Trip report: Thattekad, Nov ’14

Trip:       Thattekad

Camp:   Periyar River Lodge

Dates:   14-16 Nov ‘14

Who:     GiK

This trip was originally put together for GK, GiK and SS. GK’s wife wasn’t feeling very well and SS had to travel urgently on business to Laos, and so GiK and I ended up doing the trip by ourselves. I did two nights at Thattekad for the first time and this was the best of the three trips I’ve done so far.

The weather was muggy with the threat of rain every evening. On the day we landed (Fri), Mr. Luigi, the amiable manager of PRL spoke to Gireesh Chandran and was told that considering the weather, the afternoon’s birding plan was off and we’d meet the next morning. There was a steady drizzle and we had the afternoon to ourselves. We spent a couple of hours swimming in the river – in fact we spent a couple of hours everyday swimming in the river. The current was languid and the water was cool, making for a perfect wallow. The PRL boat was docked there, and we took turns diving off the gunwale.

By four thirty in the evening, Mr. Luigi suggested that we take a boat ride. The drizzle had run out though the clouds persisted and it was a very pleasant ride although the birding was not great. We were back at sundown when an elephant herd made its presence felt in the forest across the river, with the reedbrakes being violently demolished and boles being snapped with rifle-shot cracks. The light had faded, but we re-boarded the craft and drifted across, to about fifty or sixty feet from the opposite bank. The elephants themselves were not visible except for one glimpse at a pair, but the stripping of bark, uprooting of whole trees and demolition of the reedbrakes was loud enough to give us a very clear idea of where the animals were. As also the quink of the calves and the occasional trumpet. There was a small rocky islet not far from this bank on which a small group of men sat chatting idly in the still air, but their presence seemed to make no difference to the herd. After a while of silent observation, we headed back. The herd was there all night, with the animals taking turns to enter the water, churning it noisily. Sometime before five in the morning, the noises ceased and the herd melted away. GiK and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We sat on the porch for hours listening to the din.

The birding in and around PRL was fairly good, though we heard far more than we saw. We sighted the most common residents repeatedly – Cinereous tit, Malaber grey hornbill, Hill myna, White-browed wagtail, Little cormorant, River tern, Malabar parakeet, Purple-rumped sunbird and Orange minivet. And also Common iora, Fish eagle (Grey-headed or Lesser I couldn’t tell), Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker, Green imperial pigeon, Racket-tailed drongo, White-throated kingfisher, Indian roller, Chestnut-headed bee eater and coucal. And heard Indian scops owl, Common hawk cuckoo (all night), Red-wattled lapwing, flameback, Grey junglefowl and Jungle owlet. Each day began with a single song from the Malabar whistling thrush after rendering which, the bird promptly went silent for the rest of the day.

We did three outings with Gireesh Chandran. He was his usual effusive, amiable self notwithstanding the little incident of the last trip (which he doubtless hadn’t forgotten, considering his recollection of many specific sightings from my previous trips – the man doubtless has an incredible facility for memory).  Since this was GiK’s trip, his primary ask was what we were after – five birds – Black baza, Drongo cuckoo, Srilanka frogmouth, Dollar bird and the Indian pitta. And we saw them all, barring the pitta.

The first morning outing was to the usual rocky area. Atypically, we were the only people Gireesh was guiding, so we had him all to ourselves. The rocky area was lively as ever. In addition, there were elephants foraging noisily hardly fifty meters away in the reedbrakes off the rocks. We couldn’t see them, but could follow their movements from the tremendous din. Trying to ignore the elephants, we notched up a splendid list. Lesser flameback, Racket-tailed drongo, Black-naped oriole, White-bellied blue flycatcher, Blyth’s starling, Plum-headed parakeet, Malabar parakeet, Dollar bird, White-rumped needletail, Greenish warbler, Common iora, White-browed bulbul, Purple sunbird, Emerald dove, Orange minivet, Grey-fronted green pigeon, Drongo cuckoo, Gold-fronted leaf bird, Blue-bearded bee eater, Nilgiri flowerpecker, Loten’s sunbird, Crimson-backed sunbird, Grey-headed bulbul, Flame-throated bulbul, Jungle nightjar (on the way), Little spiderhunter, Bronzed drongo, Ashy drongo  and Chestnut-headed bee eater. And heard Indian treepie, Brown shrike and Grey junglefowl. Three Black bazas went flying past, and settled on different tree-tops. Both GiK and I missed catching them in flight and Gireesh Chandran was not too pleased as the light was good and they were not far away. There was what we thought to be a juvenile Oriental honey buzzard being mobbed by a Racket-tailed drongo. A little before we stepped over the electric fence to exit the sanctuary, Gireesh traced a solitary frogmouth and we spent some time getting pictures.

Srilanka frogmouth (pic: Girish Kulkarni):

Girish Galibore Thattekad 249

And on the way out, in the rubber plantation adjoining the sanctuary was a mixed hunting party comprising Malabar wood-shrike, Racket-tailed drongo, Velvet-fronted nuthatch, Orange minivet and Bronzed drongo.

The evening session was a wash-out. A couple from Mumbai – Govind and Sheetal, house guests of Gireesh – were with him when we linked up at the sanctuary entrance. Gireesh drove us for a few kilometers on the road back towards Kochi, to an area I haven’t visited before. Crested tree-swifts evidently flocked in this area, but there was nothing in sight except for Spotted doves. It was not yet 4 PM and presuming that we were early for the evening’s action, we suggested that we instead finish with the frogmouth pair that Gireesh had promised earlier. It was a twelve kilometer drive to the lovely forested place I’d been to a few times before; and also to a rocky slope surrounded by lush evergreen forests that I don’t remember seeing.

Srilanka frogmouth pair (pic: Girish Kulkarni):

Girish Galibore Thattekad 327

We watched the frogmouth pair briefly after which Gireesh suggested we head into the main sanctuary entrance to look for the pitta at its roosting haunt. However his car had developed a deflated tyre and precious daylight was lost in getting it fixed at Kuttampuzha en route. We had to perforce abandon the pitta plan for the day. Heading back, we were briefly distracted by what Gireesh identified as the Great-eared nightjar flitting above the road. Stopping for it, we were further distracted by Indian scops owls – a pair – that was calling from the foliage just by the road. We could see the owls occasionally sailing over our heads, but were unable to spot them when they called from the trees, try as we might. We finally gave up and headed our separate ways.

Dollar bird by torchlight, the light has distorted colours (pic: Girish Kulkarni):

Girish Galibore Thattekad 333

For the third outing (AM), Gireesh again led us to the rocky slope. There was plenty of activity this time, with other groups of birders present too.  In addition to many of the species seen the previous day, we saw Greater flameback, Golden oriole, Yellow-browed bulbul, Small minivet, Verditer flycatcher, Vernal hanging parrot, Black-naped monarch and Asian brown flycatcher. We then descended into the forest for a short loop (with a little bit of leech infestation en route). Gireesh was looking for the pitta and possibly a Malabar trogan. We sighted a White-bellied treepie, Crested serpent eagle, Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker, Malabar wood-shrike and a Brown-breasted flycatcher. Apart from the trogan, which presented a distant and fleeting sighting. Pitta called tantalizingly, but none appeared despite Gireesh’s efforts.

Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) nest (pic: Girish Kulkarni):

Girish Galibore Thattekad 505

This was our final day and we were required to vacate our rooms at PRL to make way for a Brit group that was arriving. Mr. Luigi, considerate as ever, suggested that we take a packed lunch and trek up the dirt track running by the river on the opposite bank to kill time until evening. Some three hours or so on this road would bring us to the Idamalayar dam.

Accordingly, Elias was dispatched to accompany us and to keep a sharp lookout for elephant, and laden with a big heavy bag of food. Our usual driver Vijay hauled some eight liters of water as we were thirsty all the time. We crossed the river by boat and gained the track. This track ran by the river and through some picturesque forests, although the birding was not very satisfying. We walked at an unhurried pace and had the forest to ourselves. Some work was being done on this road although the workwomen were missing, this being a Sunday. There was heavy degradation of the prey base – chital, sambar and pig having been decimated for bush meat. Only the odd junglefowl had survived. There were traces of pig though at places, by way of dug earth.

