Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Nalsarovar (Jan 2021) - Loose the Goose, Love the Dove


Nalsarovar, near Ahmedabad is a place very close to my heart. Not just because it's a super birding spot, but it also is home to some of the most wonderful people - chief among them being the awesome Latif bhai. Latif and his band of fellow naturalist-guides conjure up some incredible rarities and with unfailing regularity. There's hardly a month that goes by without them coming up with some crazy species or another. And we had ended a super Gujarat trip in Nalsarovar late in December,  got back home and just about caught our breath when he called to say they'd found a Red-breasted Goose! I hadn't even heard of this bird to be honest, much less expect to see it in India. But the first reaction was to not twitch. So we sat back and waited for a few weeks.

And then he called to say the Namaqua Dove was back. Now Goose by itself was maybe too much, but throw in another rarity plus the possibility of some other special species and the odds (temptation?) were at a different level. And so, Sriram and I harnessed the steed once again and drove out one Friday afternoon. We reached our resort a little after midnight, this was a new place with decent rooms, but other challenges as we would soon find out. After a few hours sleep, we woke up to Latif calling to ask us to come over to the usual meeting point - the tea shop near the entry to Nalsarovar Lake. But as we got into the car, we were enveloped in super-dense fog! It made the 7kms to the tea shop a 20 min ordeal. And over a cup of tea we waited for the fog to lift so we could search for our friend, the Goose. 

The fog, it hung about like an unwanted guest at a wedding, always around and impossible to shake off. It lifted a little and Latif took us to this place to see a pair of Red-necked Falcons from the terrace of an under-construction building. We saw the falcons all right, but the light (and hence the photos) were really poor. So we had no other option but to wait till the fog lifted. Which it did around 10 a.m. and we headed straight to a nearby dam where they'd seen the Goose a couple of days earlier. We searched the whole morning but within the flocks of Bar-headed and Greylag Geese, there were some Greater White-fronted but no Red-breasted Goose. But just after noon, we got some news. Another photographer had found the Goose, but within the far reaches of Nalsarovar Lake. And we all quickly headed there, having forsaken breakfast and now lunch!

We hurriedly got into the rowboats and rowed all around, for nearly three hours before we ran into another set of birders who'd just arrived. Apparently, they'd caught a glimpse of the Goose flying away just a few minutes earlier, from the only island that we had not yet checked. That's wildlife, and we shrugged it off as the luck of the draw. But later we learnt that the Goose had been originally spotted and photographed much earlier that morning by the original party and it had been on that island for more than 4-5 hours while we had been searching for it in the fields and dam. This group had not only withheld the information from the rest of the bunch for hours, they'd even misled Latif on their own location; saying they were searching for the bird in the fields while they were photographing it within the lake. It was shocking for all of us; birding is a very community-driven passion and most birders will go to great lengths to help one another. Just not cricket, we all thought!

We headed back to our hotel for our first meal of the day- dinner! At Khodiyar dhaba, over a lovely thali, we continued our bonding with fellow boat passengers Sriram (another one) Sushma, Pramod and Pranav - awesome birders, lovely people and much fun to be around with. What we missed out on the bird, we more than made up with some fantastic new friends. Latif and his brother Kamruddin were clearly upset still, with the photographer who'd withheld the information but more so with his guide, who was one of them. They took it very personally, and we had to really calm them down. We still had another day to find the Goose (and the Namaqua, who we'd missed because we spent the whole afternoon on the boat) And so we set out at first light the next day (mercifully no fog that morning)

We spent a few hours combing the entire area but no Goose. Instead, we got some lovely sightings of the Common Ringed Plover, Common Starlings, Pacific Golden Plovers and Dalmatian Pelicans. Not to mention an insanely beautiful sunrise from the boat! All in all, no Goose but a beautiful morning nevertheless. We headed back out, had a nice meal (at Khodiyar, where else?) and went looking for the Namaqua in the thorn forest. Along with at least 30 other people, some of whom were coming often for that bird. Latif said the bird usually comes to feed around 4 p.m. and we waited in the shade. But our friend was seemingly hungrier so he arrived at 3:30 itself. And then the entire throng was treated to a lovely little ritual. Which went somewhat like this.

The Dove flew straight into a large thorn bush while his assembled admirers waited about 50 metres away. he then hopped to the ground and started feeding in the shade around the bush. At that time, the paparazzi slowing crawled, wriggled, waddled (call it what you will) in a stealthy phalanx of camera equipment, till we all lay face down on the mud path about 15 metres away from the bush. Our friend hopped onto the road, we got a few photos, he hopped back onto the bush and we all backed off to our original positions. Only to repeat the whole process in fifteen minutes. The guides, led by Latif and Kamruddin, took great pains to keep the throng at respectful distance to ensure the bird was not disturbed. And so, at the second attempt, we all got some decent photos. And Sriram, our three new friends and me backed off, happy with our stash! We'd seen one of the rarest birds to arrive on Indian shores in recent years and a sighter of this stunning bird made me really happy.

