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 all puffed up Triumphant rooster
The banksia that blocked my view
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A year ago I realized I want to spend the rest of life working for wildlife conservation. It wasn’t a midlife crisis moment. On the contrary, what should have been obvious all along dawned on me rather slowly.
How does one begin to live the dream?
My new wannabe goal lacks the prerequisite academic backing. I don’t know anyone influential enough to open doors for me. Nor am I a donor. Scientific papers are mostly beyond my realm of understanding. I don’t recognize every other bird or ungulate. What I do know is that it’s not too late.
I want to get up close and personal with wildlife. Go out on field trips. Be involved. Inspire. Document. Help a researcher. Assist a vet. Be better informed. Tell the world. Invest in serious skills. Attempt to bridge that gap between scientists and citizens. Do what needs to be done 101%. For the rest of my life!
A friend, also a WII alumnus, happened to mention Wildlife Institute of India’s IV course on Wildlife Conservation for Wildlife Enthusiasts. It’s exactly what I was looking for. They hadn’t put in an age limit, so I applied. I was selected and it was everything I hoped it to be. And more. The ten-day course was divided into lecture-style classes and a field trek/trip into a core forest area.
A second revelation
I hate stereotyping but in startling contrast to the ‘government babus’ in my head, WII staff were a breath of fresh air. I interacted with charismatic and enterprising individuals from various departments. Their passion is admirable, their involvement, inspiring and their generosity in sharing, genuine.
The path of an environmentalist, as you and I know, is not an easy one. A few of our mentors joined WII as students and chose never to leave. 15-20 years on, these research scientists continue to battle on at great personal cost. Graciously, they make time to motivate ordinary people like myself. It’s humbling.
“When someone has spent decades devoted to observing certain creatures, their observations are not to be taken lightly.”-Carl Safina
I agree. If there’s one way to learn, it’s to walk with the experts. As a trekker, the highlight of the course for me was visiting core forest areas on foot. After a few days in the field with Dr. R Suresh Kumar and Dr. Lakshminarayana—both storehouses of information—my respect for conservationists has risen several-fold.
It’s one thing to learn in the classroom about how elephants communicate. It’s another, to be startled awake by trumpeting a few yards away from where you lie, trapped in a flimsy sleeping bag.
This course is undoubtedly a significant one. The WII campus, tucked away in a green haven, hosts a great number of wild inhabitants. I am honestly astounded by WII’s collective wealth of expertise and by the impact they’re making, unknown to the rest of the world. I’m sure my course mates echo my sentiments. We’re a mixed bunch of adults from diverse professional backgrounds, different states, and varying ages. We were a rather enthusiastic and animated bunch: absorbing, theorizing, questioning and arguing. I can now say with conviction that there are 14 more Indian citizens in this world, who are better informed, convinced, and committed to saving our natural wealth.
Scope of conservation lectures
Biogeography of India/History of Indian Natural History/Achievements/Challenges and opportunities in wildlife conservation /Wildlife of Himalayas: conservation through science/ Large carnivore conservation in India/Saving Tigers in a human-dominated landscape/Science and management of tiger reintroduction/ Elephant conservation challenges/ Wetland conservation in India/Saving our sea turtles/ turtle trade/ Fish conservation in India/Dealing with wildlife crimes/A need for developing wildlife forensics/ Managing wild animals in distress/ Dealing with snakes, venomous and non-venomous in India/ Introduction to classic natural history books.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This beautiful cuckoo graced the deodar outside for just a few minutes. The call was a distinct giveaway but I wasn’t fast enough to capture it. The video and stills were shot through a glass door so they’re not very sharp.