Book Review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

of-birds-and-bird-song

Book review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

Edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola

Aleph Book Company, published 2012

I have alluded to this exceptional book in a previous post, and have been wanting to publish this review for many weeks now.

Once in a rare while, we come across a book that has rich topical value, but which can also be read simply for the elegance of its language. Of Birds and Birdsong is one such book (M.R. James’ Ghost Stories is another that readily comes to mind). If you possess a love for the English language, you’ll enjoy this book immensely even if the immediate topic – birds – is not of any great interest.

Madhavaiah Krishnan (1912-1996) was not just an ornithologist. He was a naturalist and photographer par excellence. For a man with so brilliant a mind he was a failure academically, and tried his hand at an astonishing variety of vocations (including implausibly, goat grazing). But he was a prolific writer and wrote a column for The Statesman which ran for an astounding forty six years, the last piece being published on the day of his death. He was also an artful photographer, producing masterful black and white images from the natural world using equipment he had rigged together himself and dubbed the Super Ponderosa. Krishnan served on the advisory committee of the BNHS, on the steering committee for Project Tiger, and on the Indian Board of Wildlife. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Krishnan

This book brings together various pieces Krishnan wrote about birds, over the years. Some of the pieces are quaint given their vintage, like the ones on partridge and gamecock rearing, and pigeon post. Many others are short, straightforward profiles of certain species – the ones on the sarus crane, painted stork, grey junglefowl and changeable hawk eagle for instance. The more delightful ones are infused with personalized observations and anecdotes. There is an essay on the dangers of putting up nest-side hides, and on the precautions to be taken to prevent nest abandonment. There is another very short piece on the significance of the siesta in the animal and bird world. There are two entire sections devoted to pieces that deal with bird calls, and bird flight respectively.

As I have mentioned before, one cannot but help feel that Krishnan’s keen sense of observation was in a word, staggering. Wondering about the allusion to the sweet voice of the parakeet in Indian poetry while the call itself is a harsh screech in reality, Krishnan observed that the rose ringed parakeet has a “low, long, tremulous, ineffably sweet call” when summoning its young to the mouth of the nest-hole. Elsewhere, he painstakingly counted the number of times a hoopoe folded and unfolded its crest in the duration of a minute, and observed how the flicking of the crest expressed “the entire emotional range of the bird”. On yet another occasion he writes about trying to time the rapping beat of a woodpecker with a stopwatch.

The writing is often laced with a subtly wicked sense of humour.  In the chapter on birds that can be seen on the “interminable perches” of telegraph wires by the railway tracks, he says what can be principally seen are birds that like to perch high and pounce. “However, it is wiser not to be to exact on such matters. I once saw an undoubted quail planted squarely on a passing telegraph wire. What business can any quail possibly have atop this unnatural perch? I do not know, but I am almost sure the quail did not either.

In surmising why the white-browed wagtail is not as accomplished a singer as the magpie robin, Krishnan has a clever explanation. “It is all a matter of tails. If it could jerk its tail right over its head, and fan it out as the Magpie Robin does, no doubt it would sing as wildly and wonderfully, but being only a wagtail, it is content with its modest, sweet little song.

I cannot look at white headed babblers now without this scintillating description coming to mind. “They go hopping along to some corner, and one bird turns a dead leaf over while its fellows look on with a critical slant of their white heads – then, suddenly, the party dissolves in hysterical squeaks, and whirrs across on weak wings to another corner of the compound, where they proceed at once to turn over dead leaves again. Clearly, the birds are daft, but they are a feature of Madras gardens (however nominal the garden) and will always be. By sheer esprit de corps and an inability to take life too seriously, they have prevailed where their betters have given up.

Once every few pages, you are guaranteed to come across a word you’ve never heard of. Krishnan’s vocabulary was immense, and his love for finding the right word was deep. Whoever thought the grey wagtail’s belly was gamboge in colour? I was piqued by use of the word volplaning on multiple occasions and looked it up. Perhaps I’ve seen it used before, but I cannot recollect it.

