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!