Sunday, January 5, 2014

Dandeli/Ganeshgudi - Birds of many a feather....

White Bellied Blue Flycatcher
The annual Christmas-time pilgrimage to Goa was preceded by a quick two day detour to fulfill a long-cherished ambition - that of visiting the beautiful Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. Not so much for tigers but for the bewildering variety of bird species on offer and a one-in-a-million shot at that dark prince of cats - the black panther.

We arrived at the Kali Adventure Camp in Dandeli one afternoon (a 90 minute drive from Hubli, where we flew from Mumbai) just in time for a safari. And had our first peek at the beautiful, lush green Dandeli forests. The dense undergrowth didn't allow us to see much at all, a couple of spotted deer were all we could feast our eyes on, but the view of the valleys from the high point was the highlight of the trip - even looking into the setting sun the sight was absolutely stunning. May God (and man) save these beautiful forests!

Little Spider hunter
Asian Brown Flycatcher
The next morning, I set out for Ganeshgudi, while the rest of the family stayed behind for some rafting. I'd always heard of this birding paradise, but didn't know that here, unlike in most places, the birds came to you! The beautiful settings of Jungle Lodges' other property (The Old Magazine House) entertain a mind-boggling variety of feathered guests. And the people at the lodge have put up a few bird baths (and a few perches around) and created a barrier a safe distance away for people to come and watch the birds indulge. So, as a photographer, you have to set your tripod at the barrier and just wait (and pray) for the birds to descend. And if you're lucky, you can get upwards of 25 different species in a single morning or afternoon. 


Flame throated bulbul
I went there that morning, all excited at the prospect of a few flycatchers, shamas, warblers, babblers and maybe even the malabar trogon or scimitar babbler if the gods smiled on me. That morning, all I heard was how wonderful the previous morning had been. Not all, I do admit to seeing a beautiful ruby-throated bulbul, asian brown and tickell's blue flycatchers, brown cheeked fulvettas and emerald doves.  Not bad for a morning's work, or so I thought as I headed back to try my luck with the black panthers.

As soon as we entered the park gates, I encountered a strange sight. Two stray dogs from the village nearby were standing on the path and barking their heads off at something in the bush. And the fright and urgency in their barking made it clear that it was a predator; and very possibly a member of Dandeli's leopard fraternity. Our guide stood up to take a look and announced that he saw the grass part and something move away into the jungle. He didn't see what it was, but it almost definitely would have been a leopard - and given the odds at Dandeli, it could have even been a black panther! That was the closest we would come to a predator sighting, though our driver/guide Arjun toiled tirelessly. He pointed out sambhar deer with some excitement, but for those of us who've gorged on a herd of hundred at Ranthambhore's Raj Bagh, we didn't quite share the enthusiasm. Nevertheless, a close shave with a predator was highlight enough.

Verditer Flycatcher
That afternoon wasn't all barren though. Before the safari, I was speaking to my good friend Amit Srivastava and I told him that I missed out on Verditer Flycatchers in Ganeshgudi. He told me that the Dandeli resort has a pair of Verditers, so armed with that info, I tracked down the head naturalist Mr. Shashidhar and he asked a couple of the staff to take me where the Verditers were. And barely a 100 feet from our tent, nestling in a tree, was a beautiful male Verditer. The light and his fickle nature made photography a real challenge, but I did manage a few half-decent pics of the male. The female was far more shy and disappeared after a brief appearance.

I headed back to Ganeshgudi the next morning (my last) hoping for better luck. And as I took my place within the assembled tripod throng, I was entertained by reports of the previous evening's performance, where seemingly every species known to man had made a visit. And as that morning began as quietly as the previous one, I quickly began to curse everything from my stars to the feathered fiends who made a cameo yesterday but cried off this morning. When all I needed to evaluate was my own decision making - the birds prefer afternoons at this time of year. A simple thing I should have checked first.

The teeth-gnashing gotten over with, I decided to be patient and wait it out. And the birds did give me a really good time. A Blyth's reed warbler started the parade, followed by a beautiful blue capped thrush. A black-throated munia skulked in the undergrowth without ever coming front and center. Puff throated babblers announced their imminent coming, but apart from one individual who zipped across, they didn't really make an appearance. And the morning looked like it would peter out without much more action.

Blyth's Reed Warbler
White Rumped Shama
The turning point was my decision to skip breakfast and wait for the birds - I was rewarded with a Tickell's blue and blue capped thrush in quick succession followed by a white rumped shama. But the highlight was a little spider hunter - a busy little bird who zipped around the water bath, barely pausing for a second. Then came a beautiful white bellied blue flycatcher, who kindly perched in the light and posed for some pictures before having a dip and flying off. Another thrush was followed by an emerald dove; this green-brown beauty was a real treat.

Blue-capped rock thrush
The shama came back for another photo-shoot, a magpie robin joined the cast and then a greenish warbler added another character to the shoot. The action then shifted into the bushes at the side where a Tickells Blue was having breakfast. He grabbed a couple of juicy little bugs and swallowed them in no time before wandering off; fully sated, no doubt.

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
With the water-baths being completely quiet, we scoured the trees in the campus and were rewarded with a beautiful scarlet minivet couple and a bunch of plum headed parakeets. The male minivet had starry airs and refused to give us a good picture, while the female was far more approachable. I got a couple of decent pictures of her before she bid adieu. I headed further towards the gate and Vinayak, the excellent guide at OMH pointed out a Malabar Grey Hornbill really close in a nearby tree. I was so close that I could only get a close up of his face!

Malabar Grey Hornbill
Back to the (now) thinning crowd at the water-baths and the general mood was that of 'pack-up'. But like King Vikram, I gave up not and stood my little tripod against the barrier for that last ten minutes before I had to leave for Goa. And my faith was rewarded by a yellow-browed bulbul and Blyth's Reed warbler in quick succession to round off what finally was a pretty amazing visit. So many new bird species (for a beginner like me) and a brush with a predator were both special memories.

Definitely deserves a spot on the annual winter calendar!

Brown cheeked fulvetta

Emerald Dove

Scarlet Minivet Female

Yellow browed bulbul
Dandeli/Ganeshgudi trip guide

Getting there:
Dandeli town (and Kali Adventure Camp) is about 80 kms from Hubli, the nearest airport and big town. 
It is around 145 kms from Goa's Dabolim airport, the second closest air head.
Ganeshgudi is 20 kms from Dandeli on the Goa route.

Goa has flights from key cities around India, while Hubli has flights only from Bangalore and Mumbai.

For cars from Hubli to Dandeli, you can book with Mr. Paul Terant on + 91 9945142781. It is approximately Rs. 3700 for the trip.

Stay:
The key decision is whether to stay in Dandeli Or Ganeshgudi. For safaris and a shot at the Black Panther, Dandeli is a better option while Ganeshgudi is clearly the superior birding destination.

At Dandeli, Kali Adventure Camp offers typical Jungle Lodges hospitality - comfortable but not fancy accommodation and excellent food! The stay package includes one safari and a coracle ride every day.

At Ganeshgudi, the avid birder need look no further than the Old Magazine House - again typical Jungle Lodges. Definitely not fancy, but comfortable and fabulously located.

Check both options at www.junglelodges.com

There are also a couple of other near Ganeshgudi, both proper 'resorts' with their own birding and naturalists - The Hornbill River Resort (www.hornbillriverresort.com - +91 98806 83323) comes highly recommended for the accommodation and facilities.

The Bison River Resort is near the Hornbill and is the other private resort in the area - (http://www.indianadventures.com/BisonRiverResort.htm)

Safaris:
As with other forests in Karnataka, Jungle Lodges run jeep safaris into the forest. The cost of a safari is included in the stay package while additional safaris can be arranged at a cost. 

There is obviously a lot of birding around the forest area with every resort having their own naturalists and birding experts. The Old Magazine House is a sure-shot bird magnet, but Hornbill also has some very skilled birders.

Other Activities:
Rafting: The Kali river is a very popular rafting choice with rapids up to level 3, so beginners too can have a real thrill. All the resorts can arrange for rafting
Coracle rides - peaceful river rides in these little round coracles help round off a really nice morning or afternoon activity, not to mention an opportunity to see some birds at the river bank
Treks and rock climbing - Hornbill offers both options for their guests

Other tips:
If you're staying at Jungle Lodges, please make sure you inform them of your safari plans well in advance, they don't always account for everyone in the resort wanting to go on a safari.

The camera charge for big lenses (400mm?) up is a steep Rs.1000 per safari, so factor that into your plans. A 300mm apparently has no charge, so it's all a bit random as with most such rules. This is only for the Jeep safaris and not for the birding.