Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bhigwan - Water Birds Aplenty!

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Water Birds Aplenty!

For birding enthusiasts in Maharashtra and the adjoining states, Bhigwan ranks high on the list of birding destinations. Bhigwan is highly spoken of in birding circles because it is the destination of migratory water birds including the beautiful flamingoes in the winter months. If you want to sight a wide variety of water birds and that too in their plenty, Bhigwan is the place to go!!!

I made plans to visit Bhigwan in March 2014. I had confirmed online that the birds had arrived in Bhigwan and that it was indeed a good time to visit Bhigwan. During my online research I got to know about other birding spots, viz. Patas, Varwand Dam, Narayanbhet etc. around Bhigwan or enroute from Mumbai to Bhigwan. I decided to make optimum use of my time by visiting as many birding spots as possible.

The next step was to finalize the accommodation and transport arrangements. Since I planned to make it a 3 days visit, I decided to book a hotel in the nearest town or city. I finally decided to stay in Baramati, about 25 kms from Bhigwan. Baramati is home to a lot of industries and has decent hotels to cater to the business clients. I did not have a problem in finalizing a hotel for my stay.

Bhigwan is about 250 kilometers away from Mumbai by road. Since I planned to visit several birding spots during the 3 days, I decided to hire a vehicle for the trip. That would give me the flexibility to go wherever I needed to, whenever I wanted to.

The last step was to arrange for a local guide who could guide me to the right spots. A local guide with his / her expertise can help you utilize your time and efforts in an optimal manner. They know the best spots and the right time to visit those spots. I finally decided to take the assistance of Mr. Sandeep Nagare, who according to online blogs was very knowledgeable and helpful. I called up Mr. Nagare and fortunately he confirmed that he could accompany me during my visit.

All bookings done, my final itinerary had a busy and hectic look to it.

Final itinerary

Bhigwan Trip - Final Itinerary


Mumbai to Baramati
7:00 AM
12:00 PM

Bhigwan - Diksal

Bhigwan - Kumbhargaon


Varwand Dam

Mayureshwar WLS

Narayanbet, Bhuleshwar


Kavadipath to Mumbai
18:00 PM
20:00 PM

I was anxious, eager and excited about the upcoming trip.

10th March 2014
Bhigwan beckons!

The journey from Mumbai to Bhigwan started early at 7 am. The ride on the Mumbai-Pune expressway was a pleasure and we reached Pune in approximately 2 hours. We encountered traffic in Pune before we got onto the Pune - Solapur Highway. This highway was an absolute delight. Smooth roads and minimal traffic meant that we reached Baramati just after noon. A great start to the trip.

I checked into the hotel in Baramati, Krishnasagar Residency. It was a decent and clean hotel. The food in their restaurant was even better. A few hours of rest and relaxation later, I was raring to go!

About Bhigwan
Firstly, some information about Bhigwan. Bhigwan is a small town on the Pune-Solapur highway. Bhigwan is located at one end of the reservoir of Ujni dam. During the winters, the reservoir’s waters attract our migratory winged-friends from far and away. There are villages located on the banks of the reservoir. Each village offers a different view and experience of the reservoir’s waters. Two of the more popular villages for birding are Diksal and Kumbhargaon.

How to reach Diksal:
At Bhigwan (facing Solapur), after exiting the Pune-Solapur highway, you need to take a left turn  and keep going for a few kilometers till you reach an old bridge. Diksal village is located at the end of the bridge.

How to reach Kumbhargaon:
In order to reach Kumbhargaon, do not take the exit for Bhigwan. Instead, continue on the Pune-Solapur highway for a couple of kilometers, till you see the signboard for Kumbhargaon on the left. Take the exit for Kumbhargaon. Follow the narrow road till you reach the Kumbhargaon village. You may need to ask for directions at a couple of places.

Detailed instructions with maps can be found at the following site, which I used in planning my travel. All thanks to the author, Mr. Vivek Kale for the excellent information.

My plan for day 1 was to visit Diksal and spend the evening there. I would visit Kumbhargaon the next morning.

An evening in Diksal
I reached the old bridge at Diksal in about half an hour. As soon as I reached the bridge I could see a lot of water-birds in the water. We crossed the bridge and reached Diksal village. I met an elderly man, who agreed to take me birding on his boat. After some price negotiations, we finally set off in his boat.

A few minutes into the boat-ride, we neared some small islands in the water. And on these islands were a wide variety of water-birds. Asian open-bills, Grey Herons, Egrets, Cormorants, Black-winged Stilts, Godwits, Glossy Ibises, Pallas’s Gulls, Terns and many more. The best part was that these birds were present in large flocks. It was sheer a delight watching and photographing these birds.

 Birds of a feather flock together - Asian Openbill Stork 

 Balaning Act - Black-winged Stilt 

 Great Stride - Great Egret 

 Grey Heron in the company of  Asian Openbill Storks 

 Sun-basking - Cormorants 

 All gloss - Glossy Ibis 

 River Tern 

 Black-tailed Godwits 
All credit to my elderly guide for his skillful handling of the boat. He steered the boat close enough to the birds without disturbing them. Rowing the boat and that too against the wind was hard work indeed.

Next on my wish list was flamingos. My elderly guide directed the boat to one corner of the reservoir. There, on a large island, I saw a lot of Northern Shovellers, Garganeys, Black-headed Ibises, Cormorants and Gulls. We maintained a safe distance from the birds so as not to scare them away. In the water, beyond the large island, was the pink treasure I was itching to sight. The Greater Flamingos.

 Northern Shovellers in flight 

 Birds Aplenty! 

 Take off - Northern Shoveller and  Little Cormorant 

 Black-headed Ibis 

 Pretty in Pink  - Flamingos 
The boat made it’s way slowly and steadily towards the flamingos. Flamingos are very shy by nature and tend to fly away when anyone gets too close to their comfort. Therefore we maintained a safe distance. The flamingos were an absolutely beautiful sight. The tall and graceful birds in different shades of pink, with red and black wings, were a treat to the eyes. Needless to say the camera’s shutter button was pressed down continuously for a very long time.

 Greater Flamingos 

 Greater Flamingos 
We spent a lot of time near the flamingos. After a while, rain-filled clouds started rolling in. These clouds did not block the sunlight completely. As a result, we had some amazingingly soft light for the next few minutes. I just could not get my fill of these beauties. The flamingos however had their fill of me and started flying away. Even in flight, these birds were grace and beauty personified. The flying flamingos were a fitting finale to my first day in Bhigwan.

 Greater Flamingos 
 Up close - Greater Flamingos 

 Up, up and away - Greater Flamingos 
Just as the flamingos flew away, as if on cue, it started drizzling. We made our way back to the shore. Two hours had passed as if in the blink of an eye. It was a most enjoyable and satisfying evening. The up close experience with the flamingos was a long cherished dream come true.

 Water Drops 
And to cap off a beautiful day, a beautiful rainbow appeared in all it’s glory.

 Mobile shot - Rainbow 
As I returned to the hotel, I wondered about the next morning. What will Kumbhargaon have to offer?

11th March 2014
Flamingos, Give me more!

The next morning I reached Kumbhargaon village. I was directed to Mr. Sandeep Nagare’s house, where a huge board greeted me. The board made me feel that I was in safe and knowledgeable hands. I met Sandeep and his brother Nitin. They were friendly and welcoming.

 A welcome sign 
The boat-ride was delayed due to a light fog. So, I enjoyed a delicious breakfast at Sandeep’s house. I learnt that Sandeep offers homestay facility to visiting birders at his house. Sandeep was knowledgeable about the local birds. He had formed and trained a team of local youths in bird-spotting and identification. He and his team also took care of injured birds and nursed them to full recovery. It was heartening to meet such selfless and dedicated nature lovers.

After the fog cleared, we started the boat-ride. Sandeep informed me that he would first look for flamingos and would cover the remaining birds after I’d had my fill of flamingos. That sounded like a great plan to me!

We went pass Gulls, Terns, Storks, Herons etc. in the hundreds. After half-an-hour of rowing, we finally sighted a flock of flamingos in the distance. But before we could approach the birds, they took off. Would the trip have an anti-climatic ending?

 Taking to Flight -  Greater Flamingos  
My fears were however unfounded as the same flock returned and landed a lot closer than earlier.  We approached the flock cautiously and this time they did not fly away. The flamingos were in larger numbers than the flock I had seen the previous evening. It was a virtual sea of pink!

 The Pink army - Greater Flamingos 

 Greater Flamingos 

 Close march - Greater Flamingos 
We spent more than 45 minutes watching and photographing these birds in various poses, wading, flying, landing etc. This was my best time in Bhigwan. 

 Greater Flamingos 

 In Flight - Greater Flamingos 
As we made our way back, we noticed a flamingo that let the boat a lot closer than we would have expected. On closer observation we found that the bird had a broken leg. I felt sorry for the bird and watching it try to fly with it’s broken leg was an agonizing sight. We stayed away from the bird not wanting to increase it’s misery.

 Agonizing: A broken leg - Greater Flamingo 
Bhigwan had experienced hail-storms the previous week. A lot of birds had been killed and many more were injured by the hail stones. This particular bird appeared to have been injured by falling hail-stones. It was a heart-breaking sight.

We continued to make our way back. We stopped to photograph some Painted Storks. These colourful storks were wonderful subjects for photography. After the flamingos, these birds fascinated me the most.

 Hand-painted: Painted Stork 

 Painted Stork 
Next up I saw a Marsh Harrier sitting on the banks. This was my first sighting of any Harrier species. It sat on the banks for a few moments before it took off allowing me an opportunity to get a flight shot. 

 Marsh Harrier 

We also saw Ruddy Shelducks, Godwits, Ibises, Asian openbills, Gulls and Terns. The gulls and terns easily numbered in the hundreds. The gulls hovered around the fishing boats hoping to catch some fish.

 Ruddy Shelduck 

 Glossy Ibis and Black-tailed Godwits 
 Little Cormorants 

 Terns and Gulls 

After the boat-ride ended, we went to a spot nearby. There were countless painted storks and cormorants there. We walked about and were rewarded for our efforts with sightings of the following birds, Purple swamp hens, Glossy Ibises, Black-crowned Night herons, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Eurasian Collared dove, Sandpiper, Greenshank, Drongo, Common Iora, and Spot-billed ducks. How could any birding trip be complete without sighting a kingfisher? And last but not the least was a Common Blue kingfisher.

 Greater Spotted Eagle 

 Black-crowned Night Herons 

 Yellow-crowned Woodpecker 

 Common Blue Kingfisher 

It was a wonderful end to my birding in Bhigwan. And what an amazing birding experience it had been. The flamingos had made my trip most memorable. I’m sure I will return to this beautiful location in the future.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mayani Bird Sanctuary - Image Slideshow

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Trip Summary

Travel Destination – Mayani Bird Sanctuary, Maharashtra

Travel Date – 01st Oct 2013

Animal sightings – None

Bird sightings – Red-vented Bulbul, Indian Robin, Great Tit, Purple Sunbird, Long-tailed Shrike, Ashy Prinia, Laughing Dove, Brahminy Starling, Baya Weaver, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Green Bee-eater, Rock Pigeon

Photography Equipment

Camera – Nikon D90

Lenses – Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Mayani Bird Sanctuary - A Dry Spell

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Another One Bites the Dust
Mayani Bird Sanctuary

If you live in Maharashtra state, one of the frequently talked about go-to destination is Maharashtra’s Valley of Flowers. Maharashtra’s Valley of Flowers is located in Kaas Plateau of Satara district, approximately 280 kms (5 hours by road) from Mumbai. In the months of August-September hundreds of wild flowers and shrubs bloom for a total period of only four to five weeks. Kaas Valley of Flowers had become a hot-spot for nature lovers and botanists.

In September 2013, towards the end of the monsoon season, I visited Satara and finally got to see and experience the Kaas Valley of Flowers. Without doubt, it was a very beautiful and scenic place even if a bit over-hyped in my humble opinion. I also visited the beautiful Thoseghar waterfalls which was about 26 kms from Satara.

 Kaas Valley of Flowers 

 Thoseghar Waterfalls 
After visiting Kaas and Thoseghar, my plans were to visit the Mayani Bird Sanctuary, which is located approximately 80 kms away from Satara. Even though I searched extensively on the net for the latest status about Mayani Bird Sanctuary, there wasn’t too much information available about the Sanctuary. Therefore I made up my mind to find out in person about the sanctuary’s status.

Mayani, Here I come!

The day of the visit started on an auspicious note, with the sighting of stars. Not the celestial ones, but ‘film-stars’ from the Tamil film industry. The film unit was shooting for their movie at a location in Satara and some of the actors were put up in the same hotel as mine. As I wanted to reach the sanctuary early in the morning, I did not seek an audience or a photo-opportunity with the stars and set out for the sanctuary.

