Raindrops on dragonfly wings

Sitting on a balcony in the rain with my camera, I saw a Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens, also Globe skimmer) sheltering under palms. Tiny drops flecked its wings. From the beading of the drops it seems that the wings are water repellent. I’ve seen them before in this season. Their numbers usually peak now, between September and October. They are the commonest of dragonflies in the parts of the world where most human live (which are all the places in the world where the temperature never falls below 20 Celsius). But they are uncommon travellers, as I was told recently (by Kim Smith).

Apparently they migrate between India and eastern Africa. It is believed that around the end of October these 5 cm long dragonflies will begin to journey across the Indian Ocean. On their way to Africa they will mass the Maldives. They are usually visible in the Maldives around November, and their numbers drop off by the end of December. Another peak in their population in the Maldives is in May. These peaks are correlated with the trade winds (monsoon). A clincher to the theory of their cross-oceanic migration would be direct observation, of course. But even if there were peaks in their abundance in Africa in January, or in India in June, it would be corroborating evidence. Since there is no evidence of this kind, this long-distance migration remains a hypothesis, although one with strong support. Perhaps the numbers which make landfall after the migration is small, and are replenished by breeding. There seem to be mysteries behind even the most common observations.

Two spiders

Orb-weaving spiders (family Araneidae) are generally what I notice, not the ones which hide in leaf-litter. The one in the photos above had woven a neat web in an opening in a wall when I first saw it. When I came by with a camera late the next day, the web was much less neat; it had torn and been repaired. Either someone’s hand had gone through the opening, or the rain and wind had torn it. I don’t know much about spider identification, and I have not seen a field guide for India yet, so anything I say is a guess. Just based on the shape I wonder whether it belongs to the genus Eriovixia or Eustala. This one was in the middle of its web during the day both times that I saw it, so that might rule out Eriovixia, which weaves orbs, but then hides in leaf-litter with a telegraph line connecting it to its web.

This seven-legged spider is quite likely to be a species of giant wood spiders, perhaps Nephila kuhlii. The banana shaped body is what leads me to this tentative identification. I guess it must be on the older side, since it has lost a leg, perhaps in a fight. I spotted it in a nallah on the side of the road when we stopped at a tea stall on Malshej ghat. That portion of the nallah was thick with spider webs, all of this one species. some of the specimens were smaller, likely younger, and had red legs, and dark bodies without the spots. Do their legs darken and spots appear on their bodies as they grow older? Or was this a different species? Even if it is different, the yellowish colour of the silk in the web indicates that it still belongs to genus Nephila.

Flies of the Sahyadris

Sarcophagidae. That’s what this family of striped flies are called. This one was almost a centimeter long. I came across it on a walk in the Sahyadris last week. Otherwise known as flesh flies, they can either lay eggs or maggots on decaying flesh. I’ve seen them across the south Asian region: from the valleys of Bhutan to the southern end of the Western ghats, and from the Sahyadris to eastern Tripura; wherever there’s a humid wilderness, or uncleared garbage. But if you want to approach it for a photo, make sure that there’s no decaying matter nearby. The maggots of some species are known to cause myiasis, maggot infections, in humans. I came across a checklist dating from 2002 of subcontinental flesh flies which could serve as the basis for a field guide, if you are interested. I have a collection of photos taken over the last decade. Perhaps on a hot day, when I’m stuck in the house, I can try to identify them. I’m assured though that flies are as difficult to identify as moths, one can seldom identify them by appearance alone.

Another bothersome family of flies are these shiny specimens: blue, green, or bronze. I’ve seen these Calliphoridae across South Asia too. I saw this one, bigger than a centimeter, in the Sahyadris las week. Although a checklist specific to India was available since 2004, I’ve not felt an urgent need to be able to identify them down to species level (again, something I may leave for a hot summer afternoon). A few species of these can also cause myiasis in humans, and are best approached carefully. However, there are attempts to raise them in clean laboratory conditions and use their maggots to clean dead tissue in human patients. That’s a treatment that I may not be an early adopter of.

A small and dangerous world

We spent a couple of nights last week in an extremely wet part of the Sahyadris. I’d expected the room to be full of mosquitos. It wasn’t. I discovered why only when I turned my macro lens on the lovely brick wall that the architect had designed. It was meant to be a substrate on which moss would grow. Indeed it does. But my camera caught more than moss, as you can see. The canyons between the bricks were walls of silk.

Mosquitos, and other insects were decimated by the microscopic predators which live in the environment that we have built for them. My macro lens barely caught a glimpse of the spiders; they are less than a millimeter across (you can barely see it in the photo above). I won’t find it listed in a field guide. If I want to identify it I will have to catch an expert. I wonder where they used to live before humans began to build an ecology specially for them. We worry so much about feral dogs and the loss of cheetahs. We have no idea what havoc we play on the ecology at these sub-millimeter scales.

Bactrian camels in Ladakh

First shock: Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) survive entirely as domestic animals, or in populations which have gone feral. Wild Bactrian camels are a separate species, found in extremely small numbers across northern Asia. Second shock: Asian camelids diverged from the new world camelids only about 25 million years ago! Did founder populations walk across land bridges during the ice ages? Third shock: the two-humped Bactrian camels and our familiar one-humped Dromedary diverged less than 800,000 years ago. As a result they can still interbreed and produce fertile offspring. In a thought-provoking book called Otherlands, Thomas Halliday discusses exactly this process of speciation. He draws an analogy to a river which bifurcates into two streams, and asks at which point one can begin to say that a parcel of water belongs to one stream or the other. Near the beginning of the bifurcation it is not clear at all; a little parcel may flow towards one stream before an eddy sends if off in another direction. Similarly, as two species begin to diverge, two individuals of opposite sex from the two species will still produce an offspring. Only later, when the species have diverged fully, will they not be able to produce fertile offspring. Dromedaries and Bactrian camels seem to be at this stage.

But all this was background. I was trying to figure out why there are Bactrian camels in Ladakh. As with many Ladakhi puzzles, the answer is the Silk Route. It passed Leh, crossed Khardung La, traveled across the Valley of Death, now called the Shyok river valley, funneled north into Tajikistan, before bifurcating into two: the southern route went to Kabul and Peshawar, the northern to Samarkand and on. Tajikistan is at the eastern border of the ancient Persian province of Bactria, and it supplied camels to cross the high deserts of Ladakh and Tibet. When modern borders snapped into place in the 1950s, a small population of Bactrian camels were left in the Nubra valley. In this century they are being bred again to provide safaris for tourists. The Family walked among them in Hunder, where the largest herds are, and came back with these photos.

Life in thin air

At an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level the air pressure, and the amount of oxygen in every lungful of air you take in, is a little less than half of what you have at sea level. The amount of water available also decreases as you go up. The thin air and lack of water make for high deserts, until you get to the edge of the snow line. Here, where melt water is abundant in summer, life thrives. As we approached the high pass of Khardung La in Ladakh we entered such an altitudinal oasis.

Vegetation was sparse right at the top. But just a little way down was the village of Khardung, sitting on a stream that flowed from the meltwater around the pass. But even before we reached the village, we could see meadows where cattle were at a leisurely breakfast. I looked carefully at the black shapes: all were cows or dzos, crosses between cows and yak. Not a single one had the muscular shoulders of the yak.

Sitting quite apart from the cattle were a few donkeys. This was the first pack animal I’d seen in Ladakh. In many parts of the Himalayas and trans-Himalayas, motorized vehicles have replaced the mules and donkeys which were common a lifetime ago. But perhaps in these remote villages, where life can be snowbound for half the year, donkeys are still useful.

Right at the top of the pass I’d seen flocks of yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus, also called Alpine chough) doing the aerial acrobatics they are so fond of. The air was full of their deep musical tones. I looked carefully but saw none of their red-billed cousins. Both are creatures of heights; you won’t see them in Leh. On the chorten where the chough sits in the featured photo, I could see sprigs of juniper. There were no trees that I could see. Do people bring juniper branches with them when they cross? Lower down, just above the 4.8 Kms mark, we stopped for a chai. Flocks of pigeons wheeled in the air. Most were common pigeons (Columba livia), but I saw a few Hill pigeons (Columba rupestris). The one in the photo above was a lifer; the white band on the tail, and the white under the wing are characteristic of this species. Later I saw many more in Leh.

While we had chai there was time to look at the vegetation in this altitudinal oasis. There were stunted bushes of something that could be a tulsi or mint. The nearest bushes lay up-slope, and I wasn’t up to a climb to examine them closely. So I had to pass up the chance at a better identification and satisfied myself with the possibility that this belonged to family Lamiaceae. Of course, this is a large family, with over seven thousand species, but there cannot be many that grow so high up.

I’d been seeing bright orange patches on stone as we came down from the pass. They were to bright to be the mineral colours that we’d seen in rocks in this low-oxygen environment. Now that I could take a closer look, I found that it was the common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina). This is a leafy lichen, a hybrid of fungi and algae. I find the symbiosis of different organisms making up lichens to be very interesting. For the first time on this trip I missed my dedicated camera for macros.

I’d thought that the green cover was entirely grass. I was not correct. There was grass, of course, but quite a bit of the green was due to a spreading succulent. I should have thought of that, deserts are usually full of succulents. It’s one way plants have of conserving water in a dry environment. Now that I know there’s such a variety of life at this altitude, I’ll have to stop and look carefully in future: perhaps I’ll even get to see the insects and small mammals which live up here.

Likir

Likir was a slog. Even after the previous day’s walk to Hemis gompa, my body had not fully adjusted to the low oxygen levels in Ladakh. I saw the long flight of stair leading to the Likir Gompa and told The Family that I would not go inside with her. Instead I tried to find my way down to the little mountain stream below. Gompas are named after villages, but streams and rivers have different names. A close look at the map later never gave me a name for the stream. So I’ll call it Likir, after the village. Nasir Khan saw me negotiating slopes slowly so he decided to drive me to the river, promising to pick me up on his way down again.

The river was a wonderful sight in the parched land. I shakily crossed a few boulders to touch its cold water and feel the spray it threw up as it gushed over rocks. The pleasant sound of the river seemed alien in this high desert where I’d only heard the wind carrying tiny human voices earlier. I usually like to photograph streams like this at different exposures to either freeze the motion (as I’ve done in the featured photo) or to use a long exposure to convert it into a smoky fluid gliding over rocks. Unfortunately I could not try out a long exposure that day. I hadn’t brought a tripod or monopod with me, and my hands were too shaky from the lack of oxygen in the thin air.

A movement on the opposite bank caught my eye. A lizard had moved up a rock, into a sunnier spot. Was it really the Montane toad-headed Agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi)? It’s eyes certainly did bulge. Was it’s head big enough? I was at an altitude of 3.7 Kms, which should be high enough for this species. But I’m not good at identifying lizards, so I’m open to correction. The thin air at these heights let in much larger amounts of UV than my eyes (and camera) is used to, causing a lot of glare. I’m not really sure that the colour has come out properly. Is it really that sooty? Or did it have a bit of brown in it? Look at the close up and decide whether it could be one of the more common Himalayan Agama (Paralaudakia himalayana), but without its colourful throat patch.

Although it was only mid-morning, I felt much better with my glares on. In this light it was easy to imagine that I saw the Kluukhyil, water spirits, swimming along the river. But it was only a Cabbage white (Pieris canida). It is a strong enough flyer, but it floated lazily right now, perking up only when it lit on a flower. I’m sure this was a thistle, but I can’t figure out which. Butterflies are very active at mid-morning, and my hands were still a little shaky in this thin air, so I was glad that the light was bright enough to get in a couple of sharp photos.

What I didn’t get a single shot of were the birds. There were two flitting about. One was a mountain chiffchaff, but I’d already seen that the previous evening. The other seemed to be a crow. There are no house crows or jungle crows here. The only crow you can see in this sliver of Ladakh is a carrion crow (Corvus corone), which would have been a lifer, if I’d seen it properly. At this time, unfortunately, its quick movements and its tendency to keep in the shade made it impossible for me to put it on my list of birds seen. Soon, Nasir Khan was back, and The Family was seemed to have liked what she saw in the gompa. We were ready to push on to Alchi.

Looking at the moon

There’s an old and widespread story of how Chukar partridges (Alectoric chukar) keep gazing at the moon, in a case of unrequited love. The sighting of a pair of Chukar gave me a lifer as we came down from the 5.5 Kms high pass of Khardung La towards Leh, two kilometers below. The male held this moon-gazer’s pose as long as we stopped to watch, while the female foraged. My guess is that he was on the lookout for other males. During the summer’s breeding season the birds, which are otherwise gregarious, have been seen to turn territorial. Once the incubation of eggs start, the male is said to leave (although there could be a conflicting report). You can see from the photos here that the male and female are very similar in size and shape. This lack of sexual dimorphism in birds usually happens when the parents take turns in the rearing of young. So I guess there is more dependable knowledge of the breeding behaviour of Chukar which I haven’t come across.

I was sure that there were pheasants and partridges to be seen around Khardung La, so I’d kept a keen eye on the passing slopes. As a result, I saw my first pair of Chukar at an altitude of slightly less than 4.5 kms. They are not birds of extremes. In fact their natural range seems to extend in a wide band stretching from the east of the Bosphorus to the the Pacific coast of China, with a finger reaching down to the Sinai peninsula in Africa. Breeding populations have been established in Europe (where they corrupted the gene pool of closely related species) and North America. It’s actually quite a feat of bad luck to have missed then around Dehra Dun, Haridwar, and Naini Tal, where they are easily visible. But this sighting at least moderated my disappointment at not seeing snowcocks in Leh. It also puzzled me to see a pair this late in summer. Hatching an egg takes less than a month, but I would have expected fledging the chicks to take a couple of months at least. By then it would be mid-October, and cold enough to make foraging hard at these heights.

Because of their wide availability they have been widely hunted in the past. So I was surprised to see that there are continuing studies of the histology of these birds with new discoveries being reported even now. There have been studies of the population genetics of Chukar from China, and of climatic effects on their size from Israel. But the oddest study I came across was of their electrocardiograms (ECGs) from birds which were awake. What I could see from this was that their heartbeats would be considered unthinkably abnormal for humans. But in the absence of data from other birds, I wonder what one can conclude from such a study. Still, knowledge is knowledge I suppose. Who knows how it could be used in the future.

More birds of the Terai

Springtime is the right time to visit the foothills of the Himalayas. All the birds which came down to the plains in the winter begin to move back up to their breeding grounds. Since they move up at different times, and are trying to get to different altitudes, a week in the Terai will yield a lot of sightings. This spring we took two trips: one to the east, to Manas NP in Assam, and one to the west, to Corbett NP in Uttarakhand. I got the featured photo of the stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) in Corbett.

Seeing the beautiful Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) in Corbett NP was like running into an old friend. We used to have this spectacular long tailed birds in our garden until insecticide killed its prey base. The females are equally beautiful, but lack the showy tail. The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) used to be another old friend with whom I seem to have lost touch. I was happy to see two of these jauntily crested fellow sitting on a tree in Corbett NP.

I’d seen the spangled drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus, also hair-crested drongo) first in Assam. This photo was taken in Corbett NP. You can see the spangles on its breast, but the long crest of thin hairs is not clearly visible. The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is perhaps even more common, but I liked the light on it as it came down to the Ramganga river for a drink in the evening.

This solitary Pallas’ fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) sat for a long while on a branch, looking around alertly without flying. Interestingly, they have been reported from all around Tibet: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Are they not found in Tibet? Or, like Afghanistan, is the lack of reported sightings just a gap in the data? The jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), on the other hand, seems to be only Indian, but widely distributed from the edge of the Thar desert east to Assam.

The Silver-breasted broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) that I saw in Manas NP was a lifer. A colourful and quiet little bird, it looked back at us, and did not fly away. The black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) was another lifer. Once a locally common bird in the eastern Himalayas, it has become extremely rare and is now reported from only three places in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and another in Manipur. It is a skulker, hard to spot in the tall grasses it lives in, and quickly leaves the locality when it is disturbed. I was happy to get this single photo.

This photo of the Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis, also Broad-billed roller) from Manas NP keeps confusing me. It isn’t a blackbird, just the usual dark blue dollarbird sitting in shadows inside Manas NP. In its breeding season it has the spectacular display flight of the rollers. I was happy to see the rolling and diving flight in Corbett NP.

This post appears on schedule while I travel.

A crested kingfisher

My first, and till now, only, view of a crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) came as we drove across a shallow riverbed in the Dhikala range of Corbett NP. I’d looked at the bird and mentally classified it as a pied kingfisher when Adesh grew excited and pointed it out. Indeed it was much larger than the pied, and it had a wonderful crest. The moral is an old one: chance favours the prepared mind. I hadn’t done my reading, had no idea that there was a lifer possibly waiting for me, and if it was not for Adesh, I would have seen the bird and not recognized it for the special sighting it was.

You can see this bird in a wide arc across Asia, from Afghanistan in the west, across the lower Himalayas, and into China, Korea and across the sea in Japan. Southwards, it may be visible in parts of Bangladesh, and northern South-east Asia, into Vietnam. When I looked at the bird through the camera I saw a much finer pattern across its chest than a pied kingfisher would have. Of course its defining feature is the untidy crest. I don’t think I’ll mistake it for the pied kingfisher in future.

This post appears on schedule while I travel.