A last look back

The end was abrupt. We walked back from the edge of the last lake, and then there was nothing else to do. We piled into the car, nosed on to the road, and realized we had started on our journey back home. It would be a day and more before we reached Mumbai, but our holiday was over.

Perhaps I had come to appreciate the mosaic of pine grasslands and oak forests that dot the lower Himalayas, perhaps I had learnt a little more about the wildflowers that grow here. But as we left the lower edges of these sal forests, all I felt was that I hadn’t yet recovered from the first lockdown. I had not looked at the news at all, and was determined to go off to the upper heights of Sikkim before the Rhododendron season was over. The Family looked quizzically at me every time I said this. She had tried to tell me that Mumbai was already in a second lockdown, but I’d not paid attention.

It was early afternoon, the worst time of the day for birds. Still, on the way out from Sat Tal we kept our eyes out for some. I missed a wedge-tailed green pigeon lurking in the undergrowth next to the car as The Family brought us to a halt. They scoot when disturbed, so if you have missed one you don’t see it again. It would have been a lifer for me. I did manage to get shots of two of the more common birds. The featured photo is of a verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) I saw at a stop, whose distinctive colour is called copper-sulphate blue in the Wikipedia article and turquoise-blue in eBird. The spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis, earlier Streptopilia chinensis) that you see preening in the photo above is even more common.

These stops didn’t delay us much longer. In no time we were speeding past Bhim Tal. We stopped at the last bend in the road before we lost sight of the area, and walked out on the narrow verge. We looked back at the lake district of Kumaon. I hadn’t even noticed the jacarandas before. Now I took a last shot of one against the fields of the valley. Then we were back in the car, turning the bend.

The last lake

Drifting between lakes in Sat Tal, as we tried to extend our day in the area, we noticed some similarities between them. There seems to be little renewal of the waters, and the surrounding activity has made them eutrophic. The green waters of the lakes are a sure sign of increasing bacterial activity, and the lack of fish is apparent. At late as the 1943, I could trace a record of mahseer being fished from these lakes. It seems that the eutrophication of these waters started in the 1960s. These studies are in concordance with my memories of granduncles back from holidays discussing the changing quality of these lakes.

The area around the lakes seems to have been divided up between the state tourism department and something called the Sat Tal Christian Ashram. The latter seems to have been founded in the 1930s by a Methodist missionary from the USA called Eli Stanley Jones and two of his associates. Gandhi had spent some time in the ashram, and seems to have influenced Jones, who became a spokesperson for Indian independence at home. Since he was in regular touch with the US president Roosevelt in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and later, his opinion may have had some influence in Washington. I cannot see any study of the letters between him and Roosevelt, so it seems to me that here is an opportunity for a thesis.

This was Garur Tal, one of the smaller lakes in the area. I enjoy walking around these lakes, taking photos. Garur Tal was completely deserted in the early afternoon. The light had been gloomy all day, filtered as it was through smoke in the air. As a result the afternoon was not too bright for photography. I took a photo of a leaf floating a few meters away. The light on the water looked oddly like grains on wood. Closer to the edge I found a leaf which had begun to sink into the water, and would be consumed into mulch soon. The stones below it looked like quartz.

Closer to my feet I found stones which seemed to have folded layers. I think this is the stone called a phyllite. It is a slate which has metamorphed into this fine-grained form that you see in the large slab in the foreground of the photo above. I found bees hovering over the water around it, their shadows quite detached from them. In a stronger light the bees and their shadows would have made a nice photo, but then the photo would not have showed the striations in the rock. You gain some, you lose some. I was quite content at the edge of water, looking around, walking with The Family, delaying the start of the journey back home.

Skimmers

Sat Tal is a wonderful place for birds, if you are up early or stay till sunset. Since we reached in the late morning, the best we could see were tourists at tea stalls. The air full of smoke from forest fires were not the best for any climbing, and the smoke-filtered yellow light was not great for photos.

We walked out over the narrow causeway separating the Ram Tal from Sita Tal, hoping to get in a bit of a walk before trying to find lunch. A shaded path looped partway around the lakes. Under it I found a couple of butterflies and two of the dragonflies (Anisoptera) called skimmers (Libellulidae). The red one you see in the featured photo was so common that I’d seen it before, and could identify as a Ditch Jewel (Brachythemis contaminata). Sat Tal is almost on the plains, as this sighting confirmed. I would not have seen it at higher altitudes.

The systematic identification of dragonflies involves looking at the way its eyes are placed, the colours of the wings, and the colours and patterns on its thorax. For a casual watcher like me, the first priority is to get a good photo. If it so happens that these photos allow me to identify it later, I’m happy. This small black dragonfly was not so easy to identify. After some bit of going back and forth, I think this is a Black Ground Skimmer (Diplacodes lefebvrii, also called a Black Percher). I wish I’d seen it in better light.

A plain earl and a restricted demon

One of the fun things about butterflies is the names. It is so easy to conjure up a tale of the fantastic with just two sightings: one of a small butterfly called the Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia) and the other of a middle-sized one called a Plain Earl (Tanaecia jahnu).

As we checked out of the hotel in Naukuchiatal, I spotted the Restricted Demon sunning itself on the leaf of a potted plant. The larva feeds on a variety of useful plants: ginger, turmeric, plantains. So the demon part of the name is easy to understand. The restricted part may come from the fact that it needs a temperate climate, and cannot be found in every place in South and South-eastern Asia. As I took the featured photo, I wondered which plant this demon had destroyed earlier in its life.

We’d decided to spend our last day in the hills walking about the Sat Tals, before leaving Kumaon in the evening. The Sat Tal area was full of smoke from forest fires. As we walked around a lake, the light was strange, filtered through a haze of smoke. I was glad that my mask could filter out most of the pollution as I bent and squatted repeatedly to take photos of butterflies and insects. The ground was strewn with oak leaves and pine needles. They formed an interesting background when I took the photo of the Plain Earl that you see above. I suppose the subtle shadings in the castes of Britain (colonial Britain had no life peers) loomed large in the minds of the colonial naturalists who named them.

Water ambush

You are not safe out in the middle of the lake; a determined ambusher like me will get you quite easily. Continuing my practice of shooting photographers in the act of photography, I caught these two groups. The couple were in the middle of one of the Sat Tals, the family in Bhim Tal. They say that hunters begin to enter the minds of their prey. I find that interesting statement is contaminated by a tinge of truth.

As I ambush more, I begin to see two kinds of selfie takers. One kind has arranged their lives so that they can easily say to others, “that happy me in the photo you see is the real me”. Others have not been so systematic. Their selfies take a small slice of the reality, edit out large portions of the world. These ambush photos appear to have the selfie-taker saying “the person in this photo is the me I wish I am”. Are either of them correct about themselves? We change every moment, after all.

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