Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Captive Prince

One of the hazards of staying in a tea garden is the threat from a variety of wild animals ranging from the smaller feral cats to large leopards. There have been reports of even Royal Bengal Tigers being sighted and I have myself seen a rhino which had strayed into a Tea Estate. The fact is that due to habitat shrinkage and tea gardens being one of the few remnants of green cover we are right in the forefront of the man-animal conflict. The biggest threats come from wild elephants and leopards.In fact just about two years ago, our Mali's son was mauled and killed by a Leopard in front of our bungalow, tragically just 40 - 50 metres from where he was working. Apparently the kid had gone into the Estate to pick some berries where he was attacked.

So when, just around a couple of months ago, fresh sightings were reported the people around got pretty worried. I was cautioned about my morning walks in the Estate especially where our pet was concerned as Leopards appear partial to dogs. I had spotted some mongoose, flying squirrel and even a wild cat once but I really did not take the reports of a leopard seriously. 

However, due to the concerns expressed by workers who have to go into the Estate to pluck, one cage was organised and, under the supervision of the Forest Department, placed in the tea bushes in front of our Bungalow. Every morning, I would go upto it and have a look to find the goat (the bait) sleeping peacefully. However one morning I found that the goat had been killed. Apparently, a pair of leopards had come upto to the cage, without entering it, had pawed the goat to death through the cage bars. It was then I actually started beliwving that we had a wild cats roaming around. However the animals refused to be trapped and goats began disappearing from the labour lines regularly.

Continuous rain kept me in for some days and just some days ago (19th November 2009), I got a call early morning informing me that a leopard had been trapped. I rushed out to the sight and soon a healthy crowd had gathered there. The local police and Forest Department were informed as people sometimes tended to hurt captured animals. I was most worried about the leopard hurting itself as it hurled itself against the bars.

It was a magnificent animal and a part of me was sad to see it captured. However relocation was possibly the best of a bad bargain.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Walk in the Beel - I

Ever since the people working in my Office became aware of my interest in birds they have been telling me, "Sir, aapuni Maijan Beel jabo lage. Taat dher sorai pore". Sir, you should visit Maijan Beel. Lots of birds are there.

A beel is an Assamese term for a lake or water body. These are usually inland low lying areas which get filled up due to the water overflowing the Brahmaputra during the monsoons. Several beels dry up during the winter but the larger ones are perennial containing vasts pools of swampy water forming the perfect habitat for birds of different varieties. If I am not mistaken most of the famous birding hotspots in Assam including Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikhowa etc are basically large beels. Villagers often fish in these waters and some have even been known to have wild ducks in their diet. I must hasten to add that, by and large, wild birds are not on the menu in Upper Assam.

As the monsoon intervened and being busy with work I could not really visit the Maijan Beel although it is barely 5 km from my place. Last Sunday (22-11-2009) I finally decided that the Beel ought to be looked at.

There are basically two beels and they are most probably interconnected. The smaller 'S' shaped beel lies within Maijan Tea Estate while the bigger one lies just outside the Estate towards Dibrugarh town. Just to give an idea of the topography; Maijan Tea Estate is located near Dibrugarh Town on the banks of the Brahmaputra and suffers an annual flooding from the river. It has lost a lot of land to the river and is still doing so. In fact, during the massive earthquake of 1952, the river changed course and swallowed up vast areas of the Estate and where the river now runs used to be planted with tea bushes.

As I lived behind the Estate I reached the smaller beel first. The sun was just coming up as I reached the beel and I could see several small canoes already out on the beel. As I sat there and soaked in the sun I could see several species of water birds on the beel. Asian pied Starling, Lesser whistling Duck, Bronze winged Jacana, Purple Moorhen, Grey Wagtail and the Common Stonechat were the most abundant species. I also saw the White breasted and the Common Kingfisher and the Little Cormorant. There was a ridge running alongside the beel, possibly used by man and cattle to walk around it and also to dam the water in. It was broken in several places by the water and hence it was not possible to circle around the entire beel. Will try that the next time!! While the high ridge is a good vantage point for spotting birds, the birds spot you too.

I visited the larger beel next. I had to drive across the Tea Estate and exit towards Dibrugarh town through the main entrance. It was similar to the smaller beel except for the size. This beel had a dyke built to protect Dibrugarh town and it looks motorable on a two wheeler and hence will try that one too the next time. Having had a look at the beels, I drove off towards the river. This area was scrub land and i could see that Tea had once been planted here. This is where I spotted the Common Kestrel, first for me here locally.

Having done the reconnaissance for a future visit I drove back home. I spent around 2 hours on the trip and  the birds spotted by me were:

Jungle Mynah
Common Mynah
Grey backed Shrike
Long tailed Shrike
Bronze winged Jacana

Grey Wagtail
Common Stonechat
Asian pied Starling
Purple Moorhen
Cotton pygmy Goose
White breasted Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher
Little Cormorant
Common Kestrel
Indian Treepie
Jungle Crow
Indian Roller
Lesser whistling Duck
Indian Roller

There were several other species that I could not identify. Have left them for the next visit.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Just about a month ago as I came back from my Office, my wife exclaimed loudly, "The bandit back". Lest readers get alarmed I must inform them that the the Bandit is a name we have given to the shrikes that inhabit our Garden and the surrounding Tea Estate. I rushed out to see the bird as it happened to be one of my favourtites. Sure enough there he was, sitting quietly on a bougainvillea bush some 80-100 feet from us.

Shrikes had been a common sight when I first started birding some 8-9 months ago but had disappeared during the monsoon. The band of grey-black covering the eyes reminded us of masked bandits. The species that I have seen so far are the Grey-backed Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike and the Brown Shrike. I still have great difficulty in distinguishing between the first two. These birds were a boon for a novice birder cum photographer like me as they often perched on middle level branches and gave me an opportunity for those all important eye level shots. Although I must hasten to add that they can be an absolute pain as they act as sentinels and warn all other birds in sight with their harsh calls. The Grey-backed Shrike is the one with the harshest call while the brown shrike is relatively silent.

They are also quite shy and take flight easily. In the last 8-9 months of my rather limited birding experience, I have noticed that the predatory birds are quicker to take flight on approach as compared to others. The shrike also gives you a fair warning before taking flight. The moment it is alarmed, it suddenly makes its body horizontal for a second or so before taking flight. I have also noticed that it poops before taking flight. Maybe it makes the body lighter before taking off!! I have also observed this in other bird species.

They have been here since September now and can be seen all over the Tea Estate. Territorial fights often broke out in the first month of their return. These are noisy and full of energy. They seemed to have settled down and one can be sure to find them in the same location every day. I am hoping that, as they get used to my presence, they will allow me to get closer for better photos. I am also hoping to observe some of the behaviour which adds to the reputation of cruelty that these birds have.

Here's to the Return of the Masked Bandit!!