A year’s worth of travel

Ever since we got our booster shots we have been taking short trips every now and then. The Family was always good at looking at the calendar and spotting lucky combinations of holidays and weekends which give us travel opportunities. I’ve become better at exploiting them. This has given us a marvelous opportunity to observe the architecture of the world around us. It has been amazing to figure out how forests regenerate with the help of termites which get rid of dead wood, how different trees work together to make a mosaic of forests and grassland, and how the character of the natural world differs at the shores of seas, in the continental interior, and in the places where the joints between continents show up as incredibly high mountains.

Here is a tiny slice of a memoir. These are photos of the creatures I share it with. From the hot desert of Rajasthan to the high cold desert of Ladakh, from the forests of Assam to the grasslands of Uttarakhand, from the wild growth of plants in the monsoon in the Sahyadris to the happy weeds of the Terai, these are images of home.

What’s in your masala box?

Some masalas are used so often that you don’t want to unscrew lids while you are cooking. So I’m told. I never used a masala box in the halcyon days I was king of my kitchen. But now we have a cook, into whose domain I venture only on her days off. But I;ve begun to appreciate the uses of a masala box. But I do have a distinct feeling of otherness when I peek into hers. The powdered haldi, the dhania and jeera powders, and the flakes of red chili staples in my book too. You could leave some of them out in some recipes, and others out of some others. But in a week’s cooking I, and perhaps most of you, will use these. But where is the powdered garam masala? I use it more often than red chili. I would certainly put the garam masala in the box and the red chilis on a shelf, within easy reach when needed. The Family says she would have both in the box.

I don’t do dals so often; so the mustard seeds and whole jeera could also be somewhere on my masala shelf. On second thought, I often do veggies which call for whole jeera. So maybe the jeera would go in the box and the mustard seeds on the shelf. The Family says she would retain both.

The urad dal? I barely use it, perhaps only when I’m cooking a leaf, and I want to add something for texture. Even then my first thought would be to add vadi instead of dal. So that’s definitely out for me. The Family says she would get rid of it too; she would have to in order to make space for the powdered garam masala. What would I use that space for? Maybe I would put a mix of whole masalas, some cinnamon (the stick in the photo comes from a cook by The Family), some elaichi, some cloves, a bay leaf or two, a few pieces of star aniseed.

What about you? If you regularly do Indian recipes, perhaps even if you don’t, what is in your masala box?

Nepali false nettle

Daar. That’s the Nepali name for this small tree which intrigued me as we explored the region around Dotiyal. We were probably somewhat below 2000 meters when we stopped in a densely wooded part of the road. It was shadowed by overhanging trees, and was exactly the kind of place where I find it very hard to spot birds. So I concentrated on the plants, while The Family exercised her binoculars. The sight of a tree with long streamers of green flowers hanging down from it was intriguing. What was it? Not weeping willow certainly.

The answer stunned me. It was a member of the nettle family, Utricaceae. The genus Boehmeria which lies in this family does not have stinging leaves, so plants in this genus are called false nettles. This one, Boehmeria rugulosa (a synonym is Pouzolzia rugulosa), is called Daar in Nepali. I could identify it later by the distinct bunched streamers of flowers, the shape of the leaves, and the dark bark. Neither of our guide-drivers could give us a local name. I guess Nepali false nettle is as good a name to recall it by as any other. I found claims that it is common across the lower slopes of the Himalayas. I probably spotted it near the upper end of its range. October is about when its flowering season ends, so I was doubly lucky. I could have made up for past inattention to this tree if the cliff above me was a little less steep, but now I’ll have to leave that examination for another time.

Common thistle

Did you know that thistles are in the same family as daisies? I found that unbelievable at first: the cheerful white and yellow daisies which dot sunny meadows cousin to the thorny thistles which brood in dark open spaces under trees? But then I considered the evidence. Like their other cousins, the asters and sunflowers, both are complex flowers. There are the colourful petals surrounding a distinct center. When you look at the center, you find them full of complete tiny flowers called the disk florets. The circle of “petals” around this disk are each a flower, a ray floret, which has given up its identity by fusing into a larger structure. There are other commonalities, but this observation began to break down my initial disbelief.

I’ve usually seen them under dense growths of pines or deodar (cedar) which dot Himalayan grasslands, in places where the sunlight does not reach easily and other flowers shun. I suppose these are its refugia, safe places, where humans don’t hunt them down. They do not actively shun sunlight, because they can grow also in farmlands, but they are usually evicted quite quickly from there. Maybe they need some open space around the base, which is why they do not grow where the grass is dense. I’ll have to look more carefully at its base in future.

But was this particular plant a common thistle (Cirsium verutum) or Wallich’s thistle (Cirsium wallichi)? The flower head is not sufficient to clearly distinguish the two. I had to look at the leaves and the stem. The common thistle has leaves which end in a long spine, with other spines along the lobes on the sides. Wallich’s thistle has a less pronounced terminal spike and a hairy stem. So I think this was Cirsium verutum, the common thistle.

Tales of the Tals of Kumaon

Glacial scouring and rainfall and stream accumulation formed the lakes of Kumaon at the foot of the Shivaliks. This area is just up-slope of where rice was first domesticated in India immediately after the retreat of the glaciers. The study of sediments in the lakes show the growth of agriculture around them only in the last thousand years or so, although the first settlements left their mark on sediments long ago. Since colonial times, population growth and slow urbanization has begun to degrade the waters. With concern growing, I hope the degradation ceases, and the beauty of the area remains more than just an appearance. We keep going back to the lakes every now and then; after all, they are a pleasant stop on the way to higher altitudes.

This year we spent a couple of days just before Diwali in this area. The anticipated hordes of post-Diwali tourists had not arrived, and we had the lakes to ourselves. The large Ram Tal (in the featured photo), the small and deserted Garuda Tal, the extremely tourist oriented Bhim Tal, and our favourite Naukuchia Tal were wonderful places to walk around. The silence was broken only by bird calls.

With new buildings sprouting in the area every time we visit, it is hard to say what the local style of architecture is. They are mostly quick concrete constructions, but they follow the forms of either the traditional Pahari style, or the nondescript boxy architecture of small towns. If I had to identify what sets this place apart architecturally, I would point to the kind of architecture that is meant to give access to the waters of the lakes. That could be either the traditional steps of ghats, or boat houses with doors that open into the lakes. Sometimes you find both, because the level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, depending on the monsoon.

We walked, but it is clear that boating is the main leisure activity here. I’m always charmed by sails gliding over the lake. From Mall Road in Naini Tal I took the photos above. The foot-operated pedal boat in the second photo looked wonderful against the sparkle of the sun on the waters.

Well begun is half done

The train bringing our future comrades-in-binoculars to Kumaon was slightly late. But we still managed to have our breakfast before sunrise and set out for the drive to Dotiyal in reasonably good time. As the sun broke over us, we’d already started climbing. I had a wonderful view over the valley of the Ramganga river out of the car as we reached near the top of the first line of ridges on the Sivaliks.

It didn’t seem to take very long before we crossed a pass, and came to a long curve on the road. Off to our right we could see … Those are not clouds on the horizon, they are the Himalayas. Bright and unobscured! We stopped at the side of the road and our guide and driver, Arjun, pointed out the peaks. Two of the peaks of Trisul were clearly the highest we could see. Off the to west was Nanda Kot. Nanda Devi, was beyond the line that we could see, but was high enough that we would get glimpses of it once the mist burnt off. To the east were the five peaks of Panchachauli, still a little hazy.

A little higher and we’d left the oak forests behind. We entered the large expanse of Himalayan pine grasslands. When the English colonizers first came here, they had not yet understood that grasslands are a separate ecology. They declared them to be degraded forests, wasteland. This was a political decision, to start converting them to cash crops: fields of coffee and tea for export. It is only now that the ecology of this habitat is beginning to be recongnized and studied. Unfortunately it is still common for many, including some dedicated Greens, to declare the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) as inferior to banj oak (Quercus leucotrichiphora) in some way.

