The Big Birdbath Show at Old Magazine House, Ganeshgudi
A road framed in pink...
As the wheels of our car scrunched over the dirt track leading towards Old Magazine House, Ganeshgudi, a sense of deja vu engulfed me. I had never been to this part of the world and yet somehow I knew this road, I knew how the entrance gate would look, even the cottages on stilts that we had booked ourselves into… After all, had I not been reading about this place since the past two years, since the time we took up birding? A magical world, they say, where birds came to you. A cacophony of bird songs and colours. Or as Kartik had put it on his blog – a place where you can carry on ‘armchair birding’. It sounded too good to be true, and yet there were photographs to support these eulogies. Pictures that looked as if they were almost photoshopped. How could birds look like they had been posing for the photographers, perched on those beautiful mossy boughs?
“Let’s find out, shall we?” the husband said, parking our car in the shade of tall trees.
I stepped out a bit gingerly, stretching out my journey-worn limbs, and found myself gazing at the famous green-net ‘bird studio’. So, finally, I was at Old Magazine House, so called owing to the ammunition stored there for the construction of the Supa Dam project in the 60s. Local folklore also puts its origins to a hunting lodge in the days of the Raj.
Waiting for the show to start
There were around 5 clay birdbaths arranged in front of the green-net secured area, cutting off the birds from their admirers by approximately 10-15 feet. Another birdbath, a tiny dug-out on the ground, lay to the right. Already slots with vantage views had been claimed, cameras mounted on tripods as evidence of their owners’ stake. The birder-photographers themselves were lounging about in large plastic armchairs, taking a break. It was lunch time and there seemed to be a lull in bird activity.
We finished our lunch hurriedly on the terrace setup - a delicious homely spread, typical of JLR hospitality. The husband took second helpings with one eye on the scene below, wary of missing out on any bird. As I stood on the edge of the dining hall, surveying the area, a resort staff quietly pointed towards the tree adjoining the terrace.
“Madam,” he whispered. “Malabar hornbills.”
Malabar Grey Hornbill
They were a pair.
“They are regulars here,” he explained. “The tree is fruiting, you see, and so they come here to feed.”
The couple stayed there till evening, largely unobserved, alternating between a few trees in the vicinity. Their loud calls could be heard from time to time. Like a witch’s cackle, I thought to myself.
Meanwhile, I could sense excitement pulsating through the air. It was close to show time. An employee went around filling the bird baths and spraying the mossy boughs with fresh water. People checked their gear, firing off a few testers. It seemed to be a Nikon fest to me. The husband muttered a barely audible “5 to 6 lakhs”, surreptitiously pointing towards a particular camera set up. I looked around and counted 19 cameras. How much would that total up to, I wondered, calculating the costs involved with each gear.
Suddenly, one of the birder-photographers standing by his tripod waved his hand sharply and it jolted the others out of the armchairs to reach out for their cameras. The first bird, a white-rumped munia, had arrived and the show had begun. For the next few minutes, all I could hear were frenzied clicking noises – the whir and click of 19 cameras, all pointing towards the little bird. “Ka-chow, ka-chow!”
....and the show starts! Get set click!!
The moment the munia and its friends had their bath, a group of oriental white-eyes emerged, as if on cue, from the bushes. It was a beautiful sight – the little fellows all fluffed up and splashing water over each other.
An impatient dark-fronted babbler appeared amidst the white-eyes and took his dip without waiting for any of his ilk to come out. No sooner had this group had their bath than a motley crew of brown-cheeked fulvettas landed on the scene. They hopped around on the boughs, willing the white-eyes to wrap up their bath, so that they could claim the birdbaths to themselves. The fulvettas were soon followed by a gang of puff-throated babblers, ruffling up their feathers in the water, showing why they were called puff-throated at the first place.
A gate crasher - Dark-fronted Babbler
Unbeknownst to the photographers, who were concentrating on taking pictures of the birds in front of them, a gorgeous black-naped monarch took leisurely dips in its private pool on the ground. Since I could not penetrate through the wall of photographers, I was happy to be its sole audience, admiring its rich blue hues. After it had its fill, another blue speck appeared in the little pool – a hyperactive tickell’s blue flycatcher.
