Birdwatching in Bhigwan

Date of the trip: 26th Dec 2019 to 28th Dec 2019

Bhigwan had our attention since my father first recollected his birding getaways to the lake many many years ago. It is called Bharatpur of central India and let me tell you, it’s really not just hearsay. It is located at one end of the reservoir of Ujni dam on Bhima river. During the winters, the reservoir’s water attracts migratory birds from faraway lands. There are villages located at the banks of the reservoir. Each village offers a different view and experience of the reservoir’s water. Some of the most popular villages for birding are Takrarwadi, Bhigwan, Kumbhargaon and Diksal.

The star of the show, here and everywhere!!! majestic and fiery – Greater Flamingos!!

Best time to visit Bhigwan

Like for anywhere in India (except the Himalayas or the ghats) Summers is not the best time to visit this lake. Unless interest lies in photographing some egrets and random pond heron.

Monsoon, the water levels are too high and surroundings have overgrowth, not a preferred time, but can be a possibility.

Winters is by-far the best time. It’s when the migratory birds pass through, the weather is cool and humidity is low. Starting from November all the way to March. January and February being the prime time.

Winter on the lake is a chilly affair. 🙂

How to reach Bhigwan from Mumbai

Best way to get to Bhigwan is to self drive (or taxi) past Pune directly to the Bhigwan lake (google map route is good – A lakeside spot marked as Bhigwan bird sanctuary in Bhigwan). 

All other close by birding spots like Kumbhargaon and Diksal are also marked clearly on the map. Roads are fairly good as its highway throughout. There are small hamlets and sugarcane fields all along the way with some occasional water bodies.

The awkwardly looking Bhigwan lake is surrounded by industrial civilisation and many of these villages have fishermen which double up as tour operators. The two points marked are most popular as well as our destinations.

Where to stay in Bhigwan

(Actually – Phaltan, 50kms away – for Mumbaikar’s, this distance is nothing!)

After a quick trip to the lake to see where the road ends, we headed towards our stay for the night before the sun set. Village roads can be a bit risky to drive if you are not used to them. While researching, I read that many locals in the area provide boat ride / rooms and meals to the birders visiting the lake. There are many lodges close by like Anand or Satyajit lodge which provide economical stay. Kranti flamingo point (check map above) has a MTDC affiliated hotel too. For us, Christmas hangover and year end blues deserved more luxury, so we booked a room at Jaksons Inn in Phaltan, a little further from Bhigwan, beyond Baramati. It was a 45 mins drive on the country road, sugarcane fields on both sides. These surrounding areas are dotted with factories, it’s the sugar hub of the state. 

The only odd travel mates were the long tractors carrying the sugarcane harvest and some tempo trucks. They are long and rickety, fun to watch.!

By the time we reached Jakson Inn, the sun had set. After the day of travel, the comfort of a cozy room and a warm bath always refreshes us. A quick bath, and we headed down for dinner. This hotel has a tie up with many factories in the surrounding areas. The officials who visit the factories always stay here and the hotel is built with all amenities possible.

The secret of best experience is to ask for the hill view!!

They have a buffet for all meals as there are no proper restaurants around and have an amazing menu. I think I have never loaded up on fish preparations as much as I did in their buffet. Kudos to their chef, for churning out such excellent dishes. The staff was ever smiling, helpful and took care of all our needs. They were surprised with our request though, packed breakfast at 6 AM was not a very popular request I believe. :). More birders should come to stay here perhaps!

One of the best things about this hotel is that they have taxi and tours facilities for many tourist spots around the area, so you do have options, in case you want a day off from birding

Birdwatching at Bhigwan

Depending on the time you reach (we reached around 1pm), there is a scope of great birding on the way after you pass the houses in Bhigwan town and drive through the forest towards the lake on the kaccha mud road. We started driving really slowly, windows down and eyes and ears alert.  There were many bird sounds coming from the dry forest and soon we spotted a large flock of yellow wagtails and silverbills hopping on the ground, carefree! A flock of rosy starlings covering the dead tree like leaves was a stunning sight. A yellow crowned woodpecker crossed the road and made us chase it from tree to tree.

Yellow crowned woodpecker – made us hop tree to tree with it.

While chasing the woodpecker we accidentally got too close to ground nest of rock bunting. In our defense, it was right there on the road side!! We were alerted very furiously by Mr Ashy crowned sparrow lark swishing swooshing in front of our faces trying to distract us and mumma Lark twittering continuously on a rock at the side. The eggs were well camouflaged with  the surrounding rocks, we were relieved that we did not step on one, we would have felt extremely guilty.

Dry terrain on the way to the lake. Walking on this mud road gave us the taste of rich bird population of this place.

The sun was right above us and it was very hot so we decided to circle back later and for now go ahead to the lake to find out details of the boating tours. It was too hot for a productive birding trip into the water and the light was also not too great for photography. As suggested by the operator we decided to return the next morning.

Magical birding morning. Thick haze and chilled gusts of wind.

We reached the lake only by 8 AM the next morning. It was covered with thick mist which was just beginning to clear out. There were many families, photographers and couples on boats trying to cruise in the mist mainly to see the Greater flamingos. Poor birds, at one point there were around 15 boats and cameras pointing towards them. Thankfully most boatmen who are also bird guides here have sense to keep distance from these birds so as not to intimidate them.

These painted storks were so much at peace with our presence that they dint even bother to walk out of the lake. Boatmen know exactly what kind of tourist are you. They get only the selected few to this corner who can appreciate these meditating birds.

For us the main highlight was the cluster of painted storks. They are not the main attraction here and are often overshadowed by the tourist magnets, the Greater flamingos. They were not snooty like the flamingos and gave us full opportunity to photograph them in detail. They stood there feeding themselves, not caring for our approaching boat. It was an excellent feeling. We did see so many of them nesting at Bharatpur but had never imagined that we would be just a couple of feet away from them and they would not mind!

As sunlight started tearing through the mist, we spotted various waders, grey herons, ibises, painted and open billed storks, ducks and tiny weed birds.

What you lookin at, chimp???? common ringed plover – threatening our boat!

For afternoon birding we headed towards ‘Kranti flamingo point’, Kumbhargaon. Its close to Agneepankh flamingo viewing point (Agneepankh being the hindi name for Flamingos, the deep fiery red visible when they fly gets it this name) but we wanted to checkout the MTDC hotel there, incase in future we want to stay closer to the lake. If you follow google maps, you would eventually reach this place. It’s a multi storey grey building, lodge kind of a place, affiliated by MTDC. It was not looking very appealing and we did not enter it. Instead we met the owner in the parking lot and he summoned Rahul, a boat rower who doubles up as a bird guide.

Each village is assigned one colour which they need to use on their boats so that they are easily identifiable in the hazy vast expanse of the lake. These are blue, from Kumbhargaon. Horse bowhead seems to be a common design though.

Rahul was much better informed guide compared to the morning one and understood bird behavior better. A photographer himself, he had a good angle/lighting sense and was able to predict a lot of bird perch positions to get the perfect bird picture. We were not very sure if it was a good idea to go for a late afternoon birding trip but Rahul did not disappoint us at all. We were able to check off most water – birds from our Bhigwan bird list pending from the morning trip. The gem of the trip was the excellent observation of an Osprey perched on a fish net pole doing his noon poop business. A colony of Shovelers covering a small island entirely and zooming over and around it also provided us with amazing photos.  A lonesome Bar Headed Goose and a couple of Garganey Teals were grooming themselves in the sun. I think this may be nesting/ juvenile nursery for Black Headed Ibis as there was a variety of age groups here. There was a surprise sighting of Woolly Necked Stork here, we were not expecting this one!!

Posing for that perfect reflection, Bar headed goose.

