Book Review: The King and I, Travels in Tigerland

Book review: The King and I – Travels in Tigerland, by Prerna Singh Bindra

Rupa & Co, 2006

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For some strange reason, half a dozen chapters into the book, I was distinctly unimpressed. Maybe I was coming at it from the perspective of A.J.T. Johnsingh’s masterpieces (Field Days and Walking the Western Ghats) – books that drip heavy with information and insights from a naturalist’s perspective. That was probably unwarranted. Prerna Singh Bindra is no naturalist. But she is a conservation journalist and a skillful wordsmith. She therefore approaches her topic from the perspective of the conservation journalist – with a fine blend of impassioned eco-zeal, and sensitivity to the beauty around her. And she certainly writes well. I warmed to the book eventually, and had concluded by the end of it that it was indeed a very good read.

The King and I profiles some twenty prominent PAs – mostly tiger reserves with a couple of exceptions in Hemis and Gir. Bindra’s personal impressions of each wildscape provide some very readable context to the larger discussion around conservation and anthropological issues specific to the PA. And she blends a fine mix of the two, which is a good thing – tales of her personal experiences and her evocative sense of wonder enliven what would otherwise be a starkly depressing account of almost-lost causes.

Notwithstanding the title, the book does not confine itself to the tiger alone. There is a chapter on Gir, a discussion on conservation issues specific to the leopard, a lament on what we did to the cheetah in India, an essay centered around Billy Arjan Singh and Tiger Haven, and another around Tusker Trails in Bandipur.

Five of the chapters are especially outstanding. Bindra’s account of hunting for the snow leopard amidst the barren slopes of Hemis makes for a fine read. The chapter on Bandavgarh paints a very effective picture of the ugly commercialization of tiger tourism. Her account of visiting locations immortalized in Corbett’s books makes for some engaging reading – interestingly, Johnsingh has authored a book on this very topic, not that this detracts in any way from the effectiveness of Bindra’s story. The book closes with a powerful and wide-ranging discussion of conservation issues specific to the tiger – one of the hardest-hitting pieces I’ve read on the topic.

My personal favorite by far however, is the little account of Bindra’s brief visit to Cheetal Walk/Jungle Trails. Like many admirers of the eponymous book by E.R.C. Davidar, I have itched to visit this now-inaccessible house. Bindra was fortunate enough to sit on the verandah we have all read about, and to watch an assortment of hyenas, sloth bears and other creatures, all door-delivered. I read the chapter with a mixture of envy and fascination in equal measure.

The book is peppered with multiple photographs in every page. The credits for these are atypically not footnoted with the photographs themselves, but massed at the end of the book. Which is not a bad thing from the reader’s perspective, considering the reduced clutter. I should also mention that there is a fantastic bibliography at the end of the book. If Ms. Bindra has all the 120-odd books listed here on her shelf, she’s one very lucky person.

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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: Bandipur, Apr ’16

Trip Report:        Bandipur National Park

Dates:                   14-17 Apr 2016

Camp:                   JLR Bandipur Safari Lodge

Who:                     Junior

The best trips are often the least planned ones. I got back from work on a Wednesday evening, checked JLR’s availability for K. Gudi for the next day, found it full, checked Bandipur next, found it available, and booked junior and myself for two nights. Given the quality of the sightings, we extended by another day and ended up returning to Bengaluru on Sunday.

Bengaluru was sweltering, allegedly having touched record highs of 41 and 42 degrees Celsius. Bandipur Safari lodge was cool enough because of the shade and the constant breeze, though it was warmish indoors. The safaris were also cool enough to be comfortable.

The Anogeissus latifolia trees were bare in some tracts and leaved in others, while Terminalia tomentosa were leaved throughout. Cassia fistula was in bloom, although reaching the terminus of its season – it must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight a couple of weeks back. The Gulmohar trees (outside the forest) were in riotous and spectacular bloom though. The lantana was dry and bare, though massed in thickets everywhere off the track.

The cicadas in the camp were deafening, especially near the front office and the Gol Ghar. While junior and I attempted to get pictures with my phone, the little fellows voided themselves by shooting sprays of clear liquid, often onto us.

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Lesser flameback. I was not birding very efficiently. I was aware of the calls most of the time though. Brahminy starlings, hoopoes, Coppersmith barbets, Magpie robins, Puff-throated babblers (in the mornings), Common ioras, Jungle babblers, Scimitar babblers, Purple sunbirds, Treepies and Indian cuckoos. And the Peacocks.

