Author: Ravi Kailas (email@example.com)
Dates: 17th to 20th Aug 2021
Upto 7m of annual rainfall, much of it descending during the summer monsoon, is known to soak the Valparai region of Anamalai hills. As such, my recent visit to these hills in August, a month well within the summer Monsoon period, was accompanied by a fair share of this annual precipitation, and several creatures that thrive in the rains, represented by frogs, insects and leeches, most obviously. Highlights included sighting/photographing the uncommon Indian Brown Mongoose, Rufous Bellied & Black Eagles, Rufous Babbler, Gaur foraging in the mist, Western Ghats Flying Lizard basking on a rare sunny morning, and a couple of hairy drives on dark, very rainy, mist laden nights, where it was difficult to tell pothole ridden, narrow roads from the adjacent tire swallowing mud. Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur and Nilgiri Tahr, the trio of mammalian endemics the Valparai region is well known for, also duly showed up. I stayed at the charmingly located and tastefully restored Sekalmudi Bungalow, managed by Tahr Trails, and, their excellent hospitality, delicious food and insightful guiding by Prakash Ramakrishnan, among south India’s reputed wildlife photographers (with pioneering images of melanisitic leopard and Nilgiri Marten to his credit), added to the wholesome natural history experience of this southern Western Ghats location.
Entered the Anamalai Tiger Reserve at the Aliyar check-post around 1030 AM, for the windy drive to the Sekalmudi Bungalow. The initial part of the climb is a regular spot for the endemic Nilgiri Tahr and a quartet obliged, feeding on roadside vegetation. However, this was not the first memorable mammal of the climb, as I was reminded, once again, to raise the car windows around Bonnet Macaque that make tourist spots, waterfalls close to the base of the hills in this instance, their home (or it could lead to such incidents where a couple of especially bold ones get in through the opening, and rummage through your stuff for food and generally hang around until they are convinced there is nothing worth eating or left to eat, within the confines of the their fellow primate’s, with whom they share a deep love for junk food, fancy mode of travel). A quieter than normal drive otherwise, with only a bull Gaur in a regular haunt off the Old Valparai Road, Jungle Striped Squirrel, clumps of flowering Impatiens on wet rock, Rufous Babbler and a typically atmospheric monsoon shower, replete with cloud kissed hill tops and all, until reaching the vicinity Sholayar Reservoir. There was a small burst of activity around the Sholayar Reservoir, with Rufous-bellied Eagle soaring in what I image were modest thermals on a cloudy afternoon, Crested Serpent Eagle, Orange Minivet, Black-throated and White-rumped Munias, more Rufous Babbler and Nilgiri Langur, entertaining as my hatchback bumped and banged its way on the pothole (with a smattering of road) that leads from the Sholayar Reservoir towards (helped by sensibly frequent sign-posting) Sekalmudi Bungalow.
After a hearty (as every meal turned out to be here) lunch, it was time to digest the meal soon enough, and a bumpy safari in private estates bordering Parabikulam and Anamalai Tiger Reserves, and Vazhachal Forest Division, ensured that the appetite was well and good for dinner. We explored the predominantly tea plantation landscape for about two hours, until dusk, especially concentrating on locations where Leopard had been observed recently (basking on rocks), and, on a fruiting Ficus, where Great Pied Hornbill had been observed earlier in the morning. However, no luck on either front on this effort, and the modestly productive drive included Jungle Striped Squirrel, Rufous Babbler, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Whistling Thrush and a Crested Hawk Eagle (initially mistaken for the rarer Legge’s), feeding on what appeared to be a species of shrew. However the real highlight from the evening visit was watching the cloud kissed rainforest canopy of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, across the backwaters of the Sholayar Dam, with the rutting call of bull Gaur, apparently hidden in the undergrowth just a few feet from us, in the background. On the return, Prakash pointed to a grove of Maesopsis, an ubiquitous, introduced tree species (in this landscape) and, reputedly, a major attraction to Great Pied Hornbill in September/October, when they fruit copiously.
After nightfall, a pre-dinner, walk (very brief as it turned out, as rain interrupted proceedings), exploring the hedges around campus, a source of loud and pervasive calls of frogs, produced at least three different species of the culprits (likely bush frogs of some sort), a species of slug and a Spotted Owlet. Closer to home, the lights in the bathroom had attracted a fascinating variety of moths – just a subset of the amazing diversity of rainforest, especially enriched in the rainy season, even in this highly modified landscape.
