Archive for the ‘Langur’ 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 1: Ramanogara, Mudumalai and Ootcamund – 21st – 25th November 2018.   Leave a comment

In November last year I joined a tour going to the Andaman Islands, South India and Sri Lanka. As I had been to Sri Lanka in 2004 I declined to take the third section of the tour.

My last post covered our time in the Andaman Islands and this post and the next covers our time in South India, mainly in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I mentioned in my Andaman Islands post that my bridge camera was having trouble focusing. This issue continued in South India until about half way through when it failed completely. Fortunately another tour participant, Alec Gillespie who joined the trip for the South India and Sri Lanka segments, volunteered to share his photos. With excellent top of the range photo gear Alec was able to take a wonderful portfolio of bird photos. All of his shots are credited, the remaining, often ‘soft focus’ ones are mine.

 

Alec Gillespie with camera gear. Camera, lens, tripod and associated accessories weigh around 14kg! Rather more than I’m prepared to lug around tropical forests I’m afraid, but he does produce some superb photos.

 

We returned from the Andamans to Bangalore (or Bengaluru as its often called) for an overnight stay. Our first destination the following morning was the rocky outcrop of Ramnogara.

 

Our main target here was the South Indian endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul which we saw but didn’t get to photograph. However there was another interesting bird nesting up on this rock face …

 

 

… the now critically endangered Indian Vulture. All species of vulture in Asia have declined dramatically in recent years with losses of 99.99% reported. Once common species like White-backed and Indian Vulture (seen here) are now rarities due to the use of the drug Diclofenac or Volterol for veterinary purposes. Eating the carcass of a cow treated with this drug will cause liver failure in vultures and a single dead cow (of which there are many in India as religious beliefs prevent them from being used for meat so they wander freely in town and countryside) can poison hundreds of vultures. See this Indian Vulture at its nest was a real treat even if it was a bit distant. Here’s a photo I’ve added to the post later taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

Our next stop was at the lake at Ranganathitto. A waterbird sanctuary, we were able to travel by boat round the lake and get close up views of many of the birds.

 

Nearby signs made it clear how you should behave!

 

There were large numbers of Black-headed Ibis on the reserve.

 

Closely related to the Sacred Ibis of Africa and Madagascar and the White Ibis of Australia, these are familiar birds in wetlands across India.

 

The rarest of the world’s eight species of pelican, Spot-billed Pelican was here in good numbers.

 

White-breasted Waterhens (a species of rail) were seen along the water margins.

 

Asian Open-billed Stork is one of the rarer of the world’s 17 stork species. It’s mandibles have evolved so that only the tips close, leaving the sides ‘open’ so they can manipulate their water snail prey. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

 

The lake held lots of Muggers (or Marsh Crocodiles), We had good and close views of them in the water …

 

… and on land.

 

A real treat was seeing this Great Thick-knee, a species of stone-curlew. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Restricted to south and south-east Asia this is one of 10 species in the family Burhinidae. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

On route to our next destination we stopped to photograph this Red-naped Ibis. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Moving on we drove through one of the tiger reserves where you weren’t allowed to stop unless you had booked a guided jeep tour, however we broke this rule briefly when we saw an Asian Elephant beside the road. We got uncomfortably close to elephants a number of times on this tour as they are certainly not confined to reserves. Indeed one villager was killed by one as he walked back home during our stay in the area. We were warned a number of times not to walk in a certain direction (that is walking outside of the closed reserves of course) because an elephant had been seen/heard in the vicinity. In spite of the dangers the local people seem to accept that elephants and people must co-exist.

 

Our destination was Jungle Hut, a lodge near Mundumalai.

 

One of our main targets was the seldom seen Nilgiri Thrush and during our stay it remained ‘seldom seen’ however we had compensation in the form of this beautiful Indian Pitta. Most Asian pitta species are mega-elusive but this one is an exception, I saw it easily and well in Sri Lanka in 2014 and the same happened here as well. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The locals were here to greet us – one of our first sightings of Southern Plains Langurs.

 

Chital (aka Axis or Spotted Deer) were common in the area and a herd was usually present in the lodge grounds …

 

… as was the enormous (about 1m from nose to tail tip) and very noisy Indian Giant Squirrel.

 

We had low cloud for much of our time here …

 

… but we still got good views of great birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… Jacobin or Pied Cuckoo (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and Malabar Lark (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

One evening we went looking for nightjars and saw the little Jungle Nightjar.

 

The following day we set off in jeeps rather than our usual minibus and climbed high up the mountain mists in search of Painted Bush Quail.

 

 

We hadn’t got far when our local guide stopped the vehicles. At the side of the road a pack of Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes had killed a Chital. Although they were wary of our presence they refused to leave the kill. Eventually several of the dogs pulled the carcass further into the undergrowth. Sorry for posting such a blurred image but the camera was playing up and my hands were shaking with excitement.

 

This was without doubt the best sighting of the entire trip for me. I’ve always been interested in mammals since I was a child and vividly remember reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book long before Disney turned it into a silly cartoon. One of the species mentioned in the Jungle Book was the mysterious wild dog, the Dhole and I’ve longed to see one since. Birdquest have been running tours to South India for decades but this is the first time one, let alone a pack, has been seen! Postscript: I’ve been able to replace one of my blurred images by this much sharper one taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

We searches the fields and scrub areas further up the mountain finding …

 

… the impressive Black Eagle …

 

… Bay-backed Shrike …

 

… and eventually several groups of gorgeous Painted Bush Quails (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

In the afternoon we moved on even higher to the town of Ootacamund, universally known as Ooty. Our first destination was a market at the top of Doddabetta Peak, the highest point.

 

The idea of a sign advertising the ‘plastic free Nilgiris’ is a bit of joke when you can see plastic waste bins, chair, covering of stall and tarpaulin in this photo alone.

 

With a large amount of discarded food on offer many birds have become quite tame such as this East Asian version of our Great Tit, the Cinereous Tit.

 

A Crested Goshawk posed nicely for pictures (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Blackbird is a widespread species in the Palearctic/northern Oriental region but recently it has been split into four – Eurasian, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. This of course is the Indian species which differs slightly from our familiar Eurasian Blackbird in plumage and voice. They weren’t common, I only saw three on the entire trip and the best views were obtained here at the Peak. (photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

Nilgiri Woodpigeons (unlike their Andaman cousins which we dipped on) were common and easy to see here.

 

Two of the best species seen were the endemic Nilgiri Laughingthrush (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the gorgeous Grey Junglefowl. It is of course the Red and not Grey Junglefowl that is the ancestor of domestic chickens. At last I have seen all four species of ‘wild chickens’ (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The elusive Northern Red Muntjac was also seen. As we are in Southern India it may see strange to call it Northern Red Muntjac but Southern Red Muntjac occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia which of course is south of here. The muntjacs introduced to the UK are a third species – Reeve’s Muntjac.

 

The accommodation on the tour was consistently of a high standard but the hotel at Ooty had a foyer of outstanding elegance.

 

… but the wifi was crap though!

 

Whilst in Ooty we visited the Botanical Gardens which gave us views (but not photos – my camera gave up the ghost on Doddabetta Peak) of Nilgiri Flowerpecker …

 

… but we did get to see Square-tailed Black Bulbul well (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

However the gardens seemed a magnet for school outings so getting in (and getting out) was a bit of a hassle.

 

Throughout the Nilgiri hills Greenish Warblers were quite common. They are wintering here from their breeding grounds in western Siberia and easternmost Europe (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Whilst I have seen Greenish Warblers many times before, the beautiful Nilgiri Blue Robin (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Black-and-Orange Flycatcher were life birds.  (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We finally left Ooty heading towards Munnar. In September 2018 the area suffered from torrential downpours and widespread flooding. Our route was still impassable so we had to make a long detour via the coast and got little birding done that day. Time to admire the scenery and relax, which is probably more than the hotel guests in this room can do suspended in mid-air by a few insubstantial beams.

 

Stops on route included this waterfall.

 

…and a spot to do a little birding and watch the Bonnet Macaques …

 

… who were clearly finding plenty to eat along the roadside.

 

The next post will include photos from Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad.