Trip Report: Shivaliks/Rajaji N.P.

Dates:                   8-13 Dec ‘17

Camp:                   Bayali

Who:                     A

A and I spent five days at a tiny settlement called Bayali in the Shivaliks. Although it was a family outing, we did get considerable time to savour the wildlife in the area.

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Colebrookea oppositifolia – the woodsman’s toilet paper

The mornings were bitterly cold and eschewing Gypsy drives through the forest, we chose instead to bird around the settlement. Evenings were spent driving down through the forest, towards the Vindhyavashini temple some fifteen or twenty kilometres away.

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Wild mushroom, possibly Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi)

We set out one forenoon to a place called Kanda Khal – which is essentially a little cluster of shops lining the road – and took a path that plunges into the valley from here. A grueling climb up the opposite slope took us through some spectacular birding spots, to a sparse cluster of homesteads called Basaan and then to a slightly larger village called Kasaan, before descending via a circuitous route to meet the waiting Gypsy on the road. The trek lasted a few hours and took us past a grim scar on the hillside where in the July of 2006, two cloudbursts triggered landslides that destroyed a homestead, killing five people in the process.

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“Bicchu ghas” – Common nettle – Urtica dioica. Frequently seen lining paths. A brush with this plant can cause considerable discomfort as the fine thorns inject histamines.

On another afternoon, we drove down to the Tal river valley and spent a while sighting goral on the surrounding slopes. We saw a small Accipiter here which we initially assumed to be a Eurasian sparrowhawk – but I’m not certain now after checking. We flushed a small flock of quail which promptly disappeared into the lantana before they could be identified.

 

Tattoo fern, possibly Pteridium sp. Leaves a delightful white print on the skin.

Birding

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Great barbet at dawn

Commonly seen species included Great barbet (whose call was often heard), Lineated barbet, White-throated and White-browed fantail, Grey bushchat, a Tree-creeper (we didn’t know which), Grey-headed woodpecker, Himalayan flameback and Black-chinned babbler. There was a species of prinia (possibly) in gregarious flocks around Bayali, greenish brown in the upper parts, with a pale supercilium, white underparts, a prominent white throat and black barring on the underside of the tail. We were not able to conclusively ID this bird (non-breeding form of the Grey-breasted prinia?). We made the mistake of not noting the call – this would have made the task easier.

There were enormous flocks of Eurasian tree sparrow (or maybe Russet sparrow) in the lantana thickets. Vultures (& eagles on occasion) were seen overhead several times but we were unable to ID them. Plumbeous and White-capped water redstart were seen by the streams and rivers. In and around Kasaan were several flocks of Streaked laughingthrush. We spotted what appeared to be a Brown fish owl in flight once.

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Streaked laughingthrush

We also saw Black-lored tit, Lemon-rumped warbler, Grey treepie, Blue whistling thrush, Mrs. Gould’s sunbird, Grey-hooded warbler and the spectacular Yellow-billed blue magpie.

More pedestrian species (if I dare call them that) included Oriented turtle dove, plenty of Indian treepie & bulbul (Himalayan, Red-whiskered and Red-vented in equal measure), Cinereous tit, Velvet-fronted nuthatch, Oriental white-eye, Indian robin, River lapwing, White and Yellow wagtail, Ashy-crowned sparrowlark, Long-tailed shrike, Coppersmith barbet, Plum-headed parakeet, Paddyfield pipit (I think), Greenish and Dusky warbler, Magpie robin, Tailorbird, White-throated kingfisher, Jungle owlet, Orange minivet, Red junglefowl (hens only, for some reason), peafowl, Black-hooded oriole, Jungle babbler and Asian pied starling.

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Cinereous tit

Forest drives

The drives turned up some interesting experiences. We were on our way to the Vindhyavashini temple one evening when we stopped to look at a flameback (Himalayan I think). The woodpecker fled to a tree some distance away. All of a sudden, a shikra swooped in out of nowhere and barrelled straight for the flameback, which in turn squealed and dived for the undergrowth. This set off an excited chattering amongst the other avifauna around, which subsided once the shikra exited the scene as rapidly as it had entered it.

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Orb weaver spider web

There’s a sharp turn to the left at one point, angled at almost ninety degrees. We were approaching this turn when the sharp, ascending notes of a Changeable hawk eagle shattered the stillness of the forest. We found the raptor feeding off a chital kill, on a branch some twenty feet up and not too far from the roadside. The kill appeared fresh and we bookmarked the tree for a dekko on the return journey.

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Changeable hawk eagle scavenging off leopard’s kill at dusk

It was well after dark when we made our way back and we swerved the jeep at an angle and climbed the gentle embankment by the roadside to light up the branch broadside on. Sure enough, the owner of the kill was there, feeding greedily on the carcass. So sharp was his hunger that the leopard didn’t glance our way once. We watched for a while and then left him to his meal.

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On crossing the Kaudia checkpost, the road winds through flat land for a few kilometres before it begins its ascent into the hills. The forest here is old growth Sal, with Rohini (Mallotus phillipinensis) and Hill glorybower (Clerodendrum infortunatum) among others in the understorey. A and I were being driven back along this road well after dark one evening when she caught fleeting sight of a large feline on the road ahead. Our driver Suraj caught sight of it a second later. With the Gypsy approaching, the cat nimbly stepped off the road and into the dense thickets. I had my eyes on the undergrowth on the far side and by the time I was alerted, all I could see were swaying branches with the cat out of sight. Suraj surmised that it was a leopard, but based on its size and behaviour, A felt she’d sighted her first wild tiger.

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The Nandi stone!

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K. Gudi/BRT Tiger Reserve: Sep ’16

Dates:                   2 – 5 Sep ’16

Camp:                   K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

Who:                     P

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Glory Lilly (Gloriosa superba) by the roadside a short way from the camp

My kid P and I did three nights this time. The weather was cool with some spells of rain. Sightings were not particularly great as a result, but the forest was hauntingly beautiful, and straight out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tales movie set one particular morning, with a thick mist hanging over it.

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Brown fish owl, early in the morning

Visibility was poor due to luxuriant growth of Eupatorium Ageratina adenophora, Lantana Lantana camara and Bracken Pteridium aquilinum. These three weeds dominated the ground cover and it is very likely that they have had a deleterious effect on the herbivore population over the years. And this possibly explains why the large herds of gaur that were once plentiful in BRT are nowhere to be seen today. Elephants have become scarce too. The only consolation is that there is not much Parthenium hysterophorus . The post-monsoon clearing of vegetation by the track will not happen for another month. The undergrowth was tall enough to completely hide a leopard or sloth bear, making sightings possible only if the animal was on the track itself. Due to this reason, Durgur road, which is usually unfailingly productive on the way out (in the evenings), drew a blank this time.

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Another insidious plant that I should have noticed earlier but somehow hadn’t was the hemiparasitic Mistletoe Loranthus sp. It infested a majority of the Axlewood Anogeissus latifolia trees, leaching nutrients and water. I heard that it had almost completely decimated the Indian gooseberry Phyllanthus emblica trees.

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The darker leaves are from Mistletoe (Loranthus sp.), a hemi-parasite.

The birding was okayish, not too great. Grey wagtails had started to arrive a week back and were plentiful. I learnt to ID the vaguely squirrel-like call of the Orange-headed thrush. This call resonated frequently through the camp and the jungle as these birds were everywhere too. There is another call, a more frantic one, which is not quite as distinctive. I also got familiar with the Blue-bearded bee-eater’s call, given that a pair was constantly (and noisily) haunting the surroundings.

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Orange-headed thrush outside tent No. 7

I also puzzled over a call that sounded like the Stork-billed kingfisher’s except that it had four continuous notes in place of the usual two (or three). Rahul, an avid birder from Bangalore who was visiting indicated that this was the winter call of the Stork-billed kingfisher. Rajesh, my good friend, spotter extraordinaire and favourite driver was puzzled; he said he hadn’t seen this bird around.

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Jungle babblers behind the Gol Ghar. They are bold enough to hop right into the Gol Ghar looking for crumbs. Pic by P.

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This is a very common weed I have not been able to ID yet.

Naturalist Basavanna has shifted from Bandipur to K. Gudi and accompanied us on our drives (Narayan did too, for the first two days). He taught us to ID the call of the Drongo cuckoo. We were waiting by Anni kere when what superficially sounded like the Indian cuckoo’s call started up (except that this is not the season for the Indian cuckoo to call). And except that this was three notes up and one down, unlike the sing-song pitch of the Indian cuckoo’s.

At the same place, we also heard a repeated, drawn-out, shikra-like call which we were stumped by until Basavanna identified it as the Brown fish owl’s chick’s call.

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Jungle owlet. Pic by Rajesh.

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Indian blackbird in the camp

On day three, Rajesh suggested that we take a walk down the road towards the government school after lunch instead of wasting time lounging around in the tent (as he put it). We walked for a short distance until junior got too nervous to go any further – he had been rattled by the earlier sloth bear and leopard sightings around the tent. We saw an Oriental honey buzzard, a Blackbird, Blue-bearded bee-eaters, and on the way back, a Tawny-bellied babbler that showed itself clearly for quite a while, although while constantly flitting around and preventing Rajesh from getting a photograph. We also had a reasonable Rufous babbler sighting in the jungle later on.

