Birding in a futureless forest*

This story 'Birding in a futureless forest*' was published in News Letter for Birdwatchers, 41 (5), (Part I), 41 (6), (Part II), 2001. (*with Mr.Harish Bhat)
Neriya stream flowing down the western ghats near Neriya village in Dakshina Kannada district
The silent Neriya stream flowing down the Western Ghats near Neriya village
Travelling south from Karkala town, head quarters of Kudremukh Wildlife Division in the undivided Dakshina Kannada district, the view of Kudremukh part of the seemingly unending Sahayadri hill ranges gets closer as you appear Guruvayanakere village. It was Christmas time and the sky was haze free. The blue background to these Rainforest clothed mountains was spectacularly contrasting. Beautiful memories from our previous birding outings on these evergreen forest slopes and valleys were revived, every time our thirsty eyes glanced upon them. In a jeep, we travelled from Guruvayanakere to Belthangadi town after which we proceeded eastwards along the Mangalore – Moodigere road. We could not resist stopping regularly to watch the ever-youthful Western Ghats (Sahayadris), until we reached Kakkinje, along the main road. Deviating towards south, we travelled along a metalled track for eight kilometres, which led us to Neriya village.

‘Development’ is considered by many, as one of the major yardsticks to measure the progressiveness of a Nation. Yet, it is the same development which is dreaded by countless species throughout Planet. This development has in the past, and continues even today, to slowly edge out some of the rarest birds. Neriya, a quiet village at the foothills of Western Ghats of Dakshina Kannada district will soon be overwhelmed by “developmental work”- in this case a pipeline to transport Petrochemical products. Extensive media coverage about the possible impact of Mangalore – Bangalore pipeline (MBPL) and the vehement opposition to it by environmentalists made us curious about the whole thing. Accompanied by Guru Prasad, member of Wildlife Aware Nature Club and K.Narendran, another researcher from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, we decided to visit some of the areas through which this pipeline would pass. Neriya village being strategically located at the junction of human habitation and dense Western Ghat forests was our ideal choice.

South of Kudremukh National Park, the towering Sahayadris continue through lush forests of Neriya and Amedikallu. This is considered to be the narrowest stretch of forest left through out Western Ghats. Adjoining these forests, with the quiet Neriya rivulet flowing on one side and dense arecanut plantations on the other, is Neriya village. Our team reached Neriya village late afternoon, after the tiring journey from Bangalore. We wanted to use the maximum of this trip, hence we immediately decided, to have a short outing. As it was too late to enter the forest, we thought instead to look out for birds in village environs.We could commonly come across blossomheaded parakeets (Psittacula cyanocephala) and jungle babblers (Turdoides striatus) within the arecanut plantations. While sunbirds, mainly purple rumped (Nectarina zeylonica), and also flowerpeckers, were flitting around some of the flowering plants, besides the narrow lanes, jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) could be seen in plenty around the houses. We slowly walked up to the Neriya rivulet. The clear and quiet flowing Neriya stream betrayed its torrentiality, when it joins the roaring Netravathi downstream. Our eyes caught attention of a huge silk cotton tree on other bank of the stream. Sitting amidst one of the branches were some chestnut headed bee-eaters (Merops leschenaulti), their heads shining as rays from the evening sun kissed them. They were making sorties in the air and incidentally were successful in most of their attempts. A flock of redrumped swallows (Hirundo daurica) were also carrying out the same job, but without any rest. Lorikeets (Loriculus vernalis) accompanied by their sharp and brief calls used to appear from nowhere and suddenly disappear among the arecanut trees. On the streambed, a lone little cormorant (Phlacrocorax niger) was sitting amidst the rocks and drying its feathers. A solitary smallblue kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) was patrolling entire length of the stream- in search of a perfect fish. Walking back towards the village, we saw a few green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) resting on domestic power transmission lines. Also, a lone Blyth’s Reed Warbler (Phylloscopus reguloides) could be heard chirping amidst some of the low bushes. It was late in evening by the time we got back to the village. At the invitation of Mr.Abbas, an arecanut planter, we decided to rest in his small farmhouse. As the evening progressed, a number of Indian treepies (Dendrocitta vagabunda) gathered on the domestic power transmission line in front of the house. The farm labourers said that these birds roost here every night.

