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A Birding safari (with some extras) in the Western Ghats of Southern India


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Posted (edited)

This was our last morning at Kabini and unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit ill...just a bit on the queasy side, something I'd eaten at dinner perhaps. On top of that, there was dense fog again. So probably I should have just stayed and rested in the room, but no way was I going to take a chance that I'd miss a tiger--or a leopard! And, it was my birthday!


Well needless to say, I didn't enjoy that morning drive very much and once again it was very quiet safari. We did have one nice sighting...


...another group of about four Dhole, possibly it was the same group we'd seen previously.






The Dhole here seemed very skittish, much more so than we'd experienced in Tadoba or Pench (places we've seen them before.) As soon as they saw a vehicle they pretty much ran off into the woods. Which these did! But I was glad we got to see them again.


We did see a tiger paw print....




But no cat to go with it.


Those are the only photos I have for that morning. I still wasn't feeling too well so I think I went back to the room and rested while we waited for the next segment of our journey.


To sum up our time at Kabini...I'm glad we went once, but we would not return there again. IMHO it's certainly worth a few days if you are in the area but we just didn't find it worth going out of the way for. I know it's possible to have great tiger sightings there (see other reports!) but it was not only the lack of sightings but the other "cons" that frustrated us: the high camera fees, the small area to traverse, the very short safaris (also the odd timings...ending the safari at 9 a.m. meant ending while there was still great light, and not yet hot, so we always felt like we were returning just as possibilities got better), the impossibility of a private vehicle, and especially the crush in the shared vehicle.  The "pro" is the low density of vehicles/lack of crowds...well that's really the only "pro" I can think of, aside from our lovely resort.


Onwards to the Western Ghats! The remainder of the report will be mostly birds...oh, and quite a few squirrels. But there may be a short hiatus while I work on more photos.

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Posted (edited)

Re:  Kabini. You excelled at the birds.  That Malabar Trogan, wow.  Your sloth bear sighting is quite special with a mother and cub.  Nice dhole too.  We did not see sloth bear and only fleeting dhole, though Hari saw a pack the morning before we arrived.  And your leopard sightings were great.  We saw just one, sitting on the road. 


Looking forward to the next part of your trip.

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A bit of a geography lesson in preparation for the remainder of the report. As I mentioned, the Western Ghats is a mountain range that runs for about 1000 miles parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula, The area that birders are most interested in is known as the Nilgiri Mountains, which are located in a section of the Ghats where three Indian states meet: southern Karnataka, northwestern Tamil Nadu, and eastern Kerala. What makes the Nilgiris so special is the high number of endemic bird species—and several endemic or localized endemic mammal species as well. There are 29 endemic bird species here, and I think we saw most of them. You’ll see that several of the birds have "Nilgiri” in their name.


Another important word to know is shola. Sholas are the name for isolated patches of stunted tropical montane forest found in valleys amid rolling grassland in the higher montane regions of the Nilgiris. Many of the endemics are found only in these sholas and some mainly in very specific sholas.





There’s one very significant feature seen in this map. See that break between the Nilgiris and the South Western Ghats? That’s known as the Palghat Gap, a 40 km long pass between the two steep mountain ranges. It's significant because a few species of endemic birds have “speciated", or split, between the north and south side of this pass--the cannot fly between them. So very closely related, but different, species are found on both sides.


This page (its from a commercial tour company but it really provides the best, most concise info I’ve found) gives a bit more detail on the area, along with a list of the 29 endemics:  https://www.indiabirdwatching.com/guide-to-birding-in-western-ghats-of-india/


Kabini/Nagarhole, our first stop, was in the state of Karnataka, and now we would be heading to Tamil Nadu for the next several days of our trip. Our birding guide and driver picked us up at Evolve Back for the 3 hour drive to our next destination, Jungle Hut in Masinaguidi, which is adjacent to the Mudumulai Tiger Reserve. As soon as we met our birding guide, Anoop Jacob, we knew that we'd get along great. He's a young, energetic and modern birder, super fun and friendly and it didn't take us long to realize that he was an excellent birder as well, one of the best birding guides we've had and certainly the best we've had so far in India. He's a native of the area (Thattekad) and has been guiding for many of his young years.  (By modern I mean he uses eBird and judiciously uses recordings.) Additionally, we soon found out that our driver, Mohammad Shafi (called just Shafi) was absolutely by far the best driver we've had, anywhere. Not only did he expertly and safely handle the crazy mountain roads here (not for the faint-hearted), but he also was a good birder and spotter! Many times we'd be driving along at a good pace and Shafi would spot or even hear the wanted bird.  Turns out he and Anoop work together often and are friends so they are really a great team. I should add they both spoke great English and no problems with communication.


I don't believe we stopped for much during that drive. To tell the truth I was still not feeling 100% well and don't recall much about the drive itself. But as soon as we arrived and were checked in, another surprise awaited:




Yes, today actually was my birthday and Wild World India planned yet another cake! Unfortunately I didn't get to eat much of it due to my stomach issues, but Alan, Anoop, Shafi and some of the staff of Jungle Hut enjoyed it :)


We were supposed to do a bit of night birding that evening but decided to forgo that due to my continued queasiness, but Anoop assured us we would find all the same species elsewhere. So we just rested up in our very comfortable room as we had a full day birding the area the following day.



Edited by janzin
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The next morning we drove to the village where we had to be joined by a local guide (there were a few areas which required a local guide because they were technically within a national park or reserve boundary.) Although we weren't going into the core area of the Mudumulai Tiger Reserve, where private vehicles cannot go, we would be birding in the buffer areas. We switched into the local guides "vehicle", leaving Shafi behind to pick us up later. I put "vehicle" in quotes as I'm not exactly sure what to call it. It was a rickety, open backed jeep with parallel facing benches and quite uncomfortable but it did the job! You can partially see it in the image below, taken by Anoop. Anoop was always taking photos of us with his phone--and I'm glad he did as it gives some idea of surroundings and habitat. (He kindly gave me permission to use them in this report.)




You'll find out what bird we were shooting here later :)


We headed out into the reserve and one of the first things we found was this trio of Spotted Owlets. Always super cute!




We headed to what seemed to be a very deep quarry pit which had water at the bottom. We birded along the top road which surrounded the pit. In and around the pit were dozens of Woolley-necked Storks.







A female Indian Robin was gathering nesting material.




And I'm fairly certain this is a Booted Warbler. This group of warblers has several that look so similar, and hard to seperate from Syke's Warbler, which we also saw. But the behavior and habitat fit Booted best.




There were both Greater Spotted Eagle and Indian Spotted Eagle in the trees. I particularly love the perch in the flowering Red Silk Cotton tree.




I finally got a shot of an Indian Peafowl that I like! Ubiquitous everywhere in India of course, but surprisingly difficult to photograph well.




But now we were headed to find a couple of special target birds.


The first was the Jerdon's Bushlark---this is what we were photographing in the photo above. Although this bird isn't endemic to the Western Ghats, it is most easily found right here.




In the same field, we found a Yellow-wattled Lapwing.




We were shooting at the foot of hillside sporting this small temple.




This dry rocky area is where we looked for--and found--our 2nd target, Malabar Lark. This bird is a Western Ghats endemic.





Going back into the forested area, another Monitor Lizard was spotted peaking from a tree.




And I can't resist posting one more Spotted Owlet we found.



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We came upon this Spotted Eagle being harassed by Large-billed Crows (also know as Indian Jungle Crows.) I believe this is the smaller Indian Spotted Eagle but can't be sure.








It was now getting to be lunch time and we headed back to the lodge for lunch. We'll go out again later in the afternoon.



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Beautiful photos @janzin. You can't have too many Spotted Owlets

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Posted (edited)

In the afternoon we went again to the village and were met by another local guide (a different one from the a.m.) This time he just came in our vehicle. Honestly I don't know where we went but it was back into a more forested area. The guide went off looking for something amongst the trees and I had a feeling, from the way he was looking, that it was for an owl...


Sure enough, it wasn't too long before he called for us to follow him. Looking up...




We found this magnificent Spot-bellied Eagle Owl looking back at us. A bit hard to shoot with back-lighting and many branches, but what a look!





After that we spent some more time in an area of the woods with some dead trees, that seemed to have a lot of woodpeckers and nuthatches.

Couldn't get a shot of the fast-moving nuthatches here, but some nice woodpeckers posed.




Streak-throated Woodpecker




Also a Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, very common and seen all over. Probably will post some more of these later.




And can you stand one more Spotted Owlet?




