We had been out birding all day and were finishing up dinner when Adesh asked "Who wants to go out for a night walk". Within minutes, everybody disappeared into their tents, and came back with their torch lights and binoculars. It was 10:30 PM when 13 crazy birders set out to explore the jungle in hopes of seeing nocturnal beings. Apart from owls and nightjars, the Dandeli forests were reported to have flying squirrels, jungle cats and even the elusive Black Panther which was last sighted in 2005. With the kind of optimism you can only have at the beginning of a trip, we set out into the darkness of the night powered by small pen torches and cigarette torches (I swear I am not kidding, Nikhil had a torch that looked like a cigarette). Adesh and Mandar (A&M) however, had these industry strength torches that could light up all the way to Mars (they are rechargeable). It was 2 days after Diwali, so it was a dark moonless night. The few stars that were scattered in the night sky did nothing to increase the light. We walked on the tar road away from the camp site. At first, it looked like one enormous black canvas out there, but once our eyes adjusted to the low light, we began to distinguish different features. (A&M) would occasionally flash their powerful torches to scan for owls and nightjars. This continued for the first 15 minutes. Seeing nothing, Adesh asked us to follow him into a jungle trail. "OMG, Is he crazy?" I said to myself, but obediently followed him. It got darker as we went away from the road. About 100 yards later, we stopped near a water tank.
"Switch off your lights and be very silent" ordered Adesh. The jungle comes alive in the night. Countless species of birds, mammals and insects are at work and you slowly begin to be aware of different sounds. The deafening trill of crickets, the croaks of frogs and the monotonous simmer of insects make for a very eerie orchestra. The hallucinatory sounds were all pervasive and with no images to associate with the sounds, it was spooky as hell. Adesh decided to check for frogmouths in the area. He used his cellphone and played the call of a Ceylon Frogmouth.
The frogmouths are a group of tropical nocturnal birds related to the nightjars. This species is found only in the Western Ghats in southwest India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Frogmouth is about 23 cm long. It is large-headed, and has a large flattened hooked bill and huge frog-like gape. It is best located at night by its song, which is a loud descending cackly and frog-like series of Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock calls. This is the call of the male and it is often answered by the female whose call is low long harsh Krrshhhh.
To see some stunning pictures of the frogmouth, check out my friend Thomas's blog here.
The call of the female is very shrill, almost like the cry of some wild animal hunted by a predator. It kind of sends a shiver down your spine when you hear it for the first time. Adesh played the call and we waited hopefully. There was no reply. We waited for a looong minute and then played it again. Seconds ticked by and our ears picked up every little sound. Insects were buzzing incessantly. A couple of frogs surfaced to the top of the water tank to check out the suspense drama. Still nothing! We decided to play the call for one last time. Check out the sounds of the jungle in this video.
"WOW", said folks said in hushed tones. A&M switched on the torches and started scanning the trees. We all whipped out our binoculars and tried to follow the powerful beam of lights, but saw nothing. Nocturnal birds are masters at camouflage. The frogmouth with its brown plumage can be mistaken for a tree branch! After some time, we gave up and decided to get back to the road. We were hearing more calls, so we walked on, occasionally switching on our torches and scanning the tree canopies. At some point Adesh thought that we heard at least 10 frogmouths. As if to join the musical melange, an Oriental Scops Owl started hooting. We all got excited about the owl. Adesh imitated the owl and it responded back! We started walking towards the direction of the owl-call. When we were close enough, they flashed their powerful torches hoping to see a pair of sparkling eyes. Nothing again! It was almost midnight and we were exhausted when Sharada said "I would love to sleep on the road and gaze at the stars". Can you imagine how it would be to lie down on a road in the forest surrounded by all these hallucinatory sounds? Well....it was awesome!
A tree cricket was calling out loudly and Adesh led us towards it. He asked us to cup our ears forward and notice how the sound amplifies. As we reached closer, I thought my ear drums would burst any second when Adesh shone his torch to a little hole. Alarmed at being discovered, the cricket shut up immediately. It was enough excitement for one night, so we went back to the camp. It didn't matter than we didn't see any birds, the journey itself was thrilling!
The following night, we set off again, a little earlier at 9:30 PM. The night was not as dark as the previous one, but still scary. The moment we stepped out, we struck gold! While scanning the trees outside the camp, A&M found a flying squirrel. It was a giant grey squirrel with an enormous bushy tail. These are known to fly/glide from one tree to another in the night foraging for food. We went to the water tank and tried our luck again, but heard nothing, so we went back to the road. There we heard the unmistakable call of the frogmouth. We switched on our torches and scanned every tree in the area, but they were still elusive. At one point, the calls were really close, so we got off the road under a tree canopy. Adesh imitated the call and the bird answered back immediately. Torches and binoculars were out searching for it yet again. Nothing! Sigh!
We were about to give up and lie down on the road again, but Adesh would not give up "Salle ko dhoondh Nikalunga" he said with determination, so we trudged along. A little ahead, calls were coming from the left hand side of the road. We stood there and waited until we heard the call again. The second we heard the call, A & M shone their torches on one tree branch at the exact same time and VOILA! There they were!! One male and one female frogmouth sitting pretty on a tree branch in full view, right on top of our heads. Binoculars went up, cameras started clicking and it was celebration time! The male bird flew off, but the female struck around for at least a minute enthralling us. What a night!! Even if we had not seen the birds, it was still a great adventure, but seeing them was like icing on the cake. Check of this really bad video of the sighting. The quality of the video will make 'The Blair Witch Project' seem like a masterpiece:)
Our 4 day bird watching trip to Dandeli with Nature India Tours was great. We had a combination of slow times where we saw very few birds and fun times where we had non-stop action. The slow times were never long enough to bore us and the fun times were always long enough to keep us excited. The mixed hunting party near the timber depot offered non-stop action while the open pit mine which was truly an amphitheater where birds modeled one by one showing off their beautiful feathers. It was great fun one evening when we saw 2 dozen Malabar pied horn bills dining on berries and shrieking in delight . My favorite sightings were the blue bearded bee eater and white bellied woodpecker. This post is already getting long, so I will just write about one instance that stuck in my mind.
We were near a water body looking at birds through a spotting scope when somebody saw a raptor in the sky. Mandar looked at it through his binoculars and immediately started screaming "Roufous Bellied Eagle.....Roufous Bellied Eagle...come everybody". He ran like mad and started clicking pictures and once done, observed the bird through the binoculars till it disappeared from sight. He came back with a wide-grin and could not stop smiling for the next half hour. That evening, he went to a store, bought sweets and distributed them to everybody.
If you have even half of his enthusiasm for your job, you should consider yourself truly blessed.
Diwali at the camp
Purple Sun Bird, Green Bee Eater
Small Minivet, White Bellied Woodpecker,
Photographing birds was really hard on this trip because they were never at eye level, so I followed Uma and Mohan and took pictures of these dragonflies. Aren't they beautiful?