Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Five ways to screw-up your first Triathlon!

- I screwed mine in all five ways

1. Get beaten-up in the water: Okay, everyone has told you about this. Everyone I know told me about it, but still I got beaten-up in the water. Reason: I thought I will dash ahead of where all the fighting will happen (just behind the leading pack). But then everyone was thinking the same. And all those who thought this were the people hitting each other. To make matters worse, even though the race I chose is open waters, it was six loops around a 250m stretch! Lucky for me that the fighting lasted only for the first lap and then it was fine.

The calm swimming after getting beaten up

2. Get scratched by the Mr. Breast-stroke specialist: You have read and practiced all about how to overtake the athlete in front of you in the swim. But do you know how to overtake that one person who has switched to a breast-stroke? Well, its simple, stay an arms length away from him. If you don't do it then his sharp and uncut nails will claw your sides or belly!

3. Now do you remember your lap? Now, while you were busy getting beaten-up or beating others around and getting clawed by the Mr. Breast-stroke specialist do you remember how many loops have you done around your 250m course? I forgot. Thankfully, there are not many Triathlons that make you count your laps in the swim stretch but there are some and it happened to be my first.

It was a hot day!

4. Wet feet and dirt go well together: That says it all! I didn't have a towel for my feet in the transition area so the result was that my feet had many small particles of dirt sticking to it and I pulled my socks over it. By the end of the 40km of cycling, I could count every one of those dirt particles because of the sheer pricking pain I was feeling on my feet.

5. What does my timing chip do? I was well instructed that I had to collect a wrist band at the U-turn point of the run (at 5km). Thats too much to remember after 1.5km of swimming and 40km of cycling. I was banking on the volunteers to give me that wrist band. Well, no surprise here, they forgot too. I was back at almost the 7km mark when I noticed this band on the wrist of the athlete that I was passing. No excuses, I turned around to go back to the 5km U-turn point to get my wrist band. It added only 26 min to my overall total time. This is when you tell yourself that you wanted to do an Ironman anyway. So these few minutes are just training miles! The worst part it that nobody was looking for that wrist band at the finish line! There were others like me but they didn't go back for the stupid wrist band. Again there are not many Triathlons that depend on wrist bands to ensure that you complete the race. Most will have sophisticated timing chips. But that is exactly the kind of thinking that got me in this mess in the first place.

Second time at the turn-around point (5km) asking for my wrist band!

After all that I managed to finish no later than 4 hours. Not bad considering it was my first triathlon on a very difficult course and after running almost 14km. The previous years bronze medalist had barely done it in 3:30 h:mm.

None of this matters when you hold your little girl in your arms after a four hour triathlon!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Birding in Ajanta!

We don't think of Birds when we think of Ajanta. Ajanta is better known for the famous Ajanta caves, the second century BCE Buddhist monument with the Jataka tales painted and sculpted on the walls. But Ajanta is much larger and much more diverse than what we see at the caves.
The Ajanta Caves are surrounded by dry dry deciduous forest
The Ajanta UNESCO site also protects 3000 hectare of dry deciduous forest in its surrounding. This forest is an excellent habitat for many of the regions fauna. It also forms a steeping stone connecting Gautala and Autramghat wildlife sanctuary and the Bothaghat wildlife sanctuary. So far I have seen over 250 species of birds in the hills surrounding Ajanta. The two key eBird hotspots are Ajanta caves and Ajanta-andhari dam. By no mean means are these hotspots well birded. I dont have the analysis but the accumulation curves are nowhere near saturation. The highlights for me so far have been Indian pitta, Sirkeer malkoha and an abundance of Paradise flycatacher.

A paradise flycatcher from Nandi hills, Bangalore
The real amazing birding in this place is during the winters. Migratory species such as Isabelline shrike, desert wheatear and orphean warblers are easy to see in the scrub around agriculture fields. Duck such as Ruddy shelduck, Pochards, Garganey flock to the Ajanta-andhari dam in the hundreds. The forest around the caves is also a great place for raptors. It is fairly easy to Crested serpent-eagle, Changeable hawk eagle, Bonnelli's eagle, Booted eagle and Short-toed snake eagle. The real excitement of walking in the forest of Ajanta is also due to the possibilities of seeing mammals such as Hyena, wolf, fox, blackbuck and nilgai. If you are super lucky they you may even see a leopard!

A stripped hyena in the scrub forest of Ajanta 
 The common grassland birds in Ajanta would be the many species of larks, pipits, quails but the most exciting so far has been the Common grasshopper warbler! I am not yet sure if it winters here or just passes by to its winter grounds in the western ghats.

The male blue bull or Nilgai in Ajanta

Indian Bushlark at Ajanta-andhari lake

Friday, June 26, 2015

Where are the birding gaps? Part II

This blog was originally published on the Bird Count India website:

Over the last year, eBird’s popularity amongst birders in India has grown rapidly. An increasing number of birders are using eBird as a platform to keep track of their bird sightings and locations and for planning their upcoming bird trips. A new feature, Target Species, is really helpful for people who want to be prepared in finding out potential new species they could see on their next trip.

Of course, all these features of eBird are only as good as the data that goes into it. So far, the eBird database contains about 1.5 million records from India. What is really amazing is that one million of those have been added over the last 10 months! As of June 2015, eBird contains over 81,000 hours of documented birding effort in India. It is a fairly rapid growth from about 35,000 hours of effort in September 2014. This increase is a combination of new lists from the last 10 months and older lists that people have uploaded on eBird between the period from September 2014 to June 2015.
In September 2014, I had done an analysis of the spatial coverage of sighting records in eBird database (linked here) and concluded that the spatial coverage across India was poor. A million records later, it’s time for an update.
The proportion of Indian districts with not a single effort based list has declined from 40 to 28.5%. These 182 districts with no effort based list add up to 20% of India’s total land area. Proportion of districts with less than 10 hours of birding declined from 61 to 48.5%. The proportion of districts with more than 100 hours of birding effort increased from 13 to 21.9%.
Total birding hours 2015-06-18
The comparative map above (click to see at full size) gives a fair indication ofareas where birding effort has increased and areas that continue to be under-represented in the eBird database. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra continue to be the four largest contributors with around 55% of total effort (in terms of birding hours) concentrated within them. Gujarat has made up significant ground, both in the total number of hours of birding as well as the coverage of the entire state. Parts of central Maharashtra (Marathwada), Telangana and Andra Pradesh had major gaps in September 2014 and many of these have been closed but more effort is still required. The biggest gaps in regions of UP, Zero districts 2015-06-18Bihar, Jharkhand, parts of MP, northern Rajasthan and Punjab remain. In the list of gaps, UP leads with 36 district with not a single effort-based list followed by Bihar with 15 districts. The table to the right lists the top 10 states with major birding gaps. If you have old lists lying in your notebooks from these area then this is the another reason to bring it out. All those birders who are also avid travellers, these are the opportunities for pioneering birding!
The birding effort in relation to the size of the district is another important parameter, eg., 10 hours of birding might be a fair representation of birds in a small district with uniform habitat but the same effort is a clear under-representation for large districts like Leh with a large diversity in habitat. The following map (click to see full size) represents birding effort standardized by the size of the district (total birding effort divided by the area of the district).
Birding density 2015-06-18
The only two states with high birding density are Kerala and Goa, and to an extent, Karnataka and Delhi. Most districts in Kerala have at least 5 minutes of birding effort per square kilometre (sq km) while 5 districts have more than 20 min per sq km and one district, Thrissur, has more than 60 min per sq km. Similarly North Goa has over 60 min of birding per sq km and South Goa has more than 20 min of birding effort per sq km. But the leader across the country is Chennai with over 6 hours of birding effort per sq km. Of course, coverage within these districts may also be highly uneven.
What is surprising is that despite the 1.5 million records, over 88% districts, adding up over 93% of India’s land area have less than 5 minutes of birding effort per square kilometre of their area.
Top-districts-2015-06-18_300pxFinally, a quick look at the leader board in terms of total birding hours per district (chart to the right, click to view full size). Thrissur, Pune, Palakkad, Amravati, Udupi, Thiruvananthpuram and Chennai have all moved up in the order. Mysore, Bharatpur, Alappuzha have moved lower. But, mind you that Mysore is currently doing its second year of the city atlas and much of this information is yet to arrive. Alappuzha and Thrissur are also doing their first year of district atlas so can expect to see rapid information coming in from there. North Goa and Iddukki continue to lead. Does this mean that visiting birders continue to contribute more to eBird in India than the local Birders?
If you are curious about the status of birding information from your district on eBird then follow this link (‘Explore a Region’) and type-in your district name. Here you will get an updated summary of the birding being reported from your district. You can look at India-level summaries, State summaries or District (called ‘County’ in eBird) summaries (eg Districts of Gujarat) . If you are uploading an effort based list from a district with currently zero birding effort, please drop us a comment here or at the Bird Count India facebook group.
Note: if you would like to explore the raw numbers underlying the summaries described above (perhaps you’d like to see all the districts with zero effort), then you can download an excel file of the data here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Catch it in -20C

