Monday, March 27, 2017

Kaziranga - Paradisus Rhinocertainus (February 2017)

I've sometimes been accused of using the word 'paradise' very liberally across my various posts. Guilty as charged, but is there a better word (or term) that does justice to the magical wildernesses that adorn this country of ours? So, till someone pitches in with a better option, 'paradise' it will be. And no park deserves this epithet more than Kaziranga, for a visit here is truly an out-of-this-world experience. And as the title suggests, seeing a magnificent rhino (or seven) is almost a certainty in this most spectacular of habitats. Enough with the adjectives and on with the trip report, you say? Aye, aye Cap'n!

This trip was planned more than 6 months ago, with a couple of close family friends. The primary motive was for our kids to see the rhino, a privilege not available in our part of the country. And of course we wouldn't be averse to seeing a few tigers (or even one!) such is the magnetic lure of that most royal of cats. And for me, the feathery friends that inhabit this place were an extra motivator. And so we set off, a party of 9, with a couple of pleasant days in Kolkata to kick things off. We arrived at the Iora Resort in Kaziranga late one afternoon, and I caught up with the resident expert, Kushal Boruah. He casually asked me if I'd like to check out Grey Headed Lapwings nearby. And while the Lapwings gave us only a distant sighting that evening, Kushal's company and skill really set the tone for what would become a superlative trip.

The next morning started at dawn, before the scheduled jeep safari. Kushal took me for a walk in the small hills behind the hotel, to look for Laughingthrushes. And we climbed towards the top of one hill, he stopped to check in the bushes along the road. I was a couple of steps ahead of him and he suddenly asked me to stop. Almost at the same instant I heard a growling sound from the bush not more than 15 feet away. I turned to Kushal and he motioned me to walk back down the hill. And then he whispered 'Leopard'. He'd seen a smaller leopard jump down the hill and the silhouette of another climb up, almost up to the road. A few more steps and I might have been breakfast. What a thrilling way to start off this trip!

Safari 1 - Agaratoli (Eastern) Zone
Kaziranga National Park is broadly divided into 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) And we headed towards the east for our first safari. Agaratoli does not conform to the classical 'Elephant Grass' Kaziranga stereotype. Is more mixed, with large waterbodies breaking up dense forest as well as the occasional grassland patch. It is also the best zone for tiger sightings these days, with 2 families being sighted quite regularly. So we crossed all our fingers as we entered the zone. For me, the first 10 minutes threw up 3 lifers - a Red Collared Dove in a little forest patch, followed by Northern and Grey Headed Lapwings alongside a waterbody. They were all quite far so no great images, but it was a great way to open the account.

Swamp Deer
Further into the zone and we saw a beautiful sight - a mother Swamp Deer nursing her young calf on the banks of the waterbody. Behind her were hordes of ducks - Pintails, Gadwalls and Wigeons. Heading further, I got my first lifer of the trip - an unexpected one that too; Gadwall. A few birds were feeding in a smaller waterbody and I was thrilled to see these beautiful ducks dive in and out of the water. This was followed up by a family of smooth coated river otters basking in the morning sun. And we did get a glimpse of a rhino, but it was far and in the middle of thick bush. Not quite the Kaziranga stunners that we were used to. So I advised the kids to be patient and wait for a proper rhino sighting. Till then a Grey Headed Fishing Eagle and a White Tailed Eagle in flight would have to do. Now Agaratoli is a single track zone where you go along a single path up to a point and then come back along the same road. On our way back a Small Niltava came and sat right in front of us, but completely against the light. And right across the road, a little bird flitted about and as I pointed it out to Kushal for ID, he said Little Pied Flycatcher. Another little joy that I was least expecting but very happy to get!

Little Pied Flycatcher
On our way out, we saw a rhino move in the grass across a small waterbody. And we waited, in the hope that it would come into the open. And, much to everyone's joy, it did! It was a beautiful male rhino and he came down to the water for a drink. And then he proceeded to lie in the water for a little wallow, allowing us to get a sense of how huge really was. A herd of elephants further down was the icing on what was a superb debut safari. 

