Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Fig: a pair of Great Hornbills and a friend, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon on chilubor gos.

It is a spectacle of nature

Come summer monsoon winter

Naturalists flocking together:

Birds of a feather.

A tree and a tree make not a forest

A bird without bough nests not

A deer without shade has no rest

Mere eyes cannot express the lost.

And if there are no forests standing

The birds songless flying

The deer kinless wandering

What is man but a soulless being

It is the essence of nature

To express what we feel see hear

A naturalist without pen and paper:

A bird without feather.

Whenever opportunity arises, I explore nature in ways I did not earlier: by letting go of things I wish to see and seeing what others see. It takes some resolve to let go of the urge to see what one intends to see. To reach here, I am just beginning to see things as they present themselves, abstaining from treasure-hunting, the way of the hunter, to living in the moment, the way of the wanderer. This isn’t to say that it is unnatural to be obsessive, to want to check-off what one intends to observe. In the way of the wanderer, however, there is a mix of both, looking at things as they present themselves and observing them through the glasses one prefers: as an artist, a biologist, a mathematician, what have you.

Not four months ago, I fervently counted insects and spiders of Kaziranga, following a target I set for myself. To defend this obsession, I must confess that the project required I capture as much diversity as I could. What I cannot defend is hunting a treasure I longed to claim. And as days passed, and as I counted more and more ants I obsessed over in the previous article, I kept at it. And it broke my back, nearly. But I did not find it. It is not relevant to discuss what I sought, but the journey was cherished, irrespective of not finding it. As a naturalist, such obsessions drive passions, and through this it invigorates us, provides satisfaction that cannot be compared to anything materialistic.

Birds of a Feather: Yellow-footed Green Pigeons roosting on simalu.

Towards the end of winter, I accompanied a group of biologists to discuss wildlife corridors, taking me back to Kaziranga. Exchanging notes on corridors for wild animal movements enabled by anthropogenically fluid landscapes across the country over a shared passion of being amidst wilderness sparked an idea in me. Before the visit, I decided to carry only the bird lens, keeping my insect lens back home. In an ideal wanderer-sense of ways, I should have carried no camera. A telephoto lens acted as a telescope that could capture moments I wished to document. This meant that I would not be able to see insects the way I normally do. In an ideal wanderer-sense of ways, I should not carry a microlens at all, for a handheld lens does the job better. In the sense, this is a first for me – to let go of the obsessive naturalist traits and adopt the wanderer traits. In doing so, I could see, albeit through the viewfinder, the flocking of the birds of a feather.

Lineated  Barbet on another ficus tree.

It is a naturalist’s trait to inherently look at birds, from a window or wherever they flit. Such moments help naturalists congregate to obsess and celebrate and mourn over a shared passion. I have been looking at birds exactly as a wanderer with a camera, not a treasure-hunter after a specific species. This has allowed me to cherish birds as they are seen by others. Come to think of it, I may be shortsighted, which is why I am bad at spotting birds. But whether it is birds, mammals, or insects and spiders, I realise that naturalists are social creatures, if not in the way of congregating over a cup of tea or coffee, in the way of sharing passions over various forms of expressions – arts and words.

The lady Great Hornbill exploring chilubor gos early in the morning.

This late-winter occasion was all about birds, even as I wondered in awe at the elephants and buffaloes and rhinos as they fed on tall and short grass. One reason to make me one of the flock is owed to the figs. On our arrival, I heard an unusual call I associated with the pigs from the neighbour’s pigpens. I realised only too late that it was the Great Hornbill calling, another giant of Kaziranga. Feeling like I missed an opportunity, we found the pair again the next morning, feeding on the plump figs of chilubor gos (Ficus benjamina, also called bor-naheri-bor). It served as the centre of attraction for miles in this village across from Kaziranga National Park.

Several rhinos and a buffalo feeding on the vast floodplains - the small one centre-left of the photograph is an adult rhino far, far away, the grass in the background at least ten feet tall, above which tower the Brahmaputra river forests.

