RV Matters

RV Matters - 17 Feb 2019

The reason why I started writing “RV Matters” on the school noticeboard was to draw the attention of “RVites” to things that happen around us on the campus. It was also a forum, which I hoped, would invite contributions from others – students and teachers - on their observations. Somehow this has not yet happened but I sincerely hope we will get them to write soon.

However I do get feedback from some of the more active students and teachers on their observations – Yash (IX) reported a few days ago of about a chameleon being killed and consumed by a cat. Siddhu (XI) came up with a sighting of the Chestnut-headed bee-eater on the school campus last evening. Many observers have reported their sightings of the goings-on at the flame of the Forest (Palash) tree, still in flower, where congregations of parakeets, crows, sunbirds, Spangled or Hair-crested drongos have been noticed. A pair of Red Spurfowls that were trapped in the backyard of one of the hostels was rescued by the alert inmates. More reports are coming in of the sounder of wild boars behind the Badminton Court and I myself saw 5-6 of them one evening last week.

Now with the Asthachal starting, there have been students who have been noticing birds and other creatures that we have been sharing our campus with. Nirvedh (VIII) came up with a long list of birds he heard or saw during the Asthachal, one evening. Again, Yash has been befriending a Black-naped hare at the Asthachal and it has been sitting in a shrub, mere 1.5 m. from him through the 20 minutes of Asthachal on more than three or four evenings!

Yesteday, a skink joined the VIII students in their folk dance workshop! The Male Paradise flycatcher in the junior school seems to have taken on the role of a class inspector and has been entering the class-rooms and clearing them of spiders and other invertebrates besides listening to the goings-on in the class! Fortunately they now seem to know how to fly out of the rooms. A few years ago we had to remove the roof-tiles to release a bird trapped overnight in the room.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 7 Feb 2019

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They have been around in the foyer of the Senior School for years now, occupying the beam close to the tiles. They can be quite unobtrusive and with their mottled plumage, it takes a while to locate them on their secret perch, where they seem to be sleeping most of the day. Yes, I am referring to the Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) pair. The word “scops” is a Greek word that means small, eared owl.

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Last week, for once, they decided to leave their secret perch and bask in full sunshine. They were seen perched on the leafless branches of the Gliricidia tree in the courtyard. They were quite unmindful of my presence as I clicked these pictures but seemed uncomfortable when some students joined me. It was quite surprising that despite being out in the open, few people noticed them and they seemed to merge with the tree branches.

These birds become active once the sun sets and at dusk, they come down from their perch and stretch their wings. They also perch on the frame of the large hoopoe portrait before flying out to hunt their prey, which is mainly small insects and animals. They have a characteristic call: “WUT?” which they utter at dusk and through the night. They can be noisier during the breeding season which is January-March. I have heard their repeated calls several times during the breeding season. They nest in tree-cavities.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 30 Jan 2019

Time to look out for the flowers of the Flame-of-the-forest tree (Butea monosperma). This year, the lone tree on the tennis wall practice area is coming into bloom. The first flowers were out last week when I passed by the tree.

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This is one of the trees that attracts birds with its copious supply of nectar. Sunbirds, orioles, parakeets, chloropsis, mynas and the ubiquitous crows are among those that make a beeline for the tree when in flower

In Rishi Valley, we have noticed the tree also attracts hordes of parakeets that chew up the seed-pods. We had tried several ways of preventing this but the birds have found ways to outwit us!

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 23 Jan 2019

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Spotting a Paradise Flycatcher in Rishi Valley between the months of November and March is not a tough task. There are certain spots on campus where you could see the lovely male birds showing off their trim white and black plumage with a long  pair of streamers trailing behind them as they dart around after their prey. Some males occur with a variant plumage* – upper parts being rufous (the colour of the female) instead of white but with long tail feathers.

This year, I was fortunate in having two male birds haunting the tiny patch of greenery we have below our flight of steps and on the Tamarind tree in front of our house. One of them is the male in rufous morph but with white wings (primaries). He initially appeared in our neighbourhood in the mornings and late afternoons, perched on low branches, unmindful of the presence of people passing by or those sitting under the tree. Around noon he was replaced by an gorgeous white male with a pair of tail streamers, easily over 18 inches in length. He seemed a little more shy than his rufous counterpart. He would streak past like a comet when disturbed. Soon he took over the territory in the evenings too. Often he would be seen catching insects on the wing, flying low over the ground, much to the discomfiture of the resident White-browed wagtails that foraged on the ground. The Wagtails would then chase away the flycatcher which would retreat to another part of the tree.

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I have never seen the two males together. The male in the rufous morph moves over to the backyard of the Green House in the evenings. But I have once seen a female when the white male was around and he apparently had no objections to her presence in his territory.

*Earlier it was presumed that the males with rufous colouration were juvenile males. But now it is established that males in rufous plumage too are capable of breeding and so are accepted as a colour morph.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 16 Jan 2019

Some of the loyal, dedicated birders from Rishi Valley School were taken on a birding trip to Nelapattu and Pulicat Bird Sanctuaries on 6-7 January.

We spent nearly two hours at the Nelapattu Pelicanry on 6th morning and had opportunities to watch the nesting colony of waterbirds comprising mainly Spotbilled Pelicans, Openbill storks, Black-necked Ibis, Spoonbills, a few cormorants, darters, egrets and night herons, besides several species of ducks including Lesser Whistling Teal, Garganey, Shovellers, Pintail and Spotbilled Ducks (which were not breeding) in the tank. In the fields adjoining the tank, there were Zitting Cisticolas, Indian Roller and a Marsh Harrier.

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That afternoon and the next morning, we made forays into the Pulicat lake, along the SHAR road, stopping by at the Kudiri Tank, a freshwater tank with reeds. We were greeted by flocks of flamingos (over 7000 birds, stretching towards the horizon and seen as a pink line), several smaller shorebirds numbering over 2000 that included stints, plovers and sandpipers, Painted Storks, more Pelicans, a flock of over 1400 pintail ducks, several egrets and herons. Our total bird tally exceeded 90 species in the two days and some of the kids got to see several “lifers” on this trip.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 9 Jan 2019

The temperatures suddenly plummeted overnight to 10° c on the New Year morning. Many people believe in staying up late on the new year eve to usher the New Year and waking up late. But I always begin the New Year by being out in nature, preferably all by myself. This year too, I was out by sunrise at the “Biodiversity Park” and was greeted by some beautiful sights and an addition to our campus bird-list – the Eastern Orphean Warbler, a rare winter visitor to southern India.

 This landscape with its tall grass and scattered bushes and occasional trees adds so much to the diversity of the campus and it would be a pity if we convert this into a woodland by artificially planting trees. We need trees but we also need other kinds of habitats if we are to maintain the biological diversity in our campus.

Dr Santharam

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RV Matters - 30 Dec 2018

Tickell’s Leaf Warbler

Tickell’s Leaf Warbler

Verditer Flycatcher

Verditer Flycatcher

This winter it is raining Verditer Flycatchers in Rishi Valley (although we also wish there were good rains!). We see them everywhere in the campus on trees in wooded areas as well as semi-open areas. This tiny bird is a winter visitor from Himalaya and though a regular visitor to our campus, has been occuring in small numbers. Another rare winter visitor to RV that breeds in Himalaya which I was lucky to photograph is the Tickell’s Leaf Warbler. With its bright yellow supercilium and underparts, this bird is more easily identified amongst the whole lot of LBJs (“Little Brown Jobs”) which are the bane of all normal birdwatchers! This bird obliged me with great views from a close range and remained stationary for over five minutes. Among the migrants that are rarer this year on campus are the Bluethroated Flycatcher and the Black-naped Oriole. We do have a pair of Blackhooded Orioles on campus, though it is not, strictly speaking, a winter visitor.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 23 Dec 2018

Birdwatchers often are interested in rare birds and one expects to see “new” and exotic birds in their birding session every time. But who is going to monitor the common birds that have been a part of our landscape? The case of the House Sparrow across India is a case study.

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One of the birds in RV that is now getting to be less-often seen in our campus is the Indian Roller (or the Blue Jay). Two decades ago, this bird used to be seen in the campus and surrounds at several locations but these days, one has to consciously look-out for it. A pair is still persisting in the Vegetable Garden. I think the bird is not too common outside in our countryside, often seen on wires and telegraph posts along the roads, adding colour to the dreary landscape even in the driest months.

 Why is a bird that was so common as the Roller (also the state bird for Andhra Pradesh) declining in numbers? Like in the case of the vultures, are we going to raise the alarm when it is too late?

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 16 Dec 2018

In the past few weeks, I have been noticing more regularly in our campus “mixed hunting flocks” or  “bird waves”, where birds of different species gather in one location and move in a loose flock, looking out for food. This is a regular occurrence (especially in the non-breeding season) in many forest areas and has been well-studied. In moving around in flocks, all birds benefit from each others’ company – when one bird moves, it disturbs some insect which another bird is able to catch and devour or the presence of a flocks lends security to the group members and so they get an early warning signal when a hawk makes an appearance.

In Rishi Valley, the Ashy Drongo, a winter visitor from the Himalaya, appears to lead the hunting flock and also warns the group of potential predators. A typical flock consists of the ground feeding yellow-billed babblers (and in some cases, Tawny-bellied babblers), which while moving about disturb the insects from the leaf litter, Cinereous (grey) Tits, Paradise Flycatchers, bulbul species, Magpie-robins, Tailorbirds, Hoopoes (in more open habitats), warblers, etc.

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Last week I observed flocks of the Oriental White-eyes in several parts of the campus. I had seen a few of these birds, which are rather common in the nearby Horsley Hills (at higher elevations), once or twice in the last couple of years in the campus. This species features in our “Birds of Rishi Valley” book but I had never seen them on campus until last couple of years. I suspect they were included in the book on the basis of their presence at Horsley Hills. So is this another species that is now colonising our campus? We do not know if they are here only for the winter months or will stay back and breed in the campus.

Dr Santharam

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