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Tour Report : Ghermalam Feb / March 2010

Leaving Coimbatore behind, and heading northeast towards Satyamangalam and the hills beyond we enjoy a pleasant, clear morning as we reach the hills. The road climbs theEastern Ghats where it meets the Western Ghats, with a vista of the Bhavani River flowing through forested plains, bordering the populated plains that we leave behind. Along the way, Murali, a member of the tour party, actively involved in local elephant conservation, points to the connecting corridors of forested hills, between the Nilgiris and the Eastern Ghats, which the elephants use for their annual migration in search of fresh fodder and water. Troublingly, he says, the migratory elephants often stray into private property on the fringes of Coimbatore, highlighting how little space these majestic animals. As we climb the hills we see a troop of Common Langur, lithely bouding between trees along the ghat road. We soon enter an area of Lantana and eucalyptus plantations - earlier part of a managed forest, but now within the newly formed Satyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. From high points on the road, with the summer rains still a month or so away, we notice the effects of the peak dry season on the withering forests below. We drive past villages, farmland and forest to reach a beautifully located farm resort - our base camp for the next two nights.

The farm borders forest - dry thorny scrub and mature riparian alongside a stream. A rocky, forested hillock in the distance completes the enchanting setting. The farm itself contains several fruiting trees and water sources amidst vegetable gardens - attracting a number of wildlife and bird species. We first hear a call very much like a Changeable Hawk Eagle, but are surprised to see it originate from a small family of Malabar grey hornbill, roosting on Silver Oak. A bare silk cotton tree, with seed pods bursting with soft "cotton", was ideally leafless for observing Woodpeckers, Drongos, Parakeets and Barbets. The branches on the tree were crawling with large, dark brown caterpillars. Ravin, our amiable host, has twenty years worth of natural history anecdotes and of vagaries of "living off the land" amidst wildlife, and forest brigands. He tells us about a Jamun Tree within his property, incidentally in fruit when we visited, where sloth bears and his daughters compete for its juicy fruit every fruiting season. We don"t see bears feeding on the fruits when we are there, but we see bear foot prints by the tree, from its forages in the not too distant past, it appeared.

Highlight Birds
  • Black Bulbul
  • Black Eagle
  • Black-headed Munia
  • Blue-faced Malkoha
  • Common Kestrel
  • Eurasian Golden Oriole
  • Golden-fronted Leafbird
  • Malabar Grey Hornbill
  • Malabar Parakeet
  • Malabar Whistling Thrush
  • Paradise Flycatcher
  • Red Avadavat
  • Scarlet Minivet
  • Tawny-bellied Babbler
  • White-cheeked Barbet

One time we walked along the stream towards a hillock in the distance. Pools of water, dotted the dry stream beds, giant buttressed trees, rise along on banks of the stream. High on the canopy we see Velvet-fronted Nuthatch prying tree bark for insects and a Black Drongo following them to feed on the insects as they escape from the Nuthatch. There are civet droppings, full of seed, scattered on fallen logs and rock. We turn off from the stream into a dense, scrubby forest path at the base on the hillock. The rocky hillock, poor in top soil, supports dry-thorny vegetation and we see typical evidence of the habitat in birdlife - Indian Robin, Green Bee-eater, White-browed Bulbul and Blue-faced Malkoha. The evening is hot, and the only evidence of wildlife we see are of old carnivore scat - Leopard & Wild Dog. That evening we were informed of elephants in the neighboring agricultural fields. We get there just in time to a small herd of alarmed elephants disappear into the darkness, chased away by villagers guarding their crops. In the commotion, a Sloth Bear is disturbed under a fig tree and we glimpse the dark shape of the animal as it disappears out of view.

Highlight Mammals
  • Elephant
  • Bonnet Macaque
  • Grey Langur
  • Sambar Deer
  • Sloth Bear

The next day we climb to a high point, at 1750m, in the region. Initially, we walk on a cattle path, through thick Lantana and Eucalyptus. A pervasive, sweet smell emanates from the Lantana and we hear a distant alarm call of Barking Deer. After a brief walk through this disturbed habitat, we reach a patch of moist, evergreen forest, growing luxuriantly in a well drained depression. We see Malabar Grey Hornbill feeding in a fruiting fig tree and Yellowbrowed Bulbul flitting in the canopy. The reddish brown streak of a Paradise Flycatcher adds color to the scene. There are signs of Elephant movement, in broken and trampled vegetation and dung. As we climb, a small, refreshing mountain stream provides an ideal setting to break our trek - we see White-cheeked Barbet, Golden-fronted Leafbird and Scarlet Minivet in the canopy as we rest. The climb gets steeper and hotter and the vegetation sparser, thinning in the rocky hill side. Winded, we reach an open grassland interspersed with small forest patches, akin to typical montane vegetation of south India. A rocky ledge makes a superb viewpoint from where a vista of the forested plateau and farmland stretches to the BR Hills to the North and the distant hills of the Nilgiris to the West. Our guide points to a grassy hilltop above us, just in time to see a silhouette of a Sambar Deer against the sky. We climb further until we reach a patch of forest to have lunch and rest. Typical for these mountain evergreen forests we see Black Bulbul groups, Malabar Whistling Thrush skulking in the lower thickets of the forest and Common Kestrel soaring against the wind, waiting to swoop down to catch prey in the grassland. We also see a pair of majestic Black Eagles, incredibly dextrous for its size, skimming the forest canopy. As we reach the Lantana on our way back, we see an elephant, barely visible above the five feet high thickets, and apparently part of larger herd, invisible to us.

We do some morning birdwatching, in the neighborhood of our resort, on the day of our departure. Looking over a little bund, onto agricultural fields, we see large number of incredibly colorful Red Avadavats and Black Headed Munia, in a mixed feeding group. We also see Larks and Pipits (which we could not identify), Malabar Parakeet and Tawnybellied Babblers in the morning. Satisfied, with the Red Avadavat providing the colorful finishing touch to an engrossing natural history experience, we leave the hills behind.

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