Trip Report: Sunderbans, Dec 2015

Dates:                   16-19 Dec, 2015

Camp:                   Sunderban Jungle Camp on Bali Island

Who:                     VV, GK and my 8-year-old son P

A couple of near-miss-sightings of mama last time pushed us to try our luck again. And the prospect of winter birding.

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Blue tiger

Getting to Sunderbans jungle camp involves a three hour drive along poor, narrow roads from Kolkata, to cover less than 100 kms to Godkhali. From here, the boat is boarded, and it winds its way up the Durgaduani channel and to the Gumdi river on the banks of which the camp is sited, on Bali island. On the way back, Animesh brought us around Bali island the long way, up the Bidya river, to look for waders.

The weather was strange. Day 1 was hot and sunny and we scrambled for whatever scanty shade was available on the upper deck. Day 2 was freezing cold, especially when the boat faced north – owing to the uttore batash – northern wind – that chilled us to the bone. Day 3 was equally cold but with persistent rain, forcing us to seek the shelter of the lower deck at least once. Day 4 was moderately cool with some sunshine. Someone joked that we’d experienced three seasons all in one trip.

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The forest looked freshly washed and hauntingly beautiful after the rain

Animesh Manna was his usual competent, thorough self, and we got a boatman with unbelievable spotting skills this time – Mahadev.

Most days we got back early, by 5 or 5:30 PM, giving us a little daylight before the early sunset to wander around the embankment by the camp. A Taiga flycatcher was a regular habitue around the harvested rice paddies and fish ponds that chequer the countryside. Yellow-browed warblers were ubiquitous, here and in the forest. A brood of spotted owlets was resident.

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Common kingfisher

We watched a pair of checkered keelbacks hunting among the reeds of one of the fish ponds. Animesh unearthed a little rat snake while looking for bitterns and we took some pictures.

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Rat snake

While walking by another pond, GK and I startled a snake by nearly stepping on it, sending it darting away and into the water. Dark green in colour and over a couple of feet in length. Animesh was a short way away but surmised that it was either an Olive keelback (which is what I had thought) or a Smooth-scaled watersnake.

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Mudskipper

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Slug leaving a clay-pellet trail

On the last day, we did a little country-boat ride up one of the narrow channels nearby. The nearby village was hidden behind a wall of mangrove vegetation, giving us an idea of what a small-boat ride in the forest would feel like. Considering the stories one heard in the Sunderbans of tiger attacks, sitting low down in the water with the banks a couple of feet away on both sides brought home the vulnerability of crab fishermen who sneak into the forest channels. Our boatman was a chap who’d survived an incredible run-in with a tiger. This had happened just two months before our last visit and we’d met him then too. He was still recovering from the shock of the incident apparently.

The story went like this. This fellow, along with a couple of friends ventured into a channel across the Gumdi, in the forest. The trio spotted a tiger a short distance away and one of them panicked and slipped off the boat. The cat pounced on the man in a trice and disappeared with him into the mangroves. The third man collapsed in a state of panic but our friend brought the boat around and stepped into the jungle alone and on foot, armed with just his paddle. Running into the tiger he charged it with the paddle, and it dropped the dead man and disappeared. He then hauled the body back to the village. And gave up illegal crab fishing ever since.

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One of the five “fingers” that radiate from the Sudanykhali watchtower. This tower was the one I meant in my last post when I mistakenly referred to the Sajnekhali watchtower producing great sightings.

In the forest we found a set of birds that were almost completely different from the ones we encountered the last time.

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Lesser whistling ducks

Black-capped kingfisher were commonplace and their calls, reminiscent of the White-throated kingfisher’s were frequently heard.

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Vacated nest of Purple-rumped sunbird showing the curtained hatch

Common sandpipers were found along the banks almost everywhere, and their whistling calls were a constant too.

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Common sandpiper

Magpie robin, Yellow-browed warbler, Collared dove and tailorbird called incessantly. Dusky warbler called occasionally.  Great and little egret, Jungle crow and Little heron were commonly seen.

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Little heron

The collared kingfisher that was so common in May was missing this time, and we only saw a couple.

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Collared kingfisher

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Common redshank

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Red junglefowl

Brown-winged kingfisher were seen far more frequently than the last time.

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Brown-winged kingfisher

The Mangrove pitta, which was heard quite a bit around Sudhanykhali watchtower the last time was silent at this time of year. The dark morph CHE had not been seen for a while around Sudhanykhali.

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Lesser sand plover and tiger pugmarks

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Water monitor – we anchored the boat to have lunch in this lizard’s company, but he had other ideas and promptly disappeared

Animesh helped me improve on my ability to identify mangrove trees further.

  • Avicennia alba – Kalu bayan – with its black trunk and sharp, narrow leaves
  • Avicennia officinalis – Jath bayan – easiest of the genus to identify, with its smooth pale bark, rounded leaves and distinct branching structure

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Avicennia officinalis showing profusion of aerial roots

  • Avicennia marina – Peara bayan – with its mango-like leaves and pale blotchy trunk very much like the guava tree’s
  • Ceriops tagal – Moth goran – with its dome-like shape and knee-roots

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Knee roots of Ceriops tagal

  • Bruguiera gymnorrhiza – Kankra – with its buttress roots and distinct leaves

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Red flowers of Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza)

  • Heritiera fomes – Sundari – with its Christmas-tree-like structure and branching pattern
  • Sonneratia apetala – Kewra – with its pencil roots
  • Xylocarpus granatum – Dhundul – with its melon-like fruit

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Xylocarpus granatum fruit

  • Xylocarpus mekongensis – Passur – with its thick pneumatophores

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Pneumatophores of Passur (Xylocarpus mekongensis)

Jhamti goran Ceriops decandra, Garjan Rhozophora apiculate and Kholsi Aegiceras corniculatum are not too difficult to ID in general.

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Garjan (Rhizophora apiculata) showing stilt roots

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Kholsi (Aegiceras corniculatum)

GK carried home a Kankra Bruguiera gymnorrhiza sapling and a red water lily. The latter will probably survive, but it will be interesting to see how the mangrove tree copes in Chennai.

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The lighter green patch is mistletoe – a hemiparasite

The issue with the Sunderbans is that while tiger sightings are rare, near-misses are not – and this always leaves a tantalizing window open for a repeat visit. We were at Sudhanykhali watchtower at 8:30 AM one morning and after we left, at 9:30 AM, a big male tiger walked right passed the watchtower and crossed the channel. It is this sort of thing that tempts us to return for yet another attempt.

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Birds

  1. Ashy woodswallow
  2. Black-winged cuckooshrike
  3. Brahminy kite
  4. Brown-winged kingfisher
  5. Black-capped kingfisher
  6. Bronzed drongo
  7. Brown shrike
  8. Cinereous tit
  9. Common iora
  10. Common myna
  11. Common redshank
  12. Common sandpiper
  13. Common tailorbird
  14. Dusky warbler
  15. Eurasian collared dove
  16. Eurasian wigeon
  17. Eurasian wryneck (VV only)
  18. Gadwall
  19. Great egret
  20. Green bee-eater
  21. Grey junglefowl
  22. Grey wagtail
  23. Indian spotted eagle
  24. Indian treepie
  25. Jungle babbler
  26. Jungle crow
  27. Lesser flameback
  28. Lesser sand plover
  29. Lesser whistling duck
  30. Little egret
  31. Little heron
  32. Magpie robin
  33. Night heron
  34. Oriental white-eye
  35. Osprey
  36. Pied kingfisher
  37. Pin-striped tit babbler (calls)
  38. Pond heron
  39. Purple-rumped sunbird
  40. Rose-ringed parakeet
  41. Shikra
  42. Small minivet
  43. Spotted dove
  44. Spotted owlet
  45. Taiga flycatcher
  46. Terek sandpiper
  47. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  48. Whimbrel
  49. White-breasted waterhen
  50. White-throated fantail
  51. White-throated kingfisher
  52. Yellow-browed warbler

Mammals

  1. Chital
  2. Rhesus macaque
  3. Wild boar

Reptiles

  1. Checkered keelback
  2. Estuarine crocodile
  3. Rat snake
  4. Water monitor
  5. Olive keelback?
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Trip Report: Galibore Nature Camp

Dates:                   12-13 Dec 2015

Who:                     SB and a couple of colleagues

All the images used in this post were clicked by S. Balajee.

BIL B wanted to take a couple of colleagues on a short birding trip and invited me along. His colleagues R and R could only manage a day trip while the two of us stayed back for the night, leaving after breakfast the next morning.

The weather was surprisingly warm and muggy for this time of year, with the sun blazing through the day and some marginal coolness creeping in well after dark. There was little cloud cover.

