Saturday, January 17, 2015

Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Image Slideshow

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Trip Summary

Travel Destination – Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu

Travel Date – 14th Jul 2013

Animal sightings –Indian squirrel.

Bird sightings –Common Myna, Rufous Treepie, Common Hoopoe, Asian Koel, Rock Pigeon

Photography Equipment

Camera – Nikon D90

Lenses – Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, TN - When Water Runs Dry

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When Water Runs Dry
Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary

It was July 2013 and I was in Thiruvanathapuram on a short vacation. I was itching to visit a wildlife/bird sanctuary in the monsoon season and spend a day or two improving my photography skills. After some brainstorming my cousin suggested Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

I searched online and found Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, in Thirunelveli district, to be a good choice. The Sanctuary was around 140 kms away from Thiruvanathapuram. Google Maps indicated a drive of approximately 2.5 hours. The online images of the birds taken at the Sanctuary were very encouraging. The sanctuary attracted a lot of migrant birds incl. Flamingos, Storks, Pelicans, Ducks etc. In peak season, the birds numbered in the lakhs!

So, Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary was finalized as our destination. We decided to make it a day trip instead of an overnight visit. A rental vehicle was booked and we were all set for the trip.

It was difficult to suppress my excitement. The online images of the beautiful birds were floating around in my mind. Sighting these avian beauties, that too in the hundreds, held the promise of an unforgettable treat!

The trip begins

As the D-day dawned, our trip did not start as scheduled. We got up late and were a bit slow in getting ready for the trip. By the time, we set off it was 7.30 a.m. Considering the long journey ahead, we had lost atleast a couple of hours.

Nevertheless, this was a vacation and there was no need to fret and fume over the delayed start. The roads on the Kerala side were good, but we were slowed down by the traffic. We reached the Kerala check-post within an hour. Since we were travelling in a rental vehicle, the driver had to submit some papers for verification. The check-post formalities took about half an hour. I had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a slow and long day.

 Crossing Over to Tamil Nadu 

After entering Tamil Nadu, we stopped for breakfast at a vegetarian restaurant in a small city. The ghee dosa served was finger-licking delicious to say the least. After breakfast we set off again. Hopefully this would be a direct leg that would stop only on reaching the sanctuary.

As we drove on the Tamil Nadu highways, we were impressed by the wide and smooth roads. The Tamil Nadu landscape was distinctive when compared to Kerala.   Even though, not as green as Kerala, the TN landscape had it’s own beauty. Next came the windmills. Row after row of these enormous structures, generating wind energy.  Though they marred the beauty of the landscape, their contribution towards harnessing alternate and cleaner means of energy was undeniable.

 Tamil Nadu landscape - Lush green 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Windmills - A part of TN landscape 

 Windmills - A part of TN landscape 

We had to travel through smaller roads that had seen better days. This slowed us down further. We realized that this was not a 2.5 hours drive as indicated by Google Maps but rather a 4 hour drive thanks to the roads and traffic at certain places.

 Vehicular traffic - A part of TN roadscape 

 Animal traffic - A part of Indian roadscape 

Finally, at noon, we approached the village adjoining the sanctuary. I hoped that the birds had not taken cover to escape the mid-day heat.

 Nature's Normal Distribution Curve ? 

 Destination in sight 

 Village adjoining the sanctuary 

As we entered the sanctuary gates, I could not hear any bird sounds which seemed strange.

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

When we reached the core sanctuary area, my heart sank like a stone. Forget lakhs or thousands or hundreds, there was not a single bird in sight!!!

The sanctuary was bone dry with not even a damp patch in view anywhere. My disappointment knew no bounds. I was shell-shocked to say the least. All my dreams of sighting and photographing the birds in their plenty had evaporated into thin air.

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - A dry spell 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Not a drop of water in sight 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Watch Tower: Witness to a glorious past 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Dry and Deserted 

Soon we were joined by a gentleman with a pair of binoculars. He introduced himself as Mr. Bal Pandian, an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover. (I would learn later that he was a legend in bird conservation in this region). He informed us that this particular area of Tamil Nadu had not received good rains for two consecutive years. With no other source of water, the sanctuary had dried up.

 Mr. Bal Pandian - A genuine nature-lover and conservationist 

Mr. Pandian and his late wife (until her death a few years ago) had looked after the sanctuary their whole lives. They had planted and nurtured a lot of the trees in the sanctuary. In the past they had rescued abandoned birds and nurtured them to good health. They had dedicated their lives to the well-being of the sanctuary and were genuine nature-lovers in the true sense of the word.

