Great Pied Hornbill and montane endemics, Nilgiris November 2021

Author: Ravi Kailas

Dates: 3rd to 6th November 2021

This trio of Great Pied Hornbill were regular visitors to the grove of Maesopsis around the Oland Plantation Stay

A somewhat unplanned visit to the southeast corner of the Nilgiris, in what turned out to be one of the rainiest Novembers in the region, turned out interesting from a natural history perspective. The initial plan was to spend three nights close to Ooty and explore all the familiar routes skirting the Mukurthi National Park, while there. One night near Ooty and the bustle of tourist arrivals associated with Diwali, and I was scrambling to find a getaway closer to nature, away from all this mayhem. Oland Plantation Stays came to the rescue, on my shortlist of places to visit from daydreaming travel research efforts during the Covid lockdowns and what appeared from the map to be an interesting location from a natural history perspective. My efforts spanned an interesting elevational range/associated habitat types, from over 2000m in the surrounds of Ooty and Parsons Valley to close to 1000m around the O’land Plantation area. Highlights included excellent birdlife, with Great Pied Hornbill, Indian Blue Robin, Nilgiri and Black & Orange Flycatchers, Nilgiri Chilappan, Nilgiri Sholakili, Black Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Painted Bushquail and, hearteningly, a plethora of migrant passerines (always nice to see they made it from their breeding grounds!), but somewhat quieter among other groups, barring an endemic Agamid, some bush frogs and commoner mammals.

Detailed Report

Day 1

Drove from Mysore via the Bandipur-Theppakad-Gudalur route, on a cool cloudy morning turning wetter (a sign of things to come!) with elevation, eventually reaching Ooty late afternoon. Though, the road traverses the wildlife rich Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, including the foothill forests of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves and various patches of montane forest, there was not much wildlife of note, barring a road kill of a Agamid lizard close while approaching Gudalur and a troop Nilgiri Langur near Naduvattam Shola.

A damp, coldish, drizzly evening did not deter me (on the other hand, any change from the hotel I had booked myself into would have been welcome) from an evening walk at Cairn Hill Forest – a little patch of woodland of mostly exotic trees – just outside Ooty. However, the birds and (any other form of wildlife, it seemed, except for an Indian Giant Squirrel rattling off from the canopy somewhere), were rather more reluctant towards activity, likely given the sodden conditions. I did however notice a pair of the endemic Black and Orange Flycatcher playing hide and seek in the murky canopy and a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher disappeared just as soon as it appeared.

I thought that was all the ‘action’ for the day, given the damp weather and impending darkness, however Google Maps led me (not quite) up the garden path, routing me through some impenetrably narrow roads, the rain and appalling visibility not helping in anyway to redeem the tech giant, ‘connecting’ me from Cairn Hill to Conoor Road. A word of advice to anyone trying this, if you are reliant on Google Maps for directions on this sector, please just go through town, via the main bazaar, to connect back to Conoor Road!

Day 2

Nilgiri Chilappan, a Nilgiri endemic, at Lizard Forest

The previous evening rain had continued overnight, as was evident when I stepped out of my room into a misty, drizzly, suitably cold break of dawn at Ooty. Fortunately the weather cleared just enough to spend a couple of hours birding at the not so well know Lizard Forest – a dense forest of exotic and native montane forest, on a hill slope rising above the bustle of Ooty town. This is always a good location to knock off a few local specialities and I was lucky with good views of the Nilgiri Chillapan and a rather more fleeting glimpses of Nilgiri Flycatcher and Nilgiri Sholakili, among commoner species like Indian Blackbird, Indian White Eye, Greenish Warbler and Grey Wagtail, the latter two winter visitors to these parts. However, while this is a regular site for Gaur, Nilgiri Langur and Indian Giant Squirrel, and even Leopard on occasion, none of the mammals showed on this dank morning.

This cooperative Indian Whiteeye was among the sightings at Lizard Forest

A somewhat satisfying morning done, capped with a rather sumptuous breakfast at the nearby King’s Cliff, it was time to move on towards O’land Plantation stay – my host for the next 2 nights. I took my time driving in, mostly downhill, and through settlements and plantations, before arriving before noon to a turn-off leading to the accommodation. This stretch of about 15 Km of quiet road, through natural forest and well wooded plantation, promised much and was the focus of much of my effort over the next two days. Intermittent showers, cleared to a briefly sunny afternoon when I arrived, and there was a noticeable up-tick in bird activity with Malabar Parakeet, Green Leaf Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-throated Munia, Streak-throated Woodpecker and a trio of Great Pied Hornbill all entertaining from my ideally located first floor room’s balcony. There were number of fruiting Maesopsis within the plantation – a seasonal magnet for the magnificent Great Pied Hornbill and I had stumbled upon this setting somewhat inadvertently – and what appeared to be a resident herd of Gaur, close to the accommodations! Even more hearteningly, a chat with Sam, the friendly caretaker at Oland, suggested that a variety of very interesting mammals have been spotted in this part of the Nilgiris, including elusive species like Leopard Cat and Rusty Spotted Cat and, what appeared from his description, to be a Travancore Flying Squirrel which roosted in a tree right opposite the balcony from my room!

A post lunch to evening drive to explore the broader landscape, climbing to reach Kai Kaati, took me through two healthy patches of shola (a local name for montane forest) and a scenic route traversing a rocky hill slope, past the village of Kolakombai. This four hour or so affair, proved quite productive for birds that included Painted Bushquail (in the rocky stretch), Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Puff-throated and Tawny Bellied Babblers, Eurasian Kestrel, Malabar Parakeet and White-cheeked Babbler, among commoner birds. There were also Gaur, a solitary Sambar, Three-striped Palm Squirrel and Bonnet Macaque among the mammals, a dead wolf snake (species? it’s head flattened, sadly, evidently, killed by someone), and innumerable caterpillars, all seemingly the larval stage of the same species, suspended by a thread, over the roads, on this intermittently rainy afternoon effort.

An hour long after dark, pre-dinner drive, going downhill into a thickly forested patch amidst the tea plantations produced a solitary Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, a Sambar and a pair of eyes, close to the ground, the owner of which (playing hide and seek in the tea bush) I was not able to ID. Later that night, I decided to stand vigil from the balcony in hope of catching the supposedly friendly neighbourhood Travancore Flying Squirrel, but to no avail until I drifted off into one of those restful sleep affairs that are the norm when sounds of the forests coo their lullabies in my ears.

Day 3

A pre dawn peek from the balcony towards the reputed flying squirrel roost, did produce a sighting of the animal, resting on an ample horizontal branch, and looking directly into the flashlight. Alas it turned out to be the much commoner Indian Giant Flying Squirrel and not the smaller, endemic Travancore version. I continued into the jungle for a drive in the dark, again taking the road downhill into the thickets, before climbing back up towards the police checkpost that leads into this valley. While, despite the promising landscape and time, the hour or so until the break of dawn turned out unproductive, there was a burst of bird activity from the break of dawn, that included the excellent Indian Blue Robin, and more Great Pied Hornbill, on warm sunny, morning.

Post breakfast, I went on what turned out to be a day long drive and back to Parsons Valley Dam, located on the fringes of a biodiversity rich zone of montane forest and grasslands, southwest of Ooty. The initial part of the drive connected via plantations and human dominated landscape and only a solitary, magnificent regardless, Black Eagle riding the thermals in the heat of the late morning, was a sighting of significance. After a couple of missed turn offs from the outskirts of Ooty (Google Maps, the culprit again), I felt may way into the quiet stretch of non native forest that leads to the Dam, on a damp, drizzly afternoon. There was a deep silence on this stretch, not atypical of natural areas in the upper Nilgiris, with murmurs of bird activity, which included Nilgiri Sholakili, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Orange Minivet and Cinereous Tit, and a troop of Nilgiri Langur. I took the more familiar route via Kai Kaati-Manjakombai-Kola Kombai, back to the resort, and, while the drive was lovely (especially turning off from the main road from Kai Kaati), there were only a handful of interesting sightings, including a very proximate Crested Goshawk, more Painted Bushquail in the same stretch as the previous evening and a Indian Munjtak tentatively crossing the forest gap along the road.

I was back at the resort just as the heavens opened up for couple of hours of heavy thunderstorm, which turned into overnight rain. I took an opportunity to for a night drive as soon as there was some let up in the heavy rain, once again taking the road downhill, but this hour or so effort only produced a couple of Black-naped Hare, a handful of frogs (Indirana sp?) crossing the road and a Centipede following the footsteps of the latter.

Day 4

An endemic Agamid lizard (Nilgiri Forest or Large-scaled Green?) basking on a sunny morning

An early start again for the habitual pre-dawn drive, once again turned out very quiet, barring for a herd of Gaur. Break of dawn on this clear morning, though, brought on some furious bird activity, including the shy Red Spurfowl scratching up the dirt by the roadside. Later, heading back out towards the plains, this activity continued with mixed flocks of Indian Scimitar Babbler, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Black Bulbul, Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher in the sholas. There was also the endemic Nilgiri Striped Squirrel that showed in the montane forest, while a species of Agamid (Nilgiri Forest or Large-scaled Forest Lizard), stoically refused to move out of the road, basking in the glorious morning sun, closer to the resort. I descended the Nilgiris via the steep, forested, scenic route via Manjur and Geddai, a Green Calotes basking in the middle of the road, seemingly taking advantage of this traffic free conduit into the plains from among Peninsular India’s highest mountains, having glimpsed a fraction of the unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats on this brief visit.

Logistics Etc

With a fair familiarity of the Nilgiris and its wild denizens, I did not require any special resources to enhance my natural history pursuits here. However, it was a pleasure staying at Oland Plantation Stays, with its location allowing convenient access to a wildlife rich landscape in the vicinity, its comfortable, albeit rustic accommodations, quite delicious local style food and warm hospitality (special thanks to Sam and his lovely family in this regard), among its alluring characteristics.

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