Do you find Dalmatian Pelicans in Dalmatia?

I understand that the pelicans named after the Dalmatian coast of Croatia have not been seen there since the 1950s, and may be considered to be locally extinct. I was not aware of its immense population crash in the previous century when I admired this lone Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). When The Family called out to me, I came running with my camera ready, but I caught the featured photo seconds after a fish had disappeared into its gullet. There is really no understanding of why there was a major drop in the population of one of the largest freshwater birds in the world, but it now has only two breeding populations: a very small one in Mongolia and another larger one somewhat further west in Russia. The ones I saw in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park were winter migrants.

I read the usual stories of hunting (mainly in Mongolia), habitat destruction by draining of swamps (mainly in Russia), and widespread disturbance of nests due to human activity having pushed it into the near-threatened category of the IUCN red list. But interestingly, there have been many investigations in their mysterious decline. It seems that intense parasite infestation is one reason. This was found in other pelican species too. Current thinking rates this as a more significant factor than chemical pollution. This kicked off studies of parasite epidemics and climate change, since the realization that the immune systems of host birds may be stressed in warmer climates.

If you thought that the end result is the disappearance of this species, you could be wrong. It seems that 6000 to 8000 years ago, when the temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today (a time called the Holocene temperature maximum), these pelicans could be found as far north as Denmark. This could happen again, as animals move to parts of the globe more suited to their lifestyles. As the earth warms, egrets have begun nesting and breeding in England in this decade. Strange to think that the tropical birders’ paradise we watched could be in northern Europe in a century.

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Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. It is meant to remind us of the problems we need to solve if we are to continue living healthy and happy lives. “Earth Day Network works year round to solve climate change, to end plastic pollution, to protect endangered species, and to broaden, educate, and activate the environmental movement across the globe,” says the web site of the Earth Day network.

In the last few years, every time I have travelled to a wildlife sanctuary, I’ve seen species after species which could be on the road to extinction. The reason is not hunting or wanton killing, it is just our mindless expansion. So, instead of images of magnificent animals, birds or vanishing trees, I thought it might be good to have a photo of consumption. The featured photo is the dregs of a cup of coffee, which I have coloured green and red. Even this little pleasure has consequences. Multiply a cup of coffee a billion times, one for each coffee-lover in the world, and you have cascading effects through the world.

Hot Chocolate

When we started from home before sunrise it was not exactly cold in Mumbai. Now, at the end of the day, in the Library Bazaar of Mussoorie the little chill in the air felt nice. The Bazaar was named after the library which dominates one end of the square in which the Mall Road ends. We nursed our mugs of hot chocolate as we sat on some chairs in the arcade on the ground floor of the charming building whose upper floor is still the library. In the featured photo you can see the lovely iron pillars which hold up the second floor of this late 19th century structure.

The cafe had a large menu which we looked at with great interest before we disappointed the waiter with our order of two hot chocolate. He looked so disappointed that The Family qualified the order with “Special.” We were not up to burgers or Maggi, but the Family noticed that the Chemist’s shop next door also doubled as a bakery. So now, we sat with our drink and munched on the almond biscuits which The Family had found there. We had plans for the evening, a stroll up the storied Mall Road, and then perhaps a drink or two at the Writer’s Bar, of which we’d read so much, before heading back to our hotel for a quiet dinner. The day had been long, and the next day would not be any shorter.

But for now we were content to soak in the atmosphere of a little hill town, out of season, as the light slowly faded from the sky and the bazaar turned into a pool of light in the dark hills around it. The town of Mussoorie originates with a hunting lodge built in 1823 CE by Frederick Young, not too far from where we sat. My best guess is that this beautiful iron and wood structure where we sat was built in the middle of the second half of that century. The library was started in 1843, and it is not unreasonable to guess that it found a house here twenty to thirty years later. Soon it would be time to move on to the bar in the Savoy Hotel, where a sensational murder in 1911 became the seed from which Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, germinated. Mussoorie is so full of the ghosts of the past!

A short walk in the afternoon

When we reached our hotel with the wonderful view of the mountains from the balcony, it was a little past noon. We sat on the lawns and had a crisp thin-crust pizza and beer so well chilled that even at this height moisture was dewing the bottle as it sat on the table. The air was crisp and cool, as it should be at an altitude of over 2.5 kilometers above sea level. After lunch we could sit in the balcony, look out at the mountains and aestivate. Or we could go for a walk. We chose to walk.

The afternoon’s light was mellow. One side of the road sloped down to fields and a village spread very sparsely over the hillside. It was nearly spring time. The snow had almost completely melted, and only shaded fields and slopes gleamed white in the afternoon. The sloping metal roofs of huts were weighed down by stones. Ruskin Bond in one of his books mentions a corrugated iron roof which was blown away in a storm and decapitated an “early-morning fitness freak”. At the sight of the stones I was reminded of that. But we were safe; this was not early morning.

The road was deserted, but suddenly there was an apparition in front of us. Was it a ghost? No. From the way it swayed and sang it could only be the village drunk. We passed an agricultural research lab where rows of apple trees had grafts on them and were beginning to bloom. A large oak on the side of the road was full of sparrows. When we stopped to watch, we saw a pair of Streaked Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron lineatum) in the undergrowth. They are shy birds, preferring to hop about under cover, and are difficult to photograph. I was not satisfied with the photos which I got.

Moss grew on walls here, poking out through the mortar between the stones. I keep thinking that I’ll try to get a field guide to the mosses of India, expect that there is no such book. As a result, I have no idea which moss I’m photographing. One of these was beginning to flower. Although the solstice was a few days away, spring had come to Garhwal’s Sivaliks already.

The shops at the turn of the road were all closed for the afternoon’s siesta. I loved their collection of preserves and juices. juice of rhododendron, mint, apple and the new citrus hybrid called the Malta were advertised, along with jams, chutneys and pickles. The British were convinced that rhododendron is poisonous, although locals have been drinking its juice for ages. We reminded ourselves that we would have to come back here later; we’ve always enjoyed drinking this juice when we are in the mountains.

We walked on for a while more, but then clouds started to drift in. The weather prediction was of light rains in the afternoon. We turned back; it would be a twenty minute walk back to the hotel. It would be time for tea when we got back.

The Grand Axis of Paris

One evening, almost a decade ago, I looked up the sunset time and made my way to the carousel of the Louvre just before. I wanted to take a photo of the pyramid designed by I. M. Pei. The week had been overcast, and the evening was no exception. I hadn’t expected a large number of photographers there, but clearly this had become a photo spot de rigeur. Most of the people there had big lenses, tripods, light meters. I felt like a joker with my bridge camera in my back pack.

With some time to go before it became dark enough, I looked around for other shots. The dark clouds had taken on a golden colour as the horizon moved up to meet the sun. Through the Arc de Triomphe at the carousel I could look down the grand axis of this imperial city, to the Obelisk, and the Arc de Triomphe at Charles de Gaulle Etoile. In principle the Grand Arch of La Defense also lies on the same axis, but you have to go to one of the upper floors of the Louvre to get a view of all these four things lined up.

I’d passed by this spot the previous day as I’d walked up Rue de Rivoli from the Bastille and then decided to cut across the Seine to the left bank somewhere here. The sky was overcast, but the light on the quadriga was very good. I like the story of this sculptural group. As you probably know, Napoleon brought the original from San Marco in Venice and mounted it here. After Waterloo, it was returned to Venice by Austria. The present statue was put here to commemorate the restoration of the Bourbons after the fall of Napoleon. As the light faded I moved back to the scrum of photographers at the pyramid, and got the featured photo.

Paris, petit four

While looking for photos of Notre-Dame de Paris two days ago I came across several other photos of the little lanes around it, in the 4th and 5th districts. I used to like to find an apartment in the 5th, and roam the streets of the 4th with my camera. The featured photo shows the embankment of the Seine river, at the Ile de la Cite, viewed from somewhere near Shakespeare and Company.

A door knocker which caught my eye as I walked around the 4th arrondissement. I have no record of the street and house number, and it will be very hard to find this again.

This is a clue to the location of that door. At least this drain pipe comes with a house number. I have a memory that it was in the same street as the door, but which street?

Again, somewhere in the 4th district, I think it is somewhere between Place de Vosges and Pont Marie, but again I didn’t take a photo of the street and house number. This shouldn’t be hard to find.

Berthillon in Ile St. Louis is an old establishment. Once upon a time The Family and I stood in this queue often. One of the servers suggested a combo of a scoop of sour lemon sorbet with another of dark chocolate ice cream which became my favourite one summer.

This door is certainly in the 4th arrondisement, probably between Place de Vosges and St. Paul. I really liked this, because I took many shots, but not a single one of the street name.

