Thursday, July 30, 2009

Doddamakkali - Pristine wilderness. Well...almost.

Tucked away amidst the rolling hills of the Cauvery Valley lies the beautiful riverine beach called Doddamakkali. The Cauvery flows deceptively calm here - just a few metres away, it forms rapids. A few kilometres upstream lie the mighty Shivanasamudra falls. If you float downstream by around 6 km, you would reach Bheemeshwari.

Doddamakkali is a small camp run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts. The camp has 10 tents and the trademark Gol Ghar for dining.

Vineet and I set off on a 2-day trip to Doddamakkali in the last week of July. Enroute birding was minimal as we set off pretty late in the morning. The highlight was a bridge off Maddur where we saw House swifts in frenzied activity. Investigation under the bridge revealed nests! And it was the first time ever that I saw a House swift completely (usually its only a fleeting glimpse in flight).

House Swift on nest

We were welcomed at JLR with puzzled faces. The camp was not informed of our arrival (possibly due to erratic telephone connectivity). Then they swung into action. Within 10 minutes, our tent was ready. In half an hour, we were treated to a simple yet sumptuous lunch. This JLR camp definitely has 10/10 service!

Doddamakkali is a treat for the nature-lover. An amazing array of flora and fauna greets the visitor there. The grandest of them, for me, was the Grey-headed Fish Eagle that seems to be resident in the camp. Perfectly camouflaged in the leaves of the tall trees it usually sits on, this beautiful bird can be seen flying all along the camp and crossing the river both sides throughout the day.

The story of an opportunity missed - to poachers!

Many other birds made frequent appearances around the camp. The resident Grey Hornbills' calls initially made us look out for Black Kites. A Brahminy Kite and Common Kingfisher competed with the Fish Eagle for food. We saw many Great Cormorants flying upstream. The resident White-browed Wagtails tempted us to photograph them, only to fly away at the last moment. A male White-naped Woodpecker showed himself just as we were leaving.

On the plateau above, we saw Jungle Bushquails on 3 separate occasions. And again, the first time I saw them for such a long duration. Common Woodshrikes, Eurasian Collared Doves, Black-rumped Woodpeckers and Streak-throated Woodpeckers were having a ball of a time. A few eagles (one pair of Short-toed Serpent Eagles; need to id the remaining) were scanning the countryside for food.

Eurasian Collared Dove

A great sight at the camp was the hundreds of Blue Tiger butterflies clinging onto the same tree, with some Common Crow butterflies amidst them. Tried my hand at photographing them but the light just wasn't right! We noted at least 13 different species of butterflies at the camp. I am sure there were many more...

Common Mormon - Mud Puddling

Indian Grey Mongooses were a common sight around the camp. We didn't see any Giant Squirrels or Otters. Chital seemed to be rare, with 2 glimpses in the plateau. A wild boar ran within 50m of us on one of our treks. Bonnet macaques were plenty in the camp.

We were also witness to some very unfortunate poaching activity in the river. We were warily approaching the Fish Eagle in the photograph above to get a close-up shot. Suddenly, a huge "BOOM" ringed through the air. As I regained my senses, I saw poachers on the other bank pulling out dead fish from the river. We later got to hear from the JLR folks that this is a regular occurrence. When they tried to counter the poachers last time around, they were pelted with stones and dynamite.

Things to do:
1) Nature-watching - The best thing to do there!
2) Trek along the rocky shoreline, interspersed with beaches. It's very tiring. Remember to carry a bottle of water with you.
3) Trek up the hill behind the camp. Beautiful landscapes beckon on this trail. A bit slippery in the beginning.
4) Drive up to the plateau and nature-watch.
5) Beach volley-ball.
6) Coracle ride.

How to get there?
Drive to Maddur on the Bangalore-Mysore road. At Maddur, take the diversion towards Kollegal. Drive on the Kollegal road till you see a board on the left-hand side which says Shimsha Hydro-electric project. There is also a smaller board mentioning JLR. Drive down the road till the Shimsha project gate. There's another gate on the right hand side, leading to a mud road, that you'd need to take. Sign into the register there and drive through 8 km of mud road and descending ghat road to get to Doddamakkali.

Things to keep in mind:
1) The camp has limited electricity. There are a couple of electric lanterns and a fan that run at night. You can charge your mobiles and camera batteries in the extension cords there.
2) Very limited mobile connectivity. Airtel works in a couple of places around the camp, sometimes. There is a Reliance coin-operated telephone in the Gol Ghar.
3) The last 8 km drive is on a mud road, with rocks scattered. Please keep your spare tyre in good condition.

