This is a post describing a short trip that I undertook with a couple of friends in February 2022 to Mangaon. As such there is nothing that interesting about Mangaon, it is a small town that is on the old Mumbai Goa Highway that I had never paid attention to. That changed when I started noticing people posting photos of the Great Indian Hornbill on various social media platforms with the location described as Mangaon! I enquired with an experienced birder friend and found out that a pair of Great Indian Hornbills were nesting at a location near Mangaon. Moreover unlike most nests this was ideal for photography and a local guide was taking people interested in photography to see these beautiful birds.
That got me started and I contacted an old MBBS friend & roommate with whom I had been planning to go someplace for birding at this time. We had originally chosen Bhigwan but since this opportunity cropped up to take some decent photos of an otherwise elusive bird we changed plans and planned a trip to Mangaon. We contacted the guide and fixed up a date for our visit. As we got closer to the date of travel I asked another anaesthetist friend interested in bird photography if he wanted to join us and as expected he agreed.
Mangaon is a 3-4 hour drive from Mumbai and my friend wanted to test out how his spanking new SUV behaved on a longish drive. The guide had suggested leaving at 4 am and reaching Mangaon by 7 am the same day for the birding. We were in no mood to pull such stunts as the road isn’t what you would call ideal. So we decided to leave the previous evening and stay overnight in Mangaon to be fresh for the morning’s activity.
It was the right decision as the road is a mix of divided and undivided highway due to ongoing road construction (this construction has been going on for as far as I can remember and shows no sign of nearing completion!). We left Mumbai around 5 pm and it was ok till the sunlight was there to show us where the divided highway merged into a single one. As it got dark it was positively impossible to see the minuscule ” Diversion Ahead ” signs and we missed one such separation and found ourselves driving in the opposite lane! Luckily the traffic wasn’t very heavy and we gingerly reversed back till we found the small board we had missed, joined the right lane and heaved a sigh of relief. After that we were extra vigilant and drove at a snails pace so as not to miss the innumerable diversions. Better to reach late than not reach at all!
We had not booked any hotel there since Mangaon isn’t a tourist hotspot by any stretch of the imagination. Being a town on the Mumbai Goa highway it has a fair number of serviceable hotels and my anaesthetist friend had done the spadework of finding the best among these. So we reached the Hotel Ratnadeep and got ourselves a room. As I expected we were the only guests there! We then ordered ourselves some nice Malvani Non vegetarian food, bought snacks & beer and enjoyed a friends night out.
Enjoying a night out with friends before the morning birding
We woke up early the next morning and got ready well in time. The one thing I enjoy about going out with like minded friends is that there is never any fuss about anything. Everything goes smoothly and without anything being said.
We had called the guide the previous evening and he had told us that another couple of groups would be joining us that morning. That made us a bit jittery since more people meant less room to manoeuvre and more jostling around for a better angle. The jitteriness became even more pronounced when we found out that the other groups were from a prominent photography tour company that I hadn’t heard good things about. This was exactly the thing we had wanted to avoid and the reason why we had chosen a weekday. Apparently a lot of other people had the same bright idea!
We met the guide and waited for what was now a full entourage of 5 vehicles to assemble. Once that happened the guide sat in the vehicle of one of the head honchos of the photography company and took the lead to take us to the nesting spot. We stopped on the way for a Black Rumped Woodpecker that was way too far for a good photo, but I took a few anyway.
A black rumped flameback in the distance
We then raced to the sight which was a good half an hour away. I was worried that it would be too late and the hornbills would already be gone by the time we arrived. Luckily my pessimism was unfounded on all fronts. The photography group people turned out to be an affable lot and there was more than adequate space for all of us to set up our tripods with a clear view of the nest. Most importantly the birds hadn’t yet arrived! So I let out a sigh of relief and set up my equipment. Till now I have always shot handheld and this was the first time I was using a tripod so I made sure I wouldn’t mess it up by taking a few test shots.
Test photos of the nest to make sure I don’t mess it up
We had all set up and ready when the male Great Hornbill arrived. Before this I had seen great hornbills but it was always in dense vegetation and they would fly away before I could get a clear shot. So I was so excited when the Hornbill sat right in the open and started tossing up the ficus fruits. All the cameras went off like Gatling guns! Well most of them did, some were the new mirrorless cameras that are too silent for my liking . My trusty 300mm F4 PF was the shortest lens there but coupled with my D500 it performed as well as I expected it to. I had so many photos of the fruit toss that I had to pick and choose ones to post process.
A couple of the toss photos that I was so desperately after!
The Male was giving a full on show, posing this way and that when the guide whispered that the female was down in the trees below. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is the colour of their iris. The male has a red iris while the female has a white one. Before this day I had only read about it and seen others photos, today I saw it and took some decent photos of my own.
Male Great Hornbill with the red iris / eyes
The Female Great Hornbill with her white eyes
The Male waited patiently for the female to reach the nest as she slowly made her way up the tree lower down in the valley. She came up branch by branch till she reached the top. Then I knew it was the moment of truth, she would fly across and land on the nest. I readied myself for a burst when that happened.
After a short while she finally took off and all the cameras put in their full bursts. Luckily for me most of it was in focus. My camera botched up the landing though and lost focus but I got what I wanted – a photo of the great hornbill in flight at eye level!
The female hornbill flies across to the nest
The female then sat on the nests edge as the male sauntered down and fed her a few of the fruits he had collected earlier. It was a picture perfect moment and I am glad I didn’t botch it up. It is one of the most memorable bird photos I have taken till date and made the journey worthwhile.
The photo that I will remember for years to come
The female then disappeared into the nest that she was preparing and the male sat at the edge and continued to feed her. It could not have been any better, perfect light, no obstructing branches and the bird at eye level – a bird photographer’s dream scenario.
After the feeding was done the male went up the tree and cleaned himself and got ready to depart. Now was the next moment of reckoning, I was hoping to get at least a couple of shots of him flying off. The angle wasn’t ideal and neither was the light , but then you don’t get flying shots of a Great Hornbill every day. You make the most of what you get. So I clicked away when he took off and hoped for the best. Luckily for me it wasn’t as bad as I expected.
Once the male flew off the guide said that he doesn’t usually return so soon. So we set off and tried our luck and finding some other bird life. I was very sceptical since it was very hot now, unusually so for a February morning. We spotted a crested serpent eagle and a couple of Indian Vultures soaring high in the skies. The warm weather meant that they had got the thermals they needed to soar early and there was no chance of them descending. So we took a few record shots and moved on.
A crested serpent eagle soars in the sky
A couple of Indian Vultures using the thermals to soar
We then returned to the nesting sight where the guide had arranged a breakfast for us via a local family. We were busy eating our Pohe when the male decided to surprise us by making another short appearance at the nest. I got off a few photos before he departed again and we said our goodbyes.
I then took some photos of the wild flowers at the side of the road before putting away our gear and saying goodbye to the group and the guide. It had been a memorable morning and I asked him to notify me in the monsoon when another couple of species that I want to see in the wild make the forests around Mangaon their breeding ground.
We stopped in Mangaon town again to enjoy another round of tasty Malvani cuisine before starting our drive back. This time we were travelling in full daylight and were looking out for the road diversions and had an uneventful trip back.
Enjoying another round of tasty Malvani food
It had been a great impromptu trip without a lot of planning involved. Our luck had held out and we had gotten what we had came for. Plus it meant time spent with an old friend that I hardly meet nowadays. The thing with old friends is that even if you meet after ages you pick up right where you left off, like it was yesterday. I hope to make more such trips whenever our schedules permit, hopefully making it a regular thing.
Till next time,