Postcards From a Snowy Wonderland

Sometimes, in our travels we stumble upon a special place or an experience so transcendental that all future endeavours  seem to be geared towards recreating that experience. But this experience is the product of a fortuitous coming together of the magical forces of the universe; hardly manufacturable. We, however, keep trying.

Back in 2004, I spent 29 exquisite days riding through the Himalayas on a borrowed motorcycle,travelling through the day, sleeping in dharamshalas, temples and bus shelters at night. In the second week of my journey, I had just crossed the tiny hamlet of Harsil, on my way to Gangoitri, in the Garhwal Himalays when all of a sudden there was a palpable change in the air. Before I could figure out what was happening, tiny snowflakes started descending from the skies above. Within minutes, it was coming down thick and fast –  a freak snowstorm in the middle of a glorious spring.

By the time I found shelter under a pine tree, the road and the forest floor were covered in 6 inches of fresh snow. As if pulled along by an invisible magnet, I walked into the dense pine forest that lined the road. 10 minutes in, I was surrounded ancient pines each a hundred feet tall. Snow, unlike rain descends onto the earth in silence; and in a place this quiet, falling snow heightens that silence. The ancient trees, the manna-like snowflakes drifting down, the occasional schwoop of branches giving away under accumulated snow created an unreal atmosphere. I stood there, in a little clearing with magic soaking my pine. Was it a few minutes? Or was it a few hours? As I walked away, trying to find my way to the road, it felt like an eternity.

Almost ten years later, as I boarded a bus to Shimla on a cold winter evening, I was hoping against hope to walk into a forest and feel what I had experienced on a trip that turned me from a tourist to a traveller. The plan was to travel further from Shimla to the little village of Fagu, which is conveniently located next to some of the densest pine forests in the Himalayas. We reached Shimla when it was still dark out. At the bus station itself news reached us that after a recent snowstorm, the road to Fagu has been buried under 8 feet of snow and that it would take at least a week for the first vehicles to get through. After a lot of aimless wandering through the streets of Shimla and desperate calls for help, we were directed towards Aapo Aap Homestay on the outskirts of Shimla at Panthaghat.

While the homestay turned out to be comfortable and warm, its semi-urban surroundings were a far cry from the pristine wilderness I was hoping for.  Over the next couple of days, there was a lot of snowfall, dancing in the moonlight and snowball fights – everything except THAT elusive experience.


Bharatpur 2013

Something remarkable has happened over the last year and a half. Due to reasons I cannot explain properly, I have found myself drawn to one of nature’s best creations – birds. Over the last year or so, i joined online groups, went for birding walks, bought books and read them from cover to cover. I really surprised myself when i started waking up before sunrise on weekends to go for birding walks.

The timing could not be better. My eight year old Nikon D80 was in its dying days and it was time to upgrade. So i invested in the brand new Nikon D7100 and the Sigma 50-500 OS HSM telephoto lens. Now that I have read the books, shot some birds in my garden and in and around Delhi, it was time to take a trip to that Mecca birders call Bharatpur.

Last time I went to Bharatpur was over two and a half years back. Back then I could not tell the Sarus crane from the Painted Stork. But now i can do just that. Not much else. Bharatpur was in a bad shape in the February of 2011 when i was last there. The water levels were almost at an all-time low. Feral cattle had taken over most of the pastures. Politicians were , well politicing on the much needed water and the whole thing was a big, big mess. Fortunately, the water issues have been resolved. Now water will come in from Chambal as well as from a dam nearby in Rajasthan. The canals were full and so were the marshes. When I went in the beginning of November, the numbers of migratory birds were not large but i think if they can maintain the water levels for a few more years, the numbers will steadily increase.


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It was the first day of the boat rides. The water was quiet and quite spectacular
The channel opens up on the main swamp, which is guarded by a flock of fierce and fearless cattle egrets
Other people
Still waters
This algae turns red around February. Even more spectacular
View of the heronry from the watchtower
Perfect habitat for munias
One of Bharatpur’s many tree tunnels
Another swamp from another watch-tower. Hendrix was playing on my headphones. Guess the track 😛
I check out some nilgais. They reciprocate
Stranded tree
Mirror-like water
Quiet little corner
Marooned Nilgai


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In the numerous recent Delhibird walks, I met Mr Ajay Maira who was kind enough to point me in the direction of one Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917). I was with him from sunrise to sunset for three days and not for a moment did the smile fade from his face. He knew his birds, drove the rickshaw at a languid pace and was quick with a joke.  I cannot recommend him enough.

Bachchoo Singh
Finds me Sarus cranes to shoot then goes to fetch his rickshaw

THE BIRDS (and some amphibians, reptiles and mammals)

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I think it is safe to say that I am more of a photographer than a birder. Apart from a handful of birds that I could identify (sarus cranes, painted storks and a few others :P), i was dependent on my field guide and of course, on Bachchoo Singh. I could have really used a tripod though. The camera and the lens together weigh close to 3kgs and getting the frame right was a challenge, especially at 500 mm. Anyway, here’s what came out of the trip:

Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant (Centropus sinensis)
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) – not the best of shots, but i love this one
‘What have you got there? Is it for me?’
Portrait of a bee-eater
A slightly cock-eyed White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) also known as the White-breasted Kingfisher
Woolly-necked Stork, Bishop Stork or White-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus)
Painted stork with chicks. The mothers open their wings thus to protect the chicks from direct sunlight. In this case the mother clearly does not know where the sun is. Or maybe she is just sunning herself.
Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata)

I love munias especially so because due to their small size and the constant state of motion they are in, they are extremely difficult to photograph. On this trip, i also saw a few Red Avadavats or the Red Munias but could not photograph them. A couple of silverbills did pose for me.

The Indian Silverbill or White-throated Munia (Lonchura malabarica)
Cosying up
One comes closer
I wish this was a better shot.
Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia)
The resident Comb Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos), males
The Himalayan, or the White-cheeked Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), male
Shikra (Accipiter badius). About the size of a small crow, it is one of my favourite birds of prey. Packs way too much punch for its size. I have seen it chase off Oriental Honey Buzzards with are about four times the Shikra’s size.
Shikra, this time viewed from the back
Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), also called the jal-mor (water peacock) in Hindi on account of its stunning colour
A male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was kind enough to pose for me

House sparrows which we have seen all around us are undergoing an alarming decline in numbers, especially in human-inhabited ares due to human activities. Read this to know more about the decline and how you can help.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Portrait of a Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), back view
Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), front view
Was stalking this Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) for over 45 minutes in very bad light conditions hoping for a record shot. Just when i had my lens trained on it, it decided to fly. This is what came of it
Finally the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) decides to sit so i could get off some shots
Why did the chicken cross the road? Ask the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
Common Babbler (Turdoides caudata)
Oh the colours – Back view of White-breasted Kingfisher
Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as Chandana. Popularly also referred to as Mithoo
Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) male
Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) or Mahratta woodpecker, female
Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) female. It is known in Bengali as ‘Moutushi’
A male Pied Bush Chat (Saxicola caprata
Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
Oriental Darter or Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster ). Also known as the snakebird on account of its serpentine neck
A snakebird, or the Indian Darter pokes its head out of the water while hunting
A group of great cormorants strike a pose
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) keeps an eye on the surroundings
Just before some poor fish gave its life
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), flying away
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shares its hunting spot with an Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
Grey heron with neck retracted
Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ as it is known in Bangla. Also, the national bird of Bangladesh
Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ female
Another one. I love these birds
Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
A bunch of pretty ladies. A brood of Purple Swamphens
Hoopoe, pronounced huːpu (Upupa epops). Looks like a woodpecker, but isn’t one
Portrait of a Hoopoe
A baby python sunning itself
Could have lost it in all the vegetation
A water snake, at a water hole
A monitor lizard
Close-up of the monitor lizard’s head
In Bengali, we call these fish ‘Shole’. Tastes great in a coriander based jhol (gravy)
Chance encounter with a pair of male nilgais
Another male Nilgai.
Nilgai female with calf. So beautiful!
Close encounters of the blue kind
Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) or Indian pond terrapin
A beautiful little butterfly
And a beautiful little lizard

In the three days that i spent inside Keoladeo National Park, two sightings stand out. The first was a creature I had seen a lot as a child growing up in north Bengal (for images of north Bengal, or Dooars as it is better known see this, this, this and this). The sun had just come out and i was walking beside Bachchoo Singh, trying to shoot a pair of grey headed canary flycatchers. Suddenly this black shape slithers out of the grass on the left side of the road. It was a common cobra. The same creature that almost left me fatherless, but that is a story for another day. As i drew closer, it showed absolutely no sign of fear and started to cross the road.

I could tell that it had just molted and the scales were shining in the morning sun like thousands of little amethysts. I probably got a little too close when without warning, it spread its hood. I was fortunate to get the perfect light and just had time to get off a few shots. here are the results:

Eyes glinting in the sun
Close look at the skin
When you see this, back off
last shot before it slithers back into the thicket

Now the second encounter: Sarus cranes. I have been an admirer of these beautiful birds for years now. Even before i got into birding. So far, I have always viewed them from a considerable distance, at Sultanpur and Basai. This time,however, i was determined to observe them from up close.

On the first and second days at Bharatpur I heard their calls numerous times, saw them fly past and watched them for hours again from a distance. So I decided to devote my third and last day entirely to these most elegant of birds. As we entered the park at 6:30 am on a chilly November morning, we headed straight to the grasslands by the painted stork colony where they usually spend the mornings. Sure enough, there was a couple there, but again, at a considerable distance.

