Migrans memories

I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.

Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!

Are you storking me?

Yes, I was. Kind of. The purpose of waking up before sunrise on a winter morning and going into the damp wetlands of the Khichadiya bird sanctuary was to see herons and storks and ducks. So, yes. I was storking, and ready for this couple of black-necked storks (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) when they landed in a little dry spot in the middle of a lake. I’d missed the male’s landing, but was ready to shoot as the yellow-eyed female touched down. Elegant, isn’t it? That posture as she touches down. I wouldn’t mind an outing like that again.

Bad virus. Down! Down! I’m going for a walk, and you’re not coming. (I wish that worked)

They’re back!

The moths I used to see on walls since last winter had disappeared around the time we went into lockdown. They are back again. I don’t know whether this was due to the anthropause, or whether this is a normal annual cycles. I must watch next March and April.

I can still only identify less than half of the most common ones. Here the two I know are the spotted Crotolina podborer (Argina astrea) and the yellow-tailed tussock moth (Somena scintillans). You can roll your mouse over the photos to get the captions.

I really must invest in a field guide to Indian moths. Any other enthusiasts out there? Anyone who can make suggestions about which book to buy for Indian or Asian moths?

A new beginning

I have been in to work twice in the last week; mostly to assess how mold has spread, and what to do about it. So I welcomed the weekend morning that dawned bright and sunny on my balcony, with a hot cup of chai in my hands. Something landed on the far tip of a tree, and it bent with the weight of the bird. I looked through the zoom, and (surprise! surprise!) it was an Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria).

They are not uncommon around Mumbai, but I’d not heard one in the last few months. It is one of the largest of parakeets, and has quite a different call; easy to tell both by voice and sight. The distinguishing feature is the touch of red on the wings. The Wikipedia article told me something I hadn’t known: that they were transported to the Mediterranean by Alexander’s army when it retreated from Punjab.

The grey hornbill couple are also back; a definite signal that monsoon is tapering off. They had a bad day or two, since their old nesting tree was blown down in last month’s storm, but they seem to have found a new place to nest it. The sun is out. Monday is a full day of in-office work: truly a new beginning in the middle of a rapidly worsening epidemic.

Stretching and bending

Humans and giraffes, like most mammals, have 7 neck (cervical) vertebrae. The long-necked Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus of old) had 15. Flamingos beat all of them with 19 cervical vertebrae. So a flamingo has no trouble preening with its beak. I watched this Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) as it woke from a nap and stretched its neck to work on its feathers.

Birds have a larger number of cervical vertebrae than mammals, ranging from 11 to 25. So flamingos are not special. I don’t know where on this scale the neck of the Great thick-knee (Esacus recurvirostris, aka Great stone curlew) should be placed. Whatever the number, this odd looking bird doesn’t have a neck flexible enough to groom its wing feathers. I watched as this one stretched out its leg to do that.

I find the name thick-knee extremely good for field identification, as you can see in the photo where the leg is stretched out to preen the wings. The knobby knees are clearly visible. These knees can bend forward, unlike mammalian knees. I was quite struck by the fact that the bird woke from a snooze and began to stretch its wings, which are modified arms, and legs. Of course that must feel good.

That flamingo did the same thing, but only with one leg. Its knees bend the same way as ours. Most birds sleep with one half of the brain at a time. You can see this easily in waders which roost out in the water by the fact that one leg is retracted while it stands on the other. The relaxed leg is connected to the sleeping hemisphere. I didn’t think of looking to see which leg this individual was stretching. I don’t think I will go back to Jamnagar soon, but there are flamingos in the waters around Mumbai in winter; I’ll keep a watch to figure this out.

The past is a foreign country

The famous opening phrase of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, came to mind when my photos app reminded me of where I was a year ago: Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The phrase was apparently first used by Hartley’s friend, David Cecil, in a lecture in 1949. We all plagiarize our past, and I am nostalgic enough about having lived in that foreign planet where travel was easy, to post this video today.

Tourism made up approximately 10% of Kenya’s GDP in the past decade, with some year-to-year variation. The shock that COVID-19 has had on travel however will have much wider impact than this number suggests. According to a study commissioned by the World Bank it’ll impact the net earning of the rural poor by almost 15%, of the government by about 10%, and of enterprises by a number more or less midway between these. These huge impacts are similar to what is happening across the world.

