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ECOWATCH

A birder's trail

SRIDEVI PILLAI

Sightings of rare species of birds underscore the need for more scientific studies in the Siruvani-Muthikkulam region.



Biggest discovery: the Nilgiri Laughing thrush.

SIRUVANI-MUTHIKKULAM is one of the most beautiful and least explored of forest areas in South Western Ghats. It is an important watershed, crucial to both Kerala and Tamil Nadu (Coimbatore's drinking water comes from the Siruvani Sagar) and a rich wildlife area.

As you drive up from the Kanjirapuzha plains in the Palakkad district of Kerala, tall mountains are visible on the eastern side. These are the last outposts of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The lower regions have been converted into plantations of rubber, coconut, aracanut. These areas bear the scar of unchecked encroachments but, as the road winds up, extensive forests come into view. The main forest types are evergreen, semi-evergreen and shola-grasslands.

Unique survey

A unique bird survey was conducted in the Siruvani-Muthikkulam forests in the second week of February. More than 75 people, veteran bird watchers, budding birders and nature enthusiasts along with the staff of Kerala Forest Department attended the four-day survey. Groups of 10-15 persons went into six camping sites inside the forest, stayed there and conducted the survey. Birds were identified from sightings and from the calls heard. The survey team also collected additional information on birds such as breeding records.

The most difficult camping site was Muthikkulam, around 1800 m high, and covered by thick jungles. Prof. E. Kunhikrishnan, well known naturalist and conservationist, along with Praveen, keen birdwatcher and the moderator of the e-mail discussion group on Kerala birds, keralabirder, led the group to Muthikkulam. During the climb, they saw a lone male elephant. The group camped near the big pond on top of the mountain.



The Malabar Trogon.

They identified 47 species, not a huge number, but they had the biggest discovery of the entire survey: the presence of the elusive Nilgiri Laughing thrush in a shola above 1500 m. "This is the second population of this species found in Kerala. The first was found at the Anginda-Sispara belt inside the Silent Valley National Park. This is a very crucial discovery," says an obviously thrilled Dr. P.O. Nameer, coordinator of the Survey. "The very presence of the Nilgiri Laughing thrush, an endemic and endangered species, makes a strong case for declaring the Muthikkulam-Siruvani forests into a sanctuary and an Important Bird Area (IBA)," he adds.

More studies

The Divisional Forest Officer in charge of the area, K.V. Uthaman, an avid bird watcher and a nature photographer, says that he is delighted by this discovery. "This shows that these forests are as important as the Silent Valley and highlights the need for more scientific studies in the region".

The Muthikkulam forests are home to the Lion-tailed Macaque and the Nilgiri tahr, both endemic and endangered species. "These are magnificent forests, perhaps as good as those in the Silent Valley region. The presence of mammals like elephant, macaques, gaur and tahr in large numbers makes this area very attractive to poachers. Also the relative inaccessibility of the place can draw Ganja cultivators. More vigilant protection measures need to be implemented," says Kunhikrishnan who plans to return for more exploration and studies. Kunhikrishnan also says that since the Muthikkulam-Siruvani-Walayar area is very extensive and has near nil human settlements, it qualifies for a Protected Area and a heritage site.

The team that went to Karimala region found 39 species of birds. The Wayanad Laughing thrush was their star catch. The Singapara team stayed at the forest station and explored the nearby areas, which contain semi-evergreen and secondary forests. They recorded 85species and the Brown Fish Owl, which was a rare sighting. P.K. Uthaman, the most respected bird watcher in Kerala, accompanied this team.

The Pattiyar team camped near the Siruvani-Sagar, one of the most gorgeous spots in the region. From all sides, you can see and hear birds. If you watch carefully you can see them nesting, collecting food or fishing. In the Pattiyar area, 119 species were spotted. The group saw Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters nesting near Keralamedu, the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Another interesting sight was the Fish-Eagle. The team recorded nine species of flycatchers and nine raptors. They also saw the biggest woodpecker in the region, the Black Woodpecker, as well as the smallest, the Speckled Woodpecker. Mountain Imperial Pigeons were also seen in the area.



The Nilgiri flycatcher.

Koodam, where many streams converge, is also a great bird area. The highlight was recording the nesting of the Fairy Blue Bird. Other sightings were of Grey-headed Bulbuls, Rusty-tailed Flycatchers, Changeable Hawk-Eagles and Mountain Imperial Pigeons.

The team at the Puliyara, led by Dr. Nameer, was fortunate enough to record the Oriental Bay-Owl. There are only a handful of records of this rare owl from South India. This team also recorded Sri Lankan Frogmouth, another rare bird, and the breeding of Crimson-fronted Barbet and the Malabar Grey Hornbill.

Important Bird Area

On the whole, 159 species of birds were recorded and out of the 16 endemic birds in the Western Ghats 14 were seen here. "One Endangered species, Nilgiri Laughing thrush, and three vulnerable species, Broad-tailed Grassbird, White-bellied Shortwing and Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, are found here. This is indeed an Important Bird Area and we need to protect it as much as we can. I am hopeful that a Siruvani Wildlife Sanctuary will soon come into being," says Dr. Nameer.

The Survey was a new and learning experience for the staff of the Kerala Forest Department. It is expected that the interaction with expert naturalists and watching the scientific field methods will give the staff a more in-depth approach. The capacity building programme was jointly organised by the Kerala Forest Department and the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

As the survey came to a close on February 13, the participants went back home with memories of a fine forest experience and the reassurance that, despite widespread loss of wildlife, there are areas that still hold on. These are extremely vulnerable and precious forests, home to many birds and beasts. These have a legitimate claim to maximum protection to realise the lofty ideals of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

E-mail: sridevi.pillai@gmail.com



Scenic spot:The Siruvani-Muthikkulam ranges

How to get there

Siruvani-Muthikkulam is 35 km from Mannarkkad, on the Palakkad-Kzhikode Highway.

The nearest airports are Coimbatore and Kozhikode.

The nearest railway stationis Palakkad, 50 km away.

Prior permission from the Divisional Forest Officer is required to visit the area.

Visitors have to engage trained guides provided by the Forest Department.

Vehicles are allowed only up to Singapara forest station. There is no public transport to the area beyond Palakkayam.

Visitors have to stay either at Mannarkkad or Palakkad. Camping inside the forest is not encouraged.

For further details contact the Divisional Forest Officer 04924- 222574

For detailed information on birds of the region e-mail Dr. P.O. Nameer at nameer.ommer@gmail.com or log on to www.keralabirds.org

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