Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nirvana in the Nilgiris (April & September 2016)

Crested Goshawk
The bird-rich Nilgiri region was always on the radar for me, but for one reason or another the radar didn't quite fire until this year. It needed a family trip to Coonoor to set it off, followed by another later in the year. Both these trips were eventful to say the very least and the birding was simply wonderful despite not being the 'best' seasons to bird in - April and September.

April 2016
This was a family and friend trip (with kids) to the Kurumba resort on the Coimbatore-Ooty highway. It's a beautiful property with fantastic food and very comfortable rooms. We expected it to be higher up in the hills when we booked, but a combination of the lower altitude and April heat made it a bit uncomfortable. That was offset by the lovely swimming pool (for the kids) and the awesome birding (for me). The property itself has a fair number of species as I soon discovered, the lunch buffet threw up Greenish Warblers, Crimson Backed Sunbirds and a beautiful White Cheeked Barbet up close. And later that evening, the swimming session was interrupted by an Emerald Dove and a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds - the light was too poor to get good pictures, but a great sighting nevertheless!

The other bonus for me was to find a fellow birder at the resort. Manjunath Desai, a keen birder from Bangalore happened to be at lunch at the same time and spotting his camera I asked him if he'd like to come birding with me the following day. And he immediately agreed, giving me a great companion to go birding with. So we set off for Coonoor early the next morning to meet with Aggal Sivalingam, bird guide extraordinaire and a legend in those parts. With a reasonable amount of confusion on the rendezvous point, we finally landed up at Coonoor's Sims Park.

Nilgiri Flycatcher
A public park with bustling crowds seemed like a strange place to find elusive endemics, but then birds have always surprised us. So we stepped into the park, to run straight into a female Nilgiri Flycatcher, up close and full frame. This was followed in quick succession by an Indian Blackbird, Square-tailed bulbul and a Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher. And before I could catch my breath, a Velvet Fronted Nuthatch and a bunch of Nilgiri Wood Pigeons arrived, albeit high up in the canopy. All this was only a sampler for the main course, it would prove!

Black and Orange Flycatcher

Deeper into the park and a much coveted (and awaited) lifer manifested. The Black and Orange Flycatcher is a Nilgiri endemic and this beautiful bird is almost like a signature bird of the Ooty/Coonoor area. We spent a lovely half an hour with a pair of these lovely birds, quite close to us and reasonably unconcerned with all the tourist hubbub in the background. This session done, we moved on to look for two more coveted species - The Nilgiri Blue Robin and the Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike. The Robin is a skulker and we had glimpses of him in thick, dark bush... net, no pictures.

Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike

The Flycatcher Shrike on the other hand proved a far more willing ally. It came up close, posed for pictures at eye level and then flitted on to its next assignment. And we, most targets done, sauntered around the park for a bit. When a bird with a brown belly came and sat right in front of us. At first glance, I thought it was a Black and Orange, so didn't lift the camera, but a second look and the rufous belly had me scrambling for said photographic equipment - it was a robin! He gave me a look which said 'you had your chance and you blew it'  and flew off without a backward glance leaving me with no chance to even get one frame. Manjunath though was quicker on the draw so he did manage a good picture. And the insult to injury was inflicted by my old adversary, the Indian Scimitar Babbler - who threw up a sighting but as usual was too quick to provide a picture.

And as we headed out Sivalingam sir uttered three magnetic words - Painted Bush Quail. Magnetic because they brought us back to his village the following morning. Apparently a family of these beautiful birds visits his backyard every morning and he's set up a small hide for photographers. Arriving at Aravenu village at nearly 6:30 am the following morning, he hustled us through the tea gardens to his house; the birds have a very small visit window, from 6:30-7:00 every morning. En route, I saw not one, but two Indian Scimitar Babblers perched in the open! This time, I gave my old enemy the cold shoulder by carrying on for the Quails. Not that it affected the Scimitar, I'm sure.

Painted Bush Quail
The Quails duly arrived, as soon as we settled in. A beautiful joint family of 8 birds came out in the open, fed and foraged in front of us, gave us the images we wanted and then melted back into the tea bushes. Follow up a sighting like this with hot coffee and home made snacks and we were truly in heaven. But my world came crashing down that day as I heard of the passing away of my brother - my mentor, wildlife guru, fellow traveler and best friend. A void that would be impossible to even attempt to fill.

September 2016
Nilgiri Flycatcher 
The opportunity to return to the Nilgiris came early September. I was visiting Bangalore on work and a planned Karnataka bandh gave me a couple of unexpected free days. I asked my old friend and ace birder Ramesh Ganeshan if he was up for a birding trip and while we initially discussed local ex-Bangalore destinations, we soon realised that with a bandh looming, the best option was actually much further out. A quick call to Sivalingam sir and all was fixed. We left late one night and drove along excellent roads via Salem, Erode and Coimbatore to reach Aravenu by dawn. And well in time for the Painted Bush Quails.

Vernal Hanging Parrot
Alack and Alas! Some construction activity in the tea estates had caused the birds to forego their daily breakfast and so we headed to Sims Park to help Ramesh get his fill of the Nilgiri endemics. He chalked off virtually all the species bar the Robin so it was a pretty decent morning eventually. It all started with a Crested Goshawk at eye level - nothing more needs to be said on that one. But the highlight of the morning was a Blue Bearded Bee Eater actually sit just above a beehive, with a bee in its beak. Again, a picture eluded us since he zipped off after just a couple of seconds on that most 'perfect' of perches. That afternoon, we headed to another valley for Fairy Bluebirds, Vernal Hanging Parrots and the like. And we got all of them, albeit a bit far away and not on the ideal perch. A Rufous Babbler also made an appearance but way too far for any photos.

Nilgiri Laughingthrush
The next morning was reserved for the Nilgiri Laughingthrush. Another much coveted Nilgiri endemic, this bird is seen in very few places in the region, and none better than the Doddabetta peak near Ooty, the tallest peak in the region. We were told that it would be really easy to find around the tourist path at the summit. We were more than a little skeptical, so we walked much further, in search of undisturbed habitat. No bird. We called Sivalingam sir, only to be told (once again) to wait near the peanut sellers along the tourist path. Obediently this time, we went and waited. And within a few minutes, the birds emerged from the undergrowth to sit on the wire fence, right behind the peanut seller. One came so close that I couldn't even get it in focus! And so, we got our fill of this beautiful little bird and headed on our way to Bangalore - via the beautiful Mudumalai and Bandipur forests.

The Nilgiris have so much more to offer. Top of the list is the spectacular Kashmir Flycatcher. (a regular winter visitor) and other endemics like the Rufous Bellied and Black Eagles, along with other specialities like the Nilgiri Pipit and Nilgiri Thrush. Methinks a repeat visit is on the cards soon!

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. 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. 

The place (Ramesh Vihar) where we stayed in September was seriously ordinary so I won't even mention it here, but Kotagiri and Coonoor have several other properties including homestays, so accommodation shouldn't be a challenge.

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.

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!

Malabar Lark

Malabar Parakeet


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