A rare sighting of a bird is something that birders look forward to. While we were birding at Valley School, we discussed about the sighting of a Black Baza in Muthanallur lake, a rare sighting that we did not want to miss. Despite being tired we decided to try our luck. We could not get to see the Baza, but witnessed a drama enacted by a pair of common coots.
While we were on the tank bund, we noticed a pair of Coots making agitated alarm calls.
We saw a juvenile Brahminy kite swooping in for a kill directly amidst the coots.
The reason for the alarm of the coots became clear when we noticed the chicks that were swimming along! The Coots made a valiant attempt at chasing away the Kite.
The chicks immediately went for a dive into water. One chick dives in first.
Another chick dived in, while the adults try to relentlessly chase away the Brahminy Kite.
The adults didn’t give up till the Brahminy flew away.
The lovely chicks resurfaced!
The chicks discussed with a parent on what happened!
The parents then guided them away to a safer place.
The parents moved the chicks to the safety of Water Hyacinths.
Navratri kolu with hand made dolls in Mythili Ramesh’s house
Navaratri is the celebration of the shakti . This festival is devoted solely to the Mother Goddess. In Tamil Nadu, people set up steps and place idols on them. This is known as golu .In the evening women in neighborhood invite each other to visit their homes to view Kolu displays, they exchange gifts and sweets. These nine days are filled with special pujas, yagnas, homas, fasting, meditations and singing. Golu or Kolu is the display of dolls during Navratri in South India especially in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Kerala.
The Marapachi dolls in my Mothers house
‘Marapachi’ Bommai is an important part of Kolu. During display, the wooden couple is beautifully adorned with colorful attires and jewellery. The Marapachi dolls are made of Red Sanders tree . Earlier days this is the toy given to kids as a teeth soother when they were teething . Kids are exposed to the wood which has high medicinal value. As a child I remember playing with these dolls. I used to never get tired dressing them up with clothes and beads.
Marapachi dolls decked up as Thirupathi Venkatchalapathy and Alamelu Thayar – Mythili Ramesh
The Marapachi dolls are a proud possession for many people and are handed down generations. There is also a tradition of parents gifting their married daughter Marapachi bommai so that she can start Navratri Kolu display in her house. And also it holds the monuments of the marriage occassion when there were no photos.
Pterocarpus santalinus Linn.f., commonly known as Red sanders, belongs to the family Fabaceae. It is endemic to India and considered globally endangered, with illegal harvest being a key threat. The plant is renowned for its characteristic timber of exquisite color, beauty, and superlative technical qualities. The red wood yields a natural dye santalin, which is used in coloring pharmaceutical preparations and foodstuffs. The heartwood can accumulate various elements and rare earth elements like strontium cadmium, zinc, copper and uranium having potential applications as control rods and moderators in nuclear reactors.
Medicinal values of Red Sanders:
It has been used in inducing vomiting and treating eye diseases, mental aberrations,rheumatic pain and ulcers.
A paste of the wood is used to give cooling effect, applied externally for inflammations and head-ache.
The wood in combination with other drugs is also prescribed for snake bites and scorpion stings in traditional medicine.
It is really amazing to know how this valuable tree has been incorporated in our traditions.
Pterocarpus santalinus- Red Sanders
But sadly indeed illegal felling and smuggling of red sanders sandalwood trees has been generating huge money for the past decade. Increased demand in the global market is the reason for its large scale smuggling.
For a detailed report on smuggling of Red Sanders click here
The forest of lichen-covered oaks with orchids drooping down their trunks interspersed with brilliant rhododendrons in bloom was worth the effort of trekking despite the nippy weather and intermittent rain. While the mist cleared and the sun rays warmed our spirits,the birds songs became louder.
Orchids on a tree
Rhododendrons in bloom
Woodpeckers on a dead tree
A dead tree covered with lichens and orchids caught our attention as we noticed a bird on it. It was a woodpecker, on a closer look we found two woodpeckers. One of the birders identified it as the Darjeeling woodpecker, one was a male and the other a female. Both were pecking on the tree and suddenly Mrs.Woodpecker disappeared inside a hole. She started to throw wood stubs from the hole.
Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes at the start of the breeding season, usually in late April and May. Nesting and roosting cavities a re usually only slightly larger then the width of the bird and are either round, rectangular, or gourd-shaped. Woodpeckers are very selective when choosing sites for their holes, tending to look for dead trees that have a hard outer shell and a softer inner cavity. A pair will work together to help build the nest, incubate the eggs and raise their young. However, in most species the male does most of the nest excavation and takes the night shift while incubating the eggs. A nest will usually consist of 2–5 round white eggs.
