Monday, May 23, 2011

The King And I

I wrote this as a guest post for Prashanth's blog Payaniga upon its five year completion. It then appeared in the Clay blog too. Now, its here. 

My first memory of Agumbe is from a school trip to the Western Ghats. I was in class 8 and the famous Agumbe sunset was to be the highlight of the trip. Heavy rains and a landslide played spoilsport that year and Agumbe was moved to the ‘visit someday’ list. 15 years later, my wish came true. Dilan Mandanna, popularly known as Mandy, was going to organise a two day trip, with accommodation arrangements at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS). I simply had to sign up. I could finally put my newly acquired macro lens to some good use. After a successful leopard-tiger-elephant-hornbill-falcon sighting in Kabini the same week, I was looking to achieve nirvana with a sighting of the King.

Agumbe is a beautiful little village that sits on a plateau on top of the Someshwara Ghat, 643 meters above sea level. Surrounded by luscious green rainforests, it is known as ‘Cherrapunji of the South’ for a reason, it gets an annual rainfall of up to 11,000 mm. Agumbe is home to all the Western Ghats rainforest species of trees, mammals, birds, insects, frogs and snakes. However, the regal King Cobra, the world’s longest venomous snake is the King of the jungle in these parts.

A mad dash across the Majestic bus stand and a rickety 10 hour bus drive took me to a very rainy and wet Agumbe early in the morning. It had rained there all night. Aching muscles were forgotten the second Mandy announced that he had seen a male King the previous evening and was quite sure we’d be able to see him again. After dumping our bags and donning leech socks, we headed out to find the King.

His Highness was resting there, by the side of the forest path, right outside the bushes - 10 feet long, a rich brown, his scales glistening with raindrops, body all curved up as if to camouflage the inimitable length. He had devoured a heavy meal the previous evening and didn’t seem too keen to move, he just kept a watchful eye on us. In all my imagination, I had envisioned the King to be a spectacular snake, but nothing could have prepared me for this sighting. Goose bumps. Breathlessness. Loss of speech. Fear. Respect. I felt a mix of everything. I just stood there, gaping, with my mouth open. The beauty of the King is incomparable. The sound of a camera shutter next to me brought me back to reality, I had a camera in my hand to make an attempt to freeze this moment. Photographing the King is humbling, you are fully aware that you can do no justice in saving that intimidating stare for posterity, yet, you just go click-click-click.

The King Cobra has a striking distance of 2 m, around 7 feet, they are fast and agile. When threatened, the King raises its upper portion of the body, around 4-5 feet, so it basically looks at you straight in the eye and gives out a hiss that’s almost a growl, before doing its business. But, the King doesn’t like to bite. As much as possible, they avoid confrontation, they bite only when cornered or provoked. Before I forget, there is no antidote to a King Cobra bite.

ARRS was set up by Romulus Whitaker and has been operational since 2005. Many herpetologists, conservationists and researchers work on their projects based out of this research station. ARRS helps out in King Cobra rescues around the region. Though King Cobras are revered, they’re prone to some harm from humans when they venture into human settlements. Among many other projects, the King Cobra Radio Telemetry Project is currently operational here. With the help of telemetry, the researchers study snake movements. They record daily and seasonal activity patterns of King Cobras which helps in understanding their behaviour and eventually, in conserving this flagship species. The ARRS has a common dining area and common bathrooms. Serve your own food, wash your plates, don’t leave behind any plastic and give the staff their space to work is the way of life if you are a visitor.

It kept raining the entire day and we headed out to look for the King’s courtiers. A Green Vine Snake clung to a twig, completely camouflaged. Our presence brought out the black and white under its scales, a sign of aggravation.

A Malabar Pit Viper sat pretty in the bamboo, only a watchful eye can spot it, the shiny yellow scales give it away. It curls up into an S shape, defensive, its striking position.

A few steps ahead, an incredibly cute baby Nilgiri Keelback (Beddome’s Keelback) greeted us.

At every step we met wondrous new creatures - frogs, caterpillars, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies.

caterpillar of a moth belonging to the Limacodidae or Euclidae family

The flora and fauna is so rich that you can spend an entire day photographing things at a single spot and you would still not be done with it.

A Malabar Trogon called for its partner, Yellow Browed Bulbuls zipped past our head. A Paris Peacock skimmed along, a Red Helen followed course. A Malabar Giant Squirrel dropped half eaten figs on our heads. A Crested Serpent Eagle called, gliding high up in the sky. I was in paradise.

