Saturday, April 23, 2011

Birding trip report: Sultanpur and Basai Wetlands

Delhi has been unusually cool this year; and even in the last week of March and first week of April, it felt as if summer was far, far away. I therefore decided to make a birding trip to Sultanpur in the hope that some of the winter migrants would still be there. What a great decision it turned out to be!

We left Delhi at 6:00 a.m. with tea in a thermos flask, and biscuits.

About 1.5 hrs from Delhi, just before Sultanpur, we stopped at Basai Wetlands and walked around. The sighting was excellent! In the brief 30 minute visit, we saw so many birds that I kept oohing and aahing and jumping around like a child at a birthday party I almost didn't want to go further to Sultanpur!

I had only my point-and-shoot camera, so I just got some scenery shots and some long-range pics. So please someone else go get some awesome ones and send them to me!:

Basai Wetlands

Here is a list of birds we saw at Basai:

1) Long tailed Shrike

2) Sarus Crane (3 gorgeous cranes)

3) Grey heron

4, 5, 6) Three types of ibis, all in one place, single camera shot, I loved this! We saw the glossy ibis, the black ibis (with the red head and small white patch on shoulder) and the black headed ibis (with the white body)

7) Dunlin in flock - did you know that in this bird the female often deserts the nest and the male looks after the brood?

8) Drongo

9) Either Citrine Wagtail, or Yellow Wagtail, I'm not sure which!

10) White wagtail (what's the right name for this?)

11) Praticole

12) Pied starling

13) Ashy crowned sparrow lark (adorable)

14) Pied bushchat

15) Asian laughing dove

16) Common redshank

17) Spotted sandpiper

18) Common sandpiper

19) Purple swamphen

20) Spot billed duck

21) Black winged stilt

22) Godwit

23) Pied Avocet

24) Marsh harrier (gorgeous big bird, excellent sighting, we saw three of them!)

25) White breasted kingfisher

Most of the waders were in flocks, so the sighting was very good. By this time, we were hungry, so we drove to the Sultanpur sanctuary (another 30 minutes); where we stopped and had an excellent breakfast at the tourist centre. The centre is called "The Rosy Pelican Tourist Complex"; and they served us very good alu-parathas with excellent curd and pickle. They also served very soft bread and butter, and omlettes. The tourist complex has accommodation as well, in case you want to stay overnight. They also offer groups the facility to cook your own meals for a charge. At the restaurant, I went to look for the toilet to wash my hands, and the old man took me to the men's loo because the other one was being repaired Anyway, I decided to "hold it" until return to Delhi!

Like all government complexes, the Rosy Pelican is blessed with a great location and surrounds. It was green and beautiful, perfect for having chai outdoor under the shade of a tree. However, the restaurant was shabby; the old man who served us wore a white shirt and black trousers that had clearly seen better days. The curtains were old looking, the plug points were a joke. Basically I came out feeling like I was in some 1970's movie set - which in some weird way was actually quite a nice experience.

Haryana Tourism board that made me smile

I grinned at this signboard by Haryana Tourism, which tries very hard to prove how amazing and popular this sanctuary is. It says with great earnestness:

Migratory Birds Comes From: Indian Sub-Continental, Central Asia and Europe

Tourist Comes From: USA, England, Russia, China, Swidan, Switzerland, Australia, Taiwan, Nepal, Hong Kong, Malaisia, Indonesia, France, Germany etc.

(he he he he he)

Anyway, fortified by tea and breakfast, we were ready to set off for more.

We walked around the pathway of the sanctuary. Tall trees on both sides gave us good shade, and to our left the water in the wetlands was still there. The park authorities maintain water levels by pumping water into the lake, we saw the pumps merrily at work while we were there. I was glad there was water, because it meant we would have better sighting even late into the season.

Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary

I had to get back to Delhi for meetings, so we spent only about 45 minutes here; but some of the birds we saw are below:

26) Magpie robin

27) Common coot

28) Northern shoveler

29) Comb duck (very interesting looking bird!)

30 ) Greater egret

31) Pond heron

32) Alexandrine parakeet (a tree full of them!)

33) Greater coucal (strutting around as if he owned the whole lake)

34) White breasted water hen

35) Peacock

36) Painted stork (a big group of them, all standing looking very sleepy)

37) Rusty flycatcher

38) Green bee-eater

39) Jungle babblers, doing their usual noisy thing!

40) Spotted owlet (three adorably cute ones, all in one tree but different branches, just inside the Rosy Pelican)

In search of the Indian Courser:

After this, we set out with a hope and a prayer to a village nearby to find the elusive Indian courser. Three of these birds had been spotted a few weeks ago near a farm, but we weren't sure if we could find them. We drove through small but prosperous looking villages, and finally came to a large open farmland area. Here we had to spend nearly 20 minutes hunting for these birds. Instead of the courser, we found red wattled lapwing and the more uncommon yellow wattled lapwing. Then after we almost gave up, we found four coursers in a field. It was my first sighting, and the birds were small, sleek and very graceful. We spent 10 minutes watching them and carefully following them on foot. Finally we returned to our trusty Innova and turned our car homewards to Delhi.

