Trip report: Agumbe, June 2014

Trip:      Agumbe

Camp:   Kalinga Center for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE)

Dates:   27-29 June ‘14

Who:     SS, Dr. R and P. Ramesh (the last figured in my Meghamalai post)

All the pictures used in this post were shot by Dr. R.

This trip was different from our usual ones, as none of us had ever tried a herp outing before. It was put together for us by Ficus, and they did a pretty good job of it, taking care of all reservations and transfers efficiently and courteously. We stayed at Kalinga for two nights and three days. The camp was very basic with tented acco and a wash-your-own-plate policy, but we had a delightful time nonetheless. The rough-and-ready ambience didn’t extend to the loos though – the toilets were spic and span, with rustic red oxide flooring, something many of us hadn’t seen in years. The camp was managed by Prashant and had a couple of interns pursuing research – Sonu Soman and Udit Singh Chauhan, and all three went out of their way to make sure we were kept comfortable and entertained.

We took the slow train from Bangalore, the Karwar express that covered the 400+ kilometers to Udupi in an agonizing fourteen hours. That translates to an average speed of less than 30 kmph, though the actual distance the train covered was more considering that it wound its way via Mysore. Driving down was possibly a better option. From Udupi, we back-tracked by road to KCRE, a distance of about sixty kilometers. The road is motorable until a short distance from the camp and the short walk down the path into it is a great opportunity to make your first acquaintance with the leech.

Prior to the trip, we had been warned to expect heavy rains and millions of leeches. The former didn’t show and while Bangalore was experiencing heavy showers, Agumbe remained rainless. The leeches didn’t disappoint though. They were everywhere, millions of ‘em.

Shortly after settling in, we made our first foray around the camp and were instantly rewarded. There was a Malabar pit viper – Trimeresurus malabaricus – a foot off the ground on a wild turmeric plant right outside the bathroom building. And a green vine snake on some shrubbery near the dining area.

Green vine snake:

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By the path leading out of the camp was a mating pair of Malabar pit vipers, under 24-hour surveillance by the interns who endured much hardship to record data around courtship rituals and the mating act. Sonu and Udit were running shifts almost round the clock, taking turns to sit by the mostly inactive pair.

Mating pair of Malabar pit vipers; the male is the smaller individual:

2_mating_pair

There are four trails that radiate out from the KCRE camp, and we did the stream trail in the evening.  The trail was pretty enough, winding its way through areca plantation and evergreen forest, alongside the little stream that flows beside the camp. We didn’t see any snakes on that outing, but we did see a bunch of amphibians. Roux’s forest lizard (Calotes rouxii), Minervarya sp., Skittering frog (and tadpole), the endemic Bicolored frog (Clinotarsus curtipes), Tiger toad and another endemic – the Reddish burrowing frog (Zakerana rufescens).

Roux’s forest lizard:

1_Roux_FL

Minervarya Sp.:

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Bicolored frog:

11_Bicoloured

And a bunch of bugs and spiders. Lantern bugs, Tiger beetles, Water spiders, Two-horned spiders and a rather reclusive Tarantula. I should mention that Udit, the intern who guided our trails did a spectacular job of spotting and identifying critters none of us would have otherwise noticed.

Night times at the KCRE camp are noisy. If the day belongs to the cicadas acoustically, the night belongs to a bunch of other equally vocal critters. Most noteworthy of which was a creature which produced a clear-toned, two-note whistle very reminiscent of birdsong. It was loud, distinctive and ubiquitous. Naturally, we were intrigued. Turned out it wasn’t a bird after all, but a bush-cricket or Katydid – Holochlora albida. Sonu clarified this, showed us a picture he had clicked, and then rummaged through an entomology book the next day to produce the identification. We saw the actual culprit on the night walk the next evening. There were also plenty of fireflies around, lighting up the night with their little lanterns.

There is a small bamboo platform in the forest a little above the camp that provides a nice, secluded camping site. Prashant was willing to pitch tents for us there if we wanted it, but a quick inspection showed the path to be packed with wet mud and leeches and we opted to stay down in the camp tents.

Early next morning, we walked over to the grassland area that is a kilometer or so from the camp. This is a beautiful area when the weather is pleasant, and it was brilliant that morning – cloudy, cool and breezy. We saw a Hump-nosed pit viper (Hypnale sp.) by the path a short way from the camp, and the day was starting to look good. Our plan was to do a couple of hours of birding along the edge of the grassland patch, and we netted a small bunch of the usual suspects. Yellow-wattled lapwing, Red-wattled lapwing, Crested serpent eagle, Red vented bulbul, Red whiskered bulbul, a solitary White ibis, Gold-fronted leaf bird, Flame-throated bulbul, Vernal hanging parrot, Orange minivet, Asian fairy bluebird,  and White-cheeked barbet. And a bird none of us could identify, which Messrs Grimmett and Inskipp kindly identified for us later at the camp as the Grey-headed bulbul – a Western Ghats endemic. And on the way back, we ran into a juvenile Beddome’s keelback (Amphiesma beddomei) as it frantically slithered off the path and out of our way.

Bull frog:

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Breakfast done, we were entertained by Draco Dussumieri – the Southern flying lizard. There was Draco action all afternoon as the little dragons constantly flitted between the Areca boles in the camp. We learned this was not typical at this time of year.  Prashant also unearthed a Caecilian to show us – a fossorial amphibian that superficially resembles a snake or earthworm.

In the late afternoon, we took another trail to a nearby peak with a mouthful of a name – Akki Battha Rashi Gudda. The trail involved stiff climbs on some stretches, though the view from the summit more than compensated for the sweaty effort.

10_view_from_the_top

We saw Fejervaria sahyadris and bush frogs en route, and a Malabar pit viper on a bush beside the path on the way back.

