Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary

I had decided to take a break for a month, but now I’m taking a break from the break since I was compelled to write about my visit to this Sanctuary on 15, 16 October 2011.

I woke up before the alarm went off and peered through the window into darkness. I did not sleep well that night – shifting restlessly in the bed, awaiting the break of dawn. With hesitation I looked, hoping that it wore the colour blue, praying that it were not shrouded in the dark by a delayed force that had caught us by surprise last evening. But it was blue, and that meant a clear beginning for the day. I smiled, and cleared my mind of last night’s invasion by a thunderstorm.

We reached Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary at noon the previous day – two rogues on a long road trip round the Sahyadris – from the humid coastal plans of the Arabian Sea to the tall cool plateaus and peaks overlooking the central plains far in east.

Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the brink of a humongous cliff – at the height of about 3800 feet from the sea level, with an undulating surface dominated by moist-deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, and flat tops characteristic of plateaus. There are several countless streams meandering through the forests and the meadows that converge and flow as the Bhima River, which then spills into Krishna River – providing the waters and sediments to the Deccan plateau of the east, until the very water off the streams of Bhimashankar, in bond with several tributaries of Krishna greet the Bay of Bengal thousands of kilometers away as one.
A young Bhima River
Once atop this mountain range, we unloaded and planned our day. It was going to be the best time in my most anticipated visit. Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary had always been in the back of my mind since a few years. I had only heard of its flourishes – of giant red rodents in its boughs, of scorpions teeming under the rocks, and of herptiles that I never knew existed. And here I was, finally, after planning and disappointingly cancelling it a few times the previous weeks.

Bhimashankar contains several sacred groves, which are forests protected for hundreds of years for their cultural significance. In its boughs lives a subspecies of the Indian Giant Squirrel – Ratufa indica elphenstoni, found nowhere else on the planet – and for its protection Bhimashankar was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1985.

It was quarter past noon, the sky was clear and the sun shone merrily onto us. In only two hours thence, I felt the first trickle of water, and later a deep gurgle of the skies. The thunderstorm from the Konkan plains had followed us here, much to our disappointment. The weather turned against us. It thundered and the trees shook, sending shivers down the roots and down our spines.

Rain in the month of October and into its second week is very, very uncommon. These thunderous showers are in fact the retreating monsoons, the last procession of the clouds as they parade on their northerly route guided by the western crest of the Ghats. They are two to three weeks late this season, and are filling the already brimming water bodies.

It was a rather wet season this year. On the contrary, there were drought conditions in several parts in the rain-shadow region along the east-side of the Ghats. This heavy downpour, with monsoons arriving a week early and retreating two weeks later may be attributed to the La Niña phenomenon underway this year, when the ocean surface temperature is lower than normal by a few digits. During a La Niña event, the weather is at its worst, lashing coastal areas with unprecedented storms. It is said that the following year will also be a La Niña year, and the rains might be as severe as this year. However, La Niña is followed by a strong El Niño, when the oceanic temperatures are slightly above normal – and are worrisome since drought seasons peak during this event, as it was experienced in 2008.

So we were amidst this thunderstorm when we decided to take the Gupt Bhimashankar trail that goes downhill from Bhimashankar Temple, following the juvenile Bhima River. And you know what? It was one of the best walks amidst a growing thunderstorm and a darkening landscape. It was very quiet, but in the understory of the semi-evergreens were butterflies – two Common Mormons dancing midair – a male chasing the female at her tail – a beautiful display of courtship. And there were birds – a Blue Rock Thrush, Orange Headed Thrush and a White Bellied Blue Flycatcher trying to find the best hiding spot. We walked for several meters through the primary forests – the very few remaining virgin forests along the Ghats. And it opened into a ravine, so we climbed down to it – to this magical land where the waters flowed steadily and fell off a fall as mist.
Over Misty Mountains cold
Clouds ascended from this ravine and lifted into the skies with haste, as the crackling in the heavens above rose in unison and passed on as a great, loud sigh. The music of the storm to the tune of a White Cheeked Barbet in the background of the rippling water is the best music one can ever imagine. And we were living it.

There were many fishes silently browsing in the still streams. Most of them were Loaches. So the fisherman in me came to life, and he fished the fishes out into a transparent bottle. They were not to be substituted as supper, though. They were humanely caught solely to be photographed. When it comes to study ecology, even today, freshwater fishes are studied mostly for their commercial value. Western Ghats harbours many endemic fishes in its wetland ecosystems. Although freshwater fishes of India have been studied to a limit, we amateurs find it really difficult to have them identified. Therefore I was inclined to take a better look at them, and that wouldn’t be possible without capturing them. They stayed in the bottle only for five minutes, and I assure you they were out and happy with their gang at the bottom of the stream once they returned!
Hillstream Loaches
These loaches are in the family Balitoridae, Indoreonectes evezardi, an endemic of the Western Ghats. They come in various sizes – largest being little over an inch in length, and their habitat is these slow flowing rivers and streams, as they cling onto submerged boulders and scavenge in the benthic of the mountainous regions. They were released where they were caught and then we proceeded across the stream, hoping that the lightning does not strike the nearest tree to us but the farthest one would do. We found a large Plesiophrictus, a Burrowing Spider in the family Theraphosidae on our path. As it got darker with every step, we decided to return to our shelter, and to wait out for the storm to pass – which it didn’t.

Near the Temple is a medium sized town with a few shops, hotels and many vehicles. This is the closest place to live near the Temple, and the most desired by pilgrims that come from faraway places. In the back-end of this town is a large parking space, cleared near the edge of a bare cliff, from where we saw the most spectacular sunset:
Sunset in the Sahyadris
It was as if the sky was spilled purple and pink and a speck of golden dust sprinkled upon its crest. The setting sun, the dispersing clouds, and the low lying haze over the lands below put up a fabulous show for us, as the sun’s rays were filtered and re-filtered until only the shades of red and orange dominated. This view, photographed from the so-called Bombay Point, overlooks to the west of the Western Ghats. Far in the distance hidden in haze lie a jagged mountain range of Matheran and Karjat beyond those is the city of Mumbai and the vast plains that we see are dotted by villages and winding rivers. This is now imprinted in my memory, and I thanked the thunderstorm for once.

In the night we emerged again to explore the roads that were drenched in rain. The air was thick with mist, and it was cold. A large Asian Palm Civet crossed our path and rushed under the thickets. Since it was as wet as it is in the month of July, there were frogs everywhere.
Polypedates maculatus in torchlight
We counted several ones, from the omnipresent Skittering Frogs, the Fungoid Frogs and Common Indian Tree Frogs, Common Indian Toads and also Bombay Bush Frogs. But we were cut short by the intensifying rains and the approaching lightening. And I was restless for the rest of the night, for the hunger to explore under a clear sky burned my stomach. I woke up before the alarm went off, and looked at the clear skies.

We set out on this glorious morning to Nagphani point, a mighty cliff standing tall about the rest, overlooking the landscape to the west. The air was filled with the chuckle of the Indian Giant Squirrels, the incessant tune of White Cheeked Barbets, the sweet melody of Malabar Whistling Thrush, the chattering of Stone Chats, the shrieking of Macaques and the mocking laughter of a Long Tailed Shrike.
On Nagfani trail
Nagphani, literally meaning the Hood-of-the-Cobra, is a small hike up from before the Temple, passing through a variety of habitats from small secondary forests dominated by Memecylon, to grasslands wild and green dotted by little suns – Senecio grahami, to moist-deciduous forests with large trees and by Strobilanthes callosus shrubs; and by rocks and boulders strewn here and there by the streams. Here we found two scorpions, the only live ones that I saw this monsoon, a Heterometrus sp. gravid female and a Neoscorpiops satarensis:
Neoscorpiops satarensis sps.
Several species under this genus are endemic to the Western Ghats. After consulting with an expert, I've decided to let this guy/gal be free of its concrete identity - which requires handling a specimen. She was very cooperative in our close approach – very docile and shy, and welcoming. Not once did she raise her sting in offence. I don’t know a single scorpion that is so kind! The way ahead was teeming with insects, from dragonflies such as Slender Skimmer, Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk, Crimson Marsh Glider, Yellow-tailed Ashy Skimmer, Ground Skimmer, and Wandering Gliders, all of them and more filled the skies; and beetles that caught my eye, two especially in the family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Rutelinae:
A Monkey Beetle
This Monkey Beetle was very common throughout the trail; some of them were feeding on Senecio flowers. And some were hanging around with their strong hind limbs from leaves and the inflorescence of grasses, like monkeys in trees.

Further ahead, uphill from a small temple on the way to Nagfani, we were blessed by a rare sight - that of a sporadic flowering of Karvy, Strobilanthes callosus:
A sporadic Strobilanthes callosus flowering
Since I have been talking about passing through Karvy thickets in practically every expedition, I think this was a worthy gift on behalf of Karvy. This species is known to mass-flower once in seven-eight years, however there are few individuals that flower sporadically. And it is a real challenge to stumble upon them. It is akin to finding the treasure amidst a treasure. Bhimashankar blessed us with something that I did not imagine seeing this year, or for several years to follow. The last mass flowering was in year 2008, and the next will be in 2015.

As we climbed up to the top of Nagfani, we got the idea of where we were situated:
Padargad seen from Nagfani
Over and under the cliff we stood upon flew some of the fearsome raptors on this planet – one of them was a Common Kestrel. There were two more birds of prey, a pair of Black Shouldered Kite and a Crested Serpent Eagle that scoured the lands down below. And as I stood and watched, my mouth agape, fresh air filled my lungs – freshest of the fresh that my lungs ever yearned for. And my mind cleared and fell silent. I was breathless and frozen in that moment.

The two rouges were back on the way home at noon, being chased by another thunderstorm on the way down the mountains. The humidity increased as they descended, until they felt its grip on their necks and filled their lungs with its heaviness. But I was lost in that moment at the top of the Ghats. And I did not come back.

Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary

When the clouds do not hinter the sun from baking the ground all day, it is said that the monsoon is set to leave. On one such day, we went to explore a nearby Protected Area, the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. I had not visited this place in three years, and I was waiting in anticipation for the time to come, which did come on the last weekend of the monsoon season of 2011. 
Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary
Tungareshwar is a sanctuary that I’ve talked about in brief in my very first post, and also as the very last escape for many animals in Revisiting Nagla Block, that mainly focused on Nagla Block being a corridor joining Sanjay Gandhi National Park with Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. And if SGNP is the lung of Mumbai, Nagla Block is the heart, and TWS is the last leg – one that does not lead any further, except into villages and vast fields of rice and other crops. The north of TWS is devoid of any forestlands for miles save for small pockets, until we reach a few remaining havens at the very tip of the Western Ghats – just near the shoulder of Gujarat.

The Tungar Hills where this sanctuary was established are still well preserved, but in recent years Tungareshwar has changed drastically. It is not just the little village on the outskirts that has seen a high influx of migration, but so has the sanctuary. And the sanctuary is no more a haven for wildlife, but a backyard to go and dump your wastes into the forests. The only river that flows through the hills, the Tungareshwar River, is now severely polluted. Activities like washing bikes and trucks; disposal of wastes and domestic garbage; and deforestation by encroachment are the building edifices for the fall of Tungareshwar as a wildlife haven.

When we reached the gate, there were songs being played out loud – to whose ears I know not – but certainly not God, nor the nature. It was more of an advertisement – perhaps of the fact that they obtain electricity only to waste it in such a way.  In the front of this temple, on the left of the gate is a small Forest Department chowki. This small structure is abandoned and left to rot – a reason (and the only) for the activities going on inside the Protected Area, that are not permitted under the law.

We entered the sanctuary with much disappointment, but we did expect a large number of people here to visit the Tungareshwar Temple that is halfway up from the entrance. The people there weren’t the pilgrims however – they made only a fraction of the people who had come for their morning rituals, such as attending nature’s call. This subject is a hot debate, considering the economic situation of the place, as well as the utter ignorance of the Municipal bodies that are supposed to govern, and not to mention provide basic sanitation provisions to the people.

Let me now begin our nature walk by saying that Tungareshwar is now horribly crowded and polluted. It is now more of a picnic destination than a wildlife sanctuary. We took to a small path wide enough for a car to ride, to stay away from the main highway:
Road widening in forests leads to erosion!
This is the road – nearly a two lane highway that runs the length of the temple and beyond – to an ashram. Of all the issues Tungareshwar is currently dealing with, the biggest probably is ignorance. And only by creating awareness through education in this region, and by making the rules more stringent than before, can it be saved. It is still not too late for TWS to be sprawling again with animals and plants, but we might have missed the first SOS from nature, and that is of soil erosion – about which I’ll talk a little later.

And so we began with concern, but the sightings were worth cherishing, for Tungareshwar still harbours an amazing diversity. We saw a large lady Nephila trying to rebuild her destroyed orb-web with her golden silken threads shining in the sun – a reason why they are also called Golden-orb-weavers. While coming back from the walk, all we saw were two legs dangling by a line, separated by a large hole in her abode.

Thanks to the weather, many animals were out basking and feeding. We were first greeted by the tiniest damselfly, Agriocnemis pygmaea:
Agriocnemis pygmaea
This little damselfly, measuring barely an inch across, is a common resident here. The one photographed above is a male, probably flexing his abdomen after spending a wonderful time under the sun. We also saw several females around including the red-morph, as well as a mating pair. Near a stream that flows from the path – which has now been concretized for an easy access to vehicles, we saw a lonesome Trithemis festiva:
Trithemis festiva
This dragonfly is fond of forest streams – especially those with a thick cover as well as emergent boulders to bask upon. His nymph stage he spent in this stream water, and now he’s out and about claiming his territory over the waters. It was sad to see that there were more banana peels here than dragonflies.

There are many bees and wasps that I’m still trying to identify, and it is turning out to be a difficult task online. So, I’ve contacted a few experts and awaiting their opinion. I talked about a Weaver Ant queen on the previous expedition. This time, we saw another Weaver Ant Queen that had shed her wings:
Oecophylla smargdina - Queen
The Queens shed their wings after the nuptial flight. This they do to be able to inspect a place to nest – and this ant was doing just that. She had found a perfect little plant with broad leaves that could be woven into a nest, soon after her first batch of daughters, that is worker ants, have taken birth.

Our little path ultimately submerged with the highway, and we had a difficult time exploring both sides of this long road. At times we looked down into the valley, and at the cliff of the Tungar Hills. On one of the sides, we saw a huge caterpillar measuring over three inches, armed with stinging thorns:
An infected caterpillar
This caterpillar is yet unidentified, but this picture shows more than just its head. The white spots scattered on the caterpillar are most likely eggs of some parasitic insect. This is the season of caterpillars, so finding one is easy, but getting to their true identification is difficult – mostly because they are either least studied, or simply because there just isn’t much information about them on the internet. This is the sad state of the knowledge of biodiversity in India, but it’s not null.

We came across another caterpillar on a dead mango tree:
Euthalia aconthea caterpillar
This caterpillar especially holds a mango tree very close to it – and unfortunately, she was on her way up to the tree, but she wouldn’t have found any leaves around, for the tree was dead. We carried her then to the next tree, and dropped her on her way up the trunk – this was her destiny now, and I hope the adult Common Baron that will emerge will be grateful to pose for a photograph!

The Lepidoptera activity, as is evident from the number of caterpillars around, is booming. I was happy to have sighted my first Common Mime butterfly’s Clytia form:
Papilio clyria form clytia
There are two forms existing in the northern Western Ghats – Clytia and Dissimilis. Both forms are not-so-uncommon, but can be easily mistaken for a Danaine butterfly. The Clytia form mimics a Common Indian Crow (Euploea core) and the Dissimilis form mimics a Blue Tiger (Tirumala septentrionis).

The mantids were also flourishing in this season of plenty. When we were looking over a small bridge, we noticed something waving with the wind under a grass blade. Its movements seemed more robotic though, and very mantis like:
Gongylus gongylodes
This is the Indian Violin Mantis, probably Gongylus gongylodes, a superbly camouflaged mantis of the Indian subcontinent. This mantis is rather common in the region but not easily seen. Our friend here was a nymph, with gradually developing wing buds seen just near the girdle.

We also came across a centimeter long nymph that had probably just hatched; a gravid female with a large abdomen perched on top of a plant, as well as a mysterious mantis:
Cotigaonopsis providenceae - Identified by Evgeny Shcherbakov
Update 28 Oct 2012: It has been identified as C. providenceae (see comments) by Evgeny Shcherbakov (thank you!). A detailed research paper of this newly discovered species described by Vyjayandi, Rajeesh, Sajin John, Dhanasree and Ehrmann (2009) can be read here. If it is indeed this species, I'm glad to say that it is fairly common (have documented it twice so far) in the Sahyadri.

Seeing four different types of mantises in a day was a great relief. It is what halted me from going about my rant against the activities in Tungareshwar. Seeing predatory insects was an indicator that the prey population is abundant. But it is important to evaluate the impacts of encroachment that pose a direct threat to this diversity.

The dipterans were also all around us. A Stilt-legged fly in the family Micropezidae was dancing on a leaf:
Stilt-legged fly, gravid female , family Micropezidae
This dance is their own unique way of saying I’m here, watch out! and they’re well dressed to perform it – with their feet clad in white socks, and their red striped legs contrasting their silvery attire. This one was a female, and her abdomen is full of eggs which she will lay in the soil. Another fly was seen near a wide clearing with small shops.

From here the path bifurcates into two – one to the left going to the village, and the right going to the top – to the ashram. Here I spotted a fly:
Hermetia illucens
This Black Soldierfly, Hermetia illucens, is a widespread fly in the family Stratiomyidae. I was rather surprised to have not come across a single individual for so many years. This fly has a great job, and its larvae are employed my mankind in manure management (especially in North America). Its use in India has been limited, but it does its job faithfully in its wild environment.

One of my most favorite flies was like a stuffed toy:
Euchariomyia dives Bigot
It is a male Euchariomyia dives – a little, delicate fly in the family Bombyliidae.

 The sun was shining bright, the sky was deep dark blue, and the forests were lush green. Everything was as a bug would like it to be:
A lady Katydid soaking the sun
This fellow Katydid is not dead, which is what I thought at first, but she is actually just laying flat on the leaf to absorb as much of the suns energy as possible, simply by increasing the surface area facing the sun. It is entertaining to observe these animals bask in their own unique poses. Jim at North-West Dragonflier covered an excellent article on how dragonflies bask in the sun.

Beetles were around as well, and so were the Weevils. I could record two different species of Blister Beetles (family Meloidae) but still await their identification. A cute Weevil flew past us and settled on a Smithia flower:
Giraffe Weevil, female - a leaf-rolling weevil
This beetle is commonly called a Giraffe Weevil (it is not the same as the Madagascar’s Giraffe Weevil, although they’re similar). They fall into the category of leaf-rolling weevils. The leaf is rolled around the eggs, and the grubs feed on the leaves from within (source). The females (pictured here) possess stout necks.

Let’s now jump to the spiders:
Brettus sp., male
This Jumping Spider is Brettus sp., a really beautiful Jumper in the family Salticidae. This fellow was a male, and the female that was a few meters from him was reluctant to pose, several other Jumpers were seen, including Phintella sp. The Spitting Spiders (Scytodes sp.) are still seen around the paths, but their numbers are gradually declining – as is expected. They will soon cease to exist by the beginning to winter, and miraculously take life at the beginning of the next monsoon.

The reptiles were out cherishing the clear skies as well. The most common reptile of Tungareshwar is the Calotes:
Calotes versicolour, hatchling
And all of them that we saw were hatchlings a few days or weeks old. Their basking places were almost always under a meter from the ground, whereas adult C. versicolour’s do go up a tree several meters high. It is perhaps because there are more insects in the undergrowth – the primary food of these lizards, than at the top. The numbers of C. versicolour has gone down in the urban areas, therefore it is good to see them flourishing here. Although we may have seen over fifty hatchlings, only a handful will survive amidst the forests that hide snakes in their boughs.

While exploring the riverside, I froze at the beautyof a delicate, slender creature. I looked at her not just once, not just twice, and she looked back at me – not just once, not just twice:
Dendrelaphis tristis
She was a Bronze-back Tree Snake, one of the fastest snakes of the northern Western Ghats – and she was on her way to cross the river to the other side, or maybe to drink water – but she stopped in her way and looked back, then slithered back to the shades of the riverbank at my advances. The villagers also showed us a large Checkered Keelback that was swimming in the river.

The Many-keeled Grass Skink, Eutropis carinata, is also common throughout Tungareshwar, and here they don’t shy away from you:
Eutropis carinata
This large lizard sat boldly basking on a bag of soil as we clicked pictures. She was probably in bliss of the plenty sunlight, and oblivious to our proximity. This was rather surprising, because Skinks are very shy of people. I also happened to notice that this skink has very human-like digits on its forelimbs!

When we had crossed the temple and were on our way up the mountain, we looked down at a beautiful view of Tungar Hills, with the city of Vasai and the backwater of Vasai creek to the east:
Tungar Hills and the surroundings
The path up here was smaller, and looked like it could not carry a truck up here to dump dust and bring down more trees to broaden it, yet it happens. I was told that the road-work here happens every year, but little do these ambitious people hell-bent to “urbanize” this place know that this unplanned road widening results in this:
Soil erosion can wipe out mountains!
A large side of the road had given away – eroded by the torrential rain that lashes for four months. Since there were no trees to hold onto the loose earth, the ambition of creating an access to the ashram is only going to incur in loss of land and the biodiversity. It will be worth visiting this area next year to assess the real loss due to erosion. In the meantime, what they could do is take a break from dumping more rocks and plant some trees around their roads.
Plastics commonly perch in Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary
We turned back from there and returned to our homes. The visit to Tungareshwar was an eye-opener, of how we are putting pressure on the environment without realizing it. The populations migrating inside a Protected Area cannot be blamed directly, for they are driven by the basic needs, but population explosion is the stark reality of our times. In case of Tungareshwar, it will be worthwhile to educate the visitors by establishing an Environmental Education Centre, as well as by putting up displays at the entrance and on the highways inside the sanctuary regarding its biodiversity and the threats posed by mankind – so that, at least one in ten will stop and think and put his plastic bag in his pockets and not in the forests.

And so we come to the end of Monsoon, and the beginning of the post-monsoon months. I am keen on putting all this together into one document and publish it by the end of the year so that it acts as a documentary of sightings and observations. I will be leaving now, and will return next month. Farewell!