Park hopping

 Anand PendharkarWorking with nature and outdoors, my life has a comic edge to it. While my party-crazy friends almost envy my lifestyle and the opportunities I get to explore the outdoors, every weekend they make elaborate plans to go pub-hopping. And here I am grinning and wondering, and occasionally gritting my teeth trying to figure out how I’m going to be capable of leading the next day’s trek or nature walk, after pulling an all-nighter. Often, I simply skip the noisy club nights. But if it is a friend’s birthday party and that too at home, I don’t miss the opportunity to gift them a lovely plant.

Sometimes, these plants tend to be the start of their green connect in an overtly grey and money-minded city. The colours and shapes of the leaves of those climbers or the fragrant flowers of the shrub or even an edible-leaf plant such as lemongrass, ajwain (mint) or curry leaves, catapults them into considering a greener surrounding.

A mixed flock of waders at Bhuigaon beach, Vasai
A mixed flock of waders at Bhuigaon beach, Vasai

Sometimes, I add a photo frame to the birthday gift, from one of my sojourns to Ladakh, Andamans or Meghalaya. In fact, after a bunch of such gifts, a friend even planned a family outing with me to a nature park, to celebrate his grandfather’s 80th birthday. Even so, the jump into the real outdoors takes time and requires breaking a lot of barriers, such as the material of their clothing, your wake-up time, the noise level one generates and finally, the fear of the unknown.

I’m glad to report that in many cases, the ‘forced’ gift has ended up turning some of my friends into serious cyclists, trekkers, photographers, scuba-divers, para-gliders and even bungee-jumpers. They will agree that their lives have transformed. They claim to lead very different lives; many even foregoing their ritualistic club-nights.

As for me, my routine is fairly set. Barring the few long-distance camps or unavoidable social events such as marriages, birthdays and funerals, most of my weekends are spent in some or the other local forest. There are occasional variations, walking along beaches, surveying lakes or boating in mangroves or conducting nature walks in wildlife parks, of which Mumbai has many. My most preferred and convenient wilderness regions are the various zones of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Kanheri, Shilonda, Nagla, Yeoor and recreation zone of SGNP), followed by Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, the beaches of Kalamb-Bhuigaon-Arnala in Vasai-Virar Region, the Karnala Wildlife Sanctuary, the Sewri-Mahul, Airoli or Mumbra-Alimgarh Mudflats and further on, the beaches of Kihim-Alibaug. The distant Phansad and Tansa Wildlife Sanctuaries are equally rewarding, however, logistics of food, stay and travel put them at the bottom of the list. Further tracing this list, Matheran on the central line and Palghar on the Western route are phenomenal wilderness regions for herpetofauna. (reptiles) and marine life, respectively.

In recent years, many daylong birding events have become routine. What started with the Bird Races, turned into the Big Bird Day, the Backyard Bird Counts and Marathon Birding Days. With e-bird and Bird Count India launching their easy to use bird checklisting website, numerous serious and amateur bird watchers have started to park hop from place to place. Hiring a car, groups varying from three to eight people travel over 80 km in less than 12 hours to enlist as many as 200 birds in a single daylight period. Sadly, Uran which was a superb birding paradise was destroyed by unprecedented construction, eliminating it from the birding destinations.

Many groups start birding from the northern boundary of the SGNP in Nagla, heading to Yeoor, further to Karnala, returning to IIT-Powai, with a quick round of birding in the Airoli Mudflats which are the newly declared Thane Wildlife Sanctuary. Others end up at the Sewri Mudflats or Maharashtra Nature Park, but surprisingly, visits to Aarey, the Byculla Zoo, Nilje Lake near Dombivli, Stella Wetlands and Dongri in Vasai also yield some rare birds.

It’s needless to emphasise that park-hopping has become my favourite way to spend the weekends with my friends who all equipped with their respective binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras and bird books head out to some local wilderness in search of their dream birds.

Write in to Anand Pendharkar at sproutsonline@gmail.com

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