Monitor this (and that)

When I had my first sighting of an Indian water monitor I didn’t know how lucky I was. Only later, when I looked for other images did I realize that if I’d seen it walking or swimming I would have seen only the black and silver top. Seeing it halfway up a tree, in a hide it had selected for the night, allowed me a great view of the stripes and rosettes on both the dorsal and ventral sides. I’ve always wanted to use these technical words for upper and lower, and I have to tip my hat to the water monitor for giving me this great opportunity.

More surprises followed when I looked it up. There is no clear record of Indian water monitors. Is this the same as an Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)? Descriptions of the normal range of V. salvator do not include Assam and north-eastern India, although it is reported from the Andaman and Nicobar islands, as well as far south-west in Sri Lanka. In any case, it is not clear whether V. salvator is one species or four. This single sighting of the brilliantly coloured monitor lizard has taken on a mysterious air in my mind.

The previous day we had a wonderful view of a common Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis) creeping through vegetation. I’d last seen it in a completely different habitat a year ago. Although these creatures remind us of the dinosaur pictures of pop culture, they are not. The monitor lizards probably rose in Asia during the Cretaceous period, at about the same time that birds were evolving out of the Jurassic dinosaurs. India was completely separated from Asia in this era.

The center of evolution of these lizards is south-east Asia, as one can guess from the fact that the largest monitor of all, the Komodo dragon, comes from that area. North-eastern India is a hotspot of biodiversity partly because two ancient ecosystems meet here. The monitor lizards of eastern India are examples of this ancient radiation. We live in the best of times when this meeting has produced enormous numbers of species, the worst of times because human expansion is removing these habitats rapidly. Places like Kaziranga are the last spots where you can see much of this diversity.

Blooming algae

I’d only ever come across algal blooms in two context before. In scary newspaper stories about oceans turning toxic, and the sight of green blooms filling up small stagnant ponds. When I saw a stream inside Kaziranga with red streaks floating in its waters (featured photo) I began to construct a story of ecological degradation in my head.

Kaziranga is a large national park, but it is surrounded today by dense habitation. We passed through villages on the way into the park. It was not hard to imagine that fertilizers that they use in farming could leach into this stream and cause algae to multiply. It is too common a story to doubt in today’s world. Further along the stream I found a dense green bloom (photo below) and thought that this completed the story. It only remained to check it by referring to articles on the web.

But what I read complicated this simple morality tale. A preliminary study found an enormous diversity of algae in Kaziranga: 91 species to be exact. About two-thirds were a class of green algae called Chlorophycaea, and half of the remainder were diatoms (Bacillariophyacaea). The remainder were that ancient class of blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) whose blooms once changed the earth’s atmosphere and filled it with oxygen. This rich ecology has been seen across the world to give rise to a seasonal cycle of blooms which is not harmful. I saw reports from places as far apart as Odisha and France.

Human intervention has certainly changed the environment in many ways, especially in the last three hundred years. Within this, algae are finding new balances in the water systems of the planet. Not all of these are destructive to the remainder of the ecosystem. As you can see in the featured photo, the stream is not dead; we found a huge diversity of birds in this very water.

Dragons at rest

Some of the most visible insects in wet forests are dragonflies. These champions of flight can keep pace with jeeps as they rumble along forest tracks, or show off their acrobatic skills when you stop. I love the sight of a speeding dragonfly suddenly change direction effortlessly.

I haven’t blogged about them before because I don’t know anything about them, and none of the people I travel with have told me anything about them either. But when I saw the golden girl in the featured photo, I thought this had to end. A search led me instantly to the field guide by Subramanian. Although this grand-daddy of the field talks mainly about the dragonflies of peninsular India, it is a good introduction to the subject.

My heart sank when I read about the methods of dragonfly identification. I’d been doing it all wrong! I’d concentrated on the bodies and wings, but the key to identification seems to be to see how the compound eyes are placed around the head. By looking at the photos all I could tell was that the forewings and hindwings are somewhat different in size, and that when these two insects rest, as they do in the photos, they hold the wings out laterally. This makes them dragonflies and not damselflies. Oof! Such a relief, I wasn’t mistaken in that.

