Birders are a peculiar species, as peculiar as the birds they religiously follow. The term ‘birder’ is to be differentiated from ‘birdwatcher’, however. A birder takes his hobby of watching birds far more seriously than a mere birdwatcher. I am neither. I am a bird photographer!
I set out one Friday evening to Ganeshgudi, a little village tucked away in the Western Ghats, close to Dandeli. The Western Ghats is the name given to the mountain range that extends for about 1600 km (1000 miles) along the western coast of India. Also known as the Sahyadri (benevolent) Mountains, it covers an area of 140,000 sq km (54,000 sq miles) and is regarded as one of the eight biological hotspots in the world. Many of the flora and fauna that are present here are to be found nowhere else in the world!
The Kittur Rani Chennamma Express train left Bangalore at about 9pm and reached Ponda almost eleven hours later. Mr. Umesh, the owner of Hornbill River Resort, was waiting at the station to drive me the 30 km distance to his resort.
Hornbill River Resort is a 6-acre property that blends seamlessly into the surrounding lush green forests of the Western Ghats. It is situated on the banks of the Kali River, downstream of the Supa Dam. Umesh has planted numerous fruit-bearing trees in the resort, and these attract myriad visitors – beautifully coloured birds, flying squirrels, flying lizards, hornbills (that give the resort its name), and even flying snakes!
Of the many large, simple and clean rooms that are dotted all over the resort, two stand out. These are located bang on the riverbank and offer spectacular views of a couple of rapids that offer a mild thrill for white-water rafters. From the balcony, I could also see hornbills flying to and from the surrounding forest to feed on the succulent fruits that grew abundantly on the trees in the resort. Some carried fruits and insects back to their mates, holed up in the hollow of a tree somewhere in the forest canopy.
After a wholesome lunch, I was driven about 4km to another resort, called Old Magazine House (OMH) that is run by the Jungle Lodges & Resorts, a Govt of Karnataka undertaking. Old Magazine House is so named because it served as a storehouse of dynamite when the Supa Dam was being constructed. It is at OMH where all the action occurs. The resort staff have set up several birdbaths on an elevated mud platform. And, it is to these birdbaths that many species of the most colourful birds flock – to have a drink, or to just splash around, apparently in gay abandon, but in fact, to get rid of some annoying ticks and other insects. All this, in turn, attracts many photographers from all over the country.
I set up my gear that included a Canon 1Dx camera and a Canon 500mm f4 lens, which is one of the ideal lenses to photograph even small birds from a distance. The gear was mounted on a tripod for stability, which is a must if one wants to take sharp images. As soon as a bird landed on a twig near a birdbath, I was up in a flash, clicking away furiously. When the bird flew away, I sat down to sip on some beverage (beer mainly!) or nibble at the sandwiches that I had ordered, ever ready to spring up when the next bird visited. The whole session lasted 3 hours, and when it became clear that no more birds would arrive, I returned to my room in Hornbill Resort.
That evening, as I waited on the lawns for dinner to be served, I saw several flying squirrels, one of which ‘flew’ right towards me and landed on a tree just a few feet away from my chair! These giant squirrels don’t actually fly. They possess a flap of skin that stretches between the front and hind legs which billows out and acts like a parachute, as they leap from one tree to another. The flying lizards and snakes, too, ‘fly’ in a similar fashion.
In the morning, after coffee, it was time to visit Old Magazine House once more to repeat the exercise of the previous day. By going every morning and evening I was able to ‘capture’ 28 different species of birds in just three days, some of which I had never even seen before!
Hornbill River Resort is not just for bird lovers, however, and one can indulge in white-water rafting, rappelling, river crossing on a rope that is stretched from one bank to another, canoeing, mountain trekking (with permission from the Forest Department), visiting the nearby Syntheri Rocks (a massive granite monolith with a small waterfall)…. the possibilities are endless!