K. Gudi/BRT Tiger Reserve: Sep ’16

Dates:                   2 – 5 Sep ’16

Camp:                   K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

Who:                     P

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Glory Lilly (Gloriosa superba) by the roadside a short way from the camp

My kid P and I did three nights this time. The weather was cool with some spells of rain. Sightings were not particularly great as a result, but the forest was hauntingly beautiful, and straight out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tales movie set one particular morning, with a thick mist hanging over it.

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Brown fish owl, early in the morning

Visibility was poor due to luxuriant growth of Eupatorium Ageratina adenophora, Lantana Lantana camara and Bracken Pteridium aquilinum. These three weeds dominated the ground cover and it is very likely that they have had a deleterious effect on the herbivore population over the years. And this possibly explains why the large herds of gaur that were once plentiful in BRT are nowhere to be seen today. Elephants have become scarce too. The only consolation is that there is not much Parthenium hysterophorus . The post-monsoon clearing of vegetation by the track will not happen for another month. The undergrowth was tall enough to completely hide a leopard or sloth bear, making sightings possible only if the animal was on the track itself. Due to this reason, Durgur road, which is usually unfailingly productive on the way out (in the evenings), drew a blank this time.

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Another insidious plant that I should have noticed earlier but somehow hadn’t was the hemiparasitic Mistletoe Loranthus sp. It infested a majority of the Axlewood Anogeissus latifolia trees, leaching nutrients and water. I heard that it had almost completely decimated the Indian gooseberry Phyllanthus emblica trees.

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The darker leaves are from Mistletoe (Loranthus sp.), a hemi-parasite.

The birding was okayish, not too great. Grey wagtails had started to arrive a week back and were plentiful. I learnt to ID the vaguely squirrel-like call of the Orange-headed thrush. This call resonated frequently through the camp and the jungle as these birds were everywhere too. There is another call, a more frantic one, which is not quite as distinctive. I also got familiar with the Blue-bearded bee-eater’s call, given that a pair was constantly (and noisily) haunting the surroundings.

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Orange-headed thrush outside tent No. 7

I also puzzled over a call that sounded like the Stork-billed kingfisher’s except that it had four continuous notes in place of the usual two (or three). Rahul, an avid birder from Bangalore who was visiting indicated that this was the winter call of the Stork-billed kingfisher. Rajesh, my good friend, spotter extraordinaire and favourite driver was puzzled; he said he hadn’t seen this bird around.

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Jungle babblers behind the Gol Ghar. They are bold enough to hop right into the Gol Ghar looking for crumbs. Pic by P.

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This is a very common weed I have not been able to ID yet.

Naturalist Basavanna has shifted from Bandipur to K. Gudi and accompanied us on our drives (Narayan did too, for the first two days). He taught us to ID the call of the Drongo cuckoo. We were waiting by Anni kere when what superficially sounded like the Indian cuckoo’s call started up (except that this is not the season for the Indian cuckoo to call). And except that this was three notes up and one down, unlike the sing-song pitch of the Indian cuckoo’s.

At the same place, we also heard a repeated, drawn-out, shikra-like call which we were stumped by until Basavanna identified it as the Brown fish owl’s chick’s call.

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Jungle owlet. Pic by Rajesh.

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Indian blackbird in the camp

On day three, Rajesh suggested that we take a walk down the road towards the government school after lunch instead of wasting time lounging around in the tent (as he put it). We walked for a short distance until junior got too nervous to go any further – he had been rattled by the earlier sloth bear and leopard sightings around the tent. We saw an Oriental honey buzzard, a Blackbird, Blue-bearded bee-eaters, and on the way back, a Tawny-bellied babbler that showed itself clearly for quite a while, although while constantly flitting around and preventing Rajesh from getting a photograph. We also had a reasonable Rufous babbler sighting in the jungle later on.

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Radermachera xylocarpa outside tent No. 7. Commonly known as the Deer antler tree.

This was a trip full of tantalizingly close opportunities that never materialized. There were plenty of alarm calls, with none converting. On day 1, in the evening safari, we were drawn to Tiger Tank by persistent Muntjac alarm calls. The deer decamped, but a troop of langurs stationed there barked hysterically and persistently, accompanied by much leaping and branch shaking. They were clearly very excited. Rajesh, Basavanna and Narayan all craned their necks trying to get a fix on which side the langurs were focused on. Two opinions eventually emerged, one pointing away from the kere, and the other (Rajesh’s) pointing towards it. A quick discussion led to a consensus that the cat must have just crossed the road and passed in a direction away from the lake. And so off we went, looking for it elsewhere. Turned out that Rajesh’s suspicion was right. The tiger (which is what it was) was hidden right there, in the sea of Eupatorium between us and the lake. It emerged an hour and a half later and was seen and photographed by another group. Rajesh was especially disappointed that we had miscalculated.

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The long weekend brought a lot of traffic to the temple, further impacting the sightings.    Pic by P.

On day 3, in the evening safari, we ran into another loud and persistent series of calls. Somewhat midway between the barking deer’s and chital’s alarm call. Everyone promptly assumed it was one of these and an animated discussion ensued around where the cat possibly could be. We drove around a little trying to pinpoint direction. After a while, Rajesh smacked his forehead when he realized we were in fact listening to the Spot-bellied eagle owl’s call. Although he was equally excited at the prospect of locating the owl. We did try for a considerable time, but without success and the calls eventually died out.

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P (9 years old) clicked this pic of Durga Parameshwari, the camp elephant

I also missed an Indian flying squirrel sighting on day 3 in the evening. The squirrel calls had started just after junior and I had left the gol ghar post dinner. The pair was then sighted, for a period of fifteen minutes, as it progressively glided its way from the trees near the FRH to the jungle beyond the Gol Ghar. The next day I asked Basavanna why he didn’t give me a call, and his reply was that he would definitely have, had he known that I was interested in watching flying squirrels.

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Chappekkai. Entada rheedii possibly. I had not realized earlier that the pods were growing off a climber and not off tree itself.

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Gaur with calf. Pic by Basavanna.

Junior and I also missed a dhole sighting on the drive back. We had driven down towards the temple on day 2 with Rajesh post breakfast, looking for a pack that frequented an area a little before the BR Hills settlement. (There was another pack frequenting the Navodaya checkpost side too that we also looked for in vain). We didn’t find the pack, and there was considerable disturbance from some tar-laying work that was underway. On my drive back to Bangalore on day 4, I did keep my eyes peeled while passing through the area, but saw nothing. Another guest who was in K. Gudi left around the same time and was a little behind me. He sighted the pack and Rajesh called me a little later, asking if I had too. He was surprised that I hadn’t – and the guest in question actually overtook me while we were having this conversation. We therefore couldn’t have been very far apart when he sighted the pack.

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Monitor lizard near the Navodaya checkpost

However these disappointments were not without compensating sightings. On the last safari, Rajesh and I saw a something on the track ahead. It saw us too, and went bounding away a short distance before leaping into the lantana. I thought it was a leopard, but Rajesh with his infinitely better eyesight shouted ‘tiger!’ No one else in the jeep caught the sighting. Arriving at the point, Rajesh’s opinion was confirmed by the pungent smell of scent marking. Basavanna had earlier remarked that the smell of the tiger’s scent-marking was very similar to the fragrance of cooked Basmati rice. I could instantly see why he said so. In any case, my tiger sighting account at BRT TR was finally opened, after 16 years of visits.

I should mention here that I have seen Rajesh use his sense of smell while tracking cats on safari more than once. He catches whiffs of kills, scat or the cat itself and makes as much use of this information as he does of pug marks or alarm calls. On this trip, he took another clever little masterclass while tracking a herd of elephants. There was no apparent sign on the road, but he determined that a herd had just passed. When I asked him how he knew, he pointed out that the grass on the track was uprooted in places. Try as I might, I couldn’t make this out. As is my wont, I dismissed his theory. Presently, dung appeared. And then spoor. And then the herd itself, in Anni kere. That’s the kind of tracker Rajesh is.

