Sands and Wetlands

A girl with hazel eyes disappeared in a cloud of glimmering sand. She wore a maroon dress. Wrapping her head was a long red scarf, her large green eyes – a symbol of this region – gleaming through her half covered face. We came to a halt at a village by the sandy road, our guide addressing the folks for directions in Kutchi. I was in an unfamiliar terrain in one of the corners of India, where the language is strangely beautiful to hear – a mix of sindhi, gujarati and rajasthani. An amalgamation that is only unique to the Kutch region of Gujarat.
The semi-arid regions of Kutch
For as far as my eyes could see, the earth stretched for miles – its flat surface laid out for our feet to explore. A number of shrubs prospered in this semi-arid landscape, thriving on the scarce water received six months ago. This unique region, a part of the famed Banni Grasslands, forms a crucial habitat for many animals, resident as well as migratory.

On our way through the desert we glimpsed a large mirage stretching from one corner of the eye to the other – shimmering in the afternoon sun. A vision of an oasis was planted in my brain. As we drove on, this vision grew larger and larger, and more complex – with trees lining the mirage, dancing in the blistering heat. And as we drove further on, the land gave way for water, so vast in its content that the other shore remained hidden beyond the horizon.
Chhari Dhand - an oasis
This is Chhari Dhand, a large swathe of wetland that appears as a mirage in the middle of a desert – an oasis a lost soul would never dream of.  Dhand is a shallow catchment of all the rainwater and the floodwaters of neighbouring rivers, collecting into a depression over this flat terrain. Its alkaline soils give it the name Chhari. During the odd seasons, its swampy shores and the lakebed form a murky, drying saucer of mud slowly baking in the sun.  It is only during the exceptionally good rains that this catchment is full of water, and literally teems with life during this time of the year.
Wetland biodiversity of Chhari Dhand
Chhari Dhand was declared a Conservation Reserve in 2002 after realizing its potential for wildlife conservation, and at the same time its importance for the local communities depending upon the wetland. It’s “lesser” conservation status gives the locals a chance to use – not exploit – this resource, to obtain food, water, and other basic necessities.

This seasonal wetland is rather exploited by the birds, as they feast on the invertebrate diversity until all the water evaporates. And to feast on them, the Eagles and Hawks, Harriers and Kites, and Foxes and Wolves scan its sides from all directions.
A harrier of the skies
A pair of Eurasian Marsh Harriers soared above the marshes at the edge of the lake, swooping down only to disappear into the thick reeds, as we stood by the shore watching in amazement. And there were Red-wattled Lapwings in their tens, asking questions “did-you-do-it?” to one another, only to receive that exact question as response.
Did you do it?
As the Lapwings waded around the edge of the lake, a Great Egret sat poised in the shadow of a bare tree, focusing on the passing-by fishes. By his side sat a Bar-tailed Godwit in contemplation. Over a yard away sat another Harrier, and about five yards from them, flocks of Common Teal, Northern Shovellers, and Common Coots with their families fed along the edge of the sedges. I could think of only one word to define this wetland: complete. I wondered if it was a dream. Would I wake up and all of this disappear?

Chhari Dhand comes under the salt-marsh biosphere called Little Rann of Kutch, and lies strategically in the middle of three ecosystems – the grasslands, shrublands, and deserts. Its residents, therefore, are unique. And at the ecotone of Chhari Dhand they find their abode as the boundaries of their ecological niches disappear, and a clearer, peaceful world for all appears. It is not everywhere that you see a tiger and deer comfortably together, except perhaps near a wetland.
Indian Bushlark
There were also birds that were more at home in the aridity of Kutch. One turn of the head and you’ll find yourself looking at something really different. There is no wetland in your view. Only a vast, flat land lying bone dry but not empty. This is the beauty of Kutch. 
Desert Wheatear on the lookout
Birds that are associated with arid habitats are common here, from a variety of Larks and Wheatears, to Montagu’s Harriers and Bustards. It is in these arid landscapes that you will see the Indian Wild Ass, Desert Fox, and, if you’re lucky, the Indian Wolf or the Striped Hyena. While my trip lasted for only a few hours, I had a fleeting glimpse of a Desert Fox running under the thickets.

