Trip report: K. Gudi/BRT Tiger Reserve, Mar ’15

Trip Report:          BRT Tiger Reserve/K. Gudi

Dates:                   7-9 Mar 2015

Camp:                   JLR’s K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

Who:                     SS & my 7-year old son

This trip was taken on impulse. SS pinged my wildlife gang on Thursday asking if anyone was game for an outing over the weekend. I checked K. Gudi’s availability and, surprised to find it available, booked one night for the three of us. On day 2 before checking out, I found that the place had zero occupancy, something I’ve never seen. This was too tempting a situation to pass up and junior and I stayed back one more night, with the intention of reaching Bangalore by lunchtime on Monday. Poor SS couldn’t stay back, hitched a ride back with some large-hearted guests, and was understandably not too pleased with the development. The whole thing was worth it as far as junior and I were concerned though; the experience of staying in tent No 7 with the entire row of tents standing empty was scintillating. More so after having found a tiger in the valley facing us, as you’ll see. Chital, sambar and barking deer all called in alarm during the night. As a nice counterpoint to the calls of Jungle owlet and Common hawk cuckoo.

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The weather was surprisingly cool when there was cloud cover, and slightly warm when there wasn’t. Evenings were cool and junior needed a sweater while on safari. Plus, the coffee was flowering, suffusing the vicinity with heady fragrance. Overall a very pleasant time to visit.

The advantage of tent No 7 is the view it affords. It overlooks a clear patch, with a silk cotton tree standing in the distance and attracting birdlife in droves. Sitting on the plinth, I counted plenty of Oriental white eye, Cinenerous tit, Asian brown flycatcher, Indian nuthatch (SS pointed out the difference between the Velvet-fronted and Indian), Gold-fronted leaf bird, Warbler (no idea which) and Small minivet.  And Golden oriole, Vernal hanging parrot (by the Gol ghar), Indian treepie, Scimitar babbler (calls), Common hawk cuckoo, Brown-capped pygmy woodpecker and Blue-bearded bee-eater.  I’ve had an unbroken record of seeing Black eagles over the K. Gudi camp and the record stands.

Cassia fistula opposite tent No. 7:

K Gudi Mar 15 128

Rajesh was out on some forest department errand and we therefore missed him for the first (Saturday evening’s) safari. Our old friend Kumar took us on that drive accompanied by a naturalist and he did a reasonable job with the birding. Incidentally Rajesh returned that evening at around 7 PM and ran into a tiger on the road not far from the camp (most likely the same individual we tried to meet two days later). He joined us from the next morning on and the birding was thereafter superb.

We saw Bronzed, White-bellied and Racket tailed drongos,  Grey wagtail, Oriental honey buzzard, Large cuckoo-shrike, CHE, CSE, Blue-capped rock thrush, Orange-headed thrush, Brown fish owl, Blue-faced malkoha, Bay-backed shrike, Tree pipit, Black-hooded oriole, Painted bush-quail, Lesser flameback, Rufous babbler, Hill myna, Malabar parakeet, Malabar whistling thrush, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, Rufous woodpecker, Yellow-footed green pigeon, Streak-throated woodpecker, Black-headed cuckooshrike, Asian fairy bluebird, Ashy woodswallow, Red spurfowl, Common rosefinch, Asian paradise flycatcher and Indian blackbird.

Malabar whistling thrush on Anogeissus latifolia:

K Gudi Mar 15 174

On the first day’s safari, the naturalist had pointed out what he thought was a Square-tailed bulbul. Both SS and I missed the sighting. When I told Rajesh about this the next day, he scoured the area in question until he found the bird – and we checked his copy of Grimmett & Inskipp to figure it was a Black rather than Square-tailed bulbul.

Also on day 1, at Anni kere, we found a large dark bird that rose and flew away as we approached. I initially assumed it to be a peacock until it took flight. The sighting was brief and the distance was considerable. SS thought that it was a Glossy ibis and the naturalist concurred. On subsequent visits to Anni kere , we found the bird to be a fixture. It turned out to be a Black stork and not Glossy ibis. The naturalist was profusely (and quite unnecessarily) apologetic about the mis-identification the next time we met.

We had a couple of near-misses on this trip. On day 1, three jeeps went out on safari. The other two jeeps enjoyed an extended sloth bear sighting on Durgur road. We went up there after we heard about it, but the animal had long since decamped. One of the drivers later showed me a video of the sighting. Sloth bear up close and upright, rubbing his back against a trunk; sloth bear keeping on the track in front of the jeep for a distance. I’m not sure it was a good idea to have watched that video. It rubbed it in low and slow.

