Thursday, April 16, 2009

Corbett National Park - Part 2 - Elephant Fest

Vam: Upupa Epops!

Saru: What?

Vam: Upupa Epops!

Saru: What the hell?

Vam: Upupa Epops is the scientific name of the bird Hoopoe. Isn’t it funny - Up-upa Epops!

Saru: Show off!! Now you know scientific names too?

Vam: Just this one. Madhavi and Ram kept saying it so many times.

On this trip, I met a lot on interesting people. There was Madhavi, the valedictorian of Adesh’s revision class. She had a great attitude. She said “I love being outdoors. If I see some birds and animals, great! If not, I love being outdoors”. Madhavi’s husband Ram, also known as Mr. Mr. Raj (inside joke) is a techie turned teacher who has a resident snake in his bathroom! There was Garima who calls herself a bird-Nazi and loves to travel. Her travel itinerary puts mine to shame. Her husband, a non-birder took a vacation within a vacation by excluding himself from the trips. Another couple – Nikhil and Shibani were cool birders. The ever agile Nikhil would spot the bird first, photograph it first AND have the time to show us the location of the bird. Shibani would listen to stories with her famous opening line “What are you saying!!”

Then there was: Harshad, the guy with the bazooka (600mm lens) who works only 175 days a year and devotes the rest of the time to his hobby; Naren, the walking talking encyclopedia of information; Rajesh, the weather man who could make a joke out of anything; Captain Haridas who brought the best homemade peanuts; Jayanti, whose trip reports borderline poetry; Sangha, the silent but brilliant photographer and finally Uma, the bird sweet-talker (more on that in part 3).

As for Adesh and Manoj, it won't be an exaggeration if I say that they are two of the best birding guides. Their enthusiasm for birding is infectious. I am so glad I went with them to Corbett .

We went on my FIRST ever safari in India, the afternoon of March 24. As soon as the jeep entered the grasslands the guide said “Elephants!!” We saw a huge herd going away from us towards the river. We spent some time photographing them, until Uma said “I can’t believe I am taking so many pictures of elephant butts”. Taking the cue, our driver took us to a road where we were able to intercept the elephants. Then the ‘GRAND PARADE’ began. This was my first time seeing an elephant in the wild and I was thrilled. I saw tuskers and elephants and baby elephants of all sizes.

Elephant Herd grazing (They eat 300 - 600 pounds a day!)

While you are enjoying the pictures, here is some of my newly acquired knowledge about elephants. Elephant herds consist of related females - mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts etc. A male enters a herd only for breeding and leaves shortly after. Their leader, called a Matriarch is the oldest and most experienced elephant in the group. She makes all the important decisions for the herd.

This giant came close to our jeep, checked us out, and raised its trunk deeming us harmless.

Elephants getting a mud bath! (Mud acts as a suncreen and protects from insects)

I have some pictures below that show how close we were to the giants. Most of the elephants were oblivious to our presence, but some were suspicious and came close to check us out.

This one comes straight at this jeep...a head on collision waiting to happen. The driver starts the car, ready to reverse.

At the last minute, it turns away. The driver/guide explain that it is very easy to make out when an elephant is angry. It will spread its ears out wide to intimidate its opponents.

An elephant is ready to breed from thirteen years up until they are fifty. The baby is born after an almost 2 year (22 months) pregnancy. Given this, moms are very protective about their calves. The babies we saw were mostly walking under their mom’s body. It was very interesting to watch the mom-child interaction. Once in a while, the baby would fall and the mom would give it a little push to get it back on its feet. It was very funny to see the calves play with their trunks, not quite knowing how to use them.

Mommy and Baby Elephant

Elephant Crossing!

Can there BE a cuter photograph??

This one wandered away from its mom just for a minute

I don’t know how long we saw the elephants, but the sun started setting in, so it must have been a while. We stopped at the Ramganga River to look at some waders. At sunset the river turned a darker shade of blue and made for a pretty picture with the mountains in the back ground.

As soon as they finish bathing, elephants give themselves a mud bath to put a protective layer on their skin. They are (pachyderms with sensitive skin:)

For me, the best bird sighting of the evening was to watch the aerial song display of the oriental skylark. This is a tiny sparrow size bird that marks its territory and attracts mated by flying in a spiral at a high speed while fluttering its wings and emitting a high pitch song. If we were to do this, we would be tired in a second while the bird did this routine for at least a minute and then plopped down and sat on a stone. After a few minutes, it started its routine again.

It was 5:50 and we were supposed to be out of the forest gates by 6:00 PM. The driver stepped on the gas and when I say he stepped on it, he did so with his lead foot. Those of us casually standing on the seat of the jeep were jerked back into reality. We sat, holding tight and were taken out of the forest at a lightening speed. When the dust settled, it landed on our bodies and clothes.

After a nice hot shower, we went to the restaurant for dinner. The food at the restaurant was good with great variety. There was the Aloo-Gobi on day 1, Gobi-Aloo on day 2 and the very different Aloo-Mattar on day 3. Not be out done by the dry dish, were the gravy dishes. They ranged from Cholee-paneer to Rajma-panner guessed it Mattar-panner. For those interested in continental food, they alternated between masala noodles and masala macaroni! The staff were extremely nice.

Day 2

After a good night's sleep, we woke up to the calls of a nightjar. We had our bed tea., got ready quickly and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. They say that your appetite increases when you are in a jungle, but I was still shocked to see the number of omelets the group consumed! And these were double egg omelets.!There was a tub of butter and jam on the table and loaves of bread that kept disappearing at an alarming rate!

We took off on our Safari drive at 6:30. It was cloudy and it looked like it was going to rain. The only thing that was happy at the prospect of rain was this beautiful peacock. It was in full display and was dancing in joy. My first time seeing a dancing peacock, I was ecstatic. It shakes it butt while turning around in a circle - quite a comical display. All through the day we would hear alarm calls from peacocks which sounded like "Bachao.....Bachao"

Dancing Peacock

We saw some Indian rollers, raptors, kingfishers and an owl before it started raining. We stopped in front of a stream and watched the rain for a little bit. Here is a black&White of the scenery.

When the rain stopped, we took off again and that is when I got my super-duper bumper catch of the day - A Crimson Sun Bird. This is bird with a sharp curved beak and has some of the brilliant metallic colors. The bird was feasting on honey and was moving very fast, so it was next to impossible to get a good shot. I ended up with this.

Crimson Sun Bird (Not Bad!)

In the afternoon safari, our first sighting was this huge group of spotted deer - Chital. They were all resting in the forest when they woke up to the sound of our jeep. They reluctantly obliged for this picture and went back to sleep. In our 3 day stay, we saw all four kinds of deer - spotted, barking, hog deer and sambar. One thing I liked about Corbett were the rules. You can only enter the park at 6:00 AM. 11:00 AM - 2:00 PM was silent time when gates are closed. At 6:00 PM sharp, they close the gates again. Visitors are not allowed to get off the jeep at any time and this is strictly enforced.

This was our third safari ride into the park and we had still not seen the tiger. They make such a big hoopla about the tiger that you want to see it, just to tell people you did. We waited at a stream for an hour and then drove to the high bank where we saw ghariyals and crocodiles the day before. We got off the jeep to stretch our legs (allowed at this viewpoint). We had barely been there 10 minutes when JP, the guide starts screaming "Tiger...Tiger...Woh Dekho Tiger".

Panic struck because we were not in the jeep. My eyes darted from one end of the parking lot to the other. Fear on one hand, excitement on the other....I combed the place until I saw where JP was looking. Far away in the woods, a tiger jumped off a cliff and was swimming in the water. Oh What a sight!! The sun was setting, the steep canyon walls were casting a shadow in the Ramganga River and there was a tiger in the middle of it!! It was not a close, heart-pumping sighting, but exciting nevertheless. All of us had binoculars, so we were able to get a good look at the tiger. Manoj had the presence of mind to set up the spotting scope and some were blessed enough to have caught a closer look.

What a glorious end to the day!

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Corbett National Park - Part 1

Blue Throated Barbet calling!! Look at your 2’O clock position

Where is it? Where is it? I don’t see it?

OK, Do you see this green bush in front of you?


Behind that is a dry tree. Left of the dry tree is another green tree. Do you see it?

I....think so

Start from the roots of that tree and go up to a point where the tree forks. Follow the left side of the fork. The bird is sitting three branches above the fork.

I don't see it. Can you please repeat that?

See this green tree in front of you.....see the dry tree behind it? Oh Wait!! The bird moved.

