Saturday, September 1, 2012

Salim Ali and Birds of Odisha

Early in the morning a few weeks ago, a tall, 61-year-old man in crisp khakis, carrying a 16-gauge Greener shotgun, stepped from a bungalow in the Indian forest of Orissa and went bird stalking. At his side were a soignée American woman and a short, bearded, similarly khaki-clad and armed man. A little while out on their morning's march and the party halted. A bird call. Field glasses are raised toward the dense foliage. A hand points. Yes. There. The tall man raises his gun, a practiced ease in the gesture. One shot. A small bird falls through the green bamboo. S. Dillon Ripley II, accompanied by his wife, Mary, and Dr.Salim AN, his fellow author of the ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, has taken another important study specimen.

While going through the Book “ Salim Ali – India’s Birdman” , I felt elated reading that the Magnum opus “ Ten Volume -Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan” was a product of detailed bird studies conducted by Dr Salim Ali and S Dillon Ripley  in Melghat, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and forested Hills of Similipal. Did I read it correct? I re-read. If that was the case then why no one has written in details on that trip to Similipal. What exactly was found out? Where is the checklist of the birds that they recorded in that trip to magnificent forests of Northern Odisha?  Which are the areas in Similipal they covered and what all happened?  I mean their reaction, their whole experience and comments. Any diary entry, any note, any person who was part of the trip? That urge to find out more on that trip made me restless.  Some fanatic searches made on Internet, a trip to the Field Director’s Office in Baripada, some calls made to different people who were some way or the other linked to Dr.Ali’s trip. Here is a brief write-up on his Ornithological experience in the forests of Odisha.

Dr.Salim Ali’s first trip to Odisha was perhaps in 1947. Then another trip was made to the state during 1948-49. But it was the Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti) and Jerdon Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus)that made Dr. Ali and Ripley visit the state in 1975 again. 1975’s search for the two birds was futile. They tried their best in the hills of Similipal, Sambalpur/ Burla, Badrama/Bamra, Tikarpada/ Satkosia. Some specimen preserved at Smithsonian Museum suggests that they also were in Phulbani but whether that was in regard to Athene blewetti or a regular bird recording trip is what is inconclusive.

Valentine Ball (The British geologist) reported Forest Owlet from the forests of Sambalpur and Khariar in 1877-78. This is the eastern most range of the particular Owlet Specie recorded in India with Tapti basin being the western most. The Khandesh region (Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary and parts of Melghat Tiger Reserve) in Maharashtra and present day Central Chattisgarh region is the connecting link between the extremes of the habitat range of the elusive bird. Ripley and Ali searched the Owlet in the eastern most range in Padampur area of Bargarh (erstwhile Sambalpur)during the 1975 trip. Few miles away along the Mahanadi River, efforts were made to trick out the Owlet out of their habitats but with no positive result. In the evenings, tape recorders with calls of Athene brama, Bubo and Otus were used. Spotted Owlets responded to the calls and came out flying in the focus of flash light, perching on the nearby branches but Forest Owlet eluded them (if at all they were present in the area).Number of responses from Athene brama in the later part of February was more compared to the beginning of the month in line with breeding season of the particular owlet which normally starts with summer.Some of the other Owl species that were heard but not sighted were Bubo coromandus (Dusky Eagle Owl) and Glaucidium radiatum (Jungle Owlet).

In Similipal, their search continued for three weeks in Chahala and other localities. One of the observation as noted by Ripley was regarding the Planned Silviculture in these forests of Mayurbhanj. Over a period of time it has resulted in dominance of Sal over the whole forest patch resulting in a monotonous plant variety. The monoculture state of Similipal has resulted in lesser diversified species of birds. List of birds sighted in the Sal canopies during the trip has been mentioned below (this list does not include the common variety of birds such as Crows, Shrikes and Wagtails). 

Some of the nullahs and patches where dominance of Sal is less, there is presence of miscellaneous variety of forests with some fruiting trees.  Some of the notable trees as observed were  Terminalias, Bombax, Cassia fistula, Adina, Erythrina and Dillenia. This is where the diversity of avi-fauna life in Similipal was noted by the duo. The Sal dominance was not that much during 1947-1948 trip. Both Ripley and Dr. Ali were startled by the less number of sightings in the Sal patches but were equally impressed by the bird activities along the stream beds and in the remaining patches of miscellaneous forests. Flowering trees like Indigofera left alongside the roads attracted a lot of sunbirds. One of the striking observations they made was regarding the presence of Himalayan Foothill species of birds like Picuscanus, Pycnonotusmelanicterus, Stachyrisruficeps, Macronousgularisin the hills of Similipal.

