For the love of birds - Sarah Sekhran
Photo: Poay-cheng Chong

For the Love of Birds

Growing up in the Western Ghats, in one of the earth’s biodiversity hotspots is a privilege I didn’t know I had experienced until I was much older and a lot of the birds and wildlife I had seen as a child had all but vanished. I took for granted the cacophony of bird song that I awoke to every morning, the giant squirrel that lived behind the house, the giant earthworms one had to avoid stepping on after a monsoon downpour, and the occasional giant moth that visited the back porch. Years later, rediscovering the birdlife and wildlife in Prakasapuram, a small village near Shembaganur was like refinding my youth but from behind the lens of a camera. 

Between 2015 and 2016, I spent a lot of time in Prakasapuram visiting family. Every chance I got, I ventured out into Addukam Shola behind the house to take photographs. In those two years, I saw not only the birds I remembered from childhood but many that hadn’t been recently documented.

It soon became apparent from what I was finding that the little oasis of Prakasapuram was part of a migratory flyway for many bird species. The Eurasian Hoopoe, a regular to mum’s garden, would breed in the summer and stay into the winter months. The gregarious Brown Shrike, a regular during the winter, would fly over to watch me from the pear groves above the house. Other exciting finds included the White-bellied Drongo, the Orange Minivet, the Black-throated Munia, the Blue-bearded Bee-eater, the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, and the Malabar Trogon. These six species are not only rare sightings for this area but also are at the top of their known elevation range.

On one particularly cold and misty afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching a family of 8 Orange Minivet pairs feeding and frolicking close to the forest edge. Later I  watched as hues of orange and yellow flew off into the Eucalyptus forest through the mist to settle in for the night.

The Nilgiri Wood-pigeon which I saw a lot of in my youth, was a pretty rare sighting in 2015. Flocks of them would come in at dusk to roost in the Shola at the back of the house. 

At dawn, I was often woken up by a Yellow Tit excitedly knocking on my window, at its reflection. The familiar “kutrook-kutrook-kutrook” of the White-cheeked Barbet and the comically bad whistling of the Whistling Schoolboy or Malabar Whistling Thrush in the forest had me grabbing my camera to try and get some shots. The footprints on the driveway up to the road and the Shola were a good indicator of whether the Wild boar or Bison had visited in the night. Malabar Giant Squirrel calls greeted me as I made my way into the Shola.

Indian Yellow Tit

Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) says that there are 29 bird endemics in the Western Ghats. I found 10 of these in Prakasapuram: the Nilgiri Pipit (IUCN: Vulnerable), Nilgiri Wood-pigeon (IUCN: Vulnerable), Black and Orange Flycatcher (IUCN: Near Threatened), Nilgiri Flycatcher (IUCN: Near Threatened), Rufous Babbler (IUCN: Least Concern), Nilgiri Flowerpecker (IUCN: Least Concern), White-cheeked Barbet (IUCN: Least Concern), Kerala Laughingthrush, Crimson-backed Sunbird IUCN: Least Concern), and the Yellow-browed Bulbul (IUCN: Least Concern).

As I rediscovered the incredible biodiversity in Prakasapuram, I also happened upon a bird list from 1909 by Reverend Dr. S B Fairbanks, who the Guide to Kodaikanal 1909 called an ‘enthusiastic field naturalist’. Fairbanks, who worked with the American Board of Missions, presented a window into what once was, and some of which were still present in 2016.

