Himalayan griffon

“Take a photo of that,” The Family told me. I hate following a bird in flight, because my camera has bad shutter lag. If I try to take something in motion, it is usually gone by the time the shutter opens. But this vulture was soaring predictably on thermals in large circles. I got it roughly in focus and followed it as I released the shutter. It wasn’t such a bad picture, was it?

We looked at it later and it was definitely the Himalayan vulture (Gyps himalayensis), also called the Himalayan Griffon. It certainly did not have the streaks and rufous highlights that would have indicated the Eurasian Griffon. These two are the largest vultures in the Himalayas, with wingspans which can go up to 3 meters. Some of these birds can weigh over 10 Kilograms. I’m not sure how large this was: I could not judge how high it was, and there was nothing in the sky to set a scale. I’m pretty bad at this. We were very excited by this sighting, because in late spring one usually expects to see this bird much higher up in the Himalayas; we were barely 2 Kilometers above sea level. Their normal range includes the Tibetan plateau, and the Falachan valley must be at the southern end of its summer range.

Fortunately the Himalayan vulture has not had a population crash due to the use of diclofenac for treating inflammation in cattle. IUCN has changed the status of this bird to near-threatened anticipating mortalities due to this chemical. However, with stricter control over its use, other vulture populations are recovering, and it may be that the Himalayan Griffon remains largely untouched. I looked at this one circling lazily in the empty sky, and hoped for such a future.

An old temple

It was clear that I was looking at something that I did not have a complete grasp of. The structure in the middle of the village was important: it was the middle after all, and it was isolated from the huts around it. There was even a nice little modern Hindu temple which kept its distance. And, more than anything else, right next to this structure was a really tall tree, stripped of everything but the leaves right at the top. This was the tallest structure in the village.

There were a couple of older men nearby, but they spoke a thick dialect of Hindi which I couldn’t quite follow. My only source of information was Dev, who is from the region, but who tended to oversimplify things for me. He said it was a temple, and the tall pole was a tree which was brought and planted into the ground here once every year. He pointed out the previous year’s tree which was lying at the edge of the green. Dev was a little vague about the nature of the deity. “Local god,” he explained. He was even more vague about the significance of the tree. Not being of the village, it is possible that he knew of the rituals, but not the reason they were performed.

The temple was built on a sturdy platform at about the height of my head. Stairs showed that the entrance was from the direction of the red-roofed shed. Above the entrance was the emblem of the snake which you see in the featured photo. That indicated that this could indeed be dedicated to a local god, with a very local significance. The pillars which held up the roof were nicely carved, and had been painted not too far back. Dev had wandered off. I was quite alone here, and lost, with no idea what this was about. As you can imagine, there is nothing on the web about it either.

The Frustrated Naturalist

It is so easy to tell butterflies from moths: just look at the antennae. If they have straight antennae ending in little clubs, then they are butterflies. The clubs could be nice and round, or long and slightly bent, or even slightly hooked. But if it is clubbed you have a butterfly. Otherwise you have a moth. Professional biologists learn to collect them into an order called Lepidoptera. Anything more than this begins to get frustrating, because 10% of all known species of animals are Lepidoptera. If you want to tell them apart, then you need to work through more than 120 families and eventually to 180,000 species. Impossible for us amateurs, isn’t it?

It is not just the numbers which are frightening. There are also the many species which look almost the same. Are the two in the photos above two different species? One has a much deeper colour than the other, of course. But they are the same size and shape. Also, the patterns on their wings are almost identical. With the photos in front of me, I can distinguish the pattern of dark streaks on the wings, and between the differences in colour and pattern, I’m almost certain that they are different species. But if one had been a little darker or the other a little lighter, or I saw them in bad light? I don’t think I would have been able to tell on the field which one I saw.

To compound the confusiuon see the two above. Do they have different wing shapes? One of them has moved its forewing back until it partly covers the hindwing. If it had held the wings out, they could have been the same shape. Does one often rest with its hindwings covered? Do both? You would have to learn to look away from the wings and at the snouts. One of them has a pointed snout, whereas the other seems to have a more rounded snout. That is probably the most telling difference between these.

The reason I persist in taking photos of moths and breaking my head over them is that some of them are really beautiful. Look at the pair above. The beautiful ashy grey is well-camouflaged against the rocks in this area. The mottled green and brown would almost disappear if it sat on a leaf. They clustered around external lights in Dilsher’s hotel all night and I could catch the last of them settled on stone walls when I woke up in the morning. I would spend the first fifteen minutes after waking up examining external walls with my camera.

