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Battle of the apex predators

The morning was exceptionally hot. After finishing our breakfast, we were meandering through the forest, hoping to sight a Tiger or any other interesting wildlife. We had not seen much in the morning, and so our morale were down.

We got a tip about a sighting of a pack of Dholes (or Asiatic Wild Dogs) and we decided to head in the direction. By the time we reached the spot, we could only see two or three of the dogs, jumping in their typical bouncing manner, in the tall grass. The rest of the pack, we figured, had already moved through the grassland into the wooded area of the forest. The dogs seemed to be in a playful mood as they made their way through the grassland.

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All of a sudden, we heard a loud, shrilling scream, made by one of the dogs. Out of nowhere, a huge male Tiger appeared and was moving through the short grasses. The Tiger was probably resting at a waterhole at the edge of the grassland and came out to investigate. The Tiger was a big threat to the dogs, especially because the pack also consisted of pups. Eventually, four dogs started circling the Tiger, whistling and jumping all the time. This probably gave time for some of the remaining pack members to take the pups to safety.

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The Tiger tried to chase the wild dogs away, but the dogs were persistent, In fact, there were times when the Tiger had to evade the dogs which kept on coming closer to him, probably to bite him and scare him away. The Tiger started moving in the direction where the remaining pack members and the pups had gone, and the dogs present at the scene followed him. Now in the dense Saal forest, we were not able to see any of the animals, but we constantly kept on hearing the shrill whistles of the dogs.

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After a few moments, the pack of dogs, all the adults followed by the pups, crossed the road in front of our vehicle. But to their horror, the Tiger, too, followed them across the road. We went around to see if the dogs and the Tiger come out on the other side of the forested patch. The wait was a long one, and there was silence in the forest. Eventually the Tiger came out, but there was no sign of the dogs. We were running out of time as we had to come out of the forest at a particular time. So we decided to head towards the park gate, hoping that the wild dogs were all safe.

Sachin Sharma
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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Tigers and their love for water

To beat the heat in the extreme summers of Central India, tigers spend a lot of time in water. This means that the summer time is the easiest time to track the striped cats, as they rarely stray away from their favourite waterholes. This also means that one can get a lot of photographic opportunities during the summer time to click the otherwise elusive cat. Here is a photo-essay of some of the amazing tiger sightings I have had during the summer time in Kanha.

Dhawajhandi (T-27)-2
Size does not matter: While selecting a waterhole to cool itself off, the size of the waterhole is of no importance for the tiger. As long as there is plenty of shade over the waterbody, a tiger will park itself in the water, as this female tiger proves.
Chota Munna (T-29)-2
Quenching the thirst: Being a large animal, tigers need a lot of water to drink. More so in the summers. Having a waterhole in your control means you have secured a place to cool yourself and a place quench your thirst whenever need be.
Chotta Munna (T-29)
Deep down: Lacking sweat glands over most parts of their bodies, tigers prefer to submerge themselves in waterbodies to get rid of the excess heat in the body. This behaviour is sometimes taken to the extreme by some individuals. After reaching a water hole, we waited for a few minutes to check for any signs of tiger movement in the area, before realising that a tiger had submerged itself, with just a little bit of the head visible, on the far side of the lake.
T-46 and T-50 fight
Water wars: Being extremely important for their survival, waterholes are fiercely guarded against intruding tigers. In the photograph are two males sizing each other up during their fight to secure control over a drying stream in the vicinity.
Dhawajhandi (T-27) + cubs
Family fun-time: Having a permanent source of water in her territory is extremely important for a female tiger raising cubs. It could mean the difference between the survival or death of her cubs. Here a mother can be seen cooling herself off along with her cubs in a large waterhole, knowing that her cubs won’t die of thirst as long as she maintains control over the lake.
T-50
By the man, for the tiger: Some photographers do not prefer to photograph tigers in man-made concrete waterholes simply for the aesthetic viewing of the photograph. Tigers on the other hand do not differentiate between natural and man-made waterholes, and will happily use any water that is available, as this experienced male tiger is demonstrating.
T-29 and Gaur
Against all comers: Being apex predators, tigers have very few enemies in a forest. But an animal as formidable as a Gaur has to be treated with respect. Despite knowing the harm a bull Gaur can cause, a male tiger decides to stake his claim over his favourite waterhole for the fear of losing rights to the visitor.
Garhi male (T-50)-3
Challengers, big and small: All animals need water, and for the tiger the challenge does not always come from big animals. Sometimes the smaller creatures prove to be more formidable. Such as this instance, where the tiger was made to move away from the waterhole by the swarming bees.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Feeding frenzy

