Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The great Thekkady Trip

 24th February to 2nd March 2007
           One of my greatest treks covering Thekkady, Rajakkad and Chinnar. I was joined by Harisankar, Midhun, Sarin and Lakshmanan. We started from Trivandrum in train to get down at Changanassery and from there to Kumily by bus.
We reached Thekkady by evening and stayed in Tiger Bangalaw. I recognized the cook Vijayan Chettan who was the same old guy who came with me and Joe to Manakkavala Bison Camp in 15/12/2004. We exchanged old memories.
I still remember a funny moment happened that day on our way back from the trekking camp, we saw the spine and pelvic skeleton of a large herbivore(probably sambar deer). Vijayan Chettan had held it upside down and seriously describing each parts of the animal. He thought it was the skull and mistook the obturator foramen as the eyes. After all he is a naturalist and not an anatomist.  I still remember his loud and hearty crepitus laugh in the bison camp.
We also met the DFO, Mrs Padma Mahanti and the range officers, Mr Radhakrishnan, Mr Karunakaran and also Mr. Basheer(whom we later met in Gavi when he was the warden and also in Thrissur Birdwatcher’s meet).
On the 25th morning, we woke up in excitement. Everything set for the journey. Meanwhile we also met 2 foreigners, “the Timothy couple” from UK. With forest guard Chellappan and 2 other guides, we started off at about 9.00 am in the boat “vanalakshmi” owned by the forest department. We did not see any animals in the first 45 minutes. Unfortunately the boat with the tourists including the Timothys could not see any animals that day. I still remember my friends making fun of me when earlier that morning I was making a rapport with the Timothys by saying “this is the only place in kerala where we can see wild animals in close quarters
But luck favoured us. As we sailed deep in to the forest interiors, we started seeing animals, a lone tortoise on a rock basking in the sun, wild boars lined up towards the banks to drink water, cormorants and later larger ones including elephants, gaurs and sambar deers.
We headed towards Mullakudy inspection bangalaw. Mullakkudy IB was situated at the junction where MUllayar and Periyar met to become Mullaperiyar. At the landing area we saw in the water a group of large tadpoles. Believe me, we have never seen larger ones than them till now. At the IB, we were amazed on seeing the size of the skull of a gaur kept there.
After tea, we got onto the boat and were dropped on the opposite bank after a 10 min ride. From there we did a 2 hr steep climb to Kumarikulam wireless station.The view from there was breath taking. The station was very near to the Kumarikulam pond and we spent some time there enjoying the beauty of nature.
From there we started walking and covered hillock by hillock, mainly grasslands to reach Thannikkudy forest bangalaw. It was built by the Travancore Kings.Nearby we could see remnants of forest fire which ate considerable area of forest.
We took bath in the virgin Periyar river. The forest guards said we took bath in the exact place where a tiger chased a sambar deer couple of days back. The mood was thrilling and we were ecstatic.
In the Thannikudy IB, we saw large skulls of deers. At dusk, we had a stroll towards the nearby watchtower. We saw tiger pugmarks in the sandy areas of the river. The trail ended in a place where we saw remnants of tiger kill. The guards said that the tiger had come the previous night. We were in the land where the real king reigns.
We also saw foot marks of other animals like herd of wild elephants and wild dog. We joined the guards at night for fishing and got “kooral” and had them for dinner. The day was really long and tiring for us and all we needed was a good night sleep.
We set off at dawn along the periyar river, proximally to Mlappara. On the way we saw a viper, gaurs, elephants and heard a sound which the forest guards told that it was of a bear.
We tied threads on a tree as a ritual where any person who makes the first trip was supposed to tie a thread to a particular tree. All the way, the views of periyar and its valleys were breath taking. We again saw pugmarks of tiger and also its scratch marks on a particular tree. Mlappara remains the deepest area of periyar tiger reserve that we have explored. The officers in the forest station of Mlappara were very cordial.
We reached Thannikkudy by around 4 pm for the lunch.On our way back we saw a herd of elephants. They were around 8 of them. Their positioning seemed so planned that the two little ones were standing in the middle and all the adults were feeding around providing good cover to the calves.
After a refreshing bath in the river, we walked to the watch tower. We came across a herd of elephants there also. This time we got “kuyil” fish. 
On 27th morning, we headed towards Mullakudy through a different path. We saw huge tadpoles, skull of sambar deer and also hornbill. We took bath in the reservoir. From Mullakudy, we took a jeep. The journey was quite adventurous. We reached  a place called Poovarasu and saw boars, skeletal remains of elephants. 
We saw a group of hornbills. From there we went to Mangaladevi temple. Public were allowed to the temple only one day in a year. We were lucky to go there on a peaceful and silent day. We had a breathtaking 360deg view from the watchtower. We saw the thekkady reservoir, Periyar tiger reserve, Western Ghats border and the huge Tamilnadu plains. 
We reached Thekkady back by evening.

On our way to Rajakkad, We took a lodge in Nedumkandam and stayed there. On the 28th morning, we went to Mangathotti and visited our friend Paul who was a health Inspector. We visited Senapathi PHC and Mohan Chettan;s studio.

We visited Kuthungal Waterfalls near Rajakkad that evening and joined Paul chettan for fishing and got fishes like ‘paral’, ‘Neikooral’, ‘Sucker catfish’, ‘prawns’, ‘kallemutty’ and lots of other fish. The fry was yummy.
Next day we did a road trip to Chinnar wild life sanctuary via munnar and Marayoor and we saw “ kezha Deer”, boar, spotted deers. At 9 pm, I took the bus back to Trivandrum with lots and lots of thrilling memories.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Agasthyarkoodam, the ultimate journey

 Agasthyarkoodam was remaining as a dream till the 1st of February 2004. It was during our internship. It was usually very difficult to get entry tickets. I stood in the long queue in PTP Nagar Forest Office to get the tickets days before.
Together with Jibu, Jujju and in Aby’s Maruthi Zen, four of us set out for the trip. We started walking from Bonaucaud Check post at around 9.45am with packed lunch. We deviated from the path after 2 km and  headed towards Bona falls. It was a massive  falls. We had a good bath in the pool. Later we joined the trek path through a short cut. It was one of the steepest climb and Aby threw up in the first 5 km. We continued the journey and reached Athirumala at around 6.30 pm. As the name says it’s the border between Neyyar and Peppara wild life sanctuaries. We could see the massive mountain staring at us and literally it was the base camp with the vertical cliff right above. The Canteen was made of bamboo and it was looking so close to nature. We stayed in a large hall. Outside the hall it was clearly written not to enter the hall due to the dilapidated condition.
Next day early morning we started the climb. The climate and terrain was so different than previous day. Geographically we crossed Tamilnadu border and then came back to kerala. The scenary from Pongalappara to the summit was so beautiful. We felt like walking along the wonderland of Alice. It was a heavenly place so close to Trivandrum.

The final climb to the summit was quite exciting. The place was so windy. We conquered the 1868m tall giant. Surprisingly the place where Sage Agasthya’s statue was kept was very calm. They even lit candles in front of the statue.  Actually there were thick bushes all around preventing heavy winds. The 2 feet high statue according to the people was life size. The legend says Sage Agasthya was a great physician. Anyway the whole place was full of high altitude dwarf flora most of them with high medicinal value. We walked back collecting the lunch from athirumala and reached bonacaud check post by around 4 pm.
      The second trip was from February 28 to March 1st 2005. The dates were according to the Malayalam calendar. The pilgrimage period was from Sabarimala makara vilakku to Sivarathri. So luckily people were allowed to enter the sanctuary only for around 2 months in a year.
This time I was joined by Jibu, Anish, Lakshmanan, Sarin, Basanth, Harisankar and Joy. We parked our bikes at our classmate Rakhi’s home in Nedumangadu. We had bath in Bona falls. The scortching sun really hit us this time also in the meadows. I got cramps in hamstrings and quads of both legs.

On the way to Ponkalappara we saw few wild Gaurs from far. At the summit we met our class mate Niranjan’s brother. It was yet another unforgettable trip.
My third trip to Agasthyarkoodam was with Papa and Jibu. It was 23rd and 24th January of 2007.  As always, we enjoyed every bit of the trip taking photos, cherished those breath taking views. Papa had a very hard test of his endurance. We could only reach some distance short of the summit as we were getting late. We reached the check post at around 8 pm

When it come to endurance, Agasthyarkoodam trip was always the hardest trek ever done, ~55 km in 2 days. gone thrice. Even the thought of one more trip is so thrilling. Cherish those passing moments of
EXCITEMENT( at check post)-
TIREDNESS (attayar)-
DEAD MAN WALKING (grassland walk)-
HELPLESSNESS(the 7bend hills)-
REJUVENATION(the canteen food)-
THRILL(the final climb)-
ECSTASY(the summit) and finally
CONTENTMENT(u feel it all the way back).
U feel lonely, yet fulfilled; tired yet satisfied. I tell you anybody would become philosophical. AGASTHYARKOODAM IS A MUST SEE IN EVERY ADVENTURER'S LIFE

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Birth of a Bird watcher


On the eleventh of June, 2007, Hari Sankar and I went for a trip to Thattekkad Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. It was just another usual nature trek. I didn’t realize that I was nearing a great turning point in my adventurous life.
I was working as Casualty Medical Officer in Kolenchery Medical Mission Hospital and during my free time, I used to go to nearby places for short trips. Hari and Midhun were doing Compulsory rural service in Rajakumari and Rajakkad health centres. That’s how I got to know Dr Jayakumar and the photographer Mohan chettan.
During those times, the proper Thattekkad sanctuary was open for public unlike now. Me and Hari got permission and we walked the entire length of the mud road inside the sanctuary.  We saw nothing except some beautiful butterflies in the deep woods. But we still enjoyed it to the maximum and we wanted to come back and we did it exactly one week after. But this time we took a guide named Sudhish.  He was a very talented and professional naturalist with good experience. He changed our lives.
Your eyes won’t see what your mind doesn’t know. We did not know anything about birds and so we didn’t see anything. Eventhough we were happy, we still were not satisfied and that urge has paid off. We became crazy when Sudhish showed us so many birds on the same way that we walked one week back. The icing on the cake was when Sudhish left us at one place to check for something inside the forest. He came back and called us to come silently. He showed something which was so near to us and we couldn’t see it. The height of camouflage, a pair of Ceylon frogmouth sitting on a low tree branch.  We reached the summit of excitement and watched those nocturnal birds for a long time up close.  Since then we never turned back. We visited the sanctuary several times after that and never without a guide. We were introduced to Dr. Sugathan, who was the director of the Sanctuary. We used to sit with him and were so excited to hear his talks. He never used to get bored in detailing his adventures as well as throwing light towards ornithology and its history.
By this time we learned that our photographic equipments were outdated and we had to upgrade our cameras. The first one that I used was my father’s canon film camera, then I bought canon A610 which I later upgraded to my first Digital SLR Canon D400. For a year I used Fujifilm HS 10 and later came back to Canon 60D along with 18-55 IS lens and a Canon 400 mm 5.6 f prime lens for my ornithophotography.
After I started bird watching, any trip would give me so much of satisfaction. I was so happy even sitting at home watching birds in my backyard. I was seeing birds everywhere.  Subsequently all my later trips were birding oriented.
I used to have frequent visits to Munnar and nearby places for birding with Midhun or Hari. Arippa in Trivandrum was another birding site which we went in February 2008. Our interest in butterflies also arose in this trip. The next three years were relatively dry in my life regarding birding as I joined Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences as Post graduate in Orthopaedics. But opportunities kept on coming, mainly in the form of camps. The sabarimala camp was one of them. I went for 3 yrs in December 2008, January 2010 and January 2011. I was excited and had gone to the interiors of the forest alone as well as the terrace of our building in search of birds. I found around 45 species of birds watching from the roof of our building.   
The next year was a turning point in someone else’s life. Dr. Sabarish, PG in Emergency Medicine was interested and he joined me for the trips inside the forest. His interests became a passion and subsequently craze which is still progressing. He is one of my main bird watching mates now.
Dr.Renjit Kumar, who was my thesis guide, is a true nature lover.  He used to find time between his busy schedules to go for holidays with his family as well as heavy nature treks with other groups.  He invited me to join the Kodai Munnar trek in 2010 December organized by National youth hostels association of India. We were joined by Dr. Dnyanesh and Dr.Renjith.T.C. We did the same trek but in a different route in December 2012, but this time it was my father instead of Dnyanesh and Dr.Renjith T.C who joined us. These trips were feast for the eyes regarding birding and as usual I infected my birding passion to Dr. Renjit Kumar. Am I so contagious?  He bought my same camera and the bird Text book. He is also my present birdwatching mate.  When my ego makes my head turn away from common birds in an urge to see new ones to broaden the list, I feel amazed at the passion he has in watching all birds and the excitement in him when he talks about any bird.
