Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tigers and Leopards - Dream Sightings at Bandipur II

A young couple walk by the reception desk. The manager looks at them and says in broken English:

Manager: "Why you not going to the safari this morning? I sent my boy to wake you - two times"
Lady: Oh! We wanted to get a head start and leave early for Bangalore. We didn't see much yesterday, so decided to skip it. Did we miss anything?
Manager: Yes! You missing LOT of sightings - 6 TIGERS, 2 LEOPARDS and 22 WILD DOGS!
Lady: YEAH RIGHT! Where did you see them, at the CIRCUS?
Manager: No-No. My other guests seeing them".
"Ask them" he says pointing to me, Saru and T&S.
We put on our best 'this-is-no-big-deal' smile and in the most fake-casual tone say "He is right! We saw all that!"
Couple : NO WAY!
We (in the same fake-casual tone): Yup. We first saw a pack of wild dogs chasing a leopard and its cub and just before we left the park, we saw a tigress and its 4 precious cubs. We saw the father of the cubs yesterday evening.

Couple: OMG...YOU ARE SOoooo LUCKY! We didn't see anything! Once we were in Corbett and an elephant charged at us. It was SO scary!
We: Oh yeah....we had 2 elephants mock-charge us. Today, we stopped to watch a herd and one got so mad, it trumpeted and almost charged at us. We tried to move, but our jeep stalled! It was damn scary!! Check out T's post.
Couple: Gosh! You guys had such a great weekend.

The couple was right about one thing and wrong about another. We definitely had a great evening, but it was not 'just' luck that resulted in these wildlife sightings! It was part-luck and part-strategy! Between the 4 of us, we have at least 30 years of corporate experience, so you could say we were smart people!

T: Saru, you are really lucky. NOBODY sees a tiger in their FIRST safari!!
Vam: I saw a tiger in my first safari at Corbett!
T: YEAH...like 10 kilometers away! - that does not count!!
Vam: Of course it counts! I saw it really close with a binoculars!
T(ignoring Vam): OK, we got really lucky today. Let's make sure we get lucky tomorrow too. All of you...even you Selva....wear the exact same clothes. No changes whatsoever! Not even your underwear.
Saru: Can we reverse it?
Shilpy: Oh God! This is gross!
T: Ssssh. We make sure we do everything the same way. Shilpy and I will sit here, Vamsee - you sit in the front seat like today and Saru were you foot-boarding on the left or the right side?.
Saru: Left
T: OK! Is everybody CLEAR?

Next morning, we woke up extra early and were in the jeep by 6:15AM. It was our last safari of the trip before we headed back to Bangalore. I love morning safaris. It is nice and cold, the fog is just lifting and the birds are just waking up.

Vam: Saru....Are you hoping to see another tiger?
Saru: The odds of that are really really low.
Vam: I know
Saru: I don't think we will see a tiger today, maybe a Leopard, but not a tiger.
Vam: Right....because the odds of seeing 1 of the 98 leopards in a 100sq km park is so much higher than seeing 1 of the 100 tigers!
Saru: I am telling you - we are going to see a Leopard!
Vam (muttering); Whatever!

About half an hour into the park Saru and Thomas screamed:
Saru: HEY....look, FOX!!
T: It is a wild dog!
A second later, we saw another dog cross the road and it was followed by another and yet another.
Selva counted 22 dogs! It was like "Who let the dogs out! woof! woof! woof
! woof!'

T: I think there is a kill, let's follow the dogs!

We followed the general direction and by then, two more jeeps had arrived. Our view was obstructed by bamboo trees and lantana bushes. We could not see what was going on, but could hear loud alarm calls by langur monkeys. They were jumping from branch to branch and screaming in fear. The wild dogs were growling and very animated. We switched off our jeep engine and waited.

A few minutes later:

'OMG! It is a leopard! It is so tiny! OMG It is a cub!!

Wild dogs were chasing the cub and the poor little terrified thing climbed up a tree as fast as it could. One of the dogs jumped at least 2 feet and almost reached the cub, but missed it by a thread! The dogs were upset.They were growling and circling around the tree. Langurs were still screaming like somebody was attacking them! A few minutes later, the dogs left. The little impatient cub should have realized that the safest place was up in the tree, but I think it was looking for its mommy, so it climbed down the tree as fast as it came up and disappeared into the bushes . The only shot Saru took had only its tail!!

By now, there were at least 10 jeeps in the area. We didn't know if we were in the best spot, but we had no way of moving, so stayed put and watched in the general direction. Nothing happened for a few minutes and then all of a sudden, the mom Leopard came into view!! It also, quickly climbed a tree and sat on a branch. Lighting was very poor and the animal was at least 40-60 ft away from us, so all the pictures are record shots and of poor quality!

It looked like the leopard was searching for its cub, so barely 3 minutes after it went up, it climbed down the tree and vanished into the bushes. We waited for a good 15 minutes, then drove to the other side of the road and waited there for a little bit, but saw nothing! By then the place was crawling with jeeps, so we moved forward.

Saru: What did I TELL you Vam!!
Vam: You are one lucky dog!!
Saru was basking in the glory of his good luck and was going on and on "I told you we were going to see a leopard and you didn't believe me ....I told you......"

They say that the best place to see a tiger is to go back to the last place you saw it. We went back to the previous evening's spot hoping and praying that it would still be there. Lighting was perfect and we wanted to get much better pictures than yesterday. We drove very slowly and focused all our energy trying to spot the tiger through the bushes. It was no where to be seen!
"That was too much to ask anyway" we said to ourselves and moved a little, when Saru, looking in the opposite direction whispered excitedly - "I SEE IT!

There it was, perfectly camouflaged in the bushes. We could barely see the tiger. If we were not looking for it here, we would never have found it! I was looking through my binoculars when I saw another tiger's face! I whispered in delight:
"I see another tiger!"
"Really....OMG Let me see!"
"Wait a minute...I see one....two....three!!
"It is a tigress with 2 CUBS!! OMG!! OMG!!
"Nope...Not 2, there are THREE CUBS!!
'Can you believe it!! We are seeing another tiger and 3 cubs!!
Shilpy was ecstatic. This was her dream sighting - a lifer for her. She was so thrilled, she almost cried.
The cubs were climbing on the mom and playing. They were SO CUTE! At one point the mom licked the face of a little cub. It was SO COOL! We just sat there and watched whatever we could with the bushes obstructing us. The little cubs were restless and wanted to come out the bushes. Five minutes later, the mom stood up and I practically froze amidst whispers of "It is going to come out, be ready with your cameras".
The beast slowly walked out, its head and part of the body came in sight. It looked at our jeep to see if we posed any danger.

It walked further, stopped to scratch its head against a tree and then crossed the road. Once in a while, it would steal a glance at us to make sure we maintained our distance. It was when the tiger came out in plain sight and the cubs started parading out that we realized that there were 4 CUBS and not 3!!

From the moment it stepped out, the tiger took less than 30 secs to cross the road. From the minute Saru spotted the tigress in the bushes, the whole viewing lasted 9 minutes! Saru was so busy focusing on the tigress that he neglected to take pictures of the cubs. This is the only picture I have of the tiger and all the 4 cubs. I am posting this inspite of Saru's disapproval . Except the previous 2 images, he didn't want me to post any other images. (He was like - You can't post this - These are bad images - I have a reputation to maintain...blah blah blah)

This was by far, the best ever wild life experience we ever had!!

Leave me a comment. It helps motivate me to keep writing and bug Saru to travel more.

To read Part 1 of this trip, visit my previous post.

This post is part of the Show your World meme. For more stories from the rest of the world, click the image.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Vacation with Strangers - Bandipur National Park

"Stop making these blog friends" said Saru one day.

Vam: Why? What is wrong?
Saru: You are already a travel freak. These people add fuel to the fire. You are traveling too much!!
Vam: Lakshmi says "There is no such thing as too much traveling" and you know....Jayanti wants to go on a trip every month and make 2009 the best travel year of her life!
Saru: Who is Lakshmi? Who is Jayanti?
Vam: My blog friends
Saru: Exactly what I am saying. These people are bad influence on you!!

Saru's complaint was not that I was traveling too much, but that I was traveling without him. After my Corbett trip, he wanted to go on a trip that would top it. I contacted T & S for ideas and they asked if we wanted to join them.

