Saturday, 27 February 2016

Bird Watching at Ranganathittu

Bird watching @ Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

Road trip to Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

Here are some bird photos from Ranganathittu

It has been a while since I joined the Birdwing team for a birding / photography trip. So thought it would be a good time to join when there was a trip planned to Ranganathittu Sanctuary. Incidentally my last trip with them also involved a visit the sanctuary.

Once decided, I checked with my friend Dinesh in Bangalore if he would like to join and he agreed after making some adjustments in the work schedule. Santhosh was the leading this trip and the plan was to meet up with him and a couple of others somewhere in a common location and join them in their car to Ranganathittu.

I travelled from Chennai to Bangalore the previous day and stayed with Dinesh the previous day itself, so there are no delay due commutation. We were planning to meet around 5:30 in the morning at Corporation Circle. Since we were staying in Electronic city, we thought it would be quite difficult to reach there so early in the morning. The public transport did not have good frequency at the hour and the taxis / autos are also not so reliable at that hour. So we both decided that we will change this to a bike trip as well! We informed Santhosh that we will be coming in motor cycle. He was fine as long as we can make it safe. We decided to meet near the NICE road and proceed from there.

We all were on time the next morning at the NICE road. After a quick introduction, we dumped our bags in their car, since it had some space, and started on the journey. I am sure the trip would have been complete without the “thattu idli” at Bidadi. We stopped there for our breakfast briefly and had the famous and tasty thattu idli and proceeded on our journey. There were quite some travelers like us who were making use of the weekend to escape to Mysore or to other nearby locations.

Still the traffic was not too bad and it was good drive. We stopped only one more time, after travelling for about 100km, for a short break. The stay was planned at Amblee resort, which was right on the banks of Cauvery. We could not have asked for a better location for a birding trip. Staying in the resort itself will give plenty of opportunities for bird watchers. We reached the resort around 11:00AM and decided to walk around the place to check on the birding activities. We were not disappointed at all. They also had some captive birds among which Emu was also one. But they also had left the Emus roam freely without actually putting it behind a cage or restricted area. That was good.

After spending sometime in the resort, we had a good lunch on the banks of Cauvery. Apart from the dining hall, the resort had placed a few tables outside, right on the banks of the river. This was one of the most pleasant experiences of the trip. Food was reasonably good but have to mention that it really takes a while for them to prepare and bring the food. So it would be better if you order the food a bit earlier and not wait till you are really hungry.

The Sanctuary will be open for visiting from 3:30 PM in the afternoons. So after lunch, we drove in Sanothsh’s car to the sanctuary, which was only about 10 to 15 minutes’ drive from the resort. They have a very nominal entry fee or Rs.25 / person and Rs.30 for vehicle. There is no separate charge for cameras, however if you are using a DSLR and using a lens that is 500mm or greater, then better be prepared to shell out another Rs.500. Any lens lesser than that will not have any cost. Since I was the only one who was carrying a 500mm, we had to take a separate ticket for that. At this point I want to mention that, in Ranganathittu, you really do not need a 500mm lens. You can get very good close up photographs even with 300mm or 400mm lens.

The place is a very well maintained one. The garden or park before getting into river / backwaters also provides plenty of opportunities for bird watching / photography. We spent about 15 to 20 minutes in the garden before heading to the boating. You will have to take separate tickets for boating. We took a open boat for ourselves, so we can get some good photos. The boat ride was a good 60 to 90 mintues which provided plenty of opportunities for watching the winged beauties. Since it was their nesting period, we were able to see almost all the birds involved in building nests. Some of them were even nursing their young ones. It was a well spent 90 minutes in the boat. We finished the boating around 5:00PM and returned back to the garden, where spent another few minutes in watching birds. We were able to spot the elusive Paradise Flycatcher here.

Following are the list of birds that we spotted in the 2 trips we made to the sanctuary.

White-browed fantail flycatcher
Tickell's Blue flycatcher
Asian Paradise flycatcher juvenile male.
Painted Stork
Open billed Stork
Spot billed Pelican
White throated Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Stork billed Kingfisher
Oriental Magpie Robin
Pale billed flowerpecker
Common Tailorbird
Indian Grey Hornbill
Marsh Harrier
House Crow
Jungle Crow
Common Myna
Jungle Myna
Brahminy Kite
Black Kite
Stone Plover
River Tern
Purple Heron
Black capped Night Heron
Indian pond Heron
Purple Heron
Red Wattled Lapwing
Little Cormorant
Indian Cormorant
Purple Sunbird
Great Tit
Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Intermediate Egret
Great Egret
Common Iora
Lesser flameback Woodpecker
Grey Wagtail

White browed Wagtail
White breasted Waterhen
Black headed Ibis
Red naped Ibis
Green Bee eater
Red whiskered Bulbul
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Eurasian spoonbill
Gold fronted leafbird
Coppersmith Barbet
White cheeked Barbet
Oriental Darter

Apart from the birds we also spotted the Flying Foxes and Mugger Crocs.

