Halcyon days

Halcyon Smyrnensis is a wonderful name for the white-breasted kingfisher. The OED says of the halcyon that it is “a mythical bird said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming the wind and waves into calm.” It certainly charms me to a halt every time I see it. The bright flash of blue on the back and the large white bib bracketing a chestnut colour that cascades down from its head, and the red beak and legs, are something that always makes me raise my camera for a shot. I was very lucky with the light near Tadoba lake. I got the glint in its eye as it turned its head.

Izmir, formerly known as Smyrna, is perhaps where the earliest reports of this bird to reach Linnaeus originated. That seems to be the origin of its specific name. It is found in Turkey and a broad band eat of it all the way to Indonesia, avoiding only the desert to the south of the Gulf of Oman. I see scattered records of sightings down the Red Sea, in Alexandria, Mecca, and Medina, even in Riyadh and Muscat. I’m not really surprised, since I’ve found it eating all kinds of things: snails, insects, and even stolen scraps of meat.


Late mornings are times when you can sit in a garden and watch butterflies. They are not early risers, they would have woken and stretched their wings to the sun while you have breakfast, and will be out late in the morning for a few sips of nectar. The common crow (Euploea core) is one of the easiest to photograph. It is disdained by predators because the plants that it has fed on as a caterpillar fill it with distasteful chemicals. As a result it can afford to fly slow and sit on a flower for long times.

Even though it is so dark, pay attention. When it sits on a flower in bright sunlight you can see its glossy wings reflect the flower. I was very happy when it decided to land on marigolds. As I’d expected, at one point it turned. and I could capture the reflection of the marigold in its wing. If you can see it from India east and south all the way to Australia, but not on the islands of the Philippines, Borneo, or Papua and New Guinea. There must be an interesting story to follow up there another time, when I have another photo of the crow.

Bamboo flowers

Drying clumps of tall bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) were visible all through the core area of Tadoba national park. I didn’t pay much attention to it the first day, since I’ve seen drying thickets of bamboo on nearly all my visits to national parks. But the next day it struck me that this was not summer. The rest of the forest was green, but the clumps of bamboo were not just a dry yellow, but were an ashy dead colour. I took a photo or two in passing. In a forest full of life, dead branches are a common sight. I looked at clumps of tall dead bamboos, and my sight slid over them.

It was only when we drove on a narrow track through what was once a bamboo forest that I realized the extent of the dead bamboos. In that patch of forest it became impossible to ignore what I was seeing: all the dead plants had flowered. I should have thought of this. After all, bamboo is famously a mass flowering plant. Many species of bamboo flower once in a long time, and die after flowering. All the plants in a forest flower at the same time, and so seed and die at once. This gregarious flowering, mast seeding, and death triggers a local ecological crisis. This has been seen repeatedly in different parts of India. The literature on bamboo quotes flowering periods of between 2 and 120 years, depending on the species. I’m sure there are large errors in estimating a cycle of 120 years, and I would not be surprised if in another three centuries that number is revised substantially. The next year will be an interesting time to visit Tadoba.

Gregarious flowering of B. balcooa has been recorded, but the estimates of its period are all over the place. I found a report which said its cycle is between 40 and 100 years. It is not clear that different populations of this species flower in the same year, or even have the same period. There’s a similar confusion about mast seeding of different plants too (follow the tags “mass flowering” or “mast seeding” for more on that). Reports also say that most flowers of B. balcooa do not produce pollen, and few produce seed. That would be species suicide! There must be more to it.

While The Family and the guides concentrated on looking for tigers, my attention was on bamboo flowers. The main flowering period must have been late September or early October, because I could only see the dry woody remnants of the flowers. My luck never turned. Right at the end of my last day in the jungle, more than twenty minutes after sunset, I finally saw the flowers. The photo that you see above could have been substantially better if I’d come on this clump half an hour earlier. Unfortunately, I’ve probably missed my chance to ever take a good photo of a flower of Bambusa balcooa.

Dove or pigeon?

A typical question that I get asked when a stranger finds out that I’m a birdwatcher is, “What is the difference between a dove and a pigeon?” I’ll usually give a facile answer, “They are closely related. Doves are generally smaller.” But the difference is actually more complicated. Take the spotted dove (now called the Spilopelia chinensis). Its name reflects the confusion. It was once thought to have been a dove, and was given the Latin binomial Streptopelia chinensis. Following a multi-species gene study at the beginning of this century, it is now thought to be a small pigeon. It has been placed in a different genus accordingly.

It is such an utterly common bird that I normally ignore it, but just before sunrise inside Tadoba’s buffer zone, the bird strutted in such a wonderful rosy light, that I clicked the two photos you see here. How common is it? I can see records of it being spotted (yes, I will avoid the bad pun) all across Asia, south of Mongolia and east of Aghanistan, except in Tibet and Xinjiang in China, Japan, and Korea. Since the 19th century it has been reported southwards everywhere in Australia from where it spread to New Zealand, into Fiji, and Hawaii.

It has now been reported across the Pacific in California, from as far north as Sacramento, and as far south as San Diego. Why has it not crossed state lines? Could that be because it is a recent arrival in the US? A little search led me to a claim by Audubon that they were introduced in 1917. I’m not sure whether I believe that date. They breed fast, fly well, and manage to avoid raptors in their native range. So in a hundred years I would have thought it would spread further. There’s a small mystery here.

Deenanath grass

Bright pink flowers are not something you would normally associate with a grass, but I’d been seeing fields of such a grass all the days that we’d driven around Tadoba. These chest-high flowers were just a bit too far away for me to get good photos. Until the last morning. Seconds before sunrise I got the shot that you see as the featured photo. The other photo was taken a minute later, when the sun had cleared the horizon.

I found that it is called Deenanath grass. That’s an odd name. It means the lord of the poor, or the saviour of the poor. Why such a name? It is used as animal feed in Ethiopia (where it is called Desho grass), but I could not find any references to its use by Indian farmers. In any case, it is a very literary construction, and I find it hard to imagine that the deen, the destitute, would think it up. Wouldn’t they just call it red grass, or something like that? There are more oddities. It has two Latin binomials: Cenchrus pedicellatus as well as Pennisetum pedicellatum.

It is a winter flowering grass, and like other winter flowering grasses like rice, wheat, and oats, possibly uses C3 photosynthesis. The Kew garden listing for this grass records its range as very wide: from the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic, across tropical Africa, to Madagascar, India and Indo-China. The dense thickets that I saw led me to look a bit further into its habits. It is a perennial, and its roots form dense mats which prevent soil erosion. Perhaps that is the origin of the name. It can be used to prevent topsoil from blowing off. There were cycles of failure of the Indian monsoon in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, and earlier in the medieval and early modern eras. Could it be that during these hard times it was discovered that fields could be made productive by mixing this grass with crops? That is a technique used today in Ethiopia. Perhaps some historical digging into 19th century Indian records is called for.

On meeting a Gaur at dinner

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Ogden Nash

There is silence, broken only by the sound of a strong man eating

P.G. Wodehouse

The Gaur (Bos gaurus) didn’t look at me as I fiddled with my camera. Should I correct for the fact that the light was not perfect? Which do you prefer, the photo out of the box, or the one which is corrected?

The common lime

Late in the morning I found a nice spot in the hotel in Tadoba from which to do some butterfly photography. Since these flighty creatures are more active at this time, it helps to have a bright day. A common lime (Papilio demoleus) flitted along a straggly row of periwinkles at the edge of the road. In the mornings it prefers to fly low. The butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, and the caterpillars are considered to be great pests since they can munch their way through substantial amounts of leaves. Tadoba is close to Nagpur, which is a center of orange trade. So there could have been citrus trees in the neighbourhood. In any case, in there parts of India ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), another host plant for the caterpillars, is also common.

What I find interesting about this butterfly is that it is highly invasive, being found across the world. In the 21st century it managed to reach the Dominican Republic, and is currently spreading fast across the Americas. It has no natural toxins, and is an easy mark for predators. The caterpilar is also parasitized by several wasps, whose larvae eat it from the inside while it is alive. How does it manage to spread in spite of these natural barriers to growth? The answer seems to be that it breeds fast. In the region around Nagpur there are eight or nine generations in a year. In cooler places they may pupate through winter.

