A TATOO OF DRUMBEATS AND MUCH ELSE
IN THE PALGHAT GAP
If you are happy for what you are, and grateful for what you
have; and your thanksgiving is perpetual; and if you have a passionate
appetite for the wild, then Palghat is the place for you to be.
And what better place to stay than at home! Mr. Bhagwaldas runs
a home-stay in Thenkurussi village. His home is a heritage site,
over 200 years old. The mansion oozes charm and grace. It’s
an ideal haven for the weary birder after a glorious day of birding
in the tropical jungles nearby. You can expect first class arrangements
and close personal attention from the host himself. Come here
to Palghat, to the Kandath Tharavad, heavy with old dreams and
spent history, an exquisite setting that is guaranteed to bring
your spirits in contact with the vital currents that flow through
the Palghat Gap!
The Gap is a complete opening up some 32 km wide in the Western
Ghats possibly having been caused by shearing and erosion. This
major break in the mountain range straddles the Kerala and Tamil
Nadu border; it lies between the Nilgiri hills to the north and
the Anamalais to the south. Through this gap in the otherwise
unbroken wall of great mountains, streams from the higher reaches
thread their way to the sea bringing great economic benefit to
the lands around.
Biologists have always recognized the Palghat Gap as a line dividing
various animal and plant populations - a division caused by -
or so they thought - relatively recent, human-related disturbances.
Now however, analysis of elephants’ DNA has revealed that
the division was actually thousands of years old, perhaps caused
by a catastrophic natural event such as an ancient drought. And
today we witness the hitherto unknown effects of the Gap - two
genetically distinct Asian elephant populations are separated
by an interruption in the Western Ghats mountain range. Scientists
are now looking for patterns of genetic differentiation in other
species on either side of this biogeographic barrier to confirm
the hypothesis! Thrilling opportunities to play “Spot the
That this interruption in a mountain chain is superbly placed
for access to unique birding potential within a couple of hours
in any direction, is pleasure redoubled.
To the north, Siruvani nestles its dam in the Nilgiri Hills.
It’s an uphill and abrupt climb all the way from the lush
green carpet of paddyfields in the Gap to tropical rainforest.
But as dawn breaks, a healthy intoxication of sights and sounds
flood your senses. The Giant Malabar Flying Squirrel, the first
of many that we shall see, permits a clear view of it breakfasting.
In the next few days it would be its loud rattling call rather
than its brilliant colouring of a rich deep brown with buff underparts
that would first reveal its presence.
Another give-a-way that you’re entering evergreen biotope
are the parties of bright yellow bulbuls that sing their melodious
double-whistle song. The group probably forms the nucleus of a
foraging party. That means, look out for other birds! So you peer
with your ears, so to speak, to identify the undercurrent flow
of conversation - incessant chattering of squeaks and harsh but
subdued churr-rs. And yes, there they are - little babblers with
a black head. Every hairpin bend that you curve round on your
way to the top has its share of Dark-fronted Babblers –
active little creatures that fall perpendicularly like leaves
if they’ve ventured a little too high.
Tiny jewels call your attention with a squeaky see-see-whi-see-see
siwee - they pivot restlessly from side to side as they sing.
They look very much like Purple-rumped Sunbirds especially since
the zeylonica does very much the same little dance but these are
smaller, for one thing, and their backs a deep crimson without
the metallic shoulder-patch. And the crimson breast band comes
down much lower than that of zeylonica, as if the exertion of
the little bird had crimsoned its face and neck.
A mad frenzy of to-ing and fro-ing of birds flitting in the hillside
dawn with whistled trills compels a buoyancy of mood. There can
be no depression for those who live in the midst of nature; who
allow the earth to act upon the soul. Herein lies the answer to
those skeptics who cry “…OK, you’ve seen the
bird, and then what?” The trick is to derive your satisfactions
and inspirations from the commonest events, from every-day phenomena
– from the aquamarine hue of the Verditer that glints in
the otherwise green foliage; from noisy Plain-coloured Flowerpeckers
that pour out their trills from exposed perches and flit from
tree to tree with a constant twitter typical of their genus; from
the sambar stag’s antlers that you almost mistook for a
bare branch.. Our children’s eyes are instead being worn
out by TV. Let us teach them to behold beauty. Let us teach them
to not just look but to see.
As we motor into the fire of a Nilgiri sunrise, a rather plain
flycatcher with its characteristic stance perches briefly on a
branch before dropping in the bushes to flit among the foliage
pursuing insects. We brake. Not even daring to breathe, we silently
drop from the vehicle. A deep churring follows. As we watch, eyes
peeled, ears strained, it flies up to reveal its rufous uppertail-coverts
and tail. A Rufous Flycatcher, perhaps; but who knows for sure?
