Treasures Hidden in Plain Sight

Published on: 20/03/2024


Photo title: Black-rumped Flameback


Photo Credits: Gowri Subramanya

The Western Ghats never fails to astound me with its rich biodiversity and how it manifests in our experiences, even on a short holiday.

If we had to fathom the richness of this biodiversity, a cursory look at the numbers might help – over 500 species of birds, around 5000 species of trees, 280 species of freshwater fish, over 170 amphibian species and so on. It’s impossible to see them all in a lifetime of exploration.
But it’s an overview.

But even a short slice-of-life view can give us a very palpable experience of how rich this unique biodiversity hotspot is. A short walk in a coffee plantation with a pair of binoculars can reveal wonders hidden in plain sight.

For instance, it’s so common to walk a few steps into the estate in the early hours of the day only to spot some mixed flocks of minivets, barbets and drongos. A ‘mixed flock’ conjures a mental image of birds sticking closely to each other and flying in formations from one spot to another. But that’s not how mixed flocks work. Flocks of the same species – starlings, geese and munias stick close to each other and move like a unit. Mixed flocks don’t seem gregarious enough to form close units. They stay close enough to be seen in the vicinity, yet far enough to appear like they have nothing to do with each other. In a dense forest, they share the canopies among themselves, relying on each other to alert everyone of predators. Denser the woods, the closer the flocks work together.

A plantation has fewer canopies, so the birds are spread out farther but if you pay close attention, you see them moving along the same line, keeping a respectful distance from each other. What’s even more exciting for a curious birder is that these flocks don’t just have one or two representatives of a species. But at least two or three species in a family, some of them endemic to the region. Yet to the untrained eye, they all look like the same bird.

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Photo title: Black-rumped Flameback


Photo Credits: Gowri Subramanya

I’ve been fooled by the dramatic flight and entrance of the flame-backed woodpeckers into the scene, thinking they are all the same species. The flame-coloured cloak and a red cap, sweeping in with loud metallic trills, swooping onto a few trees and surveying their trunks inch by inch, it is easy to be dazzled enough to forget to look closely at them. If you see more than two woodpeckers, chances are they are more than one species of Flameback.

Sharing the the same forests and trees are at least three Flameback species – Greater, Common and Black-rumped (Lesser), with barely a few features to tell them apart. The Greater Flameback Woodpecker wears a golden cloak to cover its red rump, and carries a huge beak and yellowish eyes, dominating the upper canopies of tall trees. Other than the Western Ghats it shows up in the forests of Eastern Ghats, the Himalayas all the way to the forests of SE Asia.

The Common Flameback is a smaller cousin of the Greater, the black stripe from its eye to the neck much thinner and the beak much smaller, eyes darker. It is rarer too, seen only in the Western Ghats in India and in SE Asia.

The Black-rumped Flameback is the one we spot the most all over the country. Its golden cloak is more patterned at the shoulders and it lacks the red daubs of the other two species on its rump.

If you’re having an extraordinaly lucky day, or have a sharp pair of eyes, you might even be spot a Rufous Woodpecker or a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker among the mix. How’s that for diversity?

If a nature walk can yield sightings so rich and diverse, you wonder what hidden treasures these mountains hold that we haven’t developed the eyes to see and ears to hear.

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Gowri Subramanya

Gowri Subramanya is an editor and learning consultant based in Bengaluru, India. Writing and photography are her chosen tools of creative expression and the wilderness is her muse. A keen observer of the interaction between nature and culture, she loves to explore the history as well as the natural history of new places during her travels. With a soft spot for bird songs and a weakness for flowers, she indulges in a healthy dose of tree gazing every morning.

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