Exploring Beyond Iravikulam in a Sole Search
I was part of a unique eco expedition in the high mountains of Rajamala near Munnar during February 4 to 7, 2010. My friend and former colleague Dr Dilip K G of S S University, Kalady invited me for a key inquiry in the shola grass lands north of Rajamala gap beyond Pettimudi. It was a specific search for a single species!
Bio-diversity Hot Spots High up in the Western Ghats
This unique grassland shola and mixed wet evergreen forest are home to various endangered Western Ghats endemic flora and fauna. Our
expedition happened at a critical juncture when the Munnar land issue was turbulent in the media and in the politics of the state.
The expedition was in search of a single species: Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, which is common in the Nilgiri mountains north of Palghat pass. It was organized jointly by Kerala Forest Department and Cochin Natural History Soceity lead by Dr Dilip and Vishnupriyan Kartha.
The Elusive Bird: Nilgiri Laughing Thrush in the Anamalais?
In the recently concluded Mankulam Bird Survey 2010, Dr Dilip chanced to see a bird resembling the Nilgiri Laughing Thrush in this purticular location called Pampadumpara, a few miles north west of Rajamala gap and Pettimudi. The exact location of sighting is called Mappatham at an elevation of 1430 meters.
Though Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush and Wayanad L T are found in the Anamalis and Sahyadri mountains south of the Palghat pass, the sighting of the Nilgiri L T is a rare record, yet to be confirmed. The dialogues between Dr Dilip and DFO Induchudan proved successful and the re-survey was materialized.
All Set for the Search: The Team CNHS
I joined the team at Munnar by the afternoon of 4th February, 2010. Apart from Dr Dilip and me Vishnupriyan Kartha, Jinu George, Adv. Jay
and Jijo were part of the team. Forest guard Babu accompanied us through out and forest watchers Indran and
company played our hosts in the forest.
After having lunch in Munnar we started our journey on jeep. At the Iravikulam National Park we took a small break to see a few mountain ungulates, the endangered Nilgiri Tahr. We also saw a few Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes near the Story of the park. A few Pacific Swallows were also flying around.
Crossing Rajamala Gap, the Jeep Journey to the Edge: Feb. 4, 2010
Then we resumed our journey to Pettimudi beyond the Rajamala gap. The gap is at an elevation of almost 2000 m. stated the altimeter in my Timex Expedition WS4. From there we had a great view of the whole park with pinnacles like Naykoli and Umaya Mala in the backdrop. Anamudi the highest peak in South India at an elevation of around 2600 m. is not visible from here, though it towers nearby.
Crossing the gap we descended down to the Nyamakad and then Pettimudi estates owned by the Tatas. The road to Idamala Kudi, a tribal settlement of the Muduvan tribe, divereged again to the high grasslands from Pettimudi estate junction.
The Long Trek to the Location: Pampadumpara
Turning left from here we reached the border of the Pettimudi estate and began our long trek to Pampadumpara further north west in the mixed evergreen and shola grassland forest. We saw plenty of Pied Bush Chats in the tea gardens. In the forest Scimitar Babblers were plenty with their
distinct calls. We also saw many Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers. Vishnu was busy with his heavy Canon barrels. Above the rocky cliffs we observed a few Black Eagles as well.
Finally when we reached the camp site at Pampadumpara it was getting dark. The tribal forest watchers lead by the chief Indran Annan welcomed us and served us hot black coffee. The temperature was dropping with the sun Though there was an ancient natural rock-cave we opted to sleep outside in the open on the rock overlooking Mankulam valley as the cave was too small to host all of us together.
Sleeping in the Open near the Fire among the Ancient Folks
We spent the night on the rock near the fire at 1520 m. in altitude. Supper was served hot
near it and we relished the simple meals as lights began to emerge in the valley from the wild darkness further down west in Mankulam and Anakulam. The sounds of the wilderness resonated from all sides in the dark. The sky was an ocean of twinkling stars.
It was both scary and sensational. Our hosts the ancient Muduvan tribesmen had come all the way from Anakulam to set us camp. In the warmth of the fire Indran ”Annan” (the elder in ancient Tamil) narrated the story of his people and the plight of the Adivasis in the Western Ghats today.
