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!

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