It was a regular morning safari. As we were driving through the massive Kanha Meadow (technically a grassland), we chanced upon a dead Spotted Deer. The dead animal was partially eaten around the stomach. We also heard some alarm calls nearby. Hoping for a predator to be around, we decided to wait at the carcass for a little while.

I casually glanced up and noticed a few vultures circling very high up in the sky. I pointed them out to the tourists with me, noting that they will surely feast in the afternoon if the predator does not drag and hide its kill. As we were observing the dead animal, I suddenly saw big shadows running in all directions on the ground. “Vultures,” I exclaimed, as I turned above to see the huge birds, which had dropped down in their altitude by now. Suddenly one of the individual landed on a tree nearby, immediately followed by a few more. Most of these vultures were White-rumped Vultures (Gyps bengalensis), the most common species of vulture in Kanha, along with a few Indian Vultures (Gyps indicus). These first vultures to reach the spot wanted to be sure that there is no danger around and hence decided to take a vantage spot on a nearby tree before dropping down to the ground.

White-rumped Vulture-4
A White-rumped Vulture coming to land on a tree

Then one of the vultures decided to make the move towards the dead animal. In no time at all, the Spotted Deer carcass was invisible to us, surrounded by a mob of vultures. It took the flock no more than ten minutes to completely dispose off the dead animal; each ounce of meat consumed, each of the bones in the body dismembered and dispersed in the surroundings. As the vultures started to disperse, we were surprised to see a much larger Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) still gorging on what was remaining of the dead animal. In all the excitement, we had missed on seeing this one come and land on the carcass.

Vultures feeding
The ‘venue’ of vultures feeding on the Spotted Deer carcass

As the feeding frenzy continued, more and more vultures kept on coming to the spot. I was keeping an eye on the vultures in the sky, hoping to see the uncommon Red-headed Vulture come in as well. In stead, we noticed a large and dark shape circling and coming down. This was undoubtedly a Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), second only to the Himalayan Vulture in size and an extremely rare sight in the whole of Central India. The large vulture landed close to the carcass, but by this time most of it finished. The unfortunate late-comer did not get to eat any of the deer.

Cinerous Vulture
The Cinereous Vulture was unmistakable in the sky because of its large size and dark colour
Cinerous Vulture-2
By the time the Cinereous Vulture landed, most of the kill was over
White-rumped Vulture juvenile
A juvenile White-rumped Vulture sunning itself after the feeding session was over

Once the carcass was completely consumed, the vultures started dispersing. Most of them started sunning themselves with wide-spread wings, a behaviour which has evolved in the vultures to help them keep their feathers clear of parasites. Although we did not get a tiger on the safari, the tourists were extremely happy to see this bit of natural history unfolding in front of their eyes. As for me, very few things make me happier than to see vultures disposing of carcasses without a care in the world; a sight that has unfortunately become rare in the recent past.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

A naturalist’s diary

It was a usual morning drive for me at Kanha National Park. We had Kanha Zone for this particular safari. We entered through Mukki Gate and drove straight to Kanha Meadow, crossing some Saal forest and then through hilly, bamboo-covered terrain. As we were approaching the Kanha Meadow, we heard some Spotted Deer alarm calls. ‘May be a big cat is on the prowl,’ I alerted my guests. Once close to the warning calls, our guide spotted a beautiful female Tiger walking through the meadow. Although there were patches of tall grass in the meadow, we could see her clearly through the gaps. The monsoon season had just passed by, and the meadow was covered with patches of lush green grass and contrasted beautifully with red of the drying grass. It was a surreal sight to see this Tiger walking through the meadow.

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The beautiful Tiger walking in the meadow.

After a little while, the Tiger lied down, quite close to the road, and the guests in my car started clicking photos and observing her through the binoculars. Suddenly a group Jungle Babblers started screeching on the opposite side. The undergrowth was dense here, and I could not see a thing. ‘May be a mongoose or a snake,’ I whispered to my guests. The babbler calls grew more and more frantic, and I yet couldn’t see what was happening in the thicket.

The naturalist from the vehicle behind mine whispered, ‘David, there is a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl on the ground there!’ At over 2 feet in length, the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl is one of the biggest owls in the Indian Sub-continent. I tried to explain to my guests that this was a rare owl to see in Central India, and we might not get a chance to see it again, but they were busy clicking photos of the tiger, and ignored my requests to try and see the owl. Everyone in the three vehicles parked there were busy watching the tiger, except for me and my fellow-naturalist friend, who were busy watching and photographing the owl.

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The Spot-bellied Eagle Owl after getting injured.

After a while, the tiger stood up and started following the babbler calls keenly. The tiger went into stalking mode, and I heard myself shouting in my head, ‘No, this is not happening!’ I was praying that the tiger does not attack the owl. As the tiger closed in, the owl sensed danger and took off. It was carrying a big, dead bird in its talons. The tiger leaped and slapped the owl in mid-air, sending it back to the ground with a thump. All this happened in a split second! The eagle-owl was feeding on a peafowl, which the tiger picked up and walked off into the thickets, leaving the owl on the ground injured.

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The Tiger walking away with the dead peafowl.

If you look carefully at the Tiger’s image, you will notice a fold of skin hanging down from her belly. She had been nursing a litter of four cubs at this time. (As I write this today, all her cubs have grown up and at over 2 years of age, have started looking for new territories for themselves.)

I am frequently asked as to what is my best sighting in Kanha, and this without a doubt is one of the best wildlife moments I have ever witnessed!

David Raju
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

The cycle of life

In the natural cycle of life, resources are limited and nothing is wasted. New life is born each moment, but at the same time some other life comes to an end so that the nutrients once again enter the circle of life.

We got to witness this up-close and personally during a nature walk recently within our resort premises. We noticed a large dragonfly, later identified as a female of a Blue Darner (Anax immaculifrons) species, flying around our main building of our lodge. She started circling the water tank in front of the main building, and we understood what was going to happen next. She landed on one of the water lily leafs and dipped the tip of her abdomen in the water. She was releasing eggs in the water body. Dragonflies lay eggs in thousands at one go, and hence she had to repeat the action a few times. Quite excited by what we got to witness, we left the spot.

Blue Darner1 (1 of 5)
Female of the Blue Darner in flight.
Blue Darner1 (2 of 5)
The female dragonfly circling over the manmade tank, looking for a safe spot to lay eggs.
Blue Darner1 (3 of 5)
The female laying eggs in the water while perching on a water-lily leaf.

Later in the evening, when I visited the main building again, I heard something fluttering. I wondered if this was a dragonfly stuck in the building, as that makes a similar sound, and tried to find the source of the noise. But what I found astounded me. The same dragonfly which had laid eggs sometime ago, was fighting for its life with a house gecko (Hemidactylus cf. flavivirdis). The latter half of the dragonfly’s body was already gobbled by the gecko, and only the head and wings were outside, which the dragonfly vibrated repeatedly in an attempt to get rid of the gecko. Finally, after a few minutes, the dragonfly’s head and wings detached from the remaining body and fell to the ground, while the gecko made away with what it had swallowed.

