When we decided to visit Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in early November, 2021, we could barely contain our excitement. A relatively young protected area (declared in 2011), it is tucked away in a corner of northern Karnataka, close to the borders of both Goa and Maharashtra, where the northern portion of the Western Ghats originates. Most of my ghats-related experience has been much further south, and I was eager to see what new treasures these forests would reveal. The drive to Hemmadaga Nature Camp from Bangalore is a long one – roughly 500 kilometres – and we reached in time for a late but sumptuous lunch. After a tiring journey, the delicious food was very welcome (the staff at the camp are excellent cooks!). Our stomachs satisfied, we began exploring the area.
The Hemmadaga property run by Jungle Lodges & Resorts is cosily nestled within the sanctuary limits. The property is small, and the periphery can be walked in under 30 minutes. However, the boundary is a simple barbed-wire fence, which extends into the forest on most sides. In the post-monsoon season, the vegetation around the camp is thick and lush – the landscape a mosaic of green. Following their impressive annual migration, Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) dragonflies filled the skies and could be seen resting on small plants everywhere one looked. We saw them perched right outside our cottages and they didn’t seem to mind us walking right past them.
Birds and herpetofauna are always a highlight of any Western Ghats trip, and this one was no exception. Almost as if sprinkled along the trees, we would notice a Northern Western Ghats Vine Snake (Ahaetulla borealis) silently and motionlessly stalking the undergrowth. In our two days, we spotted many individuals in different parts of the sanctuary.
After dark, another beautiful reptile emerged – the intricately-patterned White-banded Ground Gecko or Deccan Banded Gecko (Cyrtodactylus albofasciatus), often prowling on their slender toes near lines of ants, no doubt searching for a quick meal.
Both these reptiles are known from very small parts of the Western Ghats, and it was a treat to see them at Hemmadaga. By the streams, we encountered endemic species of frogs – one was the Indian Golden-backed Frog (Indosylvirana indica), the other was one of the Night Frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), but of the two possible species in the area (N. petraeus & N. danieli), we don’t know for sure which this one is.
An assortment of birds delighted us, although we weren’t able to get many clear sightings and photographs during our short stay. Some highlights included the Heart-spotted Woodpecker (Hemicircus canente), White-bellied Blue-Flycatcher (Cyornis pallidipes), Indian Yellow Tit (Machlolophus aplonotus), Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus), Orange Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) and the Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike (Hemipus picatus). Apart from the flycatcher, which we only saw once above a shaded stream, the rest of these birds were all seen participating in small mixed-species flocks around our tented cottages and on small trails around the property. Late into the night, the warm gurgling anthem of the Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia) left us glad of its company as we settled into our beds.
Apart from the impressive array of bird life, amphibians, reptiles and mammals found here, it was the invertebrates that truly impressed all of us. Spiders were some of the most captivating finds of our short two-day stay. On an old wall, a small aggregation of Ornamental Tree Trunk Spiders (Herennia multipuncta) had set up camp (over 20 individuals strong) of males and females of different age classes.
Each one had their own quarters neatly webbed up and guarded. Along the roadside, we would periodically see the distinctive burrows of the Lesser Goa Mustard Tarantula (Thrigmopoeus truculentus), which is often seen in this area. Restricted to a narrow portion of the Western Ghats (Coorg to Amboli) these tarantulas seem to like slopes with exposed soil to make their homes in, and burrows can be found along roads, near streams and under the exposed roots of large trees.
We weren’t able to see the spiders themselves very well, but a quick visit after dark would undoubtedly reveal these beautiful creatures. One smaller spider that caught my attention during a walk by the nearby river was the striking Long-horned Spiny Orbweaver (Gasteracantha dalyi), which is also endemic to the ghats, from Trivandrum to Amboli.
Despite their flamboyant colours, they are quite easy to miss in the forests and their webs are both elegant and extremely delicate. However, the spiders that are easiest to see in this landscape are those with the most powerful cable-like webs, the Giant Wood Spiders (Nephila pilipes). Several of these graceful web-spinners had the remnants of a catch in their web, and we kept checking in on them at intervals to see how much was left. One large female had a nice fresh crow butterfly (Euploea sp.) in her net.
On a short night-walk around the property, we came across two moth caterpillars that made us stop in our tracks! The first one was of the Bright Golden Emperor Moth (Loepa schintlmeisteri), found only in a few parts of the Western Ghats. The second one was of the Tasar Silk Moth (Antheraea paphia), whose large green body is peppered with orange and purple spots and small, delicate hairs.
Both these moths are equally stunning as adults and belong to the Saturniid family, which is a group of moths that are amongst the largest and most colourful anywhere in the world, including the better-known luna and atlas moths.
The staff at the Hemmadaga Camp guided us to two places that are certainly worth visiting, both of which are fairly close to the camp. The first is a nearby stream just off the mud road, which is easily accessed by car. Water cascades down a rocky surface and opens out into a shimmering emerald pool. It’s a scenic place to relax, swim and explore.
By the edges of the water, we spotted a variety of fungi, including two particularly striking types – one which was a deep orange, one of the Dacrymycetaceae family (most likely the Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus, Dacryopinax spathularia) and a type of bracket fungi (of the Polyporaceae family), both growing on dead wood.
Hidden in the shadow of a large boulder along the stream was a glistening freshwater crab (probably of the Gecarcinucidae family), which tried its best to stay out of view.
Edging its way onto the dirt path, we watched as a Pill Millipede (Arthrosphaera sp.) casually made its way across pebbles, fallen leaves and our feet. From its point of view, small saplings would appear to it as the ancient trees surrounding us do to a human!
The second place we visited was a viewpoint which was a 10-minute walk from the forest road. After a short ascent, we arrived in time for sunset to a vista with a view across the sanctuary.
The day had been overcast and hazy, with few birds out and about. Just as we thought we had lucked out, the sound of heavy wingbeats caught our attention. We couldn’t see anything yet, but there was no mistaking it – there was a Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) nearby! To our surprise and delight, not one but two birds flew into view and across the valley in front of us a few seconds later.
As the light faded, we began a satisfying walk back to our car. The termites, which spend most of their lives hidden underground and in decaying wood, had begun their annual emergence, taking to the sky in thick columns. Along our way back down the path, we saw and heard a pair of Jungle Nightjars (Caprimulgus indicus) making short work of them, all the time making their metronome-like chukoo-chukoo-chukoo calls. We could not have asked for a better way to end our trip to Bhimgad.