By Sunita Raghu.
The rays of the morning sun streamed through the tall, stately trees acting as a kindly benediction, as we watched in amazement at this most wondrous sight, Malabar grey horn bills, golden orioles, paradise fly catcher, jungle babblers and racquet tailed drongos flew past us while a white checked barbett went “toowoo toowoo”. We were in a place what India’s famed ornithologist Salim Ali had once called “the best bird sanctuary in the south”, namely the Thattekad bird sanctuary, situated 70 kms from Cochin and 80 kms from Munnar.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we entered the sanctuary gates with our guide Sudheesh in tow, a young naturalist who knew the place inside out. Barely had we walked a few steps than he pointed out to a brown hawk owl sitting high atop a bamboo tree. Happy to be in such good hands, we walked on. Soon a water body came into sight and our guide explained that this was one branch of the river Periyar, Kerala’s biggest river. A few red whiskered bulbuls flew about the place.
The Thattekad sanctuary, also known as the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is small in size, just 25 sq. kms but what it lacks in size, it makes up with its huge bird population. About 500 bird species are found here and the sanctuary also houses mammals like the leopard, bear and elephant, although the latter are not very friendly and can never resist a charge when they are close to humans. Our guide assured us that the pachyderms were at least a kilometer away from the sanctuary and we explored at a leisurely pace.
The signature bird of the sanctuary is the Ceylon frogmouth, a nocturnal creature and our guide told us that he would lead us to it. And soon, turning left he led us into a place where amidst a cluster of trees and seated on one of the branches sat a pair of Ceylon frogmouths, cleverly camouflaged by the dry leaves with the surrounding thorny bushes acting like a deterrent.
We, rejoiced in seeing the Ceylon frogmouths, brown breasted flycatchers, grey jungle fowl , red spur fowl and orange headed thrush.
As we walked along, Sudheesh our guide provided a deep insight into the ways of the birds and animals and narrated his adventures - where he was once bitten by a Krait near his waist but managed to survive. He also recollected his experiences of working at BR Hills (Jungle Lodges) and under the late naturalist and environmentalist K N at his Ragihalli farm. Of the latter, he said that such people can never die and will continue to remain in our hearts
Darkness had now come upon the forest and we retraced our steps quickly.
We had walked some distance when we noticed an on-ground drama taking place – a solitary long legged spider wasp, iridescent blue/black in colour was buzzing and circling around a large spider. Seconds later the wasp dragged along the spider after having paralysed it! The spider may become a reproductive host for its offspring soon.
We decided to meet again early in the morning for that is the time when the birds are at their chirpiest best and can be sighted easily.
When we returned back to Eldose’s house, it was 8:45 pm. It was pitch dark and Santosh played the role of lead, kindly light and kept pointing his torchlight to the ground. Soon, in the glare of the torchlight, we saw a snake slithering slowly and at first thought it was a wolf snake. The snake then climbed the compound wall that was made up of large stones and disappeared.
Having heard that slow moving snakes are poisonous, we felt a certain amount of fear for the snake was found very near to our cottage. We spent the night in a beautiful cottage, situated three kms away from the sanctuary, an ecological wonder if there was one. Sudheesh had spent New Year’s Eve inside the forest atop a large boulder with some of his friends.
The next morning saw us waking up to bird calls- the racket tailed drongo was the first bird with its musical call –drangh-gip.. drangh-gip and then a domestic fowl’s call near by the cottage was responded immediately by a red spur fowl some where far in the jungle as if two singers who performed together. We photographed a a number of dragon flies and fishes near by. Tourists from Belgium joined us with their Leica binoculars to look at the odonata. (These devices were excellent optics with amazing clarity and perfect details )
(Dragonflies: A male Fulvous forest skimmer on top and a male rhudothemis rufa )
Soon accompanied by Sudheesh, we were off to the sanctuary. Crossing the river Periyar, he pointed out to us a flock of barn swallows basking on a tree by the river bank while a whiskered tern rested on the electric lines.
The day had started on a propitious note and having just walked into the sanctuary, we noticed a pair of green streak-throated woodpeckers and also a white-bellied treepie. A carpet of dry leaves covered the path on which we walked.
We noticed small butterflies flitting about and on expressing our interest on other forest creatures our guide also pointed out to skinks, geckos, millipedes, moths and the beautiful giant spiders.
And then some distance, low in the branches of a shady tree, we saw a bird through our binoculars sized that of a crow. Turned out that it was a Malabar trogan! What a beautiful bird! Soon, we saw its partner, they were following a pack of jungle babblers feasting on insects beneath the fallen trees. We could also see racquet tailed drongos perched high on the tree and a greater Coucal. A mixed hunting pack ! What a wonderful sight !! When one of the babbler flew atop with a loud call –ke, ke, ke…, we even saw a wood pecker joining the party.
Some distance away to the left atop a huge mass of rock, we saw a group of bird watchers along with their guides peering at the trees there. In fact, no one is allowed inside the sanctuary without a guide. We followed suit and were rewarded for our efforts – two black hooded orioles rested on the tree tops while a number of small birds twittered away. We had just trained our lenses on a spotted dove when a small monkey came crashing through the trees scaring it away.
Sudheesh, our guide had gone ahead to locate the Indian Pitta, a very handsome and rare bird and he came back saying that he had sighted it and led us to the very spot. The bird, it seemed, was playing a game of hide and seek and Sudheesh was trying to tempt it into the open by imitating its call. Finally, we did manage to see it and even took a couple of pictures.
We were climbing a small uphill, when Sudheesh stopped suddenly, Always alert to the sounds in the forest, he waited to reconfirm from where the sound was coming. All of us could now hear from where the sound was coming from and Sudheesh informed us that the elephants appeared to be close by on the other side of the hill and advised us to head back which we did but not before climbing up the watch tower on our way back and sighting a Malabar giant squirrel peeling some fruit, a dollar bird atop the tree canopy and a crested goshawk flying past by us. We spotted an accipter flying in front of us and when we pointed the same to Sudheesh, within two seconds he confirmed it was a crested GOSHAWK just by seeing the wing patterns (underneath the wing).
Soon, a sound that sounded like a cross between a drum being banged and a machine gun being fired assailed our senses, the sound getting highly intensified in the quiet of the forest. It was not an alien sound - a greater flame back woodpecker was pecking at a hollow tree!
Thanks to Eldose family who played a perfect host in the jungle