A red-tailed skink

I sat at the very edge of the protected forest near a rubber plantation in the neighbourhood of Thattekad in Kerala. In front of me two juvenile skinks ran along the leaf litter on the ground, and climbed over tree trunks and stones. The horizon was rising towards the sun, and we could see sunlight only on the tops of the trees around us. I guessed that these skinks were diurnal, but couldn’t figure out why I thought so. Had I seen them before?

A little search, and I figured that these were Dussimier’s skinks (Sphenomorphys dussimieri). That led me to the information that they are diurnal and eat insects. The IUCN red list says that they are widely distributed along the Western Ghats, and are not thought to be threatened. It also mentions that they are oviparous. That was puzzling, are some skinks not hatched from eggs? It seems so. Some skinks even have placenta, like true mammals! Not much seems to be known about skinks. It is not even clear whether most Indian skinks came with the drifting landmass when it separated from Africa, or migrated into it after it struck Asia. In fact, it is possible that there are as yet undiscovered skink species in the Western Ghats.

But the sight kept bothering me. Had I seen this species before? Some digging through my archives threw up the photo that you see above. Four years ago I’d seen a Dussimier’s skink 1500 kilometres north, in Matheran. That could be close to the northern limits of this species. In this photo it is clear that the species has four toes. The three black stripes, one on top, and two on the sides are distinctive. The red tail belongs to juveniles. I think it turns into the striped white and black in an adult. I’m so happy that I could trace down that itch in my memory.


Walking around a village

We drove a few hours from Kochi to Thattekad, and reached a home stay on the far side of the Periyar river. In the evening we crossed the river for a walk around Thattekad village. From the highway it looked like there was only a rain-forest nearby. Then I saw the little path worn away by regular use. As we followed the path, I realized that this was not a pristine rain-forest; it had been cleared for human use.

The word ecosystem comes to mind as you walk around the village. The network of species is not as dense as it would be inside the protected forest, but you can see it here very easily.

A speckled piculet pecked away at a bare tree: there were clearly insects running up the trunk. I’d never seen a piculet before.

Ants swarmed over tiny yellow flowers which I didn’t recognize. They pollinate the flowers even as they harvest nectar. Elsewhere, a deeper food chain: aphid colonies have taken over a patch of bushes, and ants run up and down them, clipping their wings and harvesting the honey dew which they secrete.

There were flowers which I did not recognize. The one thing which I did was the touch-me-not, familiar from my childhood. Its leaves curl up if you touch them. This was the plant whose name, Mimosa pudica, first introduced me to Latin binomials.

Above us a plum-headed parakeet hung upside down, feeding on tiny fruits. Parakeets disperse seeds widely, and are key players in keeping a forest alive.

As soon as you get away from a city you begin to see the web of life which covers our planet.

Malabar Trogons

In Urulanthanni near Thattekad we had our first sighting of the Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus). The bright red male caused a commotion in the group, resulting in a bit of jostling. The one person who managed to take a clear photo of the bird was J. Multiflora, whose photos you see here. Soon after, the male left its perch and we could see it through gaps in the canopy sallying and diving, presumably to catch its prey. Trogons are known to eat all manners of insects; an enumeration found that it prefers stick insects and caterpillars. The feeding occurred too far away for us to see anything but the repeated flight of the bird.

The female (photo above) is less brightly coloured. We saw one nearby. Since Trogons are known to pair-bond, and January is in the nesting season, I assumed that these two were a pre-nesting pair. Since Trogons vigorously defent their territories, I would think that the chances are high that these two were a pair. The female did not move much as we watched the male hunting. Usually a visible difference between sexes of birds means that there is a difference in their roles while rearing chicks. In the H. fasciatus, both sexes share the task of making a hole in a dead tree for the nest, and they share the job of incubating the egg as well as brooding and feeding the young. So, is the colour of the male Trogon purely due to sexual selection?

There have been several detailed studies of Malabar Trogons. But clearly there are still questions to which answers are not known.

The Sri Lanka frogmouth

Frogmouths were in my bucket list. With their distinctive extra-wide mouths and pointed beak, they have to be on every bird watcher’s list of things to be seen. The Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) is the only one found in India. The nocturnal birds are hard to spot during the day because they are beautifully camouflaged as a mass of dry leaves, and usually sit in the shade under a canopy of a tall tree. As more birdwatchers become aware of it, it is being seen fairly far north in the Western Ghats; in 2012 it was even spotted in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Fortunately, they are creatures of habit. If they aren’t disturbed then they could come back to the same tree year after year. A good local guide will usually lead you to a pair fairly quickly.

“Look around. Even if the trek is slow don’t worry. Record everything you see. Closely watch dry trees and dry leaves, the Frogmouth may be hiding there.” — Salim Ali (1976) to R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the Frogmouth in Silent Valley, Kerala in 1976.

In Thattekad, at the edge of the protected rain forest, we saw lots of insect eating birds during the day: drongos, woodpeckers, bee eaters, and so on. At night the air would become full of insects. So it made instant sense when Adesh began to talk of nightjars and frogmouths, nocturnal birds which feed on insects. I would have loved to see frogmouths flying about with their gaping mouths open, hoovering up swarms of insects. When I looked up family relations between these birds I found that DNA studies place frogmouths, nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds together into a group called Strisores. Interestingly, these form a group of birds which diverged very early from the rest of birds, perhaps as far back as 70 million years ago! The night really calls strongly to this group.

I looked at the photos taken by J. multiflorum (one of which is the featured photo) and noticed the abundant facial bristles. What use are they? I could not find anything written about the function of these bristles. So little is still known about these birds! My last sighting of the day was of the legendary field biologist, R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the frogmouths in Kerala in 1976. He was sipping a coffee as we walked past, and pointed out an uncharacteristically silent racquet-tailed drongo.

Flowers and birds of Munnar

The accessible part of Eravikulam National Park is a disappointment at first sight. It is a narrow sliver of protected land between plantations. A black-topped right of way cuts through it. If you look at everything on the way carefully, it might take you an hour to walk up the road, and another hour to walk back. In spite of this, it is a jewel of conservation. The number of birds and plants you see on this walk is immense. It is only when you see this variety that you realize that the park spreads far, and tourists are allowed only into this little stretch. As usual, what I managed to photograph is a small part of what I saw.

The walk is up the flanks of the “Elephant” whose head is Anamudi. Rising to 2695 meters, this is the tallest peak in India outside the Himalayas. I did not look for the famous butterflies or amphibians of this region. Nor did I look at the insects which must be ubiquitous, given the number of insectivorous birds that we saw.

Temple and Church in Kerala

The little village of Thattekad had a small church on the road close to the beginning of the Salim Ali trail. I’d seen churches like these elsewhere in Kerala. The architectural grammar is close to that of a temple. The ground plan is not a cross like the churches of Europe. Rather, there is a little tower directly over the chapel. There are sloping roofs to direct rain away from the building. Most such churches have a steep cap of a roof standing atop the tower. The flat terrace of this one was a little unusual to my eye. Maybe I’ll see more such if I travel again in Kerala. It looked like an inviting place where a worshipper could duck in, say a quick prayer, and be on her way in a short while.

The Siva temple down the road, next to the Periyar river was a much more grand affair. The tall flag pole (called dwajastambam) stands above all other structures. In large roofed open structure in front of it is the mukha mandapam where, I imagine, devotees will sit during a festival. The main temple, namaskara mandapam, can be seen beyond it. The pyramidal roof of the namaskara mandapam looks like the temple interior is pretty large. The rest of the structure looks a little sketchy. The mukha mandapam is like an open shed, and the elaborate gopuram of most temples is replaced by a simple cast iron gate. Perhaps this is still work in progress.

Improvised doors

After a long morning spent watching wild life in the rain forests of Kerala, we came back to the village where we were staying. It was a little late, and the market had closed. The roads were deserted. It was clearly time for a siesta. I noticed for the first time that the shops lacked doors. That’s not a problem clearly; it is easy to indicate when a shop is shut.

Winter kept us warm

We were mesmerized by the wonderful colours of the forest before cruel April paints everything an uniform green. The Malabar rain forest flowers in January and February. Fruiting had already begun, and the peak fruiting time is a couple of weeks away still. Some birds, like the Hornbills, pick that time to breed so that the hatchlings have enough to eat. But right now, the forest and its birds blazed with colour. The featured photo shows a green warbler wintering in this forest. Its olive and yellow feathers make it look like a leaf against the warm red of the flowers.

The tiny crimson-backed sunbird (Leptocoma minima) was visible as it flew among the trees, but it so small, that it is hard to spot when it settles down. This endemic bird feeds on nectar. In spite of its size, it is intensely territorial, defending its patch of flowers from others. It had begin nesting already. I watched it flying from the trees to its nest hidden in a patch of dry bushes. The nest was incredibly well camouflaged (see the photo on the side). The female was not visible. I guess it was too early for the chicks to have hatched.

The common black drongo (Dicurcus macrocercus) with its black feathers is not colourful. But sitting on a dry stump in the forest, its glossy black coat looked wonderful against the brown and yellow background of the forest in winter. Drongos have interesting calls, since they are great mimics. They eat insects, and are known to mimic the call of a raptor in order to scare away other birds who have just caught an edible tidbit. This one was probably a juvenile, since its colour is a little brownish, and not the glossy black of the adult. It sat quietly and then flew away. This was quite unlike the loud, bullying behaviour of the adult. In fact the adult is known to drive away larger predators by being aggressive.

This golden oriole (Oriolus kundoo) looked wonderful against the green and brown of forest canopy where it sat. I was not sure whether the colour was entirely its own, or had been enhanced by what they ate. Orioles derive some of the carotenoids which colour their feathers from their diet. An interesting thing about these birds is that their colouring is almost completely directed at the selection of a mate; camouflage does not seem to be a word in their dictionary. Orioles will begin to nest in April. They often choose to nest close to drongos, depending on the drongos’ aggression to keep its neighbourhood safe.

The giant squirrels of Malabar

I first saw the Malabar giant squirrel three years ago in Valparai, napping in the upper branches of a tree late in the morning. If you look up descriptions of this squirrel you’ll find that they eat in the morning and evening and sleep the rest of the time. When I saw one again, early morning in Thattekad, it was very active in the upper branches of a tree. It scurried along, eating flowers and berries. Like all squirrels, it is quite dextrous with its front paws. I saw it grasp distant twigs and bend them to its mouth. It jumped from one tree to another, a couple of meters away, and I followed it. It scurried between the middle and top of the canopy, offering many opportunities for photographs. It seldom comes down to the ground, so most photos you will see of this squirrel have trees or sky in the background. By hoarding fruits and nuts, the giant squirrel disperses seeds widely. It seems that they may have had important influence in the evolution of some trees.

The lovely beige, tan and black colour of the coat are characteristic of the southern population of these squirrels. The beige stripe down the tail, spreading into a beige patch at the end of the tail marks out the subspecies Ratufa indica indica. In the area around Thattekad there is an overlap of the ranges of the R. indica indica and the Ratufa indica maxima, of which you see a photo below. Two or three other subspecies are named, and there is some talk, on and off, about elevating them to species. Even before this debate can conclude, one of the subspecies, R. indica dealbata has become extinct. In its original habitat of Gujarat, the forests have given way to plantations. Local extinctions have also been documented in parts of Karnataka, So, although IUCN has reclassified the giant squirrel from “near threatened” into “least concern”, there are many surveys in recent years which indicate that it should really be classified as “vulnerable”.

At the edge of the forest, I saw a squirrel eating coconuts. As forests are cleared, behaviour like this will bring it in conflict with humans. Currently the squirrel is protected by law, but the law is never very much of a deterrant in man-animal conflicts. Very little is currently known about Ratufa indica. A captive animal in a zoo was observed to live up to 20 years. It is guessed that they breed all through the year. Usually two, and rarely three, pups are seen together with the mother. Not much is known about their relationships to other squirrels. There is some evidence that Ratufa may have existed 30 or 40 million years ago. Perhaps the long summer of the squirrel has passed.

God’s own bungalows

A hyperbolic tag-line that Kerala’s tourism department used through the 90s was “God’s own country”. This makes sense for someone in love with small towns. When I travel through Kerala I’m surprised by how densely populated it is. You can drive a hundred kilometers and see one small town lapping up against another. Coastal Kerala seems to be a single Malabari Malgudi, only arbitrarily divided into municipalities. I did not see the apartment buildings which dot the north of India. Instead there are single family homes: each a neat bungalow with some surrounding gardens. The rain-forests and their immense bio-wealth which should have earned the place the tag-line of “God’s own workshop” have fragmented and retreated into little reserves.

Traditional architecture has evolved with the times. The wooden houses with their massive teak beams are no longer affordable, so brick and concrete have replaced them. It seems to me that this is a good thing to happen, because the decreased demand for wood is a force for conservation. At the same time, a well-maintained concrete house can have a very long lifetime, so slowing the demand for new construction. The walls are topped by the traditional style of overhanging sloped roofs which offer protection against the furious monsoon that still beats down on Kerala. The front verandah also seems like a cosy place in all weathers. I could imagine myself sitting on one of those, sipping a cup of coffee, staring into the rain which obscures the tame greenery around me.