The return journey to Delhi seemed much longer, because of the traffic (although I think it didn't take more than 2.5 hours). Having left Delhi at 6:00 a.m., we were back in Delhi by 1:30 p.m. for lunch, feeling very happy with ourselves.

I can only imagine how lovely this place must be in the winter season. I am quite certain I will go back again if I get the chance. This time, I went with a very poor camera; next time I will fix that!!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Navratras thali at Pandara Road

The restaurants at Pandara Road have acquired a reputation for serving some of the best butter chicken in Delhi. It's the kind of Punjabi food that is viscerally satisfying - apart from the butter chicken, there are lots of rich creamy gravies, hot naans dripping with butter, soft paneer-saag, and other seasonal Punjabi specialties.

"Havemore" is right! This kind of Punjabi food is hard to resist!

Gulati - another Pandara Road favourite.

I went to Pandara Road this week looking for an artery-clogging Punjabi meal :) But instead of the usual fare, I found a specialty menu on offer at Gulati's.

The Navrata Thali at Gulati

All over India, Vasant/Chaitra Navratri or Navratras is being celebrated; marking the advent of warmer weather. As part of this festival, a special fast is observed for 9 days. Rice and wheat are forbidden; in fact, all grains are forbidden. All meat and seafood is banned. According to religious prescription, only one meal a day is allowed; and simple healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, milk etc are to be had. Even onions and garlic and sea salt are forbidden. I guess the idea is not only to give the digestive system a break; but also to draw attention away from food, towards more spiritual thoughts.

However - like the Indian legal system - there are several loopholes in the scriptural injunctions, and these have been cleverly twisted to suit all those who have no desire to suffer :)

For example, those who can't live without hot rotis and puris have discovered that flour made of sago, buckwheat and water-chestnuts are all allowed. Why? Because these are not grains, you see? Water chestnut is a fruit; so is buckwheat (technically speaking!). And sago is made from tapioca. That makes these flour subsitutes perfectly acceptable during the Navratras "fasting". Similarly, since sea salt is forbidden; the meal is cooked with rock salt, lending it a different taste. Green chillies are a fruit, so they're kosher too. Chillies can therefore be merrily used to produce spicy results; spiritual thoughts be damned! :)

For every fasting "rule" there is a workaround, a sort of cheat code, if you will! It is as if a wicked, but highly determined chef decided that he or she would beat the system. Over the years, with help of several clever chefs and their clever workarounds, a complex cuisine has grown around the restrictions of the Navratras diet.

Since I have never fasted for Navratri, I was curious enough to want to try the Navratri thali. It turned out to be quite a fancy meal!

Thali with 8 different dishes, accompanied by water-chestnut (singhada) puri and buckwheat (kuttu) roti; and a cucumber salad.

At the centre of the thali is a bowl with two dishes served together, which serves as the starting point for the meal. The yellow-coloured stuff is aloo-chaat; the potato was lovely and tangy with rock salt. It was served cold, garnished with coriander. Next to it is a fried dumpling made of sago (sabudana), served piping hot. Nice combo! There's a spicy green chutney that you can eat with this.

The three orangey-red gravies were pretty good too - one of them is pumpkin, the other is paneer, and the third is a kind of dal that I couldn't quite figure out. All three were cooked without onions or garlic, but they were quite tasty.

Lastly, the three white bowls - they had:
a) sago kheer
b) sago pulao (flavoured with cumin and green chilli) and
c) yoghurt raita with rock salt.
I loved the raita, and the pulao was pretty good too. I tasted the kheer, it was light and nice, but I didn't have much of an appetite really.

Buttermilk to finish off the meal

There was a glass of cold buttermilk, also seasoned with cumin and coriander, to round off the meal nicely. So instead of the kheer, I stuck to buttermilk.

For me, the most interesting part of this meal was discovering kuttu, or buckwheat. I had never seen buckwheat before. It is grown mostly in the hilly regions of North India.

Buckwheat roti (the black coloured stuff)

The buckwheat fruit has a single seed, sitting inside a hard outer skull. The skull may be green or dark brown, which is what makes the kuttu roti blackish looking. The buckwheat roti tastes nothing like a wheat roti. It is kinda starchy, and it has been cooked with a lot of ghee, so it is heavy as well.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I wondered why or how this nine-day Navratri fast originated. In the month of Chaitra (April), the season changes. The hotter summer days begin. Maybe it originated as a way to get the body acclimatised to the weather change? If anyone knows the answer, or has a better guess, please let me know. Meanwhile, if you want to taste this thali, head to Pandara Road!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Delhi watches cricket

World Cup fever has completely taken over. Everywhere I went, the only thing people were talking about was the game, the game, the game.

Overheard at Defence Colony: A debate about where to watch the match. I think they went to Adderwaza finally.

Drivers and guards at Dilli Haat: Deeply thankful that the memsahibs are taking a lot of time over shopping!

Brisk sales at the booze shop at SDA Market. Check out the number of cases and cartons lying around!

Post script: Aaaaaaaaaand the boys in blue have brought home the World Cup! The whole country is going to be partying now.