This trip aimed at seeing all Western Ghats endemics, as well as a number of endemics of the Indian Subcontinent. Kolbjørn (KS) had previously visited Sri Lanka, but this was our first trip to India. We planned our itinerary solely using the eminent guide book, and opted for a loop starting in Cochin, driving northwards along the Ghats, then to Mysore and back along the coast to Cochin - the latter for touristy purpose. We figured this loop had the potential to give all our target species. We found three endemics on localities not described in the book - these are illustrated by detailed figures 1, 2 and 3 below. We pre-hired car, with a driver who fortunately proved familiar with the Ghats, so we never had any problems to find the right locations. However, a trip like this can be condensed if you're time limited - see our suggested 8-day 'Western Ghat endemics only itinerary'.
Jungle Bush-Quail, Painted Bush-Quail, Red Spurfowl, Indian Peafowl, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Plum-headed Parakeet, Blue-faced Malkoha, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Frogmouth, Jerdon's Nightjar, Indian Swiftlet, Malabar Trogon, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Brown-capped Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Indian Pitta, Indian Bushlark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Hill Swallow, White-browed Wagtail, White-browed Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Ashy Prinia, Kashmir Flycatcher, Spot-breasted Fantail, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, Jungle Babbler, Yellow-billed Babbler, Black-lored Tit, Purple-rumped (Loten's) Sunbird, Crimson-backed Sunbird, White-bellied Drongo and Black-throated Munia.
We saw 31 of these, and missed out on the Malabar Pied Hornbill, White-naped Woodpecker, Kashmir Flycatcher and Black-throated Munia.
(3) 4 "others": Jungle Owlet, Rufous-winged (Jerdon's) Bushlark, White-bellied Minivet and Brown-breasted Flycatcher. Of these, we only got the Owlet.
13.02: Oman Air flight departing Muscat at 00:40, arrival Cochin 05:50. Started the drive to Periyar at 07:10, where we arrived 12:00.
14.02: Periyar, including trek and night walk.
15.02: Morning at Forbay Dam, before proceeding to Bodi Ghat. Overnight in Munnar.
16.02: Munnar, including Rajamalai, Cardamom Estate and surroundings.
17.02: Munnar; morning outside town, before drive through Chinnar WLS to Parambikulam WLS.
18.02: Parambikulam WLS.
19.02: Parambikulam WLS, drive past towns of Pollachi and Coimbature, and arrived Ooty at 19:00.
20.02: Ooty, including Cairnhill Forest and Muthorai.
21.02: Ooty; relaxed day at Cairnhill Forest.
22.02: Morning drive from Ooty down Sighur Ghat to Mudumalai.
24.02: Morning drive from Mudumalai to Mysore and Ranganathittu. Departed Mysore for an evening drive to Calicut where we arrived 20:30.
25.02: Morning drive to Cochin and Thattekkad.
26.02: Thattekkad with a good morning's birding, evening drive to Munnar.
27.02: Munnar; Cardamom Estate; noon drive back to Cochin.
28.02: Departure Cochin 07:30, arrival Muscat 10:00.
Required at least for our Norwegian passports and I believe most other nationalities. It was easily obtained at the Indian embassies in Oman (KS) and Norway (Kjetil; KJS), and we did this well in advance of travel.
We pre-hired car with driver through United Travel in Oman. Their travel agent contact in Cochin was Consortium Tours of India. They provided an air-conditioned 2000-model Ambassador 2.0 DSL, which has the classic Morris Oxford chassis, and was for us essential to get the right Indian feel to our trip. We paid them cash upon arrival. Charge was Rps. 1,500/- a day (1 US$ = Rps. 47.00). This included 200 km a day (which proved more than enough), diesel, oil and all maintenance. Fuel is reasonable - we noted prizes of Rps. 33.58 / liter for petrol, and 21.52 / liter for diesel in Coimbature on the 19/2. We negotiated Rps. 700/- for the last day of rental. In addition, we paid Rps. 100/- a day to the driver, for food and accommodation, as we went along. We had no restrictions or extra costs for number of hours of driving, night driving or night fees, in case we should wish for that. However, toll roads and state border check-post fees we had to pay ourselves, but this was quite negligible.
