Monday, December 1, 2008

The Land of the GIB

Situated about 22 kms North of Solapur lies the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) Sanctuary at Nannaj. Comprising extensive grasslands, it is home to a small population of 15-20 Great Indian Bustards. These majestic grassland birds, once common in India, are now on the brink of extinction with less than 400 birds remaining in the wild.

The landscape in this part of our country immediately reminds you of scenes from the African Savanna, so often shown on Discovery or Nat Geo. Vast stretches of flat terrain, covered in short grass swaying gently in the wind, with the occasional thorny bush or tree sticking out in the distance. But don't be fooled. The diversity of wildlife in this region is simply amazing. While there are mammals like Blackbucks, Chinkaras, Indian Wolves, etc. there are also birds like Quails, Floricans, Larks, Pipits that are well adapted to this kind of habitat. And of course, there are snakes, scorpions, .....the like! The star attraction, though, is the elusive GIB.

The GIB sanctuary has an area of 8500 sq. km., which includes whole towns like Solapur itself. Rather than having a namesake area of this high magnitude, the government has recently decided to declare only a 300 sq. km. area as the sanctuary, and protect that area properly. Out of this area, about 100 hectares of land lies near a small village called Nannaj, where the GIBs are seen more often than in the other areas, especially while breeding. Adesh Shivkar had organised a trip to this place as part of his NatureIndiaTours programmes, and I was only too happy to join.

The Siddheshwar Express that leaves CST at about 10:20 p.m. brought us (9 of us including Adesh) to Solapur early on Saturday morning. We checked in at the Ritesh Hotel, and after a quick breakfast, left for Nannaj by a hired Trax and hit the highway.

Soon after crossing the toll naka, we stopped by the roadside for a quick look at the birds on the nearby wires. There was an Indian Roller, a Laughing Dove, a Brahmini Starling troubled by some Black Drongos, some Indian Robins and also an Oriental Honey Buzzard which was in 'Pandharpur' (Adesh's expression for really far away birds!).

Back in the Trax, we drove on for some 20 minutes till we reached an area called 'dreamland', which is quite close to the Nannaj village. We had reached Africa! There were birds all around. A couple of Eurasian Collared Doves sat on a nearby bush, while a Rufous-Tailed Lark darted about in the rocks. A Montagu's Harrier haunted the area, scaring away some doves in the distance. A Southern Grey Shrike posed nicely for a picture. Some Indian Silverbills showed up on a thorny bush. Large flocks of Greater Short-Toed Larks were on the move. A few Chestnut-Bellied Sandgrouse came flying searching for water, and instead found us. A few anachronic Grey Francolins cheered for Kapil Dev with their typical calls (sounding like they were calling out Kapil Dev's name with an accented 'i'). Thankfully, it was cloudy and a steady breeze had set in. Perfect birding.

Quite satisfied, we moved on and reached a small village close to Nannaj and took a walk through it. While on our way we saw Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Larks, Large-Grey Babblers, a Shikra, Rosy Starlings, a Lesser Whitethroat, several Rose-Ringed Parakeets, and a handsome male Asian Koel. The village children had started following us, and Adesh obliged by letting them see through the spotting scope and chatting them up.

We boarded the Trax again and soon reached the '100 hectares' area of the Nannaj sanctuary. This is the place where the chances of seeing a GIB are high. We entered the main gate and began walking on the narrow path that leads to a small hut.


The hut here is as far as anyone is allowed to venture into this area. It provides cover and shelter, so birders can safely see the birds unnoticed. As we approached the hut, a Bay-Backed Shrike greeted us by perching on a nearby tree.

As it was cloudy, we preferred not to use the hut, and instead stand outside it. And as we scanned the area with our binocs, a Common Kestrel was spotted hovering in the air. Some Blackbucks were giving us enquiring looks and had stopped moving completely. The air seemed to freeze. There was hardly any movement. Flocks of Greater Short-Toed Larks were seen.

Then, a lone GIB was spotted far away with its clean white neck sticking out from the grass!! Surely, it was in 'Pandharpur'. These birds have become so shy that they never venture close to humans, and most of the GIB sightings are, well, in 'Pandharpur'. Sure, the bird was far away, but the spotting scope Adesh had brought along managed to bridge that gap pretty well.

The grace of this bird is simply unmatched. With its neck upright and head tilted up slightly, it has an aura of nobility. Like a ship in slow motion, it glides smoothly across the grasses. The body does not wobble an inch! It feels almost unreal to imagine a bird of this size to walk so steadily and slowly. Floored!

This one was a male, with the clean white neck being the identifying characteristic. It sailed at its gentle pace for a long time after which it was just too far away. We headed back, and decided to visit another area on the opposite side of the sanctuary gate. Now that the GIB had been seen, we could focus more on the other bird species too.

On our way, we were crossed by a couple of healthy looking Indian Wolves. We got down for a pic and some snacks too!
As expected, the landscape had not changed at all. We had reached some private land in the vicinity and decided to spend some time birding in this area. It was nearly 1:00 p.m., but thankfully it was still cloudy.

A Siberian Stonechat, Paddyfield Pipit, Long Billed Pipit and a Tawny Pipit were seen scurrying about. Some Eurasian Collard Doves fidgeted in a tree nearby. Common Kestrels were busy flying about. There were birds everywhere. But the best one was the Isabelline Wheatear (a winter migrant) which perched right in the open on some rocks. As Adesh explained how to distinguish it from the Desert Wheatear (by looking at its lore, which is the area between the eye and the base of the beak), I managed to get a pic by digiscoping my camera with the spotting scope. This result was quite satisfying!

Then, on our way back, we also saw a Richard's Pipit and a Lesser Whitethroat. And just as we were about to board the Trax, we even saw a juvenile Pallid Harrier perched on a thorny bush. Right on the opposite side, but a little far off, an adult male Montagu's Harrier had perched on a small mound on the ground. Both sightings were amazing, with Adesh explaining how to distinguish a juvenile Pallid Harrier from a juvenile Montagu's (by looking at the white neck collar on the Pallid). And then Adesh spotted the GIB we'd seen earlier, except that it was much closer to the sanctuary gate now. For us, on the other side, it was still in 'Pandharpur'.

