God’s own bungalows

A hyperbolic tag-line that Kerala’s tourism department used through the 90s was “God’s own country”. This makes sense for someone in love with small towns. When I travel through Kerala I’m surprised by how densely populated it is. You can drive a hundred kilometers and see one small town lapping up against another. Coastal Kerala seems to be a single Malabari Malgudi, only arbitrarily divided into municipalities. I did not see the apartment buildings which dot the north of India. Instead there are single family homes: each a neat bungalow with some surrounding gardens. The rain-forests and their immense bio-wealth which should have earned the place the tag-line of “God’s own workshop” have fragmented and retreated into little reserves.

Traditional architecture has evolved with the times. The wooden houses with their massive teak beams are no longer affordable, so brick and concrete have replaced them. It seems to me that this is a good thing to happen, because the decreased demand for wood is a force for conservation. At the same time, a well-maintained concrete house can have a very long lifetime, so slowing the demand for new construction. The walls are topped by the traditional style of overhanging sloped roofs which offer protection against the furious monsoon that still beats down on Kerala. The front verandah also seems like a cosy place in all weathers. I could imagine myself sitting on one of those, sipping a cup of coffee, staring into the rain which obscures the tame greenery around me.

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Birds in the city

A city as crowded as Mumbai has barely enough space for people. When houses are needed, swamps and mangroves are easily filled in. When parking space is in short supply, green spaces will be even harder to come by. It is natural that human institutions, when unchecked, will satisfy human needs above all. As a result, birds are pushed to the periphery of the city. These are the spaces that no one likes to go to.

If you are not going out of the city on a weekend, you might join other enthusiasts for a boat ride in the backwaters of Mumbai. The city has turned its back to these waters long ago. They are shallow tidal creeks which are not of much use to ships and trade, and the hunger for apartment blocks has not grown so acute that they need to be filled in. The refuse of the city washes in here: plastic and other garbage, chemical pollutants. The sea breeze does not disperse the smog, so the backwaters are perpetually hazy. In spite of this, life finds a toe hold. I drifted through these parts of Mumbai yesterday with The Family and friends and came back with photos which show that birds still survive just outside human spaces.

Waiting for Strobilanthes

There are about 350 species of Strobilanthes, and some of them flower only once in several years. Last year I had gone to a plateau near Satara to see the Strobilantes sessilis in bloom; this happens once every seven years. During monsoon this year the Strobilanthes kunthiana will bloom for the first time since 2006. I reached Erivakulam national park just a few months too early for this. I was determined to take photos, so I took a photo of the bush. I’m not going to be mistaken about the flower when I go back in September.

The protected area of Erivakulam is a tiny sliver of land between tea estates, but it has an astonishing variety of Strobilanthes, called Kurinji in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I photographed several types, and you can see them in the gallery above. Unlike their famous cousins, these flower every year.

Bee-eating competition

The bridge over the Periyar river in Thattekad puts you at eye level with electricity cables running parallel to it. That makes it a great spot for bird-watchers, because so many birds like to sit on such wires. Bee eaters are probably the most colourful of these. The blue-tailed bee eater (Merops philippinus) sat there quietly, in the usual style of bee eaters, giving us ample time to click photos. I’ve seen these birds before. They are common over India, breeding in North India, and wintering in Southern India. I don’t know whether anyone in India has studied their migration in any detail or even counted their population.

As I looked at the individual whose photo you see above, the question in my mind was how it survives competition with the ubiquitous drongos of these forests, and the many mynas. I was almost sure that some ecologist would have studied this question, but I could not find an answer. These three kinds of birds eat more or less the same insects. Mynas and drongos are both aggressive feeders. They survive in the same forest although their prey base overlaps, because the overlap is rather small. Mynas eat many things which drongos don’t, and there’s also sauce for the drongo which is not saucy enough for mynas. But everything that a bee-eater eats is also prey for drongos. Moreover, bee eaters seem to spend little effort in hunting. They sit on these wires, or high up on trees, and make little sorties now and then, when an insect flies by. Theirs is a passive hunting strategy, no seeking out prey. Maybe that is the reason why they are much less common than drongos in these jungles.

