Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nannaj - Bustard or Bust?

My best picture of the elusive Great Indian Bustard!!

Common Kestrel 

My binoculars needed zoom lenses! The solitary male Great Indian Bustard (GIB) that ponderously walked across the grassland was almost a kilometer away. But the very fact that I would see one in the wild(?) was a cause for celebration. Not that it gave the camera any joy, but hey you have to leave something for next time, n'est ce pas?

One of India's most charismatic birds, the Bustard has been virtually condemned to extinction. Once common throughout India, the rapidly shrinking grassland habitats have spelt the death knell for this beautiful bird. In Nannaj, with a claimed protected area of around 1200 sq km, there are a mere 10 GIBs. And worryingly, they haven't produced any offspring for the last two years. Anyways, this isn't a doom and gloom blog, so let's look at the brighter side - the birds are there, for now. And hopefully they will breed. And flourish. Again.

Blackbuck at Nannaj
I was in Nannaj as the first stop on my post-monsoon wander. As the rains ebbed, the feet started itching and the camera demanded action. After speaking with Dr. Pramod Patil, GIB fan and Nannaj expert, I was advised that October is the end of the GIB-viewing window, so I decided to take my first trip there. Just 22 kms from Solapur in South Maharashtra, Nannaj is also home to blackbuck, wolves and a vast variety of birds, boasting of some excellent raptor sightings.

A squatting blackbuck
Excited to have the chance to see this beautiful bird, I hit Nannaj virtually directly from the train station (with just a small break at the hotel). The best chance there is through a small viewing hut at the edge of the grassland, with enough space to seat 8 people and slits in the walls for cameras. All in all, pretty good arrangements.

As soon as I got there, the three gents already sitting there pointed to a speck a long way away. It was only when it moved did I realize that it was a living thing! Peering through my binocs, I made out a beautiful male GIB, strutting around, feeding in the late morning warmth. Our guide and Nannaj veteran Mr. Bhagwat Mhaske said that he normally is near the hut most mornings. But this day, he chose to stay away and in fact moved even farther as the day grew warmer. 

So we headed to another portion of the grassland, where you can drive your vehicle. And we came across a beautiful male blackbuck, walking all alone on acres of grassland. Made for a lovely sight. Then, on one of the high tension cables sat a lovely Common Kestrel. Common may be in its name, but I'd never seen one before. And the Kestrel kindly obliged with a photo session before he flew off to find some food. And while coming back, we saw more birds, including a pair of black caped larks (so I was told).

Pair of Scaly Breasted Munias
We retired to the Forest Guest House for an excellent home cooked lunch and came back early afternoon to try our luck again with the Bustard. But the tease that he was, he didn't come any closer. And neither did the blackbuck or the harriers. We saw them all, but nothing close enough to photograph. Chatting with Mr. Mhaske, we understood that there are 10 birds in total, including 2 males. The others are scattered around the grassland, with this male being the best chance of a sighting at this point.

Late evening sun at Nannaj
Back early the next morning, hoping Mr. Mhaske's predictions come true. For the first hour, we couldn't even spot the fella. Then we saw him, much closer than yesterday and heading towards us. Cameras ready, prepared to get a great frame. But the bustard that he was, he stopped halfway, turned and disappeared down a little incline, to remerge at the same spot as the previous day. Where he would stay for the rest of the day. And with him went my chances of any real bustard photography.

Grey Backed Shrike
So we focused on the other wildlife at hand - more larks, a pair of scaly breasted munias, a beautiful grey backed shrike amonst the avian visitors. My most unusual sighting though was a blackbuck on his haunches, almost cat-like in his pose. Later that afternoon, we took a ride through other parts of the grassland. The puzzling bit is, while there seems to be enough habitat for a reasonable population of bustards, they have just not been able to breed of late. Hopefully they'll get over whatever is holding them back, so Nannaj can at least have a viable population, if not to the numbers that existed even during the 90s where the count was anywhere between 100-150 individuals.

As for me, I aim to be back in July/August, the best season for viewing these majestic birds. And hope I can do well enough with just my camera for company, not even a pair of binocs!

Till then, here's to the Great Indian Bustard!

Nannaj Trip Guide

Getting there
Nannaj is about 22 kms (1/2 hour) north of Solapur in South Maharashtra. Solapur itself is a major rail head on the Mumbai-Chennai/Hyderabad/Bangalore line so has excellent rail connections. It's 455 kms from Mumbai and 260 mms from Pune, the nearest big cities. 

Though there is a Forest Guest House complex in Nannaj itself, it is currently closed due to water shortage. Solapur itself has plenty of stay options. I stayed at the Lotus Hotel, a new, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced hotel at South Sader Bazaar, VIP Road ( Tel- 0217- 2311999/299) The manager, Mr. Shahjahan was excellent, very helpful and arranged our vehicle as well.  

Wildlife Watching
There are no real safaris as such, you drive to Nannaj, pay your entry fees (Rs. 130 per day including camera charges) and walk up to the hut and park yourself there. There are other parts of the grassland where you can drive, so you'll need your own vehicle - preferably one with good road clearance - a Tavera or Sumo would be a good idea. 

You can eat at the Forest Guest House, where the caretaker Mr. Gaikwad makes excellent local vegetarian food if given enough notice. It was truly exceptional food! 

Other tips
Lotus Hotel is vegetarian, so the meat-eaters please take note and ask for alternative sources of non-veg food.
Best to carry your own bottled water to the Sanctuary. Though Nannaj village is nearby, the bottled water on offer there does not have names one is familiar with.
Carry bananas or biscuits  in case you feel peckish during your wait. Walking to and fro out of the hut can ruin potential sighting opportunities.

People to meet

Mr. Bhagwat Mhaske, guide with the Forest department. He's been at Nannaj for more than 20 years and what he doesn't know about the place isn't worth knowing. He's sen groups of more than 20 individuals less than 20 years ago, and he hopes that this beautiful bird can breed again and restore its numbers to more stable (and less precarious) levels.