Friday, April 3, 2020

Hampi (October 2019) Birding in Ruins

The magnificent ruins of Hampi in Northern Karnataka house the remnants of the legendary Vijayanagara empire. And that is the sole reason why most tourists from far and wide throng the ruined palaces and temples. And then there are others like me who have one more reason to visit. Birds. For there is a bird species found amidst Hampi's rocky outcrops that is seldom found elsewhere; the enigmatic Yellow-throated Bulbul. And when a family and friends trip was planned post Diwali, the double lure of ruins plus birds was too good to pass up. There's also bears around Hampi, but that would have to happen another time.

And so one balmy October morning saw a busload of people descend on the Shiv Vilas palace, about 40 kms from Hampi, our abode for the next few days. After a couple of good ones followed by an excellent meal, we turned in for the night, ready for the ruins the next day. But I had a date much earlier in the morning. With Pompayya Malemath, Hampi's legendary bird-man. He's been making things happen for birders for as long back as I can remember and it was a privilege to make his acquaintance. 

Painted Spurfowl
While the Yellow-throated Bulbul was the piece-de-resistance, he whetted my appetite with some 'hide' birding for some of the more common species first up. Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks, Grey Francolin and some Indian Silverbills all provided some good entertainment upfront, till the star of the hide showed up - the Painted Spurfowl. This gorgeous star wasn't in the mood to indulge me that morning as he skulked about in the shadows. A mongoose's unwelcome arrival also threw a spanner in the works as said thespian quickly beat a hasty retreat, life obviously being more valuable than a portfolio. And while I assumed that was that, a lifer suddenly popped into view; a Yellow-billed Babbler. This commoner had always eluded me and to get it here, when I least expected it, was delightful to say the least. I gratefully clicked a few frames as Pompayya came to remind me about main course.

We drove to the famed ruins, and directly to the only 'live' temple there, the magnificent Virupaksha temple. I'd assumed Pompayya wanted me to see the temple before we headed to the Bulbul spot. But little did I know that the area around temple was actually where the bulbul took up residence! And so we walked the rocky area around the mighty Virupaksha hoping to sight one of the rarest of all birds found in India. And sight we did. Almost immediately. But photography was another challenge altogether.

That morning, the Yellow-throated Bulbul was in a strange mood. Sometimes, photographers call it the 'against the light' mood. Over the next hour or so, Pompayya painstakingly conjured up at least 10 different individuals. But almost all of them decided to perch at spots directly against the morning sun. Now having the bird situated between you and Lord Surya makes for the most challenging of situations for a quality photo. And so, we waited and prayed. For one co-operative bird who would come and perch in good light. In the meantime we got some sighters of other birds, including a Blue-faced Malkoha, unfortunately without any photos.

Back to the Bulbul-hunt and after many futile quests, one fine specimen of his species finally decided to oblige. He emerged from his hiding place in the thick foliage and perched on a large rocky outcrop. Not the most ideal of frames again, since I had the sky as a backdrop, but I was going to look no gift horse in the mouth. Sky in the background or not, I loosed off a few frames, grateful to have this wonderful bird out in the open and in good light. The light was turning really harsh I was running out of hope to get another shot at this bird.

That's when another of his ilk decided to also bestow a favour or two. He perched in some light on the branch of a tree and while it was no means a great perch or background, it still allowed me to get a decent shot of the bird. And those two frames pretty much made my morning. Now for the real reason why I was in Hampi, a visit to the spectacular ruins and temples. But Pompayya wasn't done with me yet; he had another surprise up his sleeve.The Indian Eagle Owl is a spectacular bird of prey; it is regal, beautiful and fierce looking, all at the same time. And it's always a joy to see one. So when Pompayya asked if I'd be interested, it took me less than a nano-second to reply in the affirmative. And we set out alongside a canal, looking at the mud-banks for signs of this bird for it usually roosts in the grasses and roots of the trees along the mud banks. One worrying sign was the evidence of the authorities concretising the sides of the canal, thus denying the Owls their roosting spots. Such is 'development' I guess.

We saw the first of our Owls quietly perched amidst some grass under the shade of a tree. He was awake and very aware of our presence. And we waited at a respectful distance and took some record pictures. And then a passing truck threw everything off gear as he decided to honk just as he passed us. And that was enough for the owl as he hastily legged (winged?) it. He went further ahead and sat in the shade of a bush as a pitstop and then found himself a much better roosting spot in the tall branches of a shady tree. We left him at peace and returned back to Hampi and the aforementioned temples and ruins. Prefaced with some delectable idlis on the idyllic banks of the Tungabhadra for breakfast.

All in all, a wonderful morning's work.

Hampi Trip Guide

Getting there
Hampi, located in Northern Karnataka is not as well connected as you'd expect it to be. The nearest airport is at Ballari (60kms away) which hosts a single flight to Bangalore every day. The other option is Hubli (164 kms - 4 hours) which also has very limited connections.
Bengaluru is the nearest metro, with the airport being a cool 350 kms away (7 hours at the least)
Hospet (13 kms) is the closest town and rail-head in case you'd like to take that route.


There are several stay options in and around Hampi, ranging from the comfortable to the super-luxury. We stayed about 40 kms away at the charming Shiv Vilas Palace Hotel in Sandur, a wonderful property with excellent service.


The master of the area is the incomparable Pompayya Malemath. He's a legend, knows the area better than anyone else around and is also a wonderful person. There is no argument here, if he's free and available, look no further. You can reach him on +91 9449136252.

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