The day began early as it usually does in Arunachal Pradesh – we were up at 4:00 am to go into the forest to watch a Wreathed hornbill nest tree. It was 17th July and time for the chick to fledge from the nest. The previous day, Kumar and Khem Thapa, long-time NCF field staff had noted that the seal was broken and the chick was peeping out, ready to come out. Rohit Naniwadekar, my colleague and Khem had found this nest earlier in the year and this was numbered as WH45. The nest was on a Tetrameles nudiflora (Bhelu); around 90% of hornbill nest trees in Pakke Tiger Reserve are on this emergent wind-dispersed softwood species. We wanted to reach the nest early, to be there in time for the male’s first feeding visit.
Khem, Sital Dako and I left the basecamp around 4:30 am, as it takes about an hour’s walk to reach the nest. It was about an hour’s walk to reach the nest. In the rainy season, the unmetalled road in the park is not motorable beyond a certain distance. It was dark and a cloudy day. It started pouring soon after we reached around 5:45 am.
We sat hiding under our camouflage covers, sitting uncomfortably on some plastic sheets, far away from the nest tree and set up the tripod and fixed the camera. The chick was visible, peeping, its head hanging out.
Throughout that day, we sat and watched the chick periodically peeping and checking out the world, retreating inside, regurgitating large seeds, turning his back to the cavity entrance to defecate pulp and fig seeds, making begging calls and eating the fruits/insects offered by the male. The male came several times to feed the chick.
We kept hoping that the chick would come out so we could film the actual exit. It did not oblige. We had not eaten at all as we had assumed that the chick would come out early and we would be back in the basecamp by noon. Thanks to mobile phones working in the forest, we could call our other staff Kumar and Tali Nabam to bring some food for us. They came quite happily also hoping to see it come out. We sat cramped through the day in the wet forest on the meagre covers till 4 pm when it started pouring very heavily. The chick did not come out that day. What was surprising was that the female was nowhere to be seen. Usually, in the Wreathed hornbill, the female and chick come out together on the same day. We wondered why the female had exited the nest earlier and where she was and whether she was alright. We watched this nest for over 10 hours and the hours seemed long as nothing much happened and we ended up with many pictures and videos of the chick and some of the male. The most exciting thing was seeing the chick turn around with his bum to the entrance to defecate!
The next day, we had a meeting with the hornbill nest protectors’ team in the village (of the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program) and no one could visit the nest. On 19th July, when Khem and Kumar went to check the nest again, the chick had gone. Till today, it remains a mystery why that chick was so reluctant to emerge from the nest – I wonder whether it was just that he did not like the wet cold forest outside and much preferred the safety of his relatively drier nest cavity. We hope he did come out eventually.
Hornbills are creatures that are born twice – once when they hatch from the egg and second when they emerge from a long time spent deep inside the dark recesses of tree cavities.
The Wreathed hornbills have the longest nesting cycle among the hornbill species found in the low-elevation forests in Pakke. Their nesting cycle ranges from 125-140 days (female entry to chick exit). Towards the end of the breeding season, our field staff regularly monitor the active nests every 1-3 days to determine whether they were successful. In the past, our main purpose was observing and recording the data. We did not have the best of cameras for recording hornbills at nests. The timing of hornbill chick fledging also coincides with the peak monsoon rains and our observation spots are located far from the nest trees as we are careful not to disturb the birds. However, in the last two years with better cameras and staff trained in photography and video-documentation, we can now obtain exciting videos and photos.
Two years later almost to the exact day in July 2018, there was way more drama and excitement while watching another Wreathed hornbill nest in Pakke TR where the chick was about to fledge. This was a nest which we had been observing since 2009 and known as WH4. The cavity was on a Altingia excelsa tree (Borpat), another emergent wind-dispersed tree used for nesting by hornbills. I was in Bangalore and was receiving Whats app messages from Khem and Tali. The female had come out the previous day and the adult pair was hanging around near the nest tree. Khem and Tali were watching the chick peeping out of the tree, getting ready to fledge; it was 121 days after the female had entered and sealed the nest cavity. They sent me some pictures of the chick peeping out from the nest as it showed up in the camera’s viewfinder.
All good, and I was happy receiving the real-time news even though I could not be there. Suddenly I got a message from Tali saying that “wh4 no mein hmlok abi Beth raha tha bacha nikalne wala tha toh achanak mein Malaingents squarel guske bacha mardiya“. It took me a few seconds to understand that he meant the Malayan giant squirrel. Apparently as they were waiting for the chick to appear, it had appeared and gone into the nest. And it had eaten the chick. I was somewhat mystified because Malayan giant squirrels don’t hunt and kills birds or mammals, they are seed predators and eat bark, leaves, flower buds. Strange are the ways of nature, I was thinking!
A little later, we realised that what they had seen was a yellow-throated marten. It had appeared out of nowhere and entered the open nest (seal had been broken since the female had exited) – all they heard was sounds from inside the nest. In their excitement and because they had only had a brief glimpse of the creature before it went into the nest they had written saying it was a Malayan giant squirrel.
The adult pair watched from nearby and called in alarm and the female flew in once to the nest to drive away the marten which failed. Tali and Khem were very upset and they tried banging the tree trunk below to make the marten leave. After a few while, the marten possibly startled by the noise came out of the nest and left. The chick died inside the nest. Tali and Khem were quite disconsolate at seeing what they called a ‘murder’ at the nest. Khem said in all his years in the forest he had not seen such a terrible murder happen in front of his eyes.
For a while after that day, they would not look at that nest tree whenever they passed it while walking along that path. It’s understandable for them to feel so sad at the outcome just as the chick was about to fledge, as they had watched over that nest for 121 days. But in nature, this is bound to happen and predation of hornbill chicks does happen occasionally.
Six months later, when our team had climbed the nest in the winter months (non-breeding season) to check the cavity and retrieve a small i-button cell that had been placed there to record the temperature and humidity inside the nest, they found nothing but bones and an old feather.
We worried that the hornbill pair would not use the nest cavity because of the shock of the predation that had happened. But fortunately, they nested and the female came out first.
And the chick fledged successfully this year.
Rohit and our field team were there to record it. Needless to say, it was a happy team this time, with smiles all round after a successful delivery.
The few incidents we have seen of predation at nests remind us that hornbills are quite vulnerable inside the nests and points to why the unique nest-sealing behaviour of hornbills may have evolved.
In July 2018, a week or so after the predation event at WH4, in the Papum Reserved Forest, Nest Protector Budhiram Tai had been watching over a Wreathed Hornbill nest (WHD3) every day.
He was expecting the chick might fledge any day and he did not want to miss it. His efforts paid off, 118 days after the female’s nest entry. Around 5 am, he observed the male on a feeding visit at the nest.
It came back with fruits within half an hour.
The female broke the seal and exited the nest at 5:50 am. And in this case, the chick also attempted to leave the nest soon after. But instead of flying off, it fell out plummeting towards the ground. Budhiram has a shaky blurry video of it. When Budhiram went to look for the chick around the nest tree later, there was no sign of it. When hornbill chicks come out of the nest, at times they ‘fall’ down into the understorey. But usually after some time, they hop up and reunite with the parents. We assume that though Budhiram could not locate it, the chick was fine and managed to eventually fly under the close supervision of its parents.
All photos without credits are taken by the author.