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Bald Eagle Scape Sunset AlaskaThe magnificent Bald Eagle perched atop the Alaskan Cedar on a late summer day at Katmai National Park

The Arctic region and the brown bears were a fascination for a long time. In September of 2012, I was very close to the Russian part of Alaska, in Vladivostok, and really wanted to visit Kamchatka. I was told it was not worth going, if not for August. Going to Alaska to watch the Sockeye Salmon run and Brown Bears fishing was on my mind but not in the scheme of things for the summer of 2013. I had spent enough hours researching on backpacking in Central and Eastern Europe. Thanks to unfortunate realities, I was stranded in US. For some reason, I had thought the sockeye salmon run was in September (It’s a time to see Bears catching Red). Those who know little bit about my travel planning would know I have to plan it right – right place, right time of the year, right species, right gear, right guides. In a week’s time, I researched and was all set to visit and camp in Alaska, alone.

Brooks Camp is one of the most popular wildlife viewing, or more specifically Brown Bear viewing places in the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say it is as popular as Masai Mara for Wildeebeast migration or Bandhavgarh for Bengal Tigers. The lifeline of this place is the Sockeye Salmon, which make an arduous journey from the pacific ocean to the fresh waters of Alaska for spawning. The upstream migration provides opportunity for many predators feasting on the protein rich Salmon.

The arrival of Sockeye Salmon at Brooks Falls is not easily predictable. However, the best times are between 3rd and 28th of July on most years. In May 2013, I was told they are taking reservations for July 2015. No surprise that the Brooks camp lodge with capacity of 60 guests needs reservations 2 years in advance. Fortunately, I was able to get a camp site for 3 nights. Perhaps because I was going alone. Larger groups definitely need advanced planning. The reservation for camp site opens on January 5th every year and get booked in a few hours.

Route:

Los Angeles -> Anchorage -> King Salmon -> Brooks Camp

You can reach King Salmon on Alaskan, Penn Air or other commercial airlines. However, transfer from King Salmon to Brooks camp is through float planes operated by few private players. Katmailand is one of the popular ones and was my preferred operator. I booked my return trip with them from Anchorage and was a smooth process. For good or bad, it is a fixed price flight at $685 ex-Anchorage.

Alaska-Landscape-from-planeMany rivulets and water bodies connect the fresh water breeding grounds of salmon to the Pacific Ocean

The flight from King Salmon to Brooks camp is a fascinating one. As a fan of Disney’s TaleSpin, it was almost like a dream to fly on a float plane. Taking off from a small lake in King Salmon, the 40-minute flight takes you through the amazing scape of Alaskan peninsula. The views of the expansive Alaska and the numerous rivulets, ponds and lakes amidst many mountains was a treat to watch. The small float plan lands on the beautiful Naknek lake that drains into the Naknek river and eventually to the Bristol Bay and Pacific Ocean – the  upstream route salmons take for the freshwater spawning grounds. Bristol Bay is one of the largest Salmon fishing areas in the world. The regulations ensure no overfishing and enough Salmons reach fresh waters to spawn and continue the life cycle.

Float Plane landing at Brooks Falls alaska

Brown Bear Scape and Naknek Lake AlaskaThe beautiful green-blue hues of Naknek lake on a blissfully day with clear sky, a rarity in Alaskan summer

Everyone that visits Brooks Camp must undergo a mandatory Bear Safety instruction conducted by the rangers. This is to ensure there visitors know how to behave. As at any other popular national park in the world, it doesn’t come as a surprise how some tourists conduct themselves. After the mandatory orientation, I walked almost a mile with my 50lbs backpack and camera gear to the campsite. Later realized there’s a push cart! Setup my tent and went for a lunch at the lodge restaurant. Though the prices are a little steep, food is totally worth it considering the remote location of the camp. There is at least one good vegetarian option for every meal and also few delicious desserts.

Campground from the lodge is about 0.8 miles, and the falls platform from the lodge 1.8miles. The walk between these would give you numerous encounters with bears. You are expected to make noise and warn the bear of your presence – contrast to other wildlife viewing experiences where you keep quiet to ensure you don’t disturb the animals. My first day at Katmai was gloomy and it started raining by the time I reached the falls platform. My relatively inadequate rain gear would come under test for the next few days. I felt if I have survived the monsoon in Agumbe, I can handle any rain. The exciting part of the afternoon was that there were few salmons jumping (~ 3-5 per minute), and there were few hungry bears. Although Brooks fall is the best place to see a Bear catch a jumping salmon, you may not get to witness it if you are not lucky. Salmon and Bear timing need to match as I figured out the next few days.

Bear-waiting-waterfalls-Brooks-Falls-6279Bear-catching-Salmon-6260Bear killing a salmon alaskaCatching a jumping Salmon is an acquired skill, passed from mother to cubs, and needs patience. Capturing the action shot needs patience too.

