Not so Pleasant Pheasants in my Garden

Khaleej Pheasant

 

 

 

I was lingering over my morning brew of South Indian coffee in Ranikhet [29.6434° N, 79.4322° E] when I spotted one of my favourite Himalayan pheasants pecking away below the dangling wisteria. The Khaleej is a common sight on the hillside,  it is categorized with a conservation status of ‘LC’ [Least Concern] by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That means there’s a healthy population of Khaleej pheasants around and you’re very likely to spot them if you’re in the Himalayan foothills.

Common not ordinary

I find the Khaleej nothing less than dramatic. If you haven’t seen a Khaleej rooster up close, think of a dandy draped in iridescent blue-grey-black, donning a swanky brush-stroked neckpiece, delicate scalloped patterns on his coattail; hiding behind a bloodred masquerade mask. It’s quite the show stopper. The all brown hen with white-edged feather patterns doesn’t look so dull on her own. But put alongside her male counterpart and her chances are bleak. In the breeding season which is right about now, things get interesting.

The Khaleej [pheasant female]
The Khaleej [pheasant female]
You barely notice the female Khaleej
Plain Jane on the left

 

 

Coming back to my tale of two pheasants, our solo traveller cocked up his head; I too heard the clucking that got him into an instant splayed-crest mode. Then I heard an urgent onslaught of clucks and saw a rapid blur of pheasants clash behind the screen of yellow banksia. I missed all the action. The impact of the chest a/g chest or whatever that encounter was, made them recoil violently. They both kept at that raucous clucking but didn’t engage again. I noticed the hen leave the scene in a hurry. Romeo clucked himself downhill reluctantly. I spied on the pheasants for two more days to see if he would brave the competition again but he was a picture of foraging-innocence. The hen had chosen her rooster and stood her ground. The very red-wattled one who succeeded in thwarting her 2nd suitor was strutting around like a puff fish. How I just love watching wild performances over coffee.

You can watch it on my youtube channel:http://bit.ly/KhaleejFaceOff

Watch the split second faceoff:

 

Of Dogs and Nests.

P1250687                 View from Jaberkeht Nature Reserve, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India

My mountain dog, Chingoo, sheds like there is no tomorrow. His fur coats everything I own, borrow or dream of. If I needed an autopsy, they’d probably find traces of it in my stomach lining as well. Not that I care.

On the other hand, fur on my jacket seems to get some folks into a tizzy. These ‘uncontrollables’ start brushing it off without so much as pausing to ask. Hello, take your hand off my… This is me, fur et al. Restrain yourself. Shed the thought or face the consequences, I think to myself. But of course, I say the very opposite looking as obliged as someone rescued from a terrible wardrobe malfunction just in the nick of time.

Guests are pre-warned of unique conditions in my home. It’s not about so much about being unafraid of dogs as of being prepared. My dog is allergic to some people I tell them. Honestly, he sneezes. (I don’t tell them we share the same allergies.) Don’t pack blacks I say. And don’t bother to remove your shoes. Oh definitely don’t walk in socks…you’re in the doghouse now. Every time I sweep the house (I don’t vacuum), Chingoo’s fur takes on a life of its own. It swirls into individual fur devils taking flight routes of their own making. Not even our large hills spiders are spared. I often see them donning a fur-cloak as they drag themselves to safety behind the flush tank.

Unlike anything I’ve seen, Chingoo’s fur seems to have a survival instinct. It has gone forth and seems to have multiplied over the years. You only have to step onto my porch. My entire ecosystem has paled out. The deodars, the oaks the little weeds that are surfacing the hard earth, the little bugs that are on these weeds and even dung left behind by roaming cows have been consecrated by the travelling Furburys.

 

 

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Not all has gone to waste. Once in a while I see little creatures of the wood pick and collect Chingoo’s fur to line their nests. They go at it all day long collecting as much fluff as their beaks can hold before flying out to their new home-in-the-making. I love the idea of comfy fur-lined nests. It feels like giving back…through your dog. More so, if you own a down-jacket or two. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The curious case of an owl which wrestled a woodpecker for housing benefits.

I recently witnessed a pint-sized owl (Asia’s smallest) taking on a woodpecker. It happened even before I could shout out “owlet”. I barely believed what I had seen. I’ve been following this particular owl couple for a month now. I noticed they make three different owl calls or utterances*. Unlike what I’ve heard, these little munchkins are easy to spot and observe. That’s mostly because they’re also active when I am—diurnal and crepuscular birds—calling, mating, giving me multiple chances of focusing right and behaving like they look. Adorably.

I watched them turn their heads poltergeist style multiple times. It’s fascinating and spooky at the same time as they have false eyes on the back of their head that seemed to look directly at me. I was warming up to them until I saw one of them literally clash with this little yellow crowned woodpecker while it was on the verge of squeezing into the burrow which it had carved out with the finesse of a master craftsman. I know that for a fact because I’d documented the woodpeckers last year and marveled at the time and effort it took them to renovate the hole-in-the-tree into a home that’s woodpecker worthy*.*  When I heard the woodpecker shriek, I thought its fate was sealed; it was going to end up as owl tapas. But that wasn’t the case.

