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.

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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.

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.

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.

Bee-eating competition

The bridge over the Periyar river in Thattekad puts you at eye level with electricity cables running parallel to it. That makes it a great spot for bird-watchers, because so many birds like to sit on such wires. Bee eaters are probably the most colourful of these. The blue-tailed bee eater (Merops philippinus) sat there quietly, in the usual style of bee eaters, giving us ample time to click photos. I’ve seen these birds before. They are common over India, breeding in North India, and wintering in Southern India. I don’t know whether anyone in India has studied their migration in any detail or even counted their population.

As I looked at the individual whose photo you see above, the question in my mind was how it survives competition with the ubiquitous drongos of these forests, and the many mynas. I was almost sure that some ecologist would have studied this question, but I could not find an answer. These three kinds of birds eat more or less the same insects. Mynas and drongos are both aggressive feeders. They survive in the same forest although their prey base overlaps, because the overlap is rather small. Mynas eat many things which drongos don’t, and there’s also sauce for the drongo which is not saucy enough for mynas. But everything that a bee-eater eats is also prey for drongos. Moreover, bee eaters seem to spend little effort in hunting. They sit on these wires, or high up on trees, and make little sorties now and then, when an insect flies by. Theirs is a passive hunting strategy, no seeking out prey. Maybe that is the reason why they are much less common than drongos in these jungles.

A bird in a bonnet

Or should that be a bee in the bonnet? No, it definitely was a bird. It was small enough to be a coppersmith barbet, and sounded like one to me. I wished it would come out of the leaf which was wearing as a bonnet so that I could get a good look at it. Nosher had said something about a Malabar barbet some time back, and I hadn’t seen it. Could it be the same one? I was interested in this question because the coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) is one of the commonest barbets in Asia, whereas the Malabar barbet (Psilopogon malabaricus) is endemic to the Malabar region of the western ghats. Since we were in Urulanthanni near Thattekad in Kerala, it could be either, but I hoped that it was the one I had not seen before.

If you are a twitcher, you could be puzzled by my claim that the coppersmith barbet is a Psilopogon, whereas it is widely said to be in the genus Megalaima (for example, in my copy of the field guide by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp). The reason is that a recent study of molecular phylogeny of Asian barbets showed that Megalaima and Psilopogon are not separate phyla, and should be merged. As a result, the rule of historical precedence of names means that all Megalaima should be called Psilopogon. The study actually showed something more interesting: that the huge diversity of Asian barbets (of which there are more than 30 species today) originated more than 16 million years ago. There is also evidence that the original diversification of this lineage occurred around Borneo, Java and Sumatra (called the Sundaland), from where it spread towards India, the Himalayas and China and underwent even more speciation about 6 million years ago.

The birds of India are the true original inhabitants of the landmass. The thirty thousand years of humans pale into nothing compared to the six million years of the barbets, the ancient history of the banyan, and the fifty million years of hornbills.

A little later I found that the bird which was earlier hidden in a bonnet of leaves had hopped on to a stand of bamboos. Now that I could see it clearly I could tell by the absence of yellow on the cheeks and throat, and the solid green of its wings and breast, that it was indeed a Malabar barbet. A lifer!

Four butterflies and a moth

A decade back Mumbai was full of butterflies. You could see the bright grass-yellows fluttering in and out of traffic wherever there was an island with some greenery. If you stopped near one at a traffic light, you could see the fluttery flight of a Psyche or the almost invisible motion of small grass-blues. The potted plants in our balcony would be visited regularly by a host of larger butterflies, and on a Saturday afternoon I would take my camera and go for a half hour walk in the garden to take photos of a variety of these delightful animals. Then with the rise of mosquito-borne diseases, everyone decided to pump huge amounts of insecticides into our cities, and the butterflies suddenly vanished. The fluency which I had picked up in identifying butterflies also faded away.

Now, when I see butterflies during a walk in a forest, I feel like I can barely remember a few words of a language which I once knew well. The lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias)in the featured photo brought back a quick memory. I realized that when you have forgotten names, you see fewer butterflies. During our trip to the jungles around Thattekad I tried to train my eyes again to spot Lepidoptera, and I did manage to catch a glimpse of many Nymphalids (brush foots), Lycaenids (blues), Pierids (yellows), and Papilionids (swallowtails), from the little grass-blues to a fleeting glimpse of the yellow-and-black Southern Birdwing, India’s largest butterfly.

Butterflies are an undemanding pastime. You don’t have to wake up at unearthly hours to see them. They become active in the middle of the morning. The six-lineblue (Nacaduba kurava)that you see in the photo above is a typical low-level butterfly. The upper surface of its wing is a shimmery greyish blue. It hovers usually in bushes and undergrowth at the level of your knees, but comes to frequent stops to perch on a sunny leaf. If it settles on a chest-high leaf, grab the chance to take a photo. It will usually wait for you to take several shots.

The common bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), like most larger butterflies, inhabits a higher world in the forest, often flying at a level above my head. It is harder to photograph, since it perches for a very short time. I managed to take the photo that you can see above because around noon it decided that it had had enough sugars, and needed some of the minerals that it can only suck up from wet mud. Such mud-puddling butterflies give you a great opportunity to take photos.

The butterfly which you see above is the Psyche (Leptosia nina). It is so common and widespread that think of it as the sparrow of the butterfly world. You can see its weak and fluttery flight everywhere there is some grass or some low bushes or herbs. I noticed this butterfly as far afield as in the Andamans and Myanmar, and it spreads well beyond that to the east. Like the lineblue, this is another small butterfly which flutters among vegetation below your waist.

There are very few experts on moths. These are vast families of Lepidoptera which defeat an amateur. The relatively smaller number of butterflies are easier for amateurs to recognize because they are well-differentiated by wing colours and patterns. Moths are often drab, well-hidden, and requires finicky attention to differentiate from each other. I took this photo of a day-flying moth perched on a leaf. You can tell that it is a moth and not a butterfly by its antennae. All butterflies have the thin antennae with a club-head at the end which you can see in the other photos. Moths have a wide variety of antennae: the extremely feathery antenna of this one probably means that it is male. Some day I must make a trip with an expert on moths.