Author: Ravi Kailas (email@example.com)
Dates: 15th to 18th October 2019
The Anamalai Hills is a repository of the immense biodiversity of the Western Ghats of south India. Somewhat surprisingly, the disturbed, plantation-rainforest landscape in the Valparai area of these hills, located as it is, surrounded on all sides by protected areas, is one of the best places to see some of Western Ghats’s mammalian specialities, including endemics like Nilgiri Tahr, Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur, Brown Palm Civet with relative ease, with chances of rarities like Brown Mongoose, Travancore Flying Squirrel and even Nilgiri Marten. There is also potential for Elephant, Gaur, Dhole, Sloth Bear and Leopard, the former two more likely to show themselves up, towering over tea bushes as they move through the landscape. Birdlife, typical of the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats, are also (or can be) on display, including such species like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Malabar Trogon, Rufous Babbler, Wynaad Laughing Thrush, Malabar Grey and Great Pied Hornbills and Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets. While there is much else to be appreciated, including an engrossing floristic and small vertebrate diversity, our focus on this brief visit, was on Great Pied Hornbill congregations (known from specific locations, seasonally, in the landscape) and some of the endemic mammals of the Western Ghats, that this landscape is known for.
The climb to Valparai begins along a hairpin bend infested, steep, rocky, sparsely vegetated slope, that rises over the Aliyar Reservoir. This section of the road, upto about 700m in elevation, is a regular spot, unusually for a species mostly restricted to montane grasslands above 1750m, for the endemic Nilgiri Tahr, but this was one of those rare occasions, when we missed the ungulates on the drive up. While late in the season for rains, it was apparent, from the road-side puddles and intermittently threateningly cloudy skies, that moisture wasn’t just content in hanging in the air. Higher up, the road hugs a gentler terrain, the forests increasingly dense/predominantly evergreen, exposed to the to the moister winds from the west, rising upto 1500m, through a pristine patch of montane forest, before descending into a valley of (predominantly tea) plantation-forest matrix where we would be based. The fauna too changes with the moisture gradient and elevation, with Nilgiri Langur replacing the South-eastern Langur, and birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous Babbler, especially vocal later in the evening, also made an appearance. A grove of flowering trees (species?) turned out to be magnet for the Malabar Tree Nymph, a large-winged butterfly partial to (elegantly) gliding amidst inflorescence in the canopy, as they were when we saw them. Upon reaching the Valparai Valley, an hour or so before sunset, our first priority was the check a regular spot Great Pied Hornbill, in a coffee plantation near Varatuparai (a small planation settlement). A road descending into the plantation, affords of an excellent view of the canopy rising from the planation, and, from this platform, dextrously avoiding the occasional speeding bus, we were entertained for more than an hour, watching a pair of Great Pied Hornbill, feeding on a copiously fruit laden canopy (tree species?), until they (typically noisily) flew away to roost (presumably) at dusk.
Later that night, a brief walk inside the Puduthottam Estate, a patch of rainforest within a tea plantation, and the scene of our accommodation for two nights, produced innumerable Indian Giant Flying Squirrels, some with varying extent of greying fur on their face, making us question our ID, if some of the them could be the rarely seen, endemic, Travancore Flying Squirrel (but, as it turned out, just a racial variation of the Indian Giant), Sambar & Barking deers. This patch has potential for almost all the larger mammals found in this landscape, some of their presence confirmed with spoor and scat, including creatures of the dark like Brown Palm Civet, Leopard, Sloth Bear, but none of these relative rarities showed themselves up, that night.
The next morning, a walk through the (much less wild seeming, in broad daylight) estate produced some usual suspects (bar a roosting Indian Scops Owl), including Indian Munjtac, Striped-necked Mongoose and the endemic Western Ghats Squirrel among them, but things go more interesting when we decided to stake out the ‘hornbill tree’ from the previous evening. The hornbills did not seem to be enjoy the same food for dinner and breakfast (but we were proven wrong later in the morning), however we were entertained by the buzz of morning activity around a fruiting fig tree, conveniently (except we had to dodge an occasional heavy vehicle hurtling downhill) located on the side of the road. We were attracted to this roadside spectacle by the loud calls of a large flock of Southern Hill Myna, seemingly excited by the abundance of breakfast within easy access, to happen upon somewhat quieter Yellow-browed Bulbul, Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets, Asian Fairy Bluebird, a young Great Pied Hornbill, Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Indian Giant Squirrel and Bonnet Macaque all gorging on fruit from this one tree. Ashy Drongo, Orange Minivet and Greater Flameback Woodpecker also paid occasional visits, likely attracted by associated insect life. This was brief, engrossing window into the inter-dependence of figs and their seed dispersers (among several other known associations, but unnoticed here) – a significant component of biodiversity in tropical forests. Watching this feeding frenzy built-up an appetite for our own lunch, which was slightly delayed, ‘way-sided’ as we were by a typically bold/habituated troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, just as we entered the Puduthottam Estate (this little patch of rainforest-tea plantations, with a main road passing through it, is home to 100 plus of these endangered primates, with one large and two smaller splinter troops, thriving on the easy availability of food, to suite a variety of macaque palates, in a human dominated landscape).
