Tucked away in the Western Ghats on the border of Karnataka and Goa lies a lovely forest that is part of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. Endemic species like the Malabar Trogon, Malabar Pied and Malabar Grey Hornbills, Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Crimson-fronted Barbet and Ruby-throated Bulbul can be seen here which attracts bird-watchers from all over the country to this wonderful place. I was part of a 4 days + 3 nights birdwatching trip to Dandeli which was organized by Nature India (an eco-tourism venture run by Adesh and Mandar), along with 10 other participants: Kalpana, Jayanthi, Sharada, Mohan, Sucharita, Mr. and Mrs. Jayaram, Uma, Vamsee and Saru. Over the course of these few days, we managed to see many attractive birds and the following is a short [?] account of this trip.
Travelling through the night by a Volvo, we had reached Dharwad early in the morning. After a quick breakfast in Dharwad, we began our birding at a Timber Depot which was on the way to the Kulgi Nature Camp in Dandeli. The Depot had plenty of tall trees and we saw many impressive birds here which included a rather inactive but photographically co-operative Malabar Grey Hornbill, male and female Malabar Pied Hornbills, a flying Lesser Adjutant Stork, an Ashy Drongo enthusiastically chased a dragonfly, a nesting White-rumped Munia and a handful of energetic Grey Wagtails. Malabar Giant Squirrels were also relatively common here and we could see them sitting high in the trees.
Lunch and a short nap at the Camp were followed by more birding, this time in the camp vicinity itself. A large broad-leaved tree right behind the dining shed seemed to be popular with the local birds, and we saw Common Woodshrikes, Large Woodshrikes, Oriental White-eyes, Coppersmith Barbets and a single Crimson-fronted Barbet as they moved about in the dense maze of branches. A couple of Vernal Hanging Parrots nibbled at the nearby bamboo shoots, flaunting their bright red beaks and rumps.
In the evening, we visited Ganeshgudi which was a long narrow dam-like structure with a huge water-body on one side, and the forest on the other. The sun was a little low by now, casting a warm glow over the forest. In this beautiful ambience we saw a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Orange Minivets, Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a moulting Bronzed Drongo, a Crimson Sunbird, and a Black-headed Cuckooshrike (which I happened to miss). Later in the evening, we visited a bridge on a nearby river to witness the roosting of [numerous] Great Pied and Malabar Pied Hornbills. Unfortunately, all we saw were a few Malabar Pied Hornbills far far away, some Brahmini Kites flying idly, numerous bees, and a sky replete with House Swifts displaying their amazing acrobatics in mid-air. While strolling on the bridge, I also happened to notice a large yellow hornet appear from nowhere, pick up one of the sleeping[?] bees and vanish as swiftly as it had arrived, carrying its passenger to what must have been a rather unpleasant ending!
Early next day, we visited the nearby ‘safari’, and well, ended up seeing nothing at all. Atleast so to say. All we saw were a few Barking Deer, some Grey Junglefowl, a lone male Indian Peafowl, and a White-cheeked Barbet which was seen very well in the morning light. Thankfully, we soon headed off to a much more productive birding location which was the nearby Timber Depot.
The Depot was more like the place you’d want to be in the morning on a birding trip. Here, I was introduced to a new concept which was that of the ‘mixed hunting party’. Insectivorous birds like drongos, woodpeckers, etc. tend to venture out as a collective unit in search of, well, insects and other invertebrates. As the group progresses through a patch of woods, the insects panic and expose themselves becoming easy prey for the swarm of hungry birds. While drongos chase them in the air, others like woodpeckers climb upwards along trunks and branches, feeling for disturbed grubs and insects in the tiny crevices with their long beaks. Yet others like the nuthatches traverse the trunks and branches downwards, thus picking up those creatures that the woodpecker had likely missed on the way up.
