A Green Mantis

Sometimes when I pass by a hedge I look down at the leaves, hoping to see an interesting insect. This small green mantis counts as one. As you can guess from the photo, it is a tiny insect.

You can identify it as a mantis by its triangular head and the bulging compound eyes on the sides of the head. If you look closely, you can see three grey dots on the head between these large eyes; they are the three simple eyes which these animals also have. The spiny grasping forelegs cannot be seen, presumably they are hidden below its body.

A mantis has to be a gardener’s friend. It eats other insects almost constantly, and is effective in controlling pests in a garden. If they were not so common in India, gardeners would probably buy them by box-loads and release them. It could be less dangerous than pumping a garden full of poisonous chemicals in order to kill insects. Unfortunately they also eat up all the probiotic insects: the ones that help to pollinate plants, for example. Still, it is better than pesticides.

The most Dangerous Airport in the World

I first heard about Paro airport from a friend’s son. When he was ten years old, he was addicted to flight-simulator games, and Paro was a legendary airport to him and his little group of enthusiasts. I first learnt from him of the extremely steep angles of approach and take off, needed because Paro is a deep valley, at an altitude of 2300 meters, surrounded by peaks which are over 5000 meters high. This was not all, he said, it had a short runway, and the approach had to wind through a safe path between mountains. Interestingly, since the beginning of civilian flights in 1983, Paro airport has not had a single accident.

A few years later, I was in a party of four who flew in for our second visit to Bhutan and saw all this first hand. On our previous visit we had taken the road up from Phuentsholing on the Indian border. The flight took off in the early morning from Kolkata. Later I realized why. The pilots make a visual approach, and have to return to Kolkata and be ready to try again the same day if the weather turns bad.

A good view of Everest over a cloud bank

Our flight was uneventful. We had a clear view of the massive summit of Mount Everest. Auguries are part of the culture of Bhutan, and the calm and majestic view of Chomolungma augured well for our trip. The uneventful trip included a hair-raising descent to Paro airport. We could clearly see the mountain walls which seemed to hang just outside the windows of the cabin. The plane twisted and turned through the valley of the Paro river until it came down to a perfect soft landing at the airport. The small cabin broke into applause. It was well-deserved, the pilot was one of the handful who are qualified for Paro airport.

Paro airport terminal, Bhutan

Bhutan, with its population of half a million, was a refreshingly informal place. We could stay on the apron and admire breathtaking views of the walls of mountains rising around us. Eventually we moved into the squeaky-new airport terminal, got our visa and moved on.

Green jewel bugs

If you are the kind of person who looks closely at leaves and trees now and then, it won’t be long before you start seeing the aptly named green jewel bug everywhere. It is widely spread across continental Asia. I see it in gardens all the time. So I was not going to post the featured photo.

But there is something interesting about these true bugs: apparently they are not found in the islands of Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Japan. The photo you see above was taken in South Andaman near the Mount Harriet National Park. I wanted to put on record the fact that there are islands where it can now be seen. Whether it flew or was carried there by winds, or was introduced inadvertently by humans is unclear. Interestingly, the upper parts of its legs are orange, whereas the ones I’ve seen before all had green or black legs. There seems to be quite a bit of variation in form, size, and colour in this species, so I’m not sure how significant this colouration is.

It is fairly easy to photograph these, and other, metallic shield bugs. They are easily seen on upper surfaces of leaves, branches and flowers. They do not hide the moment they spot the huge eye of a camera looking at them. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that they can release bad-smelling chemicals when attacked, and therefore are not good things for predators to eat.

Above Delhi

I was so tired of travelling in the last two weeks that I stopped packing my camera. So, when I found myself sleeping on the seventeenth floor of a hotel in central Delhi, I was not really prepared to take a photo of my unusual location.

Why unusual? Because Delhi is largely made of low buildings, which race across two neighbouring states, assimilating villages like the Borg. Only central Delhi grows upwards. The profits involved in building high in this tiny area are such that the stringent rules about safety in an earthquake-prone area do not deter builders.

My hotel room was deep with a narrow floor-to-ceiling window. Many lights needed to be kept on constantly to make it liveable. The thick heat-retaining walls required more electricity to cool it. Like all modern hotels, the structure was completely sealed off from the external world. The yellow and red buildings which you can see in the featured photo seem to be similar in spirit (although window air conditioners in some of them are incongruous). The building with hexagonal openings on alternate floors is a bureaucratic nod to "Indian" design which gone out of fashion.

Every building I could see went up beyond seven floors. I counted eleven floors and more in many of them. I was in one which went up beyond twenty. Delhi is definitely growing up!

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.

The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

The Real India

Ideas take a long time to ripen. Around the beginning of the century half the human population finally moved into cities. Ripe to overripe takes a short time; I now read that by the end of this decade about two thirds of India’s population will probably move to cities. This thought struck me as I moved very slowly through traffic in a smaller city in India.

What is smaller? A population about halfway between that of Barcelona and Madrid, and a bit more than a tenth of Mumbai’s is what passes for small here. The tremendous growth of cities means that space is scarce. Land use patterns are the same as before, so housing, work and leisure districts have each become denser. Many more people then need to move between these areas, so transport is the big new problem.

Flying in to Patna after a decade, tremendous changes are visible. Great efforts have been made to manage traffic in the central part of the town. Extensive systems of flyovers are portals between the east and west of the town. The centre still gets crowded, but no more so than a decade ago.

It is in one of the older parts of the city that I took this photo. The variety of traffic on the road amazed me. The man walking down the middle of the road is moving faster than the average speed of other vehicles. The slowdown in caused mainly by hawkers parking carts full of merchandise in the middle of the road, or, as in the photo, trying to push it against the traffic!

The boatmen of Bhitarkanika

When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.

Tourist boats of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.

Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.

Boatman of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.

Knock, knock, knocking

Two of my early memories merged together very strangely. One is that of the boy who could not keep up with the Pied Piper of Hamelin and spent his life trying to find the place where the piper was leading his friends to. The other is Bob Dylan’s song from which the title of this post is taken. When I hear a woodpecker knocking madly at a tree, they trigger this little chunk of memory in me. As I sat after lunch under a tree in the jungle in Bhitarkanika, I heard the drumming sound of a woodpecker, and came out to look. I saw this wonderful flame back woodpecker searching for its version of paradise.

If I were to hit my face rapidly and at high-speed against a tree, I would knock myself out in a few tries. The reasons that a woodpecker survives are visible in the photo. They have to do with modifications to the spine and the way the head is attached to it.

The most visible adaptation is the shape of the head. The elongated wedge shape of the head is due to two factors: first the bones at the front of the skull have thickened, and the muscles at the front, which anchor the beak, are immense and serve as shock absorbers. It seems that there are also adaptations in the way the brain is attached to the skull which prevents it from slowly being battered.

Another easily observed adaptation is the wide shoulders. This is due to the enlargement of the first set of ribs. The expanded ribs anchor very strong muscles which serve to hold the neck steady. The woodpecker strikes only at right angles to the surface, so that the beak and neck muscles can damp the recoil. A sideways strike would twist its neck.

A third adaptation is visible in the photo: the stiff black tail feathers. These balance the woodpecker in its vertical stance on a tree as it drums away. Apparently the last few spinal bones are fused to stabilize the woodpecker. The toes are also adapted to hold on to trunks of trees.

All of these features are generic to woodpeckers. The shape of the head, the wide shoulders, the stiff black tail feathers, just a glimpse of these is enough to tell you that the bird you are looking at is a woodpecker.

Woodpeckers may have begun to evolve about 40 million years ago, when the shifting of continents began to create today’s weather. The resulting spread of angiosperms and the conversion of sub-tropical forests to deciduous forests created the conditions which we see today. This opened up the ecological niches which the woodpeckers fill today. So many changes are required to adapt to a lifestyle based on digging insects out of the bark of a tree!

Startled by a tree frog

On a day’s visit to Chennai, I was startled when a seemingly formless wet and brown thing jumped out from the toilet. Then, as it jumped around the walls, it resolved into a tree frog. Its colour would let it hide on the bark of a tree. I didn’t have my good camera with me, only my phone. I took a photo, eased out, and switched off the lights. The next time I went in, the frog was gone.