Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘Harpactes fasciatus

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.

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part I)

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A collage of diversity: highlights from 10 days of traversing Sri Lanka’s mountain zones.

Sri Lanka’s modest island boundaries hosts a rich assemblage of habitats with unique life forms that contribute to its status as one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots  (together with the Western Ghats of India).  Several of these places-namely Sinharaja rainforest and the Central Highlands -are also recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. In mid-June this year my son Lenny and I took an unforgettable  ten day south-north traverse through the three most important mountain ranges of Sri Lanka looking to explore themes of endemism.

The Rakwana Hills (including Sinharaja), Central Highlands and Knuckles range share certain geographic and vegetation patterns and yet have distinct species with very restricted distributions. They are all in the “wet zone” receiving between 2,500-6,000 mm of rain (see SL Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism) . In May this year I read a new article by Sri Lankan amphibian guru Madhava Meegaskumbura and colleagues entitled “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka – Timing and geographic context” (see Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution and the summary by Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Mongabay). The authors highlight the genus Pseudophilautus in the three ranges and their connections to shrub frogs in the Western Ghats. They delve deep into the species at a molecular level that is beyond most of us but I was fascinated by the role of mountain geography in the species’ distribution. This got me thinking about doing a single traverse through the same ranges at the onset of the South West Monsoon.

About the same time, Lenny was formulating an approach to his IB MYP5 personal project. This culminating exercise challenges students to pick their own project, make a product or produce an outcome and then reflect deeply on the process. He had been fascinated by our (thus far, futile) search for the rare point endemic marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) in the Knuckles range. With a little encouragement from his parents, Lenny decided to explore broad themes of endemism in Sri Lanka using the medium of photography.

Primary ridge forest in Western Sinharaja. These relatively inaccessible areas were never logged during the mechanized logging period (1960s-mid 1970s). The prominent tree species is Shorea trapezifolia from the Dipterocarpaceae family.

Sinharaja West

We started our 10 day traverse, driving southwards from Colombo on the expressway in the middle of heavy monsoon showers. Our first three days and two nights were spent in the western side of Sinharaja, staying with the incomparable Martin Wijeysinghe at his Jungle Lodge. There were showers on all days but this was low season and there were few tourists (and no migrant birds). The road that had been re-paved from the Kudawa ticket office up to the entrance to the core zone entrance was nearly complete and opened for the first time. The impact of this controversial project appeared less harmful than had been projected by concerned citizens and journalists (See the Daily Mirror on 12 February 2019). Pavement stones had been used on the road and a concrete lining put on the storm drain that runs parallel down the road. There were some trees that had been felled and large patches of Strobilanthes and other shrubs cleared. But these should recover within a season or two. If there is one lesson from Sinharaja’s conservation story in the last 40 years it is that the rainforest system is resilient and is able to recover from human disturbance remarkably well. That doesn’t suggest that we should be complacent about conservation and restoration efforts but we do need to give the system a chance to rebound.

Lenny, Amy and I had visited Martin’s for two nights in February along with our friend Mangala Karaunaratne and his two kids. That trip had been rewarding with good sighting of the Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata), Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and several other species. A few of the images are included here, as they paved the way for a deeper exploration of the area.

The extremely rare Golden Palm Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) at Martin’s lodge. This individual made regular night visits for several months but has stopped coming (as of June 2019). (photo taken in January 2019)

Our highlights with endemics in the western part of Sinharaja in June mainly involved birds. We did look for frogs around Martin’s but were not that successful in this early stage of our mountain traverse. During our three days we had rewarding encounters with a Green Billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) and a Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Thilak, the very talented independent guide, helped us locate a solitary Chestnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum). We did encounter a mixed feeding flock during our first walk to the research station. It included some of the usual endemics but we didn’t have a good opportunity to photograph them.  A visitor from Singapore staying at Martin’s was very lucky and saw both the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) and the extremely rare Sri Lanka Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis) in the same area while we were there.

