The Sussex Wildlifer
Southern India Wildlife and Birding Trip Report: January 2015


Southern India: January 2015

Our trip planning these days takes on a well-tested routine. We visit the Destinations Travel Show in London in January and the British Birdwatching Fair in August to get some inspiration. Although we were very interested in returning to South America, the person to whom we spoke eventually quoted an utterly ridiculous price. We next considered returning to Africa but, in view of the Ebola crisis, quickly kicked that idea into touch. So, our thoughts returned to one of our favourite countries, India, but this time Southern India, where we last visited some 17 years ago. The lure this time was the possibility of at last catching up with leopards, the outstanding birding and warmer temperatures than we encountered in the north three years ago and there was always the thought of all that really outstanding, wonderful, food….

We researched the internet for itineraries we liked the look of and sought out a ground agent in India, thus cutting out the UK middle-man. A big saving that! This offered us a much better quality trip, being independent of the strictures organised group trips demand. We are keen birding enthusiasts but also love our photography and serious birders and wildlife photographers are rarely a happy mix. We have only been let down once, when we travelled to Jordan a few years ago, when the ground agent did not deliver what had been promised and the Arab attitude to Toni left a lot to be desired!

We travelled with Kalypso Adventures (http://www.kalypsoadventures.com), an exceptional organisation based in Cochin and could not possibly have chosen a better company. They arranged all our travel and accommodation, including our flight from Cochin to Bangalore, advised us how to tweak our own proposed itinerary to maximise on our time in India and provided us with some excellent trip notes. They provided an English-speaking driver called Deepu and an English-speaking bird guide called Aloop, both of whom were simply excellent: we could not have wished for better travel companions. Our entire trip ran like clockwork: fantastic! On arriving at Bangalore, our driver was standing directly opposite the exit doors and recognised us immediately and, to our astonishment, handed over two “goodie” bags (including some chocolate!) and a mobile phone in case of any emergency whilst we were in India. Now, that was all very impressive! We were starkly reminded of our two visits to Costa Rica, where the airport transfers never materialised.

A lot has happened in the 3 years since we were last in India, most noticeably a burgeoning middle class and how they spend their leisure time. High-tech companies proliferate in cities like Bangalore and we met many of their high-flying young executives, all driving expensive cars and sporting large telephoto lenses and pro cameras. It is such a shame that so few of them knew how to use them! A simple example may serve to explain what I mean. It is very hard to hand-hold an 800mm lens on a heavy pro-camera body and manage to get acceptably sharp images, particularly when travelling in the back of a jeep deep in a forest where light levels are poor. To watch one such lens-wielding photographer bracing the foot of his lens support against an upright on the jeep, whilst the vehicle was bumping along a forest track was an interesting sight. His camera was going off like a machine gun, but he would not have had any acceptably sharp images. You just have to love it… J

The experience of driving in India changes not one bit and reminds me just why I will never self-drive there. The drivers are still completely crazy, many with what can only be described as a death wish. How else do you describe the idiots overtaking on blind hair-pin bends in the mountains at high speed? Some say to actually drive so badly takes a considerable amount of skill!
In two and a half weeks we drove about 2,000kms, roughly the distance from Land’s End to John o’Groats and back, spending a good deal of time in virgin forests, many set high in the mountains where the cooler climate was far more to our liking than the hot plains, in vast tea plantations, and rubber and pineapple plantations. The scenery was simply stunning! On the roads, ox-carts were still to be seen, but in far fewer numbers these days, rickshaws seemed to be almost a thing of the past, whilst many of the old tuk-tuks had been replaced by later models which can now seat three, although in actual practice that is a very conservative number and the drivers continue to break the world record for the number of people they can cram into a vehicle. So, anarchy on the roads reigns supreme: expect the unexpected; nobody wants to give way.

The birding was outstanding, although the almost complete absence of vultures these days is really noticeable.  Another aspect of birding in Southern India was just how friendly and helpful all the Indians were, in stark contrast to England, where in so many locations birding has become far too competitive. It was a real pleasure to meet so many local birders, all of whom greatly enhanced our time in India. One thing really made us laugh. We asked Deepu why we saw so many groups of people peering through their binoculars at nothing in particular. His droll explanation was, “they are looking for nothing, but have to look at something”.

