9 Jun 2015

Live Experience : Another Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg, Maharashtra, India

During my last expedition in Dodamarg, I was so new to wildlife though not so new to nature as such. My treks had kept me close to it but the spark came when I had a closer experience in Feb'14 at Dodamarg itself. My older post says it all, what all I noted down in my open book. I went back more aware and a keen observant. Months later after lot more study, closer observance and follow up, and most importantly under the influence and inspiration of many like Robert Swan or Bahar Dutt, my love for nature is now becoming a passion. I have been a wanderer but my idea of travel has changed to be more meaningful, where nature is closely felt and something given back. And as I search for direction for my passion, what better could have been another expedition in wild where it all started.
Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg, The Draco lizard
The Draco lizard
Day1, Belgaum

It was 08:00 am and I was late by an hour. With people waiting, I just had a cup of tea and loaded my fav parle-G for the next 4 days. After acquaintances with interesting people, Harsha n family, Gorika, Vinod my next 2 hours vanished just talking with the two young chaps Pramod n Samat (Harsha's kids). The road was entirely through wildland as we crossed from eastern to western side of the ghats and 2 hr later, at the turn towards Medhe conservation centre, it was Sumanth waiting for us who already spotted a flying lizard (Draco) sitting on a tree trunk. I was excited as I never saw this species earlier. The flap under its neck was really prominent as it continuously moved it, mostly to bully another male in vicinity. I couldn’t capture a good shot, but a good start. 

We dumped our bags in jeep and trailed towards the Field station. Near the graveyard that I precisely remembered from Feb another fresh witness of a Woodpecker pair (golden flame back). Again I wasn’t so lucky to capture a shot. Then a Hornbill couple flew by above our heads, the distinct sound of their flight is hard to forget. I went after them in the woods click but hard luck. The jeep was back now and all hopped in. Will hardly space for all, me and Sumanth were climbing at its back, already discussing stuff like Madhav gadgil’s report and the field station at Hunsur.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg,The Medhe Field station
The Medhe Field station
We were here, beside a stream you read The Gerry Martin Project, the field station. This place has changed completely with a more permanent roof, kitchen and rest rooms it is going be a much more comfortable stay than my last visit. Another lizard we spotted just at the station, Calodes Rouxii (below).

Lizard at the station, calodus rouxii
Lizard at the station, calodus rouxii
So the plan was to go downstream post lunch, till then people can rest. But I was not in any mood to rest. I convinced Vinod and we both went down for a walk downstream. Sumanth made us beware of two pythons that stay under a tree hole. That was exciting indeed. We went ahead to explore. We found no pythons, just a few birds and we came back.

Sumanth had some captured snakes few days before when Wolfgang visited here. He planned to show them to us before leaving them to forest. That was exciting stuff. It started with the saw-scaled viper, a venomous snake, pretty small in size. Clicked a few shots, but I was more curious to see its behavior. It sat in a whirl defense position without any movement inside a box, camouflaged very well among the dry leaves it was kept with. As Sumanth told, vipers are unpredictable and can shoot to strike without any warnings we remained careful.

Saw scaled viper
Saw scaled viper
Now, the non-venomous ones that we all happily handled. Montane trinket was very calm snake with really less movement. We all had a chance to feel it and let it crawl on our arms. The kids were asking ‘why it is not biting’ and Sumanth’s reply was simple “it just doesn’t want to”.

Handling the montane trinket, a very calm snake
Handling the montane trinket, a very calm snake
The Cat Snake was next, aptly named after its eyes. This one was swift and crawling here n there. I know I handled it really bad as it was not comfortable and running away. Sumanth told, it is really scared and better we leave it back.

The cat snake. Notice the eyes
The cat snake. Notice the eyes
Phew, it was a great start for expedition, already spotted few birds, lizards and now handled few snakes as well. Now we went down-stream again to leave back the snakes and search for animal marks: the poops, pug marks or burrows. Poop of Ottur was easy to identify as it ate a lot of crabs and shells were present.

Broken shells left by an otter
Broken shells left by an otter
We found few poops of porcupine as well and a burrow, recently used. It was quite deep but no animal was inside.