One woman in the group said “In birds too females have to do all the house hold chores, I thought it would be different in birds”
Mrs.Woodpecker throwing wood stubs out of the hollow
When the group was busy debating on Mr and Mrs.Woodpecker’s role in making the nest, Mrs.Woodpecker flew away. The debate ended when we saw Mr.Woodpecker flying inside the hollow and started throwing chunks of wood.
Disclaimer: At no point we were close to the nesting site of the woodpeckers. These were clicked using a 420 mm lens, from the size of the birds in the click it is clearly evident that we were pretty far away from them.
As a child I used to hide behind the fridge when the temple elephant passed by our street. But I always wanted to watch it from a distance of course. On a recent trip to Valparai I was lucky enough to watch these gentle giants. We had accompanied a team which is working on the Elephant Human conflict. Ganesh Raghunathan from NCF was alerting the citizens about the presence of three elephants in their vicinity. These elephants were grazing over a hill. I was in the company of three wildlife biologists talking in hushed tones about the elephants. Watch the video about their amazing work on using technology to alert citizens.
This movie, filmed by renowned filmmaker Saravanakumar focuses on the coexistence measures initiated by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) on the Valparai plateau in the Anamalai hills. These current initiatives are based on long-term (1994 – 2014) scientific monitoring of elephants.
This elephant was watching us
Elephants grazing on the hill
It took some time to overcome my childhood fear of these gentle giants. I finally sat down with them watching the sun set behind the hill. After this trip I came back and started looking for information on elephants.
From prehistoric times man has looked to wild and domestic animals for sources of herbal remedies. Both folklore and living examples provide accounts of how medicinal plants were obtained by observing the behaviour of animals. Animals too learn about the details of self-medication by watching each other.
In the 1930s, the late Mr. M. Manal, founder of Himalaya, traveled to Burma, where he observed locals feeding some plant roots to restless elephants to calm them. When he returned to India, he had the plant, Rauwolfia serpentina, clinically tested and discovered it was a natural tranquilizer with anti-hypertensive properties. After research and testing, Serpina, the world’s first natural anti-hypertensive medicine was launched in 1934.
Elephants are intelligent and have very good knowledge of natural medicines. Zoologists and botanists are only just beginning to understand how wild animals use plant medicines to prevent and cure illness. The emerging science of Zoopharmacognosy studies how animals use leaves, roots, seeds and minerals to treat a variety of ailments. Indigenous cultures have had knowledge of animal self-medication for centuries; many folk remedies have come from noticing which plants animals eat when they are sick.
When a pregnant African elephant was observed for over a year, a discovery was made. The elephant kept regular dietary habits throughout her long pregnancy but the routine changed abruptly towards the end of her term. Heavily pregnant, the elephant set off in search of a shrub that grew 17 miles from her usual food source. The elephant chewed and ate the leaves and bark of the bush, then gave birth a few days later. The elephant, it seemed, had sought out this plant specifically to induce her labor. The same plant (a member of the borage family) also happens to be brewed by Kenyan women to make a labor-inducing tea.
Careya arborea has very good antioxidant and antimicrobial properties
The feeding behaviour of Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) with food reference was studied in Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary in Odisha during 2007 to 2009. Though the study area houses a good number of plant species only 71 species were identified as elephant fodder plants. The food trail of elephant was observed as twig breaking, bark peeling, branch breaking, stem twisting uprooting and flower plucking in different regions of study area during different seasons. Alteration of predominantly browsing strategy with that of grazing around the year was related to seasonal variation of food plants. The elephants extensively fed on the plant species like Careya arborea, Kydia calycina, Helicteres isora, Mallotus philippensis, Aegle marmelos, Zizyphus mauritiona, Bauhinia racemosa, Bauhinia vahlii, Mimosa pudica, Asparagus racemosus, Smilax zeylanica and Dioscorea species. They were fond of Madhuca indica (Mahua) flowers in winter and fruits of Mangifera indica (Mango) in summer. They were never found feeding on Tectona grandis and Eucalyptus maculata inside the study area.
Careya Arborea fruits one of the favorite food of the elephants
Mallotus philipensis is a broad spectrum antimicrobial agent
The rain lashes out on the wind shield as we drive down the winding roads to our destination Valparai . Wondering if the rain could hinder our plans on this trip , I demolish that thought immediately, rain being one of the main character of a rainforest . The huge trees that reach out to the sky with creepers clambering over them accompanied by the ferns and wild flowers form a wall of greenery on the mountains . As the rain mellows down to a drizzle I step out to experience the faint drizzle. The rain has made sure that anything and everything in the forest is studded with rain drops.
Blue bottle butterfly mud puddling
To my delight I noticed lots of butterflies mudpuddling on the ground . These butterflies get most of their nutrition from flower nectar. Though rich in sugar, nectar lacks some important nutrients the butterflies need for reproduction. For those, butterflies visit puddles. By sipping moisture from mud puddles, butterflies take in salts and minerals from the soil. This behavior is called puddling, and is mostly seen in male butterflies. That’s because males incorporate those extra salts and minerals into their sperm. When butterflies mate, the nutrients are transferred to the female through the sperm.
Common Nawab mud puddling
Common map butterfly mud puddling
As I move on to have a closer look at the ferns interspesrsed with wild flowers .These tiny flowers are stunning with intricate details in all colors and shapes.These wild flowers include many endangered ones which need to be conserved .
The occasional chirping of the birds and the excellent weather made the walk a pleasant one. I did hear a loud cackling sound and my attention gripped on to a pair of Hornbills on a fig tree . The male hornbill and the female hornbill were conversing with each other probably discussing which direction to fly or where to have lunch . After a short discussion both flew away in the same direction. These birds are really huge and when they flap their wings to fly they make a characteristic sound .The loud whooshing noise emanating from hornbills as they fly is produced by gaps in the hornbill’s wing feathers and air being compressed in these gaps. Large hornbills lack feather that allow for smooth air flow. The wing beats of some species can be heard a half mile away.These hornbills are vital to forests as they are important seed dispersal agents to many endangered trees .
Incidentally “Saving Hornbills is saving forests ” was the caption for my son Suhas’s drawing competition conducted by the NCF to promote awareness about their hornbill conservation programs . I learnt about hornbills when I was looking out for information on them on the net. Suhas’s drawing was shared and like by many on facebook. As a result his drawing was featured in this years calendar.
Hornbills are majestic birds with a distinct beak . Hornbill have long curving bills that are mostly yellow and can reach lengths of 13 inches. The bill is an integral part if the hornbill’s skull and is used by the bird to feed, fight, preen, make nests and keep snakes from attacking the vulnerable parts of their body.
Great hornbill – Sketch by Suhas
Hornbills primarily feed on fruit, figs and insects. Many species collect fruit in their neck pouch and hide them in caches. Some have to ability to clasp fruit, insects and other food with the tip of their bill and deftly toss it in the air and catch it their gullet like a person catching a piece of popcorn in their mouth.
Hornbills are generally monogamous. Many mate for life. Hornbills nest in tree cavities or rock crevasses that are sealed shut except for a narrow, vertical slit. The female is sealed inside the nest . The slit is about a half inch wide: wide enough to pass food through but narrow enough to seal out potential predators such monkeys raptors and other predators that feed on eggs and young birds. Males bring up to 13 meals of fruit a day to nesting females. One male was observed delivering 150 figs in one visit, regurgitated one after another . The females reportedly like some variety to their diet and have refused food if they are brought to much of the same thing.The great Indian hornbill feed in fruit, primarily figs, plucked from among the foliage.
Father and mother hornbill coaxing the young one to come out of the nest by offering a fig
Caterpillars are creepy? Each time I would see a worm or a caterpillar wriggling I would let out a shriek that would stun people around me. They sniggered when they found the reason. Times change, now I adore caterpillars. I got into the company of some ardent butterfly watchers who would not mind lying on a slushy floor or walk miles together in pursuit of butterflies. With them I started to learn fascinating facts about butterflies. Butterflies exhibit mimicry, they migrate, plan amazingstrategies to avoid predators and the list goes on. One life time is not enough to learn about them. To understand butterflies better one has to learn botany as well.
On one instance I had collected a Pioneer caterpillar from a Capparis plant from one of my trails. When I got back home I kept the caterpillar in a container and offered capparis leaves which I had collected from my neighborhood. The caterpillar did not touch the leaves at all. I was worried as to why it was not eating. Then I realized that I had given it the wrong leaves, my kids giggled when they found me trying counsel the caterpillar by pleading “swalpa adjust maadi, tomorrow I will get capparis leaves to eat”. I panicked because if the caterpillar did not eat it would die. I searched thoroughly for the right plant in my neighborhood and finally found it near a railway line. What a relief it was when I found that the caterpillar started eating. This caterpillar ate and finally turned into a beautiful butterfly below. This butterfly taught me to identify a plant which I will never forget .
On our visit to FRLHT we found two species of Aristolochia which had eclectic patterns on them. Trying to figure out a pattern in nature is a pretty engaging activity by itself. Though there were so many other flowering plants around, this flower with its psychedelic pattern kept capturing our attention on it for a long time. This pattern of the flower of Aristolochia elagans looks like a fractal image. These patterns and its charecteristic smell attracts pollinators inside the flower and after the insect is brushed with pollens it is let out. A detailed decsription can be found here .
Pattern on Aristolochia elegans
Dutchmans pipe (Aristolochia elegans) is native to South America. Richmond Birdwing butterfly lays its eggs on Aristolochia elegans instead of its host plant (Pararistolochia praevenosa ) which belongs to the same family as A.elegans. Probably the butterflies look out for larval host plants by checking its chemical constituents. So the caterpillars that come out of eggs that are laid on A.elegans do not survive as this is not the plant it is supposed to lay eggs. Aristolochia elegans is a mojor threat to the Richmond birdwing birdwing butterfly.
Despite its survival mechanisms to evade predators, sometimes these butterflies do tend to lay eggs on the plants belonging to the same family (Aristolochiae), but different species, as a result the larvae dies. After the Capparis incident I had assumed that butterflies cannot make mistakes but now I realized that they do tend to make mistakes . There is no end to learning when we start wondering about facts that fascinate us.
Aristolochia ringens This is not a larval host plant for butterflies but possible that butterflies can be fooled by the chemical constituents of this plant and lay eggs on it , resulting in the failure of offspring which may not survive .
Plant taxonomists are figuring out ways to identify the plants in a more accurate way. Aristolochia species have very good medicinal uses. The fractal descriptors provide an accurate and reliable method of discrimination of the plant species. It is a powerful method for analyzing plants using only their leaves. This is a remarkable ﬁnding, as the leaves are almost always available and the computational technique that is simple and inexpensive. This study will be useful for analysing ethanopharmacological field data, with the aim to select species with most prominent impact to treat a single disease .
Snow capped mountains, lush green grass, wee little lambs. I had read about these when I was five years old in the book Heidi. I just imagined myself in the snow, making snowmen, having so much fun out in the mountains! But, it was just a dream. A few years later, I just let go of that funny little dream and finally the opportunity did come! One really normal day, my mother asked me a question. ‘Do you want to go to this trek in Himachal Pradesh?’ I was not so interested at that point of time but I kept on asking her about what would be there, what we could do there, what temperature would it be up there and so on. I was getting a bit interested after she had shown me the schedule of the places we would be going to but I just got shocked when she said that she will not be coming to the trek! I was scared but still wanted to take decisions on my own. Finally after a while I said yes and decided to go to the trek.
View of the clouds from the plane
On the day when we started the trek, we were all getting really nervous. when we started it felt pretty easy but since it was the slope and high altitude, it started feeling much more difficult so we took rest in between for a while. On the first day of the trek, when we were first pitching our tents, all we wanted to do was go into our tents and snuggle into our sleeping bags! We used to start early in the morning and we would walk 6-7 kilometers a day to reach our destination by afternoon. Then we would pitch out tents and settle down and admire the panoramic view of the snow capped mountains around us. In the evening we would make our own bonfire to keep ourselves warm.
How to pitch a tent ?
One incident that happened in the hotel was that there was a scorpion in our bed! The scorpion was really close to us and i thought it had bit me. Manohar uncle and his crew came with a knife and a lemon squeezer and many more terrifying things with them. On closer examination it was found that a thorn that had pricked me. Thank goodness! They took the thorn out and it did hurt a lot.
7 days in the wild
The best thing I liked about the trek were the people around me. They were really nice and kind. I could tell them anything I want whenever I would want. Manohar uncle would wake us up with tea saying, “Chidiya! gudiya! utho! chai peelo!” and in the night he would come to our tents to give us hot chocolate.
Priya aunty would help us whenever possible whatever the matter was and was really kind to us. Kavya, one of the trekkers, made us feel that she was a family member and we could tell her anything. Zohra was a really great leader. She would always be busy with her plans and would really take care of us.
Bhavna Menon talking about Tiger conservation
Radha aunty had given us a speech about the ‘Women of the Mahabharata’ which was very interesting. There was another speech by Bhavana about Tigers. In her talk she mentioned that poachers kill tigers to make money. She told us a lot on tiger conservation. Then Radha aunty told that even the ‘Kshatriyas’ would take the tigers skin and put it on their walls to show their bravery and manliness which sounded so absurd. These speeches made the trek much more interesting and we did learn quite a bit.
This was my first trip with a group of new people, initially we were hesitant to talk and as the days passed by we became friends. On the last day at the railway station everybody in the group was crying and hugging each other, including me. I miss everybody in the group and the hot chocolate in the night and the special ginger tea in the morning.
I like to observe insects, butterflies, birds and trees and their interconnections with each other.With keen interest in urban wildlife and butterflies I have reared some of them. Blogging is my religion. I love to share my experiences in my blog https://wanttobeanomad.wordpress.com.
Some of my stories have been published in The Traveller.in - Hindu .
I am a freelance communication consultant with special interest in organizations that work for a social cause.