Monday, June 30, 2014

2014 Monsoon Batrachology camp #01

Just back from Matheran after attending the first (in a series of) Monsoon camps as part of the "Understanding Amphibians" course being conducted by noted Indian Herptofauna expert - Dr. Varad Giri from the Bombay Natural History Society

As with any interaction with Dr. Giri this too was awesomely interesting and completely knowledge packed, I already can't wait for the next camp :-) .. 

Typical valley view from Matheran
Now what do I say about - Matheran? We Mumbaikars are blessed to have such an amazing treasure trove of biodiversity soo close to us and as always it was amazing to be in this tiny but impressive hill station, sadly however the rain gods have been playing spoilsport (so far this Monsoon season) and deprived us of the amazing feeling of walking in the clouds - one of the main attractions of being in Matheran! We've been told that although it's the end of June Matheran has a only received a couple of days of decent rainfall - as far as amphibians are concerned this is really bad news! 

Below is a detailed account of our two days here. 

Day 1- 28th June 2014: 

We reached Matheran at around 10:30am on Saturday morning armed with some preliminary knowledge of Amphibian identification gained a couple of weeks back during a hands-on session at BNHS' collection centre - which has an extensive collection of Amphibian specimens from across India. Unfortunately, however the lack of rain meant we were not able to see any amphibians enroute our hotel from the main taxi drop off - the entire route was uncharacteristically dry for the end of June! We couldn't find a drop of water in any of the road side gutters, even the known large streams were completely dry and to make things worse we didn't even get any moisture on digging thru piles of leaf litter! We reached the hotel and broke for lunch before we embarked on our first proper trail. 

While we searched for amphibians, smaller creatures like the Deccan Banded Gecko (Geckoella deccanensis)
and this Tarantula sp. kept us on our toes.

After a heavy lunch we headed to 'Pay Master park' and its vicinity a known haunt in Matheran for Caecilians. Once again the lack of water frustrated us and kept these burrowing creatures away from the ground surface which were mostly too dry. More digging through wettish looking soil and leaf litter led only to more disappointed! When almost all hope was lost we found a open Sintex tank half filled with water (most likely used by the gardeners of the park) was also providing much needed shelter and water to 7 frogs from the summer like conditions outside - 3 of the frogs were Polypedates sp. (true tree frogs)... 

Check this typical Polypedates sp. frog with its characteristic stand on the bark of a tree
Check the disks of fingers and toes are moderately well developed - true signs of an arboreal species.
Another images of the same Polypedates sp. individual
and rest of them were of Indirana sp. We spend some time observing and photographing these, as these were our first frogs of the trip. 

The Indirana - genus of frogs are endemic to the Western Ghats of India. 

Around here we found a small puddle on the ground that was fast drying which was filled with Tadpoles; 

Unkown tadpoles..
... sadly, I don't think any of these guys would have made it to the next stage :-(  

We then moved further uphill to the highest point of this part of the Matheran Hills - alas, here a combination of lack of water and lots of recent building activity had disturbed much of the known amphibian micro-habitats!

the typical yet beautiful road soil pathways that cut across the forests of Matheran

A bit disappointed with the heat - we headed back to hotel for our indoor session with Dr. Giri. Enroute however Hiren (aka Snake Magnet) kept all of us (especially the photographers) very much engaged with some awesome snake sightings - he showed us many Green Vine Snakes..

 Green vine snake (Oxybelis fulgidus)

.. and a spectacularly camouflaged (juvenile) specimen of a Bamboo Pit Viper. 

The spectacular Bamboo Pit Viper (Trimeresurus gramineus) coiled up in a striking position
Check its amazing colouration
Face to face with the venomous Trimeresurus gramineus
Upon reaching the hotel post a quick tea break we started with an intense quiz format slideshow where Dr. Giri pushed the entire group to identify various Amphibian species based on their most obvious anatomical features visible on the photographs.  

To me this was the highlight of the trip as it not only introduced us to the main physical characteristics of most of the common genera of Indian 'Anura' but also helped me gain a lot insights into the behavioral aspects of some of these beautiful creatures.
Our last session of Day 01 started at around 09:00pm after dinner, it included a walk around the hotel and down the main market road of Matheran about half the way to the car park at Dasturi. The night trail started very promisingly at a small pond (in front of the Police station) just outside our hotel with lots of (mating?) calls of Polypedates sp. Interestingly, the few individuals we did manage to spot were calling from the forest floor (I wonder whether that's common for this family of true tree frogs?!). While searching for these frogs someone from the group managed to accidentally spot a Chequered Keelback snake who most probably like us was also searching for the frogs. As we moved towards the market we spotted many Indirana sp. specimens..

