An Avian Quest In The Eastern Ghats
Project Coordinator of the Care Earth Trust, Chennai, J. Patrick David travelled across some spectacular hills and sholas of the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu (EGTN) to conduct a bird survey. The survey was part of a three-year project to document the avian diversity of the region, supported by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Photo: Neeraj Padwal.
Unperturbed by the slight drizzle and the distant tussle between lightning and thunder, my colleague Vinoth and I decided to bike through a newly-laid road from Vepadi (500 m.) to Yercaud (1,530 m.) in the Shevroys. This is the third route that has been commissioned to the hill town of Yercaud. As the bike ascended the hills, the tarred road gave way to a mud road and we skidded dangerously a few times. By the time we reached Yercaud, the rain was heavier, and we found ourselves stopped by a long file of vehicles piled one behind the other, stretching for five kilometres or more. It was a Sunday and tourists had flocked to this beautiful hill station to escape the heat. When we finally reached Yercaud, we grabbed a quick bite, picked up our permissions from the forest range office and readied ourselves for an early start the next day. The majestic Shevroys and its remnant forests were part of our long journey through the hills of EGTN, which started in the Sathyamangalam Forest Division.
FIRST LEG (SATHYAMANGALAM AND ERODE)
We kickstarted our journey on a Platina motorbike from Bhavanisagar, a small settlement near the Bhavanisagar dam (297 m.) built at the confluence of the Moyar and Bhavani rivers. Our destination was Talamalai (867 m.), nestled in the hills that connect Tamil Nadu to Karnataka. We negotiated the Dhimbam Ghats with their treacherous bends and steep curves to reach Talamalai, the last outpost after which the forest dips down to the Moyar valley to join the Western Ghats. The first trail we explored took us from the Forest Rest House to an anti-poaching camp that overlooked the Moyar river. For a kilometre all we saw was cultivation… and then only forest, but rather degraded. Deep into our forest walk, we saw a medium-sized bird flying across the trail. When it perched on a small tree we identified it as the shy Western Ghats endemic Nilgiri Wood Pigeon. The same day we sighted yet another endemic… the Grey-headed Bulbul.
The following day saw us at Ramaranai (923 m.), overlooking the Moyar valley, where we were delighted to sight a dozen lorikeets as they flew up from the valley below. Presumably the Talamalai range is one route the birds take to cross over between the Eastern and Western Ghats.
Our foray into the Erode Forest Division was an event to remember. As we sat listing the day’s observations at Tamaraikarai Rest House (1,050 m.), a strange hooting call drew us outside. There, perched on a huge tree, was a Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, earlier called the Forest Eagle-owl. Its unmistakable, horizontally-flattened, twisted ear tufts and V-shaped underpart markings enabled an instant positive identification. We listened quietly to its deep double-hooted call, which it continued sending out for quite a while, allowing me to record it on my cell phone. This was a lifer for me. Around midnight, as we slept in the forest guard quarters at Koilnatham (1,100 m.), a three note ‘trut trut trut’ call from a nearby Ficus tree woke us. The torch light revealed nothing, but I recorded the call to check on that incredibly useful birding site – www.xeno-canto.org – and discovered it was an Oriental Scops-owl. Later we were able to record the call in the Kolli hills too. The owls undoubtedly were the stars of our fascinating journey throughout the survey. A total of nine owl species were recorded and also several images and videos including one of a Brown Fish-owl swallowing an eel-like fish in Hogenakkal.
Photo: J. Patrick David.
SECOND Leg (SHEVROY, CHITHERI AND KALRAYAN)
Thanks to the late Dr. Mayilvahanan (one of India’s finest wildlife photographers), the Shevroys, especially the foothills, were intensely surveyed. One evening when birding in the rocky scrub of the Asthampatti range along a saddleback road, we spotted a solitary Blue Rock Thrush atop a cactus bush. A 1945 observation by Bell said: “Throughout the cold weather a Blue Rock Thrush is to be seen at or about the same point on the Ghat road to Yercaud, some 3,500 feet above sea level, which disappears at the end of April.” The possibility that we were watching a direct descendent of the same bird Bell had seen left us awestruck.
After reconnoitering the foothills, we ascended the hills of the Yercaud range. Here in the Vaniyar riparian tract (800 m.) near Vazhavandhi, we recorded over 50 species along a one kilometre stretch of the river. Our long list included the Asian Fairy Bluebird, Black Bulbul, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Rufous Woodpecker, Lesser Yellownape, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, White-rumped Shama, Common Iora, Bronzed Drongo, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and the Puff-throated Babbler. Downstream, close to the Vaniyar dam, the same set of birds mingled with waterbirds. We have recommended strongly that the entire Vaniyar riparian tract be declared a Protected Area for birds.
At the Chitheri hills, we recorded a Brown Hawk-owl. And again the Forest Rest House campus threw up a surprise. Post dinner, we heard a pleasant ‘tuvuk tuvuk’ call from atop a eucalyptus tree, but we barely got a fleeting glimpse of the bird before it flew away. Once again xeno-canto came to our rescue. We had added one more species to our growing list from the Kalrayan hills: the Streaked Weaver, which we saw nesting in the middle of reed beds in the company of the Baya Weaver that chose to nest on low trees nearby.
Photo: Vikas Agrawal.