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Common kingfisher (S. Balajee)

Thomraj was in his elements, ferreting out sightings with his impossibly precise visual acuity. After paying our respects to pairs of Brown hawk owl and Indian scops owl in the camp, we started on our outings which for most part comprised floating down the river on a coracle and then trudging back on foot.

For some reason, White-browed bulbul were ubiquitous and noisy this time around. Other frequently heard calls were of Tailorbird, oriole (I usually associate the short, ascending crrrrk with the Black-hooded oriole, but we did spot a Golden oriole calling this way too), Purple-rumped sunbird, Asian brown flycatcher and White-browed wagtail (on the water). Stork-billed kingfisher called occasionally as did Spotted dove, Green imperial pigeon, Jungle babbler, Green bee eater and Golden-fronted leaf bird.

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Yellow-throated sparrow (S. Balajee)

We had uncommon luck with raptors. Walking back to the camp from the Muthathi side, we first flushed a Crested serpent eagle that flapped away on great wings. We were trying to trace its position when a Black eagle emerged from pretty much the same direction, and settled on a tree a considerable distance away. We got off the path for a closer look and resuming the track, we were surprised by yet another raptor, which we identified back at the camp as the Tawny eagle. This worthy made a reappearance later in the day while we were on the river. BIL wanted a shot of a Lesser fish eagle and we found an exceptionally obliging individual on the day 2 outing.

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Lesser fish eagle (S. Balajee)

For the first time, we were compelled to beach the coracle and hop off twice midway – once to tail a pair of Brown fish owls, which were being baited by a pair of crows, as they shifted one perch to another; and again to confirm a shikra’s ID. While we were after the owls, a sloth bear was spotted across the river from our position by a couple of staff members lounging on the bank a hundred meters downstream. We had heard chital calling from across and had discussed the possibility of a leopard being afoot.

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Small pratincole (S. Balajee)

While on this topic, incidentally, I asked Thomraj why chital alarm calls were heard virtually every half hour on some visits, and never heard at all on others. Thomraj’s explanation was that chital were skittish when dhole were in the area and tended to call frequently then.

Winter is the time of courtship in our jungles, and the stillness on the river was occasionally shattered by rutting calls of chital stags. We watched a courting pair of Red-wattled lapwings. The pair flew in together and while the female settled on a rock, the male did a noisy, dipping-flight courtship display before joining her.

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Shikra (S. Balajee)

We found occasion to catch a bunch of fascinating jungle anecdotes about Thomraj’s colorful pre-JLR days. About running into a leopard that killed one of the goats he was grazing as a fourteen year old, to plucky-while-mischievous deeds from jungles long ago.

  1. Ashy prinia
  2. Asian brown flycatcher
  3. Asian paradise flycatcher
  4. Barn swallow
  5. Black eagle
  6. Black-hooded oriole
  7. Blue-faced malkoha
  8. Brahminy kite
  9. Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker
  10. Brown fish owl
  11. Brown hawk owl
  12. Brown-headed barbet (calls)
  13. Chestnut-headed bee eater
  14. Cinereous tit
  15. Common francolin
  16. Common hawk cuckoo (calls)
  17. Common iora
  18. Common kingfisher
  19. Common myna
  20. Common skylark
  21. Common tailorbird
  22. Common woodshrike
  23. Coppersmith barbet (calls)
  24. Coucal (calls)
  25. Crested serpent eagle
  26. Darter
  27. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  28. Great cormorant
  29. Green bee eater
  30. Greenish warbler
  31. Grey junglefowl
  32. Golden oriole
  33. Green imperial pigeon
  34. Hoopoe
  35. Indian grey hornbill
  36. Indian robin
  37. Indian scops owl
  38. Indian silverbill
  39. Jungle babbler
  40. Jungle crow
  41. Jungle owlet (calls)
  42. Large cuckooshrike
  43. Lesser fish eagle
  44. Lesser flameback
  45. Little cormorant
  46. Little egret
  47. Magpie robin
  48. Painted spurfowl
  49. Peafowl
  50. Pied kingfisher
  51. Purple-rumped sunbird
  52. Red-rumped swallow
  53. Red-vented bulbul
  54. Red-wattled lapwing
  55. Red-whiskered bulbul
  56. River tern
  57. Rose-ringed parakeet
  58. Scaly-breasted munia
  59. Shikra
  60. Small pratincole
  61. Spotted dove
  62. Stork-billed kingfisher
  63. Unidentified swift
  64. Tawny eagle
  65. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  66. White-bellied drongo
  67. White-breasted waterhen
  68. White-browed bulbul
  69. White-browed wagtail
  70. White-cheeked barbet (calls)
  71. White-throated kingfisher
  72. Wire-tailed swallow
  73. Yellow-billed babbler
  74. Yellow-footed green pigeon
  75. Yellow-throated sparrow
  1. Chital
  2. Grizzled giant squirrel
  3. Tufted langur
  4. Mugger

