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!

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.

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.

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!

Malabar grey Hornbill

When The Family told me to look out for grey hornbills, I was surprised. We have seen and photographed Indian grey hornbills nesting in our garden, and I didn’t think I would specially watch out for them. “These are Malabar grey hornbills”, she explained. I looked it up. They are the smallest of the Indian hornbills, being less than half a meter long, lack the casque of the other, and have somewhat paler beaks. We heard the raucous calls of one in our first day in Thattekad. Then, from the lava dome in Urulanthanni we had a wonderful view of a couple of these Ocyceros griseus. I saw one eating a fig in the usual Hornbill style: first holding it in the tip of its bill, and then after throwing it back towards its throat, it raised its head and opened its bill to catch it. I also saw it regurgitate some food and eat it: below.

The large number of hornbill species across Asia probably radiated out from India after it collided with Asia and its rainforests spread across a new continent. In fact, the hornbills could be among the oldest birds in India, probably having come here from Africa around 50 million years ago. When it comes to discussions about original Indians, hornbills beat all humans by about 50 million years, less some change. Hornbills began to diversify into fruit eaters, and remain omnivorous but largely fruit eating even today. Later, one of the Indian lineages repopulated Africa. Modern African hornbills are descended from these.

It is relatively easy to study the nesting of hornbills. They are monogamous, and choose to nest in the same hollow in a tree year after year. Whenever I see a hollow in a tree with a sharp round opening, I wonder if this is a potential nest for hornbills. Every year, the pair clean the hole in the tree where the nest will be. The nesting begins at a time when the forest is at the peak of its fruiting season, around the middle of February. Then, after laying eggs, the female seals herself and the eggs into the nest using her fecal matter, which is rich in seeds. The nest has a slit for breathing, feeding and sanitation. Nest repairing is left to the female. The eggs take about 40 days to hatch, and another 45 days pass before the fledgelings emerge. The male forages widely to bring a variety of fruits and insects to the female and the hatchlings, and thereby manages to disperse seeds. The hornbill is therefore a keystone species in the forest. Divya Mudappa spent a few pleasant months in these jungles making a checklist of fruits eaten by the Malabar grey hornbill. Several of the plants which the they feed on are classed as vulnerable in the IUCN red list, and several others have not been evaluated.

The Indian grey hornbill and the Malabar grey hornbill overlap in a very small range. Since they compete for the same resources, I wonder about the outcomes.