Monday, September 13, 2010

Top soil makes bricks

Top-soil in farmlands are coveted items. It takes a very long time for top-soil to form, and is almost entirely responsible for providing the foods humans eat across the globe.

Strange as it may sound, top-soil is increasingly being sold across relatively vast areas in north India by farmers to maker of bricks.

Tall chimneys scattered across the landscape give away locations of the kilns that are fueled by fire wood, also taken from the immediate surroundings.

A new chimney is being constructed and marks the location of a new
brick kiln in Barabanki district.

The removal of top soil leaves behind brown scars, and also walls of mud.

Barren grounds in Etah are used to dry tobacco leaves after
the top-soil has been sold to make bricks.

While the effect of such removal on agricultural productivity remains unknown, the walls certainly have great utility for wildlife. Foxes use them to den, and bee-eaters and bank mynas use them to nest.

Bank Mynas make their condominiums in a sheer wall created
by removal of top soil for making bricks in Mathura.

Strange and unpredictable are the ways in which "new" habitat becomes available for wildlife in this human-dominated landscape!

(Photograph information: Chimney in Barabanki district photographed 20 Nov 2008; barren ares in Etah district photographed 14 May 2010; nesting Bank Mynas in Mathura district photographed 25 Mar 2009.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

The mad courtship of the Cotton Pygymy-goose

The Cotton Pygmy-goose is India's smallest Anatid (a group of birds comprising ducks and geese). The males are incredibly pretty, and the females are drab - characteristic of Anatids. One cloudy early morning, I chanced upon several small flocks spread out on a large lake. They appeared to be engaged in courtship. In this entry, I share my observation and attempts to photograph their mad yet delightful behaviour.

Each female - apparently unpaired as yet - was chased by 2-4 loudly honking males across the lake. Females appeared to be attempting to escape the loud and boisterous masculine efforts. But they kept up with her as she weaved around the lake. Above, the female is being pursued by four gorgeous males.

The female landed several times, perhaps tired, perhaps attempting to dissuade the males from further pursuit.

The female attempted also to take off again several times, and her troubles only grew as a result. All the males, honking their protest, gave chase.

They tried to ward her off, and females seldom managed to fly free again after the first landing.

The nearest male then physically dunked her back onto the water! Above, the female is on the extreme left hidden by the male who is pecking at her to force her to land on the water again.

The female then was in real danger of being drowned as the enthusiastic males rushed at her, frequently landing on top of her. The female was under water many times, as the males splashed around vying for her to choose them. The water churned madly as the males appeared to be nearly killing the female they were fighting to get.

Then suddenly and quite mysteriously, a partner had been chosen. He swam around her in slow circles with head bent forwards in a graceful bow, and the other males swam away honking their obvious disapproval.

Was this going to be her partner for the year? What was better about him compared to the other males who appeared as robust, noisy and interested? Another bird mystery that awaits study.

(All photographs taken on 02 May 2010 at Samaspur Bird Sanctuary, Rae Bareli.)

Friday, April 30, 2010

De clay is good

Clay is sticky, holds water for long periods, and accumulates in wetlands each year. Clay also breaks up into dry blocks in the summer making it easy to collect!

Wetlands in the Gangetic flood plains have a lot of silt and clay in the water that are continually churning due to water flows and human activity. The finer silt settles down, and on top of it the coarser clay is layered. This can "kill" the wetlands - making them easier to convert to croplands, filling up the depression, and holding up moisture that would otherwise have likely percolated to the ground water store.

The ancient practice of removing clay during summer in Uttar Pradesh by the people keeps wetlands from dying. Block by pain-staking block of dried clay is broken off, and ferried by hand to the road where a bicycle awaits.

Entire villages stockpile the useful clay. They are used to repair damaged walls of mud-huts, fill up leaks or as a natural cement for brick-houses, to make clay-bricks, or to make dykes of flooded paddy fields. Villages therefore benefit from maintaining village ponds, and collecting clay is often a community activity. The following year(s), the process of soil accumulation begins all over again in a now-deepened wetland. Unwittingly, natural habitat for a variety of birds and flora is maintained.

Newer "technology" has allowed many people to build houses that do not need annual maintenance. In such areas, village ponds like the one above likely require the clay to be removed, but is not paid attention to. The landscape ends up losing precious wetland habitat, and the people lose opportunities to work together.

(Thanks to Shyamal for a lesson in Soil 101. All photographs taken on 30 Apr 2010 at Rae Bareli.)

Post-script: Illegal usurping of community wetlands can lead to unfortunate disputes - for a recent story on a shoot-out due to clay removal, read this.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mud puddlers

Wet mud and butterflies - the two do go together.

Two-spot Grass Yellows bustle on wet mud

Male butterflies drink up moisture retaining only nutrients that are dissolved, and quickly get rid of the water that would otherwise weigh them down.

Common Mormons (background) and Common Gulls (foreground) puddle together

The nutrients are passed on to females during mating, and improve the chances of the eggs surviving.

Common Lime butterfly gets its share of nutrients

Nutrients are also obtained from over-ripe fruit, sap, dung, and rarely, even blood.

(All photographs were taken on 18 Apr 2010 at Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Getting an earful

Bank Mynas and water buffaloes hit it off just great. The buffaloes have plenty of treats walking around on them for Mynas to actually be territorial on the buffaloes' back.

But the real battles are fought at the ears, for the ears, and going by how the buffaloes endure the vociferous battles taking place at their ear, it must be good for the ears.

(Photograph details: Mynas on buffaloes - shot at Basai wetland in Haryana on 6 Sep 2008; the vocal battle for the ear - shot at Etawah on 12 Feb 2009.)