A hidden koel

On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.

I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.

I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.

As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.

July

The monsoon changes character in July. The storms of June with their constant whistling winds, and the occasional thunder and lightning have passed over the land. A curtain of heavy rain clouds follow. On Saturday I dared to go out several times to finish various chores and got drenched each time. I was cooped up in my flat all day on Sunday. On Monday I took a change of clothes to work. It is still raining today. July’s rain is a simple fact of nature: if there is open sky above you, there will be hard rain coming down.

The paddy field is flooded with the fresh water. Frogs are beginning to croak, and on the banks the grass grows whiter than snails’ eggs.
-Yogeswara (poem collected in the 12th century CE in Subhasita-ratnakosa by Vidyakara, translated from Sanskrit by Kosambi and Gokhale)

I wonder whether the experience of people living in this land a millennium ago was very different from mine. Even in this city with a population larger than some countries, I look out of the window and see the rain water pooling under a banyan tree, flooding the garden. Yogeswara would recognize this. The parking lot below my apartment will be full of earthworms which have crawled out of the slush. The roads will be taken over by snails. We were woken in the morning by mynas which found shelter on window ledges. Crows are too big to fit there. Wet large-beaked crows sit in long lines along parapets, descending to flooded lawns to check out the tasty treats which float up in the water.

Most trees have shed their flowers. The flaming red treetops outside our windows have been washed into a clean glistening green by the days of rain. A few hardy flowers will hang on till the next heavy rain. In our balcony there are a few flowers still. The Madagascar periwinkle in our balcony will remain in bloom through the monsoon, presenting such a pretty picture that I take photos of the blooms at least once in this season.

Beer under a banyan tree

The thing about coming to a new country is that everything confounds you. I arrived in Myanmar and immediately travelled to the banks of the Irrawaddy river. There was a pop-up bar under a beautiful spreading banyan tree and several local boys were sitting and drinking beer under it. The very relaxed setting reminded me of Munich’s biergartens.

Each beer costs about 4000 kyat (around 3 US dollars). The median income is 65,000 kyat. So this should be unusual. Do all these boys earn well over the median income? Probably, since you can see one of them trying to take my photo with a smart phone.

Maybe after a week I would be able to parse the subtle social signals which tell a local which of the many people you pass on a road probably owns a smart phone, drives around in a motorbike or car (imported, as they all are), and could be expected to have beer at a relaxed biergarten.