Sunrise on the horizon bathes the mudflats and wetlands in gold. Having just left behind the speeding vehicles of a highway, then the quiet of the saltpans, and finally dense bushes, I’m now surrounded by woodlands abuzz with birdsong. Beyond, I see that high-tide waters have created lagoons around the mangroves. Soon, I feel the wind in my hair as the motorboat I am in gently coasts the waters of the bay.  And then I see it! A pink tide glimmering in the distance. An army of thousands, rank and file moving purposefully in their quest for food. It is every bit a flamboyance at the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary. And although the stars of this small sanctuary in the bustling metropolis are undoubtedly the mass of flamingos, protection of this habitat has allowed a wealth of biodiversity to thrive in this coastal oasis.

 

Flamingos live in an environment dictated by the tides. One moment, they may be feeding frenetically and then as the tide comes in, they swim and rest in the rising waters, waiting for the water to recede again and reveal a bounty of food. Photo: Aseem Kothiala
The flush pink shades of this lesser flamingo’s feathers are derived from the carotenoid pigments in the blue-green algae it feeds on. Cover Photo: Aseem Kothiala

Explore

Located just off the Eastern Express Highway, near the suburb of Mulund, Mumbai, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary was formally notified as recently as August 2015. It is approximately 17 sq km of forest, mangroves, and a diversity of other wetland habitats. Its biodiversity goes beyond the designated sanctuary, spanning the expanse of Thane creek, covering approximately 59 sq km, of a contiguous natural landscape in Mumbai, second only to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Exploration of the sanctuary is possible in two areas, the Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre and the Bhandup Pumping Station.

Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre has a well-equipped nature interpretation centre, well-established trails, and facilities for short boat safaris in the surrounding wetlands. Trips commence in November, and are timed with the arrival of large congregations of flamingos.

Walking trails in the area surrounding the wetlands are popular. You can see more species of birds than just by boat (trails pass more habitats than boats; smaller birds are easier to spot on foot).

Hours and costs:
Hours: 9 am to 6 pm daily; usually open November-May.
Contact: +91 99876 73737 for tide and boat timings;

Boat safaris: Two options: Large boat (accommodates approximately 20; Rs 330 per head weekdays/Rs 440 per head weekends). Small 7-seater boat (only full boat hire for Rs 5,500 weekdays/Rs 6,600 weekends), is better suited for serious photographers and birders, as it can venture closer to the mudflats and smaller channels.

Groups of birdwatchers (right) stand at a respectable distance to watch and photograph birds. Juveniles of both greater and lesser flamingos are pale in colour, in the case of the greater flamingo (left), even the bill is white with a black tip. Photos: Shashank Birla

Bhandup Pumping Station Exploration here is best done on foot. Park your car at the electricity substation, and walk along the dirt track on your left. This passes through woodlands and mangroves before connecting to a tarred road. You can spot birds all along this route until the road ends at a jetty. The condition of the track varies depending on the season. The advantage of this area is that it has a great diversity of birdlife because of the mix of mangroves, woodland, scrub, and tidal lagoons — and the fact that different birds favour different habitats. Rest assured, you are going to be one busy birder spotting all the winged wonders in this area.

From the jetty at the end of the road, local fishermen sometimes offer short boat safaris. If available, birdwatchers can observe species along two different boat routes of this sanctuary.

Note that midway along the tarred road there is another short trail to the left, leading to a large pond where waders and waterfowl roost during high tide.

It is recommended to visit with someone experienced on these trails. Various birding organisations often announce walks where experienced birders help you spot species and understand their behaviours and lifecycles. Try Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) (www.bnhs.org/), Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (www.facebook.com/groups/mumbaibirdwatchersclub/), Mumbai Travellers (www.mumbaitravellers.in/).

Hours and costs: Bhandup Pumping Station open all year. Boat rides cost the same as at the centre.

Greater flamingos are identified by their large size, pale body, and pink bill tipped with black (completely dark in the case of the adult lesser flamingo). Photo: Aseem Kothiala

Wildlife

The habitat in this sanctuary is a mix of grassland, scrub, woodland, and mangroves.
The premier attraction is the diversity of avifauna here, with over 285 species of resident and migratory bird species recorded. The majority of migratory species arrive in winter, others such as the Jacobin cuckoo arrive during late summer/early monsoon, and Amur falcons are passage migrants staying for just a few days during Nov-Dec and Apr-May.

In the woodland, grasslands, and scrub habitat, you may sight yellow-eyed babblers, red avadavats, and baya weavers building nests in the late summer. Winter migrants including red-headed and black-headed buntings, Sykes’s and booted warblers, and Eurasian wrynecks, make temporary homes.

Depending on the time of year, the mangrove habitats harbour white-breasted waterhens, common sandpipers, Blyth’s, clamorous reed, and paddyfield warblers as well as shy species like common or pin-tailed snipes, slaty-breasted rails, and ruddy-breasted crakes. Patches of Typha reed beds, a disappearing habitat, can still be found in the sanctuary, and within it you may come across shy yellow or cinnamon bitterns and the elusive watercock.

