01/10/18

Wolf pack, Wolf pack !!! Velavdar Blackbuck National Park- 24, 25 Dec 2017

We reached Velavdar by 1700H. Ramzan bhai our guide had called us a few times to know when we were reaching. We had no plans for a safari that day since we had driven from Zainabad and also stopped to see the “Indian eagle owl” at Wadhwan.. The plan was to do four safaris for the next two days (24th & 25th). We parked at the national park and were asking the officials for the national park accommodation status. There are a few rooms and a dorm. But, the booking procedure is pretty convoluted, demand draft via speed post to the forest office at Bhavnagar and that too without clear visibility of availability ! Ofcourse nothing was available. Ramzan was to let us know the hotel for us to stay. I also ran into the well known macro photographer,  Yuvraj Gurjar who was along with a few folks. Yuvraj said that the Narayani Heritage hotel at Bhavnagar was his choice. But, I didn’t want to stay some 45 kms away. Ramzan’s hotel option would be nearer for sure. While we waited for him to return from his safari guiding, we climbed the watch tower near the gate to watch harriers coming in to roost. The cast iron railing was wobbly and felt unsafe ! Soon Ramzan arrived and he told us to go to Hotel Khodiyar, about 10 kms away. We asked him the distance again and he said 15 kms. Now that confused us, was it 10 kms or 15 Kms ? We then asked another person who said clearly that the highway was 10 kms and then we had to travel towards Bhavnagar for another 15 kms to get to the hotel which was bang n the highway. That was a total of 25 kms from the park not 10 and not 15. Somehow the first meeting with Ramzan didn’t inspire much confidence. There is no budget hotel near the park. There is only a very high end resort the Blackbuck Lodge which is right next to the park. Ramzan did mention that there were two hotels coming up in the nearby village and should be ready sometime in the summer. But for now, we had to go some 25kms away for our hotel.

We first filled in fuel and then checked out Khodiyar hotel which is at ,Sanes. It was empty and had blue and red lights in the corridor. Kinda like “camera types” was the comment! We decided against it and, after asking the petrol pump recommendation we switched to the next door hotel “Shree Krishna Foodinn”. The petrol pump guy mentioned the food was good here. Fortunately the rooms here were fine and the corridors well lit. No multicoloured lights thankfully! Funnily no amount of search threw up these hotels on google and neither did the map show it. But once at the hotel, and with some bare data connectivity, I could see this hotel marked on the map for a short while. After that one time, it never showed up. The data connectivity on the Bhavnagar-Ahmedabad highway was very poor. Almost zero data. For google maps one needs good data connectivity. Its pretty useless without connectivity. I much prefer paper maps. Hardeep and I kept having this conversation all though our drives. But now after I am back, I searched out and have marked it on the map. You need to spell exactly too to get a search result. This spell situation would repeat on our return to Mumbai. So it isn’t something of a one off. Whaatt.. ? I think we are in the year 2000 still on this one …. Gaah !

The hotel had a 24h restaurant since it caters to night buses that stop here for a bite and a bio break. Only down side is that the buses honk their pressure horn, signalling to their passengers to get on board. This goes on through the night. I was able to get some breakfast packed early morning to take it with us on the safari.

Music and pressure horn at the hotel porch!

Sree Krishna Food Inn – Bus honk from krish photo on Vimeo.

Velavdar one needs to take our own vehicles for the safari drives. Ramzan came a bit late but we were inside the park by 0715H. He took a route quite different from the other vehicles and said we would try to spot wolves. Some 30 mins into the safari, we spotted a pack of three. My very first wolf sighting. They were probably returning from a hunt, he said. Ramzan offered to drive since both Hardeep and I were trying to take pictures. He expertly positioned the car and we got our first shots of the day, a few indian wolves !

The Indian wolf, first sighting
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The wolves now knew that they were spotted and started to fast track across the grassland. We turned the car and headed in the direction of the wolves. Enroute we spotted some blackbucks but Ramzan urged us to keep going for the wolves.

Ramzan urging us to drop the blackbucks and go after the wolves.

20171224_080912 from krish photo on Vimeo.

Ramzan knew exactly where they were moving and set us at the metaled road. We took a few shots of the approaching wolves an then got off the car and sat on the ground, waiting for them to cross the road. just as the wolves crossed, Ramzan made a “AAoooouuuu” wolf call and the wolf looked up. Handheld 600mm plus TC was tough but I managed two shots, of which one passed muster ! Thank God for regular gymming ! 600 one, 600 two , thats my motivation count in the gym !

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Wolves crossed the road and stopped to look up.
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The third wolf crossing the road
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We then went back into the park to see some blackbucks and some harriers. Rest of the morning was quite tame with the regular birds like the common kestrel, stonechats and Montague harriers. There were a lot of larks seen too.

Albino blackbuck
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The customary jump shot
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Fighting blackbucks
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On the wetland side of the park, we spotted possibly a Stoliczka’s Bushchat and a Hodsons Buschat ( I need to reconfirm with some pros these since not sure of what Ramzan was saying it might be. If indeed these birdies, then wow ! ). Reconfirmed, Ramzan was “fafing”. Bit of a “feku” this guy. Something to watch out for but, he seemed to know about the wolves. We moved back to the hotel after the morning safari, fully contended. Ramzan was delivering and the confidence was building back.

