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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The South and the Andaman Islands

2009 Tour Narrative

In Brief: It took a few minutes, but then, faint and distant, it called back. The chase was on, and as we stumbled back down the  moonlit track, the calls grew stronger and stronger. It wasn’t interested in coming to the forest edge, so off we set, moving slowly inside the dense forest. Suddenly there it was…. Minutes later it was tracked down again, and it stayed and stayed and stayed. We eventually walked away from this, our only Ceylon Bay Owl of the entire trip. We’d just seen the Bird of the Trip.

In Detail: Our adventure had begun almost two weeks earlier with a flight on the world’s largest passenger plane, the A380, from Heathrow to Dubai. Our first ornithological delights came the following morning, when we had unusually extended scope views of a fine male Indian Blue Robin right in the garden of our Ooty hotel. Later the same day, after a teasing encounter with our first Painted Bush-quail, we were enjoying the delights of birding in the shola forests around this famous hill station, among them strutting Gray Junglefowl, our first demure Nilgiri and secretive Black-and-orange Flycatchers, an extremely cooperative male Kashmir Flycatcher, and a Nilgiri Blue Robin. And then there were the troops of Nilgiri Langurs. There was so much to see—and it was just our first day in South India.

The following day we descended a steep ghat road back to the plains, stopping at a waterfall to admire our first Malabar Whistling Thrush. Switching to two jeeps, we continued lower, seeing a splendid white-morph male Asian Paradise Flycatcher and another spectacular male Indian Blue Robin. We finally also found both Gray-headed Bulbul and Brown-breasted Flycatcher amid the pesky Bonnet Macaques right at the base of the mountain range. Another South Indian endemic, this time in the shape of White-browed Bulbul, fell next, as, spectacularly, did a very cooperative and very handsome male White-bellied Minivet. The following morning saw us searching successfully for Indian Pitta right on the hotel grounds before exploring farther afield. Our excursion yielded a party of three Asiatic Elephants and innumerable avian additions to our burgeoning list.

A Jerdon’s Nightjar flew over the restaurant early next morning, soon followed by a very satisfying encounter with a pair of Red Spurfowl—often the hardest South Indian endemic to see well. After another comfortable night in Ooty, we headed on to Munnar, the second hill station on our wide-ranging tour. Even with a pause to admire a couple of Gaur (or Indian Bison), we still arrived mid-afternoon, giving us plenty of time before dark to search out such specialties as Kerala Laughingthrush, White-bellied Blue Robin, and that ever elusive South Indian endemic, the Nilgiri Woodpigeon. Next morning we headed out revitalized in our quest for the region’s other avian specialties. Indian Broad-tailed Grassbird gave itself up surprisingly quickly, as eventually did a Nilgiri Pipit, followed by another, and another and another. Satiated by almost pointblank views of this often retiring species, we headed back to Munnar for another delicious lunch. Yet more South Indian specialties, this time our first Small Sunbird and Malabar Barbet, were seen that afternoon, and still more the following morning, with small parties of Yellow-throated Bulbuls and Indian Rufous Babblers and a typically elusive Blue-faced Malkoha encountered on the steep Bodi road.

Then it was a change of scene and on to Periyar. After another fabulous sit-down lunch, we took our first jungle walk in the national park’s bird-rich forests, where excellent views of our first Woolly-necked Stork and Rusty-tailed and a pair of White-bellied Blue Flycatchers made sure that we were anything but disappointed. We had three nights at Periyar, and we spent part of one enjoying a Travancore Flying Squirrel in the trees right outside our hotel. The days were devoted to a series of jungle walks; as always, the birding was excellent, featuring repeated encounters with several Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, White-bellied Treepies, Indian Black Woodpeckers, and Malabar and Great Pied Hornbills. And then there was our fabulous encounter with a pair of Indian Wild Dogs.

Our final port of call on the main tour was Thattekad, a site new to us all. It more than lived up to our expectations: a pair of Brown Hawk Owls at a daytime roost over the ticket counter got us off to a fine start, complemented by umpteen more Ceylon Frogmouths and several attractive Flame-throated Bulbuls.

A final night in yet another very comfortable hotel marked the end of the main tour. But for participants in the extension, there was more to come, as we flew west to Chennai (formerly Madras), said to be India’s fastest-growing city. We had an easy day, steeling ourselves for the early starts we expected on the Andaman Islands. Starting with impressive numbers of Andaman Teal, we steadily whittled down the list of island endemics. The night birds—the scops owl, the two hawk owls, and even the nightjar—fell surprisingly easily, and perseverance eventually produced fully nineteen of the island’s twenty endemics, including Andaman Crake, Andaman Cuckooshrike, Andaman Coucal, and Andaman Woodpigeon. Only the barn owl was missed, a split not universally accepted in any case.

So there we had it, a fantastic tour with some fabulous birds and spectacular mammals. Everything ran smoothly, with our superb driver and fine hotels and food. Those of us who had been to Northern India were very much impressed by the scenery in the south, the relative lack of squalor, the quality of many of our hotels, and the wide variety of delicious food available. Roll on, 2011, when we’ll be back! 

- Paul Holt

Updated: March 2010