Dharwad, nestled in the lush, forested hillocks of the Western Ghats and the rolling expanses of the plains, has all the potential of a biodiversity hotspot. This little picturesque town has nurtured many a great poet, writer, musician, and of course, the brilliant ornithologist, the late Dr. J.C Uttangi. Dharwad’s verdant surroundings and its unique geographical location provided Dr. Uttangi bounteous opportunities to hone his bird-watching skills. In 1993, Oriental Bird Club (OBC) requested him to conduct a bird survey of the areas that would be affected by the proposed dam across the Mahadayi River, which could cause significant damage to the rich riverine habitat. Till date, this survey remains one of the most significant, scientific surveys of this area.

Today, with social media and access to technology, there is a different breed of birders in the region: dedicated and tech savvy. It was with the aim of introducing them to proper methods of documenting bird sightings that ‘North Karnataka Birders Network’, along with ‘Bird Count India’, conducted a workshop in March 2016. At the workshop, Mr. Vijay Mohan Raj, Chief Conservator of Forests, casually revealed his plans to conduct a bird survey in Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary using JC Uttangi’s parameters, to obtain a comparative list. This novel idea created an incredible opportunity for us to walk in this great birdman’s footsteps, for a tantalisingly new challenge – a comparative survey.

Thus began the search for the original survey report, an elusive paper, eventually found. It provided details of areas and birds surveyed. The route map, though initially confusing, was finally deciphered. Dr. Uttangi had started in mid-April, working over weekends for two months. Needing to follow the same protocol and not wanting to lose a year, planning commenced immediately. Mr. Gurunath Desai gave us valuable instructions on conducting the survey. For best results, we decided to follow the exact routes and dates as the first survey.

The team, at Dongargaon peak. Photo courtesy: the team

An exuberant team travelled to Jamboti forest for the first lap. It offered a mixed terrain of primary forest, dense deciduous forests, misty hills, and stretches of grasslands on the way to Chigule. The setting sun followed us into the forest rest-house. Weary bones were greeted by friendly, courteous forest staff. Over cups of invigorating tea, the route plan for the next two days was plotted. As our journey would be mostly through rough terrain, a skilled driver and a GPS were provided.

At the rest-house, I thought I had the room to myself, but discovered that I was sharing it with a tree frog, thread-waisted wasps, moths and forest lizards. I fell asleep with mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension, fervently hoping that we could deliver the high standard expected of us. What would the route yield? Would we get the same species? Would we add to the list? How had time treated the habitat? Soon, the liquid call of the Jerdon’s Nightjar and the song of the Jungle Nightjar heralded pre-dawn. Gradually the nightjars faded and a morning chorus took over, as other birds awoke. This was a prelude to a great day of birding.

A blush spread across the eastern skies as we set out, the morning chorus rising to a crescendo. Jamboti to Khanapur was a cakewalk of tarred roads. Our first few stops yielded flower-peckers, sunbirds, koel, barbets, minivets etc. We came across the first of the many Forest Wagtails in a well-wooded part of the trail. As the thermals rose, raptors soared above. After this, it was off-road birding, as per Dr. Uttangi’s map. Here, a Brown Fish Owl was the most exciting sighting. Oriental Honey-buzzard and Yellow-footed Green Pigeon added to the booty.

Brown Fish Owl

The dense primary forests behind the camp, and the Kotni dam site, were next. The rough trail yielded only a few Racket-tailed Drongos. To compensate, the dam site, with lush, emerald-clad hills glowing in the evening sun, was soul stirring. And, a Malabar Pied Hornbill and Asian Fairy Bluebird deigned to appear. Excitement spiked as we came across Square-tailed Bulbuls on the way back; these were high on our list, and in subsequent surveys, we saw them aplenty.

Square-tailed Bulbul

The next day was an eventful one as we travelled across one of the most varied habitats – at one point touching Karnataka’s border with Goa, at the confluence of Kalsa and Surla rivers – where we sighted Black, Crested Serpent and Greater Spotted Eagles. At Kankumbe, the depressing spectacle of the Mahadayi River diversion project cut a brown swathe through the lush, green forest. From here, the route to Chigule snaked through rolling grasslands bordered by scrub-jungle. Larks and pipits scuttled across these seemingly endless roads. Chigule is located near the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, where an enchanting temple stands at the very edge of the hills, against a panoramic backdrop of the Western Ghats.

The Mahadayi River diversion project.

Towards evening, we visited Amgaon, a remote outpost in the forest, where we were welcomed by flocks of Indian Swiftlets circling overhead. Amgaon had a peculiar habitat of grasslands bordered by dense forests. In these grass clearings were larks and pipits. In the dense forests bordering these grass clearings were forest birds. Near a water body, we came across Rufous Babblers. We then drove back to the basic forest outpost, where we gladly gulped down the black tea offered to us. We sat listening to calls from the jungle, and could hear the menacing hum of a thousand bees, as darkness enveloped the forest. With Amgaon, the first lap of the survey had ended, and our elated team recorded the sightings. A total of 119 species were recorded in the two-day survey, and a few lucky friends had also seen the Slender Loris. Sadly, some key species from Dr.Uttangi’s list eluded us.

The Amgaon grasslands, bordered by dense forests.

The subsequent weekend saw us back at the Jamboti forest rest-house, which seemed like a second home now. We started with Kabanalli village. Soon, a pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers added a touch of glamour to the first stretch.  Malabar Parakeets and Grey-fronted Green Pigeons pitched in. At the Bhandori jheel, team members spotted Red Spurfowl and Malabar Woodshrike. I preferred to stay in one location, finding this more productive; my laziness was rewarded with a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, its violet-blue occasionally flashing in the sunlight. A tasty breakfast of the ubiquitous avalakki was provided by our village guide’s family before we started out for the day.