Safari 2 - Baghori (Western) Zone
The afternoon safari was in the Western Zone, home to a lot of elephant grass and swamps and hence perfect for Rhino. And almost as soon as we got into the zone we spotted a couple of Rhinos up close. We then headed towards a watch tower which allowed spectacular views of the waterbody as well as the vast meadows on the other bank. And these meadows were dotted with Rhinos. And as the kids started their Rhino count in earnest, Kushal tried to find me some of the feathered friends I was gunning for. An Abbott's Babbler and a Blue Eared Barbet both called from somewhere near, but neither of them were willing to come out into the open. And then as we headed back, we saw Lakpa with his bunch of guests frantically motioning us to come towards his side of the waterbody. When we got there, we saw jeeps queueing up on the road alongside a small meadow which had a few feral cattle grazing. And vehicles only queue up for one reason - the striped wonder. Apparently, one of the drivers had seen a tiger slink into the grass a few minutes earlier. We all waited in anticipation, guessing that the tiger might be stalking the cattle. And they too were on high alert for quite a while before settling back down. And we knew we had to move on. 
Rosy Pipit
Further ahead in another waterbody, I got Common Pochards and a large flock of Ferruginous Ducks. And then in another little swamp a little bird flitting around turned out to be a Rosy Pipit. By then, it was almost sunset and we turned around to head back. We passed a gap in the elephant grass and noticed a herd of Hog Deer grazing peacefully in the open. Barely 20 seconds after we crossed that gap we heard urgent alarm calls from the deer, followed by the deer running away at top speed, still continuously calling. It could only mean one thing - a Tiger! We searched through the bush for any signs of the striped wonder, but no luck. The tiger would have walked through the gap barely seconds after our jeep passed it. Such are the ways of the jungle. It also makes one even more aware of how much of a privilege it is to see tigers, or indeed any of the other species in the forest. And thus ended the day on a philosophical note.

Safari 3 - Kohora (Central) Zone
The morning dawned bright and clear as we drove into Kohora. And almost at once we saw a Rhino right next to the road. This guy was battle scarred and had some recent souvenirs etched on his rump. He saw us, thrust his head into the air and pulled back his upper lips, almost like sizing up our odours. We thought he might charge and pulled slightly further away so as not to agitate him. And a little further were 2 other rhinos, possibly a mating pair. While we watched them, Kushal pointed out a bird sitting far away on a post. it was a Striated Grassbird. I managed to see it clearly through the binoculars though it was too far for a photo. And we drove further along the meadow and suddenly a large flock of small weaver-like birds perched on the tall grass stems. I'd assumed they were Baya Weavers, but Kushal and our superb driver Papu, both confirmed that they were Finn's Weavers. What a bonus! The birds then arrived on a tree almost right above us, so while they were too far up for quality pictures, I was satisfied with record shots.


Swamp Francolin
Driving on and I saw two largish birds cross a path on our left and quickly pointed them out to the expert duo in front. Swamp Francolins! Got a couple of records as they melted into the grass, but the morning was turning out to be quite special already. We stopped at the nearby watchtower to scan the surrounding area for any sign of tiger activity. A couple of alarm calls had us on edge for a bit, but that soon died out. Instead, a Chestnut Headed Babbler started calling right from right next to the path, followed by a Slender Billed Babbler across the path. As I kept watching for signs of either, almost like a tennis match... the Slender Billed made a fleeting appearance, though not for pictures. Even as we headed back in the jeep, the Chestnut Headed appeared in the open, obviously keener on a photo shoot than his Slender Billed relative. Got off a few shots of this beauty and then it was back to the hotel.
Chestnut Capped Babbler

Safari 4 - Agaratoli Zone


Northern Lapwing
The last safari of the trip and the tiger became the focus of all attention. Kushal and Papu recommended that we head to Agaratoli where 2 tiger families made frequent afternoon appearances. And that settled it as we headed back to the Eastern zone. A beautiful Rhino all in the open started that safari, followed by a Northern Lapwing up close. A raptor on a tree turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon. But we pressed ahead to the spot where the tigers were normally seen. And waited. And waited. At one point, the Hog Deer seemed genuinely on alert and there were frantic few alarm calls. And we waited breathlessly as the tall grass parted... and a Rhino walked out! To have the last laugh, I suppose. Though the striped wonder was probably sitting in the grass nearby and chuckling its stripes off at us. Net, we didn't see a tiger on that safari  though our Rhino count had swollen to very respectable levels.

Day 3 - Birding in the tea estates
White Browed Piculet
The final morning in Kaziranga dawned with me heading out with Kushal, Papu and Lakpa for a morning around the tea estates. The kids had a taken an elephant safari where they saw Rhinos up close, but still no tigers. And we drove to a nearby tea estate and skirted through the surprisingly tough tea bushes into the undergrowth. 3 birding experts with me and I was thoroughly spoilt. In the tea gardens itself, we saw a flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes, albeit slightly far away. Into the undergrowth and immediately they conjured up a Pale Chinned Flycatcher, followed by a White Browed Piculet and then a Rufous Fronted Babbler. The Piculet was the only one who posed for a photo, thus proving himself to be a far more willing model than his Speckled cousin. Even as I clambered up the slope back into the tea gardens, I had my first encounter with the local leeches. It's amazing how quickly they can latch on to you and this friend helped reduce my considerable weight by a few ml of red fluid.
Yellow Vented Flowerpecker
We walked on, to the calls of White Browed Scimitar Babblers and fleeting glimpses of a Large Cuckooshrike, Black Rumped Flameback and Yellow Bellied Warbler. And then Lakpa noticed a movement far above in a tree. It was a Yellow Vented Flowerpecker, one of the rarer varieties of this species. Another superb stroke of luck. We walked towards a stream where Kushal hunted for Black backed Forktail but all his efforts were in vain. With another flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes and a glimpse of a Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker to close out the trip, we headed back to the hotel. I had to see off the rest of the gang on their way to Mumbai and then Lakpa and I would head further to bird in Upper Assam and then Arunachal Pradesh.

