Saturday 12 October 2019

India 2019

4th September 2019

For our final big family holiday before Duncan left home to go to university, we decided to visit India as a family. Tom thought he'd pop along too! We flew from Heathrow the previous night with Oman Air and landed at Muscat in the morning, with a fairly short turn around during which I only managed to note House Sparrow, Common Myna and Laughing Dove through the windows around the departure lounge. A second flight then took us to Chennai on the east coast of southern India, arriving about 1430. We had asked our first hotel to send a taxi for us, but it didn't see to have showed up; not that we could see anyway. So we selected a taxi from the scrum outside the airport, selecting (or being selected by) a chap called G.R. Kannan, and set out on the adventure that is Indian driving. This is something that really needs to be experienced to be understood fully, but imagine a sort of crazy video game with large numbers of small vehicles of all sizes, very little lane discipline, lots of pedestrians and dogs, and then throw in random encounters with cows in all sorts of unexpected situations, and you start to get the idea.

Anyway, I kept an eye out for birds during the journey and noted a number of species I'd seen on my previous Indian adventure (to Delhi and the Himalayan foothills way back in 2003): House Crows were hyper-abundant, along with smaller numbers of Common Mynas, Ring-necked Parakeets, Black Kites, Black Drongos, Little Cormorants and White-throated Kingfishers. I did manage to find two new species however. The first was a somewhat disappointing view of a distant Spot-billed Pelican, at the back of a fairly fetid looking lake, but it was also pleasing to pick up several Asian Palm Swifts, distinctive in shape (and often close to palms).

We left the city and travelled down the coast to the small town of Mahabalipuram where we'd planned to acclimatise for a few days. Kannan was a most talkative chaffeur, and also very keen on showing us photos of his friends and family on his phone (generally whilst overtaking or undertaking other traffic). His main topic of conversation was how we should definitely get in touch with him in a couple of days for the return leg to Chennai, to which we were politely non-commital. Eventually, he dropped us off at the Hotel Shiva, and gave us his card. And a very good thing he did. Within a few minutes of him leaving, I realised I must have dropped my phone on the floor on his cab. Nightmare! We called him, and Tom contacted him via Whatsapp. No reply, but after a nerve-wracking wait he reappeared with my phone - what a hero. I gave him a hefty tip. In the event, we didn't call him for the return leg as we were receiving a continual hard sell from the hotel staff for their taxi guy. However, Kannan got his own back by sending Tom Whatsapp messages at a rate of several a day for the whole holiday, and even after we'd returned. Tom has finally blocked him.

We then tried to chill a little from the stress of the journey so far, putting the aircon up and generally catching our breath. The hotel was basic but looked adequate. After a while, we went out to brave the streets, finding the beach nearby which was heaving with dogs, cows, fishermen and unaccountably large numbers of dead puffer fish. I don't know how whether these had washed up, or were unwanted bycatch; nor whether they'd have been nasty if we'd accidentally stood on them. Anyway, after wandering for a while, we selected Le Yogi restaurant for our evening meal, which provided basic but excellent fare; the first of an inordinate number of curries we would have over the coming two weeks.

Attractive gecko in Le Yogi restaurant

5th September 2019

Didn't sleep great, what with jet-lag and a very noisy air-con unit. Additionally, we woke to find we'd been visited by bed-bugs in the night, which was lovely. Anyway, I got up as it got light and went for a short wander to the area of scrub that surrounds the sandstone boulders and monuments that the town is well known for. I didn't have a lot of time first thing, but I did find myself several Rufous Treepies, a Black-shouldered Kite and had good views of a female Koel. There were also some large black and red butterflies that appear to be the Crimson Rose; throughout the trip there were lots of very large butterflies but almost without exception these never stay still long enough to get a decent detailed view, let alone a photo.

I wandered back and we had breakfast at the cafe over the road from our digs. We then spent the morning wandering around the town and the stone monuments, as well as making our way to the lagoon just inland of the town. New birds for the trip included Green Bee-eater, White-browed Wagtail, Shikra, Scaly-breasted Munia, Indian Pond Heron, Painted Stork, Spotted Dove and Jungle Crow. Pleasingly (after yesterday's poor view) we also had a flock of four Spot-billed Pelicans cruise close overhead. In addition, we had our first monkey-action of the trip, with several Bonnet Macaques around the rocky area.

The heat was pretty wearing and we had a lunch break at a restaurant which seemed to have an interesting menu. In the event though, despite us all choosing different things, it transpired that we could have vegetable fried rice, or mushroom fried rice. Never mind, good break, and we had our first views of Palm Squirrels running around the place. After lunch we found the beach again and walked south away from the crowds for a mile or so. A good close Red-necked Falcon was sat on some driftwood but I noticed it too late for a photo before it shot off. Gull-billed Terns were the only seabird I could see, but I was pleased to find my first ever Yellow-wattled Lapwings in the low dunes, along with Red-wattled Lapwing, Pied Kingfisher and Hoopoe. A further new bird awaited me back at the hotel in the shape of a pair of Purple-rumped Sunbirds.

We had some fun trying for food in the evening, with the first claiming it couldn't cook any of the vegetarian meals on its menu, and the second eventually offering us only pizza and none of the rest of the enticing menu. Our third attempt was successful though.

Black Drongo - several seen along the coastal strip around Mahabalipuram

Bonnet Macaques were seen both along the coast and inland, often begging for food by roadsides

Palm Squirrel at Mahabalipuram; small squirrels were common everywhere - might have involved different species in the hills also

Indian House Crows were exceedingly abundant along the coast at Mahabalipuram and Chennai; a bit less so in other towns and scarce in the countryside

"Krishna's Butterball" - a huge granite boulder resting improbably on a sloping rock shelf at Mahabalipuram. Has its own Wikipedia page

Colourful millipede in Mahabalipuram.

Spot-billed Pelicans over Mahabalipuram; my 7th of the world 8 pelican species

Yellow-wattled Lapwings at Mahabalipuram

6th September 2019

After another not-great night, I didn't try to get up early today. After breakfast, we walked south along the main road to see where we got to. Didn't really get that far before the heat started beating us and we looped back to the lagoon and the stone monuments area over a couple of hours. Amongst much of the same birdwise, I did manage to pick out Black-headed Ibis, Ashy Prinia, Wood Sandpiper, Striated Heron, Intermediate Egret and Common Tailorbird. Quite a quiet morning though, most notably for seeing so many people hard at work carving stone into fantastically intricate creations.

For lunch we allowed ourselves to be talked into visiting one of the beach cafes with an upper floor. This was a good move, as we had views of several close-in dolphins. I believe most (or all) of these were Indochinese Humpback Dolphins, a species I knew nothing about previously. The Gull-billed Terns were also joined by Caspian and Common Terns, plus one Crested/Lesser Crested Tern. More curry ensued, of course, and then we walked a few miles north up the beach in sweltering heat. Tough going, but in the vegetation behind the beach I managed to find a male Loten's Sunbird, then a small flock of Ashy Woodswallows, and finally a couple of Yellow-billed Babblers. We'd had enough of the heat now though so made our way to the road and hailed a tuk-tuk (or auto-rickshaw, a mini taxi that is almost entirely unsuitable for transporting four adult passengers). This got us back to the hotel without us perishing, where we packed up, had a drink and were then bundled into the hotel taxi for the trip back to Chennai.