Chital antlers were in velvet and often disproportionately large:

K Gudi Mar 15 015

Second near-miss was even more dramatic. On day 2 after the evening safari, Rajesh came over to our tent to check some pictures (remember, we were the only guests in the house). I’d just got the pictures opened up on my mobile when he got a frantic call from another driver about a tiger sighting in progress. We grabbed junior and scampered all the way to the jeep parked at the reception, joined by three other staff. Rajesh turned right at the gate and clipped his way for a short distance. A little before we reached the spot, he remarked that he could smell the tiger. I laughed at him and dismissed it offhand. Two curves later, we ran into a jeep parked by the roadside and the solitary driver was standing on the rubble parapet and peering down into the valley below, while frantically gesturing to us. Racing out of the jeep, we bounded up the parapet, poor junior in a fair blue funk by now. The visibility was not altogether bad, and I could hear the heavy footfall of the animal on dry leaf litter although it was no longer visible. The driver had watched the tiger on the road first, and then lying a short way below the parapet. Disturbed by our arrival, it had then ambled off. This was just rotten luck. The sighting had lasted a long time, but the driver was unable to reach Rajesh. He was able to call two other fellows both of whom refused to convey the message to Rajesh as they were not on talking terms. Like I said, rotten luck. And my long-cherished dream of sighting a tiger whilst on foot remained just that. Incidentally when I hopped off that parapet, I found my balance shaky with the adrenalin surging in my veins.

On the way back, Rajesh stopped at the point where he’d claimed to have smelled the tiger and sure enough, there was the distinct odour of carnivora still discernible in the still air. I’ve read about detecting the presence of tigers by smell in Davidar’s Cheetal walk. Here was a clear demonstration.

Suckling chital hind:

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On the last day, we left a little early on the morning safari with the hope of catching something on the main road. Sure enough, a leopard presently appeared, walking along the road and in the same direction as us. It panicked when it heard the jeep approach and bounded along the road for a short distance rather in the manner of a frightened dog, and then sharply veered off to leap over the parapet and disappear into the lantana. A sambar stag browsing there instantly belled in alarm. Rajesh was elated as he’d just been complaining to me that for all the drives we’d done together, we’d never seen a cat yet.

Tamil actor Thalaivasal Vijay was in the camp too; posing with junior here:

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Before I end this note, I should mention the detour en route. A bridge near Gaganachukki is being repaired and the road is therefore closed. A detour is required via Talakad to reach Kollegal, adding some 40-50 kms and an hour to the journey.

K Gudi Mar 15 136

Birds:

  1. Asian brown flycatcher
  2. Asian fairy bluebird
  3. Ashy woodswallow
  4. Bay-backed shrike
  5. Black bulbul
  6. Black-headed cuckoo-shrike
  7. Black-hooded oriole
  8. Black eagle
  9. Black stork
  10. Blue-bearded bee eater
  11. Blue-capped rock thrush
  12. Blue-faced malkoha
  13. Blyth’s starling
  14. Brahminy kite
  15. Bronzed drongo
  16. Brown-capped pygmy woodpecker
  17. Brown fish owl
  18. Brown shrike
  19. Changeable hawk eagle
  20. Cinereous tit
  21. Common hawk cuckoo
  22. Common iora
  23. Common myna
  24. Common rosefinch
  25. Common sandpiper
  26. Coucal
  27. Crested serpent eagle
  28. Lesser Flameback
  29. Golden oriole
  30. Gold-fronted leaf bird
  31. Grey junglefowl
  32. Grey wagtail
  33. Hill myna
  34. Indian blackbird
  35. Indian nuthatch
  36. Indian treepie
  37. Jungle babbler
  38. Jungle myna
  39. Jungle owlet
  40. Large cuckooshrike
  41. Magpie robin
  42. Malabar parakeet
  43. Malabar whistling thrush
  44. Orange-headed thrush
  45. Orange minivet
  46. Oriental honey buzzard
  47. Oriental white-eye
  48. Painted bush quail
  49. Racket-tailed drongo
  50. Red spurfowl
  51. Red-vented bulbul
  52. Red-whiskered bulbul
  53. Rufous babbler
  54. Rufous woodpecker
  55. Scimitar babbler (calls)
  56. Small minivet
  57. Spotted dove
  58. Streak-throated woodpecker
  59. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  60. Tree pipit
  61. Unidentified warbler
  62. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  63. Vernal hanging parrot
  64. White-bellied drongo
  65. White-cheeked barbet
  66. White-throated kingfisher
  67. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Black-naped hare
  3. Gaur
  4. Leopard
  5. Malabar giant squirrel
  6. Ruddy mongoose
  7. Sambar
  8. Spotted deer
  9. Stripe-necked mongoose
  10. Tufted langur
  11. Wild boar

Others:

  1. Pond terrapin

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)

Trip Report: Bandipur National Park, March 2014

Trip Report: Bandipur National Park 

Dates:           29-31 Mar 2014

Camp:           JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge

This trip was organized by a bunch of us from the Nov ’13 NTP batch. It was open to the batch, but just four of us ultimately signed up. With the temperature rising, we were hopeful of productive mammal sightings; the forest fire which broke out a little before the middle of March threatened to put paid to our plans, but the safaris resumed after 4-5 days of disruption. We drove through some of these charred forests on one of the safaris, and the affected swathes can also be seen by the Ooty highway a little beyond the Bandipur reception area. A thousand acres were impacted by the fire, although this is perhaps not necessarily the tragedy it is made out to be. If you want to know why I say so, this is a very insightful piece to read.