The evening we started our safari at 1530H. Mostly blackbucks and neelgai and watching harriers coming in to roost. A tame session in comparison to the morning.

Red Collared Dove
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Ashy crowned sparrow lark
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Long billed Pipit
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White Eyed Buzzard
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Pallid Harrier female
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After we were done, we realised it may not be worth taking a second evening safari the next day and thought we leave for Mumbai early, right after our morning safari. We would bring in our bags in the car, unload some at the park office to make space for out guide Ramzan and, later pick them up after the safari. That way we would save time driving back to the hotel. We planned to make a mid way halt enroute for the night, and continue to Mumbai the next morning.

Next morning, the morning of the 25th Dec 2017, we again went into the grasslands in search of the wolves. Ramzan spotted the three from a watchtower.

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Wolf running across the grassland
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But they were far away. As one of them began to move, Ramzan set us up to see it cross the track. This guys has a good sense of where the wolves would move. The wolves were smart and they split in three different directions so we could track only one at a time. After the first crossed the track, we turned around to follow the second one.

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This one was heading towards the rear of the park area and soon, we had to stop and only watch from the track. This wolf ran into a huge wild boar. The boar in no friendly mood snorted and made a small charge. Our wolf got the message and took flight to a safer distance. I did manage to take a few shots but being hand held and at a large distance , got only one usable shot. But, what a wonderful wildlife moment to witness !

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Wild boar and the wolf
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So the tally was, two wolf sightings on two mornings, not bad ! Ramzan said that hyenas are not being spotted at the moment. He asked me to keep checking and he would let me know when they are seen. We could then make another trip for the hyenas later. After the wolves, we went to the wetland area to see some water birds. A flight of pelicans came circling but did not land. The light was quite harsh but, we managed to practice flight shots on a few river terns flying around. By 1130H we wrapped up the safari, loaded the luggage and set course for home.

Laggar Falcon Juv
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River tern
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Rosy Pelicans
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Rufous Tailed Lark
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The idea was we would stop and stay at any hotel by 1800H possibly around Baruch. The google map showed the route via Anand, whereas it was way shorter to come via Adhelai- Vataman-Borsad-Padra-and join the Ahmedabad- Mumbai highway at Karjan which is midway between Vadodara and Baruch. The “Here map” was giving me the correct route but we took a chance on google. turned out it wasn’t the best decision. We defaulted to the google suggestion and went all the way to Anand and then, turned south to Mumbai. Try as we might, we couldn’t get a single decent hotel on the highway. We wanted to halt the night at a good hotel but just didn’t find any non trucker one to stay. We then decided to keep driving and reach Mumbai. We pushed on and thought we would find the same sugar and spice pit stop. Try as we might, no chance of finding it on the map. Then we finally kept a look out and found it, thanks to its large neon sign. Again google map was not much help here until one put in the exact spelling ! So it was a 12 hour drive both ways from Mumbai. The new car was now well and truly broken in 🙂

A buffalo skull
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Song of the trip. Dil Diyan Gallan 🙂 Whenever I hear this song, I am gonna remember this super trip !

The correct route to follow from Velavdar  to Mumbai

Tips & notes
1. Long lens territory here too but get a 70-200 or a 300mm along.
2. Totally bean bag based shoot from the car window.
3. Positioning the car is super important to get the shot.
4. Good guide is Ramzan Khan: +91 81408 10087. Only watch out and discount some bit of “salad dressing” 😉
5. Stay option at Shree Krishna Foodland is good
6. Three safaris, two morning and one evening is ideal. Keep mornings for the wolf. More may not yield much. I think there are better areas outside the park for birds. Locals would know better I am sure.

12/13/17

Thattekad – Malabar Parakeets

I did a quick one day trip to Thattekad, again.  The last time, I had lost my favourite RX-100 while birding. Eldhose later called and informed me that he had found the camera. It had fallen down between the tail-gate and the spare wheel of his Mahindra bolero. And the camera was working fine too 🙂 Lucky me !

This time I around,  took along my Nikon 600mm F4.  The 600 is a way too long a lens for his hide setup. I wish I had my 300mm 2.8. One can only shoot so much “BOS” ( bird on a stick ). I tried a few action shots but , too much a focal length for this hide.

My wish to see the malabar parakeets came true. A bunch  came in to feed. Mighty shy bunch though.

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Malabar Parakeets from krish photo on Vimeo.

Another new birdies for me was the “Philippine Shrike”.

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There there was this Flameback Woodpecker defending its perch

My turf- Buzz off from krish photo on Vimeo.

 

My fav shot ” Lets play Tennis” [ Tail of the racquet tailed drongo]

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08/8/17

Chiplun – ODKF Hide photography

I had planned along with Nitin, a sneak day to photograph the brilliant Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (ODKF) this monsoon.

This is an extremely small and very colourful birdie that breeds in the western ghats during the monsoons.

