Monday, February 26, 2007

Access denied

I can't seem to access blogspot (or typepad) in IISc over some of last week and this one. So I hope those who read this site have feeds or know how to get around the block. Just google blogspot blocked and you'll get the cheats, posted when GOI decided to do the same.

I wonder whether it's the traffic watchers in SERC or the content watchers elsewhere....hmmm....Or off course technical glitches somewhere. IISc is not usually heavy-handed and blocks few things. Except off course images/files that have the words s*x, etc in them. Which is fun and games for reproductive biologists and people like me who work on cricket s*x! ('Long' distance foreplay actually.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


They are all over campus, and get called by all kinds of names, herons, storks, cranes. Get it right people, they are Cattle egrets! And while they are closely related to those water-birds, they aren't actually that attached to water. Which is how they got to be on our relatively dry campus.

They get their names from the fact that they are seen following grazing cattle all over the countryside, picking up the insects kicked up from the grass. The downward bent head and intense stare, followed by a quick side to side bobbing of the head to judge distance by parallax, and then, wham, strike. A speared insect and a happy bird. But there are no cattle on campus and the birds needed to kick up their own prey.

Until they found a little trick. It probably began with wanting to cool off. They leave a little dish of water out for the birds in front of the library, I've seen them stand in it during the hot part of the day. Then I noticed the thing in the second picture. A bunch of them have learned to follow the gardener who waters the lawns everyday.

Maybe it was a cooling off instinct, and I was intrigued. So I watched them one afternoon, it was a cooler afternoon than many. They did follow the gardener around, not oblivious but not too wary of me. While they did seem to enjoy the water, the principal reason behind this activity seemed to be to pick up the insects the strong jet of water kicked up!

Now an aside and a rant, I watched them a while maybe an hour and half. The hose was running full blast the whole time, it was still running when I left. This lawn gets sprayed everyday. That night there was no water in my hostel, the previous day there was no water all day at my lab!

We got a mail a weekish ago asking us to conserve water and I believe this is a sensible thing to ask, we are very wasteful here. But the excesses are hardly happening in the labs, they are here. Spraying thousands of litres on a lawn in a year in which Bangalore has seen next to no rain!

I don't know how these things function, or actually I know. There is no regulation whatsoever of who does what! The nursery knows not or cares not of water shortages and no one will tell them. Its my pet peeve, this water business. A sump overflowed for three days before the same water dept turned up to fix it, I called thrice! Ah and calling! The folks who take civil/electrical complaints in this place will take complaints only in person! You can't email them or even call them. So you've to leave your lab during working hours and make a trip to their office to report a dripping tap which will maybe kinda get fixed. And working hours is very open you know, they turn up at 10:30, leave for coffee, lunch till two...indian govt office! So guess how many people actually report leaking taps? And then theres the leaking overheads, don't get me started...

So yes, I'll conserve water and for every drop I save, theres a tanker flowing down the drain! Here's a bit from Vikram Seth's 'The Elephant and the Tragopan' possibly based on the agitation against dams in Manipur and Nagaland. " Your pipes cry out for renovation./ Your storage tanks corrode and leak;/ The valves are loose, the washers weak./ I've seen the water gushing out/ From every reservoir and spout./ Repair them it will cost far less/ Than driving us to homelessness."

Like that story this one doesn't have an end, yet.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The ghost

The night in IISc is full of sounds. Listening is a far better way to explore the universe at this time. Take a walk, try and figure out how many distinct sounds you can distinguish. Birds coming home to roost. Bats leaving their roosts to forage. Crickets, new and familiar, changing through the year. Slender lorises whistling to declare their territories. And then finally the owls.

We have four on the campus. The tiny Spotted owlets, the common commensal Barn owl, the Collared Scop's owl and then the ghost, otherwise known as the Mottled wood owl. Each of them have unique and beautiful calls, (what I would give for decent recording equipment!), but the call of a Mottled is more equal than the others.

Gerry, had once rescued two little fledgling Mottled wood owls from a tree that had been struck by lightening. One of them survived and it was called Merlin. He kept it in a little shed that he had. He initially hand fed it. Then eventually, he just let rodents go in the shed and Merlin would get them. It grew up and when breeding season came around and Merlin was being courted by another owl, so we began to suspect that he was really a she. We never really bothered to find out and I think G eventually deemed it fit and set it free. He doesn't know if M hung around or left. There are still Mottled's near his farmhouse, but who knows?

The first time I met Merlin, was when I heard this call the first time. It's an unforgettable sound and the name G had given it suddenly seemed most fitting.

PS. G, is Gerry Martin of NG fame and he's hosting a herpetology course, those of you are interested take a look here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

"You could not step twice into the same river..."

"... for other waters are ever flowing on to you. " - Heraclitus

To get back to talking about nature/wildlife images that break convention, here's an image by the photograpgers Verena and Georg Popp that I stumbled upon from the NPN's annual picks. There are two versions of the same basic idea, the NPN editors picked the first and then the photographers linked to the 'original'. I prefer the second and its what I have linked to.

Landscape images have by and large had three built in conventions. These are not necessarily always followed, but the winner of NPN's editors pick will attest to their 'mainstreamness'. One is that the image must be of a vista, and the other being that the image must be an f64, sharp from here to infinity and finally nothing must be moving.

