After being cohesively attached for several years with Indian wildlife and the habitat, it is certainly a very difficult situation to be suddenly away from it.

Believe me ...this almost feels like snatching away a favorite toy from a child's hands while he is fully engrossed and absorbed with it !

Soon after completion of authoring the book "Birds of Western Ghats, Konkan and Malabar" published by BNHS / Oxford - I have been living out of India for last five years due to my professional commitments.

However the nostalgia keeps nagging me everyday to be back into the rich wilderness of India as and when possible. There is hardly any day in my life abroad – when I don’t miss the aroma of Indian jungles. Eagerly seeking any possible opportunity - I am always desperate and dying to be with the flora and fauna of the homeland!

Strongly driven by this urge, this time I intended to cover the following three diverse areas with my wife Deepa and son Shakunt–
1. Kumaon (Corbett and Pangot)
2. Greater Rann of Kutch

3. Western Ghats ( Thattekad & Munnar)

Also, this visit had another interesting context – I recently upgraded all my gear to new Canon equipment including the biggie (IS 500 mm/f4) and 100-400mm, 40D body together with a range of other lenses and accessories, Gitzo tripod and Wimberly head ……hence – a lot of excitement propelled the visit with this new gear in hand !
(By the way; in addition to the optical performance –my new biggie also got accidentally tested for its mechanical strength -when I had a tumble down ..a bangread the Kutch story!!)

This triangular visit turned out to be a fantastic one and yielded me almost 75 lifer species – the birds, mammals and reptiles that I came across for the first time along with the interesting sightings of the routine species. It gave me a glimpse of some rarities and unfolded a spectrum of wildlife of our own country.Please refer to the separate blog for each of these three destinations. Thanks to the valuable inputs and information provided by all the friends and the excellent travel help extended by Gaurav & Rahul (Saad, Pune).
More images from this trip can be seen in the “Recent Images” slide show section on the left side of home page on my website –www.saleeltambe.com

Looking to the exploding network of domestic flights within India, now it is quite possible to think of some aggressive travel plans which otherwise required several buffer pause days in between for accommodating connecting trains and tricky bus routes.

Five years back - I could cover only one or two destinations in a duration two weeks but now the reach is so well facilitated that one can easily cover the four corners of the country within a limited time of two weeks. Previous night you are listening to the Owl calls in interiors of some south Indian jungle and next day before the breakfast you are able to photograph an Eurasian Eagle owl up on a rock …somewhere very close to India-Pakistan border. Isn’t that a miracle ?

Truly reviatalised…coming back to the UK and getting back into the routine office work….I am now endowed with some recent memory markings that I can survive with till my next visit to the wilderness of homeland. I’m sure it won’t be too long because …I am yet to restore my luggage and clothes from this recent trip and I have already started dreaming of the next trip to my favorite places in the Indian wilderness…!!

Raining of species in the desert - Kutch

If someone calls a desert just a “dead and dry” place full of only sand …..then must visit Rann of Kutch ! There is so much happening every minute in Banni and Naliya grasslands of Kutch that it leaves you astonished and redefines the concept of a desert land ! Honestly this can better be experienced than described in words !

Moreover, the showering help of people like Jugalbhai Tiwari, his co-host Vaibhavbhai and the great sumo rider Laxmanbhai makes the visit to this desert a pleasure indeed !

After the Delhi Ahemdabad flight and then train journey - as we arrived at Bhuj Railway station, Jugalbhai picked us up along with an interesting breakfast of “Kachories”. En-route we scanned a lake full of Pelican activity and loads of waders dotted on the edge. This was certainly an exciting curtain raiser to the area that we were going to be in next three days.

The only curse to this wonderful place is the charcoal making by locals which is not only a severe eco degradation act but also a very highly dangerous activity to the human life. The local tribes camping around Fulay Village are indulged in converting a species of plants called Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) into charcoal through a crude process of smouldering. The smoking surroundings and the hell of carbon is a slow death to humans as well as the ecology in this whole area. This surely need an urgent action from the concerned authorities.

