After five months of cocooning during the pandemic, we finally gathered some courage to venture out and spend a day watching birds. I had recently come across a photograph of Narayanagiri Betta and Jalamangala lake by its foothills on Instagram. Needless to say, I was smitten by the beauty of it. After many days of pestering my partner Seshadri to make plans to visit the place, we finally decided to go along with a friend. Filled with excitement, we drove to Narayanagiri Betta which is about 80km from Bangalore. Travelling through the unrecognisable Mysore Road, we reached our destination just before sunrise and stopped at Jalamanagala lake. The mist had just started to rise from the surface of the lake and there was a slight winter chill. The air seemed fresh and the only sounds were of birds chirping at a distance. Except for a lone Small Blue Kingfisher, no other bird was visible around the water. Knowing well that it was a bit too early the birds, we began our ascent to the hilltop.

A panoramic view of Narayanagiri Betta with Jalamangala lake in the foreground

After a 2-minute drive on the tar road, we entered a mud road that led us up the hillock. When we had tried to find out about this place all we read was about the difficulty in ‘off-roading’ along with steep curves. We managed to drive up halfway and decided it was best to park the car and head off by foot. By then, the sun had started to emerge over the horizon and the first few rays touched the hilltop. The sight was worth every minute of sleep we had lost to leave early that morning.

Narayanaswamy temple at the hilltop

The trail up the hill was rather easy; some steps have been hewn along with bars to hold on to. One could also walk on the rock and pave their path. Small streams flowed by from the recent monsoon rains. We stopped a few times to look around the hillock and saw mongo orchards, ragi fields, and other tiny hillocks. Upon reaching the hilltop we saw the quaint little Narayanaswamy temple with a few pagoda trees surrounding it along with tall, yellow grass. Parts of the hillock looked like a scene out of The Lion King. This was the season of the glorious grass, painting the ground yellow when the sun rays hit, swaying a little when the breeze flowed.

A female Rock Agama

Climbing up on an empty stomach was not joyous as we could hear it growling. Having found a quiet spot, we sat and devoured our breakfast in no time. Post breakfast we decided to explore the fort borders as the bird activity on the hilltop wasn’t great, but we got to see so much of other wildlife. We would come across Rock Agamas every few steps, bobbing their head and scurrying away as we approached them. Since it wasn’t their breeding season, we didn’t come across any of the colourful males.

Several such rock-pools support local wildlife

There were many small rock pools filled with water from the rain. Little water skaters and other insects were floating about along with some algal matter. Some of the larger pools had Skittering Frogs in them, but they skipped away as they saw us approach the pool.

Apart from these smaller critters, we found the presence of a predator, quite a large piece of skin that would have been shed probably by a Common Checkered Keelback snake. What a lucky find, we thought!

Shedded skin of a Checkered Keelback

Walking to the other side of the hillock and looking over towards the horizon we saw something that looked like a large water body. Peering through our binoculars we found something unexpected, acres and acres of solar farms, in an area that once would have been a lake or even agricultural fields.  Saddened by this sight we tried hard not to think of the destruction that might have had to the local wildlife. Just then, a Hoopoe flew in, gloriously showing off its beautiful, black-tipped crest feathers. Such a brilliant mohawk! I am sure no hairdresser can match this one. We watched it walk around trying to find insects and seeds to feed on until it finally flew away onto the grassier side of the hillock.

A Pea Blue butterfly

Several Euphorbia trees were found growing on this part of the hill, surely it had taken them a few hundred years for it to grow to such heights., the base of these plants had broken beer bottles and other trash. All the shrubs and grass that were growing here attracted a lot of butterflies, many of which we couldn’t identify. I am sure this would be a great place for a butterfly enthusiast to visit.

Golden grass and the Pagoda trees made it look like a scene from The Lion King

This was the time of the year when dragonflies had claimed their share of the skies; everywhere we looked, we saw swarms of Wandering Gliders trying to hunt mosquitoes and other flying insects. Dragonflies are known to be great controllers of these parasites. They use the fresh water in the rockpools to lay their eggs in and the larvae metamorphose in these waters to emerge as these winged beauties. Along with them among the grasses were several colourful grasshoppers, many kinds that I have never seen before. Swaying along with the grass in the wind, it truly was a sight that made a mark in our memories.

Dragonflies hovering around

As it got a little sunny and the heat started to set in, we hoped the raptors would come by too. To our joy, we saw a pair of Booted Eagles, Black Kites and Brahminy Kites. We watched them as they disappeared into the sky.

A grasshopper amongst the golden grass

On our way back, some sunbirds and a Common Kestrel kept us occupied. It was a very short walk down, but tricky with the weirdly hewn in stairs. Closer to where we had parked, the forest got a bit dense. Striking a conversation with the locals, we found out that the badly made mud road is being commissioned by the local villagers to help devotees visit the temple with ease. But with more people comes more garbage and more destruction. A large patch of shrub forest had been cleared to make way for a parking lot, much of the euphorbia cut down to ‘avoid’ drunk men from throwing bottles around.

Euphorbia species over a metre in height take centuries to grow

Another villager told us that there is a cave on the other side of the hill where a family of Sloth Bears lives and was seen recently with a few cubs. Hoping that they don’t destroy whatever is remaining of the forest, we approached the car and took one final look at the magnificent monolith. As if to say goodbye, an Egyptian Vulture flew past us in close range.

We left Narayanagiri with mixed emotions – happy that we saw such a serene place and sad because of the damage being done to convert the quaint hill to a tourist spot.