Maidenahalli, in Karnataka’s Tumakuru District, and home to Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve, presents a variety of remarkable stories that play out every single day. Its vast grasslands and scrub vegetation constitute a unique ecosystem that is home to several species of avifauna and mammals. Unfortunately, like in much of the Deccan Plateau, these grassland habitats have been continuously dwindling – a trend that is only now starting to show some signs of abating. The grasslands of Tumakuru are dotted with scrub cover and flanked by large swathes of cultivated lands. Jayamangali Reserve and its surrounds are rich in bird-life, and host several raptors in the winter months from October to March. The area is also home to the majestic Blackbuck aka Indian Antelope (Antilope cervicapra).

I have been lucky to have frequented Maidenahalli and its surrounding areas, and have hence had the opportunity to observe and sketch this unique landscape at close quarters. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt in the process is that even seemingly desolate places are always teeming with interesting stories. No, you are never guaranteed a sighting of even Blackbucks, let alone bigger fauna; however, armed with patience, one eventually feels the same rush of excitement when observing a raptor and its quarry, as one would while tracking pugmarks in denser jungles.

This is my attempt to describe a typical winter day at Maidenahalli through a sequence of paintings. These were executed from multiple photographs taken during my visits. The individual animal studies are mostly based on either on-location sketches of the animals, or small, clay busts. The events that these paintings depict have all been observed first-hand, albeit over several visits. I hope they will serve to instill at least a small sense of wonder within readers unfamiliar with these environs.

Let us begin on a cold winter morning at dawn, when we set out on foot, carefully attempting to wade noiselessly through the mist-covered grasslands.

Walking in the thick early-morning mist with only a few feet visible ahead of us, we suddenly stumbled upon two female blackbucks! Almost anti-climactically, the iconic antelope that we had set out to see had already been spotted. They looked in our direction from a distance, and hearing our approach, quickly leapt away with graceful jumps.

Watching a buck or doe in full flight is a sight to behold. Like most grassland antelope, particularly their African cousins, Blackbucks can easily leap several feet into the air and clear over 15 feet in a stride. They are perfectly built for this type of movement: the head and neck remain completely taut, with their flexible spine fully extended. They have two-fingered hooves on which they balance their weight. Slender yet robust legs allow them to push off the ground to generate the thrust needed for each stride. Before we knew it, our two does had bounded away and out of sight.

The rising sun now began to clear some of the surrounding mist, and the grasslands were soon abuzz with early morning birdsong. A Brahminy Starling started things off with its characteristic screech. Starlings are found aplenty in Jayamangali and generally inhabit open grassland and scrub forests. They also frequent the surrounding cultivated lands and often forage beside domestic cattle. This fellow simply sat on a branch and rattled off note after note.

A short walk brought us to a big clearing, and we set our feet onto ochre-red soil. The sound of our footsteps sent the ground dwellers scuttling. This Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse was out in the open and quickly ran for cover into the surrounding grass. She had probably been foraging for small insects. Sandgrouses camouflage with the ground, and one cannot easily notice their presence until they start moving.

As we crossed the clearing and peered closer into the surrounding scrubs and bushes, we saw several notable members of the pigeon family. This Laughing Dove, with his rufous and black-checkered neck pattern, greeted us with his characteristic laugh. Their resemblance to the more common Turtle Dove and Blue Rock Pigeon is uncanny, though the Laughing Dove has glossy black eyes and is notably smaller than the latter. We spent several minutes soaking up his oscillating tonal notes, as the sun continued to rise in the sky.

It was now late morning, and the fog had lifted almost completely. As we scanned the tall treetops, a large pigeon-like bird alighted on the branch of a lone Eucalyptus tree. This one was, in fact, a raptor – the Crested or Oriental Honey-buzzard – evidenced by its long neck and small, uncharacteristically roundish head. Honey-buzzards even lack the ‘eyebrow’ ridge that distinguishes the common raptors from other birds.

