Comb duck

After some looking at the duck you see in the photo, I decided that its usual name, knob-billed duck, fits it perfectly. I have no use for the alternative African comb duck or the Latin binomial Sarkidiornis melanotos. It is large, among the largest of ducks, and easily told at a distance by the black stippling on the head and neck, even if you don’t see its knob. The female lacks the knob, may have a duller wing, and is generally smaller, but is otherwise similar in appearance. On this morning at Lakhota lake, I didn’t see it upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but several of them dipped their beaks into the water, perhaps filter feeding. I was happy to get that drop of water at the end of this one’s bill.

I’ve learnt to let sexual dimorphism in birds signal strange mating behaviour. Typically they nest in holes and hollows in trees, above a man’s head, but usually not too far above. But it has been known to appropriate the nests of other species for itself, even if they are much higher: vultures’, eagles’, storks’. Each female lays a clutch of 7 to 12 eggs. But one of the oddest things about this bird is that they breed in “dump nests” where several females deposit eggs, and once as many as 54 eggs have been found in such a nest. This suggests the possibility of polygyny among these birds. There are other waterfowl in which polygyny has been observed. Like several other birds in India, they breed late in the monsoon. This is an added reason for me to start thinking of a late monsoon birding trip, something which most birders think is a wild and useless trip.

The center of Jamnagar

The Jamnagar-Junagadh highway passes right next to the now-dilapidated palace of the Jamsahib of Jamnagar. I decided to follow it because it passed through a wonderful two-storeyed curved arcade pierced by a huge ceremonial gate (see the featured photo). I believe that this area was remodelled in the 1920s by Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and then Jamsahib of Jamnagar. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a source for the urban history of Jamnagar, so I can’t really say much about this gate. I passed through it and saw a wonderful, and undocumented, school building.

After that I walked back through the gate, around the curve of the arcade, and then abruptly I came to a narrower side street. This was chock-a-block with scooters, and I had to duck out of their way very quickly. I found myself in another spacious arcade. It was the middle of the lunch hour, so there was space to stand and take a photo. I’m sure that at other times this arcade would be jam packed with shoppers.

I looked for a break in traffic and walked out to take a photo of the elegant arches running down the face of the arcade. Could these have been made in the 1920s? Or were they from an earlier period? I wish I could find out somewhere.

Opposite me was the incredibly colourful Jumma Masjid. I couldn’t find anything about this ornate structure. I gazed at it for a while, and then decided that I didn’t have the time to go in. We had to leave for a birding trip very soon. I’m sure the interior of the mosque would have been worth photographing.

As I moved back towards the palace, I passed a small temple with a very ornate gateway. Again, I would have liked to have gone in and looked, but time was too short. I had to get back. I haven’t discovered yet anything about these structures. Neither the state tourism department, nor the world’s most reliable encyclopedia mentions any of these structures. Since I couldn’t find anything about the palace either, I think these places are all in good company. Unfortunately.

A hidden koel

On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.

I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.

I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.

As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.

A Tern’s turn

On our last visit to the Gulf of Kutch during our trip to Jamnagar, I was dismayed to see this bicycle parked near the tide line. Two children had come out here as the tide receded, and were playing at the edge of the water- skipping from one rock to another. Their presence had driven the birds out into far shallows. Although it was going to be hard to take photos, we hung around for a while. I spotted a whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida) circling over a spot out over somewhat deeper water.

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I hadn’t tried to shoot photos of a tern at hunt ever before. Nor had I ever watched one closely as it hunted for fish. Now I was mostly fussing about focus and distance, but through the viewfinder I followed it as it hovered over one spot, looking straight down. This behaviour is a boon for photographers, since it allows you to fix the focus. It moves very quickly when it spots a fish and dives. I was lucky to get a few shots of it as it dived, but missed the moment when it picked up its prey. It seems that it likes to wait until the fish is at the surface. Its bill may have broken the surface, but without much of a splash. Unfortunately it winged away from me immediately after, so I didn’t get a shot of it with the fish in its beaks. The next time I see this, I’ll know that I can zoom in a bit more, since its motion is fairly predictable.

Sweets of Jamnagar

I walked into a shop with tall glass and steel counters filled with trays of sweets. Just another sweet shop. But instantly the little boy inside me took over my eyes and legs, and I began to look at the sweets one by one. The adult keeps hold of the wallet, so the little kid doesn’t get everything he wants, but the eyes belong to him. The thick disks of kaju katli topped with beaten silver sheets of warq, always tastes good, not as sweet as marzipan, and also richer and creamier because the almonds have been replaced by cashew. Behind them you can see a few stray pieces of kesar peda, rich with almonds and pistachio, dyed in saffron. It is another staple of Gujarati sweet shops.

