When was the last time you visited a zoo? It’s time to rethink zoos.

A conversation with the Assistant Curator of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT)

Heart of Conservation podcast Ep#23 Show Notes (Edited)

Scroll for show notes. Cover photo courtesy @zoologistambika All photos courtesy: Ambika Yelahanka


I am speaking to Ambika Yelahanka whose has a very enviable job involving lots of animals. Ambika’s has a Masters in Zoo Conservation and a specialization in feline behaviour and reptilian husbandry. She’s the Assistant curator at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai. Find out what a day at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust as Assistant Curator looks like. Ambika explains why enrichment is as important for reptiles as it is for carnivores and other animals. She also tells us why zoos play an important role in conservations and explains in detail about captive breeding. She also regales us with her experiences in the game parks of Africa and has interesting info about volunteering at the MCBT (Chennai) and sound advice for future zoologists.

Some useful link – MCBT website – https://madrascrocodilebank.org/

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

Adoption of animals – https://madrascrocodilebank.org/web/adopt_a_reptile

Photo courtesy Ambika Yelanhanka at MCBT https://earthymatters.blog/

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi there, Thanks for listening in to ep #23 of Heart of Conservation. This is season three and I’m Lalitha Krishnan bringing you more stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world.  I am speaking to Ambika Yelahanka whose has a very enviable job involving lots of animals.  Ambika has a Masters in Zoo Conservation and  specialization in feline behaviour and reptilian husbandry. She the Assistant curator at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai. Without wasting more time let’s listen to her amazing story.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ambika, thank you so much for joining me on Heart of Conservation. It’s really nice of you.

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, Ambika tell us why zoo conservation? What inspired you?

Ambika Yelankha: Basically, my inspiration came from my family. My family is not directly involved with conservation but I haven’t ever been alone in the house in a way because my mom and dad have rescued over 200 cats and about  100 dogs. So, from the time I can remember, there have been at least about10 animals in the house along with the humans. So when I selected zoology it was not a big shock to my parents because they knew it was going to be something similar to what I’ve grown up around. That’s why I got into zoo conservation as well. I did do internships in field research and captivity and I fell in love with doing captive work.  Field research is great but I didn’t think that was for me so I did my Masters in Zoo Conservation got into zoos and working here.

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is a typical day at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust [MCBT] look like as the assistant curator?

Ambika Yelankha: As the Assistant Curator, my day usually starts off with a general check-up round so I go around and take a look at all the animals with the help of keepers. So, keepers will report to me or the curator depending on if there is anything to report or if everything is normal. Since these animals are nocturnal- most of the reptiles that we have here are nocturnal- there is a lot of activity at the night and we tend to miss out on most of it because we are not active at night. So, we do a general check-up in the morning to see if everybody is okay. If there’s any leftover food, any faeces that need to be removed from enclosures… Kind of decide what enclosures need to be cleaned for that day. That’s basically my morning. It takes about an hour to go around and check up on all the animals especially the babies to see they’re okay. After that, we tend to get into food preparation. So, with the help of keepers, we will prepare food for the herbivores that we have. For carnivores it’s pretty much basic food…so the meat comes frozen. All we have to do is thaw it and serve the food. Whereas for the herbivores it needs a little bit of preparation, a little bit of chopping for appropriately sized animals. After the food has been distributed, I do have some paperwork so I get some two hours of paperwork done. Then, if any medical treatments are required, I also assist the veterinarian with any medicals treatments that are required to be done that day. So currently we have an animal recovering from surgery so we have him on an alert watch so we check up on him every hour. If we have any special needs animals as such that will take up part of the day as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: So, you have a full day really. There’s a saying (actually a quote) that if you pet a dog, you have a full-time job or something like that but you have a zoo full of animals and keepers. When you speak of keepers and their wards, how many are you talking about?

Ambika Yelankha: We have about 50 people working as a team here. And all of them are separated into different designations. We have the Curatorial team, the Education team, the Veterinarian team and then Management. Our combined total is 50 but people are divided into four sections mostly.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. I saw a post where you were proving engaging activity for a reptile. It almost looked like play but of course, it was sort of an enrichment activity. How important is this for captive animals?

