Karnataka Pelagic Trip 2011

My first task after I got the opportunity to go Pelagic birding was to Google the term  "Pelagic"! As an active amateur birder I had heard the term before and seen reports on few of the trips from Kerala and Karnataka. I knew they went out in a boat and looked for birds, but I had no idea on what Pelagic actually meant.

Well, the ever dependable wikipedia gave me the necessary enlightenment. Pelagic zone means the surface of a water body which is not close to the shore. And so, Pelagic Birding meant looking for birds which live mostly in the Pelagic area. Uh, huh. Got it. These birds live over the ocean surface coming to the shore, usually on uninhabited islands, only for breeding. Amazing nature! And now I had a chance to see it first hand.

Still, I was not sure what to expect from this expedition as I stood on the wharf, smelling strongly of fish, at Malpe Port looking at the smallish fishing boat which was to be our(about 22 of us!) home for 2 days and a night. The 3 man crew, one substituting as cook as well, looked at us with some bemusement as we piled our bags containing cameras, books, binoculars, snacks at one end of the boat. Different kind of catch, this!

As we headed out of the port, we got to see Western Reef Egrets perched all along the rocky coastline. Pretty soon, we were out in the open sea and got our first thrilling sightings of Pelagic birds, the Parasitic Skua and a Great Crested Tern.

It is indeed a whole new way of birding out there. As we keep scanning the mostly deserted waterscape, suddenly we would hear a shout from the lookouts scanning the water at the bow. "Tern" or "Petrel", as the case may be.  All of us would then scramble for our respective binoculars or cameras.

If it is a Tern flying over, well, we have to be quick, as amazingly even in this wide open space they disappear from our vision within seconds of the first sighting. If it is Petrels as was the case most often on our trip, we have to scan in the indicated direction carefully to spot the small black dots dancing on the waves. But, if we are lucky, it may be a floating debris on which we will find a perfect model of a Pelagic Bird which will pose to our hearts content as we bob around, with the engine switched off, just few feet away from it. After such brief darshans of our feathered friends, we would slink back to our respective spots until the next call to wake us up from the semi-slumber. "Petrel at 3 0'clock"!!!

On this trip, I had been quite hopeful on seeing other sea creatures such as Whales. I had entertained visions of seeing these majestic animals spouting water and swishing their fins as they swam past our boat. Alas, they had other plans for that weekend. Hopefully next time. However, we got to see the sea snake  and large schools of jelly fish several times.

Nighttime was quite an experience, especially when all the lights were turned off to pitch darkness.  We had hoped for some nocturnal visits with maybe a few birds perching on the boat as is possible, I believe. We were not lucky enough. Early morning though we got a surprise visit from a Bat, which upon finding our Boat decided to hitch a ride all the way to coast instead of flying the 80 odd miles. As we headed back to the coast, the highlights were a large flock of Petrels, Skua harassing a tern and a sudden flyby of a Masked Booby.

Overall, it was a good, adventurous trip. We were lucky that the sea was calm on both the days and all of us managed without any extreme sea-sickness. Our cook did a great job with just  a stove and few vessels for cooking, even providing tea both evenings. Truly, an experience to be cherished for ever.

Some more images from the trip can be viewed here.

A short video which gives you an idea on how it is from the boat.

Bird list from Dr. Subramanya report :

1. Swinhoe's Storm Petrel: encountered first at 10.61 Km from Malpe Port, 58 birds seen in all during the trip
2. Parasitic Jaeger: first seen at 12.50 Km from the Port, 27 birds in all, with several instances of their marauding attacks on Great Crested Terns
3. Great Crested Tern: first seen at 16.03 Km from Port, 78 birds in all
4. Bridled Tern: first bird seen at 16.88 km from Port, 95 birds in all
5. Common Tern: 2 birds seen in all, the first one seen at 16.91 Km
6. Wilson's Storm Petrel: 98 birds seen in all during the trip with the first one encountered at 20.48 Km
7. Masked Booby: Solo seen on the second day when we were about 12.31 Km from Malpe Port. The bird that we observed was a juvenile with a distinct white collar behind a dark brown head. The bird departed swiftly with two Skuas in hot pursuit.
8. Gulls : 3 birds identity to be confirmed

A related blog on this trip by L. Shyamal: Adrift

Workout with great views: Shivaganga near Tumkur

The peak from far
LocationShivaganga Peak, Near Tumkur
Date: Sept 25th, 2011
To get there: Go on NH4 Towards Tumkur. At Dobbaspet take a left under the flyover towards Shivaganga. There is a sign board immediately after you take this turn. Shivaganga is about 6 to 7km from here.
Distance: 60 km from Bangalore
Trail type: Crudely cut or man made steps on the hillock with some rocky path in between. There are railings for support when it gets too steep. It is going up almost all of the time, so one has to completely stop for a respite. The peak is at 1350m elevation, making it a gain of about 400 meters during the trek. Distance is around 2km. Trash can be seen all along the path though it was not as bad as in some other temple trails.
Facilities: Refreshments such as cut cucumber, soft drinks, bottled water, majjige, bajji, charmuri are available by trail side vendors at constant intervals along the trail.

