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Southern India Trip Report, December 25, 2003-January 2, 2004

Mark Giordano

We spent 10 days from December 25 through January 4 in Kerala (and briefly Tamil Nadu), India with the dual objectives of relaxing and searching for Southern Indian specialty birds. The trip was organized for two of us by Kalypso Adventures ( Kalypso provided excellent service as did our birding guide for 4 days, Eldhose, who runs Hornbill Camp and has been highlighted in many other trip reports. Transportation between locations was by hired car arranged through Kalypso. Details of the trip with birding highlights are as follows: 

December 25-26: Arrived in Cochin from our home in Sri Lanka and were picked up at the airport and taken to Allepy. Stayed on a houseboat and at a heritage house in the back waters. Not very interesting for the birder (possible Watercock being the only half significant sighting) but met our relaxation objectives. 

December 27-28: Hornbill Camp at Thattekad run by Eldhose. Arrived in the late afternoon and went out immediately to look for the nearby resident Mottled Wood Owl. The owls weren't around so switched to a search for Red Spur Fowl. Good views were obtained within 15 minutes in a nearby farm enclosure. The same area had White-cheeked Barbet. Just across the road we found Large Billed Warbler, Jungle Owlet, and Streak-throated Woodpecker. Indian Pitta at the campsite. Rufous Babblers arrived at dusk to roost in a bush visible from the campsite. 

In front of our tent in the morning had more Indian Pitta's, numerous Orange-headed Thrush, as well as Malabar Whistling Thrush and Malabar Trogon just down the road. Then back at the Wood Owl site (Eldhose had already been there before light listening to calls) and quickly found one bird. From there, we proceeded to the forest of Thattekad. Eldhose developed a severe migraine but insisted on accompanying us. Though he could barely see, he heard Grey-cheeked Bulbuls which we were then able to find without tremendous difficulty. Further along the track we ran into a feeding flock which contained approximately five Wynaad Laughingthrush. Walking back to the car we also ran into one White-breasted Woodpecker and a number of White-bellied Treepie. Rusty-tailed flycatcher and Brown-breasted Flycatchers fairly common.  Also saw Malabar Parakeet, Gray Junglefowl, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Yellow-billed Babbler, and Dark-fronted Babbler (all fairly common). In the evening looked for and found Savanana Nightjar. Eldhose says Sri Lankan Frogmouth is easy, but it was not on our priority list, since we know it from Sri Lanka. 

December 29-30: Munnar Camp run by Kalypso. After one more stop in Thattaked successfully locating a White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and also seeing Common Hawk and Grey-bellied Cuckoos, drove to Munnar and went first to Eravikulam National Park to look for Nilgiri Pipit. There were large crowds of Indian tourists by the time we arrived in the afternoon and no pipits to be found. Went down towards Munnar and stopped at what must be the most incredible site for endemics in all of India. Without moving more than 10 meters, we saw Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-bellied Shortwing, White-cheeked Barbet, Gray Junglefowl and Malabar Whistling Thrush. Re-visting the site the next day also resulted in an Orange-and-Black Flycatcher. While the wood pigeon was probably lucky, it seems the site regularly holds the other 6 birds. The site is easily accessible from Munnar but should be considered as a propriety find of Eldhose who has invested two decades birding Kerela. If you want to visit it, hire Eldhose. 

The next morning went back to Eravikulam where Nilgiri Pipit was now easy to find along the roadway. Then to the standard Shola forest to look for Tickel's Leaf Warbler which was also easily located. 

December 31-January 2: Green Mansions at Gavi (near Periyar). After a late start, headed towards the Yellow-throated Bulbul site at Bodi Ghat. Despite lots of calling birds and quick views of flying birds, this turned out to be our most difficult bird to see, though in fact we probably spent no more than 1 hours trying to find it.  On the way, also stopped for Black-cheeked Tit. Parted ways with Eldhose and proceeded to Gavi. 

Our purpose for visiting Gavi was primarily hiking and relaxation. Never having visited Periyar proper, I don't know how it compares in terms of birds. At a minimum, birders will be interested in it for Broad-tailed Grassbird. We found numerous birds on the hillside just behind Green Mansions lodge. Look primarily in tall grass. Any birds near the trail will tend to flush at your feet and fly a short distance. It can be difficult (at least in the non-breeding season) to get a good view of one. Luckily one gave an alarm call to get our attention and then hopped onto an open grass stem just a couple of meters away. Another notable bird was the Black-throated Munnia which was found on the road after Green Mansions towards the village. Other birds of interest found in two days of general hiking included: Malabar Parakeet, Crimson-breasted Sunbird, Yellow-browed Bulbul, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, White-bellied Woodpecker, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Gray Junglefowl, Western-crowned Warbler, Great Hornbill, Black-cheeked Tit, White-cheeked Barbet, Black-cheeked Tit, Dark-fronted Babbler and Indian Scimitar Babbler. There were probably other south Indian speciality birds, but we didn't keep a list, and I may have forgotten.

Other highlights at Gavi were the mammals. Nilgiri Langur, Lion-tailed Macqaque, Malabar Giant Squirel and Indian Bison (an exciting bull at very close range). We didn't see a tiger, and it would be very difficult given the density of vegetation, but they are clearly there with fresh scat within a kilometer of the lodge. Leopard tracks too.

Recommendations: Kalypso did an excellent job of arranging our trip. Eldhose is an excellent guide. For those planning on a trip with Eldhose, I would recommend at least another day at Thattekad. We could have used more time looking for Scaly Thrush and White-breasted Blue Flycatcher and simply enjoying the forest. Two days was sufficient at Munnar if accompanied by Eldhose. The Kalypso camp near Munnar is rather far from the main birding sites, though near the road to Bodi Ghat. It is pleasant (tented) and gets you out of the town of Munnar which seems to have little to offer. For those going without a guide, add more days at Munnar if your goal is the endemics. In the breeding season, the migrants would be gone, but Eldhose is highly positive on being able to locate Oriental Bay Owl, Spot-bellied Eagle Owl and numerous cuckoos amongst other interesting things at Thattekad. Gavi is a nice place and an effort to generate revenue for the Forest Department through tourism. You can stay in three room lodge or camp out. One of the camps was set in a very nice location.

Some tips on a few bird IDs and location:

Rusty-tailed Flycatcher: Tends to be near the top of trees outside of dense forest (i.e. not the top of primary forest). The rusty tail is fairly easy to see once you locate the bird. Brown-breasted Flycatcher, in contrast, tends to be much lower down, often sitting quietly in the shade. Asian Brown Flycatcher is often active and in the open.

Rufous Babbler: Goes to roost late (after sunset but before total darkness). Leaves roost well after sunrise.

Western Crowned Warbler: The crown is not always visible. The beak is bright yellow.

White-bellied Shortwing: When seen from above, the white belly is not visible and can be confused with Nilgiri Flycatcher. WBSH Seems to sit less upright and more concealed though. The bird we saw had white brows as shown in Kazmierczak, not all blue as shown in Grimmett.

Yellow-throated Bulbul: Located at the 12-13 km mark on the Bodi Ghat road. When seen in good light, has a yellow head as shown in Kazmierczak. In shade, only the yellow throat shows as indicated in Grimmett.

Broad-tailed Grassbird: See text

Wynaad Laughingthrush: We did not do our homework properly and nearly wrote off the only group we saw as Dark-fronted Babbler, the Sri Lankan sub-species of which has a black mask. You are probably smart enough not to make the same mistake.

Kalypso Adventures
G 340, Panampilly Nagar
Kochi - 682036

Mobile: ++91-94470-31032
Tel: ++91-484- 2092280, 2290422

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