All you who sleep tonight…

 

The message on my phone, blandly said,” To date we have distributed : Non perishable bi weekly and monthly rations to 25,761 people. Ready to eat hot meals : 57,901. Vegetables purchased from farmers for distribution : 11,550 kgs”.

I had been initially at the periphery and later, a little more involved in a couple of areas of the entire operation and I knew that the figures were quite impressive.

I don’t think many agencies that had gamely stepped in to help the affected had much experience in this sort of an activity. How many in the metros would have had the experience to provide relief while a crisis is actually unfolding around you ? Real time. Heck…forget an Indian metro, not many agencies anywhere in the world would have much experience in this.

However, forget pride, there was not even a remote level of satisfaction that I felt.

The last 35 -40 days had passed like a blur. It was towards the end of March…or was it early April, that I had gone on my first distribution trip. Delivering around 14 bags of monthly rations at two different locations.

It has been a perplexing mix of an emotional journey – a little bit of shame and guilt about my lack of awareness of their troubles… their existence in many ways, a growing sense of despair at their situation and soon a mounting mixture of indignation and anger at the powers that be, who never factored in the situation of millions of such people, in their game plan.

*****

I was curious.

How will the process work ? Who will we be distributing these rations to ? How do we identify them ? Where will we be meeting them ?

In many ways, it was an underwhelming night. In both locations, the process lasted just a few minutes. We reach the location, we call the main contact, we  hand over the bags and we leave.

If I was expecting any deep insight, or a  life altering experience, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It was a very ordinary event. 

But one small conversation stuck.  

My companion, had chatted warmly with the group that arrived to pick up their supplies. Asked them where they were from, what they did. Coincidentally,  one of them, he must have been in his late teens, was from the same district and it could have been just that indescribable comfort at finding someone from the same vicinity as his home, that made the kid, almost break down while narrating his story.

He was a carpenter and had landed in Bangalore just a couple of days before the lockdown. Most of the money he had, had run out during the journey itself. He and his mates were housed along with others from the same area but life was brutal – bhookh se mar rahe hain, sir ( We are dying of hunger, sir ). 

Even now, I wonder, how a kid, from a small town would have felt, thousands of miles  from a small village,  that was home, in a truly big, strange, intimidating city. Away from family. Without a job. Without money. Without food. And no idea of, forget the future, but how even the coming week looked like. How he will survive. 

Terrifying thought.

*****

Setting up such an operation wouldn’t have been easy.

Deciding what should be supplied. What is essential ? What can be nutritious ?

For how long ? A fortnight ? A month ?

Where to buy these supplies from ?

Who will set up the packing operations ? Where ? A reasonably large space will be needed.

How will the supplies be transported ?

Getting passes from the authorities to roam around during the lockdown.

Getting the cops to accompany if the distribution is to a large group to manage the crowd.

And, of course…getting the funds to run the operation.

I wasn’t there for any of the initial period of setting up the operations but the learning curve, I am sure, would have been a steep one. Operational issues are relatively easy to get a grip on.

There are far tougher questions out there.

*****

As we handed over the bags to him and were walking towards our car, two other elderly men hesitantly walked up to us. They hadn’t been earning ever since the lockdown and asked us if we have a few bags to spare. Their families were struggling.

We didn’t.

How do you tell a person, who has clearly struggled to overcome his reluctance to approach us, subdue  his pride and ask for help, that we could not help them ?

But, even if we had stocks to spare how do we know if the ask was genuine ? Were they being covered by other groups helping out but are looking at stocking up a bit more not knowing how long these uncertain times will last ? Moreover…can you blame anyone for doing that ?

At the same time,  if a family stocks up for the future at the cost of another that is going hungry  

It felt a bit like playing God.

*****

Recces.

If we do proper recces, identify clearly the people who are in need, who are not being covered by any other agency, we could hone in more accurately on those who are truly in need.

Go to a location. Meet the people. Get an estimate of the number of families, people, the number of houses / rooms. Mark the location on Maps. Get a Point of Contact for future communication. Send the data to a central team that would check if anyone else has covered the community in the recent past.

Over to them.

Different settlements were identified on the map. The details were cross verified. They were  marked as red and green. If red, it meant not covered and meant a yes for distribution.

Tokens were given. Made it easier during the  actual distribution. At least, the bags will definitely be given to those who have been identified as needing it. The same team that did the recce will try to go for the distribution. Easier to identify the right people.

But.

Not easy.

*****

In many ways it was a textbook distribution.

There were 30 bags to distribute. The PoC was a very efficient lady and had a clear plan in place. We were asked to put down 10 bags at a time. She had arranged for ten people to come at a time and the entire process went off extremely smoothly. 

However, a truck coming in to a locality attracts attention. Especially, during lockdown time when no one has much to do and are usually sitting outside their homes.

 A small crowd assembled.

A young man begged for at least a single bag to be given to him. Another lady, pleaded for help for her tenants. She had been helping out with her own rations but naturally that was not enough. There were families with infants. They need help. A third man demanded to know our basis for distribution. Why was he being ignored ?

This was the first drop of the trip. There were three more drops to finish. Everyone could see the bags still in the truck. While we were trying to explain why we could not spare any for them. Taking their contact numbers and promising them that we will return. Its not easy to see the disappointment in their eyes. Or the scepticism. 

We have to leave as they were crowding around us.

Because – social distancing.

*****

Its been just a little over two months back that a horrible new word crept insidiously into our daily vocabulary.

Social distancing.

There were real risks for anyone going out. It multiplies many times over if you are going into densely populated localities and a crowd gathers.

Strict rules were laid out. Protocols were established.

All volunteers MUST be wearing gloves and masks. Carry a sanitizer with you. Clean all touchpoints when you return to your car – the gear shift, the steering wheel. Get back into your house and head straight for a bath. Clothes go in a heap into a bucket of hot water and then for a wash. Wallets. Glasses. Phone. Everything gets a brush with the sanitizer.

Every time.

Every single time.

And, if a crowd gathers. If they don’t listen. Leave. Even if the distribution is not complete. You can return to complete it later.

But. Do. Not. Put. Yourself. At. Risk.

Also, while distributing,  all the recipients have to queue up maintaining social distancing.

Which always makes me wonder.

*****

There was a row of five or six rooms. Possibly around 10’ x 10’ or at the most 12’ x 12’. Not too tall. Cemented over. No paint was wasted on the walls. 

Towards the right, a little distance away, stood a smaller row of smaller cubicles. The toilets. The bathing area was in the open to the left. Common area and where they usually bathe in groups. 

“ How many of you stay in a room ? “

“ 5 or 6 of us”.

5 people in a 100 sft room. Social distancing ? 

When we say there is a complete lockdown, most of us talk from the perspective of the main roads. Take one of the side lanes and you will usually see a different world. People sitting together. Having a smoke. Standing outside the small fish stall. Or just sitting on the verandah of a cluster of shops and chatting. And these are areas where there are proper buildings. If you go to the settlements , its even more densely packed. 

Social distancing ?

Impractical. Illogical. Impossible.

*****

Amidst all the gloom, there definitely are innumerable instances that make you hopeful. How help will come up. Suddenly. Almost every time you need it.

The school that opened its doors and its auditorium to store all the stocks and for packing the bags. And, ensured that its canteen made tea and lunch for the workers.

The people at the FCI godown who ensured that our trucks didn’t have to wait in the queue – NGO ke log hain, jaldi kaam kar lo inka ( These are NGO folks, lets finish their loading quickly )

The guy who turned up to help out with the entire operations of ordering the supplies, getting the labour, arranging for the trucks.

The cops who would arrive at short notice to help out with the distribution if the number is rather high and the crowds need managing.

The guy who turned up with high quality masks and gloves and PPE kits for all the workers involved in the packing and for the volunteers. And got chicken biriyani for the workers who were putting in some tremendous work.

The families who heard that the workers were working the night shift and we had forgotten to arrange for dinner and immediately cooked up a delicious meal for 10-15 people and sent it over.

And, of course, the scores of volunteers, always eager to jump in. To put in long hours in the field. To take up any work that needs to be done, to attend to any issue that needs attention. Day after day.

But, its easy to be lost in the gloom.

*****

“ Sir, can you help me ? “

“Bolo”. ( Tell me )

“ Can you help us get back home ? “ 

We had just distributed supplies to around 50 people who were contract workers for a rather well known company. Supplies that will last them for at least two weeks. 

“ Why would you want to go home ? You have got this support which will last you for the next two weeks. Things will open up soon, work will start. Isn’t it better to stay back? “

“Nahi sir, bahut ho gaya. Bas ghar jaana hai ( No, sir, we have had enoughwe just want to go back home.)

Many of them had worked for four five years in the same company. They hadn’t got their salaries for the last month. However, what seemed to hurt them was the fact that no one had called them to check on them. No one was taking their calls. They were simply left to be on their own. Forgotten.

“ We will do farming at home. We will be with our own people. We will manage. Just help us get back home.” 

They had been going to the nearby police station. Had filled in the online forms, had submitted physical forms on top of it. A few of them had gone to the police station once again that morning to check on the status. And got caned. One of them showed me his injuries. He had applied a bluish white paste on them. After a while, I asked him what ointment it was. It was toothpaste. They could only apply what they had. 

I am usually reluctant to promise help unless I am sure I can deliver. I couldn’t do that this time.  I told them I will try.

And we all did. In multiple ways. Reaching out to multiple people. Cops. Bureaucrats. Politicians. However, nothing seemed to work.

Then we heard that there were 200,000 applicants. There never will be trains for that many applicants. And we hadn’t reached out to THE person who mattered.

He kept calling me. Four, five times a day. Always hopeful that I will have some good news for him. Telling me why he wanted to go home. Hopeful. I could only listen.

This morning, I conceded defeat. I told him that we have been unable to get any support from anywhere.

He had called me from outside the police station. He was once again waiting there. Despite getting caned. Despite being treated badly. Despite everything.

Because he wanted to go home. Another kid from another small village from deep inside the country. 

He hasn’t called me since.

*****

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above…

ALL YOU WHO SLEEP TONIGHT – Vikram Seth

The Top 10 from 2019

Goa.

Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela.

Jhalana at Jaipur.

Bhadra in Karnataka.

Bandhavgarh in MP.

Pantanal in Brazil.

Masai Mara.

2019 definitely was the sort of the year that  had never existed even in my wildest dreams.

First visits to places that have long been in my list and then two ‘blow-your-mind’ trips to the Pantanal and the Mara.

Total. Absolute. Heaven.

2019 also was the year where I travelled the most in my journey in photography. Where I finally put into use a lot of what I had read earlier but which I usually forgot in the heat of the moment and later, in my last trip of the year, to the Mara learnt a lot, lot more than I had imagined I would.

To make the list of the top 10 images in any year with so much travel would always be a challenging task, but that task becomes even more daunting when you have become a much better photographer by the end of the year than you were at the start.

So. On what basis do you make the list ? On the basis of the quality of the images as you see them ? On the basis of the experience you had while taking the pic ? On the basis of the level of difficulty that existed at the place ?

Sigh. Decisions. Decisions.

Finally, I decided that it will be a mix of all. Also look for those that show a lovely piece of animal interaction, play of light, indicates a lot of action in a still image. I also accepted the fact that if I look at my pics a week later, the choice and the ranking might be different.

But, all things considered, this was a tough job.  So many of those stunningly beautiful birds of Brazil lose out. And those cheetah images. Terrible, really.

And, if shortlisting ten images wasn’t bad enough…ranking them. Phew.

Anyway, here goes :).

*****

10.

We spent a lovely afternoon with Siligi and her six cubs. From the time we saw her resting on the hillock, our hope was that if she and the cubs stayed there till sunset we could get some brilliant silhouettes.

