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.

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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.

01/3/18

“Bustard is a bad word !”- Miss Pinkita : Little Rann of Kutch – Dec 2017

Ive been wanting to visit the “Littel Rann of Kutch” (LRK) for a while now. When I checked with Adesh his trip was fully booked. I made a quick call to Rahul at Foliage Outdoors and he suggested I speak with Dhanraj at “Desert Coursers” Zainabad. A quick call with an email and the bookings were confirmed. The plan was to drive from Mumbai and reach Zainabad by evening. Google showed a 11 hour time. We loaded up and were rolling at 0630H, 20 Dec 2017. One of the choke points was the Ghodbunder bridge but thankfully, we breezed through that early morning. The plan was to spend 2 full days at LRK 21 & 22 Dec 2017. Leave for Velavdar on the 23rd. Do two days at Velavdar, 24 & 25 Dec . Then head back to Mumbai on the 26th.

Mumbai to Zainabad, we made two stops, about three and a half hours apart. for breakfast and lunch. Worked out just fine the pit stops. Recommend “Sugar and Spice Veg and Sub Station Veg and Non-Veg” which is at Rola CNG station about halfway between Valasd & Chikhli. The second stop which was for lunch, was at Ekta banquets, Anand. The parantha without masala which we ordered at the “food Court” was done really well !

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We rolled into Desert Coursers by 1930H and were warmly welcomed by Mr Roy the manager. The mud cottage had some very interesting local motif and decoration. Not the most luxurious but, pretty good by me. We than spoke with Dhanraj Malik who assigned Iqbal as the driver and guide for our safaris. He mentioned that the canal authorities had released way too much water this season and as a result the water was not saline enough for the flamingos. Usually there were a few tens of thousands of flamingos. We would be lucky if we spotted any he said. Kick off was to be early morning at 0630H. I was “too bushed” to set up my gear and decided to do that in the morning.

The room

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Interesting motifs

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I was a bit handicapped this trip since I didn’t have my 70-200. But I substituted it with a 105mm macro. So my D5 was mated to the 600+TC14 and the D3 with the 105mm macro. Also I had only one XQD card. If that malfunctioned, Id have to shift to the D3 + CF cards. Usually this time is biting cold but, it was quite bearable that morning. I had on two layers of tee shirts( one half and one full sleeves ) and an outer windproof fleece jacket. I also wore a windproof cap and light gloves. The drive through the Rann is cold and the wind cuts through.

As we started through the village, we first spotted a Eurasian sparrowhawk and a Black Shouldered kite on the wires. We saw wild asses as soon as we entered the park. Also a few brahminy ducks in a pond close by.

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The Indian Wild Ass
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Sponbills in the pond

Iqbal said we should try for the Houbara/ Macqueen’s Bustard first. Without hanging around much we sped off to the houbara area. This particular bird is hunted in Pakistan by the thousands by money paying sheikhs. It breeds in the Sinai, Palestine , Iran and winters in Afghanistan/ Pakistan/ Western Indian arid areas. We spotted a pair flying in the distance and drove to that general area. We spotted the birds in the undergrowth. They took flight before I could lineup my lens. But, I did manage to get a few flight shots. Finally , Macqueen’s bustard ticked off ! We were so excited that we were going bustard bustard in every sentence. Then a six year toddler in the jeep with us a certain “Miss Pinkita”, corrected us ” Bustard is a bad word!” . We all laughed aloud and stopped for breakfast :-). Breakfast is packed and carried in the jeep. Wonder how plain boiled eggs taste so delicious while in the field !

Miss Pinkita

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Breakfast

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The Rann

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The Macqueen’s Bustard

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Peregrine Falcon

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Some aviation geekness: We spotted a jet airliner pulling a cool contrail. The 850mm even picked out the British Airways (BA) marking , probably flying some FL390 ! I saw that I can make out the aircraft was a big 4 engine one , probably an airbus A-380. The underwing registration markings were not that clear. Later on my computer at full screen mode, the registration looked like “BE” as the last two letters . I checked http://ftdashboard.net/fleet/index.htm for BA’s A380 registrations and came up with G-XLEE. Now checking what this aircraft was doing on 21 Dec 2017 on IST 1015H which was UTC 0445H https://planefinder.net/flight/BAW11/time/2017-12-21T04:45:00# . Bingo it was this very same aircraft overflying the Rann ! Flight no BA-11, callsign BAW11, flying LHR-SIN, FL390 (Bingo ! I’d guessed right!!! ) and doing 517 Knots, tracking 106 Degrees ! Super happy with my bit of aviation research !

840mm picks out an airliner at 39000 ft !

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After lunch I messed around trying some offbeat shots. Here are a couple of “2 multiple shots”. First out of focus shot and a focused one on top of it. Check the Nikon “Photo Shooting Menu” > Multiple Exposure

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As we got ready for the evening safari, Dhanraj excitedly called us over to see his “super star” the Pallid Scops owl. It flies in from Afghanistan and chose his backyard to winter, all on inside some 10 square meters ! One rare rare birdie and possibly found 100% only in his backyard in India. It usually breeds in central asia, Afghanistan.

Pallid Scops Owl

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The evening target was the “short eared owl” and the desert fox. Also the sykes nightjar, which was to be spotted post sundown. We got to see a few Short eared and, one individual was particularly easy to get close and photograph. I am sure Iqbal had spotted many more but he let us on to only a few ! Somewhere in the excitement, one of our spectacles was lost, probably dropped off the jeep. A bit of angst ensued and the mood was a bit less exciting than usual.

Short eared owl

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After the owl we started scouting to spot a desert fox. Iqbal knew exactly where to look and he spotted one soon. The fox was super shy and scooted on approach. We followed it for a bit and then gave up. We saw many harriers coming in to roost on the Rann. Photographing them is tough, since they fly off as soon as they see you approach. We waited the sundown at a salt pan workers hut where, we had some lovely salty black tea. The worker was a fourth generation salt pan worker he said. We watched a glorious sunset and then set off to spot nightjars.

Desert Fox ( note the white on the tail)

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Roosting harrier, a Montague this one

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The nighjars are in the ground all day but are super hard to spot. Once in the spotlight, the freeze hence easy to photograph. I made Iqbal move the light so that the bird was lit with the softer light of the edge of the beam than the harsh beam centre. I lay down and took this ground shot with the D3 and 105mm . Super happy !

Syke’s Nightjar

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After we were done and moving back, we kept scouring the landscape with the spotlight for other animals. While Iqbal scoured the right of the jeep, Hardeep spotted a movement on the left and Iqbal quickly identified a fox on dead wild ass carcass. He swing the beam around and we tried to follow the fox. The fox weaved and dodged but Iqbal kept it on his spotlight all while driving the jeep. I first made a few shots with the 600 and then switched to the 105mm since, the 600mm was hard to line up in the fast moving, weaving jeep. Super spotting by Hardeep! The good mood was now very much back ! All it took was a fox chase 😉

The Indian Fox ( note the black on the tail) First one with the 600mm, other two 105mm

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The next morning we again went out in search of the Macqueen’s Bustard. We searched hard for over two hours, no sign of the bird. To see the bird up close, Iqbal mentioned we should come in October, which is just after it arrives after its migration from the west. Iqbal wouldn’t give up, and he finally spotted two individuals. We followed them through the underbrush. They finally moved to the open Rann and we finally got a few “clean” shots. These birds are so well camouflaged that if they stay still , one can never spot them. Pretty far the birds were but, this would have to do for this trip !

The Macqueen’s Bustard

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Scooting away

Bustard done, we stopped for breakfast. On the way back we looped via the Bajana wetlands. Too much water so not much activity. You can skip this location, at least in 2017-18 season. We then stopped at “Nava talao” where we spotted pelicans, spoonbills and various water birds. The light was quite harsh by now and it was approaching noon. Hence after a few record shots, we got back to camp.

Dalmatian pelican flight

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Three safaris down, we were bushed with the continuous driving and decided to take a break from safaris. We slept and lazed through the evening. Next morning after breakfast we would break camp and start out to Velavdar near Bhavnagar. Enroute, there was a chance of seeing the Indian Eagle owl. But, we still didn’t have a contact for that. Dhanraj said he will help find out before we left the next morning.

Next morning at breakfast, Pinkita asked Dhanraj where he got his bird lapels that embellished his hat and Dhanraj naughtily said it was a secret!. Well the secret is now out. You can get a set of fifteen bird lapel pins here > http://shop.wwfindia.org/wwf-india-bird-lapel-pins-all.html 😉

Tips & Notes
1. For the Rann Wild Ass Santuary itself, two safaris are usually enough, one morning and one evening.
2. Nava talao and Bajana wetlands are best in the mornings. Id plan Day 1- Morning Rann, Evening Rann; Day 2- Morning Nava talao Evening Bajana wetlands. Be specific of target species for each safari. Mornings for wild ass & houbara bustard, evenings for Short eared owl & fox, another morning for water birds.
3. Rann is long lens territory. But you need a 70-200 for the mammals like fox and wild ass. A wide angle is good for landscapes.
4. Grab a towel or a wrap to protect the gear from the dust.
5. Need a bean bag. Most used. Tripods are handy too in some conditions since you can get down from the vehicles.
6. Macqueen’s bustard, the best time to approach close is October, when they have just arrived from their migration.
7. Prepare for cold. Cover face & head from wind. Windbreaker much required.

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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