Monday, October 29, 2007

Upapa epops

Foraging in grass
That bird was this bird, a Hoopoe. I woke, what was to me early, this Sunday. Fortunately, it was early for the birds as well. The nights have been cold and the mornings overcast, so they, like me under my warm rug, begin a little slower and later.

I walked up to Jubilee trying to hunt up, unsuccessfully, the Indian Pitta I had seen again the day before. Or maybe the Paradise flycatcher. But they eluded me and I left, I went to what I call the Rocks. This is a bit of open space near the entrance to Jubilee where there is a GPS system installed by CAOS which is used to monitor the movements of the Deccan plate. There is here a large piece of granite rock, run through with what seem to iron ores, exposed above the topsoil. In the rock are hollows, which in the rains accumulate water. These little ponds attract many birds which are happy for the cleaner water to drink and it's shallowness to bathe. Many of my better birds pictures are a gift of this place. Excellent light and two resources close by, the water and surrounding hedges bearing fruit and shelter.

Threat display
I wasn't really expecting anything in the morning, birds wouldn't need water to cool off at that time of day. And much my current quarry, the migrants, are insect-eaters. The force of habit led me there, and to this bird. It was foraging on the surface of the rock, quietly picking up insects using it's long beak like forceps. I used all my getting close tricks to ... get close, and got the first few shots. I soon realized that as long as I stayed close to the ground and didn't move suddenly this bird was essentially completely unafraid of me. It went on foraging merrily, walking silently on the rock surface, at the margin where the grass met stone, picking and searching . I stayed with it a long while, getting closer and closer to it. Once or twice it flew off, I went in search of it, found it perched on a tree, shot a few frames there. Then it would fly right back to the same rock and begin foraging again! I could come back and restart where I left off.

At some point, Ashok arrived, and I offered him a go at getting some shots. He told me of a few migrants he had spotted and where he thought I might get some shots of them. I left the rocks to him and toddled off. He didn't unfortunately get as pally with my friend. And I didn't get anything much where he was, a few distant shots, a few obscured ones. We went off to lunch. But I couldn't keep myself away, I thought the Hoopoe would still be there and so I returned. And sure enough it was. A bird as beautiful as that is too much of an photographic opportunity to pass up and besides there is quite a thrill in having a wild creature come within reaching distance, in being accepted to that degree. An outstretched arm would have touched the bird on many occasions that afternoon. The picture in the previous post is one such occasion, the bird is nearly too close for my lens's minimal focusing distance. It's grabbed an insect and is tossing it up before swallowing. A moment like that on 'film', is for me quite something. To say I enjoyed it is underwhelming.

The crest comes unfurled when the bird perceives a threat, this time it was a millipede!
It got dark eventually and other imperatives beckoned and I must needs go. A labmate went back the next day to do some work near the rocks. She reported that it wasn't there. She thought maybe the dogs that were parked there the whole time she was there was why. I'd like to think, fanciful and foolish as it is, that presence was my gift.

Guess the bird

Let's just say I had a great weekend and I am not having a great time right now. My entry to Sanctuary may not make it in time!!! Heeelp!

(Ok, maybe I am panicking too much, but still, I have no margins! Wish me luck. Oh by the way, this is my own fault...)

Friday, October 26, 2007

From Mediastorm

Michael Fay and Mike Nick Nichols keep plugging away at everything wildlife related. They seem to also pretty much be inseparable...

A short documentary on Zakouma National Park in Chad: Ivory wars: Last stand in Zakouma.
The documentary is made in an interesting way, melding music, narrative, video and stills. Much higher reliance on stills than ever seen before. Its somewhere on the interesting continuum thats beginning to develop in visual story-telling. From straight image and article stories, to Magnum in motion features to a full video documentary. The middle grounds in this continuum are only really now developing and starting to fill up. The internet is a great thing! Incidentally one of the stills from this movie feature in the Shell WPY 2007. See if you spot it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Shell wildlife photographer of the year 2007

Image copyright Ben Osborne.
The winner of the Shell wildlife photographer of the year 2007! and I couldn't agree more!

More here in a gallery from the Gaurdian!

The full online gallery is here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Yikes, a whole lot of images seem to be missing from the blog!

What happened was they were getting saved in Picassa, and I wanted them deleted from there. I checked once to see if deletion didn't matter and sure enough, the images were downloading from a blogger domain without the base Picassa image, so I knocked them off.

Now they are gone! I wonder how long they have been gone for and they are gone as far back as Nov 2006! Getting them back up by myself is going to be a huge pain!!!

Update: some done, lots more to go!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Jubilee pond after the rains
The rains have transformed the landscape. Concavities in the ground everywhere fill up with water, all sizes accommodated. The gulch in Jubilee becomes a pond. Ephemeral plants cover their surface and equally ephemeral insects skim their surface. The birds twitter and cry out as they skim through the insect clouds. The rain heralding dragonflies and mosquitoes alike.

