Great Lake & Great Birds

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It is close to 11 am. February weather is just pleasant. We park our car at one side of the Great Ana Sagar lake of Ajmer, in Rajasthan. This part of lake side is known at Chowpaaty. Chowpaaty is, these days, synonymous with line-up of scores of vendors of fast food. Probably the vendors come in the afternoon, when the crowd visits the lake  – I can see the road side and part of the pathway is oily, and surrounding show signs of being used to place dishes.

Access to pathway is about 50 metres from where we park, and first thing, even before the Ana Sagar, we come face to face is a massive signage ‘I❤AJMER’. Ek photo to banta hai.

Yes, Ana Sagar is huge. I have seen a similar lake in Indore few months back. In fact, many towns have such lakes. A random thought come to my mind – the Sagar may be a century old? Later I learn, this is a historical site, not 1 but almost 9 century old – It has been ‘built by Arnoraja (alias Ana), the grandfather of Prithviraj Chauhan, in 1135 -1150 AD. Baradaris (pavilions) were built by Shahjahan in 1637 and later Daulat Bagh Gardens by Jehangir.’

Our main reason of coming here has been to see some interesting bird species and large flocks. We see some coots and gulls swimming around.

Coots are common and the species is also called Common Coot (Fulica atra). I remember, for your information in case you do not know, Coots are peculiar in some ways – it does not hide away and can be seen easily; Coots attack their own hatchlings as they are too many (up to 9) and they are unable to feed all! Another thing of interest is that Coot has a white shield-like conspicuous mark on forehead, which in the specimen here, is continuation of same white colour beak. This featherless shield has given rise to the saying ‘as bald as a coot’!

Gulls too wherever found are common and easily seen. They do not mind being fed by human beings and in some areas they would even steal from man. In Mumbai, including at the Gateway of India, morning walkers and tourists feed them. An odd tourist may even dare to pick the bird and take selfie!

I find it difficult to make out the species – Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) or  Brown-headed Gull  (Larus brunnicephalus)? These are the ones commonly found. These cannot be some uncommon species e.g. Common Gull (Mew) Gull, Yellow Legged Gull, Sooty Gull…

The problem is that adults of both in winter are ‘superficially similar when at rest, with pale grey upper parts, dark primaries, a red bill with a dark tip of variable size, and dusky markings on the ear coverts and to a varying extent around and over the eye.’  One may think it will be easier to identify the bird with brown or black hood but the fact is that even the black headed gull has actually dark brown hood’!

Later at home, I go through literature and my photos and zero in on Black Headed Gull – Lesser grey, darker eyes, less stout bill (in comparison to Brown Headed Gull).

I look around to find other interesting things about the place. There is haze over and around the lake – it can be pollution! There is a featureless island in the middle of the lake. There are some boats sailing. There are scattered Aravalli hills and hillocks. I can see outside the lake there are layers and layers of houses and markets even though the lake is supposed to be on the outskirts of Ajmer. There are people and people. There are vehicles and vehicles. Lake water seems dirty.

Nothing looks really beautiful, natural, attractive or extraordinary. It has been only 15-20 minutes and we decide to leave. But we cannot. Our car says, ‘Nothing doing, you have parked me at chowpaaty and I will not leave without some snacks.’ Jokes apart, it is just not starting. We arrange for a mechanic who takes the car to a service station and we spend two hours at the workshop instead of site seeing!

We start back around 2.00 in the afternoon. Our next destination is Pushkar, just 20-25 odd kilometres from here. Oh my god, we are passing by Ana Sagar,   ‘I❤AJMER’, chowpaaty and all that again. I feel like closing my eyes.

But it turns out the other way. As we take a turn around the lake on the road towards Pushkar, the area is much more peaceful, the lakeside has been beautified with rows of green belts and plants. Suitable walkway along with ample sitting arrangement can be seen.

“Hey Sunayan Bhai, stop! What a sight!” I shout. There are scores of pelicans on two artificial mounds and an immersed small building, and several birds swimming and perched here and there – pond heron, grey heron, large egret, black headed gull, white-breasted kingfisher…

Pelicans are so conspicuous that you are bound to notice – massive white birds with huge beak and very very conspicuous gular pouch fluttering in the wind.  Off hand, I get the impression, ‘this is Rosy Pelican’. I take photographs, I make some mental notes. It has pinkish face and legs, enormous pink and yellow bill, and a dull pale-yellow gular pouch. Plumage is largely white. I make sure the identification is correct. What I did not know that this species is mainly called Great White Pelican.

Though anybody can see Great Pelican is a large bird which also flies but you will be amazed to read the measurements – 1.4 m to 1.8 m (55 to 71 in) in length with a 0.29 m to 0.47 m (11.4 to 18.5 in) beak. The wingspan measures 2.26 m to 3.6 m (7.41 to 11.81 ft) and weight 10–11 kg (22–24 lb).

To add to this, the mounds are shared with contrasting black birds i.e. cormorants.

Later, consulting literature with photos and my notes, I find that this one too is great, Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Incidentally, here there has been no problem in identifying the species. Most of the cormorants are in breeding plumage i.e. ‘black plumage with metallic blue-green sheen; white facial skin and throat; bright yellow gular pouch and white thigh patches; silky white plumes on head and neck.’ I am able to clearly identify several, one year olds – dull brown above, white below.

Oh, what’s that! There are two pelicans swimming a little further which seem larger than any bird around. I need to take head on shots. I move a little away from the pool, so that not directly visible to the birds and I run to be on their side to take a head on shot. I am partially successful. I can make out it is different. Later, I can clearly identify, it is the largest pelican on earth – Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). There can be confusion with Great White Pelican but a closer look tells the difference besides the size – the beak is grey-black with bright orange gular pouch and greyish legs. The feather on head and neck are curled.  What I have been watching is, in fact, ‘the largest freshwater bird in the world’, wonderful, great.

Finally, Ana Sagar cheers me. I do say, “Ana tussi great ho.”

Pushp

Where have all the females gone?

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I am in Sawai Madhopur for a two days personal visit to meet some old friends (3-5 February 2020). Visit to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is not on the agenda! Strange? There is a reason. I do not want to spoil my fantastic memories of 1980s and 90s with some shoddy ride in tourists clustered vehicle with n-number of restrictions and boundations. Ranthambhore those days used to be virtually my home. I had a free and full access of the wonder land, including on foot!

I vividly remember that on our first visit to Ranthambhore, we stayed at Jhoomar Baori. Yes, the name sounds exotic, and in fact the place is exotic. Jhoomar Baori has been the hunting lodge of the erstwhile Jaipur State, strategically located atop a hill and surrounded on all sides with good forest. Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC), a government agency, has restored the place and developed it into a small hotel.

I tell my friend and host, Lokendra Jain, “let us visit Jhoomar Baori.” I tell him I just want to relive my old memories when I visited the place, 35 years ago in 1984. Lokendra is awe struck when I tell him “we were the first guest on the first day of the Lodge starting as a resort!” Probably, after the maharajas, we were the first to grace the place.

I remember, the manager of the place turned out to be an acquaintance from another RTDC hotel, Tiger Den, at Sariska. There were no other guests. Tables were moved and laid on terrace. Full moon, cool breeze, forest around added to the whole experience. It turned into a grand party. It was wining and dining whole night; singing and dancing; ramp walk by friends on massive thick walls of the hunting lodge! I can say one of those memorable evenings, rather nights, when you let your spirits take wings and you soar and soar…

And today, Lokendra is driving me to the same Jhoomar Baori. As we drive from Sawai Madhopur on the Ranthambhore Road, there is a rather awkward right turn at a point where road is taking a left turn! This is entry point of the area of the lodge.

To my surprise, the area is better forested, undisturbed, and teaming with wildlife, in comparison to what it was 35 years ago. There are spotted deer, spotted deer and more spotted deer. May be 100 plus. There are some nilgais as well, may be score of them. To add to the list, there are few sambars also. Lokendra tells me that leopard is occasionally sighted here in night. Quite natural, in view of the fact that the area is teaming with wild animals. I am sure, once in a while, tiger must also be exploring the area, as we all know, wildlife doesn’t know of any boundary. This is all wonderful. To add to this, the animals are not scarred of our presence. They go about their business of eating, playing, fighting in normal course. I ask Lokendra to drive slow and stop at several places. It’s a grand photo opportunity. We see many spotted deer stags with wonderful antlers, some of them have them in velvet (Stags annually drop antlers and grow new ones. In the growing stage, the antlers are covered with skin (called velvet) which later peels off.)

This seems like about one to one and half km drive with forest on both sides of the kuchcha road. We can see, Jhoomar Baori, painted red (gerua), nestling high up there, and contrasting with dense grey forest. It’s about 200-300 m steep road which brings us to the gate of Jhoomar Baori. Ahha!

It’s more imposing than the image in my mind. There is little action around. One family is checking-in. Another vehicle is parked. Lokendra tells me, “Jhoomar Baori is not doing well, as is the situation with all government outfits. There are issues of staff and maintenance. There is more red tape than hospitality.”

Lokendra is keen to see the record of my first visit! He requests the manager to show us the first guest resister of the lodge. It is highly disappointing to know that they keep the record of only four years here and rest goes to head office. He mercilessly adds that these days, old records are destroyed as there is space constraint! Frankly, I too have been keen to see my name as a first entry in the first resister. I have been even mentally preparing myself to take mobile shot of the register entry. We just take few shots the lodge, and leave.

While returning, I suddenly realise, a peculiarity with spotted deer here – they seem all male. Did we miss the female? I discuss this with Lokendra and he agrees. Thus, on our return we make a very conscious effort to check every spotted deer we can see. Strangely, we do not come across even a single female! Even some young ones around, have few inches of antler spikes visible. It is common, that stags separate out while in velvet, but one can see females around with off springs. We try and try but no female. This is rather peculiar. Maybe we are missing something. But I always say, nature’s ways are mysterious. We do not understand even tip of the iceberg. I sometimes wonder at all the claims our wildlife biologists and ecologists make with their limited observations or studies in neatly written papers!

 

Pushp

 

Birds in Paradise

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During 1980s and 90s, Keoladeo has been my regular haunt. Foresters, Suraj                      Ziddi and Daulat Singh, my friends used to be there. It used to be so soothing to be in a wilderness, which was unique in all respect – World Heritage Site, National Park, birding heaven… It was so relaxing and cheerful those days – cycling, boating, preparing list of birds sighted, boozing…

It was 1989, when during a visit I met Sunayan Sharma, Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF) and Research Officer. I noticed he has been keenly involved in bird watching and photography. He was head strong. He was dedicated to forest and wildlife. Soon, we struck acquaintance. With association during next few visits, we became family friends.

