We were in the middle of the evergreen forest, far away from noisy vehicles and noisy people. The sky was deep blue and the mountain air was pure. A nice breeze cooled the sweat on our tired bodies. There was not a soul in sight other than the four of us. We were so mesmerized by our surroundings that we just sat there in complete silence. My hair flew all over the place and I tried pulling it back into a pony when the realization struck me - I am happy! I am really really happy to be in the middle of this wonderfully simple forest. It was a feeling of pure unadulterated joy.
The setting was perfect. We were sitting on a rock, totally and completely surrounded by the jungle. Water was trickling down a small stream. A heavenly scent of wild flowers was wafting through the air. Birds were chirping, bees were buzzing and butterflies were fluttering around. Langurs and squirrels were scampering around the trees. This was nature at its best. I could not help but feel happy in this serene setting.
I loved the deep blue color of the sky, the flash of green grass in the middle of a dry forest, the sound of water flowing gently down the stream, the calls of the birds and most of all I just loved being in the middle of this pristine forest. How can something so simple and basic make you so happy? The highlight of our trip was not the sighting of 80 bird species in 3 days or the fabulous views of the Sahyadri Mountains, or the unlikely friendships I struck up, but the realization that observing and admiring nature can give you immense joy.
Fast forward to that night. We just finished hiking to the highest point of the forest. At around 6:30 PM, we were near an open field and decided to sit and wait for nightfall. There was a nice wind blowing and bringing in the sounds and scents of the forests. Clouds played hide and seek, but once in a while when it was clear, stars lit up the sky. That right there, was one of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of the trip. Again, I felt this gush of happiness of just being there!
“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but they seize us”
There are only two ways for you to react to the above – one is to agree with me and say that you have felt the same many times or think that I have gone crazy. I am guessing a majority will go with the latter reaction. So, I am going to stop my philosophical revelations and continue in my usual style of writing.
My Rajasthan and Tamilnadu trips got canceled and I was getting restless when I found out about the Bhimashankar trip with Nature India Tours.
Me: I want to go to this birding trip.
Saru: Since when are you interested in birding?
Me: Since your ass got me into it.
You see, I was a reluctant birder.
It was more of a ‘you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours’ kind of a deal (I will go bird watching if you make dinner for the next 2 days or I will go if you come to the chic-flick movie). Initially, it was a lot of lecturing from Saru – “No Vam, that is not a merganser….it is a common coot. Can’t you see the difference?”
I would be a smart ass and say “Ummmm.... this one here is a duck and let me see - that other one there…..is a duck too!” But slowly I started paying attention and after our trip to Central America, I was hooked.
Me: Trip is this coming weekend.
Saru: You can’t go anywhere this weekend. The sci-fi movie “The day the Earth stood still” is releasing and I want to see it on the first day. The trailer shows entire cities getting evaporated in slow motion. It is pretty cool!
Vam: You want me to not go on a trip because of a crappy movie?
Saru: Didn’t you hear me – they evaporate the planet in slow motion! SLOW MOTION!
It wasn’t long before I won the argument and got ready for my first birding trip. Adesh Shivkar, the founder of Nature India Tours is a marketing executive turned naturalist. He is a very famous birder in Mumbai. It is pretty amazing how people’s faces light up when they take his name. He not only loves to bird watch, but also enjoys teaching others to see and appreciate the variety in birds. There were four of us on the trip – Adesh, Jayanthi, myself and Father Luke.
We started bright and early on Friday. Our first stop was at Uran, a marsh land. The marsh was swarming with waders. Having lived near the Don Edwards Wildlife Sanctuary in Fremont, I was used to seeing tons of avocets, stilts, sandpipers, egrets and herons. What was really exciting for me was to see flocks of painted storks and black necked ibis and the beautiful brahminy ducks. They were at a distance, so the pictures didn't come out well. From a spotting scope, we saw intricate features of three terns, river tern, the gull-billed tern and the whiskered tern. When I commented that they all looked like common gulls, I got a lecture saying that I should never identify a bird by its color, but its shape, size, behavior and habitat.
“Sure…I can do that….how hard can it be…to remember the size and shape and behavior and habitat of every bird. Piece of cake!!” Obviously I behaved myself and didn’t say that aloud.
After a late brunch of Aloo paratha and vada pav (diet went up for a toss) and coffee, we drove towards Bhimashankar. It was a bad and bumpy road towards the end and took us five hours to get to the Blue Mormon resort, a basic, but clean hotel. It had a really nice garden with lots of roses and marigolds in bloom. Sparrows were flying around creating a ruckus as they usually do. We saw some green bee eaters and pied bushchats and Malabar crested larks on the railings.
We had a late lunch, took some rest and set off towards the forest at 4:30 PM. Adesh has eyes like a hawk…he does not miss a single thing. On a dry field where normal people can only see brown grass, he spotted an oriental turtle dove and a number of pipits. On the way, we saw a lot of hoopoes and drongos and a Shikara. We saw them up close with the spotting scope. It was very fascinating to look at the colors and markings on these birds.
It was too late to go into the park, so we stopped our car on the roadside and walked into the wilderness. The sunset was breathtaking and so was the full moon. We looked for night jars, but could not find any on this full moon night.
Next day we woke up bright and early and were ready to leave at 7:00 AM. The moon was still in the sky and the sun had not risen. It was great to be out in the cold mountain air. We reached our trail head before the shopkeepers had woken up. Bhimashankar is a very famous pilgrim center and has one of the 12 jyortirlingas of Shiva (whatever that means). The temple premises were clean, but outside it were piles of plastic trash. It pisses me off when I see that folks come from all over the country, stand in huge lines for a darshan, but don’t have the patience or the sense to throw trash in a garbage bin. I hope they all rot in hell.
We took the Gupt Bhimashankar trail and soon left behind the trash and entered the jungle. It was very beautiful. Our first really great sighting was of a Malabar Giant Squirrel. It is this giant brown color squirrel almost a meter long with a nice bushy tail and markings on its back.
For me, the most exciting bird sighting was that of a paradise flycatcher. It is this beautiful white bird, with its tail five times as long as the bird itself. The female has a beautiful rust color. I can’t describe this better than Jayanthi who said this in her trip report - “The crowning moment was our sighting of the glorious paradise flycatcher, flitting through the trees like a Romeo in white coat tails, pursuing his love, equally beautiful in her rufous dress”
My other favorite birds of the day were a scarlet minivet, white cheeked fulvetta and yellow browed bulbuls.
We came back to the hotel, had lunch, a quick nap and then set off to do an exhilarating hike to Nagphani, the highest point in Bhimashankar. Views from there were fabulous. On the way, we saw some jungle babblers. While we were catching our breath, Adesh said “Please give me a pat on my back” and through his spotting scope showed us a kestrel in a small opening in the far off cliff. This guy is just unbelievable.
Day 3 took us to another beautiful trail in the Ahope hills. We saw lots of tickless leaf warblers, blue monarch flycatchers, crimson backed sunbirds, a scarlet minivet, a dove and best of all a grey jungle fowl. This is a hen with beautiful colored feathers. They are usually considered to be shy, but this one gave us a full 30 second sighting. We went to another beautiful hike near a small waterfall and saw lots of butterflies, the most spectacular one being the blue mormon, the second largest butterfly seen in India.
The journey back home was over 6 hours and folks who know me will believe that I kept a steady conversation going. There was never a dull moment. Adesh regaled us with stories of his travels, upcoming trips and his times as a hard working marketing manager while I talked about my never ending travel wish list and my pet peeves in India. Father and Jayanthi were great listeners and were too polite to complain about the constant chatter. Driving back through the canyons of Malshej ghat and Harischandra ghat was simply awesome. On the way we also saw these aster farms.
Birding for Dummies 101
Adesh: Do you remember the Surf Excel ad?
Us: Not really.
Adesh: How about Rin soap?
Jayanthi: I don’t pay attention to advertisements.
Vamsee: TV in India is horrible. There is nothing to watch. Is there any program you would recommend?
Father Luke: Nat Geo and Animal Planet have great shows.
Adesh: Guys, guys, forget the ads, forget TV. Think of a clean white shirt and a dirty white shirt. The easiest way to distinguish between a wire-tailed swallow and a red-rumped swallow is to look at the underbelly. If it is pure white like a clean shirt, it is a wire-tailed swallow. If it is like a dirty white, then it is a red-rumped swallow.