Sabarish, Dr. Renjit and me took part for the Kochi Bird race in Nov 2011 sponsored by HSBC. We came in the 5th position with 92 birds. We had a get together in Hotel Abad in Nedumbassery Airport and the chief guest was Ex-minister Jose Thettayil.  It was an opportunity to meet so many bird watchers.
Our usual birding sites in Kochi were Kalamassery, Kadamakkudy, Mangalavanam bird sanctuary. We had been to Kandakkadavu, a day Sabarish, Dr. Renjit and I would never forget. We saw a darter hanging helplessly on an acacia tree. I climbed the tree.The unfortunate one’s beak was entangled on a fishing net remnant. We rescued the poor bird and saw it flying to freedom. Though I had few abrasions and some myalgia due to unaccustomed job, we thoroughly enjoyed “Operation Darter Rescue”. In Vypeen we saw thousands and thousands of gulls in a single frame.
 Whenever we got time we used to go to Thattekkad. This time, the sanctuary proper was closed and we used to go to Urulan thanny and our guides were Vinod or Abhilash. We didn’t miss the lectures of Dr. Sugathan also.
In 2011, March Me and my family had a visit to UAE. When people usually are excited to go for shopping, I was enjoying birding there.
In November 2011, I was joined by Dr. Renjit  Kumar, Dr.Renjith. T.C, Dr.Mohammed Niaz to visit Lakshadweep. Thanks to Dr. Sreejith who was the spine fellow posted as orthopaedic surgeon in Lakshadweep who organized everything.  The subsequent year, I was posted as Ortho Surgeon from August 21st to December 5th. I was joined by my wife, Roshin for a month (She was posted as CMO) and my son and my parents for 2 weeks.  I observed more than 40 species of birds from Agatti and neighboring islands including European Night jar, which I believe is the first record south of Mumbai.
I registered for the Asian Waterfowl census that was supposed to be conducted in Thrissur  Kole wetlands on 8/1/2012. Dr.Nameer was the organizer for the same.Kole survey was started by the famous K.K.Neelakandan in 1992 and it was the 20th survey that I attended.  I went to Mannuthi Agricultural College the day before to attend a lecture regarding bird species identification and conservation. It was very informative. We stayed that night in college hostel.  I got to interact more with birdwatchers all over kerala.
The next day, around 100 birdwatchers were divided into 10 small groups and we were around 10 people who included Dilip, Vishnu and Dr. Prasanth who were part of the Cochin Natural History Society. The trip was so exciting. The icing on the cake was in  the evening. We got all our data and went to Vyloppilli hall in Thrissur for the All Kerala Bird watcher’s meet-“Pakshi nireekshakarude sangamam”. There were many eminent people including M.K. Prasad, C.Sashikumar, Dr.Nameer, Satyan  Meppayur, C.A. Abdul Basheer , Warden of Gavi whom me and Roshin met during our trip.  I met him for the first time in Thekkady duing one of the greatest trips of my life with Hari, Midhun, Sarin and Lakshmanan.There were around 200 people for the birdwatchers meet and I met people like N.A. Naseer over there.
It was 21st January, 2012 and I turned 32. We were in Trivandrum for Roshin’s conference. I dropped her in Hotel Muscat and went straight to Akkulam in my car with my camera. As I was doing birding, I saw two guys with camera and I went upto them. They were Ramesh and Ajith. I joined them for birding. In between I saw them noting something and when I enquired, to my surprise, they showed me the same Asian Water fowl census form that we used for the Kole survey. I became part of the census unknowingly for the second time in the same month. They were excited to hear my happiness of getting one of the greatest birthday gifts from two strangers. Oh! Really it was a great surprise gift for me. We visited Veli and Perumathura also.
Eventhough  Ernakulam was the main area for bird watching due of my job, I had opportunities to go to places like Punchakkari, Ponmudi in Trivandrum, Chavakkad, Peechi, Chimmini  in Thrissur, Kumarakom, Pathiramanal  and Kallara in Kottayam as well and the list doesn’t end.
Even though I gained so much information from my bird books of Bikram Grewal, Krys Kasmierczak and Dr. Sugathan’s autographed “Birds of Thattekkad”, nothing gives me more pleasure and excitement than going to the forest and listening to the songs of the birds. Field guides are of no use unless you go into the field.
Dr. Salim Ali…., I envy you. I am still a student who is getting more and more confused on listening to those bird calls, more and more ignorant on seeing new species. I am still like a child; the excitement continues to push me further and deeper into the world of birds and their conservation.