Winter birding at the doorstep

Winter storm Helena was supposed to hit us harder. Six inches of snow, failed power, and freezing pipes. But a couple of inches of snow and a sunny morning were what finally descended on Raleigh, NC.

The storm came and went, and the dull morning made way for a bright and sunny afternoon. The birds began to come out, and I could hear a lot of activity from the feeder put up by the folks living on the floor above our apartment. Soon, the scurrying up there caused a lot of feed to be spilled onto the floor, and before long my backyard was filled with birds. Probably because all food elsewhere had been covered by the falling snow.

There was some water, still not frozen, puddled over the lid of a drain. Birds were landing over that as well to lap up whatever precious little of it they could. A brief battle for water occurred between a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Find your own puddle!
Find your own puddle!
Eastern Bluebird contemplating the day's agenda.
Eastern Bluebird contemplating the day’s agenda.

The next visitor at the lid was a female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), who had her fill and took off before anyone else came down to stake their claim.

Outta here!
Outta here!

A handsome Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) joined the fray, picking out a few morsels that were lying unclaimed. He (or she – sexes are similarly plumed) acquiesced for a mugshot (as I lay outside my backdoor flat on the floor, firing away) and took off shortly.

A mouthful for the day
A mouthful for the day

A few Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) too decided to forage nearby, and they looked gorgeous with the tiny blue rim around their black eyes.

Mourning sunshine
Mourning sunshine

There were a few Dark Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) around as well, overwhelming the others by sheer numbers. Their tiny pink beaks dug deep into the snow, un’snow’ing tiny morsels of grain that had been covered by snow falling from the rooftops like a fine spray when the wind blew.

Lord of the snow
Lord of the snow

In a couple of days, the winter snow cleared and the temperatures rose. But I never could find another day that brought a similar congregation of birds of all feathers in my backyard, which confirms my theory that the lack of food elsewhere drove them to the crumbs dropping from my neighbor’s balcony.

Posted from Raleigh, North Carolina, United States.

Trip Report – In Pangot, a feast of Himalayan birding… and then some

Brown Wood Owl in Pangot

At Cheer Point, beyond Vinayak, we waited for Cheer Pheasants to show up. I saw physics in motion as the clouds pushed against the jagged rock faces and then rose up in a rush. Neither seemed willing to relent its stance. And the result? Curtains drawn over a magnificent performance that played out at the same stage earlier in Pangot.

A goral at vantage in Pangot
A goral at vantage in Pangot

Visibility had reduced to around 25 meters and the calls of the Upland Pipit and Rufous Sibia were now muted. Rhesus Macaques and Gorals were certainly around but my primary sense organ was of limited use under this cloak of grey that transported us, mentally, to the Scottish highlands. Oak and rhododendron decked the grassy rock-face. What had initially appeared like raisins and almond shavings on some Indian dessert had now transformed into eerie silhouettes from the sets of Sleepy Hollow. The bushes that hosted the Ultramarine Flycatcher, White-tailed Nuthatch and Whiskered Yuhina were now invisible. In the sea of grey I put my camera down and pulled out a sandwich from my lunch box. I ruminated. And it dawned on me that this is how Pangot retains its secret as a hidden jewel of the Kumaon.

At Cheer Point a Tim Burton movie starts to roll
At Cheer Point a Tim Burton movie starts to roll
The view from Cheer Point
The view from Cheer Point

Pangot was never our first choice for this vacation. It was Corbett National Park. It was due to a logistical advantage that Pangot pulled off a coup and landed us up in the mountains while we should have been in the plains. We traded sal and bamboo for oaks, rhododendron, deodar and ringal (dwarf bamboo). We traded the hot weather of the plains for the cantankerous mountain chill and reached Pangot in the midst of a hailstorm.

A Yellow Throated Marten in Pangot
Tourist litter attracts a scavenging Yellow-throated Marten. A sad way to see this charming little predator
Ringal or dwarf bamboo surrounded by oak trees in Pangot
Ringal or dwarf bamboo surrounded by oak trees

It rained heavily for more than half an hour before letting up. The drumming of raindrops on the roof now made way for the calls of the Red-billed Blue Magpie, Great Barbet, Rufous Sibia, Black Headed Jays and the chattering of the Rhesus Macaque. A Long-tailed Broadbill played a cameo outside our accommodation and an anxious solitary Yellow-throated Marten melted away into the shrubbery sensing my approach. Streaked Laughingthrushes were omnipresent. The evening sun shone bright and traces of sunlight remained well past 8 pm.

The Blue Throated Barbet felt at home with my presence
The Blue Throated Barbet felt at home with my presence

The next day dawned and on the itinerary was a long day of birding. A Great Barbet showed up early for a ficus feast and as we drove towards Vinayak a Kaleej Pheasant hen darted across the macadam. A foreboding, perhaps, of pleasant pheasant sightings. The flowering Rhododendrons attracted Eurasian Jays and Grey Winged Blackbirds. We saw two varieties of rhododendron in this part of Uttarakhand — with red and pink flowers respectively. Locally, it is known as Buransh. The Rhododendron is the state flower of Uttarakhand.

The Rhododendron is the state flower of Uttarakhand
The Rhododendron is the state flower of Uttarakhand

On the way we chanced upon a Himalayan Grey Langur perched upon a small temple spire crowned with a trident. They were shier than the Tufted Grey Langurs of the south and were sensitive to human presence. Never during the sojourn did a Grey Langur sighting last longer than a minute.

A Himalayan Grey Langur at Pangot, Kumaon
A Himalayan Grey Langur takes umbrage at being spotted

We crossed the subalpine forests and reached a rocky face of hills predominated by grasslands — this was our best chance at sighting Cheer and Koklass pheasants, I was told. A goral welcomed us from atop the hills and, to our horror, we saw a troop of Rhesus Macaques spread across the grassland on the rocky incline, diminishing any chances of pheasant sightings. We learned that Rhesus Macaques caught by animal control agents in the plains are released in the mountains. As a result they wreak havoc on birdlife and the limited agriculture that exists in these mountains in the form of potato and peas farms. While we were out of luck with the pheasants, we got to feast on a White-tailed Nuthatch, Whiskered Yuhina, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Himalayan Woodpecker, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Hill Partridge and Chestnut-headed Laughingthrush as we moved forward.

A Grey-winged Blackbird seeks out breakfast in Pangot, Uttarakhand
A Grey-winged Blackbird seeks out breakfast
Is that a shrike or a babbler? It's a White-browed Shrike-Babbler!
Is that a shrike or a babbler? It’s a White-browed Shrike-Babbler!
Chestnut Bellied Rock Thrush
A Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush
A Eurasian Jay among Rhododendrons
A Eurasian Jay among Rhododendrons

We were back among the oak forests and moved into deodar forests where we spotted Maroon Orioles, White-browed Shrike Babblers, Ashy Drongo, Verditer Flycatchers, Grey-hooded Warblers. The pheasants were not on the list and one of the theories I heard was that the forest fires in Uttarakhand in April and May may have played a role in this, since pheasants were predominantly ground dwellers. Not that it mattered, since a southerner like me had already had a sumptuous sighting of unfamiliar species. Another interesting conversation during the trip was around rhododendrons. I learnt that rhododendrons are usually done blooming by April-May; however this year due to the weather pattern they were blooming as late as June in this region.

Deodar forest in Pangot
Deodar forest in Pangot

After nearly six hours of birding we wrapped up the morning session. After lunch the clouds gathered and the hailstorm returned with a sequel. We were advised to try a different landscape as a result of the rain and we trained our bearings towards secondary growth. We drove downhill from Pangot to villages with cultivation.

Cultivation brought us in the company of the Striated Prinia and Grey-breasted Prinia. A Speckled Piculet piqued our attention. However, the piculet remained elusive, giving us less than 30 seconds of a clear sighting. Verditer Flycatchers were more than eager to announce themselves. The meeting with them took me back four years ago to an evening in Neuli when the Ogres spent some time at a gazebo while trying to get a shot of the Verditer Flycatcher.

A Verditer Flycatcher in Pangot. Its name refers to its blue-green hue
A Verditer Flycatcher. Its name refers to its blue-green hue
Slaty-headed Parakeet in Pangot
Slaty-headed Parakeet

Among the notables that made it to my life list that day were Black-cheeked Babbler, Blue-fronted Barbet and Black-throated Tit. A silhouette of a Black Bulbul appeared atop a dry branch and quickly melted away against the backlit sky.

