Tuesday, January 06, 2009

India Holiday - Monday 29 December – Valparai

A 06:00 ‘time to wake up, tea-estate workers’ air-raid siren was followed by a 07:00 departure to the forest on the road to the village of Kurangumdi, just 7km from the entrance to the Stanmore tea estate, which was our destination for the morning. Our birding expedition consisted of a walk down the road between the teak forest and the tea estate, but what a walk! This picture shows sunlight streaming through the trees in the tea estate:

For the first five minutes it was very quiet and we were wondering if we’d made a mistake, but soon we approached a flowering tree (not sure what species) that we nicknamed ‘the breakfast tree’. It was a race between the various birds as to who could get the nectar from each flower first. A number of female Eurasian Golden Orioles were in the tree:

Together with what we think are Purple-backed Starlings. Feeding on another tree of the same species was this Southern Hill Myna:

A Eurasian Blackbird, looking like a cross between our domestic race and the race we identified yesterday:

We also saw Great Racket-tailed and Ashy Drongos, a Golden-fronted Leafbird and Common Rosefinches, all breakfasting on the tree. A little further along in a drier section of the forest we encountered Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, with individuals showing well and with the bird present in good numbers:

At first I thought it might be some clothing caught in a tree then realised it was a tail, closer inspection revealed this giant squirrel, presumably the Malabar Grizzled Giant Squirrel:

We also got fleeting glimpses of a black monkey with a lion shaped tail, but couldn’t make it out clearly in the dense forest so we carried on along the road. Turning a corner we couldn’t fail to see what we believe is a juvenile Mountain Hawk Eagle – distinguished from a Changeable Hawk Eagle by the markings on the crest and the absence of any barring on the front of the bird, sat proud on a branch in the sunlight:

According to our field guide, we saw this bird in a formerly occupied region of the country in which it is thought to be no longer present, which makes it again a very interesting find indeed! Amazingly from the same spot, we spotted an adult Lion-tailed Macaque feeding, sat in a tree no more than 15 metres from us, he was clearly both eating and watching us:

He was joined by a smaller individual but that one proved impossible to photograph. We were delighted to see this very rare mammal (less than 2,500 remain) and felt quite privileged. Some birds we saw but didn’t manage to photograph included a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher, a White-bellied Kingfisher and an Indian Cuckoo, doing ‘hawk’ flying runs around a glade though apparently not fooling any target species, we also heard what can only have been an elephant taking out a tree as there was an almighty cracking sound - that was a bit of a surprise, as we had been told there were no elephants in this particular area of forest! Further along the path a group of Plum-headed Parakeets perched in a dead tree watched us stroll by:

We then saw a huge bird, no doubt it seemed bigger due to its proximity, which we watched settle, mostly obscured in a leafy tree. This is the best picture I got:

We believe the bird to be a Bonelli’s Hawk Eagle judging by its size, markings, and eye and face colours. As we neared the village at the end of the forest walk we saw the second eclipse male Purple Sunbird of our holiday:

The walk itself was thus far the highlight of our stay in Valparai and really did help us to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Having finished, we got back in time to miss breakfast and had time to catch-up on this journal amongst other things before our no doubt huge lunch. For the afternoon excursion we referred to the Birdwatchers’ Guide to India book we had brought with us and decided on the suggested Shola on the roadside between hairpin bends 36 of 40 and 40 of 40. Big mistake - it might be an interesting spot first thing in the morning on a non-driving national holiday but this afternoon we saw a few Grey Wagtails and a possible Piculet (which would be new but it flew before I could be sure), so we got Praveen to pick us up and headed back to this morning’s forest walk. On the way back to Valparai we spotted a younger couple further down the hairpins, kitted out with bins and cameras, which made us smile, they’d obviously had the same idea at the same time :) We did have a bit of luck when setting out, with Helen spotting a flying blue blur, which alighted on some wiring and turned out to be a distant Indian Roller, the first new species of the afternoon:

Back at the breakfast tree this morning’s Purple-backed Starlings were still feeding:

There were many fewer visible and audible birds in the later afternoon than we had observed from the morning, but we did identify one we’d only recorded calling earlier, a female Common Flameback, told by the lack of red on the head and lack of black on the throat. Towards the end of the walk a huge bird took flight, this time from overhead Praveen’s car (he follows us on our walks or occasionally goes ahead as in this instance), and alighted on a tree about twenty metres in front of us. The sun was behind it so I set the ISO to 1600 and took a few shots, trying to get a little closer each time, though in fact the closer I got the more the bird became a silhouette. As it flew it was clear it was a different bird, this morning’s was pale underneath whereas this bird was a uniform brown. We’re pretty sure from the size and plumage that it is a more mature Crested Serpent Eagle:

We ended the walk and headed back, to pack, before dinner, and to watch the loal squirrells playing chase around the perimeter wall of the bungalow grounds:

Tomorrow we’re setting off at 7am for our next and penultimate destination in India, Kumarakom - Praveen gets to drop us off and go and spend two-and-a-half days over New Year with his (pregnant) wife (congratulations and good luck!). He’s been a superb driver and has really looked out for us so far on this trip, I’d recommend him to anyone who needs a driver in and around Kochi.

It turned out they only charged for bottles of water and for beer (outside of our pre-paid meal plan) which made our stay at the Stanmore Garden Bungalow very good value indeed. Signing the visitors’ book also proved to be very interesting as it dated back to 1976 and the days of visits from Brooke Bond, the then owners, and auditors including Price Waterhouse. One 1993 entry referred back to the 1950’s...

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