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Serpent Eagles of Chokra Mudi

Chokra Mudi as seen from Rajakumari

Chokra Mudi as seen from Rajakumari

I got a unique chance to climb up Chokra Mudi near the Lockhart gap in Munnar last Wednesday (25 Nov. 2009). Chokra Mudi or Choka Mudi as local tribal people call it is the second highest peak, south of the Palghat pass after Anamudi (Dodabeta is the second highest peak in the whole South India after Anamudi, but it is in the Nilgiris north of the pass).

It is a pivotal natural structure having great geological and cultural significance in the history of ancient tribes like Mannans and Muduvans in the Anamalais and Cardamom Hills. Its south slopes in Muttukad hosts megalithic dolmens and rock-cut caves. Its western lower reaches still retain place names like Mannan Kandam now known as Adimaly. It is visible from Adimali, Vellathooval, Ponmudi, Rajakad, Rajakumari and Bison Valley. This magnificent rock peak towers well above 2400 Mts. above sea level.

The Mighty Hights: Chokra Mudi Peak

The Mighty Hights: Chokra Mudi Peak

My friends Kannan, Rajesh, Vinod and Unni from Rajakumari were not much interested in birding but were really enthused in rock-climbing and hiking. The craggy and steep terrain was a real challenge for them who were mostly raised in the high ranges. I followed far behind them and could manage to see a few birds as well.P1070200

Plenty of House Swifts and Dusky Crag Martins were seen in agile fast motion overhead. A few Alpine Swifts were also seen. In a grass patch a pair of Pipits were found, but did not get any shots and there fore could not identify them. A few Stone Chats were also seen around. Grey wagtails are abundant in the lower areas of the mighty peak constantly drenched by tiny springs and cataracts. In the foundation we can see unique flora mixed up with the grassland and rocky terrain.

P1070222After an hour of climbing we reached the half way mark and began to rest. Unfortunately this unique natural and geographical heritage of the Western Ghats is illegally colonized by a dominant religious group and some religious marks and icons adorn the rocks and the peak! We can see the whole northern Idukki district from here. From Bodimettu to Adimali is visible. This immense rock projection offers a panoramic view of Bison Valley, Rajakkad, Pallivasal, Rajakumari, Santhanpara and Muttukad areas down below. As we were enjoying this breathtaking sight I heard a distant “Klee – klee – klee…” from far above! It was repeated in short intervals.

Crested Serpent Eagle Spreading Wings over Chokra Mudi

Crested Serpent Eagle Spreading Wings over Chokra Mudi

Yes, it was a Crested Serpent Eagle above Choka Mudi! It was soaring well above the pinnacle. To add to our amazement we saw another one near the first bird. They were hovering above in tandem! The circling motion of the Eagle couple was a moving sight at that location, that even attracted my friends who were not so keen on birds. As we watched curiously the huge birds of prey slowly moved towards the shola grasslands adjoining the Muttukad plantations.

After one more hour of hard and painstaking ascend we finally reached the summit. It was fortunately cleared of mist. Normally we see the pinnacle always covered with heavy fog and clouds. This time we saw clouds sailing well below us! It was a magical experience, though tiring. And without wasting time we began our down hill task which was more risky and dangerous. We managed to get down to the National Highway 49 near the gap-road as the dusk was engulfing the whole landscape. the sight of the Serpent Eagles in elevated flight and their repeated calls and responses are still simply unforgettable.

Down-hill Task

Down-hill Task

The Black Eagle of Kolukku Malai

Last Wednesday (28 October 2009)I began my most awaited journey to Kolukku Malai the highest tea garden in South India well above 2100 Meters in the Western Ghats. It is a Kerala frontier in the Anamalais and borders with Theni district in Tamil Nadu. I started the trip on bike from Rajakumary in the early afternoon and reached Santhanpara a few minutes later, from where my friend Mr V P Raveendran joined. Hill Mynas and Blue-winged Parakeets were heralding our sunny expedition in the cardamom plantations nearby.

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Through Poopara, Anayirankal, Periyakanal and Chinnakkanal we reached Sooryanelli in the east of the Elephant Lake after riding for around forty Kilo Meters. Then we began our ascend to Upper Sooryanelli to Naga Malai and finally to Kolukku Malai – a difficult stretch of around 12-15 KMs. we entered the age old tea estate roads laid more than a century ago by the British pioneer planters. We were welcomed by a few Indian Robins here playing and picking up worms on the stone poles and hedges.

The old world colonial Bungalows and beautiful Pines and Oaks dote the mystic landscape. We enjoyed the richly flavoured hot Tamil tea and Vadai from the roadside shop. According to local people in the earlier times pesticides and fertilizers were not used in Naga Malai and Kolukku Malai and once it was the highest tea garden in the whole world. But later the British themselves planted tea in Darjeeling and other Himalayan foothills.

It was getting colder and colder and we watched the mysterious formations of meandering mist and clouds on the hills and dales around us as we went up. On a Silver Oak my companion spotted a small raptor savoring flesh. But before we could identify the bird, it just slipped down and vanished into the misty ether…

As we passed the winding ghat road from Naga Malai to the summit we saw some Bush chats in flight. The cold was unbearable and it was the onset of north eastern monsoon. We were drenched by a sudden sweep of rain and we took refuge under a Grand old Oak by the road. The roads are also bad as we go up here and stray dogs are also a problem at times. But a few four-wheel drive jeeps are operating here for advanced explorers. Pillion riding on the bike is a bit risky here.

Nagamalai and Kolukkumalai seen above the clouds

Nagamalai and Kolukkumalai seen above the clouds

Near the Echo Point in Kolukku Malai we had the unique sight of our trip. It was like a flash or lightning. A huge dark raptor struck our eyes like a bolt from the blue! After a few rounds of soaring it merged into the craggy shola beneath. A few seconds later we again had a glimpse of the huge bird of prey. This time in better light and angle we clearly saw the lucid yellow nostril patch and claws against its jet black plumage. Yes, it was a Black Eagle in its sheer power and glory!

The bird, a mighty cousin of the Aquilas, sunk down into the canopies again and never appeared after wards. It really was an awesome and transcending sight!! That glorious glimpse is still unbelievable, and is unforgettable too.

And then we visited the View Point from where we had a breathtaking panoramic view of Theni and Madurai districts in Tamil Nadu lying down under at ground zero. There is a historic vintage tea factory here built by the English that still manufactures the renowned Kolukku Malai tea. We can go up to the check post and beyond it we have only the old horse trodden path down to Bodhi Nayakanur. Both the horizons were getting blushed as we began our retreat.