Indirana sp. check its truncated disc finger tip dilation - a good physical feature to them this genera apart from the similar looking Zakerana sp.
...and multiple colour morphs of the Common Indian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). 

the very common - Common Indian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus)
Another colour morph of the Duttaphrynus melanostictus, in fact we saw quiet a few more colours including a bright Yellow individual
Some half an hour into our night trail we came across a large tree (bang in the middle of the main Matheran market stretch) that would prove to be the most productive tree of our trip - Dr. Giri initially pointed out at a large Gecko specimen on the tree ...

The large sized Gecko- Hemidactylus maculatus - also commonly known as the Spotted Leaf-toed Gecko 
....but on closer inspection we found 3 Ramanella sp. frogs on it. The largest of them (presumably Female) was about two feet of the ground ...

This Ramanella sp. frog is most likely - Ramanella mormorata - commonly known as the Marbled Ramanella

... while two more specimens both smaller in size (presumably Males) had climbed up to over twelve feet on the tree. Frogs of the Ramanella genera even though are part of the Microhylidae family (i.e. Narrow-mouthed frogs) of specialist ground dwelling Anura, as you can see in these photos they are highly adapted to climbing trees and have developed discs on their fingers....

Check the triangular dilations of this Ramanella specimen.
... One of the theories is these frogs lay their eggs in small puddles of water in Tree holes and hence the arboreal adaptation. 

Further ahead Hiren spotted a few more snakes - more Green Vine Snakes and Cat snake (Boiga sp.)...

Cat snake (Boiga sp.)
.. Just beyond the market we finally got hold of a Raorchestes sp. (Bush frog)...

Unfortunately I didn't manage to get a photo of this Raorchestes sp. on its leaf perch - it jumped down on the ground and managed to sneak away..
...who's calls we had been hearing all the while since sunset but we're unable to spot them. 

Another Tarantula sp. for the day - this one with prominent white feet
By around 12:30am we decided to call it a night and started heading back for much needed sleep before our second day in the field in Matheran; stopping briefly on the way to take a look at a Wolf snake sp. that someone spotted climbing a small compound wall but it quickly disappeared into a crevice between the stone courses. 

Day 2 - 29th June 2014: 

The second day's trail started at around 09:00am after breakfast and included searching the area around Charlotte lake for any amphibian activity, but a combination of lack of water and summer like heat didn't help!

The group enjoying the view from Lord Point
At least thanks to Hiren we kept seeing snakes at regular intervals and once we reached Lord point at the tip of the lake (just beyond the dam) we decided to take a break to enjoy the amazing scenery of Matheran's surrounding hills and to take some group selfies :-) 

Group Selfie

During this trail (the last for this trip) we seriously searched a lot of stream beds, culverts and fringes of the lake - unfortunately to no avail! 

At one particular stream bed, Dr. Giri was very hopeful of getting Caecilians as he felt this densely tree covered portion of the stream seemed have the right micro-climate and soil conditions to suit these unique creatures. So we spend a good half hour taking turns in digging through the upper soil but I guess it wasn't our day!
 However, one thing is for sure this part of Matheran should be amazing once it starts raining properly. 

As the afternoon sun came beating down harshly it was time for us to head back to the hotel to check out and start making our way back to Mumbai. To conclude I would say that even though amphibian activity was very low in Matheran - the trip, with all the interaction between the participants and Dr. Giri was completely worthwhile. t has for sure left me very eager to attend the next camp in a month's time in Goa - let's hope by then the Monsoon picks up! 


Sheetal Maurya said...

Hello, Nice post .. I have been matheran for numerous time but I was not able to see a single spider.. how you all able to see such beautiful creatures ??? Please do share .. Thanks in Advance

Sheetal Maurya said...

Hello, Nice post .. I have been matheran for numerous time but I was not able to see a single spider.. how you all able to see such beautiful creatures ??? Please do share .. Thanks in Advance