Monday, July 11, 2011


An unexpected break in a business trip left us stranded in the sizzling heat of Delhi, desperately looking for a secluded cool retreat somewhere not far from the Capital.  Ashok, my semi-Delhi'ite friend sympathetically quipped that such dream places do not exist any more. Given the exodus of rowdy vacationers to  Mussoorie, Nainital, Ranikhet et al., all the  so called 'hill stations'   of India were a big 'no-no' for us. In the end, we were at the Old Delhi station, waiting on a hot evening for the Mussoorie Express to pull up to the platform. The place was already teeming with holiday crowds bound for Haridwar, Dehradun and thereon to Mussoorie or Rishikesh. Mercifully, we were part of half a train, not so crowded, which detaches itself from Mussoorie Express somewhere along the way, taking overnight passengers to a quaint destination called Kotdwara, surprisingly a district town, not very far away from Haridwar. Our co-passengers were mostly routine travellers who either lived in Kotdwara, or were visiting relatives there. The platform of Kotdwara, at a dead end, lies in a sort of a trench and you have to climb a steep flight of stairs like a tube station to get out. As we panted our way out, waiting jeep drivers immediately pounced upon the handful passengers that had emerged from the train. Striking a bargain was not difficult and before we realised, our bags were atop a rickety bright 'traffic yellow' painted jeep nicknamed 'Kotdwar ki Raani'. Our dream destination was an eminently British sounding hill town --Lansdowne! My sole familiarity with this name is a prominent road in Kolkata which has since been renamed Sarat Bose Road.

As the 'queen' panted and puffed its polluting diesel engine over the steep mountain toad, we plucked on the not so ripe bunch of first lichis of the season that we had picked up from the Kotdwara market. A few kilometres up, we passed the town of Dugadda, which connects to Haridwar and is also known for the famous elephant corridor connecting Rajaji National Park with the Corbett National Park on the right. Most of the pachyderms, we were told, had already moved on to Corbett for the summer. A pamphlet from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam had informed us that Lansdowne is a quiet Cantonment town with lush forests and a cool climate. Located barely 40 km from Kotdwara at a height of 1780 metres above sea level, it perfectly answered our dream calls.

First View of Lansdowne

Named after the British viceroy Lansdowne in 1890, this area was earlier known as Kaludanda. The Britsh, enamoured by the Rhodendron, Oak and blue pine (Cheed) forests and the beautiful mountain views, established a cantonment here. This tradition continued after independence and Lansdowne remains the headquarters of the famous Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army.

Garhwal Rifles at Lansdowne, an Association of 150 Years

Thankfully, Lansdowne is a little known place on the tourist map and in absence of the usual 'hill station' 'attractions', has very few visitors even at the peak of season. Cantonment management and restrictions have ensured that there is no mushrooming of hotels and resorts. For a nature and bird lover, it is a virtual paradise with fascinating views, winding mountain roads, vast oak forests, old churches and bungalows from the British era. During the last 100 years, most of the two hundred odd bungalows have been acquired by the army. Interestingly, almost all the bungalows have their own tales of friendly spooks and ghosts. And the signboard for each bungalow recalls its history as also all the stories associated with it. 

The Old Charm Bungalows of Lansdowne

We were delighted to find that our makeshift cottage type rooms were located at the most vantage point of Lansdowne called 'Tip-in-Top' which offered a panoramic view of the Northern part of Lansdowne. The establishment did not have a kitchen, but a canteen opposite, adequately catered to our basic needs. 

A View of the Valley from Tip-in-Top

A quick fresh wash in the room and we were ready for a birding tour. The ridge below the hotel seemed a prospective place to start with and we were amazed to find brown fronted woodpeckers on virtually every oak tree in the valley.

Brown Fronted Woodpecker at Lansdowne

We almost mistook some of the woodpeckers to be 'Yellow Crowned', but the black moustache and and barred back (against spotted in Yellow Crowned) cleared our doubt.

