Butterflying in Dooars

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As we glanced through the book ‘Butterflies of Gorumara’, it suddenly dawned upon us that Oct had 4 holidays (due to Dussehra & Mohram) falling within the same week! We quickly discussed amongst ourselves and decided we shall not let these holidays go waste and thus started our journey to Buxa-Jaldapara-Gorumara by booking our flight tickets 🙂 Alka and myself planned to go 2 days in advance and Kedar decided to join us later.

Mongpong Rest House

Mongpong Rest House

We took the 10.50 am flight from Mumbai to Delhi and had a connecting flight from Delhi to Bagdogra at 2 pm. Though we were short of time at Delhi, we managed to make it just on time before the boarding gate closed. We landed at Bagdogra at 4 pm and immediately picked up our luggage and got into the car, headed to Mongpong FRH which is a part of the Mahananda WLS. On the way we stocked our vehicle with some fruits and water so as to cover any food contingency at the FRH. Rajesh (our driver) was very efficient and stopped at the right places so that we could quickly purchase our stuff. The road to Mongpong went over Mahananda river, through Mahananda WLS, over Teesta river and here we were at the Mongpong FRH around 7pm. Our room was called ‘Cuckoo‘ 🙂 This FRH also had a railway line (Guwahati-New Jalpaiguri) passing just outside the dining place. The cook here served us some delicious Baingan bhaja (fried Brinjal) along with some piping hot dal & rice. We had and early dinner and called it a day.

The next day (Oct 7) we started our journey for Buxa TR around 5.30 am. There were no shops that were open this early for tea or breakfast, so we simply continued driving until about 7.45am when we found a decent place for breakfast at Hasimara. On the way we crossed the Lees, Ghis and Chail and Diana rivers. After a heavy breakfast of Roti and sabji, we resumed our journey. We crossed Hasimara railway station when Rajesh (our driver) mentioned that we were just about 18kms away from Bhutan border to our left, but we took a right turn for Buxa TR. We reached our destination around 8.30 am which was in a village known as Rajabhatkhawa. Rajesh explained to us that the reason the name of this place was ‘Raja Bhat Khawa’ was because when the king of Bhutan released the king of Cooch Behar from his captivity, the king of Cooch Behar ate his first meal here.

The hosts Lal Singh & his wife Maiah at Humro Home Stay

The hosts Lal Singh & his wife Maiah at Humro Home Stay

We met Tamoghna Sengupta, our guide, at Humro home stay which was our place of stay for the next 3 nights. This was a quaint little place owned by a couple who stayed nearby. There were four rooms here, 2 double bedded and 2 four bedded. We had a four bedded room to ourselves since Kedar was scheduled to join us the next day onwards. As soon as we entered the room and settled down with our luggage, the land lady pleasantly greeted us and left a DIY tea maker for us. We freshened up quickly and immediately left for our first trail.

We first drove to the Forest check post, which was just 5-7 mins away from our homestay, to get our permits to enter Buxa tiger reserve. We drove through the core area of the tiger reserve, where people are not allowed to walk, and reached the banks of the Jayanti river. It was almost 10.30am by then and the weather was very hot and humid. We walked along the Guye nallah river bed for about 2 kms in search of butterflies. We did not find too many butterflies on this trail probably because of the heat, but we did manage to see about 40 species of butterflies on this trail which included Red-spot Jezebel, Red-spot Sawtooth, Dusky Yellow-breasted Flat, Tawny Rajah, Orchid Tit and some of the usual suspects like the pansies and the sailers.

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Punchinello

Orangetail Awl

Orangetail Awl

Our third day (Oct 8) turned out to be a rainy day as it had also rained all night. While Alka and myself were still in bed, wondering what we could do today, the land lady brought us some piping hot tea that made us jump out of bed and sit on the porch to think further! As we sipped our tea, it dawned upon us that we could visit the Chilapata Reserve Forest today which is about 28 kms from Raja Bhat Khawa as the weather there could be better and we could utilise the day productively. We instantly got ready, informed our change in plan to Tamoghna to pick him up on the way and left for Chilapata by 7 am.