The desert of Kutch did not seem deserted anymore, yet we were in for a bigger surprise – a social bird that I can associate with so closely – one of the most majestic of all the birds – and ancient – and intelligent – the crane. In flocks of hundreds, they took to the air at the sound of our vehicle, filling the skies with their characteristic trumpet-like calls. They soared over the thermals, picking altitude, and, swaying effortlessly over the wind, they turned and passed over the setting sun. Dazed, we looked on. The clatter in the air was music for our ears.
Common Cranes take to the air
Grus grus, the Common Crane, visit northern India during winter from the colder northern countries. They come in their thousands, and spend their time feeding and breeding in and around the wetlands, before they embark on their journey back north. The Common Crane is amongst several others that visit the Little Rann of Kutch during winters.
Great Egret of the Little Rann of Kutch 
Several hundred species of migratory birds and a hundred more residents call this mirror of the desert their home for a few critical months. It is indeed a relief to see it preserved without the bias of neglecting the necessities of the local communities. I was in Gujarat to attend a conference on Wetland Conservation for Sustainable Development, organized by the kind folks at Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology. It opened my eyes to various aspects of wetlands. We have been thriving – rather we thrived solely because we had a wetland for our use and disposal. In a way, we are like any other species that depend on the classical elements to survive. We are a part of the ecosystem. And although we may have distanced ourselves, there are many of us who survive solely on natural wetlands like the one at Chhari Dhand.

An Indian Winter

Winter in peninsular India, and particularly along the coast, is always for the namesake. But this year was an odd exception. The winter was cold – cold for this part of the world that lies between tropic of cancer and the equator. It is La Nina to be thanked for this pleasant weather, just as she blessed the parched Western Ghats with good amount of rain.

Winter here usually starts with what is technically called an Indian summer – a rather unsympathetically  hot spell of crazy high temperatures, coupled with double the humidity. As the nights grow longer by the hour, the temperatures fall, staying usually well above 20C.

This year, the temperatures fell to a record 15C in the city limits. In rural corners, where the hills are tall and woods thick, the temperatures may have fallen below 10C. But this rarely gets recorded. Warm clothes were out of the wardrobe. Those who never imagined a cold winter walk to work in their lifetime had to buy warm clothes. People kept the fans off. Electricity bills plummeted. Winter had arrived. This is winter – or close to what winter should be, I thought.

Mumbai recorded the longest winter in my lifetime. And it was a gorgeous one, too.
Treading the trail of elves
The grass is golden brown, crisp and half dead. Heavy dew settles upon its blades, glowing in the early morning sun, until it evaporates and leaves the surface of the earth to form clouds. Some trees have changed their appearances, their colours resembling the vivid warm shades of the northern autumn.
Autumn red comes to Asa bay
The winter is not empty as that up north, it is just the opposite. The air is buzzing with activity – trees flowering in masses, bees’ busy gathering pollen, birds congregating, and life as we know it, just going on its usual course. What’s changed is the colour of the forests. It is now drab, brown. But a little closer to any wetland, it’s as if nothing ever changed. Waterfowls flock in these sanctuaries, away from the frozen northlands; such places are referred as wintering grounds.

Come summer, and most of these water bodies will dry out. The migratory birds will have fed, mated, and moved on to their breeding grounds up north, to as far as northern Africa, Russia and Europe.

In the macro-world, everyone is not huddling in for winter. No animals hibernate so down south of the northern hemisphere. They are as active as any, going about their business of gathering and hunting.
Velvet Ant - Mutillidae
A Velvet Ant scampered on the forest floor, making its way from over and under the leaf litter. She was on her way to find a specific prey – insects that burrow, such as bee and wasp nests, and burrows of Tiger Beetles, all of which must be plenty in numbers hiding in the undergrowth. Only she knows how to find one, and trick it into capturing her – just when she will sneak into its burrow and lay an egg, and seal the life of the grub forever.

Although called Velvet Ant, these are true wasps in the family Mutillidae. Only the females lack wings, and prefer a solitary life of a hiker, but she’s not defenseless. Females in this family are known for their painful sting! We respected her space, and only when she stopped to sense the two strange animals surrounding her, did she pose for a photograph.

On the same day, a rather cold morning for the first day of the year, we saw another Wasp warming up for a long day ahead. Her abdomen vibrated to generate heat – her muscles contracting and relaxing at a rapid rate.
Delta esuriens - Potter Wasp
It is hard to distinguish a male from a female Potter Wasp, so let’s consider that it’s a she. This Potter Wasp is also a solitary predator. She will feed on a purely vegetarian diet, but will make sure to provide the more nutritious carnivorous diet to her offspring. Her duty today would be to hunt for small insects and spiders, and stack them in a nest that closely resembles a pot.

Even in forests arrested by urbanization, the members of Hymenoptera are doing their best to pollinate flowers, and feed their young.
Apis florea - Dwarf Honey Bee
One of the members of Apidae – the bees, is Apis florea – the Dwarf Honey Bee. She sat on the edge of a banana frond preening herself. When is the better time to sit and clean oneself than in the warm winter sun? She may have thought.

