Monday, March 27, 2017

Kaziranga - Paradisus Rhinocertainus (February 2017)

I've sometimes been accused of using the word 'paradise' very liberally across my various posts. Guilty as charged, but is there a better word (or term) that does justice to the magical wildernesses that adorn this country of ours? So, till someone pitches in with a better option, 'paradise' it will be. And no park deserves this epithet more than Kaziranga, for a visit here is truly an out-of-this-world experience. And as the title suggests, seeing a magnificent rhino (or seven) is almost a certainty in this most spectacular of habitats. Enough with the adjectives and on with the trip report, you say? Aye, aye Cap'n!

This trip was planned more than 6 months ago, with a couple of close family friends. The primary motive was for our kids to see the rhino, a privilege not available in our part of the country. And of course we wouldn't be averse to seeing a few tigers (or even one!) such is the magnetic lure of that most royal of cats. And for me, the feathery friends that inhabit this place were an extra motivator. And so we set off, a party of 9, with a couple of pleasant days in Kolkata to kick things off. We arrived at the Iora Resort in Kaziranga late one afternoon, and I caught up with the resident expert, Kushal Boruah. He casually asked me if I'd like to check out Grey Headed Lapwings nearby. And while the Lapwings gave us only a distant sighting that evening, Kushal's company and skill really set the tone for what would become a superlative trip.

The next morning started at dawn, before the scheduled jeep safari. Kushal took me for a walk in the small hills behind the hotel, to look for Laughingthrushes. And we climbed towards the top of one hill, he stopped to check in the bushes along the road. I was a couple of steps ahead of him and he suddenly asked me to stop. Almost at the same instant I heard a growling sound from the bush not more than 15 feet away. I turned to Kushal and he motioned me to walk back down the hill. And then he whispered 'Leopard'. He'd seen a smaller leopard jump down the hill and the silhouette of another climb up, almost up to the road. A few more steps and I might have been breakfast. What a thrilling way to start off this trip!

Safari 1 - Agaratoli (Eastern) Zone
Kaziranga National Park is broadly divided into 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) And we headed towards the east for our first safari. Agaratoli does not conform to the classical 'Elephant Grass' Kaziranga stereotype. Is more mixed, with large waterbodies breaking up dense forest as well as the occasional grassland patch. It is also the best zone for tiger sightings these days, with 2 families being sighted quite regularly. So we crossed all our fingers as we entered the zone. For me, the first 10 minutes threw up 3 lifers - a Red Collared Dove in a little forest patch, followed by Northern and Grey Headed Lapwings alongside a waterbody. They were all quite far so no great images, but it was a great way to open the account.

Swamp Deer
Further into the zone and we saw a beautiful sight - a mother Swamp Deer nursing her young calf on the banks of the waterbody. Behind her were hordes of ducks - Pintails, Gadwalls and Wigeons. Heading further, I got my first lifer of the trip - an unexpected one that too; Mallards. A few birds were feeding in a smaller waterbody and I was thrilled to see these beautiful ducks dive in and out of the water. This was followed up by a family of smooth coated river otters basking in the morning sun. And we did get a glimpse of a rhino, but it was far and in the middle of thick bush. Not quite the Kaziranga stunners that we were used to. So I advised the kids to be patient and wait for a proper rhino sighting. Till then a Grey Headed Fishing Eagle and a White Tailed Eagle in flight would have to do. Now Agaratoli is a single track zone where you go along a single path up to a point and then come back along the same road. On our way back a Small Niltava came and sat right in front of us, but completely against the light. And right across the road, a little bird flitted about and as I pointed it out to Kushal for ID, he said Little Pied Flycatcher. Another little joy that I was least expecting but very happy to get!

Little Pied Flycatcher
On our way out, we saw a rhino move in the grass across a small waterbody. And we waited, in the hope that it would come into the open. And, much to everyone's joy, it did! It was a beautiful male rhino and he came down to the water for a drink. And then he proceeded to lie in the water for a little wallow, allowing us to get a sense of how huge really was. A herd of elephants further down was the icing on what was a superb debut safari. 

