The Wildlife of Richards Town

Common Banded Awl — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

I am fortunate to live in Richards Town, a locality in Bangalore that has a good density of trees and relatively open spaces. The residents share this area with members of the animal kingdom on whose lives they have a direct impact. It is up to the residents to decide if this impact is to be positive or negative. The first step, of course is to be aware of our wild residents. In this series I present to you the wild residents of Richards Town.

Common Banded Awl

I am fortunate to live on Cookson Road. It is well shaded with an excellent density of roadside trees .My apartment block is in a cul-de-sac and my immediate neighbor is a lady well known for having the best garden in the city .In front of her bungalow (the last few remaining in the area) is a Lantana bush which is visited by a lot of butterflies, one of which happens to be the Common Banded Awl.

The Common Banded Awl belongs to the family of butterflies called Hesperiidae, commonly known as Skippers. This is the third largest family of butterflies having approximately 3500 species worldwide of which over 300 are found in India. They, the Skippers, are small and very active, possessing probably the strongest flight among butterflies.

The Common Banded Awl Hasora chromus is dark brown in colour with a white band at the centre of the underside of the hind wings. There are three other species of Awls that have white bands and the only way to tell them apart is by the differences in the white band! But we will not go into that — let the field guides take care of that.

The Common Banded Awl is the most common of the larger skippers with a wingspan of 45–50 millimeters, and is usually found near streams and rivers, being more visible during the monsoon and immediate post season. It has a wide distribution in India and is also found in South East Asia and in Australia. The two sexes look similar, with the males having streaks of special scent scales and brands on the fore wing. They have large eyes as a result their heads are also unusually large for butterflies. This is an adaptation to accommodate the large eyes. The large eyes are suited to their activity pattern.

It can usually be found flying during the early mornings and late evenings, and on cloudy days, during the afternoon. Like all Skippers it is a strong and swift flier, but it usually does not sustain its flight over long distances, it sort of bounds around. This does not mean that it cannot fly long distances, in fact because of its strong flight it is a good colonizer of new areas and fly long distances in search of host plants and mates .It is also extremely wary and prone to flight due to any movement in its close proximity.

Unlike most butterflies the Common Banded Awl almost never basks. When it does it sits on the upper side of leaves and when resting it prefers the under sides. As they are very wary by nature, they remain alert even while resting.

The Common Banded Awl feeds from most flowers but has a weak spot for Lantana. They also visit wet soil patches. The Honge tree Pongamia pinnata , which can be found all over Richards Town , is the preferred host plant for the larva though two other species of trees also play host. We are fortunate in having a large number of Honge trees and if we are able to retain as many small gardens as possible (with a lot of flowers including Lantana) we can continue to have a healthy population of these beautiful Skippers.

The Bloodsucker

How many of us realize that they might be a bloodsucker at large in our gardens? Don’t panic, this is just our Common Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor) which most of us mistakenly call ‘chameleon’. During the breeding season the head, shoulders and parts of the foreleg of the males turns bright scarlet and this is how they have acquired this rather derogatory name. The Chameleon is a totally different species, well known for its ability to change colour to match its surroundings.

The Common Garden Lizard is the commonest agamid lizard of India. The Agamids can be differentiated from our other lizards by their teeth. In general appearance the Agamids bear a close resemblance to the Iguanas. The Bloodsucker or Common Garden Lizard is widely distributed from the dry deserts to thick forests. In the cities, Bangalore included, it is found in gardens, hedges and scrub. I see one quite regularly from my verandah which overlooks a small patch of garden. It is arboreal and diurnal in nature, which means that it has evolved to move in trees and is active during the day time. Not surprisingly it is an agile climber and can move with speed and dexterity when required. Most of the time we fail to notice it as it is a past master at making itself inconspicuous. It manages to do so by remaining immobile. Its colouration also helps it in blending into the background. When noticed it has a tendency to slide to the back of the branch on which it is sitting.

The Common Garden Lizard is a territorial animal. The males maintain individual territories and are commonly found in an elevated position from where it can see his territory and also be seen by any intruder. Bare trunks of trees and top of walls are favored. They perform press ups and nod their heads as a form of display, to both threaten rival males and impress females. Very often the display is not enough to scare away a rival male and a brief but intense scuffle takes place. Both males stand on their hind legs and bite and wrestle each other till the loser turns and runs. The victor then proceeds to chase him out of his territory.

The female lays soft shelled eggs in holes dug by her in flower beds and similar soft soil areas. She digs these holes by using only her forelimbs and each hole is approximately 8 to 10 centimeters deep. The eggs, each clutch numbering 11 to 23, are left in these holes to incubate. The holes are covered by scraping soil with the forelimbs and pressing it down with the snout. They are indistinguishable from the surroundings. The period of incubation is dependent on temperature and can vary between 30 to 50 days.

The Bloodsucker is a great help in maintaining the health of your garden plants as it feeds mainly on insects and thus keeps the pest population under control. Ants are another favorite and together with other insects form a majority of its diet. Occasionally it breaks the monotony of its diet by taking small birds, nestlings, frogs and other small animals. It also sometimes resorts to cannibalism, but such behavior is quite rare.

The next time you pass Richards Park, do stop to take a good look at the various branches and stalks, glance up at any wall or branch and you just might come face to face with the Bloodsucker and don’t be afraid as he is harmless unless , of course , you happen to be a rival male.

I wrote this series for our neighbourhood newspaper ‘In & Around Richard’s Town’. While they were written almost ten years ago they still remain relevant today.

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Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa

Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.