India Interior

A sanctuary and a livelihood

N Shiva Kumar | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 25, 2016

Phantom of the forest: Hidden in foliage, the Frogmouth rarely ventures out in the day N Shiva Kumar

Foreigners with a fetish for frogmouth are armed to the hilt and being facilitated by a professional naturalist

Ajomon Peter, the young lad learning to be professional naturalist with his binoculars

The rare Frogmouth bird fuels the local economy in Kerala’s Thattekad village

High on the wish-list of curiosity chasers is the Frogmouth, considered the “weirdest” bird in the world. Also known as the ‘phantom of the forest’, it has empowered the entire economy of a village in Kerala.

Located in a serene spot about 70 km east of Kochi, the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekad is abuzz with tourist activity. The trickle of tourists started in 2002; today both Indian and foreign visitors make a beeline here for a glimpse of the Frogmouth.

Thought to be extinct for over 50 years, the Frogmouth was rediscovered and has enabled the advancement of a sleepy hamlet. Squeezed in the fork of the perennial Periyar river, the tiny, 27 sqkm jungle is a biodiversity hotspot sheltering 333 bird species. Declared a sanctuary in 1983, the tranquil rural setting has steadily transformed over the last 20 years.

First came a tiny tea-stall, followed by a snacks shack, food on trolley, tourist guides, nature escorts and then nature resorts. A couple of home-stays and a few hotels also cropped up, relying exclusively on the sanctuary for footfalls. In a village of 7,000 people, about 30 per cent directly and the rest indirectly use the lush, fragile ecological zone as their livelihood resource.

Distinctive in demeanour, the Frogmouth is neither an owl nor a nightjar bird but instead has mixed features of both. Marble eyes, pointed beak leading to a wide mouth, bristled moustache, a flat head and stumpy wry neck make it an exceptional research specimen.

Fascinated by these characteristics, early Europeans in India had in the 18th Century catalogued and preserved stuffed specimens, which can still be found in a Mumbai museum. For years it was rumoured to be extinct until in 1977 it was rediscovered by Sugathan, a publicity-shy man with 45 years of scientific birding experience. “With its cryptic coloration, the Sri Lankan Frogmouth is a cute bird with a soft temperament that is almost pitiable,” says the 67-year-old resident ornithologist at Thattekad.

“One little bird, in one little sanctuary on the banks of Periyar has the audacity to be sombre and stealthy, yet make people prosperous,” says Gireesh, a lawyer who doubles as a bird chaperon. His family runs a home-stay near the sanctuary.

During the six months of mild winter, migratory birds flock to the thick jungles and visitors are shown rare species like the fairy bluebird, pygmy woodpecker, black baza, dollar bird and the trogon among others. But the Frogmouth tops the must-see list.

Being an endemic bird it is found the year-round, hidden in the cosy nooks of foliage. Gireesh’s mother, Sudha, is also an experienced birder and was under the tutelage of Sugathan in her younger days.

“Initially I was very hesitant as I could not speak English, but was coaxed and coached by Dr Sugathan. I rapidly learned to look for tell-tale clues and visiting tourists seemed happy with my capabilities,” Sudha says.

In the beginning just two pairs of birds were detected. Today there are around 50 pairs in the pristine jungle, but it is impossible to spot one without a naturalist in tow; the bird stoutly defends its territory and rarely ventures out in the day.

However, in the darkness of the night, the Frogmouth hunts for moths and other nocturnal insects. It has a slow and sluggish flight, making it almost ghostly, particularly on moonless nights. “Even its call is like a cranking machine, very guttural with a metallic bass. It can stay motionless for hours,” explains Sugathan, cautioning against attempts to force the bird out of its hideout.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida

Published on March 25, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor