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Migration Week 4 & 5

Just returned home after wrapping up week 5 in Masai Mara as part of my annual migration photo safari marathon. Life had been hectic in the bush as week 4 started with the news of Bahati’s den being surrounded by lions. The brave mother shifted her cub to a safer den and our guests witnessed this wonderful moment of a leopard crossing a stream with her cub.

There were some good hunts during the period in the form a lioness pinning down a zebra and Kaboso’s young leopard cub playing around with a hare which he caught unexpectedly one morning. The weather in Masai Mara was superb during the period as we had some great sunrises and sunsets and we made the best use of light in the golden hours.

As I start preparing for a new tiger season that starts in a week, here are some images from the last fortnight to sum of the 2018 edition of Migration Uncut

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Summers @ Tadoba

Experienced Tadoba summers after a gap of 4 years. May 2012 was the last I spent a fortnight in the blazing sun and scorching heat of Tadoba. 4 years down the line, I led a small group of photographers who braved the heat to spend hours with the Sonam and Maya family – the current heartthrobs of Tadoba. The cubs have been shaping up quite well since I last saw them in December 2015. It was also a first experience for me with the majestic Bajrang male who is fathering Sonam cubs. He for sure is a charismatic tiger and would be instrumental in propelling the dynasty of tigers in Tadoba.

Recharging at home after a hectic 45 day travel schedule. Stay tuned for June diaries as we enter into the last month of the tiger season in India before the monsoons…

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Bandhavgarh Bloom

As winter bids farewell to Bandhavgarh, mild showers continue to breath a fresh life in a forest which is all set to face a tough summer ahead. The mahua bloom is on the swing and damp smell of the mahua along with the fresh budding on the saal tree tops adds a fresh flavor to the park just before the onset of the summer.

Having said this, Bandhavgarh springs are fascinating to shoot the striped wonders of this tiger country. The soft morning and evening light along with breathtaking backdrops of colorful saal, tesu and cotton silk flowers give the edge to images which are normally very bland during summers.

Here are some images from the 2013 Bandhavgarh spring:

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Golden Crossing

Living on the edge

Sky-Walker


Fluctuating Fortunes

Sloth bear in Bandhavgarh

Tiger sightings in any national park of India have fluctuating cycles. There are times when multiple tigresses start breeding cubs and as a result sightings flourish as the summers approach. As the cubs grow up and start forming their own territories and females become solitary again & there is a brief dip period and the situation takes some time to normalize.

It was during this season of dipping summer sightings when I along with my friend Gautam Pandey visited Bandhavgarh National Park in the warm summer months of 2011. The tiger dynamics of the park were not very encouraging at that point of time as none of current cubs were around and queen Vijaya was still trying to find her ground in the Chakradhara meadows.

As we started our first drive in what was going to be a marathon run inside Bandhavgarh, little did we know that our tiger luck would be at abysmal levels in the days to come. After a few days of dry dusty drives, clouds of negativities surrounded us and we were just waiting to wrap up the shoot as soon as possible.

The heat made us ignore a basic thumb rule – when with nature, it is imperative to be positive and absorb nature in all its forms and shapes. Our 6th day started in a rejuvenating fashion as we stuck to some basics. Something was good about that morning as we started with no pre-defined strategies. In an unusual relaxed fashion we started a bit late and despite of the deliberated 15-20 minutes delay we were the first vehicle to enter the park gate. For a change the desperate cat-seeking prayers transformed into a mere ‘thank you’ to mother nature for making us experience this wonderful forest.

The sunrise over Ghodademon was refreshing and the rocky patterns on the upper reaches of the fort dazzled in morning light. The soft chirps of bush birds were live music to the ears at the vehicle sped leisurely across a forest buzzing with cheetals and langurs busy in their morning chores. Our days of disappointments were in the back-burner and the beauty of nature was touching our souls.

As we moved towards Mirchiani, a sudden movement across the stoned parked boundary attracted our attention. As soon as we breaked, a huge black ball of hair emerged out of the wall peeping right into the vehicle. The beautiful looking male sloth bear then climbed the wall inches away from our vehicle and took the comfort of a tree right next to road. He rolled, scratched himself against the hanging bark and spread inside the bamboo thickets.

The four minutes of bear action was not the best from a photography perspective but was enough to make up for the last 5 days. Nature is full of mysteries and spectacles that keep unfolding in every corner of wilderness. As children of this planet, the onus is on us to respect natural wonders rather than keep expecting and wishing that nature will fullfil all our demands.


Vijaya brigade & their play…

Play time @ Bandhavgarh

Play time @ Bandhavgarh (II)

Vijaya’s young battalion of 3 cubs were very quite for the past few days. They were giving brief appearances in the Sidhbaba grassland and in the presence of Mom and Dad (Sashi) loitering around in the Jumuniah area the cubs were lethargic and did not indulge in any major play as the sun went down. However yesterday the scenario was different. Dad headed of to the badi gufa and Mom was out on a hunt. 5pm in the evening, the cubs made an appearance from the cool swamps under the jamun trees in front of Sidhbaba and for the next 45 minutes they displayed some extraordinary play which have not been witnessed in Bandhavgarh for ages.

Punches, chases, arial fights, bonding, love – it was a mix of emotions and the spectators were spell bound seeing the energy level of these cubs. The grassland had become a boxing ring for these young guns as they played merrily for the whole evening and continued to enjoy the session event after the tourist vehicles called it a day.


A Royal Walkabout

Tiger Diary – Published by Tiger Nation

BANDHAVGARH, MAY 2012: Vijaya, like all mother’s, has up till now taken a careful approach to bringing out her gangly 6 month old kids in any formal way. She has preferred to keep them off roads skirting forests and meadows in her bid to protect them.

Not anymore. She set out to lead her family on a distinct Royal tour, sauntering contentedly along the very road that she has watched thousands of pilgrims move on high days and holidays, as well as countless visitors every day.

Her merry band of youngsters followed her quite contentedly, often stopping to play with one another, bite each other tail, or sideling up to mum to complain that they are bored of walking.

Mum though was on a mission, and from the Chakradhara meadows, she proceeded up the hill towards the fort’s main entrance and then up the 10th century carved stairs at Vishnu’s temple before vanishing into the forested hills behind.

Vijaya’s Royal walkabout suggest that she is perfectly comfortable with her ‘Princess’ status in the Tala range.


Bandhavgarh @ 50mm

My 50mm hysteria continued after the first bit of experimentation in Corbett and this time the decisions were bolder for the subject and opportunities in question were rarer and the risk of missing out superb tight frames was higher. However trying this on the striped cats was great fun never-the-less. The reactions of the people around me was very amusing whenever I mounted this mini-glass on my camera. I remember that while I was creating a 50mm perspective of the devoted one eyed beauty Vijaya (Kankatti), someone in the crowd of tourist was murmuring in the background – “Seems he has forgotten to put his lens in excitement !”

Pleased to share some of the images created during my recent trip to Bandhavgarh National Park:


The King of the Meadows

Swamp Deers

Unseasonal rains, misty mornings and extreme cold were making Kanha National Park a tough destination from a photography perspective this January. The cat action had gone done considerably so I had diverted my attention to landscapes and swamp deers (barasingha). I was particularly interested in swamp deers as I was yet to get that good perspective of a swamp deer stag in the ever beautiful and scenic Kanha meadows. Unfortunately in my previous visits to Kanha, a stag was something which I had missed.

Seeing the weather and shooting conditions, I decided to focus my attention on the meadows and grassland and the hunt for swamp deers were on. Every round in the park yielded some nice swamp deer perspectives and it was a smooth sail. That particular evening drive however had something different in store.

With minimal cat expectations and engrossed in the thoughts of capturing Kanha’s in its mystic and damp spirit, Kahini and I set out for the evening round. We were as usual chasing the evening light in the meadows as I wanted to work on swamp deers in the typical evening mood of the meadows. As our vehicle speeded through the narrow forest tracks, I nearly dozed off post the heavy lunch. The sleep was however short-lived for the driver gave me a big jolt by putting the breaks on. The jolt in front of me was bigger!

