Of frogmouths, tahrs, giant squirrels and more… Excitement surged when our 20-year old bird guide, Sudheesh, asked us if we want to ‘see’ the frogmouth.
“Of course!!!!” we cried in unison… though we were just five minutes into settling down at the Thattekad forest watchtower. Off we went and less than 100 meters from the tower, Sudheesh stopped to point at a tree “look… frogmouth”. We looked, we bent down and looked, we crooked our necks and looked… this was difficult… and then there it was! The Ceylon Frogmouth – virtually invisible to the untrained eye! With extremely specialized camouflage skills these birds are difficult to re-spot if you take your eyes off them! And not just that, they are so confident of their camouflage that they let you come really close to them.
Though a cloudy day, I clicked away frames of this weird looking, yet charming bird… didn’t know if I was ever going to see it again in my life. It was our fist time to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. We had always known about the fantastic views of endemics here and when an opportunity to visit the sanctuary came up (coupled with Eravikulam and Chinnar) we jumped at it.
Though we had chosen a wet season for our visit (November), no regrets at the end of it, as we came up with just a shade under hundred species of birds (list below) producing most of endemics & specialties of the area. Topped with great sightings of the Nilgiri Tahr in Eravikulam NP and the rare Grizzled Giant Squirrel in Chinnar WS. It was Suresh V.S. (INP member) who had planned to go to Thattekad on his own. And as Destiny would have it, Suraj (another group member from Tirupur), and us piled on, to make it a neat foursome! The plan was that we meet at Thattekad, spend two nights there, then move to Munnar for a night and finally drive through Chinnar, before we go our ways.
Though geographically close to each other, the three parks support diverse habitat and bird populations. Thattekad BS is small (~25 sq. km) and can be covered entirely by foot. Unlike most bird sanctuaries that are wetlands, this is a semi-evergreen and tropical deciduous jungle. So, one had to get used to looking into the bushes and high up in the canopy for birds. It was still raining in early November but thankfully not many leeches. The main goal of the trip — photography — was tough because of cloudy / rainy weather. Another remarkable bird was the rare Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher… a chance sighting more due to its high pitched yet weak call. Ramki was lucky to have his camera and tripod ready at hand resulting in sharp pictures of this small beauty in spite of poor light.
There were Malabar Grey Hornbills by the dozen and while was trying to get their silhouettes in my frame, Sudheesh nudged Ramki’s elbows whispering, “hornbills are like crows here… see the bazas up there,” pointing his finger up a tree. And there they were! Three handsome Black bazas, moving their heads and their crests making them look like puppets. We could not get any pictures of them as they were way too far away and high up. Later, the bright red Malabar Trogon showed itself only to be captured very hazily in our camera.
Next morning Sudheesh showed up at exactly 6.30 adding, “you want see two frogmouth?” We couldn’t believe this guy! “Two, are you sure? Where?” Just below the tower, hardly a few paces from where we had spent the night, two frogmouths were huddled to each other and gave us great views. The pictures of this couple came out better than my earlier afternoon’s sighting of the bird. And guess what! They were perched on the same branch the whole day as though they were on exhibit! Around dusk they disappeared never to be seen again.
Over the next two days we birded in nearby areas – Urulanthanni, Neliamangalam and Palamottam. Notable birds were Black Hooded Oriole, Dollar Bird, Fairy Blue Bird, Racquet Tailed Drongo, Ashy Drongo, Chestnut Headed Bee-eater, Crested Serpent & Changeable hawk eagles, White Cheeked Barbet, Orange Headed Thrush, Heart Spotted Woodpecker, Orphean Warbler, Ashy Wood Swallow, Rufous Treepie, Malabar & Plum Headed Parakeet and Yellow Browed & Black Headed Bulbul. Thattekad is truly a paradise for bird lovers with rich bird life and with people who love birds. We met some of the forest department personnel who were friendly, hospitable and informative. We were glad to note that they were very proud of their birds, had keen interest in them and were aware of their habits.
After Thattekad we drove to the bustling hill station of Munnar (3 hours drive). Keeping Munnar as the base, we made a couple of forays into the Eravikulam National Park to spot the Grey breasted and Malabar Laughing Thrushes, the Nilgiri Pipit and of course the Nilgiri Thar. Except a small patch known as Rajamalai estate, Eravikulam National Park is closed to public. However, the couple of kilometers from the park entrance to the top of Rajamalai (between the first & second check posts and a little beyond) are richly rewarding. We covered this patch twice once in the late evening and again early in the morning. This road allows motor vehicles and one has to frequently disengage observing birds to allow speeding taxis to pass.
We spotted the Grey Breasted Laughing thrushes, which were quite abundant here. Skulkers as they are, they had come out of the bushes to feed on the flying insects. They let us come fairly close to them and gave us an opportunity to photograph them. As the shola made way to open grasslands Nilgiri Pipits, Pied Bush Chats and Blue Rock Thrushes grew abundant. Our next highlight was the Nilgiri Pipit, in clear view on a rock feeding. What a lovely day this was turning to be! We also spotted the Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Scarlet Minivets and Nilgiri Flycatchers. By the time we crossed the second check post a huge herd of Nilgiri Tahr had descended from the higher cliffs. In Rajamalai, the Tahr are like domestic goat and have completely lost fear of humans (don’t know whether for good or bad!). They seem to have right of way and more than once we saw taxis held up by the Tahr in the middle of the road.
On the final day we left Eravikulam by noon and drove through the Chinnar WS. This WS range stretches across the states of Kerala and Tamilnadu (where it is called Indira Gandhi WS and is part of the Anamalai range). Chinnar WS is known for its wild population of the Grizzled Giant Squirrel – a rare and endangered species of giant squirrel. It is slightly smaller in size than it’s Malabar cousin though it is completely different in coloration – being gray and black in color. Nevertheless very handsome. We entered Chinnar and almost immediately spotted a GGS in the branches of a tree that was overhanging the road and as quickly vanished at the sight of the approaching car.
A very lucky sight indeed! Bird life was rich and different in Chinnar even though birding was done only on the main road from our car. Notable species spotted here were Black, Crested Serpent & Changeable hawk eagles, Black Shouldered Kite, Blue Faced Malkoha, Hoopoe, Shikra, White Browed Fantail, Hoopoe, Black Winged Kite, White Bellied Drongo, Blue Winged Leafbird, White Browed Bulbuls and Chestnut Headed Bee-eater. The Kerala side of Chinnar soon gave way to the Tamil Nadu side of Chinnar with the usual formalities of exit, entry, park fee, etc.
It was dark as we covered the final lap of our memorable Kerala trip and headed towards the bustle & the crowds that we had escaped from four days ago!