Monday, November 14, 2011

Phantastic Phansad (15-17 May 2010)

Eeeks, what a cheesy title, but read on anyway!
It was 7 in the evening. As the sky darkened into night, the crack of twigs falling to the ground rang out like pistol shots. Frogs began a tentative chorus. Mosquitoes whined out their annoying ditties in our ears. We were bombed from all sides by large insects attracted by the beam of the flashlight. A lone bat and then a nightjar swooped over the water of the `gaan' or waterhole.
As the six of us sat waiting, Adesh said he distinctly heard the call of the Sri Lanka frogmouth! We sat quietly for more than half an hour, but neither owls nor frogmouths favoured us with a sighting. I wasn't disappointed though. Just spending time in the verdant forests of Phansad was a reward in itself.
Phansad has a number of `gans' or water bodies scattered throughout the forest. The most well known is the Chikal Gaan which is around 6 km from the gate. The paths are well marked and in some places steps have been carved out of the rock. There are patches of open grassland that are the favourite nesting places for nightjars.
We stayed in tents and though the facilities were very basic, the food was absolutely fantastic. It was typical Maharashtrian fare with bhakris, dal, papad, pickle and two varieties of vegetables. Breakfast was pohe and refreshing lemon grass tea!
On the first trek, the resident dog gave us company all the way. One time when we thought the rustling in the bushes was a big mammal the dog walked out with what looked like a gleeful grin! We spotted the tickell's blue flycatcher that evening and it was wonderful to see Chesta, the baby of the group and a first time birdwatcher, ooh and aah at the sight. Notwithstanding the fact that she was holding the binocs upside down!!
The weather was terribly hot and humid and we were all drenched in sweat throughout. But we forgot the discomfort when on our Saturday morning trek to Chikalgaan, we spotted the lovely white-rumped shama warbling its mesmerising melody. Shamas were aplenty as were the brown-headed barbets with their ascending tukk-tukk-tukkur-tukkur notes. We heard the scimitar babbler many a time but were not granted a sighting. And the pigeons!! It was a `green signal' all the way! First was the pompadour green, then the green imperial, then the yellow-footed green pigeon. The emerald dove completed the green medley or so we thought till the small green bee-eater sallied forth…
We trekked quite a bit to see the white-rumped vultures nesting and spotted a juvenile sitting all alone near the nest. It was here that eagle-eyed Shobha saw the racket-tailed drongo. Four of us also saw the Amur falcon, a lifer for three of us. It was Uma Devi who spotted the falcon. This intrepid young at heart grandmother trekked miles without a single huff or puff while I stopped every 15 minutes for a break (she is going to the Pindari glacier in June, guys!!!). The others who missed it were heart-broken so we knew we had hit the jackpot! A baby Indian violet tarantula was a bonus…
Adesh, who was very disappointed because we hadn't yet spotted the green vine snake or the bamboo pit viper, both of which he said were a dime a dozen in Phansad, finally spotted one! I really envy his hawk eyes because it was a baby vine snake and was absolutely invisible to the rest of us on the stem of the plant! A feast of karvandas was another highlight of the trek.
However Saturday evening and night was the most memorable. After a walk through the forest in pitch darkness with the stars like brilliant bulbs in the velvet night sky, and fireflies dancing in the leaves, we stopped at the open grassland. Adesh's flashlight unerringly picked out a grey nightjar and her chick! They were so camouflaged among that it was only by the red glint of her eyes that we were able to spot her. She cuddled the chick close to herself, both of them as still and frozen as the rocks around them.
It was so hot in the tent that I tried sleeping outside under the stars so to speak. Bad idea, because every rustle and squeak and chirp seemed magnified and all the shadows around took on a menace they didn't have in the morning light! Back to the tent for one chicken-hearted nature lover…
Sunday we went birding just outside the sanctuary and saw the maximum number of birds! Besides three species of flowerpeckers on one tree – the nilgiri, the pale billed and the thick billed – we saw a plum headed parakeet, a brahminy kite, a red whiskered bulbul who put on a merry little woodpecker-like dance for us, chestnut tailed starlings and the Indian and magpie robins.
Next was Supegaon, where there is the devarai or sacred grove in which the trees have been preserved for hundreds of years. There is a small shrine inside and we spent a few quiet moments there under the cool shade of the trees after a walk through a karvanda orchard and paddy fields. Naturally we could not resist plucking the sweet and plump karvandas and for a few moments birds were completely forgotten!
On our way back we stopped at Therunda to look at the skeleton of a whale. Then we met Dr Vaibhav Deshmukh who took us to see the nest of a peregrine or shaheen falcon on the top of a very tall cell tower! It was nesting inside the `drum' and there were three chicks. One was testing its wings preparatory to flight. The parents were nowhere in sight and Adesh said they were known to range far and wide to search for food for the chicks.
A brief stopover at Karnala for pittas of which there were none visible despite Adesh's frantic calls (with Yogish as second fiddle!). Then we were passing by Talave on Palm Beach Road when the flocks of waders there literally `forced' us to stop and look! A feast for the eyes - black and brown headed gulls in various stages of breeding plumage, gull billed and whiskered terns, Caspian terns and then! The entire flock took off in a panic! A shaheen falcon was on the prowl!!!
Wow! What a sight! We had a good look through the scope. The bird even took on a cormorant but had to give up as its victim managed to drop down and escape…And that was a perfect ending to a perfectly fantastic trip….thanks to Adesh and Mandar and of course the absolutely invigorating company of Uma, Chesta, Shobha and our `calculating' genius Yogish!

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