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Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Birding by the beach- Bhuigaon, Vasai

Beach Birder Line

Birders just need an excuse to start birdwatching. Even with the first birdwalk of the season starting at the all-time favorite, Bhandup Pumping Station (part of the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary) where we were sizzled to a crisp with the heat and humidity such that pakoras (fried dumplings) become the popular term to refer to each other, the spirits never once dampened (even with all the sweat!) and there was plenty of demand for the next walk. It was ‘passage migrant’ season after all (Passage migrants to a particular area are typically birds that do not linger around very long, spending a few days to perhaps a month before heading to their wintering or breeding grounds where they spend a longer duration of time probably spanning a few months. For Mumbai and surrounds, typically just before and after winter tend to be suitable conditions for seeing passage migrants to the region).

We discussed and debated locations, and hearing of good sightings from Vasai and thanks to the availability of our coordinators from there, our next location was finalized, Bhuigaon beach. This location is considered to be one of the best birding spots in the Vasai region because apart from the relatively undisturbed beach that attracts waders and other shorebirds, there is a good mix of woodland, grassland and marshy habitats that you would also pass through before accessing the beach that also offer interesting sightings such as buttonquails and crakes. How this mix of habitats would impact birding I’ll explain ahead.

I was scheduled to also assist in coordinating the walk along with Kuldeep Chaudhari, Mandar Khadilkar and Varun Satose but some coughing and sneezing a few days before the walk had me watchful of committing to any travel. Luckily, just a day before, the irritating sniffling had gone, and I was all set to join for the walk. So before the crack of dawn, I was up at 4:30 AM, to catch the 5:12 AM train from Andheri to Nallasopara station, a journey of about 45 minutes. At Nallasopara, I met more birders, Ronit, Arun and Mohit who were joining us. From there we took the bus to meet everyone else at the Bhuigaon Church bus stop from where we would all proceed for the walk.

Once we got down from the bus and before the other participants arrived, we walked up ahead a bit and could hear the lilting ‘Tu-hee, Tu-hee’ call that announced the arrival of a local migrant, the Grey-bellied Cuckoo. The call was being heard within the township itself, and moments later, Ronit spotted it and just a seconds later, we saw the bird take flight to disappear amongst the buildings. Participants began to come in by that time along with Mandar, Kuldeep and Varun. There were over 40 participants by the time everyone came so as was the usual practice, we split up into groups, each of the coordinators along with a few experienced birders leading and interpreting sightings for participants.

The first area we came across was a marshland habitat, and through our binoculars and cameras, we could see a few Common and Green Sandpipers moving amongst the shallow waters, with Little Ringed Plovers to give them company. One of the birders saw a Jacobin Cuckoo too, well-known as the heralder of the Indian south-west monsoon, making the long journey from Africa just a few days before the arrival of the rains here. What many people may not be aware of, is that a population of these birds may actually be residing within the country (during the summer months, largely restricted to the southern states) with the rest heading back to Africa as the summer arrives here. There is still so much more to discover about the migration journeys they take. But to get back, the sightings continued, with three species of herons, the Indian Pond Heron, Striated Heron and a juvenile of the Black-crowned Night Heron, all well-known wetland associates. We saw Green Bee-Eaters perched on the wire cables, and in fact, later on ahead, saw a pair mating, a nice natural history moment (The more modest of you, please shy away from the next image).

Green-Bee-eaters-mating

Record shot only, apologies for the quality (they were at a distance and we didn’t want to disturb them by going closer at this time :))

As we moved on ahead, the habitat gradually gave way to a mix of woodland and grassland, and with the change of habitat, the species mix changed a bit too. Participants began to sight larks, among them the Rufous-tailed Lark and the Oriental skylark. Barn swallows became a common sight flying overhead and perched on wires (but almost always against the light!). However there was something unusual going on today, nearly all the birds were giving us birders an unusually wide berth, being seen only for brief glimpses including a very shy Lesser Whitethroat and a Sykes’s warbler, both winter migrants to the region.

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The Lesser Whitethroat belongs to the genus ‘Sylvia’, collectively known as the Typical Warblers belonging to the Old World (Africa, Europe & Asia). Most of these warblers feed on insects and can often be seen in comparatively drier areas with thorn, scrub and grassland as opposed to thick forest. This species is a winter migrant here coming here from further north in Asia, likely from countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan where it breeds. Image credits: Makarand Saraf

A Eurasian Wryneck, a unique bird, the only member of its family and a migrant to the region made the shortest of appearances (You’ll see why it gets its name through this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD52NLJw4Pk). Thankfully, a flamboyant Common Hoopoe (the bird the storm Hudhud was named after) and a bold Black-winged Kite decided to change things up, and posed for us birders. And then a group of birders including Mandar and Ronit saw some more bold individuals, this time, Grey-Necked Buntings, another winter migrant visiting from the colder climbs of Northern Asia.

