Friday, March 29, 2019

Arittapatti - Part 1: Getting there

It seems the OCD that has taken possession of me is rather strong and I've not been able to get out of its clutches despite best efforts. This post reflects that, and it's about birds again but with a twist. Maybe this is my chance to wriggle out of this situation!

Summer has been unforgiving this year. The daytime temperatures have been hitting the forties recently and stepping out, especially after 10 AM, is a test of my body's resilience.  When the opportunity to travel to Madurai landed, I was thinking I'd get out of this furnace, if only for a little more than a day. However, the birder in me was gearing up for further adventures with the feathered kind. As is usual these days, before every trip, I search for potential birding spots around the place I am to visit and try to squeeze in a little time to say hello to the feathered locals. 

Then, one of my birding buddies and fellow professional, told me about a place called Arittapatti. It is a small village off the beaten track and, as I realized, barely known outside of the area that is demarcated by the bordering highways. In fact, my friend from Madurai, whose son's wedding reception I was going to attend, had never heard of the place! So also, the chap in the hotel reception where I was staying, also gave me a blank look when I asked him how I could reach this village. 

Nothing was going to dissuade me in pursuing my quest so on 24th, March 2019, I set off from my hotel at 6.30 am. My first stop was at Vandiyur lake near the hotel. Unfortunately, the restaurant wouldn't open before 7 am and I wasn't going into an expedition alone on an empty stomach. I thought I would hang around the lake, while waiting for the cooks to awaken and whip up my breakfast. After half an hour at the lake, I decided to see if I could appease my now growling stomach. As I got onto the highway I found a small restaurant open and stepped in. While wolfing down the steaming idlis and crisp vadas I asked the waiter if he knew about a village called Arittapatti. He not only knew the place but also proceeded to tell me how to get there! I was well and truly impressed. My expedition was on the roll.

Getting there

Arittapatti is about half an hour's drive from Madurai Integrated Bus Terminus. It takes less than that once you get on the four lane highway, unless you are staying somewhere inside the Madurai city.  Google Maps will show the shortest route through the Melur main road, which is quite congested.

In fact, if you get on the Airport bypass road and then get onto NH38 (Madurai - Trichy highway), you can progress faster even though the route is very slightly longer. (See the second route option below and LINK IS HERE)

After you get on the four lane highway, it is a straight drive for the next 13 to 15 kilometers depending on your point of origin. Once you cross the TVS Srichakra tyres factory that comes on your left, look for the exit. About a kilometer after that is the Narasingampatti bus stop where the service lane starts. Get off the highway onto this exit and you will see the Arittapatti direction board. Take the left turn and drive for about 4 kilometers. It is a straight stretch of recently laid road passing through some lovely scrub forest. Since, this was only an exploratory trip I didn't stop there, and proceeded to Arittpatti. 

Once you reach the village square, a small open area with a tree under which few friendly village folks sit and make conversation while waiting for the next bus to arrive, you have to turn left and go a further one kilometer towards the hillocks which holds some startling secrets! Ask for the 'malai kovil' (hill temple) or Kudavarai Sivan Kovil.

The road winds around the edge of  a large pond, the Anaikondan, which itself seems to have been the part of what once would have been a larger body of water. It was almost dry when I reached there. You can park your vehicle near the hamlet on a low hillock abutting the edge of the pond. 

The children frolicking in the water or the folks going about their daily chores outside the houses will gladly point the way to the 'malai kovil'. You have to walk across the Anaikondan pond where there is every possibility of encountering some of the famed avians of Arittapatti. Then after climbing up the first hillock you descend through some rough stone cut steps into the small valley where all the action is. 
The first view of the Arittapatti valley
 The Arattipatti hillocks lie on the outer edges of the eastern ghats. The hillocks are arranged in a north-east to south-west direction and have many water bodies around them. The major ones were dry but the smaller ones were filled with water and covered with lotuses and water lilies. The paddy fields had already been harvested so the greenery was more of dry yellow.

This was to be an exploratory trip before a detailed expedition could be charted so I turned right and walked along the edge of the southern slopes. Here too was a large pond, completely dry, opposite to the Kudavarai Sivan Kovil. They was removing the mud or clay from the bottom. It appeared that they were desilting the pond.

As you walk further into the small valley there is another hillock between the main ones, the walls of which are quite steep. Ideal location for large raptors and owls to nest.

At the north-eastern end the valley opens up and you can go around the hillocks to reach the edge of open country. There are a few perennial pools covered with water lilies at this place.

