Author: Ravi Kailas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is a report based on a guided mammal/birdwatching oriented trip to various locations in the Western Ghats of south India this spring
Dates: 25th March to 7th April 2018 (guided portion from 29th March onwards)
Tour Locations: Kabini, Bandipur, Sethumadai/Top Slip, Parambikulam, Valparai, Chinnar, Munnar, Thattekad. Map of tour locations
The trip was conducted in the aftermath a tragic forest fire event, which took the lives of several recreational trekkers. As a result, local forest departments had banned entry into/walks in places that were a part of our original itinerary, and as such we had to improvise activities to get the best out of our travels from a natural history experience perspective
Tour Participants: Manuel and Aline Ruedi
Naturalist: Ravi Kailas (of Ficus Wildlife and Natural History Tours)
Manuel, a mammalogist, ace birder and curator of the Natural History Museum, Geneva, had a pre-trip target list of several mammals – happily, we managed to see most (in all 27 species, not counting smaller mammals that we could not id): :
Tiger, Leopard, Dhole, Elephant, Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr, Brown Palm Civet, Indian Flying and Grizzled Giant Squirrels, Grey Slender Loris (but notable misses included the melanistic Leopard, the highly elusive Nilgiri Marten and Sloth Bear); Close to 200 species of birds*, many in breeding splendour, including several of south India’s specialities and passage migrants of the their way northwards: Western Ghats Flying Lizard, among several Agamid and Scincid lizards; A range of forest types of the Western Ghats.
* please note that we have not taken into account the recent taxonomic changes for south India’s Shortwings and Laughingthrushes)
Other Highlights: Manuel and Aline’s introduction to south Indian cuisine (including an early crop of juicy Banganapalli mangoes from Pollachi); Chandru’s tireless driving; Engaging interactions on a variety of subjects, especially Manuel’s vast knowledge of mammal taxonomy and ecology and various anecdotes from the duo’s considerable travel experiences, in far-flung corners of the natural world!
The author, Ravi Kailas, joined the others in Bandipur on Day 5 – and the trip information prior to that is gleaned (hopefully with reliable accuracy!) from interactions with Manuel and Aline.
The trip starts off in the wildlife rich deciduous forests of the Cauvery basin, in the Nilgiris, before heading into the biodiversity rich hill forests of the southern Western Ghats, finally culminating in the humid, lowland forests on the western foothills of the Ghats.
Day 1, Mysore/Ranganathitoo: Early morning arrival into Bangalore followed by a 5 hour or so (including several stops, for breakfast and sightseeing) drive to Mysore. The (productive) evening was spent at the Ranganathitoo Bird Sanctuary, a mixed heronry on the Cauvery River, just east of Mysore, with sightings of Mugger Crocodile, Indian Flying Fox, mixed nesting congregations of Spot-billed Pelican, Painted Stork, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Egrets, Cormorants and Herons, a nesting colony of streak-throated sparrows and various woodland birds.
Day 2 & 3, Kabini: South India’s prime location for congregations of large animals and the four safaris here proved quite productive – including excellent sightings of Dhole and Leopard, apart from Elephant, Gaur, various deer and typically good birdlife (including a rare sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle of which only a patchy wintering records exist in southern India, and not to mention a crow, that likes to look at itself in the mirror!). A big miss here was of the melanistic Leopard (an individual was seen off and on for the past several months, but no luck on this trip unfortunately).
The well wooded campus of the Kabini River Lodge (the lodging for this leg) also thrives with a representation of birds and other smaller denizens (not only, as Leopards and even Tigers have been known to use this wild boar rich patch on occasion!) and can be enjoyed on foot.
Day 4 & 5, Bandipur: Bordering the forests of Kabini to the southeast, the tourism zone of Bandipur, holds similar wildlife, but in a hillier and somewhat ‘thinner’, deciduous forest with a rampant Lantana understory. The main highlight in the four safaris at Bandipur was an excellent Tiger sighting, which obliged a multi-minute viewing by walking along and resting on the forest road. In addition to a representation of various deer and primates typical to this forest, another feature of the safaris here was the abundance of the handsome Stripe-necked Mongoose – many individuals digging furiously on damp ground, apparently looking for toads or similarly, seasonally abundant burrowing prey. The tourism zone in Bandipur also includes the thorny-scrub, rain shadow area of the Moyar Gorge, which hosts the rare Four-horned Antelope. However, a brief morning foray into this little visited (translation: low Tiger density), but dramatically scenic part of this forest, did not prove fruitful for a sighting of this species.
