150 metres – that’s what the altimeter read as we turned off the road into Seethanadi Nature Camp. The descent from Agumbe (at 823 metres) had indeed been quite rapid. A pair of Indian Flying Lizard sculptures, many times the actual size of the lizard, stood guard at the camp gate, proudly displaying their yellow dewlaps. We made our way to the reception through a magnificent canopy of lowland evergreen forest.
Throughout the process of check-in and the now-mandatory Covid protocols, we kept scanning the surrounding trees for wildlife activity. Bird calls emanated from all around us, and a Malabar Giant Squirrel was feeding on young leaves a few feet above the ground.
As we headed to lunch, a tiny brown pattern by the pathway broke our march. Basking in the soft afternoon sun was a Hump-nosed Pit Viper; coiled into a compact, jalebi-like coil, this beautiful snake sat still as a rock, as people walked up and down the path. “Humans are not prey. The snake won’t bite and waste precious venom if it is not disturbed or threatened,” we explained to the curious staff and guests who had gathered to investigate our discovery. After photographing it to our heart’s content, we focused on the elaborate spread of delicious food, just the fuel we needed after our long drive from Bengaluru and all the exciting sightings.
The habitat around the camp, which we explored over the next couple of days, is lowland evergreen forest: today, they are very sparsely distributed in the Western Ghats. Typically, they are known to have a lot of woody climbers (or lianas), in addition trees with huge buttresses that are typical of a rainforest. We were expecting to see a different assemblage of species too, compared to Agumbe. Added to that was the riparian habitat along Seethanadi River’s banks, and we knew we had a couple of fabulous days ahead of us. It had rained a week ago and there was still moisture underneath the leaves – a good sign!
As night set in, we started walking on the jeep track towards the gate, looking for wildlife. There was life everywhere! The eyes of an Indian Giant Flying Squirrel shone back at us from the canopy, reflecting our torchlight. Bush frogs were perched on every other leaf and twig. Of course, being late in the year, they were all very silent. If the leaf was not occupied by a bush frog, it had a Cnemaspis day gecko sleeping at the edge; this was an interesting behaviour, similar to other groups of lizards like agamids.
Walking down the small stream that flows through the property, we came across many more frogs. A Malabar Hills Frog sat quietly in a tree hollow. Golden-backed Frogs, Western Tree Frogs and Indian Tree Frogs were commonly seen on the young plants and shrubbery around the water. A Reddish Burrowing Frog was spotted on the wet ground. A Fishing Spider lay still on a small stone, waiting for its prey to swim by. There were plenty of insects and spiders too, including an interesting hopper and another hopper nymph.
Back at the camp, it was dinner-time for our friend, the Hump-nosed Pit Viper. A cricket frog was the unfortunate prey. As we unlocked the door to our cottage, a large gecko on a tree nearby caught our attention: a Prashad’s Gecko, out of its burrow, probably on the lookout for its next snack.
The next morning, we woke up to a strange, melodious bird-call. Racking our brains, we figured out that it was a Sri Lanka Bay Owl! We rushed out to try and track it down, an exercise that was futile. After the mandatory morning coffee, we headed to the banks of the Seethanadi River. A Little Cormorant was perched near the jetty on this peaceful, foggy morning, and our visit to the riverside was the perfect beginning to yet another hectic day. Ashy Drongos and Black-hooded Orioles were flying about near the canopy. The baby-like cries of Malabar Grey Hornbills reverberated from the forests around us. A tiny flash of blue zipped past us – a Blue-eared Kingfisher.
The sunny weather brought out many Indian Flying Lizards; it was a treat to watch them glide from tree to tree, while we ate breakfast. We then set out to explore the property by day, and as we stepped out of our cottage, a bright flash of red was perched on a tree stump nearby – a colourful male Malabar Trogon, who also had his mate for company! It was quite an experience watching them forage on a dead tree trunk before disappearing into the canopy. Next, we peeked into an unused building to scan for geckos and snakes, and ended up finding a colony of Lesser False Vampire Bats.
We ventured along one of the trekking trails, and soon, it seemed that we had left civilisation far behind and entered an enchanted forest. We were down to 50 m elevation and surrounded by pristine rainforest. With mighty lianas forming curtains around us and tall trees with huge buttresses, this was exactly what we had been hoping to see. Roux’s Forest Lizards stood still on tree trunks, disappearing the moment they realised that they’d been discovered. As we admired the forests from up-close, we also chanced upon a jumping spider that had just finished its meal.
Later in the afternoon, we went on a coracle ride on the river. We came across two kingfishers – the stunning Black-capped Kingfisher and the mighty Stork-billed Kingfisher. The river banks seemed to be great places for otters, as the boatman concurred. The view from the river was magical, as we took in the forests and hill surrounding us.
Our walking trail that night was action-packed – frogs turned up in good numbers again, a female Malabar Gliding Frog was roosting on a leaf, and a Tarantula, having lost half its limbs, was out foraging on a tree trunk.
A couple of Hump-nosed Pit Vipers crossed our path. A Vine Snake (Ahaetulla farnsworthi) – a species that had recently been described and named by my travel companion Achyuthan – was surprisingly active; they are typically diurnal in their habits. Some distance away, a Travancore Wolf Snake was looking for prey within a dead log on the ground.
As we returned to the camp, the Hump-nosed Pit Viper was just finishing off another meal. It had been under the same tree since we had arrived, disappearing without a trace during the day and returning back to the same position at night – an amazing example of site fidelity among reptiles! Earlier, we had also come across a Roux’s Forest Lizard on the same branch as we’d seen it the previous night.
The last morning of our trip, we walked along part of another trekking trail. There are not even a handful of places with lowland evergreen forests in the Western Ghats. As civilisation grew, these forests with tall, standing trees rapidly disappeared. Small fragments remain along India’s coastline, holding some incredible diversity of life. We were fortunate to have spent a couple of days in one of the rarest habitats in the country. We left Seethanadi that morning and drove towards Bengaluru, resolving to return during the monsoons to experience the forest in its full glory.