Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday at the Races- February 2018

No, equines galloping on a track don't count as wildlife in my book either. And they certainly don't belong on this blog. The race I am referring to is the Mumbai edition of the India Bird Races 2018, held on 4th February 2018. And unlike the equine variety, the only gambling here is in choosing the spots you choose to bird in and there are no odds offered whatsoever. So if you are of a sporting disposition, I am sorry to have disappointed you with a 'Clickbait' title. Guilty as charged.

The HSBC Bird Races have been held in India for 15 years now, beginning in Mumbai and growing to 16 cities now. A brainchild of noted naturalist and bird maestro Sunjoy Monga and Ravi Vaidyanthan (and aided by dear friend Pravin Subramanian) the 2018 edition attracted more than 300 participants. For those not in the know, a Bird Race involves teams of birding enthusiasts spending a day looking for birds in and around the designated city. All the teams meet up at the end of the day to share experiences and talk about the issues and challenges that they encountered. But first, the birding.

This year our team comprised Vishnu, Sriram and me. Pravin joined us for a bit of the morning session. Our strategy was simple - visit a couple of places we'd never been together before. We picked Karnala Bird Sanctuary, TS Chanakya and IIT Powai as our primary spots. We were tempted was to hit Uran or Akshi beach as well, but we pulled back and decided to enjoy these rather than try and cram more into the day.

Black Kite
We hit Karnala at daybreak, and started on the popular 'Hariyal' trail. And almost immediately we heard the sounds of several species beginning their morning rituals. Flycatchers, Flowerpeckers, Bulbuls, Sunbirds and Warblers all flitted in the trees around us in preparation for their morning feed. We watched them for a bit, got some good sighters and then walked further to try for a couple of Woodpecker species that I was really keen on - Rufous and White-naped. The trail meandered on and other birds appeared in the hazy winter light; Bee-eaters,  Woodshrikes, Doves all presented themselves, but the Woodies were absent. We walked further down where a couple of beautiful Oriole species made their presence felt - first with their melodious calls and then via visual confirmation. Sriram found a Black Kite and Crested Serpent Eagle perched high on a tree to open our raptor count. More waiting and still no Woodpeckers so we reluctantly made our way back to the gate and continue to the next leg of the journey.

We drove back towards Mumbai, with a planned halt at TS Chanakya en route. This wetland is usually home to an amazing number of wader species but that particularly day we got squat. It was probably the tide as there was too much water all across the wetland. We had no option but to call it quits and instead headed to an old stomping ground, Bhandup Pumping Station or BPS. It was almost midday as we arrived there and we didn't expect much. Initially, we got a couple of Stilts and Sandpipers and then Pravin suddenly looked up and said 'Eagles'! And as we stared after him, we saw three large birds riding the thermals up in the sky. We could ID the lower two as Indian Spotted and Greater Spotted Eagles while the one higher up proved difficult to properly ID. And we left BPS to head back home for a quick bite. 

Rufous Woodpecker
Vishnu, Sriram and I met again in the afternoon at the gates of the IIT in Powai. This venerable educational institution also boasts of an astonishing variety of birdlife. Having entered only as a visiting student two decades ago, I was keen to reacquaint myself with this amazing campus, this time as a birdwatcher. We headed right down to the edge of Powai lake and started scanning the vegetation for birds. Straight up, a drilling sound made all of us hasten our steps. Sriram spotted it first; high up on a tree, almost blending with the bark itself was a Rufous Woodpecker! A big sighting for me, having looked for this bird for more than 3 years. A got a couple of half-decent pics and was licking my lips for more when Vishnu called out 'Cuckoo'. And I turned in surprise because this wasn't really the season for cuckoos.

Chestnut-tailed Starling
And as we all tried to ID the Cuckoo, the slighted Woodie took serious offence. He was, after all, the star that afternoon. His ego wouldn't let him play second fiddle to a mere 'Cuckoo' and in true Bollywood hero fashion, he put his nose (beak?) in the air and flew to the far corner to sulk in a tree there. The 'Cuckoo' turned out to be a Black-headed Cuckooshrike female and she didn't seem to be at all affected by the hero's abrupt departure. She flitted around and then graciously made way for a flock of Chestnut-tailed starlings who enjoyed feeding in a nearby tree. A couple of Orioles, Jungle Babblers and Common Mynahs all congregated for their respective afternoon conferences but we wanted the Woodie. And so we set out to find him. He called like a sulking schoolboy from a thickly wooded patch and we braved a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos to get close to him. But apart from a couple of sighters against the light, his majesty was in no mood to accommodate us. And so we headed towards the lake shore for the last leg of our day. And there we saw more than 10 different species of birds, from Starlings, Swifts and Bee-eaters to Ducks, Herons and Jacanas. A gorgeous sunset on Powai Lake capped a wonderful day's birding (we recorded 87 species) and it was time for the evening festivities. 

Nearly 300 people gathered in Powai to cap a super bird race. The programme, Hosted by the warm and effusive Mr. Monga, the evening was a lot of fun for young and non-young alike. The best thing though is that it more about the experience than about hyper-competitive team counts. There were fun quizzes and not-so-fun updates on vanishing habitats around the city. Perhaps the most concerning fact was the dwindling number of species in every successive Bird Race. On a brighter note there were teams with more than 160 species sighted but the highlight of the evening was the presence of more than 20 school children who had accompanied their teachers and participated in the Bird Race. It was amazing to see 6th and 7th Graders have the enthusiasm to watch birds for a whole day and still have the energy to partake in the festivities at the end. May their tribe increase!

And that capped our first Bird Race. A huge vote of thanks to Sunjoy Monga, Pravin Subramanian and every one else who puts this together. And to HSBC and the other sponsors who opened their purses and won our hearts with their gesture. Till next year then!

About the Bird Race
The India Bird Races ( began as the Mumbai Bird Race in 2005. Since then it has been held every winter (either January or February) and the total number of participants has shown a steady increase to reach a point where it is first come first served now! Birdwatchers form teams and are allowed to report sightings from areas as far as Virar/Palghar to the north and Phansad to the South East of Mumbai - more than 200 kms apart. It is a fantastic initiative that brings the entire birdwatching community together and while there are always hyper-competitive bad eggs in every city, they were notable by their absence, definitely in this edition of the Race! 

The Races, now held in 16 Indian cities have come a long way from the 2005 edition where around 100 people spotted 277 bird species. That number is remarkable if you consider that India's total species count is around 1300. 20% of India's bird species are visible in and around the country's most 'developed' urban areas. And even as that number has gone down to 236 in 2018, it is still a stunning number and one that all nature lovers in this city should be proud of. It is also a gentle reminder to our planners that nature and its denizens are adaptable and it is we humans who are not.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Tansa WLS - Quest for the Little Phantom (January 2018)

Even as Mumbai's ravenous urban tentacles snake across the immediate hinterland like a gigantic concrete octupus on steroids, a few green patches manage to hold out against this uncontrolled invasion, albeit under severe pressure. These last remnants of forest not only provide a glimpse of how glorious this entire area once was but also a glimmer of hope for these much-needed natural strongholds. One such little haven is the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, about 90kms north of Mumbai. Tansa is valuable not just for its forest cover, but also because Tansa Lake provides Mumbai city with a significant proportion of its water needs. For a birdwatcher though, it is super precious because it houses a near-mythical denizen of India's avian fraternity - The Forest Owlet.

This small sized owl was discovered in 1873 by Allen Octavian Hume (of Indian National Congress fame) It then disappeared from view for over a century from 1884 and was presumed extinct. It was rediscovered in Central India in 1997 by the legendary Pamela Rasmussen; one more reason to be eternally grateful to her. Subsequent researches have led to a few individuals being found in Tansa as well. But it is not all rosy for this wonderful little bird. It barely clings on to survival, a mere talon-tip away from slipping into the abyss of extinction. But the good news is that it is still here. And doing reasonably well (under the circumstances) in pockets like Tansa. Making this forest possibly the finest (and most convenient) place to spot this amazing bird.

I'd seen the bird a couple of years ago, but missed out last January. Two years without seeing it is two years too long, and the weekend of 26th January provided a good opportunity to visit Tansa. The indefatigable Pravin led from the front with Sriram, Vishnu and Siddhesh and me providing (hopefully) adequate backup. The Owlet was top of the wish-list of course, but Tansa is also home to several other rockstar species, including the Malabar Trogon (probably one of its northernmost ranges) along with several species of Woodpeckers, migrant Waders and Raptors.

Black Eagle
Tansa is a magical forest, it puts you at ease as soon as you enter. The endless teak trees wave at you with their large leaves and the serenity of the lake makes you overlook the obvious human presence in the form of the the massive water pipes that wind through the forest. We drove to the spot where we'd seen the bird the last time and a good hour of looking yielded no results. Another team led by Shashank Dalvi, bird researcher and guide extraordinaire also arrived but they managed a glimpse of the bird before it flew off into denser cover. A word on how incredibly tough it is to see this bird - It usually sits in the highest branches of the trees and is just about the size of a large teak leaf, which it (in)conveniently hides behind at times. Without the bird calling to advertise its presence, it is impossible to spot it. And that is what we were counting on as we looked to hit another spot. But first, an unexpected bonus - a huge Black Eagle came circling towards us, gliding at canopy level and providing a very patient model for all our clicks. Greedy that we were, we prayed for him to perch, but he was in no mood to satiate greed, so he continued his glide and then flew out of sight. An awesome sighting set the tone for the next item on the agenda. Food. 

Forest Owlet
After a packed breakfast of sandwiches and theplas (with delicious chutneys) provided by Siddhesh, we set out with renewed vigour. We had to make a detour at the forest department's Eco Camp to pay some entry fees. And as we waited outside the camp, we heard the bird call from across an old quarry. And as we hastened around the quarry, we saw Shashank's group stationed at one place, staring into their spotting scopes and cameras. We circled around to them and they very kindly pointed the bird out to us. Even after seeing the perch, it was still so tough to spot the bird! But it sat there all the time as the humans below huffed and puffed with Scopes, Binoculars and Cameras. It was a fair distance away, high up in a tree and in harsh mid-morning light so the images weren't great. But it was still a privilege to see this special little bird. After we had our fill, we left it there to continue calling and hoped that it managed to reach out to its mate. And we exited with a silent vote of thanks to the maker (and to Shashank and his group); just to be able to see this wonderful little fella provides a great deal of hope and optimism in an otherwise terribly pessimistic outlook to forests and wildlife.

The Forest Owlet is a symbol of survival in the face of serious odds. I hope and pray that it keeps hanging on and continues to bestow magical sightings like these to future generations of birdwatchers too. Not to forget repeat interactions with old friends like us!

Tansa Trip Guide

Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary is about 95 kms from Mumbai, off the Mumbai-Nashik-Agra route (Old NH 3) It is a beautiful deciduous forest with a variety of resident and migratory bird species. You'll always get something interesting there, with the Forest Owlet of course being the jewel in the crown.

How to get there
Air: Mumbai (95kms) is the nearest airport and metro. It's a 2 hour drive on mostly excellent roads.

Rail: Theoretically Tansa can be accessed via the Mumbai Suburban railway Network with Atgaon station on the Central Railway (Kasara) Line only 10kms from the forest. However, you will need a vehicle to drive inside the forest and local vehicles are not reliable.

Road: The best way to access Tansa is via your own vehicle. Two wheelers are also an option since most of the route is on a proper tarred road. Drive up the Old NH3 towards Kasara and turn off the highway at Atgaon. Then follow the Wada-Shahapur Road till you hit the entry gate. Then continue past the Lake till you get to the forest Eco-tourism office. There will be a few locals who could help you find bird(s)

Stay and Guide
Though there are a few resorts not too far from Tansa, the best option is to stay in Mumbai and do a half day trip.

Tansa doesn't have any eating places inside and not many good ones right outside, so it is best to carry a packed breakfast and snacks. As well as plenty of water.
On your way back, the highway has a reasonable number of restaurants and dhabas so you should be OK.