Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘Strix ocellata

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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A kaleidoscope of Thattekad’s birds from the December trip. Clockwise from upper left: Gray Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), White Bellied Blue Flycatcher (female) Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata), Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), Streak-throated Woodpecker (Picus xanthopygaeus), birding group in action, Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), Flame-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina), Jerdon’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus).

A highlight of the winter holidays was spending time in Thattekad with Lenny looking for and photographing the key endemic bird species of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. My time staying with KV Eldhose at Thattekad last June (as documented in an earlier post) was quiet but rewarding. The December visit was during  peak season and Eldhose’s place was full up and rocking. Our four days and three nights were a fast-paced series of birding encounters with many highlights that have taken me months (and an unplanned curfew/lock down thanks to COVID-19) to process and appreciate. Unlike my normally solitary bird forays, the December outings in Thattekad were accomplished as part of a group(s). Lenny and I were there with guided teams of photographers from Pune and Chennai and then independent birders from the US and UK. As usual, either Eldhose or his trusty lieutenants Adjomon and Vimal accompanied the groups out.

In mid-December Lenny and I took a scenic drive from Kodai down to Bodi, over the Ghats and through the Cardamom Hills to reach Thattekad (about six hours of driving). We had an auspicious start when our arrival coincided with the pursuit of one of the most difficult birds to see in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. A pair of Sri Lanka Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) was roosting in the primary forest and we were invited to take a peak. After a short 20 minute drive up the road Vimal guided us into a thick tangle of canes, dense shrubbery and towering rainforest trees. My 600 mm lens was still cold from having been up in Kodai and it fogged up when I took it out of the pelican case. It took nearly an hour to acclimatize so the shots of the Bay owl were taken with the 200-500 mm lens that Lenny used on the trip (we had taken it out to photograph Euphorbia trees for Bruce Dejong on the Bodi ghat).

SrI Lanka or Ceylon Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) at Thattekad primary forest. Guiding courtesy of KV Eldhose & Vimal Niravathu.

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

All of Eldhose’s cottages were full and we stayed in the main house. He was busy running his operation with key support provided by his wife Amy and daughter Ashy. The groups from Chennai and Pune were friendly and during the brief moments where we weren’t out finding birds we shared stories and images. The Chennai group was composed of middle aged and older men from the Photographic Society of Madras and was led by Saravanan Janakarajan. We spent time with them in the hides, in the primary forest and in the evening looking for owls. Lenny and I also got to know Jim and Maggie, a friendly couple from Seattle.

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

Our pattern was to visit a hide visit close to Eldhose’s home at first light. That offered a chance to photograph the reclusive Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) and then the more reliable starlings, trees pies, woodpeckers and drongos. The hide is close to the house and cottages but it is tiny and we had to take turns. My photographs were taken on the 2nd last morning. Rather than have breakfast at home, all the groups headed out to the primary forest 7:30 and ate breakfast on the way at Kuttampuzha. A simple road side café overlooking a tributary of the Periyar river offered classic Kerala breakfast fare (appam, puttu, paratha, beef curry, chickpeas etc.)

The primary forest, where most of the key birding is accomplished, is actually not a large forest area like Parambikulam, Periyar or Vazhachal. It isn’t even technically part of the Salim Ali Sanctuary, the protected area that Thattekad is associated with. But there is enough habitat diversity and remnant lowlands tropical rainforest to offer opportunities to see all sorts of key Western Ghats birds. It’s not the sort of place that you can wander around on your own and we were accompanied by Adjomon and Vimal. They had their hands full and it would have been better to be in a smaller group but we did fine. The habitat is ideal for Malabar Trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), which I never tire of photographing. They are shy but will sit still in a shaded area if you are fortunate. We saw Sri Lankan Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on three different occasions and the guides have several spots that they check reliably.

Our birding mornings typically stretched on to about 1:00-2:00 PM and then we headed back to Eldhose’s to eat, rest briefly and get ready for the afternoon programs. There was a rotation of hides to visit and the groups took turns visiting them. Just behind his newly constructed rooms, a rare Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) appeared like clockwork every afternoon at the edge of the wetland to look for mealworms. The other two hides are the “Treepie” and “Flycatcher hides.” Both of these are located on privately owned land that adjoins forest patches. They offer unparalleled opportunities to see and photograph key species up close and personal. White-bellied Treepie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica), Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) and Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella) were my personal favorites at the Treepie hide. Lenny and I spent a wonderful afternoon-almost three hours- at the Flycatcher hide with Jim and Maggie. The diversity of flycatchers and other birds was truly dazzling and it was difficult to keep track of the different species as they came in for an afternoon bath and feed. The key flycatchers included the Blue-throated flycatcher (Cyornis rubeculoides), White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Rusty-tailed Flycatcher (Muscicapa ruficauda) and Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). We were also treated to exquisite views of an Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina) and Malabar Whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii).

Evenings at Eldhose’s always started with an effort to see the Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata) at twilight. This experience had been a highlight of the June trip and sure enough an individual of this rare endemic species came back this time. All of us photographers, armed with tripods and lenses (see images), were lined up and seated for the show. We had one excellent sighting and then two nights where it decided not to visit. Before dinner we had the opportunity to go out looking for rare night birds in the nearby secondary forest. Here the rarities included the Great Eared-nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis) and Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis). The nightjar sat in the same place very evening while the Forest Eagle-owl was shy and hard to see. I did manage a blurry image on the 2nd evening.

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Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) bear Thattekad. Hide courtesy of KV Eldhose.

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Hilltop birding inside the primary forest. The open rock faces provide good views of the canopy. There are remnants of ancient humans living here in disused grinding stones and what might be collapsed dolmans. A family of adivasis was camped at the spot and had permission to collect minor forest products.

On our last morning before Lenny and I returned to Kodai we had a chance to photograph the Grey Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii). This is a bird that I have been listening to for much of my life and I’ve frequently seen it on hikes in the Palani Hills. But the sighting near Eldhose’s gave me a whole new appreciation for its beauty (especially in the male individuals). Soon after we packed up, said goodbye to Eldhose, Amy and Ashy and headed back to Kodai to be there in time for a Christmas in the hills. The sightings of birds and experiences in Thattekad left us with an overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation for the diversity of winged life forms in the southern Western Ghats.

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Bird watching and photography gear at KV Eldhose’s on a brief break from the action.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion,1998. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

Thattekad Introduction

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Blue-winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) at K.V. Eldhose’s place outside of Thattekad.

(Continuing from the October Post)

Leaving the Anamalais, I traversed westwards down the long, but rarely used and richly-forested road into Kerala’s Vazhachal area and then to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. This side of the Western Ghats enjoys the full force of the South Western Monsoon and harbors fine examples of tropical evergreen rainforest. That means the opportunity for high biodiversity and endemism. The high rainfall and deep valleys also attracted dam builders in the last century and there are a number of large hydroelectric reservoirs and generating stations in Vazhachal. I had visited Athirappilly Falls nine years ago (see August 2010 post) and on this trip I wanted to go further to Thattekad and explore its forests and birds before making my way home to Colombo via Kochi (Cochin).

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Deep inside Kerala’s Vazhachal area on my way to Athirappilly Falls  and Thatekkad.

Descending into Vazhachal to Athirappilly was fascinating as the road passes through towering valleys of classic tropical rainforest. This is classic GPH territory and it was surprisingly clear on the day that I did the drive in a rented Valparai taxi. It was somewhat frustrating as vehicles are not allowed to stop-to prevent picnics and mischief from tourists. In the last few years Athirappilly has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Kerala State Electricity Board (the same actors in the effort to dam Silent Valley) has been trying in earnest to dam the Chalakudy near the falls. There are already several dams upstream but KSEB has stubbornly stuck to proposals to put in a 163 MW dam at Athirappilly (Environmental Justice Atlas). The debate is sometimes seen as a classic “pro-development vs. environment/conservation” argument. Tragically, even after the battles and lessons of Silent Valley, we are reminded that protection and conservation is never guaranteed. Current and future generations are compelled to be alert to those who seek short term solutions in the last remaining areas of wilderness.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is well known for its association with Salim Ali, India’s legendary birdman. Ali’s books, published by the Bombay Natural History Society, introduced several generations to the joy of birdwatching and he was actively involved in promoting the protection of wilderness areas in an age of aggressive large scale industrial development and hydroelectric dam building. His visits to Kerala in the 1930s, when the area was part of the Travancore Princely State, led to the landmark publication of the Birds of Travancore and Cochin (1953). He famously associated Thattekad with being the richest area for birds in peninsular India.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary sits at the junction of the Periyar and Idamalayar rivers just 50 km east of Cochin (Kochi). It has a mix of forest types but is notable for its small remnants of lowland tropical evergreen forests. The actual protected area of Thattekad is quite small (@ 25 km2) and many of the interesting species are found in home gardens and patches of forests and wetlands outside of the PA. In recent years Thattekad has become a must see location for serious birders and others looking to see and check off the Western Ghats endemics. With its growing popularity, a number of home stays have sprung up near to its entrance on the north side of the Periyar River.

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A new and updated version of the Anamalai Hills, High Range Palanis Hills map created by the author for the Nature in Focus talk in 2016. Click on the image for a larger 150 DPI A3 version.

In Thattekad I stayed with the legendary K.V. Eldhose. Almost all serious birdwatchers and photographers interested in the endemics species of the Western Ghats have either visited him or planned to visit Eldhose’s homestay. Eldhose’s is located south of the Periyar river in a sparsely populated rural landscape with secondary forest, open patches and marshy areas.  There aren’t any signs so you need to book ahead of time and then Eldhose comes to meet you on his scooter. The habitat around his place are composed of rubber tree groves and small patches wetlands/paddy fields. He maintains five neat Kerala-style bungalows for visitors and then facilitates excursions to see different key species. Eldhose grew up appreciated the natural history of the area and learnt about their feeding habits from his grandmother. Over the years he has developed a complex series of feeding routines to attract key species in different habitats. His specialties include the Southern tree Pie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) , Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) , Blue Winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) and Gray Headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus). These can be viewed outside of the Thattekad protected area in a rural landscape. Eldhose and/or his guides escort you into forest patches within a 15 km radius of his homestay for forest species like the Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), White-bellied blue flycatcher (Cyornis pallipes), Ceylon Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) etc.

My goal was to get a sense of Thattekad and then come back during the winter migration season. June may have been “off season” but being at Eldhose’s before the rains started in earnest provided several unique natural history viewing opportunities. There were no other guests so enjoyed great attention and support. During the day I used Eldhose’ hides to get up close and personal with Blue Winged Parakeets, Greater coucals,  Woodpeckers, Jungle Babblers, Common Mynas and more. The lowland rainforest was at least a 15-20 drive, across the Periyar River up the road. Here giant trees with enormous sweeping buttresses shade out most of the sunlight and provide a diverse set habitats for most of the rare forest bird species of the Western Ghats. In a leisurely outings our notable encounters included two Sri Lanka Frogmouths, a White-bellied blue flycatcher, two different Malabar trogon pairs  and a Heart Spotted Woodpecker.

At dusk I enjoyed the extraordinary experience of watching two Mottled Wood Owls (Strix ocellata) scare the bejesus out of other birds and then come swooping into Eldhose’s garden to dine on several field mice that he had put out for them. Their calls-all of the distinctive vocalizations- are  something quite unforgettable. Later I went out with Ajomon looking for frogs and snakes. We found several Malabar Gliding Frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus)  at a neighbor’s house but the most photogenic individual was in a pepper vine behind Eldhose’s house (see images).

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) female in the primary forests of Thattekad.

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male posing for me in the primary forests of Thattekad. I can never get enough of these birds that are so intimately associated with some of favorite areas in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot!

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Mottled wood owl (Strix ocellata) making an appearance at Eldhose’s home at exactly 6:45. A snack of lab mice gives these rare birds an incentive to visit. Their calls are eerie, exiting and quite hard to reproduce.

My visit to Thattekad wrapped up all too soon and I found myself on a flight back over the same hills traversing the Western Ghats from 8,000 meters on my way home to Colombo. Plans are already in place to revisit Thattekad and spend more time with K.V and other contacts that I met on the June trip.

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At first glance, this image might depict a landscape of devastation while, in fact, it is one of hope. Here a plantation of forest department-managed non-native acacia trees has been cleared and an effort is being made to restore the tropical evergreen rainforest that is the climax vegetation. Taken near to Thattekad, looking north-east. (June 2019)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Amphibians of India. Web.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Daniels, Ranjit. R.J. Amphibians of Peninsular India. Hyderabad: University Press. 2005. Print.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion, 1998. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

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