Thursday, June 26, 2014

Birding the Nilgiri Hills

Finally, I had arrived at ‘The Blue Mountains’. I spent the night in a guest house just above Gudalur before attempting the ascent to the plateau of the Nilgiri Hills. The early morning view over Gudalur was rather spectacular for a start, with a flock of Indian Swiflets dashing back and forth to complete the picture. The occasional Dusky Crag Martin was also about showing off. 

Morning view above Gudalur.

The pass meandered through extensive tea plantations, dotted with numerous Silver Oaks. The trees provide the tea plants with shade during summer while their leaf litter maintains soil moisture, all the while not competing for resources - so the tea plants benefit all the way by having the trees around. While taking the slow ride up, I saw my first Oriental White-eyes, in a Silver Oak. I was somewhat baffled as to why I had not seen the species earlier in India, but then did not want to burden myself trying to work that one out. Further along I had my first views of the very splendid Blue-capped Rock Thrush, but it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and I was left desiring better views. A pair of Grey Junglefowl also showed themselves briefly before taking cover in the rows of tea. Once I reached the native forest, a few more lifers appeared in quick succession, including the exquisite Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, a male Nilgiri Flycatcher (the first of many Nigiri something somethings) and Black Bulbul. Other species not new to me were Malabar Whistling Thrush, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Orange Minivet, Grey Wagtail, Black-fronted Babbler and Blue Rock Thrush. 

Maybe halfway there, climbing up to the Nilgiri Plateau.

The Blue Rock Thrush is a rather attractive bird, despite being only 'blue'.

Another 'blue' bird, the Nilgiri Flycatcher, which is rather common.

I reached the top in seven hours, but it felt more like four thanks to the distracting birds. I then realised why the Nilgiri Hills are not quite what they used to be. Much of the forests had been cleared for tea while the rest had been invaded by non-indigenous plant species, such as Black Wattle and Blackwood. There are no doubt more threats, but I recognised these trees instantly from South Africa, where they are also a threat along the country’s south coast. Despite the habitat alternating between tea, tree plantations and native forest, a little birding in the latter made sure I secured the Nilgiri Laughingthrush on my trip list. This species is also known as the Black-chinned Laughingthrush. I also spotted a primate, the Nilgiri Langur, atop a tall tree looking rather distinctive with its all black colouration barring the paler fur on its head.

The view that greeted me at the top of the Nilgiri Plateau.

I headed straight for Ooty as I was keen to explore the botanical garden there, which has a reputation for holding some Nilgiri specials. But not before stopping off at the Chocolate Museum on the way, and stocking up on some dark chocolate. Inside the museum I read that dark chocolate can give headaches when consumed in large quantities; I can confirm that this is indeed true. I ended up spending a full day at the botanical garden, getting most of what I wanted to see, while also being interviewed by a reporter for the ‘The Hindu’ newspaper, southern India’s biggest English read. 

The Chocolate Museum on the way to Ooty.

A recycling sign in Ooty.

Indian scaffolding is built to last.

My strategy for birding the garden was simple, and I followed the local birding advice precisely – head straight through the lower crowded lawns of the garden and make your way up to the higher grounds in the far back corner of the garden. It is in this well wooded part of the gardens where the magic happens and I was not disappointed. The birds rolled in quickly, picking up the following in a couple hours: Nilgiri Thrush, Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher, Crested Goshawk, Indian Scimitar-babbler, Indian Blue Robin, and the two highlights for me, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher and the breath-taking Black-and-Orange Flycatcher. The latter is a particularly spectacular bird, will the colour combination being almost insane. I spent the rest of the day alternating between the upper and lower slopes to complete the list with widespread species such as Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, White-spotted Fantail, Black-headed Cuckooshrike among others, and White-breasted Waterhen near the ponds. 

The well-wooded upper corner of the Ooty Botanical Garden.

What a bird, the Black-and-Orange Flycatcher.

Grey-headed Canary-flycatchers were rather confiding in the garden.

A Crested Goshawk in the Ooty Botanical Garden.

A singing Nilgiri Thrush.

An Indian Blue Robin, staying close to the dense hedge row.

The open lawns of the botanical garden, worth strolling through for a look.

The mid-slopes of the Ooty Botanical Garden.

The Tickell’s Leaf Warbler is a rather abundant species in the area.

A silhouette of a Ashy Drongo.

The next day I visited the Cairn Hill Forest Reserve a little to the south of Ooty. Birding by bike means that one can’t get to every site, so I skipped a few which would have been hard work getting to or would have taken too long to reach. The Cairn Hill Forest Reserve delivered pretty much everything I had seen at the botanical garden, plus an extra, the Nilgiri Blue Robin. It was a delight to see this bird, rather unexpectedly, and to discover that it was fairly common in the right place. I also got a mammal lifer, a rather colossal one in the physical sense. While walking one of the paths I spotted a Gaur (Indian bison) through the thickets, a mere 50 m or so from me. The bulls are impressive beasts with massive dorsal ridges; the kind of animal you don’t want to bump into when its in a bad mood. A near life-size drawing of a gaur on a stone slab stuck behind a tree beside one of the forest paths fooled me for a split second; I must have still been in high-alert mode after having seen the real thing earlier.

A Nilgiri Blue Robin in the Cairn Hill Forest Reserve.

Nilgiri Laughingthrush top right, Nilgiri Wood Pigeon bottom left.

This fake Gaur actually made me stop in my tracks!

I was on my way out of the reserve, when I flushed a small group of Tree Pipit foraging on the edge of the woods, just where one would expect them to be. That wrapped up my birding at Ooty and I was again on the road heading for Coonoor on the south-eastern edge of the Nilgiri plateau. Not far from Ooty I stopped at a spot to admire the view of the sweeping hills below the first major descent. A small swallow gliding past caught my attention – smaller than a Barn Swallow, this was indeed a Hill Swallow. While I spent some time here to get better views of this new species, I spotted a Nilgiri Pipit calling from lower down the grassy slope. This species lacks the typical malar stripes that most pipit species have and also has an all-black bill, making it a rather different-looking pipit. After getting great views of the pipit I felt things were looking too good to rush off anywhere. The afternoon was beginning to draw to a close, so I decided to camp there for the night and do some photography the next morning. While no new lifers awaited me the next day, I thoroughly enjoyed taking a full morning off for bird photography. The species diversity was relatively low but I still had an entertaining time chasing Pied Bushchat, Jungle Myna, Ashy Prinia, Grey Junglefowl, Common Rosefinch and the Hill Swallows. Getting any reasonable photos of the later was a challenge and delivered nothing noteworthy.  

Sunrise over the Nilgiri Hills.

A striking male Pied Bushchat.

A Nilgiri Pipit; note the all-black bill and lack of malar stripes.

A Grey Junglefowl with raised neck feathers.

At Coonoor I took the road to the vantage points at Lamb’s Rock and Dolphin’s Nose; two popular locations giving unrivaled views of the plains below the Nilgiri escarpment. The scenery on this side of the Nilgiri Hills was quite something. Besides the extensive tea plantations, there was also a fair coverage of forest through which the main access road traversed. Besides the usual forest species, there were some species I had not seen for some time, such as Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Brown-Cheeked Fulvetta, Crimson-backed Sunbird, and Jungle Babbler.  A pair of soaring Black Eagles was new to me, as well as a Legge’s Hawk Eagle rising on the thermals above Dolphin’s Nose. I ended up spending two nights in the area, with an early morning ride through the forest delivering the globally threatened Nilgiri Wood Pigeon. I managed to spot this species a couple times more, their heavy wing-clapping usually giving away their presence as they fly through the canopies in search of berries and other succulent treats.   

Sunrise over Lamb's Rock view point.

The view point at Dolphin's Nose.

A Bonnet Macaque enjoying the spoils taken from an unsuspecting visitor.

Only the nuts were eaten. I nearly wept watching this.

Another with more spoils, at Dolphin's Nose.

The lights of Mettupalayam city on the plains, as seen from Dolphin's Nose.

A pair of Black Eagles over Lamb's Rock view point.

Anything can be transported on a bike in India.

On the return to Coonoor, a pair of Streak-throated Woodpecker was spotted in a tea plantation, while excessive chattering from a mixed group of birds drew my attention to a roosting Brown Wood Owl. After Coonoor the descent from the Nilgiri plateau was spectacular, both from a scenery and birding perspective. Forest stretched in all directions as the road snaked its way down - a truly spectacular ride. I really took my time; and stretched what could have been an hour's ride into one and a half days, while spending two nights camping in the forest. 

There was no short supply of lifers, which included the very splendid Asian Fairy Bluebird, Lesser Hill Myna, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Besra (a small sparrowhawk), Rufous Babbler, Black-faced Munia, and a brief glimpse of the much sought-after White-bellied Treepie. The highlight was indeed the massive and impressive Great Hornbill; how such a large bird can stay airborne while flapping its way from one tree to the next is a mystery to me. The next surprise was a sighting of my first wild Asian Elephant, a single animal leisurely browsing in a valley below the village of Burliar.

The descend from Coonoor.

Elephants have right of way.

A wild Asian Elephant in the Nilgiri forest.

A closer view.

The road snaking its way down through endless forest below Coonoor.

A female Malabar Parakeet.

The forest was teeming with birds, with numerous species making appearances, such as Malabar Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, another Nilgiri Blue Robin, Indian Yellow Tit, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Bronzed Drongo, and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. When I reached the plains below I was greeted by White-browed Wagtail, Wire-tailed Swallow, Little Cormorant and a herd of Water Buffalo relaxing in the water at the first river crossing at Mettupalayam. 

Water Buffalo chilling in the river at Mettupalayam.

The drier plains below the Nilgiri Plateau.

Watermelon for sale by the road side; a real treat for cyclists.

The countryside had now changed to dry plains and thorn trees were common. In Tirupur I was approached by Raj, who was keen to host me for the night. This being my second invite to stay over at someone’s, I was happy to oblige. Raj shared a single room with a friend and fellow student, who regularly played his hand-made flute in the doorway to their room. They were both pretty adept at making meals from scratch, as they prepared traditional dishes for dinner and breakfast. I was grateful for the opportunity to be hosted by them, and experience a little more of daily life in India. After farewells I was heading towards Tiruchirapalli (or Trichy for short), where I would catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. 

Raj preparing dinner.

Raj's friend playing his hand-made flute.

As I cycled east it was clear that Common Mynas had now replaced Jungle Mynas, which had dominated the Western Ghats. I also added a few new species to my list, including Blue-faced Malkoha, Indian Thick-knee and Indian Peafowl. I missed a potential White-eyed Buzzard which was simply too far away to tick with certainty. Other common species of the drier habitat were Yellow-billed Babbler, Indian Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, Black Drongo, Indian Roller, Purple Sunbird, Hoopoe, and Common Woodshrike. The occasional Shikra was also spotted perched in a tree or dashing by after prey. In Trichy I did a little sight-seeing from the Rock Fort, which had panoramic views over the city, and visited the rock-cut Thayumanavar Temple inside the fort. The rock itself is 83 metres high and is considered one of the oldest formations in the world at 3.8 billion years of age. The temple dates back to the 6th century and is rather impressive, particularly the column structures (sorry, no photos allowed so you would have to go and see for yourself!). 

An Indian Robin with characteristic chestnut vent.

Looking for a place to rent?

Friendly shopkeepers who gave me free snacks.

Cricket being played on the way to Trichy.

Stairway to the Thayumanavar Temple, Rock Fort, Trichy.

Stairway carved into rock to the upper temple, Rock Fort.

View over Trichy from Rock Fort, with the Kollidam River beyond.

That brought an end to my six weeks of touring nearly 2000 km through southern India, and I must admit it was a very pleasant experience. So pleasant that India rates as one of my top ‘must cycle again’ countries. The scenery, wildlife and friendly people are all first class.