Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thattekad (Part 2) - 5 Frogmouths & a Bird bath

Let me confess. Our trip to Thattekad had one very important agenda. A tryst with the Srilanka Frogmouth. It would be patently untrue if anyone said they went to Thattekad "just to see some birds". The truth is that Thattekad is now synonymous with the frogmouth and everybody who goes there has the Srilanka Frogmouth on the top of their bird list!

More about these birds here from Wiki

Most of the guides in Thattekad, if not all of them, know one or two places where these singular birds roost. Being nocturnal in their habits they need to conserve energy during the day and they roost on low shrubs till dusk. Which means that after your birding in the early hours you can devote a leisurely hour or two, after the sun has climbed up, in pursuit of these lovely birds!

Frogmouth Fotography For Dummies!!

I never thought I'd add this section in a trip report but after seeing some photographers describe their experience in Thattekad and elsewhere I thought it I had to put my thoughts on record. Unfortunately, with the sudden upsurge of wannabe wildlife photographers, these birds have to face a lot of unwanted attention. The Srilanka frogmouths have a bad habit. They roost in the same branch of the same tree for months unless they get disturbed too much. It would have been alright if they were high up in the canopy but they prefer branches closer to the ground, perhaps a couple of meters from ground level.

My belief is that most  travelers to Thattekad are serious bird watchers. They know how to behave in the presence of these beautiful creatures. However there are people who would do anything to get 'the perfect shot', which means a little bit of clearing of leaves and twigs to get a better access for their cameras. Some even use flash in broad daylight.

If you want to photograph the Frogmouth just follow some basic rules.
  1. If you have been brought to the presence of a frogmouth, especially with a chick, DON'T GO TOO CLOSE. 
  2. DON'T poke your camera in the face of the bird. Use a telephoto lens to 'reach' it instead.
  3. DO NOT try to move any branches or leaves to gain access. Once disturbed they may abandon the branch.
  4. AVOID FLASH photography. If you have a fast lens use its widest aperture and hike up the ISO. 
  5. If you have a monopod or tripod set it without knocking on the branches.
  6. If needed lie down on the ground or kneel in any odd position but don't shake the perch!

20th January, 2014 (10 am - 11 am)

After our mornings sojourn at the Kinacherry area we packed up to move to Urulanthanni. We took a small detour thorough the forest just to enjoy the sounds of nature.

I was hoping we'd run into another snake but the reptiles were not willing to play ball. I guess the sun wasn't beating down strongly enough for them to consider leaving their hiding places for a warm up!

On the way we said hello to the first Frogmouth of the day again. It was there in the exact same spot where we left it. It was like a frozen toy, only the big eyes giving away the fact that it was aware of our presence.

Lugging heavy gear on a humid morning is not a very pleasant experience especially if your stomach was grumbling something about breakfast!

Urulanthanni is some 10 kilometers from Sivakshetrapadi along the Kuttampuzha- Pooyamkutti road. You have to report at the checkpost for permission to drive into the forest. Right where we parked the Duster, on the edge of the track, a white gentleman and his partner were peering into a bush. There was, apparently, a  frogmouth in it. We moved off without disturbing them. The Duster was parked there and we'd be returning to the same place later anyway. 

After a circutous walk in the forest we reached a temple and Vinod took us to a bush just a few meters from the track. He asked us to bend down and look inside it. A first we did not see it. All we could see was dried leaves swinging gently in the breeze. Then we saw them, a pair of Srlanka Frogmouths, Nos 2 & 3 of the morning!

It was tricky trying to get a good shot of the pair but I managed to get off a few from an awkward position without causing much disturbance. The one looking at me must have thought that I was off my rocker!

To give you a fair idea of how difficult it is to spot a pair in the wild, look at this next photo.   If they had not been where they were, right in the center, I guess most of us would not have picked them up at all! We would have walked past, without even giving a glance at what looks like some dried leaves!

It was past almost a quarter to 11 in the morning and our stomachs were really protesting. We decided to go back to the home stay and grab a well deserved breakfast. When we reached the Duster there was nobody around and we peered into the bush where we had seen the old man looking. It was there, our 4th Frogmouth of the day!

