1. Please tell us about yourself: where do you live and what do you do.
My name is Mujeeb and I live in Kozhikode, Kerala. I currently work as a Training Superintendent & Principal at Govt ITI Mangalam, Palakkad, Kerala. I am an avid bird watcher with a special interest in raptors. I am also a member of the Malabar Natural History Society(MNHS) in Kozhikode.
2. Please tell us about your patch: where is it located, what habitats does it contain, how often do you visit and whether you follow any sort of procedure or protocol when visiting for birding.
My patch name is Ponkunnu Hill. It is a revenue land situated in Kakkur Grama Panchayat in Kozhikode district, 20 km away from Kozhikode town in Kerala. My patch extends to 5 square kilometers in both east-west directions. The area from the top of the hill up to the western end is savanna grassland on a laterite face interspersed with rocky cliffs and sparse tree cover. The surrounding area consists of scrub forest, well-wooded area, and cultivation.
For my bird monitoring, I use two pairs of binoculars- 10 X 50 and 8 X 30, a digital camera when I am birding in my patch. I follow a transect method and direct visual counts to document birds. I also use the point count method, especially to observe raptors.
3. What birds are found in your patch? Please comment on any seasonal changes.
Out of 163 birds, more than 100 are resident species. Seventeen species among the 162 have been newly added to the avifauna of Kozhikode. The hill offers an excellent vantage point to spot birds that are mostly flying/ soaring in the sky. Species like Indian Swiftlet, Blyth’s Swift, Barn Swallow, Wire-tailed Swallow can be seen up close.
Ponkunnu Hill is a hotspot for raptors and so far I have seen 27 species of raptors. It’s not just the diversity, but their numbers can be remarkable too. One such example can be seen in this checklist – in just a couple of hours, I had seen a total of 17 raptors of six different species! And the most exciting part was to see eight different plumage variations of the 11 Oriental Honey Buzzards seen that day. I think in Kerala, this is the smallest site to harbor such a variety and density of raptors. One of the reasons for this could be the prey species like rodents, reptiles, and other birds found in abundance.
Winter is a great time to see some of the migrant raptors, such as Booted Eagle, Eurasian Kestrel, Montagu’s, and Pallid Harrier. Some uncommon raptors in Ponkunnu are Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Hobby, Steppe Eagle, Common Buzzard, Greater Spotted Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle. So is the Southern Hill Myna which is a forest species and has been spotted here only once. The White-eyed Buzzard is an iconic bird of Ponkunnu and is a very rare raptor in Kerala seen during the winter months. I think Ponkkunu could be the stop-over site for this species during its migration.
There are no specific summer migrants in this region and most winter migrants are seen from mid- September till mid-April. The peak time for migratory birds in Ponkunnu is December and also January. After that, the birds start reducing. During summer only resident birds are seen. Therefore, the best season for birding at Ponkunnu is from September to March like any other hotspot in Kerala and the month of December is the richest in terms of sightings.
4. Are there any highlights or interesting incidents that you would like to share?
Shaheen Falcons are the most common falcons seen in my patch. I remember one such day, while I was birding, I saw a Shaheen on a hunt, trying to hunt a Little Swift. I observed the falcon chasing the swift for almost 10 minutes but in the end, it didn’t catch it. This was interesting to watch and I learned that falcons can fly just as fast as the swifts. On one occasion I saw a Black Eagle carrying a white mouse in its talons. Another interesting experience was to find a Common Grasshopper-Warbler– a shy and secretive warbler that prefers to forage in thick undergrowth and I was lucky to find it perched on a branch, preening. I could observe it to my heart’s content and take many photographs.
5. Has your understanding of the birdlife (diversity, seasonality, breeding, etc) of your patch increased over time? In what way?
Ponkunnu hill supports an array of species. Since I have been monitoring the birds here for quite some time I have a basic understanding of birds found here- both residents and migrants. Usually, I don’t go looking for nests as I feel that I might disturb them. But there’s enough evidence indicating that a lot of birds breed here. Three species of sunbird- Purple, Purple-rumped, and Loten’s Sunbird nest here. The Red-vented, Red-whiskered, and White-browed Bulbul also breed here. So do drongos, crows, babblers. I have also seen Common Hawk-Cuckoo chicks being fed by Jungle Babblers.
I don’t think there are many changes to the bird diversity in relation to the changing weather pattern but a few months back we had heavy rains and cyclones in Kerala. And it could be because of this that some of the winter migrants like Montagu’s and Pallid Harrier were not seen the following winter. Also, warblers like Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Booted Warbler arrived very late.
After the monsoon, the grass bears seeds that attract Black-throated and White-rumped Munia in good numbers. Red Spurfowl, thrushes, and warblers are seen foraging in the ground and bushes. Lesser Coucal which is rare in Kerala but is seen in this place, restricted to the grassland patch. I have seen them in breeding and non-breeding plumage. It is interesting to hear them calling regularly during their breeding season.
We had done a biodiversity survey of the place organised by the Malabar Natural History Society. We are just updating the details of that. We have surveyed plants, butterflies, reptiles, insects, etc. We have found quite a few very rare plants from the patch. There are over 200 species of plants and about 50 species of butterflies. The cave is inhabited by colonies of Greater False Vampire Bats and a lot of frogs. I have seen jungle cats on multiple occasions. Indian Jackal has been seen very regularly and one can see it almost every day around 3 pm. I have heard that there used to be a leopard here earlier, but there is not enough prey for any big cats.
My patch has taught me a lot about birds – seasonality, migration, etc and I am always looking out to see more species. One of my main concerns is the increasing number of tourists and the dumping of waste on this hill. I hope we find a way to tackle this soon.
Photo credits: Mujeeb PM/ Macaulay Library
Header image: Ponkunnu Hills by Mujeeb PM