One morning I responded to owl hoots and walked out with the camera but I just couldn’t locate them. Dumbfounded and annoyed, I almost gave up. Suddenly there was a flutter of activity and I saw the male make a dash for the tree hollow. I absolutely knew then, that the woodpeckers were evacuated from their premises and were probably house hunting again. The female was calling from inside the hollow which I why I never spotted her.

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The male owl was carrying a pale, largish insect which it promptly began feeding to its mate. The lifeless insect was probably a cicada. They’re plenty around; their deafening buzz crescendoes overhead. I noticed the owls feeding on them twice; they must be beak-smacking good. Watch the video.

I miss my old neighbours but I’m keeping an eye out (spying actually) for my new ones without intervening. If I see hungry little owlets peek out of that hollow anytime soon, I’ll let you know. Follow me.

Read more about the woodpeckers here: http://bit.ly/8LifeSkillsFromABird

Watch collared owlets makes three distinct calls:http://bit.ly/MyCollaredOwlet

The most humungous Himalayan caterpillar I have ever set my eyes on, resides right at my door step.

The mouth of an Himalayan caterpillar up close with cobra-like markings

To say I am surprised by the size and length of this caterpillar is an understatement. It’s about the same length as a pen and thrice as thick. Appearance wise, it would do very well in a creepy sci-fi movie.

I was pottering around my flowers beds when I noticed some movement.  What I mistook for a rather limp looking piece of a bamboo trellis, turned out to be the fattest and longest caterpillar I have ever set my eyes on. It was gnawing away at a leaf and would freeze if I went up too close. After a few fuzzy takes and some patience,  I caught it make a slow move.

Caterpillar hanging upside down whilst feeding on a leaf
Caterpillar hanging upside down whilst feeding on a leaf.

Much to my disappointment, it had disappeared the next morning. It might have camouflaged itself a little better after its encounter with a giant creature -meaning me! I would have loved the chance to document it spin itself into a silky cocoon and watch the complete metamorphosis. I was told by Peter Smetacek, India’s leading lepidopterist, that this one will turn into a spectacular large Hawk-moth.

Do comment.

Watch out for my video. With the local internet speeds pretty much as slow as my caterpillar, it will reach you in a week or two.

Here it is, as promised:

See more of my nature videos on:http://bit.ly/LalithaKrishnanonYouTube

Follow me on @lalithainsta

Related articles.

http://www.woodstockschool.in/hovers-like-a-hummingbird-looks-like-a-bee/

Caterpillar to butterflies/moths.

#Caterpillars #HimalayanMoths #IndianButterfliesAndMoths #Ranikhet #HawkMoths #FloraAndFaunaOfUttarakhand #NaturalWonders #AnimalBehaviour #Insects #cocoons

8 life skills to be learnt from a crafty little woodpecker.

  1. Never disclose your location to just anyone.

For the past month or so, every time I leave the house, I’ve been hearing a rapid flutter of wings accompanied by a slightly high-pitched screech, followed by gentle tapping. I spent weeks looking for what I recognized to be a woodpecker but never caught it perching in one place for too long. It seemed strange; I kept hearing it in the middle of the afternoon when sane birds take cover. So what was this pesky little bird up to? It was doing nothing but distracting me and probably warning its mate of imminent danger.

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The brown fronted woodpecker (female) is cautious at all times.
  1. Be conscious of your surroundings.

Blame it on the fact that I am a wildlife enthusiast of sorts and curious enough to spend the better part of my day looking for anything that I can digitally capture. Luckily, I do not have the distractions of employment interfering with my rambles; and so it came to be I noticed an old hollow with fresh drilling marks.

 

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The female brown fronted woodpecker drills its nest out of a hollow.

 

  1. Be ready for contingencies.

Feeling like a photojournalist about to enter the NG hall of fame, I started by keeping my camera cleaned and charged, my SD card empty, played my music real low and kept an ear out for any tapping throughout the day.

 

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I was surprised by the size of some of the wood chips the woodpeckers cleared out.

 

  1. Keep your house clean.

In the meanwhile we were expecting houseguests and as is the norm at our home, just before their arrival we conducted a monumental clean-up effort. As you can guess, this included wiping our windows clean. And we have a lot of them! As I drew the curtains to proceed, I realised I was standing four feet away from the tree hollow. And lo and beyond there was the brown fronted woodpecker sticking its little head out.

 

  1. Always work in good light.

Whilst spying on the woodpeckers, I noticed they were most active when the sun lit up the inside of their hollow. They were using natural light to their advantage and mine. Though I was photographing them from behind a dark glass window, they were perfectly lit up as I captured their activities.

 

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Woodpecker using its bill to disperse wood chips to the wind.

