“Sorry …, just can’t join you for Matheran trek, due to heavy spell of rains, shall do it next time”. This was SMS, from my Mumbai based friend, received in my mobile inbox at 01.30 AM of 12th June, 2011. I would say he was lucky enough to have his Camera saved from the heavy rains or was he unlucky enough to feel the magic that was transforming the ‘WILD MATEHRAN’

On Sunday, at Neral Station, Nilesh Bhanage and me were waiting for our two more companions, who were suppose to join us from Thane in next coming train. Neral station, being on the fringes of Sahyadri Mountains has several streams and small fresh water bodies, during the monsoon, with very good tree cover. This resulted in good birding activity with sighting of around 15-20 Black Crown Night Herons, more than 10 Little Cormorants, around 5 Indian Cormorants, pair of Oriental Magpie Robin, pair of Jungle Myna, solitaire Asian Pied Starling scavenging on litter and a lone hovering Shikra.  A toy train was just teaming up with its engine and tourists were
ready to get aboard for their two hours journey to Matheran, which was not our plan. Our plan was to hire the cab till Dastoori and then walk till panorama point (3kms) and thereafter trek down through the narrow gauge
railway tracks till Jumma Patti (10 Kms). Till the time, my two friends joined us, I photographed the flora around the station, including Cleome rutidosperma (Nili Tilwan), Heliotropium indicum (Bhurundi) and Tonningia axillaris (Bechka).

The tourists were getting themselves photographed in front of train engine to pose “Yes, I was there” and we were waiting for our friends, having sip of tea. At 7.30AM my friends arrived and immediately we hired the cab to Dastoori (Around 7 kms of uphill drive).

Viraj Kute (A botanist and photographer), Shubham Darveshi (A Class Tenth student), Nilesh and me adjusted in Taxi, reached at Dastoori Naka and had a quick breakfast and ventured into the deep forest, walking towards the Panorama Point. This patch of forest, in the heavy monsoon resembles to the rain forest of North East, very deep and dark, almost impossible to photograph anything without flash based camera.

The start of this trail and we were greeted with sighting of Orange Headed Thrush (cynotus race) , perhaps no one could photograph it, since we were not suppose to use flash, to shoo away the bird. But photography was not a major concern for all of us, we wanted to document “the transformation” as much as we can, which had just started. A single Amorphophallus commutatus (Shevla), among the dry leaf litter, given us a satisfying pose. The continuous calls of Malabar Whistling Thrush, Brown Headed Barbet, Red Whiskered Bulbul, White Rumped Shama and Puff Throated Babbler were chasing us like ghost but not giving their appearance. And these birds had a reason to not give us the appearance. In every five minutes, there was hoard of people (tourists), wearing red, white, yellow and what not, passing through us, and shouting, on this trail. We allowed those tourists to go ahead of us, for at least 500 mtrs., so that we can have some sightings, in tranquillity.

This traditionally used strategy worked well, … pointed out to a medium size bird perched high on a dry tree branch. The otherwise difficult to locate, in such dense tree cover, White Cheeked Barbet, at Matheran, was clearly exposed on this bare branch. The bird, which is endemic to Sahyadri, is my second sighting in last 7 years of birding, the earlier being at same place in 2009, during MBC birdwalk.

The forest floor was full of monsoon flora such as Arisaema murrayi (Padhra Sap-kanda), Curculigon orchioides (Kali-Musali) & Curcuma Pseudomantana (Ran Halad). The shrubs of Carvia callosa (Ka rvi) were also abundant, but with none among them flowering. My usual sighting of a parasitic shrub Tolypanthus legenifer (Pela band-gul) had its permanent location, which we all photographed. According to Viraj Kute (my companion of the day and Botanist as well), this shrub also flowers at Yeoor, which I am eager to document in the said area, during this monsoon. My search of unIDed flower is still not ending, which I have been looking for from 2009. And in 2011 I found another quest, one more flower to ID. We decided to have some pet pooja and after that we had a group photo as well. The place where we had taken our group photo, had a single small herb of Lamprachaenium microcephalum (Brahmadandi).  What Nilesh and others missed out was  a single Crested Serpent Eagle, flew above me and went towards the town.

The butterfly activity was absolute nil but several beetles and other insects were seen busy in mating. My team was high on hope for sighting (if not photographing) of Indian Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica) and Green Vine
Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), but the heavy rain, that spilled over at 700 mtrs (MSL) of elevation, spoiled the game. But this rains also brought many Malabar Whistling Thrushes giving their identical whistle call at very other
curve, perhaps every time in pair, since this is their breeding time (I assume). These birds, would surely not give us any photograph and perhaps with no more chances of photographing in such heavy rain, we packed up our cameras & binocs  , and decided to trek down to Neral via Toy Train railway track. This was suppose to be more than 15 Kms of route, but we were excited to JUST DO IT.

As usual Nilesh was busy attending and forwarding his rescue calls and due to poor mobile network he had to speak loudly at occasions and often, which was little irritating, but that was part of his noble cause and was
sustainable. The topography of railways tracks (Neral Matheran Railway Track)  is based on hill slopes and is fantastic platform for opportunistic flora Photographers, I proudly claim to be one, but this was little early
for the season, or late to say. Chlorophytum bharuchii (phulbhajji) has just started flowering and Pancratium triflorum (pan kusum), Ecbolium ligustrinum (Ekboli), Abutilon persicum (Madam) were over on this the 12th June, 2011. But finally we got few good sightings and record shot (With Nilesh) of Malabar Whistling Thrush, which was just an end of the day.

The calls of Malabar Whistling Thrush are yet echoing in my mind. Am I still near a stream of Matheran?

The “Transformation” is series of my next few field trips and would be updated accordingly, having next destination at Malshej Ghat – Harishchandra Gad.