Archive for July 2009

Adlestrop

15 July 2009

Some of my favourite nature poems are short. Being poetry they often carry a message, but the poets were real wordsmiths – with a few words they drew a picture, a mood, a point of view, a celebration. Of the railway poems, Edward Thomas‘ 16 line poem about Adlestrop railway station exudes a peaceful summer afternoon from every word.

Adlestrop railway station today which was the inspiration for the Poet, Edward Thomas in the summer of 1914 when the train he was travelling on stopped 'unwontedly' at this quiet station. Disused since 1966. Image - Philip Halling.

Adlestrop railway station today which was the inspiration for the Poet, Edward Thomas in the summer of 1914 when the train he was travelling on stopped ‘unwontedly’ at this quiet station. Disused since 1966. Image – Philip Halling.

Adlestrop

by

Edward Thomas

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Image credit – Philip Halling. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons Share-alike Attribution 2.0.

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The Raptors and the Agamid

14 July 2009

(Reprinted from Indian Birds Vol 5 No 1, kind courtesy Aasheesh Pittie)

A posting to the desert for an army-man is not unusual and I got my chance to serve in this terrain in mid 2004, at Jaipur, after more than 20 years of service; on all previous occasions as a junior officer, I had passed through fleetingly with hardly a chance to notice or experience anything. Now a Commanding Officer, I eagerly anticipated getting a good look at the landscape and its wildlife.

At the first opportunity I wandered off into the desert in a Gypsy 4WD. Driving eastward along the NH from Jaisalmer towards Jodhpur, I saw an obscure desert track and turned onto it, speeding on the sandy track across the country, towards the beckoning dunes. On each side were wide-open spaces punctuated by the occasional ‘khejri’ tree Prosopis cinerarea. A cross-breeze trickled sand across the track and shadows grew long as the sun paused over dunes. A small desert fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla with a bushy, white-tipped tail (Menon 2003) ran away from the vehicle.

All of a sudden, a large lizard zipped across the road, a few metres ahead of me, and dived into the sand. Before I could apply the brakes, the lizard was gone. I could not register what exactly had happened, even though it happened again and yet again. Lizards zoomed past, left and right. I was driving across a lizard colony like a German panzer division across the Russian steppe. In the fading light, the impression that stood out fleetingly was that of a thick tail with black and white rings.

A few days later, I ventured across the same path at midmorning. I soon came across the colony of dust-brown lizards. Stopping the vehicle and getting out scared them away, so I resorted to driving up as close as I could and using binoculars. I looked hard and long at a large, snub-headed lizard with a ringed tail. I had finally met up with Uromastyx hardwickii Gray, 1827, Hardwicke’s spiny-tailed lizard or ‘sanda’ as it is called in Hindi (Daniel 1983).

Spinytailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).  Image by Clement Francis

Fig 1 - Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii). Image by Clement Francis

These lizards belong to the family Agamidae and are the only species of Uromastyx to be found in India—most of their relatives being North African or West Asian—with stubby legs holding a less-than-half-a-metre long cylindrical body barely off the sand, these vegetarian agamids hold up their large rounded heads, with flat snouts, smartly as they alertly look ahead. The slightest alarm sends them zipping off into their burrows in the sand. Their most interesting aspect is the tail. It has blue-gray spines arranged in whorls along its length, decreasing in size towards the tip, which is a pale or earthy yellow in colour.

The Uromastyx is one of the few lizards utilised by man. In North Africa, it is considered ‘dhaab’ or fish of the desert and relished by Islamic nomad tribes (Grzimek 2003). In India too, these lizards are caught for their meat, about which Malcolm Smith (1935) says, ‘…with certain castes of Hindoos it is a regular article of diet…the meat is said to be excellent and white like chicken… the head and feet are not eaten, but the tail is considered a great delicacy…the fat of the body is boiled down and the resulting oil is used as an embrocation and also as a cure for impotence.’

Uromastix hardwickii represents the southern and eastern limit of the extent of the Indo-African reptile fauna (Günther 1864). Interestingly, the lizard is named after a fellow-soldier, Major General Thomas Hardwicke, who is considered the first colossus of Indian natural history. He arrived at Fort William in 1778 as an artillery cadet in the Bengal Presidency Army, fought in the Rohilla and Mysore wars and was commended for gallantry on the battlefield. By 1809, he rose to command the Bengal Presidency Artillery. His span of duty and area of natural history study lay mostly in what is today Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh (Singh 2006).

I visited the lizard colony often—initially, I thought them ugly but soon found that they looked very good to my eyes. They were always basking in the sun. I spent a couple of hours one day trying to observe them feeding. I hoped to see them nibbling on the ‘siniya’ shrubs Crotalaria burhia or tufts of ‘buadiAerva pseudotomentosa (?) that dotted the landscape around them. A few Prosopis of the native variety, whose beans they are reported to eat (Daniel 1983), were present within a few metres of the colony. The colony itself was on a flat, firm gap between eroded sand dunes which had been stabilised by vegetation and were barely two meters high. The desert track meandered along this flat for a 100 m or so, which constituted the diameter of the colony.

One day, my son and I had the rare privilege of observing a predator catching its prey. A few lizards basked outside their burrows while the rest were inside. All at once and apparently from nowhere, a brown raptor swooped straight down, with trailing wings and extended talons. Before the hapless lizards could gain shelter, it had caught a small agama. In the wink of an eye, the rest of the lizards were out of sight. The raptor’s sharp claws soon ended a few seconds of struggle. It remained on the sand about 60 m away, feeding ravenously. It was unaware of its audience, since its back was towards us, and I was forced to edge onto the dune and outflank it from the east. On reaching a vantage point, I had a good look at it through the binoculars. It fed hungrily for a good 15 min.

Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

Fig 2 - Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

It was a dark brown falcon, with prominent moustaches and a white chest. Its thighs were dark-brown and it had a brown crown. Grimmett & Inskipp (2001), a book that I find handy, despite their pesky habit of renaming Indian birds, told me that it was a Laggar Falcon Falco jugger. I later had the identification reconfirmed through the kind courtesy of a member of India-nature-pix.

In about 20 min, the falcon had eaten the lizard. I could hardly see any remains. Angling to get a better view, I alerted it. After a moment or two, it flew off. I walked up to the kill, but had a hard time locating the forlorn grey tail, which was all that remained.

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

I visited the colony often, hoping to see more signs of predation. Since the local foxes are largely nocturnal, I had not had an opportunity to observe their feeding behaviour. I suspected that these lizards, and the many small rodents that poked their heads out after dark, formed part of their diet.

For a few months, nothing interesting happened during my field trips. Then in mid-summer, I chanced to go south of Jaisalmer. It was a windy day. The sand blew steadily, forming a constant desert haze. I found a small colony of Uromastyx next to the road. To my surprise, this time there was a raptor nearby. It was a large, brown, heavy-set Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax perched on a desiccated ‘rohida’ tree Tecomella undulata.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert.

The lizards and eagle appeared to be oblivious of each other and seemingly intent only on braving out the scouring sandstorm. The swirling sand inhibited the use of binoculars so I walked up to the tree, upon which the raptor took off into the brown swirls. Numerous white streaks on the bole and branches told me that it was a favourite perch. I sifted the litter at the base of the tree in the hope of getting pellets but found something else—desiccated spiny-tail fragments and a few bones. This seemed to indicate that the Tawny Eagle was a likely predator of Uromastyx.

Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and an Uromastyx tail.

Fig 3 - Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and a Uromastyx tail.

The Tawny Eagle was one of my constant objectives in the field—a strong and agile bird of prey—it was the predominant avian desert raptor. During a drive on 11th June 2006, along what I call ‘Eagle Alley’, a 10 km stretch of road between Pokharan and Khetolai, I counted 12 Tawny Eagles perched on wires, masters of all they surveyed.

A few days later, I returned to Eagle Alley to see a handsome Tawny Eagle, a beautiful near-orange-fawn in colour, sitting on a concrete fence picket near Chacha Odhaniya railway station. It looked at me very distastefully and proceeded to express its opinion of me by being violently sick! It then flew off without a backward glance. I suspected that it had just ejected a pellet and scrambled across barbed wire and thorn to get at it. I was gratified to find a sticky yellow-white pellet with spines of Uromastyx clearly visible. I photographed the pellet, delicately maneuvered it into a polythene bag and brought it home; but alas some over zealous house cleaning left me with no chance to dissect it.

The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

Fig 4 - The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx.

Lydekker (1895) states about the Saker Falcon Falco cherrug that, ‘In the Harriana Desert of India these falcons feed largely on a spiny lizard of the genus Uromastix.’

The Saker Falcon is, of course, a winter visitor to the Indian Subcontinent, while the Tawny Eagle and the Laggar Falcon are residents. The Spiny-tailed lizard, being locally common in patches, is probably a significant food source for these birds of prey of the Indian Desert.

