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. 

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.


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