Jamnagar- A Birder’s Delight

 

Crab-Plovers-B&W-900

It was still dark outside when the alarm rang at 6:00 AM on that nippy morning in December. A couple of minutes later, I got my wake-up call from the front desk as well, at the Hotel President in Jamnagar. I had arrived here last night via Rajkot, extending my trip by a day after a business trip to Morbi. The reason? It had been a call a few weeks ago from a family friend of my wife. My wife’s friend, Manisha is a school teacher and her husband, Mukesh a doctor in the army, and they had recently moved to Jamnagar based on the good doctor’s peace tenure and they had dangled the proverbial carrot in front of me, by insisting that I must visit, not only to meet them, but to come and witness the spectacular migratory birds that visited this town and its outskirts during winter. And when I found that work would take me to Morbi, I realized Jamnagar wasn’t far, so why not?

And so the trip was planned, I checked with a few of my friends on the possible locations and species to scout for. All of them though, had one common piece of advice, if you are visiting Jamnagar for bird-watching or wildlife photography, look no further than Hotel President, looked after by the affable Mustakbhai, a passionate birder himself. Its location in the heart of the city, makes visiting all birding hotspots convenient, especially the hotspot located within the city itself, Lakhota Lake, situated at walking distance from the hotel. But more on that later. I rang up Mustakbhai and told him of the plan; I would just be in the city for a day, leaving by the latest flight in Rajkot, which was at 7:40 PM to Mumbai. (Jamnagar too has a direct flight to Mumbai, unfortunately for me, it was in the middle of the day, and not conducive to my plan). I explained that I intended to cover as much as possible during the day and also told him of the species I was on the lookout for photography. Patiently, he explained to me all the spots to travel to, and since he was travelling on those days himself, also referred me to Kunal Joshi, an expert who had been leading birding expeditions for years in the Jamnagar area, also spending some time of the year in the Himalayas, leading expeditions there as well. I relayed my discussion with Mustakbhai to Kunal as well. On my arrival in Jamnagar, I met both Manisha and Mukesh for dinner, and after telling them of my plans for the next day, both of them decided to accompany me and Kunal as well for the morning part of the trip.

After the morning ablutions and quickly ensuring all my gear was in place, the hotel staff supplied with me with a much-needed hot cup of tea, and I met Kunal downstairs. We reaffirmed the plan, and Bababhai, our driver, an experienced hand who was quite enthusiastic when I had told him of our day’s travel plans, brought around the car as we made way to our first destination, the Balachadi Beach

Balachadi Beach- Plover Paradise

In my discussions with Kunal, I had requested to check possible locations for one species in particular, the Crab Plover, a beautiful large wader uncommonly seen in India, but known to congregate on the coastal outskirts of Jamnagar. Mustakbhai had already recommended to visit the Narara island in the Marine National Park for these. Unfortunately, the tide timings on the day were not conducive to visit Narara which was a fair distance away from the city in the morning, which is why Kunal suggested to amend the plan for our early morning visit, to Balachadi beach, a short 30 minute drive from the city. How this decision played out, you’d see soon. As we drove past the city and into the countryside, we saw a herd of nilgai moving about in the wee hours of the morning. A flock of Great White Pelicans flew overhead, towards some mangroves as we headed closer to the beach, and my anticipation levels grew wondering what was in store for us. Kunal had indicated earlier he was hoping there wouldn’t be a crowd since it was early morning on a weekday, so hopefully we could see peak bird activity. We weren’t disappointed as we reached the spot with the vast expanse of beach in front of us. I could see a congregation of black-and-white birds in the distance, and many others as well, that too with not a human being in sight!

Balachadi-beach-1

Dawn at Balachadi Beach

We stepped out, and while Manisha and Mukesh hung back, watching the birds through binoculars, Kunal and I started making slow progress, closer to the birds. Once we were within range, Kunal stayed back to give me pointers on the bird’s movement as I crept slowly ahead. The closest crab plover flock was on a small sandbank surrounded by ankle-deep water and as slowly as possible, I moved closer. Once I reached the sandbank, which had a small incline, I lay flat hoping for the birds to move closer with the increasing tide. Kunal signaled from the back, the birds were moving towards me, and I saw a couple peek their heads over the small incline examining the strange object lying flat on the bank. Time passed, but no luck. Slowly, I doubled back to increase the distance between the birds and me, and carefully rose so I could look over the incline. They didn’t look troubled, and I managed a few shots, when together, they all took to the air, an amazing spectacle standing just feet away from them.

Crab-Plover-Close-Flock-flight

Crab plovers in Flight

The small flock I was close to, joined another larger flock some distance away, and for a few moments the entire group circled the sea beyond before returning back to their roost on the beach. Quite satisfied, I returned, and Kunal also suggested to check some rocky parts of the beach where we might find other interesting waders. A 15-minute walk later, and we were extremely well rewarded finding some coveted winter migrants such as Eurasian Oystercatchers, Grey Plovers, Terek Sandpipers among many others.

