Friday, July 14, 2017

Mumbai - Grand Vagrant Season (Winter 2016-17)

Mumbai, the classic bustling urban sprawl. A giant treadmill where life moves at the speed of light and everyone is gasping to catch up. An unyielding concrete maze where millions seek to lend solidity to their dreams. A massive human aviary for dreams to take wing. Hardly where you'd expect to find creatures with real wings and no dreams. But the city and its surroundings are one of the finest birding habitats; home to easily more than a couple of hundred bird species and more significantly, host to scores of rare winged visitors on their seasonal migrations. With every passing year, newer migrants are being spotted in the area's hotspots, bringing a lot of cheer to all us local birders. While the regular migrants always make their way here, last season saw a whole host of rare birds grace our region. In this post, I will try and document some of these from the 2016/17 season, which I call the Grand Vagrant Season.

1. Caspian Plover - Uran

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
The wetlands of Uran have always been known to throw up the annual rare passage or winter migrant. A couple of us from our birding group were on a walk one October morning to try and find Asian Desert Warblers when we noticed an unusual looking wader in the mudflats. Prateik took a couple of pictures and got the experts to ID it, coming back the next day to get a detailed video of the bird's underwing pattern. It turned out to be a Caspian Plover, an unusual visitor to these parts. It probably was one vagrant bird from a flock that descended elsewhere. Either ways, this bird delighted birdwatchers from far and near for nearly a whole month before it bid adieu to its now sizable fan following and went on its way.


2. Red-Breasted Merganser - Vasai

The area around the northern suburb of Vasai is home to a spectacular array of birdlife and the local birding community there does a stellar job of identifying and documenting species as well as trying to resolve issues and potential threats to the habitat. One of them posted a picture of a bird which people initially overlooked as a Grebe. This larger and more special bird turned out to be a Red Breasted Merganser, probably the first time it has been recorded in this part of the country. This female bird was a showstopper for nearly three months (November thru January) and she very kindly confined herself to two small ponds, allowing photographers to have a field day. As the ponds dried up towards the end of January, she made a dignified exit, but not before thrilling birders from virtually every part of the country.

3. White Storks - Vasai

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
One more feather in Vasai's cap. This time a flock of seven beautiful White Storks were discovered in one section of the vast open spaces that (still) manage to survive the intimate attentions of rapacious 'developers'. And it was here that these birds were discovered in November. Again, they enthralled birders from far and wide for nearly a month before they abruptly vanished. This was a surprise because unlike the other species, they were not single vagrants but part of a flock, and seemed very comfortable where they were. I particularly regret their premature departure because I wasn't able to see these stunning birds. Hope they'll be back this season.

4. Common Shelducks - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Another set of vagrants to these parts were a trio of Common Shelducks who made waves with a sudden appearance in Uran early January, only to vanish after a couple of days. They (I'm presuming they were the same birds) were rediscovered in the Bhandup/Thane area of Mumbai where people on a boat ride to see flamingos spotted the Shelducks. And that set the tone for feverish boat bookings and tide calculations. The smart boatmen, who otherwise only relied on passengers for flamingo excursions, quickly turned spotters and birders and reveled in taking scores of birders from far and wide to spot these birds. And in the process, made themselves a tidy (well deserved) sum of money. The Shelducks remained for a couple of months before they too possibly returned to their summer breeding grounds.

5. Long Billed Dowitcher - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Part of the credit for discovering this bird should rightfully go to the Shelducks. It was on a boat ride to see the ducks that one of the birding groups noticed a bird that looked different to the stints and godwits that lined up on the banks of the creek. A quick photo ID confirmed the bird as a Long Billed Dowitcher, another serious vagrant to our parts. Unlike the others on this list, this bird played only a cameo role in the grand vagrant season, being seen only for a couple of days before disappearing.


6. Blue and White Flycatcher - Tungareshwar Sanctuary, Vasai and Matheran

This is another super rare bird in the country, with barely a handful of quality sightings and never before in this area. In February, a reasonably seismic flutter was created in Mumbai birding circles when a local birder reported this find from the Tungareshwar forests. The next day, a phalanx of birders and their cameras decamped there, only to come back empty handed. However, a few birders visiting the hill station of Matheran (near Mumbai) got themselves an unexpected bounty as in a waterhole, they found this beauty along with the usual suspects. 

In addition to these, there have also been sightings of Bristled Grassbird, White Tailed Lapwing and a Sooty Gull. So there you have it, 9 rare species transiting through one of the busiest urban centres in the country. And being the first season where so many of these rare migrants have been recorded, one hopes that they will return and bring some additional guests to our shores. 

Let's wait and see what the new season brings!

Mumbai and around - Birding Hotspots

Uran - Panje Village
Uran is about 40kms south-east of Mumbai and home to JNPT, the largest port in this part of the country. The wetlands are visible from the road that leads to Panje village and you can drive all the way to the edge of the wetlands and park there. 

Google maps location: https://goo.gl/maps/Vh7EKbmW54Q2

Tips - It's all completely open to please take caps, especially during the warmer months. There are no places to eat or buy water nearby, so please carry adequate supplies. 

Vasai
Vasai is a large area with many different birding spots spread across a wide area in Vasai East and West so it's best to check with someone knowledgeable on the exact location of the bird before heading there. It's about 65kms from South Mumbai, with excellent suburban train connectivity as well. The nearest station is Vasai Road on the Western railway

Tips: Vasai is a well developed suburb with ample access to food and water. Even some of the slightly far-off areas might be only 15 mins from the nearest store.


