Friday, 19 February 2021

Zeiss Victory Harpia 85, a brilliant spotting scope with smidgens of imperfection: Equipment Reviews

Author: Ravi Kailas

Some favourable alignment in the heavens (I expect), and Zeiss India's excellent customer service, had me in possession the Zeiss Victory Harpia 85mm, their absolute premium offering in their range of spotting scopes, for a few days, recently. My expectations, were high, given Zeiss's reputation for making stellar optics for nature observation and my own experience as a user of their 10x42 Victory T-FL binoculars. My first views through the scope were as per expectation - crystal clear, crisp views of backyard birds, including the richly coloured Indian Golden Oriole and the striking Loten's Sunbird, both relatively rare visitors to this space, among commoner subjects like Coppersmith Barbet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Rufous Treepie. The images were tack sharp in the centre of the view, as one would expect of such high-end optics and while not quite as saturated or contrasty as the view through my Zeiss Victory T-FL binoculars, the colours were pleasingly natural, with no evident bias in colour temperature. It was effortless to discern the subtle colour variations and structural differences in feathers of various backyard birds, the intricate details of veins on the leaves of a Peepal Tree, the subtle variations in the buff, brown and grey tones on the Three-striped Palm Squirrel, the nuances of the head scale arrangement on an Oriental Garden Lizard - all pointing to the scope's ability to resolve fine detail at various magnification settings. The views were also amply bright (more on this later) and with adequate shadow detail (upto dusk/in high contrast situations). All told, this was easily one of the finest optics I have had the pleasure to look through, however, I had not yet discerned that special view that elevated it from a mere observation tool into something subliminal.  

For consistently magical views though, it took a trip from my backyard to a regular birding haunt, around a countryside lake surrounded by tall grassland and scrub. The scope really shone in this open habitat when its super wide field of view (63m-21m at 1000m across the 22x-65x zoom range, with a consistent 72° apparent field of view through the zoom range), became (oh so much) more than just useful. Whether it was watching a pair of Common Kingfisher or a White-eyed Buzzard, perched against the wide open, shimmering lake, a family of Little Grebe dabbling in the bright grey waters of the lake, Purple Heron on their hunting forays, tip-toeing against the background of tall grasses, subjects placed in the context of these wide-open spaces, popping out 3D like from the background,  resulting in engrossing images accompanied by the sounds of nature, only interrupted by an inner voice which kept repeating the term '"wow". Then there are practical upsides to this wide field view, including the ease with which one can follow flying birds, like terns, with minimal panning or having surprise visitors emerge into view, as has happened to me, in one memorable example, of a glorious, male Red Munia appearing into the view, while I was looking at a detail-rich view of a Plain Prinia, allowing me to enjoy this attractive spectacle just by turning the focus ring. This environment also allowed for testing the ability of the scope in highly backlit situations, where, for example, I was duly impressed when I could make out the faint suffusion of yellow on the throat of a Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, perched on a wire about a 200m away, heavily contrasted against a bright sky. Another situation where the scope proved invaluable was when I visited a brackish lake and the ease with which I could make out patterning/markings on the wings/body/face, the colour of the legs/beak, the plainness (or lack of) of the underparts etc, of distant waders, most in non-breeding plumage, all nuances vital for identifying this group of birds - more vindication for the scope's ability to resolve fine detail. 

Unsaddled by the zoom mechanism, the eyepiece is compact and easy to look through

Ergonomically, this full size, seemingly robustly armoured, weighty but well-balanced (I could handhold quite easily for short bursts of viewing), waterproof scope was a very easy to look through, with or without eyeglasses, with a fair latitude for the angle of the eye placement. A novel design on the scope body, incorporates the focus mechanism adjacent to the zoom, making it convenient to use both features with one hand, while looking through the compact eyepiece. The focus ring is geared, allowing for an intuitive to use quick and fine focussing mechanism based on the speed at which you turn to ring. Barring the tightness of the zoom ring (which I expect, will ease over time), the scope was so easy to use (especially mounted on the Manfrotto MVH502AH fluid head, which balances the scope perfectly and allows for ultra-smooth panning movement, and a robust tripod), that the physical set-up was barely noticeable, as should be the case, allowing me to enjoy the scope's stellar optics, unfettered. 