Juvenile Brown Fronted Woodpecker

Female Brown Fronted W.lacks the red crown behind the forehead and is a little duller in appearance. Abundance of these woodpeckers in Lansdowne seemed logical. With some of the finest woods of oak, pine and deodar, these  woodpeckers thrive on the fluffy trunks and crevices of trees, where plenty of food is available.  As we zeroed in on a clump of trees, a group of Bronzed Drongos flew fearlessly close to us.

Bronzed Drongo

As  the sun shone on the moist oak trees, a solitary Lesser Yellownape in all its glory, joined the party. Russet sparrows chirped happily.

Lesser Yellownape Male

And in the distance, we heard the persistent 'meowing' of the Great Barbet.

Lansdowne as a destination is practically unknown to birders in India, although the rich forests of Oak which abound in the area ( known as बांज़ (Baanz) in Hindi) deserve a greater attention. It may however be mentioned that the name of the place has an oblique connection with birds on the international scene. Canadian  writer and bird artist James Fenwick Lansdowne is famous for his  three volume treatise, 'Behaviour of Birds' and the later masterpiece 'Rare Birds of China'. Apparently, he also wrote a book called 'Lansdowne's Birds of the Forest' which covered some birds of North America with paintings by the  famous bird artist John A Livingston. Obviously, none of these had anything to do with the Garhwal Lansdowne that we were now visiting.

The Forest Landscape of Lansdowne

The canteen had no dining room. So the chef cum waiter cum manager Virender served for us in the open, the staple, but delicious 'rajma-chawal' with hot 'phulkas' and a made to order egg curry, which we ate till the kitchen ran out of 'atta'. In the garden, we discovered the beautiful Indian Tortoiseshell butterfly which posed for us without any fuss.

Indian Tortoiseshell, the Common Himalayan Butterfly

In the afternoon, we decided to follow the 'wail' of the Great Barbet and were pleased with ourselves to ultimately spot a pair in thick foliage. Apparently, the birds had been responding to one another. A colourful bird of the foothills, the repeatedly 'pee-lioo...'  sound by the male, is sometimes heard over long distances. It is usually followed by the 'tuk-tuk-tuk' of the female. I had heard this sound for the first time in Mussoorie from my hotel room some years ago. Known as 'Treho' or 'Bhayho' in the local language, the Great Barbet is one of the most spectacular birds of the lower Himalayas. 

Great Barbet -- Lansdowne

No visit to a Himalayan location is complete without the early morning visits by the Streaked Laughingthrush which can be seen foraging titbits around houses, railings or garbage dumps or the Blue Whistling Thrush that throngs around forest streams.

Blue whistling Thrush--Lansdowne

In the late afternoon, we went down along the ridge road where two beautiful protestant and catholic churches, St. Mary's and St. John's warranted a stop-over. Constructed over a hundred years ago, these churches are still active as worshipping places.  

St. Mary's Church - Lansdowne

A little further down the road, we were greeted by one of the sweetest bird song we had ever heard. It was the Grey-winged Blackbird with its full repertoire of rich fruity notes.

Grey-winged Blackbird Male -- Lansdowne

Male and female of the species look quite different and the juvenile has yet another scaly appearance. The olive-brown of the female with its rufous wing panel is in contrast with the grey wing panel of the male. Grey-winged Blackbirds are commonly encountered in forests above 1800 ft. in the Himalayan terrain.

Grey-winged Blackbird Female-Lansdowne

After a bracing walk through the wooded forest, we turned back. We were  past the season of  bright red rhodendron flowers. Only a few residual flowers remained on trees.  In the backyard of the canteen, a pair of Red Billed Blue Magpies greeted us. These birds invariably turn up near habitated locations early in the morning or late in the evening.  The Red Billed Blue Magpie, apart from the red beak, is distinguished from its cousin, the Yellow Billed Blue Magpie by its more extensive white hindcrown.

Pair of Red Billed Blue Magpies - Lansdowne

In the evening, the weather suddenly changed. A strong wind accompanied by torrential rain lashed our cottage made of thin temporary material. With lightning roaring and flashing all over the sky, the cottage virtually shuddered and shook with every gust of strong wind. To make matters worse, power suddenly blew out, leaving us in pitch darkness in torrential rain. All of us had a sleepless night and were able to catch a few winks only towards the morning. When the first rays of morning lit up our window, the storm had virtually subsided. As I opened the door, a gust of chill, fresh air greeted me. A fantastic morning had already lit up the mountains. I suddenly remembered the lines of an old Sahir Hindi film song that goes:

रात जितनी भी संगीन होगी
सुबह उतनी ही रंगीन होगी 

Roughly translated, it meant, 'more dire the darkness of the night, more colourful shall be the  morning'. 

