Champions of the Flyway!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kumily, Kerala - the homestay

Nesiya, Ansiya, Amity, Shukkoor and I (outside our room)

A final post from our homestay, the highly recommended Panthalams in Kumily, on the edge of Periyar reserve. Very inexpensive, with mouth-watering home-cooked food (still dreaming of it), large, bright, clean, en-suite rooms (with cable TV, if you're weird enough to need such distractions), all run by the lovely Shukkoors, who we ended up spending as much time as we could with.

Shukkoor, Nesiya and five year-old Ansiya - of the latter, a multi-lingual firecracker comedian with killer song and dance routines and a habit of taking the piss - treated us like family, and couldn't do enough for us; a great place to stay, with the bonus of great birds just outside the door. And then there was the reserve.....

Brown-backed Needletails on close-up fly-bys past the balcony

 Hoopoe (obviously)

the artist at work


female Loten's Sunbird

Nilgiri Flowerpecker


Black-rumped Flamebacks


Monday, January 30, 2012

Kumily, Kerala - balcony birds (pt.2)

More shots from the balcony at our homestay on the edge of Periyar reserve, in Kumily. Our vista included overgrown gardens, unkempt plots, scattered dwellings (with kids, dogs, oxen and chickens adding to the soundtrack) and scattered copses against a backdrop of the sub-jungle fringes of the reserve.

male (lower left) & female Malabar Grey Hornbills

Over the course of our five days here, it was almost impossible to step outside the room without something interesting appearing nearby. Species which we'd hoped to see well only the depths of the reserve (see following posts) played very nicely, some even giving a much better showing despite the bustle and low-level disturbance of everyday life.

the boars are back in town (and garden)

Highlights from comfort of our gently-swinging wicker chairs included Malabar Grey Hornbills (tame, and always entertaining), White-bellied Treepies (a beautiful Western Ghats endemic), Vernal Hanging Parrots (close and perched, as opposed to the usual speeding flight views), Golden-fronted Leafbirds and Loten Sunbirds (both irridescent in the 'winter' sunshine), White-cheeked Barbets (is there anything better than barbets?)......

 the view from the balcony, looking west

Brown-backed Needletails gunning past us close by (and even allowing half-decent photos), Nilgiri Flowerpeckers (hyperactive endemics and a fairly recent split), Southern Hill Mynas (another obvious and fairly recent split), Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, Black-rumped Flamebacks, and Wild Boars snuffling politely through the undergrowth.

Commoner species included Pacific Swallows, Crested Treeswifts, Red-rumped Swallows and House Swifts overhead, Jungle Babblers, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Ring-necked Parakeets, Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Indian Pond Herons, Blyth's Reed Warblers, Greenish Warblers, Brown Shrikes, White-browed & Grey Wagtails, and many more.....

Vernal Hanging Parrot

Oriental Magpie Robin

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kumily, Kerala - balcony birding (pt.1)

 male Loten's Sunbird (a stunning south Indian endemic)

After a good while kicking back at the coastal idyll of Varkala, it was time to head inland and into the lush, subtropical mountains of the Western Ghats. This narrow sliver of a range on the map runs parallel with the west coast, from almost the tip of the subcontinent in the south to around halfway up the peninsula - through the length of Kerala, into Tamil Nadu, through Karnataka and scraping into the south-east of Goa.

White-cheeked Barbet - an endemic of the forests of the Western Ghats

I've been lucky enough to visit the latter state twice on birding trips, over a decade ago now, but for the true nature of the Western Ghats (and for the lion's share of its endemics and specialities), it had to be Kerala. About 150 km NNE as the House Crow flies, we were heading for one of the state's best known, most extensive and most biologically intact reserves, Periyar.

Red-vented Bulbul

After an exhausting, entertaining, and typically death-defying day negotiating Keralan roads and their associated, uniquely colourful driving culture, we finally arrived at our accommodation in Kumily. On the very edge of the reserve, Kumily is a border town in every sense; small but frenetic, loud, colourful, untamed and rough around the edges, the last stop before Tamil Nadu, and best known for the locally-grown spices that dominate the town's trade.

Our accommodation here, as with much of our time in India, was a homestay which we'd found on the basis of online recommendations (what the hell did people do before Trip Advisor?) on the edge of town, along a  little track among ramshackle dwellings. The reviews were very good, but we ended up getting more than our money's worth in various ways.

Oriental Magpie Robin

For those unfamiliar with the homestay thing - it essentially means staying as guests of a family in their house, but with as much privacy and freedom as required; it's a wonderful, very inexpensive, more involved, and culturally-enlightening way of enjoying local culture, and it directly contributes to both the local economy (as opposed to communities getting fleeced and half-enslaved by generic hotels and the like), and eco-tourism (something I'll mumble on about further in later posts).

Golden-fronted Leafbirds

We scheduled a couple of nights (leaving us plenty of time to enjoy Periyar), and ended up staying five; and as these photos and those in the following posts illustrate, we were surrounded by quality birds without having to leave the balcony, from where all these shots were taken. More to follow.

