GOA ……WILD Beyond the beaches

The name ‘Goa’ means vacation in the literal sense !! Does’nt it ?  Whenever you hear anybody travelling to Goa , it conjures up the image of Sun, beach , fun , frolic, great food , great people and a mind blasting vacation .

But beyond all this beach, sun and frolic there is a ‘wild’ Goa . A Goa which is rich in fauna and flora . The small state supports a huge section of the Western Ghats which passes through it and is rich in its bio diversity . Be it the ‘tiger’ at the top of its food chain , be it the ‘black panther’ found in the deep forests , be it the different water birds which crowd its shores and its chain of rivers , backwaters and rivulets to the forest birds and the reptiles and insects which are found in every nook and corner of the lovely state.

Out of the total 3700 sq km of the state, 1472 sq km is covered by forests . Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries boast of more than 1512 documented species of plants, over 275 species of birds, over 48 kinds of animals and over 60 genera of reptiles !!

Goa has many famous National Parks, including the renowned Salim Ali bird sanctuary. Other wildlife sanctuaries include the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, Molem Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Madei Wildlife Sanctuary, Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary located on the island of Chorao.

I have been travelling to Goa since 1990s when my family migrated to Goa. But my real discovery of the natural gems started in 2006 when I started bird photography .

Just sitting at the veranda ( porch ) of our house in Ponda, helped me realise the variety of birds which came visiting . A white breasted kingfisher is a regular daily visitor , so are the pale billed flowerpeckers , crimson backed sunbirds,

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purple sunbirds, purple rumped sunbirds , fan tailed flycatchers , tickell’s blue flycatchers , jungle babblers , common ioras, small minivets and a very punctual couple …the Black rumped Woodpecker !!_RDX0198 b r wpOnce I moved beyond the confines of my home in the intermittent visits , a whole new world opened . My visits to Carambolim Lake opp Karmali Station , the lake of the now Syngenta factory , Farmagudi engineering College grounds and Bondla National Park were amazing . The new species which got added to the kitty fueled my desire to explore the wild part of Goa event further .

The fields around Ponda on the Madkai road gave me an exceptionally bold Stork Billed Kingfisher who allowed me very very close .

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During the same shoot, I came across a very philosophical common kingfisher

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Old Goa area along with the Carambolim Lake and the fields beyond were an awesome place for kingfishers, ducks , storks , etc . The above image of the common kingfisher on a beautiful perch was from there . Also saw the wire tailed swallow collect mud for its nest building in the same area . _DX_8982 w t sw

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I was waiting for my cousin to arrive via train and was waiting near the Karmali Station and I got this Darter sunning itself . The lesser Whisting teals also camp in the Carambolim Lake . It is difficult to get them through the thick foliage , but they are there most of the times.

l w tOne of my best sightings of the Little Heron was on a boat ride at the famed Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary near Panjim . The ferry took us from Ribander across the Mandovi River and then we drove down to Chorao Island._RAK4120_l_h

Another awesome place is the Morjim Beach in North Goa . This is a place which is a must do if you want to shoot some waders and water birds . The best time to go here is the morning , when the cool breeze and rising sun makes for a great setting to shoot birds. You will see a lot of health and yoga aficionados going through their routines.

Shot a flock of Heuglin’s Gull taking off . The hi key image is one of my favourite wader images .

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The Kentish Plover makes for a very interesting subject . Easy to approach if you lie still and let them absorb you as a part of the environment.kentish plover

My top haunt of Goa is the Bondla National Park and Tambdi Surla where I have spent my maximum shooting time . There have been more times when I have come back with nothing as far as images go. But it has managed to send me back happy and with a smile ………………always !!

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One of the highlights has been the image of the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher . I was there with my nephew ‘ Rohit’ an awesome birder , 7 days in a row .  On the 8th day, he could not accompany me for the trip , and I got this that same day .  The beauty of this small kingfisher is unparalleled . When I saw him through my viewfinder, just about 20 ft away , I was so mesmerized, I forgot to press the shutter .

Just a few metres away, before I sighted the ODKF, I was busy shooting the Orange headed Thrush .

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The other big catch for me was the Malabar Trogon , the Phantom of the Western Ghats . A dear friend and an avid birder Pankaj Lad was with me when I shot this . His expertise ensured that me and my brother Sandesh made some lovely images of this hard to get bird .

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Shot this through the foliage to get the phantom on a dreamy perch .

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I was wandering the National park near the zoo, when I thought I had sighted a couple of Spotted Owlets. On close examination , it turned out to be the Jungle owlets which were a lifer for me . After an hour of waiting they surprised me by perching at eye level across the road !

Beyond Bondla National Park is Tambdi Surla which is a part of the Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park near Mollem. Another of the rare jewel , the Blue eared Kingfisher is found here .

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Another bird high on the rarity list is the Sri Lankan Frogmouth which can be found at Tambdi Surla .

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I also had the good fortune of clicking the Heart Spotted Woodpecker  at less than minimum focussing distance and I had to use an extension tube to get him in focus .

And then there is the Zuari River , a minefield of waders and river birds . Balchandra Kamat is the undisputed king of this area . One boat ride with him and you understand the depth of knowledge he has about the birds which you find here . Right from the perigrine falcon, the osprey, the white bellied sea Eagle , the black capped and the Collared Kingfisher and the guaranteed sighting of the mugger , it is a treat to be there .

 

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Definitely the place to get an image of the Greater Crested Tern , and Mr Kamat knows how to approach the birds without disturbing them .

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Getting the Osprey with a catch was the highlight of my latest trip to Zuari .osprey

While I was looking for the Black capped Kingfisher , this Collared Kingfisher obliged me by giving a lovely photo-op in great light ._RDX1364 collared kfGoa beckons me like no other birding place . Each time I go there I find something new to shoot .

My better half and my children have been quite supportive of my hobby, but cringe at the idea of ‘Goa’ as a vacation spot , mainly because they then have to answer the barrage of ‘ you guys are sooo lucky, you go to Goa so many times’ statement from their friends . Now it is time, for me to show them the fun frolic side of Goa too . Dont know how I will be able to manage that ? But I hope for the sake of the longevity of my hobby and my longevity as a ‘hubby’ I succeed . ;) AMEN !

 

THE KENYAN ROLLER COASTER

 Africa has captured the imagination of the whole world when it comes to ‘wild nature’ . It is normally the ‘top of the charts ‘ of a nature lover’s bucket list . For me, it is the ‘mecca’ of the natural world …atleast what remains of the natural world . Always dreamt of going to this great continent for a shoot , and my dream turned to reality in August this year when I visited the place with my dad and my brother Sandesh Dhareshwar who also is a very good wildlife photographer .

This blog is dedicated to my dad who is a nature lover and who instilled the love for nature in me .

 

For me and Sandesh , it was trip more from the photographic point of view , and so we were trying to limit the number of places we wanted to go in those 9 days . But for my dad , it was purely the thrill of seeing more and more places in the African continent . So we finally zeroed in on the itenary in May trying to balance both objectives and it was firmed up . Since our plan was to go in August we thought that Kenya would be the perfect place to go as we could catch the wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara . The final itenary was

1. Ol Pajeta Sweetwaters

2. The Ark in Aberdere

3. Lake Nakuru

4. Masai Mara

5. Lake Naivasha

 Travelling to Africa entails that you get a yellow fever vaccination done in advance . Mumbai now has an entire bldg named ‘Airport Health Organisation’ dedicated to vaccinations / quarantine etc. This was thrown open in July .

The bldg is situated a 100m or so before the flyover. Its a new structure AND surprisingly very clean and neat (as of now). They have a pantry too .

Procedure remains the same:
1. Go there to register (10am – 11:30am)
2. Passport and tkt required (with the 13 digit tkt number)
3. The guy there will write your regn number on the reverse of your tkt.
4. You are asked to return by 11:45am
5. First 30 are taken to the 1st floor. Fill up the ‘yellow card’ yourself and await your turn.
6. When your number is announced, pay the fees (Rs. 300) and submit the pp / yellow-card at the counter / sign the register
7. You are let into the doc’s room in batches of 5.
8. Its over in a jiffy and absolutely painless!
9. Collect pp / ‘yellow-card’ on the way out!
10. REMEMBER TO TAKE THE CARD ALONG WHEN U TRAVEL ;)

Note: Only 70 vaccinations per day. It would be wise to send someone ahead to register and then land up there at 11:45 :) .

There was a checklist I had prepared in advance , so that I did not face any difficulties . Do remember to take warm clothes ( Kenya can be very cold )!! Also , ensure you take a external hard drive to download images , and a international power adaptor for your laptop . Battery chargers , CF cards , and if possible more than one camera body .

We reached Nairobi early morning on 13th August . It is a very small airport by international standards . Be sure to buy a SIM card there . Calling back India is cheap from a local number . A top up of around 400 shillings should suffice for around 10 days , if you call everyday . I had taken ‘Safaricom’ and I must say their coverage is to be experienced to be believed . Even in the Mara , there was a strong mobile signal .

The drive from Nairobi to Ol Pajeta took around 6.5 hrs and we reached Sweetwaters around evening . There were a lot of Maribu Storks in Nairobi , but other than that we did not see much bird life around . When we reached the path which leads to the park , there was a Black Shouldered Kite perched beautifully .

Black shouldered Kite

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There were also some superb starlings , and the colour on them was awesome . We were soon to discover that they would be the most abundant of the birds we would encounter in Kenya .

We checked in the resort and then proceeded to drive around the game park . The slight drizzle helped me make a very nice image of the zebra .Zebra in the rain

  The evening safari yielded the first sighting of a one eyed lioness who was very close to an alert group of 4 warthogs . They ensured that there was a fair distance between them and the lioness . 

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 We retired for the day after a long wait , for the lioness to attack the warthogs , which did not materialize after all .

The next day safari was quite a memorable one with sightings of an elephant and its calf , another lioness , a failed chase of a lioness , resulting in the antelope being killed by the electric fence , some bustards and rollers put in for good measure ._RDX8132-hb-The crowned Hornbill sits perched high up a tree in the resort ._RDX8201-w-b-

The masked weaver bird , while we were on the way out of the park .

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The lilac breasted Roller , one of the most beautiful birds I saw on the trip and the Black bellied Bustard in the grassland at Ol Pajeta .

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The yellow throated Spurfowl foraging the undergrowth

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The warthog distancing itself from the hungry lioness , and a protective African elephant mother and its young calf . 

_MG_0207-a-e- Post, the lovely stay at Ol Pajeta , we moved on to ‘The Ark’ in Aberedas , which is basically a wooden hotel overlooking the Yasabara saltlick waterhole. The biblical name is reflected in the lodge’s wooden structure and simple, cabin-style decor.  The lodge’s 60 en suite rooms (divided into singles, doubles, twins and triples) are set out on different decks, and the lodge itself is accessible only via drawbridge.  Each room comes equipped with a bedside buzzer which can be set to wake you should any animals come to the lodge during the night!
We spotted the elephant , hyenas and a lot of birds which were around . It seemed like a great place for birding .

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This almost ‘red’ elephant was shot at ISO 3200 because of the heavy overcast conditions and also because it was quite late in the evening .

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While ‘The Ark’ was a beautiful place , I was eager to leave it , as my next destination was the world famous ‘Masai Mara’ . The drive was a long one …took almost 6 hours to reach there . We did sight some raptors on the way .  

But , the excitement was immense , to say the least . We were eagerly anticipating to witness the great migration . More importantly vivid images of the river crossing were crossing the mind , the ones I had previously seen on NGC , Discovery , etc and was praying that I get to witness the same . When we reached the gates of the Mara , it was late afternoon , and we were itching to get on the Mara .

After a quick lunch , we pushed quickly to get ourselves on to the famed Masai Mara grasslands. The story of the following 2 days in the Mara was almost like a fairyland story .I will just let the images tell the story .

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The skies are clear and the terrain flat !

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The long tailed Starling gave a glimpse of its lovely iriscidence when it perched in awesome light .

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The helmeted Guinea Fowl is quite common to sight , but scurries at the sight of a vehicle . Nervous ? Who would’nt be with predators lurking around !

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The most efficient of the scavengers in the Mara .

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The siblings battle it out to establish domination , and a mousebird at the Sopa Lodges , Masai Mara .

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God ! I hate flies !!

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The nubian vulture perched near the lions waiting for a meal , the yellow throated longclaw on a lovely perch , and the Oxpeckers on their favourite perch , the Cape Horn buffalo .

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The handsome Crowned Cranes always found in pairs.

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My parents have left me in charge ! Hushhhhhh! They are just 20 mts away !!

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The wildebeest herd caught in a flash storm at Masai Mara , and a pair of Southern Ground Hornbills looking for a grub .

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Upclose and personal with the African elephant !

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The famed 3 brothers of the Mara , after a full meal of a wildebeest .

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Mother child bond !!!

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_RDX1101 leopard3 days in the Mara, and I felt the excitement had just started . The best thing was that we had sighted the Big 5 . The food, the service at the Mara Sopa lodge was brilliant . The local people across the country are very friendly !

The next stop was Nakuru . This was a 1 day stopover before we moved onto Naivasha , and then for our return back to Nairobi .

Our luck ran out at Nakuru , where our vehicle had an issue and our driver had to go to the city to get a mechanic to fix it . we lost some precious time and ended up getting only 2 hrs in the park ._RDX9731-zebra-

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_RDX9848-jackal-Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge was the most royal of our trip so far . Wished I had got my family atleast here . The resort touches the lake , and wild animals including giraffes , hippos , apes, waterbucks roam the vast acres of the lodge . The food is top notch , the rooms really luxurious !!!! Got the most beautiful Malachite kingfisher here .

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Definetly going back to Africa , and one thing I realised is that you should have Africa mentioned atleast 5 times in your top 10 bucket list items !!!

The Call Of the Monsoons

Monsoons arrived in Mumbai almost 10 days earlier than their normal schedule . It was a welcome change , as the heat subsided and the weather became a lot cooler . Went on 11th June , Sunday in search of the elusive Cinnamon Bittern and other monsoon special ;) birds . Since it was raining , could not find many birds to shoot , but instead got these hyperactive frogs strutting their wares around to attract mates . One particular male common toad got a very interesting perch and was happily croaking to his hearts content . The surroundings were really colourful , as compared to him . The image is totally unmanipulated . Shows how Nature too knows how to use its brush to create psychedelic effects !!! Have a great monsson .

SHOOTING / PHOTOGRAPHING Shorebirds

There can be a very interesting way of categorising bird photography …. the habitat of the birds . While basics still remain same , shooting a forest bird , grassland bird , shorebird , in their respective habitats all need different techniques . Here we will deal with the nuances of shooting shorebirds . Do watch the space for other shooting styles .

Shooting on the beach has its own challenges . The fine sand and moisture are the biggest threat to our equipment . Salt water can be corrosive and the residual salt particles can wreck havoc with the lenses and cameras if they find a way in . Also , since the beach has no place for us to hide , the bird can spot us from a distance . So approaching shorebirds is a huge task.