Some of the specimens collected during this trip to Orissa by the duo and stored at Smithsonian Library are:


On one of my trips to Similipal in 2013, I was told that their favourite spots for fixing the mist nets was just behind the forest bungalow in Upper Barhakamuda and in & around the Chahala Range office. Some of the older staff like Shri Baiju Majhi ( Range Officer, Jenabil) recall those days when birds would be skinned and hung in the wires in front of the UBK Bungalow. Those were the numerous specimens collected from the hills of Similipal.
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Another account of Salim Ali’s visit to Satkosia and Similipal has been given by Late Balabhadra Prasad Das (Ex Forest Officer). As per him Dr. Ali was in Tikarpada of Purunakote Range in search of the “rare” Quail (I suppose Himalayan Quail). On lunch table it was decided that search should continue at Similipal which also abodes somewhat Himalayan foothill vegetation.Driving through the hair pin bends and serpentine rocky roads, the team comprising of Mr. Das, Dr. Ali and Mr. G M Dash ( Ex-Chief Wildlife Warden Orissa)reached the top of Meghasani ( second highest peak in the hills of Similipal). Dr. Ali’s enthusiasm and never ending craze for the birds made him reach the cliff edge of Meghasani from where he wanted to have a proper view of the vegetation. A fatal fall was avoided when G M Dash caught hold of Dr. Ali who was on the verge of slipping from the cliff situated at a height of 3000ft. The search was not fruitful but before leaving Similipal, Dr.Ali gave a proper description of the Quail with the habitation type to be looked for and the call to be focused on.  The status of the “rare” Quail till date is unconfirmed. Later part of the trip was planned for Chilika. In between they made a stop at Nandankanan where they sighted a rare courtship and mating scene of a Lion couple. On an another visit to the zoo during 1980s, Dr Ali had made a remark in the Guest Book that signages of the cages should also be there in Vernacular Language i.e. Oriya in larger interest of the visitors. They visited Chilika as per the plan wherein Dr. Ali passed on a remark,We are at Chilika, the greatest wetland of Indian continent: the largest wintering ground for varieties of water fowls of national and international origin”.

It was Dr.Saroj Raj Choudhary’s close friendship with Salim Ali and a genuine concern and love for the Tigress Khairi that also made the later come to forests of Similipal time and again.  He used to be very much concerned whenever Khairi was away from the sight after dusk. In-fact during the camps of 1975 in Chahala, Upper Barakhamda and wherever Salim Ali had gone while searching for the Blewett’s Owlet, Khairi had accompanied them. The tigress became very friendly with him and was very fond of sleeping on his bed whenever he was out for birding. One night at Badrama’s forest rest house near Sambalpur, Khairi slept under Salim Ali’s bed pushing aside his gun case and other field equipments.  In 1977, when Salim Ali had come to Similipal to see Khairi along with Duleep Matthai ( Ex Vice Chairman of IIFM, Dehradun), the young tigress perhaps recognized Salim Ali and was able to recall those good old days spent with the Bird Man two years back. Sniffing him, brushing alongside the legs, she greeted him which was not the case with Mr Matthai. Dr Ali was also one of the strong supporters for the Khairi Wildlife Institute that was being mulled at Jashipur. The Institute never materialized, thanks to disinterest shown by the then Forest bureaucrats/ Politicians of the state in charge of the affairs at that point of time. Funds collected from many well-wishers (including Salim Ali) from India and outside the country were returned back.

Tigress Khairi with her meal

During the 1978-79 trip to Similipal, Salim Ali was in Similipal for couple of days along with Dr.Choudhary, Dilnaaz Variava ( by then she had resigned as CEO of WWF India and was in BNHS Executive Committee), Suresh Mishra ( the then Asst Conservator of Forests). When Dr. Ali mooted the idea of visiting Similipal to Dilnaaz for the sheer reason that Dr.Saroj Chaudhary was an authority on Tiger and there was so much to learn from him, she was amazed by the passion of Dr.Ali towards grabbing new things on Wildlife at an age of 82. Following are the memoirs of Dilnaaz from that trip.

