Happy New Year!

Dear friends,

I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and a prosperous new year! It has been long, yet seemingly quick, as every year. It has been, as always, a year of tragedy and hope, yet I feel this year was a rather encouraging beginning of the new decade, for we learn from our own mistakes. We have seen things this year on global and local level that we all can relate to, all of which gives us hope of a better future. My heart goes out to those who suffered, and those who’re taking every effort to make this world a better place.

Today, we’re the most populated planet in the universe that we know of. And if someone’s watching us, they’re probably facepalming themselves at our misery, caused by our own kind. Yet they’ll be astounded to find that our world is the best place there is to be, for amongst us live the greatest people, most kind and godly, who’re doing every bit to save our souls from every dark thought that takes root in our minds – and that’s us.

Of natural calamities this year there has been no respite. And whether we blame it onto anthropogenic climate change or not, it is the duty of every citizen of this planet to do their best in protecting this sole world we live in. We’ve been battered with unprecedented droughts and floods this year, and sit on the edge of another depression, so why not take this opportunity to make a resolution to protect this world we live in. Let’s cut our green house gas emissions, let’s help our own kind, let’s save our fellow species. Let’s make a resolution, and stand by it!

I will leave you to that thought. I wish you a wonderful time this weekend.
See you next year!
Please follow Earth Day 2012!

Scenes by the Sea

He’s lived in this town long enough to forget the breath of the morning. Although he plans his escapades on practically every weekend, he longs for the smell of the warm summer air. In this town that he lives in, you can’t smell a thing. The first rains drips over the garbage dumps, restraining the petrichor from reaching your senses. The scent of Alstonia is overridden by the stench from the drains. When you walk on the street, you must watch your feet for cracks in the pavement. He maybe complaining like a subterranean homesick alien, but last week, he and his friends vowed to escape. For two days they remained aloof, cherishing the breath of the morning, the smell of the fresh air, and the sound of the sea.

By the coast of Maharashtra, a little over hundred miles south of Mumbai, lies a little town of Nagaon – a small, cosy place dotted with cottages and hotels, looking over the mighty Arabian Sea. It has been a place of nirvana for many, and dipping yourself into this sacred sea is how you attain bliss, and reboot your consciousness. You lose your routine here. You don’t rush to catch the wind, you sail with the wind. You don’t drown, you dive in. You don’t hear noise, you listen to music reverberating through your body. Did he really lose himself there? You may ask. He indeed did, and every word of it is true.

The sea was mesmerizing. The wind was fulfilling. And the scenes by the sea beguiling. We reached the cottage by noon, and quickly unpacked and set out to explore this coastal town. The soil was sandy, but mostly reclaimed by their owners. Most of the trees here were planted, but there were many wastelands that were now slowly restored by tall, dense grasses. By the roads, the most common trees were Casaurina, a tropical tree planted exclusively along seashores as windbreaks.

Under a small shady tree I saw some activity of a rather large Weaver Ant. At a closer glance, it was a startling surprise – an ant-mimicking spider in the family Thomisidae, the Amyciaea sp.:
Amyciaea sp., Ant-mimicking Crab Spider
It was busy feeding on a Weaver Ant, who had a nest a few feet above the spider’s lair. Unlike most ant-mimicking spiders that mimic an ant’s shape from head to abdomen, these spiders mimic the other way round – from abdomen to the head. The distinct black spot you see on the abdomen are false-eyes, to mimic the face of the Weaver Ants. The real eyes of these spiders are in the typical Thomisidae pattern, wide-set and tiny, except for the two median ones with a binocular vision. They lie in ambush, usually near their prey’s nesting, and strike when the target is close enough.