A stone mark of Mangalore Bangalore Pipeline (MBPL) Dakshina Kannada Neriya forests
The proposed route along which the Mangalore-Bangalore Pipeline will pass
Early next morning we entered the forest, which was adjacent to the arecanut estate where we spent our night. Our strategy was to walk for a day along the survey stones put up by Hindustan Petro Chemicals Limited (HPCL), marking the route along which the MBPL would pass. We then would make a list of all flora and fauna, which we would come across. Mr.Dinesh and Miss.Pushpa, members of Dakshina Kannada Parisara Okkoota, Nagarika Seva Trust- the largest environmental organisation of the undivided Dakshina Kannada district and Mr.Ismail, a farmer from an arecanut plantation adjoining Neriya forest, volunteered to accompany us. The birdlife increased dramatically once we stepped into the forest. A few purple sunbirds (Nectarinia asiatica) and Tickell’s flowerpeckers (Aythya erythrorhynchos) were searching amidst some wild flowers in a tree bordering the estate. At the corner of the hedgerow separating arecanut plantations from the forest, a magpie robin (Copsychus saularis) was calling out melodiously. We followed the survey stones of the MBPL and began to come across many species of birds endemic to Western Ghats as we moved deeper into the forest. The forest was of moist deciduous type, degraded at many places. On the trunk of the tree on which a Malabar trogan (Harpactes fasciatus) was resting, was a small bird creeping in a circular fashion. Careful observation revealed it as a velvet froObserving the lianas of western ghats in Dakshina Kannada's Neriya forestsnted nuthatch (Sitta frontalis). A few metres ahead, we stumbled upon a flock of birds feasting side by side. This mixed hunting party consisted of Yellow browed bulbuls (Hypsipetes indicus), female of a scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus), rubythroated bulbuls (Pycnonotus melanicterus gularis) and a lone female paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). Walking a few paces we could see to our south, the clear Neriya stream flowing and noted the gradual increase in tree height. Heavy climbers covered a huge tree adjoining the stream towards us. Amidst one of the climbers were two greater racket-tailed drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus), hunting insects in combination. To see the long tails of these dark hunters follow them, every time they made a sortie amidst the green cover, was a sight to behold. As we were watching them through our field glasses, Guru pointed us out another pair of haircrested drongos (Dicrurus hottentottus) in one of the trees to our left. Again, there was a drongo pair hunting leisurely! After observing them, all of us were searching for more birds amidst the high canopy, when Ameen’s eyes locked on some movement in the green foliage overhead. We all could see a solitary green pigeon with an orange patch on its chest. This was the first ever sighting of an orangebreasted green pigeon (Treron bicincta) for any of us, a sighting that will remain etched in our memories for a long time to come.We walked along the leaf littered footpath parallel to the stream. Undisturbed by our approach, a blackheaded oriole (Oriolus xanthornus) carried on its activity on a branch amidst the high canopy. A jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) flew from the hole of a huge tree on to a nearby dead branch. Swinging its head in typical Owlet style, it watched us alarmingly from where it was perched. Upon seeing us, a flock of rufousvented laughing thrushes (Garrulax delesserti) scattered deep among the undergrowth in which they were feeding. They all were in touch with each other though, through low chirps. The silence of this forest was slowly pierced at regular intervals by the echoing call of a crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela). Even after carefully scanning the greenery above us, nowhere could this raptor be seen. We continued our walk and came across lush undergrowth of this moist deciduous forest. A bird -the size of Nilgiri flycatcher was sitting on one of the many hanging creepers. It was behaving like a flycatcher: sitting at a particular spot and occasionally taking to wings to catch an odd insect or two. As we were trying to identify it, “flying lizard”, said loudly one of our team members. Guru pointed his finger at the trunk of a nearby tree struggling hard to show us this wonderful reptile, but it used its camouflage to outwit us all. We turned back towards the unidentified flycatcher, but before we could identify it, it was gone amidst the maze of creepers and dense undergrowth.

Neriya forests in Dakshina Kannada in Dec 1999, before the Mangalore Bangalore Pipeline (MBPL).
A view of the Neriya Reserve Forest, Dakshina Kannada Territorial Division
We came across a small dried up Nullah (small stream), where Harish identified us a liana (big, robust climbers), Calycopteris floribunda. This is a very special liana for forest dwellers, particularly during summer. When we cut open the stump of this liana, it gave off water that tasted just like the ordinary one and we delightfully consumed it. This liana can give up to 2 litres of water, depending on the size, informed Harish. Amazing vegetation in an amazing forest, natural wealth once gone….gone forever. After sighting an orange-headed ground thrush (Zoothera citrina citrina) near a cave known as ‘Pilipanjara’, meaning Tiger’s cave in local language, we continued along the narrow leaf covered forest path. We faced a beautiful Malabar trogan and witnessed a strange behaviour of this bird, which Ameen was fortunately able to capture on his Video Camera. The bird had a small white feather in its beak, the same colour as that of its breast, which it consumed leisurely. To us, the reason for this was as mysterious as the forest itself. Walking for a few minutes, we reached the edge of a rubber plantation. Continuing to walk for 5 minutes along the boundary of the rubber plantation that separated the plantation from the forest, we were again in the forest. Slowly the path curved towards north.Even though the time was about half past 9 and the weather quite sunny, we were able to come across many birds. The calls of magpie robins and Malabar whistling thrushes (Myiophonus horsfieldii) melodiously broke the otherwise silent walk at regular intervals. We could sight a Loten’s sunbird (Nectarinia lotenia) and an unidentified warbler and amidst the dense canopy- a pair of common ioras (Aegithina tiphia). As we again descended towards Neriya stream, we could come across a flock of Scarlet Minivets crossing our view ahead. The bright yellow of the females being followed by the fluorescent orange of the male, shone brightly in the sun.

