3-day stay at the Hornbill Camp, Thattekad, Kerala.
This was our second visit to Thattekad. This time it was a group of four from Bangalore.
After a long wait for the company of the famous bird guide – Eldhose KV – we were only too glad when we got his dates through Thomas of Kalypso Adventures. We then decided to pay a quick visit to this bird paradise last weekend.
Thattekad is 53 km North-east of Kochi. The National Highway 49 passes through Kothamanagalam, from where you have to turn off on the Pooyamkutti (old Munnar) road. Thattekad is 13 kms from Kothamanagalam. While the literal meaning of Thattekad is ‘flat-forest’, it in fact denotes the dense evergreen lowland forest. For the record, Thattekad is a peninsular land situated between the branches of River Periyar, the longest river in Kerala. This tiny, 25 sq.km, bird sanctuary is truly a birdwatcher’s paradise, what with Dr. Salim Ali having described this place as “the richest bird habitat in peninsular India, comparable only with the Eastern Himalayas.”
Not much has changed at Thattekad from our last visit. However, the construction of the bridge between the north and south banks of the River is now completed. It is a 60 feet road which now connects the sanctuary to the mainland. While this is a great boon for local development, we realized that we truly missed the ingenious and nifty boats ferrying people, things, cars and even buses! These boat made of local material and plied by local fishermen belonged to the natural landscape of the Kerala back-country. The bridge felt like a huge misfit there, sticking out like a sore thumb. Our taxi reached the bridge at about 8.30 pm and we were promptly met by Santosh, the friendly caretaker of the Hornbill Camp. Only when we reached the bridge that we realized that the Camp was a good 1 1/2 km off the road through thick teak jungle along the Periyar! Our taxi would not be able to handle the proposed off-road experience. So, we trotted with our heavy luggage and camera equipment in the dark into the jungle trail. And 20 minutes later and lo! ‘The Camp has arrived,’ announced Santosh.
The Hornbill Camp, owned and managed by Kalypso, is about half acre of land with cocoa plantation and just two small tented cottages as accommodations for guests. The Camp is set across the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary separated by the Periyar River and it comes a large dose of genuine and perfect hospitality! Small camp chairs with tables adorn the front of the tents; the interiors are cheerful with Rajasthani flower prints in bright orange while the attached toilets basic yet clean. The Camp’s message to its visitors is clear – small is beautiful. Want not waste not! A resourcefully built open-to-sky common bathroom behind the tents is most definitely a conversation piece. With pebbled flooring and clay-bricks this tiny room took our breath away!
Next morning we considered ourselves greatly blessed with presence of the camp’s resident Indian Pitta – a winter visitor that spends almost six months every year at the Camp. It was under the bushes behind the make-shift kitchen. (Eldhose’s wife cooks food at home, which is about 4km away from the Camp, and he or his assistant brings it on a scooter!) Having been in the Camp for a long time, the Pitta was used to humans. We could approach it fairly close for great photo ops. Later in the morning, we decided to explore the sanctuary on our own as Eldhose was to join us only the next day. We were intercepted by another bird guide at the entrance of the sanctuary – Rajeev – who promised us the Collared Scops Owl and the Sri Lanka Frogmouth. In a few minutes we were taken to a bamboo thicket right beside the Ranger’s Office and high up in the bamboo thicket was the roosting owl! While it did offer great views, photographing it was a challenge, thanks to the low light in the thicket. We then trekked to the watch tower, the place for all Frogmouth action! And there they were! Our guide pointed out, a male and a female Frogmouth on either side of the tree trunk. What luck we were in, as they posed for some brilliant shots. Kalyan found himself hugely content with the full-frame frontal shots of the hairy male.
While the men were busy, Noella and I decided to take the small Forest Department boat on a ride down the River. Mani, the Forest watcher at the watch-tower, though reluctant, was generous to give us the boat. Though scorching hot, we took charge of the oar and with no life jackets or swimming skills, we paddled away. What an experience! Just you and the placid river! Human voices fade away and nature makes its way into your heart. We only wished that we had experienced this at the crack of dawn. I must say we were good at handling a canoe as we docked back safe, with a sense of great achievement! As we trudged back to the Camp for a late lunch, thunder started rolling in the distance. This place is unpredictable. One minute it is hotter than hot and the next minute down pours the rain, keen to avenge the heat. That evening the rain pelted and went on through the night. Sometime late in the evening the rain gave way for a few minutes of light and Ramki took his shots of the Thick-billed warbler, a lifer for us. A reed warbler, this bird roosts at the edge of Camp in the marshes. We also were mighty excited for we were going to finally meet the famed Eldhose in the morning. But, Eldhose showed up in the middle of the night amid the torrential downpour! He was genuinely concerned about our comfort and also wanted to plan the next day’s jaunt so that we wasted no time.
While Eldhose’s confidence and knowledge of his birds is very apparent when you meet him the very first time, what strikes you most is his humility and unassuming nature. With a right blend of self-assurance and modesty, he claims “300 species, including 75 South Indian endemics, in 10 days or money-back.” Wow, what a bird guide! No wonder he is the most sought-after one in South India. We retired for the night, with earnest and child-like prayers for a clear and sunny morning. After an early breakfast (6:30am!) we got into the waiting jeep and headed off to wherever Eldhose was driving us to. Very first stop and Blyth’s Pipits were feeding on a grass and rocky clearing just off the main road. Eldhose then patiently, sketching on a paper, explained to us on how to differentiate between the various pipits on the field.
