Friday, June 19, 2009

Chambal diary: 1. The Gharial

The Chambal river is the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for a bit, and remains one of India's cleanest rivers. The National Chambal Sanctuary has succeeded in preserving very good populations of several truly bizarre yet incredible animals. The river is not strictly part of my PhD study area, but is very much part of the Sarus scape, and is one of my favourite locations in Uttar Pradesh. It therefore qualifies to be included in this blog! This small series of entries is a celebration of some of these denizens!

The Gharial is found only in south Asia. It is closely related to crocodiles, and has been around on Earth for a very long time.

It is an exclusive fish-eater - something that the turtles in the Chambal seem to know quite well!

The National Chambal Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh has a great record of breeding Gharials - it is common to see young babies (top), and teens of all sizes (below) basking on the sands!

The crocodilian gets its name from the inverted pot-like mound on the end of the adult male's snout - a ghada in Hindi, if you will.

The Gharial has its set of problems even in the protected Chambal. I must underscore that these have diminished greatly thanks to an active forest department staff, and a force of dedicated conservationists and scientists. One of the more horrible things that used to happen a lot in the past was due to illegal fishing in the river. Gharials used to get stuck in fishing nets trying to get at the captured fish. Fisherfolk, in their hurry to escape, and to save the nets and fish, slashed at the captured Gharial with knives sometimes cutting off part of the snout.

Some of these Gharials lived (above), though not for long. They are probably not able to catch fish with their reduced snouts!

Many Gharials, however, are lucky to escape with part of the net sticking out of their snouts like forgotten floss (above).

Fishing has reduced greatly as a threat, and Gharials now seem to be able to live to ripe old ages (notwithstanding catastrophic and unpredictable events like a recent die-off - which has completely stopped, thankfully)!

I owe a great debt to the Uttar Pradelsh forest department for inviting me several times to participate in their Gharial and bird censuses in the National Chambal Sanctuary. Despite exceedingly limited resources, staff are very active to ensure that illegal fishing is reduced, and wildlife is as undisturbed as possible. A great resounding ovation to these folk, and to all the scientists and conservationists working to conserve these totally fab animals!

ll photos were taken between Aug 2008 and Feb 2009 in the Uttar Pradesh portion of the National Chambal Sanctuary. For those interested in Gharial conservation and ecology, be sure to check out this fabulous website dedicated to these amazing animals: Two fabulous films have been made on the Gharials - one classic is The Ganges Gharial by the Bedi Brothers, and a more recent Crocodile Blues by Icon Films: both must-sees for Gharial and nature buffs!)

Its clean-up time!

Preen, dip, bathe, and scratch! These are the various ways in which birdies take good care of their precious feathers. Here are a few examples taken during clean-up time!

Preening is so very time-consuming! Here an Indian Skimmer (top) uses its unusual, spectacular beak to comb through feathers, and a Silverbill is busy at it while also showing off the preen gland (just above the tail) from where birds get an "oil" to keep their feathers ship-shape!

A bath can be a serene experience, like the Shikra in the water. Else it can be boisterous with water flying everwhere: for some Comb Ducks, one duck's bathwater is another's drink, apparently!

And finally, the soothing scratch! Here a Silverbill, a Black-necked Stork juvenile, and a Sarus Crane find out the real meaning of the phrase "for every itch, there is a scratch"!

(Photograph information: Skimmer - Etawah district, Apr 9, 2009; Si
lverbill preening - lucknow, Nov 27, 2008; Shikra - Barabanki, Nov 23, 2008; Comb Duck - Etawah, Apr 9, 2009; Silverbill scratch - Barabanki, Nov 25, 2008; Black-necked Stork - Mainpuri, Apr 7, 2009; Sarus Crane - Etawah, Feb 12, 2009. Thanks to Satish for the scratch-itch phrase!)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The sun, the moon, and the Sarus

Etah is one of the worst towns in Uttar Pradesh, but the district has excellent populations of Sarus Cranes and many other waterbirds. Roadside marshes, village ponds, perennial wetlands, and agriculture fields mesh and merge here to provide a variety of habitats.

I was fortunate to photograph Sarus Cranes in Etah with both the sunrise, and the setting moon.
The former was easily possible since most areas I visited for the study in Etah had Sarus Cranes! The latter was a particularly happy and completely accidental occurence. Two Sarus Cranes and some storks were beginning to forage in a roadside marsh just as the moon was setting some time before the sun rose. We happened to pass by enroute to work, and here you are.

(Photo detai
ls: top: Apr 2, 2009; bottom: Jan 12, 2009.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The village school

Towns, cities and villages in Uttar Pradesh have many things in common - large human populations, poor sewage, and garbage everywhere. One other thing is the presence of schools. Children going to school - be it in a small group on a dusty village road (top), or in droves on a newly-metalled main road (bottom) - is fortunately a common sight each morning.

However, not a
ll schools have good facilities (middle two photos). Children crowd into one room jostling for space on the few benches, or huddle up in small groups - each group being a different age group. A very small number of teachers move among these groups handing out assignments.

Some peop
le think these photos are rustic. I think some of these are pathetic! Though the number of schools is gratifying, the apparent lack of basic facilities in most is deeply distressing. How can we talk about wildlife conservation to these children whose future may already be compromised by lack of good education?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cropland canids 2: The Indian Fox

The second-most common wild canid in Uttar Pradesh's (UP) croplands is the lovely Indian Fox, the commonest being the Jackal. My friend Abi Tamim who has studied foxes in south India tells me that they prefer grasslands and suchlike habitat there, though they do occur in small numbers in croplands. My sightings of foxes in UP have been very few to make any assessment of the population except that they appears to be widespread.

ly the Indian Fox faces a number of problems in UP - dogs chase them down, crows attack individuals that are foraging in areas without vegetation cover (middle photo), roadkilled foxes are unfortunately commonly encountered on most well-maintained roads (bottom photo). Despite all this, successful breeding appears to be widespread evidenced by the pups-of-the-year (top photo) Hardly the area you would think ideal for a "carnivore" - but there you are!

is another lovely animal worthy of study in UP's crop-infested areas - how do they survive in this far-from-being-wild place? Fox sightings have been a real bonus and well worth getting up really early to get to transect points before dawn! All these photos have been taken at or before dawn.

Thanks are due to Abi for recognizing the pup-of-the-year (overa
ll gangly appearance; black on tail not as developed as in adults) and for various discussions on this amazing species he has studied for several years.

(Photo detai
ls: Top - pup-of-the-year in Barabanki district, May 17, 2009; middle - adult male being chased by crow in Ghazipur district, Apr 23, 2009; bottom - adult male Fox roadkill in Sultanpur district, May 04, 2009)

Cropland canids 1: The Jackal

Two canids are commonly seen in Uttar Pradesh's croplands - the Jackal and the Fox - and the third, the Wolf, is rather rare. Here, the Jackal is captured in a common crop - wheat (top and middle photo), and in the not-so-common amaranth. Jackals in Uttar Pradesh are run down by dogs all the time - one ran into the side of my jeep when it was being chased by village dogs, picked itself up, and disappeared into the wheat. Roadkills due to traffic are common on roads - I will spare you gory pictures of one here, and show you one later of the Indian Fox.

The Jackal appears to be doing quite alright in the cropped areas of UP - how this can be given the growing number of dogs, the lack of natural habitat, and apparent low amount of food is a mystery worth exploring.

(Photo details: Top - Jackal beside ripening wheat in Aligarh district, Mar 26, 2009; midd
le - Jackal hiding from dogs in growing wheat in Etah district, Jan 12, 2009; bottom - Jackal in red gram fields in Barabanki district, Nov 21, 2008.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Everybody loves a good sun

The Gangetic flood plains can get pretty cold in the winter, and in the early mornings of any season. Sunning is therefore a commonly noticed activity in the myriad life forms here - nothing quite like some temperature to put life back into the frozen bones. Here are a few life-forms doing their thing in the sun.

From top: A Baron butterfly warms up atop a garden plant; the Kachuga turtle suns atop a Gharial that is a fish-eater (something that the turtle obviously knows); a Green Bee-eater and a Greater Coucal open up their feathers to let the sun warm up the darker feathers on their backs.

(Photograph information: Baron - Dec 7, 2008, Rae Bareli district; Turtle-and-Gharial - Jan 18, 2009, National Chambal Sanctuary, Etawah district; Green Bee-eater - Apr 7, 2009, Etawah district; Coucal - Dec 25, 2008, Jaunpur district)