A butterfly and a flower

Just because I am not out in the Sahyadri mountains this year doesn’t mean that the usual things you see in late August have disappeared. I’m sure there are several million people now looking at the flower of the kalmashi shrub (also called karambol, binomial Justicia procumbens). For several years, I didn’t realize that the cylinder is an inflorescence and the individual flowers usually bloom at different times. I would think that I came on it late in the season when the petals had fallen off. The genus is widespread in tropical regions of the world, and has possibly the largest number of species in the Acanthaceae family. This particular species has attracted some attention recently because of a chemical isolated from it which could be useful in treating tumours. I like them for a different reason: they attract butterflies.

Equally common at this time is the butterfly called the common crow (Euploea core). I think this photo, taken almost exactly thirteen years ago, could be my first one of this species. It was taken in the same hour as the photo of the kalmashi, in Matheran. I used to see the common crow everywhere in Mumbai before insecticides began to be used widely. Now one hardly sees butterflies in the city.

Around the World in 30 Days (4)

This was my second time in the US. After the Smoky mountains I took a zigzag path to Florida. I had no real plan except to take some time from work to make a pilgrimage to Cape Kennedy, to see the place from which the longest trip in human history was made. But some people I met up with suggested a trip to the Everglades. So we piled into a car and drove down to the National Park.

A walk through the park would have been rewarding enough for me, the sight of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from trees was so amazing. It was still a while before the world wide web would replace reference books, so it was not till that December that I had time to sit down and figure out that this was not moss, but a flowering plant, distantly related to pineapples.

It was possible to take a boat ride through the river. I was glad we decided to do that, because it was one of the most instructive rides I had. There were lots of turtles and alligators to be seen, and this picture of an alligator asleep with its snout resting on the back of a turtle was something that remained in my mind. I was surprised to look at the picture again and discover that my actual photo was not so good.

It would be decades before I began bird watching. This must have been my first time out spotting birds. As the launch puttered past stately mangroves, the guide pointed out various birds. I think the photo above was of a cast of vultures. Looking at it now along with a checklist of the birds of the Everglades, I think they were turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). I didn’t remember that at all.

This bird drying itself on a fallen mangrove does not seem to be a darter. My money is on it being a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), simply because it is the most common of cormorants in the Everglades. But it could be Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). I can’t remember, and from this photo there is no way to tell. It would be another twenty years before I learnt to take multiple photos of every bird I saw so that I could identify it later.

The bird in the center of this photo is a great egret (Ardea alba), a common bird found everywhere. I wouldn’t usually take a picture of it these days, but it kind of anchors this landscape well. This picture captures the impression of the Everglades that I hold in my memory: forest, swamp, birds, and rivers.

I eventually went to Cape Kennedy but didn’t take my camera. I can’t believe how seldom I would carry my camera thirty years ago. I found that there was a shuttle launch the next day, and was sad I would miss it because I would be boarding my flight home at roughly that time. Incredibly, soon after my flight took off, the captain announced a space shuttle to port. I was next to a window, and I looked out to see the space shuttle Atlantis. It had just taken off for its mission of 15 November, 1990. For a while I could see this ball of fire flying parallel to our path, and then it veered off and was lost in the haze of the atmosphere. I couldn’t have planned a better to start the last flight of my journey around the world.

The inner life of animals

Anyone who has spent any time with animals has no doubt that animals have an inner life. If you have had a dog as a pet, you will recognize the relaxed posture of the featured dog at rest with his favourite people. I was never happy with animal psycologists who thought of animals as simple stimulus-response boxes. If your only tool is the hammer of stimulus then you will nail all psychology into a wall of response.

Fortunately, neurobiologists have made more rapid progress. It has long been known that the brain is constantly active; neurons constantly exchange chemical transmitters causing each other to fire. This is called neural chatter. New tools allow them to eavesdrop on the chatter between hundreds of neurons at a time. Take this information and add computational tools like big data methods, and they are now able to infer some mental states of animals.

My bedtime reading from last night was a news report on the advances made in studies of simple animals: fruit flies and zebra fish larvae. Even their tiny brains, with only about 10,000 neurons, show internal states: moods, attitudes, attention switching. Some of these go beyond stimulus-response. A trigger, the presence of female fruit flies, would not only result in an immediate response, but a longer lasting internal state of the brain.

This reminded me of an uncle who suffered from advanced dementia at the end of his life. His only memories then were of his siblings. He was very fond of his younger sister, my mother. Whenever he re-encountered the news that my mother had died, he would have an immediate response, a shock of loss. Even when that memory was gone, after a few minutes, his mood of desolation would stay with him for hours.

It is a wonderful thing that what most of us believed was true of animals can now be proven in repeatable experiments. At the same time, these advances seem to be going in a nightmare direction: a dystopia beyond automatic face-recognition. My bedtime reading is becoming more and more frightening.