The Nightly Chorus
Pluviophile is a word that best describes me. A relatively new word it is defined as ‘a person who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days.’ To me there is something comforting about the thought of rain, contrastingly it exudes an aura of warmth. It may be influenced by the fact that with the onset of the monsoons the dry earth springs to life. Hills that were yellow and parched turn a radiant shade of green, streams begin to flow through the veins of the land, moss, algae and weeds create a colourful collage on drab grey walls and a cacophony of calls fill the air.
Growing up in the city, I never fully understood the beauty of the rain. As a child, the few memories I have are of paper boats in puddles, colourful umbrellas, extra holidays and roasted bhutta (corn) garnished with spices. When I had to travel by the Mumbai local trains to go to college, I slowly began to resent it. Dirty stations filled with people, the stink of wet feet, delayed trains and traffic jams was all that the rain brought. I could not for the life of me understand why anyone would enjoy this miserable season. The days are gloomy, a dearth of natural light reduces your working efficacy and you are susceptible to a range of air and water borne diseases. However, after a life changing experience at a rainforest station in Karnataka I began to cherish this season of life.
The Western Ghats are a treasure trove of ecological wonders housing some of the most bizarre life forms within the large tracts of forest. Older than the Himalayas, this range of hills controls the climate of Southern India by acting as a barrier to the moisture laden South West Trade Winds. The abundance in rainfall has given rise to the evolution of myriad plant species which simultaneously resulted in the coevolution of a variety of animal life. Harbouring almost 30% of the country’s fauna, most of which are endemic, the Western Ghats have been acknowledged as an international biodiversity hotspot. The beauty of this majestic landscape is how little we know about it. Every few years, scientists still come across new species in known and unexplored parts of the hills. Amphibians are a particularly interesting group of creatures that are still being discovered. They have occupied several niches and diversified to a great extent. Synonymous with the first showers, these were what I studied during my time in the forests of Agumbe.
The word amphibian literally translates to ‘dual life’. Most people think it is because they are found both in terrestrial and aquatic habitats, this is a common misconception. They are called amphibians because of the dual lifestyle, while the larval stage or tadpoles are completely aquatic with gills; the adults are adapted to the terrestrial ecosystem and have lungs. The world of amphibians is a mind boggling one! They come in all shapes, sizes and colours with some of the most striking patterns. From the Indian bull frog that can grow as big as a chicken to the dancing frog which is as big as a digit on your finger. Largely nocturnal, as the last rays of the sun vanish behind the horizon, a slow symphony begins to play. Darkness begins to creep in and the nightly chorus grows loud and clear over the crashing of the rain. This concerto lasts till dawn; with the orchestra working in shifts, each species joins in at a specific time as the night slowly gives way to the world of light. This was a group of animals I had never paid attention to but ended up being fascinated by during my stint as a volunteer at the research station in Agumbe.
The best way to study frogs and toads is to become nocturnal yourself. The forest at night is a different experience altogether, the wise old trees that welcomed you with their prancing leaves in the morning now looked ominous and hostile. The steps you take on the carpet of leaf litter echo throughout the forest broadcasting your presence to every creature on the prowl. I will not lie, sometimes I made sure my footsteps were extra loud; it never hurts to be careful especially in King Cobra territory. It was the month of August which meant it rained incessantly night and day and the smell of dampness and mould accompanied you everywhere you went. Every night I would step out to collect data into the pitch dark forest with my trusty headlamp, covered in a raincoat that barely kept me dry and a notepad that was on its way to becoming pulp. I was assisting in project on surveying the population of Indian Golden-backed frogs (Indosylvirana aurantiaca) in manmade habitats such as paddy fields and shallow trenches.
Golden-backed Frogs are an endemic species that inhabit the moist evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. They are usually found in waterlogged areas such as swamps but abandoned paddy fields or trenches also work. This species would join in the night chorus close to 7 pm and would crescendo between 9 and 10 pm. Males serenade the females with a diminutive call which to the imaginative mind almost sounds like a clucking hen. Females are bigger in size and are wait for the perfect call before choosing a mate.
Golden-backed frogs can be identified by the lighter yellowish colour on their dorsal side as compared to the dark brown bands that run laterally across their body. Fine tubercles or bumps are spread across the back and are sometimes darker in colour giving a spotted appearance. Contrastingly the ventral side is almost white. Their toes are dilated into small discs hinting that they are semi arboreal. During the day you can usually find them crouched under leaves or perched on a small shrub.
Pinpointing the location of a frog only by its call is an acquired skill that comes with practice. The best way to spot them is for the eyes and ears to work in co-ordination. While your ears tune into the call, your eyes need to look out for the constant movement of the vocal sac. In the case of the Indian Golden-backed frog since the vocal sacs are internal, this is an incredibly delicate movement. Not only did the frogs camouflage perfectly with the floating vegetation and weeds in the paddy fields, its natural predator the Checkered Keelback used to appear just as suddenly as it disappeared.
Working in continuously damp and rainy environments though undoubtedly rewarding also has its own inconveniences. After weeks of barefoot night surveys in knee high flooded paddy fields I noticed my skin peeling between my toes. At first, I disregarded it as dry skin, though I found it strange to have dry skin in one of the wettest places in the country. During one of the team dinners, my colleagues enlightened me about the growing fungal infection on my feet after having a good laugh at my theory. To add to this, the space between your toes is also the ideal place for leeches to hitch a ride. When you experience leeches for the first time, your foremost thought is to get them off as soon as possible. However, this is a rookie mistake, because every instant you stop to pick one off is an opportunity for five others to climb on. I learnt with time that the best way is to de-leech yourself after your work in the forest. By the end of my two-month duration at the station my feet looked like the scene of a gory murder! Bloody, wrinkled and slowly peeling off these were my battle scars that would serve as a memory of the good times!
It is only when we have these truly remarkable encounters that we realise the importance of other species. Had it not been for this experience I would never have known that amphibians are an indicator for healthy ecosystems. They are extremely sensitive to the slightest of changes in their environment thus making them excellent bioindicators. As an ecological service, amphibians keep insect populations in check and themselves are a prey to many snakes and bird species. Lately, a strain of the chytrid fungus has been causing a rapid decline in amphibians. Destruction of habitats and Climate change are also adding to the pressure amphibians are facing. To the common public, frogs continue to be a pest you encounter in bathrooms, little do they know that the disappearance of them could cause an ecological disaster!
On my return to the city I missed every bit of the forest, the solitude, the stark silence, the serenity and most importantly the constant reminder of how we share the planet with so many mesmerizing creatures. I had grown accustomed to the mottled Malabar Pit Viper coiled up above the dining table; waiting silently for an unsuspecting prey to approach him or the giant wood spiders that lurked in the corners of my room. I missed my morning walks into the dense undergrowth looking up into the canopy hoping to catch a glimpse of the vibrant Malabar Trogon. I knew exactly when to expect the pair of Malabar Grey hornbills with their raucous laughter like calls in the nearby Areca plantation. Most of all I missed my nightly escapades, counting frogs and chancing upon an interesting sighting of a Shieldtail snake in the meadow or hearing the call of a Slender Loris.
To say that the experience was life changing is an understatement. I learned a lot about Ecology and the natural world but more importantly I began to love and respect the rain once again. Now when in the city, I watch it cascade down in all its glory from rooftops on to the puddles creating geometric ripples and appreciate its ability to transform an environment completely. Using all my senses from the aroma of petrichor, the sound of raindrops on metal, the sight of sheets of rain being driven by gusty winds, the feel of drops trickling down your skin to the final hot chai you enjoy once you are dry; I connect with the rain on a higher level. Sure, the stations remain dirty and the trains are still delayed but now equipped with a greater understanding of this natural phenomena I find it is all worth it.
When I meet people, who hate the monsoons with unbelievable passion, I chuckle at the thought of how I used to be like them. Even in the city I eagerly wait for frogs and toads to resurface from their slumber and fill the night with their rhythmic calls. I take every opportunity to introduce all those around me to these intriguing little creatures and their enthralling life history. The faint chorus I hear in the city reminds me of the grand orchestra I attended every night in the captivating forests of Agumbe.