The excitement was palpable when the Nature India trip to Thattekkad/Munnar kick started with the team packing itself into three SUVs at Kochi airport. It was a bright and sunny January morning. The 45km drive from the airport to Thattekkad is a scenic one. There are winding roads and rich vegetation on either side. The route passes through Kaladi (the birthplace of Adi Shankara) and the small town of Kothamangalam. The day we were travelling, it was festival time in a local church and there were colourful processions on the way. It did not delay our progress in any way and we were in Jungle Bird Homestay well in time for lunch. This was our home for the next three days. Gireesh Chandran, Sudha and Sandhya were our hosts, guides and caretakers.
The tasty lunch did weigh us a bit down, but the feeling of being in Thattekkad which is impressed Dr Salim Ali as one of the ideal bird habitats, raised our energies. We took a short break after lunch and set out for Bhoothathan Kettu in the evening. It is a dam across river Periyar and has rich bio-diversity on the shores. The original dam is believed to have been built by spirits (Bhoothams) and that gave rise to the name Bhoothathankettu. Once you cross the dam and move a little forward, the forest department office is visible on the left. The entry to the forest walk is next to the office. The reserve forest has a variety of vegetation from large trees to shrubs to small plants. A short walk through the main walk-way brought us to a point where we took a deviation to a drying water body where birds come down to have a sip before they retire in the evening. Gireesh had ran ahead of the team and had put up a road block by stretching a green sari across the path. It served both as a ‘line of no crossing’ and as a little camouflage to the birders wielding bags, binoculars and lenses which look like heavy artillery.
Water body is an exaggerated name for the place we set out to watch. There was a large puddle – nothing more. But, it was an excellent spot to wait and watch. A ruby throated bulbul appeared soon after we settled down. There was a pair of Asian Paradise flycatchers that flew a couple of times directly above our heads – just a few feet above us. The female did come and sit on a branch very close to us, though partly hidden, for sometime. White bellied Treepie was very reluctant to have a drink as it detected our presence. It did come down and quenched its thirst – but was off in a flash. The light condition was not conducive for photography. There were well prepared photographers with tripods and other accessories, but fast moving birds in low light is a challenge for even the most advanced DSLRs. A host of other birds – racket tailed drongo, black-rumped flameback, thrushes, jungle myna- were seen moving around. A very interesting sighting was a Travancore Tortoise which slowly moved into the puddle of water and was around for quite sometime. We called it a day when fading light made it pointless to wait further. On the way back to Thattekkad, we tried to locate owls, but they decided to either stay away or not reveal their presence.
Early next morning calls of Great Eared Nightjar was heard, but the bird was nowhere to be seen. We set out in the Kuttampuzha direction. First stop was a few kilometres down the road, where it runs along the banks of the river. There were a few large trees by the rivers-side with heavy activity. Green Imperial Pigeons and kingfishers (White throated and Small Blue) were looking for breakfast. We walked away from the road to a rubber estate after watching them. Rubber is a widely cultivated cash crop in this area. It overshadows many other agricultural produces simply by its enormous ability to generate profits for the planter. Rubber plantation had bird activity, but we wanted to move to a better place. That lead us to a thickly wooded hill. A short climb later, we saw the vague figure of a Crested Goshawk perched very high up on a far away tree. Sun was not out and so birding- scope had to be set up for us to clearly see the bird. While we were seeing and discussing about the Goshawk, a White-bellied woodpecker called aloud to announce its appearance and landed on a branch below the Goshawk. As it moved up we could see the incredibly large sized woodpecker with an call befitting its size. It moved very close to the Goshawk, helping us to get a size-comparison between the two. We then moved to a rocky place which gave a brilliant view of the valley below. Even if one is not birding, it is a beautiful place to spend sometime – especially a pleasant morning. There was an amazing level of bird activity in this area. One just has to be patient and wait – species appear one after the other like in a parade – Barbets, Drongos, Parakeets, Minivets, Bee eaters, woodpeckers and many more. All the while that we were watching the parade, Sudha was scanning the valley and the mountain beyond it,to find out signs of the majestic Black Baza. Unfortunately, there was not trace of this bird – it was a shade disappointing, but we had no reason to complain considering the large number of other species that we could see. On the way back, we saw a raptor in the rubber estate – thought it’s the Goshawk. The bird flew on to a tree a little away, but in clear sight. It was a raptor with a catch which looked like a lizard. But then it was clear that it was not a Goshawk. After a good look Adesh identified it as Besra – an uncommon sighting.
Afternoon was dedicated to the search for Ceylon Frogmouth (Sri Lanka Frogmoth). Gireesh knew a few places to look for these birds. We were lucky with this one – that too in quick time. Gireesh located a pair roosting close to a side road. Time was around 4.30 in the afternoon. The roosting place was a in a thick growth of large leaved plants with lots of dry leaves. The pair was right in front of our eyes, but it just could not be seen without someone pointing it out. The birds had their eyes open, but were so confident of their camouflage that they did not fly away seeing us. The roost was just around 7 to 8 feet above ground. The birds were swaying along with the moving leaves. The camouflage is so perfect that if they keep quiet and don’t move, we would not see them even if they are just a foot away from our eyes.
A couple of Dark-fronted Babblers attracted us to a dried up stream. We decided to walk up the sand bed where there will be water gushing down during monsoons. Gireesh had seen the rare Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher in this area and that was a faint hope that was in our minds. The walk on through the stream and subsequently though the bushes was uneventful. Later we walked up the hill towards a temple inside the forest. The hill near the temple had variuos species of birds including Hornbills. After a long day of birding we were walking back to our vehicles. Suddenly there was a call of Ceylon Frogmouth from very close quarters. In a flash, we saw the bird flying at around three feet from the ground flaying across the road. It settled down on a tree by the side of the road giving us a clean view. The bird was very different from what it looked during the day roosting sighting. Here was an active and energetic bird staring at us in the light of the torch. It has a look that can be a bit scary! Soon its pair called from the other side of the road and we could locate it on a tree by the side of the road. They stayed there for a long time and we enjoyed watching it all along !
We had another morning for birding and we were keen not to miss Malabar Trogon. For a long time, it appeared that we will have it un-ticked in our list. But all of a sudden there was Trogon calling and Gireesh traced it quickly. The colourful male was flying around. We had enough opportunity to watch; photography is a different matter altogether !
We had a full day and two half-day outings at Thattekkad. It was a wonderful experience for all of us. We got to see an amzing variety of birds. Of course we were not lucky in the case of a few like Black Baza – but then, it gives us a good reason to come back to this beautiful place !
A fellow birder, Dr Gowri Joshi, captured our feeling in a poem. It is reproduced below with her permission :
Nature India trip was awesome, to say the least
Everything – the nature, the people and the everyday feasts 😉
I am carrying back precious and lifetime memories for sure
I’ve learnt, for all our stresses, nature is the best cure .
It binds us together through the lovely birds
About their miraculous beauty I have no words..
I was stunned to see the camoflauge of the Frogmouth
Whether humans can create such a mystery, I have full doubt !
The nilgiri flycatcher and the shortwing have a magnificient blue
How does mother nature create this magic, we have no clue.
The nilgiri pipit follows the ‘sweet n simple’ principle
It is very very cute and definitely doesnt look dull.
The drongos, bulbuls, woodpeckers, flycatchers, sunbirds were all very beautiful
All this explains how nature has such a strong pull
The malabar trogon is another fondly cherished treasure
the amount of joy it has given me, I really cannot measure.
I can go on and on as all these memories are very dear
but this may take away your time – I do fear.
The hospitality extended by Gireesh, Sandhya and Amma were no less
Not once did we land up in any kind of mess !
They looked after us with love and care
Such warmth and compassion these days is rare.
I am thankful to them from the bottom of my heart
and it definitely pains me as we part.
The next few lines are dedicated to our bird guides
who’s personalities have both serious and humourous sides.
Mandar, Adesh and Gireesh gave us their very best
for a single minute, they did not rest 🙂
Hats off to these three bird experts, our friends
I pray to mother nature that our friendship never ends…
Thank you Nature India for your effortful passion
With this zest you are going to inspire our entire nation.
Thank you dear photographers and birders for being who you really are
All of you are going to be so close (in my heart) yet so far.
I wish each one of you life’s best – to the participants, organizers and the hosts
and look forward to all your posts.
I would like to end by saying that I felt the magic in this air,
My dear friends, happy birding, goodbye and take care…
(Dr Gowri Joshi)