Next stop was the “Cuckoo Paradise” – a failed Rosewood plantation project of the Kerala Forest Department. Here we spotted the Indian Hawk Cukoo many times but could not get anything for our cameras. The day was still very cloudy. Eldhose then told us about Rufous woodpeckers and how they take over ant nests in the plantation. These ants, very aggressive in nature (they walk with their stings at the backside pointing upwards), usually kill the bird’s chicks with their bites. But the woodpecker does not give up and lays her eggs in their nest repeatedly till the chicks survive and then feed on the ants. We were hoping so much to spot the woodpecker, but the nesting season was over. Incidentally, Eldhose had helped arrange the stunning footage of the Rufous Woodpecker in David Attenborough’s Life of Birds – the only footage in the series from India!
We then drove to the core area of the sanctuary. Eldhose had arranged for special permissions with the Forest Department. As we stepped into the rainforest, we found ourselves in a different world. The experience of being on foot inside a rainforest is indescribable. The forest envelopes all your senses and for a moment you feel this where you belong. Then you realize you are an aberration in God’s perfectly created landscape. You tread softly on the forest’s wet floor careful not to hurt the millions of denizens down there. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, Eldhose points out an incubating Pompadour Green pigeon. Camouflaged in the yellow-green leaves of a short tree we take more than five minutes to spot the bird. Just as we settle to take pictures of the Pigeon, we find two Yellow-browed Bulbuls twittering about a shorter tree. Before we knew it Eldhose had ran back down the steep trail to get a camouflaged wearable poncho! A long poncho, with a hood, it works as a mobile hide. Kalyan got into it and waited beside the tree, till the pair came back to give us some of the most memorable photographs.
We continued our search for such specialities, but a little ahead Eldhose’s keen ears picked up the sounds of elephants breaking in the distance. Elephants sometimes enter and make the sanctuary their home for a stretch of time. They can be very dangerous – a makhna is said to have a very bad temper. In a recent trip to Thattekad, Vijay, Giri and KN were repeatedly charged by these elephants (read trip report). We had to get off the trail, he advised us, and go down the valley so that the pachyderms don’t smell us. We kept ourselves in a close group and walked hurriedly, down the forest slope. Thorns scratched our bare arms and vines on the forest floor tripped us many a time. At last we reached a rocky clearing, which had a stream trickling by. Just as we thought of taking a break, we were audience to some fine bird activity. White-bellied Treepies were calling incessantly, an Emerald Dove flew right past us, Yellow-browed Bulbuls tweeted near by, a Crested Goshawk sat quietly up a tall tree and then came the Rusty-tailed Flycatchers! We spent a good half hour sinking in all the action and kept our camera busy all the while. Some forest rangers met us there and we decided to climb down with them.
As we made our way down the stream, we found that the stream becomes the popular Uralanthani Falls during the monsoon. We had visited these falls the last time and true to its name, the water rolled down the steep rock. The same rock on which we were walking, down to its base! That was quite some action for the first half of the day. We were sure to be heading back to the Camp for a late lunch, when Eldhose announced the prospect of spotting the Mottled Wood Owl. While all of us were ravenously hungry, we decided to let go of lunch for the owl. After a short drive from the sanctuary and a little walk we were shown not one but two Mottled Wood Owls! They slept peacefully in the branches of a very tall tree. A few record shots and tea-break it was.
After tea, the Cuckoo Paradise beckoned us once again. Eldhose did not want us to go back disappointed especially after building the hype in the morning. And how right he was in his decision! We got off the jeep and there it was, a Drongo Cuckoo. We mistook it for a Black Drongo, when Eldhose pointed out that it’s stationary behaviour was quite unlike the restless Drongo. A few minutes later it was a few Common Hawk Cuckoos. We walked past a small hamlet in the plantation, when our eyes spotted another cuckoo. This time it was the Large Hawk Cuckoo with its characteristic dark grey head, with heavily streaked throat. This paradise was also a haven for the Black-hooded Oriole. It was past 6 pm and we finally decided to call it a day. And what a day it was. As we were reaching Camp, the resident Jerdon’s Nightjar swooped down in fron of us giving us great opportunities for some close-ups. What a way to end a perfect day!
The next morning started with the same ritual, heavy breakfast at 6.30 am. This time we were told that Idamalayar was the destination, 15km from Thattekad, in search of the Mountain Hawk eagle. The nesting and breeding of the Mountain Hawk Eagle was recorded at Idamalayar Forests by Eldhose during November-December 2005. This is first nesting record of Mountain Hawk Eagle from Kerala. After a long, bumpy drive we climb up to the forests of Idamalayar, dark and beautiful evergreen jungle, leaving behind the Idamalayar river and the dam built across it. A short trek later, we spotted the nest of the Mountain Hawk Eagle. The bird was inside as we could see its tail jutting out of the nest. But, our two hour wait did not yield anything but a fleeting glimpse of its head when it decided to shift its position inside the nest. We decided to trek inside the forest and look for other birds. We spotted Dark-fronted Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Brown-backed and White-rumped Needletails, Green and Mountain Imperial Pigeons and coves of Emerald Green Pigeons. Our jaunt at Thattekad ended with Ramki chasing an Indian Cuckoo (the famed singer of the “one more bottle” song) up a steep climb inside the teak plantation near the Camp. While its call seemed to be coming from very nearby, we realized the bird was up on a tall tree about a kilometre from the Camp. Ramki had to make do with shots of the bird from vertically below the very tall tree.
Bidding adieu to Hornbill Camp and Eldhose, we returned to Bangalore with a promise that we will go back…sooner rather than later. Cheers & enjoy the images!
Swarna, Bangalore, March 2006