Sunday, February 7, 2021

Lonavala (Dec 2020) - 'Amour' Falcon

The Amur Falcon. Spectacularly beautiful. Highly coveted by birders. Sighted near Mumbai. Can it get any better?

The Amur is one of nature's greatest travelers. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of these beautiful birds depart from their breeding grounds in Russia and China to spend the next few months in Southern Africa. On the way, they take a pit stop in the North East of India, especially around Nagaland's Doyang Reservoir to refuel for the long flight onwards. And then some of them take another brief stop across India's Western and Southern coasts. And this time it was the turn of an otherwise nondescript dam in Lonavala, an otherwise buzzing hill station near Mumbai.

For any birder, the Amur Falcon is highly coveted, not least because of this legendary winter migration. It has also been in the news for the incredible conservation story from Nagaland where they went from being hunted in the thousands to becoming a valued guest for the locals. The fact that it is an absolutely gorgeous bird might also have something to do with its star status. And while there were annual sightings around Mumbai, this one was special. Late December, the birding community in Western India was ablaze with reports of a flock of Amurs at the backwaters of the Tata Dam in Lonavala. Unlike other sightings, these birds seemed settled there and were feeding and reasonably unaffected by humans nearby. 

We were birding in Kutch when these reports  came in and given we had a few days to go there, the chances of us getting the Amurs seemed rather slim. But our hopes rose with the daily reports (and rather stunning photos) that meant that the birds were staying for a bit. And so, we drove straight from Gujarat to Lonavala on the penultimate day of 2020. Arriving at the dam, we had plenty of company with several cars and their attendant birdwatchers. Some people were coming daily, such was the lure of these birds. We got into the act right away with a sighting of a beautiful female Amur. She obliged us (and all the other photographers) with some lovely photos and then we left the throng to look for the male. 

The male (those more informed told us) was a late visitor. Probably not a morning person! And even as we waited for him, we drove to the other side of the lake to check if we find something else. And on a tree, Sriram picked out a raptor. Looked like a Peregrine Falcon and we set up our cameras to get some (distant) photos. And the results were a quite puzzling - the bird didn't look like a Peregrine or a Shaheen. And the only logical option seemed quite outlandish - surely it couldn't be a Barbary Falcon (Red-naped Shaheen)!! If yes, it would be the first record for the area and even for our state! 

A couple of photos were taken and sent off to Latif Alvani, expert on all things Barbary. We'd been with him the previous few days, searching in vain for the Barbary in Nalsarovar. And he promptly called with 'Where did you find this?' I knew then that we had our Barbary. And we shot a few frames before the subject decided he had elsewhere to go and flew away before we could let anyone else know about this sighting. He was never seen again.

Back to the Amurs and the male had apparently landed to great fanfare but apparently, his highness had just legged it. And so we wait, with a bit of anxiety since an Amur could choose to exit to Africa anytime! But then some cars reported a sighting at the far side of the dam and we drove slowly there to check. And there he was, posing on a rock in all his glory! We clicked a few photos and then he decided the light was too harsh. And promptly flew off into some shade. We got Malabar Larks, Paddyfield Pipits and a couple of Red-naped Ibis. And then we took a short break for a meal, aiming to get a few more photos over the afternoon. And it was a lovely meal of spicy misal and piping hot batata vadas, good enough to satiate the soul.

We got back after lunch to find our fellow paparazzi lying face down, busily shooting something on the ground. It was Mr. Amur! We joined them in taking a few photos, as he busily fed on some insects in the grass. He posed this way and that, evidently enjoying being the spotlight. And then we'd had our fill. We let the other get on with their business and drove off. En route a couple of beautiful Lesser Kestrels gave us an audience. These birds were the stars of the show in Lonavala the previous season, but their Amur cousins had hijacked the stage this year. Darlings that they were, they seemed to show no jealousy as they went about their feeding, graciously allowing the Amurs to share their feeding grounds.

And there we were. Some awesome sightings and photographs of one of the most spectacular birds in India!

Post Script: Sadly, the Tata Dam has now been closed to photographers by the Dam owners and Forest Department. They're worried about the damage caused to the habitat by jeeps crisscrossing the backwaters, and also about the disturbance to the birds by the paparazzi. 

Lonavala Trip Guide

Lonavala is a bustling hill-station, virtually equidistant from Mumbai and Pune (around 80 and 65 kms respectively) Nestled in the Western Ghats, it was once idyllic and peaceful. Rampant construction has made it less so and it is now a hill station only in the rains and for a bit in winter.

Getting there:

Lonavala is easily accessible by road from both Mumbai and Pune ( the nearest airports) It is an important station on the Mumbai-Pune rail line.

The Tata Dam is located within Lonavala and is used in for power generation. In winter, as the water dries out, the backwaters of the dam provide succour for a variety of bird species including some raptors who come to feed on the insects in the grass.


There are many places to stay in Lonavala, from budget through to luxury. Easily done as a day trip from Mumbai, I don't really have any recommendations for birders to stay there. But a quick exploration on tripadvisor can throw up many options.

Other attractions:

Lonavala is legendary for its chikki (brittle) and shops in the main market will offer a mind-boggling variety. Maganlal is the 'original' brand but there are now many Maganlal stores in the market. You won't go wrong with most of them. You can also get the famous chocolate fudge from Coopers in the market. 

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