Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

Red dragon

When I took these photos of a bright red dragonfly, with a red patch of colour extending almost halfway down the wing, the first tentative identification I had in mind was was Ditch Jewel (Brachythemis contaminata). This skimmer is the commonest of red dragonflies. But we had halted by the side of a road 700 meters above sea level in an uninhabited stretch of the Igatpuri ghats, full of running water and gushing waterfalls, an unlikely habitat for that skimmer of contaminated water. The Ditch Jewel has a rusty red wing spot; this one’s was a dark brown. That has brown and grey eyes and this had red eyes. Not a Ditch Jewel then.

Back home I checked for other possibilities. Could it be a Ruddy Meadown Skimmer (Neurothemis intermedia)? The grassland habitat with ponds nearby was appropriate habitat. It had the bright red face and of the N. intermedia. Its legs were reddish brown, as it would then have to be. But was the wing spot the right colour? And were the eyes right? I had to do an image search on the web. This is always dangerous because you could be misled by wrong identifications made by others. Perhaps the red wing spot looked dark in this light. But the eyes were still a stretch. Could this be the right ID?

But I still had to check out another possibility: the Ruddy Marsh Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia). That has the same red face and body with darker legs, and wings which are coloured part of the way, with a dark wing spot. It could almost be our dandy. And it has eyes which are red above and a darker purple below, which exactly fits the photos. Its habitat also fit the bill, and moreover, this is one of the most common red dragonflies. I think I had my boy.

Two mountain roads

I did my first road drives in the Alps, between Geneva and Grenoble. So mountain roads do not intimidate me. But other factors can be stressful sometimes: heavy rains or snow, lack of oxygen, the condition of roads. There were two contrasting drives recently when I sat in the navigator’s seat.

One was in a heavy monsoon shower at an altitude of 750 meters, through the Sahyadris. These are the Igatpuri ghats, the first high pass you cross when you leave Mumbai. The road was quite good, except for small patches which would need repair after the monsoon. The traffic was light. The only complicating factor was visibility. As you can see, in spite of the wipers working at their fastest, it wasn’t the best.

The other was at an altitude of 5500 meters, in Ladakh. The Khardung Pass is the highest motorable road in India. This is a harsh place, and the road is under constant repair. The traffic was light, and the visibility was good. The oxygen level was a little challenging. Lack of oxygen slows you down. In spite of this there are people who take motorbikes through these roads. I even saw a few people bicycling across the pass. That’s a level of fitness I can only admire. The featured photo shows the remnant of an army truck that had slid off the road. Gravity is a remarkable sculptor.

Fern leaf buds

Mistakes I should stop making: number one. Do not take a whole class of plants to be a single species. When people say fern, I don’t instantly think of them as being as diverse as the group of flowering plants. But that’s what they are. Ferns make up the class called Polypodiosida. They have more than 390 million years of evolution behind them, and enough time to find many different ecological niches to occupy. The result is that their forms vary a lot.

The spores are borne on leaves, and their beautiful shapes have evolved to give the spores a good chance of wafting away in breezes. The beautiful shapes of leaves and leaf buds are perfect for black and white photography. These are just a few species that I found growing in meadows in the Sahyadris this monsoon. The hill slopes are great places for them. Unfortunately, they do not yet gather much attention, so there is a very large hole which the first field guide can fill.

Villages

For the last three years we’ve explored the Sahyadris in the monsoon more than we ever did before, and grown to love it. Newspapers are full of stories of how European embassies, and the US, are unable to handle the visa application loads that they used to handle routinely before the pandemic. We believe them, and we don’t even think of going further west than two hundred kilometers. As a result I discovered the rain gear that they use in rural Maharashtra: a framework of bamboo covered with plastic: a hands-free umbrella which sits on your head. That’s what the trio above are wearing as they go into the fields to work.

