Bhigwan – Bird watching for breakfast

I came back home for an extended Christmas vacation, and little did I know it would pack in a mini Flamingo tracking morning tea excursion on a boat that was as small and colourful as it was swift and steady; at the oars, a local guide, who knew everything there was to know about the flora and fauna of the lake, and could row long enough for us to debate on why it didn’t make his arms look like any bigger

Words: Rahul Basu, Photography: Rahul Basu & Nita Basu; Time of visit: January, 2017

Early morning activities of any sort aren’t really my cup of tea, but I have done it from my time, for many years, all through my childhood, well into my college years and on occasion even in Germany for one and only reason; a chance to fervently enjoy nature and its residing wildlife. I admit, they have not been as frequently occurring as they once were. That is perhaps one of the reasons I decided to finally start my own blog, and in doing so renew my practice of writing exhaustive, yet informative accounts of my varied travel experiences, closer to home and abroad.

For anyone who has read anything I have ever written about my hikes, treks, nature trails and visits to nature parks in India and overseas, knows that I love being outdoors as much as I like learning about the history, architecture and biodiversity of these places. It’s not so hard to fall in love with nature in a country like India, where flora and fauna boast as much diversity as its indigenous people. The more popular, well-established national parks and the animal or bird sanctuaries spread out over the vast sub-continent see heavy footfalls in peak tourist season. While the legal framework for wildlife protection and conservation in India is a touchy subject, with vastly different opinions on how effective it really is or has been, I’d like to believe it’s not something we as Indians take lightly. To be really honest, you don’t need to be driving through a certified national park in northern India with a trained local forest guide, only to see a Bengal tiger in the wild that ought to make you feel like you want to make a difference and help preserve the country’s natural beauty and burgeoning wildlife. A simple boat ride at a nearby lake, a morning jog through a nicely wooded neighbourhood or even a day hike in the peak monsoons can go a long way in invigorating that sentiment and take in the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Among other things, I’m lucky to have parents who still enjoy doing such things as much I always have, and can easily rope me into such an outing even on very short notice. This time around it was Bird watching at Bhigwan, a small fishing village near the backwaters of the Ujani dam, some 105kms from my hometown Pune. A variety of birds including Herons, Ducks, Geese, Cormorants and Storks can be seen here, but the highlight of this region is without doubt the sight of Flamingos, which gather here by the hundreds, especially in the winter season between December and March.

There were roughly five or six boats with small groups of four to five people in each, that set sail around 10:30am that morning. Only one of the boats had an actual motor at its tail. The others were simply strapped to the sides of the faster boat, thus creating a stable makeshift formation that powered all the boats on that single motor some 2-3 odd kilometres from shore. Who says village folk in India can’t be innovative too right? We were now moving at a brisk speed, inching closer and closer to what looked like a pink outline on the distant horizon of the lake with a dark silhouette of a magnificent looking line of coconut trees along the shoreline on either side. The late morning sun now glowing over the shallow lake’s muddy waters, tiny shells and bird feathers dancing up and down to the gentle rhythmic ripples of water created by our boats now cutting through the water’s surface. The morning chill felt mild, in part due to the fleshy life jackets we all had strapped on.  A local fisherman, who we spotted in the middle of the lake there was comfortably plonked on an astonishingly large, but well balanced block of thermocol. “What Jugaad!” we’d say, meaning ‘fix’ or a ‘clever/cheaper alternative’ to something depending on the context of course; a trend we see local fishermen from Kumbhargaon putting into practice in more ways than one.

We knew we were headed in the direction of a large group of Flamingos, the once distant strip of pink now turning into a clear outline of the bird’s tall slender body structure with its especially long neck protruding upward or directly into the water in search of algae. It is this algae, the local fisherman say gives the bird its bright pink colour. Once our boats were a stone’s throw away from the flock, the motor was immediately turned off to minimize the noise level. Flamingos are shy birds, sensitive to sound and sudden movement it appeared. Even on oars, the local guides steered the boat very surreptitiously in their direction. The Flamingos didn’t seem to mind our presence at first, but much to our dismay didn’t stay long enough for us to really satiate the appetite we had built up that morning to see them in their natural habitat. Seeing a flock of Flamingos take sudden flight was the highlight of the morning nevertheless. That being said, it was only after our attention shifted away from them, that we really began to look around and spot so many of the other species of birds hovering around us. Just a short distance from where the Flamingos made their exodus, a sizeable number of Brown-headed gulls began circling our boats. At first glance, they don’t look so different from Albatrosses, but a round black spot just behind each eye, wings tipped in black and a long straight bill, not a dropping tip like on an Albatross makes them easily distinguishable. The local fishermen had brought some scraps of meat for them to feed on, which the birds would just skim over the water’s surface and grab with their talons in one swift motion.

We later sailed closer and closer to the eastern shore, where its muddy banks with thorny shrubs and wild tall shoots of grass near the edge of the lake dominate the landscape. An eclectic mix of wading birds like bar-headed geese, the Asian open bill stork, the glossy Ibis, the Black-headed Ibis, Herons and the largest wader of them all, the Painted Stork, which we all desperately tried to get a good photograph of can be seen here. It is a popular spot for migratory birds as the backwaters here are spread over a wide region and provide these birds with essential nutrients from algae, insects, plants and fish that thrive in this shallow water reserve.

Most of us in the boat were at the mercy of our smartphone cameras, and so photographs couldn’t do real justice to what we actually witnessed that morning. I am sure you will find far better imagery on the internet by semi-professional bird photographers, who carry better equipment. TripAdvisor for example has a page dedicated to bird watching at Bhigwan with fabulous photographs of the over 230 different species of birds that can be seen in the region. It’s great to see just how many people know about this place and have written about it in their personal blogs. I am just glad I had the opportunity to witness it first-hand and share my experience with you all.

For those who have never been to Bhigwan and feel like they wouldn’t mind paying a visit sometime, bear in mind that the road leading to the village off the Pune-Solapur highway isn’t very well paved and so, low slung cars, especially sedans with paltry ground clearance will really need to be careful. The Flamingo point as the locals call it, is however quite popular among bird and nature enthusiasts and see regular footfalls despite the poor infrastructure and road access in the region. Call and book a boat ride in advance. Once you find your way to the village, it’s really worth the extra effort it took you to get your car there. The resident villagers, many of whom are guides say arriving shortly before sunset is also a great time to watch the Flamingos assembled near the lake in large numbers. For early risers, breakfast can be ordered at the village itself. Overall, it’s a really unique experience, will cost you nothing nor take up your entire day really. Hopefully once you’ve seen it, it will leave you with something wonderful to share with other nature enthusiasts like yourself and in time help create awareness about such regions, support the improvement of its infrastructure and the livelihood of its people.



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