Lily ponds

By the time I reached the end of the valley, I had already walked for nearly an hour. The sun was beating down mercilessly and the sweating was dehydrating me. Me being alone I decided that it was time to back track. Discretion is the better part of valour, and I wasn't about to push the limits without help within reaching distance. Arittapatti lived up to its reputation as a birders paradise. On my walk I had already encountered a sizable number of species A more comprehensive exploration with a group would probably yield more. 

The birds of Arittapatti have already left their mark on me and I will  upload details in a subsequent post to follow. However. you may have to wait a bit because the next one will be about the other visitors to Arittapatti, ALIENS!!

Watch for the Alien update soon!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

When a Birder killed the Blogger

More than a dozen years a have passed since I started blogging. After a few fledgling years as ‘tigertracker’, I transitioned into the ‘woodcrawler’. That was because, realization dawned that a forest and the wilderness was not only about tigers or any big cat for that matter. It denizens ranged from the tiny ticks that jump on you when given a chance, to the gentle pachyderms that mostly ignore you if you leave them alone. 

Then something happened in late 2014. Till then ‘woodcrawling’ meant just that, crawling in the woods. Of course, if you thought I was crawling on hands and knees, I forgive you for being mistaken! I would essentially wander around absorbing the sights and sounds of the forest. It would instill a sense of peace and well-being deep inside me that I was once again recharged to take on the big bad world. It was in the November of 2014 that I started taking a more serious note of the avian aspect of nature. Till then, birds were like a tiger, leopard or an elephant, a part of the jigsaw of nature. Suddenly, they became so large in my mind that they dwarfed the mighty elephants too!
It was a mere formality, signing up on the eBird portal and ‘documenting’ my birding adventures. At that time, I didn’t realize that it would become an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and induce certain behavioural changes in me that would make people give me strange looks. It also ‘mortally wounded’ the blog that it effectively killed off the ‘Woodcrawler’s Journal. All my time, free and otherwise was devoted to birds and bird documentation. Even if I had a little spare time, I was invariably making ‘checklists on eBird. While sitting in my office, my ears would be like a Doberman’s, all perked up and listening to birds outside; and my brain would whir and click, cataloguing and classifying the birds I heard. The moment I got a few minutes free, I’d open the eBird app and start a new ‘checklist’!

The consequence of this was that the ‘Woodcrawler’s Journal’ effectively went into a deep comatose state. The posts dried up after 2015 and the few that appeared were related to birds. After a post in February 2017, the next one was after nearly a year, in January 2018. That last post was actually about trying to revive my dying blog, even the ‘Messenger from the Wilderness’, though a full grown tusker was unable to drag it out of the quagmire called birding! 

Now, a year after and many birding trips in the company of like minded and eminently likable folks, I’ve decided that it is time for a rethink. I realized, that I was becoming obsessed with numbers, taking part in challenges put forward by eBird and ensuring that targets were met. The December challenge was the last straw. They wanted checklists with media and I found myself running out of my bath and office to record bird sounds, just so that I could complete the targets!

I found that I was in the Top 50 birders in Kerala and Top 5 for my district for 2018, and horror of horrors I was No.1 for the district without stepping out of the Palghat GAP in January 2019. I’ve almost scored a century of checklists for the month! 

I’d become an obsessive checklist maniac and every waking hour was spent documenting birds, photographing them and recording their calls. All my free time went into editing and uploading my photos and audio tracks into the checklists! I forgot, I had friends and family. I forgot, what it was to have a leisurely breakfast of home cooked food on Sundays because I was out at the crack of dawn chasing feathered fiends. No, it is not a mistake, I didn’t mean feathered ‘friends’, I really meant fiends. Sunday. breakfast had become a forgotten luxury.

I also realized, in this mad run for numbers, I’d forgotten my priority, woodcrawling. Now that I was literally running after birds, I’ve forgotten to soak in the nature around me. It isn’t lost on me that I’m missing out on the best nature has to offer; so occasionally, I do wander off on my own, but the darned birds come around to distract me! 

Pic Courtesy: Adv. Namassivayan Lakshmanan
 2019 seems to be a life changing year and I thought it should also reflect on my attitude to birds and nature. Though I’ve no plans to hang up my birding boots, I’m going to ignore the numbers game. I’m going to turn eBird into an useful tool than the other way round. It helps me document my achievements and as VR, our senior birder says, it will be invaluable to future generations to come. 

Right now, the priority is to revive the comatose blog and bring it into the sunshine again. I will blog about birds, no doubt, but not exclusively. After all, everyone is not a birder! As for eBird, I will continue to contribute, meaningfully because, if not for that portal, I wouldn’t have been able to assess myself and develop into a more serious birder.