Nothing could have been a better start to a new year. Reliving some magical mornings of Corbett… the music of a Himalayan river with sparkling waters cascading down the white stones which slowly get lit as the sun peeps from the horizon and fumes of mist mingles with the first rays of the sun to create a seraphic landscape which has been forever embedded in my memory for more than a decade.
Over the years, while photographing this splendour a variety of subjects came and added a flavour to the glowing ambers of the Ramganga on a daily basis. Days normally start with redstarts, storks, greenshank and slowly graduates to a pied kingfisher and finally on one of the days a crested kingfisher takes over the misty throne of the Ramganga. However that particular morning of January 2017 was steaming with a thick layer of mist which made the light softer than usual. As I was waiting for my routine kingfishers, a group of smooth coated otters distracted me on the opposite direction as I observed their morning chores while they merrily swam braving strong river tides in search of a meal. For quite some time, I avoided the distraction but the otter antics were hard to resist and for a change I prioritised subjects over light and changed the direction of the camera. As soon as I looked through the viewfinder of my camera, behind my back, a ghostly figure royally stood on the smoking orange stones of the river. The subject was 200 times the size of the expected kingfisher and as soon as I looked back, we both stared at each other in shock.
At the blink of an eye the ruler of the Ramganga – a huge male tiger – traced back and ran back towards the bushes from where it was making up its mind to cross the glowing river. Some photographic opportunities remain edged to your memory even when you miss them. The frame was blank but the memory of the soul of the river in that dramatic set-up will remain forever.
For the records, here are few images from the year-opening photo tour to Corbett National Park.
The 2016 edition of Tiger Marathon – the annual back to back tiger photography tours by Nature Wanderers – ended this week with some exemplary sightings in Ranthambhore and Corbett National Park. While the lakes were productive again in Ranthambhore, we also got the opportunity to photograph the newly crowned mother T60 and her 3 cubs. Sessions with Noor (T39) and T57 were equally intense and productive.
Corbett on the other hand along with expected elephant action was ruled by Paarwali sightings as the river mermaid of Ramganga gave multiple opportunities for photography in typical Corbett habitats. Here are a few images created in the past fortnight.
It is the end of season and as I look back at the hectic 9 months, some of those glorious wildlife moments keep flashing in my head. With more than 150 game drives in Ranthambhore, the focus of the season was on Krishna and cubs. My brief fortnight-long stints in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett and Sunderbans were rewarding as well. Escorting some of the best photographers in business, it was a great knowledge sharing experience on the field. Though in most of the game drives I wasn’t shooting much since I was escorting and mentoring photographers, I did squeeze in time for some personal drives in Ranthambhore and those were the times my camera was in action the most.
Presenting a compilation of my top 14 wildlife moments for 2014-2015.
1. Krishna & Cubs – October 2013
The season started with Ranthambhore and the first glimpse of Krishna and her cubs in the band of golden morning light at Rajbagh remains edged to my memory till date. The experience lasted for not more than 10 mins but our gang of photographers created some dream images that by far are the best images of T19 and cubs from that time from October 2013.
2. The King & The Fisher – Nov 2014
Amidst the hysteria around T39 (Noor) and her cubs one fine morning in November 2014, a tiny kingfisher caught my attention. The background was a typical Ranthambhore habitat and resulted in this image. One of my favorites from the season. Worked on similar concepts whenever the opportunity was right. Infact over the next many months after shooting this, I did a lot of birding around tigers – from Kingfishers, the stone curlews, drongos, peacocks, robins. The first creation is normally the best creation and rest are more of duplications in order to better this.
3. In His Kingdom – Kanha – Dec 2014
Kanha in winters has always been special for photography. Not for tigers but because of the mist and the meadows. During one such game drive in Kanha, we bumped into the majestic Munna. My experiments with Tilt Shift lenses on tigers have helped me in creating some unique wide angle perspectives. The saal forest backdrop offered the perfect opportunity to pull out the glass from the bag.
4. A morning at Rajbagh – Jan 2015
There was something about that morning at Rajbagh. The soft morning light filtering through the mist was just enough for shooting this wonderful show put up by Krishna and her cubs at the edges of the lakes. Our gang of photographers were stunned in silence after this wonderful action packed sequence – probably the best action by this terrific family throughout the season. The soft light, the grand backdrops, the orange winter coats of the cubs… am sure the lensmen present that morning will vouch for this being probably the best tiger action of their lifetime.
