What happens you wake up a sleeping tiger? We found out a few months ago when we were in one of South India’s protected areas.
We were there to be a part of a camera trapping exercise. As we walked through the shrub forest in the hot, late morning sun, we found plenty of tiger activity (scrapes, scat etc.). After walking for about 30 minutes we reached the site of the traps and proceeded to download the photos and change the batteries as required.
Once this was done, we rested for a while near the stream. When the time came to start our way back, I opined that we should take the longer route hugging the stream as there would be sufficient tree cover to protect us from the harsh afternoon heat. Since everybody was in agreement we proceeded at a rather slow pace, trying as much as possible not to crush dry leaves that carpeted the forest floor. Our friend Shanmugam, along with an NGO member, walked ahead while Ananth, Karthik and I, along with the second NGO member, brought up the rear. However careful we were, we still managed to scare off a fish eagle that was perched on a low branch. We had no clue of its presence until it swooshed out of the tree into the open sky over the stream. The same happened with a Brown Fish owl, a monitor lizard and a snake — all of which spotted us first and made good their escape.
Frustrated at being spotted first and not being able to get a good look or photograph, we kept moving ahead. Suddenly one of the two members of the NGO, who was walking along with the three of us, told us to stop urgently in a very low tone. As I almost bumped into him, he whispered, “Tiger! Tiger!”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I scanned the opposite bank of the stream for the cat. I saw the two people ahead of us take cover behind a forked tree and peep ahead. When I couldn’t find the striped form anywhere on the opposite bank, I asked him where the tiger was, to which he replied “Here, on this side!” I froze as his words entered my ears and made sense. Lying on a rock about 20-25 feet straight ahead of me, on our side of the stream, was a large striped body!
I felt a cold tingle run down my spine from the neck all the way to the feet. For a second I couldn’t move and then, to make sure I wouldn’t make a sound, I slipped my feet out of my sandals and placed them carefully on the sandy soil of the bank. Luckily for us, the sleeping tiger was lying horizontal to us, its head facing the other way. However, if it turned its head, we would be in full view as we did not have any cover unlike the two people hiding behind the forked tree. We had nothing to do but stay petrified and keep our eyes on the tiger.
After a full minute or two, I decided to move slowly, barefoot, over to the root of a tree and crouch down. From here I had a clear view of the sleeping tiger as I raised my camera to take a couple of shots. Looking through the viewfinder I was about to take my second shot when the tiger lifted its head. The only reason I didn’t wet my pants was because I was already dehydrated from the walk in the hot sun. Luckily, the dazed tiger went back to sleep again. Now that I realized that the tiger was indeed very sleepy, my stupid trophy-crazy self took control. I got up and started slowly and stealthily making my way towards the forked tree from where I could take a better shot. During this time, Karthik took my spot on the root and was taking a couple of shots when the tiger suddenly whipped its ahead around to find us. As Karthik froze, the tiger’s expression changed from sleepy to one of surprise or shock. Time stood still as everybody braced for the uncertain next second. Luckily for us, the next second saw the tiger leap off the rock and bound over the embankment into the shrub forest.
After a few speechless moments trying to digest the last few minutes and with wide grins on our faces, we started talking about what had just happened. As we were talking we heard an alarm call by a deer quite a distance away – the spooked tiger seemed to be moving further away towards a hillock. We then moved to inspect the spot where the sleeping tiger had lain. We found the pug marks that it had made in the soft mud as it bounded away. Moving ahead and within 20-30 feet of where the tiger was sleeping, we found the fetid carcass of a partially eaten gaur. The tiger had feasted on its kill earlier and was resting under the trees when we chanced upon it.
On our way back, we began debating whether the sleeping tiger had heard one of us move or not. I am of the opinion that the tiger smelled us as we were upwind to it. Whatever be the case, those few minutes from when we spotted the sleeping tiger to us being spotted by it, were some of the most exhilarating moments of my life!
Ahead on the sunlight-dappled road, an obstruction stirs on the macadam. Framed in a peachy-pink canopy of trees in riotous bloom, it’s a large monkey, its sickle-curved tail held aloft like a pennant. The animal crouches, then turns its coal-black face towards me as I slow down the car. It does not budge at the vehicle’s approach. Not one bit. It’s a female Tufted Gray Langur, cradling in her arms a younger version of herself. She is sitting on a veritable carpet of fallen Gliricidia flowers.
In Horsley Hills, the brief subcontinental springtime is in its final throes. At nearly seven in the morning, the sun is strong and angular, pouring molten gold on the treetops. The dusty auburn of the deciduous scrub jungle takes on myriad subtle tones. The Yellow-throated Bulbul, a muse for the seeking birder, make a fleeting appearance too short to engender a photographic keepsake. Winter warblers are still afoot and I spy the scaly breast of a female Blue-capped Rock Thrush just a few feet from the car window. Avian distractions are plentiful, and not very safe for a driver on a hairpin bend, so I drive downhill and park beyond a curve, entranced by the hypnotic beauty of these flowering trees.
The sunlight on the treetops burnishes a blush on the tinder-dry landscape. The trees are nearly bare of leaves. Then, the canopy shudders, sending down a rain of flowers. On the macadam, the Tufted Gray Langur nursing her young looks skyward. Up there is her troop, some thirty-strong, feeding. Some of them, like sentries, are staring me down with liquid brown eyes gleaming on the darker field of their faces, their puckered lips a-twitch with trepidation. I peer at them with my binoculars, wondering if they prefer the unripe green pods that are dangling alongside the clusters of closely packed flowers. But it’s not the fruit that draws these monkeys to this neck of the woods. It’s the flowers. Like proverbial lotus-eaters, the Tufted Gray Langurs sit on the boughs, nibbling delicately at the stalks of pink flowers. They seem to be in rapture.
Gliricidia sepium, known as Quickstick and Mother of Cocoa, is native to the Pacific Coast of Central America. Introduced to India as a garden ornamental, it has propagated quickly. The woods of Horsley Hills retain very little of their original vegetation. A look at the unadorned surrounding hillscapes suggest what the topography might have been like had William D Horsley, collector of Kadapa in the 1840s, not “discovered” this hill station for the British administration. Later regimes engendered a spate of social forestry that populated the rocky scrub landscapes with eucalyptus, conifers and a variety of introduced ornamentals that have since proliferated. Gliricidia, too, may have been a garden escapee now well entrenched in these parts.
I am greeted by whoops and whistles of mild alarm as I park and step out of the car. I am being watched by thirty-odd pairs of eyes, big and small. A few minutes later, the langurs decide that I am reasonably unthreatening. They relax. Some of the bolder ones limber down from the trees and fan out over the macadam as they cross the road to the other side, where more Gliricidia await ravenous deflowering.
A motorcyclist approaches. Unperturbed, the monkeys step aside to let him pass.
The Tufted Gray Langur (Semnopithecus priam), formerly treated as a subspecies of the Hanuman Langur, has been called out as a distinct species by taxonomists as a consequence of DNA studies. A tip for field identification: The fur on the head is peaked into a tuft or crest, not very unlike the look Aamir Khan set off in Dil Chahta Hai — it’s easy to see that inspiration came from our own simian forebears.
There are two recognised subspecies of the Tufted Gray Langur — Semnopithecus priam priam, which occurs in the southern Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, and Semnopithecus priam thersites, which occurs in the dry deciduous forests of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The continuing loss of habitat in Andhra Pradesh has pushed the species into decline, necessitating their classification as Near Threatened by the IUCN.
Devouring the flowers with relish, the monkeys leap nimbly in the treetops, amid much shaking and scattering of the pink petals. The road is now stippled with pink — a welcoming carpet for some dignitary. Since there are few other humans active around here at this time, I can only surmise that the welcome is in my honour.
Many thanks to Karthikeyan Srinivasan for identification of the tree as Gliricidia. His magnificent blog is a fantastic resource for those keen to learn about flowering trees
Winter storm Helena was supposed to hit us harder. Six inches of snow, failed power, and freezing pipes. But a couple of inches of snow and a sunny morning were what finally descended on Raleigh, NC.