Soon after, my unit moved out from Rajasthan and I saw my last Spiny-tailed lizards on a stormy July evening braving the sand sitting close to their shelters. Nearby somewhere, I was sure, were Tawny Eagles, girding themselves against the gritty dust storm, which brought my tryst with the desert to an end. Our special train chugged out of Lathi at nightfall and I left the desert and all its mysteries behind me yet again.

Acknowledgements

Nandan Kalbag for identification of plants; Dr J. Pranay Rao of Raptor Conservation Foundation, Hyderabad, for confirming identities of the raptors mentioned in the article; Pervez Cama, Ashok Captain and L. Shyamal for encouragement and guidance.

References

  • Daniel, J. C. 1983. The book of Indian reptiles. Mumbai: Bombay Natural History Society. Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C. & Inskipp, T. 2001.
  • Pocket guide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Grzimek, B. 2003. Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia (second edition): Vol. 7—reptiles. Farmington Hills, Minnesota: Thomson-Gale.
  • Günther, A. C. L. G. 1864. The reptiles of British India. London: Robert Hardwick. Electronic reprint of 2000 by Arment Biological Press.
  • Lydekker, R. 1895. The Royal natural history. Vol 4. London: Frederick Warne.
  • Menon, V. 2003. A field guide to Indian mammals. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley & Penguin India.
  • Singh, Lt. Gen. Baljit (Retd). 2006. Fauna and Flora: contributions by the Indian Army officers 1778–1952. http://www.usiofindia.org/article_Oct_ Dec06_13. htm. (Accessed: 10th December 2008).
  • Smith, M. A. 1935. The fauna of British India including Ceylon and Burmah, Reptilia and Amphibia: Sauria. Vol 2. London: Taylor and Francis.
  • Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) articles on Uromastyx hardwickii, Aquila rapax and Falco jugger.

Notes

All images (less the first one by Clement Francis) are by Ashwin Baindur and are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 2.5.


Man’s best friend!

13 July 2009

(A work of fiction)

It happened during Op VIJAY in 1999. Tololing had just fallen. I had moved my field company to Drass. We moved into the heights of Sangro between Tiger Hill and the long Manpo La Ridgeline. I shared a bunker with a Maj Ajay, the company commander of Sangro Main where we were constructing field defences.  Maj Ajay  belonged to Alpha company of the GRENADIERS battalion which clung onto the Sangro ridge despite everything the Pakis could throw at them. Our post, Sangro Main,  was regularly shelled by the Pakistani Observation Post at Pt 5109 to the North.

The Company Commander’s bunker at Sangro is on the crest of an exposed knoll connected by a hundred yard corridor to the nearby mountain side. Each day we had to get out of the bunkers carefully at unexpected intervals and scuttle along the ridge to the mountainside. For, if we dawdled or were seen, the ever watchful Pakistani OP would lob a few arty shells at us. On each of these hair-raising excursions, we were accompanied back and forth by Bozo.

Bozo, was a large biscuit-coloured Bhutia. He, and not Ajay, was the real king of Sangro.  He would sit on top of  the Company Commander’s bunker basking in the warm sunlight while we cowered inside or crept along the mountainside. When shelling began, he would yawn, stretch himself and cock his head to peer at the explosions. If he felt they were a mite close, he would amble inside the bunker. Not for Bozo were the jawans bunkers nestled safely amongst the rocks. No, his domain was the company commander’s bunker, the most exposed of all and the favourite target of the Pakistani Mountain Howitzers whose life’s sole mission, it seemed, was to land a shell squarely onto it and blow us all to smithereens. So far, it had not happened and Bozo being the Raja of Sangro naturally chose the Company Commander’s bunker as his home.

Bhutias - fierce protectors and loyal companions. (Image credit - Ms Kishmish)

Being the Tiger’s dog, Bozo was the mascot of Alpha company and the choicest scraps were reserved for him. These he accepted with great dignity from Ajay’s hand only. The rank and file he ignored. It took me a long time and much effort before he deigned to grace me with the permission to pat his head!  Bozo would lord over the other dogs who dare not show their snout anywhere near our knoll. Bozo accompanied Ajay everywhere. He was the apple of Ajay’s eye and they were inseperable. I marvelled at their affection for each other.

In war, bunkermates become bosom-buddies and I soon came to know Ajay quite well. A courageous and competent officer, Ajay was undergoing great personal strife – he was accused of failing to press home an attack on a nearby feature.

