Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

A bird of passage

European rollers (Coracias garrulus) breed in a belt that extends from Spain in the west to central Asia and northern Kashmir in the east. The increasingly popular common name, the Eurasian roller, is therefore more appropriate. All these birds winter in Africa. Around this time of the year, the eastern population passes over India on its way to east and south Africa. The great Rann of Kutch is one of the places where they stop to feed before crossing the Arabian Sea into eastern Africa. These birds were visible in plenty on our visit to the Rann: sitting quietly on electrical transmission lines, poles, and tips of low trees. I could see them from break of dawn until the light faded in the evenings, sitting still.

The routes that each bird chooses are generally not known. A recent study tracked individuals which nest in southern France and found that they follow essentially a straight line over the Mediterranean and the Sahara to their wintering grounds in west Africa, making a couple of stops on the way. Different birds of the same species must have similar endurance, no matter where they nest. So I would guess that birds from the central Asian population would rest two or three times before they reach Kenya or Tanzania. Then maybe most of the birds we saw were resting after a long day’s flight. The individual in the photo above seems to have lost a lot of body mass; its body looks as narrow as its head. This stop may be very necessary for it.

The Eurasian roller is markedly different in appearance from the Indian roller (C. benghalensis). The most noticeable difference is the complete absence of chestnut colour from its breast and neck. The air was full of dragonflies, and I expected to see birds make forays to pluck a few from the air. Oddly, I saw nothing of the sort. Should one again put this down to tiredness? One summer, long ago, I’d seen a few of these birds in the swampy Camargue in the south of France. They were quite active. During breeding season they develop a prominent indigo streak below the wings, which I remember well. The winter plumage is more dull. Does that have survival value during migration? I wish I knew the answer to such questions.