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 or 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 or 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.