Monday, January 23, 2017

Classic Corbett (December 2016)

Come winter and the hills of Uttarakhand send me an annual reminder. The prospect of reacquainting myself with the wonderful wildlife was almost unbearably good. For the second year in a row, Prateik, Sriram and Nissim and me, friends and fellow birding enthusiasts, set out to meet the Himalayas once again. But this time we would open with Corbett Tiger Reserve, one of the most spectacular forests in the country and a birding paradise as well.

Day 1 - Dhikala & Gairal

The overnight trip from Delhi to Ramnagar was uneventful and we were picked up by Shyam Bisht, our Corbett trip organizer and well known guide. After a quick wash, we met with Nirankar and Javed (our guide and driver respectively) and headed straight into the park. We didn't get reservations at the famed Dhikala FRH (owing to some rather strange booking rules) but we did manage to snare a couple of rooms at Gairal FRH, 20 kms away. We drove through the Dhangadhi gate and within half an hour, our birding counter had started, and with a serious bang. First up an Ashy Bulbul, followed by a raucous group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers - both lifers. Add in a Stripe Throated Yuhina, Scarlet Minivets and a Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo and we were in bird heaven within an hour into the forest.
Tawny Fish Owl
We reached Gairal for breakfast and were immediately bowled over by this beautiful little property, set right on the Ramganga. And as we waited for breakfast to be ready, Nirankar pointed out a bird that was right on top of the Corbett wishlist - the Collared Falconet. This tiny bird of prey (the smallest in India) sat right on top of a dead tree within the campus and while we could only manage a couple of record shots, the thrill of seeing a much coveted bird really set the tone for the day. A quick meal and we were on our way to Dhikala, with the prospect of a tiger sighting also within the realms of possibility. En route though, we got something else, no less coveted and probably far more uncommon - The Tawny Fish Owl. We (read Nirankar) spotted a pair snoozing on a tree next to the road and they consented to give us a few pictures, without once opening their eyes. Further on, we got more coveted species, albeit without great photos - Common Green Magpies and a Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker. What a morning!

Lesser Fish Eagle
No tiger sightings as we neared Dhikala so we retreated into the camp for some lunch. After a reasonably sumptuous repast we wandered up to the platform overlooking the Ramganga where a group of people were avidly watching something through a spotting scope. As we took our turn to have a dekko, we saw a flock of Black Storks far below on the other side of the river. Our downward focus quickly took an upward turn as a beautiful Lesser Fishing Eagle flew over us. It gave us pretty decent pictures before it flew away, unlike the Cinerous Vulture who never came close to get a proper frame.

Pallas' Fish Eagle
We headed out as soon as the gates opened again (1pm) and drove through the Dhikala grassland hoping for some action. And at once we saw a pair of Streak Throated Woodpeckers, followed by a beautiful Pallas' Fishing Eagle. This beauty sat alongside the river, no doubt pondering over a career crisis, so we let him be and moved on to see kestrels, osprey and a hen harrier in flight. Further down, there was a brief flurry of excitement as someone apparently spotted a tiger from the watchtower but said feline never made an appearance in the open. Instead, we managed to get reasonably close to a Collared Falconet on a dead tree. Still too far for great images, we managed a few competent record shots nevertheless. Gorgeous little bird!

Collared Falconet
A spotted deer's alarm call made us awake to the possibility of the striped wonder and we quickly hurried on to the famed Sambhar Road, frequented by a beautiful tigress called Paarwali. She crisscrosses the Ramganga as part of her daily ritual and she was due an afternoon sojourn across. Or so we thought, but someone apparently forgot to tell her. So we waited for her in vain, the only excitement during the time was provided by a River Lapwing, yet another lifer. Driving back to Gairal, we encountered a Dark throated thrush and another Falconet, drawing the curtains on an absolutely spectacular day of birding. While I've only mentioned the highlights here, our total species count for the day was an astounding 80 birds!

