Monday, December 14, 2015
Sanctuary in the city!
I was in Trivandrum in November 2015, visiting family. I had been to Kochi the previous week, enjoying the beautiful flora and fauna at Parambikulam and Munnar. Since there weren’t too many sanctuaries around Trivandrum, birding was not on the cards during my stay there, just family time indoors.
|Munnar: Chinnakanal Waterfalls|
The weather in Trivandrum was unpredictable, raining heavily in the early mornings and hot & sunny for the remainder of the day. The weather was another reason, I preferred to stay indoors.
The first morning in Trivandrum was a lazy one. I woke up late and had a heavy breakfast. As I was chatting with my Aunt, I heard the calls of a bird. The calls aroused my curiosity and I went to the door to check. It was an Oriental Magpie Robin (OMR). It sat on the road near the gate. Even though the Oriental Magpie Robin is a commonly sighted bird, I could not resist the temptation to photograph it, one more time. I rushed back, into the house, to get my camera.
When I returned, the OMR was no longer near the gate. I managed to sight it on a mango tree in the opposite compound. I clicked a few photographs before it flew out of sight behind some leaves. Then, from the corner of the eye, I noticed some movement, on a branch higher up on the tree. When the bird finally came into view, I was stunned, shocked, amazed… etc. all at once.
|Let the birding begin: Oriental Magpie Robin|
It was a male Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white morph)!!! This bird, especially the male, is very shy and elusive. I had managed to photograph this bird for the first time in Parambikulam, the previous week, after 2 years of missed opportunities. And now, to sight it in Trivandrum, from the comfort of the home, was beyond belief.
|Elusive Beauty: Asian Paradise Flycatcher (male)|
I gathered my wits and started photographing the beautiful bird with the long tail feathers and streamers. The bird remained in sight for several minutes until it finally disappeared.
The Asian Paradise Flycatcher sighting got me thinking that,
1. Today could be my lucky day and
2. If I was patient and watchful, I could actually be birding from home
I plonked myself firmly on a chair next to the first-floor window and started to keep watch. Very soon a Black Kite appeared and perched itself on a coconut tree nearby. It spent a considerable amount of time surveying the surrounding area, presumably for food.
|Flight check: Black Kite|
|Take-off: Black Kite|
Straight ahead, a few metres away, stood a Papaya tree. The tree bore a few ripe papayas and several unripe ones. The ripe papayas could potentially attract birds towards it. Therefore I kept a close watch on it. And I was duly rewarded for my close watch.
An Asian Koel (female) perched itself on the tree and started feeding itself on the papaya. The bird was partially hidden by the leaves. But the white and buff spots, on the brown bird, was distinctive and helped in the identification. After the Koel left, a White-cheeked Barbet appeared and started to have it’s fill of the ripe papaya. After the Barbet, came the turn of the Lesser Flameback Woodpecker. Soon, the Woodpecker was joined by a Rufous Treepie as they jointly worked on the papaya. After a short while, the birds left and the papaya tree was deserted.
|Asian Koel (female)|
|Papaya flavours: White-cheeked Barbet|
|Lesser Flameback Woodpecker and Rufous Treepie|
I turned my attention to a coconut tree nearby. On the topmost leaf were perched four Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. This was my first ever sighting of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. The Bee-eaters were very active as they hunted for food.
|Bees, Butterflies and Dragonflies on the menu: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters|
A unique characteristic of bee-eater behavior is that, while hunting, they return to the exact spot from where they take off. This behavior makes the task of photographing these birds, in flight, just a bit easier. One needs to focus on the spot from where they take-off and start clicking when they return back to the exact same spot.
|Synchronized gazing: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters|
I observed the fascinating behavior of the richly coloured birds for a very long time. The birds were very successful in their hunting and returned with butterflies, dragonflies and bees. Capturing their in-flight photographs was a thrilling challenge and kept me busy the entire afternoon.
|Rich Colours and Spread wings: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters|
Late afternoon, I climbed onto the terrace in the hope of spotting more birds. I could do no wrong that day!! First up, came a Common Myna, followed by a Purple-rumped Sunbird and finally a Common Tailorbird. The Sunbird and Tailorbird were very active as they hopped around and photographing them was a herculean task.
