Bird call

A lost world of leaves and feathers at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Thattekad, Kerala
A Malabar grey hornbil
A Malabar grey hornbil

The watchtower sits next to a monsoon creek where it joins the Periyar river. A rustic bamboo bridge straddles the creek. Tiny fish flit about in its clear sun-dappled waters. It feels like the first day after the rains the air is fresh and dry, yet all is lush. Fat skink lizards bask on the rocky shore, showing off their ochre eye stripes and delicate blue scales. The forest floor here is moist, each fallen branch and tree trunk is colonised by frilly mushrooms. At the top of the tower I find a sad story the body of an emerald dove that has crashed and broken its neck. Emerald doves fly fast and straight, and often hit obstacles in flight. Not unlike certain straight-driving humans I know. This bird is still warm the ants have devoured just one eye so far. Its emerald wings still glitter, but death has drained away the bright orange from its beak.

We are in the Salim Ali bird sanctuary in Thattekad, Kerala, on a two-day birding trip. Thattekad, located on the Periyar river where it leaves the Western Ghats to enter the plains, is second only to the eastern Himalaya in density of bird species. We are staying at the Hornbill Camp, conveniently close to the sanctuary and right on the bank of the Periyar. En route to our birding destinations we encounter fecund Kerala in all its splendour. Verdant plantations abound everywhere I look coffee, cocoa, turmeric, ginger, rubber. Rubber milk dribbles down a gash on each tree and pools in a neatly attached coconut half-shell. I wonder why this scene feels unnerving until I realise that the rubber trees seem like nubile slaves standing in the rain, spiral gashes running down their thighs. Congealing blood pools in half-shells at each knee, a large-scale tableau of some exotic and gory ritual.

&nbspThe sanctuary is located within a plantation forest of teak and mahogany, interspersed with wild deciduous trees. At dawn, our birding guide Jijo Mathew, all of twenty-seven, leads us on a walk through the forest to a rocky outcrop. There is a dense thicket of bushes in the foreground and tall trees in the background. Jijo points out that the area is at a boundary of several habitats, so we wait for the birds to emerge. And emerge they do. Almost immediately we spot plum-headed parakeets in the bush. The new sun glancing off their improbably colourful heads, they look like plums ready to be plucked. A bevy of racket-tailed drongos do a noisy fly-by and arrange themselves in a high and dry branch in a spectacular pageantry of showy tails. A grey jungle fowl female, ordinarily shy, is very close to us pecking away at the ground. The bright red crest of a black-rumped flameback cuts a sharp contrast against a drab tree trunk. And then the endemic species start to show. The rufous treepie we had been watching for a while is completely upstaged by the graceful sweep of a white-bellied treepie, endemic to the Western Ghats. With a white undershirt chest and a flowing tail it poses in a nearby branch, catching the early light just so. A shrill cackle pulls us away to yet another endemic a Malabar grey hornbill has landed in a tree not ten feet away. It does a characteristic half-shrug and methodically swivels its head scanning the bark for bugs. Bugs are tracked down and eaten, and the unwieldy beak is meticulously scraped clean on the bark. Chattering droves of Malabar parakeets show up in luxuriant strokes from a brilliant blue-grey palette. On a high branch directly above our heads is a blue-bearded bee-eater, a near endemic, with its beard iridescent in the morning light.

&nbspBird-life is here plentiful and the butterflies are not too far behind. The Paris peacock is visible everywhere and is every bit the coquette its name suggests. This large butterfly, about five inches across, has a set of green gold wings that glint as it basks, and a set of turquoise wings that flash in flight. We come across a colony of at least thirty, sipping from a slick of rainwater on the trail. Having absorbed the necessary minerals they quickly eject the water in thin streams. On Jijo&rsquos suggestion I stroke one&rsquos wings, and to my surprise it doesn&rsquot budge. We see plenty of other dramatic species with fitting names like blue tiger, nawab and jezebel. But all this pales in comparison to our single moth sighting the day before. We found fluttering on the Periyar with one damaged wing, an atlas moth, the largest species in the world. This specimen, a female, was nearly nine inches across. Its impending demise took nothing away from its breathtaking orange-ochre colour and the diaphanous geometric panels on its wings.

&nbspWhen bird-watching I don&rsquot ordinarily target specific species, but in this case I will admit to some lust for the Ceylonese frogmouth. With a wide mouth splayed like a frog&rsquos, imperious eyes and a top-heavy owl-like shape, this bird is a cross between Jagjivan Ram and Queen Victoria. Jijo leads me off the main trail into a shady grove that he knows to be a roosting spot, as predictable as going to the post office. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see a glorious female specimen roosting on a low branch about five feet from us. Frogmouths are nocturnal and this one is dozing each time she hears a shutter click she economically opens one eye and then lazily lets the heavy lid droop.

&nbspThe Hornbill Camp has electricity only for a few hours every night, which focuses my attention on the surrounding soundscape. A shrill chorus of cicadas rises and falls in symphonic waves. The sound of rain on the canvas roof of my tent wakes me up one night. Another night, a lone bull elephant&rsquos plaintive call reverberates across the river, not fifty feet from my tent.

