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.

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.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bird walking in Rajkot.

I arrived at the Navjeevana Convention center a tad early, fresh from Gir. The campus is quite large with a banana grove and many trees over a few acres. This should be rich birding I said to myself and sure enough from my window I could hear birdsong. So many different calls and so close by that I decided to go down and outside and check it out.

A host of babblers were there making their presence felt as they always do but when they were joined by no less than 4 male purple sunbirds and when a shikra flew by going after a spotted dove, I decided there was more to this place than met the eye. The place was swarming with birds. I had left the camera in the room and on going up I realized that I could just use the bean bag and the window sill and get a lot of good shots at tree top height.

That proved to be a good idea and sure enough after I set up a golden oriole parked himself right outside. I mean wow! In the first hour sitting at my window I had already spotted babbler, golden oriole, common myna, sunbird, blue rock pigeon, collared dove, spotted dove, shikra, lapwing, greater coucal, rosy ringed parakeet, red vented bulbul, drongo, koel, oriental magpie robin. I got a few shots of the oriole and babbler and the sun bird that I had not been able to get in Gir.
The shikra was across the entire property and even though I could see it, the picture did not really make the grade at all. He was a really sneaky fellow. He would sit up in the branches deliberately unnoticeable and then swoop out suddenly after the doves. I did not see him score though but he was at it.
My favourite bird is the purple sunbird and finding it in strength here was a bonus. Getting a picture was wonderful as well.
A very fun part of being in Rajkot is driving on a “chakkada”. This last is a motorbike with a pick-up truck back. We all piled in for a great fun ride adown the main highway. Apparently its only outside the city that it can be used for passengers, inside the city its only for goods. Still I thought the picture looks pretty good! Ha!

Way down on the Ghaggar river.

I was up at Phil's place in Panchkula and having some time on my hands I tried to recruit him for a bird walk. He was busy. Heading off out of country for work. Just when I thought I would have to go alone, Jimmy his 17 year old offered to come along. Nice! So we took off for the Ghaggar river. He said that was the best place for birds in the morning and so we got a cycle rickshaw and off we went.

It was a freezing day. I mean it was really cold. I dont normally get cold so easily but the wind down from Kasauli in the himalayan foothills and the overcast low cloud ceiling all added up to a muggy, will-rain-wont-rain sort of day. I was trying out my new lens 500mm Catadioptric lens, a mirror lens. First time I was using it so I had a back up 70x300 (No VR) along as well and Jimmy was the lens toter.

On the way there we spotted a few doves flying by and the odd egret off hunting more cows to sit on and then a handsome little pied wagtail. I had seen these in Kashmir before and not gotten a shot so stopped and took a few pix. He was amenable and obligingly stood there n between his foraging for bugs. When we hit the river we saw about 200 kites and other raptors just sitting there on the stones on the river bed. It was really odd. Why so many and why there. There was nothing there to eat and they did not do much, just sat there and stared at each other like they were in Parliament. Looked strange! A few others had spotted them as well and watched to see what next. We decided to make our way down the side of the embankment to the river shores and get some pix of waders. On the way there we saw a lovely rufous backed shrike in the reeds. Really a handsome fella. A drongo was busy in the bushes and then all at once above us was a beautiful Egyptian vulture. How he got to Panchkula dont ask me. I even saw one in the Taj once. I got a picture but it was so hard to shoot a white bird on an overcast day from below.

Walking down the embankment we reached the river bed and were able to enjoy the swifts aerobatic display much better. They were doing figure-of-eights at high speed and I marvel that they dd not hit each other at all. Amazing to see them. A whole bunch of waders were plying their business, Black winged stilts, ring necked plover, sandpipers at least two species and egrets galore.

I was pleasantly surprised to find not much filth around the river banks and it was passably ok to walk on and even sit on the sand if you wished. The bank is a bit crumbly in places and I bit the dust once trying to get a good shot of the swifts.

I called it quits after about an hour down there and on the way back home walking along we saw a Eurasian Hobby (?) and a crested serpent eagle. This last was marching about among the stones in the river, totally engrossed in his goal of getting a meal. The hobby also shifted about from one perch to the other and the local tea shop guy said "oh he sits here every day." so someone else noticed him as well evidently.

We got home as the light faded to a low and the sun glowed through the clouds at house top level, the egrets were heading home to roost and the crows were getting all feisty on the roofs of the houses as we pulled in by rickshaw and headed in fro a hot cuppa.

Good fun for a couple hours, just filling up the day as we lazed around on a cold Sunday, waiting for something to happen.

Monday, February 28, 2011

jeeping for Lions in Gir forest!

It was a long awaited trip. I have been dreaming of going to the mystical forest of lions called “Gir” since I was old enough to read about them. Call it 40 years. The name “Gir” so close to “Grrrrrowl” conjures up amazing imagery in a child’s mind and when I finally got there I re-lived all those times I had dreamed of being right where I was… at Gir…. With a camera to boot.

A note to all the intrepid travelers who wish to come to “Grrrrowl” I mean Gir; get to Ahmedabad somehow and then take a bus that goes either to Somnath or Veraval. This is far better than the train which goes till Junagadh and then you have to make your own way at some God forsaken hour of the morning and cover 60 km to Gir. If you are like me, and not a morning person, you will probably lose something on the way and when you do actually wake up (around 9.30) it will have ruined your whole day. The bus on the other hand, very decently, I might add, drops you right smack in front of the place where you book your safari, which is inside the best place to stay for budget travellers like moi meme, called Sinh Sadan (roughly translates to “Place of the Lion”).

So I get dropped at Gir and then find myself looking at a whopping huge bird on top of the tree right by the road inside Sinh Sadan. It was huge and intent on hogging the banyan tree fruit/berries whatever. The place is full of trees and trees full of birds, I mean talk about a welcome. Turned out it was a black ibis. New bird for me! All in the first minute. Then the misleading began.

I was led by a chap in a camo outfit who said he was a guide (he was) to reject Sinh Sadan on account of its exorbitant cost (false info) and was led instead to a hotel, smack outside Sinh Sadan. Decent clean room. 400rs. Clean bathroom. No TV yaay! Hot water. Balcony overlooking the trees full of birds. Landing for the tripod. Ledge for the bean bag. I mean perfect. Misguides notwithstanding.

More misleading. The guide said I could book a jeep and go off right away. So I charged up 2 floors got my camera gear and raced down before you could say Grrrrowl. This was not happening. There are specific timings and they are to be followed. The safari system is pretty organized as far as price goes. It’s queuing that’s the problem. Also guides who misguide you. I filled out a form and asked the guy at the window to arrange some people to share my jeep or I would have to cough up 1300rs by myself. ‘Ahem… I would rather not do that’ I told him.

Anyway I found I had about an hour and a half to kill as it were so pushed off for a leisurely bath and breakfast and in the meantime the sun came up properly. Lovely weather I was fortunate to have. Sun was out, no clouds, temperature at 22-24C in the sun. Sweet! My kind of weather.

I turned up at the counter with my misguide and found that nobody had joined me. Ooops! And just when I was forking over the money, a family turned up with 5 members and they wanted one more to hook up with. Glad I did and again I don’t know. We got a guide who looked like he belonged in middle school. Turned out he was a new (sic) guide, “only 6 months Sir” he chirped like a sunbird, as he manfully tried to look manful in his 100lb frame and his camo outfit. It seems camo outfits are all the rage here, with guides and misguides alike.

The first safari with very sweet well-meaning Oriya people, full of hospitality and just out for the ride. Our little guide was very enthusiastic as he pointed out black birds and brown birds as they flew by. Er…. Names of the birds if you please. But they were not forthcoming. Not that anyone else cared. They were thrilled to see multi colours of birds. I was getting a little cheesed off if I may say so.

About 2 km into the forest we had a flat on the rickety gypsy we were in and I rather lost it. The driver called in the owner who came in on a bike to change the flat and send us off for a 20km drive without a spare. ‘Really smart this, in lion infested forest to have no stepney’, I said and he tried to be really smarmy about it. Upshot was I raised cain and he replaced the vehicle, though not the guide. More’s the pity.

The drive is actually quite beautiful and though the forest is drying up there are trees at this time in leaf and some in flower which really make the drive pleasant. Driving along slowly through the rather thick forest on a dirt path scanning the undergrowth for any sign of lion (411 at last count), leopard (320 at last count) and other animals is really exciting to say the least. Each turn I expected to see a lion coming towards us! Birds were out in force and I was hoping for a slaty headed parakeet, and changeable hawk eagle. We saw the nest of the hawk eagle but no slaty headed parakeet. Got a new bird though and RWe on Indiamike id’ed it to be a Rufous tailed shrike. Also got a few other birds, really handsome Tickells blue Flycatcher and red breasted fly catcher. The family in the jeep was not really into birds especially not little ones half a furlong away that I was shooting and often I totally missed a shot cuz the head of the family would tell the driver to take off.

One really amazing thing they have here is a team of lion trackers on bikes. The bike is green and the guy is in camo and the petrol tank reads “tracker”, so its official. These guys are for real and when you see one you know he has a lion nearby. We bumped into one of these blokes at the edge of a river and he took us to where the lioness was lying up.

He cool as a cucumber walks up a little lane in the forest and points and there 20 yards away is a lioness. I mean, dude, this guy was walking around like Sunday picnic, while we caught our breath at the first sight of the Asiatic lion in the wild. I cant express how I felt. It was a really amazing feeling. Felt so in awe of the animal. She just sat there and looked at us like she owned the place and we were the poor relations. Another jeep was there and the tracker had them move away so we got a better look. Again just walking around sorting out traffic 15 yards from the lion!!

The thing with Gir is the undergrowth. The auto focus is useless unless you know how to fiddle with it so it works a certain way and then the next bit of undergrowth is again different so it goes all off again. (you probably figured that I don’t know how to fiddle with it.. right? Yeah ok) Anyway so I put the camera on manual and worked the lens. Got a few shots before she decided she had put up with enough, and coolly got up and walked off around a bend in the river bank behind dense bushes and was lost from sight.

Just recovering from that amazing sight of this huge lion just meters away. I mean it was a long time coming and came with a bang. The dream and the anticipation and the expectation and the actual sight coming together made a deep impact on me. I literally could not speak for a while. How I envied that tracker his job. Gosh!

The rest of the drive was uneventful, my companions stopped to see peacocks and spotted deer and oohed and aahed appropriately while I was dozing after my night-long bus ride before we got back.

The afternoon safari was more of the same and though I had fun company we had got the same tour route and saw the same lioness again. This time asleep or trying to sleep in the racket. That night back at the hotel the owner said he had a jeep and he was anxious to have me use it, and so bring him some money. I was fed up with misguides and kid guides and so spoke a little roughly about kid guides, wet behind the ears with coloured birds on the brain and as I said this someone piped up and said “oh yes we know exactly what you mean. That is why we go just the two of us”. Turned around to find a couple from Pune who said they were photgraphers and I said “ oh so am I” lets share a jeep tomo. They bought the con and sure enough we hooked up the next day at 6 am. What a drive that was!

We had gotten news that there were leopard sightings at route 3 and so got that route for our morning trip and went off all excited. No disappointment here. About 15 minute into the drive while it was still not fully daylight and the trees were all in shadow, there was Mr Spots walking along among the trees. In the uncertain light we were initially not sure it was leopard but then it clearly showed spots and all three of us had our first leopard sighting. They had been to a lot of parks and obviously were really well traveled so I was obviously more fortunate than they.

In the next 5 minutes we came up behind a huge male lion walking down the road. Just like that, ahead of us. We were like following this guy for about an hour. He was the Richard Gere of lions. He would walk a while, get off the road and sit a while then get up and take a crap and then rub himself on the trees and roar then walk again, then sit and pose again. I mean this guy was a movie star. After we had shot our cameras to the point of not wanting to take any more pix we just sat and stared at this lion. Such a handsome guy, I mean really. He finally figured that he needed to carry on and we were through with the shoot so he pushed off through the bushes perpendicular to the track and let us go on.

We were all in shock and awe struck by what we had just seen. Really it is not a simple thing to experience. The King of beasts is rightly named.

The rest of the track was a beautiful drive through lush forest with the sun trickling in through the tree-tops giving the track a patchwork of gold light among the shadows. As we drove on we came to a huge lake. I forget the name but it was really quite big. An island in the middle yielded a croc and a purple heron and a river tern. Apparently an old lion was found dead here last year according to the guide, (a good one this time). The drive back was again filled with spotted deer and peafowl and surprisingly no other vehicles. That was a mercy. We were all talking and discussing the other drives and parks we had been on, when guess what…. We bumped into the same lion on his rounds again. He seemed cool to see us but did not stop and pose this time he was evidently heading somewhere. We drove along behind him and when he spotted people ahead of him he got off the track and we got ahead of him. He would not follow us but stayed behind us off the track. Was just so much fun watching him prowl through the forest. Amazing. And what camo. Talk about camo, this guy could sit down and you could not see him hardly at all. Well we finally left him to go back to our safari and calibrated time schedules, when lo and behold we bumped into a tracker. Sure enough he had a lion around. A handsome young lion as against Big Daddy we had been hanging out with. The hassle was that we had gotten so much great stuff with Big Daddy that we were spoiled and we did not spend much time with the little fella. Not that he was little, he looked pretty tough to me and itching to prove his point.

That brought us home and all razzed for the afternoon. I pushed my luck for one more and as we left I said “ok I want a leopard like clearly and a pride of lions and a sun bird and a slaty headed parakeet. That is the order for this trip mr driver and mr guide so snap to it”. It became a standing joke for the three of us. I really wanted those pix and Mani and Priyanka have some mean gear and he knows his Nikon lenses and stuff, and she is a killer on the HD video cam. So with me along as dead weight they did not really mind too much, we were gonna get those shots all right. We got our leopard crossing the track 100yards ahead of us. For a second he stopped right in the middle and looked at us and then took off for the forest. The driver raced to the spot and as we pointed the cameras to where he might have been he upped and ran hell for leather to the brush and we had no chance at all. We saw him, a big cat really big. I thought leopards were smaller but he has been eating his deer like his mama taught him, it appears, cuz he was big. I was just thrilled to see him run. I mean he took off like you have no idea. We read about speed and all that in wildlife books and so on. Seeing him cover the ground like lightning was a whole different ball game. If he was coming for you, you’d have no chance at all.

So thrilled we were to have seen a leopard in clear light and so sad no camera worked on him but still thrilled at the sighting we talked and talked about how it had been for us. Then there we were at the end of the track and our guide (another good one) got off to look around he said. He came back all smiles, ‘there are three lions right there’ he said ‘but we gotta go off track and its not allowed but maybe we squeeze under this tree and try’.
This is risky cuz they would get in trouble if someone saw them but soon enough a tracker found us. ‘ did you see the lions’ he asked When he heard we had not seen them yet he said bring the jeep here and took us 50 -70 mtrs off road to about 20 yards from 3 lions. There he was again traipsing around the forest with 3 lions, 2 cubs and mommy right there 15 yards off. The two cubs backed off behind a tree when we showed up and the mother followed suit. She had a limp and had hurt herself last hunt it seemed. We sat there and looked at these far out creatures and realized that we needed to come back for more. The forest deep and dark behind them, their golden coats tinged with the setting sun, the innocent look in the eyes of these cats, the classic rich-kid bored expressions, and the koel calling in the background is something that is stamped now indelibly on my mind. The lions in Gir.

There is no way this feeling can be replaced. It is something that you have to do again and again. The thrill of a lion. Grrrowl!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More bird driving, this time Ladakh!

I will be very honest with you, I never thought of bird when I was planning to drive to Leh from Delhi and come back via Srinagar. Really I had no thought of birds at all. And yet I look back and see that on my trip I stopped for birds a fair bit. Ok the pix are really amateur and blah but the surprise of them was the fun part.

Two birds I had never heard of were spotted and Photographed by my daughter all of 13. With my camera and without my permission, but thank God she did cuz I would never have the Horned lark and the Himalayan chough in my collection if she had 'obeyed dad and not touched my DSLR".

The landscape is stark and forbidding and the road is.... road what road... there is no road but the exhilarating thrill of the high mountains gives me a rush. This is all the more so when a francolin struts across the road (?) in front of my car or darts off down the hillside as I drive by. The birds made me watch the sides of the road and the hillside much more. I had dismissed the Himalayan chough as a crow initially and not really given it much attention, in truth the road at Rohtang was so bad and cut up, that I was giving staying in one piece, my full focussed attention. It was only in Pang that Anjali, my daughter got the pic of the chough.

Crossing the Moreh Plains after Pang was a battle in itself and I will not make that trip again in a Santro loaded with kids, for all the tea in China. It was a really hairy experience. I had Scorpio drivers who met me in Leh comment on the road and ask me how I got thru. At the tea stop almost at the end of that awful drive across the Moreh plains was where my daughter spotted the Horned Lark. Actually I had to put that pic on Indamike in a thread called "which bird is this" to know it was the horned Lark. I was busy darning my frayed nerves looking nonchalant and filling the car with gas when she took the pic and saw it only later that night in Leh.

The ubiquitous Himalayan Magpie is a beautiful if rather threadbare bird. It looks for all the world like it needs to get its suit repaired at the tailors. These are all over the place in Leh and the whole Ladakh region. Funnily enough I never saw them in 2009 when i was up there. This trip in July 2010 I saw a whole truckload. Somehow had not got the hang of the camera then, so pix are not really up to scratch.

Then wonderfully enough driving to Pangong lake I was able to photograph a Himalayan Marmot. These are usually shy creatures but driving by does not seem to bother them. The photo taken from a moving car was not too bad. Driving in Ladakh is a little different to most other wilderness drives. The stark landscape is an acquired taste. Personally I love it. The beautiful rock formations and the striated layers of rock in mountain sides, the sand blowing away from the edges of ridges exposing spires of granite forming fantastic castle turrets on the side of the rivers, these are the sights that thrill me. Driving along and seeing mile after mile of rocky slopes and huge slabs of upright rock hundreds of feet in the air gives one a feeling that cant be explained easily. The Mars-scape, as it was described to me is interspersed with patches of deepest green and, as the marmots have proved, life abounds here. Further along we saw a whole family of marmots and got a couple pix of them too.

I am not really into this type of drive by shooting but in some situations it seems the only way to get anything, so any port in a storm. At pangong there are gulls, black headed gulls. I just could not believe my eyes. How could there be gulls at 16500 ft on a lake a few thousand km inland??? It really boggles the mind. How did they get there? What do they eat? Nest? Breed? Its just unfathomable, at least for me.

Seeing them was fun though and I just enjoyed the view after i got over my initial shock. The panorama was to die for and that was worth it all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bird walking in Ranthambore!

Yes..... Walking inside the tiger infested jungles of Ranthambore!

For those of you who have been there its no great shakes right? There is temple there and a fort and the public walks there all the time. Haha! We had a fruitless safari ( read no tiger sighting) and I was slightly peeved and running to irritation t having driven all the way from Delhi only to hear that the tigress with cubs had been sealed off in zone 5 cuz she was not well, having suffered an injury and been treated by the rangers. I wanted so much to shoot pix of tiger cubs. Rats!

Anyway, it was the 4th day of the waxing moon and the temple was alive with pilgrims who come to do the walk around the temple thru the forest. I asked the guide if we could do that, he was like "sure just get off and come home on your own." I was ready and yet the kids said they wanted hotel and breakfast. So I demurred. Then it occurred to me that they could just go and I could come a little later. So I got off the open canter with my camera and the long lens and decided to walk the rest of the way. All of 4 km.

It was an amazing walk. Just knowing I could see a tiger at any time and watching the birds going about their business was just so much fun. The pilgrims were there in force and the jeeps were whizzing by, the only discordant note was their honking. during the morning safari I had spotted a white bellied drongo but got no shot of it. He very decently came by and I got a few really neat shots at him. A handsome fellow, little smaller than his city buddy the black drongo.

A beautiful pool yielded a gaggle of moorhens and I just sat there and watched and took a few pix. They squabbled a bit over the supply of weed and no doubt other tasty tidbits they were going after. The magarmuch (croc) in the pool splashed off at being observed while he was sunbathing, I fear he had dark things on his mind regarding me and I stayed clear of his domain. A common kingfisher came along made a quick dive for his mid morning elevenses and pushed off leaving me once more amazed at his beauty. Just sitting there and contemplating the scene relaxed me and I fear if the tiger had made an appearance I would not have noticed.

A few local girls walked by and seeing my huge lens giggled among themselves while passing comments about my purpose there on the jungle road. I took a few pix when they were out of speaking distance just so nobody objected. Certainly they did not. Some of the boys showed me a croc in a crevice of rock. baby croc.

I met up with them later and they said they had seen a leopard just after they met me, right by the next pool. Such is fate, I saw birds they saw leopard, but the moorhen pool had calmed my nerves and I was ready to forgive anyone anything.


We were driving to Ranthambore National park after hearing of sightings of few weeks old tiger cubs with their mother. Need less to say my daughter said "so cute!! can we go can we go!" I need no second invitation or encouragement. Always ready to drop work and run off to some forest or the other, I even convinced the kids friends to bunk school and come with us. My kids are home schooled so they promised to catch up with work later in the week.

Driving thru Rajasthan is always nice cuz the road is so good from Delhi to Jaipur. We made that in good time and then hit the district road which left a lot to be desired in terms of surface. Surface.. what surface!!! Mud, rock, gravel and macadam share the space equally. The redeeming feature was the bird life along the way.

I spotted a series of birds and decided i wanted to go slow and stop and take pix in the good late afternoon sunlight. I stopped for what looked like a shrike, and got a good shot of a collared dove into the bargain. Only hassle was that i left my glasses on top of the car and realised only 20 km later. 1000rs down the drain! Aaargh! Then a series of Indian rollers took my mind off my worries and scores of bank mynas kept us company as we ate the humble fare at a roadside dhaba. Paying off the not so humble bill, I got to see more rollers and then a black backed shrike. This bird was so bold as to let me approach fairly close. Unfortunately he moved right when i was to take a photo and I could only get underbelly shots. A pied starling made an appearance and got a better shot thatn i did in Chilika. Sparrows and silverbills on a sheaf of wheat made a nice photo as well and as the light faded I got down to the serious business of driving much to the kids approval.
Had a great bird walk in Ranthambore which I will share soon.