Sunday lunch

As I began to think about Sunday’s lunch, inspiration was provided by delightful memories of our holiday in the Himalayas. In that wonderful hotel by the edge of glacier-fed Falachan river, Ram, the cook produced one lovely dessert after another. There were two each day. The high point of a day were these chocolate balls, lightly dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece complained that she didn’t like coconut. I suggested that she could have the previous evening’s Banoffee tart. She did have that, but after she finished the chocolate ball!

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A Laughingthrush

I just found what I’ve been doing wrong all these days: laughingthrush should be one word! I’ve seen several of them before, and thought of them as a variety of thrush, but apparently they are all classed as one separate genus, the Garrulax. We saw this Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus) on our aborted trip to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park. It was quartering a ledge below the path we were on, examining the ground very closely. This behaviour clearly meant that it was an insect-eater looking for its next meal. Traditional classifications place 45 species into this genus, but recent genetic studies indicate that these birds and the babblers have to be re-classified. This causes a confusion about whether to call the bird Garrulax lineatus or Trochalopteron lineatum.

No matter what biologists call it, the Streaked Laughingthrush is common across the Himalayas and can also be found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My first sighting of the bird was ten years ago, in Bhutan. But I should rethink that, since the Bhutanese subspecies is now said to be a separate species, the Bhutan Laughingthrush. Avibase records four subspecies. The region we were in showed a very high number of reports of this bird. Looking at the map of the reports, I wonder whether the density of sightings has to do with the number of birds or the number of watchers. It is quite possible that the bird is evenly distributed across the Himalayas. A survey in Uttarakhand found it at all altitudes they surveyed: from urbanized areas at an altitude of about 500 meters, to forests at heights of over 2 Kilometers. Studies like these lead to the IUCN’s classification of this bird as being of least concern for conservation action.

A water redstart

If there was one uncommon bird which I was sure of seeing in Himachal Pradesh, it was the Plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa). Sure enough, the first time The Young Niece and I walked down to see the Falachan, I saw this bird sitting on a boulder on the bank of the river. I pointed out to her the chestnut tail and the slate blue of the male, and the black-and-white tail and gray spotted breast of the female. She learnt that the up-and-down wagging of the tail is another way to recognize the female and the juvenile.

I’d first seen it hopping around from stone to bank and back near a roadside stream in Bhutan. Since then I’ve seen it on every trip to the Himalayas. It seems that this bird does not mind humans, and goes about hunting insects in the air and on the ground near a river even close to habitation. It is altitude bound, being usually found between 2 and 4 Kilometers above sea level, but is common in this habitat.

Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.

A midmorning snack

We didn’t manage to get much birding done on our aborted walk from Gushaini to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park at Ropa. It was a bit too late in the morning, and I, for one, was too busy panting during the steep uphill sections to do much looking. So we climbed back down, on a “shortcut” which locals take. This is essentially just short of rolling downhill, until we came to a bridge under construction across the Tirthan river. We clambered across this, and climbed up to a motorable road on the other side. Why? Sanjay, our guide for the day, said that we could possibly see some birds about a kilometer higher up. By the time we decided that it was too late for birdwatching, it was midmorning.

Sanjay said there was a tea shop nearby. I didn’t mind some tea, so we walked down there. The pleasant young person running the shop (featured photo) was happy to make us some. In one corner of his shop was a kadhai full of oil and another full of sugar syrup. Sanjay took a look at these and decided that he wanted jalebis. The mix was ready, but the shop owner did not know how to make them. “Another person comes here and makes them in the morning,” he said. Sanjay decided that he was an expert. We sipped our tea while the stove was lit, and the oil warmed up. Experimental jalebis were made. The Young Niece started laughing when she saw the plate (photo above). They looked nothing like jalebis, but I notice that she ate them all right. They were crisp and sweet and tasted like jalebis.

