Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Wife The Vet

Whenever I tell people my wife is a veterinary surgeon, they seem impressed. Sometimes I wish to enlighten them further about her noble career, but I desist, many would not understand. This is not to say that I am not proud of her--far from it. I accompany her whenever she is on call; though it be a far cry from working with snakes and crocodiles in India, it is the closest I get to the animal kingdom out here in the Midlands, and dare I say, a Freisian cow thrashing about in a dimly lit shed can be a more formidable adversary than a cobra on a rooftop.
I now teach English as a second language at Telford College of Arts & Technology; I also keep house, a task I have embarked upon with alarming cheerfulness. Still, some things do rattle our makeshift routine, calls during dinner are one of them. How often have I rustled up a meal for the missus, only to abandon it when she has to dash off to a calving or a lambing. New Year’s eve was memorable, we had just sat down to a lovely dinner when the phone rang. T'was a calving. Of course the cow had to be a priceless Belgian blue, whose calves cost a small fortune, so that the farmer would only let it set foot upon the earth via a lengthy caesarean. I don’t blame him; Belgian blues have huge pelvises, very often the head of the calf makes it easily enough through the vulva, but then the pelvis refuses to come through, no matter how hard you keep yanking. By the time we finished this caesarean it was 3 am. We drove home wearily, after the farmer insisted on a small celebration. By 8 am there were more calls coming in.
Similar routine another night. Dinner ready, phone rings, call out to caesarean, back home late, gulp down cold dinner, stagger into bed when---the phone rings again. It could only be the answering service. Please don’t let it be another calving, I prayed. We have already done two caesareans in a night, and are not particularly interested in breaking that record…
Our luck holds, it isn’t a caesarean. The girl on the answering service says: “Mrs Hammond feels her hamster needs urgent attention.”

Mrs Hammond loved her hamster, with good reason; she thought nothing of asking for help at any time of the day or night on behalf of Edgar. It had been a great family companion for many years, a source of pure delight for her children-- a good twenty minutes had passed before Mrs Hammond paused in her tales about Edgar.
“Poor Edgar,”she concluded, “He is in such pain…I can’t bear to see him suffer. Can you put it to sleep? ”
My wife asked Mrs Hammond to please bring her hamster down to the surgery as soon as possible.
On examining the hamster, it was obvious that Mrs Hammond was right--the hamster was indeed very ill. But it was also obvious that its condition had steadily worsened over the last few days, not suddenly as Mrs Hammond had put it. Now thanks to sheer negligence its condition had deteriorated so much that the only humane solution was to put it to sleep. My wife duly conducted a PTS, after which we drove back home quickly.

The hamster was out of distress, but Mrs Hammond wasn’t. She called again, three weeks later. “Fifty pounds to put a hamster to sleep! This is shocking, I should have just let it die!”
Fifty pounds. We had a plumber come in the other day to repair our leaking cistern. “I’m not sure what the cause is, but I will have to open the tank,” he said when he strolled in hours later. “ It will cost you 55 quid. After that if I find that the cause is elsewhere, I will have to charge extra.” I nodded meekly. And this was not even a weekend!
“I should have just let it die!” A good ploy indeed, make your vet feel guilty. How can vets possibly think of charging people to put hamsters to sleep. What a scourge on a noble profession!

Late night again. This was a concerned citizen.
I think I just hit a badger.
Where is it..
Oh, it ran off into the bushes, dragging its leg. Can you do something about it?
What do you want me to do?
I don’t know.
Can you get it to the surgery.
No, it ran off. I am at home.
Nowadays many surgeries have decided that the best way to cope with these demands is to hire an ‘out of hours’ emergency service. The vets employed here only work nights, can give better service (at least in theory), and spend more time with you- and your pet. The location might not be convenient, but it is a step forward in efficiency. And of course, the emergency service will only charge what a plumber would demand to get called out on a weekend. Mrs Hammond will love it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Visit to the Cotswolds

Friday, 29 April, 2005 : My first experience of communicating with horses, the Parelli way. Felicia drops me off early at Chillington farm, leaving me enough time for a rejuvenating birding ramble. Spot a yellowhammer, a first! I am on a roll, just yesterday I had another first, a siskin which popped out of a hedge while I was jogging, almost making me abandon the run. Near a murky patch, I sight three lapwings. Marvel at the acrobatical manner they twist and turn in the air; other acrobats on the wing vie for attention too, barn swallows darting about the field at great speed, flitting inches above the ground. Spring is here, the birds are at play.
The course starts off well. Ingela Sainsbury, a tall Swiss blonde well respected for her work with equestrians, teaches us a novel way of communing with your horse. For centuries man has been training horses to do what he wants by beating them into submission with bridle and whip. Parelli does away with the old school of thought. Here, bearing in mind that the horse is a ‘flight’ animal whose basic instinct is to follow the group leader, Parelli comes up with definite steps on how to play group leader with the horse, who soon learns to trust you enough to follow you through hell and high water. I watch an amazing demonstration by Ingela, where with a slight inclination of her head or the wriggling of a finger, she is able to make the horse follow her instructions. In fact, I hear that Parelli experts can tame a fully wild stallion in fifteen minutes! Monty Roberts, the American horse whisperer whose understanding of ‘horse language’ came from observing them in the wild, runs a similar school of thought, but apparently his methods are not so user friendly--whatever that means.
I get a lift back home with Chris, a British woman who organises equestrian holidays all over the world, from Montana to Rajasthan.
Saturday, 30 April: Felicia joins me at the Parelli camp; she too finds it interesting. It is a long day, for a few moments my attention wavers as I see a bird fly up into a tree a good hundred metres away. I realise that it is a spotted woodpecker, another first! (This discounts the dead spotted woodpecker brought in by a friend’s cat some months ago) Felicia is sceptical, but when it flies out across the fields in its characteristic undulating manner, she accepts my finding.

Sunday, 1 May: We meet an adventurous newly wed couple--Luis Dias, a Goan doctor and Chryselle, a pretty freelance writer, who are spending a weekend in the Cotswolds, a very picturesque part of rural England. Thanks to Felicia’s job as a vet, I have sampled much of quintessential England- busy farm life, quaint little cottages, splendid mansions and breathtaking countryside. Villages in the Cotswolds are even more so, with painstakingly maintained gardens and ‘drystone’ walls, which use no cement. The houses, built with honey coloured limestone date back to the 16th century, have hardly been altered, and seem steeped in history. It is a beautiful place, but I could never live here, it is too perfect for my liking.
Nearby is a small bird park; as far as bird parks go, I have several reservations-- but I am curious to see how this park is managed… maybe I am biased against zoos, and this one will bring about a shift in attitude. ‘Birdland’ has about 500 avians, belonging to about 120 different species such as king penguins, sacred ibis, marabou stork, tragopans, ermine bee eaters, Bali starling, demoiselle crane, fulvous tree duck, African spoonbill, kookaburra, Moluccan cockatoo, and various jays etc. A few species like the night heron, glossy ibis and the spotbilled duck are featured from the Indian subcontinent. There is even a bird of prey display, where I get to hold a forest eagle owl who quite understandably hates the camera. We also see a neurotic parrot who has preened itself so much out of boredom that its primaries and tail feathers are worn stiff—I guess that sums up “Birdland.”
Later we lunch on a busy lawn alongside a stream in Bourton-on- the-Water, along with a number of tourists in the bright sunshine, all determined to make the best of the excellent weather. Bikers roar down the streets on vintage bikes to a rally somewhere beyond, children splash around in the stream. Luis helps a Japanese tourist load film in his camera; there seem to be a large number of Japanese tourists all over. In fact, the official Cotswold website is hosted in two languages, English and Japanese. Apparently, tour operators bring them here after spiriting them through nearby Stratford Upon Avon, the birth place of Shakespeare.
We next opt for the ‘Oxfordshire Walk’, a stroll through meadows flush with many protected wild flowers. Once again I marvel at the way the National Trust looks look after the countryside here; they do not ruin a heritage site with development as we do in India, instead they go to great lengths to keep it rustic, with only the hint of a signboard to guide the way. I spot a few butterflies: a small tortoiseshell basking patiently, an orange tip dancing about in the sunshine. Yellows and blues flit about happily in the fields, through which wind small streams. A grey heron circles high above, lazily riding a thermal; this is the first time I have seen a grey heron do that. Felicia and Luis also watch it climb higher and higher.
We walk to a lake where I am elated to see Canada goose, tufted duck and red crested pochard with my binoculars. Felicia points to the far side of the lake, claiming that there is a somormujo!
A what? Those are all ducks, I reply.
No, she insists. One of them is not a duck.
I look at her look at a tiny speck across the lake without any binoculars… even with my binocs I can barely make out the bird. What the hell is she talking about? Undaunted, she thumbs through my birdguide.
“It is probably a juvenile crested pochard,” I say, in an attempt to dismiss her claim. We argue some more. She keeps leafing through the book, to finally point at a bird…a great crested grebe! I peer though my binoculars once again, this bird does not mingle with the tufted ducks, and it does have a crest…indeed, it turns out to be a great crested grebe! We share our finding with Luis, who is also delighted at the discovery. The grebe comes closer later, enabling us to confirm the sighting.. another first!
(Later, Felicia confessed that it was only wishful thinking about the somormujo. When her astonishing wild guess proved true, she was even more surprised than I was!)
A great walk, I am more than thrilled!

It is five thirty, we drive to another village, Chipping Norton. On the outskirts we see an imposing old factory, now converted into apartments.At Chipping Norton we see a poster advertising a dine n’ dance. As we pass the venue of the dance, Luis sees some people decorating the hall. He chats with them, they invite us to the dance but we are hesitant--we fear we are too scruffy to grace their event. That does not matter, one of them explains, this is a wartime dance which will be frequented by people in fancy dress costume. Very reluctantly we retreat, telling them that we would love to come, but will have to desist.
As we walk to the car we abruptly change our minds, deciding to go for the dance. However, we are not keen on the dinner which is bound to be a stuffed shirt affair. The organisers don’t mind us opting only for the dance, which comes at a huge discount.
Luis drops his car back at the bed n breakfast where they are staying, together we all set out for the dance. We dine at a Bangladeshi restaurant where Luis and I relish a chicken vindaloo, while Felicia and Chryselle opt for tamer fare.
As we enter the dance hall, everyone stares at us. The men are in black suits and ties, the women dressed to the nines, with only a handful in wartime attire. We feel their hard scrutiny; I hold our tickets out, we might look scruffy but at least we won’t look like we are gatecrashers.
The music begins with a perky quickstep, not my biggest favourite, causing me to fumble around the dance floor.
However I soon begin to relax, with a little help from Felicia we manage to get by. When the foxtrot comes on, I drag Felicia onto the floor. Luis and Chryselle are not doing too badly either. By now, people are beginning to give us surprised looks. After we whiz through a waltz . a young man comes up to us and asks us whether we are professional dancers. Course not, we laugh, we just love to dance, and a good dance is hard to come by in England.
I see a lot of girls sitting alone, once in a while they get up to dance, usually with their father; they seem miserable, I don’t blame them. How often I have seen similar scenes in Goa. They say the loneliest place in the world is a dance floor. Maybe so, I have had my share of misfortunes on dance floors-- but not tonight ..tonight the best is yet to come for Felicia and me.
The next session is a jive, my favourite. Felicia and I have not jived for ages, but it does not matter; I love to jive, when Bill Haley and the Comets begin to turn up the heat, I am scarcely aware of what I am doing…all I know is that when Jailhouse Rock ends, all the people in the hall start to clap, and I am too embarrassed to look up.
There is a singsong; Felicia and I are tickled to see Luis singing away to all the wartime songs, while the Brits maintain a stony silence!
The dance winds up at eleven thirty, we drop Luis and Chryselle at the bed n breakfast, and begin the long drive back to Bridgnorth, feeling very pleased with ourselves. Ah, a day well spent!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Trip Report To India, Feb 05.

