Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Being responsible towards nature...

Man the creator and the destroyer - unfortunately, the arrogance of the man has far-reaching implications for the world we live in. No other animal in the lifetime of this planet has done as much harm to the environment and it just does not seem to stop. I will take a very small example and build my case around it. 

The case is - look at the television/or any media and look out for the selling point of the car/SUVs and other similar vehicles that are advertising the offroad mobility. The commercials influence us so much that we feel proud as to put our print on every patch of grassland, every dune of sand and even barren rock. This, unfortunately, has an impact on the environment that we are too arrogant to even acknowledge. Below are the pictures of two ground-dwelling birds that stay amongst us and nest on the ground. Every time we put our print on that piece of land - that is pristine - we risk destroying a generation of birds or animals that call that place their home.

During one of the birding trip, I photographed below, an Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark that stood on a rock intently looking at me. Well, it was the breeding season and the stare made me uncomfortable. I looked intently at a patch of grass near to where I was standing - and it took me almost an hour of moving carefully to understand why the bird was not at ease. Look at the pictures below to get a sense.

Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark with that look on its face

Do you see anything in this patch?

How about now?
How about now? See the three chicks?
One careless step can spell the end of a generation of this bird. I have visited Europe, the US, and Australia for birding and I see the difference - they try and enforce conservation by marking out areas as breeding spots and even punishing those who violate these places. In India however - we are still a million miles from respecting our nature - and that is a shame since we pray and worship almost all forms of life that are there.

Another problem that I face very regularly is the aggressive bird photographer - who - to get that perfect shot does not respect these boundaries.

This is the fragility of mother nature and all things small and big. And that we call our mother deserves to be looked after by us. So next time you are out in a beautiful grassland/or a desert or an otherwise lifeless patch of ground - stick to the tracks already made by others and do not be blind to the cost of trying and leaving your print on a track that may have a place called heaven hidden somewhere for a creature small that cannot call out for itself. Be responsible towards other forms of life and make sure that you carry this message to others.

Another bird that makes a nest just like the one above - the Syke's Lark
I do wish that such advertisements for offroading are banned and people educated of the problems of such environmentally irresponsible behaviour. Hope this write-up serves as a banner - and the winds carry it to a million people.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Two birds one song... Black Francolin and Painted Francolin

Sadly my relationship with the Black Francolin is an old one. I say sadly that because I repent hunting it, it was a common game bird and a clever adversary at that, smart - it could hoodwink you even after it was shot and it was one of those hunts that made me a birdwatcher. This is a story from long long ago. I shot a Black Francolin and I saw as the beautiful bird fell to the ground. That was a few yards from where I stood. I spent next about half an hour searching for the bird as it was a rule that you do not leave an injured quarry behind. Unfortunately, I could not find the bird. Next day when I was at the same very spot I saw a Shikra feeding upon the remains of the same bird. That was perhaps the last bird or animal I hunted.
Black Francolin: you can run but you cannot hide...

This bird was abundant, you rarely had to go to the suburbs of the city or to any village around to find it. The call of the bird was what we grew up listening even in the cities in Punjab and Haryana. The bird is also the state bird of Haryana. So there was no mistaking the bird or the bird call, even to the extent that I could generally pick out the sub-species, two that are found in India.
Typical behaviour of the bird - sitting on a fence to call during mating season... Black Francolin
At times when there is no fence/tree stump to sit upon in the birds' territory then mounds can also serve the purpose...

That being the kind of relationship I had with the bird, and when I got posted to Nashik in mid-2000, I was out for a walk and heard the distinct call of this francolin. The problem was - Nashik was too far south for this bird to be present. The walk turned out to be a search for the bird making this sound and it was the rainy season (breeding season for these birds in India) and a downpour soon shuttled my plans to search for the bird. I was there the next day, and the next until I got a glimpse of the bird. Lo-behold - the bird that was singing was the Painted Francolin. The song had an uncanny resemblance to Black Francolin. my next phase was to photograph the bird and it took me days to get a record shot of the bird.
The only and the first picture of Painted Francolin that I hugged and carried along for more than a decade

It was that day that I wanted to get a good picture of the bird. Inbetween a dozen years passed and I changed three cameras - still no picture of the bird that I could be proud of. This bird, like Black Francolin, likes to sit on fence, a tree or high ground when it calls during the breeding season. Unfortunately, unlike the Black Francolin, was extremely shy. So most of the shots of the birds are from far far away or as it jumps off the post and runs for cover.
Painted Francolin: Absolutely same behaviour as Black Francolin

The bird was very very vary of our presence...

