Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Birding in the land of the Great Indian Bustard

What the Tiger is for the Indian forests…......the GIB is for the Indian grasslands

These heaviest of Indian birds are so threatened that it is feared, there are only less than 700 of them surviving in the rapidly diminishing grasslands (Its habitat) in some pockets spread across India.

Nannaj is one such grassland reserve of about 4 Sq Kms. Just 20 kms from Solapur city.It is learned that there are about 23 GIBs in Nannaj….. The other places in India where GIBs are found are Desert National park in Rajasthan, Rollapadu Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, Grasslands in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh & Gujarat……

Owing to the GIB reserve in Nannaj, some other grassland birds and animals have benefited as well.

For the people of Bombay and Pune, Nannaj is an ideal place for planning birding on weekends as the train timings and other logistics are perfect and hence even though our (Dr.Vaibhav Deshmukh, Mandar Khadilkar & Myself) trip was planned at the last moment, we could manage to make it a very good trip (Dates-31st Sep to 2nd Oct) with about 62 species of birds.

The Siddheshwar express that starts from V.T. at around 10.20 pm reaches Solapur at 7.00 am in the morning so you don’t loose time and on return the same express is at 10.25 from Solapur and reaches back to Mumbai at 7 in the morning, so one can plan from Friday late night to Sunday early morning……After reaching Solapur you can either take an auto to go to the Bus stand and travel to Nannaj by an S.T. or one could hire an auto from the station to Nannaj directly (Rs.200 approx.) ….we took the later after a sumptuous breakfast….The Road is smooth and we reached the place in about 45 mins. It is always better to book the forest rest house in advance as that is the only place available to stay around ….. We had to wait a bit till the forester arrived from his rounds and were able to procure the stay arrangement in one of the rooms after creating much impression with our scopes on the officers present (One more use of the scope)….There are about 5 deluxe rooms and two dormitories…also tents can be arranged for larger groups…however most of the time the rest houses are booked for the government officials or relatives and friends of the forest dept. officials……The charge is Rs.200/ Day …… and Good food (Veg / Non-veg) can be available on advance request for Rs.30/ Rs.60……

Nannaj has a typical grassland habitat surrounded with fallow fields and cultivation…The actual core area is very small and the GIBs And wolf stray over vast area across the region……..There is a tar road going right besides the core area going towards Solapur and one can walk along this road watching the bird life(*see photo-right)…..There is a watch tower and a viewing Hut in the core area that gives a wonderful view of the vast expanse in front of you……The GIBs and other birds are active during early mornings and late afternoons and the noon time could be very hot…..incidentally the best time to visit Nannaj is from July to December. This year Nannaj saw good rains and we were very hopeful of Good birding in a couple of days.

We started our first day birding pretty late, however we saw a good number of birds including 7 GIBs………The trees around the rest house had Common grey hornbill, Greater coucals, Great tits, Common Ioras, Purple rumped sunbird (Br+), Wolly necked storks soaring, Large grey babblers and a spotted owlet… We started towards the tower and on the way there were more birds like Larks (Sykes, Malabar crested, R.Tailed, Ashy crowned sparrow & Indian Bush lark-see photo, above left), Plenty of Bay backed shrikes and Southern Grey shrikes (*see photo-above right)…. There were numerous Doves (Eurasian collard, Spotted & Laughing) , Baya weavers and Plain prinias some of which were still breeding, Paddyfield and Tawny pipits…..and plenty of Blackbucks.

The heat was killing us when we reached the tower, and had to sit inside the view hut and observe…The GIBs had not yet come out of their shaded hideouts….we kept searching though and were rewarded with a silhouette of an animal at the horizon….the size and shape revealed it as an Indian wolf, but it disappeared ……after some time it emerged with another buddy with a Radio collar……The Duo walked towards us while we observed and mobilscoped them…They marked their territory and left……apparently it is learned that there is one pack of Indian wolfs comprising of 9 individuals…… By around 3.45 pm a GIB emerged from under one of the trees …it was a majestic male…and Oh !! what a handsome bird and what personality !!
The Grasslands also has its share of Raptors, Quails and Francolins and sure we saw Plenty of Montagu’s harriers, Shikra, Black shouldered kites, Common kestrels (*see photo-left)……Painted & Grey Francolins, and possibly Rock bush quails……..a late flock of Sandgrouse that flew low in front of us could have possibly been the Painted sandgrouse…. This species of S.G. is known to drink water only after dusk.

