Monsoon: July 2011 Part II

This month was so far the wettest. Since the 13th, it has only been raining. It was a great relief from the hot and humid clime but I can’t say the same for the animals and plants. Also, there are five Sunday’s in this month, so I have an extra day of getting out and away from the urban brawl! On the other hand, I have to stall the How to Point-and-Shoot articles until Winter since I’m occupied with work, and writing for Monsoon Trails takes up a lot of time.
Dioscorea near a farm
On 17th July, I accompanied a few friends to Yeoor Hills (again). I visit Yeoor so often because it is easily accessible and hence takes up a lot less time than travelling elsewhere. I woke up to the rain, and it didn’t stop raining until I reached home – so the walk was short and the activity low, but we did see something.
Physiphora sp. (?) doing the dance
One of my cherished finds was, well, a fly. It is a fly in the family Ulidiidae, probably Physiphora sp. I have only seen them once at the lights in my home. So seeing one in the countryside was a good find, but it was still pretty close to a village, where the forests were destroyed to make way for large farms. The larvae of these flies feed on organic matter, and they probably came to my home from a nearby garbage dump (sounds disgusting!), so I’d assume that this fellow might have come from a dumping site from the village, which, unfortunately, is their very backyard – the forests. I accidentally came across this fly while looking at some Tetragnathid spiders. S/he was sitting face down on a dry stick, doing the typical antics of waving the front legs. I couldn’t manage any better photographs since it was raining and everything was wet, including this tiny fly.

As we walked a little further, a friend of mine spotted a beautiful caterpillar of a beautiful, not-so-common butterfly – Tawny Rajah, Charaxes bernardus:
Tawny Rajah, Charaxes bernardus caterpillar
I talked about this butterfly and its cousins in The Charaxiinae in 2009. This is the first time I observed this caterpillar true to its name – a Rajah. The plant was most probably Aglaia lawii, its known food plant. This caterpillar was in its final instar, and it would soon pupate.
The Crowned King!
These butterflies, along with several others in Charaxinae like Charaxes solon, are commonly referred as Rajahs probably because of the crowned head-capsule of the caterpillars. And according to me, this is the most rightful title than many other general butterfly names in the subcontinent – not only because they carry a crown, but because they are also one of the most fastest, large and robust butterflies in the family Nymphalidae. I was so glad for not calling this walk off, since this was indeed an uncommon sighting, if not rare.

We also saw several Common Ceruleans, about which I discussed in Part I, as well as an empty pupa of a Common Leopard, Phalanta phalanta, a Rice Swift, Borbo cinnara basking in the drizzle and several other flies and beetles. That’s all folks, from this two hour walk. Sometimes only a few sightings are enough to keep you going until next weekend.

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BNHS’s CEC had organized a nature walk for those interested in getting to know the flora and fauna of SGNP a little better. The trail was lead by a friend of mine, and I got some really good information on plants. But we didn’t stop at that, and spent some time looking for bugs and other creatures. This was an excellent walk with the weather on a brighter side and only a few dark monsoon clouds passing over without pouring out their contents. It was, however, windy and not so ideal to photograph, but the sightings were excellent with some creatures new on my list.
Yeoor Hills, July 24, 2011
In the last article I said the guards were back to bar any visitors to Yeoor. Since BNHS had the official permission to enter, we did not have to sit and explain what we were going to do. Not that there is always a hustle to enter and exit the park, since these guards are only doing their duty, and I realized they’re doing it for a really good reason. We were told that he had to deny entry to some picnickers and drunkards. People still do find a way into the forests and I don’t blame them. This place is truly irresistible, all they should do is be very careful and respectful of the environment they’re in, but I guess that is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I have no idea why.

The walk began with an introduction to SGNP. There are several species of birds and mammals in this National Park, but we don’t know how many insects call it home. Although it doesn’t make much difference for a layman to know just how many thousand species reside here, on a larger context, they are primarily the ones responsible for keeping this NP, jailed by urbanization, from collapsing. Fortunately there are many naturalists today who appreciate bugs and arachnids and generate interest in others, which, down the line, will be crucial for protection of this ecosystem.

As soon as we entered the park, we were greeted by a lone Southern Oak Leaf was seen sipping on a tree. Several Danainaes on a flowering Leea. Glassy Tigers were the most common, followed by Common Indian Crows and Plain Tigers. There were also Common Ceruleans on the shrub and several moths, wasps and bees which we’ll discuss later.

I happened to spot an ant, or so it seemed, on a large Teak leaf, walking to and fro from one end to the other. At closer inspection, I was excited to find that this was a fly that mimicked an ant, particularly the Weaver Ant, extraordinarily. It matched the walking so perfectly that I didn’t realize it until I was only a foot from it. In fact, when I saw the real Weaver Ant further down the trail, I had to look carefully to make sure if it was the fly again!
Stilt-legged Fly, Micropezidae
This fly belongs to family Micropezidae, commonly called Stilt-legged flies because of their obvious stilt like legs. They are well known wasp and ant mimics. This is only the second type of Micropezid recorded in and around Mumbai by me. There were several other flies around as well, some of which are yet unidentified. One of the most beautiful fly to exist in SGNP is this:
Crane fly, Ctenophora sp. (?)
It is a Crane fly, probably in the genus Ctenophora. I saw this Crane fly just as we were retiring for the day. At a short break near a stream, I noticed this Crane fly in flight, which resembled a Thread-waisted wasp. She dropped down low on the bank of the stream and touched it gently with the tip of her abdomen. After doing this several times, she disappeared. She appeared again within a few minutes and settled on the bank laden with small pebbles soaking with water, but not submerged under the stream. That’s when I took the above picture. Afterwards, she did something really interesting:
Crane fly
She bent her abdomen and looked as if she laid eggs. I’m not sure of this, but her abdomen was so full, that it is likely that she carried hundreds of eggs. And that she carefully first assessed the site to lay eggs may indicate that she indeed was laying eggs. However, I always thought that Crane flies with such a needle sharp abdomen were males. It could very well be the ovipositor used to lay eggs deep inside wet soil.

The other insect I primarily chased after were wasps. I saw several Ichneumon wasps scavenging the forest floor, as well as an unidentified wasp, probably a Digger Wasp in the family Sphecidae carrying a Cricket in her mandibles. She was kind enough to pose for me, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a single photograph where she didn’t move. I had accidentally slowed my shutter speed and by the time I increased it, she was gone. Among other wasps, there was a Scoliid wasp on a Leea inflorescence, as well as a Sand Wasp (Crabrionidae) and several Stingless Bees. I also saw something which is really exciting:
It may not look much, but they're awesome - Male Velvet Ant, Mutillidae
This is (most likely) a male Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae. Velvet Ants are indeed seen in SGNP, but they are so inconspicuous in their preferred habitat, which is mostly the forest floor, that it becomes difficult to come across one. The females, for which this common name is suitable, are parasitic, some lay eggs on Tiger Beetle grubs and some in other wasp nests. They are also really small. This male was barely a centimeter in length, and the female must be hardly half a centimeter across! I happened upon this fellow as he was resting on a leaf. It was windy and dark enough to ruin any possibility of a good picture, but I’m glad to have come across it.
O smargdina!
There were several ants around as well, but this time I mostly focused on what was easier on the eyes: the Weaver Ants. I saw several hundred tending to Mealy Bugs under the Teak tree leaves. You can compare the above photograph with the image of the Stilt-legged Fly posted above. The fly did a good job of mimicking the ant, especially by using its forelimbs as the antennae of the model.

The Odonates are slowing starting to emerge. As the season progresses, many more species will rise from the water. I saw Orthetrum luzonicum, Orthetrum pruinosum, Diplacodes trivialis and a Copera marginipes along the trail.
Katydid/ Cricket nymph
A cute little Katydid nymph tried its best to hide itself from me. Too bad that after only two pictures, someone unknowingly walked by that plant to observe a Leucauge spider near a moth cocoon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to observe it in detail, but this photograph is good enough to tell a few things about it. I’m still not 100% that this is a Katydid nymph and not a Cricket nymph. But there is a subfamily of Katydids, Trigonidiinae, that are commonly called Sword-tailed Katydids. They also sport thick hind limbs like Crickets, and are common in Mumbai region.
A large, beautiful Stink Bug, Pentatomidae
The bugs (order Hemiptera) were also almost everywhere. Most common were the Spittle-bug adults. I also saw a Jewel Bug (family Scutelleridae) feeding on the Cup-n-Saucer fruit, as well as a huge, beautiful Stink Bug. And trust me, they look beautiful only when they’re out in the forests.

Several beetles were around as well but I found a tiny Flea Beetle, in the family Chrysomelidae, rather interesting. They are also one of the Leaf Beetles which are very common in Yeoor, but their specialty is the strong, stout hind legs, which they use much like a Flea, and hence the name.

The world of Lepidoptera is getting more diverse. There are caterpillars literally everywhere you see. One such abundant caterpillar is this:
Wooly Bear Caterpillar
Whether it is a dried plant, a rock in the path, an emergent boulder, or a bark of a tree – this is the caterpillar that can be found in the least expected places. It is probably more common elsewhere than its own food plant! It is commonly called a Wooly Bear caterpillar, because of its plump size and furry setae. It belongs to a moth in the family Eupterotidae. I have never seen the adult yet.
Limacodidae
Another caterpillar that is very common is the Stinging Nettle caterpillar. It belongs to a moth in the family Limacodiidae. Some of these caterpillars are stunning in colours, displaying electric blue to fluorescent green shades and are armed with several sharp spines. This fellow, and several others, were seen feeding on an unidentified tree.

There are several Teak trees that have been badly damaged by a serious pest – Hyblaea sp. the Teak Defoliator. While I only saw the signs a few weeks ago, I happened upon the moth this time:
Hyblaea sp.
But I didn’t see any damage to the nearby Teak trees. They are a serious concern in India and elsewhere, where Teak is planted in huge farms and the wood is harvested for commercial uses (Javaregowda & Krishnanaik). A species, H. puera has caused a tremendous loss, and they are a concerned pest on Mumbai’s mangroves as well (Source).
Clear-wing Moth, Sesiidae
A rather surprise sighting was that of (another) Clearwing moth in the family Sesiidae. I recorded an unknown species belonging to Synanthedon genus this month, and the above moth was probably a different species. It was extremely small compared to the previous one, almost half its size. This guy, who unfurled and waved his abdominal end, was busy feeding on Leea flowers. He was pretty fast and would hardly spend a few seconds on each flower. He was kind enough to share the Leea bar with other bees, but there were wasps that would scare him away. This moth, as much as it resembles a wasp, also mimics their flying habits, often leading to confusion. This is the first time I’ve recorded Sesiidae family in Yeoor, and hopefully there are many more species out there.

I saw several species of Jumping Spiders again. Out of the three, I could identify only one – the small and super adorable Phintella vittata. I’m still in the process of identifying these spiders and hopefully will be able to talk more about their diversity in a few months.
Unidentified Barbs
The streams were alive with fishes of several types. I’m extremely bad at identifying fishes and my camera worst at photographing such subjects, but I tried and captured these two types of fishes in a stream where I sighted the Crane fly. I think they are Barbs, but any idea what species?

While photographing the Spittle bugs, someone spotted a small snake just beside the path. It was not moving. It was a dead baby Russell’s viper, Daboia russelii.
The unfortunate baby Rusel's Viper
There were several Tapinoma sp. of ants on it. We’re unclear of the cause of its death. It had a gaping wound on the abdomen, and some injury on the neck, perhaps by a blow from a stick. It may have been killed by a person, probably villagers, since it is a dreaded snake; in fact it is responsible for more deaths than Common Indian Cobra in rural India. Or maybe, by an overtly ignorant person from the city. While I’m not blaming anyone, if it was killed by a person, the guards have a very good cause to bar visitors inside Yeoor Hills.

Along the trail
This season saw a dramatic change in the environment, as Yeoor drastically changed from the monochrome browns to vivid shades of green. We have also seen the struggle for survival of the fittest at its peak, and inevitably the struggle for survival between man and animal. We’re half way through the Monsoon, and the following two months will be really interesting to explore.

Tomorrow I might go somewhere pretty far. I’ll blog on it next month. See you then!

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!

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!