Here is a comparison between the heads of the various pigeon-like birds we had seen. While the honey-buzzard has a distinctive down-curved beak, the Collared Dove, another common inhabitant of these grasslands, has a straight beak with a minor bend at the tip. In contrast, our urban-dwelling Blue Rock Pigeon has a longer beak to help with preening. It is also distinguished by a flap of white skin called operculum, which acts as a filter when it feeds.

The sun was now directly overhead, and all activity quietened down. The only semi-active birds were Collared Doves, skipping from tree to tree. Collared Doves are very common in these grasslands and breed throughout the year. This male was basking in the winter sun, lazily scanning nearby trees for a mate. He finally took to the air to try his luck elsewhere.

Just as he took off, a sharp screech came from overhead; in the blink of an eye, a large raptor swooped down on our hapless dove! The Bonelli’s Eagle had his talons open as he attempted to take down the much smaller bird mid-air. The Collared Dove swerved to his left just in time, and the eagle had overcommitted his dive and missed. The prey evaded the predator, this time at least.

The rising warm winter air meant more thermals, and that in turn meant more raptors emerging in the sky. The Bonelli’s Eagle is a member of the family Aquila and has typical traits of that family – sharp eyesight with a range of several kilometres; a heavy, tough beak to tear through flesh; strong talons that can pick up and carry prey ranging from rodents to, potentially, even small Blackbuck! Though not as common in these parts as its cousin the Tawny Eagle, the Bonelli’s Eagle is distinctly identified by a dark tail band and streaked white breast.

It was now early afternoon and the sun was blazing. The chilly winter air could still be felt when in shade, but temperatures in the open were certainly warm. We walked on, looking for a shaded spot to rest our tired legs in. This distant, lone tree stood out and offered some hope of respite, not just for us, but also for bee-eaters and sunbirds which had spent the morning flitting about.

By mid-afternoon, our search for a male buck finally ended! Under a tree, a splendid Blackbuck rested all by himself. His eyes were nearly closed, but his large ears were constantly twitching and on the lookout for impending trouble. As the day wore on into a soporific afternoon, he suddenly raised his head with intent. Was that a challenger in the distance?

Like the females, male Blackbucks also have a very slender frame, but their skin colouration and horns clearly set them apart. The skin is commonly darkish brown, with white patches surrounding the eyes and the underside of the neck. Like other antelopes and even horses and deer, their knees and elbows are up close against the body frame, with a long heel extending from the ankle on the hind legs and extended ‘palms’ on the forelegs. This gives them a distinctive stance, as well as the ability to gain speed quickly while running.

As we observed our resting buck, we noticed that his most distinctive feature is, of course, the corkscrew-shaped horns. These grow continuously from the base, where they join the head. The eyes of the buck are also largely set on the sides like most prey animals, giving him a wide field-of-view to scan for potential danger from lurking predators. The ears are extremely dexterous and can rotate around to pick up even the faintest of sounds from multiple directions.

As the evening drew near, our lone buck was suddenly spurred into action by the visiting intruder! The two bucks locked horns vigorously, as they attempted to outmanoeuvre each other. Such duels often last for a very short time, but can still lead to serious injury to one or both participants. The buck delivering the blow uses his hind legs to generate thrust, with forelegs in the air, while the buck at the receiving end spreads his feet wide to help soften the impact and not topple over.

With their multiple corkscrew twists, Blackbuck horns are different from the antlers that grow seasonally to adorn the heads of male deer. Antlers grow from the tip, while horns grow from the base; so, the former can branch out like tree trunks, forming tines, while the latter cannot, due to geometric constraints. The only instance of ‘multi-branched’ horns appears in the Chousingha, since it has multiple starting points. Blackbuck horns develop rings as they grow, with the left and right horns being mirror images.

It was now past dawn, and darkness had begun to set in on the grasslands of Maidenahalli. As a small Blackbuck family walked into the sunset, we bid this wonderful landscape a reluctant farewell, though certain that we will return very soon. Who knows, maybe next time, we’ll get a chance to spend the night here, looking for even more interesting encounters!