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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The South

2018 Narrative

Although things started slowly with paced arrivals into the Kochi (formerly Cochin) airport hotel and a long drive up into the mountains near Ooty, things soon ramped up and we ended up having a great tour. We didn’t see very many memorable birds on the long drive, other than a road-hugging Black Eagle, however we did revel in some ridiculously close looks at a magnificent Gaur shortly before reaching the hill station. The previous tour had started in an ignominious fashion – a Man-eating Tiger near Ooty put paid to several of our plans around the town. No such misfortune this year however and our Ooty adventures started right outside the hotel where a cooperative Indian Blue Robin kicked things off nicely. Our next destinations, the Cairn Hills and Dodabetta Protected Forests, lived up to their billing too and, there, amid surprisingly rich shola forests, we scored with primary targets such as the often secretive Nilgiri Blue Robin and Black-and-orange Flycatcher within minutes of stepping off the bus!

We went on to see our first demure Nilgiri Flycatcher, several White-cheeked Barbets, and umpteen other quality birds – a magnificent pair of Greater Flamebacks, close range looks at both Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Indian Scimitar-babbler and a fly-by Rufous-bellied Eagle as the day unfolded. And wow, weren’t we lucky with our first Nilgiri Woodpigeon – a bird that flew in just as we’d given up and were walking back to our vehicles!

The following morning we switched to a fleet of jeeps and explored a steep ghat road that led from the famous hill station back down to the plains. This short journey took most of the day and on it we enjoyed our first views of several close Malabar Parakeets, some pesky Bonnet Macaques and, after several failed attempts a small party of magnificent Painted Bush-quail. That typically-elusive gamebird teased, eluded, and frustrated us but only for an hour or two before giving itself up in spectacular style and amid a spectacular setting.

The day’s other primary target, White-bellied Minivet, was nowhere to be seen, or heard, that day and we had to be satisfied with a whole host of woodpeckers, with Indian Pygmy, Streak-throated and Black-rumped Flameback all putting in memorable appearances as did the day’s Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. Our after-dinner encounter with the two Jerdon’s Nightjars was soon improved upon but the Oriental Scops-owl above our accommodation was truly superb and well worth putting up with the safety restrictions in the Tiger Reserves and lodge area.

We found, and had great looks at, a White-bellied Minivet the following morning and then moved on to search for Brown Fish Owl (we glimpsed one but would enjoy great views later on during the tour) and the elusive Blue-faced Malkoha. Other goodies included decent looks at an Indian Pitta, a superbly well-spotted slow moving Indian Chameleon and a Thick-billed Flowerpecker.

Nightbirds rapidly become a real feature of this tour and we saw Jerdon’s again that evening and had an even better, close-range encounter with an Indian Jungle Nightjar. On the tour as a whole, including the optional Andamans extension, we ended having encountered 19 species of nightbird (13 owls, Ceylon Frogmouth and five nightjars) with remarkably just one, Ceylon Bay Owl, being heard and not seen!

After a Jungle Cat, more torrential rain and another comfortable night back up in Ooty, we headed on to Munnar, the second hill station of this wide-ranging tour. Arriving in the early evening we had to wait until the following day to start digging out that region’s specialities with Kerala Laughingthrush and White-bellied Blue Robin being the first to fall. Nilgiri Thar was oh-so-easy at the scenically stunning Rajamalai sanctuary with Nilgiri Pipit demanding more effort and the ever elusive, but eventually bagged, Indian Broad-tailed Grassbird even more.

Heading on and down from Munnar we continued our journey, made a short detour for Yellow-throated Bulbul and pressed on to Periyar National Park. Almost leech-free this year we were guided around the park by one of its most talented local birders. Sure enough, our afternoon ‘Nature Walk’ produced a whole host of species: a couple of Rufous-tailed Flycatchers, a superb Heart-spotted Woodpecker, our first pair of Malabar Trogons, and an all-too-elusive pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers perhaps being the pick of the afternoon. The following morning, we had a fabulous encounter with a pair of Great (Pied) Hornbills, Rufous Woodpeckers and Common Flamebacks, and eventually had good looks at a party of recalcitrant Rufous Babblers, revelled in a Stork-billed Kingfisher, and several of us were even treated to decent looks at a Red Spurfowl. The afternoon produced a cooperative pair of White-bellied Blue Flycatchers.

Great views of Malabar Barbets and Grey-fronted Green Pigeons started the following morning’s so-called ‘Green Walk’ just outside the park and it wasn’t very long before we were being treated to excellent views of a pair 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, and after a visit to a spice garden that also boasted a couple of daytime roosting Indian Scops-owls, we had a boat ride out on Periyar Lake. That was fun – not least for the sheer number of wild elephants and the fabulous Indian Gaur.

Our final port of call was Thattekad. We’d only seen a few nightbirds at Periyar NP (but did have a fabulously cooperative Brown Hawk-owl in the hotel grounds) but another local guide at Thattekad soon rectified that. In seemingly no time at all he’d shown us both Brown and Mottled Wood Owls, Brown Fish Owl, and we’d sort of found our own Ceylon Frogmouths. And they were ALL seen to great effect during the day! We eventually found a fairly vocal Ceylon Bay Owl on an evening excursion but, despite a lengthy effort, we never did see it! Other goodies at Thattekad included several Black Bazas and Grey-headed Bulbul.

And then it was time to head back to the coast and Kochi – but before spending another night in yet another very comfortable hotel we had time to explore a little of this fascinating city. And then there was the hotel itself, with its nice rooms, great food, and a fabulous poolside terrace that yielded even more great birds: Greater Painted-snipe, Watercock, and Rosy Starling to mention a few.

And there we had it – the core part of the tour was over, three people flew home while the rest of us flew on to Chennai (formerly Madras), had a layover there, and then headed on to the Andaman Islands. It had already been 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 thoroughly 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.

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 Andaman Serpent-eagle, the Andaman Green-pigeon, and the Andaman Coucal – gave themselves up repeatedly and without too much effort. Others, such as Andaman Crake, were surprisingly quiet and demanded more effort but eventually gave themselves up and there were yet others that were one-view-only birds. These included an urban Andaman Masked Owl. Lastly there were the awkward birds, such as the equally imaginatively named Andaman Cuckooshrike and Andaman Woodpigeon, that only showed briefly or to a select few. That said there were numerous other highlights on these magnificent islands: multiple other nightbirds, the close-range Violet Cuckoo that we eventually walked away from, and several surprises – not least the flock of 15 Daurian Starlings and the Ashy Minivets. 

-          Paul Holt

Created: 19 January 2018