We arrived at Dr.Choudhry’s residence in the morning and were met by his blind hyena that immediately began to show signs of submission. He bullied people it recognized as being low in the social hierarchy even though it was blind.  We were also greeted by Princess Khairi – who almost sent me across the room when she rubbed against me like a cat.  It was amazing to see how frightened she was of the small stick that the guard carried – not recognizing that she was now a huge tigress and no longer a small cub.  There were also two civet cats –and this whole menagerie was the object of lavish love and attention by Dr.Choudhry and his cousin. In fact Khairi was induced to eat meat by dipping it in milk powder or baby food when she did not want to eat. Dr.Salim Ali, who was himself so skinny, disapproved of how fat she was.  She tried to spray him in order to mark her territory and it was a sight to see him hopping out of her way!  At night he advised me to lock the door to avoid having a tigress land on my bed and possibly squash me.
The next day Dr.Choudhry, Dr.Salim Ali and I left for Similipal in two jeeps. I was in the front jeep with Dr.Choudhry, who had obviously selected the better jeep for us since Dr.Ali complained that his jeep sounded like a wailing widow!  We had several pleasant evenings eating simple forest fare and reading some of Dr.Salim Ali’s and my favourite poetry. He had a special liking for some of Kiplings more humorous verses.  He had a keen sense of observation and humor about all kinds of things. I recall his pointing out how , when we asked for a glass of drinking water, the  command went down the line to the lowest person responsible for such things.  

A photographic recreation of Khairi on the roads of  Barheipani  

We were in Similipal for several days and thoroughly enjoyed the forest, and the bird life, though I recall no exciting discovery. What was interesting was the excursion with Dr.Choudhry to take plaster casts of pugmarks and to learn from him how deceptive the identification process could be if the same animal had left its imprint on soil of differing consistency and moisture. We made several trips to beautiful Barheipani and along different forest paths but saw virtually no wildlife.  Dr.Salim Ali remarked on the fact that the absence of ground birds and small wildlife indicated that there was excessive trapping. We saw elephant droppings and heard a story about a person who once had stood and done Namaste to an elephant in rather worshipful fashion but had been given a swipe by the trunk of the elephant that had killed him!!

From the same trip Suresh Mishra the then Asst Conservator of Forests recalls the following from a day spent with the birdman. 
Not much of birds were seenduring the day with a remark coming from Salim Ali,“As far as Birds are concerned, this is a desert for me during afternoon”. They ended up going to cliffs of Joranda Waterfalls. A raptor diving at enormous speed from the cliff edge to the Joranda valley was the sight they were greeted with. “Shaheen Falcon (Falcus peregrinus)” exclaimed Dr. Ali.

I can sit back and just imagine how interesting those trips of Bird Man would have been to various parts of the country. Camping in deep forests, collecting specimens, spending evenings in the dimming lanterns, how interesting it must have been. No one has covered the Indian forests on foot as much as Salim Ali has done. The life of birdman remains an inspiration for many. These are the few stories and incidents that I could collect for the readers but I am sure that there would have been many more interesting observations made by DrSalim Ali during his trips to Odisha which I have not been able to gather. Hail the birdman…….

1 Khairi,The Beloved Tigress by Saroj Raj Choudhury/ Natraj Publishers 1999
2. Petronia: A Centenary dedication to Dr.Salim Ali by JC Daniel & G Ugra( BNHS/Oxford 2003)
3.Changes in the Bird Fauna of a Forest Area: S D Ripley ( JBNHSVol 75)
4 Reconsideration of Athene blewetti (Hume) : S D Ripley ( JBNHS Vol 73)
5. Ball, V. (1876) Notes on some birds collected in Sambalpur in Orissa. Stray Feathers 4: 231–237.
6. Salim Ali- India’s Birdman by ReetaDutta Gupta (Rupa 2003)

I am indebted to Mr. Kamala Lochan Purohit (Dy Director, Nandankanan) for all the help rendered , Mr. Suresh Mishra ( Ex Forest Officer )for getting me one important link based on which some parts of this article is based ,Ms Nirmala Reddy ( Librarian at BNHS)& Smithsonian University Library for getting me the articles from Archives. A special note of thanks to Dilnaaz Mam for taking out time and writing a short note on memoirs of her 1978 trip to Similipal. Last but not the least, a big “THANK YOU” to my friend Prabal Mallick for painting some wonderful sketches of Khairi. His paintings can be seen at
And how can I forget my wife who lovingly encourages me to carry on with my writings…..