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A male Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) that was part of a mixed species feeding flock near the Sinharaja research station.  Regular readers may recognize that this species is one of my favorite species to encounter and photograph. Previous posts from Silent Valley and the Palani Hills have feature Malabar Trogons and a future post from Thattekad (Kerala)will highlight another exquisite individual.

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Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) near the upper Core Zone entrance on Sinharaja’s west side.

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) visiting Martin’s lodge, in search of months and insects around tea time before breakfast.

Sri Lanka Keelback (Xenochrophis asperrmus) at the ticket gate of the Kudawa entrance to Sinharaja.

Glaucidium_castanotum_at_Sinharaja_3a(MR)(06_19)

The endemic and diminutive Chesnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) was one that took special help to find. Lenny and I were assisted by Thilak, the independent guide, in our search for owls and he found this individual outside of the park boundaries. Just was we were setting up and getting shots with a 200-500 the skies opened up and we were forced to leave before we wanted to. The light was so low and the bird was at least 20 meters away and I was forced to use a strobe.

(to be continued in Part II/IV)

REFERENCES (for all four parts)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S. A Nature Guide to the World’s End Trail, Horton Plains. Colombo: Department of Wildlife Conservation, 2007. Print.

Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N, and C.V.S. Gunatilleke and M.A.A. Dilhan. “Plant Biogeography and Conservation of the South Western Hill Forests of Sri Lanka.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 2005. No. 12 9-22. Web.

Handunnetti, Dilrukshi. “How India’s shrub frogs crossed a bridge to Sri Lanka – and changed forever.” Mongabay. 1 May 2019. Web.

Kotagama, Sarath and Gamini Ratnavira. An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. Colombo: FOGSL, 2010. Print.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Conservation and biogeography of threatened Amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja.” Froglog. Issue 100. January 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka-Timing and geographic context.” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2019. Web.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

Senevirathna, Ishanda. The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya. Colombo: Jetwings, 2018. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweera. Lizards of Sri Lanka. A Colour Guide with Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira, 2009. Print.

 

MAP OF THE JOURNEY

 

Linking the Hotspot: From Silent Valley to Sinharaja

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Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male and female photographed in Sairandhri zone of Silent Valley National Park. This is one of the most beautiful birds from the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka hotspot and is found in many parts of the Ghats as well as in most evergreen forests (both wet and dry) in Sri Lanka. It is quite shy but can be photographed with patience. In Sinharaja rainforest Malabar trogons are often found in the mixed-species feeding flocks that are a key feature. Some of my best sightings are from Sinharaja trails and it was thrilling to have the long encounter in SVNP with Aneesh CR that produced these images.

Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus), male and female, photographed in the Sairandhri zone of Silent Valley National Park. This is one of the most beautiful birds from the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka hotspot and is found in many parts of the Ghats as well as in most evergreen forests (both wet and dry) in Sri Lanka. It is quite shy but can be photographed with patience. In Sinharaja rainforest Malabar trogons are often found in the mixed-species feeding flocks that are a key feature. Some of my best sightings are from Sinharaja trails and it was thrilling to have the long encounter in SVNP with Aneesh CR that produced these images.

The Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot encompasses a swathe of area running down the western coast of India across the Palk Straits to Sri Lanka and its southernmost point at Dondra Head. The heterogeneous landscape-composed of rugged hills, river valleys, wetlands and coastal plains there host a variety of vegetation types. Being a hotspot, there are unfortunately anthropocentric pressures: dense human populations, mining, damming, plantation agriculture and expanding human settlements to name a few. There is also impressive work that has been done in protecting key parts of the hotspot. A significant type of vegetation is the tropical wet evergreen forest that are found in high rainfall areas along the hotspot.

This blog is a personal narrative exploring two exemplary tropical rainforest habitats in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot-Silent Valley in the Indian sate of Kerala and Sinharaja in south-western Sri Lanka. By good fortune our school had two breaks over a course of March/April this year that allowed me the opportunity to explore both of these seminal protected areas with our two children. Amy-eight years old and enthusiastic about learning, art and sports -accompanied me to Sinharaja in March. Lenny, in middle school and now approaching his teen years is involved in theater productions and has a sharp eye for the wildlife in our Malabe neighborhood. He joined me on the Silent Valley exploration in April.

The rare Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) photographed at a day-time roost in Sinharaja captured in in a beam of afternoon light with the able guidance of Thandula. The species was only identified 12 years ago by Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda.

The rare Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) photographed at a day-time roost in Sinharaja captured in in a beam of afternoon light with the able guidance of Thandula. The species was only identified 12 years ago by Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda.

This map shows the location of Silent Valley and Sinharaja layered over an updated SRTM “Swiss shade” model that I have just started to work with. The Western Ghats boundary (from ATREE) and the major protected areas in both Sri Lanka and the southern Western Ghats are also highlighted.

This map shows the location of Silent Valley and Sinharaja layered over an updated SRTM “Swiss shade” model that I have just started to work with. The Western Ghats boundary (from ATREE) and the major protected areas in both Sri Lanka and the southern Western Ghats are also highlighted.

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

SILENT VALLEY

Silent Valley sits high amongst India’s most important protected areas. Not only does it preserve one of the largest tracts of undisturbed tropical rainforest in the Western Ghats, it is a symbol for a people’s movement to protect wilderness areas from misguided “development.” In the 1970s a plan to dam the Kunthipuzha River that runs from the Nilgiri plateau to the Arabian Sea galvanized a people’s anti-dam movement in Kerala in favor of protecting the forest. It was not an easy fight – in addition to agitation from citizen’s groups in Kerala, luminaries such as Salam Ali and the strong will of Indira Gandhi played a key role in Silent Valley’s notification as a national park in 1985. The area is now zealously protected and is one of the finest tracts of rainforests in the Western Ghats. Shekar Dattatri’s 1991 film Silent Valley: An Indian Rainforest helped introduce many of us to the area. His article (listed below) presents a timeline of events that led to the area’s protection.

During the longer Sinhala & Tamil new year break this year Lenny and I journeyed to south India and Silent Valley for an exhilarating four day visit. We were the guests of Silpa Kumar, the wildlife warden of SVNP who Lenny and I met a year and a half ago in Kerala’s other national park, Eravikulam. I was interested in revisiting SVNP (22 years ago I made a very brief foray into the forest) and I also wanted to introduce Lenny to the wonders of a Western Ghats rainforest. This was hard work-his friends were going to amusement parks in Singapore or beach resorts in the Maldives and Lenny was going on another adventure with his father. With a few incentives, he was a good camper and played a vital role in helping to spot birds and mamals.

Of course, it’s some way from Colombo to the Kerala side of the Nilgiri Hills. Silent Valley sits in the south-west portion in a relatively inaccessible part of the greater Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Our journey took us to Madurai, the Palani Hills and then on across the scorching hot and bone-dry Palghat Gap to Mananarkad, the nearest large settlement to the Valley. We were warmly received by Silpa and set up for an amazing visit. That afternoon we journeyed to the Mukali gate and then into the core zone in a forest department jeep. We spent the next three days based around the old proposed dam site at Sairandhri. A young and energetic officer/Wildlife of India Institute graduate Aneesh accompanied us and helped us learn more about the area.

On one of our full days we walked the trail to the Poochipara forest station. It crosses the Kunthipuzha and then continues through gorgeous, towering rainforest to a forest guard hut. Back in the Sairandhri vicinity I was able to record rare and colorful creatures-most that I had seen in past years but was never able to photograph properly. Highlights included sightings of Malabar Trogons, Southern Treepies, White Bellied Blue Flycatchers, Fairy Bluebirds, Gray Headed Bulbuls, Great Pied Hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, Nilgiri Langurs, Draco lizards and much more. We shared the forest guesthouse with Aneesh and three young women from the College of Forestry in Trissur Kerala. They were conducting population studies of bats, rodents and small carnivores. Lenny was able to observe them setting up mist nets and catching bats. Ever the prankster, Lenny photo-bombed one of Devika’s camera trap-a device that a few weeks earlier had captured a tiger and black panther (a melanic form of the leopard) moving on different nights.

There have been significant changes in Silent Valley since it started receiving formal protection from the Keralal Forest Department. One change and improvement that is visibly obvious is the increased forest cover. The image on left was taken in January 1995 during a fleeting day-long visit that I did. The right images was taken from roughly the same place this month (April 2016). Though the lighting is not great several of the patches of grasslands have now been taken over my forest cover. This of course poses interesting challenges as there is less fodder for large herbivores and SVNP’s wildlife staff reported decline in gaur and Sambhar. The tree growth is of native vegetation and appears to be following the somewhat predictable stages of ecological succession that one would expect in this area.

There have been significant changes in Silent Valley since it started receiving formal protection from the Kerala Forest Department. One change and improvement that is visibly obvious is the increased forest cover. The image on left was taken in January 1995 during a fleeting day-long visit that I did. The right image was taken from roughly the same place this month (April 2016). Though the lighting is not great, several of the patches of grasslands have now been taken over by forest cover. This, of course, poses interesting challenges as there is less fodder for large herbivores- and SVNP’s wildlife staff reported decline in gaur and Sambhar. The tree growth is of native vegetation and appears to be following the somewhat predictable stages of ecological succession that one would expect in this area.

Canopy of the rainforest in Silent Valley National park -a composite exploration.

Canopy of the rainforest in Silent Valley National park -a composite exploration.

Lenny’s Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus). While having an afternoon rest we were alerted to a troop of LTMs next to the rest house. This male was also in a lethargic mood in the afternoon heat. LTMs are significant keystone species in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Their protection was a key issue in the debate about whether or not to dam the Kunthipuzha River and flood prime LTM rainforest habitat.

Lenny’s Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus). While having a short siesta Lenny and I were alerted to a troop of LTMs next to the rest house. This male was also in a lethargic mood in the afternoon heat. LTMs are significant keystone species in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Their protection was a key issue in the debate about whether or not to dam the Kunthipuzha River and flood prime LTM rainforest habitat.

White Cheeked Barbet (Psilopogon viridis) and Fairy Blue bird male (Irena puella) at Silent Valley National Park. The barbet is endemic to the Western Ghats while the Fairy Bluebird is distribution in the Western Ghats (but not Sri Lanka) and into NE India and SE Asia.

White Cheeked Barbet (Psilopogon viridis) and Fairy Blue bird male (Irena puella) at Silent Valley National Park. The barbet is endemic to the Western Ghats while the Fairy Bluebird is distributed in the Western Ghats (but not Sri Lanka) and into NE India and SE Asia.

Sri Lankan endemic bird species from Sinharaja, taken in a similar habitat to the SVNP birds above. From left to right: Yellow Fronted Barbet (Psilopogon flavifrons) Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Layrd’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae).

Sri Lankan endemic bird species from Sinharaja, taken in a similar habitat to the SVNP birds above. From left to right: Yellow Fronted Barbet (Psilopogon flavifrons) Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Layrd’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae).

SINHARAJA

Like Silent Valley, Sinharaja’s status as a protected area was born from controversy. The area that makes up what visitors know of the park was part of a larger belt of lowland rainforest in the Rakwana Hills. The lore associated with the forest stretches back to a time before recorded history. Much of this hilly area was converted into plantation agriculture in the 20th Century but Sinharaja enjoyed natural protection because of the rugged topography of its boundaries. However, in the 1960s roads were built into its heart and mechanical logging was started to feed a large paper mill located in Avisawella. It was a time when this sort of project elicited praise for improving the prospect for “development.” Awareness about ecological matters-concepts like biodiversity, deforestation, ecosystem services and watershed management were not in the public discourse of the age.

As the name suggests, Sinharaja (“lion king”) evokes pride in the Sinhalese and by the 1970s groups of citizens, university professors and students had started to raise awareness about the deforestation and need to protect the forest. The March for Conservation group was a key actor in raising public awareness. It took Julius Jayewardene’s 1977 election for that to happen. The logging soon stopped and Sinharaja was protected first as a sanctuary in 1978 and then as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site in 1988. Since then it has become one of the most studied rainforests in Asia. The area that was once logged has made a remarkable recovery and Sinharaja illustrates the potential for rainforest recovery after human disturbance.

In March I did a short three-day visit to Sinharaja with our daughter Amy. The goal was to experience the forest and see and photograph as many birds (and other creatures) as possible. In recent years most of my visits have been with students as part of our DP Geography field work and it was good to have an opportunity to explore other places in the area for personal reasons. It was quite hot and dry- in fact dry enough that there were no leeches! Amy and I were lucky to have Thandula as our guide on this visit. We walked to the research center, observed a few mixed species flocks and journeyed to see a Green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos) next and the rare Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata). Many of the birds were busy nesting but the migrants (paradise flycatchers etc.) were still around, which we appreciated. The highlight was a superb encounter with the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), a bird brought to public notice by Deepal Warakagoda in 1998. Thandula had worked in Sinharaja with Deepal and it was thanks to him that we saw this shy bird. As usual, we stayed at Martin’s where we are treated like family and Amy was showered with special attention. Her favorite part was spending time exploring the stream below Martin’s.

SHARED LESSONS

There are fascinating parallels in Sinharaja and Silent Valley that are worth highlighting briefly here. Both have conservation histories that started in controversy, elicited a ground swelling of public support and resulted in their protection. From my perspective, both demonstrate effective management strategies. Silent Valley is blessed with a team of enthusiastic and committed personnel that love what they do. This stretches from the top level -who are more often in the field than office- to the forest guards manning remote posts. The Kerala Wildlife Department runs a tight operation and I was impressed by the commitment and love for their rainforest that they espoused. In Sinharaja. a similar pride in the protected area is evident in the forest guides that take tourists along trails at the Kudawa and Deniaya entrances. Their livelihoods are closely connected to the protected forest. Ecological succession is happening in both places and the recovery of the rainforest is remarkable. There have been important studies conducted on this recovery as well as other aspects of the forest areas but there are opportunities to delve deeper. Both case studies demonstrate the power of protecting South Asian rainforests for ecological, aesthetic and even economic reasons.

 

REFERENCES

Bawa, Kamal, Arundathi Das and Jagdish Krishnaswamy. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, May 2007. Web.

Dattatri , Shekar. “Silent Valley – A People’s Movement That Saved A Forest.” Conservation India. 25 September 2015. Web.

de Zoysa, Neela Ryhana Raheem. Sinharaja, a rain forest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Global Forest Watch. Web. ( a helpful site to investigate change in forest cover on a variety of scales)

Louve, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 2005. Print.

Manoharan, T.M. Silent Valley: Whispers of Reason. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department & KFRI, 1999. Print.

Ramachandran, K.K. Ecology and Population Dynamics of Endangered Primates in Silent Valley National Park. Trissur: Kerala Forest Research Institute, March 1988. Web.

Silent Valley National Park. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department. Web. (the official site for the park-very useful!)

“The Legendary Sinharaja.” WWW Virtual Library-Sri Lanka. Web. (excerpts form the de Zoysa book)

Western Ghats Biodiversity Portal (Beta). Web.

“Western Ghats.” ARKive. Web.

WWF Ecoregions. Southwestern Ghats Moist Forests and Sri Lanka Web.

WWF Ecoregions. Sri Lankan Moist Forests. Web.

Silent Valley A (2016)

Silent Valley and lower Mukurthy National Parks as seen in a a 2014 Landsat 8 image of the area. Double click for a larger 150 DPI A3 image.

 

Getting the kids into the woods: (Left) Lenny and Ian returning from a hike to Poochimara in Silent Valley National Park (April 2016). (Right) Amy and her dad in Sinharaja photographing the elusive Serendib Scops Owl with a 600mm lens (March 2016).

Postscript: Getting the child into the woods: (Left) Lenny and Ian returning from a hike to Poochipara in Silent Valley National Park (April 2016). (Right) Amy and her dad in Sinharaja photographing the elusive Serendib Scops Owl with a 600mm lens (March 2016). Left photograph courtesy of Aneesh , right photograph courtesy Thandula.

Mathikettan Shola Wanderings

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Mathikettan Shola interior. A composite panoramic image made up of several images and then jazzed up in Nik’s Colorefex.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to make a quick visit back to Kodai and the Palani Hills over a long weekend. A highlight of the trip was taking an exploratory trip with the Vattakanal Conservation Trust out towards Berijam Lake to explore Mathikettan Shola. This forest patch near Berijam Lake is significant as one of the largest contiguous sholas in the upper Palanis. The name itself is curious as it is roughly translated from Tamil as “shola where one looses oneself.” Having had first hand experience of being thoroughly lost in Mathikettan on past occasions, the name is fitting.

Berijam Lake and hills looking west over expansive non-native tree plantations, as seen from the Fire Tower. Vembadi Peak (3rd highest peak in the Palani Hills) is on the far right. While Vandaravu (the highest point), Ibex Peak (2nd highest peak) and Marion Shola points are blips on the western horizon.

Looking at Dr. Manfred Laun’s pictures you can see how there has been dramatic change in the Berijam lake and Mathikettan areas since the 1970s when the area’s montane grasslands were extensively planted with exotic tree species. We walked along the escarpment to the break off point of the old Berijam Ridge hike. Looking back towards the fire tower there were excellent views of mist coming up over the Mushroom Ridge. The state of grasslands here is quite precarious with wattle and eucalyptus spreading into areas that were never historically planted. Since the 1990s when I worked with the PHCC and frequently visited the area, there has been significant change and a notable decrease in the cliff-side grasslands. Bob & Tanya helped us identify a variety of flowers (see below). There are important patches of grasses surviving amongst the plantations and there is good scope for restoration work along the cliff edge. Along the way there were also numerous Rhododnederon arboreum trees in bloom with their unforgettable riot of red flowers. Mathikettan Shola itself is in fine shape with no apparent disturbance in the areas that we walked through. There was even a spray of Calanthe triplicata ground orchids in flower- unusual for a flower that usually blooms during the South West Monsoon.

On the way back we passed through a wattle (Acacia mearnsii) thicket and were surprised (and thrilled) to encounter a female Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus). To see a lowland rainforest bird up so high (roughly 2,100 meters) and in an exotic wattle forest was very, very surprising. The plantation is right above a cliff with shola dropping to lower altitudes and it was likely just a chance encounter. There were also significant numbers of shola pioneer species (Daphniphyllum neilgherrense etc.) invading the wattle and eucalyptus forests. This seems to confirm an observed trend of shola species recolonizing non-native plantations that have taken over montane grasslands.

For further information on the Berijam area look at Marcus Sherman’s writing in Wikipedia. He has done extensive research and made contributions to the Wikipedia pages on Berijam Lake and the Palani Hills etc.

Mushroom Ridge on the Palanis Hills southern escarpment showing cliff, shola and mist as seen from the west.

Flowers of February: From top left: Rhododenderon arboreum, Kalanchoe grandiflora and the delicate Jewel Orchid () and Calanthe triplicata.

In a “sholaette” – VCT name for small sholas isolated from larger ones. This one is on the edge of the escarpment just east of Mathikettan Shola. We had waited for a grumpy gaur bull to move away before we could traverse the stream on our way towards Mathikettan.

Female Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) in a wattle (Acacia mearnsii) plantation at 2,100 meters on the edge of Mathikettan Shola- a rare and baffling sighting for those familiar with the upper plateau areas of the southern Western Ghats.

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