Wednesday, November 18, 2015

ODKF -The Quest for the Little King

Some of God’s creations fascinate us like others never can. And this particular jewel frustrated and fascinated me in equal measure for almost two years. Several fruitless trips to frequented hotspots provided lots of evidence to his existence there but yielded nary a glimpse. A bird that seemed to otherwise show itself to half the birding fraternity every monsoon refused to present itself before me – the outrageously beautiful Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher!

This monsoon would be different, I told myself. For I had extra ammunition in the form of ace birder, ODKF specialist and dear friend - Prateik Kulkarni. For the uninitiated, this unassuming, humble young man is one of the finest young birders in Mumbai, and what he doesn’t know about the ODKF is probably not worth knowing! So mid-June, we decided to take a shot at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. After a fruitless morning, Prateik decided to take us (Sriram and I) to the Mumbra Hills to try our luck with other species.

The beautiful Mumbra hills are home to the Mumbradevi temple via a series of steps. The jungle either side of the steps is home to several species of birds, some sighted even from the steps! We stopped halfway (next to a Hanuman temple and a few food stalls) to catch our breath and spotted Grey-breasted Prinia and Vigors’ Sunbirds! Not bad to open with. Then Prateik pointed in the distance and said “ODKF”! I was like, no way… It had to be something else and I had the temerity to suggest it was a Stork-billed Kingfisher. He looked at me with a gaze bordering on disdain and asked me to look again…. Through the viewfinder this time… and he was right!! The beautiful yellow, purple plumage told me this was the bird I was seeking for seemingly forever.

He was still far away and my camera/lens gave me a hard time but I had broken my duck! Just watching this gorgeous little king was a sight for sore eyes. Little did I know that this would only be the beginning of a glorious season! The immediate follow-ups were not particularly encouraging… we made 3 more trips where we heard the bird and caught glimpses but nothing more. Until one morning I set out for SGNP with another ODKF seeker, Siddhesh Maldikar. He’d been far more frustrated in his quests with the ODKF and both of us were determined to break our duck properly this time.

ODKFs migrate to this region during the rains to nest and hatch their young. An adult pair can sometimes raise 2 broods in one season. They nest in muddy banks of little monsoon streams that snake their way around the forests of the Western Ghats. And as we approached one such stream, we both saw a flash of purple and yellow settled on a branch above the water! We cautiously approached the bird and sat at a respectful distance. Once he was comfortable with our presence, he proceeded to give us a grand half hour sighting. My first decent quality pictures of this beauty!

This was followed by another trip, with Sriram this time. We went and settled ourselves next to another stream and waited, with no signs of any life. And then, without warning, a male ODKF just materialized in front of us. He flew in so fast that we didn’t even see him till he perched. And then gave us profile pictures of every conceivable angle, till he presumably got bored of being a model and made his way out to have breakfast. And we went to get our celebratory Vada Pavs to toast this magnificent little king. And I thought I was quite sated. After all, such grand sightings after 2 barren years were spectacular in itself, n’est ce pas?

Over the next couple of months, we caught glimpses and saw more pictures (On Facebook) of ODKFs ferrying pretty much every conceivable prey species to their chicks, including geckos, crabs, frogs and lizards. And inevitably the greed to see some ‘action’ took over and we took a few more shots late in the season with Prateik in tow. After a couple of false alarms, we hit gold one fine morning. What followed was one of the finest birding experiences of my life.

Waiting by a stream, we almost immediately spotted the female. She flew off probably to look for food and returned a few minutes later with a lizard in her mouth. She perched in a couple of places, including one in the open (good pictures, thank you very much) and then darted around the corner, maybe into her nest. A few minutes later, the male followed suit with another lizard. Instead of following the female, he headed up into the trees around the stream and we assumed that was for his own breakfast.

Dad trying to feed Junior
In assuming that, we were blatantly unfair to the responsible little father. For, up in the trees (and hidden from us) was one of his chicks. And no sooner had he perched on a branch than the little chick appeared for his brekkie. Dad then valiantly tried to force the lizard down the little fella’s hatch with seemingly no luck. Maybe Junior didn’t like the flavor. In reality, the lizard was probably too big for the youngster, so dad gave up and flew further into the foliage and probably made a meal for himself. He zipped over us presumably to find another, more palatable meal for the youngster. But the little chick (and us) waited for a good half hour; us in silence and the chick in a volley of hungry calls, but no sign of dada. Sometimes even these amazing hunters have poor luck.

Hungry chick!
So we called it quits, with a silent prayer to the ODKF gods to provide the chick a meal soon. And a big thank you to our own Prateik Kulkarni, for topping and tailing the season with some incredible sightings of this most beautiful of little kings, the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher.

And while we’re on the subject of incredible sightings, another trip to the National Park yielded sightings of the Atlas Moth, the largest species seen in India plus so many little insects and caterpillars. It is truly one of the most magical places I’ve been to, a fairyland especially in the rains.

Till next monsoon then.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park Trip Guide

The Sanjay Gandhi (or Borivali) National Park blesses Mumbai with a lot more than lush green forest and spectacular wildlife. It is Mumbai’s green lung and a vital component of the metropolis’ water security.