Redspot Sawtooth

Redspot Sawtooth

As we reached the road in Chilapata, it was still cloudy but we decided to start butterflying from an area close to the first bridge there. The surrounding forest and this particular spot looked promising. But slowly we realised that there were’nt too many butterflies around and soon it started pouring heavily. Hence we decided to drive through this forest road, which is a part of the Chilapata Reserve Forest a range of Jaldapara National Park, to Chilapata village. Here we took a short break to have some tea and chowmein and then headed back to Raja Bhat Khawa for lunch. We returned to our homestay by 12.30 pm, totally exhausted due to irritation and boredom. Our cook was kind enough to pacify us with some yummy food. Just as we were about to finish lunch, we saw the sky getting cleared and the sun could finally be spotted without a cloud cover. That gave us hope to spend another few hours in the field looking for butterfllies.

Raven

Raven

Thus, we immediately left to go back to the field, this time the aim was to butterfly around Bala river (enroute to Jayanti river).

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Papilio binoculars

On our way back we visited the tevees mile mandir (temple situated at the 23rd mile), an old temple of Lord Shiva, at the base of a watch tower, where we got a few additions to our list like the Raven, Commander, Common Snow Flat, Orange-tail Awl, Brown Awl etc. We got about 3 hours of clear sunshine before the clouds began to cover the sky. All in all it wasn’t a disappointing day. That night Kedar joined us around 9.30 pm, he’d driven straight from Bagdogra airport and it took him around 5 hours to reach Raja Bhat Khawa. Due to selfish reasons, I was eagerly waiting to meet Kedar since he was carrying a surprise gift for me. Thus, as soon as he reached and settled down, he handed over the gift to me. I was super thrilled to see a pair Papilio II binoculars (Pentax) which was meant to be specially designed for butterfly watching, with a minimum focal length as short as 1.5 feet!! I hit the bed with excitement to use my new binoculars in the field the next day.

Moore's Ace

Moore’s Ace

Red-spot Jezebel

Red-spot Jezebel

Our last day at Buxa (Oct 9), the morning sky looked adorable as well as promising, as we left for the field around 6.15 am. Our plan for today was to reach Jayanti river, then cross over to the other side with the help of a local Bolero vehicle (since our Innova could not have crossed it) and drive until Houda point. After reaching the river, we had a quick breakfast and hired a local Bolero vehicle to reach Houda. Alka decided to stay with the vehicle at Houda since we had to cross a few streams by foot to go beyond this point. Kedar, Tamoghna and myself started our walk in search of butterflies. Just as we started, we felt a few drops of rain water which made us quickly put on our rain proofs and continue moving ahead. Some of the first few butterflies to welcome us were the Branded Orange Awlet and the Common Awl. We had to cross another stretch of the river on foot to reach the edge of the forest to search for more butterflies. We witnessed a few mud-puddling sites with one consisting of only Grass Yellows and the other with only Great Orange-tips.

Kedar & myself crossing the Jayanti river near Houda

With the help of Tamoghna and Kedar, I managed to cross this stretch through some knee deep fast flowing streams. We then walked on to a few trails around this area while it continued to drizzle. One of the trails was towards Mahakal cave, though this cave is accessible only during Shivratri festival as the Forest Dept clears the route and equips the accesss to this cave with ladders. Around noon we decided to head back towards the vehicle as we could now see dark clouds in the sky and it looked like a torrential rain was expected anytime. Hurriedly we headed back to our car and made sure that our camera equipments do not get drenched. On our way back though, we did manage to see an Orange Oakleaf basking and a Banded Treebrown on a rock hidden under the leaves. As soon as we started from here, there was a heavy downpour and the visibility went very low. We sighed a breathe of relief as we realised how lucky we were. We reached the restaurant situated on the banks of Jayanti river and had a sumptuous meal while the rain continued to follow us until we reached our rest house.

mudpuddling-at-houdaThe next 2 days we were scheduled to stay at a tea estate resort at Gorumara. After our breakfast at Chilapata village, we drove through the same Chilapata road, with a hope to spot butterflies, to Gorumara. However, once again the weather decided to overrule our plans and there was not an inch of sunshine throughout our journey to Gorumara. Thus the only species we managed to see on the way were a pair a Common Earl butterflies, Dark Pierrot and a few other commoners. We reached Gorumara around lunch time, hence after checking into the Green Tea Estate resort, we went to the market at Lataguri for lunch. We also visited the Ramsai butterfly park which is about 32 kms from the resort. Tamoghna was scheduled to stayed at the lab here at the butterfly park while we drove back to our resort late evening.

