A beautiful chocolate bird with delicious vanilla streaks, the nightjar has turned out to be the ultimate rebel. Ever since his creation/evolution (depending on whatever side of the fence you are perched on), the nightjar has had a fervent ambition to transform into a crackling, sun-tanned, sauve, independent LEAF.
Ever so often, he descends to the ground and sits perfectly camouflaged among rocks, dried twigs & leaves covering the ground. An atrociously lazy bird, the nightjar won't move until a muddled researcher stands precariously balanced with one giant foot over his teeny bird-body. Then, Mr. Nightjar takes umbrage, and flies off muttering indignant chweets about lumbering bozos disturbing his afternoon siesta.
<Dated October 2014, Practising small mammal trapping next to the NCBS campus, Bangalore>
Today is one of those days where I lose all ability to write! I can’t bear to be dull and boring, so I won’t subject unsuspecting readers (read I, me and myself) to long accounts of birds they could easily find online. Here’s me cheating and using technology instead.
Little Egrets have a varied diet- fish, crustaceans, spiders, frogs, insects, molluscs and reptiles. In addition to the Little Egret, 3 more predominantly white colored Egrets are found in Mumbai: Cattle egret (most common), Intermediate egret and Great egret. Egrets breed in the monsoon- Cattle egrets develop a golden-orange breeding plumage, Little egrets develop two long plumes on the back of their heads.
Here's a video of the Little Egret disturbing potential prey with its feet and gobbling up its breakfast.
Education systems are infamously myopic and the oft-worn attention-seeker 'I was born a Genius; Education ruined me' t-shirts certainly do have a grain of truth to them. The reproductive cycle of a frog from egg to tadpole to its final metamorphosis into an adult is only ONE of the reproductive modes of the group. In fact, an amazing 40 reproductive modes have been identified globally (Wells 2007, Gururaja 2012). These include:
1. Gastric brooding frogs of Australia (considered extinct) in which the female would swallow fertilized eggs and vomit out completely formed froglets
2. Tree frogs that build foam nests over streams or ponds whereby the tadpoles can drop into the water and swim their way to adulthood
3. Bush frogs that lay eggs in bamboo cavities and tiny froglets emerge completely bypassing the tadpole stage
4. A viviparous African toad that gives birth to completely developed froglets by providing nutrition through yolk
5. Midwife toads in which the male carries a string of fertilized eggs on his back to protect them from predators
6. Almost 100 fertilized eggs sink into the back of female Surinam toads which later develops a cyst to protect the eggs as they develop into froglets. The froglets exit her body when she sheds the protective skin.
7. Dancing frogs of the Western Ghats in which the female digs a cavity and deposits her eggs in the stream bed
The Indian bullfrog, however, sticks to the textbook in the typical blinder-bound manner of a sniffling schoolboy and undergoes the complete cycle of metamorphosis. During the breeding season, the male frog attaches itself onto the back of a female. The female lays eggs that are covered by a protective gelatinous sheath whereupon the male releases his sperm fertilizing the eggs externally. The eggs later develop into tadpoles. The carnivorous tadpoles dwell close to the bottom of the water-body, stalking prey including other tadpoles. Juvenile frogs are mud-colored with a pattern of dark spots and stripes that easily camouflage them in muddy fields.
Now if only the Indian education system would take a leaf out of the bullfrog's book and metamorphose into a useful beast.
Today the much-awaited, frequently discussed, debated, scrutinized, cursed Indian monsoon finally arrived filling Mumbai office-goers with much consternation for this would be the day most left their umbrellas back home. Amidst the squelching sandals, honking autowallahs, screeching cars, cursing pedestrians, shrieking hawkers, laughing children, roaring waves, dripping roofs, creaking branches, amistd the general pandemonium that accompanies the pattering rain, there was one sound that was conspicuous by its absence. The silence of the frogs was deafening, though not nearly loud enough to penetrate the ill-informed, myopic, GDP-obsessed ignorasmuses of the human race.
The easiest frog to spot during the monsoon is the bright yellow, morbidly obese Indian Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus). Hoplo= Having powerful members/heavily armed, batrachus= Frog. Unfortunately, I could not figure out what powerful member frogs of this genus possess. The species name tigerinus probably derives from the carnivorous feeding habits of the tadpole. An adult Indian bullfrog is quite a Godzilla, feeding on worms, mice, young frogs, small birds and even juvenile snakes! Its loud 'cronk cronk cronk' calls herald the rainy season in western India, and the tiny intermittent marshes in Mumbai soon transform into fields of steroid-injected lemons with occasional flashes of brilliant blueberries against the peppermint green grass.
Incidentally, these 'Jumping Chickens' are widely harvested for frog legs, which are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. There goes a story about how frog legs were exported in huge numbers throughout the Konkan. The following year, pests wreaked havoc in paddy fields and the farmers had to incur substantial losses. Recognizing its potential as a natural pest controller, the Indian government has accorded the status of a Schedule I species to the Indian bullfrog. In simpler terms, offenders trading in frog meat face upto 3 years in imprisonment or a fine of Rs. 25,000 or both. In a rapidly expanding metropolis like Mumbai, the primary threat to these giants remains rampant habitat destruction. The increased usage of chemical pesticides in agriculture may also contribute to reduced populations in rural India.
P.S: Enjoy the orchestra at a Borneo pond that got voted the 'Most Beautiful Sound in the World'
Now, my first thought on witnessing this rather curious behavior was, 'Poor crow's turned cuckoo. Believes he's a squirrel hoarding nuts before winter.' Or worse, 'he believes he's an Indian minister, stashing his wealth under clandestine holes in the flooring away from the prying rhyncos of the the IT department.' Before the suspect shouts "Murder", let me clarify that those fears turned out to be unfounded. Members of the Corvidae and Paridae families (the latter contains birds such as chickadees and rather curiously named 'tits') are known to have multiple secret caches of food, a behavior termed as 'scatter-hoarding'. Contrary to popular belief, the birds do not steal and store shiny objects, barring a few juvenile delinquents and the occasional kleptomaniac in the murder (group of crows = murder). A couple of House Crows and a Greater Coucal cuckoo have since descended at the same spot, but neither bird could unearth the treasures lying under the rotting bamboo. The rain gods finally relented, though the sun wouldn’t- and the interplay of the sun, the moisture-laden clouds and the baked earth filled the city with the fragrance of a thousand secrets caressed close to its bosom.
P.S- Apologies for the lack of photographs. Check out illustrations here.
"It is good to have an end to journey toward;
But it is the journey that matters, in the end"
Trust the Arctic tern to take Hemingway literally. This spunky red-billed bird dons its black captain's cap and flies from pole-to-pole in a display of reckless valor and fantastic spirit producing one of the most extraordinary annual migrations on this planet. Flying an unbelievable 90,000km from their Arctic breeding grounds to Antartica and back again (Whew!), Arctic terns depend on nourishment from mostly marine invertebrates and insects that they hawk on the wing.
Barn Swallows are cosmopolitan birds and like the new-age Indian have either established societies or favorite holiday haunts across most of the world. They make solid cup-shaped nests of mud pellets that jut out from mundane walls of human construction. A non-breeding migrant population visits the subcontinent every winter, their chirping calls resonating across the agricultural landscape. A small population is resident in the Himalayas.
Pied Cuckoos are partial migrants (and no, they don’t change their minds halfway through the migration). Partial migration merely implies that some populations are resident, while others migrate, in this case, all the way from eastern Africa. The bird is immortalized in Indian mythology as 'Chaatak' and the tale of how it sits with its beak open waiting for the first rains features in most school-level Sanskrit textbooks.
The Rosy Pastor (Rosy Starling) is a winter visitor to India, its highly gregarious flocks often outnumbering resident myna species. They are wonderful pest control agents, and Chinese farmers breed them through artificial nests on farms to control destructive locust swarms.
