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. 

Guides
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.

Food
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