The storm came and went, and the dull morning made way for a bright and sunny afternoon. The birds began to come out, and I could hear a lot of activity from the feeder put up by the folks living on the floor above our apartment. Soon, the scurrying up there caused a lot of feed to be spilled onto the floor, and before long my backyard was filled with birds. Probably because all food elsewhere had been covered by the falling snow.
There was some water, still not frozen, puddled over the lid of a drain. Birds were landing over that as well to lap up whatever precious little of it they could. A brief battle for water occurred between a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).
The next visitor at the lid was a female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), who had her fill and took off before anyone else came down to stake their claim.
A handsome Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) joined the fray, picking out a few morsels that were lying unclaimed. He (or she – sexes are similarly plumed) acquiesced for a mugshot (as I lay outside my backdoor flat on the floor, firing away) and took off shortly.
A few Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) too decided to forage nearby, and they looked gorgeous with the tiny blue rim around their black eyes.
There were a few Dark Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) around as well, overwhelming the others by sheer numbers. Their tiny pink beaks dug deep into the snow, un’snow’ing tiny morsels of grain that had been covered by snow falling from the rooftops like a fine spray when the wind blew.
In a couple of days, the winter snow cleared and the temperatures rose. But I never could find another day that brought a similar congregation of birds of all feathers in my backyard, which confirms my theory that the lack of food elsewhere drove them to the crumbs dropping from my neighbor’s balcony.
At Cheer Point, beyond Vinayak, we waited for Cheer Pheasants to show up. I saw physics in motion as the clouds pushed against the jagged rock faces and then rose up in a rush. Neither seemed willing to relent its stance. And the result? Curtains drawn over a magnificent performance that played out at the same stage earlier in Pangot.
Visibility had reduced to around 25 meters and the calls of the Upland Pipit and Rufous Sibia were now muted. Rhesus Macaques and Gorals were certainly around but my primary sense organ was of limited use under this cloak of grey that transported us, mentally, to the Scottish highlands. Oak and rhododendron decked the grassy rock-face. What had initially appeared like raisins and almond shavings on some Indian dessert had now transformed into eerie silhouettes from the sets of Sleepy Hollow. The bushes that hosted the Ultramarine Flycatcher, White-tailed Nuthatch and Whiskered Yuhina were now invisible. In the sea of grey I put my camera down and pulled out a sandwich from my lunch box. I ruminated. And it dawned on me that this is how Pangot retains its secret as a hidden jewel of the Kumaon.
Pangot was never our first choice for this vacation. It was Corbett National Park. It was due to a logistical advantage that Pangot pulled off a coup and landed us up in the mountains while we should have been in the plains. We traded sal and bamboo for oaks, rhododendron, deodar and ringal (dwarf bamboo). We traded the hot weather of the plains for the cantankerous mountain chill and reached Pangot in the midst of a hailstorm.
It rained heavily for more than half an hour before letting up. The drumming of raindrops on the roof now made way for the calls of the Red-billed Blue Magpie, Great Barbet, Rufous Sibia, Black Headed Jays and the chattering of the Rhesus Macaque. A Long-tailed Broadbill played a cameo outside our accommodation and an anxious solitary Yellow-throated Marten melted away into the shrubbery sensing my approach. Streaked Laughingthrushes were omnipresent. The evening sun shone bright and traces of sunlight remained well past 8 pm.
The next day dawned and on the itinerary was a long day of birding. A Great Barbet showed up early for a ficus feast and as we drove towards Vinayak a Kaleej Pheasant hen darted across the macadam. A foreboding, perhaps, of pleasant pheasant sightings. The flowering Rhododendrons attracted Eurasian Jays and Grey Winged Blackbirds. We saw two varieties of rhododendron in this part of Uttarakhand — with red and pink flowers respectively. Locally, it is known as Buransh. The Rhododendron is the state flower of Uttarakhand.
On the way we chanced upon a Himalayan Grey Langur perched upon a small temple spire crowned with a trident. They were shier than the Tufted Grey Langurs of the south and were sensitive to human presence. Never during the sojourn did a Grey Langur sighting last longer than a minute.