THIRD Leg (YELAGIRI AND JAVVADU)
Yelagiri is an inverted U-shaped hill range lying in Vellore district. Much of its inner valleys have been usurped by cultivation and habitation. Here, after completing a transect, by a forest stream flowing down the outer slopes of the hill range, I heard an unfamiliar ‘zum zum zum’ call repeated at infrequent intervals. I initially dismissed it as a distant sound from afar. But I recalled hearing a similar call a few years ago at Thirukarankudi, in the foothills of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. My colleague, K. Seshadri, thought it to be the Brown Fish-owl. My curiosity piqued, I walked in the direction and, lo and behold, there were a pair of Brown Fish-owls, perched on the foliage of a not-so-tall tree. One of the birds was on the outer branch, clear enough to photograph. That night we added the Indian Scops-owl to our list. We were disappointed not to be able to explore the Javvadu hills intensely on account of inclement weather and time constraints, but decided to make another trip to survey this forested tract covering Kavalur, Amirthi and Polur.
FOURTH LEG (MELAGIRIS)
The Melagiris comprise a majestic hill range in the Krishnagiri district’s Hosur Forest Division. We first visited this place on invitation from Dr. Ravi Rajasingh of the Kenneth Anderson Nature Society (KANS). We undertook a comprehensive bird survey organised by KANS in February 2014 and located ourselves at a remote wet evergreen patch at Gutheri, where we were joined by seasoned birdwatcher Praveen Jayadevan from Bengaluru. One of the memorable sightings included a flock of 15 Nilgiri Wood Pigeons. A KANS report suggests this could be a connecting population, or a staging site for birds across the Nandi Hills from BR Hills, and further into the Nilgiris.
We undertook a more thorough survey in October 2014 together with Sugiritharaj Koilpillai, a retired Divisional Forest Officer. We spent over a month birding the entire forest division and covered as many as seven forest ranges in the process. The survey involved walking through undulating hills where each day was filled with breathtaking vistas of landscapes clothed in greenery gifted by the Northeast monsoon. People largely cultivated tomatoes and peanuts and as we walked through the ecotones, we were able to add more species to our list including the Indian Cuckoo, Eurasian Marsh-harrier, Wire-tailed Swallow, Peregrine Falcon and Osprey, the latter two from the Krishnagiri Reservoir Project (KRP) dam.
Photo: Rishi Sen.
THE FINAL LEG (KOLLI AND PACHAMALAI)
The steep outer face of the Kolli hills was impressive. Trekking down from Vilaram (1,100 m.) to Muthurajapalayam (221 m.), we noticed that the slope was largely devoid of vegetation, but did sport stunted trees and grasses. Midway through the descent, my field assistant pointed to a soaring raptor at eye level. The v-shaped tail was characteristic of the Egyptian Vulture, a species that has disappeared from most of south India. As we touched Muthurajapalayam we heard the ‘chuck chuck chuck tukroo’ call of the Indian Nightjar.
The second phase of our search focused on the inner valleys of the Kolli hills. The Ariyur shola and the MPCA trail through Solakadu are the only places where one can see true evergreen forests, as the rest have been cut down for tapioca, paddy and pineapple cultivation. Yellow-browed Bulbuls and White-cheeked Barbets were ubiquitous. While we spotted the Rufous Babbler on the upper slopes, the usual evergreen forest birds and those that frequent cultivation kept us company along the Semmedu-Seekuparai road and the Vellakallar trail.
Pachamalai lies close to the Kolli hills. Here the open savanna-woodlands behind the Sobanapuram Forest Rest House threw up a second record of the Savanna Nightjar, after our first sighting near a magnesite mine in Salem. Again, as in the Javvadu hills, we ran into inclement weather at Pachamalai and were therefore unable to survey the area properly. Travelling across the hills we could see that very little forest remained.
Photo: Munish Kaushik.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
Ours was a fantastic journey that offered us an intimate glimpse into the landscape and its critical conservation problems. We were able to record 262 avian species, including rare ones such as the peninsular India endemic, the Yellow-throated Bulbul. We were able to survey a mosaic of denuded inner valleys and riparian forest tracts. Walking through valleys, hill tops and outer slopes, we saw that much of this once-pristine area had been taken over by humans. Crops such as tapioca, paddy, sugarcane, and banana dominated much of the landscape. Coffee plantations were everywhere across the Shevroy and Kolli hills, and more patchily so in Yelagiri and Kalrayan. Tourist resorts had sprung up in Yercaud and Yelagiri and not all visitors were disciplined. Petty hunting using catapults and traps was commonplace. On top of all this, wood-cutting, cattle grazing and dynamiting were in evidence. Despite all this several species are managing to hold on to a tenuous existence, using relict pockets of wilderness.
The Eastern Ghats are as diverse and fascinating as the Western Ghats. However, the discontinuity between the hill ranges combined with drastic habitat loss makes bird species vulnerable to local extinction. It will be a great show of support if our decision makers with the collaboration of local people, scientists and bird lovers declare atleast some areas in EGTN such as the Vaniyar riparian tract in Shevroys as Protected Areas for birds.
Photo: Raman Kulkarni.
CLEANING A POPULATION
The Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu stretches across the north, west and central parts of the state. They occur as two clusters. The eastern cluster contains the disjointed hills of Yelagiri, Javvadu, Chitheri, Kalrayan, Shevroy, Kolli, Pachamalai and hills of Vellore and Villupuram districts. These hills lie east of the Stanley reservoir (Mettur dam). The western cluster contains the Melagiris in Krishnagiri district, forest of Hogenakkal, Erode and Sathyamangalam forest division. The forest in Sathyamangalam division blends smoothly into the Western Ghats via the Moyar river valley. Ornithological survey in the EGTN was last carried out in the late 1920s by Whistler and Kinnear as part of the Vernay expedition. The results of the survey were published in sixteen volumes (1930-37) in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.
Author: J. Patrick David, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.