Happy New Year!

Dear friends,

I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and a prosperous new year! It has been long, yet seemingly quick, as every year. It has been, as always, a year of tragedy and hope, yet I feel this year was a rather encouraging beginning of the new decade, for we learn from our own mistakes. We have seen things this year on global and local level that we all can relate to, all of which gives us hope of a better future. My heart goes out to those who suffered, and those who’re taking every effort to make this world a better place.

Today, we’re the most populated planet in the universe that we know of. And if someone’s watching us, they’re probably facepalming themselves at our misery, caused by our own kind. Yet they’ll be astounded to find that our world is the best place there is to be, for amongst us live the greatest people, most kind and godly, who’re doing every bit to save our souls from every dark thought that takes root in our minds – and that’s us.

Of natural calamities this year there has been no respite. And whether we blame it onto anthropogenic climate change or not, it is the duty of every citizen of this planet to do their best in protecting this sole world we live in. We’ve been battered with unprecedented droughts and floods this year, and sit on the edge of another depression, so why not take this opportunity to make a resolution to protect this world we live in. Let’s cut our green house gas emissions, let’s help our own kind, let’s save our fellow species. Let’s make a resolution, and stand by it!

I will leave you to that thought. I wish you a wonderful time this weekend.
See you next year!
Please follow Earth Day 2012!

Scenes by the Sea

He’s lived in this town long enough to forget the breath of the morning. Although he plans his escapades on practically every weekend, he longs for the smell of the warm summer air. In this town that he lives in, you can’t smell a thing. The first rains drips over the garbage dumps, restraining the petrichor from reaching your senses. The scent of Alstonia is overridden by the stench from the drains. When you walk on the street, you must watch your feet for cracks in the pavement. He maybe complaining like a subterranean homesick alien, but last week, he and his friends vowed to escape. For two days they remained aloof, cherishing the breath of the morning, the smell of the fresh air, and the sound of the sea.

By the coast of Maharashtra, a little over hundred miles south of Mumbai, lies a little town of Nagaon – a small, cosy place dotted with cottages and hotels, looking over the mighty Arabian Sea. It has been a place of nirvana for many, and dipping yourself into this sacred sea is how you attain bliss, and reboot your consciousness. You lose your routine here. You don’t rush to catch the wind, you sail with the wind. You don’t drown, you dive in. You don’t hear noise, you listen to music reverberating through your body. Did he really lose himself there? You may ask. He indeed did, and every word of it is true.

The sea was mesmerizing. The wind was fulfilling. And the scenes by the sea beguiling. We reached the cottage by noon, and quickly unpacked and set out to explore this coastal town. The soil was sandy, but mostly reclaimed by their owners. Most of the trees here were planted, but there were many wastelands that were now slowly restored by tall, dense grasses. By the roads, the most common trees were Casaurina, a tropical tree planted exclusively along seashores as windbreaks.

Under a small shady tree I saw some activity of a rather large Weaver Ant. At a closer glance, it was a startling surprise – an ant-mimicking spider in the family Thomisidae, the Amyciaea sp.:
Amyciaea sp., Ant-mimicking Crab Spider
It was busy feeding on a Weaver Ant, who had a nest a few feet above the spider’s lair. Unlike most ant-mimicking spiders that mimic an ant’s shape from head to abdomen, these spiders mimic the other way round – from abdomen to the head. The distinct black spot you see on the abdomen are false-eyes, to mimic the face of the Weaver Ants. The real eyes of these spiders are in the typical Thomisidae pattern, wide-set and tiny, except for the two median ones with a binocular vision. They lie in ambush, usually near their prey’s nesting, and strike when the target is close enough.

As we walked along this narrow road sprawling with cottages on both sides, we were struck by the sight of a fluttering, flashy object:
Tanaecia lepidea, the Grey Count
It then settled on the ground in front of us for a sip from the damp mud. It is Grey Count, a beautiful Nymphalid found in the southern reigon of Maharashtra and downwards. They are also present in the North East, but their absence in Mumbai region is quite interesting to ponder upon. It flew into one of the orchards and left us standing on the empty road. The way was deserted. Everyone had gone into hiding from the hot coastal sun. One creature that happens to shy away from bright sunlight is a skink that we found under a boulder:
Lygosoma punctata
This marvelous snake-like creature is actually a true lizard in the family Scincidae, in the genus Lygosoma, probable species being punctata. Its movements match that of a snake, and they use their tiny legs which are quite apparent to move quickly through the undergrowth. They mostly spend hot days under rocks, emerging late in the evening or at night to feed upon insects and other invertebrates.

We emerged back early evening to explore the sea. The rolling waves were sending a hypnotizing chant our way. We could hear her, and we knew where she was located, but we couldn’t see her. As we stepped on the cool sand by the towering Casuarinas, her calls became stronger, guiding our way. We saw her at the edge of the shoreline, delicately bathing and churning the vast stretches of sands. It was about two hours from sunset when our feet touched the cool waters, and sank in its soft surface. The high tide was returning, and the moon had risen one-third its way into the sky.

After a dip I returned to land and set up the camera facing the horizon:
Arabian Sea
The sea rolled wildly as twilight approached. The east was darkening, and a few stars had begun to cast their light in our direction. Visiting the seashore without witnessing a sunset or a sunrise is like visiting a garden and not heeding the flowers. The Arabian Sea lies directly west of the coast of India, and therefore a sunset is always assured, and this being winter, the clouds rarely ever block your view. I was expecting to catch a glimpse of the rare green flash phenomenon, but a haze over the distant horizon blocked our view. The sun disappeared, drowning us in twilight. This is the time when you must strain hard to see, and a camera becomes your important tool of seeing the subtle shades of twilight:
A Hermit Crab at dusk
The shell belongs to a Hermit Crab, who may have sought the shelter by defeating its previous occupant. It was too afraid to give us a clear view, but it must have been glad to be on the soaking sand, where they mostly roam around in search of food.

