Thursday, 28 July 2016

Incredible Hampi Part 2: Birding in Hampi


“Hampi is a wonderland.”

It took me 6 years to visit Hampi and realize this fact, although it was one of the top places people referred to when you asked anyone for interesting weekend getaways from Bangalore.

Hampi, till I visited it, represented an image of temples and monuments drowning in a deluge of visitors. The thought of being jostled around while angling for a better view did not appeal to me much. And therefore, I avoided the place.

Circa 2015, one fateful rainy day in October, I visited Hampi. Then, I visited it again in sunny December (2015).


Irrepressibly, I had fallen head over heels in love with the place.

While Hampi is predominantly known for its glorious ruins, and rightly so, I was equally impressed with the sheer variety of avian species this region harboured. Its stark, arid, boulder-strewn landscape hid amidst itself some of the most beautiful and colourful birds that I had come across. Of course, it is difficult to observe them from close quarters unless you have Pompayya Malemath guiding you. Plain, flat grounds that we had passed by in our previous visit suddenly yielded families of the reclusive sandgrouses. Rock faces that we believed we had scoured minutely, not leaving out any living being, suddenly sprung to life and there stared at us from those very rocks the magnificent rock eagle owl. In Hampi, you never know what you are looking at, till you acquire the eyes of an expert, thanks to Pompayya Sir.

The first bird I had seen in Hampi was still groggy with sleep. It lay perched in its cozy nook, in the crevices of a ruin in the Vittala Temple premises, eyes shut tight and quite oblivious to the rain and chattering squirrels around him. The tiny spotted owlet brought out the birder in me amongst the historical ruins and soon I began to notice more of them, ensconced in little alcoves. It was a rainy day and perhaps that’s what had kept them ‘indoors’.

Spotted Owlet


On our next visit, which was in end-December with the sun glaring down at us, none of them were in sight. Instead we were met with the raucous cries of the rose-ringed and the plum-headed parakeets. Peacocks cried out now and then, their silhouettes standing out atop distant boulders. Blue-faced malkohas sat boldly in plain sight, not clambering amongst thickets, as per their usual behaviour.

After coming back from my first visit, I had sat down to plan out my next trip and listed down the birds I wanted to see. My wish list had just five birds – the Indian rock eagle owl, chestnut bellied sandgrouse, painted sandgrouse, painted spurfowl and the rare yellow throated bulbul. I came back sighting much more.

I have an undying fascination for owls and the first thing I remember asking Pompayya Sir was if I would be able to see the famed rock eagle owls of Hampi. We had narrowly missed seeing the owl on the first visit when it had suddenly taken flight, leaving us with just a glimpse of his flying demeanor. Pompayya had laughed, saying “Let’s tick it off your list first, then.” And he kept his words.

Much as I took pride on being able to locate birds easily, I almost failed to spot the rock eagle owl, so well he was camouflaged in his surroundings. His eyes were half-closed, adopting the stance of a wise old sage. We waited for him to come out of his stupor. Finally, with the rays of dawn touching the rock faces around him, he opened his eyes and there lay before us in all his glory the famous red-eyed Indian rock eagle owl of Hampi. I was dismayed to know that it was these beautiful eyes that brought these magnificent birds to their death. Local populace considered these birds as harbingers of ill omen, owing to their crimson red eyes, and killed them when spotted.

 Indian Rock Eagle Owl




We came across several of these majestic owls during the course of the morning, including a juvenile specimen and a nesting parent, and each time Pompayya Sir took care to see that nobody else saw the birds or their nesting sites. It pained me to see the critical condition of these birds.

The second bird to get ticked off my list was the chestnut bellied sandgrouse. While the husband had seen them previously in Maidenahalli blackbuck sanctuary, I had not. We were passing by a hedged field, dotted with bushy undergrowth, when Pompayya Sir suddenly asked us to halt our car. What bird will reside here in plain sight, I asked myself as I followed him. A little later, he quietly motioned towards a small mound and try as I might I could not make out anything. It seemed to be a perfect patch of ground with yellowing grass. Then, suddenly a slight movement, the ground seemed to move and I saw my first chestnut bellied sandgrouse. We saw them several times during our birding sessions and each time they amazed us with their clever camouflage.

Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse

In the meantime, we also paid a visit to Daroji bear sanctuary (see part 1) to see the sloth bears and in the bargain, got acquainted with the painted spurfowls as well. Unlike the grey francolins, who were bold enough to venture out of their hiding places sooner, the spurfowls were much more shy and skittish. Finally, with the francolins pecking away furiously at the food, the spurfowls decided to claim their fair share as well. Soon, the hillocks where the sloth bears were scheduled to make their appearances were choc-a-bloc with grey francolins, painted spurfowls, jungle babblers, jungle bush quails and peacocks. It was a party on the rocks!

 Peacock


 Painted Spurfowl (Male)


 Painted Spurfowl Male & Female


 Hoopoe



Jungle Babbler


 Grey Francolin




As we drove around Hampi and Daroji looking for birds, I realised that one of the reasons behind this region supporting such diverse species of birds was its geography. The landscape varied from outright rocky to intermittent flat plains to thorny scrub lands, coupled with agricultural fields and a canal running through the entire region. Each of these areas housed their own stash of bird life. For instance, the canal area and the adjoining agricultural fields had a number of woolly necked storks and red headed buntings, while the yellow throated bulbul could be found only in the hills opposite the Virupaksha Temple.

 Red headed Bunting


Woolly necked Stork

Ashy crowned Sparrowlark

Laughing Dove



It was while driving along the different pathways, guided by Pompayya Sir, that we came across the exquisitely gorgeous painted sandgrouse. Unlike its cousin, the chestnut bellied, these birds were more colourful and were marked out with a beautiful ‘necklace’ around its neck. They were also bolder and more photo-friendly as they stood rooted to the spot, allowing us to marvel at it for quite some time. Unfortunately, they also made easy prey for raptors and poachers alike. We met more of them on our way back from Pompayya Sir’s property, a place he had single handedly made green by planting numerous tree saplings. It was dark and a number of birds were caught in the car’s headlight, including spotted owlets and nightjars. While the other birds flew away on approach, the painted sandgrouses stubbornly ‘sat down’ and refused to budge. While this defense mechanism would work in the daylight, allowing them to be merged into the rocky, yellowed background, it was a different story at night. Thankfully, conservationists like Pompayya are around to deter such mishaps.

 Painted Sandgrouse (Male)


Painted Sandgrouse (Female)

Rock Bush Quail

By the end of our stay, I had only one bird left to be ticked – the endangered yellow throated bulbul. Pompayya Sir had kept the best till the last. And so, on the last day of our stay, we woke up at 4.30 am to climb up the stairs leading to the hillocks opposite the Virupaksha Temple. The rare birds were quite temperamental and could be sighted only in the early hours of the morning. On the way, Pompayya pointed to us sloth bear scats. Apparently, bears would visit the area late at night to lick off the oil from lamps lit in small alcoves with deities. As dawn broke over, it felt surreal to be standing there overlooking the ancient temple and the ruins around it – the horse traders market, the performing arts lanes…..it almost seemed in the darkness as if the city would come alive along with the first rays of the sun.

A lovely twitter reached our ears as the sun strove to break through the dark clouds.

“The bulbul..” Pompayya sir pointed towards the little, restless birds flitting around the rocks. It was difficult to take a clear shot of the fidgety bulbuls and soon the twitters could up heard uphill. The husband began climbing up while I decided not to try anything adventurous.  I spied a verditer flycatcher and was photographing it when I saw Pompayya and a Manipuri couple (I thought they were Japanese, just as some people thought me to be Chinese) chatting excitedly pointing towards a thorny plant. I followed their gaze and saw a sirkeer malkoha posing away unmindfully, in a manner quite contrary to its general skulking behaviour.

Sirkeer Malkoha

“Bonus bird!” Pompayya exclaimed happily.

Later, as I stood on the side of a huge boulder, looking down upon the brilliant scenery, a soft sound behind me caught my attention. I turned around and there was my fifth most wished for bird – the yellow throated bulbul, within touching distance, looking at me. A year back I was in Ooty, wanting to see a black and orange flycatcher and it had appeared before me, in the same manner, within the same touching distance. Sometimes, I believe, the birds choose me.

Yellow throated Bulbul

My wish list was complete - Hampi had given me all that I had wished for. For this reason and for the many beautiful experiences that I had here, this birding trip would always remain among the special ones in my memory.  Hopefully, the birdlife here continues to flourish and continues to attract many more.







