A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

Garden in the shade

Looking back at photos from our first trip to Binsar, I discovered that we had taken off-route walks on several days. One of the walks took us from a little temple in a meadow inside the national park up through a slope into a garden around an old and abandoned bungalow. You can see the back of the bungalow from the shady side of the slope in the featured photo.

I’d like to be, under the sea”

Lennon-McCartney (Abbey Road)

Gardens grow extremely well in the wilds up there. Over the years this rose bush had run wild, and had taken over a small slope. This delicate purple-rose colour is hard to photograph. In full light the colour bleaches away. I was very happy that this side of the slope faced north west, and was in the shade at that time of the day.

You might think that nargis, daffodils, are a dime a dozen up there. But they are actually quite hard to spot. A bed of nargis stood next to the path where it turned. It had been watered recently. It turned out that a family had established themselves in the yard of this deserted bungalow, and were taking care of part of the garden.

Bushes had been hacked away from the path to keep it clear, and posts had been planted in the ground to mark something, perhaps a boundary. The edge between open ground and the undergrowth is a good place to spot small warblers. I’m not good enough at warblers to be able to tell what this is.

This dark flower was growing in bright sunlight. In any other light I would not have been able to get that deep red on the nine petals. Nine! That’s not a Fibonacci flower. Whatever happened to all those theories of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio which are supposed to make flowers beautiful? This is so clearly a compound flower; you can even see the tiny yellow florets in the core beginning to open up.

On one edge of the hedge a sulphur butterfly was sunning itself among the balsam. The butterfly with its irregular spots merges beautifully with the vegetation around it. Camouflage could mean that the insect is not poisonous. That, in turn, means that the caterpillar feeds on plants which are not poisonous.

They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude

William Wordsworth (Daffodils)

My final photo from that walk is of this flower in full sunlight, throwing its shadow on a lush green leaf. The leaf has been fed on by a pest. Could it have been the caterpillar of the butterfly we just saw? The bungalow behind it was locked up completely. I wonder whether it has been turned into a hotel now, years later, or whether it has fallen into ruin. I don’t have a photo, but I recall spotting a raptor up here and hearing its high pitched call as it dove into the forest canopy below us. Some things you don’t need a photo to remember.

A walk in an oak forest

The breeze blew cool and clear. There was no one close by on the path up to Zero Point inside Binsar National Park, so I pulled my mask down to smell the trees around me. Oak forests don’t have the pleasant resinous smell of pines, but they are so much more alive. At this height, about 2400 meters, the Himalayan white oak (banj, or Quercus leucotrichophora) should be close to its upper limit, but they looked like they were thriving away from the hard competition with chir pines (Pinus Roxburghii) on lower slopes.

Oak forests are alive. Langurs prefer banj oaks as roosts. A yellow throated marten streaked across our path, it is another inhabitant of banj forests. I could hear a woodpecker looking for lunch, and, from a distance, the call of the Great Barbet. This forest was full of birds: seed eaters, acorn gatherers, and insectivores. The oaks themselves harbour life: fungi, lichens, ferns, orchids, and mistletoe. Butterflies flitted about on the sun dappled path. On gentler slopes the canopies merge together to provide complete shade under them, making it hard for younger trees to grow. But up here, the slope was steep enough that there was always a gap in the canopy, and rhododendron and other trees could spring up. Still, the forests of the western Himalayas do not seem to have the exuberance of the east. The monsoon winds create this difference.

The smaller number of large trees here gives me a chance to slowly begin to recognize most of them. A few years ago I made myself a small and incomplete field guide to trees of the middle heights. I’ve added to that by now, and I realize I can recognize most of the trees around me as I walk. But the herbs are another matter. I stop and look at the small plants poking out of the muddy cliff on one side of the path. I haven’t the faintest clue about them.

I could stick to the trees for now. The path is surrounded by oaks. I’ve aways been a little surprised by that. Oaks, mistletoe, holly all sounded exotic to me when I grew up surrounded by mango, guava, jamun, and silk cotton trees. But to my surprise the genus Quercus, oaks, seems to have its origins in a part of an ancient continent which is today East Asia, in the middle of the Eocene Epoch, perhaps about 45 million years ago. That was just after the earth had gone through one of its temperature maxima (there were no ice sheets anywhere on the planet) and the Indian plate had just banged into Asia. Over the geological ages after that, the oaks adapted to the cooling climate, and crossed the Himalayas into Europe. The five Himalayan species found themselves settled at various heights, Q. leucotrichophora at the lowest altitude. During the multiple ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch the white oaks seem to have covered a very large part of the lower slopes.

