Animal tracks @ Galibore

The mud road that runs past the Galibore Nature Camp is a fascinating stretch to study animal tracks. A lot of wildlife traffic passes on this road each night, and the next morning can be very well-spent trying to read them.

Animal tracks are seldom as clearly defined as the drawings or photographs we see in guides. A smooth surface of fine-grained sand is required to capture that sort of print, and that kind of surface is rarely found outside of a Pug Impression Pad (PIP). The sand is often coarse, the ground hard, and prints superimposed upon each other. Cattle or deer prints can make a mess of the surface too. Reading animal tracks therefore takes skill that comes with practice. Thomraj is a pastmaster at just that. He takes in all the details at a glance and can see patterns that are tough for us to decipher even when pointed out. He can often reconstruct what occurred hours earlier from poorly captured prints – a leopard leaping off the track, a Black-naped hare rolling on its back and so on.

All the tracks featured here were visible in the course of each outing.

junglefowl1

Grey junglefowl

grey-wagtail1

Grey wagtail

peacock2

Peacock

red-spurfowl

Red spurfowl

snake2

Snake

cattle4

Cattle

buffalo1

Buffalo. Larger than cattle tracks. The split hoofmarks run in parallel unlike the cattle tracks which are pointed at the forward end.

chital4

Chital. Heart-shaped.

sambar1

Sambar. Larger than chital prints.

pig2

Pig. Unlike the chital’s pointed ends, the pig’s two halves run roughly in parallel.

langur3

Langur

porcupine-drag-marks

Porcupine drag marks. More easily captured than paw prints.

porcupine2

Porcupine. The heel pad shows two distinct sections, which is a key diagnostic.

mice1

Mice leave a profusion of tiny tracks.

20161011_081114

Bull elephant. Fore and hind feet. The circular print to the right is of the hind foot.

jackal1

Jackal

junglecat2

Jungle cat

20161011_081232

Sloth bear. Forepaw to the left.

leopard5

Leopard. There were three sets of tracks, two proceeding in one direction and the third in the opposite direction.

4-horned-antelope-pellets

Pellets of the Four-horned antelope. The animal has the habit of returning to the same spot to drop pellets, making it vulnerable to poachers.

slothbear-scat

The sloth bear’s scat shows a grainy texture.

antlion

Antlion’s pit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Swifts & Swallows

Telling swifts from swallows, in flight

If like me, you’ve wondered if that is a swift or a swallow flying overhead, this may help. I pulled out the differences from online sources, and then cross-checked them with The Book of Indian Birds (Salim Ali, Thirteenth Edition). Guess what. There are enough exceptions to shoot some of these rules out the window. Here it is anyway, for what it is worth.

To begin with, pulled these silhouettes, from here:

Swallow:

swallow

Swift:

Swift

The swallow:

  • Has a deep forked tail, often with long streamers (does not apply though to the house and streak-throated swallows)
  • Has broad wings, relatively
  • Has a white or light coloured underside
  • Has a rusty red chin patch (the common swallow only)
  • Is passerine, can and does perch
  • Builds nests of mud and straw

The swift:

  • Has a slightly forked tail though not as deeply forked as the swallow’s (exceptions: crested tree-swift and Asian palm-swift)
  • Has long narrow swept-back wings resembling a crescent or scythes
  • Is dark brownish all over with a pale throat
  • Calls noisily while flying
  • Clings with tiny weak legs, cannot perch
  • Breeds in holes and crevices of old buildings

Post Script: While on the topic, don’t miss this most delightful piece of verse by rickyengland:

HOLLOW VICTORY

The fly flew over the meadow

A Swallow he followed the fly

‘I’ll fly’, said the fly, ‘to the hollow’

‘For the Swallow is swifter than I’

Too soon did the triumphant fellow

Let out his victory cry

For there on the edge of the meadow

A Swift did swallow the fly

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/22527420

http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/s/swift/identification.aspx

http://www.naturalenterprise.co.uk/pages/news/46-have-you-seen-a-swift

Choosing My Binoculars

One of the things that came out of the JLR Naturalist Training Program (for me) was the need felt for a pair of binoculars. I had trouble with a pair some years before, and had experienced some serious vignetting (blackening of the edges) while trying to look through them. I figured that this had to do with my wearing glasses, but not knowing the first thing about binoculars, I didn’t realize this was an addressable issue, nor did I really apply my mind to it. I simply stayed away from using binoculars instead. (I was aware of the dioptric adjustment, but that has never worked for me, possibly due to my astigmatism or more likely, ignorance).

We were handed Olympus 8X40 binoculars during our field walks in the NTP and using them, I wondered how I managed all these years without a pair. Binoculars are a truly invaluable aid to the serious nature enthusiast.  I duly set out hunting for a pair to buy, as soon as the NTP was done. Beyond being able to spell the word correctly, I knew next to nothing about binoculars. Karthik explained a little, I learned a little more from Dr. R and other folks around, and subsequently read up still more online to build a rudimentary picture in my head. This post seeks to record some of this basic understanding.

We know that the binoculars’ primary specification is represented as two numbers separated by a cross. 8X40, 10X50 and suchlike. Let’s take the 8X40 for our illustration. The 8 represents the degree of magnification – what you look at is magnified 8 times. The 40 represents the size of the outer or larger lens (the objective lens), in millimeters. Why is this important? Larger the objective lens, more the light the binoculars captures. You can view that bird better in late evening light if you have a larger objective lens. Corresponds somewhat to the aperture measure in photography terms.

Now there is also a relation between the magnification and the size of the objective lens. If you bump up the magnification, you should logically have a commensurately larger objective lens size to be able to gather enough light. This relationship is measured by what is called the Exit Pupil. Size of the objective lens divided by the magnification. 40/8 in our example is 5. And this is represented in millimeters:  hence, an Exit Pupil of 5mm.

With this in mind, there are three other basic concepts that are worth addressing.

There is a parameter called Eye Relief, measured in millimeters, which broadly represents the max distance from which you can look into the eyepiece without experiencing vignetting. Why is this important? If you wear glasses, you will have to allow for the intervening distance from the eyepiece, and that is precisely the problem I had run into earlier. The binoculars need to have an eye relief measure large enough to accommodate your eyeglasses in the way.

There is also a self-evident measure of the minimum distance the binoculars can focus from.

Last is in terms of body design. Porro Prism and Roof Prism. Readers who are familiar with binoculars terminology will kindly refrain from cringing at my crudely dumbed-down interpretation of these two terms. I’ve been at this for all of two days and have the most basic degree of understanding possible. Porro Prism binoculars have the typical binocular shape familiar to us all, where the eyepiece and objective are not aligned along the same line. The eyepieces are in two little cylinders which are parallel to each other, and these two lie between the two larger cylinders which contain the objective lenses. Roof Prism binoculars have both the eyepiece and objective lens affixed at the two ends of a single cylinder, to put it very crudely. This only describes what they look like. I didn’t gain too much of an understanding around how each one corrects the inversion of the image, or what their pros and cons are. Once I figured out this understanding didn’t really matter as far as my immediate choice of purchase was concerned, I abandoned that trail. So much for my scientific temper.

Dr. R was kind enough to share a crystal-clear guide to choosing a pair, aimed at the beginner. This piece is by Sumit Sen, and is on the Kolkatabirds website. Here’s the URL:

http://www.kolkatabirds.com/binocs.htm

From this guide, I pecked out the following normative checklist:

Parameter

Desirable   Value

Magnification & Objective 8X40 or 10X50; indicates 8X40 good enough for beginners
Weight < 1 kg
Exit Pupil (Objective/Magnification) > 3 mm, < 7 mm
Eye Relief (from a glass-wearer’s perspective) 15 mm +, with fold-down eyecups
Close focus < or = 10 feet
Body design Porro Prism or Roof Prism, either is okay
Weather proofing Nitrogen purging is preferable, weatherproofing is nice-to-have
Coating Multi-coating is best, though a nice-to-have

Scouting around, I found the Nikon Action 8X40 EX (Porro Prism) retailing at a little over Rs. 11K on www.Flipkart.com. This model conforms to all the specs on the checklist with the single exception of close focus distance. ~16 feet as against the normative < 10 feet. I’ll probably go ahead and buy it anyway in a week or two.

Post Script: You knew the Caveat Emptor was coming. Readers will pardon any inadvertent errors in this post. Being quick and accurate on the uptake is not one of my strengths, and it is quite possible that I’m completely off on some of this stuff.

Program Review: JLR’s Naturalist Training Program (NTP)

JLR’s Naturalist Training Program (NTP)

I have encountered two experiences over the past as many weeks, both which have been deeply impactful. The first was the reading of a remarkable book – Of Birds & Birdsong – by M. Krishnan. The second was the attending of the 3-day Naturalist Training Program run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR). I’ll post a review of the book shortly; this post is about my impressions of the JLR program.

S. Karthikeyan

The NTP is run by S. Karthikeyan, the Chief Naturalist of JLR, a much-revered man with a formidable reputation. Karthik’s thirty years of work as a naturalist in some form or the other mean he’s notched up the ten thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about, five times over. He is therefore extremely knowledgeable. In addition he is a naturally gifted teacher, sharply observant and articulate, and this had a strong bearing on the pedagogy of the course. It was a deeply fulfilling experience to spend almost three full days in Karthik’s constant company.

The Program

I’ve been hearing about the NTP for many years now. A couple of months back, a birding and photography hobbyist I met in K. Gudi (BR Hills) gave me information on how to register. The NTP program has been running since 2006, and has seen over twenty batches so far. It is a program with a reputation – so much so that registrations get filled to capacity within a few minutes of announcement. I got lucky and was one of the few people who’d managed to get on the program within a few weeks of registering my name.

The program runs for two and a half days at the Bannerghatta Nature Camp of JLR. Mornings and evenings are utilized for short forays into the surrounding forest, and the day is spent in classroom sessions. The sessions seek to give participants an appreciation and understanding of biodiversity, birdwatching skills, plant-animal interactions and conservation. There is a lot you can learn in this classroom, regardless of the degree of seasoning you possess as a nature enthusiast. There is a general de-emphasis on the typical fascination with “charismatic megafauna”, and a keen emphasis on encouraging appreciation of the more modest critters around us – flora, lichens, fungi, insects, amphibians, and suchlike.

There is the usual JLR tradition of film-screening in the evening and in terms of creature comforts, it is the typical JLR experience.

The Class

We were a small class of 17. There were three techies, two doctors, a wilderness resort manager, a student, a WWF employee, a housewife, a financial consultant, and so on. A very diverse group with one strong commonality – an avid interest in the natural world.  And over the three days, we became a fairly close-knit group. Karthik has a delightful tradition of getting each participant to assign a natural world nickname to her/himself, and this was the handle we used for each other, for most part. One of the big advantages of the program lies in fostering this networking with like-minded people. I know of people from early NTPs who continue to nurture strong friendships and collaboration with their batch-mates.

The Field Walks

The class did four field walks in all, mornings and evenings. Focus was on the development of systematic field/observation skills, rather than in familiarizing the class with the resident avifauna. And the stage for this line of approach was set with a seemingly simple question Karthik posed – how do crows and mynas locomote while on the ground? Something we’ve all seen very many times. And yet, no one was really sure. We hadn’t really noticed. Do they hop? Or walk? Or is it a combination of the two?

For me, photography exacerbates this degraded sense of observation. Caught up in judging the light, composition and trying to capture something interesting, there is no bandwidth left to really look at the creature.

So what is the antidote to this blindness? Sketching!

Frederick Franck, in The Zen of Seeing wrote “I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is…’ Karthik took the class out into the field and made us sketch every bird we encountered. Capture detail. Where is the little white streak placed? Does the black stripe run all the way around or not? I realized that there is so much that we have looked at and not really seen. Memory that aids observation had atrophied from underuse. I had to refer back and forth in multiple iterations to transfer what I saw onto paper. And this is for common birds I have seen scores of times. The real value of using a field notebook with sketches and comments to aid systematic observation was brought home very vividly to every person in the class.

I also realized that it isn’t a good idea to use a camera as an ID’ing tool – capture a picture and ID the bird (or animal) at leisure, later. This does two things to me – one, it impedes keen observation – there is simply no need to expend effort in careful scrutiny with a nice RAW image up-close in the bag. Second, I find that after I ID the bird, the identification doesn’t really register. In any case, there is not much point in going on a spree of simply spotting and identifying, and doing little more than just that. That is about as mindless as counting cars on a highway by way of leisure.

My Takeaways

This is what I brought away in terms of adjustments to attitude, not counting the significant knowledge accretion:

One, I’m more aware now of staying clear of the mindless ID’ing trap it is easy to fall into. Birding trips were miniature versions of the Big Year – you spotted a bunch of birds, ID’d them all, made a list, and felt good you knew so much. You were happier if you saw forty species, and not so happy if you saw just three. And you were ecstatic if you spotted something out-of-the ordinary. A Blue-faced Malkoha. Or a Green Imperial Pigeon.

The book review of Of Birds and Birdsong will come back to this theme. Krishnan spent hours watching crows, mynas and bulbuls. The more commonplace the bird, the more time he spent making original, keen, systematic observations. His sense of curiosity, ability to observe detail and patience are staggeringly impressive and inspiring. Compare this with running around on an ID’ing spree. See what I mean? It is important to be able to identify birds, or for that matter mongooses or butterflies, but stopping with just ID’ing ability would be stunting one’s development as a naturalist, completely shorn of depth.

Two is what I’m thinking now about photography. I already talked about photography limiting my ability and inclination to observe. Going further, I found myself asking the question as to why I want to get another picture of that Kestrel or Blue Jay when thousands of people have already captured a gazillion images and posted them online? Is it just so I can post the gazillion-and-one-th image on INW or someplace and feel good when people respond with TFS, nice capture or great shot? I’m getting to Tadoba next month. Perhaps I’ll try switching to binoculars in lieu of camera, and sit back and enjoy myself simply observing. BIL and nephews will be capturing all the images we’d need for posterity in any case. I’ll lug my camera along alright, but it’ll probably sit on the seat beside me and stay there. Will keep you posted on how that experiment goes.

Three is a desire to increase my scope of indulgence as a naturalist, beyond just Mammalia and Aves  – trees definitely, reptiles and butterflies too perhaps. And expand this out gradually over time. Karthik pointed me to a tree walk this weekend, but I’ll be traveling and will miss it.

Four may sound rather strange. I experienced pleasure at watching a bird at work for the first time. Something I’d have earlier associated with watching Munna or Machli, or an elephant perhaps.  There was this Pied Kingfisher fishing that we watched for a while, and I believe I could now amuse myself watching him for hours on end, with a good pair of binoculars.

Five is not something that the program itself engendered, but after the experience, I do feel a more intense desire to contribute meaningfully in some small way, to either conservation or natural science. I’ve requested Karthik to bookmark this mentally and point me to some relevant opportunity.

In Conclusion

If you have any sort of serious interest in the natural world, this program is very likely to change the way you think. If you are a birder, wildlifer or any sort of naturalist, you are missing out on a truly remarkable opportunity by not signing up. And while you do that, I’ll run along and buy myself a nice pair of binoculars and a sharp pencil or two.