When you have spent the past five months outdoors- jumping over slippery rocks for frogs, almost drowning in a river, walking next to a fresh tiger pugmark in the middle of the night, scrambling through thorny shrubbery that agile leeches use as convenient launch-pads for your neck, ears, armpits and what have you, plucking off the bloodsuckers, hoping the next green vine you hold on to is a vine and not a venomous Malabar pit viper, being ravished by mosquitoes, stretching out your palm for an exquisite forest cockroach to perch, being slightly tickled by a reticent pill millipede ambling over the open palm, marveling at the mucus trail left by a muscular-footed bathroom slug on your hand- then, even a week cooped up indoors in front of a computer screen can drive you towards great mental claustrophobia. And I have had four such weeks. So you can well imagine my joy at getting an opportunity to visit Walvan dam in the busy, 'if you are a Mumbaikar, you must have a bungalow here' city of Lonavala.
As a rule, I detest crowded touristy places with the banal 'waterfall, sunset point, boating in the lake, evening market' formula. Fortunately, Tata Power (own the Walvan dam) and in the usual Tata spirit have preserved a considerable volume of biodiversity in the region. Ex-situ breeding of the endangered Deccan Mahseer (Tor khudree) is carried out in the environs of the lake. They also run a wonderful nursery which stocks indigenous saplings of trees like Sita Ashok. Mr. Vivek Vishwasrao of Tata Power has been instrumental in developing and maintaining this ecological paradise even as land-sharks acquire and destroy large tracts of neighboring forest.
It was here, nestled amongst the Sahyadris, overlooking the Walvan reservoir, far far away from the twinkling lights of the city but closer to the glimmering stars that we spent the night. Armed with tents, sleeping bags, packets of food, we were determined to live the dream. A night outdoors with a bunch of strangers is exciting. More so, when some of them are certifiably as 'crazy' as you are. A bunch of dried twigs, grass and a dead cactus helped set up a warm crackling campfire as a delicious recipe of 'toast bread, melted cheese and smoked pepper' was developed over the flames. A campfire arouses a variety of human responses- some narrate eerie stories that are made spookier by unexplained noises of the night, some stare into the dancing flames and reminisce about lost love, some philosophize on the great mysteries of human existence, some debate god and destiny, some draw closer to the cute girl/guy they saw in the bus, some drink away to glory and wake up to a head-splitting hangover the next day and some…some set off in search of nocturnal critters.
Armed with a flashlight to navigate across a rocky lake bed, we set off then to explore the night. Our attention was soon focused upon hundreds of large black ants, swarming at the base of trees by the campsite. As a child, you are taught one simple rule regarding ants- Red ants bite, black ants are harmless. As a biologist, you realize that the rule is supremely flawed, but practical experience often serves to drive the point home. So, even as we marveled at the ants, an orange-backed Fungoid frog (Hylarana malabarica) hopped and hid itself in a hollow made by intertwining tree roots. This endemic frog is common in the Western Ghats and has a distinctive deep orange back with a thick black stripe running down from the eyes towards the feet, which are painted with spotches of pale white or yellow alternating with black. Overjoyed at the Fungoid frog's familiar face, I dropped down on all fours, pointing out the anuran to friends. Almost instantly, my palms were stung by the angry ants, outraged that an intruder dare step so close to their fellow antmates. Now I have been stung by ants and bees before, but the sharp needle-like pain of these bites was an extraordinary experience. The bite can best be described as five times more painful than a sharp needle jabbed into your skin, its intensity lasting for an excruciating 60 seconds. Jumping to my feet and banging into the overhead branches did little to numb the pain. One of these amazing critters (to their credit, they deliver a most painful bite to keep predators away) found its way into my t-shirt and I spent the following moments doing the Conga even as the ferocious fighter continued defending itself with cruel jabs at the weakest of spots. Finally, it made its way out of the garment, and respectfully, I contended myself with flicking it off suppressing the 'Crush the devil' emotion swelling inside. The stinging bite was surpassed the next morning at the pain of not photographing the little devils at night. For these nocturnal ants had all but disappeared in the light of the day. (Note to self: Revisit site with a copy of the 'On a Trail with Ants: A Handbook of te Ants of Peninsular India' by Ajay Narendra and Sunil Kumar.)
