Birds of Kerala

In quest of the frogmouth

Print edition : December 11, 2015

A pair of Ceylon frogmouths in the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Thattekkad in Kerala.

A lone Ceylon frogmouth on its roost. The frogmouth is distributed across the Western Ghats.

Salim Ali described the bird as "an obliteratively coloured grey brown nightjar-like bird, vermiculated and mottled with white, buff, brown, black and chestnut. The wide gape and absurdly broad and swollen horny bill is suggestive of its name."

The Ceylon frogmouth, male, juvenile and female.

A pair of frogmouths, perfectly camouflaged.

The Great Indian Hornbill in the Thattekkad sanctuary.

The hornbill is one of the largest birds in the sanctuary.

The hornbill returning to its nest.

The Malabar grey hornbill.

The bay owl.

A view of the Periyar river from the Thattekkad bridge. Photo: H. Vibhu

Dr R. Sugathan, ornithologist at the Thattekkad bird sanctuary, with a poster of the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali in the background. Photo: H. Vibhu

The wildlife photographer Shafiq Basheer Ahammed.

The streak-throated woodpecker.

Grey-headed flycatcher. Photo: sd sdsdsdx

The Asian paradise flycatcher.

The ruby-throated yellow bulbul.

The Jerdon's leafbird. Photo: sd sadsadsadwsd

The southern hill myna.

Blyth's starling.

The skimitter babbler.

The Nilgiri laughing thrush.

Loten's sunbird.

“THERE is a lone bird sitting on that branch. Can you see it?” Dr R. Sugathan, the well-known ornithologist of Kerala, whispered into my ears. This was on August 25. The venue: the core area of the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on the banks of the Periyar river at Thattekkad in Ernakulam district of Kerala. I could not make out the bird at first sight as it was perfectly camouflaged. It looked like a bundle of dry leaves. After gazing intently for some time, I slowly began to distinguish the bird from leaf litter. We, along with the wildlife photographer Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, then approached the branch on which it was roosting. The bird remained motionless, its eyes closed in meditative peace. I was so close to the bird that I could have touched its brown-grey-buff feathers and its beak, which was rather parallel to the ground and not pointed upwards as is its wont.

Sighting the Ceylon frogmouth ( Batrachostomus moniliger) at such close quarters is perhaps a great achievement in bird monitoring and habitat restoration—the missions into which Sugathan’s love for the birdlife of the Western Ghats is intricately woven. (The Ceylon frogmouth gets its name from its occurrence in Sri Lanka.)

In 1933, the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali visited Thattekkad for the first time for a bird survey sponsored by the Maharaja of Travancore. He found Thattekkad to be an enthralling and romantic bird haven. In his autobiography, Fall of a Sparrow, Salim Ali wrote: “For richness and diversity of birdlife, Kerala stands in my estimate, at least at the time of the bird survey (1933), as undisputed No.1. There were certain locations, especially Thattekkad, which linger in my memory as the richest bird habitat, comparable only with eastern Himalayas.”

The tribal guides who accompanied Salim Ali into Thattekkad told him about a rarely sighted bird. Its calls were rare, or rather rarest of the rare. He was sure they were referring to the Ceylon frogmouth. Although Salim Ali was able to confirm the presence of the frogmouth in the region, he could not sight the bird until then.

During a visit to Thattekkad in March 1947, Salim Ali heard an incessant bird call, fairly liquid chucks, repeated every two or three seconds for 30 minutes at a stretch, which, by a process of elimination, was ascribed to the frogmouth. This was on a moonlit night, and Salim Ali was struck by the sound. He wrote in his book Birds of Kerala, a formative document on the bird diversity of the State: “Little seems to be certainly known about the frogmouth and there is some uncertainty even as regards its call. It has been described as a soft rapid call and a chuckling cry has also been attributed.” (Sugathan says the frogmouth’s call sounds like the croak of a frog. Although the calls are rare, they have been recorded. The bird has different calls for different occasions—such as greeting and alarm calls.)

In 1953, when Salim Ali visited Thattekkad, he had a fleeting look at the elusive bird. He said: “I came across the bird only once, at the old High Range road, in dense secondary jungles with cane brakes.” In Birds of Kerala, Salim Ali described the frogmouth as “an obliteratively coloured grey brown nightjar-like bird, vermiculated and mottled with white, buff, brown, black and chestnut. The wide gape and absurdly broad and swollen horny bill is aptly suggestive of its name.”

Salim Ali, who was heading the Bombay (now Bharat) Natural History Society then, was anxious to record the sighting of the “endangered” species, whose numbers were declining in the Western Ghats, which is considered to be its habitat. Stray field notes left by British naturalists who had surveyed the Western Ghats had greatly engaged his attention. His interest in the frogmouth grew so much that whenever he met birders and trekkers from southern India, he would ask them if they had sighted the bird. Of course, he never got a positive reply. “It appears to be a curious bird,” Salim Ali had mused.

For nearly half a century after Salim Ali first heard the bird’s call at Thattekkad, there was no feedback from the field on the occurrence of the bird on this side of the subcontinent. Out of his curiosity to see the bird, Salim Ali encouraged Sugathan, who had joined the BNHS in 1972, to set out on a search for the bird. In September 1975, Salim Ali called Sugathan to his chamber and said: “Birds such as the frogmouth, the Jerdon’s courser, the red-faced malkoha and the forest owl, are not heard of now. They may be extinct or hiding in some nook and corner of the forest. I am updating the red data book of birds. Can you find out the status of the frogmouth?”

“Perhaps you can find the frogmouth in your place itself,” Salim Ali told Sugathan, who hails from Kaladi, near Thattekkad. Sugathan, just 27 then, was truly inspired by these words. Salim Ali patted him and said: “Boy, take it as a challenge. You trek the Western Ghats. The bird may be hiding somewhere. The trek will prove very adventurous. A smooth sea does not make a skilful mariner…. You will get very experienced tribal guides who will take you to the labyrinths of the forest. They are brave enough to fight any creature that will frighten you because they are the eyes and ears of the forest. So there is no cause for any worry.”

Sugathan then went into the Bird Room of the BNHS, where four specimens of the frogmouth, collected by British naturalists, were kept. The room was brimming with more than a thousand specimens of birds from different parts of India. Sugathan had already imbibed the spirit of the Bird Room because he used to sleep there since he was unable to afford lodging in Mumbai with his meagre salary.

Having studied the specimens of the frogmouth, Sugathan started his trek into the Kerala side of the Western Ghats from the Karnataka border in April 1976 accompanied by tribal guides, who were well versed in the language of the forests. The State forest offices provided him full support in his mission in deference to the wishes of Salim Ali.

Salim Ali had instructed the young naturalist: “Look around. Even if the trek is slow don’t worry. Record everything you see. Closely watch dry trees and dry leaves, the frogmouth may be hiding there.” Sugathan faithfully recorded every call, every movement, and every location of birds in his field notebooks.

The search for the frogmouth

It proved to be one of the greatest experiences of the wild. The trek was smooth as well as hard. Roaming tuskers and the sudden appearance of tigers and leopards caused some tense moments. But the guides were clever enough to avoid their paths. Apart from the regular trekking pass, the guides moved through some uncut passes too. They were tedious but one could experience the solemnity of the sanctum sanctorum of the forests.

From the Karnataka border, Sugathan and his team reached Aralam in Kannur. Then they started towards the Brahmagiri Hills, where they sighted hundreds of birds, especially in the mornings. From there they moved on to Wayanad, crossed the Kerala border to Tamil Nadu, and then reached Nilambur before entering Palakkad district. In September 1976, the team reached Silent Valley, traversing hills, evergreen forests, semi-evergreen and dry zones.

Sugathan reached the site where the Kerala government had proposed to construct a dam across the Kunthipuzha. It was evening, and he and his guides were trudging along. Suddenly, Sugathan noticed some movement in a branch of a tree. Sure it was a bird. Sugathan peered through his binoculars, recalling the description of the frogmouth he had studiously memorised.

“I had no doubt that it was the bird I had come looking for. It was getting dark. Observation was rather difficult, although it thrilled me that I was close to sighting the bird. But the bird flew off.”

The following day, Sugathan got the assistance of some forest guards. In the evening, the frogmouth was spotted on the same branch. This time it sat motionless as he studied its features through the binoculars. The forest staff confirmed that it was the frogmouth. Sugathan read the description provided in the book again and again. There was no doubt that the frogmouth was right in front of him.

Excited beyond words, he rushed to the nearest post office, located 50 kilometres away, to book a trunk call to Bombay, but to no avail. After two days of frustrated attempts to reach Salim Ali, he bought an inland postal letter and narrated his discovery to Salim Ali. It took nearly 10 days for the letter to reach Bombay. Salim Ali came down to Silent Valley in January 1977 to see the bird that had eluded him for 50 years. On sighting the bird, he declared: “This is a great rediscovery.” He then presented his binoculars to Sugathan and said: “Take this. You are now a part of the ornithological history of India. Remember the binoculars are older than you.”

Sugathan continued his trek and was able to locate 20 frogmouths at Parambikulam, Vazhachal and Sabarimala areas. But he did not spot a single frogmouth in Thattekkad. He recalls in his account of the survey in the BNHS journal (volume 78): “When Salim Ali conducted the bird survey, Thattekkad was a virgin area. The condition has now completely changed. I could hardly see any untampered forest. The catchment area of Periyar valley irrigation project extended up to the east of Thattekkad. It induced people to invade and encroach the area for cultivation. It changed the face of Thattekkad. The forest area is now like a village.”

But things began to change for the better when in 1983 the Kerala government declared the 27 square km area of Thattekkad a bird sanctuary, or a protected area. This helped eliminate human interference in the habitat. Frequent fires were controlled and minor forest produce collections stopped. These measures and other habitat restoration projects launched in 1983 such as replanting of bamboo have helped revive the sanctuary and the frogmouth population. In 1983, there were two pairs of frogmouth in Thattekkad. Today there is a viable population of the species in the entire Western Ghats, more notably in the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. Although only 52 pairs of the frogmouth are found in Thattekkad now, it is a high-profile species of the sanctuary, after the grotesque great Indian hornbill.

As a result of his dedicated study for the past two decades, Sugathan, who has been associated with the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary since 1987, has collected valuable data on the ecology, behaviour and breeding biology of the frogmouth. The bird is usually seen in pairs, does not change its roosting place, makes its nest with lichens and mosses, lays only one egg in a year, and feeds on insects. The frogmouth, with its sluggish and cryptic plumage, is found in the evergreen forests and has been found to adapt itself to secondary natural forests, teak plantations and forest undergrowths. Although the frogmouth is not outstanding by way of colour, call and size (about 23 centimetres), it has charmed the hearts of ornithologists more than the Malabar Trogon and the Indian pitta, birds that have a comparatively more colourful plumage. The frogmouth is distributed across the Western Ghats’ wet evergreens from the Karnataka border to the Neyyar sanctuary at the tip of Kerala. It has even been known to occur in Maharashtra and Goa.

Revival of hornbill

The Thattekkad sanctuary has a rich birdlife. It has 322 species of birds, of which 160 are migratory. The smallest resident bird is the flower-pecker, which weighs around 5 grams. The great Indian hornbill and the great black eagle are the largest birds found in the sanctuary. Some of the most beautiful birds in this habitat are the Malabar trogon, the Indian pitta, the Malabar whistling thrush, the laughing thrush and the ground thrush.

Another aspect of Thattekkad wildlife is the revival of the great Indian hornbill. When Salim Ali visited Kerala in 1985 for the Periyar Golden Jubilee, he spent some time in Thattekkad. He was shocked when he could not sight even a single great Indian hornbill. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Thattekkad and Periyar had a population of 50 hornbills. In his autobiography, Salim Ali recalled that he had visited Kerala every few years since 1953 and was depressed and scandalised every time by the mindless destruction of virgin evergreen forests for the so-called development projects. Thattekkad, he felt, was a travesty of its former self with most of the superb natural forest replaced by monoculture of different species. The huge reservoirs created for damming the Periyar river had submerged thousand of hectares of forest each year, he said.

Sugathan heads the sanctuary’s Bird Monitoring Cell, which was established by the Forest Department. The cell, the first of its kind in India, is on an ambitious project to monitor all birds, including the great Indian hornbill. The ceiling of the small drawing room of the cell is adorned with a wooden carving of the hornbill. Sugathan’s table and shelf are studded with records of bird movement and migration. Some of the precious documents in his collection are Salim Ali’s handwritten notes on Thattekkad and other parts of Kerala. (Sugathan has revised Salim Ali’s Birds of Kerala.) As a result of the revival of Thattekkad, the great Indian hornbill has started reappearing in the sanctuary in Pooyamkutty and Edamalayar areas. It is a fascinating study, says Sugathan, who monitors the hornbill. Tourists are allowed in Thattekkad only in the tourist season. The core zone is well protected and patrolling is very effective.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, who has travelled widely in India and abroad, is a Motor Vehicles Inspector in Kochi.

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