birders at uran cover 1 768x423 - Mumbai Birdwatchers' Club: Uran and the Quest for the Common Shelduck

Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Uran and the Quest for the Common Shelduck

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I had just returned from Dehradun a few weeks back to find the atmosphere in Mumbai’s birding circles electric. Much of this was coming from that amazing sighting in Vasai, the red-breasted merganser, the first authentic record of this species in India. Almost every birder spread out over our metropolis (as well as people from Bengaluru, Kolkata and several other locations) had made a beeline for this bird and it had been a very cooperative subject giving good views to all who visited including participants of the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (MBC) walk the week before.

To keep the momentum going, we decided to hold another bird walk on the very first day of 2017. The location initially was the Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS). There was some excitement there about a week before this planned walk when a solitary Common Shelduck was spotted and photographed there. This might be only the 2nd record of this species (pending confirmation) from the Mumbai region. However, the bird was not seen later, even by those visiting the same day. In any case, BPS is always a happy ‘birding’ ground and with the likes of Adesh Shivkar leading the walk, any bird enthusiast would be in for a fantastic experience.

And then, just 2 days before the walk, Mayuresh Khatavkar, another well-known birder gave the big news. The common shelduck was seen again, but this time in Uran. A flurry of activity, and the destination of the walk was instantly changed, to give every birder a chance to see this rarity.

Kuldeep and I would be assisting in the co-ordination of the walk, so we headed to the meeting point early along with two more participants of the walk, Ronit Dutta and Mita Gala. Shortly, we reached the Jasai wetlands, also the meeting point on one of the earlier MBC birdwalks. This time though, they were flooded with the high tide still receding, so while waiting for the other participants to arrive, we birded from the road itself.

The flamingoes were not there this time around, but many of the waders we had seen the last time around were, including black-tailed godwits, little stints, painted storks, common greenshank, marsh sandpipers among a few others. As a few of the participants arrived, almost as if to compensate for the flamingoes, we noticed a very large congregation of pied avocets in the distance. In the early morning mist, their numbers had not been apparent, but together with the local fisherman working in the area and a lone Eurasian marsh harrier doing sorties, the flock often took flight, numbering nearly 150 by our estimate.

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Adesh arrived as well, and with a few more participants coming in, approximately 30 of us were treated to these pied avocets flying across the rising sun. After everyone had a good look at most of the species present, we decided to move on to Panje.

As always, we drove slow keeping an eye for various species. We saw some of the usual suspects, Asian openbill stork, glossy ibis, white-eared bulbul, Siberian stonechat as well as a few other species. Then as I was driving, a raptor flew across the road just a few feet ahead of our vehicle. A medium-sized body, long tail, small rounded head, and we realized we were dealing with another harrier. But with its pale grey body, whitish underparts and dark primaries, we realized this may not be the ubiquitous Eurasian marsh harrier. We instantly got down from the car, but it had made its way deeper into the grassland. Our initial impression was a Montagu’s or Pallid harrier male (the Hen harrier is not as common to the region, though also a possibility) but we were unable to conclude the ID.

Soon, we reached the designated spot at Panje and began our birding, this time focusing on the wetlands ahead which were full of waterfowl and a few waders as well. Adesh once again did his bit, setting up the scope, focusing on an individual bird, asking participants to identify it, and then going to explain specific features of the bird. One of the highlights in one such discussion was the ‘butterscotch’ rump of the common teal, a feature not many participants would likely forget anytime soon 🙂

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Ronit had brought along a scope as well so Kuldeep along with a few other participants had decided to try their luck in getting a sight of the common shelduck. As I caught up with them, they were smiling and I knew they had gotten their prize. It was well outside the usual binocular range, so I had a look through Ronit’s scope as well, my excitement barely contained to have a look at this potential lifer. Only to find it wasn’t there!

Much to the chuckling of Ronit and Kuldeep, I threatened that I wouldn’t allow the common shelduck as part of our eBird list until I had a decent look at it 😀 Ronit was good enough to understand my desire to see this bird, so a few minor adjustments later, he said he had the bird back in sight of the scope. With some trepidation, I looked again. The scope was trained at a grass mound in the middle of the wetlands, and I couldn’t see much initially, but then I noticed some white behind the grass. And then a prominent pink bill. Slowly, this beauty of a lifer came into view.

Adesh and the rest of the participants had now caught up with us as well. After getting a quick idea of where Ronit had his scope pointed, within seconds, the bird was within the sight of Adesh’s scope as well. One by one, each of the participants had a look at the bird. Adesh once again pointed out the specific characteristics of the bird, including the upward curvature of the tip of the bill, something which wasn’t obvious even in illustrated plates of the bird in the guide book. We weren’t sure at this point of time about the records of this species in Mumbai. But noted naturalist and birdwatcher, Sunjoy Monga has pointed out to at least one prior record of a small flock of common shelducks at the Tulsi lake in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park sighted by Charles McCann (the exact year is not very clear, possibly 1916 or 1917). In any case, the bird is definitely a rarity for the region.

This turned out to be a very gracious bird too as while we were watching it, it decided to do a fly-by moving to the wetlands on the other side of the road giving some participants a fantastic view and giving the eagle-eyed photographers a chance to get a shot of it in flight which also let us know conclusively that bird is a female going by the less prominent breast band and lacking the knob on the bill seen in the male.

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Photo Credits: Viraj Khorjuwekar

With more sightings of different species such as the Caspian tern, grey heron, garganey, northern pintail, northern shoveler and even the ruddy shelduck, we were thoroughly sated as a group. A few of us who had also decided to give a quick try in the drier areas of Panje for the Caspian plover got two additional bonuses. One was the common shelduck giving us another fly-by back towards the original wetlands we saw in the morning (The few of us are indebted to one of the participants, Chirag Ahuja, as he first saw the bird take flight from a distance). The second bonus (no, we didn’t see the Caspian plover unfortunately) was another skulker, the slaty-breasted rail at rest near a reed patch close to some houses. This again was thanks to the dedication of a few of the participants such as Nayana Amin, Roozbeh Gazdar and a few others who were determined to check this small area.

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As we headed back to our vehicles, we were informed some members of the group who were birding near the road including Kuldeep and Ronit had been treated to the grand, relaxed flight of a Peregrine falcon! And even after we left the place, we were treated to sights of more raptors on the road, the common kestrel, pallid harrier (this time it flew right over our heads, perhaps the same bird from the morning who had decided to be generous with us), oriental honey buzzard as well as the Indian spotted eagle close to the Jasai stop we had made in the morning.

With MBC, the birding never ends 🙂

Birdlist at Jasai, Uran: https://goo.gl/ICIeV6
Birdlist at Panje, Uran: https://goo.gl/lF4du1

Guide to the location can be viewed in the previous blog to the same location.

Link to the Facebook group for the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club where details of each walk are posted: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mumbaibirdwatchersclub/

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