Birding in the Nilgiris - Ooty and Coonoor
For a long time, the wallpaper on my laptop featured a bird whose name elicited a disbelieved laughter from my colleague.
“Black and orange flycatcher?” he had said with a slight guffaw. “Are you sure you are not making up its name?”
He had once sent me the picture of a domestic goose from the resort he was staying in Wayanad with the caption ‘Orange-footed White Wayanad Goose’.
“It sounds like the name of my goose,” he had inferred.
Perhaps it did. But as I was saying, it had been one of my long cherished dreams to catch sight of this beautiful bird, endemic to the Nilgiris. For that to happen, we would have to pay a visit to Ooty, or Udhagamandalam.
So, like they show in the advertisement for Alto K10 car, we decided to ‘chase our passion’. The date fixed was 6th March. The itinerary comprised four birding spots – Botanical Gardens, Doddabetta and Cairns Hill Reserve in Ooty, and Sims Park at Coonoor. My humble wish list had four birds – Nilgiri laughingthrush, Nilgiri flycatcher, grey-headed canary flycatcher, and of course – the black and orange flycatcher.
We traversed the 280 odd kilometers to Ooty from Bangalore, taking the Bangalore-Mysore-Nanjangud-Bandipur-Masinagudi-Ooty route, and reached our hotel at around 12.15 pm. No sooner had we settled down for lunch than the pitter patter of a downpour sounded on the restaurant’s roof. My heart did a pit-a-pat, too, at the prospect of having to abandon our birding plans and stay indoors the whole day.
Thankfully, the sky cleared at around 4.00 pm and we rushed towards our first rendezvous – the Government Botanical Gardens, which remained open till 6.30 pm. We had visited the garden earlier in 2011, when we were part of a KSTDC package tour, and remembered it as an extremely crowded place. After my experience with the birds of Nandi Hills, who seem to have no problem with the masses, I have developed a less skeptical attitude towards such places.
We found the garden just as we had left it in 2011 – teeming with tourists. The only difference was that, it was more of a ‘selfie’ and ‘groupfie’ crowd this time. I also spotted a number of people roaming about with one of the latest inventions of 21st century – the selfie stick.
But I digress. So, there we were, trudging painfully up the incline and the steps, wondering how everyone around us could shimmy up so effortlessly without even pausing to take a breather. As per Prem’s blog, we had to go to the higher grounds to see the birds. We could see many lovebirds, but none with feathers. Finally, we spotted some activity on a bottle brush tree and found a number of Oriental white-eyes and warblers zipping in and out of the foliage. Unfortunately, just as we were about to take a closer look at the birds, a big tourist group arrived at that spot and to our horror, the male of the species started plucking flowers to offer to their respective female partners. If I were not reminded of unpleasant incidents of recent times, I would have definitely given them a piece of my mind. Instead, we left the raucous group and the bird-spot and decided to climb up further.
Tickell's Leaf Warbler
Up and up we went, but of birds we saw none.
“All the articles I read spoke of this place only!” I told my husband indignantly.
Finally, I declared the area an ‘over-hyped’ one, refusing to listen to the husband’s explanation of ‘bad luck’, and decided to go back to the lower grounds.
It was around closing time and the throng was thinning. Then, just behind the garden’s canteen, we clicked our first birds – sparrows, Indian blackbirds and great tits. We were happy to note that the sparrow community thrived in Ooty and crossed our fingers, wishing for them to continue to flourish. Our luck seemed to have a turned a little, for by the time we left the place, we came across a few pied bush chats and a fearless brown-breasted flycatcher.
Pied Bushchat (male)
The next morning was scheduled for Doddabetta and we reached the gate at 7.30 am, waking ourselves up with much difficulty, only to be told that the gate would open at 8.00 am. We had no other option but to potter around, looking at Malabar giant squirrels and bracing ourselves against the morning chill. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it was there near the gate that we saw our first Nilgiri laughingthrush, also known as Black-chinned laughingthrush, and the Nilgiri flycatcher. I was delighted with our unexpected luck and happily ticked them off on my list.
Nilgiri Laughingthrush, or Black-chinned Laughingthrush
Doddabetta is the highest mountain in the Nilgiri Hills and it has a well-maintained peak run by TTDC. I had read that the parking area unfailingly yielded sightings of Nilgiri wood pigeons, but there were not one to be seen that day. No matter, I told myself gaily, I have already seen them at Nandi Hills. The laughingthrush and the flycatcher sighting had cheered me up a lot.
Grey Junglefowl (female)
We walked up to the top and met a pair of amorous grey jungle fowls on the way. Passing through a meshed corridor, we reached a ‘rocky’ point and while I was taking in the panoramic view of the Nilgiris, my phone buzzed.
“Black and orange flycatcher,” I could hear my husband’s muffled voice, thrilling me to bits.
I rushed towards where he was standing and whispered “where, where?” frenziedly. He silently pointed towards the thick bushes and I sat down on a tree trunk to have a better view. Suddenly, a tiny blaze of orange flew out towards me and perched itself near me. So close, I could have just reached out and touched it. I sat rooted, unblinking, and I don’t remember if I even breathed. Like a dream, the black and orange flycatcher fluttered around me, changing its perch and posture, but still remaining close. Finally, it disappeared with a twitter.
Black and Orange Flycatcher
I think I remained speechless for a minute before bursting out with a did-you-see-that to my parents. The photographs don’t speak much but the fact is – I never imagined that my wish of seeing a black and orange flycatcher would take place this way.
