Endemic explosion! This was a much needed follow-up to the Thattekad trip we made in March 2006. Intoxicated at the success we had at chasing endemics and rarities with the famed bird guide – Eldhose KV – we decided to go after some more coveted Western Ghats endemics, specifically the White-bellied Shortwing and the Broad-tailed Grassbird.
Kalyan Varma, Saurabh Jha (Manager, JLR’s K Gudi Wilderness Camp), Swarna and I undertook this very special journey, special to each of us in more ways than one. For the photographers it was an opportunity to almost guarantee us images of some of South Indian rarities. We had immense trust in Eldhose’s knowledge of both bird behaviour and the local terrain. For the birdwatchers, the very idea of spotting birds with Eldhose interpreting their calls and behaviour was exciting. We knew from the very start of the trip that it would be very productive . What we have not anticipated was that it would be so fruitful that we could cut the trip short by a day! From Kochi airport we straight made for the High Range Club in Munnar, a three and half hours drive (~120 kms) and reached the Club at midnight. The High Range Club is tucked away from the madding crowd of Munnar town. A quaint and colonial structure houses the actual club which is open to the club’s members and the guests staying at the Club’s rooms. Interestingly, the club also has a trophy room (with a lot of dead tahr) with an attached bar open only to men! Our cottages, set in a block away from the main building, were well-appointed with a small parlour leading to the bedroom. We were served tea in a traditional tea-set by a well-groomed and uniformed server, who was articulate in multiple languages, including English. At the crack of dawn next morning, our target bird was the Shortwing. We stopped at a bend in the road towards Eravikulam. The small degraded shola patch was a definite “Shortwing spot”, claimed Eldhose. We tried to phish out the bird but he would not show himself. His call, loud and clear, was coming very close in the undergrowth but out of sight. We gave up after an hour’s effort and headed back to town for a hurried breakfast at Saravan Bhavan. Post breakfast, we tried our luck at a tea estate near the earlier spot. This time, we hit the jackpot! Out he popped into a small clearing in the bush and the camera firing would not stop. He kept crossing the road back and forth, flying from one bush to the other and he was in full song! It was the only way we could locate him in the dense and misty rainforest undergrowth. We were also lucky to find the Black & Orange Flycatcher in the same shola patch. While we were photographing the Shortwing, we were in for a surprise treat. A mixed hunting party of Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes, Canary Flycatchers and White-eyes came in with the mist and took our cameras away from the Shortwing! Suddenly there was so much action we didn’t know which bird to shoot. Plus the mist was really thick now and visibility was not more that a few feet. We came back thrilled with our luck and frame-filling Shortwing images. After the morning birding we stopped for a quick lunch break and headed for the Grassbird location. The habitat for this bird is tall dense elephant grass on steep mountain slopes. None of us expected the gruelling climb through six foot plus elephant grass with our heavy equipment. However, with the benefit of hindsight, the opportunity to spot the elusive Grassbird was a huge incentive for all of us to run up the hill! And just as promised, Eldhose soon produced our first views of this endemic beauty. He was moving about in the grass and bracken like a rat and popped his head out once in a while at point-blank range. He would sometimes come on to the tip of the grass and start calling. These were the only few opportunities to take pictures of this elusive bird – and we made the most of it. Our next and last stop for the day was by a girls’ school near the “Shortwing spot”. Here the India Blue Robin and the Nilgiri Flycather were the highlight species. Great place to see these two birds. In fact, we found several pairs of the Indian Blue Robins and Nilgiri Flycatchers flitting about with gay abandon. Enroute we managed to get wonderful views of Tytler’s Warbler, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Western-crowned warbler and Greenish leaf warbler. Early next morning our destination was Eravikulam National Park about 14 kms from Munnar. Home to the endangered Nilgiri Tahr, Eravikulam is definitely the epitome of grassland beauty, interspersed with patches of thick shola. The forest department has has commissioned a few mini-buses to take tourists from the entrance of the park’s tourism zone on the only motorable road in Eravikulam National Park. These coaches play a documentary giving basic information about the Park and its conservation efforts. The buses drop off tourists at the first forest check-post, there after tourists are allowed to explore another kilometre by foot. In Eravikulam, we were fortunate to get great opportunities to photograph the Nilgiri Pipit, Nilgiri Tahr, Nilgiri Flycather and the Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush. Unfortunately we missed the Kurunji bloom by over a month. I guess, we will wait another 12 years to witness this natural spectacle! That afternoon, the rain washed away our hopes to spot the Indian Swiftlet in a hillside and we loaded our equipment into the car and headed to Hornbill Camp, Thattekad, down in the humid plains alongside the Periyar River. Back in Eldhose’s backyard, with the notable exception of the Black Baza, we managed to spot all the specialities – the Malabar Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Red Spurfowl, White-cheeked Barbet, Mottled Wood Owl, Crested Tree Swift, Lesser Yellownape, Common Flameback, Malabar Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot and Malabar Trogon. Inspite of all the new species, there are still a lot more species left uncovered – a strong reason to plan a return to Munnar & Thattekad! Cheers, –r@mki November 2006 | Bangalore