The evening star, or Venus, was shining brightly over the horizon – a sentinel planet that always carries the warmth of the sun over its surface. Seeing one over any water body, in any part of the world, is a divine feeling.
Mornië utúlië
And as the darkness crept over the western sky, the sea suddenly calmed down. The music faded to a murmur, and the waves sailed smoothly over the sand without churning it. It was the time of peace, a time when diurnal creatures seek shelter, abandoning the seaside, and when the nocturnal creatures haven’t left their abodes yet. We then returned to our shed, our hearts satisfied with this magical quest. There was no doubt that we’d return the next morning.

I woke up to a flash. The sun was one third its way into the sky, sending its blinding beams, flooding the shoreline with white light. We started early in the morning before it rose midway into the sky. The scenes in the morning were just as beautiful as in the evening. A heavy mist was lifting from the meadows as we walked to the sea:
A mist lifts from the meadows
At the beach, a gathering was underway as bullock-carts after bullock-carts rolled into the white shoreline:
A gathering of bullock-carts
The day was Sunday, an off-day to the bulls and the farmers. It was time to put them to their test, to exercise their muscles, and to play a sport of race. The bullock horns were polished with oil; the mane of the horses was washed and brushed silken soft. Their toes were painted, and their masters sat on the cart puffing a smoke in the air. Some of the enthusiasts gave their wheels a warm-up. Two players decided to taste the real deal that came later in the afternoon, a friendly race between a handsome horse, and a pair of equally handsome bulls:
A warm-up race
The bulls were no match to the horse. He beat them in a minute. Yet it was an unfair feat, because the horse is obviously no match to the bulls when it comes to brute strength they reserve in their bulk. It was one of the many fine scenes unfolding as the sun cast its rays from behind the Casuarinas.

A few yards yonder near the sea, that was now retreating after a high-tide of the night, a flock of hundred Brown-headed Gulls cluttered at the bank:
A flock of Brown-headed Gulls
They took to the flight as soon as a few unaware people disturbed their early morning siesta, a sun-bathing of sorts – soaking up the sun after a cold night. These gulls are in their non-breeding plumage, but as winter progresses, their colours will soon change to dark brown heads and fairest bodies cloaked in silvery grey wings. While stalking this flock of birds, we saw some very active waders along the shore in groups of threes and fives. They were feeding on something in the sand – we’ll get to it in a while. These were Kentish Plovers:
Kentish Plover
A cute little member of the Plover family, they are distributed across various continents, and are common along the Indian shoreline. These birds also donned their non-breeding plumage, which is not as beautiful as their breeding colours, yet these birds are always a treat to the eyes, watching them as they skitter over the shoreline with their nimble feet, leaving no trace into the sand that they had been there.

We also saw many Pond Herons hanging around the shoreline, much away from the saline waters, as well as a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon in the trees, a Spotted Dove, Eurasian Golden Orioles, a Honey Buzzard, Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Black Drongos, and many Little Green Bee-eaters.

I became completely absorbed by the scenes unfolding by the sea. A trio of dogs ran along the water, trotting and playing around. They sure were glad to be living by the beach. A couple held their hands as they walked across the sand, leaving a pair of footprints that remained there until the sea reclaimed her sand. A noisy flock of the gulls now settled into the sea, diving and fishing into the waters. The bullocks were piling in numbers, their polished horns shining in magnificence. A team of cricketers placed their stumps in the sand, and another day of business opened to the cottage owners.

Yet, this shoreline was dominated by something almost invisible, but in numbers uncountable. They are intricate designers, gregarious eaters, and ultimate disguisers. Their influence is so much on this shore that they change the very shape of the landscape:
The Crab City
This network of objects is just as complex underground. The objects are tiny balls of sand, created by an invisible crab called Sand Bubbler. They are predominantly found along sandy shores, living in burrows, sometimes measuring millions in number. The sand bubbles are actually discarded pellets of sands that they filter while feeding:
A network of sand  bubbles
This efficient way of filter-feeding keeps them from feeding in the same area again and again. During high-tide, their city gets submerged, the sand bubbles dissolve, and the sand is again enriched by organic matter. By low-tide, they emerge again and filter out the organic matter. Morning is the best time to observe this vast network of the Sand Bubblers. It was hard at first to locate these shy residents of the beach. But we were lucky to finally find one of a decent size. This crab is a member in the family Dotillidae, probably in the genus Scopimera:
Scopimera sp., Sand Bubbler Crab
Their exoskeleton resembles the sand, dissolving their existence in its vastness. This guy was caught off-guard, and he strode along the shore looking for its own burrow to hide. As we scavenged the shoreline, we came across a dead Ray and a dead Sea-snake. Many marine creatures that die are washed ashore, and here they don’t go to waste; there are many scavengers on land that feed on this rich resource delivered to them by the sea.
Feathers and Footprints
We turned our backs to the sea as our time was up. We had to block her calls that were brought to us by the wind. We will definitely return.

Our winger geared towards home. The city now felt different. My eyes saw things differently. It was no longer what I had described before. My conscience changed it.

Ovalekar Wadi: The Butterfly City

7 AM SHARP, said the text on my phone. I calculated I’d have to wake up only thirty minutes early.  The alarm clock went off at thirty past six.  I saw myself wake up and, as I finished the routine in a blink, stood near the gas station. I sat in the car that approached from the highway connecting the messed up old city to the new unplanned one. The scene flew by swiftly, and switched to me sitting under tall shrubs with low thickets; a late morning sun filtering green sunlight through scarce but broad leaves.

Everything was glowing softly, but it was very hot. I was looking at a boulder. Out of curiosity, I upturned the rock, to find a dead Bronzeback Tree snake lying there. What on earth was an arboreal snake doing under a boulder? I turned to look up to a passing lady, and my eyes met hers. She was slender and tall, and hung delicately from the lean shrubs. She was Mrs Bronzeback, wearing a necklace of turquoise jewels beneath her scales.

She investigated me thoughtfully with her large unblinking eyes, considering me with inquisition as her tongue flicked thrice in front of my face, almost touching my nose. I did not move. I simply said I did not kill him. My phone rang, but I did not answer it. I couldn’t move. I don’t know how, but I knew it was a she I was talking to, and that he had died, somehow crushed under the boulder. She then turned to look at him. And for the first time in my life I saw a snake cry.

My phone rang again; subconsciously I pressed it against my ear. Hello? I said. Where are you? It asked, it’s thirty past seven! I stirred in my seat, almost panicking, and threw myself away from what had been holding me down – it was my blanket! I regained my bearings about my bed, and gathered my belongings. They wouldn’t have reached far, I thought. I can reach them in time!

And I did, almost. We turned to a small road broad enough for a vehicle to pass through. About half a kilometer inside, to the right, is a little paradise amidst a suburban corner of a sprawling city, called Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden. It was ingeniously created by Ovalekar family, and it was open to public after years of meticulous gardening and careful maintenance of plants that butterflies were especially fond of.
Delias eucharis, Common Jezebel on Stachytarpheta jamaicensis
The butterflies love this place. From those with a tiger’s stripes, to the ones with gaudy wings; the largest butterfly of Mumbai, the Blue Mormon, to the smallest, the Grass Jewel, are all seen here. We were greeted by these flutter-by’s as we passed through the gates. To the right is a Mango tree, recently a leaf was brought by a Common Baron female; her spiny egg resting in the middle of the property. A few meters ahead, under a dark shady corner of Passion Vine, a Common Wanderer had laid four eggs, one of which was paler in colour; getting ready for emergence.

Scattered over this Lepodiotera haven were caterpillars of Common Tiger, Death’s Head Hawkmoth, and pupae of Plain Tiger and others. The adults – the most extravagant stage in a butterfly’s life, were all around us, some busying themselves on Stachytarpheta jamaicensis, Lantana camara and Cosmos. These were mainly Danaines, they remind me of lazy sundays. The other kind of butterflies, which draw nourishment mainly from decaying fruits and vegetable matter, such as Common and Gaudy Baron, and some Bushbrowns were busy at the food baskets – also called butterfly baits. These baits act as lure to many insects, from these scaly-winged flies to the two-winged real flies. It only acts as a lure, but does not entrap them. This free-for-all meal is provided here throughout the year, and for those who think of butterflies when they sleep and wake, such as me, it is a great respite from the crazy city.
Photographing a Danaus chryssipus, Plain Tiger
Life here comes to a stop, or so it seems. From young ones sporting a little camera, to the elders with a bazooka, everyone stand side by side, helping one another in photograph the flying gems – everyone having only one thought in mind – to admire the beauty of these jeweled winged insects. I was lost in this tiny paradise too, and didn’t come back to myself for quite a few hours.

The butterflies were seen engaged in various activities, from Common Mormons dancing together, Common Jezebels feeding on nectar, Plain, Striped, and Blue Tigers fluttering on this lazy Sunday, an old Common Lime laying eggs, to Common Barons drinking water on a green lawn – everyone had something or the other to do. One could literally see an identity in these butterflies, and although most were busy feeding, there was slight distinction between any two butterflies – perhaps because every butterfly has a story to tell of its short, but distant past. I wondered if the butterfly remembers anything about its previous life.
Euthalia aconthea, Common Baron, sipping water from the lawn 
This diversity (and density) of butterflies is not completely isolated from the natural habitat. A few kilometers to the west lays the great expanse of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, with Yeoor Hills lying to the far south. Although it is surrounded by farmlands, the topology is similar to plains around SGNP, however the trees of the surrounding area here are majorly exotic plantations, with a few mango orchards.

A few of us decided to explore the world outside Ovalekar Wadi. We turned left on the Village Road and proceeded along it, towards Ovala Village. The road was quiet, with a few farmers carrying hay on their backs along the trees. The sun filtered through roadside plantations – slowly baking the tar road. Out through the fence built by precautious mango orchard owners, flew a small, dark thing, and settled on the road:
Lethe europa, the Bamboo Treebrown
It was a Bamboo Treebrown, a rather beautiful saturnine, a close relative of the Eveningbrowns. This was only the second individual I’ve seen in the past five years – a pleasant surprise. It settled down on the road, sunning itself, and then went to a wet spot on the road – we don’t know what it was – but it seemed glad to be sipping the fluids from it – minerals, salts and such.

A few meters ahead it began to clear up a little. The barbwire fences turned into tall stony walls, guarding cottages away from the city frenzy. We saw a tiny butterfly near the thickets – a Small Cupid:
Chilades contracta, Small Cupid
It was rather impatient, fluttering through the thickets, settling for a few seconds to soak up the sun, and setting off again to find another perch. On our walk about the road, we saw a few Rounded Pierrots basking on dried plants, a Baron and a Commander puddling on a wet cement ground:
Euthalia aconthea and Limenitis procris, Commander, puddling on wet cement floor 
We then took a beaten road down into an orchard. The weather was growing hot now; it was only 10 AM. There were several thickets of Barleria and Abelmoschus, along with a few vines – and, a little city of bugs. There were congregations spread over the area – made up of kids (nymphs sans wings) as well as adults. Most of them had their needle-sharp straws buried into the plants, sucking up the juices, while some were walking around. These bugs belong to the genus Dysderus, in the family Pyrrhocoridae, commonly called Cotton Stainers. They are true bugs in the order Hemiptera. A rather cute nymph was enjoying his bottle of juice on its own:
A nymph Dysderus enjoying Abelmoschus seed-juice
He seemed pretty possessive of his bottle – which is a seed of Abelmoschus, and did not let any other bug 
near. While some bugs avoided fights, a few others thought otherwise:
Fighting over a drink!
The one who was holding onto the stem with his thin hind feet – carrying the weight of two chubby sibblings, while feeding on the seed as another kid looked on – was a funny sight. After their struggle over the seed, the four finally decided to puncture it and consume it together – how wise.

We left the place after a few photographs. The sun was getting really hot – my dream had turned slightly true. The week before had been rather pleasant for Mumbai – a welcoming change from the sultry October heat, but it was seemingly hot that day. The humidity had suddenly poured in from the sea – as the westerly winds brought it on land, blocking the north-eastern current from pleasing the city.

Back on the road, I beheld a sight I did not wish to see – a dead snake. I quickly connected to the dream – was it mere coincidence, or an insight into my morning’s trail? It was probably an insight. My mind was probably trying to tell me that this is what I’d be seeing on the walk!

Who am I kidding? It was just a dream, of course! But the dead snake was reality. It was a brutally killed Saw-scaled Viper – it could have been killed deliberately or by an accident – but an accident can be prevented. You can see the live one here.

I did not feel like photographing it. It was too sad a sight. Its death, although in vain, was not wasteful, for there were many ants tending to its nutritious carcass:
Anoplolepis gracilipes scavenging a dead Saw-scaled Viper
These ants must be crazy to feed on a deadly snake! One might think. Crazy they were – called the Yellow Crazy Ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes). I spoke about them in this post. They are common in SGNP and the surrounding areas – and are easy to distinguish from the Weaver Ants, because they’re smaller. I photographed them for a while, observing their keen interest in this large organic piece of food. Some of them scampered up my arms – but they don’t bite unless provoked.

It’s never a pretty end to a nature walk with a vision of a dead animal, or a deforested landscape, or a littered forest – but these have been really frequent endings to most of the treks. What is it about humans that take ignorant pleasure on doing this I don’t know, but there sure is no conscience in these folk.

As for Mrs Bronzeback, she never returned, and I’ll never know how she’s doing now.

Vasai Killa: A Fort by the Sea

Its facades lie in ruin, its stone walls all but crumbling, its towers are frozen in time – looking out to the sea for the past 600 years, except that they are now headless, and palms now tower above them. I’m looking at Vasai Fort after about four years, and things haven’t changed a bit. There is that State Transport (ST) bus (which makes a fine bumpy ride on pleasant mornings) that I boarded early in the morning from the city of Thane, lying to the west of Thane Creek.  The road winds and curls around the creek which continues northward for several miles, unequally bisecting Sanjay Gandhi National Park into the smaller northern range, called Nagla Block – dominated by semi-deciduous forests and large swathes of mangroves, and the southern, or the mainland SGNP. From here it is called Vasai Creek (or Bassein Creek), which then turns west and spills into the Arabian Sea. And on the northern shore, near the estuary of Vasai Creek lies a fort that was once magnificent – whose magnificence now lies in its ruins: of beaten halls, graffiti-ridden walls and nature-reclaimed corners. It is these facades of nature that I came to gaze at, at the fort by the sea.
A backlit window of the fort
The bus traversed around squat mountains on Coastal plains, emerging and exiting small towns, and finally dropped me at Vasai Station. Another ST bus bound to the fort picked me up and dropped me into a small dusty clearing near the fort. I was in late, and the nature-walk organized by WWF-India MSO had already begun.
Sun soaked eaves
The weather was pleasant, with plenty of sunlight filtering through the fronds of palm leaves and the cold still air was full of bird calls and fluttering butterflies. I was here forty-six months ago, on a similar nature-walk organized by WWF-India MSO under a similar weather, when we had come to make ourselves habitual with identifying flora and fauna of the fort, which is full of trees – most of which were planted, as well as mangroves that lie on the outer walls of the fort – all of which are natural. Now, as then, I scoured the landscape thoroughly, but it was with over twenty pairs of eyes that we got a glimpse of few of the many wonderful creatures that reside in the fort.

The trees were planted long time ago and are not maintained, therefore the undergrowth here is dense, and therefore Vasai Fort is an excellent place for the lurkers of the undergrowth such as snakes. Yet we were not in luck, for we found a snake that was dead. It was a Blind Snake, also called Worm Snake for its extremely tiny size. Looking at this tiny body of a reptile – with full sets of scales, a mouth with teeth, a body with a heart and a complete digestive system, was baffling. To give you the scale of its size, it was smaller than some of the earthworms found in our gardens!

Some of the main attractions amongst photographers on this trail were butterflies. Their populations have peaked since October. This rise in the diversity is only temporary though, as they have come from the batch of caterpillars that fattened up during the late September and October months. Many may perish as winter ages, but the hardy ones will remain.
Delias eucharis, the Common Jezebel
Amongst Lepidoptera, the Nymphalids were, as always, the most common, followed closely by Hesperids and Lycaenids. This Common Jezebel was photographed as it quickly sipped nectar from the exotic Lantana camara inflorescence. It wasted no time on one flower, and never really did settle in one place. There were others around as well, such as a Common Nawab that flew past us, a Tailed Jay, Common Wanderer, Common Four-ring, a female Common Palmfly and a few others.

