Blog images from the past year: 403 ME

When you try to structure a retrospective of your favourite photos from a year’s worth of blog posts, you have a lot of choice. You could rate them in various ways, arrange them by colour or theme or chronology. But no matter what organization you choose, you still leave yourself a bit of leeway with the introduction. So it was with me. Having chosen to structure this post chronologically, I still had to figure out what to use as a featured photo. When it comes to visuals, I think you should be able to tell a book by its cover. Since my year was full of birds, I will start with a photo where I managed to get close enough to a hunter to see the colour of her eyeballs.

It seems hard to recall now, but the year started with the last of the major variants of the virus which divided our life story into before and after. January was omicron time, and I was mostly at home. Highly infectious variants of a virus run through the population very fast. So the wave was over earlier than I’d expected. As a result, I could spend the next month walking through my own city after a long time. I still had time left over to try my hand at blank verse in iambic pentameters. I discovered that counting syllables is not easy, and I had to approximate.

But soon enough we were back in the wilds. One special sighting was of the lost Taiga bean goose, probably separated from its west Siberian flock, and tolerated as an honorary member of a flock of bar-headed geese. I spent some time with maps trying to understand how this strange companionship might have developed, and learnt a valuable lesson about the world unsettled by us.

Between visits to the wilderness, it was interesting to watch the city come alive. Those were the last days of continuous working from home, and I could finish my day’s work early and roam the streets of Mumbai as life resumed after the pandemic. Most people were already vaccinated, and although the latest variant had infected large numbers, most did not need hospitalization. There was palpable relief on the streets.

India harbours a large variety of cats, and it’s a pity only the big cats attracts so much attention. In 403 ME we were lucky to sight several of the small cats. They are elusive creatures, wary of humans, The jungle cat is the most common, and I’ve seen it only thrice. I’ve never seen a fishing cat, the manul, or the Asian lynx. I’ve seen a caracal briefly as it sped off as soon as I chanced on it walking along a deserted road. So I feel I was lucky to have got photos and a video of one which was probably the desert cat. I was a bit puzzled by the ecology of its desert habitat, and it helped me fill in a bit of the puzzle.

After that I went tiger hunting in the same place where Bungalow Bill, made famous by the Beatles, shot his tiger. But more than half a century on, I was happy to see that not a single visitor had either elephant or gun. I have shown photos of these tigers too often; having seen them after three years. So here I post a photo of two butterflies, one called the common tiger, and the other the common crow. Pat yourself on the back when you figure out their names, but remember that there’s a whole lot we do not know about these two milkweed butterflies.

When you spend most of your leisure time in the jungles of India you cannot fail to notice the unremarked creatures which shape the land: termites. The jungles would regenerate slower without them, because these distant cousins of cockroaches are the most efficient metabolizers of wood. I was astounded when I found how old some of their cities are.

As July came along, we left for the hills. In the high desert of Ladakh, headaches and worse stalk those who forget about the lack of oxygen in the air. Among the most interesting sights here are signs of ancient humans who lived and left their art on rocks in this unhospitable part of the world. But the most interesting photos were from the cham at the Hemis monastery. I found the juxtaposition of masks interesting: one set elaborate and hand made according to several hundred years-old tradition, the other set stamped out in a factory for export to a foreign culture. Trust children to create something new.

Meanwhile, in the plains, the monsoon had set in. During breaks we travelled the Sahyadris, as we’ve been doing in the past two years, looking at the blooming of wildflowers in the otherwise arid volcanic soil. I hadn’t seen the misnamed Glory lily for several years, and had almost forgotten its name. But I remembered a true crime story associated with it.

A collateral pleasure of this new passion for wildflowers is the glimpse we get into life in small villages in the middle of Maharashtra. These places were traditionally very poor, but in the last seven decades roads and irrigation projects have made a very great difference to the lives of people who live here. Earning a living is by no means easy, but I think someone from my grandfather’s generation would be surprised. As for me, the differences from city life sometimes surprise me as much as the similarities.

After the monsoon it was time to get back to the mountain wilderness in the Himalayas. In this short trip around Diwali I was happy with the number of birds I saw. This pied kingfisher was not the most difficult to photograph, but it certainly gave me one of my favourite shots of the year.

Before you realize it, the sun picks up speed as it falls towards the lowest point in its orbit. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, which sits at the focus of the orbit, and for me it is winter. No one in their right mind goes to the mountains at this time. But did I claim to be sane? Winter weather is clear and cold, perfect for views of four of the five highest mountains in the world (Chomolungma in the center, Lotse to its right, Makalu at its left). The zoom required for this photos excluded Kanchenjunga, which is just off the right margin of the shot.

An finally, when the earth whirls past its closest approach to the sun, it is the true new year, 404 ME. We are ready for another whirl around our nearest star. It is unlikely that a new Buddha will arise soon, and even less likely that he will be the Manjushree Buddha, one who cleaves ignorance and fear with his sword. But we can all wish such a happy new year to each other, can’t we?

At one with the Wind

Compacted sand dunes were held together by clumps of grass. Thorn trees threaded through them. This scrubland battleground was pitted with holes which hid mongoose, jirds, gerbils, rats, foxes and cats. We chanced upon a small cat sitting in the open. I’d barely taken one photo when another jeep appeared. It could take one jeep in the neighbourhood. But the second one sent it streaking for its burrow.

The desert is full of these secretive middle sized predators, and one common thread runs through their different behaviour. They avoid humans. There’s no doubt that this is why they survive when their larger and faster cousins, the tigers and the cheetah, were hunted to extinction a mere century ago. When I saw the cat I was a hunter with my camera, continuing to edge up on it to improve my shot, as it sat in a burrow, ready to dive. Only now, as I look at those photos do I realize that it must have been terrified.

There is much confusion on what to call this species. Desert cat or Asiatic wildcat? And the binomial is equally confused: Felis lybica to go with the Asiatic wildcat, or Felis lybica ornata, to distinguish the population which lives in the desert of Rajasthan, disconnected (as far as we know) from the other Asiatic populations? There is even confusion about whether the Asiatic population is a subspecies of the African, which should then be called Felis lybica. Or whether the European population, which is usually called Felist silvestris, should be distinguished. Or does the familiar house cat, Felis catus, interbreed with these often enough that they are all one widespread species. In this deep confusion are added new photographic records of the desert cat far to the east, in the protected forests of central and eastern Madhya Pradesh.

The desert cat has complex markings on its back, and we slowly circled trying to see its back. But the cat kept turning to keep an eye on us. Its long and tufted ears twitched, it raised its head to sniff the wind, and it blinked the eyes with the characteristic vertical slits. We never got to see its back. So eventually, although I think it is a desert cat that we saw, do we really know what it is?

Disturbances and consequences

Like any normal wildlife tourist, I’m happy to see a new place, take some photos, talk about the trip with friends and family, and then forget about it. Writing a blog made a difference, because it made me look again at the photos and think about them. After seeing the beautiful but arid grassland of Tal Chhapar with its utter lack of predators, I began to wonder whether it is a self-sustaining ecology. If it were not for human care, wouldn’t the place soon be overrun by deer which eat up all the vegetation and reduce it to an arid desert? Have the old Maharajas and their unsustainable love of shooting tigers and cheetahs spelt the doom of their beloved hunting ground?

I wondered idly about this question, until, on the flight home, I read about a method that naturalists use to study the ecology of ancient terrains where mammals first began to radiate into new forms. This method of drawing cenograms turned out to be easy. The simplest of all would be to list, for example, all the herbivorous mammals in Tal Chappar, rank them by their size, and plot the average weight of each species against the rank. This method was apparently first used by Legendre in 1986.

I was pretty sure I’d seen all the herbivores in Tal Chhapar. The Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) was definitely the largest, followed by wild boars (Sus scrofa), black bucks (Antilope cervicapra), and Chinkara (Gazella bennettii), in that order. I’d also seen a few black naped hare (Lepus nigricollis). A checklist from the Zoological survey assured me that I’d only missed the three smallest: gerbil (Tatera Indica), palm squirrels (Funambulus pennantii), and desert Jirds (Meriones hurrianae). A quick search gave me their average weights. The only surprise was that the hares weighed more than 2 Kgs in mean. You can see the resulting cenogram above. There are no species with weights between a couple of hundred grams and a couple of kilos, allowing a clear division between small and large mammals. Apparently this is common in almost all ecologies where migration is possible, but the reason is not clear to me. The nearly horizontal line which connects the small mammals is said to be characteristic of hot climates (in cold climates this line would slope down more steeply). All very nice, but I couldn’t use this to say anything about whether the grassland ecology I saw was stable or not.

Fortunately, there is a method for helping you think about that. It was developed by Valverde in 1964. You start by drawing another cenogram from the mammalian carnivores. I’d seen a desert cat (Felis lybica, photo above), a white-footed fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla), and a grey mongoose (Urva edwardsii). I’d also seen pelts of tigers (Panthera tigris) and Asian cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) hunted to extinction from these grounds in the Maharaja’s palace in Bikaner. The checklist told me that I’d missed seeing Golden jackals (Canis aureus) and jungle cats (Felis chaus). Newspaper reports also told me that I should add stray dogs to this list, because they are responsible for large numbers of attacks on deer in this place.

Valverde tells us to put the two cenograms on one figure, and draw lines which join each predators with its prey. You can see that one half of the figure (the part in yellow) is full of criss-crossing lines joining predators and prey. This strong food web is likely to keep this part of the ecology in balance, even if one of the species goes extinct. The remainder of the food web (the part in pink) seems to have been altogether more sparse. The two extinct cats used to feed larely on three herbivores: Nilgai, wild boars and black buck. With the extinction of the tiger and the cheetah, a niche in the ecology was vacant. Stray dogs have moved into it, replacing the cheetah as the sole predator on black buck. Although there is a lot of consternation about it, perhaps it is the reason this ecosystem has not collapsed yet. There is space yet for a larger predator, but nothing apart from humans has appeared here.

Two species of herbivores are currently unchecked by predators. I suppose a census would tell us that Nilgai numbers have increased over the last hundred years. But in this arid land, the lack of food would perhaps always have been a major limitation on this species. This scarcity is now the only thing keeping Nilgai numbers in check. The wild boars are more problematic I think. In many parts of India where tigers have disappeared, wild boar are in constant warfare with farmers. I recalled meeting farmers keeping vigil on their fields in Maharashtra, to prevent wild boars from raiding their fields (photo above). Perhaps dogs will eventually check their numbers by preying on the squeakers, but if they don’t then conflict is inevitable. Instead of decrying the role of feral dogs in this ecology, we should be happy that they have moved into this food web and begun to stabilize what humans had nearly destroyed.