Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Thattekad Diaries

Thattekad, located 65 kilometers from Kochi, Kerala is a bird sanctuary which is home to over 300 species of birds. It is part of the Western Ghats belt. The Periyar river, a major water source for Kerala, flows through it. We spent three days there this summer. 

We were on our way to Thattekad from Kidangoor, Kerala. We passed by the traditional Kerala houses, some of them majestic in grandeur and some of them the small hut like tenements with hens and goats sharing the front yard. The majority of them had tiled roofs, typical of Kerala.

We stopped at a Karthikeyan Temple a few minutes after we left.
My vision was turned towards the heavens already, looking out for birds. There was a Champaka tree in the temple premises by the side of a wide river. The water was green, the trees around it were green, the moss of the side walls were green and the grass that seems to cover everything was green. All different shades of green. Kerala greenery is markedly tropic. Any little sunny gap that is not constantly treaded on, starts sprouting green. I hope it stays like that for ever. 

Coming back to the Champaka tree that I was straining at, it was in full bloom. There was the raucous call of the treepie emerging from it. While I went closer to see, a majestic Asian Paradise Flycatcher flew out from it. It was a rufous morph female. The surprises the tree had to offer were not done. We saw Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Purple-Rumped sunbirds. A White-browed Wagtail was shaking its tail in the nearby temple roof along with it's relative the forest wagtail. There were rhythmic dance beats coming from inside the old temple building, may be a Kathakali class was in progress, and the wagtails seemed to be keeping in step. I was soaking in the scenery when an Oriental Magpie Robin tweeted nearby and provided the proverbial icing on the cake.

In spite of all urban development that is happening, man can stay with the birds around if we maintain a clean water source and a few trees. And may be an environment of prayer helps :)

Well, moving on, we piled our things into the Jungle Bird Homestay and stepped out as soon as we had the sugar sweet tea. We saw 3 Cotton Pygmy-Goose on the way side. We met Eldhose, our guide, at the gate of the sanctuary and he took us to a different part of Thattekad. Apparently, wild elephants are found inside the main sanctuary and it is completely off limits. Eldhose is a soft spoken guide, residing in Thattekad. He was birding since his seventh grade in the same area. His first binoculars was gifted to him to by Sir David Attenborough during the late nineties. So until then, he had been birding with no visual aids and this has made him an expert on bird calls. I was excited. This is an area I need to work on.

We were on our walk. A raptor flying overhead for a brief second before disappearing behind a tree was identified as Rufous-bellied Eagle; the first lifer for me this trip. There was a harsh noise coming from a tree hanging above a shed; we inspected this and saw a pair of Heart-spotted Woodpeckers! A Common Iora was heard but despite our best efforts to locate it, it remained out of sight. Eldhose located three roosting Brown Hawk-Owls on a tree. (We saw these three many times roosted in the same tree).

We were walking through Teak wood forests and we found the leaves at the top eaten so much by moth caterpillars, that the tree leaves looked like sieves. The whole ground was covered with small round black caterpillar droppings. And we would suddenly find a black caterpillar straight at out eye level, seemingly hanging in mid air. They were of course the ones that have slipped from the tall teak trees and caught in the spider webs on the way down. These caterpillars could be the sustenance of so many birds in the area.

Down below, the earth had been well tilled by earth worms. I could not believe the size of some of the mounds of wet earth left by the worm. They were almost three inches high, and I had to knock down a mound, see the worm to actually believe that this is left by good old common earth worms.

I did not worry much when a few drops of rain hit the ground in the afternoon. But soon, the little drizzle became a torrential rain. We were supposed to meet Eldhose at three, and when the rain stopped, we were ready. All of a sudden, the rain started again and we were forced to wait till 4 before we went out to bird. In the pause between the two downpours, we could see the winged ants emerging from the crevices of the tiled roofs of the next door house. Many of these were getting caught by deft Loten's and Purple-rumped Sunbirds. We could see a few Lesser Whistling Ducks flying about, unperturbed by the strength of the downpour. 

When we eventually started out on the walk, Eldhose took us outside the sanctuary. There was a bridge across the Periyar River outside, and we saw around 20 Whiskered Terns sitting on a wire.

On a bare tree on the other side of the river, we saw 3 Ashy Woodswallows, one eating a butterfly after disposing the wings. We went the other way, where there were some water bodies with lilies.We saw a Common Kingfisher, 2 White-browed Wagtails and a Darter on the branches of a tree in the water. The next water body had a surprise; a Stork-billed Kingfisher had got caught in a net and one of the forest officials had come to free it. When it was freed, it flew right past us. 

After walking a little more, we had reached our destination; the Salim Ali Bird Trail. As we walked down it, we saw many birds; Jungle Babblers, Hill Myna, Oriental Magpie Robins, White-cheeked Barbets. Even an Orange-headed Thrush darted across us. We reached a watchtower, but couldn't go to the forest beyond that because the area had become waterlogged. We turned back, to see Lesser Whistling Ducks, Asian Palm Swift, Indian Swiftlet, Greater Flameback and Common Tailorbird. 

We returned back and at around 6:30 PM, we went to one of the water bodies with Gireesh, the homestay's owner to look for the rare Great Eared Nightjar. We saw a Cinnamon Bittern and a Dollarbird, but no nightjar, probably because of the rain. 

The second day started early at 6:15 AM. We got into Eldhose's jeep at the gate and he drove us to a rocky area, where we saw four Red-wattled Lapwings, and a Mottled Wood Owl being mobbed by Drongos. One of the Lapwings had built a nest on the ground, and it had four eggs in it. The eggs were creamy-white with black speckles. One of the eggs had a red patch on it. We tried to see if the remaining eggs had the same patch, but it was not there on the exposed surface. We definitely did not want to risk touching the eggs. Some boys playing in the area seemed to have noticed the nest before us and had surrounded it with rocks and pebbles. 

Large group of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters was our next good sighting. We reached a forest trail and we started birding there. Hawk-cuckoos called incessantly, their raucous calls filling the air. We saw Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Crested Treeswift, even 4 Rufous Woodpeckers! A solitary bird on a dead tree was Jungle Owlet, and a bird on a faraway tree was a Streak-throated Woodpecker.We saw Pompadour Green Pigeons, and soon, we reached a water body where we saw 2 Striated Herons flying past. 

Eldhose told us that David Attenborough's Life of Birds had been shot here, and they looked for Rufous Woodpeckers' nests to film. Eldhose helped them, and Attenborough rewarded him with his first binoculars.

We saw our only Shikra of the trip on the way back.

Eldhose has a feeding arrangement for the birds, and we returned to the area of the lapwing nest in time for it. Grated coconut, jaggery, rice and bananas were put out, and the birds just came. 

22 Grey Junglefowl, 
mainly female, appeared hesitantly at first and confidently as domestic fowls soon.

Black-throated Munia sat in an orderly line on a bamboo pole and pecked rapidly at Ragi seeds.

 Rufous Treepie, White-cheeked Barbet and Jungle Babblers went for the fruits. The treepies, in fact, were in such a rush that they knocked down the feeder.

Spotted Doves and grey jungle fowls ate the rice. I do not know if human interference is a good thing in this aspect; however I am happy that in the dry season of summer the birds are able to support themselves and thrive - as evinced in the feeding grounds.

After clicking plenty of photos, we left back to the homestay.


The birding of the day was far from over. My best was yet to come. We left again at 3:00 to a forest 14 km away, hoping to see the Ceylon Frogmouth, which I describe as 'The Phantom Of Thattekad' due to its elusiveness and camouflage, even if spotted at close range. Eldhose parked the jeep at the entrance.

At first, no luck was on our side; Eldhose tried a dozen different roosts without luck. We saw Grey-headed Bulbuls, but no luck with the Frogmouth. When I was pretty much giving up hope,  Eldhose tried a new roost, and we were successful, with a male and female. Even with the bird right in front of us, we lost sight of it sometimes. The male was grey, the female was a slightly warmer brown, which makes them look exactly like dead leaves in a tree. It was a bird which I had never thought I would see in daylight, and there it was at a height I could reach, motionless, unblinking, trying it's best to make itself blend. The sighting will stay with me for long. Thank you, Eldhose sir!

On the walk back to the jeep, we saw a dung beetle trying to roll up some fresh cow droppings. It sensed our move and immediately flipped over and acted dead. In a patience competition, we miserably failed, the dung beetle continuing its act, while we had to move on. 

Eldhose was explaining to us about the importance of the Ficus in the ecological balance of the forest. It seems that most trees in the forest bear fruit only during the right season for that species. At the same time, the Ficus (fig) tree can be found with fruits at odd seasons too. One year in July, the next year in October, then maybe even as late as February. So, when birds need a source of food when most trees are bare, they can always rely on the Ficus The Ficus is immune to lightning strikes, amazingly! 

In a last attempt to get the remaining target species, Wynaad Laughingthrush and Great Hornbill, we decided to try Idamalayar Reserve Forest. On the way, we crossed Bhoothanthankettu, said to have been built by ghosts (Bhoothathan). There, we saw a single Asian Openbill, River Tern, and around 200 Brown-backed Needletails.  We tried a patch of forest nearby before going to Idamalayar, and got Green Imperial Pigeon, Dollarbird, and plenty of Racket-tailed Drongos. Idamalayar gave us White Rumped Needletail, a lifer for me. We heard Malabar Whistling Thrush, Rufous Babbler and Malabar Grey Hornbill. The nesting season of the Hornbills were on, and Eldhose said sightings are better around December. 

We were stopped by news of wild noisy elephants at the turn of the road. My mom started out towards the jeep as soon as she heard, displaying the same behavior to her offspring as the jungle animals do. Trying to herd us away from potential danger :) She was taking no chances even with an expert guide beside us.

We went the rest of the sight seeing on jeep. We got a clear sighting of oriental Honey Buzzard. A family of Emerald Doves decided to block our way, pecking away peacefully in the middle of the road. We were only too delighted to stop and watch. 

At 6:30, we tried for Great Eared Nightjar, but ended up with Jerdon's Nightjar instead. We returned to the homestay, tired. 

The next morning, my dad and I went to bird on the same trail as on the first day. We were welcomed by a noisy group; a Malabar Giant Squirrel, along with a few Hill Mynas. We didn't see too many species; we saw Common Kingfisher, Indian Cuckoo, and the last lifer of the trip; Orange-breasted Green Pigeon. 

It had been some incredible birding at Thattekad over the past 2 days; we had seen 113 species, 25 of them being lifers for me. I hope to return back there some day.

You can see the complete bird list at 



  1. great post and pictures, Girish! Brought back nice memories! Thanks. Do keep the documentation, it's not easy to do when you are back home and the pressures of school and daily life are upon you!

    De Ponti.

  2. Great Job identifying the birds...Really informative!!
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    I'll tell my buddies to check this cool blog out!
    -Sreyes Srinivasan, NPS HSR

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