We soon left the village behind and traversed the core area of the forests, where overgrown lianas hung across barely visible paths like twisted serpents. Some of my fitter friends and guides cleared the paths; I lent a feeble hand wherever I could. Raju, our young driver, literally tore his hair out in this truly challenging terrain. Disappointingly, these areas, though a great habitat, yielded very little. We did glimpse a White-rumped Shama and a White-bellied Blue Flycatcher.  It was near tiny hamlets where activity peaked, with mixed-flock hunting parties relieving the deafening silence.

Finding a path through the lianas.

The core forest at Kabanalli.

The next morning, we headed to Khanapur, starting day two of our second lap. We opened our account with the calls of the Indian Peafowl and Grey Francolin at an abandoned stone quarry. A single Painted Stork was sighted. As we were about to call it a session, we saw a herd of gaur with calves crossing the dust road ahead of us. To come across a herd of gaur when on foot is certainly an unnerving experience! The next stop, an acacia forest, yielded nothing much – the result of planting exotic trees. But the enchanting sight of about twenty Indian Peafowl in the early morning light lifted our spirits.

Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary was next. Four Malabar Barbets and Vernal Hanging Parrots welcomed us. The ride to Dongargaon peak was eventful, offering a sighting of the Forest Wagtail and the Indian Golden Oriole. Higher up, we sighted Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Black Bulbuls and the fabled Draco. At the peak was a delightful cacophony from numerous Yellow-browed Bulbuls. A Speckled Piculet and a Black Eagle soaring high was the icing on our cake. Thus ended the second lap. I missed the next two laps, but my indefatigable team added some amazing species to the list. The Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat was photographed in Barapede Caves, adjacent to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary.

A rickety bridge over a stream at Bhimgad.

Speckled Piculet

Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat

The last lap, Talewadi, situated at an altitude of 2055 feet, at the Karnataka- Goa border, was the most enthralling part of our survey. A remote village of less than ten huts, it had a small, basic forest outpost, where towards evenings, thick fog rolled in, enveloping the whole area, giving it a mysterious air and adding to its sense of remoteness. The bird fauna of Belgaum and Castlerock overlap here, making it one of the most biodiversity-rich areas. Since the outpost had only two rooms, I slept in the camp at Bhimgad. At 2 am, the call of a Jungle Nightjar – so near that I thought it was in the room – jolted me awake! Pulling out my phone, I recorded the call, but I failed to locate the bird.

An unusual Scorpion at Talewadi.

Pre-dawn, a flash of blue and green illuminated by our vehicle’s headlights opened the account for the day; it was the Indian Pitta, whose calls were frequently heard along the way. The whistling schoolboy teased us with his song, and after some patient searching, we finally spotted the Malabar Whistling-thrush. At a remote stream in Pansheera, shrouded in mist, a pair of Nilgiri Wood Pigeons rewarded us with their presence. Deogaon was our next stop, where through the day we encountered Common Flamebacks, Scimitar Babblers, Grey-headed Bulbuls, a Malabar Trogon, and a Great Hornbill.

Bird survey at Talewadi on a foggy morning.

The stream at Pansheera.

Malabar Trogon

On the last day of the survey, we targeted the Malayan Night Heron and the Wayanad Laughing Thrush. But these eluded us, though the latter was sighted in the area earlier this year by one of our team members.

Some sightings happen when you least expect them. As I sat quietly by a remote stream, intently scanning its overgrown banks, a shadowy form flew in and perched on a bare branch farther down the stream. As I peered through the eerie, green gloom created by the thick canopy overhanging the stream, I realised that I was staring at my first Blue-eared Kingfisher! This was a significant sighting as we had not come across one yet. With the sun climbing steadily, the forest soon grew quiet and seemed to doze in the afternoon heat. We decided to end the session.

A total of 178 species of birds were observed during the entire survey. Of these, 9 species fall under ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Near threatened’ categories in the IUCN list. Amongst mammals, Indian Gaur, Leopard, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat, Slender Loris, and Jungle Cat were sighted. The call of the Barking Deer too was heard. Reptiles and amphibians like the Malabar Pit Viper, Checkered Keelback, Rat Snake, Flying Lizard, Forest Calotes, Common Indian Toad, and tree frogs were sighted. Though some key avian species seen by JC Uttangi eluded us, we were able to add some important species to the list.

It is imperative to thank Mr. Vijay Mohan Raj for placing his trust in us. My team members and friends’ indefatigable spirit and camaraderie made light of the gruelling field hours. This soul-stirring experience was made possible by the total, unstinting support of the forest staff: RFOs, DRFOs, forest guards, forest watchers, guides, drivers and other staff members. We would like to thank to them for this unforgettable, history-making experience. Most important was the warm hospitality of the residents of all the villages; their care and generosity turned simple meals into tasty feasts. Their warm smiles touched our souls, always lifting our spirits.

The team, enjoying lunch by the roadside.

A year after the survey, as I reminisce those exciting days, I feel a deep gratitude to the intrepid, pioneer birdman, Dr. JC Uttangi. Without his flagship survey, the doors to these little-known forests would not have opened to us.

The team members :

Anto Christy, Pavan Miskin, Kushal Adaki, Narahari Kanike, Chandrashekar Shirur, Hemanth Byatroy, Prasanna Parab and Vaidehi Gunjal.