Thursday, March 15, 2012

Birding at Lakhari Valley Sanctuary- Part 1

“In this neighbourhood, which is open country to the east of the Ebe river, there are some jheels and swampy grounds, where, though so late in the season, I found snipe to be tolerably plentiful. There were also three species of teal and black-backed geese. It was quite a treat to me to get some shooting such as these birds afforded, as I had been so long in hilly forest-country, but I am not quite prepared to defend the practice of shooting water-birds at this time of year. About this time the jungle trees were putting forth their new leaves, and the consequent freshness and greenery were very pleasant to behold, after the absence of foliage of the last six weeks. With this change I noted the arrival of the Paradise fly-catchers and ground-thrushes, whose sudden appearance at this season I have already alluded to. I also saw some flocks of the large bee-eater {MeropsPhilippensis).”

Excerpt taken from the book “Jungle Life in India” written in 1880 by Valentine Ball , the British Geologist. This book is an exceptionally well written and perhaps one of the few sources available which gives information on the rich wildlife resource that Odisha used to have.Valentine Ball also collected one of the few invaluable specimens available till date of Forest Owlet (AtheneBlewitti) from forests of Kharial ( present day Khariar)in 1877 (Forktail 14, 1998). There is a need to explore in detail the hidden treasure of Odisha , document it and publish it for the larger group of society to read, learn and create more naturalists who can work in the region rather than limiting the knowledge to few niche singled out naturalists of the state.

With a little inspiration from the book and more importantly with an eternal feeling of being a forester (though in reality I am quite far off from this field and unfortunately also the part of present day bandwagon of “so called” wildlife photographers concerned about nature and wildlife conservation), I along with fellow birder, Siddhartha landed up at Chandragiri Forest Office of Lakhari Valley Sanctuary in Gajapati District of South Odisha.Chandragiri a small hamlet situated along SH34 and at a distance of 70 kms from Berhampur serves as the gateway to the Lakhari Valley Sanctuary. Lakhari, relatively a smaller sanctuary of the state in terms of area comprises of a Single Range, Chandragiri which is headquartered at Podamari and is spread over 186 sqkms. Three sections of the range, Chandragiri (10%), Chandiput (30 %)&Bhismagiri (60%) form the Lakhari Valley Sanctuary. The jurisdiction of the Sanctuary falls under DFO, Parlakhemundi.

We had our accommodation arranged at the Chandragiri Forest Office itself, in a small rest house which is used by Forest Officials for night halts. I always love this kind of places, small rooms with basic furniture; high hanging ceiling fans and more often than not a verandah where one can sit in the evenings and listen to thesilence of night. We met the forester Jena babu in the evening who had called up members of Anti-Poaching Squad for a small meeting with us regarding the two day birding trip. It was an excellent opportunity for us to get first-hand information on the area. For next two days, Siva Mahakud and Surjya Mahakud were to accompany us on our trips and they seem to be aware about everything related to Lakhari forests. Before joining the Anti-Poaching Squad, for years they used to camp inside the forest near Talabada and Satakutuni area for Buffalo grazing. 20 years back, the whole valley was devoid of villages barring a couple of huts. The area around Talabada was a favoured grazing spot for the Buffaloes with presence of vast stretches of edible grass and presence of water. They would go and stay in makeshift huts and keep buffaloes & cows huddled together in the night in a small enclosure. Despite the vigil look and all makeshift arrangements, the King of Jungle had a say in the share. Siva still gets emotional while recalling the incident in which 7 Cows were mauled to death in single day by a Tigress. She kept on coming to the Kill for next 3-4 days. Terrified by the incident, the Mahakud brothers came back to Chandragiri with remaining livestock. But he still can’t find any logic on why the Tigress killed seven Cows when she had to devour only one. Slowly over a period of time more huts grew in the valley and villages got settled. More areas were cleared for human habitation and hence less space for the original inhabitants, the wild animals. Lakhari predominantly was famous for its elephants and incidents of huge tuskers chasing away villagers were often to be heard. Currently a herd of 15-16 Elephants are present towards eastern boundary towards Ghodahada Dam where there is abundance of water and fodder. This is the same group which had moved to Parvatipuram area in Andhra Pradesh couple of years back and were guided back to Odisha by the forest department after a lot of toiling. Cheetals are numbered now so are the Sambar deers. Sloth Bears have not been seen in last couple of years as per one of the retired forest guard but Wild Boars have been able to survive. Later on while talking to a villager at a tea stall in Chandragiri, I could see the pain and sadness wretched on his face when he said, “Our Elephants are not to be seen these days. They have moved to the other side because of the villagers inside. Our Politicians are to be blamed for these problemswho are ensuring that encroachers inside the Sanctuary area get their lands registered. They don’t realise that they are the same bunch of people who have been involved in poaching all throughout. Strong nexus of Timber Mafias and local villagers has been wiping of the green patches from the Sanctuary. You go and raid the houses inside Lakhari and I assure that you will come across guns in each and every house. Situation has become more complex with Maoists presence in the region. ”.I understood that things are all not that rosy which was quite evident from the fiery remarks of the tea stall guy.

Our birding Route on Day 1 at Lakhari Valley Sanctuary (Source: Google Earth)

We decided to leave early next day for the valley near Talabada around six in the morning. Since there would be nothing available to eat inside and the walk being whole day long, Siva advised us to take Chuda (dried flattened rice) & Bananas for lunch. Next day as per plan we left on time for Lakhari Valley. After just 15 minutes of walk we entered the forest to the truik tee truik tee sound of Red Whiskered Bulbuls echoing everywhere. Siva and Surjya were pretty excited to show their forest and were sure that we would get a lot of birds inside. Also Surjya was optimistic that we may come across some pugmarks near a waterhole. There has been some recent incidents of Cattle kills that have been reported in the region and a RBT may be responsible for this. But there has not been any direct sighting and any concrete evidence to make every one assured of presence of Tiger in the region. There was a small climb and then for next 2 hours we were to descend into the valley. There is also a forest ghat road that originates from Manikpur in Chandiput Section and leads into Lakhari Valley. But we thought descending down the hill on foot and then walking along the ghat road will yield better results and more captures. A brownish bird with white under parts approximately measuring about 12-14 cm perched on a branch in-front as if welcoming us to the Lakhari valley. After getting a good shot, I shouted to our guides that we have got a very rare bird called Little Pied Flycatcher. Later on when I confirmed from the Books, it was actually Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike whose habitat is confined to Eastern & Western Ghats and lower Himalayas (Grewal, Harvey, Pfister: 2002). Both the birds are similar looking with a striking difference being that former is black crowned with a whitish stripe whereas later is simply black crowned. Also later is bigger in size compared to the former.

My First recording of Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike

Being summers, the forests being Deciduous type (both mixed and dry) had shed the leaves and very less greenery was around. We recorded numerous Black Headed Orioles in the region and constant calling by the bird was breaking the silence of the hills. We then went off the path, little bit inside towards a ravine in which a dried nullah was there. A jump into the dry nullah showed us our first and only pugmark recording of the trip. I was convinced that it was of a large carnivore and probably that of a RBT but wanted to be doubly sure before coming to any conclusion. Some more searches made near the impression didn’t reveal anything significant and there was no presence of any other pugmark impression set that could have led to something concrete result. With another descend of 150 m we came across another ambiguous evidence, a scat sample. Little bit of probing told us that it was definitely that of a carnivore with presence of fur remains in it, but again I wanted to get it confirmed by experts and hence some more photographs were clicked. Later on I reconfirmed the samples findings with Mr Manoj Nair, DFO of Debrigarh Sanctuary who was sure that Pugmark was not that of a Tiger as the size of pad was not that big. Also the scat thickness was smaller than what usually tigers scat sample reveal. I committed the mistake of not collecting actual sample with me which could have given more concrete results. But if I try to draw any hypothetical conclusion on Tigers presence in Lakhari, following points can be indicators:

• I was informed of recent reports of Cattle Kills by DFO, Mr J S Mohanty
• Unconfirmed reports (my interaction with some locals)suggest that last Tiger was poached/killed in and around year 2001
• One Forest Guard told that during last census held, some pugmarks were found in Chandiput Section but nothing was found in Chandragiri Section (to be confirmed).
• One group of Cheetals, couple of Sambar Deers, Langurs and Wild Boars presence in the area may be acting as prey base for Tiger if present
• Lakhari has fragmented corridor with forests of Ghumsar which is further linked to Baisipalli and Satkosia further north (A very weak logic but still nothing can be ruled off when it comes to Tigers. Who can forget the news of one Tiger captured in camera trap at Bhadra Tiger Reserve had actually covered an aerial distance of 280 kms from south of Bandipur before making Bhadra its territory).


• We didn’t come across any Tiger Prey presence except for 4 groups of Langurs in Chandragiri Section during our 2 Days stay at Lakhari
• Very less water source except for Ghodahada Dam about 20 kms from the spot where pugmark has been photographed. We came across only two live waterholes during our 20 km trek and a dried nullah beside which pugmark was found.
• Presence of Villages in and around the area and no direct sighting by any of the villagers that we interacted with in our two days stay.

But I can just keep my fingers crossed and hope that “Motivators” weigh down “De-motivators” in future.

Scat Sample of a Carnivore

Pugmark that I clicked

Coming back to our walk down the hill, a waterhole near the forest road was a busy spot and a lot of bird calling was happening. There was a mixed party of White Throated Thrushes, Black Crested Bulbuls, one Tickell’s Flycatcher, a Sirkeer Malkoha, a Ultramarine Flycatcher and a couple of Jerdon’s Chloropsis. A pair of Plum Headed Parakeets was busy in courtship on top of a nearby tree only to be disturbed by a Black Drongo. From birding point of view there were specific birds that we were in search for and which are endemic to these forests of Eastern Ghats apart from some other forests of North East, Western Ghats and Lower Himalayan hills. Some of them being Blue Throated Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher & Large Green Billed Malkoha etc. In the first leg of the birding trip to Odisha, I had already captured Blue Throated Flycatcher at Debrigarh and looking at the bird activity that was happening near the waterhole in Lakhari, I got optimistic about ticking atleast some more birds that I had never seen earlier. Already I have written about me being lucky with Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike.

On the way down we came across many villagers who were on the way from Lakhari and Talabada to Chandragiri. 10-12kms steep uphill climb and then you reach the nearest bus stop and dispensary. This is the way they have grown up, I was told. Lot of them die of diseases even before getting examined by a Doctor. In case of emergency, patients are carried on shoulder by the villagers to Chandragiri. We descended down to Talabada village in the valley which comprised of couple of huts and some adjacent land cleared for agricultural use. 2 kms further lies the Lakhari village.

Inside Lakhari Valley

Preparing lunch with Surjya and Siva

By 11, we were exhausted and needed some rest. Under the shed of a tree, Siva and Surjya prepared our lunch. Flattened rice, bananas, sugar and some water made into Chuda Chakuta, a typical Odia breakfast. With a much needed break and food, we started our return journey to Chandragiri. The road taken was to be the old ghat road which was built by OFDC( Orissa Forest Development Corporation) for lifting of Bamboos from the Lakhari Valley. Walking back on the road, we didn’t have much to sight except for the glittery overhead sun. The walk back was getting tougher with each moment but jokes of the Mahakuds on we city dwellers getting tired made the ascent easy. We stopped intermittently to have frequent water breaks. A Spotted Owlet and some Purple Sunbirds was what we could record on the way back till Kamrakhali village where another long rest was absolutely necessary taking into consideration scorching sun of March. We marched ahead towards Baliganda village where the surprise sighting of the day was to come. A long tailed bird fluttering its tail in an unsmooth manner flew ahead of us. We gave a chase towards the direction where it had flown. A detailed look on the bushy tree nearby gave me my first sighting of Large Green Billed Malkoha A shy bird by nature, often seen confiding to bushes and scrubs, Large Green Billed Malkoha is a scarce breeding resident of Eastern Ghats, Northern Foothills and North East (Grewal, Harvey, Pfister: 2002). Against the sun, I was happy to get a decent enough picture of this beautiful bird and add a tick to the list of sought after Birds for Odisha trip.

Talabada village inside the sanctuary area

A Large Billed Green Malkoha- a small success clicking the shy beauty

From Baliganda village we made a last climb to the nearby hill, from the top of which the State Highway was visible. After hitting the highway at Manikpur Village around 3:30 pm where our driver was waiting, we drove back to Chandragiri Forest Guest House. A complete tiring day of field work but a satisfying one.

In the evening, we all gathered along anearthenchullah where fabulous dinner of chicken curry was prepared for everyone. Cook for the night was again our good friend Siva. His tales of the day and talking with the forest staff about their jungle experiences made the dinner even more spicier. We chalked out plan for the final day and again agreed to start early for more bird recording activity. The whole days walking of around 25 kms did show up its effect and we retired to bed by 9:30 in the night.

Go to Chapter 2