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Dancing peacocks occurred frequently. This picture was clicked by 8-year old P.

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Crested serpent eagle

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Clash of the simians. Horseplay actually.

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How does an elephant climb a 4-foot high embankment after a good scratch?

Three-month-old calf

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We ran into this shy tusker in the evening safari on day 2. He withdrew into the lantana and stood watching us with utter suspicion. We in turn withdrew a short distance to coax him out, but he couldn’t bolster enough courage and we eventually gave up.

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While we were driving back to the camp on the evening of day 3, this remarkable tusker appeared, rather suddenly. He walked at a quick-but-steady pace, crossed the highway with scarcely a break in stride or glance at the traffic he caused to suddenly halt, and disappeared in an apparent hurry on the other side. This was one traveling elephant with someplace to go.

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We first spotted this leopard ambling on the edge of the lantana right by the highway, causing quite a traffic jam, and completely indifferent to the honking, gawking, screaming crowds. Eventually he cut into the lantana and disappeared. We turned into the forest to intercept him on the other side of the lantana patch. He crossed the track in front of three or four jeeps, quite unafraid. This picture was taken just before the crossing.

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We had an interesting experience with this leopard in the evening safari of day 2. The safari was generally dry, except for the encounter with the shy tusker. We had spent a considerable amount of time waiting in vain by Ministerguthi Kolathi for a tigress with a triplet of cubs that were reported to be hidden in the bamboos by the kere. We left reluctantly when there was no more time left. Just before we reached the main road, we found this leopard crouched by the track, staring fixedly into the lantana.

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 There were deer there, though we couldn’t see them. Except for a casual glance once, the leopard ignored us, even though we were some thirty or forty feet away.

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This was a telling lesson in patience. After an interminable wait, the leopard rose ever so slowly, and stalked to the edge of the lantana. Just as he was about to launch into it, he was spotted and in an eruption of alarm calls, the chital scattered. The leopard bounded into the lantana after them and we lost contact with him.

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Shortly after driving into the forest on our very first safari, we ran into a batch of langur alarm calls. A leopard was evidently lurking around. However we didn’t wait around as a couple of jeeps were seen clustered around Kolakmalli Katte hardly a hundred meters away. Prince was in attendance, sitting with his rear end submerged. We spent a short while with him until a short drizzle started up, driving him to seek cover. We came back a while later after the rain had stopped to spend some more time with him.

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This sparkling encounter happened on the morning of day 3, at Moolapura kere. There was a short burst of alarm calls and then Prince strode down to the water’s edge, turned himself around, and lowered himself rump-first into the water. He stayed that way for ten minutes or so, before rising, scent-marking and then sauntering away down a nullah and out of sight.

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Birds

  1. Ashy drongo
  2. Asian brown flycatcher
  3. Asian paradise flycatcher
  4. Black-hooded oriole (calls)
  5. Brahminy starling
  6. Brown shrike
  7. Changeable hawk eagle
  8. Common myna
  9. Coppersmith barbet
  10. Coucal (calls)
  11. Crested serpent eagle
  12. Indian cuckoo (calls)
  13. Indian treepie
  14. Lesser flameback
  15. Green barbet (calls)
  16. Grey junglefowl
  17. Hoopoe
  18. Indian robin
  19. Jungle babbler
  20. Jungle myna
  21. Magpie robin
  22. Peafowl
  23. Pied bushchat
  24. Pied kingfisher
  25. Plum-headed parakeet
  26. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  27. Purple sunbird (calls)
  28. Purple-rumped sunbird
  29. Red vented bulbul
  30. Red whiskered bulbul
  31. Rose-ringed parakeet
  32. Scimitar babbler (calls)
  33. Spotted dove
  34. Streak-throated woodpecker
  35. White-breasted waterhen
  36. White-browed fantail
  37. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals

  1. Barking deer
  2. Bonnet macaque
  3. Chital
  4. Elephant
  5. Leopard
  6. Ruddy mongoose
  7. Sambar
  8. Stripe-necked mongoose
  9. Three-striped palm squirrel
  10. Tiger
  11. Tufted langur

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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: Bandipur, Aug ’15

Trip Report:        Bandipur National Park

Dates:                   1-2 Aug 2015

Camp:                   JLR Bandipur Safari Lodge

This trip was done after a considerable gap – I’d not done anything after Sunderbans and that was months back. Other pre-occupations and procrastination also prevented me from posting on that trip and I’m not sure how much I remember of it anymore. My sister’s family had similarly gone for a long while now without any jungle visit and so we decide to take this weekend off. The two days afforded us just two safaris.

