Grand Southern India Dec 31, 2009—Jan 23, 2010
Posted by David Bishop
From the bustling city of Bangalore, India's equivalent of Silicon Valley, we drove back in time to the lovely and surely medieval village of Kukri Bellur. Replete with nesting endangered Spot-billed Pelicans and gloriously-colored Painted Storks, this village is everything one imagines of another age. Nearby wet rice fields held skeins of egrets and ibis, including surprising numbers of the primitive-looking Red-naped Ibis.
In the attractive city of Mysore, our accommodations at the Lalitha Mahal Palace were quite splendid. Those not so entranced by the lure of the museum and Mysore Palace (although I don't think anyone that night who looked upon the palace all lit up will ever forget that scene) birded the grounds of our "hotel." We enjoyed good views of our first White-browed Bulbuls and a nice collection of more widespread species.
Our second morning in the field brought us to the small and yet richly-endowed Salim Ali Sanctuary at Ranganthitoo, a little piece of paradise. Set on the Cauvery River, this important sanctuary is the nesting home to seemingly every conceivable large wading bird. How marvelous to enjoy such close proximity to breeding plumage Eurasian Spoonbills with their golden throats edged in scarlet, and chattering Asian Open-billed Storks, while huge mugger crocodiles watch balefully from their basking rock. Noisy Stork-billed Kingfishers; a silvery male Paradise Flycatcher; a charming colony of Streak-throated Swallows; and gigantic fruit-bats all added to an exciting, effervescent scene and reminded us of the rich biological diversity of the incredible domain that is India. We made an all too short stop at Sringapatnam, where the great British Napoleonic wartime leader, the Duke of Wellington, thrashed in battle the errant "Tiger of Mysore," Tippu Sultan, before heading on to Nagarhole National Park.
Uphill and down dale we trundled across ever and ever increasingly wilder countryside until we reached the gates of the vast Nagarhole National Park. Together with the adjoining Mudumalai, Bandipur, and Wynaad reserves, Nagarhole encompasses an area of approximately 2,000 sq km. During the next couple of days we concentrated our efforts on Nagarhole with its relatively more luxuriant, lower elevation forests and, consequently, more diverse array of birds and mammals. This vast area supports one of the highest tiger prey densities anywhere in Asia; as a result, Nagarhole supports one of the few truly thriving populations of tigers anywhere within the great cat's range. Similarly large numbers of leopard too are present. Neither species is easy to observe, as they have learned well to hide themselves from man. Nevertheless, with the aid of an openbacked jeep and a boat we ventured out at dawn and dusk to quietly seek out these and the myriad of other wildlife forms for which Nagarhole is home.
"Nagarhole is everything one might imagine wild India to be: vast, vast woodlands alive with bird song and the territorial calls of barking deer, only silenced by the nervetingling roar of courting tigers; herds of elephant, sometimes a hundred strong, wading unmolested across the delightful Kabini River; giant gaur somnolently munching on rich pasture, or an Indian Nightjar trilling from our path as we make our way home in the dark."
Nagarhole is a reminder of what wild India was really like—seemingly endless forests and grasslands teeming with wildlife. Some of the species we encountered here included amazing views of gaudy Gray Junglefowl; hordes of Roseringed, sumptuous Plum-headed, and Malabar parakeets; a rich and exciting coterie of woodpeckers including the diminutive Heart-spotted; nesting White-bellied Woodpeckers and a very responsive pair of spectacular Greater Flamebacks; Forest Wagtails, unusually common and easy to see; and Orange Minivets that formed a luminescent part of the numerous, large mixed flocks that we continually bumped into, including a goodly collection of real birds (Babblers for those not yet familiar with this wonderful group of Asian birds!). But the mammals stole the show. One morning we spied a superb male leopard hunting—moving with the grace and intensity that only cats do; we gazed in sheer unbridled admiration at the beauty and power of this handsome creature. Such memories as these are indelibly inscribed forever. But that wasn't all: herds of enormous gaur emerging from the forest after dark to the accompaniment of a tiger's roar and the alarm calls of Sambar deer; several side-striped mongooses hunting at the lake's edge; elephants here and there, well-scattered at this time because there was so much water available; and a fine supporting cast of several species of deer, monkeys, and squirrels. This is the India I so love and revere.
And this was just the start of what was to be a truly wonderful tour of Southern India and the Andaman Islands. Other highlights that immediately come to mind include a fabulous morning trek in Periyar National Park where, much to my astonishment, we found a Ceylon Bay-Owl at its roost. This is one of the least-known birds in India, so to find and photograph it at its roost site in the middle of the forest was nothing short of amazing. On the same morning we enjoyed view after view of a pair of beautiful Malabar Trogons, as well as a fine collection of woodpeckers, hornbills, pigeons, and Yellow-browed Bulbuls to mention but a few. Elsewhere on this wonderful tour we had fantastic views of two very rarely encountered Nilgiri Wood-Pigeons—in fact, not very far from our wonderful new lodge in the Munnar area.
Our day at the Thattekad Sanctuary will surely never be forgotten. Starting with fabulous scope views of a pair of Brown Hawk-Owls, we continued on in the same vein with scope views of our second Indian Pitta. Then, at a clearing, we watched as species after species trooped by, but not before sitting out in the treetops for us to dwell on them: endemic White-bellied Treepies; a pair of Rufous Woodpeckers; eventually a very obliging and most dapper Black Baza—surely one of the world's most handsome raptors; and then, thanks to some very fine spotting, daytime views of a roosting Great-eared Nightjar. What a morning! But it was not over yet. Our incredibly knowledgeable guides led us further down the track where we found not just one, but four fantastic Ceylon Frogmouths also roosting. The youngster looked exactly like the model for "ET." As the day warmed up, our guides treated us to an identification dissertation on the local butterflies, in addition to finding some neat reptiles—that Draco sp. flying-lizard for one. We had a delightful, relaxed lunch at this new bird lagoon lodge resplendent with its own resident Stork-billed Kingfisher. We snoozed the warm hours away before heading out once again to enjoy incredible views of a pair of richly-marked Mottled Wood-Owls. What a day!
Our final stop in the Andaman Islands was simply marvelous and our two-and-a-half-days there were never going to be enough. However, we saw most of the endemics including large numbers of the poorly-known Andaman Teal, as well as a fine collection of shore and marsh birds to add to our burgeoning list.
Thank you one and all for helping make this such a successful and thoroughly enjoyable trip to one of my favorite parts of Asia.