We did. Out of all those lovely silhouettes, this is what I loved. The unconditional love that any kid would have for the mother  gets captured here. The kids were playing all around and then Siligi decides it was time to get a move, gets up, stretches and then as she moves away, two cubs come running up to her and one jumps up to give her a nice hug and a kiss. Well, not actually a hug and a kiss, but isn’t that how this looks ?

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Location : Masai Mara, Dec 2019

9. 

We clambered down a small, bushy slope, a bulky 400 lens atop a tripod and cautiously tiptoed into a small clearing. There, on a branch with no twigs, no leaves coming in the way, with no clutter in the background, sat a Female White Rumped Shama. I stopped in my tracks and started clicking. My guide, Ramesh of Nature’s Nest, ventured a little further ahead and gestured to me to join him.

And, there she was. Perfectly perched with a little bit of sunshine falling beautifully on her face and playing games in the background. Such a dreamy background.

This was also my first image that I printed and framed, so, yes, there is that bit too that influenced its choice 🙂

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Location : Goa, Jan 2019

8.

One of the sub adult cubs was in the small pool of water. We knew where the other two cubs were. Near the half eaten kill. The mother and two of the cubs were enjoying a siesta and Zian from Baghtola had suggested we position ourselves such that if any of the sleeping cubs come for a dip in the pool, their path will give us direct head on images. It was June. It was hot. They had to come.

One of them did. Exactly as expected by Zian. Being a sub adult, it was still a little wary of all the jeeps and I loved the sense of action in this image. Alert. Wary. Looking straight into the camera. Dark undergrowth in the background and the setting sun making the dry grass look a wonderful golden colour matching the lovely tawny skin of the tiger. What. A. Magnificent. Creation.

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Location : Bandhavgarh. June 2019

7.

As a rule I don’t like animals crowding the entire frame. We, or to be more accurate Antony Tira of Matira Lodge, had seen two jackals alert peering into the bushes and we went to investigate. There deep in the bushes was Bahati the leopard. Resting. In no mood to get out.

We waited. And then suddenly she stepped out. With a 600 mm in my hand, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to take anything else other than a close up. What a lovely creature she is ! Those eyes ! Limpid pools and all that. I loved the way I got the right Depth of Field and got the eyes and the head tack sharp with the rest of the body dissolving into fuzziness. Of course, it took Rahul Sachdev’s eye to suggest that I look at a black and white instead of colour. Lovely. The fact that its my desktop image on my work PC helps this image !

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Location : Masai Mara Dec 2019

6.

A cat emerges out of the water. Or is sitting in the rain. The chances that it will shake off the water are absolutely certain. We had been trailing this jaguar for hours. A jaguar loves the water and we were waiting on the opposite side, beautifully positioned thanks to Fabiano from BioDiverse Tours, to get some straight head-on pics. I had completely forgotten the fundamental nature of the jaguar when it emerges from the river. It has to shake off the water. My response was a rather frantic one. Fortunately, I got a couple of lovely ones. The neck twisted powerfully, the water droplets formed a glittering necklace around it, aided by the dark background. And in black and white, it just looked so brilliant !

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Location : Pantanal, Brazil. August 2019

5.

This time I was ready.

Our first game drive. It was pouring. There were two male lions sitting rather stoically in the rain. Drenched. It had to happen. That shake. And, with that mane and that amount of rain, I could get a memorable image. The only concern was the awkward position I was sitting in, peering through a tiny gap in the windows as the lens poked outside. Being patient was tough.

I think it paid off.

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4.

Its getting tougher to make those choices now.

The toucanet is a striking bird. Such colours and such an interesting shape. This bird was rather comfortable with the place. I was wondering if I should exchange my 600 mm for a 200-500. Supreet from Tropical Tours felt I shouldn’t and I didn’t really need much encouragement. However, if you have a 600mm lens and don’t have much place to back off, you cannot get anything much other than an image that crowds the entire frame. Which is kinda boring.

Then the blessed thing turned around and peered down. Perfect opportunity to get an interesting pose. With a lot of space. In the direction of the gaze. Lovely Depth of Field. All boxes ticked 🙂 On top of everything, to get that eye so nicely. Bliss.

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Location : Trilha dos Tucanos, Brazil. August 2019

3.

Its the Jabiru stork  at #3. It was early morning and we were, as usual, on the river,  busy trying to get photographs of a frisky family of otters. A shout from Fabiano,” Jabiru landing !” and a few precious seconds to squeeze off a few shots. Shooting into the sun, with the sunlight reflecting brilliantly off the water ,the wings spread gloriously making it look translucent, the slight splash of the water as the feet land…beautiful.

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Location: Pantanal, Brazil. August 2019

2.

Mardadi.

What an imposing name. Try saying it. The ‘D’ isn’t a hard one…say it softly. Ahh…just sounds so imperial.

Mardadi and the lioness were resting between their mating. Lions usually have a go every 10-15 minutes but maybe the duo were just too exhausted cos they just ignored each other completely throughout the time we were there. While we were disappointed that we are missing the chance of a lifetime to take some mating shots against the setting sun, it was still a lot of fun to take silhouette shots of a luxuriously maned, handsome male. We kept experimenting. Exposure compensation at -1, then -2 and then even -3. Just then the setting sun, peeped out of the clouds for that brief second, bathing the entire scene with the most beautiful golden colour.

Click !

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Location : Masai Mara, December 2019

1. 

I might have agonised over which images would make it to the top ten. I might have agonised over the ranking of most of the images. However, I never had any doubt about which would be the numero uno.

I don’t think any of us will ever forget this day with Selenkei and her single cub. We met them just after they realised that the other cub was missing. The duo spent hours wandering around, searching for the unfortunate cub. Hours. They kept staring desolately into the thicket where it had got lost – presumably, the unfortunate cub became the meal of a pack of hyenas. As the sun was sinking behind the horizon with an exhausted sigh, the mother walked upto the surviving cub and gave it a kiss. To me it seemed like a nuzzle as reassuring to the mother as it would be to the cub. It was simply heartbreaking. Golden yellow skies. Grass on gentle fire. Soft light. Slight rim lit…precious.

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Location : Masai Mara, December 2019

Phew.

That was fun. Let me know your feedback. It matters. The last time I made a list, the #1 hasn’t even made it to this list…I got so influenced 🙂

Ciao !!

The Eloquence of Light

The eloquence of light

Straight off…the heading for this post is not an original one. A few days back, while randomly surfing, I saw an announcement about an Ansel Adam exhibition, titled, “ The Eloquent Light” or rather, I think that was the title.

The two words, ‘eloquence’ and ‘light’ stayed with me.

Just two words. But they capture the essence of what photography was beginning to mean for me.

How to use light effectively…eloquently.

*****

If you have good gear and with the plethora of post processing software at your disposal, it’s really not that difficult to have a decent picture.

Of course, there still is the factor of composition. That’s definitely a big deal and there definitely is so much that an interesting, elegant or dramatic composition can do to an image. The more you observe the masters, the more you observe images by other photographers, you learn, you get ideas, you get inspired by another composition to try something a little different. But,  the opportunity to try out some really interesting composition doesn’t really come up all the time, even if the old adage that you create opportunities is true.

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We were driving around and there were zebras around us. I looked back and I saw what could be an interesting composition. ( Pic taken in 2018 )

And, then, comes the handling of light.

A lazy web search would reveal that the etymology of ‘photography’ is “ Photo + Graphy” – or in other words, ‘drawing with light’.

Photography is after all, all about light. But how often do we make whatever light is available, wherever the source of light might be, our ally ?

My early lessons instructed sternly: take pictures with the light behind you. The subject should be well lit. Get the catchlight in the eyes of the bird. By the way, that’s a mandatory tick box for bird photography.

Well, that soon got a bit boring. Anyone could take a half decent picture of a subject in good light ( good gear makes it easier ) and if you don’t get the catch light, you could always use any software to get that in. ( The ethics of post processing is an altogether different subject which I might attempt to tackle at a later date )

Go online and search…there are zillions of clean, well lit, sharp pictures of a tiger portrait, of a lion lying down, of birds on perches.

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Sharp. Well lit. Decent composition….But…what does it really say ?

How does one get to be different ? How does one create an image that stands out ?

Plus, in the wild, you don’t get ideal situations. The action might be happening between you and the light. There might be other vehicles better positioned.

Do you simply give up ?

*****

The email said a trip to Kenya was being planned. Masai Mara, Amboseli. A max of 4-5 people to enable individual attention. Hmm…Amboseli and the Mara would make it too long. Mara had touched my soul so Mara it was. I had already planned a trip to Brazil so this would be the second international phototrip in a year, but I didn’t pay that much heed because of the sender of the mail.

I had been following Rahul Sachdev for quite a few years and was just  fascinated by his images. The usage of light…simply breathtaking. I had also heard that his phototours are outstanding in the opportunity to learn.

I think I decided to sign up even before I reached the end of the mail.

Go, immerse yourselves here – https://www.rahulsachdev.net

You might not read the rest of this post once you dig in to that site, but let me assure you that, that would be time definitely better spent 🙂

*****

The trip was, even in spite of the huge expectations, simply mind blowing in terms of what I could learn. Or, at least, get a glimpse of what is possible. Get a glimmer of an idea on how that could be achieved. It’s a long long road of learning that still lies ahead but it was just so fulfilling to simply get on to that road !

We created some lovely images. Yes, we were blessed by the fact that we saw some unbelievably intense drama and animal interactions, but if I had been alone, I am positive that I would not have taken even a single of these images. It was Rahul who was constantly seeing opportunities, suggesting positions, angles, recommending settings and demonstrating what patience could deliver. He constantly encouraged us to experiment and taught me the value of just two aspects which I had underplayed significantly – White Balance and Exposure.

Another stroke of luck followed.

I got an opportunity to spend a weekend at Bharatpur and it perfectly coincided with a phototour that Rahul had organized to Bharatpur. Two days are just not enough in Bharatpur especially when its your first visit there. But the chance to try out some of what you had recently learnt and learn more in the one place which has so many opportunities to experiment was God given !

It was such fun creating these images.

Hope you enjoy them 🙂

*****

The evening spent with Selenkei and her surviving cub was unforgettable ( written here : https://chaistops.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/the-lil-brave-cub/ ), both for the intense emotions that all of us experienced at their situation and for the utterly selfish delight from the photographic opportunities they threw up.

We had stayed with the two through the afternoon drawn in by the drama at play and at the same time, hoping to get some good images against the setting sun.

It paid off.

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I have got numerous images of a cheetah, but this one is special. The golden yellow light, her hair standing out and the slightly darkened body…so much more evocative !

 

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We kept experimenting. Underexposing just by a third…underexposing by a full three points…and with the sun, peeping in and out of the clouds, the light that was thrown kept changing.
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Underexposing a lot…captured the sleek body of the cheetah in a wonderful turn, with the sun kissed outline making the image a bit more interesting.
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Photos should tell a story, make your imagination wander. Knowing that the two are searching for a missing cub, makes some of these images that much more poignant.
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They just look so indescribably sad 😦
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My favourite one…what I firmly believe to be a kiss that was reassuring to both mom and the surviving cub with the sun setting the horizon on a gentle fire

And, on our way back, lost though we were in our own thoughts about the ways of the wild, Rahul saw an opportunity to take a few of those famous Mara silhouettes.

“The golden rule of silhouette, is that the legs need to be clearly visible against the sky. You CANNOT break that rule”.

“Aye, Aye, sir !”

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Does look like the poor animal is heading back after a hard day’s work, doesn’t it ?
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I loved the way that piece of grass in its mouth has been captured…adds to the image, I think.

Another evening, again as we were heading back to the resort, we took a turn to check if there were a pair of mating lions still there.

They were.

And while they never mated and took a really extended break, Mardadi, the lion, proudly showed off his majestically royal profile.

Against the sun, of course. By now, shooting with the sun behind us was so passe ! 🙂

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Lion on fire !!!
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There was that split second when the sun burst out from behind the clouds, in a last hurray before it got eaten up by the horizon, and bathed Mardadi in such pure, golden light…just blessed to have been looking through my camera and click !

Often its just about having the vision of a potential opportunity. And the patience to wait for it. It was just after noon that we saw that Siligi and her six cubs were sitting, wonderfully perched on a hill, having the time of their lives.

And while just being there helped us capture some lovely, tender moments, Rahul pointed out that if the family stayed up there till sunset and if the weather held, we could get some stunning silhouettes.

They did. The weather did. And we did.

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The outline that emphasises the sleekness of a cheetah…and those blades of grass…adds so much !
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And if ever there could be a welcome for any parent…this is how it would be.

The scene then moves to Bharatpur. A place which gives one so many opportunities to get totally creative with the sun and the mist.

But not all usage of light has to be similar. Getting this beautiful yellow footed green pigeon with a matching background and perch was good enough but to have the light fortuitously fall on its face, I think, lifted the image that little bit more.

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I must admit tho..if the sun had fallen a wee bit higher, I would have been even happier

But, its the sunrise that really throws up the opportunities at Bharatpur. And, I finally became bold and moved from Auto White Balance to manual and started playing with it while taking images.

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Egrets are usually ignored if the light is really good. However, if the light is poor they make such fascinating subjects. Underexpose a lot, increase the WB and their sharp feathers look brilliant against the background !

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Low light. Egrets. Lovely combination to have.

” You are waiting for the Sarus cranes to come closer and there are opportunities all around you that you are wasting away !”

True that ! There were opportunities galore right under our noses and we were missing them.

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A slightly different WB, a slightly different exposure setting and a different image

As I said, the road is long, there is nothing called the final destination but  these two trips with Rahul helped me get onto that road.

Gracias 🙂

Tales from the Mara III – The fascination of a hunt

She crouched.

Low. Body tense. Poised for motion. Eyes locked in on a single Thomson’s gazelle calf that was grazing a short distance away.

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Ready to explode into blinding motion !

Minutes earlier she was lying low in the short grass, scouting the herd, trying to identify the right target.

The gazelles were nervous. They sensed danger. They had stopped grazing. The looked around skittishly and took a few uncertain steps away from her.

She exploded into action.

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To catch a cheetah in full flight is simply an awesome sight

Forelegs and hindlegs moving in a naturally smooth and synchronized manner, her lithe body moving swift as an arrow through the grass.

The tiny gazelle rocketed off, eyes wide open in alarm, running for its life.

*****

You could go to any forest. Anywhere. You could see as many of the big cats as possible but what will truly make your trip rank high, is if you see a hunt. Any hunt. And, if it’s a successful hunt…nirvana.

In the Masai Mara, however, things are a little different. Take a mix of open grasslands which give you clear views, an abundance of  prey and predators in reasonably decent number…yes, chances are high that you will see a hunt.

A successful hunt ? Well, that’s another matter. You need to be a tad lucky there.

The lions have a success rate of around 15-25% in their hunts, depending on whether they are hunting solo or as a pride. That’s a pretty sad number.

The leopards fare a little better clocking almost 40% as their strike rate. The cheetah sits on top of the pile with a greater than 50% strike rate! However, nature corrects that relatively high strike rate by ensuring that the cheetahs end up losing most of its prey to other predators after the kill.

Sad, though. Imagine going through all that hassle knowing that there is a high chance that you might still lose your meal after you have caught it.

So, clearly, chances are high that you might see a hunt but the guarantee that it’s a successful hunt ?

Zilch.

To make that already pessimistic picture worse, you need to be a photographer.

Cos, its just not enough to see a hunt, it needs to be a successful hunt of course, but you also need to be able to be close enough to the action to get good pictures. Nah, those pics of the animals feasting after the hunt are no fun. Well, of course, you will still take those shots but there is no great satisfaction there.

But a picture of a cheetah flying after a gazelle, eight legs stretched in flight and chase…a picture of a pride of lions, all muscle and brute force, bringing down a huge buffalo ?

The. Holy. Grail.

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A quarter of the dream image. The prey should be there in the frame. And the cheetah should be in full flight…some day 🙂

You need to be tremendously lucky for that, but before luck kicks in, you need to have a brilliant guide who really understands animal behavior.

After that…pure luck, but your chances improve.

*****

We landed on an airstrip inside Masai Mara and started on a game drive right from the airport. You clearly don’t waste time in the wild 🙂

A few minutes into the drive, we admired our first topi standing on a small grass mound looking steadily ahead. Just a few feet ahead, a solitary elephant morosely eyed us, ears flapping idly. There’s always that little bit of extra excitement in your first drive and you stop to see almost all the animals you come by. Slowly, the excitement settles down, the pulse rate steadies a bit, and you tend to become a bit more selective. Right now, both these animals had our full attention.

“Lioness stalking!”

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Look at that focus !! This lioness was a lone one. Not part of any pride. Had to be an amazing hunter to survive, hunting all alone !

Indeed ! There she was, a solitary lioness, crouching in the short grass and steadily approaching the topi who continued to look ahead totally unmindful of the approaching danger from the rear.

A possibility of a hunt within the first 30 minutes of landing ???

Wow. Insane.

*****

All three cats have widely varying approaches to hunting but equally fascinating.

Lions usually hunt in prides. A couple of lions head straight to the prey, crouching, hiding, taking their own sweet time to approach the prey. A couple of others head in a wide semi circle far away from the prey but in reality, ready to wait in ambush. The lions ( usually lionesses, cos the male usually makes an appearance to take the lion’s share ( Sorry ! J) of the meal ) are constantly making eye contact with each other. At the right moment, they charge at the prey. The prey usually takes flight, and if in the right direction will run straight into the second bunch of lions waiting in ambush. Lions are neither too fast nor can they sustain their pace for a long time, so it has to be the element of surprise and brute strength that wins the game. If the prey runs in the opposite direction to where the second bunch is waiting they escape. If they spied the approaching lions early enough, they will have enough speed and energy to escape.

And hence the abysmal strike rate. Tough life.

The leopards, on the other hand are solitary hunters. They are experts at the stealth mode. To see a leopard stalking is a sight. They crouch, keeping themselves very low to the ground, their spotted, tawny colours helping in camouflaging and when they are really close to the prey, they make that decisive leap and the conclusion is swift. The leopard then drags the prey up the tree to eat in peace, their awesome strength in ample display as they effortlessly drag up even heavy kills up a tree.

Cheetahs ? Very different. They have a rather simple approach to hunting. Speed. Speed however, comes into effect only when they are around 100 mts from the prey. They will use the grass or other vegetation as cover to get close and then they just zip. The chase is usually short and absolutely electric. They cannot sustain such high speeds for a long time and that exhaustion at the end of the kill along with comparatively lesser strength combines to make them rather poor defenders of their kills. All this is when they are alone. When they hunt in packs, it’s a completely different story.

By the way, that is the main reason cheetahs hunt during the day. Thats the time the lions and the leopards are not out hunting. Reduces the chances of them being robbed of their kill.

Smart.

*****

The lioness was getting closer to the topi, who was intensely focused on something in the distance, beyond the bushes just in front of it.

Will the topi stay put till the lioness reaches it ? Or will it look around as a rather basic step of self preservation ?

Will the lioness be able to cross that short stretch of reasonably open ground without being noticed ?

Antony, our brilliant guide suggested that we go a little ahead on the other side of the bushes. The lioness will charge, the topi will run and definitely charge out of the bushes right in front and we will be there waiting. And get the best pics.

Sounded perfect. However, best laid plans of men and mice and all that…

We waited. Minutes ticked by.

Finally, Antony said we should go and check what on earth had happened.

And, saw that the hunt was over. The lioness had clearly managed to reach right upto the topi without being seen and the end was rather swift and brutal.

And, yes, I had to be satisfied just with the pics of the lioness with the kill.

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The end must have been really swift. The lioness gave us a passing glance before dragging its meal into the bushes.

*****

We had quite an insane trip.

We saw a lot of hunts. To top that, many successful ones. We saw baboons, hyneas, lions, cheetahs with their kills. We saw most of them during the hunt too. But only in two instances, did we actually see the hunt in its entirety. On three occasions, the culmination of the hunt happened behind the bushes.

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The most common sight. A cat walking upto us with its meal in its mouth.
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For variety, we once saw a baboon walk off with a hapless gazelle. The poor lil thing had innocently wandered off straight into the baboon who was not even hunting !

Now, that can be really frustrating. There we are trying to figure out where the predator is and which is the specific prey it is targeting. We either wait at a place waiting for the action to explode in plain sight or try to go around the bushes to see if we can catch sight of the closing stages of the hunt.

And then. The successful hunter walks up. With the prey. Holding it as a trophy.

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What ? You missed me hunt ? Again ????

Well, more pics of them eating.

Terrible 🙂

*****

The chances of a successful hunt are higher if the predator hunt in groups.

Duh.

But while watching a solitary predator hunt is awesome, it’s the hunt by the groups that so thoroughly intrigues me.

Numerous questions. How do they communicate with each other during the hunt ? How do they decide what strategy they should adopt ? How do they decide which specific prey to go for when there is an abundance of prey right in front of them ? How do they decide who will do what ? When do they decide to change the target ?

If the hunt fails due to someone goofing up, how is that individual treated in the group ? Do they castigate him for the mistake made ? Or do they do the equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and carrying on ? How do the dynamics of a group change if one member is a tad less effective as a hunting machine ? Is he or she kicked out ? Or are they given last chance to eat the meal ?

But, mainly…how on earth do they decide on a strategy ? We saw two successful hunts by two different coalitions of cheetahs.

Completely different. Totally.

We saw a successful hunt and an unsuccessful hunt by the same coaltion.

Again, totally different approaches.

How. Why.

*****

The Fast Five were on the move.

Their lean frames clearly indicated that they hadn’t had a meal for a while. We had just witnessed a failed attempt and we knew that they will hunt again. After they collect their breath. They will need an hour or two to regain their energy and they will definitely move. They have to.

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The old wily topi that got away. Did you notice the Fast Five bunched up in the grass assessing the hunt ?

We waited. Finally, they had rested enough and they limbered up. Stretching. Getting ready.

Watching this coalition of five cheetahs is such a completely different experience. They walk as if they own the earth. Total badass. Whenever I see them, the famous tune of ‘ The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’ plays in my mind. They strut. They swagger.

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They strut. They swagger. They own the earth.

 

And, right now the Five mean business.

Spread in front of them, is open land. Vast open land. Not a single bush. No tall grass. Hardly any cover for them to hide behind before their frenzied burst. Nope.

The land in front of them sparkled with a variety of offerings. Zebras, gazelles, impallas, topis, elands. All of them grazing and keeping a sharp lookout around them.

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Zebras. Gazelles. Topis. Elands. You can pick what you want. The cheetahs have been seen. They are not bothered.

And the Five just walked in. No attempt to hide themselves, no attempt at camouflage. Nothing. Did I say, badass ?

The five had split up. Two of them walked away and soon could be seen on the horizon, circling the animals one of which would be their target.

The animals in the middle are nervous. They can smell danger. They can see danger. They just don’t know from which side its going to come.

We are busy trying to keep tabs on the five cheetahs. Two of them are far away patrolling the horizon. One of them has now broken away and is coming inside, towards us. There are two of them walking nonchalantly straight into the centre of the sprawling land.

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Look at the cheetah walking so coolly into the middle. No stealth. No cover. Total boss.

Where on earth is the fifth cheetah ??? Is he encircling the animals from this side ? Antony has got us into the perfect position. We can see everything. For the dream shots, however, the hunted needs to run in our direction.

Some of the zebras run off for a short distance. But which direction to run ?

The tails of the tiny Thomson gazelles are twitching rapidly as if trying to quieten its own rising nervousness. The impalas have stopped grazing and looking around. Anxiety is high.

Under the benignly warm sun, in the middle of a lovely picturesque grassland a bitter battle for survival is about to play out.

