Birds of paradise – birding in Thattekad, South India

The merits of off-season travel almost always outweighs the demerits, I have come to discover. Tropical India’s extreme summers are not conducive for travelling in the plains. After all, there is a reason why nobody would dare the unpitying sun – dying of sunstroke is not a pretty idea. The story during monsoon, however, is somewhat different.  You are left at the mercy of the whims of the monsoon, holding your breath – for a few hours of breather from the pouring rain.

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Malabar Gray Hornbill. Pic Courtesy: Abhilash Nair.

Either way, the tourist-sparseness of Thattekad is a completely different story. And it’s not because it is off-season at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary or that the rain is beating down fairly heavy through the thickets of Thattekad’s rich vegetation. “We only get Indian tourists rarely and the ones that come are birding enthusiasts. But there are a lot of foreign tourists and every season they are constantly present here,” Vinod the owner of my tiny, two-roomed homestay tells me. Vinod and his family are among the few who live inside the sanctuary that is spread across 25 km² – of which 6 km² is occupied by families like his.

Because the tourist influx is low during monsoons and the season is no longer conducive for bird-watching, Vinod could offer me off-season rates, throwing in three meals a day. Though the single room with a toilet and a wash area is more than basic and clean, I didn’t care much for it because my room’s verandah overlooks the sanctuary and I could see the pale greenish waterbody, the Periyar River’s catchment area, beyond the house’s garden that is amply shaded with nutmeg and cocoa trees. The catchment area itself is home to very many cormorants, pond herons and white-throated kingfishers all looking for the obscure fish in the water. That apart, you could hear the calls of Indian cuckoo; it’s not for nothing the sanctuary is often referred to as the Cuckoo Paradise by birding enthusiasts.

Kayaking for water birds

On a sunny day, I set out for kayaking at the Hornbill Camp, by the banks of the Periyar River. Even during the summer season when the region receives extreme heat, Periyar has water to the depth of about 25mts since the waters in the Bhoothathankettu dam is not released, holding it up until the monsoons. The guided kayaking tour takes me through various lagoons formed by the reservoir water that also houses numerous birds and other wildlife. The Malabar Hornbill makes its belligerent voice-debut when I paddle along a lagoon but remains elusive until much later.

But you are guaranteed to spot plenty of other water birds – greater cormorants, darters, river terns. While the cormorants bask in the sun spreading their wings with their bills wide open, the darters otherwise known as snakebirds, plunge their bodies under water and swim with their long slithering neck that gives them the name. I also spotted black-headed oriole, Asian open bill and crested honey buzzard.  There are also the most common pond heron and egrets.

Discovering lagoons

As the rowing tires your shoulders out and the sun threatens to incinerate you, if you have a passionate guide with you who loves surprising his subjects with little explorations, he will take you to secluded lagoons of bamboo trees submerged in water.  Since the lagoons house a lot of fruit bearing trees, monkeys have made them their home and the curious of them will hop out of their comfort zones and swing dangerously on branches to peer at the human visitors.

Much of Thattekad’s sanctuary is off limits for tourists. The government of Kerala state, where Thattekad, is located has declared most of it as a buffer zone and hence the guides of this area have discovered secluded spots bordering the forest that has an abundance of bird life. I would set out on a bird watching trip one dawn with a naturalist hailing from Thattekad who has been taking people on such trips for a decade now.

Bird watching for novices

That morning’s bird watching, although started a little disappointingly, would convalesce slowly. The Malabar hornbill cackled from the high rise branches of tall trees, yet proved evasive to sight. But a little later, as if it was done playing peek-a-boo with us, the hornbill makes reappearance and proceeds to hop in nearby branches providing us photo-ops. This being the breeding season, with his glossy grey coat and yellow beak, that little fellow is looking for fruits to feed his partner who is hatching the eggs by sealing herself in the nest with just a narrow opening for feeding on the food.

The rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats is one of the reasons for the abundance of endemic bird life. I spotted the Pompadour Green Pigeons, Grey Headed Bulbuls, Pittas, Woodpeckers, Fairy Bluebirds, Chestnut Tailed Starling, Hill Myna, Great Tit, Sunbird, Plain Flowerpecker, Purple Sunbird and Orange Minivet in a short span of time.

The highlight of the trip would come a little later when Abhilash, our guide, spotted the nocturnal male Sri Lankan Frogmouth perched inside dense vegetation. Frogmouths are usually found in pairs and it’s rare to spot a single one, Abhilash claims. His claim is corroborated when we spot a female, just yards away from the male.

As the day wore on and the sun made headway, it was time to go – leaving the jungle to its ruminations. Only that luck would favor me yet again and one last sighting of a Great Back Woodpecker, distinguished by its egregious call. He would perch on a tall tree trunk and proceed to knock on it with his sharp beak until distraction arrives momentarily.  In a second, the Woodpecker vanished into the woods responding to the call of his mate leaving me with my camera aiming at an empty branch.

Fact File

Thattekad is about 60 km from the nearest airport, Kochi. Jet airways has regular flights to Kochi from all metros. A taxi ride will set you back by about 1500 rupees. Taxis are available in plenty from Kochi. Though the sanctuary could be visited throughout the year, monsoons season (June to September) gets unpredictable with regular rains and sparse sun. Not to mention, if you are lucky you can still spot birds like I did.

Stay:

There are a few home stays, like the Sanctuary View I stayed in, operate inside the sanctuary. Basic accommodation with all meals at Rs.700 (off season price, in season the prices could go up to Rs.1500 per night). Hornbill Camp is a highly rated eco-friendly lodge (Rs.5000 per night with all meals) located by the banks of the Periyar River.  The price includes a kayaking trip, cycling and a visit to the spice plantations.

This appeared in JetWings magazine in Oct’13.

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