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!

3 comments:

  1. Nice :)...[BTW, dosen't the Deinopis sps. spider look like the alien from Independance day ??? :D]...

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  2. It slightly does look very alien :)

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  3. Fantastic photos and story as usual! Love the diopsid and the snail on the seed pod particularly!

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