Thattekadu, India: My Date With the Birds
By Lakshmi Sharath
Time: 4 am Location: Kochi, Kerala, India
It is still dark in Kochi when the train arrives at the railway station in the wee hours of the morning. I open an eye warily, only to see fellow passengers walking around in a mindless stupor. Sleep still hangs over my eye lids as I stretch my lazy limbs and get up a bit groggily.
My journey is not yet over. I have another hour of driving ahead of me to get to Thattekadu, an evergreen forest near Kochi, also known to be a birder’s paradise. As I get out of the train, the breeze brings in a whiff of hot tea, energizing me instantly.
I had planned Thattekadu at the very last minute. Although it is easily accessible from the Kochi International Airport, I choose to take a train and then a cab to get some local flavour.
We birders like to believe that Thattekadu is not really a regular tourist haunt, but resorts have sprung up around the Periyar river, prompting ecotourism. I, however, opt to stay in a comfortable home-stay, Jungle Birds, located right inside the Bird Sanctuary.
The board outside the charming double-story house announces that Girish, my bird guide, is a practicing advocate, but his life seems to revolve more around birds and women. The lone male in a matriarchal home, Girish lives here with his wife, daughter, mother and grandmother.
I ask him how it feels to be the only man among so many women, and he laughs and says, “pampered.” The real force behind him however is his mother, Sudha, a bundle of energy and an authority on any topic under the sun, birds included. Girish soon leaves to join his other guests and Sudha takes over.
First glimpse of Thattekadu
The Periyar river is bathed in fog as I take in the view. Thattekadu in the local language means flat forest, but that is largely a misnomer.
This tropical evergreen and deciduous forest is home to over 250 rare and endemic species of birds and the sanctuary is named after the ornithologist Salim Ali, who stumbled upon it almost 80 years ago.
Meanwhile, Sudha effortlessly climbs a small hillock, her petite frame and energy hiding all her 55 years.
As I trudge behind her, she is already way ahead of me, walking across a rubber plantation and greeting the locals there. Some of the workers are extracting latex from the trees, while others are washing and treating small pieces of rubber which are then spread out to dry
The landscape drastically changes to wilderness as Sudha excitedly tells me, “Madam, this is where I was chased by an elephant last time.”
I stop dead in my tracks and look around me. I am surrounded by dense vegetation and if an elephant was to come calling, I will probably have no escape route.
Sudha meanwhile walks around barefoot and unperturbed, crossing a tree trunk on the way. And then she calls out to me excitedly, “Madam, come fast, you are so lucky.”
I am not too sure of the luck factor, as I almost expect an elephant standing ahead of me, but luckily, I am wrong.
My first birding session
Sudha excitedly points to a crested goshawk, which makes faces at us while we take a few photographs. A black baza then flies out of the wild. We continue birding for a while, looking at a pair of Loten’s sun birds, when we are joined by Girish and a couple of Englishmen.
The forests soon come alive with colors and calls, as we see a pair of Malabar grey hornbills. Malabar seems to be the common prefix to the birds here, referring to the locale. There is the much-awaited brilliantly coloured Malabar trogon which is the prized catch of the day.
We hike a bit into the dense forests to catch a glimpse of this rare bird and are rewarded by four sightings.
The male and female scarlet minivets, the Asian fairy blue bird, the ruby throated bulbul, black nape and black hooded orioles, plum headed and Malabar parakeets, racket tailed drongos, golden fronted leaf bird, crimson backed sunbird, crimson throated barbet all come and go as we strain our binoculars on them to get a glimpse of their vivid hues.
We return to the home-stay for some delicious homemade breakfast while Sudha tells us her story. She and her late husband had been living in the sanctuary, ekeing a livelihood out of a tea shop and ferrying people across the Periyar for a small sum of money.
“I was just a housewife till my husband passed away,” she says nonchalantly. “Now I run this home-stay, work in a school, help in the sanctuary and even do catering. I learned some English to speak to all my guests as most of them come from abroad,” she adds.
Her prized possession is a small binocular that was given to her by a German couple who stayed with her last winter.
Girish meanwhile is busy planning our evening birding session as the resident brown hawk owl greets us near the sanctuary gate. I cruise through the jungles in an autorickshaw as light slowly fades and the owls and the nightjars come out.
There is a collared scops owl frowning at us while a brown fish owl flies out in another direction and the Jerdon’s nightjar calls. But we still haven’t been able to spot the bird of the night – the Sri Lankan frogmouth.
Searching for the Frogmouth near a dam built by demons
We head out towards Bhoothankettu dam that locals believe is a dam built by the demons. The Periyar river lies sprawled on either side of the Bhoothathankettu bridge as Girish tells me the lore behind it.
One night, the demons started hurling huge stones towards a river side temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva with the intention of destroying it. The God however tricked the demons by creating an illusion of dawn.
He is believed to have taken the form of a rooster to announce daybreak and had chased them away. Myths not withstanding, the rocks still stand near the temple and they are attributed to the floods that ravaged the town many years ago.
However we are not spooked by the story, but we continue our search for the Srilankan frogmouth, which is so highly adept at camouflaging itself between the leaves, that very often it looks like a still branch.
It is almost pitch dark as we wander silently into the thick darkness of the jungles treading on branches, wary of snakes.
Finally Girish signals us with his flashlight as we follow his gaze to a branch. Cozying up together are a pair of Srilankan frogmouths with their wide gaping mouths resembling that of a frog.
They sit still, almost glued to each other, taking turns to open their eyes to gaze at us. We take turns too to get close to the bird and stare at it in awe as it let us take some photographs. We don’t know how long we stood there.
Finally the silence is broken as we all collectively burst out in excitement, heaving a sigh of relief. As the stars come out and the jungles come to life, a lone auto rickshaw carrying a group of happy birders makes its way back home through the jungles in the thick of the night.
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