. We saw pugmarks and waited for the tiger to show up. The tiger, it appears, knew game theory. It waited, too. It was we who blinked first and moved. Out of Wagdoh and we were on the asphalted road, heading towards Tadoba gate, when something scurried across the road, stopped, raised its furry tail, turned around, moved a few inches, turned around again, crossed the road, and settled atop a bamboo stump.

“Tree Shrew,” our guide and safari jeep driver declared in unison. The light was dull and we stopped far from our quarry. We had a twenty-second sighting but this time I saw the animal clearly, including the distinctive white shoulder stripe. And so, on the third installment we got a clear view of the tree shrew, from its pointed pink nose to the tip of its furry brown tail.

Indian Tree Shrew
On the third installment I got to see the tree shrew from the pointed pink nose to the tip of the furry brown tail

We were on the tail end of our trip to tigerland and on our last safari we had a close encounter with Choti Tara, the tigress of Jamni. After leaving Jamni, we had seen two other pug marks, a male and a female near the Kala Amba water hole. We were following the track when I saw movement in the the bamboo clumps on the right.

“Tree Shrew. Stop!” I called. Our driver stopped almost instantaneously. I got a sighting of two Indian Tree Shrews playing and squeaking. Their movements were swift. And there were those few seconds when they got intimately close to each other. I wondered if they were of the opposite genders and if this was some form of courtship. They frolicked with alacrity, and with alacrity they disappeared too. We waited for them to reappear, but they did not.

As we stopped for the tree shrews, the male among the two tigers we were tracking had crossed a few hundred meters ahead in the full few of a dozen and a half jeep and as we reached and settled for the third row of jeeps, the female tiger crossed the wide dirt track. We waited a lot longer for the tigers to show up again, but they did not. As we returned, it was the tree shrew our guide and safari jeep driver were talking about.

Indian Tree Shrew Pair
When two is company –  a bonus sighting where we saw the pair frolicking

We had fine sightings of the Indian Tree Shrew at Tadoba. And now, when I read the name of the Indian Tree Shrew, I see that vision of the two furry little creatures in the forest of Tadoba. At Tadoba, where the tiger rules, it was the tree shrew that stole the show that day.


Editor’s note: Although Tree Shrews may closely resemble palm squirrels in the field, they are not rodents. Neither are they insectivores, although they were once placed along with terrestrial shrews in the order Insectivora. The Indian Tree Shrew, also known as the Madras Tree Shrew, is classified under the order Scandentia, which includes some 20 species in four genera distributed in Southeast Asia. The order Scandentia is one of four orders of mammals grouped by some taxonomists under a super-order Euarchonta, which also includes colugos, primates and the extinct Plesiadapiformes.  

Text and photographs: Andy

Posted from Moharli, Maharashtra, India.

Dogwood Day Afternoon – A walk in the flowering woods

Flowering Dogwood

Come spring, the first thing you would notice in every pocket of woods in Raleigh, NC are dazzling white flowers that make an appearance all of a sudden. There would be small shrubs to medium sized trees, with all their branches dressed in white, and they are a sight demanding attention. These are Cornus florida or the Flowering Dogwood.

The Flowering Dogwood, also known as White Dogwood, is one of thirty to sixty species of hardwood trees distributed in the the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern Hemisphere. North America is particularly abundant in Cornus species, many of which are planted as ornamental trees. The Flowering Dogwood happens to be the state flower of North Carolina.

The white ‘flowers’ are in fact bracts. The true flowers are clustered in the centre and they have tiny petals. The ethereal beauty of the Flowering Dogwood has inspired legions of nature photographer, not least the celebrated Ansel Adams, whose monochrome portraits of dogwood flowers in bloom appear like stars against a dark sky.

I missed photographing the blooming of the dogwoods in the last couple of years, due to weekends spent working, but this time I managed to spend an afternoon when they were in bloom. I was probably a week late, because the leaves too had started appearing.

Here’s a compilation from that little stroll.

Backlit in all glory
Backlit in all glory
The Riot!
The Riot!
Standing Proud
Standing Proud
Sun-kissed
Sun-kissed
A dogwood flower portrait
A dogwood flower portrait
Yellow fever!
Yellow fever!
The Angel’s Crown
Pure at heart
Pure at heart

Next year I promise better reaction to the spring, when I will bring to you the dogwoods in all their leaf-nude glory!