And a colourful and glorious morning it surely was, despite no tea, no electricity, no nothing!

First View of the morning after the Storm 

As the sun slowly peeked from behind the mountains and the town slowly limped back to normalcy, we were treated to one of the most fantastic view of the snow clad Himalayan range virtually from our doorstep.

Lansdowne- Himalaya at our Doorstep

After a little while, as the sun shone on the rain soaked oak trees, we decided to come down in search of birds. To our surprise, virtually every tree could be seen buzzing with activities of small and bigger birds. A whole squadron of Chestnut Bellied Nuthatches was scampering up and down the tree trunks, first in search of food, and later, to deal with their territorial concerns.

A Hungry Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch

Chestnut Nuthatch inspecting a Prospective Home

A Nuthatch Defending its Territory

 At the middle storey of bushes and shrubs, a group of Green-backed Tits was active.

Green-backed Tit-- Lansdowne

We also found a Black-lored Tit feeding along with the nuthatches.

Black-lored Tit - Lansdowne

And amongst the nuthatches once again, we were delighted to find a Bar-tailed Treecreeper.

Bar-tailed Treecreeper-- Lansdowne

Another common, but very beautiful bird was the Black-headed Jay. But surprisingly, we did not find its counterpart, the Eurasian Jay there.

Black-headed Jay-- Lansdowne

We would have loved to carry on birding for a few more hours, but were scheduled to get back in the evening. Amongst the various places of interest around Lansdowne, we decided to visit the highly recommended Shiva Temple at Tarkeshwar Mahadev for its unique setting amongst the Deodar trees. Situated 38 km away from Lansdowne, the temple is surrounded by a cluster of tall Deodar trees and is popular as a picnic spot.

The Tarkeshwar Dhaam- Set Amidst Tall Deodar Trees

It is an irony that branches of Deodar trees are rampantly used in worshipping of Shiva. The authorities of the Temple have now put up signboards everywhere, urging worshippers not to destroy the beautiful Deodar trees, some of which are several  hundred years old. On a dead deodar trunk, we found a large colony of Plum Headed Parakeets, that had made their nests on a dead deodar trunk. Interestingly, the entire colony of parakeets consisted only of females and not a single male parakeet was to be seen anywhere around. Soon, we realised our mistake that these were grey headed parakeets where males and females look similar. The beauty and serenity of the place was overpowering. Situated at 1800 ft., it must rank as one of the unique Shiva temple in the world.

Nest of Grey Headed Parakeet on Deodar Tree Trunk-- Tarkeshwar Dham

Deodar Trees at Tarkeshwar Dham

On the way back,we stopped at Deriakhal which offers a panoramic view of the valley.We were also tempted to follow a
recommended 8.5 km trek from the place back to Lansdowne.
But lack of time prevented us
from doing so. The road beyond Lansdowne takes you to Pauri, an important junction and yet another beautiful stopover point. But our yellow painted 'Kotdwar Ki Rani' was now waiting to take us back to the earthly world of Kotdwara and beyond. We stopped for a short while at Lansdowne, only to catch the harsh buzzing of a group of Verditer Flycatchers.

Verditer Flycatcher - Lansdowne

The old charm world of Lansdowne was a revelation in itself. As  driver Kailash chugged his jalopy to take us back, each of us decided to return to the valley for a longer time and with space on hand. For the present, we had to be  back to the cruel realities of  Delhi and Ghaziabad. 

Picturesque Town of Lansdowne

Jitendra Bhatia
May 2011 at Lansdowne
copyright Jitendra Bhatia

Friday, April 1, 2011


I have been breaking parts of my camera with notorious regularity. At the last count, a freak accident mercifully spared my camera and the lens, but I  still managed to smash the LCD Monitor. If you do not understand the totality of this damage, try driving the car with its bonnet pulled up across the front windscreen. Ironically, the accident in question occured during an unsuccessful trip to Nahargarh, Jaipur in search of the elusive White Naped Tit. My good friend Tej Kumar Sharma of the Animal Rescue Centre, who was accompanying me, turned profusely apologetic, as if he had ordained a secret role in my own clumsiness. Local camera experts in Jaipur were cautiously vague, but fortunately, I was travelling to Mumbai the very next day. Garima, my daughter, who also doubles as my photographic mentor, informed helpfully that the monitor is the most sensitive part of the camera and I should of course take a second opinion, but at the worst, should be prepared to throw away the entire camera as junk. 

So here I was in Mumbai, looking absently at the office laptop screen, but my mind repeatedly mulling the events that led to the fateful rolling of the camera from the car back seat onto the floor of the vehicle. I had deposited the camera at the Canon repair centre, and was advised to check the feasibility of repair after one week.

On that eventful day, two things happened in quick succession.  Garima phoned up to enquire about my camera and then asked me whether while in Mumbai, I had managed time to see the crakes. I had never seen a crake in my life, to be honest, and was obviously quite surprised. It seemed someone had seen four different types of crakes at a single location in Mumbai. Garima promised to send me details.  As I put down the phone, it occured to me that I was without my camera. 

By the time I got details from Garima, it was already afternoon. In desperation, I phoned up Canon again to enquire about my camera, only to be told that the mechanic had not come to the office so far. But barely one and a half hour after my call, as if on cue, there was a call from Canon and I was in astounding luck! My camera was ready and could be picked up the same evening!! By eight that evening, I had the camera with me. It was then that I decided to follow the lead on Crakes seriously.

It was Pradnyavat Mane, a birder from Dombivli near Mumbai who first located presence of four different crakes near a housing society in Thane and posted this finding on birdsofbombay yahoo group. He also reported presence of Greater Painted Snipe there. Soon, there were hordes of birders flocking to Mumbai to see these rare and elusive birds. I believe a few of them even flew in from Delhi and other locations just to get snaps of these migrants.

Information on crakes on the net is quite sketchy and one invariably bumps into the famous novel 'Oryx & Crake' by Margaret Atwood, which obviously has nothing to do with crakes. Crakes are small and secretive marsh birds with short bills and 'laterally compressed' body. Rails look similar to crakes, except that they have much longer bills. According to Peter Slater, 'crakes flick tails constantly and fly with dangling legs'. They also swim well like moorhens. Spending most of the time in reeds and thick water vegetation, crakes emerge from reeds if they are not disturbed and feed along water's edge. They eat frogs, some plants and seeds. Besides rails, crakes are similar in pedigree to coot, swamphen and watercock. Nearly all crakes are winter migrants from Europe and Central Asia, though Harvey, Devsar and Grewal of Delhi Birds mention that there is a possibility that Baillon's crake could be breeding in the Gangetic plains. But this has not been confirmed as at the slightest interference, the birds vanish into the depths of inaccessible reeds.

The site mentioned by Pradnyavat was an abandoned salt pan in Thane. I decided to make a visit to the place in the morning and checked this up with Pradnyavat who, despite being constantly pestered by over-enthusiastic birders, was cool and extremely cooperative. After apologising for not being able to join me, he gave me detailed instructions on the phone for reaching the exact spot. An invaluable tip was that the morning sun will be unfavourable, making photography after 8 AM virtually impossible. Based on this information, I decided to postpone the trip to late afternoon.

In the office that afternoon, I was greeted by a flurry of urgent e-mails and queries that demanded immediate attention. Finally, at 4.30, with great determination, I put the computer to sleep and ventured out with my camera.

I had been warned not to travel by car, and this again proved to be extremely useful advice. Getting off the local train at Thane East, I headed straight for the New English School, which was barely at 5 to 7 minutes walk from the station. As you get to the side gate of the college, a clump of elephant grass or tall weeds greets you. You go around the clump, find a place to sit and concentrate on the base of the tall weeds.

And there I saw, to my delight, the first Spotted Crake, slowly emerging from the weeds and gradually becoming more confident to come out in the open. 

The Tall Reeds Clump at Thane

The reeds clump at Thane is part of a small unconstructed grass land. It is unique that the crakes have chosen to take residence at this location thousands of km away from their origin in Central Asia. Photographer Vivek Arun, who lives close by, informs that the land has already been sold and a year later in the next season, the place may already be unavailable for these birds. As such, it is a unique coincidence to find them here. 

As we took our position on the ground, the Spotted Crake moved in front of us and we were able to click some pictures.

Spotted Crake
 Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) is not a widely spread visitor to our country and its sightings have also been relatively few. In Mumbai, it has been sighted at Kalyan, Powai and Wada in the last 25 years.  Vivek informed that there are three or four males and females at the present location.

Spotted Crake

However, on this occasion, we only saw a solitary  male, which was not disturbed by the noise made by the casual passers-by. A group of boys returning from their game of cricket paused, mildly amused, and then carried on, while the crake went on patrolling the fringe of reeds. In a few days, the remaining water will dry up and it will be time for the crakes to make their return journey to Central Asia or wherever they have come from.

Spotted Crake

As the evening approached, our Spotted Crake was joined by a Baillon's Crake (Porzana pusilla), but the same was relatively shy. It was clear that the Spotted Crake was more assertive and perfectly at home as the original tenant while the Baillon's was a later visitor.

Spotted Crake

Baillon's Crake

And almost at the end of the wait, we had an appearance by the Ruddy Breasted Crake (Porzana fusca). Both Baillon's  and Ruddy Breasted Crakes are relatively smaller in size as compared to the Spotted Crake.  The Ruddy Breasted Crake was much darker red than what is usually reported in the literature. We waited for the reportedly fourth member of the team, the Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina canningi) but apparently, it had decided to give us a miss. We heard voices in the reeds, which were difficult to identify.

Ruddy Breasted Crake

Vivek on the previous evening had been able to take pictures not only of the Slaty Legged Crake but also Greater Painted Snipe and Cinnamon Bittern. I had to be satisfied with what we saw. As the light deteriorated, it was time to leave. Vivek informed that the spot has been visited so far by nearly a hundred keen bird watchers. Pradnyavat, as the pioneer and custodian of this important location, makes sure that the photographers do not disturb the birds by going too close. He does not take pictures himself, but is happy that the birds have chosen this place as their temporary abode. As we took leave, we were almost certain that this was going to be our solitary sighting of these birds for a long time. Inevitably, the next time around, a tall concrete building will find its place at the very spot where the clump of reeds presently stands. Good bye crakes. Welcome Concrete Jungle.

Jitendra Bhatia
at Thane, March 2011 
© Jitendra Bhatia

Friday, January 14, 2011


The day started on an ominous note, with mist descending on the streets and the light rapidly deteriorating. Lucknow, with streets dug out for laying drain pipes was bad enough without the mist. Fog made it almost un-motorable.

We had planned a road trip to Dudhwa National Park, a good 240 km away from Lucknow, close to the Nepal border.

By the time we packed luggage and loaded our gadgets into Suresh's brand new Wagon R, visibility had dropped to less than 20 metres. We were accompanied by Suresh's younger son Amitabh, an engineer from MIT, amateur film photographer and above all, an able backseat driver, guiding and warning his dad, as he negotiated the vehicle through misty turns and diversions. We ventured cautiously, almost by intuition, contending bravely with  UP's reckless truck fraternity that operates religiously without tail lights or fog signals. A welcome halt for breakfast after two hours of treacherous driving found us at a wayside Reliance Cafe, barely 50 kilometres away from Lucknow.  It was a bleak morning, frightfully cold, with no sign of any bird activity anywhere. But as Saramago says, you never cease to marvel the turns of life or weather. With a hot breakfast inside us, we were able to consider a more positive view of the weather. Fog on the road seemed thinner and a lot more easier to negotiate. By the time we crossed Sitapur, a run down district town, feeble sunlight had already set in . Our first stroke of luck was with a glorious pair of Sarus cranes in a half cut sugarcane field. Amitabh quickly unstrapped his movie camera for action. 