Giant wood spider (Nephila pilipes), note the tiny male dwarfed by the massive female:

Girish Galibore Thattekad 530

Some four or five kilometers later, the dirt track ran into an asphalted road bearing a fair degree of traffic. We turned back at this point, stopping a short while later to demolish the foodbag – Mr. Luigi had crammed the bag with sandwiches and a cartful of fruit.

We were curious to examine the results of the elephants’ foraging as great patches of gouged earth and felled trees could be seen from across the river.  The patch of forest the elephants had been in looked like a deranged gang had been let loose with dynamite sticks and JCBs. Trees as wide as a foot had been uprooted whole and flung aside, while others had been snapped clean in half. The earth was gouged in large patches. And the place was littered with dung everywhere.

The track back evidently continued until it terminated on the bank opposite Kuttampuzha, a village midway to the sanctuary entrance from PRL. This road is motorable and can be accessed by car from Bhoodhathankettu. We have a plan to attempt it by car at sunrise or sunset on the next trip, looking for elephants or the odd sloth bear.

The list

Birds:

  1. Ashy drongo
  2. Asian brown flycatcher
  3. Asian openbilled stork
  4. Black baza
  5. Black-naped monarch
  6. Black-naped oriole
  7. Blue-bearded bee eater
  8. Blyth’s starling
  9. Bronzed drongo
  10. Brown-breasted flycatcher
  11. Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker
  12. Brown shrike (calls)
  13. Chestnut-headed bee eater
  14. Cinereous tit
  15. Coucal
  16. Common hawk cuckoo (calls)
  17. Common iora
  18. Crimson-backed sunbird
  19. Crimson-fronted barbet (calls)
  20. Dollar bird
  21. Drongo cuckoo
  22. Emerald dove
  23. Fish eagle
  24. Flame-throated bulbul
  25. Golden oriole
  26. Gold-fronted leaf bird
  27. Great-eared nightjar
  28. Greater flameback
  29. Green imperial pigeon
  30. Greenish warbler
  31. Grey-fronted green pigeon
  32. Grey-headed bulbul
  33. Grey junglefowl
  34. Hill myna
  35. Indian roller
  36. Indian scops owl
  37. Indian treepie
  38. Jungle nightjar
  39. Jungle owlet (calls)
  40. Lesser flameback
  41. Lesser whistling duck
  42. Little cormorant
  43. Little spiderhunter
  44. Loten’s sunbird
  45. Magpie robin
  46. Malabar grey hornbill
  47. Malabar parakeet
  48. Malabar trogan
  49. Malabar whistling thrush
  50. Malabar woodshrike
  51. Nilgiri flowerpecker
  52. Orange minivet
  53. Oriental honey buzzard?
  54. Plum-headed parakeet
  55. Purple sunbird
  56. Purple-rumped sunbird
  57. Racket-tailed drongo
  58. Red-wattled lapwing (calls)
  59. River tern
  60. Small minivet
  61. Spotted dove
  62. Sri Lanka frogmouth
  63. Stork-billed kingfisher
  64. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  65. Verditer flycatcher
  66. Vernal hanging parrot
  67. White-bellied blue flycatcher
  68. White-bellied treepie
  69. White-browed bulbul
  70. White-browed wagtail
  71. White-cheeked barbet
  72. White-rumped needletail
  73. White-throated kingfisher
  74. Yellow-browed bulbul

Mammals:

  1. Elephant
  2. Indian giant squirrel

Thattekad Reprised – Feb ’14

Trip Report:        Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad

Dates:                   21-22 Feb 2014

Camp:                   Periyar River Lodge

My experience in Thattekad in January enthused BIL B enough to want to do a repeat trip over a quick weekend. Accordingly we bussed in from Bangalore and pretty much replicated the itinerary from the prior trip. With one difference, but we’ll talk about that in a while.

