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Rainforest Rendezvous

My new ‘ecological – photographic’ relationship with Darter Photography continues as I planned to join Shreeram again for another rain forest biodiversity exploration in Western Ghats to learn more about reptiles, amphibians and insects of this amazingly diversified ecosystem.

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Vajrapoha Falls at Chorla Ghat picture by Author

The destination was Chorla Ghat, a nature destination located on the intersection of the borders of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Chorla Ghat boasts of a few rare species of wild-life such as the barred wolf snake (Lycodon striatus) in its sub-tropical forests. The Nature Conservation Facility has been established at Chorla Ghat to facilitate research and long term monitoring of the Western Ghats of the Sahyadris region and their biodiversity and is intended at providing a platform for ecologists and wildlife biologists by way of a fully equipped field station for this area. The Chorla Ghats forests are part of the Mhadei Bio region. This area is home to tigers, leopards, gaur, chital, sloth bear, critically-endangered bats and scores of other species, and serves as a crucial corridor between the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary and its reserve forests and the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary of Goa. This habitat is contiguous with the Anshi National Park, Dandeli, Bhagwan Mahavir, Cotigao, Mhadei and Netravali Wildlife Sanctuaries and the Tiger corridor of Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra and is part of a crucial biodiversity vault of the threatened Western Ghats. Therefore, the fringe forest area of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary around Chorla Ghat was also the part of our exploration. Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is a 208.5-km2 (80.5-mi2) protected area in the Indian state of Goa in the Western Ghats of South India. It is located in the North Goa District, Sattari taluka near the town of Valpoi.

The sanctuary is an area of high biodiversity, and is being considered to become a tiger reserve under Project Tiger, because of the presence of resident Bengal tigers.

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Chorla Ghat a crucial corridor between multiple key National Parks and Sanctuaries of Western Ghats, picture by Author

It was peak of the monsoon in Western Ghats, the sky was gloomy and the land was vibrant. All the ponds and water falls were in full glory and flowing vividly through forests – providing vitality to entire eco systems. Monsoon in India really gives one of the best natural scenery, as rivers are on full swing, mountains are awake after a long sleep. Monsoon decorated the whole Chorla Ghat with sparking waterfalls, magnificent lakes, lush green trees and beautiful flowers. The Monsoon awaken the nature from a deep sleep and the entire land turned into beautiful green colored picturesque landscape. The incredible wildlife of the rain forest of Western Ghats – an ecological blending of all the species of mammals, insects, reptiles, fish and birds – made that living forest look awesome.

It was a celebration for wildlife and wild lands, when I reached at Swapnagandha resort of Chorla Ghat eco systems, with other seven fellow wildlife photographers and mentor Shreeram, to be the guests of eminent herpetologist of Goa, Nirmal Kulkarni, for three days. We all assembled there at around 11:00 AM, on 26th of July, 2019, after settling down in our twin-sharing cottages, brief round of introduction and a sumptuous Goan lunch, we started our exploration.

People who think Goa is all about beaches, churches or forts, must visit this wonderland. Running parallel to Indian Ocean, the Western Ghats or Sahyadri mountain range makes for one big corridor crisscrossing Goa that preserves and showcases the best of flora and fauna. Its unique ecosystem makes it a natural home for big cats like tigers, leopards, gaur, venomous snakes like king cobra, winged creatures like kites or eagles and langurs and more.  During our three days exploration, we spotted and identified around 8 different types of frogs including endemic Malabar Gliding Frogs and Fragivarius; we saw 6 different types of snakes including venomous Saw Scaled Viper, Malabar Pit Viper, non-venomous Travancore Wolf snake, Montane Trinket snake, 8 different individuals of Green vine snake and one juvenile python, which was rescued by Nirmal from one of the cottages and eventually released at nearby area.

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Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

The Malabar gliding frog or Malabar flying frog (Rhacophorus malabaricus) is a Rhacophorid tree frog species found in the Western Ghats of India. The term “gliding” frog refers to its ability to break its fall by stretching the webbing between its toes when making leaps down from the treetops. It can make gliding jumps of 9–12 m, a maximum of about 115 times its length. In two nights we saw around 5 different individuals.

The frogs naturally like humid surroundings but do not tolerate water.  A group of three frogs was observed calling during our night exploration on 26th July, all sitting on bamboo shoots. Foam nests were attached to vegetation some meters above a water body.

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Habitat of Malabar Gliding Frog, picture by Author

On 27th July, just before dusks, we saw two of them near the same water body. They were still resting as during day time the frogs usually rest on the leaves with their legs gathered together and body flattened, with the forefeet folded underneath their body, and pupils contracted to tiny slits. This posture and their green leaf colour rendered them almost invisible among the leaves of malabar black mouth trees. Only sharp eyes of Nirmal and Shreeram helped us in locating them, and Nirmal was of course aware of the existence of their nests in that forest.

Besides amphibians and snakes we also recognized around 8 different species of lizards, including endemic Prashad’s Gecko and Goan day Gecko; and 17 different species of insects and aquatic creatures. Those were mostly nocturnal as night exploration was the key aspect of our trip. We were there for two nights and our cumulative after dusk venture in dense rain forest, under heavy down pour, lasted for more than 8 hours. Western Ghats rainforest biodiversity is home to a different kinds of insects, arthropod, spiders, bugs and flying insects. The most commonly spotted species by us, were Tiger Centipede, Pill Bug, Forest Crab, Toe Biter, Xenobolus Carnifex (Millipede), Cicada, Rock crabs, Dark Mantis etc. Some of these small but dangerous species have ability to kill large mammals using their sharp sting, bite and venom.

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Fishing Spider, picture by Author

One such unique semi aquatic arthropod we spotted was fishing spider of Pisauridae family. Almost all species are semiaquatic. Mostly they don’t spin web and few species can be found on grass or dwarf shrubs. Most of the species prey on fish or aquatic insects by waiting at the edge of a pool or stream, then when they detect the ripples from prey, they run across the surface to subdue it using their foremost legs, which are tipped with small claws; like other spiders they then inject venom with their hollow jaws to kill and digest the prey. They mainly eat insects, but some larger species are able to catch small fish. They can also climb beneath the water, when they become encased in a silvery film of air.

During one of our “night walks”, we also got to see the spot where a male Bengal Tiger was caught in camera trap, which was a contributing factor to conclude that Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is a worthy claimant for the status of “Tiger Reserve” and also an important tiger corridor in Western Ghats.  Drivers of trucks plying along the route said that tiger sighting was common and that they spotted the big cat at least 2-3 times in a fortnight. In fact here, it’s worth mentioning that before the onset of the monsoon, in 2016, the images of two tigers and around four cubs were captured from the area, prompting the Maharashtra government to make plans to convert the Tillari region around the water reservoir into a wildlife sanctuary. This will help develop the area as a habitat and corridor by providing long-term conservation of the Western Ghats region.

On 27th July, morning after breakfast at 8:00 AM, Nirmal led us to another unique ecosystem of Goan side of Western Ghats – the plateau ecosystems called “Sadas”. Nirmal and his colleagues and team have been studying the ecology of that plateau focusing on herpetofauna and their relationship with these plateaus. Goa’s plateaus, many of them now occupied by sprawling industrial hubs of economic activity, harbour micro habitats with unique floral and faunal biodiversity. In the dry season, the plateau seems dry, rocky and desolate in patches in comparison to the surrounding lush green forest. But the red dust comes to life after monsoon. Streams appear in rocky beds and the ground is covered in a thick mat of vegetation. The high density of species observed during our monsoon walk on that plateau was fascinating – as in 3 hours of exploration we spotted around 20 different amphibian, reptiles, arthropods and aquatic species – water scorpion, different centipedes and millipedes, and few endemic species of that ecosystem, like Fragivarius CEPFRI and Dobson’s Burrowing Frog.

Nirmal, told us that the plateau is habitat of Cobra, Malabar Pit Vipers and Saw Scaled Vipers. He told us that he would give a serious try to find Saw Scaled Vipers, as possibility of spotting few in the monsoon season was very high.

He told us, he would roam around and lift the medium to big sized rocks to find them and cautioned us to keep safe distance, as some these snakes are found just on the edge of such rocks and they are super agile in striking.

Saw-scaled vipers are relatively small snakes, the largest species (Echis leucogaster, E. pyramidum) usually below 90 cm (35 in) long, and the smallest (E. hughesi, E. jogeri) being around 30 cm (12 in). All members of this genus have a distinctive threat display, which involves forming a series of parallel, C-shaped coils and rubbing them together to produce a sizzling sound, rather like water on a hot plate. The proper term for this is stridulation. These snakes can be fierce and will strike from the position described above. When doing so, they may overbalance and end up moving towards their aggressor (an unusual behavior for snakes).

Shreeram and Nirmal started leading our pack, Nirmal was stopping intermittently, bending over grass and sometime lifting rock to search for Saw Scaled.

We were following them, keeping a gap of around 8-10 feet, every time he was lifting a rock, our excitement was reaching paramount.

First time he lifted- a Fragivarius CEPFRI was sitting quietly; after a while, another rock – this time a tiny burrowing frog, embarrassed and confused in sudden exposure; but no luck with Saw Scaled.

It was continued for some time, meanwhile we were capturing images of surroundings. A hazy and moist background marked by intermittent rain and changes of brightness with appearance of cloud.

Suddenly a shout from Nirmal, “Saw Scaled Viper!”

We all rushed towards him, she was found lying coiled on moist ground, as Nirmal removed the rock which was covering her. An alert little snake but extremely capable of quick movement when necessary.

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Saw Scaled Viper, picture by Author

We observed, for 30 minutes or so, the stridulation behaviour and sudden strike on nearby rock as sign of aggression. Nirmal identified her as a pregnant one. The display of her readiness with which she could bite on the smallest provocation and few extremely fast strikes on nearby rock, under which she was hiding, made her look a very dangerous reptile. Nirmal put all of us on alert.

On our last day, 28th morning, Nirmal rescued one Travancore Wolf Snake from the kitchen area. When he was releasing the reptile, we got some photo opportunity. A very common species of the hill areas of southern India. It was blackish with pale yellow crossbars. A non-venomous snake, lied coiled on grass for a while, before it disappeared into nearby bushes.

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Travancore Wolf Snake, picture by Author

Although rain forest of Chorla Ghat is known for its avifauna biodiversity, but heavy rainfall in all three days, prevented us from spotting any major bird species. However, couple of significant and worth mentioning sightings were Speckled Piculet, smallest Woodpecker in India and gliding of a lone Brahminy Kite with the backdrop of magnificent, silvery and gigantic twin Vajrapoha waterfalls.

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