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This is the pattern I had in mind when I thought of Bandhavgarh. Unmistakably, the burning bright tiger. Bandhavgarh was not on top of my list of places to photograph tigers. Bandipur, and more realistically, Ranthambore, were the places on my mind.

But when Butch was offering safaris at Bandhavgarh, the temptation was too hard to resist. Butch is one of very very few people who know tigers at Bandhavgarh like their own pets. I had seen his photographs and was well aware of his knowledge. My joy was boundless when I got the opportunity to photograph tigers with him and I jumped at it.

More than a wildlife photographer and naturalist, Butch Lama as a person was great to be with. My images and this post is dedicated to him.

Enduring a 36 hour train journey, we (Arun and I) reached Katni at 10:30pm along with another Arun (who joined from Chennai). An Innova awaited us at the Katni station. On the way to our accommodation at Bandhavgarh National park, we saw Chitals and jungle cats. The excitement to see the big cat was mounting. Settled into modest accommodation at Gitanjali. In the morning met Tabish and Himanshu. We were all raring to go for the morning safari. My first of eight safaris.

Day 1

First safari

Ten minutes into the first safari, we saw a huge male tiger walking into the bushes, away from the crowd of jeeps. He looked ominous and walked majestically. I just enjoyed the sight. I did not bother to pick my camera up. I knew i’ll get many tigers to photograph here. Bandhavgarh is known for tigers. But I was proved wrong in the next 4 safaris.

Before the first safari, waiting for the park entry gates at Tala zone to open, we saw an image of a tiger dragging its kill of a deer across the road on a British lady’s P&S camera. This and all those fantastic images of tigers from Bandhavgarh had set my expectation very high and I was bound to get disappointed for the majority of the safaris.

Second safari

Information from those who visited Magdhi zone in the morning safari gave location of Mahaman tigeress and her cubs. All the excited tourists and wildlife photographers descended at Magdhi, the lesser preferred zone of the park. The plan for the evening was to wait at a spot that the tigers need to take to reach a waterhole. There were about 10 jeeps.

Two hours passed. Not a sight. Butch moved the jeep around, and Mohan Singh made a brilliant spotting of the tiger cubs. It took good 10 minutes to convince us there was a tiger. The cubs  lay hidden amidst the bushes, waiting for their mother to return. She had perhaps gone to make a kill, a guess from the alarm calls heard from far end of the park. No photographs again. And we were the only ones to even see a tiger, including the ones that visited Tala zone.

Later at night, Butch put up a slide show of some of his collection of tiger photographs, and other mammals, and birds such as Heynah, Caracal, Hornbill, Barasingha, Dholes and Leopard that found in Bandhavgarh. We weren’t lucky to see any.

Day 2

Third safari

Eagles, and Adjutants. On way back from centre point, saw a jackal that was picking scent and moving weirdly. Nearly 3 safaris without much action, we were excited to photograph the jackal in close range. As the jackal moved further, Bokha, the huge male tiger, guarding his kill got up momentarily. This was enough to chase the jackal away. Just a bare glimpse of the tiger. Nothing to be seen once he sat down in the meadow.

Fourth Safari

Drive around the park. Waited for some time at the place we had seen Bokha in the morning. Then, expectant wait in old A route for Chorbera tigress and her cubs. She had killed a cow that just outside the hotel we stayed on the same night we arrived. No luck. I was cursing my terrible luck. What are the chances that you’ll get back from Bandhavgarh without tiger photographs!

Fortunately I hadn’t planned for 4 or 5 safaris, I had 7 chances! Although only 3 more now.

Day 3

Fifth safari

News was abuzz that Kallu, Chorbera and her cubs had a feast on the cow and had finished the quarry. Good chance to sight them in this safari was the buzz. But no luck, almost until the end of the safari when we caught the magnificent Chorbera tigress. She was already hounded by 7-8 jeeps. Within a couple of minutes of us arriving, she left the spot limping away into thickets of bushes.

But I got that one shot I was content with! I would go back home without any regrets.

Chorbera or Sidhbabha tigress, with an injured leg she is raising 3 cubs

Visit to the fort / Sixth safari

Incredible drive. The view of Seshshaiya, the fort, and the temple were all fantastic. I probably enjoyed it more since I had got at least one photograph of the tiger. Sighting of long billed vultures glide past us at eye-level was fantastic. A peregrine falcon also made appearance. The harsh afternoon sun didn’t get good images. And no tigers to be seen either.

