Desert mushroom

Where do mushrooms grow? I’d thought that wet decomposing leaves and wood are their niche. So I was quite surprised to see them growing out of bare ground in the Rann of Kutch, and almost completely ignoring the few twigs and leaves nearby. A couple of weeks later, I saw the same varieties at the edge of the Thar desert. The Rann is part of the Thar desert, so the commonality did not surprise me. But seeing mushrooms in that habitat took me aback. I had to take photos.

I know a couple of other dedicated fungivores. This tribe is as uncommon in urban India as wine drinkers were twenty years ago. With this tiny tribe I’m trying to figure out whether we can find edible mushrooms. There is a difference between a wine drinker and a mushroom eater: a wrong choice could kill one, but not the other. So the first step is to document the mushrooms that we see, before we go on to try to find whether they are edible. I think I managed to photograph all the ground-living varieties more than once.

As it turned out, this was also an opportunity to learn something new. Mushrooms, as you may know, are the fruiting bodies of fungi. The body of the fungus is a mass of filaments that lives and grows underground or in dying wood. They are neither plant nor animal, but an entirely different kingdom of life. What I was surprised to learn is that fungi grow in all kinds of enviroments: polar valleys and glaciers, deserts and salt flats (aha, for the Rann and the Thar). All that is required seems to be oxygen. It also turns out that understanding the ecological niches they inhabit is an active area of research. The moment you move out of admiring plants and animals, you hit the boundaries of human knowledge!

Where leopards live

Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.

Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babool in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.

You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..

Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.

Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.

One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.

Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.

Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.

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.

Birds of the deep desert

A tawny pippit

When The Family said “Let’s go birdwatching in the desert”, I gulped. The only birds I associated with the deep desert were vultures (circling overhead as you drag yourself towards a mirage across dunes after your jeep has run out of petrol). So it was a wonderful adventure to find beautiful birds like trumpeter finches, sandgrouse, common kestrels and the last stand of the great Indian bustard. My biggest discovery was that the desert is alive with a completely different kind of vegetation and animal life.

The short trip with Adesh, Mandar and the rest of the small group of friends turned out to be full of surprises. Here is a gallery of new birds that I saw, and a few old friends. Click on any of the pictures to go to the gallery. Tiny seeds and insects can keep a huge population of birds alive. I didn’t have the time and the lenses to capture the insects of the desert. That will be another wonderful trip.

Dune

I had seen totally unexpected landscape in the Thar desert: dry riverbeds with piles of broken rock, and vast stretches of level ground. Although large parts of the desert landscape was of this kind, there was a significant area full of sand dunes. I saw many dunes which were stabilized by plants specialized to grow in the desert, but there was a stretch of the great shifting dunes that deserts are famous for.

Dunes are formed by wind-blown sand. Sure enough, the air was dusty enough here that it felt comfortable if I pulled my tube scarf up to my nose to form a mask. Three kinds of sand dunes are commonly seen: barchans have horns facing away from the wind, parabolic dunes have horns facing the wind, and transverse dunes are perpendicular to the wind. What was I looking at? The great dune in the featured photo was clearly a transverse dune. I could sometimes see sand coming over its slip face. We were camped leewards of it. The ripples behind it were parallel to the edge. Eddies and gusts had formed smaller dunes, still pretty large, at its base. The photo above shows one of these. This was probably a blowout, or a parabolic dune. The horns at its end were not very long. In the picture above you can see that at the foot of the slip face the wind has tried to form yet another (tertiary) blowout dune. I guess this kind of fractal structure of dunes must be fairly common.

I woke up one morning to try to take photos of the dunes before sunrise, and found clouds blowing in. This was the first time I felt a strong wind. From the direction of the clouds it seemed that my guess was wrong: the clouds were blowing parallel to the dunes. The kind of clouds that you see in the photo are a high layer of cumulus clouds (altocumulus stratiformis). They form when ground-level winds carry moisture up where they freeze and then are carried in a different direction by high-altitude winds. So the direction of the movement of the clouds had nothing to do with the movement of the ground wind. In fact, because the ground wind had to be perpendicular to the movement of the clouds, my guess about the dunes had become more likely to be correct!

I had the warm fuzzy feeling which comes of the conviction of being right.

Rao Jodha Desert Park

Ranisar lake, Mehrangarh, the blue city, and red welded tuff

We hadn’t heard of the Rao Jodha Desert Park before we looked at a map of the area around Mehrangarh. Nor, it seems, had the auto driver. We had to coax him along the well-marked road to the visitor’s center. An enthusiastic young man called Denzil then marked out a short route for us on a map of the park and explained what was special about the place.

The 700 acres within the old city wall of Jodhpur was painstakingly freed of an invasive species of plant, and local species were planted into the holes left by the deep roots of the invader. Repairs to the city walls were completed in 2005, and the process of recovering the desert ecology was started the very next year. The unlikely banker behind this army of eco-warriors was the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Mehrangarh, the fort which Jodhpur grew around, stands on a hill of volcanic rock made of hard rhyolite, the mineral which also forms the volcanic plugs called the mesas of Arizona. Here, they stand in flat slabs which you see everywhere. Around this is a softer rhyolitic rock called welded tuff, which is made of volcanic ash pressed together while still hot. There is a red coloured welded tuff which is commonly known as Jodhpur sandstone. Our walk took us down an ancient aqueduct quarried out of the crack which formed between a face of the welded tuff and the hard rhyolite, so we got a good look at both (see the two photos above). You can easily see the difference in the photos here. The path led down to Ranisar lake (featured photo). Very logical for an aqueduct to drain into a lake, I thought. The blue city and the fort can share this water. Wonderful planning against sieges which seldom happened.

We passed many different kinds of trees and bushes. Over the next few days I learnt to recognize the cactus-like bush of thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the leafless spurge. This was also my first view of the tangle of leafless stalks called the kheer khimp (Sarcostemma acidum) or rambling milkweed. The kheer is added to the name because of the milky sap it exudes from a broken stalk. There were stands of geedar tambaku (Verbascum chinense) and many other shrubs and herbs which I still cannot recognize. You can see some of them in the photos (do let me know if you can help me identify them). Many of these can also be found deeper in the Thar desert.

The desert park behind Mehrangarh with red welded tuff

Later on our walk we met Denzil again, when he showed us one of a pair of vagrant Eurasian Scops Owl which had nested in a thicket of trees. Walking back with him we learnt a little more about the effort involved in restoring the ecology of the area. That’s a story which newspapers have carried, so I won’t tell it here.

Small birds, large changes

Evening, the golden hour, seems to be the time to see Bucanetes githagineus. The name does not roll off the tongue very easily. I prefer to call it by its common name: the Trumpeter finch. I saw a bunch one evening in a hill of broken rock in the middle of the desert. They were hard to spot because their colours match the rock so closely. The best light was over when we spotted them. I would see them by their movement, and then lose them when I zoomed in. It was a very unsatisfactory lifer.

The Trumpeter finch is rarely seen in India, but is common over the arid zones to the west: the Arabian deserts and parts of the Sahara, where they breed. The thick triangular bill is tuned to feed on oilseeds, but this finch will not sneeze at insects and grasses. Usually birds which live on dry food like seeds will need water some time during the day. I wondered where they would find water in that rocky desert in which we spotted them.

The next day, at the same time, we were surprised to find a bunch of these finches in the open near a village. They were there for water. The sightings were almost a hundred kilometers apart, so there must be many Trumpeter finches in the Thar desert. As you can see, the birds are gregarious. The colourful bills distinguish the sexes: the females have yellow bills, and the bills of males are more red in colour. Interestingly, these colours are derived from carotenoids in their food. The difference in colours is due to metabolic processing of the chemicals, which differ between males and females. The light pink colour at the chest which also distinguishes the male is likewise derived from ingested carotenoids. I found it hard to believe that if the bird is restricted to food without these chemicals it would change colour. But apparently that is how it is.

Since the 1970s Trumpeter finches have begun to breed in southern Spain. There has been speculation that this northward creep of the breeding range makes it a bellwether for the range deformations that climate change is bringing. These finches are also found to have very low counts of parasites in them. The first instances ever were found in the Spanish population. It is not known whether the lack of parasites is due to the absence of naturally evolved parasites in their original range, innate resistance to parasites, or lack of vectors. Whether the extension in range introduces new parasitic challenges is also something that one should watch for. After all, with climate change, and the resultant migrations of animals, new diseases could easily sweep through populations. It is sobering to think back on these sightings and realize how these small birds could relate to some of the largest changes in the world around us.

