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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

A streak of tigers and a rare kingfisher!

‘How many tigers have you seen in a single safari?’ This is a common question we get from several guests. Usual answers are three, four, or five if you are really lucky. There are rare occasions and don’t come along often. But October 23, 2017 was an extraordinary day. I got to see eight tigers in one drive!

It was the last safari for the guests who were with me. Having done five safaris before this, they had seen most of the park. For this particular safari, we were exploring the Mukki zone. After clicking some photos of the beautiful sunrise in one of the meadows, we decided to explore more areas. That is when we saw a car parked ahead of us, and the occupants of the car waving excitedly at us. We approached the vehicle slowly and parked behind it. That is when we noticed that there was tiger walking in front of the jeep ahead of us. The male tiger was walking away from us and was marking his territory by spraying his urine on select barks. While watching him through my binoculars I noticed the facial marking on his cheeks when it turned over his shoulder to look at us, and immediately recognized him as T-30 (Umarpani male). After a few more strides, he walked off into the bushes. ‘This was the biggest tiger in Mukki zone,’ I whispered to the guests as we moved ahead.

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The previous day, we had heard a couple of tigers mating in the undergrowth, but because of the dense forest had not seen them. I wanted to check the area to see if they were still there or had moved out. As we crossed the grassland leading to the area, we saw hundreds of Spotted Deer, along with some Barasingha and Sambar grazing in the meadow. As we were slowly making our way across the open area, we were alerted by some Spotted Deer alarm calls coming from the opposite side of the vast grassland. As we reached the area, I realised the alarm calls were coming from a nullah. On scanning with my binoculars, I noticed two tigers on the stream bed, one standing and the other sitting down. There were T-29 (Link 7 male) and T-31 (Choti Mada female), the same mating pair we had been hearing over the last few days. After a few moments, the male tiger crossed the road in front of our car and walked into the Sal forest. No sooner had he disappeared, the female followed the same path, and vanished in the same direction.

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As we proceeded, I noticed that one of the two guests with me had had tears in her eyes. I asked her if everything was okay, and she smiled at me. She said that four years ago she has seen a tiger in Ranthambhore, which was numbered T-29 as well, along with her husband. Since then her husband had passed away, but she felt his presence with her today.

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A few moments later, we stopped near a waterhole to see a Black-capped Kingfisher. This kingfisher is mostly seen in coastal regions and is a rare bird in Central India. As I was explaining this to the guests, we heard a series of alarm calls behind our vehicle. I alerted the guests, but as I was getting ready to move the vehicle behind, I noticed a tiger approaching the waterhole. This was the shy and elusive T-27 (Dhawajhandi female). On closer inspection, we noticed four tiny animals trotting behind her. These were her cubs. The female approached the water, and sat down to have a drink and cool herself, while the four cubs, visible timid, peeped at us from behind some grass. Later, the female crossed the road in front of our vehicle, and the four cubs followed. What a sighting!

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As we were heading back to the resort, I told my two excited guests that this was a special day and sightings like these rarely. So the next time someone asks me the maximum number of tiger I have seen in a single safari, you know the answer, Eight!!!

– DAVID RAJU, Head Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

SINGINAWA : BEYOND THE SACRED FOREST

Singinawa Jungle Lodge, as you know, is located in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Even though tiger conservation is very close to our hearts, there are many more avenues to explore at the Lodge. Let me talk to you about a few of them.

Our aim at Singinawa is to offer a holistic approach towards ecotourism. There is a constant attempt to introduce newer ways of being as inclusive towards different aspects of nature and wildlife as possible. The eco-restoration walk has become hugely popular among Singinawa guests. This 2 km trail within the Lodge grounds lets them learn about the reforestation techniques that we employ here as they talk to our expert in-house naturalists who accompany them. Spotted deer and many species of birds can be spotted often during the walk and, if you’re lucky, there might be sightings of muntjacs, leopards, wild boars and rodents too. There are also nocturnal walks on offer. These are great for viewing the range of animals like civets and hyenas that are active during the night. The Lodge grounds are frequented by various wild animals and guests find it quite exciting to see them right at their doorstep. Tree plantation is one of our most extensive activities and till date we have planted over 10,000 saplings. This herculean task has been possible due to the dedicated team of naturalists and conservationists that Singinawa has.

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Birding is an activity that I personally enjoy and so do the guests at Singinawa. There are more than 150 species to be seen here. You can observe their agile bodies covered in colorful feathers or marvel at their amazingly precise nest-building skills. The trees within the grounds provide an ideal home to a lot of them. Just ask any of our naturalists or staff members about the special birding tours available. Apart from that, we also conduct herping tours. Herping includes searching for amphibians and reptiles, many varieties of which can be found at Singinawa. A lot of them have been identified and recorded but spotting newer species is also heard of quite often. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky discoverers! If you have an interest in entomology, then you’ll particularly enjoy the unique butterfly and moth habitats within our grounds. The diverse and idyllic landscape of Singinawa offers excitement at every corner.

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The Kanha Museum of Life and Art was established at Singinawa to promote indigenous art forms that the local tribes practice. The Gonds, Bhils and Baigas create stunning artworks that reflect their natural habitat and age-old traditions. Birds and animals from the region are found in abundance within these works, drawn in a stunning range of colours. The Museum has both the words ‘life’ and ‘art’ in the title because it depicts the life of the local communities through the art they produce. It has played a vital role in the conservation measures taken to ensure the intangible heritage of the tribes and its tangible forms remain intact for many generations to come. There are many informative books and audio guides available for all visitors. The Museum also has solar panels attached to its roof and runs completely on clean energy. All activities at Singinawa are conducted with the fact that it’s an eco-lodge in mind.

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Here’s hoping that more of you will join us in our endeavors, as guests and as contributors. Only through a collective effort are our goals achievable. Take the journey with Singinawa and walk on the wild side!

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