Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ladakh (July 2019) - Birding at the highest level


Julley!
Ladakh is as unlikely a birding destination as is possible to get. One normally associates birds with verdant forest, coasts or even scrub and grassland. What avian life could a barren, high altitude, cold desert possibly support? Yet, defying conventional wisdom, Ladakh plays host to an incredible array of bird (and even mammal) species, some of which are seldom found elsewhere in this vast country of ours. And so, a trip to this most exotic (and extreme) of bird havens was always an exciting and potentially rewarding prospect. And when Lakpa Tenzing, close friend and naturalist extraordinaire, suggested a trip, a plan quickly fell into place. And before we could say Leh, a group of five - Lakpa, Ramesh, Manju, Jaysingh (arriving fashionably late) and yours truly were already there, acclimatising to the high-altitude, low oxygen environs.


The first day and most of the second were reserved for rest, getting used to the altitude and also to check for any symptoms of altitude sickness. Relieved that none of us were affected, we did a bit of sightseeing around Leh (including the famous Rancho's School from the movie 3 Idiots). The Shey Marshes gave us some birding, and we scored the first couple of lifers on the trip in the forms of the Eurasian Magpie and Mountain Chiffchaff. Shey had nothing more to offer and a nice stroll in Leh Market rounded off our acclimatisation. The next morning we would set out for Pangong Tso, another of Ladakh's attractions that the aforementioned film brought to national consciousness.

Chang-La, Pangong-Tso
The route from Leh to Pangong Tso takes us across the Chang-La Pass, one of the three highest motorable passes in the world. For us, it held some special avian treasures as well, with the Tibetan Snowcock at the top of the wishlist. First up though we got a couple of beautiful Chukar Partridges, a Robin Accentor making a meal of his breakfast worm and a Himalayan Weasel trying to purloin some Chukar eggs for brekkies. The Snowcock proved elusive but we would have another bite at the cherry on the way back. Once across, the proverbial floodgates completely opened up. First, Lakpa's eagle eyes spotted a White-throated Dipper in a fast flowing stream next to the road.  Then, we hit pay dirt on the banks of another stream, with lifers flowing thick and fast; a beautiful White-winged (or Guldenstadt's) Redstart, followed by Tibetan Snowfinches, Horned Larks and Twite. A little further along the same stream and we came across two beautiful Red-billed Choughs with their bright red 'lipstick' beaks. A close up of a Marmot (albeit with a paper bag in its mouth) completed a scintillating morning, topped up with a splendid breakfast of egg-noodles.

Our tented camp was about 20 kms before Pangong-Tso (the local government not allowing any camps or resorts near the lake itself) and we checked in, had a bite and headed to the lake. The lake itself is stunning, with some breathtaking views as you approach it. There were a fair amount of tourists at the lake itself, posing for selfies with '3 Idiots' poses (which we would happily take on later) Our immediate priority though was to find one really special bird - The Common Merganser or Goosander. And lo, on the banks of the lake, a little away from the tourist spots we spotted a couple of them. They were very wary, even though we were really far away and at quite a height. A passing jeep made them hustle into the water and to our delight we saw that they were followed by a bunch of chicks! We watched with great joy as they swam around with their little brood; taking care to never get too close. A few decent (if distant) frames and we were happy to slot back into tourist mode. As we headed back to camp, we realised that our birding in Pangong was pretty much done and Lakpa suggested that we head onwards to Tso Kar a day ahead of schedule.

Chang-La, Tso Kar
Very early the next morning, we headed to Tso Kar, again crossing Chang-La pass. We forded the pass just around day-break and on our way down, Lakpa kept his eyes peeled for the Snowcock. And on one particularly rocky slope, he found it! Imagine spotting a bird that is perfectly camouflaged in rocks, in pretty poor light and from a vehicle driving at 30 kms per hour. But then, that is the magic of that man. He exclaimed 'Snowcock' and we all descended from the car at the rate of knots. And as we peered into the rocky hillside, we saw a pair of Tibetan Snowcocks, with great difficulty at first as they blended into the hillside. They gave us a few decent images before melting into the rocks and we headed forth to our next destination - Tso Kar. En route, we got a couple of lifers in the form of Hill Pigeons and Fork-tailed Swifts. And then we forded the magnificent Taglangla Pass, another in the Top 3. And that was when the weather turned - suddenly, at the pass, it turned freezing cold and then actually snowed! This weird weather would set the tone for the rest of our trip.


The birds did make an appearance, in the form of a majestic Lammergeier (who perched a light year away) and a Yellow-billed Chough. And then as we stopped for lunch, we got a couple of lifers right next to our restaurant - A Hume's Short Toed Lark and a pair of Northern Ravens. Lunch giving us more than just a full stomach, we were decidedly well fortified on the drive to Tso Kar - a flock of Brandt's Mountain finches added to the overall well-being. And as we arrived in Tso Kar, Lakpa pointed to a bird on the cliffs - a Saker Falcon! I'd missed this bird by a whisker in Gujarat and it was special to to see it now, even a few hundred feet above my head. And as we were savouring this sighting, Lakpa turned us around and pointed to a faraway dot in the marsh below... through the binoculars we got our first sighter of Ladakh's signature bird - the enigmatic Black-necked Crane!

The Black-necked crane is almost exclusively found across the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining Bhutan. In India, the most reliable place to spot it is Ladakh and Tso Kar within Ladakh. Over the next few days, we'd be fortunate enough to see a few birds and some sightings at very close quarters. For now, we settled into our camp, licking our lips at the prospect of a stellar line-up of birds that Tso Kar was famous for.  And then the rain came. It pelted, poured, drizzled and generally arrived in every form it knows, killing off the entire evening session. Being inherently optimistic, we were convinced that this was freak weather, an aberration to the cloudless skies that Ladakh is renowned for. How wrong we were!

Tso Kar and around
It all started well the next morning with no signs of rain. We drove along the lake and immediately came upon another of the signature species - a Little Owl. This particular specimen led us a little dance before giving us pictures, but it was all worth it. Driving further we came across a Black-necked Crane up close. It was feeding, but on a Common Redshank. As we watched, it polished off the smaller bird and wandered off deeper into the marsh, leaving just skin, bone and feathers. We had time to investigate the slopes for a much-wanted species the Tibetan Sandgrouse, usually found in good numbers in the area. A first failure didn't deter us, we had 4 days here after all; we'd eventually find it somewhere or another. Wrong again! The rains came again that afternoon, but we did get some birding done, adding Great Rosefinches and Blanford's Snowfinch to our lists. And we also added another member, the one and only Jaysingh Morey joined us that afternoon, being held up on a work trip in Delhi. 

Blanford's Snowfinch
The next morning, we headed in another direction, seeking the Sandgrouse. We passed an army camp en route and discovered that many of them were from Maharashtra. These wonderful people keep our borders safe, under the most inhospitable conditions and always with a smile on their faces. They there were highly amused that we were out and about in such foul weather, searching for birds! They added to their warmth with a cup of tea and only after much persuasion, accepted our mumbai-packed snacks. Their good wishes brought us a Saker, (on the ground) and some quality photos of the Twite but it still wasn't enough to bring us the Sandgrouse. That afternoon, we got Little Owls, Blanford's Snowfinch and a Hume's Groundpecker plus some beautiful Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) Marmots and a Pika peeping out from his burrow. An Upland Buzzard flying right above us, closed proceedings.

Tso Kar to Tso Moriri
Great Rosefinch
Our last day in Tso Kar saw us hunt far and wide for the Sandgrouse, but to no avail. It was a beautiful day for once, with the sun shining over the lake and making for some grand scenery. More Little Owl, a Woolly Hare and even some big-cat scat (Snow Leopard anyone?) but no Sangrouse. We flitted around our camp shooting the Rosefinches that industriously zipped from perch to perch, but our minds (and hearts) were full of grouse. We had one last morning en route to Tso Moriri and we hoped that our wishes would be granted. And when we woke up, there was no rain. We packed up in a hurry to leave. And just as we were about to get into the cars, something fell on my arm. It was snow! A little bit of snow never hurt any birding, we said to ourselves as we drove out. In less than a kilometre, the landscape had turned totally white. Visibility was zero, it was a snowstorm, a blizzard of epic proportions (to city slickers like us anyways!) It was incredible to experience but sadly, not good for birding. And it would last for a couple of hours, just as we passed through some of the best areas for Golden Eagles (another key species!) Finally, we stopped at Sumdo village for some hot tea and noodles, and also to take a break and rue what was more freak weather.

Brown Accentor
At Sumdo, Lakpa made us walk around for a bit and we were rewarded with another delightful little lifer - a Brown Accentor. he gave us good photos and then a Rosefinch led Manju and Ramesh a merry dance because they hoped it was a Streaked Rosefinch (another species that had eluded us in Tso Kar) It turned out to be its more familiar Great cousin and they got back all hot and bothered. We finally drove into our little hotel on the banks of the stunning Tso Moriri (Tso is Ladakhi for lake) and like a faithful companion, the rain returned. We tried a bit of birding but it just rained incessantly and we had to call it a day. And as we prepared to head to Hanle the next morning, we just hoped for better weather, and with good reason.

Hanle
Red-fronted Serin
Set in eastern Ladakh, almost at the boundary with China, lies the little town of Hanle. It hosts the third highest observatory in the world. And why would they have an observatory in Hanle? Because it has more clear days (and nights) than most places in this country. And that's what we were counting on. En route we passed through Sumdo again and this time we got a beautiful Red-Fronted Serin first up followed by a Chinese Rubythroat. Closer to Hanle and a Desert Wheatear in some crazy plumage which made us all go mad for a while, chasing it up and down in the hope that it was a Finsch's Wheatear. It eventually remained the aforementioned Desert variety, but the good weather got us to enter Hanle on a high. We were hoping for the elusive Eurasian Eagle Owl here, along with opportunities for the Tibetan Finch, Mongolian Finch and the Pallas' Cat. Finger lickin' good!

We drove out to the spot for the Owl but found no joy there. Some other friends spotted a Red Fox in another location but we missed that too. And the next morning, we hunted for the Owl again and surprisingly, it was missing again! What was usually a reliable roosting spot for the Owl was bare. And no signs of any of the other species, so we retired for a bit of a snooze. That afternoon, Lakpa's eagle eyes got us an elusive Tibetan Lark, albeit from afar. A much needed lifer to boost the spirits. That afternoon we set out in search of the Owl again. No luck at the usual perches, but we did get another Ladakhi lifer - a Hailstorm! It started pelting down on us early evening, putting paid to any birding hopes. And that's when we decided that if it had to rain and hail in Hanle, then the weather gods were seriously upset with us. And we decided to cut short our Hanle visit and head back to Leh.

Hanle to Leh and Nubra
Eurasian Hobby
There were only two things of note on this 'travel day' - both attributed to Jaysingh. He spotted his much sought-after Common Merganser in a small roadside pond. And then, as we sped along the highway to a rainy Leh, he exclaimed - Hobby! At full speed, he'd seen and identified a Eurasian Hobby sitting on the electric wires next to the road. We called the others back and spent a pleasant few minutes shooting this stunning bird. Until a rather large truck decided to pass by while giving us the full benefit of a horn that would have been audible in Delhi! The Hobby, deciding that this music was not to his taste, promptly took flight to a slightly quieter place. And we headed back to base at Leh.

The next morning, we headed to the majestic Khardung-la Pass, to try for an equally majestic bird - the Golden Eagle. Khardung-la is the highest motorable pass on the planet, at a jaw dropping 17,580 feet. Literally a view from the top of the world! But all we could see was cloud, as the weather turned against us once more, with the top of the pass at a bone-chilling -5 Celcius. Talk about a summer holiday! There was obviously no hope of anything resembling an eagle, so we meekly quietly crossed over and headed towards the Nubra valley, keeping our hopes up for raptors but getting only false alerts for all our efforts. We went down the Nubra Valley, checked in to our lovely hotel in Hunder and headed to find the Eurasian Eagle Owl. The afternoon brought no joy so we decided to come back in the evening, because the terrain looked very promising.

We resumed our search for this elusive Owl in the evening and found absolutely no sign of life, even as 6 people fanned out and searched every nook and cranny in the rock faces of that gorge. And then it was almost dark and Jay decided to put out his scope for some star-gazing. Even as we were admiring Jupiter, a shadowy form took wing from a nearby rock face. The Owl then glided to a spot literally above us and sat there looking down at us, mildly amused at our efforts at stargazing. It was too dark for photography, but thanks to the spotting scope, we could observe the bird and its features. It then took flight and flew to the opposite face of the gorge, only a silhouette now. But for all of us, starved of anything resembling an Owl all these days, it was manna from heaven. And then, magically it doubled! One more Eurasian Eagle Owl appeared out of nowhere and sat with our friend in companionable silence. Cognizant that we were intruding into their hunting time, we quickly hastened back home.