That evening, Anoop offered that we could either go for a night walk or a night drive. The drive would take us along some buffer roads outside the park and there was a possibility of tiger...so naturally we said let's do the drive. We actually got to one road that was closed off by the police because a tiger had been seen there earlier. So we headed up another dark road. Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot of traffic going slowly and then I realized they were all doing the same thing...looking for tigers.


But, no luck on the tiger. We did see a new squirrel, however...the nocturnal Indian Giant Flying Squirrel. (Is everything Giant in India?)



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22 minutes ago, TonyQ said:

Beautiful photos @janzin. You can't have too many Spotted Owlets

Good thing, as you see there were more to come! :lol:

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Lovely report so far Janet and beautiful photos as usual.  You can never post too many owl photos so keep them coming! :D



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1 minute ago, Atdahl said:

Lovely report so far Janet and beautiful photos as usual.  You can never post too many owl photos so keep them coming! :D



thanks Alan, I am pretty sure there are a few more owls later :)


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Happy Birthday.  You were rewarded with that amazing looking Spot-bellied Eagle Owl!

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The next morning we set out for a few more hours around Masinaguidi.  It was still a bit misty in the early morning when we came upon one of our target birds in a patch by the side of the road.  We couldn't really get out of the car here so this is a rather poor record shot of the beautiful White-bellied Minivet, taken from the car window.




We then picked up our local guide and drove to what was apparently a cattle ranch, with lots of open grassland.


Anoop and the local guide, and a habitat view.






Intrepid birders among the flowers.




Most of the birds we found here were common, widespread and not endemic but it was a nice opportunity to photograph some open field species.


Common Iora, non-breeding male.




Small Minivet




Indian Silverbill




Indian Robin




Purple-rumped Sunbird male.




We didn't see anything special here so I'm not entirely sure what we were looking for.  Soon it was time to head back to Jungle Hut, check out and continue to our next stop, the high hill town of Ooty.


On the way we made a roadside stop at this beautiful flowering Jacaranda tree, which had several Indian White-eyes flitting around. But none would really come fully out for a photo.






There was an interesting temple behind us on the hillside. Love seeing these Hindu temples dotted around the country side.




Onwards--and upwards---to Ooty, the highest point we'd go in these mountains--and where we might find some of the highly sought-after Nilgiri endemics!


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Although the drive up to Ooty from Masinaguidi isn't long---about 1.5 hours--it's slow due to all the hairpin turns. (Thank you Shafi!) We arrived mid-afternoon at the Hotel Accord Highland, checked in and almost immediately headed out again, as there was still birding time left. Anoop had found a couple of Malabar Giant Squirrels right outside the hotel, nicely photographable.








We headed out to look for a very localized endemic, the Nilgiri Pipit, restricted to the southern end of the Western Ghats. Anoop had heard from a friend that they had seen one behind a certain shrine along the road.  We drove back and forth a few times trying to find the right shrine (there are lots!) The shrine was perched precariously on the side of a steep hill.


The shrine. Notice the crosses on the top. We found that in this area of Southern India there was a strange melding of Hindu and Christian cultures; every town had Christian churches, some quite large.  While we were waiting at the shrine an Indian man got out of his car, and made the sign of the cross.





Anoop got out first to check and quickly called "I have the bird!" But alas, by the time we all scrambled up to the grass behind the shrine, it had disappeared.


We spent quite a long time on the hillside above the shrine searching for the pipit.


The habitat...




Shafi and Alan looking and listening (Anoop had run up further up the hill, searching.)




Unfortunately, no pipit :(  But perhaps we'd have time to return here tomorrow.


Meantime, we continued on because there was one more important stop to make before returning to the hotel. We headed to Cairn Hill Reserve, a nature center in Ooty that apparently offers forest trails, a canopy bridge, and a small museum. I say apparently because by the time we got there--around 5:30--they wouldn't let us in, as they close at 6 p.m.  But not to worry--Anoop said the best birding is actually along the entrance road, which we could walk for a bit. The interior forest is mostly pine and not that productive.


Sign along the entrance road. We didn't see any leopards :lol:




Before too long we found the #1 bird we'd come here for: the Nilgiri Laughingthrush. This bird is a a very localized Nilgiri endemic.


What a beauty!




This one seemed to be collecting nesting material.




We saw a few other birds there, including our first look at Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, but I have better photos of that bird from another day, so you'll need to wait.


