I had two days for myself and I decided to spend them in the Kemmangundi region of Western Ghats. Kemmangundi is approximately 240kms from Bangalore. I left rather late from Bangalore on October 1st at around 10AM and driving through Tumkur, Kadur, Arsikere and taking a left turn at Birur, passed Lingadahalli to begin the drive up the ghats to Kemmangundi. Clement called me while I was on the way to alert me of the possibility of sighting Wynaad Laughingthrushes – a rare endemic of the Western Ghats and a hard to get species – and instructed me to keep my eyes and ears open from the time I enter the ghats. He told me that the laughingthrushes would have finished their breeding activities now that it is past the monsoon season and would have formed big groups and could be found foraging in the sholas. I said I will surely do.
I didn’t have any specific agenda for the trip nor was I targeting any species, leave alone the Wynaad Laughingthrushes which I have never seen before. I had just decided to laze around the region and photograph whatever gave me an easy chance, spend the night somewhere and leave the next day afternoon for Bangalore. I reached the Kemmangundi tourist area by around noon. Due to the holiday season quite a huge crowd was present and the accommodations available were all full. The weather was dull with slight steady drizzle and heavy mist cover. I walked around the gardens and the tourist region but disappointingly there wasn’t any bird activity.
Returning back to the parking lot I was pondering what to do when I saw a rough track along the hills that goes to a view point nearby. I thought of checking that area and drove a little distance on that track when I heard a babble of bird calls in the shola adjoining the track and a little below to the left of the track. I initially thought them to be some babblers, so I parked the car casually in an open stretch and walked down to investigate. Immediately I recognized that it was a group of Wynaad Laughingthrushes. I ran back to the car and returned with the camera to try my luck with making a photograph of theses rare laughingthrushes. I descended into the shola floor and tried to follow the birds which kept to the edge of the shola with adjacent open grassland. The birds also kept to the vegetation in the shola floor and occasionally I saw them perched 5-6 feet from the ground but they didn’t allow me a decent shot due to the very thick vegetation inside the shola and it was almost dark in there where the camera just didn’t focus at all.
I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon and the weather was also not promising to improve, so I decided to keep following the laughingthrushes as much as I could go. The next hour was spent in this fashion – following the birds silently and creeping closer and trying to aim the camera at them. But the moment the birds detected my movements they usually moved away and I had to repeat all over again. Meanwhile several leeches had climbed onto me and I could feel them inside my trousers and socks. I paused now and then to remove my shoes to pull out the leeches which had already soaked my socks in blood. Some had even climbed up to my neck through the dress. The heat was also stifling in there and the grave danger of meeting up with a viper was also very real and in the back of my mind.
In these circumstances I couldn’t help but admire the way of life of these elusive laughingthrushes, who were moving through the shola so effortlessly and just seemed to be enjoying themselves through just another day in their wonderful life. It was 4.30PM by then and the game seemed to lead me no where. Very reluctantly I decided to abandon the chase when I turned back to realize that I had lost my way. In following the birds I had lost sense of direction and deep inside that shola whichever way I looked at all seemed to be same since there was no footpath leading anywhere. Desperately I tried to remember the route and tried climbing one side of the hill after another but all seemed to lead nowhere with the original track nowhere in sight above me.
The light had become by now very low and I really felt I had to find my way out fast. There was a stream blowing across and keeping in mind I never crossed the stream when coming down and assuming the stream might have crossed the original road where I had parked my car, I started to climb up the hill keeping to the stream. Eventually I came upon a patch where the forest department had kept hundreds of saplings in plastic bags, and a trail of plastic bags also led up with a clearing wide enough for humans to walk up. Keeping to this trail I climbed for half an hour and was glad when suddenly the car came into view above me, the trail having just led me right to the spot where I had parked the car and descended. Then I noticed that the stream also has crossed the road at that spot. While descending a shola I think it is always good to keep a sense of direction and remember landmarks. If lost a stream flowing down can be a guiding factor.
It took me another half an hour regain breathe and pull out all the leeches in my body. Due to the nature of leech bites, wherein the leech releases ‘Hirudin’ that causes the blood not to clot and flow out freely, my socks remained blood wet for many hours thereafter. Infact they are itching still, even as I write this one week after the episode. I was disappointed that the laughingthrushes didn’t offer me any good shot, but I had clicked 3 frames initially before descending the shola to make better pictures. This is the only picture I can show of the great Wynaad Laughingthrushes.
I returned to the tourist area thereafter to find that I had no accommodation available for the night. But I didn’t want to leave that night as I wanted to look for the laughingthrushes in the morning also in the same area. So I spent the night sleeping inside the car itself. I have to say that it was an awfully cold night, but I was tired so didn’t have any trouble sleeping.
Next morning I tried again to spot the laughingthrushes but I had no luck. I decided to leave and start the drive back to Bangalore through Chikmagalur. The distance between Kemmangundi and Chikmagalur is some 45kms. The road passes through a very scenic landscape that shows the mighty Western Ghats in all its splendor and glory. The road is very bad so one has to drive very slowly, but the landscape compensates for it. There was plenty of birding to be done on the way also. I saw Bright Headed Cisticolas, Black-Lored Tits, Speckled Piculet, Greater Flameback, Common Kestrel, White eyes, Small Minivets, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Grey Jungle fowls, Grey Wagtails among many other wonderful birds.
I reached Chikmagalur in this way by noon and after lunch drove back to Bangalore by evening. On the way I tried my luck with some superbly perched brown shrikes and long tailed shrikes but in vain. Some distance before Chikmagalur as the road climbs down to the plains from the ghats in the Bababudan hills near Mullaiyanagiri – the highest peak in Karnataka – I also saw the Kurinji flowers that had bloomed here after 16 years. The whole hillside was abloom and seemed like a colorful violet carpet had been spread on the hillside.