Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Spooky Nightwalk in the Jungle - Dandeli Adventure

We had been out birding all day and were finishing up dinner when Adesh asked "Who wants to go out for a night walk". Within minutes, everybody disappeared into their tents, and came back with their torch lights and binoculars. It was 10:30 PM when 13 crazy birders set out to explore the jungle in hopes of seeing nocturnal beings. Apart from owls and nightjars, the Dandeli forests were reported to have flying squirrels, jungle cats and even the elusive Black Panther which was last sighted in 2005. With the kind of optimism you can only have at the beginning of a trip, we set out into the darkness of the night powered by small pen torches and cigarette torches (I swear I am not kidding, Nikhil had a torch that looked like a cigarette). Adesh and Mandar (A&M) however, had these industry strength torches that could light up all the way to Mars (they are rechargeable).
It was 2 days after Diwali, so it was a dark moonless night. The few stars that were scattered in the night sky did nothing to increase the light. We walked on the tar road away from the camp site. At first, it looked like one enormous black canvas out there, but once our eyes adjusted to the low light, we began to distinguish different features. (A&M) would occasionally flash their powerful torches to scan for owls and nightjars. This continued for the first 15 minutes. Seeing nothing, Adesh asked us to follow him into a jungle trail. "OMG, Is he crazy?" I said to myself, but obediently followed him. It got darker as we went away from the road. About 100 yards later, we stopped near a water tank.
"Switch off your lights and be very silent" ordered Adesh. The jungle comes alive in the night. Countless species of birds, mammals and insects are at work and you slowly begin to be aware of different sounds. The deafening trill of crickets, the croaks of frogs and the monotonous simmer of insects make for a very eerie orchestra. The hallucinatory sounds were all pervasive and with no images to associate with the sounds, it was spooky as hell. Adesh decided to check for frogmouths in the area. He used his cellphone and played the call of a Ceylon Frogmouth.

(from wikipedia)
The frogmouths are a group of tropical nocturnal birds related to the nightjars. This species is found only in the Western Ghats in southwest India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Frogmouth is about 23 cm long. It is large-headed, and has a large flattened hooked bill and huge frog-like gape. It is best located at night by its song, which is a loud descending cackly and frog-like series of Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock calls. This is the call of the male and it is often answered by the female whose call is low long harsh Krrshhhh.
To see some stunning pictures of the frogmouth, check out my friend Thomas's blog here.

The call of the female is very shrill, almost like the cry of some wild animal hunted by a predator. It kind of sends a shiver down your spine when you hear it for the first time. Adesh played the call and we waited hopefully. There was no reply. We waited for a looong minute and then played it again. Seconds ticked by and our ears picked up every little sound. Insects were buzzing incessantly. A couple of frogs surfaced to the top of the water tank to check out the suspense drama. Still nothing! We decided to play the call for one last time. Check out the sounds of the jungle in this video.

Krrshhhh Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock

For the first few seconds we heard nothing and then there it was - a very clear call from a male frogmouth. Thirteen heads instantly turned towards the direction of the call, peering through the darkness, searching for signs of movement among the trees. We saw nothing. A few seconds later, we heard another frogmouth from the opposite direction.
"WOW", said folks said in hushed tones. A&M switched on the torches and started scanning the trees. We all whipped out our binoculars and tried to follow the powerful beam of lights, but saw nothing. Nocturnal birds are masters at camouflage. The frogmouth with its brown plumage can be mistaken for a tree branch! After some time, we gave up and decided to get back to the road. We were hearing more calls, so we walked on, occasionally switching on our torches and scanning the tree canopies. At some point Adesh thought that we heard at least 10 frogmouths. As if to join the musical melange, an Oriental Scops Owl started hooting. We all got excited about the owl. Adesh imitated the owl and it responded back! We started walking towards the direction of the owl-call. When we were close enough, they flashed their powerful torches hoping to see a pair of sparkling eyes. Nothing again! It was almost midnight and we were exhausted when Sharada said "I would love to sleep on the road and gaze at the stars". Can you imagine how it would be to lie down on a road in the forest surrounded by all these hallucinatory sounds? Well....it was awesome!
A tree cricket was calling out loudly and Adesh led us towards it. He asked us to cup our ears forward and notice how the sound amplifies. As we reached closer, I thought my ear drums would burst any second when Adesh shone his torch to a little hole. Alarmed at being discovered, the cricket shut up immediately. It was enough excitement for one night, so we went back to the camp. It didn't matter than we didn't see any birds, the journey itself was thrilling!
The following night, we set off again, a little earlier at 9:30 PM. The night was not as dark as the previous one, but still scary. The moment we stepped out, we struck gold! While scanning the trees outside the camp, A&M found a flying squirrel. It was a giant grey squirrel with an enormous bushy tail. These are known to fly/glide from one tree to another in the night foraging for food. We went to the water tank and tried our luck again, but heard nothing, so we went back to the road. There we heard the unmistakable call of the frogmouth. We switched on our torches and scanned every tree in the area, but they were still elusive. At one point, the calls were really close, so we got off the road under a tree canopy. Adesh imitated the call and the bird answered back immediately. Torches and binoculars were out searching for it yet again. Nothing! Sigh!
We were about to give up and lie down on the road again, but Adesh would not give up "Salle ko dhoondh Nikalunga" he said with determination, so we trudged along. A little ahead, calls were coming from the left hand side of the road. We stood there and waited until we heard the call again. The second we heard the call, A & M shone their torches on one tree branch at the exact same time and VOILA! There they were!! One male and one female frogmouth sitting pretty on a tree branch in full view, right on top of our heads. Binoculars went up, cameras started clicking and it was celebration time! The male bird flew off, but the female struck around for at least a minute enthralling us. What a night!! Even if we had not seen the birds, it was still a great adventure, but seeing them was like icing on the cake. Check of this really bad video of the sighting. The quality of the video will make 'The Blair Witch Project' seem like a masterpiece:)

