Monday, November 14, 2011

Dandeli Dhamaka (October 2009)

It was pitch-black, the velvety sky punctured by brilliant points of starlight, as we headed down the tarred road from Kulgi Nature Camp on our first night walk. We were hoping to see some nocturnal wildlife, in particular the Sri Lanka Frogmouth. The motley group, consisted of, besides me, Uma, Mohan, Vamsee, Saru, Nikhil, Kalpana, Sucharita, the Jayarams and my daughter Sharada. We followed the piercing beam of the torch held by Mandar Khadilkar, the bespectacled, soft-spoken Nature India Tours leader and listened intently for the male's distinctive `klock,klock, klock' call. Adesh Shivkar, the intrepid birding expert, was our other leader.
Adesh stopped at a stagnant pond ringed with overhanging trees and thick bushes which he said were likely roosting spots for the frogmouth. The silence was overwhelming, punctuated only by the chirp of crickets and the occasional hooting of the Oriental Scops Owl and the plop of twigs falling into the water. As we strained our eyes in the darkness, Adesh imitated the frogmouth's call a few times and then cupped his ears to listen. After a few minutes, a thrill ran down my spine and the hairs on my neck stood on end. The frogmouth answered, first the female with its harsh `krrrrsshh' and then the male, their calls echoing eerily in the quietude of the surrounding forest.
The beam of the torch played on each succeeding tree, hoping to capture the frogmouths in its spotlight. Alas! To no avail. That night, though we walked down further for another hour, we could not glimpse this elusive bird though we heard them calling distinctly. Each time we felt the bird was just there, an arm's length away, but the torchlight revealed nothing! Nor did we scope out the Scops. Ohhhh…we all sighed a little in disappointment. Our legs ached and we sat down in the middle of the road to rest. Could we ever do that in the concrete jungle?!
We had one just more night at Dandeli, and we all resolved that come what may, we would succeed in our quest. The frogmouth apparently was quite common in Dandeli but because it was normally silent, except during the breeding season, birders rarely saw it. It roosts in the bamboo thickets or in dense bushes, sitting as still as a monk in meditation, its grey-brown colouration merging perfectly with the surroundings. It is a medium-sized bird, with bristles around its wide mouth (resembling a frog's gape, thus the name) and preys on insects which it doesn't hunt actively but catches by a silent ambush of sorts.
The second night walk started with a glimpse of the Malabar flying squirrel which we felt was a good omen! We followed the route of the first walk. Again, near the pond, we stood in a silent, hopeful bunch swivelling our heads to follow the calls we heard booming around us. Adesh then decided to walk along the road once more, saying that there were more chances of finding the frogmouth in the trees fringing it. So once more we trudged up the road, resuming our keen survey of the trees, almost willing the bird to be there!
Then…bingo! The roving beam of the torch picked them out, sitting silently on the branch of a tree directly above us! We all let out a collective breath of excitement, our hands trembling as we lifted binoculars to our eyes. The frogmouths – a pair – sat tight and glared right back at us, probably not liking the light focussed on them one bit. Uma actually shot a video of the birds and it included the female calling! Then the male took wing, followed shortly after by the female. We did not see the birds again and though we heard the Scops again, we could not spot it. So back to the camp and a celebration of our frogmouth sighting…with sweets distributed by Mandar.
Though the frogmouths were the defining moment of my visit to Dandeli, there were other memorable moments, too. We made trips to the Timber Depot, the abandoned mine, Ganeshgudi and also took a ride through the main sanctuary. The sanctuary proper was disappointing with meagre spottings – some deer and peafowl. However, the mine was a veritable goldmine! The bluebearded bee eater which refused to turn around and show us its beard (!), raucous yellow-browed bulbuls, brilliant orange and small minivets flitting like jewels in the trees, the silky chestnut headed bee eater and delicious plum headed parakeets. The timber depot was a revelation. Woodpeckers by the gallon, cute little beady-eyed velvet fronted and chestnut-bellied nuthatches meandering down the tree trunks, ashy, bronze and white bellied drongos by the drumful and shrikes and flycatchers galore. We were punch drunk in less than an hour and were greedy for more and more…
This was followed by a tree full of pompadour green pigeons looking for all the world like luscious plump fruit, shrieking Malabar pied hornbills gorging on berries and a sky full of brilliant white and rust brahminy kites. The pipal tree in the camp provided a feast too, and not only for the birds and assorted monkeys. It was a birder's feast for the eyes with crimson-fronted barbets, hanging parrots, the Asian fairy bluebird which looked as if it had fallen into a vat of Robin Blue, and the brown flycatcher shrike with black button eyes.
Dandeli was a dream come true, especially for Sharada who has now become `sort of addicted' to birding! Kudos as usual to Adesh and Mandar for organising a fantastic outing – their perserverance, patience and passion have to be experienced to be believed. 

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