The island continent of India drifted for 70 million years through the Tethys Ocean. It separated from Gondwanaland about 120 million years ago and collided with the Eurasian continent around 50 million years ago. 70 million years is enough time for large families of animals to evolve and die. So there must have been families which arose in the Indian landmass and migrated to the rest of the world later. The first such family has now been identified.
These are the Cambaytheres, a genus of fossil animals found at the bottom of an open-cast lignite mine outside of Surat in Gujarat. These 57 million years old fossils seem to be the origin from which all modern even-toed ungulates radiated out. These include horses and zebras, tapirs, as well as rhinoceros. The Cambaytheres were first described in an article published 6 years ago but I read about it only recently from a monograph published this year. The Cambay shale deposits have also yielded a very rich variety of other fossils from those times, and I’m sure we’ll be reading more about new finds from them.
The monograph has a very clear statement that although the genus is not the direct ancestor to any extant even-toed ungulate, it is the best possibility for the last common ancestor of all of them. Previous claims to the origins of this family are based on fragmentary fossil remains, or, sometimes, on conjectural remains. By the early years of the 21st century the possibility that the ancestors of horses originate in the Americas, Europe, and Africa had already begun to seem remote. A lot of attention then focused on new findings in China. Now, with a large collection of remains, from three species of this genus, much more can be said. Mysteries which remain are the routes through which the animals dispersed across the world, and then radiated into a large number of species in a few tens of thousands of years.
Yes, I was. Kind of. The purpose of waking up before sunrise on a winter morning and going into the damp wetlands of the Khichadiya bird sanctuary was to see herons and storks and ducks. So, yes. I was storking, and ready for this couple of black-necked storks (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) when they landed in a little dry spot in the middle of a lake. I’d missed the male’s landing, but was ready to shoot as the yellow-eyed female touched down. Elegant, isn’t it? That posture as she touches down. I wouldn’t mind an outing like that again.
Bad virus. Down! Down! I’m going for a walk, and you’re not coming. (I wish that worked)
Humans and giraffes, like most mammals, have 7 neck (cervical) vertebrae. The long-necked Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus of old) had 15. Flamingos beat all of them with 19 cervical vertebrae. So a flamingo has no trouble preening with its beak. I watched this Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) as it woke from a nap and stretched its neck to work on its feathers.
Birds have a larger number of cervical vertebrae than mammals, ranging from 11 to 25. So flamingos are not special. I don’t know where on this scale the neck of the Great thick-knee (Esacus recurvirostris, aka Great stone curlew) should be placed. Whatever the number, this odd looking bird doesn’t have a neck flexible enough to groom its wing feathers. I watched as this one stretched out its leg to do that.
I find the name thick-knee extremely good for field identification, as you can see in the photo where the leg is stretched out to preen the wings. The knobby knees are clearly visible. These knees can bend forward, unlike mammalian knees. I was quite struck by the fact that the bird woke from a snooze and began to stretch its wings, which are modified arms, and legs. Of course that must feel good.
That flamingo did the same thing, but only with one leg. Its knees bend the same way as ours. Most birds sleep with one half of the brain at a time. You can see this easily in waders which roost out in the water by the fact that one leg is retracted while it stands on the other. The relaxed leg is connected to the sleeping hemisphere. I didn’t think of looking to see which leg this individual was stretching. I don’t think I will go back to Jamnagar soon, but there are flamingos in the waters around Mumbai in winter; I’ll keep a watch to figure this out.
As we finished our hunt for larks outside Jamnagar, a man on a motorbike stopped to inspect us. He didn’t mind being inspected in turn. Communication was difficult, since he spoke only the local dialect of Gujarati, notoriously difficult for even a native Gujarati speaker. He was undoubtedly prosperous; the motorbike, crisp white clothes, the large gold ear ring, all were signs of his local status.
On this southern shore of the Gulf of Kutch water is plentiful, and agriculture has long been a good source of income. Nowadays cash crops like sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton bolster the income that the cultivation of bajra and jowar, and fishing used to provide. As we found in late March, a month after this photo was taken, this district is also a destination for migrant agricultural labour. So I’m pretty sure this gentleman was a local landowner. He gave us up for a lost cause soon and drove off.
While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.
Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.
On a walk in the intertidal region of the Marine National Park at Narara reef in Gujarat, I saw a live puffer fish (family Tetraodontidae) for the first time. I’d only seen it in restaurants in Japan, where it is called fugu. It is famously poisonous. One of these small fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill about 30 adults! But the neurotoxin is not genetically programmed into the fish, apparently the protective poison is accumulated from its diet.
The tiny thing was swimming at a leisurely pace. Our guide picked it up, and it came up almost as big as his hand. I was amazed by its big eyes; apparently puffer fish have very good vision. Inflating rapidly by ingesting water seems to be its main defense mechanism. It deflated to normal size and swam away as soon as it was released. Which of the over hundred species was it? An inventory of this region mistakenly calls it Tetraodon lineatus. It doesn’t look like this purely African species. Distribution maps and pictures eventually led me to the conclusion that this is the Takifugu oblongus.
Like many others, I must have discovered Dylan Thomas’ poem in my teenage years. In those days it was a sort of a secret anthem on how to live for a cryptic club. The anthem adapts to circumstances. On a late afternoon walk through the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, I thought about the poem again. People I knew in Wuhan were already in lock-down, and in February it was already clear that the pandemic would strike some time, but that was not what was uppermost in my mind.
We strolled for more than a kilometer out to the waterline. The tide in this gulf is spectacular, and the receding sea had left pools in which we could see sponges, puffer fish and crabs. Over the years I’d discovered that I was similar to a migratory shorebird, like the common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), which visits these pleasant coasts in winter, striding through tide pools, stopping to inspect things, turning over little stones. The sun was about to set. “Time to go back”, said someone. “Just a few minutes more”, I said, trying to prolong the pleasant day, raging against the dying of the light.
The poem is about living right, as all teenagers know. It is not about dying.
In this sweltering heat of Mumbai it feels nice to look back at the photos of the winter that’s just gone by. The many winter visitors include these gulls with stars in their tails. Once you notice that, you have narrowed the identification down to three: Mew gulls, Caspian gulls, and Heuglin’s gulls. Mew gulls are the smallest, and very rare in India. This was too big. The Heuglin’s and Caspian are about the same size, and distinguished by the shape of the head (Heuglin’s is broader) and the darkness of the wings (Heuglin’s is darker). This could be Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini). I consulted an oracle, and it was.
Little Warsaw (there’s a long story there) of Jamnagar stands near a tidal flat. We reached when the tide was coming in. A group of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) was foraging in the low waters. They are wonderful to watch at all times, so it was a while before I took my eyes off them to look at the tourists basking on a spit of sand beyond them.
They were mostly Crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) winter visitors from Sri Lanka and Maldives. You wouldn’t think anyone would leave those Indian Ocean islands to come and winter in Gujarat. There has to be a story there; one that I intend to follow up some time. As they roosted, a noisy flock of Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) came flying in. As they picked their way between the roosting Craab plovers, I noticed some distinctive Heuglin’s gulls (Larus fuscus heuglini) floating behind the islet. The gulls roost in the water.
A knot of locals were sitting by the shore when we arrived, and now they decided to wade out. Their village was probably on the far side of the flats, and they seemed pretty sure of the route to follow. I heard more commotion, and I took my eyes off them. A bunch of elegant Eurasian Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) came flying in. The Crab plovers were beginning to get crowded out. There was a lot of squawking and crying from the mixed bunch on the island. The villagers had turned in the meanwhile. They were definitely following a fixed route.
The Great Knots were alert to the approaching humans, and took off in a flurry of wing-beats. The Crab plovers had given up on their sleep and were on their feet. The villagers were very close to the islet when they birds took off. As the humans crossed the sand on their way home, a few brave plovers stood their ground. When they were gone, the Crab plovers came back to reclaim the island for themselves. They wanted to spend the afternoon roosting. We were off for lunch.
I never really learn to pay attention. Long ago, a very competitive bird watcher had challenged me to tell whether a nearby sparrow was male or female, and I vamped my way through the test. Males of birds are generally more colourful, and the bird we were looking at was pale and mousy. I guessed female, and although I was correct, I did not win the argument. Also, I didn’t go back and look carefully at the description of an Indian house sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus). Otherwise, when I saw the bird in the featured photo, I would have known instantly (by the lack of a black bib covering its chin, neck, and chest) that it was not your garden variety house sparrow. This is a the only migratory subspecies, the Aghan sparrow (Passer domesticus bactrianus).