List of birds sighted in Hampi and Daroji (have forgotten a number of them):

Indian Rock Eagle Owl, Spotted Owlet, Painted Sandgrouse, Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse, Blue faced Malkoha, Sirkeer Malkoha, Jungle Babbler, Common Babbler, Large Grey Babbler, Verditer Flycatcher, Southern Coucal, Red headed Bunting, Baya Weaver, Painted Spurfowl, Woolly necked Stork, Ashy crowned Sparrowlark, Oriental Skylark, Paddyfield Pipit, Rose ringed Parakeet, Plum headed Parakeet, Red vented Bulbul, Yellow throated Bulbul, Grey Francolin, White breasted Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Jungle Bush Quail, Rock Bush Quail, Peacock, Pond Heron, Red Avadavat, White-browed Wagtail, Purple Sunbird, Laughing Dove, Long-tailed Shrike, Indian Nightjar, Hoopoe, Yellow wattled Lapwing, Rufous tailed Lark

Notes:
  • §  Distance from Bangalore to Hampi: approx. 350 km
  • §  Route taken: Bangalore – Tumkur – Chitradurga – Hospete – Kamalapur – Hampi
  • §  Best time to visit: March for Daroji bear sanctuary as that is the time one could sight bear cubs ride piggy back. For birding, preferably November to March. Flamingoes visit the area in March/April.
  • §  Places to stay:


a.       Mayura Bhuvaneshwari by KSTDC at Kamalapur
b.      Kamalapur Forest Guest House, Kamalapur
c.       Hampi Heritage & Wilderness Resort by Jungle Lodges

 Jungle Lodges Resort





(He is a very humble person and does not ask for any fees. It is entirely up to you how much you would want to pay him.)





Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Incredible Hampi Part 1: Daroji Bear Sanctuary


Indian Sloth Bear

The vermillion red sun slid down behind the hills as I wiped the grime off my face, my hair in deep tangles, a happy grin spreading from ear to ear.


“You look like the Cheshire Cat,” the husband observed.

I was visiting the world heritage site of Hampi and the adjoining Daroji Bear Sanctuary, some 15 kms from Hampi, and I had reason enough to behave like the cat from Alice’s wonderland.

The stark landscape of Hampi, with its exquisite ruins and artfully scattered boulders, precariously balancing at implausible angles, had left me breathless with awe. It held me absolutely spellbound and I realized that I would not find solace till I made another visit to this beautiful land.

I had visited Hampi the first time in early October 2015, the monsoons having receded somewhat and the sun beginning to show its might. The trip was to be a short one, primarily for the purpose of providing solace to my harried self by gazing soulfully at the ruins of Hampi. For the first time, birding was expected to take a second seat. But the brief, fleeting glances that I had of the wildlife and the winged beings there were momentous enough to entice me and before long, I found myself gallivanting happily amidst the beautiful boulder-strewn landscape again. The second visit was on New Year’s Eve (30th December 2015 – 2nd January 2016).

Here, I must clarify a few things. When I say Hampi, I also include in the same breath the neighbouring Daroji Bear Sanctuary. The fact that I visited the region twice, once with rains and once without, plays games with my mind and so pardon me if I say lush green vistas one moment and parched yellow the next.

On my return from the first trip, I had decided to delve a bit into the avian and wildlife scenario of Hampi. One name recurred frequently as I turned digital page after page on the subject. That of the naturalist/conservationist/photographer/birding guide all-in-one wonder of Pompayya Malemath. For the first time since we turned birding enthusiasts, we decided to take the help of a local expert. We contacted him and opted to stay in his homestay, although he had offered us another option of staying in the Kamalapur forest guest house.

We were bowled over by his hospitality at his homestay, particularly the delicious food his wife had cooked, and asked him to suggest out an itinerary for us. The best part of visiting Hampi is that you get to mix business with pleasure – that of visiting the magnificent ruins along with birding – the best of both the worlds. So, in the three days that we stayed there, birding would be carried on in the early mornings and late afternoons, while sightseeing would be during the interim period.

One of the major highlights of both the trips was the sighting of the Indian Sloth Bear at Daroji Bear Sanctuary. The sanctuary is spread over 82.72 sq km and was created exclusively for the preservation of Indian Sloth Bear. It is open between 4 PM to 6 PM on all days. There is a watch tower within the sanctuary that provides a vantage point to view the bears emerging from the adjacent hillocks during late afternoon hours to taste the jaggery paste smeared on the boulders.

