Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review of the Stokes Talon 8x42 binoculars

I have owned the Stokes Talon 8x42 binoculars for just over three years now. They were given to me as a gift by my aunt, and I have enjoyed using them on all of my birding trips since then. The following is a short review of this integral birding equipment and I hope you find it useful.
It was January 2008. The Mumbai BirdRace was about to be held soon and my binoculars (Bushnell 7x35 Falcon porro-prism) were literally on their last objectives (pun intended). With the alignment between the barrels badly screwed, they were barely usable. The optics were worn with scratches too and only gave very dim and low contrast views of birds; it was time to get new ones.

As with any purchase, I began looking at reviews of binoculars online and began my research for choosing good birding optics. After much online reading, I concluded that I needed the following qualities in my new binoculars:
  1. They should have fully multi-coated optics (on all glass-to-air surfaces) for bright and contrasty views.
  2. They should have a wide field of view, 8 degrees being ideal.
  3. They should be waterproof, not only to enable using them in the rain, but also to prevent the insides from fogging in the early hours of the day.
  4. They should be able to close-focus to less than 10 feet, so that watching butterflies is possible.
  5. They should be durable (shouldn't go out of alignment).
I also read that in the world of optics, you generally get what you pay for and that zoom binoculars aren't as good optically as fixed magnification ones and they also have a severely reduced field-of-view. Moreover, most of the binoculars costing upward of $150 were roof-prism rather than porro-prism, partly because it is much easier to make waterproof binoculars in such a design.

Deciding the magnification is quite a personal decision. I chose to get 8x bins instead of 10x since my hands aren't very steady and they would also allow me to get a brighter exit-pupil for the same objective size. In theory, this meant that they would be better for low-light situations and also for astronomy.

The Talons satisfied all of my requirements and I chose to bite the bullet. I was certainly not disappointed. Vortex, which is the company that manufactures them, produce another line of binoculars called "Diamondback" and these are essentially the same as the Talons except for the exterior rubber grip. They feel quite solid and are a tad bit heavy. This can become a strain on the neck if used for long hours, but a good quality shoulder harness is very useful in taking the strain off your neck.

The Talons (and the Diamondbacks) have excellent coatings on their optics. Vortex calls them phase-corrected (whatever that means) and these provide superb bright and contrasty views of birds that I had never seen before. Compared to entry-level models like the Olympus DPS I 10x50 or 8x40, these are way superior (much brighter and contrasty) and the difference is very much apparent when looking for illusive field-marks on birds or enhancing low contrast details / colours.

The 8x42 Talons also have an 8 degree field of view which is plenty large to follow small birds as they move around. The focusing ring is nice and smooth and is quite different from the one on the Bushnell. They are waterproof and can focus as close as 4.5 feet!

The Talons cost about $200 at the time (early 2008) and sell for around the same price even today. If you are willing to spend $200, then look no further than the Talons. I have used them alongside the Nikon Monarch 8x42, which are priced about $100 more than the Talons, but optically I do not see any difference at all. The Nikon's focusing ring though looks superior to the Talons. One drawback with the Talons is that they do not focus well to infinity and this is somewhat of a pain when used for astronomy. The stars are just at the end of the focusing range of the bins and it is somewhat tricky to keep them in focus.

I highly recommend these binoculars to anyone who wants to upgrade from entry-level models like the Olympus DPS I series or Bushnell Falcons. The cost is significant compared to these models which sell for around $50, but if you are serious about birding, then the investment in the Talons or any good birding optic is definitely worth it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hello, USA

Seeing two lifers on the day you land in a new country is cool. It happened when we'd stopped at a 'rest area' somewhere on the way to PA, after having picked me up at Newark airport. The ride was a long one (almost 5 hours), and these 'rest areas' provide you a nice opportunity to stretch a leg [even if you're a dog] when making long journeys on the broad and luxurious highways in the US.
One was a Tufted Titmouse. A small sparrow-sized bird with a 'tuft' at the back of its head, resembling Robin Hood with his pointed hat. But that's as far as the semblance goes. It's not a green bird and does not have blond hair. It's no good at archery. It's a dull colored bird with a gray back and a white underparts, but with a big black eye that stands out remarkably well against its white face, (perhaps giving it its name?)...