While bird sightings from the safari vehicles were rather modest – barring a memorable sighting of a Malabar Parakeet, feeding nonchalantly a few feet from us, and a somewhat difficult to id Jerdon’s Nightjar blending into the leaf litter – the young forest surrounding the Bandipur Safari Lodge, was buzzing with various Warblers, Minivets, Flycatchers, Sunbirds, Barbets, Bulbuls and other birds of open forest attracted to the abundance that accompanies the spring flowering in these deciduous forests
Day 6, Sethumadai: After the morning safari Bandipur we set out on a rather long drive from Bandipur to Sethumadai, via the upper ranges of the Nilgiris and further southwest through bustling plains of the Palaghat Gap to the foothills of the Anamalai Hills at Sethumadai. En-route we stopped at a scruby forest at the rain-shadow of the Nilgiris for the patchily distributed White-bellied Minivet – which noisily obliged in the rising mid-morning heat. Lifer accomplished, we set our sights higher for some upper Nilgiris specialities, where we succeeded in locating a skittish Nilgiri Laughingthrush and Nilgiri Flycatcher, but missed the endemic Nilgiri Blue Robin and Black-and-Orange Flycatcher, in a disturbed patch of wattle forest near the Ooty.
After reaching our quietly tucked away resort (Serenity Top Slip, bordering the tiger reserve, at the base of the hills) around sunset, and a typical south Indian tiffin for dinner, we set off on a search for nocturnal denizens along the forest edge. The effort proved especially productive for Jerdon’s Nightjar, with several sightings, an Indian Eagle Owl, a trio of (very vocal) Brown Fish Owl and a pair of (largely hidden in woody Liana) Slender Loris (endemic to Peninsular India and Sri Lanka).
Day 7, Parambikulam: A relaxed start to the morning, waking up to the sights and sounds of Anamalai’s foothill forests to enter to the Anamalai TR by 7 AM (opening time), towards Top Slip. This approximately 10 KM route goes cuts the forests covering the Eastern slopes of these hills, progressively wetter on elevation gain, with lovely mature bamboo dominating in parts. Highlights from this drive included the first sighting the endemic, locally abundant Nilgiri Langur (some troops here have interbred with the Common Langur and have characteristics of both), several Malabar Giant Squirrel feeding on the seasonal abundance of flower and fruit and our first sighting of the colourful Malabar Trogon among excellent birdlife enhanced by mixed hunting parties typical to the monsoon forests of the south India. With the deciduous forest shedding their leaves in the dry season, the forest had a photogenic, light-filled, open appearance.
After a late breakfast, we retraced our morning route and beyond to our accommodation at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve to arrive for lunch. The scenic, potentially wildlife rich route took us via Top Slip (see above) and beyond for 20 plus kms through (largely) teak dominated moist deciduous forest, interspersed with patches of evergreen (notably the atmospheric Kariyan Shola just beyond Top Slip), reservoirs and swamps. Our accommodation at Parambikulam was at Honey Comb – a Kerala Forest Department managed resthouse complex. Honey Comb is the furtherest along the forest road, with a twin benefit of the longest possible drive through the forest on the commute as well as a privilege of a private safari on the Parambikulam-Top Slip main road (others have to pile on in a noisy safari van). The evening road safari was productive for a sighting of a herd elephants in a swamp, the endemic White-bellied Tree Pie, Malabar Whistling Thrush and a some great views of the forest landscape. After an enjoyable tribal dance performance and a largely locally inspired vegetarian dinner, a brief night walk proved rather quiet, barring a few Sambhar Deer and Wild Boar.
Day 8 & 9, Valparai: The day started at 6.30 AM for jungle walk, guided by a tribal gentleman through his forest home – a refreshing initiative by the Kerala Forest Department with a twin benefit of tourists gaining insights from the real local experts, while the tribals benefit from ecotourism without losing touch with their traditional way of life. A brief foray into a mist shrouded teak forest was soon interrupted when the guide first scented and then saw an elephant in the direction we were headed. As always with forest dwellers and wild elephants, the wise approach is to give the animal a wide berth and we retreated into another path that traced the Parambikulam Reservoir. The sun had burned through the early mist, as we walked through mixed forest, interspersed with thickets of mature bamboo, filled with bird sounds and the signature whooping call of the Nilgiri Langur from near and afar. The path was filled with evidence animal movement with spoor/droppings/scat of notably Elephant, Sloth Bear, Nilgiri Langur, civet (sp.?), Indian Porcupine and Wild Dog. Birdlife was memorable with an excellent views of the colourful Malabar Trogon and the diminutive Black Baza – a winter migrant to these parts – possibly on the cusp of its travels to breeding grounds in India’s northeast.