Protecting equipment :

So how do we ensure that we keep the intrusive sand and moisture out of our precious equipment . The cheapest way is to use a sheet of plastic which would cover the lens and the camera and use rubber bands at both the ends to seal it off . Neoprane padded body and lens coats are also helpful , but they do not seal it completely . http://www.outdoorphotogear.com/store/lenscoat-body-guard-pro-clear-back-camera-cover.html http://www.outdoorphotogear.com/store/lenscoat-cover-for-canon-lenses.html There are some cool rain covers which offer great protection . http://www.outdoorphotogear.com/store/rain-covers/ . Once you finish shooting ensure that you blow clean the lens and the body before putting it back for storage. Always carry some silica gel handy with you which you can put in the bag . This would ensure that the lenses and cameras are dry till you reach home . A second round of cleaning and blow drying is always recommended after you reach home / hotel . At home , I use the DigiCabi for storing the cameras and lenses . It keeps your equipment at optimum temperature and humidity . http://www.digihub.com.sg/SubCategoryList.aspx?MainCategoryID=18

Best time to shoot

The best time to shoot shorebirds is early morning – mid morning in the west coast and then early evening till a bit after sunset in the east coast . This is true when you want to shoot with the light . Remember you can make some brilliant silhouttes shooting against the light on the beach . Some inlets / islands  in your coast might offer different directions to shoot , so ensure that you do a bit of research and be aware of the oppurtunities they would present .

The other timing you should be aware is the migration pattern and breeding times for the subject you wish to shoot . Most of these shorebirds have some brilliant breeding plumages . A dull bird in other seasons will turn into an art form during breeding .

Knowledge of the tide timings is critical while making good images . Many times , we see photographers who come back with abundance of amazing images , and when we arrive at the same location we see that the birds are miles away . Makes you wonder how the photographer actually approached these skittish birds . Trust me the photographer did not have to run behind the birds …..the birds approached him instead . The trick is to reach there 2-3 hrs before high tide . Since the water is steadily coming in , the birds too start coming inshore . If you can ensure you get hold of a vantage point …all you need to do is sit and wait .

So early morning /evening ,during breeding season , 3 hrs before high tide is the perfect time to shoot shorebirds . Sadly ,such coincidences are few and far , and it pays to ensure that you research well in advance . This would ensure that you are not too dependant on your ‘luck’.

Making the image

Shooting at the beach will give you loads of oppurtunities to make portraits , high keys , flight images etc . The angle while shooting is very important if you want a winner . Birds on the ground give a great chance to make a ground level image , while lying flat on the ground . This would ensure that you have a clean background . But the moment you shoot from a height , this same advantage poses a problem . The background ( sand) is too close to the bird and you are shooting the bird at an akward angle . So, the key is to ensure that you lie flat on the ground .

This also makes you look very small and so the birds are not very wary about approaching you . The flipside is that you would be very uncomfortable lying on the wet sand . So ensure that either you are in old clothes …not much worry of damaging the clothes or if you can bear the sweat , use a plastic cover as a sheet on the ground .

Using the tripod ( the lowest you can go) , bean bag , a child’s scooter , skate board , or contraptions such as the skimmer all help movement while keeping the lens as close to ground as possible . Do not , under any circumstance keep the lens on the sand .

When the bird is approaching you due to the tide coming in , try and make some wide images . Check on the histogram for the exposure on these images . There could also be a case where you will have to keep moving back . Remember to dial in + ve exposure for white birds .

Most of these waders fly and hover when the water comes in and then settle down when the water recedes . These are great oppurtunities for some good flight shots . If you have another body and lens in the 300-400 range , it is a perfect situation to be in . You can use this combination for flight images .

While shooting birds near to the waves , ensure that you do that while is wave is forming and not breaking . The waves break into white foam and it can be seen as disturbing lines and formations in the Background .

Most of the waders also fly in groups . They make for some very interesting creative images using the patterns they make while flying . Remember to try hi key / slow shutters to maximise your experience .

Shooting from a boat

It can be good idea to explore the possibility of a boat ride while shooting near the beach . The advantages are that it tends to become a natural hide , as birds are not too wary , and they infact approach these boats to try and get some easy meal . Make sure that you can handle your equipment in the boat specially if it is a small one . These boats can make it very difficult for you to balance yourself and the equipment and you might end up losing your precious camera . Small lenses are better for smaller boats . The bigger boats normally would have space to set up your tripod . It is always better to inform the boatman beforehand that he would have to cut off the engine before approaching the birds . Remind yourself that it is not worth risking life and equipment for an image , so ensure that you do not push him ( in terms of safety) especially for an image . Grey herons , purple herons , mangrove birds like kingfishers , stilts , sandpipers , flamingoes , terns , littel herons etc are quite approachable from the boat . Raptors like the White bellied Sea Eagle , Ospreys , Marsh Harriers , etc also let you approach when on a boat . Ensure high shutters by pushing up a bit of ISO to make these images . Image stabilised lenses are a great asset while shooting from boats .

So the next time you head to the shore for some shooting , remember to do some research, carry loads of fresh water, sunscreen if possible , a change of clothes, towels and maximise your shooting experience . And please do not litter the pristine environment :)

TIGER On Wings – The Eurasian Eagle owl

Turrehalli , a small place on the outskirts of Bangalore on the way to Mysore was my favourite place for birding . This was way back in 2005 , when I had just started birding . Bangalore was new city to me and one of my first birding friend was Job Joseph . He was kind enough to have me join him on a trip to Turrehalli . I had a Nikon D 70 and a Sigma 170-500 and had yet to believe in buying a tripod . Bird photography was kinda new hobby and I was under the impression that , if you do not use a tripod , you are truly skilled !! Seeing Job lug a tripod with this camera setup was pretty amusing . The day was great with some images of Grey breasted prinia , red rumped bulbuls , ashy prinias ,green bee eaters etc . Job , meanwhile was talking about the Eurasian Eagle owl which was found in the area . I had not seen any Owl other than a Barn Owl , and was really excited at the prospect of seeing an owl .

I was busy shooting a Rock Agama sunning itself on a rock when it happened . Job shouted ‘ Owl behind you ‘ and by the time I turned , it had just flown past me . A mere 2 feet away from me !!! and the sound was as much as a needle falling on the ground . Speechless , I looked at him flying away to settle on a branch of an eculayptus tree around 50 ft away . The owl was HUGE !! Almost 3.5 ft wingspan and it did not make any sound during its flight . Huge furry legs with talons as big as 3 inches . It seemed as if a TIGER ON WINGS had just flown past me !!!

Owls have the outer ends of their flight feathers lacking in barbules, ii.e.they are unzipped – this makes the edges softer and reduces the noise they make, silent flight helps an owl catch its prey. The design of owls’ wings allows them to fly in almost absolute silence. Different parts of their wings and the characteristics of their feathers contribute to their silent flight. Owls have broad wings with large surface areas that help them to float through the air without flapping too much. Less flapping makes less noise.

We took some shots from that distance and then moved further up to get some better images . All this while , I was too engrossed in shooting the owl , so did not bother to check the image on the camera . As we moved ahead , the owl rotated its head , in a manner , I had never seen before . It was around 180 deg turn and it amost looked as if it had no features . Wow ! that head turn was something and I wondered why it needed such a massive head turn .

Well it turns out that owls eyes are fixed and they connot move it in the sockets  the way we can ,to see from side to side . So to ensure that they can see all round , their heads can move 270 deg . Uff !! And to help achieve that they have an extra vertebrae to allow for this rotation !!!

The bird then faced us , and what was striking in its feautures was the almost deep sunset colour of the eyes and the funny tufts of feathers on the head , which seemed to make it look a bit softer . But then everything in nature seems to be because of a reason .

The large eyes are there , because owls are primarily nocturnal hunters ( hunt at night ). While they have been known to attack prey as large as peacocks and hares , rats and mice are their primary food . That’s the reason for those huge eyes which have well developed binocular vision (seeing an object with both eyes at the same time). This means the owl can see objects in 3 dimensions (height, width, and depth), and can judge distances in a similar way to humans. The field of view for an owl is about 110 degrees, with about 70 degrees being binocular vision.

The funny tufts are also called ‘ ear tufts’ . The reason being , they are normally in front of a very sensitive and highly eveolved auditory ( hearing ) system . The face of owl are like a convex bowl which concentrates the incoming sound and transfers it to the ear openings . The brain can detect which ear picked up the sound and then the owl would move its face in that direction till both ears hear it perfectly together . This helps the owl determine the exact direction from which the sound is coming and help pinpoint and locate it’s prey .Owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 0.00003 seconds (30 millionths of a second!) They can detect some frequencies accurately and target prey which are moving in thick foliage , snow or even underground !!!