It's green everywhere and wet. Mists hang in the air each morning and the previous nights precipitation clings to every available surface. A walk through the grass soaks right through my pants and socks and I have wet toes.

Grass after a storm
The water drips past my hands and over the lens hood and mists obscure any ability my lens ever had to pull together a sharp image. There's wetness everywhere, clinging to spiderwebs, leaf litter, the wings of still asleep insects and on the bright red abandoned eggs in a small sorry looking-nest. The eggs are now home to new young ones, those of ants. Life particularly in times of plenty abhors a vacuum.

A Giant wood spider female on her web with a tiny red male
The water transforms the vegetation which relieved of one constraint seems to abound. But the time of year causes another plenty. Each year has a cycle of appearance and disappearance. Where the Giant wood spider go in the warmer months, where their eggs are laid, where they reemerge from each year, I cannot tell you. But here they are now with their huge meter wide webs cast across any open spaces they find. The garangutan female sits at the center sensing with her legs who walks upon her lair. The tiny red males wait to take their chances.

A Paradise flycatcher male, the brown morph
Where the birds come and go from however we have a somewhat better idea of, only somewhat. They shuttle between their breeding grounds and wintering grounds or over smaller distances between the hospitable and the more hospitable. I hope they keep returning, to enrich the chorus at Jubilee.

For the birder geeks: over the last few weeks, I've seen all these birds arrive in IISc for the winter (whether all are true winterers I amn't sure):
Brown Shrike, Bay-backed shrike, Loten's sunbird, Paradise flycatcher, Forest wagtail, Grey wagtail, Greenish leaf warbler, Blyth's reed warbler, Blue capped rock thrush, White breasted water hen, Asian brown flycatcher, Indian Pitta, Black-headed cuckoo shrike, Golden Oriole and another flycatcher I am yet to identify.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More eye-candy or the universe of little things that make me happy

Found photo

Sun on duckweed on pond

Loten's sunbird hovering

Something like fall in India

Brown Shrike

Bay-backed Shrike

Eye candy

Can you guess what this is? (Click for a larger image if you think it will help)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The clean up

Vidur's bag of garbage
As you might have guessed from Joyshree's comment on the last post, something did happen. Abi sent a mail to many people who live in those quarters. One of them was Arati who decided the best way to begin tackling the mess, was to at least begin ourselves.

A whole bunch of people, faculty, their families and some students turned up there this Sunday at 10:00 and began cleaning up the place. I think I can safely say we made a dent. We hauled a lot of garbage away. The pile in the picture is just about half of it, the other half had already been safely transported to a nearby garbage bin. And the picture is short on a few people as well, some folks left before we took the pictures.

Group photo: not everyone's here (PS. Take a look at the sign)
After the clean-up there was a discussion on what could be done about this specific problem and about waste management in general. A few things got chalked out and various people have taken up responsibilities. I think it's got the ball rolling on many issues and I hope that the group can sustain momentum. In all, it was a really great afternoon.

I can't say enough to thank all the people who got down and dirty! Thanks! Especially Abi and Arati.

Full size images in the Picassa gallery here.

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Friday, October 05, 2007

Frogs: whistle blowers

Common Southeast Asian toad males fighting over calling space
Frogs/toads are famously vocal and are characterized as calling 'ribbid ribbid' or 'croak' or what have you. The truth is frog calls are amazingly varied and come quite melodious. Their calls are species-specific and meant to attract mates. Males call, fight for calling spots, risking predation, in an attempt to mate with a nice large gravid female. A quick google will land you many calls of species all over the world, unfortunately there are not many Indian ones to be found.

Common Southeast Asian toads mating. The female's below and big!
I've linked two recordings of two of the frogs I've made on campus along with the pictures of the frogs. I simply didn't know that we had many frogs on campus. Our few ponds are well hidden away and not perennial and my ears are tuned to other sounds. But a few others, including Ashok, are much better at this than I am. We went looking a few nights and I've so far added three more frogs to my list which had only one before. Ashok has heard more and I'm sure they are here. This is reassuring, they are still here.

A male Alpine cricket frog and its call
Which brings me to why I called them whistle-blowers. It has nothing to do with their ability to call, I assure you. Frogs have permeable skin, shell-less eggs, and their life-cycle is spent exposed to both land and water. There is something frighteningly vulnerable about these creatures. And this vulnerability makes them good canaries in the coal-mine that is our planet. They are often the first to succumb to pollution, disease, climate-change and invasive species. Monitoring them is a good way of assessing an ecosystem's health. They are indicator species letting us know quickly that something is going wrong.