The drive to Mayani bird sanctuary started just after 6.30 am. If the roads were good I estimated that we would reach the Sanctuary in less than 2 hours.

Since the monsoons had just ended, the landscape was green all along the way. We drove past fog-covered farmlands, sunflower fields and hills that appeared to be covered with green carpets. The good roads and beautifully green scenery made the drive a very pleasant experience. We reached the sanctuary gates in approximately 1.45 hours.

 Fog-covered Fields 

 Scenic and Green 

 Sunflower fields 

 Road to Mayani 

 The Destination 
As I faced the sanctuary gates my heart sank. The entrance to the sanctuary was in such a bad shape, I felt that I might be in for a major disappointment. One of the gates was unhinged and the pathway appeared to be all dug up. I feared that the sanctuary may have been shut down. However, on inquiring I was informed that the sanctuary was open. I heaved a big sigh of relief!

 Not so welcoming - Sanctuary Gates 

 Open Sesame Sanctuary Gates 
On entering the sanctuary, I could see a lot of greenery which indicated that the sanctuary may have received rains during the monsoon. However, apparently the rains were not sufficient enough. Because, the core sanctuary area was dry with not even a puddle of water to be seen. The staff at the sanctuary confirmed my fears. The rains had been inadequate for the past few years. And with no other source of water, the sanctuary had dried up.

 Pleasantly Green 

 Unpleasantly Dry - Sanctuary area 

 Not a drop in sight 
As I continued my walk into the Sanctuary, my bird sightings started with a purple sunbird sitting on the branches of a tree. After the sunbird came a Long-tailed shrike and then a Red-vented bulbul. Since I was new to birding, each and every sighting was welcome even if it was of a bird commonly sighted.

Understandably I was the only visitor in the Sanctuary!

I walked further and came across an Indian Robin, then a Common Iora followed by some Great tits. These birds were some distance away and I had to be content with distant record shots. This was followed by a bird that I have not been able to identify as yet. The bird was far away and therefore my Nikon 70-300mm could not capture the finer details of the bird. On such occasions one wishes for a longer tele-zoom lens. Invariably, such frustrating experiences push an amateur photographer to invest in longer tele-zoom lenses.

 Far, far away -  Clockwise from Top-left: Great Tit, Indian Robin, Common Iora 

 The fence-sitter - Indian Robin 

 Beyond my grasp - Unidentified Bird 
A short distance ahead, I saw a Brahminy Starling, an Indian Robin (female) and an Ashy-crowned sparrow-lark a.k.a. Ashy-crowned finch-lark a.k.a. Black-bellied finch-lark. This was my first-ever sighting of the finch-lark and it was a huge task to get even a record shot of the bird. The bird was slightly bigger than a sparrow and it’s colour matched the colour of the ground making it difficult for the camera to detect and capture it. All the birds were busy foraging for food, seeds, insects etc. and did not pay much attention to my presence, which suited me just fine.

 Clockwise from Top-left: Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark, Brahminy Starling, Unidentified bird and Indian Robin (female)
Then came an Ashy Prinia perched on top of a plant. The bird did not appear to be in a hurry to fly away. Even though the light wasn’t ideal, I gratefully grabbed the opportunity to take some pictures from a reasonable distance. The prinia obliged with some good poses for a few minutes before it flew away.

 All the right poses - Ashy Prinia 

 Ashy Prinia 

 Ashy Prinia 
Next up was a bird perched on some dry branches. Try as I might, I simply could not get a decent shot of the bird. The bird was so well camouflaged against the brown soil, the camera simply refused to focus. Manual focus was the need of the hour, but alas my manual focusing skills were not upto par. I could not capture the details of the bird and therefore could not identify the bird. 

Lesson learnt: Learn to use Manual Mode on the camera.

 Camouflaged and Unidentified 
During frustrating times such as this, one misses the presence and expertise of an experienced guide who can conjure up birds out of nowhere and then help you with the identification as well.

Next I saw a Pipit sitting on the ground and further up was a group of plum-headed parakeets sitting on the dry branches of a tree. The parakeets were colourful with plum-coloured heads (grey in case of females), red beaks (yellow in case of females) and yellowish-green bodies. Parakeets are some of the more active and noisier inhabitants of forests and sanctuaries. These parakeets made their presence known with loud squawks.

