Saving the world while you wait

Manchanabele – Birding in Bangalore’s extended backyard


Weeks before this impatient Indian summer took hold of Bangalore and desiccated it, I camped overnight at Manchanabele as part of an office offsite. In between the adventure activities and kayaking and team-building bonfires, I sneaked in two sessions of birding. The first, in the evening, was not the most eventful but it gave me opportunity to see some familiar birds up close. The next morning’s walk was more productive.

Manchanabele landscape
The backwaters of Manchanabele Dam

The Manchanabele Dam, built over the nearly extinct Arkavathy River, is about 45 km from Bangalore, located in Magadi taluk. Though the backwaters of the dam are popular with bikers and adventure-seekers, there are prohibitory orders on swimming here. The reservoir has the disturbing reputation of claiming the lives of several errant swimmers in the last few years. Adventure resorts, however, offer carefully monitored activities such as kayaking and swimming (life jackets are mandatory).

Red-vented Bulbul at Manchanabele
A Red-vented BUlbul strikes a pose

The approach trail to one of the camps, from the village of Dabbaguli, is through a beautiful patch of rocky scrubland. There are plenty of common birds and a few unexpected ones, too.

A small rocky hillock shielded the adventure camp from civilization. The trees and shrubbery formed enough of a little jungle to conceal lots of little mysteries. On the evening that I walked there, I felt I was being watched. And every time I turned my head, I heard a little going-away rustle. I never saw the watcher.

Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A Purple Sunbird on a Calotropisgigantea
What a jewel of a bird!
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A fine view of the world while getting drunk on the elixir of life
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
A female Purple Sunbird feeding on flower nectar
Manchanabele - Sunbirds
These fledged Purple sunbird chicks were still being fussed over by their parents

A Purple Sunbird, sipping nectar from a flowering cluster of Calotropis gigantea and watched over by its barely fledged brood of chicks, stole the show. As did the male Indian Robins, which patrolled the scrub, displaying with all the aplomb of peacocks to dowdy, scornful females.

Indian Robin male displaying
Indian Robin male displaying

In the morning, sober despite the night’s tippling, I rose early and made for the trail early to try my luck. The Indian Robins were up early, displaying again to the same unappreciative crowd. Hoopoes ducked out of view, bearing nesting material in their curved bills.

Hoopoe at Manchanabele
A Hoopoe at perch

I walked again to the tree where I had heard the rustle. Bathed in light, it seemed to levitate. Its branches quivered with squirrels at play. Under the tree, I spied a movement and froze. After a few seconds where time seemed to stand excruciatingly still, two shapes revealed themselves at the base of the tree. A pair of Painted Spurfowl. It was my first sighting of this beautiful ground bird since 2005, when I had seen it at the top of Thurahalli. In weeks to come, I checklisted the bird on two other trips. The pair grazed calmly and moved slowly back into the forest just as an Indian Grey Mongoose came by to investigate, making a familiar rustling and solving the mystery of the previous evening.

Painted Spurfowl at Mancchanabele
A distant view of a pair of well-camouflaged Painted Spurfowl

Together, I listed some 50-odd species. But more than the species count, modest by most estimates, birding here offered a glimpse of the biodiversity that so easily had been what the city and its once sylvan environs offered in the late 1980s. I remember my first winter birding trip in Bannerghatta in 1989 with what was then the Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore. Among the catches of that morning were a bushelful of lifers — Verditer Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo, Puff-throated Babbler and more. Walking amid the scrublands between Dabbaguli and the Manchanabele backwaters, I felt a little of that old rush of excitement. And I felt a pang for all that Bangalore had lost.