Nature has music for those who listen. If you find yourself tired and troubled by life’s tumultuous ups and downs, find yourself a quiet corner in the woods, sit by a river bed and watch in content the birds and animals as they gambol and go about their ways. Welcome to the jungle.
Few cities can boast of a forest within its limits and Mumbai happens to be one of them. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is a 104 sq.km stretch of forest, scrub and water and is the source of life for the city. One-third of the city’s water supplies come from the Vihar and Tulsi lakes nestled deep inside the woods.
On a hot summer morning, I led a group of nine avid travelers to take a walk on the wild side at the SGNP. I’m a naturalist and an outspoken preacher of bird watching. Most weekends I’m on the outskirts of Mumbai, alone, busy in my quest for a glimpse of fur or feather. But this Saturday I decided to host a walk for adults and children alike, to introduce them to the great wilderness. We were a good mix of adults and children, all strapped with backpacks and walking shoes, hitting the dirt on the Silonda Nature trail. A mix of bamboo, scrub and evergreen forest, Silonda offers easy sightings of birds and the occasional wild animals. Just off the tarred road, the trail turns to dirt and rock and bird calls greet you immediately as you step in.
One of us mentioned that there was no network on our cell phones. We noticed that there were no cell phone towers in the vicinity. “Maybe cell phone towers disturb the flora and fauna around the place”, said Pratibha who had come with Anirudh her ten year old son. “Cell phone towers causing health hazards is all a hoax. They don’t cause cancer or any other deadly disease”, Pravin Palande quipped.
“Cancer is not a disease. It is a deficiency”, Anirudh said. I always like to go out with kids because they are inquisitive. I knew Anirudh, Nishchala, Chaitanya and Kabir all below ten years will have a lot of questions that I will have a tough time answering. The weather had begun to turn hot quite early in the morning owing to the summer and by 08:00 AM, the sun was already burning everybody’s necks. However, none of this seemed to trouble anyone as the melodious songs of the Red Whiskered Bulbul, Pale Billed Flycatcher and the Asian Koels fought with one another to win eager ears.
Kabir Khot, 6, had come along with his father Vikas Khot. He wanted to see a tiger or a lion. We told him that the only wild cat that we can see is a leopard and luckily we did not see any. The leopard in captivity may appear to be quite obvious to be spotted kind of an animal with its russet coat covered with black rosettes. But they blend into wood and shrub with little effort. You could walk right past a leopard, smell it and maybe even hear its gruff grunts but fail to spot it. They’re truly the masters of disguise in the Indian jungle.
Nishchala Sawant and Kabir Khot, the youngest members of the group, happily counted 15 birds even as the remainder struggled to go beyond 5 different bird calls. Walking into the forest, a sudden movement in the woods caught everybody’s eyes. Gradually coming into view from the dense foliage was a Spotted Deer, a handsome male stag with a fresh pair of antlers still in velvet.
In the distance, another Cuckoo sang while a pair of Greater Coucals, a Cuckoo specie but one which builds its own nest came into view. Indian legends speak of spotting a Coucal to be a favorable omen, a sign that the rest of the day shall be good.
The group then came across a Crematogaster Ant’s nest, more simply called Pagoda Ant for the pagoda like structure that is its nest. The ant is known to be one of the most ferocious ant species in the world and a few taps to the wooden pagoda indeed got the army on red alert. Within moments, the nest was swarming with hundreds of soldiers, all set to tear apart anything that might’ve been unlucky to knock on the pagoda’s doors.
Moving further along the trail, more Spotted Deer came into view and a Bulbul that doesn’t look like a one came into our sight. With its rolling, bubbling calls; the White Browed Bulbul gives the appearance of a Babbler and less of a Bulbul.
After an hour’s worth of easy walking, the group reached a dry streambed. It was the perfect place to rest those tired legs and talk about birds, Nature and Isaac Asimov. Anirudh clearly wasn’t satisfied with facts about birds and kept quizzing me for more and more facts. I threw in an impromptu quiz on birds which Nishchala’s brother, Chaitanya and Anirudh hotly contested with each other in the pursuit to win the quiz. Nishchala was happy as ever counting bird calls. By now, she had clocked 20 species without much difficulty.
After two hours of hot birding and some much needed relaxing, the group turned back to the tarred road for the long road home and some fresh fruits before making the journey home. You can join me on future expeditions into the jungle for fur, feather, fun and most importantly, peace of mind.