 

  1. Share responsibilities as a team.

Though the pair worked together I rarely saw them both at the hollow at the same time. One of them would spend a few minutes inside the hollow carving out the nest and then would take time clearing out the wood chips before starting again. Reminded me of me cooking while my spouse did dishes later. An arrangement that always works out well!

I also noticed the woodpecker pick up wood chips and with a quick shake of the head and bill, disperse it to the wind instead of just dropping it off like dead weight. They left no trace of their nest building that way.

 

  1. Use all the resources you can.

In my enthusiasm, I shot a lot of shaky movie clips at different times of the day before I realized I could just as well have planted my tripod in place. I found better use of ankle weights (which I never use) for weighing down the tripod in the hope my mountain dogs wouldn’t topple it over. They have the uncanny knack of snuggling up by my feet just when I don’t want them to!

 

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The old tree hollow was refurbished with a lot of skill and effort to make a new nest.

 

  1. Whatever you do, give it your best shot.

These minuscule woodpeckers have been drilling out their home to perfection for a few weeks now.

I tried to get a glimpse of the inside of the nest but it was deep and cleverly spiralled out. Making it relatively safe from larger predators! They had functionality and safety all figured out! Makes you wonder why the word birdbrain has such negative connotations. Seriously!

 

  1. Be patient.

As you can see, I was rewarded with a private viewing of the secret life of the yellow-crowned woodpecker.

Woodpecker chicks are hopefully on their way soon. Their intelligent parents are bound to teach them more than 8 life skills to survive. I have seen timber martens claw away at a woodpecker nest before and I’m hoping they never sniff this one out. Hope you enjoy the photos. All of them were shot through my (recently cleaned) window.

I would love to hear your comments.

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A related article about bird intelligence  via HuffPost India

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why you should visit a nature reserve closer to home.

 

Invite an expert and take your family along.

We have a saying in India, “the home-bred chicken is as ordinary as your daily dal (lentil)”. If you have a nature reserve or green and wide open spaces in your backyard, you’re likely to take it for granted. You don’t visit it because you think it’s not going away. That’s how I felt about Jaberkhet Nature Reserve (earlier known as Flag Hill), which is only a twenty-minute walk from my home. I walk the forest trails often but not often enough. I visit the reserve to click photographs without quite observing or consciously listening.

Recently I joined an organized walk with expert environmentalists from two different fields: Chris Hails and Dr. Gopal S Rawat. Chris Hails who works at the Director level for WWI in Switzerland was recording bird sounds at the JNR while Dr. Gopal S Rawat, Dean, Faculty of Wildlife Sciences,  Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, was walking us through the local ecology of the area.

It was a rare opportunity and privilege to walk with these two very knowledgeable people besides being a great way to spend a morning.  I began to hear and learn new things every step of the way. The  JNR* has undergone an astounding transformation in a short span of time. Revived species of plants are visible everywhere. The forest is resounding with bird calls.  One sees a variety of scat. The reserve takes on a different look every season. Right now, the Rhododendron trees are adding vivid bursts of red to the hillside. JNR is also home to various animals and birds that we didn’t know existed in our vicinity but for camera-traps that have digitally captured them. Seeing is believing!

I came away with a deeper appreciation of the space I share with wildlife and more respect for conservationists like Hails and Rawat, and their fellow environmentalist Sejal Wohra, who runs the reserve with a lot of passion and sparse funding. Moreover, it made me realise that the onus of preserving wild spaces like this rests equally on people like me and you – the community. 

Nature reserves and green spaces are vulnerable and do disappear to make way for “developmental” projects for several reasons. When that happens, species disappear overnight. So please, if you haven’t already, do visit a nature reserve or forest/lake/natural open space close to you. Pack a picnic lunch. Learn about species you share the habitat with. You may well be surprised by who and what resides so close to you. Take your friends along. Donate. It’s easy. Volunteer. It’s a little harder but certainly doable. Contribute in any way you can. Start a club. Share on social media. Keep your backyard and enjoy it too.

*JNR is a part of an initiative set up as a private partnership between the owners of the land (the family of the Late Shri J P Jain) and Sejal Wohra (Programme Director WWF-India). Thanks to their joint efforts JNR is a perfect example of what can be achieved with the cooperation of locals and the know-how of professional environmentalists.

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The local villages are involved in the protection of the reserve. Tree lopping and cow grazing have altogether stopped. The local are receiving training and employment and have turned into protector of the forests

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If you would like to get involved with JNR write to sejalwohra@gmail.com or visit http://www.Jaberkhetnature.com

 

 

 

Tigress, Tigress Burning Bright

William Blake knew what he was talking about when he penned his poem, The Tiger. I saw this beautiful tigress scent her territory in Corbett, seemingly unperturbed by jeep loads of tourists capturing her every move. It was around 3-4pm , her coat looked like it was aflame in the dappled light. She confidently strolled ahead of us scenting every tree – letting us know we were trespassing.

Watch her on my You Tube channel:

 

The Tiger by William Blake.

TIGER, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

 

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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