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.
Competition
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.

6 comments:

  1. As always Ani, your photos of lush green landscapes and insect activity have me green with envy! The potter wasp photo is incredible, and the spider hiding in the dragonfly wing is a fantastic story encapsulated in a single frame! Well done!

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    1. Morgan, thank you for those kinds words! Winter here really is refreshing!

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  2. Needless to say I am in awe! :D I have always loved the pictures but now am not just enjoying the writing but can feel the weather on my toes the way you describe it.
    love you more and more.. A

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  3. What a beautiful pictorial blog. Apart from write up the crispness of pics was awesome specially that of Dragon fly and Potter wasp. May the present seasonal changes due to Climate change should not be strong enough to wipe out such a magnificat faunal and floral bio-diversity at a faster rate..

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  4. Absolutely amazing post and even more mesmerising photographs ... Yours is one of my favourite blogs ... Just to show my appreaciation ..

    http://betweensaneinsane.blogspot.in/2012/02/liebester-in-german-means-favourite.html

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  5. Loved reading this Aniruddha. Fascinating information and beautiful pictures :-)

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