Not the best lighting despite being so late in the morning but we did get some records shots.

On the way back we stopped to check on some owls but it was so well camouflaged that I wasn't really sure if I had got the owl at all! This Indian Scops Owl could take the prize for the best blended bird on this trip! This was a blind shot and I'm lucky that anyone can spot  the bird in it!

Back at the home stay we tucked into some late breakfast and went off to rest our weary legs. The best part was yet to come. 

20th January, 2014 (4 pm to 6 pm)

After a late lunch and a small siesta we got ready for the evening's bird walk. Vinod had told us about a natural 'bird bath' that attracted many small birds exactly between 5.30 and 6.00 pm. Before that, he said, he'd take us to see another frogmouth en route. We drove half way along the same road we had taken in the morning. After parking the car on the side we walked up through a rubber estate to the edge of the sanctuary. The first bird that greeted us was a Malabar trogon.

Then we walked on past the 'bird bath', about which Vinod had told us. Some 100 meters from the bird bath Vinod stopped us and pointed to a small tree not 10 feet away from where we were standing. At first we did not know what he was pointing at and then a few seconds later realization dawned. Here is 'nearly' what we looked at. I say 'nearly' because the field of view that our eyes could take in was much more wider than what is seen on this photograph.

It is one of the two wide angle shots Skanda took before switching lenses! What looked like a broken branch with moss on it was another frogmouth. It was on its nest, incubating an egg. Our 5th Frogmouth of the day!

I count myself as fortunate to have witnessed this unique scene. Nesting frogmouths are rare and not easily seen. Records of nesting behaviour are sketchy and based on the limited observations of these birds, mostly from Srilanka. The one we had the fortune to behold was a male, characterized by its grey brown plumage.  

During the day it is the male who takes it's turn at incubating a single egg. It is assumed that the female takes over at night with intermittent exchanges of place with the male.

When disturbed at the nest the bird apparently just stretches upward and positions itself at an angle of 45 degrees to the branch. It blends remarkably with the rest of the tree that a casual glance will give the appearance of a broken branch covered with lichen!

The nest itself is a circular pad constructed with down feathers and moss gathered from around the site. A single egg is laid in it and once the chick hatches the nest is destroyed by the male.

It was time to go. Our presence was making the bird restless. When it dropped its nearly immobile chin, it was the signal for us to move!

We moved back up the track to the 'bird bath'. The 'bird bath' itself has an interesting story. It is nothing more than a shallow depression on a rock. During the rains it would fill up with water but in the dry months it would be filled with nothing more than fallen leaves. One gentleman, who worked in the rubber estate adjacent to the forest started filling the depression with water. Now he has taken it as a daily duty and fills the little depression with water everyday. This daily practice ensured that the birds came in small groups to the same spot in the evenings. It goes to show the lengths the people of Thattekad go to care for their feathered friends.

Red whiskered bulbul

Orange headed thrush & Yellow throated bulbul

Orange headed thrush

Flame throated bulbul

Flame throated bulbul & blue throated flycatcher

Dark fronted babbler & blue throated flycatchers

Blue throated flycatchers

It was a long tiring day but every minute we spent wandering around the forest was like a never ending treasure hunt. I'm not sure how many people have had the privilege to see five frogmouths on a single day, but I count myself as one of the fortunate few. When we planned a trip to Thattekad I had told Skanda I'd show him a bird he'll rarely ever see again but I had not expected that we'd see so many, that too in under 12 hours!!

The Srilanka Frogmouth and the Malabar trogon will remain the enduring attraction of Thattekad but to any genuine bird lover it will the best place for  tryst with the feathered folk. With people like Vinod and the unnamed rubber tapper of the 'bird bath' the birds were in safe hands. 

We would be returning to Thattekad very often. That was for sure. We were so entangled in it's beauty!

(There are not many articles on the nesting of the Srilanka Frogmouth but I thought this one was one of the best.)

We returned to the home stay to retire early. We had a long drive the next day. Not that we were in any hurry to get back home, but Athirapalli and Valparai were beckoning. 

Watch this space

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thattekad (Part 1) - Of Birds, Snakes and Rainforests

I don't know if I am an inherently lazy chap or someone who suffers from some form of amnesia.

Sometime earlier this year I made a trip to Thattekad, the best birding destination in Kerala. It was a long pending desire to spend a few days but circumstances weren't giving me the right chance. Then, Skanda's school announced a week of holidays courtesy the Kerala School Kalolsavam! January was right in the middle of the birding season and so we hastily put together a three day trip to Thattekad. Since Valparai was another place on the 'must go birding' places we thought we'd return home through a rather circuitous route. This is the record of the first part of that trip, Palakkad to Thattekad.

Coming back to the first sentence again. This post was supposed to have gone up immediately after we returned but sheer laziness and distraction by an interesting Hornbill Saga delayed it. Then I completely forgot about it till I saw the Malabar trogon in Siruvani, but that is another tale for later, which I hopefully will not forget!

(Please note. Pink is a Link! Click to open the related pages.) 

So finally, here it is; the Thattekad story. Forgive my laziness!

Thattekad shot into fame after Dr. Salim Ali called it the "richest bird habitat in peninsular India". The first designated bird sanctuary in Kerala is home to an extraordinary number of birds confined to a small (25 sq km) triangular area between the Periyar river and it's tributary the Idamalayar. The Salim Ali Bird Trial is only a small portion that lies at the apex of this triangle.

To reach the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary you have to reach Kothamangalam first. My plan was to drive up to Thattekad directly and on my return, take a detour through Athirappalli and Valparai.

The Route

Reaching Thattekad from Palakkad is not a problem. (All distances from Palakkad.) The route takes the NH-47 bypassing Trichur at Mannuthy (63 kms) to reach Angamaly (105 kms) through Chalakudy. From Angamaly you have to turn left onto the Main Central Road (on the Kottayam route). You will reach Kalady (112 kms), then Perumbavoor (119 kms) where you have to take a small deviation within the town before getting back onto the M.C road. Kothamangalam (137 kms) is 18 kilometers from Perumbavoor. A the Thankalam junction (land mark: TVJ Eye Hospital) you have to take a left turn for Thattekad. From the junction it is 12 kilometers to the Salim Ali Bird sanctuary. Once you cross the Periyar river, you reach Sivakshetrapadi (149 kms) the entrance to the sanctuary and the ticket counter. The Salim Ali bird trial is a few hundred meters further down the road from the ticket counter. The entire journey takes around three and a half hours depending on the traffic.


Thattekad itself has little to offer in terms of accommodation. There are a few resorts but they are a few kilometers before you even reach the Periyar. Cloud 9 Hotel in Kothamangalam is an option if you don't mind the 12 kilometer drive. It has an excellent restaurant and good rooms for those of you who insist on the luxuries! For the serious birder, who isn't unduly concerned about where you sleep or what you eat, there are two lovely homestays within the sanctuary area. You have to get past the ticket counter to reach both of them. We stayed in the Birds Song Homestay which is slightly deeper (some 200 mts from the main gate) and abuts the forest. The other one, Jungle Bird Homestay is just adjacent to the forest department's dormitories.

What to carry

Once you reach Thattekad there is nothing else to do; well, except scouring the trees for the birds! It is a place for serious birders and if you are one you can skip the rest of the paragraph!. If you came for a walk in the park, make a three point turn and drive right back. The entire day, from 6.00 AM to 6.00 PM, is spent in the pursuit of the feathered kind. When you pack your bags, don't forget the customary binocular and bird books. Wear a shoe or sandal that can last the rigours of an  8 hour walk in the forest (spilt in two trips) and carry a satchel that will hold a few fruits, energy bars and a bottle of water. I promise you, it will be a sweaty, tiring experience but well worth the trouble.

What to do

Bird activity peaks in the early mornings and evenings but that is not saying that they go to sleep the rest of the day. You have to be up at the crack of dawn, down your morning's brew and walk off into the crisp air  that greets you early in the morning. Unlike in Bandipur and Silent Valley, in Thattekad, you don't have to look for birds. They'll come to you! Just keep your eyes and ears open.

19th January, 2014

We reached Birds Song at half past one because we stopped for an early lunch at Cloud 9, which has a lovely afternoon buffet. Our host Vinod's father was in hospital in Kottayam and he was on his way back. It wouldn't make sense to land in his place without him around. We settled in and waited for him. Birds Song has only two rooms with attached bathrooms on the first floor. The ground floor is the residence of Vinod and his family. Food is served in the family dining hall unless you are very picky.
After tea Vinod will lead us on a walk to explore the neighbouring forests.

As was always the case, when we crossed the Periyar,  the cables adjacent to the bridge were occupied by the terns.

Whiskered terns

Once you leave the road and step into the forest you realize why the experience of a person like Vinod is useful. His eyes and ears are always alert. A flash of colour, the slightest movement in the canopy or a call that comes from some vague direction he will lead you to the bird unerringly.

Chestnut tailed starling

Southern hill mynas

Lesser yellow naped woodpecker

Plum headed parakeet

White belled tree pie

And as we walked back across the bridge again in the fading light the cable was getting crowded. A flock of ashy wood swallows were also huddling up against each other for the night.
Ashy wood swallows
20th January, 2014

We were woken up with a hot cup of coffee before the sun was up. The birds were already active and as we moved towards the sanctuary gates Vinod stopped near the ticket counter and asked us to get out of the car. There was a pair of Brown Hawk owls that lived in the clump of bamboo and we were just in time to see them settle down.

It was stretching its wings before settling for the day.

Noticing us peering through the fencing it widened its eyes to glare at us before deciding the there was no point wasting time over a few curious homo sapiens!

As we drove out to the first stop for the morning, the Kinacherry (or Knacherry as it is pronounced) Tribal Colony, the Periyar flowed languorously on our left.

The mist was just lifting and the river looked inviting for a morning dip. However, our plan for the morning did not include that indulgence!

The tribal colony, if you could call it that, was on a hillock. There were a few ramshackle huts scattered over its top. The folks were going about their morning chores when we reached there.

Vinod asked them about the morning's bird life. The gent laying out something to dry said the birds had already moved on as the sun had come out a little early.

Not a nice thing to hear after a rather stiff walk in the early morning with all the gear. Timing does matter and if you could wake up with the birds and reach there before the sun came up you would be feasting your eyes on a large choice of birds!

Flame throated bulbul

Malabar grey hornbill

Malabar grey hornbill

Black rumped flameback woodpecker

Malabar parakeet (male)

Oriental honey buzzard

Malabar parakeet (male)

Small minivet

Blyth's starling

Orange minivet (male) back view
Orange minivet female
White cheeked barbet

Malabar giant squirrel

Orange minivet (male) front view

Ashy drongo
Thattekad won't disappoint you. The birds are there at any time of the day. You just have to keep your eyes open, and really wide if you want a glimpse of Thattekad's most famous residents the Srilanka Frogmouth and the Malabar trogons.

If you are an avid trekker and don't mind a few slimy, loving leeches having breakfast at your expense, without hurting you like a mosquito, then Thattekad is for you! Vinod took us through the forest to another clearing.

The first of our frogmouths for the day (and the first time in our lives) was encountered on the way to this place. I will put a separate post for the frogmouths we encountered.

Sri Lanka frogmouth roosting
 So were our first Malabar trogons. Vinod has sharp ears and he asked us to move in a direction where we heard the calls and the pair was there as if waiting for us.
Malabar trogon (male)

Malabar trogon (female)
 We were following them deeper into the forest and as the ground underfoot started getting more and more soggy I felt a thrill go up my spine.

Vinod had told us this was prime King cobra country and I was hoping I'd meet up with one!

The fallen trees were rotting along with the leaf litter and every time I passed a mound I was hoping it would be a nest.

Then something came crashing down from the canopy and Vinod hissed, "Snake!" I was thinking my day was made but it was not to be. It was a humble rat snake, the King's breakfast, that had probably slipped of a branch and nearly landed on top of us. I only had a fraction of a second to whip around and click this shot of a very frightened snake!

 That was enough excitement for the morning. After a small break for bananas and biscuits we were off to Urulanthanni for the day of frogmouths!