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Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Prince of Bandipur!

It has been almost 3 months that I had seen a Tiger at Bandipur Tiger Reserve. My last few visits to Bandipur from April’11 until June’11 have been dominated by Leopard sightings. For some reasons the tiger sightings at Bandipur during the recent summers wasn’t that great.

On 30th July’11 (Saturday) I decided to visit Bandipur, however I was alerted by my close associates & naturalist that the sightings have been really dull most of July. It was quite understandable and I was aware that the Bandipur National Park, especially the forest area had received heavy rains for past few weeks. However I had made up my mind to visit and try my luck.

This time I had Pradeep who was driving the jeep; Pradeep is a young chap but has been in JLR for ages and knows the forest on his finger tips. We started our morning safari at 6:15am, after completing the formalities at Bandipur reception; we headed straight towards mulapura water hole. We were half the way when Pradeep noticed tiger pug marks and surprisingly there were also tiny pug marks, so it was quite evident that a tigress and her cubs had walked freely on the game track. I also admire the skills of spotting the pug marks by these drivers, who see it while in motion and stop to confirm. Most of them at JLR have done it time and again. Now to some extent even I have managed to pick up these skills. The pug marks were quite fresh and were leading in the opposite direction and not towards mulapura water hole.

So we decided to turn back and follow the pug marks, as we reached the bettada katte junction the pug marks disappeared. This junction has 5 routes, on the right leads to surle katte, on the left bettada katte and the 2 straight routes finally reach the Bandipur-Ooty highway & of course one goes via arali katte.

We decided to take the bettada katte route after driving up the hill for about 100 mts or more,  we noticed few more pug marks of another tigress with cubs however even these pug marks were in opposite direction leading to bettada katte junction, so we turned back again and drove to the junction. We weren’t sure which route to choose to track these tigers; it seemed as if all these cats had a meeting at this junction. Note sure where they disappeared from this point.

However we finally agreed to take the arali katte route, as this area is the territory of a tigress that has lost one eye, reasons unknown. As we were approaching arali katte we heard a Bonnet Macau (Red faced monkeys) alarm calls. We were excited as we had already seen the pug marks and now with alarm calls I was almost sure that we were close to a Tigress. We patiently waited for a while; few other jeeps also joined us. Mean while I met Sanjay - Naturalist at Country Club, Bandipur; he too waited along with us. After a while few jeeps moved away, however our jeep & Sanjay’s jeep waited patiently. In the meantime we noticed that the monkeys were seen on a large bamboo tree and also the alarm calls had stopped. We weren’t sure what to do next; sometimes the alarm calls can also be a false one.

We decided we will drive towards yere katte another water body; Sanjay’s jeep was ahead of us. As we approached the yere katte, I couldn’t believe my eyes, I spotted a huge male Tiger in the open; however his face was hid behind parthenium shrub. The tiger was on our right and I was seated as usual in the front seat next to Pradeep. My position wasn’t that great to shoot, I immediately rested my camera and lens on the roof top, by now the tiger started walking in our direction. I had an excellent angle to shoot so I fired few shots.

Within minutes I realized that accidentally my shutter speed is 1/8000 sec, this was a serious error. My program setting knob had got changed to Tv mode (Shutter Speed mode), I had set my camera to Av mode that is aperture. About 15-20 images that I shot of the Tiger walking in our direction with superb eye contact all got heavily under-exposed. I was really put off; the only good thing was I realized the error quite fast. Later I had to shuffle between my other camera that is Canon 40D with 100-400mm lens and the 7D with 500mm, since the tiger was getting really close to our jeep.

Now the tiger got so close hardly few feet away from our jeep & I somehow managed to click using both equipments. One image that I was eager to click was when this tiger was crossing the game track right in front of us. With on and off rains, the slushy water clogged track, greens surrounding, freshness of the forest, what a sight this was. Simply Beautiful! The majestic walk by this huge male tiger, not caring about human presence & the jeep in front, he seemed totally fearless. He then went and sniffed a dry tree trunk to check his scent marking; the forest was at its best with lush greens all over and to add a tiger in the open, you can’t ask for more. What a perfect setting for any wildlife photographer.

By now I recognized this tiger; he is Agastya’s son (one of the oldest male tigers of Bandipur ~ aged 15 years old). This guy could be aged about 5 years; I have seen him before as well at bettada katte. I consider him to be the most bold, handsome tigers and surely he is “The Prince of Bandipur” who will rule this forest.

Later he crossed the game track & then disappeared in the bushes, after having seen him for over 20 minutes. We all wanted more; no wonder tigers are the most beautiful creations by God on Earth. Again this sighting was dream come true as I had the tiger at unbelievable close distance. I also believe that monsoons are the best seasons from photography point of view, and yet again it proved right this time.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Leopard with a Hare Kill!

Until last month (June), the leopard sighting at Bandipur was on a high. Even my last few visits since April until end of June were excellent with leopard sightings. I and few friends were on our evening game drive  at Bandipur; we had Basavanna one of the Senior Naturalist who was driving the commander jeep for us. We took the entry from reception and drove towards moor kere, this location has three water holes, hence the name referred to Moor Kere in Kannada.