A surprise sighting, for me, was that of the Rabbit-eared flies, which are not true flies but belong to the order Hemiptera – a close relative of the hoppers and plant-suckers in the family Derbidae.
The backside of Derbid Planthoppers
These Derbid hoppers are almost always found on palm trees. I had seen them four years ago at a different location, so seeing them on my visit to Vasai Fort after four years was quite exciting. I also made sure to check out the flies, amongst which my eyes quickly fell on the tiny flies in the family Sepsidae, as well as spiders such as Leucauge decorata, Nephila, Oxyopes, Cyclosa and a male Telemonia sp. Two lone Praying Mantis nymphs, a few yards apart, were seen lurking in the bushes:
A Praying Mantis nymph
We then passed through a large door studded with iron bolts, and emerged on the outer rim of the fort – closer to the mouth of the creek. Here the world was different. The stony walls kept the forests from invading the outside. It was another world. I had especially joined this walk for animals from this world – the ones that preferred water, yet deterred its saltiness, the ones that loved mud over dry ground. It was the amazing inter-tidal diversity of the mangroves at Vasai Creek estuary that was our attraction.

There is a long row of ship-repairing sheds along the mangrove line that have blocked the access to this world, but there is a small gap between these workshops and the fort. I entered the sun baked mangrove mud and settled down by a boat stuck in the mud for a respite from the now-burning-sun.

Fortunately it was low tide, but the shore seemed low in activity. There were large shells lying in the mud. Slowly, as my intervention into this another world dissolved in the ambience of this place, one of the shells moved. My eyes quickly fell on it since there was nothing else moving about. Slowly, a small, slimy mollusk peeped from under the shell, and the gastropod resumed feeding. It was one of the many Telescopium telescopium’s that inhabit inter-tidal regions in mangroves. I have spent quite some time in mangroves, but this was the first time I actually saw one alive!

The trees around were mostly Avicennia, whose roots, or breathing-roots, or, rather pneumatophores, shot out from the muddy shore. Amongst these roots were many small golf balls of mud, and burrows a little smaller than golf holes. By now my presence was completely frozen – as if I was a part of the ecosystem, and something stirred:
 A Fiddler Crab amidst the mangroves
This crab may be unusual for some, but it is perfectly normal, even with its disproportionately sized chelicerae. This is a Fiddler Crab, and with his overgrown arm, which he uses to warn off rival males, he tries to impress the ladies. His other chelicera is a real tiny on that is primarily used for feeding. The females have both their arms small and very feminine, and that’s how you distinguish them. The tiny balls of mud that I talked about are actually filtered mud. These crabs are filter-feeders: they scoop up some mud and filter out the organic contents in it (which is plenty in mangroves). The mud is discarded as a ball. Flies and ants seem to get attracted to it.

As I sat there, many more males flaunting their brightly coloured arms came out of their burrows. I was especially drawn to a scuffle in the neighbourhood:
Two male Fiddler Crabs locking arms in a fight!
A male, and another smaller rival male, had locked their best arms in a contest to pull the other down. The one with the larger arm obviously won; given the size of his chelicera, I would have put my bet on him! The other crab retreated, giving the winner the place he deserves in the ring, and did he celebrate his victory:
Uca: The heavyweight champion!
With his heavyweight arm raised high in the air, he raised his other tiny half – in addition to two feet – so that he doesn’t topple over to one side. Our victor showed off his superiority. It was a great moment to see all the males raise their chelicerae in air and drop them again, as if waving to a passing by female (the behaviour a way of saying “mate me, mate me!”). It is also a reason why they are called Fiddler Crabs, which I think is a misnomer. They don’t fiddle with their strong arms, they’re too confident to do that. The notion that it is a crab playing a violin also does not agree with me.

I had a good bird’s-eye-view of their locale, and, I’m sorry to say, there was not a single female near their arena of choice.

I decided to leave them to their hopeful never-give-up-the-search attitude and tarried along the dry and dusty path that lead to another part of the mangroves – to a small port where boats that dig black-sand (reti) from the depths of the creek, were docked. The mud here was rather wet and extremely yielding, so stepping in it was not a good idea. There were a few tracks of snakes – probably sea-snakes that do come up to the mouths of the creeks – as well as countless tracks of some curious amphibious creatures:
Mudskippers
These creatures are commonly called Mudskippers simply because they skip over the mud. And they are fish alright, with fins and gills and a scaly body, yet they live an amphibious life – much like a frog – preferring muddy regions along saline ecosystems. They are also filter-feeders, passing the muddy water through their mouth and expelling the remains through the gills.

Their brown, drab-looking appearance is only a disguise. These mudskippers have dazzling colours, as you can see the electric blue studs on one in the above picture. Their dorsal fins are also strikingly coloured in deep red and blue hues. They usually display these to warn a rival, or to attract females.

When I decided to go a little closer for a better photograph, they both vanished in the hole in the bottom left of the photograph. They are timid creatures – dashing for cover at the slightest disturbance, but they do come out soon, as their curious eyes pop out of the murky waters.

The mangroves are an amazing ecosystem to explore. You never know what might suddenly appear from the knee-deep mud. What I’ve learnt from visiting this so-called another world is that its residents are shy, but they’re also curious. If you ever happen to pass by a patch of mangrove, do wait and watch. They will be glad to see you too.

A Pleasant October

Monsoon officially came to an end with the end of September. What didn’t come to an end was the sheer variety of plants and animals that were born in this season. They grew through the rich season and became adults, and these adults mated and either sowed seeds or laid eggs. The tiny embryos will lay dormant until March, which is a short but amazing season with soaring temperatures and surprisingly diverse flora and fauna – also called Vasant Ritu (that is Spring), while some will wait for their time to come until next monsoon showers bathe the grounds.
Korigad
I did a fair bit of explorations in October, of which I already talked about Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. I also trekked Korigad in Pune district, Karnala Fort in Raigad district and Yeoor Hills in Thane district. This is quick glancing-though of the observations made in this season. I’m also spending more time on Monsoon Trails 2011Report, and therefore this post will be short and full of names.

October is a great month if you can brave the hot and humid weather. But this year, October was something else. It was rather cool and pleasant, and the post-monsoon showers lasted well into its mid week. On my very first visit to Korigad, we were glad to have seen the largest orchid of Mumbai:
Pectilis gigantea, the Butterfly Orchid
This is Pecteilis gigantea, indeed a giant orchid with beautifully designed flowers carrying a subtle sweet scent. It is also called Butterfly Orchid. We saw them in the distance, thinking at first that they were ornamental Lilies that accidentally grew in a marshy land near a farm, but our curiosity told us otherwise. When we went in for a closer look – we were spellbound by its beauty and aroma.
Pogostemon deccanensis inflorescence
We also saw flowers of Kempfiera scaposa, Chlorophytum glaucum, Smithia purpurea, Vigna vexillata, Dinetus racemosus, Exacum sp., Pogostemon deccanensis on the plateau, Celocia sp., and Senecio grahami. This was in the first week of October, however, and by the second week, half of them had vanished. At Karnala, we only saw flowering Barleria sp., Belpharis sp., Conscora diffusa, and flowering grasses such as Arundinella and Coix, amongst others.
Dendrobium buds
In the third week I visited Bhimashankar, where I barely noticed any plants except for S. grahami. In the fourth week I visited Yeoor Hills, where we only saw flowering Urena lobata, a number of flowering grasses, and, budding Dendrobium orchids which will have flowered by now. Obviously I owe all these identification to my genius friends who can never fail to notice a plant and not know its identity.
Deciduous forests of Yeoor Hills
Today as I sit and write this, I look back at the wet and dry treks – at the change in the landscape that was has been cyclic and timely for over million years. Even in this era when the anthropogenic impacts on the environment has been most severe, the change of seasons and the cycle of life and death associated with is has remained more-or-less same – albeit at a far smaller scale. We don’t – and we won’t – see these changes in the cities anymore. One will have to go deep into the forests and over the plateaus to observe them.
A Dung Beetle frenzy!
The animals that are closely associated with the plant were also very diverse. We saw a number of Beetles in the family Melyridae, several Clinteria sp., and Dung Beetles in the family Scarabaeidae, a Menochilus sexmaculatus in the family Coccinellidae, some unidentified Leaf Beetles in the family Chrysomelidae, a member of Buprestidae – also called Jewel Beetle, as well as beetles in family Dytiscidae.

Amongst Lepidoptera, the most dominant species was Danaid Eggfly:
A male Danaid Eggfly sipping nectar from Celocia
These butterflies are territorial, with the males furiously defending their territories from other invading males, and are the commonest ones to observe the hill-topping behaviour. During the latter half of monsoon months, when their populations increase, the males occupy the top of the forts, where they compete with other males for space. The females, however, are always uncommon to observe at such a height.

The most diverse in this season belonged to the family Hesperiidae – from the omnipresent Chestnut Bobs, to Common Small Flat, Brown Awl, Conjoined Swift and a Suffused Snow Flat (seen at Korigad) were all seen defending their territories as well. This is the season of love, after all, and they better have their own space!

The Odonates were also equally common. I saw more and more of Damselflies by the end of September and in October than in the peak monsoon months. One of my favorite is a Black-winged Bambootail:
A male Disparoneura quadrimaculata
This damselfly was observed at Yeoor Hills, where they inhabit steadily-flowing streams. This male, as well as two females, were observed near a temporary dam built by villagers deep inside Yeoor Hills.
Anax immaculifrons in Wheel formation
Other’s that were present were Pseudagrion rubriceps, Ceriagrion coromandelianum, Vestalis gracilipis, Lestes sp., as well as dragonflies such as Gynacantha bayadera, a mating pair of Anax immaculifrons, Luicozum sp., and several pairs of Neurothemis aurora.

Of all the creatures, the most abundant were, undoubtedly, the Hymenopterans. One of my favorite in this season was a really colourful Bracronid Wasp:
A beautiful Braconid Wasp!
This wasp, probably in the genus Callibracon, was seen at Yeoor Hills, where she was inspecting a fallen tree for any traces of beetle grubs. I’ve already talked about a similar behaviour in this post. That really long ovipositor can pierce through the wood, and inject an egg on-or-near a grub with precision. Amongst others, I saw a number of Crabrionid wasps, Oriental Hornets feeding on Honeybees at Korigad, as well as a beautiful Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae at Karnala Fort.

Amongst ants the most common this time were Tetraponera rufonigra – a winged queen (at Korigad) as well as dedicated workers in all the three places.
Worker Oecophylla smargdina at play!
Also common were the worker Oecophylla smargdina (photographed above), whose Winged Queen and a mated Queen we saw last month. We stumbled across a nest of Leptogenys sp. (processionalis) at Korigad.

The fly population hasn’t gone down, but the families that were more common in monsoon are now less in numbers, and the ones that exclusively feed on flowers are more in numbers – such as those in the family Syrphidae, as well as some members in the family Sepsidae that are more commonly seen on dung.
One of the key sightings was that of a Robber fly laying eggs in the inflorescence of grass (pictured above). Their eggs are laid in a bunch of several hundreds - and look like a frothy conglomeration.
A Robber fly laying eggs
Spiders, from the tiny Jumping Spiders to the giant, Giant Wood Spiders were also seen. The above photograph is that of a male in a female Nephila’s web. She was busy feeding and this tiny male was stalking her.
A male stalking a female Nephila
Amongst reptiles, we saw the largest gecko of northern Western Ghats - Hemidactylus maculatus - both male and a female, at Karnala Fort:
A male and a female Hemidactylus maculatus
This time, we also did some bird-watching! And saw a Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon and an Oriental Honey Buzzard.
The Oriental Honey Buzzard of Karnala
And so we come to the end of Monsoon Trails! I could not write much today. But I thought I would give a glance of how diverse October is. I hope to return with more interesting stuff soon. The Monsoon has retrieved for good, and I hope it comes back on time next year. And with the end of Monsoon, I now declare the beginning of Winter Trails! Winter is just a name-sake season here on the Coastal plains. It’s almost like the beginning of summer for us. But it is also a fantastic season to observe migrating animals (mostly birds) that come down south to overwinter.

Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary

I had decided to take a break for a month, but now I’m taking a break from the break since I was compelled to write about my visit to this Sanctuary on 15, 16 October 2011.

I woke up before the alarm went off and peered through the window into darkness. I did not sleep well that night – shifting restlessly in the bed, awaiting the break of dawn. With hesitation I looked, hoping that it wore the colour blue, praying that it were not shrouded in the dark by a delayed force that had caught us by surprise last evening. But it was blue, and that meant a clear beginning for the day. I smiled, and cleared my mind of last night’s invasion by a thunderstorm.

We reached Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary at noon the previous day – two rogues on a long road trip round the Sahyadris – from the humid coastal plans of the Arabian Sea to the tall cool plateaus and peaks overlooking the central plains far in east.

Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the brink of a humongous cliff – at the height of about 3800 feet from the sea level, with an undulating surface dominated by moist-deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, and flat tops characteristic of plateaus. There are several countless streams meandering through the forests and the meadows that converge and flow as the Bhima River, which then spills into Krishna River – providing the waters and sediments to the Deccan plateau of the east, until the very water off the streams of Bhimashankar, in bond with several tributaries of Krishna greet the Bay of Bengal thousands of kilometers away as one.
A young Bhima River
Once atop this mountain range, we unloaded and planned our day. It was going to be the best time in my most anticipated visit. Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary had always been in the back of my mind since a few years. I had only heard of its flourishes – of giant red rodents in its boughs, of scorpions teeming under the rocks, and of herptiles that I never knew existed. And here I was, finally, after planning and disappointingly cancelling it a few times the previous weeks.

Bhimashankar contains several sacred groves, which are forests protected for hundreds of years for their cultural significance. In its boughs lives a subspecies of the Indian Giant Squirrel – Ratufa indica elphenstoni, found nowhere else on the planet – and for its protection Bhimashankar was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1985.

It was quarter past noon, the sky was clear and the sun shone merrily onto us. In only two hours thence, I felt the first trickle of water, and later a deep gurgle of the skies. The thunderstorm from the Konkan plains had followed us here, much to our disappointment. The weather turned against us. It thundered and the trees shook, sending shivers down the roots and down our spines.

Rain in the month of October and into its second week is very, very uncommon. These thunderous showers are in fact the retreating monsoons, the last procession of the clouds as they parade on their northerly route guided by the western crest of the Ghats. They are two to three weeks late this season, and are filling the already brimming water bodies.

It was a rather wet season this year. On the contrary, there were drought conditions in several parts in the rain-shadow region along the east-side of the Ghats. This heavy downpour, with monsoons arriving a week early and retreating two weeks later may be attributed to the La Niña phenomenon underway this year, when the ocean surface temperature is lower than normal by a few digits. During a La Niña event, the weather is at its worst, lashing coastal areas with unprecedented storms. It is said that the following year will also be a La Niña year, and the rains might be as severe as this year. However, La Niña is followed by a strong El Niño, when the oceanic temperatures are slightly above normal – and are worrisome since drought seasons peak during this event, as it was experienced in 2008.

So we were amidst this thunderstorm when we decided to take the Gupt Bhimashankar trail that goes downhill from Bhimashankar Temple, following the juvenile Bhima River. And you know what? It was one of the best walks amidst a growing thunderstorm and a darkening landscape. It was very quiet, but in the understory of the semi-evergreens were butterflies – two Common Mormons dancing midair – a male chasing the female at her tail – a beautiful display of courtship. And there were birds – a Blue Rock Thrush, Orange Headed Thrush and a White Bellied Blue Flycatcher trying to find the best hiding spot. We walked for several meters through the primary forests – the very few remaining virgin forests along the Ghats. And it opened into a ravine, so we climbed down to it – to this magical land where the waters flowed steadily and fell off a fall as mist.
Over Misty Mountains cold
Clouds ascended from this ravine and lifted into the skies with haste, as the crackling in the heavens above rose in unison and passed on as a great, loud sigh. The music of the storm to the tune of a White Cheeked Barbet in the background of the rippling water is the best music one can ever imagine. And we were living it.