Mr. Pandian went on to show us his collection of bird photographs taken by him as well as other professional photographers, in the past. The photographs were breathtaking. Colourful and varied birds in their plenty, flamingos, pelicans, storks etc. Looking at the current state of the sanctuary, it was hard to believe that these photographs had been taken at this very sanctuary.

After a short while, I took a stroll around the sanctuary. The main purpose of the stroll was to sight atleast one bird, any bird!!! Sure enough, there were a handful of the resident species.  I saw a Common Hoopoe, an Asian Koel, a Rufous Treepie, a pair of Common Mynas and a Rock pigeon from a distance. In times of desperation, Something is better than nothing.

 Common Hoopoe 

 Acrobatic Squirrel 

 Asian Koel 

 Common Myna 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

We bid farewell to Mr. Pandian and made alternative plans to spend the afternoon at the Courtallam waterfalls.

 Courtallam waterfalls, here we come. 

Without doubt, this had been a saddening experience. It was not only the sanctuary that was affected. Even the surrounding villages had been adversely affected by the lack of rains. It was a stark reminder that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. In our pursuit of progress and development, it is important that we do not destroy the environment and tilt the fragile ecological balance.

With a heavy heart, it was time to bid adieu to Koonthankulam. Hopefully, things would turn around soon and I would be able to visit Koonthankulam again during happier times!


 Mr. Bal Pandian 
We were fortunate to have met Mr. Bal Pandian at the Bird Sanctuary. Mr. Pandian and his late wife had devoted their entire lives to the sanctuary. In addition to their time and efforts, they had put in their lives’ savings as well, in their endeavour to conserve the flora and fauna at the sanctuary. 

But the lives of Mr. Pandian and other such unsung heroes around the country have a tragic twist. Though Mr. Pandian has been honoured and felicitated on numerous occasions, by various state governments and other organizations, there has not been any significant monetary aid to compensate him for all that he has invested. Mr. Pandian had to stop going to these award functions, as even the to and fro travel to the award functions had to be borne by him!

It was a very sad and sorry state of affairs indeed. We, as a society, have a long way to go in terms of acknowledging our real heroes.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ranthambhore - A Trip To Remember.. Forever. - Image Slideshow

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Trip Summary

Travel Destination – Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan

Travel Dates – 27th Oct 2011 to 29th Oct 2011

Animals sightings9 species: Tiger, Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Nilgai (Bluebull), Chinkara (Antelope), Langur, Ruddy Mongoose, Wild Boar, Indian squirrel, Crocodile.

Bird sightings – 17 species: Peacock, Red-wattled lapwing, Slender-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Little Cormorant, Black Stork,  Rufous treepie, Black Drongo,  White-throated Kingfisher, Intermediate Egret, Common Kingfisher, Common Babbler, Wooly-necked Stork, Grey Heron, Cattle Egret, Pond Heron, Changeable Hawk Eagle

Number of safari trips – 5 trips

Mode of safari trips – Canter - 4 trips and Jeep - 1 trip

No. of Big cat sightings – Jeep1 sighting: 1 tigress
Canter – 2 sightings: 2 tigresses and 3 cubs

Photography Equipment

Camera – Nikon D90

Lenses – Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Ranthambhore - A Trip to Remember.. Forever. Day 3

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Day 3 – 29 Oct 2011

I was up and ready on the last day of my trip. The events from the previous day had led me to believe that I was gifted with a lot of luck, when it came to tiger sightings. But that belief did not last long as I waited for the canter. The park gates open at 7 am, but there was no sign of the canter even by 8 am!

The canters are released by the forest department only after all the seats are filled. Therefore, if all the 21 seats in a canter were not sold, the remaining passengers had to wait patiently at their hotels. Further, the canters pick up passengers from their respective hotels. This can further delay one’s safari, especially if you have fellow passengers who do not know the meaning of punctuality.

Morning Safari

By the time the canter entered the park gates, it was close to 8.30 am. We had lost about 1.5 hours of safari time. My last safari was not looking good.

In the next half an hour, we spotted Langur monkeys, Sambar deer, Spotted deer and a Ruddy mongoose. 

Ground Inspection - Grey Langur

Ruddy Mongoose

Amongst the birds we saw a Black Kite, Black Drongo and a Rufous Treepie.

Face-to-Face - Black Kite and Black Drongo
The mood in the canter was subdued. The body language of the naturalist was not positive. He appeared to be going through the motions. The long delay in the morning must have frustrated him. The best time to sight tigers in the wild are early morning and late evening. Tigers avoid exerting themselves during mid-day because of the heat. And we appeared to have missed that early morning window due to the late entry.

