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Southern India: Wildlife of the Western Ghats - Birding Tour

Tour Overview:

This tour focuses on The Western Ghats, an ancient mountain range paralleling the west coast of India that extends more than 990 miles (1600km) from south of Gujarat to the southern tip of India. If you have already travelled to northern India, this tour offers something very different in terms of both birdlife and culture. High diversity of species and habitats in the Western Ghats has led to its classification as one of the top ten biodiversity hotspots on the planet. The tour takes in the drier eastern slopes, moist rainforests of the western slopes, and the montane shola forests near the peaks of the Western Ghats. Human land use in the area includes plantations for rubber, coffee and tea. We will bird in the latter on this tour, as wildlife continues to thrive in tea plantations, and these are often productive areas for seeking some of the specialties on offer. The Western Ghats are home to a plethora of endemic species of birds, mammals, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians. Away from the avian specialties of the Nilgiri Mountains of the Western Ghats, there is a long list of endemics to Southern India, and others shared with only the island of Sri Lanka. Some of the specialty birds we will be seeking include Malabar Trogon, Sri Lankan Frogmouth, White-cheeked Barbet, Nilgiri Sholakili, Black-and-orange Flycatcher, and several species of laughingthrushes. The mammals on this tour should not be overlooked either, with possibilities including Tiger, Leopard, Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur, Sloth Bear, and Gaur. While seeking specialty birds is a clear focus, this is also a good all round natural history destination, with plenty on offer aside from the rich birdlife, as we traverse the three Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.

Upcoming Departures:


11 - 26 January ($5900; single supplement: $775)

This tour links up with Sri Lanka.

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Other Tour Details:

Length: 16 Days

Starting City: Kochi

Ending City: Bangalore

Pace: Moderate

Physical Difficulty: Moderate

Focus: Birding, Wildlife, Culture

Group size: 14 + 1 TB leader + 1 local guide

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Kochi; transfer to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary

After arrival in the Kerala port city of Kochi, we will drive a few hours to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Thattekad is one of the most famous birding sites in all of India, a major birding hotspot described by legendary Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali as ” the richest bird habitat on peninsular India”. Although it is small sanctuary (10 square miles/25 square kilometres), it boasts impressive avian diversity, with more than 300 bird species recorded within the tall, lowland evergreen forests there. We will begin our exploration of the area in the afternoon, and have a further full day and a morning to cover this exceptional area. Three nights will be spent at a birding lodge, situated on the banks of the Edamalayar River, less than ten minute’s drive of the sanctuary, within full view of the verdant jungle. Thattekad is an extraordinary area for nightbirds, with more than 10 species of owl recorded (including Brown Fish-Owl, Brown Boobook, the rufous morph of Oriental Scops-Owl, Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl and the rare Sri Lanka Bay Owl among them), and is home to several species of nightjars (e.g., Jerdon’s, Jungle and Great Eared). Sri Lanka Frogmouth is often seen during the daytime too! While on the hunt for nightbirds, we may also come across the rare Slender Loris.

Days 2-3: Thattekad Bird Sanctuary

These days will be spent in Thattekad, either side of lunch back at our nearby lodge. Thattekad offers some impressive specialties, not least Flame-throated Bulbul, White-bellied Blue-Flycatcher, and the spectacular White-bellied Treepie, as well as Malabar Gray Hornbill, Gray-headed Bulbul, and the distinctive “Malabar” form of Greater Flameback, (a potential future split). We will also be on the lookout for Black Baza, Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher, Slaty-legged Crake, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Gray-fronted Green-Pigeon, and Malabar Trogon. We will be using the services of local bird experts, so if there are active day roosts of any nightbirds, like Sri Lanka Bay-Owl or Sri Lanka Frogmouth, they will lead us straight to them! On the afternoon of the second day we will change tact, and visit a bird blind at the forest edge, where feeders have been set up to get some close ups of a wonderful variety of Indian birds. The blinds here have recorded more than 100 species, including species like Blue-throated Blue and White-bellied Blue Flycatchers, Indian Pitta, Malabar Parakeet, and Asian Fairy-Bluebird. Mammals in Thattekad, include India’s smallest deer (Indian Mouse-Deer) and the subcontinent’s largest species, Sambar.

Day 4: Thattekad to Munnar

After some final early morning birding around Thattekad, we will drive up into the mountainous Munnar region of Kerala, where rolling hills are dotted with tea plantations on the edge of Eravikulam National Park, which is home to Anaimudi, the highest peak in Southern India (8790ft/2680m). We will be staying for two nights at a wonderful boutique hotel on an active coffee and cardamom plantation that is complimented with some of the most spectacular vistas in the region. The estate is located at a lofty 6560ft (2000m), and we will welcome the cooler climate after the recent heat and humidity of the lowlands. An afternoon walk on the estate will be undertaken to look for specialties like Nilgiri Thrush, Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, and the handsome Black-and-orange Flycatcher. A nigh time spell of spotlighting might also produce some mammals, such as Malabar Giant Flying Squirrel, Indian porcupine, or perhaps even a Leopard Cat if fortune shines upon us.

