I really enjoy going to India – the birding is great, the people (not that I’ve met all of them of course) are friendly and have a great enthusiasm for life, and travelling inside the country is always – how can I put this, er, ‘interesting’. Perhaps I’m getting more relaxed as I slide slowly into middle-age, but I’m finding it easier to handle the intensity and crush of India’s cities these days. The one thing I don’t manage well though is the heat. India in the winter is like spring in the UK (which is fine), spring in India is like our summer (which is okay), and the Indian summer is like walking into an oven and having buckets of hot sweat thrown over you (which is awful). India in summer is not – therefore – good for birding.
And not – it would seem – good for birds either. Vast numbers of European, Himalayan, and west Asian birds winter in India, but come March they feel the heat building, the air thickening, the ground scorching, and they immediately start the long journey back north. Which means by the end of April most of them are long gone, and the birding can be tough and unrewarding.
At least that’s what I’ve always believed.
I have to admit that under normal circumstances I’d have spent a day in Bangalore in late-April sat under the air-conditioner in my hotel room, but due almost entirely to my year-long, year-listing competition with my airline colleague Graham (who I really must state one more time has actually NEVER bothered a kitten in his life despite what I may have implied back in January) I’d posted an RFI on the Oriental Birds Yahoo group asking if anyone might be interested in taking me birding. Many thanks to those that did, because in the end I was fortunate enough to meet up with Mike Prince (a long-time resident in various parts of India) who offered to take me to the Nandi Hills: and what a nice guy and a great place both turned out to be…
The view from, and the road up, the Nandi Hills.
Some 65 Kms from Bangalore, and 1,478 meters above sea level, Nandi Hills – an outlying part of the Western Ghats – is Bangalore’s own hill station (ie a place of retreat from the summer heat). The main destination at “Nandi” is the old and run-down hill fort built by the great Tipu Sultan, aka “The Tiger of Mysore” (a sheer 600 meter high cliff on the way up to the fort is still named Tipu’s Drop in recognition of the Sultan’s favourite method of disposing of his prisoners incidentally). On the top of the hill itself is a small forest with some huge native trees, home to the increasingly scarce – and very difficult to see – Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, and the Yoganandishwara temple – a small compound built on bare rock that I’ve a feeling most birders will walk past.
The road up:
However, that’s getting well ahead of myself, because long before you get anywhere near the fort and temple it’s worth stopping and searching the dry farmland at the base of the hills first. Mike mentioned that with luck we’d find Jerdon’s Bushlark here – and, lo and behold, virtually the first bird Mike found on his first scan was the aforementioned Bushlark, a heavily streaked short-tailed bird which for some reason – perhaps because I’d worked over to India and gone straight out without any sleep at all – reminded me of a non-breeding wydah. We also found a Brown Shrike (a late migrant as most have already long gone), small numbers of Red-rumped Swallows, Black Kites, and Common Tailorbird – plus plenty of Jungle Mynas. Not a bad start (and we found two Tawny Eagles on the way back out for those of you keeping score).
As you can probably tell from the photos above when we arrived in the hills there was still cloud settled on the peaks. Normally that might have concerned me – I’ve tried birding in clouds before and it’s horrible – but in this instance it meant that the temperature was cooler than usual (still warm enough for t-shirts though) and that the progress we made up the “long and winding road” was slower than Mike usually made. This, in turn, meant that we birded a few spots we might not have ordinarily stopped at. I’m glad we did, because at one such spot a female Grey Junglefowl (a lifer for me) appeared on the road ahead of us – slightly too far off to make a photo worthwhile, but plainly visible through binoculars, Oriental White-eyes bounced around the trees close by, we saw White-cheeked Barbets and had a brief view of a Blue-faced Malkoha (my fourth Malkoha of the year, which is just ridiculous really), picked up a flock of Alpine Swifts high up over the hills, whilst just off to one side of the road Mike spotted an Indian Scimitar-babbler rooting around in the vegetation – again a bit far off, but I managed a record shot to prove the sighting to any sceptics out there.
Indian Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus horsfieldii
Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus
Another species we saw here was a raptor that – hopefully – I’d usually be able to identify quite easily: however I have to say this time round I was really flummoxed for a while. To be fair to myself it was drifting along the base of the low cloud when we first saw it and a long way off, but for those birders who would normally expect Short-toed (Snake) Eagles to have dark heads and well-barred underparts have a look at the (poor) photo below:
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
On top of the very pale plumage the bird is heavily moulting: if I had managed to get a better photo I might have a go at ageing this bird, but there are so few details apparent that a non-expert raptor watcher like me would be going down a tricky road indeed trying to state with any authority how old it is. Interestingly, too, Mike reckons that many of the Short-toeds he sees in the region are pale-headed like this one, making ageing even harder.