Nandu Tambe has a hide setup in his farm at Shiravli village, Chiplun, Maharashtra. This location is of his cousin Shriram which is where you will stay and also have your meals. Nandu’s farm is a closeby.

 

The driving directions from Chiplun

Nandu’s farm is a protected area and he has made hides for photography,  with minimal disturbance to the birds that go about their business as usual. He even ensures the photographers moves out of the hide from time to time and let the birds (ODKF)  be completely on their own. Nandu started his conservation efforts after he hand raised a few abandoned chicks some time in 2012. That got him interested in the birds and conservation around his farm.

The Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher  nests in mud banks and breeds twice in every monsoon. Two sets of chicks are fledged.  One clutch hatches in about 15 days or so and the chicks fledge in around 20 days. The only time/ season  to see this birdie is July to early August ( monsoon onset / early monsoon time frame)  since it breeds only in the monsoons and, can be seen easily. The male is smaller than the female. The female is slightly rounder in shape than the male.  Dimorphism

The accommodation is super spartan with typical Indian style loo.  The local vegetarian food served by him is extremely good. Do pack in your towel and soap as also mosquito repellent. Dress dull colours, wear full sleeves and a full trouser with shoes. Expect a lot of mosquitoes, water and mud pools ! Expect lots of rain 🙂 Take a poncho and a plastic bag to cover your camera gear. Preferably, make a hole in a garbage bag and slip it over your lens. This will be required if the hide is out in the open field. Take some small eats to munch while waiting and,  carry a water bottle.

For me , one session is good enough for hide photography. I kind of find it a tad boring and prefer the open walk , bird and shoot. At the farm, I did spot a bunch of other birds too ! I spotted,  Black hooded orioles, Babblers, Golden backed woodpecker, white bellied drongo, Indian pitta, Blackbird, Vigors sunbird etc.

To reach , the best is to take a train , Tutari Express from Mumbai (Dep-0005H)  to Chiplun (Arr-0520H). And for the return one can grab another train the  Janashabdi express Chiplun at 1730H which arrives into Mumbai at 2300H or there abouts. You can arrange an autorickshaw to Nandu’s farm which is about 30kms away. Route Chiplun-Guhaghar highway. Turn Left after Rampur at Gudhe Phata  towards Pathardi village.  Cross the village and keep going a km or so till you see a large tree on the right. Turn right into  the dirt track at the tree and follow the road. Nandu’s contact +91 84080 66060. Alternatively call Rahul Belsare on  +91 86050 14989 . You can get only BSNL and JIO cellular network at the farm ! Someone had a full blasting JIO LTE and was running a full blown guided tour of the property on a video call while, at the same time,  we were having a hard time even sending an SMS !

For the return trip, one can also get a private bus , You need to catch it from here “Mehta Petrol Pump, Chiplun” See map below.

For hide  photography at Nandu’s farm, even a standard 300mm consumer lens is fine, though anything larger will be great. The bird is very small and one does need focal length to fill the frame. Low ISO is good and use a tripod ( see the setup pics below!).  But in lower light higher ISO would be a big asset. While we were there, it wasn’t too cloudy and we had intermittent sunshine. So overall the light was pretty good that day. But if it rains as it usually does, it would be quite low light.  You would be quite near from the bird, say about 15 feet / 5 meters would be the subject distance. I was very near the Min Focus distance (MFD) for my 600mm. Had to actually,  move back a bit.

Photo tips for what I did while photographing the ODKF from the hide

  1. Use a low/ medium ISO ( since using a tripod )
  2. Use a tripod
  3. Aperture F8 / F11 is best. This is because of the close focus distance, the DOF is very shallow. F8/ F11 helps keep full bird in focus.
  4. Lower speed is ok since you are on the tripod. Click when the bird is motionless
  5. Press on top of the lens while shooting,  to stabilise the entire system.
  6. Leave space around the subject to be able to crop later
  7. Take both landscape and portrait shots
  8. You can increase the Exposure compensation by 1 stop (+1 EV) to get more light on the bird
  9. Focus on the eye of the bird
  10. A variation, focus on the prey in its beak using a wide aperture to throw the bird out of focus while, bird is facing you.
  11. I like some vegetation in the background to give a sense of the location and habitat
  12. Dont forget to grab a few videos ! I mostly forgot 🙂

View from Chiplun railway station

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Room with the hide 🙂

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The seating inside the hide. This is just one hide. There are other open area hides too. But at this time, this was the only place where one could see the birds.

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All pics Nikon 600mm FL + Nikon D5 / Nikon D800 + Gitzo 1548 tripod with wimberly head

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher from krish photo on Vimeo.

 

ODKF – Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

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Other birds

Indian Pitta, wing stretch

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Brown Headed Barbet gorging on papaya

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Blackbird Female

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Black hooded Oriole

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Golden backed woodpecker

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And my favorite image  from the trip , Indian Pitta

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And a screen grab from a video. These buggers are faaast !

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Side note: If you want to experience some local Malvani food, you can try Hotel Abhishek at Chiplun for some authentic stuff.

 

All the pics in the gallery below