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.

Let the sleeping tiger lie – on meeting the big cat on foot

Tiger looking at camera

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.

Grey-Headed Fish Eagle

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!

The sleeping tiger lay about 20-25 feet from us
The tiger lay about 20-25 feet from us, napping among the rocks

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.

The sleeping tiger on the river bed
The sleepy 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.

The sleeping tiger woke up and looked surprised (Photo copyright: Ananth Raj)
The surprised Tiger (Photo copyright: Ananth Raj)

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.

Gaur Carcass

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!


Text & Photos – Arun Menon

Lead image: Ananth Raj

Posted from Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.

Flowering Gliricidia is a feast for the Tufted Gray Langur

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.

Tufted Gray Langur in Horsley HIlls
A Tufted Gray Langur in Horsley HIlls
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.

Gliricidia in flower at Horsley Hills

Gliricidia in flower at Horsley Hills

Gliricidia in flower at Horsley Hills

Gliricidia sepium
Gliricidia sepium in riotous bloom at Horsley Hills
Flowering Gliricidia in Horsley Hills
Flowering Gliricidia in Horsley Hills
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.

Tufted Gray Langur feeding on Gliricidia flowers at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur feeding on Gliricidia flowers at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur feeding on Gliricidia flowers at Horsley Hills

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.

Tufted Gray Langur at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur at Horsley Hills

Tufted Gray Langur at Horsley Hills

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

Posted from Andhra Pradesh, India.

Winter birding at the doorstep

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).

Find your own puddle!
Find your own puddle!
Eastern Bluebird contemplating the day's agenda.
Eastern Bluebird contemplating the day’s agenda.

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.

Outta here!
Outta here!

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 mouthful for the day
A mouthful for the day

A few Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) too decided to forage nearby, and they looked gorgeous with the tiny blue rim around their black eyes.

Mourning sunshine
Mourning sunshine

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.

Lord of the snow
Lord of the snow

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.

Posted from Raleigh, North Carolina, United States.

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