It was August 2015, and Prasenjeet Yadav and I teamed up for a long drive through the Western Ghats. We both had a common goal: to see and photograph as many species of birds and amphibians in the Western Ghats as possible; Prasen, for his National Geographic Young Explorer project on the ‘Sky Islands of the Western Ghats’, and I, on my quest of ‘Big Year’, where I was trying to see as many bird species of India in one calendar year as possible.
Additionally, I have more than a passing interest when it comes to other fauna. So we chose Honey Valley – a small coffee estate/home-stay in Coorg – as our natural studio. I had earlier worked in the same coffee estate as a part of a two-year bird and amphibian project; I was therefore well-versed with most of the landscape. Wanting to spot as much wildlife as possible, I usually end up walking at a very slow pace. In this article, I have only covered the species both of us saw and photographed in an area not longer than a 200-metre stretch of a small hill stream.
We came across a bunch of Bush Frogs of the genus Raorchestes even before the evening darkened. We started with Raorchestes charius – one of the most range-restricted species of bush frogs from the Western Ghats, found only between the high elevations of Coorg and Chikmagalur’s landscape. This individual just sat on an open rock wall and sang its throat out. Soon after this, we stumbled upon two other species of Raorchestes: R. luteolus and R. glandulosus.
However, one of our main targets was the Malabar Torrent Toad aka Ornate Toad (Ghatophryne ornata), which is one of the high elevation, stream-loving frogs. There are not many places in the Western Ghats that are as easily accessible as Honey Valley, where this frog is relatively easy to find. On a cursory look, this frog looks like a dark, featureless creature. But, once you see the belly, you will know why it is named ‘Ornate Toad’. The whole belly of this frog glitters with yellow and red. When we started looking for them, we stumbled upon seven individuals within a span of five minutes.
When we continued our quest of stream-dwelling frogs, we stumbled upon a few other unexpected creatures as well. The first one to appear was a pair of Small Clawed Otters (Aonyx cinerea), which stared at us with their beady eyes. We couldn’t believe our luck! The pair melted away into the darkness as suddenly they had appeared out of nowhere. Prasen and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and turned around, only to spot one of the largest moths of the world, the Atlas Moth.
We thought that the night couldn’t get any better. However, we were proven wrong, as we chanced upon some Nyctibatrachus frogs (night frogs). This is one of the most ancient lineages in the frog world. In the last few years, scientists have been discovering the most complex and unique mating behaviours in night frogs, followed by the parents (often the male) guarding an egg clutch. In the past, I had seen Nyctibatrachus grandis eggs on the roofs of rock crevices, and could not imagine how they got there, until I actually witnessed the mating spectacle. The male we spotted had selected a few ideal crevices with just the right moisture on the roof, by feeling them with his hands. He then sat and called all day to attract a potential partner. Once the female arrived, he perched on top of her and guided her to these crevices. She too touched the roof to check for moisture. Once satisfied with the quality of habitat for her eggs, she allowed the male to deposit his sperms on her cloacal opening. When this was done, she performed a feat of yogic mastery. Doing a hand-stand, she raised the rest of her body straight up to deposit her eggs (now fertilised) on the roof! After this, she turned around and hopped away, while the male sat guarding his brood of embryos.
Having watched and photographed this spectacle with a dropped jaw, we moved on to look for another species in the same genus. It’s fair to say that finding an adult Nyctibatrachus minimus, which is smaller than a human thumbnail, is quite tough. Unlike most of the other Nyctibatrachus frogs, this species is least dependent on streams. They are usually found in the leaf litter next to streams. The reason behind it is simple: it makes for an easy hiding spot. However, one can try to listen to a call and follow it to the source. Then, just like that, one can spot these tiny beauties hiding in plain sight.
The third Nyctibatrachus we spotted was the most common of the lot. Nyctibatrachus sanctipalustris is very common in the streams around Honey Valley. However, we wanted to take a slightly special image, which showcased its habitat more accurately. We had identified the right place to make this image over my three years of fieldwork in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, on amphibians. That image could happen only if we found the right depth to put our underwater gear in, besides finding a frog in the same area. Finally, after struggling to find the right individual, we came across a fellow who posed for us, making our efforts fruitful.
Apart from amphibians, it is impossible to miss Trigoniulus Millipedes in the streams of the Western Ghats. They are huge and are clearly seen when they walk around the leaf litter by the streams, or between the peeling barks of fallen trees. I find millipedes to be one of the most fascinating creatures. For starters, they are one of the first creatures to evolve (443 million years ago). Apart from being well-trained in chemical warfare, they grow more legs after discarding every moult. If you ask me, it can’t get cooler than this.
Another exciting invertebrate which is impossible to ignore in streams are the beautiful damselflies that fly around. We could clearly see the pattern by which the different species had decided to partition their resources. Neurobasis chinensis and Euphaea dispar had occupied the habitat just above the stream, where we saw them fervently fighting for rocks and small sticks. On the other hand, Ischnura heterosticta had occupied slightly taller vegetation.
Those hours at Honey Valley were deeply rewarding and satisfying. Streams are amongst the most marvellous habitats of the Western Ghats, with hidden treasures in every nook, if only we would slow down to spot and observe them. The creatures that live in these habitats may not be considered ‘charismatic’ like some mammals and birds, but are no less so, besides being colourful and vibrant.