Saturday, September 10, 2016

Academics and I

Academics and I go a long way back. We began like 2 strangers stuck together on a long journey. Slowly we got to know each other and by the end of a 18 year journey we were back, full circle complete, still as strangers. One thing we both saw was that both of us had the capacity to become better. But we could not do it without each other. After years of debate and argument we changed seats, moved away from each other just before we got off. In a huff, both of us got down at the same stop, went pretty much in the same direction till we ended up on one helluva long road with each other for company and no one else to help except her mother - Education.

It then dawned on me that I was thinking about academics and her betterment this whole time. After school and college, I went to work with the tourism sector. Here I was, showing people birds and animals and getting them to learn the environment around us. Soon, I saw myself moving into research, environment education till one day I moved into a lovely school. Here I met my old friend academics again. The only thing that struck me was that she was looking very old. I could not comprehend the fact, for a moment, that we were on an 18 year and more journey together. I knew I had grown up and had changed in many ways, but when I did meet her, she seemed so much older, so much like a great- grandmother who refused to reach Pearly Gates due to her strong will to live on!
We sat down and spoke for a long time. This is when I got to know that there was a young academic in there somewhere wanting to get out of the old body I was talking to. A young academic who wonders why people are not letting her move on and become better. She had apparently spoken to many other people like me and asked for their support to become better, to grow so that she in turn could help others around her. But she never got all the support she needed. Some people wanted to help but hesitated by thinking "what can I alone do?", while others helped her for a very short time. In this time, she could not change into the young and dynamic personality she really is. With this little to no help situation, she began to look older and older. 

This reminded me of a caterpillar getting into the cocoon stage. The caterpillar wants to come out as a beautiful butterfly, but people are not wanting the caterpillar evolve into a butterfly because it looks cute and chubby. Academics too is at this stage in her life.  Before leaving for the day her mother - Education came up to me and said " What does not evolve, change and remains stagnant is as good as dead. My girl is dying because people have kept her stagnant. If she does not evolve soon, she might just die. If she dies, I will be the next to go. Then what will happen to all of you?" 

This question struck me as if I had put my fingers into the electric socket. What will happen to us if there is no education, if academics is not allowed to evolve? I guess we will ourselves stagnate, degrade and die out eventually. Is it really worth it- That is the Question?

I, along with few others like me, am out to help academics and her mother Education to evolve and change for the better. Would you like to join in and help bring about this change? Its worth it I'd say!! 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Butterfly emerging

Found this butterfly, a Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus - Cramer, 1775) emerging from its chrysalis stage one morning on a lemon plant (my terrace garden). These are fairly common butterflies in and around Bangalore city. The caterpillars are generally found on plants of the rutaceae family like citrus spps.  More information on this butterfly can be found here.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Getaway to the Kingdom of the Birds

I was sitting and mulling over a book I needed to finish writing when I got a call from an old friend. S.K. Srinivas is an old friend in many aspects. He is chronologically, significantly older and a person I know from a number of years too. But the great part about him is that he is young at heart... only 2 stents inserted till now. He called to tell me about a birding trip with a Dr. Ilana and her husband around the outskirts of Bangalore. The destinations - Tailur tank, Kokkarebellur village, Ranganatittu Bird Sanctuary, Ramanagara Vulture Sanctuary and back. I was of course, all in. Old places to visit and new people to meet!! 

I remembered the old saying that what you intend with a true heart will come true. I really needed a break from my "routine" and was intending for something like this to happen. Voila! there was the call!! 

We were scheduled to do this trip on 11th August, 2016, a week from when I got the call. On the 11th, Srini as everyone calls him picked me up early in the morning. Accompanying him was Dr. Ilana. After the initial ice breakers, we found ourselves at the breakfast point - Kamat Lokaruchi, on Mysore road. We enjoyed a lovely and extensive breakfast (thanks to Srini's insightful inputs) and a hearty talk about South Indian food among other things. During this time I found 2 wasps mating behind the Golden Bamboo leaf. (Talk about intimate stuff happening behind the curtains!!)

 Soon after, we found ourselves at Tailur tank. There was unfortunately not much of a "tank" left. It used to be a huge water body filled with a large number of water fowl like ducks, teals, pelicans and cormorants, different herons among other waders like Sandpipers, Snipes, Ibises. Now, it is nothing but a large herding and grazing grounds for cattle.

But, birds have never failed us. We did find a lot of birds in and around the bushes and the lone tamarind tree. We caught a glimpse of the busy Coppersmith Barbet, the ever watchful fighter jet of the bird world - The small green Bee-eater, the songster - Ashy Prinia, the kingpin of the territory - The Indian Robin, the amazing architect - the Baya Weavers and a stray blue tailed Bee-eater. We also saw a large flock of Black Ibises ( the Pharaoh birds, akin to the god Thoth, the god of wisdom in Egyptian Mythology)

Enroute, among all the travel was some good talk right from birds, to weather, climate change, politics and international policies, bird races, places visited and more. We did stop for a bit next to an open field to catch a Black Drongo on the wire when we found this - 
a Eurasian Collared Dove having a mud bath in the open field. Right opposite to the open field was a couple of Baya Weaver nests freshly being made. 

By around 11 we were at the kokkrebellur village. Unfortunately for us, thanks to "development" a huge road was being built right through the village. We saw only the Indian Roller and nothing else. Kokkrebellur is a village famous for Painted Storks and Spot billed Pelicans nesting right in the middle of the village. Apart from these big birds, herons of various kinds, cormorants and smaller birds like tailorbirds, wagtails also reside in this village. This village became famous because the people of the village were the first of their kind to act conservators a number of years ago. They protect the birds vehemently. But on the day we were at the village, upon asking the human neighbors, found out that the birds had indeed "left the nest". With a heavy heart, three of us moved on the the temple outside the village. 
To our dismay, the temple had not only expanded, the lovely Mahua grove was almost gone. But the tamarind trees and a few Mahua trees were left giving a great canopy cover around the village. We did find a fine number of birds hidden in the canopy. Indian Grey Hornbills, Small Minivets, Great Tits (Yes, they are birds... not what anyone's guess would be) among other common birds like Red Whiskered Bulbuls and White cheeked Barbets. Some good willed folks had even replanted in the open barren areas around the temple we found out.Talk about medicine for a broken heart!! 

On the way out, we got a glimpse of a solitary Painted stork. It too soon disappeared in a flash. On the dry riverbed we spotted a Bronze winged Jacana, an Oriental White Ibis and a few Little Cormorants.

I must say, we were all indeed quite dejected at the turnover of events. We quickly made our way out of the town for lunch on the highway. After a slightly silent lunch (we were all VERY hungry indeed!) we moved on to Ranganatittu Bird Sanctuary. 

Rangantittu has changed considerably in the past few years. We were welcomed by a lot of cars and buses (not to mention a large of gathering of school girls who poured all their hospitality on Dr. Ilana). For us though, the most welcoming sign was from a lovely, tiny, cute little bird called the Tickell's Blue Flycatcher. He gave us a pose, sitting on the bamboo twig. We walked in front of him, under him, around him but he did not move. Here is one good memory of this gentle bird.

Soon after we saw this flycatcher, we caught a glimpse of another type of flycatcher - the White throated Fantail. There was a pair, foraging among the bamboo and the other shrubs. Dr. Ilana got to see one aspect of the hunting behavior of this lovely bird and I was happy to get the video of it doing so. You can see the video at this youtube link as well -

Apart from the birds we got to see some other interesting pieces of Nature's craftsmanship. One particular one that intrigued me immensely were the designs on the young bamboo. The coloration, the designs were just mind blowing. This particular bamboo showed all three stages of growth - young and growing (orange with black stripes), grown and mature(deep green) and old and dying/dead( brown and broken). One even showed the shoot tip which looked like a black flower.


The other thing that caught my attention was the Water Strider. This is an insect that floats on the water surface looking for prey under it. They have such thin and nimble feet that due to strong surface tension the legs don't sink Thus, keeping them afloat while their eyes are huge and located more towards the bottom of their body. This gives them a view from below and on the surface of the water. They have a long, strong proboscis which they keep flat under their bellies. This is their weapon for killing and a straw for drinking the insides of its prey.

It was a long day and we were tired. For a moment our feeling of resting for a while was reinforced by another old friend. This friend was sitting on the rock like a person who sits on the massage table in a sauna and spa and the grin on the face was like the massage was going on - the masseur , the sun! We felt that is was a good time for that, but we had to hit the road again... all the way back home. Here is a photo of this fellow enjoying itself.

On our way back, we bumped into a purple rumped sunbird couple on the Australian Bottlebrush tree. Next stop - Ramnagara Vulture Sanctuary.