As if to give the lie to such thoughts, we heard the first calls of a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) almost as soon as we rolled to a stop. It was sitting on a stone in a patch of grass three meters above us. I ran around the small cliff to get photos. I could hear many small birds in the pines around me. A mixed hunting party of birds had arrived. These waves of birds are wonderful opportunities for bird watchers, and this set fed for quite a while.

We’d stopped to take photos of the mountains. They seemed much nearer from here. Those are two of the three peaks of Trisul (7120 m). The highest one visible was the first peak over 7000 meters which was scaled. This was done by an expedition organized by Thomas Longstaff in 1907. Apparently this was the first time that mountaineers carried oxygen with them. The air was cool and fresh. The sun was warm. It felt good to be standing there listening to the calls of birds and staring at the high Himalayas.

I’m often the only one in these mixed hunting parties of bird watchers who’s interested in the local vegetation and insects. Not this time. More than half the group was taking photos of plants and insects as well as birds. I spotted many growths of these foliose lichen on stone and wood. They are a biomarker for clean air, being killed very quickly by SO2 in the air. More than my sense of smell testified to the clean air of these heights. I was looking forward to the next two days.

Ten difficult birds of Kumaon

Difficult? I’m sure you have your own definition of difficult birds, but for now I mean those I had trouble photographing. The Chestnut-capped babbler (Timalia pileata) that you see in the featured photo lived in the reeds around the Haripura reservoir, and refused to sit in the open. Focusing on it through the grasses and reed was a terrible job, but I finally got a few photos. The good morning sunlight helped a lot.

Most Indian birders probably think of the Chestnut-bellied nuthatch (Sitta cinnamoventris) as rather common once you are in the hills. My last sighting, on a mountain path near Kotabagh, was difficult. The light was fading, and it was quite active. I finally got it as it rounded a branch and appeared below it. I like the difference in texture between the branch and its belly, but the photo appears a little soft because of the long exposure that was needed.

This Dark-sided flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) actually appeared slightly later the same evening. Like all flycatchers, they are usually easy to photograph. They perch on an open branch, make sallies to catch passing insects, and come back to the same perch. This was difficult because of the light. I’d got photos of one earlier, but I liked the ashy grey branch on which it perched: the photo would be shades of gray, I thought, differing only in textures. I was happy to get this shot, my last of the day.

This Yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) should not have been difficult. When we spotted it between paddy fields near the reservoir, I thought the contrast between it and the muddy bank it was sitting on would make it an easy photo. But it was very active, and since the sun had not yet risen far enough, it was just slightly dark. At least, dark enough to make photographing it interesting. I like the fluffy texture of the feathers, fresh from a bath, and of the mud behind it. Alone in this list of difficult birds, this is considered to be critically endangered. The beautiful coat has led to trapping and trade. This could well be my first and last sighting of the bird.

This Himalayan flameback (Dinopium shorii) gave me trouble in three ways. First, it was highly active, disappearing behind branches in search of food, reappearing briefly before flying again to perch elsewhere. Second, it appeared in just the perfect light, but in the canopy, where the mixture of dazzle and shadow was perfectly confounding. And third, by the fact that it was before breakfast and I was hungry enough for it to be distracting. I was happy that I got its scaly breast clearly in this photo, although the bird was contrary enough to hide its bright red crest just as I clicked. Again, I think the textures make it interesting.

The previous evening we’d stood on a crowded bridge in Rampur, above the Ramganga river and watched this Crested Kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) fishing in the turbulent water below us. This was my second sighting of the bird; the first was about ten kilometers upstream on the Ramganga, six months before. The light was not very good this time, but the bird was closer. It was still enough that a longer exposure worked. I like the contrast of three textures here.

This shot of an Upland pipit (Anthus sylvanus) was the last photo I took as we left Dotiyal. I’d got a nice shot of the bird the day before, but this was close. The bright background made it difficult, but I was happy with the exposure, and the texture of the rock it sat on. I would consider this a difficult bird from another point of view as well; streaked brown birds are always hard to identify. In spite of having taken clear photos on two occasions, I’m not sure I’ll be able to recognize it instantly the next time I see it.

