Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

Bee-eating competition

The bridge over the Periyar river in Thattekad puts you at eye level with electricity cables running parallel to it. That makes it a great spot for bird-watchers, because so many birds like to sit on such wires. Bee eaters are probably the most colourful of these. The blue-tailed bee eater (Merops philippinus) sat there quietly, in the usual style of bee eaters, giving us ample time to click photos. I’ve seen these birds before. They are common over India, breeding in North India, and wintering in Southern India. I don’t know whether anyone in India has studied their migration in any detail or even counted their population.

As I looked at the individual whose photo you see above, the question in my mind was how it survives competition with the ubiquitous drongos of these forests, and the many mynas. I was almost sure that some ecologist would have studied this question, but I could not find an answer. These three kinds of birds eat more or less the same insects. Mynas and drongos are both aggressive feeders. They survive in the same forest although their prey base overlaps, because the overlap is rather small. Mynas eat many things which drongos don’t, and there’s also sauce for the drongo which is not saucy enough for mynas. But everything that a bee-eater eats is also prey for drongos. Moreover, bee eaters seem to spend little effort in hunting. They sit on these wires, or high up on trees, and make little sorties now and then, when an insect flies by. Theirs is a passive hunting strategy, no seeking out prey. Maybe that is the reason why they are much less common than drongos in these jungles.