All of these conventions have been broken before, in ways that have been considered effective. Michael Kenna whose work I came across through TOP uses the effect of time and motion in his work beautifully. Landscape images also sometimes deal with details within a landscape. Jim Brandenburg has this beautiful image of a not entirely frozen stream with flowing water blurred over time.

Can an image marry more than two elements?

This image does manage to combine three (!) elements of detail, motion and vista in a single frame. Each of these elements are in opposition to each other, its almost like a rock-paper-scissors set. One cannot cohabit the same image with another, yet here they are. And it manages to make these things come together and work in a simpler primal visual way; through the colour, the rush of motion and the click of discovery.

Someone's said before me that all good images have many layers to them, so does this one. The rushing colour holds and draws your attention and gives you no sense of scale, until you notice the little centre of stillness which you might guess is water. Then a few leaf like objects come to your notice. Then you look up into the picture for further clues and slowly the mountains and the pines that reflect in water come to your attention. Its this gradual unfolding of the image that makes it special; as you spend time with it, it rewards you with more and more.

And thats just the visual aspect, I'm sure everyones mind then wanders on to the juxtaposition of a fast moving stream with a seemingly immutable mountain. My mind wandered to Heraclitus, and then through Lyell and his version of a mutable earth, to the fact that the river of time flows over mountains as well, eroding and wearing them into spires. The image is taken in Triglav National Park in Slovenia, a little digging around suggests that the Triglav glacier might have had some hand in carving the mountain we see before us.

Water passing over rock with time and ceaseless motion can achieve a great deal.

Friday, February 02, 2007


It all began at the end of an uneventful day. I looked up at the sky as walked up the stairs to my room. And I saw birds. Not entirely unusual in itself, except this flock numbered in the middle tens. They wheeled in the air, changing direction with an almost audible snap, with the coordinated precision I have come to associate with migratory birds. Birds that must rely on each other to fly in harmony over long distances.

Many years ago I stood on a bund in an estuarine marsh and watched a huge flock of birds on the horizon. As the came nearer the sun glinted off their synchronous wings and they looked like a curtain rippling in a slow wind. A dense curtain made of thousands of migratory waders flying over Vedaranyam. Wheeling and moving as one body, they came closer and landed. It was an unforgettable sight.

One such curtain flutters over IISc right now. One made of thousands upon thousands of Rosy starlings. They were once called Rosy pastors, but were renamed starlings, perhaps to unambiguously link them their better known migratory kin in North America. And they are migratory, they have visited IISc before. But I didn't own a camera then and I didn't have the eyes I now have.

For a bird, a migration must be a great upheaval. Driven by the need for food, evolution has built some birds to fly incredible distances, to go from wintering grounds to breeding grounds and back. Migratory flights are often over large bodies of water where some can't land and for others over large land masses without much water in which they feed. Birds often double or more in body weight when they begin and are all skin and bones when they have arrived. They must beef up again before they return. Their digestive systems alter greatly in order to sustain these long flights. These changes might mean they need to stop and eat often in what are called stop-over locations. So not only are sites where they spend the winter important to these birds but also the IISc's they pay their flying visits to.

Their flights will be plagued not only by hunger but the old enemies predators, the cold, altitudes, the head-wind. And newer ones, man's alteration of their universe. Roads reflect light and mimic rivers, bright lights mislead them. Wires electrocute some, barbed wire fences impale others. Windmills cut these Quixotes from the skies, parabolas that collect the suns rays for heat burn them. And yet the ones that survive must go again and the young must find their way on a journey never undertaken before.

(Click on the picture below for a sense of just how many there are)

When the time is right, migratory birds show signs of Zugunruhe. Even birds that have never seen the outside of a cage slam the bars in a desperate desire to follow a map wired in their brain. du Maurier built a beautiful tale out of the frustration of birds denied their instincts by the weather and Hitchcock turned it into one of his many very watchable movies. The sheer power inherent in numbers is apparent. The motion of so many birds charges the evening skies. The usually restless crows are now nearly driven, cawing, driving, diving at the many potential targets, picking off the weak ones. Maybe even a little afraid and overwhelmed. The Mynas, relatives to the Starlings, seem to be reconciled with sharing their nocturnal roosts. Its chaos and energy worth watching as the dusk pinks over to a mellow evening.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Winter is the season of decline and decay. The year ends, the days die earlier everyday. Trees shed their leaves, leaving little but bare bones, the grass dries leaving fuel for fires and seed to prick your skin while walking among them. The cold weather drives the cold-blooded creatures underground, the insects and snakes are few and sluggardly, basking, collecting the suns energy before they melt again into the tall grass I must tramp through.

And yet, here, it is the season of recovery. While we wait, for the year must turn around and the days get warmer longer. The flowers remind us of summer and spring although the temperature speaks otherwise.

The migrants that come year after year keep us company in our waiting in their exile from their homes tell a story of their own. IISc has lost many bird species over the years. Due to habitat loss and the changing congealing concrete matrix in which this green space sits. As the favoured spaces disappear so do the birds they attracted, the marshes cost us many a species and the shrinking open space of the airfield and dump some more. Yet some return, some after long hiatuses, their absences deeply felt.

I saw a Hoopoe here last year for the first time in 6 years and it returned again this year to afford me a go at an image. And a Brown shrike which was a first on the campus for me. Both birds were listed as locally extinct. A few regular sightings and we can return them to our lists of those that have returned. With a little luck and a little foresight the returns can be prodigal.