While it was quite exhilarating to retrace the route taken by Dr. Salim Ali in his ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ in 1939-1940, and survey birds in the very localities frequented by him, it is difficult to gauge how this 2018-2019 survey fared compared to the one 78 years ago, as the survey techniques were quite different and incomparable. Salim Ali physically collected birds and turned them into study skins, but the present survey relied mainly on counting birds that were observed and heard, while walking transects with the team.
Dr. Salim Ali was constrained by the maximum number of birds he could collect in a single day: twenty at the most. The collection of these birds necessitated them to be turned into study skins by his two museum assistants trained in taxidermy, besides himself. In doing so, Salim Ali collected 871 skins of 243 species. To this, he added details from the bird collection of RC Morris from Biligirirangana Hills, which included 436 skins of 128 species collected between February and December 1934, by employing two skinners on loan from the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai.
Besides these, Salim Ali added details from other sources: from small-game shooting forays by Major EG Phythian-Adams, I.A. (Retd.) between 1925-1939 in the then Mysore District; from those of Lt. Col. JWM Anderson of Sindh Survey, who had travelled in the Mysore region in the 1880s; a few from his own cousin, Humayun Abdulali; and from one of the Van Ingens, the famed Indian taxidermists who ran a taxidermy factory in Mysore. Additionally, Salim Ali added his own observations from the field while collecting birds. Pooling details from these sources, Salim Ali put forth information on 352 bird species in all, gathered from nearly 2050 records.
The recent ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ tallied details on over 415 bird species inferred from over 30,000 records, notching up details about almost 175 more bird species than Salim Ali did— an increment by nearly 60 species—as the recent survey benefitted from additional pairs of eyes and ears of its team members. The forest areas of Nagarahole and Bandipur were the most productive, with over 200 species of birds seen in each area. Even the dry terrains of Doddaballapur, Tumkur and Chitradurga recorded in excess of 150 species, as against half this number collected by Salim Ali. Among the birds on which information was gathered, the 10 most common birds recorded during the present survey were White-cheeked Barbet, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Tailor bird, White-browed Bulbul, Greenish Warbler, Green Warbler, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet and Spotted Dove, with over 300 records in the least, and the White-cheeked Barbet logging over 500 records.
The present survey was an opportunity to traverse some of the finest bird habitats in Karnataka: the wet-evergreen forests of Agumbe; the Shola grasslands of Bababudans around Kemmanagundi; the varied landscapes of Biligirirangana Hills; the moist and dry-deciduous habitats of Bandipur, Nagarahole, Jagara Valley and Jog; dry-deciduous and scrub habitats around Mandya, Doddaballapur, Tumkur and Chitradurga districts; the backwaters of Krishnaraja Sagar and Vanivilas Sagar; riverine habitats at Ranganathittu and Seethanadi; and a number of lakes in the dry inland region.
It was a joy descending to the bottom of Jog Falls, with the canopies of trees viewable at eye-level, affording breath-taking views of Flame-throated Bulbuls (Pycnonotus gularis), Malabar Trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), and varied flycatchers at close quarters, as countless Alpine Swifts (Tachymarptis melba) and wild Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) flew around the falls, farther away.
The wet evergreen forests of Agumbe were a delight to walk through, enveloped by tall trees and dense undergrowth, on trails rarely accessible to visitors. It was here that a large flock of twenty four Wayanad Laughingthrushes (Garrulax delesserti) held us captivated, as they surreptitiously dashed across our path, screaming alarm calls. The river Seethanadi at Agumbe, brimming with fish, was home to both the Lesser and Grey-headed Fish Eagles (Icthyophaga humilis & I. ichthyaetus), and a pair of each rented the air with loud vocalisations as they staked claim to a nest platform high-up on a tree.
Jagara Valley, bounded by the horse-shoe shaped Bababudan range with its shola grasslands in the upper reaches, is an amazing terrain that one should never miss visiting. Its dense and deep sholas were a great place to observe Black and Orange Flycatchers and Wayanad Laughing Thrushes.
The forest trails at Male Shankara, at Settihalli in Shimoga district, stun with their towering giant trees with gorgeous canopies. This area reminds one of the kinds of forests that once spanned the region, which were extracted in the bygone years to make way for teak plantations. While we scorn at these teak plantation as monocultures, the road from Male Shankara towards Tirthahalli, engulfed on either side by teak plantations, produced some amazing birding with a diversity of species, including birds such as Rufous-bellied Eagle (Lophotriorchis kienerii) and Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis).