Blue Darner1 (4 of 5)
A house gecko made a hearty meal out of the tired dragonfly.

But what the gecko had not eaten did not go to waste either. Pretty soon an army of tiny, black ants carried what remained of the dragonfly’s body to their nest. A meal this size would definitely provide a lot of nutrients to the entire colony.

Blue Darner1 (5 of 5)
The part of the dragonfly’s body which eventually became food for some ants.

So the nutrients which made up the dragonfly’s body eventually ended up being useful for a few thousand dragonfly babies, a large gecko, and an entire colony of ants!

Sachin Sharma
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

First safari

The Kanha Tiger Reserve reopened on 1st October after a three-month-long break. It was time now for the season’s first safari which is always a source of great joy for everyone at Kanha. This year was no different!

The excitement was palpable as we entered the park and caught our first glimpse of Kanha – its glistening green meadows resplendent under the rays of the sun.

All of us instantly felt a renewed sense of calm, our minds refreshed and rejuvenated as we observed the pristine beauty that lay before us with lots of Spotted Deer and Swamp Deer to give us company.

What could be better than this glorious moment!

As we moved forward, we crossed several lush meadows and gurgling streams. In the vicinity, we saw a patrolling camp where two safari vehicles were parked. A couple of tourists were taking pictures of some animals.

We made sure to proceed quietly.

Lo and behold, there was a pack of 11 red wild dogs moving along the backdrop of the gorgeous green landscapes through the forest, not far from the road.

Our guide quickly pointed out one wild dog that had a collar. We immediately realized that this was the wild dog that had been collared by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India.

A great feat indeed!

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Watching these wild dogs moving into the forest thickets and then walking out in the open, jumping and rolling in the grass was a sight for sore eyes.

DID YOU KNOW? Wild dogs are one of the least studied carnivores in the Central Indian landscape, and it is usually quite difficult to monitor their movements in the jungle. They cover a large territory and also venture into the peripheries of villages, often forming their den around them.

Over the years, these wild dogs have been susceptible to diseases like mange and canine distemper which can eventually wipe out the whole pack.

At Kanha, we make every effort to closely monitor these wild dogs so that we can collect proper data about their movements around the jungle as well as in the nearby villages.

Our aim is to assist the forest department in their conservation efforts to help safeguard these beautiful predators and their future generations.

We are positive that this radio-collared dog and her pack will be instrumental in understanding the wild dogs’ local movements and their home range.

David Raju
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Eight-legged giants

Most people shriek at the mere sight of a spider, no matter how small or how harmless it might be. These eight-legged creatures definitely do not feature on the list of favourite animals of most, but are found all around us, and thus are encountered regularly. The forested habitat of Singinawa Jungle Lodge is no exception, and several species of spiders call this patch of forest their home.

One of the most conspicuous eight-legged denizen of Singinawa is the aptly-named Giant Wood Spider (Nephila pilipes). A drive in the tiger reserve or a walk in the forested land of Singinawa just after the rainy season will bring you face to face with this amazing spider. Making most of the season of plenty, these Giant Wood Spiders remain active throughout the monsoon season, breeding multiple times, before retreating into hibernation for the harsher winter and summer seasons. It is actually the female which gives the species its English name. Dressed in black and yellow, female Giant Wood Spiders can grown to become 20 cm long. That is as big as your palm! The diminutive, red-coloured males on the other hand are a mere centimetre in length, a whooping 20 times smaller than their better halves!

Giant Wood Spider female close-up.JPG
Close-up of a female Giant Wood Spider.
Giant Wood Spider male
A male Giant Wood Spider, which can be 20 times smaller than the female.

