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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The South

2019 Narrative

Thankfully for a lengthy three week trip the tour started rather gently with paced arrivals into Kochi (formerly Cochin) and some rather leisurely early evening birding immediately around our airport hotel. Among the highlights of our first jaunt were three Yellow and a single Cinnamon Bittern, an elusive Watercock and two Greater Painted-snipe. We added a few more species, including Blyth’s and Indian Reed Warblers, to our hotel lists before breakfast the following morning and then we were on. It was a long drive from Kochi up into the mountains near Ooty but we made quick progress and even saw a few memorable birds on route: astonishing numbers of Eastern Cattle Egrets, fields replete with Asian Openbills and Black-headed Ibis, a road-hugging Oriental Honey-buzzard and a Black-winged Kite. A previous South Indian tour had started in a particularly ignominious fashion – a ‘man-eating’ Tiger near Ooty put paid to several of our plans around the town. Fortunately, we had no such misfortune this year and our Ooty adventures started right outside the hotel early the following morning where several Indian White-eyes performed and we heard our first regional speciality, a Nilgiri Blue Robin. By the end of the day we’d all had great looks at an enchanting, superbly cooperative, blue robin. All-too-often frustratingly secretive, the day’s robin performed brilliantly as did umpteen other key species and we were entertained by prolonged encounters with the often elusive Nilgiri Woodpigeon at two sites, no less than five Black-and-orange and three demure Nilgiri Flycatchers, multiple Black-chinned Laughingthrushes and normally elusive gamebirds in the forms of both Grey Junglefowl and the often near invisible Red Spurfowl in the fine drizzle at Dodabetta. With a supporting cast that included a pair of Greater Flamebacks, a stunning male Indian Blue Robin and a confiding pair of Indian Scimitar Babblers it was a promising start to the tour.

The following morning we switched to a couple of jeeps and explored a steep ghat road that led from the famous hill station back down to the plains. This short journey took all morning and on it we enjoyed our first views of several close Malabar Parakeets, some pesky Bonnet Macaques and, after a lengthy and eventually failed attempt to see our first Painted Bush-quail, where they teased, eluded, and frustrated us only moments later we stumbled across a different, undoubtedly even more magnificent pair of this typically elusive tiny gamebird. A spectacular bird amid a spectacular setting! Down in the plains two critically-endangered White-rumped, one Indian and four Red-headed Vultures enthralled as did a fine party of White-bellied Minivets, a solitary Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, a heard-only Banded Bay Cuckoo, an almost equally elusive Blue-faced Malkoha and some fabulous Malabar Larks. Our lodge was perfect and, after dropping our bags and devouring a delicious lunch, we headed back out. A pair of surprisingly cooperative Jungle Bush-quail, a Crested Hawk-eagle, two Yellow-wattled Lapwings, two Jerdon’s Bushlarks, and three Booted Warblers later it was time for our first night-birding and a Jerdon’s Nightjar duly obliged.

Our second day around Masinagudi was even more productive and yielded 121 species – the largest species tally of any day on the entire tour. Highlights that day included a ‘Shaheen’ Peregrine Falcon and a pair of White-naped Woodpeckers as well as 23 Woolly-necked Storks, a Steppe and a vagrant Eastern Imperial Eagle at the town dump! Three Indian Jungle Nightjars were the highlight of the pre-dinner night birding while a very cooperative Oriental Scops-owl inside our lodge grounds after dinner rounded off another superb day.

The undoubted highlight of the following morning’s post tea/coffee/biscuits and pre-breakfast jaunt was a fantastic pair of close-range, ludicrously obliging, Red Spurfowl. Leaving Masinagudi we stopped to admire two rather elusive Blue-faced Malkohas and our only Grey-bellied Cuckoo of the trip before commencing the steep drive back up to Ooty. Two Indian Golden Orioles and great looks at a Banded Bay Cuckoo enlivened the drive and, once there, a juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle and a very tame Black-and-orange Flycatcher were two of the highlights of a return visit to Ooty Botanical Gardens.

After another comfortable night in a splendid hotel in Ooty we were faced with another rather long drive on day seven of the tour as we headed back down into the plains, past an impromptu street protest and back up into the hills at Munnar. Time constraints meant that we made rather few stops that day. Nevertheless, we did find time to admire a pair of Speckled Piculets, our first Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, several Green Warblers, some Indian Rufous Babblers and two Grizzled Giant Squirrels before reaching this even larger tea station.

We’d been warned about, and were already familiar with, the pre-dawn ‘Idle Schoolboy’ song of our Munnar hotel’s Malabar Whistling-thrushes and, fortunately, none of us felt the need to call the front desk and complain about the security guards tuneless whistling. So, there we were up and at ‘em again, refreshed and raring to go the following morning. Shortly after leaving the hotel, and well before we’d reached the morning’s premier site, Syam led us on a short detour for two of the region’s premier avian specialities (Kerala Laughingthrush and White-bellied Blue Robin). By the end of the morning we’d all had great looks at those and at umpteen oh-so-easy Nilgiri Thar at the scenically stunning Rajamalai sanctuary. That effectively left us needing just two more local specialities: Nilgiri Pipit and the always recalcitrant Indian Broad-tailed Grassbird. They both had to wait until the afternoon and after a bouncing jeep ride, a delicious lunch and a steep uphill hike. The demanding walk was hard work and both of our target species initially elusive but those of us who persevered were eventually rewarded with stunning looks at them both.