Trip Report: Ela Blooms, Nov ’15

Trip Report:   Ela Blooms
Dates:              27-29 Nov 2015

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This was part of an office team outing. PA and I got some time to bird.

Ela Bloom is situated amidst a cardamom plantation gone wild. The camp is very picturesque and sited at the edge of what apparently is reserve forest land. A short, leech-infested path down from here leads to the “cave house”, which is in the process of being readied for occupation. The jeep trail that brings you to the camp is a good birding prospect – keeping to the track minimizes encounters with leeches. There is also a trail that leads off from behind the rooms and a short descent down this lies a pretty little pond.

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Power is generated via a mini hydel arrangement. There are multiple trek routes on offer, ranging from very short ones to day-long outings. There are enough trails to explore and I hope to return with my wildlife gang for a three or four day birding trip. We should be able to net quite a few Western Ghats endemics.

Peter, who runs Ela Blooms told us that there were sambar, barking deer, dhole, chevrotain, leopard, gaur, civet, porcupine and elephant around. He’d set up a camera trap to identify local faunal species. We saw a section of molt a little below the camp, possibly from Rat snake or Naja naja. This is prime King territory and I was hoping to run into the large snake on one of the paths.

Birding

PA and I limited our birding to around the camp and to very short forays around it. Black bulbul, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Grey wagtail, Oriental white-eye, Velvet-fronted nuthatch, Purple-rumped sunbird and flowerpecker were commonly sighted in and around the camp. Hill myna, parakeet and hornbill were strangely absent.

I was sitting by the aforementioned pond a little before sundown on day 2 with a colleague, watching a bird hawking from a perch high up on a tree a long way off. Slaty blue bird with a long wedge tail and a touch of white in the underparts. Hawking insects flycatcher style. The bird was visible for a long while, but I was unable to ID it. Later PA and I sighted the same bird around the camp multiple times. Turned out to be the White-bellied shortwing Brachypteryx major albiventris. I was elated as this was a bird I had been eager to spot on the KMTR trip. Also, a call persisted some way off behind us. Sounded like what I remembered of the Black-chinned laughingthrush’s call. My sharp-eyed colleague and I tried hard but weren’t able to spot the source.

We also sighted White-cheeked barbet, a flying leaf-bird – Golden-fronted or Blue-winged I couldn’t tell, Red-whiskered bulbul, Yellow-browed bulbul and Oriental honey buzzard. A raptor was seen coasting over the canopy when the bins were not on hand – most probably a Black eagle. Nilgiri langur hooted in the evenings from the forest. Hoopoe called a few times. Malabar giant squirrel were occasionally seen foraging and leaping in the canopy. Mornings began with a short song by the Malabar whistling thrush, at 6 AM, after which the bird was neither seen nor heard. On our way back in the jeep, a bird shot up from the track before us, most probably an Emerald dove. The sighting was too fleeting to confirm the identification.

PA and I were walking down the jeep trail for a short distance when a large brown raptor took flight under the canopy some way off and settled down a short way away. A Malabar giant squirrel promptly gave alarm. We veered off the track and into the undergrowth to try and spot the bird, but had to give up after a while. CSE in all probability. All we ended up doing was feed half a dozen leeches in the attempt.

I stepped out of the room a few times hoping to catch some calls at night – possibly Long-tailed nightjar, Indian scops owl or Brown hawk owl. However except for the chirping of cicadas and other insects, there was nothing. What sounded like a muntjac called once in alarm.

Goatweed

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While we saw plenty of Senna spectabilis en route until the start of the jeep track, this invasive species was absent in the forest. Instead, there was plenty of goatweed Ageratum conyzoides packing the verges of the paths and around. Another insidious South American import.

Cardamom:

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Unidentified fern:

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Unidentified, very common weed:

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Before ending this post, I should note that some colleagues tried the “night safari” operated out of Gudalur and considering the poor experience they had, this seamy enterprise is best avoided.