Homeland Hues - winter visit to India

After almost a year long wait, I was all excited to start my journey next day morning towards the homeland……and just before going to the bed, I switched on the 10:35 pm BBC weather forecast…“There is going to be heavy snow during the late hours tonight and majority of the international flights are likely to be cancelled” ……Gosh ! I was dumb struck -why should it all happen only to me…that too exactly at the time of my flight!! Why can’t the snow hold on for another day or two …..!
Keeping my fingers closed…but keeping all the hopes open…..I set the alarm for an early morning drive to the airport….and next day…….magic……in spite of all those thick showers of snow around…and slippery routes to the airport ….. …hurray …. my flight to Mumbai finally took off from Heathrow…..!
Thank God !

Landing in Mumbai, I always get instantaneously transformed into homely sentiments at Sahar because of the warmer temperatures, familiar lingo at the immigration and somewhat characteristic aroma in the air!
The customs clearance was surprisingly very quick this time and even carrying so much of photography equipment with me – my exit from Sahar was much smoother than all my previous visits. I think the guys at the counter now seem to be a bit easy with the white canon guns being transported in and out quite often.
A midnight drive towards Pune in a Tavera is a true fun which gets multiplied by a hot medley of steaming wada-pao with red chutney at the expressway mall. That tangy feeling brings me right back into real India….by all means!
Pune and around
As this visit to India was not a “for wildlife photography only ” - my schedule in Pune was going to be quite tight with a list of usual tasks to do – banks, accounts, insurance, house taxes, bills etc.

Still I managed to squeeze some quick visits with Rahul and Gaurav to nearby places like Sinhagad Valley one on the first day and then Kavadi the next day.
Sinhagad valley - as always, offers a treat of Flycatchers, Parakeets, Shrikes, Munias and Birds of prey. Even though for a very short time – this spot has always been a refreshing experience. Being a weekday – the crowd was reasonable and noise levels were much in control. My friend Kunal and his enthusiastic son Arnab also came along on a short notice. Sinhad valley visit gets truely endorsed when concluded by a tasty "misal" topped up with freshly cut onion at the usual joint – corner “tapari” near the diversion of the fort route and valley approach road!

Next day -a short and sweet visit to Kavadi and Saswad – spotting some Rudy Shelducks, River Terns, Wagtails, Sandpipers, Spotbills, Gargany and Stilts. The characteristic smoky fog at Kavadi always makes me a bit nostalgic and reminds me of my earlier days with a 35mm film camera and a 70-200 lens – struggling to reach closer and closer to the migratory flocks that arrive here every year. However, I was quite surprised to note the total absence of Marsh Harriers this year. A further visit to Saswad was equally rewarding with some more birding and a mandatory attendance at Asmita vada pao centre. A grand finishing touch !

Pune Bird race function was scheduled the same evening – but due to prior commitments – it was not possible for me to attend.

Goa and surrounding areas
Bidding good bye to Pune - the Kingfisher ATR flight reached Goa in amazing 40 mins. The on- board snack was yet to be finished and the captain started landing instructions !!

Prasan Parab welcomed me at Dabolim airport and was a great pleasure to meet him after a long relationship over emails, chat and phones. My hats off to the amazing enthusiasm, pure dedication and continued perseverance that Prasan is blessed with. These are some essentials traits that constitute a good naturalist. I was totally overwhelmed by the wonderful company of Prasan and his buddy Sriguru. This duo made my life a total joy – in the field and off the field during my Goa visit. The relentless driving capacity and appetite to explore nature is indeed an asset for these guys.

The habitat around Goa has always been of a special significance for me because while authoring the “Bird of Western Ghats” book- I spent most of my time around Molem, Bondla & Dandeli chasing various species. It had been a considerable gap for last few years and I was quite keen to revisit this area.
I had always heard a lot about Cotigaon during the days of writing our western Ghat book. After Dandeli - this place was always high on my list. I was expecting a lot of western ghat specialties and also a great deal of birding in Cotigaon area but unfortunately the habitat was very dull and unproductive. To my surprise - three elaborate rounds inside the sanctuary ( Baila lake side) revealed absolutely nothing !
However, later along the outer edge of the sanctuary – sighting some Grey headed bulbuls, Pied flycatcher shrikes, Leafbirds and Imperial green pigeons was a consolation.

On the Eastern side of the same geography– a beautiful habitat exists in the name of Netravali forest. Under tremendous pressures of mining and unauthorized forest activities, this wonderful piece of land can be a paradise for birds, butterflies and reptiles. The expanse and the richness of the vegetation is quite conducive for the presence of some exclusive wildlife & I wish some serious constructive efforts are carried out to conserve this area.
Time spent in Bondla area was not very productive from photography point of view but was certainly quite interesting. One fine morning I was surprised to see a female Sambar panicked and rushing in the waterhole after being chased by some 6-7 feral dogs.

This area is obviously a protected area under Bondla wildlife sanctuary and it is certainly a bit sad to witness such incidents happening within the boundaries of a sanctuary. Others usual sightings in Bondla included Wood shrikes, Ruby throated bulbuls, Minivets, Paradise flycatchers, Monarches, Nuthatches. I was amazed to see a gathering of 6-7 Fairy blue birds at one spot very close to Bondla waterhole. Occasional appearance of Grey headed bulbuls keep you motivated all through the area.

Over and above all – it was the greatest delight to discover a pair of Ceylon Frogmouth in Bondla. This bird being a highly secretive bird, really takes all your luck to be spotted in the bush. But this was an important sighting for me as I had never seen this mysterious birds anywhere other than Kerala (Thattekad) and to me its existence anywhere to northern side was only in books.

Near Margao, I enjoyed some time indeed at the Curtorim wetlands – because there was some encouraging activity around the three lakes due to substantial population of whistling Teals and Cotton teals.

The best part of Goa trip was a boat ride on the Zuari river in search of the “Collared Kingfisher” – which has been on my target list for last few years.
There is only a limited zone around Zuari river - A characteristic mangrove habitat - where you find this exciting Kingfisher and I managed to spot it this time.

This boat ride is a fantastic way to reach some exclusive species – Collared kingfisher together with Storkbilled and Black capped, Small Blue and White throated Kingfishers. The boatmen were quite well aware of the bird habitats and are quite skillfull in navigating the boat in line with your needs. As the boat shakes a lot, handling the accuracy of focus become a true challenge.

Additionally – you come across bonus species like Osprey, Brahminy Kites, Waders, Herons, Egrets, Curlews, Ibises & some Marsh crocodiles. This reminds me of the kingfishers in Sunderbans or Bhitarkanika boat rides and the mangrove habitat.

Kanha – the nostalgia

Originally I had planned for a visit to Pench, but looking to the logistics and entry problems at Pench – I changed my destination last minute to Kanha. In fact, I have a strong nostalgia from my early days at Kanha and it had been quite a while that I visited Kanha – so was quite happy with this last minute change of destination.
On the way to Kanha – I always have a favourite stop over. Just about 5 kms before Mandla – there is a small village called “Katara” and one must try the Aloo Parathas in the “ Prakash Dhaba” near Katara hospital. These Aloo parathas (teamed up with a special tomato chutney and dahi) are out of the world and all my Kanha trips have always included this on the “hit list agenda”.
I have seen much better face of Kanha in the past – full of prey and predator activity but honestly speaking this time the overall activity and the movements in the park were very reduced and a kind of dullness was felt all around- a bit of “bring down” feeling for me.
Probably, I was in the park just two days after the new year rush time…. and probably the after effect of those huge crowds that must have celebrated the year end bashes had left the wildlife a bit scared and the animals / birds must have fled away from the public routes.
In a nutshell- I had a few Swamp deer and couple of Tiger sightings together with a white morph Changeable hawk eagle, Collared scops owl, Adjutant stork, Orioles and flamebacks.

Being in the habitat of Swamp deer (Barasingha) in early morning fog of Kanha is indeed a special experience. However I fully enjoyed the winter afternoon sun in Kanha – Vitamin D- which I otherwise totally miss in the UK !!

As there is a whole wew generation of Tiger cubs coming up in Kanha (and also Bandhavgarh) – I wish that the coming years will be better and safe for them….I pray to God for the survival and welfare of their tribe! With the clouds of risk shadowing their existence – my thoughts are now shaken whenever I see a tiger cub in the wilderness!!
Indore – visiting the home town
The final hop was Indore – my home town.
Meeting parents and all close relatives is indeed a great experience and amidst all this – I made a quick visit to Sirpur – as I can’t keep myself away from this lake. This is the water body where my dream of a bird sanctuary is now coming true with the great work by team of nature lovers including Bhalu & Kaustubh. I can see the realization of my dream through their wonderful efforts. Even with a short notice, both of them arrived at the spot and Kaustubh made the day with a lovely “Pohe-Jalebi–kachori Nashta” ….quite in line with the traditional Indore hospitality!

I also had a quick visit to a nearby town – to a spot known from my schooldays – where you can see the Demoiselle Cranes at very close quarters near a lake and the temple there serves as a wonderful hide.

The only thing that was unfavourable for me during this whole trip was - I didn't ever get a good clear sky and bright sunlight. It always stayed cloudy, dark, smoky and foggy. Probably that is how December end has been last few years for me in India.

All through my trip –the support and logistics by from Foliage / Saad Tourism was fantastic and that brings much more efficiency into such tightly scheduled trips.
More images can be seen in the Gallery of individual species on my website - www.saleeltambe.com

After that “short” winter stint with my favourite – the wilderness in the homeland ….I’m back to the UK…again amidst layers of snow…..watching the same weather forecasts every night ……but somewhere at the back of my mind …. I’ve already started dreaming for the next trip!