After yesterday’s broad look at the Aster family, I stepped closer to look for plants that I could identify. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) is the one I recognize quickly in the field. It has five ray florets, each such “petal” is deeply notched to give it the appearance of three fingers. The main reason I learnt to recognize it is because the straggling stems with upright flowers can be seen across India. Now, near Dotiyal village in Kumaon, about 2700 m above sea level, I was happy to meet a familiar face.
The featured photo is not of a flower that helps identification, since it has lost its characteristic ray florets . But I liked the way the dew had collected on it. Other flowers were more easily identified. But in the process of taking those flowers, I have caught a fly which I can’t identify. If you are a fly fancier, could you help?
Asters, that’s who mean. The family Asteraceae contains well over 30,000 species. In one small place, around the little Nal-Damayanti Tal in the lake district of Kumaon were these seven species. Some were fleabanes (both seem to belong to the genus Erigeron), two look like daisies, and three I cannot really place.
How do I know they belong to the Aster family? Because they can be identified by one simple feature: they have compound flowers. At the center of each compound flower is a disk, filled with tiny flowers. These are called disk florets. Larger petals surround the central disk. Each petal is an individual flower, called a ray floret. The disk and the rays are often different colours. If this reminds you of sunflowers, daisies, gerbera, or chrysanthemum you are right. They are all part of the same family.
There are no true daisies (genus Bellis) in India. So these must be something closely related, perhaps true asters? I always wondered if there are so many asters in the world, why haven’t we tamed many of them into edible plants, like we have done to grasses. I looked it up today, and it seems that asters do not store energy in starch but in what we would think of as dietary fiber.
Almost three quarters of Asteraceae belong to a subfamily called Asteroideae, which contains most of our garden flowers. I think it means that the two flowers in this bunch which look like daisies could be the most difficult to identify. The rest should be relatively easy. Any guesses? As the Terminator said, “I’ll be back”, to write down the identifications of these seven in full when I get them.
Less than two hundred meters from the center of the little village called Dotiyal in Kumaon the view opened up. We had to stop to take it in: a clear morning’s view of the Great Himalayas. Nanda Devi (7816 m), once considered the world’s highest peak, is not clearly visible from here, but the grand view of Trisul (7120 m) made up for it. In this season the snow line was beginning to creep down. This meant that the peaks were often covered in clouds. But we were lucky with the views. After a long time trying to spot and name the peaks, from Nanda Kot (6861 m) on the west to five peaks of the Panchachuli (6334 to 6904 m) to the east, we turned back.
Most people think of Dotiyal as an insignificant village, perhaps a stop on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. But for the next two days we would think of it as a base from which to travel for bird watching. The area was rich in birds, precisely because the village was small. It is at a crossroads on the mountains, so the crossing had a cluster of stalls selling snacks and tea. A group of young people had converged here, perhaps stopping on a journey, going by the motorbikes parked around them. These motorbikes, cheaper than cars, easier than bicycles, are the main means of transport in these hills. Buses are few, although we would always see one or two people waiting for one.
Away from that junction was the life of the locals: a line of small shops, including a mithaiwala from whom we bought laddus later in the evening. It was Diwali after all, and we couldn’t possibly not have sweets at dinner, could we? Other shops for snacks lined the road: pani puri, samosa, and chaat. A couple of young girls were at the pani puri wala, perhaps immediately after breakfast. The samosawala, above, was tending to a fire. More than the possibility of samosas, I was struck by the wonderful shoes he had on.
Each small kiosk along the road was a place to stop and chat. I liked the doors: quick jobs of wood and metal. The shut doors would not make interesting photos. But the tailor’s shop was open, and there was a person outside it looking in and chatting. The strong shadows made photography difficult. I just couldn’t find an exposure which would make it possible to mellow the contrast. Eventually I settled for multiple exposures and combining the results in an editor. I think the result is an interesting view of the two, but you be the judge.
From darkness to light; I tried to take my phone camera to another extreme when we stopped at a cafe for our elevenses. The phone sensor has 4608 x 3456 pixels. The software multiplies each sensor pixel into 4 image pixels to give me 9248 x 6936 pixels in the image. I reduced it to 1667 x 1250 pixels for the leader photo. The sunlight streaming in through the window, refracted in the glass of the bottles and through the water, or reflected on the coffee would give the camera quite a spin I was sure. The leader looks very good; the resident AI is designed to build images which look good compressed down.
If you want to look behind the screen all you need to do is to look at higher magnification. Here I’ve taken two parts of the photo and examined them at two scales with an aspect ratio of 4:3 in landscape orientation. The lesser zooms show an area which is 3100 pixels across (reduced to 640 for this post). The more extreme zooms show an area which is 780 pixels across (reduced to 640 for this post). You can see lots of digital artifacts: aliasing appears in oblique lines, there is a lot of digital noise in the shadows in the coffee cup (even though the ISO is only 105), but most of all, the really bright areas are not only blown out, but also very irregular. Look at the caustic lines on the surface of the coffee in the image, and then hold a coffee cup up to light. You’ll see that the bright reflections never look so irregular in real life.
All these artifacts are due to the fact that the lens is about 3 mm wide and the sensor has pixels which are just a micron across. They never manage to gather as much light as a good camera does. A lot of computation is used to compensate for that. It looks good when viewed on a phone, but when you look at it pixel for pixel it is full of flaws. I think I’ve concluded that if you are a serious photographer looking for a phone camera, then do not look at distractions like how many megapixels an image has. Look instead at the specs and buy a camera with as large a lens as possible and a sensor which is big. Measure these sizes in mm or inches, not in pixels or f numbers.
Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.
Perhaps the most beautiful, and least recognized, habitat of the middle Himalayas are the grasslands. I was mesmerized by the number of birds that I could hear. And then I could see birds fluttering through the open canopy: so many warblers and woodpeckers! One that was completely new to me was the upland pippit (Anthus sylvanus). It has been reported across the Himalayas from Pakistan to Bhutan, and also in southern China. But it is said to be rare. That it is. This was my first sighting. Don’t miss the foliose lichen on pine just below the bird. It is taken as a biomarker for clean air these days, since they die when the SO2 content of air goes up.
I looked up-slope of the road and down-slope. That haze in the distance was mist in the lower valleys. The sky above me was a clear and bright blue. I was in the middle of a huge patch of grassland, dotted with chir pine (Pinus roxburgii, long leafed pine). You can see the shiny leaves of a single banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora, white oak) in the corner of one of these shots, but there were no patches of oak woodlands to be seen. I’d thought that the pine grasslands are bereft of life but the songs of warblers, the rapid fire drilling of woodpeckers, and the occasional territorial call of pheasants told me that I’d been wrong. These grasslands are a complex ecology, and I would find both flowers and insects here. I like the division of labour in which The Family looks at birds, leaving me free to look at the smaller things.
After two years I’m beginning to see the moth population in our garden slowly recovering from the frequent chemical baths that became part of the hygiene theater of the pandemic. One of my favourites is the one in diaphanous tutu with a gold border that you see in the featured photo. It was a little more than two centimeters across in size. Most moths do not have common names, so I know this only by its binomial Cydalima laticostalis. It is a member of the grass moth family, Crambidae. I should start calling it the gold-and-satin moth. Maybe it will catch on.
I find it useful to think of moths first by size. The two that you see above are between one and two centimeters across. One of the reasons moths do not have common names is that it is very hard, impossible, to pinpoint species by sight alone. The spotted yellow moth is clearly a member of the genus Conogethes, but this is a massively speciose genus. An attempt at DNA barcoding found that there are many species which were not recognized as different until the genomes were studied. By appearance this moth seems to be a member of the Conogethes punctiferalis complex, one of the many agricultural pests. The other, ivory and chocolate banded moth, is a member of the genus Nosophora. Both these are grass moths, in the family Crambidae.
This moth is smaller, about half to one centimeter across. It is enough of a pest that it has a name: a teak leaf skeletonizer. It is a member of the Paliga damastesalis species complex, containing also the P. rubicundalis and the P. machoeralis. It is impossible to tell these three grass moths apart by sight. I had no desire to extract its DNA in order to identify it better.
Previously I’ve completely ignored moths which were less than half a centimeter across, like these two. But now with my macro lens I can see that they are both likely to be grass moths, ie, in the family Crambidae. That brilliant wine red colour should make this quite recognizable, but all the web sites I consult for identification also seem to ignore these smaller moths. Let me see whether I can nudge them to start working on these smaller ones. Whether I can identify them or not, I’m glad to see that the local population of moths is slowly recovering from the COVID-induced hygiene theatre of spraying everything around us with strong pesticides. Perhaps the bee-eaters and fly-catchers will also be back in a year or two.
Bird watching involves getting up before sunrise and feeling hungry while you train your camera on birds which are busy at breakfast. After a couple of hours of watching kingfishers and reed warblers busy singing while eating, we couldn’t take it any more. We drove to another part of the barrage where the water was full of reeds and grass. Jacanas and a variety of ducks were visible here. Vivek and Arjun, our guides, brought out our breakfast. Warm poha, boiled eggs, bananas, the usual fare. But The Family had picked up a lovely plum jam from Nainital, and Vivek had remembered to get a loaf of bread to have it with. Piping hot chai rounded off the morning. Breakfasts are not always about the food. The company of birders and birds provided a great memory of Haripura reservoir. Then we were off to the hills to look for the elusive great slaty woodpeckers.
Identification is always dicey. I was on a slope photographing a ground orchid when The Accountant called out from below. “What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at a flowering mat of knotweed around the base of a boulder near him. The flowers were red, so the name red Knotweed popped into my mind. But I’d just looked at the GPS on my camera to check that I was at a height of about 1900 m. And the red-stemmed knotweed (Persicaria sinuata) usually grows above 2500 m. There could be microclimates which allow species to extend their ranges, of course. Also, it flowers immediately after the monsoon. It was later in the year now. But of course, the monsoon had been longer. Two coincidences together? I said “I don’t know”.
I came down to take a closer look. The stems were red all right, but the leaves were not lobed. So it definitely was not P. sinuata. I didn’t know this one. That it grew in a low mat was clearly a clue. The elliptical leaves, slightly pointed, half red and half green eventually gave me the clue to its identity. It was Persicaria capitata, pink knotweed. Pink. I could have kicked myself. If my mind had fallen into the pink groove instead of red I could have shouted out “Pink knotweed”. L’esprit de l’escalier.
Trying to identify knotweeds (family Polygonaceae) leaves me with a slight nausea. It’s not just that there are about 50 genuses containing over 1200 known species, but that there are so many of them across the Himalayas (some have even invaded the western ghats). The swollen nodes, the clusters of small flowers, the leaves alternating around the stem, all make it easy to tell the family. But I know that it will take hours to go beyond that. Fortunately pink knotweed are common across the inhabited heights of the Himalayas, so now I can pretend to be an expert.
Coneflowers, genus Strobilanthes, are common across India. The most well known among them are the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), which mass flowers once in seven years in the Sahyadris, and the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which mass flowers once in twelve years in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But most species of coneflowers are annuals. I hadn’t expected to find one flowering in October throughout the lower heights of Kumaon. I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are many species found across the Himalayas. This one seems to be sticky ruella (Strobilanthes glutinosus).
From the leaves, I think this specimen, the first coneflower I saw on this trip, must be the same. The slightly different shape of the flower is an earlier stage in its opening. It was standing in the shade by the shore on the paired lakes called Ram and Sita Tal in Sattal. That was at an altitude of about 1300 m. After that I saw it again and again, up to a height of about 1900 m around Dotiyal and Maanila in Kumaon. Like many of the plants in this genus, it seems to have uses in folk medicine. In Pakistan there has been a first go at screening it for useful phytochemicals.
It was interesting to find a lone male Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) strut about a meadow full of these flowers, munching on the leaves and flowers now and then. These birds are known to feed on seeds and nuts, but this behaviour was not something I’d read of before. Leaves and flowers are not likely to be a major source of energy. I wonder whether the bird eats these coneflowers for trace nutrients.
The water of Bhimtal may have eutrophied, and the number of people may have exploded, but the area still reminds me of the charm that I saw when I was a child. We stood by the Tal one morning and The Family took a photo of a line of ducks as they glided past us. “We always land up here, don’t we?” she mused as we enjoyed what remained of the morning’s chill. We do. It is a convenient place to stop on the way up to the higher mountains. The place is no longer beautiful, but it is charming as a village. And this time we had forsaken Naukuchiatal for the neighbouring Bhimtal.
While walking about the previous evening we’d been greeted by a series of gates, firmly shut. When I stopped to take this photo, a dog came running to bark at us from inside. The fierce dwarpal told us not to set our evil eye on the place. I suppose that when half the places are owned by absentee landlords letting out their bungalows to tourists like us, it changes its character. The superficially friendly driver who took us from the airport to our place of stay told us of his bloodthirsty dreams of taking over all these places. That was not the only end of his dreams of blood. I was happy that our dealing with him was brief, since I had the distinct feeling that we were added to his list of the condemned because our hotel called us thrice to give us directions.
In the golden hour of the evening we looked down on Bhimtal and the other smaller villages around it from higher up in the mountains. The terraced fields shone green in the mellow light, rice in the process of being harvested, hay being dried for feed. In this area specially, I never want to miss the golden hour. My restlessness had infected The Family, and she enthusiastically took photos. It was interesting to compare our different eyes later.
Early in the morning, when there was still a chill in the air I’d stood in the garden of the small hotel we’d chosen and looked out over the valley from which we’d heard a mountain stream at night. I couldn’t see the stream at all through the trees and the sharp dips in the land. We could see a few houses, but our hotel seemed very secluded. The impression was broken at night when I looked out from the same spot and saw quite a few lights in the valley. It was interesting to merge the photos taken in the morning and night to locate the houses in this deceptive landscape. There is enough cover to hide a few leopards, families of wild hogs, a few deer, and the numerous birds that we could hear. This area is a bird-watcher’s paradise, but we were on a break.