We returned back to resort by 6:00PM, refreshed ourselves and reviewed the photos for sometime. While the resort itself is a very beautiful place and lot of birds also call the trees in the resort their home, I cannot say so about the kind of crowd that it gets. We had a group of 20 guys who were there only for party and were playing very loud music, drinking and having a camp fire on the banks of the river. While there is nothing illegal about it, I felt these kind of activities spoil the serene atmosphere of the place. This is just my perspective of the crowds that come in. Others may choose to differ.

The next day, we had planned to visit the sanctuary again. It opens around 8:00AM, so we thought of having an early breakfast and reach the sanctuary on time. To our dismay we came to know that the breakfast will be available only from 9:30AM in the resort. This is another let down for us. So we decided to start about 15 minutes earlier than we had actually planned and have breakfast outside. Thankfully, there was a small eat out right before the turning into the sanctuary. We had a quick breakfast there and proceeded to watch the birds again. This time, we were unable to get an open boat, but the covered one we got did not pose any problems.

After spending around 90 minutes there, we headed back to the resort again. We had planned to vacate the place before noon and were planning to reach Bangalore by evening. We reached the resort around 10:30 AM and started from the resort by 11:00AM. We stopped at Mandya on the way for lunch and then proceeded on the journey back. Overall it was a wonderful road trip as well as a very good bird watching trip.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Trip to Valparai

