Bring curiosity, leave your expectations behind, Shivkar gently advised our group as we headed Wildlife Sanctuary, northern Karnataka, diverse, scenic and spreading forest cover. It was a practical approach to adopt for birding enthusiasts, for then every sighting would be like a gift. But once at the Timber Depot, located across the office of the Conservator of Forests, we were eager to spot and identify birds, and jot down sightings in the little notepads we carried.
AN EXERCISE IN PATIENCE: We knew the unwritten rules of bird watching and the ways of the forest. Silently walking through the growth of tall trees and passing a clump of bamboo, piles of cut lots and an old banyan tree bestowing long aerial roots on the Earth, we kept our eyes and ears open for the slightest movement in the foliage and bird calls. But in the mid-morning heat, the birds seemed to have vanished as if satiated with their morning forays for food. Only the Coppersmith Barbet called —a monotonous call filling the warm air, while it remained concealed in some leafy branch. One could only imagine the little green bird, its head bobbing, throat inflating and deflating with each call as its beak remained shut tight all the while!
Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar, the two sharp-eyed naturalists leading the group, patiently kept scanning the foliage and canopy for the slightest movement that would give us a chance to spot a bird or two. With the many happy hours that they had spent in the ﬁeld across the country, they knew it was just a matter of time before we would spot a few winged ones. At the Timber Depot they recalled having seen several Malabar Pied Hornbills—the large and striking members of the hornbill family—enjoying a mud bath at dusk and gliding across to settle on a ﬁg tree. Their anecdotes only had us thirsting for sightings.
We waited patiently, soaked in their stories and experiences, and silently hoped we would be blessed with a spot of luck. It was end of November but the air was warm and dry and the forest was silent. Taking a pause, they suggested we wait for birds at a spot rather than go out to seek them. Scanning the vegetation in all directions only made one realise the vastness of Dandeli’s legendary forest as there were hundreds of trees in every direction.
A BURST OF JOY: At long last Adesh exclaimed in an excited whisper—a mixed hunting party! And true to his word, all of a sudden there was a buzz in the air. All heads turned to the towering Terminalia bellerica tree and eyes scanned its trunk, branches, leaves and ﬂowers. There they were—a loose gathering of insectivorous bird who had come together to hunt insects in an animated wave ﬁlled with twitters, flutter of wings and movement in the trunk, branches, leaves, ﬁowers and on the ground. All of a sudden the silent tree was a hotspot alive with calls and activity.
Deftly setting up and focusing the spotting scope, Mandar beckoned us to quickly take turns to peer through the lens. And what a treat was in store! The ﬁrst to come into view was a Greater Flameback Woodpecker with a gorgeous yellow—golden back; it was going up the trunk with its tail for support, tapping at the bark, disturbing insects. And while the woodpecker was making its way up, an utterly charming Velvet—fronted Nuthatch, with a violet-blue colouring, was coming down the trunk. While climbing up a trunk is no small feat, the nuthatch was deftly making its way down without losing its grip and in fact, circling the trunk now and then while descending and looking for insects as well.
Swooping through the foliage was a Bronzed Drongo, its glossy body shining in the sunlight as it made neat aerial sallies while sounding its loud metallic call and snapping up insects on the wing. Spotting it, Adesh explained that mixed hunting parties are generally motivated by drongos— Black, Ashy, Bronzed, Racket—tailed, White-bellied or Spangled—who are vocal, and along with woodpeckers, the heart of a mixed hunting party.
A MERRY BAND: Unlike a flock of one species, a mixed hunting party has different species of birds who come together to increase their foraging efficiency and reduce predation. “There are more eyes to look out for danger. This helps, as during feeding, birds tend to get engrossed in looking for insects. Individual birds in a mixed hunting party can focus a bit more on ﬁnding food as there are other birds warning about predators. So it helps when there are lots of birds on the same tree; the probability of getting attacked by a prey is minimised,” explained Mandar.’ The sudden arrival of so many birds, and the activity of birds such as the woodpecker and nuthatch along the trunk, disturbs the insects much to the advantage of the other birds who snap them up. Some of the birds forage on insects that may be or flowers or fruits, while babblers rummage the forest cover on the ground upturning leaves, looking for insects and adding to the activity.
All eyes were scanning the tree and enjoying the delightful sighting of actively feeding birds. Among them was a lovely Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher with a tinkling musical call; an endearing Brown Cheeked Fulvetta lost in the foliage but its whistling call helped us locate it; different leaf warblers flicked their tails restlessly, their greenish, brown and yellow colouring helping them merge into the foliage; bright green leaf birds whistled and called as they quickly moved along branches; a Scarlet Minivet pair flitted about, the male standing out with its striking colours; different bulbuls, including a prize sighting of a Ruby Throated Bulbul—its black head, yellow body and ruby throat making it a picture of cheer; and a Large Woodshrike flying through the branches.
A CONCERTED EFFORT: The common interest of a mixed hunting flock is obviously to catch insects, but interestingly, they have different foraging techniques. While woodpeckers and nuthatches probe wood for insects, leaf birds and leaf warblers glean insects from leaves while perched, Minivets catch insects on the wing and sometimes beat their wings to flush them out, the Drongos make superb sallies while pursuing and swoop on insects in-flight, flycatchers hawking insects while flying from a branch and babblers overturn leaves on the forest floor to ﬁnd them! We watched the buzz in the tree, the movement from ground to canopy, quickly identifying birds with the unaided eye and through the scope. And then, as swiftly as they had arrived, the party bobbed away from the tree and headed off deeper into the forest. Maybe some birds would leave the flock while others would join as they headed to another tree home of insects; maybe after sometime, another jolly mixed hunting party with a different composition would pass our way. Till then the forest fell silent and the call of the barbet suddenly became noticeable again!