Wednesday, November 18, 2015

ODKF -The Quest for the Little King

Some of God’s creations fascinate us like others never can. And this particular jewel frustrated and fascinated me in equal measure for almost two years. Several fruitless trips to frequented hotspots provided lots of evidence to his existence there but yielded nary a glimpse. A bird that seemed to otherwise show itself to half the birding fraternity every monsoon refused to present itself before me – the outrageously beautiful Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher!

This monsoon would be different, I told myself. For I had extra ammunition in the form of ace birder, ODKF specialist and dear friend - Prateik Kulkarni. For the uninitiated, this unassuming, humble young man is one of the finest young birders in Mumbai, and what he doesn’t know about the ODKF is probably not worth knowing! So mid-June, we decided to take a shot at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. After a fruitless morning, Prateik decided to take us (Sriram and I) to the Mumbra Hills to try our luck with other species.

The beautiful Mumbra hills are home to the Mumbradevi temple via a series of steps. The jungle either side of the steps is home to several species of birds, some sighted even from the steps! We stopped halfway (next to a Hanuman temple and a few food stalls) to catch our breath and spotted Grey-breasted Prinia and Vigors’ Sunbirds! Not bad to open with. Then Prateik pointed in the distance and said “ODKF”! I was like, no way… It had to be something else and I had the temerity to suggest it was a Stork-billed Kingfisher. He looked at me with a gaze bordering on disdain and asked me to look again…. Through the viewfinder this time… and he was right!! The beautiful yellow, purple plumage told me this was the bird I was seeking for seemingly forever.

He was still far away and my camera/lens gave me a hard time but I had broken my duck! Just watching this gorgeous little king was a sight for sore eyes. Little did I know that this would only be the beginning of a glorious season! The immediate follow-ups were not particularly encouraging… we made 3 more trips where we heard the bird and caught glimpses but nothing more. Until one morning I set out for SGNP with another ODKF seeker, Siddhesh Maldikar. He’d been far more frustrated in his quests with the ODKF and both of us were determined to break our duck properly this time.

ODKFs migrate to this region during the rains to nest and hatch their young. An adult pair can sometimes raise 2 broods in one season. They nest in muddy banks of little monsoon streams that snake their way around the forests of the Western Ghats. And as we approached one such stream, we both saw a flash of purple and yellow settled on a branch above the water! We cautiously approached the bird and sat at a respectful distance. Once he was comfortable with our presence, he proceeded to give us a grand half hour sighting. My first decent quality pictures of this beauty!

This was followed by another trip, with Sriram this time. We went and settled ourselves next to another stream and waited, with no signs of any life. And then, without warning, a male ODKF just materialized in front of us. He flew in so fast that we didn’t even see him till he perched. And then gave us profile pictures of every conceivable angle, till he presumably got bored of being a model and made his way out to have breakfast. And we went to get our celebratory Vada Pavs to toast this magnificent little king. And I thought I was quite sated. After all, such grand sightings after 2 barren years were spectacular in itself, n’est ce pas?

Over the next couple of months, we caught glimpses and saw more pictures (On Facebook) of ODKFs ferrying pretty much every conceivable prey species to their chicks, including geckos, crabs, frogs and lizards. And inevitably the greed to see some ‘action’ took over and we took a few more shots late in the season with Prateik in tow. After a couple of false alarms, we hit gold one fine morning. What followed was one of the finest birding experiences of my life.

Waiting by a stream, we almost immediately spotted the female. She flew off probably to look for food and returned a few minutes later with a lizard in her mouth. She perched in a couple of places, including one in the open (good pictures, thank you very much) and then darted around the corner, maybe into her nest. A few minutes later, the male followed suit with another lizard. Instead of following the female, he headed up into the trees around the stream and we assumed that was for his own breakfast.

Dad trying to feed Junior
In assuming that, we were blatantly unfair to the responsible little father. For, up in the trees (and hidden from us) was one of his chicks. And no sooner had he perched on a branch than the little chick appeared for his brekkie. Dad then valiantly tried to force the lizard down the little fella’s hatch with seemingly no luck. Maybe Junior didn’t like the flavor. In reality, the lizard was probably too big for the youngster, so dad gave up and flew further into the foliage and probably made a meal for himself. He zipped over us presumably to find another, more palatable meal for the youngster. But the little chick (and us) waited for a good half hour; us in silence and the chick in a volley of hungry calls, but no sign of dada. Sometimes even these amazing hunters have poor luck.

Hungry chick!
So we called it quits, with a silent prayer to the ODKF gods to provide the chick a meal soon. And a big thank you to our own Prateik Kulkarni, for topping and tailing the season with some incredible sightings of this most beautiful of little kings, the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher.

And while we’re on the subject of incredible sightings, another trip to the National Park yielded sightings of the Atlas Moth, the largest species seen in India plus so many little insects and caterpillars. It is truly one of the most magical places I’ve been to, a fairyland especially in the rains.

Till next monsoon then.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park Trip Guide

The Sanjay Gandhi (or Borivali) National Park blesses Mumbai with a lot more than lush green forest and spectacular wildlife. It is Mumbai’s green lung and a vital component of the metropolis’ water security.

It also gives the city the honour of being the only Metropolis in the world to have a National Park within city limits, a distinction that very few Mumbaikars acknowledge, or indeed even know about!

How to get there:

The park has 3 ranges which tourists can access with the requisite permissions at the respective forest gates. There are no appointed guides, but visitors can access pre-approved paths or trails.

Borivali, the largest and most frequented gate. This section also has the touristy bits of the National Park, namely the Lion and Tiger safaris in enclosed buses as also the famous Kanheri Caves.

You drive through on the Western Express Highway and turn right under the National Park flyover. The gate is on the highway itself and you pay a nominal entry fee to access the inside roads. You’re advised to check for open paths and requisite permissions before you head there.

They have an excellent Facebook Page where you can check out all the information about the park and what’s happening there:

Nagla Block – Nagla rests further north of Borivali, separated by the Thane Creek. To access this range, you drive further up the Western Express Highway to Dahisar, cross the bridge over the Thane Creek and then turn right to and drive through the village to the forest check post.

Yeoor Hills – Yeoor is the North Eastern section of the park and is accessed via Thane. You drive up the Eastern Express Highway into Thane, take a left at the Cadbury Junction and drive on till you hit the sign for the Air Force station. Take a left there and you hit the forest check post where you register, then follow the winding road uphill, pass Yeoor village and continue on till you get to the Yeoor Bus stand. Park your vehicle there and walk to the forest gate and follow the trails within.

Mumbra Hills

The Mumbra Hills are known for the Mumbradevi Temple and the birds are found in the forests on both sides of the steps that lead up to the temple itself. More on Mumbra birding in a separate post.

To get there you head on the Eastern Express Highway, past Thane and head towards Nashik. Take a left at the next toll plaza and follow the road as it curves towards the Mumbra bypass. Head along the bypass up a bridge and you will see the hills on your right. Drive down till you see the steps heading up and climb them even as you look for (and listen to) the birds there.

 Things to Note:
1.    Please check beforehand on whether the trails are open, since the rules are open to change at any point.
2.   ODKFs can be found alongside muddy banks of monsoon streams, where they usually nest. You can get a sign of its presence via its trademark call, a deep, loud, metallic ‘Cheep’

3.  Once you spot the bird, please take care not to venture too close, as it might have a nest nearby. Getting too close might disturb it and could cause it to abandon its nest.

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