List of Birds and Butterflies: Link

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Agumbe - Monsoons, Rainforests and the King

Agumbe in monsoons is addictive! Many people I know are still unable to comprehend why I was in a place which gets the most rainfall in South India, that too at the height of the monsoons. It’s a joy that can only be experienced...

Monsoon in Agumbe

Along with a group of photographer-naturalists, I spent an extended weekend at Agumbe last week. Our base was the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS). ARRS was founded by Romulus Whitaker to study the rainforest ecology. Their flagship project is the King Cobra project. These elusive giants are among the least studied animals in the world.

Our trip started off with a rather adventurous twist. For those not following the news, Karnataka’s coast has been battered by the monsoons. Most of the ponds and lakes are overflowing and the roads were flooded at multiple places. As our bus from Bangalore navigated through tyre-deep water (where cars and vans were stuck), we ran into electricity wires that were hanging low! A few tense moments and we realized that the place (luckily for us) had no power. The bus conductor, rather foolhardily than bravely, pushed the wires with a plastic bag and we took a deep breath again.

A glimpse of the rainforest

Monsoon is the best time to be in Agumbe. That’s when the forest comes alive. Streams turn into rivulets. Waterfalls abound. Raindrops fall on your head :). The fog turns it into a dream. Although most animals and birds are hard to spot in this weather, frogs, crabs and snakes appeared to be having a gala time.


Calotes Rouxii

The following is a list of frogs and snakes seen on the trip.

1. Rhacophorus Malabaricus (Malabar flying frog)
Malabar Flying Frog (Rhacophorus Malabaricus)
2. Duttaphrynus melanosticus (Common Indian Toad)
3. Sylvirana Temporalis (Bronzed Frog)
Bronzed Frog (Sylvirana Temporalis)
4. Philautus Neelanethrus (Blue-eyed Bush Frog)
5. Philautus Ponmudi (Ponmudi Bush-frog)
6. Philautus Wynaadensis (White-nosed Bush-frog)
7. Euphlyctis Cyanophlyctis (Common Skittering Frog)

1. Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja)
2. Hill Keelback (Amphiesma monticola)
3. Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta)
Green Vine Snake
4. Malabar rock pit viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus)

The thing with most of us city-breds is that rains automatically trigger an instinct to get indoors. I “suffered” with this for the first couple of days of my trip. I would get up to the sound of rain and would feel so thankful that I was indoors. Then, better sense would prevail on the purpose of my trip. I would slowly get myself into a raincoat, with my camera hanging on my side, and be off into the rains.

Forest Fungus

Leeches were a particularly interesting part of the trip. These slimy heat-sensing creatures come out of a long sleep at the onset of the monsoons and suck blood out of everything that moves. And they are everywhere. I was, admittedly, very scared of them for the first two days. I wouldn’t go out without leech socks and would scream when I found one of them on me. Then I saw a long stream of blood on my leg (from a leech that had had its fill and fallen off). And, leeches became a part of life.

I must thank ARRS for the fantastic experience. They helped us get around the rainforest and see the bio-diversity. They educated us on so many aspects, including how they track the King. The stay was homely and I still miss the simple food. Thank you guys!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My first tryst with Macro photography

In all my recent nature-watching trips, I've been ardently locating butterflies, dragonflies and a wide array of insects. Decided it was time to try out some macro photography. I borrowed a Tamron 90mm macro lens from my friend and set off to Madiwala Lake on Friday.

One of the first obstacles to photographing insects's hard to find one that sits still! And, as I discovered, the slightest movement is enough to lose focus.

And then I found this pair of Gram Blues that didn't mind the attention. They were busy with their job for over an hour giving me ample opportunity to try out different aspects of macro photography. Did you know that the butterfly family Lycaenidae (which includes Blues and the colorful Pierrots) constitutes 40% of all butterfly species?

My first "true" macro shot - Gram Blues Mating

That was my first Macro photograph!

Encouraged by the result, I tried it out on Saturday morning again. And this was my second shot, this time of a Lesser Grass Blue.

Lesser Grass Blue

Learnings so far:
1) Use Manual Focus. Autofocus doesn't seem to be of much use, except for initial
"rough" focusing.
2) A Flash is good to have, especially because you'd be shooting with very small aperture.
3) Let the wind blow over!