Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dighal wetlands in Haryana

Dighal is a really neat place in Haryana just before Rohtak where the village is literally surrounded with lakes of all shapes and sizes and which attract birds of all shapes and sizes nd particularly so in the winter time. Migratory species from the north come down to stop over... or stay.... as they wish. The bird count is maintained by a really cool young man called Rakesh. he is the local bird wallah and everyone knows that if they mess with the birds he is going to come up and say something about it. he has spent time educating the villagers not to trouble the birds. In a half a day trip i made with friends recently we saw an inordinate number of species and if we had actually kept count it was surely over about 60 or 70 species of birds, fromt he huge majestic Sarus cranes to the egyptian vultures also called Pharaohs chickens to the little bravest of the lot; the siberian blue throat.
For me this was the highlight of the trip. To see a bird smaller than a myna that came in from Siberia. That takes some doing. It was the bird of the day.
We saw some very tempting kingfisher action but it was usually too far away for a shot. we saw the osprey hover high above the fields taking stock of the situation and deciding against any fishing he left;
bar headed geese with their acrobatics thrilled us as well as some of the northern shoveller and pintails who put on a show but I keep coming back to that tough little bird who is here from siberia. Hats off little buddy!!

Kokkare Belllur, stork city.

The first birding adventure of mine in the south was at this rather cutely named hamlet called Kokkare Bellur. The name means "Stork Bellur" and its named for the huge numbers of large water birds mainly storks cranes pelicans and herons that make it their home and their nursery in the winter months. A short dash from Bangalore in the car at 4 a.m. brought me to stork city at about 6 a.m. on a december morning. It was really too early to see much and the sun was not up. My dream was to shoot the rising sun over the heronry and so made sure that i was there with time to spare. The thing I had not reckoned on was that I would need someone to tell me where the storks were in stork city.
All the info I had prior to this was that they were everywhere and that was fairly clear but as with the early bird getting the worm the early birder had to make do with a coffee and a wait. " there are only pelicans now sir and they are on top of that tree there." The top of that tree was about 40 feet off the ground and the whole sun rise shot idea bit the dust as it were. Apparently not only was I early in the day but I was also too late in the year by 11 months. "The cranes and storks arrive in january Sir, this is still early". Very well, so i determined to make good my trip and soon enough fell in with a bunch of little urchins who were actually very helpful telling me where the river was and where the birds would be and so on. The river proved to be a dud for the most part but the news of the dam on the river that made a lake was very useful. The flat green expanse of water was edged with water hyacinth and huge water lily leaves that like of which i had not seen before. Numbers of bronze winged jacana, egrets, purple swamp hen, herons,among others were there having a gala time. The dam itself is about 50 meters long and encloses the river with a lake behind it for about 4-5 acres.
The pelicans came into view as the sun rose over the trees and got a few good shots there too. They are the world's heaviest flying birds and you can hear the whirr of their wings as they come in to land. there were 2-3 trees with about 40 or more birds on them very high up though so could not really see the nests and so on.
Another nice coffee at the local set me up for my leisurely drive back home. A nice mornings work.

Monday, February 13, 2012


What you ask! yeah yeah coming to that. I started blogging about a year ago and wondered if it was a waste of time to do it and if any one would ever read it. Parallely worked on my camera skills and then wondered if there was something to it. A merger? An amalgamation? A confluence? An extra 'je ne sais quoi' was needed. A catalyst if you will or a cataclysm, an event of enough magnitude that made me do something more than wander around india and write and take pix. It all had to come together. So i waited and one day the penny dropped and www.big5safaris.in was born, where i set up an ad hoc travel assistance portal for people who want to get to the wilds of india and did not know how.

So that was cool and I enjoyed tinkering with the site and the idea and all that and was very much plugged into my 'day job'. I was ok with it and its also one of the things that gives me great satisfaction, (see www.deafinindia.blogpost.com for details on that) but yeah i was looking for a new inspiration and a special place i could put my last few working years into.

Well, i just plugged along and worked and worked and travelled and travelled and then a Facebook event caught my eye. It appears this was to be the change and the long and the short of it was that after my timid beginning with big5safaris, I quit the day job or at least side lined it for a full time job in travel and wildlife photography. Whaddya know!

On a chakkada in gujarat

freezing swim in Pangong Tso

Driving a santro with 4 people from Manali to leh.

Rafting the Indus at Nimmu.

So the smoke sort of clears and i find that i am managing a great firm with great people and we are making people take a break and get connected to nature, and quite coincidentally its called NatureMAX. visit us at www.naturemax.org and at www.big5safaris.in . NMX is focussed on giving you a specific timed/dated trip with a wildlife photography experience with experts along and helping you., and the Big5 is where you can contact me and tell me which safari, when , what , with who and i send you an itinerary and a costing and you do it on your own time.
Cycling down from Khardungla

Shooting with the long lens at Gir.

Bombed out on the grass on the downgrade from Taglangla after two days driving.

Baralachala, in July. these are sights to live for.

Now i call that a great thing. I am enjoying it and as you can see I have not blogged for a long time. I guess the mind did not have a peaceful space to work in. So i hope to blog a whole lot more and post oodles of pix. Posted a few of my random travels here and hope to have many more such. I have a lot of material from so many trips last year, so hopefully should be able to cobble some things together. BTw you can see us on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/naturemax/?notif_t=group_r2j this is the group.
https://www.facebook.com/pages/NAtureMAX-expeditions/247348018668320 this is the page where i post our destinations weekly/monthly and th longer trips we call expeditions, AFrica, andamans, Ladakh and so on.

SO lets hook up and plan for good times all around.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The case of the jaywalking jackal

I am going to call this “The case of the jaywalking jackal!” or Why the jackal crossed the road!

It was in Gir on my last trip that we saw a pair of jackals. We had just been to the smaller part of the sanctuary, where there is a 16km enclosure of animals in the wild. The trip inside the park was nice albeit rather too short for my liking, there were a lot of opportunities for more animal sightings but the 45 minute run was centered around 3 sleeping male lions of the local pride. It comes to me that lions have a pretty cool life. They basically eat what the females kill for them, sleep, walk around marking territory and hang out with the females. I wonder if there is a job opening like that. I would snap it up like billy-o!

On the way back to the hotel we drove along the road dividing the buffer zone and the main forest area wishing we could live here and hang with the lions full time. It was just super weather and a superalative experience just being in Gir for those few days, and we were enjoying our midday reverie.

We were driving along and all of a sudden were jolted out of our reverie by the car coming to an abrupt halt. “Jackals Sir, look up ahead” the driver said. I had the trusty Nikon around my neck and it was in my hand and shooting in a flash. I noticed a pair of jackals that I had not seen earlier, the smaller presumably female crossed the road at a run before I could get a shot and disappeared into the shrubbery on the far side but her beau was not as bold and being of a prudent bent of mind, back tracked into the bush. I got a few shots of him as he circled around the vehicle obviously wanting to follow his lady love. A real handsome specimen he was too. Beautiful gray back with silver highlights and a fawn to beige colouring broke up the outlines and gives him good camouflage in the dry forest where he does his hunting.

His sagacity was shown up when he succeeded in circling behind us and crossed the national highway that is the Junagadh Verawal road. I mean, don’t believe me just believe the pictures. His mother should take full credit for the fact that he looked first right and crossed half the track, and then looked left and crossed the other half. Very different from his lady who dashed across hell for leather, her fear of man and the strange growling from the gypsy engine overcoming her sense of road safety. Her guy was the complete opposite, and crossed in style.

It seems the human interaction has had a very positive effect on him where he has learned probably at the cost of a few scary experiences that it is better to be patient and look, than to be precipitous and run. Good for you, Mr. Jackal, may all jaywalkers be as careful as you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bird driving in Gir forest!

All the hype about lions and leopards has totally sidelined my feathered friends, who came and sat long and hard on my conscience and threatened to make a mess if I did not do something about it. So in order to keep the peace and not go to pieces over the impending deposits of guano on my soul I got out the trusty Mac and am typing away.

As a matter of fact, the birds in Gir are amazing. There are supposedly 140 species of birds if I remember the brochure right and though I did not see any such number I got a glimpse of a lot of new species for me.

As I said in Indiamike the first minute in Gir I saw a black ibis. How cool is that! The forests are full of birdsong, the spring in the air and the crimson flowers of the ‘pichkari kai’ tree. Sorry I don’t know the real name but this is the name of the tree in Kannada, my native language. It gets its name from the fact that the buds contain water which can be squirted at people close by. The range of the squirt is only about a foot or so at best and so makes for a tough get away and so a lot of close range water fighting was done by me and casual acquaintances outside my grandparents home in Mysore in oughty-ought.

Birds with random names such as Iora, Greenish Warbler and Tickell’s blue flycatcher bumped feathers and hung out with others with equanimity just as if
they had normal names.

The first day I was really lucky to get the Tickells fly-catcher, beautiful fellow, sat on a branch really nearby, but as the name suggests he is rather ticklish and fidgets about. A nightmare for a photographer. Nevertheless got a good shot of him and the brahminy starling nee myna. A common wood shrike was playing hide and seek in the tall grass and looking for something to eat no doubt. He paid us no mind as we drove by looking for lions.

The next day we happened upon a huge male lion on the road and spent all of an hour with him. Birds somehow were missed, sadly. When we left him to go on our journey, or rather, when he left us having posed enough, we drove past the lake. That was where we saw a fair number of birds. My favourite the purple sunbird came and sat close by to sing us a song as we watched him glistening in the morning sun. He is just so handsome and I am convinced that someone has told him. He is the prima donna of the forest. The Iora were out in strength and they are a beautiful green. It mixes well with the leaf cover and gives them an edge in camouflage.

Oriental magpie robins kept us company all the journey through the forest and so did peafowl. Some of these were caring for chicks and we saw a lot of young peafowl around. The cocks were all recovering from moulting through the winter and just getting their plumage back. On the way past the lake we saw a darter and a cormorant just waiting to get warm enough to brave the cold water for breakfast. These were joined by a solitary grey heron, rather near a large crocodile, but maybe they have an MOU signed. A crested serpent eagle flew by and settled at the top of a large tree, no doubt soaking up the sun was his plan too. Gir mornings are chilly in late Feb.
That evening I decided to spend some time birding and we stopped for a lot of birds. We got to see a plum headed parakeet and female, more sunbirds, Indian robins, magpie robins, fantailed fly catcher, red breasted fly catcher, white browed wagtail, munias, bee-eaters, rosy ringed parakeets, just birds all around.

Partridges crossing the pathway and whirring off in classic low level flying that the expert top-gun pilots try to emulate in vain. It was just beautiful. I was on the look out for hornbill and the paradise flycatcher but no chance. Then the coolest thing happened, a leopard crossed the track ahead of us. We raced there and found him bounding to the cover of the bushes about 50 yards away. Beautiful animal and some amazing speed he can put on. He covered that distance in 2 secs flat. All birds were out of the mind for the next half an hour as we searched for lions and found them.

2 half grown cubs and mommy. Smashing! Funny, there are never birds around lions it seems. Is that another MOU or just sour grapes cuz the lions are the cynosure of all eyes?? I wonder.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Amazing sightings of leopards in Gir!

The sight of any of the big cats is breathtaking and for me, certainly, each time its different and each time is the same. Its like partaking of some heady brew that makes your senses swim. It gives me a rush. When I miss a sighting on my safaris I really bum out. I mean I have usually seen whole bunch of deer, birds, other animals but no big cat …. And I am just on a bummer. The anticipatory high lets me down with a bump and I am low as low can be.

The quest for leopard began for me when I was in class 6, donkeys years ago. My grandfather went on safari in Bandipur close to Mysore where he lived, and knowing I loved animals, he sent me 6 typed pages of a trip report. His first para contained references to “Mr. Spots walking over the rocks”. The imagery was bold and had a profound impression on me. He has passed on to his reward now, that trip report has become compost somewhere, and I am almost 40 years older, but I remember the thrill that reading the report from him in my hostel dorm gave me.
Recently in Feb I was walking along in Ranthambore and missed a leopard sighting while I was putting away my camera. (Related in “Birdwalking in Ranthambore”). In Gir I was plugged in to lions but upon hearing that there were 320 leopards in the park, I was hopeful. The hopes went up in smoke when all the guides said “ahhhh leopard…… hmmmmm mushkil hai (difficult)”. I was happy with lion and the first day had a sighting but leopard was stuck in my head. Seems to stand to reason that 320 leopards should pop out of the woodwork somewhere, I thought over a contemplative chai at my roadside dhaba. A guide came up and accosted me and said “Oh Sahab we saw three leopards drinking water today” It was an omen. Tomorrow was my day. Suddenly I knew it. It had to be. Why would the guy come to me and give me this tantalizing bit of information???? It had to be.

Next morning I joined a couple who were photographers and we all saw our first leopard in the early dawn just walking through the trees parallel to the road. Well, we saw bits of the leopard at any rate. It seems people don’t often see a whole leopard. I met another chap there at Gir who said he had seen 30% of a leopard. That is a very apt description I thought. A shy animal, the leopard rarely comes out in the open, unlike lions and tigers who are often quite comfortable in human presence. That afternoon we saw another leopard cross the road. He stopped in the middle of the road and looked at us before bounding away. We rushed to the spot but he was racing for the trees and was gone before we could get a shot. But hey, nevertheless two leopards in one day. Pretty good going.

Before I left Gujarat I was able to come back once more and the morning safari drew a blank. No cats. No lions no leopards just a mongoose. Humph! The evening started off well and we saw a lioness at close quarters and then the guide took us to the high point in the trail to wait for twilight and more lions or leopards. We were just sitting there whn a jeep pulled up and a couple of Europeans said the leopard was laying up in the dry river bed in plain sight but had just moved off after they came there 400 yards back. We went down there… no sign of him. We revved up the hill and sneaked back down with engine off and stopped on the bridge. Still could not spot him and then the guide said the magic words. “There he is”. He obviously thought we had gone and had come back to sit there in the deep shadow. Getting a shot was really tough and though I did my best it was a long long way away. He soon got up and moved off unfortunately and we were dismayed until the guide said "He will be up on the hill lets go back." We went back and sure enough he came. He sat down cool as dammit in the undergrowth, beautifully lit up in the setting sun. I could not have asked for more. At least I don’t think so. I could hardly believe my luck. Got the long lens fixed and the bean bag in place as quickly and quietly as I could with my heart beating so loud I thought surely he could hear me.

Then got my fill of his magnificent looks. He looked straight in the camera for about 10 min, before getting up and going about his business. I say got my fill, but big cats are like a heady brew as I said. You have never had enough. Never.

Thanks be to God and He made leopards. www.hypersmash.com

Bird sloshing at Marine Sanctuary!

I was with a group of deaf youth looking for a likely spot to go and see something exotic and we pinged on the Jamnagar Marine Sanctuary. Walking around among corals and looking at sea life promised to be a fun way to spend a few hours.

I turned up at the Jamnagar forest office “Van Sankul” only to find it festooned with flowers and bustling with jeeps all bristling with red lights and antennae. I was nonplussed, how did they know I was coming?? Turns out it was not for me and the forest officer was not getting married; actually Min of Environment Jairam Ramesh was to arrive shortly and inspect their operation. Actually he was there to meet the ICZM “Indian Coastal Zone Management” team.

I was impressed. Jamnagar is a little off the beaten track on the west coast of Gujarat, and here he was inspecting stuff. My taxes at work I said to myself as I popped the big question. “No no no. the marine Sanctuary at Pirotan Island is closed and has been for a while” said the 3 star rated forest officer, and then looking at me pitifully as one looks at someone who just does not get it, “the minister is here today”. I said “I am here with 70 deaf people and we need to see the coral reef and the animals of the sea and …. And…. We only have today.” He came up trumps thank God and said “Oh then you can go to Nirara that is open still.” Boy that was close. Almost missed out completely. So got back to the buses and landed up at Nirara which is east of Jamnagar past the Reliance refinery. Say what??Huh?? More on that later.

The buses stopped and I got out to check out the office. Walking in to the yard I see two great big bones like 10 feet long just standing there, mute testimony to a massive fish that obviously lived off shore. Er…. I hope there is no boating to be done I thought to myself. That fish looked like it would probably swallow the boat and people whole.

I asked and was told that the bones were from the whale shark. A harmless plankton eater, we are safe I told myself, only to find that we were not going anywhere in a boat and the trip was a walk on the tidal flats of Nirara peninsula. The forest officer there was in mufti and did not charge us the 100rs per camera, just took 100rs for mine and let us go. Sweet chap. (70 cameras.. he would have cleaned up big time)

Our guide was an old man and he said he could not speak Hindi hardly at all but knew all about the ocean and its creatures and its vagaries so he would explain it to us as we went along. “That’s great I said but try as much Hindi as possible.”

The walk took us down the road to the beach and the mangrove forest starts right there and goes all down the sides along the beach. The tide obviously recedes a fair bit and we were able to slosh along for about 1.5km into the sea past the high water mark.

All along the way there are live shells underfoot and we were told to wear shoes, no one is allowed to go there bare foot cuz you can get cut. Walking along the guide suddenly charges forward and grabs something in the water and comes out with a crab. Not super big only about 5 inches across. “This one bites” he said as he gave it his metal rod that he carries to turn over rocks. The crab held the rod without any problem, that is about 500gms in his claws. Wow! We took few pics and moved on and this time he got a bigger one just a few feet ahead.

Clumps of seaweed were stuck to rocks in the water and there were two distinct types of weed, one brown and with small leaves and what looked like seeds stuck on and the other plain green, looking for all the world like pale spinach. Walking on I spotted a puffer fish and the guide grabbed it and showed us how it puffs up. Apparently this fish has type two obesity. It blows itself up so you cant hurt it and becomes all spiny and unswallowable. Interesting!
There are these little red things like tentacles in the sea floor and as you approach them they compress themselves underground again. I never figured out what they were but the guide said they were sea creatures that lived under the sea floor. Duh! I had that down. The guide then found a sea cucumber. Now this thing is really aptly named. It just could be a cucumber and until it squirts water at you out of a hole on each end, you are all ready to slice it onto your sandwich.

Going along the guide turns some rocks over and lo and behold I had a brittle star in my hand. I felt really bad cuz bits of it broke off in my hand but they grow back so…. Anyway I put it away under the rock again and left it alone. Somehow interfering in its life bothered me esp when bits come off! Jeez!

There were a few rocks with red coral polyps live polyps growing on them and a bunch of dead corals as well. We saw live moon coral, and the other red coral, then dead brain coral, dead plate coral and dead staghorn coral It seemed to me that there was a fair amount of silting going on too and maybe the corals were not getting their fair share of clean water. There was a sponge, as well, making the best of his evening tea-time plankton and he looked unconcerned when we all crowded around. The guide said if he did not like us he would have buried himself under the sea floor, since he did not, I was cool.
Well, all you had to do was look up at the horizon past the pelicans and painted storks and you could see the oil tankers lining up to pipe their payloads into the refinery. The harbingers of death to this fragile ecosystem. The tide is obviously strong and if there was to be a spill here, there is no way that the Nirara area would survive. I really wonder how the refinery was built a few km down from the Marine Sanctuary. Boggles the mind. Imagine getting directions to a Marine Sanctuary as being just past the refinery. Er.. which was here first the coral reef or the refinery. Hello!!!!

Heading back so we could make it out before sundown I got a few shots of a bird I dunno which one yet. Looks like a plover. Oh and I got the bane of the sea besides. An old fishing net, just sitting there, waiting to get entangled and drown some poor sea creature.

The mangroves get really drowned in the tides it seems after seeing them festooned with sea weed. The last look back to the setting sun and the gorgeous tidal flat so rich with life and so fragile. Mangroves are a threatened tree species if I am not mistaken and there are 7 species in India.

Just as I left I gave one last longing look back and saw over the tops of the trees, past the roosting pelicans, the lights on the tankers come on; I said a prayer for Nirara as we headed back home.