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A Black-winged Kite stands sentry. They can often be seen hovering over grasslands in search of prey, a distinctive behavior.

We trudged on, as the heat and humidity started to pick up a bit with the rising sun, a small hamlet on our left, and the shade of a few trees providing some relief, as we sighted Purple and Purple-Rumped Sunbirds and Baya Weavers. Spotted Doves crooned away in the background, Plain and Ashy Prinias made blink-and-miss appearances as we ventured on, and gradually the woodland gave way to the wide expanse of the Bhuigaon beach.

Kuldeep Woodland Bhuigaon

Kuldeep points out some Baya Weavers to the participants

The tide still seemed to be far away, so we could not sight many birds first up. Mandar and his group which were further up ahead had managed to get a glimpse of a soaring Osprey, a magnificent aerial predator adept in hunting a variety of small to medium-sized marine prey, especially fish. We were not so lucky, but did manage to get a glimpse through our binoculars of a rich-chocolate brown Brahminy Kite very far away. Unusually this species is not as abundant on Mumbai’s coastline as you see just when you start heading south of the Mumbai and Greater Mumbai region. Would be very happy to hear opinions on why this is so.

Mandar Beach Bhuigaon

Mandar showing and explaining the difference between Sand Martins and Asian Palm Swifts

Now we could see a few Sand Martins and Asian palm swifts circling above us, the broad wing shape and pale underparts of the martin and the pencil-like body shape and the thinner, aerodynamic wings of the palm swift helping to differentiate these fast-moving birds. Some distance away just at the edge of our binoculars’ vision, we could spot a few sand plovers (rather difficult to differentiate between Greater and Lesser Sandplovers at the distance). We noticed a slightly larger wader and the distinctive upturned bill shape and its size made it easy to identify as a terek sandpiper. Small densely packed flocks of stints also circled the sea beyond.

Varun and birders beach

Varun along with enthusiastic participants

Poonam Shailaja Ladies Bhuigaon

We take a pit stop on the beach

With no comforting shade, it was amazing to see passion trumping the sweltering conditions, as the participants walked on, still asking questions of senior birders and MBC coordinators and keeping a weather eye out for those waders we all wanted to see. Some of the more interprid participants such as Poonam Kakodkar even went a step further documenting some of the marine life.

Washed up Jellyfish

A large jellyfish washed up on the beach. Image Credits: Poonam Kakodkar

Cuttle fish Eggs

Cuttlefish Eggs. Image by Poonam Kakodkar

Finally, we reached a part of the beach that was a little less rocky, where the tide had made more progress than elsewhere. This allowed us to finally see a few more details on some of the waders that were so far away earlier. We could see a mix of Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Little Stints and a flying Western Reef Egret spotted by Kuldeep. And then we see another bird, a small one the size of most coastal waders, but whiter than all the others. As it so happens, that is exactly the field mark that helps in differentiating this particular wader from the others, those bright white underparts and black legs made it clear we had a Sanderling in our midst. The bird is actually quite common here on Vasai’s relatively undisturbed coasts (though as Kuldeep informed me, the last 10-15 years have seen a fair amount of erosion of the beaches here), but still, it was a nice sighting as this solo individual foraged along the edge of the tide, pecking away at the sand with its short bill, looking for small invertebrates and all the participants had a clear view of the bird even though it was at some distance.

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Image of the same species by Kuldeep a day before the walk (Yep, he was there :))

With this sighting, we decided to call it a day and do a quick recap of all the sightings. Imagine our shock when we find out that over 80 species have been recorded during our entire walk! On a supposedly ‘quiet’ day!

But this is exactly what I alluded to earlier, because Bhuigaon provides a mix of habitats that I shared above, the bird diversity naturally here is high. And that is why this was such a satisfying walk, tired and sweaty though we all may be 🙂

Bhuigaon Group Photo

Image Credits: Akshay Shinde

Checklist of the birds seen during the walk: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39613640

How to reach:

You can take the bus from Nallasopara Station (West) towards Bhuigaon village. Buses are available usually every 15 minutes. Ask for the Bhuigaon Church bus stop which is the last stop and from thereon you can ask anyone to direct you towards the way of Bhuigaon beach. Remember to start keeping an eye out once you cross the township, as the road passes through marshlands. From there, the road leads straight to the beach. Try and manage the timing of your visit to approximately 2 hours before the high tide sets in the for most conducive conditions for seeing waders & shorebirds.

Location in Google Maps: https://goo.gl/fraipM

Link to the Facebook Group of the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mumbaibirdwatchersclub/

Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Uran, Navi Mumbai: 6th November, 2016

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The MBC group at Jasai


I was not surprised when the location that was announced for the next bird walk on Sunday, the 6th of November, 2016 turned out to be Uran, Navi Mumbai. Why? As mentioned in the previous blog, Uran had been particularly popular  since the last couple of weeks, because of two species in particular. One was of course the Indian skimmer, an endangered tern species (usually restricted to freshwater habitats) that I had the fortune of seeing on the same day as the BPS Birdwalk. The other of course, was the bird I had gone to Uran in search of, the Caspian plover, a rare migrant which has only a handful of records in India. And it was not just these, there were reports of other rarities, the grasshopper warbler, Asian desert warbler and even bristled grassbird. No surprise then, that Uran was hot property!

This walk was co-ordinated by Adesh Shivkar, Mandar Khadilkar, Avinash Bhagat, Clara Correia, Mayuresh Khatavkar, names for which the birding community needed no introductions, their collective birding and conservation experience, staggering to say the least. A testament to this is that as soon as the notification for the next bird walk was put up, the MBC team was swamped with registrations. Initially, the plan was to restrict group size to 30. However, since this was among the first bird walks, it was decided to increase this limit, and while the number of registration requests were still higher, over 80 participants finally ended up attending the bird walk. The plan would be to meet at the Dastan Faata at Jasai to bird for a little while near the marshes there, and then break up into smaller groups, gradually make our way to Panje village, where most of the sightings reports above had happened.

Since there were going to be some political rallies near the Dadar/Sion area, I decided to drive there via the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road going through Mankhurd, Vashi and then to Navi Mumbai. Accompanying me were Vikrant Choursiya and Jyoti James. We reached Jasai at about 6:45 AM, and were surprised to already see a group of 30+ people in the marshes. With their scopes, binoculars and telephoto lenses, there was no question as to what tribe this group belonged. Parking the car close to the others, we stepped down into the boggy marshes. As we neared, we spotted Mayuresh, Adesh and several other birders with their binoculars and scopes trained to a bevy of wetland birds in the marshes. Front and centre, were a group of 200 odd Greater Flamingoes, composed mostly of immature individuals. Other numerous waders included black-tailed godwits, marsh sandpipers, glossy ibises, black-winged stilts, common redshanks and a host of waterfowl in the distance including ruddy shelducks, northern pintails, northern shovelers among many other species.

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Greater flamingoes at the Jasai marshes, with black-winged stilts in the foreground

As we watched them, more of our number joined us, and when the group had reached close to the expected size, Adesh gathered us all together, giving a quick orientation on the purpose of reviving the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club, stressing on building a community of like-minded people going forward. Following that were a quick round of introductions and it was interesting to give faces to the people many of us had enthusiastically discussed birding with on Whatsapp and Facebook groups. The introductions done, the birding continued. More interesting sightings took place, including raptors such as Western Marsh Harriers, and an Osprey as well.

All this while, the co-ordinators took care to not only show different species, but also elaborate on their identification characters, behavior and migration patterns. Standing in the group close to Adesh, he talked about among other things, the separating characters of black-tailed and bar-tailed Godwits, the plainer back of the former (relatively more scaly in the Bar-tailed), as well as the propensity of the Bar-tailed Godwits to be seen largely in coastal habitats rather than freshwater ones. He also talked about the migration patterns of the bee-eaters, the blue-cheeked bee-eaters more as passage migrants seen in the Mumbai region around October/November, while the blue-tailed bee-eaters are seen typically from August/September, their numbers steadily rising with the onset of winter, and continue to be seen till around April. Additionally, Adesh kept us birders on our toes by focusing the scope on a particular species, and then asking us to identify it with characters. This was an enjoyable exercise as there is no better way than this to learn from seniors in the field. The species tested on included the common sandpiper (a diagnostic character being the white shoulder patch) and the lesser sand plover (characters include the smaller bill, grayish legs, and absence of any collar or eye-ring to separate from other small plovers). Likewise, I could see Mandar, Avinash, Clara and Mayuresh engaging other budding birders.

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A little ringed plover without its distinctive dark eye-mask and breast collar, signaling this individual is in non-breeding plumage

After a good amount of birding, some of the groups decided to move to Panje. Avinash and Clara headed out with some of the smaller groups first and gradually the rest of us also got into our cars. Adesh decided we could also stop en route close to some reeds where we were likely to see some warbler activity. Unfortunately, once we reached the spot, the habitat was found to have been dried up and levelled. The Uran area has been in the eye of a storm since the past many years. With the airport coming in the vicinity and the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone, many of the wetland habitats hosting hundreds of resident and migratory species have been lost to endless construction of structures including roads and flyovers. Off and on, cases of poaching are also heard of here including of the famous flamingoes. Some dedicated birdwatchers and environmentalists have been fighting for years here for the conservation of the habitat and the avian residents, and continue to do so, in the face of ever increasing pressure on the land. Uran has been prolific in providing some amazing bird records over the years, testament to the diversity of the habitat, so documenting the avifauna here has become more important than ever before.

Continuing with our journey, we slowly made our way to Panje, birding most of the way. Where the natural habitat was still preserved, we saw among many birds, the Siberian stonechat, Indian roller, scaly-breasted munias, rosy starlings. Avinash and others spotted a greater spotted eagle en route. A birding couple even saw a tawny eagle.

On reaching Panje, once again we parked our car outside the access road, and proceeded to meet up with the others. Panje typically is a mix of woodland and wetland habitat and it was in the dried bed of the wetlands that the bird everyone was looking for, the Caspian plover had been seen. We walked along the trail, keenly scanning on our right to see the presence of any plover. I should mention here that after failing to sight the Caspian plover on my first visit, I had made another quick trip here prior to this bird walk to Uran with Saurabh, Amey and Prachi with the intention of sighting the plover. After much searching, Amey had spotted a group of three plovers facing us on his scope. He noticed the middle one was slightly larger and had buffish underparts, pointing out that this might be our elusive quarry. Taking a note of its position, we ventured closer but again couldn’t sight it, and it was only after much more intensive searching, we saw it at a closer distance and I was able to take a few record shots. Later while returning, the presence of a few fellow birders including Vinod, Mohak and Chirag close to the road indicated that the bird had come much closer and I got a second chance at photographing it.

caspian-plover-underwing

When birdwatchers first saw this individual, the identification was a challenge as the Caspian Plover (which is a rare migrant to the region) is not easily separable from the Oriental Plover which would be a vagrant (outside the species’ breeding and migration range) to the region. The white underwing (as opposed to dark in the oriental) which they observed in flight was a key character in helping identification.

With this background, I knew finding this solitary bird over such a huge area was never going to be easy. Teams led by Adesh, Avinash, Clara, Mayuresh and Mandar scanned different parts of the area intensely, but to no avail. It was then decided to nevertheless continue with our regular birding rather than chasing after one bird. So we headed back to the narrow Dongri road that passed through Panje, planning to culminate our walk at the spot the Indian skimmer had been seen.

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Birders at Panje

The wetlands were absolutely chock full of birds. Huge numbers of waterfowl could be seen, and we even saw flocks of smaller waders further within. Accordingly, the scope was set up, and once again, we saw each species and discussed extensively about it. For example, we were lucky to see a few Eurasian wigeons and discussed its eclipse plumage (this is the drab form adopted by the males of a species outside the breeding season), and its identification characters such as the smaller, rounder head and grayish black-tipped bill. We also observed the wader flock seeing marsh sandpipers, common redshanks, ruffs, common greenshanks when Adesh announced that there was a spotted redshank in the group as well. We could manage a few glances of its bill (the base of the lower mandible of the bill was red, as opposed to both the upper and lower base being red in the common redshank) as well as its prominent supercilium (eyebrow).

We made our way ahead to check for the skimmer as well, but again it didn’t seem to be in the vicinity. Instead we focused on the other terns, with Adesh doing another pop quiz of focusing the scope on a particular tern, and asking different birders to take turns on identifying it (it was a whiskered tern, for those who remember it 🙂 )

Finally, it was decided to call it a day. The entire group gathered where Adesh once again mentioned there would be regular bird walks in the next few weeks, the next one being planned for Bhopar in Dombivli led by Kiran Kadam and a few other birders. Almost like a parting gift, we were all treated to the dark morph of a booted eagle soaring high in the sky.

Till the next bird walk, leave you with this image of all us happy birders 🙂

group-photo-mbc-uran-6th-nov16

Image credits: Capt. Haridas

Birding list from Jasai, Uran: https://goo.gl/GYn1if

Birding list from Panje, Uran: https://goo.gl/yyIrwU

How to get there

The birding hotspots in Uran are spread out over a large area. There are a number of different habitats, inundated marshes, reed beds, freshwater bodies and their dried beds interspersed with woodland and grassland habitats as well, and may well be one of the major reasons the area sees a particularly high diversity of avifauna. One can start near the Jasai marshes (Location of Jasai marshes: https://goo.gl/9q0F2c) to begin with. Note that once you get down from the road to go into the marshes on your left, the surface is boggy, so it is recommended to wear good shoes or sandals, and would always be better to have some company in case you get stuck somewhere.

From Jasai, when you head towards Panje, except for a short stretch on the highway, birding all along the route can be rewarding so it is recommended to drive slow here, keeping an eye out on the surrounding wetlands, grasslands and high-tension wires (We actually did see a common kestrel on our way back from Panje after the birdwalk, and the area is conducive to come across other falcon species as well from time to time).

