Saturday 28 January 2023

SOUTH INDIA and ANDAMANS: Periyar and Munnar (25-28 January 2023)

This is the fourth of five blogs covering a Tansa, South Andaman and South India trip with Nick Preston and Paul Noakes.  It has been enhanced with some of Paul's excellent photos. Despite some inclement weather we'd had a very successful few days at Thattekkad with our excellent guide Jijo Mathews and now it was time to move on.

Wednesday 25 January. The heavy rain continued raining during the night but had stopped by dawn. We left Birds Murmur Camp at 06:30 only to return 5 minutes later when Paul realized he’d left his camera in the dining area. One of the employees was waiting with it in the car park. Although it had stopped raining the low cloud was slow to clear and only did so towards the end of our 25 minute hornbill search. We saw 20+ Malabar Grey Hornbills on the opposite side of the river but no Malabar Pied flyover. We continued to the Salim Ali trail where, after a short wait for Jijo to purchase tickets, we walked to the area we’d seen the rufous morph Oriental Scops Owl two days before but couldn't relocate it. Nearby I has a view of a pitta shape in my thermal imager but couldn’t locate it through bins and it had gone when I tried the imager again - Indian Pitta TIO. We left Thattekkad at 08:50 for the drive to Thekkady. It was a slow road and our bus made the journey seem even slower but, with a stop for a Black Baza that disappeared before most of us had identifiable views and another for breakfast, we made it by 13:00. We had a really nice, really large room at Wildernest Bed & Breakfast, the only disadvantage being that they don’t start the latter until 07:30 and we would have to leave before 07:00. We entered the nearby Periyar Tiger Reserve just before 14:00, signed a liability disclaimer should we be attacked by a Tiger, were assigned a park ranger to act as guide and given leech socks (which proved unnecessary). There followed an absolutely brilliant afternoon in open woodland with scattered undergrowth. In approximate order and fairly quick succession we saw 2 Malabar Woodshrikes, a male Grey Junglefowl, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, a flock of 6 Wynaad Laughingthrushes, Malabar Whistling Thrush and 3 Indian Scimitar-Babblers. Further into the park we added a female Malabar Trogon, Malabar Flameback and Imperial Pigeon (both very recent splits we had not been fully aware of), 2 grey-morph Oriental Scops Owls (brilliantly located by Paul), Orange-headed Ground Thrush and Indian Blackbird. Just before we left at 17:45 we crossed paths with the Wynaad Laughingthrushes again as they were going to roost. That evening Nick and Paul went for an Indian meal while I bought bread, cashew nuts and dates to make sandwiches.

unsuccessful hornbill watch at Thattekkad
our large room at Wildernest B&B, Thekkady
Crested Hawk Eagle over Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Malabar Woodshrike at Periyar

Malabar Woodshrike at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Black-backed Flameback at Periyar
Common Hawk Cuckoo at Periyar
Common Hawk Cuckoo at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Wynaad Laughingthrush at Periyar, one of a flock of six
the main target at Periyar and often tricky to see so it was nice to succeed at our first attempt
Wynaad Laughingthrush at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)

Malabar Imperial Pigeon at Periyar
a very recent split from Mountain Imperial Pigeon that I/we would have probably not followed up the calls of were it not for Jijo
Malabar Imperial Pigeon at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Oriental Scops Owls at Periyar
both roosting in the same tree
Oriental Scops Owls at Periyar (photos: Paul Noakes)

just as we were leaving Periyar the Wynaad Laughingthrush flock flew across the path

Wynaad Laughingthrush at Periyar (photos: Paul Noakes)

Thursday 26 January. We left Wildernest B&B at 07:00 and drove the short distance to the park reception from where we squeezed into the last seats on one of the shuttle buses to the park boat landing area. Groups of visitors were being ferried across one of the creeks running into the reservoir. One group had just been pulled over by rope when we arrived and the raft was on its way back. We watched a smaller group go but when the ranger on our side tried to pull it back again the rope came away leaving the raft on the other side. With attempts to resolve the situation failing, 2 or 3 groups in the queue ahead of us and it already gone 08:00 we opted to walk in the open forest on our side. It was reasonable looking habitat despite a bit less undergrowth than yesterday’s session at Peryiar but rather disappointing bird wise. We were back at 10:00 having seen male Malabar Trogon, at least 2 each of Malabar Flameback and Heart-spotted Woodpecker and a Wild Boar. Sitting in the empty bus ready to return I asked Jijo if we were allowed to walk back as it had only taken 10 minutes in the bus through mostly good habitat. He said yes and we disembarked, Jijo deciding to join us, despite our saying it wasn’t necessary. Walking was a good option, particularly for me, as we saw male Grey Junglefowl, Orange-headed Ground Thrush, Blue-faced Malkoha (new for me) and White-rumped Spinetail (I'd only seen 2 before, in 1979). We also saw another Wild Boar and several Samba. We were met by our minibus at the outskirts of Thekkady at 12:15 and were back at Wildernest B&B a few minutes later. We left again at 14:30, picked up a different guide and drove a km or so into the park to the place we’d been picked up the previous evening. We walked more directly to where we turned back previously and continued for km or two before returning. We saw a perched Black Baza (new for Paul but distant and against the light so not ideal), 3 Oriental Scops Owls (the head of a brownish looking individual in a hole in a broken branch and the 2 greyish birds from yesterday, this time together), Jungle Owlet, Malabar Imperial Pigeon, another male Malabar Trogon, Black Eagle, 2 Rufous Woodpeckers, 2 Elephants, 2 Wild Boar and 15+ Gaur. I saw another Jungle Owlet from the bus on the way back although it was virtually a silhouette, and a male Grey Junglefowl approaching the large bamboo stand on the edge of town.

the ferry being pulled across the creek
Heart-spotted Woodpecker at Periyar

extracting a grub

Heart-spotted Woodpecker at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Malabar Parakeets at Periyar
Nick, Jijo, our partially hidden park guide and Paul stopped for breakfast at Periyar

female Malabar Flameback at Periyar
she was soon joined by a male
who started to display

hollowed out dead tree
nothing appeared to be roosting in it
open woodland at Periyar
the lake at Periyar
Tamil Yeoman at Periyar, the recently chosen State Butterfly of Tamil Nadu
Orange-headed Ground Thrush at Periyar
Blue-faced Malkoha at Periyar

Blue-faced Malkoha at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
White-rumped Needletail at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Nilgiri Langur at Periyar

Bonnet Macaque at Periyar
roosting Indian Scops Owl at Periyar
Indian Scops Owl at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)

Jungle Owlet at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Jungle Owlet at Periyar about to fly, me too slow again
Black Baza at Periyar - into the sun and on the opposite side of the valley
Gaur at Periyar
Malabar Starlings at Periyar
the Oriental Scops Owls were roosting in the same tree, one in almost exactly the same spot
look no ears - Oriental Scops Owls at Periyar (photos: Paul Noakes)

White-bellied Treepie at Periyar (photo: Paul Noakes)