MapClick here for the Google map.

This spot was picked for the first ever group trek by the residents of Brigade Classic Apartments as an easy to moderate trail. The group comprised of families with kids from 6 yr old to 15yrs. It was finally a total of about 25 of us who set out in a bus at around 7am with a packed brunch and plenty of energy for a good workout. As it was a Sunday, it took us less than 2 hours to reach Shivaganga town. The traffic was light and the new elevated freeway up to Nelamangala made the drive even smoother. Some fun games like Dumb Charades and 20 questions helped us reach "quicker".

The trail starts from the main road close to the temple tank as a flight of steps leading to the base temple. To go to the top you have to turn left just before you enter the temple compound. We chose to carry the packed lunch of Idlis and Karabath to picnic on the trail taking a chance on the warnings about monkeys which we were told liked to give company. More on that later.

It is a steady climb all through and will be quite tiring if you attempt to do it too fast. The best way is to go slow enjoying the views and taking rest as required. We made 3-4 stops on the way for coffee, fruits, water, etc., All of our group right from 5 yrs to almost 50 made it to the Shiva Ganga statues after about 2km trek and 300 meters gain. On the man made steps, it is easier to navigate though steeper while on the undeveloped parts of the trail one has to be careful about slipping on the small rocks. 

The monkeys. Well, they kept us company all through the trail. A few times they were aggressive enough to come close and sniff at the bags or, as it happened, at a lollipop that a child was sucking on. It did not go away until the lollipop was gifted to it. Advice: Do not carry any exposed food item! So, here we were hungry and ready to picnic but not at all comfortable with the patiently stalking monkeys waiting for their share of the food. A kind vendor came to our rescue by allowing us to use a barred enclosure behind the statues. This worked well though when you think about it, we were in the cages feeding while the monkeys were free outside looking in at us! Gives a different perspective to the "zoo" experience. :)

After the refreshments, about 8 of us chose to go ahead and reach the peak while the rest decided to head back. The final 100m climb is a very steep climb on man made steps. It is quite strenuous though there is adequate support in railings. But we made it, even a little one at less than 6 yrs. At the top there is a Gangadeshwara temple also marked as Dakshina Kashi and a Nandi on an adjacent rocky outcrop. 

After spending a few minutes there, we started our descent which is a little more trickier and prone to accidents if one is not careful due to the steep gradient. We managed to get down fairly quickly with no mishaps. 

There was not much birding to do. We could see and hear White-browed Bulbuls all over, Purple-rumped Sunbird and many Black kites hovering overhead. Highlight, could be a possible Thrush or Robin on which I will update here, if I am able to find its ID. (Confirmed now. It was indeed a Blue Rock Thrush one of the first visitors to India this migrant season)

Overall, it is a nice trek if one is looking for some challenge without it becoming too difficult. I would think kids 8yrs or more should be able to do it with some exceptions both ways. After lunching at Kamat Upachar which is located on NH4 few kilometers after Dobbaspet, we were back home around 4pm with some well-earned aches and pains! :)

Some more images from the trek are here.

A look at the East: Tyda park in Araku Valley

As soon as my niece announced her wedding location, Vishakapatnam, with the dates towards the end of our summer holidays, we decided to use the opportunity and extend it for a vacation. When we asked people for places to visit around the city, Tyda and Araku Valley were prominently mentioned. After some Internet research, we booked at Tyda Jungle Bells Resort run by Andhra Pradesh Tourism. You can book the rooms online at their site.

After the wedding, we left for Araku Monday morning about 11am. The road out of Vishakapatnam is busy for about 10 kms from NAD Junction. After that it is quite a nice drive and can be enjoyed by going at a leisurely pace. We stopped to pick up some "Nungu" (Ice apple in English). 12 for 10rs. 25% of what it costs in Bangalore!