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The highlight of the trip was a superb Slaty-legged crake sighting near Anni kere on day 1. I remembered that in August 2014 I had seen this bird, though indistinctly, in Anni kere. I asked Prasad about it as soon as I landed there, and he confirmed that sightings were happening every once a while. The bird stepped out on the track in front of the jeep and bathed in a puddle for a good five minutes, until it was disturbed by another jeep approaching on the opposite side. Very clear view. The light was bad though, as it was around 6 PM by then.

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I also had a fleeting sighting of a tree shrew on the track.

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Birds

  1. Black-hooded oriole
  2. Brahminy kite
  3. Bronzed drongo
  4. Brown fish owl
  5. Common tailorbird
  6. Crested serpent eagle
  7. Drongo cuckoo (calls)
  8. Green beeeater
  9. Hill myna
  10. Indian treepie
  11. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  12. Greater flameback
  13. Grey junglefowl
  14. Grey wagtail
  15. Indian blackbird
  16. Indian scimitar babbler (calls)
  17. Jungle babbler
  18. Jungle myna
  19. Jungle owlet
  20. Lesser flameback
  21. Long-tailed shrike
  22. Magpie robin
  23. Malabar parakeet
  24. Mountain imperial pigeon
  25. Orange-headed thrush
  26. Orange minivet
  27. Oriental honey buzzard
  28. Pied bushchat
  29. Plum-headed parakeet
  30. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  31. Racket-tailed drongo
  32. Red spurfowl
  33. Red-vented bulbul
  34. Red-whiskered bulbul
  35. Rufous babbler
  36. Rufous woodpecker
  37. Small minivet
  38. (Southern?) coucal
  39. Spot-bellied eagle owl (calls)
  40. Spotted dove
  41. Streak-throated woodpecker
  42. Tawny-bellied babbler
  43. Tri-colored munia
  44. Vernal hanging parrot
  45. White-bellied drongo
  46. White-browed bulbul
  47. White-cheeked barbet
  48. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals/Reptiles

  1. Barking deer
  2. Chital
  3. Elephant
  4. Gaur
  5. Pond terrapin
  6. Malabar giant squirrel
  7. Monitor lizard
  8. Ruddy mongoose
  9. Sambar
  10. Southern tree shrew
  11. Striped-necked mongoose
  12. Three-striped palm squirrel
  13. Tiger
  14. Tufted langur
  15. Wild pig

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Trip Report: Ranthambore National Park, Jan ’15

Trip:      Ranthambore National Park

Camp:   Ranthambhore Regency

Dates:   23-26 Jan ‘15

Who:     GiK, Drs R and M and kids V and P

We should have flown to Jaipur and driven from there to Sawai Madhopur (150 kms). Instead we flew to Delhi, reached there an hour later than scheduled, at about 9:30 PM, dealt with the pathetic airport taxi system to get to Hazrat Nizamuddin station, and took the 11:40 PM Haridwar-Mumbai Bandra Terminus SF Express that ended up leaving Delhi at 1:45 AM. We reached Sawai Madhopur at sometime past 6 AM, a full ninety minutes past schedule and rushed to catch the morning safari. And all this with two kids and a cold wave in attendance. Flying to Jaipur would have been the sensible thing to do, even if it meant some loss of daytime.

The zones

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We spent four days in Ranthambore, doing seven safaris in all. Ranthambore has ten numbered tourist zones, with ten gypsies allowed into each zone at a time. On weekends, the FD allows a few more under pressure from VIPs. In fact the FD themselves possess safari-ready gypsies for ferrying their guests around. These gypsies have the triple advantages of no zone restrictions, no time restrictions and a ready information feed via radio.

Zones 1 to 5 are the sought-after ones, with zone 3 being the clear favourite at this time. It is evidently not easy to get the popular zones booked. Regency get an assortment of zones booked daily and ration them among their guests to ensure everyone gets a fair share of the more productive zones. And so we did three safaris in zone 3, two in zone 4 and one each in zones 2 and 6.

Entry to zones 2 and 3 is via the Jogi Mahal gate. The picturesque zone 3 route winds past the Padam talao (on the banks of which the famed Jogi Mahal is sited) and onto the vast Raj Bagh lake. The abandoned hunting lodge on the latter has produced some fine images of tigers on its balcony framed by its structure and shot from across the lake. Finding tigers in this structure is evidently a summer phenomenon.

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Zone 2 is magnificent too, with the road winding by the towering Ranthambore fort and then past another long range of cliffs. However twice a month on chaturdashi days of the Hindu calendar, pilgrims troop through this zone barefoot to worship at a Ganesh temple somewhere. The resultant ruckus effectively puts paid to any decent sighting possibilities. That’s what happened to us on day 1 in the afternoon.

GiK and I thought zone 4 was the best of them all in terms of its beauty. At this time of year, it has several stunningly beautiful spots, especially large patches of bright, finely textured grass. A tiger on this grass in mellow morning light will make for a dream photograph. Zone 4 also has a large lake teeming with aquatic birds, muggers and sambar – Malik talao.

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This zone  is accessed via a gate placed to the left of the approach road some distance before the Jogi Mahal gate is reached.

The anicut in zone 4 in the morning mist:

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In contrast with these three zones, zone 6 is a drab and dreary affair, with no impressive landscapes or features – just dusty tracks winding through unprepossessing, stunted jungle. To make matters worse, this zone is accessed after negotiating the sewer-lined, congested bazars of old Sawai Madhopur. If this route is bad in winter, I shudder to think what it’ll be in the heat of summer. But to be fair, we did sight a tiger in zone 6, and a magnificent male in his prime at that.

Tiger centricity

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At the outset, our very competent naturalist Satish Upadyay suggested that we get the tiger sighting out of the way before turning our attention to birding. GiK, my kid P and I were in one Gypsy and we started with zone 3. We reached Rajbagh and struck luck. Three 10-month cubs gamboling in the grass, the litter of the tigress T-19 or Krishna. This tigress is Machli’s offspring and the reigning queen tigress of Ranthambore. We didn’t see the mother though, just the cubs. They were some 40-50 feet from the jeep, by the water and we watched them for twenty minutes or so before they headed back into taller khus grass where a sambar kill was hidden.

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As often happens, this spectacular start was followed by muted follow-through, with plenty of alarm calls but no sightings fructifying until the evening of the next day. That was the afternoon safari of day 2, in zone 6. A passing Gypsy reported seeing a tiger cross a nallah and disappear into the jungle. Scouting around we finally came to a cluster of jeeps with the tiger barely visible some two hundred meters away. This was T-34 or Kumbha, a tiger with a colourful reputation for intimidating behavior. He was lying on his back with his paws in the air.

Ranthambore allows safaris in Gypsies and Canters. The latter contain five seats to a row and it mustn’t be great fun to be stuck in the middle. Anyway there were plenty of noisy tourists in attendance and the din disturbed the animal enough to make him roll over one side to the other occasionally and lift his head up to see what the racket was all about. This went on for about fifteen minutes after which he was disgusted enough to rise and stalk away. The horde then started up to chase him, but by the time the jam could be sorted out and the vehicles turned around, a good ten minutes was lost. Meanwhile the cat disappeared without a trace.

Satish had predicted a success rate of 30%. We did a little better than that, with three sightings in seven safaris. On day 3 in the evening safari, we had spent the evening chasing alarm calls in vain all over zone 4. Often being in the unenviable situation of having calls emanating from two different directions.

An interesting feature of tiger tracking in Ranthambore is that when alarm calls are heard, whether chital or langur, Satish listened to see if multiple individuals were calling. Calls by single individuals evidently lack credibility and were actually ignored a couple of times, even when persisting for a while. Satish also mentioned that while chital or sambar calls may sometimes mislead, the nilgai’s alarm call, if heard, is a certain indicator of the tiger’s presence.

Exit time was at 5:30 and we’d spent much of the evening rushing from one set of calls to another. While we were stopped in one of the meeting points for a quick bio break, a gypsy rolled in and the woman in it asked why all of us were hanging around there while there was a sighting in progress elsewhere. Satish and the driver jumped like they were bee-stung and we began a crazy, careening hurtle at mad speed towards the spot indicated. This was quite a distance away and we had just about half an hour to go before exit time, with the exit gate a long way off.

