Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pulicat Lake (July 2018) - Noddy in Wonderland

It's one of India's best kept wildlife secrets. And at 750 sq. kms. it is a fairly large thing to hide away as well. Pulicat Lake, straddling Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh is India's second largest brackish waterbody after the much-celebrated and obviously better known Chilika Lake in Orissa. And just like its larger sibling, Pulicat's waters, mudflats and beaches house a bewildering array of birdlife, resident and migratory. Over the last few years, Pulicat's secrets have been gradually unfolding to the rest of the world, mainly thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated birders from Chennai. Almost every season, they have uncovered a rare visitor or two, some just fleeting visitors and others who have stayed for longer. I have been fortunate to be friends with two of these people: Aravind Venkataraman and Ganesh Jayaraman; super-keen birders, fantastic photographers and gracious hosts to any birder who wishes to visit this part of avian paradise. And it is with them and their trusted, trained boatman Yuvaraj that I have made my hat-trick of trips to try and unearth some of the magical treasures of Pulicat Lake.

Rainy debut
White-bellied Sea Eagle
My first visit was with Aravind a couple of Septembers ago, with Ganesh traveling on work. Unusually for Chennai, it rained the previous night and the morning too dawned cloudy and drizzly. But that did not deter Aravind as we drove the 70 odd kilometers to Pulicat. We got on to Yuvaraj's boat as the sun threatened to break clear of its cloudy shackles. But it just never did. We got some superb sightings of White Bellied Sea Eagles, including one adult bird that was feasting on an eel, sitting on one of the wooden posts that dot the lake. It allowed us to get quite close without getting disturbed, but the light just wasn't good enough to do the pictures any justice. The trip was rounded off by sightings of Grey Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumages, and a Spot-billed Pelican. Magnificent sightings, they were and I left Chennai salivating for more Pulicat.

The Missing Tattler

Bar-tailed Godwit
The Indian birding fraternity went into a tizzy in September/October 2017 with the sighting of a Grey-Tailed Tattler in Pulicat, probably the first record for India. Aravind and Ganesh reached out as soon as it was sighted, but I was reluctant to go all the way for a single bird. So I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks until a family visit popped up in Chennai. And Pulicat beckoned once again. We spent a superb afternoon there, with some stunning sightings of Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers. But the tides had turned against me (literally) as far as the Tattler was concerned. The bird had vanished a few days earlier. But the other birds more than made up.

Pacific Golden Plover
Lesser Noddy
The Lesser Noddy. Another of those Tattler-type rarities that arrived in Pulicat in May this year. We all expected it to stay a week or so, and so I never really planned to go. Then it stayed for a month. Aravind and Ganesh again kept offering to take me there, and I said I would come if the bird stayed till July - I had a cousin's 'big birthday' celebration then. And I really did not expect to still find the bird there. However, on the 9th of July, a day before I headed to Chennai, Aravind confirmed that the bird was still there. Not just bird, there were now 3 birds, two months after they first arrived! Did anyone say they were vagrants?

Aravind was ready as always at 4:30 a.m. for the drive to Pulicat. Once there, we got on board with Yuvaraj, a fisherman turned bird guide, handpicked and trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He confirmed that the birds were still there and that was good enough for me. The one bummer (there always has to be one!) was the weather. It was overcast and the threat of rain hung in the air. Thankfully the latter never arrived but the clouds definitely threw a spanner in the photography works.

Sandwich Tern
We scanned the lake for the Noddy(s) but they didn't seem to want to make an immediate appearance. There were scores of other birds as well. Terns, Gulls, a couple of Peregrine Falcons and the odd Osprey made for an interesting start to the morning. And then we saw it. Within a big group of terns sat one brown bird. A Lesser Noddy. Yuvaraj used all his skill to manoeuvre us as close as possible and we got a few photos. It didn't quite live up to its reputation as a willing model and was a bit skittish. But I was not complaining! Just to be able to see this beauty was well worth it. And while lining up a shot for this bird, a tern popped up in the frame. At first glance it looked larger and slightly different from the rest. And a closer look at the bill confirmed that it was different indeed! It was a Sandwich Tern, a bird I had only seen earlier through a spotting scope a fair distance away. Now it was less than 20 feet away and sitting very comfortably. Deeply grateful, I clicked a few pictures, thanked Yuvaraj and we both bid adieu to this incredible birding treasure called Pulicat.

It has thrown up a magical sighting or surprise every time I have visited. Yuvaraj's skill in spotting a rarity within the thousands of birds spread over a mind-boggling expanse is nothing short of spectacular. And a special thanks to his mentors and my friends, Aravind and Ganesh. In an increasingly competitive birding world, they are always open, always welcoming and always sharing information with other birders. Not to say always willing to drive a fair distance at an unearthly hour, just to help you see a bird that they have seen a dozen times. May their tribe increase!

We all believe that Pulicat has many more hidden treasures hidden within its watery expanse. And slowly but surely, it is opening up that treasure chest for us. As Ganesh And Aravind say, there's a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in here somewhere! 

Here's to many more trips to this incredible birding wonderland.

Pulicat Lake Trip Guide

Pulicat Lake is a 750 sq. km. brackish water body, the second largest in India. It straddles 2 Indian states - Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with most of the lake falling within the latter state. It is also home to Sriharikota, one of the homes of India's space programme. From a birding point of view, it has been sparingly explored (not surprising given the expanse, terrain and the high-security zone it falls under) and that too on the Tamil Nadu side. Even so, the variety of bird life and the rarities it has thrown up is nothing short of astonishing.

Getting there

Pulicat is about 60 odd kms to the North of Chennai, in the direction of Gummidipoondi and Nellore. Chennai, of course, is the nearest metro and airport and a 2 hour drive on mostly good roads. Like with any big city, the drive can get much longer during peak hours.

The best way to get there is to drive from Chennai. 

Chennai should be your base for Pulicat. And it has all kinds of options, for stay and food. If you have to pick, then try and stay as close to central or northern Chennai; it will help you cut down on the drive time.

Yuvaraj is your man for Pulicat. An ex-fisherman, he is now almost a full time bird guide and has been expertly trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He's quite in demand these days, especially when the rarities arrive, so please call and check his availability. You can reach him on 

Other Tips
Spending a few hours on an open boat is a delight but it also comes with its own watchouts.
Please carry a cap and adequate water. And sun block if you need.
And carry a snack with you, like some biscuits or fruit. You're always going to feel peckish after a couple of hours.

Ruddy Turnstone

Spot-billed Pelican

Caspian Terns

Ranthambhore (June 2018) - Hat-trick in one year!

There are special years and then there are special years. 2018 gave me the opportunity to visit Ranthambhore three times and when such chances come calling, there were no close dental inspections of the proverbial gift horse. I was joined by two junior wildlife enthusiasts, my daughter and one of her closest friends. The old routine was followed to a T- and it worked like clockwork. The train from Mumbai arrived on time, Hemraj picked us up at the station and we entered Zone 1, albeit an hour after the park's scheduled opening time of 6.00 a.m.

Now when you're that late, you're usually looking for another jeep, moving ones indicate no sightings yet while stationary ones almost always point to a sighting. This time we drove through almost the entire zone without spotting another vehicle. Typically, that would trigger disappointment, but in our case it brought optimism; maybe someone was seeing a tiger right at the end of the zone! And sure enough, we rounded a bend and a couple of jeeps were stationed on the road and pointing to something in the undergrowth. And there, lazing under a tree was one of Ranthambhore's princesses. She was one of the sub-adult daughters of Noor, one of the park's dominant tigresses from a litter of three female cubs. It was a relatively cool summer morning and her majesty seemed in no mood to stir as she rested. Once every few minutes she would stir, getting our hopes up, only to roll over and snooze again. She repeated this sequence right till the end, no doubt with silent little chuckles at her adoring human audience.

A tiger sighting on the first safari is always special and it whets the appetite for the second. That afternoon, the plan was to look for Krishna, my daughter's favourite tigress, with a litter of three cubs. We'd just got a glimpse of the family on our last visit and badly wanted a 'quality' sighting this time. And we scanned through all her usual places in Zone 4, but with absolutely no sign of her or the cubs. She was probably back in 'Toota' Nala, which was off bounds for tourist vehicles. And Hemraj was even more disappointed than Navya; one of the things that makes him special is how keen he is for children to get their sightings and he will push to his limits to make that happen. Truly a privilege to have access to him and his expertise.

This time, we gave up on her early and decided to head back in case we got lucky with another sightings. And the jungle often rewards initiative with some serious luck, even if not always of the feline variety. We'd just crossed the Baba ki Gufa area near Lakkarda check post, when we saw a spotted deer kill next to the road, with a pair of jackals in attendance. And as they settled down to tuck in, they had a rather unwelcome and uncommon visitor to the buffet - a wild boar. Often prey themselves, these opportunistic omnivores aren't averse to a free meal or two especially at the expense of a small animal they can bully. And as we watched, the poor jackals tried their best to budge him from their (presumably) hard won meal, but size did matter as the boar simply bulldozed them away while he had his fill. We never got to see the end of this drama as our safari time drew to a close, and we drove away marvelling at the jungle and the surprises it throws up, seemingly at will.

Day 2 was a half day safari, and this time we were joined by Rajesh Gujar, another ace naturalist and wonderful person. Between Hemraj and him, we have the pick of Ranthambhore's naturalists and their insight and personalities always livens up a safari, even those where there is nothing to see. I was looking forward to the half day, since I'd never done one before. And Rajesh had planned it perfectly - head to Zone 2 to try for Noor and her sub-adults, then drive through Zone 3 for Arrowhead and maybe her mate and then finally close it out with Krishna and her cubs. His instinct was to wait for some news of Krishna from the morning's jeeps and then head straight there. And it went perfectly to plan, well almost.

Driving through the bumpy roads of Zone 2, we came across another of Noor's cubs at the anicut in Phootakot. She walked across the wall of the little dam and settled down on the far side under a tree. And we left her with the rest of the jeeps and drove onwards to check for T60 or her grown up male cubs. And we immediately came upon one of the brothers sitting near the Pandu Deh waterhole.He was grooming himself, an indicator that he was ready to move. A date maybe? We let him walk away and then drove further into a little bunch of jeeps. The other brother was on the move too. He walked really close to the jeeps and through a gap (deliberately accorded to him by the respective guides/drivers) he walked into the Magardeh Nala. 

He marked his territory, a sign of him expressing his presence to all and sundry and then walked off to find a shady corner to spend the afternoon contemplating his future. Sub adult male tigers have to go through a period of nomadic existence, usually away from their home territories. Their father no longer wants them around and their mother usually has a new litter to nurture and protect. And these young fellas get turfed out, left to fend for themselves like teenagers in college. For now they have each other, but that will change soon as they set out to carve their own territories.

We headed back to check for Arrowhead and then onwards to Krishna. As we approached the Khemchakund, a beautiful medieval stepwell, we came across a stationary jeep who told us that Arrowhead had made a kill in front of their jeep just minutes ago. She'd dragged the kill into the undergrowth and through a gap in the foliage we saw her gorging on her meal. She was at it for a bit and then, evidently full, she lay down for a well deserved snooze. And we moved further towards Krishna's territory. On the way we met Hemraj in another jeep and he'd checked for Krishna and found no traces of her or the cubs. Certainly a knock to our hopes, but we soldiered on nevertheless. And as we crossed Lakarda, we suddenly saw a movement from the bushes and, without warning, a tiger stepped on to the road in front of us! It was a male, and he crossed and sat for a couple of minutes before disappearing down the slope into the valley. We got a couple of record shots of him and later learnt that he was T25 or Zaalim, a legend in Ranthambhore, now a respectable senior citizen. He's been seen infrequently over the season so it was great to see that he was still around. No longer the force he was, but still a brilliant tiger - for Navya it was special to see him in the flesh after watching him in documentaries.

Krishna once again played truant and we finished our half day safari with 5 different sightings, including an unexpected one in Zaalim.

A hat-trick of trips to Ranthambhore then and each one special in its own right. Here's to many more special years like this one!

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town, is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.

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

For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place ( built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

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

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

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

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

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

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

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

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

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

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

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