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Three Twitchers and I

The only barrier between me and the tusk less rogue is the languid river. Hardly fifty metres wide. On the other side, in the Thattekad forest the rogue elephant is said to enjoy his little game. The mischievous game of hiding, stealthily sneaking and chasing humans has earned him a wicked reputation. My tent at the Hornbill Camp flaps in the sultry night air but the deep and treacherously calm River Periyar is my infallible guard. And at night it is not the tusk less rogue (Mozha) that captures my dreams, but Twitchers* do. Being an amateur bird watcher I am seized by insurmountable anxieties about sharing space with Twitchers.

(*A Twitcher is prepared to travel great distances or go to great effort or expense in order to see birds, often just a single bird, that he or she has never seen before so that it can be marked on their list of birds seen (called a “tick” or “lifer”).

Hornbill Camp

6 am. I am up and ready but so are the indefatigable Twitchers who have arrived straight from England on the 3.30 am flight. With Jijo our guide we begin our four hour trek through the Thattekad Sanctuary-the veritable birding paradise. We adopt a measured gait –in other words we walk literally on tiptoe afraid even the rustle of the leaves would scare away the smaller details of the kaleidoscopic view. And we stop every other second to take in the lilting tunes of the dawn chorus. And what a chorus it is! The sanctuary has 330 different species of birds and though forty percent of them are migratory there are still plenty of rare residents.

The nature trail showcases different habitats: swamps, ponds, the river and the lowland forest replete with a rich congregation of water and land birds.

I spot a Darter. It sits perfectly still in the middle of a pond. Its long thin neck that slithers and sways like a snake is mesmerizing. The guide then points out a Paradise Flycatcher- a perfect beauty queen. I open my bird book and begin to tick rapidly, Black- Naped Oriole, White-Bellied Treepie, Snake Eagle etc.., tick, tick I go, a little smug that I am moving at great speed. Then a Twitcher opens his book- the entire page is neatly covered with deliberate ticks. And he announces with a casual shrug that there are only three to four birds left for him to see in the sub continent!

Jijo checks the electric fencing enclosing the trail and urges us to cross over. Only last week the elephants had damaged the watch tower. A little nervous I ask, “Do elephants have a specific time to visit this place?” “Yes,” he mumbles without meeting my eye and takes us to the spot where the Sri Lankan Frogmouth sits in certitude of its perfect camouflage. This resident bird looks exactly like a dried leaf and only the sharpest eye can detect it. And there is urgency in his voice as he asks us to return to the trail.

Dr.Sugathan, ornithologist and a student of Salim Ali, at the sanctuary office tells me that when Salim Ali came in 1933 to do an ornithological survey of the Cochin Travancore area, Thattekad was just a stopover at night on his way through the forests to Munnar. But next morning when he heard the call of the birds, he stayed on for seven days and identified 160 species. “Thattekad lies on the international migratory route and situated at the base of the Western Ghats it also receives a large number of altitudinal migratory birds. Besides the birds, the sanctuary has its share of leopards, spotted deer, barking deer and recently a tiger was sighted. The place is too small for a pair of tigers though.”

10.30 am. The drone of the cicadas fills the forest air and we can hear nothing else. We head back to the Hornbill Camp and sit down to a hearty breakfast and two hours later to a heartier lunch. Evening is apportioned for river rafting to leisurely explore the waters. The Twitchers of course are off on another birding trip. I pass, I’d rather laze by the river side.

Info on Hornbill Camp:


Contact: 0484-2092280, 0484- 6583573

(First published by The Sunday Express.)


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