Some Assamese Butterflies

I have posted earlier about some of the butterflies and moths which I saw in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. There were many more which I saw. Here are some of the others. I recognize several of them, but I’ve not managed to identify two. They are also thrown in here, in case you feel up to helping me out.

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Slaty-headed parakeet

When we mentioned the Great Himalayan National Park, birders would reflexively say Himalayan Monal. That’s a shy bird we have seen before, always running away startled, and this time was no exception. The slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) was seldom mentioned. It is a spectacularly coloured bird, and you have to climb into the Himalayas to see it, so it has a claim to being the signature bird of the park. The parakeet can be seen across the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. We saw raucous groups of these parakeets on our aborted walk from Gushaini to Ropa.

In flight, when their wings and tails open up you can see the scarlet patch on the wings, and the blue and yellow tail feathers. The distinctive feature is the slaty head. This individual had a faded slaty colour, but there were others in the group with a darker gray head. This lighter head-colour marks out this bird as a juvenile, meaning it is less than three years old. We saw them towards the end of the breeding season, and perhaps the heavy activity was partly due to the necessity of feeding fledgelings.

We saw these birds as we climbed up towards Ropa, on slopes at an altitude of over 2 Kilometers, and saw more them as we climbed. They would descend to lower valleys in winter. Since these are the only parakeets which live at such heights, they are also the only parakeet which are forced to migrate with the seasons. The squaking calls followed as we went back down the path. We must have seen these parakeets before, but I had no memory of it. Nor did our notebooks contain a mention of this birds. So this must have been a lifer.

Cranes of Mumbai

The two-day long monsoon shower ended around the middle of Sunday. I took this as an opportunity to walk through the back streets around the stock market. Even on a Sunday there’s usually something interesting going on here. I walked past the very busy street vendors and looked up at the tower of the stock exchange. I’d not noticed before how many data cables cross at all angles above the street. It looks like a safety net against the eventuality of a stock market crash. Poking up through this street-wide-web was a crane.

One of these old buildings had been pulled down and a new and unexciting concrete box was coming up in its place. The crane was parked right in front of it. The young man operating it looked really relaxed, feet up on his seat, moving the crane with a delicate touch of his left hand. I’ve seen people play arcade games with the same nonchalant elan. The cabin door was open and I thought that bright blue splash against the yellow cabin made a good picture.

This was a duplex crane! In the rear cabin someone was asleep, head resting on the disabled steering. I guess the operators were internal immigrants. Their work place is where they live most of the time. Usually workers who immigrate to the city share a rented room where they sleep in shifts. This man was either too tired to go back, or had decided that it was more efficient to sleep at work. I hope he is properly rested by the time his shift starts. A little inattention while manipulating the crane probably would not damage the neighbouring buildings, but could play havoc with the overhead cables.

Flowers of the middle heights

The middle heights of the Himalayas are particularly pleasant. The famous British occupation-era “hill stations” of Shimla, Darjeeling, Naini Tal, Dalhousie, Mussoorie, among others lie at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. These famous destinations are now monstrous scabs on the flanks of the Himalayas, where tourists still flock. But away from these madding crowds are nameless villages dotted across the mountains at similar heights. They lie nestled in little flat pieces of land accidentally created by opposing slopes coming together. These accidental valleys often have water, and look out on pleasant meadows full of wildflowers. You see one of these in the featured photo. It is the Himalayan baby’s breath (Gypsophilia cerastioides)

These bushes spread out from below rocks, as you can see in the photo above. In late spring the low bushes are full of the five-petaled white flowers. The Young Niece asked the obvious question, “Why are there five petals?”. Once I’d asked this to a practicing research biologist and got the uninformative answer, “In biology we ask what, not why.” If you ask the Oracle of Google “Why do flowers have five petals?” you remain baffled. The most useful answer turns out to be “Because they are descended from other five-petaled flowers.” I know that another niece would have said something like the number of petals is a number in the Fibonacci sequence, and is related to the Golden Ratio. That is as unhelpful as the answer by the biologist. When we ask why, we would like to have an answer which gives us a chain of causes and effect. Anything else is just resetting the question in a different context.

Further downslope, where the meadows grow less rocky one can find fields of balsam. I don’t think I’ve seen this species before, with its long serrated leaves and the cup-shaped purple-pink flowers with large white anthers full of pollen. I was unable to identify it better. Interestingly, balsam also has five petals. The best argument from causes that I have read about pentapetalism (to coin a new word) was developed by Yutaka Nishiyama at the Osaka University of Economics a few years ago. He argues from the observation that the tip of the growing bud has to be convex. A five-fold symmetry at the growing tip is the most stable way to achieve this, for the same reason that a soccer ball has some pentagonal panels. Since petals grow out the tip of the growing bud, they will have five petals. His argument does not rule out other numbers of petals, but explains why almost 50% of families of flowering plants have five petals.

I include the flowers which you can see in the photo above not because they are wild, but because they are green. I saw them in one of the fields terraced out of a slope for agriculture. If there is something I know less about than wildflowers, it is farming. I am totally unable to say what these plants are. I’m sure if I’d stopped a local and asked I would have had instant enlightenment. Around the edges of these fields we saw the bright red flowers of large-mouthed poppy (Papaver macrostomum). That’s another five-petaled flower!

That’s something new

When I saw this motorcyclist on the highway from a distance I thought he was carrying balloons. I tried to get shots as we closed in on him. The Young Niece craned her neck around Soni to look, and she was the first to say “They aren’t balloons, they are balls.” Indeed they are, and also buckets, wastebaskets, laundry hampers and other plastic things which you might need in the house. The Family was also involved in this little story by now. “Is he a door-to-door salesman?” she asked. We overtook him as he puttered on behind trucks.

Later, on this highway cutting through Punjab we passed this other man, motorbike loaded with brooms and woven cane baskets. The Young Niece was dozing, and The Family glanced out of the window without making a comment. I thought he was not less interesting than the previous guy. The sights nagged at me until I remembered a sight I’d seen next to a highway in Assam, at the other end of the country. That’s the photograph below: a motorbike laden with packets of food making deliveries to roadside stalls.

All these motorbikes are delivery men, just like the Amazon delivery men on their motorbikes in cities. As rural India becomes more prosperous, a new delivery chain is growing to satisfy the needs of small shops. While big companies and their ancillary services target the prosperous middle class in the compact markets of cities, the far-flung countryside of India is also going through a consumer revolution. Their demands are too small for the giant trucks which ferry goods to cities on the same highways. These motorbikes are part of this new story.

Russet or cinnamon?

It was the week of the tenth anniversary of my first sight of a russet sparrow when I took the featured photo. I think I’ve seen this bird on all our trips to the Himalayas, from Arunachal in the east to Himachal in the west. I’ve been following common usage to identify it as the Passer rutilans. The first person to publish a description of a bird gets priority in naming it. It seems that there was a forgotten dispute about first description which was originally resolved one way. But new historical research shows that it should have been resolved differently. So, it seems one should refer to this bird as the cinnamon sparrow or Passer cinnamomeus.

It is an interesting story. Coenraad Jacob Temminck was the first director of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden from 1820 until his death in 1858. He inherited a collection of stuffed birds from his father, who was a treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and had strong connections with Asia. He published a description of many birds and animals, including the russet sparrow, to which he gave the name rutilans. The description of the russet sparrow was published in a volume of a book which was dated 1835.

John Gould was an expert taxidermist (famous for helping Darwin to identify finches) and the first curator of the museum of the Zoological Society of London from 1827. The Society obtained a collection of birds from the Himalayas. Gould described this lot, including the russet sparrow, which he called the cinnamomeus. The report was published in the Society’s proceedings dated 1835, but it was published on 8th April 1836. Now it turns out that Temminck’s book also appeared some time in 1836, and, since the date is not exactly known, by common convention it must be taken to be 31st of December, 1836. So Temminck is dismissed by a technicality and the sparrow must now be called a cinnamon sparrow.

Looking at the photo I wonder now about a detail I had not noticed then: what are the blue flowers in the lower corner of the photo? Could it be the rare Himalayan gentian? Probably not, because that flowers in the monsoon, and this photo was taken in late spring. There are not too many tiny blue flowers at an altitude of 2.2 Kilometers above sea level, so this should be easy to place. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to.

Proboscis

This moth was probably a football fan. It flew in while we were watching one of the World Cup matches, and hid behind a curtain all night. Although this type is common in Mumbai, like most moths it has no common name. So I’m forced to call it the Pygospila tyres. I’ve seldom noticed the proboscis of moths, but here the coiled organ was so visible that the photos I took are concentrated on this. The proboscis is a tube which combines the functions of a drinking straw and a sponge for mopping up fluids. Ray Cannon has a very nice blog post on the proboscis of butterflies.

Scientists love to group all moths and butterflies together and call them Lepidoptera. This is useful because they have many features in common. All Lepidoptera which have proboscis are called Glossata. I didn’t think there was any need to have a new word for this; don’t all Lepidoptera have proboscis? After all, since the time of Darwin, people have studied how flowers and proboscis have shaped each other. You might be as surprised as me to read that there are some, although very few, moths without this organ. Some of them have mouths designed to masticate pollen, and some finish all their eating while they are caterpillars!

The proboscis is weirder than I’d ever thought about. Once it is uncoiled, Lepidoptera suck up fluids using muscles analogous to those in our cheeks and throats, so a drinking straw is not a bad description of it. Uncoiling uses a mechanism similar to erectile tissue in our bodies, in the sense that body fluids are pumped into the organ to flex it. Moreover, the adult stage of the insect forms the proboscis after it has emerged from its cocoon by fusing together two different appendages. But the oddest thing is that there are flexible sensory organs all along it (think of sensitive fingers) which give the insect a clear picture of the shape of the flower that it is probing.

Further searches led me to even stranger information. It seems that fossils of Glossata have now been found which are 212 million years old. This was a time when flowering plants had not yet evolved, so what use would there be for this organ? It seems that the era during which the newly discovered fossils lived was a time of ecological crisis. The ancient super-continent of Pangaea was beginning to break up and the atmosphere was full of greenhouse gases from the volcanoes which were tearing apart the continent. In this hot dry atmosphere water loss from the body would have been a major issue, and proboscis could be used to lap up even minute quantities of fluids. Even today Glossata ingest fluids from puddles of mud, mammalian sweat and avian tears.

The football fan was not interested in my tears or sweat. When I opened the window and flicked it off the curtain it disappeared into vegetation with strong beats of its wings.

Nightflyers of Falachan

I’ve written before about my frustration at not being able to identify moths in the field. There has been no change on that front in this month, except for the realization that one could try a different angle on it. The lights outside the rooms in Dilsher’s hotel attracted a very large number of moths. Some of these could still be seen early in the morning sitting on walls made of stone. I would be able to photograph them before they could fly away to wherever they spend the day. Looking at the photos I wondered whether I could tell anything about where they hide in the day.

The green moths probably hide in vegetation. I saw few of these, but the ones I did were very beautifully patterned. There are others whose wings mimic bark. If they sat on a tree trunk in full sight I would probably not notice them at all. Some are brown and yellow and probably spend the day hidden in leaf litter on forest floors. That leaves me guessing about one: the beautiful white one with red stripes.

Shoja

The distance between Jalori pass and Gushaini is not large, but the roads are narrow and hug the mountains above the winding courses of the Tirthan and Banjar rivers. We drove quickly through the town of Banjar. We had a glimpse of shops fronting narrow roads. A few turns, and the road had left the town behind. We wanted to stop for chai, and Soni decided that Shoja is the best place for a morning’s cuppa.

Shoja turned out to have all the charm that Gushaini and Banjar don’t. The Young Niece oohed and aahed about the view, so I walked with her a hundred meters along the road to the end of the town and took the featured photo. We’d been seeing these terraced fields near every village, but this was the nicest view of that we’d had. The clumps of chir pine (Pinus roxburghi) and banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) salted through the fields, clouds descending from the mountain tops, and the beautiful light were something to enjoy in silence.

When we walked back our chai was ready. I gulped down my glassful and wandered up the road to take a few photos of the town. The tailor was already at work at his pedal operated sewing machine. The booth behind him must be the trial room. I was surprised that the village is large enough to support a tailor full time. I guess its main earnings are from farms and orchards. Tourism may bring in a little money, since there are possibly some home-stays and a hotel in this village. It looked very clean and more prosperous than Gushaini, but that may just be because it hasn’t grown haphazardly.

By now everyone had finished their tea, and we all walked back down the road to take another look at the farms around the village. I got another shot of the slopes and the farmhouses nestled in the fields. There are several interesting small walks around this village, but I had one planned at a higher altitude. We piled back into the car and drove on to Jalori pass.

A nameless village

Dilsher gave us driving directions. The route took us to Gushaini, where we crossed the Tirthan and took a road which wound high above the Falachan river. About a kilometer from the village which was our destination we found that the road was under repair. We parked the car and walked over the broken stones in the road bed. With the directions, and GPS, I know exactly where the village is; I can find it on maps and satellite photos; but I cannot find a name for it. It was definitely worth a trip, just to see what traditional houses and village layouts are in this area.

As you can see from the photo above (and detail in the featured photo), some of the houses are elaborate. This one had thick mud walls at the lowest level, and steep stairs to climb up two levels to the living space. The lowest level holds livestock, the next is space for feed, and the topmost level is for people. Wood is used extensively only in the area meant for people. I’d seen this kind of overhanging wooden box also in the divisional town of Banjar, where the lower floors were given over to shops. Now I saw where this construction comes from.

Not all houses are equally elaborate. You need space for livestock only if you own some; so the big house belonged to someone who was rich in this village economy. Other houses were smaller wattle-and-daub constructions, as you can see in the photo above. Mats are fixed on to wooden frames, and then covered with clay and painted. Interestingly, the house has two stories, and a balcony running across the front of the upper story. The two nearer structures are sheds to hold hay. Since this was lower, I could easily see the admirable slate roof. I was also quite impressed by the solar panel on top of the pole. Is the need for electricity small enough that a panel like this suffices?

I saw no signs of air conditioning; in this place you don’t really need it. Heating for winter would be an issue, but it wouldn’t be electrical heating. I didn’t see refrigerators, but satellite TV had arrived, as you can see from the dish in the photo above. All in all, the amount of electrical power needed per household would be small. I liked these two houses in completely different styles standing next to each other. The one with the upper floor box is unpainted; the one with the balcony is painted in bright colours. The man who you see here was friendly and curious about us. He gave us a little tour of his neighbourhood, trading question for question.

We did not go inside anyone’s house, so I never found out how the rooms are organized: is it one large living and bedroom? Or are these internal divisions separating kitchen, eating and sleeping spaces? The larger organization was clear. The center of the village was a large open square with an enigmatic temple which I have written about earlier. The village is laid out in a series of linked squares with houses around the open centers. The largest houses stand on the square with the temple; the further you go, the smaller the houses become. In a square adjoining the one with the temple I found a well and two children playing. In this photo they lean over the well.

You can see that the social organization is changing. There are new and fairly large houses at the periphery of the village; they climb up the surrounding slopes. The photo above shows one such house. The house itself looks different: the lower floor has windows, which means it is not used for cattle or feed. The roof is made of corrugated metal sheets, and the wood is painted. But perhaps the most striking non-traditional addition is the brick and mortar outhouse with a plastic tank full of water resting on its cast concrete slab of roof. This seemed like it was part of the government’s worthy push to add toilets to every house. The toilet blocks look identical everywhere in this country; they have been designed in Delhi. Fortunately availability of water is still not an issue here; I saw taps outside many of the houses.

The newer houses often use non-traditional materials. This one stood close to the entrance to the village. Again, I saw windows on the lower floor, indicating that all floors are used by people. This house was elaborate: it had balconies and a box just below the roof. I was struck by the use of corrugated metal sheets for the sides. They can’t possibly bear the load of the upper floors, so there must be another structural part of the wall. Is that a wooden frame or a thick mud wall? My reluctance to knock on the door of a stranger meant that I never found out. Of the many things which I did not know about this village, this was perhaps the least. The main thing that I should have asked the curious guide we picked up was the name of the village.