Ornate narrow mouthed toad and it's call

Frogs all over the world began indicating rather frantically somewhere around the late 1980's and early 1990's. Among the first problems that were noticed by some frog watching kids were deformed frogs. By the time we had confirmed that these deformities were more common than could be explained by normal variation, very widespread and affected many species, we were already into the late nineties. Even today well into the 2000's we don't really have a prime candidate for what causes these problems. We have three candidates instead, increased UV radiation, chemical contaminants in the water and parasites. At least two and possibly the third as well are directly related to problems that have been created by humans, are anthropogenic. We are doing things to the earth's ecosystems that it's most sensitive denizens simply cannot take.

An Alpine cricket frog plagued by fewer mosquitoes than the photographer.
So just how bad is what we are doing? A deformed frog is eventually an individual. And an individuals story is nowhere nearly as telling as the population's story that began emerging around the same time. The Golden toad, a beautiful Costa Rican amphibian, was in trouble according to herpetologist Martha Crump's observations in 1987. We saw the last Golden toad in 1989. In two short years they disappeared.

There were many many reports after that talking about amphibian declines. Large numbers of once common frogs were simply disappearing, entire populations simply wiped out. Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' was transposed onto silent streams. Bruce Wilcox noted that between 1996 and 1998 of the 1874 backboned animals added to the Red List of Threatened Species, 1646 (89%) were amphibians! The statistics compiled in AmphibiaWeb also sound quite grim and this is not a resolved crisis. The causes for this decline are perhaps as complex and multiple as they were for the deformities. A large part of the decline is now believed to be explained by an epidemic of fungus. A fungus that is helped along by global warming.

Has anyone heard of the boiling frog experiment? We might be conducting it on a grander scale than we think and the frogs have already died.

The call of the two frogs : Alpine cricket frog & Ornate narrow mouthed toad

Further Links:
Ashutosh on the drugs that could be discovered from frogs
Jeff with much more on frogs.

Update on frogs: A story from BBC suggesting that there might be a cure for the Chyrtrid fungus!

Monday, October 01, 2007

An appeal to IISc faculty in the new quarters

Garbage piles as far as the eye can see (click for larger image)
A little history first. Sometime last year, when the construction of the new faculty quarters had just started, someone, most likely the builders knocked down a piece of the Jubilee park back wall. Whether this was done with authorization or not, I don't know. This piece stayed knocked down. The construction workers began dumping debri and garbage there. With most of them living there full time you can imagine how much garbage that was. Most of it is still there.

Another view from the same place

A depression in the ground in this area of the park gets filled up with water. That year the rains were good and the pond that formed was quite large. It got used by the workers as a convenient shit spot. The place was a land-mine. Shit fortunately eventually degrades and so it doesn't seem to be there right now. I don't know what the arrangements are like for the workers working at the new buildings and I don't know if there's a risk of this recurring, here or elsewhere. I don't know what this place's situation is vis-a-vis the current construction. Not much I think, because now its largely abandoned.

The rough locations of these places on a satellite image from Google earth
The problem here right now is that the old garbage remains and seemingly is added to from the new faculty quarters. I don't know what garbage collection is like in that quarters, but my guess is it's spotty. At any rate, people tend to be lazy and garbage in India is often dumped at the closest available place . If there is a small garbage pile, it will soon be added to and there will be a large pile. Another pile will erupt when one overflows and so on the march of progress.

This was never your classical beautiful place, but it was not littered with plastic, shards of broken bottles, thermacol and a million polythene bags. It was not full of rats, never patrolled by a quite territorial pack of dogs who are understandably possessive of a rich pile of goodies. Its did not have the bones of many dead rats, eaten by someone, snakes most likely. And it most certainly did not teem, absolutely teem, with what to my overwhelmed ears sound like a million mosquitoes.

Aggregating caterpillars
My appeal to you is this, please have the place cleaned up and the wall sealed again. The place is a health hazard, to you, in more ways than one. To point each of them out again would be unsubtle and insulting to your intelligence. It is also a pretty nasty thing to do to a place if you respect and appreciate it. If there is to be any hope of this place getting any cleaner and not becoming a dumpyard, you will have to do something about it. There are few others who can and besides you have the strongest grounds for wanting something done.

The other images are also from the same area, from before, just to convince you that it's worth saving and to show what you might be saving.

Blue capped rock thrush
Directions from faculty apartments: Walk out of your gate, turn left, away from the Janata Bazaar and towards the end of that road. A little further down the mud road, you'll see a breached stone wall. Walk in and you'll be there.

Directions from the main Jubilee entrance: Walk in the gate, take the path directly to your right. The path is straight down and then you have to take a left. Keep an eye on the wire fence to your left, and walk in to the first breach in the fence. A little further in and you'll be there.

PS: Please those of you that read this blog pass this around

And finally: the Paradise flycatcher