So, where we…Oh yes, in Part One (which is right here) I was saying that I needed some sleep (both in the field on the day AND while I was writing up the trip report last night) but that despite a worrying – and hopefully temporary – decline in my birding abilities it still felt that “today would be the day” and those much-wanted ‘megas’ would reveal themselves around the next corner…
So we walked on from the stunningly beautiful Indian Blue Robin Luscinia brunnea (a long-legged, pot-bellied, short-tailed bird very much in the mould of the Siberian Blue Robin L. cyane, but way more colourful – and to be more accurate it walked away from us) and were soon looking at Ashy Drongos Dicrurus leucophaeus, a female Blue-capped Rock Thrush Monticola cinclorhynchus trying to be inconspicuous up a tree (we saw at least four in total including two males, and like the Blue Robin and the Drongos wintering in southern India before returning to the Himalayas to breed), and my first ever Grey-bellied Cuckoo Cacomantis passerinus, a bird not unlike a small Ashy Drongo in fact, which sat on a fallen coconut in a damp crater below us just too far away to get a decent photo but near enough for me to try anyway…
Male (top) and female (bottom) Blue-capped Rock Thrush Monticola cinclorhynchus: like many of the smaller rock thrushes this species typically flies up into a tree when disturbed.
Grey-bellied (aka Indian Plaintive) Cuckoo Cacomantis passerinus
Just around the corner (there’s always a corner with a great bird to be turned when you’re in a place like Nandi Hills) we came across a more open area with a couple of benches and rows of half-pint trees that looked somewhat like a small orchard (as the British once gardened up on the top of this particular hill that’s quite probably what it may have been once). As any birder will understand the place “looked good” immediately. Mike also mentioned that – even better – the turf must have just been lifted as there was now bare red soil crawling with insects and studded with the heads of buried irrigation sprays instead of grass – and there indeed were birds everywhere.
Female Indian Blue Robin Luscinia brunnea
Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus: a common, widespread and very charming species found throughout tropical Asia
We made two visits to this little patch, and both times we saw different species: a female Indian Blue Robin which unfairly disappeared into thin air from right in front of me while I tried to photograph it (from too close if I’m honest), a couple of Olive-backed Pipits Anthus hodgsoni striding quickly in and out of the shade making photography impossible, a flock of Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus, Magpie Robins Copsychus saularis, more Blyth’s Reed and Greenish Warblers, and – on the second visit – a feeding party of warblers that included a Hume’s Yellow-browed and another small phyllosc with dull yellowish underparts that I couldn’t identify (these flittering leaf warblers are really quite hard to get familiar with when you only see them once every few years you know), but said to Mike almost in passing as I tried to explain where I was looking that it was creeping along a tree trunk “like a Nuthatch”.
“Like a Nuthatch”, if I’d read any of the Indian field-guides I have at home (and been able to remember anything I’d read beyond the next thirty minutes), is the phrase typically used to describe the distinctive habits of the Sulphur-bellied Warbler, a phyllosc more usually seen (but not by me) hopping around the rocks of “national monuments” all over India. Great stuff: Hume’s, Greenish, Long-billed and Sulphur-bellied Warblers in the same morning, and – as it happened – one more phyllosc to come (more of which later)…
As interesting as the Sulphur-bellied was, one of the birds we saw on our first visit to this small area was THE outstanding bird of the morning (and that’s really saying something considering what we saw). I was standing a little way from Mike, scanning the back of the “orchard”, when I noticed an oddly-patterned bird drop down on to a shaded, sloping track on the forest edge about 80 metres away. It was just too far away to see properly with binoculars, but as my brain rapidly scrolled through the options (‘rapid’ as in ‘neurons failed to fire and my brain seemed to have been replaced with a communication system less efficient than two tin cans with a piece of string stretched between them’) I locked on to COCHOA – a bird I’ve never seen before, one that it is purple, has never been seen or found anywhere near Nandi and never will be, and looks absolutely nothing at all like the strikingly pied bird I was looking at…(if any sleep-deprivation researchers are reading this and would like to get in touch to explain just what was going on in my head at this point you know where I am)
Yes, the clue is in the word “pied”: even I realised mere seconds later that I was looking at my very first (and self-found I’ll have you know) Pied Thrush Zoothera wardii, one of the most fantastic species I’ve ever seen (I’m no Peter Kaestner, but I have seen a little over 3000 species and this one IMHO is one of the very best of the bunch).
Coal-black and snow-white, enigmatic and skulking, and so much more beautiful than their prosaic name suggests, Pied Thrushes breed in the Himalayas and virtually the entire population – which hasn’t been quantified according to the BirdLife International datazone – winters in the Sri Lanka hills. If you want to see a Pied Thrush – and you do, you really do – you can either look for them in the dense broadleaved forests of the “abode of snow” (and best of luck to you because they are really hard to see there), you can go to Sri Lanka in winter (where they’re easier), or you can go with Mike Prince to the Nandi Hills (where they’re difficult but far more exclusive). Whichever one you choose, the reward is a deep glow that will stay with you for weeks (I suspect anyway, I only saw my bird two days ago of course!).
Having had good but distant looks through Mike’s Swaro scope we had to make the decision to leave the bird on the shaded trail or try to get a little closer…Okay, so shoot me, but we tried to get a little closer and crept slowly towards it as the thrush edged under a tangle of vegetation, hurling leaves out behind it like a JCB on caffeine as it hunted for ground insects. Inevitably we failed dismally, and the thrush lifted silently off the trail and into the woods behind long before we got anywhere near it. Despite having a really good search for it we saw no sign of it again.
Fortunately Mike has kindly
rubbed my nose in it sent me a photo of an immature male he photographed at Nandi in 2007. It’s nowhere near as wondrous as the pristine and perfect bird I found of course, but it’ll do I suppose (yes, I’m joking in case you’re not sure)…
Pied Thrush Zoothera wardii copyright Mike Prince
Actually, even though we failed to find the Pied Thrush again it was while looking for it that we found the Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Orange-headed Thrushes I mentioned earlier, and I had good (but not photographable) views of a nigropileus Blackbird – which is either an isolated southern Indian form of Common Blackbird Turdus merula, or an isolated southern form of Indian Blackbird Turdus simillimus. With its startlingly bright orange bill and charcoal grey underparts I know where my taxonomic sympathies lie…
So, was that the end of our ‘Nandi adventure’? No way, my friends, but it’s the end of this post as I really need to concentrate on not concentrating for a while or my head will explode in a plume of scientific names and similees and Jo will not be best pleased…Come back tomorrow for Part three, the final part of what has turned unexpectedly into an elegiac trilogy to the wonderful birds of Nandi Hills
All photographs (except for the Pied Thrush) copyright Charlie Moores