Sunday, September 29, 2013

Call of the Wild- Nagzira

Call of the Wild- Nagzira

My long awaited journey to the tiger heartland of India was taking final shape. The process of gathering information and names of useful contacts from my fellow naturalists and birders on the best ways to explore Nagzira was so exciting, that I could not wait to be at Nagzira, to see the Jungle and its drama unfold before my senses.

I am using word “senses” instead of “eyes” as, in the Jungles, far away from urban cacophony gives one an opportunity to use all the senses. The rustles of branches and leaves, the crackle of dry leaves, makes you pause and try decipher the cause of it. Is it caused by a Jungle fowl moving behind the bushes or did a Wild boar just roll over while sleeping in a shade or was it just the wind doing as usual. The heady whiff of the blossoming Mahua flowers intermingle with the rancid stench of a rotting carcass adding further to the mystery of the Jungle. In the jungle if you sense a creature crawling besides you, you should react differently than you normally would. Most of the times it is best to avoid sudden reactions unless you can see the creature. The various edible berries and flowers have been assigned different properties, from healing to rejuvenation all as per the local lore.
With all these anticipations I boarded the train from Nagpur to Bhandara which is around an hour’s route for a fast train. Again benevolent Indian Railways was the reason behind a swift and economical journey.
I reached Bhandara station at around 1 AM in the night. Nagzira is about 40 KMs from Bhandara, so I decided to take a Nap at Bhandara railway station before leaving for Nagzira. I left for Nagzira at around 3:30 AM in night. Asking directions to reach the highway was not easy as the entire city was deserted during the night and I had to request a Police patrol vehicle to guide me to the highway.
Once on the highway I was alert for signs of any movement of Owls or other mammals crossing my way. As soon as I reached the cross road to Nagzira and took a left turn, the entire landscape changed so rapidly that I was caught unawares, and as an alert herd of spotted deer raised an alarm call after my vehicle crossing, I realized that I should keep my camera ready as during this time Jungle folks can turn up unannounced and surprise you.

The fact that there was no traffic during the night hours on these roads there was a high probability of coming across Indian nightjars sitting on the road, and I was right in my anticipation as came across t a Nightjar sitting right in middle of the road.

Sighting the Nightjar is one thing, but leaving the relative safety of car at around 4:30 AM alone, in darkness of the jungle is a different scenario. Though we descend from the cave man with all the related wildness, we of the present day are essentially the children of day light. As the daylight fades and night takes away from us the sense of sight, which we are totally dependent on, we are at the mercy of our imagination.

The mind given the right settings can play strange tricks. it was with extreme caution that I had a look all around  for any signs or  unusual movements or even the glitter of nocturnal eyes. Satisfied at my precautions I gathered my courage and stepped out of my car. I kept the engine running and headlights on as a precaution. As I stepped out and carried out my usual surveillance rituals and being satisfied   I approached the resting spot of the Nightjar. Enveloped by darkness with Night jar in focus I took a few shots quickly and jumped back into my car before my imagined fears turned into reality.

Indian Nightjar on the road at 4:30 AM in the morning

I drove at a slow pace till I reached the Nagzira village anticipating some more sightings, however nothing came my way. As I reached I called up my tour guide/ driver Rajesh, who promptly arrived by 5:30 AM as the gate to the sanctuary opens at 6 AM. The process of getting in to sanctuary is very simple, there are 2 routes; Route A and Route B. Route B is considered to be more fruitful as it has more tiger sightings. Till 6 AM forms were given of route A, and as  I was getting restless, I told Rajesh that I was not specifically there for only tiger sightings but more in Birds and wildlife as a whole. Rajesh wanted us to wait for Route B forms to start. After a lot of push from my restless self Rajesh went along with me to the form counter. I deposited the money along with details required and form was stamped and given back to me with “Route B”. I was happy as I was allowed to go in to sanctuary irrespective of the route and Rajesh was happier as he got his desired “route B”, a win –win for both.

It is mandatory to appoint an approved guide to accompany one into the forest. I informed the guide that rather than tiger sightings I would be more interested in birds and would also be very happy if he could help me trace Dholes of Nagzira. To my request he informed me that Dholes are difficult to trace as they are crepuscular and being the peak of summer hardly venture out except for hunting for food.

The gradual appearance of light in the east, a precursor to the awakening of the jungle with the accompanying crowing of the perennial early riser, the Grey Jungle fowl, awakening all and sundry from their slumber and encouraging them to join ,in welcoming the new day. Conversely it was the time for the Indian Scoops owl to come back to its tree hole and sign off for the rest of the day. Just as my Jeep passed by the tree the scratch marks near the tree hole confirmed the landing of the Owl confirming the presence of the owl. The Indian scoops owl is so very well camouflaged that to an untrained eye it would appear as a part of the tree trunk only. This is a nocturnal bird, which spends most of the day time lurking in some dark corner of the dense foliage standing upright and motionless,  to all appearance the extension of its perch. The disguise is further enhanced if it is in its tree hole, since the colour and texture of face matches exactly with that of the tree It is the most vocal bird in the Jungle during night time with calls of ‘wut ...wut...wut’ ...pronounced at 5 second intervals. It was my first sighting of this bird, since previously I could identify its call but couldn’t spot it.

Indian Scops Owl

As we ventured further into the jungle a herd of spotted deer was having its morning sip of water at the artificial water body. Not too far away from them a Neelgai in its prime was evaluating us as a potential threat. We continued our drive through the serpentine roads of the forest. Our drive took us to an extremely shady patch of the forest with very tall trees all around. We sighted Lesser flame backed Woodpeckers  moving from one tree to other when all of a sudden I saw a Rufous woodpecker in the party, which was an  extremely pleasing  as it is a rarity even in the best of the forests. As we reached the first beat house for reporting, as my Guide and Rajesh went inside for necessary reporting; all of a sudden a Changeable Hawk Eagle swooped in and alighted over a barren tree over the beat house. I was overjoyed since just an hour into the exploration and the Jungle had already offered so much. As we left the beat house, Rajesh suggested that we should take the route which had a high chance of Tiger sighting, adding at the same time that we may also come across raptors on the route.

A Lesser Golden Flame backed Woodpecker

Rufous Woodpecker

Changeable Hawk Eagle

 As we were negotiating a steep slant I suddenly observed a raptor sitting on a tree just above our head this was a juvenile Shikra sitting pretty in the morning sunlight. Luckily for us the Shikra didn’t get spooked and gave us good number of picture perfect shots. Just a few meters away a racket tailed Drongo was playing its role as the guardian of the woods. A group of Yellow footed pigeons and an Orange headed thrush were the beneficiaries of the protection offered by the Racket Tailed Drongo. To bird lovers the Racket Tailed Drongo is a bird which is a never ending source of pleasure and interest, for in addition to being most courageous of birds in our jungle, he can imitate to perfection the calls of most of the birds and one animal, the Cheetal. 


Greater Racket Tailed Drongo

Further into the drive, metallic calls of the Rufuos Treepie and piercing calls of the Hawk Cuckoo were becoming clearer and all of a sudden a Changeable Hawk Eagle flew over our head. As we reached another man made and man filled water body the calls of Treepies and hawk cuckoo became louder. A Rufous treepie couple were having their usual bit of domestic communication and it was very evident from the pitch of one and the silence of the other who was male and who was female.

Changeable Hawk Eagle- Flight

 Hawk Cuckoo

Rufous Treepie Pair

Langur Family

Just nearby a troop of Langurs were sitting, with the females holding the new born close to them. The extent of heat of the season was evident from the fact that every Langur was sitting in the shade of the tree and it was not even 8 AM in the morning.  As we moved ahead towards a nullah which was heavily covered with Lantana bushes, we saw imprints of pug marks of a male tiger. Alarm calls of spotted deer and Langur’s nearby confirmed the presence of the king of predators. It was just 8 O’ Clock in the morning but the heat was already stifling and it felt like 2 in the noon.  Taking a cue from the heat we started carefully looking in to Lantana bushes since the big cats would be lurking among them We were maintaining utmost silence as a surprised tiger can be a very injurious idea. Suddenly our guide pointed us to a white patch deep in the Lantana bushes, and lo behold it was a tiger sleeping in the bushes. We quietly waited for more than half an hour for carefully awaiting the awakening the Tiger but to no avail, indeed it was deep asleep in all its languorous glory. 

Sleeping Giant- Tiger taking a nap

A tiger’s life is not an easy one. With so many vigilant eyes and ears around tracking its every movement it is extremely difficult for it to hunt in broad daylight. Birds like the Lapwing and the peacock raise alarms even if the tiger changes its stance. Mammals like the langur and the spotted dear act as public announcers for the Jungle folks warning all and sundry of the presence of the King of the jungle. An alarm call of the pattern “Kheech-kheech” of a langur still remains one of the best methods of tracking a tiger, but after this call normally we stop watching the langur and shift focus to the tigers around. What we miss is the meticulous method attached to this calling. Whenever any langur irrespective of age/ sex and status in the troop observes a tiger or any other predator it starts the alarm call, the leader of the troop gets warned by this call and after the visual confirmation of the tiger/ predator, takes up the mantle of raising the formal alarm call ,post which the  initiator stops its call. But for me charisma  of tiger lies in the fact that it still manages to keep a low profile and with its predatory instincts survives and successfully keeps on hunting in its own solitary grace.

Two hours in to the trip and I was overwhelmed by the call of the wild emanating from the heart of the dense Nagzira jungle. . As our jeep moved crossed other topographies we heard the  piercing call of  the Crested Serpent Eagle. One of the most vocal members of Eagle family the Crested Serpent Eagle, while still a mere speck in the blue sky is capable of sending its piercing cry back on to earth. High in the heavens above the CSE was circling and screaming with increasing frequency. As we moved ahead, a Sambhar walked across the road and daintily hid a tree. The camouflage of the Sambhar Deer alongside the dry forest worked so well and it raised a point in my head. , often when we go on a wildlife trip we talk about most popular species like lions, tigers, and leopards or we talk about a little lesser popular species like crocodiles, snakes, etc. But, we hardly share information about Herbivores like, Sambhar, Cheetal etc. Is it because they exist in large numbers or is it because they do not produce action oriented, fascinating shots for us? Or, is it because we do not know much about them? These deer are equally beautiful animals, though not powerful. They too possess wild skills to survive in the jungle like camouflaging, living in herds or groups, sharp eyesight, signalling during any external threats etc. and they use these techniques to increase their chances of survival against all odds. When in danger, they run in groups. They make bursts of high-speed running and then soon tire and dive into heavy cover to hide. These herbivores are exemplary and perhaps more suited to their environs and this is the precise reason they are in more abundance than the animals above them in the food chain. 

A Sambhar Deer- Camouflage 

A few upward sharp turns and we reached in a patch of forest where temperature was considerably low and bamboo grass were all around and very soon we were at a lake besides the Nilayam forest bungalow. Rajesh told me that a crested serpent Eagle and a Grey Headed Fish Eagle are residents of this lake, on hearing name of Grey Headed Fish Eagle, I turned my head towards Rajesh and asked him again, are you sure it Grey Headed Fish Eagle? Rajesh said sir, wait it will be in front of us shortly. And as a pair of crested serpent Eagle made a display of fist fight with claws mid air all of a sudden a big raptor landed on a tree on the opposite bank.  Looking closely I found out that Rajesh was damn right and it was a majestic Grey Headed fish Eagle sitting right in front of me, caressing its wings with its beak.

Grey Headed Fish Eagle

This was it…Rajesh told me that we should start heading back to reach at the gate within prescribed time limit. We started heading back and reached the exit gate in time. Nagzira in first 4 hours fulfiiled its promise for natural amusement to the fullest.  

I reached my rest house and took a bath before heading for food. As I reached out on my balcony for drying my clothes I saw a white bellied drongo sitting nearby in tree and panting. Many of us don’t know but Birds also do Panting just like dogs. It’s a bird's way to stay cool. It was so hot in Nagzira that I observed this White bellied Drongo Panting for a very long time. I sprinkled my drinking water on a nearby patch on ground and as soon as I did this, Mr. Drongo gratified me with an up close picture.

White Bellied Drongo- Panting 

After a bit of rest, I headed to take my lunch. My lunch was arranged in a small hut opposite to the gate of the sanctuary, as I sat and started having my lunch, I saw a leopard crossing the pathway inside the sanctuary gate and getting vanished in to the bushes. In just a few hours the call of wild of Nagzira managed to mesmerize me to the fullest. Smiling I went back to my room wondering what else can come my way in the second session?