Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.

The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

A complete unknown

Walking through the mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika was amazing and humbling. I did not know a single tree or plant. The flower that you see in the featured photo was widespread. I’d first seen it in Andaman, where it had confused me a lot. I photographed one at night and thought it was pink. Then I saw a bush in the morning with yellow flowers. I thought maybe pink I saw at night was a trick of the light. Now I saw both pink and yellow flowers on the same bush. Bijaya, who was guiding me through the forest, said that the flowers are yellow when they bloom, and then gradually turn pink before they fall off. He didn’t volunteer the name of the plant, and I did not ask.

A part of the Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

I had read nothing about mangrove species and the trees inland of them. Bhitarkanika is a diversity hotspot, even more so than the Sunderban. I walked between the colourful trees that you see in the photo above, knowing nothing of why they grow together, what they are, and how they are used by villagers nearby. Still, it was a restful walk, and a great respite from the city.

Lesser Adjutant Storks

In my days as a couch potato, I’d read an unlikely book by Douglas Adams, who, in collaboration with Mark Carwardine, went round the world looking for species on the verge of extinction. Not only do I still have Last Chance to See on my bookshelf, I go around the country now with a mental list of endangered species which I want to see. The Lesser Adjutant Stork is one of these, and Bhitarkanika is its only known nesting site outside north-eastern India.

The IUCN Red List classifies it as vulnerable (to extinction) because it is "rapidly declining as a result of a variety of threats including hunting pressure, loss of nesting trees, conversion and degradation of wetlands and agricultural changes". It is thought that the disappearance of this species from the Sunderbans is due to degradation of mangrove diversity in the region.

It is one of the most spectacularly ugly birds I’ve ever had the opportunity to see. It is also huge. As we crossed the Brahmani river, The Family spotted some huge birds in a field far away. We stopped to look. They were these ugly storks. The Lesser Adjutant (and its cousin, the Greater Adjutant) is called হাড়গিলে in Assamese and in Odiya (meaning bone eater). When I consulted older people in my family, they remembered the name and the bird. At one time it was probably common in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. It can now be seen only in protected forests and wetlands, where it eats small animals and crustaceans. Its local name probably comes by association with the Greater Adjutant, which often scavenges around human habitation.

We saw these birds several times in the protected forest. They were wary of our boat, and tended to fly whenever we came within camera range. Eventually I caught a juvenile sitting on top of a tree. The juvenile has much more down on its bare neck and head than the adult. Apparently these birds have extremely sharp vision, and this one could have been sitting there to scan the area for food.

One never knows which sighting of this bird could be the last.

The mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika

When India joined the Ramsar convention for protection of wetlands in 1982, Bhitarkanika National Park was not the among the first places listed. The 65,000 hectares of this park was listed under the treaty twenty years later. The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are larger in area, but Bhitarkanika has more species diversity: only three of India’s 58 species of mangroves have not been seen here.

Mangrove forests stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. The intricate root system of mangroves also makes these forests attractive to fish and other organisms seeking food and shelter from predators.
NOAA website

When you pass through the tidal creeks which thread the wetlands, the mangroves appear as a dense forest wall surrounding you. There are designated trails through the forest. If you take these, you find that the forest is thin, and hides open wetlands. Interestingly, there is freshwater very close to the sea here. The sparse villages around the region have a tradition of creating ponds around each home, so recharging the groundwater that they draw. Unfortunately, this traditional conservation measure has been undone recently by the increased shrimp farming in this area.

Boat in Khola creek in Bhitarkanika national park, Odisha

The mangroves are drowned by the tide surging up and down the creek twice a day. Most trees which stand with roots in water would die. Mangroves have solved this problem in two ways. First, they have evolved unique physiologies which allow it to filter out salt from the water and excrete it. Second, some of them stand in an interlocking mass of prop roots to hold them out of the water while thers have snorkels called pneumatophores (photo below: the spikes amongst which the whimbrels is foraging). This area is the delta of a complex of muddy rivers. The mangrove roots hold back the soil and slowly build up the land. Bangladesh is said to have created 120,000 hectares of new land in the Bay of Bengal by planting new mangrove forests.

Whinbrel among mangrove roots in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

As temporary refugees from a city, we breathed in the clear air of the forest. The Family was reading a study which claimed that mangroves lock up more than a 100 kilograms of atmospheric carbon per hectare per day, and is one of the most efficient ecologies for soaking up greenhouse gases. The three decades-long conservation effort in Bhitarkanika started before the Indian Ocean tsunami taught coastal countries the wisdom of replanting mangroves. Now this may serve as an ark which repopulates the disappearing mangrove forests along the coast of India.

The mangrove pitta

We were very lucky with our sighting of the Mangrove Pitta. As soon as our boat docked at the jetty in Dangamal, Amar, the boatman, jumped off the boat and asked us to hurry. Bijaya had called him to say that two Pittas had been sighted very close to the jetty. We hurried after Amar and saw Bijaya with a couple of people with the cameras and large lenses typical of wildlife photographers. One of them pointed out the bird. It was sitting in a bush, facing us, as you see in the featured photo.

It turned, hopped down to the ground, and offered many different views to the camera. You can see examples of these views in the rest of this post. The two photographers, Bijaya, Amar, The Family and I watched the bird foraging on the floor of the jungle. Several large groups of crocodile watchers passed by. Some stopped to examine us, and left when they found nothing of interest to them.

