The Western ghats never fail to surprise me. Being a biodiversity hotspot, the sheer number of species ensures that you cannot take a few steps without learning something new about its flora and fauna. My latest foray to the forests around Mangalore, was to spot the endemic frogs of the region. Our team of seven hoped to spot the dancing frog in particular, of which, in the past couple of years, about fifteen new species had been recorded.
We headed to Honey Valley Estate, 170 kilometres from Mangalore. This homestay is set in an estate within the forest. The cottages themselves face green hillsides, and are located at a spot apt for birdwatching. At any given time, a flock of hill mynas occupied the branches of a bare tree, crying shrilly. Woodpeckers, yellow bulbuls and minivets flitted in the trees next to the buildings and I even had a lucky sighting of the black throated muniya. The estate also has a number of trails that lead to waterfalls, streams and the shola grasslands that dot the tops of nearby hills.
Plodding through streams, peering into crevices and under leaves seemed to be the only way to go about searching for frogs. More often, we came across a clutch of eggs stuck to the roof of a little hollow beside flowing water, with a male guarding it. Quite a few frogs of the Nyctibatrachus genus, essentially night frogs, were seated this way, although they were hard to spot, given the rough and uneven texture of their hide. A small stream nearby held quite a few Nyctibatrachus frogs, along with a trippy looking frog of the Ghatophryne genus. This particular one was a slick black and had a maroon underside with yellow polka dots.
As the light dropped, the air was anything but quiet. Entwined among the rising chirping of the cicadas and the fading tweets of the birds, the frog calls resounded — one of them more distinctly than the others. We headed for the plantations, trying to zero in on the coffee plant that seemed to be signalling as loudly as a sonar. Upon combing the bush, we found a tiny knob handed bush frog perched on a leaf. We found plenty of specimens of the Raorchestes luteolus, with an extrememly thin, barely discernible brilliant ring of blue around its iris. A single malabar gliding frog sat on top of a coffee bush, its red webbed feet curled around the stem of a leaf.
If you are proficient in identifying frog calls, as our team leader was, it makes the job a little easier. This particular skill came in great use in the dark, while looking for bush frogs. A particularly evasive one managed to trick us into thinking it was hidden amidst some thick bamboo while actually looking down on us from the leaves on top. At times, the calling among the coffee bushes stopped when we got too close, so we had to turn off our lights and wait, or choose to follow the calls emanating from the neighbouring bushes. We found the Raorchestes ponmudi, a critically endangered species as per the IUCN, sitting on a leaf with its back towards us, as if hoping to ward off the attention it was getting. After a considerable amount of hunting in the dark, at various spots in the estate, we managed to locate the Raorchestes glandulosus frogs that we were looking for.
We hit the jackpot with the dancing frogs of the Micrixalus genus near a big waterfall. After heading downstream a little, to a spot where we could hear the loud calls of the frogs even over the raging waters, we spotted about seven of them on either side. While manoeuvring to the opposite rocky bank was impossible, we could still spot two frogs on a common rock, in close proximity to each other. Their vocal sacs expanded, a white balloon against their browner and greener selves, almost the same size as their head. Closer to us, a couple of frogs sat with their backs to each other, like they’d had a fight. Along the edge of the water, three more sat on a vertical face of rock. Unfortunately, as long as we waited, we never got to witness their interesting foot flagging behaviour. They generally display this behaviour to attract a mate and warn rivals, and sometimes physically push opponents off rocks.
Apart from frogs, we spotted a great many other species. A brilliant green vine snake seemingly knotted up in itself hung high in a tree. The trails always had a number of crickets and katydids sitting on top of leaves. We also spotted the endemic Indrella ampulla, a large bright red and white snail. If a few square miles holds such a variety of species of flora and fauna, it wasn’t difficult to believe that almost a quarter of the species in the country is found in the whole stretch of 1600 kilometres that make the Western ghats.