The weather was alright, cool without rain. The lantana had grown right upto the verges though, and visibility was poor in most places. It will now be cleared only after the monsoon I guess. Bomma drove us this time, and he is a magician although one who doesn’t speak very much.

The birding was not great, and we did not expect it to be. We didn’t make particularly strenuous efforts to bird-watch either.

The first safari puttered along unremarkably until we came across one of the safari vans stuck in slush. The entire van-load of chattering tourists and bawling kids was out by the roadside, while my old friend Pradeep attempted to rev the vehicle out of the mess. We waited awhile to help push, but were not able to rock in cadence sufficiently to tip the van out. Giving up, we moved on while the van-load waited for someone who’d been called.

Shortly after this, we ran into a herd of elephants first, and then into an impressive tusker by the roadside. This was one edgy elephant, going back and forth, clearly nervous about our presence and not knowing what to do about it. He didn’t show any aggression though so no charge, mock or otherwise.

Bandipur Aug 15 043

Bomma then received news of a tiger sighting in progress at Daid katte. I’m not sure that transliteration of the pronounced name spells right. We sped to the lake, to find five or so vehicles lined up, and an old male just having finished his dip. He rose out of the water just as we maneuvered into position, sprayed a tree and disappeared into the jungle.

Bandipur Aug 15 067

Everyone dispersed and so did we. Bomma said nothing, but took a route on which there was no one else until he stopped by another kere, this one called Venkatappana pala. He thought the tiger was likely to traverse by this lake and asked everyone to keep still. He’d hardy finished his sentence when a lone langur atop a nearby tree set up a hysterical alarm. A second later the tiger stepped into view, not far from us.

Bandipur Aug 15 076

A second jeep had meanwhile materialized behind us, and both jeeps backed up while the tiger walked nonchalantly, cutting across to step onto the road between the jeeps. Unfortunately behind us. He completely ignored our presence, and strode up the road, with both jeeps backing up in front of, and behind him.

Bandipur Aug 15 126

We followed him for a while before he stepped off the road and into the jungle.  This was possibly the closest I’ve seen a tiger pass by in South India – he was about fifteen feet away from where I sat as he passed.

Bandipur Aug 15 114

The morning’s safari was a quiet one, and I spend most of it looking at the Big Five – Kari mathi (Terminalia tomentosa), teak (Tectona grandis), axlewood (Anogeissus latifolia), FOTF (Butea monosperma), and Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica).

That tree in Bandipur which I am unable to ID continues to haunt me (I had mentioned it in a previous post). It is called Jaldha mara or Dhoopa locally. I checked with Karthik and with Nagendra (Kabini naturalist Ravi’s brother who is in Bandipur). My inadequate and possibly faulty description made it tough for them to figure out what I was seeing. Ailanthus malabarica and Vateria indica were suggested, but this seems to be neither.

Bandipur Aug 15 046

Bandipur Aug 15 048

Birds

  1. Asian paradise flycatcher
  2. Brahminy starling
  3. Brown shrike
  4. Changeable hawk eagle
  5. Coucal (calls)
  6. Crested serpent eagle
  7. Flameback (Lesser?)
  8. Green barbet
  9. Green bee-eater
  10. Grey junglefowl
  11. Indian blackbird
  12. Indian robin
  13. Jungle babbler
  14. Painted bush quail
  15. Jungle myna
  16. Magpie robin
  17. Malabar parakeet
  18. Peafowl
  19. Pied bushchat
  20. Pied kingfisher
  21. Pipit (species not recognized)
  22. Plum-headed parakeet
  23. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  24. Purple-rumped sunbird
  25. Red vented bulbul
  26. Red whiskered bulbul
  27. Rose-ringed parakeet
  28. Spotted dove
  29. Spotted owlet
  30. White-bellied drongo
  31. White-breasted waterhen
  32. White-browed fantail
  33. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals

  1. Barking deer
  2. Bonnet macaque
  3. Chital
  4. Elephant
  5. Gaur
  6. Malabar giant squirrel
  7. Sambar
  8. Stripe-necked mongoose
  9. Three-striped palm squirrel
  10. Tiger
  11. Tufted langur