Reaching the place we found that it was hardly a kilometer’s distance from where we’d waited a while earlier listening to chital calls. Some jeeps had gone ahead from that point but had returned without having spotted the tiger. Given the late hour, all the vehicles there were FD Gypsies, with our Gypsy and a canter that arrived later being the only commercial tourist vehicles. The tiger was sprawled on the grass across a ravine amidst some very pretty scenery. This was T-6 or Romeo a fine six year old male. We had around five minutes to take a good look and finish clicking pictures before it was time to hurtle back towards the exit gate. The driver incidentally clocked 85 kmph on that crazy drive and we spent much of it in the air, holding on tight to keep us from bouncing right off the jeep. Admittedly illegal but incredible fun though.

Leopards are at least as numerous as tigers in Ranthambore but as is typical of tiger-infested areas, rarely show themselves.

Both chital and sambar were numerous and the long-drawn rutting calls of chital stags reverberated through the forests at this time of year, sometimes startling innocent tourists who mistook them for the agonized screams of some animal being done to death.

Upwardly mobile chital stag:

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Sambar stags sparring:

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Nilgai are also fairly numerous in places, and GiK and I got some pictures.

Nilgai doe and buck in the mist:

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Nilgai buck:

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We also saw the Chinkara or Indian Gazelle for the first time, a very satisfying experience. Mugger are commonly seen on all the lakes.

There were several palm squirrels in the forest. After a desultory glance at one of them, I concluded that they were of the three-striped variety. Dr. R later told me that we were probably looking at Five-striped palm squirrels. I resolved to look more carefully and get a picture if possible on the next outing, but this slipped my mind and I didn’t see any more squirrels.

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Birding

Most remarkable are the Indian treepies. They are exceedingly common all through the forest, and are inured to tourists feeding them, although that is supposedly banned now. We did see some tourists feeding the birds at the rest points though. The birds however have lost their fear of people and freely perch on heads and hands. They are fearless enough to hop into the gypsies and onto the floor right around our feet, hunting for crumbs. Stop at any spot and in all likelihood, a couple materialized, heads cocked greedily, inspecting us closely for signs of anything edible.

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Peafowl are numerous as you might expect, and the persistent, two-note calls of Grey francolins rent the air frequently.

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Babblers, especially jungle babblers are numerous too and make it noisily evident. Large grey babblers are easily met with and I initially mistook them for jungle babblers until Dr. R pointed this out. Rose-ringed parakeets are another noisy, frequently encountered bird. We met spotted owlets around half a dozen times, so they are not uncommon here.

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Long-tailed shrike:

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Hoopoe on a Dhok tree:

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In the waters of the lakes were Ruddy shelducks, Wooly-necked storks, Grey herons, Common snipes, egrets, cormorants, darters, White ibis, Openbill storks, River terns, dozens of Common moorhen, plenty of Black-winged stilts, more White-breasted waterhen than I’ve cumulatively seen so far and intrepid Red-wattled lapwings that stalked right up to the jeeps hunting for insects dislodged by the tyres.

Wooly-necked stork:

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Black-winged stilt:

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Black-capped night heron:

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We noted that barbets were strangely absent, although Dr. R’s naturalist pointed out that Coppersmith barbets did occur and were heard in the summer. Junglefowl are conspicuously absent.

Indian Scops owl:

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On the drive from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur (we took the more sensible route on the way back), we saw Bank mynas for the first time whilst stopping for chai.

Crested serpent eagle:

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Flora

The landscape of Ranthambore is dominated by the tiny-leaved Dhok tree (Anogeissus pendula). This species comprises a good seventy or eighty percent of the forest’s tree-count and is therefore ubiquitous. Next in terms of frequency are Babul or the Gum Arabic tree (Acacia nilotica) and the Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma).

Acacia nilotica:

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Stunted Khair trees (Acacia catechu) are also frequently encountered.

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On rocky slopes, the striking-looking Karaya Gum tree (Sterculia Urens) is commonly seen.

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Several fine specimens of banyan (Ficus bengalensis) are found throughout the park including the iconic one draping the entrance a little before the Jogi Mahal gate. An exceptionally large specimen occurs near the Jogi Mahal, but is out of bounds for tourists.

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Indian date palms (Phoenix sylvestris) are frequently met with. Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) is also encountered occasionally. Adusa (Adhatoda vasica) occurs in clumps in many places. The leaves, flowers and bark of this shrub find medicinal uses chiefly in the treatment of asthma.

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Large clumps of the cactus-like Euphorbia plant are also seen.

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A very common shrub in the Dhok forests is Grewia flavescens. At least that’s what I think it is. Our naturalist Satish identified the plant as Chameni in Hindi. I struggled to locate the binomial name and after considerable search, am leaning towards Grewia flavescens. This Grewia species is reputed to be a frequent associate of the Dhok and is supposedly commonly found in Ranthambore. The plant we saw is certainly found all over the place.

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The lakesides are lined with the aromatic Khus grass (Vetivaria zizznioides). Large patches of striking red Water velvet (Azolla pinnata) were found on the surfaces of some lakes. This is a species of tiny-leaved aquatic fern.

Birds:

  1. Asian pied starling
  2. Ashy-crowned sparrowlark
  3. Bank myna
  4. Long-tailed shrike
  5. Black-capped night heron
  6. Black drongo
  7. Black-shouldered kite
  8. Black-tailed godwit
  9. Black-winged stilt
  10. Blue rock dove
  11. Bluethroat
  12. Brown rock chat
  13. Cinereous tit
  14. Common iora
  15. Common kingfisher
  16. Common moorhen
  17. Common snipe
  18. Crested serpent eagle
  19. Darter
  20. Eurasian thick-knee
  21. Greater cormorant
  22. Greater coucal
  23. Grey francolin
  24. Grey heron
  25. Grey wagtail
  26. Hoopoe
  27. Indian Scops owl
  28. Indian vulture
  29. Long-tailed shrike
  30. Indian treepie
  31. Jungle babbler
  32. Large egret
  33. Large grey babbler
  34. Lesser flameback
  35. Little brown dove
  36. Little green heron
  37. Magpie robin
  38. Oriental honey buzzard
  39. Osprey
  40. Painted stork
  41. Peafowl
  42. Painted spurfowl
  43. Pied kingfisher
  44. Plain prinia
  45. Red-breasted flycatcher
  46. Red-wattled lapwing
  47. River tern
  48. Rose-ringed parakeet
  49. Ruddy shelduck
  50. Spotted dove
  51. Stonechat
  52. White-belloed drongo
  53. White-breasted waterhen
  54. White-browed fantail
  55. White-browed wagtail
  56. White ibis
  57. White-throated kingfisher
  58. White wagtail
  59. Wooly-necked stork
  60. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Chinkara
  2. Chital
  3. Common langur
  4. Nilgai
  5. Ruddy mongoose
  6. Sambar
  7. Tiger

Reptiles:

  1. Marsh crocodile

Kaziranga/Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, Dec 2014

Trip:       Kaziranga National Park/Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary

Camp:   Wildgrass (Kaziranga)/FRH (Gibbon)

Dates:   29 Dec ’14 – 1 Jan ‘15

This is going to be a long post.

My son and I had visited Kaziranga in April 2013, along with my sister’s family. He was five then and we’d had some great sightings. This second visit was planned six months in advance, for just the two of us. As the date approached however the trip looked to be jinxed. First was SpiceJet’s wholesale disruptions (our Bangalore-Guwahati onward was with them). Alternate fares quickly climbed in excess of Rs. 43K. Thankfully services were restored a couple of days before our departure date (which was on Christmas day). And then there were the Bodo militant attacks killing 75 people that put Assam on the boil a couple of days before we left. We planned to visit friends in the Missamari cantt for a few days, in addition to doing Kaziranga. The route from the Guwahati airport to Missamari passed through one of the sites of the attack (Dhekiajuli) and a curfew was supposedly in effect. Further, it was 4:15 PM by the time we exited the airport and the early winter sunset was underway. Which meant four hours of driving mostly in the dark. In any case the drive passed off without incident.

Missamari

Missamari was cold and offered some little birding around the cantt. Brown shrikes and Red-vented bulbuls were aplenty, as were three species of myna – Common, Jungle and Asian pied, and spotted doves. Black-throated munias were also numerous and a pair of these had nested under the roof overhang of the house.  I spotted a babbler-sized brown bird once that I couldn’t identify.