Kaziranga is truly spectacular and the Rhino alone makes it a 'must visit' destination. But there's so much more to see and experience in this most wonderful of National Parks. And with experts like Kushal and Papu for company, you will always come out with more than you'd expected. 
Rufous Necked Laughingthrush

Kaziranga Trip Guide
Kaziranga National Park is about 200 kms east of Guwahati, Assam's main city and nerve centre. The closest big town (and airport) is Jorhat, about 110 kms away. It's a park that's surprisingly easy to access and has a number of well appointed places to stay, across a range of prices.

How to get there
Jorhat's Rowriah Airport (110 kms - 2 hours) is the closest airport. The highway is being expanded to a 4 lane (except in the Park area) so the drive will be even more pleasant when it's completed.

Jorhat is connected to most big Indian cities via Kolkata and Guwahati and most airlines have a daily flight here.

You can also drive here via Guwahati (4-5 hours) if that provides a better flight connection.

Where to stay
Kaziranga has a number of places to stay, across budget ranges. Since we were traveling as families, with kids and an elder with us, we chose the comfortable Iora Kaziranga. It's a lovely setting with wonderful, large rooms and an excellent Assamese restaurant. The rest of the F&B act can do with some tightening though. Iora also has Kushal, so it was the perfect choice for us in more ways than one.

Wild Grass is the oldest hotel in Kaziranga, though not as luxurious as Iora. Hardocre wildlifers not chasing luxury usually head here. Their naturalist Palash Barua is also a local legend. I've stayed there on a previous visit.

Safaris
Zones: Kaziranga has 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) One should aim to cover off all these zones at least once, so please plan a trip with at least 4-5 safaris.

Timings: The timings in Kaziranga are a bit strange. The park opens at 7:30 in winter, which is probably the latest of any park in the country. Given its location in the far east of India, it is bright at 6:00 am even in peak winter, so the 7:30 time is a bit difficult to fathom.

The afternoon safari is more in line with other parks, entering around 2 pm, till around sunset.

Guides
All hotels have their own naturalists, so do ask for them in advance. The park has forest guards (with guns) who accompany some of the vehicles and these guys are very well informed as well. Unlike other parks, mandatory, rostered Forest Guides do not exist in the Kaziranga system,

And if you're staying in Iora, please do ask for the superb Kushal Boruah. If possible, he will team up with the super-sharp Papu Choudhury and together they will make your trip a memorable one.

Food
Assamese food is absolutely delicious, with a combination of delicate flavours and some serious chilli. The local food that we had in Iora's assamese restaurant was superb!

Other tips
Kaziranga can get cold in winter, so do pack some woolies or jackets.
Check for rain forecasts, and pack some basic rain wear and protection for your cameras.


Finn's Weaver

Grey Headed Lapwing

Lesser Adjutant Stork

Mallard


Friday, March 24, 2017

Nilgiris - Familiar haunt, new birds (January 2017)

The Nilgiris are like Santa Claus' sack filled with goodies. Every time you dip in there, you come up with a gift that's new and completely unexpected. And so, I always jump at the opportunity to make my way there. With the expertise and company of Aggal Sivalingam, one always knows something interesting is just around the corner of these adorable hills. And a trip to Bangalore In January was the perfect catalyst to head to Kotagiri for a couple of days, with the ever-willing Ramesh Ganeshan and effervescent Aseem Apte for company.

Day 1 - Coonoor and Palakkad
Nilgiri Wood Pigeon
An overnight drive via Salem and Erode (on excellent roads) brought us to Sivalingam's little patch called Aravenu, a little before the charming hill station of Kotagiri, just after dawn. Hopefully the Painted Bush Quails would visit his backyard and my two companions would get their photos. But a rueful shake of the head from Sivalingam put paid to those hopes and we headed to Sims Park in Coonoor, hoping to catch some of the specialities there. And within minutes of entering the park (on a strangely cloudy day) our spirits were boosted by a Brown Breasted Flycatcher and then a Nilgiri Wood Pigeon. We quickly got some pictures before heading on to the main course.

