30th December, 2009
The afternoon of the 29th had been spent in the drive to Abu and we arrived after nightfall to the only hill station in Rajasthan and the holiday and party destination of, what seemed like, all of Gujarat. Every inch of Mount Abu is covered with hotels and guest houses and every room in each one of them was full. We checked into our hotel and made plans for the next morning. Satya Prakash Mehra, an expert on all things related to Southern Rajasthan and a passionate conservationist and environmentalist of the region, had kindly offered to come from Bharatpur and show us the place and the bird closest to his heart. So after convincing the very dubious hotel staff that yes we did want breakfast and tea by 6:30am, we went to sleep dreaming of little green birds.
The next morning we were out at 7, waiting for Satya and his team of volunteers and soon we were on our way to a farmland behind the Dilwara Temples. The farms are beautifully situated with rocky outcrops and a semi-forest like area on one side. We woke up the farmer who assured us that the birds come here everyday. So we found a nice vantage point for scopes and cameras and sat and waited. The fields and bushes were abuzz with early morning activity. Rose Finchs, a Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, a brilliant Verditer, numerous White-eyes and Sunbirds all showed up, but no green jewel among them. They come when the sun is up and its warm, around 9:30 we were told (sensible birds I thought) and we waited some more. Finally at ten, with no sign of the birds, we decided to try our luck at another spot, fields near Oriya Village which some people claim is like a "postal address" for the birds. As we arrived, and even before we got out of the car, Satya said "I can hear them". We all tumbled out, binoculars were focused in every direction and soon I spotted some movement. Some movement being made by some birds that looked different. Some birds that turned out to be Green Munias, the one lifer we had come all this way to see. They flew from the tops of bushes, to a large hibiscus and then flew off again, out of sight. We all raced after them and found them again, feeding and noisily flitting around. On our approach they flew to a bush in a field above where we were standing and as we watched they would fly into another bush at our level, growing in a 2 foot depression so only the top half was visible, and then fly off again. We settled down and watched the activity - munias would arrive in the bush above, cautiously make their way to the lower levels of that bush and then fly into lower bush under them. And then return in the same way. Cameras and tripods were fixed and we spent the next two hours watching this. Small groups of birds would arrive - handsome males with bright yellow breasts and bellies, red beaks, green backs and zebra stripes on the sides, slightly less bright females and brown juveniles with black beaks, and just a hint of the stripes. They would fly down and then fly back. We wondered what they were doing. Quite obviously they were not feeding and we did not want to go too close to investigate and frighten them away, so we just stayed and watched the spectacle. Cameras clicked, cards finished and were quickly changed and the activity continued unabated. A Black-lored Tit showed up and posed, wanting some attention. Bulbuls entered the competition and a Sunbird in half-moult sang lustily demanding its share. A handsome Crested Bunting posed atop a twig but the Oscar for the Best Performance, Best Wardrobe, Best Action, and certainly the Viewers Choice Award, all went to the Green Avadavats, the stars of the show. At noon, because of harsh light, pack up was announced.
Masala chai, samosas and kachoris were consumed in front of the Dilwara Temple complex and then we decided on a quick round of the two main Jain Temples. If you ever get a chance to go to Mount Abu please do not miss the opportunity to see them - it would be sacrilegious, just like going to Agra and never seeing the Taj. Every inch of the interiors - ceilings, walls, gateways, steps, domes - are all covered with the most exquisitely and intricately carved marble, as our guide repeatedly said "All miracles begin inside". Truly awesome. A leisurely lunch break of dal batti churma and we were back like junkies looking for our munia fix. We tried the farmland again but no luck, so we returned to our original site. It was just as we had left it. Small flocks were still flying in and out and in the neighbouring terraces groups were feeding from the seeds on the ground. The golden afternoon glow showed the birds in their best light and Nik and Pam were like two fashion photographers frenziedly clicking the top models and capturing every mood and pose. Finally even they got tired and Pam could be heard telling the munias to please just go away and release all of us from their spell. Each time we would want to move another brilliant male would arrive or a juve would pose in the open and it was back to shooting more pictures again. Fading light came to the rescue. Birding activity slowed down and when we went to check what was so fascinating about the lower bush and attracting all the avifauna, we found some water at the bottom- they were coming for a drink! All munia-d out, we returned to our hotel and a good night's rest - after downloading 20 cards and viewing hundreds of pictures.
31st December, 2009
The day before the New Year and the highlight was a rubbish dump. We had decided to visit Trevor's Tank and look for the Grey Jungle Fowl and the Red Spurfowl but the gates to the place only opened at 9:30 am. So let's go check at what time the Munias really wake-up we thought, and set off in the morning, back towards Oriya Village. On the way there is a largish rubbish dump and when we drove past Pam spotted some Steppe Eagles feeding at the edge. We reversed and as she scanned the dump she found some interesting Oriental Turtle Doves - some of them had grayish crowns and heads and others were quite obviously more reddish overall with red foreheads and crowns - two different races, the meena and the erythocethala. Pam was quite excited by their being together in this area and decided to venture into the dump and take pictures. We stayed put, not quite wanting to brave the pleasant sights and pungent smells of rotting rubbish early in the morning. As she clicked and scanned some more, she suddenly called out "Red Spurfowl, Indian Scimitar Babbler". That did it. We were all now trampling all over garbage to get a look at the birds that, of course, had disappeared. But the dump was obviously a favourite amongst the birds and should definitely be on the itinerary for birders. Amid the Steppe feeding on a carcass was a Tawny Eagle. Jungle Babblers and Red-vented Bulbuls flitted in huge numbers in the bushes. White-browed Fantails, a Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, and a Red-breasted Flycatcher all enjoyed the place. A Black-rumped Flameback flew into a tree and hammered at the same spot for the next half an hour, obviously having found the mother-lode of grubs. I kept focusing on the rocks where the spurfowls had been seen and my persistence paid off. A pair of Red Spurfowls appeared, pecked, wandered, vanished behind bushes, reappeared on a clear path with nice light and I got to make another tick. Alas, no Indian Scimitar, though Nik did get good views later. We walked to the other side of the road and found a White-bellied and Ashy Drongo flying in the Eucalyptus. Small Minivets and a Sulphur-bellied Warbler gave good views and then it was time to visit Trevor's Tank. At the entrance gates was a family of Red Junglefowl that are fed by the staff and looked so tame that we thought they were domesticated. We drove up and walked down, with nothing much to show for the effort except a pair of Black-tailed Mongoose and a different race of Red-whiskered Bulbuls - the abuensis found only in this area.
Then it was time to pack up, leave Abu to the New Year revelers and drive to Udaipur. Mission accomplished, more than 100 Green Munias seen and captured (on camera), and we were now ready for Chambal and Indian Skimmers. All that in Part 4 - the last part, I promise.
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