This is the first of a two-part birding series. Read Part 2 here.
In 2020, considering the Covid situation, our pick for a year-end break was a road-trip to parts of Karnataka we hadn’t yet explored. A route was charted starting from Bengaluru, with a loop that would cover Bhadra, Jog Falls, Dandeli, Ganeshgudi and Hampi. We stayed at Jungle Lodges & Resorts at all these destinations, for two reasons – beautiful locations and good naturalists. Since our focus was birding, we needed naturalists with good local field-knowledge.
One of the features seen in India’s river systems is reservoirs, built primarily for irrigation and electricity; however, they also provide a suitable habitat for birds. At Bhadra’s River Tern Lodge, our first stop, we went on a boat safari on the Bhadra reservoir. It provided an unparalleled opportunity for proximity to birds – a perched Osprey, with its talons piercing its prey, was so close that we could see the scales of the poor fish! We also spotted fledgeling Great Cormorants jostling for the attention of their mother, from a nest perched precariously in a valley between two dried tree branches. A Grey-headed Fish Eagle decided to fly past. Besides birds, we were told that it is not uncommon to see a big cat approaching the water or an odd tusker bathing in the shallows.
An early morning drive through Bhadra’s sun-kissed forest is soul-soothing. By the water, we found Little-ringed Plovers scurrying about. Since December is the middle of the migratory season, we were also able to see birds that winter in the subcontinent, in addition to the resident species. A Brown Shrike, a widespread winter visitor, was basking in the sun. There was also a lone Oriental Turtle Dove pecking away, making the most of the lack of competition on the ground.
Sharavathi Adventure Camp, about three and a half hours away from Bhadra, overlooks the Talakalale reservoir. The view from the balcony of our cottage was a vista of verdant hills in various shades of green emerging from the calm blue of the reservoir, leaving us mesmerised. Jog Falls is a mere 6 km away from here. Even though we were well past the monsoon season, the waterfall was still impressive due to its sheer height and width. Jog Falls comprises of four streams of River Sharavathi: Raja, Rani, Rocket and Roarer. The waterfall also gifted us the first lifer of our trip – Black-throated Munias! We had almost overlooked these small munias sitting on some cables. A resident bird of South India, the Black-throated Munia had somehow eluded us until then.
After a quick breakfast, we set off towards Kali Adventure Camp in Dandeli, driving on roads in the teak forest lined with arching trees making a protective canopy. We also savoured the sounds of birds floating in and out, making it a drive for the memory book. Kali Tiger Reserve spans across hills as well as dense, moist-deciduous forests; safaris can be quiet and sighting birds is not easy. Having said that, our best ever sighting of the Lesser Adjutant Stork was from here – the bird had majestically stationed itself high on a tree!
We were wondering if we would be able to see too many birds around the busy little town that is Dandeli, but we were in for a pleasant surprise. As we stepped out of our room, a raucous sound alerted us to some activity. Through the morning haze, we sighted two pairs of Malabar Pied Hornbills on a nearby tree. Manjunath, our naturalist, said “there are plenty more to see, don’t worry,” and he was right – on a fig tree by the side of a street in Dandeli, were Malabar Pied Hornbills on almost every branch!
We drove to Timber Depot, situated a short distance away. Things seemed relatively quiet, but a little bird was foraging on the ground – a Forest Wagtail! It may have given a wake-up call to the others, because soon, we spotted a Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Indian Nuthatch and Taiga Flycatcher, among others.
Our next stop was Old Magazine House at Ganeshgudi, a half an hour drive through a winding, green forest road. Just short of the lodge, we found a lone bird sitting on an electric cable. Thinking it to be a wagtail, we cast a cursory look, till our binoculars told us a different story – it was a Black-headed Bunting! The lodge itself is a veritable treasure-house of birds, and we spent a few hours at the property’s hide, fascinated by the routine followed by various birds flitting in and out of the water baths: Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Orange-headed Thrush, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Emerald Dove, Dark-fronted Babbler, Indian Blackbird, and Indian Yellow Tit, to name a few.
The approach road to Old Magazine House is also worth exploring. As we walked down the red earth path, Vinayak, our naturalist, scanned the trees, only to sight a Crested Goshawk perched on a thick branch, under heavy shadow. It was a lifer for us. Further down the trail, Vinayak picked up the hammering of a woodpecker we were keen to see; we peered at a mesh of leaves to spot the Heart-spotted Woodpecker chipping the bark of a tree. I think I want to re-name this beauty Heart-stopping Woodpecker! All the possible angles were tried in pursuit of a clear image of this dainty bird; almost as if to save us from spraining our necks, it obliged us by moving to a creeper.
In the evening, we drove towards Supa Bridge, and sat down in a clearing waiting for Malabar Pied Hornbills. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to come! As the evening wore on, they started to fly by in droves towards the surrounding trees. Their loud calls filled the air. A pair of hornbills took off from a tree farther away, flying down towards us. Their mid-air courtship was amazing to see, with the hornbills locking their curvy, long beaks while in flight. I don’t know if it was enough for them to court each other’s attention, but it definitely caught ours!
Post dinner, a few of of us sat around a bonfire, exchanging anecdotes. Suddenly, I caught a flash of pale wings flying past, and nearly fell off my chair, shouting “owl! owl!” The faint light of a torch illuminated the owl perched in the clear, and it was a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl! A frenzied few minutes followed, as all of us ran to our rooms to get our cameras. We were all set, with the cameras pointing in the right direction, when we realised that the owl had given us the slip. Suddenly, there was another flash of feathers, and he was back. We finally took the images we had hoped for.
We were a little more than halfway through our birding tour, and had covered forests at the foothills of the Western Ghats. The journey had gifted us memorable landscapes of green hills, calm blue reservoirs, meandering rivers and streams, canopied drives, and a host of winged wonders. The last leg of our road-trip was going to be a complete change of terrain – we were looking forward to the boulder-strewn hills of Hampi.