This juvenile Himalayan rubythroat (Calliope pectoralis) was a lifer, and I was happy with it, but it was really difficult. It sat behind a large thornbush at the edge of a cliff in the village of Dotiyal, calling constantly. It was a long wait before it appeared on our side of the bush. But once there, it perched long enough to finally give us a few good shots. Here’s wishing you a long and productive life, young bird. May your family increase and prosper.

The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus) is a common winter visitor. Last year I seemed to run into it every week. This was my first sighting this year and I thought I should take a shot. I made it more interesting my keeping the sunset over the Himalayas at it back, and a flowering bush in front. Sometimes, when you are happy, you just want to make things difficult for yourself.

The Bar-tailed treecreeper (Certhia himalayana) that we saw as we arrived in Dotiyal, was perhaps the most difficult of the lot. It crept up the trunk of a tall deodar (Cedrus deodara) slowly enough to take photos, but it always chose the deepest shadows. I wonder how so many photographers get photos of this bird in wonderful light. I should be so lucky. This was the best I could do.

Coffee in Pinkk

It was good to be back in the normal flow of work, with a day long meeting ending with a red-eye back home. But this time, there was a cafe I wanted to check out close to where we had lunch. In Mumbai a cafe is a misnamed bistro. But in Kolkata, a cafe is exactly it says. When I walked in with two colleagues for a post-lunch espresso, we were a little bemused by the looks of the place. One of them said “It’s name tells you what the colour scheme is.” The illuminated wall opposite the entrance was covered with pink hearts. “Grrrl power,” it proclaimed.

The waitress explained that espresso is bitter. We nodded. The statutory warning was done; clearly the usual clientele has a sweet tooth. We were given a small menu to look at, and decided to share a pastry. The dessert at lunch had been quite satisfactory. There was only one of the lemon strawberry cakes left, we were told. It suited us. The cake was good. The espresso was aromatic and bitter. The cake knew what it should be. The biscuit at the bottom was crisp but not hard. The dome was crackly, the lemon filling was aromatic and sour, and nicely cut through the sweetness of the strawberry. Rentals in Kolkata haven’t gone through the roof, so a small place like this can still survive charging a fraction of the price that you would pay in Mumbai. The experience left a pleasant taste in the mouth.

Tridax daisies

After yesterday’s broad look at the Aster family, I stepped closer to look for plants that I could identify. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) is the one I recognize quickly in the field. It has five ray florets, each such “petal” is deeply notched to give it the appearance of three fingers. The main reason I learnt to recognize it is because the straggling stems with upright flowers can be seen across India. Now, near Dotiyal village in Kumaon, about 2700 m above sea level, I was happy to meet a familiar face.

The featured photo is not of a flower that helps identification, since it has lost its characteristic ray florets . But I liked the way the dew had collected on it. Other flowers were more easily identified. But in the process of taking those flowers, I have caught a fly which I can’t identify. If you are a fly fancier, could you help?

One large happy family

Asters, that’s who mean. The family Asteraceae contains well over 30,000 species. In one small place, around the little Nal-Damayanti Tal in the lake district of Kumaon were these seven species. Some were fleabanes (both seem to belong to the genus Erigeron), two look like daisies, and three I cannot really place.

How do I know they belong to the Aster family? Because they can be identified by one simple feature: they have compound flowers. At the center of each compound flower is a disk, filled with tiny flowers. These are called disk florets. Larger petals surround the central disk. Each petal is an individual flower, called a ray floret. The disk and the rays are often different colours. If this reminds you of sunflowers, daisies, gerbera, or chrysanthemum you are right. They are all part of the same family.

There are no true daisies (genus Bellis) in India. So these must be something closely related, perhaps true asters? I always wondered if there are so many asters in the world, why haven’t we tamed many of them into edible plants, like we have done to grasses. I looked it up today, and it seems that asters do not store energy in starch but in what we would think of as dietary fiber.

Almost three quarters of Asteraceae belong to a subfamily called Asteroideae, which contains most of our garden flowers. I think it means that the two flowers in this bunch which look like daisies could be the most difficult to identify. The rest should be relatively easy. Any guesses? As the Terminator said, “I’ll be back”, to write down the identifications of these seven in full when I get them.