Closer to the dam, roadside thickets and bushes spill onto the
path. We’re assailed by the stench of strong chemicals.
Large dollops of steaming elephant dung piled in the centre of
the road leak with urine. Torn branches, damaged trees, flattened
bushes mark the pathways the great beasts had forged a little
while ago. Our constant companions are fear and awe. We are urged
on by the tribal who accompanies us and whose business it is to
read the forest; we pass out of the wake of the elephant. Soon
the visible signs of its passage leave the road and we breathe
a little easy.
The quiet moment then explodes with high-pitched, shrill and
frenzied squabbling …We have no idea whether it is our own
inner screams of fright or that the sounds come from without!
We try to locate the source of the explosion and we can’t.
We inch our way upwards and as we turn the bend, we’re ready
and waiting. Patience pays. Large birds, the size of jungle babblers
with tails cocked just a little too high hop across the path and
vanish into the bushes. By the end of the trip we grew accustomed
to their secret behaviour and squabbles and always kept a watch
out for those Rufous Babblers!
The reservoir behind the dam is cupped by the surrounding hills.
The Forest Bungalow rests on one edge of that cup providing a
spectacular view. Behind the bungalow, a fruit-laden banyan tree
offers easy birding. The tuk..tuk..tuks don’t belong to
the Coppersmith, a denizen of the more deciduous forest but to
its ecological equivalent, the Crimson-fronted Barbet. Hill Mynas
fly in and a few green pigeons fly off for want of peace. Suddenly
the sky is all one big rainbow full of music and fragrance and
A walk around the periphery of the Siruvani reservoir in the
late afternoon shows up a few gems – the Little Spider Hunter,
for instance. A shrill tri-syllabic bat-like squeak alerts you
to the little Lorikeet now known as the Vernal Hanging Parrot;
a rather heavy-handed name for this beautiful green gem with a
red splash for a behind. But the tints of evening begin to set
in. At this latitude the cloak of darkness falls swiftly. It has
been a delicious evening. When all your five senses act as one,
then you watch birds with your whole body and you imbibe delight
through every pore. There is a strange feeling of liberty and
I look forward to tomorrow.
The next morning’s celebration of wild nature begins at
four, the sky as yet crowded with brilliant fire. I am joined
by Mr. L Namassivayan, a genial birder, brimming with good humour
and exuberance. I welcome the extra pair of eyes and his years
of birding expertise which he is quick to dismiss with characteristic
humility. By sunrise we hope to reach the Nelliampathy plateau
with an evergreen and moist-deciduous biotope - an area of great
richness and exquisite beauty.
A couple of hours of driving south from Palakkud and we are amidst
the lofty natural shade trees of the coffee and cardamom plantations
in the Nelliampathy plateau. The headlamp catches a mesmerized
bird directly in our path. It’s the Indian Pitta, whose
former distribution, according to Inskipp, included parts of south
India. Kazmierczak, however, includes those very same parts of
south India as the bird’s winter distribution. L Namassivayan
confirms Krys’ distribution map and adds that there are
lots of records of pittas being found in and around the area.
A member of the resident race of the Orange-headed Thrush, the
unmistakeable vertical stripes on the sides of its head clearly
visible, flies in to exploit the pool of light and grab at the
We chug uphill. The air is now rich and damp and we breathe
it in slices. A tattoo of drumbeats hail us as the vehicle stretches
round a hairpin bend. The loud and far-carrying sounds immobilize
us. We close our eyes to focus more sharply on its direction…
there it is again. Only now it’s from another side of the
hill. And this time it sounds more like a burst of machine-gunfire.
It’s the breeding season and these magnificent birds are
advertising their presence, claiming their territories, explains
L Namassivayan. It’s moments like these, of perfect perception,
that you feel you might sense the universe. We never did get to
see this large black woodpecker with its conspicuous white rump
and white underparts, the male daubed with vermilion on its forehead,
crown, crest and cheeks. But we heard it, time and time again.
One of our five senses had identified the species. And that was
There are other, more distinctive conversations all around us
making our hearts beat wildly at the thought of those great birds.
But we decide to wait awhile and watch the pigeons instead! They
are whistling and cooing and hooting and it’s so much fun
to distinguish one from the other.
