Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for October 2019

Thattekad Introduction

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Blue-winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) at K.V. Eldhose’s place outside of Thattekad.

(Continuing from the October Post)

Leaving the Anamalais, I traversed westwards down the long, but rarely used and richly-forested road into Kerala’s Vazhachal area and then to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. This side of the Western Ghats enjoys the full force of the South Western Monsoon and harbors fine examples of tropical evergreen rainforest. That means the opportunity for high biodiversity and endemism. The high rainfall and deep valleys also attracted dam builders in the last century and there are a number of large hydroelectric reservoirs and generating stations in Vazhachal. I had visited Athirappilly Falls nine years ago (see August 2010 post) and on this trip I wanted to go further to Thattekad and explore its forests and birds before making my way home to Colombo via Kochi (Cochin).

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Deep inside Kerala’s Vazhachal area on my way to Athirappilly Falls  and Thatekkad.

Descending into Vazhachal to Athirappilly was fascinating as the road passes through towering valleys of classic tropical rainforest. This is classic GPH territory and it was surprisingly clear on the day that I did the drive in a rented Valparai taxi. It was somewhat frustrating as vehicles are not allowed to stop-to prevent picnics and mischief from tourists. In the last few years Athirappilly has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Kerala State Electricity Board (the same actors in the effort to dam Silent Valley) has been trying in earnest to dam the Chalakudy near the falls. There are already several dams upstream but KSEB has stubbornly stuck to proposals to put in a 163 MW dam at Athirappilly (Environmental Justice Atlas). The debate is sometimes seen as a classic “pro-development vs. environment/conservation” argument. Tragically, even after the battles and lessons of Silent Valley, we are reminded that protection and conservation is never guaranteed. Current and future generations are compelled to be alert to those who seek short term solutions in the last remaining areas of wilderness.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is well known for its association with Salim Ali, India’s legendary birdman. Ali’s books, published by the Bombay Natural History Society, introduced several generations to the joy of birdwatching and he was actively involved in promoting the protection of wilderness areas in an age of aggressive large scale industrial development and hydroelectric dam building. His visits to Kerala in the 1930s, when the area was part of the Travancore Princely State, led to the landmark publication of the Birds of Travancore and Cochin (1953). He famously associated Thattekad with being the richest area for birds in peninsular India.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary sits at the junction of the Periyar and Idamalayar rivers just 50 km east of Cochin (Kochi). It has a mix of forest types but is notable for its small remnants of lowland tropical evergreen forests. The actual protected area of Thattekad is quite small (@ 25 km2) and many of the interesting species are found in home gardens and patches of forests and wetlands outside of the PA. In recent years Thattekad has become a must see location for serious birders and others looking to see and check off the Western Ghats endemics. With its growing popularity, a number of home stays have sprung up near to its entrance on the north side of the Periyar River.

Palanis_Anamalai Landsat Mosaic_2 (10_2019)

A new and updated version of the Anamalai Hills, High Range Palanis Hills map created by the author for the Nature in Focus talk in 2016. Click on the image for a larger 150 DPI A3 version.

In Thattekad I stayed with the legendary K.V. Eldhose. Almost all serious birdwatchers and photographers interested in the endemics species of the Western Ghats have either visited him or planned to visit Eldhose’s homestay. Eldhose’s is located south of the Periyar river in a sparsely populated rural landscape with secondary forest, open patches and marshy areas.  There aren’t any signs so you need to book ahead of time and then Eldhose comes to meet you on his scooter. The habitat around his place are composed of rubber tree groves and small patches wetlands/paddy fields. He maintains five neat Kerala-style bungalows for visitors and then facilitates excursions to see different key species. Eldhose grew up appreciated the natural history of the area and learnt about their feeding habits from his grandmother. Over the years he has developed a complex series of feeding routines to attract key species in different habitats. His specialties include the Southern tree Pie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) , Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) , Blue Winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) and Gray Headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus). These can be viewed outside of the Thattekad protected area in a rural landscape. Eldhose and/or his guides escort you into forest patches within a 15 km radius of his homestay for forest species like the Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), White-bellied blue flycatcher (Cyornis pallipes), Ceylon Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) etc.

My goal was to get a sense of Thattekad and then come back during the winter migration season. June may have been “off season” but being at Eldhose’s before the rains started in earnest provided several unique natural history viewing opportunities. There were no other guests so enjoyed great attention and support. During the day I used Eldhose’ hides to get up close and personal with Blue Winged Parakeets, Greater coucals,  Woodpeckers, Jungle Babblers, Common Mynas and more. The lowland rainforest was at least a 15-20 drive, across the Periyar River up the road. Here giant trees with enormous sweeping buttresses shade out most of the sunlight and provide a diverse set habitats for most of the rare forest bird species of the Western Ghats. In a leisurely outings our notable encounters included two Sri Lanka Frogmouths, a White-bellied blue flycatcher, two different Malabar trogon pairs  and a Heart Spotted Woodpecker.

At dusk I enjoyed the extraordinary experience of watching two Mottled Wood Owls (Strix ocellata) scare the bejesus out of other birds and then come swooping into Eldhose’s garden to dine on several field mice that he had put out for them. Their calls-all of the distinctive vocalizations- are  something quite unforgettable. Later I went out with Ajomon looking for frogs and snakes. We found several Malabar Gliding Frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus)  at a neighbor’s house but the most photogenic individual was in a pepper vine behind Eldhose’s house (see images).

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) female in the primary forests of Thattekad.

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male posing for me in the primary forests of Thattekad. I can never get enough of these birds that are so intimately associated with some of favorite areas in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot!

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Mottled wood owl (Strix ocellata) making an appearance at Eldhose’s home at exactly 6:45. A snack of lab mice gives these rare birds an incentive to visit. Their calls are eerie, exiting and quite hard to reproduce.

My visit to Thattekad wrapped up all too soon and I found myself on a flight back over the same hills traversing the Western Ghats from 8,000 meters on my way home to Colombo. Plans are already in place to revisit Thattekad and spend more time with K.V and other contacts that I met on the June trip.

Cleared_Land_near_Thattekad_1(MR)(B&W)(06_19)

At first glance, this image might depict a landscape of devastation while, in fact, it is one of hope. Here a plantation of forest department-managed non-native acacia trees has been cleared and an effort is being made to restore the tropical evergreen rainforest that is the climax vegetation. Taken near to Thattekad, looking north-east. (June 2019)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Amphibians of India. Web.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Daniels, Ranjit. R.J. Amphibians of Peninsular India. Hyderabad: University Press. 2005. Print.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion, 1998. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

Further Explorations in the Anamalai Hills

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Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silensus) mother and infant getting ready to cross the road in Pudhuthottam, Anamalai Hills. No other mammal in the Westerns Ghats is as closely associated and emblematic of the hotspot’s fragile biodiversity. (April 2019)

The Anamalai Hills drew me back to their forest and plantation-clad contours once again this year. In the recent decades the Anamalais have emerged as a key area of conservation interest in India’s 1,600 km long Western Ghats biodiversity Hotspot. The hills are located in Tamil Nadu south of the Palghat Gap and adjoin important protected areas in Kerala and the neighboring Palani Hills. Rich habitat diversity and distinct vegetation types in the Anamalais provide a home for almost all of the key emblematic Western Ghats species. These include large animals such as tigers and elephants, key endemics including Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus), Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and charismatic smaller life forms such as the Anamalai flying frog (Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus) and Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). The area hosts significant human populations-there are several indigenous tribal groups living in remote settlements, but most humans are involved in planation agriculture on the Valparai plateau. There is also a small but significant group of scientific researchers studying different aspects of the ecology and working to protect the fragile heritage of the Anamalais. Finally, the Anamalais are attracting tourists- a development with both positive and perilous potential.

My earliest recollection that the Anamalais were distinct from the range of my childhood (the Palanis) and the more distant Nilgiri hills came  from George Roshan, a leading wildlife photographer of his age who lived in Kodai. We both frequented Doveton’s Studio and sometime in 1985/86 George came back with stories of exciting large animal encounters in Top Slip- a place located in the north-western Anamalais. During those same years the school’s tahr camp ended up in Manjampatti Valley-a remote and relatively dry low plateau surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Palani Hills, High Range and Anamalai Hills. On our final hike out we walked westwards through dry deciduous forest with the 2,000 + meter high, grass-covered peaks overshadowing our small group. We had to be careful of large mammals but mostly we were walking alone through a savanna-scrub like environment far from the trappings of civilization. The area is now part of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and trekking is restricted such that school groups are not able to enjoy the experience that was a highlight was so many of us. In 1993 I accompanied my cousin Anna on a trip to Top Slip to meet Ragupathy Kannan and visit his field study site where he was observing the nesting and feeding ecology of Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis). About 10 years ago I visited and spent time at the NCF nursery where  the group’s ecological restoration efforts radiate out from.  Since then I have come back every few years with either Amy or Lenny on enjoyable but all too short visits.

This January Danesh Khan, my friend and co-author from the grasslands study, hiked up to Cloudland’s peak to watch the first light of the day and review the status of remnant montane grasslands in this northern high point of the Palani Hills. The view to the west of the Anamalai highlands was particularly striking. The lofty peaks that are north or Eravikulam loomed over the Manjampatti Valley, Kukkal and Puthuputhoor ridges (see image below). Of course, Eravikulam’s plateau, Anai Mudi and Katu Malai were also clearly visible, though some of it the plateau was obstructed by the Vandaravu, Vembadi and Gundar areas of the Palanis. That view of the Anamalais lodged in my mind and motivated two trips mid-way through the year.

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the east. The grass-covered peaks rise above the Puthuputhoor ridge in the Palani Hills. Manjampatti Valley, the site of numerous magical tahr camps, separates the Palanis from the Anamalai Hills. The Kukkal ridge is on the left with the first light of the day illuminating steep cliffs. (January 2019)

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the north near Pollachi looking south.(June 2019)

In April during our Sinhala/Tamil New Year break Lenny and I took a brief three day visit to Valparai. We were motivated by birds, endemic species and the chance of observing and photographing Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis) in flight. We connected with Sridhar for a morning of rich bird watching and e-bird counting. Lenny and I spent time in the newly refurbished NCF Anamalai Nature Information Centre and were able to pick up copies of the exquisitely produced Pillars of Life book. We crossed paths with Divya and a film crew photographing LTMs for an episode of On the Brink. The increasing tendency of these normally arboreal, forest-dwelling primates to venture into the town of Valparai to forage for food is the subject of some debate and study. In Valparai we stayed at Misty Creek a homestay that is owned by Frank Benjamin-a knowledgeable and helpful gentleman with an interest in snakes and amphibians. However, it was still very dry and thus I planned a return trip to focus on amphibians. We did have good success with LTM and Nilgiri tahr observations and I had a decent view of a GPH in flight (see images below).

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Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight over a forest clearing near Old Valparai (April 2019).

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I came back to Valparai on another short visit in June, this time as I traversed the Anamalais on my way to Thattekad and Cochin from the Palani Hills. I was expecting the South West monsoon to be vigorous but it had not set in with its full force yet. That offered a few opportunities for dry exploration and luckily there had been enough rain to get the amphibians croaking. Kalyan Varma was in town with the same On the Brink team and we had a brief chat as one of the Pudhuthottam LTM troops moved into a school compound in Valparai. This time I stayed at Pudhuthottam Annex (run by the Briar Tea Bungalows group) with the idea of getting closer to the frogs, birds and mammals that I wanted to photograph. Working with the naturalist Dharani and manager Abhishek Vaidyanathan, we located and then photographed several key endemic frogs near the Briar Woodhouse. These included Jayaram’s Bush Frog (Raorchestes jayarami) and the Wayanad Bush Frog (Pseudophilautus wynaadensis). I also appreciated waking up to Malabar Whistling thrushes (Myophonus horsfieldii) calling on my roof and the troop of LTMs surrounding the small cottage. Unfortunately, the possibility of leopard and elephant encounters kept us close to the main wood bungalow at night.

This narrative is continued and concluded with the Getting to know Thattekad post(to be published next month).

PAST ANAMALAIS POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “ Restoration & Revival in the Anamalais” August 2010. Web.

”             “A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter.” May 2015.  Web.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Chakravarty, Rohan. “Valparai Natural History Map.” Green Humour. Web.

Mudappa, Divya, Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao and Sartaj Ghuman. Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore: NCF, 2018. Print.

Raman, Shankar, Divya Mudappa and Anand Usuri. “Restoring rainforest remnants: experiences from the Anamalai hills.” Current Conservation. May 2018. Web.

The Pollachi Papyrus. Website.

 

 

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