This is the first post of the new year, wishing all my readers a very happy & hopefully travel filled new year. We enter into 2021 with an almost travel free 2020 behind us. But I said almost! As the horrible pandemic ridden 2020 neared its end we finally mustered up enough courage to venture beyond our homes. We started small with a trip to Jadhavgadh near Pune which is just a 4 hour drive from our home. (Jadhavgadh, Part 2 – A satisfying end to a short trip amidst the gloom) Having survived that unscathed gave us enough courage to venture a bit further.
It had been a year since I had gone birding with my father & friend to Goa. (Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 1 – The morning of the Blue faced Malkhoa) Birding & bird photography is a passion that has only grown stronger over the years. With each passing year spent birding I found out about new birding hotspots and destinations that I had never even heard of a decade ago. One such place was a lodge run by Jungle Lodges Karnataka called the Old Magazine House in Ganeshgudi, Karnataka. As the name suggests, this was a place used by the British to store Ammunition during their rule in India. As it turns out (strangely) they had also kept a birdbath there which was a assured source of water to the vast range of birds that lived in the dense forests around. The British went away but the bird bath stayed. As the munition depot was converted into a lodge a few more bird baths and perches were added. The by now habituated for generations birds took to this change with great glee and started frequenting the place regularly, making it a birding paradise. The more I read about it the more I had wanted to go there, but for years the trip never materialised. Now with the pandemic ruling out any destination that was beyond a day’s drive it was finally time for me to make my long awaited trip to the so called OMH.
We finalised a date and booked the only Wooden cottage that the lodge offered for 3 nights. (There are 4 other modern rooms and a huge dormitory with adequate facilities that can be booked). As the day arrived we set off early morning for out 11 hour drive to Ganeshgudi from Mumbai. Armed with a new camera that had proven itself in the short Jadhavgadh trip and my almost decade old 300mm I was hoping that the OMH would live up to the hype.
The drive was comfortable for 9 and a half hours of the 11 hour journey. We were travelling in December when the sugarcane fields were filled with ripe cane and looking right out of a postcard. We even took a photo in the fields when we stopped for lunch.
Posing in the beautiful Sugarcane fields in Maharashtra
The only bad part of the journey was when we decided to listen to Google Maps instead of our own eyes and ventured into a nonexistent stretch of road. The next hour and a half had us on the edge of our seat hoping that the vehicle and our backs would survive the rally track that we were on. Supposedly the Belgaum – Panaji national highway, but the stretch beyond Khanapur to Londa was completely dug up and frankly should be barricaded off. Luckily both our vehicles and our spines survived and we reached the Old Magazine house before sunset as planned.
In these COVID times the check in process was slow but reassuring, first there was a by now mandatory temperature check and spraying of our luggage by what I assumed was sanitiser. Then we filled a self declaration which stated that we didn’t have COVID ( Which is quite frankly a joke !) and then we were directed to our wooden cottage. The cottage was up a mud path from the main road inside the lodge campus. Since it was almost dark there was no birding to be done that day. We took a short nap before leaving our cottage at dinner time, torches in hand to have the first of the many sumptuous meals served in the common dining area of the OMH. We retired early that night but I was eagerly awaiting the next morning and the birds it would bring.
We were told that there would be a guided nature walk in the morning at 7.30. We got up and freshened ourselves and were ready at the meeting point well in time for the walk to start. With a hot cup of black coffee and some biscuits to keep us going till we returned for breakfast we set out for the nature walk.
Setting out for our first Nature Walk from the OMH
As we walked out of the gate our guide informed us that there was a Malabar Gliding frog seen on a tree close by the previous evening. Luckily for us the frog had found his overnight resting place to be very comfortable and was still there. It was still not bright enough for good photos but we nonetheless took a few photos. The frog might decide to leave before we returned from our walk and I certainly wanted a few photos.
