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
20171224_074656
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 !

20171224_081802
Wolves crossed the road and stopped to look up.
20171224_081902_01_01
The third wolf crossing the road
20171224_081913

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
20171224_083514
The customary jump shot
20171224_093057_01
Fighting blackbucks
20171224_080857
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
20171224_154417
Ashy crowned sparrow lark
20171224_154635_01
Long billed Pipit
20171224_163645_01
White Eyed Buzzard
20171224_172242
Pallid Harrier female
20171224_180047
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.

20171225_073725
Wolf running across the grassland
20171225_083835

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.

20171225_083904

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 !

20171225_084710

Wild boar and the wolf
20171225_084725

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
20171225_094653
River tern
20171225_104035
Rosy Pelicans
20171225_103024
Rufous Tailed Lark
20171225_100525

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
20171225_093125

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.

01/6/18

One in a million is still a chance – Wadhwan: Bubo Bengalensis

The route

On the morning of our departure from Desert Coursers we got the contact for the Indian Eagle owl at Wadhwan.The name I was given was a Devrath Sinh, an avid birdwatcher. The location of the owl was in a quarry, a few kilometers from Wadhvan town. I tried Devrath’s number but was unable to connect from Zainabad. Zainabad to Wadhwan is about a 2 hours drive and we would call during our drive. We left Desert Coursers at 1000H. I kept trying Devrath’s phone intermittently but, no success. I then recalled that I knew someone else in Surendranagar who might be able to help. But when I reached out, he was out of town. So far we had come up blank for a contact to help us locate the owl.

By now we were almost at Surendranagar. Some 10 kms short of Surendranagar we made a decision that, if we ware not able to contact Devrath by the time we hit Surendranagar , we would proceed direct to Velavdar and try to catch the evening safari. It was decision time. Hardeep said lets give one last try to contact Devrath, and if not reachable, we proceed to Velavdar. I dialed Devrath again and he picked up. He said that he was in a function, hence his availability was iffy. Anycase he asked to call again in five minutes. He called me back in that time and told us to reach Wadhvan and that he would take us to see the owl. Luck favours the persistent , always ! Yippe yay yay!!!

We reached Wadhvan, and stopped for directions at the fire station opposite the Swaminarayan temple. The place we had to reach was “Kharvani Phone” , I thought it to be a phone shop. On reaching turns out its “Kharwani Pol” or Kharvani Gate of the old fort at Wadhvan.

Kharvani Pol

20171223_143023

We parked and a sharply dressed Devrath came out to meet us. He introduced us to his uncle Shri Bhavani Sinh More. Turns out Shri BhavaniSinhji is a descendent of the Chandragupta Maurya dynasty and his grandfather was a noble or ruler of the city. Mr BhavaniSinh insisted we see the owl and come back to have lunch at his house and only then, leave for Velavdar. He was also the honourary wildlife warden and an avid wildlife photographer. He has a joint family of 42 people which he heads ! Additionally he presides over various social activities of his town. That day they were busy in a free health checkup camp that he had organised. Mr BhavaniSinji was most insistent and somehow, it just didn’t feel right to refuse his invitation for lunch.

Devrath asked his uncle for permission to take us to see the owl. Mr BhawaniSinhji said, “show them”, to which, Devrath nodded and bowed slightly in reverence. He then brought out his car, and we set off towards the quarry. The quarry is called “Swami ni khand”. Literally, the quarry of Swami. The old Swaminarayan temple at Wadhvan was built from stones from this quarry, and hence the name. It was almost 1300H by the time we made to the quarry. This is now a disused quarry where a pair of the Indian Eagle owl are found. Driving on the dirt track, some of the babool trees made some scratch sounds on the side of our brand new car, much to our discomfort. Safari baptism had to happen 🙂

Just as we walked down into the quarry, Devrath pointed the bird out sitting on the rockface. What a majestic bird ! It saw us , waited a bit and flew off to an eucalyptus tree. Hardeep must have rammed some 500 shots with D500, 200-500 combo ! I used my 105mm lens and borrowed his 200-500 for one closer shot. As I took the shot, the bird hooted and,took off in my direction. I wasn’t ready so missed a good flight shot. What a hoot sound ! Sounded like a big deep slightly sharp “Woop” ! Devrath mentioned that he is studying these owls for some time now and knew them intimately. On the way out we also spotted a “variable wheater”.

Indian Eagle Owl

20171223_125615 20171223_125947

We drove back to Kharwani Pol and were invited to Mr BhawaniSinji’s lunch. The house is a huge “haveli” (old huge house) with a lower and an upper level.

