This is the second in a multi-part series about retracing Dr. Salim Ali’s ‘Mysore Bird Survey’. Read Part 1 here.
The Mysore Bird Survey conducted by Salim Ali lasted 110 days—beginning on November 6, 1939, from the Biligirirangana Hills (BR Hills)—and traversed through the forests and adjoining areas of Bandipur, Gudalur Ghats in the Nilgiris, present day Nagarahole, Mysore, Mandya, Srirangapatnam, Shimsha and Shivanasamudram, Devarabetta in Thally forests of Krishnagiri, Doddaballapur, Tumkur, Hiriyur and Chitradurga, Sakleshpur, Baba Budan Hills, Shimoga, Agumbe, Jog and Kolar Gold Field areas. Initially, Salim Ali had planned a six-month long survey of the Mysore area starting from October 1939, but had to cut it down to a little over three months due to the paucity of funds. For this, he started his preparations and correspondence in May 1932, soon after he completed his Hyderabad Ornithological Survey.
Although Salim Ali obtained the necessary permissions from the Mysore Durbar to conduct his bird survey through the assistance of Sir Charles Todhunter, C.I.E. (private secretary to the Maharaja of Mysore), his request to Sir Mirza Ismail (Diwan of Mysore), for funding of Rs. 4000—which was a considerable sum then—to cover the travel and incidental expenses of the survey team was turned down, as the “government’s finances were unsatisfactory”.
With no hope of finding financial support from the Mysore government, Salim Ali approached the American Museum of Natural History, New York (AMNH), which facilitated the field work. In exchange for the financial support provided, AMNH, which was eagerly looking for fresh ornithological material from India, received around 500 bird skins collected during the Mysore survey. Salim Ali used a shotgun with `dust’ cartridges, to reduce damage to the bird specimens. In each locality, he went about shooting birds which were duly turned into study skins by the end of the day, by his assistants.
A car at his disposal enabled Salim Ali to traverse Mysore State to reach some of its remote forest areas. A lorry that went with the team helped him truck his survey materials and gear around. He used forest guest houses, dak and inspection bungalows of the government, with government tents on loan where necessary, in each of the areas he visited. Towards this, without the constant and unfailing support of Mr. C. Abdul Jabbar, the then Chief Conservator of Forests of Mysore, and his various district forest officers and staff, Salim Ali could not have achieved the objectives of his survey. In all, Salim Ali collected 871 specimens of 243 bird species during the survey. He had to obtain permits for shooting birds in Mysore, Nilgiris, North Coimbatore, and Kollegal forest areas from the respective governments. The Coimbatore government even charged him a security deposit of Rs. 50 for the same.
Salim Ali’s bird collections from the Mysore Bird Survey were well augmented by a collection of about 440 specimens of 128 bird species from BR Hills alone, by his close friend Ralph Morris. At considerable expense to himself, Ralph Morris employed J. Gabriel and E. Henricks, two museum/taxidermy assistants, on loan from BNHS, for skinning the birds he collected. These bird specimens were collected by Ralph Morris from February to December 1934, well before Salim Ali could initiate his own survey, and during the time of the year when the survey could not have hoped to operate. In addition, Lt. Col. E.G. Phythian Adams, a big game hunter based at Winchcombe, Kalahatti, in Udhagamandalam (Ooty), made available the unpublished field notes of his small-game shooting forays in Mysore, which Salim Ali duly used while writing the accounts of the Mysore survey.
Even before he began his survey, Salim Ali was ably advised by another friend, Hugh Whistler—who served in India between 1909 and 1926 as a police officer, based mostly in Punjab—a pioneer in Indian ornithology, who pursued his interest even after returning to England. Later, Whistler went through the collections of Salim Ali and Ralph Morris meticulously and made important contributions to understanding the subspecies differences and distribution of birds in the state. He even ran through the South India bird-list and made suggestions on the bird species that Salim Ali should watch out for. Besides all this, the Mysore Bird Survey served more as a welcome distraction to Salim Ali from grieving over the death of his wife Tehmina, who had passed away in July 1939. Salim Ali even gave up his plans to go to Berlin and New York to study, and took-up Whistler’s intense persuasion to go ahead with the Mysore survey, while he went about, as Whistler put it, “knitting up his broken life”.
My own 2018-2019 survey started from Ralph Morri’s Honnametti Estate in BR Hills. In the time that I and my team spent surveying BR Hills, we visited Attikan, Bedaguli, Bellaji, Chiksampagi, Dodsampagi, Edbuthi, Udahatti, and the eastern and western foothills of BR Hills. Unfortunately, a few areas could not be visited by the team, as the over presence of elephants and dense growth of lantana made these areas quite inaccessible.
