A flamboyance of flamingos is busy feeding in the shallows. The birds stand on lanky legs; their necks are bent low to the water, beaks upside-down. It is a scattered flock of 16 birds. While some are adults with white and orange feathers, others are young birds with a cream and brown coat. When the water levels are right, many more of these birds are found here. They gather in their hundreds, sometimes thousands.
In a way, the flamingo is the “tiger” of Bhigwan. People come here especially for this bird, says my guide Ajinath Dhumal. “When I show them some other bird like the painted stork, they insist on seeing the flamingo.” It’s like going on a jungle safari to see the tiger, Dhumal quips.
A quaint fishing town in rural Maharashtra, Bhigwan sits along the backwater of the River Bhima. This backwater, which is the reservoir of Ujani Dam built downstream on the river, is known colloquially as Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary. The human-made wetland and its surrounding mix of grasslands and farms are home to nearly 300 species of migratory and year-round birds. The greater flamingo, like many migratory birds, arrives here in time for winter. It spends the season feasting on plankton, giving it the characteristic multihued appearance.
On a narrow strip of land behind the flamingos, a mixed flock of brown-headed and Pallas’s gulls is resting peacefully. A marsh harrier swoops in from nowhere and sends the whole flock into flight. The harrier fails to make a catch and leaves in haste. But the gulls keep belting out their cries and whirling overhead long after the threat has disappeared.
Meanwhile, in the foreground flamingos start stomping the mud to expose hidden prey. Two of them break into a quarrel. Another balances itself on a single stilt and rests its head in its long neck, keeping an eye on the boats and the people in them.
As we row away from the flamingos, our guide spots a peregrine and points in its direction. I squint against the setting sun, but all I can see is a large gull. “What is that?” I ask, puzzled. He says “peregrine falcon” and points at it again. This time I see it — a stately bird and the fastest on the planet. It is perched farther down from the gull. With its formidable talons and fierce look of a predator, this was one bird that could beat the greater flamingo for the title “tiger of Bhigwan”.
Sprawled across 357 square kilometres, the backwater has several designated birdwatching points where you can hire a boat. These can be accessed through the villages of Diksal and Kumbhargaon, both within 10 km of Bhigwan. A boat safari on the backwater is the best way to see the wetland birds in their element. But there are also terrestrial birds and other wildlife to explore in and around the villages.
Birds: The wetland sees local and long-distance migrants such as the greater flamingo, bar-headed goose, and northern shoveler every winter. Occasionally, rare birds such as the Pacific golden plover are also spotted here.
With a bountiful supply of fish and small birds, the wetland is the perfect habitat for raptors such as the osprey, peregrine falcon, western marsh harrier, and greater spotted eagle. You may see a peregrine dive at breakneck speed to catch a black-winged stilt, or an osprey hunt a fish.
In the grasslands and farms nearby, you will find the Indian courser, chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, blue-cheeked bee-eater, grey francolin, woolly-necked stork, and demoiselle crane.
The resident birds of the area, seen almost throughout the year, are the great thick-knee, little pratincole, pheasant-tailed jacana, Eurasian spoonbill, painted stork, and greater painted-snipe.
Reptiles: The Indian chameleon is often seen here. After dark, creatures of the night such as the leopard gecko and termite hill gecko are out and about to have their fill of insects. Although rare, common sand boa, rat snake, and Russell’s viper are also found in Bhigwan.
Mammals: Open areas around the villages host mammals such as the black-naped hare, jungle cat, golden jackal, and Indian grey mongoose. Asian palm civet can also be spotted, especially at night.
Amphibians, arthropods and fish: While largely unnoticed, frogs, toads, damselflies, dragonflies, beetles, and scorpions also inhabit the area. A study published by the Zoological Survey of India in 2002 reported 54 species of fish.
December to March is when migratory bird numbers peak, but there are plenty of resident birds to be seen outside of the peak season. Summers can be particularly hot and the water level goes down, so it is not an ideal time to visit.
Sitting along the Pune-Solapur highway, Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary is a two-hour drive (100 km) from Pune, which has the nearest airport. There are plenty of restaurants along the way. Buses and trains also ply from Pune to Bhigwan. From there, you can hire an auto-rickshaw or arrange for a pickup from your hotel or homestay, as local transport can be patchy.
A few budget homestays are conveniently located close to the water. There are also budget hotels (Rs 1,500-4,000) within a 10-km radius of the birdwatching points, but they are suitable for those travelling by their own vehicle.
Agnipankh Flamingo Point is a homestay in the village of Kumbhargaon. Rooms with attached baths cost Rs 900 per night, and without baths Rs 600 per night. Alternatively, camp out in a tent for Rs 500 per night (for two). Home-cooked meals are available at added cost. To book your stay, contact Sandip Nagare at 9960610615 or Nitin Nagare at 9767571734.
Kranti Flamingo Point is another homestay and campsite in Kumbhargaon. Each room can accommodate up to four people for Rs 900 and a tent for two costs Rs 700 per night. Meals are available on request. (www.krantiflamingopoint.com; contact Dattatreya Nagare +91 8087767691 or Nitin Dole +91 9325051019).
Boat: The homestays can arrange boat safaris (between 6 am and 6.30 pm; 1.5 hr safari costs Rs 1,000; 2-3 hr safari costs Rs 2,000 per boat including the guide’s fee). Boats can take six, plus the birdwatching guide who also steers the boat.
Walking: Night walking tours are available and last 1-1.5 hours. You can spot reptiles like geckos and nocturnal birds such as nightjars. A guided walking tour costs Rs 500 including the guide’s fee.
• On holidays and weekends there is higher footfall. Weekdays are quieter and preferable.
• Homestays are modest with basic amenities. Pack your own toiletries and mosquito repellent.
• Wear light-coloured clothes and a pair of sturdy shoes.
• Carry a pair of binoculars or a camera with telephoto lens that allows close-up views of wildlife from a distance.
• The afternoon light can be harsh even during winter, so carry hat, sunglasses, and water on the safari.
• Do not feed or encourage feeding of wild birds to attract them.