The pigeons sit high on the shade trees – Grevillea, Erythrina
and Macaranga sp. A series of mellow-whistles stream from the
Yellow-footed Green pigeons that L Namassivayan dubbed “stomach-ache”
whistling! The Green Imperial Pigeon feeds on the fruit of the
Ficus trees, the Nutmeg, and the berries of the Marking Nut; it
is a large pinkish grey bird with bright metallic bronzy-green
on wings and tail.
Another large bird, the Mountain Imperial Pigeon, a pretty combination
of lilac and brown booms its calls differently to the Green Imperial’s
deep, resounding rather ventriloquistic notes. This bird instead
renders a rather mournful, deep booming, far-carrying call. We
watched a male – head bowed with inflated throat, court
his female. The Marapravu, Malayalam for the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon
was everywhere arresting your attention with an almost langur-like
boom followed by a series of owl-like hoots.
How full of life was the forest. How damp the bark and how full
of eyes the trees must be! It was well and truly morning now.
The butterflies were out - Southern Birdwings, the Great Orange
Tip, the Great Mormon, the Danaid Egg-fly, and lots of crimson-bodied
insects – all reflecting the colours of sunlight.
It was time now to investigate the owners of the grunts that
had preoccupied us right through a rushed breakfast. We’ll
take a short cut through the plantations to the forest road we
thought – and were rewarded with a half hour of easy viewing
of several parties of these great birds – so energetic and
so vocal! I am happy that I am so deeply and powerfully affected
by nature that it’s always a thrill to discern the male
Great Hornbill’s red iris from the pearly white iris of
its female. It is just this, this thrill, this celebration, that
has the power to transform dejection to exaltation.
Our walk into the forest below the plantation was a continuing
of this celebration. Parties of Fairy Bluebirds lassoed us with
their loops of liquid calls; the Malabar Whistling Thrush incessantly
sang its exquisite ribbon of song; and the fast and hard rattle
of the Velvet-fronted Nuthatches were background disonnance in
the chill sunlight. There were Speckled Piculets, Tits and Grey-headed
Canary Flycatchers, Spotted Babblers and by far the most visible,
besides the Fairy Bluebirds, the Indian Scimitar Babblers duetting
in their patch of sunlit brush.
Not much sunlight on the day of our visit further south-east
to Perambikulam, which pushes against the Annamalai Hills. But
for close-up views of raptors such as the Changeable Hawk, Mountain
Hawk, Crested Serpent and Short-toed Snake Eagles, this is the
place to be. Other interesting viewing highlights include the
Great Hornbills of course, the Red Spurfowl in its rich chestnut-red
Kerala costume, the Blackbird, the Chloropsis, Orioles, Ioras,
Brown Shrikes and of course the ubiquitous Grey Junglefowl.
Despite the damp, the rain and the leeches I am led by a forest
guide with a promise of both the Malabar Trogon and the Frogmouth.
Within a couple of steps into the forest of mould and leaf the
light is shut out and you need a torch. I follow hard on the guide’s
heels. His strategy is to creep silently to the tree with the
birds and make you look straight up. But the rain and damp have
dispersed the birds. We sit instead on a bare rock in a forest
clearing to de-leech ourselves.
The gloom of dusk gathers early and rapidly around. I gather
my thoughts to later pen them into an intimately personal account
of what I have seen in these past few days. There is always a
striving to be thoughtful, informed, and personal. Perhaps it
is this internalization, this personal participation in, and thoughtful
observation of, wild nature that allows me to re-externalise my
feelings through nature writing that I hope is both descriptive
and reflective. Perhaps this is what keeps us fruitful and gives
birth to imagination. Because, if you spend time outdoors, and
if you are actively involved in your environment, you will invariably
have something to say about what you see in the process.
It is just before sundown. The evening breeze blows up more mist
through the valley to thicken the veil which already hangs over
the trees. I notice that sadly, the waterfowl in all the reservoirs
was scarce. Perhaps because of this November’s unseasonal
heavy rains, the reservoirs were just too full, the water having
inundated precious lakeside habitat. Otherwise these areas, in
and around Palghat, boast of the largest number of discontinuous
waterbodies, thick forest on the hills as well as on the plains,
and numerous reservoirs – all good reasons to produce the
different ecotone effects that support a rich and varied birdlife.
According to L. Namassivayan there are reports of the Spotbill
and the Lesser Whistling Ducks breeding; the Small Indian Pratincole
are seen here in large numbers and sights have been made of the
visiting Black Stork and the Wryneck. But we must leave that for
There is always more….more reasons to go back, more opportunities
to freshly perceive, more opportunities to apply our senses so
that their vigour is not dissipated, so many more reasons to return
to bird in luxury!
Nandi ( Naturalist )
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