Archive for February 2019

Oman from the air – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This short post is a postscript to my account of the Andaman Islands and South India account.

I try whenever its possible to get a window seat on a flight with the hopes of admiring the landscapes we are flying over. Even if I’m lucky to get a window seat the view is often blocked by the wing or the engines, we’ve over the ocean, we are too high to see many features, its cloudy, the sun is in my eyes or the ground below is featureless or hazy.

However flying back from Cochin in South India to Muscat in Oman with Oman Air I had some excellent views of this spectacular country from above, the air was clear and dry, the view largely unimpeded. We crossed the coast somewhere near the easternmost point of the country, flew over the open desert and the rugged Al Hajar mountains before descending to the capitol Muscat.

The onward flight to Heathrow was nowhere near as impressive.

I haven’t bothered to annotate the photos as they are self explanatory.

I’ve been to Oman twice, once in 2007 on a comprehensive birding tour of the country and again in 2014 on a much shorter trip when the main target was the newly discovered Omani Owl in the Al Hajar mountains. A full account of the latter can be found on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South India part 2: Munnar, Periyar NP and Thatterkad. 26th – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This is the third post about my trip to the Andaman Islands and South India and the second on our time in South India. The areas covered are Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad reserve.

As I made clear in the last post I had considerable problems with my bridge camera during the tour and by this late stage it had given up the ghost. Thankfully tour participant Alec Gillespie offered to share his photos, for which I am most grateful. All (or nearly all) bird photos are his and duly credited as such, scenery etc are mine taken on my pocket camera. As I write this I have just received the trip report and some more photos from tour leader Dave Farrow. One or two of his are included as well.

 

Right on dusk as we were nearly back to the vehicle our two local guides asked Alec to take a photo of them with his long lens. He had to be this far away to even get their faces in the frame. Notice Alec, like all of us was wearing leech socks, essential in the damp leech-ridden lowland forests.

 

From Munnar we visited the mountain massif of Rajamalai in Eravikulan NP, first crossing vast swathes of tea plantations to get there.

 

 

The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu experienced very heavy monsoon rain and extensive flooding in September. This bridge was washed away meaning we had to cross on this plank and then take a jeep ride to the entrance of the park. From there we were taken to the start of the walk by bus.

 

One of the top birds of the area was this little White-bellied Blue Robin which we managed to see whilst we were waiting for the bus to the mountain. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and at the other end of the bus route we got stunning views of this Kerala Laughingthrush. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and several Malabar Whistling Thrushes. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We walked up the road as far as was permissible, getting great views over the surrounding countryside and towards the highest peak in the Western Ghats.

 

Normally hard to find and only viewed at a distance, a pair of Nilgiri Pipits showed very well by the road. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The same can’t be said of the Nilgiri Thar, a species of goat endemic to the Western Ghats. Usually seen reasonably close, our only views were high on the ridge above. As no-one got a useable photo I’ve included one from Wiki Commons taken by AJT Johnsingh

 

After an excellent morning we had a dreadful afternoon, one of the clients slipped on the path at the hotel and had to go to hospital with a broken nose. Eventually the rest of us went birding but saw little. We travelled through some road works to get to a better area of forest but the mist descended and we lost all visibility. On our return the road was blocked as they were blasting rock. We waited two hours, until well after dark, before we were allowed through.

 

Mist streamed through the trees as we pulled over in an area of forest the following morning.

 

… we saw more White-bellied Blue Robins, more Kerala Laughingthrushes and this Brown-breasted Flycatcher. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Fortunately we passed through the extensive road works without any hold ups this time.

 

There must be elections in the offing as the communist party supporters were holding a rally.

 

We continued on to Periyar. This point in the travelogue gives me an opportunity to include a few of the more widespread species that were seen at some point or other during our South India tour, starting with Brahimny Starling. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Orange MInivet, a fairly recent split from Scarlet Minivet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Indian Nuthatch, which I think we only saw further north. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Loton’s Sunbird  (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Yellow-browed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We had an afternoon, a whole day and a morning in the lovely forests of Periyar NP.

 

To access some of the best forest we had to cross a lake on a raft. Near the embarkation point we had good views of Southern Hill Myna … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Malabar Starling in a flowering tree. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We watched in some trepidation as the transport across the lake was hauled into view.

