Having earlier been to Jungle Lodges & Resorts in Bandipur, BR Hills, Kabini, and Bhadra, our natural choice for a new-year birding expedition was also them. North Karnataka beckoned and we chose Kali Adventure Camp in Dandeli.

We checked into Kali Adventure Camp on the second day of 2023. With a warm welcome from the camp staff, we were taken to our river-facing tent. The sight of the beautiful Kali River flowing silently in our front yard, the lush green campus with old-growth trees, and the chirping of numerous birds instantly transported us to a magical realm. After resting for a short while, we took a stroll around our tent. Within minutes, we could spot the Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail, Verditer Flycatcher female, Ashy Drongo, Brahminy Kite, Little Spiderhunter, Asian Green Bee-eater, Magpie Robin, minivets, sunbirds and bulbuls. The bounty of sightings in our maiden walk in the campus piqued our curiosity.

We then headed to JLR’s trademark gol-ghar for lunch – as in their other properties, every item in the spread was delectable. The friendly conversations with the staff, naturalists and fellow guests added more joy to each meal of our stay. Later that afternoon, we set out on our first jeep safari into Kali Tiger Reserve.

Kali Tiger Reserve encompasses Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and Anshi National Park. River Kali flows right through the reserve, playing a pivotal role in the ecosystem. It is home to a variety of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the Western Ghats. Hornbills are one of the major attractions in Kali Tiger Reserve – of the 9 hornbill species found in India, 4 of them inhabit this reserve. And this was the main objective of our visit too – to see all the four. With the company of our naturalist Mr. Dutta, we first saw a crocodile basking in the afternoon sun.

A crocodile basking by the riverside.

After the big arch at the entrance of Kali Tiger Reserve came a stretch of teak trees on either side of the safari path. As we silently drove through, there was a sudden flutter of wings to our left and it looked as if two huge balls of beige and black were tossed from one tree to another. The driver halted the vehicle at once and we saw the charismatic Malabar Pied Hornbill – two, slowly four, and eventually around 5-7 of them, hopping between the teak trees! That was indeed a sight to behold. The Malabar Pied Hornbill is a resident breeder in India. It resides in evergreen and moist-deciduous forests. Due to habitat loss, poaching and other anthropogenic activities, their population status in IUCN is ‘Near Threatened’. They are omnivorous in their feeding habits, but figs form a major part of their diet. It’s interesting to note that one of the fruits they eat – Strychnos nux-vomica – is toxic to many vertebrates.

Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)

After filling our digital memories with images of these gorgeous birds, we moved forward, content but craving for more. At a bend, we saw an Indian Gaur grazing. Next to it, a white trail of exuberance started flittering around. It was a male Indian Paradise Flycatcher. He was happily feasting on ticks plucked off the gaur’s back, and the latter in turn was much obliged for the free pest-control service.

Indian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi)

Further on, about a dozen turtles were soaking up the evening sun on a log in a pond. They had an Oriental Darter for company. The whole ambience was so serene and still, it looked like a picture postcard. After a brief stop at a sunset viewpoint, it was time for us to head back to the camp. The next morning, we were taken to Timber Yard, Dandeli’s hornbill haven. Inside the yard, we were on foot, combing the sprawling space for various kinds of birds. Soon, we could see Chestnut-tailed Starlings, Coppersmith Barbet, Forest Wagtail, Brown-headed Barbet, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black Drongo, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Sparrow, as well as hear the cackling laughter of Malabar Grey Hornbills. We followed the laughter and waited below the tall trees for the birds to emerge from the foliage. After a short wait, the Malabar Grey Hornbills showed up.

Forest Wagtail (Dendronanthus indicus)

Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus)

Further down, a variety of bird calls emanated from a few tall fruit trees. There, we could spot the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, White-bellied Woodpecker, Malabar Grey Hornbills, Indian Grey Hornbills, Malabar Pied Hornbills and above all, the Great Hornbill! Like in the movie Avatar, it was as if the Toruk decided to present herself. We simply couldn’t have asked for more!

White-bellied Woodpecker (Dryocopus javensis)

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon (Treron phoenicopterus)

The Great Hornbill aka Great Indian Hornbill is native to India, Nepal, Bhutan and Southeast Asia. It prefers ancient old-growth forests with unlogged trees, in hilly regions. They are usually seen in small groups. Their population status is declared by the IUCN as ‘Vulnerable’, which implies they face a higher risk of extinction unless circumstances threatening their survival improve.

Great Hornbill, female (Buceros bicornis)

All four species of hornbills in Dandeli exhibit almost similar, fascinating breeding behaviour. During mating, both the genders become quite vocal. The female incubates 2-3 white eggs in a tree hole, which is blocked with a cement-like substance made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only a narrow aperture, just sufficient for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. And the mother and chicks void excreta through the same slit. When the chicks grow too large for the mother to share the nest with them, she breaks out and rebuilds the wall, after which both parents feed the chicks. They tend to return to the same tree hollow for future breeding as well. Just as our house is for us, their tree is for them.

After a gratifying walk around Timber Yard, we returned to the camp for breakfast. The mood at the camp was ebullient with the rare sighting of the Great Hornbill. Later that morning, we went white-water rafting on the Kali River – an adrenaline rushing experience, well organised by the team of expert rafters from the camp. They not only made it fascinating, but ensured our safety all the while. It was surreal to be by ourselves in the tranquil expanse of the reserve, in the lap of Kali nadi.

The gushing rapids of River Kali.

We had another jeep safari that evening, and a birding walk in the timber yard the next morning, in the company of naturalist Mr.Gajja. These trips offered us sightings of Vernal Hanging Parrot, Plum-headed Parakeet, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, a juvenile Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Racket-tailed Drongo, in addition to all the other birds mentioned earlier. We were also delighted to see a Heart-spotted Woodpecker right at the front yard of the camp.

Heart-spotted Woodpecker (Hemicircus canente)

It was time to check out. When we were packing, one of the camp staff visited our tent and informed us that a Blue-bearded Bee-eater pair was perched on the riverbank, just a little away from our tent. We rushed out. The camp manager and two other staff members were already watching the birds quietly and we joined them. The resplendent birds were perched on a branch opening to the river. Soon, one of them flew to capture an insect and sat on another branch amidst foliage. We saw it smashing the insect in typical bee-eater style and then devouring it. The other bee-eater remained stationed on the same branch all along.

Blue-bearded Bee-Eater (Nyctyornis athertoni)

It was one of the most memorable moments of our visit, just when we were about to leave. In essence, the abundant birding opportunities and the cordial hospitality of the entire team made our visit to Dandeli most cherished.