Located on the Pune-Solapur Highway 120 km from Pune, Bhigwan is best known for its wildlife around the backwaters of Ujjani Dam. This is the wintering home for a long list of migratory birds, including Greater Flamingo, Bar Headed Goose, Eurasian Spoonbill, Collared Pratincole and the Osprey. It also has a good population of Peregrine falcon, the fastest bird of the animal kingdom.
I have to confess that visiting Bhigwan was not really on my radar at all this year. By chance I came across a post on Facebook about this place, made a few enquiries, and my interest was sparked. A friend from Pune, Amruta, seemed keen to go, so plans were made and within a few days we were off for a days visit.
Unfortunately for me these last minute plans meant I was not very prepared. I had brought to India my new camera (Canon EOS R) which is not best suited to action/wildlife photography, and nor had I practised at all photographing birds in flight with all the new settings and manu layout that the camera has. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, I did not have with me my best lens for photographing wildlife. Safely back at home was my 400m lens that would have been ideal for this situation, instead I just had my general purpose 70-200mm.
So the following sets of images are not the best, and the majority of them are heavily cropped and have quite poor resolution. But it’s not all about photography, it was an amazing experience and for sure at some point in the future I will return here better prepared.
We arrived early afternoon at one of the best locations for hiring a boat and guide at Bhigwan – Agnipankh (flamingo point), managed by Sandeep Nagare (details at the end of this post). We had a quick lunch and decided it was best to wait until later in the afternoon before heading out on the water. We ended up doing our boat trip at 4pm and it lasted for 2 hours, much longer than we were expecting.
The boats themselves are quite interesting, all adopting a red and green colour scheme with a carved horse head at the bow. Most of them have an on-board motor which is used to get you quickly between viewing spots, but as soon as you get close to wildlife the motor is cut off and the guide starts rowing. Our excellent guide for this trip was Shankar.
Although there are over 230 different bird species to be found at Bhigwan, the star attraction for most visitors are the flamingos. Within a handful of minutes of starting our trip on the lake, we were faced with hundreds of on, both wading by the shore and also in flight. It was difficult to know where to point the camera !
The low rains in recent years has caused the water levels on the lake to drop dramatically, and that has had a negative impact on flamingo populations here. I can’t even start to imagine what this place must have been like a decade ago.
The best time to see the flamingos is during the winter season between December and March, we went in early February.
This body of water was created by the building of Ujjani Dam, construction of which started in 1969 and was completed in 1980. The subsequent flooding of the Bhima valley provides irrigation, hydroelectric power, drinking and industrial water supply and fisheries development. It also wiped out the land and houses of 82 villages, it’s a massive expanse of water, the rim of which measures an incredible 420 miles.
After spending quite a lot of time watching the flamingos, Shanker suggested we go and see an Osprey next. Not too far away there was an old telegraph pole standing up in the middle of the water, the perfect perch for an Osprey that is clearly quite well known by all the tours that operate around the lake.
I believe this is a western osprey (Pandion haliaetus), also called sea hawk, river hawk, and fish hawk. Many of these birds migrate from Europe to south Asia for the winter.
Whilst trying to photograph the osprey, Shankar would be constantly saying “focus, Focus, FOCUS !”. Was he talking directly to me or did he somehow know that my camera isn’t best at focusing on moving subjects ? :-). He certainly knew his stuff, and knew the moments when the best photographs could be captured.
As well as watching the wildlife there’s quite a lot of other activity on the lake. The flooded Bhima valley is surprisingly shallow, and many of the villagers come out into the lake and set up fishing nets, and then do all they can to scare fish into them (mostly by pounding the surface of the water with objects attached to a rope).
As you can see below, the water is shallow enough that you can actually mend your nets whilst standing in the water ! I was quite glad to see this, I’m a terrible swimmer 🙂
Next was our experience with a Peregrine falcon that I will never forget. Whilst I was endlessly fiddling with my new camera and not paying too much attention to the skies, there was a sudden splash of water right next to the boat and a young starling emerged from the water and flew into our boat under one of the seats. I had no idea what was happening, but apparently the starling was being chased by a Peregrine falcon, and was seeking the safety with us.
We all looked up, and the falcon proceeded to circle around the boat. It knew where dinner was. The starling stayed hidden under the seat for a couple of minutes and then emerged to perch on the side of the boat. It was clearly scared, and was in an impossible situation.
Amruta and I both urged the starling to stay on the boat (as if it could understand us!) and all along the peregrine falcon continued it’s circling of our boat. Eventually the inevitable happened, the starling decided to fly off the boat and you can guess what happened next.
With my continued struggles with the new camera I missed the moment the falcon caught the starling in flight, but I got a few shots a few seconds later. It was a sad but also amazing event to witness, mother nature at work and the circle of life unfolding right in front of our eyes.
We paused for quite a while contemplating what we had just witnessed. There was one other boat out on the lake with us at the time. This tourist, who used to live where I live now in the UK (what are the chances of that?) had specifically come here for wildlife photography and with a much longer lens probably captured far better photos than I did of the starling kill.
Bhigwan also has quite a healthy population of Painted Storks. I am not that much into bird watching, but I can recognise Painted Storks thanks to a visit I made to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu three years ago.
Our attentions then moved back to flamingos. With the sun starting to drop we were entering “the golden hour” when the light is at its best for photography. This time we managed to get a little closer to a group of about 200 flamingos.
With so many flamingos in flight, I decided to try and get some silhouettes of them against the late afternoon sky. I’m surprised how well these turned out, probably some of my better shots from that day.
Our two hour boat trip concluded with the sun setting behind a group of flamingos. These were quite difficult to capture as I had to hold the camera at the side of the boat only a few centimeters above the water. I have Shankar to thank for this, he’s clearly very used to having photographers on the boats and knew exactly what they should be doing to achieve the best results.
My thanks to Amruta for being the perfect company (and the best driver :-)) for my trip to Bhigwan, and to Sandeep Nagare and Shankar for making the boat tour so memorable. I must also thank Meenakshi Putty from Pune for her recommendations and for sparking my interest in Bhigwan in the first place.
Here is Sandeep’s business card, I highly recommend them. Lunch, four teas and a two hour boat trip cost the grand total of 1,000/- for two people, it was really good value for money. You can also stay in rooms at his place if you want to experience both a sunrise and sunset boat tour. I have no idea how much the accommodation would cost, but I don’t think it’s going to break the bank.
The best time to visit is Bhigwan is December to March, and if at all possible go during a weekday. Apparently at weekends the whole place can become extremely crowded with literally thousands of people by and on the lake.
If you are making a day trip from Pune, I can highly recommend a visit to Bhuleshwar Temple on your way to Bhigwan. It’s roughly at half distance and is well worth seeing before you continue on to Bhigwan for the afternoon.
Another site worth seeing at Bhigwan is the Palasdeo / Palasnath Temple which was only about 10 km further on from Flamingo Point. This is an ancient temple that became submerged by the building of Ujjani Dam and the subsequent flooding of the Bhima Valley. At the end of winter as the water levels drop the temple starts to reappear from the lake, and depending on conditions it is possible to drive close to it and walk to the temple to explore it. This is definitely on my list for next time.
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