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Radermachera xylocarpa outside tent No. 7. Commonly known as the Deer antler tree.

This was a trip full of tantalizingly close opportunities that never materialized. There were plenty of alarm calls, with none converting. On day 1, in the evening safari, we were drawn to Tiger Tank by persistent Muntjac alarm calls. The deer decamped, but a troop of langurs stationed there barked hysterically and persistently, accompanied by much leaping and branch shaking. They were clearly very excited. Rajesh, Basavanna and Narayan all craned their necks trying to get a fix on which side the langurs were focused on. Two opinions eventually emerged, one pointing away from the kere, and the other (Rajesh’s) pointing towards it. A quick discussion led to a consensus that the cat must have just crossed the road and passed in a direction away from the lake. And so off we went, looking for it elsewhere. Turned out that Rajesh’s suspicion was right. The tiger (which is what it was) was hidden right there, in the sea of Eupatorium between us and the lake. It emerged an hour and a half later and was seen and photographed by another group. Rajesh was especially disappointed that we had miscalculated.

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The long weekend brought a lot of traffic to the temple, further impacting the sightings.    Pic by P.

On day 3, in the evening safari, we ran into another loud and persistent series of calls. Somewhat midway between the barking deer’s and chital’s alarm call. Everyone promptly assumed it was one of these and an animated discussion ensued around where the cat possibly could be. We drove around a little trying to pinpoint direction. After a while, Rajesh smacked his forehead when he realized we were in fact listening to the Spot-bellied eagle owl’s call. Although he was equally excited at the prospect of locating the owl. We did try for a considerable time, but without success and the calls eventually died out.

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P (9 years old) clicked this pic of Durga Parameshwari, the camp elephant

I also missed an Indian flying squirrel sighting on day 3 in the evening. The squirrel calls had started just after junior and I had left the gol ghar post dinner. The pair was then sighted, for a period of fifteen minutes, as it progressively glided its way from the trees near the FRH to the jungle beyond the Gol Ghar. The next day I asked Basavanna why he didn’t give me a call, and his reply was that he would definitely have, had he known that I was interested in watching flying squirrels.

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Chappekkai. Entada rheedii possibly. I had not realized earlier that the pods were growing off a climber and not off tree itself.

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Gaur with calf. Pic by Basavanna.

Junior and I also missed a dhole sighting on the drive back. We had driven down towards the temple on day 2 with Rajesh post breakfast, looking for a pack that frequented an area a little before the BR Hills settlement. (There was another pack frequenting the Navodaya checkpost side too that we also looked for in vain). We didn’t find the pack, and there was considerable disturbance from some tar-laying work that was underway. On my drive back to Bangalore on day 4, I did keep my eyes peeled while passing through the area, but saw nothing. Another guest who was in K. Gudi left around the same time and was a little behind me. He sighted the pack and Rajesh called me a little later, asking if I had too. He was surprised that I hadn’t – and the guest in question actually overtook me while we were having this conversation. We therefore couldn’t have been very far apart when he sighted the pack.

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Monitor lizard near the Navodaya checkpost

However these disappointments were not without compensating sightings. On the last safari, Rajesh and I saw a something on the track ahead. It saw us too, and went bounding away a short distance before leaping into the lantana. I thought it was a leopard, but Rajesh with his infinitely better eyesight shouted ‘tiger!’ No one else in the jeep caught the sighting. Arriving at the point, Rajesh’s opinion was confirmed by the pungent smell of scent marking. Basavanna had earlier remarked that the smell of the tiger’s scent-marking was very similar to the fragrance of cooked Basmati rice. I could instantly see why he said so. In any case, my tiger sighting account at BRT TR was finally opened, after 16 years of visits.

I should mention here that I have seen Rajesh use his sense of smell while tracking cats on safari more than once. He catches whiffs of kills, scat or the cat itself and makes as much use of this information as he does of pug marks or alarm calls. On this trip, he took another clever little masterclass while tracking a herd of elephants. There was no apparent sign on the road, but he determined that a herd had just passed. When I asked him how he knew, he pointed out that the grass on the track was uprooted in places. Try as I might, I couldn’t make this out. As is my wont, I dismissed his theory. Presently, dung appeared. And then spoor. And then the herd itself, in Anni kere. That’s the kind of tracker Rajesh is.

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The highlight of the trip was a superb Slaty-legged crake sighting near Anni kere on day 1. I remembered that in August 2014 I had seen this bird, though indistinctly, in Anni kere. I asked Prasad about it as soon as I landed there, and he confirmed that sightings were happening every once a while. The bird stepped out on the track in front of the jeep and bathed in a puddle for a good five minutes, until it was disturbed by another jeep approaching on the opposite side. Very clear view. The light was bad though, as it was around 6 PM by then.

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I also had a fleeting sighting of a tree shrew on the track.

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Birds

  1. Black-hooded oriole
  2. Brahminy kite
  3. Bronzed drongo
  4. Brown fish owl
  5. Common tailorbird
  6. Crested serpent eagle
  7. Drongo cuckoo (calls)
  8. Green beeeater
  9. Hill myna
  10. Indian treepie
  11. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  12. Greater flameback
  13. Grey junglefowl
  14. Grey wagtail
  15. Indian blackbird
  16. Indian scimitar babbler (calls)
  17. Jungle babbler
  18. Jungle myna
  19. Jungle owlet
  20. Lesser flameback
  21. Long-tailed shrike
  22. Magpie robin
  23. Malabar parakeet
  24. Mountain imperial pigeon
  25. Orange-headed thrush
  26. Orange minivet
  27. Oriental honey buzzard
  28. Pied bushchat
  29. Plum-headed parakeet
  30. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  31. Racket-tailed drongo
  32. Red spurfowl
  33. Red-vented bulbul
  34. Red-whiskered bulbul
  35. Rufous babbler
  36. Rufous woodpecker
  37. Small minivet
  38. (Southern?) coucal
  39. Spot-bellied eagle owl (calls)
  40. Spotted dove
  41. Streak-throated woodpecker
  42. Tawny-bellied babbler
  43. Tri-colored munia
  44. Vernal hanging parrot
  45. White-bellied drongo
  46. White-browed bulbul
  47. White-cheeked barbet
  48. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals/Reptiles

  1. Barking deer
  2. Chital
  3. Elephant
  4. Gaur
  5. Pond terrapin
  6. Malabar giant squirrel
  7. Monitor lizard
  8. Ruddy mongoose
  9. Sambar
  10. Southern tree shrew
  11. Striped-necked mongoose
  12. Three-striped palm squirrel
  13. Tiger
  14. Tufted langur
  15. Wild pig

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Trip report: BRT TR, Dec 2015

Dates:                   30 Dec ’15 – 2 Jan ‘16

Camp:                   K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

Who:                     Drs. R & M, SS, kids P & V

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This is the way years should end and begin. Sparkling birding, leopard, slot bear and dhole sightings, and some satisfying tree-watching. I was in Kaziranga for last year’s start and in keeping with this sentiment, and when Dr R said he was booking K. Gudi, P and I followed suit. We were booked for two nights, but extended by another on impulse. I couldn’t get my usual tent – number 7 – and was given tent number 8 instead, the last one in the row.

The weather was excellent, with bracing cold mornings, warm afternoons and cool evenings.

Rajesh took to driving us down the main road towards Navodaya in the mornings at 6:30 AM before entering the safari routes, as a pack of dhole was frequenting the stretch. Tigers were also sighted here, though mainly at sunset. This is the same stretch on which P and I had our tiger near-miss the last time.

I made good progress with flora-watching this time. Lantana camara was virtually non-existent in the forest, having been supplanted by two weeds – the unpalatable and invasive Eupatorium Ageratina adenophora and the carcinogenic Bracken Pteridium aquilinum. These two dominated the undergrowth. Karthik, who is a sure-shot help with IDs when all else fails had helped me identify the former after my Wayanad trip. Narayan rummaged through a book to produce the latter ID.

Eupatorium Ageratina adenophora:

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Bracken Pteridium aquilinum:

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These were three commonly or occasionally seen plants I was unable to identify.

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(This plant below turned out to be a teak sapling, as Karthik pointed out!)

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(Below: Solanum spp. possibly Solanum viarum)

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The landscape was dominated by Kari mathi Terminalia tomentosa and Axlewood Anogeissus latifolia. Indian gooseberry Phyllanthus emblica trees were heavily laden with fruit. Belleric myrobalan Terminalia bellerica and FOTF Butea monosperma frequently occured. Rajesh, and naturalist Narayan who joined us on one safari taught me to identify East Indian rosewood Dalberigia latifolia, Chebulic myrobalan Terminalia chebula and Radermachera xylocarpa with its long pods. I need a little more work on the latter two to get comfortable with the identification.

We saw a tree with large, distinctive pods at one place and Narayan said it was colloquially called Chappakkai. I don’t have the ID, but did get a picture when Dr. R reminded me to. Karthik later helped me ID it as Entada spp., probably Entada rheedii.

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There were a few fine specimens of a species of strangler fig on Muradi road. This is a species I’ve seen elsewhere too. I’ll try and get it ID’d.

Birding in the camp was spectacular. Rusty-tailed flycatcher, Blue-capped rock thrush, Asian brown flycatcher, Bronzed and Ashy drongo, Golden-fronted leaf bird, Indian nuthatch, Black-hooded and Golden oriole and Vernal hanging parrot were commonly seen. I spotted a Black-naped oriole above tent no 3 or 4. Rajesh was very skeptical of this ID when I told him about it later as it is evidently rare in these parts. But I’m certain of what I saw. But then he was also skeptical of a Verditer flycatcher sighting I caught while on the first safari – and this was settled when we saw the bird again subsequently in the same place.

Streak-throated woodpecker, female:

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In the forest, there were great flocks of Common rosefinch and Tree pipit that rose from ground-level as the jeep approached and swarmed into the shrubbery (rosefinches) or the trees (pipits). While we were stopped to look one such flock of rosefinches, I noticed a bird that I have been unable to identify. The others didn’t see it, absorbed as they were with the rosefinches. This bird was very bulbul-like, with vertical streaks around the neck and breast and a rounded fork in the tail.

We saw the Square-tailed bulbul in its usual area and I subsequently cleared up my confusion about its ID vis a vis the Black bulbul’s. The Himalayan and SE Asian species is the Black bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus while the Western Ghats and Sri Lankan species is the Square-tailed bulbul Hypsipetes ganeesa.

Grey wagtail:

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I saw a bird which had a conical munia’s bill and what apparently was a crest. The distance was considerable and the light wasn’t great to be able to notice much else. I am not sure if the Crested bunting occurs in these hills. I saw similar features on a bird in Meghamalai WS too.

For the first time, I came away from BRT TR without having sighted a single Black eagle.

On day 1, after the morning safari, we descended down the Navodaya side and exited the forest to look for Bar-headed geese in a lake nearby. The geese were missing, apparently having been scared away by someone of devious intent who was uncomfortable with all the attention they were bringing to the place. We then drove into a nearby grassland area to look at a herd of blackbuck.

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On the first evening (30th), we ran into a leopard on Durgur road late in the evening. The light was fading and the cat leaped out of the fringes choked with Eupatorium, bounded up the road ahead of us, and back into the weeds on the other side. This road is usually productive late in the evenings. It and Anni kere are the two sighting hotspots in BRT TR, apart from the stretch of main road on the Navodaya side.

Incidentally, while back on my next visit, I intend to leave Bengaluru at 1:30 AM or so to arrive at the Navodaya checkpost at 6 AM. The drive up from there through the undisturbed forest in the early hour should yield tiger, dhole, gaur or elephant. GiK and I have a plan of coming back in March. We’ll try this then.

On the second day, in the morning, we saw a pack of dhole on the main road, descending on the Navodaya side at the start of the safari. The pack of four was missing on our way down, but were found cavorting merrily on the grassy verge on our way back. We spend a while watching them and they us. Rajesh mentioned one individual which apparently lives all by itself and hunts alone. The presence of the dhole in the area triggered muntjac calls a few times over the next couple of days.

The first day of the new year brought us a lovely Sloth bear sighting in the evening safari. A big male. Our frenetic response on spotting him unfortunately scared him away. Rajesh was disappointed as this individual was reputed to stay on the road once the initial shock wore away, providing long satisfying sightings. This was also the same individual who featured in a video I mentioned in my last post, standing up on his hind legs to scratch his back on a tree trunk.

The same evening brought an even more spectacular experience. We were relaxing on the plinth outside tent no 8 prior to dinner when a sambar belled in alarm from a short way down the slope. A leopard had been sighted by Nagesh on the main road shortly before, moving into this area. Dr. R and I descended some paces down the slope armed with torches and sure enough, the beams caught a leopard, female as it turned out, slinking across to our left, into a depression and out of sight. A while later we caught sight of her again as she moved to the right and out of sight. A langur watchman persisted with calling in alarm for a while after. This female was evidently resident around this area and had been seen frequently. One of the staff had lost his dog to a leopard near the safari entrance boom gate a few days back.

YN is a civil engineer from Mysore who had spent 3 months volunteering as a naturalist with JLR a while back. He was there and suggested we spend some time on the porch of the Biligiri log hut as the leopard was certain to pass by there. We waited for a while and then figured it would be easier to wait for the langur to call instead. Unfortunately for us, the langur failed us as they’d evidently vacated the area. The leopard passed without attention while we were at the gol ghar getting our dinners and chital calls started up from the area behind the tents. YN incidentally has a lovely picture of this individual shot in the same valley a month back.

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Birds

  1. Ashy drongo
  2. Asian brown flycatcher
  3. Asian fairy bluebird
  4. Asian paradise flycatcher
  5. Bay-backed shrike
  6. Black-hooded oriole
  7. Black-naped oriole
  8. Blue-capped rock thrush
  9. Blue-tailed beeeater
  10. Brahminy kite
  11. Bronzed drongo
  12. Brown shrike
  13. Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker
  14. Changeable hawk eagle
  15. Cinereous tit
  16. Common hawk cuckoo
  17. Common iora
  18. Common myna
  19. Common rosefinch
  20. Common sandpiper
  21. Common teal
  22. Coppersmith barbet (calls)
  23. Crested bunting?
  24. Crested serpent eagle
  25. Unidentified flowerpecker
  26. Golden oriole
  27. Green beeeater
  28. Green imperial pigeon
  29. Hill myna
  30. Indian bushlark
  31. Indian robin
  32. Indian scops owl
  33. Indian treepie
  34. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  35. Greenish warbler
  36. Grey francolin (calls)
  37. Grey wagtail
  38. Hoopoe (calls)
  39. Indian scimitar babbler (calls)
  40. Jungle babbler
  41. Jungle myna
  42. Jungle owlet
  43. Lesser flameback
  44. Lesser yellownape
  45. Long-tailed shrike
  46. Magpie robin
  47. Malabar parakeet
  48. Orange minivet
  49. Oriental honey buzzard
  50. Paddyfield pipit
  51. Painted bush quail?
  52. Pied bushchat
  53. Plum-headed parakeet
  54. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  55. Purple sunbird
  56. Racket-tailed drongo
  57. Red-rumped swallow
  58. Red spurfowl
  59. Red-vented bulbul
  60. Red-whiskered bulbul
  61. Rose-ringed parakeet
  62. Rufous babbler
  63. Rufous woodpecker
  64. Rusty-tailed flycatcher
  65. Small minivet
  66. (Southern?) coucal
  67. Spot-billed duck
  68. Spotted dove
  69. Streak-throated woodpecker
  70. Tawny-bellied babbler
  71. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  72. Tree pipit
  73. Verditer flycatcher
  74. Vernal hanging parrot
  75. White-bellied drongo
  76. White-throated fantail
  77. White-browed wagtail
  78. White-cheeked barbet (calls)
  79. White-rumped munia
  80. White-throated kingfisher
  81. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals/Reptiles

  1. Barking deer
  2. Blackbuck
  3. Bonnet macaque
  4. Chital
  5. Dhole
  6. Leopard
  7. Pond terrapin
  8. Malabar giant squirrel
  9. Sambar
  10. Sloth bear
  11. Southern flying lizard
  12. Three-striped palm squirrel
  13. Tufted langur
  14. Wild pig

Trip Report: Sunderbans, Dec 2015

Dates:                   16-19 Dec, 2015

Camp:                   Sunderban Jungle Camp on Bali Island

Who:                     VV, GK and my 8-year-old son P

A couple of near-miss-sightings of mama last time pushed us to try our luck again. And the prospect of winter birding.

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Blue tiger

Getting to Sunderbans jungle camp involves a three hour drive along poor, narrow roads from Kolkata, to cover less than 100 kms to Godkhali. From here, the boat is boarded, and it winds its way up the Durgaduani channel and to the Gumdi river on the banks of which the camp is sited, on Bali island. On the way back, Animesh brought us around Bali island the long way, up the Bidya river, to look for waders.

The weather was strange. Day 1 was hot and sunny and we scrambled for whatever scanty shade was available on the upper deck. Day 2 was freezing cold, especially when the boat faced north – owing to the uttore batash – northern wind – that chilled us to the bone. Day 3 was equally cold but with persistent rain, forcing us to seek the shelter of the lower deck at least once. Day 4 was moderately cool with some sunshine. Someone joked that we’d experienced three seasons all in one trip.

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The forest looked freshly washed and hauntingly beautiful after the rain

Animesh Manna was his usual competent, thorough self, and we got a boatman with unbelievable spotting skills this time – Mahadev.

Most days we got back early, by 5 or 5:30 PM, giving us a little daylight before the early sunset to wander around the embankment by the camp. A Taiga flycatcher was a regular habitue around the harvested rice paddies and fish ponds that chequer the countryside. Yellow-browed warblers were ubiquitous, here and in the forest. A brood of spotted owlets was resident.

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Common kingfisher

We watched a pair of checkered keelbacks hunting among the reeds of one of the fish ponds. Animesh unearthed a little rat snake while looking for bitterns and we took some pictures.

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Rat snake

While walking by another pond, GK and I startled a snake by nearly stepping on it, sending it darting away and into the water. Dark green in colour and over a couple of feet in length. Animesh was a short way away but surmised that it was either an Olive keelback (which is what I had thought) or a Smooth-scaled watersnake.