Eurasian-Oystercatcher

Eurasian oystercatchers have a prominent white neck collar in non-breeding plumage, much like these individuals

 

Peep-&-Plovers

A mix of sand plovers and sandpipers 🙂

The backdrop of the deep blue of the Gulf made all these graceful birds look even more striking. While photographing these, lady luck smiled on us as well as even a few Crab Plovers flew in to rest nearby. As the sun rose, thoroughly sated with the morning’s discoveries, we made our way back to the city to visit another hotspot.

Lakhota Lake- Urban oasis

There is no missing this landmark once you enter Jamnagar city. Located in the heart of the town, this lake with a small palace (now housed as museum) in its centre is certainly one of the iconic images of Jamnagar. The surprise, however comes from its avian diversity. Over 75 species (and the number may be higher) can be sighted at this lake, and it is particularly a haven for waterfowl, a variety of migratory ducks coming in from Western Europe and Northern Asia, to winter here, in the warm waters of the lake.

Lakhota Lake

Lakhota Lake

On our quest, were two of these migratory species, the Mallard and the Tufted Duck, both species migrating from countries such as Iceland & Russia to here in India during the cold winter. Manisha and Mukesh returned to their duties for the day, and also asked us to stop by for a quick lunch at their place, after our search at Lakhota. As we reached one of the gates, we noticed that some construction work was underway at the lake. I found that the lake itself has been in the eye of a controversy lately, as the Jamnagar Municipal Corporation had went ahead with work on the beautification of the lake. This was contested by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Lakhota Nature Club, that the ‘beautification’ would damage the unique heritage and natural environment. Subsequently after much back and forth, the Gujarat High Court did finally lift the stay and the beautification work has resumed and it remains to be seen whether this is going to harm the original environment in the long-term.

We could see some of the congregated waterfowl in the lake, but were quite far, hence Kunal guided us to a point from where we could make our way closer to the lake banks. As the sun blazed overhead and we made our way closer to the lake, we scanned for our target species. We could see Great Cormorants, Common Pochards, Northern Shovellers, all winter migrants and even resident species such as the Comb Duck. Black and Brown-headed gulls, Eurasian Coots and Indian Spot-billed Ducks were particularly numerous in the lake environs. Pelicans are also regularly sighted at the lake, unfortunately we did not come across them.

Waterfowl-group

Spot-billed ducks, Eurasian coots and black-headed gulls

Finally, Kunal spotted a small group of tufted ducks swimming in the distance. We made our way closer to them, but had to sit and wait for them to arrive closer to the lake banks. Meanwhile, a White Wagtail, another winter migrant provided some photographic opportunities as did some of the other lake residents. Soon enough, a group of tufted ducks too came within range, the unusual tuft of feathers in the manner of a crest prominent on some of the individuals.

Tufted-Pochard-Profile

The prominent crest seen on the darker male tufted duck

 

Tufted-Pochard-Wing-Display

A female tufted duck flapping away, showing the broad white patch on its wings known as the speculum

We searched for the Mallard as well, the male of which has an iridescent green head with a bright yellow bill which makes for a brilliant sight, but neither the male nor the female were forthcoming that day, and our search revealed no signs.

As the sun reached its zenith, I realized we had to keep some time for our third destination as well, so after exiting the lake, we walked to the Hotel President for checkout and for then made our way for lunch at Manisha and Mukesh’s home. A very tasty Sindhi lunch later, replete with papad, we made our way to Narara Island, situated within the Marine National Park.

Narara- Corals, Birds and so much more

I had blinked off for a few minutes, after that tasty lunch as Bababhai ensured a smooth ride to our next destination situated 60 km away from Jamnagar city, the Narara island situated in the Marine National Park. The park has been the first of its kind in India, a protected marine reserve, and possibly one of the very few places in the country where you can come across marine life, with nothing but your feet in contact with water. The park is composed of a network of 42 coral islands, however the most famous of these known to visitors are Pirotan and Narara. Pirotan, accessible from Rozi port, had not been accessible to the public in recent times, and though there is now word of it now being opened again for selected visits, during my short whirlwind trip, we kept our foray restricted to Narara.

The preferred time for most travellers to visit the park should be during low tide, as this is when you are most likely to come across marine life such as hard and soft corals, a variety of crustaceans and molluscs including crabs, lobsters and octopus, as well as other marine life such as starfish, sea anemones, mud skippers and puffer fish. Stingrays are also occasionally seen, and further offshore, dolphins and the rarely seen dugong, an enigmatic marine mammal also sometimes known as the sea cow, based on its grazing behavior of seagrass. However, since one of the objectives of my visit was to document the avian diversity, our visit was timed more with the high tide receding so that the birds would not be very far off.

Narara-1

When entering Narara, one passes through mangroves before accessing the area where corals abound.

After entering the park gate and completing the due formalities, we began our exploration of Narara. Slowly but steadily, the sandy terrain with mangroves gave way to the rocky hard coral. Shoes are an absolute no-no here, and the recommended footwear is sandals.

On arrival, we came across various bird species indulged in feeding. It was amazing to witness how each of the waders have adapted to suit a specific niche of feeding habitat, sand plovers with their short beaks feeding on tiny marine life situated on the surface, while Eurasian Curlews with their long curved bills, often looking for similar prey, but probing much deeper into the sand.

Eurasian-Curlew-flight

A Eurasian curlew in flight

We could see the stars for this trip, the Crab Plovers also feeding in the distance. However, the nature of the terrain made closer approach here difficult. After a few tries, we decided to keep a greater distance from the birds here compared to Balachadi in order to not disturb them. This did work, as I was privileged to witness an amazing interaction between an adult and juvenile Crab Plover, as the adult caught a crustacean in the shallow waters, and walked towards the juvenile, placing its caught prize in the juvenile’s bill, feeding it.

Crab-Plover-feeding-juvenile

Crab plover adult feeding juvenile

I came across other waders here as well, increasing my list of species seen to include the Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling. Both these species are known to feed in coastal environments, and it was good to see them thriving in this protected area.

With my flight at 7:40 PM at Rajkot, we decided to make a move. On the way out, Kunal pointed to a spot close to the entrance of the park, where earlier the same year, an extremely rare winter migrant, the Grey Hypocolius, the only known species in its family, had been seen. Usually this species was known to be visible during winter in some restricted spots of the Kutch and nowhere else in the country, but it was good to hear this rarity had been spotted at Narara as well.

As we made our way back, I noticed another group of beauties feeding in the saltpans close to the entrance of the park, Greater Flamingoes. I took a few shots as keepsake, and Kunal got down to have a look as well. He smiled and asked me to look to their right. A small dark bird was swimming alone in the waters. A peek through the binoculars confirmed it to be a Black-necked Grebe, another species I had never seen before and a rarity as well. This individual was far, but a short drive ahead, we spotted another individual which was closer. I quickly made my way to get a closer shot, when another surprise! A huge Dalmatian pelican was resting close to the water’s edge. Delighted, I clicked away, adding it to the image kitty of the amazing diversity of species I had come across here in Jamnagar.

Black-necked-Grebe

Black-necked or eared grebe

 

Dalmatian-Pelican

A Dalmatian pelican at Sunset

The short duration of my visit meant that I could only experience a little of the beauty Jamnagar has to offer. Areas like Khijadiya sanctuary, and amazing phenomenon such as the spectacular flying formations of rosy starlings (known as murmurations) around Lakhota Lake were just a few of the things I missed out on, which I hope to cover soon on my next trip there.

Equipment: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR

(The above is a slightly modified version of the article published in the March 2016 issue of the magazine, ‘Travel Touriosity’)

Communing with Nature: BR Hills, Karnataka, India

Indian scops owl hollow BR Hills

It was late evening on our 3rd safari, and I had squeezed myself in the gap between the two seats on our jeep, crouched, pointing my camera lens slightly upwards. Light was falling, and I was thanking my stars I had brought along the bean bag for additional stability. Along with my wife and the other co-passengers in my jeep including our naturalist, Nataraj, we silently waited for the sleeping head to rise..

But that’s just me rushing to the one of the highlights of our trip to the Biligirirangan Hills, Karnataka (locally known as Biligiriranganabetta). We had decided to forego our annual trip to one of India’s wildlife reserves during our anniversary, opting to combine a longer trip post the Christmas weekend extending into the New Year. We would meet inevitably with our cousins to celebrate New Year’s eve during the latter part of our journey in pristine Wayanad. But before that, had to be our alone time in the jungles! And after much debate and discussions, we finally settled on the Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp, BR Hills. Why this particular choice? For one, it was a JLR (Jungle Lodges & Resorts) property and every nature enthusiast who has visited Karnataka’s wild havens will swear by the outstanding location and knowledgeable staff that make staying in any of JLR’s properties a special experience. Many of India’s present day well-known photographers and conservationists have actually served long stints as JLR naturalists, and that is just a reinforcement of the service levels you are promised.

There were two other reasons we had chosen K Gudi. One of them was that both Kabini and Bandipur, owing to the relatively easier access would be seeing a far greater rush of visitors on the holiday weekend, something I discussed with Toehold’s Harsha Narasimhamurthy who assisted us with the booking of our trip. The second, and what really sold us, were the experiences shared by past visitors, both on Tripadvisor and on forums such as India Nature Watch. The BR Hills in spite of being declared a tiger reserve in 2011, have never been very well-known for sightings of big cats and other mega-fauna, but this is more than made up by the incredible natural beauty of the place, its diversity of birds and the amazing location of the K Gudi Wilderness Camp, bang within the tiger reserve with wildlife moving freely through the campus. This is because the JLR property was established in 1994, well before this was declared a tiger reserve and it is only now that in consonance with guidelines, the property may be required to shift away from its present location. Yet another reason why we wished to visit this treasured gem of JLR as soon as possible.

Our log hut, Chamundi at night.

Our log hut, Chamundi at night: Located at the edge of the campus, surrounded by forest and no fences, this is for visitors who wish to get intimate with the wild

Biodiversity

The BR Hills play host to a stunning biodiversity, courtesy their strategic location between the Western & Eastern Ghats, and this can be easily seen in the incredible variety of habitats, ranging from dry scrub to broad-leaved deciduous forests. It’s an absolute pleasure to wander here discovering the area’s natural beauty, which changes character from the yellowish-brown hues of the foothills, to the dark green sunlight-dappled canopy of the higher elevations.

Sunlit BR Hills 1

Surely one of the greatest attractions of the BR Hills is the incredible diversity of birds, and while estimates vary, at least over 250 species are known to reside in these verdant hills and these include endemics of the Western Ghats such as the Rufous Babbler, Malabar Parakeet, Grey-headed Bulbul. Rest assured, if you are a birder, you are going to be one happy camper.

BR Hills is a good destination to catch sight of the Blue-bearded Bee-Eater, usually found in the vicinity of broad-leaved forests.

The BR Hills are a good destination to catch sight of the Blue-bearded Bee-Eater, usually found in the vicinity of broad-leaved forests.

The smaller life-forms abound here, with a multitude of species of spiders, scorpions, dragonflies, damselflies, and over a 100 species of butterflies and moths including India’s largest butterfly, the Southern Birdwing and rarities such as the Sahyadri Painted Courtesan. The reptile and amphibian diversity here needs further documentation, but there can be no question that the area is a potential hotspot for the same. Microhyla sholigari, an endangered species of narrow-mouthed frog was described from here in the year 2000, and there are even reports of a possible caecilian species. Another new bush frog species, Raorchestes honnametti sp. nov. was recently described from here. (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149382)

Was lucky to come across this Southern Gliding Lizard, an endemic of both the Western & Eastern Ghats, displaying its bright yellow dewlap within the K Gudi campus.

Was lucky to come across this Southern Gliding Lizard, an endemic of both the Western & Eastern Ghats, displaying its bright yellow dewlap within the K Gudi campus.

As regards mammals, this habitat particularly represents an important area for India’s largest land mammal, the Asian elephant, supporting one of its largest populations in the Eastern Ghats. Owing to its crucial location within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the area remains one of the most important from the conservation perspective of this species. Tigers, another umbrella species, are also also said to be doing well with estimates putting the numbers here at over 50 individuals inside BRT reserve. These forests provide a home to many other charismatic species such as leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, gaur, rusty spotted cat, Indian giant squirrel, the Indian tree shrew and every visit to the forest gives you a chance to get a glimpse of these treasures.

True to its nature, this shy barking deer or Indian muntjac bounded off seconds after we laid eyes on it

True to nature, this shy barking deer or Indian muntjac bounded off seconds after we laid eyes on it

Amazing encounters

On our arrival at K Gudi, apart from the daily safaris, my wife Deepi and I would spent most of the day, at the serene little sit-out of our log hut, Chamundi, her with binoculars and me with the camera, watching and photographing those flashes of beauties that including a variety of flycatchers, drongos, leafbirds, nuthatches among many others.

The flamboyant Orange Minivet is a resident species on campus, and is often active through most of the day

The flamboyant Orange Minivet is a resident species on the K Gudi campus, and is often active through most of the day

The Blue-Capped Rock Thrush is a winter visitor here, but can be frequently spotted in campus from October to March

The Blue-Capped Rock Thrush, a winter visitor to South India, is also a frequent sight here from October to March

As if the diversity of birds hadn’t been enough, we would get a surprise on our first day itself, a surprise I wish I had been better prepared for. Post our evening safari and some snacks, we had returned to the log hut late in the evening around 7:30 PM. After keeping our gear, I stepped out, flashlight in hand, to do a quick scan of our log hut surrounds. There was no barrier behind our log-hut and the forest, so wildlife moved freely. My flashlight caught the eye-shine of two dark shapes resting about 15-20 metres away from our log-hut. Their size and dimensions seemed to suggest the ubiquitous wild boar we had seen all day at campus. Nevertheless, I asked Deepi to retrieve a pair of binoculars to confirm. While this was happening though, both the animals rose to move, and as they rose, suddenly up went long quills on their back. Porcupines! I dashed into the room, to retrieve the camera, but these shy animals had already retreated into the undergrowth by the time I could manage a shot, leaving me no record of the sighting of this elusive nocturnal species. A missed opportunity for a capture on my camera, but at least the image in our minds would stay with us.

And yes, getting back to the beginning of my story, it was our 3rd safari during another lovely evening in the BR Hills. The sightings as always, were not as plentiful as you might see in some of the other popular reserves, but with the forest bathed in golden light, it was still a pleasure to drive through this wilderness, punctuated by the odd shy barking deer and flocks of hill mynas. The sun was setting on the horizon, when we chanced upon another jeep parked at an intersection. As always when this happens, there was a sense of anticipation as we neared closer, except this time, it was not just the feeling of anticipation we’d take back. Because as our naturalist silently pointed to a network of branches and leaves mid-canopy, my eyes just didn’t form, but saw rosettes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I peeked through the lens of my camera to the spot about 10 metres further in, and saw the form that every wildlife enthusiast longs to see. A gorgeous sub-adult leopard was enjoying an extended afternoon siesta. I looked at my wife, Deepi, big happy grins on both of our faces as we exchanged glances. After a few clicks, I borrowed her pair of binoculars as well to just enjoy the sight of this secretive cat. And it was only after a little bit of waiting, that the leopard sleepily raised his head, gave us a piercing gaze, looked into the distance, and resumed his lazy evening, dozing off again.

Leopard Eye Contact 1

One thing you have to be prepared for, when you travel here is to not carry the same expectations of sighting wildlife, as you would say, in nearby Kabini. Courtesy the invasive lantana which has unfortunately taken over much of the reserve, and which the forest department continues to battle, seeing wildlife is not easy here and which may disappoint some visitors. The key here is enjoying the wilderness as it is, thick and unpenetrable perhaps in vision, but thrumming with life, evident as we warmed our limbs near a campfire at K Gudi late one evening, and somewhere in the distance, a sambar deer persistently called out its alarm, and once, just once, a loud ‘Aaaaaaongh!’ punctuated that silent winter air, a reminder that the big striped cat roams these wilds.

Stays in the BR Hills

Presently for visitors on a budget, some modernized homestays include the Rajathadri Hill Villa and Giridarshini, the latter actually is a well-known landmark here, a popular eating joint set up here since the 1950s, which has since expanded to offering stays as well.

For a more intimate experience, the resort Gorukana run in conjunction with VGKK (Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra) is a good bet. A mix of cottages, tents and tree houses aesthetically designed with most modern amenities, visitors can be assured of a comfortable, luxurious stay here. The indigenous Soligas form the bulk of the staff here, and their knowledge sharing along with the resort’s community development initiatives can make staying here a pleasure.

Spotted Deer or Chital, freely move in K Gudi grounds, much like this stag with velvet antlers

Spotted Deer or Chital, freely move in the K Gudi grounds, much like this stag whose antlers are still in velvet, soon to develop into sharp tines or points

Undoubtedly though, BR Hills’ most well-known and popular place to stay is JLR’s Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp. A mix of tented cottages, log huts and 2 family rooms, located about 20 km further in from the forest checkpost, passing by the beauty of the forest (drive slow and keep your eyes peeled), among K Gudi’s greatest strengths is the incredible location. The proof is in the roaming herds of chital, curious wild boar that might surprise with their close approach, the absolutely stunning variety of birdlife which would make you question whether you should leave the camp at all for birding and yes, nocturnal visitors as well including predators indicated by the nightly alarm calls, and should you be carrying a flashlight and a bundle of luck, by the sight of a large feline form, more often the one with rosettes, all of this within the grounds of K Gudi. The amazing location is further supplemented by the warm service of the staff and the credible guidance of the knowledgeable naturalists. Food is simple, homely and one shouldn’t expect a great variety of cuisines.

JLR Jeep

Another major advantage with staying at K Gudi, is you can avail of the JLR jeep safari. Most visitors staying outside would anyway have to come to the forest department quarters situated next door to avail of the jeep safari on a first come, first serve basis, whereas if you’re staying at K Gudi, it is included in your package, and while there are no specific time limits, with JLR’s safari, you do end up spending more time inside the forest (approximately 1.5-2 hours) within the prescribed time band, something nature enthusiasts would appreciate. You can of course, also choose to explore the forest around K Gudi on foot with the help of one of the camp’s guides. Physical fitness would be recommended, as the initial climb on the designated trail can be a bit strenous, though well worth the effort courtesy the scenic views you get once you ascend the rise. In case you’re staying for more than 2 nights, they also arrange for an excursion to Lord Rangantha’s temple at no extra charge. Jump at this opportunity as along with the cultural heritage, it is another chance to explore the forests of the BR hills, which you will pass through. Price-wise, this would be definitely considered in the higher end and it is one of JLR’s more premium properties, however, it remains for the traveller to decide how much bang for the buck K Gudi provides, especially considering the camp’s possible shift in the near future.

No matter where you stay though, exploring the wilderness here is a pleasant experience all year round, every journey a balm to the soul.

Sambar stag path

 

How to reach there
Travelers to the BR Hills most often access the area via Bengaluru (approximately 200 Km, a 4.5-5 hour drive) and Mysore (approximately 80 Km, 2-hour drive). A few flights and plenty of train options are available, connecting Bengaluru and Mysore. The third option, a few visitors avail of is Coimbatore, located at approximately 175 Km. The distance makes Coimbatore the most accessible international airport, however, do check flight timings and taxi rates if hiring a private car (inter-state taxes can vary according to the vehicle), as typically most visitors like to reach BR hills before late afternoon, so they don’t miss the opportunity for the evening safari. The nearest railhead is Chamarajanagar, situated about 25 Km away. If coming by road directly from Bengaluru to BR Hills, it is recommended to come via Yelandur, and in case of Mysore, via Chamarajanagar.

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR, Nikkor 18-55mm (kit lens)

Chitwan – A Treasure of the Terai

(The following is a condensed write-up of the article published in the Saevus magazine, July 2015. The visit took place during March 2015)

Fishtail Peak-Himalaya
Finally, a clear day! Our spirits had been dampened due to 2 days of unseasonal cloudy weather, hailstones and rain in Pokhara, Nepal. We had been disappointed on not getting a clear view of the famed Annapurna range, but today morning as we began our journey, the majesty of the Himalayas would be revealed to us. An open ground where locals were playing soccer and zipping around in scooters, rolling hills in the distance, were all dwarfed by the sheer scale and size of these snow-clad monoliths. Humbling to say the least! Apart from this wondrous sight though, there was one more reason I was elated to wake up to bright sunshine, we were heading to the destination I had been looking forward to the most during this trip with my family; The Royal Chitwan National Park. It was not my first visit here, however there were only faded memories of the trip made more than 15 years ago. And as some searching online a few months before had revealed,  I realized Chitwan had changed since then. Once a destination only for those seeking the solace of the wild, it had transformed into a major tourism hub. The iconic lodges located inside the national park had closed, surrounded by much controversy, being charged of harming the park’s ecology. And now, much of the tourist infrastructure had shifted to bustling Sauraha, currently the main park gateway.

I was a bit nervous, as my search for the Sauraha properties had not left me with any satisfactory options. I was intrigued however, more by a hotel that was away from Sauraha, located in Meghauli, by the name of the Barahi Jungle Lodge. To my pleasant surprise, I found that their management had recently undergone a change, and was now being looked after by Pugdundee Safaris, a well-known Indian safari lodge chain and after their considerable consultations with their representative, Abhay, I went ahead with the booking for my stay there in March.

The last hour of our drive was an exceptionally bumpy one and would give one’s bones a good shake, but the moment we stepped inside the property, I was delighted because I saw my family’s worries sliding away. Varun, the vastly experienced hotel manager, welcomed us at the entrance and walking us through, briefed us about the property, introducing us to our designated naturalist, Subhash Gurung, the lodge’s youngest but one of its most experienced naturalists. Making our way to the rooms, memories of the unspoilt Chitwan I remembered came flooding back, with the hotel’s cottages presenting a stunning view of the Rapti river and the elephant grass of the national park beyond with no human habitation in sight. It’s as if nothing had changed.

Barahi Landscape View

The Park’s Lesser-Known Treasures

Chitwan has so much to offer, and this is in addition to the well-known species many visitors come seeking. Courtesy the time we had visited the park, we were fortunate to see the Palash or its more famous name, Flame of the forest, in full bloom, attracting a host of birds including parakeets, bulbuls, sunbirds among many others.

Palash

As we would drive through the sal forest habitat (comprising about 60-65% of the park’s ecology), Subhash pointed out a giant creeper,  known as the left-handed vine (Spatholobus parviflorus), and it was an awe-inspiring sight seeing this strong climber wrapping around its host.

Left-handed vine

There is also no doubt about Chitwan being a birder’s haven. With over 540 species recorded in the park, putting it in the league of among the best in the subcontinent, it is also home to one of the most critically endangered birds on the planet, the Bengal Florican. We made frequent forays to its preferred habitat many times but without luck. However, the bird sightings overall were absolutely marvellous. Sightings such as the Green Magpie, White-tailed Stonechat, Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush kept me highly motivated. We often heard the call of the Great Hornbill and on the last day, I was lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of it.

Grey-headed fish eagleWhite-tailed stonechat

The park also houses over 40 species of reptiles, and over 11 species of amphibians in the park. The most well known among the reptiles are undoubtedly the King Cobra and the two species of crocodilians, the Marsh Mugger and the Gharial. I was lucky to catch a sight of a basking mugger near the access point of the hotel itself, while we had to go deeper within the reserve, to pristine sandbanks to catch a sight of the critically endangered Gharial.

Mugger- Near Hotel Access Point to ParkGharials

The population of Gavialus gangeticus in the reserve is expected to be about 75-80 individuals and their numbers are seeing an upward trend post the setting up of the Gharial breeding centre at Kasara, new litters are introduced into the park every year.

The Big Boys

Every visitor who comes to the park, undoubtedly is on the lookout for its most charismatic species. Numbering over 500, the second largest single population of the species, the greater one-horned rhinoceros is the most sought-after target, and with such numbers in the park, the chances for close encounters with this iconic animal are always high, more often encountered in the grassland and riverine habitats.

Rhino stream feeding

Elephant sightings are uncommon here, and one is more likely to encounter them in the neighboring Parsa wildlife reserve to the east or Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar to the south. It’s not clear why herds have not moved to permanent residence in the park, as the sightings that do sporadically occur are of the lone bulls.

Among the ungulates residing in the park, are four species of deer, the chital/spotted deer, the sambar, the indian muntjac/barking deer and the hog deer, all of which can be frequently sighted. The four-horned antelope is also known to reside here, but is seldom seen. Largest of all the bovine species, the gaur, number close to 300 here in the park. Sightings are not as frequent though, as they often reside in the hilly, inaccessible areas of the park. Come spring though, co-inciding with the peak of their breeding season and the annual grass-clearing that is carried out in the park, they descend to the lowlands and this is a good time to see the familial interactions of gaur herds, led by a matriarch keeping a watch on curious calves. Solitary bulls will vie to get the attention of these wandering female-driven herds.

Gaur pair

Among the canids, the ones you can come across are the jackal and if your luck holds, the uncommonly seen dhole/Asiatic wild dog, a species undervalued by most visitors, it can be an utter delight to see pack behavior of these efficient predators. Three species of bear (Family: Ursidae) are known to inhabit different habitats in Nepal, and the one you would come across in Chitwan is the familiar bear of the majority of the Indian subcontinent, the sloth bear. We were fortunate to come across one shuffling through the grasslands on a jeep safari.

Finally, that leaves the two species visitors probably wish for most, but few ever get a sight of, the two big cats: The tiger and the leopard. Chitwan’s expanse, the nature of the habitat and the continuous army patrolling make sightings of these big cats difficult. However, if luck is in your favour, then who knows?

Exploring Chitwan

One of the best parts about Chitwan is the sheer range of options through which one can explore the forest. Apart from the elephant and jeep safaris, one could explore Chitwan on foot and by canoe. Both are exceptionally good for bird-watching and for observing the park’s smaller treasures, as you can move at a leisurely space and keep your eyes peeled for any movement in the foliage. The former though is not for the faint of heart, as mock and even unrestrained charges by rhinos though rare, are not unheard of, and while the guest is usually safe as the guides are well trained to handle such encounters, there have been a few isolated incidents where things have gone awry, though the guest has always been safe. Otherwise though, there cannot be a better way to be at one with the wilderness.

Walking in the elephant grass

The canoe ride of course is a delight for the entire family, a sunset ride is guaranteed to make you a nature romantic, all with the continued thrill of spotting wildlife, finally culminating into a confluence point of the rivers Narayani, Rapti and Reu where you can watch the sun dip below the hills.

Early morning boatSunset

Even with those two great ways to explore however, the most popular one in Chitwan irrespective of where you stay, has to be the elephant safari. Through an average duration of 1.5 hours, these giants will take you through the rich habitat of the community forests, a multi-purpose area for both forest produce collection and eco-tourism run by village committees (As many as 9 such areas are currently demarcated throughout the park). Wildlife is as diverse as in the core of the park, and seated in the all-terrain vehicles that are the elephants, this is possibly the best way to have close encounters with large mammals as evidenced by the following image of our experience with a female Indian one-horned rhinoceros.

Elephant Safari-Rhino Encounter

Besides the elephant safari, another popular way of course is the jeep safari. Here in Chitwan, this is possibly the most expensive option, but as many regular safari-goers would opine, nothing can beat this medium in terms of sheer reach and coverage within a short space of time.

Early morning jeep

Moreover, the thrill of tracking a predator when you come across signs is an experience as many would know, one that is guaranteed to get your adrenaline racing, your heart jumping every time a shadow emerges from the forest onto the dirt track.