Bandipur Mar 14 327

We did four safaris and I wouldn’t exactly say that the outings were brimming over with sightings, in terms of birds or mammals. Certainly not a patch on my last trip to Bandipur just before the south-west monsoon, when the safaris were vibrant with encounters every few minutes. That was in fact one of the best trips I have ever done (three tiger sightings, ten minutes spent backing up right besides a magnificent and very tolerant tusker, a Black naped hare, Ruddy and Stripe-necked mongooses that permitted prolonged and close observation, and plenty of birdlife).

This time in stark contrast, most of the time was spent in driving through a silent forest shorn of leaves (and completely infested with lantana), the jeep throwing up a pall of fine dust which settled on and fouled everything. Despite the subdued productivity, it was nevertheless time well-spent for us, with some intense birding and an interesting tigress sighting.

There was a tree spreading over our rooms, and weighed down with hundreds of golden-orange figs. Naturally, this was a magnet for frugivores of all hues and we spent a considerable amount of time between safaris under this tree and around the camp. Red-vented bulbuls, Plum-headed parakeets, Asian koels, Coppersmith barbets and palm squirrels were probably the most common gourmands – we found these on the tree with near-certainty at any point. Red-vented bulbuls were in force and aggressively so, and given to relentlessly harassing their more timorous red-whiskered cousins. Indian grey hornbills appeared fairly frequently.

Elsewhere in the camp, there were plenty of Purple-rumped sunbirds, Cinereous tits, Blyth’s reed warblers, Asian brown flycatchers, Common ioras, Oriental white-eyes and White-bellied drongos. A coucal was a constant (and constantly calling) fixture right outside our door, where we also spend an enthralling few minutes watching a flock (murder is the correct albeit awkward term) of crows mob a Shikra which had settled down to partake of something dead and delicious clutched in its claws. Unfazed, the Shikra decamped only after consuming its meal entirely, leaving nothing for the crows.

On the safaris, the first and last threw up elephant sightings, something that I was looking forward to. A small herd of three each time. In terms of birds, most common were hoopoes, Grey junglefowl, Brahminy starlings, Red-vented bulbuls, Magpie-robins, Flamebacks, Streak-throated woodpeckers, Jungle mynas and babblers (both Jungle and White-headed).

The tiger sighting happened in the third safari (evening). Our driver got a call and headed to a waterhole called Kadamatur Katte, where a couple of vehicles waited by the bank. Alarm calls were strangely absent though a langur foraged nearby. Deer were missing in the vicinity. A lapwing was calling hysterically though, punctuated by peacock calls. A few minutes later, a tigress walked out of a game trail on the opposite bank, and descended to the water to drink. However she seemed uneasy with the presence of the jeeps and wandered away to the right, disappearing into the undergrowth. Our jeep cranked up and moved in the same direction hoping for another interception when the van behind us, still parked at the same spot, signaled frantically. Backing up, we found that the tigress had returned to the water hole, slid into the shallows, and was lying with her haunches submerged. We spent some time watching her until she hauled herself out of the water and stalked away into a game trail in the shrubbery, to our left this time. Turning around, we drove some distance and parked near a spot where the drivers judged her likely to emerge. Five or six vehicles had congregated by this time, and we all waited in expectant silence.

The keyed-up tension settled in a few minutes, and we were trying to determine whether a flock of babblers we could see on a forking track ahead was common or white-headed when the tigress abruptly emerged and cantered across the track a short way ahead, much in the manner of a startled cow. We turned into another road in the same direction and some distance ahead, again found a likely spot where she might emerge. A few more vehicles had added on by this time and a long line waited in patient silence.

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Eventually our patience ran out and concluding that we’d lost her, we started on our way and had hardly gone fifty meters ahead when she was spotted sitting amidst the lantana, a short way off the road. Our screeching to a halt however alarmed her and rising, she finally turned around and disappeared into the lantana.

Dr. R had stayed on to do an additional safari after we left, and an interesting sidelight is that he returned to the same waterhole the next evening and noticed that in our excitement, we had probably missed spotting a carcass floating in the water. There was evidently some flutter at the human-like appearance of the carcass, but the forest department staff were informed and presently fished out a dead langur.

