A promising Bangalore Lake in transition

Location: Doddakallasandra Lake or Konankunte Lake
Date: Dec 26th, 2018, 4pm to 6pm.
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
It is located in South Bangalore behind Sri Kumarans Childrens Home, Mallasandra.

Distance:  15kms from Vidhana Soudha
Trail type: Go on the path between the school gate and parking lot. After 50 meters you will come on to a short walking path around hundred meters with benches to rest. Rest of the lake is inaccessible at this time.

Facilities: Benches to sit in few places. No toilet facilities. Food, you are still in the city so plenty of places close by. Avoid picnicking. If you have to, get only finger food in reusable boxes and do not litter.

We used to visit this lake 10 years back when my child was studying at this school. One just needed to scramble up to the bund from the parking lot to enjoy the then fairly clear and beautiful lake.

So, I was looking forward to checking out the lake again when a request came to me for a quick bird survey on the lake. Few of us reached at the same time and trudged up the initial short path towards the lake. On the right hand side there is foliage to make it a nice habitat for forest birds while on the left we have flowering trees along the school compound attracting many nectar feeding birds.

As we reach the lake, there is a newly made walking path on the left for about 50 to 100 meters with benches for those inclined to sit and take in the vista. Rest of the lake can be circumvented fully by the adventurous though not at all welcoming or easy at many points. There is a small island in the middle.

The first thing that strikes you as a bird watcher are the numerous Gray Herons that inhabit the tall trees on the island. They can be seen flying to and from the shore, sometimes carrying nesting material. As you scan the waters, numerous Little Grebes and Common Coots are spotted easily. Egrets on the far side trees with Pond Herons on the shores. Spot billed Ducks and Cormorants

can be seen along the islands as well. As we were walking along the short path, there are numerous trees which hosts Warblers, Sunbirds, Mynahs as well as a lone Brahminy Kite. We were also lucky to spot a pair of Common Moorhens and a solitary Green Sandpiper flying across the water.

The lake itself has had better days. Because of pollution from sewage and garbage inflow from neighboring localities, it has turned green with algal growth with significant amounts of garbage along the shores. Though much effort is being made to clear the garbage and revive this lake by various groups, the source of the problem remains and garbage makes its way to the lake within weeks. This problem is also being worked on and hopefully will be solved soon.

After about an hour or so, we headed back to our cars. A pleasant surprise awaited us as we saw a flock of about 30 to 50 birds swirl around and settle on a tree adjacent to the school. They turned out to be mainly the migrant Chestnut-tailed Starlings with few Rosy Starlings also. Happily we returned to our cars and were again greeted by several large flocks of Rosy Starlings returning to roost on the trees near the lake. It was an amazing sight to watch as 100s of them settled down quickly on small trees to rest for the night.

Ebird check lists from the 2 visits we made to this place for the bird count:
Dec 19th Morning
Dec 26th Evening

As always, do not litter the place. Even though some spots may look bad, we don't really want to add to that, do we?

Back to the Himalayas: Kheerganga Trek

LocationKheerganga or Khir Ganga, Himachal Pradesh
Date: Apr 15 to 17th 2018
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
From Bangalore, flight to Chandigarh. Bus or Taxi from there to Bhuntar. Then IndiaHikes Vehicle to Barshaini where the trail head is.
Trail type: Wide well worn trail. I trekked the whole time with camera and binoculars in hand. On weekends, we were told the trail attracts lot of people so can get noisy and crowded.
Facilities: Small makeshift shops selling snacks and drinks in few places along the trail. Please avoid buying anything packaged in plastic here to reduce demand and thereby the litter. At Kheerganga, lot of small scale shops and restaurants have come up in tent like structures.

The urge to to go back to Himalayas is always strong once you experience it. All the difficulties, cold weather and hardships of the previous trek, which in our case was Dzongri-La, is quickly forgotten replaced only with memories of pristine mountains and streams, colorful birds, fresh air and the majestic peaks of Himalayas. The hard part is always the planning with conflicting schedules within family or friends group. So, in this case when an initial idea of a moderate trek "somewhere in North India" was proposed by friends on dates that worked for us, we did not need to be asked twice! It all fell into place fairly quickly, thanks to the enthusiasm and purposeful determination of the initial planners. Once the destination and trek conductors, KheerGanga and Indiahikes, were selected, we had rest of the logistics organized within a short time. Finally, we were 5 families making it a fairly large group of 15 with ages ranging from 10 to over 50!

The excitement increased with each day of planning as the D-day got closer. The trek pick up point by India Hikes was at Bhuntar, but we decided to go 2 days early and stay close by. This way we got a bit more of the Himalayas and also some acclimatization before the bigger trek. The place we chose was Usha Homestay, Tirthan Valley, Gushaini. It turned out to be a good decision. Place was scenic with a river view and we were well looked after. On our first day, we did a day trek to Serolsar lake from Jalori Pass. Trek is long but easy as the trail is flat at around 3000 mtrs. So, it served our objective and also got us some fantastic views of the mountains. Second day, we mostly relaxed around the resort preparing for the bigger one ahead.

