It is amazing how fast ten weeks can go by. I remember sitting in the library at Cardamom County writing about my first day of birding here; I remember how excited I was to see barbets, minivets, and leafbirds from the parking lot. Now, ten weeks later with about a dozen activities completed and many birding expeditions into the Periyar Tiger Reserve under my belt, I’m suddenly looking back on fond memories. My first excursion into Periyar was a Bamboo Rafting trip along Periyar Lake. To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed in this strange new place with its checklist of over 300 unfamiliar birds. As is always the case with Periyar, the excursion was a blast, and that trend continued with the Border Hike, the Nature Walk, the Tiger Trail, the Green Walk, and indeed with every trip into the Reserve.
It is hard to put into words my gratitude to La Paz Group, who brought me here. They made possible this wonderful summer and all the amazing things that happened. My time here has been filled with magical moments that I cannot wait to share with my friends back at Cornell this fall. I saw my 1000th world bird, I interacted with both tame and wild elephants, and I had a shirt stolen by a monkey. I made amazing friends, both with the incredible staff of Cardamom County and with the other interns. I leave India with a trip list of 188 bird species, many of them spectacular and all of them beautiful. Cardamom County now feels like home, and it will be hard to leave on Saturday. Periyar itself has been full of surprises, and I will depart with a great respect for this wonderful jungle. Indeed, my last trek in the Reserve left me with a memory that trumps all the others.
A few weeks back I posted about a Great Hornbill sighting here at Periyar. On the Nature Hike we spotted three Great Hornbills perched in a tree across the lake. I proclaimed there and then that the Great Hornbill was my favorite bird in the world. Since that time, I have seen quite a few hornbills on various walks into Periyar, as this species becomes easier to find in July and August because it is breeding and therefore has increased food requirements. This past Sunday, I embarked on my final excursion into the Reserve. Our group left a little before 7 am and drove to the boat launch to meet our guide. One member of our group had never seen a Great Hornbill before. Knowing their increased abundance over the past couple of weeks, I was confident I could find one for him. Sure enough, as we stepped out of the car one flew over the road–not the best sighting but a sighting nonetheless. The pressure was off, and now we could relax and enjoy the hike. And did we ever enjoy it! Soon after we entered the jungle, we heard the familiar sound of the Great Hornbill’s wing beats. Excited, we kept walking. A few steps later we flushed a hornbill from the canopy. A step more and we flushed another. One more step, one more hornbill. Soon the canopy was alive with noise. Hornbills were calling from every direction and almost constantly flew overhead. As we walked on, we flushed about 20 hornbills from a single tree. We were speechless. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything this unbelievable, and that is exactly what it was – unbelievable. At the end of the hike, I estimated a final count of about 50 hornbills. When I returned, I entered this sighting into eBird, a website for sharing observations from around the world. Later that night I received an email from an eBird reviewer who had read my checklist and found our tally so incredible he had to double-check its validity. I replied that I had a hard time believing it too, but the count was correct. My time in Periyar concludes with possibly the most spectacular nature experience I have ever had. My mom taught me as a child to say, “Thank you. I enjoyed it.” when I finished eating a meal at a friend’s house. So I will use my manners and tell Periyar, Cardamom County, Raxa Collective, and of course the Great Hornbills, “Thank you for everything! I very much enjoyed it!!”
When I leave India, my Asian journey continues in Sri Lanka for one more week of nonstop birding. It should be exhausting and exhilarating! I look forward to posting photos of Sri Lanka specialties in the upcoming weeks.
For now, this is Ben Barkley signing off from Cardamom County!