Days 1: Bangalore to Nagarhole

We booked with BA as they flew direct to Bangalore. BA has quite a reputation for us – we have flown with them so many times and yet they have never, ever taken off on time. So, we were not unduly surprised when some idiot of a baggage handler propped his ladder up against the fuselage, damaging it in the process. The repair took two and a half hours! This had a knock-on effect, which meant that our already long drive to our first destination took even longer, as we hit the early morning rush-hour traffic in Bangalore.

We arrived at Kabini River Lodge in the Nagarhole National Park in good time for lunch and the afternoon safari. We had stopped off en route at a number of excellent wetland habitats and were delighted with the numbers of birds: Cotton Pygmy-goose, Spot-billed Duck, several species of Ibis and Storks and all the other usual suspects. We were even more delighted with Nagarhole, where the forest tracks were the smoothest we have ever travelled along, particularly compared to those tiger reserves in the north, where you can expect to be jolted around for hours on end.  These forests were crammed full of stuff, primates in the form of langurs and macaques, up to three species of mongoose, Giant Malabar Squirrels, really good numbers of Asian Elephants, huge numbers of deer and abundant birdlife. Here we came across a small group of Gaur, or wild bison, right by the side of the track, then later a Barking Deer, both firsts for us both, then later, fleeting views of a sole Dhole, or wild dog.

Day 2: Nagarhole

Today, our dreams at last came true. Our very first Indian Leopard and walking straight at us down a forest track. On and on it came, scent-marking, rolling on its back, getting ever closer. Not for the first time we noticed that the shutter on the Nikon attracts the attention of the big cats more than Canon cameras. I was being directly eye-balled all the way along that track, but there came a time when even I had to stop pushing the camera shutter and start holding my breath. This time came when the big cat was well within a couple of bounds, which these big cats are really capable of making. The jeep backed off and we could breathe again. It felt like an eternity, but in truth we were in direct contact for only about 10 minutes. Mind you, we were the only jeep there and that made an encounter such as this really special, and one that we will never forget.

In the afternoon we were booked on a river boat trip and enjoyed close views of elephants, several species of deer, including Sambur and huge numbers of birds. Although there were obvious signs and alarm calls indicating the presence of tigers, none were seen, but we were not unduly concerned about this, having been privileged to see so many on our previous two trips to India. What really mattered for us this time was getting close up and personal with leopards and this we achieved with bells on! The boat trip also brought us excellent close photo opportunities of Osprey, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, River Terns, Painted and White-necked Storks. 

Day 3: Nagarhole to Bandipur

After a final early morning safari and another, but more distant, leopard, we were really sorry to leave Nagarhole. We had thoroughly enjoyed the early morning light in the forest, mock charges by a young male elephant, tiny and beautiful Spotted Deer fawns, and the myriad of birds. This had been a truly delightful wildlife experience. There were few jeeps in the forest, the spotted deer were there in huge numbers, greater than we had ever seen in any reserve before and the birdlife was great. I also took more good images here than anywhere else on the trip.

Some of the best birds seen, many at point blank range, included Rufous-bellied Eagle, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Lark, Malabar Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Forest Wagtail, whilst we also had outstanding quality views and photo opportunities of Crested Hawk-eagle and Crested Serpent-eagle.

After a short drive we arrived at Bandipur in time for lunch and the afternoon jeep safari. Whilst Bandipur disappointed with the lack of elephants, for which it is renowned, (the bamboos had flowered and died and they had migrated away) and the lack of big cats, there were some good birds including White-cheeked Barbet, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Starling, Orange-headed Thrush (aka white-breasted, or throated), Clamorous Reed Warbler and Rufous Woodpecker.