Summer in Mumbai is akin to a ripe crate of mangoes- an assault on all senses that has the potential to drive even a seasoned sophisticated denizen to the brink of insanity. The sweltering heat and incessant honking aside, the city is filled with musical notes and anyone with a keen ear is welcome to the orchestra. The day starts with the crescendos of the Asian Koel, a nondescript black colored bird with a striking red eye that you cant miss. Complimenting the koel's song as 'melodious', 'sweet', 'beautiful' was probably the handiwork of a respectfully deaf poet, as anyone wanting to catch those five extra winks of beauty sleep will interject.
Noon belongs to the Coppersmith Barbet. It is a delightful bird of the royal family, replete with an emerald coat, bedecked with a ruby crown and a ruby-red necklace lined with gold along the throat and breast. The 'tuk tuk tuk' call of the barbet reverbates through the city like the clarion gong of an omnipresent temple. The sound resembles the strike of a hammer against metal sheets at a coppersmith's, which explains the rather humble choice of name for such a regal bird.
The drab-looking White-throated Fantail is in charge of evening entertainment. His is the numero uno performance of the day. With his pretty Japanese fan-shaped tail held erect, a twitch in his gait and a melodious song that would put the vain koel to shame, the fantail is an expert at winning over hearts of curious window-peepers. His own heart is made of steel and he doesn’t hesitate before mobbing and driving away even scrawny Large-billed crows.
The Eurasian Golden Oriole is another avianizen, who comes down to the city over winter break. The male is rather striking, with his deep mango body and jet black wings. He is accompanied by his greenish-yellow harem of 5-6 wives on these trips, who spend a greater part of their time chasing each other off their perches, as all females are wont to do.
The Pheasant-tailed Jacana is one of those enchanting hosts, with his black coat-tail trailing him as he walks gingerly over lotus-leaves. He can often be encountered on his evening walks in the dense reeds navigating the obnoxious invasive water hyacinths at Powai lake.
The Eurasian Oystercatcher is a bitter bird- once welcomed all over the city, he has now been pushed to the remote Datiware beach. Holding on to what's left of their pride, flocks of upto 40 birds (a rather rare site admittedly) can be seen on a good day feeding on the wader-rich shores.
When she opened her eyes
A pristine new world welcomed her
The heavens were an ominous gray
An insect graveyard surrounded her
Her weathered cracked body lay exposed on the rock
Each fault with a story of its own.
There blew a gentle wind
But she had lost her gown to the thrush,
And without the silky strands,
Neither recognized the other.
As if in response to lost love,
The heavens opened
Bestowing glittering jewels on the destitute soul
A scene frozen in time
A weathered browned seed on a weathered grey rock
Blades of new life springing up around them
On the earth, on the trees
A shimmering misty cloak suspended in the air.
The trickle of water soon turns into a stream
Bathing muddied stones and grasses
The seed princess lets herself be carried.
Over the rocks, through the long grasses,
Bidding gurgling farewells to fish
Singing throatily in the frog-chorus
Through silent pools and bustling riffles
Sparkling in the sunlight
Glowing in the moonlight
Into the emerald-studded hall of the monsoon.
Until they came to a waterfall
'Trust me', said the stream
'With my heart' said she
They jumped off the cliff.
A deafening roar greeted her,
She was falling, now flying
Entranced by the misty caress of her fellow traveler
Who held forth a curtain of jewel drops to accompany his beloved
And laid out a rainbow slide
So she landed gracefully into the foaming pool he held in his arms.
They floated a little while longer
Stolen moments of love
Drifting alongside paper boats,
Crisscrossing into arecanut backyards,
The stream singing lullabies
As she lay on grass beds at the edges of gentle pools.
Once she awoke all alone,
It was the middle of the night
The rain gods had receded,
And taken the stream prisoner.
As his parting gift, the stream had left the princess,
Deep in the soft embrace of the Earth.
