Blog images from the past year: 403 ME

When you try to structure a retrospective of your favourite photos from a year’s worth of blog posts, you have a lot of choice. You could rate them in various ways, arrange them by colour or theme or chronology. But no matter what organization you choose, you still leave yourself a bit of leeway with the introduction. So it was with me. Having chosen to structure this post chronologically, I still had to figure out what to use as a featured photo. When it comes to visuals, I think you should be able to tell a book by its cover. Since my year was full of birds, I will start with a photo where I managed to get close enough to a hunter to see the colour of her eyeballs.

It seems hard to recall now, but the year started with the last of the major variants of the virus which divided our life story into before and after. January was omicron time, and I was mostly at home. Highly infectious variants of a virus run through the population very fast. So the wave was over earlier than I’d expected. As a result, I could spend the next month walking through my own city after a long time. I still had time left over to try my hand at blank verse in iambic pentameters. I discovered that counting syllables is not easy, and I had to approximate.

But soon enough we were back in the wilds. One special sighting was of the lost Taiga bean goose, probably separated from its west Siberian flock, and tolerated as an honorary member of a flock of bar-headed geese. I spent some time with maps trying to understand how this strange companionship might have developed, and learnt a valuable lesson about the world unsettled by us.

Between visits to the wilderness, it was interesting to watch the city come alive. Those were the last days of continuous working from home, and I could finish my day’s work early and roam the streets of Mumbai as life resumed after the pandemic. Most people were already vaccinated, and although the latest variant had infected large numbers, most did not need hospitalization. There was palpable relief on the streets.

India harbours a large variety of cats, and it’s a pity only the big cats attracts so much attention. In 403 ME we were lucky to sight several of the small cats. They are elusive creatures, wary of humans, The jungle cat is the most common, and I’ve seen it only thrice. I’ve never seen a fishing cat, the manul, or the Asian lynx. I’ve seen a caracal briefly as it sped off as soon as I chanced on it walking along a deserted road. So I feel I was lucky to have got photos and a video of one which was probably the desert cat. I was a bit puzzled by the ecology of its desert habitat, and it helped me fill in a bit of the puzzle.

After that I went tiger hunting in the same place where Bungalow Bill, made famous by the Beatles, shot his tiger. But more than half a century on, I was happy to see that not a single visitor had either elephant or gun. I have shown photos of these tigers too often; having seen them after three years. So here I post a photo of two butterflies, one called the common tiger, and the other the common crow. Pat yourself on the back when you figure out their names, but remember that there’s a whole lot we do not know about these two milkweed butterflies.

When you spend most of your leisure time in the jungles of India you cannot fail to notice the unremarked creatures which shape the land: termites. The jungles would regenerate slower without them, because these distant cousins of cockroaches are the most efficient metabolizers of wood. I was astounded when I found how old some of their cities are.

As July came along, we left for the hills. In the high desert of Ladakh, headaches and worse stalk those who forget about the lack of oxygen in the air. Among the most interesting sights here are signs of ancient humans who lived and left their art on rocks in this unhospitable part of the world. But the most interesting photos were from the cham at the Hemis monastery. I found the juxtaposition of masks interesting: one set elaborate and hand made according to several hundred years-old tradition, the other set stamped out in a factory for export to a foreign culture. Trust children to create something new.

Meanwhile, in the plains, the monsoon had set in. During breaks we travelled the Sahyadris, as we’ve been doing in the past two years, looking at the blooming of wildflowers in the otherwise arid volcanic soil. I hadn’t seen the misnamed Glory lily for several years, and had almost forgotten its name. But I remembered a true crime story associated with it.

A collateral pleasure of this new passion for wildflowers is the glimpse we get into life in small villages in the middle of Maharashtra. These places were traditionally very poor, but in the last seven decades roads and irrigation projects have made a very great difference to the lives of people who live here. Earning a living is by no means easy, but I think someone from my grandfather’s generation would be surprised. As for me, the differences from city life sometimes surprise me as much as the similarities.

After the monsoon it was time to get back to the mountain wilderness in the Himalayas. In this short trip around Diwali I was happy with the number of birds I saw. This pied kingfisher was not the most difficult to photograph, but it certainly gave me one of my favourite shots of the year.

Before you realize it, the sun picks up speed as it falls towards the lowest point in its orbit. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, which sits at the focus of the orbit, and for me it is winter. No one in their right mind goes to the mountains at this time. But did I claim to be sane? Winter weather is clear and cold, perfect for views of four of the five highest mountains in the world (Chomolungma in the center, Lotse to its right, Makalu at its left). The zoom required for this photos excluded Kanchenjunga, which is just off the right margin of the shot.