One can stay at the falls platform for a maximum of one hour if it is crowded. Many visit the place on a day trip, fly in the morning and fly out in the afternoon. Hence it gets busy during the day. However, those who stay overnight get the advantage of 22 hour sunlight days of Alaskan summer. The falls platform closes at 10pm. I stayed till 9:45pm on one of the days and while walking back alone, encountered a big brown bear right in my path hardly 30 feet from me. Two thoughts: stay put and get a wide angle shot or walk back. Instinct said wait and see what the bear does and then decide. Obviously the bear doesn’t give a shit about me and wants to show who’s the boss. He walks straight towards me. I start walking back and soon jogging backwards making some noise. His stride is much bigger and gains ground sooner. Fortunately there were few more who were walking back from the platform and join me. Someone suggests we get off the track and into the woods. We all get out of his path and a few hundred feet away in mix of tall grass, shrubs and trees. We keep yelling and making noise, as instructed by the rangers. After a few minutes, he walks away. Phew!

On the first night, when it wasn’t raining, a few of the campers lit a fire at the campground. On the other nights, the lodge restaurant with a fireplace provided a much needed oasis of warmth. Not only did I get to meet lot of awesome people from around the world, but also managed to dry my gear and the fogged up lens on most afternoons and late evenings.

Brooks-Camp-Lodge-Restaurant-Alaska-6487Meeting awesome people and drying my gear at the fireplace of Brooks camp lodge restaurant

The best and also the worst part about Alaskan summer is the terribly long days and sunlight. Almost 22 hours of daylight means, you as a photographer are out all the time. Though it was cloudy on most days, it created a fantastic soft lighting situation. With a good camera that can produce images without much noise at ISO-800 or 1000, you can shoot almost for 17-18 hours a day, if you can stay up that long. My day would typically start by 7:30 and end past midnight, with intermittent breaks. Between the campground, lodge, falls platform and other small trails, I’d have easily averaged 8 miles a day.

First day afternoon provided good opportunity for Bears fishing of Salmon on the falls. Soon after, Bears were full. The following days, there were plenty of Salmons jumping (~70-75 per minute at times), but hardly any bears at the falls. If you are visiting to see a bear catch a salmon jumping in air, make sure you have at least 3 to 4 days at Brooks camp. However, the lower platform is an excellent place to spend time and observe wildlife. Common Mergansers with chicks, Mallards, Arctic terns, Arctic Skua, Ospreys, Bald Eagles and many other birds can be spotted right from the platform. The beautiful Naknek lake and bears around it provide excellent opportunity for some landscape shots.

On the 3rd day, I signed up to visit the Valley of 10,000 smokes. Katmai National Park was established because of a volcanic eruption at the beginning of 20th century, and not because of the Bears. The valley is an expansive space of volcanic ash that is inhospitable for all life forms. A modified-to-the-terrain bus takes you on an hour long journey to the valley from Books Camp. It was incredible to see the dead valley in the middle of picturesque green mountains and tall trees. It is like a canyon in the middle of evergreen forest. No picture makes justice to the valley of 10,000 smokes.

Valley-of-Ten-Thousand-Smokes-Katmai-National-Park-Alaska-0490Volcanic ash and lava flowing over the valley has not let any life form to exist. Only recovering recently and slowly.

Cannot end the post without a mention to the amazing park rangers at Katmai National Park. Without these rangers, Brooks camp wouldn’t be a place that it is. The platforms and the bridge are setup only for the summer, in May of each year and taken down in October. They ensure people get to have the best viewing and fishing experience, and at the same time bears stay wild and with minimal or no human interference.  Here are few more images from my stay at the Brooks camp:

Rangers at Katmai National Park, Brooks Camp Bear blocked the trail to the falls platform for nearly an hour and rangers kept an eye.

Campground-and-tent-Brooks-Camp-AlaskaMy tent pitched at the campground – image here as I searched a lot to find out how the campground was since I was camping alone

Bald-Eagle-and-Photographers-Alaska-6909Where is the Eagle? Lower platform is the best place to spend time and watch eagles, ospreys, terns, bears and other birds.

Bald-Eagle-Brooks-Camp-6924Bald Eagle makes an aerial maneuver – a treat to watch standing at the lower platform

Arctic Skua, AlaskaArctic Skua makes an unusual appearance

Brown Bears Courtship alaskaA courting pair enjoying the summer

One last image. The day I visited valley of ten thousand smokes, it had been raining heavier. I had been out in the rain from 7am till about 9:30pm, with very little break. I had hiked over 12 miles. We (Max, Dario and I) had missed out on the sighting of a sow with cubs earlier in the day. We waited at the lower platform on that cold, rainy evening hoping for some action. By 9pm, the rain had stopped but the light was still bright. By 9:45pm, tired and cold, we decide to head back to the camp. As we walked half way across the bridge, we saw the mother bear walk her cubs out – cautiously looking for any other bears. We just stopped at the middle of the bridge and she walked up to the edge of the water and at the perfect angle for us. The elation was unbound. You need to get lucky in wildlife photography to capture good images. However, you increase your odds by spending more time in the field.

Alaskan-Brown-Bear-Sow-with-CubsMy favorite image of the trip. Got very lucky after waiting for hours in the cold and rain

Gear: I rented my gear for the trip since I had sold most of my gear before embarking on the 2 years at business school. I researched quite a bit on the gear that I need. I took my favorite lens, Canon 100-400mm. It provides a great flexibility. You will find bears at close ranges. Even at the falls falls, you will not need longer than 300mm for a good image of the bears. For Eagles, Terns, and other birds, have a 500/600mm. Body I used was 7D and Rebel XSi. A high ISO tolerance and faster fps camera is very useful.

Having rain covers is useful, don’t have to dry lens when it gets fogged up otherwise. Mosquito and bugs are common in Alaskan wilderness. Though it was less than what I had read about, I had a bug repellant spray and a head cover.

Some useful blogs I researched and read before my trip: Gordon Liang

Booking campground: http://www.recreation.gov/camping/Brooks_Camp_Campground/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=70949

Booking lodge and flights: http://www.katmailand.com

It was a fantastic trip to the Brooks falls. I stayed at the lower platform until 45min to my flight on the last day at 6pm. Also, It was great to meet some awesome photographers Massimiliano and Dario from Italy, Laura from Fairbanks, Tim and Shekar from the Bay area. There were many others I shared dinners and lunch with. I didn’t feel anytime that I was traveling alone. I continued my journey in the Alaskan Peninsula, to Anchorage and then to Seward, Ninilchik and Homer. More on that in the following post.

P.S.: I need donations for buying new gear. All my photographs are under creative commons license and can be used for non-commercial work only by providing credits to the photographer.

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Valparai, a little known town of tea estates with scattered wildlife, was on my mind for long time. Had missed out couple of times after a good planning, but not this time. After a month of planning and consulting with Kalyan, Selva, Shiva, and Raju, I chalked out a plan to spend 2 days at Valparai and 2 days at Topslip on a 5 day trip, driving both ways. One hitch was, accommodation at Topslip forest department was not confirmed even after sending out a letter to DCF a couple of weeks in advance. Vinay, Arun and I set out from Bangalore by 7am on a Fiat Punto, which took a lot of brunt on the whole tour.

Target species for the trip: Lion Tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr, Great Hornbills, Waynaad Laughingthrush, and Oriental Bay Owl.

Onward Route:

Bangalore -> Hosur -> Krishnagiri -> Salem -> Avinashi -> Palladam -> Pollachi -> Valparai

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Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus) – An endangered and endemic mammal of western ghats

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The toll road is in impeccable shape, and you can easily cruise at 150kmph. Stopped over at A2B for breakfast and reached Avinashi with few brief stops by around noon for lunch. Lost a lot of time around Avinashi in asking for directions and chaotic traffic. We had to confirm booking at Pollachi DCF office and spent some time in locating that place in Pollachi.

By around 3pm, we set towards Valparai. What a fantastic drive that was! The view of Aliyar dam from the escalating 40 hair pin bends is simply breathtaking. The roads are in brilliant condition despite the perpetual rains and traffic. Enjoyed a cup of tea adjacent to the tea gardens half way into the ascent. Didn’t find the Tahrs around the hairpin bends, but enjoyed every bit of the drive. Reached Valparai close to 5pm, checked into our home stay and set out for a drive around the town in on a cloudy and drizzling evening.

While returning to homestay that night, Vinay parked the car into the underground stairway of the home stay. And no, he wasn’t drunk. Just the darkness and drizzling rain did him in. What an adventure it was to get the car out of the ditch! Phew!! Fortunately nothing more than minor superficial damage to the car.

The next morning, weather was still gloomy and looked like it’d pour any moment. Poothotam was the place to find Lion Tailed Macaques, and we set out early. Too early in fact for LTMs. So we drove around Paralai and Varathaparai and enjoyed the landscape bristled with rain forests amidst vast tea estates. A barking deer around Monica estate bungalow, and scimitar babbler were the highlights. Listening to the song of Malabar whistling thrush was the most delightful experience. After a quick breakfast, we again set out towards Poothotam estates.  We saw a pair of Malabar Grey Hornbills. Around the directors bungalow, sighted a lone Forest wagtail. I was super thrilled.

Vinay was getting edgy to see LTMs. Walked around to sight more birds, but got too many leeches instead. No LTMs yet. As I was driving out of the estate, saw a bunch of macaques on ground on far right. Jammed the brakes and cried ‘LTMs’. Spent the next couple of hours photographing them. I then spent some time photographing the small waterfall and stream opposite to Poothotam estate. The light was dull and we left for lunch.

Post lunch, we lazed around for a while and charged the camera batteries. By around 3pm, we set out to look for Great Hornbills. We were told morning or early afternoon was the better time to sight these magnificent birds, we nevertheless wanted to try out luck. After a lot of scan and search in the pouring rain, we did find a couple of great hornbills on a fruiting tree. It was good sight but not the right conditions to photograph. We moved towards Sholayar Dam. The tea estates on the backwaters of the dam are ideal locations for good landscape images, if weather permits. The best part of the evening was the drive on the narrow roads in pouring rain.

Alpha male on the road – That truck almost ran over him

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Fragmented habitat and habitat destruction are the biggest challenges for the few thousand surviving Lion Tailed Macaques, found only in small patches of rainforests of Western Ghats. The alpha male of  a troop was looking for his  members when a truck almost ran over him. It not not uncommon to see road kills at Valparai – Check Kalyan’s image of a road kill here and here. Despite two guards instilled by NCF and 3 of us photographing, the truck didn’t bother to slow down or watch out for the macaque.

Wish he could read the sign board Or Wish we humans would care to

On Monday morning, we were to leave to Topslip. It had rained all through the night and the morning was crystal clear with blue skies dotted with few white clouds. This was the ideal weather we wished for. But had to drive to Topslip, a good 3 to 4 hours from Valparai. We didn’t want to miss the accommodation at Topslip. But we scanned the area for Hornbills for a couple of hours, but no luck. The acrobatics of Nilgiri Langurs were a treat to watch. Malabar giant squirrels and Nilgiri Langurs were in plenty.

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Topslip

By 10am, we headed towards Topslip, with a couple of confirmation calls to Pollachi Forest Dept along the way. We did get a room we wanted at Ambuli Illam – about 3km inside the forest from Topslip reception. Soon, it started to rain and we didn’t see the point of trekking that time. So we just drove in car, in case we sight something, but no luck. Back at the reception at 4:30pm, few people were waiting to visit Elephant Camp. We joined them and went to the elephant feeding camp which had about 8-10 elephants. Got back to our rooms for a early dinner and dozed off soon.

Next morning, the rain gods had taken a break. On way from Ambuli Illam to Reception, we saw a flock of Wynaad Laughingthrush. It was very misty and no decent photographs, but what a sighting it was! Trek to Karian Shola, a hotspot for variety of endemic birds, was the morning’s plan.

I wanted to take a good guide and had made arrangements for the same. Unfortunately, to my disbelief, the Ranger didn’t allow us to take the guide we wanted since he was not from the forest department. He didn’t even budge to let us take him as a visitor! We were put to a forest department employee who knew very little about birds. We were obviously disappointed, but didn’t have much choice. An hour into the trek, we hadn’t seen anything other than a flameback and an emerald dove.

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We had paid 1000 bucks for 4hour trek, but didn’t want to continue if the guide didn’t even have an idea where to look for birds. We asked him to get us back to Reception. Previous evening, had met another guide, Ketan, from forest department who had fair knowledge on birds. So we wanted to take him instead. After about 2 hours, we got back to Reception. Ketan obliged to take us to show Frogmouths that he had sighted previous evening. Though I was not keen, I thought it’s better to see a frogmouth than not see nothing at all. He again took us into Karian Shola at a very brisk pace. Half an hour in, he looked around for roosting spot of Frogmouth, but there were none! It was disheartening. I had heard so much about Karian Shola, and it was  a disappointment perhaps because of the weather.

But we did see an Emerald Dove’s nest with a young one nestled in. Thankfully the light had picked up little bit. We took a few record shots and left the spot. After a good discussion with Ranger, he agreed to let Ketan go with us for the evening trek. Exhausted after a 4 and half hour trek without food, we left to our room. On the quick drive back to we saw Malabar Trogon, Brown Shrike and White Bellied Treepie. Had late breakfast at 1pm, rested for a while and drove back towards reception. In this short drive again, we saw a mixed hunting party of birds – Wynaad Laughingthrush, Jungle Babblers, Rufous Treepie, White bellied Treepie, and the rare, bird of the trip, Chestnut Winged Cuckoo.  A lone male Kestral was sighted in the open grass patch opposite reception.

Flame throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis) – Another endemic bird to Western ghats

At the reception, we got Ketan and drove back towards Ambuli Illam for a trek. The bird activity was surprisingly low. However, we did see a Sloth Bear barely 15ft from us. Fortunately, the bear grunted and ran away. Late evening, we returned to the reception area and spent some time chatting with Natalie. It was surprising to see so many foreigners at Topslip. Few could not even speak English, and they were there in the remotest jungles, far far away from any metro city.

‘Nannari’, a local drink make from roots of some tree, is a must try. Vinay was so kicked that  he picked up 3 bottles of it! By 8pm, we were asked to return to our room as an Elephants with a calf was sighted around there and would possibly cause trouble. The drive back in the night to Ambuli Illam to reception was fantastic with sighting of a Jungle cat, a Sambhar stag and a Doe, and many Gaurs. It’s incredible to drive at night without headlights in the jungle, only using a flash light to scan for glittering eyes staring at us.

Next morning, we had decided we’d drive back to Bangalore without morning birding session as it would be futile with heavy mist. Driving back from Ambuli, we only saw few Jungle Babblers. We took an alternate route as we planned to stop over at Kgudi.

Return Route:

Topslip -> Pollachi -> Coimbatore -> Satyamangalam -> Chamrajnagar -> Kgudi -> Yellandur -> Maddur -> Bangalore

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Misty yet blissful – Landscape on way from Satyamangalam, Tamil Nadu to Chamrajnagar, Karnataka


The drive from Satyamangalam to Chamrajnagar is simply incredible. Ascending 27 hair pin bend in the midst of moist deciduous forest is fantastic experience.  The only hitch is the heavy traffic of trucks and buses plying on this stretch. We saw nothing but bonnet macaques. The bird activity at Kgudi JLR camp was surprisingly low. We saw a lone Verditer Flycatcher. It was good to catch up with Ashish at Kgudi JLR. Reached Bangalore by 9pm. A good enjoyable trip with great sightings and driving.

Mammals: Barking Deer, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Dusky palm squirrel, Bonnet Macaque, Lion Tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur, Hanuman Langur,  Indian Gaur, Jungle Cat, Spotted Deer, Sambhar deer, Black naped-hare, Wild Boar,  and Sloth Bear

Highlight of Birds: Wynaad Laughingthrush, Chestnut winged cuckoo, Malabar Trogon, Forest Wagtail, Malabar whistling thrush, Indian Scmitar Babbler, Emerald Dove, Pampadour Green Pigeon and White Bellied Treepie.

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Topslip is an excellent place for birding if the weather is good. Wynaad Laughingthrush (Garrulax delesserti) is not a common bird seen easily, and the fact that we were able to sight a flock twice without any guide shows how awesome Topslip is.  There are many rooms or guest houses to stay at Topslip. Ambuli Illam without doubt is the best of the lot. It is better to have a vehicle if you choose Ambuli, for you have to drive back and forth reception for trek or visit to Elephant camp. Charge for 2 hour trekking is Rs. 500/-. Room charges are Rs. 1100/- per room plus Rs. 200 for reservation. Guide tips extra.

Contact information:

Wildlife Warden Office,
Meenkarai (or Market) Road,
Pollachi – 1

Phone: 04259-238360


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Few more images:

Tea estates are spread across far and wide around Valparai


Waterfalls opposite Poothotam estate, Valparai


Brown Shrike – Lucky to get a spotlight on the bird, otherwise the lighting was really dull under the canopy

 

Lion Tailed Macaque feeding – A portrait

 


 

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A species of Flying frog

Agumbe, tipped as the cherrapunji of the South, is one of the wettest places in the world. I wanted to visit this place for photographing reptiles and amphibians that emerge out during monsoon. After missing it in last two monsoons, I visited ARRS this year. Quite an experience it was!

After a lot of thought, I dropped the temptation to drive and instead booked a bus to Agumbe. Arun dropped out at the last (few) hours of the trip. A few calls later, Hemant agreed to join. He was called in at about 6pm by other Arun. Bus was to leave at 10pm. Quite a lot of time? Not so if you are in Mumbai. 6:10pm – Mumbai Airport. 6:30pm – flight from Mumbai to Bangalore. 8:00pm at BIAL. At 9pm, Hemant is at bus stand. Roughly at about 10:15 the bus took off. Gerry, Josh, Farid and Nathan were in the same bus.

A wearing 9 hour journey got us to Agumbe by 7:30am. It was raining. Yeah, this is what you expect here. Josh and others left in a jeep, while Arun, Hemant and I looked for autos. After searching a transport for 10-15min, we decided to walk, in the pouring rain, to ARRS that is about 2-3km from the bus stand. Though excited initially, we realized the walk was not worth in the pouring rain carrying our reasonably heavy baggage.

At the camp, met Harish, Chetana and others. I was tired, thanks to my incapability to sleep in bus and thanks to my sleeplessness in the last few days. Took some rest. Then, tried out the Canon 100mm macro lens and Canon Speedlite 430EX II. I was getting used to this gear I had borrowed from Selva and Sandeep. During lunch, chatted with Harish, Gerry, Josh, Vinay and others and later ventured out for a ‘walk’ with Gerry.

Dew drops

I was expecting to walk around the camp, maybe venture into wood, but not walk in a stream for 2-3kms! It was fun, no doubt. Provided incredible photo opportunities as well. Gorillapod came in very handy to capture some long exposure shots.

Stream close to ARRS

I still was checking out the locales and was tring to shoot a timelapse, which was coming out fine until someone started walking on the log that i was resting my camera on. Here’s a peek:

Chetana in yellow, Gerry in green, Farid in blue boots, Nathan in black and Dhamini crossing the stream. I had to cut short my shoot and continued the walk. It was an incredible test for my new woodland shoes. I thought of the quote ‘While you own something, no matter what it is, use it as hard as you can and enjoy it.‘ and moved ahead.

The water level was changing as we walked, and the algae coated stones/rocks were slippery. It was raining perpetually. Good test for EOS 450D and 18-55mm I thought. I had tucked the cam under my rain jacket when not shooting. My confidence with rain-handling-capabilities of my cam grew as we walked more and more. I begun to use it without much care. Stupid mistake! A sudden drop and rise in water level. My foot went a feet lower, and my cam took a dip. That’s the end of it!

I had switched off my cam, fortunately, when it took a dip. Got back to the room to dry it. The worst part of the place is that nothing dries, not even your hand kerchief. Not even the fire wood, I realized, as it took considerable effort to lit the fire.

