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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Little Rann of Kutch - A Day Trip

I had been planning to got to Thol on Sunday (9th November 2008) when Kunan Naik, an avid birder and photographer invited me to join him on a trip to the Little Rann. I had been planning to go there in December and hence jumped at the opportunity as Kunan had been there a couple of times and was familiar with the place.

The Rann of Kutch is a seasonally marshy region located in the Thar Desert biogeographic province in Gujarat state of northwestern India and the Sind province of Pakistan. The name "Rann" comes from the Hindi word ran meaning "salt marsh".I n India's summer monsoon, the flat desert of salty clay and mudflats, averaging 15 meters above sea level, fill with standing waters, interspersed with sandy islets of thorny scrub, breeding grounds for some of the largest flocks of Greater and Lesser flamingoes. At its greatest extent, the Gulf of Kutch on the west and the Gulf of Cambay on the east are both united during the monsoon.

This inhospitable salty lowland, rich in natural gas and a resting site for migratory Siberian birds, is part of India and Pakistan's ongoing border dispute concerning Sir Creek. The Rann is also famous for the Indian Wild Ass sanctuary, the Little Rann of Kutch, where the last of three species of Asiatic Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur or khar), the only ones in Asia, still exists along with wolves, foxes, jackals, chinkara gazelles, nilgai antelope and blackbucks. The Rann of Kutch is also the only place in Pakistan and India which plays host to migrating flamingoes. There are 13 species of lark in the Rann of Kutch.

We left Ahmedabad at around 4:00 and the 110 Km journey to the Little Raan took us around 2 ½ hours in Kunan’s Gypsy, with a couple of breaks thrown in along the way. We reached the forest guest house around 6:30 and headed off straight into the Raan along with Udaybhai, (a forest officer) who was a friend of Kunan and a local guide.

We traveled into the Raan in a Maruti gypsy’s as its 4 wheel drive is best suited to marshy soil of the area. It is also advisable to hire the local guide as they are familiar with the area and know which parts of the Raan are approachable by vehicles.

The first thing that struck me during our outing was the difference between bird watchers and photographers is their approach. While a bird watcher / environmentalist is content to sight birds through a pair of binoculars / telescope a photographer pursues the birds like a trophy often with disregard for the bird and its habitat. Watching these 2 experienced birders was a great learning experience for me.

One of the first birds we spotted was the Common Krestal (falco tinnuunculus) which is a common, but very shy bird which flies of at the slightest of noise / disturbance. A little further into the bushes we spotted the Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) and the Desert Wheatear, Oenanthe deserti. Some other common birds like the White eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis), Green bee eater (Merops orientalis) and the Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata) were also spotted along the route.

Past the scrubs we came across a huge vast open piece of land where the parched earth was cracked and dry. At places the earth was stained with a white residue, salt, for the water that had long since dried up. Here we spotted the Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) which blends beautifully with the arid landscape and is hence very difficult to spot unless it moves. A little ahead we came across a heard of the famed Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) also called khur, which is a subspecies of wild asses native to southern Asia. While I was busy taking pictures of the wild asses Udaybhai called us over as he had spotted a Painted Francolin or Painted Partridge (Francolinus pictus). This one was pretty far of and I had a hard time photographing it.

It was almost 9:30 and we headed of towards the water bodies and marshes. There we spotted Black Stork (Ciconia nigra).There were a lot of birds including The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), The Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), The Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), The Common Spoonbill or Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Skylark (Alauda arvensis) and also some ducks like the Brahminy Duck (Tadorna ferruginea), a couple of Spot-billed Ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), though Udaybhai was pretty upset that there were so few of them.

The Common Crane (Grus grus) were seen in large numbers. You can see hundreds of them all clustered together and when they decide to fly, it’s an amazing sight to watch. They are pretty clumsy during takeoff, but amazingly graceful in flight. We also spotted The Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and the Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis).

We decided to take another route back and there we were able to spot some Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus ), Indian Pond Heron (Ardeola grayii), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) and a couple of the Least Sandpiper, Calidris or Erolia minutilla and a few Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) and some Common Redshank or Redshank (Tringa totanus). Here I was also lucky to get a couple of pictures of The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in flight.

There are a lot of Rock Pigeons (Columba livia), Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis), Long-tailed Shrike or the Rufous-backed Shrike (Lanius schach), Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) and other common birds.

We also saw some Neelgai Antelope (Boselaphus tragocamelus Pallas) near the boundary of the sanctuary.

We started back from the Little Raan at around 12:15 and on the way back alongside the road we spotted a number of Black-shouldered Kites (Elanus axillaris), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Indian Rollers (Coracias benghalensis) and also a bird which looked like a Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus), but was way too far to identify positively.

We reached back at around 14:30 and I was tired but happy to have had such a great experience of the Raan with two seasoned bird watchers and now appreciate their patience and thrill of being able to identify a bird correctly, which I now realize is pretty difficult given that a slight variation in colour, striation or a almost unnoticeable change is the shape of the tail could change the bird all together.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Panchgani - A travalogue

We travelled to Panchgani from the 26th to the 30th of October 2008. An overnight train from Ahmedabad to Pune, saw us reach Pune at around 5:00 AM on the 26th and after a short halt we were off to Panchgani which is around 100Kms from Pune.

The route to Panchgani is a very scenic one with a lot of greenery and the flowers along the road were a sight to behold. A 2 hour drive and we were all ready to check-in to the “Blue Country Resort”, where we had booked our stay through ‘Club Mahindra Holidays’. Blue Country is a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) property where ‘Club Mahindra’ have some rooms booked on a permanent basis. There are some horror stories about the resort floating around the net, but our stay there was quite pleasant and uneventful. Though the restaurant as reported is pretty small and so it gets full really fast and you need to be early to be able to get a seat for breakfast or lunch. Dinner is usually served outside on the lawns and so it’s a much better experience. Any yeah the room service, especially if you order something just before lunch or dinner time sucks . . .
Okay so having got all that out of the way, the property itself is quite beautiful with a Dolphin embossed Swimming Pool, a room for table tennis and carom and a small children’s park to keep them happy.

Legend has it that Panchgani is named after the five hills that surround it. These were settlements of the natives and hence the town came to be called Panchgani, panch meaning five and gani meaning settlement. The town was founded by John Chesson in 1854, who developed it with a grant from the Governor of Bombay. Soon it came to be the home of a number of Christians and Parsis, and a getaway from the heat of the plains.
Panchgani is at an altitude of 1334 m, it is just 38 m below Mahabaleshwar. These 38 m translate themselves into a breathtaking 18 km approach, that swoops around and bends with abandon, offering splendid views of the river Krishna on one side, and the coastal plains, on the other. Panchgani is the quintessential hill station. It can be seen in the architecture of the old British buildings, the Parsi houses, and the boarding schools that have been around for a century or more.

The five hills surrounding Panchgani are topped by a volcanic plateau, which is the second highest in Asia after the Tibetan plateau. These plateaus, alternatively known as "table land", are a part of the Deccan Plateau and they were raised by pressure between the earth plates. The area has high seismic activity, with an epicenter near Koynānagar where the Koynanagar Dam and a hydroelectric power plant have been built. Another place you must visit is Mahableshwar which is just 20Kms from Panchgani and a well known hill station

There are many tourist points in and around Panchgani, most of them offering breathtaking views of the valley below. There are various sightseeing hill destinations points in Panchgani such as Sydney point, Table land, Parsi point, devil's kichen, Dhoom dam, the lingmala falls and Rajapuri caves. The Sydney point is placed on small hillock facing the Krishna valley. We can see the glittering waters of the Dhom Dam and Pandavgad and Mandhardeo from here. Table land is situated around 60 mts high and second largest natural mountains in Asia. From here we can easily see devil's kitchen. Parsi point is a windy road situated on the Mahabaleshwar way overlooks the Krishna valley and the blue mirror like waters of the Dhom Dam. Doom dam is a beautiful boating spot, which is situated 21 kms from the panchgani. Scooter boats and Speed boats one can enjoy here. Rajapuri caves is placed about 10 kms from the town. It has a religious importance as there is a temple of Lord Karthikeya, (Lord Shiva's son).

When in Panchgani don’t miss Sherbaug ( This is an amazing theme park and you can easily spend over half a day here strolling through the amazing gardnen, eating a traditional Maharashtrian meal or just lazing around on the many swings and beds scattered around the place. Sherbaug also boasts of a beautiful fossil and semi-precious stone collection and some dinosaur eggs.

A genteel place, Panchgani doesn't really pander to commercial tastes, as does Mahabaleshwar. Here, holiday pastimes include walking, riding on one of the numerous ponies that canter around town, or simply unwinding at home in the cool of the veranda or drinking tea on the lawns. And if you feel energetic, amble down to the bazaar to shop for very reasonably priced shoes and slippers, preserves and squashes made from fresh strawberries and raspberries. You can also visit the MAPRO outlets and stuff yourself with all the free samples that they give. Note: After a few, they all taste the same and you will be as confused as ever 

Panchgani has some amazing flora and fauna and I had a great time taking photographs there.

So after 4 pleasant days and our bags full with a variety of syrups, jams and pickles we headed back to Pune on the 30th to catch our train back to Ahmedabad.