I managed some images, before the huge guy flew away . The images on the back LCD seemed great . We left the place and I sat in my car to go back home . I thought of ‘chimping ‘ again at my images and check them before we leave . I started checking the images at greater magnification and it dawned on me that each one of those images had some amount of ‘shake’ . My amazing ‘on field’ moments had turned into agony , for the simple reason that I did not use a tripod . I directly headed for the shop and picked up a tripod and a head . ( one of the most important investments for a bird photographer , esp if you do not have stabilisation in your lenses ).

I went back to Turehalli atleast 5-6 times after that , but only managed to sight the owl once and get an ok image of it perched high in the branches . The mystic of the ‘Bubo Bubo ‘ lingered and I yearned for a sighting which was as good as the first one . I did get an image of the Indian Nightjar .

I subsequently got transferred to Pune and there used to be long discussions with my dear friends Rahul Rao , Vishal Jadhav , Shrikant Ranade among others about the Euarsian Eagle Owl. Tried a lot to get this mysterious bird during my year long ( otherwise fruitful) stay in Pune . But the mystical bird eluded me .

The last two years in Bombay , now meant that I would have to travel long distances for bird photography . The one paradise Uran, near Bombay was sacrificed on the altar of development and greed . http://www.thewildside.rakeshdhareshwar.com/wordpress-3.0.1/wordpress/?p=167

Did hear about reports of this owl being seen near the Borivali NP , Karjat , Solapur , etc . As I was getting desperate with each passing season , a trip to Solapur enroute Pune fulfilled my dream of seeing the ‘TIGER ON WINGS ‘. This time , I took my wife and my kids while going to this place where it had been sighted .  When we reached the place , there were no signs of any bird . Slowly we could make out a Shikra sitting in the shade . A Spotted Owlet flew from one of the crevices . The anticipation of sighting the Eagle Owl was building up .

And then we sighted a Eurasian eagle Owl on the edge of a precipe . The camoflague of this beauty was just too good for the kind of habitat . It frequents rocky scruby areas , and nests on the ground or on the edge of a cliff . The Owl was staring at the sun and then turned its head to look at us . A minute later , it flew to occupy a small rock cut in the middle of the lake , and it was then we noticed the second Owl . A third one was perched opposite to us at the far end on the cliff . Woah ! We had discovered three Eurasian Eagle Owls . We had to cross the small hillock to reach the other side of the lake . A white breasted kingfisher was sitting fearlessly on a beautiful perch and I stopped to make some images of the beauty.

Next we crossed the small rocky path to reach below the rock cut where there were two Eagle owls sitting in the shade . The next 15 minutes were pure bliss , making some lovely images of the pair sitting so assured .

After a while they flew away to join , the lone Owl on the cliff . I used the rock cut as a hide , and was making some images , when I got an image , I consider one of my best birding images . The owl spread it’s wings to look bigger and with its beak slightly open hopped towards me . I am not sure if this is an attack mode , but the owl did look completely scary . Eurasian eagle owls are known to attack people if they feel threathned , and this display was enough to scare me .

After a while we turned back to go home . At the end of the water body , one owl was perched at very close range . This seemed to be the female as it was a very small one . Happy that the party was still not over , I spend another 10 mins getting as many good images .

This encounter with the Eurasian Eagle Owl was a memorable one . The species had taught me basics of photography ie. use a tripod . And I was happy that my second encounter had yielded me good results , because I had learnt from my mistake.

While the species is ‘Least Concern’ status in IUCN , and widely spread across the whole of Europe and Asia , it is one species who are threathned because of  our superstitions .They are poached because there is a huge demand for owl products in the ‘black magic’ market . Because of their nocturnal habits they are supposed to possess mystical powers . People wear their eyes on their hands to ward off evil . A ‘live’ Eurasian Owl can fetch almost 30-45k in the black market . Haman or black magic practitioners ( tantriks ), prescribe the use of owls and their body parts such as skull, feathers, ear tuffs, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, fat, beak, tears, eggshells, meat and bones for ceremonial pujas and rituals.

Besides black magic, owls are trapped and traded for use in street performances; killed for taxidermy and for their meat; their parts are used in folk medicines; even their claws and feathers are sometimes used in headgear. Live owls are also used as decoys to catch other bird species.

The main centres of this trade are the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar.

The magic of these royal creatures can work only in way . In a positive way . If we save our forests , and not poach these magnificient creatures , let them BE . The joy of watching these strong , graceful hunters is unrivalled . As much as the TIGERS are our torch bearers for conservation activities , The TIGER ON WINGS and every natural living being has as much a role, to make our lives meaningful and preserve the balance of nature . I hope you feel captivated by these beauties and spread the ‘CONSERVATION MANTRA’ for our future !

I hope the eye the owls have ward off our evil intentions towards them and keep the magnificient birds among us .


http://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/owl-fly-silently1.htm

http://www.earthlife.net/birds/feathers.html

http://www.owlpages.com/

http://blogs.nationalgeographic.com/blogs/news/chiefeditor/2010/11/magic-potions-threaten-india-owls.html

http://www.traffic.org/species-reports/traffic_species_birds12.pdf

The Great migration of the (Falco amurensis) AMUR FALCON

One of the most mysterious passage migrants of India is the beautiful Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) . This falcon breeds in Northern China and South eastern Siberia and spends all summer there . It undertakes a migration journey from this region all the way to Southern Africa where they spend the winter and then undertake the journey back home .This raptor is not among the endangered list . But there is a huge interest when it comes to the falcon. Why ?? . The reason seems to because of the ardous and one of the longest migrations underatken by a raptor . Also the fact that in one of the routes it undertakes , it has to cross the Indian Ocean , flying non stop for almost 3 days !!!! Wow !! On the Indian subcontinent , they have been seen in the North east , West Bengal , Madhya Pradesh , Gujarat , Rajasthan, Maharashtra , Goa and places in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh . These birds are hunted and eaten in areas around Nagaland , and this is a major threat to this beautiful bird.

The bulk of sightings of this bird in the western part of the country is restricted to mid-November to mid- December, and then again during April/May on their return journey . There is a possibility that they may change their route during the return journey . The sightings are normally of huge flocks of 200+ birds and maximum sightings are around dusk and dawn .

Dr Vaibhav from Alibag has been sighting and tracking this bird on a regular basis . My interest was fueled by his reportings and I too desperately wanted to see this beautiful migrant . I was planning a trip to Alibag to capture an image , but the plan never materialised .

On a work trip to Nasik , I happened to have a few hours free and I just started on a small trip on the outskirts of the city . My drive along the road was fruitless , except for the sighting of some shrikes and stonechats . It was when I was returning back when I saw a ‘kestrel’ hovering on a field next to the road . I stopped the car and then I saw a huge congregation of these birds on the powerline which was running across the field . It then dawned on me that I was in fact witnessing the ‘great migration ‘. I had finally sighted the ‘AMUR FALCON ‘ !!!!

My hands were trembling with excitement while setting my my my my ( I am still excited!!! :) ) big gun . None of the birds were on any natural perch . They seemed to favour the electric lines to perch . When the subject is rare and  important ,the perch seems really unimportant . Made some images from the road .

To get near , I had to cross through a barbed wire fence along with my equipment . I tore my shirt in doing that , and the locals seemed very amused at my stunts . I got some good flight shots too .

The flow of the birds from the horizon was amazing and they seemed headed for the powerlines only . As I looked skywards , the scene stunned me . There was a huge cloud of 400+ birds which were hovering way up . Wish I had a normal lens to catch this sight .

I stayed there for another 20 mins , just watching them , trying to take in as much as possible , till the sunset . I headed back to the city , satisfied and elated that an ‘out of the blue‘ visit to the outskirts of the city yielded me with my much coveted dream of sighting the AMUR !!!!

