Archive for the ‘Gaur’ Tag

North India part one: Tadoba National Park. 18th-21st November 2019   Leave a comment

Although Margaret likes to travel she usually doesn’t want to join me on long and intensive birding trips where most of the time will be spent in dense forest. However we have enjoyed trips to Europe, the USA, South Africa and the Middle East where birding is mixed with sightseeing and other activities.

One area she was keen to visit was India. I have been on four dedicated birding tours of India plus have visited Bhutan and Sri Lanka so I’ve most of the birds, but there were still a few things I wanted to see. We needed some form of organised trip as I had absolutely no desire to drive myself, but both a standard tourist trip with no wildlife or a intensive birding trip with no sightseeing were out of the question. It was suggestedwe contact Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who was able to organise an itinerary around what we wanted to see, with drivers, hotels, transfers etc all for a quite reasonable price. In particular she arranged us to visit Tadoba National Park in the state of Maharashtra which a park that I knew nothing about, yet proved to be highly successful and a beautiful place to visit.

This post is mainly about our visit to Tadoba National Park.

 

When I visited India for the first time in 1986 Delhi airport was a shabby affair, hot, crowded and inefficient – it lived up to the western stereotype of India. Now look at it, modern, air conditioned and efficient. We had decided not to burn the candles at both end on this trip so after the overnight flight we transferred to a nearby hotel where we rested for much of the day before being picked up and taken to the domestic terminal for an evening flight to Nagpur. Here we were driven to another hotel and the following morning were collected for the three-hour drive to Tadoba National Park.

 

Tadoba Nation park consists of 578 sq km of mainly teak forest, grassland and marshes in central Maharashtra. There are about four lodges around the periphery and we stayed at Jaharana Jungle Lodge. In the afternoon we made the first of four safaris in open backed jeeps. It was magical driving though the tall teak forest with peacocks and other birds scampering across the tracks.

 

Although there were plenty of birds to see in Tadoba, for safety reasons we were not allowed to leave the jeeps except at one or two designated areas. In reality mammals were the main focus here. The first mammal species to be seen was this Grey Mongoose.

 

Tadoba has recently acquired a large buffer zone around the park, significantly increasing its area. This consists of mainly open grassland and was very good for seeing ungulates, in particular the impressive Gaur.

 

Zooming in you can see just how large and imposing a bull Gaur is, the head and body (excluding tail) measure around 3m and it can be over 2m tall at the shoulders. It is the largest wild bovid extant today. I have longed to see this species since childhood and in 2018 I finally succeeded. After quite some effort we saw a few cows and calves in dense forest in southern India. I was amazed how common and easy they were to see in Tadoba and how conspicuous the bulls were.

 

Another common inhabitant of the more open areas were Nilgai, mainly herds of hinds and calves.

 

Indeed some would run down the track ahead of the jeep before heading of into cover.

 

The male Nilgai is often known as the ‘Blue Bull’ but of course its an antelope not a bovid. After the two species of Eland in Africa its probably the largest of the antelopes.

 

Sambar were commoner in the wooded areas and hinds were regularly seen from the tracks, this species is similar in size or a bit larger than a Red Deer.

 

This impressive stag has just enjoyed a wallow in the mud.

 

Chital, sometimes called Spotted Deer, were common in shaded glades where the forest met open areas of pasture. I suppose their spots camouflage them well in this sort of habitat.

 

It was lovely to see this Chital fawn suckling but it would have been a better photo if mum had turned her head towards us!

 

Unlike our similarly spotted Fallow Deer, Chital don’t have palmate antlers.

 

Langur Monkeys (more precisely Northern Plains Grey Langurs) were common.

 

They seem to have a feeding association with the Chital (although there is another explanation for their co-habitation) which I will explain later.

 

As evening fell we made our way back and came across this huge bull Gaur by the road. Bear in mind I’m standing up on the back of the jeep. If I was at ground level it would be towering over me!

 

There were plenty of birds to see both around the lodge and on the game drives. Here is the ubiquitous Spotted Dove.

 

Peacocks are thought of as ornamental birds, commensal with mankind but in the forests of India they are truly wild. The mating season was over though and the males had dropped their spectacular tail feathers.

 

Red-wattled Lapwings were common throughout the trip.

 

This one was nesting on a raised embankment so when we stopped briefly for a photo it was at eye level.

 

India , like much of the Oriental region, has some great woodpeckers including this Black-rumped Flameback.