The Ghat section starts about 60 kms from Vizhag. 15 kms later after just a gentle climb into the Eastern Ghats, we reached Jungle Bells which is right on the Roadside. On the way you do cross a town, Kothavalasa, where you can stock up on biscuits, drinks etc. Tyda Jungle Bells has no shops and you can only buy Mineral Water from the restaurant. 4kms further north is a small village or 10kms more you get Ananthagiri. Araku itself is another 35 kms or so from Tyda.

The resort is actually done well, surrounded by lush green forest cover. Each cottage is quite isolated to give privacy. Ours was the New Bridge Cottage shown in the photo here. No TV or cell phone coverage means family has to entertain each other which can be a good thing once a while! :). Resort service though is quite lacking. They have a shortage of staff and those who are there do try but don't expect anything close to even a 3 star accommodation. Lack of Intercom facilities adds to the guests woes. One has to climb up and down steep steps to get anything. Restaurant is run more like a Dhabha and food served is similar. Tasty, not very clean and choice limited to what they can sell! That is, dont except soup even though it is on the menu. My review along with others can be read at Holiday IQ.

We stayed for 2 nights and 3 days. It rained heavily in the afternoon of day 2 and stayed cool for the night. Other times it was quite hot. For the kids they had some adventure stuff like rope climbing, Burma bridge etc., which we did not try. They also organize a trek in the morning which is mostly a walk in the jungle, that we did take. We spent rest of the time in the room playing some games or reading books.

Around the resort, you need to be a birdwatcher or nature lover to appreciate the place. Both mornings the place was alive with calls. However, we are still novices with calls and could not ID using just that. The physical activity though was quite less compared with Western Ghats, in my observation. In Muthodi, mornings brought many Scarlet Minivets and Sunbirds out into the open. I like to think it could be because of the heat here. We certainly did not feel like wandering around too much after 8am and the birds probably felt the same.

Even though bird activity was much less that we had hoped for, there were still plenty for us to be excited about. A pair of Black-crested Bulbuls were residents and could be seen flying around most of the time. There was also a pair of Black-naped Monarch that were active inside the resort. White-rumped Shama was another resident. Catching sight of this skulker off and on was quite exciting. Sounds were plenty in the morning, the main caller being Puff-throated Babbler. At one time, we could make out the 2 of them calling to each other from either side of our Cottage.

The morning trek is a walk in the forest just adjacent to the resort. Once I got to know the path, I chose to walk alone on both mornings. We were rewarded with close up sightings of Brown-headed Barbet and Rufous Woodpecker. The Woodpecker later visited us during our breakfast at the resort and spent more than 10 minutes pecking away on a nearby tree. The highlight during the walk was sighting of 3 Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds. They were highly active, wagging their tail up and down, hopping about on a far away tree. It was truly exciting to see this colorful bird in pristine conditions.

Day 2, just me and my daughter visited Borra caves. It is about 15 kms from Tyda. Easy drive. The cave itself is enormous and awe inspiring. However, the formations inside are not that great or have been lost due to poor maintenance. A large crowd was there on a weekday itself and they do not mind walking over or touching/scratching all the delicate stalagmites and stalactites that takes 1000's of years to form. Sad really.

On day 3, we checked out early and drove up to Araku town. It took about 1.5 hrs but the views were very nice. In Araku, we visited the Tribal Musuem and the close by Coffee museum where you can get some really nice drinks like Ice-Choclate along with the usual Latte's. Both also host handicraft shops. We did not have time to explore anything else and heading back to Vizhag around 1pm and made it back before 5pm.

Overall, we enjoyed the 2 days. The greenery is similar to Western Ghats though not as dense. Tyda is not too deep into Eastern Ghats and so the bio-diversity may be a little less that what can be expected.

Some of the notable Birds we spotted around the resort:

  1. Red-whiskered Bulbul

  2. Red-Vented Bulbul

  3. White-browed Bulbul

  4. Black-crested Bulbul

  5. Black-naped Monarch

  6. White-rumped Shama

  7. Oriental White-eye

  8. Purple Sunbird (one looked like Loten's also)

  9. Purple Rumped Sunbird

  10. Ruby-cheeked Sunbird

  11. Gold-fronted Leafbird

  12. Common Iora

  13. Puff-throated Babbler

  14. Rufous Woodpecker

  15. Brown-headed Barbet

  16. Copper-smith Barbet (call)

  17. Black Drongo

  18. Green Bee-eater

  19. Greater Coucal

  20. Spotted Dove

Some more images can be seen here: https://picasaweb.google.com/naturerambles/TydaNatureCampInArakuValley#

Climbing Chamundi Hills

Location: Chamundi Hills, Mysore
Date: Apr 3rd, 2011
To get there: Chamundi Hills is a well known landmark and visible from anywhere in Mysore city and anyone will be able to guide you. Ask for the steps to climb it as you get close else they will direct you to the road going up.
Distance: 150 km from Bangalore
Trail type: Flight of stone steps, about 1000 in number.
Facilities: Refreshments are available at the top. At the start and on the path also if you start late.
Map: Click here for the Google map.

It was a friends with family get-together that got us to stay at a resort in Mysore close to Chamundi Hills. A few of us took the chance to do a good trek and shed some of the calories that we were surely going to gain in the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet everyday. The choice was to climb up Chamundi Hills, yes, using our own god given 2 legs.

Even though, I have been to Mysore many times, this was the first time I actually did this climb. After getting directions we found the start of the steps. There is ample parking and some shops here. When we reached the place at about 7am on a Sunday, there were quite a number of people already coming down!

The steps are just like that for any of the numerous hill temples in India. We didn't count them, but I believe it is about a 1000!

For me of course, it was a chance to look for some birds along the way. However, it was disappointing as the Great Tit turned out be the best sighting. There was also a quick glimpse of Common Iora and another uncommon flycatcher which flew away before I could view and ID it properly.

The climb itself is not too strenuous if done in a proper pace taking rests at good view points. We did it under an hour and were fine after. The steps end close to the temple and you can immediately buy some rejuvenating tender coconut or Nandini flavoured milk to reward yourself. :)

The views are better enjoyed coming down and you can see the palace grounds and most of Mysore on a good clear day.

Start early...preferably right after day breaks. Give yourself 2-3 hrs to complete the trek. Carry some water/snacks and as always don't add to the trash that is already there! Enjoy.

All are welcome at Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

Location: Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary near Srirangapatna
Date: Feb 6th 2011
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
From Bangalore take the Mysore Road. After you cross Srirangapatna fort (main junction with Fort Entrance on right), watch out for the Sanctuary board on the right after about a km. It comes right after you cross 2 bridges. Take the right and drive along a country road for another km or so and you are there. From Mysore side, it is even closer. Just reverse the directions above.
Distance: About 125 kms from Bangalore and 15 kms from Mysore.
Trail type: There are no trekking trails that I am aware of here. I have noticed a dirt track going to the left of the boating point. We have only gone about 200 mtrs (due to lack of time) on it so not sure how much further one can walk. However, it has ample space, including a maze with hedge walls, for kids to enjoy.
Facilities: Fairly decent KSTDC run eating place and toilet facilities. Srirangapatna and Mysore are close by.
Misc Links:

In case you wondered, the "All are welcome" in the title was meant for the birds since we 2 legged, non-flying, large brained but prefer to travel in machines species, have to pay dearly to enter this place! Well, I think it is not
too high considering the natural wealth this place possesses, but then I may be in the minority with this view. We paid Rs. 50/person to enter. Boating is again Rs. 50/person in the general boat or (a very steep) Rs. 1000 for your own boat which can seat 8 persons.

We ended up there Sunday morning in keeping with a promise along with another family to go "someplace nice" post New year. 1 month too late, but we made it. Left Bangalore around 6.30am, lunch near Maddur about 9am and we were at the Sanctuary before 11am. A bit late but early enough to enjoy the place.

The place itself is a bunch of islets in the river Cauvery providing
natural protection to nesting migratory birds. There are only rowboats
to keep the disturbance to the birds minimal. Guides are quite knowledgeable about the birds which inhabit the sanctuary including their migration patterns and characteristics. Do not hesitate to ask them questions.

There is really no season as such because you will find some activity all-round the year even if it is just resident birds. During the migratory season which varies according to each species and is from Oct to about June, you will find each species in different stages like arrival, nest building, chick rearing and finally lessons on flying before heading
back to their home. During our visit, we got to see Painted Storks, Asian Open-billed storks (nesting), Eurasian Spoonbill (nest building), Spot-billed Pelicans prominently in the trees. Others were Great Thick-knee (or Great stone plover), Marsh Harrier (migrant), River Tern, Night Heron, etc. You will also surely spot few crocodiles which is a thrill for all the youngsters.

The facility has some space around it to picnic or just hang around. There is also a maze made of hedges which our youngsters enjoyed. After a quick stop-over to see Daria Daulat Bagh, Tipu's summer palace, we headed out to make it for a late lunch at McDonalds(kids choice), which is few kms after Maddur on the way back. Reached Bangalore by 7pm.

Overall, a must visit if you are a nature enthusiast and live around Mysore or Bangalore. Perfect for a day trip or even a 1/2 day trip. I would recommend reaching there before 10am, ideally 9am to be able to experience and photograph better in the morning light.