Less common are the thabdi penda, basically sweetened milk with added fat, boiled until it turns into a brown mass. Crushed cashews and almonds had been added to it to give you the healthy statins that would keep your heart from immediately seizing up when you eat this. Very considerately, slivers of almonds had been added to the laddoos on display. I am overwhelmed by the generous spirit of mithaiwalas, the way they keep tweaking recipes to make it healthier for you. The Family had finished buying the farsan to take back with us. The boy was happy. It was time to go.

Herning coots

Decades after I’d first come across the phrase “haunt of coot and hern” I looked up the meaning of hern. A hunter! That fits me when I’m trying to take photos of birds. So the result of my herning coots are the photos you see here. The common coot (Fulica atra, also called the Eurasian coot) is something I learnt to spot long back. The reason is that when you look at a distant pond full of water birds, the dark plumage broken only by the white patch on the forehead is extremely easy to recognize even without gear. The common coot is a resident, and therefore visible all year round. But even in winter, when every water body is crowded with migratory visitors, it remains the easiest bird to identify. I took photos of them at the Lakhota lake in the middle of Jamnagar.

It seems that they often lay their eggs in the nests of other coots. This parasitic behaviour improves their own chances of reproducing, because they can go on laying eggs without having to take care of the young. Perhaps as a defensive mechanism, they are aggressively territorial during breeding season; both the male and the female challenge and chase encroachers. They are seen to be ruthless to their brood. Chicks which demand food are often pecked quite brutally. More chicks die of starvation than the numbers killed by raptors. Could this whole cascade of behaviour result from some individuals deciding to cheat?

One of the coots had now come up quite close and I got a look at its feet as it propelled itself underwater. You can see that they are not at all like the webbed feet of ducks. Coots have fat lobes on each toe, as you can see in the two photos above. The combined surface areas of the lobes must be rather big, because coots seem to swim as efficiently as ducks. I’ve seen coots upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but I’ve also seen them submerge completely to forage underwater. You can see that a coot’s head is streamlined for diving.

In the long shot above, you can see how easy it is to spot coots in a bunch of ducks swimming about in the distance. That white patch shows up very clearly. The other detail you can see is the wake behind a coot as it swims. It seems a little wider than that of the common pochard, perhaps indicating that a coot’s legs sit relatively forward in its body; I don’t think I’ll get to measure a coot, but I’m sure someone has already done that. You can also see that the wake is quite as complex as that of the pochard; the forward and backward strokes of the feet as it swims must be different. It is always interesting to watch birds swim.

A grand school

On a little walk through the old town of Jamnagar, I passed through a triple gate on an arterial road and then suddenly saw some wonderful old doors. Where was I? What was I seeing? The maps on my phone were of no help, and later I found that the famed world wide web was also of no help. All these doors belonged to a grand and ornate but delapidated structure. It was not marked on the map at all, although shops which were set inside some of these doors were mentioned.

The facade was perhaps less than half a kilometer long, but not too much less. I walked along it, bemused. A ceremonial gateway, fit for a four-horse coach was barred by a flimsy mild steel collapsible gate. Children passed through it, and there were scooters parked inside (and outside, of course). Mysterious. I was enchanted by the grand arches, the painted columns, and wished that the shops had harmonized better with the building. The building looked like it came from the last decade of the 19th century CE, or perhaps the first couple of decades of the 20th.

Some of the doors were shuttered, instead of being covered up for a shop. Expansive stairs led down from the level of the floor to the street. These regal stairs were no places for people to sit. I took a photo, trying to avoid the scooters. I lost the stairs (photo above) but not the scooters; a mirror jutting up from the handlebars reached up into the frame. A few more paces I came to the geometrical middle of the facade, and I had a name: Saifee Institution (see the featured photo). Now I could place it; it was a Dawoodi Bohra institution

I seemed to have come to the shop where The Family had told me she was going to spend quality time looking for the local tie-and-dye fabric. I was happy to leave the warm and humid winter atmosphere of the street and walk into a frigidly air conditioned shop. Surprise! The shop belonged to a Bohra. As The Family engaged an assistant in helping her to choose, I asked the owner what the Saifee Institution was. He told me that it used to be a big school, and even now it remains a school, although the number of pupils is much smaller. That explained the children walking in through the gateway.

I left my backpack with The Family and walked back out on the road to admire the building again. Those classrooms then! The corridors would have been wonderful places to run down. And the rooms! So many windows to look out of when you were bored. I could have liked studying in this building. The stucco work on the pediments was so wonderfully decorative. Unfortunately I could not find anything on the net about this building or its provenance.

I could really dive into the details here: admiring the repeating decagonal tiling on the jalis, or the execution of plaster flowers. This was one of my most pleasant discoveries in this town, and fortunately I had a long time to admire it. It’ll take me much longer to dig out its true and compleat history.

A webbed swisher

I’ve seen the common pochard (Aythya ferina) so many times that I should really know its name. But I always forget, and The Family or someone else has to remind me. There could be a little difficulty in telling it from an Eurasian wigeon from some angles, but the snow white back of the pochard is characteristic, just as the buffy crown of the wigeon is a clear distinction. As I stood near the Lakhota Lake of Jamnagar and watched the mellow sun of the morning light up the red iris of these birds, I realized that I’d not noticed their eyes before.

I took a close up (featured photo), and then zoomed back a bit to take another shot. Pochards are diving ducks (although they will also turn upside down sometimes to dabble just under the surface), and their heads are streamlined wedges, unlike the round heads of dabbling ducks. Their legs are placed a little further back in their body so that they can more easily propel themselves under water. The result is that as they swim, the wake opens up at a rather small angle, as you can see in the photo above. Whenever I look at water waves, I lose myself in the intricacies of the ripples. Does the wake look braided to you? It does to me, and I wondered whether this appearance had anything to do with the way the pochard paddles in the water.

I couldn’t get a photo of a pochard’s legs moving under water, so I took a photo of another duck with webs strung between three of its toes. This is how a pochard’s feet also look. When you look at the photo above, you see that the ripples are asymmetrical: on one side the crests are closer together. It would look the same for a pochard. So, as it swims, on every stroke of its feet, a pochard must be twisting its leg slightly away from its body on one half of the stroke, and then back towards itself on the return stroke. This is probably what gives that braided look to the wake. If you manage a careful look at a pochard swimming, could you please leave a comment here to tell me whether I’m correct or not?

These winter visitors to India breed in the northern parts of the continent. The female is very drab in colour, and I find it hard to identify. I scanned the lake and saw that male and female pochard were usually close together. Near a roosting male I spotted this drab coloured bird of about the same size, and head shape. This must be the female of the common pochard. As usual with roosting birds, half its brain is asleep. The eye that faces away from the body is connected to the hemisphere of its brain which is awake an alert to danger. How wonderfully different are bird brains from the mammalian organ!

Black-winged stilts

I recognize the black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) pretty easily by its long red legs and the black wings on an otherwise white bird. Its name is highly appropriate. Interestingly, it is found across the world in a belt around the equator between about 40 degrees north and about that far south. Nor are they rare. I see them in the tidal waters around Mumbai whenever I’ve let myself get pretty rusty about waterbirds recently, but when we made a trip to Jamnagar, this was still one of the birds I remembered.

You can easily tell the difference between a male and a female: the male has glossy black wings, but the female has dark brown wings, like in the photo above. The very minor difference between the sexes means that they share the job of rearing their young. They usually stride about pretty confidently in shallow waters, so when I saw a female extract her toes from the water and wiggle it around, I knew that she was stirring up the water in the hope of bringing some insects to the surface, in order to pick it up in its long and elegant bill. It does plunge its head into the water sometimes, but it does that so seldom that I guess it is not something it really wants to do.

Some time back I found that birds sleep with half their brain at a time. Also, waders like to sleep out in the water, and retract the leg connected to the sleeping hemisphere of their brains. Ever since then I’ve had a little thrill of recognition when I find a bird standing on one leg. This one looked around once; there is really no human equivalent of this, but I could imagine me dozing on a railway platform and looking up sleepily at an odd noise.

How to put on one kilo in three days

Now that the idea of a lockdown no longer seems remote, one needs many suggestions on what to do in those long hours you’ll have to spend at home. In order to help you out, I’ve put together this small post on how to gain weight. I cannot claim that this is a method I’ve invented, but it is certainly one I tested in a long weekend in Jamnagar.

Let’s start at the very beginning. The day starts with breakfast, You’ll certainly have jalebi at hand. If not, make some.

Then make gathia. Take besan, add ajwain, powdered pepper, red chili powder, and salt to taste. Knead till the ball is elastic, neither too soft, nor too hard. Then, with a smooth practiced motion, roll out ribbons of gathia. Fry them in hot oil.

The same dough gives you fafra too. You’ll need a flat-bladed knife for this. Also, remember to fry some of those delicious big chilis to go with the sweetness of the jalebi. Deep frying everything is important for your goal.

Remember, you don’t need to fill yourself till you are sick. Just eat enough that you feel you don’t need lunch. Of course you will have lunch, but this is just a measure of fullness. If you’ve overdone it, then just take an extra glassful of that lovely strong, sweet, and milky tea,