Walking up to the watch tower



View from top of the tower

This novel concept by the forest department of slathering the rock faces of the hillocks facing the watch tower with a concoction that tasted of the bear’s favourite food jaggery and honey, made it a dramatic sight for the visitors. It also ensured that no one went back disappointed without sighting the famed bears which, as mythology would have it, bore their ancestral lineage to the Ramayana era. 

Notice the light brown patches on the rocks? That's the jaggery paste.


Folklore has it that Kishkinda (purportedly modern day Anegundi), the monkey kingdom ruled by Sugriva, was located on the bank of the Tungabhadra river. In the war against Ravana, Kishkinda was Lord Rama’s ally and when he travelled to Sri Lanka he was accompanied by an army of monkeys along with Jambavantha, the brave bear king. The bears of Hampi are supposed to have descended from him.

Mythology aside, one of the factors behind this region supporting bears is its habitability. The large boulders hide within themselves numerous caves which are well ventilated, owing to the channels between the rocks, and provide succor to bears in bringing up their young ones. While man and bear conflicts are inevitable, given the proximity and density of human settlements, yet no extreme incident has been reported.

I listened to the various stories and theories around these bears as I waited on the watch tower, waiting for them to make their appearance. Venkatesh, the Jungle Lodges naturalist who had accompanied us, saw the look of consternation on our faces as the sun crept lower towards the west.

“Don’t worry, madam,” he said, trying to alleviate my fear of going back without seeing a bear. “They would be here soon. Most of them prefer the twilight.”

As we sat facing the hillocks in hushed anticipation, the silence broken by the intermittent cries of the peacock, other animals and birds came out of the rocky crevices to feed upon the sweet concoction. Stealthy ruddy mongoose, impish monkeys, squirrels and wild boars began feasting upon the offerings while families of bush quails, jungle babblers, painted spurfowls and grey francolins jostled amongst themselves to peck on their share.










So engrossed were we in observing the antics of these opportunistic creatures that we almost did not notice the small speck of black fur ambling along towards the jaggery-smeared rock faces.

“Madam,” Venkatesh whispered in fervor. “Here he is!”

And so he was.



The lone bear was soon followed by a mother and her two 11 months old cubs. The mothers usually carry their cubs piggyback, sometimes till they are as old as 9 months old, and as Pompayya Sir told us, it is a sight to behold. It is exceedingly endearing to see the cubs arrive at the site riding on their mother’s back and leave in a similar manner. February-March is generally the period that one can witness this phenomenon in Daroji. The mother bear we saw was quite protective around her cubs and ruled them firmly with a loud “Uhh uhh!”each time one of them strayed a bit far.









Finally, by the time we wound up our visit at 6 pm, there was a congregation of 12 sloth bears spread across different parts of the hillock range. Unlike other animals, they do not gather in feeding groups. Also, I observed that they were extremely alert to the slightest of noises. A child’s squeal in the watch tower was picked up by a bear and he immediately retreated amongst the boulders.



I wondered out aloud if there were any predators around that made the bears remain on their guard. I knew that tigers were not found in the region, the last of them wiped out decades ago.

“There are leopards,” Venkatesh assented.  “They can be seen sometimes in the hillock from the watch tower.”

Apparently, there was a sighting of a leopard at dusk a few days back and it had let out a loud growl to make its presence felt. However, there was no leopard to be seen or heard on the day we were visiting and we left the bears peacefully gnawing away at their jaggery.

Watching the bears was another amazing experience when we came back in winter – It was much more fruitful and we had Pompayya Sir’s guidance to thank for it.

Currently, Daroji has a healthy population of sloth bears (I am unable to recollect the exact number). Unfortunately, the bears continue to be threatened due to illegal mining in fragmented areas of the adjoining forests. But perhaps with the forest department and conservationists’ efforts, we can hope for a safe future of these genial fur-ball giants. Their race, which attained a pride of place in the ancient scripts, deserves to survive in this era as well.



PS: Since we were guests with Jungle Lodges on the first visit and with Pompayya Malemath the second time around, I am not aware of the formalities to be performed at the entry gate of the sanctuary.



