Monsoon Expedition: Manikgad

Like every conqueror, we’ve had our share of defeats. As we walked thwarted, beaten down and embarrassed; and looked back at Manikgad, and at the grimace it bore over its rocky terrain, we swore to return again. You may now have realized that we could not conquer, well, step at the top of Manikgad. And as disappointed as we were, I came home with not sadness, but sheer joy – all thanks to what Manikgad’s amazingly diverse flora and fauna revealed to us.
The elusive Manikgad
This fort, for its lack of publicity, receives least attention from tourists, and its paths are rarely used except by villagers. In fact, the residents of the closest town of Chowk have no idea that there exists a fort hardly ten minutes from their homes. Due to the lack of awareness, this fort is only enthusiastically approached by those who’re keen on trekking in lush green as well as least known terrains. Manikgad offers both, including a variety of habitats from moist deciduous forests to beautiful stream ecosystems and lavish meadows.

Although our trek was a failure, for we were lost amongst a number of diversions in the path, the journey was well worth it. All we did was go round the fort as some of us scouted the woods for a path or a way to cut through the forest and reach a crevice into the side of the fort – the only way to the top. By the time we got to it, it was too late, and we had already planned to return home by early evening. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the biodiversity of Manikgad as I focused my camera on the tiniest to the largest thing I could see on our journey.

The very first ghost to catch our eye was Aeginetia indica:
Aeginetia indica
It is a root parasite, commonly known as Forest Ghost Flower (several other plants are also known by this name). We first saw it at Naneghat, but they were not blooming then. They were numerous at the foothills, finding root under shady trees large and small. I think they prefer a variety of host plants to suck onto their roots.
A meadow and a stream
There were many more flowering plants in the meadows – such as Impatiens balsamina, Murdania sp., Helecteres isora, Celosia sp., Leea macrophyla and several others. One particular that I saw for the first time was Eriocaulon tuberiferum:
Eriocaulon tuberiferum
It is an annual plant associated with slow flowing water in plateau and meadow regions. They are most abundant in some parts of Sahyadris, especially at Kas Plateau. They were present in good numbers here, but only where there was reduced grass cover such as near rocky surfaces.

The insect diversity was exceptionally good and slightly different than found on other forts, probably because of the change in the season. As the peak monsoon season is slowly waning, the rain is getting intense as well as scarce at the same time. The heat and humidity is getting intense as well, and will gradually increase until we are into the month that is most biologically active as well as hottest.

The first few insects that were most common throughout the trail were Crickets and Katydids:
An unidentified Katydid
I’m still unsure of its identity. It is a female, identifiable from the round abdomen and the visible ovipositor at the end.  Another common Katydid in the subfamily Trigonidiinae were found sitting atop small leaves.

While crossing a ridge with a deep fall on one side and large rocks on the other, some of us were attacked by terrorizing crickets, ten thousand strong. But in reality, they were jumping for their life, terrorized by our trespassing company, and ended up on our heads – imagine the horror of jumping right into your death?Ironically, some of us were going through the exact same phase as these crickets:
The battle of thousand antennae
I didn’t bother to count the number of antennae in the above picture, but you get the idea.

On this expedition I was pretty excited to find a cockroach! But it was no ordinary one:
Eucorydia sp. (?)
This colourful cockroach was also slightly furry, and had it been the size of a Guinea Pig, I’d keep it as a pet! (Don’t be surprised, cockroaches in the genus Therea are kept as pets!). The above species belongs to Polyphagidae. Cockroaches in the order Blattodea are more so known as pests in homes. But there are many really stunning ones out there in the forests that do some very important work towards the ecological community. Most cockroaches are scavengers, feeding on dead and decaying plant and animal matter, and we were glad to have come across this:
Cockroach on Balsam flower
What is this cockroach nymph doing inside an Impatiens balsamina flower? It may ruin the aesthetics of a pretty flower for some, but this cockroach is doing something really important. It was either feeding on the nectar or the pollen, and, in turn, helping pollinate this plant. There are several beautiful species of Cockroaches found in the Western Ghats, some of them might as well be endemic, but this is a largely undiscovered treasure in terms of research.