The tigress (Gowri) and her 4 cubs have been spotted here on several occasions. I strongly believe that the cubs were born in this area, hence the family is often spotted here. We patiently waited for a while but no sign of the tigress nor her cubs, despite pug marks all over the place. It is quite obvious that the mother is very protective of her cubs, especially when her offspring's are very young. So chances of seeing them in open is never gonna be easy.
After a wait for 15-20 mins, we drove further and spotted a Peacock, I managed to make a beautiful portrait of this beauty. As we drove towards Yere katte, a reasonably large water hole, we spotted a large herd of Gaurs
(Indian Bisons). During this time it started to drizzle a bit followed by heavy showers, I was keen in photographing the calf. However he was very shy, finally I managed to make a portrait of the calf. The time now was about 5pm, it had been over an hour in the forest and no cat sighting nor any warning calls. In such situation it always good to keep tking rounds near the water holes so we decided to drive towards daiyada katte. As we reached this spot few jeeps were waiting and we were told that they had just spotted a leopard who walked freely on the game track, scented marked his territory and then sneaked into the bushes. The excitement began, upon taking a closer look at the bushes we could spot the leopard, not so clear but he was partly visible. I wasn't sure what he was doing inside the bush, normally at dusk the cats like to free walk in the open or hunt. By now we all could see the leopard in the bush but couldn’t photograph. The leopard sensed our presence probably and moved further inside the dense area. Basavanna mentioned that the leopard may come to daiyada katte water hole so we moved ahead and waited there patiently. A couple of jeeps also joined us and waited but the leopard never made his appearance. After about 10-15 mins the three jeeps that were waiting with us lost their patience and drove away.
However we decided to wait, I requested Basavanna to reverse the jeep and position it in such an angle that we should be able to see the game track as well as have view line to the water hole, just in case the leopard comes out towards either side. During this time we sensed some movement in the bushes on our left, to our surprise the leopard was stalking, not on a deer, it's hard to believe it was a Blacked Naped Hare (Wild Rabbit) and within seconds he pounced on the hare, this was a easy catch for the big cat. I was amazed, I had seen a leopard with a deer kill and heard about leopard making a hare meal but to see this live was a treat to my eyes.
The drama continued, I was sincerely hoping that the leopard may come out of the bush and finally he did. I was ready with my camera, as the leopard walked out of the bushes, he realized that it was a open area and he also had sensed our presence. In fraction of a second he sprinted with the hare in his jaws. I was quick to fire few shots and managed to make some images well focused on the leopard and the hare. Fortunately my shutter speed was quite good to freeze the action.
This was another rare, great natural history moment in the wild that I was blessed to witness.
Later the leopard was quick to sneak through the bushes, and this time he decided to disappear in the under growth to have his snack. These cats are so beautiful that I wasn't satisfied despite having seen it on so many occasions. One thing that that could have made my images a stunner was a head turn by the leopard towards me, but these things happen and are not in our control. I was told that there were no records and video clips of leopard with hare kill, though leopard often makes this kill. I was fortunate and lucky to get some decent images.
The time was running out so we drove towards the exit gate. As we were about to approach the exit gate towards the reception area I spotted a Sloth Bear on our left, but Basavanna drove ahead as he didn’t notice it. We quickly reversed the jeep, the bear was still there but later was quick to disappear in the bushes, and I managed some records shots, not worth sharing though.
Finally the evening game drive came to a happy ending and as usual my excitement and these amazing moments kept me awake most of the night.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Snake Rituals!

Have you seen or heard about Snakes Rituals? Snakes rituals are often mistaken by most of us for snake mating. In this story I am sharing images clearly demonstrating Rat Snakes performing their rituals at the best. Please bear with the low quality of images as I had to shoot under tough conditions of light, especially shooting against light is one of the greatest challenges. The people of Karnataka call the rat snakes as Kere Havu, while in Marathi it is Dhaman, Kerala it is Chera, and Cherai in Tamil.

I was put at Gorukana Resorot in BR Hills, We had just checked in our cottage when I received call from Jade Swamy, a Senior Naturalist. He mentioned to me that he spotted two snakes near the exit gate and mentioned that they were mating. I rushed to the spot with my camera.

Snakes are exciting to watch and equally dangerous if disturbed. Fortunately these were rat snakes that are non venomous, but their bite can be nasty. The snakes were in the open; however my position to shoot wasn’t that great I had to shoot against direct sun light at about 5pm. I had to fall flat on the ground, use my bag pack as the support for my lens and shoot. This position is important from a photographer’s point of view to get the best low level angle.

This snake ritual is nothing but a combat dance performed by males of the species. Though a friendly ritual with no over display of aggression, it is driven by instinct and used to define territory and defend mates. Its frequent and customary expression during the breeding season is proof of this encoded behavior.

The ritual was fascinating to watch and this went on for good 30 mins, until few soliga forest tribals were passing by and the snakes got disturbed and moved into the bushes. Another challenge to shoot the combat dance is the speed; the snakes stand tall and swirl swiftly with excellent synchronization of their movements. So getting the right focus becomes difficult.

I always wanted to photograph snakes, especially my dream is to photograph the King Cobra, and I guess I am getting there sooner or later. The Rat snake is at times mistaken for a cobra and killed needlessly. It offers valuable service to the environment by keeping the balance of the ecosystem through its feeding on rats, frogs and insects in places where agriculture is the dominant activity. Though large and fierce looking, the rat snake is not a poisonous species.

The Power Of Striped Cat & The Macho!

As winter approaches, challenges are faced on various fronts due to fog, the flights invariably get delayed, driving on highways becomes tedious and for wildlife/bird photographers it is a mixed feeling and most of time we aren’t sure if mist and fog can be in our favor or against us.
Such was a morning game drive at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, mist covers all around the park. I had one of my favorite and luckiest drivers of all of times Kiran of JLR Bandipur, a young lad but who has loads of experiences in these jungles. We started the drive a bit late expecting the mist to clear, but it never changed so we decided to move on. Our entry was through chicka surle katte and as we drove on the main surle katte road, we saw two safari jeeps ahead of us; one took left towards mulapura water hole and the other on to right that leads to other part of the forest via arale katte towards yera katte.
We had a choice to follow either of these jeeps or to drive straight on the track,  that’s leads to one of the most difficult hilly terrains referred to as “Bettada Katte”, Kiran our driver looked at me and was expecting me to make a decision, I pointed my hand towards bettada katte.

As mentioned this is a hilly area, obviously kiran was very cautious to drive slowly on this route, otherwise also he is a slow driver. I was with him in the front seat, due to fog, the mist formed was affecting our view, kiran had to stop the jeep a couple of times and clean the windshield with a cloth as the wipers weren’t helping much. The visibility was getting even worse as we drove higher altitude.
 It was past 7am; at one point suddenly I heard an alarm call by langur (Black Faced Monkey). We stopped and could see the monkey sitting high up on a tree, the calls went loud and we all sensed a predator is around.  Alarm calls are directly proportional to excitement, the louder the calls more is our excitement and this happens despite one has been to forests all his life and has been spotting tigers and leopards. Alarm calls especially by langurs are accurate, since they have the best view to spot a predator sitting high up on a tree. And I was now sure that this guy had spotted a predator, possibly a tiger or a leopard. 

Due dense mist we were unable to see anything so I asked kiran to drive further and suddenly from a distance I see something moving on the track. It’s a tiger I whispered; a huge male not bothered about our presence and was casually walking up the hill. By now I had made some amazing shots of this cat walking, however all shots were the rear view. We stopped and followed again and this repeated for a while but the tiger never turned or even looked back.
To our luck the mist was sort of clearing up, but our patience was put on the highest level of test. Finally after 5 minutes or the tiger stopped, looked around and posed, to my bad luck I missed the shot and so did my friends because our jeep was in motion and kiran braked suddenly when the tiger turned. Our shots went off blur due to the jerk. We continued to follow this cat and noticed that he is scent mark his territory by urinating on the several tree trunks, but the sad part was we still didn’t manage to get a single shot of his face.

We didn’t give up, kiran too realized our frustration and drove further, however the good thing was we gave enough space to the tiger and that’s one reason he didn’t disappear into the bushes. Finally he stops on a bit elevated terrain, we were still on the low sloppy track and he turned a bit. Oh boy! This was a very unique posture, showing all his might, glory and typical power of the striped cats, and to add to the beauty was the misty background.
A dream shot for any wildlife photographer with primary focus on head of a massive male tiger, he was none other than the bettada katte male, and I named him as “Prince” as his father “King Agastya” was still ruling the forests of Bandipura. After a while he gradually disappeared into the bushes. A sight to behold and an amazing experience of photographing the handsome prince and one of my best portraits of this tiger by far…
Our sighting didn’t end here we drove back to surle katte and had an encounter with a large bull elephant and it turned out to be a “Makna”. Bull Elephants (Male) with tusks are called "Tuskers". Bulls without tusks are called "Makna". Maknas are a rare sight in Indian forests, 1 in 1000 elephants born will probably be a Makha. Maknas have a reputation for being more dangerous, aggressive and cunning than tuskers amongst elephant family, like tuskers they too are solitary. Maknas are recognizable only by their bull-like built. From a distance they can be mistaken for cow elephants.

Another thing I noticed which approaching towards this elephant, that he is in Musth, I cautioned Kiran that we need to be extra careful. As we drove closer, this guy charged at us like mad, he takes no nonsense and means only business. The impact of charge is so much that many of us forget to photograph, however I managed few shots using Canon EOS 40D and 100-400mm lens, ideally a wider angle lens would have been good.
Musth is a condition when temporal gland between the eyes and ears swell and discharge a viscous aromatic secretion. When a male elephant reaches the age of 20, he starts to come into this phase of Musth which prepares him for the intense competition for females and mating rights. Musth might last up to 60 days as they wander looking for females in the forest. Also during this condition they constantly urinate, signaling other elephants of his state.
The musth condition can be noticed in the images attached. If you ever come across Maknas ensure that you maintain silence and more importantly keep safe distance. After taking few shots, we drove off quietly and left the Makna alone.