Our 4 day bird watching trip to Dandeli with Nature India Tours was great. We had a combination of slow times where we saw very few birds and fun times where we had non-stop action. The slow times were never long enough to bore us and the fun times were always long enough to keep us excited. The mixed hunting party near the timber depot offered non-stop action while the open pit mine which was truly an amphitheater where birds modeled one by one showing off their beautiful feathers. It was great fun one evening when we saw 2 dozen Malabar pied horn bills dining on berries and shrieking in delight . My favorite sightings were the blue bearded bee eater and white bellied woodpecker. This post is already getting long, so I will just write about one instance that stuck in my mind.
We were near a water body looking at birds through a spotting scope when somebody saw a raptor in the sky. Mandar looked at it through his binoculars and immediately started screaming "Roufous Bellied Eagle.....Roufous Bellied Eagle...come everybody". He ran like mad and started clicking pictures and once done, observed the bird through the binoculars till it disappeared from sight. He came back with a wide-grin and could not stop smiling for the next half hour. That evening, he went to a store, bought sweets and distributed them to everybody.
If you have even half of his enthusiasm for your job, you should consider yourself truly blessed.

Diwali at the camp

Purple Sun Bird, Green Bee Eater


Small Minivet, White Bellied Woodpecker,

Photographing birds was really hard on this trip because they were never at eye level, so I followed Uma and Mohan and took pictures of these dragonflies. Aren't they beautiful?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Carpets of Flowers - Kaas Plateau

Pogostemon decanensis, Thunbergia fragrans, Neanotis lancifolia, Utricularia reticulatum, Senecio bombayensis, Pimpenella tomentosa.

If that sounds like Greek and Latin to you, then you are bang on. When Adesh would scream “Come here, I found a carpet of Pogostemon Decanensis”, we would look at him as if he was speaking gobbledegook. He would then add “Come come, I found a very pretty flower”. That worked much better and we would surround him to see the flowers. The practice of using Latin for scientific names was started in early seventeenth century oddly enough by a Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus. Carl developed a binomial system where two Latin or Latinized words were used to describe a plant or a flower. I guess it was a great idea to use one language to name all living organisms throughout the world…but did it have to be LATIN?

French and Italian might have been OK, but LATIN was just not my cup of tea. I tried hard…I listened carefully, repeated after Adesh multiple times, tried to find out the root of the words…. I even tried mnemonics, but seriously, what kind of mnemonic can you possibly have for Neracanthes spherostachys or Paracaryopsis coelestina. Common sense did not help in any way. Pimpenella Tomemtosa did not have a pimple or look like a tomato, Thunbergia fragrans had no fragrance and Asparagus racemosus looked nothing like the asparagus you put on a grill (with loads of extra virgin olive oil….yum). As if this was not hard enough, they had similar sounding names for completely different looking flowers. Neanotis
is a small pink flower, Leanotis is orange and Cyanotis is this blue color flower below. And to make things worse, wild varieties of impatiens, cosmos and begonias were nothing like what I had in my garden. I actually argued with Adesh that a wild cosmos was a Zinnia only to be proved wrong!