Some interesting links :

http://www.kolkatabirds.com/amurnagaland.htm

http://www.africanraptors.org/amur-falcon-migration-route-finally-plotted/

http://www.globalraptors.org/grin/SpeciesResults.asp?specID=8225

http://addithebirde.blogspot.com/2007/11/amur-falcons-in-mumbai.html

The death of an ‘Eco system’

p>Ecosystem

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The term ecosystem refers to the combined physical and biological components of an environment. An ecosystem is generally an area within the natural environment in which physical (abiotic) factors of the environment, such as rocks and soil, function together along with interdependent (biotic) organisms, such as plants and animals, within the same habitat. Ecosystems can be permanent or temporary. Ecosystems usually form a number of food webs.

So what does ‘Ecosystem’ mean to you ….to us …HUMAN BEINGS ??? And how does it affect us ?? OR ……Does it ??

Last year, I took part  in the HSBC Bird Race , Mumbai Chapter , and it started with a ‘minute silence ‘ , for the untimely death of ‘URAN – A Birding Hotspot of Mumbai ‘ ..of India . A place which gave shelter to more than 300 species of birds , mammals like wolf , hares ,foxes and many others . It also gave us, HUMANS , shelter , a place to develop , a great port ‘JNPT’ . IT was a true ‘ECOSYSTEM’ , to the truest sense of the word !!! Because it gave us a place in its scheme of things . Little did it know , that the inclusion of this ‘ONE SPECIES ‘ would turn out to be carcinogenic and sound the death knell for all the other hundreds that were a part of it .

My association with Uran began back on December 23rd 2006 when Krishnan V, took me out for a birding trip to the place . I used to stay in Pune then, and I used to wonder where the Mumbai birders went for birding .I remember my first visit in the winter , the roads were narrow and the early morning mist and the dark skies at 5.30 am , saw the increasing serpentine queues of loaded trucks making their way to JNPT . There was no super wide roads then and the dusty roads did bother you . We reached Uran by 6.15 am and the birding started right near the school on the main road . The stretch near the school would be home to munias , stonechats , bee eaters . Further down, the long road leading to the JNPT police station was a treat to watch on both sides . Flamingoes, Redshanks , Terns , Open billed storks, Eurasian Spoonbills, Shovelers , Shelducks , Herons , Egrets , Stilts ……….the list was endless !!!!! I still remember the first action shot I had got there !!

It was just the start of a great friendship . My respect for the place just went up exponentially . It was one of the few places which has delivered more than I expected . It was in a sense an ‘Oasis ‘ in the concrete jungle .

My association with the place continued . Whenever I used to visit Mumbai , I always used to have time for a trip to my favourite haunt – Uran . I relocated to Mumbai in November 2007 , and my visits became a weekly affair . The fact was that the place was magical and difficult for any other place nearby to match it in terms of the species , one could find .

Getting to Uran became easier and easier with the huge highways that were getting built . I was impressed by the balanced development that was taking place . All the while I thought that this was just to ensure proper connectivity between JNPT and the Mumbai city . It never dawned that destruction of the habitat would be a package deal !!

All was well till about November 2009 . We used to hear about the propsed SEZ in Uran in ‘forwards’ and from some people . There was a nagging thought that Uran in the present form would last ‘maybe’ for another 2-3 yrs . Time enough for us to move …maybe meet the ‘right’ people …make the ‘right noise’ and try and save this wealth .


The general feeling about the horizon of 2-3 yrs stemmed from the fact that we are used to the slowness of work at the government level . Files takes days and sometimes weeks to move from one table to another . Nothing ever gets done without a mnimum of 2-3 visits . Also the setbacks in Nadigram and other SEZ venues were a benchmark . Little did we know that the SEZ brigade had devised a formula to ensure that there were no hiccups of any kind to the work . Imagine 4000 hectares of land to be filled and flattened . The fills would range from 2-4 ft . Imagine the quantum of sand/mud needed to do that . A 2-3 year horizon was the fastest we could have imagined .

I visited Uran in October 2009 and there were a few trucks carrying mud and doing the land fill work esp near the temple at the entry of Uran . My next visit to Uran in November 2009 , a mere 26 days apart shocked me !!! I was in tears at the destruction which was in front of me . In 26 days flat the whole of the marshy land in front of the JNPT was FLAT . The heart of URAN was gone ! There were no birds in sight . An ecosysytem was brutally murdered .


There were some patches near the main highway where the birds ahd taken refuge . Even in its deathbed , Uran continued to bless me with images of a Bluethroat , a common kestrel on the ground . My first sighting of a Short eared Owl on the HSBC bird Race day . While there is grief and anger at the way we responded to the SOS from Uran , there is just a prayer that we are able to save some thousands of oasis in and around Mumbai . Right now , places like Karnala Bird Sanctuary ( widening of the Goa Highway ), mangroves across the state are vanishing . There is a huge demand for sand in Mumbai for construction of buildings and they are sourced by illegal dredging all along the coast . The will to save natural resources seems to be the least in Maharastra . The most recent example is the mining licences given to the mining barons in the forest rich areas of Sindhudurg.
While this rut is a national phenomena ,states like Goa and Kerala seem more aware and willing to save natural resources , mainly because the population at large is more informed and aware .

One very interesting video on the conservation efforts on and the repurcusion of bad implementation has made a impact on me . It is by Romulus Whitaker and the video is embeded here .

Till there is life , there is always hope , and I just hope that people do wake up to the fact about development that natural wealth is the only wealth that will make the future generations feel proud about the heritage we will leave them with .
Hope such golden mornings will not be lost in the time to come ! AMEN !! .

The Call Of the HIMALAYAN BIRDS

What would you call a person who has never travelled beyond Madhya Pradesh in 34 yrs of his existence ??? . ‘Plain Unlucky !’ and to understand why , one has to travel up NORTH…the foothills of the Himalayas……… and beyond, to understand the terms ‘FRESH’ ,’GRANDEUR ‘ , ‘MYSTIC’,'RAW’,'SPECIES’ , ‘BIRDS’ . And my chance came this year with a trip to Sattal and Pangot .

For the past two yrs , me and a fellow bird photographer , and a very good friend Shrikant Ranade had been trying to make a pure ‘bird photography’ trip together . Work schedules , my transfer from Pune to Mumbai , a new job , etc always ensured that it never happened . This year after the acquisition of a Canon 1D Mk III and the monster Canon 600mm f4 IS, there was a paradigm shift in terms of shooting more quality than quantity . Having explored most of West and South up to Bangalore , there were 2 options in front of us – KERALA or NORTH !

After much mulling over the feasibility of South vs North , we decided to go to Sattal and Pangot . The reasons were , that Kerala can be done with an overnight trip and the number of ‘lifer’ species would be limited . Pangot and Sattal were already made famous by Clement and Nitin S. in INW and their posts just added fuel to our motivation . The preparations for the trip included taking cues and help from Rahul Rao, Clement , Rajneesh Suvarna , Nitin S. and Subharghya Das . It also meant taking the all important permissions from the ‘home ministry ‘ . After a lot of lobbying , and cajoling , the file was finally passed , and we had our permissions in place !!!

All this while, we were searching for our third musketeer and finally Sandesh Dhareshwar , my elder brother and a hobbyist wild life photographer , jumped at the prospect .And this was an added advantage in gaining confidence at the home ministry !! November 20th – 26th were the days we finally decided on .We were to stay at ‘Jungle Lore Birding Camp ‘ in Sattal and Pangot and our itenary was 2 days in Pangot and 2 days in Sattal .

20th NOVEMBER 2009:

With days of staring at the bird book …..the totally new species we were to encounter ,to waking up in the middle of night happy to get a ‘full frame’ image of Silver-eared Mesia , the day of the trip finally dawned . There was a constant prayer that the flights do not get delayed . But then the wait was extended and both mine and Sandesh’s flight was delayed due to some runaway problem in Mumbai . We reached around 1/2 hr late from our scheduled arrival at Delhi and there we saw a relieved Shrikant ( after consuming 7 cups of coffee ….waiting for us ) at the airport . But the joy was a bit short-lived as Sandesh’s baggage held us up for half an hr more .

