In the late 1990s, as a student in Manipal, I discovered that the hills I gazed at from my hostel window were a two-hour bus ride away. A school chum who worked in a coffee plantation at Chikmagalur extended an invitation to visit. I was overjoyed to accept, not once but many times over, for the next few years. About 50 kilometres from the muggy coast, my portal to the Western Ghats was Agumbe — the ten-minute rest stop for the minibus as it recovered from the steep climb up 14 hairpin bends was time enough to stretch my legs, take a bio-break, and scope out Heart-spotted Woodpeckers in the treetops. From here, the roads led to many destinations in Karnataka’s Malenadu region.
I retraced those journeys twice this last winter, visiting some of the oldest coffee plantations in Chikmagalur. For me, it was a chance to reacquaint with the woodlands and hills that had shaped my first decade of birding. Except, back then it was called bird-watching, with a hyphen, and many of the birds were known by different names. Yet, to meet old feathered friends in a fondly remembered setting was a joy like no other. November took me to the rustic and charming Balur Estate, one of the oldest British-established coffee plantations in the region. In February, I visited Villa Urvinkhan, a plantation stay near Mudigere, which offered a quite contrasting experience with its opulence. For me, the purest joys lay outdoors, as both plantations offered lovely trails to explore.
For two hours after sunup and two hours before sundown, I was unavailable for human socialising. Binoculars pressed to my eyes, I was far, far from the crowd. With every step, I relived a time when I had watched birds with my naked eyes, sans camera or the eBird app. Not surprisingly, my richest notes and observations are from that period, unsullied by tech-fuelled indolence or digital distractions. And few things can make memories more fragrant than freshly ground coffee.
Most of India’s coffee is grown in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. Unlike tea plantations, which in the hills of southern India are monocultures raised by felling large tracts of native forest, a coffee plantation has proven potential to sustain more biodiversity than other cash crops like tea, cocoa or rubber. Shade-grown coffee cultivation—the practice traditionally followed in India—allows native tree species and understorey vegetation to coexist with coffee shrubs. Ripe coffee berries are known to supplement the diets of endemic birds as well as mammals such as squirrels and civets. In a 2010 paper, researchers Joke Aerts, TR Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa wrote that coffee plantations could offset some of the ill-effects of forest fragmentation by providing important corridors for wildlife species outside of protected areas.
Balur Estate is one of the oldest coffee plantations in the Chikmagalur region, dating back to the mid-1840s. Initially owned by British planters, it changed hands after Independence. The current owner told me that since coffee fetches a poor price and skilled labour is increasingly hard to source, it is nature-loving tourists who help sustain the maintenance of these hundreds of acres of plantations. The sentiment was echoed by a member of the family that owns Urvinkhan Estate. Himself a wildlife enthusiast and birder, he says he stopped using pesticides more than 20 years ago because “the birds never take more than they need, and we need the birds.”
On a chilly morning at Balur Estate, I walked deep into a trail. A plaintive whistling drew my eyes to the canopy. A Grey-fronted Green Pigeon was ingesting a fruit that seemed more than a mouthful. Oriental White-eyes and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers flitted in the treetops, joined by Orange Minivets and Golden-fronted Leafbirds. Blyth’s Starlings were in the midst of a domestic argument. Vernal Hanging-Parrots chattered, keeping a respectful distance from a flock of Malabar Parakeets that were also tucking into the same fruity feast.
Beside a puddle, Red-rumped Swallows collected mud for their nests. Feisty Ashy Woodswallows policed a patch of sky, mobbing a Crested Goshawk. An Asian Brown Flycatcher dusted off the remnants of its winged dessert. A soft, familiar tuk-tuk-tuk in the crown of a silver oak tree filled my binoculars with the pleasant sight of an old friend — the Malabar Barbet, known to replace its cousin, the Coppersmith, in these wetter forests. As first impressions go, with its crimson throat, face and forehead, the bird looks like it has got itself into a bloody street brawl.
The wooded trails revealed more joys: Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Black-naped Monarchs and Racket-tailed Drongos. At dawn and dusk, Grey Junglefowl and Indian Pittas announced themselves. The day ended with spying on Dusky Crag-Martins as they sallied to their roosts in the century-old eaves. In the early mornings, they were relatively unflappable.
Villa Urvinkhan’s specialty is a stand of old-growth trees left inviolate for decades — an ideal habitat for White-bellied Woodpeckers. A pair of Little Spiderhunters patrolled the plantain clumps. Asian Fairy-bluebirds kept me in thrall while an Orange-headed Thrush burst into delightful song. A Bronzed Drongo showed up, iridescent and glistening in the dappled understory. At dusk, Grey Wagtails converged to roost.
Not all encounters were avian. The trails abounded with butterflies and odonates. Nights served up a cornucopia of moths. A barking deer slunk behind my cottage. One afternoon, I sensed a presence outside the bathroom window. Peering, I saw nothing. Then, a leaf floated down from a tree, spiralled in the air, and snagged on the moss-girded bark. Just as I was about to turn away, I discerned its camouflage – blending against the mottled lichen was a male Southern Flying Lizard (Draco dussumieri). It extended a bright yellow throat flap, and disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared.
A few days of walking the old ways sharpened my field instincts again, and shed the scar tissue of years of city life. Thanking the universe for revealing its bounty, I settled down on the deck chair with yet another cup of coffee.