Malabar pit viper:

5_Malabar_pit_viper

We wanted to experience a night walk, and Prashant and Udit obliged us by taking us out some distance on the driveway.  We saw three snakes – a Malabar pit viper and a vine snake that we passed by the next day too a couple of times, a Hump-nosed pit viper, Yellow bush frogs and another local celebrity – the endemic Malabar gliding frog (Rhacophorus malabaricus).

Hump-nosed pit viper:

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Malabar pit viper:

9_malabar_pit_viper

Malabar gliding frog:

4_Malabar_gliding_frog

Yellow bush frog:

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We repeated the trip to the grassland the next morning, though the weather was not quite as pleasant as on the previous day. The sun was out and we were all tanned three shades darker. In addition to the previous day’s avians, we saw several Malabar grey hornbills, Malabar parakeets, White-bellied treepies, Racket trailed drongos, Common Ioras, Bronzed drongos, Loten’s sunbird, a flowerpecker and two endemics that we identified back at camp with some help from Prashant – Malabar lark and Crimson-fronted barbet.

Being newbies to herping, we had requested Ficus and Prashant for a short classroom orientation session. Sonu and Udit did a masterful job of taking us through the basics of snake evolution, local species, snake identification, taxonomy and snake-bite handling. The session culminated with an informal test of our snake identification ability by having us study moults against a handbook to try and identify the species.

7_grasshopper

Trip report: BRT TR & Bandipur NP, May 2014

Trip Report:        BRT Tiger Reserve

                               Bandipur National Park

Dates:                   1-3 May 2014

Camp:                   JLR’s K. Gudi Wilderness Camp & Bandipur Safari Lodge

All the photographs used in this post were shot by S. Balajee.

I was supposed to do KMTR this weekend with GK. Unfortunately he fell ill and we abandoned the plan at the last moment. I was however able to tag along with my sister’s family on this trip. We did one night and two safaris each at BR Hills and Bandipur.  The two-destination idea turned out to be quite productive, adding variety without being inconvenient as Bandipur is a short 70 kms from K Gudi.

BRT TR/K. Gudi

Reaching the camp by 11:30 AM gave us opportunity for some pre-lunch birding, in the camp and around the little lake by it. We saw Cinereous tit, Magpie robin, Common myna, unidentified warbler, Asian brown flycatcher, Orange minivet, White-browed wagtail, Red-rumped swallow, Red-whiskered bulbul, Gold-fronted leaf bird, White-cheeked barbet, Jungle babbler, Brahminy kite, Oriental white-eye, Black hooded oriole, unidentified flameback and Spotted dove. And the Black eagle.

On my wish-list for this visit were four stars – Black eagle, Red spurfowl (don’t ask why), Rufous babbler (with a photo-op) and Southern tree shrew – and possibly an elephant mock charge as icing on the cup-cake. The first of these – the Black eagle – was knocked off the list within an hour of reaching camp. And this is not the first time I’ve seen this raptor over the K. Gudi camp.

Gold-fronted leaf bird:

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Orange minivet, male:

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Cinereous tit:

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Incidentally, we stayed in the Biligiri and Nilgiri log huts, farthest down the line and abutting the jungle. I had referred to the Biligiri log hut in my previous K. Gudi trip report post.

The first safari was naturally the evening one. The weather was surprisingly cool and cloudy, a welcome change from the dry, sweltering furnace that was Bangalore. On my last visit, we had an extremely productive time with birds thanks to us being driven on safari by Rajesh. We asked for him this time too and Prasad, the new manager was kind enough to oblige. Rajesh has razor-sharp eyesight, spotting skills like you wouldn’t believe, and is a mustard-keen birder. A worthy successor to Thapa, the legendary driver/spotter of K. Gudi, now retired. With Rajesh, his bins and his copy of Grimmett & Inskipp along, there was not a dull moment on safari. And the forest was fairly throbbing with birdlife despite the time of year.

Barking deer, fawn:

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The evening was therefore pleasant enough, with some involved birding. Early into the safari we found a pair of Racket-tailed drongos mobbing a Jungle owlet. These drongos were ubiquitous.

Racket-tailed drongo:

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Fairly common also was Magpie robin, Indian blackbird, Jungle myna, Jungle babbler, Bronzed drongo, Indian treepie, Grey junglefowl, Common hawk cuckoo, White-bellied drongo and bulbul (both Red-vented and Red-whiskered).

Rajesh had marked a burrow in the earth tenanted by a Blue-bearded bee-eater and we spent some time watching the bird flit in and out. Both Rajesh and BIL B were keen on getting a picture of the event, but this posed a challenge as getting close enough for a clear line of sight was deterring the bird – although the nest was just off the road and barely a foot off the ground.

Blue-bearded bee-eater:

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Other notables were Indian pitta (two separate sightings), Malabar whistling thrush, Green imperial pigeon, Orange-headed thrush,  Oriental honey buzzard, Crested serpent eagle, Brown fish owl and Rufous babbler (second item off the wishlist). The much-awaited mock charge didn’t materialize, but we did see a trio of elephants in high grass.

Brown fish owl:

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Waking up in camp the next morning to the calls of Jungle owlet, Indian Nightjar, Common hawk cuckoo, Black-hooded oriole, Magpie robin, Hoopoe, and Tufted langur, we set off on what turned out to be a sparkling safari.

Black-hooded oriole:

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Common hawk-cuckoo:

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We found a quartet of Nilgiri wood pigeons fluttering about a salt lick and spent some time there. We then ran into a Mountain imperial pigeon and the day was starting to look better and better.  Red spurfowl went off the wishlist next, although the sighting was a tad too fleeting for comfort. That left just one worthy on the list – the Southern tree shrew.

And as luck would have it, we found a pair of these rodents gamboling on the grass and on a fallen tree, in the open, not very far away, and in perfect light. Of such moments is paradise made. BIL B got a bunch of very decent pictures, and I got a good clear look at Anathana ellioti. Suum cuique!

Southern tree shrew:

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Bandipur

The evening safari started off with a spot of rain but this quickly subsided, leaving the jungle cool and glistening. This was a typical Bandipur safari, with plenty of flamebacks and intrepid Stripe-necked mongooses. If BRT is the place for Barking deer that aren’t human-shy, Bandipur is the place for Stripe-necked and Ruddy mongooses.

Stripe-necked mongoose:

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Passing by the Anekatte waterhole, Kiran the driver thought he spotted a ‘brown shape’ disappearing into some shrubs, and we stopped there waiting. In a while, someone at the back of the jeep realized that there was an elephant standing just off the road and about seventy meters behind us. It turned out to be a magnificent makhna, and we rolled the jeep back a short way to watch this distraction. The elephant was not too happy with the situation, and showed signs of restless agitation. But he wasn’t sure what do to about it either. Turn tail and flee, or get all belligerent and nasty. And so he kicked his feet, threw dust over himself, stamped around, swayed and did a bunch of things to express his annoyance.

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After a while, we decided to leave him to his devices and started up again, stopping briefly by the pool to confirm that the brown shape hadn’t materialized while we weren’t looking. It had not, and off we went. Later on in the safari, we saw another herd of four elephants at some distance.

Sambar hind:

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The next morning was better. We entered the forest not by the usual gate right across the road from the reception center, but from the turn-off further down the road, towards the congregation of resorts. A couple of oncoming vehicles reported the presence of dhole further up the road. Passing by a massive herd of chital some hundred strong, we heard alarm calls and stopped. A lone, unseen sambar stag to our right responded with his own belling honk. Scan as we might with binoculars, nothing was visible and the calls presently subsided. This herd was within the perimeter of the camp, with buildings not very far away. Concluding that a snake was the probable cause of all the commotion, we moved on to look for Cuon Alpinus.

The pack came into view in a short while, with the remnants of a chital kill by the road. The dogs had demolished the carcass and were lying around worrying the larger bones when we appeared on the scene. One by one they took themselves off, pausing to stare at us before pattering into the thickets without showing undue haste. We counted six dogs in the pack. The morning light was fine and mellow, and BIL B got some impressive pictures.

Indian wild dog or dhole:

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Much later in the safari, we passed by an anti-poaching camp (APC) and a while later, ran into a JLR safari van driver who had news of a tigress kill near this APC. K-turning back, we found what was left of the kill (a sambar hind) hidden just by the road. A lone jungle crow that was making the most of the opportunity and a waiting safari van pointed us to the spot. We waited for a short while before concluding that the tigress had possibly decamped after consuming the kill.

Streak-throated woodpecker:

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I made a start with jungle trees during this safari. Six trees were most commonly seen on this route and I learned to ID the ones I earlier couldn’t. Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma), the Crocodile bark tree or kari mathi (Terminalia tomentosa), Axlewood tree (Anogeissus latifolia) with its pale, guava-like bark and clustered, drooping leaves, Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica) with its fern-like foliage, and teak (Tectona grandis). The sixth I haven’t been able to relate to; Kiran used the local term Jaaldar for it. This is a small-to-medium sized tree, vaguely reminiscent of Tabebuia aurea/argentea. I have photographs and should be able to take someone’s help to ID it in a day or two.

Not having paid more attention to trees in BRT TR too was a pity, and I should spend some effort on trees in upcoming trips.

Grey junglefowl, cock:

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Black-naped hare:

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The List:

BRT TR

Avifauna:

  1. Asian brown flycatcher
  2. Asian fairy bluebird
  3. Black-hooded oriole
  4. Black kite
  5. Blue-bearded bee-eater
  6. Brahminy kite
  7. Bronzed drongo
  8. Brown fish owl
  9. Cinereous tit
  10. Common hawk cuckoo
  11. Common myna
  12. Coucal
  13. Crested serpent eagle
  14. Flameback (?)
  15. Flowerpecker (?)
  16. Gold-fronted leaf bird
  17. Green imperial pigeon
  18. Grey junglefowl
  19. Hill myna
  20. Hoopoe
  21. Indian blackbird
  22. Indian cuckoo (calls)
  23. Indian nightjar (calls)
  24. Indian pitta
  25. Jungle babbler
  26. Jungle myna
  27. Jungle owlet
  28. Large cuckoo shrike
  29. Magpie robin
  30. Malabar whistling thrush
  31. Mountain imperial pigeon
  32. Nilgiri wood pigeon
  33. Orange-headed thrush
  34. Orange minivet
  35. Oriental honey buzzard
  36. Oriental white-eye
  37. Pigmy woodpecker
  38. Plum-headed parakeet
  39. Racket-tailed drongo
  40. Red-rumped swallow
  41. Red spurfowl
  42. Red-vented bulbul
  43. Red-whiskered bulbul
  44. Rufous babbler
  45. Spotted dove
  46. Warbler (?)
  47. White-bellied drongo
  48. White-browed wagtail
  49. White-cheeked barbet
  50. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Elephant
  3. Gaur
  4. Malabar giant squirrel
  5. Southern tree shrew
  6. Spotted deer
  7. Tufted langur
  8. Wild boar

Others:

  1. Terrapin

Bandipur

Avifauna:

  1. Asian paradise flycatcher
  2. Bay-backed shrike
  3. Brahminy starling
  4. Bushlark (?)
  5. Common hawk cuckoo
  6. Coucal
  7. Flameback
  8. Grey junglefowl
  9. Hoopoe
  10. Indian cuckoo (calls)
  11. Jungle babbler
  12. Jungle myna
  13. Magpie robin
  14. Peafowl
  15. Pied bushchat
  16. Plum-headed parakeet
  17. Red-wattled lapwing
  18. Shikra
  19. Spotted dove
  20. Streak-throated woodpecker
  21. White-bellied drongo
  22. White-breasted waterhen
  23. White-browed fantail
  24. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals:

1. Barking deer

2. Dhole

3. Elephant

4. Gaur

5. Sambar

6. Stripe-necked mongoose

7. Tufted langur

8. Black-naped hare

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)

Book Review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar

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Book review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar

Second edition

Oxford University Press, published 2008

This slim volume was first published in 1989, by Elm Tree Books in Great Britain, and by OUP in India in 1999. It is tiny as books go, but was a seminal work in terms of the insights it revealed.

Valmik Thapar is probably the most well-known tiger conservationist there is. He is not a trained scientist or field biologist, but in this book Thapar traced the development of the litters of three tigresses in Ranthambore – Laxmi, Noon and Nalghati – along with his mentor, the legendary Fateh Singh Rathore.

In the March of ’86, the tigress Laxmi was sighted with a pair of month-old cubs, fathered by a tiger called the Bakaula male. Shortly after, Rathore observed the Nalghati tigress with a pair of cubs a month older than Laxmi’s, these fathered by a male called Kublai. A month or so later in May, another tigress Noon was seen with a newly born litter, this too fathered by Kublai. Sensing the unique opportunity offered by having on hand three tigresses with cubs, Thapar and Rathore closely followed the triumphs and travails of the three litters over the next couple of years, until the cubs reached adulthood. This book is the fruit of those efforts.

A good part of the book deals with the question of the tiger’s family ties. It was traditionally believed that male tigers indulge in routine infanticide, killing off any cubs they encountered. In the April of ‘86, Thapar was stunned to find Kublai with the Nalghati tigress’ cubs, together soaking the summer heat away in a pool. This behavior was presently confirmed with the other litters. Thapar then postulated that the resident male interacts and develops bonds with the litters of the tigresses in his range. He also speculated that infanticide may occur when a male takes over the territory of another and proceeds to eliminate any litters sired by his predecessor to bring the tigress into oestrus. This is behavior observed in monkeys and lions, and Thapar surmised that it was probably applicable to tigers too.

A male tiger’s beat may encompass the beat of more than one female and being essentially solitary, the male roves over his range ceaselessly. On occasion, this brings him in contact with the resident females and their litters, and he consorts with the family until it is time to move on again. Further, Thapar found that the male partook of kills made by the tigress, along with the cubs, and allowed the latter to partake of kills made by him whilst in contact. This brought up the remarkable sight of familial feeding in tigers, and Thapar observed upto eight tigers feeding off a single kill. Also, he found (as in the case of Kublai) that the male may consort with more than one tigress and associate with their respective litters.

The bonds between the tigress and her litter is strong, and the task of keeping the cubs alive into adulthood while passing on essential life skills was a huge order, as Thapar discovered. He recollected watching the tigress Padmini in ’77, maiming a tethered bait buffalo and leaving the cubs to attempt bringing it down. He also discovered her regulating the feeding to ensure all the cubs got to eat. As the three tigress’ cubs got older, they began to actively help with the hunt, taking up positions to drive prey towards the tigress. And thus you have the phenomenon of co-ordinated group hunting for at least a brief period in the tiger’s life. In Thapar’s words, “if undisturbed and well managed, tigers can, as families, form temporary groupings in order to hunt and share food”.

At about sixteen months of age the process of detachment started, though Thapar surmised that the family retained kinship ties for life, recognizing individuals when one of them occasionally happened to run into another.

Thapar also made observations around the variation of hunting styles across individuals. In the mid-eighties, a tiger named Genghis Khan pioneered and perfected the hitherto untried technique of charging at sambar across open water in the Gilai Sagar lake,adjacent to the Jogi Mahal guest house. The tigress Noon evidently picked this technique up from him, and preferred bursts of speed over open land while in contrast, Laxmi preferred stalking from thick cover and with shorter bursts.

Thapar dramatically describes an incident that occurred in the February of 1987, terming it his “most exciting time ever with tigers”. The narration fills three pages of tiny italicized text. Noon attacked a massive sambar stag that valiantly resisted until the tigress gave up, exhausted. The stag died of its wounds a few weeks later. Thapar describes this and other dramatic first-person encounters in italicized interludes with usage of the present tense. And the ploy works rather well, making taut what might otherwise have been a bland account.

There is quite a bit of discussion around the threats tigers and their habitats face, from poaching or other human incursions, and Thapar outlines some prescriptive points to address the menace.

I should add that twenty colour photographs buttress some of the points made about tiger behavior.

In summation, while this may not be a masterpiece you’ll remember forever, it is certainly a quick, insightful, absorbing (and inexpensive) read for anyone who is a tiger lover. I’ll probably do a review of Karanth’s tiger book next and some comparison will be inevitable.

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.

line

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

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.

Book Review: Field Days, by A.J.T. Johnsingh

field days

Field Days – A Naturalist’s Journey through South and Southeast Asia

by A.J.T. Johnsingh

Universities Press, 2006

I had spotted this little book in the library of the JLR K. Gudi camp a few months back, and dipped into it for a bit over the next couple of days. I liked it well enough to order my copy as soon as I got back.

The book took me longer than expected to get through. At a little over three hundred pages, I would have expected to speed-read my way through it in less than a week’s time. It has taken me more like three. And that is not because the book is not readable. On the contrary, it is superbly readable. It is just that it is too rich in terms of the information it is loaded with and that makes it hard to binge-read. Smaller doses are the order of the day.

