Though most of Coorg is known for its scenic beauty,one place kept cropping up in conversations with my trekking buddies. They spoke of a place where the lush green sholas were easily accessible by road and the rolling hills stretched as far as the eye could see. One fine summer morning we packed our camping gear and drove off to see for ourselves this magical place called Mandalpatti. Less than an hour’s drive from Madikeri and part of the Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary (WLS), Mandalpatti is famed for its fantastic scenery and is an excellent spot for landscape photography. The landscape around Mandalpatti is largely montane grassland interspersed with sholas.
The winding road ends at the forest department outpost from where a trekking trail leads into the core area of the Pushpagiri WLS. Entry into the Pushpagiri WLS requires prior permission from the forest office in Madikeri. The southern slopes are extremely steep which makes for a difficult trek, both going down and uphill.
Pushpagiri Mandalpatti slope
The plan was to trek down to another forest outpost at Kothanadaka, stay there overnight and return to Mandalpatti the next morning. Accompanied by a forest guard we set out on the narrow path leading down the mountain. Being keen birders, our aim was to document the birds on that trail. Every now and then, we would stop and listen carefully to the bird calls en-route. The first birds we saw along the trail were a pair of White-bellied Treepies as they flew across the valley. These beautiful birds are endemic to the Western Ghats.
White-bellied Treepie, Dendrocitta leucogastra
Further down the trail we ran into a mixed feeding flock of birds consisting of the Black-naped Monarch, Orange Minivets, Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Malabar Woodshrikes, Greater Racket-tailed Drongos and the Yellow-browed and Ruby-throated Bulbuls. We spent a few minutes watching these birds and moved down the path.
A series of low pitched “kyu kyu” calls indicated the presence of a male Malabar Trogon and we quietly made our way through the undergrowth towards the bird. It wasn’t long before we spotted the gorgeous trogon sitting on a moss-covered branch.
Malabar Trogon, Harpactes fasciatus
We were ecstatic at having spotted so many special birds all on one trail and debated on what specialty would turn up next. The size of some of the trees along the trail was incredible; some of these trees had gigantic roots through which we could easily walk upright.
Orchid, Dendrobium sp.
We came across a small stream that passed through a dense thicket where the sunlight barely made it through. All of a sudden,we spotted a small kingfisher perched on a branch above the stream. I quickly brought up my camera and tried hard to focus on the bird in the shadows. The auto-focus would not lock on, so I switched to manual focus and managed a few pictures before the bird spotted us and flew off. While reviewing the pictures, we realized that we had a lifer in the form of an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher; this was probably the first sighting of this colourful kingfisher in Coorg. Thrilled to bits, we congratulated each other and moved on.
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceyx erithaca
A sudden crashing through the undergrowth ahead of us warned us to the presence of a large animal. The guard asked us to stay still for a few minutes. Fortunately, the animal moved away from the trail and we moved ahead. Tracks indicated that a Gaur had crossed the trail a few metres away from us and we were glad to avoid confrontation with an animal that can be very unpredictable at close quarters. Dusk was a few minutes away and we walked briskly so that we could reach the Kothanadaka forest outpost before nightfall.
The tiny outpost is located in the thick jungle, miles away from other habitation. A stream nearby provides gravity fed water and electricity from a micro turbine. It was interesting to see how the force of the water from a tiny pipe could generate electricity in such a remote setting.
There were two other guards at the outpost and after some pleasantries and a cup of steaming hot tea, we deposited our packs in the room. The sound of the cicadas that increased in intensity was interrupted occasionally by the cries of the Sri Lanka Frogmouth. Flashlights in hand, we set out to look for these cute and elusive nocturnal birds. Barely a few yards away from the outpost we came across a frogmouth perched on the lower branches of a tree.
Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Batrachostomus moniliger
The flashlight also revealed another denizen of the forest – a Malabar Pit Viper that was out foraging in the canopy.
Malabar Pit Viper, Trimeresurus malabaricus
We returned to the camp since it had started raining and had a basic meal of dal and rice that the guards cooked for us. They were a young bunch and were curious to know what we would do with our pictures. We eventually turned in for the night with the sounds of the rain pattering on the tin roof. The camp was shrouded in mist the next morning and though we could hear birds in the canopy, we could not see them. Eventually the sun came over the hilltop and the mist cleared.
We watched as a Mountain Imperial Pigeon flew overhead and Grey-fronted Green Pigeons, Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Hill Mynahs, Malabar Grey Hornbills and Malabar Parakeets fed together in a ficus tree a short distance from the camp.
The cause of a tiny movement in a tree nearby turned out to be a Draco dussumieri or Southern Flying Lizard. As we watched, it flicked its yellow gular sac outwards, in a few minutes it scrambled up the tree and launched itself into the air effortlessly gliding to another tree that was quite a distance away.
Southern Flying Lizard, Draco dussumieri
It was time to return, and since the walk uphill was bound to be tiring, we left the camp early and made our way up the same steep trail as the previous day. Part of the trail is an old ‘Koop road’ that was used to haul timber out of the forest. Thanks to the rain that continued all night, the leaf litter was crawling with leeches and we had to stop often to pick them off our legs. The climb up was uneventful and we made it to the top by noon. After saying goodbye to the guard, we drove back towards Madikeri.
On a group of rocks adjacent to the road, we stopped to photograph a Malabar Lark.
Malabar Lark, Galerida malabarica
The drive to and from Mandalpatti is quite scenic and we stopped often to photograph the changing landscape.
We eventually reached home tired and hungry but elated at having been on such a fantastic trek with some great birding. The guards had advised us to make another trip after the monsoons when the landscape would be a darker shade of green and we now look forward to yet another visit to the beautiful Mandalpatti.