Encroachment for agriculture inside Neriya forest, Dakshina Kannada District, in Karnataka's Western Ghats
A view of the reserve forest encroached upon and cleared for agriculture
We reached the Neriya stream and to our south, on the other bank were big plantations mixed with forested tracts. The area around Neriya village is the stronghold of the Hebbar family, known as the Neriya Hebbars. Together they own thousands of hectares of plantations and most importantly hundreds of acres of prime forests. Their decisions will have a major impact on the conservation of this stretch of forest. Along with the forests of Karnataka forest department, these private forests form a crucial link in this narrow stretch of the contagious Western Ghat forests.We now had to descend the steep foothills of the Western Ghats to go ahead. To reach the lowland and mid-elevation evergreen forests of the mighty hills ahead, we had to cross the small Neriya valley and then walk through private rubber plantations of the Hebbar family.

The border of the opposite bank of Neriya stream is lined by tall coconut trees, beyond which are paddy and arecanut plantations. Amidst the coconut trees, we could hear many Hill mynas (Gracula religiosa). Occasionally flocks of them would burst into flight and land on the Pepal tree at the edge of the plantation and the stream, their typical whistling calls reverberating the tranquil valley below. Unmindful of all this, a few Redvented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer) below were feeding on lantana berries. We began to climb ahead, along the un-metalled track dividing the forests and plantations, were the survey stones of MBPL. Climbing for a few minutes, we could enjoy clear view of the forest clothed Western Ghat chain. To our distant east were the tall hills of Peechkallu betta. To our south, dense reserve forests by which it derives its name surrounded the Amedikallu peak. We agreed on having our breakfast before embarking on the punishing trek ahead. At a particular place besides the path, the Neriya stream formed a small, beautiful rapid, which we selected to satisfy our hunger before embarking on the punishing trek ahead. We did so, watching Little cormorants, Smaller/Median Egrets (Egretta intermedia), Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii) and a solitary Large Egret (Ardea alba) all searching for their own breakfast in the stream.After the breakfast, we trudged along the path and just at the foothill of a steep elevation on the stream bank, we could see mud peddling by Common Emigrant, Common Mormon and Common Crow butterflies.

To enter the evergreen forests to our north, we had to walk east for a few kilometres along the Neriya rubber estate track parallel to Neriya stream. The bird activity was not very exciting in the rubber plantation. We came across a lone Shikra (Accipiter badius) amidst the rubber trees. A Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea), which was feeding at the edge of dense undergrowth of the Evergreen forest bordering the estate, ran back into jungle upon watching us. On lookout for tree insects, a lone Lesser Goldenbacked Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense) shuttled between the rubber trees. As we approached a small rubber-processing factory within the estate, Guru came across a hornbill, which again flew into the forest towards the North. We were not able to distinguish the exact species of this hornbill. Adjacent to the rubber factory and feeding on some rotten fluid, we could spot some Common Lime, Common Mormon and Blue Bottle Butterflies.

The next one Kilometre walk was uneventful. Ismail said it was not possible to climb the peaks ahead and at the same time get back to our base camp before evening. We heeded his words and turned back.Descending down the slope to where we had our breakfast in the morning, we agreed unanimously to beat the heat by having a swim in the crystal clear waters. A refreshing bath following a hard trek made us devour every morsel in the leaf packed lunch, under shade, as our clothes dried on the boulders of the riverbank. As we had to reach Guruvanakere town early from where we had to catch our bus back to Bangalore, we decided to walk at a brief pace. Getting back along the stream, we could sight a lone unidentified sandpiper, a Storkbilled kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis), and a couple of Little Cormorants in the stream. Also the calls of Hill Mynas could be heard on the same trees bordering the paddy field on the other bank.

Reaching Neriya by about 4:30 pm we found that the vehicle that was supposed to take us back to Guruvayanakere, had not yet come. This allowed us some time to relax and enjoy the rural settings. The view from the village itself was very fascinating, with the mystery covered chain of Western Ghats running like a wall from distant north to far south. The setting sun heralded our approaching Jeep and we hit the road, entering the lonely tracks of the serene, picturesque surroundings here. Just as a flock of Myna returning back after a day’s hard work melted in the far away orange sky, we pondered for how long we could resist our wandering legs from returning to this place. And then, would the surroundings be the same, withstanding the relentless onslaught of the marauding forces of Development?

The team with backdrop of arecanut plantations, Neriya stream and Amedikallu peak.
From right: Ameen Ahmed, Ismail, Guru Prasad.T.V., Harish Bhat, Narendran.K, Dinesh, Pushpa
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