Friday 27 January. We left Periyar at 05:45 and drove north before turning west towards Munnar. The road started to climb above the plains into the Bodi Ghat and at about 07:30 we stopped by a slightly more rocky section of the road to look for Yellow-throated Bulbul. We saw 2 almost immediately - if birding was always this easy! The road continued climbing with the hillsides above increasingly hidden by low clouds. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for breakfast which doubtless had a spectacular view on a clear day but not this morning. We continued zig-zagging up to pass and started down the other side where we suddenly encountered stationery traffic. A sit-down protest around the next bend had brought traffic to a halt in both directions. It had been going on for over an hour and was to do with elephants that had been moved off tribal lands and were encroaching on the local village fields where they had killed a villager the previous week. The protesters were wanting the government to move the elephants somewhere else, at least that was our understanding of the situation. The only alternative route to Munnar was to return almost to Periyar which would take over 4 hours. While we were waiting someone in uniform arrived, possibly to hear the complaint, and Jijo felt that the protest wouldn’t last more than a couple of hours. As it was then less than two hours to Munnar it seemed sensible to give it at least that long before retracing our route. After almost an hour we decided to continue walking – it was downhill and the road ran through patches of forest. Passing the protesters, all those sitting down were women and a few waved as we went by, and continuing down the road we saw 4-5 Indian Black-lored Tits, 2 Nilgiri Flycatchers, and 2 Square-tailed Bulbuls. The tit and flycatcher were my first ‘protest ticks’. We’d gone maybe a km when traffic started coming down behind us, first motorbikes, the saloon cars and then our vehicle. We continued to Munnar, up and over another ridge into tea growing country. The last part of the journey was along a tortuous dirt track, necessary as our vehicle was too high to pass under the barriers where the main road to our part of town crossed a barrage . We arrived at Olive Brook, a somewhat secluded hotel on the edge of town, at 13:45. We had a late lunch and left at 15:15 to walk around above the town and back along the entrance road, returning just before dusk. On the way out and back we checked a ravine by another guest house where Jijo had sometimes seen Nilgiri Thrush. No luck but there were a few people wandering around which wouldn't have helped. Birds we did see included Palani Laughingthrush, female Indian Blue Robin, 4 Nilgiri Flycatchers and 2 Nilgiri Wood Pigeons. Back at the hotel things were looking up on the catering front - I had my first chips of the trip and a piece of yummy plum cake.

Yellow-throated Bulbul at Bodi Ghat
much nicer than I was expecting
my camera wouldn't autofocus at a critical moment and by the time I switched to manual it had moved further away

Yellow-throated Bulbul at Bodi Ghat (photos: Paul Noakes)

Paul, Jijo and Nick at Bodi Ghat
further up at our breakfast stop
Black Eagle almost obscured by clouds at Bodi Ghat
Nilgiri Flowerpecker at Bodi Ghat

village protest blocking the road
Common Tailorbird by the village protest

White-cheeked Barbet by the village protest
village protest, I hope the elephant situation was resolved

tea plantations approaching Munnar
Nilgiri Flycatcher at Munnar
Palani Laughingthrush at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)

Crimson-backed Sunbird at Munnar
Square-tailed Bulbul at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Orange Minivet at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Red-whiskered Bulbul at Munnar
Grey Wagtail at Munnar
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch at Munnar
another Velvet-fronted Nuthatch at Munnar

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)
Nilgiri Wood Pigeon at Munnar

Nilgiri Wood Pigeon at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)

poor visibility disappointed the locals waiting for the sunset
tea plantations on the edge of Munnar

