Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary

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Avian Lifers Aplenty!

It was February 2015 and I was in Kochi visiting my close relatives. The winter season was nearing it’s end and I had plans to fit in a couple of days of birding during my stay in Kochi.

The nearest birding spot from Kochi was Thattekadu, 80 kms away, near Kothamangalam.

Thattekadu bird sanctuary, though relatively small, at 25 square kilometers, was very popular amongst birders. Mainly, because of the high density of the bird population, as well as due to the presence of several bird species endemic to the Western ghats.

In the past couple of years, I had drooled over numerous photos posted online, of the Malabar trogon, Sri Lankan Frogmouth etc clicked at Thattekadu. Hence, a visit to Thattekadu, in order to sight these rare birds, was a must for me.

Many of the blogs that I read about Thattekadu mentioned Gireesh Chandran as their guide of choice. Gireesh was an advocate by profession and doubled as an excellent birding guide. I called up Gireesh and booked a room at his homestay, along with his birding guide services for 2 days / 3 nights.

The days leading up to the trip were filled with day dreams, of Trogons, Frogmouths and stunning forest-scapes!

8th February 2015
Thattekad, Here I come!

The journey from Kochi to Thattekad started in the late morning and I reached Thattekad after a short drive. The roads were good and the drive was uneventful and quick.

I checked into Gireesh’s homestay just after noon and received a warm & homely welcome. Thereafter, lunch was had in the company of tourists from Belgium, France and Holland. The tourists excitedly recounted their morning birding experiences. They had sighted the Srilanka Frogmouth as well as the Malabar Trogon. This set my pulse racing in hope and anticipation.

About Thattekad
Firstly, some information about Thattekad. Thattekad is located about 12 kms from Kothamangalam. Thattekad was the first Bird sanctuary of Kerala, established in the year 1983.  Thattekad literally means flat forest, and the region is an evergreen low-land forest located between the branches of Periyar River, the longest river in Kerala. (source: Wikipedia)

The best time to visit Thattekad is during the winter months, from October to March.

Kochi to Thattekad (Google Maps)

How to reach Thattekad:
Thattekad, due to it’s close proximity (80 kms) to Kochi, is easily accessible.

Nearest airport – Kochi Airport (50 kms)
Nearest railhead – Aluva Railway Junction (37 kms)
Nearest major city – Kochi (80 kms)
Nearest town – Kothamangalam (12 kms)

The Birding begins
The birding trip on day 1 started around 3.30 pm. We took an auto-rickshaw and travelled to a corner of the sanctuary, 15 minutes away from the Bird sanctuary’s main gates. Gireesh informed us that there was a small waterhole in that area which attracted a lot of birds in the late evening. After alighting from the autorickshaw, we made our way to the spot which took us about 10 minutes.

Since we were early, we decided to check out the forest for other birds. And within no time, Gireesh spotted a Common Indian Nightjar high up on a tree. Nightjars are nocturnal by nature and are most active around dusk and dawn. We spent some time photographing the passive and well-camouflaged bird.

Common Indian Nightjar
We returned to the waterhole and spotted a Malabar Grey Hornbill on the branches of a tree.  We then set up our camera equipment and waited expectantly for the late-evening performers to arrive. My only worry was that the light was fading fast and the area around the waterhole was heavily shaded by the trees. Photographing the birds might prove to be tricky.

As luck would later have it, the photography experience was a lot worse than anticipated!

The first birds to arrive were the Blue-throated Blue Flycatchers, male as well as female. They proceeded to take their bird-bath in spite of the many prying eyes and cameras capturing their every move. The flycatchers were then joined by the slightly larger Orange-headed Thrushes. The thrushes were initially wary but then settled down to enjoy their bath.

Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher (female)
Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher (male)
Orange-headed Thrush
Common Bath: Orange-headed Thrush and Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher (female)
Many more birds started appearing one after the other and disappeared in a hurry. We saw Rufous-tailed Flycatchers, White-cheeked barbets, Puff-throated babblers and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers. Their bathing experience was not as leisurely as the flycatchers’. Theirs was more of a ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ kind of a dip in the water.

Rusty-tailed Flycatcher
White-cheeked Barbet
Puff-throated Babbler
The most shy amongst the birds was an Asian Paradise Flycatcher (female). This bird took a dip ‘on-the-fly’, repeatedly, as it flew from one side of the waterhole to the other! An extremely shy type without doubt!

The last bird to appear at the waterhole was an Indian Blue Robin. My first ever sighting of this beautiful bird!

Indian Blue Robin
Taking photographs all this while had been a nightmarish experience. All my pictures were blurry due to low shutter speeds in spite of using the Nikkor 300mm f/4 lens with a 1.4 TC. Even the high ISO ranges did not alleviate the misery. I was left frustrated and just could not figure out what the problem was. It was a mystery I hoped to solve later in the night.

The sun had set by now and we made our way back to the road. When we reached the road, Gireesh announced that he had 2 surprises for us. Then he proceeded to show us the first surprise, a Dollarbird perched on an electric wire! It was my first sighting of a Dollarbird and I desperately tried to get a record photograph of this bird. It was not an easy task in the near-pitch darkness.

The Dollarbird is so called because of the distinctive blue coin-shaped spots on its wings. (Source: Wikipedia)

The second surprise turned out to be a pair of Indian Scops Owl. A lifer again! Gireesh appeared to know the exact spot and time when the Owls would appear. Gireesh definitely knew Thattekad like the back of his hand.

One of the owls flew a short distance away. We took a few photographs of the remaining Owl using a  torchlight. The eyes of the Owl were a sight to behold. Scary and hypnotizing at the same time.

All Eyes: Indian Scops Owl
We called it a day and returned to the homestay. There was excited chatter in the autorickshaw and it continued through dinner-time. As we retired for the night, I knew that I had a mystery to solve.

I checked the camera settings minutely, but everything seemed to be in order. Puzzled and confused, I shifted my attention to the lens. As soon as I removed the lens cap the mystery of the evening was finally solved. I stared in disbelief at the Neutral Density (ND) filter screwed to the lens!

Neutral Density (ND) filters reduce light entering the lens. These filters are used to lower shutter speeds, e.g. when photographing waterfalls or races, where one wants to capture motion blur. I’m very sure that I had never ever used an ND filter on any of my Telephoto lenses.. ever. Hence it did not occur to me to check for any filters on my lens when faced with the problem. How this ND filter happened to be attached to my lens is an unsolved mystery for me to this day!

On a lighter vein, this may have been the first instance ever when a ND filter was used for bird photography, that too in extremely low light. Comical History in the making!!!

And a valuable lesson learnt the hard and frustrating way! Always check your equipment and camera settings thoroughly before every use.

9th February 2015
Thattekad Specials in store!

Early Morning session
We set off for the birding trip early in the morning around 6.30 am. The light was low and there was a slight fog in the air. We walked to the Thattekad bridge, which was about 10 mins from the homestay. The scenery from the bridge was spectacular. The forest canopy, the green hills, the reflections on the water and the coconut trees swaying over the river, were a visual treat to the eyes.

Scenic Reflections: Thattekad Landscape

Serene Waterscape
As far as the birding was concerned, we saw several Ashy woodswallows perched on a pipe and a Brahminy Kite flying high in the sky. We then set off for the planned birding site about 30 mins drive away from the sanctuary’s gates.

Ashy Woodswallows
As we walked into the forest, we sighted a Malabar Giant Squirrel on a tree. The cute and furry ball was moving from one branch to the other in search of food. We watched it for a short while and then moved ahead.

Malabar Giant Squirrel
A short distance ahead, Gireesh announced that there was a Frogmouth within sight. He asked us to find it. I managed to sight it within no time. It was a female frogmouth well camouflaged in the dried leaves.

