Calls of Konkan
If one feels that life is getting unrealistically fast and furious, traffic is getting on to your nerves and your mundane job is making you a computer horse, here is a good place away. A place so far away that it even makes one forget the meaning of fast life, targets, deadlines, appraisals and so many more words and phrases which snatch away the blissful happiness from mankind. A place with people so laid back that its people yawns before giving you directions.
Konkan is “Gods own country” in all senses. In terms of geography it has two distinct natural boundaries, the Western Ghats on the east side and the Arabian Sea on the west side. In terms of natural bounty, the region has
some of the most precious natural offerings like Beatle nuts, Coconuts, Kokum, Cashews, Jack fruit, Sea food, the famous Alphonso or locally
called “hafuz” mangoes. In the early summers, some trees are laden more with mangoes than the leaves. Almost all the villages of Konkan are very neat and clean with a small temple playing Bhajans in the morning and evening. These are melodious Indian classical music based Bhajans unlike the Bhajans played in North India which are ripped off from tunes of film music and words makes no sense apart from a few words coming every now and then praising the lord.
Living in Pune, Konkan has been my escape button from mundane office, traffic and so many more worrisome things. Just five hours of drive towards west from Pune lands you in gods own country. Konkan is such a gifted place that, if given a choice even to collect fruit one need not to climb the trees. The coconuts, the Jackfruits, the Kokam berries, cashew fruits upon getting ripened fall by themselves. Being so gifted, the laid-back life comes so naturally to the inhabitants of Konkan.
Konkan has no particular birding season; in fact, all the seasons in Konkan bring in their own gifts in the form of different migratory as well as resident birds. Summers bring in much colourful Indian Pitta also and rightly known as “Nav Rang”, the rains brings in more colorful Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher for breeding and nesting purpose, the winters announces arrival of Sea Gulls, Whimbrels and Oystercatchers. In addition to these migrant guests the Konkan has a plethora of birds as native residents like the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, the Black caped monarch, variety of green pigeons, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Majestic white bellied Sea Eagle, the Crested serpent Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Minivets, Chloropsis, variety of Sun birds, Shrikes, Emerald doves, owlets and owls.
Geographically Konkan region can be divided in to three sub regions, to start with the Konkan region begins with the culmination of Western Ghats and the villages in this region are in Ghat sections and lively hood is more dependent on rivers and forests rather than the sea. Traces of Western Ghats still constitute the major scenes of landscapes. The majestic Brahminy Kites starts taking prominence over the skies around the water bodies and start the announcement of a different avian life of Konkan. A majority part of Konkan is covered with green in in form of semi ever green forests or mango orchards or the mangroves around rivers linked with coasts.
The first Part: The Konkan Starts
End of the Western Ghats marks the beginning of Konkan and places like Mahad, Chiplun, Khed, Devrukh, Kanakvali, Kudal etc are the major towns in this Konkan belt. These towns form the entry point in to Konkan Villages and act as junction points. Nearby forests and villages are tremendous places of birding. Indian Pitta, Oriental Dwarf Kingfiesher, Pigeons, and Eagles along with many other plethora of species at every turn, every tree offers something worth exploring. I love this part of Konkan for its rich bio diversity, it not only offers birds but reptiles are also found in abundance in planes of these forests. My advice to people visiting not only Konkan but any interior parts of India is to keep a torch handy in night time and stick to beaten paths as Snakes still make most number of victims in terms of human animal conflicts and results are as fatal as amputation or even death. Snakes remain a potent threat almost in every part of India and not only in Konkan. Between the Ghats and Konkan lie the rocky planes which are the best place to spot reptilian life forms. There is a reason why there are so many reptiles in this part, the rocky bed of planes is made up of porous rocks and this makes it a perfect adobe for reptiles. In summers, small crevices in the Porous rocks offers shelter and hiding place for ambush hunting. In winters, these rocks retain the heat of the day for longer periods and hence help small snakes retain higher body temperatures for longer time and helping them to remain active post dusk for a longer period of time and hence increasing the chances of grabbing a prey. In rainy seasons, the excess of water gets seeped inside the tiny holes of the porous rocks and ground becomes dry super quick helping the reptiles to move freely and remain dry so as to control body temperatures. Body temperature of a snake remains most critical feature of reptile’s life, as body temperature determines the speed and accuracy of attack. Speaking about speed the Saw scaled Vipers in Snake family define speed in a new way, if you happen to spot them they remain still and move at a very sluggish pace, but do not be fooled by the sluggish behavior of these gems of evolutions and never venture anywhere near striking range, even the striking range is difficult to gauge as they go in to a coil shape with head followed by a small “S” shape of body which helps them to catapult in to larger distances and make a quick strike. When I used work quick strike, the work quick attains a new definition this snake is capable of striking and coming back in 50 to 70 milliseconds, if you are thinking that this time can be managed, a fact to remind how miniscule these 50 milliseconds can be, blink of a human eye records 300 to 400 milliseconds. The strike speed is way above our mind to gauge and instruct our body to respond. Small things come in good packages and same is true for this, and for a good reason as being small allows it to inject only limited venom as a result of which people survive and live to tell a painful tale.
These parts of Konkan are beautiful in the Monsoon mornings as the water carrying clouds get stuck in lower mountains first and then make a move upwards as the wind gathers pace as the day matures towards afternoon. The entire valley turns green and flowering is at its peak this coincides with the start of butterflies giving eggs and Larvae start emerging out of eggs to feed on young and succulent leaves of their choice. Monsoons also mark arrival of a very important and a very vibrant migrant to Konkan, the Oriental Dwarf kingfisher arrives. The arrival of ODKF is not just a coincidence as it arrives for breeding and nesting purpose to these northern parts of the Deccan peninsula from as far as Sri Lanka. The eggs of stream dwelling red crabs get hatched during this time and these small hatchlings roaming in the stream without any camouflage or cover of the nest acts as a good source of protein rich food source for the young of the ODKF. Looking at the hunting frequency of this little beauty I can be sure that the metabolism of young birds is very fast and they must be growing at a very rapid pace. The ODKF makes tunnel like nests in the mud holes on the embankments of the rivers or small rocky streams. This bird although quite common by its presence, is a jewel in avian fauna; the plethora of bright and vibrant colours on such a small bird makes it an awesome experience to see. I have spent hours just watching this bird and love the fix pattern that they follow like an obedient school going boy follows his routine schedule. The bird comes out of the tunnel shaped nest, sits on the nearest barren perch in the open, looks around as if waiting for checkered flag to wave, and flies off in the direction of river stream, Flight of this bird is equally beautiful as it appears like a small flame floating fast up and down in forest like a compressed sine wave curve with metallic chit-chit calls while in flight. After some time comes back on the same perch from where it took off, this time carrying a juvenile Crab, or a Skink in its beak, rests for a while and then enters the tunnel like nest to start the process all over again.
Before the arrival of Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Konkan also witnesses arrival of Indian Pitta from the Himalayas. The Indian Pitta also arrives to brood and feed its young ones with butterfly larvae which are found in abundance during the pre-monsoon as well as during monsoons. Pitta happens to be a very caring parent in bird fraternity, since it’s a migratory bird and arrives just before the onset of monsoon, it does not get any luxury of time and favorite tree perch to make nests, so the preferred nesting site is small crevices formed by bulged roots of trees, but nesting on ground has its own perils and is open to attacks from reptiles and mammals equally. To avoid traces of smell of its brood getting detected and from flowing in air and catching attention of a monitor lizard or snake who rely heavily on sense of smell to locate their prey, the Indian Pitta keeps a carpet of leaves in its nest, the young birds do the droppings on these leaves and then the pitta wraps the droppings of its infant in leaves and drops it away from nesting site so as to avoid any kind of odor getting accumulated which may lead to detection of its brood.
