For people in the rest of Karnataka, the name Bellary evokes images of illegal mining, hot summers and drought. In the past decade, the district has lost a lot of its flora and fauna because of unchecked mining for iron and manganese ore. However, Bellary’s natural wealth extends beyond the ore. The rich biodiversity of flora and fauna in the 48-kilometer stretch of Sandur hills that starts from T.B.Dam in Hospet taluk to Swamihalli in Sandur taluk plays a vital role in deciding the climate of this region. The thick deciduous forest in the plains and on the spindle shaped hill ranges is distinctly cut out of the rest of the ecosystem in the plains of Deccan Plateau of North Eastern Karnataka. The higher altitude of Sandur is the main reason for the distribution of flora and fauna of this region.

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The rich, green Sandur valley that strongly resembles the Western Ghats

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Historically, Sandur is famous for the 8th Century Parvathi Temple built by Badami Chalukyas and 10th Century Kumaraswamy Temple built by Rashtrakutas. Located on the hills of Swamimalai forest at the altitude of 900 meters msl, it is referred to as Skandadri in Skandapurana. The oval shaped valley has innumerable natural water springs and water reserves in rocks. Narihalla, the lifeline of Sandur, ends in a dam built near Taranagara. Tigers roamed free in Sandur till the 60s and their prey base comprised of herds of Chinkaras and Sambar Deer. Now, Sandur valley has leopards, Sloth Bears, wolves, jackals, etc. Muntjac and Four-horned Antelopes are also found across the valley. A part of the Daroji Bear Sanctuary falls in Sandur taluk too.

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Narihalla Dam

Avian Wonders:

I lived in Sandur from 1989 to 2002; the lush green forests in the plains and on the mountain ranges fascinated me, they reminded me of the Western Ghats. At the time, I had no clue about the diversity of birds in the area, as I neither had a bird guide nor binoculars to observe birds. Recently, I visited Sandur valley to make a fresh checklist of birds. As I drove into the valley near Yeshwanthanagara, I was welcomed by sweet birdsong. One of the first birds I spotted was the Orange-headed Thrush. I had tried so hard to photograph this bird in Dandeli, and I was very surprised at seeing it here at such close range.

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Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina)

I walked around looking for more birds, and as the day progressed, it began to feel as if I were in the middle of the Western Ghats. Apart from most of the common birds of the North Eastern plains of Karnataka, I spotted Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea), Puff-throated Babbler (Pellorneum ruficeps) and White-throated Fantail (Rhipidura albicollis). Winter visitors like Blue-capped Rock Thrush (Monticola cinclorhynchus), Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae), Verditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus), Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) etc were in and around the greenery.

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Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea)

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Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae)

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Blue-capped Rock Thrush (Monticola cinclorhynchus)

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Puff-throated Babbler (Pellorneum ruficeps)

The most exciting moment for me was the sighting of rare Yellow-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus) on a ficus tree near Gandi Narsimhaswamy Temple. This bird, which is listed as “Vulnerable” in by IUCN, is normally seen in rocky scrub jungles in Hampi and Daroji Bear Sanctuary.

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Yellow-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus)

The Sandur Valley and its surrounding area has more than 200 resident and migratory birds. It is indeed a birder’s paradise, and has a lot of potential for research to explore more number of species of birds.

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Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus

Pioneers of documenting Birds of Sandur:

A number of British officers spent their time in Sandur, watching birds and documenting them. After independence, one of the finest naturalists of India, M.Krishnan, identified and documented the birds of Sandur in his many writings. In 1973, Prof. Kumar Ghorpade, Department of Entomology, UAS, Bangalore, published an article on “Preliminary notes on the Ornithology of Sandur, Karnataka” in the journal of Bombay Natural History Society. He listed about 166 species of birds including Ultramarine Flycatcher (Ficedula superciliaris), Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis), Vernal Hanging Parrot (Loriculus vernalis), Crested Tree Swift (Hemiprocne coronata) etc. He also mentioned Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), which have become extinct long ago in this area. It is important to explore any possibilities of their survival now.

Important birding areas of Sandur:

Birds are seen everywhere, yet there are some areas where one can see more of them. Some of the prime areas for birding are, Ramgada hill, Medicinal Plants Conservation area near Gandi Narasimhaswamy temple gorge, Nandihalli P.G.Center, Harishankara natural water spring, Kumaraswamy temple, Devagiri vicinity, N.M.D.C forest area, Donimalai township, Narihalla dam, Daroji lake, etc.

The famous Sandur gorge by Samad Kottur

The famous Sandur gorge

Mining pause and restoration of the forest:

The unethical ravaging of Sandur’s forests for iron ore had destroyed the flora and fauna of the region. Before the era of illegal mining and transportation of iron ore began, the entire valley was known as a common-man’s Kashmir. Though the destruction of ecology is irreparable, the stop in mining for the last four years helped nature to regain its vitality slowly. A drive through Ramgada and Kumaraswamy temple during the monsoon gives one a feel of being in the Western Ghats. As the wounds heal slowly, the ecosystem of Sandur is gradually improving. The thriving population of avifauna is the indicator of this improvement. It is time to rethink what ‘development’ means and what it costs. We need to protect at least some pockets of the remaining habitat for the survival of the rare flora and fauna of Sandur.