Monday, August 3, 2009

Unforgettable Trip to Tal Chhappar

Tal Chhapar, the Birder's Dream Destination.

Some things happen only once in a lifetime. And these are event you cherish long after they occur. My birding trip to Tal Chhapar is just one of this type, ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’.

When three of us fretired folks from Delhi decided to make a weekend(31st July – 2nd Aug, 2009) trip to Tal Chhapar to pursue the lead given by Mr. SS Punia, Range Officer, Rajasthan Forest Department, Tal Chhapar we (Anand Arya, Wingco Sethi and yours truly) did not have the faintest idea that we are just about to create history and to be part of it!

We left Delhi around 1.30 pm Friday afternoon in Anand Arya’s Tata Safar 2.2 VTT Dicor 4X4 from Siri Fort and headed for Tal Chhapar via Gurgaon, Dharuhera, Behror, Kotputli, Neem-ka-Thana, Sikar, Lakshmangarh, and reached Salasar, 20 KM short of Tal Chhapar by 9.30 pm. The stay at Balaji Dham Vikas Sadan was very comfortable with clean rooms, cheap rates, wholesome veg thali meals at unbelievably affordable rates and the general atmosphere of the whole complex. Salasar is a very important pilgrimage town in Rajasthan. The Hanuman Mandir in the town attracts hordes of pilgrims. The Dharamshalas have been built by generous Marwari businessmen and the Samiti which looks after the development of the mandir and township.

Like every birder habitually does, woke up early and left for the sanctuary hoping to see a dozen or so buzzards in one day, setting a personal record of sorts. To say we were totally unprepared for what was in store for us would be an understatement. From the approach road, which skirts the periphery, we were watching some rosy starlings when Wingo pointed to some large bird sitting on the ground and making occasional sorties with stretched necks held low and straight forward. A close inspection through the binoculars revealed the bird to be pale necked buzzard, which for want of any trace of white in the eyes we thought was long legged buzzard. Then we noticed another on its left, then another left of even that one, and another to the right, and another in the front, and another behind and another and another... By now we were dumbfounded. ‘This is not true!’, said Wingco. Anand was squealing with thrill. I was too overwhelmed to do or say anything. The whole field ahead of us was literally peppered with scores and cores of buzzards.

We rushed to the office of the Ranger, where Shri Punia gracefully offered tea and joined us in a round of the sanctuary. Everywhere and anywhere you looked, the whole flat grassland was full of black bucks. From a capacity of 800, the population has now grown to well over 2000, forcing the Forest Department to acquire another 200 hectares to accommodate the explosion in population. Chinkaras and Blue bulls were also in plenty. But today was buzzard day and we had no time for the larger species. Any direction we looked, there were within 50 yards at least a dozen white eyed buzzards, most in the pale headed juvenile plumage. Like the Charge of the Light Brigade we progressed,

Cannon to the right of them,

Cannon to the left of them,

Cannon in front of them

…boldly they rode and well..

As per Arya, it was Nikon to the left of them, Nikon to the right of them and Canon in front.

We saw a Steppe Eagle majestically perched on a pole and approached for a close shot. That is when our attention was drawn to a darker coloured Buzzard which Anand and Punia thought was a Laggar falcon. While looking at that, we noticed behind it, in the fresh tall grass something with a grey thin long neck and a longish head and beak with a black clump of feathers on the crown. Even though the stance and the peculiar shape left no doubt about its identity, especially after one noticed the peculiar brownish body and its shape, at first we could never believe what we see in front of us is really an INDIAN BUZZARD! I shouted “#@!%$#, An Indian Bustard! Holy Jesus! is this really an Indian Bustard”. Anand confirmed and Wingoc strongly agreed. Poor Punia was struck speechless. He kept mumbling incoherently. After all, he has been in charge of the sanctuary for over three years and he knew every inch of the area. His personal attention and care of the zoo has resulted in visible improvement. And now there three old fogies land up from Delhi and show me a bird that every director of any sanctuary would be proud to claim! Long lenses and cameras came out and clicked away furiously to get a decent record shot. Out then came the books. Yes! This is indeed an Indian Bustard, female adult in very good form. After seeing this, we did not even mind the braking of the rear glass of Anand’s Safari, while trying to photograph a pair of Steppes on a tree, or the dozens of Laggar Falcons and other birds.

The afternoon session was rather tame with only about 600 or more buzzards, a pair of what we thought were peregrine falcons and a good sighting of Indian foxes.(Vulpes bengalensis)

The morning of 2nd August, we had only one mission, to see if there are more or only the female we spotted. A binocular scan of the grassland revealed a possible Bustard standing cleverly among Wooly necked Storks, but close examination showed it to be another specimen, possibly a male Indian Bustard. W called it a day happily after polishing of a dozen or so freshly fried Kachoris, which Anand has a penchant for locating from miles away. It is another matter that Wingco spotted and photographed a magnificent specimen of Red-necked Falcon at fairly close quarters sitting on a fence wire (the Falcon not Wingco). Arya’s attempt to retrieve his bazooka from the boot, were in vain as the falcon promptly flew away the moment Dr. Arya took his big lens out.