Oblivious of Our Presence, the Cranes Seemed to be Talking to One Another
Indian farmers love Sarus cranes, as they are considered to be harbingers of a bumper crop. On a rational plane, they rid the field of insects and miscellaneous pests. Meat of Sarus is considered taboo in Hindu scriptures. A story, Kronchwadh, probably from the Mahabharat, narrates the misfortunes of killing a Sarus crane. Sarus cranes are usually seen in pairs, and folklore has it that if one of a pair dies, the other one also dies soon. Amitabh tells me that on his previous trip, he saw more than a dozen birds together in a field. A recent report says that numbers of Sarus, the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, which had dwindled to about 1000 birds some time ago, are now up to a few thousand in the state.

We are passing through lush sugarcane fields, some of them partially cut. Water streams and small ponds run along the road. We are delighted to see a group of pied kingfishers, who for our benefit,  perform  the familiar dance of hovering  still against the wind and then suddenly diving into the pond below to catch a moving fish in a flash.   
Waiting for Action.....

Action !!

Mission Accomplished !!!
A little ahead, we pass  bigger, lake-like wetlands on either side of the road. A flock of roosting lesser whistling ducks, a few spot billed ducks and some pheasant tailed jacanas happily swimming in the shallow waters. A solitary muddy grey-white juvenile openbill tries to win over a group of lethargic egrets. A pair of Sarus cranes flies off, before we can  record its action. We are passing through prime sugar cane country. Every now and then, a small sugar factory emerges from behind the hamlets, with the road getting blocked by overloaded bullock carts carrying a bumper crop of canes, ready for crushing.  The Road further down brings us to the dusty town of Lakhimpur-Kheri, where we are intrigued by the number of liquor shops advertising chilled beer with adjectives like Maha Thandi  or Ghanghor Thandi and at one place, even Darun Thandi,  the typically Bengali expression. Obviously, no one here likes to sell beer less colder than the cryogenic temperatures suggested by these adjectives. A bridge across the meter gauge railway track gives a glimpse of the local railway station, with a packed train, bound for Lal Kuan puffing out. Little do we realise that this very train, overtaking us, would  stop our way at several  level crossings later during the same day.  

It was intriguing to see the numerous signs in Punjabi Gurumukhi script on the road. Suresh, who was born in these parts, informs that several Sikhs bought land and settled in the area a couple of generations ago. The fertile land returned rich rewards, and many of the farmers now own palatial farm houses, with their children studying abroad. The land here offers three or even four crops during the year. We step down to inhale the intoxicating smell of blooming mustard flowers in the yellow fields.
Mustard Fields in Bloom
The road from Lakhimpur is virtually a straight line. I have never seen  such a long stretch of straight road. When we eventually turn right, the first sign for Dudhwa National Park shows up. We are at Bhera, and further on at Palia. The metre gauge railway track has been faithfully following us on the left. Ahead of Palia we need to cross the river Sarada, by a solitary narrow bridge that is common for the railway track and the road. We patiently wait for the train to pass, as the queue of trucks and cars builds up. A group of monkeys is stealthily inspecting tops of stalled trucks, probably in search of food. It  zeros in on a truck packed with puffed rice. One monkey manages to tear one of the bags. Before the cleaner of the truck can  drive the thieves away with a long stick, the monkeys, their cheeks filled with puffed rice, have scampered off. 

We consider ourselves lucky for being  able to cross the bridge in less than an hour. Traffic from the other side patiently waits for its turn on the one way bridge. On our right are the unfinished spans of a new bridge that will end this ordeal. But no one knows when the new bridge will be completed. 
Unfinished New Bridge on Sarada
Palia is a relatively larger town with petrol pumps, ATMs and well stacked grocery shops. Activity is spurred by the large sugar factory of Bajaj Hindustan at Palia. Northern boundary of Palia is only 10 km from Dudhwa. On the way, we cross the picturesque streams of Suheli, where the Mahauts of the park are busy scrubbing the tame elephants of the park.
Elephants Getting their Daily Wash at Suheli River

On a treetop overhanging the river, a serpent eagle sits enjoying the afternoon sun, while on the rocks below, terrapins, crocodiles and birds are in blissful co-existence.

A Serpent Eagle over Suheli River

Terrapins, Egrets, Crocodile and Pond Heron on Suheli River
 By the time we reached the forest lodge at Dudhwa, it was almost evening. Tall sal trees overlooked the lodge, while the reception hall had some enlarged pictures of birds and animals. A graceful grey wagtail posed for us on the lawns. We return to the car to find that monkeys have stolen all the food packets through the half open window-pane. 

Grey Wagtail at Dudhwa Forest Lodge

The huts of forest lodge were modestly equipped with all facilities except running hot water. A watch tower on the premises offered a panoramic view of the Suheli river. As darkness fell, it was time to retire after an eventful day.
Suheli River in the Evening


We got up to a cold morning with a light mist in the air. A racket tail drongo was calling from top of the sal tree in front of the row of huts. One of the big attraction of Dudhwa is its gorgeous sal forests, which are arguably the best in the world. Sal forests are best seen in the first rays of dawn and we dressed up to face the chilly winds of the morning. 
First Rays of the Morning Sun touching Dudhwa

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve is the name given to the integrated forest area in Dudhwa spread over an area of 884 square kilometres. It consists of two parts, i.e. Dudhwa National Park (which has a core zone of 490 square km and a buffer zone of 190 km) formed in 1977 and the older, but smaller Kishanpur Wild Life Sanctuary (with an area of 204 square km) formed in 1972. Dudhwa National Park is spread with the Suheli river as its natural boundary in the south and Nepal as its boundary in the north. Kishanpur WLS is south of Dudhwa National Park around the Sharda river which we crossed on our way to Dudhwa.
Splendour of Sal Trees

Dudhwa is 60 percent sal forest, the rest being made up of other varieties of sub-Himalayan trees. We are headed for Salukhapur, the starting point for the famed Elephant safari. The trip on the animal's back is not a staged 'elephant show' like Bandhavgadh, but a real ride into the deep interiors of the forest on the elephant back where you can expect the unexpected to happen. Most of Dudhwa consists of Sal clusters, long stretches of tall 'elephant grass' and flat lands by the side of the rivers. The trained elephants romp  through paths which are uneven and almost inaccessible. On the flip side, from the point of view of bird photography, it is a rough ride, offering little scope for camera adjustment and even less for keeping it still, as Amitabh discovered quickly and wisely decided to leave some of his heavy paraphernalia back in the car, despite there being free space on the howdah , with only the three of us on the elephant back. Our elephant, Chhibli (an unusual  name for a tame elephant) was a cool animal, very obedient to the mahaut.
Elephants Getting Ready for the Safari at Salukhapur

We pass through tall grass, onto a path that leads to the riverside. In addition to a few migrant ducks, cormorants and herons dominate the scene. 
Suheli Riverbank Dudhwa

Every now and then, the elephant stops to gnaw at the tall grass. Amitabh is suddenly animated by a loud  growling sound behind us and gets excited at the prospect of seeing a tiger at close range. But the mahaut sheepishly informs that the terrific rumbling emanates from the elephant breaking wind! 

Encountering a tiger on elephant safari is rare, though not impossible. All mahauts are in the habit of showing fresh pugmarks of the tiger to the vistors. It is always exciting to learn that a tiger has passed the same path a little while ago. Some guides even specialise in showing you the tiger shit as a consolance for not spotting the animal.  

This time around, the mahaut suddenly hushes us up. We are approaching a female Rhino with a cub close behind. Rhinos can sometimes charge at intruders. 
Rhino at Dudhwa

It is a majestic animal, with the cub hidden in the bushes. Rhinos were natural habitants of Dudhwa, but lost the last of their tribe due to indiscriminate poaching. Re-introduction of the Indian Rhino to Dudhwa (from Kaziranga in Assam) a couple of decades ago has been an eminently successful operation, with the park now boasting of nearly thirty rhinos. The female eyed us very cautiously for a few minutes, and after ascertaining our peaceful intent, quickly lost all interest.
Spotted Deer
Further up, another rhino and an an inquisitive spotted deer male with tantlers crossed our path. Dudhwa is also known for its swamp deer and the rare hispid hare, but we were not fortunate enough to get a glimpse. A lesser adjutant in the thick foliage surprised us. We were told that there are quite a few around.
Lesser Adjutant Stork

A hearty breakfast and  vegetarian fare for lunch saw us waiting impatiently for another ride into the forest. We were immediately rewarded with a jackal out on an afternoon stroll. When we stopped our vehicle, the Jackal also paused and sat back on his haunches, like a true guardian of the pristine forest.
A Jackal Watchfully Guarding the Forest 

Jackals are usually very shy and run away instantly on seeing people. This jackal stood his ground for a long time, before deciding to run.