Soon, I returned to the first-floor window and saw a new visitor on the papaya tree. It was a fruit bat a.k.a. flying fox (because of their resemblance to foxes). The bat hung upside down and feasted on the papaya. Unlike the birds, which took small bites out of the papaya, the bat took out big chunks of the fruit. The bat stayed for an hour and completely finished off the fruit.
|Lip-smacking yummy: Fruit Bat|
The light was fading fast and I called it a day. It had been an unexpected but thrilling day, without doubt. The Asian Paradise Flycatcher sighting had been the highlight of the day.
The next day morning, I woke up much earlier and took my spot by the window. The bird sightings started with the Black Kite and Lesser Flameback Woodpecker. They were much closer than the previous day. This was followed by the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and then a Red-whiskered Bulbul.
|Lesser Flameback Woodpecker|
The bird sightings were not as frequent as the previous day. Therefore, in the afternoon, I climbed onto the terrace, which turned out to be a good move. All the action that day appeared to be happening in the high skies. Hovering around were black kites, occasionally chased by crows and sometimes chasing away the crows themselves. There were a couple of black kites having a go at each other.
|Air wars: Black Kites|
|The Chase and Retreat: Black Kite vs House Crow|
Higher up, I could sight a couple of raptors as they soared in the skies. The raptors were too high, as a result of which I could not identify them easily. My best guess is that, one was a Brahminy Kite and the other was a Common Buzzard.
Closer to the ground, perched on a tree-top was a Loten’s Sunbird. It was a fair distance away but the long curved beak was unmistakable. Thereafter, a Southern Coucal and a Black Drongo appeared and disappeared just as fast. Though I was able to photograph the Southern Coucal, the Black Drongo flew away before I could get a photograph.
In the late evening, the bird sightings increased slightly. A Black-headed Golden Oriole and a couple of Cormorants flew past. They were out of sight before I could click any photographs. A few Rock Pigeons perched themselves on a roof nearby, in order to quench their thirst. On another roof was a trio of Common Mynas as they chattered away excitedly.
The sun was setting fast and I returned to my spot by the window. The last bird sighting was a White-throated Kingfisher. Coincidentally, it was perched on the same mango tree from where the bird sightings had all started, the previous day. An apt location for the final bird sighting.
The past two days had been a most thrilling experience. To sight so many birds when least expected, that too in a city, from the comfort of a home, was an unbelievable bonus. It felt like being in a sanctuary in the middle of a city!.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
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.
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.
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.
|Common Indian Nightjar|
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)|
|Common Bath: Orange-headed Thrush and Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher (female)|
The last bird to appear at the waterhole was an Indian Blue Robin. My first ever sighting of this beautiful bird!
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.
|Indian Blue Robin|
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.
The Dollarbird is so called because of the distinctive blue coin-shaped spots on its wings. (Source: Wikipedia)
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|
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.
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.
|Scenic Reflections: Thattekad Landscape|
|Malabar Giant Squirrel|
|Sri Lankan Frogmouth (female)|
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|
|The Take-off : Malabar Grey Hornbill|
|Colourful beauty: Malabar Trogon (male)|
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.
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|
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)|
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
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.
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.
|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|
|Green Imperial Pigeon|
|Oriental Honey Buzzard|
|All Beak and Claws: Black-naped Monarch Flycatchers|
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.
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.
|Pecking away: Streak-throated Woodpecker|
|Trail and not Trial|
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|
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.
I was thrilled to bits with this
sighting. The day was getting better and better by the hour!
|Rarest of the rare: Chestnut-winged Cuckoo|
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|
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|
|All Hearts: Heart-shaped Woodpecker|
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|
10th February 2015
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.
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.
|Clockwise from top-left: White-cheeked Barbet, Indian Golden Oriole (female), Malabar Starling and Grey Jungle Fowl|
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)|
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.
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.
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|
|Clockwise from top-left: Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Common Myna and Shikra|
|Clockwise from top-left: Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Brahminy Kite, Brown-faced Gulls and River Tern|
|At Peace with nature|
|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.
It had been a dream trip and I
was very sure that I would have many more such trips here!