One of the surprise outcomes of the Mysore Bird Survey conducted by Salim Ali was the discovery of a disjunct population of Pin-striped Tit-babbler (Macronus gularis)—also known once as the Yellow-breasted Babbler—on the banks of River Kabini. After surveying Bandipur and Gudalur Ghats, Salim Ali made his way to Heggadedevanakote Taluk, collecting birds at Heggadedevanakote, Antarasante, Manchegowdanahalli, Karapura, and along the Kabini – the very areas from which the present-day Nagarahole National Park was carved out, first as a sanctuary in 1975, just a year after Kabini Reservoir was built.
The Pin-striped Tit-babbler is a cute, small affair, slightly larger than a Tailor Bird, and with a rusty crown, wings and tail, having an olive-green mantle and a pale yellowish iris. Its under-parts are pale yellow from the throat downwards, fading into the white of the lower belly, with fine black streaks on its throat and breast.
Salim Ali first chanced upon Pin-striped Tit-babblers on November 30, 1939, in less than 1 sq.km area of deciduous bamboo jungle on the bank of River Kabini near Manchegowdanahalli, about 5 km from the better-known Antarasante, and collected a male and a female specimen. He was so overcome by this discovery that greatly extended the known distribution of the species to South Karnataka from its known haunts, that he returned to the location twice over—on December 2nd and 6th—and collected one bird each day.
The Pin-striped Tit-babbler was known to be distributed in the Himalaya, extending from eastern Uttaranchal to eastern Arunachal and through all of south Assam hills and Bangladesh, and in eastern India including Orissa, eastern Madhya Pradesh (Bastar), and north-eastern Andhra Pradesh along the Visakhapatnam Ghats. Thus, the population that Salim Ali discovered at Kabini was a disjunct one, with no known populations in the intervening regions.
Salim Ali found these birds moving about noisily in small parties of 3-4 individuals, keeping high up in the bamboo clumps (usually above 5 metres), clinging to the foliage upside down and sideways, searching for insects on the under-surface of leaves. They moved from clump to clump, uttering a chounk-chounk-chounk-chounk-chounk call, repeated for several minutes with short breaks in between, in a tone that could easily be mistaken for that of a Tailor Bird, but for their much higher pitch.
Given below is the call of the Pin-striped Tit-babbler. Call courtesy: Miraj Hussain.
Piling hope upon hope, I traversed Salim Ali’s trail to Nagarahole from Bandipur, and went everywhere looking for dense groves of the riverine bamboo that the backwaters of Kabini was once famous for. Along with roving bands of elephants, it gave the backwaters its characteristic grace and beauty. But the habitat I sought was not there anymore – the extensive stretches of riverine bamboo and those within the forests of Nagarahole, Bandipur and Wayanad had a mass die-off after flowering in 2012. Thus, with the mass dying of the bamboo, even the population of the Tit-babbler appears to have perished, and it is not known what became of the population that produced such a surprise for Salim Ali.
In search of the species, I even stepped over the borders of ethicality and went about playing the species call downloaded from the internet, in what looked to be suitable habitats (without bamboo, though), but to no avail. I spent well over a day surveying the riverine vegetation along River Kabini for a few kilometres, on either side of the bridge at Thumbasoge near Heggadadevankote. Simply put, the species was not there and could not be located.
However, all appears to have not been lost. In 2004, a small population of Pin-striped Tit-babblers was found about 8 km from Masinagudi on the Theppakadu-Ooty Road in Nilgiris District, Tamil Nadu, by a small group of birdwatchers; it gave hope that the species’ population in south-west Karnataka that Salim Ali discovered was not a land-locked one and could be far more widespread than it was thought to be. Thus, I have this dream that, hopefully, someday, someone may chance upon the species elsewhere in south-west Karnataka or South India, keeping the hope alive that the disjunct population of the Pin-striped Tit-babbler discovered by Salim Ali still survives.