Day 5: Eravikulam National Park. On this day we will ascend higher still, entering Eravikulam National Park, and taking special park vehicles to a trail that leads through native grasslands and sholas (montane forests). This area in rich in endemic species, some of which are confined to these upper elevations, like Palani Laughingthrush, Nilgiri Sholakili, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Painted Bush-Quail and Nilgiri Pipit. We will return to the estate for lunch, before heading out to a local shola in the afternoon in search of whatever endemics we may have not yet seen. We may also encounter one of the regular herds of Asian Elephants, which frequent the tea plantations and meadows in the area.

Day 6: Munnar to Pollachi via Chinnar Widlife Sanctuary

Today we will head south into the southern state of Tamil Nadu. We will descend down the drier eastern slope of the Western Ghats, where deciduous Sandalwood forests give way to thornscrub and thorn forests on its lower slopes. We will make a special stop within these habitats at Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary to look for the local Yellow-throated Bulbul, where we may also encounter the Grizzled Giant Squirrel in the same area. We will continue our descent from Chinnar into the lowland plains of Tamil Nadu, around the town of Pollachi, an area peppered with coconut groves and tracts of forests in the neighbouring foothills. We will venture out in the afternoon in search of Blue-eared Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater and Blue-faced Malkoha. Two nights will be spent at a boutique nature resort within a coconut plantation, in the foothills of Sethumadai.


Day 7: The Valparai Foothills

We will make a day trip to the foothills around the high altitude tea town of Valparai. As we ascend into the hills, the steep roadsides will be scoured for Nilgiri Thar, a stocky goat that is endemic to the Nilgiri Mountains of the Western Ghats that is frequently seen by the roadsides there. During the climb we will traverse dry scrub transitioning into wet montane forests (sholas) higher up, a transition zone that offers another chance at the local Yellow-throated Bulbul should we need it, as well as for Legge’s Hawk-Eagle and Rufous-bellied Eagle. In the sholas, we will be on the lookout for another endemic mammal, the Nilgiri Langur, as well as the scarce Wayanad Laughingthrush. Specific forest patches on these hillsides are also home to another striking primate, the Lion-tailed Macaque. We may also encounter Great Hornbills within the older growth forests birded during the day too. At the end of the day, we will return to Pollachi for a second night, and make a stop at dusk for emerging flying squirrels or palm civets.

Days 8-9: Coonoor and Kotagiri

We will leave Pollachi after breakfast on day 8 moving north towards the Nilgiri Massif, an isolated group of hills separated from the main chain of the Western Ghats. We will stay two nights at wonderful forested resort in Coonoor, a hill station located at a very pleasant 5413 ft (1,650m) above sea level. We will split our time between birding the grounds of our hotel and forested areas downhill near the town of Kotagiri. Birdwise, our main quarry in this area will be the very local Nilgiri Laughingthrush, along with Nilgiri Sholakili, Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, and Black-and-orange Flycatcher. The supporting cast is provided by Crested Goshawk, Indian Blue Robin, Orange Minivet, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, and Heart-spotted Woodpecker. However, birds will not be the only focus, and our time around Kotagiri will also be spent searching for mammals, as there black Leopards and Sloth Bears also occur in the area, alhough we still need some fortune to find them.


Day 10: Coonoor to Bokkapuram

In the morning we will visit a high elevation site close to the highest peak in the region, Dhoddabetta at 8530ft (2600m), where it is often good to get photos of some of the high elevation specialties of the Western Ghats. After that we will move north down the ghats, to the Sigur Plateau north of Ooty, where we will take time to bird in bamboo jungle and scrub. This area is home to Malabar Lark, Malabar Barbet and Nilgiri Thrush, more Western Ghats specialties, as well as two critically endangered birds-of-prey, Indian and White-backed Vultures. Other species that may feature there include White-rumped Shama and Crested Treeswift. We will have a single night at a wonderful wildlife lodge, where animals like elephants, Wild Boar, Dhole (Asian Wild Dog), or even Leopards can sometimes be seen from the safety of your room or the restaurant!


Days 11-13: Nagarhole Tiger Reserve

After some final birding around Bokkapuram, we will leave the Sigur Plateau behind and head north into the third Indian state of the trip, Karnataka. For the afternoon of day 11 and all of days 12 and 13, we will use jeeps and boats to explore Nagarhole National Park for an Indian safari experience. The park is loaded with birds and mammals. The bird list of more than 300 species includes regional specialties like Gray Junglefowl, Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Starling, Malabar Woodshrike, and White-cheeked Barbet. A profusion of other birdlife occurs, including Red Spurfowl, Indian Peafowl, Painted and Asian Woolly-necked Storks, Red-naped Ibis, Indian Pitta, Blue-faced Malkoha, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, White-bellied Woodpecker, Plum-headed Parakeet, Vernal-Hanging-Parrot. Of course, we will also be seeking other animals too, like Asian Elephant, Tiger, Leopard, Dhole, Gaur, Spotted and Barking Deer.


Day 14: Kabini to Mysore & Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

After some final birding outside of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, we will drive east to Mysore for the penultimate night, a city known for its incredible architecture and culture, it is the gateway to the Deccan Plateau from the Western Ghats. We will take an afternoon boat trip along the Cauvery River to explore the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, which is loaded with birds, like Indian Spot-billed Duck, Great Thick-knee, Painted Stork, Indian Pond-Heron, Oriental Darter, Spot-billed Pelican, Eurasian Spoonbill, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Stork-billed and Pied Kingfishers, Asian Green Bee-eater, Common Iora, Spot-breasted Fantail, Wire-tailed Swallow and Purple-rumped Sunbird.

Day 15: Ramanagara Ramadevarabetta Vulture Sanctuary to Bangalore

After breakfast we wil begin our journey northeast to Bangalore. On the way, we will make a stop at the Ramanagara Ramadevarabetta Vulture Sanctuary, where three species of endangered vultures occur, Egyptian, White-backed and Indian Vultures all occur. Regional specialties like White-cheeked Barbet and Yellow-throated Bulbul are there too, along with a host of other birds including Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Coppermith Barbet, Small Minivet, Rufous Treepie, and Purple Sunbird.  By late afternoon, we will arrive in Bangalore, where you can take flights out either late at night or the following day.

Day 16: Departure from Bangalore

You will be transferred to the airport in Bangalore for international flights out.


Trip Considerations

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding in South India is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will be had in the field or there will be a break to come back to the property for breakfast. On a few days there will be some downtime either after lunch, or after arriving back to the lodge after the day’s birding excursion, but on at least one or two days you may arrive back at the lodge after dark. A lot of the birding and wildlife viewing will include a combination of driving to the spots and short to medium length walks – most flat, some on minor inclines. Safaris in Nagarhole will be on dirt tracks with mild bumps and undulations. At least three lunches will be packed lunches, and at least four breakfasts will likely be a packed breakfast. We stop at almost all destinations for at least two nights (there is only a single one night stay on the tour), to minimise the hassle of packing and unpacking isn’t too much.


PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat trails or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average. The altitude will vary from sea level to a maximum of 8700ft (2650m) elevation.


CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-86°F, 13°-30°C). The higher reaches of the Western Ghats can be towards the colder side during the early mornings. The safari at Nagarhole too can be nippy with the wind chill factor during the early morning hours.


ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.


PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds too, especially in the Nilgiris and the hides at Thattekad. Mammal photography also should be fairly easy except for nocturnal life seen on dusk walks.


WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round but is ideally suited for the period between early November and mid-March. Birding is better during these times as the temperatures are lower through the day and also, the resident population is augmented with a rich array of migrants. Mammals are seen well throughout the year but we generally avoid the rainy months (June to September) as the weather has been quite unpredictable during the recent years.

Other Information

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. For citizens of most countries, it is necessary to apply for an online visa in advance of the tour, which allows a 30-day visit. This is both easy, quick and straightforward. However, as we will be visiting a rarely visited border region when in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, we also need special access permits to these areas; this will be organized by the Tropical Birding office, and is pretty straightforward with just an extra form or two needed (provided by our office). PLEASE NOTE: BEFORE APPLYING FOR AN ONLINE INDIAN VISA PLEASE CONSULT WITH THE TROPICAL BIRDING OFFICE BEFORE DOING SO, AS YOU WILL REQUIRE A LITTLE EXTRA PAPERWORK TO ENSURE THIS IS A FLAWLESS PROCESS.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 15; meals from lunch on day 1 through to breakfast on day 16; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 15; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person; a series of game drives in Nagarhole Tiger Reserve (please note that these may be shared with other tourists in the park-there are no private drives possible in this park); entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the TROPICAL BIRDING tour leader; tips for optional luggage porters in any hotels used (it is easier for the participants to pay them directly when they get their bags in their rooms); international flights; visa fees (payable online before entering India); camera fees in Kabini and Ranganathittu (this is charged for lenses over 200mm, and is currently around $20 per camera per safari, with up to 6 safaris possible on this tour); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

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