Birding the Western Ghats in Southwest India

The Western Ghats! A hottest hot diversity site recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and known also poetically as Sahyadri. The trick is how to penetrate this land of elephants and tigers, past the pot-holed roads and shrines. To do this I recommend some focus. What better focus could there be than birds? The thing about birds is that you have some chance of seeing more than a few of the 508 listed species, for birds are mostly diurnal and active.dsc05620dsc05985

We asked Deepa Agashe to help us discover a local guide. We do not want our tourism dollars to go to foreigners less committed to place and preservation. She asked around, then pointed us to Eldhose K. V. and we are very glad she did. By the way, if you are wondering, people here just go by the one name. The initials indicate their place of origin and their father’s name. The colleagues I asked spelled them out only under protest. I suppose in a way it is like asking what high school you went to in St. Louis. It allows people to be classifies. But back to Eldhose. He runs an amazing bird lodge in the middle of the forest, with individual cabins and sublime food. We spent a lovely six days birding there at a slow vacation’s pace, with time to digest, to nap, to wonder. I highly recommend it. I would guess that even with the airfare from the US to Kochi, this trip would come out affordable compared to those in Central or South America.

dsc05976The misty drizzle brought a ridge into view, then concealed it. A tree stood up out of the canopy like a Japanese painting in the mist. Dhanesh handed us an umbrella, but we declined it, preferring free hands for the binoculars. He had borrowed it from a tribal family living in a lean-to covered in plastic with a small solar panel for the radio. Two Indian jungle crows flew overhead, followed by thirty cattle egrets, white even against the nearly white clouds. Malabar grey hornbills sounded like they were squabbling among themselves. At this time of year they do not have females and babies sealed into safe tree hollows. In the bare branches of a nearby tree we saw successively a Nilgiri flower pecker, a crimson-backed sunbird, a flame-throated bulbul, and a vernal hanging parrot. This was our last day of a week birding with Dhanesh and Eldhose (pronounce the last e) in the Western Ghats, a knife-edge of mountains in extreme southwestern India. Kerala is a magic state of Christians, coconut-based cuisine, small rubber and pineapple plantations, and many wildlife preserves.

dsc05675Eldehose K.V. is a famous birder who has four cabins for two or three people each, right on the edge of his rubber plantation at the end of a slough into the Periyar river, the largest in Kerala. Each cabin has a porch looking out over the trees. The large shower in each cabin is floored with river stones and showers a good spray like the fanciest yoga retreats. It is so refreshing one hardly realizes the water is not heated. The meals were cooked daily by Eldhose’s wife and served by Ashy, his daughter who was on vacation from her studies. Ashy told me she is named for a bird, the ashy drongo. The meals were sublime in a way I have seldom experienced. Delicate aroma and full flavors had me asking what went into these varied curries. The answers were simple, garlic, fresh turmeric, ginger, curry leaves, mustard seeds, chillis, coconut oil, and onions. I guess I’ll have to find a Kerala cookbook to better understand how they achieved such magic from these simple flavors. img_2394Maybe it was simply the extreme freshness of ingredients and preparation. I wonder if they ever use the wild green black pepper we saw growing on a vine? A couple of meals were themed around the wild honey they acquired, probably from the large high combs of Apis dorsata, though the smaller, rounder combs of Apis florea are also a possibility. One such meal had rice pancakes of various sorts over which honey was poured, as well as a sweet rice biryani with raisins, grapes, and cashews, and a slightly sweet cauliflower curry. Ashy’s shy explanations of the dishes made them even more delicious.

Our purpose on this trip was birding, slow birding where we take the time to get to know an area and its birds. We had downloaded the maps of the area on Google maps, so we could see them off line. Our cell phones could give GPS coordinates on the compass utility. We had the excellent Birds of India, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp, Princeton University Press. We could have done more. I would have downloaded some eBird checklists and printed some of the maps, but without these was more adventurous.dsc05635
Our guide, Dhanesh knew his birds. He knew every call. He knew every song. He could get a bird from the merest fly over. He knew the birds in a way hard to achieve without living in an area. He also knew how to find birds. He had a few Sri Lanka frogmouths and owls tucked away in his memory to reveal to us when we were at the right place, or when things got slow. In fact, the very last bird we saw was a little brown hawk owl. It peered down at us as they do, from its high perch. Follow the trunk to the second limb to the left. Take the higher branch, go to where it meets another. Look in the crotch of branches, partly behind and there it is. If you can’t talk like that, or follow instructions like that, it is hard to be a bird guide. Dhanesh also never gave up if he heard a bird he badly wanted us to see. Somehow, with patience and a bit of bushwalking, we always saw the bird.dsc05592

There is more to being a bird guide than knowing the birds. You have to care about the birds, care about showing others the bird, and know how to mesh seeing birds with travelling across the landscape. Dhanesh knew all this. He had a joy for birding. He had a quick giggle of pure delight when he saw something cool. It was only by his awe and love that we knew seeing a black baza was very special. It is a rare migrant from the Himalayas. If we had not seen it well, including the crest and the white patches on the back, we would not have been so sure. Our second to last day we saw three black bazas circling low before landing out of sight. By this time we had studied them and knew to appreciate the moment where our eyes had a connection with something that had come from the Himalayas and was headed here, or perhaps even down to Sri Lanka.

dsc05978This was the kind of birding with a lot of driving, but what made it slow in the good sense was we got to revisit sites. We saw most of our birds more than once. You can look at our checklists if you are on eBird. I don’t see easily how to put in a link to us directly. Our user id is jstrassmann. In fact, I spent more than a week uploading the list information and trying to get everything right. We birded on 6 days, 22 to 27 October 2016. If you count new birds, we saw 42 on the first day, 41 on the second day, 21 on the third day, 22 on the fourth day, 12 on the fifth day, and 7 on the last day. If you were a fast birder you might find these numbers low, and think we should have moved on aftdsc05630er either the second or fourth day. But by staying we got to see what organizers the drongos were. We got to figure out that the great tits we saw regularly were supposed to be rare. And on that last trip of the last day we saw the shikra land in the road, snatch up a squirrel and fly into a tree.

Western Ghats, a place of myths, we’ll be back!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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