Walking near the Periyar river

Periyar river, the lifeline of Kerala. It was a name that fascinated me. A simple name, meaning big. That’s all that the people around it need to know. But the river rises in the biodiverse Western Ghats, and in the short 244 Kms from its source to its mouth in the Arabian sea it traverses a wide range of altitudes. So, almost exactly five years ago we took a short trip to the Periyar National Park. We landed at the Kochi airport and took a bus to our destination. The road passes through the intensely urbanized plains. But then, as we crossed a bridge over the river, the urban clutter fell off. We’d reached our homestay, a small two-storeyed house near the entrance to the park.

We dropped our bags and headed out for a walk. There is always a lot to see just outside a national park. We walked back to the bridge we’d crossed. Power lines ran next to it and we were sure to find kingfishers and bee eaters perched there, at eye level. I had my big lens with me, but I’ll show here only those photos I took with the fixed lens of my cell phone. The river branched crazily here, as it reached the plains. A boat was tied next to a little side stream that we crossed. A group of langurs chattered madly as they ate leaves in the canopy of trees around the path.

The phone was also good for close ups. Here in the undergrowth is one of the numerous species that you could call a daisy. I love their complex flowers, five white ray florets and numerous five-petalled yellow florets in the disk. The arrangement of the disk florets and their shape should be a very good guide to a more precise identification, but I’m intimidated by the size of the family Asteraceae, the asters. Full identification is a finicky and time-consuming job.

Which trees grow here? The answer is plain when you look around you. But it is equally plain when you look down at the small landscape around your feet. A large leaf from a teak tree was flaking into pieces as it dried. I pointed my phone at it. Bamboo too, as you can see. And the small leaves of, what was it, jamun? Quite a variety. It would be hard to keep the jamun from being eaten by birds and langurs. But then those trees fruit so abundantly that you can always get enough. We reached the bridge, and then it was time for the big zoom and the end of my fixed-lens adventure.

Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

The morning I saw Chomolungma

When The Family decided that we have to start walking in the Himalayas, she had in mind the famous week-long treks like the Annapurna base camp, Har ki Dun, Phulara ridge, or Sandakphu-Phalut. But since I the job of arranging it came to me I immediately started thinking of day-long walks. After all, we’d hardly walked at a height before. The only trek that I knew which fitted the bill was one that a very experienced trekker friend had told me about a year before his death in the early days of the pandemic. He’d told me that it was a fairly level day’s walk, although you were 3 Kms above sea level, and that the real payoff was the view of four of the world’s five highest peaks from one point. In the photo above you can see the path winding up to Sandak Phu; it would have taken us four days more to walk up there for a better view. When we saw Chomolungma flanked by Lhotse and Makalu, the view was a coda to our friendship. I’m glad I finally did it. I’m glad I could show it to you.

The trek we were on was the Tumling-Tonglu trek, which is part of the Phalut-Sandakphu trek. I’d contacted a reputable company in Darjeeling to arrange the trek. We started from our hotel at 6 in the morning, and watched the sun rise over Kanchenjunga, as we drove to the busy border town of Manebhanjan. Treks along the protected bioreserve of the Singalila ridge start from here. The town was clearly involved with the football world cup. After a breakfast of paratha and alu dum, washed down with chai, we got into a Landrover and got off at Tumling. This Nepali village is at a height of 2970 m. We would then walk about two and a half kilometers, climbing a 100 meters to Tonglu village, where we would have lunch. Then in the afternoon we would walk another six kilometers to Chitre village (2500 m) just above Manebhanjan. Google told me that this was a two hour walk. Our guide assured us that it would be at least double that. I’ve noticed this problem with Google’s algorithms when you are walking in the mountains.

It doesn’t snow at this altitude in December, but there’s a brisk wind over the ridge. The temperature was around 7 Celsius, but the breeze made us zip our jackets tight. There are a few trees on the leeward slope, but they are stunted. There is grass, and many low bushes. Most of it was dry and unrecognizable now. When we come back here one April I’m sure there’ll be flowers. The temperature must have fallen below freezing at night, because we saw frost still remaining in the shadows. Sangay, our guide, looked at it and said “Winter may come early this year.”

