Dandeli, Dense With Winged Wonders (2020)

Dandeli, Dense With Winged Wonders (2020)

Old Magazine House at Dandeli held out tantalizing prospect of glimpsing those winged beauties who would rather hide themselves in the dense foliage. So, around mid-December of the year of Corona, we hopped into our battered jalopy and drove straight 15 hours to Goa, stopping only for breakfast and lunch. (you can see a Youtube video of the entire trip under Rallies and Remarkable Road Trips). After a couple of days we found ourselves bumping violently cratered roads of Anmod Ghat on our way to Dandeli. It lived up to its reputation of being a birders’ paradise. It even rained hornbills, the Malabar pied variety with a couple of The Great Indian Hornbills putting in a guest appearance.

A faint rustle and a swish and she lands on a nearby bent bamboo swaying in the wind.  She casts a sidelong glance at the water bowl.  It has been a sunny day and she could do with a good dunk before it gets dark.  Perhaps those mites are troubling her. What better way to get rid of them than a hearty splash? But wait, what are those shiny black cylinders protruding from a thatch screen and reflecting light? They also make some suspicious clicking sounds from time to time. There seems to be some movement behind the thatch screen too. Is it safe to land on the water bowl now? She waits and watches for a while, furtively glancing at the thatch. Soon the sun will go down and it will be too late to bathe. Eventually, her urge to cleanse herself wins over her trepidation and she takes the plunge, literally! Tonight, one blue-capped rock thrush will enjoy sound sleep, unmolested by mites.

This was the moment we birders had been waiting for. The air is rent by rapidfire clicks. Gimbals move silently like robots, following the movement of the birds in an arc. First they come in ones and pairs, but soon a veritable procession of would-be bathers line up at the bird hammam placed there strategically for their benefit.  The air glistens with droplets of water splattered by fanning wings. When the sunlight reflects off them, they sparkle like diamonds.For me, it is my first precious peek into the universe of avian hygiene. The three days I spend in the Old Magazine House in Dandeli forest were truly a revelation in bird habits.  Initially, I thought the water bowls had been placed for birds to drink, but they seldom dipped their beaks into the bowl. Two tiny feet immersed in the bowl, they sway this side and that, dipping their wings and shaking them dry, repetitively.  Some linger to survey their surroundings while others chirp noisily on neighbouring branches to preen themselves after a bath.

All this is accomplished with much dignity, without hustling or quarrel. It is still early afternoon.  I spy a pair of orange-headed thrush They perch on adjacent branches for a long time, as if wondering whether to take the plunge.  One of them, presumably the female, tentatively flies to the birdbath, flits from rim to rim, but seems to rethink her decision and flies back to perch beside her mate. She whispers something to him in bird language and the two fly off for the time being although they do return later in the evening to complete their ablutions.Some, like the Oriental White Eye come in raucous groups arguing about the events of the day. Others like the fulvetta, sit at a discreet distance, hidden behind tree cover, watching and waiting.  Green pigeons arrive in dozens, their exquisitely patterned iridescent wings gleaming in the setting sun, like a fashion parade of avian haute couture.  Rock thrushes prefer the tiny pond on the ground rather than the birdbath.  Perhaps it gives them better cover.

The magpie robin sings from the bush, announcing its intention to use the bath, while white-bellied blue flycatchers sit silently awaiting their turn.  Paradise flycatchers, brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Indian yellow tit, Puff-throated Warbler, black-naped Monarch and several spotted doves, all take their turns one by one.  The warbler is skittish though, constantly watching out for danger.  At times, two different species perch on the far ends of a water bowl and dunk their heads into the water at the same time, as if on cue. All of them seem to be careful not to dirty the water.  When it is almost dusk, the magnificent Shama in her blue and red silken robe alights on the branch above the birdbath. She does not splash, but merely regards the water contemplatively before flying off.

The Old Magazine House in Ganeshgudi, Dandeli is truly a birder’s delight. Without moving around, from a single spot hidden by thatch, one can watch dozens of bird species, rare and common. We had arrived at this jungle lodge by midday after a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Goa through Ponda, Mollem and an impossibly potholed Anmod Ghat where highway work seems to have been abandoned midway, making it a virtual moonscape. My friend Amita in whose car we drove from Goa to Dandeli is unfazed though. She is a veteran bird photographer, lugging bazooka lenses and even a 7 kg bean bag in pursuit of that rare shot.

Three days ago, I too had driven all the way from Bengaluru to Goa in one stretch. It took all of 15 hours with two food stops. The Chorla Ghat road which we had taken from Dharwar to Goa was only marginally less bumpy. The memory of the bumpy rides melts away as we head towards the dining hall for lunch. Three giant Malabar squirrels dangle from branches of trees outside the dining hall, striking different poses, as if to entertain us with their virtuoso antics.  Their glossy coat bespeaks a profusion of squirrel food. The lusty calls of strange birds echos through the thick forest, holding out the promise of rich sightings over the next two days. 

The next morning, after the regulation watch at the birdbath for an hour from dawn, we take off on a trek around the property, craning our necks at the tall branches to spot an occasional noisy woodpecker or a magnificent spotted eagle spreading its wings.  The sun emerges from the clouds, dispersing the mist and glinting off the dazzling patterns on the backs of a flock of green pigeons. A few hundred yards from our lodge, we are startled by raucous avian chatter overhead, accompanied by the loud helicopter-like drone of flapping wings. We look up to spot an army of Malabar Pied Hornbills, perched atop a few tall eucalyptus trees. Their ungainly and outsized beaks seem to call for some deft balancing on the slender branches of the tree, causing them to frequently flap their wings and change position.  This tree is indeed crowded.  Dozens of hornbills perch cheek by jowl with jungle mynahs and rock pigeons, all chattering away noisily.  After an hour or so of squinting at these birds through my grossly inadequate 400 mm lens, I give up. 

Our guide promises better sightings of an even bigger army of hornbills in another spot. So, we repair to a nearby pond, all covered in green slime and surrounded by thick canopy to look for some rare species of kingfishers which inhabit this stretch. Long-stalked red flowers populate the banks. The guide points to a dark bush where he believes the kingfisher is hiding. Much as I squint and stare, I see nothing. But then, reward comes from an unlikely source. Perched on the tall flaming red stalk is a spiderhunter with its curved beak.  He is oblivious to our presence as he pokes his curved beak into the flower, hunting for spiders, I presume. We move on.

The trek leads us into thorny bushes and pokey shrubs and we emerge, our clothes sequined by burrs and nettles. But having spotted a velvet-fronted nuthatch hanging upside down to coax those hiding insects from behind the bark was reward enough to ignore the sting of the nettles. We are back at the water bowl for our evening fill of frolicking avians. They did not disappoint.  Yellow-browed bulbul and white bellied blue flycatcher flit past. Common iora also puts in a guest appearance. We spend a convivial evening in the company of gorgeous plumes.Later in the evening, as we sit around a campfire, a few birders go looking for owls with powerful search lights which they shone on the canopy, sweeping a giant arc through the foliage. They locate a Scops owl, but with all the commotion and harsh light, it flies away, even as a few diehard birders chase after it into the dark deep jungle in the hope of catching a shot. I return to my lodge.Around 8 pm, as we were discussing the day’s sightings and ticking off our lists,  the manager of the property shushes us into silence, intently listening, his ears cocked to the wilderness. He had heard a grunt and wanted to determine whether it was a wild boar or a bear. He says the campfire site adjoins wildlife crossing path. He has spotted both these bears and boars here. He asks us to repair to our cottages just in case. Wild boars are known to charge unprovoked. Even the bear has a cub and could be skittish when passing so close to people. We wait with bated breath for the boar to move away as Mr.Mohan regales us, sotto voce, with stories of his encounters with all kinds of wildlife in this very same spot, including a black panther which crossed through the property during lockdown. Dandeli is one of the few forests in India sheltering the elusive black panther. There are also tigers about, but they stay deep in the jungle.The next day yields rewarding sightings of scarlet minivets of which there seem to be an inordinate number on a particular tree. The males flaunt their flaming scarlet plumes while the females apprise them with nonchalance. The males flit from one tree to another, hoping to catch the sun’s rays on their gorgeous wings, but the females pretend not to notice. Emerald doves and spotted doves coo soothingly as they line up on an electric wire, coppersmith barbets set up their kukkukkuk in a high pitch while  green bee-eaters deftly grab, what else, but bees in mid-flight, to savour them at leisure on a branch. We also spot Indian grey hornbills, Great Indian hornbill but they are too swift for my lens to focus on them.  

Being a rookie birder, I fumble with the identity of most visitors to Dandeli.  But Syamala Kumar, an avid birder from Hyderabad, and a frequent visitor to Dandeli is ever ready to share her vast knowledge of the avian universe with me. She would even identify the gender of the birds, apart from reeling out their names and their peculiarities, telling me which birds were in their breeding plumage and which were juveniles.  Having Syamala Kumar around enriched my Dandeli experience.

In the evening, we make our way to Supa dam on the Kali river. On a freshly-harvested field are a clutch of hornbills mudbathing. As our group advances rather menacingly, I presume, for a better shot, they take off in unison. We follow their flight path with our lenses only to find a tree full of hornbills noisily chattering overhead. Studded with ripe golden figs, this tree is a magnet for hornbills which feast on them. But they never sit still and are always flitting from branch to branch. After some time, I give up trying to photograph them and let the magic of the moment wash over me.

(published in Frontline dated Feb 26, 2021)