The only other photo I got there was this Indian Blackbird. Surprisingly I did not get to photograph them elsewhere, although we saw them a few times in other locations.




Tomorrow morning we'd visit an important shola at the high point in Ooty, in search of several more endemics.






Edited by janzin
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Loving this report and photos...especially the Trogon....one of my favorite birds...

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I'm really enjoying your report Janet. And you're ony just getting started so there's lots more to come. yeah!

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So do I - great birds and photos (as usual). :)

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thanks @michael-ibk@Soukous@Atdahl@Atravelynn@Jil@TonyQ@Treepoland anyone I missed who's commented and following along :)  Really appreciate the kind comments.


And yes, there will be more...I'm not even halfway through the days yet, the best (well, the most interesting birds) is yet to come so stay tuned.

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Posted (edited)

One more interesting fact about Ooty—the actual name of the town and district is Udhagamandalam--Ooty for short (thankfully!)


The next morning we set out early for our destination, Doddabetta peak, in search of some very desired targets. What I didn’t realize—until we arrived—was that Doddabetta is actually a very popular local tourist destination, with a huge parking lot and then a short, steep paved walkway up to an observation tower. The walkway was lined on both sides with booths selling food and souvenirs, with patches of shola forest behind. So to search for birds you had to step between and behind these stands. And, although we got there early, before long it got very crowded, with local people and groups of school children.


But first, on the road up we were greeted by this Gaur which was silhouetted nicely—nowhere to stop on the road and too close for anything more than an iPhone photo.



Doddabetta is the highest peak in the Nilgiri Hills.





It was a very peculiar—and difficult—setting for birding, much less photography! And it was hard to imagine these endangered, native birds would hang around so close to the hub-bub…but they were in there.


We got lucky in the parking lot and right away found a Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, a Western Ghats endemic.






Walking up the trail Anoop spied another target, Black-and-orange Flycatcher. Unfortunately I just couldn’t get a photo of this beautiful bird, and this was the only place we saw one.


In between the booths another highly sought endemic was heard, and then seen. The Nilgiri Flycatcher. Unfortunately obstructed but given the situation the best I could do.




It was just impossible to get photos but we also saw and heard the Nilgiri Sholakili, another small, highly localized endemic. It was getting super crowded (and we were there on a Tuesday—I can’t imagine what it must be like on a weekend!) So I told Anoop “let’s get out of here.”  We had a long drive to Valparai…but perhaps we could stop again at the Nilgiri Pipit spot?


Indeed, we went back for a final chance at the pipit.  We spend quite a long time there. It turned out the whole hilside was a shrine, with many idols of the monkey god Lord Hanuman.




I discovered later that this trail of idols leads up to a cave and temple of Hanuman, but we didn't know that at the time.











Unfortunately, still no pipit, so we headed off to our next destination, the hill town of Valparai.


But first, I can't resist posting this tiger lion cake we spied at a bakery where we stopped to pick up coffee and snacks.  Thanks to Google maps I figured out this was the Sree Ragavendra Iyengar Bakery—very good cookies and fancy cakes if you are ever in the area!




Edited by janzin
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The drive from Ooty to Valparai is long...around five hours--without stopping. Of course, we stopped...for lunch and for birds :) I might mention here something about the food. We love Indian food and we don't mind it spicy, (although for the few days I was feeling a bit off I definitely eased up on the heat factor.)  We actually found the best, most authentic food was at the roadside lunch places we stopped; always full of locals and Anoop helped us decipher the menus and pick the best options. We never got sick from the roadside places; (the only time I felt a bit ill was after something I ate at Evolve Back.) There was only one lodge where we had really bad food but we haven't come to that place yet!


Sometime early afternoon we passed the Aliyar dam and large reservoir which marks the base of the long winding hairpin-turn road up to Valparai. We stopped for a moment to scan for birds but there didn't seem to be any...I was hoping at least for a few shorebirds to add to the trip list.




The altitude at Valparai actually isn't all that high--about 3500 feet--but the road is not for the faint-hearted.  How nice of them to number the hairpin turns...all FORTY of them!


We are still in Tamil Nadu; notice how the writing is so different from the Hindi in the central and north.  Of course, almost every area in India has it's own language and writing; there are about 121 languages and 22 "official" languages.







Somewhere along the road we found our first endemic target of the area: the gorgeous Flame-throated Bubul.  I think this is my favorite Bulbul (there are many.)





Along one of the hairpin turns Anoop called out for us to stop. What could he have possibly seen?


Even Shafi was excited.




Yes, it's a goat!  Close enough to shoot with your phone.  The endemic and highly endangered Nilgiri Tahr which is found only in a small area of the high montane Western Ghats.  Actually the best place to find them is Eravikulam National Park, which is closer to our next stop, Munnar.  But the park is closed every year during the breeding season--usually February to the end of April. So the park would be closed for us--we were very lucky to find the Tahr here.


The Tahr was almost too close to shoot with my 500mm lens.






We then noticed a second Tahr further up the hillside.




This was a really fortunate sighting, as the only other Tahr we saw on the trip were very distant up on the hillside and would not be photographable at all.


We started to pass the tea estates for which this area is famous. In fact, tonight we would be staying at a Tea Bungalow.


Beautiful countryside.




The Silk Oak is often planted as a shade tree in the tea estates. It is actually not an oak at all, and not native, but an import from Australia (Grevillea robusta.) The are topped off and pruned in an odd fashion, I imagine so they don't give too much shade.




It was still a bit of a drive to reach our accommodation, and light was getting low when we found yet another target endemic.  Not a bird, but a primate: the Nilgiri Langur, found only in the Western Ghats. It is an all black langur with brown fur around it's head.




And soon thereafter we found another endemic---this time, a bird, the Grey-fronted Green Pigeon. A truly beautiful pigeon!




And lastly...the major draw for coming to Valparai at all...the endemic Lion-tailed Macaque, which ranks among the rarest and most threatened primates.




This was our first glimpse, but tomorrow morning would be our prime opportunity to spend a lot more time with these endangered primates. Stay tuned!


We eventually reached our accommodation for the night, the Sirukundra Tea Bungalow, after dark, and I honestly have little memory of it as we left again early the next morning!

Edited by janzin
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Lovely shots Janet.  Surprisingly, a large number of primate shots...^_^



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8 minutes ago, Atdahl said:

Lovely shots Janet.  Surprisingly, a large number of primate shots...^_^



ha, well, as they say, "they were there." The Lion-tailed Macaque is rather impressive though, you'll see more of those in the next installment.

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Beautiful bird and primate photos. I have also enjoyed seeing the scenery.

When we went to Tamil Nadu, a long time ago, we also really enjoyed the food 

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2 hours ago, TonyQ said:

Beautiful bird and primate photos. I have also enjoyed seeing the scenery.

When we went to Tamil Nadu, a long time ago, we also really enjoyed the food 

Thanks for the comments! Yes, the food was very good, somewhat different than central or northern India. Unfortunately I was amiss in not photographing the food so I don't remember much specifically. Except for delicious dosas at breakfast at Evolve Back!

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This next post is dedicated to primate fans :) The primary reason we went to Valparai was to see the Lion-tailed Macaque. In fact, I had told WWI that I'm not a primate fan and that we could skip this but @Vikram Singhwisely insisted. Besides, it was a logical stop between Ooty and Munnar.


The Lion-tailed Macaque (also known as the Wanderoo, which I think it a much cooler name) is endemic to the Western Ghats, and considered endangered, with fewer than 2,500 mature individuals left. The main threat they face is habitat destruction and fragmentation due to logging and yes, those beautiful tea and coffee plantations predominant in the area.


Early the next morning, after checking out of our tea bungalow (I can't even remember having breakfast there but I suppose we must have) we stopped at a small settlement (not even a village, really...just a few houses) where Anoop knew the macaques would be hanging around. Sure enough, they were everywhere.






This one had found a piece of broken glass and was playing with it--oops!




They can have a very pensive look to them.






And yes, they do climb trees, not just man-made structures.




Snacking on a jackfruit.














We spent at least an hour just wandering around and photographing the macaques in this settlement.  Didn't really see many birds except this Malabar Whistling Thrush...I'll have more/better photos of thim later but I rather like the rusted roof.




Next stop, Munnar. But we had a destination on the way...a reserve to find a new squirrel for the trip!

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Well, that's the best looking macaque I've ever seen and certainly worth the stop.  Maybe you will come over to the "dark side" and become a primate fan too...:) 


(Although, I have to admit that many we have seen in our travels wouldn't win any beauty contests)...

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