Day 2 - Dhikala & Kosi Bank
After a stupendous day of birding, we decided to spend the morning searching for that most majestic of animals. While I've seen tigers across many National Parks, Corbett almost feels like its spiritual home so seeing one here is very special. We went to Sambhar Road again and waited for Paarwali; she'd been briefly sighted walking in our direction. A sambhar deer on the opposite riverbank was on high alert so the tigress was probably in the grass somewhere, so we waited. And while we prayed for her majesty to make an appearance (and skipped brekkie), we were entertained by several of her smaller subjects - a Crested Kingfisher gave us an audience and then a beautiful Pied Kingfisher regaled us with its repeated 'hover and dive' routine. White Capped and Plumbeous Water Redstarts posed for pictures right next to us and a Smooth Coated Otter swam back and forth in the Ramganga, giving us brief glimpses as it came up for air. The striped wonder still didn't show up and we had to head back to Dhikala camp.
White Capped Water Redstart
Post lunch, it was time to head back (another strange rule which says that you have to be out of the park by 4:30 pm, which is way before the normal deadline, usually between 5:30 and 6:30) As we drove out, we saw a beautiful Changeable Hawk Eagle on the ground next to the road. A closer look revealed that it was injured, possibly with a broken wing. With a silent prayer for this magnificent raptor, we left the place to let it recover in peace. On our way we saw the Tawny Fish Owls again and one more Collared Falconet, but the Great Slaty Woodpeckers that we hoped to photograph did not present themselves, neither did the Green Magpies. Still, it was a fantastic couple of days in this most amazing of habitats. The lord of the jungle (or his lady) didn't make an appearance and Dhikala's famed elephant herds hadn't yet started gathering, though we did see some in the distance a couple of times.
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Out at 4:30 and with time for sunset, Nirankar suggested we head to the Kosi riverbank outside the forest to get better pictures of the River Lapwing and maybe some other species. We descended down to the waters edge, keeping an eye out for the lapwings that were flying to and fro, when eagle (raptor) eyed Ram spotted something else. As he pointed out this bird that blended perfectly with the grey rocks on the river bank, we exclaimed in unison 'Ibisbill' - one of the most coveted birds in Corbett. And this stunning bird came closer to the water (as we watched from the opposite bank) for a photoshoot. Not wanting to be left out, the Lapwings also perched on the rocks to take their turn as models for our ever willing cameras. And there ended yet another special day in paradise... err.. Corbett.
River Lapwing

Day 3 - Kosi Barrage, Riverbank and Mohaan

Our last day in Corbett was to be spent on the fringes, outside of the Tiger reserve. The birding in this area is magnificent so we attempted to try our luck and get something new. First up we went to the Kosi barrage to look for Wallcreepers, another little beauty and again on the 'list'. As we made our way through the stones on the riverbank, I saw something move between the rocks. And as this bird perched on one of them, I saw it was a Wallcreeper. The grey coloration blends perfectly with the surroundings and only the flash of red on the wings makes it possible to spot as it moves along. We tried to move closer and got a few record shots before the bird flew off. Another lifer and we were just warming up. We went back to the Ibisbill spot and got reasonably good pictures. A few lovely birds in the bushes next to the river and we were off to Mohaan.

Ashy Bulbul
Mohaan (made legendary by Corbett's man eater from the village) is on the fringes of the park with patches of great birding alongside the tar road. We alighted at one such spot and just next to the road sat a Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher. We were after its rarer cousin, the Snowy Browed Flycatcher. And as we waited and hunted for this bird, we saw Ashy Bulbul, Rufous Bellied Niltava and Whistler's Warbler. Then we heard the call of a bird which Nirankar guessed as a Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler. And even as I scanned the area with my camera, I saw the bird between thick bush and then it turned around - it was the Snowy Browed. I alerted my fellow birders as this little fella played hide and seek with us. A couple of us got really good pictures, as he kept flitting from bush to bush. I was in the wrong position at the right times, so had to be content with a record shot.

Pin Tailed Green Pigeon
As we looked to sign off, Prateik spotted yet another rarity - Pin Tailed Green Pigeon. A couple of them were high on a tree a fair distance away so we clicked a few records and made our way back to the car. Only to find that they'd followed us! A flock of these beauties descended on a tree right on the road, so we spent a lovely fifteen minutes or so taking in their poses as they munched (pecked?) on the berries of this tree. They had their fill and we needed to have ours, so we headed back to Ramnagar for some superb parathas at a roadside restaurant. Oh and along the way, we met a stunning tusker right next to the road and saw yet another Collared Falconet on a dead tree. What luck!

The final Corbett session saw us head back to the riverside to try and get more pictures of the Ibisbill especially. And this time, we saw not one but 4 of these birds. It was an incredible sighting and extremely gratifying to see these gorgeous birds gracing us with their presence all the way from Central Asia. May their tribe increase!

And there endeth one more amazing trip. Great companions, great birding, awesome destination. What more could one want? Except a tiger, of course.

Corbett Trip Guide
The Corbett Tiger Reserve is one of India's most popular wildlife destinations and has well organized safaris and plenty of places to stay, across different budget levels. It offers day safaris as well as overnight stays (inside the park) at the Forest Rest Houses (FRH) in the various Zones

How to get there
Ramnagar is the town adjoining the park and also where most of the hotels are based. it is roughly 240 kms from Delhi and is well connected by road and rail. Convenient trains are available from Delhi, both overnight and day trains. We took the Ranikhet express which is an overnight train.

Places to stay
Corbett has a plethora of places to stay, and caters to pretty much every type of traveler, from the budget backpackers to luxury seekers. Check out the options on TripAdvisor here

Safaris (day trip or overnighters) can be booked online on the official Corbett Tiger Reserve website here.
If you prefer to let an expert handle it, then you need to look no further than Shyam Bisht. A Corbett veteran and an accomplished guide himself, he will help you arrange it all, stay, safaris, gypsies, guide etc. You can reach him on +919927772854 or +917409795915.

Zones & FRHs
Corbett Tiger Reserve has 6 Zones - Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna, Sonanadi, Dhela and Durgadevi. Of these, Dhikala is the most sought after and where a lot of the tiger sightings happen, while Bijrani and Jhirna follow in the popularity charts.

There are 13 Forest Rest Houses (Or FRHs) open to tourists across 4 Zones (Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna and Sonanadi) Each offers different facilities, so please do check on the website before booking. Some may be very basic without electricity even, though that can be an enchanting experience!

Nirankar is an excellent guide, not only for tigers but also birds. He's also a wonderful human being, so you will have a great time with him. You can reach him on +918126015542.

Like in most of North India, the roadside dhabas are nothing short of sensational. Your guide/driver will know the best ones, so go with their recommendation.

Other tips
1. It can get cold in Corbett in the winter, so please do carry adequate warm clothing.
2. If you're allergic to dust, then a face mask may be a good idea.
3. Please do not carry any alcohol into the park, there have been untoward incidents in the     past and the authorities are very strict in their checking.
4. Carry a bean bag on your safaris, especially if you use a heavy lens.

Collared Falconet with brunch
Pied Kingfisher
Pin Tailed Green Pigeon
Plumbeous Water Redstart

Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nirvana in the Nilgiris (April & September 2016)

Crested Goshawk
The bird-rich Nilgiri region was always on the radar for me, but for one reason or another the radar didn't quite fire until this year. It needed a family trip to Coonoor to set it off, followed by another later in the year. Both these trips were eventful to say the very least and the birding was simply wonderful despite not being the 'best' seasons to bird in - April and September.

