Mar 27, 2021

Lunch with a Falcon

Bangalore is a fast-growing city. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, the revolution in information technology has created more job opportunities for young Indians while the city kept growing in all directions. As such, skyscrapers have become a common part of the landscape of the city. Bangalore itself is very close to the Western Ghats which is home to a myriad of species, and the wetlands and shrub forest in and around the city provides habitat for many bird species.

Thanks to Balaji Narayanan for this wonderful photograph.

It was a monsoon day and I was about to start my lunch on the fifth storey in one of the modern architecture buildings in south Bangalore. I saw a bird which I couldn’t identify as it flew away between the building where I was and the 15-storey structure just opposite. This is a secured IT hub zone in the outskirts of Bangalore; there is no road between these two buildings, and it is quiet except for the techie’s chit chat in the coffee corners. I wasn’t sure if what I saw was a lifer (a birdwatching term for a first-time sighting of a species.) For any birder, lifers are a stirring experience. But one thing was certain: it was definitely a raptor.

The next day while having lunch, I made sure that I sat facing the window, just to catch a glimpse of the bird if I’m lucky. My wish was granted. The bird flew in from a long distance but fortunately it landed on an ideal perch on the building across. There were extended metal bars on each floor of the building and it landed on the 14th floor. I had neither a camera nor binoculars to look closely at the bird, but this time I observed the bird’s flight and concluded it must be a falcon. The bird sat in the same place until I finished my lunch and, of course, I couldn’t concentrate on my meal. Though I had more than 300 lifers in India, I had never seen a falcon before. 

There are four different types of falcons in South India: the red-necked falcon (Falco chicquera), the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the laggar falcon (Falco jugger) and the amur falcon (Falco amurensis). I knew Amur is a migrant which travels all way from East Asia to Africa via India, though sighted only in winter. I ruled out Amur falcon from the list.

I came back to the pantry for a coffee at 4 in the afternoon when I found the perch empty and the falcon gone. Do I need to wait for the next day? Does the bird really come here on a daily routine? Why so? I had many questions in my mind and resolved to continue my vigil the next day.

During lunch, I saw the bird was sitting on the same perch. Since it was a secured work premises, I was not allowed to bring binoculars or a camera. I had to go about identifying the bird only using the naked eye, and it was difficult. Every hour that day, I wentto the pantry and fortunately had a close look when the bird took off from the perch and flew across two buildings, before flying off into the distance.

I observed the black barred rufous belly and the black mustachio stripe. I called my friend Ashwin Viswanathan, a well-known ornithologist who was excellent at identifying bird species by their call or silhouette. When I explained my observation he ruled out the laggar falcon from the list.

The remaining two options were the red-necked falcon and peregrine falcon. The red-necked falcon is a resident bird, but Vishwanathan said that it preferred a natural perch. The only other option is the peregrine falcon, which can be found on five continents. But this falcon migrates to India only during the winter. So what is this bird? I thought it would be difficult to identify unless I photographed it. I had a mobile phone but it was of little help. I had to wait for a chance to get an even closer look at it, so I started watching the bird every day and found out it always comes to the same building.

This went on for about a week. I decided to go to the other building and seek permission to photograph the bird. Based on the window position and perch location, I calculated the specific place which would give me the closest look at this bird. Even a mobile phone camera should be enough to take a good picture if I could just reach that location. I went to the 13th floor and approached the security guard to allow me to take a photograph of the bird, but he denied me access.

The next day the bird was sitting one floor below, close to the washroom ventilation. I saw the rope hanging from the top of the building and a knot in it indicated that the bird’s perch was a few feet away. I wanted to ensure I reached the correct floor. I went to the 12th floor and entered the washroom and from within I saw the knot of the rope between the slides of the ventilation. But the bird was sitting very close to the wall of the washroom, just below the ventilation and I couldn’t see it. I knew the bird was less than three feet from the washroom. I went outside and saw both the knot and the bird.

One day, surprisingly, the bird changed its perch to the adjacent side of the building. I rushed there immediately to the pantry on the other side. Finally, I had a closer look at the bird and even got a picture with my phone:

It was a shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator), a cousin of the peregrine falcon! The shaheen falcon is a subspecies of the peregrine which is resident in India. My friend whom I showed the photo told me that shaheen falcons are attracted by pigeons common in urban areas. The peregrine falcon is the fastest flying bird in the world and can fly at 330 kph. They are especially skilled at hunting swoops and are able to survive in the alpine highlands as well as in lowland cliffs.

