Stories from the Field: The Great Rann of Kutch, Gujurat

6 months after the Kaziranga trip, I started reading about the birds of India. I was very surprised to learn that we had more than 1,200 species across the country. I ventured out a bit, driving around Bannerghatta National Park and Hesarghatta Lake. Photographing birds isn’t as easy as one would think. They are flighty and fickle. I captured several images of “bird-less” perches and returned home with “bird-less” memory cards as well.

I was 56 years old and time was not on my side. I began to list out important birding areas in the country. This way, I could focus on numbers- my goal being to reach 500 birds before my health deteriorated. I chose birding locations that were easily accessible by car. Gujarat and Uttarakhand had large bird counts and winters were ideal for birding.

I decided to travel to the Great Rann of Kutch during November 2012. I didn’t want any delay seeing and photographing birds. I needed the right gear and I purchased a Canon 1D mark14 with a 500 mm f4 lens. A friend of mine drove me to Kutch, making it an easier trip for me. We chose a Homestay run by a famous conservationist and bird guide, Sri. Jugal Tiwari. All the rooms were named for beautiful local birds, which was very inspiring. I chose the Grey Hypocolius room just because the name sounded exotic. Most special was the fact that each room had books by the bedside,
mine had two about the world-famous birder, Phoebe Snetsinger.

Phoebe had seen and documented the unbelievable count of 8,400 birds around the
world.  She held a record at that point in time, for having seen the maximum number of birds in the world. There are approximately 10,500 bird species across the globe. It was difficult to imagine that such a huge number of species of birds even existed!

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Stories from the Field: Kazaranga National Park, Assam

My childhood friend Sathya thrust his 1D Mark4 camera and 300 mm f4 camera lens in my hand and asked me to step out and spend more time outside my apartment. He was a medical professional. It was July 2012, and his idea was to fill me with quality air and to wrap more sun on my skin. He wanted me to travel more often and photograph birds.  It was 6 months after a week long trip at Kaziranga National Park, which had been my first taste of wildlife. I can still smell the freshness of it all.
Kaziranga is magical.

We stayed at the Wild Grass Lodge amidst the intimidating presence of huge lenses and heavy gear.
The dining hall was filled with Masai Mara and other jungle lores.
I was drawn into my fellow travel mates’ conversations on birds and elephant behaviour.
Animal psychology was a nonexistent subject for me till then. I always marveled at the life of plants & trees. The reasons and roles of their existence and their beauty.
During this trip, I was introduced into the role of fauna into the sustenance of forests and their mutual social struggles; Their mastery of leveraging each others resources, framed by unwritten cooperative laws. Their companionship in fighting extinction. Survival makes strange bedfellows among flora and fauna – from the megafauna to the smallest ant and flying insect.

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Stories from the Field: Namdapha National Park, Arunachal Pradesh







I now realize that when I posted about my experience at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, I had gotten ahead of myself, because the germ of that visit began at Namdapha National Park.  Namdapha…the name flirts and rolls around to fill your mouth, just as trekking there fills your senses.

I first met with Shashank Dalvi in March 2015 when he had organised a trek to Namdapha. After my initial foray into Kutch, I traveled every month of the year and covered the Central Himalayas extensively. I badly wanted to photograph the colourful birds of the North East and grow my list to 1000 birds of India. I had covered most parts of India by the time I was ready to travel to Namdapha.

I was seeking solitude and needed to take life at an easy pace during 2015. All the travel around the rest of India was done at a frenetic pace. Namdapha was that perfect place to bird at a gentle pace and that solitude came from the serene and silent forest. A perfect place to be lost inside a forest that totally separates you from rest of the world.

I had heard from every corner about Shashank Dalvi and especially about his work in Doyang, Nagaland. He and his team had put a stop to the annual culling of Amur Falcon’s in Nagaland, especially in Doyang.

We had heard rumors of large-scale bird hunting around the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland some time ago. In September 2012, Bano Haralu, Ramki Sreenivasan, Rokohebi Kuotsu and I decided to investigate. What we saw shocked us – a massacre of thousands of Amur Falcons. Roko and I spent the next couple of days filming the slaughter and interacting with the hunters to understand the extent and nature of the hunt. It remains the most difficult and emotionally harrowing experience of my career.

Since then, I always wanted to bird alongside this man and learn his skill and patience. When you are in love with all creatures around you and understand their roles and impact on universal relationships you become patient in your role towards contributing toward their conservation.

I became a bit more patient. 7 days in Namdapha and surroundings gave ample time to listen about snakes, and behaviour of many mammals. 

Namdapha is declared a Project Tiger Reserve. It is also known as the land of four big cats. The only place on earth to host them all in one forest. This is also the place for rare mammal like the Takin, Musk Deer and the veryrare Slow Loris. The fragrant Agarwood is also found here. With an area of 2000 square kilometers, Namdapha is the largest virgin forests of India. Continue reading

Stories from the Field: Eaglenest, Arunachal Pradesh

With Gaurav Kataria

When Gaurav Kataria, a birder and tour operator, invited me to go along with him to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary during March of 2015, I had loads of apprehension about the weather, terrain and the proximity to medical assistance. Earlier, before my trip to Namdhapha it was Gaurav who counseled me on similar fears and he egged me on: Namdhapha, a lowland rainforest with “empty forest syndrome” calls out to only a handful who are fortunate to appreciate it, continuing that having managed that, Eaglenest would be a cakewalk for me. In the presence of intense birders, tough itineraries become a joyous holiday. Eaglenest and Bompu camp were no exception. As the jeep, loaded with breakfast and lunch, followed us at intervals, I never felt the need to hop onto it. We would walk with our gear on the shoulders for 6 to 8 hours each invigorating day.

The virgin forests of Mandala, Eaglenest and the trek between Bompu Camp to Haathi Naala and Lower Kellong threw up surprises at each bend. The change in habitat and seeing different flocks or individuals after every 500 meters is a photographer/birder’s delight.

We had Phurpa Arteju as our guide. This kid was a big surprise. He could identify dozen birds in a mixed flock by their calls alone.
Trekking with him we heard and saw 220 species and photographed around 75 species.

The moment you cross into Arunachal Pradesh the change in air quality and visuals is palpable. Cross Balukpong and the festival begins. We were welcomed by the Rufous woodpecker amongst the bamboos and 500 meters later we were wondering which bird to focus on. My jaw just dropped looking at the activity of the hunting flocks.

Mandala is a constant surprise and the birds were quite comfortable in our presence. At Eaglenest, the Bugun gave us the slip. 6 trips later, it showed up as the “Year Bird” in 2018.  That time my companions and I had to leave the pair of Bugun Liochicla after watching it to our hearts content.

Bompu Camp is a visual delight. The stay and food are both excellent.
It was here I met Marmot Snetsinger, daughter of Phoebe Snetsinger, my idol, the record holder for seeing the highest number of birds. That meeting was more precious than the sighting of the rare Chestnut Breasted Partridge. The moment Marmot slung Phoebe’s binoculars around my neck, patted my back and asked me to go watch birds was the most magical moment in my bird photography life.

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