A.J.T.  Johnsingh needs no introduction, but a book review of this sort probably deserves a brief profile of the author. So here goes. A chance discovery of a Tamil translation of Corbett in his boyhood days set Dr. Johnsingh on a path that eventually made him one of India’s best known field biologists. Inspired further by a chance meeting with JC Daniel of the BNHS, Johnsingh undertook a study of dholes in Bandipur in 1976-78. This was the first study ever by an Indian scientist of a free-ranging large mammal in the wild. It also earned Dr. Johnsingh his Ph.D. This was followed by a post-doctoral research stint in the United States. Johnsingh then joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun in 1985 and rose to retire as the dean of the faculty of wildlife sciences in 2005. He is now a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and continues to be actively involved with various initiatives.

The book is a collection of pieces published by Dr. Johnsingh for lay audiences in various publications over three decades, between 1972 and 2005. Almost half of these were published in the WII Newsletter over the years. The book is organized by region, into five sections. These deal with the south, central/west, north and the north-east of India, with an additional section covering countries further east. While well known PAs like Kanha, Kaziranga and Bandipur are profiled, a host of lesser-known places are also dealt with masterfully – PAs like the Pakhui WS (Arunachal Pradesh), Dampa Tiger Reserve (Mizoram), Bhagmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary (Meghalaya), Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary (TN) and Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary (TN). In all, over thirty PAs are covered.

The narration is a delightful mix of personal experiences, detailed floral and faunal descriptions and prescriptive observations. For many of the pieces which were written decades back, there are thoughtful post-scripts provided which outline the current situation. Dr. Johnsingh’s extraordinary knowledge of his stuff is obvious, the book is fairly well-written and the anecdotes it is peppered with are fascinating.  Plenty of chilling encounters are recalled – crouching in lantana to hide from an enraged cow elephant in Bandipur, running into a pair of gamboling leopards in KMTR, his first and terrifying sighting of a tiger in the wild – he was blowing into a medium-bore rifle cartridge to mimic the whistling call of a dhole, and instead brought an indignant tiger charging out of the undergrowth. There are plenty more like these. You’ll enjoy them.

A quick mention of the pieces I especially liked. The narrations of walking through the Periyar TR and Neyyar WS make for fine reading. Two chapters deal in some detail with the years Dr. Johnsingh spent in Bandipur and are engrossing. When I reached this topic, I was especially interested in reading Dr. Johnsingh’s version of a gruesome incident I had read about in another book (Wildlife Memoirs by R.C. Sharma). In ’77 Johnsingh had accompanied Rajasekaran Nair, who was guiding a bunch of trainees from an institution which was the precursor to the WII, into the forest on foot. Dr. Johnsingh’s mortal fear of elephants has been mentioned in more than once place, including by him. As luck would have it, a tusker they ran into charged and killed Nair, leaving Johnsingh unscathed but traumatized. This tragic incident was recounted in Sharma’s book as he was one of Nair’s trainees on that trip. And now I read Johnsingh’s own version of what transpired.

The chapter on Gir is fascinating, as is the fairly detailed piece that talks about how Kuno-Palpur was identified as a viable alternative habitat for the Asiatic lion. Corbett aficionados will like the narrative on trekking through the Ladhya and Sharda valleys. The chapters on Rajaji NP, Pin Valley NP and one on trekking in the Lushai and Garo hills are spectacular as well.

Dr. Johnsingh is quite evidently besotted with angling, and an entire chapter is devoted to the fate of the blue-finned mahseer in Parambikulam. Johnsingh also speaks wistfully of fishing for carnatic carp with spoons in the Tambiraparani (in KMTR), and of landing a 5-6 kg mahseer on his first cast in Parambikulam – an incident that he says, made him an admirer of the species forever.

In conclusion, if you have an interest in wildlife or conservation, this is a book to possess. Apart from the pleasure of reading it cover to cover like I did, the book is probably invaluable to check through specific chapters when you plan to travel to any of these PAs. There are personal insights and a level of detail that is hard to match elsewhere.

Trip Report: Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve Oct ’13

Trip Report:        Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve

Dates:                   26/27/28 Oct 2013

Camp:                   Wild Valley Farm, Germalam P.O.

Companions:       GK and VR

Photos:                 http://www.flickr.com/photos/72698571@N06/sets/72157637122198774/

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STR: Wikipedia Abstract

Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) was declared as a PA in 2008 with 524 sq kms of area. In 2011, another 887 sq kms were added, bringing the size to 1,412 sq kms – which makes it the largest wildlife sanctuary in Tamilnadu. STR is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, and is contiguous with BRT Tiger Reserve, Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur National Park and Masinagudi (Sigur Plateau). Sathyamangalam falls under Erode district, overlaps two taluks (Sathyamangalam and Gobichettipalayam) and is the fourth Project Tiger reserve in TN (after Mudumalai, Anamalai and KMTR).

The topography varies from scrub and thorn jungle in the plains, to lush shola forests at higher altitudes. A December ’11 camera trapping study estimated the presence of 28 tigers. In the same year, the population of elephants was estimated at 850. A 2009 wildlife survey had estimated 10 tigers, 866 elephants, 672 gaur, 27 leopards, 2,348 chital, 1,068 blackbuck, 304 sambar, 77 barking deer and chausingha, 843 wild boar, 43 sloth bears and 15 striped hyenas. Mr. Daniel (see later) mentioned a tiger scat study that had enumerated some 46 tigers in the area.

Paranormal Phenomena

The area is infamous as being the haunt of the sandalwood and ivory smuggler Veerappan for years.  You can find online references to STR as one of the most haunted spots in India after his slaying. Strangely, four people we separately asked were puzzled or amused by the question and seemed to be completely unaware of any such reputation the place possessed. We went looking for spooky stories, but this came a cropper. So much for the supernatural.

Wild Valley Farm

We stumbled on the place online and it turned out to be a great choice. The farm is near a village called Germalam, exactly 205 kms from my home in Bangalore, via Kanakapura road/NH209. To get there, you drive to Kollegal and ask for the road to MM Hills/Udayarpalya. Some 20-30 kms down this road, you see another road forking off to the right, with a large signboard that reads “Wildlife…” something (“Wildlife Conservation Society”?) This road leads straight to Germalam, where you’ll need to turn left to get to the farm. Germalam is 60 kms from Kollegal, and is a very short distance from the Karnataka border.

WVF is owned by S.R. Daniel, a very amiable and interesting man who lives on the place. He is one of those rare people who’re actually living out their dreams, having bought 100 acres of uncultivated land  at the back of nowhere in his late twenties, and then having settled there and learned to farm successfully. We had some very interesting conversations with Mr. Daniel. His love for the place, its people and the animals came through very clearly. Especially memorable were his anecdotes about the relentless struggle to keep wild elephants out of the farm.  This quest to elephant-proof the farm seems to be a big part of Mr. Daniel’s life and he talked about the big bulls that aren’t deterred by the electric fencing.

These elephant fences are single wires strung out at heights varying from 6.5 feet to 7 feet or so, and connected to an electric fence machine that spits out a pulse of high voltage (4,000 volts) and low wattage (Ampereage?) at intervals of about a second. The pulsing and low wattage ensure contact doesn’t kill. Getting entangled in the wires however can, and we heard of cattle as well as inebriated men getting killed this way.

Coming back to the topic of the bull elephants, Mr. Daniel spoke of them hurling a branch or trunk to get the wire to sag, and then flooring the entire contraption, fence post, wire and all by stamping down on the live wire with their forelegs, notwithstanding the shock of the electric current. Alternatively, they’d get hold of one of the posts with their trunk, and heave it right out of the ground, uprooting poles for 50 meters or so on either side in the process, and bringing the whole arrangement crashing. I was reminded of Dr. Lucy King’s experiment with beehive fences in Kenya (see Sanctuary Asia, October ’13 issue). These fences have wires between posts from which the hives are suspended, and if the pachyderm attempts to dismantle or even touch the fence, it sets the hives swinging. Dr. King found that the resultant angry buzz the bees make is enough to get the elephant to back off. The hive fence also generates an additional income for the farmer. I did mention this to Mr. Daniel, though I’m not sure if he found the idea convincing enough to attempt.

We crossed under the live fence-wires a couple of times, gingerly stepping across, bending much lower than was required, and staying low well after the wire was passed. For all the caution exercised, we discovered later that we had been trudging right under one of these fences strung between our tent and the toilets, blissfully unaware of its electrifying presence a few inches above our heads.

The staff on the farm is polite and hospitable, and the frosting on the cup-cake is the dogs – five of them – Bilbo the lab/GSD, Rover his brother, Spike the Dobermann and a couple of Lhasa Apsos. They are, especially the first three, delightfully friendly. Bilbo slept on the grass outside our tent once he figured we liked dogs as much as he did. And the cherry on the frosting is the Red Spurfowl calls in the darkness that resound through the forests around the farm, vaguely reminiscent of something plopping into water. Grey junglefowl call too, and so do peafowl – all of which are very pleasant sounds to those of us who love our forests. And during the day, bulbuls, sunbirds and other birds set up a cacophonic chatter. The farm is verily a birder’s paradise, at least in winter.

Accommodation is by way of fabric tents pitched on grass plots near the forest edge, with no power supply. The tents overlook a patch of turmeric and gooseberry beyond which lies the forest’s edge. Each tent holds upto four camp cots, and little else. The farm has a total of 20 such tents, and they are erected when booked and dismantled after. Toilets and bathrooms are in a regular, electrified facility about 50 meters away. The arrangements are not luxurious by any stretch, but certainly clean and functionally adequate. Dining arrangements are a little way off, near a large kitchen constructed for the purpose – there is a little al fresco dining area with a delightful view. No, not quite al fresco, but you can eat on the porch whilst looking at the forest with the ever-present elephant fence-wire in the foreground. We must say we quite enjoyed the simple south-Indian fare. All the wandering in the forests and the clean air helped sharpen our appetites too.

The weather in October was warm and dry during the day for most part (though it must have been cool enough on the farm), with a nip in the air come evening. Nights are pleasantly cold.

The one inconvenience we faced staying on the farm was the distance from there to the starting point for our drives – Hasanur – 23 kms away. This required a headstart, which meant leaving at 5 AM to link up with our guide at 5:45 AM. In the evenings, this distance had to be factored to ensure we returned to the farm in time to get our dinner (latest by 9:30 PM or so). But despite this constraint, there are enough reasons to visit the farm again and we would recommend it to anyone wishing to visit the area.

The Outings

VR had discovered a most resourceful fellow who was a driver to the ranger for 9 years and consequently knew the topography of the place intimately. We covered as much ground as we did because of this. And cover ground we did. In the two days on which we drove into the forests, we covered 400 kilometers, much of it over boulder strewn stretches, dry stream crossings and generally rubber-ripping non-roads. In any event, the Scorp (“Vanessa”) held up her end of the bargain remarkably well in these proceedings.

So this is what we broadly did:

Day 1:

Germalam-Hasanur-Thalavady-Chikkahalli-Thalaimalai-Begaletti-Mavanattam-Dimbum-Hasanur

This is a delightful stretch of wilderness. Mixed deciduous and shola forests, with ample roadside sightings in the late evenings. The road is tarred and in grand condition.

We came upon a sloth bear in the fading light, intent on digging out what were presumably termites. Enormous male in his prime. He sniffed and snorted around a circle some 10 feet in dia, completely ignoring us as we sat with the engine turned off, hardly 10 feet away – except for one irritable moment when he rose on his hind legs and flashed the white V on his chest as he warned us off. We watched him in silence for a good ten minutes before he made off into the undergrowth. That’s the longest I’ve ever watched a sloth bear for, not counting the Daroji Bear Sanctuary sightings where one can watch sloth bears at one’s leisure and often for hours, but from a very long way off. (I did hear recently that the Daroji sightings are now a thing of the past, with the elimination of the stone-crushing units that dot that landscape – and that they have now apparently dispersed across a much larger area).

This must have been the Night of No Fear, since we also came across a pair of Indian Civets cavorting on the roadside in the darkness, quite unmindful of our presence.

A short while later, on the drive back to Germalam, we ran into another bear, a much smaller one, but this one fled as soon as it spotted us.

Day 2:

First leg: Germalam-Hasanur-Dimbum-Bhavani Sagar-Sujilkuttai-Kulithurapatti-Karavanrayan Koil-Alli Mayar-Dimbum

To traverse this route, one needs to first tackle the 29 hairpin bends down the Dimbum escarpment (including an infamous one called the raikal bend which spirals up seemingly interminably and then abruptly spins out in the opposite direction). There is a lot of heavy lorry traffic on this stretch, and the narrow road, steep inclines, hairpin bends and heavy loads make for a potent combination.

Re-entry into the forest then is beyond Bhavani Sagar (with its lower Bhavani Sagar dam), and the trail meanders through dry scrub jungle where Blackbuck can be sighted, until the Moyar/Mayar river is reached. This is the Moyar river valley and you can spot White-rumped and possibly other vultures patrolling the skies in this area. I am confused by the differing spellings for this river – Mayar and Moyar. Our guide’s take was that the original/correct name is Moyar, but that it has morphed into Mayar or the enchanted river on account of its vagaries, coming into flow suddenly and unpredictably.

At Alli Mayar, the road ran into the river quite literally, and diagonally at that, requiring a crossing through rushing waters 2.5 to 3 feet deep, for a distance of around 100 feet. I didn’t have the nerve to attempt the crossing (in my defense, the Scorp was hardly three months old), and we turned back to Dimbum, wisely I think. I don’t believe there are too many options for towing a Scorp with a flooded engine block out of the Moyar in the middle of that forest.

The roads on this outing varied from poor to worse, inside the forest. The boulder-strewn slopes that flank stream crossings tend to be especially vicious as far as tyres and underchassis are concerned. You cannot attempt this route in a vehicle with inadequate ground clearance.

Second leg: Dimbum-Mavanattam-Begaletti-Thalaimalai- and then a u-turn shortly before reaching Chikkahalli, at a place called Dasarapallam, to return to Dimbum via the same route and thence to Hasanur.This Dasarapallam is reputed to be the stretch of forest where Veerappan had secreted his celebrity abductee Dr. Rajkumar for several months.

This was a repeat of the previous day’s route. While passing the spot where we’d had the stretched bear sighting the previous evening, I remarked that this was the spot and turned to point and as luck would have it, the same sloth bear was in the exact same spot. And curiously, this time accompanied by a Grey Junglefowl cock, pursuing him for any stray, wholesome insects he was dislodging. The sun was just starting to set and mellow evening light still suffused the forest, so we could see him much more clearly than on the previous occasion. We screwed up with the camera, having forgotten to reset the exposure comp a few minutes earlier. The images we got were frame-filling, but irredeemably blurred and overexposed. Yet another lesson to promptly return the exposure comp setting to zero if it is ever tinkered with – this is not the first image to be ruined on account of this oversight.

This was déjà vu day, as after Bruin, we again ran into a civet on the way back, perhaps one of the same pair we ran into the previous evening.

The highlight of the evening however was a glorious Makhna mock charge. A Makhna, for the uninitiated, is a tuskless male elephant (unlike the African elephant, only the males carry tusks in case of the Asian Elephant, and that too not all of them). Shortly before we reached Chikkahalli, we came across a massive tuskless bull feeding right beside the road. I was intent on my driving and drove right past, missing him completely. The guide urgently whispered and we slammed to a stop, backed up and sat watching him in silence. He was hardly 40 feet away and we were obviously way too far into his comfort zone (do I correctly remember the recommended safe distance for motorists as 100 feet?).
The elephant then started showing signs of agitation, decided to get his retaliation in first (a la Jack Reacher), and came hurtling towards the Scorp with a short warning trumpet. There was a shallow rainwater ditch between us, but it was hardly designed as an elephant barrier. The animal stopped some 15 feet away after effortlessly snapping a 6-inch wide bamboo stem with his trunk in a demonstration of disgust, and I dutifully moved the car a short distance ahead to pacify him. He then resumed feeding, still showing signs of agitation. We left in a short while to avoid precipitating a second charge.

I’ve seen plenty of mock charges, but they were all with the perceived comfort of having a professional safari driver at the wheel. This was the first time I’ve experienced a charge while at the wheel myself, and this ups the feeling of anxiety. In any case, I’ve found mock charges at close proximity to be intimidating enough to send my pulse racing in each case. I think I’d freeze in place if I were on foot instead. We read about the signs of mock charges vis a vis intent to make contact – flaring of ears, outstretched trunk, trumpeting – but I somehow lose the capacity to assess these the moment that grey-brown mass comes hurtling through the lantana.

After this incident, I remembered what I’d read as a child about Makhnas in E.P. Gee’s The Wildlife of India; Gee surmised that Makhnas tend to be larger and stronger than tuskers as a rule, to compensate for their lack of in-built weaponry. Elephants are large, Makhnas are larger, and all objects appear larger than they are in the dusk!

It should be noted that most of the routes described here are closed to the public, and that there is no organized tourism in STR. Permission to enter the jungle has to be obtained from the forest department.

Hasanur figures on the itinerary not because it lies en route to Germalam (it does not), but in order to pick up and drop our guide who lived there. It is a short way ahead from the Germalam turn-off.

There would be broadly three categories of visitors to this forest I’d imagine, excluding the politico-VIP-types who’d get in anyway. Bands of men or youngsters out to drink, hoot at elephants, maybe bathe in the river, and generally have a jolly good time. Families, out to look at some wildlife, with someone who can get them into the forests. And then amateur naturalists with a serious interest in the forest and its wildlife. It makes a lot of sense for the forest department to find a way to encourage the latter category, and to make some money in the process. Look at what Jungle Lodges & Resorts has done in Karnataka. The Kerala Forest Department does this in some limited way I assume, from what we’d seen in Gavi/Periyar TR earlier. I haven’t seen meaningful eco-tourism deployment anywhere in TN, and that is a pity. We were refused entrance in KMTR, and met with a very lukewarm response in Top Slip, and these are all places with tremendous ecotourism potential.

Day 3

We dispensed with the drives on day 3 and opted for a “long” trek organized by Mr. Daniel. Slipping under the electric fence below the dining area, we entered the bamboo forests by the Moyar with two guides, one a short distance ahead and another just behind us. Mr. Daniel repeatedly warned us against trying to catch up with the leading guide, as he might make himself scarce in a trice in the event of an elephant charge, leaving us at the mercy of the elephant. The lag would give us a head-start if we were to encounter an angry elephant. The reason for his caution became apparent very soon, with large deposits of elephant dung appearing just about every ten feet in the forest. This area is quite obviously infested with elephants, though there was some temporal respite in the fact that their movement in this area was almost always nocturnal. There was not much birdlife active in the jungle in the forenoon, and the forest was largely silent barring some junglefowl calling dispiritedly at intervals.

We climbed for a distance of around three kilometers and then descended by another route. The trek was moderately easy, with a little bit of clambering up rocky slopes. What was surprising was the unlikeliness of the places where we found elephant dung – on steep boulder-strewn slopes where it was hard to imagine an elephant making his way.

Mr. Daniel had told us about a Brown Fish Owl that we might encounter, we did see a large bird beside the Moyar that took to flight at our approach, but we couldn’t determine if it was this worthy or a CSE/CHE. GK found a discarded Chital stag’s antler that I carried home with me – it is much heavier than you’d imagine and I pity the stag that carried two of these around on his head. Incidentally, I read somewhere that deer seem to use their antlers solely for sparring with other stags of their own species, and do not even attempt to use them in any manner of self-defense when confronted with a predator or other assailant.

Overall as far as the trek was concerned, we got ourselves some good exercise on our feet and the delight of being in the forest, but not much by way of sightings. And no elephants either despite all the signs scattered everywhere. Thank God for that, I suspect both GK and VR would easily outrun me, not to mention our two guides (note to self: restart the thrice-a-week running schedule before venturing into elephant-infested forests again).

Post script: Kenneth Anderson aficionados will find bells ringing a chorus in their heads with all the place-names that leap straight out of his stories – Gedesal, Thalavady, Thalaimalai, Dimbum and so on.

Sightings:

Avifauna:

  1. Asian Blue Fairybird
  2. Ashy Crowned Sparrowlark
  3. Asian Koel
  4. Barn Swallow
  5. Bay-backed Shrike
  6. Blue-faced Malkoha
  7. Blue Jay
  8. Brahminy Kite
  9. Brahminy Starling
  10. Brown Rock Chat
  11. Brown Shrike
  12. Changeable Hawk Eagle
  13. Chestnut Headed Bee Eater
  14. Coppersmith Barbet (calls)
  15. Crested Serpent Eagle
  16. Drongo
  17. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
  18. Eurasian Collared Dove
  19. Golden Oriole
  20. Green Bee-eater
  21. Grey Headed Fish Eagle
  22. Grey Junglefowl
  23. Grey Francolin
  24. Grey Tit
  25. Hoopoe
  26. Hovering raptor – unidentified, with rapid fluttering of wings while hovering in place
  27. Indian Bushlark
  28. Indian Grey Hornbill
  29. Indian Robin
  30. Jungle Bush Quail
  31. Jungle Prinia
  32. Lesser Flamebacked Woodpecker
  33. Little Brown Dove
  34. Long Tailed Shrike
  35. Magpie Robin
  36. Owl (unidentified/indistinct in the morning darkness)
  37. Peafowl
  38. Pied Bushchat
  39. Purple Sunbird
  40. Purple-rumped Sunbird
  41. Red-rumped Swallow
  42. Red Spurfowl
  43. Red Vented Bulbul
  44. Red Wattled lapwing
  45. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  46. Rufous Treepie (calls)
  47. Shikra
  48. Small Green Barbet
  49. Small Minivet
  50. Spotbilled Duck
  51. Spotted Dove
  52. White-browed Wagtail
  53. White-throated Kingfisher
  54. White-rumped Vulture

Fauna:

  1. Blackbuck
  2. Blacknaped Hare
  3. Bonnet Macaque
  4. Chital
  5. Common Langur
  6. Elephant
  7. Gaur
  8. Indian Civet
  9. Malabar Giant Squirrel
  10. Sambar
  11. Sloth Bear
  12. Star Tortoise