Monday, April 22, 2013

Nagzira Part II - Jay Ho!

The tiger stretched languidly. Even in this most innocuous of movements, one could not miss the  power that lay within. Coupled with his sheer size, it was no wonder that in Nagzira's tiger hierarchy, this guy (Jay)  has clearly been anointed (at least by his human followers) crown prince and heir apparent. He is one of two male cubs (Veeru being the other - Sholay fans anyone?) from the previous litter of the legendary A-Mark, Nagzira's queen mother and living legend. And he was gracious enough to join us for a drink one afternoon. Well, he drank and we watched.

I was back in Nagzira (with Rajnesh, Nissim and a new friend Amit Srivastava) for my first real trip since that amazing debut trip last summer. Arrived at the spanking new Muba resort and was reassured to learn that A Mark was still going strong and happy that Jay and Veeru were staking out on their own and finding new territories as soon-to-be-adult male tigers. I was also itching to see some dhole. Memories of last summer's dhole sightings were all too fresh in the mind and I crossed my fingers for some more please!

Our first visit threw up a glimpse of A Mark in a waterhole. Glimpse because we were lined up behind a few vehicles and rather than join that and add to the crowd, we decided to stake out at a distance in case she headed that way post her drink. She chose to head in another direction, presumably towards a kill and we chose to head back to the resort. Lovely to see her of course and also very excited to know that she was pregnant and expecting her litter very soon. This is one incredible lady! The heavens opened up that evening - thunder and lightening livened up Muba Resorts' official opening. It was almost like the gods were joining the party. But I was a bit worried about the next day. But I shouldn't have; it all got taken care of.

The next morning dawned bright, beautiful and dust free. As we headed towards Nagzira lake, we saw a jeep parked and a couple of guys furiously clicking something on the left. And as we neared, we saw it was a pack of dhole. On a kill! The jeep ahead had seen them just after they had taken down an adult chital stag. And over the next ten minutes or so, we saw this pack (of about 12-14 individuals) completely demolish the carcass. Nipping, snarling and biting, they ate through a large deer like it was a small portion of chicken nuggets! Though they were a bit far (where was that 500mm lens when you really needed it?) we managed to get some decent pictures. And yet again, Nagzira lived up to it's (really) high standards of being dhole heaven.

That afternoon, we headed back to #1 Taka (waterhole) where A Mark and her family sometimes hang out. And Rajnesh, with his eagle eyes, spotted 2 tigers in thick bush. For the life of me, I couldn't even see one for a while. But his insistent nudging finally made me identify stripes. So I did see the tiger, even though I confess to not know which one or how many there were. As we waited awhile, Rajnesh decided to check out the parallel 'Bison' road; he was sure that one of the tigers had moved and could emerge on that road. And as if on cue, out in the open lay a large male tiger - Jay!

Prince Jay
Then we all settled down for a comfortable afternoon next to a pool. But the crown prince wasn't on top of his game and he wasn't very chatty as he drank. He had a few scratches on him, possibly from a fight with either his brother Veeru or his father, Dendu. Though we didn't really discuss much, this intra-family feud and the pressure to take over the kingdom seemed to be weighing on him. He looked confused, ponderous, pre-occupied and seemed a bit lost. Time and again, he would lift his head and look for someone, presumably his mother, since she was also in the vicinity. We were amused to see that even large male tigers sometimes still need mommy to make things right!

Mommy didn't make an appearance till sun-down and so we left young Jay and wished him well, just in case we didn't see him on our last safari. And indeed, on our final safari, we didn't see him. But thanks to a tip from another jeep, we saw A Mark, a fair distance from where she was a couple of days ago. She was presumably finding a safe place to deliver her cubs, somewhere quiet and peaceful, without any other tiger in the vicinity. we saw her drinking from a trough of water and when she finished, she walked up almost all the way to us, then descended into a nala and disappeared into the bush. As she passed us, we could see her stomach was slightly bloated. Also, her teats were distended, a sure sign that she was pregnant. We left her in peace, and drove off, wishing this wonderful tigress all the very best for her new litter. And a small prayer to grant her 4 female cubs, which could grow up and boost Nagzira's (currently fragile) breeding female population.

The legendary A Mark
It was only as we were leaving did I realize that my incredible strike rate in Nagzira still continued, I had now done 8 safaris in total and had seen either tiger or dhole (or both) on every single safari. Another small prayer and a vote of thanks to the animal gods who smiled on me and who continue to provide some of my life's most memorable moments.

And to Rajnesh, as ever motivated and enthused to preserve Vidarbha's incredible wildlife. And to Nissim, who saw his first tiger in the wild and who has now been smitten - hook, line and sinker. And to the incredible Amit Srivastava - multi-faceted, fun and inspirational.

To friends, then. And to tigers, new and otherwise!

And to Dhole. Of course.

Nagzira Trip Guide

Getting there
Nagzira is about 140 kms east of Nagpur (the closest big city and airport) while the closest town to Nagzira is Bhandara (60 kms) The roads from Nagpur are very good, on the whole and should be around 2 ½ hours or so.

There are now more options to stay in Nagzira, with more on the anvil.

The newly opened Muba Resort ( is very nice, with lovely large rooms and beautiful balconies. This place is built around a little pond and all the rooms are built on stilts with connecting walkways. The food is superb and the staff are very friendly. 

There is also the  forest department tented complex at Pitezari gate which is clean and pleasant and the air-cooled tents are very comfortable. And the food is excellent!
To book, you can contact the President of the Eco-Development Committee, Nagzira. Alternatively, check out for information and also updates on the new online reservation system.

Safaris can be booked through the hotel. Private vehicles are still allowed in the forest, though there are plans to ban their entry from next season onwards.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hoolongapar - Primate Paradise

It was deafening! The whole jungle reverberated with primate calls and even a kilometer away, they sounded like they were right next to me. So I asked Devenda (Deven Barua, ace guide at Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary) whether there were 15-20 who were making all this noise. And was completely staggered when he said it was probably 2 warring couples haggling for territory. Ergo, a mere 4 gibbons making such a fearful racket. I was very curious to see this confrontation, so we scrambled through the undergrowth (and navigating through evergreen forest with bamboo thickets thrown in for good measure is no easy task) till we got to sighting distance. And it was indeed only 4 of them, but their pitch and the intensity of the brawl made it sound like an entire regiment of the Gibbon army!

Hoolock Gibbon Male
The Hoolock Gibbon was another priority species for me and I was licking my lips as we drove towards the Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, onwards from Kaziranga. This tiny (20 sq km) island of evergreen forest is home to not only the gibbons, but to 6 other primate species including the capped langur, pig-tailed macaque, stump tailed macaque, Assamese macaque and slow loris along with the more common rhesus macaque. Along with elephants, the (very) occasional leopard and several species of birds, it makes this little place a must-do on any Assam itinerary. It is named after the Hoolong tree, whose most distinctive feature is a relatively smooth, round trunk with no branches or leaves till very high up. So it's like a straight, really high rod with a canopy at the very top.

Capped Langur
The primates are active mainly in the mornings, so it was important for us to make an early start. Accompanied by Devenda, we set out early the first morning, with me hoping for Gibbon and also at least a couple of the other primates. And as soon as we walked in, we hit pay dirt with a troupe of capped langurs. These beautiful animals have a large tuft on their head, so it almost looks like they're wearing a cap. They jumped from tree to tree right above us and a couple of them stayed still long enough to give us some pictures.

As we walked further, we saw a bunch of people staring into the trees and one of the other guides pointed to a black shape and whispered 'Gibbon' (they pronounce it Gibb-'on' - as in 'on and off') and we saw this male (all black with white eyebrows) He swung through the branches, posed for a few pictures and then headed back into the upper reaches of the tree. Then we saw his mate (Gibbons are monogamous) and his little one as well. We saw them for quite a while, but always through thick branches, so photography wasn't great, but it was super fun just to observe and admire the agility of these beautiful animals. We were then joined by a huge bunch of school kids on a field trip. It was great to see their interest in the gibbon, though many were more interested (and quite amused I dare say) at the sight of me fighting with my camera/tripod - twisting and contorting to try and get the right angles for the blokes high up in the trees! But the noise (and sadly litter) which invariably accompanies large groups made us leave the gibbon family in peace and look for another one.

And that's when we heard the fight. Crawling through the undergrowth was awesome, but not easy with a 500mm lens and an unwieldy tripod! But when we did get near, I put my camera away to just focus on the intensity and sheer energy of the activity. The resident couple were the more aggressive of the two and finally seemed to get their way as the other guys quietly melted away. On the expedition back to the road, we came across fresh elephant dung in the undergrowth, a sign that there are bigger (and definitely more dangerous) beings in this forest. Outrunning an elephant in the open is anyways  impossible, but in the undergrowth makes it even more so (if there exists such a phenomenon called 'more impossible')

Back on the road and Devenda said it was too hot for any of the other primates, so trying the next morning was a better option. But as we headed to the gate, we got a few lovely little bonuses on the way. A couple of snakes made an appearance alongside the road  but they vanished before we got a proper look at them. The highlight though was a beautiful red-headed trogon who whizzed across the road. He settled on a branch briefly, but it was too quick and too dense for me to get  anything more than a record shot. But a lovely sighting nevertheless.

When we reached the hotel, I realized that I had inadvertently carried back a memento from the forest. As I removed my socks something fell out and slithered across the floor. It was a leech, who had latched on probably during my little cross-country expedition. I hadn't realized I was carrying him all through the return journey. He only managed to get a few mils through my socks, so no real damage done. I was glad to let the little guy go and thanked him, not for making me a few grams (mills?) lighter but for not recruiting a few more of his troops into Operation Srikanth!

It was a super day and I was looking forward to so much more the next day. But that evening the heavens opened up and very atypically for March, the rain stayed through the next morning. I did make a visit and Devenda did try to rustle up stuff, but it was futile. None of the primates broke cover and the sight of Devenda, hands on his head and searching valiantly for some signs of life, makes up one of the most memorable 'sightings' of my visit.

And there ended a fascinating first trip to Hoolongapar. And I can't wait for next winter to get back and spend a few more days there, searching for all of the resident primates.

Till then.

Hoolongapar Trip Guide

Getting there

Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary is about 30 kms (1 hour) south-east of from Jorhat, the nearest big town and airport. Jet Airways/Jetlite and Air India have daily flights to Jorhat from Kolkata. 

Alternately, you can also drive from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. But that's a 6 hour, 250 km journey.

Mariani is the nearest town (about 10 kms away)

When to go and how long for

Though the park remains open through the year, February is the best (and driest) time to visit, though the other months of winter are good too. Rains start in April, and that becomes an issue with sightings. As well as leeches!

You need a good 2-3 days to see all the primates. Gibbon sightings are pretty good (there are 26 families) and the guides there are aware of family movements, so you should see them without too much trouble. Pig-tailed & stump tailed macaques and capped langurs should be possible as well, but the assamese macaque is rare and requires some serious luck, while the slow loris is largely nocturnal.


There are two options - stay in Jorhat and drive everyday or stay in the local forest guest house.

Jorhat has some decent hotels. We stayed in Hotel Earl Grey ( which is decent - clean and comfortable. The other options in Jorhat include Paradise Hotel and Burra Sahib's Bungalow (a heritage bungalow)

At Hoolongapar, the forest guest house has 2 basic rooms, which can be booked in advance. They're building a new wing with 3 more rooms which should be ready by late summer.

To book, you can contact Mr. Deepak Bordoloi, Beat Officer, Hoolongapar Wildlife Sanctuary on  +91 9435713634


No vehicles are allowed apart from the main road, so it's better to leave your car at the gate and walk. 

You'll need a guide and Deven Barua is amongst the best, if not the best. He's a lovely, soft spoken gentleman and a fountain of knowledge on Hoolongapar and its inhabitants. You can reach him on + 91 9613929595.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kaziranga - Rhino and so much more

Think Kaziranga and you automatically think rhino. But if you go in exclusively focused on the one-horned wonder, then you run the risk of missing out on so much. Yes, it is definitely the finest place on the planet to see this magnificent pre-historic beast, but it's also home to a staggering array of  attractions. For one, it has the highest density of tigers amongst all national parks in India (and I dare say the world) It is also home to vibrant populations of elephant along with the rare water buffalo, hog deer and barasingha, plus an incredible variety of bird-life. Along with the adjoining Panbari wildlife sanctuary (sadly closed to tourists owing to an accident) it makes up a paradise for any wildlife lover.