Day 4: Bandipur

Another morning trying hard, but unsuccessfully, to track down tigers or leopards, so we had to be content with the birds, of which there were, at times, good numbers, but not as good as at Nagarhole. Arriving back at the lodge, however, we were really pleasantly surprised to be whisked off up the mountains to visit the Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta Temple, where we had amazing views of Black-shouldered Kite immediately above our vehicle, great close up photo opportunities with an Openbill Stork and a Black Ibis in a large swampy area outside a small village and a huge flock of Bar-headed Geese in a Water Treatment Works. Then followed another unsuccessful afternoon chasing our tails looking for the big cats.

Day 5: Bandipur to Mudumalai

Strangely, all the Indians we spoke to on this trip immediately assumed that we had been to Bandipur and seemed surprised that we had also been to Nagarhole and were mostly disparaging about the government run lodges in which we had stayed. All I can say to these people is that Nagarhole was by far the more rewarding reserve on this trip and both lodges were comfortable, the food good and the staff genuinely helpful and friendly.

Jungle Hut at Mudumalai was, however, a pure delight. From the moment we got out of the car to see Indian Golden Orioles flying between the trees, woodpeckers on the trees, Malabar Giant Squirrels and Spotted Deer grazing in the gardens, we knew with absolute certainty that we were in for a treat. The lake must have held good stocks of fish judging by the activity of a kingfisher and we were entranced by the sight of several Asian Paradise Flycatchers of both forms. This was a small family run lodge where the food was simply amazing and the level of personal service outstanding.

After sampling a delicious lunch, we set off to the village to be met by Sidha, a local guide, and several of his lookouts, whose sole job was to range around us to ensure that we did not stumble across any of the local elephant families, which can be a danger to the unwary. Now Sidha has the great distinction of showing us three separate species of nightjars, all in the space of about a quarter of an hour, following up the next day by a fourth species deep in the forest. Now, in my estimation, that is simply world-class birding!

Day 6: Mudulamai

Some of the best birds seen included Puff-throated Babbler, White-cheeked Barbet, Jungle Bush-quail, Bronzed Drongo, White-spotted Fantail, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Malabar Lark, Black-chinned Laughing-thrush, Blue-faced Malkoa, Blyth’s Myna, Grey Nightjar, Indian Nightjar, Jerdon’s Nightjar, Savanna Nightjar, Indian Golden Oriole, Indian Blue Robin, White-rumped Shama, Shikra, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Indian Swiftlet and Malabar Whistling-thrush.  

Day 7: Mudulamai to Valparai via Ooty

The drive to Ooty at an altitude of 2600m was remarkable, with 36 hair-pin bends, where we were rewarded with excellent views of a flock of Painted Bush-quail. Then back down the mountains only to recommence climbing again, this time a further 40 hair-pin bends, all numbered, on our way to Valparai: a long day on the road. We stayed at Stanmore Villa, set in the midst of a vast tea plantation. Unfortunately, this was the only place on the entire trip which proved to be less than satisfactory. On the other hand, we would not have missed the wildlife for anything.

Day 8: Valparai

We spent the morning visiting the old house that once belonged to G A Carver Marsh, who built the first roads into and out of this hill station. It was an idyllic location from where we soon added to our birding list. Our whistle-stop tour to this area brought in Rufous Babbler, Indian Blackbird, Flame-throated Bulbul, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Lesser Hill Myna, Nilgiri Blue Robin and Indian Yellow Tit. Our prime reason for visiting here, however, was to see and photograph the endangered Lion-tailed Macaques, enjoy the tea plantations and mild climate, with a huge bonus of photographing a male Great Hornbill near its mate’s nest.

Day 9: Valparai to Thattekkad

We had to drive past the hornbill’s nest and were once again treated to further views of the male, but our later than expected departure from Stanmore Villa meant that we missed a really outstanding photo opportunity of the male at the nest with both wings extended as it fed its mate. There followed a long day on the road, most of which involved driving along narrow forest roads, although all the stops we made produced good numbers of birds. We made one stop to photograph clouds of butterflies, but were soon moved on by the forest guards.

One amusing instance involved the state guards on the back-road border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They insisted on inspecting Aloop’s and Toni’s binoculars, taking quite a time looking through them, but completely ignored me sitting in the back of our vehicle with mine strapped to a body harness. They cannot have much liked the look of me scowling at them! There followed a close inspection of all our water bottles, the number being written onto our permit, which was later checked at the end of the day as we left that particular National Park. The whole area was a plastic free zone – I have to applaud the authorities for taking these steps.

Arriving quite late at Hornbill Camp, our home for the next three nights, we still had time to explore the immediate area, which held a profusion of wildlife.

Day 10: Thattekkad

I had long explained to our bird guide Aloop that I wanted to photograph owls and in particular the Sri Lanka Frogmouth and he had promised that I should be able to get to see one at eye level. Today we caught up with this species and it was our first bird of the day, deep in a dark thicket. I tried my flash once, but it was clear that the bird did not like that at all and so I relied on increasing the ISO to a much higher level and exposing to the right as much as possible. After several attempts I managed to get one to my liking – mission accomplished. On the other hand, I told Aloop that the bird simply was not at eye level, as he had promised, but at least six inches too high…. J

What an exciting area this is for birds and butterflies and it fully justifies its reputation as one of the very best birding areas in the whole of India. Whilst we quickly clocked up several Southern Indian endemic birds, we also spent an age trying to draw out Indian Pittas from the deep undergrowth where they tend to lurk, but with singular lack of success.

Day 11: Thattekkad

The frogmouth was still perched up in the same thicket and I could not resist the temptation to grab a few more shots. Our local guide Sudesh is one of the top men in Southern India. He told us that he wants to publish a book on the birds of Southern India, but he needed just two photographs of difficult birds before he can do so. Well, now he only needs one!

We had travelled to a new location and it was not long before he had picked up what he thought was the call of an Oriental Scops Owl. He scanned all the likely trees for a long time, but eventually gave up the uneven task. That was when Toni stepped in. After staring hard into the top of one of the tall trees, she called Aloop over and asked him if she was looking at an owl, or just a dead leaf. Aloop took just one quick look, and then hared off to grab Sudesh, who had wandered off in search of other birds. Sudesh came at the run, grabbed his binoculars and then did the most extraordinary dance we have ever witnessed, and hugging Toni he told her that she was the most exceptional woman he had ever met! I explained that back home she was known as hawk eye, to which he replied that she was better than any hawk, because had a hawk seen the owl, then it would have been dead by now. I guess he was quite excited…. Definitely happy! Added to all this, it was actually the much rarer rufous form.

Then, on driving back to the lodge, with dusk falling fast, we stopped off at the bridge and were quickly whisked into the small reserve there to enjoy fantastic views of an Indian Pitta, right out in the open on a path. Mission accomplished! Unfortunately, the Long-eared Nightjars did not perform over the river that night, one of only a handful of specialities we failed to see on this trip.
This area is justly known for its incredible bio-diversity and for being one of the best birding hot-spots on the planet. I will not argue with that! There were so many birds to see, perhaps some of the best being Rufous Babbler, Malabar Barbet, Black Baza, Grey-headed Bulbul, Dollarbird, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Crested Goshawk, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Orange Minivet, Lesser Hill Myna, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Malabar Wood Shrike, Little Spider-hunter, White-rumped Spinetail, Travencore Red Spurfowl (gone in a flash!), Indian Swiftlet, Orange-headed Thrush, White-bellied Treepie, Thick-billed Warbler, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, White-bellied Woodpecker and Ashy Woodswallow.

Day 12: Thattekkad to Munnar

Olive Brook at Munnar was a truly beautiful place, set into the mountainside surrounded by stunning gardens and serving the most amazing food. The staff were exceptional, all devoted to our absolute comfort. We wandered at will along the many tracks traversing the mountainside, being offered freshly picked cardamoms by the gardener, who split one open for us to taste the inside, which was very different from the dried forms we use in our curries at home, being much more subtle and absolutely delicious.

This area is quite possibly one of the best places on earth to see the beautiful Black & Orange Flycatcher and we caught up with one in the afternoon – in a small cave of all places, being buzzed by Indian Swiftlets, which lived deeper inside!

