Monsoon Expedition: Mahuli Fort

My feet are happy. Scaling the tallest peak of Thane was no easy feat, but it was the most adventurous trek I’ve been on this month, and surprisingly my feet did not ache. Armed with only water that we weren’t sure will last till the end, but well equipped to document anything that we may stumble upon, we began our journey on one fine bright sunny morning, with the peaks hiding in the clouds.
The Rocky cliffs of Mahuli
A fine, bright sunny morning lasts for a very few minutes in the northern Western Ghats, however. Very soon it began to grow hotter and humid on the ground below the tall peaks – where lay a temple – the first and the last stopover for anyone who trudges Mahuli.

Over here, a few yards from the temple, runs a small stream teeming with life. With Guppy fishes swimming in the cool shades of Cattails and dragonflies occupying the tallest summit amongst these reeds, there were very many tiny damselflies along the banks that caught my attention. One of the cutest was the Golden Dartlets, Ichnura aurora. While tracking a male among the reeds, a Senegal Golden Dartlet, Ichnura senegalensis swooped in from the hiding and broke the neck of the poor I. aurora:
The Kinslaying in Damselflies!
Within no time, the I. aurora was alive no more, and the I. senegalensis had secured a nice brunch. They always start with the head. It was exciting to have observed this moment in action. A rather wild start to a long hike, I thought. Dragonflies and Damselflies, both in the order Odonata, are known to feed on their own kind – that is they will easily feed on other species (which may be conspecific) given a chance. But they are not merely hungry hunters of the wetlands. I have observed them hunt their own kind so willingly only around this season – of September and October, to maybe November. In other seasons they just drive them away.

Although Odonata larvae are known to feed on their own kind if their population is more than prey, there is a need for study regarding adults. I think it happens because they are most diverse in species as well as in numbers during this season – and hence are an easy catch, but they may also kill and feed on other Odonates to perhaps reduce competition amongst species (as is studied in Odonata larva). If this indeed happens, then Odonates are as smart as people that go to war. Another pretty damselfly present at the scene was Pseudagrion rubriceps.

Let’s recap a bit and go back to when we were coming through the kuchha road to Mahuli. While on the road, I happened glanced out and saw a Ceropegia vincaefolia creeper twining round a Gloriosa superba shrub. I thought I was hallucinating, but then I wouldn’t have photographed this flower:
Ceropegia vincaefolia
C. vincaefolia is an endemic plant of India, and seeing one is akin to receiving a blessing (yes, if you see Lord Vincaefolia, prey that you want to see a particular animal, say, a snake, and it’ll happen.) It is also a threatened plant, hence don’t ever try to pluck it, for the Lord may put that snake in your pants. On a serious note, this plant is threatened because of habitat destruction and degradation of the remaining habitats, therefore it was a relief to have seen it here. Its root is consumed by the tribal, who are unfortunately unaware of its plight.

Near the temple was a small homely hut that also served as a small one-stop-shop before the long hike, as well as a hotel. There on the verandah, in a corner, on a garbage-bin sat a fly:
Soldierfly, Ptectitus sp.?
This fly belongs to the family Stratiomyidae, probably in the genus Ptectitus. It is a small fly sharing the typical behaviour of flying to-and-fro and returning to the same spot as before, with many other flies in this family.

Now we began our uphill march in the hopes of reaching the apex in time. The weather had grown to be extremely sultry by then, and the climb seemed tough. We did not stop exploring however, and came across a sad site:
The fallen Sting
This large sting belonged to a Scorpion in the genus Heterometrus. These are indeed large scorpions with massive chelicerae, which they use to grab and crush prey. And therefore, this genus is said to be less venomous, although it can cause a significant allergic reaction. Now this murdered scorpion was most likely crushed by the foot of an ill-hearted murderer, who unfortunately wasn’t aware that this scorpion posed no harm to him.
Way through the Karvy
As we swooped – literally – from little gullies maintained by tall Karvy’s – that were now omnipresent on the gradually sloping walls of all the forts – we came to a ridge like an arm of Mahuli:
The path runs through this ridge
This ridge was high enough to provide a spectacular view of the ranges of the Sahyadri. We were spellbound by the far reaches of these dark green forests that stretched for miles and miles as far as we could see. On both sides of the ranges were the plains, with bright glittering reflections of towns and cities – a stark reminder of how close we were to nature, yet how far we’ve drawn ourselves from it. It was an eye opener, of how vital these forests are to provide us the selfless service of providing the basic requirements – of Oxygen and water; and of how insignificant are we in the vastness. 