Mangrove Pitta in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

The origin of the colourful plumage of the Pitta has been a matter for speculation for long. It builds an open nest on the ground. Darwin and Wallace sparred for many years over the selective reasoning behind coloured birds with open ground nests. The argument was about the visibility of these nests to predators. Today we understand that their argument was important but premature, because the vision of birds and their major predators are not like human vision. Mangrove Pitta in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha Human eyes became red sensitive fairly late in evolution. Avian vision switched to ultraviolet sensitivity in many independent events (but not in the Pittas).

The Mangrove Pitta is called the Queen of Bhitarkanika on tourism posters. Humans seem to find its brilliant colours very attractive. It is the species on the cover of Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp’s field guide. Do Pittas also see the brilliant plumage that we are attracted by? I have seen no argument or study that clinches the issue one way or the other. However, it seems to me reasonable to assume that if the plumage was not under selective pressure in some way, it would change more easily over time, and one would be able to see races of Pittas with different colours. On the contrary, many species of Pittas have similar colouration.

We didn’t see a Pitta again, although we heard their distinctive call several times. Inside the forest it was hard to imagine that these lovely birds are on the decline. IUCN classes this as near-threatened due to habitat loss. Bhitarkanika National Park, with its protected mangrove forest, plays an important role in the conservation of this species.

Crocodiles of Bhitarkanika

It had rained in the night and the air was distinctly cooler. When we set out on the boat in the morning we had our first sighting of a fully grown salt water crocodile: about 5 meters long. This is Bhitarkanika National Park’s flagship species. It had pulled itself out of the muddy water into the bank. Its colour merged perfectly with that of the mud around it; only the long shadow of the morning that gave it away. As our boat drew near, I could see that its eyes were open and tracking us. When we drew too close for its comfort, it darted across the mud, into the water. A quick swirl of mud, and it had disappeared into the murky depths. The calm creek we were on suddenly seemed treacherous. We had no idea how many dangers lurked beneath us.

Through the day we saw adults basking in the sun, always alone. Each disappeared rapidly into the water if we approached too close. These two facts seemed to suggest that these crocodiles are highly territorial. Very likely, stretches of the river "belong" to one individual. This would also make them extremely wary of creatures larger than them: possibly dangerous rivals.

Yearling crocodile in Bhitarkanika, Odisha

The previous day had been sweltering warm, and we hadn’t seen any adults. However, the banks of the creek were full of immature crocodiles: from the 30 cm long yearlings to meter-long three-year olds. The youngest ones are the lightest in colour and easy to see against the mud on which they rested: as you can see in the photo above. I call them yearlings, but they are more likely to be about 8 months old, since the breeding season starts in about two months.

I doubted that the young could hold their own against the monsters which ruled the creek. What could these young eat? I had my answer the next day. A carcass of a cow had been lying by the river for a day, and I found three young crocodiles feeding on it. The boatman told me that a carcass like that could feed a very large number of yearlings. I guess that even the adult crocodiles eat more or less anything that they can find. We saw deer and monkeys by the creek, and only the youngest seemed to venture close to the water. Perhaps the crocodiles are opportunistic feeders on these unwary young.

The crocodile is a star attraction in the protected area of Bhitarkanika. However, its speed and size probably means that one has to be extremely careful around them. There are signs everywhere which even the usually unruly Indian tourists follow. I hope accidents are very rare, otherwise the good job of conservation which this forest area does will be in danger.

Harvesting water chestnut

Skimming anthropological news late last year, I found the first inventory of the diet of humans who lived three quarters of a million years ago. The largely plant based diet included water chestnuts! I love eating this, and reading the paper took me back to the time I watched them being harvested.

On a visit to Patna a decade ago, I stood near a pond covered over by plants. A boy wearing a flotation bag made of the skin of some animal was wading in the water, carefully harvesting the chestnuts, as you can see in the featured photo. The caltrop plant from which water chestnuts are harvested The Hindi name for the nut is Singhada (सिंघाडा), the same word that is used sometimes for samosas. The commonality of the names probably comes from the similarity in shapes; the word literally means horned thing. Water chestnuts are ancient food in India and further to the east. I’ve eaten them in China and in Japan (where it is called Hishi). Since samosas are a later import, I guess the word Singhada originally referred to this nut. You can see the plant in the photo above; it is technically a water Caltrop.

At one time the little ponds of North India were covered with Caltrop, making it an easy nut to harvest. As a child I learnt to distinguish it from the invasive weed called water hyacinth (photo here). Water hyacinth with flower I have memories of seeing people dredging these useless invaders from ponds using rakes. They would come away easily, with water dripping from shallow black floating roots. Now that water chestnuts are regarded as a poor man’s food, the efforts to keep ponds free of water hyacinth have decreased. As a result ponds grow stagnant, become breeding grounds for mosquitos. Eventually, they are drained because they have become health hazards. It is hard to get Singhada in markets now.

The Chicago River

The Chicago river is probably the tamest in the world. It has been engineered to reverse its flow, and since the year 1900 it flows out of Lake Michigan. As you can see from these photos, this segment of the river has been straightened out. Unfortunately, it can’t take much rain. It floods if it rains for more than one and a half inch in a couple of hours.

The reversed flow eventually connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi river system. This bit of geo-engineering was, chicagoriverbwquite appropriately, celebrated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the biggest civil engineering project of the last millennium. The reversal of flow was originally meant to check pollution of the drinking water from Lake Michigan. Next it served water-borne commerce. Now, it also provides a pathway for invasive species to spread from the lakes into the rest of the USA.

The bridges that you see in the photo can all be raised. I tried to keep a watch for this, but never saw it happening. Since water traffic has decreased tremendously in recent decades, barriers are now being built to prevent invasion by invasive mussels and carps from spreading into the Mississippi river waters.