Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coffee while birding

After the temple visit in Sirsi I was heading south to Ooty. Ooty is short for Ootacamund, or originally Udhagamandalam, if you prefer. It’s a town, a municipality and a district capital nestled high in the Nilgiri Hills which translates directly to 'The Blue Mountains'; just thinking about the place was conjuring up all sorts of exotic images in my mind. Not to mention the birds, many of which are named after the hills, like Nilgiri this and Nilgiri that. I was getting rather excited about arriving, like a little boy waiting in line for an ice cream. I had now left the green wooded hills of the Western Ghats and was ambling through more open terrain. But it would still be a week or so before I got there, and in the meanwhile the lack of forest made me wonder how easy it would be to find spots for wild camping.

Hanging out with locals after another temple visit near Sagar.

My first lifer along the new stretch of road was a small group of Cotton Pygmy Goose, a rather common species which I had missed until now. Some other interesting waterbirds included Oriental Darter, Purple Heron, Lesser Whistling Duck, Indian Cormorant, Black-headed Ibis, and another River Tern.  I was surprised how Indian Pond Herons were just about everywhere, no matter how large or small a patch of water, there was always one or two never far away. Some excellent woodland along the way presented a new species, Malabar Woodshrike, and I am sure there were more potential lifers lurking there. There were often times when I was wedged between making daily progress or taking a little time off for birding; unfortunately I opted for the former more often than I would have preferred...

Great woodland beside the road, just spent too little time birding here.

A Malabar Woodshrike, showing the white stripe below the eye.

The Spotted Dove, a very common species found just about everywhere.

I was invited a couple times for lunch and also to join some college students for cold drinks (the very delicious badam milk), so there were quite a few opportunities for interacting with friendly locals. The top three questions I was asked while in India where as follows, and pretty much in this order too: 1) Which country?, 2) What is your name?, 3) Are you married? My answer to the latter would faultlessly bring about an expression of complete astonishment. They would normally ask the question twice to be absolutely sure they had heard correctly.

The college students who bought me one cold drink after another.

Where there's water there's an Indian Pond Heron.

I took on a small mountain pass, gradually rising about the drier plains and into the moist forest and shade coffee plantations around the village of Santaveri. I left behind Yellow-billed Babbler and Rufous-tailed Lark in the plains as I ascended. An Indian Eagle Owl beside the road was a nice surprise before welcoming the cooler environs around Santavari. The general birdlife also changed rapidly, with Indian Yellow Tit, Rufous Treepie, Ashy Drongo, and Crested Serpent Eagle being spotted along the way. I discovered a delightful coffee stall while taking the roller coaster ride through the plantations, and enjoyed a couple of cups while watching the last hours of daylight pass. Another one of those magical moments, when one is in that space where one experiences complete gratitude and inner stillness. 

Lads on their bikes in Santaveri. They were keen to follow me out of town.

Woodland with shade coffee near Santaveri.

A male Indian Blackbird, another common species in wooded areas. 

The coffee stall, the perfect spot to stop for a breather; wish there were more!

The splendid Indian Yellow Tit.

Santaveri had been like a mini-Ooty in a way, but I only found this out later. Not so much from a birding point of view, but rather in terms of the general topography. I had enjoyed the day ‘higher up’ before dropping down to the plains towards Chikmagalur and Hassan. I welcomed the fresh coconuts and egg puffs that awaited me. White-naped Woodpecker, Brown Shrike, Indian Grey Hornbill and the fairly diminutive Tawny-bellied Babbler also awaited me. The latter were in a group, typical of babblers, but I was surprised at how small they were compared to normal babblers. Yet they retained a similar giss and behaviour as their larger cousins. I also spotted a bushlark species perched on a roadside wire, but without some additional reference point, I was not likely to identify it with any certainty – not the first species to have alluded me thus far, so there was no stress! After negotiating some rather long stretches of pot-holed roads south of Hassan, and failing to find a camp spot, I rolled into Kushalnagar after sunset. I ended up staying two nights at the ‘Iceberg’ Hotel; who cares what the placed is called as long as the rooms are clean!   

Fresh coconut, oh, so delicious!

Camping in a teak woodland.

After indulging in some modest luxury in Kushalnagar I made for Nagarhole National Park. The habitat changed once again to coffee plantations interspersed with teak and bamboo woodlands. Malabar and Plum-headed Parakeets were about, as well as Purple-rumped Sunbird, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, White-cheeked Barbet, and leafbirds. I was having a challenge identifying some of the smaller species without their calls. Relying on a process of elimination I was pretty sure that I was seeing Greenish Warbler and Blyth’s Reed Warbler most of the time. Aerial birds included Barn Swallow, Alpine Swift, Little Swift and Wire-tailed Swallow. Two vulture species circled above, one of which was certainly a Red-headed Vulture thanks to the relatively close views. The other remained rather high but could only have been a White-rumped Vulture judging by the characteristic all-while underwing coverts and darker flight feathers. The Indian population of this vulture species experienced a catastrophic collapse of more than 99%(!) during the 1990s due to unintentional poisoning by diclofenac, a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug used on cattle. Vultures that fed on livestock treated with diclofenac, even just traces of it, suffered from kidney failure and faced a certain death. While all efforts have been made to take the responsible drugs off the markets, one can only hope that this species, once described as possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world, will return to the skies in good numbers. 

Woodland with bamboo; spent far too little time here.

A Red-whiskered Bulbul, a common species throughout.

My visit to Nagarhole National park did not materialise so there is nothing to write about it (relief, it makes this blog post shorter). The road that traverses the park is closed to two-wheelers as it is a tiger reserve, and sprints between cyclists and tigers are not encouraged! So I took a detour to get back on track, and it really did feel like a detour! My map was missing some roads while the distances seemed longer than they should have been, so it felt like I was going nowhere slowly. The signs for ‘The Coffee Camp’ lured me down a track through, you might have guessed, coffee plantations. Though they were closed to visitors due to intensive plantation maintenance, I was invited to pitch my hammock for the night (thank you very much, I won’t decline the offer!). After some morning birding I was on the road again, and in retrospect, I should have tried a little harder for Forest Wagtail among the coffee plants – that was probably my last opportunity to see the species.    
I was not stopped from going through here on my bike.

The Coffee Camp, surrounded by coffee plantations.

A Jungle Striped Squirrel living in a shade coffee plantation.

I don't think this slogan on the windscreen had anything to do with birding.

The coffee gave way to another sort of beverage-making crop. Tea plantations as far as the eye can see were stretched out between me and the Nilgiri Hills that rose from the surrounding countryside. The tea slopes provided some great downhill cycling terrain, which made progress all the more pleasant and effortless. One final delight came in the form of a dumpster beside the road. I could not believe what I saw, and had to back up to make sure of its identity. During the past few weeks I had had a better chance at seeing a unicorn in the forests than finding a bin, let alone a dumpster. It turns out I had crossed into another state, one where bins were clearly more common than elsewhere. Now I could finally dispose of my assorted collection of empty water bottles as I headed for Gudalur, the north-western gateway to the Nilgiri Hills.

Tea in perfect rows.

Slopes with tea and the Nilgiri Hills rising in the distant background.


  1. Great stuff, Eric! I look forward to every post.

  2. Thanks for reading, Rick. I hope to fast track the blog with updates after a few months of being in the sticks. Best, Eric