Monsoon: June 2011

I went on some explorations this June, and this is the roundup of some observations and photographs made in the first month of this exclusive season.
Looking at SGNP across Vasai Creek from Nagla Block
I visited Nagla Block after two years, on June 11th. I’ve boasted about this place a few times, but I seem to fall short of words when I’m actually there. This small corridor is very different and better preserved than main SGNP. The day began with a heavy downpour, and it continued to rain throughout the four hour hike. After reaching home, I realized it was the wettest day so far of 2011. When it rains, it’s difficult to focus on animals – most are either into hiding or most of the time we’re protecting our camera from the rain, so the opportunities are rather less. Nonetheless, we saw some interesting flora and fauna as the monsoon released its bountiful reserve.

Leea, about which I talked a few weeks ago, was only budding, but others had opened their bars to the thirsty visitors. One such small shop was put up by Cayratia trifolia. Being closer to the creek, there were several mangrove plants in bloom as well. A rather interesting tree was Careya arborea, commonly called Wild Guava, which was in fruiting. The fruits are the size of an apple, aromatic, and taste freakin’ amazing! We picked up a few rotting ones fallen on the ground that were full of Diptera larva, but resisted eating it. C. arborea produces an edible fruit, and is probably consumed by the local villagers, but, according to AgroForestryTree Database, it is not commercially grown because the flowering is unsynchronized between different branches in prehumid climates, thereby making it difficult to cultivate and manage. Caterpillars of Tussar Silk Moth and Grey Count are known to feed on this tree.
A scale-less Chestnut Bob
The insects were not as common as was expected from in this weather. But seeing four species of Hesperiids on a dark, wet day is something. I saw this unusual Chestnut Bob (identified on Butterfly India) that had lost all of its scales, probably by the torrential rain. I also saw what may have been a Conjoined Swift (also identified on Butterfly India) that wouldn’t let me come any closer. Then there was a Golden Angle hiding ‘neath the leaf, and another Skipper who wouldn’t sit at one place.
Nymph of an Assassin Bug
We also came across this interesting bug – an Assassin Bug’s nymph that covers itself in debris – a good choice for camouflage. A few Leaf Beetles were seen mating, as well as a lonesome Long Horn Beetle hiding from the rain. One of my favorite beetles – the Tiger Beetles were also present on the path, and were surprisingly quick when approached – even on this cold wet day. The most common were Cicindela azureocincta, the Azure Tiger Beetle and C. viridicincta.
Nymph of a Praying Mantis
A tiny little Praying Mantis nymph had also decided to hide underneath the leaf surface, as its distant relatives – the Cockroaches were seen go helter-skelter in the leaf litter.
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On June 19, I paid a quick visit to Yeoor Hills. The weather was hot and humid, with a few cloud breaks – an ideal time to observe insects.
Leaf Beetle, probably Clytra sp.
The sightings of this three hour walk started with this Leaf Beetle in the subfamily Cryptocephalinae, Tribe Clytrini and genus Clytra. This fellow vanished just before I was to photograph it from the top for a better view of the pattern on the elytra. The beetles in this subfamily, along with several others under family Chrysomelidae are commonly called Case-bearing Leaf beetles because the larvae carry a case of waste materials on their back.
Azure Tiger Beetle - an endemic of the Western Ghats
All along the trail, the Tiger Beetles continued to amuse me. This is their peak season. I have recorded about four species on these two trails, and I hope to find more. The most conspicuous were Azure Tiger Beetles, and the least were an elusive bunch that was very common, but also very small and skittish.
Crematogaster ants believe in team work!
Just as I was photographing these Elusive Tiger Beetles, which I will continue to call them from now on, I saw Crematogaster ants dragging a caterpillar carcass down the rocks. I took this opportunity capture a photograph of these arboreal ants on the ground, with a backdrop of their habitat. In that small area not more than a sq. meter, I saw one beautiful Azure Tiger Beetle – perched proudly on animal scat. S/He didn't know what his perch was made of, and was least bothered because the perch was the tallest point on that smooth, flat rock – a watchtower to spot prey (probably ants, as I saw other Tiger Beetles eating them) that dare to wander in this Tiger’s territory. A few inches from it I also saw a Bengalia sp. of fly in the family Calliphoridae quietly watching the procession of the ants. This fly has a particular interest in ants, because it steals the ant’s prey or the pupae and sucks them dry. This was only the second time since 2008 that I saw it, and a group of trekkers scared it away.
Crab meat feast
After coming down to a rather flat surface riddled with pebbles, I saw the carcass of a small land crab – and the scene was akin to that of a feast on a whale carcass in the ocean, for there was a large diversity of animals feeding on the crab meat. I recorded Flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), Bottle flies (Calliphoridae) and other tiny unidentified flies lapping up the juices, as well as Rove beetles (Staphylinidae) and a Camponotus irritans worker (Formicidae). This is the perfect example of how scavengers and decomposers keep the streets clean.
Harvester ants busy building a fort, brick by brick!
Just a few meters from this was a battle for survival unfolding, as a scorpion got hold of a land crab’s leg and retreated in its burrow. I’m not sure if the crab got stung and if it survived. I did not get any pictures either. And a few meters from here was a castle being built – the Harvester Ant’s nest, as some workers softened the mud and plastered the walls, while some brought in food. Harvester ants are so called because they harvest seeds, and often near a nest, you may see the husks piled up. The shape of their nests is really curious, but I haven’t found any research that looks into its unique architecture.

Something interesting happened when I was approaching a small stream. The clouds were building up as a large, shiny object with two large red lights came down and perched on a rock. It moved as if with expectations – it was a fly, the largest and weirdest I have seen. The most interesting thing about it was its two large bright red eyes. This fly moved as I moved around it for a better photograph, always watching me – this kind of freaked me out! Nonetheless, I managed a few photographs up close. I sent it to Morgan Jackson at Biodiversity in Focus for identification, and he said it belonged to Platystomatidae, commonly called Signal Flies.
A cool Signal fly
Platystomatidae is one of the several families in the superfamily Tephritoidea. Albeit it’s scary appearance, this fly is completely harmless. The adults feed on decaying fruits, vegetation and animal remains. Larvae feed on organic matter in the soil, thereby aiding in decomposition, but some are also known to be predatory on other insects. While I’m not certain about the species of this fly, it sure was the most unique I have seen. Other flies in the family Asilidae, the Robber flies were very common, as well as a Fruit fly in the family Tephritidae.
Crematogaster ants tending to Common Acacia Blue caterpillar
On the way ahead, I saw a few Crematogaster ants on a small Acacia pennata sapling, attracted to a small bulge on a rather slender stem. But this was no ordinary bulge, rather a perfectly camouflaged caterpillar. And these ants had a reason why they were so drawn to it. The caterpillar belonged to Common Acacia Blue, a common, but not-so-commonly-sighted butterfly in the family Lycaenidae. Many, rather most species in this family have a special interaction with ants in all sorts of ways; this relationship is called myrmecophily. I Found Butterflies has a pictured documentation of its lifecycle.

The diversity of butterflies was surprisingly low, with only a few Common Leopards, a Common Pierrot and a Common Indian Crow seen basking in the sun. On the contrary, there are lots of moths around, from the most dull-looking to the conspicuous ones, such as this Cerura priapus. This was the first time I happened across this moth. I had photographed its caterpillar in 2008.
Nymph of Praying Mantis
Praying Mantises are not uncommon in these forests. You are bound to see a few on a trail through Yeoor, or any part of Mumbai. I came across this large nymph sitting quietly on a leaf. This Mantid was easily several weeks old, in fact I think it must have come out of the ootheca quite before the monsoons set in, and his mother must have laid the several thousand eggs encased safely in the ootheca in winter or summer months – in the scorching heat of Mumbai. This month, the mantid will definitely enjoy the abundance of prey such as flies, beetles, butterflies and moths. What’s also interesting to note is the colour of this mantid. Although it depends on the species, it also depends on the time of the year. The browns of this species must have been perfect in the summer, and they will continue to be in the monsoon months, unlike those that are green which need to be more careful while selecting a place to hunt.

The spider diversity was quite low. A few Leucauge sp. are starting to build orb webs in the shaded regions, as more and more Scytodes sp. are beginning to fold leaves. And as monsoon progresses, the Leucauge will remain until the beginning of winter, whereas the Scytodes will disappear as soon as the rains vanish. There were five types (all different species, I think) of Jumping Spiders on the forest floor.
A Jumper stalking a newly hatched Robberfly
One interesting story of survival of the fittest was unfolding just beside the path. A newly emerged Robberfly, pale in colour and with wings not ready to fly yet, was crawling on the forest floor. A few inches from it was a killer waiting to charge – a small Jumping Spider.
A Jumper holding onto its prey
The Jumper slowly approached the fly from behind and pounced on it from behind. It bit the fly, but the fly managed to escape with a strong jerk. The Jumper did not give up. After two more strikes, it finally got hold of this Robberfly – and the rest was history. Such natural history moments are continuously taking place in undergrowth. Both of these are superb hunters, but the Jumper had an upper hand over the Robber that had a rather soft cuticle, with wings not fully unfurled and practically no defenses at this stage in its life.

As I approached the stream, I came to an area where there was no one for over several meters – the best time for the most elusive creatures to cross the path. As I was photographing a Tiger Beetle in one such area, I saw a Buff Striped Keelback snake cross the path.
Buff striped Keelback
It is a non-venomous snake in the family Colubridae. There are several keel-backed snakes in Mumbai, some of them such as the Checkered Keelback, Green Keelback and this fellow being the most common. This fellow was kind enough to let me photograph it up close without being aggressive.
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Last Sunday (June 26), I and a few friends visited Yeoor again. The morning was fine and bright, but as soon as we entered the forests, the clouds moved in and darkened the landscape. It was cold and breezy, but dry for the most part. We did not go very far, and called it off at around 9:30 am. Nonetheless, this short two hour walk was very pleasant. All the Holarrhena pubescens trees, the food-plant of Atlas Moth, are flowering, and so are Microcos paniculata that are all along the path, on which I found a myriad of insects – from Horseflies resting in the inflorescence, to spiders lurking beneath the leaves.

As always, this walk was exclusively for the invertebrate fauna, and there were several that we saw for the first time. The first to ring in your ears as soon as you enter Yeoor, much before you see them are the Cicadas.
One of the many Cicadas - Tibicen sp.?
There were two types of Cicadas, probably two different species, abundant at Yeoor. One with rather drab colours with two distinct black spots on the wings (above); and the other colourful with yellow eyes and white tufts of hair on the abdomen (below). I’m not aware of their scientific names yet, and there seems to be a serious lack of information on the internet pertaining Indian Cicadidae.
Another type of Cicada, ID unknown
I photographed this colourful Cicada after 3 years, but I wouldn’t call it uncommon since it was very commonly seen today. It might have to do with its lifecycle, which might be two/three years long, with the adults emerging after every two or three years. The drab Cicada, however, is common annually through all summer and monsoon, and this could be because of overlapping of several generations, which may not be the case with the colourful one. Therefore, it will be interesting to study these two cicadas and compare their lifecycles.
The mean killing machine - Robberfly
The Dipterans were everywhere as always. And now that I have developed a keen interest in this order, I see them more often than before, yet, unfortunately, identifying them is still beyond me. I saw several Muscid flies, probably in the family Muscidae, and other related ones. Calliphoridae, Sarcophagidae and Culicidae are very common, but Tipulidae are not seen yet – which is surprising. The common genus of the strikingly coloured Crane flies, Pselliophora sp. will begin to emerge very soon. Other than that, I saw the most mean-looking (rather, the coolest) Robberfly today, beside the more common ones in the family Asilinae.
Owlfly
We also saw many Owlflies – and most likely a different species than the one I photographed in May. I think it is a different species because of its amber coloured wings, and a differently patterned, rather slender abdomen. This fellow had a mite stuck to its abdomen. Close by, there were eggs of a Lacewing – a relative of the Owlfly in the Order Neuroptera.
Crematogaster ants on their Pagoda-shaped nest
I also came across an Ichneumon wasp scouring through the leaf litter, as well as countless little Crematogaster ants on their typical Pagoda-shaped nests. These ants had just got hold of a beetle and were pulling it together to the inside. This was the busiest nest I have ever come across, probably because it was too close to the ground or too close to the path.
A large Weevil, unidentified as yet
The Leaf Beetles were very common, as has been observed on the past two walks. Tiger Beetles, including the Elusive Tiger Beetle (as I call it), scuttling across the forest path are apparently going down in number – perhaps because of the weather. Azure Tiger Beetles are also seen less frequently, but I was lucky to have come across a new species (for me). We also saw this rather large Weevil on the way, sitting silently on the edge of a leaf. It looks more like a miniature camel to me.
Crematogaster ants on a Common Acacia Blue caterpillar
The butterfly diversity hasn’t changed since last Sunday. Common Leopard, Pierrot, Indian Crow, Baronet along with a Glassy Tiger were the only ones seen today, but we did see two caterpillars of the Common Acacia Blue. This time, we spotted an older instar than the one photographed last Sunday. It was also being tended to by Crematogaster ants, but the caterpillar did not seem to be providing them with the sugary treat from its glands. The caterpillars, interestingly, were sitting on little openings (or glands) on the stems of Acacia sp., which is where the ants, primarily Crematogaster sp., get their daily dose of sugars from. This “gland” on the plant is a special adaptation by the plant, probably to attract ants that will deter predators such as this caterpillar, but I think the caterpillar is smarter, and has found a way to drink from these glands and then indirectly provide it to ants. This is an excellent example of a complex mutualism as well as parasitism type of relationship between a plant, an ant, and a butterfly.
A male ant-mimicking Jumper
The spiders were also under our observation, and the Jumping Spiders were the most common – probably more diverse in species than Araneae. This little ant-mimicking Jumping spider was kind enough to pose for a few photographs. This is a male, identified by the long pedipalps extending just in front of its eyes. I had photographed a similar ant-mimic in 2009, which I think was a female of this species. These spiders seem to mimic the Polyrhachis sp. of ants, which are very common at Yeoor.

There were several others, mostly unidentified, Jumpers, including a female of Telamonia sp. We also sighted a large Jumping Spider that got hold of a Hersilia sp. (the Two-tailed Spider), midair from a mango tree. Unfortunately, they were too high up there and the wind too strong to photograph them, but I did get a blurry shot showing the Jumper’s eye-pattern and the Hersilia’s two long spinnerets.
A path through the forest
I was very much glad to discover so many animals as well as observe some interesting activities in the undergrowth. I was so engrossed that I barely ever looked up to the sky. I might have missed large raptors flying right above me, but the world hidden in plain sight is also equally interesting. As June gives the way for July, many more interesting creatures are going to surface. Keep watching this space for more exclusive Monsoon Trails!

5 comments:

  1. Gorgeous! I totally related to your feeling of being so engrossed in the ground and barely looking up at the sky. We experienced a similar feeling at Agumbe two weeks ago, when we visited the Rainforest Research Station. We have a whole series of our finds there but I love the fact that you know so much about what you have seen. Thanks for posting. I am avid follower.

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  2. Glad you could relate Beej. Agumbe has always been on my wishlist and I've heard a lot about the RRS. Thanks for reading!

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  3. What a great series of photos and stories Ani! Love the teneral robber fly being stalked by the salticid!

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