Red Helens

Red Pierrot

White Bellied Treepies called out to us, so did Malabar Grey Hornbills. We went crawling across a huge field to shoot Malabar Larks and they took off before we got our best shots.

One evening, we made a trip to the Jogi Gundi falls. We walked under trees that made us feel like we are a few cms long, climbed over fallen trees, stepped over rocks, slipped down some leaf litter and reached a lovely waterfall with creamy white water gushing down the rocks. 

Green colored moss-laden rocks, wild orchids, lizards and frogs added to the beauty of the scene.

Micrixalus saxicola

And leeches. They were everywhere, crawling up our leech socks till we flicked them away, on our bags, cameras, there’s no getting away from them. The only way to not let them bother you is by not paying them any attention, alas, I am yet to reach that stage. I’ve had my share of experiences with leeches in Valparai, but the sheer number of leeches here was distracting. Much to the amusement of everybody in the group, a leech made its way to my camera neck-tag and then on to my cheek and gave me a peck before I managed to flick it away. As morbid as it sounds, yes, I’ve been kissed by a leech!

It was a cloudy, rainy day and we didn’t expect to see the Sun set, but we still went along to the sunset point to check out the view. As expected, the clouds had taken over the valley and every time they drifted apart, I tried to get a couple of images. Finally, the shy Sun made a brief appearance before the clouds took over completely.

If you are staying at the ARRS, a night walk is a must. Agumbe is an entirely different person at night. It gets insanely dark and all kinds of creatures are up and about. Armed with torches, we set out to look for snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and frogs. One of the first things we heard was a female Sri Lanka Frogmouth calling and we followed its call for quite some time before we spotted the elusive beauty. Mandy told us that no Frogmouth images had ever been made in Agumbe, our records of the sighting would be the first.

Typical to rainforests, you can find exotic fungi at every step.

A vine snake was hanging around the evening before we left, it bid us adieu.

It was pack-up time already. We drove past ‘Dodda Mane’, Malgudi Days was filmed here and the ancient bungalow was the home of the endearing little Swami. On the way back to the ugly urban jungle, I promised myself that I would return to Agumbe, for a longer trip, knowing that no amount of time spent here can be enough. 

Until then and forever, there’s one image that will remain etched in my mind from this wonderful trip. 

The King’s stare.

** Please do not re-use any of these images without my permission.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Flora from Ganeshgudi

When I asked Karthik to help me identify some species of flora I had photographed at Ganeshgudi, he helped me out, as always. Also, he suggested that I should read up about these species online and write a short post on them. Here it is.

Wagatea spicata / Moullava spicata --

Commonly known as the Candy Corn Plant, it is a robust creeper known to grow 5-20 m long. It belongs to the Gulmohar family Caesalpiniaceae. It is a native species and flowers all through the year. The specimen I photographed was quite high up and I happened to notice it thanks to a Black Lored Tit and a Greenish Warbler that kept hopping around the flowers. 
Colorful, bright flowers appear at the end of branches, between 30-60 cms in length. The flowers are scarlet and yellow in color and do not open. Pods are oblong and hard. Leaves are double pinnate and each leaf has 5-7 pairs of leaflets. The roots of W.spicata are known to be used to treat pneumonia and tuberculosis. In Kannada, this plant is called 'gajjigaballi'.

Calycopteris floribunda --

Commonly known as the Paper Flower Climber, it is a large climbing shrub upto 5-10 meters long and has vines that are 2-4 inches in diameter. Some sections of the vine store water and forest dwellers are known to depend on this vine for water during the dry summer season. This species is largely found in the low-lying tropical evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. It is a native species and flowers all through the year. It bears grey bark and tenuous branches with thick fluff on the surface. Flowers appear in dense clusters at the end of the branches and are bright green in color. 
At Ganeshgudi, we always spotted Scarlet Minivets amidst these flowers. The mix of yellow-scarlet-black-green made for a delightful sight.

The leaves have medicinal qualities and are used as laxatives to clear intestinal worms. The fruits too are used to treat jaundice, ulcers and skin diseases. 

Entada --

Entada is a genus of flowering plants from the pea family Fabaceae. These creepers have long stemmed, thick, woody vines that grow vertically to reach out to the canopy so that they can access more light. 
What sets these creepers apart are seed pods - the sheer size of the seed pods will grab your attention even amongst dense canopy. The first time I noticed an Entada creeper was in the Bhadra Tiger reserve. I remember, the seed pods were atleast 2 feet long!

Many plants of the Entada species are known to have medicinal properties and some of the seeds are sought after as pieces of jewellery and good-luck charms.

Until next time, here are some first flush of leaves basking in the early morning Sun.