Slaty-headed parakeet

When we mentioned the Great Himalayan National Park, birders would reflexively say Himalayan Monal. That’s a shy bird we have seen before, always running away startled, and this time was no exception. The slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) was seldom mentioned. It is a spectacularly coloured bird, and you have to climb into the Himalayas to see it, so it has a claim to being the signature bird of the park. The parakeet can be seen across the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. We saw raucous groups of these parakeets on our aborted walk from Gushaini to Ropa.

In flight, when their wings and tails open up you can see the scarlet patch on the wings, and the blue and yellow tail feathers. The distinctive feature is the slaty head. This individual had a faded slaty colour, but there were others in the group with a darker gray head. This lighter head-colour marks out this bird as a juvenile, meaning it is less than three years old. We saw them towards the end of the breeding season, and perhaps the heavy activity was partly due to the necessity of feeding fledgelings.

We saw these birds as we climbed up towards Ropa, on slopes at an altitude of over 2 Kilometers, and saw more them as we climbed. They would descend to lower valleys in winter. Since these are the only parakeets which live at such heights, they are also the only parakeet which are forced to migrate with the seasons. The squaking calls followed as we went back down the path. We must have seen these parakeets before, but I had no memory of it. Nor did our notebooks contain a mention of this birds. So this must have been a lifer.

Flowers of the middle heights

The middle heights of the Himalayas are particularly pleasant. The famous British occupation-era “hill stations” of Shimla, Darjeeling, Naini Tal, Dalhousie, Mussoorie, among others lie at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. These famous destinations are now monstrous scabs on the flanks of the Himalayas, where tourists still flock. But away from these madding crowds are nameless villages dotted across the mountains at similar heights. They lie nestled in little flat pieces of land accidentally created by opposing slopes coming together. These accidental valleys often have water, and look out on pleasant meadows full of wildflowers. You see one of these in the featured photo. It is the Himalayan baby’s breath (Gypsophilia cerastioides)

These bushes spread out from below rocks, as you can see in the photo above. In late spring the low bushes are full of the five-petaled white flowers. The Young Niece asked the obvious question, “Why are there five petals?”. Once I’d asked this to a practicing research biologist and got the uninformative answer, “In biology we ask what, not why.” If you ask the Oracle of Google “Why do flowers have five petals?” you remain baffled. The most useful answer turns out to be “Because they are descended from other five-petaled flowers.” I know that another niece would have said something like the number of petals is a number in the Fibonacci sequence, and is related to the Golden Ratio. That is as unhelpful as the answer by the biologist. When we ask why, we would like to have an answer which gives us a chain of causes and effect. Anything else is just resetting the question in a different context.

Further downslope, where the meadows grow less rocky one can find fields of balsam. I don’t think I’ve seen this species before, with its long serrated leaves and the cup-shaped purple-pink flowers with large white anthers full of pollen. I was unable to identify it better. Interestingly, balsam also has five petals. The best argument from causes that I have read about pentapetalism (to coin a new word) was developed by Yutaka Nishiyama at the Osaka University of Economics a few years ago. He argues from the observation that the tip of the growing bud has to be convex. A five-fold symmetry at the growing tip is the most stable way to achieve this, for the same reason that a soccer ball has some pentagonal panels. Since petals grow out the tip of the growing bud, they will have five petals. His argument does not rule out other numbers of petals, but explains why almost 50% of families of flowering plants have five petals.

I include the flowers which you can see in the photo above not because they are wild, but because they are green. I saw them in one of the fields terraced out of a slope for agriculture. If there is something I know less about than wildflowers, it is farming. I am totally unable to say what these plants are. I’m sure if I’d stopped a local and asked I would have had instant enlightenment. Around the edges of these fields we saw the bright red flowers of large-mouthed poppy (Papaver macrostomum). That’s another five-petaled flower!

Russet or cinnamon?