At Ramnagara Vulture Sanctuary, we realized we were late. It was already 6:00 PM. We were informed that the sanctuary too has corporate time schedules - Morning 9:00 AM to evening 5:00 PM. These were vultures of a different culture I would say!! We did see 3 vultures though and that ended the day well. Srini, Dr. Ilana and I were tired and hungry, but the smiles on our faces were full of energy. We managed to find around 65 species of birds on our trip and now we were is dire need of refueling. It was 7:30 PM - dinner time. We stopped by a good restaurant quickly and quietly had something to eat and headed back home for a much needed rest.

In this whole trip, we had fun, we ran after birds, had good topics to talk about, exchanged notes and ideas. I would like to thank Srini and Dr. Ilana for this wonderful and insightful experience. I did sleep like a baby that night with all the memories floating around like fireflies, in my head.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Terrace gardens - and what they teach you!

I was always interested in having a garden. I want to grow vegetables mainly, but if there are flowering plants I will not disturb them. 
After a very long time my dream was realized. 2 years after moving into my own house I finally started a "garden". The initial "garden" was just a few pots and some random plants in them. Soon, plants like Papaya and capsicum, tomatoes and brinjal began to grow out of a modest area of soil layered directly on the terrace floor. As these plants began to grow furiously and take more and more space, I realized that a more specific area must be marked according to the plant growing. Thus, I got big pots and put the plants into them. They grew properly for a few weeks and then stopped. For a long time I did not understand what was going on. I gave the plants the space they required, gave the required nutrients, but they just would not grow. The plants seemed to be struggling somehow. 
I was getting clues but I did not know what to make of them. One early morning I decided I will thoroughly scan the entire terrace and figure out what was going wrong. As I sat next to the pots and began my "interrogation" I realized that the plants were attacked by pests called white flies and mealy bugs. I did my best to get rid of them, but if I removed them from one pot they would magically appear in another within a few days. I had thought that getting rid of the pests would be the end of it all, alas I was grossly mistaken. Upon further investigation I came to be enlightened by the fact that the pests had a caretaker and protector. The caretaker was none other than the humble ant. These ants would go about spreading their nest and larvae from under the compost pit to under the pots. Some of the ants went into the pots as well. At plain sight the ants seemed to be living off the compost and living under the pots like good citizens. But look at the same from the point of view of an investigator, one will see the true nature of the situation here. The ants used the mealy bugs as humans use cows. So where ever they went they picked up the bugs too. After a point of time the ants were everywhere and so were the bugs. I almost collapsed at the sight of the plants wilting and dying out and to the thought that I will have to remove ALL the plants! 
By this time I also saw that earthworms were present in the compost pit and the coconut shells that were lying around were taken over by fungal hyphae. But both these were not in the same area of the pit. There were so many other insects in the garden too. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number in such a small area. I decided that the plants need to be removed from the pots and put into large bins. While I was doing so, I noticed that the papaya and the periwinkle had intertwined their roots while at the bottom of the pot where the coconut fibres were, fungal hyphae took charge and connected both the plants through their roots. This was something new to me! Upon further investigation, I found out that plants and fungi live a symbiotic relationship and that they communicate with each other like a neural network! 
The periwinkle and the papaya with the help of the fungal hyphae were exchanging information, resources and were helping each other to grow better! From here onwards, started my "education" with the plants as my teachers. 
Nature has always something to teach – provided the person is ready to learn. Nature is always telling us something – it is up to us to listen. My terrace garden has taught me a couple of things in the past few days (though I have a garden from the past few years – my perception has changed a lot of late)

Things I learnt from my garden plants –
1] Pineapple – from the pineapple plant I learnt patience. It took the plant one year to start boasting a crown. This plant has taught me to give time to certain things and they will bloom just fine.
2] Avocado, Papaya and Mango – No matter whether you are in a pot or in a large space of good soil, healthy or slight pest attack, you must keep growing no matter what. Limited resources? Then branch out !!
3] Brinjal and Capsicum – one must provide good fruits of labour at regular intervals. The importance and respect you get are tenfold.
4] Ajwain / Doddapatre  and Onion– one must have strong enough within to repel pests like negative thoughts and actions and grow like crazy.
5] Lemon – a)No matter how many defences you might put up to protect yourself, you will always have those few people who pass those defences and feed on your leaves of knowledge.
b) You will be effectively helping someone to get out of their cocoon and fly away like a butterfly.
c) Do not get attached to either the caterpillar or the cocoon.
6] Chillies (normal and birds eye) – your face value need not be showy today, but your fruits of labour must impact someone tomorrow in a big way.
7] Vinca rosea – always have a pleasing appearance and be willing to grow anywhere with anyone. Always strive to bring the colour into life.
8] Desert plants – low resources? Harsh conditions? That should not stop one from LIVING ! what does not kill you only makes you resilient and stronger
9] Cucumbers and gourds – grow out of compost, grow out of rich soil, grow out of anything but GROW!! LIVE!! Take every opportunity to grow and proliferate.