The the zoom and focussing rings are conveniently placed next to each other

All, however, was not perfect, and this scope displayed a few optical imperfections as well. For example, edge sharpness at its widest magnification suffered noticeably, and there was evident chromatic aberration towards the edges as well. However, as wide as the field of view is and as far into the edges that these imperfections occurred, it never really practically affected my viewing experience in any situation I found myself in. Also both chromatic aberration and edge sharpness improved with increasing magnification, the former virtually disappearing at some point. There was a smidgen of chromatic aberration, even in the centre of the view, in such extreme situations, such as viewing an all black, male Asian Koel against a bright, white background, but this too showed only at the widest magnification.  However, perhaps the biggest limitation of the scope could be that its maximum exit pupil diameter is limited to 2.5mm, due to some quirk of design, the physics of that I do not understand, rather than closer to 4mm, as should have been the theoretical limit based on specifications (85mm objective and 22x widest magnification)*. While this was bright enough for everything I used this device for, I can imagine scenarios where I would miss that extra light reaching my eyes, such as when looking to id a bittern, amidst reeds, at the cusp of darkness or while observing a crepuscular mammal blending into its dark environment. For someone consistently using their scope where light is a limiting factor, perhaps other choices would make sense, but this would mean missing out on that brilliant 3D rendition within an encompassing wide field of view, on most other occasions, taking nature observation from the practical to the sublime, that this scope excels at. 

*I understood that the aperture of the scope widens with increasing magnification, making use of the full 85mm objective from about 35x or so, making the absolute light gathering ability of scopes equivalent to its theoretical limits at higher magnifications, and hence comparable to any other scope of similar specifications beyond this threshold. 

Disclaimer: I have fairly limited experience looking through premium spotting scopes, barring the Swarovski ATM 65mm with the 20-60x eyepiece, which my cousin (very kindly) loaned me for a few years. This was a very good scope, but never gave me that wow factor from its optics, which I have had the privilege of experiencing while looking through a couple of binoculars, especially - the Zeiss 8x32 Victory T-FL and the Nikon 8x32 SE. My current scope, a Pentax 65 EDA-II with a  Pentax 14mm XW eyepiece, provides a wide (fixed 28x), sharp, colour neutral image in good light, but has obvious limitations while observing backlit subjects or in fading light, as well as the finicky eye-placement it demands to enjoy the full image circle. I have never really looked through ultra-premium scope offerings Leica, Swarovski, Kowa, Nikon and the like, and as such have no basis for comparison for my experiences through this scope. Also, this is meant as a non-technical, end-user review of the scope and all impressions are subjective, as seen through the eyes of a keen nature enthusiast.

The travails of spotting scope shopping in India

A series of events, all associated with a search to upgrade my fairly good, compact, Pentax spotting scope to a full size model, with higher quality optics, led to Zeiss India kindly loaning me this Harpia scope. Based on reviews online, I had narrowed down my choices to Vortex Razor HD 27x65 85mm, Nikon Monarch 20x-60x 82EDa Fieldscope and the Zeiss Gavia 30x-60x 85mm, all mid-range full size scopes, with reputedly comparable optics, with only the variation in price, seemingly, a factor to consider. Vortex does not seem to market their scopes in India and Nikon does not market this particular model in our country. While Nikon does seem to be marketing their ultra-premium, albeit dated ED Feildscopes here, their unresponsive sports optics marketing division here put paid to any plans I had for considering these. Only Zeiss India, with their proactive marketing team, and quite excellent customer service as it turned out, got in touch and promised delivery of the Gavia within a reasonable timeframe, loaning me a demo piece of the Harpia, when delivery of the former was delayed due to COVID lockdowns in Germany. Another option I seriously considered, although priced higher than these offerings, was the Swarovski ATS models with their choice of wide-angle or traditional eyepieces. Here again I hit a stumbling block, when I found the local authorised dealers less than helpful with information about delivery times etc. The only premium spotting scope that I found readily available at the time of looking, was the Leica Televid 82mm (straight) with the 25x-50x, through the Leica India Store and their helpful staff  promised delivery of the angled version in 3-4 weeks (as tempting as this was, I had to pass, given that this was well outside my budget). I suspect India is on the cusp of becoming a large market for good quality binoculars and spotting scopes and it would be really useful for end users like us to have the ability to walk into a store, try a demo unit, before making a purchase decision or at least have an opportunity to interact with a well informed sports optics marketing team during the process (written in hope that someone reading is incharge of such decisions!).

For those interested, we have also written up a piece titled "Binoculars for Nature-Watchers", which introduces the nuances of choosing binoculars for this activity, as well as de-jargonises some of the language in this article. 