The journey was mostly uneventful (saw my only Indian Roller of the trip by the roadside) but traffic built up as we got deeper into the city, and the last 30 mins was a crawl through a traffic jam to the central station. We'd arrived here quite early, not wanting to risk missing our train. It was very hot and humid, as well as being noisy and overcrowded. The toilets were pretty grim too. We did brave some takeaway food from a kiosk though, getting some sort of dosa which is accompanied by a very liquid side of sambar (entirely suitable for eating standing up in our opinions!) Finally, our train was announced on the board and we spent a nerve-wracking 15 minutes wandering up and down the platform trying to find our carriage. Big relief when we found it and the guard had our name on his list. We had a cabin for the four of us with the luxury of a locking door. We settled down to sleep overnight for the long train ride inland.

Cows are an ever-present and (to western eyes) often inexplicable sight throughout India. There were several nosing around on the beach at Mahabalipuram
This might be the Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor), by a track in Mahabalipuram

Green Bee-eaters were fairly common and widespread, the brown caps making them strikingly different to the same species seen in Israel and Africa.

Food was a BIG part of this holiday, although by the end we were flagging. However, on day 3 the boys were still well up for the challenge

Indo-chinese Humpback Dolphins (I believe) were swimming close inshore off Mahabalipuram, this photographed from the restaurant where we had lunch

Chennai central railway station was a mass of people and a pretty difficult place to wait on a hot and humid evening

Our sleeping compartment on the train from Chennai to Mettupalayam was a relief, when we eventually found it

7th September 2019

After a reasonable night's sleep on the train, and following some confusion about where we could get off, we eventually got off at the small town of Mettupalayam at the southern edge of the Nilgiri Hills. We'd expected to get here a bit later, and then get the touristy scenic steam train up the hill to Coonoor. We knew there were four trains per day, so when we unexpectedly arrived at about 0700 and saw the blue steam train ready to depart almost immediately, we didn't run for it but instead thought we'd take it easy and get a later one. We had some breakfast at the station and caught our breath, watching the train depart. It was then that we realised there weren't four trains per day, but just the one, and we'd just missed it. Annoyed, we walked into the town via some fairly run-down back-streets. I was pleased to come across my first Greater Coucal and Red-vented Bulbuls of the trip, but the others were less pleased. Eventually, we came across a taxi and got him to take us up the mountain road. Whilst not something we'd planned, this was a bit of an odd highlight of the holiday as his driving was probably the worst we experienced, memorably involving undertaking lorries on blind switchbacks, as well as much dodging of cars, cows and monkeys and, of course, continual use of the horn. We were a bit frazzled when he dropped us by a cafe near Coonoor station and we had to calm down with a drink and a snack.

After this, we walked a couple of miles out from the manic town environment to the much quieter countryside just to the south, most of which consists of tea plantations. Our accommodation here was a place called Acres Wild that a friend of Mike's had recommended. It was a very pleasant spot, with good views and enough vegetation to ensure a steady stream of birds to watch. There was apparently a Leopard that visited at night, which we didn't see (although the boys reckon they heard). It would have been quite idyllic except that across the valley was a small settlement that insisted on blasting out incredibly loud music from first light, which somewhat spoiled things. Still, worth considering if you're in the area.

Arriving here away from the noise and heat of the coast was very pleasant and there were lots of news birds of course; the Nilgiris (and the wider Western Ghats) is a hot-spot of endemism and there are still pockets of nice habitat here and there. Around our rooms I quickly notched up several new species - Nilgiri Flycatcher, Blue-winged Parakeet, Jungle Myna, Square-tailed Bulbul, White-cheeked Barbet, Orange Minivet, White-rumped Spinetail and the splendid little Vernal Hanging Parrot. Other things I'd seen in north India before included Red-whiskered Bulbuls (abundant), Crested Goshawk, Crested Serpent Eagle, Pied Bushchat, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Jungle Babbler, Common Iora and Long-tailed Shrike. All very exciting and much more fun than Mahabalipuram.

They made us some lunch here, then we followed some vague directions on a walk down the hill, where we promptly got lost (or the path didn't exist - they're not big on walking trails here) so we ended up cutting through a tea plantation. This seemed to amuse the plantation workers rather than annoying them. We did have a short interlude chatting to some local kids who became increasingly annoying and eventually, when we'd changed direction to shake them off, they started chucking stones at us. But no big problems. A few more birds on this stretch included the rather plain looking Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Hill Swallow, Rufous Babbler and Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, as well as Oriental Magpie-robins and Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. The others had a brief view of what were almost certainly Painted Bush Quails too, which I missed. We made it down to the road and found a tea-stand. Whilst having a rest here, we noticed a strange shape in a tree, which proved to be our first Malabar Giant Squirrel, something I hadn't really clocked the existence of previously (they proved to be quite common).

Then back up the hill, dinner and bed.

Long-tailed Shrikes were common in the hills and the inland jungles. This was on a washing line at Acres Wild

A female Orange Minivet, now split as a separate species from the Scarlet Minivets I saw in north India previously.

White-cheeked Barbets were common, and more obviously so once I'd worked out their loud calls.

Malabar Giant Squirrel, a large and very striking arboreal mammal seen widely from Coonoor to Bandipur.

Two small Vernal Hanging Parrots in a tree (look closely). These were common inland but mostly picked up on call flying rapidly overhead.

8th September 2019

I got up early (helped by the noise of the music over the valley) and had a wander around the Acres Wild grounds. Nice to see lots of birds, most of them the same as the previous day but with the addition of my first Grey Junglefowl, several Indian Swiftlets, a fly-over Nilgiri Woodpigeon and a tricky Jerdon's Leafbird. After breakfast, we set off on a full day of walking around Coonoor, largely skirting the main town in an anti-clockwise direction. We initially walked through tea plantations and briefly came across our first Gaur - a huge wild species of cow that we then unaccountably managed to lose sight of. We did get distracted though by a superb close-flying Indian Black Eagle in the same area. Nothing else of special note in the morning, but some more nice Vernal Hanging Parrots and plenty more Bonnet Macaques.

We made our way around through relatively quiet (and presumably quite affluent) suburbs to the entrance to Sim's Park. After having lunch just outside, we paid to go inside. This was mostly quite formal gardens and for a while I found few birds of any real interest. Eventually though, we did come across some quality. An obliging female Indian Blackbird gave good views, along with several Cinereous Tits, and then several White-throated Fantails. Whilst watching one of these in a heavily-vegetated gully, Trudy drew my attention to a stunning male Black-and-orange Flycatcher, which skulked low in the bushes. We told several Indian birders in the park about this and caused a minor twitch. Also in this gully was Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, and a brief sunbird which I didn't see well but took a quick snap of; it proved to be a male Crimson-backed Sunbird. A little later, Trudy saw a brief view of a mammal which sounded likely to be a civet but we couldn't refind it. During a brief downpour however a Crested Goshawk flew in and perched just above our heads. Finally, just before we left, an Emerald Dove flew past rapidly and off out of sight.

