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Archive for the ‘bird photography’ Category

Alaska Seward Highway landscapeKite Surfing near Turnagain Arm on Seward Highway

It is very difficult to keep your eyes on the road. You can see why from the above photograph, a few guys Kite surfing right next to the Seward highway. Running through the scenic Kenai mountains, Turnagain Arm and Kenai Peninsula, Seward highway from Anchorage to Seward has to be one of best places to drive in the world. I pulled over many a times to appreciate the beauty of the picturesque landscape as I drove on a bright and clear sunny day.

After flying back from Katmai photographing Bears, I Couchsurfed at Brian’s place in Anchorage for a night. I had rented a car from the Anchorage airport. The following day, I drove towards Seward. The weather was incredible, with clear skies and bright sun. I was lucky since most of the summer days are drought with rain. July is a very busy time of the year in Alaska. Salmons, Halibuts, Trouts and other fish attract anglers from all parts of the world. This means getting a place to stay would be quite a challenge if you don’t book in advance. I decided to stay at Moose Pass for a night, a short distance from Seward.

Whale watching and glacier cruise was on my plan. After reading up on reviews for cruise on into the Kenai Fjords National Park, I was more than sold to take the cruise. However, I had not booked until I get to know the weather forecast for that week/day, as suggested by some. Rain and rough sea could not only make wildlife sightings rare, it would also make my cruise very uncomfortable. This proved a costly miss as I couldn’t get on the smaller ‘photographers boat’. I instead choose the Northwestern Fjords cruise, covering almost the same route lasting from 8:30am to 5pm. I missed sighting an incredibly rare mammal, Wolverine, that Dario and Max saw on the other boat. However, my consolation was to watch a humpback whale mom and calf for a good 30min.

Cruise in Alaska Seward Resurruction Bay

Alaska-Seward-Resurruction-Bay-Humpback-Whale-Calf-8116Cruise on a clear sunny day was great and the Humpback whale breathing with her playful calf at Resurrection Bay made it even better

The cruise is as much for wildlife as it is for the glaciers at the Kenai Fjords National Park. There are many glaciers on slightly different routes near Seward. Exit Glacier is one that can be reached on road by car. Although the glacier itself was not as impressive as some of the others I saw while on cruise, there is access to Harding icefield. It was an all day hike to the icefield and I had not planned for it. May be next time! Another place I was considering for wildlife and glacier cruise was Prince William Sound. Seward, however, is the more popular one with at least two cruise companies operating from Seward harbor on a variety of cruises, lasting a few hours to all day cruises. I chooses the all day cruise to the Northwestern Glacier, named after the university. It was an incredible experience. The chill in the wind and the sound of the glacier caving as you watch it from up close is an experience that is to be felt. No words, images or videos can make justice to that experience.

Northwestern Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Glacier-calving-Alaska-7975NortheWestern Glacier. Glacial calving is a natural phenomenon. However, the rate at which glaciers are retrieving is effect of climate change.

The captain of the boat did a 360 of the view from a certain location. The beauty of the place is to be experienced. Here is an unedited video with the 360 degree view of the glaciers in the Kenai Fjords national park:

The challenge of photographing wildlife on a boat is something totally different. First, it is hard to anticipate where and when do the creatures breach or come to the surface. Second, the rocking boat makes it even harder to compose and focus. Fortunately, the sea was calm. It still was quite a challenge. Sea Otters, Harbor seals, Loons, Sea Cormorants, a variety of Terns, Tufted and horned Puffins, Dall Propoises, and Humpback Whales were all a treat to watch. Towards the end of the cruise, we chanced upon a pod of Orcas. Orcas are the Elephants of the oceans, with a matriarchal society with a strong social and communication structure. The dubious reputation of ‘killer whales’ where they kill humans is the fictional creation of hollywood. ‘Blackfish‘ is an excellent documentary on how these beautiful creatures are tortured and confined into small pools for entertainment at SeaWorld and similar places. Please do watch Blackfish on Netflix.