Cyanotis tuberosa

So, any associations you see here to Latin names are thanks to the husband. The husband, who has no aptitude for languages, who is so pathetic that he will say “Bon Giorno” to a French guy and “Bonjour” to an Italian and completely miss their puzzled looks, took up the challenge. He learnt the names by heart, took notes, cross-referenced them with photograph numbers and marked off his checklist. Apparently there is a new word in the dictionary to represent a nerd +geek = neek!
Saru and I went with Adesh & Mandar’s Nature India Tours to Kaas Plateau for a short 3 day trip. After a long 5 hour drive, we arrived into the town of Satara and checked into the hotel. After a quick lunch, we left for the hills. We started looking at wildflowers on the ghats while saving Kaas plateau for the next day. On the tour, we had Dr.Rajendra Shinde, a highly respected Plant Taxonomist from St.Xavier's College as a resource person along with Adesh and Mandar.

The Western Ghats are just beautiful in the monsoons and here in Satara, there was the added attraction of wild flowers. Slopes were full of sonkis and smithias and bunches of balsam flowers. Adesh and Dr.Shinde would comb the place (literally) and tell us the names and characteristics of every flower we saw. In the beginning it was an overload of information. “Do I really need to know the Latin name of EVERY flower”, I thought to myself, but after three days, we were fascinated by some cool things we learnt. Like for example, this flower below, Ceropagia Oculata has tiny hairs that trap flies. When flies are attracted into the flower by the scent, they are trapped and prevented from escaping until the hairs wither by which time; pollen is attached to the fly’s body. Procreation seems to be the goal of every living organism!

Ceropagia Oculata

This insectivorous plant here (somebody identify the name please) secretes a mucous like substance that traps tiny flies.

A flower from the sweet pea family, Vigna Vixilleta, uses a hugging mechanism to leave pollen. When a bee sits on it, its weight causes the stamen to extend out, hug the bee and leave pollen on it for propagation. Watch Adesh demonstrate the process in the video below.

Vigna Vixellata from Vamsee Modugula on Vimeo.

The next morning, we set off at 6:30AM. “We are going straight to the Plateau with no stops” said Adesh, but quickly added “I have to stop for a minute to show some species to the other bus”. A minute can never be a minute with a bus full of photographers. We stepped out to capture the mountain scenery which was nothing short of spectacular. Mist was just lifting off the valley and the soft morning light made the mountain greens even more soothing.

At our first stop, we had a quick breakfast of poha and upma and sheera and checked out the wild flowers in the area. That's when we chanced upon my most favorite Latin name for a flower -Gloriosa Superba! The botanist who discovered this flower was so captivated by its beauty that he said to himself "What a gloriously superb flower" and promptly gave its name. OK, I made up that, but the point of the matter is that the flower is
Gloriosa Superba, not just for its looks, but for its uses as well. Sap from the leaf is used to cure pimples , rootstalks are used for snake and scorpion bites and roots are used to cure baldness (Rakesh Roshan, are you listening?) Dr. Shinde also explained that tribal women use the roots of this plant for abortions or to induce labor pains. Because of the widespread cutting of this plant for medicinal and religious uses, it has now become an endangered species.

As we drove closer to the plateau, we started seeing carpets of flowers. Mickey mouse flowers seem to be an apt nick name for these yellow color Smithias.

Once we reached the main plateau, everybody was floored! And by that I don't just mean that we were impressed with what we saw, we literally took to the floor. You see, the wildflowers here are not like the tall stalks of mustard fields where Bollywood actors run around and sing songs. These plants are maybe half a feet high, so to get good pictures, we had to literally lie down on the floor. At any point of time, there were at least 5-6 of us lying down taking photographs. It was wet, muddy and the rocks were hard, but nothing stopped our photographers. The view from that angle was fantastic. A sea of flowers extended out till the eye could see. Colors faded in and out creating a beautiful collage.
Nature puts on this spectacular show in Kaas Plateau every year after the monsoons. From August to October, this bare plateau transforms itself into a riot of colors. The ground is covered in carpets of yellow, pink, blue, purple, violet and white flowers. What was surprising was that these plants grew on less than an inch of soil. The plateau was full of hard rock with a thin layer of soil. It is unbelievable how these flowers bloomed on this thin soil with no fertilizers, no timed watering and with nobody sowing seeds! It is just not fair that I had to work so hard in my garden to grow a handful of flowers and here were acres and acres of free-for-all flower fields! Nature has a mind of its own!

At the end of the trip, Adesh said "You might wonder, why we need to learn about all these flowers, but appreciating every aspect of Nature including birds, plants and flowers has made my life wonderful".I for one, completely agree with that. A year ago, I knew nothing and here I am rattling off Latin names:)

Leave a comment. It motivates me to keep writing.