After leaving the park we continued to circle around the town centre, coming across some nice Dusky Crag Martins. However, our route took us closer to the centre of town and it became somewhat tougher going, with more people, traffic, dogs and even the odd Wild Boar rooting around. After a while, we hit our limits and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us back across town to a restaurant we'd seen earlier (the Hyderabad Biriani house). Nice to chill out here, and I discovered the dish Gobi Manchurian which was quite excellent. Then a bit of a walk back through a crowded night market, back out to the peace and quiet at Acres Wild.

Red-whiskered Bulbuls were generally the most abundant "garden" birds close to habitation...
...whilst Red-vented Bulbuls were more common in more natural habitats
Wild bee hives were commonly seen in the trees, and I guess these long-abdomened bees were responsible. This looks to be the Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata)

I found several leafbirds and found the identification tricky. I think this is a male Jerdon's Leafbird on the basis of more restricted black on the throat.

Walking in the tea plantations around Coonoor

Attempts at monkey-selfies met with variable success...

...Tom's best effort, with Bonnet Macaque in Sim's Park

Indian Blackbird at Sim's Park. I guess this must be a female as the males we glimpsed were blacker, but the bare parts are quite bright.

Black-and-orange Flycatcher, a superb find by Trudy at Sim's Park that started a mini-twitch of Indian birders who were present

Crested Goshawk; this one landed above our heads at Sims Park during a short downpour

Wild Boar or feral pig? Seems to be quite a grey area between the two. Several seen rooting around rubbish in Coonoor

9th September 2019

Sadly, something Trudy had eaten hadn't quite agreed with her and she was not well in the night. I did a bit of birding around the rooms in the morning, and didn't find much; Plain Prinia was the only new one for the trip, although there was a unusually confiding group of Blue-winged Parakeets that posed for a while. The boys and I had breakfast, but Trudy really wasn't up to walking to the station, so we arranged for a car to drive us up there. After a short wait, we got the second leg of the train we'd missed previously, which continues up the hill from Coonoor to Ooty. It's apparently very well-known in India, having featured in several popular Bollywood films, and there were lots of people taking photos as it went past. The view and the breeze helped revive Trudy somewhat and it was a pleasant journey. We saw a few more Gaur briefly, plus a couple of Indian Muntjac, but not much else.

Eventually we arrived at Ooty station. It was a couple of miles from our hotel, and Trudy insisted she felt better now and could walk so we set off. We skirted the lake (where there were a few Spot-billed Ducks and Indian Cormorant as well as lots of Coots) and then she started to feel very weak. Of course by this stage, there were no taxis or tuk-tuks to hail so we had to keep going. Eventually, we sent the boys on ahead to get to the hotel and ideally find some transport. After what seemed an age of trudging on, Tom finally came back round the corner in a tuk-tuk and we were saved.

We checked in at the hotel Mayura Sudarshan. Fairly non-descript hotel, nothing special but seemed clean enough. Trudy decided to sleep for the afternoon and the boys and I grabbed a ride back to town to get dinner at a popular Indian chain restaurant A2B. We ended up getting far too much food, but it was good fun. We then walked all the way back to our hotel, through the market and along many busy streets. Quite a trek but a good experience. We made it back and decided we didn't need a separate evening meal afterwards.

The view from Acres Wild at Coonoor

Blue-winged (aka Malabar) Parakeet at Acres Wild; most were less obliging than this one that posed for a few seconds

10th September 2019

I got up early and grabbed a passing tuk-tuk to go around to the remnant forest patch at Cairn Hill, not all that far away. On arrival at first light, several intimidating water buffalo were peering out of the bushes but I skirted around them (and the closed gate) and wandered up the track. The woods were very quiet but before too long I did find a very obliging Nilgiri Laughingthrush, one of the local specialities with a tiny world range. It was too dark to photograph sadly. Other than this, birds were exceedingly few and far between; over the next 90 mins or so all I managed to pick out were Grey Wagtail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Grey Junglefowl, White-cheeked Barbet and Jungle Crow. Otherwise, there was loud primate hooting coming from the trees which I tracked down to a troop of Nilgiri Langurs (a range-restricted monkey), whilst another Malabar Giant Squirrel was very obliging. After a while, a park warden spotted me and told me (very politely) the park wasn't open yet and I had to leave, so I wandered back to the gate. I had another search of the slope by the gate for Nilgiri Thrush but without success, finding nothing except a chap squatting in the woods, having a crap and reading his mobile phone. So I headed back to the hotel along country lanes; took me about an hour and was pleasant enough but I found few birds of note - Purple Sunbird, Cinereous Tit and other common open-country species.

Trudy was feeling somewhat better fortunately. We had a somewhat confusing breakfast at the hotel, discovering the culinary marvel of the 'bread-omelette' (an omelette with a piece of bread stuck in the middle of it).We then tukked into town, then found a taxi to take us to Doddabetta Peak, the highest mountain in the Nilgiris. Annoyingly, it transpired that the road up the mountain was closed for repairs and they wouldn't let us through, not even to hike a way up the track. There's no arguing with Indian bureaucracy, so we had to form a plan B. We looked on the map and found there was a 'tea garden' another mile down the road, so we visited that instead. It was pretty unexciting - some formal gardens on the side of a hill and a shack to buy packaged teas. Not many birds either - Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Nilgiri Flycatcher, plus more giant squirrels, were the highlight. After this, we headed back towards town, visiting a 'tea museum' which was a little more interesting, and we did some tea tasting.

We then headed back to the hotel and met up with Mike Prince, who'd travelled down from his home in Bangalore to spend a few days with us. This gave us a great opportunity to ask Mike no end of questions about India, much of which was still somewhat baffling. We had some lunch in the hotel grounds, and had our first Brahminy Kites of the trip overhead, followed by a fine pair of Bonelli's Eagles.

After this, Mike drove us off a little way to the southwest to a patch of forest he'd learned about from another birder, just west of Puduhatty Temple. This was a good spot in that it gave us the chance to have a decent walk along a trail in nice habitat (we do miss just being able to have a decent walk in many places). We notched up a fair few species here in the last couple of hours of the day, helped by Mike's much greater familiarity with calls; several Greenish Warblers were heard for example which I'd been overlooking. A brief Indian Black-lored Tit was new for me, and we also had a quick view of another male Black-and-orange Flycatcher, along with Crimson-backed Sunbird, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Indian Blackbird, Grey-breasted Prinia and several Grey Junglefowl. The highlight however was two separate Nilgiri Sholakili (aka Nilgiri Blue Robin) which were exceedingly skulking but did allow good views at times. This is another very range-restricted species, only occurring within a few 10s of miles of here in this group of hills. The second one was picked up alarm calling at something; Mike recorded this (recording now on xeno-canto) and then played it back, to which it responded strongly. Mammals in the patch of woodland included a couple of brief Sambur, Indian Muntjac and Jungle Striped Squirrel.

After dark, Mike drove us to the famous Taj Savoy hotel where they let us in, despite being somewhat under-dressed (standards have clearly slipped). The food was quite excellent here, and still very reasonably priced from a UK perspective. We then returned to the hotel.

A troop of Nilgiri Langurs in the early morning gloom at Cairn Hill, Ooty.

Malabar Giant Squirrels - irresistible photographic subjects

Cinereous Tits were common in the hills; basically a monochrome Great Tit

Making tea, explained in great detail at the Ooty tea museum.

11th September 2019

Mike and I got up at first light and drove back to the Doddabetta area, following the road east from the junction with the (still closed) summit road. We stopped at what looked like a good vantage point over some more open ground amongst the tea plantations and almost immediately could hear a Painted Bush Quail, seemingly quite close by. It remained elusive, but it (and then others) were heard regularly. Eventually, Mike actually glimpsed a pair of them fly across the road here, whilst I was looking the other way. No such luck for me. However, we did find one of the other key target species here, with a couple of Nilgiri Pipits around some buildings and then feeding on the ground in front of us. Something of a birder's bird though, admittedly. Apart from these, other nice species here were Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Grey Junglefowl, Black-winged Kite and a brief flyover Nilgiri Woodpigeon, as well as six Gaur in the tea. Mike also pointed out the call of Indian Scimitar-babbler, which I'd been hearing for a few days without realising what it was (quite Hoopoe like).

We headed on a bit further and stopped again, this time with five more Gaur giving very close views, again in tea but slightly behind a fence. Another Painted Bush Quail heard here, plus Nilgiri Laughingthrush and Nilgiri Flycatcher amongst other species. A third stop a little way back produced three fine Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and yet another Painted Bush Quail heard. We finally tried a fourth spot which led into a nice little patch of forest; in here we found Square-tailed Bulbul, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and the first Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike of the trip. We were commented on how the nice wide path might have been elephant created when a very large Gaur stuck its head out between the bushes, so we beat a hasty retreat back to the car, then returned to the hotel for breakfast with the others.

After this, we packed up and Mike drove us back along the road to the southwest as per the previous evening, with a Crested Goshawk perched in a roadside tree on the way. We wanted to see if we could get into the nice forest habitat near Avalanche Lake, but the road was barred and Mike failed to talk the guard round. So instead, we parked up and walked along a track to a "tribal village" (Toda?) We did get to the edge of some promising looking forest here but couldn't get into it in any easy way. Wildlife sightings here included Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Black-winged Kite, Painted Bush Quail (heard AGAIN), Greater Coucal, a brief Black-and-orange Flycatcher and several Nilgiri Langurs. We also met some very friendly local children, including one girl who spoke English very well and also persuaded us to buy a bag from her! I heard my first Peafowl of the trip too.

From here, we set off back to Ooty, stopped briefly to buy chocolate, and then at a roadside cafe for some lunch. We then needed to descend the steep hill down the northern side of the Ghats to the jungle below. As Mike had suspected, the police had shut the downslope road; they appear to do this from time to time as a safety measure, given the abysmal lack of self-preservation instincts of most local drivers. The recommended diversion was a very long way round (via Gudalur) but Mike knew a sneaky short-cut. Sadly, so did the police, and they were blocking that too. We resigned ourselves to a long drive, but Mike popped out, went and spoke to the police, and amazingly talked them into letting us through. They could obviously see he was a man to be trusted re driving skills.

We reached the top of the slope where a vista of the lower ground started to open up in front of us. Such a viewpoint had inevitably attracted other people too, and equally inevitably they wanted to have their photos taken with us. This was a regular and fairly incomprehensible feature of the trip, but we'd largely got used to it by now. They particularly liked the hats that Tom and Duncan habitually wear on holiday, but they also took quite a shine to Mike's car too. We eventually had to drag ourselves away from them and on to another, quieter spot. Here we could hear more Indian Scimitar-babbler (failed to tape-lure them) and Painted Bush Quail (ditto), as well as Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Indian Blackbird, White-spotted Fantail and Grey Junglefowl. We then descended the hill somewhat to the village of Kallatty, below a large rocky cliff. This village is well-known for Painted Bush Quails that walk up the hill through the village each late afternoon, but we were a little early for this and failed again, so PBQ has to remain a "heard-only" (but heard a lot of them!) Also here were good views of Dusky Crag Martins, plus Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Indian Swiftlet, Ashy Prinia and Hoopoe.

We then rejoined the main road (the one blocked from the top) and undertook the main descent, famed for its 36 switchbacks. Mike handled these admirably of course, and we descended into denser forest. As the road levelled out, we came across our first herds of Spotted Deer by the roadside, which proved to be very common for the next few days. Other roadside mammals were Wild Boar and our first Grey Langurs (I'm not 100% sure exactly which species of Grey Langur these were, as they've been split into several species). Peafowl started becoming more regular now also, and we saw several troops of Yellow-billed Babblers and the first Bay-backed Shrikes of the trip. A new bird for me was a small flock of Yellow-eyed Babblers.

Finally we made it to Jungle Hut, which was to be our base for a few days. This is a nice spot (Mike had stayed before, and indeed my parents had been here on a tour a few years before), and the food is first rate. The initial welcome was very friendly although a little bit of the shine was taken off by being told of everywhere we couldn't walk on our own (basically anyway). The rationale for this is that it is possible anywhere around here to encounter Elephants, Gaur, Leopard, Tiger or Sloth Bear, none of which they really want guests wandering into. We felt they were laying it on a little thick really, given that there was a village just outside with locals happily wandering about, and part of this seemed to be more about making sure you'd pay them to lead you on a walk. Then again, the large animals clearly are potentially present (in fact we came across elephant dung nearby) and as Mike pointed out, the majority of their guests will be Indian middle-class urbanites who are generally extremely naive to wild terrain and fauna. Anyway, we nodded and promised we wouldn't wander off and get trampled or eaten. We then had a brief look rounds the grounds before dark, ticking Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, as well as seeing the first Red-rumped Swallows and Spotted Owlets of the trip, a troop of c20 Wild Boar (mostly young) and enjoying the many Spotted Deer and Grey Langur that inhabit the grounds. Then a beer, a splendid meal, and bed.

Nilgiri Pipit, a very range-restricted species, seen near Doddabetta. Oddly bull-necked for a pipit.

Gaur, the world's largest species of wild cows. Several seen in tea plantations, these up near Doddabetta. Accompanied here by Jungle Myna.