The place was fantastic for bird watching too. The Plumbeous and White-Capped Redstarts were right on our doorstep in the river. We also, got our heart-fill of Yellow-billed Magpie, Russet Sparrow, Black-bulbul and Grey-hooded Warbler seen often around the place. Highlight was a good sighting of Great Barbet.
Just starting at Barshaini

Day 1 of Kheerganga Trek.

We were up early and thanks to a round of hot tea, loaded and ready to leave for Bhuntar by 5.30am.  It was an adventurous drive along winding roads with a steep edge and river below most of the time which is typical of hill roads in Himachal Pradesh. We reached our pick up point on time at 7am. India Hikes had arranged two vehicles for us to drive to the Trail Head, Barshaini Village. After another longer similar drive, we reached Barshaini late morning. Our trek leader Samkit was waiting for us at a small restaurant. 6 others joined, making it a total of 21 in the group. We were offered an early lunch, which we could also pack to eat on the trail. After the trek briefing, he gave us each a litter bag to fill during out trek. One of many initiatives that India Hikes takes to keep the trail clean and treks environment friendly. (More about them in the end).
Up we go..

Parbati River 
Soon, we were finally on our way trudging along on the tar road leading out of the village towards the mountains. We crossed the river over a dam like structure and were immediately on a mountain trail heading deeper into the forest. As expected the teens and yet to be teens with their youthful exuberance surged ahead competing with anyone in the group who dared to go faster. Few of us with binoculars and insisting on following up each movement or call of a bird lest we miss some exotic species lagged behind. Rest made up the middle focusing on the task at hand which was to cover 10+ km at a steady pace!

The trail was beautiful all along with Parbati River on our left, way down below at about 50 to 100 meters. The path was easy most of the time with some steep parts needing care and hand/stick support to cross. Many mountain streams crossed the trail. It was a pleasure to fill our water bottles with the icy cold water straight from these streams.

Rest stop
We made few stops along the way. First was at a a make shift snack place with a wide expanse of grass. Samkit immediately put us to work to collect the litter and of course we hit a treasure trove of plastic all over! Other stops, were for rest and some nourishment where the laggers (read birders) could catch up with the group.

Birding along the way was tough as expected because of the dense canopy and steep edges. We got to see Himalayan Woodpecker, Creepers, Bule-whistling Thrush and Long-tailed Minivet. At the end a Himalayan Bluetail gave us good poses for a long time.
Himalayan Woodpecker

We reached KheerGanga around 6. An exhausted group trudged the final half km steep climb to our campsite.  Immediately all the tiredness was gone as we took in the scenic background with the towering Himalayan mountain range all around. The advance India Hikes team was already there preparing dinner for us. Samkit put us through some stretching routines to loosen our aching and tight muscles. Then he gave us instructions on how to setup tents which we all had fun doing. Then mats, sleeping bags were all setup up with 3 to each tent. Dinner was served at a large and cosy dining tent with Samkit doling out rotis, sabji and desert. Maybe its the cold mountain air or the exhaustion of the trek but any hot food tastes divine in the Himalayas and miracle of miracles, kids rarely complain and leave nothing on the plate!
Natural water station!

Day 2 

The original itinerary was to have breakfast, break camp and head to Buni-buni pass. But due to heavy snow on that trail, it was cancelled. Instead, Samkit planned a small but strenuous trek to a view point just behind our campsite. After a leisurely breakfast, we set out around 9am. Almost immediately the climb turned very steep with lot of switch backs. Constant rest was required even though the top looked tantalizingly close. We hit couple of snow patches to everyone's delight leading to some friendly snow fights. As we crested the top, we were greeted with an awesome view of the snow clad mountain range.

View point
The view point is a massive meadow surrounded by mountains. It was a pleasant couple of hours spent just clicking pictures, lounging around and having snacks. With thunder and some dark clouds coming in, we reluctantly headed back to camp. The climb down, though not physically hard, was equally if not more difficult with the chance of slipping and falling higher. In fact several of us did and had to be helped up. Rain did catch up with us as we neared the campsite. However, most were happy with that as it gave them a chance to try out brand new ponchos or other rain gear bought specifically for this trip.

The field behind the campsite was a great place for birding. Finches, Bushchat and Thrushes could be watched up close by just finding a nice spot on a rock and sitting still which some of us did most of the evening. Others relaxed in the tents and after our evening tea and snacks, all joined in for some hilarious games of Bluff.

Day 3

Wild flowers 
There is always a mixed feeling on the final day of a nature camping. On on side we feel reluctant to leave the beautiful and pristine nature but on the other look forward to a comfortable bed and toilets with flushes. Given the choice, most of us would have loved to stay couple more days, I feel. But all good things must come to an end, as the cliche goes. So, soon after breakfast, the packing started.

Unknown Butterfly
Samkit gave us a demonstration on how to take down a tent. It was voluntary exercise but of course everyone rose to the challenge to be the fastest or the neatest or whichever would make them come first! Very soon all the tents were down, backpacks neatly piled up and we were ready to head back down.