 

Besides their size, what makes Giant Wood Spiders impressive are their enormous webs. Big females build webs stretching up to 10 ft wide and 20 ft tall. The webs are typical circular-shaped, vertical webs, called orb webs. The spider thus gets an alternate English name, the Golden Orb-weaver. These impressive webs are used to catch prey; mostly insects, but occasionally small birds too! Males are sometimes seen on the periphery of these giant webs, waiting for an opportunity to approach the female and mate.

Redstart in GWS web
A female Black Redstart caught in the Giant Wood Spider’s web.
Giant Wood Spider - courting
A couple of males fighting for the mating rights with a female, while on her web.

Besides the males, you might occasionally spot some tiny, shiny spiders on the webs of the female Giant Wood Spiders. These spiders actually belong to a completely different family of spiders, and are present on the web as there is an amazing opportunity in the waiting. Female Giant Wood Spiders are not good housekeepers, and often ignore the responsibilities of cleaning their webs. As such, small insects, too small for a giant spider to be bothered with, remain caught in their webs, and the tiny spiders are here to consume them. But more often than not, these tiny guests feed on the larger prey caught by the Giant Wood Spiders. This act of stealing food from the host spider earns these tiny spiders their name, kleptoparasitic spiders.

Kleptoparasitic spider
A tiny kleptoparasitic spider, less than 1 cm in length, feeding on a tiny fly caught in the Giant Wood Spider’s web.
Kleptoparasitic spider
A kleptoparasitic spider sharing a meal with a female Giant Wood Spider without her realising it.

Even if you are mortally afraid of spiders, a closer look at a Giant Wood Spider will leave you stunned. ‘Conservation through appreciation’ is our motto at Singinawa, and getting you to appreciate this beautiful spider is a small step towards this effort.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Baza-mania

When it comes to birdwatching, Central India might not be the most happening place in our country. The forests of Western Ghats and the sub-Himalayan belt of North India, as well as the forests of Northeast India, hold much more diversity than the deciduous forests of Central India. But still for a bird enthusiast like me, the forest of Kanha can spring up a few surprises every now and then.

It’s been almost a year now that I have been here, and during this time I have managed to see 11 new bird species in the forests of Kanha! But among these new birds that I got to see, the most exciting were definitely the two species of bazas.

Bazas are raptors, meaning predatory birds, belonging to the genus Aviceda. A prominent feature of these bird is a long crest originating at the back of the head. Five different species of bazas are found from the African continent in the west, through South and Southeast Asia, up to the eastern coast of Australia in the east. Some members of this genus are also known as cuckoo-hawks, especially the African species.

Jerdon's Baza.jpg
Jerdon’s Baza

In India, we have two species of bazas, the Jerdon’s Baza and the Black Baza. Both these raptors are residents of Northeast India and Southern Western Ghats, and are only scarcely recorded in Central India. But both the bazas have previously been spotted in Kanha. Because of their scare records, I never really thought I might get a chance to see these two beautiful raptors here. But as luck would have it, I got to see both of them, and that too within a span of just one month.

In March, I was on a safari with an elderly American couple. It was their first safari, and they were hoping to get a glimpse of tiger on at least one of their drives; so watching birds was not our top priority. Early into the safari, while driving through a fairly open patch of forest, I casually glanced upwards on a dead tree, and saw a medium-sized raptor perched there. It was still a little dark, and all I could make out was that the bird was brown in colour; no other features were visible. My first guess was that the bird was an Oriental Honey-buzzard, but as I stared at the bird a little longer, I noticed a crest poking above its head. The thought of this being a Jerdon’s Baza, a new bird for me, started playing in my head repeatedly, like a catchy song that gets stuck in your mind. I immediately pulled out my camera, and clicked a few record shots. As the light was bad, I could not get very good photos, but managed decent enough shots so that the identity the bird could be confirmed later on. And later on, it did turn out to be a Jerdon’s Baza. I shared the exciting news with the American couple, but they only smiled meekly at me, probably perplexed as to why one should get all excited on seeing a bird!