A very rewarding, exhilarating and historic birding trip indeed. A few observations might not be out of order here.

The tender loving care (TLC) with which Mr. Punia, the Range Officer in charge of Tal Chhapar Sanctuary tends to his park has rejuvenated the National Park. The appearance of the new inhabitants is a tribute to his selfless and sincere efforts.

Those who propose to visit the sanctuary may please note that there is severe restrictions on vehicular movement within the park. Please contact Mr. Punia in advance and find out the rules.

The best route from Delhi is Gurgaon-Kotputli-Neem ka thana-Sikar-Lakshmangarh-Salasar-Chhapar.

The long awaited rest house is coming up in the sanctuary and should be ready by next season if not late this season itself. The building is grand and rooms and facilities should be good.

Till then, the best bet is the dharamshala in Salasar. There are two very good ones with clean rooms and air conditioning. At least one more is coming up.

Eat and collect all the food and water you need en route well before Kotputli as there is nothing between Kotputli and Sikar. At sikar as you enter the town, at right on the first roundabout before the flyover, there is a decent multi-cuisine restaurant, strangely named “ICE”. Good, clean cheap food!

The canteen at the dharamshala sells genuine packaged water and cold drinks. Carry only what you need on the road journey. It is advisible to stick to bottled water. The tea at the Guest House (Dharamshala is good, but nothing to beat the sweet thick masala cha of Chhapar bus stand. By the way, the Dharamshala does not provide towles, except for a small face towel. Remember to carry your own towel and chappals.

The list of important birds sighted are given below:

Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps)pair

White eyed Buzzard (Between 600 and 1000)

Saker Falcon single specimen

Laggar Falcon, over a dozen

Kestrel a pair

Steppe Eagle two

Egyptian Vultures two

Twany Eagle two

Oriental Honey Buzzard at least one, two sightings

Red Necked Falcon one

Rosy Starling over 5000

Wheatear, Isabelline and Variable

Shrikes, Long-tailed and Southern Grey

Wooly-necked Storks over 30

Black Ibis over 50,

Spoonbill, just one, though Punia says there are a dozen of them

Larks, Crested, Rufus-tailed and Ashy-crowned Sparrow

Bee eaters, green, blue cheeked and one possible blue tailed

Black bucks over 2000

Chinkara 100 – 200

Bluebulls 50 -60

These Buzzards would feed on crickets, grasshoppers and locusts the whole of August, but would soon move out to the Southwest. Their place would be taken over in September by Harriers.

Go out and enjoy, the unspoilt, goldmine!

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Bandhavgarh Trip

The Journey Begins

I've always wanted to visit Bandhavgarh. I dreamed of Bandhavgarh, its famed tigers, its meadows, its teeming wildlife, its birds. Planned several times, only to be abandoned at the last moment. So finally till I and my friend Captain Suresh Sharma actually boarded the Hirakund Exress from Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station, I had secretly feared that this trip too will meet the fate of earlier planned ones. But that was not to be. Here we are finally in A1 coach occupying between two of us just one berth, #7. It's a day journey and we have accommodating co passengers and a kind TT. We settle down with introductions and the usual question, "What do you do with all the photos you take?" It is a difficult question at the best of times to explain to the uninitiated. I just tell the eager Sardarji on Berth #8 that it is a 'nasha' (intoxication or addition) for me. He knowingly nods his head. The delicious Chhole and paranthas that Susan so lovingly packed for us saved us from the culinary torture of Railway food. For dinner, there was curd rice (Thair Saadam). Bliss!!

Umaria - Taala

We were met at the Station by a friend and sent to Bandhavgarh by the Innova from the resort. Arriving late at night at 2 AM did not diminish our determination to join an early morning jeep safari.

Nature Heritage Resort, Village Tala, very near the gate of the Tiger Reserve is a great place to say. Built around a central courtyard with places for an open air bar, a cafeteria and a few odd places to sit around, the resort exudes a very 'jungly' atmosphere.
Our cottage had two rooms with a shared verandah facing the central coutryard. Food is great and the staff are friendly and helpful. For some reason, the Nature Heritage Resort, locally referred to as the 'Agra Lodge' referring to the place of origin of its owner, has, over the years evolved as the favourite place of stay of photographers. Most of the important ones stay here and the chance to meet some famous lensmen is an added attraction for staying there. We were lucky to meet a few celebrities, also staying there. Jonathan and Angie Scott probably needs no introductions to those interested in wildlife. Born and brought up in the UK, Jonathan finally ended up in Masai Mara, Kenya and fell in love, first with the forest, then with the Big Cats and finally with Angela. He is an outstanding photographer, an artist whose pen and ink sketches of cats are much sought after. He is best known as the host of a number of BBC TV shows about the Big Cats of Africa. He has also written two books, one of Masai Mara and another on leopards. Angie is a famous photographer on her own rights. Another pleasant surprise was meeting Nanak Dhingra, the famous Indian wildlife photographer. A lively person known for his generosity and concern for the under privileged, Dhingra has his photographs published in every single wildlife magazine worth its salt. The owner of the Resort, Mr. Rajvardhan Sharma is a celebrity of sorts. His exploits in saving a hapless French tourist by risking his own life are so legendary that every guide in Bandhavgarh claims to be eye witness to the incident.


