Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Jamnagar - Birding or Nothing! (December 2017)

The western coast of India welcomes scores of migratory waders every winter, as they make their way to several welcoming feeding grounds along the coastline. Of all these places, arguably the most significant is the port town of Jamnagar in Gujarat. Over the years, Jamnagar birding has built a legend around it and justifiably so. And this legend demanded that a visit be paid and a trip was planned, dovetailed with the GRK plan. Owing to a family emergency, this leg of the trip was in serious peril, but I made it, albeit a 2 day trip instead of the originally planned four.

We were looked after by the supremely organized Yashodhan 'Bittu' Bhatia and the effervescent Chirag 'Chiku' Solanki. They run with the motto of 'Birding or Nothing' which I have shamelessly borrowed for the title of this post. Chikubhai would be our guide and mentor, giving us IDing lessons for waders, especially for the notoriously hard to ID terns. All this was thanks to Arpit Deomurari, a Jamnagar and shorebird legend who now works for the WWF in Delhi. And he in turn was introduced to me by Ramki Sreenivasan (check out his work at www.wildventures.com), one more in the legion of reasons to be grateful to him for.

My first trip was to the area of Narara Marine National Park, known for its shore birds as well as for some unusual visitors in the adjoining salt pans. And as we stepped on to the barnacle strewn Narara shore, one of the first things we saw in the distance was a flock of Crab Plovers. Too far to photograph, this is where Jaysingh's spotting scope really paid for itself. Our first sighting of this spectacular pied bird wasn't the greatest, but it was a superb start. We busied ourselves with Oystercatchers, Curlews, Whimbrels, Sand Plovers, Great Knots and Dunlins. Only the last of these gave us decent pictures by the time we headed out into the salt pans. The targets in these vast water bodies were more exotic - Black Necked Grebes and Red Necked Phalaropes.

Sand Lark
Chiku's eagle eyes spotted two small birds next to a flock of Flamingos. He confirmed via his binoculars that they were indeed the Phalaropes we were looking for. Too far for quality photography and also against the light, we contented ourselves with observing them through Jay's scope. They seemed settled so we took the chance to walk around the other side of the salt pan to see if we could get them closer and in the light. It was a good 20 minute walk, but we did see them in better light and slightly closer and we also saw a flock of Black-necked Grebes, once again through the scope. Happy with that, we drove back and almost at once, a very accommodating Sand Lark came and sat next to our jeep. Further down the salt pans and we saw a whole host of other waders.  48 species in all with 4 Lifers in one morning. Plus a fantastic tutorial from Chiku on identifying terns. Life was good!

Great Thicknee
It would get even better after a fantastic thali lunch. And that afternoon we headed to the wetlands near Gandhinagar Railway station to search for Common Ringed Plovers, another super rarity. We found Snipes, Great Thicknees and Little Ringed Plover, but the uncommon Common Ringed variety escaped even Chiku's eagle eyes. We searched for this bird in a couple of other places, but with no joy. Bittu bhai took us for a sumptuous dinner at an 'all-egg' eatery to finish off a superb day.

The next morning was dedicated to one of my favourite birds of all time - The Crab Plover. More on that later, since we first headed back to Gandhinagar to spend an hour looking for the Common Ringed Plover. Once again, all we saw was Little Ringed Plovers in a flock and that's all we felt we were going to get. Then Chiku started looking at every single bird through the scope. And then he jumped up in excitement, one of the plovers was different. He checked again to make sure, and then announced his find, much to our excitement. He then pointed out the bird to us and thanking our stars for Chiku and the scope we celebrated this fantastic find! It's one of those birds that's on every serious birder's wishlist and we were thrilled to find it. But there was more work to be done. It was time for Operation Crab Plover.

Balachadi beach is not on any tourist map, not even for locals. But this low profile stretch of sand is home to one of the finest congregations of waders in the region. And amidst the Sand Plovers, Oystercatchers, Knots, Shanks, Whimbrels and Curlews sits the stunning Crab Plover. Chiku had promised us good pictures of this bird after the distant sighting at Narara and he masterminded this operation with precision. From our entry into the beach (we took a longer route so as to be out of the birds' range of vision) right down to how we approach and where we position ourselves, everything was spelt out clearly. The tide was rising and his approach was to wait for the birds to come to us. As soon as we entered the beach, we saw a large flock at the edge of the water a fair distance away. We sat and watched these magnificent birds through the scope. And waited for the tide to rise.

