With the ambient temperature at 36 degrees, Cauvery water supplied once in a week and daily power-cuts by Bescom, we are left in no doubt that summer is here. It seems a bit ridiculous that one would choose to spend the whole day outside, roasting slowly in the sun, but the fact is that summer is a good time for birders. The trees are bare, birds are easier to sight and shoot, and summer is breeding season for many species.
One bird that breeds in the summer is the Indian grey hornbill, Ocyceros birostris. The members of the Bucerotidae family sport a prominent casque or a horn on their beaks. The term ‘ buceros’ means cow horn in Greek.
Hornbills are generally monogamous, meaning that they mate for life (unlike humans). They nest in holes or large cavities in trees. The female prepares the nest by lining it with mud and lays it eggs inside. She then seals herself inside, with just her beak poking out. She remains sealed in until the eggs hatch and the fledglings are old enough to come out. Till then, the faithful male feeds her and the chicks. Hornbills feed on fruits, insects, molluscs and sometimes small birds.
I snapped this hornbill pair setting up home in a dried-up tree at Kokrebellur, about 120 km from Bangalore. Their grey plumage blends in perfectly with the surrounding bark, making them very difficult to spot and photograph.
Let’s hope they have a long and happy married life!
The Brahminy kite is a familiar sight in our skies. Its systematic name is Haliastur indus. The term ‘haliastur’ means ‘whistler’. The Brahminy kite does have a call that sounds like a hoarse whistle.
In Hindu scriptures, this diurnal raptor represents Garuda, Vishnu’s mount. The Garuda is the official bird of Indonesia’s capital city and lends its name to the national airline of that country.
The bird is also known as the Red-backed sea eagle in Australia. The Langkawi archipelago, off the coast of Malaysia, is named after the Brahminy kite. ‘Langkawi’ means reddish-brown eagle in colloquial Malay.
The adult Brahminy kite has a distinguished plumage that sets it apart from the other urban raptors. It generally feeds on fish, crabs and frogs, and usually nests on trees near waterbodies. When necessary, it will scavenge for food at harbors, slaughter-houses and fish shops.
The only reason why I continue to live in this garbage-laden, dog-infested, over-congested and rapidly decaying concretised shithole called Bangalore, is the proximity of a few good birding locations.
Ranganathittu is one such. Spread over just 700 square meters, this sanctuary is one of India’s smallest. Yet, it is home to well over one hundred avian species and several other flora and fauna.
During the winter months, the star attraction at Ranganathittu is the Eurasian Spoonbill. So named because of its characteristic flat bill, the Spoonbill is a long-distance migrant that comes down to India all the way from Europe.
Come October and hundreds of Spoonbills arrive at Ranganathittu to breed. Spoonbills prefer shallow waterbodies and feed on small aquatic animals, like snails, frogs, crabs, aquatic insects and young fish. Spoonbills have a typical feeding style. They walk around in shallow water with their open bills dipped in, constantly sweeping for prey. The bill snaps shut instantly when it touches its prey.
While the Eurasian Spoonbill is a winter visitor, there are many other resident avians at Ranganthittu that are just as spectacular. The gorgeous Painted Stork is one of them.
So is the Asian Openbill Stork. And the Oriental Darter (alias the Snakebird), and the Woolly-necked Stork, and the Spot-billed Pelican, and the River Tern, and the Great Thick-knee, and the Indian Shag, and many more.
And look out for the Marsh Crocodile (or Magarmach, if you prefer). Ranganathittu is one of the few places where you can see the endangered Marsh Crocodile in its natural habitat. You can usually spot a couple of these magnificent monsters sunning themselves on the rocks.
There is a large colony of Flying Foxes at Ranganathittu. Flying Foxes, FYI, are bats. In fact, they are the world’s largest bats.
If you take a boat across the lake, the boatman will take you very close to these crocs and foxes – for a small financial incentive, of course!
The entry fee is Rs.50/ per head (per Indian head, that is). For foreigners, the entry fee alone is Rs.300/-. And that, to my mind, is not fair. Why do we always assume that visitors to our country are all stinking rich and are all very happy to pay ten times the normal fee?
The fee for a common boat is Rs.50/- per head. Or, if you have money to spare, you can shell out Rs.1000/- for a four-person boat and a prolonged half-hour ride across the lake. Shell out another Rs.100/- to the boatman, and that half-hour can become one hour!
The gardens around the lake are equally rich in avian life.
Look for the Green bee-eater, Grey wagtail, Oriental magpie robin, Black-rumped Woodpecker and India’s smallest bird, Tickell’s Flowerpecker. About the size of an adult thumb, this elusive little fellow prefers to feed on the fruits of the Singapore Cherry tree, which is where I snapped this Flowerpecker trying to gulp down a meal.
Distance from Bangalore is about 120 km, an easy two-hour drive from the city. Ranganathittu is close to Mysore. If you prefer, you can stay at Mysore for a couple of days, and visit several birding spots around the town.
Ranganathittu is good for a visit through the year. If you want to see the Spoonbill, visit during October-March. If you’re serious about birds and photography, then strictly avoid weekends. Mid-week is strongly advised. Visit the place as early as you can. Ranganathittu opens at 8.30 am, at which time you will probably have the place to yourself.
Please avoid loud clothes. Dull greens and browns are the correct attire. We don’t want your ultra-tight jeans and bright-yellow tank-top to scare those poor birds, do we?
Do avoid exposing large amounts of your skin – and not for moralistic reasons. There is no shortage of mosquitoes and other stinging insects at Ranganathittu. Odomos is well advised.
If you have no car, no worry. There are many buses from Bangalore and Mysore. Or gather a few friends and hire a taxi. The nearest rail station is Srirangapatnam, but I think a road journey is far better.
Just grab your binocs, hit the road one fine morning, head for Ranganathittu, and leave your worries to the birds!