Bhothathankettu was a disappointment and devoid of birdlife. Unlike the last time when I visited on a week day (Friday), we ended up visiting on a Saturday and the place was as lively with squawking tourists this time around as it was with avifauna the last time. The Flame-throated bulbuls were there though, along with the Racket-tailed drongos and Chestnut headed bee-eaters. I checked for the record-breaking teak tree mentioned in my previous post and not unexpectedly, it lay across the river somewhere, out of bounds without permission.

Mr. Luigi and the staff at PRL were hospitable as ever and we settled in with great hopes for the evening. We linked up with Gireesh Chandran at the place where I had sighted the Dollar birds the last time around (they were there this time too). Now Gireesh was accompanied by a couple of his house guests, and these two men had gawked their way through their wish-list over the past couple of days, barring three candidates –  Mottled wood owl, Black baza and Drongo cuckoo. And therein lay the rub. Gireesh assumed BIL and I would fall in with their plans to devote our energies to just these three species.

Anyway, we went into the reserve forest area adjacent to the sanctuary and saw a pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths, Yellow-browed bulbul, Brown-breasted flycatcher, White-bellied treepie and the much-sought-after Drongo cuckoo. Not counting the ubiquitous Malabar hornbills, Indian treepies and Racket-tailed drongos. At this point, the rain played spoilsport and we scurried back to town, ending the day’s work with a precious hour’s daylight wasted.

The next morning, Gireesh announced that he planned to take us all to Bhoothathankettu in search of the Black baza, and I was not pleased with this. We had just these two outings on our itinerary and it didn’t make sense (to me) to take BIL all the way to Thattekad and back without ever having set foot inside the sanctuary. At any rate, Gireesh wasn’t going to alter his house guests’ plans, and off he went to Bhoothathankettu looking for the baza. I wanted BIL to experience the rocky area inside the sanctuary that was so productive last time, and got Gireesh to call another guide. Some sort of tenuous arrangement was patched up hurriedly over the phone. BIL and I then drove back to the spot where there was a gap in the sanctuary’s fence and crossed in. Gireesh had some hesitation in sending us in on our own as a herd of elephants was sighted the previous evening in the area, but the fellow on the phone cleared that concern.

Anyway we found our way to the rocky area and joined Vinod, and he did a very decent job of guiding the morning’s outing. We saw Ashy drongo, Hill myna, Rufous woodpecker, Blyth’s starling (excellent and multiple sightings), Green imperial pigeon, Common Iora, Malabar hornbill, Gold fronted leaf bird, Orange minivet, Small minivet and Jungle nightjar. Apologies for the patricians and plebeians all merrily mixed up in that list. Or perhaps not. The highlight of the outing was a frogmouth and chick sighting.

The boat ride around PRL was spectacular as ever. Mr. Luigi himself joined us this time. Ironically, we saw the bird that was partly responsible for the morning’s hullabaloo – the Black baza – right off the boat, a short distance from PRL. And a truly spectacular bird it is. We also saw Black naped oriole, Asian fairy blue-bird, Vernal hanging parrot, Orange minivet and a Crested serpent eagle that thumped onto some small creature in the grass not fifteen feet from us and covered it’s trophy with outspread wings, glowering at us.

Post boat ride, we spent a glorious hour swimming in the river in front of the lodge, and I regret not having done this in the previous trip. Few experiences can beat lazing in a cool, slow-running river flanked by verdant greenery in hot weather.

I should also mention here that the staff and management of PRL showed an admirable degree of concern over the guiding issue, and took pains to follow up and apologize after we had returned to Bangalore. Another reason to return to PRL yet again, next winter.

Here are a few pictures:

Bhoothathankettu:

Image

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Batrachostomus moniliger, female on the right:

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Thattekad 2nd trip 069

Frogmouth with chick:

Thattekad 2nd trip 152

CSE:

Thattekad 2nd trip 179

“What you lookin’ at?”

Thattekad 2nd trip 203

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