Digiscoping with the Iphone SE 2020 (no adapters*)

I found this set-up adequate to capture record shots, by placing the Iphone SE 2020 camera on the eyepiece without adapters, especially with the scope parallel to the ground or pointing upwards. While pointing downwards I had to manoeuvre the subject off-centre on the scope to get the subject on the phone camera, as the phone camera's lens did not capture the entire field of view through the scope. There was also little areas of distortion or black-outs in the image, which, however, mostly occurred only the edges, hence rendering a good % of images usable/adequate for uses like bird id or to for publishing on the internet (by cropping out the distortions). Some example images (all cropped to at least half the original size), with this set-up, below:

Grey Heron

Jerdon's Bushlark


Asian Koel

Brown Shrike

Zeiss India mentioned that they were coming up with dedicated digiscoping adapters for the Harpia, at which point I expect this sort of set-up to more than just passable for wildlife photography.

Ficus Wildlife and Natural History Tours


Friday, 29 January 2021

Pulicat Bird Sanctuary, December 27th 2020: Trip Summary

Author: Ravi Kailas

Pulicat is India's second largest brackish lagoon and a wintering and staging ground for numerous waders and waterfowl that use the Central Asian Flyway, with records of globally significant bird species like Asian Dowitcher and Crab Plover known from here. 

Common Greenshank

Date: 27th December 2020

Having neglected birding around Chennai over the last few years, almost exclusively to avoid the drudgery of the unpleasant commute, to get to anywhere resembling a pristine natural area, I have been recently motivated to revisit some birding hotspots around the city, 'thanks' to the otherwise restricted travel opportunities during the pandemic. I recently picked up the courage to brave the roads, one late December afternoon, and head north from the city, in my puny hatchback, weaving my way through massive commercial vehicles, unexpected potholes, oddly placed police barriers, jaywalkers and shockingly unexpected appearances of two wheelers inches from the front bumpers - in other words, an average day on an Indian highway - to Pulicat Lake. 

Admittedly, the aforementioned mayhem lasted only for the first of the two hour drive to the to eponymous town of Pulicat, located where the Kosatalayar River meets the southern fringes of the lagoon, part of the small area I explored on that day. Turning off northeast, from the highway connecting the city to the Ennore Port, from the town of Minjur, led into a countryside of villages, verdant paddy fields and myriad lily ponds (one especially large, near Kaatoor) and on a relatively empty state highway - a shockingly pleasant change from what was, until then. Bird diversity also increased, and included Ashy Wood Swallow, Grey Francolin, Tri-coloured Munia, Black-shouldered Kite and more, amidst the paddy fields and numerous Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Eurasian Coot and Barn Swallow in and over the tanks. Turning East from this road onto one connecting to Pulicat town, there was marsh on either side of the road, inhabited by species like Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Asian Openbill. The vegetation progressively thinned, while approaching the shores of the brackish lagoon, and waders, mostly Little Ringed Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Redshank, Ruff and Wood Sandpiper, and 1 Eurasian Curlew, all winter visitors to these parts, started showing up, furiously dipping their bills into the shallows of ephemeral pools on the fringes of the lagoon. These pools also attracted a feeding frenzy of mostly Whiskered Tern (with a couple of Gull-billed in the mix). Driving via the crowded market of the town, towards the confluence of the river and the lagoon, a couple of keen-eyed (fishing) boatmen waylaid me to offer into the lagoon, to see terns and gulls (suggesting that the water levels were too high for most waders at this time and Feb-April are better months for these migrants) - probably a decade old, alternative source of employment for these boatmen correlated with the exponential growth of bird photographers around major Indian cities, and hopefully an incentive for local fishing communities to resist large-scale, environmentally destructive projects that are knocking at their doorstep. I did, however want to explore the lagoon's shoreline a little northwest of here, leading to a fishing village called Annamalancheri, and given the limited time on hand, took a rain check on the boat ride

Little Egret

Whiskered Tern

Little Ringed Plover

Asian Openbill

Leaving Pulicat behind (both the town and lagoon), early in the evening, I retraced back on the road the connects the town of Pulicat to Ponneri, before turning North, onto a dramatically quaint country road, towards Annamalancheri. This single-laned,  and admittedly not so good for tired bones road, with verdant fields and village tanks on either side, accompanied some wholesome countryside birding. About 5KM from the destination, the lagoon appeared to the East lit up in the warm glow of the evening light. An inter-tidal patch, evidently at low tide, hosted a handful of Little-ringed (both in breeding and otherwise form), Common Redshank, Pacific Golden Plover, Wood Sandpiper and Ruff - all observed by yours truly in the most idyllic of settings and in glorious evening light. Driving towards the fishing village, the lagoon appears roadside with Common Greenshank, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper, the relatively rare (in these parts) Bar-tailed Godwit among the commoner Black-tailed versions and Black-winged Stilt, all seemingly settling in for fast approaching darkness. The rest of the drive to the village, through scrub dominated by invasive Mesquite, while showing potential for terrestrial birds, was hastier than ideal given the late hour, as was the 2 hour drive back to Chennai, via the town of Methur, joining the National Highway 16 and its laden trucks etc, at nightfall .....  


Little Ringed Plover

Common Redshank
Some distant waders including the rare Bar-tailed Godwit

Black-winged Stilt at Sunset

Friday, 25 December 2020

Anamalai Tiger Reserve (Valparai area), October 2019: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas (

Dates: 15th to 18th October 2019

Great Pied Hornbill, among the main attractions in this landscape

The Anamalai Hills is a repository of the immense biodiversity of the Western Ghats of south India.  Somewhat surprisingly, the disturbed, plantation-rainforest landscape in the Valparai area of these hills, located as it is, surrounded on all sides by protected areas, is one of the best places to see some of Western Ghats's mammalian specialities, including endemics like Nilgiri Tahr, Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur, Brown Palm Civet with relative ease, with chances of rarities like Brown Mongoose, Travancore Flying Squirrel and even Nilgiri Marten. There is also potential for Elephant, Gaur, Dhole, Sloth Bear and Leopard, the former two more likely to show themselves up, towering over tea bushes as they move through the landscape. Birdlife, typical of the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats, are also (or can be) on display, including such species like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Malabar Trogon, Rufous Babbler, Wynaad Laughing Thrush, Malabar Grey and Great Pied Hornbills and Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets. While there is much else to be appreciated, including an engrossing floristic and small vertebrate diversity, our focus on this brief visit, was on Great Pied Hornbill congregations (known from specific locations, seasonally, in the landscape) and some of the endemic mammals of the Western Ghats, that this landscape is known for. 

A species of Impatiens among the immense floristic diversity of the Western Ghats

Nilgiri Langur

Nilgiri Flycatcher

The climb to Valparai begins along a hairpin bend infested, steep, rocky, sparsely vegetated slope, that rises over the Aliyar Reservoir. This section of the road, upto about 700m in elevation, is a regular spot, unusually for a species mostly restricted to montane grasslands above 1750m, for the endemic Nilgiri Tahr, but this was one of those rare occasions, when we missed the ungulates on the drive up. While late in the season for rains, it was apparent, from the road-side puddles and intermittently threateningly cloudy skies, that moisture wasn't just content in hanging in the air. Higher up, the road hugs a gentler terrain, the forests increasingly dense/predominantly evergreen, exposed to the to the moister winds from the west, rising upto 1500m, through a pristine patch of montane forest, before descending into a valley of (predominantly tea) plantation-forest matrix where we would be based. The fauna too changes with the moisture gradient and elevation, with Nilgiri Langur replacing the South-eastern Langur, and birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous Babbler, especially vocal later in the evening, also made an appearance. A grove of flowering trees (species?) turned out to be magnet for the Malabar Tree Nymph, a large-winged butterfly partial to (elegantly) gliding amidst inflorescence in the canopy, as they were when we saw them. Upon reaching the Valparai Valley, an hour or so before sunset, our first priority was the check a regular spot Great Pied Hornbill, in a coffee plantation near Varatuparai (a small planation settlement). A road descending into the plantation, affords of an excellent view of the canopy rising from the planation, and, from this platform, dextrously avoiding the occasional speeding bus, we were entertained for more than an hour, watching a pair of Great Pied Hornbill, feeding on a copiously fruit laden canopy (tree species?), until they (typically noisily) flew away to roost (presumably) at dusk.  

Malabar Tree Nymph - a canopy specialist

A fruiting tree was host to a pair of Great Pied Hornbill for a good part of two days

Later that night, a brief walk inside the Puduthottam Estate, a patch of rainforest within a tea plantation, and the scene of our accommodation for two nights, produced innumerable Indian Giant Flying Squirrels, some with varying extent of greying fur on their face, making us question our ID, if some of the them could be the rarely seen, endemic, Travancore Flying Squirrel (but, as it turned out, just a racial variation of the Indian Giant), Sambar & Barking deers. This patch has potential for almost all the larger mammals found in this landscape, some of their presence confirmed with spoor and scat, including creatures of the dark like Brown Palm Civet, Leopard, Sloth Bear, but none of these relative rarities showed themselves up, that night. 

