Monday, 20 May 2013

13th April - Corbett to New Delhi

The alarm went off at 6.00 am for a nature walk with our guide Sanjiv.  Helen decided to pass on this one, and I left her asleep as I went to reception to meet Sanjiv.  It was another clear sunny day, and we set off along the main road away from the hotel.  Sanjiv did not carry any binoculars only his camera and he used that to confirm what he was able to pick out from nowhere.  To prove the point as we walked along the road, he stopped and pointed out to me a Red-breasted Parakeet at the top of a tree.  Characteristic of this bird is the greyish pink cheeks and the black collar.

We turned off the road and headed along a sandy track towards the river.  We stopped again to look at a series of Leopard paw pugs in the sand.  They are a lot smaller than a tiger, but still as unnerving, apparently they are commonly seen along the river.  In the bushes as we made our way to the river were Grey-breasted Prinias, and Scaly-breasted Munias, small birds that refused to show within the bushes.
The river bed was very sandy, and strewn with rocks and boulders.  We had been hearing a River Lapwing calling as we walked to the river, and finally it appeared in amongst the rocks and sand.

As we reached the river a large flock of Little Egrets, and Indian and Little Cormorants flew up river.  The cormorants and egrets work together to stir up the fish, the egrets disturbing them from the shallow water for the cormorants to pick off, and the cormorants doing the same for the egrets.
A Common Kingfisher sat on one of the large boulders along the side of the river.  It cast a very serene scene, as the water behind it glittered in the weak morning sunshine.

A Green Sandpiper flew in amongst the egrets, and proceeded to feed along the edge of the island.  A dog that had been following us ran off into the egrets and they flew off taking the cormorants with them.  As they flew down the river the delicate white of the egrets could just be seen in the morning haze, and the high sides of the river valley created a lovely effect.

A Pied Kingfisher had been sitting in a tree watching the egrets and cormorants, but once they were gone it started to fish.  It would fly around quite high above the water, and then hover before plunging into the river.  It did this several times before catching a small fish, and it was off.

We walked along the river, close to the water, and as a result we flushed a Little Heron, that flew up river.  We picked it up later but it was a long way off and had merged well into the rocks.
Sanjiv clearly knew the area, and some birds obviously have favourite perches.  It was still impressive though when he pointed out a Grey-headed Fish Eagle sitting majestically on a tree on the far bank.  It would only move its head the eyes searching the water below.

Sanjiv then amazingly picked out a small falcon at the top of a tree, at the top of the cliff on the far side of the river.  This was apparently a Red-faced Falcon, another regular.
We climbed up the bank and walked across a very old and worn out suspension bridge.  The path on the other side took us through a plantation of Teak trees, and all that was below them were the dead leaves.  Again Sanjiv scoured the cliff face, this time in search of a Tawny Fish Owl, but this time without any luck.
We came out of the teak trees and walked along a path now high above the river.  Below us we could see shoals of Mahaseer Fish all facing up river.  The path came out to another bridge and a large temple called Seeta Bani. Legend has it that Devi Sita, the consort of Lord Rama had entered into the lap of Mother Earth here.  There were lots of tents where Indians have come to visit the temple.  Religious people could be seen along the side of the path and below us.  People were also bathing in the river.

There were Black Kites circling over the temple, and a Crested Kingfisher was seen in the distance on a rock by the river.  We decided to walk along the other side of the ridge, and almost immediately came across a brown warbler in front of us.  At the time it was difficult to identify, but once we saw the pictures we both agreed on Dusky Warbler.

There were a lot of small birds in the verbena bushes this brightly coloured bird was a Common Iona.

This is a Pied Bushchat.

Holes in the small banks were thought to belong to Green Bee-eaters, but when Sanjiv used the lens of his camera to shine a light in, a Plain Martin flew out.  An Indian Roller frustratingly flew over, and a Peacock called to alert us to a Shikra flying through.
There were more Leopard paw prints in the sand, and we also came across some Tiger scats, which contained a fair bit of what I am reliably informed was Samba Deer hair.
Other birds to be seen were an Indian Robin

And a female Asian Pied Flycatcher, which is just as striking as the male bird even if it doesn’t have the long tail feathers.

A Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker was a very nice find in one of the trees.

Sanjiv pointed out the calls of a Grey Slaty Woodpecker.  This is one of the largest woodpeckers in the area, and they usually move around in flocks.  They kept calling until eventually we could see them at the top of a tree.  However as soon as we got onto them they flew off.  There was four of them, and in flight they looked huge, very much like hornbills.
We came back on ourselves, and headed back to the river.  Coming past the temple there was a Crested Kingfisher sitting on the wires, looking down at the Mahaseer fish below.

After this the walk back was without any major surprises, but as we came up to the hotel, once again Sanjiv pulled another gem out of the bag, this time a Chestnut-breasted Starling, again at the top of a tree.

After breakfast we decided to make the most of the fact that we didn’t have to leave the room until 16.00, so we went to the pool. It had been nice a relaxing yesterday, so we were looking forward to the same today.  How wrong we were. 
We were soon joined by other residents and as it got hotter they decided that they wanted to swim too.  The hotel had a policy of only appropriate swimming costumes to be worn in the pool, and we soon found out why.  At first the ladies walked into the pool with their clothes on, but they were soon told that this was not acceptable, and they were offered swimming costumes to hire.  This was so comical; we watched them as they attempted to size the costumes by holding them up.  The costumes both male a female were some really amazing colours and patterns, and the ladies suits had long legs and little frills.  Some decided to wear the costumes regardless; some didn’t, and just snuck into the water in their clothes.  They then organised a three hour water polo game that was extremely noisy, with water going everywhere.
There was one forced break when we all looked for a ring that had come off someone’s finger.  It was found though, and the game continued.  The commotion though didn’t stop the dragonflies, they were still about, and one would settle on my toe.  They probably felt safe as the Bee-eaters were not about due to all the noise.

Finally the game ended, and our fellow guests started to wander off, but unfortunately time was against us.  As we were packing up, and drying off I noticed a vulture over the river.  As it came closer I could see it was not the usual Himalayan Griffon, but an Egyptian Vulture.

At one stage it came completely over the pool area giving me the chance to get some close pictures.

Just before we left I realised that I had not taken any pictures of the Red-whiskered Bulbuls that were all around the hotel grounds.  Fortunately this one posed beautifully for me, again a rather smart bird that because they were everywhere was overlooked.

We went and had lunch sitting on the terrace overlooking the river.  As always the camera and binoculars were not far away, and I noticed an unusual shape on the rocks in the middle of the river.  It was a Crested Serpent Eagle that seemed to be just sitting there.

However this was not the liking of the River Lapwing that proceeded to dive bomb the eagle, the eagle in turn would lash out as the lapwing flew close.

Time was running out on the holiday, and we returned to the room to finish the packing, and to get ready for the final adventure of the holiday, the overnight sleeper train.
We were picked up by taxi, and taken to the station at Kathogadam.  The journey was uneventful, passing through villages and lots of cereal fields that were being harvested.  The air was full of dust from where the wheat was being threshed.
We stopped in a hotel for some dinner, and despite being told we couldn’t have a beer, they managed to get some, for which we were grateful.  Half way through the meal the lights all went out, and we wondered what was going to happen, but fortunately the power returned, and we were able to finish.  We were dropped at the station at 19.30, the train being due to leave at 20.40.  Our train arrived at 20.00, and we were able to get on.  Fortunately we had a cabin to ourselves with bunk beds, so contrary to the information we had been given back in the UK we didn’t have to share with an Army Major, or Bank Manager!  The platform was the usual scene of chaos though, and once again the train led us a merry dance as it moved up and down the platform.

We slept on the train, on and off, but it was nowhere near as bad as were thinking it was going to be.  We arrived in Delhi at 3.45 am, and immediately found a porter.  As we left the train we stepped over sleeping bodies, on both the platform and the stairs.  Outside it took a while to find Mr Singh, but once we did we were in the car and off to Green Meadow Guest House.  Here we were able to get some more sleep, a shower and breakfast in the morning before Mr Singh arrived to take us to the airport. 

We arrived in Heathrow on time, and we were home by 19.30.  Suddenly the Indian Adventure we had talked about for some time was all over.  It had been such an amazing experience, we had lived with some wonderful people, eaten some wonderful food, and seen some incredible scenery.  On top of this I had seen 160 new birds, and been able to capture many on photograph.  We regularly get asked would we do it all again, and we would.  It was hard at times, and the nights were long and dark, but the mornings and the day were wonderful and humbling experiences.  Thank you Villageways, and a big thank you to all those that made this such an incredible experience.  From the guides to the village committee,s to the cooks, and to the villagers themselves who let us into their lives.

Friday, 17 May 2013

12th April – Corbett Tiger Reserve

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.

We were suddenly disturbed by a loud rattling call coming from directly above us.  Helen asked what it was, and I said if I could bet on it I would say a kingfisher.  I got up and in the tree above us was a White-throated Kingfisher, and it continued to call out for some time.

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.
I did though manage to get a record shot of this Rosy Minivet, another new bird.

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.