Vam: Do you want to go to Bandipur NP with T & S?
Saru: Who are T & S?
Vam: My blog friends.
Saru: Travel with strangers? Are you nuts? What if they are weirdos? What if they are crazy? OMG...What if they are man-eating cannibals?
Saru's overactive imagination kept going - What if they are not cool, what if they are messy, what if they are boring, what if they are serial killers.......
Vam (shaking her head): SARU!!
Saru: I am not going anywhere with strangers. This whole thing is very suspicious.
Vam: OK FINE! We are staying at home for the long weekend.
Saru: Those are my options - get eaten by cannibals OR stay at home!!
Vam: Yes! Otherwise, YOU plan a vacation.
Saru: OK, OK, let's go to Bandipur

It is hard enough to make friends in this fast-paced world, let alone friends with common interests, so I really wanted to go on the trip. I have an insatiable thirst to travel and I am slowly realizing that there are many more like me in India. What better way than to pair up with them and travel to my heart's content.

Thomas and Shilpy were not weird or crazy and definitely NOT cannibals (rolling my eyes at Saru's overactive imagination). They were absolutely wonderful company and we had a great trip together. Maybe it was because we were following each others blogs, but it didn't feel as if we were meeting for the first time. Conversation was very easy and we had some great discussions sitting around the bonfires in the night. You can check out their blog here.

We started really early on Thursday, April 30 and drove towards Bandipur. Day 1 was spent at the Ranganathittu wildlife Sanctuary and a beautiful forest house in Anaikadu. I will write about these in a separate post. We reached Bandipur in the afternoon. Our first wildlife sightings inside the park were the spotted deer that were everywhere and macaque and langur monkeys. Here is one doing some monkey business:

Our stay at Tusker Trails included two safaris a day. One at 6:30 in the morning and another at 3:30 in the afternoon.

"Yesterday - very bad for safari. It rained like anything! " Said the manager in a very heavy Malayalam accent.
"Are you having any interesting sightings? asked Thomas.
"Yes, one jeep seeing one tiger 2 days back and my workers seeing a leopard outside the property. Leopard is killing a calf. Sometimes, elephants walking outside fence " he answered in broken English.

With lots of hopes, we all set off on our first safari in the park. Thomas picked the same driver he had used for his Dec 31 tiger sighting. Selva was very knowledgeable about the park and took us away from the beaten path. The rain from the last 2 weeks had given the park a green-makeover. Coming from Mumbai, where the hills were still brown, I loved being in the middle of this lush greenery. Every few minutes we would come across spotted deer and Sambar deer. The jungles seem to have a very healthy population of deer which pleased us.

Just as were enjoying the forest, the sky turned dark and it started drizzling dashing our hopes of seeing a thirsty tiger at a waterhole. We came across a herd of elephants - 4 adults and 4 calves. The sound of our jeep immediately put the matriarch on alert. It's ears perked up and it came closer to the jeep. It stopped just a few feet away and let out a loud trumpet. My heart beat went up and I was terrified that it would charge at us. Selva switched off the jeep and we all sat very very silently. Elephants are very careful when they have their calves around. Sensing that everything was OK, they crossed the road. The angry matriarch was about 10 feet away, Saru had the wrong lens 70-300mm loaded, and lighting was poor. But he managed to click a fairly sharp image at 1/20s exposure (go VR!).

A little later, we came across a herd of Indian Gaur - a type of Bison that Thomas joking referred to as a bison with white lipstick and white socks! For such a ferocious looking animal, it is very shy. The minute they sensed that the jeep stopped, they ran away inside the jungle at a lightening speed. Saru took these standing and action shots.

On our way back to the resort, Saru spent some time watching the Cheetal and got these great shots. I particularly like the one that is standing on two feet to eat the leaves on the tree.

Next day, we were up by 5:30 and on our safari by 6:15. Because of the rains, peacocks were really active. We saw this peacock sitting and preening itself.

We saw some more elephants along the way. This time also, they had babies, so as soon as they sensed our presence, they surrounded the babies and
walked/pushed them away from us. How very protective!!

Just as we entered the main road to get to another trail, we spotted the most common species of mammals in the park - the human kind . An over sized Volvo bus was parked in the middle of the road and the passengers spread out a bed sheet ON the road in the shade of the bus and were eating a 4 course meal out of a stacked tiffin carrier while occasionally throwing bananas and leftovers to the monkeys and deer!! Only in India!!