There are few people here. The villages are tiny, and the number of trekkers is not large. There were some who’d stayed overnight in Tumling. We waved to a pair who were having tea outside the general store and restaurant made of corrugated metal, which you see in the photo above. We passed a little chorten, a stupa, surrounded by lungta, windhorses, things that we know better as prayer flags. The ridge line here is the open border between Nepal and India. The paved road is Indian territory. We were on the windward side of it, because of the gentler slope and that put us in Nepal.

The land never slopes entirely in one direction of course, so in the middle of a gentle climb you often climb down and then climb up again more steeply than you’d expected. I was enjoying this walk. After the experience in Leh in July, I’d not crossed the 3 Km mark till now. The walk was entirely pleasant. The breeze was moderate as log as we kept ten meters or so below the ridge. Soon I’d taken off my cap and unzipped my jacket. I stopped now and then to follow a raven’s flight, and once to marvel at a lone snow pigeon which banked in flight above us, its wings looking reddish brown in the sun. We’d seen a family of Kalij pheasants on our way up. I couldn’t see or hear any choughs.

The landscape was dappled with the shadows of clouds. The browns and blues of winter were a wonderful change from the dusty gray of the plains. I kept stopping to look at the rocks. Most of it seemed to be metamorphic schist or gneiss, with lichen growing on the surface. The Family had walked ahead, and she spotted the huts of Tonglu. Even without that it was clear that a village was nearby. A couple of mules munched on the dry grass. The spring water near us was draining into a large plastic tank. By 11:30 we had reached our lunchtime destination. With all the halts for views and photos, we had taken two hours to walk roughly as many kilometers!

Left to right, bottom to top

Sometimes you are just lucky. We stood watching four lionesses dozing. They weren’t moving. There wasn’t time to look for anything else before the light went. So I just took a few photos for practice, when one got up, shook herself a bit and then did a lazy stretch. She looked like she could do with a cup of coffee. If it is a promise of action that you want, that diagonal is exactly it.

Intrigued, I looked through the photos I took that day in Masai Mara. In that absolutely flat landscape how many diagonals did I manage to include in my photos? A zebra’s haunches not only provide bold diagonals, they are also the biggest contrast in that dusty tan landscape. The occasional Acacia provides the only vertical in the landscape, and the necks of giraffes are another angle. An elephant’s trunk and a lioness’ neck provide more gentle slopes to keep your eye from getting bored. Interesting how much your hand does unconsciously when you train it.

A year’s worth of travel

Ever since we got our booster shots we have been taking short trips every now and then. The Family was always good at looking at the calendar and spotting lucky combinations of holidays and weekends which give us travel opportunities. I’ve become better at exploiting them. This has given us a marvelous opportunity to observe the architecture of the world around us. It has been amazing to figure out how forests regenerate with the help of termites which get rid of dead wood, how different trees work together to make a mosaic of forests and grassland, and how the character of the natural world differs at the shores of seas, in the continental interior, and in the places where the joints between continents show up as incredibly high mountains.

Here is a tiny slice of a memoir. These are photos of the creatures I share it with. From the hot desert of Rajasthan to the high cold desert of Ladakh, from the forests of Assam to the grasslands of Uttarakhand, from the wild growth of plants in the monsoon in the Sahyadris to the happy weeds of the Terai, these are images of home.

Darkest before dawn

When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.

For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.

This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.

Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.

Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.

Dreamland

Pandemic changes are still rearranging my life. The Family asked “Why do you need so many small holidays?” Every few months a hale and hearty colleague or friend dies suddenly. Most are male, between the ages of 50 and 70. They include diverse people like Himalayan trekkers and yoga enthusiasts. What they share is the manner of their sudden death, a matter of seconds when their heart stops beating in the middle of a mundane day. One sitting at a beach with his family, one in the middle of a presentation, one at dinner with wife and two young daughters. Such incidents, all in the last two years, can change your perspective on what is important. Watching the sunlight filter through sal and pine into a grassland, in the coolness of autumn, two kilometers above sea level, seems as important as the work that I continue to love. In my travels now I meet a lot of people, often in their 30s and 40s, who have become more nomadic than me. I don’t doubt that people with other interests are also following them more passionately now. Pandemic and death, perhaps even the expectation of an imminent climate disaster, have changed our lives more deeply than we see yet.

Near these foothills the landscape changes within an hour’s drive. In the plains below I stood near a village where some partition refugees from Punjab settled a lifetime ago. Their children and grandchildren now till the land. Tractors and harvesters have set the bullocks and horses free, but they are still loved and tended. Another dream, of escaping the madness of the partition, of settling into a quiet slow life, of being untouched by history, is coming true.