5. The Winter Couple – Jan 2015 – Bharatpur
End of Jan, we took a small break from Ranthambhore and shot in Bharatpur for a few days. Despite of the low activity of birds in Bharatpur, I decided to focus on a subject I love to work with – the Sarus Cranes. Morning to evening sessions with Sarus led us to this beautiful pair of cranes that walked out in unison in the early morning mist of Keoladeo with the sun just popping out from behind deep in the horizon. As I looked through the view finder to shoot this image, I had goosebumps all over seeing this dramatic setting of the Keoladeo marshes.
6. Thunderbold Krishna – Feb 2015
The master hunter Krishna silently disappeared in the Rajbagh grasses one evening in Ranthambhore. Unaware of what is going to happen, my vehicle reached the spot and as I changed my equipments to focus on a group of cheetal grazing in a small patch of open grass, Krishna stormed out like lightning in the small patch of light dispersing the group in all directions.
7. Tiger Off-Springs – Ranthambhore – March 2015
It was a 30 mins sighting that morning at Rajbagh and not more than 5 mins of hardcore tiger action. Krishna cubs played like maniacs in that backlit set up. A storm of lenses surrounded them as the lake water splashed all around with the mother joining the play sequence.
8. Bears and Bears – April 2015
I remember this morning as one of my best game drives in the park. We were running after the mother T39 (Noor) while her cubs were already been seen by a flurry of vehicles in zone 1. In our pursuit we bumped into a different specie of a mother who walked on a forest floor bed full of palas (flame of the forest) flowers. Post this all the vehicles dispersed from the cubs location and we spent a nice peaceful exclusive time with T39 and her cubs.
9. His First Catch – Ranthambhore – April 2015
A moment which will be engrained in my memory till my last breath. The inexperience male cub of Krishna (T19) attempted to bring down a cheetal. He struggled for more than 40 mins to kill the cheetal. A power-packed sequence but it was painful to see this through the view finder. Read the entire photo story on this blog – https://shivangmehtaphotography.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-first-catch/
10. Stripes – The Extreme Portrait – May 2015
Over the past few years, I have developed this taste of shooting extreme closeups of tigers. Scaling up the focal length to around 1000mm+, composition needs to be really precise. This summer, inspired by some frames and compositions from Tiger Dynasty (by Nalla Muthu) I wanted to go tighter than usual. I had a discussion with Nalla on his certain ultra tight compositions. God was kind to gift me with a calm and composed T24 sighting soon after those talks with Nalla where I made effective use of a 1000mm focal to create a series of super tiger compositions.
11. The Ramganga Queen – May 2015
I normally don’t run after tigers in Corbett. However May 2015 was an exception. The Par tigress was obliging photographers with their dream Corbett images and I forced myself to join this race. A few misses and finally we caught her one morning in Dhikala.
12. The Cave Dwellers – Bandhavgarh – May 2015
The Patiha family has been controlling a major chunk of tiger sightings in Bandhavgarh throughout the season. We spent 1 morning with the 3 cubs in this cave set up which is one of the most unique habitat image series of tigers I have shot till date. The reddish rocks, the contours in the rocks, the gradients and patterns and the sparkling stripes made an interesting combo and the 10 odd images around this cave have been amongst the top backdrops for tiger photography for me.
13. Krishna Clan – Ranthambhore – May 2015
Over the months, it has been an experience the changing behavior of tiger cubs. The playful Krishna cubs were now displaying signs of independence by making their own odd kills and small fights showcasing dominance. But the attachment with the mother was seen time and again and during this morning in May 2015, 14 month old tiger cubs were caught suckling.
14. Star walked the ramp – June 30, 2015
The lakes of Ranthambhore can surprise you anytime of the day. Rains had an impact of the sightings of the park in the last few days of the park closure. It was the morning of June 30th and everyone was hoping for 1 final glimpse before the park closes for monsoons. We decided to take a final lap of the lakes before leaving and caught Star (T28) walking in the pristine backdrop of the fort and on a carpet of green. It was long and silent walk with no vehicles around. A befitting end to a season!
It’s the end of June and most parks of India are on the verge of closure for monsoons. I started this month with elephants as the focus of my photography in Corbett National Park and then headed off to escort a gang of 3 photographers who were keen to shoot Vijaya (Kankati – the one eyed warrior queen of Bandhavgarh and one of my favorite tigers across forests of India) and her newly born litter of 3 cubs. While the assignment was challenging since the cubs were too small (two and half months old), the patience and perseverance displayed by our team was exemplary and helped us to move closer to our goal day by day.
Am pleased to share some highlights from June before I head off to the high altitude terrains of Ladakh in July with another gang of young enthusiastic photographers.