King's Relief

Munna – the dominant male of Kanha meadows – suddenly emerged out on the right of the road ready for an evening stroll towards the Kanha meadows. The giant male lazily did a scat marking on the side of the road and strolled in grand fashion in front of the vehicle.

Rather than picking up the biggest lens to shoot the mighty beast, I decided to experiment with habitat perspectives which is something I always like to do. Unfortunately, this was a Nature Wanderers event and the participants have the first right on my equipments. I had given away most of my equipments to the Canon Wild Clicks equipments and was left with just 1 camera body to shoot. So the choice had to be swift…

The king patrols his kingdom

The decision was in favor of a Canon 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8 and I juggled between both these lenses to capture the king’s walk. Shooting big cats that have ventured close to your vehicle with lower focal lengths capture’s the mood of the forest. It differentiates a Kanha picture from a Ranthambhore image for both are different terrains with their own unique features.

A tiger is a tiger… from a photographer’s perspective it becomes imperative to think and create frames that transports a viewer to that particular forest. I have seen some superb habitat perspectives of tigers in the wild taken by my counterparts and I respect the instant creativity shown by those photographers.

For now, dedicating this note the charismatic Munna and his majestic forest…


Mesmerized by the Mangroves

(Memorable encounter with the only Sunderban tiger I have seen till date)

Bengal countryside

Aug 2010: As I left my car after witnessing the beautiful and green Bengal countryside and boarded my boat for Sunderbans, I had mixed feelings… I was loaded with expectations. Expectations to shoot some of my most memorable shots and ofcourse having seen the largest mangrove forest of the world through the eyes of my wonderful fellow photographers I was expecting to see some of the most outstanding landscapes of the country. With every bend and turn that the boat was taking my expectations and beliefs started turning into a reality and as I crossed the last village to enter the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, I was amazed to see this remote and hidden nature treasure of India and yet again India’s natural beauty filled me with pride.

Having tracked tigers for years in the dry and deciduous forests of the plains and the thick forests of lower Himalayas, we knew that this terrain would not be that easy as here you don’t track tigers and just hope that you are being tracked by the Royal Bengal Tiger. Tigers would no longer be like a needle in the hay-sack for us. Rather the needle here is somewhere there and can see you but you really need to have some stupendous luck to find it.

The hardships of being an aquatic being

Not worrying about the tigers and just spellbound by the beauty of the place, I started my Sunderban expedition by perching myself on the Sudhanyakhali watchtower. Protecting my equipments more than myself from the intermittent rains that we were facing time and again, I dozed off in the shady comforts of the strategically built watchtower. Suddenly some commotion behind me disturbed me and I realized that Kahini had caught hold of a beautiful ornamental flying snake that was hanging above my head while I was asleep. She dragged the striped beauty out and as soon as it found its escape route towards the roof-top of the watchtower, I was wondering whether I should feel excited about shooting this awesome looking reptile or thank Kahini for saving me from the snake bite. The locals had something to smile about… “The snake knows that your name has a connection with Lord Shiva,” remarked the boatman as we were laughing at the incident. Far below on the swampy river beds I could see a flurry of red and yellow spots which turned out to be the fiddler crabs that were glowing bright in daylight.

Colors of Wild India

It was an eventful day indeed and early next morning, I headed off to a small temple to seek the blessings of the Bandevi (forest goddess). “Need just that one moment I can cherish forever!” I told myself and headed off for my cruise. As I was setting my camera doing the routine early morning camera settings check, I noticed a small object on the right hand creek. The suspect escaped our eyes as well and we assumed it to be a stone. Within seconds something struck Kahini and she asked the boat to go back towards the creek. A collared kingfisher was sitting at a close range and my irritation levels grew high as the boat was back gearing at full speed not allowing me to focus on the kingfisher shot. “Dada… BAGH… BAGH! (Tiger, tiger)” Kahini shouted standing on the edge of the boat holding the rod with hand and looking through the binocs using the other.

Tiger in Sunderbans

I was still concentrating on my kingfisher as I was sure it would be a stone. From the corner of my eye, I saw the boatman along with Kahini and the guide hurling the anchor so as to get a clear view of the creek. The boat swayed from one direction to the other and so did the creek! As we gained stability I strained my eyes and was not ready to believe what I was seeing. I pointed my 400mm lens towards the creek and was wondering if this was a statue as a young Royal Bengal Tiger sat still at the edge of the creek. I concentrated hard and saw the tiger moving its head and looking straight towards me. For some reason I was just looking through the view finder and was not pressing the shutter. Having taken hundreds of tiger shots from a distance as close as 8-10 feet, my hands were going numb because of a Sunderban tiger that was sitting more than 500mts away. The lens had turned into a mere telescope for me and I stood still frozen and shaken.

“Shivang, are you shooting?” I could faintly hear Kahini’s voice when the boatman came and shook me. I took a few seconds to regain my composure and started shooting this beautiful Royal Bengal Tiger as he majestically approached the river and swam past in true Sunderbans style in just a few seconds.

The 25 minutes I spent with the beautiful predator would be edged in my memory for time immemorial. After all this was a Royal Bengal Tiger in true sense!


A date with Mirchani Queen

(A note post the Nature Wanderers Bandhavgarh Photo Tour in May 2010)

Tiger in habitat

I entered Bandhavgarh with a heavy heart as the Jhurjhura female death had shocked wildlife lovers across the globe. Had always admired her photographs and the beautiful moments that my fellow photographers spent with this majestic queen and her cubs were flashing in front of me as I was passing through the buffer zone of the reserve. The last thing I wanted was a phone call that disturbed my thought process. 2 things you can’t ignore in life – wilderness calling and wife calling!

“A leopard just crossed the road in front of me!” remarked Kahini who was leading a group of photographers a few kilometers from my vehicle. There couldn’t have been a better welcome for this group of shutterbugs who had flown from across India to shoot in Bandhavgarh National Park.

As I was getting ready for my early morning ride in Bandhavgarh, apprehensions were setting in. With half of the forest closed because of the Jhurjhura incident and a dry sighting period that had lasted for around 5-6 days (which is surprisingly high considering Bandhavgarh standards) I was wondering if the forest God would shower his blessings.

For tiger researchers and photographers nothing gets better than getting the opportunity to follow one tiger for a significant amount of time and closely observe its behavioral and character traits and thereby document them in the form of photos. There are some legendary tigers who do give you that kind of an opportunity and Bandhavgarh does boast of names like B2 and the late Jhurjhura female. However, this eventful morning had something else in store.

Tiger in morning light

As we moved uphill crossing the thick bamboo forest amidst loud peacock calls and a few long billed vultures hovering over my vehicle, something distracted my driver as he slowed down the vehicle. A slight movement in the bushes around 150 yards from the vehicle and out walked a young striped queen. She bent down, gulped water from a water hole which was not visible. Her golden quote and prominent marking were shining brightly in the soft morning light as her back was visible from the point I was observing her.

She lifted her head and as soon as she started walking towards the left towards the open patch of dry grass, I was ready to shoot. Little did I know that this young tigress known as the Banbhai female would give me 45 mesmerizing minutes that I will remember for the longest time…

Tiger in habitat

She walked gracefully and disappeared behind the rocks. Anticipating her movement and direction, I moved the vehicle near a nullah around 100 meters away from the spot from where she was quenching her thirst. I breathed a sigh of relief when a couple of cheetal called informing me that she was still on the move. My eyes were glued to a spot which looked like a tiger track and I expected to see her there. She however surprised me as she emerged inches away from my vehicle.

Crossing the fleet of 3 vehicles from a distance of 10 feet, she walked royally in the middle of the road, smelling and sent marking trees before disappearing in the bamboo. I backed my vehicle and waited for around 10 minutes and the cheetal again called.

Tiger closeup

Seeing a tiger emerging from a dense forest and walking towards you is the most amazing high for a wildlife photographer. The Mirchani female was not done with her territory patrol yet. She walked out, stopped and looked straight into my lens. Through my view finder, I could see the pupil of her eye shrinking and shining brightly as the sun rays fell straight on her face.