Seventh safari

Reached center point on route C, without much action. Gypsy was giving some trouble. Returning on another route, there were 4-5 jeeps on road. A guide from one of the jeep waved at us. Did a tiger just corss the road? Did we miss something? No. Kallu, the young male tiger, is sleeping on the road. He did not give a damn for anybody! From the other side, 2 jeeps arrived. 3 jeeps after a while, then 4, and then 5 and 6. But Kallu did not budge.

Tourist jeeps having a good sight of tiger after 3 days of almost no sightings

We learnt that he walked from a waterhole and slept in the middle of the jeep track. There were about 8 to 9 jeeps on either side, but he did not mind. He was fully fed and had quenched his thrist. All he wanted was some sleep, nut the pesky tourists wouldn’t let him take a late afternoon nap!

He rolled from one side to another like a child. Jeeps from the other side left after getting close to him. It was getting late and the jeeps had to leave. We got closer. He got up for a moment and seeing us stop, he slept again. 3 Jeeps on the front line started and inched closer. He sprang up and sat down as seen in the image. The audacity was simply amazing.

Kallu sprang up from seeing the jeeps nearing him


Not bothered with what’s happening around, he licks himself clean

I was sitting on the bonnet of the jeep and at about 12 feet from a huge male tiger. Waiting patiently for every little move and ‘right action’, not wanting to burn up gigabytes of memory with similar images.

As the jeeps got closer, he got more stern. The eye contact was simply brilliant. I was little scared that he might charge. I was advised to get back into the jeep, and promptly did. The jeeps closed in, and he moved to the side and walked into the grassy meadows and settled down. Close to an hour sighting. Face to face!

Kallu looking straight at me from 12 feet


Day 4

Eighth, and the last safari

The demand for Tala zone at Bandhavgarh is phenomenal. Entry passes were not only sold out, but also were being sold in black. We didn’t bother, and settled to Magdhi zone. We didn’t expect much action. On the way to Magdhi, we saw pug marks of Mahaman tigress and her cubs. They too wouldn’t be around. But Mohan Singh, our guide, was hopeful.

An hour of drive and he yelled ‘Tiger!’. Right in front we saw a huge tigress in the glazing sun. She looked at us and started walking towards us straight.

Sukhipattiya tigress walking towards us

Butch identified her as Suhkipattiya tigress, and told us that she had not been sighted for over a year and was thought to be dead. But there she was pretty woman, walking down the street.

The Queen adorns the palace like nobody does, not even the king. Domineering eye-contact walking down the road

The best part was there was no other jeep around. She kept walking straight towards us and we kept reversing the jeep. She scent marked her territory, yawned and continued to walk. It went so for more than 100 meters. It was an incredible feeling to photograph a huge tiger walking straight at you with eye-contact.

After about 15 to 20 minutes, another jeep arrived and she deviated her path. There were a bunch of deer grazing in the meadows, and she started stalking them. Are we gonna see her make a kill??

A slightly panning shot of her moving under the bushes

She stealthily moved towards deer as we watched her. Carefully placing her paws, not to make any noise, she inched closer. I had seen on documentaries tigers placing their paws softly on dried leaves, not  to make any noise, and here I saw live in action. But then some of the deer spotted her and gave out alarm calls. Damn it! She was seen here. She sat down as slowly as she could, not to make any noise even if she was seen. Stayed there for few minutes, and disappeared into the bushes.

Here’s the person who made it possible for us to have a great time:

Seeing Butch Lama’s leopard t-shirt Langurs give out alarm calls

When I look back at my trip that was put in place within a week, I am more than content with the images I have got. I have higher expectation now, and I’m more than convinced Bandhavgarh is the place for tiger photography.

It was very nice of Mukesh to gift me documentary of Temple of tiger and Tiger Kill, both shot at Bandhavgarh. Thanks Mukesh bhai!

It was good to meet Dr. Arun Kumar, Arun Rao, Harshad Barve, Himanshu Shenoy, Mukesh Burman, Nihar Mehta, Sanju, Shubh and Tabish Shaikh.

We all enjoyed photographing and sighting tigers at Bandhavgarh, but I’m not sure if they did. Here’s one last image:

Oh damn these photographers. I don’t want to see them

*

Bangalore to Bandhavgarh: (i) Patna-Sbc train from Bangalore to Katni. (ii) Katni to Bandhavgarh in taxi (needs to be booked in advance).

Bandhavgarh to Bangalore: (i) Katni to Mumbai in Howrah mail train. (ii) Mumbai to Bangalore in Fly Kingfisher.