As we walked along this narrow road sprawling with cottages on both sides, we were struck by the sight of a fluttering, flashy object:
Tanaecia lepidea, the Grey Count
It then settled on the ground in front of us for a sip from the damp mud. It is Grey Count, a beautiful Nymphalid found in the southern reigon of Maharashtra and downwards. They are also present in the North East, but their absence in Mumbai region is quite interesting to ponder upon. It flew into one of the orchards and left us standing on the empty road. The way was deserted. Everyone had gone into hiding from the hot coastal sun. One creature that happens to shy away from bright sunlight is a skink that we found under a boulder:
Lygosoma punctata
This marvelous snake-like creature is actually a true lizard in the family Scincidae, in the genus Lygosoma, probable species being punctata. Its movements match that of a snake, and they use their tiny legs which are quite apparent to move quickly through the undergrowth. They mostly spend hot days under rocks, emerging late in the evening or at night to feed upon insects and other invertebrates.

We emerged back early evening to explore the sea. The rolling waves were sending a hypnotizing chant our way. We could hear her, and we knew where she was located, but we couldn’t see her. As we stepped on the cool sand by the towering Casuarinas, her calls became stronger, guiding our way. We saw her at the edge of the shoreline, delicately bathing and churning the vast stretches of sands. It was about two hours from sunset when our feet touched the cool waters, and sank in its soft surface. The high tide was returning, and the moon had risen one-third its way into the sky.

After a dip I returned to land and set up the camera facing the horizon:
Arabian Sea
The sea rolled wildly as twilight approached. The east was darkening, and a few stars had begun to cast their light in our direction. Visiting the seashore without witnessing a sunset or a sunrise is like visiting a garden and not heeding the flowers. The Arabian Sea lies directly west of the coast of India, and therefore a sunset is always assured, and this being winter, the clouds rarely ever block your view. I was expecting to catch a glimpse of the rare green flash phenomenon, but a haze over the distant horizon blocked our view. The sun disappeared, drowning us in twilight. This is the time when you must strain hard to see, and a camera becomes your important tool of seeing the subtle shades of twilight:
A Hermit Crab at dusk
The shell belongs to a Hermit Crab, who may have sought the shelter by defeating its previous occupant. It was too afraid to give us a clear view, but it must have been glad to be on the soaking sand, where they mostly roam around in search of food.

The evening star, or Venus, was shining brightly over the horizon – a sentinel planet that always carries the warmth of the sun over its surface. Seeing one over any water body, in any part of the world, is a divine feeling.
Mornië utúlië
And as the darkness crept over the western sky, the sea suddenly calmed down. The music faded to a murmur, and the waves sailed smoothly over the sand without churning it. It was the time of peace, a time when diurnal creatures seek shelter, abandoning the seaside, and when the nocturnal creatures haven’t left their abodes yet. We then returned to our shed, our hearts satisfied with this magical quest. There was no doubt that we’d return the next morning.

I woke up to a flash. The sun was one third its way into the sky, sending its blinding beams, flooding the shoreline with white light. We started early in the morning before it rose midway into the sky. The scenes in the morning were just as beautiful as in the evening. A heavy mist was lifting from the meadows as we walked to the sea:
A mist lifts from the meadows
At the beach, a gathering was underway as bullock-carts after bullock-carts rolled into the white shoreline:
A gathering of bullock-carts
The day was Sunday, an off-day to the bulls and the farmers. It was time to put them to their test, to exercise their muscles, and to play a sport of race. The bullock horns were polished with oil; the mane of the horses was washed and brushed silken soft. Their toes were painted, and their masters sat on the cart puffing a smoke in the air. Some of the enthusiasts gave their wheels a warm-up. Two players decided to taste the real deal that came later in the afternoon, a friendly race between a handsome horse, and a pair of equally handsome bulls:
A warm-up race
The bulls were no match to the horse. He beat them in a minute. Yet it was an unfair feat, because the horse is obviously no match to the bulls when it comes to brute strength they reserve in their bulk. It was one of the many fine scenes unfolding as the sun cast its rays from behind the Casuarinas.

A few yards yonder near the sea, that was now retreating after a high-tide of the night, a flock of hundred Brown-headed Gulls cluttered at the bank:
A flock of Brown-headed Gulls
They took to the flight as soon as a few unaware people disturbed their early morning siesta, a sun-bathing of sorts – soaking up the sun after a cold night. These gulls are in their non-breeding plumage, but as winter progresses, their colours will soon change to dark brown heads and fairest bodies cloaked in silvery grey wings. While stalking this flock of birds, we saw some very active waders along the shore in groups of threes and fives. They were feeding on something in the sand – we’ll get to it in a while. These were Kentish Plovers:
Kentish Plover
A cute little member of the Plover family, they are distributed across various continents, and are common along the Indian shoreline. These birds also donned their non-breeding plumage, which is not as beautiful as their breeding colours, yet these birds are always a treat to the eyes, watching them as they skitter over the shoreline with their nimble feet, leaving no trace into the sand that they had been there.

We also saw many Pond Herons hanging around the shoreline, much away from the saline waters, as well as a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon in the trees, a Spotted Dove, Eurasian Golden Orioles, a Honey Buzzard, Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Black Drongos, and many Little Green Bee-eaters.

I became completely absorbed by the scenes unfolding by the sea. A trio of dogs ran along the water, trotting and playing around. They sure were glad to be living by the beach. A couple held their hands as they walked across the sand, leaving a pair of footprints that remained there until the sea reclaimed her sand. A noisy flock of the gulls now settled into the sea, diving and fishing into the waters. The bullocks were piling in numbers, their polished horns shining in magnificence. A team of cricketers placed their stumps in the sand, and another day of business opened to the cottage owners.

Yet, this shoreline was dominated by something almost invisible, but in numbers uncountable. They are intricate designers, gregarious eaters, and ultimate disguisers. Their influence is so much on this shore that they change the very shape of the landscape:
The Crab City
This network of objects is just as complex underground. The objects are tiny balls of sand, created by an invisible crab called Sand Bubbler. They are predominantly found along sandy shores, living in burrows, sometimes measuring millions in number. The sand bubbles are actually discarded pellets of sands that they filter while feeding:
A network of sand  bubbles
This efficient way of filter-feeding keeps them from feeding in the same area again and again. During high-tide, their city gets submerged, the sand bubbles dissolve, and the sand is again enriched by organic matter. By low-tide, they emerge again and filter out the organic matter. Morning is the best time to observe this vast network of the Sand Bubblers. It was hard at first to locate these shy residents of the beach. But we were lucky to finally find one of a decent size. This crab is a member in the family Dotillidae, probably in the genus Scopimera:
Scopimera sp., Sand Bubbler Crab
Their exoskeleton resembles the sand, dissolving their existence in its vastness. This guy was caught off-guard, and he strode along the shore looking for its own burrow to hide. As we scavenged the shoreline, we came across a dead Ray and a dead Sea-snake. Many marine creatures that die are washed ashore, and here they don’t go to waste; there are many scavengers on land that feed on this rich resource delivered to them by the sea.
Feathers and Footprints
We turned our backs to the sea as our time was up. We had to block her calls that were brought to us by the wind. We will definitely return.

Our winger geared towards home. The city now felt different. My eyes saw things differently. It was no longer what I had described before. My conscience changed it.

Ovalekar Wadi: The Butterfly City

7 AM SHARP, said the text on my phone. I calculated I’d have to wake up only thirty minutes early.  The alarm clock went off at thirty past six.  I saw myself wake up and, as I finished the routine in a blink, stood near the gas station. I sat in the car that approached from the highway connecting the messed up old city to the new unplanned one. The scene flew by swiftly, and switched to me sitting under tall shrubs with low thickets; a late morning sun filtering green sunlight through scarce but broad leaves.

Everything was glowing softly, but it was very hot. I was looking at a boulder. Out of curiosity, I upturned the rock, to find a dead Bronzeback Tree snake lying there. What on earth was an arboreal snake doing under a boulder? I turned to look up to a passing lady, and my eyes met hers. She was slender and tall, and hung delicately from the lean shrubs. She was Mrs Bronzeback, wearing a necklace of turquoise jewels beneath her scales.

She investigated me thoughtfully with her large unblinking eyes, considering me with inquisition as her tongue flicked thrice in front of my face, almost touching my nose. I did not move. I simply said I did not kill him. My phone rang, but I did not answer it. I couldn’t move. I don’t know how, but I knew it was a she I was talking to, and that he had died, somehow crushed under the boulder. She then turned to look at him. And for the first time in my life I saw a snake cry.

My phone rang again; subconsciously I pressed it against my ear. Hello? I said. Where are you? It asked, it’s thirty past seven! I stirred in my seat, almost panicking, and threw myself away from what had been holding me down – it was my blanket! I regained my bearings about my bed, and gathered my belongings. They wouldn’t have reached far, I thought. I can reach them in time!

And I did, almost. We turned to a small road broad enough for a vehicle to pass through. About half a kilometer inside, to the right, is a little paradise amidst a suburban corner of a sprawling city, called Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden. It was ingeniously created by Ovalekar family, and it was open to public after years of meticulous gardening and careful maintenance of plants that butterflies were especially fond of.
Delias eucharis, Common Jezebel on Stachytarpheta jamaicensis
The butterflies love this place. From those with a tiger’s stripes, to the ones with gaudy wings; the largest butterfly of Mumbai, the Blue Mormon, to the smallest, the Grass Jewel, are all seen here. We were greeted by these flutter-by’s as we passed through the gates. To the right is a Mango tree, recently a leaf was brought by a Common Baron female; her spiny egg resting in the middle of the property. A few meters ahead, under a dark shady corner of Passion Vine, a Common Wanderer had laid four eggs, one of which was paler in colour; getting ready for emergence.

Scattered over this Lepodiotera haven were caterpillars of Common Tiger, Death’s Head Hawkmoth, and pupae of Plain Tiger and others. The adults – the most extravagant stage in a butterfly’s life, were all around us, some busying themselves on Stachytarpheta jamaicensis, Lantana camara and Cosmos. These were mainly Danaines, they remind me of lazy sundays. The other kind of butterflies, which draw nourishment mainly from decaying fruits and vegetable matter, such as Common and Gaudy Baron, and some Bushbrowns were busy at the food baskets – also called butterfly baits. These baits act as lure to many insects, from these scaly-winged flies to the two-winged real flies. It only acts as a lure, but does not entrap them. This free-for-all meal is provided here throughout the year, and for those who think of butterflies when they sleep and wake, such as me, it is a great respite from the crazy city.
Photographing a Danaus chryssipus, Plain Tiger
Life here comes to a stop, or so it seems. From young ones sporting a little camera, to the elders with a bazooka, everyone stand side by side, helping one another in photograph the flying gems – everyone having only one thought in mind – to admire the beauty of these jeweled winged insects. I was lost in this tiny paradise too, and didn’t come back to myself for quite a few hours.

The butterflies were seen engaged in various activities, from Common Mormons dancing together, Common Jezebels feeding on nectar, Plain, Striped, and Blue Tigers fluttering on this lazy Sunday, an old Common Lime laying eggs, to Common Barons drinking water on a green lawn – everyone had something or the other to do. One could literally see an identity in these butterflies, and although most were busy feeding, there was slight distinction between any two butterflies – perhaps because every butterfly has a story to tell of its short, but distant past. I wondered if the butterfly remembers anything about its previous life.
Euthalia aconthea, Common Baron, sipping water from the lawn 
This diversity (and density) of butterflies is not completely isolated from the natural habitat. A few kilometers to the west lays the great expanse of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, with Yeoor Hills lying to the far south. Although it is surrounded by farmlands, the topology is similar to plains around SGNP, however the trees of the surrounding area here are majorly exotic plantations, with a few mango orchards.

A few of us decided to explore the world outside Ovalekar Wadi. We turned left on the Village Road and proceeded along it, towards Ovala Village. The road was quiet, with a few farmers carrying hay on their backs along the trees. The sun filtered through roadside plantations – slowly baking the tar road. Out through the fence built by precautious mango orchard owners, flew a small, dark thing, and settled on the road:
Lethe europa, the Bamboo Treebrown
It was a Bamboo Treebrown, a rather beautiful saturnine, a close relative of the Eveningbrowns. This was only the second individual I’ve seen in the past five years – a pleasant surprise. It settled down on the road, sunning itself, and then went to a wet spot on the road – we don’t know what it was – but it seemed glad to be sipping the fluids from it – minerals, salts and such.

A few meters ahead it began to clear up a little. The barbwire fences turned into tall stony walls, guarding cottages away from the city frenzy. We saw a tiny butterfly near the thickets – a Small Cupid:
Chilades contracta, Small Cupid
It was rather impatient, fluttering through the thickets, settling for a few seconds to soak up the sun, and setting off again to find another perch. On our walk about the road, we saw a few Rounded Pierrots basking on dried plants, a Baron and a Commander puddling on a wet cement ground:
Euthalia aconthea and Limenitis procris, Commander, puddling on wet cement floor 
We then took a beaten road down into an orchard. The weather was growing hot now; it was only 10 AM. There were several thickets of Barleria and Abelmoschus, along with a few vines – and, a little city of bugs. There were congregations spread over the area – made up of kids (nymphs sans wings) as well as adults. Most of them had their needle-sharp straws buried into the plants, sucking up the juices, while some were walking around. These bugs belong to the genus Dysderus, in the family Pyrrhocoridae, commonly called Cotton Stainers. They are true bugs in the order Hemiptera. A rather cute nymph was enjoying his bottle of juice on its own:
A nymph Dysderus enjoying Abelmoschus seed-juice
He seemed pretty possessive of his bottle – which is a seed of Abelmoschus, and did not let any other bug 
near. While some bugs avoided fights, a few others thought otherwise:
Fighting over a drink!
The one who was holding onto the stem with his thin hind feet – carrying the weight of two chubby sibblings, while feeding on the seed as another kid looked on – was a funny sight. After their struggle over the seed, the four finally decided to puncture it and consume it together – how wise.

We left the place after a few photographs. The sun was getting really hot – my dream had turned slightly true. The week before had been rather pleasant for Mumbai – a welcoming change from the sultry October heat, but it was seemingly hot that day. The humidity had suddenly poured in from the sea – as the westerly winds brought it on land, blocking the north-eastern current from pleasing the city.

Back on the road, I beheld a sight I did not wish to see – a dead snake. I quickly connected to the dream – was it mere coincidence, or an insight into my morning’s trail? It was probably an insight. My mind was probably trying to tell me that this is what I’d be seeing on the walk!

Who am I kidding? It was just a dream, of course! But the dead snake was reality. It was a brutally killed Saw-scaled Viper – it could have been killed deliberately or by an accident – but an accident can be prevented. You can see the live one here.

I did not feel like photographing it. It was too sad a sight. Its death, although in vain, was not wasteful, for there were many ants tending to its nutritious carcass:
Anoplolepis gracilipes scavenging a dead Saw-scaled Viper
These ants must be crazy to feed on a deadly snake! One might think. Crazy they were – called the Yellow Crazy Ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes). I spoke about them in this post. They are common in SGNP and the surrounding areas – and are easy to distinguish from the Weaver Ants, because they’re smaller. I photographed them for a while, observing their keen interest in this large organic piece of food. Some of them scampered up my arms – but they don’t bite unless provoked.

It’s never a pretty end to a nature walk with a vision of a dead animal, or a deforested landscape, or a littered forest – but these have been really frequent endings to most of the treks. What is it about humans that take ignorant pleasure on doing this I don’t know, but there sure is no conscience in these folk.

As for Mrs Bronzeback, she never returned, and I’ll never know how she’s doing now.