Assam-chinese food

It never comes as a surprise when you get to a highway eatery and find that the menu features “Chinese” food. This usually means curry with noodles. At this eatery near Golaghat in Assam, somehow chole bhature was included under Chinese. In the true spirit of Punjabi practicality, I did not worry about the classification, but was satisfied by what was served up. More than satisfied, in fact. The chhola was the local ghugni. The batura were luchi writ large. This thriving eatery has discovered marketing: the local luchi-ghugni could be passed off as the more well-known chole bhature without offending anyone.

Never one to pass up familiar food, The Family ordered an onion utthapam, and pronounced it completely edible. In the last sixty years, dosas and utthapam have unmoored themselves from the south of India, and set sail on the sea of pan-Indian food. We love to churn this sea whenever we travel, because it throws up gems more often than poison.

The piece de resistance was the unremarkable looking thing in the photo above. These cubes of chhana mildly sweetened in syrup were the perfect ending to the meal. As I travel in Assam, Bengal and Odisha, I come across more and more varieties of this kind of sweet. This was special, possibly a local invention, since it seemed to be just called chhana. We called for a chai, and a second helping of the chhana.

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Brown fish owl

We had a wonderful sighting of a brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) sitting in the canopy of a large tree. It would have been invisible from above. As we drove close to the edge of the road, we could look up and see it clearly. It was trying very hard to ignore us and continue to sleep. The fish owl does not have the deep bowl-like face which is so characteristic of many owls. That bowl is acts as an antenna to focus sound, since hearing is very important to most nocturnal hunters. The fish owls are less dependent on sound since they feed on crabs and molluscs. A study in Melghat Tiger Reserve found that they also eat insects and rodents, so hearing cannot be unimportant. I’m sure that they are fairly opportunistic, and will change to fish and frogs if they are abundant.

We have usually sighted this fleetingly at night: on tree stumps or flying about. I had a wonderful view of it sitting in the middle of a lawn in Valparai, but the light was not good enough for a photo. This one, with its head tucked in, looked more squat than the others I’ve seen. One does see the related tawny and buff fish owls in Assam, but this was not one of those rarer birds. As we watched, it opened its eyes. My hand shivered slightly as I saw those sleepy yellow eyes looking at me.

All owls present in the world today diverged from a common ancestor more than 9 million years ago. This was a time when great geological changes were afoot, including the continuous raising of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys sea, so changing the global climate. The fish owls (genus Ketua) could have diverged later, but they are so closely related to other owls with prominent ear tufts (genus Bubo), that they are now included in the same genus. There have been contemporary local extinctions of the brown fish owl, notably in Israel where the poisoning of rats led to a local extinction of K. zeylonensis. There are still people alive in Europe who have seen brown fish owls, although they are now extinct. They were spotted again in Anatolia five years ago. It can be found now in a large range from Asian Turkey to south-east Asia. This is the reason it is considered to be not of concern for conservation work.

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.

Archdukes, Counts and Popinjays

The late 19th century British military men who had the leisure to turn into naturalists seemed to spend their days assigning “common names” to butterflies which had been described in the preceding centuries. As a result, the plains and hills of India are populated by exotic British nobles and their hangers on. We know these names from Charles Bingham’s monographs on the butterflies of India, but I wonder whether the idiosyncracies are his alone. The Dark Archduke (Lexias dirtea) was far from rare in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. I kept noticing the brightly spotted females (see the featured photo) in clearings and along tracks in the jungle, as they came briefly to rest on the ground.

I had a harder time spotting the male. The one time I was certain was when I saw the specimen in the photo above. The brown spotted one is the male L. dirtea. The brightly striped one is a Common Lascar (another example of the idiosyncratic British naming system). I saw several butterflies perched just above head height on bushes around the tracks that I followed, which could be the male.

The photo that you see above is of a Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea). The archaic 19th century word describes a vain and colourfully dressed person from a middle English word for parrot, descended from Arabic through Spanish and French. This name also comes to us from Charles Bingham’s famous monographs on the butterflies of India. There were a couple of times when I was not sure that a similar looking butterfly was really the Popinjay; it could have been the male Dark Archduke. The spots at the wing edges of a Popinjay extend over both fore and hind wings, but on the male Dark Archduke similar decorations occur only on the hindwing. Information on the Popinjay is scarce; all I could find were descriptions. Nothing seems to be recorded about its caterpillars, and what they feed on, nor about its caterpillar and pupa.

The pupa that someone found on a dry leaf (photo above) was very likely to be of a Dark Archduke. I wish I’d managed to see one of its caterpillars. The photos that I saw of the later moults of the Dark Archduke’s caterpillars are spectacular.

So many archdukes and only one count! I saw this single Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) basking in the last light of the day. Interestingly, this is more widespread in India, being found all along the foothills of the Himalayas east of Uttarakhand, and in the Western Ghats. I may have seen this before in the nearby reserve forest of Nameri, north of the Brahmaputra, but I don’t recall seeing it in other parts of India. I did not see the caterpillars of this species, nor the pupa. Descriptions and photos of these earlier stages of its life-cycle make me believe that I’m missing something spectacular.

Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.

An orange oakleaf

While walking through the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, I kept seeing a bright orange, blue and black butterfly flitting just under the lower canopy. It was a good flyer, and kept disappearing into the darkness beyond the paths we were following. Mandar claims that he doesn’t know butterflies, but he manages to give a good imitation of an expert. He said immediately that this was an Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus).

This was my first sighting of this widespread flyer. Its range extends from Jammu and Kashmir east to Arunachal Pradesh and the other states of north-eastern India along the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also found in central India and the Western Ghats. Mandar was keeping a close look at one while it flew, and so noticed when it came to rest on the trunk of a tree. At rest it is perfectly camouflaged as a leaf. A bird had clearly taken a bite out of the wings of this one.

Very few things can fly with half of its wings gone. If you look at a butterfly carefully, you’ll see that its muscles drive only the front wings; the back wings are usually just loosely attached to the pair in front. The larger surface area of the paired wings allows the maneuverability needed to evade predators. Laboratory studies have shown that butterflies can continue to fly without their hindwings; they just become a little slower. This study also has an interesting bit of speculation about why day-flying butterflies and moths are often brightly coloured.

I haven’t seen a butterfly which is missing bits out of its front wings. I suppose they just can’t fly without them. If a bird gets a bite out of the forewing, then the butterfly just falls out of the air and the bird can just pick it up. It would be interesting to keep watch for a photo of a butterfly with part of its forewings gone.

Malkohas, Coucals and Cuckoos

The featured photo is not spectacular, but I’m really fond of it. Until now it’s the only time I’ve seen a Malkoha sitting in the open. All my previous sightings have been of these birds skulking in deep shadows, or breaking out momentarily as it flits from one hide to another. This is the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis), a lifer for me. The photo does not show the patch of bright colour around its eyes. The Wikipedia page on this bird contains a wonderful photo, so I have hope that one day I will be able to get a better photo.

A day before I took that shot, we stopped as one of my companions thought that she had seen a Malkoha. I took a few shots of the bird hunkered down behind a lot of criss-crossing branches. After looking at it carefully, we concluded that it was really an Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus). This is not an unusual error. Malkohas (genus Phaenicophaeus) belong to the family Cuculidae, which also includes cuckoos. Many of them are skulkers and hard to photograph.

Earlier in the second day I’d had a hard time trying to photograph another member of this family: the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis). This is widespread, seen even in Mumbai, but I’ve only managed a couple of good photos of it. This time around I got the rust coloured wings and the long tail which gives it the alternate name crow pheasant, but not its dark coat and bright red eyes. The Lotos had stopped us to photograph this bird because she’d never managed to get a good photo; I hope she got something better than mine.

These birds can drive you cuckoo.

The real chicken

All the chicken that you eat has probably descended from this colourful bird found in all jungles that I have visited. The red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) was domesticated in India about 7000 years ago, and the wave of domestication spread east and west from the Ganges basin. It is likely that the yellow legs of domesticated chicken were derived from a hybridization with another wild species called the gray jungle fowl.

I haven’t often seen one of these birds on a tree. So this one on a tree in good light was definitely something to be photographed. Its glossy black tail showed highlights of green and purple in the light. Note the gray legs; that sets it apart from domesticated variety. The domestic variety is also smaller and less brightly coloured. As I watched, this bird flapped its way down from the tree. Its flight is so ungainly that I wondered how it got up there in the first place.

Purple sapphire

I saw this small but extremely attractive butterfly flutter down on to a fallen leaf. It preened in the sun, and I got off a shot showing the iridescence in its dark upper wing: you can see the purple colour in the featured photo. Notice the thin tails at the edges of the hindwings? This feature made me think of it as a hairstreak butterfly, and I wasted time looking for an identification. It is actually a copper. It sat on a dry leaf for a short while but opened its wings only briefly. Most of the time it held its wings closed to show the yellow and red underside (photo below).

After I figured that it is the appropriately named Purple Sapphire (Heliophorus epicles) I recalled that I’d seen it a decade ago in the Burapahar range of Kaziranga. Then, as now, I’d seen it resting very low down. It seems to be a widespread resident in the north-east of India, but its Wikipedia article records it from as far west as Himachal Pradesh. I’ve now encountered it twice, in April and May, both times at altitudes of less than 100 meters, far below those mentioned in its Wikipedia article. This article says that it is common in disturbed habitats at the edges of forests, which is in complete agreement with my own few sightings.

Two turtles

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. –Richard Feynman

Watching turtles is a little frustrating. Although there’s a large variety in India, there are few guidebooks or websites which tell you how to identify what you saw. We stopped to see a few of these large turtles on our first sortie into Kaziranga. I didn’t know what they were when I took the featured photo. I have a tentative identification of it being the Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) through its size and colour. The hind edge of the shell is deeply serrated, as you can see. I’m sure that this should be an aid in identification, but it does not seem to be mentioned in any guide. If it is indeed the Indian black turtle, then it is near-threatened. This means that it could still be fairly common inside a sanctuary, so there is a good chance that this is what I saw. But you can always fool yourself.

The common Indian roofed turtles (Pangshura tecta) are relatively small turtles which love to climb out of the water and bask in the sun. It took me some time to decide whether the photos above are of P. tecta or the endangered Assam roofed turtles (Pangshura sylhetensis). Both are found in forest streams. The reptile database is pretty useless as an identification tool because its photos are not curated by experts. Eventually it was Wikipedia which convinced me that I’d seen the rarer variety. The article on P. sylhetensis says that its shell is serrated at the hind edge, as these are. The upper shell of this species is also darker. It is so nice to be able to see an endangered species that you want to believe that you have. So I’ll have to wait a little longer for some experts to tell me whether or not I have. Given the rarity of P. sylhetensis, (the IUCN page claims that only a few specimens have ever been seen) the chances are that I’m fooling myself.