And as she lay there,
The seed reflected on her life-
On her first flight away from home
Of her dance with the wind
Of the cool shade of the banyan
Of the whiskery kiss of the tree mouse
Of the wandering stream
Of the heaving waterfall
Of the peace that was now hers.
She knew failure
She learnt to pick herself up after a fall,
She knew fear
She learnt to fight despair with hope,
She knew love
And for that she was grateful
Her journey had transformed a snow-white clad glistening black princess into a cracked brown seed
Content, she shut her eyes,
Heart filled with indescribable emotion
She surrendered to the warm embrace of the earth.
The next day
The sun peeped out from fluffly white clouds,
The earth was bathed in a golden glow.
Underneath the twittering canopy
On the edges of the flooded gully
There lay an exposed patch of chocolate brown land
And at the center
A lone silk cotton sapling.
She has known many summers
And seen many monsoons
But her eyes still search
For the wind and the stream
Yearning to regain
Under an azure sky
With the withering midwife gaze of the summer sun
An earthen secret of the silk cotton burst open
Revealing dozens of black princesses ensconced in their regal cottony chambers.
Around them stretched a summer forest
Dried goldens and coppery browns
And the occasional fiery red
Of the Flame of the forest.
A few hours after the birth of the princesses into the summer world
A crow descended upon the royal branch
And out of juvenile curiosity
Plucked at their kingly cocoon
Alas! The cocoon crashed into the bed of dried leaves underneath
The crow, his curiosity satiated,
Flew off with the 'caw caw' of a village idiot.
The princesses lamented at their fate,
Dreams of flying, of ruling the forest
The sun shone, their spirits broke
And they resigned themselves to the safety of the known.
One lass was a bad seed, and she refused to let Fate control her dreams,
She whipped up her cottony carpet
And let the gentle evening breeze
Parachute her into the darkness
Away from screams of admonishment, weeping indignant sisters.
The first night she rested on the branches of the ghost tree
Whispering with spirits in the moonlight.
At dawn she took off with the wind,
On a magic carpet of her own.
The wind was her guide now, her friend, her companion
Together they laughed at the thieving langurs on the jackfruit tree
Revered creatures of majestic pale coats and innocent black faces
Delicately preening out the delectable sweetness of the fleshy fruits
The 'krruurr kruurr' of the barbet resounded in the hills,
While a lone serpent eagle circled the skies.
As noon neared, the wind seemed to tire
And he laid her tenderly on a sunny bloom of the copperpod
Promising to return at sundown.
He kept his promise
Bearing the heady fragrance of the mahua flowers
For the Seed-princess.
She thanked him for the extraordinary gift,
And they danced away,
A twirling shadow in the twilight
Under the ballroom of stars.
Intoxicated by the brew of romance
She was an untamed pixie in her bridal gown
And when she came to rest amidst the shady Banyan roots,
The wind had already left.
She awoke at dawn,
Finding cold comfort in the jewels of dew on her blanket.
Gigantic wooden gnarled roots imprisoned her
And there wasn’t even a whiff of her beloved companion
Would she die at the feet of the holy ficus, she wondered
For in this dark dungeon, there was neither water nor light.
She lay in despair as time passed her by
Faced with imminent death.
Occasionally an orange-headed thrush would hop close
And pluck off her silky dress
In preparation for his nest.
At night, a tree mouse would sniff for food
And she would tremble with fear under the fast-disappearing cotton tent.
In the mornings, barbets and hornbills feasted in the canopy
And parakeets too,
Wasting more than they could eat
The figs would fall to the ground,
Spattering her tattered dress with dirty pink slush.
Once an entire fruit fell atop her
Burying her amidst mud and the fleshy pulp
Now, she was truly afraid…
For Hope finally deserted her.
That night, the tree mouse returned
Her heart thudding louder,
The rodent drew nearer
She shut her eyes
"Atleast I have known love"
And he swallowed the fruit
And the silk cotton seed whole.
(Contd in next post)
Ramblings on wildlife sharing spaces with non-wild humans