Of Leaves, Wings, Scales, and Fur, or, A Walk In The Woods

Thoreau’s writings, especially Walking and Walden, have been crucial parts of my young adult life; I longed to be in the woods, alone, left to my own thoughts amidst nature – well, doing exactly as Thoreau now comes at a ginormous financial investment, so I did what I could and continue to do. Over the last ten years since I first read Walden, I have had plenty of such opportunities – I would add the timeless lock-up of eight months of 2020 which I thankfully spent reading and rereading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s a long stretch between the two, but for me, Walden’s cabin or Vonnegut’s slaughterhouse are linked in more ways than one.

Left: Walden; or, life in the woods by Henry D. Thoreau; available here,
Right: Slaughterhouse-Five OR The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; available here; these are the early (first ed) covers.

Lately, I am lost on titles, I cannot stick to one; if that is how Thoreau and Vonnegut decided upon theirs, although both make promising cases for why they did so, I must admit I am a fan of that style which I’ve been obsessively overusing over the last few months. I’ve also used Walden the book's title in one article, I’ve tried to copy Pilgrim’s time-travel, only more grounded to the confines of my personal travels. Both of these came to me at turns of events, there was this time when I first read Walking, and I put my first thought into words of walking barefoot in the wild. Then there was the pandemic when I finally got around travelling back in memories enabled by Vonnegut.

Being in nature, walking among wild grasses and trees, up high mountains or deep valleys, it matters to my health. If I translate on what this gives me, one word that fits, is ‘healing’. The year 2020 put some things I need – my escapades, my comfort abodes – out of reach. That took me a little over a decade back in time when, equipped with a roll film camera, I went about photographing small brown moths that visited the confines of my urban apartment. Little did I know, 14 years later, it would help me cope, learn, and heal. Well, my 2020 corner wasn’t really a cabin-in-the-woods of Thoreau or a slaughterhouse of Vonnegut. It wasn’t as extreme as these, but it was somewhere relatable – if I may stretch my interpretation of my two favourite writers – a house in the cookstove of the Chhattisgarh plains which I could not escape, and a house where the tiny wild beings that eked out a living in the dingy, dusty, city, found, if-ever-so, a small respite. In 2020, I ‘sauntered’, ‘unstuck in time’.

It has been a year. As I sit and write this a second wave is already leading and places here and there are starting to shut down bit-by-bit. My professional fieldwork seems to be in a similar crisis. I took the Holi festival weekend to walk in my favourite corner of the woods with my favourite people, and I was being just that, a naturalist with a camera, exploring the world around him.

I consider it an art now, not targeting any particular species while sauntering. It has become rare that I get to do this, to have this liberty, an open mind, a blank slate. One reason why I am able to sit down now and write is precisely this – it is about unexpected stories – of individuals and events – that I found myself partake in without intentionally meaning to. That’s why this title is all over the place. When I decided to sit and write as a stress-relieving exercise, to cool off from work, put thoughts into words, what have you, I decided this is not about anything in particular except perhaps the beautiful woods I walked. I suggest you sit back if you want a piece of it.

It starts along the bank of Banjar River and ends alongside it. To be specific, it starts under the red leaves of a kusum tree along the bank of Banjar River. This is a time when this evergreen tree dons the brightest shades of red. The leaves are translucent, giving a reddish tinge to the shadow. In the hard of the central Indian summer, this tree shines bright among the greens and browns.

Kusum or kosum (Schleichera oleosa) in profiles showing its young vibrant summer leaves.

To see anything that moves amidst these crimson leaves is a find to cherish. We went around all the trees-in-pink looking for creatures that it houses – there were some shy birds including the Cinereous Tit and Black-naped Monarch Flycatcher hunting among the red leaves for insects, and a sole Weaver Ant colony.

A Black-naped Monarch takes a momentary break on kusum after munching down an insect.

This was curious, for any and all young red leaves are packed with some protective compounds – tannin, which most leaf-munchers, including most insects such as caterpillars, dislike (a reason why we seldom if ever see caterpillars eat young red leaves) and anthocyanins, which protect the young leaves from UV light; this colour also makes the leaves invisible to insects that see poorly in UV. It may be that these birds and these ants were just young enough to explore this amazing colour, which, I think, they may be seeing in monochrome – hence to say that these birds are enjoying these ruby-reds is just stretching human imagination a bit, but why not, it looks absolutely beautiful.

Profile of sal (Shorea robusta) and its starry flowers.

The unadulterated greens of sal trees transform summers. The forests of pure sal stands are an illusion to a new visitor of central India; a leafy-green summer in a deciduous forest? While it is just the beginning of summer, there are places where it has already crossed 40C, which I think is a sign of summer. Sal starts flowering in profusion simultaneously with new leaves. The amount of energy required must be phenomenal, this is the time when sal tree is clothed in clover-green leaves and lime-green flowers, and the forest is aflush with its sweet aroma.  The tear-drop shaped petals, which give the flower its starry appearance, continuously rain down to the forest floor with a soft thud, carpeting the floor with its yellow-tinged flakes. The sweetest, most gentle aroma and petal rain forms a backdrop to the feathered singers of this summer abode.