Waiting at closed doors

If you travel frequently how likely is it that you spend a lot of time in one of the most beautiful airports in the world? I’m lucky enough to live in one of the frequently listed cities. What that means in practice is that I have a good enough feel for the local traffic that I can spend little time in my home airport. The result is that my airport time is mostly spent in other airports, usually in large waiting areas, staring at runways through closed doors, past the corridors that direct travelers from gate to baggage carousel. One may be interesting, but the repetition is deadening.

The Rules!

I was fully twenty minutes from the nearest toilet in Erivakulam National Park when I saw the rules posted in the featured photo. I don’t quite understand rule 6: why are people holding flowers banned from the park? Rule 1 was clear: you are not allowed to tell off a dwarf goat if it deposits its dung in the park. A related consideration is not extended to human males in rule number 4. Very specieist, (but then I’m happy that national parks are specieist) but also a little sexist. Fortunately, not having broken rule 3 (do not drink large amounts of fluids in small glasses), I did not find it hard to abide by rule 4.

I found it much harder to abide by the rules inside Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Thattekad. It was easy to avoid perfumes, since they were not lying in wait. Was I wearing colourful cloths? The Family laughed at the very idea. Even birds, which see more colours than humans, would not mistake my cloths as colourful. Item 4 was not a rule, but a suggestion which we had decided to ignore. But rule 9. That was bad. A field guide for birds, one for animals and another for plants! I wasn’t even carrying one of them. I thanked the fates that the guard at the entrance had not bothered to check my backpack. The next time around I will not test my luck.

A bird in a bonnet

Or should that be a bee in the bonnet? No, it definitely was a bird. It was small enough to be a coppersmith barbet, and sounded like one to me. I wished it would come out of the leaf which was wearing as a bonnet so that I could get a good look at it. Nosher had said something about a Malabar barbet some time back, and I hadn’t seen it. Could it be the same one? I was interested in this question because the coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) is one of the commonest barbets in Asia, whereas the Malabar barbet (Psilopogon malabaricus) is endemic to the Malabar region of the western ghats. Since we were in Urulanthanni near Thattekad in Kerala, it could be either, but I hoped that it was the one I had not seen before.

If you are a twitcher, you could be puzzled by my claim that the coppersmith barbet is a Psilopogon, whereas it is widely said to be in the genus Megalaima (for example, in my copy of the field guide by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp). The reason is that a recent study of molecular phylogeny of Asian barbets showed that Megalaima and Psilopogon are not separate phyla, and should be merged. As a result, the rule of historical precedence of names means that all Megalaima should be called Psilopogon. The study actually showed something more interesting: that the huge diversity of Asian barbets (of which there are more than 30 species today) originated more than 16 million years ago. There is also evidence that the original diversification of this lineage occurred around Borneo, Java and Sumatra (called the Sundaland), from where it spread towards India, the Himalayas and China and underwent even more speciation about 6 million years ago.

The birds of India are the true original inhabitants of the landmass. The thirty thousand years of humans pale into nothing compared to the six million years of the barbets, the ancient history of the banyan, and the fifty million years of hornbills.

A little later I found that the bird which was earlier hidden in a bonnet of leaves had hopped on to a stand of bamboos. Now that I could see it clearly I could tell by the absence of yellow on the cheeks and throat, and the solid green of its wings and breast, that it was indeed a Malabar barbet. A lifer!

Food on the go

If you need variety in food when you are traveling, then Kerala seems to be the place for you. Perhaps it is the relative prosperity, or perhaps it is the history of trading across the Indian Ocean, that brings so many small eats to Kerala. The little coffee shop that you can see in the featured photo springs from the legendary smuggling feat of Baba Budan. The story that I know is that 500 years ago this pilgrim to Mecca brought back to his home seven beans from Mocha hidden inside his clothes. This is the origin of the Arabica coffee for the cultivation of which the British laid waste to the Nilgiris 300 years later: converting one of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests into plantations. This roadside shop, with its lovely kitchen, is just one of the modern links in a deep history which began with the cultivation of coffee in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago.

The humble idli and vada, which, to most of Northern India, is the epitome of Southern Indian food, also seems to have a storied origin. Wikipedia predictably traces the idli back to Hindu kingdoms from 1100 years ago, but admits that most of the modern ingredients of idli are missing from these ancient recipes. The addition of rice, the day-long fermentation, and the steaming are processes inseparable from today’s idli. I found an old book review in The Hindu which claims that the idli, in its modern form, is a hybrid of steamed rice balls brought by early Arab traders to the Malabar coast, and the old tradition quoted by Wikipedia. It is possible that, as K.T. Achaya proposes, the far-eastern trade also brought in the technique of fermentation of food, which got added to this amalgam. The neat little breakfast served on a banana leaf has such a wonderfully mixed parentage!

Birds of the deep desert

When The Family said “Let’s go birdwatching in the desert”, I gulped. The only birds I associated with the deep desert were vultures (circling overhead as you drag yourself towards a mirage across dunes after your jeep has run out of petrol). So it was a wonderful adventure to find beautiful birds like trumpeter finches, sandgrouse, common kestrels and the last stand of the great Indian bustard. My biggest discovery was that the desert is alive with a completely different kind of vegetation and animal life.

The short trip with Adesh, Mandar and the rest of the small group of friends turned out to be full of surprises. Here is a gallery of new birds that I saw, and a few old friends. Click on any of the pictures to go to the gallery. Tiny seeds and insects can keep a huge population of birds alive. I didn’t have the time and the lenses to capture the insects of the desert. That will be another wonderful trip.

Four butterflies and a moth

A decade back Mumbai was full of butterflies. You could see the bright grass-yellows fluttering in and out of traffic wherever there was an island with some greenery. If you stopped near one at a traffic light, you could see the fluttery flight of a Psyche or the almost invisible motion of small grass-blues. The potted plants in our balcony would be visited regularly by a host of larger butterflies, and on a Saturday afternoon I would take my camera and go for a half hour walk in the garden to take photos of a variety of these delightful animals. Then with the rise of mosquito-borne diseases, everyone decided to pump huge amounts of insecticides into our cities, and the butterflies suddenly vanished. The fluency which I had picked up in identifying butterflies also faded away.

Now, when I see butterflies during a walk in a forest, I feel like I can barely remember a few words of a language which I once knew well. The lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias)in the featured photo brought back a quick memory. I realized that when you have forgotten names, you see fewer butterflies. During our trip to the jungles around Thattekad I tried to train my eyes again to spot Lepidoptera, and I did manage to catch a glimpse of many Nymphalids (brush foots), Lycaenids (blues), Pierids (yellows), and Papilionids (swallowtails), from the little grass-blues to a fleeting glimpse of the yellow-and-black Southern Birdwing, India’s largest butterfly.

Butterflies are an undemanding pastime. You don’t have to wake up at unearthly hours to see them. They become active in the middle of the morning. The six-lineblue (Nacaduba kurava)that you see in the photo above is a typical low-level butterfly. The upper surface of its wing is a shimmery greyish blue. It hovers usually in bushes and undergrowth at the level of your knees, but comes to frequent stops to perch on a sunny leaf. If it settles on a chest-high leaf, grab the chance to take a photo. It will usually wait for you to take several shots.

The common bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), like most larger butterflies, inhabits a higher world in the forest, often flying at a level above my head. It is harder to photograph, since it perches for a very short time. I managed to take the photo that you can see above because around noon it decided that it had had enough sugars, and needed some of the minerals that it can only suck up from wet mud. Such mud-puddling butterflies give you a great opportunity to take photos.

The butterfly which you see above is the Psyche (Leptosia nina). It is so common and widespread that think of it as the sparrow of the butterfly world. You can see its weak and fluttery flight everywhere there is some grass or some low bushes or herbs. I noticed this butterfly as far afield as in the Andamans and Myanmar, and it spreads well beyond that to the east. Like the lineblue, this is another small butterfly which flutters among vegetation below your waist.

There are very few experts on moths. These are vast families of Lepidoptera which defeat an amateur. The relatively smaller number of butterflies are easier for amateurs to recognize because they are well-differentiated by wing colours and patterns. Moths are often drab, well-hidden, and requires finicky attention to differentiate from each other. I took this photo of a day-flying moth perched on a leaf. You can tell that it is a moth and not a butterfly by its antennae. All butterflies have the thin antennae with a club-head at the end which you can see in the other photos. Moths have a wide variety of antennae: the extremely feathery antenna of this one probably means that it is male. Some day I must make a trip with an expert on moths.