After breakfast, we drove back through Parambikulam, with (few and far between) mid-day delights including a female Malabar Trogon with a (much commoner) deceptively Rufous Treepie like appearance, an Indian Cuckoo high on the canopy, a Green Calotes, an attractive, endemic Agamid Lizard, caught basking by the roadside by Aline’s sharp ‘jungle’ eyes and locally abundant Western Ghats Squirrel. Back in the plains for a typically Tamilian lunch thali at Grand Cafe Pollachi (recommended!) and to stock up on a relatively early crop Banganapalli mangoes (the couples’s favourite food on the trip) before we drove up the mountains towards Valparai. The humid afternoon foretold of rain and sure enough we were soon ascending the winding mountain road with an accompanying thunderstorm, small hail and much holiday traffic for company. While it was difficult to spot wildlife in the rain, we did come across a herd of the endemic Nilgiri Tahr by the roadside – uncharacteristically habituated to the busy road that winds through a steep rock face on the initial part of the ascent. After an approximately 4 hr drive through the varied forests of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and private tea plantations, we arrived Monica Bungalow – our accommodation for the next 2 nights – at dusk.
An early start the next (misty, cool) morning to explore a small patch of rainforest in the puthuthottam estate, amidst tea plantations and the bustle of the Valparai Town. This patch is a strong hold for 100 plus habituated Lion-tailed Macaque (LTM), a monkey endemic to the Western Ghats and a flagship species for forest protection in the region. We were duly entertained by a small troop, with a typical mix of ages and sexes, feeding, grooming and warming themselves in the cool of the morning – all within a few feet of us on either side of a busy road. Other highlights from the morning included a robust Malabar Giant Squirrel, Nilgiri Langur and Malabar Grey Hornbill, among several species of typical forest birds from these mountains.
After birding/resting in patches (at the quiet time of the day) around Monica, we set out in the afternoon to explore the Valparai landscape further afield. The first part of drive retraced the route towards the plains of Tamilnadu, rising around 1700m at the lovely Iyerpadi Shola, a patch of montane forest connected to shola-grasslands in the highest parts of these mountains. A walk along the road through this atmospheric forest of fern filled undergrowth and stunted moss-covered trees, proved productive for Dark-fronted Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Nilgiri Langur and an agamid lizard of the genus Calotes (again thanks to Aline for those sharp eyes!). Later in the evening we arrived at a woodland/coffee plantation (Varataparai) to be greeted by a large herd of Gaur, feeding nonchalantly by the roadside, but missed a key attraction of Great Hornbill in a somewhat regular roosting area. After dinner back at Monica, we went out for a night ride through a private estate, known for Leopard sightings. While we missed the big cat we did see the nocturnal Brown Palm Civet, a regional endemic, among several Indian Flying Squirrel.
Day 10 & 11, Munnar and Surroundings: Another early start to the next morning to explore the endemic Macaque’s lair at Puthutthottam, but this time through a guided walk inside the private plantation. As we walked along the forest edge, we came upon the large troop of the LTM’s, many actively feeding (or otherwise socially interacting) on the forest floor – again largely tolerating our close proximity, barring an adult male which tried to raid a backpack, seemingly for food (sadly a behaviour encouraged by the macaques frequently interacting with tourists along the road connecting Valparai). As we watched the macaques, what seemed like a Crested Goshawk flew overhead, but turned out to the rarer Legge’s Hawk Eagle upon scrutiny of Manuel’s picture. Other highlights included the endemic Rufous Babbler, Barking Deer and Western Ghats and Malabar Giant Squirrels.
We left the Valparai Landscape towards Munnar late morning – first descending the Anamalai Hills and ascending the High Ranges further south. On the descent we came across few familiar looking Nilgiri Tahrs and a crow picking parasites off them – spa therapy, jungle style (and a hitherto unknown interaction among either species, from the author’s experience)! Ascending this route towards Munnar is a pleasure as it cuts through the potentially wildlife rich rain-shadow forest-scape of the Anamalai and Chinnar protected areas, before skirting the shola-grasslands of Eravikulam. While we drove through this landscape at an unproductive (for wildlife) time of the afternoon, we did see the patchily distributed Giant Grizzled Squirrel in a riverine forest at Chinnar – a regular sighting spot for the species. After a relaxed drive enjoying the landscape along this route, we arrived at the Talayar Valley Bungalow around sunset – just enough time for a walk through scrubby forest amidst the tea plantations in the vicinity of the accommodation. The short walk proved productive for a sighting of Ruddy Mongoose, cautiously looking at us from a safe distance further down the path and a large flock of Common Rosefinch, winter visitors to these parts.
Another early start to a cool morning to enter Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary early enough for wildlife viewing along the roadside. The sunny morning proved productive for excellent birdlife, including close sightings of colourful species like Asian Fairy Bluebird and Orange Minivet, Giant Grizzled Squirrel and unexpectedly, the superbly camouflaged Western Ghats Flying Lizard, pursuing ants up tree trunks, only giving themselves away while displaying with their bright yellow throat flap or gliding elegantly between trees.
As the sun rose higher in the sky we drove back to Talayar for breakfast followed by a visit to a tea factory – where Rajesh•, a knowledgeable local guide who had joined us for the day, enlightened us about the entire leaf to packaging process of Tea. Post lunch it was time for more birding oriented efforts, which, while dull in the early efforts closer to Munnar town, was much more rewarding at a pristine patch of montane forest close to the Eravikulam NP. Here, we saw a few endemics including Kerala Laughingthrush, Nilgiri Flycatcher and the rare Nilgiri Thrush (a grand finale at dusk), Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Square-tailed Bulbul and Black Eagle among others. With options limited due the trekking ban*, we visited this patch again on the morning of Day 12 to be rewarded with sightings of the White-bellied Shortwing, skulking in the undergrowth as (almost) always and a bit more cooperative Black-and-Orange Flycatcher – both species restricted to the montane habitats of the Western Ghats.
•Do contact Rajesh if you require guiding services for local attractions and treks in and around Munnar. Mobile: +91 80728 92516; +91 94975 46303
*Our Munnar area activity was particularly affected by the trekking ban in place at that time, but for which we would have enjoyed guided walks through Chinnar and Pampadum Shola National Parks (best for the very rare Nilgiri Marten) and a visit to the Eravikulam National Park (best for habituated Nilgiri Tahr, Broad-tailed Grassbird and Nilgiri Pipit)
Day 12 & 13, Thattekad: We descended the hills from Munnar towards the lowland forest-plantation matrix at Thattekad – known for its bird riches – to arrive at Hornbill Camp by lunch. Later, we joined Gireesh* – a colourful, energetic (pioneer in Thattekad) bird guide/homestay host/lawyer when the birds laze around, for an evening of birding. First stop to find Mottled Wood Owl at a regular roosting spot, but perhaps for not much longer, as we observed the owl being mobbed by other species. The rest of the evening passed relatively quietly in the rural landscape around Thattekad as we waited for some nocturnal action. Walking through a forest path, at nightfall, we heard and saw both male and female Sri Lanka Frogmouth, an Indian Pitta, perhaps in the last few days of its south Indian sojourn, and a pair of Slender Loris disappearing up dense woody liana into the canopy.
*Gireesh pioneered guided birdwatching in Thattekad and runs a comfortable, superbly located (on the edge of the sanctuary entrance), homestay along with his charming family.
The next morning was a typical Thattekad birding session with a foray into the beautiful lowland rainforest at Urulanthanni. A short walk along a jungle stream, warily on the lookout for elephants, with a quick detour into the forest by Gireesh to show us a pair of roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth and onto a rock with an eye-level view of the forest canopy. Birding was typically productive and enjoyable with great views of Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Malabar Parakeet, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Minivets, Drongos, Orioles, Sunbirds, Green Pigeons etc – a hearty representation of the birdlife in the Oriental Region. Descending the rock into a forest path along tall, buttressed trees, Gireesh’s keen sense of hearing, tuned to local bird specialities, picked up the call of a Malabar Trogon. Soon after an excited pursuit we came across a red, orange and black male Trogon in a mid-canopy branch, sealing a satisfying morning of forest birding. Later that evening, we revisited this same general area around Urulanthanni in hope of sighting the rare Ceylon Bay Owl, which has been sighted off and on in the general vicinity, however without luck. Earlier, closer to close Gireesh’s place, we had a bottom-up view of the a commoner Brown Hawk Owl in a regular daytime open forest roost.
Later that night, it was time to say bye to Manuel and Aline at the Cochin Airport – a pleasure to host these amiable travel companions and excellent naturalists!