And yet when I looked down upon the path I saw plastic litter – and may I crib a bit again, as in every post – that I simply fail to understand what goes through the mind of the Littering Folk. If there weren’t very many problems we’re facing already, it will be worth drawing some funds towards researching their minds. They’re different I tell you.

We were walking on a ridge for quite some time, taking our own time to catch up on our breath as well as to explore the surroundings. We were walking with the wide view of the Sahyadri ranges to the west:
The Sahyadri ranges
And tall peaks of Mahuli and the neighbouring fort to the east:
The split tree of Mahuli
The ridge that was nearly plain was worth walking onto – not only for the view it provided – but it was also a short recess from the ever steeper climb that lay ahead of us. Soon we were passing through steep slopes dominated by grasses and patches of Karvy, and in these ecosystems flew little dark faeries:
Beefly, family Bombyliidae
This beautiful fly belongs to the family Bombyliidae. I’m still awaiting its further identification. Flies in the family Bombyliidae are commonly called Beeflies because of their superficial resemblance to bees. They are very common throughout India, and more so in the Western Ghats. This fly was extremely camera-shy; hence stalking it on an inclined hill was super fun and exhausting, not to mention frustrating.

A little ahead, where the grasses now completely dominated the ascent and the descent of the mountain, there I found a colourful beetle that I also saw on Manikgad Expedition, but had failed to photograph:
Clinteria, the Flower Chafer
It is a beetle in the family Scarabidae, subfamily Cetoniidae, genus Clinteria. It is commonly called a Flower Chafer. Accompanying our Clinteria was a little mite (near its head), probably come to latch onto the beetle. Some species under this subfamily are considered serious pests on crops. This guy was far from any agricultural field, so he was innocent. He was probably here to meet the ladies (read hill-topping).

After a moment with the flies and the beetles, the cloud cover took over and it began to pour. It was a welcoming change though, unlike on many other expeditions. Climbing in the bombardment of rain was refreshing. The steep path was mainly large rocks with ledges to grab onto. These turned into little waterfalls. Although it seemed a little dangerous to climb through the escarpments, our pace was picked up due to the cooling of the weather, and with the thought of reaching shelter as soon as possible.

We reached the top when it was still pouring. We’re halfway through September, and such a heavy rain is not uncommon, although surprising. The summit of Mahuli is unlike any other fort that we’ve seen. It is flat, but with large trees and very few swathe of grasses. Our experienced trekkers, who had trekked Mahuli in the month of May (peak of summer), scouted little rooms carved in the protruding bedrock. These artificial caves – or shops I think they were – served as a shelter from the rain as we dried ourselves and had some snack.
The Main Gate of Mahuli Fort
This main gate of the fort, the Kalyan Darwaza, wore no crown over its head. It wasn’t even recognizable, save for the artifacts that were found around the door. The entrance went a little ahead and turning left fell into the valley – this was once the main route used by the rules of this fort. The one we took was carved from the opposite of this face. Outside this door were tall walls of stones – iron strong and withstanding still after over three hundred years. The water was flowing on the floor and down the valley – creating a small steady stream – and in here there were fishes. I was amazed to find Loaches in this little ecosystem, probably come down to this temporary water body from the overflowing lakes and streams. There were Craneflies, much like the ones I talked about here, that were ovipositing in the wet ground.

Now it may seem boring to read about fishes and bugs, but don’t forget that this little haven is actually a man-made ecosystem, and it is temporary – it lasts only for four months of the monsoon, and then completely vanishes, leaving no trace of life but only dark rock that bakes under the haughty summer sun. The fishes and the insects vanish too. But they do come back – how and wherefrom will be interesting to study.
The caves of Mahuli and the litter of the Littering Folk
I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to explore these caves. Since we were the only ones present, the caves were rather undisturbed – so we found over a hundred Craneflies dangling from the ceiling, as well as a Theridiid spider lurking in the dark depths of this cave. There was also a large nest of a Mud-dauber Wasp (family Sphecidae):
Mud-dauber Wasp nest
This nest has holes in it – which means that the eggs the parent wasp laid inside her room of mud and stuffed with food, were hatched, had consumed all the food, and had flown out as adults.