Safari 2 - Baghori (Western) Zone
The afternoon safari was in the Western Zone, home to a lot of elephant grass and swamps and hence perfect for Rhino. And almost as soon as we got into the zone we spotted a couple of Rhinos up close. We then headed towards a watch tower which allowed spectacular views of the waterbody as well as the vast meadows on the other bank. And these meadows were dotted with Rhinos. And as the kids started their Rhino count in earnest, Kushal tried to find me some of the feathered friends I was gunning for. An Abbott's Babbler and a Blue Eared Barbet both called from somewhere near, but neither of them were willing to come out into the open. And then as we headed back, we saw Lakpa with his bunch of guests frantically motioning us to come towards his side of the waterbody. When we got there, we saw jeeps queueing up on the road alongside a small meadow which had a few feral cattle grazing. And vehicles only queue up for one reason - the striped wonder. Apparently, one of the drivers had seen a tiger slink into the grass a few minutes earlier. We all waited in anticipation, guessing that the tiger might be stalking the cattle. And they too were on high alert for quite a while before settling back down. And we knew we had to move on. 
Rosy Pipit
Further ahead in another waterbody, I got Common Pochards and a large flock of Ferruginous Ducks. And then in another little swamp a little bird flitting around turned out to be a Rosy Pipit. By then, it was almost sunset and we turned around to head back. We passed a gap in the elephant grass and noticed a herd of Hog Deer grazing peacefully in the open. Barely 20 seconds after we crossed that gap we heard urgent alarm calls from the deer, followed by the deer running away at top speed, still continuously calling. It could only mean one thing - a Tiger! We searched through the bush for any signs of the striped wonder, but no luck. The tiger would have walked through the gap barely seconds after our jeep passed it. Such are the ways of the jungle. It also makes one even more aware of how much of a privilege it is to see tigers, or indeed any of the other species in the forest. And thus ended the day on a philosophical note.

Safari 3 - Kohora (Central) Zone
The morning dawned bright and clear as we drove into Kohora. And almost at once we saw a Rhino right next to the road. This guy was battle scarred and had some recent souvenirs etched on his rump. He saw us, thrust his head into the air and pulled back his upper lips, almost like sizing up our odours. We thought he might charge and pulled slightly further away so as not to agitate him. And a little further were 2 other rhinos, possibly a mating pair. While we watched them, Kushal pointed out a bird sitting far away on a post. it was a Striated Grassbird. I managed to see it clearly through the binoculars though it was too far for a photo. And we drove further along the meadow and suddenly a large flock of small weaver-like birds perched on the tall grass stems. I'd assumed they were Baya Weavers, but Kushal and our superb driver Papu, both confirmed that they were Finn's Weavers. What a bonus! The birds then arrived on a tree almost right above us, so while they were too far up for quality pictures, I was satisfied with record shots.


Swamp Francolin
Driving on and I saw two largish birds cross a path on our left and quickly pointed them out to the expert duo in front. Swamp Francolins! Got a couple of records as they melted into the grass, but the morning was turning out to be quite special already. We stopped at the nearby watchtower to scan the surrounding area for any sign of tiger activity. A couple of alarm calls had us on edge for a bit, but that soon died out. Instead, a Chestnut Headed Babbler started calling right from right next to the path, followed by a Slender Billed Babbler across the path. As I kept watching for signs of either, almost like a tennis match... the Slender Billed made a fleeting appearance, though not for pictures. Even as we headed back in the jeep, the Chestnut Headed appeared in the open, obviously keener on a photo shoot than his Slender Billed relative. Got off a few shots of this beauty and then it was back to the hotel.
Chestnut Capped Babbler

Safari 4 - Agaratoli Zone


Northern Lapwing
The last safari of the trip and the tiger became the focus of all attention. Kushal and Papu recommended that we head to Agaratoli where 2 tiger families made frequent afternoon appearances. And that settled it as we headed back to the Eastern zone. A beautiful Rhino all in the open started that safari, followed by a Northern Lapwing up close. A raptor on a tree turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon. But we pressed ahead to the spot where the tigers were normally seen. And waited. And waited. At one point, the Hog Deer seemed genuinely on alert and there were frantic few alarm calls. And we waited breathlessly as the tall grass parted... and a Rhino walked out! To have the last laugh, I suppose. Though the striped wonder was probably sitting in the grass nearby and chuckling its stripes off at us. Net, we didn't see a tiger on that safari  though our Rhino count had swollen to very respectable levels.

