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.