India, Hornbill Camp, Western Ghats - January - February 2019

Published by Tony Benton (tonyjbenton AT gmail.com)

Participants: Tony Benton, Jan Bateman

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My visit to India, late January to mid February 2019, was primarily a family holiday. However, three nights at Hornbill Camp, in Kerala, was unashamedly booked to ensure a couple of days of intensive birding. This report gives a flavour of what can be achieved within the constraints of a family holiday to Kerala. Kerala is a wonderful destination, especially during the European winter. You can expect a hot climate, not too much humidity, not too many bugs or mosquitoes, and a friendly welcome from local people. The food is fantastic (with some excellent affordable fish and sea food) and Varkala South Cliff area is quiet and the beach stretches for miles. At night, hundreds of fishing boats can be seen out at sea, their lights twinkling, creating a mesmerising spectacle.

What follows here is an overview of the birds seen (including 37 lifers for me) and a snapshot of the places visited and accommodation used.

Backwaters trip, 30 January 2019

This was a standard tourist package organised whilst staying in Kochi (also know as Cochin). We were taken by a mini van to the backwaters - about an hour or so from the city - and enjoyed two to three hours on a non-motorised rice boat being punted by an elderly gentleman. We were accompanied by a very good guide who knew just when to provide information and anecdotes, and when to allow the tranquility to prevail. The trip included a good lunch, eaten off a banana leaf, and an afternoon session on smaller canoes visiting a spice plantation. We both enjoyed this insight into life on the ‘backwaters’, and didn’t see one other tourist boat. The excursion was shared with about ten other people and was very enjoyable. I suspect that the area around Alleppey is much busier.

Birds seen:

Indian Darter - easily seen and relatively common
Blue-tailed Bee-eater - spectacular birds frequently seen hawking for insects
White-throated Kingfisher - seen occasionally, often perching conspicuously
Greater Coucal - just two seen
Purple Heron - just a couple on the backwaters, but seen frequently elsewhere
Black Kite - abundant
Brahminy Kite - fewer than Black Kites and always a joy to see well

Hornbill Camp, 31 January through till 2 or 3 February 2019

This was organised through direct email contact with Anna (www.hornbillcamp.in) who was very helpful in terms of explaining the options available and my enquiries were dealt with promptly and efficiently. It was, of course, necessary to pay for most of the services in advance and a secure credit card function was available to facilitate this. The arrangements worked like clock-work and Anna also organised rail travel for us. This proved to be a great move as she identified trains at convenient times for us and secured air conditioned and guaranteed seating!

Hornbill Camp is located in the Western Ghats, an area renowned as a biodiversity hotspot boasting around 508 species. You have to hire a driver to get you to/from the camp and around the birding sites. Anna dealt with this. The driver was not our birding guide. This requirement adds cost but there is no way around it. Obviously if you are in a small group then costs can be shared. Our driver was safe, punctual, courteous, and provided an air conditioned vehicle for our comfort. We had no complaints.

Each day we visited different sites within a short drive of the camp. For ease, I have not disclosed any of the specific locations because a number were sensitive sites, where owls and Sri Lankan Frogmouth were at risk of disturbance from unethical photographers. The quality of guiding was very good, with a number of species located by call or song first.

What follows is a composite of the birds seen over four sessions (either early morning or late afternoon). Walks were not much more than a couple of miles maximum each session and it got very hot by 11 am. A packed breakfast was taken in the field.

Birds seen:

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater - commonly seen each day
Black Bazza - two different birds, one seen well
Ashy Wood Swallow - seen particularly well in the mornings
Blue-tailed Bee-eater - quite common
River Tern - seen daily along the river
Whiskered Tern - also along the river
Asian Brown Flycatcher - seen every session
Crested Serpent Eagle - several including one perched by the road side
White-bellied Woodpecker - seen once
Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker - seen a couple of times
Lesser Yellow-naped Woodpecker - occasional
Greater Golden Back /Flameback - occasional
Lesser Golden Back - “ “
Common Golden Backed - “ “
Malibar White Cheeked Barbet - occasionally
Malabar Grey Hornbill - a couple of sightings including conspicuously perched
White-throated Kingfisher - common
Small Blue/Common Kingfisher x1
Drongo Cuckoo - at least two seen well
Plumb-headed Parakeet - some good sightings of perched birds
Malabar Parakeet - “. “
Rose-ringed Parakeets - Common
Indian Swiftlet - mostly as the day warmed up
Little Swift (not positively identified?)
Brown Fish Owl - one
Brown Wood Owl - one
Sri Lankan Frogmouth - a pair and a single
Green Imperial Pigeon - seen each morning
Grey-fronted Green Pigeon - seen each morning as the day heated up
Spotted Dove - only noticed once
Crested Goshawk - an obvious pair seen each morning
Little Cormorant - daily at the camp
Cattle Egret - with cattle
Golden Fronted Leafbird - one or two
Asian Fairy Bluebird - one or two
Brown Shrike - a few
Rufous Treepie - seen on several sessions
White-bellied Treepie - seen several times and spectacular
Malabar Trogon - seen twice, and seen well, although motionless!
Indian Golden Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole - several seen, beautiful birds
Orange Minivet - some good sightings
Ashy Drongo - seen well on at least two sessions
Bronze Drongo x1
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo - some very good, prolonged, views
Orange-headed Thrush - a couple of birds seen amongst leaf litter
Brown-breasted Flycatcher - one seen
White-bellied Blue Flycatcher - one seen briefly
Verditer Flycatcher - a couple seen
Oriental Magpie Robin - three or so at least
Chestnut-tailed Starling (blythii sub species)
Flame-throated Bulbul - a few seen
Yellow-browed Bulbul - a couple seen quite well
Jungle Babbler - often in a small noisy group
Nilgiri Flower Pecker x 1
Crimson-backed Sunbird - some good views
Loten’s Sunbird - brief views
Malabar Wood Shrike x 2
Vernal Hanging Parrot - only two seen
Purple-rumped Sunbird - seen well but briefly
Purple Sunbird - “ “
Small Minivet - one sighting
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher - at least one
Greenish Warbler - a couple of views of quickly moving birds
Great Tit. Several one morning - very grey birds. (It so looked like a separate species to me!)
Thick-billed Flowerpecker - one
Brown-cheeked Fulveta - almost strained my neck to see this one
Oriental Honey Buzzard - just one bird seen well in flight
Dark-fronted Babbler - just one
Hill Myna’s - quite common
Grey Jungle Fowl - a male and three females
Red Spur Jungle Fowl - three seen well
Indian Black Bird - just one
Intermediate Egret - seen well
Lesser Whistling Duck x 7
Indian Pitta - one bird seen well, thanks to my guides skill
Black-naped Oriole

Hornbill Camp is not luxurious and it does get very hot, even in the Keralan winter. But the setting beside the Periyar river is stunning and tropical, and the food was very good and plentiful. There is no alcohol available. We slept well until 5 am each morning, and were then abruptly woken by devotional music being blasted from a local Hindu temple. A little later, the mosque joined in! So go to be early and don’t expect western standards as far as the tents or plumbing are concerned. We felt totally safe and you can also ride bikes and take out canoes as part of the all inclusive package. The majority of guests were not birders and were mostly Indian Tourists. There are definitely elephants around, although we didn’t get to see any.

Hornbillcamp can organise Western Ghat tours, targeting up to 25 endemics. Our guide, Abilash, was excellent with superb bird finding skills and a strong belief in ethical birding. So, for example, he won’t remove vegetation to improve a photographers image of, say, Frogmouth’s. Abilash is a really nice guy. Ask for him by name when booking Hornbill or try him directly at abhilasthattekkad@rediffmail.com

At Varkala we stayed for six nights at Oceano Eco Spa, South Cliff. This suited us really well because it was a peaceful spot, the beach was almost deserted, and the bright lights of North Cliff Varkala were only a tuk-tuk ride away.

Birds seen:

Common Myna - common
White-breasted Waterhen - one seen on a Lilly pond on an excursion
Pond Heron - common at a Lilly pond
Little Egret - numerous near any water
Barn Swallow - pretty certain but check fieldguide
House Crows - hundreds along the beach
Black Kites - “ “
Brahminy Kites - daily
House Sparrows - just a few seen
White-throated Kingfisher - daily from our balcony

Fort Kochi

An absolutely delightful town to walk around, we stayed at Ann’s Homestay, which was comfortable, had a stunning garden and wonderful hosts. Highly recommended as a Homestay (don’t expect a four star room, but everything worked and room 6 had a lovely roof terrace)

The only new birds seen were a Single Pallas’s Gull and a Great Egret. The gull was my last lifer of the trip and represented a very satisfying finale to a great trip.