Birding at Thattekad

Thattekad is in a small hamlet (Kothamangalam) nestled amidst lush green teak and banana plantations. A ninety minute drive from the town of Ernakulam / Kochi in Kerala, it is known for the Dr.Salim Ali bird sanctuary that boasts of over two hundred species of migratory and non-migratory birds. We arrived there on a sunny winter morning in the December of 2013. Our overnight bus trip from Bengaluru and the subsequent taxi ride to our destination did leave us weary. But once we arrived at the Hornbill Camp, which was our chosen place of stay at Thattekad, all our exhaustion melted away as we sized up the quiet and cosy camp by the serene backwaters of the Periyar.

The camp staff gave us a warm welcome and quickly showed us to our tent – an African style luxury tent that would give any hotel room a run for its money. A quick shower and breakfast later, we were raring to start. Unfortunately, it was too late in the morning to do the famed birding trek, so we decided to save that for the next day. For now, we picked canoeing with one of the guides. As we pushed out onto the calm water,  I ensured that the 300mm prime lens I had rented and the 70-300 that I had recently purchased were ready to see some action. Fifteen minutes of paddling brought us to a lagoon where we made our first exciting sighting – an Osprey sitting atop a lone dead tree that stuck out of the water like a sentinel. The bird obliged us by diving for fish and the only regret I had was that I couldn’t capture this wonderful bird on camera – the canoe was bobbing and I had no way of getting the lens out without getting it wet. The Malabar Giant squirrel was next on the list – we caught it scampering up a tree as we glided by a small island. .
A couple of cormorants and kingfishers were the only other birds that had ventured out that sunny afternoon.

After some much-needed shut-eye on the heavenly river-side hammocks outside our tent, we went for a stroll around the camp and struck gold. First, we spotted an absolutely gorgeous racquet-tailed Drongo. After following that around for a bit, we spotted a flame-backed woodpecker atop a coconut tree. After using many megabytes on the camera with a trigger-happy finger, we continued down the meandering road. One of the guides at the camp had told us about a spot near a Shiva temple where, if we were lucky, we could spot the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Turns out, we weren’t so lucky, but then not completely unlucky either – we ended up spotting a pair of beautiful treepies that were busy devouring the fronds of an areca nut tree.

The next morning, we started early for our much-awaited trek and it did not disappoint. The Salim Ali bird sanctuary itself is a small swathe of forest that is fenced off and visitors are no longer permitted inside. So, we have to make do with other patches of forest in the same area. Thankfully, the birds don’t seem to know the difference and are found in abundance well outside the sanctuary as well 🙂 Down a forest path with some of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen, we went. A kilometre or so later we arrived at a hillock and our guide took us half way up the hillock and asked us to get our cameras and binoculars ready. A fluttering orange minivet was the first to make an appearance. Quick to follow was a well-hidden male Koel, a stunning vernal hanging parrot and the startling bright pompadour green pigeon. But the star attraction of the day were the pair of Malabar Grey Hornbills which showed up on a nearby fig-tree and hung around till pretty much all the fruits on that tree were polished off.

On our trek back, our guide ushered us into a thicket to show us another exotic and hard-to-spot attraction – the Ceylon Frog-mouth. A very odd-looking nocturnal bird, it hides in the thickest of thick bushes during the day and we were lucky that we spotted one. During the night , they flit around with their frog-like mouths open and make a meal of whatever unsuspecting insect flies in.

After crossing a sparkling brook with invitingly  clear water, we ran into a pair of white-bellied woodpeckers climbing a gigantic chini tree that was soaring into the sky. As far as woodpeckers go, these were the biggest I had ever seen – they looked enormous even as they shyly scurried up.

That afternoon, another canoe trip to spot the Osprey proved to be less than fruitful – the majestic bird was nowhere to be seen. A bicycle ride however proved to be quite exciting as I got to spot a colourful Eurasian Kingfisher, the dainty Malabar starling, a pair of smoky little pied kingfishers and dozens of noisy river terns.

Our two nights were done quickly and we returned with wonderful memories of tracking and capturing our feathered friends on camera. Would highly recommend Thattekad to all you birders out there – a veritable paradise for those with a camera or a pair of binoculars in hand. Oh and a book of Indian birds might come in handy unless of course you are gifted with an eidetic memory.

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