Suddenly, the scene explodes into action.

Its utter mayhem and chaos. The cheetahs are in full flight. All of them. The animals are running everywhere. You are clicking away madly. You hear the shutters go batshit crazy around you. You don’t really know what is happening.

And then, just as suddenly, peace descends. Its all over. In minutes.

It’s a successful hunt.

*****

You so badly want to take those stunning pictures of a hunt. Sadly, it ain’t so easy.

The first time, I took my heavy 600mm lens to catch the action. Bloody cumbersome to follow the action especially considering the speed with which it happens. Elementary mistake.

Here, I faced another different and curious problem. There were five cheetahs in play. Multiple potential prey. All of them spread wide across the open grassland in front.

On which cheetah do I focus on ???!!!

Yes, the cheetah I was closely watching as it charged was not the one that hunted the impala.

Actually when I saw my pictures later, I realized that I had picked up the worst cheetah of the lot at least as far as this hunt was concerned. Seriously !

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There’s a hunt happening. A successful hunt. And the one cheetah I am focusing on, gets chased by an angry mother eland. Come on….!!!

But we got some good pictures of them feasting 🙂

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The five are busy. The solitary horn indicates that the meal was an impala.
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Is any other predator coming to rob them off their meal ? Cheetahs keep a constant vigil while eating

*****

Apparently, it is a standard strategy with the Fast Five. They just spread themselves and walk into the party. The animals are thoroughly confused as to where the danger will be coming from and the cheetahs with their ferocious speed and agility easily take advantage of this confusion and make their kill.

Simple. Efficient.

But so different from what we saw just the next day.

*****

Rosseta wanted her cubs to learn how to hunt.

Two males and a female. Sub adults. Around 17-18 months of age. Almost on the verge of going off on their own. They had better learn how to hunt well.

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The cubs would be off on their own in a matter of months. They need to learn to hunt independently.

Cheetah sub adults when they move off on their own are still not efficient hunters. As a result, the siblings tend to stay together to increase their chances of getting food. When they become experts, the female leaves the brothers and stays on her own.

Right now, however, they were all one large family and the kids needed to be taught.

And they were muffing up. Two attempts, both of which ended in abject failure. Not that the failures bothered them much. They still frolicked after the futile attempts.

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Hunt screwed up ? Big deal…mom’s there ! Lets play !

Guess, they had faith in the mother.

But the family needed to eat.

*****

She had been trying for the last few hours. Using the bushes as cover. But the gazelles were alert. She couldn’t even get the opportunity to charge at them.

Finally, after more than an hour of trying, she gave up. She moved away from the bushes into the open grasslands.

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Hours of stealth have gone waste. Her lean belly indicates that its been a while since the last meal. She moves away from the bushes

The sub adult cubs followed her. They were all hungry. Rosetta had to make a kill. Mostly by herself. She really could not rely on her cubs beyond a limited extent.

We waited. There were two male impalas sparring with each other for the right of the females. They frequently broke off to look into the direction of the cheetahs. Finally, they moved further away. Taking with them the chance of an attack while they were preoccupied.

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Do we fight for the harem ? Or do we flee ?

Another hour ticked by.

The fighting males had now managed to again come closer to us and the approaching cheetahs.

How can she come close enough to her prey without being seen ? Close enough for her to launch her final lightning attack. Was the grass tall enough ? How will she rope in her cubs ? What strategy will she adopt ?

Or will she do it all on her own ?

Antony had again positioned us well. The cheetahs were coming in our direction from a distance. But, who will they target ? The spread of the land around us was vast.

What followed was simply mesmerizing. Mind blowing in its speed, tenacity and the duration of the chase.

Rosetta had her prey in her sights. It looked as if she was just fixing her prey in her sights. And then she launched, in plain sight, without any of the textbook crouching, into a full fledged attack.

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She takes off. Like a bullet. The prey flees for dear life. ( Now if only we had been so much more closer !!! )

She took off after the male impala at a blistering speed. We could see the impala running for dear life and how Rosetta stayed at its heels all through. Rosetta was not giving up. The chase already seemed to be long. But she seemed to have a plan. Maybe, she stayed slightly to the left of the impala and that made the impala keep turning to its right.

Curving.

Without its knowledge, mind intent only on saving itself, its path was tracing a circle. The impala was headed almost straight back to where the chase started.

Where three hungry cheetahs were waiting.

Rosetta slowed down. The cubs took over. The impala took one sharp turn. Then another.

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Dodging. Swerving. But with a cheetah hot on its heels….as an aside, what I would give to be in that jeep there !!

But three of them were there.

Before we knew it, he was cornered. The three cheetahs hung on like limpets. One had the impala by the neck from under. Another had climbed up its back. The third one had focused on the hind quarters of the impala. Holding on.

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The exhausted mother now approached her cubs, panting heavily. And just when it appeared as if the game was finally over for the impala, the cub that had the impala from under his neck, presumably got exhausted and dropped to the ground ! All of a sudden the impala moved a little ahead and the other two cubs also, surprised, dropped off.

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The cheetah holding the impala by the neck tires and drops off. For some reason, the one clinging on to the back also is lax…

The impala was free ! It had bolted !!!

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The impala had bolted !!! I was intrigued by the lack of bite marks on its neck and back…the cubs were hanging on there for quite a while!!

Rosetta, already exhausted after a chase much longer than a cheetah usually attempts, wasn’t about to lose her prey as easily as that. Her legs might have been exhausted, her lungs might have been collapsing but that primeval drive for food was stronger than everything else, and she sped after the impala and with the efficiency born out sheer experience brought it down and killed it. Swift. Merciless.

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It over in seconds. Swift. Efficient. That’s experience.

What followed was even more fascinating. The cub that had let go of the neck first, which allowed the impala to almost get away, walked away from the rest of the family. As if, ashamed to face them. Two cubs and the mother surrounded the kill, kept a sharp eye around for any approaching predator and started eating. This cub went far away and returned much later.

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Successful. The cheetahs catch their breath. The one guilty of having almost muffed up the hunt has slunk away

Was it feeling ashamed ? Was it afraid to face the mother ? The siblings for almost robbing the entire family of its meal ?

What goes on in the minds of families ?

Will we ever know ?

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The third cub returns. The slightly pale one in the centre. The days work is done. 

*****

No, I didn’t get any pictures of a cheetah flying in the air in hot pursuit of its prey. The few images I got were when they were far away. But maybe I figured what to do and how to do it for the next hunt. When I return.

Till then it will be the memories of two utterly fascinating hunts. Two completely different and totally pulsating hunts.

Leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from the Mara I – The lil’ brave cub

When we first saw them, they were two tiny dots, one much smaller than the other, in a sea of a lovely shade of light green.

The Mara had been witnessing rains of a nature that December has rarely seen, and from our vehicle it appeared as if a green carpet has been thrown all over earth’s surface. The wetness from the rain that had just ceased combined with a weak sunlight to throw up a surface that softly sparkled as it swayed to the gentle breeze.

It was a lovely morning.

There was a strange kind of desolation in the way the mother and cub were sitting, heads turning this way and that, occasionally giving out their sharp calls. The gazelles and topis a short distance away, who had first alerted us to the possibility of a predator in the vicinity, were completely ignored.

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There was a sad, forlorn air about the two

“ She had two cubs. Where is the second one ?”

That was Antony, who runs the Matira Bush Camp and who was doubling up as our guide.

“ She must have lost one of her cubs. They are crying out for the lost cub”.

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It was particularly distressing to hear the cub keep calling out for its missing sibling

*****

Cheetahs are an endangered species. One report says that the current cheetah population in the wild is around 7000 and that this number is expected to decline by more than 50% over the next 15 years !

While we humans have played our usual depressing role in this reduction, even without us, the challenges that face the cheetah are significant.

More than 90% of the cheetah cubs don’t survive beyond the first three months.

Read that again – more than 90% don’t survive.

Female cheetahs are largely solitary animals. Males come together with a female only for the purposes of mating and it’s the female that brings up the cubs.

All on her own.

And, its tough, incredibly tough.

The mother has to leave her cubs, hidden safely while she goes off on a hunt. Often walking long distances to make her kill. Cheetahs also tend to lose a lot of their kills to other predators like hyenas, leopards and lions. If any of these animals appear, they simply walk away, not wanting to risk a fight the conclusion of which is a given. What this means, is simply that the time a mother could be away from her kids could be rather long.

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The previous evening, in the middle of a downpour we saw another pregnant cheetah, Amani, being robbed of her kill by a hyena. The way of the wild.

The cubs are in danger all this time. Any predator could stumble upon them.

Quite often, the family might encounter any of the larger predators. In a finely honed routine, the cubs bolt at the slightest indication of danger and the mother tries to confront and distract the predator trying to draw them away from the cubs.

She later comes back to the same spot calling out for her cubs to get reunited.

Anything could have happened to the cubs in the meantime.

*****

The cub was standing a little apart from its mother, looking around disconsolately, crying out occasionally. A lonely, forlorn figure.

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It just looked incredibly sad.

Occasionally, the mother would reach out to her cub and give it a reassuring lick. On other occasions, the cub will walk upto its mother for a comforting head bump. The mother had fallen quiet. The cub, still occasionally gave out a sharp cry out for its sibling.

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A comforting kiss…
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…or a reassuring head bump followed by a quick lick

They stayed where they were. Wet and dejected.

We waited there for a long time. Hoping that soon there will be a return call and we would witness a joyful reunion. Though we knew, that, that was highly unlikely.

When we left them, both of them were lying down, the cub with its head burrowed in the grass.

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Sigh. The picture of despondency

*****

We went around, ostensibly looking for other animals to photograph, but also silently looking for any traces of the missing cub. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we saw it but, of course,  we didn’t.

There was a researcher who was studying cheetahs and Antony informed her about the missing cub. She had seen both cubs with the mother that very morning. She narrated her sighting, how the mother and cubs came down a slope, entering a bushy area with a lot of trees and out of her sight.

A terrain where both leopards and hyenas had been sighted earlier.

Everyone is extremely sensitive to the risk that cheetahs face and the rangers are always in the vicinity, often stepping in to protect the cubs but of course, they cannot be and maybe, should not be around everywhere.

*****

When we returned to the scene, the mother and cub were huddled together and the mom was giving the cub a thorough cleaning, an act that was possibly equally comforting to both.

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A rather thorough cleaning was under way. It possibly comforted both mother and cub

Soon, they were off.

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Walking determinedly in the direction of the same dense terrain the researcher had talked about. Potential prey, a pair of jackals appearing to follow them closely…all were ignored. One of them wandered quite close to the cub and the kid barely gave it a glance. Supreme indifference.

They reached the edge of the tree and bush cover and both of them sat down looking in, calling out, as if willing the missing cub to reappear.

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It was somewhere in there that they possibly lost the third member of their small family

Heartbreaking.

*****

Many vehicles came and went. There was nothing much happening. We stayed put along with the researcher’s vehicle.

The mother would regularly get up and walk around sniffing and calling out. The cub stayed put. We wondered how tired and hungry it would be. At some point, the mother would need to give up on her search and hunt.

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They didn’t enter the woods. Just walked around the edge. Scanning. Calling. Waiting.

 

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Giving out occasional cries but mostly in silence, they waited

As the sun set, we decided to pack up too and leave, reluctant and quite worried. The area wasn’t very safe for the two cheetahs. We had heard a pair of mating cheetahs and of course, other predators also were around.

The mother and cub stayed there. As we left, one of the last images we had was of the mother giving another reassuring lick to her cub.

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And another comforting kiss…my favourite frame of the day

It had been a long, terrible day for the two of them.

But little did either of them know what was in store for them the following day.

*****

The Fast Five.

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When these guys move…the famous soundtrack from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays in my mind. Total cowboys these guys.

A unique coalition of cheetahs. Not all five of them are brothers – three of them are. No one knows how they came to form the group, but they have been together for quite a few years. They roam around as if they own the entire earth and no territory seems to bound them. They could be in the centre of the Mara one day and in the Conservancy the next day.

But right now they were smack in the centre of the Mara. We had spent most of the day with them. We saw them botch up a hunt of an old topi, waited for them to regain their breath and watched a magnificent hunt.

Now their stomachs were full, but they were still roaming around.

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They had feasted on a large kill. Their bulging stomachs tell the tale

Not too far from Selenkei and her surviving cub.

*****

Male lions, when they attack the lions of another pride or when the oust the reigning males of a pride, kill all the cubs. This is to both ensure the dominance of their genetic streak and also to get the lioness in heat so that they can mate with them.

The Fast Five had seen Selenkei.

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That moment we realise that Selenkei and her cub have been spotted

She had crouched low in the grass that was fairly abundant thanks to the unseasonal rain, made her cub lie even lower in the grass.

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Selenkei slinks low into the grass, her cub snuggling close to her…watching the approaching Five

But she was still seen.

The Fast Five were going to mark their territory at a nearby tree but now they were focused on her. They were making a bee line to Selenkei.

Our hearts sank. What fresh hell awaited Selenkei and her cub ?

Will the Fast Five kill the cub just as male lions do with cubs of another pride ?

*****

The rangers now swung into action.

To us onlookers we couldn’t get a clear sense of what they were doing. First they tried to ward off the Fast Five onto a different direction.

They failed.

The Fast Five continued relentlessly.

As they reached very close to Selenkei the rangers appeared again. One of them even got out of the vehicle with a gun in his hand.

Meanwhile, in our vehicle, Antony was getting agitated.

*****

Lions do kill the cubs of another pride.

A female cheetah however mates with multiple males and it is never very clear which male would actually be the father.

When a male cheetah meets a female they would be mainly keen to see if the female is in heat. They do this be sniffing her urine. A female cheetah who has cubs will not be in heat and the males usually simply move on, since they also have no clue if the cub is his or not.

All this is science.

But can we depend on it ? Antony was sanguine about the outcome of the interaction.

*****

Antony somehow managed to communicate to the rangers to leave the Fast Five alone and that they will not harm Selenkei and the cubs.

They moved close to the two.

There was a lot of action that was going on. The five males had circled both Selenkei and her cub and we could see a lot of snarling and baring of teeth at the two. The mother would hiss right back but mostly stayed down looking up at the other males.

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The standoff. The Fast Five stayed close to her. The cub is sitting bravely while you can see the mother lying on the ground

Often some of the cheetahs will drift away from the mother and cub but still keeping a close eye on them. And then one of them will walk up, sniff the mother’s scent, snarl at the cub. The others will join in and again we will all be back to worrying on what will happen next.

It was during these interactions that we saw that this cub was one plucky one ! It would snarl right back at the males and on a couple of occasions the tiny thing leapt up at the male when it came too close to it !

Despite Antony’s complete nonchalance and conviction about the end result, all of us were worried. Very nervous. It would have taken any of the males just a second to kill the cub

We stayed there for a long time and the same cycle repeated time and again.

There was the obvious point – if the Fast Five wanted to kill the cub, they would have done it rightaway.

Maybe they won’t.

The sun was setting and we got some awesome images. The story hadn’t ended but we had to leave.

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The Fast Five didnt leave. They stayed put as the sun set.

When we left, the Fast Five were still around the mother and cub.

*****

The next day we eagerly asked for any news.

As Antony had said, the Fast Five had left the mother and cub and had moved over to the Conservancy.

The mother and cub had lived to fight another day.

Their struggles will continue. Their fight for survival will continue. The lions, the leopards, the hyenas all will continue to be predators and Selenkei will need to use all her wiles to protect her cub from them.

The image of the lil cub bravely jumping at five full grown males will stay with me. I hope it makes it.

I am sure anyone who had spent some time with the mother and cub over the two days would be rooting big time for the plucky lil cub. Like we were.

Cheers to you, kiddo !

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Hope you stick around, kiddo !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Brazil IV : Oh the wonderful things you can see on Mulberry Street ! ( with apologies to Dr Seuss ! )

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

I could feel a tiny rivulet of sweat start its journey from the back of my neck, rapidly accelerating in its descent .

It was hot. Very hot.

Another one of those pesky flies or bugs buzzed and settled comfortably on my hand that lay lightly on my camera. Too tired to swat at it, I just shook it away irritably. I knew it will be back soon.

There were two jaguars out there behind the bushes. We could see the odd movement and the flick of a tail or a raised paw, but nothing more.

So, we waited. And waited.

Patience, of course, is the name of the game in the wild.

*****

However, to be honest, patience wasn’t usually much required in the Pantanal. Simply, due to the stunning density and diversity of wild life on the river.

Almost smack in the middle of the South American continent, below the Amazon basin and to the east of the Andes, all famous names, lies an unfamiliar name on the map – Pantanal.

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The Pantanal…I picked this off a book and forgot to note the name 😦 …would have loved to give the credit

The Pantanal is a sprawling river delta where the water levels rises and recedes several meters and forms an unbelievable ecosystem thriving with life, a sanctuary to some of the most spectacular birds and animals. Birds and beasts carrying some lovely names, strange shapes and brilliant colours live, nay, thrive here.

A paradise for any nature lover.

Capybaras, tapirs, ocelots, crab eating foxes, caimans, giant anteaters, giant otters, the howler and the capuchin monkeys, monitor lizards, caimans, not to speak of the famed anaconda and the jaguar…

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The Capuchin monkey….saw these frisky animals only a couple of times and never got a great shot
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The very last pic as we left the Pantanal

And I haven’t yet even started on the birds. The Hyacinth macaws, the savannah hawk, the jacana, the jacamar, the plover, the cocoi heron, the rufus tiger heron, the buff necked ibis…

The Pantanal occupies an impressive 66,000 square miles. That’s a heck of a lot of area. And, the North and the South Pantanal are completely different in terms of the wildlife inhabiting it.

Well, why am I saying all this to convey the sense of the density and the diversity of the place ?

Lets just digest this nugget of information – in the Pantanal, you can find 3,500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325 species of fish, 159 mammals, 53 amphibians and 98 reptiles.

Read those numbers again.

*****

We stayed on a house boat – the Jacare. The caiman as its known locally.

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The Jacare – our home for the four nights we spent at the Pantanal
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The other, more commonly found Jacare…

While we take the speed boats for the safari, our place of stay is on a house boat, one of many that are anchored around. Staying on a houseboat is much more convenient other than, of course, the points you score in sounding casually exotic when you drop the line,’ Oh we spent 4 nights on a houseboat in the Pantanal” :).

You simply save such a lot of time just reaching the river from any of the lodges. More time on the river, more wildlife you see. Simple.

A typical day begins quite early. We set off even before the sun starts lazily peeping over the horizon. Its rather chilly early in the morning and the speed of the boat as it scythes through the water adds to the wind chill. Caps and scarves to protect the head, thick sweaters or jackets to guard against the chill we set off curious to see what the day holds in store for us.

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What delights will unveil themselves today ?

*****

If you want to see jaguars, the Pantanal is the place. North Pantanal specifically. Over 8 safaris we had around 20-25 sightings. Now, anyone who has gone to any forest would agree that is some strike rate.

But, the thing about the Pantanal is that its not only about jaguars. There is just so much more to see. So much more.

You go down the winding river and take a detour into one of those narrower branches off the main river. So narrow that if there is another boat coming from the opposite side it becomes a bit of a squeeze and you often duck to avoid hitting the overhanging branches.

But, oh the treasures that lie here ! So many birds !! These waters are simply teeming with life !! Birds, big and small and of course, with such vivid colours !

We can wait next to a kingfisher as it looked this way and that, went off for a sortie and return to the same perch.

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This Ringed Kingfisher sizes us up …worth a meal ?
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An Amazon Kingfisher or is it a male Green Kingfisher ?

Or admire at the vivid colours of the Jacamar as it flitted from one branch to the other.

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The Jacamar…such a pretty bird with such a pretty name…repeat the name slowly, love the way it rolls off the tongue !

Or watch a Black Collared Hawk slowly dismember a rather plump fish that it had caught.

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We spent a long time with this guy as it focused on devouring its tasty meal

Or watch a cocoi heron on a perch with a lovely background or stroll past you with a nice meal in its mouth.

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The Cocoi Heron…sun in the right direction, nice background…what more could you ask for ?
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For some reason this heron kept walking with its prey for a long long time instead of eating it

Or study the Caracara as it kept a steady vigil on the waters below before putting in a swift dive and coming up with a fish, so large that it struggled to carry it up the slope.

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I love the Southern Caracara…both for its oddly shaped head and its name. This one is nothing but pure focus as it studies the waters
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And then …success !!! It struggles off with a real heavy catch !!

We admired the rather aptly named Screamer looking impassively down at us, and clicked away furiously at the savannah hawk perched rather royally on a branch and looked at vultures as they patrolled the banks so close to us that I struggled to get the entire bird in my frame.

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The Screamer…we heard it much more than we saw it. But must say the name, while appropriate, was disappointing. So ordinary 🙂 I wonder what the local name is for it
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The Black Vulture looked rather solemn this evening…must have had a tough day

We learnt the existence of a bird cutely called the potoo. Never heard of it ? Well, potoo fossils have been found that are 40 million years old ! They are like nightjars – they hunt during the night, sleep during the day, which explains why it was always difficult to immediately know which way they were facing !!

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The Great Potoo !!! Had never ever heard of this bird ! What a lovely name !

We once landed at the corner of a sandy expanse of land which had a really large number of skimmers and terns at the other end and desperately tried to get some sharp pictures of these birds as they flew around. Both these birds are incredibly fast in the air ( the terns more so ) and it was a lovely challenge to try to capture their images… I failed to get any wall hanger :).

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The sheer joy of being alive !!! This skimmer seems unable to contain its excitement !
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Yeah…just about managed to fit it in the frame !

We watched in awe as Jabiru stork landed gracefully on the shallow water with the early morning sun behind it giving an unbelievable golden hue to the scene.

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A Jabiru Stork lands…got a split second warning that its landing, could squeeze off a few shots…quite happy with the result

And lots more. Lots and lots more.

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The Wattled Jacana ( ah the name ! ) looks rather glumly at us intruders
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We spent a long time with this Buff necked Ibis…the shore was at a height from our boat and we could easily get eye level shots with a dreamy background. Bliss.
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This cute little bundle is the White headed marsh Tyrant…it was remarkably unafraid of our proximity !
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A Pied Plover goes for a leisurely stroll
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“Do I detect a fish there ? ” A Great Black Hawk seems to wonder
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The Striated Heron decides to give us a good shot
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The Black Capped Donacobius…now why on earth would you name any bird, let alone a pretty one like this as ” Donacobius” ????
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A Roadside hawk sitting by the riverside ( sorry ! 🙂 )

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Such a pretty bird is the blue crowned trogon and I missed getting a clean complete shot 😦
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The Tropical Kingbird…remarkably similar to the Kiskadee, the only discernible difference I could see was the patch around the eye
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The Pale Legged Hornero spots something interesting

*****

Did I mention the giant otters ?

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A giant otter wonders if it should dive

On a couple of mornings, as the sun was winning a muted but one sided battle with the chill, we sat in our boat watching a small group of otters frolicking about. These are such delightful creatures ! Its great fun to see them, all sleek and shiny, as they kept darting around, vanishing underwater in one place, coming up somewhere far away , more often than not, with an unfortunate fish in its mouth. Which it will proceed to leisurely gnaw at giving many a photo-op.

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Its lovely to watch it have its meal…full of enthu !

The giant otter is the one animal that the jaguar is a little wary of. Otters are quite ferocious and extremely agile in the water ( some locals apparently call the otter as the “aquatic jaguar’ ) and it also roams around in groups that take care of each other. Even such a strong and ferocious animal like the jaguar is known to avoid getting into the water if it notices the giant otters nearby. Well…that’s impressive. I never knew that !