Once you near Panje (Location of Panje: https://goo.gl/yN4V7F), there is a small road down the slope towards the Dongri road. There is a wide expanse of wetlands here, both on the left and right worth exploring. A small dirt path on your right would take you further inside the wetlands, you can also choose to follow the Dongri road. The drier parts of the wetland are good areas to come across plovers, larks, pipits while the inundated parts see huge flocks of waders and waterfowl (wader concentrations are likely to be greater close to the hours of high tide when they would fly in here from the coast). Because the typical terrain is flat and spread out, having a scope is extremely useful here to expand the range of spotting species.

Link to Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (Facebook group): http://goo.gl/FPnJgX

Mumbai Birdwatchers Club: Walk 1- Bhandup Pumping Station (and a quick detour): 30th October, 2016

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It was during an eBird monitoring workshop conducted at the Mahim Nature Park in September that I first heard whispers. The Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (MBC) was being revived. Having only started birding in the last couple of years, I was not even aware such a platform had even existed. There were of course communities of birders spread out over the expanse of Mumbai, Thane, Vasai, Dombivli and Navi Mumbai out almost every weekend (if not during the weekdays too), but an initiative that would seek to unite all of us that followed these winged beauties throughout the year (Yep, even during the monsoon) made for an exciting prospect. Like any other social activity, birdwatching is also best enjoyed in a group, like-minded people using the combined power of their observation skills to maximize sightings of both species and interesting behavior and also sharing their collective knowledge gained by experience. An initiative aimed at aiding conservation of habitats under increasing human pressure, no fees would be charged for any of the walks, the purpose being to build a community of bird lovers who could consistently document avifauna by putting their checklists on sites such as eBird along with photographs.

So, it was great to finally hear of the first birdwalk being planned on the 30th of October, a Sunday at one of Mumbai’s most popular birding hotspots, Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS). The area is part of and synonymous with the recently established ‘Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary’ declared in August last year which itself is spread out over 1,690 hectares. It has been recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Bombay Natural History Society, an initiative by Birdlife International to identify global avian diversity hotspots.  As its name suggests, BPS like its south Mumbai counterpart, Sewri serves as a congregation point for the famous flamingoes, including both the Greater and Lesser flamingoes. They can actually be sighted throughout the year, but the highest numbers are typically seen from November onwards going into the summer months. In addition to the flamingoes, BPS also supports an incredible avian diversity with more than 200 species reported from the area, including rarities for the Mumbai region such as the Pallid Scops Owl and Grasshopper Warbler.

The co-ordinators for the first birdwalk were Saurabh Sawant, Amey Ketkar and Rujuta Phadke, all respected senior birdwatchers that have spent many years documenting avifauna all over Mumbai, and over the rest of the country as well. We were meeting at 7:00 am, and I had decided to drive there, so I picked up fellow birders, Vikrant Chaurasiya and Yogesh Patel as well as Saurabh as we headed to the meeting point just near the entry point to BPS close to Airoli bridge near the salt pans.

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While mail registrations had been sought, there were still a good deal of informal confirmations of arrival so it was unclear what the participation was going to be like. We reached the spot, meeting Amey and Rujuta as well at 6:45 AM, while waiting for others. By 7, a total of 25 people had gathered together, an ideal size that Saurabh, Amey and Rujuta were looking at for the group.

We then decided to make our way in. Finally, all of us reached the designated spot in BPS which is a tarred road with the Pumping Station on the right and the creek on the left. We also met with another senior birdwatcher who had already reached the spot, Mayuresh Khatavkar who was already actively birding pointing us to a large congregation of blue-cheeked and blue-tailed bee-eaters.

Without as much as a second thought, everyone had their binoculars and cameras out, and the avian treasures of BPS revealed themselves. A Yellow-eyed babbler skulking in the long grass, Baya weaver flocks foraging away along with Red Avadavats as well. Interestingly, hidden in the long grass, we spotted some migratory buntings as well. We got a second look at them later in the day too, however from the angles visible, were unable to see the characters favouring a particular species, photographs were taken, and it was best narrowed down to an immature red-headed/black-headed bunting.

A red-headed or black-headed bunting (immature)

A red-headed or black-headed bunting (immature)

Amey had brought along the scope as well, so we made our way along the dirt trail taking us further inside the creek. We could spot grey-throated martins (plain martins) flying overhead. Gradually, as we went closer, we could see huge flocks of waterfowl (ducks among which northern pintails seemed to be the most numerous), egrets, gulls, terns and black-winged stilts on our right. The air was abuzz with the calls of warblers as well.  Amey put up the scope and one by one, we had close looks at different species such as the slender-billed gull, grey heron, little grebe among others. There was also some activity further up ahead. Some of our fellow birders could see warblers. Saurabh was with the group, and to everyone’s delight, they were treated to close views of both the paddyfield and Blyth’s reed warbler. It was a great opportunity to compare the characters that separated the two species.

Paddyfield Warbler: The white throat and pale legs help differentiate this warbler from the more widespread Blyth's reed warbler

Paddyfield Warbler: The white throat and pale legs help differentiate this warbler from the more widespread Blyth’s reed warbler (Image by Mohak Katvi)

As we made our way back, on the opposite side which were dotted with mangroves, the group spotted more new species for their list on the day. A common snipe was feeding sheltered in the mangroves, and three different species of sandpiper, common, wood and green sandpipers were also seen. Once again, Amey, Saurabh and Rujuta guided the group on the different characters that separated each species, from the prominent supercilium (eyebrow) of the wood sandpiper to the white shoulder patch of the common sandpiper.

We made our way back on the tar road and decided to explore the road up till the end. White-eared bulbuls were almost continuously seen every few metres. A spotted dove stood watch perched in the high branches. And then the delight of most birders was seen, the Indian Paradise Flycatcher. Almost everyone caught a glimpse of the bird, though photographing it was a challenge as it moved in the canopy. As we headed further, we also spotted a house crow mobbing a western marsh harrier.

harrier-crow

Mobbing is an anti-predator mechanism where one or more birds dive-bomb, attack,harass a bird of prey such as this Western Marsh Harrier. The purposes could range from defending young to stealing food.

It had already been an incredibly rewarding walk, when I got a call from Vikrant at around 9:15 AM. Two more our company, Varun Satose and Aditya Akerkar were planning to head to Uran to catch a sight of the Caspian Plover, a very rare migrant which has only a few records from India, and had the birding circuit abuzz during the week. I had already been planning a visit, and I latched on to the opportunity as Vikrant had been to the spot the previous day. I took leave of the group, and we were also joined by another enthusiastic birder, Arun Varghese.

Long story short, we reached Uran by 10:30 AM and began our search for this elusive plover which has only a few records from India. It had been seen in the dried lake bed at Panje village. We soon came across the first of plovers, which were little ringed plovers in varying states of plumage. Further on, we saw Kentish plovers as well. Vikrant had seen the Caspian plover very close to the road the previous day, and the plover didn’t seem to be in the same area today. We went further in, and were also joined by some birders from our birdwalk including Mohak Katvi, Vinod Verma and Prathamesh Desai. On their arrival, we were rewarded by an osprey flying high up in the skies. As we went further in search of the plover, Prathamesh spotted larks as well which turned out to be Sykes’s short-toed larks.

Sykes's short-toed lark, a bird of typically arid habitats

Sykes’s short-toed lark, a bird of typically arid habitats

Unfortunately, despite our efforts, it seemed the plover had moved off. We were just on our way back, when Mohak got a call. His face immediately brightened, and I hoped for news of the plover. Mohak informed us it was not news of the plover but just about 100 metres from our present location, his friends Chirag and Nayana had  seen another coveted migrant. This endangered species was usually best seen in freshwater habitats with sandbanks, primarily in Madhya Pradesh. But even last year, one individual had made its way to Uran for a few days. We could not believe our luck! It would be a lifer for all of us. Which bird this was? Read on 🙂

Since we had missed on the plover, I decided to err on the side of the caution and didn’t get my hopes up high. We made our way to the location pointed out by Chirag and Nayana and soon spotted a huge flock of terns resting in the centre of a freshwater body about 70 feet away. We spotted Caspian terns, along with some smaller terns as well and not seeing the bird we expected to, again became concerned. Then, Mohak got an image on his phone from Chirag and we narrowed down the location based on the landmarks in the image.

And then, we see something. Varun and I were closest to the spot, and almost simultaneously we spotted the much darker head and body. And then it turned. And there it was, in all its glory, the Indian Skimmer.

indian-skimmer-blog

Easily separable from the rest of the terns, the Indian skimmer’s bright red bill is adapted for a specific feeding strategy. It flies low over the water with the longer lower mandible of its bill ‘skimming’ the surface of the water which it snaps up as soon as a fish is caught.

We took a few record shots and saw the bird in our binoculars to our heart’s content, delighted that our trip had in fact resulted in a rare sighting, even if it was not for the one we had intended. Being in a community of people who share the same passion could often result in unexpected rewards like these. My rendezvous with this Indian skimmer would never have been possible had I not joined the BPS birdwalk in the first place.

As we shared the good news with some of our friends at BPS, Saurabh also informed us of the amazing morning they had there. A total of 83 species had been spotted, and the group was treated to some amazing activity by Eurasian wrynecks!

eBird checklist for BPS birdwalk: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32291492

 

How to get there

Bhandup Pumping Station is accessed close to the intersection of the Eastern Express Highway and the Mulund Airoli road. If coming from Mumbai’s suburbs, one needs to take a u-turn under the Mulund flyover and then take a left. You will see salt pans on your left.

(https://www.google.co.in/maps/place/Bhandup+pumping+station/@19.1551334,72.9570684,18z/data=!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x3be7b88e1fef5b87:0xbe0e3bfb117e8876!2sBhandup+Pumping+Station!3b1!8m2!3d19.1545709!4d72.9578194!3m4!1s0x0:0x1ca536f91dd7e347!8m2!3d19.153486!4d72.956509?hl=en)

Once you enter the road, keep following it until you reach the gate at the end manned by the forest department. Just before it, is a dirt track on your left. The condition of this road is questionable at best for the next 200-300 metres, and it is recommended to have a vehicle in good condition with high ground clearance, ideally an SUV before you once again hit the tar road further up ahead (Alternatively park your vehicle before the kachcha road). Birding is rewarding all along this road, and there is a trail opposite the pumping station which takes you further within the creek offering better viewing opportunities especially for waders and waterfowl. Close to high tide is the best time for viewing waders, but since there is a good mix of woodland and grassland habitat as well, even early mornings regardless of tide timings can be quite rewarding.

Link to Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (Facebook group): http://goo.gl/FPnJgX

Mount Abu- Encounter with Big Black Baloo

Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

A few months back in December, we were invited to a wedding of a family friend of my wife at Abu Road in February. I was not sure of making it, but the family insisted it would be a good idea; we could even spend the weekend at Mt. Abu. I did not particularly relish the idea as I only remembered the place as a child and the only thing I recalled was boating at Nakki Lake and figured it would be like every other bustling hill station.

However, some reading up online got me interested, a small number of people were talking about the excellent trekking options. I dug a little deeper and stumbled on a few fragments of info on the Mount Abu wildlife sanctuary. The website of the Rajasthan forest department and a few scanty TripAdvisor reviews were all I could find. So I got in touch with a friend of mine, Shardul, who had been to virtually every green corner in India. And he pointed me to Noel Desa of St. Mary’s school who would change my perception of this quaint hill station.

On February 15th, 2014 we found ourselves in Mt. Abu. We dedicated the day to explore the usual sights and sounds, Nakki Lake, Dilwara Temple (brilliant architecture). We spent the rest of the day at our hotel, Connaught House, and the well-maintained gardens attracted a nice diversity of avian visitors.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

While driving around Abu as well, we had noticed babblers and bulbuls seemed to be in abundance much like other hill stations, and the usual city suspects- house crows and pigeons seemed to be missing in action. The lack of scavenging avenues for the latter might perhaps be a causal factor.

A first timer for me, though locally common here, was the Indian Yellow Tit, also sometimes known as the Indian Black-Lored Tit (Parus (xanthogenys) aplonotus).

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

These were joined by a few more of the commonly encountered species:

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

Laughing Dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

In the evening, we took the drive to meet Noel or Brother Noel, as he is known at school. He met us at the gate along with possibly, the world’s friendliest Great Danes. He explained that Mount Abu’s biodiversity was largely unexplored, forests ranging from thorn to evergreen with a stunning variety of birdlife (he showed us a picture of a group of Green Avadavats, one of the rarities of the subcontinent, congregated around a small water feature near his office). Leopards were also very much present here, and Mt. Abu was fast gaining a reputation of having an unusually high density of sloth bears.

Noel gave us a quick tour of the school, beautifully maintained with great care taken to preserve the local flora and fauna. The education of children here ensured they are constantly in tune with nature, often visiting the nearby forest.

The next morning, based on Noel’s advice, we visited Trevor’s tank, the sanctuary’s most popular entrance. We paid the customary entrance fees at the gate, and took the dirt road to Trevor’s Tank. The road was bumpy and though I wouldn’t advise any journeys in old cars of any questionable condition, most cars would be able to manage fine. While driving, we spotted a few common avian residents such as Black Redstarts and Fantail Flycatchers, until I spotted something interesting in a sandy patch on the road.

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

We had been told earlier leopards were very much present, but it was good to know the big cat was on the prowl. Tigers, unfortunately disappeared here in the 1970s, the last tiger apparently seen in 1974 when it was found raiding a village’s chicken coop. Some reports suggested past presence of lion as well, and Noel in fact had told us recently there had been rumours, that a few kilometers south of the Aravali foothills, they were again being seen, courtesy the spillover from Gir.

We reached the end of the road, and we stepped out to view Trevor’s Tank. We met one of the local guides there, Bijay who showed us around the place. The Tank had been constructed in the year 1897 by Maharaja Kesari Singh Bahadur of Sirohi State in memory of late Colonel G. H. Trevors (The agent to the Governor General Of India from 1890-1895 at Rajputana). A few tourists do visit the spot to view the tank’s reptilian residents, mugger crocodiles. They were introduced a few years back, along with some exotic species of carp and goldfish. What effect these exotics have had on the local species is undocumented.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

The wildlife sanctuary area according to forest department stats, was not very large, 19-20 kms long, and 5-8 kms wide. Contiguity with any protected areas seemed to be long lost (At one point of time, it may have been connected to as far as Ranthambore). We asked Bijay to guide us through any trails in the surrounding forest. He said he could do so taking us to a hillock edge, ominously named Death Point. My wife and me exchanged nervous glances at the name, but decided to proceed. We began trekking, and after a few meters, were rewarded by the sight of a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

Oriental white-eyes flitted from bush to bush. We walked on, until we heard the distinct harsh cry of a langur alarm call further up the hillside, followed in a few minutes by a peacock’s. We stayed for a while scanning the hillside with binoculars but soon the calls subsided, and we didn’t catch a glimpse of any movement. We walked further ahead, Bijay in front, followed by my wife, and then by me.

As we turned the next bend, Bijay beckoned to us with quick motions, and my wife caught a glimpse of the elusive grey junglefowl disappearing into the underbrush. By the time I turned the bend, I could only hear the rustling indicating its movement. Disappointed, I checked the time and realized we needed to head back for a quick lunch before meeting Noel to explore the forest near his school.

  We went on our way back when something flew in and perched on a tree above us. It was a Brown-headed Barbet, a common forest resident of the subcontinent.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

We returned to our car, and to the town for a quick lunch. We reached St. Mary’s at 3:30 pm. The weather was just perfect, a warm sun, and cool winds blowing. We walked out the school gate towards Tiger Path, one of the well-known trekking routes I had read up on. The route is approximately 7 km long, ending at a village. Noel informed us it would connect to the main town road, though the route was a bit long and circuitous.

Tiger Path, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

We set off at a brisk pace, to take in as much of the forest as we could for the remaining daylight hours. The forest here seemed to be in far better condition as compared to the largely dry forest around Trevor Tank. A couple of plum-headed parakeets whizzed by us.

Noel knew the route, like the back of his hand, and with a long club-like stick in his hand to ward off any dangers; he was as comfortable off the route as he was on it.  As evening set in, the forest was bathed in golden light.

As the sun began its descent, we decided to head back, as we didn’t want to stay after dark, and the last thing we wanted was to bumble into anything unexpected in the dark. I had no idea this line of thinking would turn out to be somewhat prophetic.

On our way back, a small temple had been built; three youths on a motorcycle had stopped by. They informed us they had seen a bear going off into the forest from the road. We thanked them, and remained vigilant, but I knew the chances of coming across any large mammals on foot would always be low. Humans, no matter our efforts, tend to be too noisy.

We walked on, and I was scanning the forest, when my wife pointed out ahead and asked, “Who is that?” About 20 meters ahead of us, a large black figure had turned the bend and was plodding on towards us. My first reaction was, “Looks like a bear, but can’t possibly be one, what were the chances”. But a second look confirmed it, there was in fact, a sloth bear walking towards us.

At this point of time, the bear became aware of our presence. We had made no attempt to hide, not wanting the bear to come any closer; he stopped as well regarding us balefully.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or zoom.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or magnification on the original image.

Noel, a few feet ahead of us, had been looking for tracks, and as he looked up, he froze and quickly looked back to us to ensure we had seen the bear.

I managed a few quick shots, and kept an eye for any changes in the bear’s behavior. While we were a group of 3, and there was no cause for immediate danger, sloth bears are notoriously temperamental, unpredictable animals. When cornered, and unable to find themselves in a position to retreat, they stands on their hind feet and attack, biting the unfortunate victim’s face, leaving devastating injuries.

Sloth Bear Profile, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

However, in this case, he looked at us for 10-15 seconds, and to some relief, turned back and disappeared around the bend.

The bear turning back

The bear turning back

We proceeded ahead with caution around the bend, but rustling in the bushes a little further ahead on our left, indicated that the bear was making its way up the hillside.

We made our way back and soon reached the Tiger Path gate, and as we re-entered the school gates, we were welcomed again by Noel’s friendly Danes.

Brother Noel & The Danes

Brother Noel & The Danes

Over some piping hot tea, we relived our trekking experience. Noel pointed out that he had been making steady efforts to curb the invasive lantana (Lantana camara L., an introduced exotic species) growth. The lantana has spread through much of the sanctuary habitat adversely affecting native species destroying the habitat of endemic wildlife, key among them the Green Avadavat. Because of the efforts to maintain the natural habitat near school, these endangered birds are now being sighted again, but are at risk over the larger landscape that was already witnessing fragmentation.

We also talked about our close encounter with the bear. While everyone was well aware of the presence of bears, they were not seen as often, and if they were, it was usually at a long distance up away on hillsides.

The lower reaches have patches of evergreen forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

The lower reaches have patches of deciduous forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

Final word on our journey:

Having a wild sloth bear 20 meters away is a thrilling experience, but I wouldn’t certainly wish for this encounter to happen alone, when the sun has set.

We were just happy that big ol’ Baloo had graced us with his presence during the day 🙂

Kit: Sony A35, SAL75300 (75-300 mm)