Wild rajasthan : Through my eyes

#1 Jan 14th, 2018, 13:10
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Tawny Eagle :


THE PLANNING


I was preparing a wild-life trip of Rajasthan , away from the crowded tiger-parks for a long time. Whenever one thinks about the birds of Rajasthan , the first name that comes to mind is Keoladeo-Ghana of Bharatpur , and it was the first name that I struck off from the list because most of the common birds there have been covered well by me elsewhere, hence for me it was looking for newer opportunities.


The first name that came to mind is of “Tal Chappar” , an erstwhile dust bowl with sparse vegetation and a population of Black-bucks and some raptors, now bloomed into a restricted grass land teeming with birds , mainly thanks to the conservation efforts of one Soorat Singh Poonia , a forest official. An overnight train journey from Delhi and you are there, hence presumably at arms length , an idea which will prove grievously wrong, the stay at the fabled Forest Rest House was an added attraction. Ram Singh ( Ramubhai ) who is a third generation wild-life guide was recommended by many and I booked his service for two days.


The next stop had to be Bikaner , a city under the shadow of a huge fort, often passed by the tourists. My main target was to get the three types of vultures that would complete my vulture-list of India. The wise and energetic Dr. Jitu Solanki would be my guiding light there for a couple of days, and from there, I will be venturing into arid and endless “Desert National Park” where the self-taught and incomparable Musa Khan will hand-hold me for 4 days, and would guide me to the countless treasures of his land.

On my way back I would have a couple of days stay at touristy Jodhpur and would fly out of Delhi back to my City of Joy.

So, the logistics were taken care of and Sukanya, my wife and Shouryya & Shritama , my two teenaged kids along with me started to count the days down.



INDIAN FAILWAYS AND TAL CHAPPAR 1st day , 23 -24 Dec’2017


An early morning flight brought us to a very sunny Delhi ; we checked into a hotel at Panchsheel Enclave and went out to explore the Red Fort a bit. Traversing around a million of tourists and having a sumptuous meal at “Kake-da-dhaba” , after braving a hungry line of diners for 45 minutes we returned to the hotel in the evening when the first text pinged it’s ominous arrival in my phone. My 11 PM train would now start at 7 in the following morning , there goes the chance of an early morning arrival and safari at Tal-Chappar. The message had the ominous ring (pun intended) of being the harbinger of more bad news.


Anyway , we decided to stay the night at the hotel. At around 3 in the morning , the second text came deferring the train to 12 in the noon, thus potentially wasting the whole day for us. That pushed the panic button and once I clicked it a few more times , I found myself with my earlier tickets cancelled and with a fresh set of Sleeper Class ticket at “Salasar Super Express” which would bring us at TC during the midday , somehow salvaging half a day and an evening safari for us.


We boarded the train from stinky and dirty “Sarai-Rohilla” station and munched our way through various snacks to Ratangarh station , quite late at around 1.45 PM. Throughout the journey Ramubhai was in touch over phone and took order of the lunch that we would have upon arrival , and then would start with the safari.


Just outside the station a dusty Bolero was waiting for us , driven by a rugged youth, who was extremely economical with speech ,and somehow communicated in monosyllables that some Tau or chacha of the DFO has chosen this very morning to breath his last, and this extremely sad event has compelled the entire populace of TC to go in mourning. Hence Ramubhai would not be available for the safari and he , the Ice-man will show us around.

A 45 minutes long ride , which resembled more like a drag race took us to the FRH. En route I could watch a few Egyptian vultures, Steppe Eagles and other raptors perched here and there, also could see an Indian Courser crossing the road in front of us , barely avoiding the marauding Bolero by an inch.


The much fabled Forest Rest House is a testament to all the good intentions going horribly wrong. Built by an eminent architect , beautifully and thoughtfully constructed in 2007 ( ? ) , now leased out to someone by the Forest Department , and maintained by a royal regiment of one Cook and one understudy of the Cook , this huge structure has fallen in dusty disrepair and complete absence of service.


We were welcomed into the FRH with the heartening news that we would be having no lunch, for no plausible reason and Ramu , who sounded extremely apologetic on phone, suggested that the village shop keeps cakes and biscuits and we better make the use of them. We dived into our food bag , and had a few bites of whatever snacks we had and started for the safari which would start at the gate next to the FRH. As soon as we reached the gate we encountered a gang of college kids , perhaps two bus full , who rushed into the forest , all brandishing there phones , with the common intention of somehow clicking a selfie with a Black-buck.


The Forest Department is perhaps awake to such demand because just beyond the gate a couple of Blackbucks were patiently waiting , seemingly for some biscuits from the tourists in exchange some selfies. Once the crowd lost the charm of these tame Blackbucks , they started a great chase of the Black-buck packs , thereby drowning the entire forest , which is extremely beautiful in itself covered with golden grass, in savage mayhem. I instructed Ice-man to drive ahead of them , which he did with great alacrity, mainly because he is more of a racer than a safari driver and after sometime we were at some rather vacant spot of the forest. I tried a few tester for the Ice-man and he confirmed in no time that he doesn't deign to have any information about any birds which are inedible.


So I took it upon myself to dig out some birds and it was clear very soon that the entire forest has become disturbed due to the ongoing ruckus made by the crowd and all the birds/animals have either gone away or skulked .

Now upon my suggestion that we should try our luck somewhere , Iceman drove us out of the jungles , exited through the gate and drove a few miles down , through some dusty villages to a place called “Gaushala”. At this place they dump the carcasses of the cows and some scavengers are expected. But as luck would have it , all we had were some dogs fighting each other for the dead-meat and at around six we returned to the FRH , all beat-up and feeling like dead-meat ourselves. On our way back we picked up some apples and chikoos, along with some peanuts-in-shells.


While Sukanya and the kids retired into our room at the first floor , I went to the kitchen in search of a cup of tea, where I met with Girdhar the cook, who has the strict demeanour of an Army General, and promptly upon meeting informed me that nothing can be served in the rooms and even the bed teas are to be had in the Dining Hall. Thus educated & disciplined, and after the first cup of tea in aeons I met with Ramubhai , who welcomed me with a smiling face and told me that he will accompany us for the next full day which would start at 7 in the morning , quite late by any standard but perfect for Rajasthan , being situated at extreme west of the country where the first light comes only around that hour of the day.


We took an early dinner and turned in for the day. I silently thanked the other members of the team as they chose to laugh out the ordeals of the day. Our bodies were tired but spirit was high and I had hopes that an early morning start would enable us to beat the revelers who would surely come in numbers again, and some sighting might be in the offing.



MORNING DOSEN’T SHOW THE DAY , TAL CHAPPAR DAY 2 : 25th December



The morning started sans any intruders to the tranquility of the forest. Had to climb down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and the safari started in no time. From the very first moments it became clear that Ramubhai knew about the terrain . It is this local knowledge that makes or breaks any guide and Ramubhai started to find the birds out of the bushes. First a Laggar Falcon , a cherished lifer , then an Eastern Imperial Eagle, next a Steppe Eagle , the count started to grow.

The beauty of the terrain of TC is that due to large expanse of the golden grass , in the background of the spare vegetation and azure blue sky , it is rather easy to shoot birds , because they almost always perch upon quite open branches of the trees. The days started to roll on , had an Indian Fox , then another couple of them. Much to my chagrin we had to return to the FRH for breakfast. It is an usual norm on birding trips that breakfast is taken on the field to minimise downtime. There is great scope of improvement in this regard at TC.


The breakfast consisting of puri and bhaji was quite delicious. But the time taken was sizeable and upon hitting the road , we drove to Gaushala , again to encounter nothingness. We saw a nest of a Raptor from quite a distance through Binocular. Here one point I must say that Ramu is a very responsible guide. He never allows his guests to venture too close to the birds lest they get agitated, a trait which I really appreciate. To my pleasant surprise we bumped upon a fellow birder/IMer named Himadri and as both of us were in the mood of bird-chasing , we said goodbye to each other after a few pleasantries, with a vow to catch up later somewhere in more relaxed circumstances.After 11-30 the light became too harsh and we returned to the FRH.

The FRH was in the meantime completely decked up for some sort of social function, a large number of cars were parked around the FRH compound, sumptuous meals were being cooked , large decorative tents have been erected and about 200 ladies and gentlemen were thoroughly enjoying themselves. We jokingly said that they must have been the parents of the college-kids of yesterday. Anyway they had pretty much the same effect of completely ruining the serene atmosphere which we sampled for precious few hours of the morning.


Post lunch, which was again quite tasty vegetarian fare, Ramubhai took as to a salt pit nearby. To my surprise they were teeming with water birds. Shot many of them , from a very close range, the highlight being the “Pied Avocets”. We scurried some known spots for Indian Eagle Owls but in vain. At around 4.45 we returned to the forest again, it was quite settled by then and I bagged a few Bar-headed geese, foraging on the grassland instead of the usual water that they favour , some raptors like Monatgue's Harrier , Long legged Buzzard and Common Kestrel. Then the sun turned crimson , our day came to an end. Ramu offered me a morning safari , for which obviously I was supposed to pay extra, to specifically search for the elusive “Spotted Tea Creeper”, but I had the information that they are easily visible during September , October and in December their sighting was highly infrequent. So I decided to move very early to Bikaner to start the safari there, a decision which proved very fruitful later on. So we crashed in the bed quite early.


Here I must sum up that Tal Chappar , as little as I have seen of it , is still a paradise for birders. The species are many but I have not seen them in great numbers. For someone like me who has plenty of Blackbuck images from other places, and who is not too keen to photograph them , TC is a bit of let down. Ramubhai is a very capable guide and a very spirited guy. He can perhaps perform even better if one stays somewhere else other than the FRH.The outsaid stays nearby are much more economic, fast and convenient. Now it’s time to bid adieu to TC , which has given me some pretty satisfactory sighting and photo-ops , in spite of the rather less time that I could spend there in the end.

This will be a longish TR with details , so will post the next part shortly

Endangered Luggar Falcon


Blackbuck male


Indian Fox


Southern Grey Shrike


Pied Avocet flying


Tal Chappar grassland
#2 Jan 14th, 2018, 13:26
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#2
Quote:
I tried a few tester for the Ice-man and he confirmed in no time that he doesn't deign to have any information about any birds which are inedible.


What a catalogue of disaster, and so winsomely related.

But what photographs ! Fatafati.
#3 Jan 14th, 2018, 13:30
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Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post

What a catalogue of disaster, and so winsomely related.

But what photographs ! Fatafati.
Ha ha TD , this one will be long, will test patience of you all.
#4 Jan 14th, 2018, 13:31
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Originally Posted by iamsomnath View Post Ha ha TD , this one will be long, will test patience of you all.

Good !

#5 Jan 14th, 2018, 19:57
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#5
" Birds of a feather flock together " it was a great opportunity for me to meet you after following your posts & photographs in IM for last few years, hopefully next time we would have more time to interact and could learn from you .
Coincidently, I had the same misfortune with the Failways and another Iceman as guide as I took ramu's services for day2.
The photos came out gorgeous ,i missed the fox, eagerly waiting for more ..jorbeer..DNP ..keep them coming..
#6 Jan 14th, 2018, 21:03
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Originally Posted by sindabad View Post " Birds of a feather flock together "
Ha ha ha , it was really a very pleasant surprise for me to meet you there. Wish to meet somewhere again , when we would have the time to have an extended chat session.

The write up will come in fits and starts , so keep watching
Cheers
#7 Jan 14th, 2018, 21:26
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Subscribed!

Will keep tracking this thread for reports and wonderful photographs...
#8 Jan 15th, 2018, 21:18
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So much for the information, but the writing style is what that keeps me glued to the TR. It almost takes me there. Thanks for sharing!
#9 Jan 16th, 2018, 00:43
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Ahhh...waiting for this for so long.This is bliss!
Somnath da,Bird,street,landscape...is there any category which is yet to be mastered by you?
#10 Jan 16th, 2018, 10:15
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Thanks Prakaant, Bijit Bose, Phir-Milenge and all other friends for kind appreciation.

@Phir-Milenge : I am nothing but a humble student of photography , following the true masters of the art and hopefully improving with time .
#11 Jan 16th, 2018, 14:14
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Subscribed. Enjoying the lesser known forests through your lens
#12 Jan 16th, 2018, 18:51
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Originally Posted by arupratan ghosh View Post Subscribed. Enjoying the lesser known forests through your lens
Thanks AG , the next update is due.
#13 Jan 16th, 2018, 20:57
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#13
THE ENCOUNTER WITH THE ANGELS OF DEATH AT BIKANER, 26TH DECEMBER


We woke up at 3.30 AM because the car would report by 4.30, we had a long day in front of us. Bikaner is about 2.5 hours drive away.Much to my pride the kids jumped into action along with us. There was no chance of an early tea from Girdhar, so we simply checked out and boarded on another Bolero. After an uneventful drive and a tea-break midway, we reached Bikaner at about 7 AM. It was a bitterly cold day and from the outskirts of the town itself we could watch the heightened level of activity of the raptors and scavengers. A pink and purple dawn started to bloom and virtually thousands of birds started to fly along , seemingly to one particular point. After about a quarter of an hour we could realise that the target for both us and the birds are one and same , The Jorbeed Vulture Sanctuary.


It will not be out of place to spell a few things out about the vultures here. In the last few decades almost all the indian Vultures have suffered close to 99% erosion of population. The main reason was the use of a banned drug by the name of “Diclofenac” on the cattle. The carcasses of the dead cattle, the primary source of foods for the vultures used to get contaminated by the drug and consumption of such meat used to fatally affect the vultures , thus wiping out them close to extinction. Now the drug has been banned in India , but people still use them and I see no hope for the survival of these regal and often misunderstood birds. Now people from the world over come here to have glimpse of them, perhaps for some few more years.Anyway let’s move into our day.


The word sanctuary creates a certain kind of imagery , green gentle woods and lush foliage perhaps , plenty of wildlife and a sense of calm repose. But this sanctuary is absolutely of a different nature. An oblong piece of dry earth , with perched patches of brown grass , tall and medium trees standing at a distance from each other , Dogs and carrion eaters in literal thousands were roaming around the place , in search of morsels of flesh out of the carcasses that are dumped here by appointed contractors. The Carcasses that are dumped here are skinned by the staffs of the Contractor because only one kind of vulture is capable of tearing the hard hide of the animals i.e. the King or Red Headed Vultures, but unfortunately they are not present here and hence the need to skin the carcasses.In earlier times this place was named as “Bhojanshala” ( the food chamber) and since centuries this place has been happy hunting ground for the scavengers and hunters alike. We were waiting for Dr.Jitu Solanki to come and in the meantime climbed atop a watch tower just outside the boundary wall and were savouring the scene with utmost fascination through our binoculars.


Within no time another SUV came and Dr.Solanki , whom we would call Jituji from here onwards jumped out of the driver’s side. At the very first sight itself he came across as a very able and jovial person. We changed cars and without much ado we drove inside the sanctuary. Jituji was driving himself and within the first few minutes he asked me about the target birds. Almost instantly he chalked out a brief itinerary for the coming couple of days. In most meticulous manner .He drove and stopped across the ground , pointing out the better photo ops as well as he continued his lucid commentary about the birds there and their specialities. Within no time I bagged dozens of photos of my target birds and then we tried specially for some special shots of the “Cinereous Vulture” which is a rare migratory bird.


He had packed dry breakfast of bread , jam , bhujia which is a speciality of Bikaner , banana and boiled eggs. Such is the humility of the man that he himself made delectable sandwiches for us with bread , jam and bhujia , naming them “Bikaneri” sandwiches.


After the quick breakfast we again started to do rounds therein and had plenty of shots. It became quite clear to us that Jituji will try his level best to get the best out of the two day trip there.Once the light started to become too harsh , we decided to return to our stay , known by the name of “Vinayak Guest House , an extremely well maintained and clean property , offered at a very reasonable rate as well. We checked in a sizeable 3 bedded room, took hot showers , had a quick lunch and went out for the evening safari at a water-body called Chhota Gajner. The evening safaris are led by Jituji’s drivers and he drove us at a distance to a medium sized water body which was teeming with water birds. Although there was not a single new species for me but I continued to capture them. But my real target was a winter migrator by the name of “Water Pipit”. All of us tried to fish them out and the driver spotted them first. They were a flock of about 5/6 birds and were foraging in a nearby fallow field. I tried to stalk closer to them but they maintained long distance and then I decided to sit still at the bang middle of the field.This ruse worked and they started to approach closer. After about half an hour of sitting there , I got a few prized shots of the lifer.


Elated, we started our return journey and in falling light had the first of the many sightings of the Indian Antelope Chinkara and I managed some high ISO images of them. With contended heart we took a food-stop at the local confectioner called “Khandelwal” and ate chats, raj kachoris etc and packed a local sweet of unmatched taste called “Ghewar”.


The dinner was a simple but delectable affair. I must mention that Mrs. Solanki , a highly educated woman herself, has devoted herself to the wellbeing of the guests and is in charge of the food .She does a great job with a smiling face and complements Jituji admirably.


THE RARE ONES AND THE FEAST . 27th December.


Today we had few specific targets . I was looking for few images from closer range of the Cinereous Vultures , which are extremely shy. Then there was this extremely rare “Yellow Eyed Pigeon”. One of the rarest of the pigeons along with the fabled “Pale Capped Pigeon” which I could luckily bag earlier this year in Assam. There was also chance of catching the elusive raptor “Merlin” , local sighting of which was doing the round, which I captured at GRK but would want to have another go at it anyway. And that elusive “ Desert Fox”. Somewhere in between all these searches we also had to squeeze in the visit to the Junagad Fort.


The morning started amazingly well. Jituji managed to get somewhat close to the Cinereous Vultures without raising any alarm through superb fieldcraft and I got the images I was looking for. Then we had planned to move to an outside area which had a colony of the Yellow eyed Pigeons. But much to our pleasant surprise the pigeons were spotted by Jituji in the sanctuary itself and I could take a few record shots. They are priceless for me because the birds were foraging in the ground , which they seldom do and I could get the images on the natural ground perch while all I was expecting was that of a few snaps on electrical wires , where they commonly perch along with Rock Pigeon flocks.


After a similar on-field breakfast , we ventured out to a dry and arid area in search of falcons and were rewarded with the rare sighting of Merlin of which I got a few record images.


In the meantime the sun travelled quite high and Jituji dropped us at the gates of the imposing Junagad Fort. I have seen almost all the famous forts of Rajasthan and except Chittorgarh I have enjoyed none. Same here and we rushed through the well-kept fort and it’s exhibits, caught an auto-rickshaw which dropped us at the Guest House, which is situated just at a stone’s throw for a princely sum of 30 bucks.


Today we had planned to break our long series of vegan eating. Since Delhi we had no other option but to go vegan. But today Jituji offered us delicious Chicken Butter Masala , although cooked elsewhere , and we simply atomised the food in no time.


Post lunch Jituji’s driver drove us to a far away place , and after waiting patiently for about couple of hours we were rewarded with the sightings of a couple of Desert Foxes. I captured a few images along with that of the Chinkaras, also had a fortuitous sighting of a couple of ‘Spotted Owlets”.


After an early dinner we bid adieu to the excellent hospitality and guidance of Jituji and caught a midnight train to Jaisalmir , gateway to our dream destination “Desert National Park”.

The "sanctuary"


Eurasian Griffon


Egyptian Vulture , also known as The Pharaoh's Chicken


A Cinereous Vulture shooing away a minor irritant


Role reversed , a dead vulture , now food itself


The Desert Fox is having a drink, this little excuse of a pond is huge lifeline in that arid place. The Desert Fox has white-tipped tail , in place of the black tip of the Indian/Bengal Fox


A Steppe Eagle is devouring a dead Wild-boar piglet , the crows were constantly disturbing.
#14 Jan 17th, 2018, 07:56
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Have heard first time about this sanctuary. Lovely photographs and very knowledgebased report.
#15 Jan 17th, 2018, 09:52
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Somnath, for non-veg food in Bikaner, you cannot go past Kali Mai hotel. That restaurant has been service great food as long as remember. I just checked an they have a website as well http://www.kalimaihotel.com/ Try it next time you are in Bikaner.
Planning to visit Bikaner next month to catch up with some old friends. Hoping to spend a night at Gajner palace. At this stage the booking is wait listed. I will surely visit chota Gajner and report.

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