Sunayan has been an old school forester, dressing like a forester (wearing felt hat), talking like a forester (wildlife storytelling), and working like a forester (order is order), boozing like a forester (enjoy every bit). He has been bold and dedicated. He has been one, who would visit forest daily, without fail. He loved photography. I remember, once to photograph Sarus Cranes at nest, he got a hide built in the lake itself and used to spend hours cramped in small space. I am sure he had seen Keoladeo so closely, as few might have done.

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Keoladeo National Park

Later, he had second spell in 2006-08, which was much more challenging. First, he became the Director of the Park i.e. he was responsible for the entire show.  Secondly, over the years, protection and conservation had become more and more difficult. Thirdly, Keoladeo is a network of artificial lakes and need water to flow into them from Ajan Dam, which the farmers and their political bosses resented and managed to stop it altogether. Fourth, the Park, from the grasslands, swamps, and woodland was being encroached by Vilayati Babul (Prosopis juliflora) all over.

By 2006, the Park was completely devastated – dry lakes, weeds all over.  Keoladeo was on the verge of losing World Heritage status.

Sunayan is a man, who cannot sit back or take things lying down. He went all across to meet engineers, experts, funders and politicians to develop and initiate a scheme for bringing water to the Park. He ultimately succeeded and now water is not a major issue.

Taking advantage of his deep knowledge about the drainage system of Bharatpur and adjacent flood plains, he developed a scheme to tap the Govardhan drain, carrying lot of flood water from the plains of Bharatpur and adjacent areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Today, the canal built to bring this water to the Park is the lifeline of Keoladeo.

He developed a unique system of removing the Babul from the Park. This was in collaboration with the villagers living on the periphery of the Park. They were temporarily allotted small plots of forest to dig out the trees and wood was theirs. Only condition was that they have to remove it completely including the root stock. Initially, with lot of persuasion only 4 members of a family joined the operation but gradually the programme took off. In few months, it was adopted by all the 15 villages located on the periphery of the Park. This was win-win situation for both – Park as well as people. Park got back its grasslands, clear waters and original stands of sacred Kadamba trees in several places and people got wood. About 10 sq. km. area of the Park was recovered in about one and a half years. With the sale of harvested wood, hundreds of families could build houses, marry daughters and buy more resources.

This was not as simple as it sounds. First of all many of his colleagues discouraged him in doing so. They pointed out he is rubbing the law on wrong side. Secondly, Bharatpur is a typical town with complex political atmosphere. With great tact, he managed to take different leaders along. Furthermore, he maintained fairness and transparency in dealing with all villagers so that there was no antagonism or fights.

Sunayan retired in 2010. Nevertheless, he remains a forester to the core. He has written a book on Sariska sharing his first hand experiences and learning.  Sunayan and me visited Keoladeo in September 2017 and spent leisurely two nights. I suggested to him that he should share his unique experiences of Keolodeo also with larger audience i.e. he should write a book. We briefly discussed the outline.

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Bholu, Pushp & Sunayan (Left to right, during 2017 visit)

And here it is. ‘Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur – Birds in Paradise’ has been published recently by a leading book publisher, Niyogi Books in New Delhi. I am sure this would be certainly of interest for any bird watcher and would be an asset on   bookshelf.

Pushp

She lands in my lap

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We are driving to Churna Forest Rest House (in Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, last month). My forester friend, Shashi and our host, Shib, talk of possibility of sighting a Giant Squirrel. I have read about it. In fact, STR logo carries the outline drawing of the Giant. I tell them, “I would love to see it.” In fact, I am excited. I have not seen this earlier.

As we arrive, after protocol salutes for senior officials, we are seated at a nice spot in the lawn, in front of the FRH. Soon, the table is laid and tea is served. It’s high tea in view of presence of senior foresters. It includes nuts, biscuits, sweets, fruits…

As soon as the fruit plate arrives, we are joined by an unexpected guest. And of all the possible guests, it has been least expected – Giant Squirrel!

It has been keeping a watch on us, from an adjacent tree, arrives behind us with stealth. It seems, it is unable to get a clear view of how the table is laid and how to target the favourite stuff. It leaps and lands in my lap to get a clear view of the table! I am taken aback and so are others. Nevertheless, I keep still. In no time, the squirrel grabs a piece of apple and dashes off.

The local forest guard in attendance tells us that this particular Giant has learned the art of getting /stealing food from visitors. It has become bold to pick the stuff from plate and has no fear of man.

There it is, feeding on the apple, sticking to the truck of the tree next to us, in typical squirrel style – upside down. The tail and hind legs provide grip while it holds the apple piece in between front legs. Oh! Interesting – it removes the peel before eating the apple. Does it know that these days apples are covered with insecticide, pesticide and a layer of wax.

We are able to look at the Giant close enough to count moustache hair, take number of photos. Shashi even takes my photo watching the Giant at close quarters.

After finishing the apple, it is ‘dil mange more’. The Giant returns back to the table but by now only biscuits and empty cups are left. It is disappointed.  A friend offers biscuit but it just ignores.

It is angry. It notices a kitten feeding on a biscuit behind us. The Giant gives the kitten a bite stiff enough for it to make sharp and shrill cry.