Safaris at Bandhavgarh needs to be booked in advance, particularly for Tala zone. Some resorts/hotels provide safaris along with accommocation. Otherwise, there are many drivers who operate jeeps.

Gear: Canon EOS 450D, Canon 100-400mm IS USM, ScanDisk SD card

P.S.:  I changed the design of the blog to accommodate higher resolution images. I am yet to write the CSS completely, I’ve made some basic changes. Let me know if you find anything weird.

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All the participants with Karthik

All the participants with Karthik

I remember a colleague asking ‘Who’s a Naturalist?’ when one other colleague told us that he was invited by a popular wildlife photographer to work as a naturalist (the authenticity of which is not worth exploring). Answer to this question was what first answered in the Naturalist Training Program, which i attended from March 27-29, conducted by S. Karthikeyan, Chief Naturalist of Jungle Lodges and Resorts.

A person who studies natural history is know as a naturalist. Someone who looks at the nature in totality, someone who does not study nature with respect to one particular species is a naturalist.

Barking deer AKA muntjac

Barking deer AKA muntjac

The three day training program consisted of sessions on topics like biodiversity in India, introduction to bird watching, bird behaviour, urban wildlife and the most exciting of all, plant-animal interaction. The sessions were interspersed with Nature trails in the morning and evening inside the herbivorous enclosure of Bannerghatta National park. After the nature trails in the evening, David Attenborough‘s The Life of Bird series was played. The mesmerizing life of birds would inspire a novice to an avid bird watcher.

In the group of 17 odd people, probably 4-5 were into bird watching prior to the program, but most others weren’t. But the zeal of everyone was truely inspiring. The immense knowledge of Karthik got us to appreciate every little thing we saw in the nature trail. The sap sucked by the miniscule scaley insect on a leaf, and two ants close by to quench their thirst by the sap still remains vividly in my mind. The intricate interdependence of various forms of life, where loss of even one species could result in death of about 30 other species was put into perspective.

Bonnet macaque - mom and son

Bonnet macaque - mom and son

Watching keenly the behavior of the birds, and observing little things is what makes bird watching such an exciting activity, even if the bird is a common one. This point was put across by Karthik when he asked us ‘Does Myna hop or walk?

Asian Paradise Flycatcher (male)

Asian Paradise Flycatcher (male)

How often would we get to see the beautiful male Paradise Flycatcher from the dining table? This bird was around the camp for quite some time. So were many Sun birds, feeding on nectar from the flowers on jacaranda tree.

We were able to sight a variety of herbivorous mammals in the herbivorous enclousure. Black bucks, Gaurs, Chitals, Barking Deers and Nilghais shared the same space. This made it possible for some to get Blackbuck and Gaur in the same frame! :))

The only big carnivorous in the enclosure are the Mugger Crocodiles, which were sighted in the late evenings on the banks of the lake.

Three days, i was totally cut off from the bustling city and enjoyed 4 back-to-back bird watching sessions in 3 days.

Few more images:

jlrntp participants looking to identify a bird spotted

jlrntp participants looking to identify a bird spotted

Praying mantis, last species to be shot

praying-mantis

Largest species of wild cattle, Gaur

Indian Gaur

Ubiquitous White Cheeked Barbett

white-cheeked-barbett

P.S.: I was more into learning and less to photography, so please excuse me for these images.

Since this trip, AF on my 450D + 55-250mm IS lens seems to be little cranky. I am not able to get images as sharp as i got earlier with the same. May be i need to give the camera for service and get the lens calibrated. Anyone has any tips regarding this?

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What’s a super telephoto lens?
Lenses with focal length greater than or equal to 300mm.

Most important aspect to consider before you buy any gear is to decide what do you want to photograph. This might seem trivial, but it is the most important thing going forward. This is as important as deciding to shoot on DSLR up from a P&S.
Why do you want to buy a super telephoto lens? Candid shots of people, Bird/Wildlife photography, sports photography or something else?

When you say focal length is important, ask yourself why is it important?
Can’t you do with a 70-300mm (Nikon/Canon/Sigma) standard telephoto or 70-200mm f/4L or f/2.8L lenses?
To quote someone: ‘ The best zoom lens i have is my legs.’
If you take a few steps towards the subject, your range automatically increases.

Ok, once you have a concrete reason to go for a longer range lens, we’ll proceed.
Lets assume, we have a standard telephoto lens of about 300mm max focal length, and a 1.6 crop sensor camera.