The Jackal that stood his Ground
We were headed for a watch tower by the side of a small stream beyond Sonaripur. Beyond it lies the buffer zone of the forest which has its Northern boundary touching Nepal. The last stop on the Indian side is Chandanchowki, a small village, where the road ends.

Hog Deer or 'Pada' in the Local Language

A pair of hog deer were cautiously grazing by the side of the watchpost, which offered a good view of the river and the land beyond. A variety of ducks, cormorants and herons were busy in and around the waterfront. A group of lesser whistling ducks flew away at the slightest sound in the breeze.

Ever Vigilant Lesser Whistling Ducks
On the way back, paths of the forest were once again lit by the evening sun. As the darkness descended,  the cold, crisp air of the forest filled our lungs.

Dusk at Dudhwa

 At the Forest Guest House, they tell stories of the legendry Billy Arjun Singh who had tamed a tiger that had to be eventually let off in the forest, where it turned a killer because it did not know how to hunt.  Dudhwa, despite its open spaces, is being encroached from all sides by prime agricultural land that will surely surround and dissolve it one day like a huge amoeba. Nobody has the will to stop the metre gauge train that cuts along Dudhwa forest, carrying hundreds of people, several times a day. People, with their lethal waste of plastic bags, pan masala foils and other unfriendly stuff. It is a miracle that Dudhwa has survived so far.

The last day at the Forest Rest House begins with the customary packing of bags. We have been advised to leave well before lunch. We are impatient to get back to the forest. We have decided to go to the river and the small pond. There is no dearth of water in Dudhwa and that means there is no congregation of animals and birds at the water holes or rivers.
Road to Eternity through the Sal Forest

By the side of the pond, we were lucky to see a pair of Great Hornbills. Our guide tells us that it is a favourite spot for these fabulous birds.

Great Hornbill at Dudhwa

Nobody is quite sure about the tiger population at Dudhwa, but logistics of organised poaching cannot be ruled out here. Besides different types of deer, there are assorted animals like porcupines in the forest and at Salukhapur, the Forest Lodge inside the park, you can see them looking for food at the garbage dump in the dark.. On our night drive to Chandan Chowki, we see one on the road and it quickly disappeared into the foliage.

Innocent Eyes

Our enthusiastic street-smart guide Sonu (alias an impressive 'L.D. Singh Naturalist & Member of the BCN' on his visiting card) tells us  that at this time of the year, the best location for birding is the Kishanpur Wild Life Sanctuary some 50 km from Dudhwa. We decide to look it up on our way back, but are in for disappointment. The Chief Justice of India is visiting these parts and the Kishanpur WLS has been closed to  outside visitors for two days in honour of his visit. We have also been advised to vacate our rooms at Dudhwa asap. A massive painting drive is on at Dudhwa for the VVIP visit, after which, we are sure, everything will fall back to its normal lethargic pace.

A Painter Giving Finishing Touches to a Board for VVIP Visit

On the way back on  the Suheli river, we found a stork billed kingfisher looking for a catch and a lesser adjutant flying off.

Stork Billed Kingfisher at Suheli, Dudhwa

As before, crocodiles were basking in the sun in the company of terrapins and an assorted birds. And an elephant was off to work.

Elephant off to Work

              Dudhwa in Early Morning
Suresh & the Author                      

As we returned, each one of us was recapitulating in his mind, the most enduring image of our visit. For me, it was definitely the morning sun touching sal trees of the mesmerising jungle that is Dudhwa.

--Jitendra Bhatia from Dudhwa
December 2010
Jitendra Bhatia