These water fountains are common through the 5th arrondisement. Now I can’t remember whether you see them elsewhere. Certainly not in the 1st and 2nd, but may be in the 6th?

I very clearly remember coming across this blue door and red sign after coming out from one of my favourite restaurants, where I first tasted Izarra, on Rue de Jarente. Doors in this particular shade of blue are very common in Paris, at least in my memory. Although the restaurant has now closed, I think I should go back to see whether this door remains the same colour.

Somewhere in the 4th, somewhere between Bastille and St. Paul. I spent much more time walking around the 5th and 6th, but so many of my photos are of the 4th. I call these petit fours, like the small confections you have with coffee. They leave a sweet memory, but they are not a meal.

Splash!

On late winter afternoons Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur looks beautiful and calm. It is a lovely time to be outside, watching shadows lengthen slowly over still waters. The Family scanned the surroundings; she’s very good at spotting hidden birds. I am visually lazier, looking at open spaces, attention on obvious things like that huge tree jutting out of a little islet in the pond. I wondered whether the tree created the islet or it sprouted on an already existing mound. The green moss on the blue water looked nice, so I raised my camera to take a photo.

One edge of the island was crowded with Common Coot (Fulica atra), which are highly visible winter migrants because of their distinctive white bills. You can see them in flocks like this, or paddling singly or in pairs in ponds across India in this season. It seems that they are extremely territorial and aggressive in their breeding range in the northern latitudes, so I find it a puzzle that they flock together like this while they winter in India. The answer, it seems, is in the cost of vigilance. Watching out for predators takes time away from other activities. Many eyes watching out would improve the ability of flocks to feed better, even with more competition for food due to flocking at the same place. The island also had other birds; you can see a Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) near the edge of the frame.

At this time of the afternoon the birds are quite active, probably getting a large meal before settling in for the night. I tried to get extreme close ups, but the level of activity was so high that the birds kept disappearing under water leaving only large splashes on the surface. I’ve often seen long leaves hanging from the bills of coots when they come up again. It seems that they feed on leaves and seeds more often than on invertebrates. When I found this I wondered whether they can be as bad as some more common herbivores, which can denude a landscape if their numbers increase. Very often, when you ask a question someone else has asked it before. So I could get an immediate answer: no. Good to know that this abundant and un-endangered bird is not the cause of the disappearance of other species. You can say that in this respect they are pleasantly inhuman.

Notre-Dame de Paris

When I saw video clips of flames leaping from the caved-in roof of Notre Dame de Paris, I thought of all the times it has touched my life. But when I looked at my folder of photos, I could find only two of the cathedral. In others, its 19th century spire is in the background; I must have more photos from the time I used film. This reflects accurately the role Notre-Dame played in my view of Paris. It was my entry point to the city, but it quickly receded into the background, used only as a landmark.

This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers…
“Lectures on Architecture”, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

I remember one summer when Victor Hugo’s book by this name was my constant companion on the Metro, to and from work. After work I would walk through the streets of Paris, trying to follow the routes taken by various characters. It wasn’t easy; the cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, and St. Germain, now in the 6th district, was then outside the city walls. The intervening years had changed the city as much as the cathedral. When I realized this I started looking at the city in terms of its history, so that the addition of a glass pyramid to the Louvre seemed like a continuity.

When I first visited Paris in the 1980s, I would sometimes meet up with friends in the pleasant square in front of the cathedral, a short walk from the pubs and restaurants of Odeon, St. Michele, or Jussieu. The last time I stood there and took photos was in the 1990s when The Family and I first went to Paris together. The two medieval bell towers and the rose window (one of the few remaining works of art from the 13th century) were as wonderful as ever, but the press of tourists had increased. After that we decided to leave the front to new tourists, and walked around the back.

My first illegal walk was at 20, between the towers of Notre Dame.
Philippe Petit, high-wire acrobat, referring to his walk of 1971

We’d spent a pleasant afternoon one May sitting on the lawns behind it, eating sweet and juicy cherries from a bag, and admiring the superb flying buttresses. The Family was as enchanted by the gargoyles as I’d been a decade before. Our admiration was not reduced by the discovery that they were 19th century additions, like the spire. The architect of this renovation was Viollet-le-Duc, who turned many things into his fairy-tale version of medieval.

Spira, spera
(Breathe, hope)

“Notre-Dame de Paris”, Victor Hugo

The bridge behind Notre-Dame, Pont de Sully, is named after Bishop Maurice de Sully who started building this iconic structure. It became our favourite place to stand in evenings, holding cones of ice cream from Berthillon, as we admired what Sully’s cathedral had become more than 800 years later. Ironically, the view from this bridge was dominated by the spire and roof added by Viollet-le-Duc. These are the parts which collapsed in yesterday’s fire. Not having heard anything to the contrary, I assume that the rose windows which date from the 13th century are intact.

The Ghosts of Mussoorie

Whose ghost was it that Ram Singh (the Savoy bartender) saw last night? A figure in a long black cloak, who stood for a few moments in the hotel’s dimly lit vestibule, and then moved into the shadows of the old lounge.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Mussoorie is a haunted town, as you would know if you ever read books by its most famous living resident- Ruskin Bond. I’d decided to make his stories my guide during our brief stop over in his town. Accordingly, we walked down Mall Road in the evening, to stop and admire the view of Dehradun spread out below us. These towns are relics of the British Empire, whose administrators fled to the hills as soon as winter Marched out. The phrase “Hill Station” for these once-charming little towns dotted across the lower heights of India are clearly a colonial joke (“Which station are you at, old chap?”, “A hill station you know. Taking a bit of rest.”).

What did the English like about these places? Apart from the temperature, it must have been the upredictability of the weather. The day had been nice as we drove up from the valley, but now clouds were gathering. There was to be a brief hailstorm the next evening. But right now the weather was pleasant. We decided to walk on to the Savoy and its storied Writer’s Bar, where the ghosts of Mussoorie gather for their evening’s tipple.

A lot of people who enter the Writer’s Bar look pretty far gone, and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing the living from the dead. But the real ghosts are those who manage to slip away without paying for their drinks.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Charles Dickens wrote an account of Mussoorie’s social whirl in a piece called The Himalaya Club which appeared in print in 1857. I counted that would have been three days short of 162 years ago when we walked into the bar. It was off season. A young couple sat in one corner gazing at each other, far away from a group of men talking on their phones more often than to each other. As a result, the bartender and a couple of other servers hovered around us and plied us with conversation and drinks. (Their special cocktails are a treat, and should not be missed if you are in town.) “Has anyone seen McClintock’s ghost recently?” I asked. I was told that the rooms we sat in once had a piano which was haunted by the said ghost. “But it has been sold off,” the Maitre told me. “But you can still hear the piano sometimes”, one of his platoon said in counterpoint.

After a perfect evening of interesting drinks and food, we were taken on a tour of the Savoy. One major stop was the grand ballroom where, in 1952, the film star Nutan was crowned Miss India. There was some pride in the Maitre’s voice as he said this was the first time a Miss India had been selected. This is almost true, says Wikipedia; you have to discount only the pageant in 1947 held in Calcutta, but that’s easy, because that was before independence. After a walk through the rambling old building, extensively added to in recent years, the Maitre got a hotel car to drop us off at the Library Bazaar.

By now the bazaar had shut down. It had got a little chilly, and it was dinner time. Reason enough for the few off-season tourists to have disappeared. The square was lit up by the headlights of passing cars. I liked that atmosphere; it looked like the ghosts of the past could stroll by us in that bad light. Mussoorie lives with the ghosts of better days, even as, like all the old hill stations, its once charming center slowly sinks into the swamp of cheap hotels.

Breakfast of Champions

When I was young, so much younger than today, I wouldn’t mind having a stiff drink in the morning. Now those days are gone and I’m happy to spend an evening in a nice cozy table for two next to a nice well-lit bar trying to choose from a long menu of options. I selected something that I could stick with through an evening.

When we’d finished dinner, The Family asked “Dessert?” I said I could take a spoon or two from whatever she ordered. What we got was a plate which reminded me of breakfast. It wasn’t really a sunny side up surrounded by scrambled egg, as you might have guessed. The central “egg yolk” is mango, with a layer of ice cream below it. The scrambled egg is custard “fried” in liquid nitrogen, and the “greens” are pistachio. It was served up with wonderful drama, with the server breaking eggshells filled with custard on to a frying pan, then dropping liquid nitrogen over it while moving it with an egg whisk. Brilliant, and it tasted good too. The Family said “That’s more than a couple of spoonfuls you’re taking, you know.”