Black and Orange Flycatcher
At one thickly wooded spot, Sivalingam stopped and motioned for us to squat on the path. "Cameras ready? Black and Orange Flycatcher", he whispered. And a pair duly appeared, flitting about next to the path before settling down on the ground and twigs in front of us. The cameras went into overdrive especially when one of them hopped on to a particularly pretty moss covered branch. And while we were engrossed with this couple, Sivalingam conjured up another little beauty - The Indian Blue Robin. It's a widespread winter visitor to Western and Southern India, but not that easy to photograph. Initially, it stayed at the fringes and out of clear sight, but the desire to feed overpowered its intuitive shyness as it also came into the open for a brief while. Two little beauties done and we were in line for another as just down the path, we came across a Nilgiri Flycatcher sitting in the open. A few pictures of this lad, and then Aseem wanted (and got) an Emerald Dove flock.

Nilgiri Flycatcher
We were on a tight schedule because we'd badgered Sivalingam to take us to Palakkad's Malampuzha Dam that afternoon, where a few Amur Falcons were still camped out. The gracious man that he is, he agreed and we set out on a 140km ride to catch these spectacular winter visitors, stopping only for a late brunch of delicious dosas and coffee at a roadside stall. I was on pins and needles (and doing most of the badgering) since it was mid-January and the already delayed Amurs might leave at any point for the final leg of their epic journey to Southern Africa. And as we pulled in to the scrub patch at the far end of the dam, I was infinitely relieved to find 4 birds still there.

Amur Falcon
And there they were, perched on the electric wires, right above our heads. It all took a few moments to sink in; I'd always wanted to see Amurs up close and a flight shot in Mumbai was all I'd managed earlier. This time, we would spend an entire afternoon with these 4 female Amurs. They shifted from perch to perch on the wires, scanning the ground below for insects and then all of a sudden, one would fly out, hover and dive to catch its prey and then fly back to the perch. Unfortunately, all the hovering was against the light, so majestic pictures of Amurs hovering in golden light were not part of the menu for that afternoon. All along I prayed for one bird to settle for a while on the ground, not too far from us. Not much of an ask, what? They seemed unwilling to grant that wish initially, as they went further and further away to hover and descend. So we waited. And waited. And watched.

At one point, they all just vanished. Flew off their perches and just disappeared in an instant. And we soon saw why - A Booted Eagle was on the hunt and the much smaller Amurs, raptors themselves, did not want to end up as an afternoon snack. He was on a non-raptor diet that afternoon as he managed an Egret kill and hoisted it back to the hills from where he came. All too far for our cameras though. And as he exited, the Amurs cautiously returned and I breathed my second sigh of relief that afternoon. And the birds gave us pay-off for our patience as a couple of them descended to the ground and stayed there for a precious few seconds, enough to give us decent record shots. And as we (unwillingly) left them late that evening, we marveled at these incredible, intrepid, global travelers and thanked our stars that they've chosen our country as their preferred pit-stop destination. We also said our silent thanks to all those involved in their conservation, especially in Nagaland, where their killings have dramatically declined from the hundreds of thousands to virtually nothing, all in a few years.


Day 2 - Kotagiri
An early start the next morning and our target was the Kashmir Flycatcher, another rare winter visitor to these parts. Sivalingam is a master of the region and he had identified a forested spot frequented by a male. Who led us on a merry dance through the woods without giving us more than a brief glimpse of his magnificent orange plumage. Weary, we left him to his devious devices and headed further to see if we could find the Nilgiri Blue Robin, another bird I was keen to photograph. No luck on the Robin but we did get a glimpse of a Nilgiri Laughingthrush and the call of my old enemy, the Scimitar. Nothing more. But better luck was around the corner, quite litterally.
Nilgiri Thrush
As we headed towards a rocky little stream, Sivalingam said Thrush, making us all jump out of our skins. And we all descended into the patch to the left of the road, where he said he'd seen the Nilgiri Thrush, another 'high on the list' bird. Even as we searched, Aseem decided to cross back to the other side to try and find the Laughingthrush. I'd asked him to whistle if he saw the Thrush, in case it crossed over to his side of the road. We soon gave up our search and as soon as we got to the road, we heard Aseem call. And we rushed to his side and saw the Nilgiri Thrush fly upwards from a perch right in front of us. He'd seen it forage in the dry, leafy bed of a stream and was frantically trying to call us. Sivaligam then decided to climb the rocks and head upstream even as Aseem (again) decided not to join. And a few steps later, we saw the bird once again, this time clearly. It had its back to us, so we didn't get great pictures. And it was our turn to frantically call Aseem but he was apparently out of earshot. Then the bird flew up, beyond our line of sight. And perfectly within his! And he got some excellent pictures of this beautiful, elusive skulker.

Kashmir Flycatcher
An excellent lunch at a local 'mess' followed by some interesting Arun ice-cream and we were ready for the final course, a short stab at the Kashmir female. This time we headed to a wooded garden of a friend of Sivalingam's fully equipped with a bird bath even. Mrs Kashmir was not in the mood for a shower but was certainly inclined for some action, just like her male colleague that morning. She ensured we covered every bit of that garden and fell over every type of bush and shrub in an attempt to shoot her portfolio. Finally we managed a couple of not so respectable record shots, yet grateful for the good fortune to even be able to see this gorgeous bird. And so, we headed back to Bangalore, fully sated, with most of our target species covered off; and all in a day and a half.

Indian Blue Robin

Nilgiris Guide
This part of the Nilgiris (Ooty/Coonoor/Kotagiri) offers a lot of birdlife and with a 2-3 day trip here you can cover off most of the endemic species of the area. It's easily accessible, with great roads and pretty reliable tourist infrastructure because of the crowds that throng these hill stations

How to get there
Coimbatore (86kms from Ooty) is the nearest airport and major railway head. It's connected with direct flights from Mumbai, and via Chennai from most other cities.

The drive from Coimbatore is on very good roads, whether you take the branch to Kotagiri or Coonoor.

Where to base yourself
Kotagiri or Coonoor would be great, since they're also close to Sivalingam's place. Else Ooty, though it's a bit further away.

Places to stay

Kurumba Village Resort
This is where I stayed in April 2016. It's a lovely resort full of all the mod cons, but reasonably distant from Coonoor or Kotagiri. It has a lot of birds in its own campus, so that is a plus. 

Kotagiri
There are many good homestays in Coonoor and Kotagiri so accommodation shouldn't be a challenge. Sivalingam will help find you a good one, depending on your budget.

Guide
The local legend is Aggal Sivalingam. What he doesn't know about the area is probably not worth knowing. He's a fantastic birding guide and a lovely person. Give him a call on +91-9486530021

Car and driver
You will need a car to travel across these varied spots. Either take your own car or hire from one of the many companies in Coimbatore. Or else Sivalingam can arrange for one as well.

Food
The food at Kurumba is nothing short of sensational. And in Kotagiri, the food at Hari Mess, just off the main square is absolutely divine. It's a small, mess style place with food served on banana leaves. You will love the food and you will not believe the prices!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Thattekad - God's own birds (December 2016)

The forests of the Western Ghats provide some spectacular birding opportunities and Thattekad in Kerala would make a strong case to be the crown jewel. This little patch of paradise, about an hour's drive from Kochi, was always on the 'must visit' list and a family trip to Kerala offered the perfect chance to spend a few days here, with my good friend Nissim for company. Playing host was Mr. Thattekad himself, the legendary KV Eldhose. What he doesn't know about this place is probably not worth knowing!


Day 1 - Hide-and-seek

Eldhose Jacob, a fine naturalist himself, schooled by Eldhose Senior picked me up at the airport, Nissim having been delayed by a day. I arrived at the Birding lodge, quickly settled into one of the comfortable cottages and Eldhose asked if I wanted to start right away. And I needed no further invitation, so he drove me to a small hide he'd set up a few kilometres away from his place. And I settled in to spend the afternoon with just the birds for company. And saying that they didn't disappoint is putting it mildly.

Blyth's Starling
A flock of Blyth's Starlings and a couple of Greater Racket Tailed Drongos were the first to arrive on the scene and they quickly stamped their authority over the area, along with the noisy Jungle Babblers. A Malabar Whistling Thrush seemed keen to break their hegemony and his noisy, un-mellifluous (if there is indeed a word like that) cameo was completely at odds with his carefully cultivated 'Whistling Schoolboy' image. Talk about true colours! So the first half hour was spent watching this multi-cornered joust for control even as a Yellow Browed Bulbul waltzed in and out, apparently disinterested in watching this spectacle unfold. I was also keenly aware that this feud was keeping the smaller birds (and my lifers) away and hoped that this would play out soon. After all, spending a hot afternoon alone, with only 4 common species was not part of the plan. But I needn't have worried, for democracy was far more respected and followed by the area's avian residents than I'd given them credit for. For, their appetite sated, the larger combatants left the arena. And that's when the show really began. For me.

Blue Throated Blue Flycatcher
A flycatcher sized bird that initially kept hopping about in the fringes now dared to come out and perch in the open - Blue Throated Blue Flycatcher. This beautiful little bird was on top of the list for me and as he perched and preened, I could see exactly why he's such a little delight. The blue on his throat is what gives him his name (obviously) and the main feature that sets him apart from his cousin ,the Tickell's Blue. A Brown Breasted Flycatcher and a Black Naped Monarch boosted the flycatcher family's attendance, and a couple of Orange Headed Thrushes debuted their family's score. The prized catch for that period however was a beautiful Black Fronted Babbler. He was a little skittish and exited very quickly after a couple of snifts of water. Enough time however to get in a couple of frames.

