Meghamalai Reprised, Apr 2014

Trip Report:        Meghamalai Willife Sanctuary

Dates:                  11-13 Apr 2014

Camp:                  Vellimalai FRH

Companions:     GK, GiK, SS

Revisits to any place tend to be let-downs, primarily because a large part of the pleasure the first time around is in all likelihood, derived from the sheer unexpectedness of it. This trip was an exception. GK and I visited Meghamalai in January this year (blog post here), were unable to get permission to occupy the picturesque Vellimalai FRH, and swore we’d come back to stay there someday. We made good on our promise this time.

This FRH nestles in a spot of great beauty deep inside the forest, is dwarfed by towering riverine forests, and has a stream running by it. Armed with the requisite permission, we were eagerly looking forward to the experience of camping at this beautiful spot. And the experience did not disappoint, despite the heightened expectations.

In terms of the itinerary, we did pretty much the same things we did the last time around – driving up through the Pandian estate to the Vellimalai Murugan temple, and having Thangaraj jeep us up to the Anaikullipallam estate (these are separate outings). In addition to these, we spent the mornings and evenings absorbed in some very pleasant birding in the vicinity of the FRH. This last was probably the most fulfilling part of the trip, given the pleasant surroundings and richness of birdlife around.

We expected sunrise and sunset hours to be especially spectacular around the FRH, and they were. We woke up to the calls of Malabar whistling thrushes, Asian fairy bluebirds (plenty of them around), Hill mynas, Malabar grey hornbills and Grey jungle fowl. On a single tree in the camp, we counted four species of bulbul all at once – Red whiskered, Flame throated, White-browed and Yellow-browed. There were quite a few Black bulbuls around, but they regrettably did not join in the record attempt or else we’d have seen five species of bulbul all on one tree. And this was in addition to a Malabar giant squirrel, a Malabar grey hornbill and a couple of Green barbets that were foraging on the same tree. Elsewhere around the camp we saw Hill myna, Racket-tailed drongo (plenty of both), Malabar whistling thrush, Asian fairy bluebird (dozens of them), Golden oriole, Puff throated babbler, Brown-cheeked fulvetta, Orange minivet, Cinereous tit, Nilgiri flycatcher, Crimson-backed sunbird (plenty of these too), Pond heron, Common kingfisher (both by the stream), Lesser flameback and Nilgiri langur (there were plenty of Bonnet macaque in the camp).

On Saturday evening around sunset, GiK and I took a walk down the road towards a little culvert a short way from the FRH. Incidentally Muniswamy, the forest watcher who accompanied us on our drives had told us of having sighted a tiger on a kill (a cow) beside this culvert a while back. The road runs parallel to the stream that abuts the FRH, and we had gone some distance when we heard splashing and snorting noises from the water below. We were looking forward to (and dreading, at the same time) meeting elephants and naturally assumed we’d hit paydirt. GiK moved around to find a gap in the intervening shrubbery and three sambar went crashing through the water in alarm, splashing up a tremendous din in the silence of the forest.

We resumed our walk and went a little further ahead when sambar alarm calls erupted in the jungle across the stream to our right, and some distance ahead of us. The calls persisted and a Nilgiri langur presently took alarm too. This animal was just off the road to our left, and both calls some hundred meters ahead of us. (We could see neither sambar nor langur). Stealing ahead noiselessly on rubber-soled feet, we reached the culvert. I was desperately hoping for a tiger sighting on foot – an item on my bucket-list that has so far refused to fructify. We planted ourselves on the culvert and waited in silence, but were disappointed when the calls eventually died out. Incidentally, sambar alarm calls also erupted around the FRH a couple of times after sunset, when we were sitting on chairs outside our room.

The eight-kilometer drive through Pandian estate to the Vellimalai Murugan temple was pleasant as ever and very productive as far as birding was concerned. We entered the estate in the evening after the labour-force had departed and had the route to ourselves. Our luck was on a roll this time around. We had searched for but failed to find Lion-tailed macaque the last time around and here they were, a whole troop just off the road. I had mentioned a flashing tree shrew sighting which only GK got a clear look at in January and now I got a clear sighting of Anathana ellioti – the Southern tree shrew.  We also saw the White-bellied treepie in the upper reaches. We saw this bird multiple times on this trip – once here and thrice on the Anaikullipallam track. SS was unwell and had elected to stay back, and he got the privilege of sighting Draco dussumieri – the Southern flying lizard – at the FRH.