It was time for lunch. We headed for the 'Nisarga' restaurant somewhere outside Solapur, and managed to catch a small nap on the way in the Trax. Arriving at nearly 3:00 p.m. at the restaurant, Adesh prompty ordered the local delicacies, viz. the sweet Shenga Poli with loads of ghee, not-so-pungent Shenga Chatni, a fiery Thecha, a few curious sounding 'Dhapaate' (which are like Theplaas), Bhakris, Zhunkaa and Shrikhanda-Basundi. This vivid combination of dishes made for a sizzling lunch which left us with rather protruding bellies, and we wondered how we'd continue birding!

The next place to visit was a small village called Kegav, where the magnificent Eurasian Eagle Owls are seen in what appears to be a canal of some sort. The canal lies on both sides of the road leading to Kegav, and we soon ventured into the right hand side.

These owls, though huge in size, are excellently camouflaged against the rocky outcrops. It was almost like a game, finding the owls that are in the area, but are so difficult to spot. After seeing a Grey Necked Bunting and a Long Billed Pipit on the way, no one had yet seen the elusive and much anticipated owl. We managed a glimpse of a Blue Rock Thrush and a female Black Redstart hopping on the rocks below while a Eurasian Spoonbill flew past in the air.

Sameer finally spotted the owl, but even with binocs, I wasn't able to locate it in the direction he pointed. Adesh soon trained his scope on the Owl so we could all have a better look. And what a look it was (from the Owl)! The Owl was sitting behind a small bush, and its big orange eyes were staring us down! It was in fact quite scary! But the Owl soon got self-conscious and flew off. Although a big bird, its flight is completely noiseless! Not a whisper!

Since no more owls could be seen, we decided to move over to the other side of the road, and try our luck there. Here, again, it was Sameer who spotted another Owl, while all of us had coolly walked past it. This one too was impressive. We also saw some Spotted Owlets, many Grey Necked Buntings, a few Small Minivets and Streak-Throated Swallows in the area.

We were just heading back, when the Owl was seen again, this time sitting in the open, but far away. As it sat there, gazing at us even from that great distance, some Black Drongos were obviously offended and tried to drive it away. Interestingly, the Owl was looking exactly like a cat! I managed to get a record-shot of the Owl, again, by digiscoping. As the light was really low, the pic didn't come off exactly as planned!

After a much satisfying view of the Owl, we decided to head back to the hotel. It had been a tiring day of non-stop birding, and the trip so far had been simply too good. I knew I had seen many lifers (first time sightings) today, including the GIB and the Eurasian Eagle Owl. Tomorrow we'd come back to Nannaj and then also go to Hiparga Lake to see ducks and waders.

Dinner was at the Ritesh Hotel itself, and after a rather blatant "None" in reply to our query "What sweet dishes do you have?", everyone got a good night's sleep. Actually Ranjeet had tried rephrasing the question too by asking "Gulab jamun hai kya?", but the waiter seemed to have his wits about him and said there were no sweet dishes to offer!

Early on Sunday morning, we set off for Nannaj again. The task for today was to get a good look at the Bustard and some of the other species too. On the way, all of us kept a watch for any birds on the road-sides, and soon we halted to see some Red-Collared Doves, Black-Headed Buntings, a Common Hawk Cuckoo which looks quite like a Shikra, a flying male Pallid Harrier and also a White-Eyed Buzzard perched on one of the poles.

Once at Nannaj, Adesh went up a small lookout tower, to see if there were any Bustards around, but unfortunately there were none. Since we'd already had our fill the earlier day, we decided to move on and look at the other species in the surrounding area, particularly a small lake nearby. Back in the Trax.

As we approached the lake, we saw a couple of Grey Francolins running about on the road. We also saw an Indian Bushlark on some rocks as it posed nicely for a photo. I managed to get a pic of it using even the mere 4x zoom lens on my camera! While about it, a Black-Winged Kite crossed the road in front of us.

Once at the lake, there were many birds to be seen. A few Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Larks came for a drink. A Little Ringed Plover darted across the banks while many ducks were busy swimming in the water. Most of them were Spot-Billed Ducks and Northern Pintails, but there was also a single Common Pochard and Northern Shoveler among them. There were many Little Grebes in non-breeding plumage too. As we watched them through the scope, Red-Rumped Swallows had filled the air and were gliding nicely all around the area.

A little further, Adesh spotted a Short-Toed Snake-Eagle soaring in 'Pandharpur'. As he explained how to identify it, the large eagle seemed to scan the area for prey. It even hovered in the air like a Kestrel for long durations. So much so, that Adesh was even able to locate it in his scope so we could see it better. It is amazing to see a bird of this size balancing itself in mid-air while scanning the ground for prey!

In the meanwhile, the Common Pochard was seen again and gave us a nice view. There was also a Spotted Redshank, a Yellow Wagtail and a White-Browed Wagtail in the region. Adesh captured the White-Browed Wagtail in a typical eye-level shot while Garima too took a few pictures.


As we were about to leave the area, a couple of Syke's Crested Larks too made an appearance! Leaving them behind, we set off for a nearby pond where Yellow-Wattled Lapwings are seen.
As expected, 3 Lapwings were seen at the edge of the pond, one of which appeared like a juvenile. There was also a Green Sandpiper and a Common Greenshank standing side by side in the pond! A better opportunity to compare these similar looking birds would be certainly hard to find!

It was lunch time again, and we decided to head back. This time we went to a restaurant in Solapur itself called as 'Sugran'. Here, too, the typical local dishes were ordered and were promptly served by the waiter. The food was, as expected, delicious! In fact the Basundi was probably the best that I have ever had!

Again, with bulging stomachs and a quick freshening up at the Hotel, we soon left for Hiparga Lake. This is a big lake close to Solapur and has many water birds. It was afternoon by now, and the sun had just started to come out of the clouds.

Birds like the Indian Roller, Citrine Wagtail, Chestnut Shouldered Petronias and a group of Red-Headed Buntings were busy in the area. A female Common Kestrel had perched on a small tree. About 5 Black Ibises and a Painted Stork lazily looked around on the banks of the lake. Even a Rufous-Tailed Shrike was seen as it flew about the bushes. As we headed closer to the Lake, which was full of Common Pochards, Common Coots and some Tufted Ducks, a Wooly-Necked Stork came soaring towards us.

Later, a male Eurasian Marsh Harrier came flying silently from the left. The beauty of this bird was accentuated by the surreal blue sky in the background. Exclamations of 'oohs' and 'aahs' filled the air. Seeing a male was rewarding, as usually it is the females or juveniles that are seen.

It was time to head back. The sun had peeked out from a few clouds and seemed to shower blessings upon us. Surely, it had been an exciting and eventful trip. But it wasn't over yet.

As we reached our Trax, there was some more activity around. A juvenile Brahmini Kite came to say farewell. A Clamorous Reed Warbler was seen on some bushes. A Blue Rock Thrush was hopping about the rocks nearby, accompanied by some Indian Robins. A Common Kingfisher kept watch over his part of the water.

Then we saw Red Avadavats, Silverbills and a Scaly Breasted Munia all on the same small, bare, thorny bush not too far away! In the evening sunlight, this sight was simply fascinating. It was as if the bush had acquired bright red jewels! We also saw a male and female Rose-Ringed Parakeet in the vicinity. Though very common, it was amazing to see them in the saturated yellow sunlight. A Spotted Owlet too was seen close by.

On our way back to the Hotel, we stopped by Mr. B.S. Kulkarni's place. He's over 75 years of age, and has spent most of his life studying the bustards and other birds in the region and consequently has published many books. We had a small chat with him before we left for home, again by the Siddheshwar Express that leaves Solapur at 10:40 p.m.

This had been a marvellous trip! Well planned and well managed by Adesh, it was total 'paisa vasool'. What made it even more so was Adesh's meticulous insights and tips that would improve us as birders. That's not to say that the others didn't contribute. Everyone contributed in some way or the other, and it all resulted in a memorable experience.

We had seen close to 115 species of birds, many of which were winter migrants. Moreover, 25 of these were lifers for me. We had missed the Quails and the Indian Courser, which are typical birds of this region, but after seeing so many other birds it would be unfair to demand these too. After all, on a wildlife trip, you never know what you'll see and what you won't. All you can do is visit the right places at the right time and hope for the best.

It is unfortunate that the GIB is getting extinct. It puzzles many people how such a graceful bird can be hunted down so mercilessly. It seems to be heading the same way as the Dodo, and hence will require special efforts to save its dwindling population. What was at one time a prime contender for being nominated as the National Bird of India is now well on the verge of saying goodbye.

Here are links to photos taken by Garima and Anup on this trip:
http://picasaweb.google.com/garima.bhatia/Nannaj?authkey=KM-6CvIv0QU
http://picasaweb.google.com/ranadive.anup/DropBox?authkey=RA7XDqBjTb0

Monday, November 24, 2008

Birding at Sinhagad valley

Note: Most of the bird-names mentioned here are links to photos which are taken by different people, and posted on sites like http://www.flickr.com/ or http://www.indianaturewatch.net/. You can click on them to see those pictures.
After numerous visits to the neighbourhood Magarpatta City garden, it was now time to head to a more serious birding spot. So on Sunday morning, a friend of mine, Yogesh Athavle, and I, set off to a much acclaimed birding site in Pune which is the valley at the base of Sinhagad Fort. Some really interesting information about the fort and its history is available on this link.

The valley is a modestly wooded area and is famous for sightings of such attractive birds as the male Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Ultramarine Flycatcher. We reached the place by bike at about 6:30 a.m. and after parking it at a local temple, we soon got down to business.

It was still relatively dark, though not very cool. As we ambled along, we saw our first bird. It was an Indian Robin sitting quietly at the base of a tree. It wasn't too alarmed at our presence, and seemed to hop about the rocks. Soon, some Oriental White-Eyes came by too, and they began scampering about the nearby bushes. A highly vocal Grey-Breasted Prinia and an Ashy Drongo too joined in and the place was busy with activity.

After a good look at each of these species, we moved on and came to a small stream. It was getting brighter. A few Jungle Babblers were sitting on a small hut by the side of the stream. Like all babblers, they were making their typical harsh calls. However, their calls were distinctly different from the Large Grey Babblers in Magarpatta, which make a sort of "crying" call. One of them even ventured into the stream and began sipping at the water! Jungle Babblers are quite a common gregarious resident species, and can sometimes even be seen on the road-sides in Kothrud.

A Grey Wagtail was sitting right in the middle of this stream, wagging its tail with enthusiasm. Seeing a Grey Wagtail was rewarding, since I'd already seen the Pied, White and Yellow Wagtails at Magarpatta this week. Later, on a tree besides the stream, we saw some White-Throated Fantail Flycatchers and also an Asian Brown Flycatcher, which is a winter migrant to this area.

Leaving them behind, we ventured into the fields beyond the stream. Here, again, there was lots of bird-activity. A Scaly Breasted Munia came and perched very close to us, just about 5 feet away! Ahead, we could hear some "odd" parakeet calls. I had a hunch that these could be from Plum-Headed Parakeets, as they have been seen here in this valley. The calls were coming from nearby tree, but the bird itself couldn't be seen. While hunting for a view, we were suddenly passed by a Rufous Tree-Pie, whom I mistook initially for a White-Rumped Shama. I haven't seen it in Mumbai yet, though they are common in places like Sariska in the North. The Tree-Pie settled on a tall tree, as if giving a pose.


