Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sinhagad Valley - Paradise Flycatcher Paradise

The Star takes a bow!
It was like a red carpet movie premiere, with the attendant throng of paparazzi in tow. And everyone was waiting for the star of the day to put in an appearance, even while indulging the other, lesser(?) actors who made their dutiful appearances. We duly took up our appointed places amidst the photographers, squeezing between a veteran and a fresher. Rather appropriate, we all thought.

And for the first half hour the (largely) silent vigil was broken only by the hisses and nudges when a (much appreciated) lesser hero or character actor logged in an appearance. The camera shutters would then break into an orchestrated chorus of clicks, which, while recognising the actor's presence, didn't really have the fervour or frenzy that the star would generate.

Then it started with hushed whispers, a chain of "Aa gaya"s and then a contorting of necks and backs as the paparazzi struggled to get the right angle. The star was arriving, making a slow and measured advance to his 'premiere'. And as he finally dropped into clear view, the cameras did themselves proud as a legion of high end shutters of every conceivable make launched into a flurry of images! Images they had been patiently waiting for. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Asian Paradise Flycatcher!

While I've admitted added a wee bit of spice to this story, the reality was not far different. The APFC (as it is referred to) was the star attraction at the beautiful Sinhagad valley near Pune. Every winter weekend many enthusiasts come and wait patiently at a little stream for a sighting of this majestic bird. But the valley has so much more. 

It is a veritable feast of little feathered friends... with flycatchers being the main attraction. Paradise Flycatchers apart, you can see Tickell's Blue, Verditer, Red Breasted and (if you're really lucky) Ultramarine Flycatchers. Accompanying them are Black Lored Tits, Chestnut Shouldered Petronias, Grey Wagtails, Common Ioras, Prinias, Robins, Kingfishers, Pipits, Woodpeckers, Munias and Bee Eaters. A little walk into the bush can also get you Scimitar Babblers and some raptor species as well. So all in all, a super little birding hotspot. And the best part is that people don't have to go tramping through the forests, the birds descend to a little water body and the visitors wait at a fair distance (though not always) to view and click to their heart's content.

I went twice last season, the first time with my friend Siddhesh and his group of birding enthusiast friends - Vishnu, Prateik and Jaysingh. The second time around, it was with Nissim and Sriram. Both very fruitful trips, albeit without the Ultramarine Flycatcher, which proved elusive! 

On our first trip, we made a couple of wrong detours, which delayed our arrival by nearly an hour. By that time, the sun was up and some of the birds had already made a trip to the waterhole. But we waited patiently and in the 3-4 hours till noon, we had a superb time with so many different visitors. 

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
When the Paradise finally arrived, it was an instant attraction; all the attention focused on one individual with his trademark long, white tail. Personally, while it is a beautiful bird, was not really an obsession for me - having seen it several times earlier in Ranthambhore. I was more keen on the Verditers, Pipits, the Ultramarine (of course) and maybe even a babbler or two (Puff Throated or Scimitar will do!) So we got all the above, apart from the much-missed Ultramarine and the babblers.

Our Heroine - Red Breasted Flycatcher
Every hero needs a lady counterpart, right? As if on cue, appeared a lovely female Red Breasted Flycatcher. This little bird was so bold, so carefree, that she posed for us at every conceivable bush, twig or perch. And a couple of times, she flew and even perched on a photographer's bag! Her posing and preening earned her the title of "Heroine". Even during a patch of zero avian activity, we could count on our own Heroine to come and pose for us. Almost like she was making up for her colleagues' lack of understanding.

Verditer Flycatcher
Another beautiful highlight was a pair of Verditer Flycatchers. This bird has an incredible shade of blue all over and the male, in bright light made for a magnificent sight. They hopped in and out, came and had their drink and gave us some wonderful pictures. I'd seen them before at Dandeli, but in dense canopy and not out in the open like this. This was followed up by a whole group of Oriental White-eyes coming down to drink. These lovely birds with their trademark eye-ring and hyperactive flitting make for very interesting viewing.

Tree Pipit
Before long, the stomachs growled and with the mid-day sun as an added deterrent, we decided to pack up and get something to eat. By that time, the shutterbug gathering, sated no doubt by the star of the day, had dwindled to just three other people. They stayed back as we headed out. A quick meal later, we decided to head back just for a look. And the guys there drove us green with envy with their account (and pictures) of a group of Black Lored Tits, who'd come just after we'd left and had performed an elaborate bathing ritual, exclusively for these guys. We waited for a bit, reacquainted ourselves with the Heroine, said hello to more Verditers, but no Black Lored Tits. And no Ultramarines either. 

