Monday, December 22, 2008

Birding at Bhimashankar - My big Zen moment

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… 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.


  1. The pictures are amazing. I never knew about this place.

    P.S.- Do you mind giving full feed to your posts ?

  2. Thanks Cuckoo. Bhimashankar is a 5-6 hour drive from Mumbai.
    I just gave full feed.

  3. Sounds like a wonderful trip. I absolutely need to get away into the wilderness periodically, to keep my sanity. So I can totally understand it. The closest I've come to being completely happy is also out in the wild. :) Great bird pictures!

  4. Absolutely loved the description. It is nice to see that not all has fallen prey to commercialism. Hope there are more enthusiasts like your group to help keep these treasures unspoiled. The pictures were outstanding. I could see the subtle variations in the plumes of some of the birds. Saru must repent having preferred a B-grade substandard flick with no story and no acting, over this experience. I like the one with lightning over the city. Must have taken a lot of effort. That apartment of yours seems to have the best vantage point in all of Mumbai! Keep writing.

  5. Lovely photos. Adesh sounds like quite the person to go bird watching with. Sounds like you had a fun trip. I too can honestly say that I am at my happiest when I am outdoors, amidst nature.

  6. What serene landscapes. And fabulous bird pictures! And then, I love your little “bickerings” with your husband – they are so entertaining, but of course, they are only so good because you are a great storyteller. Tks.

  7. Lovely pictures...., lucky you could spot so many.. !!! Trekking and birdwatching - neday to the movies for me !!

  8. I liked the giant squirrel picture. Too bad I could not see the face else I would have shown it to Vidit whose is crazy about animals and birds now. BTW, I don't think you are crazy but you do know how to enjoy your life. Kudos for that.

  9. Bindu / Vagabond,
    I knew I could count on you both to agree with me. It is really nice to get away from the hustle bustle of the city some times.

    That comment coming from you means a lot to me.

  10. Guys,
    You are being too nice. These pictures are really bad. Saru was not there to take good ones and even otherwise, bird photography is hard.

    Thanks. I do think it is all in our attitude. It is up to us to appreciate or ignore the beautiful things around us.

  11. Excellent Vamsi.. though I am not very much into Bird watching, can certainly agree on the bliss while being closer to Nature.. made me to realize that I should start taking Shruthi and Ashwin on my hiking trips so that they start developing this habit

  12. Awesome pictures Vamsee. I am reading daily one of your blogs and I feel like I visited all these places. Very well written.

  13. about the zen moment : don't remember having one specifically because of being in natural surroundings.. but yes, i know what you mean and no you are not crazy.

  14. hey Vam,
    the first 2 paragraphs read like an excerpt from JK's Commentaries on Living. more after reading it completely.

  15. The pics are way cool! I am so glad u guys r showing me this side of maharashtra!

  16. Vam, I know exactly what you mean - I remember a few instances where I had the feeling of being overjoyed, overwhelmed and totally overcome by the beauty/vastness/greatness of nature. Times like these make me realize how petty some things are (to which we attach the greatest importance) in the bigger scheme ...I am happy that one is able to visit and enjoy such places with out it being overtaken by the concrete jungle.

  17. Karuna,
    That is so cool. Thanks

    Raji / Gaay,
    Wow, two more people that think I am not crazy!! Yay!

    When somebody says 'great pictures' when the pictures are not great, it means they did not read the blog or read the blog and thought I am going nuts but didn't want to say that:)
    But anyway, we are loving your Mumbai!!

  18. "when the realization struck me - I am happy!"

    Loved that. I've gone through such times during my travels - especially in the wilderness of nature. That's nature's gift to us. Some get to enjoy it, rest are too busy.

    Been a pleasure to read your post Vamsee. You have a flair for writing. Keep up the sense of humor too.:)

  19. I am used to hearing/reading descriptions about historic places and food from you...this is totally new. And very unlike you!!!

    But you bring the beauty of the place alive in your writing. So keep it going. Unlike what you (& Saru) think the pictures are very nice too

  20. If you were an Oprah fan, you would probably call this your "A-HA" moment ;)

  21. Shanthi,
    Thanks. I remember this one time when you came back from a trip to California coast and told me pretty much the same thing!!

    It definitely is a gift. Thanks for your encouraging comments.

    OMG, Since when did you start watching Oprah?
    It is not that unlike me....remember the hours I would spend in my garden...just to be outdoors. Granted I was more enthu about historic places, but a little bit of Saru seems to be rubbing off on me lately.

  22. OMG ! All are superb snaps ! I enjoyed them completely......

  23. Well you are not crazy at all.
    I am sure all of us feel it at different levels.

    nice pic Vamsee. its always a delight to read your blogs:)

  24. I like your style of writing..Im a novice too..

  25. Deepak

    Thanks. That is a really nice compliment.

    This one came out a little bit heavy, but I try to keep my writing light and simple.
    Good to know that you are into birding too:)

  26. Hi Vamsee! Sorry for the absence, but these last weeks were a nightmare. Just dropped by to wish you a great season! Hope to be back before 2009... ;)
    Meanwhile Blogtrotter is starting its new adventure in India. Enjoy and have a great week!

  27. what a great post and the pictures are so nice as well...loved the entire read.
    thanks for sharing with us.

  28. Lovely bird photos but the Flycatcher with the huge tail, surely that is a small animal like a fox rather than a bird, I can't see a bird in it all, maybe it is your Christmas joke with us!

  29. gmg,
    Will definitely read about your adeventures

    Thanks for taking the time to read the blog.

    That was the Malabar Giant Squirrel.

  30. That heron is out of this world. Beautiful shots!

  31. Hi Vamsee..thank you for visiting our blog..I was just going through yours and I must say, what fantastic pictures! Incidentally, we have just come back from Bhimashankar today, and our experience couldn't have been more different :( we actually drove up to the temple expecting a calm serene place as you describe but were thoroughly disappointed....the route was much better than the destination itself.I would like to know where the gupt trail into the jungle begins :)....because the experience you describe is exactly what we went looking for..

  32. Sandy,
    I am guessing you tried to leave a comment for the previous post.

    The temple premises are quite bad. The Gupt Bhimashankar trail is exactly behind the temple. The Nagphani trail starts to the right before you take the steps to get down to the temple.
    The serene atmosphere I describe was near the Ahope road and another small waterfall area on the way to Bhimashankar.

  33. What a post! What a great time you had! Glad you have joined the clan of bird watchers! Welcome! You have already seen more amazing birds than most people. That one with a head like a pick axe is amazing! It looks positively prehistoric!

  34. Hi Vamsee that was a super report! You have a flair for writing I can see, but you are way too modest...Great going!

  35. Kathiesbirds,
    Thanks. The best thing about birding for me is to be outdoors and appreciate the little things in nature.

    Thanks. I was a little hesitant in sending this out because it is not the typical birding report that you see in the e-groups.

  36. You are perhaps in the wrong profession. You should have been a writer. The first part of the blog is just fabulous.

  37. I love your post and am quite charged up about going to Bhimashankar next time Adesh goes. Sharing Adesh with just two other people is a rare treat and I'm sure all other Mumbai birders are jealous (I am!) I so agree with you about the pilgrims and about religious debris everywhere.

  38. Hi Vamsee wonderful pics as usual!! Looks like you had great time !! Bhimashankar is a really wonderful place!! Thanks for sharing !!

  39. Anand Kumar,
    Thanks. I don't think I deserve such a big compliment. I basically wrote what I felt.

    Adesh is great. It was good for all of us to have that quality time. I am going on his next trip to Corbett, so looking forward to it.

  40. Alok,
    We had a wonderful time. Just being out in that beautiful setting was great. Adesh and Jayanthi and Luke were excellent company

  41. Vamsee - you are one person i know that's totally enjoying what India has to offer. Veyr impressed with your enthu for all the traveling and other stuff that you've been doing ever since you got there...and totally envious too...I feel so tied down right now, off course for a great reason :)
    I was reading the first part of the blog and reminiscing about our friendship back in the OU days - it just came to my mind for some reason, dont ask me why!!Anyways - I am amazed at how much your interests have grown since those days and very impressed with how deep these interests have become, whether it's gardening or traveling or soemthing else - it's not just a passing fad. You really take the time to do it well. enough of my rambling, I'll stop.
    Glad you are enjoying Desh so much.
    Miss you here though,

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