Orca-Killer-Whale-Pod-Alaska-Seward-Resurruction-Bay-8047Orca or more popularly known as Killer Whale Pod in Resurruction Bay, Seward, Alaska

After the cruise, I started towards my stay for the next day – Ninilchik. The drive didn’t yield much exciting except  a pullover for speeding. Fortunately, I was let off with a warning – respect for Alaskan troopers. Ninilchik is a small Russian village. Yes, Russian.  It is a fishing village on the banks of Cook inlet. The place I had booked to stay in Ninilchik village was one of the most beautiful places you can have your vacation homes. Perched atop a small ridge cliff, the house overlooks the Cook inlet bay and the two volcanoes, Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt, on the other side. Mt. Redbout erupted as recently as 2009! Watching the sunset from there was one of the most spectacular views. Brain had told me visiting the beach at Ninilchik for the spectacular views of sunset behind the volcanoes and I didn’t know if will have time. To view it from the backyard of my stay was truly special.

Cook inlet is another great location for Halibut fishing. The beach at Ninilchik is the starting point. I saw numerous fishing boats early in the morning set out. I, on the other hand, was there for a different reason. Bald Eagles. Though I had good views of the eagles fishing at Katmai, I had not got a closer portrait photograph that I wished for. This was the place. The beach also serves as a dumping yard for halibut remains after cleaning the fish. This attracts the eagles, terns and many other birds. I saw at least 50-60 Bald Eagles on the mile long beach shore in the morning. The cliffs on the edge of the beach provides a good roosting spot for the eagles – higher and out of reach from the beach and inaccessible from the road on the other side. I spent the entire morning without much success as they would fly away despite my cautious approach. The open beach meant no cover for me to sneak up close. Until, I found a few rocks on the shore.

Juvenile-Bald-Eagle-Alaska-8347A perspective to show how I photographed the bird – Using rock as cover, crawl as close as possible

Bald Eagle Juvenile at AlaskaThe result – A juvenile Bald Eagle

Bald-Eagle-PortraitPortrait of the Bald Eagle that eluded me at Katmai was challenging but a success at Ninilchik

On my last evening in Alaska, I went looking for another popular mammal and bird to Kenai – Caribou and Sandhill crane. I was driving around in the areas I had researched before without much luck. I pulled over to a viewing area. Time was running out. I was 3 hours away from Anchorage airport. Then, I saw a Crane. I was excited. Though I couldn’t get close for lack of time and restrictions placed for the birds’ comfort. Soon, I saw a herd of Caribou far across the horizon. It was such a awesome feeling as I were to wrap up my trip and head to Anchorage for my flight back to LA. I photographed as late as I could. However, Caribou still remains on my list for a better photograph. Here are few more images.

Mount-Redoubt-Iliamna-Cook-Inlet-view-Ninilchik-beachView of the volcano across Cook Inlet from Ninilchik beach as a boat gets underway for Halibut fishing

Chamerion angustifolium or Fireweed, AlaskaChamerion angustifolium or Fireweed is one of the most common wildflower in Alaska

Arctic Tern FlightArctic Tern nesting at Potter Marsh on Seward Highway. Artic Tern migrates longest in the world, an astonishing 44,000 miles from pole to pole

Halibut Fishing, Seward Harbor, AlaskaCleaning Halibuts at Seward Harbor. July is a very popular time for fishing in Alaska.

Swan-Tundra-Trumpter-Alaska-HomerA Swan at Homer. Views of mountains never go away in Alaska.

Mallard-Female-Wing-flapA pretty Mallard female – lands right in front of me as I was photographing the Swan above.

Greater Yellowlegs Greater Yellowlegs – very shy birds and proved quite a challenge to photograph

Harbor Seals, AlaskaHarbor Seals resting on glacial ice to conserve energy – Don’t they get cold?

That’s all folks! Please drop me a note if you wish to visit any of the places and get some tips on photographing the species in the Alaskan peninsula. Although not an expert of the location, I have spent considerable hours researching on times to visit, roads to take and locations to wait at to photograph the many of the species in the region.

