Waiting for Strobilanthes

There are about 350 species of Strobilanthes, and some of them flower only once in several years. Last year I had gone to a plateau near Satara to see the Strobilantes sessilis in bloom; this happens once every seven years. During monsoon this year the Strobilanthes kunthiana will bloom for the first time since 2006. I reached Erivakulam national park just a few months too early for this. I was determined to take photos, so I took a photo of the bush. I’m not going to be mistaken about the flower when I go back in September.

The protected area of Erivakulam is a tiny sliver of land between tea estates, but it has an astonishing variety of Strobilanthes, called Kurinji in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I photographed several types, and you can see them in the gallery above. Unlike their famous cousins, these flower every year.

Birds and beasts around Munnar

The Nilgiris are wonderful for dedicated bird watchers. We do not count ourselves in this tribe, although The Family always carries a pair of binoculars with her on these trips, and we carry Grimmett’s Guide to Indian Birds to refer to at nights. We also make bird lists, but cannot agree whether to add crows and sparrows to the list. After long arguments, we have come to the considered agreement that we will separate our bird list into two parts:

The usual suspects

  1. Red-vented Bulbul
  2. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  3. Common Myna
  4. Jungle Myna
  5. Hill Myna
  6. Indian Robin
  7. Oriental Magpie Robin
  8. Black Drongo
  9. Blue Rock Pigeon
  10. Oriental Turtle Dove
  11. Common sparrow
  12. Common crow (not so common here)
  13. Indian pond heron
  14. Little egret
  15. Cattle egret
A pair of Black and Orange Flycatcher. Photo by Antony Grossy, Wikimedia Commons

Less common

  1. Pied Bushchat (in Erivakulam NP)
  2. Black and Orange Flycatcher (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  3. Blue Robin (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  4. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (in Chinnar WLS)
  5. Kerala Laughing Thrush (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  6. Yellow-crowned woodpecker Leiopicus mahrattensis

  7. Black Bulbul
  8. Yellow Bulbul
  9. Raquet-tailed Drongo
  10. Long-tailed Shrike *
  11. Brown Shrike
  12. Small Minivet
  13. Scarlet Minivet *
  14. Jungle Babbler
  15. Scimitar Babbler *
  16. Malabar Parakeet *
  17. Purple Sunbird
  18. Gray Jungle Fowl
  19. Greater Coucal
  20. Pied bushchat Saxicol caprata

  21. Rufous Treepie
  22. Indian Cormorant
  23. Hoopoe
  24. Common Teal
  25. Brown-headed Barbet
  26. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater *
  27. Malabar Whistling Thrush *
  28. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
  29. Eurasian Blackbird

We’ve moved more birds into the list of common birds. The ones in bold are lifers: our first sightings of these birds. The birds which are starred are ones we had also seen in Valparai. There are surprisingly few in common. In Valparai we went out early every morning, and again in the evening, with a local expert, to look for birds. In Munnar we did nothing of the sort. Our walks through Erivakulam NP and Chinnar WLS were in the middle of the day. In spite of this, we have a longer bird list from Munnar. The difference is just that Valparai is almost entirely tea plantations, whereas there are large forested areas around Munnar. This is an object lesson in how monoculture destroys ecology.

2016-05-04 15.28.30Spotting mammals requires time and tenacity. We were not in Munnar for the wild life. However, some wild life came to us. I’ve already talked of the Nilgiri Tahr in Erivakulam NP. Apart from multiple sightings of this rather endangered animal we saw two grizzled giant squirrels during our walk through Chinnar WLS. These are rare animals, confined to a few forests, but easily visible in their habitats. We came across a few Gaur, but nothing else. An elephant had passed across the path we took through Chinnar WLS, as we could see from the pug mark pointed out by our guides. One of the oddest things we saw were the humerus of a Gaur laid out next to the same path (see the photo here).