On the day before we left for Bangalore, a twittering something went sailing over the lawn, with a jerky uneven flight. Turned out to be a Brown shrike that had grabbed a munia chick from its nest. The chick screamed and struggled for all its tiny worth, and the shrike had trouble holding its course. It blundered over a hedge, landed on a pile of thorns some twenty five meters away, panicked at my approach and abandoned the chick wedged inside the thorny pile. The chick had sustained a bleeding injury around the mantle, but seemed alive enough. We extricated it and placed it on the lawn, from where it disappeared a short while later – spirited away either by its parents, or by the shrike.

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The Itinerary

I had explored the possibility of managing three or four PAs with Ficus’s Ravi Kailash months in advance. Pakke, Orang and Nameri are all tantalizingly close to Missamari. As is Eaglenest. However considering that all these places entailed some degree of walking, and considering that my son is not a particularly accomplished walker, I had to limit the schedule to two nights in Kaziranga and a single night at Gibbon. Given this schedule, Ravi, considerate as ever, suggested that I dispense with Ficus’s assistance and book directly through Manju Barua of Wildgrass. This latter gentleman was enormously helpful and courteous, and patiently responded to my numerous emails promptly and in great detail. To begin with, he pointed out that I was visiting Kaziranga at the worst possible time as the week of 25th Dec turns the park into a “circus”. And then Wildgrass was booked out and he put me on a waitlist, which eventually cleared.

And so my son and I ended up reaching Kaziranga by lunchtime on the 29th, did the evening safari there, stayed overnight at Wildgrass, and left for Gibbon the next evening after completing both safaris on day 2. Overnighting at Gibbon, we finished with the apes before breakfast the next morning, rushing back in time to catch the evening safari at Kaziranga. The next morning, 1-Jan, was our last safari after which we departed for Missamari. So five safaris in all at Kaziranga, of which two each were in the Western and Central zones and the last one in Eastern.

Wildgrass

Although not as luxurious as the Iora resort, Wildgrass is probably the best place to stay at in Kaziranga. Manju Barua’s attitude being in no small measure a reason for this, the ambience accounting for the rest. He took care of everything for me very efficiently – accommodation, safaris, naturalist, my Missamari and Gibbon transfers and the Gibbon FRH booking. We enjoyed the place the last time too and this time was no different. If I must find something to crib about, it’ll only be the acoustics of the hardwood floors. These amplified sounds from the room above spectacularly and even if the occupant was tiptoeing in his socks, produced a din below resembling someone playing nine pins with propane cylinders. If you are a light sleeper, you want to ask for a room on the top floor. This little inconvenience aside, we had a spectacular time.

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I didn’t get to do too much birding in the resort. I sighted Indian robin, a Magpie robin (I think), Black-hooded oriole, Baya weaver bird, Spotted dove, all the three mynas again and Red-vented bulbul.  And heard the Blue whistling thrush. The resort grounds are the best place to spot the Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel and we sighted these as expected. And on the way in, we stopped to watch a Malayan giant squirrel that our driver Biju managed to spot in a forest patch around thirty klicks from Kaziranga. We also saw elephants, but these might have been domestic ones as they were not very far from human habitation.

Malayan giant squirrel:

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Kaziranga

Safari 1, PM, Western Zone. The evening safaris were abbreviated ones, given the early sunset. We typically set off a little before 2 PM, with 15-20 minutes spent on the drive to the gate and another 15-20 minutes squandered in getting the entry tickets. Sometime before 3 PM is when we entered the park gates, giving us a maximum of two hours before the sun disappeared completely.

I had mentioned to Manju Barua that naturalist Tarun Gogoi had done a tremendous job with the spotting during our 2013 trip. He offered to book Tarun for us this time too. However the naturalist was held up with another group for the first safari, and so Biju Hazarika, the driver who’d picked us up from Missamari tripled up as safari driver, spotter and naturalist all rolled into one. And did a very creditable job of it.

A short while into the first safari, we ran into a fair-sized King cobra right by the track. We slammed to a stop after passing some twenty five feet past the reptile. Before I could get my lens to bear on it the snake raised its hood briefly before making itself scarce.

We made a brief stopover at the Donga beel viewing point. Rhino, buffalo, hog deer and swamp deer grazed on the far bank. We saw flocks of Yellow-footed green pigeons around this spot both the times we visited.

Elephant and rhino skulls at Donga beel:

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We also ran into a pair of elephants in the elephant grass by the roadside later in the drive.

We opened the birding account with Asian openbill stork, Crested serpent eagle, Wooly-necked stork, Bar-headed goose, mallard, Red-breasted parakeet, Common stone chat, Black-necked stork and Lesser adjutant stork. We were to meet all these repeatedly on subsequent drives.

Common stonechat:

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Rhino at dusk in the western zone:

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Safari 2, AM, Central Zone. Hog deer, Swamp deer, rhino and buffalo were commonly seen on all safaris. As were enormous flocks of foraging Bar-headed geese, Greylag geese, mallards, Spot-billed ducks, pintails, Black-necked and Wooly-necked storks, egrets and Lesser adjutant storks in all beels. I’ll therefore avoid repetitive mention. To the birds list we added Barn swallow, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Bronze-winged jacana, Purple heron, pintail, cormorants, White wagtail, Common snipe, Citrine wagtail, Asian pied starling, Ruddy shelduck and Pied kingfisher. And heard Puff-throated babbler, Lesser flameback and a Changeable hawk eagle.

Bar-headed geese are truly remarkable birds. Look them up online to learn why.

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Greylag geese:

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A barking deer turned up on the track. To the untrained eye or at least to my untrained eye, muntjac can be mistaken for the more commonly seen Hog deer, especially if the sighting is fleeting.

Hog deer stag & doe:

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The road winds past the Kawoimari lake and the Diphlu river and is quite picturesque. On the lake, we saw an Indian roof turtle. A Grey-headed fish eagle sat silently surveying the river.

Indian roof turtle:

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The road pauses at a viewpoint area where visitors can alight and use the malodorous bamboo toilets. A row of tufted ducks paddled in the water, along with the other usual suspects. A rhino grazed on the far bank, as did a small herd of buffaloes. We saw White (Rosy) pelicans in addition to the more commonly seen Spotbilled ones. As we moved on from the viewpoint area raising fine powdered dust that fouled everything, a Bengal monitor lizard was found basking beside the track, unmindful of the clouds of dust billowing onto it. A lone osprey quartered the skies. Indian treepies called.

Bengal monitor lizard:

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Safari 3, PM, Western Zone. This was the safari we rushed back to catch, from Gibbon. The drive started propitiously with a Pallas fish eagle sighting. I was on the lookout for this species. The bird was evidently nesting there as we found it around the same place multiple times subsequently. A small troop of Rhesus macaques foraged nearby.

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Tarun identified a small tree we saw repeatedly as jujube, Ziziphus jujuba – the berries of which are evidently pickled and served in the Wildgrass dining room.

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He identified another commonly seen tree with large, ribbed leaves as Dillenia indica, the Elephant apple tree. The palm for the most common tree in Kaziranga however undoubtedly goes to the Red silk cotton, Bombax ceiba. It is abundant in the countryside as well.

Elephant apple tree, Dillenia indica:

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At one spot, hog deer began calling in alarm in the grass. The calls were strident and we waited awhile. The sun was starting to set and great flocks of Green imperial pigeons flew past on their way to roost.  A pair of Greater Indian hornbills swooshed past and the tiger was momentarily forgotten. Alexandrine parakeets squawked and flitted. Eventually giving up, we turned back. The light was fading fast and a little before the park exit, we came upon another set of alarm calls. The hog deer were calling and a herd of buffaloes hurriedly turned around to face the direction the tiger was evidently in. We could pinpoint the area the deer and buffalo were focused on, but the setting darkness and thick grass hid the cat only too well. Tarun caught a fleeting glimpse, but I could see nothing despite standing atop the Gypsy’s bars at a ten foot vantage point.  The buffalo herd trooped out and the calls subsequently ceased.

Pintails at dusk:

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Safari 4, PM, Central Zone.  Mihi is a beel in the central zone with the Kothora watchtower overlooking its vastness. This place is sometimes referred to as tiger point owing to the frequency of sightings. Visitors can alight at the watchtower to watch the wildlife on the beel.

We spent the entire evening tethered to this spot by persistent alarm calls. The deer and a rhino were intently focused on a patch of tall grass to our right. Plenty of other jeeps came and went, but we stayed put. Tarun was determined to catch a tiger sighting after one too many near misses. Unfortunately for us hordes of noisy tourists made appearances. Tarun was worried they’d scare the feline away and that’s precisely what happened. The tiger made off in the opposite direction away from the beel, crossed the road some two hundred meters away, and disappeared into the grass.

Tarun was bitter about all the noise the tourists were making – he’d spent a good part of an hour with his eyes glued to his binocs atop the watch tower, watching for stripes. All for nothing.

Biju Hazarika watches hog deer calling in alarm on Mihi beel:

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We went further up the track hoping the feline would return, but had to give up eventually. While waiting we found a couple of rhinos waiting to cross the track and positioned ourselves to catch the crossings, but noisy passing tourists scared those away as well. I now know what Manju Barua meant by the “circus”.

It was fully dark by now and that’s how we ended the last day of 2014. Would have been even better to end it with a tiger sighting that actually fructified but then we do not always get what we ask for.

The last sunset of 2014:

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Safari 5, AM, Eastern Zone. I was anticipating a tourist-free forest, this being the 1st of Jan. I had miscalculated however as hordes of people evidently consider it great fun to continue the festivities of the previous night in the forest on day one.

The Eastern zone is renowned for its birdlife more than large mammals. A Stork-billed kingfisher sat sentinel as we entered the park gate. Further up the track, a branch was heavy with Himalayan griffon vultures. We also sighted Black-hooded orioles, a Spotted eagle, Indian vultures, a Changeable hawk eagle, a Common kestrel, Indian treepies, Orange minivets, Red-breasted parakeets and Common teals.  The track winds past the massive Sohola beel. A pair of Oriental pied hornbills flew from one tree to another, very close by and I hurriedly attempted a flight shot, having been caught unawares while handing junior the binocs to view a Pallas fish eagle sitting at a distance. The shot came out with one wing clipped.

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A squirrel raced up a bole and leaped across to another. Tarun identified it as a Himalayan striped squirrel.

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We saw a solitary brown fish owl that sat looking at us for a long while before flapping away on massive wings. A small herd of elephants posed for pictures further up the track. We then reached the terminus of the track at the Bramhaputra river.

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On the way back I saw two lapwings I’ve never seen before – the Grey-headed and the Northern (Crested) lapwing. We saw the former multiple times.

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Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

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Gibbon is around 135 kilometers from Kaziranga and we left after the evening safari, to reach there by 9:30 PM or so. The FRH at Gibbon has two rooms. The ever-smiling cook produced barely tolerable meals on a woodfire stove in an alluringly warm but sooty kitchen behind. A railway gate occurs not very far away and passing trains sound their horns frantically to warn off crossing elephants. To the sleepers in the rooms, it sounds like the engines are passing on the other side of the wall.

We awoke early to the calls of Puff-throated babbler, Black-hooded oriole, and Blue whistling thrush. Gibbon comprises some 21 square kilometers of evergreen forest with paths running through it. A forest guard armed with a rusty, double-barreled gun of ancient vintage accompanied us. He said the weapon was intended to scare elephants away as he broke open the breech to load a pair of red cartridges. We left junior sleeping snugly back in the room, with Biju kindly consenting to wait on His Little Majesty.

Blue whistling thrush at dawn:

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Gibbon is home to seven species of primates – the Western hoolock gibbon, Stump-tailed macaque, Northern pig-tailed macaque, Bengal slow loris, Capped langur, Assamese macaque and Rhesus macaque. We sighted three of these in the couple of hours we spent walking through the forest. The morning was crisp, cold and utterly lovely. The first mammal sighting was of a very lively Malayan giant squirrel. A small troop of Capped langurs presently appeared, crashing about the canopy, leaping tree to tree.

Capped langur:

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We then sighted an Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel. The sound of breaking branches warned us of the presence of elephants further up the path and we back-tracked, finding an alternate route to skirt around the animals. We had spent a good hour and a half now traipsing through Gibbon with no sign of the eponymous ape. I was thinking that we might have to return without having managed a single sighting.

A troop of Pig-tailed macaques turned up next, shortly followed by junior in the car driven out by Biju, all rested and refreshed.

Pig-tailed macaque:

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A second guard finally spotted a Gibbon family on the canopy, and we spent some fifteen minutes watching a male, female and a sub-adult swinging and feeding high up in the canopy. Gibbon-watching is good treatment for people afflicted with cervical spondylitis.

Gibbons, male and female:

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The Gibbon sanctuary is a spectacular birding site. It reminded me of Thattekad in many ways. Tarun was in his elements and we sighted orange-headed thrush, White-throated bulbul, Bronzed, Greater racket-tailed and Spangled drongos, Grey-bellied tesia, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Black-crested bulbul and Maroon oriole. And heard the Asian barred owlet. The highlight however was watching a pair of Red-headed trogans for a good many minutes as they flitted around the canopy. Tarun was elated with this sighting. Back at the FRH and after breakfast, we listened to Lineated barbets calling loudly before packing up to rush back to Kaziranga in time for a hurried lunch and the evening safari.

Here are some pictures from my 2013 trip.

22 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 271

18 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 458

28 Kaziranga Day 1 Wildgrass 104

48 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 912

56 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 570

54 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 158

55 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 217

The list

Birds:

  1. Alexandrine parakeet
  2. Asian barred owlet (calls)
  3. Asian openbill stork
  4. Asian pied starling
  5. Bar-headed goose
  6. Barn swallow
  7. Baya weaver bird
  8. Bay-backed shrike
  9. Black-crested bulbul
  10. Black-hooded oriole
  11. Black-necked stork
  12. Black-throated munia
  13. Blue whistling thrush
  14. Bronzed drongo
  15. Bronze-winged jacana
  16. Brown fish owl
  17. Brown shrike
  18. Cattle egret
  19. Changeable hawk eagle
  20. Citrine wagtail
  21. Common kestrel
  22. Common myna
  23. Common snipe
  24. Common stonechat
  25. Common teal
  26. Cormorant (Greater?)
  27. Crested serpent eagle
  28. Darter
  29. Greater Indian hornbill
  30. Greater racket-tailed drongo
  31. Green imperial pigeon
  32. Common greenshank
  33. Grey-bellied tesia
  34. Grey-headed canary flycatcher
  35. Grey-headed fish eagle
  36. Grey-headed lapwing
  37. Grey heron
  38. Greylag goose
  39. Himalayan griffon vulture
  40. Indian robin
  41. Indian roller
  42. Indian treepie
  43. Jungle myna
  44. Large egret?
  45. Lesser adjutant stork
  46. Lesser flameback
  47. Lineated barbet (calls)
  48. Indian vulture
  49. Magpie robin
  50. Mallard
  51. Maroon oriole
  52. Northern/crested lapwing
  53. Orange-headed thrush
  54. Orange minivet
  55. Oriental pied hornbill
  56. Osprey
  57. Pallas fish eagle
  58. Pied kingfisher
  59. Pintail
  60. Pond heron
  61. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  62. Purple heron
  63. Red-breasted parakeet
  64. Red-headed trogan
  65. Red junglefowl
  66. Red-vented bulbul
  67. Rose-ringed parakeet
  68. Ruddy shelduck
  69. Spangled drongo
  70. Spot-billed duck
  71. Spot-billed pelican
  72. Spotted dove
  73. Spotted eagle
  74. Stork-billed kingfisher
  75. Tufted duck
  76. White-browed wagtail
  77. White ibis
  78. White/Rosy pelican
  79. White-throated bulbul (calls)
  80. White-throated kingfisher
  81. White wagtail
  82. Wooly-necked stork
  83. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Capped langur
  3. Elephant
  4. Eastern swamp deer
  5. Great Indian one-horned rhino
  6. Striped Himalayan squirrel
  7. Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  8. Hog deer
  9. Hoolock gibbon
  10. Malayan giant squirrel
  11. Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  12. Pig-tailed macaque
  13. Rhesus macaque
  14. Wild buffalo

Reptiles:

  1. Bengal monitor lizard
  2. Indian roof turtle
  3. King cobra

Trip Report: KMTR, Oct ’14

Trip Report:        Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR)

Dates:                  2-5 Oct 2014

Camp:                  Talayannai FRH, Mundanthurai Range Office FRH

Who:                    GK, VR

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley… [often go awry] – Robert Burns

Dog’s breakfast

GK and I had prepared for this trip for weeks. We had spent time compiling lists of endemic or significant species that we wanted to look for, and in checking on what areas and routes to cover (I’ve included the list of target species at the end of this post). However the trip didn’t quite pan out the way it was intended to.

The jinx began right from the word go. GK hatched this plan of saving a day by driving the 600-odd kilometers to KMTR overnight. Shortly after reaching the place, I realized that I’d left behind my binoculars, notebooks and torch back in Bangalore. My eyesight being what it is, I was unable to ID a bunch of birds that weren’t close enough. And then we weren’t able to get permission to visit places in the higher ranges – places like Sengaltheri, Upper Kodayar and Kakachi. We intended to seek accommodation at the Kuduraivetti or Kodamadi FRHs – these are sited in spectacular locations – but had to be content with being put up at the Talayannai and Mundanthurai RO FRHs located at the fringes of the reserve, and at low elevations. Even these are available only if requested by someone in the FD. A tough new Deputy Director has taken over for the past few months and she has pretty much closed off many areas that were hitherto accessible. We saw several instances of people flaunting various degrees of influence being stonewalled and refused permission. While this effectively hamstrung our trip, it was heartening to see a young officer (this is evidently her first posting) take an uncompromising stand on behalf of our forests and wildlife. May her tribe increase.

Day 1, Talayannai

After a sleepless night spent driving from Bangalore and Chennai, we reached the Talayannai Dormitory near the tiny town of Kalakkad after a short break in Tirunelveli. This is the very same place I’d been to with my sister’s family last year. A short distance inside the reserve lies a small check dam and the resultant waterfall is a popular spot with local tourists, most of whom land up with towels slung around their necks. And understandably so, as the heat of the second summer was oppressive. The FRH lies a short distance from this check dam. The day was squandered in trying to get permission to access the upper reaches of the forest. Fourteen kilometers from Talaiyannai is a place with a spectacular reputation – Sengaltheri. This place is now out of bounds for just about everyone, and we finally gave up all hope of getting access to it after day-long effort. There’s a large dormitory in Talayannai with bunk beds and that’s where we camped for the night.

View from Talayannai watch tower

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Standing outside the dorm at about 4:30 in the evening, we saw a couple of dhole canter across the road. Grabbing my camera, GK and I hurried after them, but they’d moved on and we got no pictures. There was some birdlife around, but I couldn’t do much without my bins. All we saw was Sambar, bonnet macaques, tufted langurs, Indian giant squirrel, Indian treepie, peafowl, Small minivet, coucal, Magpie robin, White-cheeked barbet, Grey junglefowl and Blue-faced malkoha. And we heard hoopoe, Savanna nightjar and what evidently was the Mottled wood owl calling (the latter two after sundown, naturally). A Changeable hawk eagle called persistently all day; we eventually located it and sighted it a few times. A couple of species of scorpion were met with around the dorm.

Fattail scorpion

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Dhole spoor set in concrete

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Offroading interlude

VR (who is a cop himself) had stumbled across a police inspector in Tirunelveli while searching for KMTR leads online. Inspector SE has a staggering range of interests including trekking, parasailing, paragliding, snake rescue, cactus cultivation, gardening, philately and offroading. Prior to the trip, VR had contacted the inspector to see if we could get some local guiding help. Finding that I was missing the bins, we contacted inspector SE again and he was kind enough to offer to lend us his for the duration of the trip. We therefore dropped by the police station in the morning to pick up the bins, when the inspector asked us if we’d like to join him for a spot of offroading.

We then ended up spending time until a very late lunch being bounced over rocks, ditches and other tyre-shredding obstacles. In the searing heat. It was spectacular fun nonetheless.

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We then picked up the borrowed bins and headed for the Mundanthurai Range Office via Ambasamudram and Papanasam, and the amiable ranger there agreed to put us up (in the ‘Panther cottage’) for two nights.

The Panther Cottage

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Day 2, Karaiyar and Servalar dams

The Mundanthurai range office is sited about ten kilometers inside the reserve. The road forks from here with one prong leading to the Servalar dam about seven kilometers away, and the other to the Karaiyar dam, also about seven kilometers away. The reservoirs of these two dams are linked by a massive tunnel three kilometers long – to equalize water levels. About halfway to the Karaiyar dam is a road that branches off to the Sorimuthu Ayyannar temple; and this draws a considerable pilgrim crowd. We covered the Karaiyar and Servalar roads several times in the mornings and evenings, with no significant sightings. Junglefowl called in alarm at a couple of places, most likely triggered by our presence.

Nilgiri langur on the Karaiyar dam

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Since driving on these roads is banned after dark, we took a public bus on impulse at about eight thirty in the evening, to Karaiyar and back. The driver spoke of leopard and sloth bear sightings almost on a daily basis on this stretch, but we had no such luck. GK spoke to some tribals employed as watchers and they recommended driving along the Servalar route early next morning to look for leopards. Again no luck. However we saw Jungle babbler, White-headed babbler, Common iora, Black eagle, White-bellied drongo, Tailor bird, Ruddy mongoose, Brahminy kite, Brown-headed barbet, Grey junglefowl, Tufted langur, nightjar (possibly Savanna) and peafowl (the latter being especially numerous all over the lower ranges). And heard Common hawk cuckoo and coucal. We also spotted a malkoha-like bird which I am unable to identify – it appeared dark with a white terminal band on its tail. In the waters of the Karaiyar dam was a swimming herd of buffaloes – I initially assumed they were domestic animals, but a tribal watcher later told GK they were wild – perhaps a feral herd. An Indian scops owl called persistently after dark around the FRH without us being able to spot it. Sambar belled once in alarm late in the evening.

Incidentally, we saw no chital, wild pig or gaur in the course of the whole trip. Just the occasional sambar. The scanty prey base probably explains KMTR’s low tiger density, at least in the areas we visited. However leopards are reputed to be met with commonly (langurs, macaques, peafowl and junglefowl abound in these forests). Elephants are small in number. Dr. Johnsingh attributes this to the scattered and sparse presence of their food plants, and to the mountainous terrain.

From the Servalar dam, there is a rough road which leads to the Kodamadi FRH, three klicks away. Again a highly restricted route that we couldn’t get permission for. This FRH nestles in another wild spot and has a great reputation.

View from the Servalar dam. The Kodamadi FRH is sited somewhere around the conical hill.

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The ranger – Mr. I – became very friendly with us once he realized we were there with a serious wildlife interest and not as casual tourists. He chatted transparently and disarmingly about his profession, and about forests and their management.

Day 3, Kuduraivetti

On day three, we finally got permission to drive upto Kuduraivetti, thanks to Ranger I’s intercession. Access to this place is heavily controlled, with a quota of five vehicles permitted daily. And all visitors are required to exit by 6 PM, with no overnight stay allowed either in the FRHs or in the estates. After crossing the Manimuttar dam, we climbed steadily to reach tea country and a string of estates leased to the Bombay Burmah Trading Company. Manimuttar dam is crowded with bathing visitors, but hardly anyone is allowed beyond this. Beyond lie Manjolai estate – Manimuttar estate – Naalumooku estate -Oothu estate and finally Kuduraivetti, in sequence. The drive took a good three hours and we spent a few minutes at Kuduraivetti chatting with the watcher on duty before turning back.

Kuduraivetti FRH

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From Naalumooku estate, a road branches off to Upper Kodayar and Kakachi – places we badly wanted to visit. But again, these were out of bounds. Two famed birds – the Broad-tailed grassbird and White-bellied shortwing are reputed to skulk around those areas. We kept an eye out for the Southern birdwing – our largest butterfly – having been told that it was a common sighting on this route, but it is not easy to spot butterflies whilst driving through winding hill roads.

Between the estates are stretches of lush evergreen forests. It is a beautiful drive. A brace of Painted spurfowl went scurrying off the road. Flamebacks and Asian fairy bluebirds called repeatedly without showing themselves. Ashy wood-swallows flocked on an electric wire. A solitary Racket-tailed drongo went sailing across the road. We also saw a solitary Green imperial pigeon. And small flock of Black-throated munias on the way back.A shikra was perched near the Manimuttar dam. The estates were alive with noisy Red-whiskered bulbuls and Tailor birds.

Tea estates and evergreen forests

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Ashy wood-swallow taking off

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Besides streams at elevation were great clusters of Ochlandra reedbrakes (Ochlandra travancorica) – an endemic we were looking for. And plenty of Messua ferrea – a plant common to the W Ghats and the Himalayas – however these were not in bloom. GK pointed out Fern trees – Filicium decipiens – which were plentiful in the forest.

Ochlandra travancorica, these reedbrakes are found in clusters by streams above 1,000 meters altitude, and constitute one of the few sources of food for elephants in KMTR

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Messua ferrea, an example of flora common to the W. Ghats and the Himalayas

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Canarium strictum, another example of flora common to the W. Ghats and the Himalayas

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A stream in the forest. KMTR spawns fourteen rivers and is the primary source of water for surrounding districts

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Day 4, Kadayam range

Ranger I had encouraged us to visit an orphanage and speech-and-hearing-impaired childrens’ home near the Kadayam range run by the Gandhigram Trust. He felt they were doing great work and needed all the encouragement they could get. Perhaps as a sort of inducement, he also promised to send us trekking up the Kadayam range with a watcher to guide us. And so there we went on the last day.

The Kadayam range begins from the Sivasailam dam and drab, hot countryside sparsely dotted with Indian palm and Prosopis juliflora abruptly transforms into lush evergreen forest.

Approach to the Kadayam range

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A trek of four kilometers from here brings one to the Korakkanadar temple. The path up was choked with pilgrims visiting the temple. We rested for a while in a tiny FRH that nestles just above the temple.

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The path carries on from this point for another thirty kilometers until it reaches another temple, but access is restricted owing to elephant and bear presence en route. And there is no FRH at the path’s terminus.

Mohammed Ismail the watcher who accompanied us then brought us back through another route, this a restricted and therefore blissfully undisturbed one. And a pretty route at that. Elephant droppings were occasionally seen but signs of sloth bear were everywhere – by way of dug and scraped ground.

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I should add that after the strain of the day’s activities, we were fairly drained and the daunting 600 kilometer overnight drive back through steady rain and horrendous traffic is not something I’ll remember fondly. I was pretty much done in when I reached home at about three thirty in the morning, after successfully having avoided falling asleep at the wheel between Salem and Bangalore. (VR who is evidently incapable of exhaustion drove the Scorp until Salem, and then drove GK’s car all the way to Chennai through the night).

Common sand boa rescued by Inspector SE

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The target list

Here’s the list GK and I created prior to this trip. AJT Johnsingh’s Field days was of great use in compiling this. Some of these are so rare that we didn’t have a prayer of a chance of actually encountering them, but we got them on the list anyway. In any case, considering that we were mostly confined to the foothills, this effort came to naught and we saw just a couple of these candidates.

Endemic

  1. Ochlandra travancorica
  2. Discoria wightii
  3. Gluta travancorica
  4. Bentinckia condapanna – endangered palm tree
  5. Dasia subcaeruleum – Boulenger’s dasia, tree skink originally mistaken for Dasia haliana, a Sri Lankan endemic
  6. Broad-tailed grassbird
  7. White-bellied shortwing
  8. Cochin forest cane-turtle
  9. Anamalai gecko

Flora common to the W Ghats and the Himalayas

  1. Bishchofia javanica – Bishop’s wood tree
  2. Canarium strictum
  3. Messua ferrea

Other significant flora and fauna

  1. Podocarpus wallinchiana – only coniferous tree native to peninsular India
  2. Paphiopedilum druryi – Asian lady slipper orchid, on the verge of extinction
  3. Gnetum ula – endangered woody climber
  4. Brachycorythis splendida – orchid also found in Africa
  5. Southern birdwing
  6. Oriental bay owl
  7. Brown palm civet
  8. Brown mongoose
  9. Black narrow-mouthed frog – rediscovered after a hundred years in Kakachi
  10. Calotes andamanensis – Andaman lizard
  11. Indian kangaroo lizard

Trip Report: Kabini River Lodge/Nagarahole NP

Trip:       Kabini River Lodge/Nagarahole NP

Camp:   JLR’s Kabini River Lodge

Dates:   20-22 Sep ‘14

Who:     GiK & SV

GiK and I had met SV and his family at K Gudi last, and we hit it off well considering our shared interests in wildlife. We had proposed a trip to Kabini together and SV promptly did the reservations as soon as he got back to Bangalore. By happy coincidence, BR who figures in my last K. Gudi post was also there, and it was a reunion of sorts. We did two nights at Kabini River Lodge, and GiK and I stayed back for an extra evening safari on day three, leaving for Bangalore late in the evening. This was a good plan as in addition to the extra safari, it allowed us to avoid return traffic on the Mysore road.

Kabini RL is considered JLR’s flagship property and their sightings are reputed to be second to none. Despite this I haven’t been there after a single trip ten years back. The scale of the establishment puts me off I guess. The safaris are indubitably spectacular, but the place lacks the sense of intimacy that the K. Gudi camp has, in my opinion. And BR agrees with me on this.

The “five kilometer” road. This is a disused and restricted (erstwhile) section of the highway to Kerala – SH17D. This road was fairly productive for us. Particularly interesting was a spot along this road known as the “burning place”, which bears the scars of the 2012 fire that ravaged the park.  Kabini Sep 2014 1080

Changeable hawk eagle. We saw at least three CHEs and only one Crested Serpent Eagle in a reversal of the usual proportions.

Kabini Sep 2014 868

Sambar hind. Note the bald patch on the neck, which is a strange and not-fully-understood occurrence in the species. Kabini Sep 2014 885

I was trying to get a shot of these two stags sparring, but they took a break to stare back at us instead. Kabini Sep 2014 227

I saw Common langur without the tuft after a long while. The langurs that occur in Bandipur, K. Gudi and Galibore are all Tufted langurs, with a distinct tuft on their heads. Langurs helped us locate a she-leopard with a single cub that we sighted on two safaris, near the KV waterhole. Incidentally, there is a watch tower by this waterhole on which I’d spent an entire afternoon ten years back, with only  chital and langur sightings to show for all my trouble. Kabini Sep 2014 851

Both gaur and wild boar were strangely missing. We saw just two herds of gaur, and that in the last couple of safaris. And just one token wild boar. This animal below was photographed in the “burning place” Kabini Sep 2014 1076

We saw plenty of elephants right through the trip. This makhna crossed the road just behind our jeep. Kabini Sep 2014 003

We met this young tusker while he was grazing by the highway. Kabini Sep 2014 085

We watched a herd of three elephants systematically destroy a patch of teak saplings. Kabini Sep 2014 888

Elephants stand around all day and even sleep standing up. This cow gave her leg a break. Kabini Sep 2014 891

Another member of the herd of three approaching. Kabini Sep 2014 893 Kabini Sep 2014 925

This cow approached very close to the jeep. And stood placidly grazing at spitting distance. I asked the naturalist Ravi if Nagarahole elephants were so habituated to human presence that they grazed like cattle around us. He replied that they do mock-charge frequently, and that the tolerance we were seeing wasn’t always present. Kabini Sep 2014 940

We sighted this large tusker with a broken tusk on two separate occasions, both on the “five kilometer” road. Kabini Sep 2014 953

Another massive tusker, this one in the “burning place”. Kabini Sep 2014 1167

This tusker accompanied a small herd. Kabini Sep 2014 1170

A pair of Golden  jackals (Canis aureus) came cantering down the track, stepped off it to pass the jeep, and regained the track to continue on their way. Typical jackal behavior. Kabini Sep 2014 121 Kabini Sep 2014 142

We encountered a pack of three dhole on the “five kilometer” road. Possibly the same pack was sighted by another group the next day in the “burning place”. Kabini Sep 2014 994

We had leopard sightings in three of the five safaris. This she-leopard was found on a tree by the highway, a little before the Balle gate. She stayed put for forty five minutes and treated us to a variety of poses. Two cubs were with her, and had descended out of sight before we arrived at the spot. Kabini Sep 2014 378 Kabini Sep 2014 590 Kabini Sep 2014 608 Kabini Sep 2014 709

The cat was briefly distracted by something in the tree above. We later learned that there was a Giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) on the tree, but none of us noticed at the time. Kabini Sep 2014 669  

My jungle trees 101 progressed at a slow crawl. I learned to ID the Nandi tree or Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia microcarpa). This tree is called the naked lady of the forest alluding to how it looks when shorn of its bark – the trunk resembles that of the Eucalyptus, somewhat. And the Belleric myrobalan (Terminalia bellerica). Both of which were fairly common. I also learned that the Axlewood tree has a handle too – leper of the forest – owing to its pale blotchy patterns. There were plenty of these trees in Nagarahole. My old friends Tectona grandis, Terminalia tomentosa and Phyllanthus emblica were there in force too.

The birding lacked the usual intensity. What came our way was what we saw. There was plenty of unrecognized birdlife we zipped past in our quest for megafauna. Incidentally, Grey wagtails had just started to arrive for the winter and were seen around the Gol Ghar. But what was truly striking was the sheer number of Grey junglefowl everywhere. On two occasions, I counted eight individuals foraging at one place.

The list

Birds:

  1. Ashy prinia
  2. Ashy wood-swallow
  3. Asian brown flycatcher
  4. Asian paradise flycatcher
  5. Black-hooded oriole
  6. Bronzed drongo
  7. Brown fish owl
  8. Bushlark?
  9. Changeable hawk eagle
  10. Common hawk cuckoo (calls)
  11. Coppersmith barbet (calls)
  12. Crested serpent eagle
  13. Unidentified flameback
  14. Green imperial pigeon
  15. Grey francolin
  16. Grey junglefowl
  17. Grey wagtail
  18. Hill myna
  19. Hoopoe (calls)
  20. Indian grey hornbill
  21. Jungle myna
  22. Jungle owlet
  23. Magpie robin
  24. Malabar parakeet
  25. Paddyfield pipit
  26. Peafowl
  27. Pied bushchat
  28. Plum-headed parakeet
  29. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  30. Brown-capped pygmy woodpecker
  31. Racket-tailed drongo
  32. Red-whiskered bulbul
  33. Red-vented bulbul
  34. Rose-ringed parakeet
  35. Streak-throated woodpecker
  36. Tailor bird
  37. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  38. Vernal hanging parrot
  39. White-bellied drongo
  40. White-bellied woodpecker
  41. White-cheeked barbet (calls)
  42. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Chital
  3. Common langur
  4. Dhole
  5. Elephant
  6. Golden jackal
  7. Indian flying fox
  8. Leopard
  9. Malabar giant squirrel
  10. Ruddy mongoose
  11. Sambar
  12. Stripe-necked mongoose
  13. Wild boar

Trip Report: Wild Valley Farm/Sathyamangalam TR

Trip Report:        Wild Valley Farm, Germalam/Sathyamangalam TR

Dates:                   30-31 Aug 2014

Camp:                   Wild Valley Farm, Germalam

GiK and I drove to the farm for a quick weekend trip. We had not sought prior permission, so driving through Sathyamangalam TR was not on the cards. We thought we’d spend some time around the farm, do some birding, and some walking through the surrounding forests. Moreover, GiK was just recovering from a fever.

View from the dining porch; the fencing in the distance demarcates the forest boundary. Bilbo in the foreground.

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The weather was lovely. There was intermittent drizzling, but never lasting more than a few minutes each. Strangely, it was colder now in August than it was in October last when I was there. Germalam is evidently well known for its wind at this time of year, and wind there was. Gusty spells that swept screaming across the forest and farms.

I renewed my acquaintance with my canine pals on the farm – Bilbo the GSD/lab mix, his brother Rover. Spike the deceptively intimidating looking Dobermann. And Patch, one of the two Lhasa Apsos. The farm is worth visiting just for this reason alone. As also for relaxed conversations with Mr. Daniel, these can be extremely pleasant as well. The story of his life is a truly remarkable one.

Bilbo and Patch. “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs” – Gen Charles de Gaulle

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Giving Spike a rub-down.

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Reaching by the forenoon of Saturday, we pottered around the farm until lunch, and then went on the “short” trek. We crossed the stream that marks the boundary for a loop through the forest, Shankar the guide intently and ceaselessly scanning the route ahead for any sign of elephant. This area comprises stunted tree and scrub vegetation. Except by the streams, where towering riverine trees occur. Barring a solitary Asian paradise flycatcher and a herd of chital, we were the only souls around. Not counting a herd of cattle grazing in the forest that went crashing away in panic at the sight of us. The trail wound back and intercepted the same stream we crossed at some point and at this place was a Terminalia arjuna tree with very distinct (but old) leopard claw marks on it.

Since the trek was a short one, we were back on the farm in a couple of hours. We spent the time until dark tramping around the periphery of the farm, skirting the tiger reserve. On one side, the farm borders the main road, across which lies the reserve. There is a rocky outcrop on this edge that offers a sweeping vista of the landscape, all the way to the cloud-shrouded BR hills in the distance. Mr. Daniel talked of putting some sort of observation deck around this point, as the view is very pretty.

Dinner done, we tried driving on the road for a five kilometer stretch in the direction we hadn’t been on. The drive was a cropper, and all we did was roll through a few modest settlements on that side. And a very small stretch of deafeningly silent forest. The only fauna visible was tethered and ruminating cattle in these villages, bedded down for the night.

We spent the next morning hanging around the farm and with the dogs, taking in the Waldenesque charms of the place before it was time to leave. The best places on the farm to watch birds from are the dining area patio, and atop the work-in-progress roof of Mr. Daniel’s house.

Gooseberry

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Sitting by the tent, we watched a pair of caterwauling grey cats flush a francolin from the shrubbery, sending it sailing over a rubble wall to safety.  And a foraging pair of Scaly-breasted munias that came very close if we sat still. A little to our left was a pair of robins apparently nesting in a mud embankment, and a solitary Red-wattled lapwing. Bulbuls were all over the place, both red vented and whiskered varieties. Malabar parakeets were also numerous, rocketing overhead while screaming hysterically. As were spotted doves, with their soporific hooting. We crossed into the forest to sit on some rocks in the stream-bed along with Bilbo, savoring the lush silence. Mr. Daniel later told us that he discouraged the dogs from crossing the fence and that the ones that got into the habit of doing so never lasted more than a few months thanks to leopards. We should’ve shooed Bilbo back into the farm.

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I should note that what wasn’t very Waldenesque about the trip was the food. It was delicious and I stuffed my face at every meal, making up for GiK’s tiny, fever-stricken appetite.

GiK tries his hand at silhouettes.

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The list

  1. Ashy-crowned sparrow lark
  2. Ashy prinia
  3. Asian paradise flycatcher
  4. Baya weaver bird
  5. Black drongo
  6. Bushlark
  7. Common hawk cuckoo
  8. Common iora
  9. Coppersmith barbet
  10. Coucal (calls)
  11. Grey francolin
  12. Grey hornbill (calls) – Indian or Malabar I couldn’t see
  13. House sparrow
  14. Indian nightjar
  15. Indian robin
  16. Indian roller
  17. Indian treepie (calls)
  18. Little brown dove
  19. Magpie robin
  20. Malabar parakeet
  21. Oriental white eye
  22. Peafowl
  23. Pied bushchat
  24. Purple-rumped sunbird
  25. Red-vented bulbul
  26. Red-wattled lapwing
  27. Red-whiskered bulbul
  28. Scaly-breasted munia
  29. Spotted dove
  30. Tailor bird
  31. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  32. White-bellied drongo
  33. White-browed wagtail
  34. White-cheeked barbet
  35. White-headed babbler
  36. White-throated kingfisher

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:

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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.:

13_Minervarya

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:

12_bullfrog

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:

6_yellowbush_frog

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