It’s a Frog’s World- Part 2: Munnar, Kerala

Ghatixalus Asterops Juvenile 600
Continued from the previous post….

The next day we made our long road journey to Munnar, a land of tea plantations set amongst the grand Anamalais. Here we would be met by two amazing researchers, both of whom we had heard much about, Lilly Margaret and Sandeep Das. Varad, through the course of his studies throughout the country, had managed to convince these two to take some valuable time off their research projects to join us and impart their collective knowledge.

We met Lilly first, well known for her work involving the study of amphibians in modified landscapes. As she would elaborate, tea plantations have been in Munnar as long as 1890, and along with eucalyptus formed the dominant landscape in and around Munnar. Yet as her work was beginning to show (and we would soon see first-hand), anurans here were resilient, and had not only survived but adapted and flourished. She was also very specific in her objectives for us. Sure, she would do her best in showing us the diversity of amphibian species and the identification and behavioral aspects to look for, but we were also to be trained in basic monitoring and study techniques so we could be employed as resources in surveys for the future.

As many in the field are aware, herping is best carried out at night when the animals are most active, so after freshening ourselves up in the accommodation Lilly had arranged for us, we congregated near the road bordering a few tea plantations in the night. Lilly and now, Sandeep joined us as well. Sandeep’s reputation preceded him, he was already well-respected by many researchers and experts of the country in batrachology (study of frogs and toads) for the extensive work he had done in the Agasthyamalai range for various species, key among them, Raorchestes chalazodes. During the course of our walk with Sandeep, he introduced us to an interesting line of thought. Frogs, especially of the Raorchestes genus might have specifically adapted to suit the ecological niche in each range of the Western Ghats. An example would be Raorchestes tinniens, which had occupied the grassland niche in the Nilgiris, which Raorchestes dubois occupied in the Anamalais. Similar was the case for Raorchestes ochlandrae in Wayanad, and Raorchestes chalazodes in Agasthyamalai. Built from this foundation, he provided a framework for identification of anura. Field identification (aside from certain unique morphological characters) of anura can be based on two facets: geography and bioacoustics or calls (It is also noteworthy to mention however that amphibian identification now is seeing an increasing reliance on DNA and phylogenetic studies, and while morphology or physical characters still occupy an important space in the area, the former have come to gain greater weight in describing a species in recent times).

Over the course of the night, Lily and Sandeep’s penchant for finding frogs would leave us spellbound. Without much difficulty, they tracked the frogs using a combination of visual and auditory cues, and we saw a stunning variety of frogs, including Raorchestes dubois (Kodaikanal Bush Frog), Raorchestes chlorosomma (Green-eyed Bush Frog), Raorchestes kadalarensis, Raorchestes jayarami (Jayaram’s Bush Frog), Raorchestes beddomi (Beddome’s Bush Frog), Nyctibatrachus Pucha (Meowing Night Frog) as well as a Fejervarya sp. (Cricket Frog) [The genus of Fejervarya in the Western Ghats has been hotly debated in the last few years, there have been quite a few papers published on the subject. Morphological characters of the fejervaryan frogs of the Western Ghats, and the rest of the country and South-east Asia were both proposed and contested. Until a few months ago, cricket frogs of the Western ghats fell into two genera: Zakerana and Minervarya. However per this recent paper (http://biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.3999.1.5), both this genera have again been synonymized with Fejervarya. ]

Raorchestes chlorosomma

Much like other restricted-range species, the Green-eyed Bush Frog (Raorchestes chlorosomma) is a critically endangered species occurring in very specific habitats in Munnar.

The highlight of the night surely had to be our sighting of Ghatixalus asterops (Star-eyed Tree Frog). We saw the individual making its characteristic bird-like call on a moonflower plant (Datura sp.) overlooking a stream. Locally common, we took this specimen for closer study and observation, and it turned out to be a juvenile.

Ghatixalus Asterops Juvenile Body

In this case, this juvenile Ghatixalus Asterops (Star-eyed Tree Frog) shows extremely different color and patterns from the adult.

This species has also been seen in different morphs, and this juvenile looked totally different from any textbook illustration we’d seen (We would see the adult the next day too), but its arresting feature were definitely the brilliant eyes, fine lines emanating from its pupil across the iris, the colors getting reversed in the adult morph. What a frog and what a night!

Ghatixalus asterops adult 600

The adult Ghatixalus asterops, They are strong climbers as evidenced by their well-dilated fingers & toes (digits). The current range and status of species is still not fully known.

The next day Lily devoted some time to give us a brief and some practical experience on monitoring techniques. While there were a number of methods utilized in the field and possibly each of the textbook methods had to be adapted to suit the landscape, she emphasized that integrity of data was essential. Hence the sampling and data collection techniques had to be chosen with care. As a test exercise, we were asked to create a 5X5m quadrate in a eucalyptus plantation. After our collective efforts in creating one, when Lilly said she had been using 20X20m quadrates for her study across plantations along with only 1 more person, we were left flabbergasted.

That night, our quadrate study didn’t yield much amphibian activity. However, outside of our study area, we were able to find another species for our trip, Raorchestes griet.

Raorchestes Griet 600

Raorchestes griet is another threatened species, a small reddish-brown bush frog with spinular projections on its back and a fairly loud call.

Post our sighting, we quickly reported back to Lilly’s station where Sandeep had prepared a short presentation on one of the most enigmatic amphibian species in India, a frog that had garnered worldwide attention, Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the Pig-nosed or Purple Frog. The first formal description of the adult specimen was by Dr. Biju and Franky Bossyut in 2003, and while initially thought to be rare it is now being increasingly found in various localities. However, due its burrowing nature, it is seldom seen, but Sandeep along with his team members had managed to get some fascinating insights about its breeding behavior. It seems that most individuals of this species within a particular locality would come out of their subterranean homes for a very short window of time, re-instating its status as an enigmatic species. While we were listening, apparently Lilly had stepped out and said she had gone looking for a ‘surprise’. Our barrage of questions to Sandeep was put to a stop when Lilly re-entered. And while perhaps it is puppies or other baby mammals, which elicit compliments of cuteness, what we saw in front of us was surely a very strong candidate. It was a froglet of Rhacophorus Pseudomalabaricus known as the Anamalai or False Gliding Frog. We’ll let the picture do the talking for this find.

Rhacophorus Pseudomalabaricus froglet 600

Finally, we went on our last night walk. Impossibly, we had covered nearly all the anuran species found in this locality save for a few. And almost like a clichéd Bollywood happy ending, we would end up with two more of the remaining ones. While walking, Lilly suddenly stopped as if she heard something and scrambled into the nearby Eucalyptus plantation. Scrambling back, she held in her hands, the adult Pseudomalabaricus. Astounded, we studied the characters.

Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus adult

This species is differentiated from its more famous cousin, Rhacophorus Malabaricus by a few subtle features including the light stripes on its dorsum (malabaricus will often have tiny black dots), and lacking the red or pink seen in the webbing on the fingers and toes.

We started the trip with wynaadensis, so it only seemed fair we ended with its compatriot, munnarensis. While wynaadensis belongs to the Pseudophilautus genus, munnarensis belongs to Raorchestes, though both can classified as bush frogs.

Raorchestes munnarensis 600

A larger frog than most of its cousins with well-developed dilated discs on its limbs, we came across this individual pretty much in its type locality, often seen in low-lying vegetation near tea estates.

As we wound our way back, we took stock of the sheer magnitude of learning during our visit here. The revelation of so many concepts in the field of amphibian study was truly illuminating. In fact, Lilly had mentioned some concepts such as site fidelity (where the same individual of the species is seen year on year occupying the exact same locality), which she along with Sandeep had personally observed, and these required further study and validation. Batrachology in India is at a ripe stage for the entry of those enthusiastic in pulling the veil of this still under-studied class of organisms. Given their specialization and their ability to adapt to specific ecological niches, frogs will remain a vital part of our further studies to understand ecosystem services as they serve as indicator species and hence the conservation of microhabitats must be carried forward with equal care and conviction as with larger landscapes. Just like tigers, conservation of frogs on a micro-level will help in conserving other biodiversity as well such as this Large-Scaled Pit Viper (Trimeresus macrolepis).

Large-scaled Pit Viper 600 2
Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

It’s a Frog’s World- Part 1: Wayanad, Kerala

[The following story is from a visit in October 2014, have done my best to add updates per October 2015 :)]

Ochlandrae shadow eye

‘What crazy looking eyes!’, we exclaimed as we pored over the field guide of the ‘Common Amphibians of Kerala’ by P.S. Shivaprasad, moving along the bumpy roads outside Calicut, driven by our Keralite Schumacher, Majeedji.