Day 3 - Birding in the tea estates
White Browed Piculet
The final morning in Kaziranga dawned with me heading out with Kushal, Papu and Lakpa for a morning around the tea estates. The kids had a taken an elephant safari where they saw Rhinos up close, but still no tigers. And we drove to a nearby tea estate and skirted through the surprisingly tough tea bushes into the undergrowth. 3 birding experts with me and I was thoroughly spoilt. In the tea gardens itself, we saw a flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes, albeit slightly far away. Into the undergrowth and immediately they conjured up a Pale Chinned Flycatcher, followed by a White Browed Piculet and then a Rufous Fronted Babbler. The Piculet was the only one who posed for a photo, thus proving himself to be a far more willing model than his Speckled cousin. Even as I clambered up the slope back into the tea gardens, I had my first encounter with the local leeches. It's amazing how quickly they can latch on to you and this friend helped reduce my considerable weight by a few ml of red fluid.
Yellow Vented Flowerpecker
We walked on, to the calls of White Browed Scimitar Babblers and fleeting glimpses of a Large Cuckooshrike, Black Rumped Flameback and Yellow Bellied Warbler. And then Lakpa noticed a movement far above in a tree. It was a Yellow Vented Flowerpecker, one of the rarer varieties of this species. Another superb stroke of luck. We walked towards a stream where Kushal hunted for Black backed Forktail but all his efforts were in vain. With another flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes and a glimpse of a Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker to close out the trip, we headed back to the hotel. I had to see off the rest of the gang on their way to Mumbai and then Lakpa and I would head further to bird in Upper Assam and then Arunachal Pradesh.

Kaziranga is truly spectacular and the Rhino alone makes it a 'must visit' destination. But there's so much more to see and experience in this most wonderful of National Parks. And with experts like Kushal and Papu for company, you will always come out with more than you'd expected. 
Rufous Necked Laughingthrush

Kaziranga Trip Guide
Kaziranga National Park is about 200 kms east of Guwahati, Assam's main city and nerve centre. The closest big town (and airport) is Jorhat, about 110 kms away. It's a park that's surprisingly easy to access and has a number of well appointed places to stay, across a range of prices.

How to get there
Jorhat's Rowriah Airport (110 kms - 2 hours) is the closest airport. The highway is being expanded to a 4 lane (except in the Park area) so the drive will be even more pleasant when it's completed.

Jorhat is connected to most big Indian cities via Kolkata and Guwahati and most airlines have a daily flight here.

You can also drive here via Guwahati (4-5 hours) if that provides a better flight connection.

Where to stay
Kaziranga has a number of places to stay, across budget ranges. Since we were traveling as families, with kids and an elder with us, we chose the comfortable Iora Kaziranga. It's a lovely setting with wonderful, large rooms and an excellent Assamese restaurant. The rest of the F&B act can do with some tightening though. Iora also has Kushal, so it was the perfect choice for us in more ways than one.

Wild Grass is the oldest hotel in Kaziranga, though not as luxurious as Iora. Hardocre wildlifers not chasing luxury usually head here. Their naturalist Palash Barua is also a local legend. I've stayed there on a previous visit.

Safaris
Zones: Kaziranga has 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) One should aim to cover off all these zones at least once, so please plan a trip with at least 4-5 safaris.

Timings: The timings in Kaziranga are a bit strange. The park opens at 7:30 in winter, which is probably the latest of any park in the country. Given its location in the far east of India, it is bright at 6:00 am even in peak winter, so the 7:30 time is a bit difficult to fathom.

The afternoon safari is more in line with other parks, entering around 2 pm, till around sunset.

Guides
All hotels have their own naturalists, so do ask for them in advance. The park has forest guards (with guns) who accompany some of the vehicles and these guys are very well informed as well. Unlike other parks, mandatory, rostered Forest Guides do not exist in the Kaziranga system,

And if you're staying in Iora, please do ask for the superb Kushal Boruah. If possible, he will team up with the super-sharp Papu Choudhury and together they will make your trip a memorable one.

Food
Assamese food is absolutely delicious, with a combination of delicate flavours and some serious chilli. The local food that we had in Iora's assamese restaurant was superb!

Other tips
Kaziranga can get cold in winter, so do pack some woolies or jackets.
Check for rain forecasts, and pack some basic rain wear and protection for your cameras.


Finn's Weaver

Grey Headed Lapwing

Lesser Adjutant Stork

Mallard