I went ahead of group to click few good photos of a cormorant and a sunbird. After some more hops and jumps among the rocks, the group receded to save energy for the walk in night.

It was tea-time (the rocking black tea or coffee at Medhe J), we all sat around the front yard exchanging knowledge, interests and lives. Sumanth also handed us a handbook for the expedition which included details about the Lorises for which we were here, apart from other mammals found around the field station and general note making details.

Slender Loris

A slender loris
A slender loris
Slender Loris are mammals endemic to Western Ghats and some parts of Srilanka. They are right now endangered due to habitat loss and poaching for black magic. They are unique in many senses as they are only primates without a tail (apart from humans) and are insectivorous. Another interesting fact I came to know was these mammals are venomous (the only second mammal apart from platypus found in Australia). They are nocturnal and their eyes shine bright red if focused by a torch light, so they are easy to locate in night though they are very well camouflaged during the day with no movements whatsoever.

At around 8:00 we started climbing the hill just beside the field station. With torches close to heads we kept looking at tree canopies to search for this mammal. We were not talking or making any sounds, as guided by Sumanth. But the dry leaves below with 10 people walking made enough noise. Sumanth noticed a mouse deer which just went away. We set up a camera trap to catch their glimpse. We moved forward and the success! Sumanth noticed the first Loris at a tree top. It was a real dense canopy, typical of evergreen forest, so only few others could also see the shining eyes before it vanished. I wasn’t among the lucky ones. While walking further in forest we say a bird sleeping on a tree branch. That was really beautiful sight, never imagined to witness one in my life. It was a blue bird, just silently sleeping very close to us. A different behavior I saw as it got disturbed but dint chirp or tried to fly.

Now I walked closer to Sumanth as he was leading and I got lucky now. A Loris was visible on a far away branch of a canopy, slowly moved away as we focused on its eyes. They were glowing red. Another 15min walk and we saw another one, this time me and Sumanth could even see its full body as it was on a lower branch.

Now we reached a water pool, a slow stream flowing here. For me it seemed a perfect place to just silently sit and wait for animals to come and quench. We set up 2 more camera traps here and started to recede back. After an hour of walk, we came across the Mouse Deers again. They were two, one mother and an infant. Sumanth spotted them and few of us could see their shining eyes before they got lost in the forest. After walking further, Sumanth picked a bronze skink that was skinning. He held it loose and then let it go away as it was really scared. The poop release tells you that.

Back to the station, there was a scorpion waiting just outside our room. Sumanth got a UV torch to show us how it glowed in dark but against a white background the UV gleamed our eyes. He then captured it inside a small box to show us after dinner. Later he put it on a ground and wow it glowed fantastic under the UV light. Also as a demo he showed how my teeth also glow :P

The day was not over yet, as Rishab caught a frog to show us. It was ‘Indirana’ genus frog that was beautiful. He captured some good images (much better than my amateur skills). Wohoo! That was fantastic. What a day of my life. I was content, happy to see so much of wilderness, to meet so many interesting people and most importantly, complete disconnect from outer world. And something we were all forgetting, it was Christmas and we did not wish that to anyone entire day. Seems those are other world things here. I was wondering what else awaits for the next few days. I slept quickly to wake-up early next day for my bird watch. It was a cold night.

Day2, Medhe field station

Early morning at 06.30am, before even my alarm rang I was up. Surprisingly it was a very silent morning, not much chirping of birds around. Sun was still to rise and while I was rubbing my eyes, looking out of the station balcony, a pair of Hornbills just flew across. Damn I missed to click again. Minutes later, far far away a racket tailed Drongo glided out of the forest and then dived back again. Those 2 seconds it gave, I was able to capture one bleak shot.

Later part of morning I kept looking around, but no luck. I could spot some birds in bush, probably Prinias and some chirps here n there, but then I just came back for breakfast and the days plan. Morning plan was to get back the camera traps, for which some of us went. Nothing much to spot apart from the dense forest, few flowers here and there and some webs of funnel spiders. We came back, now heading towards our next plan to trek to a village closer by. It was getting hot now, probably all wildlife also hidden to save energy during day, so we did not spot anything. Sumanth did spot a Sambhar but no one else saw it, and few vacant burrows. We decided to return back mid-way via another route. There was a view point from where you could see the entire valley. The five layers of hills, not visible otherwise, was a beautiful sight.

