Grey-fronted Green Pigeon is one of many Indian endemics we’ll see on the tour. Photo: Paul Holt
India has long fascinated naturalists and travellers alike and it’s easy to see why. The fabulously rich wildlife, the cultural and geographic diversity, and the Indian people themselves combine to make this a fascinating place to visit again and again.
Compared with the north, southern India has been relatively poorly explored by visiting birdwatchers, a fact that is all the more surprising considering the high number of species that are either endemic to peninsular India or shared only with neighbouring Sri Lanka. Southern India is strikingly different from the north in so many ways - life is seemingly more relaxed and a good deal more genteel. The south’s magnificent coastline is caressed by balmy tropical winds and nurtured by monsoon rains. On this tour we’ll visit some of southern India’s startlingly rich nature reserves and spectacular resorts in search of the region’s special avifauna. We’ll spend time in India’s three southernmost states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. We’ll birdwatch near tea plantations in the Western Ghats and Nilgiri mountains, and we’ll study waders on the Coromandel coast, and hunt for endemics in several of the region’s best national parks.
New in 2021: We are offering a pre-tour option to join our short trip India: Forest Owlet in Maharashtra to search for this recently rediscovered bird.
Day 1: The tour starts in Kochi, the capital of mystical Kerala, this evening. Once everyone has gathered together we’ll have a short introductory talk followed by dinner. Night in Kochi (Cochin).
Day 2: Much of the day will be taken up with the drive from Kochi up to Ooty (short for Ootacamund). Perched at 7,250 feet in the towering Nilgiris, Ooty is south India’s premier hill station and a retreat from the oppressive summer heat of the plains. It’s also a modern bustling city with a distinctly faded colonial charm. Although this is largely a travel day, our route will take us through a patchwork of agricultural fields, wetlands, and arid waste grounds, where we’ll make several stops to search for our first south Indian specialities. Night in Ooty.
Day 3: We’ll spend the whole day around Ooty exploring a variety of areas close to the town and concentrating on finding some of the region’s higher-altitude specialities such as Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Black-and-orange Flycatcher, Nilgiri Woodpigeon, Indian Blackbird, and the skulking, but not uncommon Nilgiri Blue Robin. We may also see our first strikingly patterned Nilgiri Langurs today. Night in Ooty.
Day 4: Leaving Ooty and the Nilgiri Hills we’ll descend a short distance onto the plains to our next accommodation just outside Mudumalai National Park. Along the way we’ll stop to search for such delights as Nilgiri Thrush (a recent split from the White’s and Scaly Thrush complex) as well as Nilgiri Flycatcher, Malabar Lark, White-bellied Minivet, and Booted Warbler. Like many of India’s Tiger reserves, Mudumalai National Park has restricted access, and we’ll spend much of our time exploring areas of dry deciduous forest and thorny scrub outside the park, looking for a variety of species including Red Spurfowl, both Grey-fronted and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, Blue-faced Malkoha, Grey-headed Bulbul, Tawny-bellied Babbler and the elusive Painted Bush Quail. Up to 12 species of woodpecker can be seen here, and Mudumalai is also our best (but far from only!) site for Indian Pitta. Night near Mudumalai National Park.
Day 5: Venturing away from Mudumalai we’ll explore two very different areas today, one an area of lowland, moist evergreen forest where we hope to find species such as Rufous and Dark-fronted Babblers, Indian Blue Robin and, if we’re very lucky, the enigmatic White-naped Tit. Later in the day we’ll visit an area of scrub and arid grassland in search of specialities typical of the extensive tracts of dry deciduous forest, including the endemic Grey Junglefowl, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, White-eyed Buzzard and Blyth’s Pipit. Night near Mudumalai National Park.
Day 6: After a final morning in the vicinity of our comfortable guest house, we’ll return to Ooty for the night.
Day 7: We’ll leave Ooty and drive back down to the plains, through the bustling textile city of Coimbatore before climbing back up to Munnar, a hill station more famous for its tea than its tourism. Night near Munnar.