A couple of weeks later and the 'Call of the Valley' (with due apologies to Pt. Shivkumar Sharma for being 'inspired' by a title of one of his albums) proved too difficult to resist and with Nissim and Sriram, I headed for another dekko. This time too, the Paraside Flycatcher gave us a super audience, with one fella perched so close that I couldn't even get him in focus!

Grey Wagtail
This time we were early, arriving just after day break, so in time for the wagtails and pipits and their early morning rituals. We followed that up with an amazing bathing display by a beautiful Tickell's Blue Flycatcher- repeatedly he would spin himself in the water like a top and then briskly flap his wings, as if to dry them. He did this a few times, and then, probably satisfied that his bath lived unto his exacting standards, flew on. 
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher in his shower
A few chestnut shouldered petronia spend a lot of time with us and then a beautiful Ashy Drongo arrived as a welcome guest... this dark grey bird with deep red eyes is a real stunner. That was followed by a pair of Indian Robins, a tree pipit, a skittish Ashy Prinia and a White Throated Kingfisher or two. But as always, the continued presence of our 'Heroine' in all her glory (and poses) really stole the show from the rest of her feathered friends.

Ashy Drongo

Chestnut Shouldered Petronia
And now that winter is only a few weeks away, I can't wait to go back to this superb valley with all its wonderful little winged visitors. And this time, I hope and pray that the Ultramarines and Black Lored Tits grant us an audience. Till winter then.

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!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ranthambhore - Tiger Home in more ways than one!!

The soft, short 'Aum' of the tigress was barely audible to the excited throng of humans gathered near the Padam Talao one hot afternoon... but those of us who heard it, knew exactly what it meant! She was calling her cubs; we knew they were in the bushes around us. But like obedient and well behaved children, they stayed hidden till Mom appeared on the scene. And the prospect of spending the afternoon with a tigress and her three little ones made the heart race in all kinds of crazy directions.

It felt awesome to be back at Ranthambhore, at the insistence of my 6 year old daughter. I hadn't seen a tiger for a year, the longest hiatus for more than a decade. Till she put her little foot down, the trip just didn't look like happening. Then suddenly, everything magically fell into place, train tickets got confirmed, safaris organized and of course, rooms at Tiger Home. The tiger gods do move in mysterious ways! 
Our first safari was on Zone 3, with the magnificent Rajbagh lake in it, home to T19 and her 3 little cubs. Our resident expert, Hemraj told us that the cubs were hiding in the bushes, but with their mother away, they only served up a few stray glimpses over the last few safaris. So, with a silent prayer to the guardians of luck, we headed forth into the forest. Within seconds though, it seemed like our prayers had backfired... our gypsy had a broken part and made an awful racket every time the wheel turned. Our driver did a bit of patchwork and declared the gypsy match-fit. After all we had a very short way to go - barely a couple of kms till we reached where the cubs were.

And so we joined an attendant throng of jeeps, next to a little stream. The cubs were in the bush the other side of the stream, and we were all waiting for them to pop their cute little faces, even if for a few seconds. They weren't acting up but our jeep certainly was - the noise started again and we got dirty looks from all and sundry around us. Time to call in reinforcements - a forest guard in one of the jeeps radioed for a replacement and we traveled half way to the gate to change into the new one. Barely did we round the first bend, when Hemraj (in another jeep) waved frantically at us. And that could only mean one thing! Tiger!

Replacement be damned, our driver turned around and nursed the jeep into position, within the paparazzi line-up. Then the whisper went out.... "she's coming"; it was the mother T19, she was coming from behind us. We watched as she came... stood, watched and took a circuitous route to the stream. And as she walked, she called just a couple of times, a couple of short "Aums" and then lowered herself into the stream. And before long, one little face poked out of the bushes and launched himself(or herself) at mum. Followed by the second and then the shyest one, the third. The next half an hour was pure bliss as the cubs gamboled around and played in the open, safe and secure with their mother around. One by one, each of them came up and nuzzled their mother, who in turn licked them with equal affection. A mother with her children, this was as 'human' as it could get - so much for them being called beasts! And then, as suddenly as she came, she stood up to leave.

