Trip Report: Bombay and Poona (India), January 5-18, 1996

Ignaz Wanders, School of Physics and Astronomy, Univ. of St. Andrews, North Haugh St. Andrews, Fife, KY16 9SS, SCOTLAND;

In January 1996 my work brought me to Poona in India. Though I did not have a lot of time to do much serious birding I kept my eyes open all the time. This is a report of the 102 species of birds I saw in a two-week period in the Bombay and Poona urban areas.

My itinerary was as follows:

Though stuck in two of India's largest cities (Bombay has nearly 13 million inhabitants, Poona 2.5 million), the number of species seen was larger than I expected. Bombay was very unproductive, apart from the trip to Elefanta Island, but Poona had quite a variety of habitat and birds within its boundaries. Especially the university campus and the botanical gardens can be productive.
Unfortunately, there are no high-quality field guides for India available, and the only little booklet I had obtained on beforehand (through ABA Sales) was Collins "Birds of India" by Martin Woodcock. This little book is OK for the common birds, but it is far from complete and some drawings are inaccurate (e.g. Brown-headed Gull in flight). I also had with me Collins Field Guide "Birds of South-East Asia" by King, Woodcock and Dickinson. This turned out to be useful, since many Indian birds also occur in South-East Asia. In addition, I had a European field guide with me. Many northen species winter in India and a large number of these are covered in European guides. In India I quickly came across a copy of "A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent" by Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley in a local bookstore in Poona. I bought this book, which was of great help, even though many of the plates are of poor quality. So, four guides in total I had with me, and still a number of birds went unidentified.
The bird names I use in this trip report conform the Sibley and Monroe classification. Where names are significantly different from commonly used India names, I give the latter in paranthesis.

1. The Common Birds

Some of the common and noisy city birds, which are hard to miss anywhere, and may be classified as pests, are the following:

1. The Pests
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
1House SparrowPasser domesticus
2House CrowCorvus splendens
3Rock DoveColumba livia domestica
4Black KiteMilvus MigransCity scavenger!
5Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
6Rose-ringed ParakeetPsittacula krameri

2. Elefanta Island

After having seen the pests of Bombay, an interesting excursion is the boat trip to Elefanta Island. The boats for this 1 hour (10 km) boat trip leave from Bombay's Gateway of India. There are frequent boats. The whole trip is about 4 hours long. This includes 2 hours on the island. It is no problem to stay longer on the island, though. There are Hindu caves on Elefanta and these form the main attraction. However, some interesting birding can be done from the boat. I saw Herring Gulls, Common Black-headed Gulls, Brown-headed Gulls, 1 Heuglin's Gull (subsp. Herring Gull), 1 Great Black-headed Gull, 1 Parasitic Jaeger, 1 Sandwich Tern.

The island has a tidal mudflat right near the harbor and a few shorebirds and herons may be found here. Of the herons, the following were seen: Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Indian Pond-heron, Western Reef-heron (2 dark-phase birds), Grey Heron, and Cattle Egret. Shorebirds were not numerous here, and I only noted Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, and Redshank.

I made the tour to Elefanta Island twice. Each tour gave me a few birds that were not seen on the other trip.

2. Elefanta Island
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
7Common Black-headed GullLarus ridibundus
8Brown-headed GullL. brunnicephalus
9aHerring Gull [1]L. argentatusPink legs. Subspecies???
9bHeuglin's Gull [2]L. argentatusYellow legs, dark wings.
10Great Black-headed Gull [3]L. ichthyaetus
11Parasitic JaegerStercorarius parasiticus
12Sandwich TernSterna sandvichensis
13Brahminy KiteHaliastur indus
14Barn SwallowHirundo rustica
15Great EgretCasmerodius albus
16Intermediate EgretMesophoyx intermedia
17Little EgretEgretta garzetta
18Cattle EgretBubulcus ibis
19Western Reef-heronEgretta gularis schistaceadark-phase
20Indian Pond-heronArdeola greyii"Paddybird"
21Grey heronArdea cinerea
22Common SandpiperTringa hypoleucos
23GreenshankT. nebularia
24RedshankT. totanus
25Asian Koel [4]Eudynamys scolopacea
26Little Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalis
27Black-capped KingfisherHalcyon pileata

[1] Herring Gull. There were lots of Herring Gulls around Bombay, all having pink legs, and all having a tone of grey on the mantle, similar to that of the argenteus/argentatus subspecies. According to Peter Grant's Gull identification book, the European gulls do not winter in India and the Siberian Herring Gulls are darker backed and the one subspecies that is supposed to winter in the Arabian Sea, has yellow legs: Heuglin's Gull (cf. [2]). Where do these gulls come from? It seems unlikely to me that they belong to the group of Yellow-legged Gulls breeding across central Asia, since those gulls also supposedly have yellow legs. Anyone who can help me out with the subspecific status of the large number of Herring Gulls wintering around Bombay, is greatly appreciated!

