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:
He seemed pretty possessive of his bottle – which is a seed of Abelmoschus, and did not let any other bug
|A nymph Dysderus enjoying Abelmoschus seed-juice|
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.
I notice you remarked that Ovalekar Wadi is within reach of SGNP. It sounds like such a beautiful place. Is it open to the public every day? Please can you provide a Google Earth ref so that I may check to see if it is within range for my next visit.