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
Suddenly, as abruptly as it had begun, the show halted in its tracks. A hushed silence prevailed as the birds vanished from the scene. Then, a round of tired albeit satisfied sighs emanated from everyone who had been frantically trying to capture every move, every droplet shed by the birds. They identified the birds, reviewed their shots and shared tips amongst each other. The resort staff brought over a much-needed measure of tea and coffee to refresh and replenish the birders. The birds had offered them a breather, it would seem.
As the birders/photographers traded stories of past safaris and experiences over cups of tea, a strange cricket-like noise coming from the bushes warned them of another visitor. A white-rumped shama was preparing itself in the wings. Soon, a second wave of birds followed, though it was rather subdued.
Blyth's Reed Warbler
“The paradise flycatcher will come at 5.30 pm, mark my words,” said one birder who had visited OMH previously. I learned from the experienced birders and resort naturalists that the birds followed a routine. It was almost possible to predict which bird would make its appearance at what time. There was a method to the madness, too. While a group would be taking bath, the next batch would be waiting for them in the bushes and foliage, biding their time.
But ultimately, luck plays the main role in what you get to see. For, in the two days that we stayed in OMH, only a few of us saw a particular bird one day, which the others missed sorely.
As regards the paradise flycatcher, it remained true to its routine and made its entrance at the right time.
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
After the second wave, the birds kept us waiting for a long time, almost making me believe that perhaps they had packed up for the day. Light was beginning to fail and people started to talk of ISOs. All of a sudden, a loud flapping of wings was heard and there landed by the birdbath a bird that I had admired countless times, poring over others’ pictures – the glorious emerald dove, its brilliant colours evident even in low light.
White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (female)
White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (male)
Soon, other birds appeared on the scene in such a flurried manner that it was proving difficult to follow each of them in separate bird baths. While white-bellied blue flycatchers were having a ball in one birdbath the other one was occupied by fulvettas. Another had an Indian blue robin and orange-headed thrush frolicking in it. A Malabar whistling thrush and scimitar babbler made a blink-and-miss appearance, prompting disappointed notes from the photographers who missed them.
Little Spider Hunter
Finally, evening descended well and proper and the cameras could not keep up with the birds. The tripods were packed away and the studio shut for the day. A blazing bonfire came up on the grounds and we sipped hot soup and pakodas seated around it. Post a sumptuous dinner, we returned to our cottages and while I downloaded our day’s stash of images, the husband dozed off mid-sentence.
The next morning as we met for tea, my mother told me that she was awakened by someone’s whistling just behind her cottage.
“That’s a school boy, Ma,” I told her laughingly. “Or to be precise, that was the Malabar whistling thrush you heard.”
I had heard the haunting song, too, which deeply reminded me of the mockingjay tune from Hunger Games (Part 1).
The morning show started soon and all of us again got busy shooting the colourful birds. During a break, a few of us got restless and started scouring the premises of the resort. There were blackbirds a-galore and they quickly flew away towards the undergrowth, lurking in the shadows. Velvet-fronted nuthatch scuttled up and down the tree barks ceaselessly while a few minivets and bar-winged flycatcher shrikes fluttered about in the canopy overhead. As we tried to capture these skittish birds, two brown-coloured specimens flapped out of the bushes into the sunshine. We ran towards them to get a closer look and what we saw took my breath away.
The coveted, elusive Malabar trogon.
Malabar Trogon (female)
I remembered telling the husband poignantly the previous evening that I badly wanted to see a trogon in my lifetime - would I ever come across one?
Someone above must have eavesdropped on our conversation and taken pity on me.
I had my fill of watching the trogons, both females and presumably a mother-daughter pair, fly around from one leafy perch to the other. I then sauntered off happily to the group at the birdbath studio and relayed the trogon news. Must admit here that I found it quite amusing to see the photographers run helter skelter to the trogon spot, carrying their tripods aloft. One person later managed to catch the more beautiful male, perched on the electric wire of all places, but I was happy just to have seen the female.
In search of the elusive Trogon
Another not-to-be-missed site is the government timber depot in Dandeli, famous for its hornbill sightings. On a good day, one gets to witness all the three specimens – Malabar, pied and great hornbills feasting on ficus tree fruits. The morning that we visited we missed the great hornbills but there were lots to cheer us about. Several Malabar grey hornbills and a pair of pied hornbills hosted us graciously, as well as the restless, greedy barbets gorging on fruits.
Malabar Pied Hornbill
We spent two wonderful days in OMH and I think we fairly managed to capture the glory of the place. It is not only a place to photograph birds, it is also a junction where you get to share your experiences and learn about bird behavior as well as about trade photography tips. There is no other activity in OMH other than to pursue and discuss this passion, which is such a great relief. However, I guess some bit of change and face-lift of the property is on the cards, looking at the mound of sand in the premises. I only hope it doesn’t become expensive and overtly crowded with more accommodation added, given that the photographers’ gallery is already bursting at the seams. I had to almost stand up on a chair to catch a glimpse of the birds!
Blue-capped Rock Thrush
And finally, in the tradition of the Oscars, I would like to thank my parents and Shivani, who had accompanied her husband, for looking after my son along with her own. This was one of the few times where I shed off most of my responsibilities to simply enjoy watching these beautiful winged creatures. My mother rebuked me later for being unsocial and aloof, not taking part in any conversations, but I guess my ‘introvertism’ is heightened in such places and I generally like to lose myself in my own world.
It has been more than two weeks since my OMH visit and yet I just have to close my eyes and I am instantly transported to those magical days – the flashes of blues, reds, ochres and green. The peculiar call of the Shama, waiting to take a dip, the maddening flights of the chestnut headed bee-eater that unfailingly made its appearance at lunch time, the gleeful cackle of the hornbills, the high-pitched call of the lazy, mostly slumbering Malabar giant squirrels, the camouflaged lizards, the iridescent butterflies… Thus, regardless of all the debates (and maybe rightfully so) of the lack of thrill that studio birding entail, I feel one visit at least should be made to this place. Who knows when a change of environment and stimuli affect these flighty guests? Till then, let’s wish they continue to thrill us with their big birdbath show!
A gang of Brown-cheeked Fulvettas
More pictures here
Note: We travelled from Bangalore to Old Magazine House, a distance of approximately 550 kms, and the route we followed was Bangalore – Tumkur – Chitradurga – Hubli – Dharwad - Dandeli – Ganeshgudi.
Tip: Don’t restrict yourself to armchair birding only - the pathway from the main road to OMH and the area in front of the cottages are great places to spot birds, too. Also, keep a look-out for the Draco dussumieri, commonly known as the southern flying lizard, a species of agamid lizard capable of gliding from tree to tree.
Draco dussumieri (Southern Flying Lizard)
The gorgeous fellow
PS: I don't have accurate knowledge regarding the best time to visit but based on some talks I heard in the resort the main season is from November to April. I think monsoon sets in soonafter and then the birds dont feel the need to take bath in the birdbaths. Do call up the Jungle Lodges people in case you have booked your stay there and maybe they will be able to help you out better.
List of birds sighted at Old Magazine House, Ganeshgudi:
Racket-tailed Drongo, Black Drongo, Indian Blackbird, Black-lored Tit, Green Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Blyth’s Starling, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Brown-headed Barbet, Coppersmith Barbet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Scimitar Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, Puff-throated Babbler, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Orange-headed Thrush, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Verditer Flycatcher, Orange Minivet, Lesser Yellow-naped Woodpecker, Lesser Flameback, White-rumped Munia, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Pale-billed Flowerpecker (?), Flame-throated Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Grey-headed Bulbul, Laughing Dove, Spotted Dove, Oriental White-eye, White-rumped Shama, Black-naped Monarch, Little Spider Hunter, Malabar Trogon, Emerald Dove, Blue Rock Thrush, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Blue Robin, Hill Mynah, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Crested Serpent Eagle, either a Shikra or a Goshawk (too far), Oriental Honey Buzzard, another unidentified raptor, Black-hooded Oriole, Barn Swallow.