In every clearing we reached, there were little aerial predators swiftly swooping over unsuspecting bugs. These air troopers were none other than swarms of dragonflies. The most common, as always, were Pantala flavescens, but there were a number of Tramea limbata as well. I did not know that T. limbata swarm, as I’ve always seen solitary individuals near marshes and other still water bodies such as lakes. There were several Orthetrum sabina around as well, but they did not participate in the swarm and stuck to a niche under one or two meters height (very particular of this species).

There were other predators lurking in the undergrowth as well. They were Spider Wasps in the family Pompilidae. They are strictly solitary wasps, only coming together for mating, but it was interesting to find two individuals probing the same area for a kill. We also came across the nest of a social wasp – the Paper Wasps:
Busy Paper Wasps
These wasps, actually only one Queen Wasp, must have chosen this location wisely – amidst a dried thorny plant. They don’t really require any protection, for they carry a lethal weapon at the end of their abdomen – a sting. Paper wasps are usually docile creatures, often warning before striking. If you approach too close, some members may start vibrating their wings while others will leave the nest and move away. I have had the fortune (?) of being stung by ten of these at Dandeli National Park in 2009 as we were brushing through thick forests. I happened to grab hold of a small bamboo shrub containing a rather large Paper Wasp nest. They stung my exposed forearm and it burned like hell. I could not think of anything. All I wanted to do is just get the hell out of that hand. Luckily, my hand did not swell and I was alright within an hour. Had I been stung on my face – it would have swelled like this. This nest was pretty active, as we can see two wasps chewing and softening the prey they brought to feed the grubs.

The Yellow Crazy Ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes:
A Yellow Crazy Ant scouts the wet forest floor
Is also found in the forests surrounding Manikgad. This ant, a well-known pest species around the globe, has the capability of creating supercolonies and the capacity to wipe out the entire invertebrate diversity of their territory. The origin, or nativity of this ant is unknown, but it is thought to have come either from Africa or south Asian countries including India.

One of my key finds was an unusual beetle in the family Ripiphoridae:
A sleepy Bald Beetle (family Ripiphoridae)
There are (only) about 450 species classified in this family of beetles. They are commonly called Wedge-shaped beetles for some weird reason. They are also rather weird looking, some of which closely resemble flies. And interestingly, their lifecycle is pretty weird as well! These beetles are mostly parasitic on bees and wasps. The female lays eggs on the flower, and as soon as the larvae hatch, they wait for a passing by host – such as a wasp or a bee, and hitchhike on its body. When the host goes to the nest, they enter cell of a larva (source), and the larva never sees the light of the day.

Our beetle here probably belongs to the genus Macrosiagon, I call it the bald beetle. As predicted, there is some serious lack of literature (on the internet, at least) on this family pertaining to the Indian region. I was very glad to have recorded a new family in my book. We also found a Blister Beetle feeding on Trichodesma inaequale flower:
A grooming Blister Beetle, Mylabris pustula
This blister beetle – Mylabris pustula was seen grooming itself after getting soaked in the rain. They are rather common during this season, as swarms of these (+10 individuals) are commonly seen in a mating frenzy in some areas in the northern Western Ghats. They are considered pests because of this behaviour, in addition to their voracious appetite for flowers. These beetles belong to the family Meloidae, and are known to exude a fluid when threatened called Cantharidin, which can cause blisters. So we stayed away from this fellow, since disturbing it during the grooming session would not be good for us, especially if it was a she.

I did not miss on the flies. They are rather special to me, but apparently, their numbers are going down as monsoon progresses – something we must reconfirm in future monsoon seasons. I saw the Stalk-eyed Fly again:
Stalk-eyed Fly, Teleopsis sp.
And this time again, it was too wary of my advances. He flew at the slightest movement, and vanished somewhere in the thickets. These flies belong to the family Diopsidae and in the genus, most likely, Teleopsis. The males compete with one another to win over a female by facing each other and moving side-to-side. It looks rather funny, but this is a really delicate, polite way of fighting. The females, not surprisingly, prefer males with longer stalks…

The Lepidoptera diversity was pretty low for this time of the year, with only a handful of Danines fluttering around in the still air. When we reached near a clearing close to a stream, we found a colony of Plains Cupids feeding on Celosia inflorescence:
Plains Cupid, Chilades pandava on Celosia
This is the best season to observe these butterflies as they come out in great numbers – not only in such remote locations but within city limits as well.