View of Bhutan from Chapramari

View of Bhutan from Chapramari

By now we didn’t have much hopes about the last day as the rains had not really helped us too much on this trip. As we left the resort and drove towards Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, we stopped at a small tea shop for some local breakfast. Here we were appraised by the owner that being Dussehra, most of the shops and locals hotels will close by 10.30am since traditionally there is a custom of villagers visiting their relatives on this auspicius day and hence we may not find lunch very easily too. Neverthless, this did not dissuade us from driving further up the hill since the sun seemed to be on our side that day. So we slowly and steadily continued watching the coloured beauties that included a rare butterfly known as the Black-veined Red-eye.

Black-veined Redeye

Black-veined Redeye

orange-oakleaf_houdaOnce we reached Paren village, we decided to turn around since there was a longish stretch of villages beyond this and we could not see much of the butterfly activity around. On our way back we walked short distances to make sure that we don’t miss any butterfly activity seen along the road. The highlight of this trip was at the spot where we’d stopped for tea in the morning where we walked down from the metal bridge to the river flowing underneath, trying to look for any fluttering activities. Suddenly I heard Kedar and Tamoghna shouting aloud as if they’d seen an alien fly past! It was a butterfly that none of us had seen before and it wasn’t any of the commonly known ones too. I had a brief look at this flutterby before it vanished into the thickets on the slope above us. Tamoghna and myself quickly went ahead to follow it while Kedar volunteered to stay at the spot to make sure we don’t miss the sight while trying to climb up the slope. There we saw it once again! Through my small camera’s long lens, I managed to click a few pics while the butterfly was in flight, however, none of the images were worth the beauty that we saw through our naked eyes! It was the Yellow-crested Spangle (not yet confirmed though) that had mesmerised us for the past 10 mins.

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Chilapata road

All-in-all it was a decent trip, which fetched us about 100+ species and about 8-9 lifers for me too. I would surely like to visit this place again during Mar-April season as that is considered to be the best season for butterfly activities in this area.

 

A charismatic trip to Corbett TR

Corbett Landscape

Landscape at Corbett TR

My fourth trip to Corbett TR happened almost after 5 years, my last visit to this place was in 2010. It was after the first day in the grasslands of Dhikala, I realised that things had changed after the cloudburst in Uttarakhand in 2013. The grasslands looked different, the ‘Tapu‘ which used to be there in Dhikala was now submerged under water.

Elephants having a mud bath

Elephants having a mud bath

It was a 4-day trip in April 2015, we had permits for 2 nights at the Sultan FRH and 1 night at the Gairal FRH. Sultan FRH is one of the last preferred rest houses by most people owing to its distance from Dhikala grasslands, lack of electricity and the absence of a canteen here. However, after having spent two nights here, I can vouch for this beautifully located FRH. The location is perfect with no fencing around (like all the other FRH), about one to two hours of solar power is available for battery charging etc., our driver doubled up as a cook in the evenings and ensured we got a perfect customised meal; what more can one ask for in a forest!

Kalij Pheasant (male)

Kalij Pheasant (male)

During this trip we managed to see about 110 birds, about 15 butterflies, 11 mammals, 4 reptiles. We were also lucky to have experienced tigers twice during this trip. Both these sightings gave us an adrenaline rush! Here is my FB link to some of the images from this trip (please click the link below to open the images)-

http://on.fb.me/1QsqinY

The first sighting we had was while driving back to Sultan FRH one evening. We encountered a male tiger walking towards us near Crocodile point. It was late in the evening and the sun had started to set down, this male tiger saw us on the road and quickly got into the nearby lantana thicket. He growled at us for a few minutes before he crossed the road and sat amongst the undergrowth. I could not manage a single image of this fellow, as the light conditions were very low.

