Bharatpur 2017: Getting My Mojo Back


It was 5:00 am on a cold, cold January morning that I stepped into the sleeper compartment of a train at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. AC coaches were not considered out of a mere whim while I was booking the ticket from the warm confines of my office. Once again I had underestimated the Delhi cold. Nevertheless, the journey was going to be a short one. Just 180 odd kilometres to the southwest, to the erstwhile princely state of Bharatpur.

Three and a half hours later, I emerged out of the compartment at Bharatpur station, thawed and adequately tea-d. It has been three years since my last visit and i could immediately see that the station had received a make-over. On almost every wall was a mural flaunting the feathered residents of this small town and the importance of nature. The bottoms of every mural, however, was stained by the ever-present paan spit.

A massively noisy and overgrown autorickshaw delivers me to my hotel half an hour later and before I could deposit my luggage, Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917) had arrived to take me to the park. I had met Mr Singh on the previous trip and encountered a man who was as patient as I was restless and with over two and a half decade worth of experience, knows the best birding spots in Bharatpur.

Sign of things to come.
Mr Singh’s Steed

For the next three days, I would enter Keoladeo National park at 6 am and leave only when it got dark.  Here’s what I saw:

OWLS

Of the many species of Owls in the park, I could only photograph the Spotted Owlet and a solitary Indian Scops Owl. Was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Eurasian Eagle Owl at a distance.

PELICANS

In my last two visits, i failed to spot any pelicans. This time, however, i was lucky. There was a whole pod of them, swimming around the main swamps. At various points through the next three days, i could see these massive birds flying into their swamp, sometimes in formation. Fascinating birds, Pelicans. I can spend whole days watching them. You can read about a fantastic (and hiding in plain sight) spot in the heart of Delhi to see pelicans here.

 

DUCKS AND GEESE

BAR HEADED GEESE

An enduring memory of my first ever visit Bharatpur way back in 2007 was the sheer number of bar-headed geese, all over the main swamp behind the temple. Since then,, even though the water supply to the park has improved, their numbers have declined. These photographs capture the opnly flock that i could find.

GREYLAG GEESE

Unlike the bar-headed geese, the greylags were seemingly everywhere. These are large and  raucous, but also infinitely charming.

 

LESSER WHISTLING DUCKS

Unlike the Bar-headed geese and the Greylag geese, the Lesser Whistling ducks are year-long residents ofKeoladeoo National Park. They live in large family groups and get their name from a whistle-like noise they produce while flying.

RUDDY SHELDUCK

Another of my favourite visitors. There is something about that golden plumage and the contrasting black wing-tips! Once, these birds were numerous but now are limited to just tens of pairs.

COMMON TEAL

As the name suggests these ducks are everywhere in the park. They are extremely small and boisterous and darting in and out of the thicket. .

SPOT-BILLED DUCK

Resident species and one of the commonest duck species across the Indian subcontinent. They might be common but I always love photographing the spot-billed as it is a truly handsome bird.

Most ducks and geese get along well and live in large groups. It also bodes well in terms of safety as there are always eagles and Marsh Harrier’s circling in the air above. Stragglers and chocks are usually the ones picked up first. Here’s a look at the birdscape of Bharatpur before we look at more migratory/endemic species.

Darter drying its wings. Spot the ducks in the photo.
Ducks and habitat
Birds of different feather
Ducks and coots
Ducks and coot II

FERRUGINOUS DUCK

Striking! That is one word to describe this duck. Piercing white eyes on a bright brown plumage give it that striking look.

RED-CRESTED POCHARD

This is the first time spotting this bird and that too from a great distance. Unlike the other ducks in the list, this is a diving duck, as in it disappears underwater for minutes at an end to feed, before emerging on the surface.

OTHER DUCKS

After going through a water crisis in the mid 200’s, Bharatpur now was a plentiful supply of water. This means that there has been a spike in the numbers of both resident and migratory species of ducks.  Here is a gallery of some other ducks from Bharatpur:

 

Now that we are more or less done with ducks and geese, we can move on to the other birds.

KINGFISHERS

Believe it or not, I had never ever seen a Pied Kingfisher and had never shot the ubiquitous Common Kingfisher. So you can imagine my excitement when I turned a corner and found a Pied Kingfisher literally posing for my lens! The next day, the same happened but with the Common King.

 

On my last trip, I had particularly good luck with the Sarus Crane, in that one just appeared right in front of me in the most perfect photographic conditions. This time, however, no such luck was to be had.

BITTERNS

Bitterns are hard to spot. They stay motionless in the tickets on the water’s edge, carefully blending into the surroundings. If you are a fish that happens to come within striking range, the bird telescopes its wonderfully long neck in the fraction of a second to snatch the fish out of the water. I have seen a number of bitters, including the great bitterns, but this time was lucky enough to photograph two – a Black Bittern and a Yellow Bittern.

 

HERONS & EGRETS

Purple, grey, night crowned, little green – herons come in many shapes and sizes and Bharatpur provides them with the most ideal habitat.

SPOONBILLS

Fantastically weird birds, spoonbills. Theyb sift through the bottom of the swamp with their unique bills, and when they are done feeding, tuck that bill in the folds of their wings and go back to sleep!

WADERS

OK. Confession time. I have been an active birder for over five years now and even after going through a number of books, videos and of course physical sightings, i am still unable to distinguish between most waders. How can you tell different species of sandpipers apart? Then there are ruffs and snipes and whimbrels. I know this sounds bizarre but it is the 100% truth! So please help me with the captions here:

WATERFOWL

When it comes to waterfowl, i have only scratched at the surface. Below you will see the swmphens, waterhens and the bronze winged Jacana. I am yet to spot any of the crakes, rails, and even the pheasant tailed Jacanas.

It is true that the best of the sightings happen in the mornings and evenings. Most birders follow this pattern and return to their rooms during those hours. But like me, if you like nature and value some quiet time, take off on foot through the site paths deep into the sanctuary. You will come across hidden pools and maybe even a secluded spot where you can wait and watch the day pass.

Long brick road
Sarus alley
Same Alley, different view

BEST OF THE REST

So many birds, so little time. After spending three whole days inside the park you have one problem… a problem of plenty. Those of you have endured thus far in this post would have noticed that i am very bad at selecting photos. I hate leaving photos out and hence every selection becomes this lengthy.  Here are some other birds I photographed.

 

NON-FEATHERED FRIENDS

Walking through Bharatpur, it is very easy to forget that birds are not the only residents of this small National Park. In fact, during this particular visit, a section of the park was closed off because a leopardess had taken up residence there. It is very common to see jackals, three species of large deer – Sambar, Chital and Nilgai, snakes, monitor lizards and at least 6-7 species of tortoises! In fact, during my 2013 visit, I had a close encounter with an Indian cobra.

Truth be told, I am writing this in mid-January 2018, almost exactly a year after the trip and barely 2 weeks before my next.  Calls to Bachchoo Singh have been made and he has informed me that this year, the storks haven’t nested. Migratory birds are present in large numbers, he assures me.

View of the swamp from one of the watch towers
It is the algae that grow on the water which is the base for the whole ecosystem. Fish eat the algae, birds eat the fish.
View from my early morning perch, waiting for the ducks to come closer
My secret lake.
mirror… mirror on the water

Wishlist for February 2018 Bharatpur pilgrimage:

  • Boatride on the swamp.
  • Visit the turtle temple (You’ll know more when I know more)
  • Mooar sarus photos
  • Get close to a basking python.
  • Close photographs of the great crested Grebe
  • Owls, owls and some more owls – the dusky eagle owl would be great.
  • Lastly, can a black-necked stork come pose for me please?
Most spectacles in Bharatpur hide in plain sight. Take this tree for example. Looks bare, right?

 

but if you zoom in, you will notice that what the tree lacks in leaves, it makes up for in Yellow-footed green pigeons.
Another day of birding comes to an end as the sun goes down over the swamp.
A stark reminder of our borrowed time
Until we meet again…

 

Don’t Tell Anyone About Surajpur


As I got out of the car the first thing I realised was that the temperature had dropped drastically. I reached into the backseat to retrieve the down jacket that I hadn’t bothered to put on when I left from home on this freakishly early January morning.  There was, of course, the fog which was doing a fantastic job of obscuring the massive iron and wood gate that I knew lay not ten feet ahead of me.

A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters
A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters

I was standing outside Surajpur, the small, yet intense reminder of the habitat that once surrounded what we now, rather unimaginatively refer to as the National Capital Region. Surajpur is essentially a large, shallow lake, surrounded by reeds and a sparse forest. While other wetlands fell prey to residential high-rises and the occasional Formula 1  track, Surajpur survived. In fact, with a little help from the WWF and the Uttar Pradesh government, it is now thriving.

Surajpur, much like bonfires and barbecues is a part of my winter ritual. Over the last few years, it has become so engrained in my muscle memory that even wheI I write this, in a featureless, boxed-in office building on a sultry September evening, I can still catch the faint whiff of rotting vegetation. Wait! Was that the quack of a northern shoveller I just heard. Surely that can’t be true. Oh how the mind plays games!

The lake at Surajpur is home to a variety of resident birds, including Sarus Cranes, Spot-billed duck, Black-headed Ibis, Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Spoonbill, Painted stork, etc. In the winter months, however, the numbers swell with the arrival of the migrants. Walking along its sometimes overgrown paths, the occasional nilgai might just cross you.

Here’s a selection of some of the resident birdlife of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary:

One of the smallest and perhaps the most charming residents of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary are the Munias. Unfortunately, during my visits to the park, I have only spotted the Indian Silverbill, or the silver-billed Munia.

One of the largest (actually, the second largest after the graceful Sarus crane) birds of the park is also one of my favourite birds – the Black Necked Stork. Possessing a jet black neck and a menacing, almost sword-like bill, loharjung as the bird is known in Hindi, has acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. In my five years as an active birdwatcher, I have had numerous sightings of this magnificent bird, but never got as close to it as I would have desired. Surajpur was where I got the closest. This passage from the Wikipedia entry for Black Necked Stork tells an interesting tale:

The Mir Shikars, traditional bird hunters of Bihar, India had a ritual practice that required a young man to capture a black-necked stork “Loha Sarang” alive before he could marry. A procession would locate a bird and the bridegroom-to-be would try to catch the bird with a limed stick. The cornered bird was a ferocious adversary. The ritual was stopped in the 1920s after a young man was killed in the process.

Conservation planners at Surajpur have ensured that the wetland is dotted with a number of man-made islands for birds to perch and nest on. In certain cases, Surajpur Bird Sanctuary’s resident population of Purple Swamphens take over a particular island, resulting in what can appear to be a purple floating mass:

Every winter, the resident population of Surajpur welcome travellers from the steppes of central Asia and the wetlands of Siberia. Unlike Donald Trump, the spot-billed ducks and the Sarus Cranes of Surajpur have not yet passed an executive order banning seasonal migrants like Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Pochards, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.

 

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A male Northern Shoveller in all its glory
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A group of resting Teals.

The walking trail at Surajpur is essentially one long oval circuit, parts of which are often overgrown. On many a winter morning, I found myself walking through knee high grass, dripping with dew. Towards the end of the circuit, one comes across a grove, that stretches till the water’s edge. This is my favourite spot in the park. The picnickers do not make it till here, so it is often quiet, and if you sit here quietly for some time, the birds start to get accustomed to your presence.

Surajpur is a brutal reminder of what once was, and what precious little we have left. Surajpur is a cautionary tale against human greed and mindless ‘development’. Recently, I hear whispers of an ‘eco-village’ being planned on the side of the sanctuary that is the most undisturbed. Why? Why can we not let the wild things be? There is a large and very selfish voice inside me that wants nobody to know about the existence of Surajpur. This part of me does not want people to come here for picnics. This part of me does not want to see children running amok and parents running after them, dropping plastic bags and wrappers wily-nily. This part of me wants to keep Surajpur a secret.

So if you chance upon this blog, do not go looking for Surajpur. Do not share this blog on your social media timelines. Let the first and only rule of Surajpur be ‘You don’t speak about Surajpur’. So here is one last look at Surajpur before you purge its memory off your brain.

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New species of bird discovered in Arunachal Pradesh


According to a 2004 estimate, India, with 1180 species of recorded birds is 9th in the list of countries with the most diverse avifauna. Well, it can now safely be said that this particular figure is history, thanks to the spectacular habitat that is Northeast India in general and Arunachal Pradesh in particular.

A new species of bird has been described from northeastern India and adjacent parts of China by a team of scientists from India, Sweden, China, the US and Russia. The bird, thanks to the preferred habitat, has been named Himalayan Forest Thrush. The scientific name, Zoothera salimalii, honours the great Indian ornithologist Dr Sálim Ali (1896–1987), in recognition of his huge contributions to the development of Indian ornithology and wildlife conservation.

Zoothera-salimalii1
Himalayan Forest Thrush, or the Zoothera salimalii. Image credit: Per Alstrom

This is the first Indian bird which has been named after Dr. Salim Ali. Dr. Per Alström and Shashank Dalvi first discovered the Himalayan Forest Thrush in May-June of 2009 while studying birds at high elevations of western Arunachal Pradesh. It was realised that what was considered a single species, the Plain-backed Thrush (Zoothera mollissima), was in fact two different species in northeastern India.

What first caught the attention of the scientists was the fact that the “Plain-backed Thrush” in the coniferous and mixed forest had a rather musical song, whereas individuals found in the same region, but on bare rocky habitats above the tree-line had a much harsher, scratchier, unmusical song.

Studies of museum specimens in 15 museums in 7 countries revealed consistent differences in plumage and structure between birds from these two populations. It was confirmed that the species breeding in the forests of the eastern Himalayas had no scientific name. They have therefore named this new species Himalayan Forest Thrush (Zoothera salimalii). The high-elevation “Plain-backed Thrush” is now renamed as Alpine Thrush while it retains the scientific name of Zoothera mollissima.

Zoothera-salimalii
Himalayan Forest Thrush in its natural habitat. Photo by Craig Brelsford

Further analyses of plumage, structure, song, DNA and ecology from throughout the range of the “Plain-backed Thrush” revealed that a third species was present in central China. While this population was already known, it was treated as a subspecies of “Plain-backed Thrush”. The scientists have instead called it Sichuan Forest Thrush. The song of the Sichuan Forest Thrush was found to be even more musical than the song of the Himalayan Forest Thrush.

DNA analyses suggested that these three species have been genetically separated for several million years. Genetic data from three old museum specimens indicated the presence of a fourth species from China that remains unnamed. Future field studies are required to confirm this.
The Himalayan Forest Thrush is locally common. It has been overlooked until now because of its close similarity in appearance to the Alpine Thrush.

New bird species are rarely discovered nowadays. Since 2000, an average of five new species per year have been discovered globally, most of which are from South America. The Himalayan Forest Thrush is only the fourth new bird species described from India since our independence in 1947.

Pelicans in the heart of New Delhi


In the recent years, Delhi has been in the news for mainly two reasons – the lack of safety for its women and the ever worsening quality of its air. So be it the shocking rapes, pollution or the other Delhi staple – politics –  you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing good could possibly come out of the city. But Delhi, in its own endearing way comes to the rescue of those like us who love this city.

We, as birdwatchers are used to travelling out of the city to take a look at the resident species and our migrant friends. We however, often overlook a gem that hides in common sight, right in the heart of this throbbing metropolis. Yes, I am taking about the Delhi Zoo, and no, I am not talking about the captive birds.

The Zoo is located under the lofty walls of Dinpanah, popularly called Purana Qila (Old Fort). Sections of the moat of the old fort were converted into water bodies and the relative protection offered by the park meant that egrets, herons, painted storks, spot billed ducks and other waterbirds started breeding here. While these birds can be seen all-year round, winters offer a special treat.

The habitat in the Delhi Zoo premises:

Every winter, a flock of Rosy Pelicans (also known as Great White Pelicans) descends on one of the water bodies, located right next to the tiger enclosure. Great White pelicans are some of the heaviest of flying birds. The birds swim effortlessly, their spotless white plumage in stark contrast to the algae-stained green waters and the even greener background of the park’s trees.

Getting the heavy bodies airborne is no mean feat, even if you are equipped with sturdy wings that span from 7 to 11 feet. Much like an airplane, the take off begins with a run, in the final stages of which the bird actually uses its webbed feet to walk on water. Once airborne, these huge birds glide through the air, gaining height and momentum with flaps of its massive wings. Touchdown involves a sudden drop to the water level and the use of the webbed feet as a brake.

The zoo is home to a flock of 30 Rosy Pelicans, all of whom live on a single water body. At the center of the lake is an island where the juveniles spend most of their time. Apart from humans, a fully grown pelican has no natural predator, but juveniles need to be careful. As I sat and observed this flock, one particular individual caught my eye. Unlike the others, it sported a rather flamboyant hairdo. The light on this winter morning was just about perfect and my camera was drawn to him over and over again.

Just look at him… can you really blame me?

Pelicans are great survivors and live and breed on all continents, except Antarctica. With their exceptional size, oversized beaks and an outlandish pouch they have fascinated nature lovers all over the world. This nifty little limerick neatly captures the weird appeal of these giants of the sky:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for the week;
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.

pelicans

BONUS IMAGES

The Delhi zoo is a good place to see birds that live in the city’s urban habitat. Although the focus on this particular trip was to observe and photograph the resident Pelicans, I did manage to capture some other birds that came my way:

 

Okhla Bird Sanctuary: A study in decay


Delhi, with its 2 crore people, buildings to house them in, vehicles to transport them is bursting at its seams. The cost of this human expansion is sadly being borne by the animals and birds that used to call this bit of geography their home. Nowhere is this terrible price clearer than at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, at the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Here are 5 things I noticed on a recent visit to the park:

The stench

The bird sanctuary is located along the eastern bank of the Yamuna, upstream of the Yamuna Barrage at Kalindi Kunj. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and multiple attempts (and crores of rupees) to clean it has yielded negligible (at best) results. As a result, the moment you enter through the gates of the sanctuary, your nostrils are assaulted with the stench of untreated sewage and human waste. Even the otherworldly beauty of the reeds on a misty winter morning does not take your mind off this olfactory onslaught.

The dogs

I love dogs, I really do! I will also confess that I usually prefer the company of canines over most humans. But even I will admit that feral dogs have no place in a protected sanctuary. Okhla is home to a number of species of endemic waders and waterfowl and most of them nest on the ground amidst the reeds. Packs of dogs roaming across the sanctuary decimate the nests and massacre the chicks. Here is hoping that the UP government comes up with a humane process for relocating the dogs that roam inside the park. (The following photographs by Sriparna Ghosh)

 The rubbish

Okhla Bird Sanctuary is popular with a wide variety of people – birdwatchers, errant schoolchildren, lovers in need of a quiet moment and even picnicking families. While most leave with pleasant memories, they leave behind bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags and all forms of refuse that have no place in a bird sanctuary. The park is also massively understaffed, which means that the garbage rarely gets collected and removed.

Where are the migratory birds?

While Okhla is home to a vide variety of endemic species, every winter thousands of migratory birds descend on the marshes. With the birds come birders like yours truly. This time, however, things were different. Sure, we did see a number of resident birds like spotted owlets, Red and Silverbilled munias, spot billed ducks and purple swamphens, but the flocks of Northern pintails, Northern shovellers, Common Teals and Eurasian Wigeons were conspicuous by their absence. According to this report by News18, it was ‘due to the pollution at the Okhla barrage as the Chhath Puja concluded recently’.

 

Some welcome changes

On my previous visit to OBS in November 2014, I encountered a bizarre set of rules. You could drive your cars / motorcycles anywhere within the park. You would also have to cough up an exorbitant Rs 500 for the privilege of carrying a camera in the sanctuary. I am glad to report that both these rules have now been scrapped. Cars remain parked outside the sanctuary gates (no designated parking) and all you pay is a Rs 30 entrance fee.

 

Have you visited Okhla Bird Snctuary recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Call of the Dooars


I have always wondered where my love for nature comes from. The answer came to me as I was standing in the middle of a stream with cold, clear water lapping around my shins: I was born to it.  The first twenty years of my life were spent in the Dooars, the sub-Himalayan terai region of northern West Bengal. It rained everyday for six months and as a result the greenery was extravagant. It wasn’t uncommon for us to see the Kanchenjungha from our classroom on a clear day. The mountains always loomed large over my hometown and on nights you could spot the twinkling lights of Kuseong and Darjeeling. Nature was in reality, at our very doorstep.

Birds I shot from the window of my parent’s house using my mother’s Nikon P610 camera that boasts of a 60x optical zoom

The somewhat lackadaisical attitude I had towards the unbridled nature right at my doorstep waned as I moved my boxes to Delhi. Over the last few years, as I became increasingly enamoured with birds and the art of watching and photographing them, I was reminded of Gajoldoba, barely an hour away from Siliguri. Gajoldoba, spoken about in hushed tones by ornithologists professional and amateur, is a reservoir created by an irrigation dam across the Teesta river as it emerges from the mountains. The reservoir, in turn, creates a vast wetland to which migratory birds are attracted in large numbers. This time, I had to check it out.

Our small little getaway for the day. Switch to satellite view for a better understanding of the landscape

The drive to Gajoldoba is as rewarding as the place itself. For most of the way, you follow a lovely road that runs beside one of the many irrigation canals. To top it off, both the road and the canal cut through dense forests and tea estates. We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit. It was a hot, dry week, bang in the middle of the monsoons. The sky was at its bluest and the green was at its greenest. Talk about getting lucky!

On this day trip, we avoided the highways and stuck to the smaller roads that, like rivers, snake through the region. The roads took us through villages, duck ponds, inundated rice paddies and of course, a river every few miles. If you happen to travel through the Dooars in July-August, your nostrils could be assaulted by a musty smell wafting in from the water bodies. This is a result of bundles of jute plants fermenting in the water. As the stalks ferment, the bark transforms into the strands of golden fiber that we are familiar with. Outside every farmer’s house bales of the golden  fiber are set to dry. Public infrastructure, like the bridges below are also extensively used in the process.

Some villages and many rivers later we reached Lataguri, the small town on the edge of Gorumara National Park. A road from here cuts through the national park and if you are lucky, you can catch an elephant or a bison crossing the road. Almost halfway through the road is a small outcrop of phallic rocks by a small stream. Local imagination has turned the stones into lingams and as a result people leave small offerings – fruits, flowers, rice, etc – near it. The part time priest of this ‘temple’will tell you (should you run into him) that often elephants can be seen visiting the temple, ‘worshipping’ the stones with their trunks. Not very surprising considering some free food happens to be found here on a regular basis!

On the other edge of Gorumara, just past a small village and a host of architecturally unimaginative resorts lies the small bridge over the river Murti. During the winter months the sand and pebble banks of the river is very popular with picnicking groups. But this being the warm season, the spot was refreshingly devoid of the tourist meelee. It was perfect, therefore, to wade out into the cool, fast flowing stream and stand there, contemplating where one’s love for nature came from.

In spite of the heat, there were a few people here, chilling themselves and their beer bottles in the water. A group of uniformed students out on a school trip also seemed to be enjoying themselves. The most fun, however, was reserved for a bunch of kids from the nearby village who were splashing around in the water. They would clamber up on the embankments, run up and canonball into a deep pool in the river – over and over again.

After watching them do this for nearly half an hour, I asked one of them “How long do you plan to do this?”

“Until the sun goes down” promptly came the answer.

It was past mid-day by the time we were done talking to the river jumpers and perhaps not unsurprisingly severe hunger pangs had started to set in. Our driver knew a local restaurant, one of the many unnamed ‘line hotels’ that dot the highway, in the nearby town of Malbazaar. The restaurant itself was a simple affair – tables, benches, soot in the ceiling, people sharing tables, etc. There is a particular way of ordering food at these line hotels; the moment you sit down, a vegetarian thali will be set in front of you. This usually involves a generous helping of steamed rice, one-two veg curries, a portion of crisp potato fritters (aloo bhaja) and a bowl of dal. On top of this, at extra cost of course, you can order from a selection of fish curries, mutton and chicken dishes.

A couple of tips: If you are on the road in Bengal, choose a busy ‘line hotel’. The busier the joint, the fresher and the better the food. Sometimes even the veg dishes have bits of fish for taste. So if you are a vegetarian, please specify this with as much clarity as possible before ordering. In most places, additional helpings of rice or even the dal are absolutely free, so if you need more make eye contact with the waiter, point to your plate and hope for the best.

 

After a very satisfying lunch, we proceeded eastwards on the last leg of our journey. We were to cross the Teesta again, this time over the mighty Coronation Bridge, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite spots on earth. My school was very conveniently halfway between my home and the bridge and on days when the pursuit of scholastic excellence did not seem that appealing, we would slip out and cool our heels at the bridge. From the bridge, a steep track leads down into the river below. In the dry season, you can sit on the exposed rocks and sandy beaches by the side of the river and watch on as time, much like the aquamarine waters of the Teesta flows swiftly by.

Completed in 1941, the bridge was thus named to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. The gigantic single span has since then connected Siliguri with the rest of Northeastern India. Years later, this same graceful span rendered a 5 year old kid speechless on a sunny winter afternoon. Almost 25 years after that fateful first encounter, I stood on its ramparts, on a warm monsoon afternoon, flanked my father and my to be father-in-law.

To be honest, this day trip was an attempt to show (and show off) my little corner of the country to someone who is to soon be a part of my family. My father is the son of a farmer and although he did not follow his father’s profession, did maintain close ties to the land. As I grow older, my attachment to this land I call my own grows increasingly stronger.

My land is as bountiful as it is diverse; it has lofty mountains, plunging valleys, dense forests and open fields. My land is excruciatingly romantic, yet somewhat unpredictable. My land has inspired poets and nurtured bloody revolutions. And I would like to believe that if you get to know my land, you would get to know me.

Amen!

Birds of the Kumaun Himalayas


It is not an overstatement to claim that the Indian subcontinent is a creation of the Himalayas. As a barrier, it has protected this landmass from being encroached upon by the cold northern deserts, and has nourished it by harnessing the potential of the Monsoon winds. The rivers that flow down it has, over the years, created a vast plain which supports at east a 10th of the world’s population.

But this post is about the winged little beauties that the lower Himalayas support. From Pangot in Uttarakhand to Eagle Nest in Arunachal Pradesh, the thick forests that carpet these slopes make some of the most diverse bird habitats in the world. Couple of months back the girlfriend and I took some time off and trudged up the pugdundees to the wonderfully secluded Jilling Estates in the Kumaon Himalayas. The aim was to spend as much time as possible far from the ‘civilised world’ and of course look for birds.

One of the most common birds in these parts is the  green-backed tit (Parus monticolus). One colourful individual had his eye on a hole in an apple tree right in front of the bungalow we were staying in. Unfortunately, a pair of Russet sparrows (Passer rutilans) had already moved in. Not willing to give in without a fight, the tiny tit tried its best to dislodge the sparrows and failed. Undeterred by this failure, the tit returned every morning, only to be driven off.

The hills around the cottage were also home to quite a few verditer flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus). Electric blue, with an almost zorro-like black mask around the eyes, they appear as mere blue streaks darting through the foliage.  Thanks to my utterly slow lens, photographing an individual up close (or any other bird for that matter) is next to impossible. These are what I managed to shoot:

The biggest surprise at Jilling was how the birds seem to come to you, right at the doorstep. One morning, I looked up from my thriller to find two black eagles riding the thermals right above the bungalow. I ran inside to grab my camera, determined not to miss the eagles like i missed the red-billed leiothrix earlier that very morning. Fortunately as I reappeared, lens in hand, the eagles were still airborne and I managed to get a few shots off before they disappeared over the ridge, graceful in flight.

The bird I had the most fun chasing after was the flamboyant Indian black-lored tit (Parus aplonotus). Bright yellow, with a kohl-black streak down its breast, this bird carries around a large crest, not unlike Jim Carrey’s character in the Ace Ventura film series. The first couple of days at Jilling I could see them darting around the apple orchard… never still, never resting.  Eventually i did run into a rather restive individual who did not complain as I got close to him. If only all other birds shared this one’s virtues….

To be honest, I am better at spotting birds in the jungle than shooting them. I am still honing my skills at being a photographer of birds, but I am limited by my equipment. So here’s a look at the other birds I managed to shoot while at Jilling.

For every bird I shot, four got away. If you love birds but love the mountains even more, you must go to Jilling. I wish I never came back!

The Jilling Diaries: Towards Bliss


It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.

Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.

What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.

During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.

The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.

The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.

Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.

Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.

This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.

Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.

The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and  that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.

To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.

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A Different Christmas


No, festivals do not excite me. The only use i see of them is the fact that you generally do not need to work on those days. But ever since I started working at a news channel, i had to say goodbye to those festival holidays as well. Because, you know, news just keeps on happening. So yes, I am not that big on festivals.

The last Christmas day was slightly different though. Everyone in my team was working and so I took advantage of the fact that that I am the boss and took some time off to join the good folks at Delhi Birds for an old fashioned bird walk. I am not big on group activities either, but the DelhiBird group is led by expert birders who know those secret little corners which I, on my own would never have known. This is how on a cold, foggy Christmas day, I landed up at Dankaur – a village in the middle of nowhere.

The map embedded above only shows you the location of the village. The spot, a now dry lake bed, was a few kms away from the village. The group met up at a designated spot in Noida before taking off towards the destination, around 50 kms away. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons. Ever since I started working in the live news environment, i lost my weekends, a sense of time and personal life. So, unlike other years, this was to be my first day out birding this season! Secondly, I had finally managed to fix my trusty motorcycle (Dope, as I call him) and this trip out of the city would test my modifications .

For the first few miles we were on the Greater Noida Expressway. Turning off the Expressway at Greater Noida we kept turning into  smaller (and increasingly more potholed)  roads till we reached what looked like a massive grassland with a shallow pond at its center. This is supposed to be the fabled spot, where, on a good day over a 100  Sarus cranes congregate. Will this Christmas day be the proverbial ‘good day’?

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Snapshot: Stills from Sultanpur


Delhi is a good place to be if you are a birder. Not only does the many parks and green belts house a significant number of species you can, much like me, observe them right off your balcony (see THIS and THIS). Then there are the immediate outskirts of the city. Numerous wetlands (albeit severely threatened) dot the vicinity of this megacity supporting a wealth of endemic as well as migratory species. But the proverbial jewel in the crown is definitely the Sultanpur National Park.
For decades, bird lovers of the city have flocked here to see the winter migrants. Peter Jackson (the ornithologist, silly, not the film director) was impressed by the habitat at Sultanpur jheel (wetland) and wrote to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to protect the area. Working on Jackson’s recommendation, Sultanpur was turned into a Bird Sanctuary in 1972 and later upgraded to a National Park in `1989. At 1.43 sq kms, this is, in all probability the smallest National Park in the world. Size, it seems does not really matter.
I have only started noticing, studying and photographing birds for a little over two years now. In fact, after I upgraded my equipment, Sultanpur was the first place i visited. While it is clear that I am yet to perfect the art of spotting a photographing the residents of Sultanpur, I will nevertheless thrust my attempts till date on you unsuspecting lot!
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Birdwatching from my Balcony: Barbet you not!


These early spring days are the best. It seems that everyone is out to find a mate. Yes sir, even the Brown-headed Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica) that calls the park next to my balcony home.

One particular morning, in the usual rush to get to work on time, i almost missed the rather enthusiastic kutroo…kutroo…kutroo call of the male bird. I put on my Sherlockian deerstalker and decide to investigate (work be damned). A short search later, i locate the male bird, perched on the crooked branch ardently calling away.

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Hello there

He was clearly calling with an agenda. By the time i spotted him, he has been calling for an hour with no sign of tiredness. Hopping from one branch to another, his calls added another dimension to a slightly still Tuesday morning.

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Who’s that hiding behind the branch?
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Just perched here, being cool
Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

The calls, especially at this time of the year are meant to attract a female. Given the enthusiasm of the male bird, a female had to be close by. And sure, there she was, a fluffy little thing sitting coyly on a neem branch across the park.

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You talking to me?
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Yup, it’s me. Nice calling, btw!

The thing about Brown-headed Barbets are that they are rather large, ungainly birds. Along with their cousins from the Western Ghats, the White Cheeked Barbets, they are perhaps the lest visually appealing of the Barbets. But there is another of the species that nests on the Gulmohar tree near my house – the Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala).

Yup. Its me
Yup. Its me

It is a small bird and due to its predominantly green plumage it is rather difficult to spot. However, the red forehead, yellow eye-ring and throat patch with streaked underside and green upperparts gives it a fairly striking appearence.

Look ma, so pretty
Look ma, so pretty
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do

This tiny little bird has a metronomic call that is similar to a coppersmith’s hammer hitting the metal. Hence the name. The bird usually calls more during the springtime so in my native Bengal, its calls are considered to be a prologue to the golden season.

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About to fly away

I love these Barbets and I am waiting for when they come a little closer to my balcony. Till then, I leave you with this one parting shot of the little Coppersmith.

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Till we meet again!

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Birdwatching from my Balcony: White Eyes, warblers and smooth operators


Living alone sure has its charms. Oh Yes. Especially when you live in a barsati (rooftop flat) in a leafy South Delhi colony. The laburnum tree grows so close to my balcony that I can just reach out and touch the branches.

This tree is also the favourite haunt to some of the tiniest birds in this part of the world – okay, maybe with the exception of the Fire Breasted flowerpecker – the Oriental White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus).

Hence the name
Hence the name

One lazy Sunday afternoon, my siesta was disturbed by a huge racket outside. I open to door to see at least half a dozen of these tiny beauties darting from branch to branch announcing their glee to the entire world. I have never had them come so close. After a frantic dash into the other room to get the camera, fix the right lens, I managed to get a few shots of the passerines.