Across the bund on which the horse stood was a huge reservoir created by the Haripura dam. We stood on the bund looking at water birds through our binoculars. This is the season when the winter visitors begin to arrive. We were not surprised by the water birds and small warblers which have come down from Tibet and central Asia. But I was happily surprised when a resident pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) dived into the water and came up with a catch.

Halcyon smyrnensis, white-breasted kingfishers, can be found everywhere in this landscape. They don’t require water, being able to catch lizards and frogs from the ripe rice fields they are poised over. The farmers watched us curiously: Who are these people with binoculars and cameras? I explained to one that we were watching birds. The young Sikh farmer took a look, then told me how one of the birds which used to nest under roofs here is disappearing. Everywhere you go, there are stories of slow extinctions. He invited us for a cup of tea. Very reluctantly, we refused. We had to be in the hills in a short time. He understood.

The berms are overgrown with Lantana. But among them are other plants which can beat them at the wild game of growth. There are vines of morning glory, pumpkin vines topping out the Lantana to spread their edible yellow flowers to the light. And there are these small white flowers with their incredible petals, like the wild dream of a botanist who tastes every leaf she sees. But for all its wild fantasy look, it is a real flower. I’ve seen it before, but haven’t identified it. Can anyone help? (It turns out to be parval, परवल, Trichosanthes dioicha. Now I’ll remember this flower every time I eat parval. Thanks for pointing to Cucurbitaceaea, Profundareflexion.)

Another dream is slowly emerging into reality. For years I would see the work of those wonderful wildlife photographers who post fantastic photos of predators with prey. In my own small way, I’m getting a chance to do the same thing. I saw a blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) on a wire. If you stand and watch for a while you see it sallying to catch an insect on the wing. I was lucky to get a shot of it with a wasp in its mouth. I remembered Lotte Eisner’s voice narrating the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, in Werner Herzog’s movie called Fata Morgana. The paradise of the myth is a place where food flies into your mouth. That’s what the photo of the bee-eater with its prey looks like. So that’s my answer to The Family, it’s a way to change a nightmare into a halcyon dreamland.

Walking on Elephant’s Head

A day in Mahabaleshwar can be fun. My last visit to this high plateau in the Sahyadris was in the December of the plague year, 2020. There is a big difference between winter, shishir ritu, and this time. Sharad ritu, this hot season immediately after the end of the monsoon, is what the British called an Indian summer. In this time the ground is still wet, and the western ghats are in full bloom. We spent the day walking on the 1800 meter high periphery of the plateau.

Sonki (Senecio bombayensis) is the most common flower of October

Mahabaleshwar is not a protected area, but has large expanses of forest. Between the forest and the edge of the cliffs are meadows which are carpeted in yellow flower of sonki. I spotted a few albinos on a bush, and paused to take a photo. In another season I would have had to examine the underside of the leaves of this shrub, white and hairy, to recognize it. In sharad there is no need for that.

Bushes of common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum) are also in flower

The beautiful flowers of the common hill borage are not as common, but the chest-high bushes cannot be missed. The flowers are small and white, with a beautiful cornflower-blue center. Sonki and this borage are the commonest flowers of sharad in these isolated plateaus, inselbergs, which the years have carved out of the lava deposited in the Deccan shield more than 60 million years ago. I have photos of them from every year in the last twenty.

Santapau (Asystasia dalzelliana) grows in shade under trees

Although they are common, the tiny foxgloves, santapau, are not as easily visible. You have to peer below other bushes to get a view of these small flowers. But once you see one you’ll begin to notice them everywhere. I like foxgloves, so plain on the outside, but so intricately patterned inside.

The heroes of this season in India are really the grasses. I find them flowering everywhere. On this plateau they are visible, but not the dominant plant group. The thin laterite soil of these plateaus in the Sahyadris is often too metallic for grasses. Still, there are places where grasses have taken root.

The invasive Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis) has found a small niche

Tall bushes of the invasive Chinese knotweed are visible at the sides of paths. They seem to have reached an equilibrium in these places. They cannot invade the thin soil of the meadows, nor to they grow in the inner dense jungle. As long as the forest is not cut down to make hotels, the knotweed are under control.