An finally, when the earth whirls past its closest approach to the sun, it is the true new year, 404 ME. We are ready for another whirl around our nearest star. It is unlikely that a new Buddha will arise soon, and even less likely that he will be the Manjushree Buddha, one who cleaves ignorance and fear with his sword. But we can all wish such a happy new year to each other, can’t we?

When you remember just a few birthday parties, anything resembling one seems like a grand thing. The Newphew was understandably excited about his coming “half birthday“, especially with an aunt willing to indulge every whim. Having heard of the pleasures of birding from his once-a-birder mom, he had asked for a day’s birding with his aunt. So off we went to Bhigwan near Pune for a full day’s birding: from before sunrise to after sunset.

The lake is extensive, created by the damming of the Bhima river at the Ujani village. Typically the backwater of a dam is known by the name of the dam, so this could have been called the Ujani lake. However, in this case the backwater is named Yashwant Sagar. But by a truly Alice-in-wonderland twist, most birders know this as Bhigwan lake, by the name of the town of Bhigwan on the lake. The lake covers around 350 square kilometers of area. When the dam was finished in 1980, it submerged 82 villages and their surrounding agricultural land. Now trees and electric pylons break the surface of the water, providing perches for the tens of thousands of birds, many migratory, which come to this lake every winter.

The Newphew is exactly at the age where he finds it hilarious that the white branches of trees are normal branches covered with bird droppings. He was excited by the masses of black cormorants on the “poo trees”. And he grew even more excited when we pointed out the few great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) sitting among the darker Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis).

The excitement multiplied when he located the single oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster, aka Indian snakebird) sitting on one of the trees filled with cormorants. One of the characteristics of eight years olds is their discovery that they can be contrary. He had packed his own binoculars when he packed his backpack for the trip, but he’d refused to use them on the boat. Their cloak of contrariness falls away when they are excited. The Newphew dropped his act of contrariness and stared at these birds with his binoculars.

With the breaking of the ice, he was ready to see more. And we saw much more: grey herons (Ardea cinerea), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), Asian openbills (Anastomus oscitans), Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at breakfast, and many more. Before lunch he sat down and, with our help, made a list of all the birds that he’d seen in the morning. He couldn’t stop telling everyone that he’d seen 58 different species before breakfast, including the very rare sighting of a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis).

There was a session of bird watching planned for the evening and another safari at night. This was the height of excitement for him. At the age of 8 1⁄2 he was tasting La Dolce Vita. By the time night fell and he helped to pin down an Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) in crossed beams of light he was in a state of extreme hyper-alertness. He took time to fall asleep, but then slept through a rooster’s untimely calls that kept us awake at night.

And for us too, this was a day of excitement. Not just because we’d seen almost 90 species of birds in the day, but also because we’d shared this world with a new person. Our familiar natural world is part of the great succession of life on the planet. As we make it uninhabitable for the life that shares the cenozoic era with us, our time is as limited as the species we help to wipe out. Hopefully, by making enough of the screen-bound generation into nature lovers, we can postpone the great extinction of our times and the resulting birth of a post-human earth.

A feathery mystery

Social media is a wonderful source of information. As we drove to Bhigwan lake, one of The Family’s friends wrote to her about the stray bean goose which had been sighted there, adding that it came from Finland. Bean geese have been spotted in India four times before (most recently a solitary bird in Corbett NP in 2012, and a group near Jaipur in 2017), so it is a pretty rare sight. Neither it, nor the bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) it was with were tagged, so there is no chance that anyone can tell you definitely where it came from and exactly what it is. The staccato definiteness of social media means that it is also a wonderful source of misinformation. But then, a Puneri newspaper reported that it is definitely a Tundra bean goose (Anser serrirostris). I’ll tell you in this post that both stories are wrong. The bird is very likely to be a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis johanseni) from the west-Siberian taiga. I know this is a long post, but I hope you’ll read it through. I would understand though if you just look at the photos.

This is a mystery in two parts. What exactly is the grey-brown bird and what is it doing in a lake in Maharashtra? And with any mystery, you unravel it by looking for the means, the opportunity, and the motive. The big clues here are the appearance of the bird, and the fact that it seems to be associated with a group of four bar-headed geese (the local guides know this very well, and alert each other about the appearance of the bar-headed geese in any part of the lake). By examining the means and opportunity of its travel to India, I think we reach an identification. So let’s handle that first. From its gross appearance (brown and grey feathers, black bill with orange band across the middle, orange legs and feet) it could be a Tundra or a Taiga bean goose. You’ll see in a photo later that the upper wing coverts differ from those of the Tundra bean goose, making this ID unlikely. It is the same size as bar-headed geese which makes it unlikely, in a statistical sense, that it is a east-Siberian Taiga bean goose (A. f. middendorffii).