Shaheen Falcon on its natural habitat [Palani Hills]

It can be found in the desert, the tropics, in islands and in other habitats. Unfortunately, due to the introduction of DDT, they were on the brink of extinction. However, thanks to ornithologists,  environmentalists and activists who all fought against DDT, these birds are enjoying a resurgence. The shaheen falcon was always on its perch between 1 P.M. to 4 P.M. For a couple of months on weekdays, I watched the bird during my lunchtime. The falcon made my lunchtime precious and something I always looked forward to.

Article Published in Voices Magazine [Philippines]. ©Satheesh Muthu Gopal

Read my other articles :

Lunch With a Falcon

The remaining grasslands of Palani Hills

Palani Hills - Shrinking Heaven

Mar 20, 2021

சிட்டுக்குருவிகளை காப்பது மிகவும் எளிது


சிட்டுக் குருவிகளை அழிவில் இருந்து காப்பதற்கான தொடர் முயற்சிகளை செய்து வருகிறேன். நீங்களும் இந்த முயற்சியில் பங்கு கொள்ள விரும்பினால் சிட்டுக் குருவிகள் அதிகம் விரும்பி உண்ணும் நாட்டுக் கம்பை அவற்றிற்கு உணவாக கொடுங்கள்.

மேலும் படத்தில் உள்ளது போல சட்டிகளை அமைத்து அவற்றின் இருப்பிடத்திற்கும் வழி செய்யுங்கள்.

Mar 19, 2021

யாருக்கானது பூமி? - விமர்சனம் - 1


நன்றி காந்தி சங்கர்...!!!


நூல் : யாருக்கானது பூமி? 

ஆசிரியர்: பா. சதீஸ் முத்து கோபால் Satheesh Muthu Gopal

சிறந்த சுற்றுச்சூழல் விருதினை 2014-15ம் ஆண்டிற்கான விருதை இந்த நூல் பெற்றிருக்கிறது. 

நூல் ஆசிரியர் ஒரு கானகம்/காட்டுயிர்/ பறவை ஆர்வலர். இவர் தனது அவதானித்தலையும் காட்டு பயணங்களையும் இந்த நூலில் கூறியுள்ளார்.

மொத்தம் 12 கட்டுரைகள் உள்ள இந்த நூலில், முதலில் வருவது....

காட்டு தீயும் கடிவாளமும் - காட்டு தீ ஏற்படும் விதத்தையும் அதை எவ்வாறு தடுப்பது என்ற விழிப்புணர்வு நிகழ்வுக்காக ஒரு மலை கிராமத்துக்கு சென்ற தனது அனுபவத்தை விவரிக்கிறார். 

காடு சூழ் காவிரி - காவிரி நதியை சுற்றியுள்ள காட்டினை பற்றியும் அங்குள்ள விலங்குகள் பறவைகள் பற்றியும் குறிப்பிட்டுள்ளார்.

பழனியும் பறவைகளும் - அவரது சொந்த ஊரான பழனியில் உள்ள பறவைகளை அதன் அழகிய அனுபவங்களையும் நம்முடன் அசைபோடுகிறார்.

பழனி மலை தொடர்ச்சி - மேற்கு தொடர்ச்சி மலையில் பழனி மற்றும் கொடைக்கானல் உள்ள விலங்குகளையும் பறவைகளையும் குறிப்பிடுகிறார். கூடவே, அந்த பறவைகளின் வாழும் இடங்களையும் வாழும் நிலையையும் எடுத்து கூறுகிறார். சோலை காடுகளில் யூகலிப்டஸ் மரங்கள் எவ்வாறு கொண்டுவரப்பட்டு, இந்த மரங்கள் எவ்வாறு காட்டினை அழிகிறது என்றும் விவரிக்கிறார். பைன் மரங்களும் அவற்றை பார்வையிடும் பொது மக்களையும் கேள்வி கேட்கிறார். இங்கே ஏற்படும் நரக வளரச்சி எவ்வாறு காட்டுயிர்களுக்கு தீங்காகிறது என்பதும் தெரிகிறது. 