The lime-green sal flowers against crimson leaves of kusum.

It is another subject to talk about sal flowers against the peach flush of kusum. Let me try to word it. In central India, two of the most contrasting shades commingle in summer – the greens and yellows, and the crimsons and reds. Semal and palash, two of the bright-red flowering trees, do not grow so well in sal community as kusum does, hence seeing these two together is more common, with the former two preferring drier, mixed communities of trees. To see sal against kusum is akin to seeing a crane in a lush paddy field, a red comet against a blue sky, a green gemstone against ruby. Well, it’s not that uncommon if you’re a wood-walker, but every time they rival each other, it is a sight to stop by and admire.

A curious bird and a bird of dried leaves.

We were so mesmerised by this avatar of kusum, we missed a curious bird that looked down at us from its high perch. This bird, we’ll come to it later, and another bird that calls when all others are taking a nap, were perched in their favourite spot; the latter – a Greater Coucal, also called Crow Pheasant, was perfectly well camouflaged among dried leaves of a tall lendia tree. Had it not moved or cried, it would have been difficult to know where the bird was calling from.

An Oriental Honey Buzzard glances at us kusum-admiring folks.

Only when the other bird looked to its front did we realise that it wasn’t a hawk or an eagle, it was an Oriental Honey Buzzard. This male bird, with his clear yellow eyes, was sitting quietly – I don’t think he was looking for a female buzzard. He then changed his perch to another. I thought he was collecting some sticks for nesting when he broke a branch, but he was just trying to settle in for an afternoon nap, for he did not move; I think we may have disturbed him from his first perch.

Further up the bank of Banjar, the forest is thick, the undergrowth thicker. On a walk alone, I took the trial that leads away from the river, but stopped short when I heard loud, noisy footsteps approaching. This thicket is a common haunt of wild pigs – boars thrice my size, and troops large enough to play cricket. I am more wary of wild pigs and sloth bears than most animals, but I don’t think there are bears in these parts, having seen no signs in all these years. I walked slowly, my footsteps barely audible to myself, hoping whatever it was or they were would ignore me as they rambled on. Just as I found a break in the understory forest, I captured my wary counterpart, a Red Junglefowl scraping leaves to find a morsel; he ran deeper into the woods just as I caught him on my camera.

The residents of Banjar, the Red Junglefowl, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, the Greater Coucal, and the Indian Paradise Flycatcher, all with a unique headgear or a fancy tail.

Are the pittas back? I had asked my friends who stay here. I was told that they saw a Racket-tailed Drongo sing the Indian Pitta’s song. It could mean two things, that I am not the only one missing Indian Pitta, or that the drongo has already heard one and has started mimicking the call. The latter is more likely, but more will be on their way till the month of May when we will easily get to see them. The Racket-tailed Drongo is a resident long-tailed bird of this part of the woods – so is its other cousin, the Greater Coucal, and his long-tailed competitor, the effervescent Indian Paradise Flycatcher. These four feathered residents of the woods are always around, it’s almost like meeting familiar faces too wary to form a bond, but as a naturalist, all that matters is that they’re around.

A courting pair of Coppersmith Barbet and inset, a Brown-headed Barbet taking a respite from chiseling a house into sal tree.

The wood-borers – the barbets and woodpeckers, are hard at work. Both the resident barbets, the Brown-headed Barbet and the Coppersmith Barbet, are chiselling tree trunks to make nests. Some, like this Brown-headed, have already started preparing for nest, both taking turns to build a nest perfectly sheltered by the pagoda-roof of bracket fungus. Some are a little behind finding a date, this male fluttered around and bowed to flatter this lady coppersmith before the female flew off with the male chasing after her – I hope there’s a happy ending to this story.

An awkward pose of the Indian Paradise Flycatcher and a hungry
Black-naped Monarch.

The Indian Paradise Flycatcher puts up a show everywhere he goes. Like paparazzi – quite embarrassingly – we followed him as he danced through the cooler and well-foliated parts of the forest catching insects. For us, he danced, he flaunted, he strutted his stuff. I strained my neck enough to get that ‘shot’ of this guy, and ended up getting many kinds of photographs till finally, and dissatisfyingly, I got one workable ‘full frame’ – I am not a photographer, but there’s something about photographing anything till either it disappears or you give up – that’s how it mostly works for me anyway. Just as we had the attention of this bird with an extravagant tailcoat, another of the kind in a tight-fitting azure-blue tuxedo stepped in front of me with a tiny morsel in its beak.

They were all well-dressed for the occasion although the theme that commonly ran through all the dwellers of the woods was Summer Browns. It runs particularly commonly among the butterflies. Dully called ‘dry season morphs’, these butterflies not only dress for the occasion but also for the weather.