After a long crisp winter that began just as I concluded counting ants in November and ended just as I arrived looking at Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong elephant corridors, much happened. The waters had significantly receded, the green Eichhornia browned, the elephant grass burned to the ground, and the green simalu (Bombax ceiba, also called ximalu gos) converted into vivid shades of reds – from a washed sunset red sky to dark crimson. Amidst this changing season, there were very few insects to be seen. I must admit that I did not intentionally look for ants, but even the common hunters of the undergrowth and tree tops, the Queenless Ants (a terrible name, I agree, but not without reason) and the Weaver Ants, were nowhere to be seen. The butterflies vanished. Gone were the days of butterflies rising and falling along tea-forest edges like waterfalls; the giants on wings, the Great Mormon and Yellow Helen and the mighty Common Birdwing who flitted through canopies and windows alike, vanished. The nightlights were empty, the gecko hiding, and the orbwebs no more glinting in the morning sun.

Such a change, I thought, was dramatic if not supernatural. The sweet chorus of starlings, tits, sunbirds, and the odd parakeets and barbets as one passed under any given simalu could refresh a tired soul. The only other crimson red doting the horizon was madaar (Erythrina variegata), but nowhere common. Simalu not only afforded the brown-green-blue landscape a dab of crimson, its minaret-like stature standing on the floodplains offered the raptors the best possible site to perch and nest. The change, of course, was not sudden. It took four months for the season to pass, gradually as the temperatures dropped, the floodwaters receded, the grass dried, and the trees, shedding their lush green cloak, coming to flower and fruit.

A courting pair of Pallas' Fish Eagles in the early winters of November when simalu donned a thick flush of leaves.

It had been four months since I saw the Pallas’ Fish Eagles courting atop a green simalu. They nested through the winter, the fledglings now just about ready to take to wing as the tree comes to flower. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle, too, nested up the simalu trees, and the Slender-billed vultures did the same, still tending to their young ones in the nest surrounded by crimson flowers.

The Indochinese Roller, perched along the wooded edge of the floodplains, using the clear skies as its stage to sky-roll.

Before long, the Indochinese Roller, the males now rolling-falling in a lovelorn dance to impress the females perched on simalu, would nest in the tree cavities as the raptors take to the skies. Ecologists consider simalu a pioneer tree invading grasslands. Their rapid regeneration converts grasslands into woodlands, which is why constant removal through uprooting and burning is undertaken to maintain the vast swathes required by the megaherbivores to feed and loiter in. There is no dearth of this tree in Kaziranga, and habitat management is restricted to such grasslands as frequented by the megaherbivores. In a few weeks, the ezar trees (Lagerstromea speciosa) would flower in abundance, soon followed by the six-hundred species of orchids.

One of the several Himalayan Griffons (I think) perched on simalu, wearing a flowery crown.

Trees are adored by birds and naturalists alike. Yellow-footed Green Pigeon roost in simalu trees. The crimson flowers add a rare character to vultures as they perch atop one, their character maligned by the mainstream media when describing a person who exploits others (real vultures do not exploit.) The tree offers nectar and perch and nesting sites and the birds pollinate and give it company. What more could a naturalist ask for?

A Pallas' Fish Eagle on the lookout from the tall and broad canopy of simalu along the edge of a floodplain, starlings and mynas feeding on the flowers below it.

A naturalist often realises this as a simple zero sum game, a relationship of give-and-take. It is this but so much more. Being in nature when a tree flowers is written and sung and painted about for centuries. Our fascination has not changed all this time, and although it is obvious, I think we miss acknowledging it when standing or passing under a tree full of life as it radiates inwards and outwards from it.

The Ficus trees are fruiting. All summer and winter, their flowers grew secretly enclosed in the syconium, where the fig wasps completed their short lifecycle and quietly pollinated the enclosed flowers. As the syconium grows, it emits an organic, rich smell that attracts everyone: birds of a fig.

