RV Matters

RV Matters - 5 Dec 2018

One morning during the recent school vacation, we went to the Sunrise Point adjacent to the Cave Rock Hill and we were in for a shock! An enterprising villager apparently had acquired some 5 acres of flat land near the Sunrise Point (a few metres from the RV wall and got a JCB to flatten the area further, clearing it of all the scrub vegetation including the lone Acacia tree that used to be a favorite perch of birds.

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This was painful since we have been seeing the rare Yellow-throated bulbuls here, foraging on berries of several shrubs. As if to confrm this, even as we were horrifed at the destruction, a pair of Yellowthroated bulbuls few in and settled on a boulder adjacent to the cleared area.

We are not clear about the intention behind this destruction of this natural habitat. We are told the person who acquired the land intends to grow trees. Another version is that he intends to cultivate the land and grow crops. With no access to water and given the rocky substrate, both these ideas appear impractical. I have not been able to visit the spot since and hope no further damage has been done. It is time something is done to protect the area from further encroachments as this is a great habitat for birds like the Marshall’s Iora, Sirkeer Malkoha, Jungle Bush-quails, Tawny Eagle (nesting nearby , ahite-eyed buzzard and several others. I have also seen the Five-striped Palm Squirrel (a species rare in the south) and a few other interesting mammals including a possible Rusty-spotted Cat here.

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Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 7 Oct 2018

“Did you sit and paint this cockroach?” asked my cousin who saw this photograph. It took a while to explain to him that this was not a cockroach and certainly I did not paint it!

We have had some sightings of this exotic-looking creature in Rishi Valley last month and this photograph was taken near the Senior School, last week.

A member of the Buprestidae family, they are known as jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles – Sternocera sp. This nearly 2-3 inch long insect, is one of the 15,500 species belonging to this family, one of the largest beetle families! The elytra (wing cases) of these creatures were traditionally used to make beetlewing jewellery in parts of South and South-east Asia.

Photo: V Santharam

This morning’s birdwatching yielded three more migrants – the Ashy Drongo, Barn Swallow and the Forest Wagtail. The last-named is a very uncommon bird of passage in Rishi Valley, encountered during the autumnal passage in September-October and again in March-April. The Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, a local migrant, has been seen over the last week in overhead flight over the campus as they fly southward, through the day.

The tall and stately Millingtonia or the Indian Cork trees have started flowering indicating the term is coming to an end and winter is not far away. Each year these trees bloom in profusion towards October-November, filling the air with a sweet but heady scent and the ground below them, a carpet of white flowers. For those with a keen olfactory sense, the valley offers a variety of scents through the year. I wonder how many of us stop and inhale the fresh, scented air?

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 30 Sep 2018

For once, I was alone this morning as I went birding outside the campus to the Sunrise Point and the valley beyond. A thin veil of mist covered the hills and the morning sunlight filtered in, lighting up the rocks. The landscape looked lush and green after the recent spell of rains, contrasting with a clear blue sky. The green grass was soft and moist with the dew. Every bush and tree was alive with activity of birds.

I was hoping to catch up with the recently-arrived migrants. I have only been seeing Greenish Warblers and Grey Wagtails regularly on campus for the past few weeks. I was not at all disappointed. Up on the rocks, above me, there was a pair of Blue Rock Thrush. Usually these birds which migrate from Himalayan region, are seen singly. Perhaps they have just arrived and are yet to stake out their individual territories. From some shrubs, I could hear the familiar “churr”s of the Hume’s Whitethroat, another migrant from Central Asia and the Western Himalaya. Later in the morning, I spotted half-a-dozen of these warblers, foraging and calling energetically. A Brown Shrike put on a brief appearance before diving back into cover. A Paradise Flycatcher, a local migrant, called from some distance but I could not spot it.

Migrants apart, I had excellent views of the rare Marshall’s Iora. A pair of these birds were noticed foraging in low bushes. The white on their tail feathers was quite striking as was their truncated whistling notes. A male Common Iora landed on the top branches of the bush even as I was observing the Marshall’s pair. I could make out the relatively larger size of the Common Iora and its uniform black tail feathers. I could witness no aggression among the two species as they continued to forage on the bush for the next two or three minutes before moving to an adjacent shrub. Though I heard them on three occasions this morning, I could not spot the Yellow-throated Bulbuls as they moved in the higher reaches of the hills.

A Vine snake attracted the attention of the smaller passerines and I could see the snake beat a hasty retreat as it was mobbed by several purple and purple-rumped sunbirds, Pale-billed and Thickbilled Flowerpeckers, Redvented Bulbuls, Common Iora and a Three-striped palm Squirrel.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 23 Sep 2018

Last Thursday, my brief siesta was disturbed by the loud, raucous screeching of the parakeets from the tamarind tree outside the house. Initially I ignored this but when it persisted, I decided to investigate. These incessant alarm calls normally indicate the presence of a predator, usually a snake.

I could notice half a dozen parakeets fluttering and excitedly flying about a particular branch and there were also a couple of palm squirrels moving around the same spot, their tails raised in alarm. A few minutes of patient waiting revealed the cause of their concern – a 4-foot long rat snake, moving slowly along the thick branch, thirty feet above the ground. The noise attracted the attention of a crow that briefly joined the parakeets. The drama persisted for well over 45 minutes during which the snake moved from branch to branch, the birds in hot pursuit. There were some intervals of silence, during which the snake was concealed in one of the numerous cavities of this ancient tree or amidst the foliage of the pipal tree that has taken root on the main trunk of the tamarind. I had to warn the girls who were going for lunch or coming back from lunch to Red House (completely oblivious to the racket made by the parakeets!) since the snake has a tendency to drop off from the tree to escape the harassment of the birds. Close to 2.00 pm, a couple of students reported seeing a large snake crossing the road and by then the parakeets fell silent.

Communal mobbing of snakes is a fairly common sight in Rishi Valley and I have come across this on several occasions. On some instances, I have seen a host of bird species participating in this activity and the list includes sunbirds, flowerpeckers, tailorbirds, Magpie-robins, common iora, bulbuls, occasionally drongoes, parakeets, mynas and crows. Rat snakes regularly climb trees where there are bird nests, especially those of parakeets and mynas. The smaller birds named above usually mob the green vine snake which is an arboreal species. While mobbing, birds give sharp alarm calls and move excitedly and often very close to their adversary. Birds like crows even nip the reptile’s tail and harass it. Once a few years ago, I had seen a vine snake with an ashy drongo, dead, in its mouth, being mobbed by crows.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 16 Sep 2018

After a gap of nearly two months, we finally had good (6.1 cm) rains on the night of September 11. It was great to see the dry spell broken, finally.

The leaves of the duranta bushes which were drooping have sprung back to life almost overnight. Millipedes (the long brown ones) have emerged from their hiding places. Frogs started croaking. The grass that had turned brown is lush green once more. The Scaly-breasted Munias which had suspended their nesting outside my house have resumed their activities by coming in with long strands of green grass for lining their dome-shaped nests.

To me, the most interesting development since the rains was the emergence of winged termites. They started making their appearance the evening after the rains and they were immediately noticed by their predators. Crows gathered in the playground, picking out termites as they came out of the crevices in the ground. A spotted owlet made sorties in the air flying after the insects. Even the next morning, the feast continued – several dozens of crows and mynas were busy picking the termites from the open meadows and fields. They were joined by bee-eaters, babblers, drongoes, coucal, bulbuls and a host of other bird species. A flock of House (Little) swifts flew unusually low over tree-tops, catching the termites in mid-air and consuming them.

Winged termites are the most sought-out food by many birds. Even humans (tribals like Irulas) consume them regularly for their proteins. Though a lot of these insects fall an easy prey to birds, mammals, larger predatory insects, reptiles and amphibians, by their sheer numbers the termites are able to satiate their predators and a large proportion of the population actually escapes and survives. Maybe these insects have already learnt some of the basics of economics by which they can outstrip the demand by excess supply!

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 9 Sep 2018

Bats have always been spooky and thought to be harbingers of evil to humans. Just outside the Staff Study-2, in the dark corridor, in our senior school building, there are 5-6 bats roosting during the day. Their droppings on the floor below their roost area gives away their location.

These are Schneider's Leaf-nose bats (Hipposideros speoris), a species endemic to India, according Dr T. Ganesh, Ecologist at ATREE, Bangalore. Dr Ganesh and his team have been surveying temples in the southern Tamilnadu for their bat fauna and he has been seeing declines in their numbers. He feels rather than discouraging the bats, Rishi Valley School should take pride in supporting bats in their campus. He feels we could remove their excreta which makes an excellent manure regularly and use in our gardens.

Dr Santharam

Photo: V. Santharam

RV Matters - 2 Sep 2018

The hoopoe is back! After a gap of nearly three months, this bird is back in the campus. I first saw it a week ago opposite the Green House. This morning, I woke to the calls of the “hud-hud-hud” calls of the bird. They are now getting ready for their next breeding cycle. Where does this bird diasppear after it raises its family of 2-3 chicks in a tree-hole or in a crevice in a building? I have seldom seen them in the campus, though on rare occasions they do turn up in the open spaces outside the campus in our valley between June and August.

An Asian Brown Flycatcher, a local migrant, too turned up near the Malli House last week. The season is changing and the birds are coming back. The first Himalayan migrants – the Grey Wagtail and the Greenish Warblers should be here anytime now. Paradise flycatchers too will soon turn up. Keep your eyes and ears open!

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 26 Aug 2018

  What does this image remind you of? Look carefully! Yes, a bunch of RV students (“bats”) sitting on the benches at the assembly!

What does this image remind you of? Look carefully! Yes, a bunch of RV students (“bats”) sitting on the benches at the assembly!

Last week while on my walk to the mouth of the valley, I spotted two groups of ashy Wood-swallows, each numbering a dozen or so, sitting tightly huddled together on the High-tension wire. I have seen these birds only occasionally and that too at the mouth of the valley in small numbers, rarely exceeding half-a-dozen. These dull-colored birds often feed by pursuing insects caught in the mid-air. They have short nasal “chek-chek” call notes that often give away their presence. They have short tails and often the primaries of their wings extend beyond their tail feathers.

Elsewhere, in Chennai city, where this bird used to be common, I have even seen them nesting atop an electric pole in the middle of a crowded locality.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 19 Aug 2018

Several reports of sightings of Chameleons have been coming in from students and colleagues after seeing the last week’s “RV Matters!”. I am happy that several eyes are now alert and on the looking out for these interesting animals.

Last Saturday as I was returning from my morning walk, I came across a specimen of the chameleon on the road, next to the second bridge. It was dull, brown, utterly lifeless and flattened as it was a run-over specimen. Roadkills are now increasingly threatening our wildlife all over the country and our little corner is not spared. I have been regularly seeing animals run over by vehicles that operate in our valley. The victims include several species of snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, snails, millipedes, gerbils ( a rodent), squirrels and occasionally birds that feed on the ground (like the coucal). Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh who spoke on the occasion of our Bird Preserve Anniversary last month had cited roadkills as one of the greatest threats to our wildlife.

We are now witnessing an explosion of vehicular population in our own campus and unlike in the past when there were restrictions on the movement of vehicles (there are still signs saying “No Cars beyond this point”), 2-wheeler and 4-wheeler vehicles are freely moving all across the campus (and sometimes even off the roads). It is not uncommon to find vehicles parked at odd places at different times of the day (and night).

I would like to appeal to everyone to be a little more sensitive not only to our children’s saftey but also have consideration for all the wildlife that is affected by this indiscriminate movement of vehicles in our campus which was declared a Bird Preserve 27 years ago.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 5 Aug 2018

Last week I discovered that one of our favourite birding routes – from the Car Park to BBT was no longer accessible with the new fence and gate coming up as a part of the security measures in the campus. While some of us may be disappointed with this new development, I think this may be, in some ways, helpful in protecting our natural habitats and vegetation. But this of course will depend on some additional measures we may need to adopt.

This area adjacent to the Car Park (Behind the Big Banyan Tree) has for long been the “darkest Africa” of the campus. With good undergrowth, lianas and some really old trees, this area was virtually out of bounds for a long time. The “Stinky Pond”, which stores all the water from the laundry provides moisture for growth of vegetation in the vicinity and we have in the past located several interesting birds in this area. For instance several flycatcher species – Bluethroated, Asian Brown, Brownbreasted (a passage migrant), Verditer, Asian Paradise and the Blacknaped Monarch – have all been seen in the proximity of the pond in the winter months. Tickell’s Thrush, a rare himalayan winter visitor, Whitethroated ground thrush, Green Leaf warbler and several other passerines too make this their winter home. This is also a great place to look out for Honey Buzzards.

However unplanned developments over the past few years have caused the vegetation in this area to shrink considerably as chunks of the wooded areas have been taken over for vermicomposting (and since abandoned), silos, underground water tank, parking space, dumping ground for construction materials, clearing the vegetation for laying pipes etc. etc. I feel with a little thought we could still revive the vegetation in this place and make it an interesting birding spot.

Perhaps it is high time we have a Management Plan for the campus and demarcate areas for conservation based on the species of unique vegetation and other life forms they support.

Dr Santharam