The Golden Eagle
The final morning of our trip and one last hope for that legend of the Himalayas, the Golden Eagle. And as soon as we set out, we got a delightful surprise - a trio of Red Foxes as they trotted in the sand dunes in the valley under us. For the eagle, the area of North Pullu, just before the ascent to Khardungla, is probably the best place to spot them, weather permitting. We hoped and prayed for good weather and this time the gods obliged. And so did the eagle. Half way through to Khardung-la, a majestic, soaring form caught Lakpa's eye and he proclaimed, with no little relief - Golden Eagle. And this most regal of all raptors gave us some lovely flight shots as he glided this way and that, all around us. A passing Lammergeier joined the party for some time, not wanting to be left out of the action. All in all, it was a very happy birding bunch that ascended to Khardung-La that morning, the bright sunlight as reflective of our moods as the gloomy weather had been exactly 24 hours earlier.

A lovely Tibetan dinner in Leh was the perfect way to end what was a brilliant trip for all of us. There's much unfinished business in Ladakh, starting with the Sandgrouse, so we'll be back for sure. 

Till then...


Ladakh Trip Guide

Getting there
Ladakh is pretty well connected via its capital Leh. There are regular flights to Leh, mostly via Delhi.
There are also two options to drive, one via Srinagar (420 kms, 10 hours) - this passes through Kargil which is now a tourist destination and also a decent birding spot, especially for some of the crow species. The other option is to drive via Manali (470kms and 10-12 hours); this is more touristy and well known. The advantage of driving is that it does away with the need to acclimatise in Ladakh, given that you're ascending gradually. 

Birding spots in Ladakh
Ladakh has many hotspots where the avid birder will find joy. Some of the unmissables:
1. Shey Marshes - even as an appetiser while you're acclimatising in Leh. This can throw up some very nice surprises.
2. Chang-la to Pangong-Tso - this route throws up all the usual suspects and also some specials like the Snowcock
3. Tso Kar - This is the home of the Black-necked crane and many many more.
4. Tso Moriri, Sumdo - Many overlapping species 
5. Hanle - Famed for the Tibetan Lark, Mongolian Finch and Eurasian Eagle Owl plus others
6. Nubra (Hunder and Diksit) - for the owl and other beauties like the White-browed Tit Warbler.

Stay
Apart from Leh and Nubra, which are on the tourist trail, the rest of Ladakh is (thankfully) under exploited. Which also means that the places to stay are reasonably basic, but almost always comfortable. Your guide/naturalist will find you the best places to stay across the board.

Naturalists
Ladakh has no local bird guides, but a few people from across the country also cover it off as part of their itineraries. We went with Lakpa Tenzing, friend, brother and birder extraordinaire. You can reach him at lakpatenzing84@gmail.com or on +91 9733018122

Things to note
Ladakh is situated at extremely high altitudes, so acclimatising is critical and not optional. Please plan at least 2 days in Leh if you're flying in. If you're driving from Srinagar or Manali, the drive itself takes care of the acclimatising so you're fine.

Carry warm clothing at all times. Even in summer, it can get freezing cold in an instant so you need to be prepared.

We carried portable oxygen cylinders with us, just in case someone needed it. Thankfully, they were passed on to the drivers, never having been used. But please do carry some.You can buy them in Leh market.

Plastic is a scourge in Ladakh. They have no way to dispose plastic, so they now bury them, potentially contaminating their water sources. So please avoid plastic as much as you can. We bought regular water bottles and refilled them at every place we stayed in, thus avoiding buying bottled water. Whatever little plastic we accumulated, we carried it back to Delhi and disposed it off there. 

Please do your little bit to preserve this last piece of wonderland!

Nalsarovar (October 2019) - A Bitter(n) twitch in the tale!