Oh! I see it. Wow!! It is so beautiful. Oh My God! Look at the colors on the bird. Blue throat, crimson forehead and green body!

Where? Where? Show me!!

OK, See this green tree in front of you.......then there is a dry tree behind you.....

Guys...I have it on the Spotting Scope!

The normally disciplined group would surround the spotting scope fighting and pleading for their turn (You saw it already...NOT FAIR....that's long will you see it?) Mad rush would ensue followed by exclamations of “wow” and “amazing” and “unbelievable".

I left Corbett about a week back, but Corbett refuses to leave me. I close my eyes and am instantly transported back to the paradisaical land of Sal trees and singing birds, of grassy chaurs and giant mountains, of dancing peacocks and prancing deer,
of playful elephants and ferocious tigers, and of scented flowers and fallen leaves.

After a decade of touring all over the world to see some of the most beautiful places, travel for me has become more about appreciating simple things in life. At Corbett, the highlights of my trip were really simple things like waking up to a cup of steaming hot bed tea, riding in an open air jeep, breathing cold, crisp mountain air, listening to the singing birds and most of all being outdoors all day. Of course it didn't hurt that we saw herds of elephants, baby elephants, deers of all kinds, peacocks, monkeys, a lone jackal, a tiger and over 200 species of birds!!

After years of planning our trips meticulously, I am ready to take a break and who better to go with than Adesh Shivkar of Nature India Tours. Based on my experience in Bhimashankar, I knew that he would pick the best trails, best accommodation and provide the best bird watching experience. The local guide, Manoj Sharma was excellent and often regaled us with stories of his wildlife encounters. The eclectic group of 14 included a mix of budding birders, experienced birders and photographers.

We met at the Old Delhi train station in Delhi to take the Ranikhet express to Ramnagar, the nearest railhead to Corbett National park. We reached Ramnagar at 5:00 AM and were soon whisked away to our camp site. Nature Camps, where we stayed for 2 nights was a decent camp site on the banks of Kosi River. Breakfast was a huge spread of bread and jam, paratha, cereal and tea.

We drove towards Mohaan and Khumeria for some road side birding. A minute after we started, our jeep came to a screeching halt at the sighting of yellow footed green pigeons. A little ahead, we stopped again when the jeep in front saw a chestnut headed bee eater. We all jumped off the jeep and walked into the woods to get a better view. We ended up spending at least 15 minutes chasing and photographing the bird. This is a picture that I took later in the trip.

Chestnut Headed Bee Eater

A sighting of a female Greater Flameback woodpecker got us all excited and we jumped off the jeep yet again. We heard louder pecking and found the male Greater Flameback wood pecker. This location had great views of the Kosi River and a bridge built by the British.

Greater Flameback Woodpecker (female)

Greater Flameback Woodpecker (male)

View of an old bridge on Kosi River

A little ahead, we spotted two wagtails, named because of the way they keep wagging their tail. It was very cute to see that.

Grey Wagtail (in breeding plumage)

White Browed Wagtail

Then we came up to the one of our most favorite place on this road where we could photograph birds at eye level. We found a flock of bulbuls, chestnut tailed starlings and oriental white eyes. High up in the sky we saw a Himalayan Griffin and a blue throated barbet. Down below in the river, Garima spotted a red billed Leiothrix and a male paradise flycatcher.

Oriental White Eye (I love the mischievous look in this bird)

Chestnut Tailed Starling (what timing huh!)

Asian Paradise Flycatcher -Male (One of the most handsome birds i have seen to date)

Let me stop my boring blow-by-blow account of the birds we saw and tell you how we got into birding. It was July of 2001 and Saru and I were in the Daintree rainforest in Australia. We were on a tour and the jeep stopped for a few minutes. A cassowary (pheasant type bird) jumped out of the bushes, saw us and scurried away. A woman from our group jumped up and down in excitement screaming “Oh my God!! I saw a cassowary!! Oh my God!!” She hugged and kissed her partner and was delirious with joy. Apparently it was a rare bird and she was thrilled to check it off her list. Saru looked at her in admiration and said “I want to be like her”. We went back to the US where Saru bought his binoculars and it went with him everywhere. (I went too…albeit grudgingly). Numerous trips were made to the local wildlife refuge where he stared at ducks for hours while I bicycled around to kill time. A trip to Alaska fueled his interest even more with the sightings of Artic Turns and Puffins. I didn’t really get into birding until we visited the jungles in Belize. The colors and sizes and shapes of these birds bowled me over. After Corbett, I have to say that I am hooked!