We crossed the subalpine forests and reached a rocky face of hills predominated by grasslands — this was our best chance at sighting Cheer and Koklass pheasants, I was told. A goral welcomed us from atop the hills and, to our horror, we saw a troop of Rhesus Macaques spread across the grassland on the rocky incline, diminishing any chances of pheasant sightings. We learned that Rhesus Macaques caught by animal control agents in the plains are released in the mountains. As a result they wreak havoc on birdlife and the limited agriculture that exists in these mountains in the form of potato and peas farms. While we were out of luck with the pheasants, we got to feast on a White-tailed Nuthatch, Whiskered Yuhina, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Himalayan Woodpecker, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Hill Partridge and Chestnut-headed Laughingthrush as we moved forward.
We were back among the oak forests and moved into deodar forests where we spotted Maroon Orioles, White-browed Shrike Babblers, Ashy Drongo, Verditer Flycatchers, Grey-hooded Warblers. The pheasants were not on the list and one of the theories I heard was that the forest fires in Uttarakhand in April and May may have played a role in this, since pheasants were predominantly ground dwellers. Not that it mattered, since a southerner like me had already had a sumptuous sighting of unfamiliar species. Another interesting conversation during the trip was around rhododendrons. I learnt that rhododendrons are usually done blooming by April-May; however this year due to the weather pattern they were blooming as late as June in this region.
After nearly six hours of birding we wrapped up the morning session. After lunch the clouds gathered and the hailstorm returned with a sequel. We were advised to try a different landscape as a result of the rain and we trained our bearings towards secondary growth. We drove downhill from Pangot to villages with cultivation.
Cultivation brought us in the company of the Striated Prinia and Grey-breasted Prinia. A Speckled Piculet piqued our attention. However, the piculet remained elusive, giving us less than 30 seconds of a clear sighting. Verditer Flycatchers were more than eager to announce themselves. The meeting with them took me back four years ago to an evening in Neuli when the Ogres spent some time at a gazebo while trying to get a shot of the Verditer Flycatcher.
Among the notables that made it to my life list that day were Black-cheeked Babbler, Blue-fronted Barbet and Black-throated Tit. A silhouette of a Black Bulbul appeared atop a dry branch and quickly melted away against the backlit sky.
The next day started with bird calls soon to be drowned in the loud voices of weekend tourists streaming in. It felt this heaven was now not so difficult to transcend, given the rows of “hotels” that have opened up at Pangot. It got me thinking: Does transcending heaven necessarily mean that you feel in heaven? Playing loud music that runs on artificial power can in no way replace the undulating notes of the serenades from avian vocal chords.
The calls of the Maroon Oriole, Great Barbet and Red-billed Blue Magpie brought me back to the experience of heaven, albeit with occasional high decibel human voices reminding me that heaven falls on the tourist circuit.
Afternoon brought an interesting sight — a Red-billed Blue Magpie had caught a large moth in its beak. Since the wings of the moth were large and the moth was trying to break free the magpie, perched on a branch, pulled out the wings one by one, until only the abdomen moth remained, which the magpie consumed. Had the moth’s wings remained intact for a few seconds longer, it might have broken free; however, the magpie displayed intelligence in disarming and disabling its quarry.
The quest for the Spotted Forktail took us on a six-kilometer walk in the evening. The canopy of tall trees in the valley appeared dwarfish, while diminutive leeches presented a gargantuan problem. Clouds started to roll in and we rushed back in the drizzle that was picking up. It rained heavily in the night.
The next morning towing behind the guide I headed back towards Kilbury for one more shot at the forktail. A Yellow Throated Marten couple made provided several minutes of sighting. Though it was a pitiful sight to see them biting into a plastic cover they had picked up from a nearby garbage dump.
The previous night’s rain had drenched a Black Eagle’s coat, which brought the eagle out on an open perch, drying it plumes. The stream of the previous evening had swollen and the trickle of the previous evening had turned into a waterfall. An adult Brown Wood Owl and a juvenile made it as last minute entrants into the checklist of denizens of heaven.
Pangot had cut us off from the world. Pockets of network connectivity and no television or newspapers made this trip a detox regale. It was in a way meditation. A sattvic visual diet. A cleansing of mind with cool water. It unwound knots of stress in the body. It was living in the present. It was mindfulness. It was (hiatus, deep breath) heaven!