And so, with a 580km drive to complete, we bid adieu to Latif and our new friends wished them luck (for they were staying another day) and drove back peacefully home, reassured in the confidence that it was only a matter of time before Latif conjured up something spectacular. 

This time, we missed out on one rarity but got the other. And made some great new friends in the process. Not so bad, is it now?

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.

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

Where to stay
There are a few places to stay in Nalsarovar and a couple of new ones coming up. Latif can help you with your stay arrangements.

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. For a meal Khodiyar is 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.














Monday, March 29, 2021

Gujarat (Dec 2020) - Rekindling the drive for Birding




December 2020 brought with a little more than good weather. It also brought some hope and rekindled the desire to travel, albeit with some trepidation. After much thought Sriram, Vishnu and I decided to do a birding road trip to Gujarat - Nalsarovar, Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann were all on the menu. It was exciting on two counts - a birding trip plus the prospect of a long drive, something I have not done in a while. And so, one December evening, we set out, with a loaded car and lots of hope. Our first destination would be a pit-stop at Nalsarovar before heading to the Great Rann.


Mumbai- Ahmedabad - Nalsarovar (580kms)
We drove through the night, a pleasant enough drive (except for trucks driving in the wrong lane) and just when we thought we were home, Google maps took us on a slight detour through Ahmedabad. What's wrong with that, you might ask? Normally nothing, but at this time Ahmedabad was on a 11p.m. - 6 a.m. COVID-19 induced curfew. And we ran into a check-post. And the policemen diligently first did a check for alcohol (Gujarat is a dry state) and then, not finding any, gave us a talking to (and a fine) for breaking the curfew. We apologised and said we had no intention of entering Ahmedabad if it wasn't for a map detour. They kindly let us go, with the right directions this time, and we reached Nalsarovar early that morning. I was looking forward to meeting the super-nice Latif bhai; and doing a bit of birding with him after a year almost.

Latif arrived at our hotel at daybreak and immediately took us to some fields about 30kms away. The target - Sociable Lapwings. These rare birds, who otherwise arrive in winter in stray numbers, have taken a shine to the Nalsarovar area. Last year, Latif found more than 300 birds there (a staggering number if you realise that their total estimated global numbers are around 11-15,000) This time, there were more than 50 birds when we got there and a pleasant morning was spent photographing some of these wonderful birds. That plus a few other species for Vishnu and Sriram and were on our way to the Great Rann of Kutch. To arrive there at Bharat Kapdi's lovely Epicenter Homestay in time for a late lunch and an afternoon birding session. Or so we thought.

Nalsarovar- Lodai (300 kms)
Gujarat is known and lauded (justifiably most times) for its excellent roads. We were chugging along at a decent rate, looking forward to our afternoon birding and a gigantic crater appeared without warning in the middle of the road; both right side wheels crunched straight in. The car emerged with a shredded right front tyre and an air bubble in the back one. The bigger worry - the wheel wasn't coming off, despite all our efforts. We were in the middle of a highway, with only trucks for company, the mobile network was poor and Kia service, while very responsive, didn't have anyone within access for miles. We were scratching our heads for nearly 2 hours, wondering what to do, when a couple of highway patrol guys pulled up. Our guardian angels! One of them walked up, gave the wheel an almighty kick and it came loose. Hallelujah! Problem solved, we quickly put on the spare and drove to Bhuj to buy replacements. It meant the end of birding plans for that afternoon but hey, we were back in business!

We reached Bharat late in the evening and the wonderful guy that he is, promptly took us around to see Nightjars. And he found us an Indian and a Sykes' Nightjar within a couple of hundred metres from his place. That, plus a sumptuous dinner made the day slightly more bearable. The next morning, we finally kick started our Rann safari with a super morning drive in the Eastern Banni grasslands. We started with a lovely male Pallid Harrier, scouted the resident Stoliczka's Bushchat and then hit pay dirt with a small flock of Spotted Sandgrouse. These beautiful birds are not very common and Bharat hadn't seen them for a few weeks. They were just waking up when we came across them, and we spent a very pleasant few minutes watching and photographing them. A couple of MacQueen's Bustards flew past and landed in the distance, but we only got to view them through our binoculars.

Greater Hoopoe Lark
We searched and searched for one more key target - the Greater Hoopoe Lark, a very important bird for me. We had a couple of false alarms with Crested Larks with seemingly large bills but the Hoopoes seemed elusive. Bharat scanned every square inch of their favourite areas with no avail. But give up, he did not. While we had breakfast, he wolfed down a couple of bites and continued to search through his glasses. And then, to much joy (ours) he proclaimed - Hoopoe Lark! We played a bit of hide and seek with a couple of birds, who let us get close enough for passable photos. And a major lifer was found! We finished the morning in high spirits and then it was time for us to leave Bharat and head towards Jugal Tiwari's place.

Jugal bhai is a local legend. His CEDO Foundation does a ton of good work in the Rann and around and he is a birding master of the area. It was a privilege to reacquaint with him and go birding again in his company. We spent a lovely afternoon in Banni, picking up Red Collared Doves, Painted Sandgrouse, Spoonbills, a majestic Imperial Eagle and a lovely Rann sunset. We were looking for White Stork (lifer for me) which were seen in a local pond but they didn't make an appearance. The next day we went looking for some local endemics in the Kot Mahadev thorn forests, this time with Vaibhav Mishra, Jugal bhai's brother-in-law and a master birder himself. We photographed the local White-naped Tit and Marshall's Iora and an Orphean Warbler made an appearance but refused a photo-op. And that wrapped up a lovely morning.

That afternoon, we headed back to find another rarity - they Grey Hypocolius. This migratory bird, once seen in good numbers in winter, has seen a decline in numbers due to its favourite feeding trees being cut down. After much searching and some inspired spotting by Vaibhav, we managed to see three individuals, earning Sriram and Vishnu a coveted lifer. And we came back to Banni the next morning to get some Long-legged Buzzards, Montagu's Harrier and another Imperial Eagle. And then, we hit the same pond looking for White Storks and found them! There were three of them on the far side of the pond and we gingerly made our way around. We got some decent sighters and a couple of flight shots before we wrapped up a super trip to the Great Rann of Kutch. It was time to visit its Little sibling.

Nakhatrana to Patdi (308 kms)
We cut short our GRK trip by one day to ensure we drove back by daylight. The tyre episode had scarred us more than a little and we wanted to make the return journey in daylight. We had an uneventful drive to Patdi, our base to visit the Little Rann of Kutch. The next morning we were joined by Latif and Rahul, the local expert and we set out to find the male Merlin who'd been the toast of social media for a few weeks. And if not him, then the local Peregrine Falcon or Short Eared Owl for sure. And, unbelievably, we drew a total blank. Apart from a herd of Wild Asses, we got nothing! With a shrug we moved back to the hotel for lunch, to give it another try in the afternoon.  And after an hour of nothingness, we finally found the Merlin. And boy did he put on a show!

He first perched kindly for a portfolio picture. And then he got to work. From a vantage point, he scanned the area for prey and then he was off like a shot, chasing a Short-toed Lark. He missed. He sat again, looked around and was off again. Another miss! A third time, with more purpose; he went after the Lark like he meant business. And this time he brought it down. And settled down for his hard won meal. And in the process, we got some decent frames. We let him go after that and sat back to enjoy the sunset. And saw a herd of Wild Asses frolic about in the late winter sun. And then we were off to Nalsarovar.

Patdi to Nalsarovar (80kms)
The targets at Nalsarovar were the Greater White-fronted Geese and the Barbary Falcon. We saw the geese from within a flock of a few thousand Greylag geese. How Latif and his fellow guides find these birds is truly incredible. We then drove around, got some lovely Bar-headed Geese, Greater and Indian Spotted Eagles, Red-headed Buntings and those pretty little Parkini Sparrows. A Greater Spotted Eagle and Short-eared Owl also added to the collection. But the highlight of the day was a wonderful lunch with Latif and his family. Cooked by his mother and wife, it was one incredible meal. And after that, the afternoon session felt even better, though we didn't see any of our targets.

And with that we closed an epic trip across Gujarat. Good friends, great birding, fantastic people and amazing food. Does it get any better?

It did!! Amur falcons next on the menu!

Trip Guide

Gujarat is a fantastic birding destination, with so many different species and habitats. I'll go over each one in turn

Nalsarovar Lake

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
There are a few resorts now in Nalsarovar. Your guide can help you choose one.

Naturalists

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
There aren't too many snacky places to eat so you're better off carrying stuff to munch. But for meals, the Khodiyar dhaba is unbeatable. Simple, tasty vegetarian thali... just thinking about the food makes the mouth water

Great Rann of Kutch

How to get there
Bhuj is the nearest airport and rail head. (Also connected by decent (see the post above!) roads to Ahmedabad (330kms)

Naturalists and Stay

GRK, as its called, has two amazing naturalists and they both have lovely places to stay in.

Jugal Tiwari is the legend, the veteran of the place. His CEDO homestay is very comfortable with the most amazing food. And what he doesn't know about the Rann is probably not worth knowing. You can reach him on cedoindia@yahoo.com

Bharat Kapdi is the recent entrant and an amazing birder. He was inspired by Jugal bhai and considers him a mentor. He finds the most incredible species! And his Epicenter Homestay is a lovely place set in a superb location. And the food, needless to say, is awesome! You can reach him on +919925313696


Little Rann of Kutch

How to get there
LRK is less than 80kms from Ahmedabad, the closest metro, airport and major rail head. The closest railway station is Viramgam (23kms away)

Naturalists
Latif also does LRK trips and he usually teams up with local expert Rahul (+91 8200892538)

Stay
We stayed in Vishal Guest house in Patdi. Largely clean and comfortable, nothing to complain about.

Food
There are a few restaurants around Vishal Guest House, including HonesT, one of Gujarat's leading fast food chains. It's decent, reliable food and you can't go wrong picking it.






