Monsoon: July 2011 Part I

This is the roundup of some observations made during the second month of this bountiful season. To avoid the overdose of pictures and text, I’m going to write this in two parts.

On July 2nd, WWF-India MSO had organized a trail at Jijamata Udyan (formerly Victoria Gardens) for kids. I and a few friends tagged along to explore the urban fauna, and surprisingly, none of the fauna here is urban in their habitat, but almost strictly natural – and this is what drew us to this, ironically, lost paradise. I am not just talking about wildlife caged for education (and entertainment for some), but the ones that are very free to roam inside and out of the cages. Jijamata Udyan is not just a zoo; it is a sanctuary of many trees that are found nowhere else in Mumbai, including some exotics such as the Baobabs and some rare endemic Ficus species. Getting to know these trees was a bonus of this visit, because I mainly focused on the lesser known fauna of this zoo, and this zoo harbours some amazing insects!
The city greens
This zoo is a man-made ecosystem. There are trails that take you to see caged birds and mammals through a lush green habitat of some really old trees. Yet being here for a mere two hours left me feeling exhausted, and I wondered why. Why is it that a six hour hike in the forests less tiring than one in this man-made ecosystem? The answer lies in the question. The city air much polluted, and the air quality in the zoo is very similar to the quality of this busy city, leaving us feeling tired. But this doesn’t happen at SGNP, which is well within the city boundary – perhaps because the tree cover here is much, much greater than the number of vehicles. Nonetheless, a short walk in the zoo was completely worth it, because I found a few species that I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Diacamma rugosum on a wet tree trunk
One such species is of an ant Diacamma rugosum. I had seen this ant in 2009 at Matheran. I searched for them after coming back to Mumbai, but never stumbled upon them until now. These ants are very commonly seen scavenging on the ground throughout the zoo, but photographing them was a real challenge due to bad light and wet conditions. Another species that I had seen only at Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve was Myrmicaria brunnea. These ants, too, are very common at the zoo, but I haven’t seen them in the forests around Mumbai yet. Other than these, Tetraponera allaborans, a really beautiful ant, along with its relative T. rufonigra, both arboreal in habitat, are also seen in the zoo. The other common ones we saw were Paratrechina longicornis, Camponotus sp., Crematogaster sp. and probably Monomorium sp.
Mud-dauber Wasp, probably Chalybion sp.
We observed a really interesting behaviour of a wasp while watching some plants. At first we thought the poor wasp was trapped in a Tent spider’s web (Cyrtophora sp.), and struggled hard to escape – but she was way smarter than we imagined. After apparently releasing herself form the web, she re-entered this 3D maze and started chasing the spider. Her aim was to sting the spider and take it to her nest. She was a mud-dauber wasp (probably Chalybion sp.). She dashed in and out several times, maneuvering through the web to catch hold of the spider, which was also pretty quick and difficult to hunt down. After several attempts, she took a break on a leaf blade and then continued to chase other spiders in the vicinity.
The one who escaped - Cyrtophora sp.
This was the first time that I saw a wasp so cunningly fly through a web especially designed to be a maze. Now this made me wonder if spiders known to create elaborate traps, build it only to catch prey, or do they design the webs so that they don’t fall prey themselves? Since the web of some Cyrtophora is rather complex, could this wasp be one of the reasons for such an elaborate web design?
Two-tailed Spider, Hersilia sp.
We also saw a few Two-tailed spiders (Hersilia sp.) on a tree trunk. They are fairly common in urban areas as well, but less likely to be seen because of their superb camouflage. Thanks to the rains, I’ve never been able to photograph them properly. According to my observations, the smaller ones (different species?) tend to be a meter or two from the ground, and the really big ones that reach the size of our palm, prefer to be higher in the tree where the branches are big enough to hide them.

This was all that I could find within two hours. It was worth visiting the zoo after four years. Fortunately, the total revamp of this zoo that might have involved uprooting of trees and some heritage buildings was pulled down, and a new design that will cause least disturbance to the resident flora is on its way. This zoo really is a blessing in disguise – an ideal place for someone who wants to get to know nature a little better. It also presents ample opportunities for learning nature photography, as lots of insects and birds free or otherwise, are easier to approach than in the wild. Unfortunately, there is no staff to answer your questions and give you information on all the animals of the zoo, making this zoo just another amusement park. But if you haven’t really visited your local zoo yet, pay a visit soon and look closely for those that are free to roam around.

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On Sunday June 11th I and a few friends visited Yeoor Hills again. This was my third visit to Yeoor. The rains have come back in full force, and the Yeoor’s hotspot for tourists is now banned by the Forest Department. This is actually a good idea, not only to save lives, but also to protect this biodiversity hotspot from getting disturbed from the hordes of visitors. This is also a bad thing for naturalists, because they aren’t allowed inside either, so we explored the forests along the villages.

