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.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Where Eagles Dare

"Don't fear change, embrace it", they say. Quite true! Having dropped my plan to visit Mumbai literally at the last minute (or last 'Asiad' for that matter), I had a welcome opportunity to visit Sinhagad Valley for some birding today.

For those who don't know about this area, here's a quick sketch:

Sinhagad Fort lies about 25 the South-West of Pune. You can see it on Google Maps here. At the base of the fort is a moderately wooded region, alongside a few fields, also known as the Sinhagad Valley. The Valley is famous for sightings of sundry flycatchers and raptors. One of them worth mentioning is the Ultramarine Flycatcher, which I have yet to see :(

The Valley was alive with bird calls in the early morning! Many of the trees have shed their leaves by now, making it easy to spot the birds. For starters, we saw Jungle Mynas, Jungle Babblers, a solitary Indian Robin and also a Magpie Robin. A few doves were also seen in the area. Nothing spectacular as such...

A little ahead, we saw a group of Chestnut-Shouldered Petronias (formerly known as Yellow-Throated Sparrows) moving busily in a nearby tree. As a matter of fact, this is actually the species that inspired Salim Ali to become a birder :)

In the early morning sun, the yellow throats of these sparrows made them look even more impressive! Accompanying them was a group of Grey-Breasted Prinias, that flitted energetically through the bushes and trees. A lone Rufous Treepie was also seen on one of the trees, but we never got a really good view of it, as it continuously moved about, and was generally far away.

We were soon joined by two other birding enthusiasts, and the six of us together ventured into one of the adjoining fields. After sighting other common birds such as Oriental White-eyes and Common Ioras, we got an excellent view of a handsome Golden-Fronted Leafbird (a.k.a. G. F. Chloropsis).

Later, two other birders in the area joined us. Soon, A Tree Pipit was seen in one of the fields. It was quite close to us, and given the heavy streaking on its chest, it was really a matter of two choices for identifying it: either it was a Tree Pipit or an Olive-Backed Pipit. But the absence of any black and white spot behind the eye confirmed it as a Tree much for Pipit identification!

Then came our first raptor! It was a big eagle, lacking any particular under-wing pattern. As it soared on its mighty wings, we tried our best to ID it, but to no avail. One of our new joinees [;)], Mr. Gokhale, managed to get a photo of it using his 500mm Sigma. After coming home and scanning the Grimmett field guide again, I managed to identify it as a Tawny Eagle :)

At only 0930 hrs, it was blisteringly hot! The bird activity had seemed to die off and we couldn't see anything other than the common resident species. A few worth mentioning are Plum-Headed Parakeets and White-Bellied Drongos, but even those were few and far between... We decided to head back.

On our way, we heard a Crested Serpent Eagle calling and I was only able to catch a glimpse of it as it flew against the hill-side far away. The other new joinee was a boy named Rohan. He showed us the nest of a Crested-Hawk Eagle (a.k.a. Changeable Hawk Eagle), which can be seen from the last bus-stop at the base of Sinhagad Fort!

Sure enough, a CHE was sitting right on the nest! As we sat down for refreshments at the nearby cafe, another CHE came soaring towards us. We were in awe as it flew in circles over the fields in front of us, showing its distinct under-wing pattern! Mr. Gokhale got a decent, if not cracking shot of it in flight. To see this eagle soar was I guess consolation for not seeing the Ultramarine Flycatcher!

Overall, the trip was very good. The total species-count was not impressive, but the sightings of the two eagles were certainly memorable. Overall, we had only seen one migrant species, and that was a Long-Tailed Shrike! Rohan tells me Indian Schimitar Babblers (residents) can be seen in the Valley! Hmmm...... :)

Here is a list of birds we saw on this trip:

  1. Brown-Headed Barbet [heard]
  2. Coppersmith Barbet [heard]
  3. White-Throated Kingfisher
  4. Green Bee-eater
  5. Plum-Headed Parakeet [male, female]
  6. Rock Pigeon
  7. Spotted Dove
  8. Little Brown Dove
  9. Black-Winged Kite
  10. Crested-Serpent Eagle [heard]
  11. Shikra
  12. Tawny Eagle
  13. Crested Hawk Eagle [on nest and soaring]
  14. Golden-Fronted Leafbird
  15. Bay-Backed Shrike
  16. Long-Tailed Shrike
  17. Rufous Treepie
  18. Small Minivet [male and female]
  19. White-Throated Fantail Flycatcher
  20. Black Drongo
  21. White-Bellied Drongo
  22. Common Iora [breeding male and female]
  23. Asian Paradise-Flycatcher [rufous male, female]
  24. Indian Robin [male]
  25. Magpie Robin
  26. Pied Bushchat [female]
  27. Brahmini Starling
  28. Jungle Myna
  29. Common Myna
  30. Red-Vented Bulbul
  31. Red-Whiskered Bulbul
  32. Grey-Breasted Prinia
  33. Ashy Prinia
  34. Oriental White-eye
  35. Common Tailorbird
  36. Jungle Babbler
  37. Purple Sunbird
  38. Chestnut-Shouldered Petronia
  39. Tree Pipit

How to get to Sinhagad:

If you bring your own vehicle, you can reach the base of Sinhagad Fort by travelling along Sinhagad Road for about 20 km. Parking is available for charges of around 5/- at the base of the fort. Another option is to take the local PMT buses. These buses start at Swargate and reach Sinhagad Fort in a matter of about 40 minutes, early morning. Once at Sinhagad Fort, a timetable of return buses is put up at the cafe adjacent to the last bus-stop, so you can plan your return time accordingly. Return buses are at a frequency of about every 45 minutes.