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.