A birding trip to Thattekad

When I started bird watching as a hobby back in 2017, my primary source of information and motivation was the many Facebook groups. Our country has a wide variety of beautiful species and seeing all those pictures from different parts of the country was truly inspiring. However, one particular species grabbed my attention — The Sri Lankan Frog mouth. These peculiar looking birds were unlike the other birds I had seen (which were only a handful). And what was more interesting was that they had taken all those pictures from “Thattekad” which was hardly a 2hr drive from my hometown in Kottayam.

Thattekad was the place to have the very first bird sanctuary in Kerala. They named this after the famous Indian ornithologist Dr Salim Ali. It is said that Dr Salim Ali while doing his bird surveys, was impressed by the number of species found in the area. The evergreen forests and the Periyar river flowing through the region makes it not only a birders’ paradise but is also proof why Kerala is God’s own country.

My first visit to Thattekad was in the summer of 2017 during the festival of Thrissur Pooram. I thought I could just casually drop by see the Frog mouths and come back. If birding was that simple, I don’t think I would have held on to this hobby for long. That day I learned, that bird watching was not just about creating a list of birds or having the perfect shots. It was more about understanding bird behavior, understanding why birds are found in certain habitats and when they can be found.

My plans for a second visit to Thattekad kept getting pushed around. We initially made a plan in mid-February, but because of some unforeseen circumstances, I had to cancel the trip at the last minute. But then one fine day in March, it dawned upon me that If I miss this year’s season, it might be a long time till I will make another plan. Right now I was in a perfect spot. I was at my home in Kottayam, thanks to the work-from-home situation caused by the Covid-19.

It was just a two-hour drive and all I would need is a weekend. So I called Mr Gireesh (who now I fondly call Gireesh chettan), made a reservation at Jungle Bird. I found Gireesh chettan’s number via one of my Bangalore birding groups. Several people spoke high about ‘Jungle Bird’ and about Gireesh chettan and Sudha amma (Mr Gireesh’s mother).

So on March 20th around 11 AM I set foot on the sacred grounds of Thattekad. Like every other techie, I always rely on Google Maps to reach a place. I am really shy to ask for directions. But the map was showing me to drive right into the Salim Ali Bird Park, though I had specifically mentioned my destination as ‘Jungle Bird’ homestay. I was right at the gates of the park. I guess the security at the gate saw me struggling with the maps. Furthermore, I apologetically looked at him and told him that looks like I lost my way and that I was headed for Jungle Bird. The guard just smiled and said, that the map is correct and the homestay is indeed inside the sanctuary itself. I had the ‘Man mein ladoo phoota‘ moment there. I was going to stay inside the very first Bird sanctuary that was built in Kerala.

I had reached just in time, Sudhamma and another guest staying at Jungle bird were heading out for a mid-day bird walk. Sudhamma asked me whether I wanted to drop my bags in my room. I was just too excited that by the time she finished her question, I was ready with my gear all set for a walk. I would have plenty of time to see my room and drop the bags later.

Thattekad was also no different from other tourist spots. There were clusters of people taking selfies. One guy even came up to me to ask if he could take a photo of my Camera+Lens. Anyway, one such group was blocking our way. Now every other place I have been, the guide that accompanies us would have made a condescending remark to us about ‘these tourist people’ destroying the sanctity of the sanctuary, but I did notice that Sudhamma was different she politely waited for the group to finish their selfies. As soon as this group moved away, we heard the calls of the heart spotted woodpeckers from somewhere above our head. The bamboo thickets were too dense that I missed a clear view of the bird. This was followed by a paradise flycatcher and then the calls of the common hawk cuckoo or the brain-fever bird. We walked past the entry gate, towards the jungle trail that was actually outside the bird park and had a separate entry.

Heart Spotted Woodpecker

As we stepped out, Sudhamma exchanged pleasantries with the guards and there again were the Heart Spotted woodpeckers, this time a pair. This was the first of the many lifers I was going to see in Thattekad (for my readers not familiar with bird watching jargon, a ‘lifer’ is a when we see and identify a species for the very first time’)

The sun was hot the initial excitement had died out and now the walk lugging around with 4 kg equipment did not make things easy. The ground was full of funnel-web spider webs. Sudhamma tried to make the walk a bit more interesting by sharing her experiences in these jungles and her recent encounters with wild elephants. This for a moment took me to my encounters with the Tigers of Thirunelli. As I was reminiscing those old memories, Sudhamma heard the calls of The White Bellied Treepies, the next lifer for me.

These birds are endemic to the forests of South India. Their cousins, rufous treepies are quite common in many places. But the white bellied treepies are more elegant to see.

White Bellied treepie

After having seen two lifers that too during an odd timing, when no one usually goes for birding I was content, we decided to head back for lunch, By then Gireesh chettan would be back, and we needed to get ready for the evening trek.

I finally checked into my room, a clean and well-maintained room. Looks like they recently expanded the premises to accommodate more guests, but now since we were nearing the end of the season and due to the pandemic, their rooms were empty. We had a chat during lunch and Sudhamma asked about my family and other such pleasantries.

