Sunday, August 23, 2020

Farm Diary: The birds learn to tolerate me


As we spend more time at the farm this pandemic season the normally shy birds around here are getting accustomed to human presence, and are letting me have privileged access to their lives. Full post here

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Farm Diary: Neem's nemesis

Neem trees have almost mythical status in these parts. The wood is said to be largely termite- and pest-resistant. Neem oil has the reputation of being an extremely effective pesticide among organic ones. Neem seeds sprout in the most barren of lands here, muscle their way through the competition (mostly weeds and other brush) and establish themselves in no time. They may do a lot of things right but they have one big vulnerability. 

There's a family of parasites called Loranthus or mistletoes that seem to have Neem's number.  The seeds of the parasite usually end up on the branch of the neem tree through bird droppings. Once there, they grow roots on the branch and start to grow their own branches usually drooping down from the host's branch. For a while, because they match the colour of their host, they make the foliage look robust and healthy. Over time, though, they start to crowd out the neem's own leaves.The host's branches develop thick nodes out of which no new branches or neem leaves sprout. And then over the course of a season or two the host dies completely. 

I don't have the "before" photos but the picture above is of a neem which succumbed to Loranthus this year. As I take stock now I realise we've lost dozens of healthy trees to this blight. From my research on the net I didn't find effective ways to combat this parasite without the use of chemicals. We've been experimenting with pruning off the affected branches right after the initial infestation, and so far that seems to have worked. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Farm Diary: Nightlife in the farm

The area around our farm has a few protected state forests, but each of them is so small and fragmented that I always assumed none could shelter any megafauna within them. Many of the designated forest areas are only protected on paper, while on the ground much of that is encroached upon by the neighbouring land owners. Yet, the villagers are always talking about bears or leopards prowling around their settlements. For years I dismissed them as old wives’ tales. As I spent more time at the farm, however, the evidence of wildlife started to become clear. You’d see banana plants uprooted by unknown trespasses, termite mounds upended by what clearly look like bear claws, and the occasional exotic-looking faeces on the paths that lead to the forests.

When the monsoons set in this year, and as we were spending more time at the farm, the evidence started stacking up. These prints below left in the soft mud by a leopard mother and cub walking right outside our gate convinced me that the night-life here is more exciting than I had led myself to believe.

I got myself a camera trap to find out what happens around here at night time. The very first morning this peacock sashayed across the camera’s path.

There was a surprise visitor the next night. I had no idea that jungle cats lived around here.

A few nights later, this magnificent tusker walked on the path. Even while I was engrossed in reviewing the footage our caretaker pointed my attention to our broken fence. The elephant had walked right into our property. We reconstructed the events of the night based on the footsteps that our visitor had left behind. He had uprooted a few banana shoots, broken some branches of mango trees, but mostly had found our farm uninteresting. Then, as if to tell us who’s boss around these parts he made a new hole in the fence to get out.

Some days later it rained pretty heavily. Responding to some strange ancient instinct winged termites started pouring out of holes in the ground. That night the camera caught another exquisite visitor, a sloth bear. This one had come inside the farm too, and judging by the number of termite mounds it had opened up, had spent quite a bit of time at the property.

Meanwhile, the leopard continues to leave its pugmark around here but it seems to have this knack of evading the camera. We keep waiting.