Western Ghats birding and wildlife trip to Coorg

Matthew, a British birder who had been on one of our previous birding trips around Bangalore last year was very keen on a birding trip into the western ghats. Since he had only three days to bird we decided to drive from Bangalore to Coorg via the Nagarhole National Park and spend a couple of days birding in a lovely coffee estate.

Matthew was very keen on a mix of wildlife and birds so we headed off to the Nagarhole national park early in the morning.

Weaver bird nests

We made a brief stop on the way to bird along the banks of the Cauvery river close to Mysore. On a small tree next to the river, the Baya Weaver birds were busy flying in and out of their beautiful nests. These uniquely shaped nests have a tunnel shaped entrance which makes it difficult for snakes to enter the nest.

It was a beautiful morning with the mist lifting off the river and we sighted an Indian Grey-hornbill on a coconut palm. We took a walk along the banks and saw a River Tern flying across the river and large number of Indian cormorants perched on a rock mid-river. Wire-tailed Swallows were busy preening on the electric cables overhead. A Red-wattled Lapwing and a Grey Wagtail were feeding in a ploughed field nearby and a Brahminy kite flew overhead.

Indian Cormorants

We drove past Mysore and in a field close to the road we saw a large raptor perched on a small tree. A quick look through the binoculars showed a majestic pair of Tawny Eagles. Since both Matthew and I are keen photographers, we worked our way closer to the magnificent raptors. We were able to get quite close and took some excellent pictures before the raptors resumed hunting.

There was a lot of bird activity in the rice fields around us and we were able to see Munias, Ashy Prinias, Wagtails and a lone White-throated Kingfisher. A banyan tree nearby was home to a Brahminy kite and a pair of Indian Grey-hornbills.

We reached the Nagarhole national park mid morning and were happy to have good views of a Short-toed Snake Eagle in flight and a Blue-faced Malkoha. A few kilometres down the road we ran into a mixed bird flock made up of Racket-tailed Drongos, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, Scarlet Minivets, Velvet-fronted and Chestnut-bellied nuthatches. As we drove on, an Indian Gray Mongoose crossed the road and stopped to have a look at us. We managed a quick picture of this shy mammal and moved on.

Indian Gray Mongoose

Indian Gray Mongoose

We had plenty of sightings of the Gray Jungle Fowl and large herds of Spotted Deer.

Gray Jungle Fowl

The spotted deer were accompanied by groups of Gray or Hanuman Langurs and there were at least one or two langurs which stayed on the treetops keeping an eye out for leopard and tiger. Packs of wild dogs or Dholes are also found in Nagarhole NP.

Gray Langur

Throughout the drive there was elephant sign but we hadn’t seen any yet. However when we were just about to curse our luck, a whole herd of elephants crossed the road and there was a young one with them. It was great to see so many elephants in broad daylight and the herd milled around the little one to keep it safe. In the photo below the tail and rear end of the baby elephant can be seen on the lower left.

Elephant herd with a young one

Matthew was thrilled to see the elephants but his luck didn’t stop there, I knew a good location for more elephants and when we got there, a huge tusker was feeding very close to the jeep. Matthew got some excellent pictures and we watched the elephant for a while before driving on.

Tusker at Nagarhole

It was a good feeling to have watched the largest mammal in the forest feeding and going about its business in its natural environment.

I spotted a large raptor sitting on a dry tree. This bird was huge and a good bird to see, a Changeable Hawk-eagle with a magnificent crest.

Changeable Hawk-eagle

There was a movement in the bush and a huge wild boar poked its head out to have a look.

Wild Boar

Malabar Trogon

We exited the park shortly and entered the coffee plantation area where we stopped for a hearty lunch. After lunch we drove to a location nearbly where we planned to go birding on foot. This location is good for the Malabar Trogon, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, White-bellied Treepie, Dark-throated Munia and other interesting forest birds.

