This is the third in a multi-part series about retracing Dr. Salim Ali’s ‘Mysore Bird Survey’. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

 

The White-naped Tit (Machlolophus nuchalis) is an endemic species with a disjunct distribution, with two isolated populations: in north-western India, spread over Rajasthan, Kutch and northern Gujarat, and in southern India, ranging over the Eastern Ghats of southern Andhra Pradesh, northern Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The species is far more common in north-western India, while it is very patchily distributed with very low numbers in its southern Indian haunts. In South India, it typically inhabits open dry-deciduous scrub dominated by Albizia amara, Prosopis and Solanum pubescens.

White-naped Tit.

Since its discovery in South India by TC Jerdon in the Eastern Ghats west of Nellore—and presumably in the Veliconda range—in 1844, the species was known to occur in South India from only two more locations: an unconfirmed collection of it in Bangalore by one Dr. Stewert, and a specimen collected by Major EH. Pooler in 1919 from around the hills of Ramanadurga (present day Ramgad), near Sandur in Bellary District.  The latter specimen, ROM #26.3.23.124, is presently at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. However, since 1919, no information has been available about the survival of this population.

Well before Dr. Salim Ali commenced his Mysore Bird Survey in 1939, Ralph Morris, at the behest of Salim Ali, made an intense collection of birds in and around Biligirirangana Hills. While camping for nine days at Sathyamangalam with his skinner, Joseph Gabriel, Ralph Morris collected a juvenile White-naped Tit on September 14, 1934. This was the only confirmation that the southern population of the species still existed, before Salim Ali commenced his survey. This specimen is presently at the Natural History Museum in Tring, U.K.

Ralph Morris at his jungle camp.  Image courtesy and copyright: Monica Jackson

The specimen of White-naped Tit collected by RC Morris at Sathyamangalam. Image courtesy: Natural History Museum, London; Image credit: Vijay Ramesh

However, despite intense efforts to look for the White-naped Tit, Salim Ali was unable to locate the species in its South Indian range and thus he wrote: “Unfortunately, the survey failed to come across this tit in spite of a very special look-out for it, and the species is obviously very rare in S. India.”

While re-conducting the Mysore Bird Survey in 2018-2019, I travelled to Sathyamangalam specifically to look for the White-naped Tit at the foot of Dimbam Ghats, where, according to Ralph Morris’s daughter Monica Jackson, he made his bird collection. Armed with due permissions and along with P. Jeganathan, K. Selvaganesh and S. Senthilkumar, who were part of the survey team from Tamil Nadu, about eight locations in the dry-deciduous scrub forests between the outskirts of Sathyamangalam and the foothills of Dimbam Ghats were intensely scoured over three days to locate the species. Senthilkumar, who has been studying the species in the Salem area of Tamil Nadu, had a fine collection of the calls of the White-naped Tit, and while at our guest house, we played and replayed the calls to familiarise ourselves with them.

The forests of Sathyamangalam, at the foot of Dimbam Ghats.

On our second day, while surveying the forests between Rama Bailu Doddi and Karikkal Mokka, we heard what sounded like a White-naped Tit, but the bird went silent and we couldn’t pursue the owner of the call owing to the denseness of the forest, the presence of elephants in the area, and also because of a bull gaur that had wandered off into the forest a few minutes before. The species could not be located the next day as well.                             

Nevertheless, the forests of Sathyamangalam still hold the immense possibility of being a home for the elusive White-naped Tit, and more intense surveys in the future may come across the species.