Published as the featured image of the month in Conservation India
The Sunderkhal village falls in the crucial Kosi river corridor linking Corbett Tiger Reserve to the Ramnagar Forest Division. This landscape constitutes prime tiger and elephant habitat. A population estimation exercise done jointly by the state forest department and WWF-India revealed no less than 13 individual tigers — including breeding tigresses. The All India Tiger Estimate 2010 indicated a density of 14 tigers / 100 sq km in Ramanagar forest division.
Here is a stray tusker being driven away by villagers using a fire fence in the periphery of the village.
Due to the severe fragmentation and human pressures, this corridor experiences severe human-wildlife conflict; in 2010-11, about six people were killed by a tiger, and a ‘man-eater’ was shot dead and then paraded by a jubilant crowd in Sunderkhal, an illegal encroachment established in the 1970s by the then Chief Minister ND Tewari on the Kosi river corridor. Sunderkhal village, along with a number of tourist resorts block the vital tiger and elephant corridor that leads to the Kosi river and the Ramnagar forests beyond — an issue that the state has failed to address. Not only do the tourist resorts physically block the corridor, they engage in many illegal activities including changing the river course, baiting tigers, playing loud music, night safaris etc.
The period from December to January is special for photography in Corbett National Park. The early morning mist mingles with the morning light to give some dramatic images which probably no other forest of India can offer. Even the most common subjects can help creating some frames and perspectives that will make your day satisfactory. I have always felt that Corbett as a forest pushes your photographic brain to thing beyond tigers. Here is a collection of some images which were created over the last couple of months.
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Deep inside the heavily wooded forest of Corbett National Park rests a Machaan that gives shelter to hundreds of photographers, naturalists and tourists visiting Corbett every year. Approximately 30 feet in height, this old machaan gives a panoramic view of the picturesque Dhikala grasslands and the Ramganga river that supports a multitude of life forms in Corbett National Park. “The forest is always buzzing with activity,” the statement holds true once you spend a quite afternoon on this structure in the heart of wilderness.
It was the month of June when Kahini and I set off from the Gairal forest rest house in Corbett early in the morning in search of the dominant male tiger in the Khinnauli belt. We had been tracking the striped beauty for the last 2 days and our chances were becoming brighter as we saw fresh tracks early that morning along with frantic alarm calls of spotted deer. However luck was not in our favor again as after waiting for over 2 hours near the river side (where we were expecting the arrival of the tiger) the beast still eluded me and my camera.
As we continued our journey by heading towards the Dhikala grasslands the passing vehicles informed us about tiger movements on the Sambhar Road and we rushed towards our beloved Sambhar Road watchtower which gives the perfect view of the area in which the tiger was prowling. We boarded the machchan at 8:30 am and strained our ears to listen to the faintest of sounds of the alarm calls that would announce the arrival of the king. In the next couple of hours the forest went silent and the cool breeze put me to sleep. A watchtower can be a wonderful place for catching some sleep as the calmness and tranquility of the forest is very relaxing indeed.
The silence was broken by a black jungle crow that woke us up with his hoarse calls and to our surprise we sighted a beautiful collared falconet right in front of us. The atmosphere was filled with excitement yet again as a pair of pallas fishing eagle took off from inside the forest and stormed past the watchtower making a screeching sound giving us a great shot of the flight of the eagle. Following this Kahini spotted a pair of pied kingfishers hovering over the river in search of their lunch. Their close cousins – the white throated kingfishers – followed them and looked stunning with their colorful wings wide open.
Amidst the birding action, a small herd of spotted deer inched closure to the river and boosted our chances of tracking the tiger. The weather was perfect for a tiger to approach a water body as it was getting hotter and humid as the clock ticked. And then the spotted deers in front of us made a low alarm call. We could see that all the deers were pointing in one direction and stamping their feet in the water in nervousness.
The excitement was at its peak as this is what tiger tracking is all about. This is why the tiger sends shivers down the spines of the jungle folk when it moves fearlessly in forests of India. It was only a matter of time now and we were anxiously waiting as everything was falling into place… 10 minutes went by and by now the alarm calls became louder. Our eyes were glued to a patch of lantana from where we were expecting the tiger to come. My sleep had vanished and I was ready to shoot with my fingers half pressed on my camera shutter. It was 4 pm and with a slight disturbance in the lantana, out walked the tiger. Those magical stripes were shining brightly in the sun and the tiger walked past the deer herd majestically to choose his preferred spot in the river.
It was a big male and he rested royally in the middle of the sparkling Ramganga for the next 20 minutes!