Sunday, February 7, 2021

Lonavala (Dec 2020) - 'Amour' Falcon


The Amur Falcon. Spectacularly beautiful. Highly coveted by birders. Sighted near Mumbai. Can it get any better?

The Amur is one of nature's greatest travelers. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of these beautiful birds depart from their breeding grounds in Russia and China to spend the next few months in Southern Africa. On the way, they take a pit stop in the North East of India, especially around Nagaland's Doyang Reservoir to refuel for the long flight onwards. And then some of them take another brief stop across India's Western and Southern coasts. And this time it was the turn of an otherwise nondescript dam in Lonavala, an otherwise buzzing hill station near Mumbai.

For any birder, the Amur Falcon is highly coveted, not least because of this legendary winter migration. It has also been in the news for the incredible conservation story from Nagaland where they went from being hunted in the thousands to becoming a valued guest for the locals. The fact that it is an absolutely gorgeous bird might also have something to do with its star status. And while there were annual sightings around Mumbai, this one was special. Late December, the birding community in Western India was ablaze with reports of a flock of Amurs at the backwaters of the Tata Dam in Lonavala. Unlike other sightings, these birds seemed settled there and were feeding and reasonably unaffected by humans nearby. 


We were birding in Kutch when these reports  came in and given we had a few days to go there, the chances of us getting the Amurs seemed rather slim. But our hopes rose with the daily reports (and rather stunning photos) that meant that the birds were staying for a bit. And so, we drove straight from Gujarat to Lonavala on the penultimate day of 2020. Arriving at the dam, we had plenty of company with several cars and their attendant birdwatchers. Some people were coming daily, such was the lure of these birds. We got into the act right away with a sighting of a beautiful female Amur. She obliged us (and all the other photographers) with some lovely photos and then we left the throng to look for the male. 

The male (those more informed told us) was a late visitor. Probably not a morning person! And even as we waited for him, we drove to the other side of the lake to check if we find something else. And on a tree, Sriram picked out a raptor. Looked like a Peregrine Falcon and we set up our cameras to get some (distant) photos. And the results were a quite puzzling - the bird didn't look like a Peregrine or a Shaheen. And the only logical option seemed quite outlandish - surely it couldn't be a Barbary Falcon (Red-naped Shaheen)!! If yes, it would be the first record for the area and even for our state! 


A couple of photos were taken and sent off to Latif Alvani, expert on all things Barbary. We'd been with him the previous few days, searching in vain for the Barbary in Nalsarovar. And he promptly called with 'Where did you find this?' I knew then that we had our Barbary. And we shot a few frames before the subject decided he had elsewhere to go and flew away before we could let anyone else know about this sighting. He was never seen again.


Back to the Amurs and the male had apparently landed to great fanfare but apparently, his highness had just legged it. And so we wait, with a bit of anxiety since an Amur could choose to exit to Africa anytime! But then some cars reported a sighting at the far side of the dam and we drove slowly there to check. And there he was, posing on a rock in all his glory! We clicked a few photos and then he decided the light was too harsh. And promptly flew off into some shade. We got Malabar Larks, Paddyfield Pipits and a couple of Red-naped Ibis. And then we took a short break for a meal, aiming to get a few more photos over the afternoon. And it was a lovely meal of spicy misal and piping hot batata vadas, good enough to satiate the soul.


We got back after lunch to find our fellow paparazzi lying face down, busily shooting something on the ground. It was Mr. Amur! We joined them in taking a few photos, as he busily fed on some insects in the grass. He posed this way and that, evidently enjoying being the spotlight. And then we'd had our fill. We let the other get on with their business and drove off. En route a couple of beautiful Lesser Kestrels gave us an audience. These birds were the stars of the show in Lonavala the previous season, but their Amur cousins had hijacked the stage this year. Darlings that they were, they seemed to show no jealousy as they went about their feeding, graciously allowing the Amurs to share their feeding grounds.

And there we were. Some awesome sightings and photographs of one of the most spectacular birds in India!

Post Script: Sadly, the Tata Dam has now been closed to photographers by the Dam owners and Forest Department. They're worried about the damage caused to the habitat by jeeps crisscrossing the backwaters, and also about the disturbance to the birds by the paparazzi. 


Lonavala Trip Guide

Lonavala is a bustling hill-station, virtually equidistant from Mumbai and Pune (around 80 and 65 kms respectively) Nestled in the Western Ghats, it was once idyllic and peaceful. Rampant construction has made it less so and it is now a hill station only in the rains and for a bit in winter.

Getting there:

Lonavala is easily accessible by road from both Mumbai and Pune ( the nearest airports) It is an important station on the Mumbai-Pune rail line.

The Tata Dam is located within Lonavala and is used in for power generation. In winter, as the water dries out, the backwaters of the dam provide succour for a variety of bird species including some raptors who come to feed on the insects in the grass.

Stay:

There are many places to stay in Lonavala, from budget through to luxury. Easily done as a day trip from Mumbai, I don't really have any recommendations for birders to stay there. But a quick exploration on tripadvisor can throw up many options.



Other attractions:

Lonavala is legendary for its chikki (brittle) and shops in the main market will offer a mind-boggling variety. Maganlal is the 'original' brand but there are now many Maganlal stores in the market. You won't go wrong with most of them. You can also get the famous chocolate fudge from Coopers in the market. 



Monday, January 11, 2021

Pench (Dec 2020) - The Queen Mother grants an audience



It's always a privilege to meet with a legend, human or otherwise. And in the animal (especially tiger) world, Collarwali (or Mataram) is as legendary as they come. Through her 15-year life she has produced an incredible 29 cubs, most of whom she has nurtured through to adulthood, including one litter of 5 cubs! That is an insane record, given that half that number would be considered a fantastic achievement. She is born into a fantastic gene pool, daughter of the celebrated Badi Mada and has featured as one of the four cubs in the fantastic documentary Tiger: Spy in the Jungle, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

In a year devoid of wildlife, this trip to Pench was very, very much looked forward to, for the whole family. But the first flight since February 2020 was not without some nerves, such has been the impact of that-virus-that-shall-not-be-named-here. The short flight to Nagpur was followed by a comfortable drive to Pugdundee Resorts' stunning Pench Tree House. The beautiful property and an outstanding lunch erased all the nerves and we were all set to hit the forest. I've seen at least one tiger every year since 2002 so was all the more keen to ensure the run continued. And Collarwali was a particular quest, since at 15, she's in the twilight years of her remarkable reign as Pench's undisputed Queen.

We were led into the forest by Gaurav Dhotre, the property's head naturalist, very knowledgeable with Pench's topography and residents, tigers and otherwise. Over the next four days, he not only ensured we saw what we came to see and more, he also provided so much insight into the forest itself. Wildlife trips are made (or unmade) by naturalists and we were fortunate to have had Gaurav with us. Our first safari produced a 'near-miss' - a tigress named Langdi had been spotted sitting next to the road by a couple of jeeps but by the time we got there, she'd descended into a nearby nallah for an afternoon snooze. No sighting, but the excitement of the tracking and the sheer joy at being in the forest more than made up.

We spent the next three safaris chasing shadows. We heard that Collarwali had had a fight with a male tiger a couple of days earlier and she was probably nursing her wounds (ego?) So while we heard plenty of alarm calls in her territory, we saw nothing. There were stray sightings of a couple of other tigers but nothing that we could get a handle on. Gaurav tried his best, covering every tiger territory meticulously, but the tiger gods were not smiling. The jackals more than made up with some beautiful sightings, particularly one of a pair, very close to the road. These and some beautiful bird species (including some lovely sightings of Malabar Pied Hornbills)

On our fourth safari, we were heading again towards Collarwali's Alikatta area when we heard frantic alarm calls at one spot. Unlike earlier calls, these were urgent and close by. Adrenaline levels shot up almost immediately, at the prospect of a sighting and we kept our eyes peeled for any movement in the bush. And then we saw it! A leopard, walking straight out of the bush. He saw us, froze and promptly went back in. Then we saw him walk backwards, just keeping within sight. And then about 50 feet from us, he crossed the road in brilliant light. To see his golden coat with those gorgeous rosettes was just mesmerising. He didn't give us time for any photos as he disappeared into the undergrowth but he kept the whole jeep throng on tenterhooks as the spotted deer alarm calls rang out for nearly 20 minutes. He was obviously on the move, maybe late for a date! That sighting really lifted our big-cat hungry appetites and we were determined to be back for stripes!

The following morning saw frantic alarm calls very near our entry gate (Karmajhiri) but no sighting. It was apparently a male tiger who emerged much later, blessing a jeep of latecomers with a bonus sighting. It pays to be late at times, obviously! We plodded on, towards the Queen Mother's territory but apart from a lovely sighting of Indian Gaur right next to the road, the only highlight seemed to be the hot potato bondas at the Alikatta Camp. And as we gave up and headed back towards our gate, three canine forms appeared in the shade under the teak tree canopy. Wild Dogs!

The Asiatic Wild Dog or Dhole is one of my favourite animals. These beautiful (but lethal) carnivores are the finest hunters in the Indian forests and their declining numbers makes every sighting precious. This was a pack of 3 males, evidently cast away from their home pack and looking to further their own destinies. We spent a lovely half hour with this stag party before we had to head back to our gate. We'd now had Leopard and Wild Dog. Stripes would complete the big carnivore list for our trip and we had two more throws of the dice. The penultimate safari also threw up nothing special, so we were left with just one safari, and it had to be a truncated one because we had a flight to catch.


The final safari and as we got into the jeep, Gaurav said "We're going to see a tiger today. Naturalist's intuition". And once again, we headed in search of the Queen Mother. The mandatory alarm calls on the way were all false promises as we drove into her domain. And for once, we saw evidence.... Gaurav found fresh tiger pugmarks on the road leading to Alikatta. She was on the move and that was only good news. We hovered with other attendant vehicles on the main Alikatta road, till a Spotted Deer alarm call took us towards another group of jeeps. And then she emerged, like the Queen she is, walking through the grass in beautiful light. She stopped, turned and roared, maybe trying to coax her partner into providing a sighting too. But he probably wasn't in the mood, so she turned with a resigned shrug, sprayed a tree and walked up and crossed the road. There were many jeeps there, all at a respectful distance with all the humans awed into silence as the Queen Mother walked by. 

She crossed over into the bushes on the other side and kept roaring but her mate wasn't interested. And we decided to move on and have breakfast, easily the best one of the trip and one of the best of the whole year. We had finally broken our duck! We had seen one of the legends of the Indian forests and at 15, she was still mating. With a fervent hope for one more litter from this awe-inspiring tigress. May her tribe increase!

And so, 2020 ended with a tiger sighting! The 18-year record stays strong. Here's to more in 2021.

Pench Trip Guide

Pench (or Indira Priyadarshini) Tiger Reserve is spread across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (MP). The MP side has more places to stay and tourism is more developed here. The Maharashtra side has opened up for tourism less than a decade ago and is catching up really quickly in terms of sightings. We visited the MP part of Pench.

Pench MP has three gates, Turia (where most resorts are located) Karmajhiri (where we stayed) and Jamtara. 

Getting there

Pench is a couple of hours from Nagpur (slightly more for Karmajhiri and Jamtara) which is the closest airport and major rail head. Nagpur is reasonably well connected with most cities in India via rail and air.

Your hotel can arrange pickups from Nagpur station and airport else there are many good travel companies based out of Nagpur as well.

Safaris

You can book safaris on forest.mponline.gov.in or ask your hotel to book for you. Please carry original IDs when you visit the forest, these get checked when you enter the park.

I recommend that you do at least 4 safaris (combination of morning and evening) to maximise your chances of sighting.

Places to stay

Pench MP will have you spoilt for choice when it comes to places to stay, from full-on luxury to more affordable places. Earlier, at Turia, I have stayed at Pench Jungle Camp and Tuli Tiger Corridor - both excellent places to stay.

This time we stayed in Karmajhiri, at the wonderful Pench Tree House. This 12 room property is set about 14 kms from Karmajhiri gate. It has 6 cottages and 6 tree houses. We stayed in the latter and it was really well done, apart from the novelty of being surrounded by tree branches. The people are wonderful, the hospitality is excellent and I have already spoken about Gaurav. But what is insanely wonderful about this property is the food - it is all local cuisine, with the freshest of ingredients (some grown on their own organic farm) Every meal had us promising to eat less the next time around, only to gorge ourselves silly!

Other tips

Pench can get really cold in winter, so do pack in jackets and woollens. 

The park is very strict about enforcing COVID regulations, so a face mask is mandatory.

It can also get quite dusty, so the mask may also help keep dust away.

If you plan to stay in Turia, the Maharashtra gates are also accessible, so do try and book a safari or two in the Khursapar range in Maharashtra





 



Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Picture and a Story #2 - Magic at Bhakola



For me, this will always be 'The Sighting'.

My first tiger in the wild was in Ranthambhore in March 2002, a tigress known as the Bhakola female, after the area where she resided. The first time, it was just a glimpse and a few ordinary photos. Later that summer, I made another trip, this time with my best friends in tow. Alighting from the train, we were met by a fresh-faced naturalist named Hemraj Meena. It was our first meeting with this amazing person, and that relationship would grow from strength to strength over the next (almost) two decades.

Back to the tigers, and Hemraj led us straight to the Bhakola area where we caught a brief glimpse of the tigress. That evening, she and her little cubs played hide and seek with us through the thick vegetation that surrounds the Bhakola stream. They would come out and pose for a bit, before disappearing into the shrubbery. We loved it, but it wasn't 'all there' as a sighting. Yearning for more the next morning, we headed back to Bhakola. Only to find it completely deserted. Not a stripe or pug-mark to be seen or an alarm call to be heard. It was almost like the entire family had disappeared into thin air overnight!

Disappointed, we drove a bit further before Hemraj asked the driver to stop at one spot. 'We'll wait', he said. And we did for a while, before the driver's patience started to wear thin. 'Kahin aur chalte hain (Let's go elsewhere)', he said. But Hemraj was unyielding. Ten more minutes and the driver started to get agitated. 'Yahan tiger nahi hai (There's no tiger here)' he proclaimed to which Hemraj replied 'Tiger yahin hai. Vo rahi' (The tiger is very much here. There she is) And as if by magic, the tigress walked out of the bushes ten metres behind our jeep!

And she walked with us for nearly half an hour. It was just us and her. She then reached the Bhakola valley, sat in the middle of the road and started calling her cubs. At first her calls were soft and gentle, but when no cubs appeared, they got increasingly urgent and agitated. Not to mention louder. Her angry roars were reverberating all over the rocky valley when finally, four little bundles of fur bounded out of the shrubbery and hurtled towards their mother. We could almost sense the relief in her as she saw her cubs. But as they neared her, she turned away from them and started to walk away, as if in a show of temper. Two of them ran up to her, nuzzled against her, almost in apology and gambolled around her till she slowed down. 

The other two cubs lingered behind, busily sniffing at some bushes. Best to let the first two bear the brunt of mom's anger! Finally assuaged, Mom walked for a bit with the first two cubs (which is when I got this picture) while the other two caught up. The whole family then descended into a waterhole for a drink and a dip. Mom got out first and then made one little call; this time the cubs stopped their splashing were now out in a flash! The whole family quickly disappeared into the bush right behind the water, leaving six new-found fans absolutely spellbound! This was one of the most magical sightings of my life then, and nearly two decades on, it remains as magical. And all thanks to the incredible skills of Hemraj... how he conjured up the tigress is still beyond me!

Every single year after that, every time I pass through the beautiful Bhakola valley, I always play out that sighting in my mind. I've seen a few tigers in Bhakola over the years, but that sighting remains top of the list. And something tells me that's not going to change for a while. Surprise me, Bhakola!




Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Picture and a Story #1 - Krishna and Arrowhead


It was the summer of 2014 and Ranthambhore's Zone 3 (the prime lake area) had a new queen - Krishna (T19) daughter of the great Machali. Krishna had grown up in these parts but then was banished (along with their mother) by her more aggressive sister Sundari (T17) In a twist of fate, Sundari was forced to abandon her hard-won territory and quiet, unassuming Krishna eased back to inherit her mother's throne.

A few months on and she cemented her reign by giving birth to a litter of four cubs; three of them survived. And one hot May day, I descended on Ranthambhore with my own offspring, a hurried trip put together at her insistence. Luckily, our first safari was in Zone 3 and we went in, knowing that the cubs were holed up in the bushes near the Padam Talao (lake) next to a little water hole. They wouldn't come out without mom around and Her Majesty was on a hunt. And so we waited. And waited. And then realised that our jeep had a broken fan belt. Panic reigned for a bit; but a kindly forest official who was nearby radioed for a replacement. It helped that we were only 5 minutes from the gate. And we set out, only to be summoned back urgently. The Queen was arriving....

Broken fan-belt or not, we hobbled back into attendance and held our breaths as Krishna appeared at a distance behind us. She was breathtaking, regal in her majesty. And she slowly made her way to us, softly(almost inaudibly) calling her cubs with a gentle "Auuummm". But it was only until she was in the water that they broke cover and rushed to her. What followed was one of the most memorable half-hours of my life. Krishna nuzzled and licked and almost cuddled each of her cubs in turn. While two of them, a female called Lightning and a male called PacMan were done with their turn relatively quickly (great to have mom back, but let's go back to play) the third cub, Arrowhead (named after the mark on her forehead) would just not let her mother go. She affectionately butted her mother, rubbed against her repeatedly and wanted to get licked continually. And, being the awesome mother she was, Krishna obliged her little one every time.

And then, it was time to get back to business. She'd come to take the cubs away, presumably to a kill she'd made. And with one little 'Aum', the family was on their way. We managed to exchange jeeps at the gate, but that put us at the back of the queue. But to our delight, two of the cubs decided to cross the road right in front of us (each of the jeeps had given a lot of space between them to let the tigers pass) And they walked alongside us, towards the old ruins of the hunting palace and beyond that, to the fringes of Krishna's territory.

An absolute blessing of a sighting. And one that got my little one hooked to the world of tigers.

Krishna still rules in Ranthambhore, albeit another part of the reserve. She left the Lakes, and its prime real estate to her not-so little-anymore Arrowhead. Who in turn has had another litter to continue the legacy of her grandmother and her mother. But that's for another time.


Saturday, April 18, 2020

Nalsarovar (Jan 2020) - This place keeps on giving!


The area around Nalsarovar in Gujarat is as unlikely a birding hotspot is is possible to be. It is not the classical rich habitat like the Himalayan foothills or the Western Ghats. Neither is it a classical aquatic paradise like some of the other places. It is one large waterbody (which yields all the usual migrant species) and a lot of scrub and cultivation around. And in these environs, the skill and industry of Latif Alvani and his fellow naturalists throws up some unbelievable birds. Almost every few months, they conjure up a rare bird or three. After the Little Bittern, this time it was a Red-naped Shaheen or Barbary Falcon that he dug out.

After hemming and hawing for a few days, we set out for Ahmedabad on our usual red-eye special. This time, we would have more company; friends and ace photographers Aravind and Ram from Chennai. What was going to be a trip to Mumbai for the Forest Owlet was hijacked into a trip to Ahmedabad. And we all headed to rendezvous with Latif early in the morning, but not before filling up on some awesome jalebi-fafda at our usual spot. Early morning fortification always makes for a great day's birding! With Latif in tow, we headed to the spot to wait for the Falcon. And, being a Saturday, there were a fair number of people with the same idea, birders from far and wide wished to make their acquaintance with this sibling of the Peregrine Falcon. The only problem? A big bank of clouds that appeared from nowhere to mess this up completely.