The original post appeared on the Nature Conservation Foundation Blog

It is really difficult to work at 14,000 ft. in the Trans-Himalaya where the temperature can dip to an astonishing -20C, but it is even harder to play a sport like cricket in such harsh conditions. The frozen ball pierces you when you try to stop or catch it, and you can imagine the agony of it hitting your shin after missing a hit while batting! You’re probably wondering, why bother playing cricket in such icy landscapes?
I didn’t realise the significance of cricket in the high altitudes until my field vehicle broke down in a remote village in Spiti. I was alone and still new to the mechanics of an old, borrowed Gypsy. It was freezing and I was trying to fix the car when a group of people walked up to me. I thought they would recognise me as “someone from NCF” or think I am Charu and help me out, but lo and behold, one of them exclaimed “he is the guy who caught the Chichim opener at silly point during the republic day matches!” They remembered me from a catch that I took in a cricket match over a year ago! Later, I was told that they were surprised that my reflexes had not frozen in the numbing cold. Needless to say, they all helped me fix the car.
Cricket is a social glue in many high altitude areas of the Himalaya. Yes, I am generalising, but while I was working on field in the Gobi desert with colleagues from Pakistan and Nepal, we spent more time talking cricket than any other topic. Our Mongolian colleagues were quick to note that while the snow leopard ecology was slightly different in the relatively uneven Trans-Himalaya of Spiti and the relatively moist and rugged Khunjerab of Karakorum, the cricket we all played remained the same!
Forgotten deep mid-wicket!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Birding in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Well, the Gobi desert is not on the Birders Hotspot but if you are headed that way then here is what you could keep a birding eye for! Henderson's Ground Jay or Mongolian Ground Jay (Podoces hendersonii). Podoces is the genus for specialized high-altitudes ground jays with four species found across Central Asia. This bird is endemic to the deserts of Northern China and Southern Mongolia.

Henderson's Ground Jay or Mongolian Ground Jay
I saw this individual carrying camel dung. I dont know where it was carrying it but this was autumn and I could not stop thinking that this was part of its winter survival strategy. Some interesting hypotheses to examine here!

The other interesting bird to look for in the Gobi is the Mongolian Accentor (Prunella koslowi). This is a near endemic with perhaps only one population in China. This was the bird that I was after during my recent trip to the Gobi in April 2015. I could not read enough about this bird so I didn't know what habitats to search so I cast my net wide and kept a keen eye on every dull brown bird. I was luck and by the 4th day in the trip, we were walking through a narrow canyon which was rocky with mountain steppe vegetation. A Mongolian accentor sat on a rock in a typical accentor behaviour.

Typical habitat in the South Gobi region of Mongolia
Another interesting bird to see here is the Pallas's Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus) Not that this is a rare bird or anything but what is really stunning is the sheer numbers that one gets to see in one evening. I have seen over thousands in just a few hours in the evening. April 2015, I as also luck to see a Little Owl (Athene noctua), again, not a rare bird but surely a difficult to see bird.

The other birds that I saw in a two week trip in April 2015 were: Rock sparrow (Petronia petronia), Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka), Desert wheatear (O. desertii), Isabelline wheatear (O. isabellina), Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis), Chukar partidge (Alectoris chukar)

All my lists from South Gobi can be found on here.

Chukar partridge


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Birding in Sweden!

Sweden is not the obvious destination for a birder! As per eBird one can expect to see a sum total of 355 species in Sweden but most of these birds can also be seen in the rest of Europe. Infact many of the species from Sweden visit as far south as India during winter! I visited the Grimso Wildlife Research Station in Sweden from the 15th to 23rd March 2015. The biggest excitement around this time was the near total solar eclipse on the 20th March. But two days before the solar eclipse the whole of Southern Sweden was abuzz with messages of the Northern Lights being seen as far south as Stockholm.

But these weren't the two most exciting things for me. The two most exciting things for me were the opportunity to see the White-Tailed Eagle and Whooper swans!