A comparatively large flat bill gives northern shovelers their name. These migratory ducks inhabit northern Asia and Europe during their breeding season. Large congregations are often seen in the waters surrounding Thane Creek in winter. Photos: Shashank Birla (left), Aseem Kothiala (right)

The lagoons, mudflats, and saltpans offer the best visibility and a bevy of winged beauties, depending on tidal movements. This is the domain of waterfowl and waders. Many iconic species displayed prominently on boards can be seen here. Painted and Asian openbill storks inhabit both the lagoons and the roosts on the surrounding trees. Caspian, common, river, and whiskered terns regularly make sorties for their fish prey. With the onset of winter, the lagoons and waters play host to a multitude of ducks, starting with resident species like the Indian spot-billed and lesser whistling ducks. Winter migrants such as the northern shoveller, common teal, northern pintail, ruddy shelducks, and their rare cousins in this part of the country, common shelducks, have also been observed here.

Especially in winter, the mudflats are truly remarkable. Front and centre are the stars of the sanctuary, the two species of flamingos: lesser and greater flamingos. Contrary to popular belief, flamingos can be observed here almost year-round. However, there is considerable fluctuation in their numbers, with the large populations residing in the Rann of Kachch/Kutch and the surrounding wetlands in Gujarat, and making their way here between November and December, and usually staying till early May. At its peak, the number of flamingos along Mumbai’s coastline has been estimated at over 35,000, and many claim their numbers have been increasing in the years leading up to 2020.

There is a great diversity of waders to observe on the mudflats: black-winged stilts, common greenshanks, black-headed and glossy ibis, wood, marsh and curlew sandpipers, greater and lesser sand plovers, ruddy turnstones, grey and pacific golden plovers, are just a few of the many species seen here. Rarities including the grey-headed lapwing and the yellow-billed dowitcher, a vagrant species seen well outside its usual breeding and migratory range.

Smaller life forms in the sanctuary include fungi in brilliant colours. This orange jelly fungus (left) is found in the monsoon. At the micro-level there is plenty of natural history drama, such as this standoff (right) between ants and a carpenter bee (a pollinator of this flower, the giant milkweed). Photos: Shashank Birla

Apart from birdlife, reptiles, amphibians and a few mammal species may also be sighted in the sanctuary. The golden jackal and Indian grey mongoose make occasional surprise appearances. Anecdotal reports suggest the presence of the jungle cat as well. Among reptiles, common species include the oriental garden lizard, and snakes like the checkered keelback, ratsnake, and spectacled cobra. Russell’s vipers and Indian rock pythons have also been observed as have monitor lizards. With the onset of the monsoon, Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary and its surrounding areas boast a sizeable congregation of Indian bullfrogs. Marine life such as fiddler crabs and mudskippers can be seen on the mudflats, and the occasional dolphin has been sighted from a boat safari.

Getting there
By Road: When travelling on the Eastern Express Highway from Mumbai, exit (turn right) toward the Mulund-Airoli Road, pass the Airoli toll booth, and cross Airoli bridge. You enter the small township of Diva Nagar where signage on the road directs you to Coastal Marine Biodiversity Centre. You can follow directions on Google maps as well. Location for Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre:  https://goo.gl/maps/9ET2EhxTBWK6fN8M75
Bhandup Pumping Station is on the Eastern Express Highway. When travelling from Mumbai you will need to take U-turn under the bridge at the Mulund-Goregaon Link Road, and the take the service road (350 m after U-turn). Location for the turn towards Bhandup Pumping Station: https://goo.gl/maps/ds4rfyXzU9uNhi726

By local train: The closest Mumbai Metro station is Ghatkopar (16 km, 30 minutes by road to the sanctuary) and the closest station on the Harbour line network is Airoli (3 km, 10-15 minutes by road/auto-rickshaw; ask for boat safari location or Diva Nagar).

By Air: Mumbai’s airports are approximately 20 km from the sanctuary (45 minutes by road/auto-rickshaw).

Close to the end of summer, brilliant baya weavers get busy nest-building. This is an arduous two-week-long process requiring them to take hundreds of trips to collect grass and twigs (often one frond at a time) before they can weave an intricate nest. Photo: Shashank Birla

Black-tailed godwits (left) are a threatened species globally. They use their long bills to probe the mudflats for crabs, snails, and other invertebrates. A majestic raptor of the wetlands, the osprey (right) is a specialist in catching fish. Its feet (which have tiny barbs on the underside) and talons are designed to hold on to its slippery prey. Photos: Shashank Birla (left), Aseem Kothiala (right)

Seasons

This coastal location has recently seen the effect of climate change on bird migration. The timing of the monsoon affects the arrival of the flamingos and other avifauna.

June to early September: Boat safaris are closed. Trails around Bhandup Pumping Station can be visited (be sure to check the condition of the track before taking the car past the tarred road). Good time to catch a few of the summer or passage migrants, and reptilian and amphibian species.

October to March: Considered the main season to visit as soon as the first of the winter migrants arrive. Boat safaris resume mid-November once the migrant population of flamingos start arriving.

April to May: Hot and humid, but a great time for bird photography as many resident and some migratory birdlife assume breeding plumage, showcasing vivid colours. Early mornings are best.

An abundance of birds, like this mixed flock of flamingos and duck waders, congregate at some spots on the mudflats. Photo: Shashank Birla

Tips for visitors
* Binoculars are highly recommended whether on a boat safari or exploring on foot. A monopod for a DSLR camera is useful if on foot. Spotting scopes are handy in certain areas to see waders and waterfowl up close and in detail.

* Spend time at the interpretation centre in Airoli. It offers an overview of the sanctuary and its wildlife.

* Check with the Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre for availability of boat safaris. As the season progresses, these get popular, and may be totally booked.

Shashank Birla

is a naturalist, photojournalist and founder of the safari tour outfit, Wilderlust Expeditions. www.shashankbirla.com

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