Anaikullipallam if you recall is eight kilometers or so from the Vellimalai FRH. The road to get there passes through some very rough, lantana-choked, boulder-strewn terrain. The track is far too rough for the Scorp, and hence the need to have Thangaraj jeep us up. Having learnt our lesson from the last trip, we had requested Thangaraj to organize a cooked meal for us at Anaikullipallam.

En route are some three or four estates in various states of disrepair, all of them having been abandoned presumably due to labour shortage. Living quarters built for the hands are empty and dilapidated, having been visited by the occasional marauding elephant. There was an injured or ill gaur – bull or cow we couldn’t tell – just off the road that the men with us said had been sighted around the same spot for a couple of days now. The creature sat in the lantana by the roadside and made some effort to rise and move away at the sight of us.

We got off the jeep a kilometer or so before the Anaikullipallam estate house, and walked the rest of the way looking for birds. The upper reaches are cool and pleasant, with evergreen vegetation interspersed with plantation – coffee and cardamom. We saw what Muniswamy identified as sloth bear scat during the jeep drive, and Dhole scat in the last stretch (we had seen this the last time too). After a modest scratch meal at the estate house, we walked back the same distance and en route ran into a truly exhilarating encounter. GK who has eyes sharp as they come suddenly called out that there was a cobra just off the track. Since some people seem to equate all snakes with cobras, I rather uncharitably assumed he’d spotted a rat snake. Peeping over, I was astonished to find that we were in fact looking at Ophiophagus hannah himself – the King cobra – at a distance of less than six feet. Strikingly dual-toned in yellow and black, the snake had his hood raised two and a half feet off the ground and stood completely motionless. GiK and I were alternating between staring in fascination and fumbling with the wretched camera, which had chosen this of all moments to misbehave. The snake stood there for a full minute, and then lowering its hood, went slithering down the slope at great speed. Regrettably, we found the inadvertent setting change on the camera that had ruined our chance of a picture just after the snake departed.

Two quick points before I end this narration. One, I had been fretting over being unable to identify a call that is common in all our forests at night – it is a ping with a plop-like echo. On this trip, we traced the source to a tree and a torch beam revealed the culprit to be an Indian nightjar. I rechecked Xeno-canto and can only find the chuck-chuck-chuckrrrr calls that are typical of the nightjar.

Second, I had wrongly mentioned the named of the entry checkpost as Manjur in my last post. Turns out it is Manjoothu.

Here are some pictures GiK took – I seem to have completely abandoned my camera for binoculars.

Macaca silenus – the Lion-tailed macaque:

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The Vellimalai Murugan temple:

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The Vellimalai Murugan temple commands a spectacular view of the surrounding forests:

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Malabar giant squirrel:

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Indian nightjar, there is some camera shake as the picture was shot under trying conditions, by headlight:

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Flameback around the FRH:

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Malabar grey hornbill:

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Here is a full list of sightings:

Avifauna

Ashy woodswallow
Asian fairy bluebird
Black bulbul
Black-hooded oriole
Brown-cheeked fulvetta
Cinereous tit
Common babbler
Common hawk cuckoo
Common kingfisher
Coucal (call)
Crested serpent eagle
Crimson-backed sunbird
Flame-throated bulbul
Green barbet
Golden oriole
Grey junglefowl
Hill myna
Hoopoe (call)
Indian nightjar
Indian robin
Magpie robin
Malabar grey hornbill
Malabar whistling thrush
Nilgiri flycatcher
Orange minivet
Pond heron
Puff-throated babbler
Purple-rumped sunbird
Racket-tailed drongo
Red-vented bulbul
Red-whiskered bulbul
Spotted dove
Yellow-browed bulbul
Warbler
White-browed bulbul
White-bellied treepie
White-headed babbler
White-throated kingfisher

Mammals
Barking deer (Ganesh only)
Black-naped hare
Bonnet macaque
Gaur
Lion-tailed macaque
Malabar giant squirrel
Nilgiri langur
Palm squirrel
Sambar
Southern tree shrew

Others
King cobra
Southern flying lizard (SS only)

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Trip Report: Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Jan 2014

Trip Report:        Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary

Dates:                  3-5 Jan 2014

Companions:     GK and VR

(Almost all the photographs here were clicked by GK)

Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary is a 600 sq km stretch of forest in the Western Ghats, in Theni district of Tamilnadu. It is contiguous with and lies along the north-eastern border of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The sanctuary was declared in 2012, and harbours two highly endangered endemics – Salim Ali’s fruit bat (Latidens salimali) and Hutton’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus huttoni). More common are elephants, leopards, Sloth bears, Nilgiri langurs, Lion tailed macaques, sambar, chital, dhole and Barking deer. Nilgai are also evidently found here. A tigress with cubs was enumerated in a 2013 survey and we heard claims of over eight cats having been enumerated in the December tiger census. Large tracts of pristine evergreen forests occur at altitude, interspersed with plantations – coffee and cardamom mainly – in the ranges we explored. Our exploration was limited to two of the sanctuary’s six ranges – Vellimalai and Kudalur.

This was another 500+ km drive from Bangalore. We peeled off from the NH7 near Dindigul, towards Theni. The route from here was: Sembatti-Batlagundu-Devathanapatti-Jayamangalam-Vaigai Dam-K. Vilakku-Kandamannur-Kadamalaikundu-Vellimalai

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Vellimalai Range

We had sought prior permission to enter the sanctuary at the Manjur checkpost. A twenty five kilometer drive through forested country got us to the gate of the 3,000 acre Pandyan estate. En route is an FRH in a truly delightful spot by a stream, with massive trees towering all around and plenty of birdlife in the vicinity. We tried but couldn’t get permission to stay in this FRH this time around, but that is a place to bookmark and go back to. Around this FRH, we heard loud repeated calls that sounded like shrill, manic laughter. After much searching, the culprits turned out to be a pair of grey hornbills. Malabar or Indian, we couldn’t discern. I later checked Xeno-canto, but could only find the prolongued calls I’m familiar with, for both species.

We did this stretch four times over two days, and saw quite a bit of birdlife, elephant and Black-naped hare. On a large tree that I cannot identify (but which GK thought was Ailanthus triphysa), we saw the largest congregation of Golden orioles any of us had ever seen.

A climb of another eight kilometers from the estate gate brought us to the Vellimalai Murugan temple, from where one gets a panoramic view of the mountain range. This second stretch is at a higher elevation and meanders through plantation and evergreen forest. Several troops of Nilgiri langur can be seen on this stretch.

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The lion-tailed macaque proved to be more elusive, though it is reputed to be regularly sighted in the upper reaches. We also saw plenty of Hill mynas, a pair of Malabar trogons, a pair of Asian fairy bluebirds,  sambar, Malabar giant squirrels, a Spot-bellied eagle owl, a Green imperial pigeon, gaur and a muntjac (that barked repeatedly, the very first time I’ve heard this – sounded like the bark of a medium sized dog, a spitz or spaniel perhaps). Apart from other assorted birdlife. We also got a fleeting glimpse of a small creature disappearing into the undergrowth. GK was the only one who got a clear look and from his description, it was probably the Indian tree shrew.

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The landscape is very sparsely populated, but this was evidently not always so. Not very long back, an estimated ten thousand people lived in these hills, working the estates. With MGNREGS providing a less strenuous option, labour is now hard to find for estates like these. A hundred and fifty families from West Bengal are principally keeping the estate functioning.

On day two, we took a detour from the FRH to get to another estate at Anaikulipallam. This road is utterly dismal, and we did the eight or so kilometers in an MM540, on constant 4WD. The Scorp didn’t stand a prayer of a chance to negotiate some of the boulders or slopes on that track, so we left her parked at the FRH. There are some three stream crossings on that route and Thangaraj, the chap who drove us up told us about the jeep having been washed away downstream from the crossing nearest to the FRH not once, but thrice. It snagged on rocks some distance downstream each time and was hauled back using a tractor. Anyway, we spent some time with a most remarkable individual at the estate settlement (see next section) and were bounced and bumped down again in the late afternoon.

Since we were unable to get accommodation either at Pandyan estate or in the FRH, we were forced to drive down to the plains on both days – to Kadamalaikundu – some eighteen kilometers from the forest checkpost, this being the nearest village with accommodation of sorts on offer.