 

*****

The best time to visit the Pantanal is after July, when the monsoon has ended and the waters have started receding revealing the sandy stretches where caimans come up to bask in the sun and the jaguars appear to prey on them. Dead branches are visible onto which jaguars frequently climb and observe the world around them. On one occasion, we saw a caiman do that, on a branch that was poking out of the water. I couldn’t help but wonder what the caiman would have thought when it decided to clamber up that branch and get a different perspective of the world. It seemed rather pleased with itself but I thought it reckless. In case a jaguar saw it, it would have been a sitting duck for a meal !

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My…doesnt this caiman look rather pleased with itself ??

Trees abound on either side, resplendent with some brilliantly vivid colours of red and yellow in between the lovely green that the other trees flaunted.

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The banks were an unruly mass of bushes, dried branches, thick trees with splashes of red and yellow thrown in for variety

fullsizeoutput_6f4There were times when we slowed the speed of the boat and drifted a little aimlessly, waiting for the next announcement on the radio, just soaking in the beauty that seemed to lie so carelessly sprawled all around us. Pristine, raw, silent but always watchful.

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The Vochysia tree…yeah and danger lurks behind the beauty

*****

One afternoon, after a particularly spectacular morning filled with unbeatable sightings, we went off in the opposite direction to our usual safaris. We went to a place where the Hyacinth macaws can be seen.

The Hyacinth macaws are the largest macaws and actually the largest in the entire parrot family. It has a stunning deep cobalt colour all over its body with a brilliantly bright yellow around its eyes and under its beak. We had missed seeing them earlier at Pouso Alegre and I was rather desperate to see them here.

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The Hyacinth Macaw is such a pretty bird…such a fantastic blue !
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The Combed and The Uncombed

We did. They were all around but unfortunately I really didn’t get any truly spectacular picture of them. I spent hours trying, but rarely got a good clean shot. Such is life 🙂

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Those beaks can be really strong !

But then there were the other birds…the currasows proudly strutting about with their unbelievably stylish hairdo, the guans, the turquoise fronted parrot and so many more.

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The Chestnut bellied guan strikes a pose as the setting sun really shows off its colours
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The proud, haughty look of the bare faced curassow
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The Bare faced Curassow…with such a hairdo even I might strut around
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The Turquoise fronted Parakeet
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The Crested Oropendula made a brief appearance, thought it was a very handsome character

It was a comparatively relaxed afternoon, spent walking around on firm ground after a long time and soon it was time to head back home to our house boat. As we started our journey back, the sun setting behind the trees, the temperature dipping providing some much needed respite from the heat, a group of macaws flew high above us, behaving like perfect hosts escorting us to the door.

*****

The capybaras.

You cannot miss them. They are everywhere, looking faintly comical, their unathletic frames resting either on the banks or in the river. Every fibre of their body seems to be perpetually alert, which they well might better be, cos they are clearly one juicy meal for both the jaguars and the caimans.

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The do look adorable, dont they ?

They are superb swimmers and we usually saw them very close to the waters and at the slightest hint of a threat they leap into the waters. The slightest of noise is enough for them to take a frantic jump with a loud alarm call. On shore, we often saw two of them sitting facing opposite sides. That way they can see danger from all sides.

The capybaras are the largest rodent in the rodent family. Rodent ? This large animal is a rodent !??? An adult male can be as heavy as a human being !! Rodent ! Wow…makes one look at them with renewed respect !

There are some rather interesting facts about the capybaras.

They eat their own dung to extract maximum nutrition. Well.

Their facial features are located near the top of their heads to allow them to see and breathe while swimming. That explains their slightly weird shaped heads. Fascinating.

They are agile swimmers all right…but are fast on land too. For all their bulk, they can hit 35 kmph of speed on land…that’s as fast as a horse !!! Let no one talk of reducing weight for speed from now on to any athlete !

*****

Another aspect that I loved about the Pantanal was their rules. Both concerning the wildlife as well as the etiquette while on a safari.

The speed boats cannot get too close to a jaguar. I think the minimum distance is around 20 feet. They have to give that much personal space to the animal. Lovely.

If the jaguar is near the edge of the water, there is a high probability that it will enter the water for a swim or to cross over to the other side. The boats willingly listen to each other and spread around giving the jaguar the needed space to swim across.

Since most of the subjects are on land and us photographers on the boat and the boats naturally being on water aren’t stationary, there is always the risk of other boats appearing in front of you. And, the rule is that you cannot stand in your boat if there is even a single boat behind you cos you might come in their way.

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A jaguar clearly has been sighted. Not very clear since you can see someone more intent on taking photos of their friends instead of the animal :)…soon, there will be a rush and the rules kick in

So half the time you are looking behind you to see if any boat has drifted behind you which would mean that you need to sit down.

I liked that. Polite. Considerate. Even when you are in the middle of the frenzy that comes over when you see mindblowing wildlife in action in front of you.

I also liked the fact that these are rules framed by the association of those who offer the safaris. Not rules laid down by the government. Self regulation is always  better.

*****

We spent four days on the Pantanal.

Four unforgettable, magical days. And for all the magnificient wildlife that got served to us, there was so much that we missed seeing. We got only glimpses of the capuchin and the howler monkeys. We didn’t see the giant anteaters. We didn’t see the crab eating fox.

But what we saw was spectacular in both quantity and variety. Simply mindblowing.

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A vulture provides the perfect silhouette against the rising sun…full credit to Fabiano for this shot. He saw an opportunity and we waited for almost 15 minutes for the sun to reach the precise spot !

We started and ended our trip in almost exactly the same way.

As we wound our way to our houseboat on our first day, we saw an anaconda tightly wound up on a rock. And when we were making our final trip from the houseboat to our waiting jeep, we saw not one, but two anacondas separately making their way on the rocks. I think it meant something deep but can’t for the world figure out what 🙂 🙂

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An eight nine footer…impressively thick tho not as much as you would have seen in the movies !
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Ominous music can play in the background right now

But despite the throbbing wild life around us, despite the many breathtaking moments that we had on the Pantanal, the most magical moments for me were during the return journey at the end of each day.

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Sigh….such beauty !

The light fading. The temperature dipping. The sun blinking its presence from behind the treetops. The sun changing its colour from the lovely, full of life, blue to a quieter, thoughtful shade. The mood in the boat matches that, all of us thoughtful, thinking of those moments of the day that we would never forget, wondering how those pictures that we thought are great, will show up on the monitor screen.

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And we return at the end of another day full of magic and discovery !

And, not for the first time, I would thank my stars for being so fortunate that I could make this trip and savour the beauty that this lovely land has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Brazil III – ’tis rainin’ jaguars !!!

“ We got a sighting.”

The handset crackles, voices exchange messages and those are the magic words from Fabiano, uttered unbelievably coolly, that make us sit up, grasp our cameras a little tighter, all tense and alert.

There is a dramatic change in the mood on our speedboat which was till then ambling along at a gentle speed. The engine roars, we take a sharp turn and then we take off, rapidly accelerating , bouncing off the water, the water spraying us liberally.

We take an exciting, wide, tantalizingly angled turn as the river curves and a couple of such pulsating turns later we know we are close to our destination.

The tell tale sign is always the cluster of boats. And if you can see the occupants on the boat standing up with their cameras pointing  instead of sitting casually, then you can be rather certain that it could be a good sighting.

What is it going to be ?

A jaguar sleeping ?

A jaguar on a tree ? Or on the prowl ?

Or will it be that pinnacle of all sightings…a jaguar on a hunt ?

*****

The yaguara.

Or the yaguareté.

Early reports, and many still quote these, said the word yaguara means “a beast that kills its prey with one leap”. While this origin sounds definitely more thrilling and appealing, sadly, this has been challenged and might not be the real deal.

The current belief is that yaguareté  would have probably meant “the real fierce beast” which would be how the people would have naturally seen it.

Despite the doubts of its provenance, its easy to see why the original meaning made sense.

The jaguar doesn’t rely on speed to kill its prey. It is more the stalk and ambush type of predator. The jaguar slowly walks down the forest paths or the sandy banks, always on the lookout for a possible prey and it usually attacks from cover and from the target’s blind spot.

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I am no expert, but I haven’t seen any other cat that is so ON all the time. It seems  alert and ready to pounce ALL the time.

But its after the pounce that the jaguar has a style that is uniquely its own among the big cats. Its jaws clamps down on the back of the head of the prey, piercing  directly through the bones of the skull between the ears of prey with its canine teeth, piercing the brain. Or it could leap onto the back of its prey and sever the cervical vertebrae.

Yes, I can understand why “a beast that kills its prey with one bound” sounded plausible.

Regardless of the disputes over its etymology, the one indisputable fact was that we were finally in the land of the yaguareté.

And it was raining jaguars.

*****

We had reached the houseboat we were staying in, around lunch time and the plan was to leave by around 2.30 pm on the speed boat for our first boat safari.

We had just about started when the radio crackled, a sound we would get very used to soon, and our boat accelerated, suddenly moving with a far more purposeful air.

And then we rounded a bend and could see the other speed boats. Crowded together.

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Lot of other boats ? People standing ? Cameras out ? There HAS to be a jaguar !

We slowed down, all of us eagerly peering into the dense undergrowth for any sign of movement.

Then, emerged our first jaguar.

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My first jaguar. Within 30 minutes of the first safari. Staring at us. So close that my lens could not take the entire body in the frame. Phew !

It popped out from behind the bushes, peered at us, looked around and after posing there for enough time for the camera junkies to go berserk, walked up a broken tree trunk that lay propped up, with its end a few meters above the river water.

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Licking it’s lips in anticipation ?

Our first jaguar and that too sitting on a tree trunk ! Wow…what a photo op !! Our first sighting within a few minutes of our first safari, looking straight at us and that too, so close that my 600mm couldn’t get the entire body in the frame !!

She, for it was a she, stayed on the broken tree trunk for a while, peering closely around her and after a few sufficiently long minutes, by which time we had taken more pics than we needed, she stood up and vanished into the bushes.

And then we saw it. Or to be more accurate, Fabiano pointed it out to us.

A sole capybara.

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There…towards our left, a sole capybara. Closer than the jaguar was to the right. Hunt on ?

Just a little distance away. Totally oblivious of the danger that was approaching it.

Would we actually see a hunt on our very first safari ??

The jaguar couldn’t be seen. But we could see the tall grass move around as the big cat stealthily approached the capybara.

We held our breath.

Would we witness a kill ?

Plop !!!

Either the capybara heard some noise or it simply sensed danger but whatever be the reason, it saved its life. It  jumped into the water and vanished.

The jaguar emerged a second later looking at its lost meal swimming away.

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Eyeing the one that got away

Well, that was quite a start !!

*****

The jaguar is a rather well muscled animal. He looks very compact, possibly far more than most of the other big cats. Interestingly, their weight varies hugely across the different places they are found to inhabit.

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The jaguar is a very compact and muscled cat. ‘Solid’ is the word that comes to mind.

Fabiano informed us that for a long while it was believed that the jaguars of the Pantanal belonged to a different family since they just seemed to be so much larger than most of the other jaguars around the world. Just to put that difference in numbers, the jaguars found along the Mexican coast were seen to weigh around 50 kgs…the ones in the Pantanal weighed on an average 100 kgs. That is some variance. Almost 2x !

Fabiano told us that this is, in all probability, due to the abundance of large prey that is available in the wetlands. The jaguars definitely have no dearth of prey here.

One question that is regularly asked is what is the difference between a leopard and a jaguar ? And…what about the black panther ?

The jaguar does look a lot like the leopard. Its stockier and sturdier, broader heads and shorter legs. A jaguar’s tail is also shorter than a leopard’s  but then these are difficult distinguishing marks. But what is definitely easier to distinguish is the rosettes – the ‘spots’ on both the animals.

