We were up at 4.45, and headed off in the jeep at 5.15 to the park gate closest to the hotel. The sun was still not up, and the air was a little cool. The gate entrance was close to the main road, and the jeeps would jostle for position to see who could be first into the park. Once our permits were cleared we were off, following only one car in front of us.
The drive took us along a bumpy track, and we had to cross river beds, with some water in them. We sensed the objective this morning was to find Tiger, with both the guide, and driver focusing on the road, and the sandy patches beside the road in search of footprints.
As we made our way along the track we would come across several groups of Spotted Deer, and every so often we would find a few Samba Deer. These are much larger deer, with very coarse fur. The males are currently sporting good sets of antlers. This male watched us from behind the vegetation by the side of the road.
There were plenty of signs of Tiger activity during the night, and their footprints or “pugs” were seen in the fine sand on the road. This one was extremely clear, unfortunately you can’t appreciate the size of this print, but my hand would have disappeared into it.
Both guides were trying to double guess where the Tiger was headed, and where it may possibly turn up. As a result we found ourselves driving back and forth and skirting around the densely vegetated areas and we would wait in spots to see if anything emerged from the jungle. This would normally result in a deer or monkey appearing.
As we sat by the side of the road, a Bee-eater flew in and sat on the dead tree above us.
The focus on finding tiger meant that the identification of the birds around us took a back seat, but we did get some good sightings of another Oriental Honey Buzzard, a Changeable Hawk, and a new bird in an Oriental Pied Hornbill high in one of the trees.
We continued to drive around, waiting at water holes and any likely stream. This would be determined by the tracks or discussions with other jeeps we passed. On one of these waits we could hear a Red Jungle Fowl calling in the forest, then eventually it appeared on the road, and walked past us.
These are the ancestors of the chicken we all know and eat today. This male though was looking to round up its females, and when it came into the clearing it stopped and let out a loud “cock-a-doodle-do”
I found a Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher in the bushes, and plenty of warblers flitting about in the bushes. Parakeets were also flying above us, and feeding at the top of the trees. These were Plum-headed and they came quite close to us.
Another bird at the top of one of the trees was a Yellow-footed Pigeon. It was a lovely lime green on the upper parts, and bright yellow feet.
We came across a group of Black-faced Langurs sitting around at a salt lick. It reminded me of a Far Side cartoon, as they seemed to start monkey activities just as we drove past, prior to that it seemed like they were sitting around chatting.
We could hear a Barking Deer calling with its single bark, but we never saw it, this Samba deer posed nicely for a portrait opportunity though.
It became evident that we were not going to find a tiger, and that the pug marks were going to be the closest we would get. With the bird life now quiet to we set off out of the park. We headed into Ramnagar, as our guide wanted to pick up his motor bike. This gave us the chance to go back the irrigation dam to see if the birds we saw briefly yesterday were still there. As we pulled over to the side of the road, there was a Pied Kingfisher sitting on the wires that stretched across the lake.
The Painted Stork was still present, and was feeding in the very shallow water close to one of the islands. This large stork has a heavy yellow bill with a down-curved tip that gives it a resemblance to an ibis. The head of the adult is bare and orange or reddish in colour. The long tertials are tipped in bright pink and at rest they extend over the back and rump.
It would probe the water and the mud with its beak open, immersing their half open beaks in water and then sweeping it from side to side to snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish
Mostly sitting at rest, but some could be seen on the water were Indian and Little Cormorants, the size difference between the two species being evident in this photograph.
Where there is water you typically find egrets in India, and in this small area the three commonest egrets could be seen. Great Egret, the largest with a yellow bill, Little Egret with the crested feathers on the head, and a black bill, and the Cattle Egret, the smallest with orange buff feathers on the head signifying its breeding plumage.
The only ducks I could find were Ruddy Shelducks, these are a rusty orange in colour, and have a soft shaped head.
Having identified all the birds around the dam we set off back to the hotel. On the way we passed a White-rumped Vultures nest. These were once quite common to the area, but now they are a threatened species. This nest has been a regular feature for the last few years which has been seen as an encouraging sign.
Back at the hotel, we rushed to get some breakfast, and then after sorting ourselves out, we decided to go and spend some time by the pool until our next safari that would start around 16.00, we had a date with an elephant.
The pool was empty and we were able to enjoy the sunshine and cool off in the pool on our own. I can’t settle in these circumstances and I always have my camera and binoculars handy just in case. The first just in case was a Black Kite swooping low over the pool area. There are two restaurants nearby, and this was probably the attraction to the Kite. Amazingly I have not been able to get a good photograph of a Black Kite despite the vast numbers of them we have seen. This one though was obliging.
