With my heart pounding in my rib cage, I set off all by myself to explore the wilderness. I had been in the forest before, but always in a vehicle, and so being on foot and completely alone felt like a vulnerable but thrilling situation. Being my first time alone in place filled with unknownsurprises and wonders, I walked ahead with an open mind, ready to receive all that I could. My senses were heightened – I treaded very cautiously, almost as if I didn’t want the earth to know of my presence.
The area I was walking through was naturally not the thick of the jungle, but a nature trail that cut through more open land and farmed areas inhabited by the villagers of Satpura. That’s not to say that it wasn’t nerve racking as these areas are known for great wildlife sightings as well.
It was open land across the unploughed fields, I stopped at every little thing that moved. I breathed in the fresh air that carried the wonders of the earth and smelled the scents of nature. I felt the trees, birds and the earth itself trying to communicate with me. Listen, I said to myself and that calmed my racing mind. I felt that I had become one with the world around me.
I saw small birds perched on the trees and the electric lines crossing the field. There were Bee Eaters, Doves, Parakeetsand others whose names I am yet to learn. I pulled out my new pocket diary and started writing down descriptions and details of the birds I didn’t know. I recommend carrying a notebook, both as a memory aid to record what you do recognize and as a learning tool to look up what you don’t.
The trail I was following turned swampy and as I walked into the slush I told myself nothing was going to stop me or make me turn around. There was no definite pathway, so I walked along the tire marks made by a vehicle. As I walked I realised that it was easier if I walked beside the path to avoid the mud getting into my shoes.
It had rained incessantly the previous day and the small stream had now bulged into heavy flow. I couldn’t see any other way but to cross the stream. I stood there scanning the place, trying to decide how to do it, when Ifortunately saw two village women coming my way. I greeted them and asked if there was another way to cross the stream. One of them looked at me and just started walking across the stream. I followed her steps, watching carefully where she placed her foot. I was relievedto have crossed the stream, and was looking forward to walking with the women for a little way, when I realised that she had crossed the stream only to show me how its done. She went back from where she came to join her companion. My heart was filled with gratitude and I will admit that my eyes got a little blurry experiencing this innocent act of kindness. I talked with her for a little while and asked her about her family. Her name was Uliabai, she lived nearby and had a school going-child. She smiled at me as I thanked her with all my heart and allowed me to take a picture of her she justify, crossing the stream once more.
I walked ahead asking myself how thiscould get any better. I had hardly walkedout of the lodge and the morning was already so beautiful. Too happy too fast! I was faced with another challenge. I was looking at around 100 meters of swamp land. I stopped, clearing my mind of the joyful experience and became aware and conscious of where I was and what I should do next.
The previous day our team had gone for an evening walk to explore the area, when we were challenged by swamp land. It was only after walking about 100 meters into the swamp that we realised it had taken over the entire field.We had to cross about half a mile knee deep in the swamp and even got stuck a couple of times. It was a great learning experience (though unnerving at the time).
I knew what lay ahead now and focussed myself. I stopped and scanned the area,looking for a place where I would likely not get stuck. I saw some vehicle tracks and decided to follow them. I didn’t know which direction I was meant to take, I only knew that I had to get to the other side of the fields. I walked on the tracks and the slush started getting deeper. It occurred to me that walking beside the tracks might be easier as the ground was a harder on the surface. I walked very carefully, with almost featherlike treads – there was no one around and if I got stuck in the slush, I would have hadto wait for hours until the good people back at the lodge realised that I was missing. After painstakingly choosing every step,(wisely!) I finally crossed the field and was gleaming with joy at completing another challenge.
Now, how could this day get better?
I headed to a small pond near a farm close by, and oh my lucky stars, there was a crocodile (about 4 feet in size), basking in the sun. I had unknowingly crossed the pond very close to the crocodile, which I should not have done. I learnt that stop, lookand proceed is the basis of safety in the wild.
I walked on and met the farms landlord, Abdul Basheer – elder brother of Salim bhai,whois been very friendly with all of us at the lodge. He welcomed me and was happy to tell me about his farm. There were paddy fields where they were growing Basmati rice, a delicacy for making biryani. He said he would send me a bag once harvested.
He was more than happy to show me the various birds that lived in and visited his farm. There were three barn owlets that lived in a small hole on the huge Mahua tree. I was lucky to see them as it was day and they are usually not seen perched on the tree. All three were sitting close together and it seemed like they were looking at me. Owls are my favouritebirds next to the Bald eagle. He also showed me a fewparakeets and other common birds.
I went back to the crocodile basking in the sun. I wanted to get a good shot so I moved a little closer. That startled the crocodile and it leapt back into the water, causing me to miss my shot. Disappointed I went back to the farm, but was called back as the crocodile had crawled back onto land. I was told that there were 3 crocodilesliving in that pond. By now I realised that getting too close to the croc was not only scaring the creature but also unsafe for me. I stood my distance and didn’t gocloser. I was lucky to get a good photograph this time.
I said my goodbyes to Abdul bhai and to his workers on the farm which included a little boy, Somesh about 7 to 8 years. I captured them all on my camera and took the beautiful experience in my mind.
I was on my way to the Baya Weavers nests. My mission that day was to watch the birds and record their behavioural patterns. It was really amazing how they made their nests. Theirs are hanging nests, very strong, made of twigs and grass, like little pouches to lay their eggs in. The birds fluttered around the nests, going in and out every 50-60 seconds. They shook the nest and it swayed every time they went in.There were about 10 nests hanging together and atleast 2 birds(that I could tell) around the nests, maybe guarding their homes. I watched in awe for a while recording every little detail.
It was time to go back home, and I turned towards the lodge feeling richer for the day that I had had. I saw a few children and they looked at me smiling and grinning so I stopped to chat with them and showed them my binoculars which they looked at with great fascination.Children are amazing creatures, so full of joy, excitement and eager to learn. They were returning from the “Anganwadi”, which isa crèche provided by the government.
As I walked back, I saw peacocks dancing across the field, a perfect end to a perfect day. My mind was filled with the beautiful experience and my heart quiet and blissful. I couldn’t help sharing my wonderful expedition with everyone. I am sure I will have many such beautiful journeys in my days here at Satpura.
A well brewed coffee before a safari helps spotting some uncommon wildlife like a Golden Angle butterfly. Like most flats, the Golden Angle butterflies often perch on outstretched wings. Just as we were appreciating the butterfly using a manual focus on the camera, the lens caught an Assassin bug probing the Lacewing’s eggs!
Lacewings are one fascinating group of insects both as adults and as larvae, for the amazingly engineered adaptations that they have for predation and anti-predation. The ideal stage for any predators to take on these smart insects is during their egg stage. However the talented mothers lay their eggs on stalks of delicate silk probably to upheave without any support and even knot themselves when a predator badgers them. The stalked-egg-laying could also prevent larvae of the brood killing each other. When some of the lacewings make it to their first larval stage, they start as voracious predators, especially on the agro-pests such as aphids. They have even been awarded as ‘Aphid Lions’ like the Antlions for their predatory skill. As they grow into adults developing laces on their wings and turning greener, their senses and armour develop into a remarkable artillery; a pseudo ‘ear’ develops at the base of their fore wings that helps them “hear” the Bat’s percussions through echolocation, once the lacewings “decrypts” the echolocation, they drop to the ground! Although the wings are a beautiful and delicate work of craftsmanship, they too come with hair that prevent any spider silk sticking. Even if they are trapped in any case the lacewings deter their predators by smelling bad. With a formidable predatory skill set and anti-predatory techniques they are still vulnerable to other predators that have a taste for a juicy Lacewing.
One such predator is the Assassin bug, who an undeterred and passionate assassinator! Equipped with a long rostrum, they can reach these eggs laid on stalks. The Assassin injects a potent saliva that begins to digest the contents of the Lacewing egg sac. The Assassin bug now straws up the eggs like sipping coffee off the mug. To its added advantage their legs have a firm grip with tiny hair, so that when the silk strands entangle their legs, their hair can support their cocktail hour habits.
There may be around 7000 species of Assassin bugs, all of them true to their name are predators both at nymph and adult stages. This time the unborn Lacewing shifts down the food chain until its larvae finds a camouflaging Assassin bug nymph. It just amazes you to watch the anti-predatory and predatory counter adaptations that have developed over millennia of evolution.