Star violets (Neanotis lancifolia) straggle along the ground

I must have seen the star violets many times before, but until I started taking photos of tiny flowers, I hadn’t noticed their four-petalled perfection. I’ll have to find out why they grow in two colours. What I like about them is that they are the perfect rejoinder to pseudo-mathematicians who claim that the number of petals on a flowers is a Fibonnaci number. This sequence of numbers, {1,1,2,3,5,8,…}, is obtained by adding the previous two to get the next. Four is not a Fibonnaci number, so these flowers should not exist according to the false mathematicians of aesthetics.

Karambal (Justicia procumbens) is still flowering in this ultra-wet year

A flower which shouldn’t exist in this season is the Karambal. This year has been so wet (it is still raining now in the middle of October) that the plants are totally confused. I saw many of these flowers still taking advantage of the weather by continuing to bloom. My favourite flowers change with the seasons, but I’m glad this one is still around this year.

All these are among the wild flowers that I saw on a four kilometer walk along a ridge called Elephant’s Head. It juts out from one side of the plateau. Before the ridge narrows to a few meters, there is a dense canopy of trees. Inside this small limb of the forest I saw a few trees bearing these lovely clusters of white flowers. I think the trees belong to the cherry family, but I’m not sure.

A ruin

Abandoned houses are strangely fascinating. They are places which people once called home. You can stand in front of it an imagine it full of light and life. And now the people are gone, and it is just home to entropy. What happened to those people? Why was this house not occupied? It was at a good location, right at the edge of the lake. How could anyone just walk out and leave? Or did they not leave?

The Family had strained her back and walking was an effort. We’d sat on a deck with a coffee and watched the lake through the afternoon’s rain. As the sun began to set I walked past the road up to the abandoned house to take a few photos. The grass in front of it clutched on to a very thin layer of soil over hard volcanic rock. Little hollows in the rock held rain water. It was slippery. One slip, and I would certainly damage the soil, and perhaps myself if I fell on the sharp edges of the rock. Sunset, the rain clouds, and the structure built a wonderful ambience. I tried hard to catch the sense of loss, the beauty of the landscape and the sky, the dilapidated building with a mat of grass on its roof.

I walked around the building. A slight breeze had set in and it was blowing waves over the water. The lake is large, and even this little breeze could excite fairly large waves. This is a hard place, with extremes of weather. It is not close to a town; on the other hand, it is close a major highway. In a few more monsoons the roof will cave in. Then the walls will become stumps, providing a windbreak for larger plants. Soon, the last signs of people who could have lived there will be gone.

Treasures of the internet

Kans grass (Saccharum spontaneum) flowers in autumn

How many farmers does the world have? There are around 570 million farms, most of them small ones maintained by one household. I guess that means more than a billion people around the world are farmers. How many soldiers does the world have? A little search told me that there are around 27 million people in armed forces around the world. But the number of games featuring battles and wars is overwhelmingly larger than the number of games that involve farming.

Hog deer (Axis porcinus) in Corbett National Park. They are about 75 centimeters tall.

I tried to find how many pet animals there are in the world. I couldn’t find a definitive answer, but it seems that there are about 470 million dogs and 370 million cats kept as pets around the world. Add in less common pets, and I suppose there are about a billion pet animals to keep us 7 billion odd humans company. The chances are high that each and every one of us either has, or knows a pet animal. I wonder what fraction of humanity has seen any of the threatened mammals of the world in their natural habitat.

Indian elephant baby and mother in Corbett National Park

Some treasures I looked for. But sometimes, when you start typing a query, the Eye of Sauron suggests a different one. I clicked on the suggestion “are video games athletics or not” and came up with interesting nuggets. A clearly biased site, FunTech, offered up the nugget: “professional gamers exhibit high levels of physical strain during competitions” and therefore video games should be considered athletics. I’m sure you’ve realized that the photos have as much to do with the rest of this post as “physical strain” has to do with athletics.

Cloudy sunset over the stony desert in Bera, Rajasthan

Inevitably, using the kind of logical shortcut that video game makers are apt to employ, that brought me to the question of how many treasure hunters there are in the world. The Eye of Sauron could not see a definite answer. The best it could provide was a Wikipedia list of treasure hunters. Someone thinks there are few enough that they can be humanly listed. They probably forgot people like you and me, those who find invaluable treasures.