 

There were a number of wintering pipits but this one seems to be the resident Paddyfield Pipit, rather than its slightly larger and migratory cousin Richard’s Pipit.

 

The area was also home to a male Pied Stonechat …

 

… and the eponymous White-eyed Buzzard.

 

There were a few wetland areas but getting close enough for decent photos wasn’t easy as we were confined to the jeep but I quite like this shot of an Oriental Darter drying its wings. Darters and their cousins the cormorants don’t produce oil from their preen gland to waterproof their feathers. This means they lack buoyancy underwater and so can swim faster, deeper and for longer when hunting fish but the downside is that they must hang their wings out to dry when they surface.

 

Another bird that showed well along the same lake was Red-naped Ibis, a bird that I missed on visits to India up until 2018 when I finally caught up with them in Rajasthan.

 

Not such a great photo, as it was hiding in thick vegetation, but this was the only Lesser Adjutant (stork) of the trip.

 

Green Bee-eaters, here of the race orientalis, which is rightly given specific race by some authorities, was common in the park with hundreds seen.

 

Of course the animal most tourists want to see is the Tiger. The establishing of Tiger reserves all over India has probably saved the species from extinction, but it is still heavily targeted by poachers for the Oriental traditional medicine trade. Almost all tourists head off in the early morning, there are lovely views like this as the sun filters through the dust stirred up by the jeeps. Communication between vehicle by phone or radio is banned, presumably to avoid every one racing around after Tiger sightings, but these still happen. After a number of false alarms our lucky break came (twice) on the second afternoon.

 

The presence of a Tiger is often revealed by the bark of a Chital …

 

… or the chatter of Langurs, some of which which remain alert in the trees and so can see danger coming. The Chital, on the other hand, probably have a better sense of smell, this symbiosis seems to benefit all but the Tiger!

 

We had two sightings of Tiger that afternoon, this was the second and probably least successful of the two, hence the decision to keep the best for last. It was a well known male; magnificent, but for most of the time it was hidden deep in cover.

 

There were two other jeeps ahead of us and they reversed to give the Tiger some space when it decided to wander down the road. The light was already going and this wasn’t such a good encounter as the earlier one.

 

Earlier that afternoon we had taken a one-way side road that led up to a viewpoint over a lake when another jeep passed and said there was a Tiger not too far away. To my surprise the driver didn’t either continue and go the long way round or ignore the one-way regulation and turn about, instead he reversed for over a mile as fast as he could. By the time we reached the main road there were about four jeeps all in a convoy and all going backwards! We joined an assemblage of at least six other jeeps and stared into the dense roadside vegetation.

 

Although initially hidden it wasn’t long until this female walked out right into the open …

 

… ignoring the admiring hoards she sauntered past the jeeps a matter of feet away.

 

It goes without saying that if she had wanted to she could have leaped into any of the jeeps in one bound and attacked anyone of us. Given the fact that a birder I once knew was killed by a Tiger back in the 80s, this was not something to be dismissed lightly.

 

I don’t mean this to sound patronising so don’t take it that way, but in National Parks in Africa almost all the visitors are western tourists. You hardly ever see a local unless they are employed there. So I was delighted to see that out of the 40 or so tourists (in 15 vehicles by the time we left!) who were watching the Tiger we were the only Europeans. Only when people value the wildlife in their own country will true progress be made in conservation.

 

I think this lad had the wrong hat on!

 

The Tiger (or should I say Tigress) sat down just feet from the jeeps. One guy decided to straddle two vehicles and I ended up trying photograph her through his legs.

 

I make no apology for posting so may photos of the same animal. I had a poor view of a Tiger from our bus in Corbett NP in 1986 and one quickly crossed the road just in front of our Jeep in Kaziranga in Assam in 2001 but both were brief encounters. This Tiger just hung around giving fantastic views, one of my best wildlife encounters ever.

 

In due course she crossed the road behind us and lay down on this rock and was still there when we eventually left. As I said and illustrated earlier in this post, a couple of hours later that afternoon we had another encounter – this time with a male.

 

So with two Tigers under the belt we drove back to the lodge at dusk. But the day still had a surprise in store. A Sloth Bear walked out onto the track in front of us!

 

… and moments later was joined by a second. I had seen Tiger before but this species was new to me. ten years previously I hadn’t seen a single species of bear in the wild, then I saw Polar Bear in Spitsbergen in 2011, Black Bear in USA in 2014, Brown Bear in Kamchatka in 2016. Just three more to go! The only trouble was it was getting very late for photos and these were taken at quite low shutter speeds.