Local forest guard shows us two more giants in nearby trees but they are barely visible –feeding up in the trees. Giants actually love big trees and remain in upper canopy, rarely coming to ground. He also shows a giant’s home in the foliage – some tender leaves have been laid into a circular bed.

I notice, the friendly Giant is indifferent to us, and sharply looking at two new visitors. It notices a bag of eatables. It runs to them and immediately attracts attention. The story of grabbing a fruit goes on.

Pushp

 

Post Script

Indian Giant Squirrel is endemic to India. Its distribution is in the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats and the Satpura Range, as far north as Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the largest squirrels. It is dramatically coloured involving creamy-beige, buff, tan, rust, reddish-maroon, brown and black. There are some variations among the subspecies of which, ten have been described. The one mentioned in the blog is Ratufa indica centralis.

An Emerald in Middle of Aravalli Forest

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I start from Delhi at 5 in the morning. Take a train to Jaipur and arrive at my friend, Sunayan Bhai’s home around noon. (Incidentally, Sunayan is a retired forester and has been director of Sariska Tiger Reserve.)  We take quick lunch, and in an hour, hit the road. The road is wonderful. Sunayan’s SUV is wonderful. Age old friend’s company is wonderful.  Vodka is wonderful…

We are driving in the South-Western part of Rajasthan. The weather is not harsh. We by-pass the important city, Ajmer, and drive another 100 km to reach our destination, Raoli Forest Rest House (FRH) around 5 in the evening. The very sight of a Baradari at one corner of the sprawling lawn of the Rest House is mesmerizing. Soft evening sunlight is making it further conspicuous.

I no more feel that it has been a long day. I no more feel tired. We do not enter the rest house and head straight to Baradari. Our friend and host, Dashrath Rathore, Raoli Forest Range Officer, has already anticipated it.  Four Mudhas (local chairs) and a table are already in place. They seem to be inviting us.

FRH ground is some 40-50 metre above the other features in the valley. It’s a picture perfect composition. We are overlooking a huge, almost circular talab or lake. The crystal clear water, and reflection of snow white clouds and clear blue sky, and hills and hillocks in the surrounding, holds my attention for several minutes to begin with. Dashrath tells us that this is called Barwahna Talab (i.e. 12th Lake). The name is true to truth – there are 11 lakes above this lake! A local stream has been dammed to store water at appropriate places from the origin in the hills above. In fact, right below us is the dam wall of the Barwahna Talab and the water is flowing down in the stream. The interesting feature of the dam I notice is a circular drain of about two feet diameter for draining extra water before the dam wall – this relaxes the pressure of water on the wall! Right opposite us, in the north are some white buildings amid all green surrounding forest. Dashrath tells us. “This is an Ashram (abode for saints and the like).” This is interesting and makes a good picture since the white painted building in all green environment breaks the monotony.

In the east, the Sun is slowly going down. The stream is zigzagging in the middle of valley. I do not know, if this will reach terwahna talab (13th lake)! I am not interested in facts and figures right away. The colour of the sky is changing every minute until it is painted in heavenly hues – gold, yellow, orange, red, maroon… I am lost. Friends are sitting around and talking. I am beyond the conversation. I take few pictures from my iphone – yes, it gives pictures in low light and good ones at that. At least, one can record the scene and share. Most appropriate line of a Hindi song comes to my mind – Ye Kon Chitrakar Hai (Who is this painter?)

Soon, it is night. Soon, it is time to party. Soon, it is time to cheers. Some other friends and officials too have joined the party including the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Mangal Singh. It is mostly exchange of notes, chitchat and gossip. In between, I raise a simple question – How is this rest house named Raoli?

Nobody has a clue. I try to guide them – Is it the name of some village around? Is it the name of some temple around? Is it the name of some famous local deity? Is it the name of some famous local person?  Is it the name of some famous local ruler? Nothing emerges. The foresters are embarrassed since they are unable address a simple question related to their area. To ease out the tense environment, I also start thinking aloud, and I think I come up with the right answer. The forests are all Aravalli hills. The name Aravalli has been shortened and in local pronunciation it has become Raoli over a period of time.

In middle of all the hu-ha and cheers, Mangal tells me, “FRH Visitors’ Register is a very important document of wildlife history of the forests around.” Oh! That’s interesting.

I wake up early and get ready by 7. The Register is on my mind. I get hold of this and read through the pages. The browning and crumbling pages have been laminated and re-bound together. I do take photos of some important pages of the Register. The period recorded is 1932 to 2000 – ¾ quarters of 20th century!

The greatest surprise that emerges is that the forests have been inhabited by tigers and also crocodiles once upon a time. The Register reveals gory pictures of the time gone by! The main villain emerges is one Kunwar Keshav Sen of Kharwa. Every year or two, there is entry by him, proudly claiming killing of tigers. He has killer many tigers in the area. There is one unbelievable entry by him in 1953, “Was very lucky to shoot two tigers in one shot. Killing them both stone dead on the spot with a ‘470 soft nose bullet’ – A very rare occurrence.” His last entry in the Register of tiger shoot is of 1955 proclaiming, “Shot a tiger in Satukhera Block with 470 H.V. –  9 feet 2 inches.” Seems like, he has been ready with gun as soon as he came to know of a tiger in these forests. It seems, he ensure no tiger survives here. Presently, there is no tiger here.

Finally, on the lighter side, the Register records an entry by a forester, ‘I have broken a plate. I would replace this’!

