A morning with the birds – Thattekadu – Part 3
The Periyar river faded out of our view as we drove down the forest and entered the Salim Ali bird Sanctuary. Shaji stopped the car and a thin ,petite woman with a very warm smile greeted us .” I am Girish’s mother, ” said Sudha in crisp English , welcoming us to her abode. ” It was one of those moments that make you warm up to a perfect stranger and I realized that it was the first of the many impressions that Sudha made on me during the trip.
A simple house stood right inside the sanctuary . We got out of the car and stretched. Mittu, the stray and family pet sniffed us over as Sudha single handedly lifted our luggage amidst protests and deftly climbed the steps to the first floor. ” I will show you to your room.” A clean hygenic room with an attached bath and balcony awaited us. “You freshen up madam and I will take you to Girish . ”
As we munched some biscuits over tea, Sudha uttered a volley of Malayalam to Shaji. I smiled and murmured , ” Malayalam koccha ariyum” That broke the ice..I was one among them. Girish’s grandmother and Sudha almost hugged me , while his wife smiled..Its amazing I thought, how a few words of the native tongue is enough to break the ice. I cannot speak the language, but could understand a bit of it, hailing from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Anyways, tea and biscuits were over and we were back in the car with Shaji and Sudha . Sudha was a livewire . ” I am very busy madam – this is season time, many guests , ” she said, adding as we passed a government school ” This is my school, Ive now adjusted my time with another teacher.”Some locals exchanged pleasantries as Sudha went on to say how she juggles a homestay, a school, work in the sanctuary and even catering. ” I was just a housewife madam, till my husband passed away ,” she said nonchalantly. She and her husband who had been living in the sanctuary had a tea shop and they used to ferry people across the Periyar . ” And I can be a bird guide too, ” she added, pulling out a small binoculars and looking through the trees as we stopped in the middle of nowhere.
We followed Sudha through some wilderness which led to a rubber plantation in the middle of nowhere. The morning fog had just lifted and we could see the sap being tapped in the trees, while some rubber was left to dry. Suddenly Sudha said , ” This is where the elephant chased me ,” Even before Sharath and I could react to that line, Sudha was way ahead of us, nimble footed, climbing up a steep slope and crossing a huge tree that has fallen on the ground. Her thin frame and high energy hid all of her 55 years as she looked at us in childish amusement.
I looked around and realized that I am in the middle of nowhere. Even if an elephant charged at us at this moment , we would probably have no where to run..” Dont worry madam, no elephants now..I can smell them if they are close by, ” . Her confidence and energy was a complete contrast to our nervousness and slow gait.
” Madam, come fast, “ whispered Sudha, unable to contain her excitement. She stood on a small hillock and looked upwards towards a tree, squinting through her small binoculars. We quickly joined her as she murmured with a grin ,” You are so lucky…there is a crested goshawk up in the branches. “
To my uninitiated eye, I could only see a maze of branches, until one eye peeped down at me through them. The large bird of prey glared at me a bit with its bright eyes , the rufous streaks and bars visible on its chest . It looked at us with one eye first, the other hiding behind a tree.
I took a couple of photographs and boldly moved a bit forward. Birds can be very touchy and sensitive to movement and they often seem to hate being photographed. The crested goshawk looked down at me, almost making faces when I tried another picture . Finally one more glare and I left it in peace as Sudha whispered it was time to head to the rock.
The plum headed parakeet and the malabar parakeet arrived as well.We saw three varieties of orioles – eurasian golden, black naped and black hooded .
We spotted the male and female scarlet minivets and the small minivet.
There was a pair of green imperial pigeon cozying up in the trees, racket tailed drongos creating a racket, golden fronted leaf bird adding a dash of colour, black headed cuckoo shrike amidst the leaves ,white bellied treepie and the rufous treepie calling out to their mates. The bulbuls were not so far away – we spotted the grey headed bulbul, ruby throated bulbul, yellow browed bulbul.
I cannot recall every little bird that we spotted, but we did see more than 30 different species that morning. We set out a bit later from the rock and walked inside the forests until Girish signalled us to stop. We bent down from a clearing to see a dash of colour standing amidst the branches. There was the malabar trogon and before we could even count the colours, another flew right above our heads. We followed it until we spotted a pair flitting around in a tree..
They were a bit far for my camera lens to reach, but I was happy to get a wonderful sighting of the bird. We waited for a long time so that they would come a bit closer, but they just refused to oblige us. A malabar giant squirrel took our attention for a while, until we saw another pair of trogons again – this time a little bit closer, but just managed a few record shots.
Sharath meanwhile got bitten by a leech while, I who was paranoid about them survived despite wearing only floaters. Time had just sped past us as hunger pangs reminded us that it was well past our breakfast hour. We hungrily returned to the homestay as Sudha immediately greeted us – ” Madam- Trogon ? Oh ! you are so lucky !” With this refrain,she treated us all to some appam and some vegetable curry.