 Loud and Colourful characters - Plum-headed Parakeets 
As I scanned the dry sanctuary, I tried to visualize how it must have appeared during happier days, with abundant water and birds in their plenty. The watch-towers were mute witnesses to the sad decline in the fortunes of the sanctuary.

 Mute witnesses to the dry spell - Watch-tower 

 Silent witnesses to the dry spell - Watch-tower 
Moving on, it was the turn of the pigeons. First came a Common Rock Pigeon followed by a pair of Laughing doves. The laughing doves were foraging for food on the ground and were wary of my presence. As I tried to slowly inch towards them they decided that they’d had enough of me and flew away. A few steps further, on one side of the bank I saw a couple of Long-tailed Shrikes and on the other side was a lone common Myna. The birds flew away as soon as I set my sight on them. My attempts at being unintrusive and unobtrusive did not appear to impress the birds much!

  Clockwise from Top-left: Unidentfied bird, Laughing Dove, Rock Pigeon & Common Myna 

 Laughing Dove 

 Long-tailed Shrike 

 Long-tailed Shrike 
Then my most photographed bird of the day made it’s appearance!

The bird was a Red-vented Bulbul, a commonly sighted bird. This particular bird was so busy preening and primping itself, that it did not mind my intrusion at all. The bird was very particular about it’s cleanliness and appearance as it cleaned it’s feathers patiently and meticulously. I clicked atleast a hundred pictures of the bird, sometimes with it’s wings spread and at other times with it’s tail feathers spread out. It was my intention to improve my photography skills and try to get sharp pictures of the bird, especially it’s eyes. It was a difficult task as the bird did not stay still even for a second. After 10-15 minutes I had my fill and moved on.

 Not camera shy at all - Red-vented Bulbul 

 Red-vented Bulbul 
As I climbed down the bank, I came across some weaver bird nests’. These nests are a wonder of nature and stand testament to the exquisite nest-building skills of the Weaver-birds. And sure enough, there was a Baya weaver (male) applying some final touches to it’s nest. I spent some time admiring these wonderful creations.

 Wonders of Nature - Weaver bird nests 

 The Master Weaver - Baya weaver (Male) 
It was getting hotter and I decided to make my way back to the sanctuary gates. On the way, I spotted a Rose-ringed parakeet sitting on a tree all by itself. I guessed it must be lonely because it was pretty quiet and against it’s nature, did not squawk at all.

 Mr. Lonely and Silent - Rose-ringed Parakeet 
I came across some more Baya weaver nests before I heard a loud buzzing sound. As I looked around for the source of the buzzing sound, I saw a Green Bee-eater with a dragon-fly caught in it’s beak. The buzzing sound came from the dragon-fly as it tried to escape. However the Green Bee-eater did not let go of it’s prey and within no time killed the dragon-fly and swallowed it. Breakfast had been served and consumed in an instant!

  Clockwise from Top-left: Unidentified bird, Baya Weaver, Green Bee-eater, Great Tit 

 Breakfast served and swallowed - Green Bee-eater 
As I exited the gates, I looked back at the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary definitely need a facelift. Hopefully in the years to follow, the area would be blessed with good rains and the sanctuary would recover.

 Waiting for the rains 
It was time to get back to Satara and then further onto Mumbai. It was with mixed feelings that I bid adieu to Mayani Bird Sanctuary.

 Country roads, Take me home 

 Star presence - Film-unit at location shoot 


 An Excavator in the Sanctuary 
In our country, forest lands are shrinking at an alarming rate. Forests are being converted into farms and industrial land to meet the ever-growing demands of the rapidly growing population. In such a grave scenario, Sanctuaries and National parks are our last line of defence against complete deforestation.

But the sanctuaries and national parks are at the mercy of Nature’s vagaries (read rains) for their survival. When the rains fail, these sanctuaries die a slow death. However, the dry sanctuaries and their resources need to be protected.

The sight of an earth excavator in the sanctuary was an unpleasant sight indeed. Hopefully the sanctuary would not be stripped of it’s valuable resources, thereby causing irreversible damage to the sanctuary

It is our collective responsibility, to make every effort possible to maintain and revive these sanctuaries. It should be our collective endeavour to conserve the environment. We owe it to the future generations.