Month: September 2013

My wild dog diary

My wild dog diary

In the ten months I spent in Biligiriranga Hills, working with Gorukana, I hardly got good opportunities to watch wild dogs. Although I was in a location surrounded by forest, most of my wild dog sightings lasted only a few seconds. Only once, I considered myself very lucky when I got to watch a pack of wild dogs along the road with the pups playing for a few minutes before they ran back to the cover of the forest. This was around my last month at Gorukana.

pups at biligiriranga hills

The pups at Biligiriranga hills (March 2011)

Many guests I interacted with at Gorukana, felt wild dogs were somehow terrifying. They did not know how amazing the wild dogs were in their hunting strategy, behavior and natural history. We would screen Wild Dog Diaries for the guests and after that, their perception about them changed greatly. Instead of associating wild dogs with something crude and nasty, it changed to admiration.

In the Anamalai hills, I had few opportunities to observe wild dogs. The landscape was very different here. A mix of tea and coffee plantations and forest fragments. Spotting wild dogs was not easy except for a few fleeting glimpses once in a few months. It was nearly a year after I began work here that I got to watch them and as a bonus got some camera trap images as well.

Camera trap-Asiatic Wild Dog

Wild dogs feeding on gaur

Until the recent past I did not have much luck with wild dogs. I would hear stories of friends who watched them hunt and I felt jealous wishing I would get to see it someday too. Only recently my luck with wild dogs seems to have changed. Last week, I witnessed something very special. On 12 September 2013, thanks to Divya’s friend who informed her about a pack of wild dogs that had cornered a young sambar deer in the water in an estate nearby. Divya, Kalyan and Jegan decided to go see the wild dogs. I had reached office at the right time and joined them as they left.

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Stream flowing through the coffee plantation

The wild dogs were at the far end of the stream, where it curved away into the coffee estate. We drove up to a point some distance away to watch them. One wild dog sat on a grassy patch, others were a little distance away.

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We backed up to the bridge to make space for a small truck to pass. It was from here that Divya spotted the sambar yearling standing in the water, alert, tail up, close to nearly vertical river bank, impossible to climb. The deer was scared, all escape routes cut off by the wall behind and the ring of wild dogs in front. The odds were against the deer today. What we had not realized till then was that we had positioned ourselves on the road watching the wild dogs, while the sambar was standing right below us.

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First glimpse

There was absolute silence for a while. The sambar started to stomp the water with its forefeet. Suddenly, a wild dog jumped in. The attack had begun. There was a mix of yelps, yowls and squeals from the yearling and the wild dogs. It seemed like the wild dogs were really excited.

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The deer tried to get away from the dog only to head towards the waiting pack with the dog in the water after it. Few more wild dogs joined in the attack, leaping in the water from the left bank.

By now, the wild dogs and the deer had moved out of sight, but we knew they were there. We could hear the deer screaming and the wild dogs whistling. Just then, we heard a loud bhauunkkk behind us. An adult sambar, probably the mother of the fawn, had emerged from the coffee bushes of the estate and was calling out in alarm. She saw us, gave out another alarm call and disappeared into the coffee from where the other sounds still emerged.Sambar_Running_Adult_Ganesh Raghunathan_GAN3822

The adult

The excited whistles continued. We knew it was all over for the yearling. We were tempted to get to a place from where we could watch it all. But we did not want to spook the wild dogs and spoil their meal. We waited for a while and then moved to a different spot from where we could watch them from a distance.

Three wild dogs were sitting, like sentries, a little distance away from the kill. They kept a sharp lookout for trouble while the rest of the family was busy feeding. The sentries took turns to feed. It seemed like there was a rule that a dog must keep watch at all times. Within minutes, the carcass was ripped apart. The whistles continued as the sentries kept vigil. The dogs took short breaks to drink water from the stream and returned to feed. By now, it had been an hour. We watched the wild dogs take pieces away and settle down a little distance away from the kill to enjoy their portion.

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Sentries keeping watch

Now, a group of people came by and someone spotted the wild dogs, calling out excitedly to a few children who were a little distance away. Their repeated shouts seemed to disturb the wild dogs, as the pack split up and the animals dashed away into the cover of the coffee. We could see a few individuals far away.

What made the day very special for me is the amazing opportunity to watch a wild prey and predator and that too in a place where people and the wild dogs share the same space. The hunt had occurred in a coffee plantation by the side of a road that is used extensively by heavy vehicles.

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Relaxing some distance away

The wild dogs knew exactly when they had to leave the place to avoid being disturbed. They had dashed off in different directions and then quickly reassembled at a place where they were at peace. It was an amazing day and I was glad that I had cancelled my plan to go to Coimbatore that afternoon and stayed back to see the wild dogs.

The next morning, I set off by bike to Coimbatore. My luck had not yet faded. I saw a pack of wild dogs again! This time the pack was crossing the road at the foothills. On my way back the next day, I was hoping for another sighting, but I was out of luck. Instead, I found a jackal that lay dead by the roadside, killed by a speeding vehicle. I would have been extremely thrilled had I seen one alive. The sight of the dead jackal brought me back to the sad reality. Many animals die on the roads to speeding vehicles. I am not saying it was anybody’s fault. Still, just as a precaution, it would be great if people driving the vehicles maintained a slow speed when they are in or near a forest area. Our journey would take a bit longer otherwise in our haste the animals journey would end right there.

Jackal Road Kill_IMG_9040

Mute Swan Moments

Mute Swan Moments

A commonly seen bird doesn’t really excite a local birdwatcher. Long time ago, a British birdwatcher visiting India said Red-vented Bulbul was his favourite. I said, ‘yeah they are nice birds’ but without much enthusiasm. When I went to UK, a local birdwatcher asked me which British bird I liked most. I replied instantly ‘Mute Swan’. He said, ‘alright, they are doing ok’. I could figure out that the tone was very similar to that of my response for that ‘boring and common’ bulbul. But he added, ‘but they are lovely, aren’t they?’ Indeed they are.

Mute Swan in Cam River
Mute Swan in Cam River

These birds became my favourite the moment I saw them in 2002 in the Cam River. Last year (September 2012) I had a chance to see these birds again, for a fairly long time. And the series of events that followed made my affection towards this bird even stronger. I spent a long time watching and photographing them in the Cam River. There were three cygnets (young Mute Swans) along with an adult. Mute Swans are a good subject for photography with their long neck and the white plumage reflecting on the ripples in the dark waters while they gracefully swim along the stream. Once in a while, they dipped their heads into the water to feed on the aquatic vegetation. Cygnets are dull greyish in colour. But they were certainly not ugly ducklings as folk lores portray.

Mute Swan with cygnets
Mute Swan with cygnets

I was in the UK to get trained in bird ringing. During my stay I had a chance to visit the British Birdfair. There the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) had a stall in which the volunteers explained to the visitors about bird ringing and demonstrated the technique with live, wild birds. To understand the importance of bird ringing by the public, they kept a box full of wrist bands on which a bird name and a ring number were printed.

I have been ringed as a Mute Swan..:)
I was ringed as a Mute Swan..:)

These were replicas of real rings put on birds during the demonstration. One could pick and wear a band of their choice. It meant that you had been ringed like that bird. Then you go with that band to the other BTO stall to find out some interesting facts about that particular ringed bird. Obviously, I choose a Mute Swan band and the ring number was W03598. I went to the BTO stall and showed my band. To my dismay I found that that bird was dead. I learnt that the bird had been hit by a golf ball when it was flying over the golf course! See the photograph below for more interesting facts.

Fact sheet of W03598
Fact sheet of W03598

My tryst with Mute Swan continued during my walk in a beautiful English countryside in East Sussex. I went crazy when I saw a Mute Swan swimming in the stream. A footpath ran parallel to the stream. I walked along keeping up my pace with the two Mute Swans swimming along the stream. That entire landscape wouldn’t have looked beautiful if these birds had not been there.

Mute Swan in English countryside
Mute Swan in English countryside

Something strange happened when I was following those birds. One of them raised its leg above the water and kept it in that position for a while. They do that once in a while to rest their legs. When I looked through the viewfinder of my camera I was surprised to see that it had been ringed! I quickly took some close-up shots and figured out the ring number—ZY2162. Soon after I got that photo it sank that leg back into the water. It was as if that bird raised its leg just to show me the ring number. Later when I informed this to the local ringing group I got to know that this bird had been ringed on 20th August 2011.

Showing off the ring!
Showing off the ring!

Another interesting thing which I noticed on that individual was that it was moulting and had lost its primary feathers. During this period individuals like these mostly stay in the water as they can’t fly too well and are vulnerable to predation by foxes.

Moulting individual without primary feathers
Moulting individual without primary feathers

Two days after that memorable sighting (6th November 2012), I was in the ringing hut busy ringing some passerines. Suddenly the ringers outside started cheering aloud and I instantly knew that they had captured an interesting bird. I came out and was awestruck to see a Mute Swan. We always want to touch the things which we really like. I fulfilled my wish by caressing the Mute Swan. When these kind of special birds are brought to the ringing hut, normally, they draw a lot from among the names of the participants present there written on pieces of paper. And guess whose lucky day that was? Yes, when they read out my name and said I got a chance to ring the bird I was over the moon.

Ringing a Mute Swan was a special moment. But it is not very easy to do that. Two people had to hold the bird while I put the ring. Since I had never ringed a Mute Swan before, other ringers around me helped enormously. Although my name is recorded in the register, I wouldn’t really boast that it was ringed by me alone. It was a collective effort. However, I was quite happy and thrilled that I got a chance to touch this beautiful bird once again. The ring number that I put on it was ZY2122. In case any of you see a Mute Swan with this ring number, do remember me!

Swan upping in East Sussex..:)
Swan upping in East Sussex! 

Mute swan was introduced in the US and now they are considered a pest. I personally don’t want to hate the Mute Swan even where it is non-native. But that is not possible in a biologist’s world. A biologist has to enjoy nature with discretion. This is a curse. We have so many specifications.

If someone in India says they like Lantana flowers, I would have given them a big lecture: “They are invasive plants, they are very bad, they don’t allow other plants to grow, they spread like hell, this is one of the serious problems now we are facing in Indian forests, this plant should be controlled, so on and so forth.” I hate to see Lantana in India, Eucalyptus in India. Likewise somewhere in some part of this earth somebody surely hates the Mute Swan for being non-native. Just the feeling that someone can hate these birds, makes me feel sad. Human beings did a mistake of introducing them in the places which are alien to them. And when they adapt themselves and flourish we call them invasive. Because of our mistake, those beautiful birds are losing their lives. Isn’t that awful?

Mute Swan at its native land
Swan and Shadow (Poem by John Hollander)

But when I was watching those beautiful Mute Swans beautifully swimming in that beautiful golden sun-lit stream, I thought to myself, I am watching the Mute Swans in their native land. Nobody around me to tell that, ’they are….

Lucky me!