Southern India: Western Ghats Trip Report, March 2018

 DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT

07 – 12 MARCH 2018

By Jason Boyce

Overview

The western Ghats in the state of Kerala is one of those well-known birding destinations in India that has a lot to offer and is well worth a visit, having a warm tropical climate that is home to many endemic species. The state is a popular tourist destination and has many attractions. One of the main attractions are the beautiful hillsides of Munnar, covered with tea plantations; this area has over 2000 hotels, many overlooking the picturesque scenery.
This tour was a shortened version of the full Birding Tour India: The South – Western Ghats and Nilgiri Endemics that we offer, but we only visited two main sites, those of Munnar and Thattekad. We did well to record 154 species in the five full days of birding that we had, and this list contains a high percentage of the endemic species and localized winter visitors. Specials that we enjoyed included the likes of Indian Pitta, White-bellied and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Malabar Trogon, Malabar Barbet, Sri Lankan Frogmouth, Black Baza, Mottled Wood Owl, Great Eared Nightjar, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Palani Laughingthrush, White-bellied Blue Robin, Black-and-orange Flycatcher, and many more!

Day 1, 7 March 2018. Arrival and birding in Munnar
We departed Delhi early in the morning to catch our flight to Cochin. We arrived safely around lunch time and grabbed a southern-Indian-style meal on the way to Munnar. Fueled-up and ready to go we made sure that we did some birding along the way. The first endemic species that we picked up was Blue-winged (Malabar) Parakeet, which was feeding on a roadside fruiting tree. Soon to follow were the likes of Crimson-backed Sunbird, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, White-cheeked and Malabar Barbets, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Asian Fairy-bluebird, a family of Rufous Babblers, Southern Hill Myna, and even more White-cheeked Barbets. The latter, we soon realized, was one of the most common species in this part of India. We didn’t have too much time left before dark, but we did manage to squeeze in a really nice sighting of the endemic Palani (Kerala) Laughingthrush! Two birds were hopping around the base of the dense foliage alongside the road to the lodge; occasionally they would come out for a few seconds for some good views. To add to the excitement of the laughingthrushes were a couple of Indian Swiftlets flying into a nearby cave to roost. We arrived at the lodge in Munnar and were incredibly excited to see what tomorrow would have in store.

Day 2, 8 March 2018. Full day birding at Munnar
Today would be the first full day we would have in southern India, a day we were greatly looking forward to. The climate in the state of Kerala is mostly tropical and very humid, and much of the vegetation was very much like other tropical Asian destinations, with many palms and broad-leafed trees in the lower altitudes. Munnar, however, is almost one mile above sea level and is slightly cooler, with different, fine-leaved vegetation. Our first few species this morning included a couple of vocal Malabar Whistling Thrushes, a single male Grey Junglefowl, and a dapper-looking pair of Indian Scimitar Babblers hopping around in a flowering bush. A juvenile Crested Goshawk was also nearby, being mobbed by a few Indian Jungle Crows. All this was happening while we were waiting for White-bellied Blue Robin to appear. The robin did eventually show quite well after ten minutes of skulking around in the low scrub. Other interesting birds that morning were Jungle Myna, Hill Swallow, Shikra, Blue-winged Parakeet, and Brahminy Kite. On the mammal front, Malabar Giant Squirrel was an awesome distraction from the birds – a very large squirrel as the name suggests, and one with a lot of character. Black-and-orange Flycatcher was also truly interesting; both male and female birds showed nicely. We tracked back to the lodge for a typical Kerala-style lunch, and thereafter we did some birding around the lodge grounds. We encountered Indian Blue Robin (previously thought to be in the same genus as the nightingales and rubythroats), Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and Blue-capped Rock Thrush, all of which were showing at close quarters. Then we headed out again through some of the scenic scenery of tea plantations and rocky hillsides that in the right time of year (December to January) are good to see the Endangered (IUCN) Nilgiri Tahr. Nilgiri Wood Pigeon inhabits the woody patches in Munnar at around 1500m above sea level. We spent some time looking for it, and at about 17:00, when things were cooling off, we picked up a bird that came into a nearby fruiting tree. Other species in this area were also enjoyable; these included the likes of Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Red Spurfowl, Yellow-browed Greenbul, Oriental White-eye, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and White-cheeked and Malabar Barbets, as well as Black-rumped Flameback. We called it a day and looked forward to tomorrow’s birding.