Heading on and down from Munnar we continued our journey, making a short detour for Yellow-throated Bulbul – an often difficult, elusive species that proved ludicrously easy to find this year. From there we pressed on to Periyar National Park. This year we stayed back in the government hotel inside the sanctuary and were well rewarded with birds and porcupines right on the doorstep for doing so. We spent the first afternoon on a touristy boat ride out on to the lake that’s the centre piece of this very popular sanctuary and were rewarded by some great looks at a few mammals including umpteen Gaur and two Stripe-necked Mongeese.

With December 2019 proving to be another almost leech-free month we were guided around the park the following day by Raj Kumar, one of its most talented local birders. Sure enough, our morning ‘Jungle Walk’ produced a whole host of species ranging from a daytime roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth, to a pair of Malabar Trogons, five species of woodpecker including a single Rufous and a pair of Common Flamebacks as well as great looks at Forest Wagtail, White-bellied Treepie, Orange-headed Thrush and three White-bellied Blue Flycatchers. Great though they all were, it was the afternoon’s Legge’s Hawk-eagle that really stole the show.

We explored a different part of this sprawling reserve the following day and enjoyed several new species by doing so. Highlights of the morning walk included a fabulous Brown Hawk Owl, several ‘Swintail’ Snipe (we couldn’t tell if they were Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed), some equally impressive Jungle Owlets and a spectacular Indian Pitta. The afternoon ‘Jungle Walk’ was just as much fun and yielded a pair of Indian Scops Owls, a majestic Brown Fish Owl, another Lesser Yellownape and two Heart-spotted Woodpeckers.

Our next destination was Thattekad. We’d already seen quite a few nightbirds on the tour but another excellent local guide at Thattekad rapidly built on those and, in seemingly no time at all (and DURING THE DAY), he’d shown us another Sri Lanka Frogmouth, a stunning Sri Lankan Bay Owl and a pair of near-impossible Brown Wood Owls. We were left to our own devices to find more Jerdon’s Nightjars and we found them right beside our lodge’s dining room! Oh, and then there was the Great Eared Nightjar, the Black Bazas, the Grey-headed Bulbuls and the Stork-billed and Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers. The list went on and on…but all too soon it was time to head back to the coast and Kochi.

And there we had it – the core part of the tour was over. No one flew home from Kochi and instead everyone flew on to Chennai (formerly Madras) later than evening. We had a comfortable, if rather brief, layover there and continued onto the Andaman Islands the following morning. It had already been a fantastic tour with some fabulous birds and not a few spectacular mammals. Nevertheless, our superbly accommodating truly first-class driver was well appreciated as were many of the hotels and the food. Several of us had been to Northern India previously and were thoroughly impressed by the South’s scenery, the relative lack of squalor, the quality of many of the hotels and the wide variety of delicious food.

The Andamans were great – hot and humid (just as we expected) and full of exciting endemic birds (again just as we expected). Many of these – the hundreds of Andaman Teal, the Andaman Green-pigeons, most of the nightbirds, both Andaman and Spot-breasted Pied Woodpeckers and (in a marked contrast to two years ago) Andaman Cuckooshrike – gave themselves up well, repeatedly and without too much effort. Others, such as Andaman Crake, were surprisingly quiet and demanded more effort but eventually performed well and there were yet others that were decidedly difficult and required a more concerted effort. Surprisingly this year the recalcitrant ones included Andaman Nightjar and, less surprisingly, a suburban Andaman Masked Owl. Lastly there were the awkward birds, such as the unimaginatively named Andaman Woodpigeon, that only showed briefly or only to a select few. Nevertheless, we saw all the island’s endemic birds. That said, there were numerous other highlights on these magnificent islands: the massive Daurian Starling roost, the Collared Kingfishers, the pair of vagrant Swinhoe’s Minivets, the lunchtime repeated performances by the local White-bellied Sea Eagles and the myriad shorebirds. Brilliant!

Although things had started slowly and, as always, there were safety restrictions in the various Tiger reserves that we visited, nightbirds were again a real feature of this tour. We ended the tour having seen 17 species of nightbird (12 owls, a frogmouth and four nightjars). Each one of these 17 species was seen – none were only heard! This remarkable tally was even better given the fact that most of them were seen during the day! Five of the 25 species in the end of tour Bird of the Trip poll were nightbirds and one of them, Ceylon Bay Owl came second and just one point behind the eventual winner, the spectacular Painted Bush-quail.


-          Paul Holt





Created: 14 January 2020