The “haveli”

20171223_143300

It is located bang opposite “Kharwani Pol” gate of the fort. The square itself was clean but there were pigs scavenging in the garbage in a corner right opposite his house. We moved up some steep wooden stairs at his “haveli” to his living room . The building was painted green and as were pretty much everything inside. The room was covered with old wildlife photographs taken my Mr BhawaniSinh. He was clearly more than enthusiast. He passionately showed us photographs and his meeting with various famous personalities. He mentioned he had his relative/ son in the municipality council and gave us a background of his family. I asked him about his traditional “emblem” and he said the Indian four lion symbol was the one, which is now used by the Government of India ! He mentioned that he helps resolve all issues the people of Wadhwan and that the people do not go to courts for resolution. Also, he has a huge traditional social responsibility that he is accountable for. He showed us his “museum” where pretty much everything was again…., green. Also we saw his traditional “swords” which as warriors they still keep. But they were stashed behind a sofa cushion which he removed for us to see !

The living room with photographs

20171223_134801

Swords behind the cushion

20171223_142603

The living room

Shri BhawaniSinhji’s living room from krish photo on Vimeo.

The lunch was a well prepared simple typical Kathiawadi spread of Puri, potato vegetable in gravy, a local dal (both a tad sweet) with rice, salads and fried “pappad”. There was some delectable “chaas” to wash the food down with. The desert was a very local sweet which had a chocolate colour, in the type of a “burfi” but tasted of only exotic nuts & probably dates. We just couldn’t figure out what all it had ! Of course, the tableware and the napkins were also green ! His son served us as did Devrath.

The wonderful lunch

20171223_140348

Everything green

20171223_142622

Even the electric switches are painted green

20171223_142723

After, our meal we were asked to wait. Mr BhawaniSinh ji asked someone to arrange for some gifts to take with us. We thanked him profusely and of course, there was no question of any compensation. He waived off any mention of it and looked annoyed when we asked. He then said that we were most welcome and invited us to visit again.

The gifts

20171231_111831

We were just bowled over by the hospitality. It is an experience that we will never forget. If this is the hospitality to random strangers, imagine if you are a person know to him ! Truly hard to describe our experience and most definitely “the highlight” of our trip. Traditional princely hospitality is rare but very real!

Pic with our wonderful hosts. The dapper Devrath in the brown jacket and Mr BhawaniSinh ji in the green golf cap

20171223_143549

We were only chatting about the wonderful hospitality all the way to Velavdar which was about two hours away from Wadhwan.

04/16/10

Jamnagar & Pirotan Island Bird Photography

Over the Easter weekend, uber bird photographer & friend,  Ramki and I made a plan to do some wader photography at Jamnagar.  I was any case planning to make a visit to some of my good friends there and I thought it would be good to combine a few bird shots as well !  Late March/ early April is a good time to see all the waders, especially  in their breeding plumage.  Also, this  timing can catch the return migration of the birdies to cooler climes.  We were assisted by our local expert Arpit, to get to the places where, the birdies could be found. Arpit is the wader expert bar none !

The first day, we hit Deechda which is just left of the road leading to Bedi Port.

Grabbed my first Western Reef Heron here 🙂 A very co-operative guy indeed, this individual.

Western Reef Egret with catch.
20100402_162833_01

There were the assortment of flamingos, pelicans, ruffs, painted storks and spoonbills as well.

Painted Storks Fishing.
20100402_163847

We then tried the Valsura road where, we got this

Black Tailed Godwit
20100402_180419
20100402_181612_01

 

That evening, we introduced a slipper shorn Ramki, to “The mess”  ! [FYI slippers in the mess are a big no no 😉 ] Cheers  to my good friends Samir & Seema and their amazing  amazing hospitality during our stay!

Despite the million birdies,  Jamnagar is definitely  long lens territory . Get the longest one you have !

That evening,  we decided to change plans and take the boat to  Pirotan Island in the very  early morning. High tide would be around 4 AM. Hence,  departure was 2AM, so that the boats could be beached near the shore on Pirotan. The thing with Pirotan is that, there is no jetty and one needs to come in at highest  tide, or else there is a long hike in all the mud, upto the main shore. The slope is rather gradual and, the low tide exposed the floor of the sea for a perhaps a kilometer plus.

Lowtide at Pirotan
20100403_094228

The boat that got us in. This is in , evening high tide
20100403_170407

We stayed at the forest department’s ,two fiber glass  domes that are there on the island.  Arpit had organised the admin brilliantly and, we had Ambaben’s party to provide us hot food on this isolated island.

Pirotan Lighthouse
20100403_073715

We had a quick breakfast  and then headed out. The light was just great, a little cloudy but, clearing up. The tide was receding and we had to walk quite some way into the sea  to get close to some birdies. We first sighted a flock of crested Terns, but no luck getting anywhere close to them.

Mudlines
20100403_075524

Yellow Leaf
20100403_090640

Sanderling
20100403_081518

The Saunders Tern
20100403_082228

Saunders Tern Courtship Ritual. The female will mate once she accepts the fish from the male.
20100403_151201

Bar Tailed Godwit
20100403_085515

Long lens Technique
mg_3998-ed-rs

We got back to the camp around 9.30 AM. Soon we heard sounds of cranes. A big flock of Demoiselle Cranes were overhead trying to catch thermals to assist their migration to the west. What a sight !