Bhandup Pumping Station
BPS, as it is referred to, actually lies within Mumbai city limits, bordering the northern district of Thane. It lies off the arterial Eastern Express highway, 3 kms off on a mix of tar and mud roads. Most cars and two wheelers can drive right up to the boat point which lies at the very end of the road. Walking from the highway is an option but not a very good one.

Google maps location: https://goo.gl/maps/Hup5X2gXXNy

Tips - Once again, BPS is largely open, so do carry caps. Food and water are not easily available in the vicinity, so please carry your own.

The boat service is run by a couple of boatmen. We usually take Rupesh Koli - please check with him on availability and tide timings. His mobile number: 9004423301

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Mishmi Hills - The Eastern Frontier (March 2017)


Arunachal Pradesh - these two words conjure up a magical realm in the mind of every birdwatcher in this country, and I daresay a fair few from other lands as well. The birds and the places there hold almost mythological reverence. Needless to say, this easternmost state of India ha been on the must-do list for the last few years, as soon as the birding bug really bit. Stories from friends like Ramki Sreenivasan and recently, Ramesh Ganeshan and Lakpa Tenzing have only served to stoke the fire and it was no surprise that I needed very little coaxing when Ramesh decided to add the legendary Mishmi Hills to the Upper Assam itinerary. And this time, we would be led by the one and only Firoz Hussain, a self taught phenomenon who has set the birding world on fire the last few years.

Hodgson's Redstart
Heading out one morning from Maguri, we headed towards the town of Roing which would be our base for the climb to Mayodia, our destination within the Mishmi Hills. The birding would happen en route and even the prospect of rain could not dampen the spirits as we headed forth. Small, yet symbolic things gave me a huge thrill; crossing the border into Arunachal was special, as was seeing the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time, or even driving over the rocky riverbed of one of its channels. The overall mood was one of optimism and hope, especially with regards to the weather - the freak rain forecast would not arrive, it would all blow over... We arrived in Roing without incident and took up quarters in the lovely Mishmi Hill Cottages, on the outskirts of Roing town - it is situated right on the banks of a river and the comfortable rooms with their beautiful thatched roofs are a real treat. A sharp shower post lunch threatened to derail the day, but the weather cleared up to make it a glorious afternoon, and a short walk also brought me the my first lifer in Arunachal - a female Daurian Redstart within the hotel campus. It was joined by a female Hodgson's Redstart and the two ladies flitted about pleasantly across the lawns. That night was extra special as the owner of the place brought over a spectacular bottle of home-brewed rice wine for us. I have never had anything as good as this before!

Black Breasted Parrotbill
The next morning took us to grasslands on the other side of Roing town. The main target - Black Breasted Parrotbills. The thick, long grass provides perfect habitat for this bird and also others in the babbler family. We were lucky to sight a couple of the parrotbills, though a combination of poor light and poorer positioning (me) meant that the photos were ordinary at best. We heard Striated and Jerdon's babblers, but saw or heard no sign of another target - Swamp Prinia. Personally, I confronted another old adversary - a Scimitar Babbler. This time it was a White Browed variety. New Species, Same results. He kept buzzing between the shrubs and trees, traveling in a circle, without one second out in the open. And when he did stop to catch a breath, I wasn't in the right place for a photo. Scimitar Babbler 3: 1 Srikanth, with the Streak Breasted being the only one I have managed to photograph. A super lifer nevertheless; photos can wait for the next time. Driving back to Roing, Firoz spotted a flock of large crane-like birds flying overhead. They turned out to be Demoiselle Cranes, one of the first records for this bird in Arunachal Pradesh. A superb morning capped by a spectacular result like this.

Long Tailed Sibia
Post lunch, we set out for Mishmi. The weather had cleared, the sun was shining and all was well with the world. On the way, we got Beautiful and Long Tailed Sibia as well as a few Golden Babblers. We stopped for the mandatory tea and Maggi at Didi's legendary shack at Tiwarigaon. As we stretched our legs, Firoz called out to us and we rushed over, cameras in tow, to see a small flock of Rusty Fronted Barwings. We kept walking and driving in turns, stopping where Firoz suspected we might get some activity. At one of these spots, we got beautiful sightings of Golden Fronted Barbets and the local subspecies of the Striated Laughingthrush. Beautiful Nuthatches also frequent that spot, but they didn't make an appearance that afternoon. Further down, Firoz waited at a spot and said 'Mishmi Wren Babbler'- this hyper-local resident, rediscovered barely a decade ago, thrives here and is a must have on any birder's trip to the area. The light was fading and though we got a good sighter of this fella, the pics were nothing to write home about. And the afternoon was completed by a flock of Yellow Throated Fulvettas, bright, beautiful, bullets who gave us a patient photo shoot before they flew out to roost. And we were in high spirits, a brief afternoon spell had already given us a lot, the sun was shining and all was well with the world.

Yellow Throated Fulvetta
And then we got to the Coffee House in Mayodia, our base for the next two nights. Rather, we had to find the Coffee House in the mist. Because visibility suddenly dropped to nothing, it was cloudy, foggy and cold. And my already sore back seized up again, so I was in absolute agony and no amount of volini or moov was doing the trick. So I staggered up the stairs to the basic but comfortable hotel. It was evening, so they had the generator on for a bit as we settled in, got a couple of rums to warm us up and polished off the dal, rice and subzi that was provided for us. Mayodia has no electricity and the supplies have come all the way up from Roing. It's a miracle that the Coffee House is able to provide so much with so little support. And with a prayer to the weather gods for a clear day, we turned in. Maybe we didn't pray hard enough, maybe they didn't hear our prayers... but the next day was a washout. It rained all day, visibility was next to nothing and it was freezing cold. We decided to stay indoors and not risk it. The problem wasn't the rain, it was more the visibility. Taking a chance on these treacherous hilly roads was not worth it, we all thought. And my back heaved a sigh of relief as Mahesh provided Voveran painkillers that finally gave me some relief from the pain.

Dark Vented Rosefinch
The next day dawned cloudy and rainy again, but we had to head out. So we decided to leave early and drive slowly down and see what we got on the way. We headed up towards Mayodia pass first and got Dark Vented Rosefinches and Black Faced Laughingthrushes. A flock of superfast Manipur Fulvettas came and went. The light was poor and our pictures poorer. Driving down, we encountered Lakpa and his group walking along the road, when he pointed to a bird on a rock by the road. It was a Rufous Bellied Bush Robin. Finally, a Robin!! I clicked away with scant regard to my complaining back and further down a Long Tailed Thrush gave us a brief sighter but no photos. The plan was to stop at Didi's for breakfast, but to our dismay, it was shut! She probably didn't manage provisions thanks to the previous day's rain.

White Naped Yuhina
We had no option but to drive on. A flock of Striated Bulbuls popped up even as the sun came out. A Lesser Shortwing called in the hillside but didn't even come close to us. But a beautiful flock of White Naped Yuhinas provided the sighting of the morning. They posed for a few pictures before we continued to walk further. Firoz was on a mission that morning. The weather gods had defeated him the previous day and he wasn't going to leave Mishmi without giving us a special sighting or two. The Ward's Trogons were missing, as were the Fire Tailed Myzornis. So he contrived to conjure up another special - Cachar Wedge Billed Babbler. A set of five birds called from various points around us, driving us completely mad. We saw them hop from bush to bush, without ever coming out in the open. And then, twisting my back at an insane angle, I managed to get some poor record shots of 3 birds in a thick bush. They're too poor to post anywhere, but at least they allowed me to observe the birds at leisure.

Rufous Breasted Bush Robin
And with that, we were back to Roing and driving back to Maguri. On the way, we stopped to observe some activity at a grassy stretch, when Firoz pointed to a Thrush-like bird and said 'take a record shot, this looks different'. My camera was packed away and my back was complaining again, so Ramesh snapped the records which we would verify later. It was either a Red Throated or Naumann's Thrush and the jury is still out on which of these it is, or whether it's an inter-breed of both these. We drove past the beautiful Golden Pagoda, all lit up in the darkness and hit Maguri for dinner. A quick birding session the next morning threw up Sand Larks and Striated Babblers and it was time to head to Dibrugarh airport for our flight back home.

And that capped a fun-filled if not prolific debut at one of the 'shrines' of Indian birding. The rain and my sore back were the downers while discovering a new friend and kindred spirit in Firoz was clearly the highlight. The birding will happen next time. So it's not Adios Mishmi, it's Au Revoir Mishmi. Till we meet again.

Mishmi Hills Trip Guide
Mishmi Hills is one of the finest birding hotspots in North East India, located in eastern Arunachal Pradesh's Lower Dibang district. It has a startling array of birdlife and in good weather, can swell sighting reports to seriouly eye-popping levels.

How to get there
Dibrugarh Airport (approx. 200 kms, 5-7 hours) is the closest airport and Roing (approx 50 kms) is the closest town. It's best to arrive in Dibrugarh or New Tinsukia station and drive from the there. A recently opened bridge over the Brahmaputra should make travel even easier.

Where to stay
Mishmi Hills has only one place to stay - Coffee House near Mayodia, run by Ravi Mekola. It is basic but reasonably comfortable, with proper attached washrooms and good food. They run a super ship despite having to ferry supplies on a daily basis from distant Roing.

Guides
We traveled with the aforementioned Firoz Hussain, now a friend and a real character. He is superb on the field and has a great gut and instinct in addition to his spotting prowess. The peerless Lakpa Tenzing is also a master of this area, so between these two gentlemen, you have the best in the business.

Binanda Hatiboruah is another expert in the area that many people swear by.

Food
The only options you have are Coffee House itself, the little shack opposite or Didi's at Tiwarigaon. All simple, tasty fare made with a lot of affection.

Other tips
It can rain any time in this part of the world (as we discovered) so check for rain forecasts, and pack some rain wear and protection for your cameras.
At 2600 metres above sea level, it can get cold any time of the year, especially when it rains. So do make sure you have adequate protection from the cold.
Carry some dry snacks or energy bars if you feel peckish between meals.


Beautiful Sibia
Striated Bulbul
Golden Fronted Barbet


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Upper Assam - A new world of birds (March 2017)


No birding enthusiast worth his salt can resist a trip to India's spectacular North East. And if Arunachal Pradesh is the crown jewel of birding, the Eastern Assam is the golden base, without which the jewel's beauty is incomplete. A visit to this part of the world was always on the wishlist, and this March it finally happened post my Kaziranga trip. The credit for making this happen goes entirely to my friend and ace birder Ramesh Ganeshan, who coaxed, cajoled and planned for this to go through. We were joined by another keen birder friend, Mahesh Vaze from Mumbai and on the agenda were trips to Maguri Beel, Dehing-Patkai and Soraipung Forests as well as areas near the Digboi oilfields.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail
The drive from Kaziranga to Maguri Beel (near Tinsukia) had Lakpa Tenzing as a fellow traveler and where there's Lakpa, there have to be birds. He showed me a couple of Greater Adjutants even as we were driving, just off the road. We reached the Beel in time for dinner, and after a lovely Assamese repast, we retired for the night. The next morning was spent in the grasslands around Maguri Beel, led by the Palash, the local expert. Now to get to the grassland, we had to take a rowboat across a narrow but deep channel. Balancing cameras and not so light people was a challenge in itself, but somehow we made it to the other side. And immediately, we were greeted by our first lifer - an Eastern Yellow Wagtail flitted about next to the water's edge, with a couple of Rosy Pipits in close attendance.

Striated Babbler
The raised road is flanked by high grass on both sides and within minutes of walking on the road, we got Striated Grassbirds, Striated Babblers and Yellow Bellied Prinias, all sitting on stalks of grass. Closer to the water, we got both Dusky as well as Smoky Warblers, though not close enough for quality pictures. A Chestnut Capped Babbler gave us a hide-and-seek game and finally came out for a couple of photos. We walked further into the grass this time, to hunt for the Spotted and Baikal Bush warblers; neither was interested in giving us time of day, though they did greet us from deep within the undergrowth. Next on the menu was Swamp Francolin and Palash saw a couple of them descend into a field some distance away. I'd gotten decent photos of this beauty in Kaziranga, so Mahesh went to try his luck from closer, but they proved elusive. A couple of Great Mynas on the way back to camp provided another lifer in this very productive pre-breakfast session. Breakfast also provided the not inconsiderable presence of Sir Ramesh Ganeshan, inordinately delayed (by almost 12 hours) in his journey from Bangalore thanks to some cunning airline goof-ups. He had to make the last leg of his journey by bus and a 10 hour bus journey is no joke. But being Ramesh, he took it all in his stride and after a cup of tea and some eggs, he declared himself completely ready for a jaunt in the Beel.

Bar Headed Goose
We headed out in two row-boats into the vast expanse of Maguri Beel. On the wish-list were several migrant waders, especially Falcated and Tufted Ducks, with a Baer's Pochard thrown in out of sheer greed. Almost immediately, we saw Bar Headed Geese followed by Indian and Great Cormorants. Further down, Bronze Winged and Pheasant Tailed Jacanas bustled about busily within the reeds. The first set of ducks we saw were far away on the opposite bank where a mixed flock of Red Crested and Common Pochards lazed peacefully. Ferruginous Ducks also congregated near them and the Common Coots were ubiquitous. Luckily for us, we had two serious experts scanning the waters - Palash and Lakpa. And they soon found us our Falcated and Tufted Ducks. But while they'd done their job, I'd failed in mine. I discovered that my camera was out of battery and I'd forgotten to carry a spare. Bummer, bummer and mother of all bummers. Couldn't quite run back for a spare while being in a rowboat in the middle of a vast lake, could I now? So I put down the Canon and focused on watching through the binoculars.

And I loved what I saw. Without the (self-inflicted) pressure of getting the perfect photo, I found that I could watch the birds, absorb their features and colours and also their behavior much more than with the camera. I saw the Falcated Ducks bob in and out of the water and also observed their colours, the radiant and shimmering greens, that could never be captured on camera from that distance. And when a flock of Fulvous Whistling Ducks flew overhead, the binocs helped me focus and see them clearly as they headed to the far reaches of the lake. While I wax eloquent about the wonders of watching birds through the binocs, I'm afraid I'm still too much of a photographer to put down my camera. Guilty as charged! The Baer's Pochard was not on view but Lakpa and his scope provided the sighting of the morning.

We climbed onto a small island in the Beel to set up Lakpa's spotting scope and search the neighbourhood for any rarities. And in his meticulous manner, Lakpa slowly scanned the entire area between us and the far bank. Till he stopped, looked up, exclaimed 'Baikal Teal' and went back to the scope. Baikal Teal! A super duper bounty of a sighting. We all took turns watching this incredibly beautiful duck, a solitary representative of his species within a large flock of other ducks. What a morning it was. From already special to extraordinary, just thanks to that one bird. And so, with our memory banks full, we set forth back to the camp to fill our bellies. Lunch was being served.

That afternoon, we headed back to the grasslands, this time with 2 very specific targets - Jerdon's and Marsh Babblers. En route, a Spotted Bush Warbler called from the grass, appeared in the open for a second and then vanished again. And we marched on, this time right into the tall grass. A Jerdon's Babbler perched high on a stem some distance away, enough to get a record shot but nothing more. And we made our way into the grass, carving out a path through the impenetrable vegetation, hoping for a sighting of the elusive Marsh babbler. Almost at once, we heard one calling nearby. Hearing and seeing are two very different things in this environment, and this bird, barely 20 feet away drove us crazy by constantly calling but remaining invisible. Then, a glimpse here and another there but nothing more. I put down my camera, went on all fours and peered through the grass just sight it instead. And lo! It obliged. The bird came and perched less than 10 feet away, and we made eye contact even as I admired this beautiful creation of mother nature. And we we made our way back to camp as seriously happy campers.

Rufous Throated Fulvetta
The next morning we headed to the forests of Joypore to try our luck at some of the forest birds of the region. It was quite overcast, making photography a serious challenge. As soon as we entered, we saw Nepal Fulvetta and White Spectacled warblers. We then heard the call of the near-mythical Grey Peacock Pheasant but didn't even get a sighter! And then Lakpa pulled out a superb rabbit out of his hat - A Rufous Throated Fulvetta. A master skulker, even seeing this bird was special. A Slaty Bellied Tesia kept jumping through the undergrowth, giving us sightings but never a photo. We soldiered on and as we scanned the trees, Mahesh exclaimed - Trogon! And we saw a male Red Headed Trogon fly away from a perch that was really close to us. Missed it! That was more than made up a few seconds later by a flock of Long Tailed Broadbills. These extraordinarily beautiful birds were kind enough to come out in the brief spell of sunlight that we got and the light accentuated their beauty so much more. A Scarlet Minivet provided a flash of colour and then came one of my sought after beauties.

Bue Winged Leafbird
I'd long been chasing the majestic Sultan Tit and always contrived to miss it. Being assured that it was a common bird in the area provided no salve on the wounds. So, this time, when a flock descended to a tree alongside the road, I was overjoyed and relieved. Even the poor light didn't play a dampener as I clicked what I could, truly happy that I finally broke this duck. And this was followed up by a Large Niltava, Yellow Vented Warbler and Dark Necked Tailorbird in quick succession. The icing on that cake was a Blue Winged Leafbird, as the pre-lunch session drew to a close. Post a sumptuous lunch, we headed to a different part of the forest to hunt for a very special dessert - Austen's Brown Hornbills. At first there was no sign of them, though we got Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Eastern Jungle Crows and Eastern Hill Mynas. As we crossed a stream, a bird whizzed past- Black Backed Forktail, another much sought after beauty. We'd almost given up on the Hornbills when a loud Sqwaking in the sky made Palash and Lakpa look up and point to a couple of bullets flying by - Brown Hornbills. We tracked their flight from the ground and then got a window through the trees to sight them far away. As we looked on in amazement, there were 10 of these birds on a dead tree. Talk about bounty! We got a few clicks and nothing more, owing to the distance and the light, but to see these spectacular birds itself was a treat.

Austen's Brown Hornbill
The plan for the third day was to visit the spectacular forests of Soraipung followed by a trip to the forests around Digboi. And the start was not very auspicious at all - it was dark, grey, foggy and rainy. We still soldiered on to Soraipung, making sure our leech socks were on correctly. As soon as we arrived, a flock of birds descended on a tree next to us. Through the gloom, we made them out to be White Hooded Babblers. What I wouldn't have given for a patch of sunlight at that time. Once again, we got some ordinary images, even as the birds waited patiently for us. We walked through the forest to a large pond, hoping for White Winged Ducks. But instead, right in front of us (though at a distance) was another on the most-wanted list - Blue Eared Kingfisher. Desperately invoking the sun god (who turned a deaf ear) we focused on whatever we could get of the Blue eared one. Superb start to the day from a birding point of view though. Driving further, we saw a Bay Woodpecker at an almighty distance, with only poor record shots to show for the effort. A female Red Headed Trogon proved to be a more willing model as she perched reasonably close, while still within foliage. A White Browed Piculet flitted about in the open and a Black Throated Sunbird rounded off the lifer list.

White Throated Bulbul
We then got off the jeep and trudged through slush till we reached a clearing. And that clearing proved to be a goldmine. Starting innocuously enough with some Scarlet Minivets, it threw up Green Billed Malkoha (no pics of course) and White Throated Bulbul. The piece de resistance though was the Pale Capped Pigeon. Though they sat really far and in terrible light, just to be able to see this lovely bird itself was worth all the slush. We heard Silver Breasted Broadbills and Ramesh saw a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, but the Pigeons were the highlight for all of us as we closed the morning session and headed for yet another joyous Assamese lunch. We spent the afternoon near Digboi, trying to find Chestnut Backed Laughingthrushes and Large Scimitar Babblers, but neither proved willing to give us a sighting. Instead, we caught glimpses of Grey Throated Babblers and White Throated Bulbuls gave us some decent pictures. 

As we were leaving for Mishmi Hills the next morning, Jibon, the manager at our camp, came up to me and said 'Black Faced Bunting outside'. I grabbed my gear and ran into the pouring rain to get yet another little beauty as a farewell gift.

And there ended my first trip to the beautiful birding paradise that is Eastern Assam. And I'm acutely aware that I've only scratched the surface and a return trip beckons very soon. Till then!

Upper Assam Trip Guide
What I'm calling Upper Assam covers off Maguri Beel, Joypore, Soraipung and Digboi, as well as other birding spots in the area. It's a must-do for any birder, especially in winter or the March/April Season.

How to get there
Dibrugarh Airport (40 kms, 1 hour) is the closest airport and Tinsukia is the closest town. Dibrugarh and New Tinsukia Jn are the two rail heads that connect to Guwahati and onwards to other cities around India.

Dibrugarh is connected by air to most big Indian cities via Guwahati and most airlines have a daily flight here.

You can also drive here via Guwahati (10-12 hours) if that works better

Where to stay
Tinsukia has a few places to stay and Lakpa always bases his groups in Tinsukia town.

We stayed at the Kohuwan Eco Camp, right on Maguri Beel itself. It is pretty comfortable while being quite basic, so please don't expect any comforts. The food is excellent and the staff are superb, with the manager Jibon himself an expert birder.

Guides
We were booked with Firoz Hussain, one of the best guides in that part of the world. He'd deputed local expert Palash Phukan to handle the Maguri part of the trip since he was away in Arunachal. We also had Lakpa for company, so were literally spoilt for choice with all the expertise. 

Food
Assamese food is absolutely delicious, with a combination of delicate flavours and some serious chilli. The food in Kohuwan is lovely and there are many local restaurants in and around Digboi, Tinsukia and the adjoining areas.

Other tips
It can rain any time in this part of the world (as we discovered) so check for rain forecasts, and pack some rain wear and protection for your cameras.
Black Faced Bunting


White Browed Piculet

Blue Eared Kingfisher

Pale Capped Pigeon
Large Niltava Female

Red Headed Trogon Female

Warbler

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ranthambhore again - Once is never enough! (June 2017)

Beware before you see your first wild tiger! Once you see it, you're hooked. Completely and hopelessly entrapped. Without any hope of redemption or escape. This wonderful animal casts its magnetic lure on you to draw you back again and again. And it is never enough; you always want more. Just look at us. Having had a super trip in May didn't quite cut it, we wanted more. So when Hemraj suggested that seats on a full-day safari might be available, we jumped at the opportunity. And found ourselves back in Ranthambhore in less than a month.

Once again, the train took us to Sawai Madhopur early in the morning and Hemraj was there with the jeep to pick us up. He'd told me earlier that were headed to Zone 6, but once we were in the jeep he casually said we were going to Zone 2, where all the action was. Surprise! We were almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of reacquainting with T-39 (Noor) and seeing her current litter of cubs for the first time. We entered the park at around 7 am, and drove straight to Phoota Kot, where this family has taken up residence this summer. We were waved to a side path by the guide on another jeep and there, in the middle of the road sat the beautiful queen Noor and one of her three female cubs. She posed, groomed herself and then walked up to her cub to nuzzle and lick it. One of the most tender moments in the forest, as mother and cub showed their affection for each other. She walked purposefully to another waterhole, followed by this cub and soon the other two also joined in for a little dip and drink. It wasn't the best light for photos, but to have the good fortune to see this family rendered photography to a mere footnote. Silent thank you to Noor and verbal thank you to Hemraj!

Then she got up and climbed up the nearby slope while her cubs walked into the shade of a nearby nallah and out of sight. Before that though, one of the cubs attempted to stalk a wild boar, quickly realised she was out of depth and trotted off to join her sisters. And we drove on, hoping to find the second family in this zone - T60 and her 3 cubs. Further down, we saw some stationary jeeps who waved us to stop. And in a bush on our left, sat a tiger. We thought it was T60, but it turned out to be Noor. She'd climbed over the hill and come down in search of prey. And there were some spotted deer on the other side that she was stalking. As she stealthily crossed the road, she was almost within touching distance of our jeep! The deer were too alert so she gave up and sat down to rest. And we drove further to check for T60 who managed to elude us by being exactly where we weren't!

That afternoon, we headed to Zone 6 to try and get good sightings of T-8 and her cubs, my 4th attempt! We first drove to the hill where she'd made a Nilgai kill. From the base of hill we could see the kill at a distance, but no tigers. So we drove all over, checked other spots, tried to locate the resident male, Kumbha, all without any luck. And then, with half an hour to go we return to the kill to see one cub feeding on it. At one time, he disappeared fully into the carcass! Too far for any photos, we watched through binoculars and hoped they would come down to the water for a drink. And then mom and sibling also appeared at the kill, and all three started to walk down to the water. The jeeps all made a beeline for the waterhole, but surprisingly, Hemraj turned us back towards the gate. He said there's no way she will come to the water now, and time is running short, so let's drive back. As always, he was right. The tigers stopped somewhere along the way and left all the jeeps high and dry, with a scramble to get back to the exit on time. Once more, I was left marveling at this man's impeccable knowledge of the forest and its denizens.





Day 2 was the big day - a full day safari. It was the first time I would be in an Indian forest from dawn to dusk. And as you can imagine, the adrenaline was pumping as we entered the forest. The plan was simple - find Noor and her cubs first up and then look for other tigers, based on the morning's activity. A sambhar called from the hillside as we approached Noor's territory but we drove on to check the entire stretch. Hemraj's logic was simple; this call could be for a distant leopard or male tiger - our first task was to locate the family. Not finding them, we turned back, just in time to see them come down the hillside. They went to the same pool, drank a bit and then walked along the same hillside. Pretty much their daily routine I guess. And we drove forward and waited alongside a wide nallah (near Kisni Deh), where Hemraj estimated that she would emerge. As if on cue, she came out of the undergrowth and immediately pressed herself to the ground. She'd seen a chital and was trying to stalk it. It was too far though and she carried on walking towards us and her cubs appeared as well.

The next half an hour was a feast. There were tigers all around us. Sometimes a cub would appear to our left and disappear into the grass on our right. Another time, a cub would emerge ahead of us and another right behind. We seriously ran the risk of neck sprains trying to track all this activity. And then Noor used the cover of the jeeps to stalk another chital.  She stationed her cubs in one place as a decoy as she stalked from the back. In hushed silence, we all watched as she sneaked up and then in one sudden burst of speed, she was almost on the deer. Inexplicably, she stopped at the very last moment, giving the deer an unexpected lease of life. The grateful herbivore bounded off with a prayer, no doubt to his family deity. And Noor walked back across the road and settled under a tree with her cubs. A kind gent in the next jeep gave us a good angle for photos and we had an absolute ball for the next hour or so. The regular safari jeeps said their goodbyes, leaving only 3 jeeps with the family. And as we sat there and watched Noor groom her cubs in turn, the feeling was one of privilege, to be able to breathe the same air as these beautiful, noble creations of Mother Nature.

And then the family headed further into the bush, to a water hole that was out of bounds for jeeps, so we carried on to renew the search for T60 and her almost fully grown cubs. We'd had a fantastic sighting of the family last year so I was keen to see them again and renew acquaintances. And we searched everywhere for them; looked up every single water hole, managed to find her pugmarks which we diligently followed. All dead ends. The family seemed to have vanished into thin air. Resigned, we went back to Noor's area where one of the waiting jeeps told us that the family crossed back into the nallah they came from. They were gone and not even the recently arrived scion of one of India's biggest business families (with impolite police escorts in tow) could do anything about that. Mother Nature can be a great leveler in many different ways!

Another jeep brought us news of a mating pair of tigers near Singh Dwar, the entry gate for Zone 4 and 5. So, polishing off a breakfast of eggs and sandwiches, we headed towards this next appointment on our full day calendar. We drove through the beautiful lake areas and descended via Tamba Khan (site of an old copper mine) towards Gular Kui, a small pond by the roadside. And on our way there, I saw a man sitting a little off the road and he didn't look like a forest staffer. Hemraj saw him too and immediately got the jeep stopped and started after them. They were woodcutters who obviously thought they were alone in the forest after the morning jeeps had exited the forest. No one told them about full-day safaris, I presume. Anyways, they ran off, leaving their spoils behind. If it wasn't for a tourist jeep, no one would have even known that two men were able to enter a prime area in the tiger reserve and cut wood with impunity. Some benefits of much-maligned wildlife tourism.

Arrowhead
Shaking with anger, Hemraj had the driver move us forward and barely a couple of hundred metres from the woodcutters lay a large male tiger under a tree. Driving forward, we saw the female sit on a ledge right above the waterhole. It was Arrowhead with her third beau T-86. She yawned and preened, all ready to get up and go to her mate. Until something made her freeze and get into alert mode. Maybe another tiger, we all thought. Incredibly, it was the woodcutters again, walking towards the water! This time they probably wanted to get some water. Hemraj shouted to them that there were tigers around and they stopped in their tracks. By now, both tigers had spotted the men and were in attention. We all tensed, hoping nothing untoward would happen. What happened next left us completely baffled as Both tigers scrambled to their feet and ran away from the humans! And as they themselves ran, we shook our fists and roundly abused them, first for messing up the forest and then our sighting.

Hemraj calmed us down saying that the tigers would come back in a while and in the interim we aumsed ourselves with the other visitors to the waterhole. The ubiquitous Crested Buntings and Indian Pittas came forth while the less prolific Eurasian and Jacobin Cuckoos also arrived to quench their thirst. A Monitor Lizard scurried about in the undergrowth and a pair of Rufous Treepies koochie-coo'd overhead in their typically metallic tones. And then, just as Hemraj said earlier, the male came back. He sat some distance away, reclining majestically. This handsome bloke was indeed a superb representative of his species. Which is why Queen Arrowhead was wooing him so frantically. As we watched, she too came out and went straight to him, nuzzled and brushed against him, time and again. But while he superficially seemed to reciprocate the affection, it stopped there for him. Perhaps he just wanted to be friends! But she wouldn't give up and continued her wooing with great endeavour.


Then, one more example of Hemraj's understanding of this animal. He sensed that the male wanted to come into the water, but was probably hesitating because of the couple of jeeps around. T86 was relatively new in the tourist area so not as comfortable with jeeps as Arrowhead. So he asked Kantar (our driver) to reverse the vehicle about 50 metres and requested the guide in the other vehicle to do the same. And we both waited and watched. In about 10 minutes, the male slowly started walking towards the water. Hemraj held back the jeep. The tiger came closer and slowly descended into the little depression that formed the waterhole. Only then did we move our jeep. And even as we arrived slowly and carefully, he still snarled at us a couple of time to let us know who's boss. I remember the old King T28 doing this to us nearly a decade ago, when he had just arrived at the lakes. This handsome, benign tiger would go on to be one of the favourites showstoppers in the years to come.

While we gave T86 his space, Arrowhead would not. She kept coming up and nuzzling him, trying desperately to awaken his romantic side. But he seemed disinterested, unwilling or unable to take things forward. Her persistence was praiseworthy but every lady has her pride, so she got out of the water, crossed the road and lay down under a tree on the other side. Our friend lingered in his private jacuzzi for a bit and then followed her reasonably purposefully. This only served to get her hopes up and she tried yet again, only to be rebuffed yet again. Hemraj and Kantar opined that she's probably keen because she needs to mate with the dominant male of the area to keep her cubs safe in the future. At this point the lake area is contested by 3 males and she's mated with 2 other males (T57 and T91) So, she needs to cover all her bases, just in case T86 becomes the unquestioned ruler of the lakes. They still couldn't figure out why he wouldn't mate. Stage-fright perhaps? After a point, she shook a metaphorical head at him, called him a few choice names in 'tigerese' and walked away. And drawn like a nail to a magnet, he followed her down a shady nallah till they both vanished out of sight. Leaving us to realize that the growling sounds that continued came from our stomachs!

And so we headed to Jogi Mahal gate where our lunch had been delivered. Over a sumptuous meal of parathas, aloo, pickle and dahi we finalized the game plan for the afternoon. The prospect of spending it with Noor and her cubs was a very agreeable one, but we decided to explore the rest of the park and look for (amongst others) T19 (who had probably just given birth to a new litter), T41 and her cub or any of the 3 large males that split the rest of the tourist zone between them. And we drove on past Rajbagh and Malik Talao, through Lakkarda and the rocky valleys of Adidanth and Semli, before we arrived at the beautiful Bhakola valley. This thick, densely wooded enclave is enriched by a perennial stream and is not called 'A/C for tigers' for nothing. Finding no joy, we drove through almost all the way to Kachida, searching for one of the males or for T73 and her cubs. Not finding anything, we drove back and then decided to explore the ridges and valleys for T19. Then we came across a forest patrol, who told us that T41 and cub had been seen in the Berda valley that morning. And so we headed back to that part of the park.

Driving through the Berda valley, we came across a couple of other jeeps near the spot where T41 was spotted earlier. There was no sign of her, but all the guides guessed that the tigers would be in the bush, lying in the shade till it got cooler. They estimated that she would head to one of two water points, one of which was Bhakola (where we came from) Hemraj decided to take the Bhakola option, so we waited near a path that she would take if she chose Bhakola. Half an hour without action and we were resigned to a tiger-less afternoon. And then, out of nowhere, she appeared in front of us and started walking towards Bhakola. We saw her reuniting with her cub in the bush and the two of them started to walk through the forest. And we turned around and took the long way around. Hemraj estimated that she would cover the distance in about 25 minutes, so we slowly made our way to a bend on the road where he said she would appear. 

And lo! Roughly 22 minutes later, mother and son appeared at exactly at that place. They were in golden light, so we prayed for them to walk towards us on the road. But she was thirsty, so she took a short cut through the hill and descended into Bhakola. We could see them through the foliage, but there was no scope for any photography, so we decided to make our way out of the forest. On the way, we saw a Sloth Bear with two grown up cubs and I picked up a lifer - Yellow Legged Buttonquail... definitely did not expect this one! And that ended one of the finest days of my life. We'd seen 8 tigers, covered 4 of the park's 5 core tourist zones and most importantly, we'd spent roughly 8 out of the 13 hours in close proximity to one of the finest animals on this planet. All through the day, I remembered the man whose dream it was to do an unfettered full-day in his beloved Ranthambhore. He's with his tigers 24/7 now but how I wished he was in the jeep with me that day.

The last 2 safaris were spent in my nemesis area (Zone 6) to track the family that kept eluding us. The morning started with sightings of an Indian fox, which served to whet the appetite. And as we drove through the area, Hemraj and Kantar saw fresh pugmarks of a male tiger. We drove on for a bit and then turned back, only to find more fresh pugs, this time over our gypsy tracks. Hemraj was furious with himself; 'poor tracking', he kept muttering to himself. Any attempt to soothe him down only went the other way. He calculated where the tiger could have gone and led us to a pool right in the middle of a rocky valley. And in the water sat T34 (Kumbha) the dominant male of the area. He was sitting against the light so we decided to leave him and look for the female. Barely 20 metres down a bumpy, rocky path and we all realised the folly of our decision. How could you leave a tiger like that? And so we went back, only to find that Kumbha no longer occupied said waterhole. Hemraj was beside himself now. He sets very high standards for himself and this was just not acceptable. So we hurtled on towards the place he expected the tiger to head to, and sure enough, we found the majestic form of the ruler of that realm, the tiger named after a legendary Rajput king, Rana Kumbha.

Since he was walking off the path, it allowed us to get ahead of him and station ourselves a fair distance away, to be able to get pictures as he approached. He headed to a waterhole, lowered himself there and lapped in content. But he was on a mission, so had no time to dawdle. He heaved himself out of the water and walked forth, stopping only to spray his markings and once to relieve himself. He roared a couple of times to let his tigress and cubs (who were nearby) that he was around and all was well. Job done, he continued his walk, no doubt to check out the far reaches of his territory and weed out any upstarts to dared to threaten his reign. Now while we were with Kumbha, a couple of vehicles got fleeting views of the tigress and cubs on the far side of the same hill. We only got a couple of glimpses as they disappeared into their little cave for some rest.We were all sure that they would come to the water to drink that afternoon and so we came back for our last safari with a great deal of hope. But save for a 10 second sighting of the female without the cubs, we got nothing.

T-8 was the only aberration in a fantastic trip. A superb 3 days full of tigers, a dream full-day safari Noor and her cubs, a mating pair plus Kumbha in all his glory. But then, why was I still surprised? It's Ranthambhore after all!


Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town, is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to full-on opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

Two of Ranthambhore's best options at the next level are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there might be some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 

While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.