We took the same trail back to Barshaini. We broke into 3 groups as before into the energetic teens, practical middle and the slow birders. Each group had its share of adventures on what was supposed to be quick 3 hour trek. The middle got lost and were almost run over my horses who claim the narrow trail to be their own! (Hint: Stay on the mountain side and let them cross, if that happens to you) The birders also got lost and did a longer trail by 2km, crossing the valley to the other side and going through the small village of Nakthan. All had to contend with rain towards the end. But, it all added to the experience and got us bonus moments which we will surely cherish.

Back to base!
Nature wise on this day, we got to see the Bar-tailed Creeper up close as well as the Himalayan Woodpecker. Also got to see the small but colorful Fire-capped Tit. We also caught sight of a wild simian as it sauntered on the opposite hill giving us a look and then disappearing. Our guess is it is Grey Langur or could it be the endangered Kashmir Grey Langur?

We reached Barshaini late afternoon. After refreshing ourselves, we got on the cabs for the long drive back to Bhuntar to catch our bus to Chandigarh where clean beds and other modern amenities awaited us. I am sure we deserved them after being without for 3 days!

Misc Links:
Our Trek Photos

A few words on India Hikes, my first with them. They are a unique company as their goal is not profit but to discover and document trails to enable people to go by themselves! Incredible. Therefore their cost is very low and they share all details of the trails on their website. At the end of our trek, we were told that this particular trek is free for us to repeat anytime in our lifetime. Have to take up on that offer!  Also, they are very environmentally conscious in various ways. 1) Request the trekkers to get our own utensils both to save on disposables as well as for better hygiene and reduction in logistics if they have to carry themselves. 2) Gave each trekker a litter bag to pick on the trails. Needless to say most of our bags were full by the time we reached the end! 3) Encouraged us to carry our backpacks to reduce the impact on trails as otherwise we would need more porters and mules.

Needless to add, they made us follow my motto. Leave only footprints and take only pictures!

Our own Garden

A little different write up for this blog. Nature is there, yes, but the ramble is much easier. Just around the house garden!

Couple of years back we got an opportunity to build our own house. When the architect asked us to list our requirements, garden space was at the top. So, in a 2400 sq feet plot, we managed to end up with about 900 sq feet of garden space, most of which were filled with soil, and 300 sq feet of car porch area tiled with stones where grass could grow in between them.

OK, we had the garden space, now what? We did not want the garden to be artificially landscaped and preferred a practical organic one with no pesticides. So, we approached Urban Mali whose mantra was in line with ours. They got us started with a lot of native plants. Now we have a small lawn with a pond housing guppies and other visitors in it. A flower patch with colorful Hibiscus plants, Kanakambaram (Crossandra infundibuliformis), Spatika (Barleria), Parijatha (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis), among others. No, I am not a botanist. Names thanks to google and wikipedia! They also made a vegetable patch, and planted fruit trees like Guava and Sapota. Its been about a year and the garden has done fairly well with much hand holding from Urban Mali via maintenance as well as advice. Many lessons learnt and many more yet to learn and implement which I will try to list below.
Lily Pond with a Frog

Ashy Prinia
First, a big bonus for me has been the nature in the form of birds, animals and insects the garden has attracted. As an avid birder, Ashy Prinia's which we would enjoy only during our outings, became a regular guest to our kitchen garden, for few weeks with its sweet calls delighting all. Other bird who have graced the garden are Purple-rumped Sunbird, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Oriental White eye and Tailor Bird. We had a snake visit us too, frogs hopping around all the time, insects, a garden lizard which camped in our garden for few days until food ran out and snails galore. Variety of butterflies have placed our house on their regular daily route. Overall, it has been a pleasure each and every time we spot any of them.

As for my gardening effort and success, it has been a mix of results so far. The hard work of cleaning, planting and weeding is done by the Urban Mali gardeners who visit once a month. I mostly water it, do some weeding and harvest the produce! Success has been in most of the greens we planted (Spinach, Basil, Lemon grass, etc,), Guava fruits, and the native flowers. Lily pond, though small, has sustained itself very well with a lily blooming almost all the time.

Lily Moth Caterpillar

Some lessons I have learnt. Watering with a proper schedule is important. We lost a lot of the nursery plants we tried to nurture. Manure is key. Without proper nutrition yield is very low or none. Still learning this. I don't have a in-house compost setup. It appears this is a must if we are hoping for good produce as the cost of store bought manure is too expensive. Managing pests such as army ants, aphids is an ongoing struggle. The lily moth caterpillar pretty much chomped away all our lilies. I am told they will grow back. Still waiting. I guess with the organic approach we do share our garden with the rest of the nature. Neem oil as a deterrent helps but its a struggle to keep away some of the pests.

Garlic Vine
Regardless of the struggles we are enjoying our garden so far as it embodies nature at its best with variety of plants, animals, insects, pests and all! Looking forward to many more visitors and bountiful harvests in the future!