When the moon rose up, outshining the sparkly night gown of stars, and the lake was bathed in a shimmering golden glow of the heavens, we stumbled across another of Nature's wonders. The air was still that night, yet, ripples could be seen along a tiny shallow curve of the lake. Curious, we shone our torchlight into the gently troubled waters, to discover prick-points of reflected eyes darting around. A closer look revealed that the bevy of activity was being caused by dozens of shrimps! Shrimps are mostly nocturnal invertebrates and are known to feed on algae and decomposing material. They are 'filter feeders', that is, they feed on microscopic particles through paint-brush like structures on the first pair of legs. These delightful miniscule recyclers are responsible for keeping our water-bodies healthy. A further search may have revealed the reason behind the feeding frenzy, but as luck would have it, the shrimps kept moving away from the bright light of the torches, forcing us to retreat rather than disturb them further.
P.S: A special thanks to Gulbagh Gulati for allowing me to use his photographs for this post.
Part of the magic of camping lies in waking up to the morning. Wriggling out of the sleeping bag, tripping over someone's feet, elbowing another in the face, you unzip the tent's flapper and gaze awestruck at the scene in front of you. The mixed deciduous Sahyadri forests stare back at you, their bodies cloaked in a warm yellow-gold garment lent by the sun with a lush green evergreen crown adorning their peaks. The lake reflects the azure skies, bordered by the towering reflections of the mountains. In a flash of fluorescent blue, the Small blue Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) dives in the lake and emerges out triumphant with a silvery sliver of breakfast clutched in its orange beak. A pair of Great Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba) arrive with their characteristic wave-like flight and earnestly begin the up-down motion of their tails, like a pair of hyper-excited puppies. A tail-bobbing Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) scans the lake surface for some protein. As the morning wears on, butterflies abound on the trail back towards civilization.
We trudged along, with heavy backpacks and heavier hearts for the weekend trip was drawing to a close. The butterflies flew along with us, mesmerizing us with their bright, graceful flights. The Lemon Pansy (Junonia lemonias) was the first to greet us, though it settled down frequently, to replenish itself with flowerfuls of morning nectar. Soon, the Blue Tiger (Tirumala limniace) took over from the Lemon Pansy, leading the way, its delicate black-veined blue wings glowing in the sun. Occasionally a Common Leopard (Phalanta phalantha) would dart past, as a hurried greeting. Ceruleans would often say hellos, their purplish-blue wings glistening in the sun. Common Grass Yellows (Eurema hecabe) did what they do best- waving at us from amongst the grasses. It was left upto a freshly-emerged pair of Striped Tigers (Danaus genutia) to bid us a dazzling farewell, even as others fluttered in the background and bid us to return soon.
The trail veered off onto the road…There was but one place left to visit. We walked on towards a rickety bamboo hut constructed over a waterbody. The Walvan dam has resulted in a number of artificial wetlands- now these wetlands play host to migratory Painted Storks ((Mycteria leucocephala). We spotted around twenty of these large storks perched on treetops, with around three Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) and a lone Open-billed Stork (Anastomus oscitans) for company. The occasional Intermediate/Large Egret (Ardea alba/ Ardea intermedia) and Indian Cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) were also sighted. Armed with a camera, I took my first step towards odonate identification- clear photographs. A time limit forced us to return back to the Eco-hut, but not before we had seen the tail of some snake rustle into the shrubbery alongside. Oh and of course, the mongoose that scrambled into the undergrowth. The trip ended with a final goodbye from the Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites) butterflies.
The greeting was brief, and the outside world greeted us with deafening music blaring in the name of god.