A little ahead, we saw a group of people sneaking into the jeep trails on foot!! We stopped our jeep and I said "Guys, it is very dangerous to be on foot inside the forest. What if you startle an elephant or a tiger? Please go back". They looked at me as if to say "Bugger off lady...mind your own business". Just recently there was a case of an elephant trampling a British tourist in Kaziranga National Park. You DO NOT want to be on foot near an elephant. One of the guys was also wearing a red pant and white shirt (somebody with a very poor sense of fashion) - both colors that freak out an elephant!!
Thomas said to the group "Guys, you will be fined heavily if a forest department folks see you". Immediately the group started retreating back.
"What the hell? They don't get "life-in-danger", but they get "Rs 200 fine" ?? Only in India!

Tigers are very hard to spot in South Indian Jungles. A recent survey put the numbers at 105 tigers in the 100 square km park. I had made up my mind that we wont see the cat and I was OK with that. "Tigers are overrated!" I said to myself. In their last 20 trips to the jungles of Karnataka, Thomas and Shilpy said they saw tigers twice. We were driving on an isolated path and i could not believe my eyes when I spotted one hiding in the bushes. There it was - "The Royal Bengal Tiger".


The tiger was soaking in a waterhole and was disturbed when it heard our jeep. It looked straight at us. I had the camera and the best view because I was sitting in the front seat. This was my FIRST time seeing a wild tiger that close. I tried to take a picture, but my heart was racing and
my hands were shaking. I took a couple of shots, but both shook. I knew I could not focus, so I passed on the camera to Saru. I had a small camera and could have shot a video, but my mind was numb and it really was not my brightest hour. I just sat there silently watching the animal watch us.

We had 2 options - pass by it and get a clear view and good pictures, but we run the risk of alarming the tiger and it could run away into the bushes. Option 2 was to stay where we were and wait for it to come out. We decided to wait. We were preparing ourselves to wait for a good 30-45 minutes for the animal to come out, when the tiger suddenly jumped out of the water and ran to the other side of the road. The entire thing happened in 9 SECONDS (time based on Thomas's first and last shot)!! You can see the tiger running and water dripping from its body in these pictures.

The tiger went inside the Lantana bushes and settled down to take a nap. Based on how full the belly looked, Selva said " It had a huge meal. It is going to sleep at least for one hour". We decided to stake out there until the tiger came out. All four of us were photographers and loved wild life, so we did not mind sitting there watching the bushes for over an hour. The sun set and it was time for the park to close, but there were no signs of the tiger coming out, so we left. On the way back, you could see 4 beaming faces brimming with excitement.

Back at the lodge:
"How was your safari? Did you see anything?"
" OMG Really? we didn't see anything! ''
"The tiger was a beauty...it was MAJESTIC!"
"Oh wow, you are lucky!"
"Yes, Vamsee sighted it. It was awesome!"
"You want to see our pictures.....see....here it is running with water dripping from its body....here it is disappearing into the bushes..."

After showing off to our heart's content, we sat around the bonfire with a drink and raised our glasses to a great day!

NOTE: As you can tell, I changed my blog template to be able to post larger size images (Thanks Thomas) Leave me a comment and tell me if you like it. Also, let me know which one is your favorite image.

COMING UP PART 2 -Our dream run of sightings continue on Day 2

Monday, May 4, 2009

Corbett - Birds and Beauty

Corbett National Park is the first national park of Independent India, established in 1947. It is here that the prestigious "Project Tiger" conservation project was launched in 1973 to protect Bengal tigers. Situated in the Shivalik and outer Himalayan region in Uttaranchal, Corbett is one of the most scenic wild life reserves in India. The minute you step inside, you are captivated by the beauty of the reserve.
At dawn, when your vehicle enters the reserve, a gush of cold breeze jolts you out of your sleep alerting you to the sights and sounds of the jungle.
You first notice the golden hued grasslands swaying gently from side to side. Then you start to pick up the songs of the birds, the calls of peacocks, barking deer and the occasional trumpets of the elephants. As you pass by the meandering Ram Ganga river and gaze at the mountain ridges that seem to extend into the horizon, you realize that you have come to a special place, a place where animal takes precedence over man , a place that leaves you wanting more even after 6 glorious safaris; a place that will beckon you to go back again and again. It took me more than two weeks to get over the hangover of Corbett. The intoxicating smells and sounds and sights just refuse to leave you.