How much can you pack into two weeks? My Spanish wife Felicia and I decided we would do our damnedest during our forthcoming trip to India. And so it was that before we even touched Dabolim airport we had an itinerary chalked out, choc-a-bloc with events…three days at Dudhsagar, four days in the Thar desert behind the hump of a camel, six days at Nerul, and even a wildgoa birding trip.

With a little help from our Apple in Bridgnorth, I was able to chart our entire travel programme to Goa, Delhi, and Rajasthan. Accordingly, I informed MGM in Goa, who promptly booked our train and plane tickets. We were also able to contact a tour operator for camel safaris in Bikaner, and warn him we were about to descend upon the Marusthali.

The wildgoa birding trip was scheduled the day after we arrived, which seemed like a good way to kick start our holidays. Wildgoa trips have been in hibernation for quite a while, so it was more than just the birds that had my attention. I was keen on meeting up with Clinton, Rajiv, Hubert and the rest of the enthusiasts, --and also wanted to introduce Felicia to the group.
We visited Porvorim and the Pilerne lake; in the past they have been very, very productive, and remain my favourite sites. We saw about 45 species, including coppersmith barbet, whitebrowed bulbul, ashy drongo, bronzed drongo, common flameback, barwinged flycatcher shrike, small minivet, goldfronted leafbird, common iora, blackhooded oriole, blackheaded cuckoo shrike, plumheaded parakeet, purple sunbird, and chestnut shouldered petronia. On one occasion we staked out a little silk cotton tree for at least twenty minutes, watching starlings, drongos, orioles and bulbuls clamour for our attention!

Opposite Home in the Woods, a construction is on in full swing, which seems to have disturbed the haunt of crested tree swifts, who sadly were nowhere about. In the past, this spot has yielded bluebearded bee-eater (also confirmed by Neil Alvares), mahrattta woodpecker, common woodshrike, quaker babbler, racket tailed drongo, pied harrier, alexandrine parakeet and the extremely rare yelloweyed babbler.
The lake in Pilerne had a storkbilled kingfisher, wood sandpiper and some greenshank, but there were no raptors or even the painted snipe. The crocodile must have long since left, I think it was trapped in the Arpora salt pans, according to a Goanet email..
It was a great morning, but I missed some of the wildgoans, almost as much as I missed the crested tree swifts..

Early next morning, my wife and I set off to Dudhsagar, relying on my Yezdi to cart us all the way to Collem.
This was not a birding trip, I simply wanted to guide my wife to the best camping spot in Goa-- and I daresay, she was impressed.
We did manage to sight some birds, though… scimitar babblers, black bulbuls, yellowbrowed bulbuls, heartspotted woodpecker, greater flameback, blue-eared kingfisher, paradise flycatcher, emerald dove, blue rock thrush, and even a pair of great pied hornbills.

At Qureshi, we spent some time watching a blue jay. In Spain they have the Eurasian jay, but I took great pleasure in proving that the Indian species is by far the more colourful.

Coming back from Dudhsagar was a little stressful, we had to catch a plane to Delhi the same afternoon, and late morning we were still at Collem. We made it in the nick of time to Dabolim airport, but I had to leave my motorbike at a friend’s house in Ponda as there wasn’t enough time to go home.

Bikaner was a big, pleasant surprise. It isn’t bustling and harrowing like Jaisalmer, so we were told by a British couple who had just come from there to accompany us on the camel safari. Besides, the train and plane timings to Jaisalmer were very inconvenient. In the end, I think we took the right decision opting to do the camel safari in Bikaner.

The camel safari was fantastic, but this is not a trip for the tender hearted. On the first evening we were very sore, it was only on the next day that we began to get the hang of riding a camel, and even took to trotting it once in a while.…
We saw loads of raptors. On the very first evening we saw a peregrine falcon sitting on a fence, nonchalantly devouring its prey. It flew off only at the very last moment. Thrice we saw a tawny eagle, on two occasions it perched calmly on a small tree some twenty metres away.
We saw numerous vultures circling above, sometimes they came very close…The Egyptian vulture was very distinct with its wedge shaped tail, but we also sighted what were probably cinereous vultures and eurasian griffon. Our guide claimed said that red-headed vulture could be found here, but the rolling gait of the camel made it very hard to identify these raptors.
Common babbler were common, so were large grey shrike, chestnutbellied sandgrouse, and white–eared bulbul. Ashy crowned sparrow larks scavenged in the fields, twice we saw hoopoe and large grey babblers, once we spied a raven. Peafowl roamed freely in the clean Rajasthani villages, a reminder of the close bond that the Bishnoi tribals share with nature. In the desert it was a little unnerving to see foxes, chinkara, blackbuck and neel ghai stroll so close to the camels, displaying no fear whatsoever of man. On one occasion, however, one of our staff took off in hot pursuit of a hare. I think it was the only time we saw a Bishnoi abandon his non–violent habits. He needn’t have bothered though, the hare set off so fast, the tribal lad would have done well to uphold the image we had of the Bishnoi.

There were some little jobs too; these I noted as well as I could in my diary, for identification later…and so it was that I now have my first sightings of the ubiquitous variable wheatear and desert wheatear.
At night our staff sang and danced to rousing local folk tunes under the stars. Star gazing reached new heights in the desert; I pointed out Orion to Felicia, while our guide fished out some more constellations from the night sky. The nights in the desert were cold, best dealt with steaming Assam tea....

Our camel safari ended with a memorable journey back to Bikaner railway station by bus. It was so overcrowded that we had to clamber on top of the bus, hanging on for dear life. The ride was exhilarating, it was with great reluctance that we relinquished our “luxury” seats when it suddenly started raining. The Rajasthani men sitting on top of the bus scrambled to get off, leaving Felicia and Karen last in line. Wryly, I tried explaining to the British girl as we waited for our turn to climb down..”I am sorry, in India women don’t get priority..”

Back in Goa, I paid a visit to the Saligao springs, I knew my friend the brown wood owl would be waiting. We looked and looked, but there was no sign of the ol’ pellets, no droppings….nothing. I guess over the years his patience must have worn thin. Countless were the occasions when I stood silently under this tree, craning my neck to exchange a few knowing looks with the ol’ geezer. Each visit was a privilege, each time the wise old owl whispered new words of wisdom. Damn, I told Felicia. It is not there. He might be in the forest patch to the right, but this was his favourite spot.
As we walked back slowly to my motorbike, my mood grew pensive. All those taxi drivers herding tourists here, treating him like a street exhibit must have been the final straw for the brown wood owl.

On the way back I almost ran off the road, in a bid to show my wife a blackshouldered kite. This species also occurs in Spain, but Felicia has never seen it. Yet another of my favourites.
At home, I was relieved to note a pair of shikras nesting in a mango tree outside my garden. Last year, their incessant shrieking had me incensed; this time I was glad to wake up to their banter. Another pal from yesteryear waited patiently to be rescued in the tank in my backyard. Very carefully I fished out the monitor lizard and let it scurry off. Since the last few years, this scamp kept turning up all over our house, --in the bathroom, in our water tank, in the kennel. Now it had grown quite a bit, but alas, it seemed none the wiser.

All in all, our trip remains a memorable experience, the beauty of it all being that birding was never the priority, not even on the wildgoa trip. I wished I could have done more, but for two weeks, I think we didn’t do so badly..