10 images from year 403 which I liked on second view

For my post on the last day of the year 403 ME, I decided to look through the photos I took of the past year and pull together all those which still looked interesting to me: water birds scolding, wheat fields ripening, water buffaloes wading into a lake, and other such. Even as you look at them, the earth is speeding towards that special point in its orbit, that place where it is closest to the sun, the perihelion: that unique point from which one can truly count the beginning of a new year. The earth has been falling since July, picking up speed as the year ends. It has been moving faster and faster as it whizzes downhill, towards the new new year. Tomorrow, as it turns past that mark, it will begin to lose speed as it climbs up to July again.

Yellow grass
Tsechu in the Hemis monastery
How many Chital (Axis axis)?
Cattle egret turn into tractor egrets
A coot leaves behind disturbed water as it takes off
Stumped!
Micro green forest
Make way! Make way …
St+Art Mumbai: art must be engaging
Red dwarf honeybees (Apis florea) having a water cooler moment
Roadside tyre repair shop
A hospital can be beautiful
Two long-billed pipits (Anthus similis) confer
Cactus flower: angiosperms come in such variety!
Hog deer (Axis procinus): now you see me …

Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

The morning I saw Chomolungma

When The Family decided that we have to start walking in the Himalayas, she had in mind the famous week-long treks like the Annapurna base camp, Har ki Dun, Phulara ridge, or Sandakphu-Phalut. But since I the job of arranging it came to me I immediately started thinking of day-long walks. After all, we’d hardly walked at a height before. The only trek that I knew which fitted the bill was one that a very experienced trekker friend had told me about a year before his death in the early days of the pandemic. He’d told me that it was a fairly level day’s walk, although you were 3 Kms above sea level, and that the real payoff was the view of four of the world’s five highest peaks from one point. In the photo above you can see the path winding up to Sandak Phu; it would have taken us four days more to walk up there for a better view. When we saw Chomolungma flanked by Lhotse and Makalu, the view was a coda to our friendship. I’m glad I finally did it. I’m glad I could show it to you.

The trek we were on was the Tumling-Tonglu trek, which is part of the Phalut-Sandakphu trek. I’d contacted a reputable company in Darjeeling to arrange the trek. We started from our hotel at 6 in the morning, and watched the sun rise over Kanchenjunga, as we drove to the busy border town of Manebhanjan. Treks along the protected bioreserve of the Singalila ridge start from here. The town was clearly involved with the football world cup. After a breakfast of paratha and alu dum, washed down with chai, we got into a Landrover and got off at Tumling. This Nepali village is at a height of 2970 m. We would then walk about two and a half kilometers, climbing a 100 meters to Tonglu village, where we would have lunch. Then in the afternoon we would walk another six kilometers to Chitre village (2500 m) just above Manebhanjan. Google told me that this was a two hour walk. Our guide assured us that it would be at least double that. I’ve noticed this problem with Google’s algorithms when you are walking in the mountains.

It doesn’t snow at this altitude in December, but there’s a brisk wind over the ridge. The temperature was around 7 Celsius, but the breeze made us zip our jackets tight. There are a few trees on the leeward slope, but they are stunted. There is grass, and many low bushes. Most of it was dry and unrecognizable now. When we come back here one April I’m sure there’ll be flowers. The temperature must have fallen below freezing at night, because we saw frost still remaining in the shadows. Sangay, our guide, looked at it and said “Winter may come early this year.”

There are few people here. The villages are tiny, and the number of trekkers is not large. There were some who’d stayed overnight in Tumling. We waved to a pair who were having tea outside the general store and restaurant made of corrugated metal, which you see in the photo above. We passed a little chorten, a stupa, surrounded by lungta, windhorses, things that we know better as prayer flags. The ridge line here is the open border between Nepal and India. The paved road is Indian territory. We were on the windward side of it, because of the gentler slope and that put us in Nepal.

The land never slopes entirely in one direction of course, so in the middle of a gentle climb you often climb down and then climb up again more steeply than you’d expected. I was enjoying this walk. After the experience in Leh in July, I’d not crossed the 3 Km mark till now. The walk was entirely pleasant. The breeze was moderate as log as we kept ten meters or so below the ridge. Soon I’d taken off my cap and unzipped my jacket. I stopped now and then to follow a raven’s flight, and once to marvel at a lone snow pigeon which banked in flight above us, its wings looking reddish brown in the sun. We’d seen a family of Kalij pheasants on our way up. I couldn’t see or hear any choughs.

The landscape was dappled with the shadows of clouds. The browns and blues of winter were a wonderful change from the dusty gray of the plains. I kept stopping to look at the rocks. Most of it seemed to be metamorphic schist or gneiss, with lichen growing on the surface. The Family had walked ahead, and she spotted the huts of Tonglu. Even without that it was clear that a village was nearby. A couple of mules munched on the dry grass. The spring water near us was draining into a large plastic tank. By 11:30 we had reached our lunchtime destination. With all the halts for views and photos, we had taken two hours to walk roughly as many kilometers!

Treepie textures

Gray treepies (Dendrocitta formosae) are easy to spot. Fearless as most corvids are, they can often be heard in the foothills of the Himalayas. Quite frequently you’ll see them on tall stumps of dead trees, looking out for food, while calling away: the corvid equivalent of people sitting in restaurants and talking on their phones. I was happy to get this shot just before my breakfast one day. The good light on the bird and its perch was really welcome; it shows the contrasting textures of the wood and feathers.

Dragonflies of the Tals

Most trekkers give the Tals a pass these days, although there are nice walks available. The reason is perhaps that the lake district of Kumaon is too full of urban tourists doing urban things like boating and shopping. Among the nature-loving brigade it is mainly the birders with their binoculars and books who wander about the tals, peering into trees. They may not realize that this area is full of dragonflies. On a casual day I spotted many Ruddy marsh skimmers (Crocothemis servilia, also scarlet skimmer) by the side of Ram Tal. The lack of a black stripe on its back indicated that this belonged to the subspecies C. sevilia marianne.

An hour earlier I’d seen two other species sunning themselves on the banks of the small Nal-Damayanti Tal. One was the Crimson-tailed marsh hawk (Orthetrum pruinosum), easily told by the contrast between its purple-black thorax and legs and the crimson tail. The other was the Blue marsh hawk (Orthetrum glaucum), again easily told by the dark blue colour from its eyes to the tail tips. In better light I could have seen the differences in shades in different parts of its body. All three are common dragonflies, but a little wait can reveal less common species.

Left to right, bottom to top

Sometimes you are just lucky. We stood watching four lionesses dozing. They weren’t moving. There wasn’t time to look for anything else before the light went. So I just took a few photos for practice, when one got up, shook herself a bit and then did a lazy stretch. She looked like she could do with a cup of coffee. If it is a promise of action that you want, that diagonal is exactly it.

Intrigued, I looked through the photos I took that day in Masai Mara. In that absolutely flat landscape how many diagonals did I manage to include in my photos? A zebra’s haunches not only provide bold diagonals, they are also the biggest contrast in that dusty tan landscape. The occasional Acacia provides the only vertical in the landscape, and the necks of giraffes are another angle. An elephant’s trunk and a lioness’ neck provide more gentle slopes to keep your eye from getting bored. Interesting how much your hand does unconsciously when you train it.

Chick

At first I thought this was a very unkempt bird. In the morning light it’s outline looked very messy, as if it had tossed and turned all night in its nest, and needed to sit in the open and preen now. Looking through the viewfinder I realized that I was looking at a chick still in its down jacket. I wasn’t quite able to recognize it until I looked around and spotted an adult. It was the familiar Baya weaver (Ploceus philippinus), so easily mistaken for house sparrows until you hear them.

I’d not seen its beautifully woven nests here. Even now I couldn’t. The grass was too tall in this place next to the Haripura reservoir. It was the perfect habitat for these grain eaters. They would get lots of grass seeds near the nest, and also forage in nearby fields for rice. The adults hopped and chittered, their usual active behaviour. The chick clutched on to a thick stem, as if afraid of falling off. Interesting that young humans are more active than the adults, but here it was the opposite.

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.

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.

Speaking of grasslands

Perhaps the most beautiful, and least recognized, habitat of the middle Himalayas are the grasslands. I was mesmerized by the number of birds that I could hear. And then I could see birds fluttering through the open canopy: so many warblers and woodpeckers! One that was completely new to me was the upland pippit (Anthus sylvanus). It has been reported across the Himalayas from Pakistan to Bhutan, and also in southern China. But it is said to be rare. That it is. This was my first sighting. Don’t miss the foliose lichen on pine just below the bird. It is taken as a biomarker for clean air these days, since they die when the SO2 content of air goes up.

I looked up-slope of the road and down-slope. That haze in the distance was mist in the lower valleys. The sky above me was a clear and bright blue. I was in the middle of a huge patch of grassland, dotted with chir pine (Pinus roxburgii, long leafed pine). You can see the shiny leaves of a single banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora, white oak) in the corner of one of these shots, but there were no patches of oak woodlands to be seen. I’d thought that the pine grasslands are bereft of life but the songs of warblers, the rapid fire drilling of woodpeckers, and the occasional territorial call of pheasants told me that I’d been wrong. These grasslands are a complex ecology, and I would find both flowers and insects here. I like the division of labour in which The Family looks at birds, leaving me free to look at the smaller things.