Sri Lankan Frogmouth (female)
Male frogmouths are grayish brown in colour while female frogmouths are rufous brown in colour.  Because of their large eyes, Frogmouths are often confused with Owls. However, Frogmouths are more closely related to Nightjars than Owls.

The frogmouth sat passively as we clicked pictures from a safe distance. After about 5 minutes, one of our fellow tourists exclaimed in frustration that she had still not been able to sight the bird. It took a lot of effort on our part to help her ‘see’ the bird. She had mistaken the bird for dry leaves all along.

Further on, we sighted a Greater Flameback Woodpecker, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Grey Hornbill and a Malabar Giant Squirrel in quick succession. A few meters ahead, Gireesh suddenly asked us to maintain complete silence. We approached him very cautiously and quietly. Gireesh then pointed towards a high branch.

Greater Flameback Woodpecker (female)
Malabar Giant Squirrel
White-cheeked Barbet

The Take-off : Malabar Grey Hornbill
Perched on the branch was a Malabar Trogon. What a thriller of a moment it was! And what a beauty the Malabar Trogon was!!! It was a male trogon, as colourful as could be. The males have a black head and breast, with a crimson underside and a brown/chestnut back. The beak and the skin around the eyes are bluish in colour.

Colourful beauty: Malabar Trogon (male)
Since it was perched high up, we did not get the best angles for the pictures. Also, a slight fog did not help with the light. But it was a thrilling moment and I clicked as many pictures as I could manage. Soon the bird flew to a higher perch making it even more difficult to photograph. Finally after it flew away, I relaxed and took a deep breath. There were smiles and excited chatter in hushed tones all around.

Malabar Trogon (male)
The Frogmouth and Trogon sightings within this short span had made my day!

As we marched on, we came across another female frogmouth concealed amongst branches and leaves. It was so well hidden that photographing it was close to impossible. So we moved further and came to a clearing in the forest. We climbed atop a bare rock which appeared to be a vantage point for spotting birds on the treetops all around.

Vantage point
And as if on cue, the birds obliged and came in quick succession. Purple-rumped Sunbird, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Racket-tailed Drongo, Blyth’s Starling, Green Imperial Pigeon and Rufous-tailed Flycatcher. The birds left as quickly as they had come. 

Clockwise from top-left: Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Vernal Hanging Parrot and Racket-tailed Drongo
We followed Gireesh down a narrow path, when he halted and pointed out a SriLankan frogmouth perched on the branches.

It appeared to be raining Frogmouths that morning!

It was a male Frogmouth and was facing us head-on. Also it’s perch was at eye-level, which would help in taking decent photographs. The only downside was that the bird was in the shadows. We spent the next 15 mins photographing the bird. The frogmouth posed well and was not fazed by the eyes staring at it and the clicking of the cameras. I reluctantly left the bird to join the rest of the group as they made their way forward.

Face-to-face: Sri Lankan Frogmouth (male)
We came to another clearing in the forest, surrounded by tall trees and the Thattekad hills in the background. It was a very scenic location. Arrival of the birds would complete the picture  perfectly.

Thattekad Landscape
And the birds did arrive, fast and furious!

Malabar Parakeet, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Greater Flameback Woodpecker, Lesser Flameback Woodpecker, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Orange Minivet, Blyth’s Starling, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Southern Hill Myna, Flame-throated Bulbul, Plum-headed Parakeet and the Indian Golden Oriole flew in and out. he fruit-bearing trees around the site were like a magnet for these birds. Needless to say, the camera was clicking away non-stop. T

Clockwise from top-left: Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Parakeet, Flame-throated Bulbul and Greater Flameback Woodpecker

Clockwise from top-left: Plum-headed Parakeet (female), Southern Hill Myna, Malabar Starling and Indian Golden Oriole (female)

Clockwise from top-left: Purple-rumped Sunbird (male), Orange Minivet (female), Malabar Starling and Pompadour Green Pigeon
We made our way back to the bare rock to check for more birds. We saw that the Frogmouth was still on the same perch. But this time the Frogmouth had it’s back turned towards us. There were a few more Green Imperial Pigeons on the treetops. In addition there was a new visitor, a raptor for a change.