Since my camera was unusable, I had to borrow Nikon D90 when we found a Malabar Pit Viper. On one had, I was disappointed to have my camera dead while on the other I was excited to see this snake.

Malabar pit viper, waits patiently at a spot for its prey to pass by

I did not spend much time looking for frogs since I didn’t have much incentive (of photographing), we did find many species of frogs.

On Saturday, we went to a small waterfall that was close to the camp. The opportunity to create different images are infinite here, only made difficult by the perpetual rain. Day and night we were able to find a variety of frog species: Borrowing frog, Bronzed frog, Bi-colored frog, Ramanellas and many others. There were out there, one just needed the eye to see them.

I was keen on photographing Rhaco, that was one of the reasons I was at Agumbe. Friday night we weren’t successful in finding it, but Saturday we got lucky. Thanks to Ben for finding the Malabar Flying Frog. Hemant shared his Canon 1000D, and I could capture a few photographs of Rhacophorus malabaricus.

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Malabar flying frog – uses the webbings between its toes to glide or fly

We had found a Vine Snake on Friday night, but couldn’t photograph. On Sunday morning, we found another one that I could photograph. This little one got threatened and wanted to scare us away.

Notice the black and white scales on it’s body. What otherwise is a well camouflaged green body, it changes to scare away its predators – our cameras in this case.

Green vine snake – threat display

There were plenty of other interesting insects, especially the ones Ben was able to find – a foot and half long stick insect (I had never seen a stick insect longer than 4-5 inches), a whip scorpion, Vinegarroon, that emits vinegar when threatened. It was exciting to see Caecilians, limbless amphibians, that stay underground most of the time was also very interesting to see. It was unfortunate that I didn’t have my camera at my disposal for photographing these.

But I did have Hemant’s camera when we found this Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis – Notice the pseudopupil (black spot that appears on eye) – it appears to follow you as you move

I packed up by late afternoon. My camera showed signs of life after a day and half in the dry room. It had not been resurrected fully, but I was sure it would survive. Though at times felt this could be the excuse to buy 7D, I am glad my camera survived when I reached Bangalore and dried it.

Here are few more images:

Red Pierrot butterfly

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Rhaco again

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You don’t have to be brave, you should just look

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Though I couldn’t photograph much, I got to understand what to expect on my next visit, probably next monsoon.

P.S.: Photographs here are captured on Canon EOS 1000D, Canon EOS 450D, Nikon D90, Canon 18-55mm IS, Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM, Nikkor 70-300mm VR, and Canon Speedlite 430EX II.

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Pug-Mark-Bandipur

Panthera tigris and Panthera pardus are the two big cats in the southern Indian forests. Almost every visitor wants to see a tiger, but there are many who want to see only a tiger. On most days, the safari will be a chase for the the elusive Leopard, and the majestic Tiger. More so for the latter than the former.

On June31st-July1st, surprisingly, there was only one guest, a young British girl. Her eagerness and excitement to see elephants and other animals was more than that to see a tiger. Learning that i had never seen a tiger in the wild, she wished me luck.

We were driving out of the park, almost at the end of the morning safari. We were close to the highway. It was about 8:30am. A forest department safari van stood right in front. The driver flashed the headlights. Kiran, JLR driver, stepped on the gas and at about 50mtrs we saw the tigress Gowri leading her 4 cubs. Kiran stopped the jeep instantly, and by the time i could clearly see, Gowri and one of her cubs had crossed. Other 3 cubs too were very swift. There was no time to get my camera out. I just enjoyed the sight of those wonderful cubs walking with their long tail held up. We tried to track her for nearly an hour after that, but no luck.

The expectation and disappointment was higher for the visitors who came after 1st of July, as the sightings board at the Pug Mark restaurant read ‘Tiger (Mother & 4 cubs) –  1st July –  8:30am – Minister Guthi road‘.

At times, I wished to get a chance to photograph a big cat. It would be disappointing to go back without even a record shot. Once, we tracked a fresh pug mark (first image on the post) and drove in that direction. Just then, a forest department jeep came from the other side. The smile on driver’s face gave away what we had missed. Two minutes!

Alert Fawn

Deer-fawn-alert

It was the time for the last safari. I had accompanied two Indian-American guys on previous day. We had tracked alarm calls for nearly an hour, and then left the spot only to know, later in the night, driver Kiran, in another jeep, had spotted a tiger at the same spot, soon after we had left. I didn’t want to rub my bad luck on them again. I accompanied a family with two 10 year olds.

Now, what are the chances of sighting a big cat when you are with a group making lot of noise as against with a group of disciplined wildlife photographers? I’d say equally likely :)

I suggested Ramesh we first scan the Mularpura area instead of the other route we usually take. We were looking for wild dogs, and so were Krupakar-Senani. Nearly an hour into the safari, no sign of any predator. The guests were asking the question almost every visitor asked, Where is the tiger, When was the tiger seen last?

Just then, alarm calls of spotted deer. Ramesh bought the jeep to a halt and we scanned the area. Alarm calls got stronger. Deer started moving. Deer ran from one side to another. I had not seen a herd of spotted deer run so fast. 20 minutes flew past. Kids were getting edgy. Soon, herd settled down and started grazing again. Alarm calls subsided. There goes my last chance!

Chitals running, soon after alarm calls

spotted-deer-running

Ramesh started the jeep, and Kiran’s jeep came from the other side, informed Kiran about the alarm calls and left. Our alertness had dropped a little. We had moved about 150 mtrs, and suddenly something big and yellow with black spots ran, in a flash, from one side of the track to the other. Ramesh yelled ‘Tiger!’ My mind said No.. spotted deer! Within a second, we utter in unison ‘Leopard!’ No one else in the jeep saw the leopard. It was huge.

We took a left turn and stopped the jeep, hoping to see him again. Scanned the area for 10-15 minutes. No sign and no calls. Ramesh takes a u-turn. A jeep comes from the other side, and whirs past. We head back to the place where deer were grazing, and thought of going to another area. I didn’t want to miss the leopard, I said ‘let’s go back now‘. A U-turn and a left turn, we see the leopard walking at a distance. Guests missed again.

Ramesh stopped the jeep. I got out to see if he is still on the jeep track. I walked some 10mts from the jeep and saw him walking on the track undeterred. Took a few shots, my first shot of leopard on foot:

leopard-walking-bandipur

Got into the jeep and drove towards the leopard, but he hid behind the bushes. I got on top of the bonnet of the jeep, and there he was staring straight at me.

Standing on the bonnet without making any noise, hand holding the camera in the drizzle, i fired 3 shots at 1/30s keeping my shaky hands as steady as possible.

I was waiting for him to move into more open area. He kept staring, and i kept waiting. Guests inside the jeep could barely see him, and their patience didn’t out last that of the leopard. A small noise and he ran behind bushes, not to be seen again.

The Leopard Look – Parthenium in the foreground, forest fire charred branches amidst lush green bushes in monsoon

Leopard-Bandipur

I got in the jeep and showed the image to the guests. They say ‘Wow… You have a very good camera!’

Then they say ‘Where is the tiger? Can we see the tiger?


P.S.: Click on the images, color redention in smaller version doesn’t seem right. Larger images look better.

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Elephant-calf-running

A mother and calf running for safety as a reckless driver sped past them on the highway. We were coming back from evening safari, four elephants were on the highway, two mothers and two calves. One of the elephants was drinking water from a pothole on the highway, and we were watching the beautiful sight. There were few other vehicles waiting for the elephants to cross. Just then, a speeding  jeep honking recklessly maneuvered past the elephants and other vehicles. Elephants ran for cover and i was standing on the jeep to take a shot. Our jeep driver moved the vehicle fearing the other jeep would hit us. This is the image i clicked as the elephants ran and our jeep moved.

This is how my experience has been in the last few months – unexpected and eventful.

One of the things in my mind as i drove to Bandipur was to photograph the hunk of Bandipur, Onti Kombu. The famous elephant was known for its notoriety to torment commuters on Mysore-Ooty highway. He preferred to charge rather than just mock. Soon after I reached, I inquired about his sightings. To my disappointment i learnt that he had been shot down by poachers a month ago. It was really disheartening.

In the evening safari, we saw a huge tusker, Mental Manja, romancing his mate. He is the new hunk in the Bandipur tourist range. He was seen frequently after that.

Tusker-elephant-Bandipur

In the image above, he is reaching out to bamboo leaves. The image was shot when we were waiting for a big cat near a water hole.

The time i spent at Bandipur has been one of the best times of my life. Here’s how it all started:

On a Friday afternoon, nearly a month ago, I casually visited Karthik at his office. I had carried my camera to give it to service at Canon service center. I did not expect i would walk out with an offer to volunteer as Naturalist at Bandipur JLR. Within a day, i packed my bags and drove to Bandipur to live a dream for the next two weeks.

In the first of a series of posts about my experience at Bandipur, i share the unexpected surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. Biggest of them being the opportunity i seized as i walked out of Karthik’s office.

Mental Manja, undeterred by monsoon, enjoying the lush green grass

mental-manja

P.S.: I lost a few images i had shot on first two days. I accidentally deleted them. Trying to recover using undelete software. Will post if i can recover them.

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I’m back in Bangalore, after spending two incredible weeks at Jungle Lodges and Resorts, Bandipur, where i worked as volunteer Naturalist. If you were following me on twitter, you would have seen my live updates from safaris.

I’ll write more about my experience in the weeks to come. Too many things to catch up now. More later, bye!

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I was awake by 4am, even before the alarm went off. I’ve got this strange sleeping habit (sleeping disorder?). I sleep at 2 am some days, wake up at 6:30am. I hit the bed by 12:30am, but wide awake till about 5am, and up again by 7:30am. Rarely, of late, i get to sleep till 11am. I’ve digressed enough, back to topic. Got out of the bed when i got a call from Shashank at 4:15am, and left the house by 4:45 am. Phew, that’s early, and it was dark!