An early evening until darkness vigil at the ‘hornbill tree’ produced the same (?), seemingly insatiable pair, the fruit-laden canopy almost their exclusive domain during the day, as well as Nilgiri Langur, Gaur, Barking Deer, Striped necked-Mongoose and Malabar Grey Hornbill, in the vicinity. Waiting after dark, in hope of the endemic Brown Palm Civet on the copiously fruiting road-side Ficus, was surprisingly bereft of reward (not even bats, evident), but the more distant ‘hornbill tree’ had a visitor which appeared to be the civet of choice, but could not distinguish convincingly from Indian Giant Flying Squirrel. A quiet evening otherwise, with Sambar, Indian Giant Flying Squirrel and Gaur in the darkness, on the way back to base and around.
The next morning a long trudge to the Sekalmudi Estate, preceded by a visit to the ‘hornbill tree’ was not especially productive (the hornbills were missing this morning and the activity on the fruiting fig was subdued as well), however our luck changed in the afternoon when were entertained by a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, foraging (and otherwise socially interacting) along the main road that runs through the Puduthottam Estate. From here, we visited the Stanmore Bungalow, on the fringes of which the rare Brown Mongoose have been seen on occasion. While the brown version did not show, we did see the much commoner, albeit shy, Ruddy Mongoose, but the real highlight from this visit was finding a beautiful, yellow marked with black bands species (Occelate Sheildtail?) of Shieldtail (a family of burrowing snakes known only from the hills of south India and Sri Lanka), as it moved across the concrete footpath, seemingly in search of a more congenial habitat of damp soil. Leaving here towards the Anamalai Club, our host for the night, via the Old Valparai Road, produced a satisfying sighting of a large herd of Gaur, moving up a bracken-filled, rocky slope, on a cool, cloudy evening. From the club premises, we had an unobstructed view of the surrounding open slopes and we spent the evening looking for wildlife from this vantage point. There was healthy bird activity, including the endemic Rufous Babbler before dusk and a Jungle Nightjar at the cusp of darkness. As darkness descended, a couple of shapes on the adjacent slope, revealed themselves as a Sambar stag, tentatively walking downhill and a Leopard, watching the slope ahead, perched motionless on a rock. We watched this scene for a few minutes, until the Leopard disappeared into the bracken, followed by (typically) shockingly loud Sambar alarm calls, taking a pre-dinner break. Walking out of room, taking a circuitous route to dining hall, via the unfenced club premises, turned out to be a double-edged sword, and as we turned a corner we startled a Sloth Bear and its baby, a few feet away, devouring a copious (even by their standards) outbreak of winged-termites, duly attracted to the lights of the club building. The events that ensued soon after were a bit of a blur, with vague memories of mama bear appearing to turn threateningly towards us, as we turned and bolted into darkness of the opposite direction. Then there was a sensation of hands and feet all around and hard ground on my face, and the relatively minor injuries that resulted put paid to any further activities that we had planned for in the rest of the trip …..
As an aside, Sloth Bear attacks on people are a relatively frequent occurrence in this human-dominated landscape. However, although this particular situation did not result in a serious incident, it could well have turned out a lot worse for us, and sadly, for wildlife as well, as such incidents always show them off in bad light. A lesson learnt, even for seasoned naturalists like us, to be keenly aware of our surroundings, while in locations with potentially dangerous large animals, even if their presence seems unlikely (for example here within a large, well-lit clearing of the hotel premises, but the emergence of winged-termites, manna from heaven for all manner of wildlife, seemed to have flipped the balance from caution to gay abandon for this bear family…)
List of Mammals Seen*
Jungle Striped Squirrel Funambulus tristriatus
Three Striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum
Indian Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista philippensis philippensis
Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica maxima
Common Leopard Panthera pardus
Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus
Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii
Striped-neck Mongoose Herpestes vitticollis
Indian Gaur Bos gaurus
Indian or Red Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Sambar Cervus unicolor
Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata
Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca Silenus
Nilgiri Langur semnopithecus Johnii
South-eastern Langur Semnopithecus priam
*Doubtful sighting of Brown Palm Civet
Highlight Birds Seen
Indian Scimitar Babbler
Malabar Grey Hornbill
Great Pied Hornbill
Greater Flameback Woodpecker
Southern Hill Myna
Grey-fronted Green Pigeon
Asian Fairy Bluebird
Indian Scops Owl
Crested Serpent Eagle
Vernal Hanging Parrot
Malabar Whistling Thrush