Watch for differences

One of the ways that I relate to China is to think of how similar it is to India: the crowds, the somewhat cavalier attitude towards public cleanliness, the friendliness of the ordinary person. That’s my mantra for negotiating a foreign country whose language I neither speak nor read. But you have to watch for differences within the commonalities. These give you a frisson of otherness, the newness that one travels to feel.

One such came on me quite unexpectedly. The Family and I sat for a while in front of Yuhua Hall in the Yu Garden of Shanghai, to admire Yuling Long (the Exquisite Jade Rock), when my attention was diverted by a flock of sparrows sunning themselves on an outcrop of rocks nearby. “House sparrows?” I asked The Family. “Maybe”, she responded.

I wasn’t so sure. I clicked a few photos for reference. Now when I look at my field guide, I find this is not the Passer domesticus, but the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus). This is uncommon in India, being found in the mountains, in a belt stretching from Uttarkhand to the east, and in most of the North-Eastern states. My first view of it was in a garden in Shillong. However, it is common across Europe and Asia: from Ireland to Japan, and Siberia to Borneo and Sumatra. You recognize it by the black ear patch on an otherwise white cheek and throat. The sexes look alike, as I noticed while I took the photos. What a lovely surprise hidden among all the wonderful things that we saw.

Advertisements

Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.

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.

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.