23 November–8 December 2013
The Western Ghats, running for almost 1000 miles parallel to the southwest coast of peninsular India, have been recognised by Birdlife International as one of the most important endemic bird areas in Asia. This tour takes us in search of 16 (or 25 depending on the authorities) regional endemics as well as other south Indian specialities. This is all set amidst the picturesque backdrop of the dense forests, lakes and tea plantations of southern India's mountains, from the foothills up to the highest peaks. Expect around 240 species.
Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Kochi (Cochin).
Day 2 We arrive this morning in Kochi, the capital of the coastal state of Kerala, and set off on the drive to Ooty in the rolling Nilgiri Hills or Blue Mountains, some of the highest in southern India, in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The journey will take most of the day, but we will have the chance to stop along the way to search for our first southern Indian specialities before arriving in Ooty where we will spend the next two nights.
Day 3 Today we will spend the whole day birding around the outskirts of this colonial hill station where evergreen montane forests and patches of open grassland support a variety of restricted-range endemics. We may find White-bellied Shortwing, Rufous-breasted, Wynaad and Grey-breasted Laughingthrushes and Nilgiri Flycatcher. Also possible are Western Crowned and Large-billed Leaf-warblers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Indian Blue Robin, Blue-capped Rock-thrush, White-throated Fantail, Scaly Thrush and Kashmir Flycatcher, which otherwise can only be found in Sri Lanka during the winter months.
Day 4 We have an early-morning start for the drive down to the foot of the Nilgiri Hills to Mudumalai, part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – one of the largest protected areas of forest in India. We will spend the rest of the day working our way through the dry deciduous and scrub forests searching for Blue-faced and Sirkeer Malkohas, Yellow-crowned, Streak-throated, White-naped and Brown-capped Woodpeckers, Grey Francolin, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Bay-backed Shrike, Common and Large Woodshrikes, White-browed Fantail, Yellow-billed, Tawny-bellied and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Jungle Prinia, Indian Pitta, Black and Rufous-bellied Eagles and the Western Ghats endemics Grey-headed Bulbul and Malabar Lark. This is also a stronghold of the near-threatened and localised White-bellied Minivet. Overnight in Mudumalai.
Day 5 We will spend the morning birding at Mudumalai before returning to Ooty for the night.
Day 6 Today we leave Ooty for the drive into the Anaimalai Hills to Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, (better known as Anaimalai), where we will spend the afternoon birding in the bamboo groves and dry deciduous forests and also back across the Kerala border in the contiguous Parambikulam Sanctuary. Various Western Ghats endemics, such as Rufous Babbler, White-bellied Blue-flycatcher, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Nilgiri Pipit, Malabar Parakeet and Crimson-fronted Barbet may be found here alongside White-cheeked Barbet, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Hill Myna, Vernal Hanging-parrot, White-rumped Shama, White-browed and Yellow-browed Bulbuls and Black-naped Monarch. The Western Ghats endemic mammals Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur can also be seen in the sanctuary and we may even come across larger mammals, possibly including Indian Elephants and Gaur (Indian Bison). Our base for the next two nights will be at Sethumada on the outskirts of the reserve.
Day 7 We will spend a full day spent birding in Anaimalai and Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Day 8 We will leave Anaimalai early morning and head up to the hill station of Munnar in Kerala's rolling Cardamom Hills. En route we will spend time birding in the riparian scrub forests of Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, which falls in the rain shadow of the ghats and presents a contrast to most other protected forests in Kerala as a result. We arrive in Munnar late afternoon for a two-night stay.
Day 9 We have a full day in Munnar to bird the open grassland, vegetated gullies and patches of woodland dotted within the vast tea plantations that envelop the town. This combination of habitats has allowed a variety of species to flourish here, with Alpine and Blyth's Swifts, Brown-backed Needletail, Indian Swiftlet and Pacific Swallow regularly seen over the hill slopes, whilst Blue-capped Rock-thrush and Grey-breasted and Rufous-breasted Laughingthrushes can be found in the understorey. By spending time at the nearby Eravikulam National Park, which contains the highest peaks in the Western Ghats, we may find restricted-range endemics including Nilgiri Pipit, Black-and-rufous and Nilgiri Flycatchers and the uncommon and nomadic Nilgiri Wood-pigeon.
Day 10 This morning we will leave Munnar and head down through the foothills to Periyar National Park arriving around lunchtime. En route we will spend time roadside birding in the vegetated gullies of Bodi Ghat, one of the most reliable sites for the scarce and localised south Indian speciality Yellow-throated Bulbul. The afternoon will be spent exploring the moist evergreen forests and lake edges of Periyar, where we may find Oriental Darter, Great Cormorant, Alpine Swift, Crested Treeswift, Ashy Woodswallow, Puff-throated and Dark-fronted Babblers, Black and Changeable Hawk-eagles, Black Baza, Great Hornbill, Heart-spotted and Rufous Woodpeckers, Black-rumped Flameback, Black-naped, Black-hooded and Eurasian Golden Orioles, Greater Racket-tailed and Bronzed Drongos and Pompadour Green-pigeon. Possible endemics include Malabar Grey Hornbill and White-bellied Treepie. Two nights in Periyar.
Day 11 Today we will spend the whole day birding in Periyar. We will take a boat out on the lake where we will be able to view good numbers of raptors, swifts and kingfishers as well as some mammals – possibilities include Wild Boar, Gaur and even Indian Elephants coming to the lake edges to drink. Walks through the forest will give us the opportunity to see a wide selection of birds, which may include specialities such as Indian Scimitar-babbler and White-bellied Woodpecker and further Western Ghats endemics such as Malabar Parakeet, Crimson-backed Sunbird and, with luck, a flock of the elusive Wynaad Laughingthrushes.
Day 12 We will leave Periyar early morning and head north to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary at the base of the Cardamom Hills. Although only covering a small area Thattekad is irreplaceable, its gently undulating terrain holding the last remnant of a habitat once extant across much of this region but now largely converted to plantations. The dense lowland forests support many specialities absent or more difficult to find at higher altitude. During our visit we may find Ceylon Frogmouth, Malabar Trogon, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Long-billed Sunbird and Speckled Piculet among the commoner Grey Junglefowl, Red Spurfowl, Tickell's and White-bellied Blue-flycatchers, Asian Fairy-bluebird and Dollarbird. As dusk falls, Great Eared-nightjar and Grey Nightjar can be seen hawking over the reservoir. We will spend the next three nights in Thattekad.
Days 13–14 We have two full days to spend birding at Thattekad and at nearby Edamalayar Dam to ensure that we connect with all the speciality birds.
Day 15 We will spend a final morning at Thattekad before departing on the drive back to Kochi where we will spend the last night of the tour.
Day 16 An early-morning start to transfer to Kochi International Airport for the return flight to the UK.
General Information South India is quite hot at this time of year but rain is also a possibility. The pace is easy but the heat can be tiring at times. On most days, we will split the birding into two sessions with a break in the middle of the day so we can take time off to relax. There are a number of health requirements and you must consult your GP in this respect. Insects are not a major problem but you must take precautions to avoid other health risks. Accommodation is in medium-standard hotels and wildlife resorts, all with private facilities. Visas are required.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8; maximum group size: 10 with 1 leader, 15 with 2 leaders.