Text and photos by Sandeep Somasekharan

From The Green Ogre series on Flowering Trees, also read:

The Darling Buds of May

Rhododendron, sentinel of the highlands

The Cannonball Tree – An explosion of beauty


 

Posted from Raleigh, North Carolina, United States.

Tadoba Diaries – At Telia, the tiger’s yawn gave it away

The tiger yawned at Telia

“A tiger sees you a thousand times for every time you see the tiger,” goes a jungle saying. Those who have wandered in the jungles of India seeking a glimpse of the tiger know that however excited we may be about the efforts we put in to seek an audience with the king of the forest, the tigers treat our visits with nonchalance. Why else would they yawn so much when they see us? A tiger sighting doesn’t come easy, and not even statistics and probability theory can guarantee a tiger sighting. But at Telia, our luck took a different turn.

We visited Bhadra Tiger Reserve early this year, excited about our chance of sighting a big cat since the days prior to our visits had seen a spike in sightings by the safari goers. We did four safaris and on the last safari we did not even see the ubiquitous resident of tiger reserves – the Spotted Deer (Axis axis).

As we were trying to hide our disappointment, a friendly gentleman who was our companion on some of the safaris in Bhadra declared, “I am going to Tadoba in April.” I wondered aloud what makes it more likely to spot a tiger at Tadoba, when we hadn’t seen one in our eight safaris in a span of two years. His response was so persuasive that in twenty four hours I had my Nagpur itinerary ready.

We picked the Ugadi week for our visit to Tadoba. We landed in Nagpur on Gudi Padwa, which happens to be the Marathi New Year. As we proceeded by road from Nagpur to Tadoba, we could see the trees that had shed their leaves in fall were yet to gain them back, but the roadsides were painted a flaming orange by the Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) that had started to bloom. The cotton plantations wore a denuded look with spots of while still clinging to the deep brown remnants of the harvested crop. The medians on the highway had a wash of white with the downy cotton fibers blown away by the winds. A question to our chauffeur about orange plantations got him to show us a small orange farm by the road. He mentioned the orange season was over; however, there was a sweet variety that might still be available.

We moved into the Vidharba hinterland when we turned off the highway before Warora. The arid environs belied the presence of the nutrient-rich black soil for which this region is renowned. We passed hamlets, cotton farms and occasional paddy farms. The dust picked up, propelled by the noon convection currents. It was getting hot.  The few pools of water gave respite to the buffaloes from the heat. The vision of a tiger coming down to a waterhole seemed more probable as the parched surrounding begged for a rain drop. I looked up the azure sky which had no intention of heeding the plea.

We crossed the village of Sitarampet in the buffer zone of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve and reached our destination by the Irai lake. In the evening the lake and its banks played host to Asian Pied Starlings (Gracupica contra), Purple Swamp Hen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans), Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), Brahminy Starlings (Sturnia pagodarum), Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava), Red-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) and Rosy Starlings (Pastor roseus). Damselflies took up their last drinks of the day as the sun went down over the Irai. Frogs and crickets started their performances of contralto and soprano.

“Out of Stork” and Openbill returns to roost
“The Last Sipper” for this Damselfly

We were ushered into our dwelling by three chaperones by 6:15 PM. Our guides later revealed that the reason we had half a squad accompanying us for our evening walk with a cinderella clock was due to the presence of a tiger that had been spotted lurking in the buffer zone.

Encounter at Telia Lake

Telia Lake in the Moharli Range of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger reserve is home to the resident female tigress Sonam. Sonam, along with her sisters from the same litter – Mona, Geeta and Lara – had been featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “Tiger Sisters of Telia”. We were told that Sonam was sired by the erstwhile dominant male of the range, Waghdoh, who has been banished from his turf by the new dominant male Bajrang. Madhuri, the mother, has has been sent away from the Telia lake area by Sonam. As Sonam was used to safari jeeps with human visitors, a sighting was considered very likely, so our safari started from the Telia lake. Our jeep was among the first eight to get into the tourist zone of the core area and we rushed to Telia Lake.

We were told the lake got its name from the emulsion-like taste of the water. Interestingly the fauna seemed to relish this taste as we saw, Spotted Deer, Sambar (Cervus unicolor), Oriental Honey buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Asian Openbill, Darters (Anhinga melanogaster), Indian Cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis), Lesser Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna javanica), Cattle Egrets, Intermediate Egrets (Ardea intermedia), Indian Rollers (Coracias benghalensis), Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus), White-bellied Drongo (Dicrurus caerulescens), Black Naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Sirkeer Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus leschenaultii), Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) and Black Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa), thriving here during our many safaris.

We were shown the area in the grass near an Apta (Bauhinia racemosa) tree where Sonam would be found sunning herself late mornings and early afternoons. We moved on, for our guide felt the signs did not indicate the presence of a predator. We returned late morning to Telia as we had heard of a sighting of Sonam, which happened fifteen minutes after we had departed and the jeeps that got in late were treated to that sighting.

Sambar at Telia
I noticed the Sambars at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve were rather comfortable in human presence
Tiger pug marks at Telia
Several tell tale signs that kept us engaged during the hours of wait
Tiger scat at Telia
Scat corroborating Tiger activity

We found pug marks, we heard spotted deer calls and sambar calls, yet we found no tigers in Telia on our second and third safaris as well. We also saw an unidentified herp more than a meter long and very swift in climbing up a well-foliaged tree. On our fourth safari, our guide was determined to show us Sonam at Telia, so we waited excruciatingly long, hearing occasional alarm calls on the other side of the lake. The calls got close. We were told that the tiger was headed in our direction. And then the calls stopped. We waited longer as we trusted the experience of our guide and our safari jeep driver.

A Green Bee Eater (Merops orientalis) came and sat on a bush at eye level. These birds always provide wonderful portraits. I started to get pictures. Meanwhile our guide started to humour us with trivia and riddles about the forest. Our driver asked for the binoculars and in a nonchalant tone, mentioned that the tiger was right where we had been looking for him to make an appearance fifteen minutes before.

Oriental Honey Buzzard at Telia
Oriental Honey Buzzards were a common sight at the Telia lake, often coming down to the bank to sip water
Spotted deer stag at Telia
A Spotted Deer stag, wary of our presence makes the most of the Tiger’s absence at Telia

This almost seemed like a prank. But I knew our driver took his work too seriously to play with our emotions after we had waited patiently for forty-five minutes. He gave directions on where to look for the tiger in the grass, but with fading light it was an uphill task. Suddenly, the tiger yawned. The stripes that had so clearly blended with the grassland were not betrayed by the large canines and incisors that evoked awe. We were separated by less than two hundred meters from a tiger who had been watching us for the last fifteen minutes at least. This was a shy tiger who did not emerge from the grasslands and we were told that it was unlikely to be Sonam, and perhaps was one of her cubs. It didn’t matter because the experience was so overwhelming, for we experienced the tiger’s renowned stealth from close quarters. And while our foray to Tadoba yielded rich tiger sightings, this experience will always be close to my heart. The sun started to dip and we returned, yet that sighting of just the ear spots of the king of camouflage behind the dry standing grass continued to evoke goose bumps.

Tiger at Telia
Spot the tiger – There is a tiger in this photo and it is right at the center
Tiger yawns at Telia
The yawn that gave it away

Photographs and Text : Andy

Posted from Moharli, Maharashtra, India.

Manchanabele – Birding in Bangalore’s extended backyard

Manchanabele

Weeks before this impatient Indian summer took hold of Bangalore and desiccated it, I camped overnight at Manchanabele as part of an office offsite. In between the adventure activities and kayaking and team-building bonfires, I sneaked in two sessions of birding. The first, in the evening, was not the most eventful but it gave me opportunity to see some familiar birds up close. The next morning’s walk was more productive.

Manchanabele landscape
The backwaters of Manchanabele Dam

The Manchanabele Dam, built over the nearly extinct Arkavathy River, is about 45 km from Bangalore, located in Magadi taluk. Though the backwaters of the dam are popular with bikers and adventure-seekers, there are prohibitory orders on swimming here. The reservoir has the disturbing reputation of claiming the lives of several errant swimmers in the last few years. Adventure resorts, however, offer carefully monitored activities such as kayaking and swimming (life jackets are mandatory).

Red-vented Bulbul at Manchanabele
A Red-vented BUlbul strikes a pose

The approach trail to one of the camps, from the village of Dabbaguli, is through a beautiful patch of rocky scrubland. There are plenty of common birds and a few unexpected ones, too.

A small rocky hillock shielded the adventure camp from civilization. The trees and shrubbery formed enough of a little jungle to conceal lots of little mysteries. On the evening that I walked there, I felt I was being watched. And every time I turned my head, I heard a little going-away rustle. I never saw the watcher.

Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A Purple Sunbird on a Calotropisgigantea
Manchanabele
What a jewel of a bird!
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A fine view of the world while getting drunk on the elixir of life
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A female Purple Sunbird feeding on flower nectar
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
These fledged Purple sunbird chicks were still being fussed over by their parents

A Purple Sunbird, sipping nectar from a flowering cluster of Calotropis gigantea and watched over by its barely fledged brood of chicks, stole the show. As did the male Indian Robins, which patrolled the scrub, displaying with all the aplomb of peacocks to dowdy, scornful females.

Indian Robin male displaying
Indian Robin male displaying

In the morning, sober despite the night’s tippling, I rose early and made for the trail early to try my luck. The Indian Robins were up early, displaying again to the same unappreciative crowd. Hoopoes ducked out of view, bearing nesting material in their curved bills.

Hoopoe at Manchanabele
A Hoopoe at perch

I walked again to the tree where I had heard the rustle. Bathed in light, it seemed to levitate. Its branches quivered with squirrels at play. Under the tree, I spied a movement and froze. After a few seconds where time seemed to stand excruciatingly still, two shapes revealed themselves at the base of the tree. A pair of Painted Spurfowl. It was my first sighting of this beautiful ground bird since 2005, when I had seen it at the top of Thurahalli. In weeks to come, I checklisted the bird on two other trips. The pair grazed calmly and moved slowly back into the forest just as an Indian Grey Mongoose came by to investigate, making a familiar rustling and solving the mystery of the previous evening.

Painted Spurfowl at Mancchanabele
A distant view of a pair of well-camouflaged Painted Spurfowl

Together, I listed some 50-odd species. But more than the species count, modest by most estimates, birding here offered a glimpse of the biodiversity that so easily had been what the city and its once sylvan environs offered in the late 1980s. I remember my first winter birding trip in Bannerghatta in 1989 with what was then the Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore. Among the catches of that morning were a bushelful of lifers — Verditer Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo, Puff-throated Babbler and more. Walking amid the scrublands between Dabbaguli and the Manchanabele backwaters, I felt a little of that old rush of excitement. And I felt a pang for all that Bangalore had lost.

Posted from Manchanabele, Karnataka, India.

Birding at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge – A Photographer’s Diary

Great black-backed gull

Winter was upon us. After a year of being cooped up indoors (and doing a spot of doorstep birding without complaint), I made a trip to the Outerbanks, North Carolina. The Outerbanks has multiple wetlands that shelter migratory birds during winter and spring. A couple of trips to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge gave me some quality sightings, including a number of lifers.

Great black-backed gull at Pea Island
Great black-backed gull

The Outerbanks is an interesting geographical landform. It is a tiny finger of land that runs parallel to the mainland. There is the bay on the inside and the Atlantic Ocean on the outside. Plenty of wetlands scattered around form birding hotspots, one of which is Pea Island NWR — a huge lake that teems with migrants in winter.

Most of the birds that we had seen were ducks, pelicans and gulls, but there was also an abundance of Common Coots and Tundra Swans and even a Northern Harrier. The skies were azure and the sun shone crisply. And though there was a bite in the winter air, we spent hours in the outdoors.

A Bufflehead male (Bucephala Albeola) in breeding plumage screams for attention.
Pied billed grebe
An immature Pied Billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) gives us the Bambi eyes.
A flock of snow geese
A flock of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)
Hooded merganser, female
A female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
Master of camouflage, American Bittern
A master of camouflage, this American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)
Northern Shoveller, male
A male Northern Shoveller (Anas clypeata) 
Northern Pintail takes flight
A Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) takes flight
Tundra swan
A Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) is a picture of serenity and grace.
American Coot
An American Coot (Fulica americana) contemplating whether the water is warm enough for a swim.
American White Pelican
An American White Pelican(Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)  takes a leisurely morning swim

I have better plans for next winter, to go to Pea Island NWR on time to catch the passage migrants. Until then, enjoy this post and watch this space!


Read more posts from North America:

Whiteout: Winter Storm Thor shows his artistic side

Americana – a birding diary from the United States

Encounter – Anna’s Hummingbird

Slumbering Giants – Northern Elephant Seals of Point Reyes

Encounter: The Bald Eagle, America’s most majestic raptor

 

Posted from Nags Head, North Carolina, United States.

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