Flying barefoot past Everest

A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.

The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.

I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

The rites of spring

In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

When we stopped to watch a yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus), The Precious protested, “Such a common bird.” She’d started birding before us but had stopped for some years now. She didn’t know how rare a sighting this is now. It was almost three years since our last view of these birds. Their homes, the arid grasslands which once covered the country are becoming rarer as humans begin to build on what the forestry department calls “wastelands”. And as the habitat disappears, this species, still classified by IUCN as being of least concern for conservation, has become a rarer sight. The Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary that we were in may be the best place to see this lapwing around Pune.

This bird was quite uncharacteristically silent as it stood still and looked around. It looked around as if it was confused. Then strode off into a nearby acacia bush. This behaviour is common with the lapwing: sudden stops and starts, as if it is an absent-minded professor who suddenly recalls an urgent appointment. I gave it no special heed. From the other side of the bush another lapwing popped out, and then crouched. “Hmm. Unusual,” I thought. The first bird came out behind it, looked around as it approached and jumped on to the croucher. They were mating I realized, as soon as the eight-year old with us said “They are fighting.” Coitus last for ten seconds or so in this species, as I can confidently say from the time stamp on these photos.

We’d completely missed the long courtship display that precedes it. Descriptions that I’ve read (see an easy to reach account here) call to my mind the many elaborate ensemble courtship dances that you see in Bollywood movies: with the hero and his male friends displaying in front of the heroine. Except that for the dancing lapwing cohort there is no designated hero; the female chooses. This was the peak of the mating season. If the grassland refuge were larger then we could have just wandered around till we saw another dance. But the refuge is small and closely bordered by agricultural fields.

I can’t spot studies of the behaviour of the Indian lapwings, so to understand whether they do indeed mate for life, I have to fall back on a study of an European species, the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). This is the very same one that was described by Tennyson in a passing line in a long and closely observed poem on spring. It turns out that lapwings, long thought of as monogamous (except by Tennyson), are actually both polygamous and polyandrous. One male lapwing reportedly defended two nesting territories! I wonder if that is also true of these. Maybe when I retire I’ll supplement winter and spring travels by spending the long summer days reading old Sanskrit nature poetry. Maybe I’ll learn something new.

Peccavi

Major General Charles James Napier is famously said to have sent this single word telegram to Delhi when he occupied Sindh instead of merely guaranteeing taxes as he had been commanded to do. This Latin pun on “I have sinned” was actually written for the magazine Punch by Catherine Winkworth. Whatever its origin, after a close examination of some photos I took a couple of weeks ago, I can jump out of my bathtub shouting “Peccavi”. Because I do have photos of a Sind sparrow (Passer pyrrhonotus) among those I took in Jorbeer.

In this north western corner of Rajasthan one can see mixed flocks of House sparrows (Passer domesticus), Spanish sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) and Sind sparrows. In this season, and in this part of India, one can see three subspecies of House sparrows, the dominant (P. d. indicus), the Afghan sparrow (P. d. bactrianus) and the Parkini (P. d. parkini). You can also be confounded here by the yellow-throated sparrow (Gymnoris xanthocollis, aka chestnut-shouldered petronia). I’d seen all of them before except the Sind sparrow. Instead of patiently scanning a flock through binoculars as real birders do, I began to take group photos of flocks, meaning to scan them at leisure. This technique works on crowded lakes where many species of ducks swim together, so why not here? You can tell the males apart by the amount of black on the chin and the bib. The photo above shows a definite identification of the Sind sparrow on the road between Chhapar village and Bikaner. That’s what the running through the streets, shouting “Peccavi! Peccavi!” is all about.

But the greybeards of birding begged to differ. “You have to see the front and the back,” one said. Another said “Hmm, maybe.” The next morning we set off for the Jorbeer Vulture Sanctuary where there was one tree which was known to have held a couple of nests of Sind sparrows the previous winter. This special tree disappointed us. We saw only yellow-throated sparrows there. But as we were leaving, the most experienced of the birders said “I can hear a different call.” I didn’t know the difference, but later I could compare the call of the Indicus with the pyrrhonotus.

We followed the sound and found a nesting pair. Photographing them was a merry chase. But it was a cool morning, and we had the time on our hands. Here was a little sparrow which anyone would have completely missed if they hadn’t looked closely at it. It was worth the long waits for the flighty birds to come back and perch in good positions around us. Both the male and the female have strongly patterned backs. The female has more white above the eye (the supercilium). The male has a grey nape rather than chestnut. But the biggest difference is the extremely short black bib, just a touch below the chin. It was worth the wait to get a closer look.

Raptor visitors

Tal Chhapar is a grassland sanctuary, but it has become more well known as a place where you go to see raptors. The mixed grass and dry scrubland habitat is home to a huge population of burrow-dwelling lizards. In addition, the local reluctance to consume meat results in carcasses of cattle being dumped in the open. This easy food attracts raptors which winter in India. On a drive through the scrubland we saw a mixed population of raptors very easily. The featured photo shows a juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). It coexists with, and is easy to mistake for the endangered steppe eagle (Aqulia nipalensis) which is shown in the photo below. This was a lifer for me.

The binomial naming of living things is a very rigid and conservative system, useful for making sure that the name is preserved across centuries. Scientific learning is a legacy that we strive to preserve across human history, and the description of living things that shared the world with us is one of those legacies. The downside is that errors are preserved through generations. The steppe eagle was first identified by a British colonialist, Brian Houghton Hodgson, remembered for his contributions to natural history rather than his day job as a colonial administrator in Nepal. However, the birds breed in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and China. In winter they cross the Himalayas into India and Central Asia into Africa. Hodgson possibly captured or shot one of the passage migrants and his mistaken assumption that it was a Nepali resident is enshrined in the name. Mistaken though it is, the name describes a remarkable species: perhaps the only ground-nesting hunter, which migrates over three months across a broad front, individuals changing their migratory routes from year to year, turning from a solitary hunter in summer into a gregarious carrion eater in winter.

As we approached the trees where the large birds rested I realized that they congregate around carcasses of cattle. I was glad to have my N95 mask as I took this photo of a steppe eagle sitting next to a Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus). The eagle is large, with a wingspan of about two meters, or perhaps slightly more. But it is small compared to the three meter wingspan of the vulture. I’d seen this vulture a few years ago, but this was a better sighting.

With a median weight of 9.5 kilograms, the Cinereous vulture is the heaviest flying animal of our times. Most populations of this vulture are not migratory over long distances; their weight would be against it. The population I saw here is migratory, having arrived from somewhat further north. Interestingly, the bird has blood hemoglobin which binds extremely efficiently to oxygen, allowing it to forage at very high altitudes. In spite of that, the cold, and relative paucity of food, had driven them down from the mountains for winter. Although they nest in loose colonies, they are not gregarious. I looked at its hooked beak, suited to tearing open tough hides, and reputedly strong enough to break bones. I could well believe that it not only bullies steppe eagles, but also harries Lammergeiers.

I looked at the assemblage of carrion feeders here: two species of crows, two species of eagles, several of vultures. Worldwide there are about two species of birds for every mammal. We are mistaken if we think that the time of dinosaurs is gone. The Chicxulub asteroid may have killed off many dinosaurs but it killed most mammals as well. Even now, in our times, the descendants of theropod dinosaurs, the birds, outnumber mammals by a large margin.

Travel is awful

View of Tawang town

There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.

Bird photography in Arunachal with the wrong lens

The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.

Fountain in Hamburg when the temperature was below freezing

I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.

If you focus on details you find that Rome’s most famous fountains require cleaning

Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.

Contrary to what brochures say, Goa is not full of locals busy having a holiday

Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.

Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.

The most interesting thing in a village is always the foreigner

Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.

It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.

Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?

Akali

When we entered the gates of the Golden Temple I immediately spotted the armed Akalis in their distinctive blue and saffron gear. Traditional histories of this armed sect trace them to Baba Fateh Singh, the youngest son of the Guru Govind Singh. In the early 18th century, when the Sikhs battled the Mughal empire, he and his brother, Baba Zorawar Singh, are said to have formed an elite band of fighters. Other histories trace their origin to the Akaal Sena founded by the Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth Guru, in the 17th century. The ferocity of this militia earned them the epithet of Nihang, a word which means either a crocodile or a sea monster in Persian.

The traditional uniform of the Akali/Nihang soldier was designed so that different parts could be used to stab, slash, or maim. Most of these weapons are still worn by Akalis today as miniature symbolic pieces. I saw a few shops around the temple complex which were selling some of these symbols. There is no longer an unified line of command now. For almost two hundred years now, in the absence of a real enemy, they have fissioned into different deras, each with a different leader. Their lifestyle, and commitment to arms and warfare sets them at odds with a settled society. The sect is somewhat controversial, sometimes in the news for involvement in violence. The deep blue clothes with saffron turban and sashes are part of their traditional clothing. The blue is said to symbolize courage, the saffron, sacrifice. The intention is certainly noble.

Bamboo flowers

Drying clumps of tall bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) were visible all through the core area of Tadoba national park. I didn’t pay much attention to it the first day, since I’ve seen drying thickets of bamboo on nearly all my visits to national parks. But the next day it struck me that this was not summer. The rest of the forest was green, but the clumps of bamboo were not just a dry yellow, but were an ashy dead colour. I took a photo or two in passing. In a forest full of life, dead branches are a common sight. I looked at clumps of tall dead bamboos, and my sight slid over them.

It was only when we drove on a narrow track through what was once a bamboo forest that I realized the extent of the dead bamboos. In that patch of forest it became impossible to ignore what I was seeing: all the dead plants had flowered. I should have thought of this. After all, bamboo is famously a mass flowering plant. Many species of bamboo flower once in a long time, and die after flowering. All the plants in a forest flower at the same time, and so seed and die at once. This gregarious flowering, mast seeding, and death triggers a local ecological crisis. This has been seen repeatedly in different parts of India. The literature on bamboo quotes flowering periods of between 2 and 120 years, depending on the species. I’m sure there are large errors in estimating a cycle of 120 years, and I would not be surprised if in another three centuries that number is revised substantially. The next year will be an interesting time to visit Tadoba.

Gregarious flowering of B. balcooa has been recorded, but the estimates of its period are all over the place. I found a report which said its cycle is between 40 and 100 years. It is not clear that different populations of this species flower in the same year, or even have the same period. There’s a similar confusion about mast seeding of different plants too (follow the tags “mass flowering” or “mast seeding” for more on that). Reports also say that most flowers of B. balcooa do not produce pollen, and few produce seed. That would be species suicide! There must be more to it.

While The Family and the guides concentrated on looking for tigers, my attention was on bamboo flowers. The main flowering period must have been late September or early October, because I could only see the dry woody remnants of the flowers. My luck never turned. Right at the end of my last day in the jungle, more than twenty minutes after sunset, I finally saw the flowers. The photo that you see above could have been substantially better if I’d come on this clump half an hour earlier. Unfortunately, I’ve probably missed my chance to ever take a good photo of a flower of Bambusa balcooa.

Guardian of the golden apples

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

Lewis Carroll (Song of the Mad Gardener)

Waiting for tigers can be futile only if you close your eyes to everything else in the jungle. Five jeeps, drawn by alarm calls of chital and monkeys, were spaced out on a track in Tadoba to get a view of a tiger. It was already a little late in the morning. In spite of the repeated calls, I was sure that it would soon find shade and lie down, without putting in an appearance. After all, it was late enough for butterflies to have started sunning themselves. I focused on a rice swift (Borbo cinnara). Five petalled yellow flowers are so common that I have difficulty identifying the man-high plant it was getting its nectar from. But I did know that the caterpillar at the edge of the leaf right at top will not grow into the same butterfly.

What makes better sense? Would butterflies put their larvae on the same plants that they would depend on for nectar later in life? Or would it be common for them to lay their eggs on a plant which they would visit for nectar? So many unknowns! Why worry about inconstant tigers?

The rice swift does have the club at the tip of the antenna which distinguish butterflies from other moths, unlike other members of its family, the Hesperiidae. The family name probably comes from the Hesperides, the women who guarded the golden apples of the tree which Gaea gave to Hera at her marriage to Zeus. Their name reflects one account of their parentage, from Hesperos, the evening star, who was also called Vesper. This one, appropriately, flitted from one golden flower to another, but was ineffective at chasing away the caterpillars which fed on the plant.

A luxury tent!

What is a luxury tent? We’d spent nights in superb tents in Kenya, with good wifi, four poster beds, and enormous bathtubs. That would qualify as luxury. The tent we found in Vaitarna was not quite the same. It was good enough, big room, comfortable bed, but somehow, it didn’t quite have the same decadent air of luxury. The infinity pool was a nice extra though.

The idea is simple. You build a platform in wood and concrete. Raise a wooden wall on two sides, and pitch a tent over it. It’s probably cheaper than building cabins. There was a line of tents near the infinity pool, and a couple at a lower level. The lower group is what you see in the photo above.

We’d not planned to spend long times in the tent. Our intention was to walk most of the day. But the best laid plans of men and mice (one of which scuttled across the floor) when taken at the flood, lead to misfortune. Mangled metaphors aside, there were storms every day. We walked in spite of them, but after changing out of wet clothes for a meal you don’t feel like walking out into the rain again. We ended up spending half of every day in. Monsoon storms are quite pleasant at the blue hour, especially when seen from inside a cosy room.

Fortunately, there was enough wine to make the long rainy evenings quite pleasant. We pulled up two of the garden chairs next to the window in the tent and spent our evenings going through the day’s photos, or planning the next walk. It was a nice break in the middle of restrictions.

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