Day’s start was with some sightings Grey Hypocolius – a significant species of Kutch. Mohammed the local person at Fulay village took us to the Salavadora persica bushes to show these Hypocolius..as if they are his pets !

Later the visit to Thorn forest fetched us with the long awaited sightings of White Naped Tit, White Bellied Minivet which are the specialities of this area.

And then a different world was unveiled on a place called “Banni Grasslands” !! Talking of this miracle grassland - I am simply amazed by the sense of direction the locals have in the middle of this “nowhere” and my hats off to the vehicle drivers (like Laxmanbhai) who drive without any track laid out in front of them in this endless terrain…….it not only vast…but it is hugely random…..its an ocean of soil…its un-limiting …no widths measurable ..no length estimations ! The camera exposure meter and the autofocus gets a bit tricky with the mirage and all that light brown expanse.

While we were amidst this wonderland, a lunch at the ethnic Shaam-E-Sarhad was an added pleasure in this extravaganza. Second day’s lunch to a Punjabi Dhaba was another enjoyable affair as well.

Lined by a continuous series of Mirages, we had as superb time with Imperial Eagles, Eurasian Eagle Owls, Short Eared owls, While Storks, Ruff & Reeve, Isabelian, Desert and Variable Wheaters, six species of Larks, Common Carnes, While Storks, Pelicans and Black Eared Kites.

A careful watch around the “Pakkhi bheet” rewarded us with Eurasian Eagle owls, Francolins, Wheaters, Mongoose and Jackals. At a few places. ..the blooming Flame of the forest (Butia) is a host to Rosy Pastors, Bulbuls, Sunbirds & Warblers which queue up for a few drops of “floral squeeze” in this dryness.

During the day…moving through the expanse of sandy soil with interspersed growth of Suaeda fruticosa, we had excellent sightings of Short Eared owl, Imperial, Steppe, Tawny and Short Toed Snake Eagles, Common Cranes and the climax was a Desert Fox spotting ….which indeed was a rare catch.

In a single day - the unbelievable scores of 11 Owls, around 40 eagles, More than 10 Jackals, hundreds of Francolins….Hundreds of Storks, Loads of Harriers & Numerous Waders…was something like an unrealistic account coming true in front of our eyes !

One of the unique experience was the Eurasian Eagle Owls activity around dusk when these were seen in “flocks” of four-five perched atop the reddish rocks overlooking the setting sun, the red orange hues reflect into their eyes and the widened iris displays a peculiar shade of color.

Naliya Grassland is another amazing area where you can witness the grassland ecology in its true sense ! We were gifted by some excellent spotting here……Indian Coursers in big flocks….numerous Spiny tailed Lizards all around….Jackals and Foxes feeding on them…Jungle Cats ….Chinkaras….Chestnut and painted Sandgrouses …Francolins…Doves….hundreds of Harriers roosting …..and …the grand finale here was a “Wolf” Crossing our path just a few meters of our vehicle !

And while the sun was already set, our vehicle stopped suddenly to find something quite unusual…a Hedgehog very near the front tyre…immediately turning into a rigid ball of thorns !! We displaced it to the grassy side of the road and moved on.

Adding a different dimension to this desert depiction, a visit to the sea coast at Pingaleshwar gave an excellent opportunity to be with some lifers and rarities like Broadbilled Sandpiper, Huglins Gull, Caspian Tern, Sandwich Tern, Osprey, Juv Lesser Flamingo, Bar tailed Godwit, Gull Billed Tern, Greater Thicknee and many more. The mudskippers here formed a staple diet for all these coast dwellers.

The last morning before departure turned out a misty surprise – something unusual in such a dry area – and we still decided to give another try for the White napped Tit and White Bellied Minivet in the thorn forest area near Mahadeo phod and these couple of quick hours yielded another good sighting of both these species.

On a small stop dam here…holding my 7 Kgs of equipment on a wimberly head & Gitzo tripod, one of the naughty boulders under my feet slipped away….and within a split second …there I went …rolling down the slope….banging my biggie on the ground with a loud hit…my elbow scratched on the rough gravel… and…Thank the almighty… in addition to the optical quality …my new 500mm lens got tested for the mechanical build quality as well ! Intact as it was before…no damage at all …Surprising..isn’t it ?

Finally after a quick visit to the local handicrafts shop, Laxmanbhai dropped us at the Bhuj airport …an end of a wonderful saga ! While on the return flight …I confessed that the earlier concept of “dry desert” in my mind was completely washed out by this wonderful “Rain of experiences” !


Call of Kumaon - Corbett & Pangot

Corbett is not only an amazingly scenic destination but its surely one of the most remarkable Indian habitats with a significant diversity of species. The richness of this place has different facets which are revealed differently in the three different seasons of the year. In spite of seeing this location in numerous films and documentaries…actual visit to this wildlife paradise every time opens up a magical bag full of whole new experiences.

After a dramatic last minute frantic chase from Delhi airport to old Delhi railway station - we finally succeeded to jump into the Delhi~Ramnagar train within the last 4 minutes of its departure and were able to touch down next morning to Ramnagar – as scheduled!

Staying in the wonderful Tiger Camp resort which deserves a full score, our entry into the Bijarani area started with a beautiful morning. Crossing over popular while pebbles of the river Ramganga, the welcome spell included some excellent sightings of Wallcreepers, River Lapwings, Changeable Hawk & Crested Serpent eagles, Woodpeckers (Flamebacks and Scaly billed), Blue Whistling thrushes, Redstarts topped up by amazing arrival of Great Pied hornbills. Scattered Spotted Deer and Sambars always keep the count ticking as the vehicle continues through this wonderful jungle. Occasional Barking Deer sightings tend to keep your eyesight alert over the side bushes. Shrikes and Drongos keep flapping across. Orioles and Minivets keep the canopies busy.

Later part of the day was in Jhirna section which is approached by passing through a couple of small villages on the outer periphery of the jungle. Surprisingly there was no guide available to accompany the safari at the entrance gate of Jhirna and the gate forest officer happily (or helplessly) allowed us to enter without a guide ! Our gypsy "captain" Diwan singh himself had a good feel of the wildlife spotting and he was much more enthusiastic than some of the routine guides. This Jhirna area has a slightly different landscape and geographical profile compared to the Bijrani area and is a habitat hosting sloth bears, junglefowls, vultures and hornbills.

Driving around a turn to look for a Crimson sunbird that vanished fast into the bush, we landed near a ficus tree that was full of figs as well as loaded with Hornbills ! There were 8 Great pied hornbills and 3 Oriental pied hornbills on this singular tree and surprisingly they all were hidden so well that none of them could be seen unless they moved inside the thicket of the leaves. I could never believe that huge birds like Great Pied Hornbills, that too in big numbers could remain unnoticed in spite of being so close to the tree. The same tree was also dotted with about 20-22 barbets (they were all very silent – for a change !) and could be counted only when flew away from the tree. Up in the sky were circling White rumped vultures together with Griffons and made a very exciting cyclic appearance & disappearance behind a hillock.

While the sunlight was getting more into its setting hues, the road further yielded some excellent sightings of Plum headed parakeets, several Red jungle fowl pairs whizzing across the route and a beautiful flock of Emrald Doves which flashed their greens while roaming in and out of the side bushes. In the background, the Francolins were heard on and off.

Staying only in peripheral resorts at Ramnagar does not reveal you the full of what this park has to offer. To get a true flavor of the wealth here, one has to essentially stay in the Dhikala area and move around the wonderful habitat that surrounds the government rest house overlooking the reservoir. The experience is certainly different when you stay inside the park at Dhikala. In fact the road from Ramnagar to Dhikala is in itself something that needs to be explored and is a wonderful area for some exclusive sightings.

Just entering a few hundred meters of the Dhangadia gate and settling our binoculars on a Crested Serpent Eagle – a huge sloth bear appeared suddenly out of the thicket giving us a unique lifetime sighting. Wandering in the Indian Jungle for whole of last decade, this was only the third sighting of a Sloth bear for me and was certainly a hair raiser at the beginning of the jungle round.

Some exclusive sightings from this area included rarities like Tawny Fish Owl, Collared Falconet, Grey Winged Balckbird, White Crowned Laughing thrushes, Asian Barred Owlet, Chestnut Belied Nuthatches, Long Tailed Minivets, Short Eared Owl, Hog Deer and Yellow Throated Martens.

The Chaurs (grasslands) around the reservoir are an excellent venue for some raptors crossing across the jeep routes and spending some quiet time here provides a good time with Harriers and Eagles. Otherwise also, this is a very interesting landscape – changing its looks with changing moods of the sunlight.

The canteen at Dhikala Guest house is being run by contractors and is indeed a very pleasant experience. The chef here tries to fully treat you with his culinary excellence and is creditable to see this superb quality of food deep inside the heart of the jungle with such a limited bandwidth of supplies and support facilities. Two days at Dhikala were sumptuous in both ways – the wildlife and the food in the guesthouse.

Bidding goodbye to Corbett, we climbed up the hills to touch “Pangot” - a lovely village with barely a dozen cottages around. Pangot is naturally carved in an extremely beautiful location…. and situated on the edge of a scenic cliff overlooking the vast expense of the graceful Kumaon range, it has a great potential for most of the sought after Himalayan species. Nestled amidst “Cheed and Deodar” trees, the atmosphere here is simply splendid.

Staying at the Jungle Lore resort is definitely an added benefit as this is at a strategic location for some good birding…but talking of the essential support for birding (local guides-vehicle-logistics), I would certainly expect and anticipate a much better support from a lodge meant and specialized for birding. There are some obvious loose ends that need to be tied up irrespective of the type/race/ skin color of the person visiting this place, otherwise it does not justify to be called a “birding resort”.

The search for Koklass pheasant started in the morning on a breathtaking route to Vinayak. Our driver Harish was keenly observing on either side of the road for any surprises and was keeping a good control of the Bolero 4x4 with equal dexterity. This search did not reveal any Koklass to us but ended up in a unbelievable sighting of Ghoral – which darted speedily with a slight noise of the vehicle door. Enroute we had some excellent activity of Himalayan Griffons circling over a scenic valley. Altai Accentors were happily flocking on the edge of this valley.

Taking the scary turns through the steep mountain roads, we reached the woodpecker point. At the first sight this area looked quite inert and static….but soon was flooded with some astounding activities of Rufous Sibia, Tree creepers, Mountain Hawk Eagle Himalayan and Rufuous bellied Woodpeckers. There is some inherent haze here in the atmosphere and the photographs reflect that as a thin hazy blue curtain on the images. Even if the sun is high up in the sky and the day heats up, the haze still continues to linger.

A short stroll down the valley easily covers species like Himalayan Bulbul, Slaty Headed parakeets, Black throated Tit, Blue Whistling thrush, Steaked and Whilte throated Laughing thrush, Russet Sparrow, Great Barbet, Black headed jay, Chestnut Crowned Laughing Thrush, Green Backed Tit etc.

To multiply this exhilaration, the sighting of Brown Wood Owl near the ravine left us stunned ! This beautiful specimen perched atop a tree near a culvert made a permanent impression on our minds which will last the whole life !

On the way towards Sat Taal area, we peeped at a water stream that is known for Forktails and we surely saw two of the Slatybacked forktails along with a Brown Dipper and 3 Lesser Spotted Eagle on a nearby tree.

By the time we reached Sat taal, it was a bit late for the day and the sun was rushing fast behind the hills cutting down the light in the area that we were in. However a brisk walk in a nullah turned out to be quite rewarding with some unusual encounters with numerous Blue Magpies,Scaly Billed Woodpecker & Black throated accentor and a Mountain Bulbul hidden in the clumsy thickets…both were lifers for me !

Overwhelmed by the beauty of Pangot and rewarded with some excellent bird sightings, it was surely a difficult proposition to take the train and return to Delhi.