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.