Sunday, 5 September 2010

Rush Hour—1

According to ancient Indian mythology, the cosmos is divided into seven concentric islands, which are separated by the seven encircling oceans, each double the size of the preceding one. And situated in the centre of this concentric scheme is Jambudvipa—where ordinary human beings live.

Although there are different interpretations as to what land area exactly constitutes Jambudvipa, it is generally understood that it refers to the Indian peninsular. [According to the Great Chronical, Emperor Ashoka's emisary to Sri Lanka, who introduced Buddhism to Thambrapanni (ancient Sri Lanka) in the 3rd century B.C., mentioned to the Sri Lankan King, Devanampiyatissa, that he is from Jambudvipa—referring to the Indian mainland.]

Jambudvipa literally means, "the island of Jambul fruits."

Jambul is scientifically known as Syzygium cumini, and belongs to the botanical family, Myrtaceae. It is an evergreen tree that grows to a height of around 25 metres. This tree is native to Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka; and South East Asia. One of its common English names Java plum is derived from its presence in South East Asia; it probably reached there through colonial channels.

In Sri Lanka, Syzygium cumini goes by the name, Maadan (මාදන්/මාදං) in Sinhala.
According to my observations, June-July marks the peak flowering season for Maadan in Sri Lanka, with August-September being the peak fruiting season. I was able to experience both these seasonal specials during my visits to the dry zone this year.

In early July, while guiding some guests in the dry zone, I had a lot of time "to kill," especially in the mornings. This was because they preferred to take the mornings easy. Luckily for me, the Maadang were bursting in flower. So I chose to hang around these amazing dry zone trees, hoping to photograph the "rush hour" traffic in the morning. One slight hitch, however, was the flowers were about 15-25m high up from the ground—a bit too high up for my liking.

I ideally wanted to reach upto a level so that I have the flowers more or less at eye level. As some of you may unhesitatingly concede, I am not quite the arboreal type.

I have long progressed on my evolutionary path.

What I needed was a tall building next to few of the these flowering trees. After a bit of searching, I found the perfect spot in the hotel we stayed—Heritance Kandalama—at level 5! The photographic essay that follows is a testament to my strategy, planning and execution. And silliness, not enjoying the lie-ins.

Butterflies were the biggest shareholders profitting from the blooming business. This Common Rose Pachliopta aristolochiae was slow and graceful in its movements.

There was definitely an air of confidence to the way it carried itself. And there are reasons for this.
The caterpillar of this butterfly feeds on the poisonous vines in the genus Aristolochia. So the winged adult too is packed with poison as result. This is distasteful for predators, and they escape predation because of this. Common to such "nasty" butterflies is the slow and confident demeanour. Which is a way of advertising their potent nature—giving predators enough time to observe clearly to avoid them.

Sri Lanka Birdwing Troides darsius—Sri Lanka's national butterfly, and the largest, with a wing span of around 7 inches—looked to own the air. It rarely stopped on one flower cluster for long. Instead, it preferred to patrol its wider territory, keeping its options open. The caterpillars of Sri Lanka Birdwings too feed on the same vines as above, and the body of the winged adult is similarly packed with poisons. Their wing-shiver behaviour while feeding was a mesmerizing sight, but posed a mild challenge for photography.

Common (Indian) Crow Euploea core asela were the most numerous in the scene.
It was bullied by the supersized Sri Lanka Birdwing—which bulldozed its way like a Jonah Lomu.

Coming in small but steady numbers to this drinking party were Blue Tiger Tirumala limniace. Slow and confident, this species too have poisonous body juices, and is left alone by birds, and predators that usually feed on flying insects.

Several birds came to feed on the insects drawn to the flowers. This Asian Paradise Flycatcher female was one of them that vied for my attention. It was successful it hunting a few "yellows"—butterflies that were less dangerous.

A well-endowed mate of its, sporting a tail plus tailstreamers measuring easily over a foot, showed up  briefly. It didn't appear as bold as the female, and disappeared quickly. Or else, I wasn't fast enough.

This Pale-billed Flowerpecker was not too elusive, and obliged, presenting all 7cms of it.

A couple of mammalian visitors too crashed the party. One of them was this Grizzled Giant Squirrel Ratufa macroura dandolena. It chose to ignore me, and fed the flower buds at close quarters. With a head and body length of 33–40cm and a tail length of 35–41cm, this is squirrel features high on the menu of several birds of prey in the forest, most notably that of the Black Eagle.

When heard at close range, the alarm calls of Grizzled Giant Squirrel (explained by Dr. Eben Goodale as a "blood-curdling scream"), uttered typically after sighting larger eagles that soar above the forest canopy, features third on my list of jungle noises that send a chill down my spine. The second in this is the breeding call of Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (උලමා)—especially when heard close, with this call piercing through the jungle soundscape at pitch darkness. The first in this list is the trumpetting of Asian Elephant, when it takes you by surprise at close quarters. This also features in another more personal list, but I digress too much now.

Continuing on with mammals, a troop of the endemic Toque Macaque Macaca sinica passed through without taking much interest of the bustling activity around it.

Maadan fruit season brings about great scope for social bonding in some quarters in Sri Lanka.
Here are some participants of the last FOGSL trip raiding a tree at Ritigala, with gay abandon, during our last trip.

I think Syzygium cumini fully deserves the recognition as a keystone species.


silent moments said...

Rush hour traffic is not my idea of fun but i wont definitely mind getting caught up in this kind of a traffic :)

It must be lovely to capture so many creatures in the comfort of a hotel.

Great work...waiting for the next post!

magerata said...

I spent five hours travelling about 300KM day before to get to where I am at now, Reno, NV, talk about traffic. As the SM said I do not mind getting caught in this kind of traffic either!
One tiny question to keep my Magerata pride ablaze, what exactly is 'Maadan fruit"? Google points to you :) so I decided to ask. Never hurt to learn.

magerata said...

Ok I looked up Syzygium cumini, got some idea as to the species. But still would like to hear your explanation.

Stuart Price said...

Great butterfly shots, that is the least cute squirrel I've ever seen though!

Janith said...

Lovely photographs Amila, that dandulena looks superb! :D

I have never had Maadang, but I've heard that it was much more widespread when our parents were our age. :(

Amila Suwa said...

I am not surpised you won't mind it! :) Indeed it was not a bad experience. What with all the 5 star pampering. :)

Thanks! Sounds like traffic was terrible there.

Actually I wanted to photograph the fruits, but everytime I came across them, my colleagues and I ended up gobbling them first. ;)

Also please see:

Haha, don't you diss our squirrels! :P

Yeah, you are right about their declining numbers. But they still flourish in our hinterland. So I am optimistic.

There's one of these trees close to the glass house bus stop. That's the only one I remember well in CMB. You may still find some fruits in it. ;)

Amila Kanchana said...

Thanks for this very informative post with such brilliant photos! Had a great time reading through.

Me-shak said...

First of all. WOW! Amazing pictures. Like the ones you'll see on Nat Geo. The dandu lean picture looks really amazing. Very informative post, as usual. I know 32 different kind of new shiz every time I finish reading your posts, seriously! And about you climbing trees, i'd really love to see that :P Super amazing post. Thanks a lot for sharing.


Janith said...

Amila - I'll sure keep an eye out on that tree, I actually frequent that bus stop! haha :D

Amila Suwa said...

My pleasure.
And thank you!

Only 32?
Haha, that's very precise! :)
NO, to tree climbing. :)
Thank you!

You should then find it easily. But just in case if you find it hard to find, it's smack in front of the small petti kade. :D

Kirigalpoththa said...

I'm yet to hear 2 of those bloods curdling screams in your list and looking forward to those :)
I have heard the trumpet of Elephant but again not at close quarters.

I used to eat a lot of Dan (Not maadan) when I used to stay at my ancestral home in 80's and early 90's in Gampaha district. By looking at leaves and flowers, the two varieties look similar. Or is it?

Amila Suwa said...

The blood curdling screams of Giant Squirrels can be heard at Sinharaja. However, the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl's breeding call is not that easy, as it is seasonal.

That dan should be a Syzygium sp. I cannot tell you more than that. :)

JRandSue said...

Stunning Images,outstanding photography.
Brilliant Blog.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks a lot!
Great to hear from you. I shall drop by in yours soon.

Friend of HK said...

Great butterfly images! Common Rose is often seen in Hong Kong as well. Your photos are outstanding!

Offthebeatentrack said...

Now that's a much better traffic jam than I used to get stuck in back in the day in California:) Lovely shots!

Amila Suwa said...

@Friend of HK,
Thank you! Yes, that butterfly his pretty widespread. Have a good day!

Haha, thanks!

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