There were many fishes silently browsing in the still streams. Most of them were Loaches. So the fisherman in me came to life, and he fished the fishes out into a transparent bottle. They were not to be substituted as supper, though. They were humanely caught solely to be photographed. When it comes to study ecology, even today, freshwater fishes are studied mostly for their commercial value. Western Ghats harbours many endemic fishes in its wetland ecosystems. Although freshwater fishes of India have been studied to a limit, we amateurs find it really difficult to have them identified. Therefore I was inclined to take a better look at them, and that wouldn’t be possible without capturing them. They stayed in the bottle only for five minutes, and I assure you they were out and happy with their gang at the bottom of the stream once they returned!
Hillstream Loaches
These loaches are in the family Balitoridae, Indoreonectes evezardi, an endemic of the Western Ghats. They come in various sizes – largest being little over an inch in length, and their habitat is these slow flowing rivers and streams, as they cling onto submerged boulders and scavenge in the benthic of the mountainous regions. They were released where they were caught and then we proceeded across the stream, hoping that the lightning does not strike the nearest tree to us but the farthest one would do. We found a large Plesiophrictus, a Burrowing Spider in the family Theraphosidae on our path. As it got darker with every step, we decided to return to our shelter, and to wait out for the storm to pass – which it didn’t.

Near the Temple is a medium sized town with a few shops, hotels and many vehicles. This is the closest place to live near the Temple, and the most desired by pilgrims that come from faraway places. In the back-end of this town is a large parking space, cleared near the edge of a bare cliff, from where we saw the most spectacular sunset:
Sunset in the Sahyadris
It was as if the sky was spilled purple and pink and a speck of golden dust sprinkled upon its crest. The setting sun, the dispersing clouds, and the low lying haze over the lands below put up a fabulous show for us, as the sun’s rays were filtered and re-filtered until only the shades of red and orange dominated. This view, photographed from the so-called Bombay Point, overlooks to the west of the Western Ghats. Far in the distance hidden in haze lie a jagged mountain range of Matheran and Karjat beyond those is the city of Mumbai and the vast plains that we see are dotted by villages and winding rivers. This is now imprinted in my memory, and I thanked the thunderstorm for once.

In the night we emerged again to explore the roads that were drenched in rain. The air was thick with mist, and it was cold. A large Asian Palm Civet crossed our path and rushed under the thickets. Since it was as wet as it is in the month of July, there were frogs everywhere.
Polypedates maculatus in torchlight
We counted several ones, from the omnipresent Skittering Frogs, the Fungoid Frogs and Common Indian Tree Frogs, Common Indian Toads and also Bombay Bush Frogs. But we were cut short by the intensifying rains and the approaching lightening. And I was restless for the rest of the night, for the hunger to explore under a clear sky burned my stomach. I woke up before the alarm went off, and looked at the clear skies.

We set out on this glorious morning to Nagphani point, a mighty cliff standing tall about the rest, overlooking the landscape to the west. The air was filled with the chuckle of the Indian Giant Squirrels, the incessant tune of White Cheeked Barbets, the sweet melody of Malabar Whistling Thrush, the chattering of Stone Chats, the shrieking of Macaques and the mocking laughter of a Long Tailed Shrike.
On Nagfani trail
Nagphani, literally meaning the Hood-of-the-Cobra, is a small hike up from before the Temple, passing through a variety of habitats from small secondary forests dominated by Memecylon, to grasslands wild and green dotted by little suns – Senecio grahami, to moist-deciduous forests with large trees and by Strobilanthes callosus shrubs; and by rocks and boulders strewn here and there by the streams. Here we found two scorpions, the only live ones that I saw this monsoon, a Heterometrus sp. gravid female and a Neoscorpiops satarensis:
Neoscorpiops satarensis sps.
Several species under this genus are endemic to the Western Ghats. After consulting with an expert, I've decided to let this guy/gal be free of its concrete identity - which requires handling a specimen. She was very cooperative in our close approach – very docile and shy, and welcoming. Not once did she raise her sting in offence. I don’t know a single scorpion that is so kind! The way ahead was teeming with insects, from dragonflies such as Slender Skimmer, Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk, Crimson Marsh Glider, Yellow-tailed Ashy Skimmer, Ground Skimmer, and Wandering Gliders, all of them and more filled the skies; and beetles that caught my eye, two especially in the family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Rutelinae:
A Monkey Beetle
This Monkey Beetle was very common throughout the trail; some of them were feeding on Senecio flowers. And some were hanging around with their strong hind limbs from leaves and the inflorescence of grasses, like monkeys in trees.

Further ahead, uphill from a small temple on the way to Nagfani, we were blessed by a rare sight - that of a sporadic flowering of Karvy, Strobilanthes callosus:
A sporadic Strobilanthes callosus flowering
Since I have been talking about passing through Karvy thickets in practically every expedition, I think this was a worthy gift on behalf of Karvy. This species is known to mass-flower once in seven-eight years, however there are few individuals that flower sporadically. And it is a real challenge to stumble upon them. It is akin to finding the treasure amidst a treasure. Bhimashankar blessed us with something that I did not imagine seeing this year, or for several years to follow. The last mass flowering was in year 2008, and the next will be in 2015.

As we climbed up to the top of Nagfani, we got the idea of where we were situated:
Padargad seen from Nagfani
Over and under the cliff we stood upon flew some of the fearsome raptors on this planet – one of them was a Common Kestrel. There were two more birds of prey, a pair of Black Shouldered Kite and a Crested Serpent Eagle that scoured the lands down below. And as I stood and watched, my mouth agape, fresh air filled my lungs – freshest of the fresh that my lungs ever yearned for. And my mind cleared and fell silent. I was breathless and frozen in that moment.

The two rouges were back on the way home at noon, being chased by another thunderstorm on the way down the mountains. The humidity increased as they descended, until they felt its grip on their necks and filled their lungs with its heaviness. But I was lost in that moment at the top of the Ghats. And I did not come back.