For the 7 of us traveling together, the past few months had already been a roller-coaster ride. Dr. Varad Giri, one of the most well-renowned Indian herpetologists, had started a 4-month course dedicated to amphibians in June for those interested in the same, regardless of their background, as part of his initiative of the Western Ghats Regional Station to raise a fresh crop that could participate in further studies of this little-known class of organisms. All our notions and perceptions of amphibian identification had been shattered in the last few months. We would recognize that color and pattern are weak identification marks because both frogs and toads have the ability to change the above in relation to their environment. In some genera such as Micrixalus [a class of frogs known as foot-flagging or dancing frogs], the same population within the same locality will have several different morphs.

And the reverse occurs as well, specimens that look similar might be entirely different species. All this in an environment where taxonomy was undergoing continuous review. Phew! Which is why us novices had to rely on several other characters, the body shape, the fingers and toes, the tympanum (the external hearing structure of frogs and toads), texture of the skin, presence of glands, shape of the snout, underparts and yes, the eyes. The study of these characters and the specific measurements were taken using a digital caliper we would learn, came under the term, ‘morphology’. Such characters can only be studied well when the specimen is at close quarters, so unlike birds where observation at a distance can be sufficient for identification, one often has to catch the frog. This requires extreme care, and the correct technique is essential in order to not cause any injury to the frog; this we had been learning in the past few months.

This motley crew was now making its way to the evergreen treasures of the southern Western Ghats to Wayanad, and from there on to Munnar. Sahil Latheef, one of our fellow participants in the programme, was also our host for this trip. We had already taken good advantage of his hospitality by digging hungrily into the huge lunch spread at his family home in Wayanad. And though half-sleepy, we were incredibly excited as we made our way to the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary. Sahil had done an amazing job of coordinating with the forest department and the ZSI (Zoological Survey of India) office there. When we had arrived, it seems some of the local media was quite abuzz with our visit. Apparently, our visit had prompted the forest department to organize an official ‘Frog Watch’ in conjunction with ZSI, and several more interested students and volunteers would be joining our small foray.

As we reached the Kakkayam forest gate and unpacked, the evening air was already filled with the croaks and whistles of our objects of study. Just a few meters from where we stepped out, we came across one of Wayanad’s iconic species, Pseudophilautus wynaadensis or the Wayanad Bush Frog.

Pseudophilautus wynaadensis

Endemic to the Western Ghats like many other bush frogs, the Wayanad Bush Frog was re-validated in 2001 as a distinct species. This particular male was advertising its availability for mating.

After observing it for a while, we proceeded and met up with the other participants of the programme. Dr. Jafer Palot of ZSI gave a brief round of introductions and also elaborated on the amphibian diversity of the area while Varad talked about the objectives of our visit there. Undoubtedly, we were all on the lookout for one of the most charismatic amphibian species of India known from its type locality (the area from where a species is first described) here in Kakkayam, Raorchestes ochlandrae or the Ochlandrae Reed Frog so named for the Ochlandra setigeri reed brakes it inhabits. However, it was a difficult frog to find at the best of times, so we would have to take our chances.

We started from the get-go, trekking into a patch of reed beds. Wet evergreen forest, moist leaf litter and a humid environment meant we were soon donating a few pints of bloods to the local collectors, leeches. As we plucked them off, we came across our second amphibian find, a Nyctibatrachus sp. (possibly kempholeyensis)

Nyctibatrachus sp

‘Nycti’ in Latin translates to night and batrachus ‘frog’, as this genus of frogs is primarily nocturnal. They are also sometimes known as ‘wrinkled frogs’ given the characteristic wrinkly skin seen on their dorsum.

Not having any luck with the reed frog, we proceeded to the main trail once again, and came across several other anuran (the combined term for frogs and toads) species: Clinotarsus curtipes (Bicolored Frog), Euphlyctis Sp. (possibly cyanophlyctis, Skittering Frog), Duttaphrynus parietalis (Ridged Toad), Microhyla Sp. (Narrow-mouthed frog), Raorchestes akroparallagi (Variable Bush Frog), Rhacophorus malabaricus (Malabar Gliding Frog) as well as 2 different Hylarana sp. (Golden-backed frogs) [Hylarana as a genus of frogs has undergone major taxonomic churn, this genus now has recorded splits in the Western Ghats into two different genera, Indosylvirana and Hydrophylax, the latter referring to the Fungoid Frog, which has since been further split into two species]

Microhyla Sp.

Microhyla spp. in India are commonly known as narrow-mouthed frogs and can often be seen around human habitation. The genus is from the family, Microhylidae which are also collectively known as narrow-mouthed frogs globally. In the Western Ghats though, the other genus of Microhylidae, Uperodon, are most commonly known as Balloon Frogs due to their stocky appearance.

Euphlyctis sp.

Another common frog, most likely to be seen in small stagnant ponds and puddles are species of the genus, Euphlyctis or Skittering Frogs. Powerful hind limbs and heavily webbed feet in the individuals of this genus are indicative of their swimming prowess.

Needless to say, we were already quite satisfied with the amphibian diversity of the place. But Lady Luck had decided she was going to be incredibly generous with us that day.

Soon, one of the students who had joined our trail thought he might give a go looking into some reed hollows in a small patch near the path. After a few seconds of searching, he shouted ‘Ochlandrae!!’ We rushed to the spot and wonder of wonders there it was, looking at us with those psychedelic eyes. This celebrity’s time had come, and soon enough was surrounded by adoring paparazzi (yes, that includes us!). Little is actually known about this frog. In its description paper by K.V. Gururaja, K.P. Dinesh, Jafer Palot, C. Radhakrishnan & T.V. Ramachandra, the scientists had observed egg clutches of this species in hollow reeds, and with both the male and female seen nearby, it was hypothesized they may be indulging in parental care as well [This indeed was the case for another reed frog species, Raorchestes chalazodes from Tamil Nadu, where parental care by the male was observed and similar reproductive behavior has been ascribed to Raorchestes ochlandrae: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bij.12388/abstract. ]. With new reed frog species being discovered, there is increasing curiosity whether these frogs represent an even further specialization among bush frogs.

Raorchestes OchlandraeOh, and did I mention were not done yet?

Extremely happy with our finds, we nevertheless moved to one of the nearby streams. We quickly came across the frogs we had expected to find near fast-flowing streams, Micrixalus sp. or the dancing frogs. Their foot-flagging behavior has been well recorded by scientists and natural history observers, and hence the attribute of ‘dancing’ (Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOdwvrn7ors).. We didn’t witness this behavior, but several of them hung on to rocks here with their well-dilated digits.

Two different morphs of the same species, Micrixalus saxicola (Small Torrent Frog).

Two different morphs of the same species, Micrixalus saxicola (Small Torrent Frog).

And that was when we heard another shout….

We reached the spot where Dr. Jafer Palot had taken one specimen for collection. Smiling, he pointed to some rocks on the upper parts of the stream. And we could not believe our eyes. We had not expected to come across this species at all, it was restricted to riparian evergreen forest and was known from very few localities. Standing in front of us, for all the world looking unconcerned was a Ghatophryne sp. or a Torrent Toad.

This animal looks like a relic from another time, and though it has the warty appearance of a toad (the warts are known as tubercles, and are actually glands that produce secretions, which are often designed to repel predators), it has a sleeker and thinner appearance. The genus is endemic to the Western Ghats, after it was separated from the similar-looking Ansonia of South-East Asia based on molecular and phylogenetic (phylogenesis being the grouping of species based on their evolutionary history) studies, adding to the already rich store of endemic amphibian diversity here. This individual did give us a peek of its feeding habits, when an unfortunate ant blundered too close, and was snapped up for a quick snack.

Ghatophryne Sp.

Thoroughly sated with the night’s discoveries (18 species in all), we reached home late with the realization this was only the beginning of our trip.

Will be sharing the latter part of the journey at Munnar soon 🙂

Guide: The Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary is accessible from the main gate at Kakkayam (approximately a 2.5-3 hour drive from Calicut) and one simply needs to take a ticket from the counter there to enter the forest. Exploration here inside the sanctuary is possible only by foot and the forest staff there are quite helpful and enthusiastic to guide new visitors.  During the monsoon, the area is a paradise for those with herping interests with several species of reptiles and amphibians, the area is a known haunt of the world’s largest venomous snake, the King Cobra. Bird diversity is also incredible here, with some estimates pegging the number at 180 species including Malabar Trogon, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceylon Frogmouth (which we did actually see, a bonus sighting during our ‘frogging’), Malayan Night Heron, Legge’s Hawk Eagle among them.  Butterflies too abound, the Malabar Natural History Society had recorded 142 species in their last survey including the Pale Green Awlet, Pointed Line Blue and the Sahyadri Small Palm Bob. Many of the mammals of the Western Ghats are also present here including tigers, elephants, gaur and there are even endemics such as the Lion-tailed macaque and Brown Palm Civet, however visibility for all mammals is low owing to the largely dense foliage and limited access. However, the scenic beauty of the evergreen forests, small streams and waterfalls here are sure to not leave nature lovers disappointed.