The jaguar’s rosettes are larger, fewer in number but more importantly, many rosettes have another black spot in the middle. That should make the whole deal easier 🙂

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Fewer rosettes and you can see the spot within the rosette in a few of them

Now…the Black Panther.

Doesn’t exist.

At least not as a separate species. What used to be called as Black Panthers are just melanistic cats. Melanism is a condition that means a higher level of black pigmentation.

*****

Over the next few days we often felt that each safari was better than the previous.

We were visiting this area after the monsoons when the water recedes a lot leaving sandy banks everywhere. Caimans bask here under the hot sun. Capybaras are huge in number and are again seen all the time on these banks.

All of which means that the jaguars are on the move, close to and on the banks which naturally increases the chances of a sighting from a boat. The fact that over the last few years with increasing tourism inflow, they are also accustomed to the boats and don’t vanish at the first sight of one, further makes it easier.

And, boy, did we see them !

Jaguar on the banks ? Check

Jaguar in the water ? Check

Jaguar up a tree ? Check

Jaguars deep in the bushes ? Check

Jaguars sleeping ? Check

Jaguars on the prowl ? Check and before you ask, even of one charging.

Jaguars in the famed Golden Light ? Yes, yes, move on…

Jaguars hurt from a fight ? Come on…tougher questions please.

Jaguars meditating ? Of course

Jaguars mating ? Yawn….next please.

Well…technically we didn’t see them mating. But we could hear them. They were behind this rather dense undergrowth and we just couldn’t get a sighting.

But we were there 🙂

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One of those few occasions where we saw a jaguar taking it easy
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That thrill of that first sight of a jaguar as it appears …priceless !
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This one maintained a long and steady patrolling of the banks over a long distance
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Occasionally treading water
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The tell tale sign that a jaguar might be up a tree 🙂
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And there it was… lost in thought
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The watchers being watched.

The one thing that struck me was how active they were. When compared to the lions, they really are like the good ole Energizer Bunny. They just don’t tire. We once stayed with a single jaguar for almost three hours. She walked and walked and walked. Always focused and ready. Always.

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We gave her company through most of an unforgettable morning

And swam in between.

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Jaguars are powerful swimmers. And they love to swim. They cross from one bank to the other really effortlessly

We kept following her from one sandy bank to the other, watching her vanish into the bushes on one side, emerging from the other side and she just went on. Always looking alert. Always alive for any opportunity for a kill.

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Have water. Will enter.
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I love that arch of the back …such grace !
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And, as they step out….sppraayyyyy !!! Always a photogenic moment.

Its here that a tale that Fabiano told us comes to mind. Fabiano was with a NatGeo team ( I think ) and over a period of 3 days, they saw the same jaguar make multiple kills. And not once did it come to actually eat the kill.

“ Its just its nature to kill,” says Fabiano. “ It doesn’t kill only when it has to.”

All in all, what a beautiful creature. There were many occasions that I just kept my camera down and simply watched her move, graceful, alert, stealthy, powerful.

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Did I say graceful…
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…stealthy ?
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I loved getting that single focused eye in between the two tiny leaves..purely by accident 🙂

And despite those long moments with my camera down, I still ended up with a few thousands of pics of these lovely creatures.

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Amongst my top favourites…it walked out of the forest, stepping out right where the sun shone brightly
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…and then turned its head, allowing the sunlight to fall bang on the face, a quick recomposition and I got it !
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We spent a long time with this jaguar, fairly close to our houseboat, while it gave us tons of unforgettable images. Early morning, the rising sun behind us…Golden Light magic !
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Look at that stare !

Total. Bliss.

*****

We didn’t see a hunt though. You really need to be incredibly lucky to witness one. We met this group that had the most fascinating tale.

One boat had taken a turn into one of the narrower and less frequented branches of the main river. While there, their engine stalled and they radioed for help and waited. Soon, another boat joined them to help out.

And while both the boats were stuck in one place as the boatmen got busy with the engines…yes, you guessed it.

A jaguar leapt on a caiman in the water, killed it and tried dragging it up the rather steep slope.

All the action on the other bank. Just about twenty feet from where they were stuck. Talk about a stalled engine being a matter of good fortune !

We passed by that spot a little later and the two boats were still waiting for the jaguar to try to drag the kill up the slope again. We could see the jaguar in the shadows, the dead caiman half submerged in the waters. The light was fading, time was running up and after waiting for a little while we had to make a move.

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We didnt see a hunt but we saw one rage filled charge ! A hapless vulture had descended for a morsel from this one’s meal, a dead cow that had washed up over which ownership was claimed. Look at those eyes !

*****

The jaguar has the strongest bite relative to its size. Its jaw muscles are stronger and its jaws are shorter giving it more leverage while biting.

This combination is what makes it possible for a jaguar to jump on a caiman and pierce both its thick hide and break its skull rather easily.

And they are strong otherwise too. They can easily drag a caiman up a bank to have its meal in peace.

And while we didn’t see a hunt and we couldn’t wait to see the jaguar with its kill the previous evening, we did witness a fascinating incident.

We were returning to our house boat after a truly satiating morning full of the most incredible sightings.

And then we saw the usual cluster of boats. To a man, we said, yet another sighting !! We can’t better what we have already seen.

Well.

There, just a short distance away, was the jaguar. With a dead caiman clutched in its jaws.

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Jaguars love caimans. We missed out witnessing a kill or even a hunt but we saw this jag with a dead caiman figuring out how to take it meal up the slope

What followed was mesmerizing. The banks were really steep and despite its immense strength, the jaguar was unable to drag the caiman up the slope.

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Jaguars, like leopards, are extremely strong and can drag a huge caiman up steep slopes, but as you can see from the slope behind this jag…this one was a bit too steep

The jaguar left the caiman in the water and tried different routes up the slope on its own to check which was easy and doable while carrying the dead caiman. It will then decide on one possible route and try it with the caiman. It will fail and try to identify another route.

Over and over again.

When we left, it was still trying to figure it out.

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But it didnt give up. For about 45 minutes we watched it try and when we left it was still trying to figure out a way

*****

I can’t end this post without a mention of Manuelo our boatman.

Like any other jeep safari, it is critical to be able to get into the right position. There are strict rules and well laid out etiquette while viewing. We can stand only if there are no boats behind us, for example. We should not be blocking anyone’s views. And when we are slightly late in arriving at a scene the job of getting into the right position becomes that much more challenging.

Sometimes, the channel of water we are on would be really narrow and it is not easy to get into the right position.

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This is how I would love to spend my weekend afternoons…but that apart, this was a place which was teeming with other speedboats. We arrived rather late. But still we could get a good position. Amazing !

And, if the jaguar is on the move, then it is important to be able to judge where it is headed and then ensure that we are there ahead of the rest of the crowd. Remember, all the other boats are also manned by other resident experts. You just had to be better than the other good guys to be able to consistently get into the right position. Manuelo was. He was simply superb the way he used to dextrously navigate the boat and squeeze it into exactly the precise spot.

The full credit to all the wonderful pics that we got lies with both Manuelo’s expert handling of our slightly long speed boat and, of course, Fabiano’s huge knowledge of the magnificent creature its habits and the lay of the land ( or should I say, river ? )

Obrigado, to both of you, friends !!

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High fives to both, Fabiano and Manuelo 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Brazil II – on the Transpantaneira

Transpantaneira. The highway to nowhere.

For some reason, the story of this highway has always fascinated me.

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Somewhere in the early 1970s, the then military Brazilian government decided to build a highway connecting Cuiaba, a city in the North to Curumba down in the South cutting across some of the largest wetlands in the world. They started work on the highway in right earnest and soon completed the first leg.

Just around that time, the original state of Mato Grosso was divided into two and the government of the new state had more than its share of tasks to be prioritized and the Transpantaneira generally got pushed to the background. Or the entire idea of having building a highway was found to be too challenging since during the rains, the entire place gets completely flooded.

Whatever be the reason, the net result ?

The second leg of the highway never got started and the Transpantaneira suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the Cuiaba river. Almost smack in the middle of the original planned length.

Most people are grateful for the fact that the highway was never completed since that allowed the simply amazing wildlife along the road to continue to thrive. Its quite likely that a completed highway could have destroyed the ecosystem that we see today. Though in an ironical way, the half constructed highway helped too. The earth that was cleared away for the highway’s construction left holes that have become ponds, canals, and lagoons.

Today, the Transpantaneira is a mud road, one ramrod straight road running besides and over many marshes and small water bodies, with 122 ( or was it 126 ? ) wooden bridges (some of which are fairly risky to cross – these have an off road diversion ).

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This, I think, was the longest of those numerous wooden bridges that we crossed ( phone pic )

And why are we on this road ? What lies where the Transpantaneira ends ?

The land of the jaguars.

But then, this is one case where the journey is also almost as exciting as the destination. The Transpantaneira is not short of its own share of attractions.

In these roadside marshes and ponds caimans wallow luxuriously and multiple waterbirds walk about nonchalantly feeding off the riches that lie in the waters. Along the side of the highway, perched on the wooden posts, you will find the rather appropriately named roadside hawk, many different kites, kingfishers…. You might see an anteater amiably stroll across…plus if you stop at the right places for the night, you will see some rather striking birds and more strange creatures, like the tapirs, the capybaras and the ocelots to name a few.

This road trip in itself can be an extremely fulfilling safari.

It was.

*****

But before we hit this faintly romantic highway to nowhere, we still had an interesting stop to make.

We flew in from Sao Paulo to Cuiaba late afternoon, on Azul airlines. The trip was around three hours long and a rather pleasant flight. We were quite impressed with the airlines. Quietly efficient, comfortable, in flight movies and a ton of snacks to gorge on.

It was at Cuiaba, the next morning, that we met Fabiano ( who was going to be our friend, philosopher and guide for the next few days, guiding us to the best spots to take a photo, teaching us about the bio diversity of Brazil, educating us about the history of the land and in general, being simply fabulous company and a brilliant host. Fabiano runs his company called Bio Diverse Tours ( https://biodiversebraziltours.com ), but more about him later 🙂

Instead of heading in the direction of the Pantanal, we went almost diametrically into the opposite direction. We went to a park where the black tailed marmosets are found. Black tailed marmosets are a species of New World monkey from South America and the only marmosets to be found naturally outside the Amazon.

We entered the park where a lot of early morning joggers and the walkers were enjoying their morning routine with the customary heads up that the visit might be in vain and we might not see the marmoset at all…cos, well that’s the way of the wild. Can’t predict them, can we ?

But in what was to be either a continuous run of spectacular good luck when it came to sightings or what is simply the way of wildlife viewing in this land of plenty, just a few minutes into the park we saw the first marmoset far away and high up in the trees.

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Presenting the black tailed marmoset…

Over the next half an hour or more, quite a few of these chirpy, active animals were visible and a few of them got reasonably close. Seeing a group of them wasn’t surprising since they live in groups ; all in all we had a good time capturing these frisky little animals as they jumped from one tree to the other.

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A rather frisky animal…towards the end got a few close ups

Good fun. And now…onwards we move.

*****

I had read that the biggest problem while traveling down the Transpantaneira is the number of times one ends up stopping cos of the simply innumerable number of birds and animals that are seen by the roadside. And while there is an embarrassment of riches along the way, the more we delay the less time we could spend at the place of stay for the evening where again there is a lot to see.

Talk about choices 🙂

But, stop we did and possibly more times than was ideal and less times than what we would have if it hadn’t been for Fabiano’s stern admonishments!

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How do we not stop to take pics of all those birds around ?? ( phone pic )

We stopped by a marshy place and took our first pics of the caiman, of egrets lazily flying past and terns zipping around. We saw kingfishers, roadside hawks…… and we got off to take pictures of the famous Transpantaneira signpost and of the longest wooden bridge on that route.

