Thekkady-Kumily and the Periyar Tiger Reserve lie near the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Periyar lake is an important watershed and a lifeline for wildlife in the region. The lake was created by the building of the Mullaperiyar Dam in 1895. What was started as a private game reserve became a wildlife sanctuary, and later the Periyar Tiger Reserve. While the area where the reserve is located is well-known as Thekkady, the town is named Kumily. It was a 5 minutes drive from our hotel to the PRT (Periyar Tiger Reserve) and from the entrance it’s a 500 meter walk to reach the boating jetty. From the jetty point, many visitors to the reserve take an hour-long boating safari where, with luck, the action along the bank can be viewed. For birders, most of the aquatic species can be expected, so luck is far less of an issue.
The evening of our arrival we had a workshop session during which our mentor gave us a good grip on exposure, metering, ISO and lots of inputs about the technical aspects of photography in general and wildlife photography in particular.
Early morning on the first day after a quick tea and snacks we headed out to PRT with all our gear. We were met by forest naturalists who were very well versed with the local conditions and the birding scene at that particular time of the year. We were given thick canvas knee-length “leech” socks which are dusted with tobacco powder, making them 100% leech resistant. We boarded a small raft driven by rope pulley to cross one of the many “fingers” of the many branched reservoir. After a brief time following the banks of the water we turned into the dense forest, where the penetration of morning sunlight was minimal. With such heavy equipment we really had to dodge the trees and hanging vines and made our way through the forest. The bird species sighted that first day were Malabar Trogon, White-bellied flycatcher, small blue kingfisher, spot-billed ducks, grey heron, Indian pond heron, little cormorant, white-cheeked barbet and a Malabar frog as an added bonus. It was a good 3 hr forest walk with birds chirping, frogs croaking and crickets making their presence felt. While just walking out of the PRT, we had a good sighting of a pair of grey Malabar hornbill with good photographic opportunity for all of us at close range. Our mammalian captures included a Malabar giant squirrel munching a nut and a group of Nilgiri langurs with young ones jumping around trees providing fantastic opportunities for dynamic shots.
After a delicious lunch at the resort we relaxed for a couple of hrs and in the afternoon we traveled to a 200-acre cardamom plantation where we trekked for about 2 kms uphill until we hit the border of PRT. It was a different topography for a birder with different species to capture on film and different challenges in lighting and angles to get the right shot. Some of the sighting were Spotted owlet, Racquet-tailed Drongo, Scarlet minivet and Crested Serpent eagle (surprisingly found in pairs). In the evening we had a good review session and a detailed explanation about next days programme before we retired for the day.
The next morning we headed across the border to Tamil Nadu to the Maghamala Wildlife Sanctuary where we experienced deciduous forest and a combination shrubs and tall trees with a good walkable track. We saw Dung Beetles at work, (the best way of recycling dung in nature), as well as Malabar parakeet, Chestnut-headed Bee eater, Golden oriole, common hoopoe, Blue-eyed Malkoha, and Magpie robin. Mammals (or at least evidence of them) included jackal, pug marks of sloth bear, fresh droppings of Dhole (Indian wild dogs), and a fleeting sighting of an Indian jungle cat. After that we headed to a plantation near Kumily town where we had a nice shoot of Indian scops owl that were roosting with their owlets, (The owlets remained hidden despite our patience). We did have a good time with owls waiting for them just to open their eyes so that all of our shutters opened at the same time.
Our agenda was packed so after another quick bite we headed to PRT again, this time taking a different route with the naturalists. With the thick cover on top and a similar picture on the ground we had many macro opportunities with a great variety of ferns, fungi, multicolored leaves, barks, as well as aerial roots. We saw the barks that are used to make dhoop incense sticks as well as patches of thick moss despite it being the peak of summer!
As we bushwhacked into the forest, we came upon the most spectacularly camouflaged bird: the Srilankan Frogmouth. It was a testament to the skill and experience of our naturalist guides that they knew exactly where to look. This amazing bird blended so well with the environment that even at 2 meters away it was difficult separate it from its background. We learned that this particularly species will stand completely still no matter how close a photographer comes…as long as the branch or tree isn’t rustled, giving us all the time we needed to get the best shots we were capable of.
When we emerged from the forest into the PTR savanna we saw Great Indian hornbills flying overhead and a large pack of dholes (about 21 including both adults and pups) playing among themselves.The best climax of the trek happened at the end of the trek when some of us had already crossed the section of water back to the starting point. The action began when the pack of dhole brought down a full-grown female sambar deer by the water’s edge, right in front of our eyes (but at a distance). It was a such an exhilarating experience of a natural event that was systematically organized and executed to perfection.
As the pack of wild dogs had their meal, we returned to the hotel and wrapped up our amazing photographic experience with a review of each of the participants’ work and an interactive session with the “guru” Sudhir Shivaram.
I can proudly and confidently say that I now understand animals, birds and nature better than before and of course the elevation of my photographic skills is unparalleled after this stint of learning with the group.
Thanks everybody for a wonderful experience.