Equipment used: : Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

Encounter with Lady & Luck- Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh

(Edited Version of the below write-up was published in the Sanctuary Asia Feb. 2015 issue, the below encounter took place in November, 2014)

Dawn broke at the Churna FRH in the Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh. We were up and pretty excited already; in our time here, apart from the wealth of birdlife such as the Indian Eagle Owl, Scarlet Minivet, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and mammals such as sloth bears, gaur, sambar, Indian giant and flying squirrels, we had been very lucky in getting a coveted sight of Satpura’s enigmatic tigers. It was barely for a few minutes the previous evening, in the process of waiting at a particular spot shown by our guide, Rameshwar (who on a previous day’s patrolling inside the forest, had seen a mother along with two cubs). After about half an hour, we had spied a cub deep within the lantana undergrowth.

Cub evening

The instant he saw us, he took a few quick sips of water, and disappeared again, keeping the ghostly reputation of Satpura’s tigers alive. Such an elusive sight was satisfying on its own; we had been further emboldened however; en-route Churna, we had come across the tracks of a big male, likely Sidhu, a tiger re-located from Bandhavgarh that had made the Churna range his home. Aly Rashid, Owner-Naturalist at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, had a quiet optimism about him that morning. As Rakesh, our driver, started the engine, my wife, Deepi and me pulled on our caps and wrapped our mufflers as the chill of a November morning welcomed us. Nearly an hour into the drive, to our surprise, we noticed Sidhu had actually used the same path late last night, headed in the same direction as us the previous evening.

Pugmark of Sidhu

As we drove away from Churna, and with no other signs or alarm calls, our hopes of seeing a tiger again that day started to melt with the day’s sun. A barking deer, a juvenile gaur, a lesser yellow nape and a brown-capped pygmy woodpecker were the only notable sightings thus far.  As a last ditch effort, we once again reached and waited at the same spot we had seen the cub the previous evening. We were the lone jeep; this park allowed only 12 vehicles inside at a time, and not everyone went for the Churna excursion which was a fair bit longer than the safari in the Madhai area. Silence and no calls or pugmarks; nevertheless, we chanced our luck waiting, and to everyone’s excitement, after a few minutes we heard rustling deep within the undergrowth again. They were still here, as Deepi pointed out some quick movement, and Rakesh saw the cub sprint across behind the bushes. Aly and Rameshwar spotted the second cub as well moving about, and soon all of us for a few seconds, enjoyed the grand walk of the mother as she walked along an opposing ridge only to disappear again. Langur alarm calls started further up the hillside. They were going to walk away, we assumed. Aly then suggested an idea; why not get off the main road and just park around the bend. We’d still have a good idea of where the alarm calls were coming from, and the road would be empty if they wished for more accessible movement. Tigers, as most visitors to forests would know, tend to use forest roads quite a bit, especially for traversing long distances. The calls subsided, followed by silence. We waited and then 10 minutes later, again heard rustling, twigs breaking. And then a ‘thump’! Cautiously, we rolled around the bend and as we turned, I grabbed Aly’s arm in excitement. Because, big as life, there was the mother tigress sitting 15 metres from us bang on the road!

As the car gently moved around the bend, this was almost a surreal sight, seeing a tiger at such close range in Satpura!

As the car gently moved around the bend, this was almost a surreal sight, seeing a tiger at such close range in Satpura!

Aly and me clicked away, as the contented mother sat yawning in the late morning sun

Tigress Yawn

Soon though from behind her, we saw movement, and the first cub popped its head behind her.

First Cub

He walked boldly, came close and nuzzled his mother giving us a moment of pure delight as he crouched protectively around her.

One of the two frames I was lucky to get during this encounter, both of which would give me immense joy :)

One of the two frames I was lucky to get during this encounter, both of which would give me immense joy 🙂

Soon, the 2nd cub entered the scene and we smiled, happy that we had finally seen the whole family. Or had we? Rameshwar exclaimed excitedly ‘Teen hain!’ as he peered through the binoculars. No one, including the forest department, had heard of a 3rd cub. Our surprise quickly changed to alertness, as the mother raised herself from her comfortable lounging spot and started walking……towards us!

