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Drama at a waterhole

It is a universally known fact that water supports life. Whether it is for humans, animals or plants, water plays an important role in any ecosystem. But as the summer is peaking in Kanha, supply of water is running short. During one of my recent safaris, I experienced how tough life is getting for the wildlife in the park.

I was on a morning safari, and it had started to get really warm. We were parked close to a shrinking waterhole, and several birds, mammals and reptiles were visiting the hole to quench their thirst. There was news of a tiger being close by too, and hence we decided to stay at the spot longer, waiting for it to come out to drink water as well.

There were quite a few aquatic creatures around, including frogs and fishes in the water, and some dragonflies circling above, some maybe even laying eggs in the shrinking waterbody. As we were enjoying watching these aquatic animals, suddenly a Crested Serpent Eagle swooped in and took off with a frog, which it decided to feast upon on a nearby tree. No sooner had the eagle left, an Indian Pond Heron followed the suit, and caught a frog for itself. Other birds, including a Wood Sandpiper, a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings and a Citrine Wagtail were all trying their hand (or beak to be precise) at catching some of the smaller aquatic life about the edge of the waterbody.

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Crested Serpent Eagle feeding on a frog.
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Indian Pond Heron feeding on a frog.

Finally it got hot enough, and the tiger decided to come out. A subadult male, just over 2 years of age, came out of the bamboo thickets, and sat in the waterbody to cool himself down. Tigers are known to do this, more so in the summer months. Suddenly a female tiger, a mother of three tiny cubs, came out of the bushes and approached the water. Adult tigers are solitary animals and generally do not like the company of each other. So this was extremely strange behaviour. Although there was some aggressive interaction between the two tigers, conveyed through body postures, the female tiger walked passed the subadult male and sat down in the water too. While we were trying to understand this strange behaviour, yet another tiger, this time an adult male, came near the waterhole and made himself comfortable in the water too. This male tiger, probably the father of the subadult tiger and of the cubs of the female tiger there, is also one of the biggest tigers in that area. Now there were three full-grown tigers in the waterhole and one could feel the tension in the air.

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Three full grown tiger sharing a waterhole is a rare sight to see.

If the situation already did not call for something exciting to happen, a massive bull Gaur now started approaching the waterhole. The Gaur must have been extremely thirsty, because even the sight of three tigers in the waterhole did not seem to deter him. We thought that the tigers would not allow him to come any closer, and might even try to take him down. But as he inched closer, the female tiger got up and went into the bushes, probably fearing for the safety of her cubs. The adult male tiger got up next, and we anticipated a chase. But even this tiger moved into the shade of the bushes. The stubborn subadult tiger, probably ignorant of the strength of a Gaur, did not leave the waterhole.

Tigers & Gaur (1 of 2)
A massive bull Gaur approaching the waterhole, despite the tigers’s presence.

Having made two tigers leave the waterhole, the Gaur was also feeling confident and started showing off his size in front of the subadult tiger. Finally even this tiger had to move out, and the Gaur had the waterhole to himself.

Tigers & Gaur (2 of 2)
The subadult tiger disregarded the presence of the massive Gaur for a long time.

This sighting took up most of our morning safari time, and we realised that we were all hungry as we had not had breakfast yet. So we left the waterhole and headed to the breakfast point in the park. The summers are really harsh on the animals in the forest, but they also give us an opportunity to witness such amazing interaction amongst the animals.

Sachin Sharma
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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Birding at Leopard Rock

We were staying at the Singinawa Jungle Lodge at Kanha during my winter vacations. I am really fond of birding and wildlife, and so we would either go for safaris or for birding outside the resort every morning. The resort is also spread out over a large area, and has many species of birds visiting here. Our naturalist had told us about one particular spot called Leopard Rock, which overlooked a large Ficus tree, commonly called Water Fig or River Fig. This tree was fruiting and was attracting many birds while we were there. I love forest birds and got very excited at the prospect of getting to observe and click some of these birds while they were feeding.

We walked down to the tree and sat down on the Leopard Rock. It got its name because someone had spotted a Leopard on the rock long back. Slowly, the birds started coming to the tree. Coppersmith Barbets were the first ones. The barbet makes a sound like a coppersmith working on copper, which is how it gets the name. Like all barbets, it chisels and hole in a tree to make a nest.

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Coppersmith Barbet

We also saw two flowerpeckers, the Pale-billed and the Thick-billed. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker is only 8 cm long and is the smallest bird in India. The Thick-billed Flowerpecker is a bit longer, may be about 10 cm. Both the flowerpeckers feed on fruits, nectar and insects. It was fascinating to see the Pale-billed Flowerpecker hanging upside down while feeding. Both the flowerpeckers can be differentiated by their beak. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker has a pinkish, curved beak and the Thick-billed Flowerpecker has a thick, grey beak.

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Pale-billed Flowerpecker
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Thick-billed Flowerpecker

While we were observing the flowerpeckers, I suddenly saw a flash of red and orange and noticed that a minivet had come too. We identified it as a Small Minivet, but it is also called Lesser or Fiery Minivet. It primarily feeds on insects and larvae. Even though I have seen this particular bird before, I still get fascinated with its bright colours.

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Small Minivet (male)

Slowly, the birds were getting used to our presence and started coming closer to us. Suddenly a Shikra swooped into the tree and spoilt the party, both for the birds and for us. The Shikra is a medium-sized raptor that preys on small mammals, birds and reptiles. Just as it approached the tree, all the birds on that tree flew away in an instant.

We waited for some time, hoping for the birds to come back. But, unfortunately, they didn’t. Though we were disappointed, we really couldn’t complain, as we had got to see many forest birds very closely for a long time and I had managed to get some really nice pictures of them as well.

Arnav Bajoria, 14 years old
(Guest at Singinawa Jungle Lodge)

The season of love

Many would say that the winters are the best time for birdwatching in any of the forests of the Indian Subcontinent. This would not be entirely incorrect, as several species of migratory birds make their way to the subcontinent to escape the harsh winters of their breeding grounds. But I would say that the brief spring, between the winters and summers, is the best time to see the birds in Kanha.

By this time, several of the winter migrants have left the forests of Kanha, and the ones which have not left are also getting ready to leave. But the real fun is to watch the resident birds, which are getting ready to breed, at this time. Triggered by the lengthening of the day and the warmth it brings along with it, several of the resident birds get busy courting, breeding, fighting off rivals and building their nests, or trying to accomplish more than one of these tasks simultaneously.

The Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) has one of the most flamboyant plumages of any Indian bird. The brilliant hues of electric blue shimmer in the sun more often than not, as the roller generally prefers the open grassland patches rather than the shaded woodlands of Kanha. But the brilliance of its colour cannot be appreciated until you see the bird in flight. The roller gets its name from its habit of performing ‘rolling’ displays, a series of airborne stunts performed by the male to attract a female.

Indian Roller - in flight
A male Indian Roller displaying while in flight.

But no other display is probably as ostentatious as the dance performed by male Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus). The males prefer to dance in areas frequented by the peahens while foraging. An open area, where the view of the ladies looking at them is not obstructed, is an added bonus. Real estate fulfilling these conditions is rare, and guarded fiercely. These gaudy gladiators wage carefree battles in order to gain momentary control of a small patch of forestland; and these battles can go on for hours, or even for days occasionally.

Indian Peafowl - males fighting 3
A male Indian Peafowl dives on its rival to scare him off.

The act of mating itself is quite brief in most birds; and it can be quite awkward for some. Swallows are tiny birds, no bigger than sparrows, built for flying. Their slender and streamlined bodies, and long, pointed wings are all designed to keep the bird in air for a long time. As a result, swallows spend a large part time of the day flying, catching insects and drinking water in flight too. When they land, these steadfast fliers look quite uncomfortable. And then when they are asked to mate, the act is nothing short of a walk on a tight rope.

Wire-tailed Swallow mating
A pair of Wire-tailed Swallows (Hirundo smithii) tries to balance on a wooden pole while mating.

But probably the most taxing task a bird has to complete during the breeding season is that of building a nest. And the act of building a nest is probably most demanding for the woodpecker. With their strong, heavy bills, woodpeckers drill holes in trees to nest in. Woodpecker pairs generally select a new place to nest every year, as the last year’s nest is no longer hygienic or gets encroached by squatters. Owls, parakeets, mynas, squirrels and several other residents of the forest depend on the woodpecker to build a nesting hole for them. So come spring time, the poor woodpeckers gets busy once again, drilling a new nesting cavity for itself.

Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker female
A female of Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus nanus) excavating a nesting hole for herself.

This brief period of spring is the perfect time for the birds to accomplish this list of  laborious tasks. Summers quickly set in, and temperatures soar quite rapidly in the Central Indian forests, making it difficult for any animal to be active for much part of the day. But for an passionate birdwatcher like me, these are simply times of endless joy.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

The colour of spring

In the tropical and semi-tropical forests of peninsular India, the spring season is not very eminent. The mild winters gradually make their way to the hot summers. Yet, in the forests of Kanha, there are tell-tale signs everywhere that the winter is over, and the short season of spring is here. Insects have suddenly become active and several resident birds are now busy courting, mating or making a nest, or doing all of these things simultaneously.

But the most conspicuous signs of the arrival of the spring are given by the trees of Kanha. Sporting green leaves almost throughout the year, several evergreen trees have now slowly and quietly changed their attire to a red one. These are young leaves, and the red costume is only a temporary one; for these leaves will change their colours into various shades of green almost as discreetly as they appeared.

Spring foliage 1

But why are these young leaves red? Surely these young leaves have to carry on the function of photosynthesis, and for this they need to be green. But there are reasons for these trees to keep the young leaves red. Young leaves appear red because of a pigment called anthocyanin. This pigment protects the vulnerable young leaves from the harmful radiation of the sun, till the time they are ready to cope with it. Red colour also makes the young leaves look unpalatable to herbivorous animals such as deer and monkeys. Anthocyanin also makes the leaves indigestible for defoliating insects, such as aphids. These gluttonous insects would otherwise devour the tender leaves of the tree as soon as they appear, which could be potentially lethal for the tree.

Spring foliage 2

Several trees, including the Saal (Shorea robusta), Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and Mango (Mangifera indica) – some of the most common trees in Kanha, produce red leaves. But the red colour remains only for a short while, and the leaves of these trees turn into hues of green quickly. But the most magnificent of red is seen on the leaves of the Kusum (Schleichera oleosa) trees. Passing under a corridor shaded by Kusum trees at this time of the year is simply a sight to behold!

Spring foliage 3

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Ficus fruits for breakfast

Ficus trees are one of the most charitable inhabitants of the dry deciduous forests of Central India. The large, evergreen trees probably provide the best shade during the hot, summer afternoons. It is no surprise, therefore, to see herds of Spotted Deer, Swamp Deer or even Gaurs sitting under Ficus trees to ruminate their morning meals during the hottest part of the day. And when they fruit, the bounty is shared by many creatures dwelling in our forests. Several birds and even monkeys feed on the fruits, which appear in their thousands, during the daytime, while the fruit-eating bats and nocturnal flying squirrels and civets benefit from them once it is dark.

One such generous Ficus tree, an Indian Fig Tree (Ficus racemosa) recently bore fruits within the premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge. The first birds to spot the offerings of the tree were probably the barbets. Both barbets of Kanha, Brown-headed Barbet and Coppersmith Barbets, were present in healthy numbers to pick up the choicest of fruits from the tree. In fact they were so spoilt for choice, that a distasteful or unripe fruit would be dropped immediately after just a nibble in favour of a tastier one.

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Thick-billed Flowerpecker.jpgPale-billed Flowerpecker.jpg

The fruits attracted several insects as well; some arriving to just feed on the fruits, and others, like fig wasps, to carry on with their cycle of life. These insects in turn attracted insect-eating birds. Most prominent among them were the Oriental White-eyes. Smaller flocks of white-eyes merged to form a super-flock while feeding, members in which sometimes seemed to exceed a hundred. Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers also gobbled up on the protein-rich insects, although their attendance was just a mere fraction as compared to the white-eyes.

Rufous Treepie.jpgSmall Minivet male.jpgIndian Grey Hornbill immature.jpg

Some other birds visited the tree quite infrequently, probably knowing of some other bounty in the forest besides this particular tree. Among them were the omnivorous Rufous Treepies, which visited to gobble up some fruits, and a harem of Small Minivets, looking for insects among the branches. Other visitors followed a strict schedule. Indian Grey Hornbills visited the tree only after the sun was well above our heads, and understandably preferred to feed on the fruits growing in the shade.

Eventually the fruiting of the tree terminated, and slowly the birds stopped visiting the tree. This is just a temporary farewell bid between the birds and the tree though, for the tree will soon have fruits once again and there will definitely be a barbet somewhere keeping an eye out for them.

Pranad Patil

Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Weaver Ants, and not Weaver Ants

Wandering about in the forested premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge can be quite rewarding if you are interested in the smaller fauna. The forested patch, which is in continuation with the Kanha Tiger Reserve, is home to several amazing creatures. Some of these creatures carry a fearsome repute. Then there are others which are completely harmless, but dress up like the aforementioned formidable creatures.

Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are the all too familiar large-sized red ants you can find in a forest or in a garden. The social ants are quiet arboreal in nature, and can be mostly seen scaling barks or foraging through the canopy. Using the silk produced by the larvae, worker Weaver Ants bind together large leaves to form a nest, and hence they get the name. But a single nest, a large, globular structure of leaves bound together, is not the entire colony. A single colony can have multiple nests, spread over several trees, and can easily contain over half a million workers.

Weaver Ants.jpg

As is the case with any social ant species, the ants we see regularly, and are most familiar with, are the worker ants. In case of the Weaver Ants, there are two categories of workers. The bigger-sized workers, called major workers, carry the duties of foraging, defending and expanding the colony. Minor workers, smaller in size, mostly tend to the larvae and ‘milk’ small insects for honeydew.

Its the major workers which denizens of the forest are wary of. Marching through the canopy or on the forest floor, soldier Weaver Ants look for potential prey. Victims are bitten repeatedly and formic acid is sprayed on wounds, which causes extreme discomfort for us too. Working as a team, these soldiers are able to kill animals much bigger than themselves. It is this act that earns the ants the reputation of being dangerous.

For exactly this purpose, some other small critters want to look like a soldier Weaver Ant. Some spiders if fact have come very close to perfecting this mimicry. Several jumping spiders, belonging to the genus Myrmarachne, mimic ants. One in particular, mimics the soldier Weaver Ants. The aptly called Weaver Ant-mimic Jumping Spider or Kerrengga Jumping Spider (Kerrengga = Weaver Ant) (Myrmarachne plataleoides or Myrmaplata plataleoides) is difficult to tell apart from an actual Weaver Ant soldier at first glance. Spiders belonging to this group even move their first pair of legs like the antennae of an ant to complete their mimicry. The jumping spider gains protection from its predators because of it looks; no predator would want to attack a Weaver Ant for the fear of more of them being close by.

Weaver Ant-mimic Jumping Spider.jpg

But there is another spider which mimics the soldier Weaver Ant for more devious reasons. This is the Ant-like Crab Spider (Amyciaea cf. forticeps). Just like the jumping spider, this spider also mimics the soldier Weaver Ant. This spider not only moves close to marching soldier ants, but when an opportunity presents, it grabs one to feed on as well. Thus, the Ant-like Crab Spider not only gains protection from the marching ants, but also gets its food.

Ant-like Crab Spider.jpg

Whatever is the reason for their mimicry, these spiders display an amazing step in evolution these animals have taken to ensure survival. But for any ardent nature-lover, these are simply objects of endless amusement.

The un-Common Onyx butterfly

The rich habitat of Kanha Tiger Reserve is home to several species of wildlife, including big and small animals. This lush habitat runs into the premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge, and hence our lodge also plays an abode to several of these big and small creatures. In an effort to enrich our resort grounds further, we have even developed a small butterfly garden (the Butterfly Habitat), one of our wildlife-oriented several projects. The selection of plants planted in the Butterfly Habitat enables the butterfly species found in and around Kanha to complete their life-cycle with ease, simultaneously allowing us to watch and study these beautiful creations of Mother Nature.

Recently, while taking a walk in the resort premises, I noticed a small butterfly fluttering about. I immediately realized that this was not a commonly seen butterfly in the area (although I was not able to identify it immediately), and quickly clicked a photo with my mobile. Unfortunately, before I could get my camera, the butterfly took to its wings and disappeared in the dense forest canopy.

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I referred to the butterfly field guide we have in our library and came to the conclusion that this was a butterfly named Common Onyx. The butterfly was mentioned to be distributed in the Western Ghats and in the Himalayan mountains, and nowhere near Central India. Once I had the identity of the butterfly, I even checked an online portal, www.ifoundbutterflies.org, and the distribution as mentioned was marked as mentioned in the book.Map of Distribution.png

I shared the exciting information with my fellow naturalists, and with their help, shared the record with some butterfly experts. The butterfly was identified as the Western Ghats subspecies, and the record was immediately uploaded on the online portal. A screenshot of the distribution map of the species from the same portal shows a single spot in Central India now, the first record of the not so common Common Onyx from our lodge.

With all the advances in science and the knowledge we have build up, Mother Nature still manages to throw in some surprises now and then.
Sachin Sharma
Naturalist
Singinawa Jungle Lodge
Kanha National Park

 

Tiger brawl

We kept on driving in circles on a chilly winter morning. Signs indicating the presence of a tiger, in the form of fresh pugmarks and alarm calls, were all around us. But the striped cat kept evading us. Finally we reached a junction where we were told that a female tiger had just slid into the bushes. Dejected by the news, we waited at the spot hoping for the tiger to step back out. After a while, we decided to check a parallel road. And surely, the tigers were there! Not one, but two tigers!

The moment we chanced on them, they retreated back into the bushes. Hoping to convince the tigers to come out once again, we drove far away from the spot and waited with our binoculars and cameras pointing in the direction. Now without the disturbance of vehicles, one of the tigers did come out, and sat on the road. The second tiger also emerged with caution after a little while. Suddenly we realized, that the cautious approach was not because of us. The second tiger warily walked towards the first one, and the two exchanged a few brutal blows. The fight was brief, but vicious.

Choti Mada (T-31) & Mahabir male cub fight.jpg

It was only later, when I zoomed into my photos and identified the tigers, I realized the reason behind the fight. The tiger which attacked was a female tiger, T-31. She currently has a cub, may be about 18 months old. About a couple of weeks back, T-31 had shifted her territory to stay away from the intruding male. This male, not the father of her cub, would definitely kill the cub. T-31 even tried to suppress the male’s advances by trying to mate with him. But when this strategy had failed, she had to move out.

The neighboring territory was controlled by another female, T-33. This old tigress has not been seen for sometime now, but her four cubs (2 males and 2 females) still patrol her territory. In the absence of an adult tiger laying claim to the area, T-31 found it easy to move in. This area was also closer to the area where her cub’s father is now seen, and so the move proved to be doubly advantageous.

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But the four cubs in this territory, about 22 months old now, are still bigger than T-31’s cub, and could harm him. In order to ensure protection of her cub, T-31 had to keep the four siblings away from her cub and slowly try to push them out.

Mahabir's male cub 1.2.jpgThe fight we witnessed was between T-31 and one of the male cubs from the litter of four. With a lot of experience and aggression, driven by the love for her cub, T-31 emerged victorious in the fight. In fact the young and inexperienced male did not put up much of a fight at all. But despite the result, T-31 was injured in the fight, while the young male escaped unhurt. Although he had lost the fight, the young tiger left the area with an invaluable lesson of survival

-Pranad Patil,

Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

A caterpillar which mimics its own droppings!

The forested premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge are home to several amazing creatures. Big or small, these creatures provide nothing short of astonishment when observed closely. Hidden among the woodlands and grasses with the resort’s lush premises, these exceptional denizens of the Kanha forests have some fantastic stories to share. One such amazing story is that of the caterpillar of the Commander butterfly.

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The Commander is a strikingly beautiful butterfly, coloured mostly in orange, white and black. Scientifically named Moduza procris, the Commander belongs to the family of brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) – the largest family of butterflies. Although the adult butterfly is quite striking, the caterpillar and pupa have a different story to tell.

Commander pupa.jpg

The Commander butterfly lays eggs on kadam trees (Neolamarckia cadamba). The tree is planted in out Butterfly Habitat, where we were able to observe this amazing behavioural aspect of this caterpillar. The caterpillar is dark brown in colour, with blotches of lighter shades of brown. The body is covered with spiked structures. This helps break the outline of the caterpillar’s body. On a green leaf, this colour does not provide any camouflage. But this caterpillar creates its own surroundings to blend in with. The caterpillar collects its droppings and arranges them in long chains. The colour of these droppings are very similar to the caterpillar’s body. While resting, the caterpillar aligns itself in accordance with these chains of its dropping, making itself invisible to a predator’s eye. For most of the caterpillar’s predators, caterpillar faeces is not a part of their regular diet, and hence the caterpillar is overlooked without even a second glance.

Commander caterpillar (1).jpg

But this mimicry is a visual deceit. A predator using any other sense to locate the caterpillar might be very successful. Predatory bugs, such as assassin bugs (family Reduviidae) have thermoreceptors in their antennae. They are able to sense the caterpillar’s presence because of its body heat. The bug then simply injects its saliva into the caterpillar, and the unfortunate victim starts dissolving from inside.

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But of the caterpillars who do manage to escape all predators, there is one more defence-less stage to go through before attaining adulthood – the pupa stage. In this stage, the creature inside is incapable of movement, and can become easy prey for birds, or easy target for parasites. So the Commander caterpillar weaves itself a cocoon which resembles a shrivelled dry leaf. The Commander thus avoids predators once again through deceit.

The strategy used by the Commander to avoid being eaten is one of the several fascinating stories unfolding in the forests of Singinawa Jungle Lodge. Many more such stories are waiting to unfold in front of you.

 

– PRANAD PATIL, Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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