Click here for more images from the trip.

Elagiri Hills: A break from the plains!

Location: Elagiri or Yelagiri Hills
Date: Dec 24th to 27th 2010
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
You can take the train to Jolarpet and hire a taxi from there or Drive on the Hosur Road until Krishnagiri. Take NH 46 from there towards Chennai. Then take SH 18 turnoff towards Elagiri.
Distance: About 150+ kms from Bangalore
Trail type: We did mostly birding from car, stopping at good locations. So, not much trekking as such. I do believe there are a couple of good trails.
Facilities: Several resorts/hotels in all ranges. Food places were plenty but just average, I thought. Lake with boating, nature park with musical fountain show, various temples are the spots to visit.
Misc Links:
http://www.yelagirihills.com/ (has more detailed directions)

It was our annual vacation with relatives during Christmas. We had always noticed these enticing hills from the train and decided to check it out this time. The drive from Bangalore was quite easy. The climb up the hills is similar to Nandi hills maybe a little steeper with 14 hairpin bends. The views were tempting in many places but any idea of stopping was thwarted by the line of monkeys sitting on the parapet looking expectantly at each vehicle passing by!

The place was quite chilly during the nights and morning. Rest of the day was pleasant. The main road through Athanavoor has many resorts and eating places. Most of them were average or just road side dhaba types. The 2 main attractions of the hills, Lake with boating and Nature Park are on this road.

We mostly did bird watching in the morning, starting at 6am until nearly afternoon, taking advantage of free grand-parent baby sitting. :). There were Brahminy starlings, Rufous Treepies and Grey-bellied Drongo's all over the place in addition to the more common Pied Bushchats, Sunbirds, Indian Robin, Tailorbird and Mynas. We had the best outing when we drove on the road towards Neelavur and took breaks near the Murugan Temple where we saw the Verditer Flycatcher, Leafbird and Common Iora. Migrants Grenish Leaf Warbler and Blyths Reed Warbler could be beard all over the place.

Boating was OK, nothing great. The Lake is man-made, so more like a soup bowl. Still Red-rumped Swallows gave us a show drinking water by flying low over the surface. The nature park looked good but we did not check it out properly nor watch the musical fountain show. Lets just say, most of our free time was spent eating, lazing around or playing cards and other games.

Photo albums:

Check list:
  1. Yellow-billed Babbler(E)
  2. Barbet(E) (call only. Not sure if it is Brown-headed or White-cheeked)
  3. Coppersmith Barbet(E)
  4. Small Green Bee-eater(E)
  5. Blue-tailed Bee-eater(T)
  6. Red-vented Bulbul(E)
  7. Red-whiskered Bulbul(E)
  8. Pied Bushchat(E)
  9. Greater Coucal(E)
  10. House Crow
  11. Asian Koel
  12. Spotted Dove
  13. Little Brown Dove
  14. Black Drongo
  15. White-bellied Drongo(E,plenty)
  16. Short-toed Eagle(E)
  17. Common Kestrel(J)
  18. Black Kite
  19. Tickell's Flowerpecker(E,J)
  20. Verditer Flycatcher(most likely)(E)
  21. Common Iora(E)
  22. White-throated Kingfisher
  23. Tree Pipit(E)
  24. Golden-fronted Leafbird(E)
  25. Small Minivet(E)
  26. Black-headed Munia(J)
  27. Scaly-breasted Munia(E,J)
  28. White-throated(Silverbill) Munia(E)
  29. Common Myna
  30. Jungle Myna
  31. Eurasian Golden Oriole(J)
  32. Spotted Owlet(E)
  33. Rose-ringed Parakeet
  34. Paddy-field Pipit(E)
  35. Ashy Prinia
  36. Plain Prinia
  37. Indian Robin
  38. Oriental Magpie Robin
  39. Indian Roller(T)
  40. Long-tailed Shrike(E)
  41. Brown Shrike(E)
  42. House Sparrow
  43. Brahminy Starling(E, plenty)
  44. Red-rumped Swallow(E)
  45. Common Tailorbird
  46. Rufous Treepie(E)
  47. Grey Wagtail(E)
  48. White-browed Wagtail(E)
  49. Blyths Reed Warbler(E)
  50. Greenish Warbler(E,J)
  51. White-breasted Waterhen(E)
  52. Oriental White-eye(E)
  53. Purple Sunbird
  54. Purple-rumped Sunbird
  55. Shikra(E)
  56. Common Woodshrike(E)