de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Western India’s Avian Diversity. Living. July-August 2006. Page 102-103. Volume 01, Issue 06. ISSN 1800-0746.
Avifauna in the Western Ghats remind Gehan of the wet zone in Sri Lanka.
A horizontal niche had been carved out of a hill side, overlooking a broad valley of the Western Ghats. On it were a cluster of tents. The Western Ghats runs for hundred of kilometers besides India’s west coast. Around us lay pockets of forest amidst tea gardens which had replaced the original forest which had clothed these hill sides. I had arrived in India with members of the Sri Lanka Natural History Society for an eight day visit to the Western Ghats, famous as a reservoir of Asian bio-diversity. We had arrived at what is usually a good time of the year in terms of weather. But a hurricane was sweeping across India and we were in the tail of it. The beauty of the magnificent view was temporarily lost on us as we huddled around a primus stove for warmth as winds lashed our tents. During the night the tent billowed out like a balloon as the wind found a way of getting into the tent and filling it with air. A metal road supporting the front of the tent snapped and clanged onto the cemented surface on which the tent was supported. Further into the night, another pole snapped off with a clang. Nirma, my wife, found very little sleep as she spent most of the time mentally rehearsing maneuvers for escaping from a collapsed luxury tent.
The hurricane had provided an unusually adventurous start for what was intended to be a natural history tour rather than a soft adventure tour. Our visit to Periyar National Park on the first day had been rained off. Storm clouds had continued to brood over us the next day as we visited Kamban, an area known for the Common Babbler which despite its name is not common. We failed to see it but a pair of Jungle Owlets compensated. The affinity of this area with the north of Sri Lanka was clear by the presence of Black Drongos, Long-tailed Shrikes and Collared Doves, typical Deccan avi-fauna which are familiar to us from visits to the Mannar district. A flock of Indian Red-rumped Swallows huddled in the drizzle on telegraph wires. The streaking on the underparts which distinguish them from the endemic Ceylon Swallow was clear.
The High Range Rifle Club, a quaint colonial vestige, warning women against entering the bar (no longer applicable) was our accommodation at Munnar. One of the staff, a very old school military type welcomed us. The welcome grew warmer when he learnt that he knew the father of Dilki, one of our group, when he was in Sri Lanka. The world is indeed a small place. The area around Munnar has beautifully manicured tea gardens. Pretty to the sight, but the naturalist in me preferred the forests, some of which still remained in the hills of the Eravikulam National Park. The area in Munnar around the High Range Club still retained patches of degraded forest. Degraded, but nevertheless good enough for harbouring some of the endemic birds restricted to the Western Ghats.
With our Guide, Eldhose, reputably the best birding guide in South India, we took a short drive down the hill. Dusky Crag Martins flitted over a pond, hawking for insects. The yellow flowering spikes of the Candle Cassia gaily decorated the road side verges. Our target species was the Nilgiri Wood-pigeon. Another Western Ghat endemic, the Malabar Whistling-thrush obliged first. A shrill call announced its presence. Peering through the scrub we saw a male perched on a tree with a shining blue forehead and shoulder patch glistening against a dark body. Eldhose prowled along the road, peering into thickets looking for the Wood Pigeon. Tara and I were content with lesser rarities. The Grey-breasted Laughingthrush is a beautiful babbler, confiding to visitors. A pair kept us entertained. It was so easy to find on these scrubby hill sides it was easy to forget that it is another endemic restricted to the Western Ghats. Eldhose suddenly gave a pained exclamation and clapped his hands around his face in pain. A Nilgiri Wood-pigeon had been perched just beside the road and had flushed when he came prowling along. The pain was short lived as before long Eldhose hissed urgently and excitedly. He had located another pair on a tree. Tara and I drank in the view whilst Nirma preferred to study the wild flowers.
The next morning, the clouds had cleared and a clear sky greeted us. A Tytler’s Leaf-warbler an endemic to South Asia and a migrant to the Western Ghats was in the garden. A confiding Long-tailed Shrike watched over its territory. The mornings walk was enlivened by butterflies. Kithsiri patiently stalked a Red-disc Bushbrown butterfly. Indian Cabbage Whites fluttered, but never pausing long enough for a photographer. Both species of butterflies are found only in the hills of the Western Ghats. The rolling call of a White-cheeked Barbet, an endemic reminded us of the affinities between the wildlife of the Western Ghats and the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Ahead of us lay a week of joyful discovery.
Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.