Posted by: cochinblogger | July 10, 2009

The Blue-Veined Beauty

Hi, this is Cochin Blogger at your service. I’m based in a town called Cochin (officially, Kochi) in the state of Kerala, which is perched at the southern-most tip of India. It’s just a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka, and is famous for its unique natural beauty. Kerala is a slim, blue-veined beauty, with canals, backwaters, lagoons, rivers, lakes, ponds, and puddles galore, a thin strip of land caressed by the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Kerala’s trademark is tropical fecundity. It’s a paradise that is still largely unspoiled because of the low level of industrialization. Kerala first hit the international headlines when it voted the communists to power in 1957, this being only the second time communists anywhere in the world have formed a popularly elected government (the first time was in the tiny republic of San Marino).

Right, I’m signing off now. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. 🙂

Posted by: cochinblogger | August 31, 2020

Queen’s Pride of India Redux

The most soothing color in the floral palette, that pale pastel violet.

Shot on P.T. Usha Road.

Note: Click on picture to enlarge.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | July 31, 2020

African Tulip Tree

The virus had not immediately erupted in epidemic form, but it had seeded itself. Then the seeds began to sprout into flowers of flame. — John Barry in The Great Influenza

My first glimpse of this tree was from the Kochi Metro near Edappally. The scarlet flowers held clear off the dark green foliage caught my eye. Unexpectedly, I then found a lone individual near the Kadavumbagam Synagogue on Market Road. Fading scarlet flowers lay scattered on the road. I picked one up and took it home.

I found the tree in Discover Avenue Trees by Karthikeyan. The flower I'd brought back with me helped in the identification. It's the African Tulip tree or Nandi Flame (Spathodea campanulata), called Rugtoora in Hindi, Phaauntanmaram (fountain tree) or Sphathoodiya in Malayalam, Patadi in Tamil, Akash Shevga in Marathi, and Rudrapalash in Bengali. It belongs to the jacaranda family, and its home is Africa, where it is put to a wide variety of medicinal uses.

Try as I might, despite repeated attempts, I was not able to get a clear shot of the flower. One day, the season, the light, and the time of day conspired with my presence to gift me what I wanted. The contrast between the fiery red and soothing green, moderated by the brown of the seed pods, is pleasing.

And, yes, however brightly a flower may burn, it must one day fade.

Note: Click on the photo to enlarge it.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 12, 2020

The Bare Tree

My mother said to me,

"When one sees the tree in leaf one thinks

the beauty of the tree is in its leaves,

and then one sees the bare tree."

Samuel Menashe (1925-2011)

Shot from the T.D. Road/Convent Road intersection on 9 June 2020. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | May 30, 2020

Europa in Cochin Harbour

I shot this from Subhash Park on 12 December 2019.

It'll be a while before Europa takes to the water again. Click on the photo for a larger image.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | April 29, 2020

White-Browed Wagtail: Lockdown Encounter

This was one of a group of wagtails I met in a lane just off the arterial M.G. Road. The lockdown due to Covid ensured that the streets were deserted, and the birds had the run of the lane. I paused and watched them for a while. The individual in the photo is a male; females and juveniles are brownish. The white-browed wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis) is the largest of the wagtails, and is the only wagtail that has adapted well to the urban environment.

Khanjan is the Hindi name of the bird. "Khanjan-eyed" refers to someone with beautiful eyes, and it's clear from the photo why.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | March 31, 2020

Indian Pond Heron

Indian Pond Heron (Ardeola grayii)

I see it most mornings on my way to buy milk. It would be next to the water, as still as a rock, keeping a sharp lookout for fish, frogs, tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, etc. I invariably pause when I see it. It looks at me. Our eyes meet. Then I resume my walk, leaving it to find breakfast.

Yes, I agree that it's not much of a looker. The typical hunched stance is ungainly, the body stocky, the colors dowdy. But appearances are deceptive. This unassuming bird has a couple of surprises up its sleeve.

First, when you approach it, it stands its ground. This is unusual; most birds are cautious to a fault and will fly away at the slightest hint of an approach. Not the Indian pond heron. It will allow you to approach very close, taking to the air at the last moment. And that is when you are hit by the second surprise. I remember the very first time I watched an Indian pond heron take off from the ground: one moment it was there before my eyes, the next moment it had vanished. In its place was another white bird that seemed to have materialized from nowhere. I was looking around for the pond heron, wondering if it had suddenly plummeted to the ground. A little later, it hit me: the white bird was the pond heron. Its wings are white underneath. It's a startling transformation.

