A birding trip is certainly no picnic. You haul yourself out of bed at an unearthly hour, make sure you have all your optics and accessories on your person, and head out to your chosen destination. If, like us, your destination is a popular “picnic spot”, and if (again, like us) you’ve chosen to visit on a weekend, you drive like your ass is on fire – you want to get there a few minutes before the gates open. You spend all your time looking for birds that don’t want to be seen, trying to identify and perhaps photograph them from an impossible distance, and then – well, then you just drive back home. If that isn’t your idea of a great time, you aren’t a birder.
Popeye (don’t even ask!), a dear friend and avid birder from Mumbai was visiting us over the weekend, and he wanted to do a trip to Ranganathittu and Kokkrebellur. We managed to get the kids, ourselves, three pairs of binoculars, two cameras, a high-end birding scope, a tripod, a birding journal, two field guides, and ourselves ready and into the car at 6am, and made it to Ranganathittu just as the gates opened at 8.30am. In order to accomplish this feat, we munched on sausages, boiled eggs and granola bars in the car, stopped only once for gas, and steadfastly ignored all demands to “stop, I gotta pee.”
Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary
Ranganathittu comprises six tiny islets set in a slow-moving part of the Cauvery River, formed when the river was dammed in the 1700s. Dr. Salim Ali recognized that these islets provided a perfect nesting site for migratory and resident birds, and was instrumental in Ranganathittu receiving its “sanctuary” status in 1940.
As bird sanctuaries go, Ranganathittu is diminutive – less than three quarters of a kilometer square. Its size, however, belies the rich diversity of avian species it supports. The short path between the parking lot and the river is fringed with trees that positively throb with avian life. We spotted baya weavers at work on their nests; purple sunbirds; jungle and common mynah; black drongo; greater coucal; grey wagtail; and wire tailed swallows… on our left. On the right, where there’s a beautiful lotus pond surrounded by trees and landscaped shrubbery, I spotted a common kingfisher; an Indian grey hornbill; a couple of Oriental magpie robins; and two kinds of bulbul: red-whiskered and red-vented.
On the water
Down at water’s edge, we opted for an open boat to ourselves, at Rs. 250. There are life jackets in the boat, but no one insists that you wear them, so feel free to pick ’em up and put ’em on. The old boatman who rowed for us has been working at Ranganathittu since 1986, and has the eyes of a hawk. He can also recognize every single species – although his pronunciation is a bit awkward – and knows their migratory patterns, feeding, breeding and nesting habits as well as any naturalist.
He also knows a serious birder when he sees one, and pulls out all the stops. He took one look at Popeye’s scope and the Grimmett field guide my budding ornithologist was hefting, and pulled with all his might towards the second islet on the left. A grey-headed fish eagle sat majestically atop a tree. This is a rare sighting, even for frequent birders. This was a great beginning.
The day’s “catch”
Things only got better. Here’s some of what we saw:
We also saw peacocks, a couple of pied kingfisher, glossy ibis, little grebe, and a lone Eurasian spoonbill.
If you want to see birds of the feathered variety…
As we rowed back to the bank, we were thankful that we’d made an early start – a busload of excited, shouting schoolchildren were boarding a boat, cellphone-toting picnickers were driving in with music blaring from their car stereos, and “roadside Romeo” types were posing against the trees with scant regard for the birds above. Bottomline: if you want to do some serious birding, get in by 8.30am, and get out by 10am. There’s a little canteen and halfway decent restrooms near the parking lot. Entry cost us Rs. 250 for four adults (my 13 year-old counts as an adult, sob, sob) and a child, plus two still cameras. No drinking allowed in the park.