Ambika Yelankha: As many people know and it’s one of the reasons why zoos get a lot of negative comments is because you tend to have wild animals that tend to have usually a lot of mental stimulation as well as physical stimulation in the wild. And, when you house them in smaller enclosures -especially in zoos- you need to sort of providing that sort of mental stimulation especially. Otherwise, like all humans, if you’re not active then you tend to deteriorate in your mental health. So that is something that is not been studied a lot in reptiles but is very common for mammals. Zoos actually provide enrichment ideas, especially for cats. You have your ‘carcass feeding’ or a big ball to play with… There’s a lot of enrichment for mammals but people tend to usually ignore reptiles when it comes to this because they are generally seen as lazy but they seem lazy because they need to conserve their energy. They don’t have that much energy as mammals do expend. That does not mean that they do not require mental stimulation and physical stimulation, especially in captivity. So a saltwater crocodiles that can swim from one continent to another continent needs exercise especially when it’s in captivity. Otherwise weight gain becomes a problem. To stop animals from displaying stereotypical behaviour, to stop the decline in mental health, enrichment is provided.

I am now training with an alligator, ‘Ally’. She is the only alligator bred in India, in captivity. So, I do enrichment activities with her and some of our juvenile gharials and also with our commodore dragons. So, depending on the species, the enrichment activities will change. Most of them will include a positive reinforcing stimulus such as food. So, any behaviour I want them to display will be rewarded with food. But if they display negative behaviour there will not be a punishment as such. She is open to display any sort of behaviour she wants but if she wants food, she will kind of do what I ask her to do.

When I’m talking about enrichment in captivity, especially in zoos, the enrichment is trying to get them to how they would naturally. So that is what separates this from circuses because a circus will make them do human-like tricks, jumping through the hoops and things like that. That is not what we are aiming to do. We just want her to swim really fast. Or jump up to get her food which are things that these animals do in the wild. And we just want her to display those same wild behaviour just in captivity. So there is not unnatural behaviour that will be encouraged.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I like the way you differentiated what they do in a circus. You know it is exactly this photograph you had put up on Instagram that made your work so interesting to me. I’m so glad (I saw it). You’ve explained enrichment in much detail. So, one of the most important questions for you and for people who have negative views about zoos, is why are places like the MCBT and zoos important for conservation?

Ambika Yelankha: As manypeople already know MCBT as such has contributed to reptile conservation the most in India. Rom and Zia Whitaker started this facility because the crocodilian population especially the marsh crocodile and the gharial had declined so much, they were about to be critically endangered. Therefore, they started this breeding facility where most of the mugger crocodiles that were bred here were reintroduced in the wild. And that is how we still have a large population of mugger crocodiles in India right now. So, zoos as such, especially those focused on conservation breeding-especially for critically endangered animals- is very essential because one of the most popular stories are currently with critically endangered species is with the right rhino. Where the only last male passed away and the species has been declared functionally extinct. But there are two females in captivity which people are hoping to breed and bring back the species. So, for animals that have been hunted to that extent, bringing them back would only be from a captive place as such. So, zoos play a very important role in conservation breeding. Apart from that, zoos play a very important role in conservation education. I think, pretty much everybody saw wild animals for the first time in a zoo. As a kid, the parents would have taken them to a zoo and that’s where they see a wild animal and you get to learn about an animal that you didn’t even think existed in this world. I think it sort of builds a sort of curiosity.

We have a great education programme at MCBT as well as explaining why reptiles are important. Why you shouldn’t have an irrational fear of them.  Irrational fear of snakes is generational. It’s passed on by grandparents, parents and things like that.  So, if they visit the zoo and we help kind of eradicate that fear, maybe that person will not kill a snake if it enters his house next time. So, we’re hoping that education plays a big role in kind of eliminating fears especially of reptiles and kind of builds that curiosity…okay, maybe they want to join conservation. Because more people in conservation, the better.

Lalitha Krishnan: I think education and awareness makes a big difference. Tell me if I’m wrong but is it more likely that a younger child or a younger person is more likely to be influenced by you than say, an adult who has lived his life in fear?

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

Lalitha Krishnan: The last I visited a zoo was in Nanital aeons ago and to tell you the truth I had never seen healthier animals in any other zoo. They also had the opportunity for the public to sponsor animals which was pretty unique back in the day. I believe the MCBT also does that.  But are people as receptive to sponsoring reptiles?

Ambika Yelankha: I think, with MCBT especially there are a lot of sponsors and a lot of people adopting the animals. Because the curiosity for snakes and crocodiles has exponentially grown over the years. And the outreach programmes done by MCBT has really made a big impact. My coworkers travel around the country and visit schools and hospitals to try to bring these species to light. And, they talk about why conserving them and why respecting their boundaries is also very important. So, I think these outreach programmes have played a very big role as well as social media. We have a big following on social media and a big following for our founders as well since they have done great conservation work for the country. They have a, I would say a fan following, very loyal people. So, the adoption scheme is going quite good especially the sponsorships. There are a lot of people who want to adopt crocodiles.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, are these people from India or abroad mostly?

Ambika Yelankha: Most of our adopters are Indian. We do have a couple of people from abroad. We have a lot of parents adopting for their children’s birthdays. Birthday gifts…

Lalitha Krishnan:  How nice. Very cool. They’re changing the whole mindset.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, when you’re speaking of outreach and schools, what kind of schools do you go to? Are they private or govt? Or do you cover the whole spectrum?

Ambika Yelankha: I think the entire spectrum is covered. We started with govt. schools especially around Chennai because we are situated in Chennai. It was first initiated in all the govt. schools in and around Chennai and the radius slowly expanded from there. Now we have sister organisations that have taken up/are doing it in different states as well. So we have a bunch of organisations that collaborate with us and do it in the state that they’re present in as in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It started with govt. schools but we started advertising it more on our social media and that got the attention of public schools and private schools as well. We’re now in collaboration with companies that will sponsor our travels and things like that and are going to schools all around the country right now, including the North East especially. Now we’re concentrating on schools and hospitals in the northeast and are hoping that it’ll be fruitful.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, if some school were to approach you directly you would make a presentation to them too?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, definitely. Before the pandemic, we used to go to the schools. Any school that calls us, we will happily go and give them a presentation. So for multiple classes, I think my colleagues went every day for two weeks to give talks in multiple classrooms. Snakes, especially are a big fascination. King Cobra always brings out a lot of screams from the children.

Lalitha Krishnan:  But, I bet it’s better than sitting behind a desk and looking at a textbook. That’s cool. So many renowned animal centres around the world like MCBT have breeding programmes that are bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction like the Arabian Oryx, the California condor or the Amur Leopard. I know MCBT also has great success when it comes to captive breeding. Could you elaborate on that?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, MCBT started with the goal of captive breeding and reintroduction. That was the main reason why the entire park was built in the first place. The first main species that was concentrated on was the Indian population of crocodiles. India has three species of crocodiles which is the marsh crocodile, the gharial and the saltwater crocodile. So, the main aim was to bring all three back to sustainable population because the Wild Life Act was published, crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction for their meat and their hide. So, after the Wild Life Act was published, hunting them was banned. It was still a big struggle because the population was so fragmented that without the captive breeding programme it would very difficult to bring them back to a sustainable population. Rom and Zai Whitaker started this park where animals and eggs that were collected in the wild- to ensure a 100% hatch rate- collected eggs from the wild and also a couple of animals from the wild. All this with permission from the forest dept., with permission from the state govt. and the central govt. and they were bred here, especially the marsh crocodiles. Once they reached a size and an age where the crocodiles could fend for themselves, they were reintroduced into pre-selected sights. So researchers from MCBT went to these wild sites and you know, did the research and saw what would be the best sites for reintroduction throughout India. These particular sites were selected and marsh crocodiles were transported from here to those sites and reintroduced. Now we have a thriving population of marsh crocodiles in India.

Lalitha Krishnan:  It’s a huge project. Getting so many permissions to start with and to ensure that these marsh crocodiles adapt and survive in so many different parts of India is quite amazing.

Ambika Yelankha: Because the work doesn’t stop after you reintroduce the animals. You have to constantly monitor the reintroduced animals to see how they are doing. Because once you have reintroduced them and they are not doing great and reducing again then your site was not great then you have to change sites again. It’s a lot of work that continues after your animals have left the facility as well.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Right. So, you’re still looking after them for a long time. Being a zoologist can have its perks apart from the obvious one of working with animals. You seem to have travelled/worked in many countries. Tell us about your experiences. I‘m sure the young people who are listening and want to be zoologists will be even more inspired.

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, I ‘ve had the privilege of working in a couple of places around the world. That was mostly during my Master’s degree. During my Bachelor’s degree, most of my internships and volunteering were within India. I did my Master in Zoo Conservation from Manchester Metropolitan University. Through the university…they provided a lot of opportunities, especially since I was doing Zoo Conservation… they had a collaboration with Chester Zoo which is in the UK. I got to do a six-month internship with Chester zoo. So, basically, while most college students go to their classrooms, my classroom was the zoo. So for six months, I had to take my class in the zoo. I had a lot of hands on experience. I got to do my Masters thesis as well at the zoo with some incredible researchers, incredible scientists. People who have been involved with zoos for over 40 years. I got to learn a lot of things.

Along with that, we did have the opportunity to go do a field project as well for which we were taken to Tanzania in Africa. We went to over eight national parks kind of doing research projects.  I selected the grassland density of butterflies. I got to walk around the savannah with armed guards because hyenas were lurking right behind the bushes where I had to collect data. It was an experience that I shall never forget.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can imagine. I’m sure you have some particularly memorable moments which are part of these experiences at the zoo and the savannah.

Ambika Yelankha: When we were in Tanzania we were camping…so, the campgrounds are in the middle of the savannah. So, basically, you’re living inside the protected area. They warn you saying, the animals have become quite comfortable with visitors and do not shy away from entering campsites even if there are people there. So we were always told to be on the lookout. When we were in the Serengeti and we were camping out in the night, a bunch of us girls went to use the washroom and we opened the door and there were three hyenas right inside the washroom. We screamed and the hyenas kind of -I don’t know what the sound was-but I would say, they sort of screamed. They ran in one direction and we ran in another direction. It was almost comical.

Lalitha Krishnan: But scary at the same time. For both animals and humans. Lovely. So, you know, do you take volunteers and what sort of work can someone who wants to volunteer expect to do?

Ambika Yelankha: MCBT has a great volunteering programme as well as internship programmes.  Currently, due to the pandemic, we are not taking any volunteers at moment but we will soon be opening programmes for people. And, anybody from any background can apply for this. It doesn’t have to necessarily have to be a zoology background. You can be from any background if you want to come and work with animals just for a week. That’s also OK. You get to be part of all of our four sections other than the management section. If you’re interested in the curatorial aspect you get to follow our keepers around, kind of observe what they do. And they’ll teach you the ropes of taking care of the animals. If you are more of a people person, then you can always tail our education officers who’ll teach you how zoo education works. How it is talking about animals. There are a lot of myths and false beliefs about animals and how you need to tackle those things. So you can do that. We also have some veterinary students that want to come and volunteer. They get to work with our doctor here and learn how reptile medication works.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. You said you can be from any background. What about an age limit? Do you have an age limit?

Ambika Yelankha: As long as you’re 18 and above, there’s no upper limit for the age.

Lalitha Krishnan: You might just find me at your doorstep one of these days. So, I usually ask my guests to share a word or a term or concept something significant for them. Would you like to share something?

Ambika Yelankha: I may have just about have a few words (of advice) for people who want to get into conservation and study wildlife. I would say if you have the opportunity and you have the financial aid, please go ahead and spend that to further your education. Otherwise please look into getting internships and volunteering programmes rather than taking out loans. Don’t get into debt to try and get into this field. Because this field will not help you pay your debt back.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s if you study abroad right? Can’t you study here in India?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, you can study it here. It’s quite cheap as well. There’s the Wildlife Institute of India, there’s NCBS and ….. There’s ATREE and a lot of other institutions that offer you programmes to further your education while they get you internships and volunteering opportunities. If that is the case, yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good advice. Thank you so much.  OK Bye.

Check out the useful links provided above by Ambika Yelanka. I hope you enjoyed Episode 23, stay tuned. I’m Lalitha Krishna and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read all show notes right here on my blog Earthy Matters. If you know someone whose story should be shared do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation podcast is available on several platforms so do check it out. Till then stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual

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.

P1210642P1160444

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.

P1160032-2
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.

 

P1160135
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.

 

P1160109
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