Sunday, March 17, 2019

Saswad (November 2018) - Wolf at last!

The wolf is one of the most misunderstood of animals. This beautiful canid has always operated on the shadowy periphery of human consciousness, almost always for the wrong reasons. Part of the legend is because it is rarely seen, even though it operates close to human habitation for the most part. The vast grasslands and scrublands that make (made?) up its home have all been pockmarked by humans and cultivation, and while that leaves less territory for the wolf to roam in, it provides the animal with additional sources of nourishment. One such area is found in the scrublands south of Pune, one of the best places in the country to spot this elusive animal.

While Saswad offers many avian delights, the wolf is always a welcome addition on any menu, though by no means a certainty. In over two years and more than two dozen trips, I'd seen wolves only twice. So any sighting is seriously prized for all of us. And late November, Sriram, Pravin and I headed to Pune to join our resident expert friend Vishal to find some winter migrants, especially some buntings. As is our practice, we always start the day with a look out for wolves in some areas where they've been seen in the recent weeks. And this time too, we spent a half hour at day-break driving around and trying to spot them. No luck initially and so we turned our attention to our feathered targets. And at once we spotted some beautiful Indian Coursers and set out to photograph them. And then Vishal said, "Wolf"!

The Coursers were temporarily forgotten as we saw a beautiful female wolf walk in from the right of the road. Bathed in beautiful morning light, she was a real sight to behold. We stood at a respectable distance, giving her the space to choose her approach to the road, since she obviously wanted to cross. She would walk a few steps and then wait and watch, almost like she was posing for pictures. And it was she who made all the moves, all we did was take photos. And then we saw the other one! To the left of the road, having already crossed, stood her mate. A handsome, strapping male, he waited for his lady love, exhibiting no sign of impatience at her need to get her photographs taken.

He wasn't as willing a model when we turned our attentions to him and he seemed relieved when his mate finally joined him. The two of them then turned around to give us one memorable frame. It was a sensational sighting - two beautiful wolves in their prime, probably on their way to form their own pack. We soaked in this most remarkable of sightings, having got far more than we bargained for. That feeling that is impossible to describe, a deep rooted sense of joy combined with immense gratitude to the world for giving us such a sighting. For Pravin, it was his first wolf sighting and a magical one at that. I'm sure he's never going to forget that one!

There was still some birding to be done and we decided to use Pravin's remarkable luck and see if he could also get the Striolated Bunting. We searched at the usual spots but there seemed to be lots of human activity in the area (read road repairs) and we reluctantly gave up and prepared to head out. But the gods were in a very 'giving' mood that morning as a beautiful Long-billed Pipit perched up close and pretty personal to our vehicle, giving us some decent images. Not to be outdone, an Isabelline Wheatear also arrived for a photo session. Finally, a few Greater Short-toed Larks capped a truly incredible morning.

The wolf is fighting a losing battle to stay alive. Parts of its stomping grounds have been classified as wasteland and hence not priority for conservation. The remaining parts have been overrun with human settlements for a while now, but it found a way to survive. But with these 'wastelands' firmly in the eye-pieces of mega-infra, the death knell seems to be well on its way. Here's hoping against hope that we leave a little piece of our planet for these beautiful animals to survive, if not enough to help them flourish. Fingers crossed...

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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Mumbai-Pune-Nashik (January 2019) - The Itch to Twitch

'Twitching' - The phenomenon to describe bird watchers traveling long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked off, or counted on  a list. Apparently named after the nervous behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher in the 1950s.  These days, it has become a word in the birder lexicon that almost everyone indulges in but no one really likes to acknowledge. In some ways, we are all part-time twitchers. And when the rare birds present themselves in the proverbial backyard, is it really possible to not indulge in the odd twitch (or six)?

Twitch 1 - The Great Bittern
January 2019 dawned with the news of this super rare migrant being sighted within Mumbai city limits! And a quick trip was planned the following weekend to the Tarzon Lake in Kandivali. It turned out that half the birdwatching population of the city had the same idea! And we all spent a good hour looking in vain for this bird that had otherwise perched in the open the previous weekend. Even sightings of the otherwise elusive Black and Yellow Bitterns provided scant comfort to the throng. And then came the good news - someone had finally spotted the Bittern, in a different set of reeds this time. They very kindly set up their spotting scope and allowed us all to take a peek at this super-rarity for our parts. The bird was too deep within the reeds to get any photos for us, but just watching it was good enough. We came back the following weekend to get some decent photos, still within the reeds. For me, this was enough!

Twitch 2 - The Water Rail
A new adversary for me. This bird first made an appearance last season in Dombivali, then in Navi Mumbai and didn't give me even a sighter after five visits. This time it materialised in another wetland in Northern Mumbai, the rather spectacularly named Godzilla Lake. And here, it gave an audience to practically every visitor who took the time to come and see it, and I dare say to some of those who didn't even care to see it. "At last", I thought, "this particular representative of the species was not like its other cousins. It would give me a sighting all right" Except it didn't. Apart from one instance where an overzealous uncle drove it away, this bird too proved it was cut from the same cloth as the others. And then another sighting happened, this time near Nashik. Sriram and the others went on a weekend when I was away and shot it to their hearts' content. And assured me that I would break my luck at last. But when I went the following week, not a bloody peep out of this. The entire Water Rail race seems to have turned against me, joining the storied ranks of the Scimitar Babblers. And so, for record purposes, I have used the only half decent image I have! 

Twitch 3 - The Little Crake
A sleepy dam on the outskirts of Pune suddenly woke up into many birders' must-do destinations because of the Little Crake, a rare winter visitor to our parts. A remote outpost for quiet family picnics and quieter pre-nuptial photoshoots suddenly turned into a buzzing Kumbh Mela of sorts for birders as cameras and lenses of every make and size jousted for space to capture this little beauty. Pravin, Sriram and I headed out in the wee hours one Sunday morning to get this one. We hit Kasarsai just after daybreak, joined the assembled gentry in viewing and photographing this little visitor and then were ready to head back home. Till Pravin pointed to some birds on a wire and I asked if some of those could be Streak-throated Swallows (a lifer for me) He answered with an emphatic 'Definitely possible' and we headed to find out. And amidst their Red-rumped and Wire-tailed cousins, a few Streak-throated Swallows sat basking in the early morning sun. And made it a completely fulfilling morning for me. Birding done, rarity and more common lifer both ticked off and back home by 11:30 am! Try and beat that, ya twitchers!

Twitch 4 - The Moustached Warbler
Nandur-Madhyameshwar Sanctuary near Nashik has been on the fringes for a while with many birder friends recommending it. But the real 'reasons' to visit popped up early this year. First, a White-tailed Eagle, a European visitor otherwise seen only in Northern or Eastern India and then the Moustached Warbler, a first record for our state. I was keen on the latter, having seen the Eagle on two separate occasions. And while I missed going with Sriram, Pravin and the indefatigable Ramesh Ganeshan, I found good company the following weekend in the form of Manjunath. We went in, found the warbler, thanks to the omnipresent and ever-helpful Ronit Dutta and managed to get a few good frames of this beauty. 

The aforementioned Water Rail refused to make an appearance, but a very co-operative Spotted Crake more than made up for it. We spent quality time with this beautiful bird and when a Brown Crake also added to proceedings, it made for a very productive twitch indeed. The possibility of a Slaty-legged Crake makes Nandur very interesting indeed and a couple of future trips have been pencilled into the birding calendar.

Four super birds, all around big, buzzing cities. Goes to show that all that these birds (and indeed nature) need to live peacefully is a little, undisturbed habitat and understanding human beings. Here's hoping (against hope) for both of these!

Mumbai-Pune-Nashik Trip Guide

Tarzon Lake is a well-hidden wetland tucked away in the Charkop area of Kandivali, one of Mumbai's North-western suburbs. It can be accessed by public transport, barely 5kms from Kandivali Railway Station on the Western Railway, connecting with buses that go to Charkop. 
Find it on Google Maps here -

Godzilla Lake is nothing like the monster the name seems to suggest. Despite being hemmed in by habitation on all sides, this medium-sized waterbody supports a staggering variety of birdlife. It is 4.5 kms from Malad, another of the stations on the Western Railway.
Find it on Google Maps here -

Kasarsai Dam is on the outskirts of Pune city, about 12 kms from the IT hub of Hinjewadi. You'll need your own transport to get to this place. 
Find it on Google Maps here -

Nandur Madhyameshwar Bird Sanctuary is located about 35 kms from Nashik (about 215kms from Mumbai), on the Nashik Aurangabad Highway. It's a beautiful birding destination and well worth a visit. Again, you'll have to arrange your own transportation.
Find it on Google Maps here -

Common Coot 
Streak-throated Swallow

Brown Crake

Red Avadavat

Spotted Crake

Baillon's Crake

Black Bittern

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Nalsarovar (December 2018) - 'Sociably yours'

Every birder has species on his or her target list that border on the mythical. It is a purely personal preference and the species depends entirely on that person's priorities as well as luck with that particular bird in question. For me, one of those species was the Sociable Lapwing - a bird in the Critically Endangered section of  the IUCN list of bird species. It almost always makes an appearance in India, usually in winter, and many people I know have been blessed with a sighting. But it's usually a chance encounter or serendipitous timing with a solitary specimen. In the last few years, I've tried a few times, but never ever managed even a glimpse of this enigma of a bird.

Early in December, Latif (one of Nalsarovar's finest bird guides) posted a video that set India's birding world on fire. I exaggerate a bit, but it was definitely a small blaze at the very least. It featured around 25 Sociable Lapwings feeding peacefully in a field near Nalsarovar. I got on the phone with him instantly and was astonished at his what he said. The 25 were only a small part of the entire mega-flock - he'd seen (according to his estimate) close to 200 Sociable Lapwings, which would make it one of the largest congregations recorded in India. I immediately agreed to make a weekend visit there if the birds still stayed on till then. On the Friday he confirmed that the birds were still around, so Sriram and I made our way to Ahmedabad early on Saturday, a true red-eye special.

Sociable Lapwing
We were picked up at the airport by the rock-star like, long haired Kisan bhai. Latif had briefed him on where to bring us and we zeroed in on that spot, breaking only for a jalebi-dhokla breakfast on the highway. Latif met us at a spot where a few cars were already parked, the Lapwings were getting some serious attention from birders in the area and also beyond (like us for example!) And he walked us to some dried fields where some birders were already lying prone on the ground with their cameras firing on full burst mode. I first saw the 40 or so birds through my binoculars, I wanted to savour my first sighting of this most special of birds before I got into the photography buzz. I would have been happy with one Sociable Lapwing sighting in life, and here I was with more than 40 right in front of me. I was in dreamland!

The eyes satiated, Sriram and I added two more bodies to the prone assembly as we all slowly crawled forward to get closer to the birds. We would stop every few feet to make sure the birds didn't get disturbed and loose off a few frames. Repeating this sequence a few times got us to within a respectable distance of the (peacefully feeding) birds. And then a stray dog came bounding in and the whole flock took to air and settled in a field further away. And I clambered to my feet, with an overwhelming sense of fulfilment. But we wanted more...

So we carefully made our way to the field where the birds had landed, crawled the last few metres and carefully peered over the bund that separated the fields. The birds were there, bathed in beautiful light and barely a few feet ahead of us. And ever so slowly, I lifted the camera into position and was just about to click my first image when, much to my bewilderment and dismay, the whole flock took off without warning. I looked back and one of the assembled throng had followed me and she walked upright and the birds had spotted her. She gave us one guilty look and hastily legged it before she caught the daggers that our eyes were on the verge of shooting.Latif was mildly sympathetic and he assured us one more try as we drove to a third field with more Sociables settled in. This time, we had no other human interruptions and we were on elbows and knees again as we attempted some reasonably close shots. We not only got the photos, but also the souvenirs that hard, dry fields can bestow upon those foolish enough to crawl across them. The eyes were ecstatic but the elbows and knees were in tears!

Bronze-winged Jacana
Sociable Lapwings done, it was time for some other specialities of the area - Short-eared Owls, Red-necked falcons were two on my list. First up though, a roadside pond threw up two beautiful Bronze-winged Jacanas. Then another pond threw up a whole flock of Great White Pelicans, feeding frantically in the water. For Sriram, the piece de resistance of this spell was the sighting of two beautiful Sarus Cranes, as they gracefully waltzed through a field like ballerinas. It was his first sighting of this beautiful bird, and certainly one that made his day. Pelicans and Cranes done, it was time to indulge our stomachs as well, but the route to the dhaba held one more surprise. Latif brought us under a tree on the roadside and showed us Spotted Owlets - 4 on one tree! There were two siblings that obviously liked each other's company while the other two preferred to keep their own company. We could have stayed and watched this family drama unfold, but the grumbling in our stomachs could no longer be ignored. And after a splendid local repast, we were ready for the afternoon session.

Short-eared Owl
The two targets were Short-eared Owl and Red-necked Falcon with chances for a Laggar Falcon as well. On the way, a Desert Wheatear and Long-billed pipit proved to be superb appetisers as we neared the area for the Owl and Falcon. Latif had seen 7 Owls in this area but that day there was not a single one immediately visible. Probably gone visiting relatives? One finally made an appearance and he gave us some pictures before winging it to join his brethren. The Red-necked Falcon also gave us a tremendous workout and no great pictures before disappearing into the trees near a large open meadow. Latif had seen Laggar there and he asked if we wanted to see it. I was keen on the Red-necked so declined the offer but Sriram went with him and they got a couple of Falcons up on some power pylons. Later, when Latif reported sightings of the Saker Falcon in that area, I asked Sriram to check his Laggar images just in case, and he was rewarded with a photo of the elusive Saker Falcon! Another special day in Nalsarovar with a much wanted bird under my belt and a few more for Sriram. Latif and his fellow guides are excellent spotters and really hardworking. That's what makes a special place even more so. 

We left for home, having seen more than 100 Sociable Lapwings that morning. Given that IUCN estimates the global population at around 12,000 we had seen 1% of the global population in one spot, at one time! Can it get better than that? I'm sure Latif will find a way. Until next time then...

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. In addition to the wetlands, there is a lot of birding in the surrounding fields and ponds and a superb guide like Latif knows all the spots.

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

At the wetland, the Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway. Latif took us to an excellent dhaba with some delicious local food, albeit a bit far away from the main wetland.

Other tips
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.

Desert Wheatear

Great White Pelican

Sarus Crane