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.

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