Once in a blue bloom

Neelakurinji plant: the flowers bloom next in 2018The highest parts of the Nilgiris are home to the Neelakurinji, which blooms once in twelve years. This simple looking blue flower apparently give the Nilgiris its name. The western ghats are full of Strobilanthes which bloom after many years. The neelakurinji is the Strobilanthes kunthiana, and is expected to flower again in 2018. I may not have seen the flower, but I did see the plant (photo above).Unknown flower on Anamudi

In spite of this, the Eravikulam national park near Munnar is a big draw. We learnt that you are bussed up to a trail where you walk through the forest; no cars are allowed. You park your car in a huge parking lot 14 Kms from Munnar along State Highway 17, and stand in queue for tickets. Alternately, you could pay in town for an option to buy a ticket the next day, and bypass the queue. We did this, and then took the bus up.

We did not expect the treeless open meadow and a climb along the steep metalled road along the flank of Anamudi. It was hot and I was soaked immediately. Fortunately we had enough water to last the 2 Km trek up.Two unknown wildflowers on Anamudi But the wonder was the cars and autos which came down the path. Apparently the road is open to locals, and the Tatas, who own a part of the land above the Sanctuary. The Family couldn’t be bothered at 9 in the morning. Let’s walk, she said.

Unknown flower on Anamudi The path was fenced to prevent walkers from trampling the flowers which grew alongside. Someone had started labelling the plants without much enthusiasm. A patch of neelakurinji was labelled, as was a patch of the white kurinji a few paces on. But a couple of hundred meters on the labels straggled to an end. We were on our own. Although the weather was so warm and humid, technically it is spring, and therefore the flowering season.

Unknown wildflower in AnamudiIt was too warm to bend down to take photos of the really small flowers among the grass. I concentrated on those at roughly eye level. The sanctuary is supposed to have many species of butterflies, some special to the area. I did not see any; perhaps they were all in the bushes we were fenced away from.

We heard many birds in the shrubs behind the fences.Unidentified wildflower on Anamudi I stopped at a particularly tuneful song. Peering through the growth we saw something which I did not recognize. Further on we saw a pied bushchat fly above us and sit on an electric wire. Yes, there were electric wires in this protected forest. Soon after I took the photo above, I saw what the hordes had come here for.

A Nilgiri tahr with paparazziOne of the rarer sights in nearby Valparai was the Nilgiri Tahr. The Eravikulam NP apparently has the largest population of this highly threatened species of mountain sheep. A young one was grazing by the path. As various people tried to take selfies with it in the background it came on to the path. The paparazzi now mobbed the poor kid. As word spread, families ran to take photos. One set of children ran up to touch it. Although the parent didn’t say anything, there was a murmur of disapproval from the crowd.afartahr Those of us who have spent some years doing trips to the wilds, birding, watching wildlife and walking in mountains have learnt from each other how fragile the mountain ecosystems have become. The behaviour of the crowd here showed us that the message about conserving endangered wildlife seems to be slowly sinking into the average Indian tourist as well. There is hope then that the fragile mountain ecosystems may last for our grandchildren to experience.

Whiich is this flower, growing in AnamudiI did not realize that we were almost at the end of our walk. I paused to take a photo of some flowers. The Family was bored with my pace and walked ahead. Without her pacing, I slowed down even more, so that when the next few Tahr appeared near the fence I was the first to see them. I moved away again as the paparazzi gathered.

One more turn, in the road and I came to an open gate.eravikulamflower7 A forest guard was standing nearby warning people that this was the end of the walk. The land beyond it apparently belongs to the Tatas. I wondered whether Tata, or any other company which owns forest land nearby can decide to convert it to plantations. When I asked someone later, I was told that this is not easy any more.

The rolling hills covered with tea plantations are a mockery of the shola forests which once covered these slopes. Even in these little remaining patches, the immense biodiversity is visible to any person who cares to look a little close. I just wish I had some way to find the names of these flowers.