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Backwoods: Dec 11th-15th

With body clocks firmly attuned to dawn birding, afternoon kippage, night-time eats and early starts, we set off for Backwoods Camp at 5.15am on Dec 11th with guides Loven and Pramodd.

Even better, we picked up Ralph Jones along the way – Ralph is spending a full three month stretch in Goa, fuelled by Kingfisher beer and vegetable samosas – it was great to see my old work colleague again, and as ever, his company in the field was a pleasure.

Long a “must-visit” in this part of the world, Backwoods boasts quiet woodland, farmland and village birding in the shadow of the Western Ghats, three square (vegetarian) meals a day and more importantly, three guided walks per day too in search of endemics and other goodies.

On the edge of the Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park and close to Tambdi Surla Temple and adjacent trails the slightly cooler hills (yeah, right) meant birding was possible all day, with activity hardly slackening off even in the highest temperatures.

It’s about a two hour drive inland from the coast, which was as entertaining as ever – nothing like repeatedly confronting your mortality head-on on a dusty India road in the pitch black.

Vishnu, Ganesh and Shiva must have been working overtime on our behalf, as each time a collision seemed inevitable vehicles, cows, mopeds, cyclists, Royal Enfields, chooks, Macaques and poor sods walking to work in the darkness missed each other by inches, evaporating into dust-choked memory.

My how we laughed.

I have never witnessed such reluctance to take the front passenger seat on a birding trip ever.

On the upside, no phone signal, no wi-fi, so no “first world” problems.

We each packed a case of beer in case of any down time, so were well-prepared for all eventualities…

We stayed for four nights, and while some may find the accommodation basic, I’ve stayed in far worse, the privvy had hot and cold running Tree Frogs, AND a particularly irritable Scorpion to boot.

What a gorgeous view to start your jungly day off…there’s birds out there.

Always good when the local fauna keeps you on your toes. Facilities have clearly enjoyed an upgrade too.

The Backwoods website is down at the moment, but if you want to stay there (and why wouldn’t you?) I’m sure Loven won’t mind me including his contact email here (

It was misty when we arrived just before dawn and began birding around the Tambdi Surla Temple – this popular tourist hot-spot is stacked with birds including White Bellied Blue Flycatcher, Grey Junglefowl (yes, we all did the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke), Asian Paradise Flycatcher, stacks of Green Warblers, and Brown Cheeked Fulvettas etc etc.

Jungle Babblers, Crimson Backed Sunbirds and Brown Breasted Flycatchers kept things ticking over.

As it warmed up Vernal Hanging Parrots began whizzing everywhere, and Brown Backed and White Rumped Needletails zoomed about in the blue above the temple.

In the peace and quiet of this most rural of settings (apart from the two day wedding celebration we could hear in the distance – now that sounded like a party – time was we’d have blagged an invite quicker than you could say “Pizarro”), even the Water Buffaloes were placid, unlike the psychos on the coast, and each had hot and cold running Cattle Egrets.

While we missed several of our key targets here, it would be churlish to complain, given the large number of species we connected with – Malabar Barbet, Backwoods’ resident Malabar Trogons and of course, it’s famous Sri Lankan Frogmouths, which peered down curiously at us when not gently swaying their tails to emulate leaves in the breeze – perfect camouflage, but they didn’t like hassle from the Malabar Giant Squirrels up ’em…

There’s one of the pesky squirrels now, laughing while it dropped seed casings down on me from the canopy – at least I think it was seed casings…. Size of a pissed off and overweight Pine Marten.

One of the pleasantest things about Backwoods was wandering off on your own into the forest – apologies all if it seemed anti-social, but with so many dry leaves on the deck, it was the best way to move quietly when searching for feeding flocks.

The track leading to the camp entrance was consistently good – Black Headed Orioles, sunbirds galore, Orange Minivet, Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker – great stuff…

Water left out by the camp’s dining room lured in plenty of birds too, and in the heat of the day it was hard to resist the temptation to crack open a Kingfisher and watch the Flame Throated Bulbuls bathing.

So I didn’t.

Once we’d had our downtime though Pramodd would muster the troops for another trek – invariably down to the nearby Barabhumi village, or back up to the temple.

Common Hawk Cuckoo, Asian Koels, Vernal Hanging Parrots, Plum Headed Parakeets, Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Malabar Grey, Pied and Great Hornbills vied for attention as Legge’s Mountain Hawk Eagle,  Black Eagles, Malabar Starling thrilled us and a nocturnal jaunt snagged Indian Jungle Nightjar.

It was hard work, especially avoiding the Indian rural rush hour…

That’s the last time I ask Trops to take a holiday snap of me in the great Indian outdoors…. You had just one job….

I liked Barabhumi village very much – seriously peaceful and a pleasure to wander around.

Folk were happy to let you stare at the fruiting trees in their gardens, but I am sure they are well used to Backwoods visitors traipsing about…

Nice brick stash….

Common birds aplenty, but exciting to see if it’s your first time in town, which it was, with Indian Golden Oriole, Malabar Starlings, Grey Necked Green Pigeons, Jungle Owlet, Greater Racket Tailed Drongoes, Chestnut Shouldered Petronia and gorgeous Little Green Bee Eaters all doing the business.

Forays on the slightly wilder trails round the temple brought us Little Spiderhunter, White Bellied Woodpecker (a fly-by monster of a bird), and Malabar Woodshrike.

There were even Leopard footprints in one dry stream-bed, the fat cat responsible long gone by the time we clattered through.

When it went quiet, Trops was happy returning to the wild to poke things in streams with sticks or chase squirrels, but parts of this area were tough – we heard, but did not see targets including Indian Blue Robin, Large Billed Leaf Warbler, Indian Scimitar Babbler and Blue Bearded Bee Eater.

Compensation came in the form of many Western Crowned Warblers, RB Flys, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrikes, Common Tailorbirds and Shikras… and a superb, if brief, Rusty Tailed Flycatcher.

(picture courtesy Chris Kehoe)

The less said about the 2km jog in failing light to twitch a King Cobra that turned out to be a stick though, the better.

The Macaques, unimpressed by perspiring tourists and their optics, continued to rummage in the roadside litter…. sticks can’t bite ya.

It was a wonderful place, but we still failed to connect with Indian Pitta, despite hearing one, in five attempts, and Indian Blue Robin, Brown Fish Owl and a few others eluded us…

Butterflies and moths were good, but as is always the way with wonderful foreign trips like this, it was all I could do to keep basic bird id in me noggin, let alone fill my diminishing grey matter with bug and flower gen…

If only guys, if only….

Once we’d fastidiously drank all the beer we brought to camp, and given Backwoods’ own supplies a right hammering, we packed up and headed back towards the coast via Bondla on December 15th.

Bondla was probably my favourite place for birding on the trip, and Backwoods is the nearest place to stay to this great hilly reserve, so an early a.m. drive was still necessary to get to target.

One day there’ll be a lodge by the entrance and I’ll be first in line to book a week’s visit.

Strolling round the lanes at the base of the hill brought Indian Robins, Long Tailed Shrikes, bulbuls and a brief, if glorious White Naped Flameback alongside Greater Flamebacks.

My pics of these spectacular woodpeckers were predictably pants.

Dusky Crag Martins swooped and paused on the cupola of a seriously picturesque bit of architecture, while on the other side of the small village, a female Vigor’s Sunbird (I later snagged a male) and Indian Pied Hornbill (complete with casque) kept us entertained.

It was great birding, with Crested Treeswifts overhead, Eastern Red Rumped Swallows studying us from the overhead wires (another imminent split according to our list guru) and more regulars like Long Tailed Shrikes and Red Whiskered Bulbuls….

Loten’s Sunbird for once sat out in good light before we started to head uphill past the park entrance and up the steep trail…

Leaving the wheels at the bottom of the hill to trudge up as busloads of overly happy schoolchildren struggled past us on the steep incline was calf achingly  tough as the temperature soared.

Pausing to consider a dirty great Mugger Croc, Pramodd got a call from Loven, who’d found a Blue Capped Rock Thrush below us, and we stomped back down the hill again to ogle this beauty as it sat in the undergrowth and an Indian Blue Robin called tantalisingly close – nearby but invisible.

Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers flicked about the branches and Oriental Honey Buzzards thermalled overhead.

A marvellous place.

Almost at the top of the hill we hit a feeding flock bursting with Western Crowned Warblers, a mental Rufous Woodpecker, Velvet Fronted Nuthatches, White Rumped Shamas, another Blue Capped Rock Thrush, Bronzed Drongo, Black Naped Monarchs, Green Warblers and Paradise Flys.

Spectacularly failing to see Forest Wagtail, we headed back down the hill, and said our farewells to the Backwoods crew before bundling into a cab and dicing with death again on the Indian roads back down to the coast….

Many thanks guys.

Bondla was great, but felt like unfinished business, and we all knew we would be back.

We returned to the hubbub of the coast by the mid-afternoon and spent an hour or two balcony birding in Arpora before sorting out more forays for the second half of the trip.

Malabar Whistling Thrush (unusual at the seaside?), Rufous Treepie and Green Warblers all observed as we washed our forest filthy cloths and the Macaques patiently waited to figure out what they could pinch.

Please return my clean socks you thieving monkey basteds.

Backwoods 11-15.12.18 (Bondla to be included in a later list):

House Crow, Purple Sunbird, Crimson Backed Sunbird, Jungle Babbler, Greater Flameback, White Throated Kingfisher,  White Bellied Blue Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Brown Cheeked Fulvetta, Cattle Egret, Yellow Browed Bulbul, Dark Fronted Babbler,  Brown Breasted Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Green Warbler, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Malabar Parakeet, White Rumped Needletail, Ashy Drongo, Common Rosefinch, Golden Fronted Leafbird, Common Hawk Cuckoo, Little Green Bee Eater, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Taiga Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Red Vented Bulbul, Streak Throated Swallow, White Rumped Shama, Sri Lankan Frogmouth, Flame Throated Bulbul, Black Hooded Oriole, Orange Minivet, Oriental Magpie Robin, Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black Eagle, Booted Eagle, Brown Backed Needletail, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Chinese Pond Heron, Chestnut Headed Bee Eater, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Great Hornbill, Crested Treeswift, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, White Cheeked Barbet, Square Tailed Black Bulbul, Malabar Barbet, Bronzed Drongo, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Heart Spotted Woodpecker, Common Kingfisher, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Thick Billed Flowerpecker, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Blue Tailed Bee Eater, Indian Jungle Crow,  Plum Headed Parakeet, Greater Racket Tailed Drongo, Yellow Browed Bulbul, Greater Flameback, Indian Cormorant, White Rumped Munia, Chestnut Shouldered Petronia, Red Breasted Flycatcher, Western Crowned Warbler, Greenish Warbler (?), Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Brown Headed Barbet, Rufous Woodpecker, Black Napped Oriole, House Martin, Crag Martin, Crested Serpent Eagle, Barn Swallow, Ashy Woodswallow, Legge’s Mountain Hawk Eagle, Grey Fronted Green Pigeon, Malabar Trogon,  Malabar Woodshrike, Malabar White Headed Starling, Loten’s Sunbird, Orange Headed Thrush, Indian Thrush, Spangled/Hairy Crested Drongo, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Grey Junglefowl, Black Naped Monarch, Alpine Swift, Little Spiderhunter, Rufous Tailed Flycatcher, Common Iora, Jungle Owlet, Indian Swiftlet, Little Swift, Brown Headed Barbet, Grey Wagtail, Spotted Dove, Red Wattled Plover, Black Rumped Woodpecker, White Bellied Woodpecker, Indian Jungle Nightjar, Black Headed Cuckooshrike, Olive Backed Pipit.























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