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