(Pic by Dr. R).

_MG_9221 jpg-LANGUR

Here are a few more pictures.

Grey junglefowl, Mr. and Mrs.

Bandipur Mar 14 158

Bandipur Mar 14 422

White-browed fantail:

Bandipur Mar 14 212

Grey francolin:

Bandipur Mar 14 371

Paddyfield pipit:

Bandipur Mar 14 483

Sambar, note the hairless patch on the neck – this is found in adult males and in pregnant or lactating females, sometimes oozes liquid, and is postulated to be glandular in nature:

Bandipur Mar 14 262

Peek-a-boo:

Bandipur Mar 14 292

Common mongoose on the main road:

Bandipur Mar 14 267

Stripe-necked mongoose, this is the largest species of mongoose in India:

Bandipur Mar 14 092

Elephant herd in the grass:

Bandipur Mar 14 512

Unnerved by the presence of the jeep, this nervous matriarch turns to flee:

Bandipur Mar 14 076

Tiger tiger burning bright, pic by Dr. R:

_MG_8803tiger

Here is the complete list of sightings.

Avifauna

1. Asian brown flycatcher

2. Asian koel

3. Ashy drongo

4. Ashy prinia

5. Asian paradise flycatcher

6. Bay-backed shrike

7. Blue-faced malkoha

8. Blyth’s starling

9. Blyth’s reed warbler

10. Brahminy starling

11. Brown fish owl

12. Brown shrike

13. Chestnut shouldered petronias

14. Cinereous tit

15. Common hawk cuckoo

16. Common iora

17. Common kestrel

18. Common myna

19. Coppersmith barbet

20. Coucal

21. Crested serpent eagle

22. Eurasian collared dove

23. Greater flameback

24. Green barbet

25. Grey francolin

26. Grey heron

27. Grey junglefowl

28. Grey wagtail

29. Hoopoe

30. Indian grey hornbill

31. Indian robin

32. Indian treepie

33. Jungle babbler

34. Jungle myna

35. Large cuckooshrike

36. Lesser flameback

37. Little brown dove

38. Little egret

39. Long-tailed shrike

40. Magpie robin

41. Oriental white-eye

42. Paddyfield pipit

43. Pied bushchat

44. Pigmy woodpecker

45. Plum-headed parakeet

46. Purple-rumped sunbird

47. Racket-tailed drongo

48. Red spurfowl

49. Red-vented bulbul

50. Red-wattled lapwing

51. Red-whiskered bulbul

52. Rose-ringed parakeet

53. Shikra

54. Sirkeer malkoha

55. Small green bee-eater

56. Spotted dove

57. Streakthroated woodpecker

58. White-bellied drongo

59. White-browed fantail

60. White-browed wagtail

61. White-headed babbler

62. White-throated kingfisher

63. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals

64. Barking deer

65. Chital

66. Common mongoose

67. Elephant

68. Gaur

69. Malabar giant squirrel

70. Ruddy mongoose

71. Sambar

72. Stripe-necked mongoose

73. Tufted langur

74. Wild boar

75. Tiger

Others

76. Terrapin

Trip report: BRT Tiger Reserve, March 2014

Trip Report:        BRT Tiger Reserve/K Gudi

Dates:               15-17 Mar 2014

Camp:               K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

This was the first of a series of summer trips planned months in advance. I did this trip with a friend VV, and my six year old son. We were perhaps a month too early, as the summer mammal sightings had not yet begun in earnest. However we were compensated by abundant avian winter migrant sightings.

The Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve spreads over 590 sq kms of a mosaic of habitats, ranging from scrub to Shola-evergreen forests.  The reserve comprises five ranges – the eponymous BR temple is in the Yelandur range while the K. Gudi camp falls under the Chamarajanagar range. It lies at the southern border of Karnataka, and is contiguous with the Kollegal FD to its east (which in turn connects with the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary further east). The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve lies to its south (which in turn is contiguous with the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve/Mudumalai to its west). The BRT reserve therefore forms a part of the ecological bridge running east-west between the Western and Eastern Ghats.

We stayed two nights at the K. Gudi camp and did four safaris in all. Summer was just beginning to set in and the days were hot and dry, while the temperature plummeted sharply at sun-down leaving the nights mildly chill. Most trees had shed heavily leaving the forest bare. Visibility was nevertheless poor due to lantana thickets crowding in ubiquitous profusion. Common trees were Terminalia elliptica (crocodile bark), Radermachera xylocarpa (maan kombu maram in Tamil), teak on some slopes and plantation areas, and a tree which our driver Rajesh knew the Kannada name of, which we could not identify.