Rich forest of the western ghats
Rich forest of the western ghats
It took us another hour to reach back. Dinesh had seen some frog eggs which he wanted to show Sumanth. They all went upstream, I also followed them but bad, I lost them and almost fell into a rock gap, a tree branch saved me. I dropped the idea to search them and returned, but I spotted a frog (Nyctibatrachus Kumbara) which I clicked and later showed to Rishab who told me species.

Lunch was served, that simple and amazing dal chawal, paapad, roti, pickle n curry. We all now were closer as a group cracking jokes and discussing stuff. Rishab, a student of wildlife biology in Melbourne showed photos of his visit in Peru. I was awestruck by the fauna diversity there. Some interesting species like boa snakes, hoatzin birds and fer-de-lance also added to my dictionary. Now followed the best part of day, visit to the water pool upstream. It was a tricky climb at some sections, but I knew each inch of it due to last visit. Poor Survesh had a fall on rock, so he gave up to climb further. We all went ahead and reached the pool. The waterfall above it added different charm.

The secluded waterfall and the memorable dips
The secluded waterfall and the memorable dips
It was cold water and it took me some time to gain the confidence to enter into the deep section. Dinesh seemed like a pro swimmer here, jumping from all places. Later I also started swimming from one side to other, with more confidence. With me were Vinod, Gorika and Harsha as well. After an hour of swim, I was shivering badly due to cold water. We planned to start back now. Sadly we saw litter near the place and I felt the challenge of taking care of 100acres. I thought of taking it back, but Rishab said they will get it cleared sometime.

Return trek adventurous again. Lot of bouldering and then the trick to cross the rock section, that all followed. Since trash disturb my sight always, this time I spotted a camera inside water pool near the rock section. Can’t leave it here, so I decided to jump in and fetch it. Soon we realized, this belonged to Svaresh who was really thankful later when we met him at the hut. I was full wet now but had to continue this way before changing in room.

Some tea and rest, we had plan for another night walk this time in another direction, the same road we came from on day1. Holding our torches in darkness we kept walking looking around for any reptile or any other species. Those tiny glowing eyes of funnel spiders and those of Moths you could easily spot. Sometime later Sumanth saw a ground Gecko. I wonder how he is able to spot them as those are totally camouflaged. He caught it and showed to all. The little chap was angry as he bit Sumanth’s hand. No point others handle it so he left it back, but Rishab tried to catch it again. It dropped its tail and ran-off. A peculiar behavior of Geckos to drop their tail when in danger, as it grows back again. I witnessed this for the first time.

Few minutes later we saw another Gecko, usually found hidden in rocks, the Prasad's gecko. I was lucky to capture it just in time as it vanished.

Later Dinesh spotted a bamboo pit viper snake sitting on a tree branch at a tree top. That was really a good find as it was really hard to notice. It was really beautiful green snake and a venomous one. Later Vinod spotted a bronze-back snake sitting on a branch of a plant. I realized I dint had that sharp eye as I just went passed all of these. Sumanth caught this snake from branch and showed us. It was a non-venomous one so we can handle it, but since it was really scared (evident from poop and tongue movement) we left it back on the branch.

Already quite successful, we kept moving to search more. A lizard sleeping on a tree branch was another beauty. I clicked a moth, a caterpillar and another sleeping bird. This one had fluffed itself and hidden its face under a wing, beautiful. After setting 3 camera traps we started back. I was still looking around to spot something. Apart from house centipede, found nothing.

Back at station, some more talk sessions and I crashed again to my bed hoping tomorrow morning will have better birding around. I set my alarm and got lost into the amazing sleep of that silent place. I miss that badly in this city where I sit right now to pen down the story.

Day3, Medhe field station

Another exciting day as I woke up again before my alarm could ring. And I saw Sumanth was up too, heating that huge vessel of hot water with woods. I wished him morning and he told he caught a cobra this morning.

The episode: Sumanth for a walk uphill and found this huge spectacled cobra lying there. He didn’t had any stick to handle the snake so he just caught it from its tail and brought to the station where he kicked Rishab, still sleeping in his sleeping bag. Rishab had a great start of day with an early morning kick and cobra looking into his eyes. He went to fetch a snake bag and stick to handle the snake. As cobra happily slided into the snake bag, Rishab also went back into his sleeping bag J

Whoa I was excited, but we had to wait till all wake up and Sumanth shows it to all. I went uphill again to spot birds. I was sitting under a huge canopy totally covered by bushes around me. The intent was to hide myself well and spot some birds there. I saw a white bird that flew by at some distance. After another glide I realized, it was the Asian Paradise flycatcher! Wohoo, I saw it again, only after my last expedition. I zoomed in with my camera to capture it but it was swift and maybe it noticed me and flew. I went near stream to see it again but dint happen. I came back for the cobra show as most people were up now.

Strict instructions from Sumanth, do not move when he takes out the snake. All anxiously waited with cameras in their hands and Sumanth very carefully untied the bag, not touching it from below. And the bag is black to keep the snake calm.

He pulled out the snake using the stick, woo it was a huge one. It seemed very polite and just wanted to run away until Sumanth demonstrated how it gets attentive to moving objects. The hood of cobra was up once Sumanth started moving the black bag. The hiss and its strikes on bag were telling the mood of snake. After a couple of strikes, which seemed dry bites only, the cobra now made a big bite on the bag, few drops of its venom fell on floor. I was watching all of it very carefully as I really wanted to understand the behavior of snake. It tried to slide into the black bag again, that’s what snakes do, they want to hide into dark places. Sumanth was real confident and he now moved his foot to distract the snake. The hood was up again and it wanted to strike but he handled it very well. He also showed us how you make a snake angry if you just hang the snake, it is more comfortable when u give a support in middle.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg, Cobra
Sumanth handling spectacled cobra
Now it was time to leave it back. Not any far, just near the station Sumanth placed it on ground. With its hood up the snake kept waiting for a while looking at all people. It was trying to understand the situation. Since it did not move from there for a while, Sumanth picked it up again and placed it little further from where it just moved to the forest.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg, Cobra
The snake gazed for a while before it slithered back to forest
Today was a day for long walk that looped through the forest and met the stream really below, from where we have to trek back along it. We started at around 10.30 and kept walking on the jeep road for almost an hour. On the way we checked out few burrows which were possibly made by Indian Pangolin. One of the burrows was really deep and it curled in somewhere. A possibility of some animal inside but it was hard to check it. We went ahead and then crossed a forest patch to meet the water stream again. Now we had to climb upstream. After little adventure of tackling the rock scriptures, done by running water over thousands of years, we reached at foots of a huge waterfall. After some wait we all climbed it up to now reach another section from where water fell as white milk. I was wondering what a beautiful piece of forest land TGMP was owning. Now things became tricky as this section was hard to climb. With no evident route, we stared to explore a way to the right of the fall. Among thick trees and vines, and the branches full of horns, we were stuck at a ‘no go’ point. Rishab, Dinesh and Anant were figuring out alternate paths but the rule of ‘stick together’ was broken and we lost track of Dinesh and Anant. We figured out a way eventually, but no clue where these two guys went as there was no response of our calls as well (Rule of silence also broken :P). As I heard from Dinesh earlier, they had done some treks into Himalayas earlier, so I was sure they will be able to make it back without any problem. Getting lost is part of adventure and I have experienced it so many times.

After a short climb we hit the jeep trail again and then walk back to station. I was sad, not able to capture anything special today. I kept a slow walk till the station still positive to find something. At station when we reached, Dinesh and Anant were happily enjoying their lunch. They reached 30min before us.

Rest of the day again went in chit-chat. The night walk for tonight would be the last one. Post dinner we started to trek again the same path where we saw Lorises. After an hour of walk, Sumanth found a Vine Snake on a tree branch. That was a real awesome find of this green Snake totally camouflaged over green branches of trees. This was a juvenile. I was uttering its name from day1 but Sumanth told they can be seen mainly in monsoon, but luck played by my side tonight.

Handling the vine snake was the most wonderful feeling of my life. It was a polite species that happily crawled over my arms. I created gaps in my fingers to make it feel like a tree branch and it happily moved between them.  No fast movements, as if it was happy to meet us. We all handled it and then left it back. When it opened its mouth the pink inners were clearly visible. It’s a mildly venomous species, but showed no aggression at all.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg, Green Vine Snake
The very friendly green vine snake
We moved ahead and set-up camera traps at 2 places as Sumanth noticed feces of Leopard (very old, with undigested hairs in it).

Later we were on hill top and Sumanth found treasure! That was nothing but poop balls of wild Hare with which we played the craziest game of my life. You pop in the ball in your mouth, wet it properly and then shoot as far as u can! Yea, we all played that for some time. I even collected some balls as souvenirs : P

Later we did some star gaze, when everyone laid down with me to look up (PJ), and I did show off for a while. We returned back know for the last night in camp, some experiments with torch light we did there and a long talk session that ended at 1am.

Day4

The last chance of bird watch and I didn’t want to miss. I didn’t expect at all that it’s going to be the best one actually. I woke up early again and went to Gerry’s under construction office uphill the station. I was there for almost 45min but apart from a Prinia, I couldn’t find anything. I returned for my tea and again went to the bushes where I saw a puff throated babbler few days back. I was very close to a pair of chirping birds, but a dense canopy separated us so I could not click these chirping ones. Just then a colorful bird flew across and I moved slowly to follow it. Hard luck I couldn’t find it again, but I sat there for some time and suddenly my luck paid back, an Asian Paradise Flycatcher came and sat right in front, few metres away. I was hard to click it as I was behind some dense branches (apparently making me hard to spot), but I did succeed this time. I went closer and it flew away. The colorful bird now arrived, that was an Emerald Dove and later I saw another colorful bird (a blue capped Rockthrush). Already successful for the day I returned back to camp to tell all what I captured. After breakfast I saw the paradise flycatcher was still near the stream below. I just went down and hid myself under the tree branches. A perfect position as I got a better click of the Asian Paradise Flycatcher (both male and female), saw a grey wagtail, the black crested bulbuls, few other birds and my friend Kingfisher. Why friend, coz this guy sat very close to me searching for a fish in stream. I could capture all possible shots and it didn’t move. Phew! My trip was complete now. I saw what all I wished for and it filled me with so much content.

Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Asian Paradise Flycatcher

Black Crested Bulbul (Gularis)
Black Crested Bulbul (Gularis)
Grey wagtail
Grey Wagtail
Blue Kingfisher
Blue Kingfisher
I sat around the stream, with Svaresh, Gorika, Rishab and Sumanth also there, for a natural fish spa. I saw an interesting hexaped inside water, I called water scorpion but till now not sure of species. Gorika was handling a crab with Sumanth and telling how this world was totally new for her. I remembered my time when I came in Feb.

Time for a last dip in the stream and I had an awesome head bath under the natural Jacuzzi. The trip was ending. Sumanth showed us clips from camera trap that we set-up last night. First time a success as we saw a ruddy Mongoose in one. God knows what scared it as it ran off from it. Another photo was bit scary. There were 2-3 poachers in the pic, with guns and hear torches. It was clicked just 45 mins after we came down after the star gaze. Sumanth told these must be small time poachers hunting wild boar etc and will be reported to authorities.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg
Sumanth sharing some tips
2.30 pm, a group photo and time to return. The last walk till the main road and this expedition ends here. With even more memories, learnings and friends these were among the most amazing days in wild away from city life. In the jeep we exchanged more jokes and talks, which also ended at around 5.30 when we reached the place to disperse. I was resistive to turn on my phone even after reaching Belgaum as I wanted to keep the world away for some more time. I explored the city for a while as my return bus was at 8.00pm. After some tea and strolling for about an hour, I boarded my bus back to Hyderabad.

Expedition in the Gerry Martin Wildlife Project in Dodamarg
Visitors of the wild (me on extreme right)

Photo credits: mostly self (Gagan), some by Vinod.

(Written by Gaganpreet Singh, a passionate adventurer and nature lover, working with Microsoft as a Software Engineer. He is also associated with a social initiative 'Joy of Reading' )







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