Wanderings in a coastal woodland
The relentless call of the brown headed barbet ringing in the background, gold fronted leafbirds and green pigeons silently hiding in the bright green foliage, a scorpion in an aggressive mode ready with its deadly sting, cat legged spiders lurking in tree hollows, young fungoid frogs leaping besides a spring and a riot of colours as butterflies and dragonflies flutter basking in the morning sun. This and much more is what Phansad Wild Life Sanctuary had to offer us that weekend in March.
I decided to cash the three-day weekend of Holi and joined BNHS trip to Phansad WLS. Situated near Murud in the Raigad district of the Konkan region, at a mere four and half hours drive from the city, this little known sanctuary is a blessing for Mumbaikars. Sprawling aross 53 sq km. this Coastal Woodland represents a unique Ecosystem of Western Ghats.
Twenty of us led by Mr. Adesh Shivkar, Dr. Vaibhav Deshmukh, Mr. Parthiv Patel left Mumbai by 6.30 a.m. After a few wrong turns at Panvel and breakfast at a near by restaurant we headed further past Nagaon, and Chaul till we reached Rev Danda.
We stopped here in the village of Therunda to take a look at (as we were told) the skeleton of a 6-month-old blue whale. After futile attempts to burn or bury the 45 feet baby whale that had washed ashore, one of the villagers took the initiative to preserve the skeleton, arrange for the Plaster of Paris imitations to fill up a few missing bones and set it up for public appreciation. The enormity of the creature is the first thing that strikes you. If the baby is so huge imagine a full grown adult. One marvels at the miracles of nature. Adesh and Dr. Vaibhav provided information that whales – the largest of the mammals are vegetarians and feed on the smallest of living organisms – the planktons. Surviving on oxygen from the air they surface approximately every 20 minutes. Whales being mammals give birth to live young. These are not delivered head first as in other mammals, since in the water the baby may suffocate. They arrive tail first and as soon as the head comes out the mother pushes the baby towards the surface to allow for breathing. After more exchange of information on other sea animals we left the place feeling grateful that there still exist people like this gentleman from the village who spend from their own pocket for public good.
We proceeded further along the scenic road by the sea shore of Kashid to reach Phansad at about 3.00 p.m. By 4.00 p.m. we had set out to see what the forest had to offer us. On the way we discovered a magpie robin’s nest in a roof of a hut. The clever bird had used a snakeskin to line its nest to deter predators from venturing nearby. We headed towards one of the sacred groves (devrai) that form a part of the forest. These areas are thought to have the presence of god and hence no tree is cut. Thus left untouched by human hand they form a gene pool important to protect the biodiversity of nature. The entire forest floor was covered with thick leaf litter and pair of twenty feet made quite a racket walking through it. Surrounded by the canopy of evergreen and deciduous trees, wood climbers- lianas, strangler figs and Garambi (Entada species) we trudged forward. We marveled at the flowers and pods of Garambi.
Each series of these woody pods is about 2 feet long. One fine day they burst open to disperse black shiny seeds. While we were busy admiring the Garambi pod, Parthiv got hold of a juvenile bark gecko and we appreciated its vertical pupils. He explained the difference between the lizard and gecko family. The lizards are laterally flattened while the geckos are dorso- ventrally flattened. Some geckos also have lamellae under their paws (small tube like structures that end in cups) which help them to climb vertical surfaces and defy gravity. We sighted a lone lapwing and some yellow-legged green pigeons. To reach the grove we had negotiated a small slope full of thorny dry bushes but returned through Supegeon the adjoining village.
Before dinner that evening we settled down in the open courtyard of the forest rest house where Adesh presented his slides of birds. This gave rise to further discussions and queries on the behaviour and habitat of the birds. Many doubts and questions were answered.
That night after dinner we set out for the night trail. Adesh showed us a tree hollow known to be home to the cat legged spider. Focusing a torch on it revealed two yellow and black striped legs. We were not successful in luring it to come out. Meanwhile some one found a dead nightjar lying on the road probably hit by a passing vehicle. It was a good opportunity to see its features from a close distance. Dr. Vaibhav volunteered to show its wide gape, the bristles by the beak which are sensitive to touch of insects and allow it to hunt at night. Its feathers are soft to touch aiding silent maneuvering in the night. Once we were done with the nightjar we proceeded to a nearby meadow to settle down and listen for nightjars. The Grey nightjar and the Indian nightjar were quite vocal.
The next morning I was ready by six so some of us decided to take the route by the guesthouse towards the watchtower. The bird activity was in full swing. The forest was alive with their chirping and the sweet smelling Raan Jai and wild Tagar made my short walk invigorating. I was glad to be able to shoot golden orioles on my camera; coppersmith barbets, bulbuls, gold fronted chloropsis, ashy drongos were energetically dancing from one treetop to another. Yellow footed green pigeons and pompadour pigeons sat silently in the trees hidden completely by their excellent camouflaging colours and contours.
Before I joined the entire group a blue-faced malkoha was sighted and I regretted not being witness to it. We kept trying to look for it when Sahil, an enthusiastic birder sighted it yet again. This time again it was a fleeting glance and the bird kept shifting from one branch to another before it took refuge in the dense foliage away from our prying eyes. One group returned with the information that a jungle babbler’s nest had been located. The nest was neatly done and hidden in a small bush. It held three bright green eggs. Our curiosity satisfied and the eggs intact, we left.
After breakfast we set out yet again and this time came across a dead Green Imperial Pigeon. The beautiful bird lay on the leaf litter its neck unnaturally twisted. Ants had already started making a meal of its eyes. Its lovely metallic green wings glistened in the morning sun. We hoped to see these birds alive and healthy and here we had come across two dead ones already!! Mr. Chandrakant Naik the forest officer of Phansad offered to show us a den used by the leopard. On the way we came across a baby cat legged spider. Although still to reach adult size it has its share of poison ready for anyone who tries any funny tricks, so the safest way to handle it is with a twig. Parthiv put it in a case so that everyone could view it.
The way to the cave was slightly up hill. It had a small opening just enough to fit a person seated on the ground. We took our turns to check it out. One could not really go much further from the entrance. The cave narrowed and the torchlight revealed openings on the upper right hand side and lower left. These were just enough to accommodate the cubs. The amazing thing was the natural ventilation that the cave possessed. Outside the cave we were sweating from the heat but near the entrance one could sense a drop in temperature and the resultant coolness. Quite a cozy home to rear one’s cubs!
Soon we were back for a sumptuous lunch and cool wash. In the evening we set out along the main road. The treetops did not reveal any interesting birds and Parthiv literally left no stone unturned with the expectation of some prized serpent until his efforts bore fruit! There under a stone was an adult female scorpion! He tweaked it from its hole and it took an aggressive stance openly threatening with its sting! After every excited soul had taken a good look we left the scorpion to its own business. Further down a purple rumped sunbird perched on a branch, preening in a spot of sunlight its green cap shining brilliantly. This deserved a look from the spotting scope. The spotting scope revealed more features. Quite a handsome bird indeed!! Those who had got digital cameras could take snaps by positioning the lens and the scope eyepiece in alignment. Lucky indeed to get such pictures without much effort!
Thus walking further we came to a point that over looked the valley. Adding to the beauty of the forest was a delightful mix of greens, yellows, reds and browns. The beginning of “Vasant” was announced by the deciduous trees wearing a new coat of bright green, the evergreen trees sporting a darker hue with splashes of red from the Flame of the forest, Coral tree and new leaves of the Ceylon Oak tree (locally known as Kusum).
All through the trip Adesh and Dr. Vaibhav would keep making different birdcalls and to their credit the birds did respond in return. At this point a hornbill responded to a call. Every one rushed to the point. We could locate the approximate position of the hornbill and stood at the spot. What followed next was a “jugal bundi” between Adesh and the hornbill. Call answered call – it was a weird call something like a cranky baby calling. As Adesh would lower his voice the hornbill would raise its and so it went on; all of us rooted to the spot listening intently until someone sneezed and gave away the show. A brief glimpse of the bird flying in the trees led us to believe that it was a Malabar grey hornbill.
After the brief excitement we trudged back. Uma had sighted a rat snake some distance further. All of us at this end of the road rushed back. By the time Prathiv and the rest of us could reach the spot the snake had disappeared. He could just get a glimpse at it. So much for the excitement J. Nevertheless we headed back to base for dinner.
While dinner was being cooked we entertained ourselves with some quiz questions. Parthiv and Adesh tested our knowledge on birds, their calls and migratory behaviour. This set off a volley of questions and answers which lasted through out dinnertime.Dr. Vaibhav and Sahil on their night prowl sighted a brown wood owl. They were lucky to locate it on a branch and the bright torchlight kept it in place long enough for Sahil to take a snap!
The next morning we started out early; decided to skip breakfast and headed towards Chikhal Gan one of the many perennial springs that bless the forest with life giving water. The highlight of the day was the crested tree swift. As we reached a large meadow the trees lining the meadow sported many crested tree swifts rising up in the air and settling down on the treetops. As we neared we located a female sitting in a determined manner on her nest. She was least bothered with us mortals lining up under the tree to view her through the spotting scope. Not far away was the male showing off its orange ear coverts. We spent some time watching them to our satisfaction.
Further ahead was a long way to the spring. The spring surrounded by dense foliage makes for a picturesque location. As soon as we reached the spot a honey buzzard was present to welcome us. That it did and flew away. The muddy forest floor showed signs that a wild boar had come the previous night to wallow in the mud. (some dhulivandan that must have been J). Some of us stayed by the water while others marched further in the forest. Many nests of the Malabar giant squirrel could be seen though the furry animal was not to be sighted. A malabar grey hornbill was calling and to our excitement could be located high on a eucalyptus tree. Adesh lost no time to make it better appreciable to the human eye. From the scope we could see its huge beak and even its eyelashes! About a dozen white rumped vultures circled above us taking advantage of the thermals to relieve their wings of trouble. The large green barbet that had kept calling relentlessly for the past two days allowed us a peek before it gave us a slip again.
Near the spring in the mud many butterflies and brilliant coloured dragonflies were flittering about basking in the sun; note worthy among them - Common leopard, Short silver line, Blue tiger, Gaudy Baron and Danaid eggfly. We took our time to have a good look at each and capture a few on our cameras. On our way back we stopped by the watchtower for a panoramic view of the forest landscape and the Korlai Castle by the shoreline. Continuing further we were amazed to see the crested tree swift still on her nest undaunted by the blazing sun! Talk about parental instincts!! Further down a green vine snake gave us ‘darshan’ before we left Phansad.
A wonderful camp was made pleasurable by group leaders like Adesh, Dr. Vaibhav and Parthiv. Their zeal, enthusiasm and patience are indeed infectious. For its wonderful mix of deciduous and evergreen forest and the variety of flora and fauna Phansad is a place every nature enthusiast would love to visit.
Text: Ms. Rama Mulye
Photos courtesy: Mr. Rahul Natu
Text: Ms. Rama Mulye
Photos courtesy: Mr. Rahul Natu