We returned back to the camp site for lunch and a cat nap and were back on the road by 4:00 PM. Afternoon was not that great in terms of birding, but the scenery on the drive was beautiful.

I was trying to photograph a rhesus macaque. I got a decent shot, but wanted a better one, so I stood up on the seat of my jeep. The monkey was so alarmed at the sight of a tall desi woman pointing a long lens at it that it pooped in its pants. I don’t know if I should be proud of my timing or disgusted. Saru was thoroughly amused when he saw this picture, so I am posting it here.

A pooping Rhesus Macaque!!!

Day 2 saw us being woken up at 5:30 with a steaming cup of bed tea. 30 minutes later, we were ready for our morning birding. While waiting for the others to get ready, a few of us walked to the roadside and were immediately gifted with the sighting of Oriental Pied Hornbills. I could not believe my luck! In birders terminology, that was a lifer for me!

Oriental Pied Hornbill

This was followed by the sightings of the Himalayan Flameback woodpecker, lineated barbet, yellow footed green pigeons, roufous tree pie and grey horn bills. Then there were the flocks of screaming parakeets. It was, as you can tell, a glorious start to the day.

On the way we saw some magpie robins, more woodpeckers (lesser yellow nape, slaty throated) and some really cute black chinned babblers. Being out in wilderness and birding makes me very philosophical. I am dazzled by the intricate colors and markings of each bird. Within the same species, a bird can be plain, black chinned, yellow-eyed, puff throated and rusty cheeked and this was a very simple species I picked. The abundance of variety in color combination and features is just mind boggling!! I am constantly in awe of nature when I am birding!

We stopped at the entrance of Corbett. Out breakfast and luggage had arrived in a separate jeep. We were ravenous after the morning activity and were ready to pounce on the food. Breakfast was bread and petrol-flavored omelets (will leave you wondering about this). Soon after, we heard horn bills, so rushed to that tree and found two males fighting. It was pretty cool to see them dash head-on in the air and just before they hit the ground they would take off again.

Grey Horn Bill

Grey Horn Bills - Mid-air Collision!

We took off to drive 31 km to the Dhikala guest house, where we were staying for the next 2 nights. The drive was beautiful through Sal forests and we saw lots of birds and animals. While listening to the songs of a banded bay cuckoo, we spotted a tiny woodpecker called 'Speckled Piculet'. My jeep-mates were very amused with me screaming "little....tiny woodpeck type thing on that tree". Manoj was quick to look in that direction and identify the bird.

There were some stretches of road when we would not see any bird for over 30 minutes, but I was not bored. I would patiently stand up and comb the forest for any change in color or movement . 'I must be becoming more patient', I told myself when Manoj asked:

"Do you know why people love birding?"

"It reduces stress, nice to be outdoors and we get to see beautiful birds"

"What about photographing birds?"

"That is just our way of saving memories"

"One of the biggest reasons why people love birding is because we all have a hunting instinct inside us. It is just like hunting where you have to be very alert because you don't know when or where you can sight a bird. Plus....hunters used to shoot birds/animals and bring it back to show-off. We shoot birds with our cameras and display our pictures"

That logic sounded correct to me. Plus it was a more plausible explanation than me becoming patient.

True to their Hindi name Kotwal, two drongos were belligerently and fiercely protecting their nests. They were patroling/flying around their nest in a circle trying to scare away monkeys and to my utter surprise, were successful. This fellow jumped to the next tree and was waiting for his partner to join him.

Rhesus Macaque - What a soulful look!

We stopped at the high bank and got down to stretch our legs while admiring the forests and the Ramganga river. We saw a few ghariyals floating in the water and also a couple of crocodiles. Ghariyals are a type of fish eating crocodile that are more slender and have an elongated snout. We went to the guest house, had lunch, rested for a while before going on our first safari inside Corbett!!

View of Ramganga river from High Bank


Coming up in Part 2 - Elephants, Elephants and more Elephants and maybe even a tiger!