Then, a White-Bellied Drongo came from across the area and perched on top of that same tree. The Tree-Pie seemed miffed and altered its perch. Suddenly, a bird that looked like a small parakeet shot off from the tree we were looking at earlier. The calls were still coming though. I went to get a better view, and sure enough, there was a Plum-Headed Parakeet perched on top, merrily calling out aloud. This is really a beauty of a bird! Its purple face and shiny blue tail make it really attractive.

Back to the Tree-Pie, we saw that a Long-Tailed Shrike was now sitting in the foreground on some bushes. That made quite a pretty sight: the Tree-Pie, the White-Bellied Drongo and now this Shrike, all in the same field of view!

All the birds soon dispersed, and we headed further into the forest. The place fell silent. Carefully avoiding the paddy plants, we walked at a gentle pace. Thorns and some weird looking vegetation had begun to poke at my pants! All the bird calls had stopped, and we struggled to see anything other than Red-Vented Bulbuls and Purple Sunbirds for a while.

Then we came to a bush that had some continuous calls coming from it, intertwined with those of a Common Tailorbird. Looking closely, we saw that it was the Tailorbirds themselves that were making those other calls! I'd never heard them make this call before; it was like a continuous chirping. We moved on.

Far away, there was a small dead tree, full of Jungle Babblers. But there were two other big birds sitting right in their midst, and we couldn't identify them, though they looked like a pair of Shikras. While we looked about in other directions, suddenly, a Shikra came racing towards us, chasing a Long-Tailed Shrike! The shrike escaped, and the Shikra settled on a nearby tree. I missed seeing part of the action, as I had spotted a huge bird looking like an Eagle flying low through the trees on the opposite side!! It was almost like a black ghost flying fast through the foliage, and only about 10 feet off the ground!

Having lost sight of the "ghost" I'd just turned back to see the Shikra tearing through the air and maneuvering its body like a champ while on its chase. The shikra settled close by, and I was even able to get a photo of it with my mere 135mm equivalent lens on my Canon A520.


Just like at Malshej, I tried plugging my camera behind the binocs, and the result wasn't all that bad. After some brightness/contrast adjustment and massive sharpening, this was the result.



Soon, we saw another Shikra close-by and concluded that the 2 big birds seen with the Jungle Babblers were indeed a pair of Shikras. This seems odd, since Shikras are birds of prey, and have been known to feed on small birds. On the other hand, Jungle Babblers feed on insects or berries. One would expect them to stay away from predators like Shikras, and yet here they were, sharing the same tree. Perplexed, we went further.

The White-Eyes had returned, and so had the Grey-Breasted Prinia. We also saw a Common Iora hopping through a close-by bush in search of food. This natural singer was making one of its harsher calls today. A few Red-Whiskered Bulbuls too were seen in the area.


The path was getting unclear. We were making our way through a narrow stream, when the party of Jungle Babblers came along again. It was as though they were following us on our trail! Some Common Tailorbirds too were seen in the trees. It was past 8:30, and we decided to head back and explore the area close to the start of our trail. While on our way, a few small ants were busily moving about. I clicked a photo just for fun, and now it looks like a photo taken on Mars!


On our way, we saw Shikras very often. It was as if the place was full of Shikras! There were many pretty flowers and insects on the way too. Some of the flowers looked quite fragile and delicate, almost like a lace! Then there were other bright blue ones too. The one on the left looks like a Ganpati Idol!

And there was time to take a portrait shot too! [:)]


It was quite bright now, and we slowly made our way back to start of our trail. Eventually, we came to the small stream where we had seen the Asian Brown Flycatcher. A bird-photographer was at the site, and he told us that he'd seen a male Asian Paradise Flycatcher here a while back. We decied to hang around in the area, and also have some sandwiches while we waited. Munching on our snack, we saw a Spotted Dove on one of the trees.

A Glassy Tiger butterfly had managed to escape the beak of a Red-Vented Bulbul in search of a meal, and was flitting about the flowering bushes nearby.


Then, out of nowhere, a Tree Pipit showed up at the stream. It came and landed right in the middle of it and began walking about the dry river-bed. The abundant streaking on its body was quite striking. Scaly Breasted Munias were active in this area too.

Suddenly, a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher crashed out of the woods, and gave us a brief sighting. It soon disappeared back into the woods. Later, it made another entry, but this too was very brief. Females of this species are generally more often seen than the male, and so this wasn't really a rare sighting. The male remained elusive. We decided to call it the day. It had been a good outing.

On our way back, we stopped by the Khadakvasla Lake, which is off Sinhagad Road. There were many ducks here. Most of them were males and females of Spot-Billed Ducks. But there were also some other species like the Gadwall (which were showing us their white bottoms by diving head-first into the water!!) and an eclipse male and a female of Cotton-Pygmy Goose. While Spot-Billed Ducks and Cotton-Pygmys are residents, the Gadwalls are migrants. Cotton-Pygmys are I think India's (or perhaps the world's) smallest species of ducks.

We also saw many Common Coots, Little Cormorants and a solitary Grey Heron (which also is a winter migrant). Later, Yogesh spotted a pair of Ruddy Shelducks towards the far end of our view!! Also known as Brahmini Ducks, these are grand looking big birds that migrate to the subcontinent during winter. We moved a little farther down the road for a better view, and we got just that! I managed to capture a record shot using my digi-cam. There's also a White-Breasted Kingfisher in the foreground, perched on a wire.


There were many "other" birds (about 15 of them) that seemed to accompany the Common Coots. After spending half an hour debating which ones they were, we finally concluded that they were Eurasian Wigeons (also winter migrants). Seeing the Eurasian Wigeon was a lifer for me! [:)] Later, we saw about 5-6 more of the Ruddy Shelducks that were sitting against the bank of the lake, which was earlier hidden from our view.

It was past 11:00 and was time to go home. We had seen some really nice birds, including 9 migrant species, of which one was a lifer (In birding jargon, a 'lifer' means a bird that you see for the first time in your life). Next time I hope to see the Crested Bunting and Ultramarine Flycatcher. Till then, adios.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Juvenile Tuesday

Note: Most of the bird-names mentioned here are links to photos which are taken by different people, and posted on sites like http://www.flickr.com/ or http://www.indianaturewatch.net/. You can click on them to see those pictures.
The garden in Magarpatta City continues to throw up surprises. Today, Dilip Sant, a friend of mine, and I, paid another visit to this garden. While walking through it, we saw juveniles of Red-Vented Bulbuls, White-Throated Fantail Flycatchers, Oriental White-Eyes and also of a Shikra!

Interestingly, all these are resident species. I have heard that the resident species of the subcontinent finish breeding before the winter migrants arrive. Today's sightings seem to confirm this. The tiny White-Eyes were especially a pleasure to watch. They were sooooo cute!They were hopping about a red-flowered bush, and were only 3-4 feet away from us!

Later, we also got a sighting of a juvenile Shikra! It had a yellow eye, and the brown streaks on its chest were quite noticeable. It perched for a while in the open, while on a Nilgiri tree, giving us an excellent view.

After spending a long time searching for the Red-Breasted flycatcher in the bamboo thickets, we were just heading off, when it suddenly crashed out of nowhere and sat out in the open, again, giving us a marvellous view. It was as if it wanted us to see it! We also spotted a few Ashy Drongos flying about in this area.

Earlier, we saw the male and female of the Pied Bushchat again. The male this time had a small white patch on its wing. Grimmett et. al. suggests that it was a "first winter male" which means that this too was an immature bird. That makes it 5 juvenile species in one day!

This is truly a wonderful place for birds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What a day!

I carried my binoculars to work today. After last week's recon mission, today was D-day at Magarpatta City.

As soon as I stepped into the garden, I noticed a small brown bird sitting on one of the light-poles, towards the right. It was more or less fully dark drown. Only its bottom was orangish. A man walked past it, and it settled on the top of a nearby plant. It was a rather quiet bird, which apparently didn't mind being seen in the open. As it stood there, shifting its tiny head from side to side, I was trying to register as many details as possible. Black legs, black beak, black eyes. While on its perch, it wagged its small tail much like a Wagtail, although with less ferocity. I had never seen this bird before, and the closest matching bird I could think of was the Brown Rock Chat. But a rock chat would be found near rocky terrain, and this garden wasn't exactly rocky!

I cursed myself for not bringing the Grimmett field-guide. I had left it at home thinking it will make my bag too heavy! So I resorted to the next best thing: committing everything to memory. After giving me the nice long view I needed, the bird flew deep into the left side of the garden.

I followed. I soon noticed another bird, smaller than a sparrow and about the same size as the previous one, fidgeting on a medium sized bush by the side. I stopped. The bird was just 8 feet away! It was totally black but with a conspicuous white bottom. The sighting of a Pied Bushchat at Malshej Ghat instantly came to mind. But that one had a white patch on the shoulder. This one didn't. It had a black beak, black eyes, black legs...much like the previous one....and its chest seemed dark grey, almost ashy...

This bird too wasn't shy. It moved about in the bush. For a moment or two it even appeared to hover like a humming-bird. It hardly took any notice of me, and soon settled on a thin twig. I adjusted my view. There it was, right in front of me, swaying on the twig, while I was contemplating the excellent but missed photo opportunity. After what looked like ages, I finally managed to drag myself away from the bird.

Two new birds at the very beginning had built up my enthusiasm. I retraced my path back to the garden's gate and ventured further into the garden, this time on the right hand side. This part of the garden was relatively diverse, as it had lawns, bamboo thickets, and also a pond.

As I ambled along one of the garden's paths, I noticed the ubiquitous Yellow Wagtails busily moving about. Some seemed to quarrel, some were looking for insects in the grass. Others were kept company by White Wagtails, which looked a tad bit bigger than the Yellow ones.

I soon came to the patch of bamboo trees. White-Throated Fantail Flycatchers were active here as usual. There were 2-3 of them. As I looked about, I saw a small bird on the edge of one of the thickets. My binocs locked into position. Surprise! Red-Breasted Flycatcher! A lifer!! It is a species similar to the Red-Throated Flycatcher which I'd seen just a month back for the first time in my life. My excitement went up a notch. I watched the bird for some time, before it disappeared into the bamboo.

moving on, I approached the pond. Red-Wattled Lapwings were on display as usual. But the look through the binocs was amazing. The sun was behind me, and I could see a pink fringe on the Lapwings shoulder. Never had I seen this before. As I stood there, marvelling at this common bird, something flew into the Nilgiri trees on the left. Surprise #2! Pied Kingfisher!! Well, well, I thought. This really is a good day!

The kingfisher had perched on one of the lower branches. It was a beauty! I realized that the black-and-white plumage that looks so striking in a book, manages to camouflage the bird decently enough on Nilgiri trees! I was hoping it dives into the water. And soon, it did just that! What a sight!

It was getting a little late, so I decied to head back. On the way, I got the best view of a Black Drongo that I have ever had. Sitting about 10 feet away on a light-pole, it was amazing. With the sun beding me, its plumage appeared to shine and show shades of blue. I could also see the white spot at the base of its beak, a fact that a friend of mine (Amit Gupta) had pointed out just a few weeks back!

Then I also saw a male Eurasian Golden Oriole. This too was so close that I could see its brilliant red eye. Green bee-eaters, sunbirds, bulbuls, prinias, were there too. I packed my binocs and headed for the office building. As though the birding I'd done wasn't enough, I saw a pair of Large Pied Wagtails on the lawn adjacent to the building!! There was a White Wagtail too, and so I also got a size comparison between the two species, the Pied Wagtail being distinctly larger.

What a day!

The two birds mentioned in the beginning were later identified as a female and male Pied Bushchat respectively, with the male in non-breeding plumage. The one I had seen at Malshej was in breeding plumage, and hence it had a white shoulder-patch. These birds are residents over a major part of the sub-continent, and they feed mostly on insects.
Pied Kingfishers and Large Pied Wagtails too, are breeding residents found over most of the Indian sub-continent.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reconnaissance: Magarpatta City Garden

Magarpatta City hosts a rather impressive garden at its very center. Flanked on all sides by 'Towers', the garden has a somewhat circular shape and is quite vast. There are mostly lawns, flower beds, a few Nilgiri trees, Bamboo bushes, even a pond. After 2 months in Magarpatta City, a 'recon' mission to this garden was due. So off I went.

First up were Yellow Wagtails. Plenty of them. Scurrying over the lawns, and wagging their tails like a manual water-pump, they were rather amusing to watch. Some were looking for worms, others were just squabbling about. A few were making chirping calls. A good start!

Two Black Drongos were sitting calmly on a small tree nearby. There were Red-Vented Bulbuls flitting in and out of small bushes, apparently chased by Common Mynas. An old man in the vicinity was wondering what I was doing....

Moving on, I came to a big tree. A rather harsh sound made me look up. It was a Eurasian Golden Oriole. For such a nice looking bird, its call (which was somewhat like a cat's snarl) was certainly incongruous. It soon disappeared into the foliage.

And after that came a pond. Not surprisingly, a Pond Heron was standing on some Lotus leaves staring intently at the water. Behind them, almost like magic, two Red-Wattled Lapwings materialized into view. They were nearly camouflaged against the background, which was the pond's white border by the way. Puzzles me how these Lapwings manage to blend themselves against even a white background!

A little ahead were some Bamboo bushes, bursting with activity. Green Bee-eaters were busy hunting for insects. An unidentified warbler was hopping about. A White-Throated Fantail Flycatcher sat on a small white fence (like those in the old Cricket stadiums) and swerved rapidly from side to side. Perched beside it, a Magpie Robin occasionally dropped to the ground and pecked at it, apparently feeding on insects. Red-Whiskered Bulbuls were sitting atop some nearby bushes.

Mission accomplished. Back to work!

Monday, October 13, 2008

A bird in the shadows

On Saturday, I decided to pay another visit to the mango trees on which I'd seen the Fantail. Armed with binoculars this time, I could see some of the more common birds. There was a Common Tailorbird, some Red-Whiskered Bulbuls, a Common Iora, etc. There was also another bird, a shy one, that seemed to hover on the lowest branch on one of the smaller mango trees.

I couldn't make out what it was. Indeed, for most of the time it was partially covered by foliage. A tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow, that wasn't exactly too active. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, only to settle back on its branch. I could barely make out a buffish colour on its back, and after quite a lot of eye-straining could make out that it had dark coloured legs. I still couldn't see its face...it was facing the other way!

Then suddenly it turned towards me. And I could see a beautiful smear of pale orange on its throat. It was as if the bird was blushing! The colour was so appealing, and yet not bright or gaudy. I'd never seen this bird before!

When it hopped or flew to a nearby twig, I could see its small tail that forked out into a kind of inverted heart, i.e. into two lobes, thus showing a black and white composition. It stayed in the area for about 10 minutes, and finally flew away. Quite excited, I returned home and began a search through Grimmett. Initially, I thought it was a Northern Wheatear. But a check of its habitat and range quickly eliminated the possibility. Also, this bird didn't have a white rump like the Wheatear.

Then I saw a picture of a Red-Throated Flycatcher in Grimmett, which looked quite like the bird I'd seen. The habitat and range was a match too! Still a little unsure, I called up Adesh to see what his opinion was. A description of the pale orange throat and its habits was enough to confirm the sighting. It was a Red-Throated Flycather! A lifer!

Some facts about the bird
The bird is a winter migrant found over most of the subcontinent. Being a Flycatcher, it feeds mainly on small insects. It is now considered a seperate species from the Red-Breasted Flycatcher which has a deep orange upper chest in addition to the throat.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fantail Flycatcher: powered by Duracell

Some facts about the bird:
About 18cm long, the bird is a common breeding resident found in the southern half of the sub-continent. It gets its name from the distinctive shape of its tail, which is so often spread out into a fan. It is often confused with another similar looking species known as the White-Browed Fantail Flycatcher, which has a much wider range. Both are extremely active birds.

On my way to work today, I stopped by some mango trees to see if there was any bird activity. Sure enough, there was a White-Throated Fantail Flycatcher bubbling with enthusiasm on one of the smaller trees. It is one of the most active members of the bird family, and today was no exception. It's as though it were powered by Duracell batteries! That's right. It just goes on and on!

If you were to write an 'algorithm' for the bird's movements, you'd end up with something like this: 'hop-hop-swerve around-spread tail-swerve back-hop-.....'. This would go on forever and that too at a rapid pace!

Ofcourse, the bird can't keep up this energy level without food. Indeed, it feeds quite often on insects in a single day, and that fuels its engines. It's quite a sight to see this bird leave its perch to chase a fly or a moth, somtimes vertically, catch it in mid-air and return to its perch to devour the unfortunate victim.

I watched this bird for about 5 minutes, and in that time it seemed to traverse its own tree's branches and those of the next tree more than twice! It did show a kind of liking to be in an area for some time before moving on to some other tree.

Meanwhile there were some other birds around too. There was a Common Tailorbird, and probably a Common Iora too, whose bright yellow body was noticeable from a distance. I didn't have binocs with me, so I can't be certain about the Iora. But I've seen Common Ioras here twice before.

I had a bus to catch, and turned away. The Fantail was still merrily hopping about.

A Shikra visits Magarpatta City

While on the terrace today after lunch, I spotted a Shikra on one of the buildings in front of mine. It slowly came up from one side and perched on what looked like telecommunication antennae on the building. Its flight was unmistakeable, rapid flaps and then a glide, almost looking like a koel from far away...

After it had perched, some nearby crows were obviously offended, and they tried to drive it away. There were minor tiffs, with one of the crows coming right at the Shikra forcing it to leave its perch and take to the air. Then another joined, and the Shikra simply settled on a nearby lone spike-like antenna at one end of the building.

But the crows wouldn't have any of it. They had another go at it, and by now I guess even the Shikra had had enough. After dodging the pestering crows, its beautiful falcon like body gently swerved towards my building and with minimum flaps of its wings it traversed that great distance in no time and sped away even across my building!

It was the first time I felt that a Shikra was fit to be called a "bird of prey" based on its flight alone, as I have always seen it fly at an easy pace and wondered "how does this bird fly so easily and still catch prey?"....!! I hope to see it again soon!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Oriental White-Eyes seen from my balcony!

See its photo here

Saw this bird today morning on a bush full of big brushy red flowers. The bird was full of energy, constantly jerking its head in all directions, hopping about, occasionally scratching itself! A chubby little bird it is, and the white eye-ring was quite conspicuous. Its bottom too was noticeable as a bright yellow spot. There were two of them. I saw them yesterday too, except that was in the afternoon. Seeing this bird here in the suburbs of Pune was quite a delight! [:)] The last time (and the only time) I'd seen it was on an Industrial Visit organized by our college to some companies around Pune in January 2008. We'd been to a garden named after Indira Gandhi somewhere near Pimpri and I only got a glimpse of these birds, which were in a party of about 7-8 in the scrub-like forest.

This bird has an amazing camouflage! Its lemon green colour nearly blended it into the similar coloured leaves of the bush. Curiously enough, the bird was only tugging at the base of the long red flowers, which had many smaller "sub-flowers" all the way to the tip. Perhaps that's indeed the only way it could feed on the nectar by balancing itself. I recalled David Attenborough's documentary where he mentioned birds being attracted to reddish coloured flowers. I soon realised how much more fun it is to actually see things like these in real life!

There was a squirrel running all over the bush too, and the white-eyes were quite efficient in keeping out of its way. Later, a couple of Purple-Rumped Sunbird females paid a visit, and the bush was busy with activity. But it soon stopped, with the White-Eyes scurrying off to a nearby broad-leaved tree. Grimmet et al. certainly mention its habitat as "Open broad-leaved forest and wooded areas"! The leaves of this tree weren't that broad, but surely about as broad as those of a Cashew-nut tree. Perhaps it is a Cashew-nut tree!! Whatever it is, the bird could now be seen clearly against the dark leaves, albeit only for a few moments. It soon disappeared into the foliage. A perfect start to a Sunday morning!

Facts about the bird compiled from various sources:
Measuring about ~10cm from beak to tail-tip, the bird is a breeding resident found over most of the sub-continent. Its quite a common bird and breeds from February-September. Both sexes look the same, and its usually a gregarious bird. I've yet to find out what this bird feeds on, but I'm sure nectar would be on the menu!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nagla Block

On Saturday, Shirish and I decided to visit the Nagla Block area near Bhayinder. The place is known for sightings of the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher which arrives in Mumbai around this time of the year. Since the ODKF is such a colourful bird, motivation for this trip was quite high.

Note: I've provided links to photographs of the birds mentioned...

ODKF: http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=24211

The forest was lush green and though we heard many birds calling, we saw quite few. One of the more vocal ones was the Puff-Throated Babbler making its “Ithe-ye-tu” call (as Adesh describes it!). The calls seemed to be pretty loud, but we never actually saw the bird.

Puff-Throated Babbler: http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=34161

Brown-Headed Barbet: http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=45875

The first birds we saw were the Indian Grey Hornbills calling away merrily on a nearby tree with their typical “kiiaeaeae….” call. Later, we also heard the Brown-Headed Barbet and got only a brief glimpse of the bird.

Indian Grey Hornbill: http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=47894

Walking on, we soon reached the “tower” which is a ~15 feet tall structure like a machan. We climbed aboard, and almost instantly saw a male White-Rumped Shama sitting not too far away in a clearing. The bird had something pinkish in its mouth and was giving all kinds of poses on the branch. It jumped, hopped, tweaked its tail, much like a Magpie Robin, and was curiously making a “krack-krack-KRACK” call…It was soon joined by the female, which perched only inches away from its mate. It too had something in its mouth, and we thought it was nesting material. I spoke to Adesh about this, and he says it was probably food for the chicks. Whatever it was, the birds kept us company for nearly 40 minutes.

The view of these birds was so good that we could literally examine each feature of the bird’s plumage and compare it with the illustration in Grimmett. Particularly noticeable was the size difference between the male and the female.

White-Rumped Shama: http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=49967

While on the tower, we also saw a large raptor swooping about, like it was scanning the forest for food. I’m quite sure it was a Tawny Eagle. It flew past quite close to our tower, and seeing a big bird fly so close was quite rewarding. Besides the raptor, some sunbirds and bulbuls also kept us company.

The forest right now is filled with mosquitoes, and had it not been for Shirish’s Odomos cream, we’d look quite ungainly when we came out. The mosquitoes are quite stubborn and one even bit me through my socks! What’s worse is that they stay put even when you try to swap them!!

We couldn’t see the ODKF on our trip. That was a little disappointing. But it’s a long season, and I hope to see it soon!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Malshej Ghat

I visited Malshej Ghat on 16th June for a 2 day overnight trip with my mom and dad. It's a beautiful forested area about 160km from Mumbai, and even more so during the monsoons. We stayed at the MTDC resort, which provides decent accommodation for trekkers/birdwatchers. We roamed around in this lush green area a lot, and we saw many birds. Here's a brief account of that trip:

As soon as you step out of your vehicle at Malshej, the first sound you'll probably hear is the Malabar Whistling Thrush singing in the background. The other sound you'll hear is that of the non-stop strong winds that blow in almost all directions at this place!

Our first bird was a Laughing Dove sitting right outside the MTDC canteen….I saw it while sipping tea! I went outside for a better look, and this fellow wasn't disturbed at all. He was looking at me no doubt, occasionally shutting his eyes tight in a rather cute way. The dove seemed to be totally at ease, strutting along on the small path it was on. I'm used to seeing Spotted Doves fly away at the slightest disturbance in Mumbai, so this was a welcome change! I silently acknowledged a good start to this trip…

After checking in to my room, I asked the locals if they knew any nature trails that birdwatchers normally take in this region, but they had no clue. All they could tell me was that the flamingoes hadn't arrived yet at the "dam", which we could see from the resort. The dam actually starts at a place called Khubi Phata, which is a 40 min walk along the highway (NH 222) from the MTDC resort. The dam goes all the way upto the village Khireshwar, which is the base village for a trek to Harishchandragad. Dad and I decided to take a walk along the highway, and try to do some bird-watching, for there's good forest cover on either side of the highway. We set off.

Soon enough we saw a Brown-Headed Barbet on a tree somewhere off the highway. It kept visiting a neighbouring tree quite often, and was quite well camouflaged against the green leaves. Since this bird is relatively rarer than the Coppersmith Barbet which we see so often in Mumbai, I was quite happy. I've seen it in Mumbai also only on 2 occasions, once at Tulsi Lake, and once at Tungareshwar.

Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented Bulbuls are pretty common in the area and are also quite vocal. Their typical "qui-qwayou" was heard I think as often as the whistling thrush. And soon enough, I saw the myna sized black bird land next to the highway and disappear in the next-door bush. We heard a loud continuous whistling, louder and clearer than ever before. A quick flight revealed its shiny Prussian blue plumage, and I knew it was the Malabar Whistling Thrush. There were two of them, and they settled on a nearby tree and kept hopping about on branches that were about 30 feet above the ground. It really is a splendid bird. And when it flies, the dark-bluish wings make it even more beautiful. Lifer #1.

Walking on, we reached the Khubi village, indicated by a sign-board off the highway. There's a small parallel road to the highway that goes past some houses and fields though this village. Since there'd be less traffic on this road, we took it. Looking at the village life here was rather touching. A woman was sifting through a huge heap of bajri seeds that she claimed had got spoilt due to the rain. We also met an old farmer who wasn't too happy about the dam forcing some of the fields to be drowned. How, I don't know. But the simple style of talking, walking, living, was a welcome change from the life in Mumbai. A few more paces down the road, we saw a group of Brahmini Mynas on a tree next to a house.

We reached the dam. Surprise! A couple of Wooly Necked Storks were standing gracefully on the water's edge, about 200 feet away. And quite close to them, say 50 feet or so, a couple of village women were sitting on the ground and doing something like washing clothes, I'm not sure exactly what….Emboldened, we tried to approach the storks. We deliberately walked at an angle, so as not to scare them off. But when we were only 100 feet away, they flew off without warning! They settled in the distance, and there wasn't any point in following them there…it was getting late for lunch. Lifer #2.

Before they took off, I tried to take some pictures through my 4x optical zoom Canon PowerShot A520. I even tried to stick the camera behind my 8x Stokes Talon binoculars, and the result wasn't too bad! Talk about digi-binoc-ing! OK, sad joke…

On the way back, we saw a Pied Bushchat. Sure enough, it was on a "bush" next to the small parallel road I mentioned. It was flying around quite close to the ground, visiting this bush then the next. We got a particularly good view of this bird when it was about to land on a dried bush: a small black bird with three white patches, 2 on the shoulders and one on the rump. Too good. This too was a lifer.

3 lifers in one day isn't too bad!

In the evening too, we set off along the area right behind the MTDC resort. It’s a vast expanse with trees, bushes and moderate forest. Here too we saw the Whistling Thrush, and this time I noticed an almost indigo patch on its shoulder. Perhaps it was my imagination!

And just before we left the resort to start on this trail, I saw a quail!!! There's this small platform between the canteen and the main building, and the quail was standing silently at the end of the small "wall" of the platform, probably to shield itself from the wind. The winds at Malshej are simply incessant. And strong. Anyway, having never seen a quail before, I couldn't identify it at once. I registered a grey head and a brown body. I went towards it. And I couldn’t find it at al!!! I took one more step and this fellow flew away from a distance of less than 10 feet! The flight was quick and direct. It flew only 4-5 feet off the ground and landed about 30 feet away, at the base of the small 1-storeyed building. The flight reminded me of the flight of a sandpiper. I followed. I noticed some barring or lines on the chest. But again, it flew before I could see more of its features. This time it landed farther off, but not too far. And then I lost it in the bushes! I tried to identify the quail using the book by Grimmett…but couldn’t find a match. I was a little disappointed.

Back to the trail. We were walking along, when suddenly, a large bird came from nowhere and settled on a cactus/bush, about 70 feet away. To my delight, it was a male Common Kestrel. In these overcast conditions, the bird looked simply awesome. And it was nearing sunset too, although there wasn’t the typical sunset lighting. Looks like these winter visitors come in June itself! A sighting to remember!

The next day too, we tried to do some birding. But this time luck wasn’t on our side. We saw the thrushes, barbets, and also a Crow Pheasant. But no new species.

So! An excellent trip to an excellent place. Do visit Malshej. I'm not sure if birding in the heavy rains is a good idea, but when I went, there wasn’t any rain. It had rained a week back, and had made the place quite green. I'm sure you'll take back fantastic memories….the way I did.

I compiled a 360 degree view of the area just behind the MTDC resort. You can see the dam which looks like a flat wall to the left of the buildings. Here it is:

video

Here are some random pictures taken on this trip:

Farmers ploughing the field

A dead snake. If you know which species it is, please let me know.

This bright green bug is known as the Jewel Bug. What a fitting name!


Pretty flowers on a tree

Common Garden Lizard

The winding road offers good birding opportunities, but mind the traffic!