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The Sacred Forests of India - Kotagarh

Jungle owlets are heard in the darkness before dawn at Kotagarh forest, their calls segueing into the first song of a drongo. With first light we move deeper into the forest, where dew falls onto dry leaf litter as the day's birdsong begins.

Later in the morning, the forest's birdlife, including orioles, parakeets, scimitar babblers, barbets, flowerpeckers and tiny prinias call as they go about their activities, their voices drifting among the trees.

This album is comprised of three sequences; predawn and dawn recordings setting the scene for a longer morning birdsong ambience.

"Kotagarh is a mosaic of forest areas in Orissa state of eastern peninsular India. Our visit there was brief, and beset with difficulties, most of which involved communicating our purpose to local forest rangers.

"Kotagarh is in a remote area, with the forest service headquartered at a small rural village. Despite having full documentation and permissions, these papers had not arrived before us and we spent a full day in negotiations, unsure if we would be permitted to enter the forest the following morning.

"Eventually we arose in the early hours, collected two rangers who would accompany us, and after what felt like an interminable ritual of drinking chai in the village street, set off for the forest an hour away. Despite the delays we arrived before dawn, however the rangers caution our entry into the forest until daylight due to concern there may be elephants.

"I recorded the jungle owlets on the edge of the forest, and the second track under the trees as we first made our way in. The longer track was recorded once we'd walked deeper into the forest. We never saw any evidence of elephants that morning.

"At first I felt our recording endeavours at Kotagarh had been unrewarding, especially considering the efforts we'd made to get there. But taken as a document of this remote region and its birdlife, we decided our recording deserves to be heard, and is actually a rewarding listen.

Part 1 - Predawn at the forest's edge

It is dark on the edge of the forest, with a pale hint of approaching dawn in the eastern sky silhouetting the trees. Jungle Owlets create a distinct predawn chorus. Here several pairs can be heard calling to each other throughout the forest. One can be heard flying in to alight nearby (4.58) before calling and flying close overhead (5.58), disturbing a roosting bird in the process. As the first pale light of dawn approaches, the first songbird to begin the dawn chorus is a Racket-tailed Drongo (6.37). A tree branch falls distantly (9.43).

Part 2 - Dawn chorus under the forest canopy

Now we move under the tree canopy as birds awake to the new day. On this particular monring, it is not a rich dawn chorus, however some nice birdsong is heard along with the steady drip of night dew onto the dry leaf litter on the forest floor. The downslurred whistles of a Black-hooded Oriole (11.08, closer 12.42) are heard, along with the sharp chatter of a pale-billed flowerpecker (12.04) and the soft voice of a Spotted Dove (12.33)

Part 3 - Morning birdsong in the depths of Kotagarh forest

Plum-headed Parakeets are particularly noisy, with a range of animated vocalisations (15.47), while Indian Scimitar Babblers can be heard giving various warm-toned songs in the background (17.30...), then calling closer (20.21, 21.06...). A Common Tailorbird gives a rapid series of whistles (17.17) and a small woodpecker begins drumming (23.19). The Black-hooded Orioles continue calling (23.31...), they are a frequently-heard voice in these forests. A Brown-headed Barbet begins a wind-up call, before settling into a quick and repetitive series of two-note calls (25.25).

The Plum-headed Parakeets continue calling as they move around the forest, and you can just make out the deeper voice of an Alexandine Parakeet in the far distance (40.42). A woodpecker (a Flameback?) calls far off in the forest (44.13), and may be the source of the drumming earlier.

A troup of Hanuman Langurs hoot loudly but distantly, their voices drifting in echo (44.32).

There are a few smaller birds calling at various times, such as a Purple-rumped Sunbird (37.08), and maybe a flowerpecker (49.40), but not all them I can identify.

A Scimitar Babbler begins calling close by (49.58...), and suddenly we seem to have birds all around, including a Puff-throated Babbler (50.11, 52.19...53.36...), another gently-tapping woodpecker, more parakeets, and several flowerpeckers, while a Tailorbird chips in the background. The Spotted Dove is also closer (51.11...), and a Black-hooded Oriole calls in the trees overhead (51.56...). A Black-rumped Flameback now calls much closer (54.00), as does a Common Tailorbird (54.48).

A Brown-headed Barbet begins an unusually stuttering series of vocalisations, as though it just can't get up to speed (69.53), and a pair of Indian Scimitar Babblers call back and forth to each other with resonant voices (76.57).

Our time in the forest concludes with a Spotted Dove calling nearby, delicate tones from a cricket, and a Purple-backed Sunbird in the trees above (87.24)

This recording is also an acknowledgement of the commitment of the forest rangers of Kotagarh and neighbouring wildlife sanctuaries.

During our short visit we met several who shared some of the challenges under which they work. Their stories were extraordinary, recounting long periods on duty away from home and family. We heard of errant elephants raiding illegal alchohol fermenting pits, and of rangers trying to protect both drunken animals and local villagers. And all the while trying to conserve the forest in the face of growing demands for land from local peoples. Throw in the odd corrupt politician, and it is amazing the forest still exists at all.

Actually, significant swathes of the forest don't any longer. We found this out when we arrived. In planning, we'd identified an extensive forest area on the map that looked promising, but discovered that much of it had been cleared for new villages and subsistence agriculture. It was a depressing sight; newly felled timber, hastily cleared fields, bare earth and people who seemed to be struggling to survive.

It is a scenario all too common in developing areas of the world. There are answers to these challenges, involving good governance, vigilance, supporting local economies and engaging people in protecting their natural surroundings. In time, we can only hope a balance will be established, and the forest rangers will be less on the front line.

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