Black and White: Wild Boar crossing

Surreal Sightings

In an endeavor to explore the park, we had undertaken an extended jeep safari on one of the days, and late in the morning at around 11:00 AM, we were heading to the Tiger Tops Lodge (the hotel is closed for the moment, being managed by a skeletal staff till the lodge’s future became clear) to take a break and avail of our packed breakfast. My wife, Deepi and brother Nikhil were with me, and we were sitting relaxed looking forward to a nice calm breakfast. As we rounded a bend, suddenly, it was as if time slowed down to a trickle. We saw an animal crossing the road not 15 feet in front of us, it crouched, turned to look at us, I saw rosettes, my brain simply refused to take in the reality of the sighting, my wife stood up in slow motion with mouth agape, and the driver braked the car to a halt! All this must have happened in that exact sequence in a space of 1-2 seconds, because before I could even focus my lens on the leopard (I quite literally have a shot of an empty spot where it was crouched), it shot off from the road into the undergrowth making its way through the dense foliage of an undulating hillside. Subhash kept his eyes sharply trained on the animal, and I was ruing I was not going to get a shot of this elusive cat. Fortunately, as it made its way up the hillside, we saw the rosettes again and for a few seconds the leopard seemed to stop to regard us. Knowing that autofocus would struggle, I switched to manual focus and fired off a few shots focused on its body. Soon I saw part of its head, and before I could try again, it was gone. After we were sure it was gone, Subhash turned to us and said, ‘Leopard!’, and all including Subhash had a good chuckle on that. It had all been so fast. When I checked my click later on, I was elated to find two large eyes had also been trained on us. One of the lodge’s naturalists had ascribed the title of the ‘Ghost of Chitwan’ to this secretive cat, in the nature orientation at the hotel. No kidding!

Leopard

On our final morning, my mother, father and brother were looking forward to the India-Bangladesh World Cup match, and Varun and team had very kindly made arrangements for them to watch the same. My wife was quite tired from our extended safari on the previous day. We had a late flight from the airport that afternoon, so there was a chance for me to plan one final foray into Chitwan’s wilds. I had spoken last night to Varun and Subhash, and they encouraged me to go on a morning jeep safari with Jitudai, the hotel’s most senior naturalist. Two other ladies, guests of the resort were scheduled to go with Jitudai, and so I joined them. As we set off that morning to the calls of a stork-billed kingfisher, we passed through a riverine forest patch. As the forest gave way to the grassland, suddenly there was a burst of chital alarm calls. The driver turned off the ignition and we listened, rapt in attention to the direction of the calls. We were possibly around 40 metres away from the source of these calls emanating from the grasslands. The calls continued. Some predator seemed to be out and about. The next moment, another loud sound erupted from the grasslands, ‘Aaaooonghh!’ and it would have looked to the two ladies that both Jitudai and me had been exposed to a mild electric shock. Both of us jumped on top of the railings of the jeep to scan the grassland. There was no question in our mind anymore about what had been spooking those chital. About 15 metres ahead in the grass, we saw movement, expecting to see a terrified chital. Instead, for the briefest second, we saw a large striped head and the swish of a striped tail, as the orange and black of its moving body melded perfectly with the dry elephant grass. All we could see was elephant grass parting as the tiger made its way deeper into the grassland. Once it disappeared, both Jitudai and me chuckled silently, incredulous expressions on both our faces. There was a bit of disappointment for me laced with that chuckle, there had been no shot possible. But a sighting is a sighting, and that deep, reverberating call was going to stay with me as a keepsake even if I could never truly share the awe it inspires. As we moved on, I was still enjoying those treasured moments, though a stubborn part of me still had a finger on the shutter-release button. Suddenly, about 20 metres ahead, I saw a dark shape extricate itself from the grassland onto the road. The driver had not seen it, and Jitudai was still scanning the grasslands on our right. Whatever that animal was, it was going to disappear in a matter of seconds to the grasslands on the left. So on the moving jeep, I stood up on top of the seats, did my best to focus on the dark shape and fired off shots. Hearing the shutter clicking, Jitudai followed my gaze, and in the most hushed yet excited tones possible, exhorted the driver to get closer to the shadow. We reached at the spot just in time to see the tiger disappearing off into the grasslands to the left, and for a second an upturned tail near a Silk cotton tree, a signal it was spray marking before finally disappearing again.

Tiger-Chitwan

A good way to end my amazing time in Chitwan? My wife had playfully teased me on that very morning as I had left for the safari, ‘Tiger dekh kar aana, nahin toh vaapas mat aana! (Go see a tiger and come, or don’t come back!) Chitwan’s bounty had given me one last treasure to take home with me 🙂

How to get there & Stay:

Chitwan National Park, located in Central Nepal, is most often accessed by road from Kathmandu, a distance of approximately 150 km. Pokhara, another popular tourist destination is located at a similar distance. Chitwan can also be accessed by air, with local flights from Kathmandu to Bharatpur airport, from where depending on the location of your stay, it takes between 1-1.5 hour. It has as many as 9 gates for access, however the one used most commonly is Sauraha, followed by Kasara (also the location of the park HQ) and Meghauli (Bhimle). There are hotels catering to a variety of budgets in Sauraha who will offer packages suited to your needs, inclusive of elephant safaris (only government-owned elephants can enter the park core, all privately-owned elephants can only access the community forests), jungle walks, jeep safaris, elephant bathing sessions etc. For more intimate and luxurious experiences, a combination of new properties and the old ones located formerly in the national park area, have shifted operations just outside the national park close to community forests. Barahi Jungle Lodge, Kasara Resort and Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge are a few examples.

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG