On January 14, 2021, I visited Kaikamba, a small town near Mangalore, Karnataka, in search of the elusive Green Imperial-Pigeon. I was not aware of the habitat I was visiting nor the kind of birds I would see there. As I kept walking, keeping an eye out for large pigeons with metallic green plumage on their wings, back and tail, to my amazement, I came upon a lateritic hillock with grass patches and small bushes all over. The place reminded me of my home at the base of Posadi Gumpe, a lateritic hillock in the Kasaragod district of Kerala.

Lateritic habitats are unique and are mainly seen along the southern coast of India, although small patches or similar rock formations can also be seen elsewhere. According to geologists, laterite is hardened soil with a high concentration of iron oxide. From ancient times, laterite has been used as building blocks in construction, hence the term laterite, which means ‘brick’ in Latin. The term was coined by British physician Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1807. Lateritic landscapes undergo dramatic changes before and after the rains. During the monsoon season, grass and other flowering plants sprout to form green beds across the laterite plateau, and once the rain stops and summer arrives, life here becomes sparse to the eye.

Laterite Grassland Habitat in the summer at Perra Hills in Mangalore
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A view of a lateritic habitat during the summer season at Perra Hills, Mangalore. The dried grass with a scattering of green bushes attracts birds such as pipits, larks, and even raptors that come chasing small reptiles.

While wandering through the lateritic grassland, I passed through an electric substation and a few playgrounds made by the local villagers. Close to the cliff edge of the plateau, I could see some Ficus sp. trees and other fruiting shrubs, where I hoped to find the pigeons I were searching for. Alas, there were no Green Imperial-Pigeons. Instead, I could see a small red stone quarry amid the open grassland. I went near the quarry, and to its right, in direct contrast, lay an undisturbed bed of green. It was a Sunday, and in the absence of workers, the quarry itself seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

Electric substation built on a laterite habitat in Mangalore
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In the centre of the lateritic habitat was an electrical substation. Apart from habitat loss, the large electric poles and power transmission lines pose a threat to the avians of the region. The grassland appeared to be burnt out by some man-induced fire; the bushes here are home to Rufous Babblers, a bird endemic to the Western Ghats.
Laterite stone quarry
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Stone-cutting machinery enables the production of construction-ready red stone bricks. In rooftop lateritic plateaus such as Kaikamba, quarries can go as deep as 15-20ft.

Pied Bushchats were active in the area, their songs echoing across the grasslands as they sat on their low perches, ready to spring on flies and grasshoppers. Tiny paw prints of pipits were everywhere, like an army in search of grass grains and insects. Apart from the Paddyfield Pipit, other migratory pipits such as the Blyth’s Pipit, Richard’s Pipit and Tawny Pipit were also a part of the flock.

Tawny Pipit migratory bird feeding in a lateritic meadow
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Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris), a migrant winter visitor to the Indian subcontinent, is usually seen in meadows and lateritic habitats.
Lesser Kestrel migratory birds seen in Kasaragod in Mangalore
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A trio of Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumanni) photographed at sunrise at Posadi Gumpe Hills, a lateritic hillock in the Kasaragod district of Kerala.

That was when I noticed a small bird, similar in size to the Pied Bushchat but dissimilar in appearance. Curious, I clicked a few photographs. The true joy for a birder is when he comes across something uncommon in the field, and in this case, the bird I photographed was a Pied Wheatear, a rare winter visitor to Southern and Central India. I had earlier missed the opportunity to see the bird when it was sighted at the Kenjar Wetlands in Mangalore. But this time I took plenty of photographs and relished in the company of the visiting wheatear. As it was a rare visitor, the news spread among birders, and the Pied Wheatear from Mangalore eventually became a celebrity! The winter visitor was there for almost a month as the boundaries of the red stone quarry rapidly took over its surrounding grassland.

Pied Wheatear migratory bird seen in Karnataka
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Pied Wheatears (Oenanthe pleschanka) are small insectivorous migratory birds that can be seen in India during winter in open scrubland with scanty vegetation.
Yellow Wattled Lapwings feeding in a lateritic plateau
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Breeding populations of Yellow-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus malabaricus) are common around lateritic habitats. The unsustainable exploitation of lateritic landscapes poses a threat to these birds.

I was unable to visit regularly, but when I did, all I could see was the ever-expanding arms of the quarry. Finally, it was earlier this year, on 22 January, 2022, that I visited Kaikamba again. As usual, the electrical substation towered over me, ready to greet me with a grin. But the surrounding area seemed to be burnt out, probably from a man-made fire. When I reached the spot where I had seen the Pied Wheatear, it was a long horrible moment as I realised that the grassland had vanished and the entire area had been quarried (or at least the upper layer of soil had been dug up). 

destruction of lateritic plateau by quarrying
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A year later, the exact spot where birders had flocked to photograph the Pied Wheatear is now a dusty red stone quarry devoid of life.
Laterite red stone bricks near a laterite quarry
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Red stone bricks extracted from the upper layers stay piled up. They are deemed unfit for construction, unlike the bricks obtained from the more hardened lower layers. Stone cutting machines can be seen in the backdrop.

Forget the Pied Wheatear, even the resident Pied Bushchats were not to be seen anywhere. All I could see were dust-covered Careya arborea trees and some near-dead bushes. Moreover, the workers from the quarry had dumped a pile of garbage near the cliff edge. The rotting garbage, a breeding ground for flies, attracted birds like the Indian Paradise-Flycatcher and the quintessential Black Drongo, creating a strangely disheartening sight.

Destruction of laterite plateau by garbage dumping
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Tabletop lateritic plateaus provide enough scenic views, only ruined by a garbage dump like this one, in this case, begot by quarry workers.

Perra Hills is another tabletop laterite plateau in the vicinity. Although the lateritic area in the centre of that plateau remained intact on my visit, quarries had begun to appear on the edges and would soon engulf everything in sight. From a villager, I heard that some parts of the lateritic habitat had been allocated for building houses for migrant workers in the district.

Akin to wetlands, lateritic habitats are considered as 'wasteland', and the public perception is that these habitats can only be used for red stone mining. But this could not be further from the truth. Lateritic landscapes are known as ‘habitat islands’ due to the level of endemism visible in their floral and faunal diversity. The flowering plant family Eriocaulaceae (Pipeworts) is of interest to botanists, and in the last decade, several new species from the family have been described from different lateritic plateaus across the country. The ephemeral pools created during the rainy season also harbour vast amounts of plant species and interdependent animals. Once summer arrives, the grassland starts to dry up, and all the insects and small reptiles attract hungry birds like pipits, larks and the birds of prey such as harriers, falcons and small eagles.

Langona sp jumping Spider seen in laterite plateau
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A jumping spider (Langona sp.), usually seen in lateritic habitats and rocky terrains. While the flora from lateritic habitats has been studied, the faunal diversity is poorly understood.
Saw Scaled Viper venomous snake in a Laterite Plateau
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Lateritic habitats are home to the Saw-scaled Viper (Echis carinatus carinatus), one of the most venomous snakes found in India. During the monsoon season, if you walk across a lateritic habitat at night, there is a fair chance that you will encounter a Saw-scaled Viper as they usually come out to hunt during that time.

Alas, with the burgeoning human population, the unsustainable use of these lateritic landscapes is also increasing rapidly. Lateritic landscapes are used for red stone and iron ore mining, as garbage dumping yards and playgrounds, to build electric substations and large apartments, and whatnot! Only human intervention can stop these activities, and concerted efforts to educate the public and policymakers about the importance of laterite landscapes are critical for their conservation.

White Stork Rare migratory bird in a lateritic plateau wetland
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A White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), another long-distance migratory bird, searches for food in an ephemeral pool created in the lateritic landscape at Kidoor village in the Kasargod district of Kerala. Migrant visitors like the White Stork and the overwintering Lesser Sand-Plover (Charadrius mongolus) are what inspired Raju Kidoor to protect this lateritic habitat near his hometown.

There are people like Raju Kidoor, who alongside a team of bird watchers and policymakers from the local panchayat, worked relentlessly to act against the unsustainable use of lateritic areas near their home in the Kasaragod district of Kerala. Without such inspiring people and admirable approaches, the fate of every lateritic habitat in the country will be similar to the one in Kaikamba, where the Pied Wheatear once enthralled the birders of Karnataka.