Most observers agree that the oaks are slowly being crowded out by pines on the lower slopes. I asked why, and got different replies. The literature is also a little confused, but I tried to make sense out of what I read and heard and got an interesting story. The two main threads in the plot are how fast the trees grow and how they respond to fire. Once the acorns germinate, the oak seedlings can halt growth until conditions are just right. This requires a moderate disturbance of the forest to let in some light. In the days of Jim Corbett, this was provided, at least partially, by human intervention, as villagers chopped off a few branches of older trees for kindling, and removed some of the leaves for fodder. But now this activity is forbidden, for reasons that were well-intentioned. As a result seedlings lie in arrested growth for long times in unattended forests. The trouble is that in recent decades a “fire season” has become part of the annual cycle in the ecology, probably due to direct human intervention. I have read no account of it in the older literature on Kumaon. Fire affects the slow-growing oak seedlings disproportionately.

Pines, on the other hand, are adapted to grow in degraded land, and can reach a height of 20 meters or so in a decade. Fire also causes pine cones to open up and release spores. As a result, chir pines out-compete and out-grow oaks. They are also more immediately useful for commerce, so the forest department manuals on planting and harvesting of pines are widely used. Oaks provide more ecosystem services, but they are not seen as commercially viable products. As a direct result, I could not find any manual on oak silviculture. When I reached the end of the walk I could look down at the surrounding slopes. The nearer ones, inside the park, still held many stretches of oak forests. Further off, there seemed to be more pines.

[Note added later: much of my understanding behind this paragraph may have to be revised in the light of new scientific findings about pines and their stabilizing role in the previously unrecognized biome called Himalayan grasslands. Through the 20th century they were thought to be degraded forests, but are now recognized as a separate biome with support for a different set of species. The dynamic balance between oak forests and these grasslands is still being studied.]

Two confusing butterflies

My first guess when I see a tortoiseshell butterfly is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). It is the most widespread of all butterflies, and found on all continents except Antractica. But when you are in the middle heights of the Himalayas, between a thousand and three thousand meters above the sea, you could be wrong. Think instead of the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmiriensis, featured photo), and the less common small or mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). I’d learnt this on a walk at a height of 3.1 kilometers, when I realized that I need to look at little details on the hind wings to differentiate between them. Now, on a walk in Binsar at 2.4 kilometers of height, I remembered the lesson again.

When I stopped to carefully photograph every butterfly on the trail, The Family decided to walk on at a steady pace. But I was happy to make a record of the relative numbers of the different tortoiseshells I saw. No painted ladies. Many Indian tortoiseshells. And one solitary sighting of the mountain tortoiseshells (above, resting on a bed of dry oak leaves). I count myself lucky at that. It had been a very warm and dry winter, and these butterflies are very sensitive to warm seasons. I’ll have to learn to tell the difference between these butterflies by looking at their hind wings. If I can do that, then I can identify them as I keep pace with The Family on such walks.

Altitude

We took an hour’s walk inside Binsar National Park, a short climb to its highest point. This Zero Point, as it is called is at an altitude of just over 2400 meters. The cool air at this height smelt clean, with a flavour of green trees. The view at the top showed smoky valleys, and the high Himalayas were almost invisible because of the haze. But just around this part of the park the winds and the cool heights had together managed to confine the smoke below. I’m sure that the air here is usually much cleaner, but at that time it still felt better than city air. The walk through an oak forest was wonderful, and a great change from sitting inside a car all day. At this height you get Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), easily identified by the fact that the oval leaves with serrated edges are white on the reverse. The dry tree fern that you see in the featured photo is just one of many things which grow on oaks.

Coming back to our hotel, we felt the change in the air. Warmer, of course, now that we were half a kilometer lower, and also more haze. Fortunately there was no smell of smoke in the immediate vicinity. We were told that a short shower the previous day had put out fires locally, and cleared the haze a little. I admired a red sunset as I walked up the steep forested path from the road to the hotel. Pollution gives you interesting sunsets.

Hanuman

Uttarakhand is heavily forested, and forests in this region have monkeys. One of the largest is the species of the hanuman langur called the Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). I saw the individual in the featured photo during a walk at an altitude of about 2400 meters, inside the Binsar National Park. The seven species of hanuman, genus Semnopithecus, which are found in India separate into distinct geographical ranges, with little overlap. At this altitude, and this far north, the Nepal gray langur is the only one that is found. As I concentrated on taking photos of this troupe of leaf eaters, I missed a photo op which will probably never recur: two yellow throated martens (Martes flavigula) pulled themselves up the cliff next to the road I was on, sat on the edge and stared at me for a long time. They were gone by the time I mentally kicked myself into swinging my camera round to photograph them. They are shy and swift, and because of that are hard to photograph, in spite of being fairly common in these forests. The longer you live the more regrets you have.

Watching the troupe I was reminded of the graffiti I’d seen in Haridwar a couple of days earlier, when I visited the abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I found a photo on my phone (above). It is a lovely piece of art, but it does not show the Nepal gray langur. This species holds its tail above, and parallel to, their bodies when they walk. The tail is long, and the tip can project forward ahead of the head. The drooping tail that the artwork shows belongs to the southern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus johnii) whose range is far to the south.

Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

Nanda DeviThe sky was clear, but the view was murky, when our alarms went off fifteen minutes before dawn. We gamely waited for the sun to rise, and saw the Nanda Devi peak faintly. As we sipped our early morning tea, the man who brought it told us that the view was brilliant a couple of weeks ago, but had turned murky since cyclone Hudhud struck the coast. I’d taken a record shot of the peak, and a little image processing could elicit this view.

We left for the Binsar sanctuary immediately. Just before we got into the car, The Family spotted a gray-headed warbler. It was a twenty minute drive to Binsar, and we had to wake the gatekeeper once we reached. There is an entry fee to the park but it turned out that you have to read the fine print carefully and argue the interpretation of the various rates at the ticket counter. We did not know this, and just paid single-entry fees. Just as we prepared to drive in two yellow throated martens streaked across a meadow in front of us. I thought to myself “Mongoose”, but did not voice it because I knew it was too large to be one. We identified it by a chart we found at the gate.

Meadow in Binsar
This is one of the best birding spots in Binsar. There is an old bungalow hidden above the upper meadow. The meadow below the road drops off to a small temple.

The gatekeeper told us to go to the Tourist Department guest house where we could find a guide and walk up to highest point in the sanctuary: Zero Point. We drove up slowly, keeping an eye out for the birds we could hear all around us. Most of the way the road stuck close to rock walls, allowing only limited angles of view. We saw a couple of whistling thrushes before we arrived at the beautiful sunny meadow you see above. There was water trickling down one side, and the combination of trees and open grass meant that this could be a good spot for birding.

Streaked laughing thrush
Streaked laughing thrush

It was. We kept coming back to the place and saw a large part of our eventual bird list here. I see that we noted down mountain hawk-eagle, Himalayan buzzard, Himalayan vulture, gray-backed tit, brown-fronted woodpecker, scarlet Minivet, streaked laughing-thrush, white-throated laughing-thrush, rufous Sibia, great Barbet and a dark-sided flycatcher as being in this one place in one day! Three of them were lifers.

We approached the meadow from three different directions on the succeeding days with our guide around Binsar, Sundar Singh, and saw black-headed Jays, Eurasian Jays, red-billed blue magpies, green-backed tits, a crested serpent eagle, and a white-tailed nut-hatch. This was also the meadow where I lost my footing and slipped down a slope to sprain my leg and bring the holidays to an end. But that was four days later, and just a day before we were supposed to leave.

But on our first visit we continued up to the guest house and asked for guides. One told us to order our lunch before going off on our walk. We did that, and then he told us to have tea before going on a walk. It was getting pretty late, and we were impatient. While we had tea The Family asked the chaiwalla whether there was a guide who could take us up immediately. That was how we met Sundar Singh.

vista

The protected oak forest of Binsar is not where you go to view mammals. Rather it is a lovely place for birds and insects, and walks. The easy 500 meter walk to Zero Point was a good start. The shaded path is bordered by mossy trees, and in the leaves and mud around, you can spot insects and slugs, if you pause to look. The morning’s haze had got worse when we reached the top, about 2500 meters high. The high Himalayas were not visible at all. In fact, we never got a good view of the Nanda Devi range during the week. We walked back in time for lunch. As we waited, we saw an Eurasian Jay for the first time in our lives, and a black-headed Jay soon after.

grassyellowBeing able to spot something in the wild is a matter of practice. In the last decade The Family has grown adept at spotting birds. I forget to look unless I’m with her, and even then I often do not spot the odd colours and shapes that are tell-tales for her. But I’ve become used to following a butterfly with my eye as it flutters by to see where it lands. As a result I managed to photograph this pale clouded yellow (Colias hylae) while telling her to look at it. She looked at the camera display and back at the bush before she saw it.

We loved Binsar and kept going back to it. The next day we climbed up to the Zero Point and then followed Sundar on a six kilometer hike through the forest and back to our favourite meadow. After the first view of the martens we did not see any mammals for a long while. From Zero Point we heard the distant cough of a leopard in a valley. Occasionally we heard the bark of the Muntjac. On our fourth day in Binsar we saw a leopard kill by the road. A family of jackals was feasting on the remains but ran away when it saw our car. I tried very hard to take a long shot of the jackals, but they were too wary.

kill scalybelliedwpInstead we saw more birds: spectacular Koklass pheasants with their green heads stalked a slope, unaware of us standing on the road to watch them, and two scaly-bellied woodpeckers, the male with a red head easily told from the black-headed female, foraging in the grass, unconcerned by the car standing nearby. There were many butterflies to be seen, from the ubiquitous Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), sulphurs, grass yellows, to the unsual and unidentified. Binsar remains a place which we could visit again.

Common punch
A common punch (Dodona durga), seen near Zero Point. Thank you for the ID Peter