Dark Fronted Babbler
For a while after that it was the usual suspects. The Blue Throated quickly went from being coveted lifer to omnipresent beauty and the Drongos, Babblers and Starlings all returned for a repeat, with a Blyth's Reed Warbler providing some variety. And then, as sunset approached, the action started heating up - the Rusty Tailed Flycatcher flirted with me via a special appearance followed by a pair of Brown Cheeked Fulvettas. And then, an unexpected bounty - a flock of Grey Headed Bulbuls! They were kind enough to provide a proper photoshoot before they took their leave and a Puff Throated Babbler provided some more frames. I would have happily taken that tally for the afternoon, but an Asian Fairy Bluebird provided the cherry on the cake. So, as Eldhose came to pick me up at sunset, I was a fairly satiated beast. For the moment, of course!

Grey Headed Bulbul

Day 2 - Thattekad forests
Red Spurfowl
Early the next morning, Eldhose drove me to another little patch, for fowls this time. As we waited for those to appear, the local Philippine sub-species of the Brown Shrike turned up for a close sighting. And then a beautiful pair of Red Spurfowls strutted up and down before making their exit, only to be replaced by a family of Grey Junglefowl, led by a magnificent male. Perfect to whet the appetite before breakfast. Post that repast, I was joined by local guide Ajomon (with Eldhose Jr otherwise occupied) and a half hour drive later, we arrived at the fringes of a thick forest and set out to locate the area's specialities. Starting with the region's signature bird - The Ceylon Frogmouth.
Grey Junglefowl
Within 10 minutes of entering the forest, Ajomon took me to a 'Frogmouth spot' and there, I saw this remarkable bird for the first time and it's impossible to really do it justice in words. That frog-like mouth (which gives the bird its name) coupled with serene eyes give the impression of a wide-mouthed, ever smiling monk. At least in the day when it's resting (hear it's call in the dark and that's another experience altogether) This bird was a solitary female and we left her quickly, just in case the male was around and we were hindering his trip back to his mate. And we walked on to a clearing where a couple of other birding groups were also scouting the trees in the vicinity. And quickly hit pay dirt.

A Malabar Barbet sat on the higher branches of a tree, too far though for a decent picture. We had better luck with a Malabar Woodshrike and a flock of Orange Minivets. And even as we watched, a dark bird flew just above our heads - the trademark white patches allowed us to ID it as another one on THE list - a Dollarbird. A Green Imperial Pigeon completed a pretty decent start to the day.  Not that Ajomon was done; he went looking for some of the area's trademark owl species - Sri Lanka Bay Owl, Brown Hawk Owl and Brown Wood Owl. He came back shaking his head and we wandered off to look for another Frogmouth pair. And as we saw other groups entering a little jungle path, we waited till they came out, so only a few of us would be with the birds at one time. Our turn came and and they very kindly gave us an audience as they rested in the heat of the day. A flock of Dark Fronted Babblers also flitted about in the bush as we exited the forest. And I thought it was time to go back, but Ajomon had other ideas. He motioned me to wait in the jeep as he wandered into another section of the forest.

Sri Lanka Bay Owl
And came back with a bid smile on his face. I asked him "Trogon?"and he said "No. Bay Owl". What a bounty! We made our way through the bush and there, high up on a tree sat a beautiful Sri Lanka Bay Owl. A lifer to beat all lifers. Getting a clear shot was tough given all the undergrowth but it was special just to see this bird. And that smile on my face got even wider as we spotted a couple of Malabar Trogons right next to the road. One of them gave me enough time to set up my tripod and get some decent frames. I'd seen this bird before in Bhadra, but like Ramki said at the time, it was a 'Pandharpur sighting' i.e. way too distant. Now, he was close by, albeit a bit high up in the trees. And that stamped a perfect morning's birding.

Asian Fairy Bluebird
Nissim arrived that afternoon and we promptly headed back to the same hide with Eldhose. And Nissim got his share of lifers that afternoon as all the previous species (bar the Dark Fronted Babbler and Rusty Tailed Flycatcher) turned up. And a few more as well, to make up for these two. An Indian Blackbird came and stayed for a long time, and a White Bellied Blue Flycatcher and both Fairy Bluebirds paid a visit. Personally, I got another unexpected little beauty -  a Forest Wagtail; this little ballet dancer strutted and performed its quaint little dance as it waltzed in and out of our frames. And just before sunset (exactly as Eldhose had predicted) an Indian Blue Robin hopped out from the bushes. It was a female and we happily took pictures even as we waited for her beautiful mate to arrive. He didn't and as Eldhose came to pick us up, he said that the male was right near a stream near where he was sitting. 

Forest Wagtail
A Drongo-Cuckoo (in poor light) finished the evening, or so we thought. For as we stood, having a delicious cuppa at a roadside coffee shop, we asked him about the chances of Nightjars, especially the Great Eared one. Even as Eldhose started to tell us how tough it was, he pointed to something flying above us and said 'There!'. And it was a Great Eared Nightjar in flight - the long tail clearly gave it away. It was too quick to get photos, but a clear sighting of an elusive bird was special nonetheless. And it was further compounded by a Jerdon's Nightjar that flew across our jeep, just as we got back home. Another superb day!

Day 3 - Thattekad forests
Malabar Trogon
Eldhose Jr. joined us the next day as we set out to another part of the forests around Thattekad. This time our targets would include the magnificent Black Baza, a reasonably common visitor at this time of the year. Unlike all the groups (before and after) we only got the bird in flight; Eldhose tried his best for hours but we just couldn't get the bird on any decent, visible perch. We shrugged our shoulders and moved to another part of the forests, near the Idamalayar Dam- the targets included Rufous Bellied and Legge's Hawk Eagles. We got neither bird, but saw brief glimpses of White Bellied treepies, Rufous Babblers and Flame Throated Bulbuls, without any pics though. As we were driving back, a Malabar Trogon right next to the road stopped us in our tracks. And this beautiful male bird gave us a superb portfolio shoot, more than making up for an otherwise frustrating morning session.

Malabar Grey Hornbill
That afternoon was spent between a couple of different hides, starting with one which offered the promise of Malabar Grey Hornbills and White Bellied Treepies. And the Hornbills turned out in force, putting out a superb performance for us. The much sought after Treepies did not come, much to our disappointment. Eldhose then led us back to the resort, where he drew a green curtain, to reveal an Indian Pitta, up close. That was followed by a spell at another hide where we got some decent images of Drongos, Starlings and Woodpeckers. The piece de resistance was the local Jungle Owlet who came for his time in the spotlight, just around sunset. As it turned dark and we headed to our rooms, Eldhose called us back with a question, "Do you want to see owls?" And he trained his searchlight on a nearby tree to reveal a Mottled Wood Owl and another tree threw up a Brown Fish Owl. The light was on the owls for only a few seconds before he turned it off and let the birds melt into the night.

Indian Pitta
Day 4 - Munnar
We set out with Eldhose Jr. early the following morning for Munnar, a vibrant hill station full of lush tea plantations. But for us, it held several attractions of the avian kind, including some endemics found nowhere else. Our bird list rose with the rising sun, with a Crested Goshawk basking by the side of the road in the early morning sun, followed by Hill Mynas and Nilgiri Flowerpeckers feeding on a nearby tree. These were just appetizers en route to the main course - the Eravikulam National Park. This park, known primarily as the home of the endemic, endangered Nilgiri Tahr also boasts an impressive array of birdlife. You drive to the base of the park and then continue in forest department buses to the next point. From there you're allowed to walk on a designated path for about a kilometre. It was on that path that we had to seek all our targets.
White Bellied Blue Robin
Just as we got off the bus, Eldhose spotted a bunch of Hill Swallows on the wire above, marked by the orange on their faces and throats. We then joined the throng of other tourists on the path, most of them staring curiously at our cameras and wondering what we were upto. We waited at one point and Eldhose started scanning the bushes for some movement. Soon he had a smile on his face as he said 'Kerala Laughingthrush'. And this beauty soon appeared and posed for a couple of pictures. And that was followed up by another little stunner - the White Bellied Blue Robin. This guy was even more co-operative and gave us a reasonable amount of time to take pictures. A Tickell's Leaf Warbler added to our tally but the Nilgiri Thrush, that master skulker, eluded us this time. We went till 'The Point of No Return' and turned around from there. On the way back, we saw a beautiful herd of Nilgiri Tahr on the rocky slopes, though not very close to the road. Back to the buses and onwards to our car and then it was time for lunch in Munnar town.
Kerala Laughingthrush
Eldhose had planned a hectic post lunch schedule and I was particularly keen to see the endemic Nilgiri Pipit. First it was time for a couple of others, as we found a spot with a Nilgiri Flycatcher pair followed by a tiring and fruitless hunt for the Black and Orange Flycatcher at multiple places. I was getting a bit edgy about missing the Pipit, but Eldhose assured me that the bird would be at the 'spot' between 4:30 and 5:30. In the interim, we visited another little patch of forest, which suddenly seemed to come alive with activity. Plain Rosefinches, Sunbirds and a Kerala Laughingthrush flitted about while the Black and Orange remained elusive. And then came the call of another old adversary - the Indian Scimitar Babbler. It was in a bush right next to the road and we heard it call and saw it jump about in the shrubbery. Knowing that he will give us ONE clear shot in the open, we waited, with our cameras trained at the bush. Devious little so-and-so that he was, he emerged on another twig, completely in the open. And as always, he was gone before we could train our cameras on him. Another frustrating, teeth-gnashing encounter in this ever continuing feud.
Nilgiri Pipit
We then headed to the 'spot' which turned out to be a traveler stop on the highway, replete with tea and snack shops. As we looked beyond into the valley, there was a reasonable amount of debris from these shops. And this was where the Nilgiri Pipit paid a daily afternoon visit. I looked with no little skepticism but it was exactly as Eldhose had forecast. Four forty-five and a bird flitted up to one of the rocks amidst all the debris. And there it was! Over the next half hour or so, two Pipits gave us a pretty good sighting even if in not exactly salubrious surroundings. A Nilgiri Flowerpecker also fed close by, but the surprise packet was a Painted Bush Quail -we saw one individual forage in the bush below and Nissim got his lifer and a few decent shots. Even as we headed back, a flock of Rufous Babblers provided sightings but proved too secretive for any decent pictures.

Jerdon's Nightjar
The day wasn't over though. Eldhose had planned some night birding in the forest around the house. And Jr walked us through the jungle path in complete darkness, with only a torchlight for light. And he would frequently switch it off as we stood in zero visibility, listening for bird sounds. I'd never been in a forest in pitch darkness before and it was not a pleasant feeling. Shows us how much we humans depend on vision as our primary sense. Then I discovered the sound of the Frogmouth. It is as harsh as the bird looks benign! We didn't see any but Eldhose spotted a Jerdon's Nightjar on a perch and we managed a few quick photos as we walked out of the forest.

Day 5 - Thattekad Forests
We had just the morning for birding and the first priority was to get Nissim his Frogmouth sighting. So we headed to the first morning's spot and we saw the pair. Eldhose left us to look for the Bay Owl (and a couple of others) and even as we clicked away, a movement virtually under my feet made me look down and to my amazement I saw an Indian Blue Robin male strut around in the open. He was so close that we couldn't even focus our cameras. He flitted away without giving us a pic and we went back to the Frogmouths. The owls weren't available for a visit so we headed back to the camp. Nissim had an earlier flight so we saw him off and decided to make one final trip to Edamalayar. The Legge's weren't on their designated perches but Eldhose saw a raptor soaring high up in the thermals. A closer look and record photos revealed a Rufous Bellied Eagle. Another bird that was long on the wishlist!

And with that special bird ended a superb birding trip to God's Own Country. So much still left to see, so a repeat is definitely on the cards!



Thattekad Trip Guide
Home to most of the Western Ghat endemics and host to some very special migrants in winter, Thattekad is definitely a place every birding enthusiast should visit. This little piece of paradise is nestled in one of India's most tourist friendly states, so a lot of the basics are essentially taken care of. 

How to get there
By train to Ernakulam Junction - Ernakulam (64 kms - about 1 1/2 hours from Thattekad) is the rail head for Kochi and trains from pretty much all across India terminate or pass through this station. 

Kochi Airport (45 kms - about an hour) is the nearest airport and very convenient. It's connected to most cities in India and a number of international destinations as well.

Places to stay

KV Eldhose's camp, right next to his house and set in a lovely plantation has 4 comfortable cottages. We ate delicious home cooked food in his house itself and the hospitality from Eldhose and his daughter Ashy, is impeccable.

Guide
Eldhose is the original master of birding in Southern India, especially this part of the Western Ghats. What he does not know is probably not worth knowing.

These days however, he rarely leaves his camp except for the hide visits. But he has a bunch of fantastic trained guides who are experts in the area. Our own Eldhose Jacob (Jr.) was absolutely fantastic and a pleasure to be with.

You can reach Eldhose KV on eldhose.kv@gmail.com or on +91 94474 86664. Or visit the website www.birdingsouthindia.com

Car and driver
They will arrange a car and driver, including airport pickups. Eldhose Jr. himself drove us around, so he's a competent driver as well as a super guide.

Food
What more do you need to say about the food in Kerala? Outstanding food, fueled by the freshest spices and enough variety to satiate both vegetarian and non-vegetarian palettes.


Hill Swallow

Jungle Owlet

Indian Blackbird

Malabar Woodshrike

Mottled Wood Owl

Nilgiri Flowerpecker

Orange Headed Thrush

Puff Throated Babbler

Rusty Tailed Flycatcher

White Bellied Blue Flycatcher