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HindustanTimes Sat,20 Dec 2014

Rusty petals in a lusty letter

Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, July 12, 2014
First Published: 23:14 IST(12/7/2014) | Last Updated: 23:43 IST(12/7/2014)

For the last 15 years, these flowers I had collected from the Kharlubar ridge (Batalik) during the Kargil War on July 7-8, 1999, had been preserved in the folds of a letter I had then sent to my Chandigarh-based fiancee, Hemani. I recently published a short memoir of those moments and mentioned the flowers. At the time I had picked them, they were the hues of yellow, blue and lilac, about 1-2 cm long and growing among rocks till 15,000 feet.

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Kargil War flowers, rusted after 15 years in the folds of a letter. Photo: Vikram Jit Singh

I had started collecting them as I climbed from the 70 Infantry Brigade's Tactical HQs at Ganasok and 12 JAK LI soldiers escorting me had chivalrously assisted in deftly plucking those teeny-weeny petals. This memoir triggered requests from friends, relatives and readers wanting to know the identity of the flowers but this is a tricky proposition as the petals had "rusted" in the folds of the letter. I sought the expertise of the efloraofindia group of botanists, of whom Dr Gurcharan Singh informed me that these were likely to be of the Astragalus family.

"An adaptation mechanism for a special group of plants known as chamaephytes helps them survive. These are low-growing shrubby plants with buds above ground protected by the snow cover. When snow melts, the buds simply grow up to produce leaves and flowers. Since growing season is small, this adaptation helps plants to flower fast and complete their life cycle. In temperate climates, perennial plants usually have buds hidden at ground level (hemicryptophytes) or buried bulbs, corms, rhizomes etc (cryptophytes, geophytes)," informs Dr Singh.

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12 JAK LI soldiers at burial ceremony of Pakistani soldiers at Kharlubar (15,500 feet), July 7, 1999. Photo: Vikram Jit Singh

Ridges like Kharlubar receive little precipitation during summer leaving the heights as arid or semi-arid zones with limited flora and fauna. Certainly, I saw more soldiers at those heights than birds, and the only bones I stumbled across were those of a 'yak', a domesticated animal.

Reign of crystals
The tricity's birding paparazzi have not seen the Stork-billed kingfisher ever since a pair made an appearance in December 2012 and January 2013 at the Sukhna lake's regulator-end. This kingfisher is an absolute rarity in north-west India and its presence here attracted much birding twitter in cyberspace. Also missing in this region currently are the rains. But there may relief for our pining souls and parched soles in the guise of Suchetana Sen's charming picture of this bird in the monsoons that have washed ashore West Bengal's Shrirampur (Hooghly). Her mesmerising image has the bird with a fish in its bill as an offering of courtship rituals while crystalline raindrops in numerous necklaces add a dazzle to its plumage. A kingfisher pair lives right outside her house. I will now let Sen's descriptions flood our imagination and sensitise our scorched sensibilities.

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Photo: Suchetana Sen

Writes Sen:
"The couple, which I have been observing daily for 3-4 years, engages in beautiful courtship feeding rituals. Although I'm extremely confused between the male and the female, what I have found is that one of the birds brings a fresh catch and calls out to the other in loud, lingering calls. After some time, if fortunate, the other bird returns the call and this goes on. Thereafter, the other bird may come and accept the catch, gulp it down, and then in rare cases they mate. Sometimes, the other bird may refuse the catch, and simply ignore the partner's pleading. In the latter case, the kingfisher which has brought the fish doesn't wait anymore and simply gobbles the fish. However, I have seen that these birds are extremely patient and can wait for the partner for 45 minutes, with the catch in the beak. They wait with food for a long time only when raising chicks or courting. But at certain times, I have seen them sit with the fish for a short while before gulping it."

For all its lovey-dovey ways, the kingfisher is a butcher: it whacks the fish hard against a branch before gobbling it. This also helps break fish spines, which can imperil the bird's digestive tract. There has been a documented instance of this kingfisher taking out a fish, which was alive and kicking in its belly, whacking it hard to ensure death, and then swallowing it again for desired digestive comfort! Burp! Burp!

vjswild1@gmail.com

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