Finally , @ 12.30 pm , we got to move . The air was cool and pleasant and the afternoon light did not feel harsh at all. Traversing the city traffic took us around 1.5 hrs and then our driver wasted another 20 minutes to pay the tax for entry into Uttar Pradesh ( he was too egoistic to ask for directions !!!! ) . At around 2.30 pm we stopped for a sumptuous lunch at Hapur . The journey after the break was one filled with constant chatter and the occasional laughter between the jokes cracked . The general lack of road sense did make us a bit tense at times .

Crossing the Ganga was a first in my life , and somehow it did feel nice !! We reached Moradabad at around 5.30 pm and it was pitch dark by then . I had never experienced anything like that before . Stars at around 6.00 in the evening is unheard of in the West !!! The fog slowed us further and it dawned on us that the shooting/birding time we would have up in the hills would be really less .

The route we took from Delhi to reach Pangot was : Delhi – Ghazibad – Hapur – Moradabad – Rampur – Kaldungi – Nainital – Pangot . CLICK FOR MAP

You can also take a train from Delhi to Kathgodam ( last junction for broad gauge in Uttaranchal ) . You will need to book a vehicle for the onward journey to Nainital .

A journey which took us around 9.5 hrs . It included 1 stop( 45 minutes ) for lunch , 20 mins for a puncture . The temp. at Pangot was around 8 deg . We were greeted warmly by the Jungle Lore staff . The Lodge at Pangot is on the side of a hill and the gradient is something you have to get used to . The dinner tasted delicious and there was the talk of the birds found in Pangot . We were housed at the Upper Cottage , a very spacious and luxurious cottage made of wood . The view is awesome and the bed very cosy .

21st NOVEMBER 2009

We started early next morning and went on the Vinayak Road . The highlight was the Himalayas . It was a dream come true . The view is so breathtaking that you lose control of yourself .

( L to R ) Me , Shrikant Ranade , Babulal ( our driver ) and Ghyansham ( our guide).

The long winding road in the hills is treacherous and beautiful . So much so , that you start keeping an eye on the driver , lest he drop you in one of the sheer vertical drops !!!!

There was work going on the road and also the reason for the poor sightings on this road . We expected to sight the Cheer Pheasant and/or the Koklaas Pheasant , but we came back with sightings and pictures of the Himalayan Griffon , Mountain Hawk eagle , Altai Accentor , Eurasian Jay , Yellow breasted Greenfinch , Spot winged Tit .

We came back to the lodge , unsure about Pangot delivering on the birding for us . Lama , our guide for the rest of the trip was ready for us . Also the place around the lodge , was full of action with Red-billed blue magpie , white throated laughing thrush , Streaked  laughingthrush , himalayan bulbuls dancing around and perching for us .

We had our breakfast and then Lama took us to his woodpecker haunt near the lodge . We got some ok shots of the Rufous bellied woodpecker and the Himalayan Woodpecker . No sooner , were they getting comfortable with our presence , did the bad news in terms of the fog come about .We went back to the lodge , dejected . The lunch was a quick one , intersped with some photography , when a bird used to land on some perch !

We decided to cut our visit short in Pangot by one night and leave for Sattal the next morning .

That decided , we waited for the fog to disappear and then went down the valley to do some birding . The birding was lovely , but the fast failing light ensured that we had to shoot at high ISO all the time . We got the Rusty cheeked Schimitar Babbler , Great Barbet , Blue Whistling thrush ,White capped Redstart , Plumbeous Redstart , Chestnut bellied Rock Thrush ( female). While , the species count was not great by the region’s standards , for us , these were ‘LIFERS’ .

Bird species  seen for the first time and it was a small snapshot of the days to come .

We reached the camp at 6.00 pm and hurriedly transferred all the pics on to the external Hard Dive . There was a small drive back to Nainital , to fix the tyre puncture . After we came back , the spirits were high ( pun intended ) and we had our dinner by 9.00pm . I had to climb the hill to get some signal to call back home . The Upper Cottage is kept warm with some electric heaters , but the traditional fireplace is the one which imparts a certain amount of coziness . The fragrance of burning pine wood adds makes up for a very dreamy sleep .

22nd NOVEMBER 2009

The next day we woke up early and wandered around the lodge to get some birds in the field . We saw some dark fronted tit , rufous sibia , rock bunting , grey hooded warbler , rufous tailed shrike , russet sparrow , pink browed rosefinch . A red -billed blue magpie appeared from nowhere and flew above our head .The bird is a beauty with lovely soft colors and the tail swished in the air when it takes its wonderful flight . The bird headed straight for our resort and all three of us , lugging our equipment ran behind it to make some images . I being the heaviest and also carrying the heaviest equipment was left far behind the nimble gazelle like Sandy and Shrikant . They followed the bird across the fields and I stopped in the resort to catch my breath .

I was going to get luckier , since just metres away from me I got to see this Scaly bellied Woodpecker doing the proverbial worm stuff !! But , before I could get my Canon to lock focus, he flew away in a place where light was wanting . Beggars can’t be choosers , I thought to myself and jacking up the ISO made some images of the beauty . Shrikant too got to make some amazing images of the beauty while returning back .

The breakfast was a quick one. After breakfast ,we left for the village in the valley again .We did not hope to find many birds , as we were already thinking about Sattal . Barely a hundred metres from the lodge , we saw some more red billed blue magpies , some chestnut bellied rock thrush . We instructed Babulal to drive very slow and stop at the instant we ask him to . On the right side of the road was a female grey bushchat and unlike the Himalayan birds , turned out to be very co-operative.

A bit further down after the photo-op with the female , we were destined to catch up with a more than willing male who was not disturbed with us moving to about 10 ft from him .

After trudging down to the stream where we had sighted the Rusty cheeked schimitar babbler and the redstarts , we were greeted with ’0′ activity . I asked Lama what would be the case beyond the stream , and he said it is normally not great . Instead , of going back , we decided to hit the unknown patch and try our luck . To our surprise , it did not take much time for our luck to change . A sighting of the White-browed Shrike Babbler , led to another one .. A Greater Yellownape Woodpecker !!! What a beauty !! The next 30 minutes were frantic birding activity . A Great barbet, Chestnut bellied Rock Thrush , Red billed Blue Magpies, a flock of slaty headed parakeets creating a huge cacophony .

After a good hour of birding , we headed back to the lodge . Shrikant , had a theory that the maximum number of birds would be found near human settlements , and we got proof of it when we got some lovely images of Eurasian Jay and Red billed Blue Magpie, in a small hamlet on the way back.

We got some Hanuman Langurs in the way and they seemed healthier than their western cousins , maybe because of a heavier coat ??

The packing at the lodge was a quick one and we bid the wonderful hosts good-bye .

The journey from Pangot to Sattal was an uneventful one , except that we were checking if we could get some batteries fo Sandy’s D 200 , which had started behaving erratically due to the cold . No such luck fo Sandy and he would have to contend with the behaviour for the rest of the trip .

We reached Sattal at around 2.30 pm, and even before we could get out of the vehicle saw a Blue Whistling Thrush at minimum focussing Distance ( MFD ) . Loved the place even before I alighted !!

We made some images and then walked down the path to the dining area of the lodge . The dining area was a cute one , but the resort had one huge problem . The bigger tents were some almost 3 stories below and since 3 of us had to share a tent , it would be one cumbersome flight up the stair-like path for the rest of the three days . I was so paranoid that I kept my lens / tripod and camera at the dining area , the whole day and would get them down only in the evening . The tents felt a bit claustrophobic after the huge space we enjoyed in Pangot and the amenities too were found wanting . The food and service though was awesome .

Our goal was not to get more species . Our evening trip was to a place called ‘Cha Fee ‘, a small hamlet on the river bank and the idea was to get as many river birds as possible . The sloping road had ended with a valley on one side and the river flowed down . We stopped at a place where the river was around 40 ft down and we walked to road to try our luck . Two minutes was all it took for me to sight a Yellow bellied fantail , a cute restless bird . A blue whistling thrush and a plumbeous redstart were playing down below in the water . The light was not great and all the images I was making were ISO 1250+ . A Streaked laughing thrush landed on a rock just in front of us and the background was fresh green grass . While the bird was one, which was fairly common , the setting was an unbelievable one .Then a  spotted forktail , was spotted and we let a cry of joy . We were reminded of the three species found there and these were high on the wish list !!! The forktail was far away , but we clicked to our heart’s content , lest we not see them again on the trip .

The light falls very quickly in the mountains . When we moved ahead , we were delighted to see a slaty backed forktail . I got some lovely images of it . A male red gorgeted Flycatcher was hopping from boulder to boulder . We sat back in the  Tavera , and drove towards Cha Fee. We had to cross a bridge , which was being freshly painted . Below the bridge was the river and the place we had to get down . From the bridge , we sighted two brown dippers . After some record shots , we walked gingerly through the winding ‘paivat’ to the river . There was the white capped redstart and the plumbeous redstart strutting its wares . A common stonechat was playing withs favourite perch . I was clear as to what I was looking out for !! ‘ Brown Dippers , forktails and the crested kingfisher ‘ . A crested kingfisher flew in front of us , but did not perch anywhere near us . The Dippers too were very shy and not approachable . Me and Shrikant thought it was better to make some images of the redstarts when the ‘surprise package’ dropped on us . There was some movement at the base of the bridge and there was a dash of yellow. I spotted it and directed Shrikant towards it . We had spotted the Yellow throated marten . A very brief encounter and I was very happy to have some record shot . The light was almost gone and I was up at 3200 and ‘+’ ISO , when from the top emerged one Yellow Throated Marten . I was making his images , when he was followed by not one , not two but three more . Phew, it was fun to watch them . They started running on top of the hillock . The grace of the martens left me spellbound. The sighting was for around 5 minutes , and it left me deliriously happy .

We trudged back to the jeep , happy with our sightings and images . We reached the resort and time was spent in transferring the images and talks ranged from what we saw and what all we needed to see in the next two days . Shrikant was awesome with his jokes and I will never forget the prayer he told us . ‘ TATA ne aapia ..mane nathi aapia , GODREJ ne aapia mane nathi aapia ‘ .Me and Sandy were in splits :)

23rd NOVEMBER 2009

After our early breakfast , we drove up a kilometre towards the village panchayat grounds . The grounds have hordes of lantana , and all the small birds come there in the morning . Lama told us the Ruby throat had arrived and we excited at the prospect of sighting one . It was funny to see red vented bulbuls ! The common birds we had seen here in West felt misplaced there . Some Common Stonechats too were doing their morning exercises . We entered a lantana field led by Lama , and we were directed to one side , as he had heard their song and he was sure we would sight the rubythroat .

And then it happened . From the lantana , a rubythroat emerged and it was such a beautiful sight , that we forgot to press the shutter .It was almost as if a real ruby was placed on the throat of a simple looking bird , to make it remarkably beautiful . Try as much, we could not sight it again there . A Russet sparrow was singing on a lovely perch . There were some grey bushchats around in great light . The light brought some good fortune to us . Some Red billed blue Magpies were making sorties across the field . The forest cover in BG made it difficult for us to track and keep them in focus . I brought down the AF sensitivity in my camera and then managed some decent images of the beautiful bird .

Shrikant and Sandesh stuck on the field still focussed on finding the elusive rubythroat . I decided to walk around the road and try my luck in the small valley diagonally opposite the fields .

A Slaty backed flycatcher female appeared in the open near the road , and then I got the catch of my trip. A Mountain Bulbul . It was just across on a tree in good light , but the background could have been better . It kept running around , but always in the shade and it was difficult to make any images . A small niltava and a rufous niltava were playing hide and seek in the lantana below . Some warbler was plyaing in the branches atop a tree . I called Shrikant on the mobile to tell him , that it was time to move . He sounded very excited on the other side of the line . They had got the rubythroat ‘full frame’ .  Me , my gear and my weight , all ran towards the field , a good 100 mtrs dash . The rubythroat had gone by then , and a rufous bellied accentor , slaty backed flycatcher , blue fronted redstart , streaked laughingthrush were the ones around .

We wrapped up the morning session to go to the resort and have breakfast . The plan was to hit the park , near the Sattal ‘lake’. On the way , we spotted the Slaty headed parakeet . We made some images and moved down to the park . All this while , me and Shrikant had this ‘keeda’ of trying some local dishes . There was a small dhaba near the entrance and we asked him about the local food. He suggested momos’ and we ordered for the veg variety . We climbed down the stairs to reach the park . The first bird to be sighted was a Asian Barred Owlet roosting on a small tree . He seemed like a calm customer , and allowed us to within 20 ft .
We shot to our heart’s content . The fella did not bother to even move from there . Lama then told us that there is a possibility of the Brown Fish Owl further up . We left the Owlet to bask in the morning sun . Shrikant ran behind a treecreeper , but it somehow escaped his lens .

The path in the park was besides a ‘nala’ which ran parallel and ended it journey , further down is a scenic lake . The forest surrounding the park is fairly thick and the light perpetually low . After searching in vain for the Brown Fish Owl , we settled down near a small stream where we were expecting some feathered visitors. The cacophony in the tree tops led us to believe that we were in for a birding treat . Lama explained how Clement had made some wonderful images on his trip last summer at that very place . After waiting in vain fo around half an hour , we decided to walk down further . Lama heard the chestnut headed tesia and we were eager for a sighting . None was forthcoming though. We heard the golden bush robin , but could not sight it . An orange flanked bush robin was dancing around us , and we did get to make some images . We decided to head back to the camp . On the way I got a Blue Whistling thrush perched on a rock , but as usual in the shade . We reached the point where we saw the owlet still waiting for us , along with some hot momos , the dhaba guy had got . We gobbled up the delicious brunch along with the chutney garlic chilly . The chutney was soooo amazing that I got some packed . The climb up to raod was hastened by Shrikant’s call . We got a chestnut bellied Nuthatch near the dhaba . I did not have time to set up my monster on the tripod and started shooting handheld.

The handholding left me with little energy by the time we drove back to the camp, I was hungry again . There was a huge surprise waiting for us at the camp. Well, the surprise was to come in small packages . While walking to the dining room, we heard some small birds down below. Imagine , a sight where 3 Red billed leiothrix are down on the ground foraging for food .

Forgetting all bout our hunger , we lay in wait for them to come near . I did make some good images , but then they were a jittery lot and flew away quickly . We also got some good images of the Grey treepie .

After lunch , we headed off to Kainchee Dham . We reached there around 4.00 pm and the first birds we saw were the red billed blue magpie feeding on garbage near a small dhaba. We stopped near a temple and the first bid we saw was a Crested Kingfisher . He disappeared quickly , and we saw some plumbeous redstart and some forktails. Sandesh and Shrikant decided to walk the bank , and I headed further down , as it was very dangerous for me to walk that terrain with the heavy lens .
I went down with Lama , further down . We stopped near a dhaba just after Kaichee Dham . There were some dark fronted tit . Failed again to make any good image . We eventually decided to hit the small path which winded down to the river . I was blessed to see the cute Whiskered Yuhina . A walk along the river did not yield any sightings . I called up Shrikant to tell me about the same , when he told me that he could see a Crested Kingfisher just 25 metres to my left . That gave my tired legs the much needed impetus and I ran towards the direction Shrikant had told me . disappointment again , as the bird had left . I was sure that the bird would not have gone very far , and decided to try my luck further down . After a wait of around 20 mins , the Crested Kingfisher sat around 25 ft away from us …but just for a moment . He took off and sat in a rock around 100 mts away in the middle of the river . But we were equal to the task and jumped boulder to boulder to ensure we make some good images of him. He was not disturbed even when I stood tall on a boulder with all my ‘jingbang’ . After some great half an hour we decided to walk back . The ‘circus’ back had its toll . I slipped and luckily for me , it was only my shoe and socks in the icy water and not the equipment . The walk back was a long one . Tired , but not satisfied !! The Crested Kingfisher is such a beauty that I just wanted more and more of it , and I promised myself, I would return .