The driver, Sunil Kumar, proved excellent, and we have no problems recommending him for hard-core birdwatching trips. He likes long drives, night drives included, and was very accommodating for our stop-and-go birding.
Self-drive is apparently available in Kerala, but we got quoted a lot more for that, and we suspect it could be a problem at some state border posts regarding insurance. Besides, if there is one country it pays off renting car with driver - India is it.
Accommodation and food
We brought along with us 40 kg of supplies; mostly canned food, muesli, mineral water, long-life milk, isotonic drinks and energy muesli bars. This lasted a full week, and proved invaluable, as often we found ourselves far from what we considered "safe" food outlets, and more important, avoided any stomach upsets whatsoever. At Periyar we had a daily dinner at our hotel and at Parambikulam we added locally made fresh japatis to our canned food. At Ooty where we stayed in the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore, we lived almost like a Maharaja with superb cuisine. Jungle Hut at Mudumalai provides impeccable delicious dishes as well - but served water bottles with broken seals only…. In Thattekkad you can have a simple dish together with the family who rents out the huts.
We never pre-booked any accommodation - in most (all) places it is readily available in whatever price range that suit you. However in high season it would be beneficial to pre-book sites such as Mudumalai.
Note that some hotels might offer a good discount if you say you do not want receipt.
Also, Indian bureaucracy is still holding on to the 'Foreign Treaty' which the Brits introduced ages ago - back then intended to control foreigners. Today it forces you to fill a detailed form at any establishment you stay, and adds a bit to the hassle-factor.
Health: Hazards, safety and precautions
We followed Shell's internal guidelines. Major health hazards are listed as
· other insect born diseases
· food and drink born diseases
· road traffic accidents.
Vaccinations required, are:
· Hepatitis A
· Hepatitis B
· Typhoid, Jap B Encephalitis (only in rural areas of stay longer than 2 weeks)
· BCG (children < 12 years).
· A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travelers over 6 months of age coming from infected areas.
Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for visits anywhere in the country of altitudes < 2000 m. Recommended for southern India is a combination of Paludrine + Chloroquine (which we used), but short-term visitors can also use Malarone.
It is best to check with your health ministry for any updates or changes to the above.
Road-traffic accidents: A very serious threat. Calicut Road which is the main highway between Calicut and Chenai was real bad - we came across three fatal accidents there, plus a school bus full of children nearly having to swerve off the road to avoid crashing with an overtaking bus - my heart literally stopped watching it, but fortunately none got injured. Do NOT hesitate asking your driver to slow down; fortunately our driver Sunil Kumar was courteous as well as skilled, and the few times he went overboard, we let him know.
Wild animals: Avoid elephants for ANY price, particularly lone males. At Mudumalai, we were told of a male that had killed nearly 20 humans! And we birded unknowingly in that explicit area. KJS read in the newspaper a week later that it had killed a further 6 men in one week alone - simply unbelievable. On two occasions we had to run for our lives to escape agitated elephants (Periyar, Mudumalai).
Also, while birding in the area where the killing elephant was, while looking for Bush-Quails, I heard something inside a bush, sneaked up .... and got confronted with a LARGE King Cobra, thick as my arm. It was rather scary, particularly when you're all geared up for a sweet quail.
In addition, same place, on "illegal" trekking we almost walked straight into a Tiger, which at less than 10 m range was sensible enough to discard the Norwegian menu of the day. I guess we had more luck than common sense.
The bandit Virapan.
Virapan is a famous bandit roaming the Mudumalai triangle border area of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. During our visit there were "Wanted" posters everywhere with a staggering 5.5 Crore (= US$ 11.7 mill) in reward for finding him. However - Virapan is the local Robin Hood, with lots (all??) of his revenue going back to the villagers in terms of schooling, food and medicines. Hence he is highly regarded as a savior among the village populations. So capturing the culprit becomes a very difficult task, as he receives shelter and hides, turning into an innocent villager. One place we even got a sneak look at a framed picture of the culprit - showed to us with a great deal of respect by the owner of it. It pictured a rank looking man with an impressive mustache, single-shot rifle and no sandals - his trademark.
