Situated on the banks of the Godavari river, Nashik is a city deeply entrenched in Hindu mythology; it is believed that Lord Rama made the region his abode during his 14 years of exile. Nashik is blessed with an abundance of wildlife; mammals and birds teem the forests, grasslands, wetlands and agricultural and urban spaces found in the region. Because of the city's high elevation, it has a relatively moderate wet and dry climate. The temperatures go up in September-October, but the winter season steps in soon after and continues through to February, making it the best time for birding with the region welcoming migrants from the world over. During winter, the weather is very dry and temperatures can range from 29°C during the day to 13°C at night. In summer, temperatures can rise to 35-40°C, and it is the best time to spot the various large mammals that roam the region.
The Trimbak forest range, Gangapur forest nursery and Harsul forest are evergreen forests blessed with a wide variety of birds, mammals and insects. Grasslands like the Mamdapur Blackbuck Conservation Reserve are home to grassland species like the Indian Wolf, Blackbuck, Indian Fox, Indian Hare, Jungle Cat, Striped Hyena and raptors like Bonelli's Eagle, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, harriers and more. Trekking spots in and around the city like the Ramshej fort, Anjaneri Hill and Brahmagiri Hill are also ideal locations for raptor-viewing. But at the heart of Nashik’s wildlife attraction is Nandur Madhyameshwar, also known as Maharashtra's Bharatpur.
The Nandur Madhameshwar wetland at the confluence of the Godavari and Kadwar rivers was designated as a Ramsar wetland by the International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in June 2019. The Nandur Madhameshwar Weir was initially constructed to solve water shortage in the surrounding regions. It now serves as a buffer against floods and is a biodiversity hotspot with 536 species recorded to date. Other wetlands in the region are Vaitarna Dam, Kashyapi Dam and Gangapur dam.
Here is a list of iconic avians that can be found in and around Nashik.
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca)
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, also popular as the Rainbow bird, is locally known as Tiboti Khandya. We spent months searching for this tiny kingfisher and finally came across it in the forests of Harsul. First, we heard a few calls near a stream and after tracking the call we came across a nesting pair. We maintained a safe distance and watched the pair preparing their nest, digging continuously for 5-7 mins and then taking a breather as they bobbed their heads up and down as if in the midst of a bout of hiccups.
Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti)
The Forest Owlet is an extremely rare and critically endangered species. They are identical to Spotted Owlets but can be differentiated by their bushier white/grey brows and unique tail-bobbing behaviour. Forest Owlets are found in only a few places in Maharashtra; in Nashik, they can be seen in the extensive Trimbakeshwar forest area. Searching for the Forest Owlet is not an easy task, and the only way to find these camouflage experts is to listen to their calls, particularly during the mating season when they are more vocal. They nest in natural cavities in large trees, and indiscriminate felling of such trees is one of the main threats to the species. The owls are also hunted and traded for black magic and other irrational superstitions because they are thought to bring bad luck, or worse, are considered as omens of death.
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis)
Winter migrants, Amur Falcons fly from their breeding grounds in south-eastern Siberia and northern China, and across India to southern Africa. Our first sighting was of a female Amur Falcon; she was perched on an electric wire and when we approached her to confirm the ID she flew away to a Semal tree (also known as silk cotton tree), which is probably the favourite tree of every raptor, where she gave us enough time to document a beautiful series of photographs.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized, secretive grassland owl that is often found perched around bushes. This winter migrant is found near the Trimbakeshwar grasslands area and near Sinner windmills. One season, we set out on a mission to find as many Short-eared Owls as possible in Nashik and we came across just three separate individuals. It is very difficult to detect them against the grass.
Oriental Scops-Owl (Otus sunia)
The Oriental Scops-Owl is a small, grey-brown owl, which also has a rufous morph that is slightly orange and absolutely gorgeous. The grey-brown morph is highly camouflaged, making it extremely difficult to spot them even during the day. But once you find them, this bold avian can get comfortable in your presence and give you plenty of their time. The Oriental Scops-Owl can be found in different locations in Nashik; we have found a pair at the Gangapur forest nursery and 3-4 individuals at the Harsul Forest range. The best time to spot this tiny owl is in the months of January and February.
Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger)
The Laggar Falcon is a large, slim raptor with a huge wingspan. Their habitats are open grasslands (plateaus) where they prey on smaller birds but are also found near mountains. They can be seen flying over Anjaneri and Brahmagiri, Ramshej fort, Kashyapi dam, and near the Mamdapur Blackbuck Conservation Reserve.
Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)
A bird of the rail family, the Water Rail is a winter visitor to the Nandur Madhameshwar Bird Sanctuary in Nashik. Similar to the Spotted Crake, this wetland bird is often found in muddy patches near small lakes or ponds that have dense vegetation. The bird is very fast in movement and about half the size of a moorhen. They rarely come out in the open, making them a prized catch among bird photographers.
Moustached Warbler (Acrocephalus melanopogon)
Which is one of the groups of birds that is hardest to identify? Yeah, you guessed it right, warblers! The Moustached Warbler is a wetland bird always found near wet areas; a lifer (a bird that is seen and positively identified for the very first time by a birder) for many people, the species is famous among wildlife photographers and researchers. It is a winter migrant to the Nandur Madhameshwar Bird Sanctuary in Nashik. We received a call from a friend who informed us that an unidentified warbler had appeared that looked different from other local warbler species. The very next day we went to the location but the water level was too high and there was no sighting for a week. We returned after a week and saw the bird with our own eyes to confirm that it was indeed the Moustached Warbler.
Common Grasshopper-Warbler (Locustella naevia)
The Common Grasshopper-Warbler is a very secretive and rare bird from the warbler family. They are very difficult to observe as they scurry on the ground, through dense vegetation. The Nandur Madhameshwar Bird Sanctuary is blessed with many such rare species. These warblers make a high-pitched reeling noise like that of an insect, earning them their 'grasshopper' moniker.
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
Not a conventionally good-looking bird, the Egyptian Vulture is also smaller in size compared to other vultures. The only migratory vulture species found in Nashik, they make nests on cliffs. They are usually observed near villages and cities, where they feed on garbage, and even on the carrion of other vultures.
White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis)
The White-rumped Vulture is a common resident that is often found flying in the outskirts of Anjaneri and Harsul. White-Rumped Vultures nest on the branches of high trees or in holes in cliffs. Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem, removing dead animals that would otherwise act as a breeding ground for diseases. Vultures are both carnivores and scavengers, but they are now increasingly feeding on the meat of dead livestock such as cows. Flocks of these vultures can often be observed flying over the Brahmagiri mountain range, on the lookout for carcasses. The White-rumped Vulture is classed as ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Redlist.
Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)
The Indian Vulture is slightly bigger than the White-rumped Vulture but the characteristics are almost the same; both species nest in colonies on cliffs and occasionally in trees. They are common around Nashik and are often seen flying around mountains, coming down to the ground only to feed on dead animals. Curiously, their calls are rarely heard.