Vasai Killa: A Fort by the Sea

Its facades lie in ruin, its stone walls all but crumbling, its towers are frozen in time – looking out to the sea for the past 600 years, except that they are now headless, and palms now tower above them. I’m looking at Vasai Fort after about four years, and things haven’t changed a bit. There is that State Transport (ST) bus (which makes a fine bumpy ride on pleasant mornings) that I boarded early in the morning from the city of Thane, lying to the west of Thane Creek.  The road winds and curls around the creek which continues northward for several miles, unequally bisecting Sanjay Gandhi National Park into the smaller northern range, called Nagla Block – dominated by semi-deciduous forests and large swathes of mangroves, and the southern, or the mainland SGNP. From here it is called Vasai Creek (or Bassein Creek), which then turns west and spills into the Arabian Sea. And on the northern shore, near the estuary of Vasai Creek lies a fort that was once magnificent – whose magnificence now lies in its ruins: of beaten halls, graffiti-ridden walls and nature-reclaimed corners. It is these facades of nature that I came to gaze at, at the fort by the sea.
A backlit window of the fort
The bus traversed around squat mountains on Coastal plains, emerging and exiting small towns, and finally dropped me at Vasai Station. Another ST bus bound to the fort picked me up and dropped me into a small dusty clearing near the fort. I was in late, and the nature-walk organized by WWF-India MSO had already begun.
Sun soaked eaves
The weather was pleasant, with plenty of sunlight filtering through the fronds of palm leaves and the cold still air was full of bird calls and fluttering butterflies. I was here forty-six months ago, on a similar nature-walk organized by WWF-India MSO under a similar weather, when we had come to make ourselves habitual with identifying flora and fauna of the fort, which is full of trees – most of which were planted, as well as mangroves that lie on the outer walls of the fort – all of which are natural. Now, as then, I scoured the landscape thoroughly, but it was with over twenty pairs of eyes that we got a glimpse of few of the many wonderful creatures that reside in the fort.

The trees were planted long time ago and are not maintained, therefore the undergrowth here is dense, and therefore Vasai Fort is an excellent place for the lurkers of the undergrowth such as snakes. Yet we were not in luck, for we found a snake that was dead. It was a Blind Snake, also called Worm Snake for its extremely tiny size. Looking at this tiny body of a reptile – with full sets of scales, a mouth with teeth, a body with a heart and a complete digestive system, was baffling. To give you the scale of its size, it was smaller than some of the earthworms found in our gardens!

Some of the main attractions amongst photographers on this trail were butterflies. Their populations have peaked since October. This rise in the diversity is only temporary though, as they have come from the batch of caterpillars that fattened up during the late September and October months. Many may perish as winter ages, but the hardy ones will remain.
Delias eucharis, the Common Jezebel
Amongst Lepidoptera, the Nymphalids were, as always, the most common, followed closely by Hesperids and Lycaenids. This Common Jezebel was photographed as it quickly sipped nectar from the exotic Lantana camara inflorescence. It wasted no time on one flower, and never really did settle in one place. There were others around as well, such as a Common Nawab that flew past us, a Tailed Jay, Common Wanderer, Common Four-ring, a female Common Palmfly and a few others.

A surprise sighting, for me, was that of the Rabbit-eared flies, which are not true flies but belong to the order Hemiptera – a close relative of the hoppers and plant-suckers in the family Derbidae.
The backside of Derbid Planthoppers
These Derbid hoppers are almost always found on palm trees. I had seen them four years ago at a different location, so seeing them on my visit to Vasai Fort after four years was quite exciting. I also made sure to check out the flies, amongst which my eyes quickly fell on the tiny flies in the family Sepsidae, as well as spiders such as Leucauge decorata, Nephila, Oxyopes, Cyclosa and a male Telemonia sp. Two lone Praying Mantis nymphs, a few yards apart, were seen lurking in the bushes:
A Praying Mantis nymph
We then passed through a large door studded with iron bolts, and emerged on the outer rim of the fort – closer to the mouth of the creek. Here the world was different. The stony walls kept the forests from invading the outside. It was another world. I had especially joined this walk for animals from this world – the ones that preferred water, yet deterred its saltiness, the ones that loved mud over dry ground. It was the amazing inter-tidal diversity of the mangroves at Vasai Creek estuary that was our attraction.

There is a long row of ship-repairing sheds along the mangrove line that have blocked the access to this world, but there is a small gap between these workshops and the fort. I entered the sun baked mangrove mud and settled down by a boat stuck in the mud for a respite from the now-burning-sun.

Fortunately it was low tide, but the shore seemed low in activity. There were large shells lying in the mud. Slowly, as my intervention into this another world dissolved in the ambience of this place, one of the shells moved. My eyes quickly fell on it since there was nothing else moving about. Slowly, a small, slimy mollusk peeped from under the shell, and the gastropod resumed feeding. It was one of the many Telescopium telescopium’s that inhabit inter-tidal regions in mangroves. I have spent quite some time in mangroves, but this was the first time I actually saw one alive!

The trees around were mostly Avicennia, whose roots, or breathing-roots, or, rather pneumatophores, shot out from the muddy shore. Amongst these roots were many small golf balls of mud, and burrows a little smaller than golf holes. By now my presence was completely frozen – as if I was a part of the ecosystem, and something stirred:
 A Fiddler Crab amidst the mangroves
This crab may be unusual for some, but it is perfectly normal, even with its disproportionately sized chelicerae. This is a Fiddler Crab, and with his overgrown arm, which he uses to warn off rival males, he tries to impress the ladies. His other chelicera is a real tiny on that is primarily used for feeding. The females have both their arms small and very feminine, and that’s how you distinguish them. The tiny balls of mud that I talked about are actually filtered mud. These crabs are filter-feeders: they scoop up some mud and filter out the organic contents in it (which is plenty in mangroves). The mud is discarded as a ball. Flies and ants seem to get attracted to it.

As I sat there, many more males flaunting their brightly coloured arms came out of their burrows. I was especially drawn to a scuffle in the neighbourhood:
Two male Fiddler Crabs locking arms in a fight!
A male, and another smaller rival male, had locked their best arms in a contest to pull the other down. The one with the larger arm obviously won; given the size of his chelicera, I would have put my bet on him! The other crab retreated, giving the winner the place he deserves in the ring, and did he celebrate his victory:
Uca: The heavyweight champion!
With his heavyweight arm raised high in the air, he raised his other tiny half – in addition to two feet – so that he doesn’t topple over to one side. Our victor showed off his superiority. It was a great moment to see all the males raise their chelicerae in air and drop them again, as if waving to a passing by female (the behaviour a way of saying “mate me, mate me!”). It is also a reason why they are called Fiddler Crabs, which I think is a misnomer. They don’t fiddle with their strong arms, they’re too confident to do that. The notion that it is a crab playing a violin also does not agree with me.

I had a good bird’s-eye-view of their locale, and, I’m sorry to say, there was not a single female near their arena of choice.

I decided to leave them to their hopeful never-give-up-the-search attitude and tarried along the dry and dusty path that lead to another part of the mangroves – to a small port where boats that dig black-sand (reti) from the depths of the creek, were docked. The mud here was rather wet and extremely yielding, so stepping in it was not a good idea. There were a few tracks of snakes – probably sea-snakes that do come up to the mouths of the creeks – as well as countless tracks of some curious amphibious creatures:
These creatures are commonly called Mudskippers simply because they skip over the mud. And they are fish alright, with fins and gills and a scaly body, yet they live an amphibious life – much like a frog – preferring muddy regions along saline ecosystems. They are also filter-feeders, passing the muddy water through their mouth and expelling the remains through the gills.

Their brown, drab-looking appearance is only a disguise. These mudskippers have dazzling colours, as you can see the electric blue studs on one in the above picture. Their dorsal fins are also strikingly coloured in deep red and blue hues. They usually display these to warn a rival, or to attract females.

When I decided to go a little closer for a better photograph, they both vanished in the hole in the bottom left of the photograph. They are timid creatures – dashing for cover at the slightest disturbance, but they do come out soon, as their curious eyes pop out of the murky waters.

The mangroves are an amazing ecosystem to explore. You never know what might suddenly appear from the knee-deep mud. What I’ve learnt from visiting this so-called another world is that its residents are shy, but they’re also curious. If you ever happen to pass by a patch of mangrove, do wait and watch. They will be glad to see you too.

A Pleasant October

Monsoon officially came to an end with the end of September. What didn’t come to an end was the sheer variety of plants and animals that were born in this season. They grew through the rich season and became adults, and these adults mated and either sowed seeds or laid eggs. The tiny embryos will lay dormant until March, which is a short but amazing season with soaring temperatures and surprisingly diverse flora and fauna – also called Vasant Ritu (that is Spring), while some will wait for their time to come until next monsoon showers bathe the grounds.
I did a fair bit of explorations in October, of which I already talked about Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. I also trekked Korigad in Pune district, Karnala Fort in Raigad district and Yeoor Hills in Thane district. This is quick glancing-though of the observations made in this season. I’m also spending more time on Monsoon Trails 2011Report, and therefore this post will be short and full of names.

October is a great month if you can brave the hot and humid weather. But this year, October was something else. It was rather cool and pleasant, and the post-monsoon showers lasted well into its mid week. On my very first visit to Korigad, we were glad to have seen the largest orchid of Mumbai:
Pectilis gigantea, the Butterfly Orchid
This is Pecteilis gigantea, indeed a giant orchid with beautifully designed flowers carrying a subtle sweet scent. It is also called Butterfly Orchid. We saw them in the distance, thinking at first that they were ornamental Lilies that accidentally grew in a marshy land near a farm, but our curiosity told us otherwise. When we went in for a closer look – we were spellbound by its beauty and aroma.
Pogostemon deccanensis inflorescence
We also saw flowers of Kempfiera scaposa, Chlorophytum glaucum, Smithia purpurea, Vigna vexillata, Dinetus racemosus, Exacum sp., Pogostemon deccanensis on the plateau, Celocia sp., and Senecio grahami. This was in the first week of October, however, and by the second week, half of them had vanished. At Karnala, we only saw flowering Barleria sp., Belpharis sp., Conscora diffusa, and flowering grasses such as Arundinella and Coix, amongst others.
Dendrobium buds
In the third week I visited Bhimashankar, where I barely noticed any plants except for S. grahami. In the fourth week I visited Yeoor Hills, where we only saw flowering Urena lobata, a number of flowering grasses, and, budding Dendrobium orchids which will have flowered by now. Obviously I owe all these identification to my genius friends who can never fail to notice a plant and not know its identity.
Deciduous forests of Yeoor Hills
Today as I sit and write this, I look back at the wet and dry treks – at the change in the landscape that was has been cyclic and timely for over million years. Even in this era when the anthropogenic impacts on the environment has been most severe, the change of seasons and the cycle of life and death associated with is has remained more-or-less same – albeit at a far smaller scale. We don’t – and we won’t – see these changes in the cities anymore. One will have to go deep into the forests and over the plateaus to observe them.
A Dung Beetle frenzy!
The animals that are closely associated with the plant were also very diverse. We saw a number of Beetles in the family Melyridae, several Clinteria sp., and Dung Beetles in the family Scarabaeidae, a Menochilus sexmaculatus in the family Coccinellidae, some unidentified Leaf Beetles in the family Chrysomelidae, a member of Buprestidae – also called Jewel Beetle, as well as beetles in family Dytiscidae.