&nbspOn the second morning we head to the forests above the Edamalayar dam. The reservoir upstream of the dam is a staging zone for loading bamboo harvested from the surrounding forests. Sheets of bamboo arranged in sweeping arcs on the blue-grey water bask golden in the sunlight. We hike up a hill that rises above the dam. At the top of the hill is a rough-hewn tunnel, part of an unfinished road project. Inside, a cloud of white-rumped needle-tails sweep past us and swirl near their nests at the tunnel roof. As I sit at the tunnel lip, water trickles down the hillside and drips past the open mouth providing a cool screen against the bright, sunny day beyond.

&nbspOn a late afternoon birding session, the star is a mottled wood owl. Jijo spots it, describes its position and instructs us to be restrained while getting close to the tree. Weak students that we are, we point excitedly at it the large bird lets out a dismissive &lsquowhoo&rsquo and takes off. In a truly heroic effort, Jijo calls the car, stuffs us in, directs the car precisely to the tree where the owl has landed (when did he see it land) and forces us to stay in the car since the bird cannot detect movement inside it. Then he spells out the position in detail, &ldquoFour feet two o&rsquoclock from third left branch above the fork.&rdquo Thus coddled, we take in our fill of the bird.

&nbspAs our birding sessions progress, I take to watching Jijo watch. He can spot a four-inch purple sunbird from over a hundred feet away without binoculars, and tell that it is an eclipse male. From the back seat of a moving car, he can spot a changeable hawk eagle perched on top of a tree well enough to precisely communicate its position. This may seem like magic, but it is all about technique. Here is a self-taught expert, in an off-beat profession, basking in the sheer joy of having found his calling early in life. Jijo has the precision and generosity of a great teacher, but he is also a keen student of Kerala&rsquos forests, as sharp and as engaged as the best students anywhere.

&nbspOne afternoon we stop at a kavu, a sacred grove meant as a snake-haven that once accompanied most Hindu homes in Kerala. This one, at Perumbavoor, is the largest survivor. Here, finally, is the old-growth Malabar rainforest that I have been hankering for. Pouring rain and the ensuing low light thickens the mystical ambience of this kavu. Vein-like vines glistening in the rain scaffold the towering trunks. Giant muscular buttress roots, supporting impossibly tall trees, invite me in. As I approach one, its buttress vanes rise above my head and I instantly feel the power of this giant. I could be a squirrel, or a mite. The tree was always here and always will be.

&nbspFor an evening birding session Jijo takes us to Charupara, which is barely three kilometres from the camp but with an entirely different terrain. Giant, smooth, mostly naked volcanic rocks are covered in spots with scrubby bushes. A thick forest cover in the middle distance is set against blue-green hills. At one spot, the rock surface has a two-inch-thick pelt of tiny wild-flower pom-poms. As we look down on it, Jijo says, &ldquoI&rsquove never been in an airplane, but this is what I imagine a forest would look like from 30,000 feet.&rdquo This sort of imaginary scaling has instant resonance with me as a child, I used to frequently imagine myself to be an inch tall and could transform any scraggly urban brush into an enchanting forest.

&nbspWe settle on a smooth rock and wait for the nightjars. As night falls, our surroundings come alive with bird calls. To my untrained ear it is one giant sound tapestry, whereas Jijo can pick out all the threads, their colour and texture. We are less than a kilometre from habitation, but with impending darkness and the trees looming large it feels like an uninhabited subcontinent. Before long, two Jerdon&rsquos nightjars are circling above us. Jijo hears a great-eared nightjar in the distance and calls out to it. The bird is completely convinced and responds, coming closer and closer with each call until it flies by us, doubtless deeply disappointed.

&nbspBy now it is threatening to rain. The ashy wood-swallows settle in for the night against a portentous sky. They pick the short branches and cosy up in huddles of six or seven. &ldquoThis is how they conserve energy,&rdquo says Jijo. I watch a straggler come in late, and the group sucks him in. Why this makes me feel left out I&rsquom not sure. Maybe because it is all really about finding the perfect huddle in the face of rain. And being sucked in.

The Information

Getting there

The closest airport&nbspKochi (44km away), is connected to all the major metros (ex-Delhi Rs 4,100, Mumbai Rs 3,200, etc). The nearest railway station&nbspis Aluva (or Alwaye), 48km away. From Delhi, there is the Kerala Express (Rs 2,144 on 2A the Rajdhani does not go to Aluva) from Mumbai, Kanyakumari Express (Rs 1,701). The sanctuary, in Idukki district, is 58km from Kochi. If you are staying at the Hornbill Camp, they can arrange airport transfers.

 Where to stay

Hornbill Camp (Rs 5,000 per night, inclusive of meals, kayaking and spice plantation visits 0484-2092280, 4012700, at Thattekad is situated on the Periyar river, a kilometre from the sanctuary. The Camp has double occupancy tents, each with an adjacent bathroom accessible through a zippered door. Birding tours can be arranged on special request. Visit the Kerala Tourism&nbspwebsite ( for a list of other stay options nearby.

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