The Indian pond heron is usually found near water bodies, but it is an adaptable bird, and I've also seen it foraging in garbage dumps in the city. Its habit of allowing close approaches has inspired the popular belief that it is very short-sighted (which it is not). In Sri Lanka, it is called Kana Koka, which means "half-blind heron." The bird in all likelihood allows close approaches as it trusts that its camouflage and immobility will enable it to evade detection. Its dull brown coloration helps it merge with the ground, and it can be hard to spot it on, for example, a mudbank.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | February 27, 2020

Queen’s Pride of India: Queen’s Crepe Myrtle

Common names: Queen's Pride of India, Pride of India, Queen's Flower Tree, Queen's Flower, Queen's Crepe Myrtle, Manimarathu (Malayalam), Kadali/Pumarathu (Tamil), Jarul (Bengali/Hindi/Marathi)

Scientific name: Lagerstroemia speciosa

Photo location: The above photo is from a splendid specimen on Park Avenue at the southern end of Rajendra Maidan, on the western side of the Gandhi statue. It is the tree hugging the lamppost.

Description: In urban settings, Manimarathu is a common avenue tree. It is a sturdy medium-sized tree that can achieve a height of over 50 feet in well-watered areas. In full bloom, it is a striking sight, covered with pink to purple (white is also seen) flowers that thrust through the foliage towards the sky. The petals have a crinkled texture, like crepe paper, and hence the name queen's crepe myrtle. The above photo is a medley of colors: the light green ribbed calyxes that will split to expose the buds, the dark green leaves, the yellow anthers, the bright red pistil capped by the purple stigma, the light pink sepals, and, of course, the bright pink petals. Older flowers (they last for two to three days) have a bleached appearance; the flower in the photo has likely just bloomed, judging from the bright colors.

Utility: The wood is valuable timber. It is resistant to water and so is used for making boats and canoes, as also furniture, railway sleepers, buildings, etc. Further, the tree has several medicinal uses.

In the Philippines, the tree is called Banaba, and Banaba tea (prepared from a leaf extract) is a traditional remedy for diabetes (some modern studies have confirmed anti-diabetic activity). In the Andamans, the fruit is used to treat mouth ulcers. The roots are an astringent, and the seeds are narcotic. The bark is used to treat diarrhea.

Uniqueness: It is one of the very few trees with showy flowers that also provides valuable timber. Besides, almost every part of the tree has medicinal uses.

Honours: The flower of Jarul is the state flower of Maharashtra. In 1993, the Indian Department of Posts issued a stamp featuring the tree.

Tailpiece: A charming little poem has been written about the tree (the poem is actually about a smaller related species, L. indica, but we will allow ourselves a little poetic license). Crepe myrtles, you see, are summer bloomers, and most summer tree flower colors are blazing oranges, reds, and yellows. By contrast, crepe myrtles with their cool pastel shades soothe the eye.

And now let the poet have the last word.

CREPE MYRTLES
by Cathy Smith Bowers

When the heaviness of dog days
has had its way
with us, they bloom
to stay the doom

of summer's end. Such Popsicles,
these crepe myrtles,
to cool the day's
parched tongue! And where's

the truck that brought them? The little
bell? Clang goes the
ghostly driver
and then is gone.

Sources:

1. The Book of Indian Trees by K.C. Sahni (Oxford)
2. Discover Avenue Trees by S. Karthikeyan (Ecoedu)
3. Remarkable Trees on the NII (National Immunological Institute) Campus by S. Natesh (Internet). I'm indebted to this source for pointing out and interpreting the poem.
4. Sharmin, T., Rahman, M.S. & Mohammadi, H. Investigation of biological activities of the flowers of Lagerstroemia speciosa, the Jarul flower of Bangladesh. BMC Complement Altern Med 18, 231 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-018-2286-6

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Posted by: cochinblogger | January 30, 2020

Night Sentinel: Barn Owl

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Posted by: cochinblogger | December 13, 2019

The Papaya Hunt

The White-Cheeked Barbet (Psilopogon viridis) is found only in South India. It rarely descends from the trees, where its colors and size make it invisible. These are shy and cautious birds, quick to return to their safe haven, the canopy, at the slightest sign of danger. They are frugivorous; that is, their diet consists mainly of fruits.