A pre-dawn walk within the property, on a cool, cloudy, intermittently drizzly morning, produced a solitary bush frog, an Indian Scops Owl and some healthy macro-life, including a horde of leeches (some about to get healthier, at least momentarily, by including yours truly in the local food chain). I decided to wait out the morning on a lookout for the Brown Mongoose, an uncommon regional endemic, but a frequent visitor around this property’s kitchen waste, I understood. A two hour vigil from around 6AM, comfortably seated on a camp chair, turned out worthwhile, as (at least) one individual turned up, aware of my presence, but quite bold regardless, on four different occasion during this time. A satisfactory morning already, given that I had only ever seen a fleeting glimpse of this species on earlier encounters. Other wildlife that appeared as I was scoping the mongoose, included Jungle Striped Squirrel, Malabar Whistling Thrush, flocks of Vernal Hanging Parrot flitting between African Tulip Trees in bloom, Orange Minivet, Southern Hill Myna and Indian White-eye. There was also a persistent Peafowl alarm calls from the opposite hill slope, in the initial hour or so of the vigil.
A brief walk following the mongoose vigil, the sun making a rare, brief, appearance during the activity, produced more Vernal Hanging Parrot, this time with Orange-fronted Leafbird for company, as they foraged on the African Tulip, as well as Chesnut-headed Beeater and Crested Serpent Eagle. Time for breakfast soon after, and some of the most delicious Appam and Vegetable Stew nourished the malnourished soul, and over-nourished body, before the rain decided took the decision making, about further activities, out of our hands. A drive through the landscape seemed like a good option in this weather and a mid-morning to early afternoon drive, through intermittent showers, did not produce anything too interesting until I reached the Pudhuthottam Estate. Sightings here included Nilgiri Langur, a solitary Lion-tailed Macaque (the larger troop apparently hidden beyond, in the forest) and an Indian Giant Squirrel, all by the roadside, in a rainforest fragment, that almost never disappoints for its wildlife riches. On the return journey, there were more Nilgiri Langur from the lookout over Varataparai, a regular site for the species, and further down persistent Sambar alarm calls emanating from the depths of the undergrowth of an opposing hill slope – so no chance to see either the caller or its provocateur. Earlier a Barn Owl like bird was perched on a low bush in a bracken filled hill slope, but could not get a good enough look to confirm its id. The other, modest birdlife on this effort included Rufous Babbler, Crested Serpent Eagle and southern Hill Myna.
Bands of moisture laden clouds, from the west, intent on unloading their burden, was the order of the afternoon and things got progressively rainier through time – ominous signs that this weather was here to stay. As such the only dryish option available for post lunch activity was another drive, in my hatchback, towards Valparai. On the way out we stopped to check on an old bull, evidently blinded, found resting by the road earlier. When we found it, it had somehow clambered little higher on a slippery hill slope, but, sadly, the prognosis not too good for a wild animal in its condition. It was heavy rain by the time we made it to the main road at Sholayar Dam driving along seasonal waterfalls, abutting the road, littered with two species of Impatiens. The rainy drive to Valparai, was otherwise unproductive, except for Nilgiri Langur at Varataparai and Bonnet Macaque around settlements, until we reached the Old Valparai Road. A very atmospheric evening here, with the bracken covered hill slopes to one side, always promising much wildlife, shrouded in mist, and adorned by a pair of Sambhar on the ridge, silhouetted against the greyness beyond. It was time to turn back close to dusk, but an unplanned visit to Valparai town, just when the rain had relented a little, delayed our return well into the dark. This resulted in an ‘exciting’ two hour or so drive back, in (not quite!) driving rain, with duly appalling visibility – good enough while negotiating the excellent roads leading upto the Sholayar Dam, but negotiating the narrow ‘road’ beyond, involved a fair amount of guessing on presence and direction of paved surface and the like. Saving grace that we did not have any oncoming traffic, which can include heavy vehicles like full size buses and lorries, to yield for on this stretch, as that might have involved incidents worthy of being reported on the 5th page or so in national dailies. While there is always some excitement traversing this landscape at night, in anticipation of creatures of the dark that might cross our paths, there were only innumerable frogs (at least one species, which appeared to be Indian Golden-backed Frog (Indosylvirana indica) that crossed the road this evening, once again suggestive of the richness of the rainforest ecosystem, and a solitary snake (colour and size seemed to suggest a species of Trinket Snake (Coelognathus sp.) that braved the rains that night. I was hoping to see Indian Porcupine, evidently a regular nocturnal visitor around the Sekalmudi Bungalow, but was quite pleased to enter the dry comforts of the accommodation, with a promise of an impending warm meal, despite the quilly mammal deciding to stay away on the night.
Break of dawn on a cloudy morning, clearing to partly sunny later, hardly seemed possible from the evidence of the previous day’s rain-fest. Prakash felt that this would be ideal conditions to look for leopards basking on rocks, before the bustle of morning activity took over. We went out on a bumpy ride through the plantations, carefully scanning potential sites, but not before a Stripe-necked Mongoose crossed our path close to the bungalow. The feline proved elusive, but we were treated to two large herds of Gaur (and a couple of bulls in the vicinity) grazing (and otherwise behaving rather Gaur like) amidst the mist, in the tea plantations – idyllic scenes! Birdlife was an improvement on the somewhat subdued affair so far, with Malabar Parakeet, Hill Swallow and Indian Scimitar Babbler adding to the sightings from earlier affairs, which included more sightings of the ubiquitous (in this landscape) Rufous Babbler. Some butterflies too seemed to be enjoying the sun, especially Chocolate Pansy and Common Bluebottle forming small, feeding congregations.