We soon witnessed one such party that was made up of Bronzed, White-bellied and Ashy Drongos, Dark-fronted Babblers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, a Streak-throated Woodpecker and Black-lored Tits. The nuthatches, especially, were amazing to watch as they skillfully navigated branches. It was as though they were displaying their superiority to the woodpeckers who always use their tails as support, unlike the nuthatches. Meanwhile, sitting camouflaged on a nearby tree was a flying lizard, commonly known as the ‘Draco’. This guy has the ability to fan out his throat and use it to glide around the woods. And this particular one was constantly extending his collapsed yellow-coloured gliding equipment, so that when looking from its back, it seemed as if he was drawing out a bright yellow tongue!
Later, we also got an excellent sighting of a Jungle Owlet sitting on an exposed branch in the dense woods. Its heavily barred chest and deep brown colour was superbly visible in the Pentax 80mm ED scope with a 2” eyepiece which Adesh and Mandar had brought along. The scope was used often for the numerous birds that we were seeing all along the way, with people queuing up like kids as soon as a bird was located in the scope.
That evening, we headed to ‘Syntheri Rocks’, which is a cave-like structure, many kilometers away from the Camp. While we were just about to commence on our journey, a majestic Black Eagle glided slowly over us! This was one of those sights which I will remember for a long long time. The clear blue sky, the huge black bird itself with its bulging wings and tail, its big and striking yellow beak, its yellow legs that stood out against its black body, the subtle shading on the underwing pattern, oh it was fantastic!
Birding at Syntheri Rocks wasn’t exactly great. While we saw an Indian Schimitar Babbler and a got a glimpse of a Common Flameback on the way, the place itself was devoid of bird activity. It was late and all we could see were Rock Pigeons, which were seen for a change in their natural habitat. But on the way back, we got some respite. While travelling back along the tar road in the darkness, we spotted a large owl which had apparently caught something on the road and flew away as soon as our vehicle got close. Thankfully, it perched on a tree on the road-side giving us a chance to see it. While Adesh identified it as a Brown Fish Owl, possibly from a much better view than mine, I remember registering a pale face and collar with huge round black eyes. It was very dark, and we didn’t have the best torch, but it looked like a Brown Wood Owl to me. Whatever it was, it was rewarding to see this large owl in the night.
After dinner, we ventured into the jungle close to the Camp in search of the elusive Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which is a nocturnal bird and is almost impossible to see in the daytime owing to its excellent camouflage. Like Potoos in South America, these Indian counterparts stay well hidden during the day and remain absolutely still, usually blending with tree stumps or hiding in bamboo thickets. They are so confident of their camouflage that they are unlikely to fly away even when you get close to them. Only when you get too close will they fly away, exposing themselves to predators. This behavior is best seen in the documentary by Sir David Attenborough, a clip of which can be seen here.
At night, frogmouths feed in a way similar to flycatchers, which means they usually perch on a strategic point that enables them to feed on insects. But they do this silently, and moreover, unlike Nightjars whose eyes glow in the torch-light, those of these frogmouths don’t making it very difficult to spot them at night even when using a powerful torch. While spotting a Sri Lanka Frogmouth can be safely considered as uncommon, the bird itself is usually present in good numbers in its habitat.
We searched a lot that night, torches in hand, scanning the dark trees for any sign of this elusive bird. Adesh mimicked the frogmouths calls, hoping that it would lure them out of the woods. A few frogmouths certainly answered, with both males and females calling from different directions. But unfortunately, we didn’t see a single frogmouth that night…
We woke up next morning to the calls of a Brown Wood Owl which had perched very close to our tents in the Kulgi Nature Camp. We were supposed to leave for the Shirval village, but a late breakfast somewhat created a dent in our plans. However, it did enable us to get good sightings of Yellow-browed Bulbuls in the tree behind the dining shed before we left. These were kept company by a few Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Crimson-fronted Barbets.
Shirval, which is an abandoned mine area was supposed to be a hotspot for bird activity. But by being late, we could only get sightings of a few Malabar Parakeets, some Black-hooded Orioles and a Crested Treeswift drinking water in its own unique way by diving towards the water surface at great speed only to pull out of the dive as its beak barely skimmed the water surface.
With not much bird-activity here, we moved on to Ganeshgudi where immediately a Eurasian Hobby was seen in all its glory showing its masked face and heavily barred underwings. We also saw a couple of Malabar Parakeets perched nicely in the open; the spotting scope revealing some fantastic views.
Post lunch was when the birding at Dandeli really came into its own. We visited a large but extremely scenic lake that reminded me of the idyllic illustrations in my very first Collins Field Guide. As we began birding here, it soon became evident that this was a special day. An extremely uncommon Rufous-bellied Hawk Eagle circled above, while the much much much more common Lesser Whistling Ducks and Cotton Pygmy Geese swam about in the water. A Grey-headed Fish Eagle flew across the lake and perched to everyone’s delight on a dead tree albeit on the other side of the lake. This was followed by excellent views of a Stork-billed and Common Kingfisher in the scope.
As we left the place, we could hear the Fish Eagle calling out in its harsh and somewhat unpleasant screech, and landed up at the Timber Depot to spend the rest of the evening. Male and female Pompadour Green Pigeons, an Oriental Honey-Buzzard and the usual Malabar Pied Hornbills were on display here. We counted 26 Malabar Pied Hornbills as they darted out of a single huge tree, like the luminous trails of fireworks at night...
We repeated the night trail again that night, hoping to see the elusive and much coverted Sri Lanka Frogmouths. They had been close last night, but not close enough. The trail got off to a promising start with the sighting of a Flying Squirrel that stirred in the tree tops near the main entrance of the camp. This was followed by plenty of searching for the frogmouths along the road-sides, much like the earlier day with Adesh mimicking their calls. We were almost at the end of our trail when we suddenly saw a pair of male and female Sri Lanka Frogmouths that had perched on a low branch right next to the road, located expertly by Adesh in the powerful torch beam! As excitement gripped the group, stifled exclamations and chatter filled the air. The birds weren’t as glamorous as Fairy Bluebirds or Malabar Trogons, but the sheer act of spotting them was delightful. While the birds appeared grey in the torch light, the white spots on their chests were clearly visible. With all the commotion, the male got spooked and flew away to another tree, but the female remained faithful (to us, that is) and stayed on the branch for another whole two minutes before she too disappeared into the darkness. For a day filled with great sightings, this was the icing on the cake!
Next morning, we reached the mine area at Shirval again, well in time to catch all the action; or rather to “witness the grand arena”, as Adesh put it. Black-throated Munias put up the opening act in conjunction with Plum-headed Parakeets. A Rufous Treepie gave a brief appearance before making way for Yellow-browed Bulbuls and a Golden-fronted Chloropsis. The lead role, however, was played by a Blue-bearded Bee-eater, who ironically broke all rules of acting on stage and plainly showed us his back for more than an hour, providing only brief glimpses of his brilliant blue beard. A few Orange Minivets and Brown-headed Barbets were more professional and gave us very pleasing views. A White-rumped Shama and Large Cuckooshrike played cameo roles and disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. The closing act was performed by Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters who made a lovely sight against the dark brown ground on which they occasionally sat.
The birding had picked up momentum and it continued at the Timber Depot, where we spent the rest of the morning. Huge and impressive White-bellied Woodpeckers darted among the tall trees along with others like Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers and a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Later we even saw a Common Flameback, which ironically is considered to be very uncommon, climbing up a sloping tree. The place was literally full of birds. A Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Black-lored Tits, Black-naped Monarchs, Bronzed and Ashy Drongos kept the place busy. As though the morning birding session wasn’t enough, we even saw a Blue-faced Malkoha on our way back near the main gate of the Camp!
That was pretty much all the birding we managed over the course of 4 days at Dandeli. We saw 134 species in addition to 7 that we only heard. We did not manage to see the Malabar Trogon, which had been one of our prime targets throughout the trip. But this was compensated by the numerous other lovely birds that we saw here. And it was not just the birds either. The accomodation at the Kulgi Nature Camp was quite comfortable and it certainly helped in maintaining our focus on birding, as did the excellent arrangements for food. Equally important was Adesh's expertise in identifying the many different kinds of birds while also sharing his knowledge with the group. Both Adesh and Mandar were proactive in showing everyone different birds, with or without a scope, and also explained various trivia about the feathered creatures. Credit deservedly goes to them for organizing such a wonderful trip to this lovely place in the Western Ghats: Dandeli.