On our last safari, I had a slight fever and body pains. I contemplated not going, but the thought of missing out on exciting sightings made me pull myself together and go. Uma, bless her soul provided me with fever medication that worked like magic. Five minutes into the park and we spotted elephants crossing the road. I posted enough pictures of elephants in my last post, but could not resist posting this one because of the scenery. Even though it is not focused properly, I love the picture of the tusker walking through the canopy of trees.

The forest was absolutely beautiful! Some deciduous trees had shed their leaves giving the place a very autumn-y look. Driving through the forest and seeing scenery such as this makes me miss fall in the US. All I wanted to do was to go inside a New England coffee shop, sit by the fireplace and eat a nice piece of pumpkin pie a la mode. Ummm...nothing like a warm pie with ice cream to lift your spirits!! Sigh!

Morning was great for birding. A flowering tree was full of leaf birds. Red jungle fowls were foraging in the ground for food. We saw several black hooded orioles. Breeding season was in swing and we saw male scarlet mini vets chasing females. They were zipping from one tree to another shamelessly flirting with each other:) . Watching the scarlet red and yellow color birds chase each other was a lot of fun. We also saw a group of yellow footed green pigeons.

loud high pitched ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-kee call alerted us to the presence of a changeable hawk eagle. We all took good pictures and Uma was ready with her camera to record the call, but the bird refused to oblige. It started calling only AFTER our jeep moved ahead! Check out the picture below to see this majestic raptor.

Along the way we saw many birds. I got this nice close up of an Ashy Drongo. I was also pretty thrilled with my first sightings of a small kingfisher and emerald dove.

We went back to the grasslands for one last time before we exited the park. A huge herd of Cheetal were grazing. There is a very healthy population of Cheetal in the Indian jungles (over 35,000), so multiple sightings are almost guaranteed. Because of this most people don't usually care about them, but I think these are the prettiest of all deer, and am happy to see it any number of times. We then stopped at the reservoir to look for waders and turned back.

Along the way we saw stone chats and bush chats, but the target species for the area was the Hodgson's bush chat that is characterized by a white collar. It is named after the renowned eighteenth century naturalist who discovered 39 species of mammals and 124 species of birds and was intrumental in getting artists to sketch birds accurately to leave notes for future ornithologists.

Green Bee Eater

Back at the guest house, I was able to take some close ups of spotted dove and male and female rose collared dove. A rose ringed parakeet also let me walk close to snap a picture.

The next day we woke up early for our last birding session. The morning started a little slow but picked up later. I was able to get great photographs of some common birds and not so great photographs of rare birds! I took a picture of a white throat kingfisher from a distance and kept inching towards it. To my surprise, it let me come very close for a great shot.

A number of people in the group were photographers and each had a different style of approaching a bird. Some were direct, some would sneak behind and snap pictures of the unsuspecting bird while some would photograph the birders instead of the bird:) Nobody and I mean NOBODY was like Uma. Her strategy was amazing! She TALKED to the birds!! Well....that's not so strange - my mom talks to birds.
"Don't poop on my daughter's balconies"
She told the pigeons in my building and I swear I am not kidding, the shit on my balcony went down by half. My maid was very pleased and keeps asking me when my mom would visit again!

Uma was different, she tried to fool the bird and here is how:

"Oh...you chweet chweet bird! You are cho cute.....gundu!! Don't worry....this is not a camera. I am not taking your picture. See....there is no film in the camera. Sit there and I won't take your picture!!
"I am coming closer, but won't take your picture. Please sit there....gundu:)

Convincing the bird that she was not taking a picture while clicking the camera furiously was laugh-out-loud hilarious. One evening at dinner, Captain mimicked the whole scene and had us all in splits!

We stopped at a spot where we took some pictures of the oriental white eye. I love the mischievous look of the bird and cannot resist posting these three pictures. Look how it twists its body in the last shot.

The black lored tit (yes...it is called a tit and you can snicker away to glory) moving around very fast and this is the best I could get. While I was busy with the tit, a rosy minivet was vying for my attention.

The lifer for me that day was the sighting of a roufous bellied Niltava. This bird has brilliant orange color belly and a metallic blue color back. What a bird !! That location proved lucky for us and we saw super cute black chinned babblers, black headed bulbuls and black lored tits.

This was a wonderful trip and I hope to return back next year. Our guides Adesh and Manoj were simply the best.