A blurry low light photo of a Malabar Gliding Frog peacefully sleeping on a leaf
We went further and our guide told us that there was a Juvenile Bay Banded Cuckoo in this part that was being raised by a pair of Common Ioras. For those not into birds, Cuckoos hoodwink other birds to raise their young by laying eggs in their nests. The young cuckoo once hatched promptly dispatches off most of the other hatchlings and hogs most of the food brought by the unwitting foster parents. We tried to search for the young cuckoo but it was nowhere in sight. Instead we found a curious Giant Malabar Squirrel. This curious specimen almost came down to eye level to check out what we were doing. That gave me some of the best Malabar Squirrel photos till date. A great start to the day!
A curious Malabar Giant Squirrel comes down to eye level to check us out
We then went ahead on the main road where there was a lone fruiting ficus tree just off the road. Ficus is the preferred fruit diet of Hornbills and sure enough there were Malabar grey Hornbills feasting on the fruit. We ventured closer only to hear the unmistakable loud whoosh whoosh sounds of the Great Indian Hornbill flying away. The Great Indian Hornbill is an extremely shy bird and it had spotted us before we spotted the huge bird. So we had to be satisfied with the Grey Malabar hornbills who were putting on a show of swallowing the fruits whole.
Malabar Grey Hornbills putting on a show!
There were also Pied Hornbills high up in the tree. Even though I did take photos then, I would get a lot better photos of these icons of the region later. (In the next post!) After enjoying the Hornbill show we moved on to a part off the road where there are flowering trees that are frequented in the morning by Vernal Hanging Parrots. These are the only species of Parrots found in India ( The rest are Parakeets, in case you were wondering!)
We reached the flowering trees to be first greeted by a lone Green Bee eater. Always a pretty bird to photograph , I took a few photos as we waited for the others to arrive.
A Green Bee eater poses for the camera!
As we walked along this path lined with flowering trees we came upon a dry tree. Sitting on this all cuddled up on the cool morning were a pair of Oriental White Eyes. Always a pretty bird to photograph, the pose made the photos even better.
A pair of Oriental White Eyes cuddling up in the cool morning
Then came the stars of the show, the birds we were waiting for. A group of Vernal Hanging Parrots appeared from nowhere and went to town feeding on the flowers. I have seen these beautiful birds previously in Thattekad ( Birding in the lush and Serene forests of Thattekad – Part 3 ) & on my previous birding trip to Goa. Both times it was early in the morning, in poor light. These birds appear suddenly , feed away to glory and disappear, never to be seen again during the day. This time at least I had better light, so I tried to make the most of the birds short appearance and luckily got a few good photos of these very agile birds.
A beautiful Vernal Hanging Parrot feeds on the flowers
The Hanging Parrot shows us that it is aptly named
As predicted after their short and frenzied feeding the birds disappeared leaving me amazed for the 3rd time. With the Parrots gone I turned my attention to the Sunbirds who were feeling ignored and took a few photos of them.
A female Sunbird gets her due attention after the Parrots have left
An old dog takes in the morning sun
As we were returning back the guide spotted a plum headed parakeet in the distance. Even so far away the beautiful colours looked very pretty in the morning sun.
A Plum headed Parakeet looking pretty in the morning sunlight
As we returned to the lodge we were passing through the region where the Juvenile Cuckoo had been spotted. Lo and behold the bird was there as if he was waiting for us. Having missed us passing by in the morning he had made sure that we got an audience on our way back.
A Juvenile Bay Banded cuckoo poses for the camera
Even the gliding frog had not moved from his cushy spot. With much better light now I got as good a photo as I can get with a telephoto lens. Getting in the face of insects, amphibians and their ilk with a macro lens is not really my thing. Luckily the 300mm has a minimum focusing distance of 4 feet keeping me at a safe distance while giving acceptable photos.
A much better photo of the Malabar gliding frog in deep slumber
We then proceeded straight for breakfast which was varied and freshly prepared. The early morning walk had built up our appetite and we ate twice as much as what we would usually eat at home. Satiated we returned to our cottage for some rest. This plan changed as soon as we reached our cottage as we saw the lead naturalist of the OMH Vinayak gesticulating furiously at us from a patch of trees some distance away. We immediately rushed there and soon all the lodge residents were gathered to get a glimpse of the majestic Malabar Trogon.
I have previously seen the bird in Thattekad and in the forests of Mollem, Goa. But this was special as the bird was almost at eye level and not high up in the canopy. Camera shutters were going off faster than a Gatling gun all around. Once again the OMH had delivered and given me some memorable photos of a beautiful bird.
A beautiful male Malabar Trogon in all his regal glory
I must have taken at least a 100 photos just to be sure that I got at least one good one. The bird gave a great show before moving up higher in the canopy where it showed off its differently coloured back feathers. Then as suddenly as it had started the trogon show ended and the crowd dispersed.
The Trogon gives one last pose before flying off
Now I was too excited for a nap and decided to go and wait at the hide and see what our luck would bring us. We still had an hour or more for lunch. I made acquaintance with the other birders at the lodge. That’s the advantage of coming to such a place, there are only people interested in birding. Everyone knows not to make noise & not to make sudden movements. Even a loud conversation in the presence of birds gets a stare. So it makes it a great place for birding as both the photographed and the photographers are comfortable and in their element.
We were all sitting around and biding our time when someone slowly said “Monarch, monarch!”. Like clockwork everyone slowly moved to where they had placed their cameras on the tripod. While people like me who don’t use one slowly found a place in between the tripods at the hide. There at one of the bird baths was the little blue bird that had caused all the fuss – The Black Naped Monarch. This pretty blue bird with the characteristic black dot on it’s nape was the first of the frenzy of birds that would follow.
A pretty Black Naped Monarch starts the frenzy at the hide
Unlike most other birding hides there is no feed kept at the OMH just water in the bird baths. ( Feeding birds is considered unethical birding and it changes the birds feeding pattern and behaviour!) It was surprising that despite the lack of food there was a continuous procession birds that followed. First were the Oriental White eyes descending in-groups and enjoying a dip.
A group of Oriental White Eyes
Next was the beautiful White rumped Shama. A pretty bird with a long tail and a bright white rump feathers that contrast it’s red and black body. It posed beautifully on a perch giving me a great photo.
A White Rumped Shama poses for the camera
Now the birds were coming fast and thick. We were shifting focus from one perch to the other trying to keep up and not miss any species. One thing I noticed was that most of the hardcore photographers didn’t take photos when the birds were on the bath itself. Apparently they didn’t like the photos looking artificial. I had no such qualms! It was a pleasure taking photos of the birds taking a dip, sending the water flying everywhere. I will now post a mix of perch and bath photos and let the readers judge for themselves!
A brown Cheeked Fulvetta on a birdbath
Another photo of the photogenic Monarch
The Shama takes a bath and sends the water flying
A yellow tit poses on the perch
Three species on one bath! – Tit, Fulvetta & Puff throated babbler
A Dark Fronted Babbler and an Oriental White Eye on a perch
The Babblers and White eyes drive the Fulvettas away
A Reed Warbler waits for his chance
A Malabar / Blyths Starling pre and post bath!
The fun went on and we never realised that it was past lunch time. The birds must have realised it though and they left all together leaving us free to have a quick lunch before returning to this magical hide that had my heart beating at a high rate. We left after a quick photo of a malabar squirrel eating on a tree overhead that no one had noticed in the birding mania.
A Malabar squirrel has his lunch as we get ready to leave for ours
We would return to the hide post lunch as any thoughts of an afternoon siesta had been banished by the adrenaline rush caused by all the great photos.
Whether the post lunch session would live uptown the expectations is a story for another post some other time, some other day as I have rambled on far too long. The excitement of a month ago has returned as I relive those memories!
Till next time,