 

Back at the lodge we were intercepted on our way from the chalet to the dining room and directed towards the swimming pool. We were treated to a poolside dinner. Romantic, but when the waiter stood in front of the bright light you couldn’t see what you were eating.

 

Our final morning at Tadoba brought us some new birds but no new mammals. Having said that I’ve now seen most of the ‘good’ mammals in lowland India. All those marvels that I read about in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as a child and have yearned to see ever since have been put to bed. We were picked up late morning and driven back to Nagpur, this time to the railway station. We got there quite early and had to hang around for a couple of hours, but we did add one more species to the mammal list whilst waiting – Brown Rat!

 

It had been arranged for us to take the overnight train to Agra, we shared a first class compartment with two locals. It was quite comfy but the movement of the train as it went over points and juddered to a stop at stations throughout the night meant we got little sleep. We were on the train for about 12 hours and arrived at Agra around 0500 where we were met by by our driver for the next section of the trip.

 

I don’t want to end this blog post with a photo of a railway compartment so here’s the star of the show (yet) again.

 

The next post will illustrate our time on the Chambal River and a visit to one of the most famous buildings in the world, the incomparable Taj Mahal.

 

South India part 2: Munnar, Periyar NP and Thatterkad. 26th – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This is the third post about my trip to the Andaman Islands and South India and the second on our time in South India. The areas covered are Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad reserve.

As I made clear in the last post I had considerable problems with my bridge camera during the tour and by this late stage it had given up the ghost. Thankfully tour participant Alec Gillespie offered to share his photos, for which I am most grateful. All (or nearly all) bird photos are his and duly credited as such, scenery etc are mine taken on my pocket camera. As I write this I have just received the trip report and some more photos from tour leader Dave Farrow. One or two of his are included as well.

 

Right on dusk as we were nearly back to the vehicle our two local guides asked Alec to take a photo of them with his long lens. He had to be this far away to even get their faces in the frame. Notice Alec, like all of us was wearing leech socks, essential in the damp leech-ridden lowland forests.

 

From Munnar we visited the mountain massif of Rajamalai in Eravikulan NP, first crossing vast swathes of tea plantations to get there.

 

 

The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu experienced very heavy monsoon rain and extensive flooding in September. This bridge was washed away meaning we had to cross on this plank and then take a jeep ride to the entrance of the park. From there we were taken to the start of the walk by bus.

 

One of the top birds of the area was this little White-bellied Blue Robin which we managed to see whilst we were waiting for the bus to the mountain. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and at the other end of the bus route we got stunning views of this Kerala Laughingthrush. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and several Malabar Whistling Thrushes. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We walked up the road as far as was permissible, getting great views over the surrounding countryside and towards the highest peak in the Western Ghats.

 

Normally hard to find and only viewed at a distance, a pair of Nilgiri Pipits showed very well by the road. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The same can’t be said of the Nilgiri Thar, a species of goat endemic to the Western Ghats. Usually seen reasonably close, our only views were high on the ridge above. As no-one got a useable photo I’ve included one from Wiki Commons taken by AJT Johnsingh

 

After an excellent morning we had a dreadful afternoon, one of the clients slipped on the path at the hotel and had to go to hospital with a broken nose. Eventually the rest of us went birding but saw little. We travelled through some road works to get to a better area of forest but the mist descended and we lost all visibility. On our return the road was blocked as they were blasting rock. We waited two hours, until well after dark, before we were allowed through.

 

Mist streamed through the trees as we pulled over in an area of forest the following morning.

 

… we saw more White-bellied Blue Robins, more Kerala Laughingthrushes and this Brown-breasted Flycatcher. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Fortunately we passed through the extensive road works without any hold ups this time.

 

There must be elections in the offing as the communist party supporters were holding a rally.

 

We continued on to Periyar. This point in the travelogue gives me an opportunity to include a few of the more widespread species that were seen at some point or other during our South India tour, starting with Brahimny Starling. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Orange MInivet, a fairly recent split from Scarlet Minivet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Indian Nuthatch, which I think we only saw further north. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Loton’s Sunbird  (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Yellow-browed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We had an afternoon, a whole day and a morning in the lovely forests of Periyar NP.

 

To access some of the best forest we had to cross a lake on a raft. Near the embarkation point we had good views of Southern Hill Myna … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Malabar Starling in a flowering tree. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We watched in some trepidation as the transport across the lake was hauled into view.

 

Crossing on the bamboo raft was tricky to say the least but we managed with nothing worse than damp feet.

 

The trails weren’t all that bad but a few stream crossings were a bit more tricky.

 

This was by far the worst place on the trip for leeches and even though we were wearing leech socks we were constantly flicking them off our boots. I only suffered a few leech bites and even then I removed them before they had injected much anticoagulant (which makes the bite itch like crazy).

 

There were some pretty hefty scorpions in the forest …

 

There were some enormous spiders too. Note the small brown blob on this female’s lower abdomen. That’s the male spider mating with it.

 

… and we kept an eye open for snakes, although this Shield-tailed Snake is non venomous.

 

A pretty yellow frog was added to the list of non-avian goodies we saw that day

 

… as was this butterfly known as the Tamil Yeoman. (Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest).

 

Although we never saw one, it was clear that Tigers prowled these forests.

 

As well as resident birds these forests are havens in winter for migrants from the north. Further north on this trip most wintering Phylloscopus warblers were Greenish Warblers but here in the south the closely related Green Warbler (above) which breeds in the Caucasus, predominated. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We also saw Large-billed Leaf Warbler, a shorter distance migrant, breeding in the Himalayas and parts of China. Unfortunately we never connected with Tytler’s Leaf Warbler a rare winter visitor from northern Afghanistan, N Pakistan and NW India which would have been a life bird for me. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We saw many other birds in these forests including one of the most attractive raptors in the world – Black Baza … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… the pretty Flame-throated Bulbul … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Malabar Trogon … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Rufous Babbler, which was a life bird for me … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… a sleepy Indian Scops Owl … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and a rather more alert Jungle Owlet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We were nearly back at our bus one evening when we saw shapes moving in the grass by the village. They proved to be Pin-tailed Snipe, a winter visitor from Siberia. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But the overwhelming surprise during our time at Periyar was seeing another pack of Dhole. To go from ‘never seen before on the South India tour’ to seeing two packs on one trip was remarkable to say the least. The pack of seven had brought down a Sambar by the water’s edge and took turns coming to the carcass and taking away mouthfuls. Unlike the previous pack near Jungle Hut (see previous post) they were relaxed in our presence and we had what is often described as ‘walk-away views’. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Not quite as unexpected, but still amazing to see was this small herd of Gaur or Indian Bison in the forest. Our local guides said that they were hard to see at present because they frequented the water’s edge but water levels were currently very high, forcing them back into the forest. We found them on our final morning at Periyar. This rather dull photo was taken on my pocket camera …

 

.. but Dave was able to get a closer shot. The herd comprised of six cows and a calf. It’s a shame we didn’t see the massive bulls but I’ve been yearning to see this species for years so it was still a magic encounter. Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

The other major find on that morning was this beautiful White-bellied Blue Flycatcher – not to be confused with the White-bellied Blue Robin! (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

The hotels on this tour were of a very high standard and the staff usually most courteous. At this hotel they all turned up to wave us off.

 

Our final birding location was Thattekad, an area of dense forest and rocky outcrops nearer to the coast.

 

We had two evenings and a full day at Thattenkad, among the many species we saw were this roosting group of Ashy-headed Woodswallows … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Crimson-backed Sunbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Black-rumped Flameback … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Golden-fronted Leafbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Malabar (or Blue-winged) Parrot (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… and on our last morning of the trip, Grey-headed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But it was the nightbirds that stole the show – this roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths, which despite their name are not endemic to Sri Lanka, posed beautifully. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The similarly non-endemic Sri Lanka Bay Owl took a long time to track with much climbing through dense vegetation in the dark before we finally got a decent view This species which habitually clings to the side of tree trunks is seldom seen by anyone. It was first seen on this tour last year and was even a life bird for Dave. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

After our final meal together we went out owling one final time and had these wonderful views of the huge Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, a species I’ve heard several times elsewhere in Asia but have never seen. A fitting end to a fine trip. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

 

Four of us had been to Sri Lanka before so we left early the next morning for the airport. The guy who had fallen over and his wife flew to Sri Lanka with the rest of the party but had decided that due to his injury they would cut the tour short and go home, so it was just Alec and his wife Christine who joined Dave for the Sri Lanka part of the tour. From the tour report I see they did very well. If I had have joined them I’d have got two life birds and far better views of a bird that I saw poorly on my 2004 trip to Sri Lanka. Oh well, I guess I’d have liked to have gone but money and time were pressing.