The White-bellied Treepies were easy to find thanks to their loud calls. The White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and the Malabar Trogon took a little more effort. Fortunately my anti-leech concoction was quite successful and we got to see all our target birds without getting bitten by leeches.We left at dusk since that was the time when elephants normally start moving and we didn’t want to run into one while on foot.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth in Coorg

Enroute to the birding lodge where we were staying, I had a stakeout for the Ceylon Frogmouth. This nocturnal bird is rather hard to see in the daytime and becomes active only after dusk. After a good application of mosquito repellent, Matthew and I set off to find the frogmouth. It was not long before we had some magnificent views of this elusive bird. A sizeable population of Ceylon Frogmouths has been found in Coorg during a recent survey and other specialties like the Jerdon’s Baza, Brown Wood-owl, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Pin-tail Snipe, Green Imperial Pigeon, Nilgiri Wood-pigeon and the Ceylon Bay-owl have also been seen along with endangered mammals like the Lion-tailed Macaque and the Flying Squirrel.

We stopped at a nice restaurant enroute to the birding lodge and enjoyed the local cuisine with a cold beer. Tired from our early start we looked forward to a good nights sleep and an early start the next morning.

Coorg is on the Western Ghats and set amidst verdant valleys, imposing mountains and thick forests, this is one of the most beautiful hill stations you can visit in the South of India. It lies on Karnataka’s southwestern end, covering an area of 4,102 sq km and borders Kerala.The river Cauvery originates here at Talacauvery and is worshipped by the locals. Coorg or Kodagu (originally called Kodaimalenadu) means ‘thick forest on steep hill’.

Mountain stream in Coorg

Also known as the Scotland of India, this district has a lot to offer to the nature enthusiast. Misty hills, acres and acres of tea and coffee plantation, lush forest, orange groves, undulating streets and breathtaking views are what make Coorg an unforgettable birding destination. Coorg is home to one Tiger reserve and three wildlife sanctuaries and provides plenty of opportunities to both birders and wildlife enthusiasts. Being part of the Western Ghats means the district is a biodiversity hotspot and is home to many endangered species of flora and fauna. Devarakadus or sacred groves are an important feature specific to the Coorg district in the Western Ghats. Coorg has the largest number of sacred groves in proportion to the area of the district in the world and all the eighteen native communities are stakeholders in this unique tradition.  There are 1214 listed sacred groves in Coorg covering an area of 2520 hectares. These devarkadus are owned by the forest department and managed by the community with the help of devarkadu committees. These sacred groves are islands of ancient rainforest surrounded by plantations of shade grown coffee and serve as sanctuaries to many endangered species of flora and fauna..

Misty mountains of Coorg

We were up early next morning and watched a pair of Crimson-backed Sunbirds as they fed on the flowers of the powder puff plant. These are the tiniest sunbirds in the area and are extremely pretty. After finishing a quick tea and biscuits we headed off on foot through the coffee to do some birding. A spectacular looking spider had it’s web across the path and Matthew tried taking pictures of it with his 100-400 Canon lens. Since the lens was a recent acquisition he was not very familiar with it’s usage and I gave him a few tips on the settings to use for this situation. He managed some excellent pictures of the Long Horned Orb Spider.

Long Horned Orb Spider (Gasteracantha dalyi)

Malabar Parakeet

We continued down the trail in search of birds and we chanced upon the beautiful malabar parakeet in a clump of bamboo. With bamboo flowering everywhere the birds were having a field day.  This mass flowering produces masses of seeds, typically suspended from the ends of the branches. In this species of bamboo, all plants of the same stock flower at the same time, regardless of differences in geographic locations or climatic conditions, and then the bamboo dies. The lack of environmental impact on the time of flowering indicates the presence of some sort of “alarm clock” in each cell of the plant which signals the diversion of all energy to flower production and the cessation of vegetative growth. This mechanism, as well as the evolutionary cause behind it, is still largely a mystery.

With the day warming up there were a lot of butterflies that were feeding actively. This gave us time to get some excellent photographs.

Grey Pansy

Medus Brown

Common Castor

Malabar Banded Peacock

Birds were very active throughout the day especially around fruiting trees. Normally shy birds like this Vernal Hanging Parrot and the Nilgiri Flowerpecker could be observed from up close as long as we didn’t make sudden movements.