It was the week of the tenth anniversary of my first sight of a russet sparrow when I took the featured photo. I think I’ve seen this bird on all our trips to the Himalayas, from Arunachal in the east to Himachal in the west. I’ve been following common usage to identify it as the Passer rutilans. The first person to publish a description of a bird gets priority in naming it. It seems that there was a forgotten dispute about first description which was originally resolved one way. But new historical research shows that it should have been resolved differently. So, it seems one should refer to this bird as the cinnamon sparrow or Passer cinnamomeus.

It is an interesting story. Coenraad Jacob Temminck was the first director of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden from 1820 until his death in 1858. He inherited a collection of stuffed birds from his father, who was a treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and had strong connections with Asia. He published a description of many birds and animals, including the russet sparrow, to which he gave the name rutilans. The description of the russet sparrow was published in a volume of a book which was dated 1835.

John Gould was an expert taxidermist (famous for helping Darwin to identify finches) and the first curator of the museum of the Zoological Society of London from 1827. The Society obtained a collection of birds from the Himalayas. Gould described this lot, including the russet sparrow, which he called the cinnamomeus. The report was published in the Society’s proceedings dated 1835, but it was published on 8th April 1836. Now it turns out that Temminck’s book also appeared some time in 1836, and, since the date is not exactly known, by common convention it must be taken to be 31st of December, 1836. So Temminck is dismissed by a technicality and the sparrow must now be called a cinnamon sparrow.

Looking at the photo I wonder now about a detail I had not noticed then: what are the blue flowers in the lower corner of the photo? Could it be the rare Himalayan gentian? Probably not, because that flowers in the monsoon, and this photo was taken in late spring. There are not too many tiny blue flowers at an altitude of 2.2 Kilometers above sea level, so this should be easy to place. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to.

Nightflyers of Falachan

I’ve written before about my frustration at not being able to identify moths in the field. There has been no change on that front in this month, except for the realization that one could try a different angle on it. The lights outside the rooms in Dilsher’s hotel attracted a very large number of moths. Some of these could still be seen early in the morning sitting on walls made of stone. I would be able to photograph them before they could fly away to wherever they spend the day. Looking at the photos I wondered whether I could tell anything about where they hide in the day.

The green moths probably hide in vegetation. I saw few of these, but the ones I did were very beautifully patterned. There are others whose wings mimic bark. If they sat on a tree trunk in full sight I would probably not notice them at all. Some are brown and yellow and probably spend the day hidden in leaf litter on forest floors. That leaves me guessing about one: the beautiful white one with red stripes.

Shoja

The distance between Jalori pass and Gushaini is not large, but the roads are narrow and hug the mountains above the winding courses of the Tirthan and Banjar rivers. We drove quickly through the town of Banjar. We had a glimpse of shops fronting narrow roads. A few turns, and the road had left the town behind. We wanted to stop for chai, and Soni decided that Shoja is the best place for a morning’s cuppa.

Shoja turned out to have all the charm that Gushaini and Banjar don’t. The Young Niece oohed and aahed about the view, so I walked with her a hundred meters along the road to the end of the town and took the featured photo. We’d been seeing these terraced fields near every village, but this was the nicest view of that we’d had. The clumps of chir pine (Pinus roxburghi) and banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) salted through the fields, clouds descending from the mountain tops, and the beautiful light were something to enjoy in silence.

When we walked back our chai was ready. I gulped down my glassful and wandered up the road to take a few photos of the town. The tailor was already at work at his pedal operated sewing machine. The booth behind him must be the trial room. I was surprised that the village is large enough to support a tailor full time. I guess its main earnings are from farms and orchards. Tourism may bring in a little money, since there are possibly some home-stays and a hotel in this village. It looked very clean and more prosperous than Gushaini, but that may just be because it hasn’t grown haphazardly.

By now everyone had finished their tea, and we all walked back down the road to take another look at the farms around the village. I got another shot of the slopes and the farmhouses nestled in the fields. There are several interesting small walks around this village, but I had one planned at a higher altitude. We piled back into the car and drove on to Jalori pass.