This individual (all photos were taken from an upstairs window of my house) was forced to break cover as it was on a mission: Operation Papaya. Having detected a nearby fruiting papaya tree, it mounted a systematic surveillance operation. The objective? To get in the first strike when the fruits ripened, ahead of the other birds in the area. It would check out the papayas daily, tapping with its beak to check if they were ready. It would also perch next to the unripe papayas and gaze at them longingly in a human way.

And it would not go straight to the papayas; no, no, no! It would first station itself on a near-by mango tree, from where it would watch the papayas for some time. When it judged the time was right, it would fly to the papaya tree. It would then sit there for a while, observing its surroundings. Only after this would it approach the papayas. Even then, when it was right next to the fruits, it would not touch them immediately but again look all around. Sometimes it would even disinterestedly turn its back to the papayas. Finally, after all these preparatory rituals, it would allow itself to approach the papayas and peck them.

Clearly, it was making sure the coast was clear and also throwing any bird that happened to be watching off the papaya scent. And one day, its patience and determination were rewarded: it was indeed the first to taste the ripe fruit.

Having watched this tiny but feisty bird for a few days every morning, I became familiar with its mannerisms and calls. I no longer see it outside my window (perhaps it has found a more enticing fruit elsewhere?), but I do hear its signature raucous call now and then.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | November 30, 2019

Butterflies in Trouble


I nearly stepped on it before I saw it lying on the ground near the gates of my house. It was an unusual place for a butterfly to alight on, the concrete floor with grooves along which the iron wheels of the external gates rolled. Was it dead? It wasn’t moving, but it was upright, and the wings were not limp but held aloft. Yes, it was alive, but motionless. My first thought was that a bird had caught it and then discarded it, injuring it in the process. I bent over to see if the wings were injured. No, the wings were intact — and at that moment, they fluttered weakly. There was no sign of injury on the butterfly (a male Great Eggfly, I think).
And then I saw them — the ants! There were a couple of them on the butterfly’s body, but whatever was preventing the butterfly from flying away probably had something to with the two ants in front of the butterfly’s head and almost touching it. I don’t want to think about what they were doing to the butterfly, though they did not move. Had they grabbed the butterfly’s proboscis? Or had they paralyzed it with stings? The ants and the butterfly appeared to be locked close together eyeball to eyeball, in a life-and-death staring match.

I picked up the butterfly and placed it on a wall. Perhaps that would help? No, the ants rode along with the butterfly, and the butterfly did not fly away as I’d hoped it would. I then did something rather silly: I blew on the butterfly, hoping to scatter the ants. Instead, the butterfly dropped out of sight on the other side of the wall, taking the ants with it. I continued on my way. Undoubtedly the ants would have finished it off.

I once saw a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web. It was a large butterfly, a Common Bluebottle, and it had almost struggled free. A lone strand of silk attached to the tip of one wing was all that prevented it from flying away. The small spider did not dare approach the much larger butterfly and crouched in its corner of the web, watching intently, waiting for the butterfly to weaken from its incessant struggles to free itself. It was my first ever butterfly close-up photo. My previous attempts to get close to them had not succeeded, much to my frustration. I wondered if I should free the butterfly, save Beauty from the Beast, but instead decided to let Nature sort it out. In the photo below, you can see the strand of spider web attached to the topmost point of the butterfly’s upper wing.

A little later when I returned to the spot, the butterfly had made good its escape.


And that brings me to the most dramatic predation on a butterfly that I have witnessed. I was out looking for butterflies during the lunch break at work when I spotted a butterfly wing lying on the leaf of a plant at an unusual angle. It wasn’t moving. When I approached to investigate, I came upon an extraordinary scene: a praying mantis had grabbed the butterfly (a Common Crow) and was eating it alive. I watched in horror as inch by inch, the butterfly disappeared, head first, inside the ravenous maw of the insect (photo below). All that was left of the butterfly was a few bits and pieces on the leaf, as the mantis, feast complete, licked its forelegs and resumed its praying stance on the plant.

And why not? After all, its prayers had just been answered.

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