Just as the birds got to within 'crawling' range of the birds, they suddenly flew off! Panic stricken we turned to Chiku and got a reassuring look in return. He said they would return and they did, a few hundred metres away. They joined another large flock, making it one super flock of nearly 300-400 individuals. Chiku and Jay sat in the shade with the scope as Manju and I headed closer for a photo-shoot. We took cover behind a large dune which allowed us to get within reasonable distance without being observed. Then we crawled towards them upto a point and waited for the tide to bring them closer. And then for the next forty minutes, we had some of the most breathtaking sightings of these stunning birds, too close to believe! After a point we were done with photography and we only stayed down to not spook the birds. It was only when they flew off to another little patch of sand that we got up, dusted ourselves and walked back, shaking our heads in disbelief at the morning we'd just had.

Great Crested Grebe
My last afternoon in Jamnagar began spectacularly. With lunch. At a small highway dhaba we had the most incredible 'vaghareli rotli' - it's leftover rotis tossed together in a spicy daal. It set the tone perfectly for a visit to the famous Khijadiya bird sanctuary. The main target here was the beautiful Great Crested Grebe, with Orphean Warbler as a bonus. Khijadiya has one main tar road and several walking paths branching off from it and we walked down the first one and scanned both the trees above us as well as the waterbody for either of these birds. We didn't have any luck with either so we got back into the car and drove on. And almost at once, we saw a Grebe in a channel on our left. And over the next hour we would see another ten of these beautiful birds, including a nesting female and a male shepherding his two juvenile children. And to top the evening, an Orphean Warbler gave us a fleeting audience high up in the canopy of one of the trees.

A fitting end to an awesome couple of days in Jamnagar. It was all that it promised and much much more, thanks mainly to Bittu bhai and Chiku. Au revoir it is and not goodbye!

Jamnagar Trip Guide

Jamnagar sits on the Arabian sea, in Western Gujarat's Saurashtra region. The region has a mix of fresh and salt water habitats giving it a spectacular array of birds, including some really special winter migrants. It's well worth a visit in winter and then in March/April when the waders are in their breeding plumage.

How to get there
Air: Jamnagar itself has an airport, but with limited (and expensive) connectivity. Rajkot (90kms, 1 1/2 hours away) is a better option. Ahmedabad (305 kms) is the closest Metro.

Rail: Jamnagar is well connected to Ahmedabad (overnight) and Mumbai. There are also trains that head from there or Porbandar to Delhi.

Stay and Guide
Yashodhan 'Bittu' Bhatia is a passionate birder/photographer himself and he enjoys hosting keen birders from around the country. He knows the area like the back of his hand and his experiences are always worth listening to. And he's a foodie himself, so you'll have a superb time with him. You can reach him on birdingornothing@gmail.com

We stayed at the Hotel President, in the centre of the city. Nice comfortable rooms and good service make it the perfect destination for a birder.

You can get any kind of food you like. The Highway Dhabas and the Egg-speciality restaurant were my personal favourites. Please do try the jalebis for breakfast!

Other tips
Shooting waders might require you to crawl on all fours to approach the birds. Make sure you wear full sleeves and also a proper trouser, else knees and elbows can get badly scraped.

Shores have little shade, so headgear is important.

If you have a heavy lens, then a beanbag of some sort will be important when shooting waders. Better if it is waterproof. I make one with an old sheet wrapped in a large plastic bag and securely taped up. It's light, waterproof and provides enough height to rest a large lens and shoot comfortably.

Crab Plovers - Adult Feeding Juvenile

Crab Plover

Great Crested Grebe

Lesser Crested Terns

Yellow Crowned Woodpecker

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Great Rann of Kutch - The Western Sentinel (December 2017)

Kutch. India's largest district. Home to the Great Rann of Kutch, 10,000+ sq. km. of salt marshes, scrub desert and grasslands. Searing summers and flooded monsoons. Not quite the most welcoming of places, right? Wrong. The desolate beauty, the wonderful people, the spectacular food and the bounty of birds make it one of the most special places in the country, especially during winter and the fag end of the monsoon (only for birders) I'd been to its 'Little' cousin a couple of times, but a trip to this place was always on the wish-list. And thanks to Manjunath and Jaysingh, friends and intrepid birders, a trip bore fruit.