By 5:15am four of us from BWS, Shashank, Deepak, Aranya and myself, were on our way from Bangalore to Galibore fishing camp.

The route:

Bangalore -> Kanakapura -> Doddaladalli -> Sangam -> Galibore.

The road till Kanakapura is good, but deteriorates from there. The route to Galibore fishing camp from Sangam is a muddy jeep track (Cars can be driven), and is an excellent place for Bird watching. Cauvery river flows along this road, and one can hear the birds chirping all along this 9-km stretch. We stopped at the beginning of this route by 7:15am, took out our gear and started shooting. It was hard as the light was little dull and most birds were under the canopy of trees. There were lots of babblers, few drongos, woodpeckers, and bee-eaters. I was able to spot a Jerdon’s Chloropsis. We started moving towards Galibore with frequent stops on the 9-km stretch from Sangam to Galibore. We spotted and photographed lots of birds.

Buffalos on morning walk

Buffalos on morning walk

We reached a check post, and we were stopped there. We were not allowed to go to the JLR‘s Galibore fishing camp, as one needs to have prior reservation. Initial plan of trek from Galibore fishing camp to Muthathi was shelved, and we planned to reach Muthathi and Bheemeshwari by road. There is scarce of restaurants around that place. Most of them are weekend get away resorts which don’t serve food unless you have prior appointment for a whole day activity. We had a brunch by 11:30am at Tender Coconut Restaurant at Sangam, relaxed for a while and left for Cunchi falls. Shashank had visited this place about a couple of years back in March and May. He told that the falls had dried out then. We hoped for water this time, and we weren’t disappointed. A little trek got us to the full view of the falls. The sun was scorching and unforgiving. Exhausted, we stopped for coconut water after shooting in the falls. We were waiting for Aranya, who we thought was lost. There was a rock agama on a tree nearby. Deepak and I started clicking, and got few beautiful shots. (The one you see on top of this post).

We were all tired by then, and Shashank suggested we leave for Bangalore. I was adamant that we go to Muthathi and may be Bheemeshwari. It was still 2:45pm!

The route:

Sangam/Cunchi falls -> Doddaladahalli -> Sathnur -> Muthathi -(6km)-> Bheemeshwari.

Cunchi falls - one of the trickles

Cunchi falls - one of the trickles

Shashank was driving the car, and we three were dozing in the car. I was woken up couple of times to check for the route, and i drowsily confirmed. I desperately wanted to catch some sleep. Shashank suddenly braked and the jolt kinda awakened me. I was hesitant to open my eyes. He shouted “Tusker!”. I sprang up, took the cam out and looked out. About 500mts away to the left there was a huge male Tusker at musht. I was really surprised on spotting a tusker around this place. It is not a very thick forest, although it has beautiful landscape. Clicked a few snaps and we started moving towards Muthathi. (will upload an image of the tusker soon).

I wasn’t expecting to spot anything other than few good birds like Indian Roller, which were in plenty, and Kingfihser which we couldn’t spot or photograph :-(. Soon, surprise surprise! There was a Jackal about 100-150mts on the road ahead of us. We just got a glimpse and he disappeared into the bushes. Slowly drove the car to the spot where we spotted the jackal, and from the car we looked around but in vain. I got myself half out, of the window, with my camera in hand hoping to spot it again. No luck i thought. Just then, i intuitively turned back and the jackal was looking at us from behind. I clicked a few shots in bursts as the again ran inside the forest. I got out of the car and started walking towards that place, but all the other guys persuaded me not to venture out. :( This was my first spotting of a Jackal in the wild.

We passed Muthathi, and drove till Bheemeshwari clicking few more birds in the evening light. Got back to Muthathi from there, and stopped there for a while on the banks of Cauvery. Culminating the trip there, we packed our gears and headed back to madness of Bangalore from secluded, pristine, and serene banks of Cauvery.

Birds spotted:


– Lesser Golden-Backed Woodpecker
– Jerdon’s Chloropsis
– Great Grey Shrike
– Indian Roller
– Green Bee eaters (plenty)
– Large Pied Wagtail (plenty)
– Common Myna
– White Breasted Kingfisher
– White Bellied Drongo
– Black Drongo
– Jungle Babbler
– Common Babbler
– Red-vented Bulbul
– Red-whiskered Bulbul
– Black-crested Bulbul (?)
– Black Kite
– Brahminy Kite
– Greater Coucal
– Rose-Ringed Parakeet
– Spotted Dove
– Laughing Dove
– Cattle Egret
– Little Cormorant
– Indian Pond Heron
– Grey-Breasted Prinia
– Purple-Rumped Sunbird
– Pied Bushchat
– Oriental Magpie Robin
– Indian Robin (male)
– Swifts
– Jungle Myna(?)
– House sparrows
– Ravens and Crows

I was not able to identify few small birds coz of my limited knowledge.

Here are few images of the birds from the trip.

My shot of the day – Grey Breasted Prinia:

Cattle Egret:

Indian Roller:

Last pic of the trip

Last pic of the trip

P.S.: Off again for another outing. :)

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