A whooper Swan that flew by the Bird tower
Although I had a lot of office work to catch up in the one week that I was at Grimso, I was fortunate to find a desk in the glass room with the bird feeder outside.

A Nuthatch, Siskin and Blue tit on the Bird feeder outside my office window.
I have known bird feeders but I had never seen one so active. I saw some amazing birds at this feeder. A Sparrowhawk hunting a blue tit, Bramblings on their way to the Northern mountains, and the Great Spotted woodpeckers chatter.

Guest cottage at grimso
For my two prize sightings I did not have to go too far from the cottage allocated to me. I saw a pair of Whooper swans in the lake right in front of the cottage.

Path to White-tailed Eagles!
  A colleague at Grimso told me about another part of the lake behind the cottage where the White-tailed eagles were a regular sighting. Just about 200mts from the cottage I saw two eagles; a juvenile and an adult!

The main academic building of Grimso
I really liked the birding culture at Grimso. There is a notice board at the entrance with a list of migratory birds and every spring as the migrants start to arrive, the first person to spot a migrants gets to put the date and her/his name across the species. I was lucky to get my name across a prized species the Common crane!

Outside from work desk
It snowed on the last day. Although the weather seemed goomy it brought out a different face of Grimso the next morning.

Driving down Grimso's forests!
I went for a 6 km run on the morning after the snow. It was one of the most beautiful runs in my life. I even saw a Red fox and many Roe deer. I signed off Grimso with a drive in the forests and the Black grouse as the last bird!

A male Black Grouse

Monday, November 24, 2014

Where are the birding gaps in India?

The original post appeared on the website

Birders like me use eBird to maintain our sightings in a single place, to keep track of what we have seen where, and to prepare for our next birding outing by looking at the barcharts and range maps to look up what we can expect to see.

The larger purpose of eBird, of course, is to document the distribution and abundance of birds, and to investigate how this changes over the seasons and over the years. Doing so requires a large amount of information from all parts of the country. It relies on individual birders and birding groups going out birding frequently and uploading their bird lists. On the surface, we seem to be doing well in India. After all, over half a million bird records from India are now available on eBird, and the numbers are growing rapidly. Overall, 35,522 hours of birding effort in India are documented on eBird as of 9 September 2014.

These numbers sound impressive, but do they mean that we now have a good idea of distribution and abundance of Indian birds? Unfortunately, not, because all this birding effort is not spread uniformly across the country – some areas have relatively large amounts of information, and others virtually none.

About 40% of all districts in India do not have even a single effort-based list on eBird! (Effort-based lists are those that report duration and distance covered.) About 61% of districts have less than 10 hours of birding and about 87% of districts have less than 100 hours of birding reported on eBird. About 31% (10,962 hrs) of the total birding effort comes from just 10 districts in all of India! This means that the eBird database contains a woefully incomplete picture of the birds of the vast majority of districts.

To provide a quick look at how birding effort on eBird is distributed across the country, we have calculated, for each district, the total number of hours of birding represented on eBird (as of 9 Sept 2014), and have colour-coded this on the map below.

A quick glance at this map shows large gaps in information. UP and Bihar comprise a major gap which continues through Jharkhand, Orissa, Telangana and parts of Maharashtra. Parts of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Kashmir are just as empty. North-east India may be highly biodiverse, but except for a few sanctuaries most of the other districts do not have any information in eBird. Even states such as Gujarat and Rajasthan, with a fair number of resident and visiting birders, have districts with no effort-based lists: twelve in Rajasthan and five in Gujarat.

Before eBird data can be used at the scale of the country, these gaps have to be filled as best as possible — which is where all of us birders come in! If you know a birder in these districts please introduce eBird to them. They will be the pioneers for their districts in contributing bird information to the largest online database of Indian bird records!

If you are yourself travelling to some of these places for work or holiday, please don’t forget to upload your bird lists from the front yard of your hotel or from a dhaba stop. If you can visit a local park or a sanctuary that would be even better!

Attached is an excel file listing the birding effort represented in eBird for all districts of the country. Take a look and identify the gaps that you can fill. If you are planning a Big Bird Day event or a Bird Race, see if it is possible to organize it in one of these unrepresented districts. Birding in less-documented areas can be fun because you don’t know what surprises may be in store!

Another way to help fill these gaps is to dig through your birding notebooks to see if you have old bird lists from these areas. If you do, it would be great to upload them and help fill in the blanks!