Day 8: Munnar is a convenient and comfortable base from which to explore the areas around Rajamalai Sanctuary (part of the unique Eravikulam National Park) well above the highest of the tea plantations. The sanctuary and its surroundings consist of high-rolling grassy hills interspersed with valleys dotted with small patches of shola evergreen forest - a distinctive and biologically rich habitat. Once again, we’ll concentrate on the region’s endemics, notably White-bellied Blue Robin, Palani Laughingthrush and Nilgiri Pipit. Rajamalai is also a spectacular setting in which to search again for Painted Bush Quail, Indian Scimitar Babbler and Nilgiri Flycatcher among many others. In spite of the tourist crowds, we will have a reasonable chance of encountering the rare Nilgiri Tahr, a large wild goat endemic to the grass hills of southern India. Night near Munnar.
Day 9: This morning we’ll leave Munnar, making a stop to search for another of the region’s endemics, Yellow-throated Bulbul, before continuing south to the Cardamom Hills and Periyar Sanctuary. We’ll spend the next three nights at a hotel near the sanctuary.
Days 10-11: Periyar is probably the best known and most popular wildlife reserve in southern India, and at more than 300 square kilometres is undoubtedly one of the subcontinent’s largest. From our base beside the sprawling multi-fingered lake in the centre of the reserve, we’ll explore many of the reserve’s vast and varied habitats. The ornithological pace will be fast and furious and could include endemics, or near-endemics, such as Malabar Grey Hornbill, White-bellied Treepie, Wynaad Laughingthrush, Malabar Barbet, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Rufous Babbler, Malabar Whistling Thrush, and perhaps even a roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth, or an Indian Pitta. Other targets include Great Hornbill, White-bellied and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Blue-winged Parakeet and Malabar Woodshrike, while in the evening we’ll search for some of the region’s nocturnal wildlife. All our birding highlights may be rivalled by our many mammal sightings; previous tours have encountered Asiatic Elephant, Sloth Bear and even Dhole or Wild Dog. Nights near the Periyar Sanctuary.
Day 12: Leaving Periyar we’ll have a relatively short drive to Thattekad, a sanctuary in lowland Kerala. Thattekad shares many of the birds at Periyar but some, most notably the night birds, are easier to see here. Consequently, we’ll spend part of at least one night searching for specialities such as Brown Fish Owl, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, and perhaps even Sri Lanka Bay Owl. Night at Thattekad.
Day 13: Spending a full day in Thattekad will give us plenty of time to search for species such as Malabar Grey Hornbill, the gaudy Malabar Barbet, Yellow-browed and Flame-throated Bulbuls, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and possibly even Black-throated Munia. The attractive Asian Fairy Bluebird and the vociferous Lesser Hill-myna also occur here, and we’ll hope to see both. Night at Thattekad.
Day 14: Today we’ll drive back down to the lowlands arriving in Kochi in time for some sightseeing. Kochi is a former Portuguese colonial town and one of India’s largest ports and naval bases. We’ll have a chance to do some more birding, perhaps searching for a few waders such as Broad-billed and Terek Sandpipers; we’ll spend some time exploring a modest number of the sights, visiting some of the 500-year old houses and the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets of the Fort Kochi area. Night in Kochi.
Day 15: The main tour concludes this morning in Kochi.
Andaman Islands extension
Day 15: We’ll spend the morning in Kochi before taking a flight to Chennai (Madras) on India’s eastern seaboard and from there on to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. Once there we’ll transfer to our hotel and commence our exploration of these remote and rarely visited islands. Night near Port Blair.
Days 16-20: Lying on the ancient trade route between India and the Far East, the islands are part of a mostly submarine mountain ridge joining Myanmar with Sumatra. There are 204 islands in all and much of their surface is still covered in high-quality pristine rainforest. The main island, where we’ll concentrate our activities, is surprisingly rugged and yet possess some gorgeous and exotic palm-fringed beaches. No doubt these will distract some of us from the islands’ fascinating avifauna. Ornithologically, the islands are home to a mixture of Indian and South Asian species, including about 20 endemics. Our stay should enable us to see a high proportion of them, perhaps including the imaginatively named Andaman Serpent-eagle, Andaman Woodpigeon, Andaman Cuckoo-dove, Andaman Green Pigeon, Andaman Coucal, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Treepie, and Andaman Drongo. We’ll also search for some of the archipelago’s endemic night birds – a scops-owl, two hawk-owls, a barn owl and a nightjar. A wealth of waders and migrants can also be expected. Nights near Port Blair.
Day 21: We’ll catch a flight back to Chennai where we’ll have rooms and dinner in an airport hotel.
Day 22: The tour concludes in Chennai early this morning.
Updated: 10 January 2020