After lunch, I went back to my room when it suddenly started raining heavily. The rains were a relief as the temperatures were going high, however, it did put our evening trek at risk. The rains brought an Asian brown flycatcher right outside my window, I was busy watching the bird and planning my shots. I was sure that my model would not move for some time due to the rains, but I was also limited in the angles that I could get.

By 5 PM the skies had cleared again and under the guidance of Gireesh chettan, we drove to a spot around 8 km from the homestay. Some labor workers were busy drying and packing ginger. Every year, they bring harvested ginger to dry it up in this open land and then take it back. The problem though is that the folks who do this work cause a lot of disturbance to the birdlife in the area.

We walked into the bushes, the skies had turned into a beautiful shade of orangish-red. Gireesh chettan was busy listening to see if there were any interesting calls. He told me that this is a hot spot for Indian Pitta. Another beautiful but elusive bird, which I had tried tracking several times at Valley School in Bangalore. We heard several pitta calls from the bushes but unfortunately, none of them came outside, finally thanks to Gireesh chettan I got the third lifer for the day, the Indian pitta. It had already turned dark, and I had given up any hope of a photo. All I was interested in was to see the bird. In that dense bush, I saw a small bird I could see it just enough to make out that it was the Indian pitta but not enough to enjoy all its colours. The Indian Pitta is known as ‘Navrang’ in Hindi which means 9 colours. In that dim light, I would have seen just the green shade.

But by this time the nightjars were in full action. I first thought I was watching the pigeons fly by but from the calls it was quite clear that we were looking at nightjars. These birds are most active during the dawn and dusk and are experts in camouflage. So seeing 3 or 4 nightjars flying around like pigeons was an altogether different experience.

Although I had asked him to show me just the frogmouth, Gireesh chettan had his checklist, and soon he said we will move on to another spot, where we might see the spot bellied eagle owl. Mr Satheesh who was also a local guide had joined us there. The time was around 8 PM, and it was pitch dark, we waited under a tree for almost an hour, with no luck. Gireesh chettan was quite disappointed when we retired for the day.

On the second day early morning we headed to the Urulanthanni forest range. There is a rocky hill that is a hotspot for birds. Gireesh chettan said that during peak season that hill will be full of both birders and birds. Our sightings started with the Southern hill mynas, just like their noisy cousins the common mynas these guys came in a group made some ruckus and then flew away.

We meet Mr Satheesh from the previous night who had joined us with another guest. Soon Gireesh chettan heard the call of the Malabar Trogon. For the last 4 years, I had seen this bird on the front cover of my birding guide (Birds of India by Bikram Grewal). Gireesh chettan was supercharged and excited he was running towards the direction from where we heard the call. When we reached the edge of the cliff, on a faraway branch we saw a male Malabar trogon, looking back at us and then within a few minutes it flew down.

Mr Satheesh and Gireesh chettan were running downhill and based on the calls they tracked the bird. I was quite impressed at the dedication with which these two guys were tracking birds. If I was alone I would have dropped the chase the moment I saw it flying into the jungle and that too down the hill. I could notice the change in Gireesh chettan’s mood he was more optimistic now. In between, I kept reminding him about the frogmouth.

In the next one hour we say the golden fronted leaf bird, crimson backed sunbirds, the white bellied woodpecker, brown capped pygmy woodpeckers, flame throated bulbuls, plum headed parakeets and several other species.

Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Brown Capped Pygmy woodpecker
Plum Headed Parakeet
Plum Headed Parakeet

We then went to a spot where under a tree with some dried up leaves, a cute pair of Sri Lankan Frogmouths were sitting peacefully. Being nocturnal birds they were asleep when we visited them. They were so well camouflaged that if you took your eye off them even for a few seconds you would struggle a bit to spot them again. I was so thrilled and was ready to pack up when Gireesh chettan said that there is one more surprise that he had for us. We then walked across the road to the other side of the forest and there on top of a tree we saw the Sri Lankan Bay owl. I did not realize the importance of what I had seen until I came back and checked Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Krys Kazmierczak. The distribution maps on these field guild show coloured patches for each bird on the Indian map but for the Sri Lankan Bay Owl, it only showed one or two dots here and there.

Sri Lankan Bay Owl
Sri Lankan Bay Owl
Ceylon Frog Mouth
Sri Lankan Frogmouths

For any non-birder this blog post might seem a bit boring and long, but as a birder, the excitement that I felt during the last 24 hours is at par with the tiger sightings I had at Wayanad.

I came here just to see the Sri Lankan Frogmouth, but within 24 hours I saw almost 9 lifers and almost 30 species. Now, this is in no way an impressive number for a place like Thattekad, but given the fact that I only had two treks and that too with cloudy and dark skies looming around, I would say that this is a pretty good start and enough motivation for me to keep coming here. Next time hopefully during the winter when the birds visit Thattekad.


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