The camp itself was alive with birdlife. Most common were Cinereous tits and Asian brown flycatchers. These two species were pretty much on every other twig. Followed by Orange minivets, Velvet fronted nuthatches, Malabar parakeets, Asian paradise flycatchers, Bronzed drongos, Ashy drongos, Little brown doves and Jungle babblers. The Jacaranda trees in riotous bloom around the reception area had a constant supply of Vernal hanging parrots on them. Black hooded orioles called frequently though we sighted just one individual. We also sighted a Gold fronted leaf bird, a Pigmy woodpecker, a Large cuckooshrike, Grey wagtails, Magpie robins and Indian treepies, apart from Sambar. I’m not counting the chital and wild pigs which are always to be found in the camp. Nor the semi-domesticated blackbuck doe with the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde personality; it toggled between begging for food and belligerent head-butting.

K. Gudi was the first JLR property I visited (over ten years back). Around the turn of the millennium, we were in the habit of visiting K. Gudi almost once every quarter for a couple of years. Memories of being driven out on safari by Thapa  – one of the best spotters you can ever find – and numerous exciting incidents are fresh in my memory. I find I can still recognize the spots where some of those incidents happened.

The four safaris were largely centred around birding, considering that not too much showed up by way of  megafauna, charismatic or otherwise. I was especially disappointed not to see any elephants. For me, elephant sightings carry the same thrill as sighting large carnivora.

Most abundant in the forest were three types of drongos (Bronzed, Ashy and White-bellied), Magpie robins, Malabar parakeets, Lesser flamebacks, Indian blackbirds, Bulbuls (both Red-whiskered and Red-vented),  Jungle mynas, Hill mynas, Asian paradise flycatchers, Blue capped rock thrushes,  Hoopoes, Jungle babblers and Indian treepies. Fairly common also were Common hawk cuckoos, Orange headed thrushes, Indian pittas, Ashy woodswallows and Grey junglefowl.

We had multiple sightings of a Brown fish owl by the same kere. On the way to the safari and a short way from the camp, an Indian scops owl roosted in a burrow high up – we looked for it each time we passed and sighted it twice. And on the way back to camp, a Racket tailed drongo consistently showed up at one spot. For that matter, the pitta turned up in the same place for multiple sightings, as did one particular Asian paradise flycatcher individual. Incidentally, VV and I had some discussion around differentiating juvenile and female Asian paradise flycatchers in the field. Both are rufous and broadly similar looking, but the juvenile male has a jet black throat, and a blue eye-ring. The female has a paler throat and lacks the eye-ring.

Two encounters with atypical individuals happened in the first safari. The first one concerned a sambar stag. We sighted it beside the track and halted. The stag was frozen immobile and alert, watching us. We inched forward in spurts getting closer and closer, and it didn’t move a muscle. Finally when we were practically beside it, its nerve gave way and stamping its foreleg as sambar are wont to do when spooked, it honked in alarm, the sudden loud calls resonating in the quiet of the jungle. Another unseen individual in lantana thickets just beyond was unnerved by these calls and gave alarm too. The herd of three finally disappeared, crashing through the undergrowth.

The second concerned a Grey junglefowl cock that effectively blocked the road, showing little sign of fear at the sight of the jeep. We were forced to tail it slowly for a distance before it stepped off the road and made way.

On day two post breakfast, we drove down the highway towards the south, turning back shortly before the Navodaya checkpost. Chital were calling in alarm at a waterhole a little before this checkpost. We waited for a while, but nothing emerged and the calls presently subsided. Incidentally, a male tiger was sighted on this stretch at 8:30 AM the previous morning by a batch of pilgrims. Elephant encounters are also apparently a daily occurrence here and a little beyond the K Gudi camp, a pack of dhole had been sighted the previous day. However our luck was limited to Malabar parakeets, a Yellow-capped woodpecker, a pair of Orange minivets, a Jungle owlet, Bay-backed shrikes and Tufted langurs,

We then drove back and past the camp, all the way north, turning back a little before the eponymous BR temple. This section of the forest is heavily disturbed, with plenty of traffic, grazing cattle and settlements and is not particularly pleasurable to drive through for this reason.

