Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

The Bad in 402

With three days left of the year 402 ME, I have just enough time to squeeze in a few words about the real bad guys I saw this year. The very baddest of the year have to be these two goats. The one on the right leaped into the air as I watched and head-butted the other one with a loud thunk. That must have hurt! If I’d gone head to head with another person like this, I think my brains would have ended up scrambled. They continued butting heads until the goatherd came and broke it up.

Don’t ever believe that the small Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is a cuddly little thing. It is highly aggressive, not only picking lizards bigger than itself as a tasty snack for the chicks, but is also highly territorial. It’s sense of self is utterly contained within its body, and it is aggressive enough to attack its own reflection!

He who underestimates scorpions learns a painful lesson. So I was taught by one who found a scorpion curled up inside trekking shoes. They are aggressively territorial, but are also prey to several larger predators. The really badass thing about this photo is the UV fluorescence. I must get one of those black light lamps for the future.

These centipedes (Chilopoda) have lived in the Indian landmass from before the times when it broke off from Gondwanaland. These original inhabitants of India are decidedly bad for interlopers like H. sapiens, leaving painful welts on the skin if they crawl over you. If you see a swarm like this you better move quickly, these carnivores are faster than you may think.

How bad can these pretty mushrooms be, you ask? These looked similar to the poisonous and widespread Galerina marginata, and I would not take chances with it. Those cause, at the very least, permanent damage to the liver but also result in death in a very significant fraction of cases. Visual similarity is not a great guide in choosing mushrooms, but I would not risk picking them. Foraging for mushrooms is not common in India, and there is little know-how. What you see here is a possible bad guy, but the real baddie is the camera with which took the photo. It’s a small, light thing that fits in my pocket and takes sharp and bright macros. I’m so happy that I got it this year.

The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

Halcyon days

Halcyon Smyrnensis is a wonderful name for the white-breasted kingfisher. The OED says of the halcyon that it is “a mythical bird said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming the wind and waves into calm.” It certainly charms me to a halt every time I see it. The bright flash of blue on the back and the large white bib bracketing a chestnut colour that cascades down from its head, and the red beak and legs, are something that always makes me raise my camera for a shot. I was very lucky with the light near Tadoba lake. I got the glint in its eye as it turned its head.

Izmir, formerly known as Smyrna, is perhaps where the earliest reports of this bird to reach Linnaeus originated. That seems to be the origin of its specific name. It is found in Turkey and a broad band eat of it all the way to Indonesia, avoiding only the desert to the south of the Gulf of Oman. I see scattered records of sightings down the Red Sea, in Alexandria, Mecca, and Medina, even in Riyadh and Muscat. I’m not really surprised, since I’ve found it eating all kinds of things: snails, insects, and even stolen scraps of meat.

Crow

Late mornings are times when you can sit in a garden and watch butterflies. They are not early risers, they would have woken and stretched their wings to the sun while you have breakfast, and will be out late in the morning for a few sips of nectar. The common crow (Euploea core) is one of the easiest to photograph. It is disdained by predators because the plants that it has fed on as a caterpillar fill it with distasteful chemicals. As a result it can afford to fly slow and sit on a flower for long times.

Even though it is so dark, pay attention. When it sits on a flower in bright sunlight you can see its glossy wings reflect the flower. I was very happy when it decided to land on marigolds. As I’d expected, at one point it turned. and I could capture the reflection of the marigold in its wing. If you can see it from India east and south all the way to Australia, but not on the islands of the Philippines, Borneo, or Papua and New Guinea. There must be an interesting story to follow up there another time, when I have another photo of the crow.

Darwin’s pigeons

When Darwin sent his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his publishers, they sought pre-publication advise from some trusted reviewers. One wrote back saying that the book was too long, and Darwin should be asked to cut out the uninteresting stuff about Galapagos and expand the section on the breeding of pigeons. The reviewer was one of the many pigeon fanciers of his time. Although it is not such a big sport any longer, racing pigeons still fetch millions in prize money. Pigeon races apparently count among their avid followers the Queen of England.

I’d taken the featured photo several years back in Yuksom in Sikkim. It seemed to be a colour variant of the common domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Looking at the photo now, I remembered that this could well be the first species ever to be domesticated. I’d seen dovecotes in every old structure I’ve visited: from the rock caves of Cappadocia to those in ancient India. There are learned papers on the changes in the brains of domestic pigeons which allow them to home unerringly. This ability kept them in military service from the earliest recorded times to as recently as the second world war, when several million homing pigeons were used by armies (some were given medals). For a couple of tens of thousands of years humans have bred pigeons as food, as racing animals (twice as fast as thoroughbred horses), and for military communication.

It was a straightforward matter to rule out other identifications for the bird in the photo. My only confusion was whether it could be the hill pigeon (Columba rupestris). Experts pointed out that it lacks the prominent white bar on the tail which hill pigeons have. Also, those are found at altitudes of over 3 Kms above sea level, whereas this photo was taken at a height of about 2 Kms. It may not be a hill pigeon, but man’s oldest companion is nothing to sneeze at.

Dove or pigeon?

A typical question that I get asked when a stranger finds out that I’m a birdwatcher is, “What is the difference between a dove and a pigeon?” I’ll usually give a facile answer, “They are closely related. Doves are generally smaller.” But the difference is actually more complicated. Take the spotted dove (now called the Spilopelia chinensis). Its name reflects the confusion. It was once thought to have been a dove, and was given the Latin binomial Streptopelia chinensis. Following a multi-species gene study at the beginning of this century, it is now thought to be a small pigeon. It has been placed in a different genus accordingly.

It is such an utterly common bird that I normally ignore it, but just before sunrise inside Tadoba’s buffer zone, the bird strutted in such a wonderful rosy light, that I clicked the two photos you see here. How common is it? I can see records of it being spotted (yes, I will avoid the bad pun) all across Asia, south of Mongolia and east of Aghanistan, except in Tibet and Xinjiang in China, Japan, and Korea. Since the 19th century it has been reported southwards everywhere in Australia from where it spread to New Zealand, into Fiji, and Hawaii.

It has now been reported across the Pacific in California, from as far north as Sacramento, and as far south as San Diego. Why has it not crossed state lines? Could that be because it is a recent arrival in the US? A little search led me to a claim by Audubon that they were introduced in 1917. I’m not sure whether I believe that date. They breed fast, fly well, and manage to avoid raptors in their native range. So in a hundred years I would have thought it would spread further. There’s a small mystery here.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

On meeting a Gaur at dinner

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Ogden Nash

There is silence, broken only by the sound of a strong man eating

P.G. Wodehouse

The Gaur (Bos gaurus) didn’t look at me as I fiddled with my camera. Should I correct for the fact that the light was not perfect? Which do you prefer, the photo out of the box, or the one which is corrected?

The common lime

Late in the morning I found a nice spot in the hotel in Tadoba from which to do some butterfly photography. Since these flighty creatures are more active at this time, it helps to have a bright day. A common lime (Papilio demoleus) flitted along a straggly row of periwinkles at the edge of the road. In the mornings it prefers to fly low. The butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, and the caterpillars are considered to be great pests since they can munch their way through substantial amounts of leaves. Tadoba is close to Nagpur, which is a center of orange trade. So there could have been citrus trees in the neighbourhood. In any case, in there parts of India ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), another host plant for the caterpillars, is also common.

What I find interesting about this butterfly is that it is highly invasive, being found across the world. In the 21st century it managed to reach the Dominican Republic, and is currently spreading fast across the Americas. It has no natural toxins, and is an easy mark for predators. The caterpilar is also parasitized by several wasps, whose larvae eat it from the inside while it is alive. How does it manage to spread in spite of these natural barriers to growth? The answer seems to be that it breeds fast. In the region around Nagpur there are eight or nine generations in a year. In cooler places they may pupate through winter.

Later I found a potter wasp’s nest in the hotel. These wasps belong to the subfamily Eumeninae, and are parasitic. They catch larvae of beetles or spiders, paralyses them, and brings them to their mud nests. There they lay eggs inside the paralysed animal, so that their larvae can feed on them as they grow. I wonder what fraction of wasps have evolved such parasitic lifestyles.

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