Today, however, turned out to be a blessed day. The bird sat steady for more than a moment and oh man - shoot it I did... rapid fire at 7 frames per second. Sriram, the birder who had taken me along was with a (small, sic!!) 600mm lens with a 1.4 TC and a cropped sensor - D500. That besides the point we both took pictures that have since turned out to be the best ones that I could hope for.

Coming to the distribution charts of both the birds...
Distribution Map: Black Francolin

Distribution map: Painted Francolin

Monday, 27 August 2018

Confessions of a bored Birder... (Tal Chhapar and Mt Abu, Aug 2018)

Before any reader of my age compares this blog to 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner' or 'Confessions of a Taxi Driver', and the likewise - the yesteryears movies - just forget it. You have come to a wrong web page. A bored birder is like a person sitting on a keg of burning gunpowder, the keg that can go 'Kaboom' at any bloody moment. He will blow himself of course but also take half of the household along with him. If you don't trust me - ask my wife... when the house is strife-ridden and my shadow is getting taller by the day - what does my wife do? of course - suggest me a birding day to soothe my tender nerves. Actually, that way she is, in fact, getting a great treat for herself - a man missing for most of the day and not nit-picking in the house and after he comes back he seems to be his normal self - at least for a few days before he lights the long fuse to that bloody powder keg.

The details of the stay, budget details etc are at the end of the write-up. And be ready to be assaulted by a million of my pictures...

Well to be technically right, I was already prepared for a long day birding trip around Chandigarh - for those who know me would now know the place I am referring too - Chakki Modh. The place that is my place of 'Nirvana' - a place where I can spend the entire day chasing birds and no one knows any better. The preparations, a day before were in place - my camera battery charged, lens cleaned, the spare battery and the card checked, the card in the camera formatted, car checked and on and on...

The household was on standby for an extremely early cup of tea and some sandwiches. The night was dreamless and blissful. The alarm sounded in the morning at 0230 and was responded to in less than a heartbeat. As with all fairy tales the problem was with that one villain lurking in the shadows. As I went outside to take a whiff of fresh air sipping a hot cup of tea - my heart skipped a beat - it was raining. The mood went for a toss in a second and my mind was racing, agitated, growling at myself. Bloody weather check - who the hell was to do that. I messaged my partner who confirmed that it was a no-go for the day, rains were expected for the most part of the day.

Green Avadavat

I immediately started selling myself an idea of driving to someplace that was far enough for this rain to matter. The idea took time to mature - a full sixty seconds or so. I stomped inside my room and announced to my sleepy wife - I am going to Mount Abu to check out some birds. The thing was - I was planning for Mt Abu - the highest place in Rajasthan for quite some time but just could not get my mind to firm up. There was this bird - Green Avadavat - that is seen there that is a rarity in other parts of the country. It is an Endemic Bird of Indian Subcontinent - a beautiful one at that. That beauty is a bane for this bird. It is a bird that trusts humans and it is caught in big numbers for the pet trade. This has wiped out the population in many parts of its otherwise not so small range. It is now listed as a Conversation Status of Vulnerable. This bird was once found all the way to Lahore, in modern day Pakistan. This is one bird that is almost being driven to extinction due to trapping. Though trapping and keeping this bird as cage bird is prohibited - the reality on the ground is not clear.

It is this bird that I have been dreaming and today - the rain gave me a perfect reason to drive to Mt Abu and see this beauty for my self. The weather in Mt Abu was showing cloudy so that fit in (a ton of hopeful prayers were thrown in). The place was 1,000 km from my home and I calculated we would require at least 2 to 3 nights halt during the trip. As the idea became more real - the reality also struck me. The day being a Sunday there would not very many people that came to my mind who would do this trip at this short notice. Still, I decided to try - I started out with messaging Mr Jasbir, a retired man who may be willing. Before I could even say Jack Robinson - he was onboard, ready to go. So that being that - I gave him an hour to pack up and reach my house - well he did take more time but that was okay. We were on our way to Point No 1 - an eight hours drive, where we planned a night halt. The place chosen by a birder would be that - place with birding in mind of course. Tal Chhapar, a heaven of a grassland that I had visited before and had some very fantastic birding. It is a Black Buck Sanctuary in Churu District of Rajasthan. as we drove, we rang up for accommodation, a bird guide and dinner. The plan was to reach by evening, do some birding in the sanctuary, sleep, do some birding next morning and drive to Mt Abu.

