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Monsoon in the Aravallis

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on August 17, 2021

Royal plume: The purple sunbird, an energetic nectar feeder, breeds in March/April, when the males (like this one) are adorned in glittering purple and dark blues   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

As birds perform acrobatic aerial displays, insects and beetles helicopter under green canopies, and buffaloes wallow in muddy ponds, the venerable mountain range teems with life during the rainy season

* I am walking on the remnants of the Aravallis. They are our most venerable mountain range, 1.5 billion years old

* The first bird I see is an oriental honey buzzard, drenched and miserable, broad wings half-open atop a dead tree

* This is a feast and black drongos, bank mynahs, brahminy starlings, black-breasted weavers, white-throated kingfishers, green bee-eaters and ashy prinias tuck in with acrobatic aerial displays

***

It had rained all night and the trees are drunk. They slowly rise, shaking last night’s remnants from their hairy canopy. Pit-pat. Pit-pat. Softly, like the sound of children running barefoot.

The main path is well-worn and runs straight through the park. There are joggers and dog walkers and neon wearing cyclists jostling on its mud puddles. I veer right on to a narrower one, ducking under two banks of lantana growing towards each other. Past this dense green wall, the path runs empty. Rolling gently up and down the spine of a shallow hill; reborn vegetation and wet red rock falling away on either side.

I am walking on the remnants of the Aravallis. They are our most venerable mountain range, 1.5 billion years old. One strand of it begins its journey somewhere behind the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The hills, for that is what they are now, run through the country’s power centre and then southwards through Haryana, Rajasthan and into Gujarat. For all our pride in ancient heritage and its prime real estate holding in Central Delhi, the Aravallis are nearly forgotten. Time and man have not been kind to it. The years have ground it down from its once grand heights. And man has been relentless — quarries, highways, factories, mines, residential complexes and industrial areas have broken it to bits.

Fluttering about: Black drongos and common mynahs enjoy the monsoon   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

In Delhi, it lies like the fossil of a gigantic dinosaur slowly being exposed from sand by wind. The spine peeking out here and there in pockets of still remnant protected forest, educational campuses, army camps and DDA parks. These surviving bits of rocky hills are called the ‘Ridge’. It always was a reservoir of flora natural to this belt but years of assault by invasive species such as the notorious Lantana camara and Prosopis juliflora (Vilayati Kikar), and silly urban planning have left it depleted.

We often have a yearning for ‘wilderness’ and mistakenly believe it to be a pristine beauty that is already lost. Or, something that exists only in jungles where tigers and elephants roam. Wilderness, however, can be rather more mundane. Turning off the main walking path in a people infested park can set you in the midst of it. An overgrown corner of your balcony garden can teem with life. The Aravalli’s dry, scrub forests spring to life during the monsoons.

Party birds

The first bird I see is an oriental honey buzzard, drenched and miserable, broad wings half-open atop a dead tree. Small yellow fungi are popping up on the mottled bark to capitalise on the moisture that makes things rot. An urgent line of black ants ripples down while a melon-like creeper with yellow flowers climbs the other way. Tell tale white splashes three quarters up the way give away a small nesting hole, probably a coppersmith barbet’s. Nothing in nature really dies, they just become home to others. The honey buzzard sees me and does not move. On another day, the bird would have vanished in an instant. Today it is too wet and heavy, the day too sluggish.

The drooping limbs of a bottle-brush is playing host to an unusual bachelor party of seven or eight male purple sunbirds in eclipse plumage, cheeping and jousting with each other. These energetic nectar feeders breed in March / April, when the males are adorned in glittering purple and dark blues. Once the breeding is done and the winter months approach, they slowly moult into a duller plumage. Drab olive, yellow and brown; like the females. The eclipse is the intermediate stage. In early spring, they will again moult and go through another eclipse (often marked by a distinct dark stripe running from the throat through the underside) and then attain the purple that they are named for.

Insect life

Two otherwise obscure inhabitants of the Ridge are also in glorious colour during this time. Red and black blister beetles, with their unmistakably coloured raised front wings and drone-like hum, are everywhere. Blister beetles are so called because of their ability to secrete the toxin Canthardin which can cause severe skin rashes and itching. These adults helicopter here and there, often feeding on flowers like the beautiful violet and yellow bloom of the Mimosa cineraria; locally called the goya khair. This small tree is widespread on the Aravallis but goes unnoticed during the rest of the year due to their similarity to the local acacias.

Pristine trap: A mild yellow butterfly (likely a mottled emigrant) appears to be frozen in mid air, caught in the tiniest strands of a spider’s web   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

In between trees and lantana, stands of wild grass sway peacefully in rocky patches. But in nature, peace is usually an illusion. A mild yellow butterfly (likely a mottled emigrant) appears to be frozen in mid air, caught in pristine flight. Or is it? I look closer and see that it is caught in the tiniest strands of a spider’s web. A struggle usually ends up entwining it further in the web and alerts the spider to its prey, which is then quickly dispatched.

The tips of longer strands of grass are often occupied by robberflies, the top dog in the fly world. Robberflies are voracious predators with habits and demeanour eerily reminiscent of hawks. They park themselves on an open perch to survey the vicinity. From where they sally forth to intercept flying prey in mid-air, using superbly adapted eyesight.

Nesting in: A cluster of phoenix palms above a small waterhole are home to a budding colony of baya weavers   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

A cluster of phoenix palms above a small waterhole are home to a budding colony of baya weavers. Male bayas, with distinct yellow heads, are busy preparing their elaborate nests with a central chamber and a long hanging tube. A couple of drab females appear to inspect the nests and everything goes to pot. The intensely excited males proceed to make themselves look very silly. They cling to the sides of their unfinished masterpieces, with loud invitations and vigorous flapping. The females appear to show interest in a nest and the other males immediately make aggressive sorties to rattle the incumbent and woo the females to their own. Females though are much more practical creatures. They are known to select nests based on location rather than intricacy or the machismo of the males.

Slithery companions

Further ahead is a muddy pond where buffaloes wallow while an assortment of herons scout the water and its edges. Not far from the pond is an exposed hillside where an extraordinary congregation has gathered. The temperature and moisture are just so and a nest of termites have taken to the air in swarms. This is a feast and black drongos, bank mynahs, brahminy starlings, black-breasted weavers, white-throated kingfishers, green bee-eaters and ashy prinias tuck in with acrobatic aerial displays. For once, crows take a back seat and merely watch. While most termites will perish in this bird onslaught, some survivors will mate and fall back to earth with wings lost, the fertile queens eventually going on to establish new colonies.

By now the sun has finally made an appearance and I turn back. Only to be alerted by a gaggle of very bothered large-grey babblers. There, eight foot up a shady Mulberry, is a relaxed and beautifully marked saw-scaled viper. These small, unobtrusive snakes are usually found in sandy, rocky or scrub habitat. However, they do take to trees during the rain.

When threatened, they coil into a spring-like S-shape with the diamond head at the centre, rubbing their scales together in warning. The rough sawing sound gives them their name. They are highly venomous, injecting a deadly hemotoxin. Along with cobras, kraits and the larger Russell’s Vipers, these little snakes account for almost all of the snake bite deaths in India.

If you ever meet or hear one, give them a very wide berth.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and writer based in Guwahati

Published on August 17, 2021

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