Demoiselle Cranes over Pirotan Island
20100403_105217_01

Evening high tide was around 1630H so we started out to the mudbank around 1400H to watch the bird buildup. It was blistering hot with temperatures in the late thirties. As we neared the mudbank is, when I noticed that, we would have significant issues with the heat shimmer on the photography.

Heat Shimmer
20100403_145205

Crab Plovers
20100403_144844
20100403_144923

Oystercatchers
20100403_144433

The Kidnap

As the tide was coming in, we spotted a lone  Red Necked Phalarope which flew around. I was the first to cross from the mud bank towards the shore as the tide rose. As soon as I crossed over I turned back to watch and,  saw a bunch of crows ( A Murder of crows is the correct term)  systematically attacking a, rather tired Red Necked Phalarope. The Red Necked Phalarope would have been tired due to the long migration flight and, the crows took full advantage of it. The attacked it quite like a pack of wild dogs would attack and, finally were able to “pick it up”. Quite a sight it was.   Ramki’s amazing shot , Arpit’s classic shot

Here is what I saw, Full frame D2X, 600mm+ TC17

The attack
Red Necked Pharalope being attacked by crows.

Picked up
Crows attack & lift a Red Necked Pharalope

Massive Flocks
20100403_154119

One has a hard time isolating a few birdies. That is the challenge of Pirotan.

The dark birdie is a Ruddy Turnstone in breeding plumage.
20100403_160738
20100403_160447

Best I could manage in the melee. A little blur added in post around the main subject.
20100403_161751_01
20100403_160438_1

Shooting the above melee

mg_4542-ed-rs

A Pallas’s Gull
20100403_170836

Wading to the shore

mg_4309-ed-rs

We got back to Jamnagar by the early morning tide and, were at the jetty at 0500H. After a  two hour rest,  we hit Gandhinagar ( the area behind the Railway station). An amazing area which has so many waders and also, the rare Houbara Bustard.

Flamingo
20100404_080232

Temmnick’s Stint

20100404_075248_01

Glossy Ibis

20100404_082208

Grey Heron Drinking water

20100405_082052_01

A quick round and we then decided to try our luck with for the Black necked Grebe in breeding plumage,  at Charakla Salt pans. Charakla is  around 120Km from Jamnagar , towards Okha.

We did try hard and, we finally got a small flock, but pretty far away from the shore. Try as we might, these guys would just not come anywhere close to the shore.  Besides,  they dive in quick and surface randomly and, for a very  short period. This made  subject acquisition with a long lens, a huge challenge in the bobbing waves and a disappearing birdie.  Ramki went on stacked TC 1.4+1.4 to grab his shot. I wanted to use the D2X but I decided on the D3 in favour of a better AF than the crop factor. Ideally, I could have used the crop factor DX camera here. I shot 600mm + TC 17 in DX mode on the  D3.

Black Necked Grebe in breeding plumage ( Note the “flames” from its red eyes !)  Phew….What a birdie !!!

20100404_181944_01

Also got the Caspian tern at Charakla.

The last morning, we again tried the Railway area for the houbara bustard but, the birdie was not to be found.  We then headed out to Lakhota lake, to catch some gulls & terns,  for some flight action. I somehow forgot my 300mm in my room and, had to make do with my 70-200 +TC which was frankly  a compromise.

Brown Headed Gulls

20100405_092847 20100405_085733 20100405_090511_01

River Tern

20100405_092140_01

Whiskered Tern

20100405_091757

Gull Billed Tern

20100405_094402

At 0930 we got a call that the Houbara had just flown in but, since we had a flight to catch, decided to give it a miss.

Well,  the houbara waits for my next time !

Jamnagar  Photography Tips

1. Long lens needed

2. Early morning is better due to the heat shimmer

3. Bird Guide Jamnagar :  Chikku : +91 9274909880 ( Highly recommended)

4. Driver:  Rambhai : +91 9426248807 ( Highly Recommended)

Pirotan Island Tips

1. Need Forest department & Customs department permissions.

2. Need to start out from Jamnagar about 2 hours minus high tide.

3. Need full admin support including a boat & drinking water to be carried. You need a local to arrange this.  Get in touch with ArpitMushtak for more info.

4. For photography try to get a timing like max high tide anytime between 0800H-1100H. This will give you great light and also avoid the heat shimmers.

5. If you want to hit high tide in the morning for photography  you will need to get into Pirotan the previous evening high tide.

6. Very much long lens territory.  Flight  shots possible with a 300mm/ 400mm. But be advised carrying two bodies will be pretty tough. So either have a non photographer buddy along/ decide on one body lens combo.

7.  Since you will be busy with your eye to the viewfinder, as a safety measure, good idea to keep a non photographer buddy along to watch for the tide  as it comes in.

For all the images from this trip ( and there is a bunch more than on the blog)  >>>Click Here

Some of Ramki’s Leica pics >>> Click Here