A set of Summer Brown trending right now: L to R: Orange Oakleaf, Bamboo Treebrown, Copper Flash, Plum Judy, and the recently documented new record for Kanha, Restricted Demon.

A set of these I effortlessly chanced upon – it takes a great deal to find them in one walk in summers of central India – early at dawn, represents four families and five sub-taxa; the ridiculously coloured Orange Oakleaf and the imaginatively patterned Bamboo Treebrown (both common misnomers) perched quietly enough for me to approach, the Copper Flash, the Plum Judy, and the recent addition to the butterflies of Kanha – the Restricted Demon, which my friends here observed for the first time for Madhya Pradesh in early October of 2020. This brown attire serves a common purpose, to draw no attention. Not everyone followed it though: enter the Blue Mormon.

What the brown’s carry under their closed wings the Blue Mormon flaunts – it is up with the flycatchers in his style. The ever-blooming madhukamini attracted this large electric-blue-on-a-black-cloak butterfly to it throughout the day, and during early noon it would rest in the understory.

Blue Mormon; both with their own stories to tell.

My friends and I made several rounds to find them settled in. It is amusing how well-hidden they remain despite their ridiculous contrasts against the woods. And we found two; a normal one and a tattered but equally beautiful one; the latter may have had a skirmish with a bird, but it also flew as elegantly as the non-tattered.

On another walk alone, I startled a Barking Deer that galloped the same way the junglefowl ran. That direction leads to a fire line that serves as a highway for many large mammals. On the same path, we also startled a pair of Golden Jackal, one of which, after covering large enough distance between us, stood on watching with a certain indignation. It was apparent form his looks that they were engaged in something and we ruined it; possibly stalking someone much like we were.

A not-so-delighted-to-see-us Golden Jackal.

You may think how many lives we startled on our walk in the woods. Did it have an effect on their lives... Are we invading their territories... Questions that were running openly through our minds, too. One morning we decided to explore the bend in the Banjar River further north. A quiet walk through the young flush of sal, a rare stand of many kusum trees, and a raised, wide levee skirting the river.

My friend was a few steps ahead of me. As he approached the levee, we heard two notes of loud, aggressive barks and he immediately moved back, his face showed that he was trying to process what he just witnessed. As I caught up with him, we saw a few canids run up the levee a few yards to our right. We waited with baited breaths, cameras at the ready.

The first pup

Peering through the thickets and bramble of lantana, I saw the first rusty pup running up the bank, behind him followed the adult – it’s brick-coloured fur, bushy tail, and a round belly told us that these were the Banjar Wild Dogs – the Dhole – who had just had a hearty meal.

The adult - a Wild Dog or Dhole with a seemingly full belly.

We had startled them when they were drinking from the river; what they were doing on the ‘buffer’ side of the Tiger Reserve we will come to soon, but they’re well known to traverse both the sides, the Core Zone where human movement is legally restricted, and this side, where we could walk freely just as the shepherd grazed his goats freely alongside the river.

The family

We had a better view of the Dhole as they climbed up a small platform; cubs as well as adults. This was a small pack – one adult led the way deeper into the woods, followed by the pups.

The, quite possibly, leading pack, ensuring the rest were deeper into the forest before they retreated beyond our sight after assessing us.

And last came three adult Dhole, two stood for a while looking directly at us. We stood still, awestruck, as they carefully assessed us. When I went to find their pugmarks – a photograph I did not have, I came across a Large-billed Crow on the bank of the river, pecking at something.

A Large-billed Crow scavenging on an old Sambar deer carcass.

This was a few-days-old carcass of a Sambar deer. It was only fur and bones, although the crow picked some big morsels out of it. We found drag marks on the other side of the bank and associated it with this carcass; it is likely that it was killed by this pack a few days ago, and we happened across them when they came to finish the last bit and drink some water – when chased by Dhole, Sambar deer often stand ground in a water body, if it is shallow, the Dhole go for the kill. It was also likely that it was a kill of a tiger on the other side of the river, and the remains were dragged to this end by the pack to feast on the remains – Dhole often steal a big cat’s kill.

The bend in the river

Whatever may have transpired, we were integrated into this story for no one around knew much of this kill, although this pack is well known in these parts and remains protected by the Forest Department. So, we did scare them off, but it was not trespassing. This area is visited by many people from adjoining villages. A few hundred yards to the left of this activity, clothes were put out to dry on the river stones. We were soon followed by a shepherd with his herd of goats which galloped around where the Dhole had been moments ago. We were in a shared space of co-existence, man and animal alike. So long as it remains harmonious, our presence and theirs remains justified. We returned from the bank of Banjar discussing animatedly what the Dhole would do all day.

That night was the night after the full moon night of Holi. In the distance the karma geet echoed through the woods to the rhythm of the mandar. In the distance, I imagined, the Banjar pack whistling through the woods, as they moved about in the moonlight.

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