Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sinhagad Success - Ultramarine and much much more!

Ultramarine Flycatcher
Winter arrived (at least on the calendar) and the slight nip in the air (largely imaginary in Mumbai) also brought with it the promise of birding season. And the primary goal this season was to fulfil an unrealised ambition - of seeing and photographing the beautiful Ultramarine Flycatcher. Sinhagad, as always, was the preferred destination. Conventional wisdom (and advice) told us that we're too early for the migrants, it's not cold enough etc etc. But one Friday evening, late in November, something told me to take a chance the next day. And sure enough Sriram and I, set off for Sinhagad well before dawn on Saturday, with very low expectations. Our first visit of the season.

We got there just as the sunlight was peeping over the Sinhagad hills and into the valley. The stream was full of water and there were several spots along its length for the birds to come and have a dip. Which meant we needed to gamble on where to set up shop - traipsing up and down the stream is a strict no-no because it would only scare away the birds from their morning dip. So we set up at our regular spot and waited.

Scaly breasted Munia
The assembled paparazzi throng, though not quite at peak season levels, was (as always) waiting for the  Paradise Flycatcher. Most of these were not the 'pros' but college kids keen on birding especially for the above mentioned 'Paradise'. A lone sub adult male did make an appearance, which set the shutters abuzz for a while, but once he left, many of them developed itchy feet and started to waltz around the surrounding jungle. Which left Sriram and myself with one more gentleman, Sudheer Puttur, ace photographer and birder. 

Red Breasted Flycatcher Male
We got the usual suspects - grey wagtails, magpie robins, Indian robins, bulbuls etc. A common Iora made a 'not so common' appearance. But the highlight was the Red Breasted Flycatcher pair. The female, as is her wont, gave us some super poses but it was the normally shy male who really outdid himself (and her) He preened, posed and had a couple of dips and won his catwalk battle with his mate! Who then proceeded to disappear towards a far away pool and have a bit of a sulk at being shown up by her handsome beau!

Things were getting a bit quiet and we were all checking out our morning's pictures (and deleting the random ones) when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of blue descend near the water's edge. It can't be, I told myself as I slowly turned towards the bird. But it was! An Ultramarine Flycatcher - adult male. As beautiful as anything I'd ever seen before. Ultramarine, I whispered to Sriram and Sudheer, but even as we slowly trained our lenses on him, he gave us a couple of record pictures and flew off! A sighting finally but no great pictures! Ah well, at least the duck was broken. 

We then saw a couple of scaly breasted munias coming for their morning dip. Even as I looked through my viewfinder to focus on them, my lens caught something else! The Ultramarine was back, maybe out of guilt for not giving us any pictures. Or maybe he just wanted his morning bath. This time, he gave us a special sighting... he posed on the rocks, then dipped a few times into the water and emerged with his fur rather scruffy, and not at all like his usual elegant self. Not that it mattered to yours truly, for me it was a sighting I was looking forward to, since the beginning of the year. And this beautiful bird obliged with a truly wonderful appearance. We finished up with some pictures of the Munias and a beautiful Verditer Flycatcher and we were completely sated! Getting the Ultramarine was a high in itself, but defying convention and backing intuition made it feel even better! This was only the beginning we thought, we'd be back for more Ultramarine sightings through the winter. Not quite how it panned out, though.

Long Tailed Shrike
Mid December promised much, so I headed to Pune one Friday afternoon, hoping to catch the Saturday bonanza. But the heavens opened up that night, and any plans seemed futile. It cleared up on Saturday morning (as predicted by the weather app - amazingly accurate) and we headed forth, again with no expectations. This time, avian activity was really slow and even the Wag tails and Fan Tails were missing. The female Red breasted flycatcher did attempt to entertain us, with little effect. Towards the end, we got lucky with a beautiful Long Tailed Shrike, a pair of Oriental White-eyes and some White Rumped Munias. Not quite the peak-season bonanza we were looking for, but a relatively satisfying visit given the rain.

Mid January came and this time I happened to be in Pune for a few days, so we decided to avoid the weekend paparazzi hordes and go on a weekday. Patting ourselves on the back for ingenuity, we descended one cold Tuesday morning, expecting to find it empty. To our dismay, not only were there 8-10 people already sitting with their cameras, they were spread all around the water stream, including one specimen who sat in the line of the birds' approach. 

Yellow Eyed Babbler
As a result, only the bravest (or most desperate) birds came to the water. The rest of the birds were in the vicinity (we heard all their calls - Ultramarine, Monarch, Red Breasted as well as the Paradise) but they took offense to this intrusion and bypassed us for other pools nearby. Even as we cursed these ignorant (and stubborn) 'birders' we still managed two lifers - a yellow eyed babbler and sulphur bellied warbler, book-ended by a Verditer and White eye. 

Sulphur Bellied Warbler
Bird activity ceased relatively early, so we decided to head up to the fort to check for Crested Buntings and Blue Rock Thrushes. We didn't see the Buntings, but spent a fair bit of time with a beautiful Pied Bushchat pair and managed to get a glimpse of a Female Blue Rock Thrush. All in all, not a bad morning, but it could have been a lot better were it not for 'you know who'.

Pied Bushchat Male

Pied Bushchat Female
And that's Sinhagad for you. A surprise every time you visit. But for me, it will always remain the place where I saw my first Ultramarine Flycatcher!

Blue Rock Thrush Female
On the wish list for the few next trips - an Indian Scimitar Babbler, Tawny Bellied Babbler, Crested Bunting and maybe a Malabar Whistling Thrush! Why ever not? 

Sinhagad Valley Trip Guide

How to get there:
The Sinhagad Valley sits (as it should) at the base of Sinhagad Fort, a very popular destination for picnickers and trekkers (the fort is a decent trek though) It is a 20odd Kms from Pune on the Mumbai-Bangalore Highway. Take the highway and turn right after Warje village and follow the road towards the NDA Khadakvasla. From there you head to the Sinhagad road and continue till you hit Donje village, where you take a left to the Donje-Sinhagad Road and carry on to Sinhagad Paytha.
You will see shops and a few small restaurants on the side, they will also allow you to park your car for a fee. Carry on till you hit the trekking trail to the fort. Instead of heading uphill, head down towards the stream and park yourself at a good spot near the stream, yet allowing space for the birds to come down undisturbed.

Best time to go:
Winter - December through February. Plan to hit the valley by sunrise and you'll have a very pleasant wait as the birds come in to the water.

Places to stay:
There are a few 'resorts' on the road leading up to Sinhagad, but I've personally not stayed in any. If you're from Pune, you've got it made!  From Mumbai, a day trip is eminently feasible,  a very early morning start and a drive back in the evening.
If you do need to stay, I can recommend the Orchid and the Sadanand Residency on the highway, maybe 20 kms away. Both excellent properties, with the Orchid very high on my 'likes' list.

Places to eat:
There are some pretty decent places to eat just before you hit the Paytha (and some on the Paytha itself), mainly local snacks like Vada Pav, Misal and Bhajias. Most of them are run by locals and the food is pretty good.

What to carry:
Water and some snacks, especially if you plan to wait out a better part of the day for the species of your choice. 
Definitely a tripod if you have a big lens. Since you're largely seated in one place, a tripod is the best option.

In December/January, it can get quite nippy in the mornings and then reasonably warm as the sun comes up, so would be a good idea to wear a couple of layers v/s anything too warm!