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Tour Report : Pampadum Shola National Park Feb 2010

The drive from Cochin to Pampadum Shola took longer than the typical four and a half hours. We stopped on several occasions for pictures of the Periyar River and the sporadically uninhabited mountain scenery, to gorge on the deliciously gelatinous Passion fruit from little roadside stalls all along the ghat road and for lunch at Munnar. The route, albeit crowded, was largely scenic, with rainforest and waterfalls interspersed with towns and tea plantations. There was even a wildlife moment on a grassy hillside when the driver of the vehicle spotted a small deer, which disappeared before any of us had a chance to catch a glimpse. Possibly a rare sighting of a Mouse Deer in broad daylight? Or more likely the diurnal Barking Deer, shyly observing the traffic perhaps.

The road gets a lot quieter as we cross Munnar towards Top Station. The occasional bottlenecks are restricted to the touristy boating area on the Mattupatti Dam. Just as we approach Top Station, we are greeted with a remarkable vista of thickly forested hills sides, rising from a Valley on one side. The thickets on the side of the road contained a fair few whistling birds and we spotted an endemic White-bellied Shortwing among them. The check-post around the corner and the vibrant dark green of the evergreen trees indicates the boundary of the national park. Soon, we hear more birds, a distant resonant call of Mountain Imperial Pigeon and the persistent, but melodious songs of the Malabar Whistling Thrush, are particularly noticeable. We also hear other canopy dwellers - the long "whooping" calls of Nilgiri Langur and the shorter, shriller "toy gun" like call of the Malabar Giant Squirrel. We reach our simple, loghut dwellings - perched on a hillock, with a beautiful view of a swamp below and forested hills all around - our base camp for the next three nights.

Highlight Birds
  • Black Bulbul
  • Black & Orange Flycatcher
  • Common Rosefinch
  • Crimson-backed Sunbird
  • Eurasian Blackbird
  • Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush
  • Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
  • Greater Flameback
  • Malabar Trogon
  • Mountain Imperial Pigeon
  • Scaly Thrush
  • Scarlet Minivet
  • Tickell's Leaf Warbler
  • White-bellied Shortwing
  • Yellow-browed Bulbul

Over the next three days, we amble along forest paths, looking for creatures great and small and appreciating the beauty of this little National Park. One time, we skirt the main valley, climbing gently on a defunct road to Kodaikanal. We see Nilgiri Langur and Giant squirrel aplently. The Nilgiri Langur, foraging on trees high up in the jungle, were as acrobatic as ever, leaping tens of feet between canopies with loose-limbed elegance. We take a detour off the mud-road onto a narrow path to explore a small jungle waterfall and get the first batch of leeches clamber towards exposed skin on our legs. Back on the road, our guide, a local forest guard, engrosses us with snippets on local medicinal plants and feeds us a pleasant tasting leaf which leaves our mouth tingling. Good for sore-throat he says. By the camp-fire on a chilly night, he also tells us about the once abundant Jackals that have inexplicably disappeared from here, a rare Tiger sighting, and of surprisingly numerous sightings of among the rarest animals in south Indian hill forests - the Nilgiri Marten.

Highlight Mammals
  • Gaur
  • Malabar Giant Squirrel
  • Nilgiri Langur
  • Barking or Mouse Deer (?)
  • Dusky Striped Palm Squirrel

At dawn, on a freezing morning, a brief period of quiet is quickly transformed by bird calls soon as the sunlight hit the tree tops. The foggy, dark forest had suddenly come alive. We walk along the main road on a typically productive morning. Mixed hunting parties of Scarlet Minivets, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers and Oriental Whiteeyes are particularly active in the warmth of the morning sun. We also see endemic Grey-headed Laughing Thrush, Nilgiri & Black and Orange Flycatcher and migrant Common Rosefinch and Tickell"s Leaf Warbler in lower, exposed bushes. Further on, we are greeted by an amazing sighting of the brightly coloured Malabar Trogon. We notice that Malabar squirrels, gianter than their lowland counterparts, especially abundant in the introduced in the otherwise florally poor wattle plantations. They were busy feeding on wattle seeds, sadly, potentially aiding wattle seed dispersal into natural forests.

One night we took a short drive along the main road in the hope of finding nocturnal animals. We find Gaur in great numbers, feeding on the grasses by the roadside, their eyes glittering in the shine of our headlamps. On the short walk back to our loghut, a small mammal scurries across the path and into the undergrowth. Probably a species of Mongoose, or Civet. Or could it have been the elusive Nilgiri Marten?! We tried peering through the undergrowth to get a better glimpse of the animal which could still be heard moving, but the vegetation was too thick for our lights to penetrate far enough.

Our walks through the dark, evergreen forests were engrossing, albeit largely devoid of mammal or bird sightings. We barely catch glimpses of langurs, squirrels and birds, high up in the canopy. But these wet forests have much more that hold our interest. There is life everywhere - fungi in various forms, epiphytic mosses, lichens, bryophytes and flowering plants - invertebrates hidden in the leaf litter and decaying logs, flowering understory plants, butterflies, moths .. the list goes on. Saketh, an avid photographer in our group, was often crouched low, capturing this amazing diversity of macro biota. The moist, constantly cool air, was thick with a pervasive, although not unpleasant, smell of decaying vegetation - signs of a healthy, self- regenerating forest.

On our way out, laden with our backpacks and trash, we were stopped short by a bull Gaur, covering the path, looking both menacing and unbothered at the same time. After a few moments of individual space, he decides to trod off into the forest. Although we did not see a great diversity of mammals on this trip, birdlife was fantastic, and above all we had an opportunity to appreciate the sights and sounds of among the last remaining patches of pristine montane evergreen forest in south India.

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