A checklist of birds observed at Pangot (in no specific order)
Blue Throated Barbet (Megalaima asiaticus)
Brown Fronted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes auriceps)
Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus)
Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos)
Black Chinned Babbler (Stachyridopsis pyrrhops)
Greater Yellownape (Chrysophlegma flavinucha)
Grey Breasted Prinia (Prinia hodgsonii)
Striated Prinia (Prinia crinigera)
Blue Capped Rock Thrush (Monticola cinclorhynchus)
Chestnut Headed Bee Eater (Merops leschenaulti)
Black Throated Tit (Aegithalos concinnus)
Oriental White Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus)
Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus)
Red Vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer)
Himalayan Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus)
Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus)
Veriditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus)
Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferreus)
Red Rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica)
Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae)
Red Billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha)
Russet Sparrow (Passer rutilans)
Slaty Headed Parakeet (Psittacula himalayana)
Plum Headed Parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala)
Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus)
Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus)
Striated Laughingthrush (Garrulax striatus)
White Throated Laughingthrush (Garrulax alboguralis)
Rufous Sibia (Heterophasia capistrata)
Black Headed Jay (Garrulus lanceolatus)
Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis)
Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)
Large Billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
Rufous Woodpecker (Micropternus brachyurus)
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)
Wedge-Tailed Green Pigeon (Treron sphenura)
Grey Winged Blackbird (Turdus boulboul)
Himalayan Woodpecker (Dendrocopos himalayensis)
Ultramarine Flycatcher (Ficedula superciliaris)
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
White Tailed Nuthatch (Sitta himalayensis)
Whiskered Youhina (Yuhina flavicollis)
Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola)
Chestnut Bellied Rock Thrush (Monticola rufiventris)
White Browed Shrike Babbler (Pteruthis flaviscapis)
There stood a large neem tree (Azadirachta indica) in front of a house I would pass on the way back from school. As I hopped and skipped and ambled home from school one evening, I saw something that arrested me. I grabbed the hand of my cousin sister who was tasked with accompanying me home in the evenings from school, asking ” Chechi, there is a red-eyed crow over there, on that tree! Why is its eye red?” She laughed and replied, “That is a koel.”
It was a revelation for me. I had only heard a koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) till that point. I never again spotted that bird amidst the thick leaves of that tree, but every evening I would pause in front of that tree to see if it was still there. One day, on my way back from school, I stood stunned as the tree was no longer there. There was an elderly lady sitting on the verandah, reading a magazine.
Chechi observed aloud, “Ah, you have removed the neem tree!”
The old lady replied, ” It was pretty dark inside the house because of the tree. So we did!”
I was disappointed and asked Chechi, “What happens to the koel?”
She replied, “The koel would find another tree!”
Years later, when I bought a small piece of land and built a house there, the first thing I did was to plant some trees. Three mango trees and two coconut trees stand on one side, and I planted a neem tree, a singapore cherry tree and a plant with tubular flowers for the sunbirds in the front yard. The neem didn’t do well, but the other two took over the front yard. The shade they gave made ensured that in the hottest of summers, we could sit in the hall and the verandah without being troubled by the heat. But as the trees spread out, my neighbour started getting restless. He never planted anything on his front lawn, kept it bare and neatly concreted and was finding it difficult that the leaves from my trees were falling into his yard. I resisted his complaints, but when I had to move to the US, he managed to call up and pester my parents (who are in charge of the house) so much that they agreed to remove the Singapore cherry and the flowering plant.
That is us. Trees are an inconvenience. Leaves falling, light being blocked, snakes showing up, tree roots destabilizing the walls, the need to widen the approach road – we have so many excuses to cut down our trees, and none for planting one. Let’s just keep cutting them down and sit cozily in our air-conditioned rooms, complaining about the heat outside. I once read this quote somewhere: “People would have planted more trees if they gave Wi-fi internet. Sadly, they just give us useless oxygen!”
Let’s remove all trees and let’s get our next generation walk around with synthesized oxygen in bottles everywhere, but be able to access free wi-fi everywhere they go. Let no kid of the next generation see a red eyed crow in a tree and be amazed.