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Canopy at Ooty – much has been destroyed, little left

One of the most popular hill stations in India, Ooty, was the destination for photographing some endemic species of birds of western ghats. Though I couldn’t manage to capture a good image of my target species, I was able to watch a variety of species on a two day trip.

After answering calls and messages wishing on my birthday, I left home to pick Selva, Sudhir and Arun. We left Bangalore by 11am struggling past horrendous traffic on Mysore road. The initial plan was to squeeze an evening safari at Bandipur in search of Gowri and her cubs. But on seeing the mammoth crowd at Bandipur resorts, we gave up on safari. The crowd on a Saturday evening at a national park is no less than that at any popular mall in Bangalore.  It really made me wonder how have those magnificent ‘animals’ survived in India all these years given the number of people we have!

We  drove slowing keeping an eye for any bird, mammal or reptile. We saw Malabar giant squirrel, and lot of Peafowls. I stopped the car on hearing an unusual call. On looking out, we saw a of White Bellied Woodpecker. Spend a considerable time photographing this bird from car, without wanting to disturb the bird which seemed like making a nest. Many passersby stopped to inquire about what we were go-hung about.

White-bellied Woodpecker at Bandipur – Madumalai

We also caught up with this beautiful peacock on the edge of the road. Thankfully it was undisturbed by too many tourists thronging on the highway, and we captured few frames.

Indian Peafowl

Soon, stopped over at Masinagudi for checking a spot known to sight leopards, but not much luck. It was getting dark, and we left towards Ooty on the arduous Kalhatty ghats with 36-hairpin bends. Reached Ooty by 8pm, and started looking for accommodation around Charring Cross.  After looking a couple, checked into Youth Hostel. It was good to meet Neelima and a group of cyclists who had pedalled up the hills along the 36haripin bends.  I really admire their mammoth effort!

Next day morning, first stop at Gorishola yielded many birds – Grey Junglefowl, Eurassian Blackbird, Tickell’s leaf Warbler, and Oriental White eye. Though we were able to see many birds at Gorishola, it was difficult to capture a decent frame as you’d expect anywhere in western ghats. We left to Doddabetta, another location that was known for easy photo opportunities of Blackbirds and Nilgiri Laughingthrushes.

Eurassian Blackbird

Instead of sighting the sure-shot NLTs and Blackbirds at Doddabetta, we hit a jackpot. A huge flock of Nilgiri Wood Pigeons – a western ghats endemic that had eluded me in many visits to Nandi Hills. The size of this Pigeon is monstrous, and I was fortunate to capture one decent image before it flew away.

Nilgiri Wood Pigeon

We roamed up and down, and around the Doddabetta tourist spot looking for birds of feathered kind. Mahesh and gang, who had arrived little earlier had got a prized catch of Black and Orange Flycatcher. But we weren’t lucky. As the crowd picked up, we left the spot.

After a quick breakfast at Charring cross, we tried to reach the Wood house area from the Botanical Garden side. The road was very narrow and almost non-existent. It was very hard to maneuver a big car around hairpin bends. After a few bends and turns, reached a spot on a narrow road where an auto had broken down and there wasn’t enough space to squeeze the car through. I had to get down the road in reverse till a found a spot to take a turn! It was quite a driving experience.

After contemplating where to go, we hit the Crainhill forest reserve. It’s an incredibly beautiful place. I just loved the tall tress and the location. We were able to spot the Black and Orange Flycatcher there, but just a glimpse. After spending sometime there, we drove towards Muthorai and Potato research station – sighted an Oriental Honey Buzzard and few common birds.

Later in the evening, we took the Doddabetta route to reach Wood house area. This place is secluded and you’ll not find anyone. It’s almost untouched. Though the activity wasn’t as much as we wished, but it seemed very promising. We were able to sight many Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, few blackbirds, Minivets and NLTs.