Magpie performing the balancing act
Magpie performing the balancing act

The next day started with bird calls soon to be drowned in the loud voices of weekend tourists streaming in. It felt this heaven was now not so difficult to transcend, given the rows of “hotels” that have opened up at Pangot. It got me thinking: Does transcending heaven necessarily mean that you feel in heaven? Playing loud music that runs on artificial power can in no way replace the undulating notes of the serenades from avian vocal chords.

The calls of the Maroon Oriole, Great Barbet and Red-billed Blue Magpie brought me back to the experience of heaven, albeit with occasional high decibel human voices reminding me that heaven falls on the tourist circuit.

A Maroon Oriole in Pangot, Uttarakhand
A Maroon Oriole in Pangot
The White-throated Laughingthrush always hung out in social groups of around half a dozen
The White-throated Laughingthrush always hung out in social groups of around half a dozen
A Striated Laughingthrush in Pangot
A Striated Laughingthrush in Pangot

Afternoon brought an interesting sight — a Red-billed Blue Magpie had caught a large moth in its beak. Since the wings of the moth were large and the moth was trying to break free the magpie, perched on a branch, pulled out the wings one by one, until only the abdomen moth remained, which the magpie consumed. Had the moth’s wings remained intact for a few seconds longer, it might have broken free; however, the magpie displayed intelligence in disarming and disabling its quarry.

The quest for the Spotted Forktail took us on a six-kilometer walk in the evening. The canopy of tall trees in the valley appeared dwarfish, while diminutive leeches presented a gargantuan problem. Clouds started to roll in and we rushed back in the drizzle that was picking up. It rained heavily in the night.

A forest stream
A forest stream
The lull before the thunderstorm
The lull before the thunderstorm

The next morning towing behind the guide I headed back towards Kilbury for one more shot at the forktail. A Yellow Throated Marten couple made provided several minutes of sighting. Though it was a pitiful sight to see them biting into a plastic cover they had picked up from a nearby garbage dump.

The previous night’s rain had drenched a Black Eagle’s coat, which brought the eagle out on an open perch, drying it plumes. The stream of the previous evening had swollen and the trickle of the previous evening had turned into a waterfall. An adult Brown Wood Owl and a juvenile made it as last minute entrants into the checklist of denizens of heaven.

After the rain the trickles turned to streams
After the rain the trickles turned to streams
A Brown Wood Owl
A Brown Wood Owl

Pangot had cut us off from the world. Pockets of network connectivity and no television or newspapers made this trip a detox regale. It was in a way meditation. A sattvic visual diet. A cleansing of mind with cool water. It unwound knots of stress in the body. It was living in the present. It was mindfulness. It was (hiatus, deep breath) heaven!

A checklist of birds observed at Pangot (in no specific order)

  1. Blue Throated Barbet (Megalaima asiaticus)
  2. Brown Fronted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes auriceps)
  3. Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus)
  4. Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos)
  5. Black Chinned Babbler (Stachyridopsis pyrrhops)
  6. Greater Yellownape (Chrysophlegma flavinucha)
  7. Grey Breasted Prinia (Prinia hodgsonii)
  8. Striated Prinia (Prinia crinigera)
  9. Blue Capped Rock Thrush (Monticola cinclorhynchus)
  10. Chestnut Headed Bee Eater (Merops leschenaulti)
  11. Black Throated Tit (Aegithalos concinnus)
  12. Oriental White Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus)
  13. Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus)
  14. Red Vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer)
  15. Himalayan Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
  16. Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus)
  17. Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus)
  18. Veriditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus)
  19. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferreus)
  20. Red Rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica)
  21. Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae)
  22. Red Billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha)
  23. Russet Sparrow (Passer rutilans)
  24. Slaty Headed Parakeet (Psittacula himalayana)
  25. Plum Headed Parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala)
  26. Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus)
  27. Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  28. Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus)
  29. Striated Laughingthrush (Garrulax striatus)
  30. White Throated Laughingthrush (Garrulax alboguralis)
  31. Rufous Sibia (Heterophasia capistrata)
  32. Black Headed Jay (Garrulus lanceolatus)
  33. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis)
  34. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)
  35. Large Billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)
  36. Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
  37. Rufous Woodpecker (Micropternus brachyurus)
  38. Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)
  39. Wedge-Tailed Green Pigeon (Treron sphenura)
  40. Grey Winged Blackbird (Turdus boulboul)
  41. Himalayan Woodpecker (Dendrocopos himalayensis)
  42. Ultramarine Flycatcher (Ficedula superciliaris)
  43. Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
  44. White Tailed Nuthatch (Sitta himalayensis)
  45. Whiskered Youhina (Yuhina flavicollis)
  46. Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola)
  47. Chestnut Bellied Rock Thrush (Monticola rufiventris)
  48. White Browed Shrike Babbler (Pteruthis flaviscapis)
  49. Black Winged Cuckooshrike (Coracina melaschistos)
  50. Dark Sided Flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica)
  51. Maroon Oriole (Oriolis trailii)
  52. Chestnut Headed Laughing Thrush (Trochalopteron erythrocephalum)
  53. Grey Hooded Warbler (Phylloscopus xanthoschistos)
  54. Rusty Cheeked Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus erythrogenys)
  55. Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malaiensis)
  56. Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica)
Text and Photographs:Anand Yegnaswami


Posted from Naina Range, Uttarakhand, India.

Can the koel find another tree?

Trees are life

There stood a large neem tree (Azadirachta indica) in front of a house I would pass on the way back from school. As I hopped and skipped and ambled home from school one evening, I saw something that arrested me. I grabbed the hand of my cousin sister who was tasked with accompanying me home in the evenings from school, asking ” Chechi, there is a red-eyed crow over there, on that tree! Why is its eye red?” She laughed and replied, “That is a koel.”

It was a revelation for me. I had only heard a koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) till that point. I never again spotted that bird amidst the thick leaves of that tree, but every evening I would pause in front of that tree to see if it was still there. One day, on my way back from school, I stood stunned as the tree was no longer there. There was an elderly lady sitting on the verandah, reading a magazine.

Chechi observed aloud, “Ah, you have removed the neem tree!”

The old lady replied, ” It was pretty dark inside the house because of the tree. So we did!”

I was disappointed and asked Chechi, “What happens to the koel?”

She replied, “The koel would find another tree!”

The red eyed crow - the Asian Koel
My “red-eyed crow”

Years later, when I bought a small piece of land and built a house there, the first thing I did was to plant some trees. Three mango trees and two coconut trees stand on one side, and I planted a neem tree, a singapore cherry tree and a plant with tubular flowers for the sunbirds in the front yard. The neem didn’t do well, but the other two took over the front yard. The shade they gave made ensured that in the hottest of summers, we could sit in the hall and the verandah without being troubled by the heat. But as the trees spread out, my neighbour started getting restless. He never planted anything on his front lawn, kept it bare and neatly concreted and was finding it difficult that the leaves from my trees were falling into his yard. I resisted his complaints, but when I had to move to the US, he managed to call up and pester my parents (who are in charge of the house) so much that they agreed to remove the Singapore cherry and the flowering plant.

Can we start loving the trees back?
Can we start loving the trees back?

That is us. Trees are an inconvenience. Leaves falling, light being blocked, snakes showing up, tree roots destabilizing the walls, the need to widen the approach road – we have so many excuses to cut down our trees, and none for planting one. Let’s just keep cutting them down and sit cozily in our air-conditioned rooms, complaining about the heat outside. I once read this quote somewhere: “People would have planted more trees if they gave Wi-fi internet. Sadly, they just give us useless oxygen!”

Let’s remove all trees and let’s get our next generation walk around with synthesized oxygen in bottles everywhere, but be able to access free wi-fi everywhere they go. Let no kid of the next generation see a red eyed crow in a tree and be amazed.

Posted from Raleigh, North Carolina, United States.

Fragments of abundance in Valparai

Lion-tailed Macaque in Valparai

En route from Pollachi to Valparai, scanning for sights of the Anaimalai hills near the horizon, I could find only a flat landscape. The roadside was dotted with Mayflower/Gulmohur trees (Delonix regia) which had started blooming mid-April. Bonnet Macaques made occasional appearances, only to be out-aped by their human counterparts indulging in acts of juvenile bravado on their motorcycles.

Nearing Azhiyar Dam one could sense a tourist spot approaching, thanks to the preponderance of Tempo Travellers and tourist cabs, and vendors with carts selling guava, tender coconuts and hot savouries. The fact that there is a rising megalith with 40 bends to negotiate on narrow roads and showboat novices displaying their skills on two- and four-wheelers prevent these visions from registering completely.

A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater on a Silver Oak in Valparai
A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater on a Silver Oak
Evening at the tea garden in Valparai
Evening at the tea garden
Not to forget the troop of Bonnet Macaques among the many primates we saw

Stopping to register at the forest checkpost just before the climb I find more tourists packed into cabs. Disheartened, I tell myself: They are not here to see the Valparai I am here to see.

We are in for a rather warm welcome. A subtle pact between El Niño and El Sol has kept the mercury up. Our host had mentioned that Valparai was not as hot as Bengaluru, however it doesn’t bring any comfort when Bengaluru was inching towards 40 degrees on the centigrade.

Rising up the hair-pin bends, Azhiyar reservoir shows up like a picture postcard, though being on the wheel on a treacherous track I can ill afford a rubber-neck. The drive becomes a pleasure as the breeze picks up and fellow-travellers on the road display restraint and prudence while driving.

The appointment with the Nilgiri Tahrs is missed as we reach hair-pin bend #9 during the hottest time of the day. However the shy Nilgiri Langur shows its silhouette and calls loudly as we ascend higher. Arriving at waterfalls, I notice that the tall trees have gone missing. We travel though what would appear, from above, to be a carpet of tea leaves.

Anticipations accelerate as I cross the statue of Carver Marsh, whom many consider the architect of Valparai. Will Valparai satiate my thirst for a commune with nature in this parched weather, I wonder. I see the NCF Information Centre on the way and stop to ask for directions from the friendly lady at the reception.

We pass through a fragment of rainforest and arrive at Iyerpadi. It’s all tea gardens here. A monotonous mosaic of tea and Silver Oak. As flock of Red-Whiskered Bulbuls land up on the lawn a thought arises, questioning the decision to travel 450 kilometres, the thought is drowned under a deluge of a sea of emotions that the call of a Southern Hill Myna evokes. I see the Hill Mynas thriving in the mosaic of tea and Silver Oak.

The mosaic of Valparai

A walk through the mosaic gives me a closer look. Details emerge. Rufous Babblers create a ruckus that would put their jungle cousins to shame. A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater, Orange Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback and Vernal Hanging Parrots appear as though they have been swirled out of a tea cup. Fireflies take over after sunset. A Brown Fish owl swoops down onto the roof. Taking a walk in the night I spot a Common Tailorbird that has fluffed itself, an Oriental Magpie Robin and a Spotted Dove in slumber. It is almost three decades since I have seen birds in solitary roost. I choose against getting a photograph for the fear of disturbing them.

Sunrise brings the Malabar Whistling Thrush and a half performance by a male Indian Peafowl. As I drive towards the Anamalai Club and arrive at a fragment of rainforest, the shy Nilgiri Langurs calling loudly take evasive positions in the tall canopies which barely allow light to pass. Malabar Giant Squirrels forage busily, while Bonnet Macaques are huddled. A Great Hornbill takes flight from one of the trees. I am distracted by a comical interlude provided by a motorcyclist who, after having walked up to the fence of a tea garden to get a picture of a Gaur with his cellphone, panics and slips upon hearing the animal grunt.

The excitement of the sightings dies down for some time as I spot a limping Palm Civet trying to cross the road. Back in the tea estate, I am treated to a sight of a Crested Serpent Eagle on a dead tree to my right and a Stripe-necked Mongoose in the tea bushes to my left. I drive on as visions of a sumptuous breakfast cloud other thoughts.

Sunset brings out a vivid image of the tea garden in Valparai
Sunset brings out a vivid image of the tea garden
Valparai wakes up
Rufous Babblers were a common sight in Valparai
Rufous Babblers were a common sight
Black-rumped Flameback in Valparai
Black Rumped Flameback

Post lunch, heading toward Pudhuthottam, we come across the first troop of Lion-tailed Macaques. Followed by another less than a kilometer away. The NCF volunteer is diligently managing the crowd of passing tourist vehicles, two of which stop and I hear the occupants shouting “Pazha“. The plantain would have been handed out had it not been for the timely intervention of the volunteer. Seeing me take out my camera, he gestures to me and shows me the spot from which the light was falling through the canopy. He happily speaks about the troop, which numbered about 16 individuals, and told me about the other troops (one of which is 90+ strong). Another tourist van stops at the curve and the volunteer makes a sprint to dissuade the group from feeding the macaques. I wish him luck and thank him for his time.

A Giant Squirrel in the rainforest in Valparai
A Giant Squirrel in the rainforest

A vendor transporting plastic wares on his 49-CC two-wheeler stops and asks, “Tamil?” I shake my head to indicate no.”Malayalam?” I shake my head again. “Hindi?” I shake my head. Seeing him perplexed, I mention “lingua franca”. Disregarding my sense of humour as an editor would trash an abysmally poor piece of work, he mentions in Tamil that there is a Hornbill on a tree nearby which he can show me. I gesture towards the macaque on the tree of which I was trying to get a clear shot when he interrupted, when another passer-by stops to offer unsolicited assistance. The vendor airs his disappointment to the newcomer that I am taking pictures of a “kurangu” (monkey) while he is trying to show me hornbills. I say thank you with a smile straight out of a counterfeiter’s stencil and turn back.

Lion-tailed Macaque - looking up for the ray of hope?
Lion-tailed Macaque – looking up for the ray of hope?
Lion-tailed Macaques grooming
The treetop spa
Quite possibly the Alpha of the troop

After observing the macaque troop, I head to the NCF office at Valparai, where I chat with the friendly researchers. One of them turns out to be from my alma mater. We discuss hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, leopards and mainly elephants. I gain tremendous insight into elephant behavior — such as elephants licking building walls for the calcium. I am told about an interesting gecko residing in these parts that I may be able to spot at the place I was hosted. I lose track of time in the interesting conversations akin to ones we’d have with friends we catch up with after a long time.

The habitat in Valparai is conducive for Great Indian Hornbills
The habitat is conducive for Great Indian Hornbills
The reluctant peafowl. This was the extent it raised its feathers
The reluctant peafowl. This was the extent it raised its feathers

In a trek to the cross-hill I come across a pit dug by a bear the previous night. There are droppings of porcupines and other small mammals. Upon the ridge I spend time scanning for raptors, but it must be too early in the day for them to rise. By mid-day I am at the Nallamudi Pooncholai, a fragment of rainforest visible from a vantage on a cliff. A tree covered with moss is playing host to Orange Minivets, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers.

Jungle Striped Squirrel in Valparai
Jungle Striped Squirrel
White Breasted Water hen near the water body
From atop the Cross Malai (hill)
A Sloth Bear’s work

I stand by the cliff, hoping to get a glimpse of a group of Great Hornbills flying over the canopy below, as I had seen in one of the photographs online. With the sun beating hard, it’s time to head back. On the way I spot a pair of Stripe Necked Mongooses in the tea bushes, they retreat swiftly as a vehicle passes close to them.

Stripe Necked Mongoose were a common sight in Valparai
Stripe Necked Mongoose were a common sight too
Velvet Fronted Nuthatch at Nallamudi Pooncholai view point
Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher

The evening is a relaxed affair, but a gecko chooses to make its appearance, an interesting one with a striped tail. The next day as we descend we run into a herd of Nilgiri Tahr, pushing the count of mammal sightings in this trip up a notch. Interestingly the mammals due to which the Anamalais get their name had retreated to locations with ample waters and had not made their appearance. Next time perhaps, I return content that Valparai, with the rainforest peppered amongst the tea estates, turned out an abundance of rewarding sightings.

Gecko in Valparai
Night reveals a charming gecko
Another sunset
Nilgiri Tahr seeing us off
Nilgiri Tahr in Valparai
Researchers think that Tahr are more closely related to sheep than goats

Note: Human-elephant conflict continues to be a matter of concern in Valparai. Nature Conservation Foundation’s Elephant Information Network has recently introduced a novel voice announcement system aboard Tamil Nadu government buses to inform passengers about the movement of elephants on their routes. Read more about it on EcoLogic, the NCF blog, and watch this video.

Posted from Valparai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Summer in the Nilgiris – an escapee’s photo-diary

Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris

As cruel April broils the Deccan plateau, the Nilgiris are brimming with escapees. If weekends see city roads bereft of cars, you know where to find them — up near Sim’s Park in Coonoor or jostling for space near the Ooty Botanical Gardens. While the glens and vales of the Nilgiris cope with the torrent of tourists, the resident and endemic birds have the hills to themselves. Most of the migrants have returned to their northern homes, save a few lingering warblers.

Culpable I am, for I too was one among those that escaped the torrid plains to seek refuge in the Nilgiri summer where the higher you go, the cooler it gets. Three days I spent cocooned on a hillside noshing on farm-fresh cheese (at Acres Wild, Coonoor) in the company of friends — and when I tired of them, the birds that make their home here.

Oriental Magpie-Robin in the Nilgiris
An Oriental Magpie-Robin forages and gets lucky
Oriental Magpie-Robin in the Nilgiris
This was the male’s singing perch

Mornings we rose to the singing of Oriental Magpie Robins (so soulful that one of my friends asked, “Is that a nightingale?”) while the crisp crowing of the Grey Junglefowl echoed in the valley. Blackbirds made every interlude a throwback to The Beatles, warbling and whistling and chirping ruminatively in the shrubbery. Crows and mynas were relatively uncommon thanks to the relative paucity of garbage in the neighbourhood, and when they did appear it was a joy to see them — imagine that! Hole-nesting hoopoes and barbets rent the air with their penetrating calls. Long-tailed Shrikes, ever vigilant, took charge of the lampposts. Dusky Crag Martins, swooping low, cleaned up even the remotest threat of pestilence from winged insects.

Dusky Crag Martin in the Nilgiris
Notice the gape on this Dusky Crag Martin? Signs that it left the nest recently. Later, I saw its parent stuff some food in its mouth.

It was nesting time, feeding time and foraging time for birds in the Nilgiris. Hoopoes were busybodies, poking among the leaves picking out grubs from the earth. Pied Bushchats worked overtime at their nests in the gazebos, stuffing their bills with grubs and caterpillars. The Magpie Robins kept them company. Jungle Babblers and the occasional flock of Rufous Babblers patrolled the yard, raising one too many unnecessary alarms. In the eaves, Dusky Crag Martins brought mud from the streams to cement their nests. Occasionally, a pair of Little Swifts joined them — their shiny white rumps standing out in the crowd of sooty swoopers.

A Hoopoe in the Nilgiris
This Hoopoe was observed carrying food to its nest

Besides the all-too-common Red-vented Bulbuls and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, I caught sight of a Grey-headed Bulbul (a lifer) and, on one occasion, a Yellow-browed Bulbul that had flown up from the lowland forests. Both were too quick for my camera. A small party of Common Rosefinches favoured the lantana bushes by the milking shed. At a bend in the road where the undergrowth offers plenty of good cover and escape hatches, a pair of Blue-breasted Quails (aka King Quails) hesitated at my approach and melted away before I could shoot them. A Black Eagle scouted the hillside, disappearing among the treetops in search of its meal.

Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
A Long-tailed Shrike keeps vigil
Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
Quite fetching up close, no?
Long-tailed Shrike in the Nilgiris
And this is how I saw the Long-tailed Shrike every day, guarding its fief from its vantage on the lamp post

The female rosefinch isn’t much to look at, and a novice can be forgiven for mistaking it for a female house sparrow. Yes, this is to underscore the point that I’m not a novice. I followed the female, and she showed me to the male. Quite a dodgy customer, he wouldn’t sit still for a minute. But here’s a very poor record shot.

Common Rosefinch in the Nilgiris
That’s the male Common Rosefinch in the centre and his dowdy female companion to the left

Of House Sparrows there were quite a number. They, too, were nesting in the eaves. Most of the time they pecked about for seeds but every so often, a female was seen carrying a juicy green caterpillar — protein for her little ones.