Why is 70-300mm/55-250mm lens not enough?
1. Can’t approach the small birds close enough to capture them, filling the frame (forget full frame!).

2. Actions are happening at a distance from where you can photograph (sporting events).
2. Quality of images, cropped, are not as the best.
3. Not fast enough. Whines to focus on the small bird, even if i have Center point focus.
4. < something more ? >

So, what options do i have?
Say, we are interested in Wildlife photography.
(If you want to shoot candid portraits 70-300mm is sufficient, if you think it’s not enough, you got to work on your technique. Mind you these birds won’t fly :P).

Super telephotos are mostly used in wildlife and bird photography, where photographer is at a safe distance from the subject. Super telephoto lenses are also used in Sports photography, but these are very fast lenses like 400mm f/2.8L, which costs nearly $7000 and hence we’ll exclude sports photography from the discussion.

For mammals, you need shorter focal length whereas for birds you need the longest focal length one can get.
Here, the decision of what i want to photograph comes handy. If you want to click birds predominantly, you ignore the shorter focal length and buy a prime (use another lens for shooting mammals) or buy a good zoom lens covering the entire range.

Options:

Zooms
1. Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Termed as the best wildlife lens. Covers a good range and has IS. 400mm is when focus is at infinity. Gives about 385mm under normal shooting circumstances.
Advantages: Very good image quality. Good build. “L series” lens. Flexibility of zoom from 100 to 400mm. Perfect for wildlife, especially mammals.

Disadvantages: The push pull zoom (if you aren’t comfortable). Probably little more heavier than 400mm f/5.6 Prime.

No other disadvantage as such, but if you want to photograph birds, the reach of this lens isn’t good enough. With Tele Converters (TCs) you’ll lose Auto Focus, unless you are on pro bodies (1D MK-III). Taping pins only improves the situation slightly.
Price tag: about $1350

2. Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM APO RF
No other lens matches the range of ‘Bigma’. EX lens, Sigma’s “L series”. Good for mammals and birds, provides excellent range and good image quality.
Advantages: Huge range, good IQ when used properly.
Disadvantages: Bulky, need to get used to it before you get good images out of it, tripod necessary (only adding to the weight), not a very fast lens. Actual reach is little under 500mm.
Price tag: about $1000

3. Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 AF APO DG OS HSM
Next generation of Bigma, BigmOS comes with OS which actually works albeit little grumpy. Good range. No EX tag, but they say IQ is as good as the ones with EX.
Advantages: Light weight (can shoot hand held). OS comes in handy, and it works too! IQ pretty good.
Disadvantages: Makes little noise with OS. As with all zoom lenses, actual range is under 500mm, about 460mm. Heavier than Canon 100-400. Image quality at 500mm not very impressive, Canon 100-400 at 400mm extrapolated to 500mm gives better IQ. Also, aperture is 6.3 at 500mm. But Have a look here for IQ before you write off this lens.
Price tag: about $900

Primes
4. Canon 400mm f/5.6L
An “L series prime”, but without IS.
Advantages: Excellent “L series” image quality. Perfect lens for Birds in flight and focuses really fast. 400mm actually gives 400mm.
Disadvantage: You’ll need another lens to cover the range up to 400mm, especially for photographing big mammals. If you have a 70-300mm or 70-200, this lens could be a good addition.
Similar problem as 100-400 with TCs, may be slightly better. Monopod is handy, to make up for the loss of IS.
Price tag: $1100

5. Canon 300mm IS f/4L + 1.4x TC
Another L series prime, but comes with IS. Faster than all other lenses above when used at 300mm. Add a 1.4x TC, giving you 420mm at f/5.6 with IS.
Advantages: L series prime quality. 420mm reach with IS. AF works well.
Disadvantages: Range, as with 400mm f/5.6L, need another lens for covering up the focal length range. The price for the combo is little more than you’d pay for others.

Price tag: about $1050 + $250 for Canon EF 1.4x II TC, total $1300.

P.S.:
1. I have listed only lenses under $1500.
2. I have listed only Canon lenses, as i am more familiar with Canon. Nikon too has similar lenses at similar price tag (Like 80-400mm instead of 100-400). Exception is Nikon 200-400 f/4G VR, which doesn’t have an equivalent in Canon, and is in a different league altogether at $5000+ a piece.

3. I’m researching for an upgrade and this post is to make it easier for amateurs in the same boat. I still am not sure whether to buy Canon 400mm f/5.6L prime or Sigma 150-500mm OS.

update:

This compilation and the prices are on the day of the article written. And are subject to change.

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