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

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