The forest closed in all around us as the sun was infringing the western-ghats in a halo of orange and red. And it was not just another evening for the four of us who treaded softly over the drying cluster of leaves that carpeted the jungle floor: it was so eventful. The guide who led us all the way here was suddenly waving excitedly for us to troop over—he was pointing out something up in a broad leaved tree. I looked and could barely make out the bird’s shape in the evening glow. It was the Sri Lanka Bay Owl. The excitement was visible on all four of us and our guide was just as equally excited. He was gesturing like a magician and practically dancing in his glee. It was a moment to freeze for all eternity. We were on a forest track that branched off Urulan Thanni near the well known Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Earlier in the day Usha and I had driven up from our home in Trivandrum. This was strangely enough my first visit to this famed part of the world—a haven for all bird lovers.
It had been ages since we planned this visit. But then as it always happens we tend to postpone travelling to nearby places and set our sights on the farther reaches. But then finally it has become a reality and here we are in Thattekad. We had driven through the hills toward Kothamangalam taking the lazy winding roadway that pilgrims to Sabarimala usually take, and had just about made it to the entrance of the sanctuary when our enthusiastic guide, Gireesan– a devoted lawyer by profession and a committed bird watcher by choice—rang up. He could barely hide his excitement at the news that a Bay Owl had been spotted. We drove up to the fringes of the forest and then took the forest path to where the owl was resting. It was a rare sighting and I consider myself fortunate indeed. The photograph probably did not turn out well on account of the dying light and my aging hands that found it difficult to hold up a two and half kilo Nikon Camera and a foot-long tele lens.
Thattekad Bird Sanctury has been named after the great Indian ornithologist Salim Ali. One can read in the Wikipedia:
The Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, covering an area of barely 25 km, and located about 12 km from Kothamangalam (Kerala state, India), was the first bird sanctuary in Kerala. Salim Ali, one of the best known ornithologists, described this sanctuary as the richest bird habitat on peninsular India. Thattekkad literally means flat forest, and the region is an evergreen low-land forest located between the branches of Periyar River, the longest river in Kerala.
As one walks into the well-constructed office of the forest department in Thattekkad one is greeted by several photographs and posters of birds on the walls. There is also a big poster featuring the pioneer of ornithology in Kerala, K K Neelakantan who four decades ago wrote under the pen name of Induchoodan. His was a life dedicated to birds and bird watching. My own initiation into birdwatching occurred under his tutelage. I was fortunate enough to have been his student in the mid-seventies in the Maharaja’s University College in Trivandrum. Neelakantan was more of a naturalist than a teacher of English and we were indeed fortunate to have a mixture of nature and Shakespeare in the English literature classes. I had always been involved in drawing and sketching and in those days carried a notebook at all times. Under Neelakantan sir’s influence I moved into serious bird study. I still recall those misty mornings when we met up near the GPO (behind which was his quaint house) and boarded the bus to Veli or Shankumugham in pursuit of birds. He would have his 8×30 binoculars slung over his neck and I would be armed with my ubiquitous note book and pen. My memory is still fresh about our sighting the Stone Curlew one day on the sand bank. The bird of course nests on the ground and as soon as it saw us staring at it started moving away as though to mislead us from its clutch of eggs. Many years later I had resorted to this experience in a poem of mine.
(for K.K.N.–naturalist and professor)
Once again we froze against the stony shore,
as the curlew turned, with a graceful sweep–
wings light, open, alert, eyes wide, beady bright.
We knew it knew and yet was game to play
all over again the very same game
of hide and seek in the softening light.
One foot bent and the forward thrust
of the westerly breeze did the rest–
the bird rose and soft-landed, leading our eyes
away from her speckled brood. The stream
passed silent. The wind kept pace, and
no stone moved while the curlew called.
A shrill whistle, plaintive, lone, while
her mate somewhere heard and turned.
The sky lay vast, unquiet in its intense spread.
The bird rose and called again. A feather
floated down. We stood silent,
amazed at both bird and sky.
[KavyaBharati, No 14, 2002, courtesy http://www.scilet.org/download/KB/KB14.pdf ]
Now, several years later here I am cherishing and relishing the memories of yore. Natural history and the pursuit of bird study in our part of the world has come a long way from then when just a handful of us used to meet under a tree under the banner of the Kerala Natural History Society. Perhaps it is the facility of transport and easy accessibility combined with the new-fangled craze for digital photography (which is also comfortably within reach of the corporate world of market economy) that have made all this progress possible. Having said that I cannot but admire the enthusiasm and boundless energy displayed by my host and his entire family, who informed me that they have been into bird watching for close to fifteen years. Lots and lots of birders enjoy the home stay facilities offered by Gireesan and his loving family. His mother Sudha is equally involved in bird watching and I have been left wondering as to who is more committed –son or mother!
Boothathankettu dam site and the forests of Edamalayar are also superb birding areas. When we set forth early in the late winter morning when mists lay about on the folds and turns of the green mountains and valleys, much like a reluctant schoolboy refusing to get up from bed on a working day, in Jose’s Mahindra four-wheeler jeep, I sit huddled in the passenger seat eagerly looking out for wildlife and early birds. Soon we leave the comfort of the vehicle and set forth on foot to explore the jungles. The variety of greenery is quite amazing. Where there are enough fruiting trees you are sure to find a whole ecosystem of birds, insects and reptiles right from the top most foliage down to the bushy undergrowth. The Racket tailed Drongo is the most vociferous and so are their close companions the White bellied Treepie. The flight of the green pigeon like arrow through the thick and thin foliage and creepers will certainly capture the attention of even the most casual birder. The Yellow billed Blackbird searches through the thick carpet of fallen leaves in the company of the Orange headed Thrush and the Malabar Whistling Thrush, while the large billed Malabar Hornbill flaps about the upper branches alongside the vociferous Hill Myna and Yellow Browed Bulbul and Ruby Throated Bulbul. The Coppersmith Barbet and White Cheeked Barbet are hidden up above but one can constantly hear their call.
Stay! , our guide suddenly warns us: there are elephants about. It has not rained for many days now and the summer is slowly setting in. Deep inside the forest rivers and streams are drying up. There is nothing as dangerous as a sudden encounter with a herd of wild elephants, especially when surprise is on their side! We are birders, Gireesh reminds us time and again, and so we keep off the paths of other wildlife. A Drako, or Flying Lizard sails by and scrambles up a huge tree trunk. And suddenly the tree is so full of Minivets and Bulbuls. Our time in the forest flies by swifter than when in the city: there is so much to see, to sense, to experience. Birds, as I had realised it time and again are the true masters of the air and trees. And here in the west coast tropical forests the truth dawns again and again. Dr Salim Ali had written in one of his books; there is probably no place on earth that has not been darkened by the shadow of a bird! They are so ubiquitous. Thattekad holds some endemic species like the Malabar Trogon and several others. To see these profoundly colourful bird flying from branch to branch in company of its mate is indeed a marvellous experience. And later in the day when our guide led me through the thick foliage to a spot where two Sri Lanka Frogmouth were roosting our happiness spilled over. But when all is said I deeply regret not having lugged my camera tripod despite the fact that I had it in my car always! Life is always so full of surprises and regrets!
If one were to take tally of the total number of bird species by country, Colombia would top the list with 1,821 species closely followed by Bolivia with 1,414 and Venezuela with 1,392. India with its 1266 might be second only to China. In 2014 Times of India had reported that the bird count in India has exceeded that of all other countries! The bird watching community of India has recorded over 255 species in Thattekad alone.
During my brief stay in the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary from 15thto 17th February I could come across the following: of course I am providing only some most significant and the list is never exhaustive. I could not take good shots of most of what I saw simply because birds are so quick and agile especially when in a deep jungle. And of course light and luck are equally important.
Green Imperial Pigeon
Grey Fronted Green Pigeon
Racket Tailed Drongo
White Bellied Treepie
Small Blue Kingfisher
Brownheaded Storkbilled Kingfisher
Plum headed Parakeet
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Ruby Throated Bulbul
Yellow Browed Bulbul
Sri Lanka BayOwl
Sri Lanka Frogmouth
Heart Spotted Woodpecker
Malabar Whistling Thrush
Southern Hill Myna
Orange Headed Thrush
Malabar Grey Hornbill
It was with the greatest reluctance that I forced myself to drive homeward from Thattekad with a grim promise that we would return for a longer stay and bird photography. As we turned the corner from the forest edge far up in the huge trees Macaques were getting ready for settling in for an early night. I could distinctly make out the call of the Malabar Trogon. It was like a fish hook tucking into my insides. A Malabar Giant Squirrel sallied majestically from branch to branch letting the whole forest know of its presence through his high pitched cry. When one bids bye to any wildlife sanctuary one is sure to cherish the fondest of memories. The forests, to believe the poet, with their myriad tongues shouted of liberty! And of course there is this promise of another dawn.