Ajay’s company had been tasked to crack a particularly difficult nut, Pt 5200 which had a long flat exposed approach. Just as his company attack had reached the objective,their stealthy approach was noticed by one of the ever-vigilant Pakistani OPs and Ajay’s company were straddled by salvo after salvo as they tried to bunch up for the final assault.  Ajay was knocked unconscious by an arty shell. After the accurate arty fire forced the company to retreat with a large number of casualties,  the local commander blamed Ajay for this debacle, ignoring the fact that the next attack by an infantry battalion was also repulsed by the Pakistanis. Ajay was to face a Court of Enquiry and a possible Court Martial. In those dark days, Ajay seemed to have no friend in the world, except for Bozo who lavished affection on him.

The type of terrain where the attacks go in! RIP our brave martyrs!

One fateful day, Alpha company was ordered to capture Pt 5109, our nemesis. As the troops moved up after dark, Ajay soon found that he was not leading just a company but also a large brown dog. Bozo, happy to do something new, was following him. Shooing him away had no effect. A well-aimed stone drew a whimper and it seemed that Bozo had returned to Sando. An hour later, as Alpha company crouched behind rocks with fixed bayonets, Ajay was startled by a warm wet tongue licking his face. Bozo was intent on assaulting with the GRENADIERS. There was nothing to do but go on. The company moved out silently and soon battle cries and barks surprised the Pakistani outpost which was quickly overpowered. Alpha Company tasted victory for the first time and that too without a casualty. The troops attributed this to the luck that Bozo brought with him and this time Bozo permitted all and sundry to pat him on the head.

Pt 5109 is ten yard narrow ridge with sangars on both sides and a trench in between. The Pakistani shelling soon began but either overshot or fell short. Later that night, a fog crept up and it became very cold.  The troops huddled together, tired and miserable after the gruelling climb and adrenalin rush of battle. An hour passed. Suddenly Bozo stared into the fog and began barking loudly. Ajay immediately stood to with his men just in time to repulse a Pakistani counter-attack which had used the cover of the fog to get close to the post.  Once again the GRENADIERS pushed back the enemy without a casualty.

Except for one, that is. Bozo was found bloody and cowering at the bottom of the trench after the attack. A piece of shrapnel had neatly sliced off his front right paw. He was quickly fitted with a first field dressing and the Company waited for daylight when a company of SIKHS climbed up to relieve them. Bozo was carried down by Ajay in his own arms, no mean feat since Bozo weighed over 20 kgs.

Victory!

Bozo healed rapidly and soon adapted a three legged gait. He moved slowly, but with the same dignity and once again accompanied Ajay everywhere. He was still the Raja of Sangro. With Pt 5109 falling to the GRENADIERS and Tiger Hill falling soon after, we could now sit in the open and enjoy the sunshine on Sangro knoll along with Bozo.  I can still recall, in my mind’s eye, Ajay and Bozo sitting beside me as the last rays of the evening sun fell on our faces and the waters of Pariyon Ka Talab glinted in the distance.

Soon, Ajay had to leave for his Court of Enquiry and he bid a tearful farewell to his best friend. I assured him that I would look after Bozo for him till he returned. Soon I shifted to a bunker on the nearby hillside next to the camp of my field company. Bozo continued to live in Sando but often visited me at mealtimes to the great delight of my sahayak who kept the choicest marrow bones for him.

In early October, Ajay returned. He had finally been exonerated, but his battalion was moving out to a peace station in the desert. He resolved to take his best friend with him. I kept silent as he first retrieved his luggage, then collected Bozo’s collar, dish and blanket and loaded them in the 1Ton. As he turned to get Bozo from where he was basking in the evening sun at his usual spot atop the bunker, I placed my hand on Ajay’s arm. He looked back enquiringly. I quietly reminded him that Bhutias are dogs of cold weather and high altitude and that Bozo would definitely not survive the desert summer. Ajay’s eyes mutinously but silently refused to acknowledge the truth of what I was telling him. But in the heart of hearts, Ajay knew that what I said was true, and now deep sorrow filled his eyes. My hand dropped from Ajay’s arm. He walked over to the knoll and sat next to Bozo. They spent a few moments together and then after petting him for the last time, Ajay returned. He shook hands with me. We could not look each other in the eye. Without looking back Ajay got into the 1Ton and drove away. Bozo was still sitting on the knoll enjoying the evening breeze,  the undisputed three-legged king of Sangro.

..like Bozo, a well-earned rest in the sun..(image credit - Ms Kishkish)

Soon after, my field company finished our task and we too moved on.   I have not yet been able to find anyone who could tell me how Bozo is at Sangro. Thus ended one of the finest friendships I had seen between man and beast. Truly, in those dark days, Bozo had been one man’s best friend.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening!