The evening was full of frenzied activity , planning to maximise the effort on the last day of the trip . It had been a very nice one till now , and we wanted it to end on a high.

24th NOVEMBER 2009

The morning was a early one , and we had our tea , and proceeded down towards the Sattal Lake . Lama was very optimistic about finding the small birds , and we hoped he was right about it . At the first bend , on the right side there was some activity and imagine our happiness to find the blue winged minla , green tailed sunbird and the oriental white eye in a mixed hunting flock .

The undergrowth was dense and the light was low , and the birds were really quick . We did ok with the images , and then we moved on . A black bulbul was playing up in the trees . A green backed tit posed on the cactus tree . A grey hooded warbler gave some nice images . A flash of yellow kept us interested and a little ahead we identified it as the long tailed minivet . For the next 15 minutes we , we made some cool images . Then we were elated see a male long tailed minvet joining the female . The crimson colour on the bird is deeper than the sindoor on the forehead of a newly wedded dulhan . The birds did not allow us to come very close , and the terrain was such that we had to shoot only from the road . We hopped on the vehicle to go further down , and in 2 minutes , Lama saw a beautiful blue throated barbet in a bald tree trunk . It was busy digging a hole in the trunk to feed on the insects . The angle was steep, but the light on the bird was good .

At around 9.00 , after a 10 minute drive , we stopped at the very place we had seen the plum headed parakeet yesterday . The parakeets were still there , and Sandy and Shrikant , ran behind them to get some good snaps. Shrikant’s tripod had given way and he showed us a new way of shooting with the bean bag !!!  I stood my ground , not wanting to climb uphill , with all my equipment . A black bulbul was hopping nearby . And then , I got a blue capped redstart at eye level around 30 ft away !! A few good images later a blue fronted redstart , did a favour by landing on an excellent perch with a great background and also very good light . Man ! This was some luck . A rufous gorgeted flycather stood up like a grey bushchat and gave a frontal shot ! We got some images of the bar tailed treecreeper and also of the rufous gorgeted male . Babulal , our driver was sent to collect the chutney from the dhaba , and he merrily waited there waiting for it , as it was not ready . He came back after an hour , and we at the brink of blasting out !! Shrikant could not control his anger , and Babulal got earloads and truckloads of the choicest abuses for wasting our time .

Without wasting any further of the precious time , we headed for Kainchee Dham for a last try of the Crested Kingfisher. En route to Kainchee Dham , in a small ghat after the city we saw 2 Steppe eagles perched on the tree . These were at a distance of around 90-100 ft , and we stopped there , hoping to make some good images of them in flight . Up on the hill , we also noticed a Himalayan Griffon scanning the horizon . The sighting was good , but the light was harsh for photography . So we moved on , after the brief stop over . We stopped much before Kainchee Dham and decided to walk it , lest we get lucky . Some plumbeous redstart and white capped redstart were doing their regular pebble hopping under a bridge . We walked the bridge , and decided to walk parallel to the flow . After some distance we saw a striated laughingthrush , on the opposite bank . Shrikant jumped with joy when he saw the small forktail emerge from back of a boulder just a few feet away from us . Some black lored tits , green backed tits were playing in the pine trees . The laughingthrush did fly across the river to our side and gave us a better view . We trudged back to the vehicle and went to the same place we started yesterday . We were very clear that we would hang around the dhabas to ensure we shoot some good images of the birds .

The decision proved to be a winner . We got some spotted forktail foraging in the water . A group of 10-12 red billed blue magpie were perched on a small tree , just behind the dhaba. Shrikant and Sandy , went down to the river and I sat in the dhaba and ordered a moong dal ka pakora . The kotmir tamarind chutney was so amazing , that I ordered another 3 plates and was busy devouring , the same when I heard a cry . A cry which I was longing to hear . The Crested Kingfisher had arrived . We saw it perch on a small tree just across the stream . It was hidden behind a branch , but then , that was the nearest I had seen the kingfisher . After a while , it flew away , and I went back to the yummy pakoras . Shrikant came back excited , having seen the kingfisher too . We were sure that it would return and all we had to do was wait .

It was just about 15 minutes past that we saw him rest on the electric wire ‘ Taare Zameen par’ , our word for ‘ Bird on Wire ‘. But, he was near to the next hotel and we would have had to move fast to catch him . We tried to enter the hotel , but we were stopped by the doorman . We insisted, begged, requested and he then let us in . We crossed the long thin passage across to find our friend , in all its grandeur perched on the electric wire at minimum focussing distance from us . The size is to be seen to be believed . The crest seems like a badly combed bunch of black and white straws . I just fell in love with this kingfisher !!! After some 250 images of him , we saw him fly away . We climbed down the steps and entered the backyard of the hotel wich opened onto the bank of the river . We were shooting the redstarts and the forktails when a female crested kingfisher landed on a boulder just around 30 ft away . My kingfisher luck had amazed me and I happy to return from Kainchee Dham successful and elated.

We had a quick lunch and decided to go Sattal Lake for the last evening of birding . It was 3.30 in the evening and we had around 1.5 hrs of birding left .

The drive yielded a Black bulbul and a Great barbet at eye level . We got these from the vehicle itself . The birding at the park was pathetic with just some record shots of the green tailed sunbird , rufous gorgeted flycatcher and a orange flanked bush robin .

We did try the panchayat fields as a last ditch effort, but we returned with some spotted munia and russet sparrow images . It was a anti-climax  to an amazing day of birding .

That evening , we went back to the town to get some mementoes and stuff to carry back . The retails had some very costly organic tea starting from Rs 2000/- per kg . I love pickles and picked up some locally made garlic and bamboo shoot pickles . A must buy is the ‘local honey ‘ and ‘Rhododenron squash ‘ which are supposed to have medicinal values . There are a variety of local jams available too .

We went back to the resort with a heavy heart . The place had offered us so much , that we did not want to leave . We planned to bird up to 9.00 in the morning and then leave for Delhi . I slept late that night , as I was rewinding the whole trip and the exciting moments I had .

25th NOVEMBER 2009

We woke up early next morning and we rushed to the fields , after a cup of tea. We had instructed the cook at the lodge to keep breakfast packets ready , so that we could maximise our birding time . The first calls of the day was that of a rusty cheeked schimitar babbler . I managed a record shot of this very shy and elusive creature .

My target was the rubythroat , but the fields yielded a deadly image of the yellow breasted greenfinch , and good sightings of the common rosefinch , rufous breasted accentor , great tit , green backed tit and grey bushchat .

Time was running out and there was no sign of the rubythroat . I guess that was Sattal’s challenge and invitation to me for a second round . The place had so much to offer , that one trip was definitely not enough . Am sure that I will return , and in the very near future .

The trip back was a very eventful one . Shrikant and Sandy got down at the city garbage centre at Rampur . They went behind a Egyptian vulture . They got a shot alright , but were feeling pukish for an hour after that, because of the stench . A railway crossing cost us precious time, almost an hour . We barely made it in time with the snarling Delhi traffic which starts right from Noida . We were glad to make it finally , to the airport , with Babulal brushing against a car in Delhi .

Now when I think back I remember a lot of stuff. Babulal’s dialogue ” YEh to hamari knooledge mein nahi hai ji “ . Shrikant’s vision of the locals leading a lovely life because they had time to sit in the tree shade and light a ‘beedi’. Sandy’s non stop comedy show ……….And I am somehow drawn continuously to ‘The Call Of the Himalayan birds ‘.

CHECK OUT IMAGES FROM THE TRIP

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