The sea of the ship of the desert

I saw this stretch of sand and did a double take. The pattern of light on it made it look like the bottom of a shallow sea It was not hard to imagine that the light refracted through ripples in water could make the caustics and dark patches that I saw. But the patterns were static. Things had walked across the desert, and then the wind has worked over their tracks to make the gentle ripples in the sand that you see in the featured photo. I looked around to check whether I could recognize from a new spoor what had made these patterns. The obvious guess was right: they were the footprints of camels.

Looking up from the sand it was clear what attracted the camels here: the acacia trees which were all around me. The Acacia jacquemontii is a common second wave of growth over sandy areas which have been stabilized by plants such as the khimp and phog. While writing this now, I had a moment of doubt about the identification. Was it really the local babool tree, A. jacquemontii? The shape of the canopy looked like that of the babool. But still, could it be the imported Israeli babool, Acacia tortilis, which the state government is partial to, since it grows faster? I looked at a photo I had taken of the leaves, and found that it was indeed the native babool.

Kestrel

I had a wonderful sighting of the female kestrel whose photo is featured in this post. It sat on a dry tree in the middle of the Thar desert for a long time, scanning the surroundings. I suppose it was looking for jirds or other rodents to eat. I loved that sideways glance with which she dismissed me as being of no consequence. I had no choice but to slink away.

The common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) seems to be really common, being found over all of Asia, Africa and Europe, except only Siberia and the Sahara, Gobi, and a part of the Thar desert. Interestingly, it is found in the more inhospitable parts of Thar. One can speculate why. The common Kestrel evolved about 2 million years ago, after the Sahara and Gobi were formed. But the Thar desert developed later, so the Kestrel must have just acclimatized to the change. I wonder how this hypothesis could be tested.

The male differs from the female most visibly in the colour of its head: it is pale unlike the brown of the female. There are other differences in plumage as well: the markings are less prominent on the male. Interestingly though, it is in size that there is a very remarkable sexual dimorphism: the male is smaller. I’ve written about how gender politics shapes the bodies of raptors which pair bond. The combination of relatively drab colours and smaller size falls directly in line with the argument which I had explained at length: that this has to do with the female tending the brood while the male hunts for the family. I was happy to see that this has been put to observational test and the hypothesis does seem to hold.

Camels’ delight!

The desert of full of spiny leafless green bushes. Leaves present a large surface to the sun and are great organs for photosynthesis, but they also lose a lot of water through transpiration. Green stalks can carry on photosynthesis while minimizing water loss. Of course, they also present a smaller surface to the sun. So this is a thorny problem (yes, I meant that) which plants have to solve: more photosynthesis or less water loss?

The local name for the green bush full of upright stalks which you can see in the photo above is khimp. The plant grows along the extreme arid zone which crosses from Mauritania to India through the Sahel, the Arabian desert and the Thar desert. A search for the origin of the botanical name Leptadenia pyrotechnica led me to this book, which claims that the name pyrotechnical comes from the observation that Bedouins use tinder to set alight the fibrous stems of this plant. Later compilations noted that the high fiber content of the stems has been used by people across its geographical range in various ways. Some have used it to make ropes, others in diet to cure anything from constipation to obesity. Although I never thought of breaking off a stem to look at the sap, I’m told that it gives a clear sap. This is probably one of the reasons why camels are said to be fond of it.

There is a claim that extracts from plant was found to be mildly damaging to liver cells in a lab. On the other hand it is said to be eaten. Browsing the net, I came across a recipe for cooking khimp. Here is a translation: “Cut the stems and boil them. Remove them from water and press to drain the liquid. Separately cook spices in oil and add the boiled stems. Add a little buttermilk to cook further, thickening it with besan (chickpea flour) as needed.” The double cooking of the stems probably serves not only to tenderize the material, but also to denature toxins. The pressing and draining may also remove any toxins.

They grow along with phog on dunes and other dry sandy places. In various countries around the world people are experimenting with using L. pyrotechnica as a biological barrier to the spreading of dunes. But when I stood on top some dunes and took the photo above, I did not know that this could also be a weapon against cancer.