 

Post Script : Raoli FRH is one of the FRHs in Todgarh-Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sanctuary lies off Delhi-Udaipur National Highway No. 8, in middle of the Aravalli Hill Range, and spreads over Ajmer, Pali and Rajsamand districts of the Rajasthan State of India.

 

Pushp Jain

Subji Bazar in Making

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Bholu calls Sunayan Bhai. He informs, “There is not a drop of water in the pools! Openbills have arrived but have not started nest building. There is no sign of rain. If it does not rain in two-three days, they may leave.” All in all, he is suggesting no use visiting Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Incidentally, any keen bird watcher, at least in India would know Bholu. He has spent his whole life watching birds in Bharatpur and is a knowledge bank on avian. Sunayan has been involved in research in one spell of his posting here in 1990s and in another spell as manager in 2000s.

Sunayan Bhai calls me to tell about the futility of visiting Bharatpur in absence of water. I check the weather forecast. There are indications of rains three days later than our planned dates. So we postpone the visit for three days.

I am mentally prepared and sure that we will meet the arrival of monsoon and the visit is going to be unique. Delhi to Bharatpur is short train journey of about 170 km, taking three hours. All signs are positive. It starts raining at Delhi railway station itself and throughout the journey, either it is overcast or raining and so it is, at Bharatpur station! What luck! Weather gods are with us.

Luckily, Sunayan Bhai has been driving from Jaipur and has timed the arrival at Bharatpur as my arrival time here. Thanks to Sunayan Bhai, has he been not at Station, it would have been very difficult to get transport to Ghana, as the forest of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, i.e. Keoladeo Nation Park is called, as the whole city is water logged. It’s raining almost continuously.

It’s heavenly scene at Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House – peaceful, serene, tranquil…

So our decision turns out right. It has been raining heavily since last night. Some water has collected in pools, ponds and lakes in the Park. It’s lush green all around. Everything – herbs, shrubs, trees, animals, birds, people – all are happy and cheerful.

Next morning we go inside the Park. Incidentally, many wildlifers wouldn’t know that Bharatpur is important birding area in monsoon as well. People know this largely as migratory bird abode. Migratory birds come around autumn and leave before summer.

During monsoon, Keoladeo comes alive with formation of heronries in several parts of the Park. Locations are generally groups of scores of trees partially submerged, in middle of ponds and lakes. Its ‘n’ number of species of herons, egrets, cormorants, storks crowding in thousands of nests – some pure colonies and some mixed.

Right from nest building, mating, egg laying, chick emerging to grown babies ultimately flying away, it is all the time action packed with movement of the birds, foraging,  food collection, noise of chicks pressing parents for food, defending nest and chicks… One is never tired of watching something new happening all the time – never a dull moment.

Today is just the beginning of the heronry formation. And the first species to start is the Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans). At two sites, we could see four trees taken up by more than 200-250 birds for nesting. In fact, some are repairing the old nests – discarding or adding twigs. Bholu tells me, Openbill is always the first one to start heronry and they prefer pure colonies.

This is first time I am watching Openbill closely. I realise two things – it’s a beautify bird with pure white body and black tail with reddish pink long legs but its bill (on which it is named) looks like a deformity! Reading literature makes it clear that this deformity like structure has evolved over a very long period of time because of the food habit of the bird – it eats snails and like stuff and the gap in centre of upper and lower mandible allows it to be able to crack the shells and enjoy the food!

All the time several birds are flying away, several are arriving with twigs for nest while some pairs are busy in love making and some are actually mating. Some are busy in aerial displays to impress or attract a mate. They seem to be happy lot. Some of these are wading through swallow waters of the pond for food. The wing span reveals its large bird. Number of nests on each tree is large. It is indeed crowded. But this number also provides security from predators and raiders.

The signal about monsoon arrival and beginning of nesting season has gone down faster than satellite phone. Already some Darter and Cormorant are exploring vacant trees adjacent to Openbill nest trees. Bholu tells, soon it would be like a subji bazar. For those who do not know, subji bazar i.e. vegetable market is known to be most unorganised, crowded and noisy place in India!

Pushp

The Other Keoladeo

 

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It’s wonderful weather. The rain is hanging in the air. It has already rained some time back. It’s densely overcast. Though it is 5 in the afternoon but seems like 7. The greenery is all washed and seem happy and radiant. So romantic.

Sunayan Bhai and I are at Shanti Kutir, the good old Forest Rest House of Keoladeo National Park. The rest house is appropriately named, Shanti means peace/silence, Kutir means modest abode.  We come down from our suite on first floor. Lawns are spread in front, and on both sides. In the central lawn behind a tree, I notice a large brown animal – huge like a horse. Oh! It’s a massive Sambar stag visiting Shanti Kutir. It crosses from central to left lawn. Here is located a pollution monitoring lab of Mathura Petroleum Refinery to study pollution levels at the Park. And can you believe, the Sambar is watching the lab to see, if all is fine!  The animal just ignores us and goes about browsing on low hanging leaves. We also, quietly leave.

This is the other, lesser known side of Keoladeo, famous bird sanctuary and World Heritage Site (UNESCO). We meet the director of the Park, Dr Ajit Uchoi, whose office is next door, just adjacent to FRH complex. He tells us, “there is a population of about 15-16 Sambars in the Park.”

