Life in thin air

At an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level the air pressure, and the amount of oxygen in every lungful of air you take in, is a little less than half of what you have at sea level. The amount of water available also decreases as you go up. The thin air and lack of water make for high deserts, until you get to the edge of the snow line. Here, where melt water is abundant in summer, life thrives. As we approached the high pass of Khardung La in Ladakh we entered such an altitudinal oasis.

Vegetation was sparse right at the top. But just a little way down was the village of Khardung, sitting on a stream that flowed from the meltwater around the pass. But even before we reached the village, we could see meadows where cattle were at a leisurely breakfast. I looked carefully at the black shapes: all were cows or dzos, crosses between cows and yak. Not a single one had the muscular shoulders of the yak.

Sitting quite apart from the cattle were a few donkeys. This was the first pack animal I’d seen in Ladakh. In many parts of the Himalayas and trans-Himalayas, motorized vehicles have replaced the mules and donkeys which were common a lifetime ago. But perhaps in these remote villages, where life can be snowbound for half the year, donkeys are still useful.

Right at the top of the pass I’d seen flocks of yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus, also called Alpine chough) doing the aerial acrobatics they are so fond of. The air was full of their deep musical tones. I looked carefully but saw none of their red-billed cousins. Both are creatures of heights; you won’t see them in Leh. On the chorten where the chough sits in the featured photo, I could see sprigs of juniper. There were no trees that I could see. Do people bring juniper branches with them when they cross? Lower down, just above the 4.8 Kms mark, we stopped for a chai. Flocks of pigeons wheeled in the air. Most were common pigeons (Columba livia), but I saw a few Hill pigeons (Columba rupestris). The one in the photo above was a lifer; the white band on the tail, and the white under the wing are characteristic of this species. Later I saw many more in Leh.

While we had chai there was time to look at the vegetation in this altitudinal oasis. There were stunted bushes of something that could be a tulsi or mint. The nearest bushes lay up-slope, and I wasn’t up to a climb to examine them closely. So I had to pass up the chance at a better identification and satisfied myself with the possibility that this belonged to family Lamiaceae. Of course, this is a large family, with over seven thousand species, but there cannot be many that grow so high up.

I’d been seeing bright orange patches on stone as we came down from the pass. They were to bright to be the mineral colours that we’d seen in rocks in this low-oxygen environment. Now that I could take a closer look, I found that it was the common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina). This is a leafy lichen, a hybrid of fungi and algae. I find the symbiosis of different organisms making up lichens to be very interesting. For the first time on this trip I missed my dedicated camera for macros.

I’d thought that the green cover was entirely grass. I was not correct. There was grass, of course, but quite a bit of the green was due to a spreading succulent. I should have thought of that, deserts are usually full of succulents. It’s one way plants have of conserving water in a dry environment. Now that I know there’s such a variety of life at this altitude, I’ll have to stop and look carefully in future: perhaps I’ll even get to see the insects and small mammals which live up here.

More birds of the Terai

Springtime is the right time to visit the foothills of the Himalayas. All the birds which came down to the plains in the winter begin to move back up to their breeding grounds. Since they move up at different times, and are trying to get to different altitudes, a week in the Terai will yield a lot of sightings. This spring we took two trips: one to the east, to Manas NP in Assam, and one to the west, to Corbett NP in Uttarakhand. I got the featured photo of the stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) in Corbett.

Seeing the beautiful Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) in Corbett NP was like running into an old friend. We used to have this spectacular long tailed birds in our garden until insecticide killed its prey base. The females are equally beautiful, but lack the showy tail. The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) used to be another old friend with whom I seem to have lost touch. I was happy to see two of these jauntily crested fellow sitting on a tree in Corbett NP.

I’d seen the spangled drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus, also hair-crested drongo) first in Assam. This photo was taken in Corbett NP. You can see the spangles on its breast, but the long crest of thin hairs is not clearly visible. The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is perhaps even more common, but I liked the light on it as it came down to the Ramganga river for a drink in the evening.

This solitary Pallas’ fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) sat for a long while on a branch, looking around alertly without flying. Interestingly, they have been reported from all around Tibet: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Are they not found in Tibet? Or, like Afghanistan, is the lack of reported sightings just a gap in the data? The jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), on the other hand, seems to be only Indian, but widely distributed from the edge of the Thar desert east to Assam.

The Silver-breasted broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) that I saw in Manas NP was a lifer. A colourful and quiet little bird, it looked back at us, and did not fly away. The black-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) was another lifer. Once a locally common bird in the eastern Himalayas, it has become extremely rare and is now reported from only three places in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and another in Manipur. It is a skulker, hard to spot in the tall grasses it lives in, and quickly leaves the locality when it is disturbed. I was happy to get this single photo.

This photo of the Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis, also Broad-billed roller) from Manas NP keeps confusing me. It isn’t a blackbird, just the usual dark blue dollarbird sitting in shadows inside Manas NP. In its breeding season it has the spectacular display flight of the rollers. I was happy to see the rolling and diving flight in Corbett NP.

This post appears on schedule while I travel.

A crested kingfisher

My first, and till now, only, view of a crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) came as we drove across a shallow riverbed in the Dhikala range of Corbett NP. I’d looked at the bird and mentally classified it as a pied kingfisher when Adesh grew excited and pointed it out. Indeed it was much larger than the pied, and it had a wonderful crest. The moral is an old one: chance favours the prepared mind. I hadn’t done my reading, had no idea that there was a lifer possibly waiting for me, and if it was not for Adesh, I would have seen the bird and not recognized it for the special sighting it was.

You can see this bird in a wide arc across Asia, from Afghanistan in the west, across the lower Himalayas, and into China, Korea and across the sea in Japan. Southwards, it may be visible in parts of Bangladesh, and northern South-east Asia, into Vietnam. When I looked at the bird through the camera I saw a much finer pattern across its chest than a pied kingfisher would have. Of course its defining feature is the untidy crest. I don’t think I’ll mistake it for the pied kingfisher in future.

This post appears on schedule while I travel.

Bee eaters

Before a mad doctor convinced a majority of my neighbours that our gardens should be saturated with pesticide, we could see many Green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) outside our window. Now I have to travel to jungles to see this auld acquaintance. They are easy to photograph, since they like to perch in the open and keep an eye on flying prey. They make quick forays to catch a passing insect and come back to their perch.

I caught this particular one in Kanha NP, cocking its head before a flight. I’ve noticed this movement before. I think it moves its head to improve its fix on the prey just before pushing off its perch. Binocular vision has its limit for birds, because of the relatively small size of head. Moving the eye gives it better depth perception through parallax. I superposed the two separate shots to give a sense of how much head movement it makes in order to get a fix. I think it more than doubles the parallax that it would have if it didn’t do this.

Corbett NP in May turns out to be a great place for spotting several different kinds of bee eaters. I completed a checklist of three more of them. The Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is perhaps the second most widespread, being visible in the Terai grasslands and the lower Himalayas, both coasts of India, all through Bengal and the north-east, and eastwards through Myanmar all the way to Vietnam, south to Malayasia and, strangely, of all the islands of Indonesia, only in Java. I probably have several other photos of it from other places, but this was the only shot I have from Corbett NP.

I’ve seen the Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) less often, although it has a larger range: all of India south of Jammu and all of Punjab, including in Pakistan, eastwards into the Philippines and Papua New-Guinea. I remember seeing it in Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Assam. The photo above comes from just outside Corbett NP.

The Blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is the least common of these, and I have only a couple of photos. The photo in the triptych above comes from Manas NP. It is visible in the Nilgiris and the two coasts around it, the jungles of Odisha and central India, and in the Terai grasslands. Further east also, its range is fairly restricted: North-east of India, and Bangladesh up to Vietnam and the north of Malayasia. Unlike the other three, perhaps it shuns gardens and tended forests. Since the last September I managed to spot all the six bee-eaters that can be seen in India. I find the Blue-bearded the most interesting of the lot, not only because it is less common, but also because it is the only bee-eater seen in India which is not in the genus Merops.

Which hawk-eagle?

One species that I find most confusing in the field is the Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). The least confusing aspect is that there are two morphs. The one you see in these photos is called the light morph. The dark morph does not have the streaked white chest, and is much darker uniformly. But more than that, the field identification is rendered more confusing because of controversies about subspecies and cryptic species. This has left a legacy of birders looking at multiple characteristics and distinguishing between features which could perhaps be widely variable without distinguishing species or subspecies. I will not enter that controversy (you can read a condensed version in its Wikipedia article) but will go with the Linnaean wisdom: if two things have the same binomial, they are one species.

It’s a common enough bird, easily spotted across India, south of Jammu, below the Tibetan plateau, and eastward across Asia right up to Banda Sea, in central and South Vietnam and the Philippines. What was uncommon about this sighting in Kanha NP was that I found it in a little muddy pool drinking water in great gulps. It looked up as we stopped, but after that it didn’t pay us much attention. It is the apex predator in its own niche, after all. I’d never seen it drinking water before, so I didn’t know whether it was extra thirsty because of the heat or what looked like an orgy of drinking was normal. But then, just a week before, I’d seen a small but feisty Jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) drive one away by flying directly at it. I wouldn’t have thought that was normal either, except that a much more experienced birder said that he’d seen smaller raptors shooing away bigger ones before. The longer you watch birds, the more interesting behaviour you see. I suppose all that it means is that, within their physical limits, creatures have more autonomy and adaptability than they were once supposed to have. Hawk-eagle, thy name is change.

The woodpecker and the (w)hole

Grasslands in the Terai are interspersed with deep jungles of mixed trees. This is where tigers come for shade and rest after a night out eating and drinking in the sea of grass. But you also find herds of chital, and lone sambar and barking deer moving through the undergrowth. If you are lucky you’ll see a mongoose or a pangolin. We drove slowly along paths under the towering trees and stopped when we heard a woodpecker’s call. Which one? Ahead of us, on a massive trunk sat a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus), a lifer for me. Maybe. Because I’ve seen and photographed lots of birds before I started taking an interest in them. I confused myself for a while, “But it doesn’t have the red patch at the front of the head.” The Family was practical, “Must be the female.” It was. I admire pragmatism, especially in the heat of the field.

The lady inspected a hole in the tree, and its surroundings, like a finicky house hunter. I found later that this is one of the commoner woodpeckers in the world, once having lived in a swathe of land across Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where the climate is neither too hot, nor too cold. When I put my observation into eBird, it demanded verification. The species has been reported often from the Terai and the lower slopes of the Himalayas, but is still considered rare here. As the weather warms they’ll move north (there are already sightings in northern Finland and Norway, as far north as Tromsø) and up-slope, becoming rarer still in India.

As we watched a jeep with two young couples came to a halt next to us. “Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of dust. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken I saw that this tree was being strangled slowly by a fig. I can’t tell the difference between three of the commonest strangler figs in this region: Ficus beghalensis (banyan), Ficus virens (pilkhan) and the immense Ficus altissima. Parakeets and hornbills, of which there are several species here, eat their fruits. Their droppings contain viable seeds that take root in some of the other trees. As the host dies, there are more and more holes in its trunk, attracting Picus canus and several other species which are looking for nesting holes. This area was full of trees being strangled, and sure enough, I could hear the screech of parakeets flying high overhead. Eventually, one of the figs will win by growing faster, throwing its deadly shade over the the remaining, clearing trees from the space under it. A small grassland will nucleate under the tree and spread.

I’m happy that a generation ago, when the Beatles sat in an ashram not far from here and composed their eco-anthem, The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, someone had the foresight to start Project Tiger in these jungles. That has preserved this wonderful cycle between jungle and grassland for the rest of us to enjoy. The shade of these trees were filled with the clicking and chirping of insects, the trilling and the cackle of birds. I was glad I’d stopped here. I took off the mask and breathed the smell of the forest.

Green-pigeons and a green pigeon

Orders, families, genus, species: nested labels for life forms that we learn in school. Birds in the genus Treron are called green-pigeons. I tell them by the green or yellow chest feathers. But let’s step back. The order Columbiformes contains a single family Columbidae in which all doves (subfamily Clavarinae and Columbinae) and pigeons (part of subfamily Raphinae) are placed. Several of the Raphinae have green feathers on their wings or tails. But of these, only genus Treron have yellow or green chest feathers. The one I know best is the state bird of Maharashtra, the Yellow-footed green-pigeon (Treron phoenicopterus). It was one of the first birds I saw in Manas NP in Assam, far across the country. You can see it in the featured photo. Unfortunately its feet are in shadow, so the bright yellow looks gray in the photo.

The other Treron I got a photo of was the Pin-tailed green-pigeon (Treron apicauda). Its tail comes to a pointed end, as you might expect. Its feet are decidedly pink. We came across it pretty late in the evening, when the light was not great. Teasing out the colours of the feathers was hard. I’m happy I got enough for the identification in the photo. A better photo in good light is something I look forward to. For now I’m satisfied with this lifer.

For me this Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea), the state bird of Tripura, was the high point of pigeonry, but also my greatest disappointment. It is something I’ve sighed over before. Although you can see it along the west coast, south of Mumbai, along the east coast, and then through Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar, into Assam and the north-east, I have seldom seen it. I was very excited to see it finally on our third day in Manas. The tail was green right to its tip, so I know it wasn’t the confounding Mountain Imperial Pigeon. But taking the photo was hard. I could only photograph it from almost directly below it. If I moved further to get it jewel-bright green wings and tail it would be obscured by the neighbouring branches. I shot off a rapid series of photos, and found that in the last ones it looks down, notices us and pushes off the branch into flight. I’ll have to wait longer for better photos.

Familiars

Many years ago when The Family wanted to start birding, we discovered that the ship-breaking yard in Sewri was a place where we could watch water birds. We went there every weekend for several months and became familiar with the common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos). Because of its name, I thought it wasn’t of much interest. Later I realized that the name merely refers to how easy it is to spot. And only now I realize that it is a very special species. But before I tell you why, let me just say that when you start watching birds you accumulate many photos of the more common ones, and eventually you begin to see their special beauty. I’m very fond of the featured photo of the common sandpiper which I took in a patch of waste water runoff behind Chhapar village in Rajasthan. I’m equally happy with the photo below of the common redshank (Tringa totanus), another sandpiper, taken in the same place. The redshank’s piping call tells you immediately why the family is called sandpiper. These beautiful waders can be seen across Africa, Asia, Europe, and also in parts of Australia.

Across the American continents one sees the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius), very closely related to the common sandpiper. So closely related that there is still gene flow between these two species; hybrid lineages have been spotted now and then. It seems that the species split very recently in geological time. Usually when we look at two different species, say a tiger and a leopard, they are not able to produce viable hybrids. However, when you trace them back to their common ancestral population, the distinction becomes less clear. There is a point at which the ancestors of the leopards and of the tigers could not be distinguished at all. A little later they would have been distinct, but still able to interbreed. Only with the passing of time have they come to be as distinct as they are today. The two species of Actitis remind us that the split between species occurs gradually. It amazes me to see this creative act of evolution frozen in time.

Two cisticolas, two grasslands

Cisticolas are easy to photograph once you have spotted them. Like many other insectivores, they like to perch somewhere and watch for insects in the neighbourhood. When they spot one they spring into action, and then come back to perch. If they change their perch, they’ll alight somewhere nearby, so you don’t have to move to sight them again. They are small birds, 9-12 cms in size. If you are photographing them with a zoom, then with judicious positioning you could try to get a nice bokeh.

Zitting cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis) are quite common across India, and found from southern Europe to northern Australia. I’ve been seeing them for several years, but got photos for the first time in February this year at the arid grasslands of Tal Chhapar in Rajasthan. Previously I’d only seen it near lakes; perhaps there was water somewhere close. The day had dawned cloudy but the sun was out when I spotted it. I noticed that it manoeuvres well in the air even though its tail is short and stubby.

My first sighting of a Golden-headed cisticola (Cisticola exilis) came a month later, across the country in the lush green grassland of Manas in Assam. This one is less widespread, but is found right across India, all the way down to southeastern Australia. Like C. juncidis, it is a small and light bird, less than 10 gms in weight, heavily streaked, and breeds in the monsoon. Both lay eggs in nests constructed by tying living leaves together. Off breeding season they are similar in looks, but this one has a golden-yellow band across the back of the neck, and has a significantly longer tail, which has a different shape. I should look out for it in the breeding season, when its head turns golden-yellow.

Grieving for griffons

Eurasian griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) range from north Bengal in the east westwards over north India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all the way to the Iberian peninsular, largely south of the Caspian Sea, except a finger probing north to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and with some spillover to Tunisia and the coastal regions of the Arab Peninsula. The immense bird, with a one meter long body and a three meter wingspan, would have been easily visible over most of south Europe if civilization had not wiped it out in historical times.

When we saw it again at close quarters in Jorbeer, outside Bikaner, The Family and I remembered again our delightful first sighting in Bhutan, when a group came gliding over our car to land in a high meadow. They remained there as we clambered up the bank of the meadow and lay on the grass to take photos. Then they ran, one by one, to the edge of the drop and launched themselves into the air over the valley below us. I could recall the damp coolness of that high Himalayan mud on me as I watched them here in this hot desert sanctuary.

The griffons share a tree with their accipiter cousins

Individual griffons can weigh up to 10 Kilos, although I’m willing to bet that most of those that we saw were a little more than half that weight. Still, it costs a lot for them to fly by flapping their wings like crows do. They have adapted the ancient pterosaurian mode of gliding efficiently. Unpowered flight is a delicate balance between falling due to gravity and rising due to the lift provided by air resistance. The large wings work to increase lift. The splayed “fingers” at the end, essentially the separated primary feathers on the wing, decrease air resistance (drag) by allowing free passage to the air. This design increases lift and lowers drag. A wonderful, nearly fifty year old paper, laid out the essentials of powered flight in birds. I think a similar study of gliding birds is long overdue.

In Jorbeer I watched them in groups of over a dozen and did not find a strong pecking order. I wonder whether there are field workers who are studying their social organization. Griffons have a physiology adapted to extremes of both heat and cold. They have large expanses of naked skin along the long tube of their neck. This allows them to thermo-regulate by merely changing their posture. This is a long step away from the eagles, hawks and falcons which fall within the same family of birds, the Accipitridae. It would be interesting to find out whether social adaptations also arose during this evolution.