Vernal Hanging Parrot

Nilgiri Flowerpecker

Malabar Barbet

White-headed Starling

Plum-headed Parakeet

As we moved further into the plantation we could hear the calls of various birds like the minivets and nuthatches. This could only be a mixed bird flock and we hurried towards the calls. It was a large mixed flock of species like the Velvet-fronted and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Scarlet and Little Minivets, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Dark-fronted Babblers, Black-naped Monarchs, Malabar Woodshrikes, Racket-tailed and Bronzed Drongos, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Lesser yellow-naped Woodpeckers and Indian Yellow Tits. For over ten minutes we watched as all these birds went from tree to tree all around us and then slowly moved away. We got some great photographs and decided to head back to the birding lodge for lunch.

Yellow-browed Bulbul

Scarlet Minivet – Male

Scarlet Minivet – Female

Dark Fronted Babbler

Velvet Fronted Nuthatch

Brown Wood Owl

As we neared the birding lodge a pair of drongos were mobbing a bird in a jack fruit tree. We tried to get closer and a large owl flew into a ficus adjoining the jack fruit tree. While Matthew got a good view of the owl through his bins, I managed a hasty photograph under difficult conditions. We were lucky to sight the elusive Brown-wood Owl during the day. Thanks to the persistent mobbing by the drongos we were able to photograph this nocturnal beauty and were very happy with the days birding but there was more to come! The path lead through a wetland with a few ponds and a marshy area. When we were half way through, a large snipe flushed and we had a hurried look at a Pin-tailed Snipe. A pair of Malabar Crested Larks were also present and a group of Indian Rufous Babblers could be seen sulking in the bushes around the pond. This species is very vocal but rarely show themselves in the open.

It was nearing dusk and we heard a Jerdon’s nightjar call in the distance but it stopped calling as we tried to get near and we made our way back to the lodge. The sunset at the lodge was very beautiful especially since the lodge overlooks a valley and is elevated. We enjoyed a few cold beers comfortably ensconced in planters chairs followed by dinner and went to bed early.

We were to leave for Bangalore the next morning and just as we left the lodge I heard the percing call of a raptor overhead. We got out of the car and looked up to see a raptor flying really high up. I bumped up the exposure on the camera and took a few pictures before looking through my binoculars. The bird initially looked like a Crested Goshawk but on close inspection I found that it was the very rare Jerdon’s Baza. I could not believe my eyes since the raptor had never been reported from the area before. Very few experienced birders have actually seen this bird in India and Matthew and I are very fortunate to have had a great view of this special bird. A closely cropped photo of the Baza in flight can be seen below.

Jerdons Baza

Thrilled with a splendid sighting we drove towards Bangalore and stopped in the middle of a forest where I knew of a path up a thickly wooded hillock. There was still a lot of mist and though it was clearing up fast it gave an ethereal feel to the location. It was a very beautiful spot and as we walked up the path we chanced upon a pile of fresh tiger scat right beside the path. The tiger had probably passed this way less than an hour or two ago and the feline scent still hung in the air. We decided to stay in the same spot till the mist cleared. A pattering of leaves close by made us look up into a tree. A giant Malabar Squirrel sat on a branch feeding on the bark of the tree. These beautiful squirrels rarely come to the ground and prefer to feed in the tree tops. They also happen to be the favourite food for large raptors like the Changeable and Mountain Hawk-eagles and the Black Eagle. As the mist cleared we started seeing bird movement and were able to have good views of the Green Imperial Pigeon, Grey-headed Bulbul, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Yellow-footed Green-pigeon and the Nilgiri Wood-pigeon. A few Crested Tree Swifts were flying high above us.

Matthew birding in the mist.

Malabar Giant Squirrel

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon

We drove on and stopped at a lake just outside the forest where we were able to view Black-headed Ibis, Black Ibis, Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacana, White-breasted Waterhen, Jack Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Common Ringed Plover, Grey-heron and Purple-heron.

Black-headed Ibis

Common Ringed-plover

Indian Grey Hornbill

The roads are excellent once you hit the main highway and the Coorg-Mysore road does not have much traffic compared to the Mysore-Bangalore stretch. As we passed Mysore we spotted a pair of Indian Grey-hornbills and managed a quick photograph before continuing with our journey. It was an excellent three day trip and Matthew was good fun to bird with. He is also a keen photographer and birder and I look forward to seeing him again next year for a trip into the Nilgiri hills. That should complete his birding series in South India which leaves us with a trip to the northern parts of India. Though we didn’t see a tiger on this trip, the next trip I have planned for him should give us a better shot at seeing a tiger in the wild.

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