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!


R Niranjan Das said...

Wonderful avaian captures. Thattekad is definitely one of the best bird sanctuaries in the country. Nice post!

Elangovan Viswanathan said...

Great write up...What was the gear u used... Kindly mention the name of the monopod as well...