Temple life

The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is such a grand structure that I had to take it slowly, in little bits and pieces. Here was my first gentle entry into the life of the temple: a squirrel which skittered along a wall before I could take a photo. Then it paused on the far side with the brush of its tail showing above the wall. I had a sudden sharp memory of buying very delicate paint brushes when I was a school child; they were made of squirrel hair.

In Tamil Nadu red and white stripes on a building denote a temple.

Advertisements

Brahminy kite

Pamban island is supposed to be a good place to watch migratory birds starting in October. We were probably a couple of weeks early, but The Family had packed her binoculars. As it turned out, the beaches were so wonderful that we forgot to take time off to go look for birds (yes, you’re right; we are not natural born birders). On the occasional mud flat next to the sea in Dhanushkodi we saw very few birds: some sandpipers, no egrets, kingfishers, herons or gulls. If the migrants had already started coming then we should have seen some.

We saw lots of crows and black kites (Milvus migrans) beating against the wind. Looking closely at them I realized that there were several Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) amongst them. These are close relatives of the more common black kites. I eventually took a photo of one at a tiny pond next to the road in Pamban town. These strikingly coloured scavengers are found in an arc of land from India through south eastern Asia all the way to Australia. It has been a long time since I saw them. Interestingly, although their numbers are decreasing rapidly, they have still not fallen catastrophically enough to move them out of the “Least Concern” category of the IUCN red list.

A resident in the garden

It is strange to find how little is known about the norther palm squirrel (Funambulus pennantii). It is common in gardens and wild areas across north India, from the Western Ghats to the Himalayas, and westwards into Iran. So little is known in fact that the observations I and my cousins made as children are state of the art: they are gregarious, often several of them can be seen in the same tree, and they do not restrict themselves to a single tree, but explore large areas. As children we had discovered the large untidy nests that they build to rear tiny naked pink pups in. We’d not noticed that only the mother takes care of the child, but had driven several mothers to distraction by trying to feed leaves to the young.

Nothing is known of their role in the ecosystem: what they eat and avoid, and who preys on them, very little even about their life expectancy. If I was a master’s student in ecology in search of a subject for a thesis, this would be a wonderful species to study. They are used to humans, and sometimes not even spook to touch. I photographed the individual you see above in Indore. It was using a heap of bricks as a vantage point from which to survey its neighbourhood. What was it looking for? Why was it not afraid of the crows in the neighbourhood?

House sparrow

I had time before catching my train. I sat down in the cavernous central hall of Paris Gare Montparnasse for a petit dejeuner. It was not to be complet, because a bunch of fearless sparrows descended on my croissant and picked it to pieces. It was a small price to pay for the photos. These Parisian Passer domesticus were perhaps the most fearless that I have seen, although I’d grown up watching sparrows steal grains of rice from my grandmother as she cleaned it for lunch.

I remembered these photos when I read a report about the genetic mutations which separate P. domesticus from its nearest cousins. The comparison of genomes of different species of sparrows showed two kinds of mutations: one which affects gross structure, and a subtle biochemical change. About 11,000 years ago, about when humans were busy inventing agriculture, the domestic sparrow separated out from its nearest cousins by changing its skull shape to give its beak the power to break the hard-to-shatter grains which humans were developing. At the same time, it developed the ability to digest starches, just as dogs did.

The house sparrow is not a domesticated species. It is a wild animal which has learnt to live around humans, like the peacock. And now we are beginning to learn how deeply we have changed the living world around us.

A most supercilious bird

Walking about Ujjain’s Jantar Mantar I was expounding boring theories about the resurgence of medieval astronomy in early modern India when I heard the harsh call of a peacock. The Family clearly found this call electrifying. She broke off towards the tree where the call was coming from. The bird wasn’t hard to spot. It was sitting right there in the shadow below the canopy and calling loudly. It looked down its beak at us for a while, like the villainous Shen from one of the Kung Fu Panda movies.

Peacocks must be terribly common in Malwa. Just the day before, I’d seen one perched on top of a dead tree next to the highway, doing nothing except looking faintly ridiculous. I find them fascinating when they walk about on the ground. When one is up on a tree its exaggerated train looks exactly like out-of-control clothes on a dandy. When all other pheasants I know of are shy creatures, who run away at the sight of humans, I wonder why the peafowl is so indifferent to us.

In fact, when you browse the IUCN Red List you find that most pheasants are endangered due to loss of habitat, but not the peafowl. It has adapted to humans. It cannot be an accident that the peafowl is most closely related to turkeys, another species which has adapted to humans. I haven’t found detailed studies of this adaptation, but one of the most important reasons must be that they do not eat crops, and therefore are not considered to be pests. Are they also able to use the disturbed landscape efficiently to forage in? I’ve seen them in gardens and forests. Are they generalists in terms of utilizing landscape for breeding? I haven’t come across answers to questions like this. Perhaps there are studies but they are hard to find.

Life in an overgrown garden

When you walk around a ruined medieval citadel you are likely to come across much more than humans. In the sporadically maintained garden of Mandu we came across many of the wonderful creatures we share the earth with. I wrote about some of the birds earlier, but I’d missed one. A peacock displayed its wonderful feathers to a peahen. The peahen looked up once and then sauntered away. I and The Family were the only others in the scene, and we paid him more attention than the object of his love. C’est la vie.

Where there are plants and birds, there will also be the creatures which link these into a web of ecology: the insects. The most noticeable were the butterflies: the common emigrant, the common crow, the common tiger and the common lime (in the photos above). There were many moths too, but I’ve said before how bad I’m at identifying moths. I won’t even try now.

The little pools of water had some water lilies. I stood and admired a small pool with these pink lilies. I saw some motion there, and looked closer to find a bee exploring the flower. What an industrious fellow, I thought to myself.

Another pool had lotus. No bees here. I took some photos and was about to walk away, when I noticed this jumping spider in one of the blooms. These predators often hide inside flowers, waiting for an unwary insect to come in search of dinner, only to become someone else’s dinner instead.

I’m always happy to find creatures like this grasshopper. I don’t see them very often, but there must be many of them around. I guess I’ll just have to make a trip with an entomologist to figure out what tricks I’m missing. I suspect the main trick is to look closely. There’s life everywhere you look, unless people have been spraying insecticide.

Free birds

Ruins and villages may be closer to nature than cities, but they are not exactly forests. The birds that you see in such places are ones which have adapted to profit from the disturbances that humans create. Around Mandu we saw several birds, but a bird watcher in a city will see most of them. The featured photo shows the green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), common across a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia: from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east. I love this colourful and commonly visible bird. I hadn’t realized earlier that it is appropriate for Independence Day; it has the colours of the flag.

The white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is another common and widespread bird, being found across Asia, from Turkey to the Philippines. It has learned to supplement its diet by scraps of meat from kitchens, and is now commonly seen around human habitation near water. It allows a photographer to get reasonably close, so this shot against the sky is not among the best I have.

The red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is not easily visible inside a city. But this large wader is common in wetlands anywhere in southern Asia, from Iraq to the Philipphines. I saw these large birds everywhere in Mandu, even in Jahaz Mahal. This photo was taken in the garden just outside the palace.

Although this is not a high-quality photo, I’m fond of it because I caught two different species in the same shot. The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is common is various terrains, including cities, across Asia. It has been introduced in Hawaii, California, Australia and New Zealand. The other bird is a coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) was common in our garden till recently. It is a common Indian bird.

Like the rose-ringed parakeet, the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is another species which I notice around ruins. I watched this one as it hopped and flew along ruined walls in Mandu. Unlike the parakeet, it does not take to gardens inside cities. We were not really looking for birds, but were happy to have this added extra.

A remarkable bird

I’ve never paid much attention to the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). After all, they are common as dirt. If you go past villages, you see them trailing after cattle. If you go driving through jungles you find them following rhinoceros, elephants and herds of deer. In cities I’ve seen them following lawn mowers. In the monsoon, they put on their mating finery. The pure white feathers turn a bright ocher on the head and neck, and their beaks and legs turn into the same colour. Once I was photographing a bunch of them inside IIT when a girl stopped by and asked “Are they very rare?” I told her, “Not very,” and she left a little disappointed.

But this very common bird turns out to have an uncommon story. Until the middle of the 19th century CE, the bird was restricted to the tropics and sub-tropics of Asia and Europe. Then it began to take over the world. It was seen in the Cape province of South Africa in the early 20th century. At about the same time it was sighted in South America; then in 1933 it was reported in Old Providence Island in the Caribbeans, and spread to North America soon after. In the 1940s it touched down in Australia. There is no record of these birds being transported across the seas; to the contrary, there are scattered observations of small flocks spotted crossing oceans. In the 21st century it has spread from its original habitat in Spain and Portugal to northern parts of Europe.

If these birds are able to cross oceans, then they must have done so in the remote past as well. So the new thing is not its dispersal across the world, but its recent establishment in almost all continents. It seems likely that this has something to do with ecological changes brought about by humans. The scientific speculation that it has spread following cattle brought by humans, (and the conversion of forests to pastures) has gained currency since it was first applied to observations made in the Caribbeans. But England and Ireland, where the egrets established themselves only in 2008, have had cattle through recorded history. So cattle raising cannot be the only trigger for the century of expansion of the cattle egret’s range. Could it be that climate change, in the form of hot summers and mild winters, also has something to do with the spread of the egret?

Utterly common butterflies

When you spend a weekend walking through ruins overgrown with wild flowers and creepers, you are bound to come across a few of the commonest of butterflies. I saw Pioneers (Belenois aurota) in large numbers. The Indian cabbage white is often also found in similar places, so I needed to take a closer look at the brown markings on the wings to make sure which one I’m looking at. The pattern that you see in the featured photo marks this out very clearly as a Pioneer. The cabbage brown would have smudges of brown at the edges of the wings, without the enclosed white dots. The Pioneer is found in a wide geographical arc from South Africa to India, including Madagascar and Sri Lanka.

I passed through a garden where a sunny patch had attracted a large number of the Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe). Their colours are extremely variable, ranging from chalky white to a pale green; nor do they have any clear markings for identification. This bunch was pale green to my eyes, but the camera seems to have caught a different colour. A butterfly’s colour has more to do with the diffraction of light rather than pigments. The difference between the photo and what my eyes saw is a wonderful reminder of this fact.

Perhaps the commonest of the butterflies that I took a photo of is the common grass yellow (Eurema hecabe). I’ve seen these small and bright yellow butterflies flying between cars on roads when verges or dividers have grass. Sometimes they appear as unbilled extras in movie sequences shot in grassy meadows. The underside of the wing has the more muted colour. Like the Pioneer there are distinct wet and dry season forms with different colours and p[atterns. Since a butterfly lives for less than a month, the seasonal changes are due to environmental factors changing during the development of the butterfly. These are such wonderful systems in which to study the question of nature versus nurture!

Common birds of San Francisco bay area

I was doing some archaeology with my photos and found some which I’d taken of birds in the San Francisco bay area eight years ago. This surprised me immensely because I did not think of myself as a bird watcher in those days. Maybe it was because The Family had already started carrying binoculars and field guides to birds on our holidays that made me take these photos in backyards and walks. I took the featured photo out of a kitchen window one morning while making a tea. I think that is a Western Wood Peewee (Contopus sordidulus). I have a couple of other photos, all of the same quality, but together they seem to defy an alternative identification.

In the same patch of ground at the same time I also spotted this small yellow and black bird. Again I have several photos, none of them very good, but all together indicating that this is perhaps the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). It is certainly small enough to be one, and the colour makes it unlikely that it is anything else.

Afterwards I stood in the kitchen with my tea and photrographed this dove. I hadn’t seen anything before which looks like this. It is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). The birds I saw were all common birds, with a large range and stable population. They are of no concern to conservationists. I found them interesting then, because I knew nothing of New World birds. I have a memory of planning to identify them later. I could hardly have thought that the plan would mature almost a decade later.

The commonest of American birds was new to me. I found now that I have several photos of the American robin (Turdus migratorius) apart from the one you see above. This has a much more faded red in the breast than the variety I’ve seen on the east coast. Perhaps that means it belongs to the subspecies propinquus, which is one of the two subspecies which one can see in this area. I suppose I spent a bit of time photographing this bird because it looked different from the robins I’d seen before.

Identifying the bird which you can see in the photo above was not easy, although I have several photos. The reason, as ARKive says, is that the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) “from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour”, although it is one of the commonest birds in North America. If you look through the photos in that site, you see how different they can look. Although the Wikipedia page has several photos, none of them look like this.

I spent quite a while looking at this common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and because I thought that I’d seen something quite similar halfway across the globe. My impression was correct. The web page of the Audubon Society says that it was brought to the Americas in the 1890s, and has since spread across this new habitat. My photos show the typical feeding behaviour of this adult male: poking at the grass repeatedly and eventually tugging its prey out of the group (photo above). I didn’t seen any flocks, though.

Finally that little song bird that is so common that I ignored it until it sat down on garden furniture right in front of me. This is the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), which can be found everywhere from central Canada to Tierra del Fuego. That probably makes it one of the commonest of American birds. I wasn’t really looking for birds during that trip, and it is just chance that I took these photos. As a result, I have photos of the commonest of birds in the Bay Area.