Her cubs were given a short little grunt as a 'follow me' command and the whole entourage walked purposefully towards Rajbagh. We followed at a safe distance and got some good pictures of the family as they crossed the road in front of us. But she wasn't headed to Rajbagh like we all thought. The queen of the lakes walked beyond her summer palace and headed beyond Zone 3, to a thickly wooded area in Zone 4, beyond Malik Talao. Given her body language and urgency, it did seem like she'd made a kill there and had come to fetch her cubs to feed. If that was indeed the case, then they would be out of bounds for a day or two. And that was exactly how it turned out... no sightings for the next 3 days as they went off on an extended lunch 'break'!

The next morning, we went into Zone 1, to try and snatch a glimpse of T39 (or Noor) who had also given birth to 2 little beauties. With the excellent Rajesh Gujar as our guide we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of Noor, or indeed Sultan, her cub from a previous litter. And then there was T24 (Ustad) who seemingly everybody on the planet, bar me, had seen. Deep into Zone 1, we go over a hump in the road and on the road in front of us - Noor! We wait far away, hoping she'll call her cubs. Instead, she went up the slope and settled down in a little clearing and soon, 2 little balls of fur ran over and nuzzled their mama. She nursed them as we watched, but they were too far for pictures. All this while, we were silently hoping that she would bring them down. At that precise moment, the rain gods decided to shower their blessings on us so instead of coming down to us, the cubs melted away into the bush. Noor then strode down purposefully to the road; she looked lean and was definitely on a mission to make a kill. We watched as she stalked a sambhar herd carefully and when she was ready, she charged at a sub-adult in the bushes. We heard the sambhar cry out so concluded that the kill was successful. No chance of seeing her though, the bush was too thick. So we left her and moved on.

A couple of kms ahead and the air erupted with sambhar alarm calls, normally the most reliable sign of a predator. Rajesh and our driver kept looking and maneuvering the jeep, when, something told me to look behind us and there was a tiger emerging onto the road. I hoped it was Sultan or (even better) Ustad, but much to our surprise, it was Noor. So the kill hadn't been successful and this hungry mother was on the move to try and wager a meal somewhere else. As we waited, she walked right towards us, and cut into the bushes and up the hill. Gorgeous girl, this one!

That afternoon was a disappointment, not because we didn't see tigers, but because of our driver (and guide) They were both disinterested, bored and refused to even do their jobs right. Like there was a tiger sighted in the Adi Dagar valley that morning, but neither of these gentlemen even ventured near... apparently the valley was tough to drive into, and climb out of! Full marks for laziness. But, on some serious persuasion, they did help me get my first sightings of the Pied (Or Jacobin) Cuckoo and Painted Snipe. Add a lovely hour in Mallik Talao with Whistling teals, Painted Storks and Peacock, and the safari was eventually well worth it.

We followed that up with a trip to Zone 5 the next morning, to seek  Machali, the Queen Mother of Ranthambhore was living her retirement years. A far cry from her glory days when her commanding presence ruled much of the forest's prime territory, she has been reduced to a small patch where she lives her life and tries her best to stay away from other tigers. We went in and found fresh tracks around a water hole, a sign that she had taken her drink and was resting in the bush. We went further ahead and saw fresh tracks and scat of a large male tiger, possibly T6 (or Romeo) We followed his tracks for a good 5 kms, but he'd finally veered off and taken a short cut into out of bounds areas. So that was a dead end. Back again to Machali and no luck, so we had only the last safari left.

And that was superb! We headed to Zone 1 again to check out on Noor (she'd been seen with her cubs in the open that morning) and while we waited for her without luck, we were hugely fortunate to see 2 different sloth bears, both at close quarters. One even walked in front of us on the road, much like a tiger. Added to that was a beautiful Asian Paradise Flycatcher and the last safari was a memorable one.

Another trip to this most amazing of tiger forests and I can't help marveling at how it never fails to delight. In this case, my little daughter was completely hooked, much to my delight. And for her, while the tigers were a bonus, the real joy came in watching (and counting) peacock. And these beautifully attired feathered friends put on an amazing show for her. She counted more than 40 peacocks per safari, took pictures of dancing peacocks, peacocks on trees, peacocks preening, peacocks alarm calling... pretty much any conceivable 'peacockian' behavior that they were willing to exhibit in public.

And the best bit about this dad-daughter trip was that no sooner had we got onto the train for our return journey, then she asked me when we were going for our next forest trip! Yoohoo!

And as always, we stayed at the lovely Tiger Home, all the comforts of home with all the things you'd want on a wildlife holiday. Just perfect!