Later I found a potter wasp’s nest in the hotel. These wasps belong to the subfamily Eumeninae, and are parasitic. They catch larvae of beetles or spiders, paralyses them, and brings them to their mud nests. There they lay eggs inside the paralysed animal, so that their larvae can feed on them as they grow. I wonder what fraction of wasps have evolved such parasitic lifestyles.

Serene Saturday

Sometime the jungle is peaceful and quiet. The trail broke out from thickets into an open meadow. It was early morning. A golden sun. A small herd of chital (Axis axis, also called spotted deer) grazed in front of us. A sambar (Rusa unicolor) walked through the herd. Chital are easily spooked, but this herd did not mind us. Sambars are alert. It looked up at us briefly and went back to breakfast.

The scene before me was a very clear illustration of how these two species of deer manage to live in the same forest without conflict. The chital is largely a grazer, the sambar a browser. The chital is an under-rated ecosystem engineer. Its grazing keeps small plants from growing too high and smothering jungle seedlings before they can reach their full growth. They also keep the spaces under trees clear. A jungle looks very different from a garden gone wild because of these grazers.

This difference between the two kinds of deer is also reflected in their sizes. The small chital cannot possibly reach the lower canopy. I waited for the sambar to flick out its long tongue, as it does when it wants to reach a leaf too high even for its long neck. But this canopy hung low enough that it could just use its lips.

The little group fed peacefully. No smell or sound of a predator bothered them that morning. On a stump nearby I saw a black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). It is as dark as a crow, as intelligent and aggressive, and an incredibly good mimic. It is hard to get a good photo of a drongo because of its colour. I was lucky here. It sat in full sunlight for this portrait before it rushed off to its next appointment.

Ghost tree

Driving through the jungle paths you sometimes see the skeletal white torso and arms of a ghost tree reaching out towards the path. I find them beautiful, and often pause to take a photo. They grow even more ghostly after dark, shining white in even the faintest light which breaks through the darkness of the jungle. Since I’d only visited jungles at the height of summer earlier, I’d always seen ghost trees (Sterculia urens, also called the gum karaya tree) without leaves. The leaves grow back in early monsoon. In winter they look even more beautiful, as the leaves turn amber and gold. I took these photos in Tadoba in early November. In a month the tree would be bare again.

Deeper in winter is the time of the flowers. I would like to see that sometime. Ghost trees not only have male and female flowers, but also hermaphrodites. Interestingly, these last are completely barren, incapable of producing seeds. However, they do have nectar and attract bees. What role could this play in the survival of the species? I couldn’t find any literature on it. The tree is commercially important, since an edible gum, gum karaya, is obtained by tapping its trunk. I was surprised to find that this is the ingredient E416 often mentioned on wrappers of chocolate. Over the last couple of decades I had the impression that the trees were dying out. It seems that overtapping was the culprit. Apparently there are now attempts to heal the tree after tapping. I hope this succeeds. I would hate to see the ghosts die out.

A wanderer pauses

Half the morning had been spent traveling. I spent the rest sitting outside my hotel room in Tadoba watching butterflies. A common wanderer (Pareronia hippia) paused briefly on a flower, and I snatched it up in my camera. I liked the transparency of the wings: you can see the periwinkle through its wings. I have a soft spot for it, since it was among the first butterflies that I photographed. But it seems to be a completely unremarkable butterfly. That is, until you find that it belongs to the family Pieridae, otherwise known as the yellows and whites. What is this decidedly blue butterfly doing in this group?

Mimicry is the answer. Across India three butterflies often occur in the same habitat: the blue tiger (Tirumala limniace), the glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), and the common wanderer. The first two are the poisonous milkweed butterflies. They have evolved to resemble each other in marking so that predators who have once had a bad experience with one do not attack the other. They are known as Müllerian mimics. The tasty morsel, the wanderer, tries to cash in on this experience by evolving to mimic the distasteful ones. In the gallery above, the photo on the left is of a blue tiger, and I’ve placed the photo of the wanderer next to it for comparison. This deceptive patterning is called Batesian mimicry.

The fact that the wanderer is a Pierid is clear when you see it with closed wings. The underwing colouration is white with light brown markings. Interestingly, the underwing pattern has evolved under sexual selection, and the upper surface under predation. Ecology shapes biology in such strange ways.

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