Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.

Saturday’s spinner

There was only one tree on the sloping meadow in Khandala where I went trigger happy with my camera. The Family sat under it during the shower while I stood in the rain taking photos of raindrops on roses or anything else in sight. When I joined her in the shelter, I noticed a spider web right above us: a perfect spiral dewed with raindrops. Just the kind that my nieces loved during their goth phases.

A spider waited at the center of the web, perfectly still. Its eight legs were paired into feelers touching four quadrants of the web. I wonder why they are paired up. Does it give the legs better distance resolution? Like the way our paired eyes give us a sense of depth?

Die Blaue Ratte

While taking photos of Khandala in the blue hour, the photo that you see above reminded me of old days. Finishing a beer with a friend at a pub near the university, we saw a group gather around the barkeeper without ordering beers. As he closed the bar, we thought they looked like they might be going to a late night place. We followed them and discovered what would be our favourite late late night hangout: a pub called Die Blaue Ratte (The Blue Rat). We never figured when it closed in the morning. Years later, when I dropped in to the university to meet a professor, he asked, “And how’s the Blue Rat doing?” I suppose when I was late to work, people guessed where I’d been the previous night.

So it is true that I’ve seen the blue hour of the morning. But I much prefer to take photos of the blue hour in the evening. It is much easier to take several photos of the blue fading into black than the other way around.

Epiphyte or parasite?

Mosses, fungi, orchids, ferns, lichen. I’ve seen many things growing on trees. Very often I cannot identify them. The photos that you see here were taken on a tree in the Sahyadris, at a low elevation. They are two different species. What are they? Orchids or ferns? Some day, when I’ve worked through the monsoon flowers, I’ll get to them.

I don’t even know whether they are epiphytes or parasites. Epiphytes would use the branch or trunk merely for support, without hurting the tree. Parasites would feed on the tree, and would harm its growth. In any case, there is an abundance of animal life inside this greenery. I could see strands of spider silk woven through them. Spiders imply insects which they can feed on. Insects and spiders would be prey for birds. Perhaps I can take an afternoon just to sit near a tree and observe these different kinds of animals.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Rare but popular

On a walk in a sloping meadow in Khandala, in the middle of a rainy day in August, I came across a bush full of small white flowers which seemed to be very popular with a variety of insects. I’d not noticed this plant ever before, but it was not hard to identify it as Pinda concanensis (pinda in Konkani, pand in Marathi). The genus Pinda contains only a single species, concanensis. The plant is found only in the northern part of the Sahyadris, which means the part of the western ghats around Mumbai.

I was quite taken aback by the number of different kinds of insects which visited it. There were blow flies, a couple of different species of ants, a skipper, and at least one kind of beetle, all visiting one plant at the same time. I wonder whether a rare plant has to make itself popular with pollinators. If it is not, then its rarity could mean that few, if any, insects would visit it by chance. That could lead to an ever decreasing population and eventual extinction.

I spent some time admiring the beautiful compound flowers. They had not opened completely yet. The outer petals were much larger, about a centimeter in size, the inner flowers in the compound had not yet opened, but clearly would be smaller. Like many of these rarer plants of the Sahyadris, this one is likely to be under threat due to extensive loss of habitat. Unfortunately there are not enough field studies to establish the extent of the population and whether it is decreasing. A few generations of botanists in the area are spread thin still trying to identify and classify the immense number of plants in this highly biodiverse region.

Since the plant is rare and I’m unlikely to see them in a different place soon, I end this post with a photo of the stem. The three-lobed serrated leaves are pinnate. The bushes that I saw were about half a meter tall, and stood in open ground which would have been sunny on a clear day. You can see the dense growth around the plant. I did not feel like disturbing them to look at the roots of the bushes to look at the edible tubers which, as a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), they have.

A lesser plant

Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse’s famous Drone, sometimes muses about the best way to start a story. Like him, I will start mine by setting out a time and place. In the middle of August, during a monsoon rain, I was picking my way through a wild open patch in Khandala. I noticed two bunches of bushes of Asystasia dalzelliana (neelkanth in literary Marathi, santapau in Konkani and Marathi) in the open, away from any trees. They were in bloom, quite unaware of the fact that botanists have determined that they flower between September and January. Could this change be due to global warming, or local microclimate? I may have seen this waist high plant earlier, but I don’t remember identifying it before. So, without doing some archaeology in my hard disk, I cannot tell you whether it continues to flower into winter.

I read that it is endemic in the western and eastern ghats, and that it has been over-exploited because of its known folk-medicinal properties. So much so, that there is even a paper on its in-vitro propagation. I suspect that between this over-exploitation and habitat loss it must be endangered. Unfortunately the IUCN list does not contain any information on this species.

This lack of information on the species propagates into the wider scientific literature. There is a lot of material on its invasive cousin, A. gangetica, but next to nothing on A. dalzelliana. I’ve linked to two sources of independent information in the previous paragraph. The third piece of information I picked up is that it the larval host for one species of a rather drab butterfly. That’s the sum total of a morning’s search!

Hemmed into the straight and narrow

After a walk in the rain around the lake and waterfall in Lonavala, The Family asked “Should we drive to Amby Valley?” Why not? One can’t enter Amby Valley without prior permission, but there are many things to see on the way. One could easily drift away from the road and into interesting places, I imagined.

I had not really thought this through. The Lonavala area was considered to be a desirable location in colonial times, and much of the land was parceled out to individuals. The properties changed hands many times since the early 19th century, but they are still guarded by massive gates. Amby Valley incorporates many of these old properties after all.

In many places there were massive cast-iron gates guarding the property. Some were in worse repair than others. A few were mere suggestions to stay away. If the rain was not pelting down as hard as it was, I would have tried exploring at least one of these places. It had a break in the wall next to the gate with a well-trodden path leading in. In these old deserted properties the garden is often taken over by wild plants, and you can see flowers, insects, and birds in plenty.

I mentioned to The Family that there are unlikely to be vicious dogs roaming free behind broken gates and walls, but she was not to be moved. We were kept on the narrow road to the deep north by these gates and walls, and the notion of private property that they implied, however sketchy. On a drier day I might have been more tempted to wander in and photograph the decayed ruins of colonial era bungalows which probably are being eaten away by the weather inside. But this was not that day.

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Clouds and rain

Clouds drift low in the sky during the monsoon. In Khandala, half a kilometer above sea level, they drift along roads. You’ll be driving along a clear road, then you take a turn, and suddenly you are inside a cloud. During the day you see this as reduced visibility. Your camera also sees the same thing. It is different at night.

I had to pick up a pizza for dinner. As I waited, my eyes saw a drifting mist and a light rain. My phone camera saw a fairly clear night. The software in a phone camera is tuned to give you the clearest possible image. Especially at night this involves a lot of algorithmic enhancement. Most of the time I’m happy with it. But it cannot deal with mysteries and atmosphere. You have to teach the algorithm to show what you see.

The clue to accomplishing this is in the halo of light that you see around the front of the building. Fog scatters light. That’s half the reason it reduces visibility. I took a photo with my flash on. The intense light of the flash makes the fog visible. The fog actually now looks denser than it did to the eye. I think a diffuser over the flash will give a result closer to what my eye sees. I’ll have to take some time to improve on this technique, but I think I have the principle now.