Here is a full list of the sightings:

Avifauna

  1. Ashy drongo
  2. Ashy woodswallow
  3. Asian blue fairybird
  4. Asian brown flycatcher
  5. Asian paradise flycatcher
  6. Bay backed shrike
  7. Black hooded oriole
  8. Blue bearded bee eater
  9. Blue capped rock thrush
  10. Bronzed drongo
  11. Brown fish owl
  12. Cinereous tit
  13. Common hawk cuckoo
  14. Common rosefinch
  15. Coppersmith barbet (calls only)
  16. Coucal
  17. Gold fronted leaf bird
  18. Greater flameback
  19. Greater racket tailed drongo
  20. Green barbet
  21. Grey junglefowl
  22. Grey wagtail
  23. Hill myna
  24. Hoopoe
  25. Indian blackbird
  26. Indian Pitta
  27. Indian Scops owl
  28. Indian treepie
  29. Jungle babbler
  30. Jungle myna
  31. Jungle owlet
  32. Large cuckooshrike
  33. Lesser flameback
  34. Little brown dove
  35. Magpie robin
  36. Malabar parakeet
  37. Malabar whistling thrush
  38. Orange headed thrush
  39. Orange minivet
  40. Painted bush quail
  41. Pigmy woodpecker
  42. Pipit (species not recognized)
  43. Red spurfowl
  44. Red vented bulbul
  45. Red whiskered bulbul
  46. Rufous babbler
  47. Spotted dove
  48. Streak throated woodpecker
  49. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  50. Tricoloured munia
  51. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  52. Vernal hanging parrot
  53. White-bellied drongo
  54. White-throated kingfisher
  55. Yellow capped woodpecker

Mammals

  1. Barking deer
  2. Bonnet macaque
  3. Chital
  4. Gaur
  5. Malabar giant squirrel
  6. Sambar
  7. Stripe-necked mongoose
  8. Three-striped palm squirrel
  9. Tufted langur

Here are some random pictures:

Magpie robin:

BR Hills Mar 14 008

Painted bush quail:

BR Hills Mar 14 016

Jungle myna:

BR Hills Mar 14 030

Sambar:

BR Hills Mar 14 093

Indian pitta:

BR Hills Mar 14 150

Blue bearded bee eater

BR Hills Mar 14 218

Gaur:

BR Hills Mar 14 229

Barking deer:

BR Hills Mar 14 321

White-bellied Drongo:

BR Hills Mar 14 368

Indian Scops owl:

BR Hills Mar 14 484

Stripe-necked mongoose:

BR Hills Mar 14 519

Giant crab spider, a pair of these graced the loo:

spider

“Biligiri”, the last log hut in its row, abuts the jungle and is reputed to offer tiger and leopard sightings if you are lucky:

biligiri

Thattekad Reprised – Feb ’14

Trip Report:        Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad

Dates:                   21-22 Feb 2014

Camp:                   Periyar River Lodge

My experience in Thattekad in January enthused BIL B enough to want to do a repeat trip over a quick weekend. Accordingly we bussed in from Bangalore and pretty much replicated the itinerary from the prior trip. With one difference, but we’ll talk about that in a while.

Bhothathankettu was a disappointment and devoid of birdlife. Unlike the last time when I visited on a week day (Friday), we ended up visiting on a Saturday and the place was as lively with squawking tourists this time around as it was with avifauna the last time. The Flame-throated bulbuls were there though, along with the Racket-tailed drongos and Chestnut headed bee-eaters. I checked for the record-breaking teak tree mentioned in my previous post and not unexpectedly, it lay across the river somewhere, out of bounds without permission.

Mr. Luigi and the staff at PRL were hospitable as ever and we settled in with great hopes for the evening. We linked up with Gireesh Chandran at the place where I had sighted the Dollar birds the last time around (they were there this time too). Now Gireesh was accompanied by a couple of his house guests, and these two men had gawked their way through their wish-list over the past couple of days, barring three candidates –  Mottled wood owl, Black baza and Drongo cuckoo. And therein lay the rub. Gireesh assumed BIL and I would fall in with their plans to devote our energies to just these three species.

Anyway, we went into the reserve forest area adjacent to the sanctuary and saw a pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths, Yellow-browed bulbul, Brown-breasted flycatcher, White-bellied treepie and the much-sought-after Drongo cuckoo. Not counting the ubiquitous Malabar hornbills, Indian treepies and Racket-tailed drongos. At this point, the rain played spoilsport and we scurried back to town, ending the day’s work with a precious hour’s daylight wasted.

The next morning, Gireesh announced that he planned to take us all to Bhoothathankettu in search of the Black baza, and I was not pleased with this. We had just these two outings on our itinerary and it didn’t make sense (to me) to take BIL all the way to Thattekad and back without ever having set foot inside the sanctuary. At any rate, Gireesh wasn’t going to alter his house guests’ plans, and off he went to Bhoothathankettu looking for the baza. I wanted BIL to experience the rocky area inside the sanctuary that was so productive last time, and got Gireesh to call another guide. Some sort of tenuous arrangement was patched up hurriedly over the phone. BIL and I then drove back to the spot where there was a gap in the sanctuary’s fence and crossed in. Gireesh had some hesitation in sending us in on our own as a herd of elephants was sighted the previous evening in the area, but the fellow on the phone cleared that concern.