Virapan started in the small with sandal wood smuggling - we heard stories of people waking up in the morning suddenly missing a sandal tree in their garden. He added to that business by poaching elephants for ivory. Eventually, it escalated to kidnapping for ransom, which turned real nasty at one occasion where a high-ranking politician got killed in a police shoot-out. Once he and his pack snatched a hot Bollywood star, eventually receiving millions in ransom for her.
Before we arrived at Mudumalai, while at Parambikulam, we got simply scared to death going there, hearing fantastic escalated stories of this man, "having killed 2,000 elephants and 500 police officers"! But any story, going from one to the other, grows in size. So the real extent is a lot less, however no less serious, as several policemen have been killed in various shoot-outs. If we met him? Almost! Maybe did we see him and the pack! See the "Mudumalai" chapter for details of what we experienced!
Our experiences at a glance:
A successful, pleasant, incident - and hassle-free trip without any problems at all.
On the lowland western (ocean)-side of the Ghats, the weather was warm reaching mid-thirties C and humid, and during our last day only, heavy rain showers. This is a lush evergreen area, in stark contrast with the rain-starved eastern side of Top Slip / Parambikulam and Munnar - the forests there resembled a late November forest in Scandinavia - no leaves on the trees, and not a drop of rain for months. However, around the immediate vicinity of the river, there were green thickets and bamboo. The hill-stations such as Ooty were down to freezing at night, and pleasant 20s during day.
Indian rupi (Rps). We preferred traveling with cash and changed US$ 900 upon arrival at the airport. Exchange rate was 47.00. This was extravaganza and more than enough to cover any daily costs.
Rps. 100,000 = 1 lakh. 1 Crore = 100 lakh.
Guide-book used for all planning and getting around:
"A birdwatchers' guide to India" ( Krys Kazmierczak & Raj Singh). Prion Ltd. Bird Watchers Guide series, 1998. ISBN 1-871104-08-4
"Pocket guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent" (R. Grimmett, C. Inskipp, T. Inskipp). Oxford. 1999. ISBN 0-195651-55-3
Armchair nomenclature tried adapted in this report's species lists below:
"Birds of the World: A Checklist" (James F. Clements). Pica Press Sussex. Fifth edition, 2000. ISBN 1-873403-93-3
Optics we used
Zeiss 7x42 TP (KS), Leica 10x32 (KJS), Leica APO televid 32x WA scope.
Suggested itinerary for birders aimed at seeing Western Ghats endemics only:
Day 1: Morning drive from Cochin on NH 49 direction Munnar. Stop on route at the Grey-headed Bulbul site. Proceed to Bodi Ghat (late morning/noon). Evening at Cardamom Estate, Munnar, for Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon.
Day 2: Munnar area; Broad-tailed Grassbird and Nilgiri Pipit. Optional afternoon at Rajamalai (closed Jan 10 - 28). Afternoon / evening drive to Top Slip / Parambikulam WLS.
Day 3: Top Slip / Parambikulam WLS.
Day 4: Top Slip / Parambikulam WLS, noon drive to Ooty. Evening at Cairnhill Forest.
Day 5: Ooty, morning at Cairnhill Forest. Noon drive down Sighur Ghat to Mudumalai; bird the stretch between Jain Resort to Mavanhalla.
Day 6: Mudumalai.
Day 7: Mudumalai; late morning drive back to Cochin and Thattekkad.
Day 8: Thattekkad.
Day 8/9: Departure.
PERIYAR 13 - 15.02.2003
Highlights for us: Common endemics, plus Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Brown Hawk-Owl, Grey Nightjar, Great Hornbill.
This is a back-packer's paradise, located 870 meters above sea level in the Idukki District of Kerala, just 4 km from the town of Kumily. For birding, it turned out to be a non-essential stop - however arriving from a desert country; we did enjoy the picturesque location and semi-evergreen forest. Upon arrival at noon 13/2 we rented an air-conditioned chalet with a view at the Ambadi Hotel for two nights, at a cost of Rps. 860/- per night. We found it to give excellent value for money. A good dinner for two came around Rps. 225/-.
We birded the "Periyar Tiger Reserve", with an entrance fee at Rps. 50/- per person per day. Strolling the 3 km from the entrance gate to the boat jetty is quite pleasant and offers reasonable birding. However it is illegal trekking off the main road without a guide. Mr. Girish Kumar at The Nature Shop, who is recommended in the guide book, turned out to be a real time-waster: First of all he was never really helpful with information, and after negotiations we made an appointment for 07:00 the next morning the 14th - but he never turned up. Instead, we had no choice but to go with a non-birding guide from the "Information Center" at the boat jetty. The walk lasted 07:30 - 12:00, and was in reality a touristic stroll through the dry forest. Except for a close encounter with a lone male Elephant and subsequent "run-for-your-life" through the jungle, we did not see a lot. The eastern side of the river which according to the guidebook seems more interesting was unfortunately closed for tourists during our visit.
There is also a marsh area located between the village and the park entrance - this has some potential; we saw Baillon's Crake, Watercock and Pintail Snipe there.
There are also nightwalks - inquire with the Nature Shop; they directed us to a tiny shop nearby where we booked and paid. This costs a whopping Rps. 1,000/- for two, but we regarded it well worth, since it was a long walk, from 19:00 - 22:00, through varied habitat, with the potential for some good species as a result.
Detailed species list, Periyar 13-15.02.2003:
(Mainly observations along the road from the entry gate to the jetty, which we walked three times. Numbers given are maximum numbers recorded in a day).
Little Cormorant 3
Great Cormorant 2
Oriental Darter 2
Grey Heron 1 ad
Indian Pond Heron 100
Intermediate Egret 2
Little Egret 10
Wooly-necked Stork 3
Brahminy Kite 2 ad
Accipiter sp. 1
Oriental Honey-Buzzard 3 incl. 1 dark morph
Mountain Hawk-Eagle 1 during trek 14/2
Montagu's Harrier 1 ad M
Painted Spurfowl? 1 flushed; unfortunately no firm id established.
Grey Junglefowl two groups; 1 M + 5 F and 2 F with 1 pullus
Baillon's Crake 1 ad in the march between Ambadi and park gate.
White-breasted Waterhen 2; as the other waterbirds; in the marsh area.
Pheasant-tailed Jacana 1 ad
Red-wattled Lapwing 3
Green Sandpiper 1
Common Sandpiper 1
Pintail Snipe 2
Pompadour Green-Pigeon 10 (M + F)
Spotted Dove 20
Plum-headed Parakeet 2 M
Malabar Parakeet 50
Vernal Hanging-Parrot 15
Common Hawk-Cuckoo 3
Asian Koel 6
Greater Coucal 5
Lesser Coucal 2
Jungle Owlet ssp. malabaricum 1 seen on daytime roost
Brown Hawk Owl 2 heard and seen well during nightwalk 14.02
Grey ("Jungle") Nightjar 1 seen well during nightwalk 14.02
Brown-backed Needletail 1
Asian Palm Swift 2
Malabar Trogon 1 M during trek 14/2
Pied Kingfisher 3
Common Kingfisher 2
Stork-billed Kingfisher ssp. capensis 1
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater 5
White-throated Kingfisher 5
Malabar Grey Hornbill 20
Great Hornbill 1 seen from the jetty
White-cheeked Barbet 75
Crimson-fronted Barbet ssp. malabarica 10
Lesser Yellownape 1 F
Black-rumped Flameback 2 (of which 1 M)
Common Flameback 4 M
Greater Flameback 5
Heart-spotted Woodpecker 6
Barn Swallow 50
Red-rumped Swallow ssp. nipalensis 20
Large pipit sp 1
Grey Wagtail 10
Forest Wagtail 1
Brown Shrike 1 ad + 1 imm
Golden Oriole 2 F / imm
Black Drongo 15
Bronzed Drongo 1
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo 20
Chestnut-tailed Starling 15
Jungle Myna 100
Hill Myna 25 (incl. 1 pair at nest)
Rufous Treepie 2
White-bellied Treepie 8
House Crow 25
Large-billed Crow 150
Large Woodshrike 6
Large Cuckooshrike 2
Scarlet Minivet 25
Small Minivet? 1 M
Golden-fronted Leafbird ssp. frontalis 1
Asian Fairy-Bluebird 1 F
Red-whiskered Bulbul 20
Red-vented Bulbul 5
Yellow-browed Bulbul 3
Jungle Babbler 40
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta 2
Asian Brown Flycatcher 1
Common Tailorbird 6
Thick-billed Warbler 1
Blyth's Reed Warbler 6 (incl. 1 in song)
Greenish Warbler 25
Oriental Magpie-Robin 10
Malabar Whistling-Thrush 1 during trek 14/2
Great Tit 5
Black-lored Tit 3
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch 15
White-browed Wagtail 2 ad
Plain Flowerpecker 10
Long-billed ("Loten's") Sunbird 2 M + 3 F
Purple-rumped Sunbird 1 M + 1 F
Purple Sunbird 2 M
Elephant 1 lone male + group of 3 with 2 young
Flying Squirrel 1
Wild Boar 1
Sambar deer 2
From Periyar, we passed by Forbay Dam without seeing anything new, then on to Bodi Ghat. We arrived at the state border (unmanned, during our visit) Bodimettu from the west side, located at the top of the mountain (ghat). From there is a beautiful view out over the plains of Tamil Nadu to the east. From the gate we drove exactly 6 km down the winding road in the direction of Tamil Nadu, where we stopped and walked another 4 km down; from 14:00 to 16:50. And, it was there at about 10 km from the gate we encountered our only two Yellow-throated Bulbuls - skulking in a roadside bush, but yielding fantastic scope views. The plumage was a bit worn, with the yellow tail band totally worn off on one individual, and just visible on the other. This somewhat dull-at-a-glance bulbul boosts a beautiful yellow throat and a yellow-green head, contrasting to the grey back and underside.
Another highlight was good and prolonged scope views of a Hume's Warbler (Phylloscopus humei), foraging in some trees below us. Just days prior to our departure from Oman, we had spent long time looking at one that wintered in my garden - a rare bird in Oman! So this provided us with an interesting opportunity to compare these two individuals. While the Oman bird had very clear white wingbars but literally no white edges to the tertials, this bird had the opposite configuration with wingbars almost totally worn off, but with clear white edges to tertials. Also, while the Oman bird showed a weak crown stripe, we could not see any indications of this feature on this Ghat bird. Otherwise, the overall pale and cold coloration, without bright yellow and green so typical for inornatus, as well as the call, were clear give-aways to the identification: A bit difficult to describe; a soft "tweet" or "twee-it", after listening to it for a quite a while in Oman side by side with Chiffchaff, I find the quality a bit reminiscent to a mellow Chiffchaff call - distinctly different from the inornatus upward-inflicting "tswee-iip".
Detailed species list, Bodi Ghat 15.02.2003:
Black-shouldered Kite 1
Black Eagle 1 ad
Spotted Dove ssp suratensis (with white-spotted back) 2
Vernal Hanging-Parrot 2
Greater Coucal 1 heard
Indian Swiftlet 3
Alpine Swift 4
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater 5
White-cheeked Barbet 1 seen, 15 heard
Crimson-fronted Barbet 2 seen, 3 heard
Woodpecker sp 1 heard drumming
Dusky Crag Martin 4
Red-rumped Swallow 50
Black Drongo 10
Black-headed Cuckooshrike 1 F
Common Iora 10 (some with a very dark green back; others looked black)
Orange-fronted Leafbird ssp frontalis 10
Black-crested Bulbul ssp gularis (red throat, no crest) 5
Red-whiskered Bulbul >200
Red-vented Bulbul max 10
Yellow-throated Bulbul 2
White-browed Bulbul 2
Tawny-bellied Babbler ssp albogularis 5 (ssp. with white throat contrasting to rufous underside).
Jungle Babbler? 3
Blyth's Reed Warbler >50
Hume's Warbler 1
Greenish Warbler >10
Plain Flowerpecker 1
Purple-rumped Sunbird 1 M
Oriental White-eye >10
Common Rosefinch 115
We arrived evening the 15th, and got a room at "Elysium Garden" (see Figure 1) which at Rps. 1,075/- was a bit overpriced given the quality of it. In addition, a local company held its annual staff party there, which went completely off the wall with wild loud screaming and the most insane dancing we've seen. However the restaurant's chicken curry with japati (Rps. 230/- for two) did its trick, and we managed to get a good nights sleep after all.
We set off the few kilometers to Rajamalai, enjoying smacking views of family groups of Painted Bush-Quails running across, and in front of, our car on the way up through the tea-plantation. This was also a great opportunity for our driver to finally stop for something else ("chicken") than one of the hundreds of bulbuls he spotted. We arrived at the gate 07:15, just to find it closed to tourists - from January 10 till February 28. The main reason appeared to be the Nilgiri Tahr (a large mountain goat) which had youngs. However, we had stunning views of a group of Grey-breasted Laughingthrushes. They showed a grey-black head and with the lower part of the grey breast delicately streaked white - we believe this must be the fairbanki ssp.
In addition, Nilgiri Flycatcher and a Tickell's Leaf Warbler near the gate. We identified the latter on a combination of striking yellow supercilium, yellow underside, as well as lack of any wingbars. Interestingly, we noted a group of four Velvet-fronted Nuthatches foraging small rock outcrops, in Wallcreeper-like fashion - the first time we've seen any Nuthatch performing like this.
A large pipit with a striking deep rufous unstreaked underside left us puzzled - we identified it as Long-billed Pipit, and we wonder what ssp it really was.
We were also fortunate enough to get distant scope-views of more than 20 Nilgiri Tahrs way up on the mountain.
We walked about 3 km down the access road that winds through the tea-plantation without seeing a lot, before returning to Munnar.
Rajamalai (from gate and 3 km downwards), Munnar, 16.02.2003 (07:10 - 09:50):
Black-shouldered Kite 1
Oriental Honey-Buzzard 1
Mountain Hawk-Eagle ? 1
Bonelli's Eagle 2
Black Eagle 1
Painted Bush-Quail 18 (incl. 3 M, 5 F and 4 juv)
Grey Junglefowl 2 M + 1 F
Greater Coucal 1 heard
Alpine Swift 30
White-cheeked Barbet 10 heard
Hill Swallow 3
Hill Myna 2
Red-whiskered Bulbul seen
Black Bulbul 10-12
Grey-breasted Laughingthrush ssp. fairbanki 12
Nilgiri Flycatcher 3 M + 2 F
Blyth's Reed Warbler >40
Tickell's Leaf Warbler 1
Greenish Warbler common
Black-lored Tit 3-4
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch 4
Long-billed Pipit 1
Grey Wagtail 10
Plain Flowerpecker 4
Oriental White-eye 20
Common Rosefinch 5
We continued to Cardamom Estate, just a few km outside of Munnar. A small patch of forest ("shola"; guide-book page 228 and our Figure 2) proved quite good, and we enjoyed a couple of hours with good birding, with great views of Blue-capped Rock Thrush. We also enjoyed views of a Speckled Piculet, as well as the pair of Malabar Whistling-Thrushes down by the dam. The grass-covered hills above looked very promising for Nilgiri Pipit, but unfortunately we had to abandon the attempt as while climbing the steep grass-covered hillside I got a seed with sharp edges painfully stuck to the inside of my eyelid. Fortunately KJS managed to roll my eyelid up, and remove it safely without any damage.
Cardamom Estate, Munnar 16.02.2003 (10:30 - 13, plus an hour before sunset):
Black-shouldered Kite 1
Nilgiri Wood Pigeon 4 (evening)
Plaintive (=Grey-bellied) Cuckoo 1 M
House Swift 15
White-throated Kingfisher 1
White-cheeked Barbet 2 seen 3 heard
Crimson-fronted Barbet 2 heard
Speckled Piculet 1
Dusky Crag Martin 4
Hill Swallow 10
Black Drongo 2
Ashy Drongo 1
Red-whiskered Bulbul seen
Yellow-browed Bulbul 1
Black Bulbul 4
Nilgiri Flycatcher 1 M
Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher 1
Plain Prinia 2
Blyth's Reed Warbler 5
Greenish Warbler seen
Blue-capped Rock Thrush 1 ad M + 1F
Malabar Whistling-Thrush 1 pair by the dam
Black-lored Tit 1
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch 1
Grey Wagtail 4
Plain Flowerpecker 2
Oriental White-eye 15
Common Rosefinch 5
We had lunch (chicken-curry and japati, Rps. 216/- for two) at "Restaurant Mathew's", then proceeded our search for other Nilgiri Pitit locations ("grassy slopes", according to the field guide). Our driver wanted to drive in the direction of Top Station, which sounded good to us. On route we passed some labourers doing asphalt road work, and it amazed us that our driver told us he also had been doing this before. We saw only women carrying real heavy loads of raw asphalt on their crooked backs, being guided by a couple of men; Sunil told us they would fetch some Rps. 50/- (that's a dollar) for a 10-hour working day. Bruce Springsteen's "Working on the highway" suddenly got a new dimension for us.
Well, after 10-15 km, we agreed to turn back and make an attempt at one location we thought to be the best (see Figure 1). This was a grass-covered hillside above a tea-plantation. Access is easy, on foot via the winding road up the plantation, and from there another 4-500 meters steep hike. And to our great satisfaction, we enjoyed views of a Nilgiri Pipit! It was remarkably shy keeping low in the tall dense grass (site #1), but eventually it sat on the lower part of a straw (almost as an Acrocephalus would have done it) and later on a rock, allowing us fair to good views.
Figure 1: Location for Nilgiri Pipit, outside Munnar.
Being rather pleased, not to say ecstatic about our find, we returned to the Cardamom Estate location. Luck was still on our side as we found a total of 4 Nilgiri Wood Pigeon resting in the trees on the upper side of the shola (see Figure 2). But they were extremely shy, flushing off before we could get decent views, and settling within the canopy. However, we didn't give up and climbed around, and just as the sun set, we eventually got great scope views of one individual out in the open. What an end to a great day!
Returning to Munnar, we found shelter at the "S.N. Lodge" just on the outskirts of downtown some 200? m from turn-off to Top Station road, which at Rps. 650/- (without receipt) was good value for money. After a shower and fresh hot tea, we enjoyed dinner at a downtown busy backpackers' restaurant. KJS had his life's cheapest meal; a potato curry for Rps. 6/-. KS's chicken-curry for Rps. 105/- was also great. After some e-mail and phone calls, we settled in for the night.
Note that there appears to be a new accommodation available smack in the middle of the birdiest area - see Figure 2. By the time we were there, it was still under construction. This would be the definitive place to stay!
After a late start, we re-visited our Nilgiri Pipit place since we both fancy pipits; this time to find 4 or 5 or them further up the hillside, yielding prolonged studies as opposed to the skulking one from yesterday.
Main identification features on Nilgiri Pipit we noticed:
- Plain whitish throat and cheek, creating a striking "open" facial expression without any notable moustachial stripe or malar streak - the only "open-faced" pipit we could think of is the Sprague's Pipit.
- White supercilium shaped as a "half moon" above eye, short and tapered off just behind eye.
- Back boldly streaked grayish / black, with an olive tone to flight feathers.
- Finely streaked below.
- Interesting call, a whistling / fluting "myyyyyy" (while sitting on a rock); while on take-off a Meadow Pipit-type flight call "pist-pist".
- Song reminiscent of Rock Pipit; an ascending "tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit"
- Flushed typically on 1 - 2 m range only; rarely flew far before settling.
However in the tea-plantation we noticed workers wearing rubber-suits spraying insecticide - and the breeding pair of Pied Bushchats we saw yesterday, was not looking very healthy at all. In "Oriental Bird Club Bulletin" number 37 (June 2003) page 72 there is a referral to a large number of birds killed by insecticide at a tea estate in China.
Black-shouldered Kite 1
Spotted Dove 2
White-cheeked Barbet 2 heard
Black Drongo 2
Pied Bushchat 1 breeding pair
Grey-breasted Laughingthrush 2
Nilgiri Flycatcher 1 M singing
Nilgiri Pipit 1 16/2, 4-5 17/2
Paddyfield Pipit 3
Golden-headed (=Bright-headed) Cisticola ssp erythrocephala 2; male in breeding plumage with a distinct unstreaked rufous neck and a black cap.
Plain Prinia 4
Blyth's Reed Warbler 5
Greenish Warbler few seen
Blue Rock Thrush 1 M 17/2 of the blue ssp. I'm used to from Oman
Oriental White-eye 2
Being rather pleased about the pipits, we set off for Top Slip. We drove through Chinnar WLS on route; this was a vast inhibited wilderness area that looked to have quite some birding potential. We stopped a couple of places for roadside birding, but in mid-day 36 degree Celsius it was limited what was to be seen:
Chinnar WLS (roadside, mid day), 17.02.2003
Blue-faced Malkoha 1
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater 2
White-cheeked Barbet 1
Coppersmith Barbet 1
Bay-backed Shrike 4 ad
White-bellied Drongo 1
Common Woodshrike 1
Common Iora 1 M
Black Bulbul 1
Red-vented Bulbul 25
Greenish Warbler >2
Thick-billed Flowerpecker 1
Yellow-throated Sparrow 2 seen + 1 heard
Continuing our journey in the backseat of the Ambassador, we cruised the plains of Tamil Nadu with Hindi music blasting out the windows. The Anamalais; the mountain range that form the Western Ghats on the Tamil Nadu side, framed the scenery. Drought had caused havoc this season, and we read from newspapers that compensation was being paid to thousands of affected farmers.
Passing the village of Anamalai we stopped by a fairly large road-side farm pond:
Roadside pond in the village of Anamalai, and surroundings, 17.02.2003
Little Grebe 11
Indian Pond Heron 1
Cattle Egret 4
Brahminy Kite 1
Bonelli's Eagle 1 overhead
Booted Eagle 2 beautiful dark morphs soaring overhead the main check post, provided distraction from bureaucracy.
Asian Palm Swift 2
Little Green Bee-eater 1
Indian Roller 4
Yellow Wagtail >60 on some farmlands 5-10 km outside of Anamalai; we were too stressed to get to Top Slip to consider study for ssp. identification.
Common Myna 10
House Sparrow 1 M + 1 F
Approaching Top Slip, we started fantasizing about Wynaad Laughingthrushes - until landing on our feet in disbelief, when we were met by an iron gate with a large "Closed" sign! This was not according to our plan at all! We rushed back the few kilometers to the village of Anamalai, and made a phone call to the "Office of the Wildlife Warden" in Pollachi. Indeed, they could confirm the closure, which was due to drought with the ground-water reservoir approaching a critical low level. We literally saw the Wynaad Laughingthrush disappearing with angels' wings in front of us. However, the Warden still on the phone, asked me why not go to Parambikulam instead? We hadn't even considered that. The real funny thing about it is that to get there, one has to pass Top Slip - meaning there was still hope!
We rushed back to the gate, and this time around told the gate warden we were going to Parambikulam. Sure enough, Rps. 20/- each later, he opened the gate and off we went!