Returning from Wood house, I stopped near Sinclari’s to check out a bird that seemed a Craig Martin. But found a few house sparrows coming to roost on top of a house. I sneaked close and got one image I was happy of after spending one and half day at Ooty.

House Sparrow –  male in breeding plumage

House sparrow – A bird that once used to nest in my house, and now I had to drive over 300km to get one good photograph of. Nevertheless, I was happy to see them go unperturbed about their activities there.

Next day morning, we wanted to hit Doddabetta very early as Shreeram told there is no way we can miss getting good images of Nilgiri Laughing thrushes there. Ooty at 5:30am is very cold, even in summer. We reached Doddabetta with few minutes to 6am, and learnt from a couple of cops that the gates won’t open before 8am. Damn it!

I raced to reach Crainhills by 6:20am. There wasn’t much light and the bird activity was just starting to pick up. Grey-headed canary flycathers, Blackbirds, NLTs, White eyes, and Warblers – nothing that we hadn’t seen earlier. Then, a female Nilgiri Flycatcher made an appearance and sat at a distance for quite some time.

Got back to Doddabetta at 7:50am. A couple of cars were waiting and the gates weren’t open yet. Soon, guards arrived and let us in. I zipped through the curves so that we reach first – before Pigeons get disturbed. We sighted a Black-naped Hare on the way. We did see a few Nilgiri Wood Pigeons. Then, went in search of flycatchers, without much luck. There was one NLT that hopped on to the path and was foraging for leftovers.

Nilgiri Laughing thrush

There were plenty of Grey Tits, and many a times were so close that it was within minimum focus distance of 1.8meters! Slightly away from the crowd, sighted a bird that was frequenting a spot. I decided to hide near a fence and wait for the bird. It was close to 9am and we had to leave to Kabini. But patience of waiting there for half an hour yielded good dividends. I was able to capture this pretty bird with a prey (of some larve?).

Grey tit with a prey

Just as I packed up after this shot, got a call from Shreeram. Hurriedly had breakfast and left towards Charring Cross, from there to the bus stand to pick Shreeram and towards the land of Leopards and Elephants, Kabini.

Getting down the Ooty hills from Kalhatty Ghats got a close view of Black Eagle, and this Chestnut headed bee eater.

Chestnut headed Bee Eater

Despite the weekend-crowd, big hue and cry about Ooty getting very commercialize, I totally loved the place once again. The good thing about being commercialized is I get to have a Dominoes Pizza in Western ghats. :)

Yet, there are so many off beaten places yet to be explored. Though 2 days seemed enough initially, Ooty has lot more places to explore and worth spending time. It’s awesome to trek for hours at Crain hill forest reserve or explore the valley around Wood house. To quote Prem about Wood house area ‘ Come back feeling like a kid who has just been given an icecream.’ Maybe I’ll get to go sometime soon.

Thanks to Prem for his incredible compilation of birding spots at Ooty. Without his efforts, access to some lesser known spots wouldn’t be possible.

That’s all folks! Watch out for big mammals from the backwaters of Kabini.

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Taj Mahal at sun rise

Continuing on the unexpected trip – Read Bharatpur story here.

Sunday morning left early from Bharatpur, and reached The Taj Mahal at Agra in an hour. Google maps worked incredibly well to help us reach the rear end of the Taj Mahal, from the side of Yamuna river. I had checked with Peevee regarding visiting from the river side and had great expectations to shoot the reflection from the river. As Benjie says ‘Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.’

I was disappointed as we were not allowed to get closer to the river bank. Despite the news of heavy rains, the water level wasn’t high. A barricade is set up and a bunch of policemen patrolling the area do not to let anyone closer to the monument from the other side, at least not the tourists. Also, the sun rise was somewhat in front of us. A stupid mistake that I made thinking east was to Taj Mahal’s left but missed the sun’s movement in solar cycle. Anyway it was fantastic to witness the Taj again – from a slightly different perspective than I had viewed more than a decade earlier. After photographing from the rear end garden for  an hour, we headed to the main entrance by 10:15am to photograph the Taj Mahal in the typical full frontal way.

