I studied Racket-tailed Drongos’ vocal behaviour for my PhD from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. My field work was in the Biligirirangan Hills, now the BRT Tiger Reserve. Racket-tailed Drongos are found in the mid to upper elevations here, mostly in the deciduous forest patches. Observing any animal or bird’s behaviour requires one to be still and silent, and due to this, I often had some interesting encounters with non-drongo creatures as well. Here is the story of one such encounter.
It is a cold, dripping December morning, and we are looking for Racket-tailed Drongos in the moist deciduous forest around Dhoomanagadde Raaste. As we walk down the trail, we see signs of elephants, gaur, wild pigs and civets. A startled Sambar stag runs away with thudding hooves. Very few birds are calling, and no drongos are in sight. A couple of hours pass, and we slowly thaw in the growing warmth of the sun. And then, a Racket-tailed Drongo flies across the trail with a flock of Jungle Babblers. For the next ten minutes or so, it stays low in the undergrowth, feeding on insects disturbed by the babblers foraging on the ground. It crosses the trail again and disappears into the foliage. We wait for a bit; it might return. But it flies further in, and we follow. After crawling through lantana thickets, we reach a clearing, and there it is again, on the shrubs at the edge. Other species have joined the flock: Grey-headed and Black Bulbuls, Hill Mynas, a Paradise Flycatcher, a Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, flameback woodpeckers, Bronzed Drongos and Brown-cheeked Fulvettas. The air is filled with the calls of these birds, but the drongo is silent at present. It flies off again, and after a while, we realise that we can’t go after it – the lantana is too thick here. So we trace our way back towards the trail. It is 08:21 am.
As we step onto the path, a chital calls from the gully a few hundred metres to our right. A minute later, a Bonnet Macaque gives the special alarm call that it reserves for big cats, and we are instantly on the alert. The macaque is close, just around the bend, and we can’t see what it is calling at. But we hear it the next moment, as the tiger growls! We are very close, and I’m not sure if it isn’t headed our way. I instinctively take a few steps back, but Jadeya, my field assistant, gestures for me to hold his machete while he takes the video camera out. I hold on to the machete with trembling hands, and slowly follow him around the bend. We see the tiger walking unhurriedly down the path, and follow as silently as we can. It pauses to sniff at a tree trunk, and scrapes the ground. I am almost sure it can hear my heart pounding in my head. It walks on, and I notice that it has two bright, white spots at the back of its ears.
It stops again, and sprays a tree trunk. We walk with it for about a hundred metres before it leaves the path and disappears into the forest. Jadeya finally turns and grins at me, and I beam back at him. The kere (lake, in Kannada) is just ahead, and we are sure it is going in that direction. We jog down the path towards the kere, and there it is, sitting on the opposite bank. It looks at us for a few moments, then yawns, and sits behind some bushes. It starts licking itself, and then rolls over with its paws in the air. We chuckle silently – it is a very contented tiger. We watch for a while, and then Jadeya says that all he needs to do is say “Enu sahebre!” (“What’s up, sir!”), and it will look up, and he can take a picture; I beg him not to. The tiger is still sunning itself. I whisper that we should leave – if we don’t disturb it, it might show itself to us another day.
It is 09:08 am when I say “ta ta” to the basking tiger. On our way back, I can hardly contain myself, and hug trees when Jadeya is not watching. We are on top of the world!
This article was first published on the Centre for Ecological Sciences’ blog: https://cesess.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/yenu-sahebre/