Male House Sparrow in the Nilgiris
Two Male House Sparrows, one with a lantana berry
Female House Sparrow in the Nilgiris
A female House Sparrow bares her no-makeup morning face

A bulbul too many

In the early days of birding, the sight of a bulbul would get my blood up. I’m talking of age seven or eight. Sad to say, as I grew older, the ubiquity of bulbuls diminished their appeal. Birders find them quite annoying, actually, especially when they are busy in the field looking for other birds. Both the Red-vented Bulbul and the Red-whiskered Bulbul have become so abundant that birders rarely give them a second glance, and this after ignoring them the first time.

On this trip to the Nilgiris, I was feeling quite charitable. So I let my attention, and my camera, dwell a bit on these bulbuls. They are all over the Nilgiris in such great numbers that you can be forgiven for wanting to exchange your camera for a pea-shooter. Anyway, the effort paid off, as it was thanks to these pains in the butt that I discovered the Grey-headed Bulbul for the first time. Then again, I shouldn’t have been so large of heart, for the moment I had trained my lens on my lifer, a Red-whiskered Bulbul chased it into the shrubbery.

Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Now, when a Bulbul perches like that, you can’t help but notice it
Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
A very thirsty Red-vented Bulbul seeks some moisture
Red-vented Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Manning the crapping post is this Red-vented Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Nilgiris
Truth be told, Red-whiskered Bulbuls are actually quite fetching
Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Nilgiris
And they pose quite well

The Rufous Babbler showed up when I was cleaning my glasses. I’m extremely vulnerable to deception in this state and when I heard an unfamiliar call and saw a babbler-sized bird on a rock, I shot blindly. I identified the bird later from the photographs and felt a frisson of satisfaction. Learning to rely on one’s senses, made rusty and decadent by an overdose of civilization, is what half the joy of nature observation is about.

Rufous Babbler in the Nilgiris
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is this Rufous Babbler that came to visit

The old man of the Nilgiris

Of course, the birds didn’t steal all the thunder on my sojourn in the Nilgiris. My eye was drawn to a robust male Peninsular Rock Agama on the wall of the cheese-making hut. He sunned himself gloriously in the early part of the day. In the evening, I chanced upon the missus — a plump, probably gravid female.

Peninsular Rock Agama in the Nilgiris
A male Peninsular Rock Agama on the wall of the cheese-making cottage
Peninsular Rock Agama in the Nilgiris
The smaller, less colourful female

While the birds brought up their young, and other creatures made the most of summer to increase their tribe, the bees made honey. And the occasional bee-eater did stop by for a bite.

A bee in the Nilgiris
Bee-come or Bee-gone?

Mama Bushchat steals the show

Despite gaudier distractions in the Nilgiris, my eye travelled always to the female Pied Bushchat that made so many trips to its nest up in the ceiling of the gazebo without as much as anyone noticing. Anyone but me, I guess. She would be seen foraging near the gazebo, keeping a low profile but all the while toiling industriously. I did see her mate occasionally but he was mostly strutting or primping and being all dandy in his black-and-white tux.

Here’s a series of pictures of the bushchat foraging for its nest. I did spot the nest but I took care not to disturb it or photograph it. I also saw the hoopoes and the dusky crag martins at their nests in the Nilgiris, but no photos of those. If you’re disappointed, here’s something you should know if you’re a nature photographer or inclined to be one: remember never to photograph or give away the location of nests — that kind of trophy-hunting is a no-no, tempting as it may seem (more information on ethical wildlife photography in this post on Conservation India). There’s a good reason for that.

Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
The elegant takeoff
Pied Bushchat female in the Nilgiris
The female Pied Bushchat takes a break from parental duties
Female Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
But not for long. Here she is seen foraging again and stuffing her bill
Female Pied Buschat foraging in Nilgiris
That’s a whole beakful!
Pied Bushchat in Nilgiris
And then some!
Pied Bushchat in the Nilgiris
Here she is, waiting patiently for the right moment to slip past our eyes

No sign this time of the usual endemic species reported from the Nilgiris – the Black-chinned Laughingthrush, the Nilgiri Flycatcher or the Black-and-Orange Flycatcher. But then, these were the birds I saw without barely moving a muscle. Lazy birding does have its rewards.

Posted from Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India.

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