But which kind of dragonflies? I couldn’t really tell, because I’d missed the key observation. By plodding through the book I could tell that the black and white striped dragonfly in the photo above is a variety of Clubtail (family Gomphidae). There; that narrows it down to about 900 species. The golden girl is a Skimmer (family Libellulidae), one of the commonest of the 6000-odd species of dragonflies found in India.

I have a new mission in life: identification of dragonflies in the field. Now all I have to do is to lay my hands on Hermione’s time-turner.

Wood spiders

I know very little about spiders, too little to be able to identify species except by doing image searches on Google. The one in the featured photo is probably a signature spider (Argiope anasuja). Notice the paired legs delicately touching strands of the web, waiting for the tell-tale vibration when some prey blunders into it. Those four zig-zag elements on the web are called web decorations. It seems that their purpose is not known. That leaves me free to speculate. My guess is that they act as springs, isolating vibrations from the body of the spider and the rest of the web. Someday I will have the equipment with me to test out this hypothesis, or at least to measure whether these fat coils of silk have anything to do with vibrations. I saw this one near a forest guards’ colony outside Kaziranga. They are common in gardens in small towns and villages.

The next three are definitely wood spiders. I saw them on a walk in the Hollongapar sanctuary. They sit quite differently in their web. The eight legs are well spread out, and the web itself is less organized than the previous one. They are all called golden orb weavers (genus Nephila) because of the clear yellow tinge to their silk. The webs look untidy; I wonder whether some of those hanging pouches are egg sacs. The one in the photo above is called the black wood spider (Nephila kuhlii).

I cannot identify this, but from the yellow colour of the web, I suppose it is also some species of Nephila. Wood spiders have extreme sexual dimorphism. The tiny orange dot that you see in the web above is a male. There are usually several males hanging about on each female’s web. I haven’t seen them mating yet, but I guess I’ll need to have a macro lens on if I want to take a photo of the act. Another common feature of all these spiders is that their webs are roughly at the height of your eyes. This makes them easy to see, but also easy for animals to run into.

The photo above is definitely of the Nephila pilipes. I’d first noticed this in Japan, and since then I’ve been seeing this species in all parts of Asia. The web is highly irregular, and the spider sits off center. You can see that the silk has a tinge of yellow in it. This colour is the reason it is sometimes called the giant golden orb weaver spider. Strangely, it is not much larger than the other golden orb weavers whose photos you can see above. Still, a rose by another name …

Let me round this off with something that is definitely not a wood spider, although I saw it on brightly painted wooden post inside Kaziranga forest. I think this is a crab spider. The number of crab spiders is so enormous that a bunch of hobbyists could spend their lives just looking at them. I guess this is why there are no spider enthusiasts; you can spend your life traveling to look at spiders all over the world, be successful at that, and never come close to seeing all.

Wattle and daub

As we passed a village on our way to a gate of the Kaziranga national forest, The Family took photos of the huts and sent it to our extended family. One of my nieces, the one who’s studying to be an architect, responded immediately, “Wattle and daub”. I was unaware of the conversation that she had with The Family about the method and its problems. Instead I was trying to get information out of our driver, Hemant.

I found from him that the nice-looking tourist huts in the featured photo, need a change in thatching every couple of years. I suppose the window frames and glass panes also cost a bit, so these wonderful “eco huts” require capital and maintenance costs significantly more than what the villagers can bear. The plastic tank on a tower is good, because of the increased pressure it will impart to the water in your shower, but that comes at a cost in electricity. But the very fact that tourists are now willing to pay to stay in places like this is a welcome beginning of a change in our mindsets.

When I was younger than my niece, a thatched hut was the definition of how poor people live. In my lifetime our consciousness of human impact on our planet’s climate has reversed opinions, and we look at sustainable housing. The village was full of houses like the ones you see in these photos. The walls are made of bare bamboo mats fitted inside a sturdy wooden frame. A little river mud is daubed over these outer walls. Notice the lack of windows and the tin roof. Windows require wood, and cost more. While cost is a factor for these villagers, one must also remember that sturdy wood requires cutting slow-growing trees, and is therefore less sustainable. Bamboo grows fast, and using it is perhaps more sustainable. The tin roof does not require frequent change. Tin is cheap, and the environmental cost of extracting tin is passed on outside the forest.