சென்னைக்கும் சிறகு உண்டு - க்கு வைக்கும் போதே, அது ஆச்சரியமும் அழகும் வாய்ந்ததாக உள்ளது. கூவம், அடையாறு ஆறுகளை நாசமாக்கி, சோழிங்கநல்லூரின் பறவை அவதானித்தலை அதிசயக்கிறார். இயற்கை இன்னும் இங்கே மிச்சம் இருக்கு.... அழிக்கவா இல்லை காக்கவா? கேள்வி நம் கைகளில்.

முடிந்தவரை காட்டில் செல்லும் சுற்றுலா பயணிகளை திட்டுகிறார். அவர்களின் பொறுப்பின்மையை  கடிந்துகொள்கிறார். அரசும் பொதுமக்களும் நீரினை தரும் காட்டினை காக்க முயலவில்லை. வனங்களில் எங்கெங்கு காணினும் நெகிழி. இதை தடுக்க எவரும் முனைவதில்லை. வெகு சில மக்களே வனத்தின் மேன்மையை உணர்ந்து கொள்கின்றனர். அழிந்தவைகளை மீட்டெடுக்கவும், அழிவதை தவிர்க்கவும் இந்த சிலர் போதுமானதாக இல்லை.

இத்துடன் தனது சுவிட்சர்லாந்து பறவை அவதானித்தலையும், அதே பறவைகள் சில இந்தியாவிற்கு வலசை வந்து இங்கு படும் அவஸ்தையையும் ஒப்பிடுகிறார்.

புத்தகம் முழுதும் இவரின் பயணக்கட்டுரையில் பறவைகள் விலங்குகளின் தமிழ் மற்றும் ஆங்கில பெயர்களை குறிப்பிடுகிறார். ஆங்காங்கே தமிழ் இலக்கிய மேற்கோள்களும் வருகின்றன.

அழகிய காட்டுயிர்களின் புகைப்படங்கள் கருப்பு வெள்ளையில் உள்ளது.

யாருக்கானது பூமி? - இந்த புத்தகத்தில் இதற்க்கான நேர் பதில் இல்லை.

பல்லுயிர் ஓம்பி அனைத்து உயிரனங்களுடன் சேர்ந்து வாழாமல், அனைத்திற்கும் மேலாக இருந்து ஆட்சி செய்ய துடிக்கும் மனித இனத்துக்கானது இல்லை என்பது பட்டவர்த்தமாக தெரிகிறது.

Mar 17, 2021

The Remaining Grasslands of Palani hills

Over millions of years the earth has evolved and created unique eco-systems, one of which is the Shola forest and montane grasslands of the Western Ghats. Palani Hills are a part of ecosystem and located in Tamil Nadu, and where the Paliyar people settled many centuries ago. The American missionaries visited the hills and grasslands in the mid-1800s and found it a suitable spot for their summer retreat: Kodaikanal emerged from these interests.

The remaining grasslands - Mannavanur [Upper Palani hills]

Once the undulating landscape of the upper Palani Hills was rich with grasslands and sholas and had the capability of storing the monsoon rains. While the northern slopes generate the tributaries of the river Cauvery, the Southern slopes generate the tributaries of the Vaigai. However, the landscape changed due to the development of Kodaikanal town, along with increasing tourism, roads etc. A huge area of the grasslands and forests were converted to agriculture and plantations. The introduction of exotic tree species such as Eucalyptus, Wattle and Pine by the British into the grasslands invaded the hills and challenged the natural eco-system. The forest department, unaware of the mistakes made by its predecessor, continued on the same path. The grasslands were converted into plantations of exotic species. The inhabitant species like the Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), the Indian Gaur (Bos gaurus), the Nilgiri Marten (Martes gwatkinsii), and many more, lost their habitats.

According to a recent study by Robin from IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati), only 15% of the grasslands are left in the Palani Hills. The change in eco-system now fails to capture the monsoon rains, leaving most of the tributaries of the Vaigai and the Cauvery in plains dry, the river-beds with many stagnant waterholes and rocky outcrops.