We drove overnight from Ahmedabad en route to Bhuj, on excellent roads and reasonably sparse traffic. Our destination was the CEDO Birding Homestay near Nakhatrana, about an hour from Bhuj. Arriving there in time for the morning birding trip, we met our host Jugal Tiwari who runs CEDO (Centre for Desert and Ocean) He has been at the forefront of conservation in the Great Rann and there is nothing that he does not know about this place. To travel with a legend like him was a privilege in itself and a magical first morning only reinforced that. Driving towards the famous Banni Grasslands, Jugal bhai gave us a lot of insight into the terrain, the birds and also on the conservation challenges in the area. If you think a semi-barren area would escape the clutches of humans, think again. Human pressures have almost driven out the magnificent Great Indian Bustard to extinction across India and the Rann is another case for that. The tragic tale of the Bustard apart, there is still a lot of avian diversity for birdwatchers to enjoy, so a trip is well worth it.

Day 1
Red-tailed Wheatear
Arriving at Banni, the targets were clear. Red Tailed Wheatears first up, followed by a search for the Sociable Lapwing and all the other 'regulars'.  And straight up, he took us to a little hillock where, enjoying an early morning bask, was the Red-tailed Wheatear. Its Variable cousin also made its presence felt, no doubt a tad envious of its attention grabbing sibling. The first two gorgeous little birds done, we headed forth towards the spot where Jugal bhai had seen a lone Sociable Lapwing. En route though, we got flocks of 3 different Lark species - Bimaculated, Greater Short-toed and Crested. Isabelline & Destert Wheatears Wheatears, Desert Whitethroat, Montagu's Harrier and a Greater Spotted Eagle also gave us decent images as we entered the Sociable Lapwing's zone. We searched high and low for this beauty but luck was not on our side. A Steppe Grey Shrike more than made up for that as did a sumptuous breakfast of Thepla, Sandwiches and the most heavenly home made chutney. Indeed an awesome morning!

Bimaculated Lark

A lovely home-made lunch and we were ready for the afternoon. And as we headed down a tar road, Jugal bhai said we should get Painted Sandgrouse here. And to our immense joy, we saw no less than 6 pairs within the next kilometre and all just next to the road. What an amazing start to the afternoon! That was followed by a Variable Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting and some Harriers as we got into the Banni grassland. We waited by a fox den for a mother and her two pups but they seems to have vacated the premises. The sun was almost setting when I spotted a Quail walking into the grass. I thought it was a Barred Button Quail but Jugal bhai exclaimed "Common Quail", providing me with a special lifer, my first of the afternoon.
Common Quail

A spectacular sunset seem to end all action and we headed back home, but Jugal bhai was on full alert. And we soon saw why. In the light from our headlights, we saw something cross the road. Something with green eyes; Desert cat! We slowly neared where it crossed and he turned on a spot light briefly. And there is was, sitting in a gap in the bush. It had its back to us, and then headed deeper into the bush where it stood once again and looked back at us. Manjunath had gotten off the jeep and moved closer, so he was in perfect position to to get some stunning shots of this beauty. He moved on and so did we. But it turns out we were not done yet. Another Desert Cat appeared in the ditch next to the road. He walked up and started at us and our eyes met for a second. Unfortunately the lens was slow to get there and he didn't have the patience. But what a moment that was! Lots to celebrate as an incredible first day drew to a close.

Day 2
Today we were to first try for the Grey Hypocolius, a signature bird of GRK, and then spend the rest of the day in the Eastern part of Banni, where would accompany a group led by Bharat Kapdi, another local expert who runs Epicentre Home Stays. Bharat was inspired to start Epicentre by Jugal bhai and the two of them share wonderful mutual respect and camaraderie. On to the Hypocolius, a much sought after species by every visitor here. Every morning, they come to feed on a clump of Salvadora Persica trees, lined on both sides of a reasonably busy highway. And today, there were three jeeps to welcome them to their breakfast, ours and two from Bharat's. And while we waited for them to arrive, we were kept entertained by another of the local beauties - Marshall's Iora. These lovely little birds kept feeding and singing in turns and that made the wait really pleasant. Until we realised that the Hypocolius were overdue and there was no sign of them. Jugal bhai kept the spirits up as we drove up and down the stretch but he too was beginning to worry.