The few months immediately post the monsoon are always filled with anticipation for a birder, for it is the season of surprises. It is the time of year when vagrants and rarely seen birds seem to magically manifest in places across the country. Not a week goes by without a record of a rare sighting somewhere in this vast avian paradise that is our country. And this October threw up two such beauties: an enigmatic Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Delhi and a Little Bittern at Nalsarovar in Gujarat. The former made one cameo appearance, but the latter provided a patient audience to hundreds of interested subjects, yours truly one of them.

One weekend in September, the ever-resourceful Latif bhai posted a picture to his WhatsApp friends that had many of them sitting up in surprise and no little delight. It was a Little Bittern, a bird otherwise found in regions further west of India with only scattered sightings across the country. And many made the trip to Ahmedabad and then onwards to Nalsarovar. The temptation of a trip was too much to resist for Sriram and me,  and so, the following Sunday, we joined the rest of the followers. 

A red-eye midnight flight to Ahmedabad was on the menu since we needed to reach the location by dawn. At the airport, we were picked up by the effervescent Kunal bhai, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 2:30 a.m. On being asked how he was so perky at such an unearthly hour, he revealed that he'd come to pick us up straight from an all-night dandiya programme. I'd forgotten that Ahmedabad doesn't sleep for a whole ten days during the Navratri festival in October! He took us to an all-night jalebi-fafda joint and duly fortified, we set forth towards Nalsarovar. And reached there well before dawn so we all took a bit of a snooze before Latif appeared.


So, this Little Bittern is a vagrant to India; in other words, while it's been reported reasonably regularly across the country, it does not appear in numbers like other migrants and the locations are varied and sightings sporadic. Hence the celebrity status. And what are celebrities without the attendant paparazzi? And we added ourselves to this list along with at least 20 other people from far and wide, that Sunday morning. Of course, the bittern does not think of the photographer while taking residence; for the little swamp and reeds that it took up bordered a house and the spot where we took up positions adjoined their washroom. So the locals were a bit bemused by the extent to which this bunch of 'looneys' would go to get one bird! And that too in their backyard, right next to their loo.

Black-breasted Weaver
Anyways, the star was reluctant to get out early that day and it did test our patience a bit. The first appearance was amidst the reeds with just a head here and a neck there, before it vanished again. Then, a flock Black-breasted Weavers entertained us for a bit while we waited. We then moved out to give the family some privacy to finish their morning duties before resuming our vigil. Being the diva, it needed play that part so it led all of us a merry dance, appearing in one place while we focused on another and then promptly vanishing into the reeds as we laboured to change position. All said, it did give us some decent photos, albeit in not the best light, but to get to see this exceptionally rare bird was a treat in itself.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
We headed out from the spot and went for a spin in the adjoining areas to search for some others. Nalsarovar always throws up something new and we were hoping for the resident Red-necked or Laggar Falcons to make an appearance. These two didn't make an appearance but  Latif and Sriram got good photos of Sarus Cranes and then a flock of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse turned up in decent light. A lovely local lunch and we were sated, done for the day. And that was that. A short and very sweet trip to a place that always throws up a surprise or seven every year.

Nalsarovar Lake Trip Guide


Nalsarovar Lake is a 120 sq. km. lake that sits between Central Gujarat and Saurashtra. Declared a Ramsar site in 2012, it is one of the finest wetland habitats in Western India and home to thousands of migratory birds in the winter. 
However, a lot of the birding happens outside the waterbody itself. And a superb guide like Latif knows all the spots.

How to get there
Ahmedabad (approx. 65 kms, 1 1/2 hours) is the closest metro, airport and large rail-head. Sanand (now a virtual satellite of Ahmedabad) is the closest town. Cars can easily be hired at Ahmedabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.

Where to stay
Again, your best option would be to stay in Ahmedabad and maybe make a day trip to Nalsarovar. As Gujarat's commercial hub, the city has a superb variety of accommodation to suit every budget. 

There is also a resort at Nalsarovar itself now. Though we didn't stay there, we did a tour of the place and it seemed quite clean and nice.

Guides

Look no further than Latif, a fantastic guide and lovely human being. He and his family pretty much cover off the guiding in that area. You can reach him on +91 91065 21394

Food
At the wetland, the Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway. Latif took us to an excellent dhaba with some delicious local food, which has now become a default on every trip.