Ranthambhore Landscape
But, all of a sudden the mood in the canter changed dramatically. A passing canter informed us that a tiger had been sighted about 10 minutes away. We did not need any further persuasion. The canter rushed to the spot where the tiger had been spotted. There were a couple of canters waiting at the scene.

And sure enough, sitting in the grass was a radio-collared Tigress. The Tigress glanced curiously at each canter and it’s occupants. The Tigress lay down on it’s belly still surveying the canters. It was a classic Tiger pose. And the cameras started clicking away to glory. 

The Queen grants an audience to her drooling admirers 
I've got my eyes set on you - Tiger T-17
Each canter spent some time at the best viewpoint and then made way for the other vehicles. Therefore all the vehicles got a good view of the Tigress. We spent a good 20 minutes with the Tigress and then it was time to head back to the park gates.

The Different Moods of the Queen T-17 - Clockwise from Top-left: Cold Stare, Bored Yawn, Curious Gaze & Grimace
As we learnt later, this was T-17 (a.k.a. Sundari), daughter of the legendary Machli T-16 (a.k.a. Lady of the lake). T-17 now ruled the Lake area after dethroning her mother T-16. The queen tigress had a royal look about her. She appeared to be bold and oozing confidence.

The Tigress had saved what was otherwise turning out to be a very frustrating day. It brought back the excitement, thrill and smiles in the canter. Happy faces and excited chatter filled the canter upto the park gates.

At the park gates the Langur monkeys were also happy and chattering away. It was fun photographing the Langur monkeys especially a sad looking loner.

Hmmphh! The Tourists only care about Tigers - Grey Langur

Thanks for noticing me. But make it quick please. I need to get back to my sulking ways - Grey Langur
I returned to the hotel, quickly finished my breakfast & bragging and set off for Jaipur to catch my flight.

It had been a trip that had exceeded all my expectations. The number of sightings and the quality of those sightings had left me awestruck. Either, tigers were easily sighted in the wild or I was blessed with extreme good luck. [I would realize a couple of years later that both were not true. But that’s a different story and will be covered in a later post].

Not only the tigers, the healthy population of other animals as well as the beauty of the forests and it’s lakes had left me breathless. I knew that I would have to return to this magical place again (and again).

Goodbye Till we meet again - Ranthambhore
With fond memories it was time to bid adieu. Hasta La Vista Ranthambhore!

Ranthambhore - A Trip To Remember.. Forever. Day 2

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Day 2 – 28 Oct 2011

I woke up early on Day 2. My eagerness and enthusiasm had not been dampened after Day one. And to my absolute delight, my morning safari was booked on a jeep/gypsy. This miracle was due to the fact, that, a couple of guests had to back out due to health reasons. With due respect to those guests, it was a good omen for me. 

Safaris on Gypsies offer better wildlife sightings than Canters due to multiple reasons   
1. Gypsies/Jeeps enter the park on time as there are only 6 seats to fill. On the other hand Canters have 21 seats and filling up these seats can take time
2. Gypsies/Jeeps make far lesser noise than canters and therefore do not scare away the wildlife
3. Gypsies/Jeeps can access narrower paths and are more manoeuverable.

Morning Safari

We entered the park gates at 7 am sharp. We had been allotted Zone 1 for the safari. As soon as we entered the zone, the naturalist was on red alert. He could sense that there was an element of tension in the air. And then the alarm call of a Langur monkey shattered the silence. We were now more or less sure that a predator, either a Tiger or Leopard, was in the area. We strained our eyes to spot any movement.

The next 15 minutes of the safari will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life!!!

A Tiger came out of the foliage and crossed the path in front of the gypsy. “Tiger! Tiger!” whispered the naturalist. The blood rushed to my head, I was breathless and my mind went numb.. Excitement was at it’s peak!

The Tiger was absolutely beautiful and majestic. The Tiger sat on one corner of the path. We twisted and stretched to get the best view. The cameras started clicking fast and furious. By now, we had been joined by a couple of more gypsies. The Tiger observed the tourists on each gypsy carefully. My heart was pounding but my Index finger did not stop pressing the camera shutter.