10] Orchid and Tulsi – Always be special and unique !

To see photographs about my terrace garden please visit 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

.... And Im back with loads of things to talk about.

Long time no see !

It has been a long time since I last wrote. Many things happened due to which I was not in the position to write anymore. But many things have happened by which I could document certain events and instances. I have a lot to talk about and will be compiling and posting more regularly. Thank you all for reading and supporting!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An Ode to the Tree

They come in shades of pink violet and blue,
Some are orange, red and yellow too,
Some are short, while some are tall,
They are a sight to behold before their leaves fall,
They don’t comment, they don’t sin,
They just spread their arms and let you in,
For us to eat they provide a fruit,
And to sit and relax they provide a root,
Just because they don’t have expressions doesn’t mean they don’t care,
For us to breathe they purify the air,
They stand and observe for a very long time,
They know a lot of stories including yours and mine,
If there is anything that you have to learn from a tree,
Is to be rooted to the ground and still set yourself free,
This is my way of thanking the trees,
For providing shelter and nectar for the bees,
For without them we would be dead,
Now go save the trees, enough said.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Story of the Singing Trickster and the Shrewd Mobster

Though the title suggests that the forth coming paragraphs are a part of a story, it is quite real and happens in our daily lives. This real life story has been observed and written over the ages, some sung in songs, hymns and the like by our ancestors. It is a common story that usually people tend to neglect, but if seen and observed properly, we would all be in awe of the path evolution has taken with the main characters’ of the story. It is a battle of who evolves better and has the upper hand over the other first.
The story of the koel and the crow have been mentioned and described in detail in many books, songs and hymns before. I have the same story to tell, but with first hand observations of my own. I have experienced, first hand, about the deception of the koel, the strategies it makes, how the crows are fooled into bringing up a koel chick into the world and…. And a few more… things that no one would have imagined that a koel would do.
This story started off in March. A pair of crows brought sticks to build themselves a sturdy nest on the gulmohur tree. It was nice to watch a living being carefully plan and place sticks in a particular order to build a good sturdy home… and all this without any hands or fingers! Once the nest is almost finished, the female inspected it by squatting and settling in as if she had a clutch of eggs beneath her. I was amazed to see her judgment and precision while she arduously inspected the nest from every aspect and angle.
From here started the courting and breeding (which the crows kept private). I only saw them now and then at the nest during the evening times. The male crow used to get tidbits for the female now and then and they roosted at the nest in the evening, the male on a nearby branch while the female was in the nest. Well, till now everything was going on fine (or so we thought, the crows and I).  The crows went about their rituals throughout the day for almost a week while I observed them from my window (which was conveniently at the same height as the nest – 2nd floor). What we failed to notice was that a pair of koels were also observing the crows as well. I got to realize it at the last moment when the male koel made desperate attempts to get the crows to chase him.
After the first two attempts, I gave up on the crow activities and concentrated on the koels. The male was purposefully sitting at the edge of a branch, showing himself off by screaming. Now anyone who knows koels enough would say that they would NEVER do such a thing like showing themselves and drawing attention. At the first two attempts the crows refused to take notice of him. Then the male koel did something CRAZY. He took one bold hop at a time closing in on the crows nest. Then he flew right over the crows head (as if the crows were occupying his space and he was willing to fight for it). For a moment the crows did not know what to make of this rather ridiculous charge on their personal space.
For a few days, the crows defended their turf together. After a week, the female began to settle more and more into the nest, refusing to get up even to stretch her legs and wings. The koels, I guess, had been waiting for this very moment. For in the next 3 days, a clutch of 3 eggs were laid in the nest. All this while the male koel used to sit out in the open and make his “charge” at the crows now and then, screaming all the while. Till the eggs were laid the crows hardly took notice of the koel and his antics.
But once the eggs were laid in the nest, the variables in the equations seemed to change rapidly. The crows, on their part, changed strategy from “ignore” to “chase at sight”. The koel pair however, changed the whole plan all together. The thing is that till now, the female was hiding in the foliage while the male alone tried to distract the crows. Now, their game plan had changed. Both the male and female koels took turns in revealing themselves to the crows and took turns in tiring the crows till they gave up and went back to their nest. This was done with great planning and timely precision. At first the female koel would slowly creep up to the nest without being detected by the crows. Then with a shrill scream fly off right next to the nest.  As the crows gave her a chase, the male koel would fly perpendicularly to the female koel’s path and intercept the crows, thus dividing them. The female koel would fly helter scelter through thick foliage of nearby trees and bushes. This made the female crow to give up chase. The male however persisted and got both the crows to chase him. This drama continued for a few days, until one day, only the male was seen performing his act while the female sat in the foliage waiting patiently. After the second chase the female koel slowly made it to the nest picked up one of the three eggs and dropped it to the floor while laying her own egg in the nest. This act would have taken less than a minute. She was soon discovered by the female crow and was chased out of the vicinity.
The female crow had not seen the deeds of the female koel. Thus, for her, the nest was safe and life went back to normal. After a few days, the koel chick hatched. It looked like a mass of pink flesh with a hunch back and strong arms!! More like the hunchback of Notre dame crossed with Mohamed Ali of the bird world! It quietly moved about blindly for a few minutes and then targeted an egg.  The clever chick, using his back and those strong shoulders rolled one egg at a time to the edge of the nest and… well, as they say, the rest (of the egg) is history!
Over the next few months, the chick grew like he was given a daily dose of pharmaceutical growth enhancers. He became an adolescent in no time! This is where the real magic of the koels began!! Till now, im guessing, no one has seen this phenomenon – till date, the koel chicks voice evolved from mimicking crow chicks to slowly becoming true koel. This adolescent was in the inbetween stage of this vocal evolution. He had just begun to imitate the adult crows (at the same time he had this musical note to his voice) when the adult male koel was seen near the nest. For a few days the male koel kept his distance while still sitting on the same tree. But after a week and a half, he made his way closer and closer to the nest when the crows were away foraging. He used to sit on a perch close to the nest, in full view of the chick…. And slowly started to sing! He started with 2 short notes in the beginning and slowly went up to a full kuhoo – kuhoo and more soon after. He did this early in the morning (from around 8:00 AM to 12:30 PM) and in the evening (from around 3:30 PM to around 7:00 PM) every day!
The chick, in the absence of the crows, would imitate the koel and continue to sing when the crows were out of sight. When the crows arrived on the scene, it would give random croaks and half caws and beg for food. It would never ask the koel for food!  This went on till the chick was fully fledged. When it was time to learn to fly, the chick used to try to join the koel on the top branches and practice flying. Once the crows arrived, the chick used to go back to the nest and beg for food. It was so good at begging that the crows were occupied most of the time in foraging rather than teach the young one to fly. The chick learnt all the tricks and did all the practice only in the presence of the male koel and not the crows!
But this did not last for long. The koel got its jet black plumes and looked an adult now. Added to this, the voice had gone from crow to koel and the crows were mighty fed up of getting something to eat all the time. They coaxed the chick out of the nest, they prodded the chick out of the nest and finally they pecked the chick out of the nest!  After 3 days of pecking, the koel retaliated and opened his mouth... and how he sang! His melodious voice rang through the heads of the crows! For a moment the crows looked at each other and then at the chick, not understanding what to make of the voice that came out of their chick. Then like a lightening striking from a cloudless sky onto their heads they realized what they had been fostering all this while. They took a glance at the chick and pecked it so hard that it jumped off the nest and flew straight away across the river with full gusto! The crows were baffled again, I guess, at the sudden flight of the chick which never got out of the nest, for they did not chase it!
During all this time, the male koel sat nearby watching the drama unfold and oh ya!! The wrath of the crows was taken out on him. He managed to escape with his life between his beak, for the crows relentlessly chased him right across the river and beyond!
Well, this is just one story. The crows did manage to lay a few more eggs the next season. This time it turned out to be a female koel !! Here, the game was up much faster, for the female koel’s mottled grey feathers showed clearly and the crows ended up chasing her across the river, while the male koel life was spared!

So who do you think is evolved? Who do you think is clever? The singing trickster or the shrewd mobster?
Thus continues the arms race!!
*for those who think this is a story, its not! It is my observations over 2 years!
*for those who are having a hard time digesting the fact that koels are more than nest parasites, I would suggests you sit down and drink 2 glasses of water and calm down, as I did when I saw the drama unfold in front of my eyes!!