Day 3, 9 March 2018. Munnar to Thattekad
Well, today was a truly cracking day (as South African birders would say). We started with some birding around the lodge in Munnar and then made our way to the well-known Western Ghats birding location of Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. The morning session was fairly slow, but it did have one or two surprises and was definitely enjoyable. Nilgiri Pipit was the only endemic proving to be tough to find, so we gave it one last try at another site, but unfortunately, because of fires at this time of year in the grassy hillsides, the bird was nowhere to be found. We did, however, have a super-enjoyable walk up the hillside – on the way up we spotted a pair of Painted Bush Quail, which paused to give some nice looks. Other species in the area here included Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Loten’s and Purple Sunbirds, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Vernal Hanging Parrot, a lovely pair of Bonelli’s Eagles, Square-tailed Bulbul, and Blue-capped Rock Thrush. A few Brown-cheeked Fulvettas were also a welcome addition. Once we arrived in Thattekad we checked into our accommodation and then made our way out for an afternoon birding session. There was some excitement, though, just as we were going to leave: Heart-spotted Woodpecker! I spotted a male bird land in the tree in front of us, and we had great views for quite some time. What a strange but spectacular bird! Being the wintering grounds for many species, the dense woodlands of Thattekad’s lowlands hold a few gems, but none more spectacular than Indian Pitta. We knew they were in the area where we were birding this afternoon, but we feared that they had already started moving back north to breed. Amazingly, though, we were in luck and picked one up calling nearby – not too much time passed and we had some visuals. A pitta is a phenomenal bird in any country at any time, and we thoroughly enjoyed this bird; it was definitely one of the highlights for the group. We also picked up many other great species in the same patch: Common Flameback, Blue-faced Malkoha, Green Imperial Pigeon, Greater Racket-tailed, Bronzed, and Ashy Drongos, Malabar Grey Hornbill, and Common Hawk-Cuckoo. With dusk upon us we moved to a known location for another star bird, the massive Great Eared Nightjar. The nightjar is erratic, but this evening we were in the right place at the right time and had superb flight visuals of a bird calling over a small wetland. We were also treated to a pair of Indian Scops Owls that came right in above our heads as we were enjoying a freshly-made cup of tea.

Day 4, 10 March 2018. Thattekad
Well, this morning would turn out to be one of the best of the tour, a full morning in the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Thattekad, literally meaning “flat forest”, was described by Salim Ali, the famous Indian ornithologist, as the richest bird habitat on peninsular India. The beautiful mixed woodland patch that we birded was fairly small but was still good for 65 species in five hours of birding. We started really early and before sunrise picked up some Ashy Woodswallows on the bridge near the entrance to the reserve, and Orange Minivet and Green Imperial Pigeon were also spotted before we arrived at the hotspot for the morning. One of the biggest woodpeckers in the world, White-bellied Woodpecker, had a territory in the sanctuary, and we heard a pair calling on the ridge line. We managed some good scope views as they moved along the rocky ridge line from tree to tree, drumming (it sounding a bit like a jack-hammer at a construction site!). The area was alive with activity, and many bird parties were active, including Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Blythe’s Starling, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Malabar Woodshrike, Asian Fairy-bluebird, and Crimson-backed and Purple Sunbirds, and the roller-like Oriental Dollarbird was super enjoyable. A Malabar Grey Hornbill was moving back and forth to and from an active nest site, bringing food for its young. We occasionally heard the call of Malabar Trogon in some of the thicker habitat in the sanctuary but didn’t manage to get any visuals in the first couple of hours. Instead we went past a known site for Sri Lanka Frogmouth, where a pair was roosting about ten feet off the ground ̶ a real treat for the group. We had a few more sightings of White-bellied Woodpecker, Flame-throated Bulbul, and a pair of Heart-Spotted Woodpeckers digging a few grubs out of the bark of trees; they all were really great. Later that morning we did enjoy Malabar Trogon; however, we only managed to find a couple of female birds and knew that seeing the male would really make our day. Another sighting of Indian Pitta was not to be sniffed at; in fact this surprise sighting was potentially better than the first sighting that we really had to work to get it into the open. Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and both Indian Golden and Black-naped Orioles were enjoyable additions.

One of the group’s big targets was the diminutive raptor, Black Baza. So we headed out that afternoon with this being our main target. Our local guide had superb site knowledge and took us to a spot where they can be seen flying by in the late afternoon. Incredibly, we didn’t just have one or two but not less than five Black Baza fly by, with two of the birds perching atop the tall trees in front of us. Truly a top sighting – high fives all around! Other species that were worthy of being mentioned in the same light as the baza were Blue-tailed Bee-eater, a pair of Rufous Woodpeckers, and a beautiful male Purple-rumped Sunbird. We stayed out once again into dusk to try for some nightjars and owls. Whiskered and River Terns were both performing at a nearby river, while Dusky Crag Martin and Little Swift flew around overhead. We were rewarded richly just as dusk hit when a Mottled Wood Owl flew from a large dead tree behind us and then perched for us to get a good view. We even managed to scope it and see the mottled plumage before it flew away into the dark skies. Jerdon’s Nightjar proved tough once again, but a single bird did eventually respond to the call, and we had brief views. Then we called it a night and settled in with an excellent meal and enough time to go through our impressive list for the day.

Day 5, 11 March 2018. Thattekad
Having previously only heard the Banded Bay Cuckoo we were on the lookout for it and soon were successful in getting some good scope views of this fairly elusive cuckoo. We also did well this morning to add the likes of Red Spurfowl, better looks at Grey Junglefowl, Chestnut-tailed Starling, and finally a male Malabar Trogon! Seeing a male trogon with its incredible crimson underside really does make the species come alive in the dark, green surroundings.

A species that some members of the group were really hoping to see was a member of the Nectariniidae (sunbird) family, Little Spiderhunter. We were fortunate to hear one muttering away in the canopy of some lower foliage and managed to have nice views of this hyperactive species. The state of Kerala is also home to many other interesting fauna. One particularly interesting species in the Thattekad area is the Southern Flying Lizard (Draco dussumieri); this interesting reptile has flaps of skin alongside its body that it can spread out to use to glide between trees. Some of us were fortunate enough to catch this movement and see them glide between trees, quite a strange sight! Another great sighting, even though they are common in many parts of Asia, was seeing both the rufous and the white morph of Asian Paradise Flycatcher – it is truly remarkable how some of the most common birds of a region can be the most spectacular! The region was also “full up” with many beautiful butterfly species, some many times the size of the diminutive Crimson-backed Sunbird cruising around the flowering trees. We gave Sri Lanka Bay Owl our best go this evening as well, but due to the fact that they are breeding at this time of year we struggled and weren’t able to pick it up. After a great day we called it a night.

Day 6, 12 March 2018. Final birding and departure
This was our final morning in Kerala, and fittingly we headed back to one of the hotspots near Thattekad to try and find a few of the trickier birds that we had missed up to this point. We had a slow morning and could not locate the likes of Rufous-winged Cuckoo, Sri Lanka Bay Owl, and Brown Wood Owl. But we did pick up Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, which was new for our list, and Flame-throated Bulbul, Lesser Yellownape, Vernal Hanging Parrot, and Malabar Grey Hornbill once again. The roadside marshlands on our drive to the airport provided us with Grey-headed Swamphen, Black-headed Ibis, Wood Sandpiper, and many Indian Pond Herons, while one of the towns we passed through delivered a pale-form Crested Honey Buzzard.

Our time in India had come to an end, but there were no complaints, as together with our preceding tour to northern India we had recorded well over 450 species and visited some really amazing places. The south-India extension to our northern trip was an exciting tour, and it really goes to show how diverse the birding in India is.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.