We also had heated debates on the Munnar land issue. As cold was engulfing everything, we slowly retreated into the safety of our warm sleeping bags. Though the night sky was starry the cold wind creeped into the sleeping bag through the airhole and pinched us with a vengeance too
Day 1. Feb. 5, 2010. Hot Pursuit
We were awakened by the cold in the early morning. Temperature dropped down to a minimum of 10 degree C. After having coffee we began our birding transects. We formed three groups and explored the area in the morning light. I was with Dilip and we scanned the Mappatham ridge. We could see many Scimitar Babblers and Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes. We also saw Honey Buzzards above . Dilip chased the enigmatic birds for so long in the thick under growths, but was beguiled in the end. At noon we returned to the camp and had our belated brunch!
After a light nap our team mates found huge and fresh pug marks of a wild cat just a few meters from our camp in the damp soil. It was a tiger! He or she was around last night and a sudden tremor hit us like lightning! But we were equally excited to see the trace of the big cat!
We repeated the transects in the afternoon and explored the wet evergreen forest patches and the riverine patches near the Pettimudi stream. I quenched my thirst and exhaustion with the cold and sweet water that comes all the way down from Pettimudi and beyond, the waters and rivulets of Anamudi also joins this stream says Annan our learned tracker.
Near the stream at around 1400 m. we heard the calls of mountain pigeons. We suddenly saw a flock of more than ten Mountain Imperial Pigeons flying away from us with their heavy wing beats. Their whitish underbelly and grey tail bar were visible. As we approched the tree a few more Nilgiri Wood Pigeons also flew away from us. We noticed the difference in calls and their appearance as well.
Day 2. Feb. 6, 2010. Still Hopeful:
The second day we changed our strategy and planned to flush the bird out in a joint mission. We reached Mappatham (literally means the terraced land of Sambhar Deer in Muduvan tribal etymology) early morning and hid ourselves in various strategic locations. Our attending staff also tried their best to flush some birds out of the thick undergrowth but they proved to be Grey-breasted ones and Scimitar Babblers, rather than the Nilgiri one.
But we saw a variety of birds in the meanwhile. Emerald Doves, Nilgiri Wood Pigeons, Black and Orange Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Black-lored Tits, Mountain Hawk Eagles, Serpent Eagles and Black Eagles.
The Mountain Imperial Pigeon came to my hide out near a small stream and allowed me a generous and graceful photo session. It also came close to me up to two meters and drank water from the stream. A Paradise Flycatcher with long white tail streamers were also remarkable here. Butterflies like Colored Sergeant also came to visit me to pose before my Lumix FZ 28 for awhile.
In the afternoon we climbed up the peak of Pampadumpara in an exhausting adventure. We could see the northern stretches of Iravikulam plateau and even Valpara and Malakkapara, lying in the north from there. As evening approched it was raining raptors there. The peak rose well above 1750 m. in altitude. We saw plenty of Black Eagles, Booted Eagles, Common Buzzards and Honey Bussards there. My friends also noticed a falcon diving down after lingering mid air static for a few seconds.
The Retreat: Feb. 7, 2010
The next morning we repeated the transects but in vain. We saw plenty of other birds like the Nilgiri Flycatcher and Black and Orange Flycatchers. But our target bird was still elusive. By ten in the morning we began the return journey to Pettimudi estate through the dense jungle.
The Trail of the Tiger
On the way we saw several tiger scats and the blood of a deer on pebbles and leaves caught by the tiger. The hunt happened just before our arrival at the spot. Though we could not see the bird that we were looking for we could identify the place as a hot spot of the tiger, a big one
among the very few remaining in the Anamalais today.
At the edge of the forest we had a refreshing bath in the Pettimudi stream. The beautiful sandy shores and pebbles of the stream captivated us and we ignored the cold to delve deep into the flowing water. Some Blue Bottle and some unknown butterflies were mud puddling in the sandy shores. By the time we finished the bath our jeep arrived and sounded horn.
Trekking Down Rajamala: Grass Birds, Bush Quails and Pipits
At the Rajamala gap we alighted from the vehicle and trekked down to the Story of the park. We could see plenty of Nilgiri Pipits and a few Broad tailed grass birds, an Anamalai endemic. We saw plenty of Nilgiri Flycatchers and Pied Bushchats. At the story we again saw the Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes having their ridiculing laugh at us! We were fortunate to see the nesting of Pacific Swallows in the building.
As we drove down to the main road we saw Nilgiri Langurs and a flock of Painted Bush Quails crossing and stopping by the road. A Grey Jungle Cock also crossed our path before we hit the highway to Munnar.