Theodre Baskaran heads to Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, home to an astounding variety of avian life.

Western Ghats are well known as one of the 18 biodiversity hot spots in the world, with a staggering variety of life forms. Certain areas in these ranges are particularly rich in birdlife. One such is Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, about 50 km from Kochi airport. The man behind the formation of this is Salim Ali.

As part of a series of bird surveys in different parts of the country, he began a study of Travancore Cochin area at the behest of the Raja in 1933. Salim Ali, along with his wife Tehmina, started the survey in February 1933 from Maraiyar, above the present-day Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Curator of Trivandrum Zoo N.G. Pillai also joined the team. Working their way up and crossing Munnar they came down to Thattekkad, in the foothills on the other side on February 11. Struck by the diversity of bird life, he stayed there for 12 days and observed about 162 species of birds. The data he gathered in this survey formed the basis for his enduring work, The Birds of Travancore & Cochin (1953).

Many years later, in 1982, a chance meeting between the Forest Minister of Kerala, Nurudin, and Salim Ali at the VIP lounge of Bombay airport led to the setting up of this sanctuary. The Minister wanted to create something in honour of the legendary ornithologist. Salim Ali opined if the Minister were keen, then he would welcome the setting up of a bird sanctuary. A team, led by Dr. R. Sugathan, a former student of Ali and a pioneering ornithologist, was formed to identify the area. After scouting around the ranges, the team suggested two places, Athirappalli and Thattekkad. The latter was chosen by Salim Ali. In 1983, the Kerala Government notified the area as a sanctuary and christened it Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary has an astounding variety of birds, about 320 species, including 40 migratory birds. What is the reason behind this amazing bird wealth? In that small area of 25 sq.km., spread over an undulating landscape, nestle 11 varied habitats, natural and man-made, that sustain an impressive tropical bird community. The dam across the Periyar, built in 1964, has formed a large water body that supports water fowl. It has also created a short stretch of riparian forest that forms a habitat by itself. Added to this is the Kuttapuzha River on the north-western side of the sanctuary. You have forests of different types: evergreen, deciduous, scrub and also grassland. There are teak and mahogany plantations along the edge of the sanctuary. Anaimudi, the highest peak in South India is only 22 km away, facilitating altitudinal migration. Palghat gap, the longest in the Western Ghats, is 45 km away.

There are some iconic birds in this sanctuary that attract birdwatchers from all over the world. They are the mysterious Ceylon Frogmouth, the colourful Western Trogon, the handsome Black Baza, the ubiquitous Malabar Hornbill and the jewel-like Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. Recently some Great Indian hornbills have been sighted regularly though they do not nest here.

We made four forays into the forest, all by foot, and in the first walk itself sighted the Frogmouths. A resident of the rain forest, this bird has evolved over eons to fit perfectly into that little ecological niche in the dark, moist habitat. Nocturnal, this myna-sized bird is so well camouflaged that it can escape all but the trained eye. Our guide led us to a pair, sitting on a branch upright and sleeping, with the beaks pointing upward in perfect imitation of a tree branch. It was a transcendental experience to stand just four metres away from this ecological marvel. The bird builds a tiny nest of moss and lichens stuck to a branch and lays a single egg. Once considered rare, it has been spotted in other areas also as more and more people are getting interested in birding. Three years ago it was recorded in Sirumalai near Dindigul and recently in the forests near Srivilliputhur.

In our walks into the jungle we were joined by two young back-packing wild-lifers from whom we learnt a lot. One of the girls, studying butterflies, pointed out a Southern Birdwing to me, the largest butterfly in India. We also spotted two “lifers”, birds that a bird-watcher sees for the first time — Brown Hawk owl and Crested Goshawk, a bird of prey.

In this small area there are about 40 elephants moving about and one has to be watchful. During one of our walks we could hear elephants trumpeting close by and had to beat a hasty retreat.

Thattekkad has become a favourite ground for bird photographers from all over and the Forest Department conducts photography workshops for them. We ran into T.N.A. Perumal and K. Jayaram, both masters in wildlife photography, and saw them at work. Before leaving the sanctuary we got a chance to spend some time with Dr. Sugathan, himself a rara avis and get an idea of his immense knowledge of birds in the Western Ghats.

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