Even the distant cousins of bees and wasps – the ants, were busy gathering grains and hunting for prey.
Pheidole sp. - Major and Minor Harvester Ants carrying a Cricket
These Harvester Ants (Pheidole sp.) had collected ample amount of seeds, removed and discarded their husks, and buried the seeds deep in their underground city. Some of the minor and major workers, as seen here, were also dragging a large (compared to their size) Cricket down the tunnel. They were probably storing food for the coming harsh, hot summer.

The Harvester Ants in the genus Pheidole build intricate, spiral, maze-like ramparts surrounding the central main tunnel that bores into their underground colony. These structures are usually built in wet months, when the soil is moist and easy to mold. During drier periods, their entrances are barely a centimeter wide, and inconspicuous in appearance except for the tell-tale sign of heaps of discarded husks along the entrances.

The life in winter is equally interesting as that during monsoon, and the creatures love the sun more than they ever did in their lives. And there are those that flash their extravagant attire to attract attention only when the temperatures are warm enough for their daily activity. One such beautiful creature is a Peacock Royal.
Tajuria cippus - Peacock Royal
This butterfly, a couple of Slate Flashes, and a dozen of Brown Awls were feeding on the flowers of the exotic Eupatorium. This may seem to be a rather unusual season to see these butterflies, but it is in fact the best season, until March, to see them in good numbers. Come summer and they will be gone, replaced by other set of equally colourful butterflies that you won’t see this time of the year.

I spent much of my time this season near wetlands. These serve as the only source of water for many animals – from insects to mammals, during dry months. I spoke about the coastal wetlands in my previous post. Some of the other fascinating wetland ecosystems are found near freshwater bodies.
A Rove Beetle
This unusual insect is indeed a beetle, in the family Staphylinidae. Their elytra are greatly reduced – appearing as if someone has clipped them. The long wings are delicately folded inside the hardened forewings. These beetles are often found along the edge of freshwater wetlands. Some of the members of this family are highly toxic – even accidentally rubbing a Rove Beetle on the skin can cause a severe allergic reaction.

The eight-legged creatures did their best to hunt on the cold mornings. An Argiope anasuja, the lady, had found a perfect place to build her orb-web.
Argiope anasuja - Signature Spider
She chose a place by the edge of a stream – her back facing the bushes. Any prey flying from, or to the stream will likely get trapped. It is also worth noting that these spiders mostly rest on the side of the web facing the bushes. It is probably to reduce the chances of getting easily picked by birds.

Another remarkable housing was made by a spider, a probable member of the Sac Spiders.
A Spider's retreat on a dead dragonfly's wing
This fellow had chosen the wing of a dragonfly as a resting place, probably after feeding off its juices. Living inside this degradable house is not very smart, however. Many of such carcasses attract scavengers, and the spider has put its life in danger by spinning a web around its nutritious abode.

Spiders in the family Tetragnathidae and Nephilidae are still around as well, but not for long; however the diversity of Salticids has reduced.

We also explored a lake called Nilje. A wary Grey Heron sat along the edge of a floating mass of plant, the Eichhornia; eyes locked onto its next meal. A larger, Purple Heron kept harassing it until the Grey found a place all for himself.
Ardea cinerea - Grey Heron
Nilje lake is one of the many suffering from urban development from all corners – that have already destroyed the riparian ecosystems and blocked all the inlets and outlets of water. The only outlets here are that of pipes extracting water for construction – probably illegally.
Moreover, the lake is being reclaimed from one side by construction debris, and the native ecosystem has been overrun by hordes of Eichhornia and Ipomea carnea – both exotic and highly invasive plants. Yet these disturbed habitats serve as a floating ground for birds to walk on and feed upon various invertebrates.
Nilje Lake
Nilje has been a haven for birds for many years, and many bird watchers flock to this place to observe the diversity of this water body. It is indeed sad to see it disappearing in front of our eyes. Birds completely dependent on wetlands, like Little Cormorant, White-breasted Water-hen, Purple Swamp-hen, Bronze-winged Jacana, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, and ducks like Lesser Whistling Teals, Spot-billed Ducks and Garganey’s have come and relished upon the resources of Nilje. All of them are disappearing rapidly.

The next year has been proposed as the International Year of Water Cooperation. Under it, I only hope for the greatest initiatives (at local and global level) that must be undertaken focusing on water, for it is the source of all life on the only planet we know.