And then, a flock of 10-12 long-tailed birds flew above our heads and he exclaimed 'Hypocolius!', with both joy and no little relief. We waited till the birds circles and descended into the trees before we slowly approached. For the next hour or so these beautiful winter visitors gave us all a memorable sighting as they played hide-and-seek in the leaves. These unique birds (with a hooded male and the plainer but no less beautiful female) are 'lateral migrants', they visit GRK and select surroundings from their colder homes around the Persian Gulf. And after a successful morning, it was time to head towards Bharat's homestay.

Streaked Weaver
First stop before that was to try for Black Crowned Sparrow Lark, another rarity and scarce in GRK as well. Bharat had found a few birds at a particular spot and that's where we headed after brekkies. On the way, Jugal bhai found me another lifer - Streaked Weaver, at a roadside pond. And then the entire group joined to find the Larks, led by Bharat and Jugal bhai. First up though, an unexpected lifer - Graceful Prinia which Jugal bhai found. Didn't get quality photos but managed to observe this bird through the binocs. And as we walked here and there searching for the Larks, we could only manage the Ashy Crowned variety. Until we saw one female bird that looked different. And as I lined up my ID shot, one of the gentlemen from the other group, very kindly walked across my field of vision to try and take a shot himself. He didn't manage that, but succeeded in driving off the bird. Luckily someone else got a shot and the bird was ID'ed as the Black Crowned Sparrow Lark. Mixed emotions for me - happy to have seen the bird but annoyed as well for missing out. Turns out that the same gent would get in the way more times that day.

As we headed back to the jeeps, we saw a Variable Wheatear perched at eye-level some distance ahead. So I took a circuitous route to avoid disturbing the bird and was almost at shooting distance when 'guess-who' took a more direct route and the rest you probably would have guessed. No option but to move on. But my respect for the Wheatear community rose several notches as we found a beautiful Variable Wheatear perched on a shrub right next to the road. We stopped the jeep and he posed for us for a couple of minutes. Mollified somewhat, we drove up a small hillock up to a beautiful old temple dedicated to the Sun God. Our target lay behind the temple as we clambered down to a little check-dam. We were searching for Striolated Buntings and as if waiting for us, one came into our vision halfway up the hillock in front of us. And then it came down and sat on a rock at eye level. Since it was a lifer for Manjunath, he slowly went forward and was joined there by 'guess-who'. Once he was done with his photos, I moved forward to take his place. The bird was completely unconcerned till then. Until 'Mr. Guess-who' decided he wanted to click the bird's nose hair and noisily moved forward. And that bird, obviously objecting to his privacy being so clumsily violated, hastily bid adieu. 'Guess-who' 3-0 Srikanth.

Cream Coloured Courser
We headed to Bharat's Epicentre Homestay for lunch. After another home cooked meal and a little rest, it was time to head to Banni East. The targets here were mouthwatering: Stoliczska's Bushchat, Greater Hoopoe Lark, Cream Coloured Courser and the magnificent MacQueen's Bustard. The Spotted Sandgrouse, seen here in large numbers up to a week earlier, had suddenly disappeared much to our dismay. But the other members of the Rann rallied to put up a magnificent show - The Bushchat did one of its puff-and-roll routines, the cream coloured coursers were in attendance and we saw no less than 5 MacQueens, though all distant and in flight. The Hoopoe Lark eluded us and so did a Desert Cat that we searched for, all the way till sunset.

Now, in GRK, sunset doesn't mean end of the day's play. It was Nightjar time. So as we drove back towards Epicentre, we moved slowly along since Nightjar usually perch on or around the road itself. Near the homestay, we saw one perched right on the road. We all got off slowly and made our way one step at a time. Bharat threw a spotlight for a few seconds and IDed it as a Sykes' Nightjar. He would keep turning on the light for a few seconds at a time to help us get photos. The only thing he asked was to not walk across the road and cut the car headlights. Which we all carefully obeyed. Well, not all. Just as I was about to take my photo, 'Mr. Guess-who' walked across the road to get a better photo and the bird, disturbed by this, took to flight. 4-0 and I threw in the towel, it was no contest! An Indian Nightjar a few metres away did provide consolation but the battle was lost.

Day 3
White-naped Tit
This would be my last morning of the trip, some bad news in the family meant that I was flying back that afternoon. We went to Kot Mahadev for the last of the endemics- the White-naped Tit. Reaching there shortly after sunrise, we heard the bird almost immediately and then waited for the light to get some decent photos. The area was abuzz with activity and we got a lot of birds at that spot. Marshall's Iora, Bay-backed and Long-tailed Shrikes and a beautiful flock of Small Minivets. For me, the icing was a decent picture of a Black-headed Bunting. After that, Jugal bhai took us on a walk through one of the last remaining thorn forests. It was a wonderful experience, taking in all the wisdom that he so readily shared. His worry for the area also came through and the tall spindles of 'eco-friendly' wind power structures are a stark reminder that man will never leave nature alone.
For me, it was time to pack it in and head back home. Jay and Manju would continue for another day. Halfway to Bhuj airport and I got a call from an excited Jay, saying that Manju had spotted a Blue Throated Blue Flycatcher at the CEDO Birding campus. It was first record for Kutch and a fantastic sighting.

And that was the wonderful Great Rann of Kutch. A second trip beckons soon and we have already got Jugal bhai booked for that encore!

Great Rann of Kutch Trip Guide

The Great Rann of Kutch is truly great in every sense; size, landscape, people and birds. For an avid birder, this is an unmissable pilgrimage. For a casual tourist too, the milk-white sand desert draw in many score visitors, especially during the annual Rann festival every winter.

How to get there
Our base was in Nakhatrana village with Bhuj (approx. 60 kms, 1 hour) as the closest airport and rail-head. Bhuj is connected via flight with Mumbai and via rail with several cities with Ahmedabad being the closest metro (350 kms away)

Stay and Guide
CEDO Birding Homestay at Moti Virani (near Nakhatrana) is where we stayed. Run by Jugal Tiwari (and assisted by his son Shivam) it is exactly what a birder needs. Nice clean rooms, lovely home-made food (sourced from a home in the neighbouring village) and the expertise of Jugal bhai in the field. Net, an unbeatable combination. You can get more information at www.cedobirding.com

Epicenter Homestay, near Lodai village is run by Bharat Kapdi. A recent entrant to this field, Bharat has proven to be an ace spotter and Epicentre is a lovely property too. More at www.epicenterhomestay.com
Home cooked and superb vegetarian fare will keep your taste buds tickled throughout your stay.

Other tips
The Rann is extremely dusty so if you're allergic to dust, then do take adequate cover. For yourself and your cameras.
Headgear is essential and so is some warm clothing in winter.

Crested Lark

Desert Wheatear

Greater Spotted Eagle

Indian Robin

Isabelline Wheatear

Desert Wheatear Female

Montagu's Harrier

Steppe Grey Shrike

Small Minivet

Variable Wheatear

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Nalsarovar - Lifer Pit Stop (Dec 2017)

Gujarat is associated with a number of things, mostly related to commerce, mouthwatering food or the Asiatic Lion (for the wildlife aware). For the tipplers, the absence of licensed alcohol is presumably top of mind (or at the tip of their tongues). But it is not as well known for the birding paradise that it undoubtedly is. A variety of habitats make for some staggering species counts.

Enough of preamble. Net, it was a place I've been wanting to put on the trip list for a while. So with birder friends Jaysingh Morey and Manjunath Desai, a quick trip was rustled up, focusing mainly on the Greater Rann of Kutch and Jamnagar. However, a free afternoon waiting for Jay to arrive was put to full use by Manjunath and me as we trotted off to spend a few hours in Nalsarovar.

This vast waterbody, 60-odd kms from Ahmedabad makes for a very interesting habitat, especially in winter where it welcomes many migrant species. Our limited time was to be focused on one species - Collared Pratincole. This rarity only visits a few places across the country and Nalsarovar is one of them. We enlisted the help of Latif, one of the best guides in the area. A non-punctual train meant a consequent delay in reaching the park and we found Latif near the entrance, fretting for us. A quick stop to get entry tickets and we got into one of the little row-boats that traverse this vast wetland. Latif unerringly led us straight to the 'Pratincole spot' about 15 minutes away. Almost immediately we saw a couple of birds on an island in the water. It's always difficult to tell between Collared and Oriental Pratincoles, but he assured us that these were Collared and the overlap between the primary wingtips and tail is probably the most reliable differentiator. Over the next couple of hours, we would see more than 50 individuals, making Nalsarovar one of the finest places to view these lovely little birds.

Collared Pratincole
Now that we'd had a sighter through the binocs, it was time for a closer photograph. And we tracked these skittish birds slowly and from a respectful distance till they settled down on a larger stretch of land. Latif brought the boat to shore and we got off and slowly approached a targeted individual, on all fours at first and then on a proper stomach crawl, not easy with a heavy 500mm lens! We didn't manage to get close enough to the first two, but a couple of other birds allowed us to get reasonably close for decent photos. And as we withdrew, post a reasonably well-done job, Latif pointed out another much-wanted fella on the list- White Tailed Lapwing. There were two individuals in the water on the far side of the land. We could approach them, but the land in between was strewn with roosting Pratincoles, much like a minefield. So we decided to abandon the chase, to avoid running the risk of disturbing the Pratincoles. Resigned to watching the Lapwings from afar, we walked back to try elsewhere.

Latif noticed another place on the island where a number of waders seemed to be enjoying a late afternoon get-together. A reasonably high embankment en route provided cover to get closer without being spotted; close enough to see more Pratincoles and a couple of Lapwings in the assembled throng. Once again, the Lapwings were at the far end of the crowd and once again impossible to approach. With our second sigh of the afternoon, we headed back to the boat.

White Tailed Lapwing
But in wildlife, there is almost always a twist, and sometimes in your favour. As we walked back, a Lapwing flew overhead and settled in the water on the other side of the embankment, this time closer to us. We both crept slowly towards the water, hiding behind the embankment. And as we lifted our heads above the crest, we saw the Lapwing alone in the water and not too far away. No doubt prodded by the Guardian deity of the Lapwings, it proceeded to pose for us as we clicked away from behind the embankment. We didn't try and get closer, respecting the distance between us and also providing a great many thanks to this beautiful bird for giving us such a special audience.

It was almost dusk and we rowed back to base, completely sated with the afternoon's work. We'd not only got our main target, but a surprising bounty as well. And while I haven't dwelt on the other species, it begs mention that we recorded 33 species of birds within 3 hours of birding in Nalsarovar. And given that most of our time was spent following two species, that number makes for a remarkable catch. With a promise to Latif to return for Water Pipits and Red-necked Falcons, we headed back to the airport to fetch Jaysingh and head to Bhuj for the next leg of our adventure.

Paddyfield Pipit
A remarkable piece of wetland paradise, Nalsarovar should definitely be on any birdwatchers, must-do list.

Nalsarovar Lake Trip Guide

Nalsarovar Lake is a 120 sq. km. lake that sits between Central Gujarat and Saurashtra. Declared a Ramsar site in 2012, it is one of the finest wetland habitats in Western India and home to thousands of migratory birds in the winter. 

How to get there
Ahmedabad (approx. 65 kms, 1 1/2 hours) is the closest metro, airport and large rail-head. Sanand (now a virtual satellite of Ahmedabad) is the closest town. Cars can easily be hired at Ahemdabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.

Where to stay
Again, your best option would be to stay in Ahmedabad and maybe make a day trip to Nalsarovar. As Gujarat's commercial hub, the city has a superb variety of accommodation to suit every budget.

Nalsarovar Guides pop up on Facebook like moths around a flame, so it is always good to do a quick background check before finalising with one. We went with Latif, who comes highly recommended in the birding circuit and we were extremely happy with him. You can reach him on +91 91065 21394

The Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway, which may or many not be everyone's cup of tea. So you might want to carry some food from Ahmedabad if you're the fussy type.

Other tips
The boats are small and not very comfortable, so those with back problems, please be careful.
Nalsarovar can also be combined with a trip to the Little Rann of Kutch, barely 70kms away. The road from Ahmedabad is common up to Sanand, so those going to the Rann can easily make a day stop on the way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Saswad - Grasslands are always greener (even when they're not)

Head south east from the (rapidly spreading) urban sprawl of Pune, and you come across a (now rapidly shrinking) expanse of grassland, scrub and hills interspersed with human settlements. At first glance, you might well agree with the oft used descriptor of wasteland, but look a little closer and you find one of the most spectacular habitats in the country. The sheer diversity of mammal and bird life in these areas is nothing short of astonishing. Every trip, every visit seems to throw up something new for an avid birder or wildlifer. And via this post, I will attempt to chronicle some of my most memorable sightings in the area.

Saswad exploded into our collective consciousness in 2015, when a flurry of incredible photographs (of birds and mammals alike) started permeating through the popular wildlife forums on Facebook. The star of the (slide?) show was undoubtedly the Indian Wolf, with several stunning images of this otherwise seldom seen shadowy predator splashed across social media. Throw in Striped Hyenas, Foxes, Jungle Cats and Chinkara and we were talking about some serious habitat here.  Combine that with several Eagle species, falcons, Owls and many larks, pipits and buntings and this was paradise! Over the past couple of years, we have made a fair few trips there, I will give you the highlights from a few of them.

February 2016
Rufous Tailed Lark
The first trip was put together early in 2016, with the last of these bird species firmly in focus. We headed out at 2 a.m. from Mumbai, to make it there by first light. We hadn't budgeted for truck traffic on the expressway, so it was well past dawn when we got there and like most debutants, we weren't sure of where exactly to go and how to best get there. But a combination of beginner's luck, serendipity and astute expert in Prateik got us our buntings almost right away. We drove past a ripening jowar field and a car parked next to it seemed innocuous enough but our spotter had seen the reason it was parked. Perched on one of those plants was a Black Headed Bunting. We hurriedly parked and disembarked to put the cameras to use. To our dismay, the other gents decided to enter the field in an attempt to get close to the bird. And said feathered friend, duly intruded, proceeded to wing it in a heartbeat. 

Grey Necked Bunting
We looked to the heavens for redemption (and some common sense) but the only thing forthcoming was a friendly Rufous Tailed Lark who gave us a close audience, in an attempt to mollify us, no doubt. Slightly appeased, we scanned the neighbourhood for the buntings and while we saw both Black and Red Headed varieties, they were too far and did not let us approach. And so we drove on, hoping for more sightings further down. Further down brought us to the rather oddly named Hagavnewadi (for those who know Marathi) but it also brought us the beautiful Grey Necked Bunting. These birds were far more co-operative; they were feeding in a little trough off the road. So we sat across the road and trained our lenses and soon enough, they crested the trough and posed for us first on a little bund.

Tawny Pipit
Hearts lightened, we continued to 'Factory'- the spot for the Striolated Bunting, a bird found in very few places on the subcontinent. Factory turned out to be a little shed, but the area around it was vast and without the benefit of the exact locations, were searching for the proverbial needle. Tawny Pipits, Indian Bushlarks and Southern Grey Shrikes more than made up for the absence of said sharp little sewing implement and we came back really happy with a super half day of birding.

May 2016
This was my first birding trip after a rather traumatic April. Once again, we made our way to the 'Factory' but this time we knew we had to crest the first hill and climb the second to get to the spot. Striolated buntings inhabit rocky stretches of hills and after some huffing and puffing (me) we got to the base of Hill 2. And at once one of us spotted a bird silhouetted on the topmost rock of the hill. "Striolated Bunting" he said in a raised whisper as we reverently looked up (to the heavens almost). And there it was, a beautiful bird, sitting without a care in the world. Except that it was a Sykes' Lark! He too hastily legged it, no doubt remembering a chore assigned by his better half. We carried on with our quest, only pausing to marvel at one of our members who shot a Rock Bush Quail at close quarters while he was busy answering an emergency call of nature. What a moment to spot a lifer!

Ashy Crowned Sparrow-Lark
Up the second hill, and were immediately welcomed by an Ashy Crowned Sparrow Lark, then a beautiful White-bellied Minivet and finally by a Yellow-crowned (Mahratta) Woodpecker. I focused on the former, and just as I was lining up a shot, I slipped on a rock and went down rather ingloriously. Luckily the equipment wasn't damaged and I got by with just a few scrapes. The Minivet and Woodpecker had no sympathy for me as they made their way to their next photo session, and so we soldiered on. We climbed on to a beautiful plateau and tried our best to find  the bunting, but it was not to be. Next time then!

August 2016
Striolated Bunting
The end of the monsoon is a good time to visit grasslands, mainly for breeding Quails and Francolins, but also for the Striolated. And this time we hit pay dirt as one bunting on a high rock gave us a decent, if distant sighting. Boosted by that, we took the now familiar route to the second hill (me taking care not to fall like last time) and reached the plateau without incident. And on cue, a beautiful male Striolated seated himself on a rock not too far away. He didn't stay for long, but I managed a couple of decent images. The other birds were elusive that day but a good Bunting sighting always makes for a successful trip.

And we were back the next weekend, memorable for two reasons, the number of mammals we found and for a really special raptor. Accompanied by a knowledgeable wildlifer friend who knew the spots, we found Indian Fox, Indian Gazelle and the most prized one of them all - The Indian Grey Wolf.  We saw this female cross our vehicle up close and then run unfettered across the rocky valley. Absolutely stunning! But there was more to come. We went to one of the many rocky outcrops and there, almost at the very top, sat the mighty Bonelli's eagle. We couldn't go very close so we contented ourselves with long range record shots. And when we looked at the photos, we found that there were actually two birds, a pair! The second one was so beautifully camouflaged that we couldn't spot her with our eyes. And for a bird the size of an eagle, that is truly remarkable.

Bonelli's Eagles

September/October 2017
Rain Quail
The Rail Quail. Stunning bird. Not uncommon. Not very easy to spot unless you're in the right place in the right season. The monsoons are breeding season for these birds and they're exceptionally vocal at this time. After a couple of seasons where we heard but did not see, this time we headed back with our birder friend. And almost as soon as we hit the farmlands outside Saswad, we could hear the trademark 'double whistle' of the Rain Quail as well as the 'Kak Kak kakak' of the Painted Francolin. Having seen the latter in Mumbai, we focused on the former. And one very very kind bird gave us the sighting of a lifetime. Amazingly, he stopped calling, trotted right up to our vehicle, probably gave it the once over and decided it was too big to mate with and then promptly started calling for his mate again. It was astonishing stuff! We got some good frames and then left him to continue his 'Mating Game'.

Unfortunately, these trips are increasingly accompanied by more than a tinge of anxiety for the fate of this spectacular habitat, due to plans for a new airport. On this planet, human greed almost always trumps (pun not intended) the rights of other living things. And I say greed because in this mad race to 'develop' we are endangering the very sources of our own lives - air and water. Anyways...

Saswad Trip Guide
The Saswad birding area is a vast area around Saswad and the temple town of Jejuri. Saswad is about 35kms (about an hour in the morning) south east of Pune and about 185kms (4 hours) from Mumbai

How to get there
Pune is the nearest major rail and air head, with excellent connectivity across the country. While Saswad and Jejuri are covered by a bus service, you need to have your own vehicle to be able to drive through the area and search for birds.

Where to stay
Pune is the best place to stay, though there is accommodation around Saswad. Varshavan resort is located very close to some of the birding spots and it has a good reputation, though amongst corporate and leisure travellers.

We usually do a day trip from Mumbai and drive back after the morning birdwatching session. 

Unfortunately, there are no guides in Saswad. There are however, many knowledgeable wildlifers and birders from Pune who know the area well.  You could hook up with some of them from any of the wildlife forums on Social Media.

Saswad and Jejuri have quite a few small restaurants on the highway where you can pick up a snack or a meal. We usually stop at the Waghapur crossroads where you can get delicious misal-pao and batata vadas.

Other tips
There's very little shade in the area, so please carry caps. Also carry water and some snacks, especially if you're planning to trek away from the road.

Red Rumped Swallow

Long Tailed Shrike

Grey-necked Bunting
Red Rumped Swallow

Short Toed Snake Eagle

Sykes' Lark