Watching the birds come to bathe in the Dandeli forest

Print edition : February 26, 2021

An emerald dove perched on a birdbath in the Dandeli forest. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A white-bellied blue flycatcher. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A brown-cheeked fulvetta. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Oriental white-eyes taking their turn in the birdbath. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Malabar pied hornbill in a eucalyptus tree. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A blue-capped rock thrush. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A velvet-fronted nuthatch hanging upside down to get at insects hiding behind the bark. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Tickell’s blue flycatcher. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A white-bellied blue flycatcher. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

An Indian yellow tit. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A banded bay cuckoo. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A scarlet minivet. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A little spiderhunter. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

An Oriental magpie-robin. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A warbler. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Malabar trogan. Photo: Courtesy of Syamala Kumar

A magnificent shama in her red and blue silken robe. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A paradise flycatcher. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A spotted dove. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Malabar pied hornbill in flight. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A clutch of hornbills mudbathing in a freshly harvested field. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Scaly-breasted munias. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Malabar giant squirrel. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The path leading to the Old Magazine House in the Dandeli forest. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Dandeli forest in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka is a birder’s delight that offers rewarding sightings of a myriad of avian species.

WITH a faint rustle and swish, 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 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 a sound sleep unmolested by mites.

This was the moment we birders had been waiting for. Rapid-fire clicks rent the air. Gimbals move silently like robots, following the movement of the birds in an arc. First, the birds come in ones and twos, but soon a veritable procession of would-be-bathers lines up at the bird hammam placed there strategically for their benefit. The air glistens with droplets of water splattered from fanning wings that sparkle like diamonds when the sunlight reflects off them.

For me, this is my first peek into the universe of avian hygiene. The three days I spent in Old Magazine House in the Dandeli forest, in Ganeshgudi, Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka, in December 2020 were truly a revelation in terms of bird habits.
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Initially, I thought the water bowls had been placed for birds to drink, but I found that they seldom dip their beaks into the bowl. Instead, they immerse their tiny feet in the bowl and then sway this side and that, dipping their wings and shaking them dry, repetitively. Some linger to survey their surroundings while others chirp noisily on nearby branches to preen themselves after their bath. All this is accomplished with much dignity and without hustling or quarrels.

It is still early afternoon. I spy a pair of orange-headed thrushes. 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 birds, 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, looking like a fashion parade of avian haute couture with their exquisitely patterned iridescent wings gleaming in the setting sun. Rock thrushes prefer the tiny pond on the ground rather than the birdbath. Perhaps it gives them better cover. The Oriental 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, a brown-cheeked fulvetta, an Indian yellow tit, a puff-throated warbler, a black-naped monarch and several spotted doves, all take their turn 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 the birds 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 in the water but merely regards it contemplatively before flying off.
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The Old Magazine House is truly a birder’s delight. From a single spot hidden by thatch, one can watch dozens of bird species, rare and common. We 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 road 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 who lugs around bazooka lenses and even a 7 kg bean bag in pursuit of that rare shot. Three days earlier, I drove 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 took from Dharwad in Karnataka to Goa on our way back, was only marginally less bumpy than the Anmod Ghat road.

The memory of the bumpy rides melts away as we head towards the dining hall for lunch. Three Malabar giant squirrels dangle from branches of trees outside the dining hall, striking different poses as if to entertain us with their virtuoso antics. Their glossy coats bespeak a profusion of squirrel food. The lusty calls of strange birds echo 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 and 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 mynas 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 at another spot. So, we repair to a nearby pond, which is covered in green slime and surrounded by a thick canopy, to look for some rare species of kingfishers that are known to 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 little 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.
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We move on. The trek leads us into thorny bushes and pokey shrubs that leave our clothes sequinned with burrs and nettles. But spotting a velvet-fronted nuthatch hanging upside down to get at insects hiding behind the bark is reward enough to ignore the sting of the nettles. We are back at the water bowl for our evening fill of frolicking avians. They do not disappoint. A yellow-browed bulbul and a white bellied blue flycatcher flit past. A 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 searchlights that they shine on the canopy, sweeping a giant arc through the foliage. They locate a scops owl, but with all the commotion and the harsh light, it flies away, with a few diehard birders chasing after it into the dark deep jungle in the hope of catching a shot. I return to my cottage.

Around 8 p.m., as we are 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 has heard a grunt and wants to determine whether it is a wild boar or a bear. He says the campfire site adjoins a wildlife crossing path. He has spotted both bears and boars here. He asks us to repair to our cottages just in case. Wild boars are known to charge unprovoked. If the bear has a cub, she could be skittish when passing so close to people. We wait with bated breath for the animal to move away as the manager regales us, sotto voce, with stories of his encounters with all kinds of wildlife at this very spot, including a black panther, which crossed through the property during the lockdown. Dandeli is one of the few forests in India that shelters this elusive cat. 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 appraise 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 and a great Indian hornbill but they are too swift for my lens to focus on them.
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Being a rookie birder, I fumble with the identities of most of the birds I see. 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 can even identify the gender of the birds and, apart from reeling out their names and their peculiarities, tells me which birds are in their breeding plumage and which are juveniles. Having Syamala Kumar around enriched my Dandeli experience.

In the evening, we make our way to the 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 and 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.