Anyway we found our way to the rocky area and joined Vinod, and he did a very decent job of guiding the morning’s outing. We saw Ashy drongo, Hill myna, Rufous woodpecker, Blyth’s starling (excellent and multiple sightings), Green imperial pigeon, Common Iora, Malabar hornbill, Gold fronted leaf bird, Orange minivet, Small minivet and Jungle nightjar. Apologies for the patricians and plebeians all merrily mixed up in that list. Or perhaps not. The highlight of the outing was a frogmouth and chick sighting.

The boat ride around PRL was spectacular as ever. Mr. Luigi himself joined us this time. Ironically, we saw the bird that was partly responsible for the morning’s hullabaloo – the Black baza – right off the boat, a short distance from PRL. And a truly spectacular bird it is. We also saw Black naped oriole, Asian fairy blue-bird, Vernal hanging parrot, Orange minivet and a Crested serpent eagle that thumped onto some small creature in the grass not fifteen feet from us and covered it’s trophy with outspread wings, glowering at us.

Post boat ride, we spent a glorious hour swimming in the river in front of the lodge, and I regret not having done this in the previous trip. Few experiences can beat lazing in a cool, slow-running river flanked by verdant greenery in hot weather.

I should also mention here that the staff and management of PRL showed an admirable degree of concern over the guiding issue, and took pains to follow up and apologize after we had returned to Bangalore. Another reason to return to PRL yet again, next winter.

Here are a few pictures:

Bhoothathankettu:

Image

Thattekad 2nd trip 023

Batrachostomus moniliger, female on the right:

Thattekad 2nd trip 049

Thattekad 2nd trip 069

Frogmouth with chick:

Thattekad 2nd trip 152

CSE:

Thattekad 2nd trip 179

“What you lookin’ at?”

Thattekad 2nd trip 203

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Book Review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

of-birds-and-bird-song

Book review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

Edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola

Aleph Book Company, published 2012

I have alluded to this exceptional book in a previous post, and have been wanting to publish this review for many weeks now.

Once in a rare while, we come across a book that has rich topical value, but which can also be read simply for the elegance of its language. Of Birds and Birdsong is one such book (M.R. James’ Ghost Stories is another that readily comes to mind). If you possess a love for the English language, you’ll enjoy this book immensely even if the immediate topic – birds – is not of any great interest.

Madhavaiah Krishnan (1912-1996) was not just an ornithologist. He was a naturalist and photographer par excellence. For a man with so brilliant a mind he was a failure academically, and tried his hand at an astonishing variety of vocations (including implausibly, goat grazing). But he was a prolific writer and wrote a column for The Statesman which ran for an astounding forty six years, the last piece being published on the day of his death. He was also an artful photographer, producing masterful black and white images from the natural world using equipment he had rigged together himself and dubbed the Super Ponderosa. Krishnan served on the advisory committee of the BNHS, on the steering committee for Project Tiger, and on the Indian Board of Wildlife. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Krishnan

This book brings together various pieces Krishnan wrote about birds, over the years. Some of the pieces are quaint given their vintage, like the ones on partridge and gamecock rearing, and pigeon post. Many others are short, straightforward profiles of certain species – the ones on the sarus crane, painted stork, grey junglefowl and changeable hawk eagle for instance. The more delightful ones are infused with personalized observations and anecdotes. There is an essay on the dangers of putting up nest-side hides, and on the precautions to be taken to prevent nest abandonment. There is another very short piece on the significance of the siesta in the animal and bird world. There are two entire sections devoted to pieces that deal with bird calls, and bird flight respectively.

As I have mentioned before, one cannot but help feel that Krishnan’s keen sense of observation was in a word, staggering. Wondering about the allusion to the sweet voice of the parakeet in Indian poetry while the call itself is a harsh screech in reality, Krishnan observed that the rose ringed parakeet has a “low, long, tremulous, ineffably sweet call” when summoning its young to the mouth of the nest-hole. Elsewhere, he painstakingly counted the number of times a hoopoe folded and unfolded its crest in the duration of a minute, and observed how the flicking of the crest expressed “the entire emotional range of the bird”. On yet another occasion he writes about trying to time the rapping beat of a woodpecker with a stopwatch.

The writing is often laced with a subtly wicked sense of humour.  In the chapter on birds that can be seen on the “interminable perches” of telegraph wires by the railway tracks, he says what can be principally seen are birds that like to perch high and pounce. “However, it is wiser not to be to exact on such matters. I once saw an undoubted quail planted squarely on a passing telegraph wire. What business can any quail possibly have atop this unnatural perch? I do not know, but I am almost sure the quail did not either.

In surmising why the white-browed wagtail is not as accomplished a singer as the magpie robin, Krishnan has a clever explanation. “It is all a matter of tails. If it could jerk its tail right over its head, and fan it out as the Magpie Robin does, no doubt it would sing as wildly and wonderfully, but being only a wagtail, it is content with its modest, sweet little song.

I cannot look at white headed babblers now without this scintillating description coming to mind. “They go hopping along to some corner, and one bird turns a dead leaf over while its fellows look on with a critical slant of their white heads – then, suddenly, the party dissolves in hysterical squeaks, and whirrs across on weak wings to another corner of the compound, where they proceed at once to turn over dead leaves again. Clearly, the birds are daft, but they are a feature of Madras gardens (however nominal the garden) and will always be. By sheer esprit de corps and an inability to take life too seriously, they have prevailed where their betters have given up.

Once every few pages, you are guaranteed to come across a word you’ve never heard of. Krishnan’s vocabulary was immense, and his love for finding the right word was deep. Whoever thought the grey wagtail’s belly was gamboge in colour? I was piqued by use of the word volplaning on multiple occasions and looked it up. Perhaps I’ve seen it used before, but I cannot recollect it.

Like any exceptionally good writer, Krishnan could be brilliantly evocative when he needed to. Sample this. “I remember spending a delightful hour beside the lake at Siruvani. The great, verdant trees and feathery clumps of bamboos on the shores mirrored in the still water to endow it with a dark, viridian calm. It was almost a scene of idyllic quiet, except that it was all too wildly beautiful to be idyllic, too like something out of a barbarian dream of paradise, and a barbarian that I am, it held me fascinated. Then an egret came flying round the corner, flying low over the water, dazzlingly white and clear against the profound umbers and greens of the reflected forest, each slow, rhythmic stroke of the wings duplicated in the mirror below. Halfway across, the bird stalled and hung in the air, the pinions of the forwardly directed wings splayed out with the braking action, the horn-black, yellow-footed legs dangling and almost touching their twin image on the lake’s surface, the head and neck stretched sinuously forward as it scrutinized something in the water below. For a moment then the stillness was perfect, and for that moment it was no dream but paradise in fact.

Krishnan was a voracious reader and there are umpteen literary references and allusions scattered all through the book – Lockwood Kipling, William Blake, Richard Lovelace, et al. Moreover there are plenty of references from nature writers of his and earlier generations – men like Konrad Lorenz, Douglas Dewar, ‘Eha’, G.M. Henry, G.P. Sanderson and David Cunningham.

Literary aesthete aside, the book has a wealth of information on over a hundred species of birds from the subcontinent. Much of this is derived from painstaking personal observation over the years. And the anecdotal narrative makes it good fun to read, for most part.

In summation, I found this book breathtaking. If you are reading this blog, you probably have some sort of interest in the natural world and if you do, this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf.

There is a useful ‘notes’ section at the back of the book which among other things, gives the current names of many of the birds. I however felt that these alone could have been footnoted along with the text, for more convenient referencing rather than being placed separately and at the end. But this is admittedly a minor inconvenience.

Swifts & Swallows

Telling swifts from swallows, in flight

If like me, you’ve wondered if that is a swift or a swallow flying overhead, this may help. I pulled out the differences from online sources, and then cross-checked them with The Book of Indian Birds (Salim Ali, Thirteenth Edition). Guess what. There are enough exceptions to shoot some of these rules out the window. Here it is anyway, for what it is worth.

To begin with, pulled these silhouettes, from here:

Swallow:

swallow

Swift:

Swift

The swallow:

  • Has a deep forked tail, often with long streamers (does not apply though to the house and streak-throated swallows)
  • Has broad wings, relatively
  • Has a white or light coloured underside
  • Has a rusty red chin patch (the common swallow only)
  • Is passerine, can and does perch
  • Builds nests of mud and straw

The swift:

  • Has a slightly forked tail though not as deeply forked as the swallow’s (exceptions: crested tree-swift and Asian palm-swift)
  • Has long narrow swept-back wings resembling a crescent or scythes
  • Is dark brownish all over with a pale throat
  • Calls noisily while flying
  • Clings with tiny weak legs, cannot perch
  • Breeds in holes and crevices of old buildings

Post Script: While on the topic, don’t miss this most delightful piece of verse by rickyengland:

HOLLOW VICTORY

The fly flew over the meadow

A Swallow he followed the fly

‘I’ll fly’, said the fly, ‘to the hollow’

‘For the Swallow is swifter than I’

Too soon did the triumphant fellow

Let out his victory cry

For there on the edge of the meadow

A Swift did swallow the fly

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/22527420

http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/s/swift/identification.aspx

http://www.naturalenterprise.co.uk/pages/news/46-have-you-seen-a-swift