Karnataka, as I have realised over the years, is a region that truly embodies its tagline – one state, many worlds. Drive through the Western Ghats region in the west, trundling uphill through the coffee estates of Chikmagalur and spiralling downhill through the thick forests of Agumbe, and you quite unexpectedly find yourself breathing in the salty air of the sea, once you reach the plains. The quick succession of changes in landscape within the span of a few hours marks the presence of a wide variety of natural wonders in the land.

It was the lure of this rich biodiversity that led us to explore a small but significant part of the 320-km long coastline of Karnataka, encompassing the seaside towns of Udupi, Kundapura and Byndoor. While they are primarily known for their pristine beaches and culinary delights, for us, the main charm of these locations lay in the thriving birdlife that existed on their beaches and backwaters. Estuaries abound in the region, and in several places, only a narrow strip of land separates the sea from the backwaters. Yet, despite the similarities in topography, all the three locations had their own set of attractions.  

A congregation of Kentish Plovers, Lesser Sand Plovers, Terek Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and Curlew Sandpipers.

The temple city of Udupi, steeped in cultural traditions and known worldwide for its cuisine, has a number of picturesque beaches. The stretch starting from Padukere Beach (near Malpe) to Mattu Beach is one of the relatively less-commercialised shorelines in the region. Until a few years ago, this stretch used to be a small fishing village – a thin slice of land between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters; this was before the Padukere-Malpe Port Bridge connected it with the mainland, giving away its almost-secret location. The birdlife, though, continues to enthral, and we spent a few afternoons watching Western Reef Egrets wait patiently along with their fairer counterparts, the Great Egrets, biding the waves to bring them food. And food was aplenty – in the form of fish, or even ghost crabs that scrambled for cover once the tide exposed them on the glimmering, afternoon sand. Of late, the sighting of bioluminescence along Mattu Beach, a phenomenon caused by the organism Noctiluca scintillans, has brought scores of tourists to the area.

A Western Reef Egret and a Great Egret lie in wait.

Common Greenshank

A Horn-eyed Ghost Crab finds itself on dangerous grounds, as a Terek Sandpiper lurks in the background.

Moving onward, some 40 km away from Udupi lies the town of Kundapura, another region known for its gastronomy, being the birthplace of the ghee roast. Struggling to divert our mind from such delectable prospects, we ventured towards Malyadi Bird Sanctuary – an erstwhile clay quarry used for making tiles, which today shelters a range of avian life, including several species of waders, both resident and migratory. The retreat of the monsoon had led the wetland to shrink, filling its frame with colourful water lilies and tall reeds. Snoozing Lesser Whistling Ducks, foraging Purple Swamphens and swooping Blue-tailed Bee-eaters met our inquisitive foray into the area, subtly demonstrating the need for a longer visit in the future.

Water lilies blooming at Malyadi Bird Sanctuary, Kundapura.

But there was more to Kundapura – Malyadi Bird Sanctuary was just a sampler of the vast treats it had in store for us down the backwaters. Our boat meandered through a jumble of mangroves along the Panchagangavali River, a treasure trove of flora and fauna hidden amidst its tangled roots and branches. A vital coastal ecosystem, mangroves also act as conducive breeding grounds for fish, shielding them against predation and strong water currents. A fascinating phenomenon we came across while cruising here was the immense presence of seashells in the backwaters; so much so that there were even entirely shell-made islands jutting out of the water. The boatman told us that the extraction of seashells was a big business there, with large quantities being supplied all over the country.

A seashell island against the backdrop of a mangrove forest, in Kundapura.

Learning of our interest in birds, he offered to take us to an island that he usually took picnic parties to, warning us that we would need to wade through water to get there, as it was too shallow for the boat to paddle through. All our apprehensions disappeared as we sighted flocks of whimbrels, curlews, Crab Plovers, Dunlins, Great Knots, Black-tailed Godwits, terns and gulls, all jostling against each other on that island. Wading through water never seemed more inviting!

A mixed flock of Caspian Terns, Lesser Crested Terns and Brown-headed Gulls.

The beautiful, gentle-looking Crab Plover – an expert at breaking open molluscs and crabs by pounding them mercilessly with its heavy bill.

Great Knots

We would have happily spent hours observing these winged beauties had the boatman not warned us about the rising tide, as the sun began setting. The little island that we were on was fast submerging, and as we pushed away in our boat, we watched the water gobble up the island – inch by inch, foot by foot – within a matter of minutes. Wonders galore, is how we could best sum it up!

Finally, the last leg of our coastal sojourn took us to Byndoor, thirty minutes away from Kundapura. Unbeknownst to us, we had saved the best for last. The beach along Someshwara Temple in Byndoor, adjoining an estuary, was a revelation. The region is a flourishing hotspot for marine life, and during low tide, a wonderful spectrum presents itself. Mussel and algae laden rocks, pools of water collected in the rocky landscape, and an array of marine life concealed in them – it was enough to make us feel like explorers from a wildlife television channel. Struck with wonder, we observed quirky little crabs that disappeared into the sand in the blink of an eye, and brightly coloured fish trying to camouflage themselves, even as sandpipers and plovers scurried eagerly amongst the rocks, scouring for delicious titbits.

This beachside location acts as a supermarket not only for birds but humans as well. Groups of large crabs are found within the landscape’s rocky nooks, and I looked on as a person approached one such group, scooped out just a single crab from the bunch, and left satiated. I believe this is what we should all practise to sustain the natural world – take no more than you need. 

The landscape at Byndoor.

Common Sandpiper

Lesser Sand Plover

Eurasian Whimbrel

The charm of Byndoor was exceedingly magnetic and we found ourselves spending entire days watching the antics of crabs as they darted in and out of their burrows, creating beautiful patterns on the sand. At one place, my husband lay down on the ground to take an eye level photograph, and to my horror, I saw that what looked like an ant colony from afar was actually a ‘crab town’, buzzing with thousands of tiny crabs!

When it was time to pack up and be homeward bound, we understood what the term ‘dragging one’s feet’ was all about. That week spent in coastal Karnataka in search of waders was definitely amongst the best trips we had been on in a long, long time. And yet, we realised that we had just scratched the surface, and there were many more nuances to these beautiful seaside towns. Perhaps with a little bit more patience in waiting out the disruptive pandemic, we should be able to savour the delights of coastal Karnataka sooner than we think!