Pre-monsoon air is filled with fire flies creating a spectacle with blinks of light and reassures us that it just takes smallest of lights to break greatest of darkness. On the forest floor calls you could spot Millipedes and Centipedes of lot many varieties. You can also look out for Hornbill nests in larger trees. Hornbills from the time of their evolution have maintained their nesting tradition. The pair chooses a suitable tree hole and female goes inside it and makes lining inside the tree hole with soft nesting material. The male seals the hole from outside with the use of mud and leaves only a thin slit open, the thickness of this slit is just sufficient for female to take out its beak from the nest to receive the food. This is perhaps done from the instinct when the predators had long necks and could smell the tree holes for sensing prey. This period is very demanding for the male outside as first it had to arrange food for his mate inside, once eggs are hatched the male has to fetch the food for the newly hatched chicks as well, sometimes the male becomes very tiresome and by the time the brood comes out of the nest the male is in very pale state and in certain cases does not lives to see the brood fly. Richard Dawkins in his path breaking book “The Selfish Gene” has mentioned this instinct as a work done by the Gene to preserve itself for a longer period as the Gene knows that the mature hornbill will survive less than its brood and Gene can live longer with in younger brood and making him/her repeat what it has been doing since ages. Dawkins in his work gives a new perspective to care and affection of parents and presents it as a work of genes which are working in a selfish manner and making the parents work in a selfless manner. To put it in right perspective is should be kept in mind that the “genes” are selfish and not the parents.
This part of Konkan receives maximum rainfall and is also a hub for amphibian life forms with frogs taking prominence. Nights are always full of mating calls of frogs not only coming from ground but also from between the tree trunks but also from branches of the trees. Trees surrounding small water pond are the place to found these frogs, males take care of the eggs on the leaves hanging above the pond. The fertilized eggs look like a pile of foam on leaves. Once the eggs are ready to hatched, the tadpoles emerge out and takes a dive straight in to the water. This acts like a drip supply of tadpoles in to the stream or pond below.
In winters, you can see small green leaves falling of the tree slowly, and before you think it is a natural occurrence, look closely it could be a Vernal Hanging Parrot which hangs down on trees and feeds itself, highly camouflaged and much smaller in size as compared to parakeets which are normally seen in Urban and rural landscape. It’s a great failure of our education system that while teaching alphabets the P for parrot that is taught via pictorial depiction is actually P for Parakeet, but our education system does not give importance of visual memory or learning but more importance is given to what you write and mug up.
Talking about parrots and parakeets, the parakeets have long thin, elongated tails, whereas parrots have wedge shaped smaller tails on the back. There is only one species of Parrot in India and it is found in Indian and is found in Western Ghats and edges of it.
The landscape in this part of Konkan is full of rivers as they form small deltas with mangroves before finally culminating in to sea in next 40 odd Kms, water in these rivers usually has a murky appearance owing to mud content in rivers as well manganese deposit in the Rocky River bed. Murky water and loose mud helps one of the deadliest amphibian to thrive in such conditions which depends on its camouflage in such conditions to get food, Estuarine Crocodiles are at home in these conditions and this is perhaps the best place to spot them. A hand roving boat is best to spot them and get close to them. Evenings and mornings, they are out basking in sun to regulate their temperatures. If you look carefully along the embankments, you may find really big ones sleeping in den, real size can be gauged by looking at the size of humongous jaws of the beast as fully-grown Crocodiles are elusive and do not venture out in open for too long.
Best place to stay: Dongarmatha Eco Resort, Chiplun
This place is located on a hill top and offers very good panoramic view all rounds with Vaishishthi River in foreground and blue hills in the backdrop. It’s a tremendous place not only for bird watching but also for nature exploration as a whole. Food is both veg and non-veg and stay very comfortable. Hosts are very friendly and main attraction is the bamboo based architecture of this place.
Apart from commoners Birds Sighted: Yellow Footed Green Pigeons, Pompadour Green Pigeons, Black capped Monarch, White Rumped Shama, Black Hooded Oriole, Eurasian Oriole, Indian Scoops owl, White Eyed Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crimson Sun bird, Black Bird, Paddy Field Pipit, Tree Pipit, Clamorous reed warbler, Dark Throated babbler, Hooded Warbler, Small Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, Chestnut Shouldered Petronia, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Red Jungle Fowl, Brahminy Kite, Indian Roller, White Ibis, Cormorants etc.
Apart from Birds this place is not to be missed for Crocodiles, sightings are common and requires just one boat ride.
The Middle Slice of Konkan: The Mix of Planes and Ghats
Once you travel approximately a further 30 Kms towards the west, roads with small ghats and snake like turns welcome you, and you find yourself in the planes of Konkan. Small rivulets form the basis of habitation of villages, dark green paddy fields fill up the distant landscape, mango and Cashew orchards are on sides of roads to leading to the villages with forests accompanying in the Ghat section.
Small clean villages with predominantly agrarian population make up the population. Apart from main road villages are interconnected via small beaten path roads suitable for those who still believe in walking. Small homes with large portion of Greenery are a norm rather than an exception. With such green portions at home a fallen branch of a coconut tree makes a perfect broom and morning when the broom is making its noise the melodious calls of birds start taking over the auditorium in this part of Konkan, with metallic calls of Orioles, accompanied by Rufous treepie screeching and small melodious chirping of White Rumped Munias, late mornings is the time when common iora takes over the proceedings along with ever fighting Chlorpsis aka leaf bird and ever protective Drongos looking over the proceedings and steady black birds bringing calmness around.
The planes also have a good amount of mammalian life, noon time is best time to spot Indian Grey mongoose or if you are lucky you can spot an entire family of mongoose in act of finding food. If one sits still and make no sudden movements Mongoose acts can be a treat for your senses. If one makes no sudden movements the group starts its routine activity but one Mongoose in the group ensures that it keeps an eye on human intruder who is observing the family in action. The members keep looking and smelling in to every bush for any hints of a food, it’s a patient process of looking for food and every corner gets explored delicately to the full satisfaction without disturbing anything. If any distant noise comes along the eldest members stands up on hind legs to increase the scope of vision and without ensuring that nothing a food source or a danger has escaped their eyes, they do not give up the probing stance.
Drives in the nights can be full of surprises; I have personally encountered a big Jackal besides a bend on a road leading to a rivulet. Pair of glittering eyes is very common and could be of a fishing cat or a Jungle cat depending on where one has encountered them. If near water body there are more chances of it being a fishing cat and if near a dense bush could well be of a Jungle cat. Drifts of wild boars are very common and their foot prints can be seen all over the landscape in the morning all along the beaten paths.
Still places around Ratnagiri and Phansad are still holding up the treasures but how long remains a big question. Konkan around these parts still has a lot of nature left in it but somehow, I feel in patches it is dying away with unchecked hunting of both mammals as well as birds. Fires in summers more often than not are induced and smoke can be seen from miles away but yet no action is taken, neither on the fire, nor on its perpetrators. As usual forest department in Maharashtra remains in deep slumber induced by the political masters and bureaucrats and can be seen in action only in Tiger belt of Vidarbh. This induced slumber is killing nature as I see locals are not made to involve in to conservation activities and no efforts are made to explore possibilities of locals earning out of nature exploration. Inside the forest ravines one can easily see signs of bonfire which is carelessly used by hunters who use snares and small rifles to kill/ catch wild boars, hares and other small life forms. Catapults can be seen in the hands of young boys roaming in Jungle is a clear indicator of how they are a threat to birds in these forests. Animals and birds in such disturbed areas are very alert and shy to humans around and this can be noticed while observing them, in well protected areas the same species responds in a bold and uninhibited manner. This alertness in disturbed area is attributed to humans being harbinger of death and destruction around that they experience in their short lives.
This patch holds so much potential from birding point of view as trees from Ficus family, berries are in abundance as a source of food for small passerine birds like barbets, tailor bird, sun birds etc. along with this such trees also act as an excellent host to variety of insects like wasps, bees, Beatles and moths which act as a source of food for flycatchers, insects and fruit bearing trees also support small mammals like Squirrels and Mongoose which in turn act as a food source for predators like hawks and Eagles, it’s a chain which is balanced yet very delicate and may not be able to bear such shocks for long time. Fire in the forest wipes out insect population as well as their habitat, which adversely impacts the entire chain; on top of this the hunting degrades it further and pushes this chain to a more brittle state. How delilcate this chain is can be understood by the fact that every fig tree has a dedicated species of wasp which is entrusted with the vital responsibility of pollination along with birds who feed on Fig berries. The deal is simple the wasp pollinates the fig tree and the tree allows the wasp to lay its eggs inside its flowers. The commoners like the Peepul and the Banyan tree are a lucrative abode for birds of both types (fruitarian as well as insectivores) as they are yearlong fruit bearing by nature.
So next times you visit Konkan do not just sit beneath a tree, flex your neck muscles and see patiently upwards, there are good chances that you may get bitten by bug of bird watching.
Best Time to Visit: Winter and onset of winter till spring
Recommended place for Stay: Atithi Parinay A/p Kotawade Near Ratnagiri.
Wild life Sightings
Mammals: Indian Hare, Jackal and Indian Grey Mongoose
Birds: Black Naped Monarch, Verditter’s flycatcher, White Rumped Shama, Blue Eared Kingfisher, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Brown Fish Owl, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black Rumped Munia, Scaly breasted Munia, Scarlet Minivet, Crimson Sun Bird, Yellow Footed Green pigeon, Short Toed Snake Eagle, Blue Rock Thrush, Puff Thorated Babbler, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Yellow Bulbul, White Browed Bulbul, Black Hooded oriole, Wood Sandpiper, Eurasian Sparrow Hawk etc
The Heart and Soul of Konkan – The Beaches
Konkan without beaches cannot be imagined and I have travelled to almost all the major and minor beaches on Konkan in past 14 years and have found every beach to be different from one another be it in terms of texture of sand to the patterns found on the shells which gets washed on shores to the patterns which waves make on sand while going back. Winter mornings are beautiful as the mist around the planted trees around beaches is a view which can make you stand still for a while and adore the beauty. The sunsets in the summers with clear sky are a treat to watch, the gradual change in the shades of sky as the sun gradually sinks in the sea beats any palate shade maker of the most intricate photo editing soft wares. Watching Sun at eye level and going down can only be seen in western coasts of India. Nights on the beaches are full of crabs, and in winter if one is lucky may see self-illuminating planktons getting washed ashore, this phenomena usually happens in mid of the night but is a sight to see and may well be a sight that I may carry with me when I am put to rest. Villages around the coasts are mixed with commercial activities of Fisheries as well as farming. Farming consists of Beetle nut, Mango, Coconut and Kokum. Farming activities are dominated by Hindus and Muslims take care of fisheries business
Early summers of April is a good time as it is the time when the juvenile Sea eagles start taking coaching for taking on skies. Trees around the coast line can also present a chance encounter with fast diving Bonelli’s Eagle, I have also spotted elusive and rare Grey Breasted Green pigeons also known as Pompadour Green Pigeon in the Casuarina tree near the coast line. Casuarina tree line is common across sea shores in Maharashtra and has caused much of damage to vegetation around due to its allelopathic properties. The thin leaves of this tree fall on the ground below and makes a carpet like cover and does not allows any other plant to grow and thick plantation of this plant has resulted in complete scuttling in the growth of other plants in its vicinity. These plants have thin barks and lesser three branched forks so also does not serve the purpose of nest making for birds. The use of invasive and stubborn species has been a hallmark of our Ministry of Forest and environment since beginning; and now with development in its mind in bargain of brainless acts of conservation the ministry and its bureaucratic machinery is working more actively towards destruction of environment.
Come winters and these beaches turn hosts to a lot of migrating birds like Crab Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Rudy Turnstones, Godwits, Eurasian Curlews, plovers, variety of sandpipers, terns and Gulls fill up these beaches in abundant numbers. Certain beaches near Guhagar and Ratnagiri are filled up in white coloured Gulls and it’s a sight to see.
As the winter starts its retreat another special visitor species starts arriving to these beaches, this species can only be termed as visitor. It is strictly a visitor and will never return to these beaches again for next one year. These beaches play host to egg laying grounds for of Giant olive Ridley turtles, some beaches like Velas and Kelshi can be termed as arribadas because of sheer number of turtle choosing them over as preferred nesting grounds. Out of both male and female turtles getting hatched out of the nesting hole, interestingly only the female will come back to land again and will be choosing the same beach for laying foundation of its offspring where she herself has been born. This is the precise logic for certain nesting grounds being preferred over the other in terms of number of arrivals. Also contributing to this is presence of a river which is getting merged with sea nearby as water at such beaches is less saline and has more content of planktons as well as small fish which proves out to be beneficial as a food for the new born. Although the mother is never there to really take care of the babies when they are born, but the selection of place for laying eggs ensure that the mother ensures good chances of survival for its offspring’s. The arrival of female turtles starts late in the night or pre-morning in complete darkness, nights with heavy winds are preferred rather than peaceful nights. The mother Turtles comes and crawls over the sand and digs a small hole with investing heavy effort from its flaps which are meant for swimming and not for sand digging. Once appropriate depth is achieved the female starts laying the eggs and goes in to a trance state where she is not perturbed by any disturbance around her. Arrival is a tricky part as the females sometimes comes to the beach but does not lays eggs, this is known as false crawl and undue disturbances like lights, noise on the beach may lead to a false crawl.
In beaches like Velas the birth of turtles is celebrated as a festival and why not, Birth of a life is always blissful, may be so because an infant is a bundle of hopes and so many dreams which it can accomplish. This festival to me is like a nature’s pilgrimage. Volunteers at different beaches of Konkan go through above 50 sleepless nights guarding the eggs laid by female Olive Ridley turtles and oversee that they get hatched successfully. The cheer of people that welcomes the arrival is nothing short of any prayers. For all the negative intervention that we humans do in terms destroying nature, and its inhabitants; this for sure remains one of the most positive interventions by us humans.
Post females leaves the eggs in holes, these volunteers collect them carefully and transfer them to a protected hatchery where the eggs are put inside the new holes and date of laying is marked on it so that a date of eggs getting hatched can be predicted. This transfer is done to safeguard laid eggs from natural predators like Monitor lizards, wild boars, feral dogs, Jackals etc. and the most devastating of all, us humans.
Mornings are the time when more hatch-lings come out of egg shells as compared to evenings. The struggle of these hatch-lings to reach to the sea water is a spectacle to watch, crowds gathered around cheer for every baby turtle to move ahead as if they are cheering for their favorite Olympics star in a race, differences being that here the participants never bother about crowd cheers, secondly this is a very slow-moving race and each one who reaches the sea alive is a winner. Having said that getting in to sea is a big challenge as even smallest of waves have enough energy to push back the little ones far back and even tumble them upside down. Sometimes the baby turtles halt for some time and then start their struggle back to win the waters. In measurement terms, it is 1 step forward and 3 steps back as the waves send them even further back from they were actually when waves had hit them.
Beaches like Malvan, Guhagar and Velneshwar, Aare, Ware, where boats are available one can even spot dolphins in motion but one has to have high tolerance to nausea while being in a boat in sea as it really tests your ability to counter nausea and head spins. One can also enjoy a boat ride starting from river to the culmination of river in to sea mangroves around are carriers to a lot of life forms from reptiles to Mammals and from invertebrates to birds, some of them being endemic to Mangroves as Mangroves being a special habitat requires special skills to survive.
Suggested places for Stay:
Konkan Serene @ Kelshi near Mandangad the property is near to beach with good food and this beach also has Olive Ridley Turtle nesting as well as good bird life all around.
The combination of the beaches, the Mangroves, the Greenery, the mountains, the valleys and a good part of people who are in sync with nature makes it a special place for every life form and making it a unique getaway for people who are desperately seeking a break from mundane life..
So what are you waiting for..Pack your blanket and pillows..reach out ..explore more…you will never regret