Green Imperial Pigeon
The raptor was an Oriental Honey Buzzard. It surveyed it’s surroundings from it’s high perch. Even though the bird was a fair distance away, the telezoom lens helped us identify the bird.

Oriental Honey Buzzard
The morning had passed by in a flash. It was now time for us head back. As we neared the vehicle, we saw the most ferocious fight ever. Two Black-naped Monarchs were having a go at each other, with claws and beaks as weapons of choice! Neither had an upper hand, as they fought and rolled on the dusty path. The ferocity and extended length of the fight indicated that perhaps the affections of a female were at stake. Males will be males, after all!!!

All Beak and Claws: Black-naped Monarch Flycatchers
The birds were disturbed by some other tourists and they flew away. The final sightings were  a couple of Heart-shaped Woodpeckers high up on a tree. Too high, to get any decent photographs. Nevertheless, it had been a very satisfying morning with some amazing bird sightings.

Late Morning/Afternoon session

The morning session had invigorated me and I craved for more bird sightings. Immediately after breakfast I set off for the Bird Sanctuary. On the way, I came across a Little Cormorant and a White-throated Kingfisher at the pond near the homestay.

The original Bird Sanctuary gates close to the homestay were closed for tourism several years ago in order to protect the frogmouth habitat and environment. The authorities had opened a new site across the road for tourists/visitors. This was now the official Bird Sanctuary for tourists/visitors.

I entered the gates after buying the entry tickets. It was close to 11 am and quite hot by now. I knew that the sightings, if any, would be low. But as luck would have it, near the gates, were a pair of Streak-throated Woodpeckers pecking away at a tree-trunk. It was an encouraging start to the session.

Pecking away: Streak-throated Woodpecker
The next 20 minutes did not yield any bird sightings. The only birds in sight were the ones on the Forest & Wildlife Department display boards. There were numerous boards along the way with an impressive list of birds. In a short while, a Black-hooded Oriole came into view and was soon followed by a White-cheeked Barbet. It was a welcome relief to find some real birds.

Trail and not Trial
As I walked along the trail, I heard the rustling of dry leaves on the ground, behind me. I turned around but could not see the source of the noise. After a few moments I heard some more rustling. I was very curious as well as wary. Was it a langur / monkey or a leopard or just a stray dog?

I heard some more rustling and walked towards the source of the noise. To my relief, in the undergrowth was a Spotted Deer. From the deer’s reaction I could make out that the Deer was as startled and curious about my presence. I took a couple of quick photographs and left the deer in peace.

Curiosity: Spotted Deer

The Trails
There are multiple trails in the sanctuary and I walked towards the View tower hoping to sight some birds from the top. Along the way I could hear the bird calls but did not manage to sight any. The View tower also did not yield any bird sightings. After about half a hour, I came across a trio of Racket-tailed Drongos. These drongos were very active and chased each other around, from one tree to the other. Needless to say, capturing them on the camera was extremely difficult.

As I walked on, from the corner of my eye, I saw a sudden movement in some bushes, close to the ground. I peered towards the bushes, unsure whether I had seen a bird or just some leaves moving in the wind. Suddenly, I saw some brownish/chestnut colour peeking out from amongst the leaves. It did not look like a bird until it moved and then perched itself on a clear branch. It was not a bird that I had ever seen, so far. It had a black head, yellowish throat, with chestnut coloured wings and a blue back and tail. But from it’s shape and features I figured that it was some kind of a cuckoo. I quickly took a photograph or two, knowing that it would be required to help me identify the bird.

Rarest of the rare: Chestnut-winged Cuckoo
I was thrilled to bits with this sighting. The day was getting better and better by the hour!

It was close to 1.00 pm and the heat was killing me. I headed back towards the sanctuary gates. On the way back I came across an Asian Openbill, a Racket-tailed Drongo and finally some Cotton Pygmy Geese. I heard some pecking noises but did not hang around to investigate and identify the woodpeckers. It was past lunch time and I needed to rest a bit before the evening session.

Clockwise from top-left: Racket-tailed Drongo, Asian Openbill, Cotton Pygmy Geese and Lizard
After lunch, I checked the field guide and the mystery bird was identified as a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. Later when I mentioned the sighting to Gireesh, he was thrilled and exclaimed that it was a very rare bird and extremely difficult to sight. Naturally, I was on cloud nine and struggled to keep my feet on the ground.

Evening Session

The evening session started around 3.30 pm in the Bird Sanctuary. Gireesh’s mother Sudha accompanied me for the birding session. The primary aim of the trip was to sight the White-bellied Treepie.

We entered the sanctuary and took the Salim Ali Bird Trail. Our first sighting was an Emerald Dove. The bird was foraging for food on the trail path. We watched the bird from a safe distance for a few minutes till it flew away. Immediately after, entered an Oranged-headed thrush and started foraging for food at the very same spot. The bird flew away after it had it’s fill of food and I had my fill of photographs. It was a promising start to the evening.

Foraging for food: Emerald Dove

Orange-headed Thrush
We moved ahead and came across a Malabar Giant squirrel, Southern Hill Myna and a Heart-shaped Woodpecker in quick succession. The heart shaped woodpecker is a small woodpecker, black and white in colour and with heart shaped black spots on it’s white feathers. The bird was extremely cute. It was busy feeding itself on insects hidden in the bark of a tree.

All Hearts: Heart-shaped Woodpecker
Soon, we came to a dense part of the forest. Sudha signaled me to maintain complete silence. She whispered that she could hear the White-bellied Treepie. I held my breath in anticipation as I scanned the tree-tops. And sure enough, a treepie flew in and perched itself high on the branches. The white-bellied treepie is black and white in colour with a rufous back. It had one of the longest tails that I had ever seen on a bird. The bird was perched high up on the branches which did not help with the photography. However, I wasn’t complaining too much as this was my first-ever sighting of the wonderful species.

Long Tailed: White-bellied Treepie

White-bellied Treepie
It was beginning to get dark and we started to make our way back to the gates. We came across woodpeckers, one after the other, Greater Flameback Woodpecker, Lesser Flameback Woodpecker and the Heart shaped Woodpecker. We also saw a Black-hooded Oriole, an Oriental Darter and a Southern Coucal.

As we neared the homestay, I made my way to the Thattekad bridge, hoping to spot some more birds. I saw some Rock pigeons sitting on a wire. One of the pigeons was brown in colour. Pigeons are usually grey, but come in different colours, called morphs. This particular specimen was a brown morph.

Rock Pigeon - Brown morph
Finally, I called it a day. And what an amazing day it had been, Frogmouths, Trogons, White-bellied Treepies, Cuckoos… Thattekad specialities.. all lifers for me!

10th February 2015
The Finale!

Morning session

My last birding session started early in the morning as we set out to explore a different part of the forest. There was a light fog in the air. The first ten minutes did not yield any bird sightings. As the light improved slightly, there was a flurry of bird activity.

The bird sightings started with a pair of Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers followed by Indian Golden Orioles, Loten’s Sunbird and Oriental Magpie Robin in quick succession. After a short lull a second batch of birds appeared one after the other viz. Jungle Babbler, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Starling and Grey Jungle Fowl.

Clockwise from top-left: White-cheeked Barbet, Indian Golden Oriole (female), Malabar Starling and Grey Jungle Fowl
We moved deeper into the woods in our search for more birds. Soon, we spotted a bird perched on a branch. Though it appeared to be a Black drongo, Gireesh exclaimed that it was a Drongo Cuckoo. When observed casually, the drongo cuckoo, because of it’s black colour and forked tail, could easily be mistaken for a Black Drongo. However, a more focused observation would reveal a differently shaped head and beak as well as a different eye-colour, between the two birds.

And, as if, to facilitate a better visual comparison, a Black Drongo flew in and perched itself nearby. The differences between the two birds were now clearly visible and obvious to our eyes. Nature’s very own lesson on bird identification!

Visual Comparison: Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo vs Black Drongo
Next to come into view were a Plum-headed parakeet (female) and a Black-headed Oriole on the branches of the same tree. On a tree nearby were a pair, male and female, of Greater Flameback Woodpeckers. The male has a red crown while the female has a black crown with white spots. We observed the woodpeckers for several minutes before they flew away.

Plum-headed Parakeet (female) and Black-headed Oriole
Greater Flameback Woodpeckers (male and female)
Soon we heard more pecking noises a short distance away. We expected it to be the Golden Flameback Woodpeckers. But to my delight it was a pair of Rufous Woodpeckers. My first ever sighting of these lovely birds.

Rufous Woodpecker
Rufous woodpeckers are brown in colour and have black barrings called vermiculations over their body. The male woodpecker has a red patch near the eyes.

The woodpeckers were so engrossed in foraging for food, they ignored our presence completely. Their indifference towards our presence suited us perfectly, as we were busy clicking their photographs. This continued for the next ten minutes, till my arms ached.

Rufous Woodpecker
The birding sightings continued with the Green Imperial Pigeon, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rufous Treepie and the Purple Sunbird. Even though, the Purple sunbird looked somewhat similar to the Loten’s Sunbird, it was much smaller than the Loten’s Sunbird. Also the Loten’s Sunbird has a much longer beak.

Visual comparison: Loten's Sunbird (male) and Purple Sunbird (male)
Then came the turn of the lifers for me, one after the other. Starting with the Black-headed Cuckoo-Shrike, followed by the Black-naped Golden Oriole and finally the large Woodshrike. It was a pleasure to add all these new birds to the Birds sightings list.

Clockwise from top-left: Black-naped Golden Oriole, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Large Woodshrike
The birding session was coming to an end. Gireesh took us to a spot to try and sight the Mottled Wood Owl. However, we could not sight any. The sessions ended with sightings of the Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Common Myna and a Shikra in flight.

Clockwise from top-left: Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Common Myna and Shikra
We made our way back to the homestay and I got down at the bridge to try my luck there. And sure enough, there were Terns, Gulls, a Nilgiri Flowerpecker  and a Brahminy Kite at the bridge. The last few moments of the trip were spent photographing the breathtaking scenery from the bridge.

Clockwise from top-left: Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Brahminy Kite, Brown-faced Gulls and River Tern
At Peace with nature


Thattekad Reflections
Like a Bridge over Serene waters

The Thattekad trip had been a very fulfilling and satisfying trip. The high density of birds was a blessing for birders and spoke volumes about the health of the surrounding forests. The trip had added a lot of birds to my Sightings list. Also, the knowledge and dedication of Gireesh was a revelation. Many of the sightings were possible only because of his sharp observation, in-depth knowledge of the habitat and vast experience.

Thattekad Sunset
It had been a dream trip and I was very sure that I would have many more such trips here!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tobin,
    You know, in my mother tongue Tulu also "Thattekaad" has a meaning. "Thatte" means plate and "Kaad" mean forest; so, "Thattekaad" is forest which is flat as a plate. :)
    The nightjar and frogmouth look like so exotic and different.
    All the brids are so pretty. There are so many mentioned in this post that I had to stop trying to memorize their names after the first five. :)
    It would be interesting to see a woodpecker pecking away on a tree. I thought they do it only ot build a nest in the tree. I did not know they also peck and look for food in the bark. :)
    Very insightful post, and beautiful pictures as always. I loved the finishing sunset picture too. :)
    By the way, What's a lifer?


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