A final stop before we reached the fort itself was a cracker! One of the most sought-after species at Nandi is the regionally-endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul, and Mike had a site staked-out from a previous visit. Field-guides tend to show Yellow-throated Bulbul as a dull brown bird with a yellow wash to the throat, but – thanks to Mike’s excellent local knowledge – I can happily report that it actually looks something like a large Verdin with a bright, sunny-yellow head and throat which can be picked up from hundreds of metres away.
Blogger seeks bulbuls…Photo by Mike Prince
I wish I could prove the point with a stunning photo – but sadly Yellow-throated Bulbuls are not particularly showy birds, and the views we got were a little distant for photography. Having said that we saw them in the company of three other bulbul species – Red-whiskered and Red-vented (which are both common and widespread, but still lovely birds), and the more restricted western Indian and Sri Lankan White-browed Bulbul (which I’d seen earlier in the year at Guindy National Park). Not a bad way to spend fifteen minutes eh?
Update: I may not have managed to take a good photo of a Yellow-throated Bulbul, but Mike has done on a previous visit – and happily he’s allowed me to post it here. So, THIS is what a Yellow-throated Bulbul looks like close-up…nice, eh?
Yellow-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus xantholaemus. Photo courtesy Mike Prince
The Hill Fort:
A view from the top of Nandi Hills
There’s a small entrance-fee (about 1GBP/2USD) to pay to get into the hill fort itself, but thankfully no forms to fill in or permissions to gain. At weekends the Hills can be very busy, but mid-week things are a lot quieter and there were few other cars parked up (though keep a way eye out for the young couples who charge up and down the road on motorbikes).
Once inside the fort it soon becomes obvious that the gardens – which sit on the highest peak above slopes which apart from scrub and armies of introduced eucalypts are not especially vegetated – look to be absolute magnets for migrants. There are quiet nooks and crannies and thick patches of bamboo. There are gentle slopes covered in leaf-litter which are where Mike often – but not on this occasion sadly – finds the beautiful Pied Thrush, a species which almost exclusively winters in Sri Lanka but is rarely seen on migration (Nandi Hills may be one of the best places on the mainland to find them in winter – Mike has seen them here in October, and numerous times between December and April). And there is a stand of mature, magnificent native trees, which as mentioned before is THE place to look for the very scarce Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Mike reckons there may be four pairs here, but where on earth they were hiding is anyone’s guess because we saw no sign of them at all!).
So we missed the thrush (which was expected as it’s late in the year for them to be still around) and we missed the Wood Pigeon (which is a little more disappointing), what did we see? Well, Mike said he was slightly disappointed, but then again he goes to Nandi fairly regularly (and only the malkoha was new for the year) – and I have to say I thought the birding was pretty good.
Almost the first bird we saw (actually, we heard it first) was the superb male Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher in the photo below (a female probably flew in as well, but we had only the briefest glimpse).
Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher Cyornis tickelliae
Other birds we saw a number of times were Puff-throated and Tawny-bellied Babblers,
White-cheeked Barbet, and Oriental Magpie-robin, and a single (late) Blyth’s Reed Warbler. We also found four or five (again, late) Greenish Warblers – of which the bird below was by far the most showy.
Tawny-bellied Babbler Dumetia hyperythra
Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides
Greenish Warblers are – I would guess – exactly what North American birders think most warblers this side of the world look like – ie drab and bloody hard to identify! I can hear Jochen (the ‘extremely knowledgeable’ birder who runs Bell Tower Birding) sputtering into his tea at that statement: yes, they’re quite obviously not Townsend’s Warblers, but they are nevertheless subtly-coloured birds and -if you know what to look for, or if like me you see them in Nandi where they’re the only likely phylloscopus warbler – quite distinctive (and, fortunately even moulting, scruffy Greenish Warblers like this one call like every other Greenish Warbler – a loud, slurred, di-syllabic tss-lii).
Having said that, when they look like this individual they’re really HARD! My own feeling is that if this bird was found in the UK at this time of the year even a more-experienced birder would find it puzzling.
Where, you might justifiably ask, is the wingbar? Where – indeed – is the ‘greenish’ colour? Worn away, that’s where. Okay, I admit, Townsend’s this time of the year are more striking…
Having virtually mentioned all the smaller birds we saw at Nandi, how about two larger species that aren’t quite so difficult to identify: Black Kite and Egyptian Vulture.
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Adult Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus
Whilst Egyptian Vultures are uncommon birds these days (though they’re not anywhere like in the same dire position that the few remaining other Indian vultures find themselves in thanks to Diclofenac over-use), Black Kites are pretty much ubiquitous. However, I don’t normally get a chance to get prolonged looks at them: they tend to be ‘smash and grab’ artists, pouncing on items and whipping them away. I’ve plenty of pictures of them in flight, or perched in trees looking for their next take-away, but one Mike and I came across inside the fort was trying to lift off with what looked like the entire innards of a large dog – the intestines, liver, heart…the lot. As we approached I could almost see the bird weighing up whether to take fright and lose its meal or risk making a short flight, stop to swallow a bit of slippery intestine, and then fly again and repeat until full. If you’re interested in what happened next, I’ve posted more photos at It takes guts…
Both Mike and I needed to be back in Bangalore by early afternoon, so we left Nandi about midday. Before I finish this report though it would be very remiss not to mention one of the other wildlife delights of Nandi. As well as birds, the Nandi Hills are extremely good for butterflies. There seemed to be clouds of them around most flowering shrubs, and though I wouldn’t pretend for a moment to have any ID knowledge whatsoever when it comes to southern Indian insects, I have managed to identify these two beautiful butterflies – both of which were common and widespread.
The regionally-endemic Crimson Rose Atrophaneura hector
Blue Tiger Tirumala hamata
One last thing, on the way back into Bangalore Mike asked me if I was interested in having a look for a pair of Mottled Wood Owls that had been using the same roost in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens for some months and were – as much as these things can be – almost guaranteed. I have to say that having had virtually no sleep on the flight from the UK I was dropping – but also keen to see them as I’d never seen one before, and to be so close and not try would be unthinkable.
Mike obviously picked up on my hesitation, because – after drawing me a map which included the unforgettable instruction to look for the “exotic buxom babes” – he very generously offered to do some work at home while I slept at the hotel and then meet me at Lalbagh later on. I’m very grateful that he did, because despite what turned out to be very accurate directions, the Owls were not easy to find – principally because they remained high up in the branches of a tall tree masked from the ground by a wildly overgrown bamboo.
I took a number of photographs – most of which are not worth posting – but I did finally get the one below, which shows a rather peeved owl fending off the attentions of a House Crow (a very common species which apparently loves nothing more than spending the day hassling the roosting owls). It may not win any awards, but I’m quite proud of it – and my unequivocal thanks go to Mike for not only birding with me at Nandi but taking time out to go to Lalbagh as well…
Mottled Wood Owl Strix ocellata
Mike – and his UK-based colleague Andy Musgrove – runs BUBO Listing, a free website which allows the storage, viewing and comparison of birding lists. The site went public just over a year ago, initially concentrating on birding in the UK but is rapidly expanding internationally.
Day List (includes Lalbagh Botanic Gardens) – new for the year underlined:
Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis 1; Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger 10+; Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 1; Little Egret Egretta garzetta 3; Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii 4-5; Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 3; Black Kite Milvus migrans 50+; Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus 3; Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus 2; Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus 1; Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax 2; Grey Junglefowl Gallus sonneratii 1; White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus 2; Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio 1; Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 1; Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis 20+; Ring-necked Parakeet Psittacula krameri 100+; Common Koel Eudynamys scolopacea 4-5; Blue-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus viridirostris 1; Mottled Wood Owl Strix ocellata 3; Alpine Swift Tachymarptis/Apus melba c)20; Little Swift Apus affinis 1; White-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis 1; Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis 4-5; Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis 2; Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 4; White-cheeked Barbet Megalaima viridis c)10; Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala 1; Jerdon’s Bushlark Mirafra affinis 1; Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica 4-5; Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus 20+; Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer c)10; Yellow-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus xantholaemus 3; White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus 4; Common Iora Aegithina tiphia 1; Blyth’s Reed-warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum 1; Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius 2; Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides 3; Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher Cyornis tickelliae 2; Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis 7-8; Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicata 7-8; Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata 3-4; Puff-throated Babbler Pellorneum ruficeps 2; Indian Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus horsfieldii 1; Tawny-bellied Babbler Dumetia hyperythra 2; Yellow-billed Babbler Turdoides affinis 1; Purple-rumped Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica 2; Purple Sunbird Nectarinia asiatica 1+; Thick-billed Flowerpecker Dicaeum agile 2; Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus 10+; Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 1; Jungle Myna Acridotheres fuscus 50+; Common Myna Acridotheres tristis 20+