Like any exceptionally good writer, Krishnan could be brilliantly evocative when he needed to. Sample this. “I remember spending a delightful hour beside the lake at Siruvani. The great, verdant trees and feathery clumps of bamboos on the shores mirrored in the still water to endow it with a dark, viridian calm. It was almost a scene of idyllic quiet, except that it was all too wildly beautiful to be idyllic, too like something out of a barbarian dream of paradise, and a barbarian that I am, it held me fascinated. Then an egret came flying round the corner, flying low over the water, dazzlingly white and clear against the profound umbers and greens of the reflected forest, each slow, rhythmic stroke of the wings duplicated in the mirror below. Halfway across, the bird stalled and hung in the air, the pinions of the forwardly directed wings splayed out with the braking action, the horn-black, yellow-footed legs dangling and almost touching their twin image on the lake’s surface, the head and neck stretched sinuously forward as it scrutinized something in the water below. For a moment then the stillness was perfect, and for that moment it was no dream but paradise in fact.

Krishnan was a voracious reader and there are umpteen literary references and allusions scattered all through the book – Lockwood Kipling, William Blake, Richard Lovelace, et al. Moreover there are plenty of references from nature writers of his and earlier generations – men like Konrad Lorenz, Douglas Dewar, ‘Eha’, G.M. Henry, G.P. Sanderson and David Cunningham.

Literary aesthete aside, the book has a wealth of information on over a hundred species of birds from the subcontinent. Much of this is derived from painstaking personal observation over the years. And the anecdotal narrative makes it good fun to read, for most part.

In summation, I found this book breathtaking. If you are reading this blog, you probably have some sort of interest in the natural world and if you do, this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf.

There is a useful ‘notes’ section at the back of the book which among other things, gives the current names of many of the birds. I however felt that these alone could have been footnoted along with the text, for more convenient referencing rather than being placed separately and at the end. But this is admittedly a minor inconvenience.

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Trip Report: JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi, Dec 2013

Trip Report:        JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi

Dates:                   24-26 Dec 2013

Written:               26 Dec 2013

Kali Adventure Camp

This trip started off with some misgivings, but found ample recompense eventually. I’ve long wanted to visit JLR’s famed Ganesh Gudi camp, but it was booked out for the Christmas holidays even twenty days in advance. I was therefore constrained to book myself (with my six year old son) into the Kali Adventure Camp, twenty one kilometers from Ganesh Gudi, and a little under 500 kms from home. Incidentally the 500 klicks were doable in six hours excluding a half hour breakfast break and a half hour haircut break at Dharwad (this last being sheer whimsy, I desperately needed one and my GPS took me into Dharwad’s suburbs in any case).

The Kali Adventure Camp does not lend itself to the most favourable of first impressions. For one, it is sited right at the edge of Dandeli town. For another, it is hardly prepossessing in terms of ambience and general upkeep. To put it rather uncharitably but possibly accurately, it reeks of KSTDC rather than JLR. Moreover the place was a chaotic mess when I reached, with groups of people waiting around and the harried staff busy co-ordinating rafting rides for them. Day trippers mostly, from other resorts or homestays. JLR has a monopoly on the Kali river rafting and the crowds therefore head here. Amidst all this confusion, I had a tough time trying to figure out what I was going to be doing for the rest of the day. More than once, I was tempted to simply leave forfeiting the payment made.

Anyway, the evening was spent in a short coracle ride in the vicinity of the camp (the camp being sited along the Kali river). Wooly necked stork, river tern, common sandpiper, white browed wagtail and green bee eater later, we drew up by a tree I cannot identify, with small berries fruiting on it. An assortment of species were clustered on its branches, and we spent the next half hour anchored to the spot. There were a number of green pigeons – these birds tend to roost gregariously – and an astonishing number of coppersmith barbets. Dandeli is most famous for its hornbills – all four species can be seen here – the great Indian hornbill, the pied hornbill, the Indian grey hornbill and its casque-less cousin the Malabar grey hornbill. Of these, there were a few pied hornbills on the tree, as well as around in general. There were also a number of common and jungle mynas. Among the solitaries was an Asian koel, a female gold fronted leaf bird, an ashy drongo and a Malabar grey hornbill. A very satisfying half hour in a quiet, pleasant spot.

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Karthik, Jungle Lodges’ chief naturalist had very sensibly suggested that I spend the whole of the second day at the Old Magazine House (OMH) in Ganesh Gudi, getting there early in the morning. A suggestion that completely changed the complexion of the trip. There’s been a lot written about the OMH. Dr. Huilgol did an admirable feature on it somewhere. Suchi Govindarajan has written a guest piece on Jlrexplore.com. Karthik and Poornima did a photostory on Ganesh Gudi’s butterflies. And Rana and Sugandhi have created a brilliant film, featuring vignettes of preening and shaking birds against a ghatam background score timed to perfection. The OMH apparently leaves everyone it touches spellbound, but the experience is much more than you can experience vicariously. I was certainly caught by surprise.

So there were the expected bird baths, and the expected line of seats and the expectant, watchful audience. And the expected long lenses on their tripods. The morning’s experience was relatively muted. Some birds did turn up at intervals. Lakshman, the guide who had accompanied me from the Kali Camp promised much more in the evening.

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Kanshirda

We came back to the Kali camp to grab lunch, and then drove another six kilometers to a lovely little lake with the lovelier name of Kanshirda (actually the lake inherits the name of the nearby village). I settled myself on the gnarled roots of a tree on the bank binoculars in hand, and spent a very pleasant hour there. The experience was inviting enough to lure me there for a repeat visit this morning.

Flocks of lesser whistling ducks and little grebes foraged among the lilies. Three couples were visible further afield – bronze winged jacana, common sandpiper and river tern – and a lone wood sandpiper. Numerous barn swallows hawked insects on the wing. Lakshman pointed out multiple flocks of cotton teals in the distance, but I couldn’t get a clean look at duck or drake even with the 10X50s owing to the luxuriant vegetation on the water. The usual suspects were also present in numbers – red wattled lapwing, pond heron, egret, white throated kingfisher, common kingfisher, little cormorant and brahminy kite. On the trees by the water, a flock of white-rumped munias advertised their presence noisily. And a solitary baybacked shrike sat on a fence post watching the proceedings with disdain, flanked by a trio of spotted doves. The highlight of this sitting was watching a pair of white bellied woodpeckers merrily rapping away on separate trees. These are spectacular birds, large and jet black with startling red crests, all this nicely offset by the pure white of the belly. I watched them until my arms ached from holding the binos up.

The Old Magazine House

Coming back to the OMH, the evening session was simply spectacular. And this despite the heightened expectation and all the hype. Reaching there at a little before five in the evening, the next hour and a quarter was spent standing, binocs in hand, with very little “downtime”. Those bird baths were kept very very busy, one lot finishing and another waiting impatiently for their turn. The larger ones didn’t bother with waiting, they just waded in and displaced whoever was at his ablutions willy nilly.

I sighted twenty three species in all, in that single session of a little over an hour: Asian brown flycatcher, blue capped rock thrush, black throated munia, orange minivet, velvet fronted nuthatch, black lored tit, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, white rumped shama, spider hunter, Asian paradise flycatcher, forest wagtail, verditer flycatcher, bronze winged drongo, leaf warbler, purple rumped sunbird, white bellied blue flycatcher, yellow browed bulbul, emerald dove, oriental white eye, orange headed thrush, brown fulvetta, ruby throated bulbul and  puff throated babbler.

I’m not sure there is any other place to compare with the OMH for sheer diversity of bird sightings all in a single spot.

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My luck wasn’t good enough to get the Malabar trogan to visit. Malabar giant squirrels called constantly from nearby, but I couldn’t spot the little machine-gunners. I also missed seeing or hearing the Malabar whistling thrush, a bird that Ganesh Gudi is justifiably proud of dubbing the resident morning wake-up caller. And I missed the Big H – the great Indian hornbill. But no matter for regret, that. I was sated with the rest.

The wonder of the baths aside, the Old Magazine House is an extremely pleasant place to stay in. Small and cosy, it is tucked away in a densely wooded spot well off the road. It’s just a row of a few log huts on stilts, the gol ghar, and the bird baths with their cordoned watching area. Interestingly there is a dorm with bunk beds and a warren of shared loos attached.

Lakshman encouraged me to come back in the summer once for the birds, and again a little later, as soon as the first couple of pre-monsoon showers arrived, to look for snakes – Russel’s viper, saw-scaled viper, vine snake, Malabar pit viper, green pit viper and more. These can evidently be found on the rough trail between the camp and the road. He did warn me though that the place would be teeming with leeches. I hate leeches. Everyone does, but I hate leeches with an especially vicious intensity. But perhaps I’ll hazard a trip when the rains start to try my luck with the snakes.

I’m now dreaming of managing a trip to the OMH off the vacation season and in mid-week sometime, when the place will be empty of its gawking audience. Just the birds and me, if that is ever possible. Vinayak, the amiable and very knowledgeable naturalist at the OMH has promised to sit with me and help identify bird calls if I ever get there on a quiet day.

There’s a government saw mill and timber depot near the Kali camp, and this has a couple of trees which evidently harbor some lively birdlife when in fruit. Lakshman took me there this morning, but my luck was out. There were no figs on offer and the place was quiet as owls’ wings.

Incidentally, I should point out that I skipped the safaris into the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve (DATR) as the forest is overcrowded with too many vehicles in it, and suffers from a poor reputation as far as sightings go. The DATR is reputed to harbour melanistic (black) leopards among other fauna, but the daytime jeep safari was not going to help me sight them.

Before I end this post, I should also point out that Kali’s faults aside, the staff have the same thoughtful courtesy that is the hallmark of JLR everywhere. Shashi, the activity organizer and naturalist at Kali went out of his way to keep me happily engaged. Anand did a masterful job of the coracle ride. And Lakshman was with me for pretty much the rest of the time, working tirelessly to spot birds, birds and more birds for me to gawk at. These guys are very good at what they do.

Trip Report: Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Dec 2013

Trip Report:        Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR)

Dates:                   21-23 Dec 2013

Camp:                   Svasara Jungle Lodge

As I start typing this post, we’re just about to leave for Nagpur. It is 2 PM and the flight back to Bangalore is at 8 PM. Nagpur is some 100 kms away, and we’ll have time to kill at the airport. Meanwhile, there’s a long-tailed shrike brooding on a perch that a green bee-eater habitually sallies from. A large flock of chestnut shouldered petronias skulks in a bush a little to the right. A pair of little brown doves, and a pair of sparrows are starting to nest in two tiny ficus shrubs on the lawn outside. There’s a pair of red vented bulbuls that haunts a bamboo thicket a little to the left. And finally, there’s a tailor bird that is a very occasional visitor to the shrubbery. These are the regular habitués around my room in the Svasara Jungle Lodge. Not an unpleasant place to stay in at all.

TATR

Not that we’ve had much time to keep track of the local avifauna. It’s been a hectic three days. We did four safaris in all, but the remarkable thing about TATR is the time allowance. The morning safari starts at 6:30 AM and goes on until 11:30 AM. Back for a quick lunch at noon and barely enough time for a battery recharge (cameras’, not ours), and off again for the second safari which starts at 2 PM (gate opening time) and goes on until 6 PM. So five hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon. Nine hours of safari time each day, with little time for anything else. It is rather tiring.

TATR is 650 sq kms of dry deciduous forest, and a dry, warm place. Even in December the days are sultry, though evenings and especially mornings are cold. The teak trees are shedding prodigiously, and the ground in many places is carpeted with the large rotting leaves. Many of the Mahua trees are bare, as are the Indian ghost trees (in pic below). Crocodile bark and tendu trees still retain their green, as do the jamun trees by the waterlines. After having read about the place lacking the magnificence of Kanha or Corbett, I guess my expectations had been tempered down significantly; Happily, the forest seemed pretty enough in compensation. And the safaris are very productive.

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The safaris

We did four safaris in all. Svasara Jungle Lodge is sited a couple of hundred meters from the Kolara gate, which in turn is on the north-eastern periphery of TATR. This gate opens into the Tadoba range. Three of our four safaris were limited to the Tadoba range. For our second safari (yesterday AM) alone, we passed through the Tadoba range to reach the Katoda gate, and thereon into Andhari (Moharli range).

The first safari was an evening one. A short while into it, we sighted a ratel – Mellivora capensis. None of us had ever seen one before, and we were elated. We then reached Panderpauni, with its pretty little lake and vast meadows teeming with chital, langur and wild boar. Tree swifts in large numbers hawked insects on the wing. There was quite a bit of birdlife in the waterhole.

A short distance from Panderpauni, on the way to Tadoba lake, we ran into a bunch of Gypsies clustered at a crossroads. One of them had spotted a tigress disappearing into the underbrush. The Gypsies hung around with hopes of the tigress re-emerging for a while, but eventually people started giving up and moving on. Around six Gypsies stayed on, and our patience was finally rewarded. Someone spotted a movement at the far end of the arrow-straight road to our left. Turned out to be P2, a four-year old tigress in fine fettle. She strode down the road unmindful of the cluster of Gypsies, skirted right around us, and ambled into the one road where entry was forbidden. Some of the Gypsies scrambled to loop back for another interception, but the tigress had other ideas. She stepped off the road, into the thickets and disappeared. But P2 was not done with us. In the three remaining safaris, we experienced close encounters with her twice more.

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Tadoba lake is a large natural reservoir, with flocks of lesser whistling ducks lining its banks, interspersed with the occasional basking croc. Black headed ibis call noisily from a heronry on the opposite bank. On all visits to this lake, we looked for but failed to spot the grey headed fish eagle and the brown fish owl that were reputed to haunt its banks. Nearby is the little shrine dedicated to the eponymous Gond diety Tadoba or Taru (which is apparently out of bounds to tourists). From here we took the chital road to the Jamunbodi loop, where we spotted a sloth bear about fifty feet off the road – in the late afternoon atypically, and well before sunset.

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On day two we covered the Moharli range. On the Tadoba-Moharli tar road, we stopped by a pack of five dhole cavorting by the roadside. They appeared relaxed, stretching, rolling in the grass and frisking around as these creatures are wont to do, but when a couple more Gypsies piled in, they withdrew a short distance away. We proceeded to the Katoda checkpost (which delineates the Tadoba and Moharli ranges) for a breakfast break, and by the time we were done and resuming our way to Telia lake, they had brought down a chital just beyond the checkpost. The kill lay in high grass, and little could be seen beyond one or the other dog’s head bobbing above the stalks as it dipped into breakfast.

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The area around Telia lake on the Jamunjhora loop presents picturesque dark bamboo forests. Thirty percent of Tadoba’s greenery comprises bamboo and there is bamboo everywhere, but Jamunjhora has especially heavy growth.

The third safari (evening) was a quiet one, with much of the time spent on birdlife, but in the last half hour, we ran into P2 again, on another arrow-straight road. This time she walked towards us, with one Gypsy ahead of, and three vehicles tailing her. Since among the occupants of these vehicles were the field director and the ranger, we were waved off the road. She marched past our Gypsy and away down the road, completely ignoring everyone around.

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On the way back, we found an Asian palm civet on a bole a few feet from the ground (I had earlier described this as a small Indian civet, but S. Karthikeyan  noticed and was kind enough to point this out). Being a little too early in the civet’s day, it was evidently groggy; at any rate, it did nothing for a long while, sitting with somnolent eyes while we sat and watched it. It finally roused itself to do something about all the attention and clambered up the bole and out of sight.

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The last day’s safari was a morning one. We had covered pretty much all the local megafaunal attractions barring the nilgai and the leopard. Navegaon is a village on the northern periphery that has been relocated out in the past six months.  As in Kanha, the sites of relocated villages serve as excellent grassland habitats, supporting a healthy ungulate population. So off we went to Navegaon, looking for nilgai and birds. On the road from Panderpauni to Navegaon, who should we run into but P2. It started off with chital alarm calls. We had stopped over at the Panderpauni waterhole to check on the birdlife when calls started from the other side of the lake. We took the road that loops around the lake and stopped over on another side of the water. A brief flash of stripes, and it was another hurtling ride further down the road to try and intercept her. P2 finally emerged and did her thing – the walk on the road unmindful of the gawking audience. She walked towards us, past us and then away, and two columns of Gypsies, perhaps twelve to fifteen in all tailed her at walking pace. The tigress sauntered along unconcerned, stopping by select trees to mark her scent. This went on for the next fifteen minutes, until she turned off the road and disappeared. The Gypsy mobbing phenomenon of the popular tiger reserve is undoubtedly unseemly and downright ugly, but I’m not sure what exactly should be done about it. And Tadoba is undeniably tiger-centric. Guides and drivers do not expect tourists to come looking for much else, and at times it almost feels like they have difficulty mentally processing asks for lesser creatures.

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Having touched on the topic of relocated villages, I should not omit to mention Jamni, which is the first landmark after entering from the Kolara gate. The village is in the process of being relocated, and appears largely deserted. The recently harvested paddy fields around boast of a high incidence of tiger sightings – with the beats of two tigresses P1 and P2 cleaving across this area.

Anyway, we did eventually get to Navegaon, and we did see all the nilgai we could have wished for. And a few herds of gaur thrown in to boot. And plenty of birdlife.

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I was hoping to meet the couple that has been doing splendid conservation work in Tadoba – Harshawardhan and Poonam Dhanwatey (their organization is called TRACT – Tiger Research and Conservation Trust) – but this privilege will have to wait for the next trip.

The list

Here’s the full list of sightings from three remarkable days:

Avifauna

  1. White eyed buzzard (fairly frequent sightings)
  2. Sirkeer Malkoha
  3. Common pochard
  4. Lesser whistling duck (plenty of them)
  5. Black headed oriole
  6. Indian treepie (everywhere)
  7. Crested serpent eagle
  8. Orange headed thrush
  9. Plum headed parakeet
  10. Rose ringed parakeet
  11. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  12. Tree swift
  13. Black drongo
  14. Brahminy starling
  15. White wagtail
  16. White browed wagtail
  17. Red wattled lapwing
  18. Common myna
  19. House sparrow
  20. Asian koel
  21. White browed bulbul
  22. Yellow footed green pigeon
  23. White breasted waterhen
  24. White throated kingfisher
  25. Purple heron
  26. Grey heron
  27. Peafowl
  28. Longtailed shrike (plenty of them, especially outside the reserve)
  29. Pond heron
  30. Common sandpiper
  31. Shikra
  32. Coucal
  33. Chestnut shouldered petronias
  34. Spotted dove
  35. Little brown dove
  36. Eurasian collared dove
  37. Pied bushchat
  38. Leaf warbler
  39. Black redstart (female)
  40. Indian robin
  41. Magpie robin
  42. Black shouldered kite
  43. Plain prinia
  44. Tailor bird
  45. Black headed ibis
  46. Asian open billed stork
  47. Black ibis
  48. Egrets
  49. Indian roller
  50. Jungle babbler
  51. Lesser flameback
  52. Green bee eater
  53. Grey junglefowl (calls only)

Mammals

  1. Ratel/Honey badger
  2. Panthera tigris (3 of 4 safaris, few feet away each time)
  3. Ruddy mongoose (couple of comfortable sightings)
  4. Sambar
  5. Sloth bear
  6. Barking deer (couple of close sightings, quite unmindful of us)
  7. Wild dog/Dhole
  8. Asian palm civet
  9. Nilgai
  10. Gaur
  11. Wild boar
  12. Chital
  13. Common langur

Others

  1. Mugger
  2. Olive keelback (at the resort, rescued with injuries)

Tadoba 555

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Book Review: Field Days, by A.J.T. Johnsingh

field days

Field Days – A Naturalist’s Journey through South and Southeast Asia

by A.J.T. Johnsingh

Universities Press, 2006

I had spotted this little book in the library of the JLR K. Gudi camp a few months back, and dipped into it for a bit over the next couple of days. I liked it well enough to order my copy as soon as I got back.

The book took me longer than expected to get through. At a little over three hundred pages, I would have expected to speed-read my way through it in less than a week’s time. It has taken me more like three. And that is not because the book is not readable. On the contrary, it is superbly readable. It is just that it is too rich in terms of the information it is loaded with and that makes it hard to binge-read. Smaller doses are the order of the day.

A.J.T.  Johnsingh needs no introduction, but a book review of this sort probably deserves a brief profile of the author. So here goes. A chance discovery of a Tamil translation of Corbett in his boyhood days set Dr. Johnsingh on a path that eventually made him one of India’s best known field biologists. Inspired further by a chance meeting with JC Daniel of the BNHS, Johnsingh undertook a study of dholes in Bandipur in 1976-78. This was the first study ever by an Indian scientist of a free-ranging large mammal in the wild. It also earned Dr. Johnsingh his Ph.D. This was followed by a post-doctoral research stint in the United States. Johnsingh then joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun in 1985 and rose to retire as the dean of the faculty of wildlife sciences in 2005. He is now a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and continues to be actively involved with various initiatives.

The book is a collection of pieces published by Dr. Johnsingh for lay audiences in various publications over three decades, between 1972 and 2005. Almost half of these were published in the WII Newsletter over the years. The book is organized by region, into five sections. These deal with the south, central/west, north and the north-east of India, with an additional section covering countries further east. While well known PAs like Kanha, Kaziranga and Bandipur are profiled, a host of lesser-known places are also dealt with masterfully – PAs like the Pakhui WS (Arunachal Pradesh), Dampa Tiger Reserve (Mizoram), Bhagmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary (Meghalaya), Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary (TN) and Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary (TN). In all, over thirty PAs are covered.

The narration is a delightful mix of personal experiences, detailed floral and faunal descriptions and prescriptive observations. For many of the pieces which were written decades back, there are thoughtful post-scripts provided which outline the current situation. Dr. Johnsingh’s extraordinary knowledge of his stuff is obvious, the book is fairly well-written and the anecdotes it is peppered with are fascinating.  Plenty of chilling encounters are recalled – crouching in lantana to hide from an enraged cow elephant in Bandipur, running into a pair of gamboling leopards in KMTR, his first and terrifying sighting of a tiger in the wild – he was blowing into a medium-bore rifle cartridge to mimic the whistling call of a dhole, and instead brought an indignant tiger charging out of the undergrowth. There are plenty more like these. You’ll enjoy them.

A quick mention of the pieces I especially liked. The narrations of walking through the Periyar TR and Neyyar WS make for fine reading. Two chapters deal in some detail with the years Dr. Johnsingh spent in Bandipur and are engrossing. When I reached this topic, I was especially interested in reading Dr. Johnsingh’s version of a gruesome incident I had read about in another book (Wildlife Memoirs by R.C. Sharma). In ’77 Johnsingh had accompanied Rajasekaran Nair, who was guiding a bunch of trainees from an institution which was the precursor to the WII, into the forest on foot. Dr. Johnsingh’s mortal fear of elephants has been mentioned in more than once place, including by him. As luck would have it, a tusker they ran into charged and killed Nair, leaving Johnsingh unscathed but traumatized. This tragic incident was recounted in Sharma’s book as he was one of Nair’s trainees on that trip. And now I read Johnsingh’s own version of what transpired.

The chapter on Gir is fascinating, as is the fairly detailed piece that talks about how Kuno-Palpur was identified as a viable alternative habitat for the Asiatic lion. Corbett aficionados will like the narrative on trekking through the Ladhya and Sharda valleys. The chapters on Rajaji NP, Pin Valley NP and one on trekking in the Lushai and Garo hills are spectacular as well.

Dr. Johnsingh is quite evidently besotted with angling, and an entire chapter is devoted to the fate of the blue-finned mahseer in Parambikulam. Johnsingh also speaks wistfully of fishing for carnatic carp with spoons in the Tambiraparani (in KMTR), and of landing a 5-6 kg mahseer on his first cast in Parambikulam – an incident that he says, made him an admirer of the species forever.

In conclusion, if you have an interest in wildlife or conservation, this is a book to possess. Apart from the pleasure of reading it cover to cover like I did, the book is probably invaluable to check through specific chapters when you plan to travel to any of these PAs. There are personal insights and a level of detail that is hard to match elsewhere.