From BR Hills, I travelled to the delightful scrub forests of Sathyamangalam, at the foot of Dimbam Ghats, to look for the Pied Tit (Parus nuchalis). Making my way to Bandipur Tiger Reserve later, I could survey its forests at Bandipur, Gundre, Hediyala, Maddur, Marigudi, Moyar, and N Begur ranges along with some of the top birders from Mysore: Abhiram Sankar, Advanne Shivaprakash and Vijayalakshmi. Other members of my team, Ashwin Vishwanathan, Boppanna Pattada, Chandu Bandi, Dipu Karuthedathu, George Tom, P.Jeganathan, Karthikeyan S., J.N. Prasad, N.S. Prashanth, Rajneesh Suvarna, Ramki Srinivasan, Sahana Mysore, Samira Agnihotri, K.Selvaganesh, S.Senthilkumar, Shyamal Lakshminarayanan, T.S. Srinivasa and D.H. Tanuja contributed equally during different parts of the survey.
At Bandipur, where we observed around 200 bird species, we had some delightful sightings of the White-rumped and Red-headed Vultures (Gyps bengalensis and Sarcogyps calvus). From Bandipur, the survey visited parts of Antarasante, HD Kote, Kabini, Karapura and Kakanakote areas visited by Salim Ali, which form part of the present day Nagarahole National Park. Our surveys in these Nagarahole forests were more productive, with over 200 species sighted.
Travelling down to Mysore to visit the Cauvery riverine areas near Srirangapatnam, Salim Ali chanced upon some islands close to Palahalli (in the middle of the flowing Cauvery), and their inhabiting water-birds. The birds that thronged these islands impressed him so much that as soon as the survey ended, he wasted no time in appraising the government of the Maharaja of Mysore of the importance of this avian haven. The islands were duly declared a bird sanctuary in July 1940, and named Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary two months later. Even today, the sanctuary bustles with the nesting activity of over 16 large colonially nesting water-birds, and is by far the most picturesque bird sanctuary in the country. Over 60 bird species were recorded over a morning at the sanctuary during the present survey.
Salim Ali’s Survey revealed for the first time the presence of the South Indian endemic, the Yellow-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus) in the state, when he travelled across the dry terrains of Doddaballapur, Tumkur and Chitradurga districts. When my survey team went looking for the species, despite the disturbances and habitat alterations at some locations, we found the species at French Rocks (Kunthi Betta), Nandi Hills, Thondebhavi, Devarayanadurga, Jogimatti and the Chitradurga Fort.
Amongst the forests visited during the present survey, the forests at Agumbe will linger in my memory as rich and pristine, which, unfortunately, were very poor in birds, and reminds one of the silent forests of Nagaland. Also, it is quite depressing to see the forests of BR Hills, Bandipur, and Nagarahole overrun by an unstoppable growth of lantana. However, when one visits the deciduous forests of Sathyamangalam at the foot of Dimbam Ghats, it comes as a shock and welcome relief to see the forest totally devoid of lantana. The forests of Sathyamangalam are a clear reminder of how beautiful our forests used to be, when lantana had not invaded them.
During the course of the survey, Salim Ali stayed at various guest houses and inspection bungalows. The current survey team stayed at a few of these very guest houses, and it is surprising to note that some of these guest houses—built by the then Mysore Forest Department—are still intact and liveable. These include the guest houses at Jogimatti, Kesave at Jagara Valley (Bhadra Tiger Reserve) and Settihalli. While the old guest house records have not been maintained at most places, the entries in the guest house register at Settihalli herald Salim Ali’s visit to the area during his survey.
Salim Ali’s Mysore Bird Survey was primarily limited by the number of birds that could be skinned on a day-to-day basis by his two taxidermy assistants, N.G. Pillai and J. Gabriel. Thus, on an average, Salim Ali collected anywhere between 3 and 22 birds a day. Also, it is not known as to how many birds that he shot could actually be retrieved from the field. It is also not known whether the birds he could not retrieve included some important bird species that he totally missed during the survey.
While the complete compilation and detailed analysis of the data collected during the present 2018-2019 survey is still pending, it has recorded close to 400 bird species. Some expected bird species were not sighted, including Pin-striped Tit-babbler (Macronus gularis) at Antarasante and Nilgiri Blue Robin (Sholicola major) at Kemmanagundi. Also, some species were seen at different locations than where Salim Ali collected them, as was the case with the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca), which he had collected from the vegetation covered river edges of Kabini.
Thus, Salim Ali’s Mysore Bird Survey was not merely a survey for collecting or looking at birds and making sense of their presence at a particular location, but a culmination of various things: the saga of a man and his lifelong commitment to follow what he believed in, a life given to the hardships of fieldwork, and swimming through life’s ups and downs capped by an overriding passion to study birds. To me personally, it was a chance to further my own passion for working on birds, and the very joy of going about doing it; everything else mattered little.