A ‘plop’ on my head and I looked up as a seed from the Ziziphus glabrata tree dropped on me. There it was, a greyish blackish furry animal perched right above me, finishing the fruits of the tree in a hurry and discarding the seeds. A Grizzled Giant Squirrel! The first time for me. A mother and a playful pup kept playing hide and seek on the tree trunk and finally the pup gave up to cuddle up to the mother. I could not have asked for a better welcome to the Galibore Fishing Camp, a riverine nature camp set in a deciduous forest on the banks of the Cauvery River. Stuck up in our house in the past months due to the ongoing pandemic, it was a perfect escape for a day.
Having worked only in the rough terrains of the western Himalaya as a moth-biologist, this was my first visit to a deciduous forest in the southern part of the country, and I could not wait to see the moth diversity here. At dusk, I waited patiently with a cup of coffee in my hand at some distance for moths to get attracted to the lights in the camp, to do ‘moth’-ing in the perfect blend of a warm, humid August night.
This is the time of the year, when huge swarms of the Danaidae butterflies (Common Crow, Double-banded Crow, Dark Blue Tiger) migrate, following the south-west monsoon winds. We found ourselves in the middle of their migration route during daytime, when they gracefully laced the tree branches and trunks, resting ahead of their long journey. While they flew around into the canopy in the pockets of sunlight in the dense deciduous forest, it was a sight to behold. The rest of the daytime was spent ticking off some new birds – Blue-faced Malkoha, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Babbler, White-naped Woodpecker – followed by a coracle ride through the river lined with Marsh Crocodiles and a Lesser Fish Eagle. We also saw many Orange Blister beetles (Mylabris pustulata) with bright red dots on their black wings flying around and perching on flowers or leaf tips. Having encountered such amazing diversity during the day, the night ahead looked promising.
As I sat in the darkness listening to the ebb and flow of the Cauvery river behind me, I could see activity around the lights. On approaching a light, I found a huge number of beetles thronging the light and quite a few species of the Crambidae family (also known as the Grass moths). They are small-sized with a characteristic resting posture in which they flip their antennae over the back. To name a few: the silver-bodied Pycnarmon sp., Nymphicula blandialis and Paracymoriza vagalis with intricate brown and white wing patterns. But the most abundant species near the light and also on the nearby tree trunks were Elophila scitalis; slender white moths with black patterns on their wings.
I was quite surprised to see so many species belonging to the same family attracted to the light. Among Geometrids (commonly known as the Looper moths), which have a typical resting posture with both the pair of wings visible, there were the Acacia Blood Vein (Traminda mundissima) – a leaf mimicking moth, the emerald green Comostola sp., the tiny shimmery Idaea macrospila and Idaea violacea. Other moths from the Notodontidae family (Prominent moths), Lymantriinae subfamily (Tussock moths), Cossidae (Goat moths) and the Noctuidae family were also present. Some of them were also attracted to my sweaty hands and face. They kept clinging onto me taking in the salt from my sweat. Well, I don’t mind such adornments but I had to be careful not to smack them dead when it got itchy. It was a different kind of diversity that I am not used to and many of them were ‘lifers’ (a jargon used to denote species seen for the first time) for me.
What fascinates me every time I watch moths is the drama that unfolds. About an hour into watching the moths hovering around the lights, I found two Spotted Owlets whooshing past the light onto the tree above. As I flashed my torch at them, they looked back at me with a guilty-face. The lights attract the insects which are a ready meal for these birds but somehow, they were unable to hunt the moths. Later, wolf spiders started crawling towards the light and gobbled up some of the bigger moths as their dinner. The number of spiders kept increasing as the night progressed and I had to shut the light to prevent further moth massacre. A memorable moth-ing session with not-so-common moths, the faint ripples of the Cauvery in the backdrop came to an end, but yes, the experience remains etched deeply in my memory.
Such experiences help us reflect upon how forests are important for some species, while others survive habitat altercations. As a nocturnal taxon which uses light-oriented communication system, we can directly observe the impact of artificial lights, often termed as ‘Ecological Light Pollution’, on these insects. Much of the world is artificially illuminated at night, and as the Shakespearian saying goes “Thus hath the candle sing’d the moth”, it has tremendous negative effect on moths and other nocturnal taxa. It confuses their navigation, consequently affecting their behaviour and breeding cycles. This silent undisturbed deciduous forest at Galibore appealed to me as a reserve of unique biodiversity and amazing people about 2hrs away from the bustling illuminated city of Bangalore. In the light of ongoing ecological turmoil with habitat loss, massive urbanisation and climate change rampaging biodiversity all around; such refuges offering undisturbed wilderness is a treasure. And I can’t wait to go back.