Unseen flowers

This has been a year of canceled trips for me. The latest cancellation is a long-planned trip to Kerala. Once every 12 years there is a mass blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) in the region of Munnar. We had planned to go to see these flowers. Unfortunately this year there was a freak monsoon storm which destroyed roads and parts of Munnar town, flooded large parts of Kerala downriver, and killed many people. I understand that this is possibly the worst monsoon flood in a century.

In this bad time we did not want to cancel our trip in a hurry. Often recovery is helped by providing business. Unfortunately now, with about a week to go for our trip, we are forced to cancel. The flood damage is so heavy that the state government has requested tourists to stay away. Kerala will take time to rebuild and rehabilitate. The state needs help. Here is a link to the main portal where you can offer to help if you wish. I believe that this government portal possibly entails the minimum of administrative overheads, so almost all the donated money will reach those who need help.

Kerala’s new year just passed: Onam. We joined the community in a traditional meal, the Onam Sadhya (featured photo).

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Eden with coconut and cocoa nut

April is going to be a cruel month. Already I’m beginning to dread the work that is piling up. On days like this I’m glad I have a library of photos on my laptop which I can scroll through. Today my eyes snagged on this idyllic forest retreat. A small stream running and pooling in front of a traditional Kerala house, surrounded by fruit trees; you can breathe freely in a place like this.

When I passed by this house I noticed a Malabar giant squirrel stealing a coconut, and ignoring the fruits hanging on a cocoa tree. Clever squirrel, to take only what it needs, so it doesn’t become too much of a pest. The little village snuggled up to a protected forest, so there is never a lack of interesting backyard birds here. What a lovely place for a break!

Seven views of the Elephant’s Head

The highest peak in India south of the Himalayas is called Anamudi. The Malayalam word means Elephant’s Head. The 2.7 Kms high peak is easily visible from a distance. When I saw it again, I was struck by how apt the description is. It does not take too much of imagination to see an elephant’s head in the shape of this peak.

The morning started sunny with a mild haze, but by midday clouds had started gathering around the peak. By early afternoon the peak was barely visible. The clouds did not lift before we left the neighbourhood. The changing weather gave me a chance to get a variety of views of the peak in half a day. Looking at these photos brings back memories of a nice walk.

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.