Another Nilgiri Langur

Greater Coucal, a large cuckoo, quite common but skulking

Lots (and lots) of Indians seemed to want to have selfies taken with us, for no readily explicable reason. These guys though just wanted to pose with Tom's hat and Mike's car.

12th September 2019

Mike and I got up first thing for a spot of pre-breakfast birding, driving along the roads in the vicinity. We first pulled over about half way back to the main road, where we jammed into not only my first splendid Collared Dove of the trip, but (somewhat more excitingly) a fine pair of White-bellied Minivets. This is one of the specialities of the area, sometimes being a pretty hard species to find apparently. We jumped out to watch these, and in the next few minutes had a load of other great species, five more of which were new to me: Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Jungle Prinia, Indian Nuthatch, a flock of Southern Hill Mynas (sadly only in flight a little distantly) and a Grey-bellied Cuckoo. This last species was picked up on call by Mike - it responded to a brief blast of its call and came and perched close-by for a short while before moving off again. Also at this spot were several Chestnut-throated Petronias, Plum-headed Parakeets, Black-rumped Flameback, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Bay-backed Shrike, Small Minivet and another calling Indian Scimitar-babbler.

However, our fun was somewhat curtailed here as a forest department jeep drew up and three uniformed guys got out. We were probably about 20 feet from the car at this point (although on the road) and they weren't happy about this; you're not supposed to get out, or even stop really, and photography also seems to be against the rules. They asked who we were, and then tried to confiscate Mike's camera. Mike refused, remonstrated with them, and got them to phone their boss. Mike then spoke to him on the phone, buttering him up and being apologetic, assuring him we would go on our way, which the boss agreed to. However, his underling wasn't having any of this, and insisted that we would have to get in the van and go with them to the station. Seeing a long annoying morning of bureaucracy stretching ahead, Mike got very assertive with him and told him we would not do so. In the confusion, we sidled back to our car, got in and drove off, leaving the guy fuming (we'd shown him up in front of his two juniors which presumably he was far from happy about). They followed us in their jeep for a bit, but at the junction they fortunately went the opposite way to us. Very pleased to have Mike here with his knowledge and experience of how to deal with local officials!

We drove south along the main road for a bit, stopping a few times but now not getting out! We came across another White-bellied Minivet, a flock of 10 Vernal Hanging Parrots, Grey-breasted Prinia, Indian Robin and Yellow-eyed Babbler, plus three more ticks for me. A frequent call we were hearing was tracked down to be coming from Black-headed Cuckooshrike; a classic call of the Indian countryside was the repetitive 'brainfever bird' call of the Common Hawk-cuckoo; and we also glimpsed a single White-browed Bulbul. We got out for a wander round some scrubby ground at Mavanella to look for larks but found little except Yellow-wattled Lapwings before the heavens opened and we got soaked just running back to the car. We then drove back to the village of Masinagudi and took the Moyar road which runs eastwards from here. This was quite productive too, with another two new species - a couple of Grey-fronted Green Pigeons, and a splendid pair of Jungle Bush Quail crossing the road. Also along here was a small flock of Indian Silverbills, Streak-throated Woodpecker, a Hill Swallow (unusual at this lower altitude?) and plenty more of the species seen earlier in the morning too.

We then returned to Jungle Hut for a splendid breakfast - omelettes, coffee and a wide range of Indian dishes. The new birds didn't let up either, with four more around the grounds: Bronzed Drongo, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Greater Flameback. After this, we all headed out again in Mike's car, this time taking the westerly road out of Masinagudi towards Singara. Bird activity seemed to have dropped noticeably since first thing and we did less well along here, with no sign of any of the hornbills that were supposed to be around here, and the only new species for me being White-browed Fantail although the boys glimpsed what must have been a malkoha from the sounds of it. Trudy also caught a quick glimpse of a mongoose. As a reminder of why we shouldn't be getting out of the car too much we found one area with fairly fresh elephant dung, but no sign of the big boys themselves. The road was blocked at the end by an officious chap so we retraced our route, and then did the Moyar Road again which was now very quiet, with the exception of an excellent find of a Barred Buttonquail crossing the tarmac.

We didn't take up the lunch today at Jungle Hut - fairly stuffed after breakfast still - but the boys jumped out to buy some snacks in Masinagudi. We then drove about an hour north through the Mudumulai and Bandipur national parks, seeing lots of Spotted Deer but little else in the way of birds except for one Black-winged Kite. We had booked (through Jungle Hut) onto a jeep safari which was departing from Bandipur Safari Campus, a few miles north of the park itself. Whilst waiting for our arranged jeep there were a few birds around, including a pair of Bonelli's Eagles, Brahminy and Black-winged Kites and Indian Swiftlets.

Then off on our safari. It was an open-sided high-seated jeep seating just the five of us (plus driver in the front). We drove back into the park along the main road, then after a while headed off around rough tracks in the forest. Lots of birds that we'd already seen, including Grey Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Hoopoe, three parakeet species, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Dusky Crag Martin, Tailorbird and Chestnut-throated Petronia. In addition, we added Crested Treeswift and Bronze-winged Jacana to my trip list. A single White-rumped Vulture was a new species for me; we'd missed this once-abundant species in the north in 2003 and numbers remain critically low following its decimation by the veterinary drug Diclofenac.

However, safaris are really about the mammals. There were lots of Spotted Deer of course, and we came across a few Wild Boar, Grey Langur and Bonnet Macaques. But this was a jungle with much more exciting residents to find. It took us a nerve-wracking hour or so before eventually a large grey shape came into view ahead of us - our first wild Asian Elephant. This was a male which was pretty obliging. Our driver was somewhat irritating in revving his engine just to get it to turn around for photos (we were happy to be patient). It was very close to the track so eventually when we wanted to pass it, he took a run up and belted past at high speed, before stopping for another view. Anyway, it was great to finally see one. A little further on we encountered a group of at least a dozen females with a few young ones. This lot weren't going to shift from the track, however much he revved, and eventually we had to do a long reverse before we could turn round and try some other tracks.

So far, so good. Never to be satisfied though, there's always the hope of a large carnivore. Bandipur is home to Tigers, Leopards, Sloth Bears and Wild Dogs and so we had our eyes peeled for these. Our time was ticking away, when our driver received a call and headed off decisively in pursuit of something, without saying what. We picked up on this and excitement mounted. On route, we had to slow down briefly for more elephants, and we caused him some mild irritation in insisting we stopped briefly to look at a Jerdon's Bush Lark crossing the road (tick!), but eventually he got us to an area where other jeeps were congregating. The word went round that there was a Leopard visible, and after a bit of jeep-repositioning, eventually the waiting was over and there it was, sprawled out in a tree. I'd been looking for Leopards in trees for the last few hours (and also, unsuccessfully, for much of our time in South Africa back in 2013), and it looked just as my mental image had expected. Great to finally nail it; my fourth world wild cat. It did move around in the tree a little, but photography was a little tricky given distance and failing light. Before too long, our driver felt our time was up and we were whisked back to the safari campus. Mike drove us back through the forest and Duncan spotted us another elephant in the dark by the side of the road on the way. Then a beer, a slap-up meal and bed.