 

Crossing on the bamboo raft was tricky to say the least but we managed with nothing worse than damp feet.

 

The trails weren’t all that bad but a few stream crossings were a bit more tricky.

 

This was by far the worst place on the trip for leeches and even though we were wearing leech socks we were constantly flicking them off our boots. I only suffered a few leech bites and even then I removed them before they had injected much anticoagulant (which makes the bite itch like crazy).

 

There were some pretty hefty scorpions in the forest …

 

There were some enormous spiders too. Note the small brown blob on this female’s lower abdomen. That’s the male spider mating with it.

 

… and we kept an eye open for snakes, although this Shield-tailed Snake is non venomous.

 

A pretty yellow frog was added to the list of non-avian goodies we saw that day

 

… as was this butterfly known as the Tamil Yeoman. (Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest).

 

Although we never saw one, it was clear that Tigers prowled these forests.

 

As well as resident birds these forests are havens in winter for migrants from the north. Further north on this trip most wintering Phylloscopus warblers were Greenish Warblers but here in the south the closely related Green Warbler (above) which breeds in the Caucasus, predominated. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We also saw Large-billed Leaf Warbler, a shorter distance migrant, breeding in the Himalayas and parts of China. Unfortunately we never connected with Tytler’s Leaf Warbler a rare winter visitor from northern Afghanistan, N Pakistan and NW India which would have been a life bird for me. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We saw many other birds in these forests including one of the most attractive raptors in the world – Black Baza … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… the pretty Flame-throated Bulbul … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Malabar Trogon … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Rufous Babbler, which was a life bird for me … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… a sleepy Indian Scops Owl … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and a rather more alert Jungle Owlet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We were nearly back at our bus one evening when we saw shapes moving in the grass by the village. They proved to be Pin-tailed Snipe, a winter visitor from Siberia. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But the overwhelming surprise during our time at Periyar was seeing another pack of Dhole. To go from ‘never seen before on the South India tour’ to seeing two packs on one trip was remarkable to say the least. The pack of seven had brought down a Sambar by the water’s edge and took turns coming to the carcass and taking away mouthfuls. Unlike the previous pack near Jungle Hut (see previous post) they were relaxed in our presence and we had what is often described as ‘walk-away views’. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Not quite as unexpected, but still amazing to see was this small herd of Gaur or Indian Bison in the forest. Our local guides said that they were hard to see at present because they frequented the water’s edge but water levels were currently very high, forcing them back into the forest. We found them on our final morning at Periyar. This rather dull photo was taken on my pocket camera …

 

.. but Dave was able to get a closer shot. The herd comprised of six cows and a calf. It’s a shame we didn’t see the massive bulls but I’ve been yearning to see this species for years so it was still a magic encounter. Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

The other major find on that morning was this beautiful White-bellied Blue Flycatcher – not to be confused with the White-bellied Blue Robin! (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

The hotels on this tour were of a very high standard and the staff usually most courteous. At this hotel they all turned up to wave us off.

 

Our final birding location was Thattekad, an area of dense forest and rocky outcrops nearer to the coast.

 

We had two evenings and a full day at Thattenkad, among the many species we saw were this roosting group of Ashy-headed Woodswallows … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Crimson-backed Sunbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Black-rumped Flameback … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Golden-fronted Leafbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Malabar (or Blue-winged) Parrot (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… and on our last morning of the trip, Grey-headed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But it was the nightbirds that stole the show – this roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths, which despite their name are not endemic to Sri Lanka, posed beautifully. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The similarly non-endemic Sri Lanka Bay Owl took a long time to track with much climbing through dense vegetation in the dark before we finally got a decent view This species which habitually clings to the side of tree trunks is seldom seen by anyone. It was first seen on this tour last year and was even a life bird for Dave. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

After our final meal together we went out owling one final time and had these wonderful views of the huge Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, a species I’ve heard several times elsewhere in Asia but have never seen. A fitting end to a fine trip. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

 

Four of us had been to Sri Lanka before so we left early the next morning for the airport. The guy who had fallen over and his wife flew to Sri Lanka with the rest of the party but had decided that due to his injury they would cut the tour short and go home, so it was just Alec and his wife Christine who joined Dave for the Sri Lanka part of the tour. From the tour report I see they did very well. If I had have joined them I’d have got two life birds and far better views of a bird that I saw poorly on my 2004 trip to Sri Lanka. Oh well, I guess I’d have liked to have gone but money and time were pressing.

 

 

 

South India part 1: Ramanogara, Mudumalai and Ootcamund – 21st – 25th November 2018.   Leave a comment

In November last year I joined a tour going to the Andaman Islands, South India and Sri Lanka. As I had been to Sri Lanka in 2004 I declined to take the third section of the tour.

My last post covered our time in the Andaman Islands and this post and the next covers our time in South India, mainly in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I mentioned in my Andaman Islands post that my bridge camera was having trouble focusing. This issue continued in South India until about half way through when it failed completely. Fortunately another tour participant, Alec Gillespie who joined the trip for the South India and Sri Lanka segments, volunteered to share his photos. With excellent top of the range photo gear Alec was able to take a wonderful portfolio of bird photos. All of his shots are credited, the remaining, often ‘soft focus’ ones are mine.

 

Alec Gillespie with camera gear. Camera, lens, tripod and associated accessories weigh around 14kg! Rather more than I’m prepared to lug around tropical forests I’m afraid, but he does produce some superb photos.

 

We returned from the Andamans to Bangalore (or Bengaluru as its often called) for an overnight stay. Our first destination the following morning was the rocky outcrop of Ramnogara.

 

Our main target here was the South Indian endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul which we saw but didn’t get to photograph. However there was another interesting bird nesting up on this rock face …

 

 

… the now critically endangered Indian Vulture. All species of vulture in Asia have declined dramatically in recent years with losses of 99.99% reported. Once common species like White-backed and Indian Vulture (seen here) are now rarities due to the use of the drug Diclofenac or Volterol for veterinary purposes. Eating the carcass of a cow treated with this drug will cause liver failure in vultures and a single dead cow (of which there are many in India as religious beliefs prevent them from being used for meat so they wander freely in town and countryside) can poison hundreds of vultures. See this Indian Vulture at its nest was a real treat even if it was a bit distant. Here’s a photo I’ve added to the post later taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

Our next stop was at the lake at Ranganathitto. A waterbird sanctuary, we were able to travel by boat round the lake and get close up views of many of the birds.

 

Nearby signs made it clear how you should behave!

 

There were large numbers of Black-headed Ibis on the reserve.

 

Closely related to the Sacred Ibis of Africa and Madagascar and the White Ibis of Australia, these are familiar birds in wetlands across India.

 

The rarest of the world’s eight species of pelican, Spot-billed Pelican was here in good numbers.

 

White-breasted Waterhens (a species of rail) were seen along the water margins.

 

Asian Open-billed Stork is one of the rarer of the world’s 17 stork species. It’s mandibles have evolved so that only the tips close, leaving the sides ‘open’ so they can manipulate their water snail prey. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

 

The lake held lots of Muggers (or Marsh Crocodiles), We had good and close views of them in the water …

 

… and on land.

 

A real treat was seeing this Great Thick-knee, a species of stone-curlew. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Restricted to south and south-east Asia this is one of 10 species in the family Burhinidae. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

On route to our next destination we stopped to photograph this Red-naped Ibis. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Moving on we drove through one of the tiger reserves where you weren’t allowed to stop unless you had booked a guided jeep tour, however we broke this rule briefly when we saw an Asian Elephant beside the road. We got uncomfortably close to elephants a number of times on this tour as they are certainly not confined to reserves. Indeed one villager was killed by one as he walked back home during our stay in the area. We were warned a number of times not to walk in a certain direction (that is walking outside of the closed reserves of course) because an elephant had been seen/heard in the vicinity. In spite of the dangers the local people seem to accept that elephants and people must co-exist.

 

Our destination was Jungle Hut, a lodge near Mundumalai.

 

One of our main targets was the seldom seen Nilgiri Thrush and during our stay it remained ‘seldom seen’ however we had compensation in the form of this beautiful Indian Pitta. Most Asian pitta species are mega-elusive but this one is an exception, I saw it easily and well in Sri Lanka in 2014 and the same happened here as well. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The locals were here to greet us – one of our first sightings of Southern Plains Langurs.

 

Chital (aka Axis or Spotted Deer) were common in the area and a herd was usually present in the lodge grounds …

 

… as was the enormous (about 1m from nose to tail tip) and very noisy Indian Giant Squirrel.

 

We had low cloud for much of our time here …

 

… but we still got good views of great birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… Jacobin or Pied Cuckoo (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and Malabar Lark (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

One evening we went looking for nightjars and saw the little Jungle Nightjar.

 

The following day we set off in jeeps rather than our usual minibus and climbed high up the mountain mists in search of Painted Bush Quail.

 

 

We hadn’t got far when our local guide stopped the vehicles. At the side of the road a pack of Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes had killed a Chital. Although they were wary of our presence they refused to leave the kill. Eventually several of the dogs pulled the carcass further into the undergrowth. Sorry for posting such a blurred image but the camera was playing up and my hands were shaking with excitement.

 

This was without doubt the best sighting of the entire trip for me. I’ve always been interested in mammals since I was a child and vividly remember reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book long before Disney turned it into a silly cartoon. One of the species mentioned in the Jungle Book was the mysterious wild dog, the Dhole and I’ve longed to see one since. Birdquest have been running tours to South India for decades but this is the first time one, let alone a pack, has been seen! Postscript: I’ve been able to replace one of my blurred images by this much sharper one taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

We searches the fields and scrub areas further up the mountain finding …

 

… the impressive Black Eagle …

 

… Bay-backed Shrike …

 

… and eventually several groups of gorgeous Painted Bush Quails (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

In the afternoon we moved on even higher to the town of Ootacamund, universally known as Ooty. Our first destination was a market at the top of Doddabetta Peak, the highest point.

 

The idea of a sign advertising the ‘plastic free Nilgiris’ is a bit of joke when you can see plastic waste bins, chair, covering of stall and tarpaulin in this photo alone.

 

With a large amount of discarded food on offer many birds have become quite tame such as this East Asian version of our Great Tit, the Cinereous Tit.

 

A Crested Goshawk posed nicely for pictures (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Blackbird is a widespread species in the Palearctic/northern Oriental region but recently it has been split into four – Eurasian, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. This of course is the Indian species which differs slightly from our familiar Eurasian Blackbird in plumage and voice. They weren’t common, I only saw three on the entire trip and the best views were obtained here at the Peak. (photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

Nilgiri Woodpigeons (unlike their Andaman cousins which we dipped on) were common and easy to see here.

 

Two of the best species seen were the endemic Nilgiri Laughingthrush (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the gorgeous Grey Junglefowl. It is of course the Red and not Grey Junglefowl that is the ancestor of domestic chickens. At last I have seen all four species of ‘wild chickens’ (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The elusive Northern Red Muntjac was also seen. As we are in Southern India it may see strange to call it Northern Red Muntjac but Southern Red Muntjac occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia which of course is south of here. The muntjacs introduced to the UK are a third species – Reeve’s Muntjac.

 

The accommodation on the tour was consistently of a high standard but the hotel at Ooty had a foyer of outstanding elegance.

 

… but the wifi was crap though!

 

Whilst in Ooty we visited the Botanical Gardens which gave us views (but not photos – my camera gave up the ghost on Doddabetta Peak) of Nilgiri Flowerpecker …

 

… but we did get to see Square-tailed Black Bulbul well (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

However the gardens seemed a magnet for school outings so getting in (and getting out) was a bit of a hassle.

 

Throughout the Nilgiri hills Greenish Warblers were quite common. They are wintering here from their breeding grounds in western Siberia and easternmost Europe (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Whilst I have seen Greenish Warblers many times before, the beautiful Nilgiri Blue Robin (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Black-and-Orange Flycatcher were life birds.  (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We finally left Ooty heading towards Munnar. In September 2018 the area suffered from torrential downpours and widespread flooding. Our route was still impassable so we had to make a long detour via the coast and got little birding done that day. Time to admire the scenery and relax, which is probably more than the hotel guests in this room can do suspended in mid-air by a few insubstantial beams.

 

Stops on route included this waterfall.

 

…and a spot to do a little birding and watch the Bonnet Macaques …

 

… who were clearly finding plenty to eat along the roadside.

 

The next post will include photos from Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad.