RV Matters

RV Matters - 12 September 2019

What I am about to write may be controversial. But I suggest you read it objectively before drawing your own conclusions and reacting to it.

This year some of my former Environmental Science students came up with some suggestions to do something about the various environmental issues at school at their level and have started to work on some of them. This is laudable. We have several important issues plaguing us here – water shortage, plastic and other waste disposal, cutting down on electricity consumption, food waste and so on.

Yet there is one issue, a major one at that, which in my opinion we can act on fast if only we are willing to accept the facts.

Last couple of years, the number of students returning home and to school who fly rather than go by trains has increased tremendously – over 100 of them, I understand. This term, the “parties” to and from various cities (Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai) have been cancelled as many students opt to fly.

While air travel is advantageous and preferable for various reasons (“safe”, “saving time”, “cheaper” ...), the one major reason to rethink about this is the amount of carbon footprint this entails. I have been recently reading about the initiatives scientists and educators ought to take in view of the grave and imminent consequences of anthropogenic global warming. It is time we, associated with K-schools also do something about it if we are really sincere and feel we can be part of the solution. We do discuss about the problems in school ad nauseum, in a mechanical way and expect others to do something about it when we ourselves, collectively and individually, can take action.

I do wish we can do something about this immediately rather than wait for some grand and fancy-sounding solution to be rolled out by innovators and scientists working on this issue. We are running out of time and we really don’t seem to worry about this. We have started facing the consequences of this in our daily life. How long are we going to wait? We need to put with some little inconveniences now rather than trying to solve the irreparable damage we have started to unleash on our planet.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 28 August 2019

There were three of them up in the sky that morning against the background of a cloudy sky, flying and circling, accompanied by the loud calls. The Oriental Honey Buzzard is usually a quiet bird but in the months of July-August when it is in the breeding phase, the birds become more vocal and take to the skies. We were trying to discern the various features by which the bird could be distinguished from its relatives and for over 15 minutes, we watched their antics in the air. Even as we watched, we could see one of the birds climb in the air, above the Cave Rock, uttering its calls and then lift its wings vertically over its back and clap them a few times. We saw this at least on four occasions. We also saw them dive down a few metres. The gathering clouds and the sheet of rains that slowly came our way forced us to beat a hasty retreat and head to the Dining Hall for hot, crispy dosas. I manged to click a few pictures (see above and below) which I hope will help our young birders locate the key features of this bird to identify it when they see it the next time.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 13 August 2019

Each monsoon, we get a pair of the Scaly-breasted munias visiting our house and explore the areas under the tiled roof, in their quest for a safe nest site for their young ones. They chose to nest on the wooden beam and wedge their nests between the beam and the tiles. For this, they spend enormous amount of time locating the grass strips and placing them carefully  together to make a large ball of grass in which they raise tehir family. The birds choose the site carefully so that it does not allow access to the stray cats that roam the area. The birds are quite shy and move away on seeing us. This year, I finally managed to get a few pictures of the birds and their nest. It is sad that despite their efforts, the nests are abandoned half-way through when the weather turns dry. But they never give up. Once the wet spell commences, they are back at work. A few days ago (around 6.20 pm) as I sat on the terrace, a few meters from their nest, the pair came to the nest and sat on the wires and flew to roost inside the nest. I hope this year at least they will successfully raise a family.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 23 July 2019

Driving along the Mudivedu-CTM road, last week, we had stopped by to take a look at the birds along the road. It was close to sunset and as we watched, a large eagle swooped down from the skies to land at the edge of a freshly ploughed field. As I moved towards it, expecting to see it feed on a large mammal or bird, I noticed nothing. Looking at its features, I identified the eagle as an Indian Spotted Eagle, a species not seen by me earlier in this area.

Wondering what the bird was up to, I observed more closely to see the bird pick something small from the ground and consume it. It repeated this act several times over the next few minutes and then I realized the bird was picking up winged termites that were emerging from the soil.

 Even as the eagle was engrossed in its feast, with loud noisy calls, flew in seven Common Mynas and a pair of Black drongos. They sat all around the eagle. For a while, I expected the newcomers would mob the eagle, forcing it to flee as they normally do not tolerate the presence of raptors near them. This did not happen. These birds too joined in the feast and started foraging on the winged termites, venturing quite close to the eagle that hardly paid attention to the smaller birds. This went on for over 10 minutes, after which the eagle took off and flew away after making a few sorties in the air.