Mother+2 cubs Tigress Moves Closer

Rakesh had never been so close to a tiger before, and all of us, including Aly who has seen tigers elsewhere walk past the park gypsies nonchalantly, were unsure of her behavior as most tigers here were not as familiar with the jeeps, that too when she was with cubs. The decision was made to reverse the jeep, and give her the right of way, but there was a slight problem. We had braked on a slope when we first saw the tigress not wanting to disturb her by getting any closer, and now both, her and the cubs were walking towards us. So, as Rakesh attempted to go the other way, the jeep lurched forward, towards the tigress! Her demeanor changed, and suddenly her body was tense, in a half-crouch! All of us were suddenly a bit fearful, we wanted to give her way, but the opposite was happening. Thank the stars, Rakesh did not lose his cool and he wrestled with the jeep to get into 4-wheel drive mode to reverse the car, as we parked ourselves in the Jhinjhini mahal junction (the same spot around the bend we had parked earlier), leaving the main road open for her. The tigress relaxed, and she walked calmly past us, followed by her…wait, what?? 4 cubs! Rameshwar was beside himself with joy, and all of us stared in awe. No one in the park had any idea of 3, let alone 4 cubs. When was the last time anyone had seen 5 tigers together in Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve?

Tigress spraymarking

Unfazed by the excitement, the tigress casually spray-marked on the trees as she walked past us. The 4 tiny tots (maybe not so tiny, by Aly’s estimate, they were around 10 months, close to the size of an adult leopard) followed in behind her. She walked on ahead, and gave a bit of a turn back to look at us, and that was the opportunity for me, Aly and Rameshwar to freeze into a frame one of the most amazing sightings ever here at Satpura, and which would prove to be a valuable record for the forest department.

Satpura tigers

On our return journey, Rakesh was so dazed with our sighting, he did not speak a word all the way back, even when we saw three wild dogs zip across the road. In contrast, Rameshwar was glowing with glee, while Aly’s face had relaxed into a wide smile. Deepi was grinning everytime she looked at me, and I still could not believe what I had seen. The mood was joyous on our return to the Madhai camp as well, once we shared the news with the forest department members. You could tell that all those invested in the protection of this park, celebrated this event with nearly as much vigour, as a newborn in their household. Based on our pictures, we would be informed a few days later that this was a resident tigress, born in Satpura who 2 years earlier had been seen mating with another male here. It was likely she hadn’t conceived then, but she had more than made up with this baby boom.

There is a good deal of debate on tourism pressures in many of the renowned parks, some of the viewpoints are often not entirely unjustified. But if lady luck is present, as she was on that day, there comes a time when both tourists and the forest department can help in spreading a message. Give tigers their space, they need nothing else 😀

A Quick Guide:
Satpura National Park is part of the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve, a true ambassador of the beautiful forests of the central Indian landscape. For the wildlife enthusiast, sightings of megafauna are plentiful, and the park is known more in the past few years for its sightings of sloth bears and leopards. Tiger sightings are generally rare, but on the rise due to the relocation of several individuals from Bandhavgarh. The central Indian or southern Barasingha now also calls Satpura its home, a small population from Kanha was shifted here recently, and the exercise will be ongoing.

The Dhoopgarh peak, the tallest of Madhya Pradesh, inside the national park area is a unique habitat, that of the central Indian Sub-Tropical Hill Forest, the only one of its kind, complete with a mix of tree species of mixed deciduous forests and a healthy growth of evergreen species as well.

Birders are going to have their hands full, with over 250 reported species. Apart from the Chambal sanctuary, this is one of the few places in India where visitors can get sightings of the Indian skimmer, classified Vulnerable by the IUCN, but which is witnessing serious decline due to disappearing habitat. The best time to see them on most occasions is the end of February-March. Butterfly species are plentiful, as are reptiles and a few species of amphibians.

How to get there:

Satpura National Park is accessible via road from Bhopal (on average a 4-4.5 hour drive) which is the nearest airport. The best accessible railheads are Itarsi and Hoshangabad, the drive to the Madhai gate in regular traffic conditions would be just over an hour.

Where to stay:

We stayed at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge so will certainly vouch for it being one of the best wildlife lodges in India, they have been an award-winning property many times in the past. It is a luxurious property, but everything here is dedicated to maintaining an ecological balance with the surroundings. The buffer forest in Sohagpur around Reni Pani is also rich in biodiversity. Rusty Spotted Cats, Leopard Geckos have been seen in the lodge grounds, and leopards, sloth bears, and even a tiger have been within the radius of a few km of the property. The naturalists in the lodge are top-of-the-line, a warehouse of natural history and photography knowledge including the owner, Aly Rashid, himself.
Similar options which are also well known are the Forsyth Lodge and the newly opened Denwa Backwaters. For more budget-friendly options, a few properties such as Tawa Resort and Madhai Resort are available. Another great option is to stay at the Madhai or Churna Forest Rest-houses, Madhai has a fantastic view and Churna will take you deeper into Satpura’s wilds. These can be booked by getting in touch with the forest department. It’s always recommended to book safaris beforehand due to limited vehicles here, which can be booked via the MP tourism site. Visitors can also explore the park via speedboat, canoe, jeep and on foot as well!

