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The Guide: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka

Little islets on the River Kaveri make up this all-season haven for birds and birdwatchers

Text by: Anita Rao Kashi
Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee

In the early morning greyness, the snaky road ahead of us disappears around a bend. Everything is shrouded in silence and there is a nip in the air. On either side of the road are the patchwork quilts of lush green farmlands pockmarked with coconut and mango trees. Curtains of mist hang around in wisps just above ground, as if suspended by invisible threads. The first rays of the sun will soon dissolve them into nothingness, but for now they lend an ethereal quality to the surroundings. The road is bumpy in places and requires cautious driving, which is perfect anyway for me to crane my neck or swivel in my seat to catch glimpses of birds — mostly painted storks — flying languidly overhead. Soon the road enters the gates of Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, in southern Karnataka, where the bird fest continues.

EXPLORE
The first sight of the sanctuary seems too manicured with cobbled paths, trimmed hedges, flowering bushes, and grassy lawns. But beyond this is the action. A canopied walkway leads straight to the water’s edge where the river Kaveri flows steadily, gurgling and sloshing against several bits of land rising out of the water at intervals.

A marsh crocodile soaks up some sun along the banks of one of the islets. Crocodiles are cold-blooded animals and routinely bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature.  Cover photo: The river tern is a slender, graceful bird often spotted flying in circles over rivers and ponds looking for fish, insects, and crustaceans, or taking dip in the waters.

A marsh crocodile soaks up some sun along the banks of one of the islets. Crocodiles are cold-blooded animals and routinely bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature.
Cover photo: The river tern is a slender, graceful bird often spotted flying in circles over rivers and ponds looking for fish, insects, and crustaceans, or taking dip in the waters.

Spread over 0.67 sq km, the sanctuary comprises about a dozen small islands formed when a weir was built over the Kaveri river in 1648. During one of his explorations, ornithologist Dr Salim Ali noticed the unusual density of birds in the area and discovered they had made it their nesting grounds. Subsequently, he convinced the Maharaja of Mysore to declare it a protected area in 1940. It is named after Lord Ranganatha, an avatar of Vishnu, to whom a sprawling temple is dedicated in nearby Srirangapatna.

The sanctuary consists of two groups of islands. The Western part is nuclear to the sanctuary and is the developed part. A wide path that fronts the water’s edge has several benches at frequent intervals, ideal for birdwatching. There are a couple of watchtowers which provide vantage points to look across at the islands. But the best way to get up close to the birds is on a boat ride that departs from a pier. The other group is near Mandyakoppalu, east of this cluster, around a bend in the river.

The sanctuary’s scattered islands are rocky for the most part; some are bare while others are wooded. At the water’s edge, the riverine ecosystem comprises deciduous scrub forests with species like java plum, arjuna, screwpine thickets, bamboo, and bael. Together, they provide the ideal habitat for waterbirds, protecting them from predators. The birds are surrounded by abundant resources and the river has plenty of fish. At the river’s edge where the water ebbs and flows insects come to feed. The sanctuary has several species of resident birds so there’s something to spot throughout the year. However, winter is the best time, when migratory birds arrive here to nest.

A marsh crocodile is a stealthy hunter. It waits silently in the waters with only its eyes and nostril poking above the surface, until it spots an unsuspecting prey and lunges at it with open jaws. An ibis struggles to escape from its jaws.

A marsh crocodile is a stealthy hunter. It waits silently in the waters with only its eyes and nostril poking above the surface, until it spots an unsuspecting prey and lunges at it with open jaws. An ibis struggles to escape from its jaws.

WILDLIFE
A guided boat tour is the only way to get around most of this sanctuary. With a pair of binoculars trained on the riverbank, visitors can get a general sense of the bird population.

Just over 220 species of birds have been recorded in the sanctuary. Most are resident species while some are known to migrate from the Himalayas, Europe, and even Siberia. It is especially surreal to see painted storks up close on boulders, their wings open to the sun. Besides these storks, the sanctuary has three types of cormorants, four species of egrets, four types of kingfishers, darters, white ibis, spoonbill, herons, open-billed storks. Masses of river terns descend in May to nest and breed on the islets. Till May, it is also easy to spot great stone plovers, cliff swallows, large pied wagtails, whistling teals, red-wattled lapwings and spot-billed ducks. Cool and shady areas under marginal vegetation are favoured by paradise flycatchers, Tickell’s blue flycatchers, babblers, warblers, and ioras among others. Winter brings northern pintails, common teals and marsh harriers. The sanctuary also has several birds of prey such as changeable hawk-eagle, crested serpent eagles, and brahminy kites, as well as several species of owls including spotted owl.

A couple of gigantic trees at the river’s edge are wildly popular with fruit bats. Apart from birds, marsh crocodiles are easy to spot as are bonnet macaques. Less common are palm civets, smooth-coated otters, mongooses, Indian monitors, and turtles. There are also several species of snakes. More than 30 species of fish are found in the river while over 60 species of butterflies, and numerous species of arthropods (insects etc) are found in the sanctuary.

Trees along the banks of the Kaveri are great spots to sight birds. (Left) Spot-billed pelicans nest and roost in small, noisy colonies. (Right) The black ibis has a characteristic sickle-shaped bill that it uses to probe rocky, shallow streams for food.

SEASONS
The sanctuary is open throughout the year. During monsoon months (June to September-October) boating may be suspended if the water reaches dangerous levels. Irrespective of season, early morning and late evening are the best times to spot birds.

March-May is summer, when the park gets hot and humid by mid-morning. Temperatures can reach up to 30 degrees C and beyond.

June-October is the monsoon and the park is lush green. Early nesting begins and several bird species are visible, though boating is dependent on the rain. Temperatures fluctuate between low and high 20s.

November-January/February is winter, when the sanctuary is packed with birds, both resident and migratory. Morning temperatures might drop to around 15 degrees C at the height of the winter but rarely go beyond the mid-20s during the day.

Pied kingfishers are often spotted perched along rivers and waterbodies. They form monogamous pairs and have elaborate courtships displays that include dancing, calling, and the male bringing the female treats to win her over. (Right) Long-legged spoonbills move their partially open, spoon-shaped bills from side-to-side while foraging for crustaceans, insects, and small fish in the water.

Pied kingfishers are often spotted perched along rivers and waterbodies. They form monogamous pairs and have elaborate courtships displays that include dancing, calling, and the male bringing the female treats to win her over. (Right) Long-legged spoonbills move their partially open, spoon-shaped bills from side-to-side while foraging for crustaceans, insects, and small fish in the water.

BOAT SAFARI cost and timings (The following will be updated just before publication)

Timings: The sanctuary is open from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm for the general public. Boating is offered throughout the day.
Entry fees: Rs 70 adults; Rs 10 children (Indians); Rs 400 for foreigners.
Boating (shared ride): Rs 70 adults; Rs 30 children (Indians): Rs 400 foreigners. Boats can be chartered for Rs 1,500 (Indians) and Rs 3,000 (foreigners). Amateur and professional photographers can book special morning boat rides in advance (restricted to maximum four people) conducted at 6.30 am and 7.30 am; same cost as chartered boat.

GETTING THERE
By Road: The sanctuary is located on the Bangalore-Mysore highway about 130 km/2.5 hours southwest of Bengaluru, 4 km from Srirangapatna, and 20 km (30-45 minutes) from Mysore.
By Air/Train: The nearest airport is at Bengaluru and the nearest railhead and bus station is at Srirangapatna, from where autos and taxis can be hired.

Visitors explore Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary on a boat safari which takes them along six islets for a close look at the sanctuary’s wide variety of birds.

Visitors explore Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary on a boat safari which takes them along six islets for a close look at the sanctuary’s wide variety of birds.

STAY

Country Inn and Suites by Radisson is a plush, sophisticated hotel where guests can work up a sweat at the fitness area and then kick back in the sprawling swimming pool or spa. Two restaurants and a pool bar offer sustenance and indulgences. Doubles from Rs 5,600 with breakfast (www.radissonhotels.com/en-us/hotels/country-inn-mysore; +91 821 6642000).

Golden Landmark Resort has its guests surrounded by lush green lawns with indoor and outdoor recreation. Bliss spa lays out an array of relaxation and rejuvenation treatments. Doubles from Rs 4,100 with breakfast (www.goldenlandmark.in; + 91-8212417171).

Young Island Resort has cottage accommodation and is ideal for an extended stay. It is set in the middle of wide-open spaces, and has a sprawling swimming pool. Its riverside location is a big hit with guests. Doubles from Rs 3,600 with breakfast. (+91-9845190925)

Atrium Boutique Hotel has a range of rooms and suites to choose from and offers a health club, spa, and outdoor swimming pool. Separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian restaurants dish up a range of Indian and international food. Doubles from Rs 2,000 with breakfast (www.theatriumhotel.in; +91-7676139092).

Anita Rao Kashi
Anita Rao Kashi

is a travel and freelance journalist based in Bangalore who considers the forest as her bolthole. Find her work at https://anitaraokashi.contently.com/

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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