Plum-headed Parakeets, very attractive birds indeed. These were near Jungle Hut.

White-bellied Minivet, a rare species seen well in the scrub near Jungle Hut

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, a confiding male at Jungle Hut

Our first Asian Elephant was this tusker

This group of females and young wouldn't move from the track, and we eventually had to reverse and go a different way

Trudy taking ele-shots

Have long wanted to see a Leopard so this was a real thrill at the end of our first Bandipur safari

It was getting dusky so I thought a silhouette shot summed up the sighting well

13th September 2019

We all got up at first light for a guided walk on foot from Jungle Hut, led by their guide Rajesh, who was reasonably knowledgeable on the local birds, if not perhaps absolutely first rate (by this stage of a birding life, you get to have quite high standards I suppose). Anyway, a decent few hours looping around the area. Lots of species were mostly those seen before of course, but some nice ones included Crested Treeswift, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Indian Scimitar-babblers (heard only again), more Grey-fronted Green Pigeons showing much better than yesterday, White-browed Bulbul, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Velvet-fronted and Indian Nuthatches and Common Iora. New for the trip was a brief Black-hooded Oriole. One bit of excitement was when Mike and Duncan glimpsed three Indian Wild Dogs (aka Dhole) running through the scrub and thanks to their shouts, we all luckily saw a fourth one run across the path. Quite a difficult mammal to see, although shame the views were so brief. However, after a couple of hours I was getting a little peeved I hadn't seen any new birds all morning. Rajesh claimed to hear a brief Blue-bearded Bee-eater - one of my top targets around here - but we couldn't find it, nor was his Spot-bellied Eagle Owl stake-out successful. Finally, we went down into the narrow stream-side belt of woodland the other side of the temple by Jungle Hut. We had a quick view of a Yellow-browed Bulbul, but then this was eclipsed by a splendid pair of Brown Fish Owls; much more flighty than I'd expected, although that may have been largely due to me being over-excited by them and talking too loudly! These were then followed up by at least three Puff-throated Babblers, rather skulking birds but with excellent songs. So three new birds in quick succession, which definitely made it worthwhile. We then returned to have breakfast and on entering the grounds, found another new one - the only Asian Fairy Bluebird of the trip sitting quietly in a tree.

We had another excellent breakfast then Mike took us out for another drive, again down the Moyar Road. The area seemed livelier than it had the previous day and we had quite a range of species, with highlights including perhaps three separate Changeable Hawk-eagles, Small Minivets, at least eight White-rumped Vultures (better views today), a single Red-headed Vulture, a Jungle Bush Quail, Coppersmith Barbet, White-browed Bulbul, Black-winged Kite and Jerdon's Bush Lark. We all had decent views of a Grey Mongoose and whilst we were then talking about how Mike seldom saw snakes, a large snake crossed the road in front of us - perhaps a Rat Snake. We drove further along the road today, to Moyar village by a small lake (where a Brahminy Kite was perched) and then even further along rougher tracks, until we got told off by a warden chap so had to turn back. As we started returning, we decided to scan the distant hill slope on the north side of the Moyar river, and Mike and I found a herd of five Asian Elephants, although it took a long time for the whole party to get onto them, clearly due to our abysmal directions. On the return journey, we stopped to watch a Changeable Hawk-eagle in a tree and jammed into my first Asian Brown Flycatcher perched by the side of the car. We then returned to base, with a final bonus of another Barred Buttonquail crossing the Bokhapuram Road.

Mike then had to leave us and head home to Bangalore, a fair drive north. It had been great to catch up and see him on his 'home turf', after many talks about India when he'd visited us in Norfolk. It was also excellent to pick up birding tips and, perhaps more importantly, dealing-with-India-tips. We now had to fend for ourselves again! After a busy few days, and with limited mobility now given the lack of wheels, we decided to have a lazy afternoon around Jungle Hut. A big lunch and then we checked out the swimming pool. We then chilled for a while, and I spent a few hours wandering around the grounds seeing what I could find. Nothing new, but nice to spend a bit more time on some of the species, such as Bronzed Drongo, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Leafbird and Yellow-browed Bulbul. I did wander into the bamboo area looking for Nilgiri Thrush, where my dad had seen one a few years previously, but it was probably too early in the autumn still for them to have descended. It was a little freaky in here and in the nearby woods on my own though, and it was easy to imagine an unwelcome encounter with a Tiger - unlikely but far from impossible. I did come across a few Boar and Spotted Deer, but nothing more deadly fortunately. However, I didn't push my luck too far. Another beer, meal and bed.

Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, a male near Jungle Hut

Brown Fish-owl, one of a pair of these very large owls seen in a stream gully near Jungle Hut.

Changeable Hawk-eagle along the Moyar Road near Masinagudi

White-rumped Vulture along the Moyar Road. These used to be abundant in India but have been virtually wiped out through ingestion of veterinary medicines given to cattle.

The only snake we saw in India, crossing the Moyar Road. Maybe a rat snake?

We were amused by this roadsign. What weapon is that?!

A thoughtful Grey Langur at Jungle Hut

This little tree-house was Duncan's favoured spot at Jungle Hut - sufficiently close to the WiFi signal

Grey Langur surveying his Spotted Deer troops at Jungle Hut

14th September 2019

I got up early and, despite the dire warnings of peril we'd been receiving, I managed to slip out of the front gate without anyone catching me. Would serve me right to get eaten or trampled. Anyway, I mostly stuck to more open areas near where locals clearly regularly walked so I felt the risk was low. I made my way down to where we'd seen the fish owls the previous day, which I didn't find again. I did have much better views of the Black-headed Oriole though, with it posing nicely for its photo. Amongst other regular species, highlights of the walk were Puff-throated Babbler, Common Iora, Yellow-eyed Babbler, about 50 Grey-fronted Green Pigeons and two White-rumped Shamas which were new for the trip although I'd seen them in the north before. I spent a frustrating time trying to actually see an Indian Scimitar-babbler which was calling above my head but I could make out nothing but occasional hints of movement over about 20 minutes. I did though eventually find a new species as a Rufous Woodpecker flew past at close range, clearly identifiable although it never stopped. I also glimpsed four fast-running rufous mammals which were surely the same pack of Wild Dogs as the previous day, but I never got a clear view. After a few hours of wandering around I found a lovely forested stony river, which Mike had suggested could be good for Malabar Whistling Thrush, but no such luck. I made my way back into the grounds of Jungle Hut and finally tracked down a visible Indian Scimitar-babbler - at last, after hearing loads for days.

We had breakfast and again took it easy around the grounds in the morning until lunchtime. I did several more loops, although now staying within the perimeter fence. On about my third loop I had stonking views of a fantastic Blue-faced Malkoha - a big cuckoo - but it skulked off into vegetation as I got the camera out. I did also find another Asian Brown Flycatcher here.

