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
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.-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
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
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!
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.
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!
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
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
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
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.
Distant views of a Crested Serpent Eagle were
another first but largely speaking, this is a bird listers paradise
rather than a photographers.'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!
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
By the time our 2 days were up, with Praveen
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,
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
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!
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
Malabar Grey Hornbill
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!
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
One of the first birds spotted was by Manoj. Without him we would
certainly have missed the beautiful endemic Malabar Trogan.
Other sightings included this Grey
Junglefowl which reminds me of the joke "Why did the chicken cross the
Plus good views of other species including
Southern Hill Myna,
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
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
Accommodation is limited to about 50 people staying either in the
lodge or, newly erected tents. We were in a tent.
Gavi, Periyar Tiger
The setting was beautiful, overlooking the nearby
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
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.
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
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.
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:
Oriental White Eye
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
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.
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
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
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
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!