Tuesday, January 06, 2009

India Holiday - Saturday 27 December – Munnar to Valparai

Following a 06:00 alarm and 06:45 breakfast, Praveen collected us promptly and we headed off through Munnar for the first leg of our trip to the bungalow on the Stanmore Tea Estate Valparai (http://www.teabungalows.com/stanmore.htm), a bungalow accommodation set on a tea plantation in the Aniamalai Hills of Tamil Nadu. This is a last, early-morning view taken looking out from the OliveBrook at Munnar:

Just outside of Munnar I photographed this Spotted Dove, one of a pair:

After climbing up and then back down the hills, our first scheduled stop was at Chinnar Wildlife Reserve, which we reached at 09:30. Apart from the large river running through the middle of the Reserve:

this habitat was much drier than at Munnar, with lots of dry scrub and acacia trees. We were assigned a guide, a gentleman in a pressed forest office uniform carrying a big stick. We soon realised how much harder our birding was going to be without an expert guide. We heard just as many birds but saw far fewer. The first bird we did see clearly was a Common Kingfisher, followed by a new species, the Verditer Flycatcher, which stopped briefly in the river for a bath:

Stunning plumage. On the other side of the river a Scarlet Minivet, bright orange, stood out against the foliage. We saw a number of Greenish Leaf Warblers, our third soaring Black Eagle and then away from the river another new species, this Small Minivet, which shows orange and yellow, and is frankly a stunning little bird:

Walking along the river, this shape caught my eye:

It's entirely natural and I presume is some sort of tree vine? The next bird was quite a surprise, as I’ve not seen anything like this before, except perhaps a vague resemblance to an Indian Silverbill (see Garden Birds and other sightings...: France Holiday - Day 1), we needed the field guide (A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Krys Kazmierczak) to identify a Scaly-breasted Munia:

We flushed a number of pigeons before (and therefore not) seeing them, saw black-coloured birds and a number of others (possibly 10 species or more) that we could neither identify nor get a picture, how many more birds would we have identified with a guide? We resolved to come back to Chinnar on our next trip, as well as Thattekkad. Next-up a Bronzed Drongo:

The next new species was a lone female Indian Robin, distinguished by both the rufous vent and the ‘spectacles’ around the eyes:

This bird is I believe a female Purple-rumped Sunbird, I like the pose behind the flowers:

As we’d been walking for around 75 minutes of our scheduled 2 hour stop we had to loop back to the central building. We flushed a White-browed Fantail, then spotted a Bay-backed Shrike which I managed a couple of record shots of:

Flying overhead were large numbers of a new species of swift, the Brown-backed Needletail (the guide had opined Alpine Swift, hence the need to get an expert bird guide for our next visit). The backdrop they are flying against reminds me of the granite domes in Yosemite National park, half a world away:

This view is earned by climbing one of the hills within the reserve boundary, and then adjusting the exposure compensation to act like a light filter:

We made it back to the car only 20 minutes late, hot, bothered and reasonably pleased, for the three-and-a-half hour trip to the Stanmore Garden Bungalow at Valparai, including the well signposted 40 hairpin bends on the main road up the hills into the estate, which itself falls in the Indira Ghandi Widlife Sanctuary. The drive up the hill was stunning, with many waterfalls beside the road, all heading down to the turquoise blue lake behind the dam below. Dotted along the side of the road were large numbers of monkeys, which Helen referred to as 'minging
monkeys' - they've been trained by humans to expect food handouts, so they hang around staring at cars - a real shame:

The accommodation has a very colonial feel to it, having been built to house the (English) family that owned the tea-estate, before being the accommodation of the Director of the Estate once it became an Indian operation and now finally tourist accommodation (including a room, and food, etc., for the driver as there’s nowhere else close by that they can really go). It seems little changed since colonial times, although the grounds and gardens have been allowed to revert to nature, giving it a bit of a rustic feel. Wherever possible the original fixtures and fittings have been retained and are authentic 1930’s for this context, which is great though the curtains could do with replacing as could the odd cupboard door :)

We unpacked and were presented with a large second lunch (having snacked extensively en-route) then took tea on the veranda, meeting our fellow travellers, who were touring south India in the opposite direction to us, before being escorted on a ‘stroll’ through the estate grounds to the river, which turned out to be an energetic 4km up- and down-hill affair. I was surprised by the numbers of birds around, this being virtually a mono-culture, but we saw Oriental White-eyes, a White-throated Kingfisher (feeding on the lawn!), Large-billed Crows, Pied Bushchat, a pair of White-browed Wagtails, a Pond Heron, a Tickell’s Leaf Warbler and an Oriental Honey Buzzard, distant but this time I managed a record shot. A group of four Plum-headed parakeets also buzzed Helen about a metre from her head as they flew across the river to their roosting site. This is the view along the river:

On the rocks opposite the point where we stopped, a pair of White-browed Wagtails were mooching around:

We retired back to the Bungalow for more estate tea (very tasty and fresh) and coffee served with cake and biscuits, followed by a huge dinner (the food is good, but they make about three times as much as required and then force feed you with it).

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