I had quite an experience with Keerthi Krutha while volunteering on the project "Evaluation and Impact of the Chytrid fungus on Amphibians of the Western Ghats" by the Wildlife Information and Liaison Development (WILD) Society, Coimbatore. The killer chytrid fungus has been responsible for the catastrophic decline and extinction of atleast 200 odd species of frogs worldwide within a mere span of 3 decades! Chytridiomycosis affects amphibians through hyperkeratosis and they begin sloughing off their skin. This messes up their osmotic regulation and eventually leads to their death. The project I volunteered on studied the presence of the fungus in the biologically diverse Western Ghats. (You can refer to their 2013 PLoS ONE paper titled 'Endemic Asian Chytrid Strain Infection in Threatened and Endemic Anurans of the Northern Western Ghats' for the results of their first phase of surveys).
Searching for frogs is a fun activity! It involves you to bend over, placing each foot ahead with a curious tap-tap while examining the ground underneath with the intensity of a hawk-eyed headmistress admonishing a particularly mischievous student. Sometimes you get lucky, and are awarded with a startled frog hopping its way out of those clumsy 'oliphaunt' (Ah LOTR references!) sized feet of yours. Then of course, you catch the fella, molest it with a swab pushed up its thighs ignoring the squirming chap (courtesy Keerthi's imaginative perviness), make an entry into the datasheet, take GPS points and finally, release the indignant frog back where it belongs. 'Frogging' as it is lovingly called, is in stark contrast to 'Birding' where the researcher/bird lover stands a high chance of rolling into a ditch, getting electrocuted by an electric fence, stepping into a puddle of cow urine, falling off a cliff, tripping over roots and other jungle paraphernalia- basically everything that could go wrong when you walk with your head upwards and eyes eagerly scanning the trees for that wonderful and elusive migratory flycatcher.
Frogging in Kerala was not entirely without its share of give-yourself-goosebumps thrills, especially when the electric fencing the birdwatcher walks into is meant to keep away (drumrolls please) the animal who lent its head to a god- the ELEPHANT. Never mind that elephants are intelligent creatures, who over time are known to bend the wooden poles of electric fences with uprooted trees and still 'trespass' into human territory. I am going to make a significantly yucky and slightly illogical comparison here- Imagine holding a blood gorged leech. Now start squeezing the leech, slowly watching the animal puke out the blood. The leech of course, is the Western Ghats. And you, my reader, are smart enough to make the grisly connection. So anyways, we had to keep our eyes peeled for the beautiful beasts (elephants, not leeches) lest a particularly horny tusker decided to pay unruly attention to our feminine charms. This is decidedly difficult when you are almost upto your knees in slush, surrounded by clumps of bamboo which reduce visibility to a few meters and encountering elephant poo everywhere. Add to that, the bamboos creak overhead, as bamboo is wont to do, and you mistake every creak for the snapping of a twig under the giant's foot. You are told that elephants move with a haunting silence in the forest, but jumpy nerves and an unfamiliarity with elephant behavior are the worst companions on a trip into the Ghats. All this time, Keerthi finds frogs, swabs them and releases them in the exact capture location (even if it is up a waterfall where she slips, breaks her nose and then breaks out into hysterical laughter). The show must go on…
Keerthi and I were stationed at the beautiful campus of the Kerala Veterinary University, nestled between verdant rolling Shola-covered hills of the Western Ghats. Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary was best accessed from the KVU campus and we found extremely comfortable rooms at the guesthouse (hot water and an electric kettle were luxuries beyond wildest imaginations). Additionally, the campus is also home to injured, sick, rehabilitated wildlife that the authorities bestow with appropriate medical care and human love. So, you have civets (Viverridae family), a bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) baby, a Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica), male Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), Spotted deer (Axis axis) fawn and the enigmatic Indian giant flying squirrel (Petaurista philippensis). I almost regretted not having studied medicine and becoming a veterinarian, and not for the first time.
One night, we were making our way down the winding road to get to a restaurant. Keerthi sat in the front of the jeep keeping her eyes peeled for suicidal frogs. Suddenly, she shouted, "Stop stop stop!!!" bringing the jeep to a skidding, screeching halt. She jumped out and ran up the hill like a madwoman. Stomach rumbling with hunger I grabbed the sampling kit and started to follow her, buoyed by the hopes of finding a cool new frog, perhaps a Microhylid or the Burrowing Frog. When I reached her, she was in a state of frenzied excitement. Her speech was garbled and sounded like her native tongue, Tamil - "Ella ampu ella". I looked at her quizzically, thinking that the incessant frog hunting had finally taken a toll on her. Finally, after a deep breath, she repeated, "Indrella ampulla. Endemic snail." Looking down, I saw one of the most beautiful snails I have ever seen in my lifetime. A large pale yellow foot bordered with white and the most exquisite black spiraled flat shell was crossing the road, leaving a distinctive snail-mucus trail. I gazed in wonderment at this marvelous piece of art that was determined to cross the tar road in stubborn defiance of Keerthi's efforts to relocate it to safety on the other side. We left it, hoping against hope it would survive any traffic headed its way. Fortunately, we found no traces of road-kill on our return, so I guess the snail must have reached its destination safely.
Indrella ampulla is the only species belonging to the genus Indrella. It is a terrestrial snail inhabiting regions at moderate elevations in the tropics. You must google up the snail, if you haven’t already.
The next Indrella ampulla I encountered was in Karnataka. I was volunteering again on the project with Keerthi. This time around, we were accompanying a 'fish team' that consisted of a motley crowd of fish taxonomists, a molecular biologist, hobbyists and an employee of the fisheries department. The second sighting of the snail was a stroke of luck, and special because I spotted it while we were in a moving car. Car stopped, Keerthi and I bounded out and looked in amazement at the mollusk. Instead of the pale yellow, the foot was a bright tomato red! It was impossible to miss. Fantabulous! Later, Keerthi spotted another while we were scouring the reeds for frogs next to a stream. We were in sandals, not the smartest choice of footwear when you are in a place infested with leeches! Leech complaints aside, if you belong to the train of thought that snails are 'yucky', I beg you, check out the super cool Indrella ampulla. A snail that dazzles the onlooker with its sheer beauty and exquisite looks…You will definitely fall in love with this cutey-crawley.
Here's an interesting article on Snails of Karnataka by Aravind Madhyastha:
I had my first sighting of the endangered Wild dog/ Dhole (Cuon Alpinus) while we were frogging at Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. To the tourist who marvels at seeing a tiger, I say 'Have you seen a Dhole hunt?' A superbly coordinated hunting strategy turns these mere dogs into cold-blooded killers, where they single out a particularly succulent and delicious-looking Spotted deer/Chital (Axis axis), chase it while ripping off pieces of flesh from the prey. Weary from the chase and the consequent loss of blood, the poor deer collapses whereupon the pack descends upon it like, well a pack of fighting dogs. I did not quite witness all this action, but I was part of a case of mistaken identity in the buffer area. Now such cases, especially in the forest, can turn out to be lethal. Imagine someone identifying a venomous Bamboo pit viper as a harmless Green keelback!
Keerthi and I were accompanied by forest guards and a forest watcher as we scanned the area for frogs. Eventually we came to an open patch with short grass surrounded by forest along its circumference, which had earlier housed an entire village. One of the forest guards was telling us the story of a tiger he had seen the previous evening, and pointed to a clearing, "That’s where I saw the tiger". In hindsight, I wonder whether some individuals engaged in wildlife-related activities, especially tourism, speak about tigers and other megafauna to 'sell' better, if you know what I mean. We had by now turned our attention back to the jumping Fejarvaryas in the field and were trying desperately to catch those pesky frogs that have a knack for disappearing into the slushy grasses, when the second forest guard cried out, "Tiger! Tiger!" Surprised, excited, we looked up. Sure enough, in the far distance at the edge of the field, was a four-legged creature trotting in our direction. As it came closer, the guard shouted out, "Look look tiger!!!" (loud enough that the supposed tiger could have heard him- perhaps he was expecting a reply). However, something seemed amiss. Tigers do not walk with a spring in their step. Neither do they have bushy tails. What they do have are stripes. And a bulky body (remember Jim Corbett's 'Maneaters of Kumaon'). Realization dawned upon us- this is a much cooler animal! It is a Dhole!!! Woohoo!!! Excited and joyous, I stood there and saw the creature continue walking towards us. Irrespective of all the science I had read, watching a carnivore walk towards me aroused a deep hidden primal human instinct inside me. An instinct that screamed, "RUN!" Of course, I did not turn tail and embarrass myself. The dhole decided it was close enough to get a good look at the intruders, and seeing us wretched humans, threw up its nose in mortal disdain and made its way into the safety of the forest.
As dusk descended upon us, we gazed awestruck at the disappearing figure, while flocks of Malabar parakeets streaked brilliant blue across the darkening skies, hoping against hope that one day, we would secure the planet for the magnificent species it harbors.
With a smile plastered forever across its face, begging eyes that could bring a 5-month old babe to shame, squirming when intrusive objects are run across its inner thighs, and a grace that could befit a ballerina, a frog is more human than genetics let on. Okay, perhaps not the flies, though I have a hunch that if we looked at human history closer, we would find ancestors smacking their lips, barbequing flies gossiping over a crackling bonfire.
My trip to Kerala volunteering on the project ‘Evaluation and Assessment of the Chytrid Fungus in Amphibian Populations in the Western Ghats’ gave me an opportunity to observe these characters more closely than ever. The chytrid fungus is a deadly fungus that has been known to wipe out frog populations across the world, similar to numerous epidemics that have been assailing human populations since centuries on end. Here are some of the interesting characters from the frog world that we encountered:
Pseudophilautus: This frog was the ultimate metrosexual Casanova- dark yet not quite, with a sprinkling of gold and silver rogue shining out from its underbelly, and perfectly shaped yellow finger-pads, singing its vocal sacs out, forever a ladies man.
Euphlyctis (Skittering Frog): This frog was the mischief-maker, the boy who rings the doorbell and is too slippery to get your hands on and give a good thrashing. To be fair, the frog does secrete a slimy substance to facilitate escape once caught. In frog world, he would most certainly be god, what with its ability to literally walk on water (more like skittering, but if exageration didn’t make god, what did?)
Fejervarya: The mdoern insurgent. Expertly camouflaged until you almost step on them, hiding around human habiatation as well as in forests, and wearing the scars of battle in the form of a missing limb or two, these frogs could teach a lesson or two to rebels. Or to the police. Or maybe both.
Indirana: These are the daredevils, rock-climbing is in their blood and with a fashionable coma-shaped tattoo across their ears, they are ready to take on the world.
Hylarana temporalis: This is the frog athlete. Lithe limbed and forever on the alert, this guy is a long-jump champion- always one step ahead of pesky predators(or in this case desperate biologists)
Raorchestes akroparallagi: This frog is the flirtatious lover- hidden behind curtains of green, forever calling out to you, as your befuddled brain searches desperately for the source. It sounds suspiciously like a Gumnaan, and I was in the midst of an intense personal debate over ‘Flirty Frog vs Freaky Frog’ when I remembered the innocent charm that reflected off it under the flickering torchlight. Flirty Frog tugs at your heartstrings, every single time.
Rhacophorus malabaricus: Much has been said about the endemic Malabar Gliding Frog. A celebrity without the tantrums, forever ready to pose for the camera, and escaping in a specially designed glider when the pressure becomes too much to handle, the Malabar Gliding Frog is India’s next Superstar.
Hoplobatrachus tigerinus: The bizarre American- complete with a ridiculous yellow and blue garb during the mating season (Britons would likely nod in agreement at ‘bizarre’) and (if I wanted to poke fun at the slightly over healthy) endowed with all the obesity that would warrant the frog dropping dead of heart disease. (I take back the obesity remark, seeing that people in glass houses aren’t in any position to throw stones at others). Contrary to its American association, the frog is known as the Indian Bullfrog (which actually makes more sense - gold rings adorning every finger, t-shirts with cheesy pick-up lines, tomato red pants and scissor-shaped earings plus a diet of buttery pav bhaji, cheese-burst pizzas and rasagollas: here’s your quintessential urban Indian)
Clinotarsus curtipes: If I had to have a crush in the frog world, it would be on the Bicolored Frog. He’s the James Bond of the frog world- the Sean Connery one mind you, not the insipid charm of Pierce Brosnan or senior citizen Daniel Craig. Sitting tall, dignified, wearing a cream & black suit with a speckling of white and orange to match his uber cool personality, this fellow hops across a velvet chocolate carpet of leaves, next to gurlging stream beds. You almost expect him to swish around on his toes like a ballerina or to do a Cowboy gun swivel. Unlike the Hylarana though, he was rather unsuccessful at escaping from us wretched science-people.
Next time we are in the Ghats, lets ask the driver to use those car brakes coz squishing frogs certainly ain’t cool. Neither is encroaching illegally on their land, driving them towards batracho-suicidal tendencies. Besides, homicide is a punishable offence inviting insect invasions, subsequent starvation and death.
P.S: Keerthi, you were right after all :P
(with edits from Keerthi Krutha)
The air was crisp with the morning chill. Sparkling dew had settled on the hard, cold, rusted metal of the machaan. The shrill call of the white throated kingfisher awoke me from my fitful slumber. The deer, whose starry eyes had dazzled me thought out the moonless night, were also awake. They stared at me through their large brown eyes as I joined the gaggle of tourists to set out for the early morning safari.
The curtains were opening on Nature’s latest drama. Birds, from diminutive sunbirds to the larger treepies, from the lone prinia to the gregarious seven sisters, from the seed eating munias to the hawk eyed Shikra, were engaged in providing the background score for this composition. Monkeys would occasionally, join in with their cackle, adding the element of mischief to the play.
Today, we decided to track down the king. His Majesty had been teasing us since the past few days, what with fresh pugmarks and claw markings on teak trees. But finding Him in the tall grasses was an uphill task! Once we were even forced to wade through slushy mud. He laid us off track then, mesmerising us with hundreds of his courtesans- the butterflies, all dressed in blue, enticing us to follow them instead. The spell is yet to wear off.
Another time, on our way to a machaan, he got the better of us by sending his slaves, the deer, bounding across our path. We waited, hoping against hope that he might leap across the path too. In vain.
But today was going to be different. I could sense it. The birds kept striking up a chorus every now and again. The slaves were agitated, restless. His sentinels, the handsome sambhar deer, greeted us at the doorsteps. Then, the kingfisher’s loud, shrill cry rang out through the forest, announcing the arrival of His Majesty. A little ahead, stood Him.
Awestruck, we gawked at Him. He wore a coat of gold. Elegant black bands adorned his attire. The juvenile pink of his nose, had matured into the adult black. Two hundred kilograms of pure muscles rippled through his body. His fiery eyes gazed back at us. And so we continued in rapt silence.
The tiger soon grew tired of watching us lesser mortals. He had more pressing needs- fighting off males, mating with his queen, protecting the future kings and queens of the jungle. With one last look, He turned His back at us and walked off. Staring after Him, His graceful walk resembling that of a model on the ramp, I realized how the term ‘catwalk’ must have originated.
Like all good things, the stay at Tadoba came to an end. I returned home, to the grimy, dusty, fast paced life of the city. The memory of the jungle was hidden in my mind’s recesses, and as days passed, I visited it but rarely. Till one day, the newspapers announced- Tiger poached at Tadoba.
The report further specified the recovery of a tiger skin hidden inside a bamboo grove and seizure of tiger bones from the same area. I could not sleep that night.
Could it have been Him? He was young, strong and thus, valuable to poachers. What had they used? Poison? A single gunshot? Electrocution? Trap? Did He moan in pain for several hours before death? Or did they plunge a spear down His throat to drown out His cries?
The drama that began with the Tiger as the king has developed a new angle now. His empire has been threatened by foreign knaves, who only understand the language of ruthless dollars, and who yearn for supremacy.
The King is still fearless, puissant, but the hunter is sly and possesses the infernal human mind. The King has agility and grace; the hunter, only the crude weapon of death. The King feeds on deer; the hunter on human greed and misplaced notions of fashion. The King rules the jungle, but only when the hunter allows him to.
The last act of the drama nears. The spineless mortals, who had promised the King help, continue to look the other way. The king is fleeing, persecuted, hungry, driven out of His home, alone amidst the spiteful villains of the world. His family has been attacked when they ventured out of the forest since time immemorial, now the mob has moved into his palace, and is tearing it apart.
What does the future hold for the King? Extinction? Or salvation? Only time will tell. But in the meanwhile, the show must go on...
There is something refreshing about the morning. Even in the city. The comfortable chill after the balmy summer night. The calling of the koel harshly wakes me up from my bed. And then I hear the crows- the garbage men of the world. They are up early too. And the white throated fantail’s melodious notes always ring out welcoming the beginning of a new day. Slowly, even the magpie robins awake. Summer is breeding time-the best males get their girls and being a songster on an exposed perch helps.
Weekend mornings are even better. I actually witness this drama around me…now I can hear the high pitched scream of the black kite that’s nesting on the coconut palms. There is no sluggishness to the early morning of the weekend- coupled it is with the promise of experiencing the wilderness of the urban jungle. The promise of sighting a rare bird, a mongoose, a hare, a jackal, maybe even a leopard in the city we all call home. Day breaks out early so waking up is earlier- reaching before daybreak is of prime importance. You notice that there’s hardly anybody on the street- doodhwalas and random rickshawallahs being an exception. Few people bother not sleeping in on a holiday.
The kite is calling incessantly now. The purple rumped sunbirds are up too, chirping their way around to nectar filled flowers. Only the crows seem to be in a hurry though, darting here and there- ever the mumbaiites. The deep throated call of the Coucal is now heard through the crisp morning air. It is waiting for the sun to come out, so that it may display its glistening chestnut wings to whoever has the time to watch it- the herald of good luck often leaves its observer awestruck. Rose-ringed parakeets are now making their way across the skies, screeching out so that the group may stay together. I often wonder where they roost…is it within the much threatened, but relatively safe refuge within the limits of the city? Do they make long journeys back and forth between their green haven and their feeding grounds? I would like to imagine it, even though it’s probably not true.
Day has broken now. The sky has completely lost its dark blanket. It is white now, tinged with a drop of blue. It is summer and the copperpod tree is filled with yellow blossoms. While walking a Mumbai street in the summer, you will come across these flowers strewn across like a magnificent golden yellow carpet laid out for the traveller who doesn't have the time to soak in it's beauty. I can hear the sparrows now- the much debated, tiny seed eaters whose tiny holes of a home have been encroached upon by tall glass buildings. The mango trees are bearing fruit too, the raw, green ‘kairi’ will be soon relished by children and adults alike.
Oh and how could I forget the bulbuls- one is sitting right across me on a branch flapping its wings and calling out, its pointed head jutting out like a sailor’s cap. A flash of its red vent and its gone. The family of kites is flying around- the parents have begun to teach the juvenile to hunt. The white breasted waterhen makes an occasional appearance on the lower branches of the siam cassia tree- finding it in the dense overgrown weeds is usually an uphill task! More bulbuls are here now…they are filling the morning with their earthy-metallic calls.
The bonfire tree sets the forest aflame with its colours this time of the year. So does the palash. The golden flowers of the Indian Laburnum tree appear- stunning the viewer with their sheer beauty on the now leafless tree. The state tree- the blue jacaranda is also in full bloom, filled with clusters of purplish blue flowers. The pink Tabebuia is not so common, but when the pale pink flowers high up on the tree descend to the ground and form a soft pink mattress to sleep on, I can’t help missing the childhood I never had.
A childhood spent running around with bare feet. Climbing trees. Stealing mangoes. Plundering the tamarind tree. The teak tree‘s henna colouring my unpolished hands.Bringing home flowers for my grandmother’s puja. Sitting on the river bank with my feet dipped in the running waters. Without a care in the water. Diving into the icy cold stream in the heat of the summer. Sleeping out in the gobar spattered porch. Smelling the gobar. Chasing squirrels. Learning to use the slingshot. The slingshot becoming my best friend. Watching the clouds pass by. Guessing their shapes. Lying out on the soft fragrant grass, sun beating down on me, friends alongside, relishing a stolen kairi... shut from the ruthless, greedy world...with just nature to protect me. And mother me.
