Shivering in the freezing, I wait for the drama to unfold .The silhouettes of the trees sway a bit, gently awakening the waters. I gaze down from the connection and glimpse the river mix, forming ripples. A broad fog hangs over it, but the summaries of the hill ridges emerge in the expanse.
Shades of blue, pink and gold appear out of the darkness. The birds arrive on the view, singing an ode to the dawn. Elsewhere on the waters, life is gradually rousing in a few sandy islands. A voice softly interrupts my reverie as I am served my forenoon cup of tea.
I am in a dusty village called Lakkavalli, lured by the backwaters of the Bhadra. The unspoiled timber plantations round it conceive a green cover, concealing many a untamed animal. The mountains encircle us. We change our course and sail in the direction of the banks of the stream. Hypnotised by the stream, I am lost looking at its unfathomed depths when a young person tourist cries out in exhilaration. He has just dotted a herd of elephants on the banks. As we move closer, we see the matriarch protecting her calves away, while a tusker advances. Another lone elephant tugs at the bamboo on the converse bank. We move on to see more gaurs and untamed boars as well.
A lone peacock promenades, waiting for the peahen. A Brahminy kite rounds overhead, while a white breasted kingfisher examines on. A twosome of cormorants represent for us, their wings outstretched. meantime, the boatman regales us with tales of the river supplementing that the scene unfolds here every January. The entire backwaters is then inundated with thousands of stream Terns who flock here to breed and nurture their juvenile. The river becomes their home until the chicks are vintage enough to go by plane with their parents. They migrate to other shores once the monsoons start, only to come back afresh in January to find their rocky dwellings occasionally submerged in water.
A couple flies ahead of us and we follow them in our boat. And before we know it, thousands of winged creatures fill our eyes and camera lenses. The noise is absolutely deafening. The River Terns are at breakfast and they seem to resent our interruption. The entire backwaters echoes with the cries of the birds, as they voice their protest. We see some pratincoles along with spot billed ducks. But the island belongs to the River Terns.
The white birds with their yellow beaks and red feet fly past us, pushed by hunger and the strong winds. Some of them are bringing back food for their chicks and their nesting spouses. The chicks are waiting at the edge of the island, screaming their lungs out, with their mouths open wide as their parents hover around with the local fish or ‘bilchi’ in their mouths. Some of their nursing spouses, hiding in the grass crave for food too. The River Terns scoop down, landing carefully and dropping the ‘bilchis’ to their family, only to fly again to pick up more food.
As the boat inches closer, the birds yell in panic and fly to the other end of the island, while the chicks, who are still learning to fly trot around the surface. Some brave ones come to the water’s edge, burying their heads in water. The rest are, however, focused. Only food is on their mind. As we watch in silence, I see life unfolding in a remote corner of the world. The locals here believe that the river belongs to them and they wait for them to return every year.
We return to the shore and wander aimlessly, watching butterflies and spiders, until it is time for the afternoon safari. A monitor lizard darts inside the bushes, while a crested serpent eagle looks away. The jungle presents itself – a collage of greens, browns and yellows. A typical safari starts off as a smooth ride with a song in your heart, with plenty of excitement and hope. You spot the silhouette of an animal, a shadow darting through the leaves, a rustle in the woods. By the end of it, however, your excitement wanes. And then the spotted deers appear, followed by gaurs, fanning your hopes again.
However, for a birder like me, the thrill never fades. The Malabar parakeets pose for us only to be followed by a flock of Malabar pied hornbills, chipping the bark of a tree with their beaks, like a woodpecker. The babblers and the bulbuls are all around us, the laughing dove mocks at us from above a tree, while a peacock crosses our path. In the midst of all of this, we hardly miss the tiger or the leopard.
The sun mellows a bit, as the forests open into the backwaters. We interrupt a herd of spotted deer and spot another herd of elephants on the opposite bank. The waters catch the light of the setting sun, changing colours by the minute. An alarmed lapwing shrilly cries, “Did you do it” as I watch nature reenact a drama again by the river side.
The sky explodes into a cocktail of colours, only to be engulfed by the twilight clouds. As I watch the streaks of crimson set against the dark sky, it seems like the sun is refusing to give up its abode. It is a poignant moment, as the sun makes one grand protest with a momentary burst of colours, before giving up. I look up to see the last few golden moments slowly being snatched away by the night clouds. It is time for the crickets and the cicadas to make their presence felt. As the lights come down on the waters, the river becomes silent .The shroud of darkness covers the forest and unseen eyes stalk us. Elsewhere, the denizens of the jungles come alive, as the day has just dawned for them.
Bhadra wildlife sanctuary, a Project Tiger reserve, is ideal for spotting wild animals like tiger, herds of elephants and spotted deer
Getting there: By Road: Lakkavalli is approximately 300 km by road from Bengaluru via Tumkur.
By Air: The nearest airports are Bengaluru and Mangalore.
By Rail: Shimoga is the nearest railway station.
Where to stay: The River Tern lodge at Lakkavalli is the best option to stay to experience both the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary and the backwaters.
Best Season: January to June for River Terns, while summer is the best time for some wildlife and winters for birds.