13 July 2009

Robert Frost‘s 1922 poem ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening‘  contains important messages, but it is equally delightful to read it at face value. The text evokes powerful images in the mind. It is one of my favourites.

Snow_at_pond_2

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
by

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The end

The poem in Frost's own handwriting! Courtesy rocksea. Copyright not known.

The poem in Frost's own handwriting! Courtesy rocksea. Copyright not known.

US Postage stamp of 1974

US Postage stamp of 1974

Feel free to suggest poems that celebrate nature and wildlife!

Credits – Michael Wassmer (France) for image (thru Wikimedia Commons). Wikipedia for links. Adam Smith Academy for the text.

A Decorative Beetle

12 July 2009


Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

On a afternoon in early July, at Vavoshi near Pen, my father-in-law, Mr Nandan Kalbag spotted an intriguing beetle in black and white. It resembled a stylised Guy Fawkes mask of the kind that I remember seeing in ‘V for Vendetta‘. It was perched on a hanging flower-vase and was motionless. It stayed there awhile and after a couple of hours it was gone.

One of the big advantages of being a son-in-law of a man keenly interested in the natural world around him is a steady stream of images and anecdotes which permit me to vicariously enjoy those moments with him. In course of time, the image came to me, was bunged onto the InsectIndia yahoo-group. There it was picked up by a friend and forwarded to a Dr Hemant Ghate of the Zoology Dept of Modern College in Pune, a man desperately keen on beetles. After consulting with Dan Heffern, an American engineer turned coleopterist, a verdict was delivered – the culprit was identified as Calothyrza margaritifera which was described by Westwood in 1848.

Common names are a luxury available to enthusiasts of mammals, birds, butterflies, a few reptiles and amphibians. In the world of arthropods, there are very few common names. Calothyrza margaritifera – the name meant nothing to me. I don’t really know much about beetles – I am quite prone to mis-spelling them too; I forget they are ‘beetles’ not ‘beatles’. India has no recent handbooks on beetles for the amateur. It took a little patient digging online to find out a little more about this curious insect.

Calothyrza margaritifera is a longicorn or long-horned beetle; it belongs to the family Cerambycidae. Most but not all cerambycids have antennae longer than their bodies. These beetles are wood-borers and some are economically significant pests. Some small cerambycids mimic ants, wasps and bees. A member of this beetle family is considered to be the largest insect in existence today.

C. margaritifera belongs to the tribe Phrynetini of the subfamily Lamiinae. The beetle volumes of the Fauna of British India of the early twentieth century vintage are the only tomes available to the amateur naturalist of India. Unfortunately Charles Joseph Gahan, the author of the Cerambycidae section only wrote one volume which unfortunately excludes the Lamiinae, those taxa being reserved for the never written second Volume.

The known range of C. margaritifera embraces the Central Himalayas of India and Nepal, and extends across Myanmar to Thailand. The discovery of this beetle in Raigad district of Maharashtra is then an important range extension. Fortunately, the species has a very distinct look so that, strictly speaking, a specimen may not be needed to record the find.

Like most picturesque long-horned beetles, Calothyrza margaritifera demands a substantial price on the international specimen trade – prices typically range from ten to 35 dollars each. Most Calothyrza specimens show Thailand as their area of origin. One may think that the Biological Diversity Act of 2002 as amended may protect Indian beetles but there is ample evidence to the contrary on the internet, this site being one such example. Single Calothyrza margaritifera specimens, and occasionally pairs appear for sale in insect catalogues and sometimes on E-Bay!

We are often reminded of the need to preserve and protect our biodiversity by stories of how such and such organism s being investigated for new science, fresh discoveries and path-breaking insights. It may interest you to know that Calothyrza margaritifera is one of those. In this case, the vivid white of the beetle cuticle is being investigated at the nano-technological level. The vivid whiteness of the beetle’s cuticle is not the result of a hue but rather the nano-structure of pill-shaped chitin growths. The abstract of the paper, presented in a symposium on ‘Bioinspired and biointegrated materials as new frontiers for nanomaterials’ (Symposum M) on 10 Jun 2009 at 12:05 hrs this year in Strasbourg, can be found here.

What worries me most is that there are hundreds of such delicious scientific curiosities waiting to be discovered in our jungles which may never come into existence before the forests and their associated biodiversity are lot forever.

Image credit – Mr Nandan Kalbag (under Creative Commons 2.5 SA)