Although difficult to locate and see, the Laterite Rock Bush Quail (Perdicula argoondha salimalii) that Salim Ali collected at Marikanive, still holds out its population in the region. The Hiriyur area also supports, among other birds, healthy populations of Little Pratincole (Glareola lactea) and Sykes’s Short-toed Lark (Calandrella dukhunensis) around some of its large lakes, and presents great opportunities to see Grey-necked Bunting (Emberiza buchanani) and Marshall’s Iora (Aegithina nigrolutea) around dry cultivations bounded by open scrub. Bandipur and Nagarahole areas around Kabini remain the last strongholds of White-rumped and King Vultures (Gyps bengalensis & Sarcogyps calvus) in Karnataka, where, untouched by the Diclofenac problem, healthy populations of both the species still survive.
The forest areas roamed by Salim Ali and Ralph Morris at Biligirirangana Hills are plagued by the growth of lantana, rendering some of those areas quite inaccessible. With the threat of roaming elephants and the increased protection accorded to the area by upgrading it as a Tiger Reserve, the Biligirirangans is now beyond the reach of an ordinary birder. The lakes of Mysore District, like the one at Hadinaru that were frequented by Major Pythian Adams, still hold healthy populations of water-birds. The Yellow-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus), land-locked to hills with boulder-strewn slopes amidst sparse scrub, as at Devarayanadurga, French Rocks, Jogimatti, Makalidurga, Nandi Hills, Satnur and Thondebhavi, still survives in some of the former areas visited by Salim Ali.
The populations of Alpine Swifts that Salim Ali observed from atop Devarayanadurga no longer breed at the site, owing to an increased presence of Bonnet Macaques that have made the hilltop their home, attracted by an increasing pilgrim flow and a greater availability of human-given food in the area. But the Shaheen Falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator) is still around. The Nilgiri Blue Robin (Sholicola major, also known as the Rufous-bellied Shortwing), which Salim Ali collected from the Bababudan sholas, could not be seen despite a special look-out for the same.
While much of the forested areas that Salim Ali may have frequented around Sakleshpur have been engulfed by the spread of human population, the sholas and their associated grasslands at Kadamane Estate still hold a lot of promise for birds.
The deciduous scrub around Makalidurga, though partly disturbed, hosts an array of birds peculiar to the scrub, including Yellow-throated Bulbuls, Sirkeer and Blue-faced Malkohas (Taccocua leschenaultii & Phaenicophaeus viridirostris), along its slopes and foothills, as one walks along the railway track on the eastern side or descends down the hilltop on its western slopes, where Sloth Bears and leopards are known to roam. At Satnur, one hazy morning, resting on its high, rocky abode atop a hill, a leopard kept a close watch on the progress made by the survey team for over two hours while they traversed a survey route, as Yellow-throated Bulbuls frolicked around in the slopes and foothills below.
The present Mysore Bird Survey was made possible by the support of a large number of people. The foremost was the Karnataka State Forest Department, which accorded the necessary permissions and supported the survey in all the areas where it encompassed protected areas. The Forest Department staff was particularly helpful in accompanying the survey teams and facilitating the survey: Mr. C Jayaram (former PCCF), Mr. Subhash Malkhade (APCCF), the Directors of BRT, Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves, Deputy Conservators of Forest, Range Forest Officers, Deputy Range Forest Officers, Forest Guards and foot soldiers of various beats, and forest watchers.
Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd. supported the survey team by providing local logistics in several places. Its Managing Director, Mr.Vijay Sharma, and Chief Naturalist, Karthikeyan S, supported the bird survey initiative. Dr. Deepak Apte, the Director, provided access to archives and the bird skin collection at the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai. The staff of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi are thanked for their kind help in scrutinising Salim Ali’s manuscripts. The Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, provided local hospitality at Agumbe. The survey was supported by a sponsorship from TVS Motor Company, whose Chairman, Mr.Venu Srinivasan, and Vice President, Mr.P Venkatesan, were a great impetus to the survey. Mrs. Monica Jackson and Mr. Simon Jackson shared details and images on R.C.Morris. Over 20 birders, some of the finest in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, joined the survey as team members at various locations for different periods; the survey benefitted much from their extraordinary expertise.
Looking back, I feel that I was particularly fortunate that everything fell into place to facilitate the survey. I am still reeling from the experience of it, and the realisation that I did actually complete the 110-day bird survey without a hitch. I left home on 05 Nov 2018, to return on 24 Feb 2019, with minor breaks as warranted, and all the hardships associated with a survey of this kind. Walking Salim Ali’s trail after 78 years was a dream come true, and now, it all seems like a dream.