Of all these sightings, I was very, shamelessly, partial towards one particular creature that I’ve been waiting to see for years. It is not so easily seen, especially during daytime. It is also not easily seen closer to any meadow, for it prefers deep and dark places. It is a ghost. Enter, the Net-casting Spider:
Net-casting Spider, Deinopis sp.
This spider belongs to the family Deinopidae, and (probably) only one published genus is known from the peninsular India – Deinopis sp., literally meaning ‘fearful-looking’ for this reason:
Does he look scary to you?
Their habit of catching prey is even more fearful. These spiders, true to their common name, create a web and hold it in the front two pair of legs. As an unsuspecting prey passes by, the spider launches its net by extending its legs and captures it in the trap. These spiders are nocturnal hunters, creating such elaborate net-like web in the night hours. Their large eyes aid them in hunting efficiently at night. During the day, they mostly just rest through a string of web. Our model here was a handsome male.

Another interesting spider I accidentally came across, just after encountering the previous ghost was a spider in the family Araneidae, the Orb-weavers. I’m still unaware of its identification – it may belong to Polyts sp.:
Polyts sp., family Araneidae
By now we had an idea that we couldn’t make it to the top and we were lost. We reached the pathar, meaning plateau, three hours later, which we should have passed within an hour. But these sightings kept me going. I did not worry about the destination anymore. Just as we were taking a break on the plateau, we saw a large bird scanning from high in the sky:
White-rumped Vulture, Gyps bengalensis
To my astonishment, they were White-rumped Vultures. Not one but three in numbers! Vulture populations took a hit in the last few decades and came spiraling down to a handful of individuals. Now that Diclofenac is banned, and thanks to the breeding and conservation centers across the subcontinent, the vulture populations are slowly gaining numbers. Vultures are not only scavengers, but an excellent indicator that the habitat is in balance. Manikgad is known to have a good population of large wild mammals, as well as there are cattle from the nearby villages which, when they die, most likely serve as a treat to these vultures. What a day! I said to myself, overlooking our failure to conquer the fort.

By the time it was past noon, we heard a deep and sharp roar from up above. The clouds piled in the western sky:
Storm in the west, with Karnala Fort in the backdrop
And soon, one of my favourite moments in the wild, when you have a bright sunny side contrasting the dark gloomy opposite created a spectacle worth experiencing:
Two sides of Manikgad during the approaching storm
Manikgad shone on one hand with the sunlight, and darkened on the other by the approaching storm. This was the last time we looked back in disappointment before the rain lashed and soaked us from head to toe.
Although Manikgad was a rather easy climb, it is not possible to conquer each and every fort, unless we directly cut through the vegetation and invade the fort without much regard to the forests and its residents around. Take a look at this little snail:
"Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time"
This little snail could have easily climbed straight down on this Helecteres isora fruit, but instead chose to spiral around its spiraling pods. Why? Because it is fun!

Some of my companion conquerors are returning to capture Manikgad this weekend. I bow to their never-give-up attitude. I have to visit an old friend this weekend, so my dissatisfaction with the Manikgad trek shall continue to haunt until maybe next year, but I'll see you next month!

Monsoon Expedition: Naneghat

On the eve of Independence Day, we set on a long road trip to a really unique destination in the northern Western Ghats called Naneghat. Naneghat literally means Coin-passage. It has an interesting history behind the name. It was used as a trading route centuries ago between Kalyan and Junnar. In those times, coins were collected as toll to cross via the pass, and hence the name.

An aerial view of Naneghat gives a fantastic look at its geography. It is a fascinating landmark in the northern Western Ghats well known throughout the history. But that’s not it. Naneghat was a passage not only for our ancestors, but many, many other creatures small and large that could not tread the sheer drop from the plateau.

As we went on to explore this historically significant landmark, we enthusiastically scoured the biodiversity of this region, which is rather pristine, and came to a point of exhaustion where all that mattered was reaching the end. Let’s take a look as we lost our way amidst the beauty and reached the edge of the cliff of this Sahyadri range called Naneghat:
Naneghat: The Beginning
Our journey began with much delight. As soon as we had our cameras ready, we saw an Indian Grey Hornbill sitting preening itself on a tall, bare tree:
Good Morning, Mr. Hornbill (and a Red-vented Bulbul)
It sat quite far for my camera’s reach, but sighting a Hornbill sitting in the open was a sure sign that Naneghat has a lot of offer. Very soon, we were walking on an empty path surrounded by lush green grass and broad-leaved Teaks. As always, I was lagging quite behind the company, trying to find some creature amidst this darkening landscape. I have a habit of scanning tree trunks for several seconds, especially those that are dark and rough in texture – such places are excellent to observe these:
Hersilia sp., pair
Now this is the third time I’ve displayed these spiders within three months – but this one was special, because it was also the first time I saw a male spider copulating a female. If you’ve read the previous Monsoon Trail articles, you probably know that if you see a female Two-tailed Spider, a male is almost always nearby. This time though, he was piggybacking her – a behaviour common throughout all spider families. Interestingly, they did not “unite” but he sure was trying to persuade her. After copulation, the female will lay several hundred eggs in a depression on the tree trunk, and spin the silk around it. She will sit by guarding the egg-case until the spiderlings hatch.

 While photographing them, I heard a few shouts by my name and decided to run for it. But I was obstructed by another beautiful creature that is fairly common, but worth seeing every time – a Long-legged Marsh Glider:
Trithemis pallidinervis, Long-legged Marsh Glider
As is apparent from its common name, they have rather long hind limbs, which are efficient at catching prey. Now most of the dragonflies have lengthened hind limbs, but I guess it is rather more apparent in this species, especially amongst Libellulids and hence the name.

Very soon it began to drizzle, and I had to pack my gear and catch up with the gang. We crossed several streams to reach a fork in the route, and ended up taking the one that looked most inviting. It had a large patch of beautiful flowers, such as this Martynia annua:
Martynia annua
According to Wiki, it is a native of Brazil and was introduced in India (not known when). The fruit is used to mend scorpion sting. Another beautiful, plant just on the edge of the fork was Gloriosa superba:
Gloriosa superba
This glorious flower, commonly called Glory Lily, is superb in its morphology. The entire flower is up-side-down, with the petals, instead of pointing downwards; grow against the gravity, creating an illusion of flames. They almost resemble little lamps. Sadly, G. superba is endangered because it is gregariously harvested for its aesthetic looks and its medicinal values. It is very crucial to protect this fiery lily from being extinct, because its beauty has not only captured our imagination, but it is a valuable plant providing food to a number of insects. Some other findings were Aeginatia indica, a root parasite and Curcuma sp. Dinesh Valke did a fantastic job of documenting the flora on the trek.

As we took the path that enters the foothills of Naneghat, we entered a dense ecosystem of the moist deciduous forests. These forests were strewn with a number of streams, and just as we treaded, our path merged with one of the streams – and we became lost. There’s a sense of adventure every time you take the wrong step. Now we weren’t far off the path, and therefore this excitement did not turn into a struggle for survival. I cherished walking in the cold stream surrounded by tall looming trees and with dragonflies everywhere I looked, some of them I’m yet to identify.
An ideal stream ecology - Dragonfly diversity is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem
A few of our experienced trekkers soon found a way out, but we were delayed by over an hour. After treading through a pathless landscape for a few minutes, we came into a clearing with a fantastic view of a waterfall, which, for a change, did not have anyone littering it:
Pristine waterfall
It was pretty tall, and we knew we’d have to reach the top of it to reach the actual pass in the mountains. I’d be dejected if I had to climb a 20 storey building, but this was an exceptionally beautiful climb. After taking a short break near the falls, I saw this patient Golden Angle basking in the sun:
Caprona ransonnetti, Golden Angle
As the Monsoon season wanes, the diversity of these Skippers (family Hesperiidae) increases. Golden Angle is a common skipper inhabiting forested patches, and they’re almost always found near a stream. After a small snack, we resumed our hike though the jungles. We reached a turning point where the path was heavily eroded, and from there it was a rocky climb straight up to the top.
Little by little
Strewn with large boulders, probably deliberately cut into steps to serve the purpose, it was hectic but a beautiful climb, with a view exceptionally serene. The Naneghat plateau and the thumb-like projection loomed directly over our heads. Our walk was slowed by intermittent pauses in the forest openings to check the view and get a clear glimpse of where we were headed. Treasure awaited us at the top, a treasure we were hoping to find.

All along the trek, until we reached the very edge of the end of the climb, we were being stalked. It was a very swift stalker – bold and persistent. It was a Horsefly in the genus Philoliche. These large, robust blood-suckers were fairly common along the trek. They are easily identifiable by their large orange abdomen and a typically long mouthpart, shaped much like a sharp needle. Luckily, they do not use this “needle” to puncture you, because it is very elastic. Their real weapon lies much closer to their heads, a saw like two mandibles that they use to cut through flesh. The bites can be pretty painful, but fortunately none of us were bitten that day. Only the females require a bloody diet, since it is nutrient rich and helpful in the development of the young ones. Males primarily feed on nectar.
Beetle artwork
On the way we saw some curious carvings over a fallen log. It looked as if someone intentionally carved butterflies on it. Interestingly, it was not the artwork of any man, but a small beetle, more specifically a Wood-boring beetle. The beetle lays eggs in the visible median line when the bark of the tree is intact. The grubs, when they hatch, travel outwards like protruding arms, eating their way until they transform into a pupa. And when the bark of the tree is stripped, this pattern is revealed.

Once we reached the cave system built ages ago, and which is still in use by overnight trekkers, the end was in the sight. The path from here looks something out of a fantasy:
Climbing up the walls
Clutched into the shoulder of the broad plateau that stretched far and wide in the opposite directions, this passage was used not only by humans, but by a number of butterflies! I recorded Glassy Tiger, an unidentified Oak Blue, a Common Emigrant, and a Blue Mormon that passed right through this pass into the valley down below. Batches of Barn Swallows were also seen sweeping in into the pass. While I’m not sure if the butterflies got sucked in, into this narrow slope, I’m sure it was not just a pass meant for business, but it was a corridor for animals as well.
Naneghat and the toll collecting pot
We had almost completed the trek. We passed the Naneghat and emerged onto the plateau. Our destination was the thumb-like projection that always daunted us from the base. Even when we were close to it, it looked ginormous:
The final climb with Naneghat pass to the right
Plateaus like this are common along the Sahyadri ranges. It is on these tall plains that many endemics of Western Ghats are found. As we explored the region saturated with rainwater, we came across these beautiful aquatic herbs, Pogostemon decannensis:
Pogostemon deccanensis and a little Grasshopper nymph
A little Grasshopper nymph sat prettily on this plant. These fresh green little plants are common in such high terrains where there is plenty of water. As we climbed up and higher, we came across an interesting beetle that loves to roll into dung:
Dung Beetle, family Scarabaeidae
It is a Dung Beetle, and there were at least ten of them on a small pile. All they were doing is making a perfect roll of the dung and carrying it away in order to lay an egg. Since there were so many, it must have been a fierce competition, and Dung Beetles are well known to compete and steal other’s dung balls. I hope everyone got at least one from what was left of that poop, rather, a resource. It also shows how important they are to clean up the grasslands.
Fifteen steps then a sheer drop
Soon we were at the very top. As we enjoyed the landscape from this high-rise, I saw a few flowers waving blissfully in the wind. It was, to our surprise Ceropegia rollae:
Ceropegia rollae
I already discussed another species, C. lawii, which was formerly wrongly identified as C. sahyadrica, to be an endangered plant found in these regions. C. rollae shares the same fate. A little lower, nicely resting on the edge of the sheer drop was a garden of C. rollae:
The garden of C. rollae
Our treasure had been found. It was just a plant, something growing right under the nose of a number of trekkers who painstakingly climbed to reach the end.
Jivdham and Khadaparshi
From the plateau, we could see the Jivdhan fort as well as a long spine, called Khadaparshi looming over Naneghat. It was almost out of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth – and I’m not the only one to say this. Khadaparshi looks like a large figure of a king, much like that of the Numenor Kings statues! After spending the time absorbing the beauty of this place, we started treading back, and heard a loud thundering of falling rocks. A small ledge on a nearby slope had given away. It was a landslide. Fortunately, it did not do any damage to human life.

On the way to a hotel, we saw a little Land Crab standing proudly over the domain of his pond:
Little Land Crab in his domain
This pond was surrounded by Pogostemon deccanensis, a pretty little landscape that added value to the larger picture, a thousand times bigger in size. We had a snack of poha, pakods and chai, and contemplated climbing all the way down. It was not going to be an easy descent. And we began:
The Descent
Step by step, everyone embraced the stony walls of the pass as we looked down into the valley. It was cold and windy, and very soon the rain poured and blurred our vision. The wind that swept up the valley made our descent even more difficult. After passing through the bare rocks, we entered into the forested areas, and just as I passed brushing through long and thin grass blades, I saw a small creature I’m not fond of:
It is a Tick. Ticks are arachnids, known to live solely on the diet of blood. They are notorious little creatures that can cause huge loss to cattle herders, if they swarm. Luckily, Ticks are not much of a problem in this part of the Western Ghats, but those who have been bitten think otherwise. Although Ticks here are not known to spread any diseases, if you’re allergic to their bites, the itch takes years to fade away. By then, you may have developed a phobia of these little buggers, as I did.

After touching the base in the evening, we looked back and saw what we achieved:
There and back again
It was an excellent trek through a variety of habitats, from little grasslands to streams, to the dense and humid deciduous forests, and the plateau of Sahyadris. Naneghat is also excellent in terms of its biodiversity, harbouring a rich diversity of flora and fauna. What’s inevitable is the mark that we humans leave behind. Like every place on Earth, Naneghat is also infected with plastic crap in nooks and corners. I strongly recommend visiting Naneghat if you’re fond of roughing it up and exploring the amazing diversity it has to offer.

Monsoon Expedition: Lohagad

I went on an expedition last Sunday to a well-known fort in the Sahyadris, the Lohagad, literally meaning Iron-fort. It is one of the few best preserved fortresses around this area, and attracts a lot of tourists to climb its fascinating ramparts. We had gone for this and another reason – to document as much biodiversity we can on the trek.

We reached the base of the fort much after the expected time, had a cup of chai and proceeded to conquer this big bully. There is another fort called Visapur to the east of Lohagad. One the same mountain is a cave system called Baja Caves. All the three locations are sought after by trekkers, but Lohagad… is a different case.

Friends of mine who have been to this fort several years ago remember the trek to be rather rough and the surroundings pristine. Since then it has changed drastically. The way up till the footsteps of the fort has been widened to contain a two way traffic. The surroundings are so badly damaged that only a few hardy plants including some invasive species such as Lantana grow here. But not all hope is lost, since the very core patches are still intact, harbouring an astounding diversity under every leaf.

As we began our climb on a cloudy day with a chance of rain, it was, for most of the trek, a cool, pleasant walk. Occasionally it became too humid when the sun peered through a break in the clouds, and sometimes the breeze got a bit cold. When we reached the very first step that leads to the fort, it looked eerily beautiful:
I am Iron Fort!
The fort was very welcoming as every step and the way carefully wound around the mountain to allow a steady climb to the very top. There are several Dwars, or doors, after a round of steps. This fort was not only strong like iron, but it was completely carved out of stones – no cement or anything else that would harm the environment! And after hundreds of years, most of its walls were still intact. These stony walls provide an ideal anchorage to algae and moss, as well as small herbs and plants such as Utricularia sp., Begonia sp., and several ferns and a dozen grasses. It was the nature’s own green roof/ wall that many environmentalists dream of building:
A Green Wall
Once you reach the very top, it opens into a vast clearing, and in the middle of this plateau is a temple. Surrounding this temple we found a carpet of Adelocaryum malabaricum, an endemic of the Western Ghats. As we followed the edge of the forest looking for plants growing on the steep side of the fort, we reached a spur along the west side of the fort. It is famously known as Vinchukata, literally meaning Scorpion’s-tail:
Vinchukata (Scorpion's tail)
We braved up the high winds and walked along the edge to reach the very end of the Sting – wherefrom the view was absolutely stunning. And to our surprise, we found the Iphigenia indica again, in fact several ones this time that were fruiting:
Iphigenia indica fruiting
This one was at the very edge of the fort, and the backdrop is that of a dense forest on an adjacent hill. People were probably thinking what on earth we were photographing down on the ground while others were photographing the landscape. We also saw Ceropegia sahyadrica lawii again! (thanks Dinesh!) Of all the places, it chose the wisest place: on the edifice of an old doorway, where rarely does anyone bother to walk:
Ceropegia lawii and Adelocaryum malabaricum oblivious to the rush
The overall plant diversity was stunning, and I was fortunate to see three types of Habenaria this time, one of my favourites, which I’ve only seen pictures of, was Habenaria grandifloriformis:
Habenaria grandifloriformis 
And another was a rather cool Habenaria:
Habenaria foliosa
It grew taller than usual, with leaf shaped like that in the family of Lily. Its growth was rather curious and unusual for an orchid. Thanks to Dinesh Valke, without whom this expedition would have been impossible, we now know its name! All along the path, wherever the ground was not eroded and there was enough grass cover, there were tiny herbs of Neanotis lancifolia, some were only beginning to flower and others were blooming in full glory.
Impatiens oppositifolia
Besides these, another endemic – Impatiens oppositifolia was also seen in abundance. Now we might have missed many other monsoon-exclusive flora, and this is only the top of the iceberg, but compared to the number of plant species we observed, the fauna was surprisingly scarce. At the very beginning of the trek, however, I found a fly that I had never seen before:
Prosena sp. (probably siberita)
It is Prosena sp., a fly in the family Tachinidae. There are two species, siberita and facialis recorded by ZSI in India. This one is most likely P. siberita. I was so glad to have come across this unique Tachinid. The long proboscis, although looks menacing, is not a weapon used to draw blood, it is in fact an excellent tool to drink nectar from. These flies are strictly nectar feeders, doing the good deed of pollinating the plants in the process. These flies typically sit facing down on tree trunks – as was this fellow. Although I am not sure about the distribution of this species, I came to know from Dipterainfo that it is also commonly seen in the United Kingdom.

Although I said that the path that leads to the fort is large and has utterly destroyed the surrounding, there are several shortcuts that are not really shortcuts but steep, small, unused paths that traverse along this main road. Along this path, through a dense undergrowth of Karvy, I saw some insect activity:
Hybotidae preying on another fly
It is a fly in the family Hybotidae feeding on another fly, I think in the family Dolichopodidae. This was only the second time I’ve seen this cute little fly, and now I’m beginning to think that they are more so common on high-rise terrains than in the dense forests down below.
An unidentified Hawkmoth that mimics a Bumblebee!
The butterfly activity was rather low, and we only saw several Common Pierrots, a Tamil Grass Dart, and several Spotted Small Flats and a Painted Lady feeding on Vitex negundo flowers. I also saw a Hawkmoth (yet unidentified) feeding on Adelocaryum malabaricum. In the Hymenoptera world, I was glad to have seen a Camponotus sp., most probably sericeus red-morph or singularis. I had last seen this not-so-common ant at Karjat in 2009.
A Red-vented Bulbul
One of my prized sightings was that of a Peregrine Falcon perched on a bare tree near the Eastern Express Highway. Although I didn’t do much birding at the fort, we saw many Red-vented Bulbuls, an Indian Roller, and heard the sweet melody of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. I bet that the diversity of birds around the fort must be amazing, especially in the areas devoid of people – and there are a few such forests around the fort still intact:
Dense deciduous forests
Unfortunately, I could not bag a lot of species on this trek. It was probably because Lohagad is heavily visited by many, hence the diversity closer to the paths has retreated further from the disturbance. And I don’t blame them for visiting the fort. Not at all. But it was extremely disheartening to see people litter the fort and the forests with all sorts of rubbish – from plastic water bottles to beer cans and junk food packets. In fact I saw two of them litter in front of me, and had to be the one to clean after them. If this is going to be the case, this fort is going to be long devoid of any plants and animals, all thanks to these pesky litterbugs.

Fortunately, where there are ignorant people keen on destroying the fort, there are some good-meaning souls trying hard to keep this from happening. There are several individuals as well as organizations that conduct monthly drives to clean-up the forts. Some of the ones involved in cleaning Lohagad are: Jungle Lore, Mawla Group (Pune) and Maharashtra Fort Conservation. Thanks to them and their efforts we don’t see mountains of garbage atop the forts. But littering is not the only problem facing the fate of Lohagad. It is slowly being captured by commercialization:
A very large road that leads to the base of the fort showing signs of construction (rather destruction)
The two-way kuchha road I spoke about earlier has brought some heavy construction work very close to the fort. I’m unaware of government regulations to protect forts (some of which deserve to be World Heritage sites), especially on how close can you construct your house near a fort, but such rampant construction is completely unhealthy for the ecosystem and is already taking its toll on Lohagad. All in all, Lohagad was pretty disappointing. The trek is ideal for visiting if you want to experience the best of Monsoon, but it is slowly being degraded in terms of its biodiversity.