Brown Shrike

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Varkala, Kerala - late Nov & early Dec 2011

Or, the calm before the storm. The United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and finally, India. The subcontinent was our home for the final five weeks of our eight-month journey, and for the first three weeks, our business concerned lapping up the unique delights of God's Own Country, Kerala.

A long travel day, involving three flights (Bangkok - Mumbai - Bangalore - Trivandum), saw us arrive at our accommodation in Kovalam at the southern tip of the landmass in the early hours of the 24th. Forty-eight hours there were neither unpleasant nor remarkable (although birds around the hotel and beach included the only Barn Owl of the trip, Lesser Coucal, Rufous Treepies, Blue-tailed & Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Pied Kingfishers and clouds of both kites), and we soon moved on up the coast to the small clifftop resort of Varkala.

Western Reef Egrets (of both morphs)

Which is where we wiled away a relaxing nine days, most of which were spent gleefully battling the notoriously hardcore wave action in the daytime and sipping cocktails at night. Birds were limited to commoner species, including ubiquitous Brahminy and Black Kites, Brown-headed & Black-headed Gulls, Little, Great Crested & Lesser Crested Terns, Little Cormorants, Ring-necked Parakeets (such a familiar sound, and almost tolerable when they're actually supposed to be here....), a Kentish Plover, loud and tame White-throated Kingfishers by the balcony, and the first endemic on the subcontinent - a calling Indian Scops Owl by the room.

It was always the plan to hit India and spend the first ten days or so doing as little as possible (at least that didn't involve the sea or beachside bars), and we left Varkala suitably relaxed and refreshed - and with the Western Ghats beckoning, full of anticipation.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Varkala Kites

And so to India. Much more to follow naturally, but for now, a few of the plentiful and omnipresent Brahminy & Black Kites that kept us company on the cliffs, beach and in the sea at Varkala, in the south of Kerala. (As always, click on images to enlarge).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rufous-winged Buzzard, Mae Hia - Nov 2011

A species we'd previously caught up with during the huge raptor movements at Khao Dinsor some weeks earlier (albeit just a single and at some distance), Rufous-winged Buzzards couldn't have been more accommodating at the agricultural college. This bird in particular showed wonderfully, slowing up as it approached and eye-balling us menacingly as it drifted over.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mae Hia & Huay Teung Tao, NW Thailand

Chestnut-tailed Starling

Back in Chiang Mai for a few days after our time out in the sticks, a couple of worthwhile birding sites were within striking distance of our base in the heart of the city. Both were reachable via cab or tuk-tuk, and both promised a range of species I was unlikely to see elsewhere on our journeys (especially with the Thai section of our trip almost over).

Huay Teung Tao - an area with habitats including a large lake, mixed woodland and non-intensive agricultural land - promised much, but in truth, delivered little. Bad luck with disturbance, ones that got away totalling more than usual, and a mercilessly hot day conspired to make it pretty hard going. But there were silver linings.....

male Siberian Stonechat

.... commoners included Brown and Long-tailed Shrikes, Ashy Woodswallows, White-vented Mynas, Yellow-browed Warblers (of course), Two-barred Greenish Warblers, Siberian Stonechats and (Little) Green Bee-eaters; more notable were the first Pied Bushchats, Purple Sunbirds and Grey-breasted Prinias of the trip, two Golden-fronted Leafbirds, and a skulker that I eventually got to grips with....

.... in the shape of  a Manchurian (Oriental) Bush Warbler (above), which played hard to get in trying conditions but eventually provided the highlight of the day.

Lesser Whistling Ducks

Half-regretting the decision not to kick back with a good book in the heat of the day at a lakeside bamboo-shack restaurant (like my far more intelligent wife), we retreated back to Chiang Mai, cooled off in our hotel pool, and plotted the next day's action - which would be the last day's birding in the best part of two months in Thailand.

Burmese Shrike

An earlier start, a little more research, and slightly less oppressive temperatures made this final day of Thai birding a memorable one. Our destination was Mae Hia Agricultural College, an easy-to-miss site on the outskirts of the city, and comprising an impressively diverse mix of habitats in a relatively small area.

Radde's Warbler

Arable land, orchards, overgrown hedgerows, small copses, sandy wasteland and several pools made for a compelling few hours before the heat of the day fully kicked in. Plenty of sibes, amongst them double figures of Taiga Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Yellow-browed Warbler and Siberian Stonechat, as well as a couple of Two-barred Greenish Warblers and a (very yellow-streaked) Radde's Warbler.

first-winter Black Drongo

Other highlights here included Pintail Snipe, Indochinese Bushlarks, Grey-breasted Prinias, Pied Bushchat, Chestnut-tailed Starling, at least five Wire-tailed Swallows, and a Burmese Shrike - several lifers and plenty of quality back-up over a very enjoyable few hours there, and a suitably productive way to end of our Thai birding experiences.

Purple Sunbird

Coppersmith Barbet (lower left) and Ashy Woodswallow (upper right)

Little Green Bee-eater

Black-collared Starling