Monday, June 13, 2016


My obsession with birds are reaching a new level that I've taken to carrying a bird book or field guide wherever I go. In fact, my collection has swelled recently (more about it later, but you can read about the early days here) that I can keep a book in each of my cars and backpacks and still have a few lying around!

Sometime in the late 90s the wilderness bug bit me and the effect has not left me since. I was a 'tigertracker' initially but in 2001 I started a Yahoo group; the Woodcrawler's Den, which was taken over by a hack, and I never managed to recover it. My first linking with serious birders was through this group, and one of them has become a good friend and comrade in arms on our trips into Malamapuzha's forest fringes. The irrepressible Namassivayan Lakshmanan!

Malampuzha Dam, in Palakkad District of Kerala was commissioned in 1955 and is the largest irrigation reservoir in the state. The dam, almost 2 kilometers long has a catchment area of close to 150 square kilometers. Situated on the Palghat Gap, the reservoir is hemmed in by the low hills forming the northern edge of the Palghat Gap. It is fringed by the moist tropical forests of the deciduous and semi-evergreen types and has a rich biodiversity. 

When I say I have been wandering around Malampuzha almost every week, it is in these fringes and NOT in the famous Malampuzha Gardens. As a matter of fact In the last twenty years I have been inside the gardens about 5 times, but I have stopped counting the visits to the forests!

Sometime in early 2008 I laid hands on my first DSLR, the Olympus E3. It was a shift from the prosumer Fuji Finepix to the next level, as the wilderness bug had bitten me well and truly hard. The yearning to run off to the wild become a full blown disorder! As is natural with all wannabe nature photographers, in their early days, the tendency to shoot anything that moved afflicted me too.

With a digital camera, the worry about cost of film, developing negatives and printing some unprintable photos was gone. Earlier, the worry about film was a restriction on shooting but with the dawn of the digital age, that was gone. With a DSLR that could shoot at a respectable 8FPS, worries evaporated. Kabini and Bandipur were too far away for a day trip and also a little heavy on the pockets. That is when I discovered the forests around Malampuzha.

Most of the initial forays were in the Kava area. In summer, as the reservoir dried we'd drive inside it, otherwise we drove around the road along the edge of the reservoir. It was most often raptors and water birds that I 'noticed'. Perhaps their larger size and visibility in the open spaces ensured that I noticed them.

Then as we drove around we started noticing that there were smaller ground birds that had hitherto not been noticed because we were novices and small birds were less interesting perhaps.

Once out of the reservoir our eyes were now scouring the trees, bushes and electric lines. That was an even bigger treasure trove of birds.

That was then my birding eyes really opened. It suddenly dawned on me that I had been missing so much. My jungle trips were much too tilted in favour of the mammals, that birds were considered incidental. Everything changed from then on. Malampuzha transformed me. I realized, unlike mammals, I did not have to look for birds. One or two were always around. It was hard to avoid them,in fact. It was just that we took them so much for granted.

My birding eyes then realized that there were little patches of forests on the side of the road around the reservoir. It was time to explore a little further, but that is for the next post!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Of Birds, Birders & the Palghat Gap - Part 1

It's been a while since I tread the blogging trial, and with good reason. I've been afflicted!
I think I have a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that centers around creatures with feathers. OCD is defined as a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.

For a while now, my thoughts have been centered around birds. Earlier, woodcrawling always included everything in the woods but now I brake suddenly on my drives when a feathered creature whizzes past. So much so, that the risk of getting rear-ended by someone driving behind me is going to become a reality sooner than later. I'm only hoping that the unfortunate soul, who might slam the butt of my car, will think that I'm just a crazy guy with a crazy obsession!

Ever since I spoke on bird-watching to our local ophthalmic association's members and family, I have suddenly found people recognising me in restaurants and other places as 'that bird chap'. They don't even remember my name! For God's sake! I have a name, a nick name and I also like to watch tigers, leopards, elephants and other myriad creatures of the jungle!

Of course, it is undeniable that, what once was an occasional pass time has now become an obsession. I'm overcome by jealousy when my brothers in arms are able to run off after the feathered kind any time they choose, while I'm stuck in my consulting room wrangling with patients. 
Adv. Namassivayan Lakshmanan (Pic courtesy: Namassi in the pic)

Venugopalan Raghunathan

The two gentlemen above feel that best way to watch birds is to let them come to you. Choose a strategic spot, park yourself in a portable chair and tune up the binoculars. They will come fluttering around as long as you don't make sudden moves!
Sometimes, the legs have to be given a bit of exercise while in pursuit!
Venugopalan Raghunathan & Gopal Prasad 
Occasionally you have to pick your way over rocks or wade through a stream to catch up with the certain species, but it is truly well worth the effort. Sometimes, the summer sun beats down mercilessly; especially when you are searching for water birds in the middle of a reservoir that has little water after a long hot summer. A little bit of sun burn or heat exhaustion is nothing compared to seeing and recording the presence of a bird that makes its rare or seasonal appearance at the spot you have been haunting!
Gopal Prasad

Krishna Moorthy, the teacher with a willing pupil

I had been wandering around the fringes of the Malampuzha reservoir for the last few years documenting the birdlife around and within it. Then, after linking up with the gentlemen above, I realize, I have only taken baby steps into the fascinating world of birds. Compared with the others of my birding group, I'm a novice. While they identify birds by calls and look only for confirmation; I have to look, listen and often refer the manual to be sure. Sure, I'm learning, but it is slow progress!  
If you try Googling for birding sites in Kerala, the first one that always pops up is Thattekad & Salim Ali bird sanctuary. Arippa, Kadalundy & the Kole lands of Thrissur will also figure somewhere in the list. Palakkad or Palghat as it was called, rarely figures in any birder's radar except for Silent Valley NP and Parambikulam tiger reserve.

 The Palghat gap is a 30 kilometer break in the Western Ghats, flanked on the north by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and on the south by the Anaimalai hills. The northern part of the gap is a natural boundary between Kerala and Tamilnadu. At the edge of these slopes is the Malmapuzha reservoir, surrounded by forests that teem with wildlife that includes large and small mammals, and a vast variety of birds. 

While I was happy to be looking for the birds on the forests bordering the reservoir and lying on either side of the roads, there was one gentleman; who, more than any other, opened up the possibility of exploring beyond the borders, Mr. Green Dinesh.

Green Dinesh (Pic courtesy: Namassivayan Lakshmanan)

Green Dinesh with Gopal Prasad

 Once we discovered that there were small unexplored pockets just beyond the ends & edges of the road our birding legs took us further afield, opening up a hitherto undiscovered treasure house of birds in our own backyard, the Palghat Gap

The rest of this series will attempt to give you a glimpse into this journey of discovery for a small team of ardent birders. Perhaps a day will come when this small area will see its name on the birding maps of the world, and wouldn't it be nice to be credited with the discovery!