Dedicated exclusively to field herping.
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Hi All ! After years of being a regular visitor to FHF, I finally decided to join. One driving force behind it being the sad fact that the forum is gradually falling into oblivion. I miss a lot of the classic FHFers, especially S.E.Asian adventures of Rupert Lewis, Borneo Dispatches by Hans Breur, Costa Rica posts by Robbie Lab and Dr.Dark, Matt Cage, Mike P and so on. Although the social media is overflowing with loads of good shots of rare species, but the story telling part is sorely missing these days. Hence I decided to contribute my part in keeping the diversity alive on the forum, though its infinitesimally small compared to what people here tend to post
So without much further philosophical reflections, let me introduce myself. My name is Mirza Shahzad Alam Baig and I am 25. I have always been fascinated by the natural world, especially herps. I work for the software sector, but use my free time documenting the biodiversity in and around my home city of Cuttack, E.India. Reptiles and arachnids are what I mainly focus on.
I had heard a lot about the Barbara forests nestled in the Khallikote mountain range, which is considered to be the starting point of the Eastern Ghats. Birders visiting the forest always return with extremely rare and elusive bird shots - Malabar Trogon, Indian Pitta, Wiry Tailed Drongo, Dollarbirds and so on. But whenever I searched social media for Barbara forest, I always ended up finding loads of bird related posts only. Clearly, the area has never been studied for reptiles and arachnids, and I decided to visit Barbara in the rains.
I persuaded fellow herper and buddy, Subham Rout, to join for a quick 2 days trip and we decided to make the 125 kms road trip by bike. We set out just after sunrise, and soon started feeling the rise in elevation as we approached the mountains.
On the way, we stopped at Salia Dam (check out in map above). Watching a Brahminy kite swoop down at a fish was a treat.
The reservoir, with the Eastern Ghats in the background
Water from the reservoir is channeled into agricultural fields through this canal.
Though it was still morning, it was scorching hot and we couldn't stay there much longer. Back on the road, we traveled amidst dense jungle. The noise of cicadas soon enveloped us, and we knew that we have left civilization far behind. The roads started getting worse, and finally we had to cross a narrow wooden bridge over a stream. Finally, after being for more than 4 hrs on the road, we reached the Barbara Forest guest house !
After checking in, we immediately hit into the forest. We walked on the main trail, and quickly came upon a narrow stream going into the forest. We left the trail, and started walking along the stream. At one point, I had to remove my shoes and walk into the stream. The area looked great for snakes, and we were hearing all sorts of strange bird calls, all new for us. This was the densest and most pristine forest I have ever been to, and we had high hopes.
Epiphytes growing on a tree
Some wild ginger flower
But after a couple of hours of walking in and around the stream, we were completely skunked at finding anything, apart from a few spiders. But then, it was very hot and we thought we will have better luck in the evening.
Opadometa fastigata, Family:Tetragnathidae
Two members of the Family Thomisidae(Crab Spiders) : Strigoplus sp.(Left) and Thomisus sp. (Right)
We returned to the camp, had our lunch and took a nap. It rained heavily, and we gained high hopes for snakes. That evening we went along the same main trail, and continued walking past the stream we had diverted into earlier in the afternoon.
We did come across some pug marks (which latter turned to be those of the Indian jackal and the jungle cat).
Again, we only found inverts. Not a single common reptile spotted. Such a dense forest, yet so herpetogically devoid.
A sophisticated looking shieldbug, Family: Coridae
Spitting Spider, Scytodes sp. , Family:Scytodidae
The sun went down, along with our hopes of finding anything cool. I have no explanation for the emptiness .We spot-lighted the branches, racked the leaf litter, turned rocks in the middle of the forest. Nothing. We dragged ourselves back to the guest house, only to be met with various queries from the care takers -how many snakes we found, what stuffs of special interest we spotted. I managed to mumble up some answer.
The only good thing we found was that they had already prepared tea and some snacks for us.
But soon, Subham and I started chatting all things herps. Soon I felt enthusiastic about the trip again. We decided to look around the cottage compound at night, which we did.
The cottage at night.
Bracing up for the night
But again not a single gecko, or even a common Calotes. No cool spiders. I realized that if a place is a bird watcher’s paradise, it is not necessarily a herper’s haven.
We woke up early the next morning, and were welcomed by the calls of a Malabar Trogon. We returned to the trail and walked about a km up the trail.
The following 2 different looking spiders belong to the genus Hamadraus, Family Oxyopidae (Lynx Spiders).No idea if they are a different species or male & female of the same species.
Hamadraus sp. , Family Oxyopidae
Hamadraus sp. , Family Oxyopidae
Soon, we came upon fresh elephant dung and sliding on the wet mud. We felt it was time to return to the cottage. Just then, we spotted a malabar giant squirrel frolicking high up in the tree canopy. That was a nice find, and we walked back to camp. After breakfast, we decided it was time to leave as the area seemed no good for herps.
We were back on the road, with the endless, densely forested Eastern Ghats on either side.
But there were no proper trails, and entering the forests was way too risky. Soon ahead, we came across a nice looking boulder .We stopped for a while and behold ! We found the first herp of the trip, though a common one.
Eutrophis carinata ,India's largest skink
The spot looked promising, and we delved a bit further into the forest. Just up a tree right behind the boulder we found this stunning Peninsular Rock Agama !
Psammophilus blanfordanus, Male
I tried to move in closer, but it spotted me and shot up the tree. Within a minute, it had transformed to a drab coloration.
I moved ahead and spotted a second one, again a male in full breeding coloration.
Psammophilus blanfordanus, Male
As we were walking back, Subham pointed towards something in the leaf litter. I spotted a small snake, and glimpsed a chevron marked head. I knew it was an Oligodon, and immediately I scooped it out.
For those who are not aware of these snakes, the genus Oligodon contains some 79 species commonly called ‘Kukri’ snakes, as they have sharp enlarged rear maxillary teeth similar to the Kukri knives carried by Nepali Gurkha soldiers. Some 20 species occur in India, with perhaps only 2 have distribution in the Eastern Ghats. The snake at hand was the much rarer Russel’s Kukri snake, Oligodon taeniolatus
We carried it onto the road to avoid any chances of losing it in the leaf litter.
As I was photographing it, Subham spotted a small scorpion crossing the road. It turned out to be an elusive Charmus species !
So, within 15 minutes of looking around the spot, we found - a rare snake, a skink, 2 cool and uncommon agamids and a rare scorpion !
So, just at the last moment the trip was saved from being an utter disaster to a relatively fruitful one. This was our first trip up the mountain forest, and now we know the right habitat for reptiles. We look forward to returning to the forests for a longer stay and making more significant finds. Also, the trip was a reminder that if herping the tropics can be frustrating, then the Eastern Ghats can be specifically be so. Unlike the Western Ghats, it is sheer luck to find anything worth noting in this part of India.
Sorry for not turning up with more stuff , but surely I will be putting up more posts in the future reporting our herp finds from this less studied part of the globe. Feel free to add any suggestions regarding the post style and content !
Nice photos looks like you had a fun trip.
Thanks AEthelred ! Definitely it was an exciting trip, though we saw much less than we had expected. But just herping in such pristine habitat feels like a blessing even if you do not turn up much in the way of herps
I've heard of the Western Ghats but never heard of the eastern Ghats.where are they
The Eastern Ghats run along India's Eastern coast, starting from the Khallikote mountains (the one we visited above) and going down further South into Peninsular India. The biodiversity here is very poorly documented compared to the Western Ghats.
you read and see a lot on television about the Western Ghats.one likely doesn't hear much about the eastern That's outside of India Im glad you have showed them to us.hopefully in the future they will be better documented
Great report mate, brings me back to the days. It's a shame that certain individuals on the forum and poaching concerns made it no longer viable.
Due to geography of Deccan plateau and how rivers flow on Deccan plateau Eastern Ghats arent a single long mountain chain like western Ghats and are rather discontinuous range. Also Eastern ghats are much more conflict ridden(illegal mining, naxal activity and human-animal conflicts.) and even Indian herpers arent too excited to visit Eastern ghats. Last year I was planning a herp trip to Eastern ghats, so had called couple of my herping friends from that region and they told me before coming to Eastern ghats burn all your camouflage clothing and only wear brightly coloured clothes. the reason for that recommendation was either I would be shot by Police or by Naxal. So ultimately I never made it Eastern ghats and ended up in Thar desert, will be going to Eastern ghats next year after I visit Kashmir Valley(another dangerous place to visit) for herping.
Edit: If anyone is interested I have detailed checklists for few places in Eastern ghats, and just like my spots in Western ghats I do have locations for herping in Eastern ghats for eastern ghats endemic(spot) rarities(geckos, skinks and tarantulas) but they are going to be kept secret.
@Ruxs You have no idea how much I cherished each and every post u made, and how much I miss them now. I remember some disturbed bloke haggling with u over some petty issue like bagging reptiles etc over here, following which u preferred staying aloof from the forum. Such toxic people hardly ever contribute a cent towards making the forum a better place to learn and share, and don't reflect on the amount of hard work that goes into making a good post. Instead will try to dump their ideas on you. It will be great if u just ignore them, and start posting again . There are a bunch of your fans here