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:
The Vellimalai Murugan temple:
The Vellimalai Murugan temple commands a spectacular view of the surrounding forests:
Malabar giant squirrel:
Indian nightjar, there is some camera shake as the picture was shot under trying conditions, by headlight:
Flameback around the FRH:
Malabar grey hornbill:
Here is a full list of sightings:
Asian fairy bluebird
Common hawk cuckoo
Crested serpent eagle
Malabar grey hornbill
Malabar whistling thrush
Barking deer (Ganesh only)
Malabar giant squirrel
Southern tree shrew
Southern flying lizard (SS only)