Kerala Uncorked

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Kerala & Tamil Nadu ~ A Pictorial Report
 by David Williams
March - April 2010


© David Williams

This is an edited version of a report originally posted in the North Wales Birding Forum. The post contains many more images and can be viewed here

March 5th 2010 9.00am. Having endured the freezing cold of -5 degrees whilst waiting for our car park transfer to Manchester International T2 we were now in our seats on a Qatar Airways Airbus 330 flight to Doha for onward connection to Trivandrum, Kerala, South India.

As the engines roared into life and we started to move down the runway I had a sense of both excitement and trepidation. It wasn't the anticipation of flight that had me feeling slightly anxious but the holiday ahead! As usual we had chosen to go somewhere where hopefully I could indulge my passion for wildlife photography and Claire could simply relax, read a book and enjoy the sunshine but the itinerary we were embarking on was leaning very firmly in favour of my interests, I just hoped Claire would not regret she had agreed to it!
It was almost 4 years to the day since my last (and first) visit to Kerala but it had had life changing consequences! On that first trip, organised through a leading British package tour operator we had been lucky to have had an excellent guide who, at only 21, was incredibly knowledgeable and extremely passionate about wildlife. He was responsible for re-awakening my own interest in wildlife which I hadn't had time to indulge in as I had been too busy with my career until my retirement a month or so before hand. The new camera I had bought for that trip was soon replaced by more equipment and now, four years later we were embarking on our 5th trip to the Indian sub continent. 

This holiday was to be a bit different, a grand tour and who better to help organise it than the young man I had met 4 years previously. Together with 2 partners they have formed a travel company, Eco Ventures, which, as it's name suggests, specialises in wildlife tours. The advantage of using an Indian based operation is twofold. You avoid the double cost of paying a British operator and an Indian one, and with expert knowledge on the ground you can have a tailor made trip to suit your own needs and budget. Now that Qatar fly direct from Manchester, flying from the North of England to India has never been easier for the independent traveller as there are many options from their Doha hub. 
Our own trip was to cover 27 nights and involved staying in 12 different venues all which were quite different! 

© David Williams
Kovalam beach

The first couple of days were really designed to recover from our trip and allow Claire to indulge in a bit of poolside luxury before embarking on our tour. Having stayed in Kovalam previously we knew a good spot to hire a sunbed situated on the sea wall at Samudra Beach. The first day I didn't bother taking my camera but noticed a few terns flying past. I returned fully equipped the next day and I wasn't disappointed. The local fishermen had chosen to haul in their nets right in front of us, and what better way to attract the local bird life!!! Where were all these Terns coming from? Further investigation revealed a large inland lagoon in the grounds of the Taj Cove Green hotel which the terns were using as a roost. Also to be seen where several other species, including a Wood Sandpiper and cattle Egret that allowed really close views.

© David Williams
Wood Sandpiper

The first few days had passed and, although the birding results weren't exactly earth shattering, they had provided me with some pleasant alternative to getting stuck into a paperback. 
Running total to date 12 species confirmed, 1 lifer.
The time had come to move on to the next venue!
Leaving Kovalam behind was not too difficult. In the 4 years since our previous visit little appeared to have changed down on the beach front, if anything it had deteriorated a bit. Lighthouse Beach has it's advantages, a good choice of restaurants, many specialising in freshly caught seafood and best of all a cold drink is always available, something not to be taken for granted as it turned out! However, it's best viewed at night when it looks quite attractive when lit up! At the beginning of March it appeared very quiet, certainly not many foreign visitors but compared to what lay ahead it turned out to be relatively busy!

© David Williams
Arippa Inspection Bungalow

Day 4 had arrived and Praveen arrived to pick us up, and along with business partner Suraj, we where on our way to Arippa forest reserve, our accommodation described as an " inspection bungalow". As it turned out we were one of the first guests for what is a new venture being run by the Forestry Dept and Eco Ventures have the sole usage. The accommodation is spacious, comfortable and clean even if it isn't the most modern in style inside. The package includes all meals and there is a staff of two who make a good variety of local dishes to suit all palates. Best of all it has a large fridge, and thanks to Praveen and Suraj, it was well stocked with beers from the local government liquor shop. Alcohol sales are strictly controlled in Kerala, "off sales" are run by the government and licenses to retail in hotels and bars very expensive. Consequently it's not always possible to find somewhere for a cold beer, and when you do, it's sometimes "under the counter" and you can find yourself enjoying beer served from a teapot into a china mug! 
No problem at Arippa though, and just as well! The weather was scorching hot and thirst levels were soon very high. Reading the limited entries in the guest book there was one made by an RSPB warden from the UK. He was reporting a total of 76 bird species sighted in the 48 hours he had stayed. He went on to comment that, prior to his visit here, he had expected the famous bird reserve at Thattekkad to be the highlight of his trip but it had been well and truly eclipsed by Arippa. Praise indeed and something for us to look forward to! 
The truth is this did indeed turn out to be a fabulous (and it appears, previously unknown) site but it is not a photographers paradise.

© David Williams
Praveen, Suraj and myself in typical scenery

Views are often fleeting or partially obscured but I did manage one or two reasonable shots. The best was probably these Rufous Woodpeckers

© David Williams
Rufous Woodpecker

There were better views around the bungalow where the trees are much thinner. The Racket Tailed Drongo was a lifer, but soon turned into one of the most frequently spotted species. 

© David Williams
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

Distant views of a Crested Serpent Eagle were another first but largely speaking, this is a bird listers paradise rather than a photographers.
Included in our stay was a night time jeep safari which was enjoyable, and we did manage to spot some Sambar deer but by and large there isn't too much to threaten your safety in these forests so it's a good place to wander on your own if you so desire. One thing to be aware of though are the bees nests which are huge and something I wouldn't want to aggravate!
By the time our 2 days were up, with Praveen's excellent ID skills we had notched up a total of 66 species seen and a further 4 heard. Considering it was later in the season than the previous sighting of 76 we were more than satisfied. Besides when we compared lists we had between us scored a total of 101 species in a very short space of time. Truly a great spot! 
My own trip tally had now risen to 75 and included an incredible 32 lifers. It's also worth noting that 15 of these species I didn't see elsewhere so certainly worth the visit.

Whilst we were at Arippa we were joined by Manoj who was to be our driver for the next week or two. Like everyone else who spends time with Praveen he too has become enthusiastic about wildlife, and, although his ID skills are on a level with mine, his eyesight is something else and he became invaluable as a spotter! Not only that, but his vehicle is always immaculate, he's great company and an all round good guy!

As we bade farewell to Praveen and Suraj for the time being, we set off on the next leg of the journey which would take us away from the coastal belt heading inland. Kerala is about about 375 miles long from north to south, 75 miles at it's widest point from west to east and the whole state sits on the western side of the southern tip of India. Kerala hasn't earned the nickname "God's Own Country" without reason. The state is scenically magnificent. Other than the north south route which tends to be very busy, often clogged with traffic and a driving experience similar to "Whacky Races"!, the roads further inland are much quieter. Road quality isn't always the highest and fortunately Manoj was happy to "go with the flow" and let us enjoy the scenery. A journey that might take an hour to complete in the UK might take several in Kerala something I should have taken into account before booking my flight tickets as Kerala is served by three airports that Qatar use. One to remember next time!

© David Williams
Ranni Homestay

Still we were on our way to the next destination, an homestay in Ranni. An homestay is basically what we would call a B&B but includes all meals. A great way to experience a foreign country provided you choose the right ones! We hit the jackpot, but again, Praveen's local knowledge was an advantage. Vijoy and Reena were top hosts. I think we were their first guests and they were as apprehensive as we were, but what lovely people! 
There house is a traditional, colonial style bungalow set in a rubber plantation. The plantation is not productive at the moment as it's waiting for the trees to start yielding sap again. Consequently our hosts also have a place in Trivandrum where Vijoy has a stained glass business. The plantation bungalow is a piece of paradise. My favourite feature is the garden room
. From here you can watch the garden unhindered by glass, and if the opportunity arises grab the shot! 

© David Williams
Malabar Grey Hornbil

One of the most common bird sounds in India comes from another Indian endemic, the White Cheeked Barbet. Not always easy to see, this one was in full flow! 

© David Williams
White-cheeked Barbet

Away from the house you could wander into the rubber plantation and admire the various plants and what they produce. Vanilla pods, nutmeg, cinnamon tree, coffee, pineapple, all magical to see growing in front of you. The scenery around and about was beautiful too. The plantation covers an hillside above a river which is in the process of being dammed. For the loss of a few acres Vijoy will have his own private lake! Understandably, he has decided to venture into the tourism business. 
Vijoy too has been hit by the birding bug and was only too keen to take us out for some roadside birding from the top of the nearby hill range. 
One of the first birds spotted was by Manoj. Without him we would certainly have missed the beautiful endemic Malabar Trogan.

© David Williams
Malabar Trogon

Other sightings included this Grey Junglefowl which reminds me of the joke "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

© David Williams
Grey Junglefowl

Plus good views of other species including Southern Hill Myna, Scarlet Minivet, Ruby Throated Bulbul plus a few others. 
Whilst walking along the mountain road we also heard the distinctive sound of an elephant feeding on it's favourite bamboo. Each time it snapped a fully grown branch with effortless ease, the sound carried like a rifle shot across the hillside. We were within a few hundred yards. Closer access from the road wasn't possible and just as well. We found out later that day that this lone male elephant is a rogue, thrown out by the herd they can be extremely irritable and vengeful. This particular elephant had killed two pilgrims to the nearby church earlier in the week. 
All too soon the time to leave Ranni had arrived. Reluctantly we bade farewell to Vijoy and Reena and thanked them for their superb hospitality. We had been extremely well fed with some of Vijoy's Mum's food and Reena shared some recipes to take home. I was more than touched that Vijoy gave me his hardback version of the famous Salim Ali's "Birds of Kerala" and to Claire a beautiful piece of stained glass. It was hard to say goodbye so we arranged that we would meet up again in Kovalam before going home. 
Ranni hadn't been that productive in bird numbers but from a holiday point of view, truly superb. 
The ongoing total for species seen moved on to 84, and despite the fact we had only ID'd 15 species here, 3 were not seen on other parts of the trip and I had now 37 "lifers" under my belt. 

Leaving Ranni behind we headed deeper into the countryside, crossing dried up river beds often seeing local people going about their daily routine of washing and laundry. The bridge at Mundakayam was a great place to spot some bird life too. The further we went the more spectacular the scenery.

© David Williams

Gradually , and after several hours drive we approached our next destination, but not before a rather hair raising moment on the road when a local town had ground to a standstill due to a sit in across the road followed by a march. We were stuck right next to the entrance of a market square where the protesters were being directed. Suddenly, and for reasons unknown to us they started pouring back out, our vehicle was surrounded and being jostled by protesters. The local police started to wield sticks to get the crowd back in order and Manoj told us to lock the doors as he tried to edge through the heaving mass. Thankfully we got away unscathed with the help of the police.
Approaching midday, we made a rendezvous with an opened top jeep to transport us for an overnight stop at Gavi in the heart of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Access into the park is limited and entry points guarded. No one is allowed in after 6.00pm until 6.00am unless you are staying there.
Accommodation is limited to about 50 people staying either in the lodge or, newly erected tents. We were in a tent. 

© David Williams
Gavi, Periyar Tiger Reserve

The setting was beautiful, overlooking the nearby lake. The lodge and restaurant were a hundred metres away, and at night the tents were secured from the wildlife by an electric fence. That's if there had been any. 
Out journey to the centre had been reasonably productive but as it was around midday, most birds were inactive. The open
-topped jeep allowed good views but the vibration from the engine made photography difficult, plus the driver wasn't photography minded so views were not always suitable. We did get the odd one though, like the endemic Malabar Parakeet

© David Williams
Malabar Parakeet

Following a reasonable lunch we were offered a rowing boat trip on the lake by our assigned guide. It soon became apparent that apart from 3 Little Grebes and a single Darter there was little to see.

A guided sunset walk just for the two of us to watch the wildlife revealed virtually nothing, certainly no animals and very few birds. Having taken my heavy backpack containing bins' TC's and the 300mm lens plus tripod with camera and 500mm lens mounted I was a little disappointed, to say nothing of being incredibly thirsty, following this 5-6 mile walk in the heat. Back at the camp my enquiry as to whether it was possible to buy a cold drink was met with a negative response. Ah well, forewarned we had brought a bottle of Gin and some Limca (the best substitute mixer we could find) so we sat on our oil lamp lit patio and sipped this tepid concoction. After dinner we were taken on a night time jeep safari which revealed nothing more than two Sambar deer and a Black-naped Hare, afterwards a couple more G&L's and then bed. No electricity was available, the brick built toilet at the rear of the tent had only cold water and for the first and only time on the holiday we were pretty cold during the night having only a single sheet to keep us warm. Fortunately Manoj had recommended we take our fleeces which had really only been intended for the British part of the journey, and being gallant, I had given mine to help keep Claire warm. No wonder I was up at the crack of dawn.
After breakfast we were transported back to Kumily where we were pleased to meet up with Manoj again. Gavi had proved pretty disappointing, especially as the expectation had been high. I'm sure that it's just a matter of luck, and ours had been out. Elephant, Gaur (Indian Bison) and Sambar drink at the lake about 3-4 times a week. Personally, one night was enough here and so the odds were against us. Leaving Gavi we had added only 6 more species to the bird list which now stood at 90, 2 were lifers though, and one was only seen at Gavi. I would have been prepared to drop it rather than go there again.

From what I recall the journey from Gavi to Munnar, our next leg of the journey was about 100 km's. Despite leaving the camp at 9.00am it was mid afternoon by the time we reached our hotel. Another day spent travelling, we were pleased to be staying here for 2 nights. The modern hotel room was pure bliss after our night at basic level. I revelled in a warm shower and even the simple pleasure of a mirror for a shave! 
The Deshadan
Resort prides itself as the highest altitude hotel in Kerala, shame that when requested they could only manage 2 cold bottles of beers, their entire stock until more cooled. Unfortunately there wasn't a room fridge either... so it was more tepid G &L's on the balcony but at least the view was spectacular.

© David Williams

The good news was the hotel was surrounded by woodland and the birding was looking very promising. The first afternoon I scored a couple of lifers right outside the hotel room:

© David Williams
Oriental White Eye

© David Williams
Nilgiri Flycatcher

Next morning I was up and about pretty early, looking forward to exploring the local area whilst Claire enjoyed relaxing with a book. No pool though! 
First bird was a Grey-breasted Laughingthrush

© David Williams
Grey-breasted Laughingthrush

but my attention was grabbed when I spotted a Black Eagle in a gap between the trees. The photo wasn't the best, I didn't have time to set the camera and as it was hand held using my big lens it wasn't an easy job.

© David Williams
Black Eagle

During the course of the day, and aided by Manoj's sharp eyesight we managed a good haul of birds which included Common Rosefinch, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch and Black Lored Tit

© David Williams
Black-lored Tit

Many were too well hidden in the dark of the woods, a white Paradise Flycatcher with stunning full tail plumage eluded me totally despite tracking it for at least an hour. In the dark of the undergrowth I couldn't figure why Praveen had said the Malabar Whistling Thrush was a beautiful bird, in the shade it was simply a black bird. On the last morning one settled on the roof below our room

© David Williams 
Malabar Whistling Thrush

In flight their wings are a magnificent peacock blue. Their most intriguing and unusual feature is their song though, nick named the "Whistling Schoolboy" it's immediately obvious why when you hear one. 
Our time to move on arrived but the stay had proved very productive. My trip total had moved on to 105 of which 50 were lifers, 11 here at Munnar. Munnar also provided me with 14 species not seen elsewhere so very worthwhile. 
Our next stop was 3 nights at Hornbill Camp, the only place I had specifically requested because it is very close to the famous Thatekkad bird sanctuary. It had looked good on their website but after a night in Gavi I wondered what might be in store!

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