Winged termites are a delicacy amongst birds and I have observed several times, several species like Indian Robin, Bulbuls, Sunbirds, Swifts and swallows, Babblers, Crows enjoying the bounty when these insects emerge in a swarm. Even large eagles and birds of prey catch them in flight. Termites are a source of protein and no one including humans (tribals, in particular) misses the opportunity to feast on them!

p3.jpg

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 8 July 2019

For the last several months I did not hear even hear a single hoot, let alone the loud, quavering vocalisations they make at dusk as they break their roost. For a while, I believed like its larger cousins, the Mottled Wood Owl too had abandoned the valley following the severe drought-like conditions induced by the failure of the North-east monsoon last year, leading to a prolonged dry spell.

On the last day of June, the group of birdwatchers were surprised to see two large raptorial birds take off from a Tamarind tree under which they were standing. Even before they could recover from it, someone pointed out to a third bird perched on a branch, directly above us, immobile and staring at us with its huge dark eyes.

From its plumage colouration, it was evident the bird was a young one, recently fledged but not yet independent and capable of flying long distances. It regarded us with its large, liquid eyes and followed our movements as we took in our fill of the bird, which is never easy to observe for long periods of time.

We could hear several remarks expressing wonder and awe on seeing this owl, which is bigger than a Large-billed (Jungle) Crow but stouter and plump. One of the students remarked that unlike the cute, adorable looks of the Spotted Owlet, this owl had a sinister look and was frightening to behold!

Mottled Wood Owls have been a part of our rural landscape and play a vital role in containing populations of rodents that threaten our food production. We used to see them on the Big Banyan tree (BBT) years ago and promptly at dusk, they would let out their loud calls and hoots. For a while they roosted near the Junior School. I have also seen them in mango orchards, on densely foliaged branches.

Being nocturnal, they are subject to harassment at day by birds like the crows and treepies and so need quiter places to retreat. We need to keep this in mind while planning our usage of the land in our campus and set aside quieter, densely wooded areas for such shy denizens.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 28 June 2019

p1.jpg

While out birding, two weeks back, we noticed two species of birds (the Brahminy Starling and the Common Myna)– both cavity-nesters – carrying something in their beaks. Close examination revealed they were the leaves of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). Why were they carrying the leaves? Did they consume them?

 Walking further, we saw the common mynas entering a cavity on the coconut tree trunk near the Vegetable Garden. There were several active nests and some had chicks. I have also seen the Brahminy Starlings occupying nest cavities. The birds were carrying the leaves to the nests.

Leaves of the neem are well-known for their medicinal values traditionally and now with research, scientists have discovered their anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties besides other medicinal values. Birds seem to have independently discovered these values and have been using them in their nests to protect their chicks from harmful bacteria and fungus. Several research papers now confirm this. There is so much out there we can learn by observation.

Dr Santharam

p2.jpg

RV Matters - 17 June 2019

Here is the first installment of “RV Matters” for the new academic year. From this year, I would be travelling a bit and am not sure how regularly I can write this column. I do hope others at school will chip in when needed.

We all have been waiting for rains and that seems to be the major topic of discussion in the valley. I had been on campus more or less through the vacation and it has been a rather hot summer with temperatures steadily hovering in the neighborhood of 40 degrees C. There have been a couple showers late in May and early June but otherwise it has been totally dry. The Hundri-Neeva canal too dried up the day after the elections! The weather forecasts, too, have not been promising.

p1.jpg

On our first bird-watching trip last Sunday (16th June), there was a sighting of the Pied Cuckoo, now also known as Jacobin Cuckoo. These birds have been here on campus at least since June 1st. They have been regularly calling, especially at nights, from the Duranta Hills. Pied Cuckoos are known to be summer migrants to this part of the country and their arrival coincides with the onset of the southwest monsoon. So there is some hope that the birds will attract some rains to our parched campus. Let us wait patiently. Birds and other creatures can be better at predicting weather than our educated weathermen!

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 26 April 2019

IMG_7093.JPG

This morning as I picked up the newspaper kept on the teapoy in the Visitors' lounge in Rishi Valley, I noticed the newspaper and the floor nearby was having a white stain from bird droppings. Expecting to see the familiar Indian Scops Owl pair, I was surprised to see a large, white, heart-shaped face staring back at me. It was then I realized the droppings were larger than usual. Moving back, I got a better look at the visitor perched on the top rafter under the tiled roof. It was a barn owl!