Valparai – The long awaited trip

Here are more photos from Valparai

It has been my very long time wish to visit Valparai. During this December I wanted to ensure that I visit the place. I have never been here, so I did not have too much of expectations on this trip. I checked with a few of my friends and finally it was just myself and Saravanan who were into this. My long time friend Praven Kumar also wanted to join us from Coimbatore.
We started early morning on Christmas day so that we can reach Valparai in good time. With 2 breaks for a coffee and then breakfast, we were able to reach Coimbatore within 8 hours. We were quite hungry as the breakfast too was earlier than usual and light. So we decided to have lunch while waiting for Praven. He arrived at the hotel around 1:30 PM and we started on toward Valparai without wasting too much time. We just one break in Pollachi around 2:30 PM.
Once we hit the ghat roads we stopped at a few places to take the beautiful landscape and to take some pictures. By the time we reached Valparai it was around 6:00 PM and we were desperate for some good rest, especially Saravanan. He always insists on riding the car himself.
How good can be a trip without unexpected twists? The person who was supposed to have arranged out accommodation had messed up. Even contacting him over the phone did not help matters much. Being a hill station and its winter did not help matters much. Although it was not unbearably cold, it was still getting cold. Only consolation was the full moon giving ample photography opportunity! Luckily we had some backup. We were introduced to a local guy, Prathesh, while we were in Coimbatore itself and he was able to arrange a very good accommodation for us. The only drawback was that we were hoping to get some accommodation outside the town, but the one we got in the last minute was right in the middle of the main bazar. Could not have expected more in the last minute! Prathesh also introduced us to his brother who would be taking us to some of the usual local spots the next day.
We rested the night there and the next morning we planned to go a place where elephants or Indian gaurs are expected to be spotted. We decided to go there as early as possible, but due to tiredness we went there only around 7:30. It was a tea garden and we waited there some about an hour or so, but we were unable to spot any of those beasts. But the place provided good opportunity for some good landscape photos.
After returning back and refreshing ourselves, we decided to visit a couple of temples in the place. The first one was a temple in the town itself. This is where we were waiting the previous evening while trying to get some accommodation. We spent about 30 minutes in this place and headed over to the Balaji temple in Karamalai tea estate. This is a private property but is quite popular in the region. We had to park the car about 1 km before the temple and hike up to the place. Unlike the other temple this was thronging with tourists. We spent another 30 minutes here and decided to head over to a place called Thanalaaru.
Thanalaru is more of a scenic spot than anything else. Do not expect any entertainment here. But if you are looking for a place where there is absolutely no one around and to get some wonderful view of the mountains, this is the place for you! On the way to Thanalaru we stopped briefly at a spot to have tea and another brief stop to take some photos of a very scenic church located in a really beautiful location. It was a good 1 hour drive from the Valparai town to this place. The roads are well laid, but narrow, so need to very careful with the drive.
We reached a place on the way to the peak and spent quite some time taking in the wonderful views of the place. It was midday when we reached there and weather was very hazy, which is not usual for the winter. We were expecting to see cleared skies with some clouds, but certainly not haze. This restricted any photo opportunities that we would have had otherwise. Nevertheless, it was definitely a place worth the visit. We thought of exploring further up towards the peak and did drive as well. but since we were unsure of the terrain and the fact that everyone were famished, we decided to head back to the town. This is definitely another place that need to be visited again!
Back in the town, we had a good lunch, refreshed and in the evening headed over to koozhangal (pebbles) river. Not sure about the reason for this name, though we did not see too many pebbles. It is a small, but beautiful river well within a few minutes from the town. Due to its proximity to the town, one could expect good number of tourists here as well. of course, there were some unruly ones as well, who did not bother to pollute the place with loud music in their cars.
We were given strict instructions not to remain in this place past 5 pm as some elephants are seen coming here late evening to quench their thirst. Well, we are here to the elephants, aren’t we? But the local people were insisting that we do not remain too late so that we don’t get into any trouble with the local authorities. But we did explore the place in whatever time we had and we were able to spot the Indian gaur somewhere inside the tea plantations. We also spotted the elusive Malabar whistling Thrush. Heard the beautiful song of the bird for quite some time and finally spotted it in between the bushes on the ground near the river. Since I did not have a good tele-zoom and the light also was going down, could not record a photo of this beauty!
We returned back to our rooms after having some dinner. We had planned to drive to athirapally falls the next day, which is about 75 km and return to Pollachi in the evening. So the plan was to start a bit early. We vacated the room around 6:30, had an early breakfast and started on our way. Though the distance was not much, the entire route is through the ghats with narrow roads and a couple of check posts in the state border. The Kerala tourism and forest department are quite meticulous in ensuring that no non-permissible items like drinks or any inflammable items go through the forest zone. The ghat road after entering the Kerala border can be termed as the highlight of our trip. Though they were quite narrow, the drive was just amazing!
We stopped in Sholaiyar dam briefly, but were not too impressed by the place. We also stopped a couple of times, once for a break and another time to have a good look at the Malabar Giant Squirrel. We reached the exit post near Vazhachal falls at about 3:30pm, which about 2 km before Athirapally falls. This is a small one compared to Athirapally.
We spent a few minutes there and decided to proceed to Athirapally. We didn’t want to miss out on that after coming this far. It was already about 4:30pm so didn’t want to waste any more time even if Athirapally is just about 5kms away. We had driven only about 4km and there was long trail of vehicles standing. Everyone were waiting to get a parking space for their vehicles. The road being narrow (ghats remember) it was making things difficult. We found an empty space and parked the car there and decided to walk up to the falls entrance from there.
The ticket we bought in Vazhachal was valid here as well. So at least we were able to avoid the long
queue for getting the tickets. It was a short climb from the entrance of the place to falls. If the drive from Valparai to Vazhachal was the best part of the trip, then I should term this as the biggest disappointment of the trip. Athirapally is known as the Niagara of South India. But what we saw was nothing near that. There had been good rains this season and thought the water flow would be good. Especially after seeing incredible water flow in some of the lesser known waterfalls like Tiruparappu due to the rains, my expectations of Athirapally had grown high.