Throughout the first day we were accompanied by a couple of local boys who were keen birders but were new….however they knew the routes well and lead us circling the core area….from them we got quite an interesting information on GIBs…..
Our 2nd day agenda was to look out for the remaining must see species i.e. Sandgrouse, Indian Coursers…and we started early without our breakfast …The large Grey babblers were as usual busy with their raunchy calls ……. Luckily we sighted the first flock of Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse (*Photo: Male on left & Female on right) that seemed to be heading towards the waterhole near the tower and yet another flock that settled near us…..we approached cautiously and were able to photograph these beautifully camouflaged birds…….

An Indian fox was flushed from a shaded patch of trees behind the rest house as we proceeded to see the Indian coursers on the far away plateau that had short grass…These birds can be found in a proper habitat i.e. Barren land with short grass…..meanwhile the Montagu’s harriers and Common Kestrel’s patrolled the area gracefully…There was however no sight of any courser and the heat was increasing. …But we didn’t give up…at last we were able to spot the Indian courser thro’ the S.Scope almost 1 ½ Kms away…proceeding near them we counted about 15 of these birds that seemed to be very shy…. in Marathi these birds are aptly called as “Dhavik” (Runner) going after the insects that are abundant (*see photos-below).

After a sumptuous lunch we again left for our last bird session and were again rewarded with the Yellow wattled lapwings, More Indian Bush larks, Quails (?)… The Baya weaver birds were nesting almost on every alternate tree and an Indian Hare that leapt from near my feet, took away my breath for a moment………Two birds were spotted sitting on a Termite mound in the core part, and were identified as adult Bonelli’s Eagle (*see photo-right)…we did not want to violate the rule by getting inside the core area so had to satisfy seeing these beauties (flew quite far on another T.mound) thro’ the scope……These eagles are considered to be one of the most aggressive eagles and are known to lift Peafowl and hares and are thought to be partial to crows…….

On the way back we had a sighting of approx. 17 Montagu’s harriers flying towards their roosting site…somewhere behind the rest house …….

It is sad to find that not many people in the forest department
posted there are good at birds, however there is this person Mr.Bhagwat Mhaske, who has very good knowledge of the local wildlife and the passion to protect and study….and it is heartening to know that he does this with whatever limited equipments and facilities are given……not even a decent field guide.

While settling the dues..I was surprised when the caretaker told me to write the reason for the stay as “Official visit”…… I was offended, as I had come on an Birdwatching visit and not Official….But then realized that most of the people coming here were always on “Official visit” (Forest officer relatives, Politicians, Judges etc…)…..so you will find entry in the register as official visits to Nannaj and very few people coming for serious bird watching and Bird Photography ….However, I was adamant & entered my purpose of visit as “Bird watching”.

We return back to Solapur by S.T. bus that ply regularly from the main road that is about a Km from the rest House (Ticket:Rs.29/Person)

Sunil Lunch Home opposite Solapur S.T. Stand serves delicious, typical Marathi, Veg. food, that is highly recommened for “Theccha” and “Besan” with “Jowar “Bhakri”.

Nannaj is highly recommended as a weekend trip not just for the majestic Great Indian Bustards but also for the other Grassland birds…………

Booking : It can be done at Deputy Conservator of Forest (WL) Western Region Pune
Type5\2 & 3 Survey no. 49 Vanvadi opp. Salinkivihar Pune 411040 Phone No.
021-5124182 Or at Solapur 0217-2341676.

Transport : Mumbai – Solapur – Mumbai by Siddheshwar express (fare Rs.400/- in Sleeper class), Solapur station – Nannaj by Auto (Fare Rs.200/-) or S.T. Bus (Fare Rs.20)…

Stay : 4 delux rooms on advance booking at the above address at Rs.200/day ( Double rooms) + 2 dormitaries and tents….
Photography : Rs.500 for Still and Movie camera…..interestingly we were told no photography by our miniature cameras…..However I managed to get the photographs thro’ my mobile phone (Sony Eriksson K 750i + Nikon Spotting Scope)

(Trio: Dr.Vaibhav, Mandar & Myself and the vast expanse of Nannaj behind)

Photograph taken by mobile Phone camera selftimer