Another hearty, somewhat late breakfast followed, and I decided to bask and digest on this sunny morning, in hope of finding companions among my reptilian brethren (the endemic lizards among which, Prakash suggested, would be active when the sun comes out after a few days of rain). Sure enough a Western Ghats Flying Lizard showed, plastered to an exposed tree trunk for two hours, virtually immobile, and several Keeled Grass Skinks of varying sizes, peppered the grounds and openings on the roadside. There was a Common Toad as well, among the mix, though not quite sure it was the basking type. I was hoping to see the colourful Large-scaled Forest Lizard, which were known to frequent the Bungalow premises, and any species of Sheildtail snakes that would show up in the garden, but both proved elusive. A lovely Black Eagle entertained, in the mid-day warmth, swooping amidst the eye-level canopy, adjacent to the Bungalow and a Crimson-backed Sunbird made a brief appearance to the canopy.
Late afternoon I drove to Korangumudi, a grove that hosts a ‘wilder’ troop of Lion-tailed Macaque than Pudhuthotam, and, also in hope of stumbling upon Brown Palm Civet around dusk. The drive onward turned out typically (as had been for wildlife on this trip) unremarkable, with only Nilgiri Langur, Gaur, Bonnet Macaque, Jungle Striped Squirrel and modest birdlife (including Yellow-browed Bulbul) recorded. At Koragumudi, more Nilgiri Langur and an Indian Giant Squirrel calling in the canopy, but no sign of Lion-tailed Macaque this evening. There was a some entertainment provided by Greater-racket Tailed Drongo, Cinereous Tit and Greater Flameback feeding together as well, before I decided to turn back pre-dusk. The drive back was uneventful too, barring some ominous signs of rain, Indian Swiftlet hawing for insects at dusk and an Orange-headed Thrush hopping around in near darkness, until I reached the Sholyar Dam, when it began to rain again. Groping my way through this section was a touch more challenging than earlier, given that I did not have a navigator, and this time I did have to yield for an oncoming lorry as well (which involved, blindly (a condition exacerbated by the lorry’s headlights) backing-up to as close as possible to one side of the road, with no idea where the tyres were, and hoping for the best). Eventually made it back to the accommodation though and any further attempts to look for nocturnal visitors (I did try briefly for Brown Palm Civet on a fruiting Jackfruit tree, but to no avail) was put paid to by the rains.
Day 4: Woke up to a clear morning, with the high slopes of the Grass Hills and Eravikulam, clearly visible, with an orange hued background, at dawn. A Black Eagle took wing, rather early, around sunrise. Decided to spend the my final morning, scoping for Brown Mongoose, around campus, in hope of better photographs than from the earlier observation. My hour and half vigil, from sunrise, proved unsuccessful this time around and only Jungle Striped Squirrel showed in the general vicinity. The modest birdlife that showed during this period included flocks of Vernal Hanging Parrot, Southern Hill Myna and Malabar Whistling Thrush, and persistent alarm call from Grey Jungle Fowl, emanating from the opposing hill slope.
A quick turn around to hit the road in a somewhat hurried exit, given a long drive ahead. Several Keeled Grass Skink were basking by the roadside, enjoying the early sun, in the initial stretch, leading to the dam. The drive out was modestly productive with Indian Giant Squirrel, Small Minivet, calls of Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Puff-throated Babbler and Yellow-browed Bulbul while driving through the lovely Iyerpadi Shola, two soaring raptors in the increasing heat of the day (one Black Eagle and the other Legge’s Hawk Eagle?), and a mixed hunting flock of Greater Flameback, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Indian Yellow Tit, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike and White-cheeked Barbet. Descended the hills and exited a landscape that never disappoints, late morning.
List of Mammals Seen
- Gaur Bos gaurus
- Sambhar Cervus unicolor
- Nilgiri Tahr Nilgiritragus hylocrius
- Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica
- Jungle Striped Squirrel Funambulus tristriatus
- Indian Brown Mongoose Urva fusca
- Stripe-necked Mongoose Urva vitticolla
- Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata
- Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca silenus
- Nilgiri Langur Semnopithecus johnii
Highlight Birds Seen
- Black Eagle
- Rufous-bellied Eagle
- Crested Hawk Eagle
- Indian Scops Owl
- Rufous Babbler
- Indian Scimitar Babbler
- Malabar Whistling Thrush
- White-cheeked Barbet
- Malabar Parakeet
- Black-throated Munia
- Crimson-backed Sunbird
- Indian Swiftlet
- Dusky Crag Martin
- Orange Minivet