When I started my Wander, Kaziranga was always on the itinerary, but for some reason or another, it never happened. Finally this March, I decided I couldn't end my travels without making it there, along with the Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary not very far away. So with my brother Sridhar (a 20 year veteran of the park) I set out into east India for the first time. The rhino was top of my list of course, but I was also keen to get good sightings of two raptors - the grey headed fishing eagle and the Pallas' fishing eagle. But this trip would give me so much more!

Red breasted parakeets mating
Kaziranga is divided into four zones, with the central Kohora zone being the most popular amongst tourists. The first morning, we decided to head to the eastern (or Agaratoli) zone, quieter and with the best chance to see my two raptors. But before that, we were stunned by a head-turning number of birds. We started with scarlet minivets and spangled drongos, but they didn't care to be photographed. Then we settled down to watch a beautiful male red breasted parakeet. And to our delight, his companion joined him and they proceeded to mate right in the open, in front of us; no inhibitions whatsoever. And we didn't even stir till they finished, lest we disturbed them. Impeccable bedroom manners, even in someone else's bedroom!

Alexandrine parakeets courting
As we headed further, we saw a pair of alexandrine parakeets beginning their courtship as well. And just beyond, our guide Gokul (and excellent young chap) saw something big and grey lumbering through the bush on our right. Rhino! We stopped and waited to let the big fella cross and he duly obliged. Even at a fair distance, I still couldn't fit all of him into the frame. Truly magnificent animal and my first quality sighting of this pre-historic giant. We moved on and almost immediately saw another rhino, a bloke wallowing in the water with a darter as passenger. Then we saw a group of beautiful smooth river otters, first swimming through the water and then sunning themselves on a little island. Incredibly cute little fellas! Further ahead we saw more rhino, a herd of elephants and a large brown fish owl. And on our return we saw a couple of grey headeds and a Pallas' eagle (not great pics though!)

That afternoon, we headed to the central zone, where there were frequent tiger sightings. My brother had never ever seen a tiger in Kaziranga and it was a burning desire for him. He'd had a couple of desperate near misses and this time too it seemed like one more. As we drive past, we saw a jeep driving to and fro looking for something in the thick grass. Now rhino and elephant are unlikely likely to go completely invisible in that grass, so it had to be the striped wonder. And as we neared them, they said they saw a tiger cross the road a couple of minutes earlier. We all waited and looked and searched, but he'd vanished. Here I go again, said my brother sighing. Up ahead we saw a pair of beautiful khaleej pheasants, but the highlight was a large python lying by the side of the road. He seemed immobile so a few concerned (but misguided) souls tried to get him to move off the road, but save for a brief stir, he remained static. Perhaps he was too full, or maybe just feeling lazy.

Tiger! Even at this distance he drew quite a crowd!

On our return late that evening, my brother got his long-fulfilled wish. A tiger in Kaziranga. We saw this bloke, really far away (nearly half a kilometer away) sitting in the open, near a sounder of wild boar. He seemed quite chilled out, impervious to both the boar as well as the excited but well behaved humans (quite a crowd had gathered there) around. We left him 15 mins later, still in the same place.

That evening, we were joined by Palash Borah, head naturalist at Wild Grass Resort and an expert all things Kaziranga. He had been guiding a Malaysian photographer to find the blue naped pitta and offered to take me to see it the following morning, before the safari. So, well before dawn, we set out, drove to a patch of jungle (not in the main park, lest anyone believes we were breaking rules) and perched there, all ready for the birds when they come to feed. I'd got my equipment all set for the birds but in my infinite wisdom, I'd forgotten about what else could be there. So the resident swarm of mosquitos refused to look a short sleeved gift horse in the mouth and proceeded to merrily stake claim to my exposed limbs. And face. And all this while, I couldn't even swat them away or move much for fear of driving away the Pittas. A slightly exaggerated movement of my fingers and Palash would nudge me to be still. Thank god I at least had my jeans and shoes on!

Blue naped pitta
As soon as it became light, bird activity immediately intensified. Initially, we heard more than we saw. Puff throated babblers were at it constantly, drowning out all other birds. Then Palash whispered "pitta" and we saw a couple of birds hopping around in the semi-darkness. Then the female came out into a little clearing but in very poor light. And as the light improved, their activity intensified and while the female never came out in the open again, the male flirted around at the rim of the clearing. And finally, he came out long enough for me to get some decent pictures in decent light. Then again, we left them to enjoy their foraging in peace.

Lineated Barbet

Hog deer, showing off that distinctive snout

Smooth river otter

Back to the safaris and back to Agaratoli. This time we saw more rhino, more fishing eagles and more elephants. But the highlights were a bunch of beautiful lineated barbets, blossom headed parakeets, more spangled drongos and a beautiful green billed malkoha. Pictures were possible only of the barbets, the rest of them being far to frisky to pose for pictures. That afternoon, we headed back to Kohora and this time I was looking for some interesting mood pictures of rhinos and elephants. And we got some really interesting sightings - a rhino in classical Kaziranga habitat, elephant amongst elephant grass etc. But again, the lord of the jungle gave us an audience. Another tiger, in the water, surrounded by sambhar. Neither species seemed to care about the presence of the other. Almost as if both knew that they were there only for a drink, so why raise cain with alarm calls and all that jazz? He was again very far away, but even at that distance the excitement of the crowd that had gathered speaks volumes for the magnetism of this wonderful animal.

It is also a reminder to the 'anti-tiger tourism brigade' (most of who by the way have seen their share of tigers and still salivate when they see the next one) that the tiger is and will continue to be top billing so rather than run away from it or put forth counter-arguments, it might be productive to harness the incredible magnetic power that this animal exudes and use that to engage people in the conservation debate. With due respect, I don't see any other animal or bird being able to become the focal point of any campaign. End of spiel.

And that ended a short but extremely rewarding trip to the beautiful jungles of Kaziranga. The next time, I promised to come for longer with a few days in Panbari for some great birding as well.


Kaziranga Trip Guide

Getting there

Kaziranga is about 100 kms (2 hours) from Jorhat, the nearest town and airport. Jet Airways/Jetlite and Air India have daily flights to Jorhat from Kolkata. Alternately, you can also drive from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. But that's a 6 hour, 250 km journey.

When to go and how long for

Rains begin in April, so the best time would be February, with Jan and March being acceptable alternatives as well. The park shuts early May and sometimes only opens end October depending on the rains.

2 days are good enough to see rhinos aplenty. But for the birding and other rarer species (like tigers) a week would be a great idea. Especially if you want to cover the Panbari sanctuary, which has superb birding.


Wild Grass is the oldest, most established property in Kaziranga and is good value for money. ( The default choice for most wildlifers,  it is a decent property with a lovely dining area, OK rooms and decent food. The only bummer is that their gypsies are all the side-seat variety, which aren't very comfortable at all. But it's more than made up by their drivers and naturalists, led and tutored by Palash.

Iora resort ( is the new kid on the block and is highly rated, both for its stay and facilities. And their gypsies are all the 'theatre seating' variety, hence more comfortable. 


There are two types of safaris - jeep and elephant. The elephant safaris start at dawn and take you through the central zone for an hour to 90 mins. You can get up close with rhinos (and maybe even other animals depending on your luck) on elephant-back.

The jeep safaris are available morning and afternoon and you can choose from any of the 4 zones to try your luck. 

The hotel will be able to arrange for your safaris, elephant as well as jeep.

Tusker in musth

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tal Chhapar - Rapturous Raptor Realm

Steppe Eagle taking off at Jor Beed
Eagles in motion
Raptor heaven! Tucked away on the fringes of the mighty Thar Desert in Rajasthan is one of the most spectacular raptor refuges on this planet - a tiny oasis called Tal Chhapar. This grassland is home (or transit lounge, winter refuge, refueling point - call it what you will) to a bewildering number of birds of prey - large and small. With luck (and some patience) you can come back with spectacular sightings of at least 10 and sometimes even 20 different species. For a raptor fiend like me, it was like driving into paradise. For the mammal lovers you have loads of blackbuck plus foxes (desert and Indian) Desert Gerbils, and the rare desert cat. 

This winter, in the space of 2 months, I made two trips, shepherded both times by the eagle-eyed (pun intended) Hari. And both times Chhapar (and the mind-numbing Jor Beed near Bikaner) threw up a sighting feast and that, along with a lovely forest guest house, the legendary Mr Surat Singh Poonia (Chief of the Park - more on him later) and Vandana & Sharad Sridhar (more on them too) have helped make this superb place a permanent destination on my wildlife calendar.

Stoliczka's Bushchat
On our first trip (with my brother, Sridhar and Vishal, a close friend) we only spent 2 days. As soon as we entered on the first morning, we saw a female kestrel on an electric pole, a lagger falcon perched on a wire fence and a regal imperial eagle. Post lunch, we set out to find the beautiful Stolizcka's bushchat, seeing some sandpipers and pied avocets in the salt pans on the way. We returned to the grasslands towards evening, to see desert wheaters and a beautiful male kestrel give us a close sighting on the ground. But we spent the better part of the evening searching for the solitary White Tailed Eagle, easily the biggest attraction in the park. While we were driving all over the grasslands, he was sighted very close by a tourist Innova (and the people had a full frame picture on their iPhones!) When we finally saw him, he was across the road from the grassland, perched on a tree in the open. As we slowly drove towards him, we saw a man carrying firewood walk right under his tree, much to my frustration. Obviously, that spooked the eagle and he flew off. Though I spent an hour running around and hiding behind dunes, I could never ever get close enough to get a good picture. But hey, at least we saw him!  And ended what was a superb first day, but the second would be just crazy.

Egyptian Vulture
Sharad had organized for us to go to the Jor Beed carcass dump near Bikaner (about 130 kms from Chhapar) and when I'd asked him what we'd see there, he casually mentioned "Around 1000 Steppe Eagles, at least 2000 Egyptian Vultures and a few hundred Tawny Eagles and maybe Imperials, Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons and Cinerous Vultures for sure and maybe even some Greater Spotted Eagles) And I thought he was joking. But when we got there, it was like a mind-bending, never ending buffet!! There were several raptors on every branch of every tree and scores more on the ground near the carcasses. So I OD'd on what was in front of me, taking picture after picture in pose after pose! And boy did I get my money's worth. Problem was, by the end of it, I had no idea what I had shot and which species I had covered. It was only when we looked at the pictures back at base did I realize that I'd missed the Cinerous, Imperial and Spotted Eagles completely. Most of my pictures were Steppes (awesome Steppes though) in different poses. Gentle reminder to self - review buffet items properly before commencing gluttony!

We headed back to Chhapar and that afternoon, Mr. Poonia very kindly accompanied us, especially to try and find the rare spotted creeper. We took a quick round of the grassland first and saw a hen harrier in flight and a glimpse of a sparrowhawk, but nothing worth photographing. Heading to the creepers, Mr. Poonia spent more than an hour hunting for them, but they were not forthcoming with an appearance even for him. it was made up to an extent by a beautiful little minivet. And with that, we headed out of Chhapar with me promising to come back for more. Soon.

And that happened in six weeks as I headed back with my friend Dr. Nissim Kanekar (who joined a day later) This time I promised myself that I would be more composed, especially at Jor Beed. And as luck would have it, Sharad was there with his wife Vandana and their lovely little daughter, Vanya (whose birding knowledge would put many a birder to shame and she's all of 4!)  On Mr. Poonia's advice, I headed first to a desert fox den to try and get sightings of her pups. And as Hari and I waited for more than hour for the pups to emerge, our hopes were dashed by a herd of cattle who wandered all over that area, ending any hopes of the pups emerging. So, with empty hearts we headed back to fill our stomachs.

Common Kestrel
Post breakfast, I headed back in with Vandana and Vanya and she first met her 'friend' - Menaka the blackbuck, an orphaned female who was brought up by the forest guards. We then saw two beautiful kestrels, one very close to the road. And a very good sighting of a spiny tailed lizard sunning himself outside his little hole. And that was only the beginning. Sharad and I went back around mid-day and right next to a waterhole we saw a steppe (or was it a tawny?) We saw something poking its head from the rim of the waterhole and to our surprise it was a lagger falcon watching us with great interest. She came out in the open, posed for us and flew off.  Later that evening, a beautiful Marsh Harrier and a Montagu's Harrier both very kindly sat in the open and posed for me. Towards dusk, I headed to a mound where a desert cat had her den and waited there for almost an hour, but no juice. The first of many such fruitless vigils over the next couple of days.

Marsh Harrier
Nissim joined the next morning and we immediately struck gold with a laggar on a stump right next to the road. Next up was a beautiful black francolin - with absolutely spectacular patterns. The rest of the morning we devoted to watching blackbuck and it was wonderful watching these incredibly elegant creatures - we saw some strut and pose, couple of males sparring and herds sprint and jump past at blinding speeds. But the most incredible moment was that of a mother with her little calf, how she tenderly shepherded, nursed and tended the little one. One of those moments when we 'superior' human beings realize that a mother love has the same intensity and tenderness, irrespective of species. On our way back to the guest house, I went eye to eye with a spiny tailed and got a glimpse (and sketchy pictures) of an interesting little bird. When I showed them to Sharad, he exclaimed 'Eversmann's Redstart- a lifer for me' and was half ready to rush back in, though he was feeling really unwell and had just returned from a saline drip at the local hospital!

Blackbuck and calf
Blackbuck on the sprint
But we really hit pay dirt that afternoon - we stopped first up to admire a beautiful (and surprisingly large) turtle near a smallish pond - 'Bhainslao' (or Buffalo Pond). That's when a bird came and sat right in the water over on the far side. At first we thought it was a Shikra, but it turned out to be a sparrow hawk (my first quality sighting) and this beautiful little raptor gave us some super poses. Sated, we moved on and saw a beautiful Steppe flying overhead, more blackbuck and then decided it was time to take a shot at the Spotted Creeper. One our way there we saw a couple of Steppes and Tawnies, a grey backed shrike and a black redstart. And then Nissim saw the creeper on the trunk of a nearby tree - and for the next hour or so, the bird led us a merry dance. He hopped from tree to tree and up and down the trunk, never stopping beyond a nano-second, even to stick his beak into the bark and pick up an insect or two. With a heavy 500mm lens and shooting handheld, my hands were at breaking point by the end of the hour! But we did manage to get some decent pictures of this elusive little bird.

Spotted creeper with a snack
Laggar Falcon
We ended the day with a sighting of all three harriers - Montagu's Pallid and Marsh, a couple of kestrels  and a lagger falcon. But the highlight was another breathtaking performance by another sparrow hawk at a different waterhole. He posed and preened and spread his wings, waltzed in the water and what not. Absolutely spectacular little fella!

Bar Headed Geese
We decided to go searching for bar-headed geese the next morning and Hari drove us to a village pond about 25 kms away because that's where he saw them a week ago. When we got there, the pond was empty save for a couple of black winged stilts prancing around like little ballerinas. Disappointed, we came back to Chhapar when Hari suggested that we check out the lake next to the grassland for storks or ibises. I got cut crossing a barbed wire fence trying to climb up and reach the lake wall  (and got a tetanus shot at the local chemist for my troubles) When we peered over, to our amazement (and immense joy) we saw not ibises, but a large flock of bar headed geese. We'd driven 50kms looking for them (and not finding them) while they were barely 100 metres from the Sanctuary! After having our fill of the geese, we drove on to see a large flock of beautiful demoiselle cranes. These graceful birds really make you want to stay and keep watching, only until they're silent though. Their 'skwak, skwak' sounds are as jarring as their beauty is captivating. Says something about nature that some of the largest, most elegant birds have harsh and jarring sounds, the peacock would be a prime example.

That afternoon yielded one more sparrow hawk sighting and this was unique because he allowed us to get close to him on foot. He was in the open, standing in the water and we went quietly; took one step at a time then stood still. It took us 10 mins to cover 25 metres and he didn't see us as a threat. And just when I was 3 steps away from a full frame view, Hari (who was over on the other side of the pond) decided to rev the engine. Consequently, said subject bolted post haste and disappeared into the inner branches of a dense tree. End of that sighting.

Desert Fox with pup
Desert Fox polishing off a bird kill
But the highlight of the afternoon (and probably of the whole trip) was yet to come. With the grasslands empty I suggested we head to the salt pans to try and see pied avocets and sandpipers. And once we were done with them, we decided to check out the fox den. And as we turned a corner, we  a desert fox peering out of her den. She came out, her mate joined her and we saw the most incredibly affectionate sequence between the two. They nuzzled, she gently bit his ears and then the pups joined in and made for a fantastic family get together. We realized soon that the mother was going hunting for food, so we tailed her for a couple of mins, realized we might inadvertently get in her way and quietly made our exit. I was still tingling when we got back to the guest house!

Cinerous Vulture
After a superb a la carte offering at Chhapar, it was time to dive into the buffet at Jor Beed the next morning, our final safari before catching our train from Bikaner. I was determined to make it count this time. And while we were all warned that a lot of the migrants had left, there would still be enough (I hoped) to make it worth our while. I particularly wanted to see the Cinerous vulture, a large and distinguished-looking species, which I missed in the mindless gluttony of the last time.  

And so, we went in, looking for the less common species, sifting through the sea of steppes and egyptian vultures for Imperials, Spotteds, Griffons and the Cinerous. Hari was a bit skeptical about the Cinerous and repeatedly said they'd gone, when, at a distance I saw one perched on the ground. We got a few long distance pictures and then he flew off to the other side of the nearby railway line. Just as we were rueing that guy, we saw another bloke, and he obliged with better pictures, including some decent flying shots as well. Mission accomplished, we hit the carcass dump with renewed vigor and that threw up Eurasian Griffons, Black Eyed Kites and Black Ibises. We then got down to finding angles for some interesting Steppe and Tawny pictures when I saw something which didn't look like either. Turned out to be a regal Imperial eagle and it very kindly posed, preened and gave us some decent flying pictures too. Which made for a much more satisfying trip to the buffet. Selective and focused gluttony always pays off.

Imperial Eagle
And that was Chhapar (and Jor Beed) Raptor destination extraordinaire. I can't wait for next winter, to go back in and get some new species with the red necked falcon and hen harrier at the top of my list. And the white tailed eagle, if he were to lose his way and come back here (which I pray he does)

Till winter then.

Tal Chhapar Trip Guide

Getting there

Chhapar is in Rajasthan's Churu district, approximately 210 kms north-west of Jaipur (the nearest big city). The roads are good so it should be a 3 1/2 - 4 hour drive.

The best way to get there is by train, a very convenient overnight option from Delhi's Sarai Rohilla Station (via Gurgaon if that works better) The daily Bikaner train gets to Ratangarh (45 kms away) and there's a twice a week service that goes to Sujangarh (14 kms away)

You can get a pick up from either station

When to go and how long for

Winter is the best time for birds. October/November through February are best, where you can get either the migrants come in early winter or the return migrants in February. 

The best time for mammals (cats/foxes) would be March, when their young are old enough to be brought out.

3-4 days should give you a fair chance to see most of what's on offer. Budget half a day for Jor Beed though.


The Tal Chhapar Guest House is a forest guest house like no other. It is beautifully designed with large, comfortable rooms, all the mod-cons and very good home style food. 

It's also unique in the sense that it is probably the only FRH run by wildlifers - Sharad Sridhar and his wife Vandana. Sharad himself is a birder par excellence and a major influence in the regeneration of this amazing place. 

To book, you can write to them at or visit the website


There are no organized safaris and no timing restrictions - you can spend as much time in the park as you like between sunrise and sunset. You can take your own vehicle into the park and there are no real guides. But it would be a good idea to hire Hari's Bolero. Not only is he a very good driver, but an excellent spotter too. He also knows his way around, where to find the foxes, creepers, Jor Beed etc. The Guest House folk will book the vehicle as well.

The excursion to Jor Beed can also be arranged at an extra cost and it is well worth a visit.

Local Celebrities

Surat Singh Poonia
It will not be an exaggeration to call Pooniaji (as he's known in Chhapar) as the father of Tal Chhapar. Over the last 5 or so years, he has transformed a degraded, cattle invaded patch of scrub into a thriving grassland haven. Along with that, the number of avian species that he has discovered and followed here is nothing short of spectacular. He is a humble, unassuming and extremely helpful person, always willing to accompany enthusiasts into the park. It is incredible what he has accomplished in Chhapar and that too in virtually no time.  May his tribe increase!

Sharad Sridhar
A chance visit to Chhapar (he was in the area on work) on the day Mr. Poonia took charge gave Sharad a new mission (so to speak) An ace birder, he has worked shoulder to shoulder with Pooniaji to help develop Chhapar into the place it is today. And when the forest guest house was built, he (with his wife Vandana) took over the responsibility of managing it completely. A fountain of information on all things Chhapar and its denizens. 

Kestrel at sunset