Friday, March 9, 2012

Erivakulam National Park - Munnar, Kerala

Thanks purely to the goodwill of our new, good friend Sudeesh, we fulfilled a much anticipated opportunity for a hit-and-run on Munnar, deep in the Western Ghats, for a memorable day in a truly beautiful part of the world. A good two hours or so due east of our Thattekad basecamp, the area is known for a range of highly localised, habitat-specific and altitudinal specialities.


Tickell's Leaf Warblers - well sprinkled in high-altitude sholas 

After pretty much cleaning up on a long list of local endemics at lower altitudes (thanks to the quality, leisurely birding at both Periyar and Thattekad), I was as good as resigned to Munnar remaining a logistical impossibility - until Sudeesh stepped up and offered his wheels, driving, local knowledge, enviable finding skills and good company for a long, full day in the field.

On the road for 0500 after our customary early hours balcony breakfast, we endured a typically muscle-spasming ride on typically shocking roads before the increasingly sharp hairpins and sheer drops signalled our ascent up into the higher levels. That Amity's breakfast was involuntarily dispatched into a roadside ditch around here was yet another reminder of the things my non-birder, arguably insane wife is willing to put up with. (I know; lucky doesn't even come close).

'Er indoors, far from indoors

Our first port of call was Erivakulam (around 16km beyond Munnar), one of the state's most important reserves and well known for its long list of endemic flora and fauna. Along with neighbouring areas, the reserve incorporates a range of habitats, including treeless ridges, mineral-striped slopes and high rolling plateau, the globally unique sholas (subtropical dwarf forests usually along the banks of water courses), montane grassland and semi-steppe, spice growing areas and labyrinthine tea plantations.

singing male Pied Bushchat

We made it to the reserve shortly after dawn, the timing being everything - plenty of tourists (mostly natives) were already beginning to fill up the improvised car-parking / snack-stall / souvenir-trading circus at the entrance, and it was only going to get plenty busier. At the front of the queue when the office opened, we were on the first reserve bus up the hill - a picturesque fifteen minutes or so winding up single lane track, and the only way to ascend the final stretch of road (other vehicles thankfully being prohibited).

The trees along the forested stream here held a Tytler's Leaf Warbler, a notoriously scarce and hard to find species; soon after and rounding a corner in the bus, Sudeesh got very excited and pointed in the direction of a boulder by the side of the road - in time for us to see a Nilgiri Marten before it disappeared into the rocky scrub. A rare endemic mammal, they're seen with far less frequency than the big cats, so we were off to a flyer.....


Kerala Laughingthrush

Disembarking at the end of the road by the a tiny visitors centre and kiosk, we continued upwards: at somewhere around 2300m, it was hardly as punishing as it may sound, with a easy track, the skies bright and sunny and the temperatures already warm by 0800. Under the shadow of Anamudi (at 2700m, the highest peak in India outside the Himalayas), we ambled up the slope and immediately came across a group of Kerala Laughingthrushes - one of our target endemics, giving great views in the sunshine, not least the bird on the nest by the side of the track.....

Hill Swallows (recently split from Pacific, and a local endemic), three Eurasian Kestrels, a couple of Common Buzzards and two Northern House Martins were buzzing around the slopes as we enjoyed the stunning views over the ranges, with families of Nilgiri Tahrs (the poster boys and girls of the reserve) trotting around in front of us - some within touching distance - and further afield against the multi-coloured slopes.

any excuse to use this photo again will do just fine

 Other species present included a good scattering of neon-yellow Tickell's Leaf Warblers, Pied Bushchats, Square-tailed Bulbuls (another new endemic), Indian Blackbird and Long-tailed Shrike.

On the dry steppe-like habitat of the montane grasslands either side of the track, there was one main target species - unique to exactly this habitat, in exactly this area - that we were told could be very tough, especially as straying from the track was (justifiably) prohibited. Tune in next time to see how we fared.....