An old entry about watching birds and butterflies at BNHS-CEC, Mumbai
Date: Saturday 11 October, 2010
Time: 8 am
Trail taken: No specific trail. Attempted to go along the Temple trail but found it too overgrown to proceed further. Walked along the forest road.
The first thing i noticed at CEC was the innumerable butterflies that thronged the cox comb and wild bhindi bushes that greeted me at the gates of the National Park. The Orange tips (both yellow and white) abound in plenty. A Blue Tiger floated gracefully past me and lay basking on a stalk of the Cox Comb. The temperamental Psyche delicately hung about the sidelines. The forest was teeming with land crabs, rustling their way to a better hideout whenever my heavy footsteps disturbed their peace. I must confess, the rustling did startle me every now and then, until i got used to spotting a tiny crab scurry past into the grass cover.
I was in the mood for birding, so i chose the Temple Trail. However, i was disheartened for the trail had been entirely covered up by the monsoon shrubbery. After a few attempts at trying to make my way through the thick bushes, i headed out for the forest road, hoping to improve my luck. It proved to be a wise choice.
The call of the Brown headed Barbet echoed throughout the forest. A Common Iora kept up a constant stream of calls- first mimicking the Puff throated Babbler, then a long whistle followed by a short trilling song. The Common Tailorbird made its presence felt in the nursery outside the CEC building. I walked along and was quite excited to notice a Purple Sunbird (as also the Purple rumped Sunbird) near the patch of Gliricidia trees. On returning to the forest road, i heard the distinctive ttree-ttree and looked up to see a flock of Green Bee Eaters dive around cheerfully, hunting insects on the wing.
It was close to 9am by now and the road was filled with butterflies. The Common Crow, Common Mormon, Common Rose, Tailed Jay, Chocolate Pansy in addition to the Psyche, Blue Tiger and the Orange Tips flitted from flower to flower, filling the forest with a splash of colours and a tinge of beauty. As i was walking, i noticed a butterfly sitting with its wings closed on a blade of grass. On closer inspection, i realized it was a Leopard butterfly. And to the end of its abdomen was attached another Leopard butterfly! I looked at the pair of mating insects in awe, and in a while both of them took off into the air, one of them flapping its wings and elegantly carrying away the other butterfly still attached to it.
And so i proceeded towards CEC again where there suddenly seemed to be a lot of bird activity. The brown headed barbet, the common iora kept up their orchestra. To the music was joined the twittering of sunbirds and the chatter of a pair of birds that darted past in the undergrowth. They were dull blue above and atleast one of them had a speckling of white-grey underneath. The birds dived fast and deep into the thicket and spotting them was proving difficult. I was distracted by a movement nearby and on focussing my binoculars, I spotted the juvenile Asian Paradise Flycatcher! It was a momentary glimpse for the very next moment, the magnificent rufous bird flew off, its stunning long tail trailing behind it. I returned back to the task at hand, and after some minutes of patient waiting and watching, i was awarded by the clear black nape and white chest that helped me identify the pair of birds as a the Black naped Monarch(s).
Happily i trudged along back to the gates, spotting the young one of a Brahminy Skink on the way. I was greeted by the Green bee eaters again on my way out and the Ashy Prinia kept paee-paeeing its goodbye. The Common Gull butterfly had come out into the sun by then and so had a battered up Lemon Pansy. A tiny gecko (lizard) buff brown body, with a yellow strip extending over its body into dashes along its tail scampered into the grasses. (No id)
I tried to do a little more birding by turning towards the exit of the Temple Trail, unfortunately I was unable to proceed further. However, I did see the Blue Oak Leaf butterfly coasting past me- a flash of blue and it was gone. A frog darted past me in the undergrowth. I also came across a moth caterpillar- 5cm long, pale yellowish white, hairy, with two sets of black dots along its side. (id?)
The day ended well with a Commander butterfly making an appearance in my college. All in all, a good start- or should i say ‘restart’?
Ramblings on wildlife sharing spaces with non-wild humans