Song and Dance: Spotting Frogs in the Western Ghats

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.

A trail leading to the forest from Honey Valley Estate.

A trail leading to the forest from Honey Valley Estate

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.

One of the many streams around the estate.

One of the many streams around the estate

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.

Two frogs of the Nyctibatrachus genus camouflaged among the stones of the riverbed. These two were only a couple of inches in length.

Two frogs of the Nyctibatrachus genus camouflaged among the stones of the riverbed. These two were only a couple of inches in length

The completely lit underside of the

The completely lit underside of the Ghatophryne frogs. This guy is trying to play dead

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.

Raorchestes luteolus.

Raorchestes luteolus

Raorchestes chromasynchysi.

Raorchestes chromasynchysi, also known as the confusing green bush frog.

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. 

Raorchestes ponmudi.

Raorchestes ponmudi

Raorchestes glandulosus.

Raorchestes glandulosus. These come in different morphs, meaning specimens of the same species can vary in colours and markings

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.

Micrixalus kottigeharensis, one of the species of dancing frog.

Micrixalus kottigeharensis, one of the species of dancing frog. This particular is endangered.

Micrixalus saxicola. We spotted several dancing frogs hanging around next to a waterfall.

Micrixalus saxicola. We spotted several dancing frogs hanging around next to a waterfall

Micrixalus elegans. Unfortunately I couldn't witness their foot flagging behaviour first hand.

Micrixalus elegans. Unfortunately I couldn’t witness their foot flagging behaviour first hand.

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.

A green vine snake curled up high in a tree.

A green vine snake curled up high in a tree

Spot the cricket!

Spot the cricket!

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The Amazon

The Amazon holds pure glamour where I come from (the other side of the world, literally). I used to watch “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World” as a child, thinking that minus the dinosaurs, that’s what it was actually like. The truth is a lot more peaceful. The Los Amigos Biological Field Station I was headed to lay on the banks of the river Madre de Dios in east Peru. The five hour boat ride from Puerto Maldonado had by no means diminished the enthusiasm of our batch of fourteen. For the next three weeks home would be the laboratory, classroom, dormitory, common room and the forest trails. Armed with a map, we wasted no time in heading down the trails with an instructor. We weren’t expecting to see much, so spotting brown capuchins, emperor tamarins and saddleback tamarins during our first afternoon was absolutely thrilling!

A view of the Madre de Dios river from camp.

A view of the Madre de Dios river from camp.

The primates are the stars of the field station. Emperor tamarins, saddleback tamarins and titi monkeys are the primates that are most spotted around the site. Some of them pass right through camp and it was not uncommon for us to be able to watch a group of titis from our dormitory. In addition, a massive troop of squirrel monkeys made their way through the camp one day, giving us a couple of hours to observe them. The count was above fifty, which was a very large number as far as monkey troops go. Other sightings included spider monkeys swinging from branches with a powerful grace, howler monkeys foraging by a lake and a rare glimpse of a blonde capuchin monkey. A group of us were also incredibly lucky to follow saki monkeys on two separate hikes. These relatively slow monkeys with their bowl-cut hairdos spent as much time staring at us from treetops as we did staring at them.

An emperor tamarin on one of the trails. Their high pitched chuntering was one of the calls we learned to identify during our time there.

An emperor tamarin on one of the trails. Their high pitched chuntering was one of the calls we learned to identify during our time there.

A saki monkey staring down at us during primate follows. Their dense looking fur and noiseless manner makes them generally difficult to spot.

A saki monkey staring down at us during primate follows. Their dense looking fur and noiseless manner makes them generally difficult to spot.

After completing the Field Projects International course in India in January, I developed an interest in birding. While I could broadly identify different kinds of birds in India, the birds in Peru left me amazed. We studied some small birds by setting up a mist net and catching them. Disentangling them was a very delicate procedure that required a steady hand. Identification aside, bird calls here were radically different. The wolf-whistling call of the screaming piha was ever present. The nightly, weirdly human whooooo noises of a particular owl led us to dub him “the party owl”. And the iconic macaws of the Amazon are quite large and their screeches, extremely noisy. But one of the most extraordinary displays was that of the Oropendola. Every morning and evening a flock of them would flit around the trees around camp with a call that sounded like a very large object plopping into water. Watching the contortions they made during the call was even more entertaining. They would sit with wings outstretched and dip their heads so low that they would half fall off the branch and then spring upright with a shake of the head.

This band tailed manakin flew into one of the mist nets that were set up.

This band-tailed manakin flew into one of the mist nets that were set up.

The hoatzin was another bird that held my interest enough to repeatedly visit Cocha Lobo, the oxbow lake where they were found, mainly because I thought they looked like the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. A mix of features, colours and patterns, these squawking birds fascinated me the moment I laid eyes on them. Picking the hoatzin as a topic for my independent study meant I had to visit the lake often, which was an adventure all on its own. The trail wound through swamp and bog and obstacles like fallen trees and super soft mud were easy to get used to. On the lake I learnt how to row a boat (thanks to pointers from a friend) and had my fill of observing hoatzins (but not really, I could watch them for longer). I also had multiple sightings of the shy giant river otters that were probably temporarily residing in the lake.

A hoatzin at Cocha Lobo. This bird has a whole genus (Opisthocomus) all to itself.

A hoatzin at Cocha Lobo. This bird has a whole genus (Opisthocomus) to itself.

A giant river otter at Cocha Lobo.

A giant river otter at Cocha Lobo.

Camera trap footage counted as sightings as well. The nocturnal paca sniffing around, an agouti hopping around on trail and deer running around in the middle of the night were some of the things the camera caught, but what stole the show was a puma sauntering down one of the trails in broad daylight. Of course, in between primate follows we graced the cameras as well, with hilarious results. We also made some wax prints by melting candles over animal tracks in the mud. An armadillo and a tapir left some prominent tracks near camp on separate occasions and the wax prints we got captured startlingly clear detail like texture and nail markings.

Dylan with his armadillo print.

Dylan with his armadillo print.

Climbing trees here was a challenge. There was the beginner’s tree, which was 15 metres. We made a day of it as everyone got a turn to go to the top. The intermediate tree was about 25 metres. Wasps on the way and at the top meant we had to wear a net-suit similar to that of a bee keeper, which made things quite claustrophobic and getting to the top took anywhere between 15 and 40 minutes. However, foliage on top was scant and the view was the real reward. It was acres and acres of green with some annoying interruptions in the form of wisps of smoke (likely from some mining activity). Unfortunately, there was no time to climb the tallest tree (about 40 metres) but if the view from this one was so great, it really must have been something else from the tallest tree.

An unending green carpet of trees: the view from the intermediate tree.

An unending green carpet of trees: the view from the intermediate tree.

The Don Pedro swamp was the realm of the dwarf caiman; all we had to do during a night visit to the swamp was to steer the boat right towards the twin orange pinpricks that peeked out from between the grassy banks or hovered right above the water. A boat ride up the Los Amigos river showed us spectacled caimans and river birds. Herons, kingfishers, lapwings and egrets would fly ahead of us or run on sandy banks alongside the boat. We got down on some of the banks and spotted tapir prints and pug marks that resembled that of an ocelot. Towards the late morning, turtles began coming out and acted as very adorable perches for butterflies, who would settle on their heads. Fallen trees stuck out of the water creating natural roadblocks. It was dry season so the water level was quite low, exposing the walls of the river channel. In some places where the wall was literally broken, one could see layers of sedimentary rock that made the land.

A caiman on the pozo Don Pedro. This guy sat with his mouth open for the longest time, letting us get really close ot him.

A caiman on the pozo Don Pedro. This guy sat with his mouth open for the longest time, letting us get really close to him.

Exposed rock along the Los Amigos river. The horizontal layers are that of sedimentation whereas the vertical tracks towards the top are characteristic of water percolation over the years.

Exposed rock along the Los Amigos river. The horizontal layers are that of sedimentation whereas the vertical tracks towards the top are characteristic of water percolation that has occured over the years.

I was expected to return with tales of dangerous carnivores and scary snakes (for some reason, an encounter with an anaconda was expected) but what I found is that the forest just wants to be left in peace to do its thing. I was often told that I wouldn’t be able to describe my experience to anyone back home and I see the truth in that now. You tend to form a unique bond with people you head out with; they are looking out for you in the forest and you are doing the same for them. Priorities and achievements take on a different meaning. It is indescribable why it is so important to reach for a bird book immediately after coming back from a hike; you have the image of the bird burned in your head and you need to put a name to it. Or why walking 3 kilometres to set or retrieve a camera trap is actually exciting, it’s proof that something walked that very same path and knowing that you shared the trail with another animal is strangely humbling. Or why emerging from a bamboo thicket all scratched, and maybe whacked in the face by branches still makes you feel like you’ve won a trophy but you’ve also learnt that bamboo isn’t all zen all the time. Or why the feeling of slipping my feet in those field boots is so natural.

And those boots sinking into mud.

Trees on the shore of the Madre de Dios river.

Trees on the shore of the Madre de Dios river.

Yala

Six cups of coffee from 2am to 7am saw me wandering around the beaches of Yala in Sri Lanka post breakfast. The first day of our hotel shoot had been successful and my colleagues had all passed out after an exhausting night of shooting but I was psyched that this hotel was within Yala National Park. I grabbed a camera and headed for the coast.

The dunes.

The dunes.

A beautifully twisted tree.

A beautifully twisted tree.

Yala, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, is one of the drier regions of the country. Our hostess warned me to stay close to the hotel because the dunes and the dry brush that grew there could confuse me sooner than I knew. Also, Yala National Park has the highest concentration of leopards in the world. That was another reason I was told not to go too far.

The way to the ocean.

The way to the ocean.

The dunes.

The dunes.

The sandy coast of Yala.

The sandy coast of Yala.

While the top floors of the hotel gave me brilliant views of the sea, on ground level, finding it was like a quest. Paths led to dunes and the dunes were a maze. I had to keep climbing them to figure out where I was. Dried elephant dung strewn along the sandy paths made me extremely nervous. I couldn’t imagine coming face to face with a full grown tusker here. There was no way to tell if one could be coming around the bend. The sand muffled all noises and the only sound I could hear was the breeze ruffling through the scrub. Which was why I couldn’t hear the tree in front of me rustling unusually. When I spotted its branches moving, I was sure I had imagined it. It wasn’t big enough to hide an elephant though, so I stood still and waited. I could see something on the other side moving away from me so I circled the bush to see the rear ends of two peahens disappear.

The disappearing peahen.

The fleeing peahen.

The sandy coast of Yala.

The sandy coast of Yala.

Strangely round-shaped grass.

Strangely round-shaped grass.

A barren landscape right next to the ocean.

A barren landscape right next to the ocean.

The sun climbed higher and got warmer but the breeze blowing in from the sea kept me cool. I was just wondering how elusive the ocean was when I clambered up a dune to find it descending quite steeply on the other side down to the beach. The empty landscape stretched both ways and ahead was the blue sea. I took off my shoes, slid down the steep sandy wall (wheeeeee!) and walked along the warm sand. Tufts of grass covered some of the dunes and at a distance I could see some hotel staff digging a pit for one of the other shots. Off the coast, I could see a little piece of land with a lighthouse. Beyond that, I suddenly realised, the next piece of land towards the south would be Antarctica!

Nothing like an ocean to give you a bit of perspective.

The sandy coast of Yala.

Waves crashing on the rocks at Yala.

A small outpost on the beach of Yala.

A small outpost on the beach of Yala.

Ten Landscapes from the Nilgiris

The hills of the south are thoroughly underrated. But when it comes to riding around the hill stations that dot these slopes, that’s a very good thing. Turning those curves up and downhill gives you that swooping I’ve-left-my-stomach-behind feeling, and the fresh smell of eucalyptus is always around. A pre dawn ride can reward you with a sighting of deer or bison, or if you’re really lucky even civets. And the views! On a windy day, patches of sun and shade race across the hills incredibly fast. Houses are vividly colourful. Off the main road, the roads going downhill are bordered with the tallest, greenest trees. When it rains, even the darkest clouds don’t mar the beauty of these hills.

Early mornings, Ooty.

Early mornings, Ooty.

A road leading to a smaller village around Lovedale.

A road leading to a smaller village around Lovedale.

The clear division between the forest and human habitation.

The clear divide between the forest and human habitation.

Sunrise, somewhere along the road.

Sunrise, somewhere along the road.

The hills around Kalhatty.

The hills around Kalhatty.

Dawn at Ketti valley.

Dawn at Ketti valley.

Patches of light, Lovedale.

Patches of light, Lovedale.

A very early morning at Kotagiri.

A very early morning at Kotagiri.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway route passing by Lovedale.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway route passing by Lovedale.

Moonrise, Ketti valley.

Moonrise, Ketti valley.

The Happiest Place in Ooty

I took the stairs two at a time and was practically hopping when I reached the door. I could see the shelves of books through the glass windowpanes. One corner of the window was taken up by a poster that declared that the music festival Monkeytown was going to be held soon. I swung the door open and entered Willy’s, my refuge from real life during my stay in Ooty.

I almost hugged the red iron chairs and glass tables. I could smell the filter coffee, and the orange honey cake still had quite a few slices left. I grabbed a table and got up again to grab a book.

Mr Kumar, the owner, was  sitting at a table reading the paper. It had been four years but he still remembered me. “Light and Life, right?” he asked, referring to the college I studied in. I beamed at him.

I ordered filter coffee and a slice of cake and looked around. Apart from a few shelves that were shifted, the place was thankfully more or less unchanged. The staff was different but the trippy, colourful mural of the lovable orca after whom the cafe was named was as bright as ever. Oh, and jenga was missing. “A group of kids broke a table while playing, so I had to discontinue the game,” said Mr Kumar.

Willy’s was like home. It was where I’d head to after a cold evening of shooting outdoors. It was where my feet would automatically take me when I couldn’t decide where to have dinner. It was where a table for four would automatically end up seating seven, and no one would object. It was where my friends and I would spend whole afternoons playing a raucous game of Pictionary. It was where I could lose myself in a book and the world could bugger off.

So when my coffee arrived, I happily opened “Landscapes of Alaska” and did exactly that.

The End of Winter

With the end of winter comes the time when the winter migratory birds all slowly move out of the city. As fun as it was observing the flamingoes, there is a wealth of resident birds that we hardly get to spot, mainly because we aren’t far enough from the city.

Karnala bird sanctuary is where you can head to to spot these birds. The trail to Karnala fort is through the sanctuary and makes for a great hike as well. There are certain spots and trails where you can stop to observe birds.

This time I took a break from shooting and sat down on a rock with my binoculars and my book of birds. So all image credits to Sarang Pandit and Samyukta Maindarkar. Apart from a bunch of birds that were too quick or hidden for me to identify, here’s what I saw:

Karnala peak in the distance.

Karnala peak in the distance.

A trail going into the forest.

A trail going into the forest.

This Rufous Treepie who only allowed us a glimpse as it peeked through the leaves.

This Rufous Treepie who only allowed us a glimpse as it peeked through the leaves.

A leafbird, who was too far away and camouflaged to identify as either Jerdon's or Golden-fronted.

A leafbird, who was too far away and camouflaged to identify as either Jerdon’s or Golden-fronted.

The pretty pre-summer red foliage on the trees.

The pretty pre-summer red foliage on the trees.

These red fuzzy leaves that I still need to identify.

These red fuzzy leaves that I still need to identify.

This barbet, who never once turned to the camera.

This barbet, who never once turned to the camera.

A White-rumped Shama, coolly ignoring us the whole time.

A White-rumped Shama, coolly ignoring us the whole time.

This crazy looking dried mushroom with a honeycomb pattern.

This crazy looking dried mushroom with a honeycomb pattern.

The Jungle: Part 2

All through the course I was drawing parallels between what I was doing and the job I had just quit. I had (mentally) solved an electrical problem with my knowledge of circuits from working in a studio. I had laminated maps the way I had laminated labels. I had positioned camera traps and set frames the same way I had positioned full frame cameras for interior shots. So when we had to create a track trap, I was happy to find that it was nothing like my old job.

A track trap is a piece of slushy land that “captures” an animal’s prints when they walk over it. Since the winter was dry, we had to create a patch of wet mud. We picked an area near a little stream and began to clear the vegetation with a sickle and a hoe. We used our water bottles to gather water and the others began using their hands to loosen the soil. After an hour or so we had a decent area cleared out and had poured enough water and wet mud from the stream to quite literally muck up the area. Over the following days we managed to catch some sambhar tracks and those of a few birds.

Spotting the mammals of the region was a more difficult exercise. Since we were quite a large group, I imagine we were making way too much noise while walking in the forests. We tried walking with a good distance between each of us but didn’t spot much that way either. After an unsuccessful walk to spot lion-tailed macaques, we stopped by one of the camera trap sites near a bog. We had to watch where we were stepping not only because of the mud that came up to mid calf when we stepped in it but the tiny frogs that hopped around. Gideon said we should record how many ever species we could find before it got dark and soon the seven of us were grabbing clods of mud. It was easy enough once you got used to the texture of the frogs. They were very delicate and some of them were extremely small and yet had a very great leap range. We spent about half an hour there catching them and taking pictures so we could ID them later.

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Catching frogs

I got to test my frog grabbing skills soon after that. Very soon after. We spotted a toad at camp and my instructor Mini suggested I catch it so we could ID it. I managed to trap the frog in my hands only to have it pee in fear. After a bit of squealing, I managed to hand it over to Mini but not before it promptly peed on my jacket. But I do seem to have developed a fondness for the amphibians since then. At least I know I can catch one.

Another thing I developed a fondness for (or at least I don’t cringe at them anymore) are insects (I say insects but there’s a lot more to that than I knew before; it involves classifications and such). One night, Gideon put up a white cloth and a mercury lamp on a tripod in front of it. An hour later the sheet was swarming with all kinds of insects. There were mole crickets that tried to push your hand away if you caught them in your fist. Grasshoppers and katydids that jumped a mile high when you tried to touch them. Even an atlas moth that spanned six to eight inches with its wings open. Dealing with insects was more fun than I anticipated. I wasn’t even freaked out by the cockroach in my room that night.

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Entomology class

Our meals were the best local food of appams, idlis, dosas, chicken curry, cooked beans and fried beef, courtesy Muthu the cook. Meals were more than just refuelling, they were open group discussions that ranged from topics like maple syrup to Indian weddings. If we had some time off or were done with filling our data sheets, we would spend time in camp or lounging in the hammock in the front yard. Even just sitting there provided lots of activity to observe. The three resident white-browed wagtails harassed the one resident yellow wagtail. A whooping call from the surrounding forest echoed through the hills. A lone old gaur bison would be seen often around camp. And at sunset flying squirrels would leap from the trees, looking like miniature skydivers. My knowledge of the forest was much too far from done but this start made for an excellent experience.

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Camp