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

Mount Abu- Encounter with Big Black Baloo

Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

A few months back in December, we were invited to a wedding of a family friend of my wife at Abu Road in February. I was not sure of making it, but the family insisted it would be a good idea; we could even spend the weekend at Mt. Abu. I did not particularly relish the idea as I only remembered the place as a child and the only thing I recalled was boating at Nakki Lake and figured it would be like every other bustling hill station.

However, some reading up online got me interested, a small number of people were talking about the excellent trekking options. I dug a little deeper and stumbled on a few fragments of info on the Mount Abu wildlife sanctuary. The website of the Rajasthan forest department and a few scanty TripAdvisor reviews were all I could find. So I got in touch with a friend of mine, Shardul, who had been to virtually every green corner in India. And he pointed me to Noel Desa of St. Mary’s school who would change my perception of this quaint hill station.

On February 15th, 2014 we found ourselves in Mt. Abu. We dedicated the day to explore the usual sights and sounds, Nakki Lake, Dilwara Temple (brilliant architecture). We spent the rest of the day at our hotel, Connaught House, and the well-maintained gardens attracted a nice diversity of avian visitors.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

While driving around Abu as well, we had noticed babblers and bulbuls seemed to be in abundance much like other hill stations, and the usual city suspects- house crows and pigeons seemed to be missing in action. The lack of scavenging avenues for the latter might perhaps be a causal factor.

A first timer for me, though locally common here, was the Indian Yellow Tit, also sometimes known as the Indian Black-Lored Tit (Parus (xanthogenys) aplonotus).

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

These were joined by a few more of the commonly encountered species:

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

Laughing Dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

In the evening, we took the drive to meet Noel or Brother Noel, as he is known at school. He met us at the gate along with possibly, the world’s friendliest Great Danes. He explained that Mount Abu’s biodiversity was largely unexplored, forests ranging from thorn to evergreen with a stunning variety of birdlife (he showed us a picture of a group of Green Avadavats, one of the rarities of the subcontinent, congregated around a small water feature near his office). Leopards were also very much present here, and Mt. Abu was fast gaining a reputation of having an unusually high density of sloth bears.

Noel gave us a quick tour of the school, beautifully maintained with great care taken to preserve the local flora and fauna. The education of children here ensured they are constantly in tune with nature, often visiting the nearby forest.

The next morning, based on Noel’s advice, we visited Trevor’s tank, the sanctuary’s most popular entrance. We paid the customary entrance fees at the gate, and took the dirt road to Trevor’s Tank. The road was bumpy and though I wouldn’t advise any journeys in old cars of any questionable condition, most cars would be able to manage fine. While driving, we spotted a few common avian residents such as Black Redstarts and Fantail Flycatchers, until I spotted something interesting in a sandy patch on the road.

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

We had been told earlier leopards were very much present, but it was good to know the big cat was on the prowl. Tigers, unfortunately disappeared here in the 1970s, the last tiger apparently seen in 1974 when it was found raiding a village’s chicken coop. Some reports suggested past presence of lion as well, and Noel in fact had told us recently there had been rumours, that a few kilometers south of the Aravali foothills, they were again being seen, courtesy the spillover from Gir.

We reached the end of the road, and we stepped out to view Trevor’s Tank. We met one of the local guides there, Bijay who showed us around the place. The Tank had been constructed in the year 1897 by Maharaja Kesari Singh Bahadur of Sirohi State in memory of late Colonel G. H. Trevors (The agent to the Governor General Of India from 1890-1895 at Rajputana). A few tourists do visit the spot to view the tank’s reptilian residents, mugger crocodiles. They were introduced a few years back, along with some exotic species of carp and goldfish. What effect these exotics have had on the local species is undocumented.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

The wildlife sanctuary area according to forest department stats, was not very large, 19-20 kms long, and 5-8 kms wide. Contiguity with any protected areas seemed to be long lost (At one point of time, it may have been connected to as far as Ranthambore). We asked Bijay to guide us through any trails in the surrounding forest. He said he could do so taking us to a hillock edge, ominously named Death Point. My wife and me exchanged nervous glances at the name, but decided to proceed. We began trekking, and after a few meters, were rewarded by the sight of a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

Oriental white-eyes flitted from bush to bush. We walked on, until we heard the distinct harsh cry of a langur alarm call further up the hillside, followed in a few minutes by a peacock’s. We stayed for a while scanning the hillside with binoculars but soon the calls subsided, and we didn’t catch a glimpse of any movement. We walked further ahead, Bijay in front, followed by my wife, and then by me.

As we turned the next bend, Bijay beckoned to us with quick motions, and my wife caught a glimpse of the elusive grey junglefowl disappearing into the underbrush. By the time I turned the bend, I could only hear the rustling indicating its movement. Disappointed, I checked the time and realized we needed to head back for a quick lunch before meeting Noel to explore the forest near his school.

  We went on our way back when something flew in and perched on a tree above us. It was a Brown-headed Barbet, a common forest resident of the subcontinent.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

We returned to our car, and to the town for a quick lunch. We reached St. Mary’s at 3:30 pm. The weather was just perfect, a warm sun, and cool winds blowing. We walked out the school gate towards Tiger Path, one of the well-known trekking routes I had read up on. The route is approximately 7 km long, ending at a village. Noel informed us it would connect to the main town road, though the route was a bit long and circuitous.

Tiger Path, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

We set off at a brisk pace, to take in as much of the forest as we could for the remaining daylight hours. The forest here seemed to be in far better condition as compared to the largely dry forest around Trevor Tank. A couple of plum-headed parakeets whizzed by us.

Noel knew the route, like the back of his hand, and with a long club-like stick in his hand to ward off any dangers; he was as comfortable off the route as he was on it.  As evening set in, the forest was bathed in golden light.

As the sun began its descent, we decided to head back, as we didn’t want to stay after dark, and the last thing we wanted was to bumble into anything unexpected in the dark. I had no idea this line of thinking would turn out to be somewhat prophetic.

On our way back, a small temple had been built; three youths on a motorcycle had stopped by. They informed us they had seen a bear going off into the forest from the road. We thanked them, and remained vigilant, but I knew the chances of coming across any large mammals on foot would always be low. Humans, no matter our efforts, tend to be too noisy.

We walked on, and I was scanning the forest, when my wife pointed out ahead and asked, “Who is that?” About 20 meters ahead of us, a large black figure had turned the bend and was plodding on towards us. My first reaction was, “Looks like a bear, but can’t possibly be one, what were the chances”. But a second look confirmed it, there was in fact, a sloth bear walking towards us.

At this point of time, the bear became aware of our presence. We had made no attempt to hide, not wanting the bear to come any closer; he stopped as well regarding us balefully.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or zoom.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or magnification on the original image.

Noel, a few feet ahead of us, had been looking for tracks, and as he looked up, he froze and quickly looked back to us to ensure we had seen the bear.

I managed a few quick shots, and kept an eye for any changes in the bear’s behavior. While we were a group of 3, and there was no cause for immediate danger, sloth bears are notoriously temperamental, unpredictable animals. When cornered, and unable to find themselves in a position to retreat, they stands on their hind feet and attack, biting the unfortunate victim’s face, leaving devastating injuries.

Sloth Bear Profile, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

However, in this case, he looked at us for 10-15 seconds, and to some relief, turned back and disappeared around the bend.

The bear turning back

The bear turning back

We proceeded ahead with caution around the bend, but rustling in the bushes a little further ahead on our left, indicated that the bear was making its way up the hillside.

We made our way back and soon reached the Tiger Path gate, and as we re-entered the school gates, we were welcomed again by Noel’s friendly Danes.

Brother Noel & The Danes

Brother Noel & The Danes

Over some piping hot tea, we relived our trekking experience. Noel pointed out that he had been making steady efforts to curb the invasive lantana (Lantana camara L., an introduced exotic species) growth. The lantana has spread through much of the sanctuary habitat adversely affecting native species destroying the habitat of endemic wildlife, key among them the Green Avadavat. Because of the efforts to maintain the natural habitat near school, these endangered birds are now being sighted again, but are at risk over the larger landscape that was already witnessing fragmentation.

We also talked about our close encounter with the bear. While everyone was well aware of the presence of bears, they were not seen as often, and if they were, it was usually at a long distance up away on hillsides.

The lower reaches have patches of evergreen forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

The lower reaches have patches of deciduous forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

Final word on our journey:

Having a wild sloth bear 20 meters away is a thrilling experience, but I wouldn’t certainly wish for this encounter to happen alone, when the sun has set.

We were just happy that big ol’ Baloo had graced us with his presence during the day 🙂

Kit: Sony A35, SAL75300 (75-300 mm)