There were more surprises in store. Since we had not eaten breakfast, we decided to grab some vadas and coffee at the food stall at Doddabetta. While waiting for the food, our gaze went towards the garbage bins. There, rummaging around the trash, like common mynahs and crows, were Indian blackbirds, great tits and Nilgiri laughingthrush - the birds we had come to see from so far. The blackbirds and tits went as far as plonking themselves on our table to pick up tidbits. And I always thought these were shy birds, skulking about in bushes.
Pied Bushchat (female)
That afternoon, we went to Sim's Park at Coonoor, located 20 kms from Ooty. I remember liking Coonoor more than Ooty in the previous visit and I was struck by its beauty all over again. Sim's Park is a beautiful park-cum-botanical garden developed around the natural contours of the land more than a hundred years ago, in 1874. The age-old trees, shrubs and creepers along with small ornamental ponds, seemed to be a perfect setting for birds to revel. I was not wrong.
A few minutes into the park and a loud tapping noise made us look upwards, just in time to catch sight of a pair of greater flamebacks. Next, we feasted our eyes upon a white spotted fantail, merrily dancing away over flowers and hedges. Another birder let us know that there was a Tickell’s flycatcher about and we should come upon it anytime. While looking for the flycatcher, we stumbled upon a blue-capped rock thrush. It posed for us patiently before giving way to the great tits, who were busy looking for morsels, even at that late hour. The sun had set and we learned that Sim's Park, too, closed at 6.30 pm. We made our arduous journey upwards and on the way who should we meet but the truant Tickell’s flycatcher. Once again, it was me who the bird decided to grace its appearance with. Maybe because I looked benevolent without big lenses hanging from my body.
Blue-capped Rock Thrush
White Spotted Fantail
I had kept Cairns Hill Reserve for our third and last day in Ooty. Once again, we shook ourselves awake, left the warm beds unwillingly, and made our way towards the hill reserve at 7 am. A cold drizzle greeted us as we drove up the hill. In the next instant, a thick fog engulfed us. The fog refused to leave and we relied on our GPS to lead us to our destination. Disappointment awaited us there as a locked gate presented itself at the entrance. The area wore an abandoned look and we drove around for some time looking for a second entrance. Finally, we agreed to go back and try out an alternative birding spot. Just then, Google maps went crazy and we found ourselves driving all across Ooty, trundling and bumping over areas that were supposedly roads, till we could take it no more and decided to go to the botanical gardens to try our luck again.
The rains had subsided by the time we reached the gardens and it was a glorious, sunny morning. The lawns looked beautiful in the golden light, empty and peaceful. I think I had become acclimatized with all that walking in the last two days and the ascent, this time, seemed to be less arduous. There were scores of white-eyes, sparrows and warblers, and we met our friend the brown-breasted flycatcher in the same spot. As we stood occupied with the bold little bird, a speck of blue flew out and perched on the lower boughs of a tree.
We had hardly identified it as the Niligiri flycatcher than the husband was called by a group of youngsters to click their picture.
I laughed seeing the grimace on his face and followed the little fellow with my binocs. By the time the husband had returned, the flycatcher had disappeared out of view.
Soon, we reached the top level of the gardens and it was another world altogether. Gnarled old trees, their trunks covered with thick moss and lichen, reminded me of childhood fairy tales. A velvet-fronted nuthatch darted about in the moss, pausing and now and then to pick out tiny insects. A few squirrels joined the party, disturbing the bird in its breakfast spree.
The crowd below was gathering pace and a few groups had already reached the top. Fearing the onslaught of more selfie-stick wielding troops, we made our way down and chanced upon the Niligiri flycatchers again, much to the husband’s delight. This time, they were in pairs and posed for us good-naturedly. We also met a birder couple who told us where exactly we could get the black and orange flycatchers. But it was too late for us to move upwards again as we had to make our return journey to Bangalore. Thanking them, we continued to walk towards the gardens’ exit.
Nilgiri Flycatcher (female)
As we walked along the shaded road, I began to summarize our trip wistfully.
“We got quite a number of birds,” I said. “If only I could have seen the grey-headed canary flycatchers, it would have completed my wish-list.” (The husband had seen them in Coorg, but I had not.)
I stopped dead in my tracks just as I completed the sentence. For, right in front of me, on a young tree, chirped about a family of grey-headed canary flycatchers. I stood there with my heart full and ticked the last bird off my wish-list.
Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
I then spoke to my mom about how I had just expressed my desire to see the birds before they came into view, as if by magic. She told me sagely that if you wish for something with all your heart, it would come to you. I relayed that to my husband and told him that he needed to work hard on his desire to see a pitta.
So, on that happy note, our birding sojourns ended in Ooty. I had found the bird of my desktop wallpaper along with several others. We realized that there was more to Ooty and Coonoor and resolved to be there again next season. Maybe next time I will be more ambitious with my wish-list and aim for the Kashmir Flycatcher!
List of birds sighted in Ooty and Coonoor:
Indian Blackbird, Spotted Fantail, Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Oriental White-eye, Oriental Magpie Robin, Purple Sunbird, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Pied Bushchat, Black and Orange Flycatcher, White-spotted Fantail, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Square-tailed Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, House Sparrow, Common Mynah, Jungle Mynah, Spotted Dove, Grey Junglefowl, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Great Tit, Striated Heron, Eurasian Coot, Common Sandpiper, Grey Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Great Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Grey Wagtail, Indian Pond Heron, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Cattle Egret, White-cheeked Barbet, Black Drongo.