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
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
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.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Living in Gurgaon for years and hearing of the lake of the flamingos and not seeing it was eating me. I have been to many places like Bharatpur and Ranthambore and all that, but to realise that there was a lake with flamingos in it right here near our home and not go there has been too much for me.
I set off once or twice in a valiant attempt to locate the lake and ended driving in circles for hours and getting nowhere. Google maps I found dont help when nothing looks the same and people are digging deep sewer lines and the kids in the car are clamoring for Coke and respite.
Finally I decided to leave all the half hearts behind and take off. Coke bah, respite forsooth! But this plan too grew moldy on the shelf as I get busy with work and all that hinders a birder from simply getting out there. Wandering around in circles also did not appeal to me and my faith in google having been shaken I was in need of a good tonic to make me get out there again. The bracing brew came in the form of an idea. Take a cab!!! The local driver would surely know or at least speak enough haryanvi to figure it out. Sheer genius.. I told myself smugly as I asked the kids if they were ready for flamingos, (I had a change of heart and since I was not driving...). The chorus of no's told me I was on my own and my tripod toters had just given me the brusheroo. I would have to tote my own tripod, along with my new 3 kg lens, I was going to get my gym time alright.
Next morning the cab arrived and sure enough, our man Flint, had not the foggiest that there was a jheel before Karnal 140km away. I assured him that Google had clearly marked it on the map and all we needed to do was believe and drive. His face showed the level of his faith in Google as he mumbled something derogatory about nuts and lakes under his breath and prepared resignedly to drive me to the kingdom come. He was a sport tho' as it turned out and in short order he had the area of the lake pegged and after a little shady driving on the wrong side of the road with a weather eye out for cops on bikes, he brought me to the same fields and ponds where I had lost my way last time.
Here the haryanvi paid off and he asked some people for directions and of course they knew the lake, so before you could say sweet lassi, we were off lickety-split down the road to the lake.
I spotted a group of curlews and stopped him and as I set up my camera to shoot he really got the shutterbug bug (to coin a phrase). I shot the curlews and over exposed them like the khans. Further along a shikra caught my eye and that I did better with.
When I got back in the car he asked me all about my camera and my other bag (tripod) and all that I was up to. As I explained I realised I had a tripod toter right here. When we arrived at the lake which is adjacent to a nice resort type place (where the beer is cold btw), I asked him to join me look at birds. He was flipped and after paying 5rupees (!) each we were given a free rein over the 150 acre of parkland and lake.
Let me tell you that there were no flamingos at the time I went. Apparently about 100 species of bird migrate to this place in the winter, I got a good look at a few birds but it was a lean time. The heronry was almost enpty with only a few grey herons and painted storks there. The purple heron which is seen here a lot is a shy bird and even the long lens could not give me a shot, though there were a few. A whole slew of ducks and other swimmers were in evidence, shovellers and teals and so on. I am really bad with ducks so could not id a lot of them. Purple Moorhens and teals were in the reed beds groping for food, the kingfisher was in action close by and gave me a lot of practice focussing the manual lens. The dear taxi guy Krishen carried the tripod and we had a long 6 km walk around the lake into the dry areas and grassland behind the lake.
There are a few raptors in residence there and we saw a few fish eagles and one that looked a serpent eagle but too far to really clearly id him. The parakeets both rosy ringed and alexandrine keep you company with their calls. The dove population is really up there with collared and spotted doves everywhere. They are called 'thodi' in haryanvi. nice!
The grasslands proved to be rich in bird life and I got munias, a handsome drongo, a redstart and a 'wryneck' never heard of it but my buddies on indiamike say its true. Another bird I spotted was a beautiful red all over, a little perching bird. since I could not get a clear shot I could not id it.
All in all the lost lake was certainly worth the wait and the drive. I hope to make it a regular feature earlier in the morning so the heat does not kill me. ha!
Saturday, February 12, 2011
I have a great friend in Chandigarh with whom I play Scrabble for points. I might add he is the only one I do that with cuz he is the only one who has beaten me in recent years. James, is a great birder and you will find his bird blog very interesting.
It was a really cold day and I had been frustrated in my attempt to get anything done due to the Govt. order closing schools. So, determined that my trip should not go to waste I asked James if he wanted to go on a walk and look for some birds. James is a really lucky guy, in that he attracts birds. I got the beautiful shot of the bee-eaters in my blog when I was with him. So I was pretty hopeful of some good sightings.
He suggested we count species and see how many we get in a half hour. So off we went. The housing sector in Panchkula where we were did not have much to offer but he of course knew all the good spots. A nullah in the middle of the sector was a rich spot and we were alternately repelled and attracted by the polluting plastic and reeking water and the quantity of bird life. The ubiquitous egrets dotted the nullah
A smart White Chested Kingfisher sat on a wire overlooking the nullah, he very kindly stayed till I could take a picture before flying off with a squishack squishack. A little walk around the houses to get us nearer the nullah and we were in front of a lapwing and right behind him a little sandpiper plied his beak in the flowing water seeking his dinner. A ring-necked plover flew off as we approached. We were hoping for a sight of some silver-bills but no such luck.
The aerobatics team of swallows and martens was there in strength and they put up a great show. The twisting, weaving, rolling, somersaulting, loop-the-loop flying was simply awesome. Try as I might I could not get a decent shot and finally after about 20 tries just gave up and enjoyed the show. A couple of pond herons flew in as the lights went low with the sun dipping below the building height. These were so amazingly camouflaged it was so hard to see them fro the bridge over the nullah. I had just seen them land there, if not I would have probably sworn there was nothing there. Their brown green backs and bills make it almost impossible to see them from above.
Leaving the nullah behind we walked through the housing area and came through a little village area with collared doves and spotted doves and a score of common mynas poking about. These birds are bold as the proverbial brass monkey virtually fearless and walking about among people working, ladies sitting and chatting, and the shopkeeper plying his trade with equal nonchalance. Their sharp little eyes missing nothing as they forage freely under the charpai’s and under the chai-wallahs nose for morsels of food.
The sun had well and truly set and the flights of birds heading home to roost crisscrossed the sky. Egrets, mynas, lapwings in ones and twos, a solitary fish eagle all heading different directions passed us overhead and the chill evening breeze set our feet for home and a hot chai with the hope of a pakoda.
The species count was 21 and I was pretty happy about it. James said he has seen up to 40 in the same space and time in the past. I told you he was lucky fellow.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
I was conducting a training in Bhubaneswar and suddenly due to a scheduling anomaly found myself with a free day midweek. I had read about this amazing croc and kingfisher haven called Bhittar Kanika Crocodile reserve where the estuarine crocodile is reared and released into the wild and decided to pull out previous evening. A friend of a friend gave me a clear contact to the relevant forest officer and he was very welcoming, so the die was cast. Only hassle was how to get there. its only 120 km said the DFO and should take 3 hours or little more, see you for dinner! Yeah yeah right!
First set back!!
The bus to Bhittar Kanika leaves at 6 am Sir!
There is no direct bus Sir. You have to go to Cuttack Sir.
It took one hours 20 min to over the 22 km to Cuttack, compliments of a BJP rally in Bhubaneswar.
Oh this bus takes you till Kendrapara but Rajnagar is 40 km further. No bus goes there in the evening!
Stood in the Kendrapara bus for about 1hour till I got a seat. Got dropped off at Kendrapara with the sage advice to stay till morning. but morning is when I wanted to get a boat and go down the river or is up the river. So standing on the crossroads of decisions and life and Man Mahini bus stop I was in a fix.
Gotta find a macho auto driver who will drive me in the dark on the district road in the rather chilly night for 40kms, at the right price.
I stopped a few autos and a few came up to me eagerly. Hearing my errand they walked off to a man and decided that they wanted nothing to do with Hindi speaking fat guys telling them to drive in the dark for hours in the cold. I was really at wits-end corner. Looked like all was lost but then the fairy god mother of bird watchers sent an auto with two guys in the driving seat. This happens often in India. So I told them and they said Ok 500rs. It was a bit higher than I wanted to pay but birders cant be choosers esp. in my situation with only one day at my disposal. I agreed and we set off pell mell down the little village road. About 500 yards down the auto stopped and the driver turned around and asked plaintively Sir cant you just go tomorrow its so cold... very cold. I had about had it by then and I told them off for being such wusses. “Cant you guys have the guts to drive in a little cold once in a while? What a big scene about a little drive my Lord” I said. Shamefaced they turned around and set off in earnest and did not say a word till we reached the forest lodge an hour or so later. 11.00 pm. In fairness to them it was a cold night and the breeze off the marshes did nothing to help.
The 3 hour drive had turned out to be a 6 hours marathon from Bhubaneswar. Hats off to the DFO he had hot food waiting and his khansama took good care of me. I was bushed from all day working, then standing in buses and all that. I just hit the sheets and was gone before you could say kingfisher.
Morning around 6.30 I was up and about and found traces of a birder in the room where I was accommodated. Gorgeous Manfrotto ball head tripod heavy duty. looked a good 20k had gone into that and you don’t do that unless you are into birds. Bingo! it was the DFO's assistant Raj. Completely passionate lens man! Runs a stable of 4 Digital DSLRS, cameras from both sides of the fence, I mean Nikon and non-Nikon! ha! Favors the Nikon D300. nice!
I had gotten lucky from my room window and got a beautiful shot of a Striated Babbler which he ID'ed for me. Gave me some good advice on birding and told to look out for the 8 varieties of Kingfisher they have and the 7 alpha male crocs who are 7+mtrs long. I was like what... say what ... how many meters.... yeah you heard 7+mtrs. Mother of God! Big bad ugly dudes!
Of course crocs that size show the health of the eco system and that’s a good thing. When you fall in the water cuz the croc banged the boat that is a bad thing. All things are relative says Einstein. Ain't it the truth! And these are the famous Mugger crocs salt water estuarine crocs who can jump 1/3-1/2 of their body out of the water.
So I was a meditative pensive man as I got on the jeep that took me the 20 km to the Bhittar Kanika forest reserve guest house to get me on a boat to go look at crocs and kingfishers. Somehow I felt I had too much information to work with.
The boat was about 25 ft long and I remembered the crocs and fitted myself a little tighter into the seat I was in. The serene river and the upstream ride was just beautiful. The only sounds that I heard was the diesel engine of the boat thudding away. More on that later. Its a two hour drive up the estuary of the Mahanadi (?) and the entire area is a reserve with mangrove forests along the river. a long languid boat ride and lots to see and comment on. I was alone so the boatman was the guy who had to endure my wise cracks and my ignorance. He was an amazing croc spotter. He could see them in the water swimming or on the bank sunbathing and I was hard pressed to find one. the first one was one of the big guys. Really big. It was then I realized that the 7 alpha males who are 7 mtrs long are the varsity, but there are others who are 6+ and 5+ who are dangerous enough and more than enough for me. It was not an encouraging thought. With the local croc population at 1650 there are a lot of crocs there.
The crocs started to appear more and more as we entered the parts of the river further away from human habitation and some really big and some quite small shared the space. A fair number of water birds were to be seen. herons in abundance, kingfishers all over the place. The handsome black capped Kingfisher makes his home there and we saw about 10 of these smart looking guys. It was a nightmare trying to get a shot though.
Madan Lal my boatman introduced me to the principle of perpetual motion. The boat does not stop! He cant stop it cuz he has no neutral gear for the engine. What a disaster! My telephoto lens is manual focus and all the time I am focusing on the bird the boat gets further or nearer and messes the shot. The cool serene beautiful boat ride became a nightmare. He has a yellow thread tied to the gas and with this quaint device he guides his boat through the waters of Bhittar Kanika with aplomb. He said "no fishing Sir" in answer to a question I had and then ruefully explained that there were bhetki and catfish among other fish in there weighing 10-15kg but off limits.
Well hello no wonder we got 22 foot crocs dude! that explains it.
Well, I saw a lot of amazing birds I had never seen before. the brown winged kingfisher I think tops the list. Amazing bird. gorgeous orange body with brown wings. If I had seen a drawing of it I would have said its a fake. It looks like a surreal image. you gotta believe its a bird. The white bellied sea eagle was also a really cool bird to find. Really powerfully built, the eagle seems to fly in from the sea quite literally, he comes in across the swamps. I was really fortunate to find some of the really big crocs basking in the sun and get a couple of them despite the problems I was facing vis a vis the boat. A series of black capped kingfishers kept me company as I traversed the river and despite getting about 30 shots at them I just did not score. At least not well. so though I spotted 5 species of kingfishers that day I got only one picture that was ok.
At lunch at the Dungmaal forest camp out in the middle of nowhere I was able to visit the hatchery. The croc hatchery where these 22 footers start life is a simple little place with a lot of bird life. I saw coconut trees hollowed by woodpeckers all through the campus. The wildlife dept is actually raising croc babies from eggs. Apparently in the season the rangers go out and collect croc eggs and incubate them in the hatchery so the loss to predation is at a minimum. Hairy job but someone's gotta do it.
The walk in the core area of the forest reserve was a beautiful experience. I was so cramped from sitting in the boat the whole morning, it felt good to stretch my legs. The woods were full of jungle fowl calling to each other and other bird and animal life was stirring as I walked along the path. A skittering sound and I turned to see several deer disturbed by my presence dashing off behind the shrubbery. I could not have seen them but they obviously have better hearing and sight than me. The mangrove forest has a different feel; to it and the swamp sort of feeling never leaves you.
Met a few other tourists and honeymooners but no serious birders who would have perhaps explained something more about the forest to me. Walked into the core area for about 30 min before deciding that I was tired and needed to head back to the boat. In the mean time spotted a collared kingfisher, rufous woodpecker, black jungle fowl, paradise flycatcher and a grey hornbill. This is of course in addition to doves by the dozen and other common waders like the pond heron, black winged stilt, little and greater egret, blue rock pigeons and the ubiquitous raven.
On the river heading home we saw herds of chital along the banks getting there drink before bed. a beautiful day came to end in a long river boat ride home. The chug chug of the engine lulling me to sleep I curled up in my bunk with my camera back pack for a pillow and slept.
Bhittar Kanika till we meet again. I know I will be back to this idyllic river, where time stands still.............. and the boat keeps moving.
On arriving in Orissa I had a day free so decided to go to Chilika and watch dolphins at Chilika lake. The rare endangered Irrwady dolphin is resident there. Actually Orissa has a lot of wildlife happening and I was really pleasantly surprised at all the opportunities Orissa provides.
Well my flight arrived early and my driver arrived late so that combined to start me off late. Then my dear driver was completely clueless about where to go and how to go and despite saying clearly i wanted to go to Satpada he pushed off in a different direction. Some times i really wonder if the angel of bird watching does this on purpose to teach us all patience.
When I found he was on the road to no where i got a little upset about it and he very sweetly told me he would take a short cut so we would make up for lost time and be there in no time at all. yeah yeah right!
Turned out that on the little village road he took i got some great photo ops and enjoyed watching a lot of birds. Needless to say i missed the dolphins because the short cut took us 3 hours and the day completely went south.
Any way the highlight of the day was the really cool prawn masala lunch Oriya style with chapatis that were really to be seen to be believed. Luckily the prawns were awesome so i forgave the guy his chapatis and moseyed on.