After almost a year of not getting to be out in the wild, I pounced at a chance that came by to make a trip to Bhadra Tiger Reserve! I had heard about the beauty of that forest and the abundant bird life it hosts, and it had been on my wishlist for a long time. Along with a friend who accompanied me, I planned a three-day trip to stay at the River Tern Lodge in Lakkavalli, run by Jungle Lodges & Resorts. The five-hour drive from Bangalore to the resort took us through highways lined with trees wearing their floral cloaks, as if to flaunt their spring collection.

The bridge connecting the twin islands that are home to River Tern Lodge

Leaving our welcome party behind at the reception of the River Tern Lodge, we walked towards our cottage that was perched on a little island with a breathtaking view. As we reached the bridge that connected to the island, my excitement and expectations of the place reached sky-high. I began to visualise how much more beautiful this place could be during the monsoon. This bridge was clearly going to become the place we spent most of our time at. The soothing breeze made the heat almost disappear and I soon found myself humming What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong; something that recurred every time I was on the bridge, throughout the trip. The balcony in the cottage opened up to the view of the expanse of the Bhadra river and the surrounding forest, with kites hovering above, and bulbuls chirping below. We sat there, taking in every molecule of the beauty around us, with no urge to talk. There was something so wonderful about this place that it made us want to be still.

An uninterrupted view of the reservoir and the forest, from the balcony

Soon after a sumptuous meal, we set out for a boat safari. The naturalist steered the boat towards an island where River Terns were nesting. My expectation of sighting some 50 odd River Terns burst into bubbles when I heard the cacophony.

An adult River Tern with a chick on the island

Hundreds and more – adults, juveniles and chicks congregated on the open island. The place was packed with action. The fear of missing out good shots creeped into one side of my brain while ‘chuck the camera, just enjoy watching the birds’ tugged on the other side. Apart from River Terns, birds like Black-headed Ibises, Spot-billed Ducks and Small Pratincoles also adorned this small island. 

Black-headed Ibis or the Oriental White Ibis

We sailed on and watched flocks of cormorants roosting on dead trees rooted in the waters while Brahminy Kites, Grey-headed Fish-eagles and Ospreys took to the skies. Malabar Pied Hornbills called out, plovers and Painted Storks walked by the edge of the river. The setting was serene and the golden hour was setting in.

A pair of Ospreys take off

That’s when we spotted a pair of jackals marking their territory by spraying. The sight of the pair through the viewfinder took me straight into Jungle Book and I instantly decided to call him/her Akela.

Meanwhile, at the river bank on the opposite side, a herd of 11 elephants with 2 calves and a tusker approached the water. I am extremely partial towards elephants, and did not hesitate to ask the naturalist to steer the boat towards them. We watched as the matriarch led the herd to the river and the adorable little calves began to play in the water. No amount of time spent with a herd of elephants can ever be enough. But the sun was beginning to set and we had to move. Just then, on the adjacent island, we spotted a herd of 6 elephants at twilight and that marked a perfect end to the safari, and the perfect beginning for the rest of our trip.

A herd of elephants at dusk

Waking up to an uninterrupted view of the reservoir and the forest, right from our bed, lifted our spirits very high. We left on a jeep safari and I was hoping to sight my first Malabar Pied Hornbill. The wide canals lined with farmlands and forests en route to the entry gate reminded me of home ground in the Anamalais. As we drove through the forest, I was in awe of how wonderfully a forest takes care of itself and all its inhabitants when not disturbed in the name of development. The towering Silk Cotton trees, majestic Ficus, bamboo thickets and the forest regrowth around teak plantations were all signs of the wonderful revival of forests that were once the roadway to Chikmagalur and grazing lands for cattle.

Tall and magnificent trees along the safari route

The ambience was wonderful, with the calls of White-bellied Woodpeckers, the tuk tuks of the flamebacks, the chirping of the Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers and noisy babblers. Drongos mimicked other birds while Barking Deer, Chital and Sambar Deer bustled about. We spotted a Malabar Pied Hornbill and to our surprise, it had made a kill of a barbet chick and was ramming the kill against a branch. A natural history moment and a lifer! It couldn’t get better, I thought.

Malabar Pied Hornbill with its prey – a barbet chick

But it did get better, when we saw a tigress on the road. This tired and wounded female had come to a waterhole to quench her thirst. Sighting a tiger in a dense forest like Bhadra, and for the animal to not be shy of the safari jeeps was quite rare. She allowed us to be in her presence for about fifteen minutes, and the fact these were my first photographs of a tiger made it all the more special. I wondered if a territorial fight was the result of her injuries. That seemed to be the most likely reason because the driver and naturalist had sighted a tiger around the same zone 10 days earlier.

A tigress resting by the waterhole, with visible injuries

The jeep safari in the evening was a treat of a different kind. We first spotted a Bengal Monitor Lizard, wading through the dry leaves on the ground in search for a meal. We drove on a little further and saw another monitor lizard, only a little bigger than the one we saw earlier. A few minutes later, we saw yet another one crossing the road and this was about 3 ft long, the largest I had even seen. As soon as we began to discuss how we had been seeing so many monitor lizards, there was one more, and this one was hunting a scorpion. Monitor lizards are primarily insectivorous and they also feed on rodents, birds and eggs. But never have I seen or heard of one eating a scorpion. A good population of monitor lizards could mean that the habitat is well-suited for them and the threats of poaching and habitat loss may be lesser compared to other reserves.

As the light began to fade, we saw a Sloth Bear making its way through the grassy patches of the forest, sniffing for termites among dead logs and dry leaves.

A few minutes later, we came by an elephant in musth, cooling off at a waterhole with butterflies crowding him. As we watched him, we heard a rumble in front of our jeep and a very pungent musty scent of an elephant enveloped the air. A towering figure walked towards us – a humungous bull elephant in musth – completely unperturbed by our presence. When he approached the waterhole, the other bull sensed his presence and made a quick exit to avoid an interaction with him. But the second bull, almost 11 ft tall, decided to pursue the first and took the same path. Soon, both disappeared into the jungle.

The second bull, almost 11 ft tall, was in musth

The following morning, on our boat safari, we saw yet another bull elephant in musth, pursuing a female, but the female avoided the male as she was with a calf. Such interactions and sighting these gentle giants in magnanimous spaces made it seem like the forests of Bhadra almost embraced me with great warmth and familiarity. The birding haven that Bhadra was to so many others was a mammal haven to me. I felt so much at home, yet I was gifted with the best surprises! Bhadra, on the contrary to others’ experiences, was a delight to me.