April 2016
This was a family and friend trip (with kids) to the Kurumba resort on the Coimbatore-Ooty highway. It's a beautiful property with fantastic food and very comfortable rooms. We expected it to be higher up in the hills when we booked, but a combination of the lower altitude and April heat made it a bit uncomfortable. That was offset by the lovely swimming pool (for the kids) and the awesome birding (for me). The property itself has a fair number of species as I soon discovered, the lunch buffet threw up Greenish Warblers, Crimson Backed Sunbirds and a beautiful White Cheeked Barbet up close. And later that evening, the swimming session was interrupted by an Emerald Dove and a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds - the light was too poor to get good pictures, but a great sighting nevertheless!

The other bonus for me was to find a fellow birder at the resort. Manjunath Desai, a keen birder from Bangalore happened to be at lunch at the same time and spotting his camera I asked him if he'd like to come birding with me the following day. And he immediately agreed, giving me a great companion to go birding with. So we set off for Coonoor early the next morning to meet with Aggal Sivalingam, bird guide extraordinaire and a legend in those parts. With a reasonable amount of confusion on the rendezvous point, we finally landed up at Coonoor's Sims Park.

Nilgiri Flycatcher
A public park with bustling crowds seemed like a strange place to find elusive endemics, but then birds have always surprised us. So we stepped into the park, to run straight into a female Nilgiri Flycatcher, up close and full frame. This was followed in quick succession by an Indian Blackbird, Square-tailed bulbul and a Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher. And before I could catch my breath, a Velvet Fronted Nuthatch and a bunch of Nilgiri Wood Pigeons arrived, albeit high up in the canopy. All this was only a sampler for the main course, it would prove!

Black and Orange Flycatcher

Deeper into the park and a much coveted (and awaited) lifer manifested. The Black and Orange Flycatcher is a Nilgiri endemic and this beautiful bird is almost like a signature bird of the Ooty/Coonoor area. We spent a lovely half an hour with a pair of these lovely birds, quite close to us and reasonably unconcerned with all the tourist hubbub in the background. This session done, we moved on to look for two more coveted species - The Nilgiri Blue Robin and the Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike. The Robin is a skulker and we had glimpses of him in thick, dark bush... net, no pictures.

Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike

The Flycatcher Shrike on the other hand proved a far more willing ally. It came up close, posed for pictures at eye level and then flitted on to its next assignment. And we, most targets done, sauntered around the park for a bit. When a bird with a brown belly came and sat right in front of us. At first glance, I thought it was a Black and Orange, so didn't lift the camera, but a second look and the rufous belly had me scrambling for said photographic equipment - it was a robin! He gave me a look which said 'you had your chance and you blew it'  and flew off without a backward glance leaving me with no chance to even get one frame. Manjunath though was quicker on the draw so he did manage a good picture. And the insult to injury was inflicted by my old adversary, the Indian Scimitar Babbler - who threw up a sighting but as usual was too quick to provide a picture.

And as we headed out Sivalingam sir uttered three magnetic words - Painted Bush Quail. Magnetic because they brought us back to his village the following morning. Apparently a family of these beautiful birds visits his backyard every morning and he's set up a small hide for photographers. Arriving at Aravenu village at nearly 6:30 am the following morning, he hustled us through the tea gardens to his house; the birds have a very small visit window, from 6:30-7:00 every morning. En route, I saw not one, but two Indian Scimitar Babblers perched in the open! This time, I gave my old enemy the cold shoulder by carrying on for the Quails. Not that it affected the Scimitar, I'm sure.

Painted Bush Quail
The Quails duly arrived, as soon as we settled in. A beautiful joint family of 8 birds came out in the open, fed and foraged in front of us, gave us the images we wanted and then melted back into the tea bushes. Follow up a sighting like this with hot coffee and home made snacks and we were truly in heaven. But my world came crashing down that day as I heard of the passing away of my brother - my mentor, wildlife guru, fellow traveler and best friend. A void that would be impossible to even attempt to fill.