A little walk round this area we found a cute little Jumping Spider:
Rhene sp. loves blowing bubbles as well!
It is Rhene sp., blowing bubbles. She is probably just regurgitating as do ungulates and a number of insects.
Once we had done scouring the area, we decided to tread back to where we came from. And as on any trek, the return journey is as exciting as the beginning. It was mostly cloudy with a few breaks in the clouds – so the weather was rather pleasant.

Over the top and at the bottom, and during all our journeys, there was a butterfly that was very boldly fluttering around us:
Celaenorrhinus ambareesa
It was a Malabar Spotted Flat, a species common during this season than any other. The path that we traversed in rain was now open to us, and we explored it as much as we could. One of the interesting sightings was that of a winged Queen Ant:
The Queen, probably the Lady of the Weaver Ants
It is probably the Queen of Weaver Ants, Oecophylla smargdina. She was walking up and down a folded banana leaf – probably looking for something – perhaps a place to establish her colony.

A little way from here was the ridge I talked about earlier. With it in our sight, we were keen on walking on flat ground again and just then a friend of mine sighted something different. He called me in a hushed voice – there’s a snake!

This snake was something that I had never photographed before. I’d only seen one in captivity. It was rather small, but extremely venomous. In fact, it ranks first in causing most deaths in India. And no, it was not a Cobra – although another group behind us did see one – this snake was a Saw-scaled Viper:
Saw-scaled Viper, Echis carinatus
It was rather small and not fully grown, but it had a really big bulge in its tummy – it had had a nice lunch, probably a frog or a lizard. She was lying out in the open – on a thin branch that leaned on our path, basking under the sun. A snake loves itself some sun after a heavy lunch. It was our lucky moment, for they are not arboreal and are known to be nocturnal hunters, so this was a good record on that front. These snakes prefer living in burrows of other animal’s as well as in crevices and under rocks. There they hunt small prey in the dead of the night. They are known to come out above ground only to escape from flooding – and this snake had more than one reason to come up a foot from the ground and just sit as her stomach slowly digested the food. I photographed her where she was, without touching or disturbing her, and was on my way with a smile on my face.

From here on, however, we made sure we did not blindly hold onto any plant, for sighting this deadly snake reminded us that this is the wild, and there’s no rescue coming if we’re in trouble.

After crossing the ridge, I found a tiny spider under a banana leaf:
The Myrmarachne family
It is a male Ant-mimicking Spider, Myrmarachne sp., identifiable from the extending pedipalps just in front of its head. The silhouette to the left of the male is no ant – but Mrs. Myrmarachne. She seems obscure because she has covered herself in a thin film of silk – where she may, or has, laid eggs. Mr. Myrmarachne is only around to protect her – a quality we mostly associate with higher animals, is seen in tiny spiders as well!

We took a short break here, and a friend of mine showed me a Ground Beetle that I’ve always wished to photograph, but it flew off. I then peered deeper into the undergrowth, and there was something in there that interested me:
Midges in a Spider's web
You may think that the spider (in family Pholcidae) may have had a feast on all the flies in its web – but no, those flies are all alive! They’re just hanging out (literally) in the spider’s web – in other words – right in front of death itself, without even heeding it. They are Midges (probably in the family Cecidomyiidae or Mycetophilidae), known to do this weird antics. Diptera.info has an interesting article on this behaviour.

We were now on the last lap of a steep slope after a short walk on a flat hillock:
Treading the road already taken
And on that path ran a tiny spider that made me pause. A closer look at this fellow revealed its identity – it was a Ground Spider in the family Zodariidae. An Owlfly also flew past us and landed on a nearby branch. This place was so alive with little creatures that I failed to observe many birds. Soon, past the rushes past the reeds, past the marshes and weaving reeds*; we were down on the path and drawn towards the gurgling stream. The stream was swell and swift:
The rocks and the stream
The temple was now in our sight, and we reached there in no time. On the way we managed to record a Jumping Spider in the genus Thyene (probably Thyene imperialis). A new Jumper in my diary was a good end to this exquisite hike.

Since we’re at the end of Monsoon, the weather has been fluctuating a lot. This is a grim reminder that the following few months are going to be very hot and humid – an aftermath of the havoc monsoon created in the Western Ghats. But this weather is also the most productive when a number of plants flower and sow seeds for the next season, as well as insects and birds and mammals that make the best of this short-lived bounty.

Monsoon Expedition: Manikgad Conquered

This is the finale of the Saga (!) of the expedition we led to Manikgad in August, and came home defeated but satisfied with the findings. In order to achieve what was unachievable three weeks ago has now been dealt with – we successfully trekked through the adversaries Manikgad cast at us, and climbed with all might and glory that I could gather after hauling my mass up the hills – to where the throne lay empty. It was a long and arduous trek, mainly because the paths were unused and many lead away from the fort. And let’s just not get to the weather for a change.

In summary, the weather was clear, hot and humid for a few hours while we trekked through the pits of the mountains. There was not a single puff of air and the humidity was very high. Yet life here was blooming in every nook and corner. Once we reached the plateau region of the mountain – a step nearer to the fort – the weather changed, and it began to rain. It rained heavily for a while and reduced to a little spray in the air. This lasted until we reached back to the base.

Since Manikgad is not new to you, let’s begin our journey as we quickly paced through and out of the woods, with me lagging behind trying to keep an eye out for anything that moved. We did not see much in these parts, surprisingly, for reasons I don’t know. It was a perfect day for insects and reptiles to bask under the monsoon sun, but it may have been a little late in the morning. The route was astonishing. We crossed a few little streams, sank our feet in mud, and made our way through a dense patch of Strobillanthes callosus. It was through this:
The greens of Manikgad
These Karvy plants may look small, but they towered over six feet, and their stems were multiple – a mesh hidden beneath the large crenate leaves. Treading through this was no fun, but it was good adventure nonetheless. We heaved and sought a breath of fresh air. But we were still a while from the destination. When the Karvy finally gave way for the distinct moist deciduous forests with tall trees and a little air under their leaves, we sighed. It was only a hike of twenty minutes from here until we came to a clearing, and flushed a Carpenter Bee buzzing on the ground. There was also a large bag of sticks in the nearby thicket:
Bagworm taking a nap
This bag, rather sleeping bag, was made by a caterpillar commonly called a Bagworm, and the adult is called as Bagworm Moth. Several families in the superfamily Tineoidea make such protective structures around them. This one probably belongs to the family Psychidae. The sticks are carefully chosen to match the height and girth of all the other sticks, then the caterpillar weaves silken threads between and under it that holds the sticks together. It then lives inside it, only protruding the head to feed and three appendages to navigate. It also pupates inside and the adult flies out after completing metamorphosis.

We were now beginning to reenter the forests, where we would tarry again through Karvy’s and other large sprawling trees holding onto the large pitch black boulders the size of a hundred me’s. But before it, there was a spectacle to behold:
A spectacle in monochrome
The lush green lawns – trimmed and maintained with perfection by nature, as well as trees that rolled over and under the hills in the distance were glistening in the sun. As if the forests were on fire, the clouds rose like smoke from under the valleys and passed over the meadows seamlessly. I could have stayed here for days and weeks, and would have tried to run into those thick water-laden clouds had I not had the end in sight – that was the fort. And it is here that I happened upon something really tiny – a fly:
Beetle-backed Fly, family Celyphidae
This is the Beetle-backed Fly that I’ve been talking about. Although I’m least satisfied with this photograph, it is just too tiny for my camera, and it does not do the justice to the beauty of this creature. It resembles a beetle because of the elytra-like structure over its abdomen, but it is not the hardened wings that form this structure (which in beetles is called elytra), it is the scutellum – a tiny part between the thorax and the abdomen of insects – that spreads out over the wings. It might seem to block the wings of the fly – but it is an extremely swift flier.