Due to the forest fragmentation and loss of habitats, the gaurs are now seen wandering about in Kodaikanal town. In 2016, while dining in a restaurant near the Kodaikanal bus stand, a busy part of town, I saw a herd of guars walking in the middle of the road. People moved to the pavement and made way for the guars. Such scenes are not so uncommon in this hill town nowadays. The hill town attracts more tourists each year and to gratify them new tourist spots are created. The “Pine Forest” is once such spot where people can be seen horse riding and where native birds and butterflies are absent. Neither the tourism board nor the forest department educates the tourist about the ecological changes in the landscape.

Indian Gaur in Kodaikanal town

Berijam is an artificial lake in the upper hills, surrounded by exotic trees. I have visited Berijam numerous times to look for birds in this region. I saw the Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis) only once in 2013. The Nilgiri Pipit is endemic to Western Ghats which has lost most its natural habitat now.

Berijam Lake surrounded by exotic trees

The state animal of Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiri Tahr, especially skilled n navigating the mountain cliffs, is under serious threat. They are pushed to fragmented cliffs where grasslands are left. Most of the freshwater streams have lost the Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinereus), once common in the hills. Water pollution due to the development of Kodaikanal town and the pesticides used for agriculture has pushed this species to the brink of extinction. The population of Nilgiri Marten, another endemic species here and which has been observed by a few naturalists, is uncertain now.

The restoration of grasslands is important for many native flora and fauna but it is a difficult task. As there are only a few grasslands left, the forest department and the NGO’s need to identify the remaining patches and monitor them regularly to protect them from invasive species. The weeds need to be taken out from the grasslands annually and more attention required to push back the invasives.

In 2017 I visited Berijam with my friend ornithologist friend Raveendran and stayed for a couple of days. En route, we stopped at the watchtower and watching the lake from the distance. The misty afternoon made magical changes in the landscape. A Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) flew across the hilly landscape. We stayed in the forest guest house. There was neither a phone signal nor electricity and the evening was beautiful because of the silence around us. The night was pitch dark and freezing cold. The person who accompanied us prepared dinner. We were told that the gaurs came down to the lake every night for water and so we finished dinner and waited for them. A herd came down from the hills and a majestic bull, glistening in the dark, moved slowly towards the lake. Unfortunate that they had to forage in a forest where there was scant food left for them. Later we found a Large Scale Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis) basking in the middle of the road; it is also endemic to Western Ghats.

Large Scale Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis)

The next morning the lake surface was covered with mist. We heard the call of the Sambar deer on the other side and waited long to get a glimpse of it. As the sun came up we saw the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), the Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus), the Red Whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) near the lake. Then we went for a forest walk to understand the ecological changes that had happened. We went to the Mathikettan shola and headed downwards with some forest department staffs. The entire range was filled with wattle trees and the ground was littered with wattle seeds ready to sprout. We climbed up and returned to the road. A few tourists were making noises, enjoying the sound echo in the hills. A Nilgiri Langur (Semnopithecus johnii) was calling deep from the forest and the tourists were mimicking the call. We requested them to stop doing this but they misunderstood our intentions. It is a pity that our education system does not teach students how to behave in the forest. However, we moved away from the place and the forest department warned them. On our return we saw a few bird species such as the Long Tailed Shrike (Lanius schach), the Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata), and the Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) near the lake. Hill Swallows were active. While coming back to the forest guest house we found Indian scimitar babbler, which was a lifer for me. I was happy I could get a lifer.

Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis)

On another occasion in 2014, I trekked from Kookal Shola to Kuthirayar dam in the foothills. The two-day long trek helped me understand another problem which the forests are facing. It was April and the grasslands were destroyed by forest fire, the scars black and depressing. Forest fires are man-made in the Western Ghats. The cliffs in Kookal supports few Nilgiri Thar, though I did not spot any that day, and I wondered at their plight when the grasslands are fired. I had a long walk that first day and stayed in one of the estate guest houses which was in the middle elevation. The climate and terrain are different here from the upper hills.

Grasslands burnt due to Forest Fire

As I set off the next day I saw the Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata), heading high to upper hills where the grasslands are already burnt.

Article Published in Leaf Litter Magazine. ©Satheesh Muthu Gopal

Read my other articles :

Lunch With a Falcon

The remaining grasslands of Palani Hills

Palani Hills - Shrinking Heaven