The tigress after her attempt to make a kill

The tigress after her attempt to make a kill

The second sighting was a tigress attempting to make a kill at Dhikala grasslands.

Witnessing a tiger hunting sequence has been a dream for me. I witnessed something close to it this time…..an unsuccessful attempt to make a kill. A young tigress was resting amongst the grass under some dry trees in the Dhikala grassland. There was a herd of chitals that were grazing very close to her; they of course hadn’t realised the presence of a tiger amongst the grass blades. The tigress suddenly sprang up in an attempt to make a kill, however, the chitals fled in a jiffy and the tigress sat down in the midst of chitals planning for her next action. She waited there for another chance and made a second attempt when she found an isolated stag moving in front of her, but again this attempt was in vain.

The interesting part is post this second attempt, when the tigress headed back to her original place to rest, the chitals decided to follow her while their alarm calls were still on. I believe this following behaviour was to get an assurance of her location. Once she sat down to rest, the chitals resumed their grazing activity, though a bit far from the tigress this time.

Here is the video of this second attempt.

My New Year Coastal Odyssey

As the New Year 2015 set in, a quick trip was planned to go on a road trip over the first weekend of the New Year (considering the fact that like a good girl I stayed at home on New Year’s eve, I deserved this trip!). We decided to go along the coastal road of Maharashtra and without much of planning, drove from Mumbai – Velas – Guhagar – Ganpatipule – Devrukh – Chiplun – Mumbai over a period of 4 days.

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The beach view from Aarey Warey

One of the most interesting things that caught my attention during this trip was the behaviour of the mudskippers. This was at the first boat jetty at Dabhol where we waited for about 10 mins before getting our vehicle onto the boat. I was idling along the jetty trying to look for any birds and something moving on the ground caught my attention. This was a mudskipper which moved into it’s burrow before I could realise what it was. I soon saw many of them along the mudflats and I quickly fetched my camera to capture them.

Mudflats next to the boat jetty - a mudskipper habitat

Mudflats next to the boat jetty – a mudskipper habitat

Mudskippers - aggressive behaviour

Mudskippers – aggressive behaviour

As I witnessed two of these individuals behaving in an act which looked like a fight, I got even more curious to see what they were up to and recorded a few video clips too. On reading up online, I learnt that mudskippers are territorial creatures and the males end up in fighting with each other in order to safeguard their territories. During these fights, they raise their colourful fins and their gill-chambers in order to scare the opponent male.

Mudskipper - Boleophthalmus dussumieri

Mudskipper – Boleophthalmus dussumieri

Mudskippers  are amphibious fish and can move on land with the help of their pectoral fins. They’re one of the few vertebrates that reside on mudflats and breathe air. The mudskippers seen in the Indian Ocean are Boleophthalmus dussumieri and can be found on mudflats in fresh, brackish and marine waters of Iraq, Pakistan and India as well as probably in Bangladesh. Boleophthalmus: Greek word for ‘ejected eyes’ means their eyes can be raised above their orbital cavities to get a 360o view.

Since they reside on mudflats, their burrows do not get enough oxygen from the water as they’re away on land. Hence, there is low oxygen in their burrows for them to remain inside. To cope up with this challenge, these creatures gulp mouthful of air and oxygenate the water inside their burrows by blowing into it, which can help them remain inside for about 30 mins. This process also helps in providing oxygen to the developing eggs, if any.

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We also witnessed large flocks of seagulls following the fishing boats (trying their luck with stealing some fishes from the fishermen) and then settling down by the shore. Another bird along the shore that looked like the Grey Heron at a first glance turned out to be the Western Reef Egret after a careful observation. This then helped us to also spot and identify the white morph of this bird (which looks very similar to the Egret) at the Malgund beach.

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Western Reef Egret – Dark morph

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Western Reef Egret – White morph

During one of the walks on the shore of Malgund, I heard an interesting call of a bird that sounded like half the note of the Crested Serpent Eagle call. This was very intriguing and caught my attention, as I couldn’t see any raptors flying around at that time. On further scanning the shore, I saw a lone wader walking along the seashore with a very long bill, almost the size of its body, hurriedly moving around in search of food, inserting its long beak into the crab holes and picking up crabs for breakfast. This was the Eurasian Curlew indeed, which made those raptor-like calls at regular intervals and intrigued me!

Eurasian Curlew

Eurasian Curlew

This trip was as much fun as there was learnings. Through this trip the highlights were – anchoring our car onto the boats at three different boat jetties, seeing the massive Enron setup (from outside ofcourse), staying overnight at a beach patrolling for Olive Riddley Turtles, staying at home stays, seeing a Crested Hawk Eagle nest, a White bellied Sea Eagle nest, seeing a few interesting animal behaviours like that of the mudskippers. The icing on the cake was the local food that we had at small hotels enroute or at homestays. I got introduced to a few new people on this trip, all of who were working on conserving a specific species of wildlife in their own region. It was such a pleasure to meet all of them cause the work undertaken by them was simply marvelous!

Crested Hawk Eagle nest seen in a village on top of a Wild Almond tree (Sterculia foetida)

Crested Hawk Eagle nest seen in a village on top of a Wild Almond tree (Sterculia foetida)

The trip beautifully ended with a decent sighting of an almost 6-feet Cobra that crossed the road as we left Chiplun and headed towards Mumbai.

 

 

Monkey Business

Monkey Business

Owing to the long weekend (Oct 2-6), it was indeed a task to plan for this trip to the south. Due to the heavy rush, it was a challenge to get bookings at each of these locations, therefore I’d say this trip was planned not so much by logic, but as per availability of accommodation. Hence, we spent 2 nights at Pollachi (from here we travelled to Parambikulum), 2 nights at Valparai (travelled to Vazhachal forest too from here) and 1 night at Topslip. One of the main target for this trip was to see, photograph and video shoot the Lion-tailed macaques.

Travel route map - Pollachi, Valparai, Topslip, Parambikulum

Travel route map – Pollachi, Valparai, Topslip, Parambikulum

 

After a late night arrival at Pollachi, our trip started the next morning with a safari drive in Parambikulum TR. This was a nice and easy drive through the forest (in the FD’s bus, no private vehicles allowed) where we could stop at various places to look at the dams, the bridges, some huge and old trees and also for a quick breakfast. We did come across the usual suspects like the spotted deer, peafowls, gaurs, and a single elephant. On our way back we stopped at the Topslip forest dept office (one has to pass through Topslip to reach Parambikulum TR) to confirm our acco bookings for the day after. 

LTM-comfortable around human areas

LTM foraging on garbage dump

The next day we packed up and left for Valparai. On our way we passed through tea estates and residential areas. As we kept looking out for sign boards towards our resort, we suddenly came across a Stripe-necked mongoose very close to a house, foraging on the garbage dump. Instantly we asked our driver to stop and we quickly jumped out with our cameras. However, before we could reach the spot, the mongoose had disappeared. A bit disappointed, we turned around towards our car and there we see our first sighting of the Lion-tailed macaques!! Thrilled to see them so close to ourselves and to the road, I started clicking and video shooting them so that I could grab as much as possible of them before they’d go into the forest. However, to my surprise, these fellows (about 5-6 individuals) kept walking around the house, foraging on the garbage dump, eating some grubs from the ground and drinking water from a tap nearby. They seemed to be so comfortable with the presence of human beings that they would even climb rooftops, walk amongst people and even cross roads. After spending about an hour with these individuals, we were quite happy for this lifer sighting and thus continued our journey to Vazhachal forest (Kerala). This forest is very different from the landscape that one would see at Valparai.

Landscape at Valparai (tea estates)

Landscape at Vazhachal forest

One has to exit the Tamil Nadu state check post and enter the Kerala state check post inorder to enter the Vazhachal forest. Here you’re allowed to walk on the main road. However, the entry and exit at these check posts is restricted from 6:00am to 6:00pm only. Since it was around 4pm, we’d missed much of the birds in this area and hence decided to come again the next morning for a quick round of birding. The highlight for us in this area was a pair of Malabar Giant Squirrels feeding on the large and prickly fruits of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae). We could see them removing each thorn carefully and throwing them away before they could feed on the soft inner parts of the fruit.

Monkey Business

Fruit of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae)

Fruit of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae)

The third day we went for a birding early morning to Vazhachal forest. Amongst the various other bird calls that we heard, we managed to see a few like the Grey Junglefowl, White-bellied Treepie, Yellow-browed Bulbul. We also saw many caterpillars, a few butterflies like the Banded Catseye, Rustic, 2 skippers (to be identified) and a Common Fourring. We again saw a pair of Malabar Giant Squirrels (and heard many more individuals). After our breakfast, we decided to look for the LTMs again where we’d seen it the previous day. This time we spotted them in larger numbers, initially walking on the main road before they entered a small patch of forest. We could still see them clearly, however, due to harsh sunlight, I was unable to get any decent photo. Here is where we met 2 volunteers from the NGO Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) who was posted in this patch simply to monitor and slow down the vehicular traffic moving through this part of the road so as to avoid any road kills and to prevent anyone from feeding these animals. These 2 volunteers did an amazing job, while carrying a board along with them which read as ‘Go slow’.

Monkey Business Monkey Business

The next day was our last day at Valparai and it was time for us to checkout from here and move to Topslip for one night at the forest rest house. On our way from Valparai to Topslip, we again met the 2 volunteers who had been very helpful to us for spotting the LTMs. This time they told us that they were expecting the entire troop (of about 90+ individuals) to move and come on the road in a few minutes. Without wasting a moment, we instantly pulled our car aside and got off with our cameras once again to capture these beautiful primates. As mentioned by them, we did see the LTMs coming down one by one and walking along a small path which had less disturbance. This was the closest I’d ever been to a macaque! Though I was a bit scared as they walked past me, they seemed absolutely undisturbed by my presence amongst them. Within a few mins I was surrounded by LTMs, some females with babies, some young ones and some males who gave me a stern look as if to say ‘dare not touch my troop‘!

LTM baby

LTM baby

LTMs being social

LTMs being social

LTM habitat

LTM habitat

LTM mother with baby

LTM mother with baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then headed to Topslip where we stayed in the Bamboo hut rest house. We took the evening safari drive to the elephant camp inside Topslip (Anaimalais TR). Since we took the last safari to the elephant camp, we were able to witness the feeding activity at the campsite. These are all the elephants which are used for patrolling inside the tiger reserve.1efbc-elephant2bfeeding

The next morning, since we’d to leave for Coimbatore airport by 10am, we only had 2 hours in the morning to do the nature trail in Topslip. Not wanting to let go of this last opportunity to be inside a tiger reserve, we did a quick trail from 7.30-9.30am Though it was a short trail, we did manage to add a few species to our list of sightings on this trip. We saw a pair of Black-rumped Flameback, the Nilgiri Langur (at the campus itself), a Pygmy Woodpecker, Blue-winged Parakeets, a Cuckooshrike, a pair of Minivets and Dark Blue Tiger butterflies. We returned to the rest house and left for Coimbatore by 10am.

Black-rumped Flameback

Black-rumped Flameback

All-in-all a good recce trip to all these places.

More about the Lion-tailed macaques – 

The Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) is an endemic to the Western Ghats of South. It’s is a medium-sized monkey with shiny black fur and long greyish-white hair around its face. It gets its name from its long tail, which has a tassel at the end like that of a lion. Both sexes look alike except that the males are slightly larger (approx 7 kg) than the females (approx 5 kg). The male’s tail-tuft is more developed than that of the female. Gestation is approximately six months. The young are nursed for one year. Sexual maturity is reached at four years for females, and six years for males. The life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years, while in captivity is up to 30 years. A recent assessment for IUCN reports 3000-3500 of these animals live scattered over several areas in Kerala. The LTM ranks among the rarest and most threatened primates. Their range has become increasingly isolated and fragmented by the spread of agriculture and tea, coffee, teak and cinchona, construction of water reservoirs for irrigation and power generation, and human settlements to support such activities.