She took a few steps towards the vehicle and then slowly walked past. Minute by minute the distance between the majestic predator and my lens was decreasing. I was now finding it difficult to focus with my 500mm as she was getting too close and quickly swapped bodies to get a better view. She bent and marked her territory again this time using her scat. A slight movement in my vehicle attracted her attention. She snarled and with her eyes on the vehicle she slowly moved away and with a couple of leaps she disappeared inside a cave.

Tiger in habitat

These are moments that remain embedded in a photographer’s memory for though we do miss seeing the wild drama through naked eyes, the lens and the camera acts like a amazing bridge that brings us closer to the unique and exquisite wilderness of our country. The Big Bs of Bandhavgarh are a photographer’s dream and I would like to dedicate these shots to the legend of Jhurjhura… may your soul rest in peace!


Peepal LIVE

Territorial Cat

(Published in Deccan Chronicle, June 2011)

As my car passed through the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, the sight dampened my spirits. Massive mining and quarrying operations on the wild lands dents the buffer zone of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve – the Jewel of Vidharbha. The apprehensions died down as soon as I entered the reserve with the sun rays filtering through a lush green forest that was sparkling after the monsoon showers.

The highlight of my Tadoba visit could easily have been those 4-5 minutes I spent with the striped queen who walked in front of my vehicle marking her territory and majestically patrolling the picturesque Telia Lake. The highlight was not the pair of wild dogs that came out in the middle of the road from no where. It was not even the two sloth bears I saw on 2 consecutive days. The hours that followed these short and sweet sightings had something amazing in store which became the feature of the visit.

The weather was a bit cloudy and the trees and bushes were buzzing with activity as the avionic wonders of Tadoba had just started their daily chores. We passed through the scenic Tadoba lake looking for some traces of the big cat and the sudden cheetal alarm calls caught my attention.

Taking refuge under a huge banyan tree, I strained my ears for alarm calls that were slowly dying informing us that the predator has either settled down or left the area. The intensity of the anxiety of the cheetal called for a waiting game and we were holding our breath in anticipation.

Parakeet in flight

In the midst of the excitement that a predator movement can cause in a forest, you tend to ignore the action going on around you. A flameback woodpecker suddenly took off from a tree towards the back of our vehicle and flew towards this peepal tree drawing my attention towards this chirping patch of vegetation where the woodpecker joined its companion perching itself on a nearby branch. As I was observing the hops of the woodpecker pair, a golden oreole darted inside the tree flaunting its bright yellow coat in bright sunlight.

Further scanning of the tree revealed a pair of black drongos calling each other on adjacent branches. The drongo conversation was intervened by their specie counterpart as a white bellied drongo perched itself right on the branch above. On the right hand patch of the tree, the tree tops were dominated by a parakeet family. In the beginning it was just a couple of rose ringed parakeets that were feeding in the golden morning light. Within minutes, a pair of plum headed parakeets joined the party and before I could take the entire family in one frame, an Alexander parakeet caught hold of the top most branch to make it a complete family picture.

Long tailed shrike

With eyes glued at the top of the tree, I missed some action in the center where purple sunbirds were flying in and out of the bush in search of flower nectar in the bushes behind the tree. The buzz inside the patch forced me to lift my binoculars for a closer look. Oriental white eyes, red vented bulbuls, jungle wabblers were the reason for hustle and just as I was lowering the binoculars, a blackish silhouette perched itself on the left hand corner of the tree.

I caught hold of my camera and as the lens focused on the patch, a beautiful pied cuckoo emerged from behind in bright light with a caterpillar catch as its morning breakfast. Hoping from one branch to another, it relished its breakfast and finally came out in the open posing in front of me for some good couple of minutes.

Pied Cuckoo

The peace and tranquility of a tree for a few minutes made it a hot spot for birds around the location but the peace was momentary. The predator somewhere in the deep and dense bushes decided to continue its morning walk and the cheetal gave frantic alarm calls yet again. The drongos were the first to leave and were followed by the parakeets. Within seconds a tree that was sheltering around 40 odd species of birds stood bird-less… this was another form of nature I witnessed for the first time – natural shelters are momentary!