Bird List by Reverend Dr SB Fairbank
(Guide to Kodaikanal 1909)

Indian White Eye, Red-vented Bulbul, Rufous-backed Shrike, Indian Hoopoe, Scavenger Vulture, Common Kite, Jungle Crow, Palni Laughing Thrush, White-bellied Shortwing, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Small Green Barbet, Nilgiri Blackbird, Grey Jungle Fowl, Red Spur Fowl, Painted Bush-Quail, Edible-nest Swiftlets, Malabar Trojan, Woodcock, Common Snipe, Fairy Bluebird

My list, after documenting the area
on and off from 2015-16, included:

Grey Junglefowl, Red Spurfowl, Indian white-eye, Indian Blackbird, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Indian Scimitar-babbler, Jungle Babbler, Malabar Whistling-Thrush, Square-tailed Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Pied Bushchat, Oriental Magpie Robin, Common Hill Myna, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Nilgiri Pipit, Edible-nest Swiftlet, Long-tailed Shrike, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Indian Yellow Tit, Common Hill Myna, Black-throated Munia, Yellow Wagtail, Common Rosefinch, Greater Goldenback Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape Woodpecker, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Asian Koel, Southern Coucal, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Emerald Dove, Spotted Dove, Crested Hawk Eagle, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, Black Kite, Snake Eagle, Yellow Wagtail, Greenish Warbler, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler and several other species of Leaf Warbler, Barwinged Flycatcher-Shrike, Eurasian Sparrow, House Sparrow, Lotens Sunbird, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Pacific Swallow, Raven, Common Crow, Bush Quail 

There are likely far more species present in Prakasapuram than I documented or than was documented by Reverend Fairbanks in 1909. While the sheer diversity of this small patch of forest is a heritage that I was fortunate to rediscover, it will rapidly decline if not taken care of, and needs protection, for future generations.

Yellow-browed Bulbul: There are three sub-species of Yellow-browed Bulbul. The ones found in the Western Ghats, the Nilgiris, and northern and eastern Sri Lanka are a brighter yellow than those found in Maharashtra and southern and western Sri Lanka.

Yellow browed Bulbul

Indian Hoopoe: The Hoopoe gets its name from its call: ‘poo-poo-poo’. You will often see them spread out and lounging in the sun, or having a mud bath. Female Hoopoe cover their eggs with a foul-smelling secretion to ward off threats.

Hoopoe (Photo: From the Grapevine)

Oriental Magpie Robin: The Magpie Robins are known for their beautiful song and their ability to mimic the calls of other birds. They are extremely gregarious and curious, often hopping right up to you.

Oriental Magpie (Photo: ebird)

White-cheeked Barbet: The White-cheeked Barbet, often heard rather than seen, is a familiar mainstay in the Western Ghats. ‘Kutrook, kutrook, kutrook’―this gets louder and louder on particularly misty days.

White Cheeked Barbet

Indian Yellow Tit: This bird is often seen feeding in pairs or with mixed-species foraging flocks in the canopy. Mixed flocks often include Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Oriental White-eye. In the breeding season, if you are lucky, you might see them displaying by flapping their wings to show off their tail feathers and throwing up their mohawk, for their reflection in a window.

Indian Yellow Tit

Streak-throated Woodpecker: The crown is red on the male and black on the female. You often hear them before you see them, and usually on the edge of an open forest. They also have a fondness for banana blossoms.

Streak Throated Woodpecker Female

Nilgiri Flowerpecker: A tiny bird in the flowerpecker family that feeds mostly on nectar, fruits, and small insects. Their feathery tongue is useful for sipping nectar.

Nilgiri Flowerpecker

White-bellied Drongo: These birds are found across India and are opportunistic eaters: their food ranges from small birds to insects to nectar. Prakasapuram is at the top of their elevation range.

White Bellied Drongo

Indian Blackbird: This bird is a member of the thrush family, found only in India and Sri Lanka. They have a loud, melodious song that is similar to that of the magpie-robin. You often see them digging around in the underbrush of fruit orchards.

Eurasian Blackbird

Greater Golden-backed Woodpecker: This is a striking, beautiful, and large woodpecker, found in the Western Ghats. You often hear them tapping away on the edge of open woodland, or calling loudly. Males have a red crown and females have a black crown. They eat small invertebrates and drink nectar.

Greater Goldenback Woodpecker

Sarah Sekhran

Sarah Sekhran is an avid birder, passionate wildlife advocate, and photographer. She spent most of her early years hiking around the Palani Hills, and more recently, Prakasapuram. She now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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