Bird guides in Bhigwan

As an independent birding trip, it is an excellent choice. Birds here are not shy and the guides are very cautious of the distance. They participate in many rescues too. The boat man/bird guide was not very well acquainted with the bird names but was very enthusiastic to learn. He informed us that they undergo training for being guides but it’s not a comprehensive one. A boost in number of birders to this hotspot may be the encouragement they need. The only tourist who come here are locals from surrounding cities like Pune or Baramati interested in boating or flamingo sightings. They haggle a lot on the costs and don’t give positive online reviews if they don’t see flamingos, mmm.. I dont think that’s fair. There is an amazing collection of birds waiting to be spotted, listed and photographed in and around this huge lake and overshadowing them with one species of bird is unfortunate.

We just kept following these boards to the lake and met him. He leads a team of bird guides/boatmen and can take care of your bird list easily. Sorry for the wonky photo 😉

Send us an Email if you need Rahul’s contact information.

Cost of a birdwatching trip in Bhigwan

We took the whole boat to ourselves:

Rs 800 per boat ride (no time limit 3-4 pax occupancy)

Close encounters with the ringed plover, lark and painted stork:

Priceless

Witnessing poopy Osprey hunt:

A million-dollar moment

Fire up!!

What to eat in Bhigwan

Lunch options in Bhigwan town are limited to local restaurants serving local cuisine. Fishing is the primary source of income here and has a strong presence in their food scene. All restaurants, although not fancy looking, have tasty set meal thalis for meals.

Ideally we would have asked our guide for recommendations, we forgot – so a quick google search got us to this place closest to where we were on the way to Kumbhargaon. Bhigwan fish curry is the town specialty and everyone seemed to serve it in set meal thali.

Like any regular Indian town, Baramati and Bhigwan have the morning hustle bustle in the market along the main road. Samosa pav/ Vada pav and hot tea are readily available. We got our breakfast packed from Jakson inn so we just bought a cup of hot tea on the way.

Road side sugarcane juice stalls are absolutely a ‘not to be missed’ if you are coming here in the harvest season, how we did.

ppsstt…There is also a missal pav joint right outside Jakson Inn which serves memorable misal pav.

Is Bhigwan worth visiting?

In conclusion, Bhigwan is not as commercial or well developed like Bharatpur, but it has its own charm and its own list of birds. We felt, it was a better place to photograph birds as we were much closer to birds and they don’t mind close proximity with humans.  It is not cramped with tourists making random noises to disturb the birds. The boatmen here are very enthusiastic and pro navigators. They are still new to the business and still need a lot of training to unlock full potential. For example, the forest before the lake has so many species of land and forest birds but they were completely oblivious to it. They must certainly be trained to know what gem of a place they live in.

Beautifully painted oars of our boat. Its quieter than the motor boat making the morning birding a peaceful experience..

The lake is surrounded by villages and sugarcane fields, no proper tar roads and food stalls like other more commercial sanctuaries, no picnic spots or souvenir shops and maybe that is why birds are more calm and human friendly here.

Walking around the lakeside village.

Downside is the constant stench in the air and neon green pigmentation in the water due to paper and sugar factories. I think the efforts are good and if the place is promoted in the correct way, it may evolve into a more popular and well maintained birding spot. That may pressurise the authorities to take action against water pollution too. Water pollution results in less and less migratory birds each year. This humongous lake is a safe haven to many bird species, pollution problems here need to be a red flag in the tourism and environment sector.

The pollution in the lake froths on the shores.

Without a doubt, it’s a thumb’s up place and we would certainly re-visit soon.

Every one march to the left… now everyone march to the right! yes, you hear me… keep your beaks up… turn your beaks down! lift your left leg up and scratch your wings… lovely!!! that’s the way, boys and girls – you dance like a flamingo!!

While returning to Mumbai we took the route via Mayureshwar sanctuary (detailed blog a bit later!) and spotted a couple of Red Naped Ibises looking for insects in the empty dry harvested fields. Looking outside the window, glaring into the open expanse of fields has never been more rewarding!!

Next time hopefully we will be able to spend more time at Mayureshwar too.

For more visual treat, make sure you follow us on Instagram 

To see awesome bird pictures of this trip, check Sunny’s Instagram account!

Check out our bird-list here

Let us know in the comments below if you have been to Bhigwan. Where did you stay? Where did you eat? Did you go for birdwatching or for any other purpose?

If you are planning to go, add any questions that you may have, below!

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