All the moths I photographed in the morning were about the same size, between 1 and 2 centimeters across. At night I would see larger ones fluttering about lights. Presumably, being larger and more easily spotted, they are more wary of predators, and leave the exposed walls earlier in the morning. There were lots of smaller moths as well, but photographing them would have been finicky work with a macro lens. I would need a little breakfast before trying that, and on these holidays there were lots of other things to do after breakfast.

A mid-morning break

The Family and I do not pass up a chance to have a chai wherever we go. In a little village 2 Kilometers above sea level we spotted a restaurant and headed there. Yes, chai was available, and there were biscuits to be had as well. The Young Niece couldn’t stop smiling at the idea of biscuits after a kilometer long walk. After we sat down I took a photo of our host making tea (below). Nice shop; clean, large windows to let in a lot of light, and uncluttered. There was lunch cooking, so there must be villagers who come here for lunch. This was the end of a long road, and I couldn’t imagine people climbing all the way up here to eat.

A very serious card game was in progress. Two kibitzers were in evidence (one outside the window). After a hand was played, the old man came in to give his opinion. The players took it all in their stride. The next hand was dealt out in silence, and the game resumed. Mountain men are known to be less than garrulous, and the four players were no exception. We finished our tea and biscuits in companionable silence and left.

Gushaini

A month ago I’d not heard of Gushaini. Then it became the point around which our travel plans revolved. Eventually it became a little town in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh through which we passed every day. As you can see in the featured photo, Gushaini sits where the Falachan river falls into the Tirthan. Behind the tallest building in the town you can see a path snaking up a mountain; this road eventually leads to the Great Himalayan National Park and the popular trek to the 5.2 Kilometers high Srikhand Mahadev peak. Beyond this is the Zangsu glacier, which, according to maps, seems to be the origin of the three main rivers in this area: the Falachan, Tirthan and Sainj.

The bridge across Tirthan that you see in the featured photo was one we crossed daily as we forked off along the Falachan river towards Bathad village. Every school in the region has a different uniform. We got to recognize the pink and white of the Gushaini school after many encounters with children running up and down mountain tracks while we sat gasping after a short climb. The Family said she wished she’d grown up here.

I wondered. Children who come to school from outside the main town run and skip through the hills, but the children who live in the town, in “modern” houses made of concrete and bricks, seems to have little space to play in. My overwhelming impression of Gushaini was of narrowness and constriction. Terraces of most houses were incomplete constructions, left over for expansion in future, not places where children could run around. I noticed two young girls playing with a ball in a little corridor formed accidentally between two buildings. Life in towns here is perhaps more constricted than in Mumbai or Delhi. Probably bringing up a child in a middle-sized city like Chandigarh is best.

One day, after a morning’s drive Soni stopped on the road to buy some food. I looked into the shop with its samosas, pakodas and jalebis and took this photo. I was keen to get to the wonderful lunch at our hotel, but The Family was torn. The issue was decided by Soni having to drive off because the car was blocking the narrow road. The heavy-duty backpack that you see hanging over the door at the back is common here. I wonder whether that’s just old trekking equipment being recycled into things of daily use.

It is easy to block this road. The only bus which plies the route along the Falachan river seems to do this very effectively every time it comes along. I was there once when it came to a stop on the road. It immediately gathered a crowd around it. One person tried to get on immediately, and was roundly told off by the conductor. The rule is the usual: people get off before others can get on. For all the chaos, the crowd is not unruly. The route is Bathad to Kullu and back. I don’t know how often the bus plies (and I couldn’t find information on the web) but it is at least thrice a day, and very likely more frequently.

While most of the people on the street gathered at the bus, I turned to take a photo of the rest of the village. Unplanned houses leaned over the road: different styles and colours jangling together. Traditionally houses seemed to be of stone and wood, with mud plaster. It is slowly giving way to brick and concrete. I guess this lasts longer, and could be no more expensive in the long run, but it may have a larger initial cost. The one constant change in going from village to town in these parts is that the ground floor is given over to shops rather than cattle. It is certainly true of Gushaini. A man staggered down the road smoking a cigarette, the town drunk, I guessed.

The only shop selling meat in the town was this dilapidated hut. I was amused that the huge shop selling liquor was in a concrete structure, and well lit. What does this say about the region, apart from the possibility there may be more profit in selling liquor than a major item of food? I saw this hut as picturesque, but I’m sure that most locals would disagree strongly. The planks which you can see stacked on one side are the doors. They are put in place across the entrance every evening, and taken away again every morning. They do not secure the place. They only signal whether or not the business is open.

The family wanted some fruits. We stopped at one of the vegetable and fruits shops and bought some. Local fruits are exotic to our eyes: plums, apricots, cherries in addition to the usual apple. Mangoes are in season, but they are brought up from the plains. We wanted cherries, but it was too early here for them. The shopkeeper was chatting with a friend, and got up to wrap our apples and mangoes in an old newspaper. There were plastic bags hanging in the shop which you have to pay for. I found later that Himachal was the first state in the country to ban some plastics by a law adopted in 2003. These laws are not universally obeyed, but they are not ineffective.

We took leave of Gushaini as haphazardly as we’d come across it. The Young Niece pointed at the signboard atop a closed restaurant and smiled. I looked at it. It promised you everything: sweets and Chinese food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, coffee were merely the beginning of a breathlessly long list which ended with “et cetera”. The local speciality, siddu, put in an appearance. We’d had it once; a steamed rice bun with a nice spicy vegetable filling. I took a photo of the signboard. It turned out to be the last photo I took of Gushaini.

Damage

I was following The Family and The Young Niece along a little path 2 Kilometers above sea level when they came to a stop. I looked down at what they were looking at and saw a large golden, intricately patterned, moth. It took a moment for me to see that it was a real moth and not a piece of some plastic toy. There was straw scattered on the path. I took a couple of photos.

The featured photo shows the moth with the ground around it digitally trampled clean, so that its outline is clear. I’ve never seen a moth like this before, and could not find a mention of this. I thought it is a large moth, but apparently in the Himalayas there are moths with wings which are a foot across (30 centimeters). This was about a third or fourth that size. Moth identification is hard, and I know no amateur who is an expert at recognizing them.

The Young Niece asked, “Will it be okay?” Now that’s a question I’ve answered before. Moth and butterfly wings are similar; the muscles on the body drive only the front wings. They need only front wings to fly. The back wings are for manoeuvrability and speed. They can fly with parts of the back wings gone. We walked on as she listened to me. I don’t know whether she had noticed that this moth was missing large parts of its forewings.

Note added: This seems to be a pale Brahmid moth (Brahmaea hearseyi). It has previously been reported from the eastern Himalayas, as far west as Dehra Dun. This one was seen in a nameless village a little to the west of Gushaini (Himachal Pradesh), and is the westernmost sighting of this moth. It can be as large as 20 cms across, but this was about half that size.

The little Dipper

I was the last of our group to spot this bird. Dev and The Family were the first, The Young Niece and the Lotus also spotted it soon after. The excited Young Niece pointed it out to me, and gave fairly precise directions for where to look. I was looking right at it without spotting it. Only when it moved did I realize that this was a bird and not a piece of stone. It was a most peculiar bird, as Simon and Garfunkel could have put it.

It was wonderfully camouflaged against the bubbling water created by the small waterfall which splashed on to the rock where the bird was standing. It looked into the water as if deeply pondering an enigma, and then dipped its head underwater and held it there for a long time. It looked like it was foraging under water. I didn’t see it actually dive; the water was too shallow. I’d never seen a bird like this before. So I phoned a friend, and Nosh provided the definitive lead, “That looks like a dipper.” I’d never heard of them before, and when I looked up a book I found why. There are only two species of dippers in India, both of them up in the mountains. This one seemed to be a juvenile of the brown dipper (Cinclus pallasi, subspecies tenuirostris). The bird was definitely hunting; it mainly eats fish and larvae of caddisflies. They are not endangered but rarely seen in India, because their large range overlaps out borders in a very narrow geographical region.

It was only when I started reading that my vague feeling about how strange this bird was began to take on a definite shape. More than a century ago, in 1905, the high noon of zoology, Leonhard Stejneger, a famous naturalist, wrote a very readable account of these species for the Smithsonian Institute. He says “As a [songbird] with the downy covering and diving facility of a water bird, the dipper certainly is an anomaly,” and then goes on to give his reasoning why these birds (there are only five species of them) should be placed with the thrushes rather than wrens. Interestingly, modern molecular phylogeny techniques agree. The two papers are separated by more than a hundred years, but, using totally different techniques, come to the same conclusion: that dippers are most closely related to thrushes, and that they probably arose first in Asia.

Modern genetic techniques add the information that the dippers probably differentiated about 4 million years ago. Interestingly, the climate of that era is close to the greenhouse that our planet is likely to become in a few decades! The subsequent global changes in climate allowed the bird to first migrate to the Americas, and then split into separate species. In fact, present day evidence indicates that in the past ice ages, these birds were restricted to small areas of the tropics where they differentiated into the multiple sub-species that we see today. What an amazing lifer! I come across so many species new to me just because I’m a complete beginner.

A bend in the road

As we walked along the road above the Falachan river valley, we came to a bend. There was a little temple here, a couple of houses, next to the road, and a few more above and below. The temple doubled as a bus stop. There was a little general store next to the temple. This was the center of life in this village. It was the best place to take a few photos, I thought. A couple of men were waiting for the bus, and obliged to be my subjects. You can see them above, layered up against the chill that would descend as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and with that wonderful Himachali cap. Unfortunately, neither of them had tucked a flower into the cap, a style that I saw several times in passing.

A few women sat in front of the store chatting. They agreed to let me take a photo. I saw both men and women running businesses in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. The two women on the right seemed to run this shop. They are also layered up against the cold. But while the men wear closed shoes, the women wear open sandals. I liked the clutter in the shop, food and clothes shared display space.

I walked back later and found these children strung around the slope chatting. I think they must have been discussing whether I would stop and take a photo (I must have become a famous photographer in the village that afternoon). As soon as I asked one of them whether I could take a photo, she broke into a big grin, called the others and said something like “Yes, he will.” The local dialect is not far from standard Hindi, and they switch back and forth easily, although they use only the dialect with each other. The whole bunch of them came together for this shot.

Lunch at Jalori Pass

While we discussed the practicalities of traveling to Jalori Pass from the hotel, Dilsher told us, “For lunch there is a dhaba which serves rajma and rice.” Nothing else needed to be said on this matter. Since Dilsher had a wonderful cook, I took him on trust.

There were a few dhabas on top of Jalori pass, but when we said the magic words “rajma chawal”, it was clear where we would eat. From outside it looked like the hut was actually a general store in a village. The (slightly broken) windows were packed with the usual quick eats which cause elevated levels of blood pressure and sugar for those who would like to pay for the privilege. Only a few stickers distinguished it from any number of such little shop windows: the Tripadvisor sticker was a standout, another said something about Himalayan Motorbikers.

Inside, on the counter, in plastic jars were the reminders of my youth. In the days before junk food came out of factories, it was made by hand, and stored in glass jars in just such gloomy shops. The glass jars have turned into plastic jars, but suddenly I had the feeling that I had come home after a long time. How did we avoid the lifestyle diseases which plague our children? It cannot just be that factory-made junk food has chemicals which we never got (the words trans-fats and high-fructose cornstarch roll so easily off our tongues now), for some jars had toffees. These are the goodies that I and my friends would hoard in ones and twos when, as schoolchildren, we had money to buy them. No, it is not just the new foods, it is also the increased prosperity that has brought these disorders with them.

The Young Niece knew better than to look longingly at the bottles of poison displayed so colourfully in another window. During the trip her indulgences were largely restricted to the hours between sundown and dinner, at the same time as ours. The minivan which you see outside the door disgorged a very large family who sat here and had little bits to eat. The children, mostly younger than The Young Niece, had plates of maggi noodles, while the adults ate rajma-chawal. That was a pattern we were happy to replicate. When we ordered rajma-chawal, The Young Niece ordered a maggi instead. After polishing off the rajma, we could mop up the remaining rice with a pakoda kadhi.

The food was wonderful, as I’d suspected it would be. I had to take a portrait of the cook in the little corner of the hut which served as his kitchen. You can see the pots of rajma and kadhi simmering away on the chulha. The man lives in a village a little way down the road and comes up here every morning to open up his shop. He made us a chai as we chatted about high seasons and the closing of the pass in winters. He says the traffic has been increasing over the years, and if it were not for the new dhabas which opened up here, he would not find the time to serve food to everyone who stops here.