There was one caveat though - the last time I drove - and that is not too long back the condition of the road was bad - like BAD. I had considerable problems driving and that to drive 7 to 8 hours on a stretch was something I was already apprehensive about. There was a surprise in store for me - the roads were good - sometimes being in India - the country has a habit of throwing surprises and this one was a pleasant one at that. We reached two and half an hour before sunset and were ready for the birding. I had called up in advance and the bird guide was waiting for us. We dumped the luggage and paid up the entry fees - and we were inside. We had just gone a couple of hundred meters and I got the first lifer of the trip - a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. This bird is a summer visitor to India and I had been running in circles near Chandigarh to get a sighting. As the name suggests - it is a Scrub Robin and wants the scrub to live. With the intensive farming that is happened over the past so many years - you have to travel and find scrub around. There have been sightings recorded around but not for me. The sighting here took me by a surprise - I was not prepared, the bird was at an odd angle. And since I was driving the car I did not get time to position myself. I let go a few shots through the front window of the car and - that was just a blob of a blur - but a record shot - I could make out the tail of the Scrub-Robin. We were in the park till the nightfall and there were some other sightings expected - but nothing that really mattered and added to my life list.
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. The first 'high value' bird we saw en route to Tal Chhapar... but then they were there all along from halfway point to destination...
Red Collared Dove

First Lifer of the day - Red-necked Falcon
Southern Grey Shrike

Singing Bushlark

Woolly-necked Stork

White-eyed Buzzard (juv)

European Roller

Isabelline Wheater

Grey Francolin

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

White-eyed Buzzard (juv), interestingly all these buzzards we saw, and there were many of them - were all juv

Green Sandpiper 
Indian Bushlark (mating ritual with the crest up)

European Roller

Indian Peafowl - early morning shot...

Common Babbler

Indian Bushlark

Crested Lark

Rosy Starling 
Rosy Starling

Large Grey Babbler

Large Grey Babbler

Stoliczka's Bushchat (photo courtesy Mr Jasbir Randhawa)

I looked up at the night sky and wanted to do some night photography - the star trails but there was haze and a few clouds hanging about. So that too was a no go. In fact that may have been a blessing in disguise. This resulted in the much-needed sleep that we wanted for the next day. We were up early and raring to go. We entered once again in the grasslands and the first bird that we sighted inside was another lifer and some great sightings - the Red-necked Falcon. I had been pestering my 'Birding Buddy', Sriram for showing this one bird that was stepping up on my desirable list of birds but was avoiding me so far. The bird was once again at an odd angle for me but literally braced myself out of the window let go a couple of hundred shots. I am sure that by now you would have guessed - the bloody camera was still on the mode that I had set yesterday night, preparing for star trails. Thankfully the Falcon was obliging and gave me time to sort out the settings and let go another couple of shots that came out outright. As we went to the other end of the grassland - there on the fence were the birds that I could not click yesterday - the Scrub Robins. Though the birds were shy - I still managed a few shots that are great records. Mr Jasbir took some outstanding shots. The kind of shots that jealous as hell.
Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (Lifer No 2)

Laggar Falcon

Egyptian Vulture (left) and Black Kite

Common Woodshrike

Spotted Creeper (another high-value birder's bird)

Rufous-fronted Prinia - a beautiful bird, that I missed seeing it closely the last time over during my visit 
Rufous-fronted Prinia

Booted Eagle with a brunch, Spiny-tailed Lizard
Oh - yes - it considered me as a threat to its meal and flew off the moment I pointed the small Bazooka lens at her...
Got it!!

This is the favourite food of all the raptors that migrate through this place...

Tawny Eagle

After this we went to a place nearby - called Gaushala were we saw some great raptors feasting on Spiny-tailed Lizards. They included Laggar Falcon, White-eyed Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Black Kite and Short-toed Snake Eagle. Another two birds worth mentioned that I bagged here were the Rufous-fronted Prinia and Spotted Creeper. The day was awesome so far with two lifers under my belt.
Pied Cuckoo (Jacobin Cuckoo) (Photo courtesy Mr Jasbir Randhawa)

Oh my beautiful bird - Green Avadavat

Laughing Dove

Jungle Bush Quail 
Brahiminy Starling

Jacobin Cuckoo

The Green Avadavat Male in rain

Indian Silverbill - while we waited the second time over

You will have to see them over and over again - Oh those beautiful birds...

Green Avadavat

We started off at noon for Mt Abu. The drive was good but not as good as the drive to Tal Chhapar - the traffic was the difference to otherwise good roads baring a patch here and there. We reached our designated hotel at nightfall and settled in, had a meeting with our bird guide, had an early dinner and were soring. The rain clouds gathered overhead and I did not dream of them. In the morning we packed up - were ready with all the bills cleared in advance. The bird guide, Mr Pradeep Dave was here early and he broke the news. The drizzle was playing the spoilsport and though he had spotted the Green Avadavats a couple of days back for some foreigner Bird watchers - he was not sure that they will turn up today - especially in the view of the rain.

We started half an hour later than our designated time - the rain, the hazy weather was doing nothing to raise our morale. Also the check out took a few moments. The drive was to a village Oriya, the place where we were headed for the birds. Enroute I almost interrogated our bird guide - what all birds that are expected - and none other really caught my attention - so our target bird was all that we were looking forward too. Nearing the village one Toyota Fortuner was following us - being birdwatchers is a pain for others on the road as we are slow like a creeping snake with an upset stomach. I signalled him to cross us and it was quite a surprise to see the car already parked at our bird site. That is how we met another great birdwatcher with a lens two times mine,  hunting for the same birds. Mr Zubin Ashara - we talked to each other and shared out Instagram ID. as we moved to the intended place there was already a pair of birds pecking around - I gave an exclamation of joy and with my heart racing started shooting. Like expected - drizzle - along with racing heart was hardly a recipe for great pictures. Yes - I did got some pretty record shots - none of which have figured out here. Now I knew what I had to do - I went back to the car - got my chair, camera tripod and settled down. The drizzle increased, to perhaps test our resolve. I was was not going anywhere till I saw the birds again.

The wait turned out to be a fairly long one before they come again and all three of us - Zubin, Jasbir and self-were shooting merrily. Ah! the birds flew away yet again and the shots were still not as good as required. I was now wet to my bones and went to the car once again to get an Umbrella. The wait lasted another hour with no Munia (Avadavats) other than a Jacobin Cuckoo, Jungle Bush Quail pair, Brahimny Starling, Indian Silverbills and an odd crow. Finally, the time was drawing close as we had plans to fulfil. I got up, the Umbrella, the chair, the tripod in one hand and as we turned back - WOW!! - another pair was back. I do not know how I held up all these things but inspite of all odds - shot another hundred odd pictures of the bird - and surprisingly these turned out to be the best shots that I got.

And now - here was a satisfied birder heading back home - the bored birder who had got the bird he strived so hard for. The drive back had two stops that were called off - the first one to see some wild leopards and second for the Indian Florican. I had to set the trip to see them some other time. The drive back was 17 straight hours with lunch and dinner break. We reached Chandigarh as the daybreak coloured the sky. I dropped Mr Jasbir first and then went back home - satisfied and ready for a 10-hour marathon sleep.

Some interesting photographs of the trip included some mammals, the roads and interesting sights of the countryside. They are shared below...

Indian Hare also known as the Black-naped Hare

The beautiful Indian Antelope - the Black Buck

Black Buck herd at Tal Chhapar
Neelgai - the largest Asian Antelope


Candid Street Shot by Mr Jasbir Randhawa at Mt Abu - giving the sense of weather

During our drive back from Mt Abu, photo courtesy Mr Jasbir Randhawa

Indian Gods - larger than life, photo courtesy Mr Jasbir Randhawa

Drive back home, photo courtesy Mr Jasbir Randhawa
Interesting places enroute...
Bird Guide and other details

I will not give out the name of the bird guide at Tal Chhapar - as this is my second exposure to him and I did not find him professional enough. So I will skip it.
For Booking at Guestroom at Tal Chhapar call Mr Girdhari, the caretaker, ‭+91 99290 72549‬
At Mt Abu Mr Pradip Dave +91 94143 46171

Route: Mohali - Tal Chhapar - Mt Abu

Route: Mt Abu - Mohali

Budget: the tolls are a surprising addition to expenditure - and that totals to a lot...
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