Monday, July 20, 2015

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock park

11th Jan 2015

As we finished our tour of the fabulous and awe inspiring Mehrangarh fort, Shobha and Sheila mentioned the Rao Jodha Park, where Pradeep Krishen was behind an effort to "rewild" the areas around the fort.

it seemed like an interesting place to visit, and so off we went to the Visitor Centre, located below the fort, where we met enthusiastic Sachin, a naturalist involved in this project.  It was humbling to see his passion and knowledge about what was being done.

In 1890 or thereabouts, this was how the rocky outcrop appeared.  (Painting by GF Lamb, from the British Library)
It seems that in the 1930s one of the previous rajas of Jodhpur decided to green the hillside, and scattered seeds of Prosopsis juliflora, all across his state.  We now know that this imported mesquite is hardy and drought resistant and while it provides an endless supply of fodder and firewood, it takes over the countryside, not allowing anything else to grow.

Sachin told us how in 2006, the Fort Trust began this nature park project and the biggest challenge was how to eliminate the Prosopsis whose roots go deep into the stone.  After many failed methods, they finally got a set of sandstone miners, who actually chisel in and physically remove the plants.

It is an ongoing process and not complete by any means.

The map with the layout of the park can be seen here.

Just past the Visitor's Centre is  a set of experimental gardens, with different soil types and different plant types.

The ramparts stretched upwards, and even in January, it was now hot as the midday sun more than warmed us.  It was a bad idea on our part to come here just before lunch, because (atleast for me), a lot of what Sachin said was eaten up by my need for lunch, and therefore I am in no position to recount the names of all that we saw!

Was this the Goondi - Cordia graham ?  If it is, it has red fruit which is gelatinous and full of water 

Sachin explained that the Jodhpur area had volcanic rock, and the sands in the various parts of desert Rajasthan were different from each other.  We admired the beautiful hues of the molten rock piled up.

This was the rock from Jaisalmer - more yellow, which would explain the differences in the colours of the two forts - Jaisalmer and Mehrangarh.

I do not recall the name of this shrub.....
But this I recall is bui - Aerva javanica - a desert cotton shrub which we subsequently saw in the Thar, used to fill pillows and mattresses in this part of the world.

This too I don't recall.

Unknown yellow
We were in the desert in the late winter and many of the flowers which would be seen in spring - say Feb/March - were absent.  The Rohido (Tecomella undulata) is for early birds like us, flowering in late winter, its bright red blossoms unmistakeable.

Also referred to as Marwar Teak, the wood is highly prized and I think it is protected.  

Another unknown beauty

The lake near Jaswant Thada is also part of the Park, and was home to many migratory birds.  We saw wigeon, pintails, coots, water hen, cormorants and kingfishers while we waited.
Photos by Sheila

On the next morning, Shobha, Raji and Sheila went back to the Park and went down to the trail by the old water aqueduct.  These are the pictures Sheila took.

It was cool and quiet, they said, and it was a refreshing walk, with Sachin once again filling them with details!

The characteristic thor - Euphorbia caducifolia - which is a succulent but not of the cactus family.  The base provides protection for little creatures from predators, so its a good place to hang around if you want to see some smaller wildlife.

Lovely views of the fort

Some parts of the duct had water.

I would love to visit again, in a different season, and next time I promise myself to take better notes!


Walking along the streets of Neelangarai, I chanced upon a Punnai in bloom.

Sekar tends one on our street with diligence.  Maybe it will flower soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Black shouldered kite at Sholinganallur

Photo by Mr Ramanan

Elanus caeruleus 

A beautiful capture by Mr Ramanan, of a black-shouldered kite, seen on a wire at Sholinganallur.    It seems to be fixing Mr Ramanan with a piercing look!

This smaller bird of prey has an interesting habit of hovering, like the pied kingfisher.

On the open plains at Bharatpur, we would regularly see them almost stationery in the sky as they hovered over, looking for small prey like rodents, frogs and lizards.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Salt and Sambhar - a place in need of urgent attention

17th January 2015

We bundled into our cars in Sujangarh, as we reached the last day of our rather interesting week in Rajasthan.

The town seemed to have some south Indian influence, as we saw a familiar gopuram by the roadside.

Lakshmi pleaded that we should have breakfast elsewhere, and so we landed up at Rama hotel, which was a vast improvement to our hotel, and we gorged on parottas, which kept coming from the kitchens.

Our souls were in a better state at the end of that, and we set off on our long journey east to Jaipur.