We also came across a little spectacle amidst the greenery – a gang of male Common Indian Crows hanging out on a dried-out Heliotropium indicum plant:
Euploea core sipping on a dried Heliotropium indicum
They weren’t arguing among themselves, but drinking merrily to the fullest. Heliotropium indicum is the place to hang out if you’re a Danaine. This plant, when it dries, releases pyrollidizine alkaloids which the Danaines use as precursors to danaidone – a poisonous compound which is passed onto the eggs after mating takes place. It was a sight to behold, and it was even more interesting to watch when we knew the reason for their attraction to this only dead, shrunken shrub amidst the bustling greens around.

Now we were passing again into the deep shadows of the trees, and here it was not empty of life, for there were several mollusks as well as a number of Hemipteran bugs. One that caught my eye was a Leafhopper:
Nephotettix virescens
It is, in all probability, Nephotettix virescens – a widespread, common leafhopper in the family Cicadellidae. It is a common bug attracted to lights at nights. N. virescens is considered a pest on rice crops. This was on a Karvy leaf, in a place that looked like this:
Tall Karvy's and Manikgad in the distance
Looming above our heads was one of the shoulders of Manikgad – it wasn’t as far as we thought, but we were wrong! After entering another lap of Karvy’s, it disorientated our guide and we were lost again. Fortunately it was not for long, and we were back on the trail that ultimately leads us to the plateau of the fort. This plateau was teeming with life. All the insects that were already present on this highest point of the mountain were probably hill-topping.

A beetle fond of munching on flowers – a Blister Beetle in the family Meloidae was very common:
An unidentified Blister Beetle, family Meloidae
This fellow is different from the one we saw in the last visit to Manikgad. This fellow and a hundred of his kind were feeding on flowers as well as looking for a mate. It is interesting to note that the previous Blister Beetle, Mylabris pustula, was found on a lower elevation (around 1000 feet), and the elevation we were at (about 1800 feet) was dominated by the above photographed beetle. I’m still unclear of its identity, but there definitely must be some hierarchy amongst different Blister Beetles when it comes to choosing a niche, as it exists for many other animals.

A little ahead was a water tank – a reservoir common throughout the forts in India. These act as an excellent habitat for aquatic insects including Odonates, as well as frogs that feed on them:
Indirana sp.
This frog is Indirana sp., an interesting frog fond of water but will rather stay close to it than in it. This reservoir was amidst the tall grass over the rolling mountains:
The Rolling Mountains
The different colours belong to different species, the bright yellowish green are the grasses, with the bluish greens of the Karvy, and the brownish greens mushrooming down below are the several species of trees. At the top there was no fort actually, but very few ruins, such as this gate:
Ruins of Manikgad
And a few stony walls that now hold the weight of all the living things that grew hereafter the emperor. There were also little pools of water teeming with life – from budding Pogostemon sp, an aquatic herb some of which are endemic to the Sahyadris. And while exploring these pools, I found a dragonfly that met with a fatal accident:
Annax immaculifrons that met with an accident
This Blue Darner female must have lost her orientation in the heavy vortex of the wind atop the fort and slammed into the rock – hence the damage to the head. Her abdomen was badly fractured too, and there were ants already attracted to her injuries.

We were exploring every corner of the flat surface. The clouds were building up in force in the mean time. Soon it was raining again. We began our hike down, and reached the point where we had to turn back last time. Here a dragonfly sat patiently, probably awaiting the return of the sun, which never did come:
Tramea limbata 
It is Black Marsh Trotter, Tramea limbata. They are fond of a varied habitats – of tall grasses near marshes or clear streams in the meadows. T. limbata never swarms, but they might participate in other dragonfly swarms.

A few yards from this dragonfly’s perch was a gateway in the forests with still air down below, but the scene was completely changed. A veil of clouds was cast upon the otherwise hot and humid forests. It was cool too – a drastic change from the morning:
The Misty Forests
We happily galloped our way down the mountains, singing and laughing like a bunch of merry dwarves. After crossing some extremely slippery rocks, our feet touched the soft mud of the bottom. We had achieved our aim.
Sesamum orientale
Thank you for your patience through reading my blabbering blog. I scaled the Mahuli Fort yesterday, and plan to write about it next weekend. I hope to finish one last trek in the last weekend of the last month of monsoon. The next month will see the beginning of the Post-Monsoon Expeditions/Walks through some other parts of the northern Western Ghats. Keep checking for more before Summer takes over!

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.