It also gives the city the honour of being the only Metropolis in the world to have a National Park within city limits, a distinction that very few Mumbaikars acknowledge, or indeed even know about!

How to get there:

The park has 3 ranges which tourists can access with the requisite permissions at the respective forest gates. There are no appointed guides, but visitors can access pre-approved paths or trails.

Borivali, the largest and most frequented gate. This section also has the touristy bits of the National Park, namely the Lion and Tiger safaris in enclosed buses as also the famous Kanheri Caves.

You drive through on the Western Express Highway and turn right under the National Park flyover. The gate is on the highway itself and you pay a nominal entry fee to access the inside roads. You’re advised to check for open paths and requisite permissions before you head there.

They have an excellent Facebook Page where you can check out all the information about the park and what’s happening there:

Nagla Block – Nagla rests further north of Borivali, separated by the Thane Creek. To access this range, you drive further up the Western Express Highway to Dahisar, cross the bridge over the Thane Creek and then turn right to and drive through the village to the forest check post.

Yeoor Hills – Yeoor is the North Eastern section of the park and is accessed via Thane. You drive up the Eastern Express Highway into Thane, take a left at the Cadbury Junction and drive on till you hit the sign for the Air Force station. Take a left there and you hit the forest check post where you register, then follow the winding road uphill, pass Yeoor village and continue on till you get to the Yeoor Bus stand. Park your vehicle there and walk to the forest gate and follow the trails within.

Mumbra Hills

The Mumbra Hills are known for the Mumbradevi Temple and the birds are found in the forests on both sides of the steps that lead up to the temple itself. More on Mumbra birding in a separate post.

To get there you head on the Eastern Express Highway, past Thane and head towards Nashik. Take a left at the next toll plaza and follow the road as it curves towards the Mumbra bypass. Head along the bypass up a bridge and you will see the hills on your right. Drive down till you see the steps heading up and climb them even as you look for (and listen to) the birds there.

 Things to Note:
1.    Please check beforehand on whether the trails are open, since the rules are open to change at any point.
2.   ODKFs can be found alongside muddy banks of monsoon streams, where they usually nest. You can get a sign of its presence via its trademark call, a deep, loud, metallic ‘Cheep’

3.  Once you spot the bird, please take care not to venture too close, as it might have a nest nearby. Getting too close might disturb it and could cause it to abandon its nest.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Ranthambhore - The Annual Pilgrimage

The gates of Ranthambhore are no less than an entry into paradise for me. This amazing tiger forest has given me memories to last a lifetime and then some. As always, the annual summer trip was planned with care and virtually, the entire clan was present along with dear friends Dr Srikantan and Mukundan with their families plus Sriram, the reliable!

For such a large group, being together was a priority, so we chose to be in a canter, not normally our first choice. The trip began with a relatively uneventful safari in Zone 4, where we missed a male tiger by a few minutes. He had just descended into a nullah when we got to the spot and we could hear a volley of alarm calls as he walked on, but never got a glimpse. That apart, the highlight (if you can call it that) was the bone jarring journey on Ranthambhore’s impossibly bumpy roads. Probably the only sore spot in paradise.

Over breakfast, Hemraj assured us of sightings in the afternoon, he’d booked us in Zone 3, home to T19 and her 3 cubs. And, as we rounded the beautiful Rajbagh lake, a queue of vehicle indicated – Tiger! It was one of T19’s sub-adult cubs resting by the road. Even as we watched, she shook herself awake and walked down to a pond for a drink, passing within 15 feet of our vehicle. Post her drink, she disappeared into the tall grass behind the pond, presumably to resume her siesta. We then played hide and seek with her and her 2 siblings as they made fleeting appearances, only to disappear back into the grasses.

That would be the theme for the next day; we spent most of our time with T19’s family. A full 6 hours of tiger watching, but nothing really eventful happened. The mother was on the lookout for a kill; she half heartedly stalked a few chitals but nothing really serious. For me personally, it was a great day since I got a few more lifers on my birding list - a lull in the morning proceedings gave Hemraj the opportunity to take us to the beautiful Malik Talao (lake) where I saw a Pied Kingfisher, my first Crested Buntings and at the tiger sightings, we were visited by a Large Cuckooshrike, White Browed Fantail and a few Large Grey Babblers plus kingfishers, orioles and treepies. So, other tourists were subjected to this ‘unusual’ sight of a person clicking birds when 3 tigers lay right in front of them. No doubt they thought the heat had gotten to me!

 4 safaris and tigers on 3 of them; nothing really to complain about (!!)… but the ‘magical’ Ranthambhore sighting still hadn't happened. What is that? Well, on every trip, Ranthambhore always throws up one sighting that is way beyond even memorable. The experience is hard to explain, but imagine a high of winning something coupled with the joy of seeing something magical in action. And you might get slightly closer to the feeling I speak about – heart racing, senses tingling and your face in a perpetual (if slightly goofy) smile. That is what that Ranthambhore sighting is all about.

That sighting would come on our 5th safari. This time we were in gypsies, headed to Zone 1, home to the beautiful T39 (Noor) and her 2 sub adult male cubs. Her consort, T24 (Ustaad) was the centre of much controversy a few weeks earlier for having killed a forest guard. He was taken away to a zoo and with that ended my chances of seeing this magnificent male tiger. Damn!

Back to Zone 1 and we arrived at a water hole called Kaala Pani (black water) a shady little pocket, surrounded by hills on all sides. After a comfortable drive in, we were all a little lazy and slightly switched off . Almost immediately, the harsh alarm call of a sambhar from the opposite hills changed all of that. Sambhar calls are usually the most accurate indicator of a predator, almost always a tiger. We scanned the hills for any sign of movement but that movement came from behind us. From a thicket behind the water hole emerged Queen Noor. She quickly and purposefully walked past us towards the hill and climbed out of sight. Hemraj’s theory was that she had stashed away a kill which could have attracted a leopard or jackal, prompting the sambhar to call. And Noor headed there to safeguard her kill. But where were her cubs?

 As if on cue, one little fella appeared out of nowhere. He came and sat less than 10 feet from one of the gypsies. Responsible citizens that they were, they drove away after a bit to put space between themselves and the tiger. And promptly, his brother joined him and they both started walking towards the waterhole, following different routes. So here we were, spoilt for choice, two tigers walking around us as we waited, sometimes they were so close that I could only get a picture of the tiger’s eye! It was heady, magical stuff and for those on their first trip, this was just unbelievable.

 Both brothers walked alongside, then behind our jeeps for a while, as if posing on the catwalk. Then, presumably bored, they settled into the waterhole for a peaceful drink together. It was a companionable silence between humans and tigers, with the only audible sounds being the faint slurps of the water and the clicks of the cameras. For the kids, seeing a tiger up close and so comfortable was incredible. For the other adults, it was an opportunity to whip out their mobile phones to take a picture. Yes – mobile phones. For me personally, the challenge was to be able to focus the tiger with my 500mm lens. They were that close!

Drink over, the brothers headed into the thicket behind the waterhole for their snooze and we headed back to the gate, fully sated with the ‘magical’ Ranthambhore safari. For the good doctors and their families, it was their first really special sighting and helped put Rantambhore firmly top of their wildlife destination check-list. Before the trip, we’d promised them a special trip and as always, this amazing place delivered. And how!

It wasn’t done yet, for our last safari that afternoon we headed to the distant Zone 9 or Kwalji area, home to male tiger T42 (Fateh) and his consort who were seen mating that morning. A 45 km drive in baking heat in an open gypsy certainly took its toll. Kwalji itself was a completely different area to the main Ranthambhore forest, sandy soil and thick bush completely contrasting with the park’s dry deciduous forest. We drove along the main track with thick, impenetrable bush on both sides till we reached a tiny gap in the bush. In the shadow behind the bushes lay a large male tiger. A little further were a paw and a tail. The female. Both resting after their recent exertions, no doubt.

We moved further away to give them an undisturbed opportunity to mate. Who knows, they might even come onto the road? Only to watch in dismay as 10 other vehicles drove up to that very clearing and lined up to view the tigers, with the tourists making an almighty ruckus. Our driver and guide tried telling them to leave some space for the animals to come out, in vain.  So in disgust, we drove away to try our luck with another male who was supposed to be in the area. We heard a couple of alarm calls but nothing else. And as we neared a waterhole the guide said ‘we could see caracal here’. Now that gorgeous little cat is at the top of my wish list, having seen it only once before. We waited for any signs of movement and then, resigned to fate, drove back to the tigers.

The circus (and I do not exaggerate) had now grown to more than 15 vehicles with  people were yelling and jostling for space. Amazingly, the tigers were still asleep despite all this drama. We drove a little further and waited for the crowds to disperse. And as a few vehicles got impatient and left, there still seemed some hope. We then got glimpses of the tigers mating (a first for me!) but no pictures. But the sounds echoed around the area and still reverberate in my ears. Hope this dalliance will result in a new family in the Kwalji area. More power to these wonderful tigers.

And with that the sun came down, not just on this safari but on a spectacular 3 days in one of the finest tiger havens on the planet.

Magical Ranthambhore.

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 10:15 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 1/2 hour journey on excellent roads.


Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to complete opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 

For those who prefer a home-like ambience, there is none better than Tiger Home ( built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, you could hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers. You can reach Hemraj at or +91 9414030850.


At the mid-level, two of Ranthambhore's best options are the Ranthambhore Regency ( and Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 25-30 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book 2 gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there is invariably some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

In addition to the core area of the National Park, the adjoining Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary is also very pretty. Open even in the monsoon, this forest has beautiful high mountains and lots of flowing streams. There are tigers here as well as leopards and hyenas. Certainly worth a visit.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen and comfortable clothes and headgear is important. It can get equally cold in winter, so a thick jacket is a definite requirement.

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.

And come prepared for the bumpy roads, Ranthambhore's only downside is that the roads on some routes (especially Zone 4) are really bad.

Crested Bunting

Great Thick-knee

Large Cuckoo-shrike

Pied Kingfisher

Checkered Keelback