Peekaboo!

I knelt and looked between the leaves of a plant. But from that angle, it was easy to see the giant African land snail in the featured photo. On the other hand, I completely missed the snail that appears in the lower photo: look near the middle of the bottom edge of the photo below. The shell is brown, with what looks like white spots. The body of the snail is black. The mushroom heads were about a centimeter across. The whole snail cannot be more than a millimeter long.

It was sheer luck that I got it. The better your camera’s lens, the more you can see! Does anyone know about microscopic snails? Any ID? I’m no good at this.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

A super spreader

Millipedes have two pairs of legs in each segment of their body, whereas centipedes have a pair per segment. That’s how you identify these harmless leaf litter-eating creatures from their more irritating family members. This yellow-striped dark leaf-mulcher, the Anoplodesmus saussurii, is a very efficient converter of leaf to soil, common across the tropics (being reported from Madagascar, Fiji, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, USA, Martinique), and is said to have an Indian or Sri Lankan origin. Based on colour, it is sometimes mis-identified as the Harpaphe haydeniana, (which is found only in the Pacific coastal region of North America, from Alaska to California) or the Orthomorpha Weberi (which is rare, and has been found only in Bogor, in Java).

Darwin’s last work was his study of the transformation of a landscape by the action of earthworms. This was the founding study of what is now called bioturbation, the perturbing of soils by biological action. Mulching and home recycling of food waste uses earthworms, but gardens with their leaf litter, so useless to most animals, are turned over by millipedes. That’s why these yellow-striped dark leaf-mulchers are so common around gardens and urban areas, as well as in undisturbed ground. They are said to be extremely efficient at breaking down the detritus and recycling it into soil.

Anoplodesmus saussurii, a common millipede in the Western Ghats

I came across statements like this while looking at these papers: “The millipedes belong to class Diplopod, a highly diverse group of terrestrial organisms with over 12,000 described species and an estimated 80, 000 species yet to be described” or “The millipede fauna of India is only poorly known and the records and descriptions are widely scattered in the literature. Indian Fauna of Diplopoda is represented by 11 orders, 20 families, and about 120 genera and 500 species.” I realized that I’m unlikely to ever contribute to any of these counts. But then there is also the fact that “These ancient soil invertebrates have a significant impact on the soil due to burrowing, litter breakdown, and the mixing of organic and inorganic substances in their digestive system which are allocated to different soil layers.” I could study that at home, I thought.

Anoplodesmus saussurii: Length 21–33 mm, width 3,5–4,8 mm, body large and very broad. General colouration of adult individuals is shiny dark brown to black. Ventral part of collum and rounded short paraterga are bright yellow, and legs are light brown. The metaterga are smooth with a deep transverse groove. The male gonopods are of unique shape.

Peter Decker and Trudy Tertilt, in Nature in Singapore

I needed to build a small terrarium and populate it with these creatures. I found that you have to be careful while handling them. When disturbed they secrete cyanide; their bright colours warn predators that they are poisonous. You can easily collect tens of them in a spadeful of humus. After copulation (featured photo, three pairs) the female lays several hundreds of eggs. You could study the whole life cycle, and the rate at which these creatures degrade organic matter. I’m so glad to have found something to occupy me after I retire!

Litter and milli-machines

The sea continues to fall on our heads. It doesn’t feel like just raindrops, but then cryin’s not for me, as the song says. So I got my tiny new camera and went out to photograph the leaf litter in the garden. It’s supposed to be waterproof, and the lens is said to be good for macros. Just perfect for the monsoon, the rotting leaves, and the tiny things that scurry down below, rebuilding the world. These are the millimeter scale engines of the ecology.

The beetle on the wall was half a centimeter long. The lens is good. It does focus stacking, so I spent the morning picking up the basics of how to use that. Now I’ll have to figure out how to store the images. Having twenty or thirty nearly identical shots could fill up my disk rather quickly. I’ll have to delete more images. Once this house keeping is done, I can get to the more interesting subject of trying to identify the mushrooms and insects I saw. I’m an absolute novice, so I’ll be grateful for any help. If you can identify something down to species or genus, let me know.

Goa in the monsoon

Monsoon in Goa: an advertising catchline from the 80s and 90s, when the hoteliers decided to fill up the empty rooms left after the party crowd disappeared. Winter is a washout with all the music and booze on the beach, so you might as well try to see the other Goa in the magical months of monsoon. This is one time when there is a truth beyond the lies of advertising.

The year I took these photos I realized that Goa is a wonderful place to observe the monsoon as it comes in to the Western Ghats. The wonderful plants and insects, the frogs and the moths, straggle down to Goa, to meet the birds and crabs of the coast. You can go for long walks, or drive to lonely spots, with your camera and catch some of the beauties that you might otherwise see on treks through the Ghats. You can lead a solitary life if you wish, broken by exchanging passing greetings with the fisherfolk who are the original inhabitants of this place, or long conversations with the university types over a strongly Portuguese-influenced lunch.

Or you could just stay at home on rainy days, reading, eating the sausages or dried fish in boiled rice, stepping out into the garden on the beach between spells of rain to capture the play of rain and sun on vegetation. It is a life to dream about in these constrained years.

A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

A last look back

The end was abrupt. We walked back from the edge of the last lake, and then there was nothing else to do. We piled into the car, nosed on to the road, and realized we had started on our journey back home. It would be a day and more before we reached Mumbai, but our holiday was over.

Perhaps I had come to appreciate the mosaic of pine grasslands and oak forests that dot the lower Himalayas, perhaps I had learnt a little more about the wildflowers that grow here. But as we left the lower edges of these sal forests, all I felt was that I hadn’t yet recovered from the first lockdown. I had not looked at the news at all, and was determined to go off to the upper heights of Sikkim before the Rhododendron season was over. The Family looked quizzically at me every time I said this. She had tried to tell me that Mumbai was already in a second lockdown, but I’d not paid attention.

It was early afternoon, the worst time of the day for birds. Still, on the way out from Sat Tal we kept our eyes out for some. I missed a wedge-tailed green pigeon lurking in the undergrowth next to the car as The Family brought us to a halt. They scoot when disturbed, so if you have missed one you don’t see it again. It would have been a lifer for me. I did manage to get shots of two of the more common birds. The featured photo is of a verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) I saw at a stop, whose distinctive colour is called copper-sulphate blue in the Wikipedia article and turquoise-blue in eBird. The spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis, earlier Streptopilia chinensis) that you see preening in the photo above is even more common.

These stops didn’t delay us much longer. In no time we were speeding past Bhim Tal. We stopped at the last bend in the road before we lost sight of the area, and walked out on the narrow verge. We looked back at the lake district of Kumaon. I hadn’t even noticed the jacarandas before. Now I took a last shot of one against the fields of the valley. Then we were back in the car, turning the bend.

Skimmers

Sat Tal is a wonderful place for birds, if you are up early or stay till sunset. Since we reached in the late morning, the best we could see were tourists at tea stalls. The air full of smoke from forest fires were not the best for any climbing, and the smoke-filtered yellow light was not great for photos.

We walked out over the narrow causeway separating the Ram Tal from Sita Tal, hoping to get in a bit of a walk before trying to find lunch. A shaded path looped partway around the lakes. Under it I found a couple of butterflies and two of the dragonflies (Anisoptera) called skimmers (Libellulidae). The red one you see in the featured photo was so common that I’d seen it before, and could identify as a Ditch Jewel (Brachythemis contaminata). Sat Tal is almost on the plains, as this sighting confirmed. I would not have seen it at higher altitudes.

The systematic identification of dragonflies involves looking at the way its eyes are placed, the colours of the wings, and the colours and patterns on its thorax. For a casual watcher like me, the first priority is to get a good photo. If it so happens that these photos allow me to identify it later, I’m happy. This small black dragonfly was not so easy to identify. After some bit of going back and forth, I think this is a Black Ground Skimmer (Diplacodes lefebvrii, also called a Black Percher). I wish I’d seen it in better light.

A plain earl and a restricted demon

One of the fun things about butterflies is the names. It is so easy to conjure up a tale of the fantastic with just two sightings: one of a small butterfly called the Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia) and the other of a middle-sized one called a Plain Earl (Tanaecia jahnu).

As we checked out of the hotel in Naukuchiatal, I spotted the Restricted Demon sunning itself on the leaf of a potted plant. The larva feeds on a variety of useful plants: ginger, turmeric, plantains. So the demon part of the name is easy to understand. The restricted part may come from the fact that it needs a temperate climate, and cannot be found in every place in South and South-eastern Asia. As I took the featured photo, I wondered which plant this demon had destroyed earlier in its life.

We’d decided to spend our last day in the hills walking about the Sat Tals, before leaving Kumaon in the evening. The Sat Tal area was full of smoke from forest fires. As we walked around a lake, the light was strange, filtered through a haze of smoke. I was glad that my mask could filter out most of the pollution as I bent and squatted repeatedly to take photos of butterflies and insects. The ground was strewn with oak leaves and pine needles. They formed an interesting background when I took the photo of the Plain Earl that you see above. I suppose the subtle shadings in the castes of Britain (colonial Britain had no life peers) loomed large in the minds of the colonial naturalists who named them.

Sulphur cicada

Before I took this photo I used to think that all cicadas are brown and ugly looking. Cicada watching is popular in East Asia. In Japan it seems that almost no child grows up without some familiarity with them. Each month of spring or summer has a particular cicada’s sound associated with it. So much so that a manga only has to put that sound in a panel to tell you the time of year in which the story takes place. Growing up in India, my friends and I never had much to do with cicadas. When I heard them in our hotel in Naukuchiatal, I only registered their sound as a peaceful background noise. I saw a large yellowish and black insect flying above the canopy of trees around us a couple of times, and wondered whether it could be Golden Birdwing butterfly, before dismissing the thought because the insect was not large enough. On our last morning I saw several over a nearby tree, pointed my camera at them, and captured the photo above. What a surprise! It was a cicada, the brightest that I’ve ever seen. A Sulphogaeana sulphurea. It has been reported from much higher elevations in Uttarakhand. This may be the first report of it at these lower elevations!