Butterflying in Dooars

indian-awlking_chilapata

As we glanced through the book ‘Butterflies of Gorumara’, it suddenly dawned upon us that Oct had 4 holidays (due to Dussehra & Mohram) falling within the same week! We quickly discussed amongst ourselves and decided we shall not let these holidays go waste and thus started our journey to Buxa-Jaldapara-Gorumara by booking our flight tickets 🙂 Alka and myself planned to go 2 days in advance and Kedar decided to join us later.

Mongpong Rest House

Mongpong Rest House

We took the 10.50 am flight from Mumbai to Delhi and had a connecting flight from Delhi to Bagdogra at 2 pm. Though we were short of time at Delhi, we managed to make it just on time before the boarding gate closed. We landed at Bagdogra at 4 pm and immediately picked up our luggage and got into the car, headed to Mongpong FRH which is a part of the Mahananda WLS. On the way we stocked our vehicle with some fruits and water so as to cover any food contingency at the FRH. Rajesh (our driver) was very efficient and stopped at the right places so that we could quickly purchase our stuff. The road to Mongpong went over Mahananda river, through Mahananda WLS, over Teesta river and here we were at the Mongpong FRH around 7pm. Our room was called ‘Cuckoo‘ 🙂 This FRH also had a railway line (Guwahati-New Jalpaiguri) passing just outside the dining place. The cook here served us some delicious Baingan bhaja (fried Brinjal) along with some piping hot dal & rice. We had and early dinner and called it a day.

The next day (Oct 7) we started our journey for Buxa TR around 5.30 am. There were no shops that were open this early for tea or breakfast, so we simply continued driving until about 7.45am when we found a decent place for breakfast at Hasimara. On the way we crossed the Lees, Ghis and Chail and Diana rivers. After a heavy breakfast of Roti and sabji, we resumed our journey. We crossed Hasimara railway station when Rajesh (our driver) mentioned that we were just about 18kms away from Bhutan border to our left, but we took a right turn for Buxa TR. We reached our destination around 8.30 am which was in a village known as Rajabhatkhawa. Rajesh explained to us that the reason the name of this place was ‘Raja Bhat Khawa’ was because when the king of Bhutan released the king of Cooch Behar from his captivity, the king of Cooch Behar ate his first meal here.

The hosts Lal Singh & his wife Maiah at Humro Home Stay

The hosts Lal Singh & his wife Maiah at Humro Home Stay

We met Tamoghna Sengupta, our guide, at Humro home stay which was our place of stay for the next 3 nights. This was a quaint little place owned by a couple who stayed nearby. There were four rooms here, 2 double bedded and 2 four bedded. We had a four bedded room to ourselves since Kedar was scheduled to join us the next day onwards. As soon as we entered the room and settled down with our luggage, the land lady pleasantly greeted us and left a DIY tea maker for us. We freshened up quickly and immediately left for our first trail.

We first drove to the Forest check post, which was just 5-7 mins away from our homestay, to get our permits to enter Buxa tiger reserve. We drove through the core area of the tiger reserve, where people are not allowed to walk, and reached the banks of the Jayanti river. It was almost 10.30am by then and the weather was very hot and humid. We walked along the Guye nallah river bed for about 2 kms in search of butterflies. We did not find too many butterflies on this trail probably because of the heat, but we did manage to see about 40 species of butterflies on this trail which included Red-spot Jezebel, Red-spot Sawtooth, Dusky Yellow-breasted Flat, Tawny Rajah, Orchid Tit and some of the usual suspects like the pansies and the sailers.

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Punchinello

Orangetail Awl

Orangetail Awl

Our third day (Oct 8) turned out to be a rainy day as it had also rained all night. While Alka and myself were still in bed, wondering what we could do today, the land lady brought us some piping hot tea that made us jump out of bed and sit on the porch to think further! As we sipped our tea, it dawned upon us that we could visit the Chilapata Reserve Forest today which is about 28 kms from Raja Bhat Khawa as the weather there could be better and we could utilise the day productively. We instantly got ready, informed our change in plan to Tamoghna to pick him up on the way and left for Chilapata by 7 am.

Redspot Sawtooth

Redspot Sawtooth

As we reached the road in Chilapata, it was still cloudy but we decided to start butterflying from an area close to the first bridge there. The surrounding forest and this particular spot looked promising. But slowly we realised that there were’nt too many butterflies around and soon it started pouring heavily. Hence we decided to drive through this forest road, which is a part of the Chilapata Reserve Forest a range of Jaldapara National Park, to Chilapata village. Here we took a short break to have some tea and chowmein and then headed back to Raja Bhat Khawa for lunch. We returned to our homestay by 12.30 pm, totally exhausted due to irritation and boredom. Our cook was kind enough to pacify us with some yummy food. Just as we were about to finish lunch, we saw the sky getting cleared and the sun could finally be spotted without a cloud cover. That gave us hope to spend another few hours in the field looking for butterfllies.

Raven

Raven

Thus, we immediately left to go back to the field, this time the aim was to butterfly around Bala river (enroute to Jayanti river).

binocs

Papilio binoculars

On our way back we visited the tevees mile mandir (temple situated at the 23rd mile), an old temple of Lord Shiva, at the base of a watch tower, where we got a few additions to our list like the Raven, Commander, Common Snow Flat, Orange-tail Awl, Brown Awl etc. We got about 3 hours of clear sunshine before the clouds began to cover the sky. All in all it wasn’t a disappointing day. That night Kedar joined us around 9.30 pm, he’d driven straight from Bagdogra airport and it took him around 5 hours to reach Raja Bhat Khawa. Due to selfish reasons, I was eagerly waiting to meet Kedar since he was carrying a surprise gift for me. Thus, as soon as he reached and settled down, he handed over the gift to me. I was super thrilled to see a pair Papilio II binoculars (Pentax) which was meant to be specially designed for butterfly watching, with a minimum focal length as short as 1.5 feet!! I hit the bed with excitement to use my new binoculars in the field the next day.

Moore's Ace

Moore’s Ace

Red-spot Jezebel

Red-spot Jezebel

Our last day at Buxa (Oct 9), the morning sky looked adorable as well as promising, as we left for the field around 6.15 am. Our plan for today was to reach Jayanti river, then cross over to the other side with the help of a local Bolero vehicle (since our Innova could not have crossed it) and drive until Houda point. After reaching the river, we had a quick breakfast and hired a local Bolero vehicle to reach Houda. Alka decided to stay with the vehicle at Houda since we had to cross a few streams by foot to go beyond this point. Kedar, Tamoghna and myself started our walk in search of butterflies. Just as we started, we felt a few drops of rain water which made us quickly put on our rain proofs and continue moving ahead. Some of the first few butterflies to welcome us were the Branded Orange Awlet and the Common Awl. We had to cross another stretch of the river on foot to reach the edge of the forest to search for more butterflies. We witnessed a few mud-puddling sites with one consisting of only Grass Yellows and the other with only Great Orange-tips.

Kedar & myself crossing the Jayanti river near Houda

With the help of Tamoghna and Kedar, I managed to cross this stretch through some knee deep fast flowing streams. We then walked on to a few trails around this area while it continued to drizzle. One of the trails was towards Mahakal cave, though this cave is accessible only during Shivratri festival as the Forest Dept clears the route and equips the accesss to this cave with ladders. Around noon we decided to head back towards the vehicle as we could now see dark clouds in the sky and it looked like a torrential rain was expected anytime. Hurriedly we headed back to our car and made sure that our camera equipments do not get drenched. On our way back though, we did manage to see an Orange Oakleaf basking and a Banded Treebrown on a rock hidden under the leaves. As soon as we started from here, there was a heavy downpour and the visibility went very low. We sighed a breathe of relief as we realised how lucky we were. We reached the restaurant situated on the banks of Jayanti river and had a sumptuous meal while the rain continued to follow us until we reached our rest house.

mudpuddling-at-houdaThe next 2 days we were scheduled to stay at a tea estate resort at Gorumara. After our breakfast at Chilapata village, we drove through the same Chilapata road, with a hope to spot butterflies, to Gorumara. However, once again the weather decided to overrule our plans and there was not an inch of sunshine throughout our journey to Gorumara. Thus the only species we managed to see on the way were a pair a Common Earl butterflies, Dark Pierrot and a few other commoners. We reached Gorumara around lunch time, hence after checking into the Green Tea Estate resort, we went to the market at Lataguri for lunch. We also visited the Ramsai butterfly park which is about 32 kms from the resort. Tamoghna was scheduled to stayed at the lab here at the butterfly park while we drove back to our resort late evening.

View of Bhutan from Chapramari

View of Bhutan from Chapramari

By now we didn’t have much hopes about the last day as the rains had not really helped us too much on this trip. As we left the resort and drove towards Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, we stopped at a small tea shop for some local breakfast. Here we were appraised by the owner that being Dussehra, most of the shops and locals hotels will close by 10.30am since traditionally there is a custom of villagers visiting their relatives on this auspicius day and hence we may not find lunch very easily too. Neverthless, this did not dissuade us from driving further up the hill since the sun seemed to be on our side that day. So we slowly and steadily continued watching the coloured beauties that included a rare butterfly known as the Black-veined Red-eye.

Black-veined Redeye

Black-veined Redeye

orange-oakleaf_houdaOnce we reached Paren village, we decided to turn around since there was a longish stretch of villages beyond this and we could not see much of the butterfly activity around. On our way back we walked short distances to make sure that we don’t miss any butterfly activity seen along the road. The highlight of this trip was at the spot where we’d stopped for tea in the morning where we walked down from the metal bridge to the river flowing underneath, trying to look for any fluttering activities. Suddenly I heard Kedar and Tamoghna shouting aloud as if they’d seen an alien fly past! It was a butterfly that none of us had seen before and it wasn’t any of the commonly known ones too. I had a brief look at this flutterby before it vanished into the thickets on the slope above us. Tamoghna and myself quickly went ahead to follow it while Kedar volunteered to stay at the spot to make sure we don’t miss the sight while trying to climb up the slope. There we saw it once again! Through my small camera’s long lens, I managed to click a few pics while the butterfly was in flight, however, none of the images were worth the beauty that we saw through our naked eyes! It was the Yellow-crested Spangle (not yet confirmed though) that had mesmerised us for the past 10 mins.

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Chilapata road

All-in-all it was a decent trip, which fetched us about 100+ species and about 8-9 lifers for me too. I would surely like to visit this place again during Mar-April season as that is considered to be the best season for butterfly activities in this area.

 

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A visit to the land of Apatanis – Ziro

Siiro village, at Ziro

Siiro village, at Ziro

Having created a wishlist of wildlife species that I’d like to see, I enjoy planning my trips around them. And so my recent trip to Talle Wildlife Sanctuary (Aug 15-23) was planned quite early this year and the target species this time were the Brown Gorgon and the Kaiser-e-Hind butterflies.

Getting to Talle WLS: We flew from Mumbai to Dibrugarh airport and hired a car from Dibrugarh to Ziro, via Lakhimpur. Since it was a long journey (around 300 kms), we overnighted at Lakhimpur and continued our journey the next morning. The first leg included a ferry crossing (at Bogibeel) over the Brahmaputra river (first ferry @ 8.50 AM, last ferry @ 4:00 PM – weather permitting). And the second leg from Lakhimpur involved an uphill drive until Ziro.

View from the ferry while crossing the Brahmaputra river

View from the ferry while crossing the Brahmaputra river

Though we enjoyed this entire journey, this was not the best route to reach Ziro, as we realized after reaching the place. The shortest route would be to fly to Lilabari airport (in Lakhimpur) or to Tezpur or Guwahati airport (in order to avoid the dependency on the ferry services).

At Ziro, we stayed at a homestay with Tatu and his family in a village called Siiro and then started our 10 kms walk next morning (Aug 17), from Mani Polyang to the Pange FRH.

The walk from Ziro to Pange

The walk from Ziro to Pange

At Pange, Talle WLS

At Pange, Talle WLS 

Pange FRH

Pange FRH

Between Ziro (1500 mts) and Pange FRH (1800 mts) – the 10 kms walk was an easy one (not steep) and was pretty much the road for butterflying. Inspite of being a cloudy day, we managed to spot about 25 species of butterflies enroute. The Pange FRH is located beautifully with fencing around the compound and a small pretty garden just at the entrance. A watchtower is situated within this compound, which gives a lovely view of the surrounding forests and the landscape. This watchtower is also quite well positioned for birding. Some of the birds seen in & around the campus included the Plumbeous Water Redstart, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Red-billed Leiothrix, White-throated Fantail.

Watchtower inside the Pange FRH campus

Watchtower inside the Pange FRH campus

Red-billed Leiothrix

Red-billed Leiothrix

Over the next two days, it rained heavily and we could barely venture out for a butterfly trail, except for an hour on the third day. While the sun decided to show up for a short while from about 12.30-1.30 PM, we quickly decided to take a walk (even though we’d anticipated it to be a short one!) along the same road to look for some butterflies.

The road uphill from here leads to the top of Talle WLS, which is about 30 kms away. However, due to rains this route was very slushy and we could hardly walk through it for a few meters (inspite of wearing our gumboots!).  

Tama enjoying the rains outside the kitchen area

Tama enjoying the rains outside the kitchen area

On the first day Bala had had a glimpse of the Brown Gorgon and hence we were hoping to find it one of these days. With this motivation in mind, we walked along the route, eager to have another glimpse of this butterfly. To our luck, we did see the Brown Gorgon, but it kept flying rapidly back and forth without settling down at any spot for more than a fraction of a second. After patiently waiting for about 20 mins at the same spot, I decided to leave this fellow alone (while the others decided to wait for him to settle down); I continued walking with a hope to find some other interesting species along the way. While I did find an interesting skipper and a few other butterflies, there was a spot where I once again found the Brown Gorgon flying hastily and decided to wait for this individual to settle down. It took about 5-7 mins to fly around before it finally found and settled at a spot for mud-puddling. After giving it a few seconds, I approached it carefully and took a few long shots with my zoom camera so that I don’t miss out on an ID shot at least. Delightfully, it co-operated quite well and continued to mud-puddle peacefully while allowing me to take close up shots and a video clip too! It flew away only when I unknowingly disturbed it by trying to move away a leaf on which it was actually sitting (the brown leaf close to the tail in the video below).

These few minutes with this beauty satiated my eagerness to spot and photograph this butterfly! I was now ready to focus on other butterflies, which subconsciously I was ignoring in my quest to find this beauty 🙂

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Also, not to miss were the mithuns (Bos frontalis) found in this area. The mithun exists both in wild and semi-domesticated form. This animal has religious significance and is closely entwined with the socio-cultural life of the people. Traditionally, the mithun is a considered to be an asset and is allowed to move freely in jungle until it is either used for food on festive occasions and marriage feasts, or for barter. I was victim to one incident during this trip whereby at a place there were 15 mithuns hastily following me while I was petrified and tried to run away from them. It was later that I learnt that the owners feed these animals with salt as part of their diet. Due to this, these mithuns are usually attracted to any human being walking along the road and can get as close as licking someone in anticipation of some salt feeds 🙂

Mithuns (Bos frontalis)

Mithuns (Bos frontalis)

The next day was again a rainy day and our optimistic thought of having some sunshine by noon didn’t yield any results. However, all these rainy days gave us a good opportunity to sit in the kitchen-cum-dining area and have some conversations with the locals who were at the FRH to help us out. Tama, our guide was a very good source of information and helped us understand a lot about the Apatani community (which he belonged to) and their traditions.

Apatanis are a tribal group of people living in the Ziro valley. Though this place is dominantly occupied by Apatanis, there are also some Nyshi tribe families living in this area. The Apatanis are amongst the few tribes in the world who worship nature. They have immense knowledge of natural resource management and conservation through traditional practices. The community also practices a unique method of rice-fish cultivation whereby along with paddy, fish is also reared in the fields. Apart from this, Ziro valley is also internationally known for its annual music festival held in September (information about Ziro Festival of Music – http://zirofestival.com/portfolio).

Our usual hangout area for black tea - a traditional Apatani kitchen

Our usual hangout area for black tea – a traditional Apatani kitchen

Our only hope was on the last day, the 10km-walk downhill towards Mani Polyang. Bala and VK had 3 more days in hand as their return flight was only on 26th Aug. However, they too were disappointed with the weather condition up here at Pange and decided to come along with us to Ziro where they could possible do a few butterfly trails locally. Hence, all four of us walked down the 10 km-walk. Though we didn’t see much rain all through the walk, to our surprise there were hardly any butterflies seen along the route.

View from Mani Polyang

View from Mani Polyang

On reaching Mani Polyang, we had two cars waiting to pick us up and drive to Tatu’s place at Siiro. After a long walk and a tiring day, we were delighted to be welcomed by Tatu’s wife with some hot tea and some hot water to freshen up.

The last day before leaving for Lakhimpur, we decided to go up to the famous Shivling at Ziro, Sidheshwar Nath Temple. It is known to be the highest Shivling in the world with a height of 25 feet, discovered by a woodcutter in the year 2004. This Shivling is about 4 km drive from Hapoli town of Ziro.

Sidheshwar Nath temple at Ziro

Sidheshwar Nath temple at Ziro

Some of the other diversity seen in this area –

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A charismatic trip to Corbett TR

Corbett Landscape

Landscape at Corbett TR

My fourth trip to Corbett TR happened almost after 5 years, my last visit to this place was in 2010. It was after the first day in the grasslands of Dhikala, I realised that things had changed after the cloudburst in Uttarakhand in 2013. The grasslands looked different, the ‘Tapu‘ which used to be there in Dhikala was now submerged under water.

Elephants having a mud bath

Elephants having a mud bath

It was a 4-day trip in April 2015, we had permits for 2 nights at the Sultan FRH and 1 night at the Gairal FRH. Sultan FRH is one of the last preferred rest houses by most people owing to its distance from Dhikala grasslands, lack of electricity and the absence of a canteen here. However, after having spent two nights here, I can vouch for this beautifully located FRH. The location is perfect with no fencing around (like all the other FRH), about one to two hours of solar power is available for battery charging etc., our driver doubled up as a cook in the evenings and ensured we got a perfect customised meal; what more can one ask for in a forest!

Kalij Pheasant (male)

Kalij Pheasant (male)

During this trip we managed to see about 110 birds, about 15 butterflies, 11 mammals, 4 reptiles. We were also lucky to have experienced tigers twice during this trip. Both these sightings gave us an adrenaline rush! Here is my FB link to some of the images from this trip (please click the link below to open the images)-

http://on.fb.me/1QsqinY

The first sighting we had was while driving back to Sultan FRH one evening. We encountered a male tiger walking towards us near Crocodile point. It was late in the evening and the sun had started to set down, this male tiger saw us on the road and quickly got into the nearby lantana thicket. He growled at us for a few minutes before he crossed the road and sat amongst the undergrowth. I could not manage a single image of this fellow, as the light conditions were very low.

The tigress after her attempt to make a kill

The tigress after her attempt to make a kill

The second sighting was a tigress attempting to make a kill at Dhikala grasslands.

Witnessing a tiger hunting sequence has been a dream for me. I witnessed something close to it this time…..an unsuccessful attempt to make a kill. A young tigress was resting amongst the grass under some dry trees in the Dhikala grassland. There was a herd of chitals that were grazing very close to her; they of course hadn’t realised the presence of a tiger amongst the grass blades. The tigress suddenly sprang up in an attempt to make a kill, however, the chitals fled in a jiffy and the tigress sat down in the midst of chitals planning for her next action. She waited there for another chance and made a second attempt when she found an isolated stag moving in front of her, but again this attempt was in vain.

The interesting part is post this second attempt, when the tigress headed back to her original place to rest, the chitals decided to follow her while their alarm calls were still on. I believe this following behaviour was to get an assurance of her location. Once she sat down to rest, the chitals resumed their grazing activity, though a bit far from the tigress this time.

Here is the video of this second attempt.

Life in the ‘Frozen state’ – Ladakh

Tso Kar! Pangong Tso! Tso Moriri! Chader trek! These were some of the names that I’ve been hearing for a few years now. Traveling to these places was never on the cards for me since I always thought these were some of the usual typical tourist places, which I’d never want to visit. However, two years back when I jotted down my wish list (of wildlife species), I knew I had to go to this place if I wanted to see a Snow Leopard.

Last year around end January I did make an attempt to go to Ladakh. But due to heavy snowfall, the Leh airport was inaccessible for a short period and my flight from Delhi to Leh never took off. With a heavy heart, I had to return to Mumbai and promised to myself that I won’t give up and I will try again next year. So finally I made it to Leh this year on Jan 24, 2015 for two weeks. The itinerary included one week for Frozen Lakes Expedition and second week for Snow Leopard Expedition.

View of the Himalayas from the aircraft

View of the Himalayas from the aircraft

Landscape around Leh

Landscape around Leh

Saker Falcon

Saker Falcon

The first two days (as instructed by everyone) was spent in acclimatising in Leh and just driving around to a few monasteries close to Leh. The temperature on these two days ranged between -12 and -20. With 3 layers on, it was bearable. On reaching Leh, we were informed by our guide that Tso Moriri was inaccessible due to heavy snowfall on the road leading to the lake. The third day we started for Hanle, stopped at Chumathang for lunch and reached Hanle around 5:00pm after an 8 hour journey, stayed overnight at Padma guest house. The next morning after visiting the Hanle Indian Astronomical Observatory, the world’s highest observatory (14,800 ft/ 4517 metres), we started for Yaya Tso (‘tso‘ means ‘lake’ in Ladakhi). Interestingly, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, operates this observatory. Enroute to Yaya Tso we saw two raptors viz. the Saker falcon and the Upland Buzzard. The Saker Falcon was seen feeding on a Horned Lark. As we turned from the main road towards Yaya-tso, we quickly realised that the road was covered with snow and it was not feasible to drive further ahead, hence turned back. Thus, impromptu decision was made to drive towards Sumdo & Puga villages to photograph the frozen hot spring, which is not a very common phenomenon. While we were standing close to this frozen spring, we could actually hear the sound of boiling water from within, which was quite thrilling! We parked ourselves for the night at a homestay in Chumathang, which is close to a river. This patch of the river had boiling water, hence we could actually see fumes rising from the river below.

Frozen hot water Geyser at Puga

Frozen hot water Geyser at Puga

Enroute to Chumathang

Enroute to Chumathang

Hanle Observatory

Indian Astronomical Observatory, Hanle – the world’s highest observatory

Tibetan Partridge

Tibetan Partridge

The next day we drove from Chumathang via Mahe-Sumdo-Puga to Tso Kar Lake. The view of Tso Kar was breathtaking! Thought it was semi-frozen, the vast and beautiful landscape surrounding it gave a feel of awesomeness. It was pretty cold here and we could be out of the vehicle only for a short time (just enough to take some photographs). Juma, our guide-cum-driver, was kind enough to make us some lovely hot kahwah chai (traditional Kashmiri tea). On our way back we managed to photograph a few interesting birds and mammals viz. the Tibetan Partidge, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Snowcock, Lammergeier and the Ladakh Pika.

Ladakh Pika 2

Ladakh Pika

We stopped for a quick Maggie-lunch close to one of the Changpa settlements and returned to Chumathang by 5.30pm. Next day’s itinerary was to drive to Pangong Tso, via Kiari, Karu, Upshi villages and stay there at night. This lake is at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft) and is 134 km long. It extends from India to Tibet; approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in Tibet. It was a cloudy day and as we reached Pangong around 4:00pm, it had started snowing. To our surprise, the lake had not completely frozen. Almost half the lake was unfrozen, with bright blue waters (not even a layer of ice on it). After visiting a few houses, Juma finally found us a quaint little homestay (named Barma) in a village called Spangmik. Though the rooms didn’t have a bukhari, we didn’t have much of a choice since very few places are available for homestays during winters. The next morning was one of the coldest mornings that I’d ever experienced, almost -40 degrees Celsius along with heavy wind blowing along the lake. We barely could leave any inch of skin open, not even the finger tips….as they instantly started to get numb. We quickly got into the vehicle, switched on the heater and started driving back to Leh for the night. As we drove past the lake, we saw a number of ducks floating in the abnormally blue waters. These were Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Ducks, Red Crested Pochards and Goosanders. Reached Leh and stayed at Hotel Mahey (again, one of the few hotels that are operational in winters).

Pangong Lake 1

Pangong Tso

Landscape 2

Pangong Tso – frozen side

The next two days were spent in driving to some of the local places closer to Leh i.e. Lamayuru, Moonland, Wanla, Phanjila, Uletop, South Pullu & Saboo. We also did a small trek at Saboo for a couple of hours doing birding, so as to ensure that we were prepared for the next 6 days, which was planned to be at Hemis Heigh Altitude National Park (HHANP), in search of Snow Leopards. This short trek added a few bird names to our checklist, the Brown Dipper being one of them. Juma also took us to a relative’s house at Saboo to show us the traditional ladakhi kitchen. We closed the days early as we had to pack up and leave for Hemis HANP the next morning.

HHANP board

Entry to Hemis High Altitude National Park

 

Feb 2 – After seeking the necessary permits from the Wildlife Protection office in Leh, we left for HNP. The process for this permit had recently been introduced and the charges were Rs. 2,500/- per person for 6 days in the NP. The drive from Leh to Xinchang was about 2 hours where we met our porters and horses. Here we had to offload the vehicles and load the horses with all our luggage that included eatables for the next 6 days too. The walk from Xinchang to Rumbak (the village where homestay facility is available inside HNP) was about 9km and took us about 4 hours to reach our homestay. On our way we met a few groups who had camped inside the NP (at specific camping sites).

Landscape 10

View from Husing hill top

Snow dunes at Rumbak

Snow dunes at Rumbak

Feb 3-6 was spent in trekking to the mountaintops and valleys around Rumbak in search of the ghost of the mountains i.e. the Snow Leopard. Husing, Kharlung, Tarbung were some of the possible places to find this large elusive cat. Juma and the local Rumbak guide tried their best to coordinate with the other local guides to spot the SL, however, it was quite unfortunate that from Jan 28 until Feb 7 (the day we left from Rumbak) there was not a single sighting of this animal! There was a last hope in my mind, as we walked back from Rumbak to Xinchang, my eyes kept looking for any movement in the mountains, on the frozen river, in the valleys etc etc. But apart from herds of Blue Sheep here and there…..we returned without having a glimpse of the Snow Leopard. Thus, my wish list remains unticked, waiting for the next opportunity.

Wildlife images:

Red Fox

Red Fox

Robin Accentor 1

Robin Accentor

Kiang 2

Tibetan Wild Ass/ Kiang

Lammergeier

Lammergeier-juvenile

Chukar

Chukar

Goosander-male

Goosander-male

Red Crested Pochard

Red Crested Pochards

Goosander-female 2

Goosander-female

Tibetan Sandgrouse 1

Tibetan Sandgrouse

Bactrian Magpie

Bactrian Magpie

 

My New Year Coastal Odyssey

As the New Year 2015 set in, a quick trip was planned to go on a road trip over the first weekend of the New Year (considering the fact that like a good girl I stayed at home on New Year’s eve, I deserved this trip!). We decided to go along the coastal road of Maharashtra and without much of planning, drove from Mumbai – Velas – Guhagar – Ganpatipule – Devrukh – Chiplun – Mumbai over a period of 4 days.

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The beach view from Aarey Warey

One of the most interesting things that caught my attention during this trip was the behaviour of the mudskippers. This was at the first boat jetty at Dabhol where we waited for about 10 mins before getting our vehicle onto the boat. I was idling along the jetty trying to look for any birds and something moving on the ground caught my attention. This was a mudskipper which moved into it’s burrow before I could realise what it was. I soon saw many of them along the mudflats and I quickly fetched my camera to capture them.

Mudflats next to the boat jetty - a mudskipper habitat

Mudflats next to the boat jetty – a mudskipper habitat

Mudskippers - aggressive behaviour

Mudskippers – aggressive behaviour

As I witnessed two of these individuals behaving in an act which looked like a fight, I got even more curious to see what they were up to and recorded a few video clips too. On reading up online, I learnt that mudskippers are territorial creatures and the males end up in fighting with each other in order to safeguard their territories. During these fights, they raise their colourful fins and their gill-chambers in order to scare the opponent male.

Mudskipper - Boleophthalmus dussumieri

Mudskipper – Boleophthalmus dussumieri

Mudskippers  are amphibious fish and can move on land with the help of their pectoral fins. They’re one of the few vertebrates that reside on mudflats and breathe air. The mudskippers seen in the Indian Ocean are Boleophthalmus dussumieri and can be found on mudflats in fresh, brackish and marine waters of Iraq, Pakistan and India as well as probably in Bangladesh. Boleophthalmus: Greek word for ‘ejected eyes’ means their eyes can be raised above their orbital cavities to get a 360o view.

Since they reside on mudflats, their burrows do not get enough oxygen from the water as they’re away on land. Hence, there is low oxygen in their burrows for them to remain inside. To cope up with this challenge, these creatures gulp mouthful of air and oxygenate the water inside their burrows by blowing into it, which can help them remain inside for about 30 mins. This process also helps in providing oxygen to the developing eggs, if any.

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We also witnessed large flocks of seagulls following the fishing boats (trying their luck with stealing some fishes from the fishermen) and then settling down by the shore. Another bird along the shore that looked like the Grey Heron at a first glance turned out to be the Western Reef Egret after a careful observation. This then helped us to also spot and identify the white morph of this bird (which looks very similar to the Egret) at the Malgund beach.

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Western Reef Egret – Dark morph

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Western Reef Egret – White morph

During one of the walks on the shore of Malgund, I heard an interesting call of a bird that sounded like half the note of the Crested Serpent Eagle call. This was very intriguing and caught my attention, as I couldn’t see any raptors flying around at that time. On further scanning the shore, I saw a lone wader walking along the seashore with a very long bill, almost the size of its body, hurriedly moving around in search of food, inserting its long beak into the crab holes and picking up crabs for breakfast. This was the Eurasian Curlew indeed, which made those raptor-like calls at regular intervals and intrigued me!

Eurasian Curlew

Eurasian Curlew

This trip was as much fun as there was learnings. Through this trip the highlights were – anchoring our car onto the boats at three different boat jetties, seeing the massive Enron setup (from outside ofcourse), staying overnight at a beach patrolling for Olive Riddley Turtles, staying at home stays, seeing a Crested Hawk Eagle nest, a White bellied Sea Eagle nest, seeing a few interesting animal behaviours like that of the mudskippers. The icing on the cake was the local food that we had at small hotels enroute or at homestays. I got introduced to a few new people on this trip, all of who were working on conserving a specific species of wildlife in their own region. It was such a pleasure to meet all of them cause the work undertaken by them was simply marvelous!

Crested Hawk Eagle nest seen in a village on top of a Wild Almond tree (Sterculia foetida)

Crested Hawk Eagle nest seen in a village on top of a Wild Almond tree (Sterculia foetida)

The trip beautifully ended with a decent sighting of an almost 6-feet Cobra that crossed the road as we left Chiplun and headed towards Mumbai.

 

 

Jewels of India

I’ve been lucky to have travelled to number of locations across India in search of our flying jewels. Through my trips I’ve managed to video document some of them.

Here is an attempt to create a compilation of these video footages of different species of butterflies across India into a small movie.

(For best view, please watch in HD mode)

Monkey Business

Monkey Business

Owing to the long weekend (Oct 2-6), it was indeed a task to plan for this trip to the south. Due to the heavy rush, it was a challenge to get bookings at each of these locations, therefore I’d say this trip was planned not so much by logic, but as per availability of accommodation. Hence, we spent 2 nights at Pollachi (from here we travelled to Parambikulum), 2 nights at Valparai (travelled to Vazhachal forest too from here) and 1 night at Topslip. One of the main target for this trip was to see, photograph and video shoot the Lion-tailed macaques.

Travel route map - Pollachi, Valparai, Topslip, Parambikulum

Travel route map – Pollachi, Valparai, Topslip, Parambikulum

 

After a late night arrival at Pollachi, our trip started the next morning with a safari drive in Parambikulum TR. This was a nice and easy drive through the forest (in the FD’s bus, no private vehicles allowed) where we could stop at various places to look at the dams, the bridges, some huge and old trees and also for a quick breakfast. We did come across the usual suspects like the spotted deer, peafowls, gaurs, and a single elephant. On our way back we stopped at the Topslip forest dept office (one has to pass through Topslip to reach Parambikulum TR) to confirm our acco bookings for the day after. 

LTM-comfortable around human areas

LTM foraging on garbage dump

The next day we packed up and left for Valparai. On our way we passed through tea estates and residential areas. As we kept looking out for sign boards towards our resort, we suddenly came across a Stripe-necked mongoose very close to a house, foraging on the garbage dump. Instantly we asked our driver to stop and we quickly jumped out with our cameras. However, before we could reach the spot, the mongoose had disappeared. A bit disappointed, we turned around towards our car and there we see our first sighting of the Lion-tailed macaques!! Thrilled to see them so close to ourselves and to the road, I started clicking and video shooting them so that I could grab as much as possible of them before they’d go into the forest. However, to my surprise, these fellows (about 5-6 individuals) kept walking around the house, foraging on the garbage dump, eating some grubs from the ground and drinking water from a tap nearby. They seemed to be so comfortable with the presence of human beings that they would even climb rooftops, walk amongst people and even cross roads. After spending about an hour with these individuals, we were quite happy for this lifer sighting and thus continued our journey to Vazhachal forest (Kerala). This forest is very different from the landscape that one would see at Valparai.

Landscape at Valparai (tea estates)

Landscape at Vazhachal forest

One has to exit the Tamil Nadu state check post and enter the Kerala state check post inorder to enter the Vazhachal forest. Here you’re allowed to walk on the main road. However, the entry and exit at these check posts is restricted from 6:00am to 6:00pm only. Since it was around 4pm, we’d missed much of the birds in this area and hence decided to come again the next morning for a quick round of birding. The highlight for us in this area was a pair of Malabar Giant Squirrels feeding on the large and prickly fruits of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae). We could see them removing each thorn carefully and throwing them away before they could feed on the soft inner parts of the fruit.

Monkey Business

Fruit of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae)

Fruit of Cullenia exarillata (Bombacacae)

The third day we went for a birding early morning to Vazhachal forest. Amongst the various other bird calls that we heard, we managed to see a few like the Grey Junglefowl, White-bellied Treepie, Yellow-browed Bulbul. We also saw many caterpillars, a few butterflies like the Banded Catseye, Rustic, 2 skippers (to be identified) and a Common Fourring. We again saw a pair of Malabar Giant Squirrels (and heard many more individuals). After our breakfast, we decided to look for the LTMs again where we’d seen it the previous day. This time we spotted them in larger numbers, initially walking on the main road before they entered a small patch of forest. We could still see them clearly, however, due to harsh sunlight, I was unable to get any decent photo. Here is where we met 2 volunteers from the NGO Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) who was posted in this patch simply to monitor and slow down the vehicular traffic moving through this part of the road so as to avoid any road kills and to prevent anyone from feeding these animals. These 2 volunteers did an amazing job, while carrying a board along with them which read as ‘Go slow’.

Monkey Business Monkey Business

The next day was our last day at Valparai and it was time for us to checkout from here and move to Topslip for one night at the forest rest house. On our way from Valparai to Topslip, we again met the 2 volunteers who had been very helpful to us for spotting the LTMs. This time they told us that they were expecting the entire troop (of about 90+ individuals) to move and come on the road in a few minutes. Without wasting a moment, we instantly pulled our car aside and got off with our cameras once again to capture these beautiful primates. As mentioned by them, we did see the LTMs coming down one by one and walking along a small path which had less disturbance. This was the closest I’d ever been to a macaque! Though I was a bit scared as they walked past me, they seemed absolutely undisturbed by my presence amongst them. Within a few mins I was surrounded by LTMs, some females with babies, some young ones and some males who gave me a stern look as if to say ‘dare not touch my troop‘!

LTM baby

LTM baby

LTMs being social

LTMs being social

LTM habitat

LTM habitat

LTM mother with baby

LTM mother with baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then headed to Topslip where we stayed in the Bamboo hut rest house. We took the evening safari drive to the elephant camp inside Topslip (Anaimalais TR). Since we took the last safari to the elephant camp, we were able to witness the feeding activity at the campsite. These are all the elephants which are used for patrolling inside the tiger reserve.1efbc-elephant2bfeeding

The next morning, since we’d to leave for Coimbatore airport by 10am, we only had 2 hours in the morning to do the nature trail in Topslip. Not wanting to let go of this last opportunity to be inside a tiger reserve, we did a quick trail from 7.30-9.30am Though it was a short trail, we did manage to add a few species to our list of sightings on this trip. We saw a pair of Black-rumped Flameback, the Nilgiri Langur (at the campus itself), a Pygmy Woodpecker, Blue-winged Parakeets, a Cuckooshrike, a pair of Minivets and Dark Blue Tiger butterflies. We returned to the rest house and left for Coimbatore by 10am.

Black-rumped Flameback

Black-rumped Flameback

All-in-all a good recce trip to all these places.

More about the Lion-tailed macaques – 

The Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) is an endemic to the Western Ghats of South. It’s is a medium-sized monkey with shiny black fur and long greyish-white hair around its face. It gets its name from its long tail, which has a tassel at the end like that of a lion. Both sexes look alike except that the males are slightly larger (approx 7 kg) than the females (approx 5 kg). The male’s tail-tuft is more developed than that of the female. Gestation is approximately six months. The young are nursed for one year. Sexual maturity is reached at four years for females, and six years for males. The life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years, while in captivity is up to 30 years. A recent assessment for IUCN reports 3000-3500 of these animals live scattered over several areas in Kerala. The LTM ranks among the rarest and most threatened primates. Their range has become increasingly isolated and fragmented by the spread of agriculture and tea, coffee, teak and cinchona, construction of water reservoirs for irrigation and power generation, and human settlements to support such activities.