PPS: Hopefully, I shall come up with my birding account in Hampi in my next post, shortly, and with lot more details on Hampi. *fingers crossed* I am saving up all our bird pictures for the post!




Monday, 7 December 2015

The Rabbit-hole


So, I have been pretty busy with office work lately. Like, crazy. I have had no time to pen down any of my travel stories, and I actually went to quite a few places - Daroji bear sanctuary, Hampi, Agumbe, Someshwara, Karkala, Udupi.... Special places, all of them. I hope my blog doesn't die waiting for me to come back and update it.

Yet, I did write, though not for the blog. I saw a writing clue in Women's Web, something tinkled in my mind, and I ended up fishing out a story - all within an hour, flat. Perhaps some kindly lady took pity at my rusty writing, decided that I need a little motivation to get back into writing, and hence published it. 

The writing cue was: “Ask the books that I read why I changed. Ask the authors dead and alive who communicated with me and gave me the courage to be myself.” – from My Story by Kamala Das.

Here's my story:


The Rabbit-hole


Image source: www.youtube.com


“Did you see her?” Reena nudged me sharply. “She is at it again.”

I turned around gently, so as not to catch the attention of Maina, Reena’s four-year-old niece.

Maina was talking rapidly in a low voice to someone. Despite my caution, she caught me watching her.

“Bill the Lizard just got a letter from his mom,” she beamed happily at me. “The dormouse told me so!”

As I nodded kindly in response, Reena rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“The child just goes on and on with her gibberish games,” she complained bitterly. “It gets onto my nerves.”

Reena flopped down on her big, cushy sofa with a tired sigh.

“I wish her mother would recover soon,” she said wistfully. “I confess I am no good with little children and their make-believe worlds.”

I looked at Maina, who was then squatting on the ground and peering at something keenly. A surge of pity filled my heart. She had seen too much pain in her short life. The unexpected early demise of her father in a violent accident the past year and the hardships that came their way had left her mother wracked with despair and disease. Maina had to lodge with her relatives, from one family to the other, like a rolling stone, while her mother lay despondent in a hospital bed.

“She is a queer child,” her relatives would say, not unlike Reena, her present benefactor. “One moment she is all grown-up and silent, and the next moment she is all hyperactive.”

Later, as I paused by the sleeping child after dinner, I noticed the corner of a book peeking out below the pillow. I gently pulled it out and read the title.

Alice in Wonderland.

“Papa had given it to me.”

I looked up to see Maina sitting up on the bed.

“But you cannot read yet, can you?”

“No, but he used to read out the stories to me every night,” she said, reaching out to reclaim her book. “When I grow up, I am going to read it all by myself.”

That was how I remembered Maina all these years –the little girl sitting upright on the bedwith a faraway look in her eyes, clutching a heavy, hard bound book of fanciful tales.

It must have been twenty years hence that I stumbled upon Maina once again. I had heard about her mother passing away after a prolonged bout of depression related ailment. The last update I had of Maina was that of her being packed away to a boarding school run by a charitable society. After that I heard no more of Maina. Her memory had almost faded away in my mind, till the day a smart young woman at my grandson’s school carnival approached me with a broad smile.

“Hello, Auntie,” she said, her smile lighting up her eyes.

I responded weakly as I agonized over connecting a name to that familiar smile.

“You might not remember me, Auntie,” the girl continued, recognizing my discomfiture. “We met at Reena Auntie’s house many years ago. My name is Maina.”

Maina!

I choked as I recollected the little girl and grasped her hands tightly within mine, suddenly overcome with emotions. She laughed and hugged me, wiping off a stray drop of tear from my eyes.

Later, over cups of tea, she told me her story. How life had treated her and how she ended up where she was today – a children’s book illustrator. I had no inkling that the name Mrinalini printed on my grandson’s story books belonged to Maina.

“It was difficult, Auntie,” she said, sipping on her tea, that familiar faraway look returning to her eyes. “Difficult to even go on living, sometimes. But I had a rabbit-hole where I would dive in whenever things were too hard. It gave me immense strength and peace and I could face everything calmly.”

“I know, my child,” I replied. “I had a best friend once and we spent our childhood together. It was not easy to grow up in a household where parents lived as strangers. I discovered my rabbit-hole, too, reading a particular book. My friend played along and we passed many a spring afternoon living out characters from the book. One day, I realized that I was healed. There was no loneliness in my heart. I gifted the book to my best friend the day we parted. It was a beautiful hard-bound edition.”

Maina looked at me with growing comprehension. She pulled out a battered copy of Alice in Wonderland and flipped it open, fingering the name scrawled across the top of the first page.

Just as I had not known the Mrinalini of my grandson’s story books, Maina had not known the Anamika on her book.

And two strong women shared a smile between themselves.




Thursday, 24 September 2015

Monsoon magic: A trip to Kabini



“You just missed it,” said the photographer, trying hard to suppress his happy grin as he put the cap back on his camera lens. His day was done.

For a moment my heart stood still, and then shattered into a thousand pieces.

The last fifteen minutes that we spent hurtling through the bumpy jungle roads, chanting prayers, had gone in vain.

We had missed seeing the leopard by a whisker.

The fact that we were in Kabini Forest Reserve, or rather Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary - better known as leopard country, and on a safari by Jungle Lodges, famed for its almost guaranteed leopard sightings, rankled painfully in our mind. 

Back at our lodgings with Kabini River Lodge, Ravi, the naturalist accompanying us, shook hands with a sad smile as we alighted from our vehicle. 

I took a deep breath, shook off all the negativities, and beamed at him.

“It’s alright,” I told him. “The fact that we are in Kabini itself is rewarding enough for us. The leopard doesn’t matter.”

I meant it.

I had always wanted to visit Kabini, the erstwhile private hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore, and stay at Kabini River Lodge, touted to be the jewel in the crown of JLR, partaking of the historical significance of this colonial structure located on the banks of the Kabini river. I had read reams about Kabini and gazed goggle-eyed at images posted from there, mostly of the magnificent leopard. The renowned tree-reclining/climbing leopards of Kabini/Nagarhole, as they are called. 

Thus, despite the monsoons and the reduced scope of sighting wildlife, we found ourselves at JLR’s reception porch on 22nd August. Bandipur had showed us that monsoons could be a fruitful season as well and we had based our hope on that. 

I found the property just as I had read about and envisaged it. The familiar sight of colonial architecture greeted us and I spent the time before lunch exploring its sprawling lawns, lanes, nook and crannies. The resort seemed to pay loving tribute to John Wakefield (endearingly known as Papa John), its founding Director, who had passed away in 2010.  The hospitality offered by JLR remains unmatched and I wonder how the management manages to keep the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism among its staff in all its resorts across Karnataka. The same goes for the sumptuous food served in the Gol Ghar.




Maharaja Bungalow




Beautiful garage for the safari vehicles

There was quite a crowd in the resort, running to full house, which was quite commendable given it was off-season. It quite proved the point that the Kabini Forest Reserve is one of the most popular wildlife destinations of Karnataka, owing to its accessibility, verdant landscape, pristine backwaters, and regular sightings of herds of elephants. It is approximately 205 km from Bangalore and comprises the south-eastern part of Nagarahole National Park. 

Nagarahole, together with the adjoining Bandipur National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, forms the largest protected area in southern India.



Sambar deer (female)


Brown Fish Owl

Malabar Trogon (female)

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

As we moved out of the resort for our safari, a cold wind picked up and lashed at us. Inspite of the chill, I loved the moisture-laden wind – it was refreshingly different from the dry wind that you encounter in the hot summers. Perhaps monsoons are the best time to visit a jungle after all. As regards sightings of wildlife, I have given that up on luck. If I have to see a tiger or a leopard, I might just see it on the highway and not on a safari. Seasons don’t matter, too, in my case.

“How does it look like?” my mom had called up to ask about the jungle. “Is it the same like Bandipur?”

The question whirled in my mind as we drove around during the course of several safaris, spotting almost the same birds and animals. Nagarahole and Bandipur are neighbours and yet, no, they are not alike. What set them apart were perhaps the imposing electricity pylons that cut across Nagarahole. I remember seeing an image of a tiger playing with her cubs on the narrow path that ran along these pylons. No such luck awaited us even though we stopped at that point expectantly for some time. 



The electic pylons


Streak-throated Woodpecker


White-bellied Woodpecker


Purple Heron

Another distinct, beautiful feature of Nagarahole is its backwaters. We splashed our way through the lake’s fringes, disturbing a few egrets, herons and a fishing eagle out of their reverie. Just a few meters away from the water, the driver called our attention towards a camouflaged figure lying on the ground – a jackal. While we tried to catch a clear shot of the lounging jackal, its partner peered at us, unnoticed by many. 


Indian Jackal



During our stay at Kabini, heavy showers racked through the night, leaving the forest radiant and swathed in lush greenery in the morning. Rays of golden sunlight filtered in through the thick canopy and perked up the inhabitants of the jungle. The forest floor was an iridescent shade of green, the fresh new shoots pushing up their heads through the soft, wet earth. The tyre tracks were dotted with innumerable dents made by hooves of deer and gaurs, while tiger pugmarks stood out prominently. The king had definitely passed through the area at night, checking up on his subjects. 


Pugmarks

Sambar deer (male)

Grey Junglefowl (female)


Jungle Owlet


I always find morning safaris to be more exhilarating, although the evening ones promise more sightings. Perhaps it has got to do something with the early morning mist and the dewy grounds. Besides, it is nice to catch the birds busy with their breakfast. It is the only time of the day that you can watch a crested serpent eagle feasting on its prey, not perched on a tree but on the ground. Shy herds of Gaur would wait patiently by the side of the road to let us pass before they resumed their grazing. Small, scattered herds of elephants would come upon us, try out a few half-hearted mock charges and allow us to move ahead. Jungle mynahs, riding piggyback on the elephants, remained the blasé witness to these antics.



Misty mornings...


Jungle Mynah on elephant-back

Indian Gaur


Crested Hawk Eagle

The monsoons released its onslaught at us well and proper on the evening we had opted for boat safari. It started out as a light drizzle while we coursed along the backwaters, straining our eyes out for any movement along the banks. A smattering of colour would show up from time to time, revealing itself to be a peacock out for its evening amble, while dull browns in the distance turned out to be a herd of spotted deer.


The jetty



Tranquil waters


Spotted deer herd

Peacock

The action in the water involved the ‘skim, dip, and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the cormorants and the ‘whirl, swoop and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the osprey. We were enthralled with these ‘live shows’ and hardly noticed when the light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. To my utter delight, the person handling our boat went about the safari nonchalantly. It is not every day that one gets to observe nature and its creations while in the middle of an act of nature. The cormorants ceased their activities for the moment and perched themselves on dead trees, folding their heads beneath their wings. The osprey had flown towards the tall trees on the bank.


Great Cormorant


Osprey


Grey Heron


By the time we finished the safari, the rain had stopped and weak rays of the setting sun were in the horizon. I could not thank the monsoon gods enough for that experience.




Lesser Whistling Duck



However much I try to tell myself before embarking on a jeep safari that I am here just for the jungle, that I am here to breathe in the fresh air and listen to the chirping of birds, I know I am telling a tiny lie. Just as nobody goes khaali haath from a shrine, nobody goes without catching sight of a leopard in Kabini – goes the unofficial saying if you look at images uploaded on Facebook communities. Of late, there have been quite a few sightings of tigers and black panthers as well.


Indian Wild Dogs



So, this brings back to my story about the leopard that eluded me. I had immense hopes of seeing a leopard on this trip and did not leave a single branch un-scanned. I strained my eyes to the maximum and found myself imagining leopards at every perpendicular bough of a tree. There were leopards doing ramp-walks in my imagination as we passed trees with sloping branches. Imagine my palpitations then when our driver got a call informing him about a leopard sighted in another zone. We drove at top speed to the spot, requesting all the gods fervently to keep the leopard on that tree.

You know the rest of the story.

We sat at our vehicle for some time even after the other vehicles had left, filled with happy people who kept on peeking at their camera monitors. And then, an amazing thing happened. While we fixed our gaze on the left hand side of the road, on the tree that had held the leopard in its branch, something stirred amid the foliage on our right hand. Slowly, a daunting form emanated, followed by another. 

They had the largest tusks I had seen in a long, long time. 




These giant tuskers strolled around casually, just a few meters away from us, while we gawped at them with our jaws dropped. We had forgotten the leopard cleanly.




And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, I love the jungle. It never disappoints you. Thank you Kabini, thank you Nagarhole. You have been absolutely kind to us. We will come back again.




PS: We had gone on a nature walk and coracle ride, and stumbled across several gems. Shall write about them soon!