Friday, July 14, 2017

Mumbai - Grand Vagrant Season (Winter 2016-17)

Mumbai, the classic bustling urban sprawl. A giant treadmill where life moves at the speed of light and everyone is gasping to catch up. An unyielding concrete maze where millions seek to lend solidity to their dreams. A massive human aviary for dreams to take wing. Hardly where you'd expect to find creatures with real wings and no dreams. But the city and its surroundings are one of the finest birding habitats; home to easily more than a couple of hundred bird species and more significantly, host to scores of rare winged visitors on their seasonal migrations. With every passing year, newer migrants are being spotted in the area's hotspots, bringing a lot of cheer to all us local birders. While the regular migrants always make their way here, last season saw a whole host of rare birds grace our region. In this post, I will try and document some of these from the 2016/17 season, which I call the Grand Vagrant Season.

1. Caspian Plover - Uran

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
The wetlands of Uran have always been known to throw up the annual rare passage or winter migrant. A couple of us from our birding group were on a walk one October morning to try and find Asian Desert Warblers when we noticed an unusual looking wader in the mudflats. Prateik took a couple of pictures and got the experts to ID it, coming back the next day to get a detailed video of the bird's underwing pattern. It turned out to be a Caspian Plover, an unusual visitor to these parts. It probably was one vagrant bird from a flock that descended elsewhere. Either ways, this bird delighted birdwatchers from far and near for nearly a whole month before it bid adieu to its now sizable fan following and went on its way.

2. Red-Breasted Merganser - Vasai

The area around the northern suburb of Vasai is home to a spectacular array of birdlife and the local birding community there does a stellar job of identifying and documenting species as well as trying to resolve issues and potential threats to the habitat. One of them posted a picture of a bird which people initially overlooked as a Grebe. This larger and more special bird turned out to be a Red Breasted Merganser, probably the first time it has been recorded in this part of the country. This female bird was a showstopper for nearly three months (November thru January) and she very kindly confined herself to two small ponds, allowing photographers to have a field day. As the ponds dried up towards the end of January, she made a dignified exit, but not before thrilling birders from virtually every part of the country.

3. White Storks - Vasai

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
One more feather in Vasai's cap. This time a flock of seven beautiful White Storks were discovered in one section of the vast open spaces that (still) manage to survive the intimate attentions of rapacious 'developers'. And it was here that these birds were discovered in November. Again, they enthralled birders from far and wide for nearly a month before they abruptly vanished. This was a surprise because unlike the other species, they were not single vagrants but part of a flock, and seemed very comfortable where they were. I particularly regret their premature departure because I wasn't able to see these stunning birds. Hope they'll be back this season.

4. Common Shelducks - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Another set of vagrants to these parts were a trio of Common Shelducks who made waves with a sudden appearance in Uran early January, only to vanish after a couple of days. They (I'm presuming they were the same birds) were rediscovered in the Bhandup/Thane area of Mumbai where people on a boat ride to see flamingos spotted the Shelducks. And that set the tone for feverish boat bookings and tide calculations. The smart boatmen, who otherwise only relied on passengers for flamingo excursions, quickly turned spotters and birders and reveled in taking scores of birders from far and wide to spot these birds. And in the process, made themselves a tidy (well deserved) sum of money. The Shelducks remained for a couple of months before they too possibly returned to their summer breeding grounds.

5. Long Billed Dowitcher - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Part of the credit for discovering this bird should rightfully go to the Shelducks. It was on a boat ride to see the ducks that one of the birding groups noticed a bird that looked different to the stints and godwits that lined up on the banks of the creek. A quick photo ID confirmed the bird as a Long Billed Dowitcher, another serious vagrant to our parts. Unlike the others on this list, this bird played only a cameo role in the grand vagrant season, being seen only for a couple of days before disappearing.

6. Blue and White Flycatcher - Tungareshwar Sanctuary, Vasai and Matheran

This is another super rare bird in the country, with barely a handful of quality sightings and never before in this area. In February, a reasonably seismic flutter was created in Mumbai birding circles when a local birder reported this find from the Tungareshwar forests. The next day, a phalanx of birders and their cameras decamped there, only to come back empty handed. However, a few birders visiting the hill station of Matheran (near Mumbai) got themselves an unexpected bounty as in a waterhole, they found this beauty along with the usual suspects. 

In addition to these, there have also been sightings of Bristled Grassbird, White Tailed Lapwing and a Sooty Gull. So there you have it, 9 rare species transiting through one of the busiest urban centres in the country. And being the first season where so many of these rare migrants have been recorded, one hopes that they will return and bring some additional guests to our shores. 

Let's wait and see what the new season brings!

Mumbai and around - Birding Hotspots

Uran - Panje Village
Uran is about 40kms south-east of Mumbai and home to JNPT, the largest port in this part of the country. The wetlands are visible from the road that leads to Panje village and you can drive all the way to the edge of the wetlands and park there. 

Google maps location:

Tips - It's all completely open to please take caps, especially during the warmer months. There are no places to eat or buy water nearby, so please carry adequate supplies. 

Vasai is a large area with many different birding spots spread across a wide area in Vasai East and West so it's best to check with someone knowledgeable on the exact location of the bird before heading there. It's about 65kms from South Mumbai, with excellent suburban train connectivity as well. The nearest station is Vasai Road on the Western railway

Tips: Vasai is a well developed suburb with ample access to food and water. Even some of the slightly far-off areas might be only 15 mins from the nearest store.

Bhandup Pumping Station
BPS, as it is referred to, actually lies within Mumbai city limits, bordering the northern district of Thane. It lies off the arterial Eastern Express highway, 3 kms off on a mix of tar and mud roads. Most cars and two wheelers can drive right up to the boat point which lies at the very end of the road. Walking from the highway is an option but not a very good one.

Google maps location:

Tips - Once again, BPS is largely open, so do carry caps. Food and water are not easily available in the vicinity, so please carry your own.

The boat service is run by a couple of boatmen. We usually take Rupesh Koli - please check with him on availability and tide timings. His mobile number: 9004423301

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