All around the hotel grounds there are flocks of Jungle Babblers, and singles of the Oriental Magpie Robin. The Babblers are not that photogenic, but the robins have a certain way about them that makes them quite approachable. I Found this one as I stuck my head through a hedge.
Bee-eaters would fly above, sometimes perching in the surrounding trees, but sometimes dropping close to the pool to chase the small red dragonflies. There were two species around, the Green Bee-eater, and the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater.
The Chestnut-headed was the larger and bolder of the two, and would come to perch in the tree just behind us, and would allow me to get quite close affording me some nice pictures.
Not only would it chase the dragonflies, but it would also plunge into the water, and then fly up to the tree to shake itself off, and to preen the beautiful red, orange and green feathers.
As the afternoon wore on we were visited by many more birds. Red-whiskered Bulbuls would sing from the tree, and Oriental White Eyes would call as they made their way amongst the flowers. A Rose-ringed Parakeet pair also turned up, and just sat in the shade to get out of the heat of the sun, but after a while they turned their attention to the flowers.
Another bird interested in the flowers around the pool was the Purple Sunbird. I have been trying to get a good picture of one of these all the time we have been in India, but they are either too quick, too distant or the exposure would be all wrong. These one is not perfect but it’s the best I have been able to get.
Finally the time came to leave the pool and to go and get ready for our Elephant safari. We both didn’t know what to expect, or what to take and wear. The ruck sacks were left behind, but I still had to take the cameras and binoculars. We drove the short distance to the Elephant that was waiting patiently by the steps. Helen went first and sat down very elegantly on the platform, with here fee hanging down. The dilemma for me was where I sit to balance the weight with the guide and the handler. I saw where I wanted to go but got it all wrong and almost tumbled off the elephant completely. It was a combination of Helen and the guide that saved me. Eventually I managed to sit alongside Hen, but it wasn’t comfortable, and it was never comfortable for the whole trip.
We set off at a lumbering pace across a stream and then down a bank and into a stream. As you went downhill you were looking down as you waited for the elephant to move its feet. She was very careful where she put her feet, and she would follow paths she obviously had used previously.
As we walked along the stream we disturbed some Grey Wagtails, and a White-breasted Water Hen, that shot into a bush, and then refused to come out despite the Elephant being instructed to bash the branches.
From the stream we came out on to the river bed, and as we set off across the river, another Elephant was returning, and this gives a good idea of what we must have looked like, and the terrain we were negotiating
As we crossed the river the elephant would take the chance for a drink. Coming out of the water we crossed the dry bed, disturbing River Lapwings. We reached the buffer zone on the other side of the river bed, and gingerly edged our way up the bank. It was as if you always so close to falling off, and as a result you were completely focused on making sure you stayed on the elephant, that you could appreciate what was going on around you.
The buffer zone is seen as part of the park, but not controlled. When the Indian Government issued the ban on tiger watching in the reserves these buffer zones were the only places the tours could go to look for tiger. Both Tiger and Leopard can be found here, and there were signs of kills with bones and scats all about, but of course we never actually saw the real thing. There were also plenty of Spotted Deer, and monkeys, in fact the faces on two monkeys as we appeared in front of them on the path was an absolute picture.
We wandered around the scrub for two hours in total. These were probably the most uncomfortable two hours I have ever spent. As we made our way across the river the elephant once again took the chance of a drink, but then decided it would be fun to spray the water about. I was desperately trying to cover the camera up as she sprayed the water up at me. We crossed the beach towards the stream. As we did so a dog decided it wanted to bark and run alongside us, something that the elephant wasn’t too happy about and she made several thrashes with her trunk at the dog to get it to go away. We were shouting at the dog too, because we did not fancy the idea of being on top of an elephant chasing a dog along the beach.
We walked back up the stream, getting a better view of the water hen this time, and then it was over. My descent off the elephant was a lot more dignified than the ascent. Once I was back on firm ground I made sure she knew that I had no bad feelings, and we parted friends (I hope).
We were back in the hotel in a reasonable time, that allowed us to start the packing process, and to have a relaxed shower, before settling in the bar for some more Kingfishers, and glasses of wine before dinner. After dinner we retired at what could be considered a more “western” time. We only had one more day left of this incredible adventure. While we have been here we have been thinking of home and its comforts, but I am sure once we are home we will be thinking of the wonderful times we have had on this amazing trip.