The Bad in 402

With three days left of the year 402 ME, I have just enough time to squeeze in a few words about the real bad guys I saw this year. The very baddest of the year have to be these two goats. The one on the right leaped into the air as I watched and head-butted the other one with a loud thunk. That must have hurt! If I’d gone head to head with another person like this, I think my brains would have ended up scrambled. They continued butting heads until the goatherd came and broke it up.

Don’t ever believe that the small Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is a cuddly little thing. It is highly aggressive, not only picking lizards bigger than itself as a tasty snack for the chicks, but is also highly territorial. It’s sense of self is utterly contained within its body, and it is aggressive enough to attack its own reflection!

He who underestimates scorpions learns a painful lesson. So I was taught by one who found a scorpion curled up inside trekking shoes. They are aggressively territorial, but are also prey to several larger predators. The really badass thing about this photo is the UV fluorescence. I must get one of those black light lamps for the future.

These centipedes (Chilopoda) have lived in the Indian landmass from before the times when it broke off from Gondwanaland. These original inhabitants of India are decidedly bad for interlopers like H. sapiens, leaving painful welts on the skin if they crawl over you. If you see a swarm like this you better move quickly, these carnivores are faster than you may think.

How bad can these pretty mushrooms be, you ask? These looked similar to the poisonous and widespread Galerina marginata, and I would not take chances with it. Those cause, at the very least, permanent damage to the liver but also result in death in a very significant fraction of cases. Visual similarity is not a great guide in choosing mushrooms, but I would not risk picking them. Foraging for mushrooms is not common in India, and there is little know-how. What you see here is a possible bad guy, but the real baddie is the camera with which took the photo. It’s a small, light thing that fits in my pocket and takes sharp and bright macros. I’m so happy that I got it this year.

Lights. Camera.

Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.

The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.

The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.

This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.

The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.

The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.