The one I saw was perched right at the top of an almost leafless tree. Without binoculars I was just about able to make out the slight 'tuft' but it was too difficult to make any identification. Thankfully I didn't have to strain my eyes for long because it soon descended upon a nearby bush giving a clear enough view for a positive identification. I had wanted to see this bird while in Canada near Toronto, since it is quite common in this region. I recall sitting in the Marriott hotel in Brampton looking up my Peterson's Fieldguide for common birds that I might see the next morning on a trip to a nearby conservation area. Not having binoculars ready did make the sighting somewhat disappointing, but I wasn't so bad, especially since it was a lifer! Having spent more than 2 months here in the US now, I have seen this bird many times since then, and the best view that I had was actually through my window in the dormitory building! (through binoculars ofcourse!) :)

The other one was a White-Breasted Nuthatch. Nuthatches, in general, are masters at navigating along branches and trunks, able to move in any direction with their strong and agile bodies, even more so than woodpeckers who can only move upwards along a tree-trunk using their strong tails as support. This one was on the same tree as the Titmouse had been a few moments ago although I did not get a good enough view of it that day. Nuthatches are even smaller than sparrows and this makes it very difficult to watch them with any level of satisfaction without binoculars. I could not tell if it was a male or a female, but it did remind me of that trip to Dandeli in the winter of 2009 when I'd first seen a nuthatch (Velvet-Fronted Nuthatches and Chestnut-Bellied Nuthatches). Since then, I did see this species more clearly again, guess where? From my window at the dormitory :)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Phantastic Dandeli

Tucked away in the Western Ghats on the border of Karnataka and Goa lies a lovely forest that is part of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. Endemic species like the Malabar Trogon, Malabar Pied and Malabar Grey Hornbills, Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Crimson-fronted Barbet and Ruby-throated Bulbul can be seen here which attracts bird-watchers from all over the country to this wonderful place. I was part of a 4 days + 3 nights birdwatching trip to Dandeli which was organized by Nature India (an eco-tourism venture run by Adesh and Mandar), along with 10 other participants: Kalpana, Jayanthi, Sharada, Mohan, Sucharita, Mr. and Mrs. Jayaram, Uma, Vamsee and Saru. Over the course of these few days, we managed to see many attractive birds and the following is a short [?] account of this trip.

Travelling through the night by a Volvo, we had reached Dharwad early in the morning. After a quick breakfast in Dharwad, we began our birding at a Timber Depot which was on the way to the Kulgi Nature Camp in Dandeli. The Depot had plenty of tall trees and we saw many impressive birds here which included a rather inactive but photographically co-operative Malabar Grey Hornbill, male and female Malabar Pied Hornbills, a flying Lesser Adjutant Stork, an Ashy Drongo enthusiastically chased a dragonfly, a nesting White-rumped Munia and a handful of energetic Grey Wagtails. Malabar Giant Squirrels were also relatively common here and we could see them sitting high in the trees.

Lunch and a short nap at the Camp were followed by more birding, this time in the camp vicinity itself. A large broad-leaved tree right behind the dining shed seemed to be popular with the local birds, and we saw Common Woodshrikes, Large Woodshrikes, Oriental White-eyes, Coppersmith Barbets and a single Crimson-fronted Barbet as they moved about in the dense maze of branches. A couple of Vernal Hanging Parrots nibbled at the nearby bamboo shoots, flaunting their bright red beaks and rumps.

In the evening, we visited Ganeshgudi which was a long narrow dam-like structure with a huge water-body on one side, and the forest on the other. The sun was a little low by now, casting a warm glow over the forest. In this beautiful ambience we saw a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Orange Minivets, Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a moulting Bronzed Drongo, a Crimson Sunbird, and a Black-headed Cuckooshrike (which I happened to miss). Later in the evening, we visited a bridge on a nearby river to witness the roosting of [numerous] Great Pied and Malabar Pied Hornbills. Unfortunately, all we saw were a few Malabar Pied Hornbills far far away, some Brahmini Kites flying idly, numerous bees, and a sky replete with House Swifts displaying their amazing acrobatics in mid-air. While strolling on the bridge, I also happened to notice a large yellow hornet appear from nowhere, pick up one of the sleeping[?] bees and vanish as swiftly as it had arrived, carrying its passenger to what must have been a rather unpleasant ending!

Early next day, we visited the nearby ‘safari’, and well, ended up seeing nothing at all. Atleast so to say. All we saw were a few Barking Deer, some Grey Junglefowl, a lone male Indian Peafowl, and a White-cheeked Barbet which was seen very well in the morning light. Thankfully, we soon headed off to a much more productive birding location which was the nearby Timber Depot.

The Depot was more like the place you’d want to be in the morning on a birding trip. Here, I was introduced to a new concept which was that of the ‘mixed hunting party’. Insectivorous birds like drongos, woodpeckers, etc. tend to venture out as a collective unit in search of, well, insects and other invertebrates. As the group progresses through a patch of woods, the insects panic and expose themselves becoming easy prey for the swarm of hungry birds. While drongos chase them in the air, others like woodpeckers climb upwards along trunks and branches, feeling for disturbed grubs and insects in the tiny crevices with their long beaks. Yet others like the nuthatches traverse the trunks and branches downwards, thus picking up those creatures that the woodpecker had likely missed on the way up.

We soon witnessed one such party that was made up of Bronzed, White-bellied and Ashy Drongos, Dark-fronted Babblers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, a Streak-throated Woodpecker and Black-lored Tits. The nuthatches, especially, were amazing to watch as they skillfully navigated branches. It was as though they were displaying their superiority to the woodpeckers who always use their tails as support, unlike the nuthatches. Meanwhile, sitting camouflaged on a nearby tree was a flying lizard, commonly known as the ‘Draco’. This guy has the ability to fan out his throat and use it to glide around the woods. And this particular one was constantly extending his collapsed yellow-coloured gliding equipment, so that when looking from its back, it seemed as if he was drawing out a bright yellow tongue!

Later, we also got an excellent sighting of a Jungle Owlet sitting on an exposed branch in the dense woods. Its heavily barred chest and deep brown colour was superbly visible in the Pentax 80mm ED scope with a 2” eyepiece which Adesh and Mandar had brought along. The scope was used often for the numerous birds that we were seeing all along the way, with people queuing up like kids as soon as a bird was located in the scope.

That evening, we headed to ‘Syntheri Rocks’, which is a cave-like structure, many kilometers away from the Camp. While we were just about to commence on our journey, a majestic Black Eagle glided slowly over us! This was one of those sights which I will remember for a long long time. The clear blue sky, the huge black bird itself with its bulging wings and tail, its big and striking yellow beak, its yellow legs that stood out against its black body, the subtle shading on the underwing pattern, oh it was fantastic!

Birding at Syntheri Rocks wasn’t exactly great. While we saw an Indian Schimitar Babbler and a got a glimpse of a Common Flameback on the way, the place itself was devoid of bird activity. It was late and all we could see were Rock Pigeons, which were seen for a change in their natural habitat. But on the way back, we got some respite. While travelling back along the tar road in the darkness, we spotted a large owl which had apparently caught something on the road and flew away as soon as our vehicle got close. Thankfully, it perched on a tree on the road-side giving us a chance to see it. While Adesh identified it as a Brown Fish Owl, possibly from a much better view than mine, I remember registering a pale face and collar with huge round black eyes. It was very dark, and we didn’t have the best torch, but it looked like a Brown Wood Owl to me. Whatever it was, it was rewarding to see this large owl in the night.

After dinner, we ventured into the jungle close to the Camp in search of the elusive Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which is a nocturnal bird and is almost impossible to see in the daytime owing to its excellent camouflage. Like Potoos in South America, these Indian counterparts stay well hidden during the day and remain absolutely still, usually blending with tree stumps or hiding in bamboo thickets. They are so confident of their camouflage that they are unlikely to fly away even when you get close to them. Only when you get too close will they fly away, exposing themselves to predators. This behavior is best seen in the documentary by Sir David Attenborough, a clip of which can be seen here.

At night, frogmouths feed in a way similar to flycatchers, which means they usually perch on a strategic point that enables them to feed on insects. But they do this silently, and moreover, unlike Nightjars whose eyes glow in the torch-light, those of these frogmouths don’t making it very difficult to spot them at night even when using a powerful torch. While spotting a Sri Lanka Frogmouth can be safely considered as uncommon, the bird itself is usually present in good numbers in its habitat.

We searched a lot that night, torches in hand, scanning the dark trees for any sign of this elusive bird. Adesh mimicked the frogmouths calls, hoping that it would lure them out of the woods. A few frogmouths certainly answered, with both males and females calling from different directions. But unfortunately, we didn’t see a single frogmouth that night…

We woke up next morning to the calls of a Brown Wood Owl which had perched very close to our tents in the Kulgi Nature Camp. We were supposed to leave for the Shirval village, but a late breakfast somewhat created a dent in our plans. However, it did enable us to get good sightings of Yellow-browed Bulbuls in the tree behind the dining shed before we left. These were kept company by a few Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Crimson-fronted Barbets.

Shirval, which is an abandoned mine area was supposed to be a hotspot for bird activity. But by being late, we could only get sightings of a few Malabar Parakeets, some Black-hooded Orioles and a Crested Treeswift drinking water in its own unique way by diving towards the water surface at great speed only to pull out of the dive as its beak barely skimmed the water surface.

With not much bird-activity here, we moved on to Ganeshgudi where immediately a Eurasian Hobby was seen in all its glory showing its masked face and heavily barred underwings. We also saw a couple of Malabar Parakeets perched nicely in the open; the spotting scope revealing some fantastic views.

Post lunch was when the birding at Dandeli really came into its own. We visited a large but extremely scenic lake that reminded me of the idyllic illustrations in my very first Collins Field Guide. As we began birding here, it soon became evident that this was a special day. An extremely uncommon Rufous-bellied Hawk Eagle circled above, while the much much much more common Lesser Whistling Ducks and Cotton Pygmy Geese swam about in the water. A Grey-headed Fish Eagle flew across the lake and perched to everyone’s delight on a dead tree albeit on the other side of the lake. This was followed by excellent views of a Stork-billed and Common Kingfisher in the scope.

As we left the place, we could hear the Fish Eagle calling out in its harsh and somewhat unpleasant screech, and landed up at the Timber Depot to spend the rest of the evening. Male and female Pompadour Green Pigeons, an Oriental Honey-Buzzard and the usual Malabar Pied Hornbills were on display here. We counted 26 Malabar Pied Hornbills as they darted out of a single huge tree, like the luminous trails of fireworks at night...

We repeated the night trail again that night, hoping to see the elusive and much coverted Sri Lanka Frogmouths. They had been close last night, but not close enough. The trail got off to a promising start with the sighting of a Flying Squirrel that stirred in the tree tops near the main entrance of the camp. This was followed by plenty of searching for the frogmouths along the road-sides, much like the earlier day with Adesh mimicking their calls. We were almost at the end of our trail when we suddenly saw a pair of male and female Sri Lanka Frogmouths that had perched on a low branch right next to the road, located expertly by Adesh in the powerful torch beam! As excitement gripped the group, stifled exclamations and chatter filled the air. The birds weren’t as glamorous as Fairy Bluebirds or Malabar Trogons, but the sheer act of spotting them was delightful. While the birds appeared grey in the torch light, the white spots on their chests were clearly visible. With all the commotion, the male got spooked and flew away to another tree, but the female remained faithful (to us, that is) and stayed on the branch for another whole two minutes before she too disappeared into the darkness. For a day filled with great sightings, this was the icing on the cake!

Next morning, we reached the mine area at Shirval again, well in time to catch all the action; or rather to “witness the grand arena”, as Adesh put it. Black-throated Munias put up the opening act in conjunction with Plum-headed Parakeets. A Rufous Treepie gave a brief appearance before making way for Yellow-browed Bulbuls and a Golden-fronted Chloropsis. The lead role, however, was played by a Blue-bearded Bee-eater, who ironically broke all rules of acting on stage and plainly showed us his back for more than an hour, providing only brief glimpses of his brilliant blue beard. A few Orange Minivets and Brown-headed Barbets were more professional and gave us very pleasing views. A White-rumped Shama and Large Cuckooshrike played cameo roles and disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. The closing act was performed by Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters who made a lovely sight against the dark brown ground on which they occasionally sat.

The birding had picked up momentum and it continued at the Timber Depot, where we spent the rest of the morning. Huge and impressive White-bellied Woodpeckers darted among the tall trees along with others like Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers and a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Later we even saw a Common Flameback, which ironically is considered to be very uncommon, climbing up a sloping tree. The place was literally full of birds. A Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Black-lored Tits, Black-naped Monarchs, Bronzed and Ashy Drongos kept the place busy. As though the morning birding session wasn’t enough, we even saw a Blue-faced Malkoha on our way back near the main gate of the Camp!

That was pretty much all the birding we managed over the course of 4 days at Dandeli. We saw 134 species in addition to 7 that we only heard. We did not manage to see the Malabar Trogon, which had been one of our prime targets throughout the trip. But this was compensated by the numerous other lovely birds that we saw here. And it was not just the birds either. The accomodation at the Kulgi Nature Camp was quite comfortable and it certainly helped in maintaining our focus on birding, as did the excellent arrangements for food. Equally important was Adesh's expertise in identifying the many different kinds of birds while also sharing his knowledge with the group. Both Adesh and Mandar were proactive in showing everyone different birds, with or without a scope, and also explained various trivia about the feathered creatures. Credit deservedly goes to them for organizing such a wonderful trip to this lovely place in the Western Ghats: Dandeli.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Review of "The Life of Birds" by David Attenborough

"The Life of Birds" is a fantastic book written by the renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. It is an excellent read, even for the non-birder, and explores all the major aspects of bird life. Written in a pleasing and often witty style, accompanied by breath-taking photographs, the book is nothing short of a best-selling page-turner. It is without doubt a must-have for bird-watchers and naturalists alike.
Overall, this book is well organized as a collection of 10 chapters, each of which is devoted to a distinct aspect of bird life. Attenborough begins by explaining the evolutionary modifications that have enabled birds to fly, while at other times have also made certain birds flightless. He then expands on the different types of food that birds eat and also how they procure it. Later, he elaborates on the diverse forms of bird communication before moving on to the equally diverse methods of finding suitable mates. He then explains how different birds prepare for parenthood and finally how they perform the actual, and so often exhausting, task of raising a family. In this way, the book gives the reader a walk-through of most of the activities that are part of a bird's life with plenty of examples drawn from a wide range of species.

In fact, the sheer number of examples that have been packed into this book is amazing. To write a book that has so many examples must surely be challenging as far as continuity in reading is concerned. But Attenborough pulls it off with ease. There is a natural flow to the content and the reader is guided along all the way with dexterity. There are, however, only a few Indian birds that are part of this huge collection of examples from all over the world. But this is more than compensated by the fact that the book covers many different families of birds, so that it is easy to correlate the birds cited in the book to those found here in India.

By the time I finished reading it, I was overwhelmed and also surprised, by the amount of knowledge that has been squeezed into this masterpiece. It gave me new insights into the wonderful world of birds and also greatly increased my respect and admiration for these lovely creatures. I am glad I got this book.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Review of 'Peterson Field Guides: Birds of Eastern and Central North America'

Toronto, Canada: I was in the Coles bookstore, looking for a good quality field-guide to Canadian birds, when I came across this superb Peterson Field Guide to the "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" on one of the shelves. Written by the renowned American naturalist and artist Roger Tory Peterson, it helps identify birds seen in almost half of the North American continent. It is by far the best field-guide I have ever used :)
A preview of this book is available on this link
Initially, on my birding trips at Brampton, near Toronto, I used to record my sightings on a notepad and then search the internet for birds that matched my notes. The birds of Canada are quite different from those found in the Indian Subcontinent, with only a few species being common to both lands. But the Canadian birds are indeed very well documented on the internet, with plenty of information on their identification, general behaviour and food being available on numerous websites. It is, however, difficult to quickly look-up an unknown bird on the net. I had to browse through the online pages until I found a bird that roughly matched my observation. After that began the tedious process of making sure that this was indeed the bird that I had seen. I soon realized that this was not a very practical way of identifying birds and it was time to buy a genuine field-guide.

Peterson's field-guides have acquired more or less a legendary status among birders in North America. I was aware of this when I went shopping for my field-guide, but my online search for field-guides had also resulted in a few other books like 'Birds of Ontario' by Andy Bezener, 'Ontario Birds' by James Kavanagh and Raymond Leung and a few of the Stokes Field Guides. These books had the advantage that they excluded those species that are never seen in the Toronto region, thus reducing the effort in identifying birds to some degree. However, I soon found out that the Peterson's field-guide, though it included many more species, was certainly much better than the rest.

The Good:
This 5th edition of the Peterson's field-guide covers birds that are seen east of the Rocky Mountains. It starts with a brief introduction to bird life and behavior which is followed by a section that helps identify different types of birds [like Wrens, Flycatchers, etc.]. The book is compact enough to be carried in one hand while on bird-watching trips. I always did so, since I knew I would have to refer to it very frequently. And I did not find it inconvenient to do so.

The Better:
There are two qualities that make this book extremely useful. The first is that each bird's illustration is enhanced by what are called as 'field marks'. These are those features or markings on a bird's plumage that help to identify the bird, while also differentiating it from other similar species. Thus, the 'field marks', which are accentuated by arrows in the illustrations, tell the birder to look for those features in a bird in the field. The second quality of this book is that next to every bird's description is a small colour-coded map showing the bird's range over the eastern half of North America. A bigger and more detailed map is available for each bird at the end of the book, but these small maps which are on the same page as the bird's description are also incredibly useful to quickly ascertain if a bird is found in a particular region or not.

The Best:
This field-guide provides illustrations for different plumages of the same bird. E.g. Those of juvenile birds, those of breeding adults, illustrations that show the bird in flight, etc. Moreover, the description for each bird also suggests how to differentiate it from other similar birds, even when the distinction is based on the bird's call. Certain illustrations are even reproduced on other pages, so that it is possible to get a side-by-side comparison of 2 similar looking birds, whenever required. As a result, it is very easy to identify even some of the tricky birds. And it is these qualities that set this field-guide apart from all the others mentioned above. The other field-guides lacked such crucial information as juvenile forms or plumages of birds in flight which is so often helpful in identification, not to mention the invaluable field-marks.

The Peterson's field-guide truly stands well above the competition in terms of both quality and utility. It packs a great deal into a relatively compact package and is a great companion to have on all your birding trips in this part of the world.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Six Lifers and a Life

I had always wanted to visit Phansad Wild Life Sanctuary (WLS) for a birding trip. This WLS is a moderate to heavily wooded forest close to Alibag; and after almost a year of waiting, the opportunity had finally arrived. Four of us Mumbaikars: Parag, Shirish, Sameer and I, made a trip to Phansad WLS on the Good Friday weekend. Over 2 nights and 2 days, we had a very productive outing in this lovely place.

After my two previous trips (to Gorai and Sinhagad), I was less than enthusiastic about this one. On both outings, I hadn't seen many birds after 9:00 in the morning, and it was just too hot to roam in the sun after that! But Parag had provided me a cogent reason to visit Phansad in this rather hot time of the year: the breeding of Nightjars.

I'd neven seen a Nightjar before, let alone a breeding one! So I was more than happy to join!

We reached Phansad at about 20:00 hours on Friday, and after a quick visit to Murud for dinner, we were prowling about in the jungle that night. A local forest official had provided some encouraging news: just a few days back, there had been a leopard kill (an unfortunate cow) close to the main entrance of the sanctuary. So a leopard sighting was on the cards tonight...

But we never saw the leopard. All we could hear were the calls of Jerdon's Nightjars and the occasional Grey Nightjar. I must say that it is a really peculiar call (Jerdon's). It's a single note that sounds something like a hurried "qwouwl", and it keeps repeating once every 4 seconds or so!

Back at the base camp (which was a spacious tent near the sanctuary entrance), I was happy to have atleast heard a Nightjar! But it was difficult to sleep in the tent, and there were 2 big reasons for it. The first was that I didn't have a pillow, the second was that Shirish was snoring so loudly that it must have kept the whole jungle awake...

After a sluggish start the next morning, we ventured into the nearby forest outside Phansad for a quick visit. We saw a breeding male Common Iora, a lovely Golden-Fronted Chloropsis, numerous doves, a pair of Grey Junglefowl, a few highly vocal Greater Racket-Tailed Drongos, plenty of Golden Orioles, etc. An Indian Schimitar Babbler was also quite vocal, but we never actually got to see it. The birding wasn't all that great...

So we headed to Revdanda. After an appetising breakfast and a long drive through the numerous coastal villages, we finally reached Revdanda beach.

The beach was deserted. And it was hot. Somewhere in the distance a Long Tailed Shrike sat idly on the top of a bush, kept company by a few Green Bee-eaters.

We saw a Common Greenshank scurrying along the shore, and a group of Sanderlings who were feeding slowly on the sand. But the highlight of the day was a Hook-Nosed Sea Snake that we saw in a pool near the shore! About 3 feet long, this is a venomous snake, and is one of the most common sea snakes found in India. This one was quite calm, and didn't take too much notice of us. I took many pics of it, even managed to touch its tail! Ofcourse, I didn't know that it was venomous then!

This was my first face-to-face encounter with a venomous snake in the wild, and I managed to come out of it unharmed...but I won't try it again ;)

After a rather prolonged and frustratingly slow lunch at Murud (thanks to 'Hajam' waiters to put it in Parag's words), we were back at Phansad. On the way back, we spotted a group of 6 White-Rumped Vultures soaring effortlessly over the hills. This was a pleasing sight, given the drastic fall in the vulture population in recent years.

We had managed to procure the forest guesthouse today, and it was equipped with a bed and pillows....good news :). A short nap in the afternoon and a couple of pics in the neighbourhood was all we did till evening. However, we did see a pair of Scarlet Minivets in the trees adjoining the courtyard right outside the guesthouse! These are truly beautiful birds, and they make quite a colourful pair....the male is bright orange-red while the female is a vivid yellow!

That night, we again ventured into the jungle. And this time we were lucky :)

The first bird we saw was a nesting Grey Nightjar. A much awaited lifer! We also saw another one on a tree nearby. I'd no idea how to spot Nightjars in the night, so I saw how it is done on this trip! I managed to click a pic of one of these 'camouflage masters' from quite close. All I had was a compact camera with a 140 mm equivalent lens, but the result was quite satisfactory (see below)!

Nightjars rely heavily on their superb camouflage for safety. Indeed, it is next to impossible to spot them in the day time! Once spotted, they will remain still and will let you approach quite close to them! I suppose they assume that they can fool you by their excellent camouflage. But if you venture too close, they will certainly fly away. Indeed, the reason why they are called 'nightjars' is also interesting. It seems they feed at night by flying with their mouths wide open. Whichever unfortunate insects land up in their open mouth (analogous to an open 'jar') are happily devoured!

Later, we also saw a nesting Jerdon's Nightjar! And this 'hero' had his "nest" (which is nothing but the ground on which it lays eggs), right next to the kaccha-road that meanders through the forest. Quite a risky location!

Thoroughly satisfied with both sightings, we headed back. As there were two rooms in the guesthouse, I was spared the snoring and got a nice long nap.

The next morning was the best of all.

We ventured into an area called 'Chikhal-gaal' inside Phansad. This place was literally brimming with bird activity! In a short period of time, we managed to see an Imperial Green Pigeon, a Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon (the State Bird of Maharashtra, shown above), a Pompadour Green Pigeon, an Emerald Dove, a Black-Rumped Flameback Woodpecker, Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, a Large Cuckooshrike, and many others. At one point of time, an Imperial Green Pigeon, a male and female Scarlet Minivet, a male Small Minivet, 2 Jungle Mynas, 2 Black-Hooded Orioles were all sitting on one leafless tree at the same time!!! If you're not familiar with these birds, click on their names to see how colourful they are! To see all of them on a tall, white, leafless tree is really something! A Malabar Whistling Thrush and a Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo enthusiastically provided background music for this spectacle!

Soon, we also saw a nesting Bronzed Drongo! And a little later we saw it chasing away a Shikra (a type of hawk) which came and perched on a tree near its nest with gusto! Drongos, though small in size, are very agressive birds. It is amazing to see how they shoo away even big predatory birds! Indeed, this was not the first time I saw this behaviour. I'd seen a couple of drongos attacking a majestic Eurasian Eagle Owl on my Nannaj trip in November 2008.

As though this was not enough, we even saw a Giant Squirrel nearby! This big mammal, measuring about a meter in length, is also known as 'Shekroo' (pronounced as Shake-roo) in Marathi and is the State Animal of Maharashtra. It is an endemic species to Peninsular India. So we had managed to the see the State Bird and Animal too at the same time!

The birding (+ Shekroo sighting) this morning was simply too good! The cherry on the cake was a Crested Serpent Eagle perched on a leafless tree on the way back....

On the way back to Mumbai, we stopped at Kankeshwar to seea few larks. Sure enough, we saw Ashy-Crowned and Malabar Crested Larks on the rocks at the base of a hill.

On the whole, this was a very nice trip. I managed to add 6 species to my bird count, which is not bad at all!

Here is a list of birds seen on this trip:
Phansad WLS: Bird-List

1. Grey Junglefowl

2. Heart-Spotted Woodpecker [heard]

3. Black-Rumped Flameback

4. Brown-Headed Barbet

5. Coppersmith Barbet [heard]

6. Indian Grey Hornbill

7. Common Hoopoe

8. White-Breasted Kingfisher

9. Greater Coucal [heard]

10. Asian Koel

11. Plum-Headed Parakeet [female]

12. Grey Nightjar

13. Jerdon’s Nightjar

14. Rock Pigeon

15. Green Imperial Pigeon

16. Spotted Dove

17. Emerald Dove

18. Pompadour Green Pigeon

19. Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon

20. Red-Wattled Lapwing

21. Brahmini Kite

22. White-Rumped Vulture

23. Crested Serpent Eagle [soaring and perched]

24. Shikra

25. Golden-Fronted Chloropsis

26. Golden Oriole

27. Black-Hooded Oriole

28. Large Cuckooshrike

29. Small Minivet [pair]

30. Scarlet Minivet [pair]

31. Ashy Drongo

32. Bronzed Drongo [nesting]

33. Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo

34. Asian-paradise Flycatcher [female]

35. Common Iora [breeding male]

36. Malabar Whistling Thrush

37. White-Rumped Shama [heard]

38. Rosy Starling

39. Jungle Myna

40. Red-Whiskered Bulbul

41. Red-Vented Bulbul

42. Blyth’s Reed Warbler

43. Indian Scimitar Babbler [heard]

44. Jungle Babblers

45. Brown-Cheeked Fulvetta [heard]

46. Green Bee-eater

47. Large-Billed Crow

48. Paddy field warbler

49. Oriental Honey Buzzard

50. Chestnut Tailed Starling

Revdanda Beach: Bird-List

1. Sanderling

2. Gull-Billed Tern

3. Whiskered Tern

4. Great Egret

5. Little Egret

6. Cattle Egret

7. Long-Tailed Shrike

8. Common Green Shank

Kankeshwar: Bird-List

1. Pied Bushchat [male]

2. Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Lark [male, female nesting]

3. Malabar Crested Lark

4. Rufous-Tailed Lark [glimpse…it was probably this one]

On the way: Bird-List

1. Black Kite

2. Black-Winged Kite

3. Montagu’s Harrier [female]

4. Little Cormorant

5. House Sparrow

6. Magpie Robin

7. Common Myna

8. Barn Swallow

9. Purple Sunbird [mating]

10. Purple Rumped Sunbird

11. Laughing dove

12. Rose ringed Parakeet

13. Asian Palm Swift

14. House Crow

Other Highlights

1. Giant Squirrel

2. Hook-nosed Sea Snake

A little about Phansad WLS:
Phansad lies about 150 km from Mumbai, and is close to the West Coast. It is a moderate to heavily wooded area and spans an area of nearly 50 sq. km. You can reach it by vehicle by travelling along the Mumbai-Goa highway and then taking the road that goes to Alibag. Phansad is about 40 km. south of Alibag. Another way is by a S.T. bus heading towards Roha. I have heard that this bus goes via Phansad.

Phansad was earlier the private hunting ground of the Nawab of the Janjira State. It is now home to close to 150 species of birds, 27 species of snakes, and numerous interesting mammals and insects, not to mention butterflies and plants. It is truly a fantastic place.

Tents are available for free at the entrance of the sanctuary. But there are no places to eat nearby, so you have to travel to one of the nearby coastal villages like Murud.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A new hunting ground: Gorai

A nice, long weekend in Mumbai is surely incomplete without a birding trip! But options for short birding trips around Mumbai are rather limited to places such as SGNP, Sewri, or let's say Nagla Block. So Shirish and I ventured into 'new territory' today. We visited Gorai.

The Gorai area is a mixed habitat. While there are marshes near the creek, there are fields and lightly wooded areas near the coast. So it was worth checking out this place. Ofcourse, Essel World isn't too far away from here, but that wasn't on the itenirary!

We saw our first birds while crossing over the creek. These included Gull-Billed Terns, a Common Kingfisher and a few herons and egrets. That was after we managed to haul Shirish's bike on the easy task!

After crossing over to the other side, we saw many Rosy Starlings and Chestnut-Shouldered Petronias on the road-sides, not to mention the ubiquitous White-Cheeked and Red-Vented Bulbuls. We even ventured near a small hillock, where we saw numerous ashy Drongos and a lone female Baya Weaver...

It was getting hot pretty quickly, so we decided to head for the beach, assuming that we could perhaps get sightings of a Flameback or two...So off we went!

The beach itself was crowded to say the least. One hero was driving his Santro along the water's edge at good speed. We parked near the beach, and began exploring the nearby woods. But most of this area belonged to 'rooms' and hostile 'room-keepers', so we decided to head back home.

But just as we got to the road that goes to Bhayander, there was hope! We could see open fields and in the distance, some trees. This looked like a place where we could do some peaceful birding..! The place is near a board that says somethign like 'This property belongs to Morzella and others'. Also in the vicinity is a board that reads 'White Castle'....!

Undaunted by the amusing signs, we headed into one of the fields where some farmers were toiling away in the sun. We saw a group of Paddyfield Pipits (or were they Tawny?!), fluttering about in one of the small fields. Later, we also saw an Oriental Honey-Buzzard soaring with its well rounded wings and distinctive underwing pattern. But the highlight of the day was the sighting of a pair of White-Browed Bulbuls, at the edge of one of the fields, sitting quietly in a tree. This was a lifer for me!

Further into the area, we got some nice views of many male breeding Common Ioras in the nearby trees. I also saw, for the first time, a Coppersmith Barbet, while it actually made its distinctive call! It was amusing to see this little bird bow in a bobbling manner as it voiced out each note. On the way back we saw a Spotted Owlet too!

Having finished our birding for the day, we stopped at a close-by restaurant on the Bhayander road. The Aquafina bottle (overpriced at Rs. 20) I purchased here, had a peculiarly bitter aftertaste! I happily emptied it at the base of a tree. Conclusion: Don't buy mineral water here.....carry your own!

This last place we visited looks promising. In the winter I'm sure there will be many more birds here..

How to get to Gorai:
1. Reach Borivli station. From here, take an auto or BEST bus to the Gorai Jetty. There are boats that take you over the other side, and the crossing is not very big. Although you can take bikes in the boat, bewarned that it is tricky to handle the bike in the early morning when fish-mongers are merrily littering the place with all kinds of slippery liquids...
2. Travel by road from Bhayander. BEST buses are available too. It's a fairly long route, so it does take a lot of time.