But first let’s turn to the bar-headed geese, because there is no confusion about them. There are two separately breeding populations, the western ones breed in central Asia, from Kashmir north to Kyrgyzstan and migrate south to western India in winter. The eastern population, from Mongolia and China, migrate in winter over the Himalayas, flying at a height of about 9 Kms above sea level to come to eastern India. No other bird is known to be able to fly that high. The fact that vagrant bean geese have never been sighted in eastern India is likely to mean that they cannot match bar-headed geese in their record breaking flights.

Tundra bean geese have two breeding populations. The western population can be found around the Kara sea, between Novaya Zemlya in the west and the Taimyr peninsula in the east. The eastern geese breed on the shore of the East Siberian sea. They have no well-defined wintering grounds, migrating in small groups to the balmy south in Scotland, northern Germany and Poland, or Mongolia and the Russian planes. The group that came to Jaipur was a statistical fluke. It would be even more of a fluke if a single bird got separated from its group, found bar-headed geese, and flew with them. Piling one unlikelihood over another is uncalled for, since the appearance and call of the animal already told me that it was not likely to be a typical Tundra bean goose.

The Taiga bean goose is a different beast. There are three subspecies, corresponding to three breeding populations. The Anser fabalis fabalis breeds in the north of Sweden, Norway, in Finland, and east into north-western Russia. They migrate to Germany, Denmark, Scotland and England in winter over the winter flyway. The central population, A. f. johanseni, take the central flyway in winter, south from the vast steppes of central Russia, to central Asia at the northern end of the range of bar-headed geese. The eastern subspecies, A. f. middendorffii, takes the eastern flyway from the Asian parts of Russia to winter in China, Korea, and Japan, far to the east of the breeding grounds of bar-headed geese.

Consider now the means and opportunity! Only the central population of Taiga bean goose, Anser fabalis johanseni have the opportunity to become separated from its own group and be incorporated into a flock of the western population of bar-headed geese. Since these bar-headed geese do not fly at record breaking heights, the bean goose we saw also had the means to fly with its accidental companions to a lake in Maharashtra. We confirmed that by call and appearance it resembles Anser fabalis, and eliminated Anser serrirostris not only by these classic clues that birders look for, but also by the means and opportunity to be incorporated into a flock of bar-headed geese.

How can a bird be identified?

Usually by its appearance and call. But in some cases this is complicated by an unusual similarity of two species.

Then one often relies on other clues, like where did one see it? This works if the ranges of two birds do not overlap. But if it is a vagrant, then you don’t know where its range is.

But sometimes birds are tagged by ornithologists. If a bird is tagged, then the tag will usually tell you about its history. If it is not, even then there are other tests, such as DNA matching. But these are invasive methods.

What’s the lost goose?

From its appearance it seems to be either a Taiga or a Tundra bean goose, but more likely to be the first.

Since it’s in a group with bar-headed geese, it should have come from a region where they can meet. This is only possible for the west-Siberian Taiga bean goose, Anser fabalis johanseni

And the deeper mystery? The motive? One can be even less sure, but I suspect that it was entirely by chance. A member of one migrating flock found another quite by chance on a major migration highway. Will it ever go back and find a mate? The chances are slim, but, for its sake, I hope it does. Its habits are slightly different from those of the rest of its flock. They flew and swam together, but it strode off by itself to walk on the land, and pick at food. The bar-headed geese never left the water in this time. They called just before take off, and it wheeled smartly and joined them in flight. I hope it finds a mate eventually.

But behind this individual lurk larger questions. Why are we seeing so many vagrants now? There is certainly a disruption of migration patterns, with species creeping up in altitude and latitude as the earth warms. This gives more opportunity for accidental meetings between different migrating species, producing solitary vagrants. Is it that, or does social media also alert us to events which we might not have noticed before? After all sailors in the 18th century recorded three egrets flying over the Tasman sea, but the world did not rush to view them. But I think there is an even larger question. The behaviour of the geese that I saw seemed to have purpose. They did not behave like malfunctioning automatons. The bean goose went off from the bar-headed to search for its food, but they called before taking off, and it responded to that call. The bean goose was accidentally separated from its own flock, why has it not got separated from this flock of strangers? Why do they call to it as they are leaving, and why does it respond? The answers could nuance our understanding of the separation between us and the rest of nature. In the coming climate cataclysm, who is to say that understanding such inter-species cooperation might not become a matter of human survival?