Though summers are intolerably hot in Central India, it is worth braving the torture of the Sun if one is keen on spotting tigers. For one thing
Water sources dry up leaving a few well known and approachable water holes. All animals, prey and the hunters and scavengers congregate at these places. This is probably the reason why one can surely see at least one tiger on each safari, unlike in other reserves and national Parks. Another reason why summers are better is that in summers Bandhavgarh forest looks dry and bereft of the green foliage of the post rains winter season, making tigers more visible. Finally, the crowds of tourists in Winter are so large that all resources get strained beyond comfort. As many as 50 safari vehicles enter the Park every day and the news of spotting of tiger attracts a large number of vehicles. Too many for the comfort of the tigers and the serious photographer and wildlife enthusiast. even in late April the number of vehicles were as high as 20 daily. The system of entry has been reorganized recently.

In the morning each vehicle is allotted a particular zone out of the five for safari. In the first one hour the vehicles are supposed to remain within the allotted zone. This is done to prevent overcrowding and to give each group a chance to spot tiger in the open before there is crowding. Once the tiger is spotted in a zone at a place away from the track but approachable by elephant back, the tourists are allowed to ride the elephants and approach the tiger for a closer view.
It is indeed nice to give a closer view. Somehow, in their eagerness to get better view, the mahouts often get to close to the tigers and cross the personal threshold of comfort. Sometimes they even interfere with tigers' movement to let all see the tiger. At times the 'tiger shows', as these are called become a big circus and counter productive.

We too got our chance on the howdah, but trust my luck to let me down. When my turm came to photograph the magnificent male dominant tiger, son of the legendary B2, the damn fellow decided to sleep and not even lift his head. When the elephant turned to let those on the other side of the howdah a dekho, he obliged them by looking up and yawning royally. And can you believe, there were no one with a camera on that side of the elephant!

The bird life in Bandhavgarh, unlike in Ranthambhore is rich. Not only that, easy to approach and photograph.
Even though I am an avid birder, I normally do not photograph birds. Two reasons. Firstly, taking photos take away, at least partly the pleasure of watching birds. The moment you want to photograph, your first priority is to click. For that you plan approach, select the vantage point, worry about light, equipment, tripod and a hundred other things. Secondly, I do not have the lenses required for bird photography. The longest lens I have is a Sigma 300 mm and a Sigma 1.4X tele-convertor. This is insufficient for small birds. Often when asked what is the ideal focal length for bird photography, I tell that you need 100 mm more than the longest lens you have. Till i am rich or one of my rich uncles - very few are left, rich or poor - die bequeathing huge bank balance to me of till Nikhil Devesar donates his 600mm, I do not even want to day dream of bird photography. That having been said, I managed to click a number of acceptable quality images of large birds like the Brown Fish Own here. In all I managed to spot over 45 species including Malabar Pied Hornbill, Racket-tailed and White-bellied Drongos. The lesser adjutant was so tame and gave me good shots.

The most productive area for us was the central dam and pool known as Raj Behra. Currently a mother and three sub adult cubs are the inhabitants of this scenic spot.
An artificial dam constructed across a seasonal stream has created a fairly large reservoir surrounded by vast meadows. The whole area is teeming with wildlife. Hundreds of spotted deer (Chital) feed on the grass, animals like sambhar, wild boar and jackal also frequently visit this spot. There are also plenty of peafowl. The presence of water also attracts a large variety of birds. Once can easily spot birds like three variety of Drongos, two of Orioles, two of Bee-eaters, three of Doves, two of Hornbills and two of mynas. Wildlife department has also built a concrete hide near the dam to permit photography. I must try this facility. Some day!

An unexpected treasure was the splash of colours of leaves. The forest was full of newly sprouted young leaves of various shades and colours.

Though my desire to meet the legendary mahout and photographer Kuttappan (A Mallu, like me) remained unfulfilled I met Raghu, arguably the best guide and budding photographer. We struck friendship and he acted as guide for me on more than one occasion. Normally guides are allocated at the gate on the basis of a roster and the visitor has no choice. There are two ways of overcoming this. First, and what I used, is to request the guide allotted to you to let Raghu take his place. Second, what I plan to do next time, is to hire Raghu's jeep and get an additional guide from the gate. (It is mandatory to have a guide, even with Raghu or Kuttappan on board)

Afte three days at Bandhavgarh, enjoying tiger safari during day and the food and drinks of Nature Heritage Resort, one can't be blamed if one felt reluctant to leave. But leave, we had to. We caught the late night Utkal Express on 29th April. Recalling, despite not getting very good images of tigers, one had 15 sightings of 7 different tigers in three days and six safaris. The food in the train made us dream of Susan's cooking. The Air Conditioning also conked off, making the return trip uncomfortable. But we kept going over the fantastic experience of the last three days.