IMG_20190426_141723_780.jpg

I had seen this bird just once earlier in the campus and was thrilled to see it. I hurried back home, picked the camera and got a few shots. After a while, the bird became nervous as a few more staff members joined me to take a look. A little later as I moved to get a better view, the bird moved and flew out to a nearby Peltophorum tree. 

An hour later, towards noon, I went to see if the owl was still around and there and there it was. Took a few more snaps quickly and moved away, not wishing to disturb the bird.

The resident Scops owls were away, perhaps busy, raising a brood in a nearby tree-hole. Wonder what they will have to say when they see a new occupant in their regular haunts!

I hope water will continue to flow and bring about some positive changes to the vegetation and animals as well as people’s lives here.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 29 March 2019

p1.jpg

The summer is already here. Even early in March, temperatures in the valley shot up to 40.5 degrees! Mercifully, the mornings are still cool.

The neem trees have started blooming and the heady scent of the blossoms are fill the air. Some of the other trees too are flowering – the Wrightia tinctoria, Alangium sp. The Peepul and Pongamia trees have fresh leaves.

We have put up a few new birdbaths in the campus and the water tanks in the Biodiversity park have been filled up and also made more accessible to animals and birds.

p2.jpg

Since early February, the Hundri-Neeva Canal, that was built a few years ago has been having water flowing through it and with this there has been recharge of some of the bore-wells in the valley. A few birds that are dependent on water have made their appearance along the banks of the canal. There were two cormorants by the shores a couple of weeks ago. A Small Blue or Common Kingfisher was also sighted. The wire-tailed swallow, which is seen close to waterbodies was seen flying over the waters.

I hope water will continue to flow and bring about some positive changes to the vegetation and animals as well as people’s lives here.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 17 March 2019

p1.jpg

After a long gap, I visited the “Stinky Pond”, located between the Carpentry Shed and the RV Dairy (just behind the BBT) some days ago. This used to be, despite the awful smell, one of the most tranquil spots on campus. Surrounded by greenery and being cool and moist all through the year, this spot had been a favorite of mine. The pond had water, surrounded by trees and shrubs and the stink that came not from the pond water (which is mainly water from the laundry) but from the adjacent pipes that carries bathwater from many of the hostels.

p2.jpg

I was not disappointed. As I cautiously approached the pond, one by one, the tortoises that lived disappeared into the water with a loud plonk. Yet, I managed to see one of them – the Peninsular Black turtle for a couple of minutes before it decided to disappear into the waters.

From the dense undergrowth adjacent to the waterbody came the loud raucous calls of the             whitebreasted waterhen. A Pond heron sat meditatively on a low branch, while a pair of white-browed wagtails foraged in the slushy, wet mud at one end of the pond. As I watched, a sudden moment caught my eye and a myna-sized bird, greyish in colour came into view. It was a subspecies of the Indian Blackbird that was not actually black in its plumage! Slowly I moved across to the other side of the pond, hoping to capture an image of this uncommon visitor to our campus, a bird that is seen only in dense wooded, cool parts like the surrounds of the Stinky pond – a micro-habitat that is fast vanishing on our campus. I waited for about five minutes and there it was, posing perfectly for me on a leafless branch. I got a couple of good shots of the bird, a male.

p3.jpg

This area has a rich birdlife and I have seen six or seven species of flycatchers, orange-headed thrushes, Indian pitta, warblers, wagtails, the green sandpiper apart from the resident bulbuls and babblers.

It is a pity that the greenery in this patch has gradually been reduced over the years. In the 1990's, this was a dense impenetrable jungle, but steadily, parts of this patch was cleared for vermicomposting, dumping of unused building materials, wastes like electric tubes, bike parking area, etc. etc. Currently there is just 40-50% of the original area under vegetation. A few years ago, students had, as a part of their club activity, studied this area and suggested the filtering of water released from the laundry and to clean up the water in the pond. The stinking grey water from the bathrooms too need to be diverted to make the place stink-free.

This is perhaps the only permanent waterbody on campus and it is an important micro-habitat to several wildlife species. Relocating the dumpyard and reclaiming the greenery in this patch will serve in supporting many of these species and help maintain the biological diversity of the Bird preserve.

Dr Santharam