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The Narcondam Hornbill

The Narcondam Hornbill

Ashfaq Ahmed Zarri recounts his experience of studying the elusive forest bird, the Narcondam Hornbill, endemic to the Narcondam  island in the Andamans.

Narcondam Hornbills
Photo Courtesy: BNHS.

Gangadevi, the Coast Guard ship that had brought us from Port Blair, slowed just as the captain signalled the arrival of our destination. As it anchored at a safe distance, taking care to avoid the submerged cliffs near the island, I waited with bated breath for my first glimpse of Narcondam. It rose like a pyramid in the water. I had visions of what lay ahead and was overcome with anticipation. I had read that: “Narcondam, a tiny island in the easternmost Andaman waters derives its name from a Hindi word ‘narak’ meaning hell”. What lay before me was, in every sense, a paradise crafted with loving care by Mother Nature.

We transferred to the Gemini, a motorboat that whisked us speedily to the western side of the island, a small, rocky beach strewn with pebbles and boulders. Wading waist deep along the shore and balancing on the slippery boulders, policemen from the lookout post held the Gemini steady for us against the current. Informed of our arrival, they helped us disembark.

I was finally in Narcondam and more than anything else, I wanted to get down to the task of working on that little-known bird, the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami, which I was there with our team to study. Since the collection of the first hornbill specimen in 1873, just a handful of naturalists including Humayun Abdulali, S.A. Hussain and Dr. Ravi Sankaran have even visited this island. Consequently, very little information is available about the status of populations, their ecological circumstances and behavioural patterns. Our job was to study this forest bird and fill in some of the gaps.

VOYAGE TO AN OASIS

We were a two-member team – Prof. H.S.A. Yahya, my ornithology professor during my post-graduate studies in wildlife science, and myself. The professor was a staunch discipleof the late Dr. Salim Ali and I looked forward to putting the collective learning of such enlightened minds to work in the field. The moment we reached our campsite, we heard scores of unfamiliar bird calls from the dense crown of the tall trees that surrounded us. Though many of these have common-sounding names and are also found on the mainland, quite a few are endemics, found here and nowhere else on Earth.

Green Imperil Pigeons cooed and brilliantly-coloured Olive-backed Sunbirds flitted through the dark forest like kaleidoscopic pulsars, while Alexandrine Parakeets raucously screeched their opposition to our intrusion. A casual stroll around the island revealed an amazing variety of lifeforms including skinks and water monitor lizards. The colburine amphibious sea snake Laticuda colubrina is common along the shores and land crabs could be seen everywhere. A slight drizzle saw the land crabs raiding the forest floor, noisily crushing dead leaves with strong claws. Colourful butterflies, noisy cicadas, coral-strewn shores, and shells of every possible hue fought for our attention on each exploration. The nights were particularly absorbing. The silence and stillness, soaring breezes, sequined skies and the sheer blackness of the night will remain in our memories forever. Equally spellbinding were the moments before dawn. A wooden ‘denghi’ boat ferried us over crystal waters to reveal corals and multi-coloured fish, the likes of which I had never seen.

HORNBILL MAGIC

But we were there for hornbills and we quickly got down to our task, which, as it turns out, was easier said than done!

Narcondam is an extinct volcano, clothed with sparse dry forest, which rises steeply to a central peak. Hornbills are present throughout the island except south and southeast of the hills. We understood just why the inaccessibility of the island had been a major deterrence to any study of the birds as we began our climb to the summit where nests of the Narcondam Hornbill had been recorded. We had to negotiate impossibly dense thickets, which had weathered cyclone after cyclone that had surely flattened generations of trees. Yet, from the debris, new life had sprung up. Canes and thorny creepers, locally called ‘billy kanta’ entwined with luxuriant flowering trees whose canopies rose up to the heavens. In the dark and impenetrable undercover, afternoons seemed more like dusk. Once we reached the summit, the vegetation changed dramatically and we were able to get stunning views of the Andaman Sea.

This was March and breeding was in full swing. Our make-shift machaans in front of nesting trees enabled us to record the breeding behaviour of our subjects. The Narcondam Hornbill is a spectacularly beautiful bird with a green-glossed, black body and white tail. We identified the male with its rufous head and neck, blue circumorbital skin, bluish-white pouch and the yellowish-white bill with a dash of crimson at the base. The female has a black head and neck and dark olive-brown iris as compared to the red in the male.

While some of the birds were busy nesting, others often flocked to the large fig trees at dawn and dusk. The breeding biology of this amazing bird is fascinating.

The Narcondam Hornbill’s nest is essentially a tree hole spacious enough to shelter the mother and the chicks. The opening of the nest hole is roughly 10 to 15 cm., and is sealed from inside, leaving just a narrow slit from which the mother can accept food from her loyal mate. Ficus fruit is the major component of their diet, but anything goes in the hornbill world including other fruits, mantids, spiders and even crabs. The female sits with her tail held vertically up, and moults her feathers, which make a soft, downy bedding for her eggs and chicks. The female cleans the nest after every feeding visit by the male, tossing out the excreta with her long beak. Such droppings at the base of chosen trees are characteristic of an in-residence nest. If for any reason the male fails to get food for his mate and his family imprisoned in the nest, they will die.

We observed the male starting his trips between the fruiting and nesting trees at the crack of dawn. An assortment of fruits, mainly figs, would be presented. The fruit would be held in his gullet and then regurgitated one by one and held in his bill tip. At times, the female would refuse to accept the food, leading the male to repeatedly cajole her into accepting his offerings. Accepted fruits would be served to the chicks that would beg aggressively the moment their father arrived. Once the feeding was over, the male would clean his beak a few times, preen for a moment, and take off again for the next feeding trip, to the accompaniment of that characteristic hornbill call: “kok..kok..kok.. ..ko..ko..ko  ko ko ko.” The calls of the male, female and the begging chicks in the nest, together with the clearly visible heaps of excreta at the base of nesting trees made our surveys for more nests much easier than one might imagine. Все категории порно анала по ссылке http://kinosalo.com/categories/anal - это известный порно сайт с 10 000 анального секс видео.

We noted seven tree species used for nesting and a majority of the nests were on lower reaches, below 100 m. The low-lying areas of the island are mostly home to the older birds (identified by the many chevrons on the casque) and these areas seem to have more fruit trees and bigger nest sites. The young birds were seen in the upper areas. A clutch usually contains two eggs and both chicks fledged successfully, in contrast to most other large hornbills where raising one chick is the norm.

CONSERVATION NEEDS

We counted 424 birds and recorded 20 active nests on the island. S.A. Husain had estimated the population to be around 400 and counted nine nests based on a 24-day study in March-April, 1973. In 1998, Dr. Ravi Sankaran estimated around 68 to 85 breeding pairs and a population between 295 and 320 birds. This suggests that the population has been fairly stable. We could identify no specific predator of the hornbill on the island. The water monitor, a fairly common reptile on Narcondam is known to steal eggs and probably poses some threat to the birds. In view of the island’s size, the hornbill population seems to be stable as of now. But the birds are susceptible to events such as climate change, rise in sea level and disease. Oceanic islands are at a greater risk than land-based Protected Areas and considering the isolation of Narcondam and the weak flight of the hornbill, we must all fear for the future of the birds. Over the past 400 years, 93 per cent of all species and subspecies that became extinct were island dwellers. Only the strictest possible protection of their habitat can assure their long-term survival.

It is not always immediately apparent what will pose a threat to island species. Pigs, sheep and chickens released on Narcondam during the 19th century to help shipwrecked sailors who themselves did not survive! Goats were introduced by the police posted here in 1976 and predictably these domestic animals began consuming the natural woodlands and impeded natural regeneration.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Ravi Sankaran of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, the A&N Government moved feral goats off the island. But some goats can still be found and moving them out must be our highest priority if we wish to safeguard the ecology of this fragile habitat. The creation of the camp and the plantation next to it has degraded two to three hectares of forest. Cutting trees for fuel and even hunting of hornbills for meat have been reported. Given the range and population size of the Narcondam Hornbill, even infinitesimal changes can have a catastrophic effect.

Narcondam, like other islands in the Andamans, is breathtakingly beautiful and is colonised by colourful butterflies, noisy cicadas, coral-strewn shores, and shells of every possible hue. Photo: Ashfaq Ahmed Zarri.

India has had over three decades of very enlightened conservation policies. Today, we cannot allow any drift to threaten the future of birds like the Narcondam Hornbill or Jerdon’s Courser (see Sanctuary Vol. XXVI No. 3, April 2006). Hopefully, with every passing day, the future of this beautiful bird and its small island home will grow more, not less secure.

Island Sanctuary

Narcondam, a volcanic Island, is one 500 odd islands and is part of the North Andaman Group. It is a densely wooded, solitary island, with an altitude of 750 m., and located approximately 70 miles off Port Blair towards Myanmar. It is a part of same submerged line of hills that includes the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Measuring only 6.8 sq. km area, it hosts an amazing biodiversity. The Island was uninhabited till 1968, when the Government of India made the first lookout post. It was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary under the Wildlife (Protection) Act in February 1977 to protect the endemic Narcondam Hornbill. The Narcondam Hornbill has one of the smallest natural ranges of any bird species and is listed as Vulnerable by BirdLife International. It is one of nine hornbill species distributed in India and is one of the smaller hornbill species, a little over 46 cm. (check) The Island has recently been identified as an Important Bird Area, by the Bombay Natural History Society and BirdLife International UK. It has only one source of drinking water located around two kilometres from the campsite, from where it is tapped and stored in the large cement tanks. During their three months rotational duty on the Island, the outposted staff of 18 policemen thrive mainly on the vegetables and fruit cultivated around the camp. They often fish and enjoy the country liquor 'tadi' made from coconut trees.

HORNBILLS

The ferocity of their fierce faces was accentuated by the upturned, bristling tiger cat's teeth which protruded from every ear; while the long feathers of the Argus pheasant waving from their war-caps, the brilliant colors of their war-coats trimmed with the black and white feathers of the hornbill , and the strange devices upon their gaudy shields but added to the savagery of their appearance as they danced and howled, menacing and intimidating, in the path of the charging foe.

The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It was way back in 1599 AD that medieval author Aldrovandus described and figured Rhinoceros avis. The generic name Buceros (Latin meaning 'having ox's horns') was, however, given by Carl Linnaeus to the Great Pied Hornbill Buceros bicornis. Following the convention, the same word was used to name the hornbill order Bucerotiformes and the principle family Becerotidae. Hornbill is a group of large forest and savannah birds restricted to old world tropics and comprise around 54 species. Their conspicuousness, together with special elements of their biology, such as the female sealing herself into the nest cavity, has long attracted attention and not surprisingly, they feature prominently among the cultures, emblems, lores and ceremonies of human societies.

Most hornbills occupy forests and need old growth trees for nesting (except two ground hornbills that excavate their own chamber in an earth bank). With forests under tremendous pressure, hornbill populations have declined around the world.

Author: Ashfaq Ahmed Zarri, First Published in Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXVl, No. 3, June 2006.

 
 
 

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