Indian Scops Owl

Orange Minivet
The next morning, a walk through the (much less wild seeming, in broad daylight) estate produced some usual suspects (bar a roosting Indian Scops Owl), including Indian Munjtac, Striped-necked Mongoose and the endemic Western Ghats Squirrel among them, but things go more interesting when we decided to stake out the 'hornbill tree' from the previous evening. The hornbills did not seem to be enjoy the same food for dinner and breakfast (but we were proven wrong later in the morning), however we were entertained by the buzz of morning activity around a fruiting fig tree, conveniently (except we had to dodge an occasional heavy vehicle hurtling downhill) located on the side of the road. We were attracted to this roadside spectacle by the loud calls of a large flock of Southern Hill Myna, seemingly excited by the abundance of breakfast within easy access, to happen upon somewhat quieter Yellow-browed Bulbul, Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets, Asian Fairy Bluebird, a young Great Pied Hornbill, Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Indian Giant Squirrel and Bonnet Macaque all gorging on fruit from this one tree. Ashy Drongo, Orange Minivet and Greater Flameback Woodpecker also paid occasional visits, likely attracted by associated insect life. This was brief, engrossing window into the inter-dependence of figs and their seed dispersers (among several other known associations, but unnoticed here) - a significant component of biodiversity in tropical forests. Watching this feeding frenzy built-up an appetite for our own lunch, which was slightly delayed, 'way-sided' as we were by a typically bold/habituated troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, just as we entered the Puduthottam Estate (this little patch of rainforest-tea plantations, with a main road passing through it, is home to 100 plus of these endangered primates, with one large and two smaller splinter troops, thriving on the easy availability of food, to suite a variety of macaque palates, in a human dominated landscape). 

Asian Fairly Bluebird

Malabar Barbet

Indian Giant Flying Squirrel 

Great Pied Hornbill

An early evening until darkness vigil at the 'hornbill tree' produced the same (?), seemingly insatiable pair, the fruit-laden canopy almost their exclusive domain during the day, as well as Nilgiri Langur, Gaur, Barking Deer, Striped necked-Mongoose and Malabar Grey Hornbill, in the vicinity. Waiting after dark, in hope of the endemic Brown Palm Civet on the copiously fruiting road-side Ficus, was surprisingly bereft of reward (not even bats, evident), but the more distant 'hornbill tree' had a visitor which appeared to be the civet of choice, but could not distinguish convincingly from Indian Giant Flying Squirrel. A quiet evening otherwise, with Sambar, Indian Giant Flying Squirrel and Gaur in the darkness, on the way back to base and around. 

A troop of highly habituated Lion-tailed Macaque monkeying around 

A bull Gaur, not at his majestic best

The next morning a long trudge to the Sekalmudi Estate, preceded by a visit to the 'hornbill tree' was not especially productive (the hornbills were missing this morning and the activity on the fruiting fig was subdued as well), however our luck changed in the afternoon when were entertained by a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, foraging (and otherwise socially interacting) along the main road that runs through the Puduthottam Estate. From here, we visited the Stanmore Bungalow, on the fringes of which the rare Brown Mongoose have been seen on occasion. While the brown version did not show, we did see the much commoner, albeit shy, Ruddy Mongoose, but the real highlight from this visit was finding a  beautiful, yellow marked with black bands species (Occelate Sheildtail?) of Shieldtail (a family of burrowing snakes known only from the hills of south India and Sri Lanka), as it moved across the concrete footpath, seemingly in search of a more congenial habitat of damp soil. Leaving here towards the Anamalai Club, our host for the night, via the Old Valparai Road, produced a satisfying sighting of a large herd of Gaur, moving up a bracken-filled, rocky slope, on a cool, cloudy evening. From the club premises, we had an unobstructed view of the surrounding open slopes and we spent the evening looking for wildlife from this vantage point. There was healthy bird activity, including the endemic Rufous Babbler before dusk and a Jungle Nightjar at the cusp of darkness. As darkness descended, a couple of shapes on the adjacent slope, revealed themselves as a Sambar stag, tentatively walking downhill and a Leopard, watching the slope ahead, perched motionless on a rock. We watched this scene for a few minutes, until the Leopard disappeared into the bracken, followed by (typically) shockingly loud Sambar alarm calls, taking a pre-dinner break. Walking out of room, taking a circuitous route to dining hall, via the unfenced club premises, turned out to be a double-edged sword, and as we turned a corner we startled a Sloth Bear and its baby, a few feet away, devouring a copious (even by their standards) outbreak of winged-termites, duly attracted to the lights of the club building. The events that ensued soon after were a bit of a blur,  with vague memories of mama bear appearing to turn threateningly towards us, as we turned and bolted into darkness of the opposite direction. Then there was a sensation of hands and feet all around and hard ground on my face, and the relatively minor injuries that resulted put paid to any further activities that we had planned for in the rest of the trip ..... 

The dominant male in a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque

Ocellate Sheildtail Snake (probably)

Jungle Nightjar

As an aside, Sloth Bear attacks on people are a relatively frequent occurrence in this human-dominated landscape. However, although this particular situation did not result in a serious incident, it could well have turned out a lot worse for us, and sadly, for wildlife as well, as such incidents always show them off in bad light. A lesson learnt, even for seasoned naturalists like us, to be keenly aware of our surroundings, while in locations with potentially dangerous large animals, even if their presence seems unlikely (for example here within a large, well-lit clearing of the hotel premises, but the emergence of winged-termites, manna from heaven for all manner of wildlife, seemed to have flipped the balance from caution to gay abandon for this bear family...)

List of Mammals Seen*

Jungle Striped Squirrel Funambulus tristriatus
Three Striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum
Indian Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista philippensis philippensis
Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica maxima
Common Leopard Panthera pardus
Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus
Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii
Striped-neck Mongoose Herpestes vitticollis
Indian Gaur Bos gaurus
Indian or Red Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Sambar Cervus unicolor
Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata
Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca Silenus
Nilgiri Langur semnopithecus Johnii
South-eastern Langur Semnopithecus priam

*Doubtful sighting of Brown Palm Civet

Highlight Birds Seen

Nilgiri Flycatcher
Jungle Nightjar
Rufous Babbler
Indian Scimitar Babbler
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta
Malabar Grey Hornbill
Great Pied Hornbill
White-cheeked Barbet
Malabar Barbet
Greater Flameback Woodpecker
Southern Hill Myna
Grey-fronted Green Pigeon
Orange Minivet
Asian Fairy Bluebird
Indian Scops Owl
Crested Serpent Eagle 
Black-shouldered Kite
Malabar Parakeet
Vernal Hanging Parrot
Malabar Whistling Thrush

Saturday, 21 November 2020

An appreciation of backyard biodiversity during the pandemic: Nature Video

Author: Ravi Kailas

Please follow this link for a video showing some of the residents and visitors over the last few months, a handful of examples of urban biodiversity in our backyard.

As keen naturalists we have missed the freedom to travel to natural areas over the last few months. While the aesthetic upside of visiting a wilderness area can never be replicated in an urban environment, this period did inspire us to look closer at the denizens that inhabit the modest green space around our home in Chennai .....  

A passage migrating Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher on a fruiting Ficus, and the associated buzz of insect and bird activity, in late March, early in the lockdown period, provided the initial impetus. I observed the changing of the seasons, more closely than before, the shedding of leaves of the deciduous trees, followed by the flowering/fruiting season, the magnet for bees that the flowers of the Indian Ash Tree is, the number of animals - birds, squirrels, bats, and even a couple of Bonnet Macaques - all, keen competition for my mom, a fellow mango enthusiast - the variety of insects, that gorge on Mango, both full and half eaten, the abundance of insect life following a few rain showers, praying mantis, wasps and beetles, the diversity of ants and spiders, the fruiting bodies of fungus that popped up after the thunderstorms, the large colony of Flying Fox that would head south over our terrace at dusk, the Bark and House Geckos that spend the day sheltered behind the cool shade of the fencing, only to show themselves in the open, when the temperature was just right (one would assume), the winged termites that hover around artificial light, and one evening, a precursor to the biggest rain of the season, feasted on by an insectivorous bat, that picked one after another of these hapless creatures from around a light bulb in the balcony, a colony of naughty termites that made our front entrance door their larder, the dramatic, convection induced clouds that fill the western horizon, on numerous evenings, after the onset of the summer monsoons, the moths and the butterflies that thrived after the summer rains, the increasingly rarely seen Common Toad that made a guest appearance or so, the Oriental Garden Lizard ... just some of the sights that kept the naturalist in me sated, in the few square metres within a bustling city that is home. 

Much of the video footage of these denizens was shot with the Panasonic GH5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 (sometimes with the 1.4x teleconverter). The quality of the 120fps slow-motion footage and the macro ability of the set-up, especially with the option to crop-in with the in-camera teleconverter feature, coupled with the lens's close-focussing ability and sharpness, was a revelation for a videography newbie like me.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Borneo, The land of dipterocarps, August 2014: A pictorial report

Author: Ravi Kailas

Bornean Orangutang at Kinabantagan

Borneo, the Earth's third largest island, and home to among its great rainforests, was high on my bucket list of places to visit, for its reputed natural history splendours. Happily I managed a foray in August 2014, to a tiny corner of the island, in the Sabah province of Malaysia and was duly amazed by the diversity of animals, and their great rainforest home, albeit experiencing a mere fraction of the island's considerable natural riches (only lowland, interior forests and their denizens on this visit). For a visitor without a focussed list of target species, but rather to soak in whatever came my (often solo) way, I ended up with sightings of Bornean Orangutang, Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, Philippine Slow Loris, seven out of eight species of Hornbill, including Helmeted, found on the island, the rarely seen Bornean Ground Cuckoo, Storm's Stork, Bornean Falconet, Jerdon's Baza, Saltwater Crocodile and Water Monitor Lizard aplenty, among a variety of other creatures reflective of the immense diversity of tropical rainforests. However, the experience was enriching, not just because of what I could see in isolation, but also, the overall experience, the sounds, smells, humidity, light (or the lack of it!) in the forest interiors, the mesmerising morning mist that envelopes the canopy, as much as the sights within, among the giant trees of undisturbed Dipterocarp forests (the predominant lowland forest type of Borneo, which is incidentally, home to the most diverse, albeit rapidly depleting, of this forest type). While, it would have been more than nice to add a Sunda Clouded Leopard or so onto the list of sightings, or at least, one among Colugo, Pygmy Elephant or Leopard Cat, this was a very satisfactory first time visit to the island. 


Kinabantagan River - wildlife rich, albeit disturbed forest along the Kinabantagan River

Proboscis Monkey at Kinabantangan

Dates: 8th to 11th Aug 2014

A satisfactory variety of wildlife, including a female & young Bornean Orangutang and an adult male, several of those curious looking, pot-bellied (and this with a spartan diet of leaves & fruit) Proboscis Monkey, Southern Pig-tailed Macaque, the ubiquitous Prevost's Squirrel, Saltwater Crocodile, Water Monitor Lizard, the endangered Storm's Stork, Diard's Trogon and that fleeting glimpse of the rare Bornean Ground Cuckoo, teasing us with a pervading call, seemingly just from behind the first layer of undergrowth, six species of Hornbill, Jerdon's Baza, Buffy Fish Owl, Asian Palm Civet and Blue-eared Kingfisher, the latter three at night. Almost all sighting effort from the boat, with some minor forays on foot, exploring the narrow band of disturbed forest (a various stages of logging), along the river. Misses from here included Bornean Elephant, which are relatively easily seen in this location, as also the Oriental Bay Owl, which can be seen around my accommodation, with some effort, which I am guilty of not putting in, at night. While this was a window to the tropical rainforest of southeast Asia and its occupants, including the typically, 'equatorial' mid-afternoon thunderstorm, this location did not satisfy the aesthetic expectations of a rainforest experience. 

Diard's Trogon

Asian Palm Civet

Buffy Fish Owl

Wrinkled Hornbill, one among 8 species found on the island

The endangered Storm's Stork

Danum Valley Conservation Area - Pristine dipterocarp forest and associated diversity of wildlife

Philippine Slow Loris

Looking towards Dipterocarp canopy in the early hours of the morning

Dates: 11th to 15th Aug 2014

This is reputedly among the best protected, lowland rainforest locations in Borneo, and without basis for comparison, my forays into these forests of immensely tall dipterocarp trees, suggested nothing that disputed this status. Walking indistinct trails, inside the dark, humid interiors of the forest, and exploring the more wildlife-sighting friendly periphery, while not as productive for sheer numbers as the experience at Kinabantangan, produced rarities like the Helmeted Hornbill as well as a selection of species including Philippine Slow Loris, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Gibbon, a species of otter (smooth coated?), a nocturnal mustelid (some kind of ferret badger?), Bornean Falconet, flying lizards and tree skinks, various frogs, spiders, ants and leeches that were not seen in the earlier location. There was also a single, female Bornean Orangutang, in the periphery of the forest and close to my accommodation. Among the enduring memories also from here, the multifarious sounds of the rainforest, the scene of morning mist lifting from the treetops, as the day warms up, a microclimate unto its own, the forest floor alive with fallen fruit, seed, rotting wood and their predators.... 

Bornean Falconet, among the smallest birds of prey on Earth

A species of Tarantula

Dipterocarp seed

A species of tree skink

Rainforest biodiversity

Rainforest biodiversity

Red Leaf Monkey

Sepilok - a small patch of healthy rainforest, home to rehabilitated Bornean Orangutang among other wildlife:

Dates: 15th to 16th Aug 2014

A brief visit here was not especially productive, but the healthy forest patch and the convenient canopy walkway (note: to be avoided during an electric storm!) promised much in terms of birdlife and other arboreal wildlife. There were also trails into the forest, that could be productive for typical rainforest biodiversity as well ground feeding specialists like pittas. While not a wildlife moment, it was quite something to see a semi-wild fully grown, male Orangutang, walk into an open air restaurant in the periphery of the reserve (where I was having a dinner), and towards one of the nearby tables, possibly gesturing (not especially proficient in Orangutanese), to join in for a meal! 

*An ideal extension to the itinerary would have been a visit to the Mount Kinabalu area, to appreciate the changes in biodiversity with altitude. Could have also planned a visit to Mabul (well known for marine diversity) as well as Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Logistics Etc*


Travelled by air to Sandakan (well connected to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur) and by road (private taxi) to Kinabantangan and from there to Lahad Datu (the gateway to Danum Valley - the accommodation arranges transfers from here). 

On the return, by road (private taxi) from Lahad Datu to Sepilok, and flew out from Sandakan. 

Typically easy road travel on good roads (none of the sectors longer than 4-5 hrs), and mostly through Oil Palm plantations (sigh). 



Entering the Kinabantangan Jungle Camp

Water Monitor Lizard on campus 

Stayed at the Kinabnatangan Jungle Camp - a rustic affair, furnished comfortably enough (but don't expect luxuries, like fancy soaps, high end bed linen etc in your room, at least as of 2014, but rather that slightly damp/a touch mouldy feel to the interiors, as is typical of damp locations), in a well wooded patch along the river. The place is owned by an ace local birder, Robert Chong, and is well set-up for keen nature enthusiasts. Host went out of the way to cater to my 'eggetarian' diet, with eggs, rice and a tasty veggie dish seemingly made with jungle greens, among the staple nourishment on my visit there. White-capped Shama, Water Monitor Lizard and Prevost's Squirrel aplenty on campus, but potential for much other wildlife in the vicinity, if one puts in the requisite effort, I would imagine. 

White-crowned Shama were ubiquitous on campus

Danum Valley 

Danum Valley Field Centre

Stayed at the superbly located Danum Valley Filed Centre, on the edge of pristine rainforest. There is much wildlife that visits around the campus - I saw Helmeted Hornbill, Bornean Gibbon, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Falconet, Orangutang, otters (sp?) and a whole host of birds, practically outside my room - but also trails of varying lengths leading into pristine rainforest. While the centre offers 'guided' night walks, night drives and a sunrise experience (seeing the mist clear over the canopy from a high point), all worthwhile, there is not much interpretation from the 'guides', who just take you around for the activity (language can be an issue as well). For the the day forays on the trails into the forest, you are pretty much on your own, and unless you are experienced with jungle navigation (and even if you are not), you might want to buddy up and not get lost together (the former advice I did not take, but found my way around well enough to tell the tale!). 

Overlooking the rainforest canopy at sunrise

Danum Valley Field Centre

The field centre offers double rooms, dorms and tented accommodation and my room turned out spartan, but comfortable enough, but more importantly felt well connected with the outside environment. The centre in well visited by international tourists and had a cosmopolitan vibe. They take special requests for vegetarian meals and turned out surprising tasty (expectations prior to the visit was of a very remote location, but turned out not the case), with dedicated mains for lunch and dinner. 


Quite a resorty location and nothing of value that I can add for a better natural history experience. I stayed at the relatively fancy Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, which was nice after the simpler fare over the past week or so. 

*All this information from 2014 and not quite sure of relevance/accuracy as on date