Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bhimashankar – The Sacred Forest !!

Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary has always been my favorite birding spot and over the many times that I have had opportunities to visit this place, it has always held me mesmerized with its magic…..there is something mysterious about this place. Not just the birds, but a mere feel of this evergreen forest makes me want to go here again and again.

Wanted to plan a trip for Mumbai Birdwatchers Club to Bhimashankar and so decided on a quick "Rekki" trip to see if I could get a good staying place at a reasonable cost. With this intention, I decided to make a visit all the way by bike along with my good friend Shaunak Pal. This place is about 252 kms from where I stay in Sion, Mumbai (approx.127 kms from Pune) and indeed this was going to be a hectic drive in the hot summer month.

I took the Mumbai-Badlapur-Mhasa-Malsej-Junnar-Ghodegaon-Bhimashankar route that traverses through one of the most beautiful countryside around our region. Though hot, it was a wonderful journey all thro' the way with very good road and less traffic (Only a couple of bad patches)…….It took us around 7 hrs to reach there.

Bhimashankar, as the name suggests is a Pilgrimage centre famous for one of the 12 "Jyotirlings" – Shiv Temple. While this place has seen some heavy crowd over the years, it still remains one of the less visited "Jyotirlings" due to its distance and poor facilities. However this has kept the forest intact to a greater extent compared to the other Pilgrim centers and the forest dept. has done well here……Bhimashankar is situated at an elevation of approx. 3296 feet and thus qualifies as a very good hill station and is also designated as one of the Important Bird Areas (IBA) by Birdlife International. This sacred forest has typical north western ghat vegetation with evergreen and mixed deciduous trees, plants and medicinal herbs and has been especially reserved for Malabar Giant Squirrel or "Shekru" (In marathi), the state animal of Maharashtra, which is found in good numbers here. It also harbors many endemic bird species and is good to visit any time of the year depending on what interests you……in monsoon, this is a good place for insects, amphibians and reptiles…..in Oct/ Nov it is good for Wild flowers and from Dec to May/ Jun it is good for birds…….here in May/ June the water dries up in most of the streams and only some perennial water puddles remain and it is a good time to see birds and mammals coming to these waterholes.

The Place around the temple is degraded with many houses and small restaurants……the facilities are basic….only last year this place was connected with Telephone (but no mobile range except BSNL)……the staying can be arranged at any one of the small make shift hotels and dormitories…..there are only a couple of good hotels (Hyde Park and Blue Mormon Resort), but they are 9 kms from the Temple and outside the sanctuary, which is good….we stayed at one of the "Buddha Vihars" without electricity and open toilets ;)).....there are several trails here ...some of the wonderful trails being..."Gupt Bhimashankar" trail, "Nag Phani" trail (Highest point), Machaan trail, Ahupe Ghat trail, Forest Rest house trail etc.....

As soon as we reached, we just dumped our bag and headed for the "Machan" trail that goes behind the MTDC resort (Now closed for renovation)…..here in Bhimashankar the sparrows and crows are replaced by Red Whiskered Bulbuls and Black Bulbuls….infact they are so numerous that we could have counted them in hundreds…..this trail always rewards with mammal sightings and we immediately hit upon our first of Mouse deer (later we saw another) that dashed off so quickly that we could just ID it…..a couple of Juv.Bonelli's Eagles were seen playing in mid air very far off, but their features showed well…..while looking at the eagles, another huge eagle suddenly rose in front of us….it was so close and looked huge that for a moment we wondered what species it was, but it turned out to be a juv. Crested serpent eagle…..it circled for sometime and flew at a distance…..and just as I was wondering why it came so close to the ground that I got my answer …..after a few paces, to our left on the ground was a magnificent Cobra about 5 ½ foot basking on the rock with its hood open……what a specimen it was and what an attitude it had….the serpent eagle probably came for this snake, but was disturbed by our presence……the snake then coolly slithered away amongst the rocks…..Wow, what an experience to start with…..

At the Machan point, while we waited patiently near a small water hole…..the Juv.Bonelli's eagles again showed up followed by their parents….. imagine 4 Bonelli's eagle flying towards you and passing over your head…..I was so engrossed that I forgot, I had a camera….it was too late by the time I attempted any images and could just manage a couple of poor shots…a barking deer sensed our presence and gave an alarm call…..we realized we were too close to their comfort and decided to return back…..on the way back we again came across the same Cobra, scanning its territory unmindful of the danger from the eagles above…..a couple of Emerald Doves and Nilgiri wood pigeons showed up well. We traversed thro' a dense patch of forest to come up almost 3kms on the tar road leading to Bhimashankar and on the way saw a forked tailed Oriental Honey Buzzard (Probably moulting tail), many Black Birds (of ssp. nigropileus), White-rumped Shamas calling melodiously, Green Bee-eaters, Blyth's pipit, Small sunbirds, Calls of Indian Pitta…..It was almost 7.30 pm and the light had faded, the myriad Horseflies were bothering us incessantly, the crickets had started calling in otherwise a silent walk and suddenly an animal came crashing down a tree at the edge of the road…..it was an Indian Palm Civet……

The Evenings and mornings are very cool in Bhimashankar and you don't really require fans even in May, so not many houses have one. Early mornings is also time for natures call…..and when you are at it in open, having a blissful time, you get a very good opportunity to watch the bird activities without movement and with patience ;))….A hare flushed out from his rest startled a greater coucal that went scampering like a road runner, a black bulbul was busy with incubating in his nest on a medium sized tree, a Pied Bush chat male was busy carrying food for its nestlings and black birds were seen singing from top of trees.

The morning was quite a buzz with bulbuls, Puff throated and Scimitar babblers, B.Cheeked Fulvetas, Small sunbirds, White cheeked Barbets, Tickell's Blue flycatchers. The Orange headed thrush were particularly vocal……we tried the "Gupt Bhimashankar" trail. This wonderful trail (that goes uptill "Bhorgiri' caves) traverses thro' thick canopy forest and is particularly good to see the Malabar Giant squirrels, White-bellied blue flycatchers and Yellow browed Bulbuls…..we did see them in good numbers along with a blind snake and plenty of scorpions (atleast 3 species)……the "Gupt Bhimashankar" spot (approx.1.5 kms south of the temple) has many perennial water puddles where many birds come to bath and quench their thirst (this trail is highly recommended in summers)….here we saw Emerald doves, O.Headed Thrush, Black Bulbuls, Giant squirrels, a lone Oriental turtle dove and a Paradise flycatcher…..the puddles were infested with water boatman and water beetles…..On our way back, Shaunak got a very beautiful "Mumbai Shield-tail" snake….this yellow and blackish blue snake has rough tail scales hence the name….it burrows under the soil and thrives on earthworms….

In the evening, we traveled the 9 kms to check on the resorts and came across many Malabar larks, paddyfield pipits, an Oriental Honey Buzzard chasing cattle egrets, a Black shouldered kite, Pied bushchats…..The Blue Mormon resort is the only deluxe resort in the region (and quite expensive) with suites, bungalows, rooms and cottages nicely tucked away overlooking a deep valley, complete with helipad et al. for the ministers that come to the temple in a hope to wash their sins…..co-incidentally a Blue Mormon butterfly was seen flying around the resort …….in the night, saw a Jackal near the Bus stand and several Indian and Savanna Nightjars calling……

There is a place not very far from Bhimashankar which is so dense and pristine that it is one of the best primary forest patches found in north Western ghats – the "Ahupe forest", which is approx 16 kms North east of Bhimashankar…..this is one patch which is not explored much….there is a small road that leads to this place, but after about 5 kms (uptill Kondhwal hamlet), the road becomes virtually non-existent and you have to literally walk down 11 kms to reach here….. We off course started early and could go upto Kondhwal by bike…..here the feel of the forest is a different experience, so quite from the madness of humanity….the area near a dried up waterfall gave us many Nilgiri wood pigeons, Plenty of Shamas, a Common Kestrel, Black birds (with nest) and Black bulbuls (with nest), Scarlet Minivets, Jungle Mynas, M.Whisling thrush etc….on the open cultivated fields near Kondhwal hamlet, we came across many Malabar and Syke's crested larks together, a calling Bay banded Cuckoo, Shikra, Crimson sunbirds etc.

We were so mesmerized with this magical place that we didn't realize that we are getting late (It was almost 10.30 am) and we had to drive back in the scorching sun…… and like always the return back was much boring….not much photography, but the memories that we took back were much more valuable from this Sacred Forest – Bhimashankar.

Happy Birding !!

Adesh Shivkar