Preview of Elephants

Leave me a comment and tell me which one is your favorite picture.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Temples of Thailand - Wat Pho, Wat Arun

I went to Bangkok the second week of March for a work trip expecting to eat authentic Thai food and not much in terms of attractions. Unless green curry macaroni classifies as authentic Thai, I didn't eat good Thai food. I was at a conference where they served breakfast lunch and dinner and it was mostly continental food. I am not complaining too much because I got to eat a lot of salmon and cod that I don't get in India.

Bangkok city surprised me. It was not quite Singapore, but pretty darn close in terms of cleanliness, skyscrapers and infrastructure. I did see some poor dwellings, but it was nowhere near an Indian city. My only complaint was that the traffic was terrible. None of the attractions were close to their Metro Rail stops, so I had to travel by taxis and was often stuck in traffic.

I was in Bangkok for work, so was able to take only a few hours a day to visit the attractions. The first two places I went to were Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Wat in Thai means 'temple'.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)

Wat Pho is a 17th century Buddhist Monastery that houses the famous reclining Buddha. The buddha statue is 46 meters long and 15 meters high and covered in gold leaf. An interesting fact about this temple is that the Buddha statue was built first and then the hall to cover it. A 50 bhat tickets lets you gain access into the sacred hall that houses the Buddha. I walked in and was stunned by the art that covered every inch of the hall. The roof had a maroon and golden floral design and every inch of the walls were covered in murals describing the past lives of Lord Buddha. Areas around the statues were covered in gold plated metallic designs. It was very overwhelming to be in this hall surrounded by ancient Thai art. I don't think I felt this way about art after Italy!

Murals on the Temple Walls

When you walk out of the hall, you are welcomed by a number of intricately decorated chedis or pagodas. There are about a hundred pagodas in the complex, some in Cambodian Style, some in Chinese and the rest in Thai style architecture.

The pagodas and bells in the courtyard were intricately decorated using Chinese porcelain. The courtyard itself has a lot of Chinese Statues that were brought by traders as gifts to the King.

One other thing that struck me most about the temple compound were the brightly colored roof tiles and gold leaf decorations giving it a very rich look.

What Pho is also considered to be Thailand's first public university. This is the birthplace of Thai medicine and the famous massage technique.

Vam: Hey Saru, Can I give you a Royal Thai Massage?

Saru: Do I have to get naked for that?

Vam: Do you want to get naked?

Saru: Do I have to?

Vam: No, it is normally done with clothes on. Lie down and close your eyes. I will start from the toes and work my way up.

Saru: Should I even ask where you learnt this ancient art?

Vam: I remember some details from my massage and the rest I will wing it.

Saru: Oh God!!

Vam: So, they use their fingers, hands, elbows, feet...

Saru: Feet?? She uses her FEET?? Does she also jump on you?

Vam: WHAT?

Saru: You know, like when Lucy Liu does a cart-flip, lands on the villian's back and massages it with her feet before rendering him unconscious in Charlie's Angels.

Vam: It is quite sad how most of your knowledge is based on bad action movies. Any way, she did not jump on me, but she sat on me.

Saru: She SAT on you?? Oh my God!! Then what happened?

Vam: She pinned me down, tied my hands and ran away with my purse! Am I telling you a story here?

Saru (shaking his head in dis-belief): I can't believe you allowed a woman to sit on you!

Vam: Well...she didn't exactly sit on me.She almost sat on me.

Saru: Almost?

Vam: She sat in the sitting posture, but didn't put her weight on me. Anyway, it is part of the massage. For 450 Bhat (~700 Rs), I got a 2 hour massage.

Saru: TWO HOURS? What did she do for two hours?

Two hours might seem like a long time, but time flies when you are getting massaged by magic hands . Based on recommendations from my Thai colleague, I went to Health Land Spa. It was a wonderful experience not to be missed. On subsequent days, I went back to the spa for a foot massage and a facial and was transported back into heaven!

Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn

My next trip was to Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn, which ironically is best seen at dusk. The temple is situated on the east bank of Chao Phraya River. I took a ferry that cost 3 Bhat and exactly 3 minutes to cross the river to get to Wat Arun. Built in the early 18th century, this temple has a massive tower decorated in colored porcelain from China.

The tower is supported by rows of demons and monkeys. Steep knee-busting steps lead way to a balcony with great views of the monastery complex, the river and the modern Bangkok.

I also took this night picture when we were on a dinner cruise. I had to change ISO to 800 to get this image, so it is not a good one.