Feb 12, 2009

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

One of the most tiring & often frustrating aspect of being an amateur bird photographer is inability to get true colours of the birds. The cameras might be good but the zooms leave much to the desire. And closer one tries to get to the birds, faster they fly away. It is challenging but, as I started with, also very frustrating. Even in the best of the sanctuaries, one needs to tread so carefully to reach into that distance which, to a bird, should be acceptable as non-threatening.

Hence a full resolution picture like this would be a dream-come-true:

or getting so close to a "magar" that you can advise it about maintaining dental hygiene (if only you are ready to forget the age old proverb "pani men rahkar magar se bair nahi lete"):

No, these are not the pictures taken at Zoo nor is this report about my having acquired a new zoom lens.

This is about Ranganthittu, a bird sanctuary unique by itself and Kokkare Bellur – a village about 100 Kms from Bangalore that has adapted itself to a lifestyle to suit annual visits of Pelicans & Storks.

Kaveri river, originating from Kodagu (Coorg), after leaving western ghats forms its first island at Srirangapattnam. Ranganthittu is a series of small islands located just before Srirangapattnam. Here, rather then conquering these islands, Kaveri has created a place that migratory birds find idle for nesting & breeding. Dr Salim Ali, with his foresightedness, was the first one to recognize the potential of this place and it was his efforts that led to conversion of this area in to a sanctuary.

My first visit to Ranganthittu was in October 2006. Those were the initial days of my passion for bird-photography. I was comparatively raw to the hobby and I used a Videocam for still photography. As a result, though we had a great time sighting White Ibis, Black Ibis, Darter, Stone Plover, Cormorant, Night Heron, and Brahminy Kite among other birds, my album had nothing great to show.

Since then, except the darter, I have had chance to see most of these birds in & around Mumbai itself, but in my mind I still could visualize the ones which I had seen 2 years back from such close quarters. Providence provided another opportunity to visit Bangalore and having completed my work decided to stay an extra day to visit Ranganthittu with my cousin brother – a friend, philosopher & guide always but more so through the growing up years of my life. The habits die hard - so off we were for bird-watching (albeit of a different kind) !!

We reached the sanctuary early morning, an ideal time when the the songs of birds can be heard easily - not because they are more vocal but because there are very few human beings around. Kaveri, in the morning light was resembling more like a placid lake, green in appearance, flowing discreetly as if not wanting to disturb the migrants it attracts.

In contrast to the serene river, the islets resembled huge colonies under reconstruction as Painted Storks, Open bill Storks, Spoonbills & Spot-billed Pelicans had staked their claims to various plots. Not at all concerned about the slump in property prices, these creatures were continuously chattering & calling out to their mates while finding suitable construction material to ferry to the site, and yet finding time enough to engage in courtship. The lower parts of these Islets were being occupied by Night Herons largely with few white breasted waterhens, large, little & median egrets also jostling for the space.

Countless number of cormorants had carved out a niche for their own and were spending less time in swimming & more in nesting. A few darters, perched among the tree branches, justified the reason for their also being called a snake bird.

A few Great Stone Plovers (Great Thick-knee) completed the picture, ever alert to the boats nearing them while unseen White throated Kingfisher filled in the back-ground score. Other birds seen included streak throated swallow near the entrance to the sanctuary, a few parakeets & grey hornbills in flight, Brahminy kites, sunbirds, tailorbirds, White browed wagtail & a pair of unidentified warblers.

The mammals, till homosapiens crowded the sanctuary, were represented by huge colonies of flying foxes. And yes, a few sun-bathing resident muggers, eyes closed & smiling at the memory of the last meal they had devoured, were occupying the smaller rocky outcroppings - oblivious to the floating population gawking at them.

Having feasted our eyes & having exhausted the shutterbug, we moved to Kokkur Bellur via a brief halt at 'Daria Daulat Bagh" - the summer palace of Tipu Sultan. A plain looking monument from far, due to sun-screen all around, hides the history that has been recreated through paintings on the walls of the monument. Situated amidst verdant green lawn hedged with tall trees all around is a single storeyed structure made up largely of wood.

The wall on one side of the hall depicts defeat of Colonel Bailey at Kancheevaram in a mocking style (the defeated colonel with knuckles pressed to the teeth depicting his fear & shock), the wall on the other side has been used as personal album of Tipu Sultan, depicting pictures of various kings of those times. It would be interesting to not only identify those faces but also to find out the reason for depicting them on the wall of a palace which was apparently used by Tipu to recover from the fatigues of the hard fought war. The colours of the courts have faded a bit but are still evidence to the rich heritage existing here.

From Daria Daulat Bagh, we moved to Kokkare Bellur (KB). The road to KB is a turn off (on the left after passing Cafe Coffee Day outlet at Channapatna) from the newly laid six-lane Bangalore Mysore highway. As you move on, the road becomes much narrower & difficult to drive on, with furtehr obstacles created by villagers using the vehicles movement to thrash Ragi from its husk. Talk of effcient cost reduction & energy saving measure. The paddy fields around were proving to be a good food provider for egrets, black ibis, barn swallows, Indian Robin, Pied Starlings, wagtails, Tits & Brahminy Kites. The lake formed by a dam had numbers of terns flying around while common coots were busy finding food.

Soon we reached Kokkare Bellur which, deceptive in looks though, is not an ordinary village. A village with an area of about half a sqaure kilometer has been considered (for over last 500 years) as safe heaven for nesting by spot Billed Pelicans - a specie which has been in decline over the years and is being treated as vulnerable, and Storks. Incidentally, the word Kokkare means storks in Kannada. The village was reverberating with the sound of flapping wings of Painted Storks who were all around busy with courtship rituals & nest building & no senas were around to stop them from exhibiting their love for each other.

Spot Billed Pelicans, lesser in numbers though, kept taking a flight every once in a while as an overhead patrol to safeguard their nests from the Brahminy kites hovering in the sky.

Interestingly, this place is managed, not by any government agency, but by the villagers themselves who have adapted their lifestyle to create a perfect symbiosis. In order to provide a safe environment to the birds, a villager is ready to forego income from his trees, if the same has been selected by a bird for its nesting. In return, the bird's excrement, rich in potassium, due to fish based diet of the birds, proves to be a natural fertiliser. No wonder, this readiness to adapt the lifestyle to protect enviornment, has led to an increase in the numbers of nestings over the years.

Quite possibly, therein lies a lesson, for all the agencies - governmental as well as NGOs & do-gooders, engaged in protecting environment. Ensure that local people understand the issues as well as benefits resulting out of protection of environment and you can achieve better results.

Meanwhile, for us, the day ended with one of the most beautiful sunset.

For more pictures of this trip & of the flwoer show at Bangalore's Lal Bagh, please click on the following link:


Dr. Salil Choksi said...

Nice Blog, Ashish.
Brings my back memories of my trip to Ranganthitu on 24 th Jan 2009. I was with a couple of bird watching friends from Bangalore ... we also saw the Stork billed Kingfisher from close, and a pair of mating crocs.

BTW, the Buterfly Park at Bannerghata zoo is superb .. I found it matching international standards.

Dr salil choksi

Ashok said...

Hi Ashish,

Very nice account of the trip. Pictures, too, have come out very well. And so far, I have only managed to download my pictures to the comp:(. I am so happy to note that not only your bird identification and photography skills are improving by the day but your writing is also acquiring an edge to keep the reader interest alive till the end and looking for more.

BTW, the first island that the river Cauvery forms is much upstream of Srirangapatna; it is called Nisargadham, formed by the river just as it comes down the Kodagu hills in the plains.



Vamsee said...

Nice write up and great pictures. I am visiting this place next month, so your report was very timely!