RV Matters

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.

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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

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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!

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

RV Matters - 10 March 2019

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The Shaheen Falcon is a resident subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon. Last Sunday (3rd March), we had the opportunity to see a bird flying above us for about 3-4 minutes, hunting for its prey, much to the delight of the young birders. It is occasionally seen in Rishi Valley and I suspect it may be nesting in the rocky ledges in the Horsley Hills.

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The Common Kestrel is another falcon seen around our campus. It is a winter visitor. This year we have had few sightings and so I was delighted to see a male bird hovering in the mid-air in the Biodiversity park last week. This is a bird of the open country and loves to hover, beating its wings steadily, while looking for its prey – small rodents, lizards, insects and occasionally small birds.

Dr Santharam

RV Matters - 3 March 2019

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Last Sunday (24th Feb) we had a great time, observing the Common Grey Hornbills. Fortunately, it was still cool early in the morning and being sunny, the hornbills were sunning themselves and grooming and were least bothered by our presence. One of the birds was an adult bird with a fully developed casque and darker bill and the second bird had a rudimentary casque with paler bill.

A new bird in the campus – the Yellow-footed Pigeon – was seen at Asthachal on 26th February. A colourful bird, this is a fruit-eater, which tracks down fruiting Ficus trees and wanders a great deal. A few months ago, this species had turned up at Diguvapalem and reported (with photos) by Nandhu. I have never seen this in RV before and am glad not just see it but also able to catch it meditating (see the picture) at the Asthachal!

Dr Santharam

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RV Matters - 24 Feb 2019

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Now it seems to be the turn of the Red Silk Cotton tree to attract the birds to itself. There are not too many flowers unlike in the case of the Flame of the Forest tree (Palash) that I had written about sometime back. The lone tree is close to the “New” Guest House, next to the residence of Mr. Seshadri (our computer specialist). Treepies, black-hooded Oriole, ashy drongos, crows, mynas and a host of other birds have been visiting the tree for its nectar. Do take a look if you have the time. The flowers may be gone by next week.

Dr Santharam

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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