Raining Hornbills and Elaphants: Riparian Rain Forests of Vazhachal and Atirapally

Malabar Pied Hornbills at Vazhachal, across the river above the canopy. 8 June 2019

The low-lying riparian or riverine forests of Vazhachal and Atirapally are home to four species of Hornbills in Kerala: Great Indian, Malabar Pied, Indian Grey and Malabar Grey Hornbills. The resonant calls and wing beats of these huge birds make these rain forests ethereal, sensational and dynamic with vibrant life energy. It has a micro climate and its own unique rain oriented forest ecosystem that is to be admired, studied and conserved.

Southern Bird-wing Butterfly on Gulmohar at Vazhachal

After the floods in August 2018 the river Cholayar or Chalakudipuzha originating from Sholayar and Malakkapara, is gaining its lost sand beds and natural beauty. It is one of the most diverse biodiversity hotspots in the lower foothills of the Western Ghats in central Kerala.

Mother and calf in the river Cholayar, through the thickets darkly

It is also part of an important cultural corridor between ancient Tamilakam and Keralam. The trading and travelling groups used the pathways along the river in summer to cross the Western Ghats. The current tribal settlement or Kudi of Kadar tribes in Vazhachal is a resettlement after the Parambikulam dam construction in the 1940s.

Black-tipped Forest Glory damselfly at Vazhachal; 8 June 2019

Vazhachal literally means the stream of the plantain. It could be related to the abundance of wild plantain or some wild trees locally called Vazha in the surrounding riparian forests. It is still a favorite hound of elephants and Hornbills.

Malabar Pied Hornbills across the river Cholayar on a wild fig at Vazhachal, 8 June 2019.

Atirapally literally means the Pally on the frontier or border. It is one of the ancient Buddhist sites on the border land between Kerala and Tamil country. Beyond Atirapally towards Malakkapara above upper Sholayar we have a place called Manampally or Manambolly that denotes a Vihara up above the skies. It was once, one of the highest points on the ancient cultural route that housed a Buddhist Pally.

One on the left guards as the mother and calf are having some water in river Cholayar, at Vazhchal

The abundance of birds and mammals is still luring the curious visitors and travelers to this dense and moist forests of Vazhachal. In morning we may see the Great Indian Hornbills on fig trees in fruition. At dusk we would see a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills chasing and playing with each other flying and diving from tree to tree and sometimes across the river. The crossing of the great birds may be visible at the old British iron bridge as well.

A playing pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills at Vazhachal, across the river above the conopy.

This biodiversity hotspot needs to be conserved for future and the posterity. The lessons of the 2018 floods must teach us to be careful and conservationist regarding the vernal forests and sources of life giving water, air and earth.

Mother and calf in perfect camouflage in the rocky river Cholayar at Vazhachal after the floods2018, 8 June 2019. The floods exposed the ribs of the river, it requires time to heal the wounds of the floods.

The Land of the Vagai Trees: Biodiversity and Bird life in Vagaman and Ulpuni the Submerged Valley on the Highlands

Alpine wild date-palm called Chiteentu (Phoenix Pussilla)at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
Edible and cherished by humans, birds and bears alike. See the darkened ones that are ripened.

Vagaman got its name from the celebrated Vagai blooms from the Sangham or Chankam age onwards like the Kurinji blooms that named the Nilgriris or the blue mountains. Vagai was once the totem tree of certain early clans of the Chera dynasty in Kerala. Vagai Perumtura on the river Perar got its name from this iconic clan tree of the early Cheras in Vanneri. Some of the Vagai trees are still surviving in pockets like Ulupooni or Ulpuni region in Vagaman above 1000 m. They are also called Eeyal Vakai.

‘Eagel-top Ulpuni/Vagaman’ by Ajay Sekher 2019, Acrylic on Canvas. 30*20 cm

Ulpuni means the vessel within. It is a quiet and submersed shola grassland bowl or green shola vessel submerged or anchored within the Vagaman highland plateau. It is a biodiversity hot-spot and is teaming with endemic rare alpine flora and fauna amidst the pressures of plantation, construction and tourism industries.

A Nightjar at Ulpuni in Vagaman around 1000 m above sea level at dusk, May 2019.
A Pipit at Ulpuni in Vagaman near the Palette People Art Residency.
Bonelli’s Eagle soaring high above Ulpuni grassland tops in Vagaman, Early May 2019
Two Bonelli’s Eagles flying together in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019, there were three in this group.
Bonelli’s Eagle above Ulpuni in Vagaman. Early May 2019. Near Palette Art Residency Ulupooni.
A Pipit on the grassland sholas at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
Dusky Crag Marten in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019. It is nesting there in a building.
The nesting pair of Dusky Crag Marten by the Palette Art Residency building at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
Lesser Caucal at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
The last remaining patches of shola grasslands in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
‘Pipit at Ulpuni/Vagaman’ by Ajay Sekher 2019. Acrylic on Canvas. 30*20 cm
Alpine and endemic ferns in the shola relics in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019.
Lichens and mosses on shola trees that absorb water and create streams and springs in Ulpuni, Vagaman, May 2019.
Wild guava groves and fruits aplenty on the western ghats. Ulpuni in Vagaman. May 2019
Ficus (Kallal) shoots in dew at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
Vagai (Albizia) blooms from which Vagaman got its name at Ulpuni, Vagaman, May 2019.
A shola shrub in bloom at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019.
Crested Serpent Eagle above Ulpuni grasshills in Vagaman, May 2019.
Construction and plantation erasing the shola forests forever, causing the climatic change on the western ghats grassland sholas at Ulpuni, Vagaman. The local bodies and people must show caution against such large scale alterations in the geography and ecology at large.
‘Beast Fable -Kottamala/Ulpuni’ by Ajay Sekher 2019. Pen and Oil Pastel on Paper 10*20 cm
A Pipit at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019
Ulpuni grassland shola valley from the grassland top (Motta) near Palette People Art Residency (see the two green roofs below), early May 2019. Palette may be reached at 9142243866 (Mr Cyril Kochi). 8km from Vagaman town.