Jummapatti Nature Walk

So my last post may have sounded very pessimistic, as if I had some personal enmity with the rain, but that’s really not the case. To make up to it I visited Matheran again. Well, not exactly Matheran but a village called Jummapatti on the outskirts of Matheran. Jumma is the name of the village, and patti means a settlement. Here is the account of the walk (that turned out to be pretty long), which I wouldn’t call Monsoon Expedition as it was just an exploration through tree plantations and a trail already trodden. And here I will also rant about something sad that has happened to a small town called Neral.
Looking out from Jummapatti Railway Station
WWF - India, MSO had organized a nature walk at Jummapatti for all young and old and everyone in between interested in getting to know the monsoon biodiversity as well as enjoy the beauty of it in different forms such as waterfalls, cool breeze and green fields.

The walk was especially interesting to me because I wanted to know if it ever stops raining at Matheran. And it does. Certainly in the month of September, at least. I left home pretty early and within a few hours reached Neral station – the base where people gather and proceed to Matheran either on foot or via transport.

Neral is the nearest rail-accessible town to Matheran, and therefore sees a large number of tourists in all three seasons. And therefore, it has seen some rapid development far from the main city of Mumbai. But – I say this with utter disappointment – Neral’s development is akin to destruction. Neral did not urbanize in the right way – the tar roads are worse than the kuchha village roads, and the market reeks with dead and decaying, and there is garbage laying right on the road – from feces to discarded vegetables. This rampant, unplanned development has or will take a very bad impact on attracting tourists to this town. Why, you may think, isn’t the Government doing anything about it? I asked this question myself, but it is not the right one. Instead, why should we point at the Government all the time? As a responsible citizen or at least as a concerned resident of the town, it is our responsibility to look after our filth. If the Government does interfere and decides to put up notices on streets and slap fines to whomever that litters – would we oblige? The Government however certainly has plans regarding disciplining this rapid urbanization, as has been specified by MMRDA (see page 373).

The market, where lots and lots of fishermen and farmers come to sell their catch/ harvest near the railway station is an excellent source to shop and stack your resources before you begin your hike. But this market is far underdeveloped if you take a gander around the posh bungalows – all because of unplanned development. The vendors have no access to a sheltered market, and there are no garbage bins. So the flies that sit on the garbage that sits on the streets, sit on the food.

Since we took to the foot, I was avoiding garbage on the road more than I would avoid stepping into a puddle on a rainy day. By dodging and jumping over this adventurous urban road, we reached the entrance to Matheran – an Eco-sensitive Zone. I was right here exactly a week ago when it was pouring cats and dogs, and therefore I had missed a content family of Poekilocerus pictus. I was glad I saw them again, including this guy resting a little further from its food plant:
Painted Grasshopper, Poekilocerus pictus
The nymphs are almost always seen near their food plant – Calotropis sp. whereas adults wander far and wide in search of new feeding grounds and mates.

We reached Jummapatti railway station up on a hillock on the skirt of Matheran on foot as a wayward cloud caught us off guard and drenched our hopes. We took shelter in a closed tappri, the same one we merrily ate in while it was pouring, if you recall the previous post. And we waited for over thirty minutes until the cloud finally lost our track and helped its bulk northward. We jumped happily out of our hiding and were greeted by school children, who were here to get to know Matheran’s biodiversity a little better. The walk began on the Jummapatti trail with a fantastic view of what I call the Ten Thousand Waterfall Mountain:
Ten Thousand Waterfall Mountain
The trail leads off the main road and down a slope, where there is a mysterious exotic habitat right in the middle of a semi-deciduous forest:
Australian Acacia plantation
The trees in the foreground that standout from the dark-green leaved forests in the background are Australian Acacia (probably Acacia auriculiformis) plantations on a large scale, covering about one third of this hillock. These trees were planted several years ago as an afforestation drive, but little did the planters know that these are not native (or they knew it very well). These trees are known to grow rapidly, giving the illusion of a lush green forest – which on a contrary is very empty since the native fauna has not adapted to this plant. So these empty forests are like ghosts in this diverse region:
Give up the ghost
Whatever that crawls and creeps under its trunk is more interested in the undergrowth – which is scarce – and here I saw a wingless Queen Ant of Oecophylla smargdina hopelessly looking for a place to nest, as well as a few land snails trying hard to munch on some leaves. We lead the trail down to an opening wherefrom little train tracks wrapped the mountain.

This was the edge of the ghost forest, and the rail-tracks marked its boundary. On the other side lay the living forest, with tiny annual flora blossoming at its feet. While walking on the tracks, our trail leaders spotted a bee:
Carpenter Bee - Xylocopa sp., male
It is a male Carpenter Bee in the genus Xylocopa (probably). The males of Carpenter Bee carry a white mark on the front of their faces. This guy, instead of perching on top of a twig defending his territory against rival males and checking out pretty bulbous ladies, was resting merrily on the inflorescence of Celosia. He was probably cold from the early morning showers and preferred basking under the sun before resuming to sipping nectar from it, and then chasing females.

A few feet from it we spotted another bee:
Sweat Bee, Pseudapis sp., male
Now this bee was a challenge to photograph and later identify from it because it barely measured under a centimeter. So I sought help of Eric Eaton – a well-known Wasp expert, who suggested that this bee is a Sweat Bee in the family Halictidae, in the genus Pseudapis. He forwarded me to Dr John Ascher, a bee expert, who confirmed the identification. There are several species of Pseudapis recorded from India, but I can’t find any references to their scientific record to Mumbai region. They are very common though, in fact more common than Honeybees, but due to their size they almost always go unnoticed. This pretty fellow obliged me to get closer as he was basking in the morning sun before buzzing off to his own business as well.

Now I was on a look out for all the bees and their kin. As the sun peeped through a break in the clouds and warmed the wet ground, many more Hymenopterans hopped out to greet the sunlight. One such was a little Ichneumon wasp:
Ichneumon Wasp, probably male
This wasp, the name of which I took quite some time to get used to pronouncing as well as spelling, is also common. Ichneumon Wasps (family Ichneumonidae) are usually seen exploring forest floor and low shrubs for prey. They are mostly parasitic, specialized in parasitizing on a number of insects such as butterflies, bees, beetles and true bugs. Although I’m not sure who this fellow was, I am pretty sure it was a he as well (because he lacks an ovipositor – is my reason).

We’re not done with Bees and wasps yet, although now I’m running out of pictures. We also saw several Paper Wasps that were hunting for prey; and a solitary Scoliid Wasp that was dancing over some flowers. A recent relative of wasps, but a distant kin – ants made their presence felt too:
Camponotus sp., carrying an injured worker
We were rather interested in what was going on here. There is a large soldier of the genus Camponotus, with its mandibles locked onto another worker ant’s mandibles. There is the abdomen of the poor bum-less worker in the foreground. This soldier was probably only keen on carrying this dying worker somewhere – either back to the nest or away from it. When the little ant fell, the soldier tried to grab it up in its large mandibles once again and just stood there – thinking of what to do. Ants carry the dead away from the nests, but some ants also carry their dead sisters if they find them lying around in the open.

Now let’s take a look at some flies! I was fortunate to observe some pretty cool behaviour which we’ll look at in a while. First, I was happy to see a Beetle-backed fly in the family Celyphidae. It is a fly that convincingly looks like a beetle from far. They are more common than I thought they were, probably because I now know they’re flies and not beetles. There was another fly in family Calliphoridae that was also basking on Celosia, and also a Robberfly feeding on a fly in the family Tephritidae. But the fly-of-the-day was Philoliche sp., the Horsefly:
Horsefly, Philoliche sp.
I have spoken about these sword-wielding bloodsuckers plenty of times in the past. It was about time I’d photographed one too.  After being content with a photograph of it sitting prettily on a leaf, we proceeded. A little later, we came across a giant beast – a gentle cow relaxing in the sun. I sat beside it, and we clicked. She was very polite, too, and let me check the flies with her. There were flies in family Calliphoridae and Muscidae bothering her. And soon there was one more.

This fly was very irksome, but it was rather important to actually observe it in action. It was the Horsefly, Philoliche sp. trying to pester the gentle giant. Because of their large size, they cannot risk sitting on their host, least they are spotted and swatted. So they hover around the host, unlike many other smaller Tabinids such as Haematopota sp. (that sit and then bite much like a Mosquito) and then, they don’t use their sword to sting either:
Philoliche sp., biting a Cow
The sword, rather a long flexible straw is of no use piercing the thick hide. They use their saw-toothed mandibles to poke a hole in the skin and drain the blood, which is then lapped up. This is, however, a very painstaking business – even for the fly that causes pain! Their bite is quite painful, and it was felt even by this large cow, so the fly had very little chance to hover in one place and drink. It did get a sip or two though, because it had an interesting way of feeding. This fly restricted itself to feeding on the region of the cow touching the ground. Whenever it flew a little above this surface, the cow twitched her muscles and scared it away, but when she stuck to a region about an inch from the ground – the cow did not bother –probably thinking that she was being poked by a protruding stem! After watching this bloodsucker in action, I wondered about the long, useless sword. What is its use? Here’s what I think: It is a rather important tool to drink from flowers. And hence, it is more of use to males that rely solely on a vegetarian diet of nectar. I still wonder its requirement on a female though.

As this hungry parasite was prowling around large and small mammals, there were Odonates hunting in the sky. I have done very little Odonating (Dragonfly and Damselfly hunting, literally) this season, mostly because I did not have a chance to thoroughly explore any wetlands. I was glad to have found and photograph a damselfly, Pseudagrion microcephalum:
Pseudagrion microcephalum
A common damselfly of flowing streams, this fellow had taken birth at a nearby rainwater drain, which serves as an important aquatic ecosystem during monsoon since there are fishes, frogs and various aquatic invertebrates that feed and breed in there.

After walking along the track, exploring the herbaceous plants for insect activity, we treaded down the hill and into the valley. With the giant Ten Thousand Waterfall Mountain looming in front of us – its dark head in a torn cloud, the valley looked as beautiful as it ever can be. A largish stream ran down a few flat rocks and came tumbling in this little ravine. The waterfall was pleasant, heavily guarded by thick undergrowth and big stumpy trees.
The Running Water
It was a perfect little world, where we continued to explore and found a blossoming plant of Gloriosa superba. Our prying eyes scoured the landscape, and some of us came across a little Stick Insect in the order Phasmatodea:
Stick Insect, Carausius morosus?
This little wingless insect seemed pretty helpless when it started drizzling, and tried to scamper down a plant and save itself another day of getting soaked in the rain, and not to mention, save itself from meticulously clean itself after being drenched – which takes up a lot of energy, I can tell.

Everywhere there were Celosia plants blooming and providing many insects an excellent perch for basking as well as for feeding. It was also a great opportunity to photograph those that are sitting on it:
Chestnut Bob, Iambrix salsala on Celosia
This Chestnut Bob, now more common than ever in this season, was one happy butterfly. If you ask what makes a butterfly happy – I’ve got one answer – a butterfly is happy when it can sip nectar as well as bask at the same time! Another such butterfly, a Tamil Grass Dart was enjoying doing the same:
Tamil Grass Dart, Taractrocera ceramas
It is also a common butterfly of the northern Western Ghats, but it is referred as “Tamil” because the type was first recorded in that region by British naturalists.

We also saw a little Calotes hatchling, a few weeks old, and proceeded back onto the track, although we were tempted to cross the stream and explore the lush green fields beyond.
Treading the tracks
While on the tracks, we heard a loud call of a male Peafowl, and it instantly reminded me of a tiger on a hunt – because I’ve grown up watching wildlife documentaries showing a tiger on a prowl, with the peafowl yelling its throat out in the background (it’s a cliché really). But we didn’t see any tiger, or even imagine one in this region, but there was indeed a hunt that took place just a while ago:
Peucetia viridana preying on a bee (Apis sp.)
A Green Lynx spider, Peucetia viridana, had successfully caught a worker bee as she was also attracted to the blooming Celosia. This spider was sure very lucky to have caught such a large prey. I wonder how many hours, or even minutes, did it have to wait for a passing-by food.

Now we continued walking along the tracks for a while, and one of us with a brilliant vision spotted the male Indian Peafowl yonder on a hillock:
An Indian Peafowl male far in the distance
What a sight! This gallant male with a large, long (and I bet elegant) tail coverts sweeping the forest floor was feeding on insects. A little ahead, we saw a Spotted Pigeon on the ground which was unable to take to the air for some reason. As we walked and walked, talking and looking intently at anything that moves, we also made sure to see plants, especially Ceropegia attenuata, which we did see, and which I spoke about in the previous post.

We had also come across some really large mushrooms up on the mountain slope:
Mushroom, Macrolepiota sp.
This tall mushroom probably belongs to the genus Macrolepiota. There were several around with a diameter of over ten centimeters, a few feet apart from one another, probably growing in the underground root systems of trees. The mushroom is not the fungus per se, it is rather a fruiting body of a fungus that mostly grows underground, so a few mushrooms could belong to the same spread-out fungus. The mushrooms bear spores, which are released from its gills:
So this is how it feels to sit under a toadstool
These gills carry millions of microscopic spores that are spread with the wind. There were many Drosophilidae flies feeding on the juices of this fleshy mushroom, as well as a Jumping Spider that was attracted to these flies.

And now we’re finally at the end of our nature walk. We saw a large clump of Millipedes huddled together. I think they were in a mating frenzy (since the season is right to breed and nurture), or they congregate while migrating, especially in the season when humidity is high and there is some tasty organic food at hand. We bid them farewell to whatever they were up to (I did not find any concrete information on why millipedes congregate, hence the ambiguousness).

We hit the road on foot and reached Neral railway station on time to catch a train home. I was happier than I was a week ago.

5 comments:

  1. Enjoyable read and some really fantastic images! Good Work Ani! :)

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  2. Really cool observation regarding the Philoliche tabanid; that's a pretty astounding behaviour!

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  3. awesome photos!!! which camera/lens do you have?

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    1. Thank you Ratnesh! I use a Sony DSC H7.

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