In the photo above, you can see an element which surprised me: a brick outhouse pokes out of the line of the hut. Why brick? According to Hemant, the government is paying for toilets, and the design includes brick and a flush tank. One of my friends works on water management in a different part of the country, and says that this well-meaning gesture by the government is ill thought out, because the kind of water tank that is used is unsustainable in water-poor areas of India. Brick is the unsustainable element here. Centralized design which comes out of a single office will not be able to take into account the gradations of reality across the country.

Noticing the three kids, I took a closer look. I did mean “kid”, when I wrote that word; the primary dictionary meaning of the word is a young goat. You might want to remember that when you talk of them; also that the meaning of the word kid as a verb is to “(of a goat) give birth”. In any case these kids were sitting outside a lovely wooden door. And, on closer look, there were possibly four of them, not three. The design of the house seems elaborate, with at least two front doors.

I was still thinking of air circulation inside the house. We’d driven on, but Hemant stopped at the hut in the photo above, and told me to take a closer look at the side wall. Indeed this was wattle without daub. I also noticed an undaubed portion of the front wall, presumably for the same reason. He smiled at me when I walked back to the jeep. I remembered the freshman’s exercise my friends were given in their architecture course: to design mud huts. We’d laughed when we were teenagers, but this seems much more relevant today: use local materials to lighten our footprint on our planet. Maybe James Lovelock is right, and we need a sustainable retreat. But then why not to a technology which has been used since the ice-ages, made more efficient with today’s scientific knowledge?

Encounters with hog deer

Through a gap in trees, I saw a female hog deer browsing (featured photo). I didn’t remember seeing hog deers before. The colour of the fur, the two lines of white spots flanking the spine, and less well defined lines of spots further down the body reminded me of a Cheetal’s colours. But this was much smaller, and looked more muscular. It took some time to notice us, then looked at us carefully, and decided we were no danger. Poaching is not unheard of in this forest, but this behaviour probably meant that poachers seldom target hog deer (Axis porcinus). I haven’t explored the protected forests below the Himalayas further west, which is also part of the range of this animal, so it is not unlikely that this was really my first sighting. A. porcinus are endangered because of tremendous loss of habitat, but they are fairly common in Kaziranga. After this first encounter, I kept seeing them again and again.

A very pleasant sighting was of a mixed group at a water hole (photo above). In a group like this my eyes first fix on the largest animal: the rhino. It was completely caked in mud and was grazing determinedly. We kept this rhino in sight, and it raised its head and sniffed at the air only when our jeep’s engine coughed a little. The baby hog deer was more than six months old, since it also browsed. The two adult deer were both female. The behaviour of hog deer is fairly plastic. When food is plentiful, as it is here, they are fairly solitary, with the males becoming territorial. Encounters between females are peaceful and occur by chance. When food is restricted, the deer do associate, but herding is uncommon.

The birds in the photo are very interesting. The large one on the right is one of the endangered greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius). At this distance I could not see the pouch which distinguishes it from the lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus). I had to resort to the secondary distinction, which is that the back feathers of L. dubius are an uniform colour, whereas the L. Javanicus has a lighter and darker shading on the back. Worldwide there are about 1000 of the greater adjutant storks, and Assam is one of the last breeding grounds, since it went extinct in Myanmar and Laos. The vulnerable L. Javanicus fares marginally better, since there are more than 5000 individuals left across Asia. These are among the largest of storks; so large in fact,that at an archaeological site in Vietnam, 6000 years old digging tools made of the bones of L. dubius were found. The nearby egret is barely larger than the bill of the adjutant.

It took me a while to encounter a male hog deer. Here is one: startled, and not quite sure whether to run. The antlers seemed to fork at the end. When I looked through binoculars I could see a nub of a branch lower down, but it was not very well defined. I’m fascinated by the association of birds with grazers. The two great mynas, identifiable by the tuft of feathers over the beak, sit on their backs not only for a better view, but also to jump on insects disturbed by the cropping. I’ve seen this kind of bird behaviour translated to urban settings, where a family of egrets spent a couple of generations following gardeners as they mowed a lawn.

I got a closer look at the antlers when I saw a male hog deer resting under a tree late in the morning. There was a small branch close to the base, with the main branch curving out to fork again at the tip. The difference between this individual and the other probably means that the antlers are slightly variable. Hog deer have disappeared from all of south east Asia in the recent past, except possibly in small patches in Tailand and Myanmar. Little is systematically recorded about it in Pakistan and Bhutan. There are conservation efforts in India and Nepal. I probably saw one of the few stable populations world wide.

Kaziranga: a managed forest

The famous grasslands of Kaziranga are not a self-maintaining system. This fact came as a shock to me. I’d thought of it as a nature preserve, where the balance is naturally maintained. I should have been aware of this, since the rhino-springback, for which it is famous, is a success story more than a century in the making. Nor can it be entirely natural, since it lies on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

On one of our drives through the park we reached the banks of the Brahmaputra. A shallow slope led down to the deceptively low waters. In recent decades the park has lost almost 14% of its area to erosion from the annual flooding of the river. Flood plains have their own ecology, which is often lost when rivers are dammed, or other “flood control” meaures are taken. However, the flooding of the Brahmaputra is a danger to the animals in the park.

We saw an ameliorative measure being taken. A few massive earth movers and trucks were going back and forth between the banks of a stream and a spot inside the woods. When we passed it, we saw an enormous earthen plateau being built up artificially. We asked our jeep driver what this was for. “Refuge area for animals,” he replied. With more questions we could tease out a detailed answer from him: the forest department was constructing an immense high ground where the animals could retreat in case of flooding. This was the first major piece of ongoing engineering we noticed inside the park.

Another thread was not at all obvious. I saw silk cotton trees with fruits and seed pods hanging on them. Many had fallen off the tree and burst open (see photo above). The winds were lifting the silk parachutes off the ground and wafting it about. It took many conversations for me to realize that this was a problem. Apparently, give the large areas of grassland, the seeds often fall on fertile ground. As a result, there is a spurt in the growth of these trees, leading to a shrinking of grasslands.

The solution that the forest department has adopted is to identify patches where the trees have taken hold, clear the larger trees and set a small controlled fire to kill the shoots. We saw little circles of blackened stumps rather often in a relatively small area. It would have left us mystified if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Many years ago I’d read a short story about a bridge being built on Jupiter by tele-operated robots, and disaster after disaster being averted by some quick action. Kaziranga reminded me of that. It has been one of the successes of wildlife conservation in India: with the rhino, elephant, numerous birds, several species of deer, and tigers being brought back from the edge of local extinction. That story ended badly, with several problems striking together. One hopes that Kaziranga can work things out better.

First encounter with a common bird

We woke before sunrise on our first morning in Kaziranga, and walked out to a cluster of nearby bungalows which belonged to the forest department. I’m often envious of the location of these quarters and offices: they are usually at the edge of a forest. You can see from the featured photo how pleasant the surroundings are. Imagine working day after day in such surroundings. I would be very happy to take my doctor’s advice of getting up from my desk every hour and walking around for five minutes. Someone interested in birds could just walk around these bungalows and get a quick look at many of the residents of the jungle, which is what we were planning to do.

We quickly realized that the flowers on the ground were not just blown down by a stray night breeze. A branch was shaking violently as a bird fed on something in the branch. This was my first view of the delightfully coloured red-breasted parakeet (Psittacula alexandri). I found later that this is a common bird, being found in large parts of eastern sub-Himalayan India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and southern China and almost all of south-east Asia. On the other hand, the bird is now near-threatened, because of a dangerous dip in its population. I did not think that the culprit would be loss of habitat, since parakeets are hardy and easily adapt to ecological changes. The threat seems to be trapping and poaching. The bird is reportedly extinct in Java and Bali and disappearing fast from Thailand and Laos. I would rather have to travel to see a beautiful bird in its natural surroundings than have it caged. But until a larger number of people agree with me, this hardy parakeet will remain endangered.

The Wikipedia article on this bird contains the dubious claim that there are feral populations of this bird in the cities of peninsular India. I first called it dubious because these cities are far from its normal range, but I was wrong. After reading that version of the post, J. multiflora sent me photos from her garden in the city which show these parakeets. How did they get here? We know that poachers and animal smugglers are active in routing their illegal trade through our cities. Could bunches of captive birds have escaped and established themselves here? We also know that our law-enforcement agencies are sometimes not sensitive to ecology. Could it be that they captured contraband animals, and just released it in the wild?

I had a wonderful view of the parakeet moments later as it walked out on to an open branch. It could have been eating the flowers in the branch I’d seen it agitate earlier. The grey beak marked it out as a female. I did not get a view of the male in such good light, although I heard and saw these birds many more times in the next couple of days. For the record, here is a photo of the male silhouetted against the sky. It took a bit of work to recover the true colours from the silhouetted image.

Seasoned travellers

I’d caught occasional glimpses of the common stonechat in the couple of days we spent in Kaziranga, but on our last evening I caught it in good light not too far away. The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus) is another name for the bird. It is not uncommon, but the light was good, and featured photo could well be the best image I have of the male. The female sat a little further off, also in good light. I had the time finally to get a good field view of the pair: the pattern of white on the wings, the little white tuft near the tail, the while band on the neck, the large peach coloured patch on the breast of the male. and the wide black “bridge” between the head and the back.

These little birds are hardly travelers, wintering in the plains below the Himalayas, and breeding in Russia. These birds reach Russia in May and early June. They start south within a couple of months, starting late July and through August. They probably see summer temperatures lower than 20 Celsius in Russia. When I took the photos, the temperature must have been over 30 Celsius. That’s not the only odd thing about their lifestyle. During migration they cover about 30 Kms each day, which means that they could well take over 100 days traveling each way! Do they really spend about two-thirds of their life traveling? That’s quite a hectic lifestyle.

Breakfast in Barjuri

One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to stop at a roadside dhaba in a little village and sample their food. Not only do you get a feel of local food habits, you also get to meet people. Early in the morning, on our way to one of the further ranges in the forests of Kaziranga, we stopped at a tiny village. The sky was light, although the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick clouds. I was surprised to see this young boy awake and already on his full-sized bike. I think he was delivering newspapers, but he wouldn’t reply to my questions. I tried three languages, so I think he was just not in the mood.

Across the road one shop had opened up, and the owner was cleaning out the dry leaves which had collected overnight in the area in front of the shop. I was very amused by the long bamboo which one man was carrying on his shoulder. It was probably a reasonable load, but the skill involved in moving this around was considerable. I saw the long bamboo bob up and down quite a bit. Bamboo is a common building material here, and the other people around ignored this sight.

The dhaba was already doing good business. The highway was already busy, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. The signboard told me the name of the village: Barjuri. The well-dressed couple sitting at the table in the middle had driven up in a car, and were busy with a paratha and bhaji. It looked good.

I sidled around to take a photo of the cook. He was having a conversation with one of the customers. When he realized that I was trying to take a photo he became silent and concentrated on cooking. I guess this is an image thing. No matter; I can vouch for the fact that he is a very competent cook. The traditional earthen chulha fired with coal can produce great results if the cook is good, but the amount of smoke it produces is not inconsiderable. I always wonder whether there is some better and cheap alternative. So close to Dibrugarh and its refinery, I’d expected more use of cooking gas. I’d forgotten about the entrenched problems of governance in this state.

As I waited for my food I walked over to the tiny brick room next to Gopal’s. This turned out to be Barjuri post office. It would probably open at 10, four hours later. I haven’t been inside a post office for years, and I wished I had been here when it was open. The locked door was just two planks of wood reinforced by cross pieces. I’d grown up in houses with doors like this. I hadn’t seen a post box for some time too. The ones in cities have been removed or are hidden behind new construction. It didn’t look like this post box was in use either.

It was clear why. The slit below the window is the modern post box. I guess when the post office opens the window becomes a service counter. “It can’t be such a small village,” The Family said, “if it has a post office.” That sounded correct. There must have been more of the village off the highway. There was a substantial market next to the post office: a long row of shops, all closed for now. Gopal had got our breakfast by now. We had our chai, ate the pakoras, and drove off.