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HindustanTimes Thu,23 Oct 2014

EYE OF THE NEEDLE

Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times   August 16, 2014
First Published: 22:47 IST(16/8/2014) | Last Updated: 09:22 IST(17/8/2014)

When walking through the Sukhna Lake Nature Trail, one is besieged by caterpillars of the Geometridae moths that hang down on slender white threads from kikar trees. Some fall on the ground and move forward in a peculiar manner. These loopers or inchwords or earthmeasurers make a peculiar loop while traversing because of absence of legs in their middle portion. This mode of locomotion makes it appear as if loopers were measuring the earth with each step! However, last week, I stumbled upon this spectacular fellow with dazzling colours and menacing 'eyes'.EYE OF THE NEEDLE


It was also moving forward among a litter of Geometridae caterpillars and identified as the larva of the fruit-piercing moth (Eberidae: Eudocima sp.). But don't be fooled by the fake eyes: these are effected as a deadly mimicry to deter predators! This larva will grow into a moth with an attractive array of colours. But that is where it ceases to be harmless to human interests. According to an expert, Bob Taylor: "The moth occurs around the world in the tropics. It is an agricultural pest causing damage to any sort of fruit such as bananas, mangoes, citrus and lychees, by piercing the fruit with its strong proboscis in order to suck the juice. It feeds at night and attacks unripe as well as ripe fruit. The hole pierced by the moth allows entry of fungi and other agents which cause the fruit to rot prematurely."

PHEW! WHAT A CHICK!
The underdeveloped parks and residential colonies fronting Saketri on the outskirts of Chandigarh yield a rich harvest of bird sightings. But I was flummoxed by a set of four chicks frozen still and in full exposure on a dusty path that meanders through a park and across a wiry, seasonal nullah. The path is traversed by humans, dogs and buffaloes, the latter feeding on grasses and shrubs alongside. At first glance from a distance, I thought it was a colourful, patterned snake but when I got up close, I discovered these to be chicks huddled together as forlorn orphans. There was a dog lounging nearby but fortunately he had not noticed the chicks. There were buffaloes, whose heavy hooves would have squashed the chicks in a second. So, I removed the chicks from the path and secured them in a bush about two yards from the path. I guess these had been abandoned or their father killed because I never got to see the parent bird that day or subsequently in my rambles.

I sought the expertise of Dr Surya Prakash, a well-known birder from Delhi and a zoologist. Though Dr Prakash initially mistook tEYE OF THE NEEDLEhe identity of the chicks as those of a pheasant tailed jacana from the photograph I sent him, he later established their identity correctly as those of the Greater Painted snipe. Now, this a fascinating fellow...errr...Ma'm! It was first discovered at Saketri by wildlife photographer, Sarabjit Lehal, but these four chicks constituted the first breeding record from the area. Lehal observes that an adult snipe is "extremely furtive. It used to just sit down on the spot whenever it suspected any sound or movement and then would not move for a long time. More than any bird I have seen."


The snipe was once a gamebird for hunters in pursuit of waterfowl. But the legendary birdman Dr Salim Ali, who was a keen hunter himself, did not fancy this snipe much. "Affects reed-covered swamps, margins of jheels and tanks and inundated paddy fields. Largely crepuscular. Often flushed when snipe shooting, but it is a feeble and clumsy flier, indifferent as a table bird and hardly worth powder and shot," wrote Dr Ali.

The snipe is one of those few birds where the females are lovelier (and larger) than the males (reverse sexual dimorphism). But fortunately enough, that is where the similarity with humans seems to taper! According to Dr Ali: "The female is polyandrous and pugnacious as in Bustard quails and is the dominant sex partner. She battles with rival females for the possession of successive husbands, and once secured and eggs laid, leaves him the onus of incubating them and raising the chicks. Meanwhile, she sets out to make fresh conquests." Phew!

Quite a kamasutra couple when it comes to foreplay and an ecstatic climax! H Daniel Wesley's research on the breeding behaviour of this snipe throws up the following account: "The female preens the breast and the shoulder for a considerable time and then proceeds to take a few steps lateral to the male's lying position...At this, the male moves out to another location to stand and preen or to stride forward...(baths follow, ritual variations on the same theme continue, and finally copulation when the female leads and chooses the spot to bed down)...On the dismounting of the male (post-copulation), both froze in an 'ecstatic' posture, head lowered and bill directed down and backward, the dorsum sloping forward." Oohs & aahs!

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