As i jostled the Sunday morning crowed  and stood at the entrance with full view of Taj, a foreign lady beside me cried ‘Wow!’. That sums it up. The symbol of love, Taj Mahal, is truly wow.

Symbol of love in color looks as beautiful as..


Symbol of love looks in monochrome

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National Chambal Sanctuary – Chambal river safari at Dholpur

After a late breakfast by 11:45am at a ridiculously expensive restaurant in Agra, we left to Dholpur. The road from Agra to Dholpur is in excellent shape and doesn’t take more than an hour to reach Dholpur. The Chambal Safari boating run by MP tourism is close to the bridge, after Dholpur, on Agra-Gwalior highway. I had talked to a boatman at the place the previous night. Some IAS officer were to arrive on the same day we planned to go, and he warned me that I might not get any boat safari. Since I had only that day to spare, I took the chance and thought of walking along the banks to photograph Skimmers if we can’t take a boat. Talking to Rajeev Tomar was  helpful in getting the confidence to take this chance. Who knows when I can visit Chambal again!

At the boating point, we were told boats are booked for ‘saab’. One of the staff gave me the phone number of the officer who had come with an entourage that would take all the 5 boats. Thankfully, on my request, that person agreed to let us take a boat for couple of hours. What an incredible 2 hours of boating it was!

The two hours of boating from 1:30pm to 3:30pm  on the Chambal river gave me the sight of a variety of Birds, mammals and reptiles –  Skimmers, River Lapwings, Black Bellied Tern, Bar headed Geese, Ruddy Shelduck, Comb Duck, Black Winged Stilts, Gharials, Muggers, Turtles, Gangetic Dolphins and more! Though I could only manage few glimpses of endangered Gangetic Dolphin, I could get photographs of many of the avian and reptilian species in the fantastic riverine habitat.

Starting with few variety of birds:

Black Winged Stilt

 

Ruddy Shelduck – pair


Comb Duck ( female) in the turquoise blue waters


River Lapwing  roosting on single leg


Gery Heron – ready to take off

 

Black-Bellied Tern – roosting

 

Next, the reptilians. Chambal river is home to the reptiles mugger crocodiles, a variety of turtles and the critically endangered Indian Gharials. Chambal river is without doubt the best place to sight the Gharials. Their population was in such bad state that they were in the verge of extinction. Thanks to the efforts of conservation organizations, they are making a strong come back. One can easily sight a gharial swim and bask around the Chambal river now. By the time we returned from the boating, Rajeev had arrived at the place. He then took us to Gharial Rearing Centre. Illegal fishing, inadvertent destruction of breeding sites and habitat destruction are major threat for their survival. From the banks of Chambal the rearing center collects eggs, and hatches them in incubation. The young gharials are fed with fish and taken care till they are about 6 months old, when they are let into the wild. Most of the Gharials you see on the Chambal river are from this rearing center. I was lucky to hold a young Gharial. Though they look naive, their razor sharp teeth can make enough damage. We also saw young Indian tented turtles at the rearing center, and a huge adult basking in the sun on the river while on boating safari.

A young Mugger Crocodile basking in the sun

Adult Gharial basking with its eyelid closed – notice the tag on its tail


Indian tent turtle (Pangshura circumdata) is one of the 8 species of turtles found in Chambal river

 

And then there were Skimmers – the target species for my trip to Chambal. Initially we saw a pair skim momentarily and fly away. Soon, we saw over 30 skimmers on the banks. They were in no mood for fishing and were roosting on the banks. They get their name because of the style of their fishing – the bird flies just above the water skimming the water surface to grab any fish if it comes in the path. Check this image of Mario Goren to see how they fish.

Indian Skimmers in flight

 

Indian Skimmers roosting with head tucked under wings

 

Indian Skimmer flock – it was difficult to get a portrait of single bird with so many around, until..


until this one obliged for a portrait

 

Later in the evening, after a round of chai at Rajeev’s house, we were back at Taj to do some night photography. Lest I knew that there were street lights put at the foot of Taj, even on its rear side, I’d not have made the futile effort of going there. Later that night, returned to Bharatpur – and next day, from there to Delhi and then to Bangalore.