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Mudskipper

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Slug leaving a clay-pellet trail

On the last day, we did a little country-boat ride up one of the narrow channels nearby. The nearby village was hidden behind a wall of mangrove vegetation, giving us an idea of what a small-boat ride in the forest would feel like. Considering the stories one heard in the Sunderbans of tiger attacks, sitting low down in the water with the banks a couple of feet away on both sides brought home the vulnerability of crab fishermen who sneak into the forest channels. Our boatman was a chap who’d survived an incredible run-in with a tiger. This had happened just two months before our last visit and we’d met him then too. He was still recovering from the shock of the incident apparently.

The story went like this. This fellow, along with a couple of friends ventured into a channel across the Gumdi, in the forest. The trio spotted a tiger a short distance away and one of them panicked and slipped off the boat. The cat pounced on the man in a trice and disappeared with him into the mangroves. The third man collapsed in a state of panic but our friend brought the boat around and stepped into the jungle alone and on foot, armed with just his paddle. Running into the tiger he charged it with the paddle, and it dropped the dead man and disappeared. He then hauled the body back to the village. And gave up illegal crab fishing ever since.

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One of the five “fingers” that radiate from the Sudanykhali watchtower. This tower was the one I meant in my last post when I mistakenly referred to the Sajnekhali watchtower producing great sightings.

In the forest we found a set of birds that were almost completely different from the ones we encountered the last time.

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Lesser whistling ducks

Black-capped kingfisher were commonplace and their calls, reminiscent of the White-throated kingfisher’s were frequently heard.

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Vacated nest of Purple-rumped sunbird showing the curtained hatch

Common sandpipers were found along the banks almost everywhere, and their whistling calls were a constant too.

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Common sandpiper

Magpie robin, Yellow-browed warbler, Collared dove and tailorbird called incessantly. Dusky warbler called occasionally.  Great and little egret, Jungle crow and Little heron were commonly seen.

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Little heron

The collared kingfisher that was so common in May was missing this time, and we only saw a couple.

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Collared kingfisher

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Common redshank

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Red junglefowl

Brown-winged kingfisher were seen far more frequently than the last time.

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Brown-winged kingfisher

The Mangrove pitta, which was heard quite a bit around Sudhanykhali watchtower the last time was silent at this time of year. The dark morph CHE had not been seen for a while around Sudhanykhali.

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Lesser sand plover and tiger pugmarks

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Water monitor – we anchored the boat to have lunch in this lizard’s company, but he had other ideas and promptly disappeared

Animesh helped me improve on my ability to identify mangrove trees further.

  • Avicennia alba – Kalu bayan – with its black trunk and sharp, narrow leaves
  • Avicennia officinalis – Jath bayan – easiest of the genus to identify, with its smooth pale bark, rounded leaves and distinct branching structure

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Avicennia officinalis showing profusion of aerial roots

  • Avicennia marina – Peara bayan – with its mango-like leaves and pale blotchy trunk very much like the guava tree’s
  • Ceriops tagal – Moth goran – with its dome-like shape and knee-roots

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Knee roots of Ceriops tagal

  • Bruguiera gymnorrhiza – Kankra – with its buttress roots and distinct leaves

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Red flowers of Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza)

  • Heritiera fomes – Sundari – with its Christmas-tree-like structure and branching pattern
  • Sonneratia apetala – Kewra – with its pencil roots
  • Xylocarpus granatum – Dhundul – with its melon-like fruit

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Xylocarpus granatum fruit

  • Xylocarpus mekongensis – Passur – with its thick pneumatophores

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Pneumatophores of Passur (Xylocarpus mekongensis)

Jhamti goran Ceriops decandra, Garjan Rhozophora apiculate and Kholsi Aegiceras corniculatum are not too difficult to ID in general.

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Garjan (Rhizophora apiculata) showing stilt roots

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Kholsi (Aegiceras corniculatum)

GK carried home a Kankra Bruguiera gymnorrhiza sapling and a red water lily. The latter will probably survive, but it will be interesting to see how the mangrove tree copes in Chennai.

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The lighter green patch is mistletoe – a hemiparasite

The issue with the Sunderbans is that while tiger sightings are rare, near-misses are not – and this always leaves a tantalizing window open for a repeat visit. We were at Sudhanykhali watchtower at 8:30 AM one morning and after we left, at 9:30 AM, a big male tiger walked right passed the watchtower and crossed the channel. It is this sort of thing that tempts us to return for yet another attempt.

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Birds

  1. Ashy woodswallow
  2. Black-winged cuckooshrike
  3. Brahminy kite
  4. Brown-winged kingfisher
  5. Black-capped kingfisher
  6. Bronzed drongo
  7. Brown shrike
  8. Cinereous tit
  9. Common iora
  10. Common myna
  11. Common redshank
  12. Common sandpiper
  13. Common tailorbird
  14. Dusky warbler
  15. Eurasian collared dove
  16. Eurasian wigeon
  17. Eurasian wryneck (VV only)
  18. Gadwall
  19. Great egret
  20. Green bee-eater
  21. Grey junglefowl
  22. Grey wagtail
  23. Indian spotted eagle
  24. Indian treepie
  25. Jungle babbler
  26. Jungle crow
  27. Lesser flameback
  28. Lesser sand plover
  29. Lesser whistling duck
  30. Little egret
  31. Little heron
  32. Magpie robin
  33. Night heron
  34. Oriental white-eye
  35. Osprey
  36. Pied kingfisher
  37. Pin-striped tit babbler (calls)
  38. Pond heron
  39. Purple-rumped sunbird
  40. Rose-ringed parakeet
  41. Shikra
  42. Small minivet
  43. Spotted dove
  44. Spotted owlet
  45. Taiga flycatcher
  46. Terek sandpiper
  47. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  48. Whimbrel
  49. White-breasted waterhen
  50. White-throated fantail
  51. White-throated kingfisher
  52. Yellow-browed warbler

Mammals

  1. Chital
  2. Rhesus macaque
  3. Wild boar

Reptiles

  1. Checkered keelback
  2. Estuarine crocodile
  3. Rat snake
  4. Water monitor
  5. Olive keelback?

Trip Report: Galibore Nature Camp

Dates:                   12-13 Dec 2015

Who:                     SB and a couple of colleagues

All the images used in this post were clicked by S. Balajee.

BIL B wanted to take a couple of colleagues on a short birding trip and invited me along. His colleagues R and R could only manage a day trip while the two of us stayed back for the night, leaving after breakfast the next morning.

The weather was surprisingly warm and muggy for this time of year, with the sun blazing through the day and some marginal coolness creeping in well after dark. There was little cloud cover.

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Common kingfisher (S. Balajee)

Thomraj was in his elements, ferreting out sightings with his impossibly precise visual acuity. After paying our respects to pairs of Brown hawk owl and Indian scops owl in the camp, we started on our outings which for most part comprised floating down the river on a coracle and then trudging back on foot.

For some reason, White-browed bulbul were ubiquitous and noisy this time around. Other frequently heard calls were of Tailorbird, oriole (I usually associate the short, ascending crrrrk with the Black-hooded oriole, but we did spot a Golden oriole calling this way too), Purple-rumped sunbird, Asian brown flycatcher and White-browed wagtail (on the water). Stork-billed kingfisher called occasionally as did Spotted dove, Green imperial pigeon, Jungle babbler, Green bee eater and Golden-fronted leaf bird.

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Yellow-throated sparrow (S. Balajee)

We had uncommon luck with raptors. Walking back to the camp from the Muthathi side, we first flushed a Crested serpent eagle that flapped away on great wings. We were trying to trace its position when a Black eagle emerged from pretty much the same direction, and settled on a tree a considerable distance away. We got off the path for a closer look and resuming the track, we were surprised by yet another raptor, which we identified back at the camp as the Tawny eagle. This worthy made a reappearance later in the day while we were on the river. BIL wanted a shot of a Lesser fish eagle and we found an exceptionally obliging individual on the day 2 outing.

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Lesser fish eagle (S. Balajee)

For the first time, we were compelled to beach the coracle and hop off twice midway – once to tail a pair of Brown fish owls, which were being baited by a pair of crows, as they shifted one perch to another; and again to confirm a shikra’s ID. While we were after the owls, a sloth bear was spotted across the river from our position by a couple of staff members lounging on the bank a hundred meters downstream. We had heard chital calling from across and had discussed the possibility of a leopard being afoot.

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Small pratincole (S. Balajee)

While on this topic, incidentally, I asked Thomraj why chital alarm calls were heard virtually every half hour on some visits, and never heard at all on others. Thomraj’s explanation was that chital were skittish when dhole were in the area and tended to call frequently then.

Winter is the time of courtship in our jungles, and the stillness on the river was occasionally shattered by rutting calls of chital stags. We watched a courting pair of Red-wattled lapwings. The pair flew in together and while the female settled on a rock, the male did a noisy, dipping-flight courtship display before joining her.

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Shikra (S. Balajee)

We found occasion to catch a bunch of fascinating jungle anecdotes about Thomraj’s colorful pre-JLR days. About running into a leopard that killed one of the goats he was grazing as a fourteen year old, to plucky-while-mischievous deeds from jungles long ago.

  1. Ashy prinia
  2. Asian brown flycatcher
  3. Asian paradise flycatcher
  4. Barn swallow
  5. Black eagle
  6. Black-hooded oriole
  7. Blue-faced malkoha
  8. Brahminy kite
  9. Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker
  10. Brown fish owl
  11. Brown hawk owl
  12. Brown-headed barbet (calls)
  13. Chestnut-headed bee eater
  14. Cinereous tit
  15. Common francolin
  16. Common hawk cuckoo (calls)
  17. Common iora
  18. Common kingfisher
  19. Common myna
  20. Common skylark
  21. Common tailorbird
  22. Common woodshrike
  23. Coppersmith barbet (calls)
  24. Coucal (calls)
  25. Crested serpent eagle
  26. Darter
  27. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  28. Great cormorant
  29. Green bee eater
  30. Greenish warbler
  31. Grey junglefowl
  32. Golden oriole
  33. Green imperial pigeon
  34. Hoopoe
  35. Indian grey hornbill
  36. Indian robin
  37. Indian scops owl
  38. Indian silverbill
  39. Jungle babbler
  40. Jungle crow
  41. Jungle owlet (calls)
  42. Large cuckooshrike
  43. Lesser fish eagle
  44. Lesser flameback
  45. Little cormorant
  46. Little egret
  47. Magpie robin
  48. Painted spurfowl
  49. Peafowl
  50. Pied kingfisher
  51. Purple-rumped sunbird
  52. Red-rumped swallow
  53. Red-vented bulbul
  54. Red-wattled lapwing
  55. Red-whiskered bulbul
  56. River tern
  57. Rose-ringed parakeet
  58. Scaly-breasted munia
  59. Shikra
  60. Small pratincole
  61. Spotted dove
  62. Stork-billed kingfisher
  63. Unidentified swift
  64. Tawny eagle
  65. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  66. White-bellied drongo
  67. White-breasted waterhen
  68. White-browed bulbul
  69. White-browed wagtail
  70. White-cheeked barbet (calls)
  71. White-throated kingfisher
  72. Wire-tailed swallow
  73. Yellow-billed babbler
  74. Yellow-footed green pigeon
  75. Yellow-throated sparrow
  1. Chital
  2. Grizzled giant squirrel
  3. Tufted langur
  4. Mugger

Trip Report: Corbett Tiger Reserve, Apr 2015

Trip:       Corbett Tiger Reserve

Camp:   Sultan FRH (2 nights), Gairal FRH (1 night)

Dates:   1 Apr – 6 Apr ‘15

Who:     VV, KB and my seven year old son

Corbett Apr 15 5 264This is going to be another long post. I guess it is deserved, considering that this was the best wildlife trip I’ve ever done, in terms of sheer sighting productivity.

VV and I had planned this trip well in advance and we were eager to get bookings at the famed Dhikala FRH. And VV had coordinated with Pavan Puri to put this trip together. Despite three people being poised to click exactly when booking opened 45 days in advance, we could not get Dhikala and had to be content with Sultan for the first two nights and Gairal for the third. I was contemplating canceling the trip and retrying our luck with Dhikala, but VV persuaded me to stick with the plan. The experience turned out to be completely unexpected (at least as far as we were concerned).

Dhikala was big and crowded, though there was the apparent advantage of being right where the sightings were (and thereby allowing guests to hang around the chaur until lockdown time at 6:30 PM, unlike guests staying at Sarapduli, Gairal, Sultan or one of the other places who needed to leave at 5 PM or whenever to reach their lodgings before 6:30 PM). Despite this, I would not like to stay at Dhikala when I go back. Sultan is the place to stay at.

Sultan was spectacular, nestling amidst a lovely stand of Sal, with just two rooms and no electric fencing (or electricity for that matter). The moon was nearly full at this time and the forest was expectedly ethereal in the moonlight. Chital alarm calls were heard around the FRH after dark. In addition to the persistent calls of nightjar – possibly Grey or Large-tailed – and of the Brown hawk owl.

Gairal FRH is much larger with nine rooms. It overlooks the Ramganga, but there is not much point to this as access to the river is cut off by electric fencing. Again not a patch on Sultan, in my admittedly dubious opinion.

This trip was restricted to the Dhikala safari zone. VV pointed out that the Bijrani safari zone was also worth exploration, and our quiet but competent driver Harish Patwal added that the Malani FRH there was a fair equivalent of Sultan. So those are the places I’ll head to the next time.

The weather at this time of year was interesting. It rained quite a bit. Mornings and evenings were cold while the rest of the day was hot. Nights were cool enough to sleep pleasantly through despite the absence of fans.

Corbett has a unique arrangement in terms of timings. Vehicles are allowed to leave the FRHs at 6 AM and have to be back by 6:30 PM. There is a lock-down in effect between 11 AM and 2:30 PM. All visitors have to be confined to one of the camps, or to one of the two watchtowers around Dhikala during this slot. We spent two of the four days on one of the watchtowers near Dhikala (the one near Sambar road I think) during the lockdown hours. The other two we spent doing lazy lunches at Dhikala and Gairal.

In terms of itinerary, we had initially planned to fly to Delhi and take the overnight train from there to Ramnagar. After some consideration, we changed our minds, advanced our air tickets to reach Delhi by 3 PM, and covered the 250 kms to Ramnagar by road, reaching there at 11:30 PM thanks to peak-time traffic in Delhi. On the way back, we took the train to Delhi and then took the morning flights out.

Some distances. The Dhangari gate is the gateway into the Dhikala safari zone and this is 18 kms from Ramnagar. Unless I got this wrong, Sultan is 6 kms from this gate, Gairal 15, and Dhikala 31 kms away.

Flora Corbett Apr 15 5 003 I spent quite some effort in identifying commonly seen trees and plants on this trip. It was a useful way to keep engaged whilst on the drive and between bird or mammal sightings. Time I’d otherwise have squandered away dreaming.

The landscape of Corbett TR is dominated by the Sal tree (Shorea robusta) to the extent of 73%. At this time of year, the trees were flowering and entire hillsides appeared dusted over with greenish white powder, contrasting with the dark green of the ribbed leaves below. Corbett Apr 15 3 124The Sal trees were also shedding heavily and the ground in many places was carpeted with rotting leaf litter. Corbett Apr 15 5 012In some stands of Sal, Rohini (Mallotus phillipinensis) grew in profusion in the understory. This is a diminutive tree bearing clusters of small, red fruit that find use in producing red dye and sindoor. The very picturesque last kilometer of road before Dhikala was reached boasted of plenty of these trees. Corbett Apr 15 4 027 Corbett Apr 15 1 056Terminalia elliptica, our Kari Mathi, was fairly common too. And I could occasionally spot Axlewood (Anogeissus latifolia). In some places, particularly around Dhikala, Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica) occurred.

In several areas, Haldu (Haldina cordifolia) grew in profusion, with many specimens having attained impressive girths. Corbett Apr 15 3 338 Alongside the Ramganga, Jamun (Syzygium cumini) was occasionally seen. Corbett Apr 15 4 017 The Kusum tree (Schleichera oleosa) stood out at this time of year as its newly sprouted leaves were red in colour, the contrast rendering it rather pretty. Corbett Apr 15 1 013 At one of the stream crossings, Harish pointed out a few specimens of Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii). This is the lone coniferous species that occurs in Corbett. Corbett Apr 15 1 006 In terms of plants, the understory in the Sal forests was dominated by two species for most part – Hill glorybower (Clerodendrum infortunatum) and Lantana camara. Both were flowering in profusion, the former decked out in little, five-petaled white flowers, each sprouting four tendrilly stamens. And the latter blossoming in a riot of white, orange, yellow and violet.

Clerodendrum infortunatum: Corbett Apr 15 1 002 The many hues of Lantana camara: Corbett Apr 15 5 026 Ageratum conyzoides, another exotic locally known as baansila also bore little white flowers and was very common. Corbett Apr 15 5 052 The Curry plant (Murraya koenigii) was seen in abundance, especially around Dhikala. The stretch of road known as Tunbhoji contains whole stretches of Curry plants. Corbett Apr 15 3 258 Colebrookea oppositifolia with its worm-like inflorescence was abundant in some places. Corbett Apr 15 3 012 In many areas Cannabis, possibly Cannabis sativa covered the ground in profusion. Corbett Apr 15 3 331 Ferns are commonly met with in the Sal forests. This one below is possibly Adiantum sp. Corbett Apr 15 4 013 And this one is possibly Pteris sp. Corbett Apr 15 4 007 These four species I am yet to identify – all four were very common.

This plant is locally known as Tun. It is laden with clusters of green berries, some turning purple. A track around Dhikala (which connects with the famed Thandi sadak) is lined with this species and is called Tunbhoji. Corbett Apr 15 4 052 This species of plant growing to around a foot in height packed the verges in many places. Harish identified it as Anjeer. Corbett Apr 15 4 073 Another plant very commonly seen, and most often in a tattered condition and sprouting buds. Perhaps it is Pogostemon amaranthoides, which is said to occur in Corbett TR. Corbett Apr 15 5 015 This is a very common concomitant of Baansila – Ageratum conyzoides. It has little lavender flowers which are similar to those of Ageratum. Harish maintained that it was another variant of the same species, but that is quite evidently not the case. The plant itself is much smaller, and so are the leaves. They are reminiscent of mint leaves. The specimen in this picture below has been drenched in rain. Corbett Apr 15 4 078 Birding It would be an understatement to say that birding in Corbett is breathtaking. Most wildlife spots boast of somewhere under 300 bird species in my experience. Corbett boasts of 600. Unless this claim is inflated. I exceeded a species count of 100 for the very first time, with around 30 lifers thrown in. And this despite the fact that we were not exactly birding with a vengeance – we let a bunch of sightings go unidentified. It did help that that VV was fairly expert at the local avifauna.

The calls of Black-hooded oriole, Red-breasted parakeet, Plum-headed parakeet, Common hawk cuckoo and Spotted dove were the typical sounds heard. We encountered the Blue whistling thrush and that most remarkable bird, the White-crested laughing thrush several times along the forest roads. Corbett Apr 15 3 019 Kalij pheasants gave us a couple of close and very patient photo ops, unlike their cousins the Red junglefowl which were considerably more nervous. Corbett Apr 15 3 373 Corbett Apr 15 6 416 Corbett Apr 15 5 087 A Great Indian hornbill swished past on our last day there. I finally managed to sight a bird that I’ve heard many times but have never managed to see – the Indian cuckoo. I also had the considerable satisfaction of spotting and later identifying the spectacular colours of the Rufous-bellied niltava. We spent many engrossing minutes from the Dhikala watchtower peeping on a pair of mating parakeets.

Red turtle doves frequent the Dhikala camp in large numbers, and were rarely encountered elsewhere. Corbett Apr 15 3 044 Corbett is a raptor-watcher’s paradise. Pallas’s fish eagle and Lesser fish eagle were commonly encountered. As were CSE, CHE and a host of vultures.Common kestrel and Shikra were also frequently seen.

Brown fish owl: Corbett Apr 15 3 315 On the chaurs, Paddyfield pipit, Pied bushchat and Common stonechat ruled. With some drongos thrown in for good measure. River lapwings and River terns were commonly seen along the water’s edge. Corbett Apr 15 3 148

Mammals and reptiles

Sambar hind by the eponymous Sambar road. Corbett Apr 15 3 103 Sambar hind and fawn fording the Ramganga; photographed from the Dhikala watchtower. Corbett Apr 15 4 165 Wild boar at Dhikala. Corbett Apr 15 4 049 Hog deer hind by the Ramganga reservoir. Corbett Apr 15 4 153 Corbett Apr 15 4 110 Multiple herds of elephants were invariably at the Ramganga reservoir each evening. Corbett Apr 15 1 273 Corbett Apr 15 4 460 Corbett Apr 15 8 017 Corbett Apr 15 8 054 We saw this crippled calf and its herd on a couple of occasions. The mother’s handling of its inability to keep up was an object lesson in forbearance.  Corbett Apr 15 8 186 We invariably encountered jackal pairs in the picturesque stretch of Sal forest just before reaching Dhikala, and in the chaur around it. Here, doing it just like a dog. Corbett Apr 15 3 164 This python was stationed near Gorkha sot and sighted by most passing jeeps. It was most probably an Indian python, but could have been a Burmese python too. Yawning, in the second picture. Corbett Apr 15 5 173 Corbett Apr 15 5 199 At the point where a road branches off to the Khinnanauli FRH, we saw a pair of Yellow-throated marten dart across the road. The pair presently returned and recrossed again. This creature was on my wishlist for the trip. Harish noted that they were often seen in the vicinity. The weather was wet and presently the skies opened up. We waited a while longer before giving up. We then took to referring to the junction as ‘Marten point’ and looked for the pair each time we passed thereafter, with no luck however.

On day 3, we were rushing back to Gairal at sunset, being late for the 6:30 deadline. The light was rapidly fading. When we reached crocodile point, Harish slammed the brakes exclaiming “Tiger!”. Sure enough, a male got up and off the road, and wandered over into the bushes to our left (the viewpoint was to our left too, the tiger was in the bushes just past the viewpoint). Resenting our intrusion, the cat set up a series of growls while blundering through the thick undergrowth. I suggested that  we pull into the viewpoint to peep over the bushes he was in, but Harish felt the tiger would charge if provoked. In a few minutes, realizing we weren’t being driven away by the growling, the tiger re-emerged onto the road, crossed it, and stood on the verge for a minute staring fixedly at us, before disappearing into the undergrowth. Junior incidentally dived under his seat and stayed hidden there through the growling.

Here’s a picture I hurriedly clicked at an ISO of 25,600 in the failing light. Corbett Apr 15 5 032

Incidentally, Corbett doesn’t seem to be very big on naming individual tigers. However this particular male went by the moniker of Diwani Ram ka tiger, named after a fire watcher he killed three years back.

Our second tiger sighting happened the next morning. Alarm calls were reported from the stand of burnt trees near the reservoir. A tigress had evidently been spotted disappearing into the thickets by someone and the local phone tree was burning up. We reached there to join some eight or ten other Gypsies all lined up in the blazing sun on the chaur. A very large herd of chital grazed placidly nearby.

We’d just finishing admiring an osprey on a nearby tree when out of the thickets came the tigress, charging straight into the herd. She missed bagging anything and lost the advantage of surprise. The deer however went into milling confusion presenting another opportunity. She then made a second attempt, which failed too. After which she retired to the thicket, closely followed by the entire chital herd in formation, anxious not to lose sight of her.

Here’s a part of the sequence. Corbett Apr 15 5 115 Corbett Apr 15 5 116 Corbett Apr 15 5 117 Corbett Apr 15 5 120 Corbett Apr 15 5 121 Corbett Apr 15 5 123 Corbett Apr 15 5 127 ENGL2434 Corbett Apr 15 5 145

The list Birds:

  1. Ashy bulbul
  2. Ashy-crowned sparrow lark
  3. Ashy drongo
  4. Ashy prinia
  5. Ashy woodswallow
  6. Asian paradise flycatcher
  7. Bar-headed goose
  8. Black-hooded oriole
  9. Black redstart
  10. Black stork
  11. Black-shouldered kite
  12. Black-winged stilt
  13. Blue-bearded bee-eater
  14. Blue-throated barbet
  15. Blue whistling-thrush
  16. Brown-capped pygmy woodpecker
  17. Brown fish owl
  18. Brown hawk owl (calls)
  19. Changeable hawk eagle
  20. Chestnut-tailed starling
  21. Cinereous tit
  22. Cinereous vulture?
  23. Yellow wagtail
  24. Collared falonet
  25. Common green magpie (calls)
  26. Common hawk cuckoo
  27. Common iora
  28. Common kestrel
  29. Common myna
  30. Common sandpiper
  31. Common stonechat
  32. Coppersmith barbet
  33. Cormorant (?)
  34. Crested kingfisher
  35. Crested serpent eagle
  36. Egret (?)
  37. Eurasian collared dove
  38. Eurasian or Himalayan cuckoo (?)
  39. Fulvous woodpecker
  40. Gold-fronted leaf bird
  41. Great Indian hornbill
  42. Great slaty woodpecker
  43. Green bee-eater
  44. Grey-capped pygmy woodpecker
  45. Grey-headed fish eagle
  46. Grey-headed woodpecker
  47. Grey heron
  48. Grey wagtail
  49. Hen harrier?
  50. Himalayan bulbul
  51. Indian cuckoo?
  52. Indian grey hornbill
  53. Indian spotted eagle?
  54. Indian treepie
  55. Jungle babbler
  56. Jungle myna
  57. Kalij pheasant
  58. Large cuckooshrike
  59. Lesser fish eagle
  60. Lesser flameback
  61. Lesser yellownape
  62. Lineated barbet
  63. Long-tailed nightjar, or possibly Grey nightjar (calls)
  64. Long-tailed shrike
  65. Magpie robin
  66. Orange-headed thrush
  67. Orange minivet
  68. Oriental honey buzzard
  69. Oriental pied hornbill
  70. Oriental skylark?
  71. Oriental white-eye
  72. Osprey
  73. Paddyfield pipit
  74. Pallas’s fish eagle
  75. Peafowl
  76. Pied bushchat
  77. Pied kingfisher
  78. Plum-headed parakeet
  79. Purple sunbird
  80. Red avadavat
  81. Red-breasted parakeet
  82. Red-headed vulture
  83. Red junglefowl
  84. Red turtle dove/Red collared dove
  85. Red-vented bulbul
  86. Red-wattled lapwing
  87. Red-whiskered bulbul
  88. River lapwing
  89. River tern
  90. Rock dove/Blue rock pigeon
  91. Rose-ringed parakeet
  92. Rosy minivet
  93. Rosy starling
  94. Rufous-bellied niltava
  95. Ruddy shelduck
  96. Shikra
  97. Small minivet
  98. Spangled drongo
  99. Spotted dove
  100. Streak-throated woodpecker
  101. Striated grassbird?
  102. Striated laughingthrush
  103. Tailor bird (calls)
  104. Tawny fish owl
  105. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  106. Warbler (?)
  107. White-browed wagtail
  108. White-crested laughingthrush
  109. White-eyed buzzard
  110. White-rumped vulture?
  111. White-throated kingfisher
  112. White-throated laughingthrush
  113. White wagtail
  114. Wooly-necked stork
  115. Yellow-eyed babbler
  116. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Chital
  3. Common langur
  4. Common mongoose
  5. Elephant
  6. Hog deer
  7. Rhesus macaque
  8. Sambar
  9. Tiger
  10. Wild boar
  11. Yellow-throated marten

Reptiles:

  1. Bengal monitor
  2. Gharial
  3. Indian or Burmese python
  4. Mugger

Kaziranga/Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, Dec 2014

Trip:       Kaziranga National Park/Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary

Camp:   Wildgrass (Kaziranga)/FRH (Gibbon)

Dates:   29 Dec ’14 – 1 Jan ‘15

This is going to be a long post.

My son and I had visited Kaziranga in April 2013, along with my sister’s family. He was five then and we’d had some great sightings. This second visit was planned six months in advance, for just the two of us. As the date approached however the trip looked to be jinxed. First was SpiceJet’s wholesale disruptions (our Bangalore-Guwahati onward was with them). Alternate fares quickly climbed in excess of Rs. 43K. Thankfully services were restored a couple of days before our departure date (which was on Christmas day). And then there were the Bodo militant attacks killing 75 people that put Assam on the boil a couple of days before we left. We planned to visit friends in the Missamari cantt for a few days, in addition to doing Kaziranga. The route from the Guwahati airport to Missamari passed through one of the sites of the attack (Dhekiajuli) and a curfew was supposedly in effect. Further, it was 4:15 PM by the time we exited the airport and the early winter sunset was underway. Which meant four hours of driving mostly in the dark. In any case the drive passed off without incident.

Missamari

Missamari was cold and offered some little birding around the cantt. Brown shrikes and Red-vented bulbuls were aplenty, as were three species of myna – Common, Jungle and Asian pied, and spotted doves. Black-throated munias were also numerous and a pair of these had nested under the roof overhang of the house.  I spotted a babbler-sized brown bird once that I couldn’t identify.

On the day before we left for Bangalore, a twittering something went sailing over the lawn, with a jerky uneven flight. Turned out to be a Brown shrike that had grabbed a munia chick from its nest. The chick screamed and struggled for all its tiny worth, and the shrike had trouble holding its course. It blundered over a hedge, landed on a pile of thorns some twenty five meters away, panicked at my approach and abandoned the chick wedged inside the thorny pile. The chick had sustained a bleeding injury around the mantle, but seemed alive enough. We extricated it and placed it on the lawn, from where it disappeared a short while later – spirited away either by its parents, or by the shrike.

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The Itinerary

I had explored the possibility of managing three or four PAs with Ficus’s Ravi Kailash months in advance. Pakke, Orang and Nameri are all tantalizingly close to Missamari. As is Eaglenest. However considering that all these places entailed some degree of walking, and considering that my son is not a particularly accomplished walker, I had to limit the schedule to two nights in Kaziranga and a single night at Gibbon. Given this schedule, Ravi, considerate as ever, suggested that I dispense with Ficus’s assistance and book directly through Manju Barua of Wildgrass. This latter gentleman was enormously helpful and courteous, and patiently responded to my numerous emails promptly and in great detail. To begin with, he pointed out that I was visiting Kaziranga at the worst possible time as the week of 25th Dec turns the park into a “circus”. And then Wildgrass was booked out and he put me on a waitlist, which eventually cleared.

And so my son and I ended up reaching Kaziranga by lunchtime on the 29th, did the evening safari there, stayed overnight at Wildgrass, and left for Gibbon the next evening after completing both safaris on day 2. Overnighting at Gibbon, we finished with the apes before breakfast the next morning, rushing back in time to catch the evening safari at Kaziranga. The next morning, 1-Jan, was our last safari after which we departed for Missamari. So five safaris in all at Kaziranga, of which two each were in the Western and Central zones and the last one in Eastern.

Wildgrass

Although not as luxurious as the Iora resort, Wildgrass is probably the best place to stay at in Kaziranga. Manju Barua’s attitude being in no small measure a reason for this, the ambience accounting for the rest. He took care of everything for me very efficiently – accommodation, safaris, naturalist, my Missamari and Gibbon transfers and the Gibbon FRH booking. We enjoyed the place the last time too and this time was no different. If I must find something to crib about, it’ll only be the acoustics of the hardwood floors. These amplified sounds from the room above spectacularly and even if the occupant was tiptoeing in his socks, produced a din below resembling someone playing nine pins with propane cylinders. If you are a light sleeper, you want to ask for a room on the top floor. This little inconvenience aside, we had a spectacular time.

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I didn’t get to do too much birding in the resort. I sighted Indian robin, a Magpie robin (I think), Black-hooded oriole, Baya weaver bird, Spotted dove, all the three mynas again and Red-vented bulbul.  And heard the Blue whistling thrush. The resort grounds are the best place to spot the Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel and we sighted these as expected. And on the way in, we stopped to watch a Malayan giant squirrel that our driver Biju managed to spot in a forest patch around thirty klicks from Kaziranga. We also saw elephants, but these might have been domestic ones as they were not very far from human habitation.

Malayan giant squirrel:

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Kaziranga

Safari 1, PM, Western Zone. The evening safaris were abbreviated ones, given the early sunset. We typically set off a little before 2 PM, with 15-20 minutes spent on the drive to the gate and another 15-20 minutes squandered in getting the entry tickets. Sometime before 3 PM is when we entered the park gates, giving us a maximum of two hours before the sun disappeared completely.

I had mentioned to Manju Barua that naturalist Tarun Gogoi had done a tremendous job with the spotting during our 2013 trip. He offered to book Tarun for us this time too. However the naturalist was held up with another group for the first safari, and so Biju Hazarika, the driver who’d picked us up from Missamari tripled up as safari driver, spotter and naturalist all rolled into one. And did a very creditable job of it.

A short while into the first safari, we ran into a fair-sized King cobra right by the track. We slammed to a stop after passing some twenty five feet past the reptile. Before I could get my lens to bear on it the snake raised its hood briefly before making itself scarce.

We made a brief stopover at the Donga beel viewing point. Rhino, buffalo, hog deer and swamp deer grazed on the far bank. We saw flocks of Yellow-footed green pigeons around this spot both the times we visited.

Elephant and rhino skulls at Donga beel:

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We also ran into a pair of elephants in the elephant grass by the roadside later in the drive.

We opened the birding account with Asian openbill stork, Crested serpent eagle, Wooly-necked stork, Bar-headed goose, mallard, Red-breasted parakeet, Common stone chat, Black-necked stork and Lesser adjutant stork. We were to meet all these repeatedly on subsequent drives.

Common stonechat:

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Rhino at dusk in the western zone:

Kaziranga Dec 14 245

Safari 2, AM, Central Zone. Hog deer, Swamp deer, rhino and buffalo were commonly seen on all safaris. As were enormous flocks of foraging Bar-headed geese, Greylag geese, mallards, Spot-billed ducks, pintails, Black-necked and Wooly-necked storks, egrets and Lesser adjutant storks in all beels. I’ll therefore avoid repetitive mention. To the birds list we added Barn swallow, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Bronze-winged jacana, Purple heron, pintail, cormorants, White wagtail, Common snipe, Citrine wagtail, Asian pied starling, Ruddy shelduck and Pied kingfisher. And heard Puff-throated babbler, Lesser flameback and a Changeable hawk eagle.

Bar-headed geese are truly remarkable birds. Look them up online to learn why.

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Greylag geese:

Kaziranga Dec 14 1488

A barking deer turned up on the track. To the untrained eye or at least to my untrained eye, muntjac can be mistaken for the more commonly seen Hog deer, especially if the sighting is fleeting.

Hog deer stag & doe:

Kaziranga Dec 14 567

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The road winds past the Kawoimari lake and the Diphlu river and is quite picturesque. On the lake, we saw an Indian roof turtle. A Grey-headed fish eagle sat silently surveying the river.

Indian roof turtle:

Kaziranga Dec 14 431

The road pauses at a viewpoint area where visitors can alight and use the malodorous bamboo toilets. A row of tufted ducks paddled in the water, along with the other usual suspects. A rhino grazed on the far bank, as did a small herd of buffaloes. We saw White (Rosy) pelicans in addition to the more commonly seen Spotbilled ones. As we moved on from the viewpoint area raising fine powdered dust that fouled everything, a Bengal monitor lizard was found basking beside the track, unmindful of the clouds of dust billowing onto it. A lone osprey quartered the skies. Indian treepies called.

Bengal monitor lizard:

Kaziranga Dec 14 534

Safari 3, PM, Western Zone. This was the safari we rushed back to catch, from Gibbon. The drive started propitiously with a Pallas fish eagle sighting. I was on the lookout for this species. The bird was evidently nesting there as we found it around the same place multiple times subsequently. A small troop of Rhesus macaques foraged nearby.

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Tarun identified a small tree we saw repeatedly as jujube, Ziziphus jujuba – the berries of which are evidently pickled and served in the Wildgrass dining room.

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He identified another commonly seen tree with large, ribbed leaves as Dillenia indica, the Elephant apple tree. The palm for the most common tree in Kaziranga however undoubtedly goes to the Red silk cotton, Bombax ceiba. It is abundant in the countryside as well.

Elephant apple tree, Dillenia indica:

Kaziranga Dec 14 1337

At one spot, hog deer began calling in alarm in the grass. The calls were strident and we waited awhile. The sun was starting to set and great flocks of Green imperial pigeons flew past on their way to roost.  A pair of Greater Indian hornbills swooshed past and the tiger was momentarily forgotten. Alexandrine parakeets squawked and flitted. Eventually giving up, we turned back. The light was fading fast and a little before the park exit, we came upon another set of alarm calls. The hog deer were calling and a herd of buffaloes hurriedly turned around to face the direction the tiger was evidently in. We could pinpoint the area the deer and buffalo were focused on, but the setting darkness and thick grass hid the cat only too well. Tarun caught a fleeting glimpse, but I could see nothing despite standing atop the Gypsy’s bars at a ten foot vantage point.  The buffalo herd trooped out and the calls subsequently ceased.

Pintails at dusk:

Kaziranga Dec 14 739

Safari 4, PM, Central Zone.  Mihi is a beel in the central zone with the Kothora watchtower overlooking its vastness. This place is sometimes referred to as tiger point owing to the frequency of sightings. Visitors can alight at the watchtower to watch the wildlife on the beel.

We spent the entire evening tethered to this spot by persistent alarm calls. The deer and a rhino were intently focused on a patch of tall grass to our right. Plenty of other jeeps came and went, but we stayed put. Tarun was determined to catch a tiger sighting after one too many near misses. Unfortunately for us hordes of noisy tourists made appearances. Tarun was worried they’d scare the feline away and that’s precisely what happened. The tiger made off in the opposite direction away from the beel, crossed the road some two hundred meters away, and disappeared into the grass.

Tarun was bitter about all the noise the tourists were making – he’d spent a good part of an hour with his eyes glued to his binocs atop the watch tower, watching for stripes. All for nothing.

Biju Hazarika watches hog deer calling in alarm on Mihi beel:

Kaziranga Dec 14 1125

We went further up the track hoping the feline would return, but had to give up eventually. While waiting we found a couple of rhinos waiting to cross the track and positioned ourselves to catch the crossings, but noisy passing tourists scared those away as well. I now know what Manju Barua meant by the “circus”.

It was fully dark by now and that’s how we ended the last day of 2014. Would have been even better to end it with a tiger sighting that actually fructified but then we do not always get what we ask for.

The last sunset of 2014:

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Safari 5, AM, Eastern Zone. I was anticipating a tourist-free forest, this being the 1st of Jan. I had miscalculated however as hordes of people evidently consider it great fun to continue the festivities of the previous night in the forest on day one.

The Eastern zone is renowned for its birdlife more than large mammals. A Stork-billed kingfisher sat sentinel as we entered the park gate. Further up the track, a branch was heavy with Himalayan griffon vultures. We also sighted Black-hooded orioles, a Spotted eagle, Indian vultures, a Changeable hawk eagle, a Common kestrel, Indian treepies, Orange minivets, Red-breasted parakeets and Common teals.  The track winds past the massive Sohola beel. A pair of Oriental pied hornbills flew from one tree to another, very close by and I hurriedly attempted a flight shot, having been caught unawares while handing junior the binocs to view a Pallas fish eagle sitting at a distance. The shot came out with one wing clipped.

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A squirrel raced up a bole and leaped across to another. Tarun identified it as a Himalayan striped squirrel.

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We saw a solitary brown fish owl that sat looking at us for a long while before flapping away on massive wings. A small herd of elephants posed for pictures further up the track. We then reached the terminus of the track at the Bramhaputra river.

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On the way back I saw two lapwings I’ve never seen before – the Grey-headed and the Northern (Crested) lapwing. We saw the former multiple times.

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Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

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Gibbon is around 135 kilometers from Kaziranga and we left after the evening safari, to reach there by 9:30 PM or so. The FRH at Gibbon has two rooms. The ever-smiling cook produced barely tolerable meals on a woodfire stove in an alluringly warm but sooty kitchen behind. A railway gate occurs not very far away and passing trains sound their horns frantically to warn off crossing elephants. To the sleepers in the rooms, it sounds like the engines are passing on the other side of the wall.

We awoke early to the calls of Puff-throated babbler, Black-hooded oriole, and Blue whistling thrush. Gibbon comprises some 21 square kilometers of evergreen forest with paths running through it. A forest guard armed with a rusty, double-barreled gun of ancient vintage accompanied us. He said the weapon was intended to scare elephants away as he broke open the breech to load a pair of red cartridges. We left junior sleeping snugly back in the room, with Biju kindly consenting to wait on His Little Majesty.

Blue whistling thrush at dawn:

Kaziranga Dec 14 819

Gibbon is home to seven species of primates – the Western hoolock gibbon, Stump-tailed macaque, Northern pig-tailed macaque, Bengal slow loris, Capped langur, Assamese macaque and Rhesus macaque. We sighted three of these in the couple of hours we spent walking through the forest. The morning was crisp, cold and utterly lovely. The first mammal sighting was of a very lively Malayan giant squirrel. A small troop of Capped langurs presently appeared, crashing about the canopy, leaping tree to tree.

Capped langur:

Kaziranga Dec 14 898

We then sighted an Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel. The sound of breaking branches warned us of the presence of elephants further up the path and we back-tracked, finding an alternate route to skirt around the animals. We had spent a good hour and a half now traipsing through Gibbon with no sign of the eponymous ape. I was thinking that we might have to return without having managed a single sighting.

A troop of Pig-tailed macaques turned up next, shortly followed by junior in the car driven out by Biju, all rested and refreshed.

Pig-tailed macaque:

Kaziranga Dec 14 827

A second guard finally spotted a Gibbon family on the canopy, and we spent some fifteen minutes watching a male, female and a sub-adult swinging and feeding high up in the canopy. Gibbon-watching is good treatment for people afflicted with cervical spondylitis.

Gibbons, male and female:

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The Gibbon sanctuary is a spectacular birding site. It reminded me of Thattekad in many ways. Tarun was in his elements and we sighted orange-headed thrush, White-throated bulbul, Bronzed, Greater racket-tailed and Spangled drongos, Grey-bellied tesia, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Black-crested bulbul and Maroon oriole. And heard the Asian barred owlet. The highlight however was watching a pair of Red-headed trogans for a good many minutes as they flitted around the canopy. Tarun was elated with this sighting. Back at the FRH and after breakfast, we listened to Lineated barbets calling loudly before packing up to rush back to Kaziranga in time for a hurried lunch and the evening safari.

Here are some pictures from my 2013 trip.

22 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 271

18 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 458

28 Kaziranga Day 1 Wildgrass 104

48 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 912

56 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 570

54 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 158

55 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 217

The list

Birds:

  1. Alexandrine parakeet
  2. Asian barred owlet (calls)
  3. Asian openbill stork
  4. Asian pied starling
  5. Bar-headed goose
  6. Barn swallow
  7. Baya weaver bird
  8. Bay-backed shrike
  9. Black-crested bulbul
  10. Black-hooded oriole
  11. Black-necked stork
  12. Black-throated munia
  13. Blue whistling thrush
  14. Bronzed drongo
  15. Bronze-winged jacana
  16. Brown fish owl
  17. Brown shrike
  18. Cattle egret
  19. Changeable hawk eagle
  20. Citrine wagtail
  21. Common kestrel
  22. Common myna
  23. Common snipe
  24. Common stonechat
  25. Common teal
  26. Cormorant (Greater?)
  27. Crested serpent eagle
  28. Darter
  29. Greater Indian hornbill
  30. Greater racket-tailed drongo
  31. Green imperial pigeon
  32. Common greenshank
  33. Grey-bellied tesia
  34. Grey-headed canary flycatcher
  35. Grey-headed fish eagle
  36. Grey-headed lapwing
  37. Grey heron
  38. Greylag goose
  39. Himalayan griffon vulture
  40. Indian robin
  41. Indian roller
  42. Indian treepie
  43. Jungle myna
  44. Large egret?
  45. Lesser adjutant stork
  46. Lesser flameback
  47. Lineated barbet (calls)
  48. Indian vulture
  49. Magpie robin
  50. Mallard
  51. Maroon oriole
  52. Northern/crested lapwing
  53. Orange-headed thrush
  54. Orange minivet
  55. Oriental pied hornbill
  56. Osprey
  57. Pallas fish eagle
  58. Pied kingfisher
  59. Pintail
  60. Pond heron
  61. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  62. Purple heron
  63. Red-breasted parakeet
  64. Red-headed trogan
  65. Red junglefowl
  66. Red-vented bulbul
  67. Rose-ringed parakeet
  68. Ruddy shelduck
  69. Spangled drongo
  70. Spot-billed duck
  71. Spot-billed pelican
  72. Spotted dove
  73. Spotted eagle
  74. Stork-billed kingfisher
  75. Tufted duck
  76. White-browed wagtail
  77. White ibis
  78. White/Rosy pelican
  79. White-throated bulbul (calls)
  80. White-throated kingfisher
  81. White wagtail
  82. Wooly-necked stork
  83. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Capped langur
  3. Elephant
  4. Eastern swamp deer
  5. Great Indian one-horned rhino
  6. Striped Himalayan squirrel
  7. Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  8. Hog deer
  9. Hoolock gibbon
  10. Malayan giant squirrel
  11. Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  12. Pig-tailed macaque
  13. Rhesus macaque
  14. Wild buffalo

Reptiles:

  1. Bengal monitor lizard
  2. Indian roof turtle
  3. King cobra