Once we entered the hills, we were welcomed by a heavy downpour that downed our hopes of a good outing. This was a great blow to my expectations after a long week. This downpour that I so dearly regretted was actually well deserved. We’re into middle of July and the rains have been exceptionally scanty compared to last year’s, so any rain heavy or scanty is more than welcomed. With as much surprise it arrived, it waned and there was a break in the clouds. The sun gleamed on squeaky clean leaves, and the ones who were expecting the sun more than I was, came out of their hiding.
A drop carrying a million fungal spores
Two years ago, a huge tree fell from suspicious reasons – probably by the encroaching villages. This tree provided a stratum for a variety of living things. Fungi are very important decomposers of wood. They weaken the cellulose and allow other decomposers – primarily insects, to do the rest of the work. There were at least nine different types of fungi visible on the wood.
Coral Fungus, Dacryopinax spathularia?
Some of them were startling in appearance, such as this Coral fungus, probably Dacryopinax spathularia. These fungi provide an invaluable service of decomposition, as well as are attractive to many insects. We saw many beetle grubs feeding on the fungus and many tiny flies attending to the mushrooms.
Ichneumon Wasp ovipositing
While photographing these mushrooms, I saw a tiny wasp fly around the lower side of an overhanging branch. This wasp, after inspecting the damp, soft wood, bent its abdomen over and inserted its needle like ovipositor into the wood. She was a beautiful Ichneumon wasp laying eggs. But she wasn’t just laying eggs randomly in the wood. Ichneumon wasps are clever parasitoids of other insect larva, such as flies, beetles and butterflies. They use their super sensitive antennae to detect the host under the rotting wood, and skillfully use the ovipositor to lay an egg on the host with precision. She used her ovipositor four times at different places but in close proximity, either to lay eggs or just to inspect the location. This was the first time I saw a wasp lay an egg, and although I tried photographing it (the picture is actually upside down), I tended to either underexpose or burn the image.
Mud-dauber Wasp exploring the undergrowth
Later that day, we saw a large wasp belonging to the family Sphecidae, a Mud-dauber. She was exploring the undergrowth, probably looking for caterpillars, katydids or spiders to sting them and stock them for her offspring. After searching a while, she took a break and cleaned her wings a bit, and then grabbed the stem by her mandibles and stretched her legs, such an interesting way to stretch! This month has been especially good for observing wasps, and there’s a lot more to explore and learn about them.
A Bush Cricket, Sathrophyllia sp.
There were many Katydids on a nearby Teak tree, both male and female, almost one each on a leaf. And while exploring a nearby thicket, we flushed a large, cryptic katydid that landed on grass. After photographing it, I placed it on the fallen log, where it retained its defensive position by pressing its legs against the bark. This Katydid possessed ridges and thorns to break the shadow to avoid revealing its presence. It is probably one of the several species in the genus Sathrophyllia, family Tettigoniidae.
A Grasshopper nymph, Acrida sp.?
There were several grasshoppers around too. This little nymph, probably Acrida sp., was accidentally flushed onto the fallen log, where s/he posed for all of us. It was especially hard to keep the greens in tone, without completely underexposing the wood.
Wandering Glider or Globe Trotter, Pantala flavescens
All around this little meadow, flanked by an ever encroaching hedge on the east and the dense woods to the west, there was a large swarm of several dragonflies. The most abundant were Pantala flavescens, the Wandering Gliders, probably the most famous dragonflies in the world. It was very difficult to photograph them in flight, but I chanced upon this resting male on a small shrub. There were several Darners (family Aeshnidae), and a female Tholymis tillagra. This might have been a mixed swarm dominated by the migratory P. flavescens. A very interesting talk about their migration can be seen on TEDtalks.
Camponotus (angusticolis?) at the Leafhopper vending machine
I saw the Polyrhachis sp. in abundance that day, as well as a huge number of Anoplolepis gracilipes (the Yellow Crazy Ants) attending aphids and mealy bugs on a small tree. A. gracilipes are very common in Yeoor, and several super colonies exist in certain areas that can literally wipe out the biodiversity of the area under their territory – be it reptiles, arachnids or other insects. There was also this above photographed Camponotus sp. of ant who sat patiently behind a Leafhopper. She nudged the hopper subtly with her antennae, encouraging the hopper to provide her a little treat. The hopper, with the proboscis still piercing the leaf, raised its forelimbs in a defensive stance, but s/he knew that the ant is friendly, and did not try to escape.
A Praying Mantis that recently molted
One of us also spotted this Praying Mantis with shriveled wings. It is likely that it had molted that night, and had recovered its colours to match the surrounding, since recently molted arthropods are pale in colour, but I wonder how long it would take the mantis to pump some blood into its wings to unfurl them. This mantis was also very active, and didn’t let us approach any closer.
Horsefly, Haematopota sp.
We also saw several flies in the family Muscidae, Sarcophagidae, Calliphoridae, Dolichopodidae, Asilidae, Tabanidae and, probably Tachinidae - the family I'm currently in search of. I photographed this beautiful Horsefly (family Tabanidae), Haematopota sp. as it rested on a leaf, for a change. I was bitten thrice by these little buggers, and I swatted one, but this fellow, I let it go.
Yamfly, Loxura atymnus
The butterfly activity is rapidly picking pace as many butterflies have already started mating and laying eggs. I was very fortunate to have seen this Yamfly basking in the sun. This is only the second time I have seen this butterfly that is rather uncommon in Mumbai. I saw it last in 2007, about which I wrote in Revisiting Nagla Block. This beautiful Lycaenid is not as common in the region as its host plant, Smilax sp. Some of us also saw a Sunbeam in the nearby area. There was a mating pair of Common Ceruleans near a Butea monosperma who decided to go up in the canopy, away from us crazy onlookers.
Common Ceruleans, Jamides celeno mating pair
I made this image after they decided to pose up close no more. This photograph is a cropped version of the original. There was a female laying egg on the B. monosperma too, and I can imagine how tight the competition must be to lay eggs before the plant is overcrowded. This commonly occurs in the insect world, and some butterflies don’t lay eggs on a plant that is already taken – just to avoid competition between the caterpillars. A Common Grass Yellow butterfly was also seen laying eggs on a plant belonging to Fabaceae family. These butterflies, however, lay eggs in abundance on a plant; sometimes the number of eggs laid exceeds the number of leaflets!
Clearwing moth, Synathedon sp.?
One of the most interesting findings for me was a Clearwing moth, probably Synathedon sp. in the family Sesiidae. They are excellent mimics of wasps, and I, at a first glance, thought it was either a Scoliid or a Sphecid wasp. Only when it settled to bask in the sun that I realized that this was something else. Their caterpillars are stem borers – eating the stems from the inside. Some of us also saw a Clearwing Bee-hawkmoth, Cephonodes hylas sitting very patiently on a leaf – just when I was engrossed somewhere else.
Hersilia sp., female bottom left and male top right
I saw a pair of the Two-tailed spiders, which I talked about previously in this report, but this time – a male and a female pretty close to each other, and several species of Jumping Spiders that are yet unidentified. The spiderlings of the Giant Wood Spider, Nephila sp., measuring barely an inch across, have started making their own orb-webs in the undergrowth. As the season progresses, they will build their webs higher and higher, and by October, their webs will be several meters up in the canopy!
Land Snail
Another small, delicate, calm creature of the woods, a land snail, was seen patiently going up a tree stump. The serenity painted by the snail and the water dripping from the fungus at its own pace made me forget that this is a human dominated planet, until this came in front of my eyes:
When will be stop being so careless?
A junk bag of junk food that will probably lie in Yeoor for another million years, even after a billion insects have come and gone. Some insects might seek shelter inside it from the rain, and some might eat it and choke to death. With this in my viewfinder, I saw a group of picnickers in this part of the forest – not village kids, but people from the cities, who so ignorantly eat, drink and throw garbage in the forests. Plastic pollution is a cause of concern in all parts of the world, and I just fail to understand why such people don’t realize that they’re harming not only the ecosystem, but our own future.

It’s sad to end a report on a sad note, so here’s a picture of two mushrooms soaked in the rain, ready to spread spores and carry on the process of decomposition of this big piece of tree. Until it is all gone, it will be a sanctuary to countless little insects, reptiles as well as birds and mammals.
A pair of Mushrooms looking over the lush greens
Part II will be published next month. Thank you for reading!

5 comments:

  1. I learn so much from reading your blog. It's fascinating. Never seen a Clearwing moth before. Are they closely related to Handmaiden Moths, and are they much larger?

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  2. Thank you for reading Beej! The Clearwing moth is almost the same size as the Handmaiden moths, maybe a little bigger, but they're closely related to Hawkmoths (family Sphingidae).

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  3. My! You found so much to see. I am going to have to read this again because I know I did not get everything the first time. It is a shame they had to tear down historic buildings to upgrade the park. I will wait impatiently for the next part.

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  4. I love all your photo's, but my favourite today is the first one 'the city greens'. Simple and effective.

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  5. Another wonderful post Ani! The photos are so beautiful and detailed. Enjoyed reading the information.

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