“Be silent, close your eyes and try to count the number of calls that you can hear.” says Pravin Subramaniam as we leave the cacophony of the village near Tungareshwar entrance. We close our eyes and count. There seem to be many calls resonating in the silent morning. They seem to be coming in from all directions. We count upto 4 and Pravin then goes on to explain that hearing the call and identifying the direction in which it is coming from is the first step to locate the bird. He is our Biodiversity Expert leading the first Backyard Birding trail and we are standing under the canopy of semi-deciduous trees which occupy the lower reaches of Tunagreshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the closest protected areas in the vicinity of Bombay.
Giant wood spiders sit still in the centre of the large webs that they have woven all across the forest and this post monsoon period ensures that there is shade all along the beaten path. As we inch in further we spot a warbler and an Ashy Drongo welcomes us. Pravin explains that, although smaller in size, the Ashy Drongo actually forces its resident cousin – Black Drongo out of the forest to feed in scrubland areas while it enjoys its winter vacation in the tropics.
Further up, Pravin talks about the Golden Oriole, a winter visitor to the forest which derives its name from the classical Latin term “aureolus” meaning golden. The forest grows thicker as we pass a stream and to our right we spot a flash of gold. The Black hooded oriole sits in the canopy and we look at it in awe. In front of th oriole, the black naped monarch is perched and many drongos flit about. Cameras click away while I observe these birds putting on a show and that’s when a Rufous Treepie swoops across and we watch in amazement!
As we descend to a stream bed behind a chai stall, we see a Indian Cormorant bathing in the small stream and then standing with its wings spread apart to dry them in the morning sun – a pose that always fascinates me. Across the bed, in the canopy we spot some movement and there it is – the golden fronted leafbird, so perfectly camouflaged that it takes me everyone a few moments to spot it carefully. Upstream, we see two common kingfishers darting over the surface of the water and occasionally diving in to fish. Streaks of blue can be seen darting across. As we move further in, we spot flowerpeckers, sunbirds, bulbuls flitting between trees and flowers much to our delight. The temperature increases as the clock inches towards ten am and just after ten, the forest goes quiet. We see a checkered keelback swim across in the stream while a racquet tailed drongo flies with its ‘bees’ following it. We end our trail at a small eatery near the temple on the top and return to the madness of the city by lunch time.
Next morning, I find myself on the same 0640 Vasai Slow from Borivali. This time, it is going to the be the coast. Suruchi Beach and ramparts of Bassein Fort. The walk is being led by Avinash Bhagat and Pravin. As we reach the road that leads to the beach a stretch of salt pans ensured that we spot the cute – Sandpiper, twerking in the morning light foraging in the pans. There are the Pond Herons, waiting silently and striking suddenly at their prey in the pans. There is the cattle and great egret and just ten feet away – the paddyfield pipit running about. There are warblers in the mangroves and prinias that dance as we make our way to the coast. Asian palm swifts fly all about and up away, a small raptor is ‘gheraoed’ by crows. This kind of bullying behaviour is common between crows and raptors as crows, a highly territorial bird tries to fight off mighty raptors. The bird in question is the Black Shouldered Kite as Avinash identifies it and confirms with his binoculars, it is hovering in the middle and fighting off crows which soon retreat as they can’t keep up with the kite adds Avinash.
On our way, a Long Tailed shrike, a pair of Red Wattled Lapwing and more Sandpipers are spotted. As we cross over the narrow canal and reach the new parking lot, I recal my visits to Suruchi, 5 years ago when it was a dusty track that led to the beach and save a shack that served water and coconut, it used to be deserted. As a part of ‘development’ cabins for shops, a lifeguard watch tower (empty) and a few benches have been erected and a large wall has been constructed to prevent the tide from coming in. This has completely altered the nature of the beach and one has to walk along the wall and then can one reach the surf, otherwise wading through the lagoon in between is another option. We walk along the suru trees, with the sea on one side and scrubland kind of vegetation on the other. Who knew, this would turn out to be a rather memorable walk for us.
No sooner did we enter this trail, we spot a few prinias, green blue eaters, a common hoopoe and even a blue cheeked bee eater! As we look to our right, peering over a pumpkin plantation the prinias perched on top of the stubs holding the vines up, the bee eaters sit in pairs or perform acrobatics midair as they go about, catching bees.
As we move further in, a pair of bulbuls chirp as they perch on the branches of a suru tree. There was the red vented bulbul, the white eared bulbul and wait, a minute – what is that. A bigger bird swoops in and perches itself on a branch. “Pied Crested Cuckoo!” whispers Pravin, excitedly as we observe it sitting in the open. Also known as the Jacobin Cuckoo, this is definitely a prized sighting. To our right, we see an Indian roller perched for a few minutes allowing us a superb observation of the state bird of Karnataka, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
As we move further down the trail, we notice a few plovers, sandpipers and to our right a large bird glides over the field. This is the Eurasian Marsh Harrier, its black tipped wings clearly distinct as it takes a complete circle, hunting for a bird or two for lunch. At the same time, in the sky, a Eurasian sparrowhawk flies, flapping its wings majestically, oblivious to a crow trying to deter it. We look around and a Shikra flies past and perches itself on the branch of a suru tree only to be chased down by a Drongo which derives its name from the archaic term for drongo, named so for having the sheer gall to take on predators double its size and capacity as Pravin later told us.
The sun was beating down and we were quite exhilarated with the sightings as we turned around. But the dramatic sequence of events was far from over. Just as we were about to exit the trail, a Siberian stonechat flew in and perched itself on the scrub. It’s black head, orange body and the prominent white patch on its neck made this small bird stand out in the bright sun. As we exited the beach and hit the road, some raptor activity overhead made us point our binoculars and a Peregrine Falcon – the fastest hunter in the sky was gliding overhead! Not far an Indian Steppe eagle flew over the Suru trees and just as we crossed over the canal, a flock of scaly breasted Munias flew gracefully in our direction, in an arc and flew over to the creek. We were smiling broadly and took an auto to the ramparts of Bassein Fort.
Bassein fort is always special for us at Breakfree and I have been visiting it since 2009 and with our heritage walk around the fort fresh on my mind, I showed everyone around. Plenty of Shikras, Flower peckers and Giant Wood spiders gave us company but it was quite hot by now and we called it a day. But then just as we were making our way back, a Booted Eagle flew overhead and enthralled us! Over the past two days, we had witnessed some amazing spectacles of nature, so close to Bombay, just half an hour from city limits.
A big thank you to Avinash Bhagat and Pravin Subramaniam for introducing all participants to the wonders of these winged beauties that make these long journeys to spend their winters in our backyards. We look forward to more such trails!
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Photos by Pravin Subramaniam and Rachna Shetty.
Complete list of birds spotted.
Day 1: Tungareshwar WLS
Indian Jungle Crow,
Greenish Leaf Warbler,
Day 2: Suruch Beach and Bassein Fort
Indian Pond Heron
Blyth’s Reed Warbler
Asian Palm Swift
Greater Sand Plover
Pied Crested Cuckoo
White Eared Bulbul
Red Vented Bulbul
Western Reef Egret
Greater Spotted Eagle
Black Shouldered Kite
Oriental Magpie Robin
Chestnut Shouldered Petronia
Blue rock pigeon
White Throated Kingfisher