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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The South and the Andaman Islands

2014 Tour Narrative

Although things started slowly and, as always, there were safety restrictions in the various Tiger reserves that we visited, nightbirds were to become a real feature of this tour. We ended the tour having encountered 12 species of nightbird (nine owls of which just one, Oriental Scops, was only heard and not seen) and three nightjars. This remarkable tally was even better given the fact that each one was seen during the day! Exactly half of the top ten species in the end of tour Bird of the Trip poll were nightbirds and one, Ceylon Frogmouth, won, although few of us doubted that our fabulous day-time encounter with a roosting Ceylon Bay Owl would have come top of the poll had the entire group been present. As it did the Bay Owl received the maximum 10 points from everyone who saw it! We knew during that encounter, on day 13 of the tour, that we’d just seen our ‘Bird of the Trip’!

Our South Indian adventure had started just under two weeks earlier – the day after we had arrived in Kochi (formerly Cochin). The tour got off to an ignominious start – a Man-eating Tiger near Ooty put paid to our plans of visiting Emerald Shola and instead we were relegated to what we expected to be rather less rewarding forest in the Coonoor-Lamb’s Rock-Dolphin’s Nose area. Here however, amid surprisingly rich shola forest, we heard our primary target, our first Nilgiri Blue Robin, within seconds of stepping off the bus! We went on to see it and several other quality birds – our first demure Nilgiri and secretive Black-and-orange Flycatchers, close flybys by both Rufous-bellied and Black Eagles and a tantalisingly brief encounter with our first Nilgiri Woodpigeons during the day but some species, most notably Painted Bush-quail got away. That elusive gamebird would continue to tease, elude and frustrate us for over a week until finally giving itself up in spectacular style, amid spectacular setting at Rajamalai sanctuary near Munnar.

And then there were the Nilgiri Langurs.

The following day we switched to two jeeps and explored a steep ghat road near the famous hill station of Ooty as we descended back to the plains. In the early morning we enjoyed our first views of several strutting Grey Junglefowl, an incredibly close pair of Nilgiri Pipits, an even closer Malabar Parakeet and some pesky Bonnet Macaques. But the day’s primary, White-bellied Minivet another South Indian endemic, was nowhere to be seen, or heard. We persevered but drew a blank. The following morning saw us searching, successfully, for both Indian Pitta and the typically elusive Blue-faced Malkoha, right in our hotel grounds before exploring further afield later in the day. The day’s excursion yielded a few surprises – a superb Isabelline Shrike sharing a field with its commoner Brown cousin, a cooperative White-eyed Buzzard and equally obliging Sirkeer Malkoha and a slow moving Indian Chameleon were the undoubted highlights but there was still no sign of White-bellied Minivet. We had another morning to search – and eventually, and in the heat of the day, came up trumps. Unfortunately not a male but whew, the relief when we found the female we found was palpable.

After another comfortable night back up in Ooty we headed on to Munnar, the second hill station of this wide ranging tour. Arriving mid-afternoon we had plenty of time to search out a couple of that region’s specialities, Kerala Laughingthrush and White-bellied Blue Robin, before nightfall.

The following morning we headed out revitalised in our quest to find the region’s other avian specialities. Indian Broad-tailed Grassbird gave itself up without too much of a fight and eventually so did that ever elusive South Indian endemic, the Nilgiri Woodpigeon.

We stopped off at the scenically stunning Rajamalai sanctuary on the morning of the 27 January and after a while we left, satiated with almost point blank views of some superb Painted Bush-quail and the park’s main attraction, Nilgiri Tahr. Heading back through Munnar we continued our journey south (and down). Making a short detour we were fortunate in that the day’s next target, Yellow-throated Bulbul, also gave itself up easily and we were free to press on.

Periyar National Park was a welcome change of scene – and fortunately leech-free this year. Guided by two of the park’s most talented local birders on our first jungle walk through the area’s bird rich forests we knew that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Sure enough, after side stepping a Brown Fish Owl and our first Ceylon Frogmouths, we were soon being treated to excellent views of a ranging party of Wynaad Laughingthrushes. This often elusive dense forest inhabitant is, along with the woodpigeon and spurfowl, often the most difficult and recalcitrant South Indian speciality – but NOT this year. Later that afternoon we revelled in first Rusty-tailed and White-bellied Blue Flycatchers while the morning of our second day was spent amidst myriad woodpeckers and, for everyone, a cracking pair of Red Spurfowl. Mission accomplished we spent the afternoon having a boat ride out on Periyar lake. That was fun – not least for the sheer number of wild elephants and the fabulous encounters with Indian Gaur.

Our final port of call was Thattekad. We’d seen rather few nightbirds, other than a pair of roosting Sri Lankan Frogmouths at Periyar NP, until we reached the Thattekad area. But there, thanks to some expert local guidance, we scored with a pair of Brown Hawk close to the ticket office. These were followed minutes later by an amazingly cryptic Indian Scops Owl. Later on our first evening at Thattekad we were repeatedly teased, first one way and then back the other, by two highly vocal Ceylon Bay Owls and at least one Forest Eagle Owl. Unfortunately we saw neither that evening, nor early the following morning, but rectified all of that on our second afternoon with stunning looks at three quality owls at day time roost sites! An obliging Mottled Wood Owl in the late morning was followed by a Ceylon Bay Owl and then swiftly by a Forest Eagle Owl mid-afternoon. We were quite rightly ecstatic!

After a night in yet another very comfortable hotel, this time in Kochi (still called Cochin by many of us) the tour was over. Time had raced on and there we had it – a fantastic tour with some fabulous birds and not a few spectacular mammals. I’d like to say that everything had run smoothly – but it hadn’t and there were a few headaches and frustrations. Nevertheless our superbly accommodating driver was truly first class – as were many of the hotels and the food. Several of us had been to Northern India previously and were very impressed by the South’s scenery, the relative lack of squalor, the quality of many of our hotels and the wide variety of delicious food available.

Updated: February 2014