This is a trip report based upon a natural history oriented guided tour conducted by Ficus Wildlife & Natural History Tours, to the Western Ghats of south India, in March 2011.
We saw a total of 166 species of birds in 11 days of largely relaxed birding, including a rarely seen visitor in south India - a Large Hawk Cuckoo. Among the Western Ghats endemics, we had good sightings of Rufous Babbler, Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Parakeet, Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Malabar Lark, Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush and White-bellied Treepie, among several sub-continental rarities and endemics. March is quite late in the season for migrant birds to south India, and, as expected, several winter visitors (notably among warblers & flycatchers), were not seen in this trip.
Mammal sightings included rarities such as Tiger, Wild Dog, Sloth Bear and Lion-tailed Macaque (endemic) among a variety of commoner deer, monkeys, Gaur, Elephant and other small mammals - by and large a good representation of large mammal diversity of the hill forests of peninsular India.
Notable species among other animal groups included sightings of Marsh Crocodile, Bengal Monitor Lizard, Common Wolf Snake, Peninsular Rock Agama, ticks and leeches - too close for comfort at times, of the latter two! We only saw a handful of frogs on the trip, not unexpectedly scarce in the dry season.
We travelled during the peak dry season in the ecoregion. Many deciduous trees had shed their leaves and a number of them were flowering/fruiting - most visibly figs, silk cottons and flame of the forest - adding color to the canopy. Interestingly, Bamboo were mass flowering in the deciduous forests of Kabini and Bandipur, as well as to a lesser extent in Top Slip. Since bamboo die after flowering, it is an open question as to whether exotic, weedy species such as Lantana will fill the space devoid of live bamboo in these forests.
This was the lean tourist season and often we were alone on forest paths and game roads, enabling us to better appreciate the wilderness of these hill forests.
March 21st & 22nd, Thattekad
Thattekad, as is the case in coastal Kerala through the year, was extremely humid and warm during the day. Nights and mornings were surprisingly cool. A heavy thunderstorm fell one evening - the only significant rain we experienced on the trip. Our primary focus at Thattekad was birdwatching in the lowland evergreen, riverine and plantation forests around here. Highlight birds from here were Malabar Trogon, Crested Goshawk, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Dollar Bird, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Black-naped Oriole, Jerdon's Nightjar, Brown Fish Owl, Collared Scops Owl, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Yellow-nape Woodpecker, Puff-throated Babbler, Malabar Grey Hornbill and Large-hawk Cuckoo. White-bellied Treepie were conspicuous by their absence - normally quite noisy and common here.
Highlight Mammal Sightings
We spent an evening walking in the montane evergreen forests of Pampadum Shola National Park (1900m plus), near Munnar. A majestic Black Eagle engrossed us with its dexterous flight through the forest canopy as we drove up the hills from Thattekad. Barring the ubiquitous Malabar Giant Squirrel and locally common Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush, animal and bird sightings were subdued. We did see Gaur, Common Mongoose, Bonnet Macaque, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Eurasian Blackbird ,Yellow-browed Bulbul and Black Bulbul as well from the location. We heard Nilgiri Langur, normally easily seen here, but we did not get a clear sighting of them this time. We also missed a couple of endemic montane-forest birds here - Black and Orange Flycatcher and White-bellied Shortwing - that are typically easy to find here. Our trekking route skirted a forested valley and later led through the 'shola' with scenic views of evergreen forest in the valley and the surrounding hills.
Our three nights at Top Slip (Anamalai Tiger Reserve) were fascinating - both for intimate walks through a variety of forests as well as for sightings of wildlife unique to the wet forests of the Western Ghats. We walked in ethereal mature bamboo forest, through dark rainforest, over wet leaf-litter and among huge buttressed trees, through open deciduous forests, with mature teak towering above us, and onto bare rock with great views of forests and the hills of the Anamalais. The atmosphere was often magical, as strong winds and dark clouds built-up in the evenings, suggesting welcome rains of the pre-monsoon showers to the Ghats.
We saw a troop of Lion-tailed Macaque (endemic) and Great Hornbill - both species symbolic of mature forests in the Western Ghats - feeding together on a fruiting fig, high in the rainforest canopy. Notably, we had a number of sightings of Great Hornbill - this being the nesting season, perhaps males had to fly far in search of food to take back to the brooding female in the nest. Another notable sighting was of a bull Gaur, less than 20 ft from us, while walking in a magical bamboo forest. Another endemic primate, the acrobatic Nilgiri Langur, were ubiquitous and species of deer, wild boar and other smaller mammals were frequently seen. Bird endemics sighted included Rufous Babbler, White-cheeked Barbet, Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Malabar Parakeet, White-bellied Treepie and Malabar Grey Hornbill. A walk along a forested canal bordering the reserve, provided excellent sightings of Stork-billed Kingfisher and possibly of a Brown Fish Owl, taking off before we had a chance to confirm ID. Generally, bird sightings were excellent in Top Slip, with the seasonably leafless trees of the deciduous forests providing enhanced visibility and coinciding with the start of the nesting season in these parts.
Memorably, we spent several minutes observing a tigress with four young cubs (within 6 months old) on one of our game drives in Bandipur. We spotted the family when a cub briefly entered the game road from a forest path, before entering Lantana thickets to join the rest, as they relaxed in the shade. Although, elephants sightings were rare inside the tourism zone, as expected in the dry season here, we did see a majestic tusker in his prime, nonchalantly snapping bamboo shoots, presumably to feed on their fleshy inner tissue. Gaur, Spotted and Sambar Deer, Stripe-necked Mongoose, Common Langur and Bonnet Macaque were the other animals commonly seen. A walk in dry scrub of a reserve forest, to a hill top proved productive for sightings of Wild Dog, dry habitat birds, including Blue-faced Malkoha, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets and White-browed Fantail and for a birds eye view of the Reserve. A notable bird sighting was of the critically endangered Red-headed Vulture. While birdlife was good, sightings were of commoner forest species.
Our three nights at Kabini provided a number of highlights, mostly around the incredibly scenic backwaters of the Kabini River. The backwaters attract a large density of herbivores in the dry season and we saw numerous elephant herds and tuskers, Gaur and deer congregating on the grasslands surrounding the backwaters. This is an important seasonal feeding ground for herbivores, when food and water become sparse in other parts of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. We were also treated to a rare sight of a Sloth Bear, hurriedly shuffling over the open grassland for a quick drink at the river before shuffling back into the surrounding Bamboo thickets. The jungle surrounding the backwaters was alive with sounds of alarm calls of deer and monkeys, suggesting a healthy presence of predators concealed in the undergrowth.
We saw small colonies of River Terns, Spot-billed Ducks, Cormorants, Ibis, Herons and Storks regularly as well birds of prey including Osprey, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Brahminy Kite and notably Tawny Eagle, by the river. The river is reputedly rich in fish life and the numerous birds and presence of Mugger Crocodile (of which we had a sighting) seem to indicate its continuing status as such. Forest birds included relative rarities such as Heart-spotted and Malabar Woodpeckers and Red Spurfowl, among a good number of commoner species.
All travel was by road from Cochin Airport in Kerala to the Bengaluru Airport in Karnataka, with stopovers in tour locations in-between. We used a chauffeured Chevrolet Tavera - a spacious, comfortable ride for 3+1 persons and capable of negotiating bad roads that are inevitable as we approach and within natural areas around here.
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