Next morning, we go to visit the Park. There is electric golf cart to take us around. First thing we see is a Go, the Monitor Lizard. It is rushing ahead on the side of the road. Its gait is clumsy. It’s intention to keep to road is clear, we increase cart speed, Go starts running. We get down the cart and walk behind it quietly. We get some pictures but all from behind. We try to run ahead, but it leaves the road and enters into road side bushes. We wait for five minutes and as expected it comes out on the road in leisurely gait. We do not bother it anymore.

A little later, we find a mongoose similarly walking along the road side. But mongoose gait is much graceful. This seems to be on hunt mission. As it walks, it keeps glancing around in the bushes. When we approach too close, it would enter bushes to come out 3-4 minutes later, 10-15 metre ahead, and continue on its mission.

OMG! I see larger number of cattle in the Park after several decades. In late 70s, the park used to be full of it. It was banned in early 80s. Sunayan Bhai explains, “These animals are from adjacent villages and would go away as soon as the water starts filling in lakes.” Several large, hefty bulls are roaming the roads virtually like bullies – Maybe feral animals.

In the afternoon, we start at 5. There is still lot of light. We see one Sambar busy feeding in the lake. It is not bothered by our presence. Its goes on enjoying meal. It’s after months there is water in the lake and fresh vegetation has come alive.

Soon, we see a Nilgai feeding in another lake. I ask the driver to stop for a picture. Sunayan feels ‘no point wasting time on a Nilgai – such a common animal’. I feel, ‘let me take a shot in the particular habitat.’ But our stopping proves useful. We notice commotion at the edge of the water. It’s a massive turtle, one and half feet long carapace is partially visible. Driver tells us, “Probably there are two, one above the other. It’s matting time!”

We reach Keoladeo temple. Laze around and stroll. Sunayan Bhai asks, “Would you like to see bats?” Incidentally, nobody would know better than Sunayan Bhai. He has been director of Keoladeo, and done some landmark work in management of weed and water because of which the Park is alive now. We go to a date palm grove, 200 meter away. Yes, I can see several fruit bats flying in and out of date palms. I can also see, several of them in the trees. Somehow, the situation does not turn to be photogenic – poor light, partially hidden animals, confusing background…We only keep wondering – what fate do bats have – condemned to hand upside down, sleep through the day and be active at night, and in compensation they have body structure which allows them to fly in spite of being a mammal! Bat is the only mammal which can fly. The other so called flying animals can only glide through the air for limited distance.

While we are returning, the Range Officer, Lalit, meets us. Sunayan Bhai gets off the cart and stops to discuss one finer management issue. I keep sitting in the cart. The road is straight. I notice half a km ahead, about a dozen animals hurry across the road from left to right. Can they be Nilgai? The driver feels ‘Sambar’ but I am not convinced.  Soon we try to catch up with these animals. Sunayan tries to watch them through binocular. They have moved some distance. Though the light is fading but he says, “They are neither Nilgai nor Sambar. They are in all probability, Hog Deer.” ‘Hog Deer’, that’s interesting. I am inclined to agree going by the size of the animal I have noticed. Also, Ajit has told us about the presence of good number of Hog Deer in the Park. Incidentally, Hog Deer has disappeared from many of its ranges due to habitat changes. Thus, the  sighting is exciting.

Sunayan tells me, “Black Buck used to be found in large area of the Park but is now locally extinct.” Black Buck is luckily found commonly in many other areas.

As we are returning, the light is fading. And the last surprise turns out to be Cheetal. It is not the animal. We see it so commonly. We have seen it in Keoladeo as well many times. What has taken me by surprise is the number! The herd is spread continuously for about a km. The flush of fresh green grass has attacked animals from the whole area. Immediate thought comes of sighting of large herds in Corbett and Ranthambhore. This has surpassed all. May be around 400-500 animals!

Amazing, Keoladeo has so much to offer beside birds. Indeed, a vibrant landscape.

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Crocodiles live,eat, play & fight in middle of Lucknow city

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It is early morning and there are few visitors. I arrive at Kukrail Crocodile Pond with one of the keepers familiar with it. As I am adjusting my sight with diverse features of the pond, the keeper points to a croc at the pond edge near us. Probably, the croc hears this before me and start swimming towards the centre of the pond. Suddenly, there is commotion in the pond and about half a dozen crocs start chasing each other. There is lot of splashing, wagging of tails and threat gestures. It is apparent they are fighting. But it cools down soon.

This is small, almost circular but natural pond in Kukrail Reserve Forest of Lucknow, right in the middle of the city. Pond area is about 2 ha. There are natural trees lining all along the bank, with branches of some bending down to kiss the water. A strong fence has been erected all around for the safety of animals for man can do anything. We can see empty water and soft drink bottles floating in the pool along with chips and snacks empty packets! The crocs have large number of visitors for company throughout the day. The adjacent area of the forest is popular as Picnic Spot. The pond surface is all green – entirely covered with fallen mini-leaflets. The cover opens up when a croc swims across.

As I stand here, and scan every inch of pool, I notice drift wood type stuff. I feel something amiss. I zoom my camera lens close and find it’s a croc! Only small part of snout, eyes and nostril are visible in the green pool.  OMG! Once I see this stuff, I find 4 more such crocs disguised as drift wood. One of them reads my mind and soon swims away to the far end of the lake. I hang around at the pond for about half an hour. Some or the other action of the crocs is evident.