There were three other pairs in the general area and they were taking turns answering each others calls. On Bachchoo Singh’s advice, i started following one of the distant calls along one of the trails branching off from the main road into the sanctuary. I walked for some 3 kms and with every step the call kept getting closer and closer. Then i turned left and BAM! there was a crane barely 30 feet from the trail. It took me the better part of five minutes to actually register what I was seeing. It was a female and she was so close that i did not have to employ the 500 mm end of my lens. The light was perfect too! The first shot below is from the original couple i viewed from a distance. The rest are from the close encounter.

Responding to a call
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Grus Antigone
The ballerina
Spreading her wings. I was late with the shot here
In her habitat

Thus ended a most satisfying trip to the paradise for birders. Here’s hoping that the water levels remain true and the bird numbers remain large. Also it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of Siberian cranes re-visited their old haunt.

Here’s to high hopes.


1. Black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) Resident, Breeds

2. Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) Resident, Breeds, very common

3. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Resident Common

4. Lesser Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica) Resident Common

5. Greylag Goose (Anser anser) Migratory, very common

6. Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) Resident, common

7. Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) Resident, common

8. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Migratory, very common

9. Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) Migratory, very common

10. Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) Migrant, common

11. Brown-capped Woodpecker (Dendrocopos nanus) Resident

12. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) Resident

13. Back-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense) resident, breeds

14. Indian Grey-Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) resident, breeds

15. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) Resident and migrant

16. Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) Resident, common

17. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) common resident

18. White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) resident, very common

19. Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) LM, U

20. Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) Resident common

21. Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) passage migrant

22. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) R,O

23. Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) R,C

24. Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) R,C

25. Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) R,O

26. Dusky Eagle-Owl (Bubo coromandus) R,C

27. Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) R,C

28. Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) R,C

29. Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) R,C

30. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) LM,U

31. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) R,C

32. Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) R,C

33. Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) Resident, breeds, common

34. White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) Resident, very common

35. Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) breeds

36. Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) R,C

37. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) RM,C

38. Common Coot (Fulica atra) very common migrant

39. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) M,C

40. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) M,O

41. Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus) R,C

42. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) LM,C

43. Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) LM,U

44. Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus) ?

45. Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) R,C

46. Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) Migrant uncommon

47. Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) R,C

48. Black Kite (Milvus migrans) R,U

49. Crested Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis cheela) LM,C

50. Eurasian Marsh-Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) M,C

51. Shikra (Accipiter badius) R,C

52. Oriental Hobby (Falco severus) M,U

53. Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) R,C

54. Little Cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger) R,C

55. Indian cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) R,C

56. Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) R,C

57. Little egret (Egretta garzetta) R,C

58. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) R,C

59. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) R,C

60. Great egret (Casmerodius albus) R,C

61. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia) R,C

62. Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) R,C

63. Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) R,C

64. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) R,C

65. Little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) LM,U

66. Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) LM,O

67. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) LM,C

68. Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus) R,C

69. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia Linnaeus) RC,O

70. Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) R,C breeds in large numbers

71. Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) R,C, breeds

72. Wooly-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus) R,C, breeds

73. White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) M,U

74. Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) R,C

75. Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) M,U

76. Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) R,C

77. Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) LM,C

78. Rufous Treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) R,C

79. House Crow (Corvus splendens) R,C

80. Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) R,C

81. Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) BM,O

82. Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) LM,O

83. Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) R,C

84. Common Woodshrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) R,C

85. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) M,U

86. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) R,C

87. Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) R,C

88. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) M,C

89. Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) R,O

90. Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata) R,C

91. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea) LM,U

92. Indian or Brown Rock Chat (Cercomela fusca) R,C

93. Brahminy Starling (Sturnus pagodarum) R,C

94. Rosy Starling (Sturnus roseus) M,O

95. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) M,O

96. Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) R,C

97. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) R,C

98. Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus) R,O

99. White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) R,C

100. Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) R,C

101. Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis) R,O

102. Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) R,C

103. Oriental White-Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus) R,O

104. Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) R,C

105. Common Babbler (Turdoides caudatus) R,C

106. Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striatus) R,C

107. Purple Sunbird (Nectarinia asiatica) R,C

108. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) M,O

109. Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava) R,C

110. Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica) R,C

Symbols used(in alphabetic order).

? = status or source or occurrence unknown or doubtful

C = Common

Evans = Bharatpur Bird Paradise by Martin Evans

HA = Checklist by Humayun Abdulali and Pandey

Handbook = Salim Ali & S.D. Ripley’s Compact Handbook

LM = Local Migrant

O = Occasional

PM = Passage Migrant

R = Resident

SM = Summer Migrant

U = Uncommon

VSS = Flora and Fauna by V.S. Saxena

VSV =VSVijayan(BNHS publications or Ramsar site booklet)

WM = Winter Migrant(Migratory in the list usually refers to this category)