I would like to thank and dedicate these photographs to Rajeev Tomar for giving me confidence on making the short trip despite the boatman suggested me otherwise. It was the most enjoyable and productive two hours of photography. Also, thanks to Rajeev for taking me to the Gharial rearing center, which I had no idea about until I went there.

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Saras Cranes – Birds that defines Bharatpur

A totally unexpected trip to Delhi turned out to an exciting weekend of travel and photography. Though this was a very short trip, I have lots of things to write. So, I’ve decided to split the trip into Bharatpur in part one and Taj and Chambal in the next. After a delayed IndiGo flight, I reached Arun‘s house in Delhi past midnight. Next morning, after finishing my work, we were on way to Bharatpur by 11am. Stopped over at a road side dabha for parantas – I loved ’em, despite a dead fly in Arun’s plate. :)

Route: Delhi -> Faridabad -> Mathura -> Agra -> Bharatpur

Distance: 180km; Driving time: About 4 hours.

We reached Bharatpur by around 3pm and drove straight to Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Thanks to Arun Bhat, I had contact of a good guide. Had contacted Captain Singh for guiding and he was on the park entrance waiting for us with a spotting scope. He showed a Collared Scops Owl right on a tree right at the entrance.  Hired a rickshaw and briefed Kaptaan what we expected to see. Were looking out for Dusky eagle owl, but first up, sighted a Grey Nightjar. Soon located a  resident Dusky Eagle Owl. She was tucked away in her roosting spot. What a beginning! Two fantastic lifers. As we moved on our way, sighted a Golden Jackal and many Herons, Painted Storks, and Cormorants. Photographed a Painted Stork fishing, had a glimpse of Bluethroat and watched the popular small blue kingfisher dive a few times. Long tailed nightjar was on my list and were lucky to sight it. The habitat at Keoladeo Park is breathtaking. One can only wonder how fantastic it would have been in it’s pinnacle!

Grey Nightjar

Later, Moved towards the temple of Keoladevi. We were watching hundreds of ducks – Comb duck, Ruddy Shelducks, Pintails and few others. It was not a good opportunity for photography as they were far away for any decent shot. A lone pair of Saras Cranes were on the far end of the once glorious wetland. Just then our rickshawala called out that he sighted a Black Bittern. We ran towards the spot. From far, had a good look. Just as we inched closer, the bird flew and hid in the reeds.

Dusky Eagle Owl

By then dusk was setting in, and we started back. Photographed a pair of roosting Ruddy Shelduck at the evening on the way back, while chalked out the plan for next two travel-crazy days as we got out of the park. Checked into RTDC Saras – a reasonable priced cozy place to stay  at about 500 meters from the entrance to Keoladeo Park.

The next day was spent in Agra photographing Taj, and few birds at Dholpur side of Chambal river. Returned to Bharatpur for overnight stay.

On Monday morning, the target species were Saras Crane, Black Necked Stork, Siberian Rubythroat, Oriental Scops Owl, Painted Snipe and Little Green heron. First up, Captain to us to a place outside the park where Saras Cranes are expected to be seen. After nearly an hour of driving back and forth, we had not sighted Saras Cranes, but a few Grey francolins, and 3 Egyptian Vultures. I was getting edgy and wanted to get back to the Park. Maybe we’ll get them there. As we were driving back, I was deleting few images to make space in memory card,  Kaptaan said ‘Saras Crane‘.

Excitedly, we got out and slowly approached a pair that were feeding in the fields. We made images as we approached, slowly and carefully. The lighting was just perfect – brimming early morning  sun behind our back and minimal mist. I was content with images I could capture. I got closer and closer to get a portrait. Just then, the pair started their courtship dance and song. Saras cranes mate for life and they share an incredible bond with each other.

It was the most incredible romance to see. I fired as many shots as I can. The courtship ritual ended in both the birds getting close to each other, singing and looking up into the sky. Just as they ended the sequence, I fired a shot and my camera displayed ‘memory card full’. My mind read, memories forever.

Saras Crane courtship dance – Bharatpur

Back at the Keoladeo park, we headed straight into the first check post in the car – I was running short of time as I had a flight to catch from Delhi that evening. Started looking for Siberian Rubythroat. After 15-20min of patient motionless-noiseless waiting, male of the tiny bird made a few brief appearances in the undergrowth. I could clearly see the ‘ruby’throat.  Spent another 10min waiting and captured an image I was happy with. Then, hired a rickshaw there and spent the next two hours looking for Little Green Heron and Oriental Scoops owl, without much luck. But we did see a Black necked stork pair. Also sighted a Greater Spotted Eagle. While getting back, tired to get male of Dusky Eagle Owl but without success. By about 11:30am, left the park to check for Greater Painted Snipe in the nalas of Bharatpur. We did see the bird, but wasn’t a good photo opportunity. It was getting late and had to leave the place. We left for Delhi by 1pm, and headed straight to airport. Reached Bangalore home at 11:55pm, ending a power-packed, short, unexpected but memorable trip.

I spent only 2 hours in the evening on first day and 4 hours in the morning on the last day. Yet, I could see a variety of species. Despite being in a great hurry, I could manage few decent photographs. If you spend 2 days, you can make a plethora good of images.

Here are few more images:


Siberian Rubythroat – A sulker in the undergrowth


Jungle Babbler




Indian Pond Heron – Has the patience of a saga to wait and catch its prey

Pink algae at once glorious wetland habitat of Keoladeo Ghana National Park – Bharatpur

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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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The sole reason for visiting Kaggalipura lake, located about 140km from Bangalore, was to see the winter migrants – Bar-headed Geese. Madhu and I left Bangalore by 5:30am and with a stopover for breakfast reached the lake by 9:00am. It was unexpected but pleasant to meet Anush, Garima and Rajneesh there. A family of Pied Kingfishers were diving for their breakfast. Nearby, saw a small flock of Chestnut tailed Starlings. But the harsh sun didn’t give good images.

The winter sun was beating on us, and there was no sign on Bar-headed Geese. Shovlers, Garganeys, Pintails and Spot-billed ducks were there in hundreds, if not thousands. We heard from locals that the big white duck (presumably Bar-headed geese) would visit the lake in the afternoon. Since it was late February, we were not sure if the geese were still around or had left for their summer breeding ground, Ladakh, in their reverse migration.

There were few Whiskered Terns, a Purple and a Grey heron, a Spot-billed Pelican. So were few Sunbirds. This Purple sunbird was co-operative to enough to make an image.

Purple sunbird, male of the species

By 10:30, we felt the sun will burn us down. Anush and gang left for Mysore. Madhu and I decided to head for Somnathpur temple as it was very close. Spent some time checking out the ruined Hoysala temple, mostly thronged by the foreigners.

By 12:45pm, we went to check the lake again. Voila! There were 6 Bar-headed geese. The noon sun was not ideal for photography. I decided to head to my cousin’s house at Bannur, at about 20km, for lunch and come back later in the evening for photographing these birds.

Returned to the lake by about 4:30pm. The evening sun was better and in the right direction to capture some decent images. After many attempt at flight shots, got one decent image of this Spot-billed duck.

Spot-billed Duck in flight

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Bar-headed Goose

Within 12 minutes of us arriving, the geese left the lake. Just in time for few images, but missed their flight shot with the clear blue sky and small hillock in the background. Imagine the super imposition of the first image with the image below.

Maybe next year! :)

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Spot-Bellied Eagle Owl, one of the largest owls found in India, was the first sighting on first day’s evening safari.

Deepa floated the idea of NTP meet sometime in November. We soon decided on Kgudi, after considering Doddamakali, Bandipur and Kabini. January was the ideal time to visit the place. Seven out of twenty eight of us decided to spend two days at Kgudi, rahter than just one day meet, and left a day early.

Route: Bangalore -> Maddur -> Malavalli -> Yelandur -> Kgudi

Distance: 230km

On the way to Kgudi, around Malavalli lake, we sighted a number of birds – Small Green and Blue-tailed bee eaters, Rosy starlings, Grey and Yellow Wagtails, Ibises and more. Also, we saw a juvenile Crested Serpent Eagle.

The camp at Kgudi itself is haven for birds. Within an hour we sighted Verditer, Asian Brown and Paradise flycatchers, Jungle Babblers, Scarlett and small Minivets, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Lesser Yellownape woodpecker, and lot of other birds.

A Jungle Babbler right outside golghar

But the evening safari on the first day was washed out, thanks to untimely showers. The highlight was the spot-bellied eagle owl that had eluded us at Thattekad. Other than this, there was hardly any activity during the whole safari, but for few spotted deers and a lone Crested Hawk Eagle.

Spotted Deer

Late evening, manager of Kgudi JLR Ashish spent some time with us and Shreeram showcased some of his photographs. Ashish himself is a good photographer, and maintains his blog here.

Next day morning was bright and sunny, but the sightings weren’t better. There were a bunch of Crested Tree Swifts preening on a tree.

Crested Serpent Eagle was seen on all safaris – in sunshine, and in rain. Deepa has compiled a beautiful report here.

As we continued to drive around, I wondered how do so many people find leopards on such beautiful perches! Need more luck. Returned to the camp and saw Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Roufous woodpecker, and few others.

Soon, Sripad, Chirdeep and other NTP members arrived. Narayan took us for a small trek that lasted about an hour and half. Jungle Owlet, Pygmy woodpeckers, scat of wild dogs, a skull of Gaur, and alarm calls of Sambhar, but no big cat was seen. Returned to the camp tired and thirsty. By this time everyone had arrived.

During lunch caught up with all the NTP members who had arrived.

Evening safari was another drive in the park, until Narayan sighted sloth bears, mother and 2 cubs. There were around for few minutes, but quite far and the cubs were hidden in the uneven terrain. I could manage only a record shot.

Later in the evening, while driving back from safari, saw a beautiful Blue-rock Thrush perched close to the jeep. At shutter speed of 1/13s, jostling in the jeep for space with other photographers,  I could manage a decent shot. Notice the blur of its tail caused by the slow shutter speed.


Blue Rock Thrush – enjoying attention

Karthik couldn’t join us for the meet because of his Andaman trip. It was nice of him to send us a cake. Sanjay Mohan, ED of JLR joined us since MD couldn’t join. Later in the evening, Ashish showcased his guitar skills, while Deepa et al showcased their singing talent.

At night, some of us geared up for a ‘star trails’ night photography. Vineet was fantastic in identifying some of the star constellations. Spent quite some time trying to get taare photograph par, but was not very impressed with the results. Hope to get better next time. Thanks to Adarsh, Sanjay and Vineet for the star trail experiment.

Next day morning safari was spent without much luck, until all the jeeps converged near a water hole for a ‘tiger sighting’. Pintails, and couple of other ducks were at the water hole. Then, Sambhar alarm call. Expectation was rised, but I knew my luck – I had seen and missed many such moments. I clicked images of anxious people waiting for some big cat.

From Manish on extreme right to Anirudh on extreme left, all waiting anxiously for Tiger!

After about 20-25min of wait, all jeeps started leaving one after the other. Two of the jeeps left. Our jeep started to leave. Just then, one group of people excitedly got off their jeep and started clicking photos. I thought a tiger appeared!

We jumped off the jeep and check out this little fellow:

Draco – The flying lizard, known for brilliant camouflage

Got back to the camp for a sumptuous breakfast. And then we all posed for customary group photograph.

As i drove back home, just outside the camp saw a huge Naja naja – good end to a fantastic trip.

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