Day 13: Munnar

In the morning we had a pleasant surprise, driving the short distance to the Eravikulam National Park, home to the endangered Nilgiri Tahr, or Mountain Goat. This had not been mentioned on our itinerary and so came as a really nice surprise. We caught the first bus up to the main gate, being the only Europeans in sight and had excellent, close views of the goats, all set against wonderful mountain backgrounds. The afternoon saw us exploring the area around Olive Brook, not for the faint hearted, as the roads are steep.

The bird list at Munnar was not a long one, but it contained some choice birds, of which we managed to get good views of Kerala Laughing-thrush, Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-bellied Shortwing, Square-tailed Bulbul and Large-billed Leaf Warbler. Other favourite birds here were Square-tailed Bulbul, the simply stunning Black-and-orange Flycatcher, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Kerala Laughing-thrush, Indian Blue Robin, White-bellied Blue Robin and Tytler’s Leaf Warbler.

Day 14: Munnar to Periyar

A short drive by Southern Indian standards saw us travelling through stunning mountain scenery and then high up on a mountain pass en route to Periyar we caught up with a Nilgiri Pipit. We stopped to check out several different locations, enjoying really close views of Black Eagles, a Grey-bellied Cuckoo and Blue Rock Thrushes. We arrived at the Tree Top Hotel in Periyar in time for lunch and an afternoon guided trek through part of this national park. Periyar, last visited by us 17 years ago, was unrecognisable. So far on this trip Europeans had been very thin on the ground and we had always been in a very small minority. All this changed here! On the other hand, some things never change. That evening we decided to eat out in one of a few really excellent local eateries. Having been asked if we would like a beer, mine arrived in a bone-china teapot and Toni’s in a bone-china coffee pot. We drank it down out of bone-china mugs and never has a Kingfisher beer tasted so good! Oh, and the food was also great! Why all the china? The owner did not have a licence to sell alcohol!

Day 15: Periyar

We trekked all morning enjoying a myriad of butterflies and birds, only returning to the hotel for lunch, before setting off again, this time climbing up a stunningly beautiful wooded valley where we saw Mouse Deer – gone in the blink of an eye - and an amazing close view of a Southern Birdwing, India’s largest butterfly. I was caught on the hop – my camera was set to all the wrong settings and there was no time to alter them – and there I was mocking other photographers earlier in the trip!
Aloop, our birding guide, was on fire. He was absolutely determined that we would see the rare Wynaad Laughing-thrush, and spent a lot of time peering intensely deep into the tangle of shrubs and bushes along the track. We have rarely witnessed such intensity of concentration. Did he find the bird for us? Of course he did, Aloop may be young, but he was as hot as mustard!
Our final major birding forays produced a few more favourites such as Yellow-throated Bulbul, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Common Flameback, a very elusive Wynaad Laughing-thrush and fleetingly Nilgiri Woodpigeons in flight at some distance. 

Day 16: Cochin

After spending so much time high up in the mountains it came as a shock to return to the plains. The mountains had been cool at night, with pleasantly warm days, but here on the plains it was hot and humid. Arriving in time for lunch, we also enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of the main sights of Cochin and later explored the area around the Casino Hotel, where we spent the night.

Day 17: Cochin to Bangalore

We spend the morning exploring the area around the hotel down towards the river, before being collected by Deepu, who drove us to the airport, where we bade our farewells and caught our internal flight back to Bangalore, where we were met by a driver from our hotel, the Clarks Exotica, just a short drive away. He too had positioned himself in pole position, bang opposite the exit, so that we would see him immediately.

Day 18: return to UK

A very early morning alarm call saw us whisked away to the airport for our flight back home and so ending another amazing and very satisfying wildlife odyssey. The highlight - It just had to be the male leopard walking straight at us along a forest track at Nagarhole, a world-class experience! Our verdict on the trip – it was simply outstanding, beautiful locations, great food, fantastic birds and we haven’t stopped recommending Kalypso Adventures to all those of our friends who will listen!