Saturday 28 January. We left Olive Brook at 06:55 after a 10 minute look at Jijo’s thrush site but drew another blank, not helped by some cars being washed right by it. We had a 15 minute drive on the rough road, avoiding the barrage height barrier, before joining the main road. We arrived at the Eravikulan National Park entrance at 07:40, 20 minutes before the ticket office opened and the first park buses started up the mountain. We were on one of the first buses which took us up to a terminal and a restaurant, a journey of about 10 minutes through tea plantations before reaching more natural grassland and Shola. From behind the restaurant toilets, looking into a gulley below, we soon saw White-bellied Blue Robin, Malabar Whistling Thrush, a brief Palani Laughingthrush and Indian Blackbirds. We joined a steady stream of visitors continuing up the track and soon saw a distant Nilgiri Pipit, better views were to follow, and a flock of Nilgiri Thar. The track ended at about 1900m near a small patch of Shola where we saw another White-bellied Blue Robin, more Indian Blackbirds and a Blue-capped Rock Thrush. We walked back down, against an increasing stream of visitors coming up, and after a short wait for a park bus were back at the entrance at 11:10. It was now exceptionally busy, being a Saturday and with the park closing at the end of the month not helping. Once in our minibus we continued a few kms up to a pass, with cars parked and sometimes double parked end to end along the road for at least the first km. At the pass we checked a couple of gullies where Jijo had previously seen Nilgiri Thrush, though at dawn rather than in the middle of the day. We headed back down towards Munnar but hit solid traffic just before the park entrance. It was then a very slow stop-start journey with at times batches of traffic being held up one way to let by a batch coming the other way. Just as this was thinning out we reached the turning to the Government UP School at Kannimallay and stopped. I realized this was where Shashank’s Rockjumper tour had seen Nilgiri Thrush and wondered why we’d not had a look early morning on our way to Eravikulan. We found a place where we could look down into a forested gulley at a small pool in an almost dried up stream. This seemed ideal for Nilgiri Thrush but despite intently watching it for the best part of 5 hours, with Paul doing similar nearby, we failed. Jijo calling us away at 17:10 was disappointing as it seemed to be livening up and we felt the best hour of the day for thrushes was about to start. Unfortunately we'd been seen and he’d been told we should move on, as the nearby primary school - not that we ever saw it - was a particularly sensitive area. During our time there we saw Slaty-legged Crake, Emerald Dove, White-bellied and Indian Blue Robins, Palani Laughingthrush, Indian Blackbirds, Large-billed Leaf and Blyth’s Reed Warblers, Nilgiri Flycatcher and a Blue-capped Rock Thrush. Best of all and a strong contender for Bird of the Trip (along with Sri Lanka Bay Owl) were a superb pair of Black and Orange Flycatchers. We were back at Olive Brook by 17:45, rather early in our view although somewhat made up for by seeing Brown Hawk Owl before dinner.

Indian Scimitar Babbler at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)

male Common Rosefinch in the car park at the Eravikulan National Park entrance
Red-whiskered Bulbul from the car park

Jungle Striped Squirrel behind the toilet block at Eravikulan National Park
most of a Palani Laughingthrush, just not the most important part, behind the toilet block. Unfortunately the leaking sewage pipe which had made the area so good for skulkers had been repaired but it probably smelt nicer! I was very keen to see this species as I share its latin name Montecincla fairbanki although I prefer it's previous name of Kerala Laughingthrush. Unfortunately the 
male Indian Blackbird behind the toilet block
a female was there too
Nilgiri Whistling Thrush in a nearby Shola patch
Eravikulan National Park
a mixture of grassland and Shola

Nilgiri Tahr at Eravikulan National Park

me at Eravikulan National Park

a very obliging White-bellied Blue Robin in a Shola patch

White-bellied Blue Robin at Eravikulan (photo: Paul Noakes)
Nilgiri Pipit at Eravikulan National Park

back at Eravikulan National Park entrance the crowds were increasing
Blue-capped Rock Thrush at Kannimallay

Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher at Kannimallay
40 years ago in SE Asia I found these rather annoying as it seemed that, when I was hoping for something more interesting pretty, much every small bird flicking around drawing attention to itself in the forest was one 
this bird was full of character and reminded me how nice Grey-headed Canary-Flycatchers really are
not as nice as this one though
female Black and Orange Flycatcher at Kannimallay

male Black and Orange Flycatcher at Kannimallay

Black and Orange Flycatchers at Kannimallay (photos: Paul Noakes)

female Common Rosefinch at Kannimallay
Palani Laughingthrush at Kannimallay, hardly an improvement on my earlier image
Malabar Whistling Thrush at Kannimallay
Malabar Whistling Thrush at Kannimallay (photos: Paul Noakes)

Brown Hawk Owl at Munnar

Brown Hawk Owl at Munnar (photo: Paul Noakes)