Other tips
Nalsarovar can also be combined with a trip to the Little Rann of Kutch, barely 70kms away. The road from Ahmedabad is common up to Sanand, so those going to the Rann can easily make a day stop on the way.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ranthambhore (June 2019) - Blessings from the tiger deities



While the tiger occupies a special seat in Indian mythology as the mount of Goddess Durga, for most of us it is no less than a goddess (or god) itself. This incredibly potent combination of drop dead gorgeous looks, indescribable feline grace, raw power and regal poise cannot be classified in the realms of regular beings. For every time this amazing animal grants you an audience, the first reaction is always one of awe, no matter how many times you've seen one before. Anyways, no prizes for guessing that I'm an unashamed tiger-devotee. For me, one of the finest temples to sight this magnificent deity is Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. A place that we visit unfailingly every single year for our annual pilgrimage, usually in the middle of summer.

Day 1 Morning - The Noor and Noorie show

And this year too, we arrived at Sawai Madhopur Station one sizzling June morning, to be met by the one and only Hemraj Meena; brother, mentor, tiger guru and naturalist extraordinaire. The burning (summer pun not intended) desire to be in the forest means that we head on safari directly from the train, stopping only to drop our bags at Tiger Home. This time we were headed to Zone 2, driving around the magnificent Ranthambhore fort. Its imposing ramparts still stand stoically tall, though defenceless against today's aggressors - the hordes of tourists that ascend to the fort and its Ganesh temple daily. Under the benign shadow of this majestic edifice, the tigers continue to thrive. 


But first we came across another (rarer) inhabitant- a Sloth Bear. He was right in front of us, feverishly working on a termite nest, blowing and sucking in equal measure to get his early morning meal. So engrossed was he that he didn't even look up at our vehicle for a second. The light wasn't great and we didn't want to interrupt his meal, so we headed further on, hoping for a tiger or a telltale sign of one- a parked gypsy. And a few minutes in, we found some of the latter near a waterhole and duly, our first tiger came into view. It was one of Ranthambhore's Queens - Noor or T39. She lay in the water, head behind a large rock and didn't move at all for the few minutes we were with her. She clearly wasn't in the mood for a photo session, so we headed further and came across her recently-separated daughter Noorie, at another waterhole. Noorie was easily more cooperative, more willing to indulge the amateur paparazzi and she gave us a few poses before finding a more shaded area to settle in for the late morning heat. She looked thin and under-fed and Hemraj was a bit worried about her ability to hunt for herself. We carried on to try and find T60 and her lone cub but she continued to live up to her nickname of 'The Ghost' and save for a fresh pugmark or two, we saw no signs. And that ended the first safari.


Day 1 Afternoon - Arrowhead provides an audience

That afternoon plan was to look for Arrowhead, the ruler of the Lakes, Ranthambhore's prime real estate. Otherwise the park's most sighted tigress, motherhood has made her slightly cautious and highly elusive. She was sighted near Malik Talao on the fringes of her territory that morning and we were hoping for a good afternoon with her family. And we drove to the dam at one end of the lake and through thick bush, we could see all three in the middle of their afternoon siesta. It was the cubs who rose from their slumber first and they tried their best to keep us entertained under an unforgiving summer sun. One of them tried, clumsily, to climb a tree and the other attempted to stalk a passing chinkara. They would take turns trying to nudge their supine mother to awaken but with no luck. Just as it seemed like we would end the whole safari with nothing more this distant sighting, Arrowhead finally woke up, probably out of embarrassment at keeping her audience waiting.  She quickly grabbed a drink of water and then paced up and down, as if deciding which way to head. And to our immense delight she chose to come to us. The three of them passed within metres of our stationary jeeps, all filled with starstruck humans. And we allowed them to walk on to their next destination, hoping to see them on our full-day safari the next day.


Day 2 - Full day. Full On.

The Full-day safari. 13 straight hours in the forest. Crazy enough in regular season but bordering on insane in 46 degree heat. But our expectations from Ranthambhore are always way higher than normal, so the full-day safari has now become integral to our summer trips. Last year we'd seen 10 tigers on the full-day and that was the benchmark now, not to mention the freedom to visit any section of the park that we chose (within the tourism zone, of course) We entered looking for Arrowhead, and found fresh tracks of her and the cubs, with the resident male, a minute into the park. She had scavenged a sambhar kill from a leopard and having polished it off with her mate, she had led her cubs into an area which was out of bounds for tourists. And we pushed off to find her mother, T19 or Krishna, another favourite for us.


Krishna, daughter of the legendary Machali, occupies a large territory in the hilly regions of Zone 4 in Ranthambhore. This makes her particularly difficult to find at times. And this time we found fresh tracks of the entire family on the main road and they seemed to head in every direction, so we started with her usual haunts, the valleys of Semli and Bhakola, both of which were empty. Bemused, we came back onto the main road and headed into one of the side paths which look down upon a rocky valley. Here, we were joined by a few other vehicles as we all looked high and low for this family. And then one driver spotted them in a valley further down and we all headed there to get closer. We got there in time to see the two male cubs cross over a nallah into thicker shrub. The female cub sat under a bush, enjoying the attention while mother Krishna sat and groomed herself. And then they all disappeared out of sight. And then all the vehicles began a game of 'where will they emerge?' as they all dispersed to the location of their choice. We stayed put to try and sense some activity and then Rajesh recommended that we head to the Adi Dagar valley. 


Adi Dagar is a beautiful valley, characterised by an almost sheer rock face and a green pool under it. And every time we drive down into the valley, we pray for a tiger in the green water. Like most times, this time too there was no luck. For, the luck was sitting a few metres higher!  On a ledge in the rocks, sat the majestic form of Krishna. Sitting there, she looked so much like her legendary mother, Machali and that too in her mother's favourite spot! It was a special half hour that we spent with her, and reluctantly we left to head to other parts of the park. And the next special sighting was not a tiger but a banyan tree full of fruit bats, thousands of them resting in the mid-morning heat. While the tiger always occupies pride of place in the pantheon, it is even more special at times to see other less celebrated, but equally important animals that make up the circle of life. And saying another goodbye, we headed back to the gate to pick up our lunch and head back to the other parts of the park.


We were back in Zone 2, said a quick hello to the sleeping forms of Noor and Noorie, and headed to the far reaches of the Guda area to look for T60, her single cub and the hulk T57, the dominant male. T60 had made a kill when the male came and appropriated her hard won meal. And he'd apparently polished off the bulk of the carcass and sauntered away while the poor lady had to scrap with the leftovers. We hovered around the kill till a jeep came up and said that mother and cub were in a nearby waterhole till a few minutes ago. After a quick check at the waterhole, Rajesh estimated that with the male gone, the tigress might come back to the kill. And as we came back, our driver Kantar saw the tigress sitting under a tree near the road with her little cub pottering around. We silently moved out of their field of vision and waited for them to cross the road to the kill. And at that very moment, another vehicle approached from the opposite side. We frantically motioned them to stop and to their credit they did so at once. But even that had spooked the little cub and it scampered back into thick bush with a despairing (and I daresay very hungry) mother following it.



It took a while for the tigress to coax her cub back towards the kill and by that time there were 4 vehicles on the road, all at a respectable distance to give them the room to access the kill. The mother sauntered across but the little cub showed its nervousness by dashing across the road to sit near the kill. And that for us, was enough; we didn't want to hang around and cause even a little discomfort to them so we decided to go further and see if we could track the male. We drove a few minutes to the Gandhra waterhole, a natural pool with a mound of earth around it, so one really has to drive up to the mouth of the pool to see inside. I had no hopes whatsoever but as the water came into view, so did a large and very 'stuffed' male tiger; his lordship T57, recent purloiner of a sambhar kill.



He looked very, very uncomfortable after such a large meal on a scorching hot day and he evidently hoped immersing his stomach in water would help digest his whopping meal. And even with the afternoon sun directly beating down on him, he did not move for the next 3 or so hours. We stayed with him in the vain hope that he would come out and walk for us but all he did was to stay jaw-deep in the muddy waterhole. We left him to his recovery and drove back to look for Noorie; we saw her in wonderful light and a full stomach and got some decent pictures. Then we looked for Noor and saw her still supine in the exact place we'd seen her earlier. She had been virtually immobile for 2 days now and we were a bit worried about her, especially given she'd had a fight with T57 (thankfully she was OK the next day, much to everyone's relief) We closed an epic full-day safari (10 tigers!) on the banks of the Rajbagh lake where the resident male T86 gave us a distant and uninspiring sighting but a small flock of Indian Skimmers more than made up for that with a superb flypast. Seeing Skimmers in Ranthambhore in the middle of summer was unusual and hence special, to say the least. 


Day 3 - Blanks on Zone 6, redemption on Zone 1.



The safari after a full-day is always a bit of an anticlimax and our trip to Zone 6 the following morning was the only one where we didn't get a tiger. There were 5 tigers in the zone but none was willing to appear for us, and only a solitary sloth bear provided us with a sighter. The morning's highlight was excellent samosas and kachoris at Porwal Kachori house in Sawai Madhopur town. The afternoon (One Zone 1) provided a tiger in the form of Sultana (another of Noor's daughters) who we spotted on a wooded hillside. She spent the full afternoon giving us false hopes and finally emerged just before departure time. Thanks to an overenthusiastic jeep she took a detour to the waterhole instead of passing right through the gap (that we had thoughtfully provided) much to our chagrin. Sometimes the best laid plans are ruined by less-intelligent mortals! Life.


Day 4 - Half Day. Full value

The last day began with a surprise for my daughter. She thought we were headed to Zone 10, but we'd sneakily booked a half-day safari. The goal was to spend more time with Krishna and her cubs. After a quick check for Arrowhead (absent) we headed again to Adi Dagar. While the tigers (again) weren't in the green water, we saw the male cubs in a valley from the lookout point. The two brothers were bathed in brilliant light as we got some satisfactory, if distant photos. And as they headed into cover, we moved forward to the Berda valley to check for the others. There was no tiger in the valley but we saw male pugmarks and remnants of a porcupine kill - quills and some blood. We followed the pugmarks, hoping it would be the dominant male T74 but lost them after a bit. And we were at a loose end, wondering what to do...


In forests, things can change in an instant. One moment, we were wandering about hopefully and slightly aimlessly, and the next moment we had a tiger in front of us. As we rounded a bend near the Semli valley, two parked jeeps were staring into a nala. And as we got there, a tigress stepped out, walked towards us and crossed the road right in front of us. It was Shakti, Krishna's daughter! She gave us a wonderful few minutes and wandered off to spend the day in more peaceful surrounds, no doubt. She is the most independent of the litter; her brothers stay much closer to mum. 


Buoyed by this unexpected gift, we drove into Semli and our driver Himmatji said "tiger" and in a bush right next to the road sat a male tiger. Again I hoped it was T74 but it turned out to be 'Blue Eyes' or T104, recently radio collared after an unfortunate encounter with a villager. He eventually got up, walked about and then climbed into a cave where we got some good eye-level shots. And then we left him to enjoy his snooze and headed back to Rajbagh where we had our breakfast on the banks of the beautiful lake. We still had time to head to Zone 2 to check for the local residents, but none seemed in attendance and we left the forest at noon, with 5 tigers under our belt.


Day 4 Afternoon - Beaten by a smarter adversary


The afternoon was supposed to be reserved for rest, but Hemraj brought news of a tigress with a kill in Zone 10. Naturally all thoughts of a rest were shelved and we proceeded with little reservation, this time with a local expert, Mukesh. We entered the zone harbouring thoughts of spending three hours clicking a tiger eating a kill. But the cunning feline took us for an almighty ride. Till the time we left, she didn't even come near the kill. We saw her a couple of times as she came for a drink but that was all. I'm sure she laughed till her stomach ached at how she outwitted these silly humans.

Later that evening, on our comfortable coach in the August Kranti Rajdhani, we reflected on that as well as on yet another spectacular trip to the home of tigers. We came home with 16 different tigers this time, including special sightings of 3 new cubs. And with hopes of Krishna, Noor and Laadli producing their next litters in the coming months, the next season promises to be very very exciting indeed.

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 9:45 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 hour journey on largely good roads.


Stay

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


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) 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, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.


At the mid-level, the Ranthambhore Regency is a superb option. It is comfortable, offers facilities like a pool and a bar and has some awesome food. And the hospitality of the Jains is incomparable.(www.ranthambhor.com). Another great option is Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)


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


Safaris

Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (https://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in/


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


In addition to morning and afternoon safaris, you can also do half and full days in the forest, though it is restricted to very few vehicles. If you're up for it, they're well worth


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.


There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.


Other Tips

Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.


The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 


While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!


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