Just three kilometers off the busy Bangalore-Mysore highway and 15 kilometers from Srirangapatna is an unexpected and delightful surprise for the nature-loving traveler. Surrounded by rich paddy fields and wet swamps where streamlets wind their slippery way through the foliage, Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary is made up of six isolated islets on the river Cauvery. Formed in the 1700s when a dam was built over the Cauvery, these islets attract a different kind of madding crowd – migratory birds from as far as Siberia and Australia.
Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary was established in 1940 when Dr. Salim Ali observed that the islets had become a nesting ground for birds and persuaded the Wodeyar kings of Mysore to declare the area a wildlife sanctuary. It is managed well by the Karnataka State Government’s Forest Department. Entry and ticketing is organized and the well-maintained facilities do not encroach on the natural verdure.
A tree-lined path takes us down to the river from where one can take the 15-minute boat ride around the islets. It is four in the afternoon and the usual tourist families equipped with sunglasses, cameras and water bottles throng the pier. Ignoring the little boy who seems hell-bent on elbowing me every now and then, we climb into the rather shaky-looking, little wooden boat. Our boatman is a thin, old man with receding grey hair and a scraggly moustache. I wonder if he will be able to row ten rather ‘healthy’ people around for fifteen minutes.
In this sylvan refuge, nature seems less ‘red in tooth and claw’. Diverse creatures co-exist in relative harmony. Perhaps, it is the ambience. Glistening waters teeming with abundant fish, banks heavy with lush green reed beds, soaring Eucalyptus and Acacia trees and dense foliage make it possible to imagine the earth in an older time. Thousands of fruit bats dot the trees on some of the islands, forming a sinister palate of dense black on green. Other islands are replete with birds of varying size, hue and plumage.
Our boatman points out the birds, reeling off the names casually. I find out his name is Sivakumar and he has been working here for 22 years. Over two decades of rowing every kind of tourist around these islands and watching the birds come and go with the seasons. What makes a person stay in one place for 22 years, even a place as beautiful as this?
Different varieties of storks seem to dominate the islands at this time of year. Painted Storks, broad-winged with pink tails, preen on high branches. As fussy as opera singers. Or bridesmaids. Asian Openbill Storks fly around busily, carrying leaves and twigs to build nests or swooping low over the waters to prey on fish. Spoonbill Storks (Chamach Baza in Hindi) with their beautiful black and yellow, spoon-shaped bills, squat on the banks paying little attention to their noisier cousins. A flock of Blackbirds watch with beady eyes as we pass by (I wonder if these will sing at dead of night). Sivakumar points out a few shy Night Herons waiting patiently for prey at the water’s edge. They look gentle, timid almost. It is difficult to think of them as predators.
The air is filled with streamlined bodies, the graceful arc of black-tipped wings, the whisper of gentle landings, the annoyed cry of an Openbill Stork as it drops a twig by mistake and has to turn back for another. “During peak season in May, you will not be able to see the leaves. There will be so many birds on each tree,” Sivakumar informs us.
The place is home to less friendly creatures as well — Marsh Crocodiles. They glide by nonchalantly, their bodies dark in the water. Their swift, heavy tails cause the faintest ripples as they swim. We see one or two sunning themselves on the rocks that rear up from the water in places. Lazy and confident as kings. Their grey scaly skin almost blends into the craggy rocks. So sophisticated is the camouflage that it is hard to tell whether they have been made to resemble the rocks or it is the other way round. Sated by the abundant fish in the river, the crocodiles pay little notice to us.
“Do they try to eat the birds,” we ask as we pass by one magnificent specimen that has its mouth open, displaying dull, yellow but unmistakably sharp teeth.
Sivakumar raises a scornful eyebrow. “No, they eat the fish,” he tells us dismissively, perhaps wondering what they teach us in city schools.
The boat moves slowly and at some places, we are so close to the banks that we can almost reach out and grab the dense reed. There is much to see and capture but the fifteen-minute journey is over soon. I thank Sivakumar, eliciting the faintest twitch of a half-smile. As I clamber out of the boat, I am already eager to go back in May and see Ranganthittu in its full splendor.