Leader: Mike Prince
Participants: Anjali Parashar, Yogesh Parashar, Katie Phillips
Logistics: Asian Adventures
The first ever Bubo Birding tour was a great success, with excellent views of most of our target endemic birds of the Western Ghats, some fantastic places visited, great food, and lots of fun cross-cultural discussion thanks to our mixed American, British and Indian group! As usual, all logistics were impeccably arranged by Asian Adventures.
The itinerary was slightly shortened from our typical plan and concentrated mainly on Western Ghats forest endemics. Instead of starting from Bangalore and spending our first three days in the lowlands, we began in Coimbatore and made Ooty, in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, our first stop. Thereafter, and having been joined by Katie, we headed to Top Slip in the Anamalai Hills, Munnar back in Nilgiri tea country in Kerala, Periyar Tiger Reserve, and finally to the extremely birdy Thattekad Bird Sanctuary.
We saw 218 species of birds altogether, which included most of the endemics (29 in total) and a further 45 near endemics, many of which only otherwise occur in Sri Lanka. Most of our targets gave exceptional views, such as the rare Kashmir Flycatcher, both endemic species of Sholakili and ‘Chilappans’, and Nilgiri Pipit just 3 m away! One of the big successes was lovely views of many species of owls in daylight, although we completely missed Spotted Owlet: the most common owl throughout India! 55 eBird lists were shared amongst all participants and to ensure all our observations are available for research and conservation purposes.
Apologies for this trip report not being very visual: the only camera that came out on this trip was Mike’s compact, so it was very much an experience of watching and enjoying birds rather than photographing them.
A consensus amongst all tour participants led to the following list of trip highlights: not just birds, and in no particular order!
- A full day’s trekking through the beautiful forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, and the wonderful hikes through the uncrowded and extremely birdy Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Pampadum Shola National Park
- Excellent prolonged views of Kashmir Flycatcher in Kotagiri
- Abandoning breakfast at Thattekad to dash off and see a roosting Sri Lanka Bay Owl, in the same place we’d spent much of the previous day looking for it!
- Views of the huge Great Hornbill at Top Slip, majestically sat at the top of a tree, lord of the jungle, completely unaware of being watched
- The adorable Heart-spotted Woodpecker: high on Katie’s wish list and, in her words, its large, triangular head balanced on a chubby body was both unlikely and charming!
The Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu: Ooty and Kotagiri
Yogesh, Anjali and Mike met up at lunchtime at Coimbatore airport, and immediately drove north and up into the Nilgiri hills. With not too much birding time available we took a couple of random stops from the main road in nice-looking forested areas and managed to find a couple of nice mixed species feeding flocks, leading to our first moments of birding panic where we all try to get on to all species present before they disappear! Blue-capped Rock Thrush and a feeding Indian Scimitar-Babbler, probing a mossy trunk with its bill, were cooperative and gave prolonged views, as did Malabar Parakeets, Orange Minivets, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Crimson-backed Sunbirds. Vernal Hanging Parrots and Nilgiri Flowerpeckers were heard and seen poorly: both species were common throughout the trip, but it was many days later before we were able to get good views!
A pair of Nilgiri Flycatchers was the first of our key targets from this area, and a similarly pleasing Rusty-tailed Flycatcher unfortunately showed just fleetingly. Greenish Warblers were common here and we managed a single Green Warbler: careful listening to calls over the next few days produced a few more Greens but always outnumbered by Greenish. A sudden commotion amongst many small birds suggested that a raptor had arrived, but this turned out to be an excellent sighting of a scarce wintering Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Following this into a more open area we managed good views of Tawny-bellied Babblers, and a pair of Red Spurfowl in the undergrowth.
We spent the last hour or so of daylight in the lovely botanical garden of Sim’s Park in Coonoor. This occasionally turns up some of the special endemics such as Nilgiri Thrush and Black-and-Orange Flycatcher. We were unlucky with these although enjoyed close views of the interesting simillimus subspecies of Indian Blackbird, dancing displays from Spot-breasted Fantails, but frustrating glimpses of fly-through Nilgiri Woodpigeons. We tracked a pigeon-like cooing sound and found it to be from an Emerald Dove. The entrance to Sim’s Park is opposite the Pasteur Institute of India, adding some nostalgia for Yogesh whose grandfather, an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) in 1933, spent two weeks there.
We then proceeded to our hotel in Ooty, the peaceful Victorian Kluney Manor and its taste of colonial Victorian charm.
Yogesh and Mike headed out the next morning for some pre-breakfast birding to the nearby Cairn Hill Forest, a small area of remaining shola forest that can be tough birding, but does harbour most of the specialities. Eventually we had good views of a pair of Black-and-Orange Flycatchers, surely one of the most strikingly coloured birds in India? Our attempts to find Nilgiri Sholakili were thwarted as a large male Gaur appeared in the middle of the path we were intending to walk along, and we thought it prudent to move on!
Post-breakfast we all headed to Doddabetta (literally ‘big hill’), the highest peak in the Nilgiris at over 2,600 m. This is a popular tourist spot but gives the best views in the area of the endemic Nilgiri Laughingthrush, or more charmingly Nilgiri ‘Chilappan’, based on colloquial Malayalam words for ‘one who cackles’. The birds here are adapted to feeding around the various tourist stalls and aren’t the skulkers that they can be elsewhere!
A short stop at a site where Mike had seen both Painted Bush Quails and Nilgiri Pipits in September was unsuccessful in that respect, but a small flock of Tickell’s Leaf Warblers feeding low down in tea bushes was very nice to see.
One of the scarcer specialities here is Kashmir Flycatcher, a bird with a very small range both on its breeding grounds in Kashmir and its wintering areas in the hills of the Nilgiris and Sri Lanka. Thanks to local guide Bhoopathy, we were taken to where one was wintering in a garden in his hometown of Kotagiri and heard it calling immediately we got there. A female, it was still very distinctive in structure and plumage, and we watched it – a first Indian record for Mike – for some time, obtaining both audio and video recordings. An immature Bonelli’s Eagle was a nice overhead sighting, but the calling Painted Bush Quail unfortunately didn’t want to show itself.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the lovely forest of Longwood Shola, unfortunately having to pay its recently introduced extortionate entrance fees. Thankfully we soon found a nice loose flock containing several species including Orange Minivets, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Square-tailed Bulbuls, Large-billed and Western Crowned Warblers, and Brown-cheeked Fulvettas. Overhead flew some hirundines and at one point we had five species in the air together, including the local Hill Swallow and rare wintering Common House-Martins.
What we were really trying for here though was Nilgiri Sholakili. Originally known as White-bellied Shortwing, studies have shown that the two subspecies of these shola-loving birds are actually separate species. The 40 km wide Palghat ‘Gap’ acts as a geographical barrier to much wildlife, and enabled these birds to evolve separately in their independent ‘sky islands’. They are also clearly not shortwings and, having spent a few years as ‘blue robins’, eventually they have become a new genus Sholicola, meaning shola dweller, with a common name of Sholakili. (‘Kili’ means small bird in Malalyalam, more appropriate than its meaning of parrot in Tamil!) The species north of the Palghat Gap is Nilgiri Sholakili, whilst we would be targeting its relative the White-bellied Sholakili later in the trip. After some effort Anjali suddenly called out a bird that had hopped into view just a few metres away, and we were treated to superb views as it just sat there for a few minutes. Of course, this is where we show an amazing photo, or would have done if Mike hadn’t left the only camera back in the car!
The Anamalai Hills: Top Slip and Parambikulam
The following day we left early to pick up Katie who had just arrived in Coimbatore. We couldn’t resist a stop on the way though at the fascinating Coonoor railway station of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, where we were able to wander around the steam locomotive shed to check out the wonderful engines that still run on this metre gauge line, built by the British and opened back in 1899. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mountain Railways of India, along with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Kalka – Shimla Railway, and, for train afficionados, is the only rack-and-pinion railway in India.
Not wanting to delay too long before reaching Top Slip, we just made a short exploratory stop en-route at Singanallur Lake in Coimbatore. This wasn’t very productive but did produce our only Spot-billed Pelicans of the trip, and a Eurasian Marsh Harrier.
We arrived at the Banyan Tree Farm Stay near Top Slip in time for a luxurious version of the traditional South Indian thali meal, served on a banana leaf. After this we drove to Top Slip where we were told at the Forest Department reception that birding is not allowed in the afternoon! Unfortunately, illogical restrictions are quite commonplace in India. We drove further on, across the Kerala border, to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve reception to try our luck there – it is all one large contiguous forest, administered separately for each state – but met with the same result. This time we were given a whole host of excuses including all the guides being busy in the forest with other groups, and there only being one lady naturalist available and she doesn’t want to come! Reluctantly we had to spend our time just birding around the Headquarters and along the road nearby. This was actually quite good though, once we had got away from the tourists who were watching Nilgiri Langurs and calling them Lion-tailed Macaques! We had good views of Blue-faced Malkoha, Brown-capped (Indian Pygmy) Woodpeckers, noisy Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Asian Fairy Bluebird, and some lovely Flame-throated Bulbuls.
We then moved back to Top Slip to do some birding near the Headquarters there, and this was equally productive. Excellent views of the endemic Grey-fronted Green Pigeons and Malabar Barbets were good, as was a confiding Asian Brown Flycatcher, but the clear highlight was scope views of a Great Hornbill perched in a tall tree before launching itself into flight.
Here the Nilgiri Langurs were accompanied by ‘Grey’ Langurs, South-eastern Langur being the probable species in this area following a major, and complicated, split of Indian Langurs. Interestingly, a mixed pair of Nilgiri and South-eastern Langurs were seen playing contentedly with each other in a tree! They have been recorded hybridising before.
The following morning, we went back to Top Slip, having ensured permissions the day before. We had some time to wait at the check post before we are allowed in, so birded that lowland area, adding several good species including an impressive 12 Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, Common Woodshrikes, Jerdon’s Bushlark and Large Grey Babbler.
Top Slip has outstanding areas of rainforest, and we had permissions to trek through one of the prime areas, the trail to the Karian Shola watchtower. With the check post not opening until 7am, and a long wait before a forest guard arrived to accompany us, it was unfortunately after 8am by the time we started through the best area of forest. Birding was very enjoyable, although quite tough and not as productive as we’d hoped. We did see a lovely pair of Malabar Trogons, Bronzed Drongos, a rufous adult male Indian Paradise Flycatcher and many of the regular forest species we’d seen the afternoon before, but a regularly calling White-bellied Woodpecker unfortunately could not be seen. A flyover Osprey was an unexpected sighting over the forest clearing at the Karian Shola watchtower.
Leaving Top Slip, we drove into Kerala and broke our journey in the drier scrub forest of Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. After another traditional South Indian lunch, unimaginatively known as ‘meals’ here, we trekked through the park for the afternoon. This was excellent, with the different habitat producing several species we did not encounter anywhere else on the trip, and plenty of bird activity throughout. Grey-bellied Cuckoo was heard calling immediately we arrived, and we had good views of this difficult to find species. A displaying pair of Black-winged Kites, rising and falling together in flight, was a lovely sight, and more breeding activity was in evidence with a pair of mating Crested Treeswifts. Bay-backed Shrike was another typical bird of dry scrub habitat that we knew we wouldn’t find elsewhere on the trip, and Jungle Prinia was also good as they tend to be silent and quite secretive outside of their monsoon breeding season. Here we also saw White-bellied Drongos, and the first of several Brown-breasted Flycatchers for the trip.
We returned for a welcome ‘masala chai’ and held on to our biscuits carefully to guard them from the entertaining – although a little too bold for comfort – Bonnet Macaques!
We enjoyed the birding here so much it was late by the time we left, and our driver safely negotiated the winding roads up to Munnar, bringing us to the appropriately named Misty Mountain Resort well after dark.
Munnar area: Eravikulam National Park and Pampadum Shola
Munnar is the centre of Kerala tea country and a popular tourist destination, and we were visiting at the weekend on the Pongal holiday, an important Hindu harvest festival in south India. This meant that it was busier than normal, and, together with local guide Raja, we made sure to get to the main site, Eravikulam National Park, as early as possible. It was still quite crowded, but this didn’t matter to our target species! Palani Laughingthrush was immediately found in bushes along the main path, and we had incredible close views of the distinctive Nilgiri Pipit walking as close as 1 m to the path at times, and we showed it off to many amused tourists!
White-bellied Sholakili took a bit more effort: there are just a couple of small shola patches accessible from the path and patient waiting at one eventually brought us super views again, along with a pair of Nilgiri Flycatchers. Both the sholakili and the laughingthrush (or chilappan) here are the species counterparts of the Nilgiri equivalents that occur north of the Palghat Gap, and it was great to have had excellent views of all four on this trip. The laughingthrushes are also now in a new genus, Montecincla, ‘mountain songbird’. Incidentally, further south in India the discrete hill range of the Agasthyamalai or Ashambu Hills is home to another slightly different sholakili, likely to be split in the future, as well as the already split Ashambu Laughingthrush.
We spent some time waiting at a small stream area where we saw several Indian Blackbirds, Malabar Whistling Thrush and Indian Blue Robin, but not the hoped-for Nilgiri Thrush, one of the more difficult to see endemics, and which we were unfortunately to miss completely on this trip.
Eravikulam is famous as being one of the best places to see the Nilgiri Tahr. We spent a lot of time scanning the far cliffs for this endangered mountain goat, before finally seeing one totally surrounded by tourists when we returned to the starting point! The sanctuary here was originally founded to protect the tahr, which was nearly wiped out due to hunting. Whilst tahr in the core area, off-limits to tourists, are fully wild and shy, those in the tourism zone have become completely habituated to people.
We also enjoyed prolonged views of a Short-toed Snake Eagle flying low over the grassland and stopping to hover on multiple occasions, and another raptor was a rufous-plumaged ‘Steppe’ Buzzard: the form of Common Buzzard that winters in the Western Ghats.
Post lunch we birded the forest near Munnar town, from the Pallivasal road near Pothamedu. Here there was a nice selection of southern Indian forest birds, including Brown-breasted Flycatcher and Crested Goshawk. Some Southern Hill Mynas perched nearby, enabling us to see how the separate yellow wattles differ from Common Hill Myna of the north. Nice views were had of a perched Mountain Imperial Pigeon, clearly showing its banded tail pattern. This species has a fairly small distribution in the Western Ghats, far separated from the rest of its range in extreme northeast India, and is a likely future endemic split.
The following morning, we decided to try the Pampadum Shola National Park, a less-visited area of shola forest about 1.5 hours’ drive from Munnar. This proved an excellent decision, not least because it was pristine habitat with few other people, and we enjoyed a long walk through it, although the steep descent was precarious. Black-and-Orange Flycatchers and Palani Laughingthrushes were seen regularly, there were more sightings of Malabar Trogon, Malabar Woodshrike, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas and another White-bellied Sholakili, and we caught up with a perched pair of Nilgiri Woodpigeons, after just getting brief flight views earlier in the trip. The forest was very good for wintering warblers, with large numbers and good views of Large-billed Leaf, Western Crowned and Greenish, whilst a single Tytler’s Leaf Warbler feeding at eye level was particularly pleasing as this is a very range-restricted species, not easy to find. An adult Bonelli’s Eagle and Streak-throated Woodpecker were also seen here, and amongst the Hill Swallows was a confusing bird that showed a pale throat and forehead; in its dashing flight past us on multiple occasions we were unable to tell whether this was just a juvenile or something else.
Pampadum Shola is one of the best sites for the endangered endemic Nilgiri Marten and whilst we didn’t expect to come across this elusive mustelid, we did find some freshly laid scat, prominently marking its territory on a fallen log. The Giant Squirrels seen here, as well as many other places on the trip, were a delight to watch, and we also saw the small and gentle-looking Dusky Striped Squirrel.
Navigating the tourist traffic coming back in to Munnar was a pain and didn’t leave us much more time for birding. Katie and Mike just checked the area around our hotel, and pleasingly had excellent views of a Thick-billed Warbler churring constantly in the tea garden. A surprise was a Barking Deer contentedly feeding in a gully in the tea, oblivious to the nearby traffic.
We had time for pre-breakfast birding the next day, so visited Bison Valley road, a slightly different area of the road to Pallivasal. This again produced nice views of many Western Ghats forest species, including a Malabar Whistling Thrush which landed just 5 m from us, and then remarkably flew closer to the limit of our bins’ close focussing distance! We also enjoyed the sight, and especially sound, of many Indian Swiftlets at a cave roost.
Following a quick and successful twitch for yesterday’s Thick-billed Warbler near the hotel for Yogesh, who wasn’t with us yesterday evening, we tucked into a good breakfast and then set off for the drive to Periyar, with a fascinating stop just beforehand to see the medicinal plants and spices growing at an Ayurvedic and spice garden: interesting to meet our kitchen spices face-to-face, so to speak!
Periyar Tiger Reserve
The first job at Periyar was to arrange our treks for the next day, which was accomplished efficiently at the park headquarters thanks to our guides Bindusaran and Johnson. We then walked the Pugmark Trail just inside the park for an enjoyable late afternoon birding session. Periyar is a good location for the endemic White-bellied Treepie and we all caught up with this, as well as the extensively red-headed chlorigaster Lesser Yellownape with its relatively small amount of yellow on the nape: quite different to birds from north India and a potential endemic split in the future. An Indian Cuckoo which posed long enough for some scope views was very nice to see, as it can be very difficult to find at this time of year when not calling. In contrast a Banded Bay Cuckoo did call several times, but couldn’t be seen. Calling also was a Great Hornbill and we eventually found a gap in the trees where we could see one perched up high in a distant tree, with presumably its mate calling out of sight nearby.
We had booked for a full morning’s trekking and this started with a Forest Department bus to the boat jetty, then a short bamboo raft ride across a spur of the lake to the start of a forest trail. With elephants and tigers present, trekking is restricted, and you have to have a forest guard present at all times. Thankfully the Kerala Forest Department is as wildlife and wildlifers friendly as they come in India (in fact it is officially the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department) and it is possible to do several regulated activities, including long private treks such as ours. Even without the birds, this would have been one of the highlights of the trip. The scenery is beautiful, and we saw almost no people, and enjoyed it so much that we barely arrived back in time for the afternoon trek that we had also pre-arranged!
A male White-bellied Blue Flycatcher was one of the first good birds, and both Asian Brown and Brown-breasted were also seen, with a Forest Wagtail typically furtively moving through the leaf litter, wagging its tail from side to side rather than up and down as other wagtails. Shortly afterwards our guide somehow managed to find a roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth in the extensive forest. We stopped for several minutes to watch and listen to a beautiful singing Orange-headed Thrush, of the white-throated South Indian subspecies, not at all bothered by our standing just 10 m away. As the morning wore on, and it became a little hot, small bird activity declined but we had a great period of activity of larger birds. This included Jungle Owlets, Malabar Grey Hornbills and an educational comparison of a pair of Greater Flamebacks with a male Common Flameback, all perched on the trunk of the same tree. We were in quite deep forest most of the time so the opportunities for raptor spotting were limited, but a relatively small gap in the canopy and one point produced another great comparison with a Rufous-bellied Eagle and a Legge’s Hawk Eagle soaring together. Sighting of the morning for some of us was unfortunately very brief but unmistakeable: a rare wintering Chestnut-winged Cuckoo.
After a hurried lunch, and a soaring Black Eagle over the car park, we headed out again, this time to an area of more varied secondary habitat on the edge of the sanctuary. The streamside bamboo here is one of the best places in India to connect with the extremely tough Wayanad Laughingthrush, and between the four of us one managed to get an acceptable view and another the rear end only! Rather more obliging was a roosting pair of Oriental Scops Owls (that our guide identified as Indian Scops-Owl). These were presumably of the peninsula rufipennis subspecies but their apparent small size, and especially dark grey-brown overall colouration, actually seemed more similar to the Sri Lankan subspecies leggei.
A noisy and adorable Heart-spotted Woodpecker gave us great views: it’s very thin neck and tall crest, and short tail, gives it a shape quite unlike anything else, and it is always a delight to see. Another overhead eagle proved to be a Greater Spotted, and further looking vertically up showed some extremely high swifts: mostly White-rumped Needletails (or Spinetails) but with one briefly seen Brown-backed Needletail. All unfortunately were so high and briefly in view that we were left quite unsatisfied! As we returned near the end of the walk, we decided to investigate a slightly marshy field, and found many Pin-tailed Snipes. Strictly speaking they were Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed, as these two are not reliably distinguishable in the field – we did try to get views of the spread tail as they flew at close range, but as usual couldn’t make anything out!
We returned to a similar area as the previous afternoon for our final Periyar birding. We noted an impressive flock of 51 Malabar Starlings in one tree where we had seen some gathering the evening before, and they had presumably roosted there. A very orangey-brown Indian Scops-Owl roosting, either a particular colour morph or the not always recognised subspecies malabaricus, was nice to see, and confused our guide as he made the opposite identification error as the day before, identifying this one as Oriental Scops! We saw what was probably yesterday’s Greater Spotted Eagle again, another Heart-spotted Woodpecker, more White-bellied Treepies and a Rusty-tailed Flycatcher. Finally, just before we left, we had stunning views of a perched adult Legge’s Hawk Eagle.
Throughout the trip birds kept us too busy to pay too much attention to less obvious wildlife. Amongst the great diversity of butterflies, we couldn’t ignore, however, the beautiful Western Ghats speciality Malabar Banded Peacock which we saw here – and ‘scoped’ for several minutes! – and Southern Birdwing, the latter the largest butterfly in India, which were seen here and at Top Slip. An excellent mammal sighting on this morning’s walk was the flying squirrel, presumably Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, seen staring out of a tree trunk hole.
Thattekad Bird Sanctuary
We had left the famous Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, an area of very diverse lowland forest not far from Kochi itself, to last. This had a number of advantages, not least that the group was now familiar with many of the regular Western Ghats birds and could target some missing species without finding the large diversity here overwhelming, which can certainly be the case if this is the first place you visit in India!
We met Danish, our excellent and tireless guide, on arrival, and immediately headed out for birding within walking distance of our picturesque resort, the Soma Birds Lagoon. Here we had lovely views of two more roosting owl pairs, first Brown Hawk Owls and then Brown Wood Owls. An electric Blue-throated Flycatcher was well seen here, as we patiently waited by a tiny stream and watched as Orange-headed and Malabar Whistling Thrushes came in to drink. True to its nickname, we heard five Indian Pittas, the ‘6 o-clock bird’, as dusk arrived.
Thattekad is well-known for owls and nightjars, partly because of an efficient network of guides here who know well the roosting and resting spots. Within minutes of arriving at one suitable area we had a surprise sighting of a stunning Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, and continued on to easily find both Jungle and Jerdon’s Nightjars perched prominently.
Urulanthanni is one area of Thattekad well-known for its general forest birding, and we headed there and up on to a massive granite rock for a commanding view of the area. Just standing here gave us an impressive list of Western Ghats specialities, including Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Crested Goshawk, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Oriental Dollarbird, Malabar Barbet, Greater Flameback, Lesser Yellownape, the mighty White-bellied Woodpecker (having only heard it earlier on the trip), Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Woodshrike, Flame-throated Bulbul, Southern Hill Myna, Malabar Starling and Asian Fairy Bluebird. A short walk nearby produced a cute roosting Slender Loris, which woke briefly from its slumber to wash itself, as well as our only Little Spiderhunters. Eventually returning next to the car we found that we had parked right next to a roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths! From the same spot we also found a Malabar Trogon visiting a probable nest site.
Moving on to a river area nearby we added a roosting Indian Scops-Owl, a pair of Dark-fronted Babblers and Ashy Woodswallows and White-rumped Needletails overhead, before shoes and socks off and a wade downstream was worth it for lovely views of a Blue-eared Kingfisher.
In the afternoon we pushed our luck and tried more walking along streams in pursuit of the other forest kingfisher, Oriental Dwarf, and the rare Malayan Night Heron, but without luck on either front. We did discover a freshly dead Oriental Honey Buzzard, and a lovely close Crested Goshawk nearby which flew only a very short distance when we accidentally disturbed it. We realised the most surprising reasons for this later when the Goshawk flew down to the Honey Buzzard and attempted to drag the, much larger and heavier bird, to the side. It then proceeded to start eating it, from the head and neck area. Whilst Crested Goshawk is mainly a bird eater it has not been recorded scavenging on carrion before as far as we are aware, and we assume it was opportunistically taking advantage of the carcass it had found.
We remained until dark in an attempt to find one of the main targets of the entire trip, Sri Lanka Bay Owl. Danish heard it call and we went off in search of it, but unfortunately were prevented from doing much by the Forest Department because of the presence of elephants in the area. Reluctantly we gave up: elephants at night are not to be messed with!
We started our last full day in the area near Soma Birds Lagoon again, and one of the first birds was one we had been very keen to see, a magnificent Black Baza perched in fantastic light, calmly sitting in a large ficus tree. The detail and contrasting colours of the bird in real-life are so much more impressive than the plate of a field guide.
Up to now we had only heard Indian Pitta and our efforts to see one today were rewarded as we had good views of one on the ground and in the understorey. We also had our best views of White-bellied Treepies, and an impressive eight or more Indian Blackbirds that were coming to a small pool to drink.
As we were returning for breakfast Danish got a call from one of his fellow guides who was in Urulanthanni, where we had been the day before, to say that he was watching a Sri Lanka Bay Owl! Suddenly breakfast became irrelevant and we headed off there. Danish was very confident that it would be there all day, so we casually stopped to see a roosting Brown Fish Owl for a few minutes first!
Shortly afterwards and we were all watching a superb Sri Lanka Bay Owl, roosting above our heads, a definite highlight of the entire tour. It was a little obscured with either a feather or a leaf in front of its face from whichever angle we could view it from, so the group of photographers who were just leaving were quite disappointed, but we were absolutely elated!
Later in the day we revisited the same area: the Crested Goshawk was still guarding its dead Oriental Honey Buzzard, and Danish was right – the Bay Owl had moved just a few centimetres, and the Brown Fish Owl was still in the same spot, together with a second bird that we presumably missed in the morning! Here we had nice views of White-bellied Blue Flycatcher. A flyover ‘Shaheen’, the resident subspecies of Peregrine, was a new species for the trip, as was the Green Imperial Pigeon perched in a distant tree that Mike somehow noticed from the moving car on the drive back!
For our last morning we decided to target Black-throated Munia, an endemic species that is quite widespread, but that we’d managed to miss so far. We had no luck, although did find Chestnut-shouldered Petronia.
Up to now all our birding had been outside the main sanctuary so we decided to visit it for our last birding session. For some reason the main trail has been closed, but is accessible with a guide for an additional ₹500 per person. Instead we visited the Salim Ali trail near the Periyar river, and enjoyed a very pleasant late morning here. We got chatting to a Keralan Fisheries Officer who was visiting and asked if we would mind if he tagged along; it turned out to be a pleasure to have his company as he clearly enjoyed the birds we pointed out and had unlimited amounts of patience to silently watch along with us. Whether he was most fascinated with the birds, or the antics of our strange group of birders, we really don’t know, however! As we considered whether it was time to head back, we decided first to try a somewhat eerie-looking side trail, enclosed by a tunnel of screw-pine, and managed to follow a small group of Red Spurfowls along the path: a final lifer for Katie and a fitting end to the trip.
We then drove to Kochi and the airport, and said goodbye before our flights all in different directions.