[2] Heuglin's Gull. I saw one individual, and there is no doubt about identification. It is a large gull, on the large end of Herring Gull, with a very dark back, reminiscent of graelsii type Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and bright yellow legs. The head is not round but the forehead is flattened giving the gull a fiercer expression than a "standard" herring gull. The gull was swimming on the water, than flying as the boat approached it closely. Obviously different from all other Herring Gulls present.

[3] Great Black-headed Gull. I saw one individual, swimming on the water. The mantle color was light grey, as that of a Herring Gull. Very large bird with a lot of black on the neck from behind the eyes, all that is left of the black hood it carries in summer. The bill was yellow with a black band and red on the tip. This was easily discernable in the sunlight.

[4] Asian Koel. This is a type of cuckoo. The females are brown with white spots all over, the males are black all over, with bright red eyes. This turned out to be an abundant bird, and extremely noisy. Every now and then you will see them sneaking through the leaves of the trees. Early morning they make a loud concert of quite pleasant flute notes.

3. The Western Ghats

Bombay is built on several islands, now built together to form a peninsula, and is bordered on the east side by the Western Ghats, a steep mountain range with a large number of endemic birds. Unfortunately I did not have the time to explore this region and I was only shuttled through it by car. The drive to Poona takes about four hours and is quite beautiful. The road, with numerous hairpins, passes through a number of nice mountain villages, steep cliffs, and farm land. The following birds were observed along the route:

3. Western Ghats
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
28Caspian TernSterna CaspiaNear Bombay
29Greater Spotted EagleAquila clanga
30Black-winged KiteElanus caeruleus
31White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
32Indian RollerCoracias benghalensis
33Crested Tree SwiftHemiprocne coronata
34Red-rumped SwallowHirundo daurica
35Northern ShrikeLanius excubitor meridionalisSouther Grey Shrike
36Long-tailed ShrikeLanius schach schachRufous-backed Shrike
37Jungle CrowCorvus levaillantii

4. The University of Poona

For one week, the University of Poona Campus would be my home. I had a guest room at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, or IUCAA for short. This was located between the Main Building and the botanical gardens. Every morning, between sun up and the start of the little conference, I had one to one and a half hour of birding. The university campus is quite large and not at all build-up that much. A lot of scrub land is around, some small forested areas, and a large river borders the botanical gardens. Several small ponds are on the property. The diversity in habitat is great.

India is very densely populated, but these people are in general very friendly and will not bother you while birdwatching. I felt perfectly safe anywhere I walked, and I never hesitated taking a small path. The botanical gardens did not open early enough for me, but since the gate was always open I sneaked in regularly, even when the guards saw me. I was always greeted and never chased away. Indians like to have their pictures taken and they will frequently pose for the binoculars as well...

Anyway, I had a great time walking around the campus area. Below is a list of the birds I saw on the campus alone (including Botanical gardens). The table presents the "new" birds, i.e., the birds not mentioned yet. In addition to these, the following (already-seen-in-Bombay) birds were observed: House Sparrow, Rock Dove, House Crow, Common Myna, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Black Kite, Asian Koel, Indian Pond-heron, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Little Green Bee-eater, White-throated Kingfisher, Long-tailed Shrike, Jungle Crow, Barn Swallow, and Red-rumped Swallow.

4. University of Poona campus
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
38ShikraAccipiter badius
39White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurus
40Laughing DoveStreptopelia senegalensis"Little Brown Dove"
41Red-wattled LapwingVanellus indicus
42Greater CoucalCentropus sinensis"Crow Pheasant"
43Common Grey Hornbill [5]Ocyceros birostris
44Spotted Owlet [6]Athena brama
45Blossom-headed ParakeetPsittacula roseata
46Coppersmith BarbetMegalaima haemacephala
47Dusky Crag MartinHirundo concolor
48Golden OrioleOriolus oriolus
49Brahminy StarlingSturnus pagodarum"Brahminy Myna"
50Common IoraAegithina tiphia
51Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus cafer
52Large Grey Babbler [7]Turdoides malcolmi
53Red-breasted FlycatcherFicedula parva
54Asian Paradise-flycatcher [8]Terpsiphone paradisi
55Tickell's Blue-flycatcherCyornis tickelliae
56Lesser WhitethroatSylvia curruca
57Indian RobinSaxicoloides fulicata
58Common TailorbirdOrthotomus sutorius
59Cinereus (Great) TitParus major cinereus"Grey Tit"
60Purple SunbirdNectarinia asiatica
61Purple-rumped SunbirdNectarinia zeylonica
62Oriental White-eyeZosterops palpebrosus
63White-rumped MuniaLonchura striata"White-throated Munia"
64Grey WagtailMotacilla cinerea
65Pied WagtailMotacilla alba
66Citrine WagtailMotacilla citreola"Yellow-headed wagtail"
67Yellow WagtailMotacilla flava
68Black DrongoDicrurus macrocercus
69Pale-billed FlowerpeckerDicaeum erythrorhynchos"Tickell's Flowerpecker"

[5] Common Grey Hornbill. These were fairly common in and around the Botanical Gardens and the Main Building of the university. Not a particularly beautiful bird, it's dull grey and has a voice like a crow, but it belongs to an interesting family of birds, not like anything in either Europe or North-America.

[6] Spotted Owlet. I stumbled across this one by accident. It was sitting on a low branch in a tree. The only owl I have seen. No doubt there are more species on the campus, but it was not the right season for them to call and be very active.

[7] Large Grey Babbler. A group of these birds makes a variety of weird mewing sounds. It makes you laugh...

[8] Asian Paradise-flycatcher. One of the most beautiful birds I have seen. The males are brilliantly white with a dark-blue head. The females are duller and are rufous on the wings and tail. The tail feathers of the male are very long and hang down the tree in a gracious manner. These birds were fairly common in the higher canopies of the Botanical Gardens. I did not see them around the main university building.

5. Poona

There are several rivers running through Poona. These are not canalised and the birdlife is quite good. You can scan some interesting birds from the bridges, and also by floowing the rivers to more suburban areas. Here is a list of birds seen along or close to the system of rivers, all within the city limits of Poona, and not seen before:

5. Poona
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
70Asian Palm SwiftCypsirius balasiensis
71Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis"Dabchick"
72Spot-billed DuckAnas poeciliorhyncha
73Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus
74Indian River-ternSterna auranta
75White-eyed BuzzardButastur Teesa
76Jungle MynaAcridotheres fuscus
77Red-whiskered BulbulPycnonotus jocosus
78Small minivetPericrocotus cinnamomeus
79White-browed WagtailMotacilla madaraspatensis"Large Pied Wagtail"
80Pied KingfisherCeryle rudis

6. Pashan Lake

Local birdwatcher Yogesh Wadadekar took me out to Pashan Lake, about 8 km from the university. This is a small lake in the hills outside the city of Poona. The lake is heavily disturbed by people's activities, but it still offers a variety of birds not seen elsewhere on my trip. It is easily reachable by public transport like auto-rickshaws. Apart from a large number of birds already seen before, here is a list of the "new" birds:

6. Pashan Lake
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
81Purple SwamphenPorphyrio porphyrio"Purple Moorhen"
82Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus
83Little CormorantPhalacrocorax niger
84Cotton Pygmy-gooseNettapus coromandelianus"Cotton Teal"
85Asian ObenbillAnasthomus oscitans
86Purple HeronArdea purpurea
87Spotted DoveStreptopelia chinensis
88White-rumped VultureGyps bengalensis"White-backed Vulture"
89House SwiftApus nipalensis
90Paddyfield PipitAnthus rufulus"Indian Pipit"
91Wire-Tailed SwallowHirundo smithii
92Red Avadavat [9]Amandava amandava
93Ashy PriniaPrinia socialis"Ashy Wren-warbler"
94Plain PriniaPrinia inornata"Indian Wren-Warbler" P. subflava

[9] Red Avadavat. In breeding plumage the male is very attractive: bright red with small white spots. It is a familiar cage bird. In the flock of about 10 birds, only one individual was brightly colored in breeding plumage. The others were in dull winter plumage. Only the bill is still bright red in winter.

7. Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope

Two hours drive north of Poona, at Khodad near Narayangaon, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) is being built. Large satellite dishes are scattered over a large area of many square kilometres. The telescope area itself is closed for the public. We were invited to see the telescopes and a driver took us all together in a small bus to take us there. It was one of the bumpiest rides I have ever experienced, but the reward was several new birds not seen yet.

The habitat is mainly dry grasslands with scattered trees, and farmland. No forests, mainly dry. A habitat I had not visited yet. As usual, being the only birdwatcher in a group means you rarely have time to explore an area and on this day I did not have a lot of time for birding.

7. Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope area
#Common NameScientific NameRemarks
95Lesser AdjutantLeptoptilos javanicus
96Bay-backed ShrikeLanius vittatus
97StonechatSaxicola torquata
98Indian ChatCercomela fusca"Brown Rock-chat"
99Pied Bush-chatSaxicola caprata
100Common Wood-shrikeTephrodornis pondicerianus
100Common RosefinchCarpodacus erythrinus
102Egyptian VultureNeophron percnopterus"Scanvenger Vulture"

That brought the total to 102 species seen during exactly two weeks.

All in all a very interesting trip, not just because of the birds, but Indian culture is special, too. The people are great! The food is wonderful!

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; June 23, 1997