We were at the fag end of our trip, and it was with some regret, as I realized it would soon be back to work.

As I looked out of the window, I saw the by now familiar lopped Khejri trees, looking forlorn and leafless, standing over fallow fields.

Further east, and the trees were in leaf, as also the mustard fields.
And then suddenly there were these lines of lorries filled with salt.

We were closing in on Sambhar lake, the salt water lake of my childhood textbooks.  I remember our Geography teacher droning on about how it was India's largest inland saline depression.  I also remember never quite having it explained as to why it was saline!

Never did I think that one day I would actually visit this lake, far removed from the beaten track.

(It has always bugged me as to why it is called sambhar, my favourite gravy.  (The same is true for the deer as well.  ))

Located between Jaipur in the east and Ajmer to the west, it is now a designated Ramsar wetland.

We crossed a red brick, shabby building which announced the station - yes the lake has a station - and my sense of anticipation grew.

I thought of Pulicat and Chilika, the other estuarine backwater lagoons, with large expanses of water as far as the eye could see.

We turned a corner, and the cars halted at the edge of what looked like the local garbage dump.

Nabeel our guide said we had to walk past a little bund we saw.  To my increasing shock and dismay, it seemed we were walking into the local village facility, we seemed to interrupt people in their toilet, and there was garbage and feces everywhere.

I still cannot get over it actually, how this could be a Ramsar site, and be so neglected.  More than the birds then, it was the shocking state of the lake that hit me.

There were children playing cricket in these unhygienic conditions - on the dry lake bed, and we spoke to some of them, asking them why it was like this.  They seemed to indicate that the village elders were unconcerned, there was not enough of toilet facilities, etc etc.

On my return I also read that there are two PSU salt companies - Sambhar Salts Limited and Bharat Salts - located here and working the salt pans.  Why on earth have they not taken on the revival of this historical lake that is part of our ecological and environmental heritage?

Even Pallikaranai seems better off when compared to this lake.
From Google maps

A railway line cuts the lake - the side we are in (the western side) is the protected (rather, neglected) lake, left for the birds, while the other side is the salt pans.  There is also a dam further east to regulate the water flow to the pans.
Sambhar city relies on salt mining for its livelihood.  Salt has been mined here from the 6th century AD when the Chauhans ruled, and has continued continuously to date.

How is this lake saline, though?

Greater flamingoes - yes, they were the main attraction and they stood in the middle of the lake, probably in half a foot of water.

A pied Avocet tried to make the best of a bad deal scrounging in the murky waters.

As we watched a train came rattling by on the track.  The track dates back to British India, and was the line for transporting salt out of the region.
The flamingoes decided they were better off in the air at this point, and circled in formation until the train passed.

They came settling back down only after the train had moved on.

At one point in the eighties there used to be lakhs of these birds, I read, not so anymore.  Not enough water is reaching the lake as the frehwater channel/rivers are choked

Lapwigs, stilts and godwits mucked around disconsolately (I thought).

We even spotted a snipe
And a wagtail
We were not unhappy to leave, frankly, a rather strange phenomenon for an MNS group which is always malingering.

I hope that I am able to raise some awareness of the urgent needs of this habitat.

We headed out to lunch and then set off for Jaipur on our way back home.

Further surprises awaited us, as we came to learn from indifferent Air Costa staff that our Chennai flight was cancelled.  Of course they were "generous" enough to give us a full refund.

We then were all forced to book tickets on the Jaipur-Bangalore flight, thinking that it is better to come south than hang around there.

Then the question was how do we move from Bangalore to Chennai?  A KSRTC bus that left at midnight was found by Kumar's enterprising daughter and tickets were booked online, as we raised a toast to the mobile phone and online booking!

So, deplane at Bangalore, rush madly to baggage claim, and a quick bathroom stop before we caught two cabs urging the drivers to drive us with speed to the bus stand in town.

Then we (in one cab) reach the well marked bus bays, and find a couple of people hanging around on the pavement, and asked them about the Chennai bus.  They informed us that it was yet to come, so we hang around with them, while eyeing another bus that was idling ahead of us.

The second cab arrives, with Kumar's daughter, who asks us why we are waiting and not boarding the bus!!  She had received an sms with the bus number, and the gents on the pavement were obviously unaware or spreading disinformation!  Giggling hysterically, we got on, and made our way to the seats.

We continued to laugh until we dozed off fitfully, reaching the chaos of Koyambedu on the morning of the 18th, boarded a share auto and suffered a bone rattling ride all the way home.

A good bath, and a morning cup of strong filter coffee, and all was once again well with the world!

Rajasthan was now a memory.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Carcasses and vultures

15th January 2015 began at Phalodi, and the Demoiselle cranes at Kichan.

It ended rather differently.

"Turn right on the Jeypore highway."
"You have reached your destination."

The electronic GPS lady-with-an-American-accent informed us that we were at our destination - the Jorbeer carcass dumping site.  But we were at the end of a T junction in the middle of nowhere, and quite lost.

We then did our navigation the old-fashioned (and for India the more effective way quite often), rolled down the windows and asked a local trundling along on his bicycle.

We arrived a little too late in the evening, and the sun was already low in the sky.  On the outskirts of Bikaner, we were at this large empty semi-desert acreage, where the city dumps its cattle carcasses.

The air was filled with raptors, as too the ground.

Tractors come and unload the cattle carcasses of the city and the neighbouring towns here.  There are piles of  meat, which are then picked clean by the scavenging birds on duty, increasingly in competition with feral dogs.

The scenery is unattractive, and there is an odour of rotting flesh.  We kept a safe distance from the carcasses, and so we were not overpowered by the stench or the flies.

We kept together, and one of us kept an eye on the dogs, which are aggressive and territorial.

Egyptian vultures, European griffins, Steppe Eagles - all migrants - abound.  We also saw Cinereous vultures.

And flitting in the undergrowth, camouflaged in the brown of the sand were a flock of Isabelline wheatears as well.

Steppe eagles in plenty, as at Taal chapper.

On every shrub, every mound, there seemed to be the Steppe Eagles, as common here, as crows in Madras, it seemed!

A steppe eagle soared by

And the Egyptian vultures sat around, everywehere, roosting communally on top of bushes like this.....
.... circling in the sky, distinctive with their wedge-shaped tails......

...feeding on the carrion, the juvenile blacks and the adult whites.....

....unbothered by the dogs...

Neophron percnopterus - looking like they could do with a good wash to clean themselves!  They are or were seen across the Indian sub continent. 

I read that they feed on feaces to get the carotenoid pigment that gives them those yellow faces, which is a sign of good health.  How gross is that?!

More than the ground, it was the show in the sky that was riveting.

A large Eurasian Griffon came into view, making the Egyptian vultures look small.

 Gyps fulvus - we saw it ride the thermals, gliding effortlessly with its large wing span, its white head and long neck, reminding me of the vultures in Jungle Book.

The rufous brown underwings have a pale banding across.

See the stout bill, and this was probably a juvenile as the bill was greyish.  It looked all grown up and fierce to me though
 These Gyps are also probably affected by diclofenac poisoning, and their numbers are on the decline.

They are probably a resident population, moving to the Himalayas in summer.
See the larger Cinereous

And then came the even larger Cinereous Vulture into view!

Aegypius monachus - this is the largest vulture species, appearing all black in the sky.

They hold their wings quite often in this arched fashion, and have a slow flapping, given their broad wing spans.

And then it was back to the eagles -

Tawny Eagle - with the gape line extending only until the eyes, and not beyond like the "smiling" Steppe eagles.

Another one sat on the ground in the distance.
 A great place for idying vultures is here.

A rib cage picked clean by the scavengers - clear evidence of their role in the natural world.

The light was fast fading, or rather had faded, and the dogs appeared even more menacing, and we decided to leave.

A strange and unattractive place, and I ruminated as we trundled along in the car that I would never have known of this place but for the MNS group.

Across India, there are dumps like this, it seems, where cattle carcasses are dumped after removing their hides.  The fall in vulture populations has caused a serious problem in their disposal.  The diclofenac seems to affect the Gyps vultures more, which could be the reason why the Egyptian vultures seem to be in greater numbers.

Vibhu Prakash of BNHS has documented their decline.

Some others had gone to the camel research centre nearby, and ofcourse Dhruva had to do the last of his disappearing act as he wandered off to buy camel milk from the National Camel centre!!

Sheila's birthday and Shobha and Vijay's wedding anniversary - what an eventful day!  Forgotten havelis at Phalodi, Demoiselle cranes by the thousands at Kichan, mustard fields and khejri trees, vultures and a carcass dump, a bone-rattling drive to Sujangarh, and finally dinner at Rich Garden Sujangarh, which had no garden to speak of!

The next morning, it was another eventful day as we headed to Taal Chapper.