Crocs largely feed on fish. I notice, for company they have another fisher, White Breasted Kingfisher. It lands on a branch close to where I am watching the scene. Oh! What’s that huge thing in its beak? As I take photo, I can see a lizard almost the length of the King, held crosswise in the beak! Kingfisher is indeed an agile hunter.

The Keeper tells me there are 14 crocs in all in the pond. There is very old mother stock of one male and two females brought here in 1989 – That’s 30 years! So, three of these guys are 30+. Quite long, longevity. There are only few records of such lifespan.  Little is known about matting and breeding among these crocs or emerging of offspring. Several crocs rescued from nearby places, have been released in the pond. There is one Kukrail Nala – a seasonal stream by the side of the forest. This gets flooded and some crocs come along. Few of them end up in streets or in houses, creating a panic and SOS situation. It’s not a rare happening.  A quick search online reveals a news story where a six-foot long young female croc on 18 August 2018, last monsoon, entered a house in Gudamba in Lucknow. Such animals are captured and release in the pond or wild.

I never expected a poem on crocodiles but I am surprised that the famous author Lewis Carroll of 19th century indeed has scribed few lines on the animal.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Kukrail crocs live, eat, fight and play in the pond. They have nowhere to go. There is a Hindi saying which translates to ‘If you want to live in a pond, there is no point keeping enmity with crocodile.’ This may be true for fellow crocodiles as well in Kukrail.

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Dreaming Leopard and Watching Goral

 

 

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This is my first ride in Isuzu. The vehicle is almost a mini-truck but with all the luxury. I am seating in the front. Feels like sitting in a plush sofa in a big drawing room with full glass wall overlooking forest. Three colleagues are sitting behind. My other colleagues are in a ’14-Seater Tempo Traveller’, half a kilometre behind.

Second luxury is, the man driving the giant is my boss, Ritwick Dutta, well known and eminent environmental lawyer. Third luxury is, far from the blazing summer and 40°C plus of Delhi, we are in the Himalayas. Fourth luxury is, even in the Himalayas, we are in a well preserved, almost undisturbed, serene, very dense class I forest. We are driving through Nainadevi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve in Nainital Forest Division of Uttarakhand.

Good part is, there are no barriers and restriction as such. The area in not trampled by pilgrims or tourists. We do not come across any vehicle except for one ‘Maruti 800’, our smallest car, of a local family going further down.

It’s a single lane road – there is hill on one side and valley on the other side. The forest is so thick that it’s darker than it should be at the time of the day.

I have read earlier that the forest here is ‘Temperate Moist Deciduous Forest’ which includes a large number of broad leaf species. Main species is Oak locally called Banj (Quercus leucotrichophora) in association with rhododendron, gar papal and several other Oak species. Deodar (Cedrus deodara) is found in upper reaches.

We are probably driving in the range of 2200-2300 m and Deodar patches are around. Deodar trunks are massive and stand straight as if eyeing touching the sky. Rhododendron flower bunches are dry and hardly any fresh flower can be seen. Most of the trunks are covered in moss, an indication of richness of the forest. Even blocks of roadside bench like barriers are covered in moss and store titbits of biomass.

“Barking deer”, Ritwick calls. As a reflex action, I see in the direction he is seeing. And do get to see the deer – typical dark brown and bright coat, small built, low height – just turning around to disappear in the forest.

We soon reach the Goral watching point. Here, there is range of barren hills rising steeply for probably 200-250 m. Himalayan Goral (also called Ghural, a goat-like wild mammal) can be seen at times in these hills. They are generally one with the landscape. What gives them away is movement. We gaze and gaze for about 10 minutes but hard luck.

As we drive on, Ritwick suddenly applies brake and the vehicle comes to a screeching halt – a black ball crosses the road from the valley on the left like a bullet, inches ahead of us, and climbs a steep hill side on the right. OMG! It’s a medium size wild boar! Has Ritwick not applied the brake in time, the environmental lawyer would have been caught for offense under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 for no fault of his! Jokes apart, it is frightening. I see up the hill. There is whole lot of them. I can see about half a dozen small boars hurrying up the hill.

Our destination is the abode of the Goddess – Badhan Thali. This is about 11 km from Pangot.  It’s a track of about 2.5 km. The vehicles are parked at the base by the road side. All rush up the hill to make it before it gets dark. At the base, a representative small temple has been created for those who do not have energy or time to do the track. They can pay respect here. I am the only one who uses the facility. I do not take chance of climbing because of knee pain. I hang around.

I know, the trekkers are going to take at least an hour. I stroll around. Nature is all enveloping, more so with no human being, no vehicle and habitation around. I can listen to forest and gaze deep. I notice a family of langurs busy down there in the valley – carefree and careless. They are far away and do not know I am watching. I can hear a barking deer going hoarse with continuous barking. Is some carnivore stalking it? Whistle of the Whistling Thrush is most common in these forests but it’s always pleasant.

The whole situation is ripe to see a leopard. I have been strolling on the road and think, ‘What a luck it would be, if a leopard passes by.’

The day light is going. It’s around 6.40.I select a place about 150 m from our vehicle from where I can see both sides of the road for some distance and a barren steep hill in front. I want to try for Goral as well. I keep an intense watch on the road and the hill alternatively. Suddenly, a shiver passes through my spine. A thought crosses my mind. ‘What happens if a leopard actually comes along the road? What happens if its stops to look at me? What happens if it takes some unpleasant decision?’  I look around for possible protection. There are massive trees. Climbing a tree is not possible for me. I can hide behind the trunk of a close-by one. The question that keeps pondering my mind is, ‘Can I fool a leopard?’ At one point I think, I should not take risk and lock myself in the safety of the car.  But wildlifer in me prevails.

Soon, I am rewarded. I am not able to believe my own eyes when I notice a Goral clear as a day light on the hill top cliff. Major part of its body and movement can be easily seen. All questions in my mind are gone. I am dancing with joy. It is almost 7 pm, hardly, any light. I take chance and try to take photos with mobile. At the maximum zoom, I could take photos good enough for anybody to identify the animal without any difficulty. That’s the wonder these mobile cameras are. They are good for record keeping. I could see the animal very clearly for more than 15 minutes. Take half a dozen photos from different angles.

I am wondering at my luck. My day, rather night has been made. I have been sitting out there and even do not realise that it is almost pitch dark. I shift to the car.

Soon colleagues started trickling down from the track. Om Prakash asks me, “Sir, what have you been doing?” I reply, “I have been watching Goral.” I show the picture. He takes away my mobile and all see it closely. Soon, all know, I have not been idling and making best of it. Ritwick is very happy to see the Goral photo. His faith in richness of these hills is reinforced.

I always say, wildlife watching is an art – Be at the right place, at right time and in right manner.

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Amrit Dhara

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We are in Pangot. Pangot is far from the madding crowd in Uttarakhand hills in India.  We are still farther, at Pine Wood resort, surrounded by Deodar-Oak forested hills, and valley in South-West from where we have come up. Down there is the famous village, Chhoti Haldwani (Kaladhungi). Incidentally, Kaladhungi is a place on global tourist map. This has been the winter home of the legendary, Jim Corbett, hunter turned conservationist. His home has been converted into a museum. He had set up Chhoti Haldwani by buying a large chunk of land and bringing in score of families to settle and do agriculture here. Incidentally, this is Bhabhar and Tarai area falling between hills and plain.

The hills are outer Himalayas. Pangot’s altitude is around 6500 ft. Temperature dips to 12-13°C even in summer. Cool breeze has been blowing now and again. The weather is never monotonous. It drizzles once in a while. This is quite a change from 40°C of Delhi. Of course, fresh air. No pollution. Few vehicles. The road is narrow, single lane – One has to stop and adjust to allow a vehicle from opposite direction to pass!

Trekking in the hills is quite a temptation. My young colleagues go for trekking to the nearest but highest Naina Peak (around 8600 ft). The track is probably 8-10 km with altitude gain of about 2100 ft. Incidentally, Naina Peak was previously called China or Cheena Peak. The name has been discarded after 1962 Indo-China war.

I, of course, cannot think of going with osteoarthritis of knees.  Nevertheless, I pick up a field guide on birds and a binocular and decide to a take a leisurely stroll to watch the forest and birds around and take some photos. For me, climb up or down at Pine Wood itself is a tough job. But slowly I make it to the road. The gradient on the road is tolerable. There are amazing landscapes wherever I look – Hills are 100 per cent covered with trees – deodar is deep, dark and dull green conical giants in dense patches with silver-green oak contrast them in big patches. As I look down, there is narrow gorge with immense mix of broad leaf trees including Rhododendron.  Rhododendron when blooms paint the forest blood red. Presentably, the flowering is almost over – what remains is dried bunches of flowers. I see a Himalayan Birch like stem but not sure if it is one. Likewise, another interesting medium size broad leaf tree is one with maple tree like leaves. The beauty here is, the leaves dance gracefully with lightest breeze. At places, barren rocks exposed due to hill cutting when road was made are painted in different hues with natural excretion, mosses, salts etc

I have walked about half a kilometre when I reach a small bridge over a rivulet (Naina) and it is possible to walk along the left bank up. It is zigzag and little rough but not difficult. The biggest advantage of taking this diversion is that I am not skirting vehicles any more. There are no people. It is wilder, narrower and closer scenario. I can hear birds. I can hear water. I can hear wind.

OMG! I see a rainbow on the ground. I am able to capture this in a photo. (Later when I show this photo to friends, they are amazed and wonder struck.)  Actually, a very thin and fine curtain of minute water droplets has formed due to a leaking water pipe and sun rays have been falling at an appropriate angle to paint the wonder.

I sit down on a stone to capture the wilderness in heart and mind – get drenched in the music and mystery of nature.

It’s so soothing. After every few minutes, the breeze gets strong and musical. The music is punctuated with the whistle of Himalayan blue beauty, Whistling Thrush.  I can hear a dove but unable to see it. I am not very familiar with Himalayan birds but with the help of the field-guide I am able to recognise two – Grey Winged Black Bird and Spotted Fork-tail.

While lazing around here, I notice that this small rivulet is source of drinking water for many villages. There is a maze of pipes scattered around transporting water to different destinations.

Also noticeable is wonder that the forest department is. Few metres away from the perennial minor stream, there is a sign board indicating a pond developed by it. The pond is a small depression without a drop of water!

As I walk around, I notice scores of herbs, shrubs, butterflies, insects…I photograph quite a few.

And last thing. The crystal clear water is flowing slowly down from one shallow pool to other. I bend down, curl my palm and lift water and drink. I repeat this four times. It’s pure Amrit. It feels like drinking bit of Himalayas.

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