Bombax Ceiba – One Tree, A Universe By Raman Kulkarni
is a universe unto itself. Also known as the red silk cotton tree, semul, Indian kapok or Indian cottonwood, this deciduous tree’s open, red, cup-shaped, nectar-rich flowers are a huge draw for birds and insects between January and March. In return, the flowers are pollinated by its visitors. No one loses. Fallen flowers are consumed by sambar and chital. Once the morning rush of birds winds down, Hanuman langurs take over around noon. They eat up whole flower buds and carelessly crush quite a few flowers! But none of this damages the forest. In fact, the service of dispersing seeds ends up enhancing the quality and capacity of the forest.
Interestingly, the large flowers usually appear when the tree is leafless. The flowers hold numerous stamens and generally open up soon after midnight. Birds fascinate me and the cottonwood tree even more so. So much so that I tend to spend hours sitting unobstrusively, often without even taking a photograph. During quiet hours spent by the tree, I noticed that birds not only visit the flowers for nectar but also for the water that collects in them! This process winds up with pollen grains sticking to their rough beak surfaces. The seeds are later transferred and dispersed.
I have been visiting the Chandoli National Park (now part of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve), and am awestruck by the striking beauty of the Bombax ceiba, which in truth is not even an original forest species of the Western Ghats. The tree is more commonly found close to human habitation and on roadsides. There are just two Bombax trees in Zolambi, the tourism zone of the national park, and these are in full bloom in February and March. Over seven years, I have been able to photograph 24 different species of birds just on these two trees. The Chandoli National Park, of course, has as many as 275 bird species of which 13 are endemic to the Western Ghats. Here are some of ‘my’ birds:
White-bellied Drongo Dicrurus caerulescens
The conspicuous white belly makes this an easy bird to identify. An insect eater, it mimics the calls of other birds. Given half a chance, it will also take small birds. Large Bombax and Erythrina flowers, stocked with nectar, are favoured by these assertive birds.
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus
Feeding primarily on seeds and insects, it is often seen in small flocks either roosting or flying about in search of food. It feeds on the nectar of Bombax, Erythrina, rhododendron and other seasonal flowers. Quite noisy, the call of this Himalayan species is often mistaken for the bleating of a goat kid!
Purple Sunbird Nectarinia asiatica
A specialised nectar feeder, this sparrow-sized bird positions itself on a branch and uses its slender, curved beak to suck nectar. It supplements its diet with insects, spiders and fruit. The breeding male has a shiny, iridescent purple-blue-black coat with a crimson tuft and yellow feathers while the female is a dull brown with pale-yellow under parts. It has a high pitched call.
Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus
These entertaining birds chose to visit the trees in the mid-morning. They would often be joined by Common Blackbirds, Black Bulbuls and Jungle Babblers. Resident frugivores common in Asia, they feed on insects and nectar. The distinctive crest, red-vent and whiskers make them easy to identify and they are common in both hill forests and urban gardens.
Indian Golden Oriole Oriolus kundoo
Found in southern and central Asia, this bird was earlier classified as a subspecies of the Eurasian Golden Oriole, but has now been elevated to a full species on the basis of differences in morphology, plumage, calls and the fact that the two do not interbreed. Its name is derived from the Latin ‘aureolus’ meaning golden – an apt name for the brilliant yellow-coloured male bird, which feeds on fruits, nectar and insects. The female, seen here, is not as brightly coloured.
Indian Lorikeet Loriculus vernalis
The Indian Lorikeet or Vernal Hanging Parrot is a resident breeder found in India, Nepal and other parts of Southeast Asia. It follows the availability of fruits, seeds, buds and blossoms. A tiny bird (just 13 to 14 cm.), it sports a short tail and its bright green colouration makes it difficult to spot in the dappled canopies it inhabits.
White-cheeked Barbet Megalaima viridis
The White-cheeked Barbet is endemic to the Western Ghats. Primarily frugivorous, it will also readily feed on winged termites and other insects and will sometimes forage for nectar. This bird excavates small cavities with round entry holes in old-growth trees and its young are born between December and July.
Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus
This handsome bird pays a quick visit to the tree, sips a little nectar and then quickly flies away. Its yellow-green plumage, red eyes and bill and characteristic jet-black head, throat and upper breast make it easy to identify. It is widespread across India.
Malabar Parakeet Psittacula columboides
Malabar Parakeets were constant visitors to the tree and made a striking contrast against the bright red flowers. The birds seem to expend considerable effort to reach the nectar at the base of the flowers. Their beaks are probably not really equipped for this task because they wind up tearing open the flower from the base to feed on the nectar.
Common Blackbird Turdus merula
It breeds in temperate Eurasia, North Africa, the Canary Islands and South Asia. An omnivorous bird, it hunts insects, earthworms, small vertebrates and also thrives on seeds and berries.
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
Located on top of a deep valley, the Bombax tree photographed here does not receive the morning rays of the sun until around seven a.m. The first visitor to the tree is invariably the Ashy Drongo, which is attracted not by the tree’s nectar but by the honeybees and other insects that flock to feed on it. A quarrelsome and terrestrial bird, it is adept at chasing off other birds visiting the tree.
Brahminy Myna Sturnia pagodarum
Also known as the Brahminy Starling, this creamy-orange bird has a black cap and a slight crest. Usually seen in pairs or small flocks in open habitats, it is omnivorous, and prefers fruits and insects, though it will consume anything it can easily overpower. Bombax, Butea monosperma and Erythrina provide it with an ample supply of nectar. It roosts communally in large aggregations in leafy trees, often in the company of parakeets and other mynas.
Yellow-throated Sparrow Petronia xanthocollis
Made famous by the legendary Dr. Sálim Ali, this bird is also known as the Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. It feeds largely on grains but is adept at hunting insects and supplements its diet with nectar and berries. When it visits flowers, its forehead can often be seen dusted with pollen.
Golden-fronted Leafbird Chloropsis aurifrons
In its verdant canopy, this bird boasts as good an example of camouflage as anyone could ever hope to see. On this tree, however, it was exquisitely contrasted against the red flowers in the early morning sunlight. Insects, fruits and nectar make up much of its diet.
A commercial artist by profession, Raman Kulkarni is photo-documenting the biodiversity of the northern Western Ghats.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII No. 2, April 2012.