I had just finished my seventh semester. A one-month break from college meant that I could bird-watch more often. I spent a lot of time at my favourite lakes near home. The Asian Wetland Census had fuelled my enthusiasm (the increased number of eBird checklists gave off amazing vibes). In the semester breaks, my parents and I usually drive away from the city. Over the last three years, we have driven to Mysore, Hassan and Kanakapura. With my dad busy at work this time, my mum and I took a bus to Dandeli with my uncle.
The route from Hubbali to Dandeli was stippled with wide grasslands, with farm and woodland patches in between. Real shame we didn’t have the luxury of stopping en route. Our homestay host, Rajesh, picked us up from the bus stop and led us to Madhuvan Homestay, about 20 km away. To get there we had to cross the Kali River and the Kali Tiger Reserve.
Ever seen a honey-buzzard hover?
Our room overlooked an open field surrounded by huge timber trees, palm plantations and a few fruiting trees. Behind the homestay, the forests were old and wild, and vines and moss girdled the ancient trees. We had expected to see Malabar Pied Hornbills and Malabar Grey Hornbills, but if you told me I could spot so many of them from the comfort of a chair in my cottage, I wouldn’t have believed you. We enjoyed their loud, cackling calls.
The odd Malabar Pied Hornbill also perched atop trees for us, showing off their beautiful casques, and letting us click away. Raptors were all over the skies. In a span of minutes, we saw a pair of Oriental Honey Buzzards, a Crested Serpent-Eagle and a Peregrine Falcon (Shaheen) and another eagle we couldn’t identify (looked like a hawk-eagle), which soared away beyond sight.
Over breakfast, we saw a honey buzzard hovering. It flapped its wings frantically trying to stay stationary before swooping into a tree; another flew up and down, its flight pattern tracing an S-curve — behaviours that I had never before observed in these buzzards.
We set out on a forest trail with woods on one side and a palm plantation on the other. We were pleasantly confused by many calls — I heard bulbuls, but we had no luck with sightings. We walked far into the trail where farmland dominated the landscape.
Yellow-throated Sparrows (Chestnut-shouldered Petronias) were seen foraging on a dead tree. Unlike their cousins, the House Sparrows, these birds seemed to be more comfortable in high canopies and less so on the ground. A Verditer Flycatcher skulked in the trees. Little Spiderhunters made an appearance, but they never stayed put. They seemed to prefer the banana and palm plantations more than the woodlands.
After an hour it got really warm, so we headed back. On the way, we saw Western Crowned Warblers — a real treat to see the pale stripe on the middle of the head so clearly. We also saw other green warblers, which we couldn’t identify.
Home among the birds
Back at the room, we sat out overlooking the field. An Indian Roller came by and perched on a tree stump. Good old Green Bee-eaters were hunting butterflies, which were present in massive numbers in the fields. Southern Plains Langurs turned up. Seeing them with their long tails for the first time was really exciting. Two Wire-tailed Swallows had a nest on the neighbouring cottage, and they kept coming back to perch on the roof every once in a while. Orange Minivets foraged gregariously, moving among the young timber plantation at the homestay. My mum was especially happy to see and record the plumage difference in males and females.
Super tired after all the birding, our session after lunch was spent indoors. The whole ‘no-network’ deal around tiger reserves was quite an experience; it was nice being off the grid.
In the late afternoon, we set out again on another trail along a very dense forest. We could hear so many woodpeckers. Greater Flamebacks appeared, and we heard their drumming calls everywhere. A few hundred metres into the trail, I sensed movement in the trees, followed by loud calls. I knew it was some mammal, and my mind imagined some kind of bear, but the source of the call seemed to be going away from us. Phew!
A distant drummer
Walking deeper into the trail, we were greeted by more minivets and a small flock of Brown-cheeked Fulvettas. By the time I could observe them well, we heard another woodpecker drumming. It was unlike any drumming I had heard before, almost like a gunshot, and the dense forest amplified everything.
After some searching, we saw a White-bellied Woodpecker couple flying from one monster Ficus tree to another. They were beating the crap out of the branches, and moving up and down the tree in typical woodpecker fashion. I tried hard to photograph them, but it was too dense and dark. Next, we saw Indian Paradise-flycatchers, Black-naped Monarchs and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. Believe me when I say a drongo was imitating a car horn! Some Common Ioras confused us with their whistling calls, and so did the Oriental Magpie-robins as they always do. Funny how we get slightly disappointed to see commoners in our pursuit of lifers!
It was getting dark, so we started on our way back. And here’s the icing on the cake — the calls that I mistook to be some ferocious animal turned out to be made by a Malabar Giant Squirrel. It was a marvellous creature, superbly colourful and made loud rattling calls as it jumped from tree to tree, foraging. It went about its business, completely oblivious to how stunned it had just made a human who stood gaping at it.
The squirrel sat on a tree right in front of me, allowing me to make a very satisfying picture. Rajesh saw some of our pictures. He seemed knowledgeable about the local fauna. At 7:30 pm, he came knocking on our door with a flashlight. He wanted to show us a nocturnal flying squirrel. After some failed searching, he said he would call us if he saw or heard it again. The night here was pitch black. It was truly wild and, rightly so, the black sky was full of stars.
Same trail, different mood
The next morning, we took the same trail as the previous evening; it seemed much different now, the forest was alive with squirrels, hornbills, flamebacks and drongos. We had a series of splendid sightings — Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, Black-naped Monarchs and Orange-headed Thrushes.
We were now walking deeper into the trail. An eagle kept calling, and while I was trying to spot it, I instead got to see the Heart-spotted Woodpecker. It was a pocket-sized bird, really cute. I got to document it feeding on worms, and its pecking didn’t seem to create a loud drumming sound. We walked up to what looked like a small farmhouse. While heading there, we saw a Common Woodshrike, perching still in perfect light. Flocks of Plum-headed Parakeets, Yellow-footed and Grey-fronted Green Pigeons, and White-rumped Munias were seen atop the trees far away, and more kept flying in.
At the farm, where jowar and rice were cultivated, lived a Marathi couple. The lady recounted how leopards and bears often visited her farm at night and it’s just something they deal with.
After breakfast, Rajesh told us about a timber depot in Dandeli, which was a draw with nature-lovers. He told us to be ready by 4:30 pm. As my mum and uncle rested, I sat outside watching langurs. A flock of Yellow-browed Bulbuls moved around the canopy, and then came some leafbirds. On our way to the timber depot, Rajesh told us about how whole villages were integrated into the tiger reserve and how animals soon started moving into these places.
Where dead trees come alive
I was sceptical when I saw the felled trees at the timber depot, but I was soon proved wrong. We were first greeted by a familiar trrr-trrr rattling — a couple of Taiga Flycatchers were the first birds we saw. On a huge tree, Indian Nuthatches crept up and down. Looking up, I saw Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers pecking around the slender end of a tree that was more than 30-odd metres tall. Indian Yellow Tits and Golden-fronted Leafbirds quarrelled. I heard White-rumped Shamas sing but couldn’t see them. More Taiga or Red-breasted flycatchers were heard and what could’ve been an Ultramarine Flycatcher showed itself briefly before vanishing.
A huge banyan tree stood sheltered large congregations of frugivorous birds that dined on the Ficus fruits. There were Plum-headed Parakeets, hornbills, green pigeons and starlings in staggering numbers. I didn’t bother counting birds here; there were too many. On the way back we saw a beautiful lake in the middle of a dense forest, where peafowl were chilling. I longed to get down and explore, but we had a bus to catch.
Postscript – A doomed forest?
The proposed Huballi-Ankola railway line threatens to take away at least 5 lakh trees from the fragile Kali Tiger Reserve. The Karnataka state government recently caved to corrupt lobbies and approved the project. To oppose, the least we can do is write emails to decision-makers who can influence the decision to reverse this destructive move. Do check out the fridays-for-future.karnataka page on Instagram to participate in one of their email storms.