The place was definitely huge and if the river was in its full flow, it would have been a sight to watch for sure, but not sure why there wasn’t enough water, irrespective of the good monsoon that we had. We walked down the cliff to be bottom of the falls where there was a small flow of the water. Spent till 6:00pm which was closure time and then hiked backed up towards our car. We drove to Chalakudi town from there which was about 30km. The road, although narrow, was really well laid and not much of traffic. Keep in mind that this route – Athirappally to Valparai or back is open only from 7:00AM to 5:00PM and closed after that.
We had a quick dinner in Chalakudi and the next stop was Pollachi. So we had an early than usual dinner and decided to hit the road as soon as possible so we can reach Pollachi before it is not too late. We had a brief stop in Vadakancheri to buy the famous vadakancheri chips and proceeded on to Pollachi. The road after Vadakancheri was narrow and through villages making the journey a bit slow. By the time we reached Pollachi it was past 11:00pm. Praveen had some emergency back home in Coimbatore and had to leave immediately. So we dropped him off in the bus stand and went to our hotel which we managed to get booked through a couple of contacts.
For the next day we were wondering whether to go to Tirumurthi dam and explore the area, but we were told that permission is denied due to heavy rains in that area. So as an alternative we thought of driving to Topslip and then into Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. We started the day around 8:00 and took a leisurely drive in the beautiful Pollachi road towards the Anaimalai range. Had breakfast on the way and proceeded on with the journey to Topslip. The customary check at the check post did not take more than a few minutes and we were soon into the ghats. Once again the drive was really enjoyable and the weather was just perfect for a relaxed drive. We drove slowly deliberately to see if we have any luck spotting some wild life. We did spot some monkeys and a few birds but nothing much else.
In about an hour time we reached the checkpost in Parambikulam. Had to wait there for about 20
minutes to get our vehicles checked in and registered. We then proceeded to the Forest Information centre and got ourselves booked for the jungle safari. We had to wait for another 30 minutes for the vehicle that was allotted for us to arrive. I have to mention here that the Eco Tourism that Parambikulam runs is one of most organized ones. The safari was more than an hour. This was the only time in the entire trip that we were able to spot some Indian Gaurs real close. Otherwise the massive beasts were quite elusive. Apart from the Gaurs we were able to see some Spotted Deer, Sambar deer and few peacocks. The tribal village inside the jungle was our stop for lunch. It was quite good considering it was in the middle of a jungle. We stopped briefly in the Parambikulam dam and then proceeded to visit the Karianchola teak. This is the biggest living teak tree in the world. It should have been more than 200ft tall. You have to be there to see the sheer size of the tree.
After a few minutes drop there, we returned back to the information centre. It was already past 3 and we had plans of going over to Coimbatore for the evening. We had already vacated our room in the morning. So we did not rush our travel to Coimbatore. It was only about an hour away from Pollachi. The day ended with a good dinner in Coimbatore. We had plans of visiting Maruthamalai Murugan temple in the morning and start our journey back to Chennai. So we went to the temple as early as we could manage and returned back to the hotel around 9:30AM. I then caught up with my old time friend and mentor in Coimbatore. We had decade long stories to chat, which we did. The 2 hours went like 2 minutes and so did our plans to start back to Chennai. Since it was already noon, we decided to have the lunch in Coimbatore itself and start our jouney.

By the time we hit the highway it was around 2:00 PM. We should have been about an hour away from Chennai at this time, as per our original plan. Nevertheless the journey was a pleasant one and with just a couple of breaks we reached home in good time for a nice dinner and sleep. Yet another place, that goes into the always growing “must see again” list!

There could be a few places that we may have missed and could have missed things like bird watching. But this was just exploration for us. There are quite a few places that may be of interest to the wildlife enthusiasts. Parambikulam for sure is one such place. I hoping to visit again just for photographing some birds and other wildlife.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Yearly Trip to Tirunelveli

A Trip to Tirunelveli

Click here for photos

It was the usual, yearly, family trip to Tirunelveli. Only this time it was that decided it would be more of sight-seeing and less of temple visits. Even though we visit Tirunelveli every year, we had not done much of sight-seeing around this southern town. That changed this year.

The first place we visited was the Padmanabhapuram Palace near Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district. Typical Kerala architecture within TN. It certainly did not have the bells and whistles of a palace that comes to our mind. But it was rich in heritage, architecture and of course the size.

It took a solid 1.5 hours to go through the various sections of the palace. It was already 2:30pm and all of us were famished from walking and walking through the Palace. We had to skip the museum which houses some of the weapons and articles used by the kings. This would have taken another 1 hour.

It has to be noted that the Palace is closed for visitors on Mondays and on other days it is open from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM and then reopens around 3:00 PM. Keep the time in mind if you are planning a visit.

We had a quick lunch in a small eat out near the Palace and then decided to head to Tiruparappu falls which is about 30 km from the Palace. Since we had to go through town and village roads it took us about 1 hour to reach the place. It was around 4:00 PM.

I have heard about the place from my father but have not seen it before. I was already imagining a small falls with lot of people taking bath in it. Since we had good rains this year adding to the fact that it was raining in Tirunelveli till the previous day, the water flow should be good.

But what I saw just took my breath away! It was a small fall and not that popular as some of the other falls near Tirunelveli (Kuttralam, Manimuthaaru etc.). The water was flowing in such a great force that bathing or even going near the falls had been prohibited. This is unheard of in that usually calm falls. There were people posted everywhere to ensure that people do not cross the makeshift barricades.
We spent some time in falls, just taking in the beauty of the falls. Since it was only about 4:30 PM in the evening we had abundance of light. Mix that with the abundance and trees, you will have to be there to enjoy the beauty of nature!

The next agenda was to return to our hotel, but on the way we decided to take a detour to the Perunjani Dam. Permission was restricted to enter and strictly no photography on the dam site. Knowing that we have come from Chennai, the guard just allowed us to take a quick look but informed very clearly not to take any photographs. When I walked up to the dam and reached the top, what I saw there was just stunning. I was quite tempted to click a photograph, but there was a guard always there watching us and hence could not click anything. This was by far one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen!

The capacity of the dam was 77ft and the water was 75ft, lapping slowly on the walls. The other 3 sides was surrounded by the mighty and beautiful western ghats. Most of the part was in shadows, since it was already around 5:30 PM. The sun’s light was hitting the hills on the far side of the hills, exactly opposite where I was standing and the colours reminded me of the fall colours I have seen in US. Another beauty that cannot be described in words.
The second day we decided to get into Kerala through Tenkasi, as this is a very beautiful route. We headed straight to Thenmala through Tenkasi and Shenkotta. I was quite aware of the beauty of Tenkasi, as we have been through those places quite a lot during my childhood days. Even though we had decided to take that route, we did not have any particular agenda or place in mind to visit. So we thought we will just explore the place. We headed straight to Thenmala dam and took tickets for all of us to get into the dam site. Yes, even for entering the dam site, you need to take tickets. Once again, photography is strictly prohibited here as well. I guess as a rule it is prohibited in almost all the dams in TN and Kerala. It was almost noon when we reached the place and it was quite hot.

The walk up to the dam was not so difficult, but it was a good walk. Typical of Kerala, everything was a tourism opportunity for them. Even the dam site had been one. Another breathtaking view from the dam with the western ghats surrounding the dam. But certainly not as spectacular as the view I saw the previous day.
But what Kerala tourism has done is convert this site to a good walk way. You can walk through the dam and cross it over to the other side and continue the walk along the meadows and come back out of another gate, which is about 100 mts from the place you entered. This is a very good walk irrespective of the time of the day. Once you cross the dam and get into the meadow you will forget all the heat outside.
When we enquired with a guard whether photography is allowed in the meadows away from the dam itself, he mentioned that it is not allowed, but Kerala tourism provides a day-long eco-tourism package. This will take us through Deer Park, Butterfly Park, a hanging bridge and a few other adventure activities. I am not quite sure what those activities are, but I understand photography is allowed in those packages. The rates are also quite nominal. The activities start at 9:00 AM and ends by 7:30PM. Unfortunately we did not know about this before so were not able to make use of it. Another place added to the ever-growing must visit places!
It was already past 2:00 PM and all were famished after the long walk. So we decided to have lunch. Now there are not much options here. You need to make do with the small eat-outs that serve some rotis or Kerala type meal. So if you are sensitive about food, it is better to pack something. We had a light lunch in one such eat-out and then proceeded to Palaruvi falls near Aariyakaavu. The walk up to the river was only about 150 mts from the parking space. Though we were able to hear the falls from quite some distance, we had to walk up to it to see the full height of the falls. I am not sure if the falls was in its full flow, but at least we were able to see quite some people taking bath at the bottom of the falls. Since we did not have any specific agenda and saw about the falls only when we were driving past, we did not have clothes to take bath. So decided to just spend some time there.
This falls reminded me of the falls in Kolli hills. It was a sheer drop of about 100ft and standing under such a fall should have given rejuvenating. The stream that had formed by the falls was flowing through the rocks and if one is not so interested in standing under the big falls , then the stream can provide a good alternative for relaxed bathing. The water neither had too much current and nor was too deep. There were rocks at quite some places, which can help in a relaxed bath in a pool.

After spending time to our heart's content here, we decided to head back to our hotel and call it a day. It was a good 2 hour drive to reach the hotel and all we had in mind was dinner and sleep!

The next day we spent time visiting one of my dad's childhood friends, whom he was thinking of visiting for a very long time. The rest of the trip was spent in visiting temples. Of course, our ancestral temple at Rengasamudram was on the top of the list. You can read about this in my blog about this temple.

Overall this time it was a good mix of temple and sightseeing, which I was thinking of making for a very long time. There are still lot of unexplored place around this beautiful southern city. I hope to make those trips as well, in the coming days!