September 2016
Nilgiri Flycatcher 
The opportunity to return to the Nilgiris came early September. I was visiting Bangalore on work and a planned Karnataka bandh gave me a couple of unexpected free days. I asked my old friend and ace birder Ramesh Ganeshan if he was up for a birding trip and while we initially discussed local ex-Bangalore destinations, we soon realised that with a bandh looming, the best option was actually much further out. A quick call to Sivalingam sir and all was fixed. We left late one night and drove along excellent roads via Salem, Erode and Coimbatore to reach Aravenu by dawn. And well in time for the Painted Bush Quails.

Vernal Hanging Parrot
Alack and Alas! Some construction activity in the tea estates had caused the birds to forego their daily breakfast and so we headed to Sims Park to help Ramesh get his fill of the Nilgiri endemics. He chalked off virtually all the species bar the Robin so it was a pretty decent morning eventually. It all started with a Crested Goshawk at eye level - nothing more needs to be said on that one. But the highlight of the morning was a Blue Bearded Bee Eater actually sit just above a beehive, with a bee in its beak. Again, a picture eluded us since he zipped off after just a couple of seconds on that most 'perfect' of perches. That afternoon, we headed to another valley for Fairy Bluebirds, Vernal Hanging Parrots and the like. And we got all of them, albeit a bit far away and not on the ideal perch. A Rufous Babbler also made an appearance but way too far for any photos.

Nilgiri Laughingthrush
The next morning was reserved for the Nilgiri Laughingthrush. Another much coveted Nilgiri endemic, this bird is seen in very few places in the region, and none better than the Doddabetta peak near Ooty, the tallest peak in the region. We were told that it would be really easy to find around the tourist path at the summit. We were more than a little skeptical, so we walked much further, in search of undisturbed habitat. No bird. We called Sivalingam sir, only to be told (once again) to wait near the peanut sellers along the tourist path. Obediently this time, we went and waited. And within a few minutes, the birds emerged from the undergrowth to sit on the wire fence, right behind the peanut seller. One came so close that I couldn't even get it in focus! And so, we got our fill of this beautiful little bird and headed on our way to Bangalore - via the beautiful Mudumalai and Bandipur forests.

The Nilgiris have so much more to offer. Top of the list is the spectacular Kashmir Flycatcher. (a regular winter visitor) and other endemics like the Rufous Bellied and Black Eagles, along with other specialities like the Nilgiri Pipit and Nilgiri Thrush. Methinks a repeat visit is on the cards soon!

Nilgiris Guide
This part of the Nilgiris (Ooty/Coonoor/Kotagiri) offers a lot of birdlife and with a 2-3 day trip here you can cover off most of the endemic species of the area. It's easily accessible, with great roads and pretty reliable tourist infrastructure because of the crowds that throng these hill stations

How to get there
Coimbatore (86kms from Ooty) is the nearest airport and major railway head. It's connected with direct flights from Mumbai, and via Chennai from most other cities.

The drive from Coimbatore is on very good roads, whether you take the branch to Kotagiri or Coonoor.

Where to base yourself
Kotagiri or Coonoor would be great, since they're also close to Sivalingam's place. Else Ooty, though it's a bit further away.

Places to stay

Kurumba Village Resort
This is where I stayed in April. It's a lovely resort full of all the mod cons, but reasonably distant from Coonoor or Kotagiri. It has a lot of birds in its own campus, so that is a plus. 

The place (Ramesh Vihar) where we stayed in September was seriously ordinary so I won't even mention it here, but Kotagiri and Coonoor have several other properties including homestays, so accommodation shouldn't be a challenge.

The local legend is Aggal Sivalingam. What he doesn't know about the area is probably not worth knowing. He's a fantastic birding guide and a lovely person. Give him a call on +91-9486530021

Car and driver
You will need a car to travel across these varied spots. Either take your own car or hire from one of the many companies in Coimbatore. Or else Sivalingam can arrange for one as well.

The food at Kurumba is nothing short of sensational. And in Kotagiri, the food at Hari Mess, just off the main square is absolutely divine. It's a small, mess style place with food served on banana leaves. You will love the food and you will not believe the prices!

Malabar Lark

Malabar Parakeet