“Thattekad ethi .” A murmur from the driver’s seat indicated that I was near my destination. From the confines of the car — steered by a soft-spoken Sabu — I scanned the dark surroundings with eyes heavy with sleep. Kochi’s noisy, unruly evening traffic was around 55 km behind us. I attributed my sluggishness to the near-silence that rules Thattekad, a bird sanctuary in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. My eyes were half-closed as I entered my room at the homestay. The lone photograph in the room — that of three unattractive birds captioned as Ceylon frogmouth — did little to perk me up. I remained in this state until dinner summons. Frogmouth photos stared back from every wall in the house as I went through the meal in a haze. By the time I climbed into bed, I’d had an overdose of the nocturnal grey-brown bird. Or so I thought.

The morning arrived early. Girish, the guide, took our group of three (two birding fanatics from Bengaluru being my companions for the day) into the forest. Five minutes into the walk and I cursed myself for the ballerina I’d carried for the trip. Handicapped by the unwise footwear selection, I struggled to keep pace with the group as we walked under a canopy of teak, mahogany, eeta reeds and bamboo trees, at a rocky patch. Girish instructed us to look out for the black baza, a small bird of prey. The baza didn’t oblige but many others did. In a span of 30 minutes, we spotted the Asian brown flycatcher, the orange headed thrush, the Oriental honey buzzard and a variety of woodpeckers. The little black raptor chose to stay elusive. In a desperate bid to divert attention from the bird that remained invisible, I voiced my ‘desire’ to see the unsightly frogmouth. We moved ahead in search of the new target. But instead of the grey-brown plumage of the peninsular bird, we were rewarded with the eye-popping colours of the Malabar trogon. Girish continued to tease me for my paranoia of leeches, of which there were aplenty. And before we knew it, the canopy overhead had given way to the most spotless blue sky. We reached a water body in the middle of the sanctuary. A handful of dead tree trunks jutted out of the water. It was the end of the walk and I was happy to just sit by and absorb the stillness around.

That afternoon I met R Sugathan, renowned ornithologist and pupil of Salim Ali, at the sanctuary office. He is the man who thrice walked the 1,600-km stretch of the Western Ghats in pursuit of the Ceylon frogmouth, broadbill roller and the red-faced malkoha. Known as Kerala’s birdman, Sugathan is the best person to narrate the history of the sanctuary. In 1933, the maharaja of Travancore invited Ali to conduct a bird survey in his kingdom.

The ornithologist started from Marayur, followed the Old Aluva Munnar Road and reached Thattekad late at night. As Ali stepped out of his room in a dak bungalow the next day, a symphony of bird calls greeted him. He ended up spending a fortnight in Thattekad, during which he recorded the sighting of 164 bird species. It was nearly half the number of species Ali found in the state. In 1983, when Kerala’s forest minister KP Nooruddin proposed a felicitation for Ali, the latter chose to ask for the creation of a bird sanctuary. The task of finding a place fell on Sugathan. Soon afterwards, Kerala’s first bird sanctuary was born.

The frogmouth had been declared an endangered species in 1983. Improving their numbers proved difficult given that the bird lays only one egg on an average every year. In 1992, when Sugathan took charge of the sanctuary he founded, he ensured habitat protection by preventing forest fires, planting of bamboo trees and weeding the forest of eeta . More than two decades on, the number of frogmouths at Thattekad has climbed close to 50 pairs.

My quest for the bird I had begun to admire continued over the next day. Instead of Girish, it was his mother Sudha who led me to a tribal village in Vellaramkutu. Over a breakfast of appams and egg curry at a roadside eatery, I impressed on her my desire to spot frogmouths. We then drove towards Pandapara, where a visibly excited Girish waited with another group of birders.

The frogmouth had been sighted close to where we stood. We waded through the knee-deep waters of a stream before we arrived at another rocky patch. A few minutes later, Sudha pointed to a tree to the left of the trail we were on. There, in perfect camouflage with the dead leaves, sat a pair of frogmouths. If one of them hadn’t blinked I’d have assumed those birds were stuffed!

Rathina Sankari is a freelancer based in Pune