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

Trip Report: Ranthambore National Park, Jan ’15

Trip:      Ranthambore National Park

Camp:   Ranthambhore Regency

Dates:   23-26 Jan ‘15

Who:     GiK, Drs R and M and kids V and P

We should have flown to Jaipur and driven from there to Sawai Madhopur (150 kms). Instead we flew to Delhi, reached there an hour later than scheduled, at about 9:30 PM, dealt with the pathetic airport taxi system to get to Hazrat Nizamuddin station, and took the 11:40 PM Haridwar-Mumbai Bandra Terminus SF Express that ended up leaving Delhi at 1:45 AM. We reached Sawai Madhopur at sometime past 6 AM, a full ninety minutes past schedule and rushed to catch the morning safari. And all this with two kids and a cold wave in attendance. Flying to Jaipur would have been the sensible thing to do, even if it meant some loss of daytime.

The zones

Ranthambore 015

We spent four days in Ranthambore, doing seven safaris in all. Ranthambore has ten numbered tourist zones, with ten gypsies allowed into each zone at a time. On weekends, the FD allows a few more under pressure from VIPs. In fact the FD themselves possess safari-ready gypsies for ferrying their guests around. These gypsies have the triple advantages of no zone restrictions, no time restrictions and a ready information feed via radio.

Zones 1 to 5 are the sought-after ones, with zone 3 being the clear favourite at this time. It is evidently not easy to get the popular zones booked. Regency get an assortment of zones booked daily and ration them among their guests to ensure everyone gets a fair share of the more productive zones. And so we did three safaris in zone 3, two in zone 4 and one each in zones 2 and 6.

Entry to zones 2 and 3 is via the Jogi Mahal gate. The picturesque zone 3 route winds past the Padam talao (on the banks of which the famed Jogi Mahal is sited) and onto the vast Raj Bagh lake. The abandoned hunting lodge on the latter has produced some fine images of tigers on its balcony framed by its structure and shot from across the lake. Finding tigers in this structure is evidently a summer phenomenon.

20150123_092207

Zone 2 is magnificent too, with the road winding by the towering Ranthambore fort and then past another long range of cliffs. However twice a month on chaturdashi days of the Hindu calendar, pilgrims troop through this zone barefoot to worship at a Ganesh temple somewhere. The resultant ruckus effectively puts paid to any decent sighting possibilities. That’s what happened to us on day 1 in the afternoon.

GiK and I thought zone 4 was the best of them all in terms of its beauty. At this time of year, it has several stunningly beautiful spots, especially large patches of bright, finely textured grass. A tiger on this grass in mellow morning light will make for a dream photograph. Zone 4 also has a large lake teeming with aquatic birds, muggers and sambar – Malik talao.

Ranthambore 173

This zone  is accessed via a gate placed to the left of the approach road some distance before the Jogi Mahal gate is reached.

The anicut in zone 4 in the morning mist:

20150124_082705

In contrast with these three zones, zone 6 is a drab and dreary affair, with no impressive landscapes or features – just dusty tracks winding through unprepossessing, stunted jungle. To make matters worse, this zone is accessed after negotiating the sewer-lined, congested bazars of old Sawai Madhopur. If this route is bad in winter, I shudder to think what it’ll be in the heat of summer. But to be fair, we did sight a tiger in zone 6, and a magnificent male in his prime at that.

Tiger centricity

Ranthambore Day 1 AM 186

At the outset, our very competent naturalist Satish Upadyay suggested that we get the tiger sighting out of the way before turning our attention to birding. GiK, my kid P and I were in one Gypsy and we started with zone 3. We reached Rajbagh and struck luck. Three 10-month cubs gamboling in the grass, the litter of the tigress T-19 or Krishna. This tigress is Machli’s offspring and the reigning queen tigress of Ranthambore. We didn’t see the mother though, just the cubs. They were some 40-50 feet from the jeep, by the water and we watched them for twenty minutes or so before they headed back into taller khus grass where a sambar kill was hidden.

Ranthambore Day 1 AM 122

Ranthambore Day 1 AM 141

Ranthambore Day 1 AM 147

As often happens, this spectacular start was followed by muted follow-through, with plenty of alarm calls but no sightings fructifying until the evening of the next day. That was the afternoon safari of day 2, in zone 6. A passing Gypsy reported seeing a tiger cross a nallah and disappear into the jungle. Scouting around we finally came to a cluster of jeeps with the tiger barely visible some two hundred meters away. This was T-34 or Kumbha, a tiger with a colourful reputation for intimidating behavior. He was lying on his back with his paws in the air.

Ranthambore allows safaris in Gypsies and Canters. The latter contain five seats to a row and it mustn’t be great fun to be stuck in the middle. Anyway there were plenty of noisy tourists in attendance and the din disturbed the animal enough to make him roll over one side to the other occasionally and lift his head up to see what the racket was all about. This went on for about fifteen minutes after which he was disgusted enough to rise and stalk away. The horde then started up to chase him, but by the time the jam could be sorted out and the vehicles turned around, a good ten minutes was lost. Meanwhile the cat disappeared without a trace.

Satish had predicted a success rate of 30%. We did a little better than that, with three sightings in seven safaris. On day 3 in the evening safari, we had spent the evening chasing alarm calls in vain all over zone 4. Often being in the unenviable situation of having calls emanating from two different directions.

An interesting feature of tiger tracking in Ranthambore is that when alarm calls are heard, whether chital or langur, Satish listened to see if multiple individuals were calling. Calls by single individuals evidently lack credibility and were actually ignored a couple of times, even when persisting for a while. Satish also mentioned that while chital or sambar calls may sometimes mislead, the nilgai’s alarm call, if heard, is a certain indicator of the tiger’s presence.

Exit time was at 5:30 and we’d spent much of the evening rushing from one set of calls to another. While we were stopped in one of the meeting points for a quick bio break, a gypsy rolled in and the woman in it asked why all of us were hanging around there while there was a sighting in progress elsewhere. Satish and the driver jumped like they were bee-stung and we began a crazy, careening hurtle at mad speed towards the spot indicated. This was quite a distance away and we had just about half an hour to go before exit time, with the exit gate a long way off.

Reaching the place we found that it was hardly a kilometer’s distance from where we’d waited a while earlier listening to chital calls. Some jeeps had gone ahead from that point but had returned without having spotted the tiger. Given the late hour, all the vehicles there were FD Gypsies, with our Gypsy and a canter that arrived later being the only commercial tourist vehicles. The tiger was sprawled on the grass across a ravine amidst some very pretty scenery. This was T-6 or Romeo a fine six year old male. We had around five minutes to take a good look and finish clicking pictures before it was time to hurtle back towards the exit gate. The driver incidentally clocked 85 kmph on that crazy drive and we spent much of it in the air, holding on tight to keep us from bouncing right off the jeep. Admittedly illegal but incredible fun though.

Leopards are at least as numerous as tigers in Ranthambore but as is typical of tiger-infested areas, rarely show themselves.

Both chital and sambar were numerous and the long-drawn rutting calls of chital stags reverberated through the forests at this time of year, sometimes startling innocent tourists who mistook them for the agonized screams of some animal being done to death.

Upwardly mobile chital stag:

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Sambar stags sparring:

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Nilgai are also fairly numerous in places, and GiK and I got some pictures.

Nilgai doe and buck in the mist:

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Nilgai buck:

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We also saw the Chinkara or Indian Gazelle for the first time, a very satisfying experience. Mugger are commonly seen on all the lakes.

There were several palm squirrels in the forest. After a desultory glance at one of them, I concluded that they were of the three-striped variety. Dr. R later told me that we were probably looking at Five-striped palm squirrels. I resolved to look more carefully and get a picture if possible on the next outing, but this slipped my mind and I didn’t see any more squirrels.

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Birding

Most remarkable are the Indian treepies. They are exceedingly common all through the forest, and are inured to tourists feeding them, although that is supposedly banned now. We did see some tourists feeding the birds at the rest points though. The birds however have lost their fear of people and freely perch on heads and hands. They are fearless enough to hop into the gypsies and onto the floor right around our feet, hunting for crumbs. Stop at any spot and in all likelihood, a couple materialized, heads cocked greedily, inspecting us closely for signs of anything edible.

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Peafowl are numerous as you might expect, and the persistent, two-note calls of Grey francolins rent the air frequently.

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Babblers, especially jungle babblers are numerous too and make it noisily evident. Large grey babblers are easily met with and I initially mistook them for jungle babblers until Dr. R pointed this out. Rose-ringed parakeets are another noisy, frequently encountered bird. We met spotted owlets around half a dozen times, so they are not uncommon here.

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Long-tailed shrike:

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Hoopoe on a Dhok tree:

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In the waters of the lakes were Ruddy shelducks, Wooly-necked storks, Grey herons, Common snipes, egrets, cormorants, darters, White ibis, Openbill storks, River terns, dozens of Common moorhen, plenty of Black-winged stilts, more White-breasted waterhen than I’ve cumulatively seen so far and intrepid Red-wattled lapwings that stalked right up to the jeeps hunting for insects dislodged by the tyres.

Wooly-necked stork:

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Black-winged stilt:

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Black-capped night heron:

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We noted that barbets were strangely absent, although Dr. R’s naturalist pointed out that Coppersmith barbets did occur and were heard in the summer. Junglefowl are conspicuously absent.

Indian Scops owl:

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On the drive from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur (we took the more sensible route on the way back), we saw Bank mynas for the first time whilst stopping for chai.

Crested serpent eagle:

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Flora

The landscape of Ranthambore is dominated by the tiny-leaved Dhok tree (Anogeissus pendula). This species comprises a good seventy or eighty percent of the forest’s tree-count and is therefore ubiquitous. Next in terms of frequency are Babul or the Gum Arabic tree (Acacia nilotica) and the Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma).

Acacia nilotica:

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Stunted Khair trees (Acacia catechu) are also frequently encountered.

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On rocky slopes, the striking-looking Karaya Gum tree (Sterculia Urens) is commonly seen.

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Several fine specimens of banyan (Ficus bengalensis) are found throughout the park including the iconic one draping the entrance a little before the Jogi Mahal gate. An exceptionally large specimen occurs near the Jogi Mahal, but is out of bounds for tourists.

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Indian date palms (Phoenix sylvestris) are frequently met with. Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) is also encountered occasionally. Adusa (Adhatoda vasica) occurs in clumps in many places. The leaves, flowers and bark of this shrub find medicinal uses chiefly in the treatment of asthma.

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Large clumps of the cactus-like Euphorbia plant are also seen.

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A very common shrub in the Dhok forests is Grewia flavescens. At least that’s what I think it is. Our naturalist Satish identified the plant as Chameni in Hindi. I struggled to locate the binomial name and after considerable search, am leaning towards Grewia flavescens. This Grewia species is reputed to be a frequent associate of the Dhok and is supposedly commonly found in Ranthambore. The plant we saw is certainly found all over the place.

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The lakesides are lined with the aromatic Khus grass (Vetivaria zizznioides). Large patches of striking red Water velvet (Azolla pinnata) were found on the surfaces of some lakes. This is a species of tiny-leaved aquatic fern.

Birds:

  1. Asian pied starling
  2. Ashy-crowned sparrowlark
  3. Bank myna
  4. Long-tailed shrike
  5. Black-capped night heron
  6. Black drongo
  7. Black-shouldered kite
  8. Black-tailed godwit
  9. Black-winged stilt
  10. Blue rock dove
  11. Bluethroat
  12. Brown rock chat
  13. Cinereous tit
  14. Common iora
  15. Common kingfisher
  16. Common moorhen
  17. Common snipe
  18. Crested serpent eagle
  19. Darter
  20. Eurasian thick-knee
  21. Greater cormorant
  22. Greater coucal
  23. Grey francolin
  24. Grey heron
  25. Grey wagtail
  26. Hoopoe
  27. Indian Scops owl
  28. Indian vulture
  29. Long-tailed shrike
  30. Indian treepie
  31. Jungle babbler
  32. Large egret
  33. Large grey babbler
  34. Lesser flameback
  35. Little brown dove
  36. Little green heron
  37. Magpie robin
  38. Oriental honey buzzard
  39. Osprey
  40. Painted stork
  41. Peafowl
  42. Painted spurfowl
  43. Pied kingfisher
  44. Plain prinia
  45. Red-breasted flycatcher
  46. Red-wattled lapwing
  47. River tern
  48. Rose-ringed parakeet
  49. Ruddy shelduck
  50. Spotted dove
  51. Stonechat
  52. White-belloed drongo
  53. White-breasted waterhen
  54. White-browed fantail
  55. White-browed wagtail
  56. White ibis
  57. White-throated kingfisher
  58. White wagtail
  59. Wooly-necked stork
  60. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Chinkara
  2. Chital
  3. Common langur
  4. Nilgai
  5. Ruddy mongoose
  6. Sambar
  7. Tiger

Reptiles:

  1. Marsh crocodile