In the afternoon, we arranged for a driver to take us back to Bandipur for another jeep safari. Back through the woods to the safari campus on the north side of the park, where we had an Indian Black Eagle overhead as we waited. Our driver today appeared to be a much more experienced guy, and was clearly more knowledgeable about the forest and its wildlife. He took us on a long loop round, including into some areas that had been burned by locals the previous year, which he was clearly still pretty choked up about. It was another good drive for Asian Elephant encounters, with three singles, a group of five, another single then another only heard trumpeting. Almost as impressive in the size stakes were several Gaur (two singles and a herd of 12); really quite intimidating animals up close. Other mammals were Boar, a Sambur and plenty of Chital, Macaques and Langurs. No carnivores sadly, although not for want of trying. We thought we might be on to something at one point when a herd of Chital came charging down a track but although we waiting for a pursuer, nothing came. As before, a good selection of birds, of which the undoubted highlight was a Blue-beared Bee-eater perched by a small pool; a surprisingly large bird for a bee-eater I thought. Other nice things were another Barred Buttonquail that I managed a photo of, plus Changeable Hawk-eagle, lots of Peafowl and so on. Eventually we had to admit defeat on the tigers and sloth bears, but it had been another exhilarating experience and well worth it. On the drive back through the woods, we came across another Elephant and a herd of eight Gaur by the roadside in the dark.

We returned for our final evening at Jungle Hut. No-one came out to take an order for a beer, so I asked when we went to get our meal later. They looked a little concerned, then the manager came over and explained that they would bring one to the room later, but they were worried there might be a police raid. We hadn't even fully twigged that we weren't supposed to be drinking here - wouldn't have bothered them if we'd known. We had an as-ever-brilliant meal then retired to our rooms, with the beer finally arriving so late we didn't really want it any more (but forced it down).

Black-hooded Oriole near Jungle Hut during an early morning walk (when I snuck out and risked the hazardous megafauna, much to the distress of the staff)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (I believe) at Jungle Hut

Blue-bearded Bee-eater in major need of some photoshop work, by a small pool on our second Bandipur safari

Barred Buttonquail on the side of the road in Bandipur NP

More of these things...

A real privilege to get up close and personal with these amazing animals

Some of the Gaur in Bandipur didn't seem all that much smaller than the elephants - #AbsoluteUnit

Duncan post safari...

...and Tom...

...and Trudy. Good time had by all.

15th September 2019

I got up for a last walk around the grounds first thing, picking up a nice range of regular species, including Puff-throated Babbler, Vernal Hanging Parrot and Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, and spending time trying to photograph the local Black-rumped Flamebacks. After breakfast I went to settle up, and on looking down the bill, I noted we'd been charged for 10 rounds of 'Mushroom 65'. We hadn't had any of this particular dish here so I questioned it. "Ah, that's what the call the beer, sir." A legendary rouse - hopefully none of Tamil Nadu's law enforcement community are reading this blog. Anyway, Jungle Hut was a great spot, highly recommended, although I'd reiterate the slight limitations if you don't have transport, as you're very restricted from hiking.

On my request they'd arranged a driver to take us north to our next location, the city of Mysore about 2.5 hours to the north. Our driver was Sunil Francis, and he was really excellent, with a car that even had operational rear seat belts; an rarity indeed. He was also a good guide and told us lots about things that we saw as we travelled. We got on so well with him that we agreed to hire him the following day for taking us around some of the sights. The journey itself was uneventful - no exciting mammals in the forest, and then out into farmland and small towns. Eastern Cattle Egret was the only (surprisingly late) addition to the trip-list. Mysore itself, compared to some of the cities we'd seen, was relatively pleasant; less hectic and with more green spaces it felt.

We checked into our hotel (the Roopa Elite - quite posh for us). After a brief rest, we of course headed out on foot, and bravely sent the boys into a shop of incomprehensible foodstuffs to construct a lunch from; spicy pastries and sickly gateaux was the result. Inevitably, wildlife sightings dropped rapidly - back in the land of the House Crow, Black Kite and Common Myna, with appearances also from Coppersmith Barbets, Brahminy Kite, Jungle Myna, Ring-necked Parakeet, Koel, Little Swift, Scaly-breasted Munia, Indian Pond Heron and a Black-headed Ibis. We then looped back to the hotel, from where we got a tuk-tuk to Mysore Palace, the main tourist attraction in town. Impressive site certainly, from the outside and also when we went inside. After we'd seen what we could, we headed off on foot to the Devaraja Market, another recommended spot. The streets were very busy and stressful, particularly to Duncan and I who don't really do well in busy cities. We found the market, which was indeed full of authentic fruit and veg stalls, flower shops, incense stands and so on. We walked around for a while, but along one alleyway there was music blaring out that got louder as we approached. Eventually, it was so loud we had to turn back due to the physical assault on the ears.

We did some more looping around the streets of Mysore, getting a feel for the place and dodging some rain showers. Eventually we made our way to a restaurant called Park Lane that Sunil had recommended, which was quite good. After eating, we headed back out to the palace. We had timed this carefully as the palace is illuminated for just one hour per week, on Sunday nights from 7 pm, and we hit it just right. Really quite impressive being apparently lit by 100,000 lightbulbs, which I could believe. There was also live music and a really nice atmosphere here. After soaking this up, we braved another tuk-tuk through the darkened streets and made it back to the peace of our hotel.

One of several Black-rumped Flamebacks around Jungle Hut. Very attractive woodpeckers.

Male Oriental Magpie-robin at Jungle Hut

Devaraja market in Mysore. My idea of hell.

Mysore Palace on a Sunday evening is moderately pretty

16th September 2019

For once I didn't feel the need to rise early. We got up at a more civilised time, and the boys had a swim in the roof-top pool. However, we did tick off one target here - the Mysore Masala Dosa for breakfast which Mike had particularly recommended. It was a nice spot for breakfast, up on one of the top floors allowing good views of a pair of Koels in a tree-top nearby, as well as lots of close-by Black Kites, Little Swift, Cinereous Tit and Purple-rumped Sunbird. After breakfast, Sunil turned up as arranged and took us out for the day. We headed off through the suburbs (with a flock of nine Spot-billed Pelicans over a reservoir) and past the palace to Chamundi Hill, which has a very important Hindu temple on it. We visited this, and were allowed (having removed our shoes) to join the crowds processing through it. We didn't really understand enough about what was going on to really get the full benefit I suspect, but interesting all the same. Afterwards, we were mildly diverted taking selfies with the fattest Bonnet Macaque we'd seen so far, who clearly spent every day stuffing food down his throat that he'd begged off visitors. On the way down the hill, we had a good view out over the city of Mysore.

We then drove north to the complex of sites at Srirangapatna, set of the Tipu Sultan who ruled a large area of central southern India before finally being defeated by Wellington and the British in 1799, consolidating the British colonisation of India. We visited a temple briefly (where I had a quick fly-over by my only Indian Grey Hornbill of the trip), then drove around the ruins of the old fort before visiting the summer palace for a closer look round. Lots of interesting information in here about this piece of history that isn't really all that well-known back in the UK these days. Not much in the way of wildlife here, although an Oriental Darter flew high overhead along with a few Painted Storks.

We asked Sunil to find us somewhere for lunch, and he dropped us at the Amblee Holiday Resort, where there was a small restaurant with tables by the edge of the Cauvery River. I wasn't expecting to see much here, but was looking forward to visiting the nearby Ranganathittu bird reserve afterwards where I had three target species. Surprisingly though, I nailed two of these here whilst waiting for the food to come. A loud call drew my attention as a Stork-billed Kingfisher flew through the garden and perched nearby briefly, before continuing off along the river (where Pied, White-throated and Common Kingfishers were also visible). There was also Little Cormorant, Spot-billed Duck and Red-winged Lapwing by the river, but I was most excited to have great views of a fishing River Tern, a speciality of large rivers of central India.

After lunch, we headed to Ranganathitta nearby, but sadly they'd closed down the boat trips due to dangerously high river levels. This was a pain and put a stop to my hopes of seeing Great Thick-knee and Marsh Mugger crocodiles. I was doubly glad of my lunchtime River Tern and Stork-billed Kingfisher, which I was hoping to see here. Somewhat disappointed, we headed back to Mysore and visited some shops (silk and woodcrafts) to get some gifts for folks back home. Then back to the hotel to get our bags, before Sunil dropped us off at the Hotel Metropole to relax with a drink and some wifi for a couple of hours. The hotel grounds were host to Koels with Little Swifts overhead. After hanging out here we walked the short distance to the station, had a meal at the A2B restaurant here, then got on our second sleeper train of the trip. We again encountered some minor confusion working out which berth we had, but sussed it before too long. This time, we didn't have a locked compartment, but shared sleeping areas with just curtains giving some privacy, as we set off back to the coast.

The legend - Mysore Masala Dosa for breakfast. Quite nice.

Black Kites from our Mysore hotel

Family taking opportunity of a banana-stuffed monkey for selfie opportunities, Chamundi Hill

Poor photo but this River Tern at Srirangaptna was my last new bird of the trip, and my 1,800th world species.

17th September 2019

We slept with variable levels of success and woke as we arrived in the outskirts of Chennai. We got off back at the central station from where we'd departed 11 days previously, feeling somewhat more experienced in the ways of India now. Still, Chennai was a bit of a shock to the system after the slightly more sedate Mysore. Back on the coast it was very hot, very humid and very, very busy. We'd booked the Liza Regency hotel which was only a short walk from the station, but it did involve lots of people, traffic, crap-littered streets and so on, and it was a relief to find the place. We'd booked to arrive that afternoon, but decided it was worth paying them another tenner to get access to the air-conditioned rooms immediately. After a short rest we found a nearby A2B for breakfast - a range of dosas.

The main attraction we'd planned to see here was Fort St George, the original base of the British in east India back in the day. We had all day, and it wasn't far as the House Crow flies, so we again braved the streets on foot. Noisy, smelly, busy and not all that pleasant, but certainly an experience. We passed a grim-looking slum by the Cooum river on our way. Eventually, we got to Fort St George, but were informed that the entrance we'd found was for the Indian army, who maintain an active base here. To get round to the other side, we couldn't face any more walking and grabbed a tuk-tuk to take us. The Fort itself, once we got in, was interesting; again, an important part of British/Indian history that we don't really learn much about in the UK these days. It was very hot however and we were flagging a bit.

From here, we decided we'd walk to the beach - again, not a huge distance. However, it was a real slog in the heat. We initially walked through a quite pleasant park, but later had to cross the bridge over the river Cooum near its mouth. I'm not normally all that bothered by smells, but the stench of the river as we crossed it was quite unbearable - clearly one of the main sewers for this city of almost nine million people. I did see my only Common Sandpiper of the trip perched on a floating piece of detritus, but didn't hang around long to look more closely.

We eventually made it to the beach, after a quick ice-cream and having to tell a guy quite forcefully to stop hassling us. It's a huge beach, and we'd run out of energy to walk across it to the sea. We found some cold cokes and collapsed on the sand, before deciding that we'd basically had enough. We grabbed a tuk-tuk and returned to the hotel, where we just did nothing for the rest of the day. We felt India had finally beaten us into submission. Later in the evening, we did walk a short walk to a small supermarket to buy some snacks to take home, and then had a meal in the hotel restaurant before packing our bags for the return journey, then bed.

Bit more breakfast dosa action, in Chennai. Served on a banana leaf.

A female Koel in Chennai; this species is a nest-parasite of the House Crows, and as a result is pretty common in urban areas

A sobering sight - an urban slum by the river in Chennai. Not everything we saw in India was a delight...

18th September 2019

I woke about 4 am, with the twin problems of an incredibly stiff neck and then a nasty case of 'Delhi-belly'. The latter was something I'd done well to avoid until now, but the former was somewhat worrying. I lay in bed googling whether stiff necks were a symptom of Dengue or Japanese Encephalitis, as you do, but in the end concluded I must just have slept on it at a bad angle. Anyway, it was incredibly painful and not what you need when about to fly across the world, but there wasn't much I could do about it. Trudy was also feeling somewhat rough in the guts department. We eventually got up, called a taxi and staggered to the airport feeling somewhat worse for wear; fortunately the boys were still fighting fit and able to basically take charge (I knew they'd come in useful eventually!)

We flew on time back to Muscat, hung around there for a few hours, then off over a very interesting route over the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Turkey, and hence over the Black Sea to Europe. We landed pretty much on time, with Trudy starting to feel really quite ill by now with stomach pains. We staggered through the airport, got the car, and somehow made our way back home to Norfolk. Quite a relief to make it back.

The aftermath of the trip involved Trudy and I being quite rough for about a week, with tests showing we'd got Campylobacter food poisoning. Picked up from - who knows? We ate a lot of different things and there are so many ways to pick up germs. Duncan was also a bit rough for a few days too, but Tom's constitution seemed to shrug everything off just fine.

Despite the end of the trip and journey home being a little tough, we'd overall had a good trip. India is a very different place to anywhere else I've been, and can be difficult, infuriating and bizarre at times, but I'd definitely recommend it for a more intrepid traveller. It has to be experienced.

For any birders reading this, my good friend Mike Prince is now putting his many years of Indian birding knowledge to good use and will soon be leading birding trips professionally. It goes without saying I'd strongly recommend him if you want someone to help out both with the birding, but almost as importantly with dealing with logistics (including talking forest department guards out of arresting us!).

Finally, the only thing that soured the holiday for me a little had been a growing disquiet with the environmental cost of long-haul flights. This had been bothering me for months before going, and still does. There are of course many benefits associated with tourism, particularly to less well visited areas. However, we're probably going to avoid any more long-haul flights for a few years and stay a bit more local. So this might be the last big foreign travel blog for a while. We'll see...