The landscape is spectacular of course, with the sculptured mountains completely covered with trees. But it is also the fields, which glow a fluorescent green in the watery sunlight of monsoon, the wildflowers of this season, and the tiny unnamed villages which are sprinkled among the rice paddies. You can tell each by its temple. We passed by the doors of many, and paused a while at each to take a photo. Some are surrounded by huts, others stand at a distance from the hamlet. They all look very interesting.

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.

Do you really want to know?

What lies over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.

Outside the small town of Ghoti on the Mumbai-Nashik road

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.

Naneghat, the view across the pass

At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?

Crossing Malshej ghat in Maharashtra

Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.

Monsoon waterfall at the top of Malshej ghat

But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Farmhouses by the road

Drive 50 kilometers out of Mumbai and turn off a highway, and the scene changes completely. The high-rises and crowded concrete ribbons of highways are a memory. Instead, you are probably driving down a two-lane road through countryside which is lush green in the monsoon, and dry grassland at other times of the year. The houses that you see have to deal with extreme rain, extreme heat, and, in places, fairly cold weather. I kept stopping to take photos of farm houses as we drove along. The house in the featured photo looked charming: cattle sheds faced the road, and the farm house was behind it. Trees shaded the structure, affording protection in all weathers.

Smaller houses were more common. Behind two small plots of paddy fields was a miniature version of the other house. Corrugated metal sheets covered a cattle shed, and the actual house stood behind it. In spite of its diminutive size, its placement looked charming: on a higher patch of ground surrounded by paddy fields. Of course, the fields are flooded at this time for several weeks, and mosquitoes can breed in that standing water. The lovely looking place may be very uncomfortable at night.

The land had been flat but rising away from the sea, but we were now reaching a line of hills. When I stopped to take this photo, I was actually interested in the many waterfalls you can see in those hills. But then I found an interesting composition with this tree and the three low houses behind. I still got a couple of the waterfalls in the frame though.

This was one of the few two-storeyed houses that I saw. Brick and mortar had been supplemented with steel and concrete, at least in the flat terraces. Was that a good idea in these parts? The roof would bake in heat. In the monsoon the water might pool in places instead of running off quickly. It is not at all clear that changing the local style of architecture in the Sahyadris to one derived from the inland planes is a good idea.

This was such a cheerful sight that my hands seemed to come up automatically for this shot. On a day which was mostly cloudy, the sun had broken through briefly to illuminated ripening grain. The cheerful yellow and the surrounding tender green centered on a little farmhouse. For the first time I saw a house in which the front doors faced the road. The doors themselves, if you pay attention, are sturdy jobs in wood. I love these tile roofs. A little cost-intensive to begin with, they afford easy care. This stretch of road charmed me thoroughly.

Two spiders

Orb-weaving spiders (family Araneidae) are generally what I notice, not the ones which hide in leaf-litter. The one in the photos above had woven a neat web in an opening in a wall when I first saw it. When I came by with a camera late the next day, the web was much less neat; it had torn and been repaired. Either someone’s hand had gone through the opening, or the rain and wind had torn it. I don’t know much about spider identification, and I have not seen a field guide for India yet, so anything I say is a guess. Just based on the shape I wonder whether it belongs to the genus Eriovixia or Eustala. This one was in the middle of its web during the day both times that I saw it, so that might rule out Eriovixia, which weaves orbs, but then hides in leaf-litter with a telegraph line connecting it to its web.

This seven-legged spider is quite likely to be a species of giant wood spiders, perhaps Nephila kuhlii. The banana shaped body is what leads me to this tentative identification. I guess it must be on the older side, since it has lost a leg, perhaps in a fight. I spotted it in a nallah on the side of the road when we stopped at a tea stall on Malshej ghat. That portion of the nallah was thick with spider webs, all of this one species. some of the specimens were smaller, likely younger, and had red legs, and dark bodies without the spots. Do their legs darken and spots appear on their bodies as they grow older? Or was this a different species? Even if it is different, the yellowish colour of the silk in the web indicates that it still belongs to genus Nephila.