The spotted owlet chicks, the goral, the lesser golden-backed woodpecker — spotting them in searing May temperatures remains firmly etched in memory, writes Lt General (retd) Baljit Singh
SOME of the momentous visuals of outdoors are exclusive to the hottest time of the day and to the hottest days of the summer. Some can be anticipated and with perseverance and luck frozen on camera-film. There are many more which occur like a flash in the pan but remain firmly etched in memory. The former make great photographs and the latter cherished nostalgia.
Now the spotted owlet chicks in the accompanying photograph represent the most widely spread of the 33 species of the owls we have in India. They are crepuscular, that is, coming out of hiding to feed about an hour before dusk and remaining in the open up to few hours after sun-rise. As such they are frequently encountered and best known our owls.
They raise families in deep, natural cavities such as the one on this old knarled Gulmohar tree trunk. The cavity was on the western face of the trunk and it attracted the sun between 0300-0320 pm only. The chicks remained hidden except for the last six days before fledging. In the instant case, I had half an hour on each of six days, to gain their confidence. And they allowed me to close up to 6 metres to take the photographs.
It was a great learning experience. Parents hunted and provided prey at least twice a day to each chick. The May temperature at the site fluctuated between 33-36`B0C. The prey was invariably the blood-sucker lizard (chameleon) but with the head severed. How those tiny beaks and claws achieved this, remains a mystery?
Only on one occasion my good intentions were suspected when parents attacked me, working in tandem, wanting to dislodge my turban if they could.
Watching the goral (mountain goat) for 10-20 minutes at a stretch without interruption, as they slaked thirst from a very weak water spring was altogether far more daunting. It involved leaving the cool of home at 1 pm, a drive of an hour to the Morni Shivaliks and a walk of 45 minutes under 37`B0C temperature.
As a survival strategy, the goral prefer to rest on the vertical cliff faces where the leopard cannot approach them.
In the Shivaliks, the verticle faces of the mud cliffs have very scarce vegetation, which under the May sun simply dies out altogether. And generally the Goral choose a cliff, which affords quick access to water as well. In the instant case, well above the cliff baseline there is a very weak spring where each animal struggles to slake its thirst by licking the moist mud. In the process, each goral can be viewed from 5 to 15 minutes. And there are times when on a false cue the animal aborts the attempt after just a few licks and hangs around in utter desperation.
The goral have acute sight, smell and hearing. There was no way to fool them with a "hide". Instead, a stool was placed inside a Lantana bush, about 35m from the spring from where I could see the whole cliff-face without being seen by the goral, provided I made the minimal movement. Around 4 pm, there was the sound of a few pebbles dislodged and hurtling down the cliff. In its wake, followed two goral glisading on their hooves, body slightly crouched and matching in grace and speed a champion skier on the Grand Slalome! In a trice they had descended approximately 60m before checking the glisade on a tiny ledge, regain balance and walk off to the spring. Several minutes later, a dust-cloud mushroomed in their wake at the landing site. Over the next 45 minutes I was to see in all seven goral perform. Several troops of langurs too intermingled at the spring.
One more false cue and the show ended.
The searing May temperatures tend to bleach the colour out of all tree-blossoms; Flame of the forest, Amaltas, Pink Cassias, etc. Unfazed, nature sprouts fresh foliage in several species of trees, which shows up in a wide variety of colour pigments. Perhaps the most dramatic is the new foliage of this Kusum tree at the road intersection, which is also the geographical centre of the originally planned Chandigarh. Like all good things in life this new foliage is transient, the brilliant red turning to green in a mere 2-4 days.
Nearby is an avenue of Silver Oaks. As I finished photographing the Kusum, a woodpecker chortled as they do in delight on discovering prey. This lesser golden-backed woodpecker was most supportive to permit me a quick snapshot.
As I drove home, on this May midday under 35`B0C, I remembered Maurice Chavellier, singing in a Hollywood movie in the 1960s with the cultivated drool of a Frenchman so that the world "drizzles" was rendered as "dreezals" in the singing:
I love Paris, in the winter,
when it drizzles.
I love Paris, in the Summer,
when it sizzles.
I love Paris, every moment...
Someday, Chandigarh may claim that spot in many a heart, too.