Amongst Lepidoptera, the most dominant species was Danaid Eggfly:
A male Danaid Eggfly sipping nectar from Celocia
These butterflies are territorial, with the males furiously defending their territories from other invading males, and are the commonest ones to observe the hill-topping behaviour. During the latter half of monsoon months, when their populations increase, the males occupy the top of the forts, where they compete with other males for space. The females, however, are always uncommon to observe at such a height.

The most diverse in this season belonged to the family Hesperiidae – from the omnipresent Chestnut Bobs, to Common Small Flat, Brown Awl, Conjoined Swift and a Suffused Snow Flat (seen at Korigad) were all seen defending their territories as well. This is the season of love, after all, and they better have their own space!

The Odonates were also equally common. I saw more and more of Damselflies by the end of September and in October than in the peak monsoon months. One of my favorite is a Black-winged Bambootail:
A male Disparoneura quadrimaculata
This damselfly was observed at Yeoor Hills, where they inhabit steadily-flowing streams. This male, as well as two females, were observed near a temporary dam built by villagers deep inside Yeoor Hills.
Anax immaculifrons in Wheel formation
Other’s that were present were Pseudagrion rubriceps, Ceriagrion coromandelianum, Vestalis gracilipis, Lestes sp., as well as dragonflies such as Gynacantha bayadera, a mating pair of Anax immaculifrons, Luicozum sp., and several pairs of Neurothemis aurora.

Of all the creatures, the most abundant were, undoubtedly, the Hymenopterans. One of my favorite in this season was a really colourful Bracronid Wasp:
A beautiful Braconid Wasp!
This wasp, probably in the genus Callibracon, was seen at Yeoor Hills, where she was inspecting a fallen tree for any traces of beetle grubs. I’ve already talked about a similar behaviour in this post. That really long ovipositor can pierce through the wood, and inject an egg on-or-near a grub with precision. Amongst others, I saw a number of Crabrionid wasps, Oriental Hornets feeding on Honeybees at Korigad, as well as a beautiful Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae at Karnala Fort.

Amongst ants the most common this time were Tetraponera rufonigra – a winged queen (at Korigad) as well as dedicated workers in all the three places.
Worker Oecophylla smargdina at play!
Also common were the worker Oecophylla smargdina (photographed above), whose Winged Queen and a mated Queen we saw last month. We stumbled across a nest of Leptogenys sp. (processionalis) at Korigad.

The fly population hasn’t gone down, but the families that were more common in monsoon are now less in numbers, and the ones that exclusively feed on flowers are more in numbers – such as those in the family Syrphidae, as well as some members in the family Sepsidae that are more commonly seen on dung.
One of the key sightings was that of a Robber fly laying eggs in the inflorescence of grass (pictured above). Their eggs are laid in a bunch of several hundreds - and look like a frothy conglomeration.
A Robber fly laying eggs
Spiders, from the tiny Jumping Spiders to the giant, Giant Wood Spiders were also seen. The above photograph is that of a male in a female Nephila’s web. She was busy feeding and this tiny male was stalking her.
A male stalking a female Nephila
Amongst reptiles, we saw the largest gecko of northern Western Ghats - Hemidactylus maculatus - both male and a female, at Karnala Fort:
A male and a female Hemidactylus maculatus
This time, we also did some bird-watching! And saw a Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon and an Oriental Honey Buzzard.
The Oriental Honey Buzzard of Karnala
And so we come to the end of Monsoon Trails! I could not write much today. But I thought I would give a glance of how diverse October is. I hope to return with more interesting stuff soon. The Monsoon has retrieved for good, and I hope it comes back on time next year. And with the end of Monsoon, I now declare the beginning of Winter Trails! Winter is just a name-sake season here on the Coastal plains. It’s almost like the beginning of summer for us. But it is also a fantastic season to observe migrating animals (mostly birds) that come down south to overwinter.