Momentous Occasion - My first tiger sighting in the wild - Tiger T-39

'Ah! Breakfast on Wheels, I wish these tourists would climb down from the vehicle' - Tiger T-39
The Tiger then got up and walked down the path away from the gypsies. The beautiful animal was so powerful yet so graceful. We followed the animal at a safe distance. It sniffed at a tree and then sprayed the tree in order to mark it’s territory. A few more moments later it strode into the forest. It was a mesmerizing encounter and we yearned for more.

Powerful yet so Graceful - Tiger T-39

Territory Marking - Tiger T-39

The Vanishing Act - Tiger T-39

Then we understood how an experienced naturalist can make a huge difference in one’s chances of sighting a tiger.

The other gypsies went on their way. As we recovered our breath, our naturalist deliberated for a few brief moments and then instructed the driver to drive to a certain spot in the forest. The ride was a rough one. After a few minutes we reached the spot. And at the very same spot, the tiger emerged from the bushes!!!

It was sheer magic as far as I was concerned. The naturalist had successfully anticipated the exact spot from where the tiger would emerge. Sheer genius! 

As I learnt later, the tigers in Ranthambhore follow a specific route in the forest. Therefore, for an experienced naturalist, with proper knowledge of the forest, it was possible to make a calculated guess about the tiger’s route.

The tiger put on a brilliant display. First it sniffed at a tree. And then it contorted it’s face into a grimace. This was a display of flehmen response, an action by which Tigers and other  big cats investigate odours and scents. Then the animal raised itself and rested it’s front paws onto the tree trunk. Then it went full stretch and started rubbing its body against the trunk. Standing on it’s hind legs, with it’s front legs stretched, it appeared to be at least 10-11 feet in length, if not more. Inspite of having a zoom lens I could not fit the entire tiger into my frame!!!

Big-cat Investigation Techniques in the Wild - Tiger T-39

Body Scent-marking - Tiger T-39

Final check-up - Tiger T-39
The tiger then marked the tree trunk by scratching it’s claws on the bark. It’s front legs were so muscular and powerful! I understood why one swipe with those legs can be fatal to most animals. Finally it lowered itself onto the ground and started striding down the path. We had to reverse the jeep in order to avoid getting too close to the tiger. The tiger was nonchalant and glanced occasionally towards the gypsy. It made me realize how weak and vulnerable humans are when compared to these majestic animals.

Make Way - The King Cometh - Tiger T-39
The tiger then marked a second tree, strolled some more and then spray-marked a third tree. It finally sniffed at the tree and strode into the forest. All the cameras were clicking continuously throughout the past 10 minutes. As the tiger started striding into the forest, the rest of the gypsies arrived. They had unfortunately missed the main show but got to see the final moments.

More Investigation - Tiger T-39
Final Marking and Goodbye - Tiger T-39
I was trembling with feverish excitement. My mind was numb with awe from the scenes that I had witnessed. This was my first sighting of a tiger in the wild and what a sighting it had been!!!

All of us in the jeep could not wipe off the broad smiles from our faces. There was excited chattering in the jeep. We were just 20 minutes into the safari but it had seemed like an eternity. After the adrenaline rush from the tiger sighting wore off I was drained completely.

We continued with the safari. I went through the motions of photographing the animals that we saw. I simply could not focus again after the high that we experienced in the morning. For the record we sighted Sambar deer, Spotted deer, Wild boars, Langurs followed by Peahens, Rufous treepies and Jungle babblers.

Sambar Deer Mother and Fawn
Adorable - Deer fawn

Wild Boar and Family

During the safari, I took some photographs of the forest itself. It was lush green and very serene. A very calming and eye-pleasing scene as compared to the city sights.

Serene and Pleasant - Ranthambhore

Lush Green and Beautiful forest - Ranthambhore
The safari came to an end and I spent the rest of the morning bragging about the tiger sighting. I was over-eager to show the tiger photographs to anybody and everybody. It did not bother me in the least that they were least interested in my photos!!

I finally got a grip on my emotions and proceeded to the breakfast hall.

There were two more safaris to come and who knows what experiences they may hold.

Afternoon Safari

A short afternoon nap had calmed me enough. I was relaxed and looked forward to the next safari. The safari was on a canter. We entered the park gates a bit late around 3.45 pm. 

Always Welcoming - Ranthambhore National Park
We were greeted by some Rufous treepies and Jungle babblers. The birds were foraging for food and weren’t shy of approaching the canter. I wasn’t complaining. It gave me a good opportunity to photograph them from up-close.
Colourful - Rufous Treepie

After a short drive into the zone, we came to the Rajbagh Talao (Lake). It was a very serene and picturesque spot. In the middle of the lake were the ruins of an era bygone. The scene deserved a good wide-angled lens to capture it’s beauty. But I had to be content with whatever my medium telephoto zoom lens could capture. Something is better than nothing.

Beautiful Ruins - Ranthambhore

Picturesque and Serene - Rajbagh Talao, Ranthambhore

Calm and Soothing - Rajbagh Talao, Ranthambhore

Scenic Ruins - Rajbagh Talao, Ranthambhore
We spotted some Woolly-necked Storks, Peacocks, Egrets and Grey Herons on the banks of the lake. We moved on further and came across Sambar deer, Spotted deer and Langur monkeys. There was a crocodile, basking in the sun, on the banks. It had the beautiful spot all to itself. One of the advantages of being a top predator is that you get to keep the prime spots in the forest to yourself. 

Birds Galore - Clockwise from Top-left: Woolly-necked Stork, Grey Heron and Egret, Peacocks and Egret

Hide-n-Seek - Grey Langur

Portrait - Sambar Deer

Proud Antlers - Spotted Deer Stag

Spot the Predator - Crocodile
We continued with the safari and came across a Nilgai (Bluebull) in the company of Spotted Deer and Langurs. Nilgai belong to the Antelope family. They are the largest antelopes in Asia. The Nilgais appear strange, built like small horses. The male is bluish-black in colour (hence the name bluebull) whereas the female is brownish in colour. I took some photos of an Egret perched atop a tree. A short while later the real excitement started!

Not a horse, Not a Cow but a Nilgai (Bluebull)
Munching Away - Nilgai (Bluebull)
We came upon two gypsies waiting at a particular spot. On enquiring we learnt that there was a tiger in the vicinity. And the tiger was not alone. It was a tigress with cubs!!

Needless to say, my excitement reached fever pitch. Our canter joined the two gypsies in the waiting game. I strained my eyes to catch the slightest movement and my ears to hear the faintest of sounds. Within no time, we were joined by two more canters. Now, an entire crowd was playing the waiting game. All the vehicles changed their positions on a couple of occasions. Manoeuvering the canters on the narrow path was a challenge.

And then it happened! A Tigress emerged from the foliage onto the forest path. The tigress looked back at the foliage and appeared to be coaxing the cubs to come out. Initially the cubs were hesitant to come out in the open. They were wary of the vehicles and it’s excited occupants. But with gentle persuasion from it’s mother, they came out. There were three cute and adorable cubs! The Tigress was T-19, daughter of the legendary Machli (T-16) and sister of T-17.

Mother leads the way - Tiger T-19

To come out or Not to come out, Tis the Question - A cub hesitates to come into the open to join it's mother T-19
What followed was a most irresponsible piece of driving from one of the canter drivers. In order to provide a better view to his passengers the driver raced towards the tigers and came to a screeching halt a short distance away from the tigers. The cubs were startled by the sudden appearance of the vehicle and the screeching brakes. But thankfully they did not panic or rush back into the forest. In addition to scaring the cubs, the driver managed to raise so much dust that any decent photography was impossible. 

As it is, the light was poor because it was close to sunset. On top of it, the air was filled with red dust.

The cubs crossed the path and followed it’s mother in the tall dry grass. The cubs peered at the vehicles occasionally with a lot of curiosity. Their curiosity-filled faces were a cute sight indeed. It was hard to imagine that within 2 years they would grow to become the rulers of the jungle. 

What's the fuss all about? - Curiosity in the air before Mother's calming influence - T-19 and cubs
After some encouragement from it’s mother, the trio came back onto the path. They walked a short distance alongside it’s mother which was in the tall grass. Finally the tigress led it’s cubs across the tall grass and into the forest beyond. Without doubt, it had been an exhilarating experience. 

An Evening Stroll - T-19 and cubs

The Last Glance - One last curious glance from a cub before the exit
The cubs were adorable and it was a treat to have sighted them at such close quarters.

It was close to sunset. We made our way back to the park gates. There was excitement and contentment on the faces of the occupants in the canter. We stopped to take some photos of a Chinkara (Indian antelope). The Chinkara is the smallest antelope in Asia. We also took some sunset photographs before returning to the park gates.

The Lone Ranger - Chinkara (Indian Antelope)

Sunset - Ranthambhore
Back at the hotel, it was a happy lot that gathered for dinner. Lively and excited conversations accompanied dinner, thanks to the wonderful tiger sightings.

As I retired for the night, I felt a sense of satisfaction. It had been a very successful trip so far with one more safari still to go.