Another tall canopy of a ficus, being visited by another Great Hornbill, somewhere in Kohora.

At a point in time during my short visit, I saw so many Great Hornbills that it became just another bird on a birding occasion. They were everywhere, often in pairs, feeding behind my stay on the ripe-for-the-picking figs of chilubor gos. Often, the Oriental Pied and the Greats came one after another, never together. And when the macaques arrived to feast, all birds left.

More birds of a fig: The Green Imperial Pigeon and the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon doing things that pigeons do to reach for the best chilubor gos figs, and the Blue-cheeked Barbet munching on one on another tree.

Looking at their feeding styles was a delight: The Yellow-footed Green Pigeons were the most abundant on fruiting figs, dropping half-eaten figs as much as they gulped them whole. The gigantic Green Imperial Pigeons did the same, and both hung precariously to get the ripest of figs. Their cousins, the Spotted Dove, preened on neighbouring trees and preferred instead to feed on the forest floor. The barbets were munchers, they bit figs till it turned into a pulp, eating only a part and discarding the rest. The macaques arrived in troops, settling on robust branches and reaching out for a handful, they ate the figs whole.

The dining etiquette of the Great Hornbill on chilubor gos.

The hornbills are quite elegant. It is their casque, the horn, shadowing their large white and red eyes, and their long, claw-like bill that adds a flair to their feeding habits. Unlike pigeons and barbets who pluck, squish, and gulp, the hornbills, given their large size, manoeuvre around branches to find a comfortable perch, then cock their heads to find and probe figs with their long beaks. They pluck one by the tip of their beak, stretch their heads straight up, then toss the fig to catch it further down the beak, and then look around as they gulp it, content.

A Great Hornbill plucking off simalu flowers for a better view during siesta.

I can’t tell if they are picky eaters, they certainly seem to be picky at finding a perch with a view. On a tall simalu, a hornbill, planning a siesta on the tallest branch, broke off several flowers in the front, and settled in. The Yellow-footed and Imperial pigeons too preferred to perch on simalu closest to the fig trees. The conjugation of both, one flowering and the other fruiting, was not only obvious but an exaggerated part of Kaziranga’s late winters. Down below, wherever the flowers and figs dropped, the deer and rhino dined.

Mr and Mrs Kalij Pheasant (top & bottom) exploring the riverside forests in Kohora.

Such observations, without rhyme or reason of science, are not nonsensical in the pursuit of being a naturalist. They are still worthy of note and pleasure. Often, my attention goes towards the surplus in nature – so many flowers and figs because their predators are such picky eaters, so many discarded from the canopy but not really wasted as those who can’t climb trees munch on these. It is more efficient than economy, which is but a crude mimic of ecological interactions. As a wandering naturalist exploring Kaziranga, other than the work for which I was here, being in nature was the obvious second choice when not working (I must note that this was not a holiday.)

A wild elephant feeding on Calamus in the thicket of the riverside forest in Agoratoli.

With receded waters and burnt grass, the elephants mostly stayed farther afield, sloshing in the water or feeding along the edge of green grass further into the drying marshes. I could get close to only one while the others stayed far away, unlike rhinos who contently browsed on short grass without batting an eye for the flock of naturalists studying their grinding movements. The buffaloes restricted themselves to the decomposing Eichhornia or the new green maidans the waters made way for, the bulls following a group of cows. The swamp deer removed themselves from dusty forest roads and sat on small islands in the beels, chewing contently.

A rhino midden on the road in Agoratoli - these latrine sites are a common feature of Kaziranga.

Kaziranga is known for these giants, what is little discussed is how Kaziranga’s smell is a result of not its blooming trees but the mega-manure of the megaherbivores. Everywhere we stopped, a strong earthy-ammonia stench emanated from the piles of rhino dung collected in large clusters along the road, in the grasslands, what have you. Piles of buffalo dung lay across the floodplains, and elephant’s along the edge of elephant grass. The megaherbivore dung mounds are an ecosystem in themselves. Many insects call it home, and many birds, including the Red Junglefowl, scrape through it looking for insects morsels. That smell, if a little unpleasant, symbolises how rich the ecosystem is in terms of biomass returning to the ground. Has anyone imagined the amount of dung returned to Kaziranga? If an elephant poops 100 kg a day, a rhino 25 kg, and a buffalo 15 kg (these are rounded-off estimates based on an internet search), given the population of rhinos, elephants, and buffaloes in the national park, over 203,280 kg of manure is returned to Kaziranga every day – that’s 203 tonnes or about 50 elephants or 75 rhinos or 169 wild buffaloes, each day.

A herd of buffaloes busy converting one form of biomass into another along one of the beels.

This turnover of biomass is an indication of a highly productive ecosystem, fed by the mighty Brahmaputra, the nutrients recycled quickly as they pass through grass trees flowers fruits and picked upon by the animals – from ants to birds to elephants. In a dried marsh of Baghori, we were witness to a bull buffalo lying still as if quietly sleeping until the stench gave it away, killed and consumed by a tiger a few days before save his head. What a fight that must have been. This carcass, too, would return the buffalo to the earth and then to the trees and grass and back again to the buffalo.

A Grey-headed  Fish Eagle carefully preening along a beel.

The hornbills and their peach figs, the starlings and their crimson flowers, the ruffle of young Pallas’ Fish Eagles, the meticulously preening Grey-headed Fish Eagle, the flock of Bar-headed Geese taking to wing as they catch an eagle’s shadow from above, ducks huddled along beels, and the megaherbivores ruminating, it was a spectacle one could experience in a glance from one corner of the eye to the other.

A line of roofed turtles and a long water monitor basking in the morning sun.

By the banks of rivers sat the roofed and tent and spotted turtles in rows, sharing the perch with cormorants and, on one particular log, a water monitor. Three turtle species and two monitors (the other being Bengal monitor) is too much to ask for someone who has primarily worked in a drier landscape. I cannot recount how much I expressly praised this ecosystem, but I did not praise one above the other – each is unique and the most beautiful in its own way.

One morning, along the busiest highway of Assam that slices through Kaziranga floodplains and the Karbi Anglong mountains, our jeep came to a halt. Something in the trees caught our driver guide’s attention. I could not believe it when I heard what he was looking for. On my last visit counting insects, we were aware of their presence in their hundreds, howling, called ulluk, all around us.

The Hoolock Gibbons, father (left) busy eating and son (right) curious about another ape.

There a grove of jamu trees (Syzygium sp.) sat India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon, our closest relative in the Indian subcontinent, picking fruits by one arm and hanging from another, their eyes wandering at a gathering on the ground as ours wandered around their canopy homes. The male sat in one tree, his mate in another, and their child, a boy, in another, all spread around for a morning meal.

We all love some jamu - the father gibbon munching on some.

They seemed unperturbed by our presence, and the forest guards there told us that this is one of the two families that live along the Kaziranga side of the highway, and that we were lucky they had come so close to the road. The other family lived father away, and the both rarely interacted. They lived in such small units, not more than four or five individuals of relatives, but their ulluk is so loud and with a characteristic echo to it, that when they call, I was told, one may easily think there are tens if not hundreds grouped together, calling from somewhere near when they will be somewhere far away on another hill.

The mother gibbon, also keen on eating, hangs only by an arm as she eats.

This family was content feeding and swinging from one branch to another looking for clusters of fruits. Their son was the curious one. Both the parents were intent on eating that morning, the female at times hung from a tree by one arm, her legs free in the air, and reaching out by the other for ripe fruits, and the male taking to a comfortable perch, reaching out by stretching out his long arm – gibbons, termed lesser apes, have the longest arms among apes – to pick.

The kid, taking a long look at us before he decides to move to another tree.

Their son was restless, and maybe a little bored. I’m assuming he was a teenager in human years. He would sit on a trunk, spreading his long hands across both sides and gripping the branch with his long toes, and then he would eat a fruit, and then he would stare into the distance and glance at us. And then, when he thought best to move, he would hang from a branch by both arms, dangling his legs and check us out. We were told they are quite curious if weary.

Curious and kind eyes of the mother gibbon before she decided to eat jamu.

This brief moment with India’s only ape, belonging to the ape family of Hylobatidae (the other being Hominidae, which includes us), was a sort of a moment of realisation. I was staring at an ape the human ancestors split from some 20-16 million years ago, not too long ago for life on Earth. Once long ago, now reminiscent somewhere in our shared genetic makeup, we shared a relative: same eyes and ears and favourite foods and pleasures and quarrels. For millions of years after our species split, we lived alongside one another, one in high canopy and the other on ground.

The Western Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) is one of the three species, restricted to North East India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, with an estimated 5,000 individuals living in the wild. Sharing the habitat with communities who take to hunting, they are often spared because of their close association with humans, but habitat destruction, fragmentation, and poaching continues to split populations, leading to their decline.

The high canopy of tall trees, usually in the mountains, is the preferred home of the Hoolock Gibbon.

This is nowhere profound than here. Kaziranga has another changing phase, and no naturalist is blind to it. On discussing if this family crosses over to the other side of the highway where numerous gibbon families live, we could not find a definitive answer. In many places even where they dwelt, the canopy was not dense or close enough to reduce the gap made by the highway separating the two sides. There are no man-made structures built to help them cross. On my last visit, on the way to Agoratoli comes a patch of forest called Panbari. The highway cuts through this forest connecting Karbi Anglong and Kaziranga. Identified as a corridor with plenty signboards and blinkers, I saw two capped langurs on a tree on the other side who jumped down to cross the road. Just then a black Scorpio vehicle came vrooming from the other side, and the two langurs stumbled, one went right under the SUV, crouching as the vehicle passed over its body, and the other stopped and bounded back to where they came from. As soon as the SUV passed over the langur, it crossed the road, separating the two. We do not know if they both crossed and united with their troop, but later that day, we heard the tragic news of a langur dying along Panbari due to a speeding vehicle. I’m afraid it was one of the two trying desperately to cross and reunite. The gibbons (note that they are more closely related to us than the langurs) don’t take to the ground, and are strictly arboreal – their means of connectivity is canopy, making it further difficult for them to cross.

As much as a naturalist live in the moment – the present – they also live a life split between the past and the future. The past is where history lies, based on which much of the present exists, the future is where paths lead many ways, and a naturalist is only too aware of it. Habitat connectivity for animals is an extremely important issue in the face of habitat destruction for human advancement. My return to Kaziranga was precisely to learn and discuss the concept of corridors as it applies to elephants, apes, tigers, birds, even ants.

The wildlife corridors of Kaziranga, as identified by the central and state governments, the blue dot represents me passing through. To the north lies Kaziranga and the south Karbi-Anglong mountains.
Image from Google Earth on Android.

To get here, our taxi driver zoomed across five identified corridors, ignoring to slow down despite telling him to, because restrictions are lifted during non-monsoon months, a month not unlike the one I learnt of the death of the capped langur. In our discussions, I was to learn of two rare Forest Owlets dying due to collision with trucks on a highway that cuts through one of their last remaining habitats far away in western central India. Less than 1,000 remain. In the place I have worked for years, despite world-famous mitigation measures of underpasses built for animals, conflict has intensified on one side of the highway, indicating that mitigation measures, built after much negotiations and compromises, are not as effective in movement of animals as they are celebrated.

A wildlife corridor from under the canopy from the busy Assam Trunk Road.

Kaziranga presents a grave example. The highway is set to be expanded, with a promise of underpasses built for animals, but this is a challenge India has not experienced before. Seasonal flooding, villages with porous boundaries, religious shrines, make placing mere flyovers over a natural landscape a complex undertaking. Which-ever-way it is looked at, it slits the hills from the floodplains, and this would mean fragmented wild populations and increased conflicts with local communities as the animals are unable to move freely. Any mitigation measure is more like a funnel than a channel. Over and beyond what is called corridor shyness, underpasses are more of a compromise than mitigative structures.

A quintessential of Kaziranga: a herd of wild elephants - including several calves - feeding on the aquatic vegetation of the calm Mora Diphlu River.

Earlier, I spoke of a naturalist seeing things in the way of give-and-take in nature. This simplified relation is skewed when it comes to humans and nature, especially in the context of what we believe is contributing to human development. Will a large highway help connect North East with the rest of India? May be so, but at what long-term costs, and are these costs worth bearing in the face of future calamities we are yet to comprehend? We will always be split on this issue, and so these questions are redundant, but, as a naturalist, I say no, the costs to the ecosystem, even with underpasses as they are constructed in India, are not enough even as connecting two parts of the same body are looked upon as important for the country. We have forgotten that mitigation is the last resort, the first is always to find alternatives. During the writing of this, India’s National Board for Wildlife give a nod for the expansion of this highway with ‘state of the art’ mitigation measures to be constructed under certain set of conditions. So it goes.

Chilubor gos, Ficus benjamina, along Wild Grass - one plucked by a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and a few fallen harvested by me to look for fig wasps.

Often when I returned to my stay, I stood under the chilubor gos that always saw a frenzy of fig-eaters. It has stood there long before the walls around it were built, the place I stayed in was constructed, and the roads were tarred. For long it has fed generations of giant hornbills and other birds and primates. And I stood below it, and put a fig in my palm.

Soft and squishy, I opened it to find many of the seeded flowers. Tiny fly maggots were eating it from the inside. Tinier fig wasps, the carcass of the first generation, lay inside, and a few of the second generation flew on opening it. Most figs up on the tree would be full of tiny insects like these, being munched upon by the vertebrates.

Then, out came the most unusual insect I had ever seen. At first, I could not put a name to it. For a moment I regretted being a wanderer naturalist, abstaining from carrying my insect lens, for it was too small to document it with my phone, but I did. I took a careful look at an insect I couldn’t even generally categorise. I took some photos and let it into another fig.

Amidst thoughts of birds, this tiny insect kept jabbing at my mind. Luckily, on returning, I was to find this to be a rare male wingless wasp (the norm among wasps is that it is females who are wingless, except among fig wasps where males are wingless.) This fellow was a Walkerella sp., a group of non-pollinator fig wasps, the males rarely see the light of the day. Often, they spend their time in the syconium mating as soon as the females emerge from pupa. Walkerella males have enlarged pincer-like mandibles, with which they pinch holes in the fig to make way for the winged females to fly free. Then, a hornbill or a pigeon eats the fig, and the male wasp’s life comes to an end as it started, from the gut of a fig to the gut of another living organism.

I intentionally do not share the image here, being a wandering naturalist not seeing what I see and all, but I apologise for the digression. We must, however, as birds of a feather, give credit to the fig wasps helping figs fertilize and mature and add protein through a selfless sacrifice to the diet of the fig-eaters. I’m sure the hornbills like the tingling taste of insects in their crunchy frugivorous diets. I’m sure a naturalist understands that it takes an entire ecosystem and its intricacies to become one with the flock.


On the last sunset of my evening, my friend who shunned camera and used binoculars – he did use his expensive phone-camera – spied a pair of otters on the yonder bank of a beel, under a crimson-flowered grove of simalu, rolling in the sand and watching curiously a bird probing elephant dung, and then retreated in the thickets as darkness fell. I don’t recall the species of the otter for the life of me, but I cherished watching them doing otter things. What makes a naturalist is not knowing about nature but expressing nature as one sees it.


Read At the Feet of the Giants, another tale from Kaziranga.

Sahyadrica will be on a hiatus. I hope to return around monsoon.