Black Baza.jpg
Black Baza

Approximately a month later, in April, I was doing a morning safari with an enthusiastic Indian family. Being experienced wildlife campaigners, the family had expressed their wish to see everything in the forest, and not just the bigger wildlife. As we drove through a patch of Saal forest, we spotted a back bird flying though the top canopy of the tall Saal trees. Not expecting a baza, I dismissed the bird to being an Indian Jungle Crow. But a second glance of the bird in flight revealed the white patches on the underwings. No more glances were needed to recognise the bird, but I wanted to try and get a photo. The Black Baza kept on scurrying from one tree to other, in an attempt to avoid us. Luckily, it then it caught a large, green insect (may be a mantis or a caterpillar) and settled on an open branch to feed on it, giving us ample opportunities to get some photos. But more than getting the photographs, I was really happy to see the bird through the binoculars, and I have to confess that this is one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen.

Sighting both the bazas of India in Kanha within a span of just one month put me on cloud nine for a while. But as the excitement settled down, I realised that I have been really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, as during both the instances, ours was the only car present to see these rare birds. There are some more birds on my wish-list to see in Kanha, and I just hope that my luck with birds continues just like this in the coming season too.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Butterfly bonanza!

‘I can see a Red Flash,’ whispered Pranad. He was looking through his binoculars at a wet, muddy patch of earth on the edge of a waterhole in Kanha National Park. We all picked up our binoculars and started scanning for this uncommon butterfly. We could not spot it at the first go as there were literally hundreds of butterflies at the spot. We had to carefully eliminate all the Large Oakblues, Indian Oakblues, Blue Tigers, Common Crows, Common Emigrants, Zebra Blues and several other species which had gathered in this corner of the waterhole, but finally we managed spot this pale, white butterfly, with flashy-orange inside. We were actually out on a morning safari in the park to look for mammals and birds, but the safaris eventually turned into a butterfly and dragonfly-watching event.

Red Flash
Red Flash, clicked within the lodge premises. Photo credit: Sachin Sharma

As the summer is reaching its peak, the time of the year for butterfly-watching is perfect. These beautiful insects gather in big numbers alongside waterholes and in cool, shaded streams inside the forest. There is a wet stream in the forest, just a couple of kilometres from Mukki Gate, which is probably the best butterfly hotspot in the park. Rakesh, our naturalist, once exclaimed that there were over 10,000 butterflies in the stream after he came back from the safari. Once, when I had stopped at the stream, I counted 37 species at the spot, flittering or resting amongst the vegetation along the stream.

Common Onyx
Common Onyx, seen at Singinawa Jungle Lodge. This is the first ever record of the species for Central Indian region. Photo Credit: David Raju

It is not just Kanha National Park which is a hotspot for butterflies. We have been getting some beautiful and rare butterflies in the Singinawa Jungle Lodge premises as well. The best part about spotting a butterfly in the lodge is that you can get close to the butterfly and click some nice images too. Over the last few weeks, we have spotted and photographed some rarities such as Common Onyx, Long-banded Silverline, Common Tinsel, Copper Flash, Indigo Flash, Apefly and a few others on the lodge grounds. While some of these butterflies turned out to be first records for entire Central India region, others are scarcely recorded here.

Copper Flash
Copper Flash. Photo credit: Pranad Patil
Long-banded Silverline
Long-banded Silverline. Photo credit: Sachin Sharma

One of the reasons we have so many butterflies in the lodge premises is that we have planted thousands of plants which are beneficial for the butterflies in our lodge. We have been careful in selecting only indigenous species of plants, so that habitat is not altered in any way. Also, our naturalists take immense pleasure and pride in documenting the lesser-known fauna, such as butterflies, dragonflies, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, etc. These new finds have just aided in boosting our enthusiasm and we hope to find many more interesting and rare creatures in the lodge and in the national park.

David Raju
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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