Red-headed Bunting
Nevertheless, we birders are made of sterner(?) stuff and a few clouds would not deter us or dampen our spirits. As long as it didn't rain of course! And so we waited till the star of the show made an appearance, but he was in a skittish mood and led us a bit of a merry dance. He then disappeared for a bit before returning with a lark kill. He proceeded to polish it off and then pushed off himself, for a  well-earned post breakfast rest no doubt. We'd got some average photos in poor light, but to see this beauty itself was a treat in itself. There were other specialities in store that day, so we moved on to them. And there was some frantic activity in the bushes near the falcon spot, right next to the road. A closer look confirmed that they were Red and Black Headed Buntings. Always a treat to get these beauties. We snapped a few quick ones and headed on because we had some other specialities waiting.

Black-headed Bunting

Common Ringed Plover
We tried for the Sociable Lapwings, a bit half-heartedly, I must admit because our focus was on something else. We were en route to get the rare Common Ringed Plover, a true oxymoron if ever there was one. On the way, Aravind and the others went to get some pictures of the resident Saruses while I rested my poor aching foot. And then we headed 35 kms away to the fringes of Nalsarovar Lake, where Latif and Co had spotted the Plovers. We got into a rather fragile looking contraption that masqueraded as a boat, but Latif was confident and that was good enough for us. We passed by a rather co-operative Small Pratincole who gave us good pictures, followed by a White-tailed Lapwing. And then we saw a couple of little birds flitting about at the edge of the water; they were a bit far and the mid-day haze made the sighting not ideal, but it was the plovers! We took a long and circuitous route around that little island and disembarked. And then it was all of us on all fours and then on our stomachs as we crawled to get closer to the birds without spooking them. And we did manage some decent photos, given the really tricky light. Once we'd had our fill of bird, we realised that we still needed to eat! Stomachs growling in protest, we hastened back to land and then onwards to the delightful little dhaba where we pigged to our hearts content.

Job done, we drove around trying to look for a couple of the other local interest items, Black-breasted Weavers, Sandgrouse and a couple of other Warblers. We got the Weaver and then decided it was time to mount another (photographic) assault on our friend the Falcon. We went back to the spot and waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then he came, with another kill. The light wasn't perfect, so we slowly tried to move into position, when another vehicle got just that little trigger happy and our friend didn't seem to like it. He legged it and we waited again. The light started to fade and so did our hopes. And then, on a whim, I asked Latif to check in the trees a little further down. And lo! there was our friend, without a victim this time. Light was a challenge yet again (a recurring theme that day) but we exited Nalsarovar with a memorable sighting of a couple of really rare 'uns.

And for that I shall remain eternally grateful. To this wonderful place that keeps throwing up these special birds and also to Latif, ever-smiling and ever-willing to help.

Can't wait for this situation to blow over and get that next call from him. Till then we wait in hope.


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, April 14, 2020

Lonavala (Feb 2020) - Quest-ral?


The hill-station of Lonavala nestles within the Sahyadris, at a comfortable driving distance from both Mumbai and Pune. Usually a destination for picnics and family outings, it made its debut on the must-visit destination list for birders only in 2019. And all that was thanks to one bird - The Lesser Kestrel, a small bird of prey from the falcon family. While this bird is a regular winter visitor to the country, sightings and wintering spots are not always reliable. A small flock had apparently collected in the backwaters of a dam in Lonavala last winter, but only a select few were 'in' on the location. This year, thanks to a kindly birder friend, a lot many more people got to see this splendid bird.

One Sunday afternoon, Sriram and I drove out to record our attendance with the Kestrel. A comfortable two hour drive and we were at the dam, given precise instructions on where to find the birds by friends who'd been there earlier. We saw them at once, but hovering and flying and not anywhere close to landing on the ground. And we waited, drove around a bit trying to track different individuals, but an hour or so passed without any luck. We both had a good look at the birds through the binoculars so that was good, but the photo ops were not forthcoming.

Until a fellow birder and kindly soul, Ronit Dutta let us in on a little secret. One sub-adult bird always perches on a group of rocks at the far side of the dam at a particular time. And, thanking him profusely, we slowly headed there, and found said bird perched very kindly on a rock. He gave us some nice pictures and we waited with him for the light to get a little better. He then allowed us, crawling on our stomachs, to get reasonably close and get some decent photos. Satisfied, we left the bird in peace and drove around, trying to scout for the lone male, in the hope that he too descends for this photo session. But he proved elusive, though his cousin, a Common Kestrel proved far more amenable to having his picture taken. 


Having got our pictures, we both called it an early evening and headed back home; happy to spend some quality time with the Lesser Kestrel but awaiting the next season to come back and get the male.


Lonavala Trip Guide

Getting there
Lonavala is about 90kms from Mumbai by road and about 2 1/2 hours by train (65 kms and 1 1/2 hours by train from Pune) It's easy to reach from either city thanks to the Mumbai-Pune expressway. This particular spot is at the Tata Dam, once it dries up in winter. 


Stay
Being a hill-station, Lonavala has plenty of places to stay across budgets and forms, from large hotels to villas on hire. It's a comfortable day trip from both Mumbai and Pune so stay is a need only if you're planning to spend a weekend there.