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Dr. P. Ramesh

We met this extremely interesting man en route. Dr. P. Ramesh, PhD, is in his early thirties, works in the police department, and has a passion for wildlife, especially snakes. He runs an NGO called NEST – Netaji Snake Trust – and is involved with animal rescue, awareness dessemination, census operations and a wide variety of research work. When we ran into him, he was jeeping a group of around ten college students on a wilderness field trip to Anaikulipallam. This remarkable young man had spent his own money and effort to cook and carry a packed meal for the entire group, and which he generously invited us to share as well. He had also arranged for some provisions to be jeeped up for the evening meal (which again he’d cook himself). In a kit bag looped around his waist, he carried a snake venom extractor kit and some homeopathic versions of anti-venom. Ramesh does this often – getting different groups of students who are interested to go on field trips with him, to experience and understand snakes at first hand.

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We got off the jeeps and walked the last stretch to Anaikulipallam and on the way, Ramesh showed us likely spots for finding Large scaled vipers, Green pit vipers and other snakes. He also talked about an attempt he is involved with to regenerate or cultivate coral reefs along the Tamilnadu coast in a bid to tsunami-proof the coastline. If you are interested in becoming a member of NEST, or in helping this young man with his work in any way, you can reach him at ramesnest@gmail.com.

While walking this stretch, GK and I heard repeated alarm calls reverberating from the valley below. I initially thought they were sambar calls, but these had a distinctly bovine quality to them. That was when Ramesh pointed out that nilgai occured here. I’m guessing that what we heard were nilgai alarm calls, though I’m unable to find any recordings online to verify this. I should also note that we frequently came across dhole scat on the path here.

Kudalur Range

On day three, we did a quick drive through the Kudalur range, around the Suruliyar Power House area. We saw fresh elephant dung and a very strong elephant odour at one spot, but the pachyderms didn’t show. This was in the morning and birds were up and about. This particular stretch had a remarkable number of Blue faced malkohas and Grey junglefowl, and on a silk cotton tree, we saw the largest congregation of Gold fronted leaf birds that we’d ever seen.

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Poaching is a constant menace in all these forests, as is cattle grazing. We came across instances of locals poaching deer in Sathyamangalam TR, and now in Megamalai WS. The proliferation of lantana is another menace. Megamalai is fairly choking with lantana at most altitudes, and with a fair bit of parthenium as well.

On the way back to Bangalore, we stopped for a short while at Uttamapalayam to watch thousands of Indian flying foxes roosting on massive Arjuna trees by the banks of the Mullaiperiyar. We made a quick estimate of around a thousand bats in the three trees under which we stood, and there were more such trees along the far side of the river with still more colonies on them.

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The List

Here is a full list of sightings from these three days (or at least the ones we could recognize).

Avifauna

  1. Grey bellied cuckoo
  2. Grey junglefowl
  3. Peafowl
  4. Blue jay
  5. Asian koel
  6. Spotted dove
  7. Pond heron
  8. Jungle babbler
  9. White headed babbler
  10. Black drongo
  11. Purple sunbird
  12. Purple rumped sunbird
  13. Plain prinia
  14. Pied bush chat
  15. Indian robin
  16. Bay backed shrike
  17. White browed bulbul
  18. Blue faced malkoha
  19. White bellied drongo
  20. Golden oriole
  21. White throated kingfisher
  22. Changeable hawk eagle
  23. Brown shrike
  24. Common iora
  25. Coucal
  26. Gold fronted leaf bird
  27. Green barbet
  28. Coppersmith barbet
  29. Ashy woodswallow
  30. Red rumped swallow
  31. Common hawk cuckoo
  32. Indian treepie
  33. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  34. Black bulbul
  35. Grey hornbill
  36. Lesser flameback
  37. Racket tailed drongo
  38. Spot bellied eagle owl
  39. Hoopoe
  40. Magpie robin
  41. Chestnut headed bee eater
  42. Malabar parakeet
  43. Rose ringed parakeet
  44. Green bee eater
  45. Indian robin
  46. Common quail
  47. Hill myna
  48. Common myna
  49. Grey wagtail
  50. White-browed wagtail
  51. Asian fairy bluebird
  52. Red vented bulbul
  53. Red whiskered bulbul
  54. Crested bunting? (uncertain ID)
  55. Green imperial pigeon
  56. Malabar trogon
  57. Large grey babbler (thanks to Deepa Mohan for helping ID this and the next one)
  58. Common rosefinch, female? (ID not fully certain)
  59. Malabar whistling thrush (calls)

Fauna

  1. Malabar giant squirrel
  2. Sambar
  3. Barking deer
  4. Gaur
  5. Elephant
  6. Black-naped hare
  7. Nilgiri langur
  8. Indian flying fox
  9. Chital
  10. Indian tree shrew (GK alone got the privilege of this sighting)