EXPERIENCE There's nothing quite like Thattekad's feathered residents flitting around you

“M adam, this is where the elephant chased me,” says Sudha Chandran, her thin frame and high energy hiding all of her 55 years.

Sudha, the guide, is way ahead of me, climbing up a steep slope and crossing a huge tree that has fallen on the ground. I look around and realise I'm in the middle of nowhere. It's New Year Eve, and I am amidst dense forests with isolated rubber plantations scattered around. Even if an elephant charges at us at this moment, we'll probably have nowhere to run...

And, it begins!

“Come fast,” whispers Sudha, unable to contain her excitement. She stands on a small hillock, and looks upwards towards a tree, squinting through her small binoculars. I quickly join her as she murmurs with a grin: “You are lucky. There's a crested goshawk up in the branches.”

To my uninitiated eye, there's only a maze of branches. And, then I spot it. The large bird of prey glares at me with its bright eyes, the rufous streaks and bars visible on its chest.

I am in Thattekad. It means flat forest, but that's almost a misnomer. In 25 sq.km. of tropical evergreen and deciduous forest lies a hidden getaway, popular with birders from all over the world. Watered by Periyar river, this bird sanctuary located near Kochi was discovered by the legendary Salim Ali way back in 1930, and is named after him. It is home to more than 250 rare and endemic species, and we hope for a few glimpses of them.

Soon, we are joined by Girish, Sudha's advocate son who takes over as the bird guide.

And, then our session starts. We gaze into the trees with our binoculars, watching every moment. The silence is broken by the occasional excitement of having spotted a rare bird. And, without warning, the forest breaks into a dash of colour and music as birds flit around us and the branches become alive. They call out to their mates. We spot the Asian fairy bluebird, Malabar trogon, Malabar grey hornbill, golden fronted leafbird, scarlet minivet, black baza, varieties of orioles, sun birds, drongos, parakeets, woodpeckers, bulbuls and Pompadour green pigeon among others. We lose sense of time as the sun sets, waking up nocturnal owls and nightjars. As dusk turns into darkness, we walk back, realising that a year has almost ended.