The Family had noticed him making something else in the morning when we had a chai before leaving for our walk. After taking his photo, I noticed a big thali full of something that looked like a halwa. When we asked he said it was besan. I’ve only had it as a laddoo before, but the rhomboids he cut and gave us were rather nice. I guess shape does not matter when it comes to things like this. As we were praising the food, Soni, in his usual charming manner, said that the Punjabi version was much better. We all agreed that since the Punjabi version was not available right now, what we were having was the best. This was one of the tastier versions of the sweet I’d had, and I packed up some to take back to work.

I was moving about the shop as we talked, and took a photo out of the window behind us. It looked out on to a wonderful view that we’d seen in the morning. You could open up the door which you can see in the photo with the pots and the kettle, and walk out on a narrow platform overlooking a sloping meadow and the road snaking its way down to the plains. I didn’t want to forget about this little dhaba, with its genial cook who gave us some of the best food in the world 3 Kilometers above Mumbai.

I walked out on that narrow platform and looked again at the view. It was still windy; passes always are. But it had warmed up since we sat out here and had our breakfast. Everyone had taken off some of the layers we had worn then. A last look, and it was time to turn and head back north.

Some Himachali butterflies

Himachal Pradesh rises from the plains into the high Himalayas. On this trip the highest point we reached was Jalori pass, which is a little over 3.1 Kilometers above sea level. At this height I expected to see the butterfly called the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). This is the commonest of temperate butterflies, apparently found on all continents where flowers grow. We could have seen it, but I have no record of it. I keep confusing it with the other tortoiseshell butterflies. They are slippery chaps, seldom settling down long enough in one place for one to take a photo. The mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae, in the featured photo) eventually settled on a flower by the path to Serolsar lake. The Young Niece was pretty excited by the sight of this plant with a butterfly “flower”. True to its descriptions, it flitted from flower to damp ground and back again. This was my first sighting of this species.

It is very slightly different from the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis, which you can see in the photo above), and in the field it is very hard to tell them apart. As you can see from the photos, the forewings are almost exactly the same, and only little details in the hindwings distinguish the two. In fact, the otherwise excellent booklet published by the Zoological survey of India on The Butterflies of Himachal Pradesh misses out on A. urticae.

By far the commonest butterfly on this walk was one I’d never seen before: the common satyr (Aulocera swaha). As we walked through the stony path to Serolsar lake, inside the forest of oaks, we saw these butterflies sitting on stones (photo above), or settling on dry leaves on the path. The Young Niece asked me what it was called, and I told her that I did not know, but would have to look it up later. I think these three are all that I noticed near the pass.

Most of our time was spent in the narrow grassy valley around the rocky course of the Falachan river at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. This place was full of some of the common butterflies which you also see in the plains. The Indian cabbage white, various grass yellows, and, possibly, some pioneers were common. I must have missed an enormous variety of butterflies here. One I did manage to take a photo of was the plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus, photo above).

The rocky edges of the Falachan river was also good terrain for spotting butterflies. I don’t think I’d seen the common wall (Lasiommata schakra, photo above) ever before. They are found in a range between 1 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, and probably easy to photograph because they settle for longish periods in sunny spots. I think that white streak around the eye-spot in the fore wing indicates that the individual in the photo is a female; the male lacks this feature.

The generally mottled brown and yellow-orange colour of this butterfly in flight first fooled me into thinking that it was a painted lady. But when it settled on a stone, and I took the photo which you see above, it became clear that it was not. It took me some time to figure out that this was the common Punch (Dodona durga). The ZSI pamphlet on the butterflies of Himachal Pradesh says that this has been reported in May from Chamba and Shimla districts, so I’m happy to put on record this sighting in Kullu district.

Lower down, at an altitude of about 1.6 Kilometers above sea level, we started a walk to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park, near the village of Ropa. Near the beginning of the walk, we came across the flowering tree which you can see in the photo above. There was a cloud of butterflies around it. I mistook them first for the red Helen, which belongs to peninsular India. The correct identification for the butterfly you see in the photo above is the great windmill (Atrophaneura dasarada). Later we saw that they had been joined at this tree by a large number of orange tips.

We had raced through the lower slopes, with a single stop somewhere in the district of Solan where I immediately saw the butterfly whose photo you see above. This is the common Leopard (Phalanta phalantha). I’m sure if one spent even an hour at this lower elevation, below a kilometers, one would be able to spot an enormous variety of butterflies.