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The Ringed Kingfisher…the largest and possibly the most common kingfisher in this part of the world
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One possibly always ignore the egrets, but there is a beauty about them, especially when they are gliding about with a nice green background
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…and it lands !
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Not the best of pics of a tern, but a half decent pic of a bird in flight is something I savour !

And, finally we reached Pouso Alegre.

Our place of stay for the rest of the day, the night and the following morning.

****

Quite a bit of the Pantanal is privately owned by cattle ranchers and small-scale farmers. And some of the farms along the Transpantaneira have been converted to eco-lodges. There are more than ten such lodges in total, spread out along the 147-kilometre long highway.

We turned off the main highway and travelled a fair distance on a bumpy road to reach one such eco lodge – the Pouso Alegre. Just in time for lunch.

It’s a lovely little place, the kitchen and the dining area smack in the center and the rooms spread out a little distance away. After putting our luggage in our rooms and as I was stretching my legs and taking in the sprawling, open surroundings, one of the employees at the eco lodge caught my eye and beckoned to me to come over.

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The Black and White Tegu lizard seems to have a real purposeful air about it

A black and white Tegu lizard, a rather imposing creature was lumbering its way across the open space. Gave me enough time to position myself a little ahead and go for a few nice ground shots. A friend saw a couple of them mating. Seems so normal…to walk into a lodge and see this large creature loitering around nonchalantly. How cool !

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And when that sickly pink, rubbery forked tongue darts out…photoworthy indeed !

After lunch we chased a little woodpecker as it flew searching for its daily meal from one tree to the other before we got onto a jeep and went off explore the property and meet some of its more interesting denizens.

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We spent quite some time after this Crimson Crested Woodpecker as it flew from one tree to the other with us clumsily ( and breathlessly plus sweatily ) lugging our tripods behind it

And we did meet a few of them.

The capped heron, the sun bittern, the rhea which seemed to be such a carbon copy of ostrich that I went and checked out how they were different. The rhea is similar but smaller in size and has three toes, the ostrich has two toes. Yeah…very big difference 🙂 …imagine seeing a bird and trying to distinguish whether it is an ostrich or a rhea…!!!

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The capped heron is a pretty little bird…that pale yellow and light blue forming a nice combo but its those large feathers  on its head that gives a distinctive look to it
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A Rhea…and sadly not a photo where I can show you its toes to prove this is not an ostrich !

It was a largely uneventful evening, other than the waterbirds and a few more kingfishers, and of course, the caimans…they were simply everywhere. We also bagged our first ( I think ) sighting of the famous Jabiru stork.

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A Cocoi heron goes a fishing !  ( notice the caiman in the background ? )
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Danger !!! There is a caiman tho for the most part they didnt seem dangerous 🙂
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An egret again …
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A male Green Kingfisher struts its stuff, fortunately caught it with that bit of a green background  fortuitously well positioned
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The famous Jabiru Stork…it definitely is a striking bird, not only for its size but for that rather prominent pouch on its neck which is not very noticeable in this pic

We saw a rather sad looking tapir walk down one of the paths, but the light was extremely poor to even try to take a pic.

There was a flutter of excitement later in the night after dinner when we heard a few shouts of excitement and everyone rushed over to one corner outside the dining room. A pygmy owl had caught of a rat that was almost half its size and was sitting rather primly with its kill right there on the verandah. Sadly, I just couldn’t get any decent pics in the poor light (  an area that I definitely need to upgrade my skills ! ).

But that last incident once again gave me an idea of the sheer density of wildlife that exists in this wonderful part of the world.

*****

The next morning was what we were all waiting for. All sorts of exotic birds were expected to make an appearance – the hyacinth macaws, the toucans, the aracari, the currissow…phew.

It started a little sour though.

The hyacinth macaws, the largest of all macaws were usually expected early in the morning on some trees a little behind our rooms.

Prompt as always, we trudged to the place. The light was poor, I noted glumly. But the greater disappointment was that the macaws didn’t make an appearance. We hung around for a while knowing it was time to go to the spot where the toucans are expected.

“ They might have come in earlier,” observed Fabiano.

Well….nothing to be done…we moved over to the next spot hoping that at least the toucans don’t disappoint us the same way that the macaws did.

They didn’t.

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” Here I come !”

For the next hour or more, we had a lovely time watching these striking birds on different perches. Total fun. The toco toucan, is a little less colourful than the red breasted toucan which I missed at Trilha dos Toucanos, but still a toucan is a toucan is a toucan :).

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” I always favour my right side for a profile pic.”

What a lovely bird ! I loved the way it used to balance that humungous beak while turning its head this way and that. Awesome ! And, hence, indulge me, while I go a tad overboard in posting pictures of this rather special bird !

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That scimitar like beak…fascinating !
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” Caught ya ! “
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I had long wanted this angle…but I lost the details in the white 😦

But then the toucan wasn’t the only bird that came up in front of our lens. There were cardinals, currossows and….the Aracari !! What a bird ! It belongs to the toucan family but in many ways is quite different. All that apart…such colours ! What a vivid appearance ! And that beak …with that serrated design !

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The Aracari…doesnt it look truly magnificent ?
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Just look at those colours…and THAT beak !!

We admired the energy of the hyper active cardinals, we marvelled at the absolutely stylish hair do of the currossow and the simple beauty of the rock thrush, the Brazilian national bird….

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The Male Yellow Billed Cardinal appears to be at a decision point
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The Female Yellow Billed Cardinal in a contemplative mood
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A Chestnut Bellied Guan
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The Female Bare faced Currosow doing a ramp walk for our benefit
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And ain’t that one heck of a  snazzy hairdo !??
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The Rufus Bellied Thrush…the national bird of Brazil. A real pretty bird..ok, another pretty bird

But soon, it was time for us to hurry up have a quick breakfast and then set off for that last leg to Porto Joffre and….the land of the jaguar !!!

*****

A quick word about Pouso Alegre (https://www.pousoalegrepantanal.com ). A sprawling place, comfortably spread over a rather wide open expanse of land. The rooms were fairly large and comfortable. The food was rather good too. ( The desserts especially ! )

We spent a real short time here. One evening safari and the morning tryst with those exciting birds and we had to rush. The evening safari was a bit unexciting, but then you don’t always get safaris which are throbbing with excitement. Also, water birds which were the main birds of interest don’t really excite me. But the colourful birds in the morning…boy, they were something else.

Also, we were trying to pack a lot in the days that we were here. Getting a little taste of everything. The Pouso Alegre had a lot to offer in terms of trails, boat rides, hides near the waterholes, horse back riding but for all that we would need to spend a much longer time !

So well…that’s the way it goes…and now we move on to what clearly was the phase of our trip that we were all most excited about ( with my sincere apologies to the wondrous birds 🙂 ) – the yaguars, as the locals called it !!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Brazil – Birding at Trilha dos Tucanos

‘ So, where is your next trip ?”

“ Brazil.”

“ Oh wow !!  The Amazon ?”

“ No, to the Pantanal.”

“ Huh ? The Pantanal ? What is that ? “

A couple of years back, that would have been me asking the questions and not have heard of the Pantanal.

Amazon, yes, most definitely. Pantanal ? What is that ?

Pantanal is what National Geographic once called, “ Brazil’s best kept secret’.

It is the world’s largest wetlands covering an area of 210,000 sq kms , spilling over into Bolivia and Paraguay and has the highest concentration of wildlife in the continent.

The Amazon draws all the attention, all the glamour but when it comes to viewing wildlife, Pantanal definitely rules. The Amazon is just too dense for good viewing while Pantanal displays its wares rather selflessly. The photos that I have seen of people who have been to Pantanal…simply fabulous. Those colourful birds, those strange looking animals, and then of course, the jaguar have always made it look like an exotic, sometime-must-visit place.

And so, when I got a call from a friend, asking me if I would be keen to go on a trip to Brazil that was being planned, the answer was a rather easy one.

*****

It was not a trip that took us only to Pantanal. Planned in a really wonderful manner to allow us a taste of as many different experiences as possible ( Praveen Siddanavar- https://www.facebook.com/PraveenSiddannavarPhotography/ – had planned the entire trip ), our first stop was to spend a few days at the Atlantic rainforest before making our way to Pantanal.

To be honest, I wasn’t really aware of all the different ecosystems that existed in South America and what I read ( and I usually read a bit in preparation ) about the Atlantic rainforest was mouthwatering !

  • It is considered to be second after the Amazon lowlands in terms of biodiversity
  • It is estimated that only 10% of the original forests still remain
  • Around 2200 species of land vertebrates live there – roughly 7% of the world !
  • 250+ amphibians, 200+ bird species, 150+ mammals are endemic to the Atlantic rainforest

Phew.

That’s quite some riches.

*****

Trilha dos Tucanos.

Just say it again. It rolls off the tongue in such a lovely, musical way.

Trilha dos Tucanos. Trail of the Toucans.

That’s what the name means. Of course, my experiences with these famed toucans is another story altogether, but let me not digress.

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Birds Paradise is definitely the right descriptor !!

Trilha dos Tucanos is a small quaint birding lodge in Tapirai, about a 3 hour road trip from Sao Paulo. It is run by a couple and since our stay there covered the weekend, their two kids were also present lending a helping hand. Actually, it ended up being more than a helping hand since the daughter could speak flawless English which no one else could, and that definitely helped.

Our  vehicle eased down the not so gentle slope leading to the lodge and as we got off and stretched ourselves we could see a couple of other guests with their tripods and lens’ busy taking pictures of a rather large number of colourful, tiny yet quite voluble birds just a few feet from them.

What a way to arrive. Action right from the start.

*****

Where do I start about the birds ?

They were simply everywhere. Lovely little birds, showing off such brilliantly vivid colours, flitting all over the place. Birds, the type of which I hadn’t seen before, of sizes and shapes so different from what we normally see elsewhere.

I learnt about the existence of tanagers. We kept seeing them everywhere. All the time. There are simply too many of them not to be everywhere !!

Green-headed Tanager, Golden-chevroned Tanager, Ruby-crowned Tanager, Black-headed Tanager, Olive-green Tanager, Rufous-bellied Thrush, Palm Tanager, Azure shouldered Tanager, Magpie Tanager …how many types of Tanagers  exist ??

And then there were the vividly colourful woodpeckers.

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The Green headed Tanager is such a cute little bird…very commonly seen and just so pretty
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The Green headed Tanagers were everywhere…all the time
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The Golden Chevron Tanager looks like a well behaved elegant gentleman here
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The Azure Shouldered Tanager…I found them to be such dainty  birds
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The Yellow Fronted Woodpecker, a vibrantly coloured bird with a delightful call, with the early morning light behind it
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The yellow fronted wood pecker again
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The Black Goggled Tanager…phew, how many Tanagers…really ?
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A Ruby crowned tanager…the male has that distinct red patch which is not easily visible and here, our man obligingly bows his head for us to gawk at it
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The Blonde Crested Woodpecker is one zany looking bird tho he looks distinctly Trumpian            ( which is a rather cruel thing to say )
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Doesn’t he look like one of those Spy vs Spy characters ?
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The Magpie Tanager ( what, you thought, that was the end of the tanager family ? )…amongst the larger tanagers

And, of course,  many others.

Plain Parakeets, Maroon-bellied Parakeets, Black-throated Grosbeaks, the Tinamou, Uniform Flycatchers, Golden Coloured Warblers, Rufus bellied Thrushes  ….phew ! Such variety ! And of such different sizes and colours.

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A Plain Parakeet…these guys rarely sit still, with the result that you get some wonderful angles
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A Black throated Grosbeak…look at that red beak !! By the way, apparently they also are from the tanager family 🙂 🙂
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A Maroon bellied parakeet…look at those colours !!
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A Plain Parakeet steps closer to explore
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The Blue Dacnis with that sinister looking eye wear
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The Chestnut bellied Euphonia ( which I think is a lovely name in itself ) is an incredibly beautiful but rather shy bird. Sadly I missed out on getting a clear shot of it on a perch
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And this tiny lil thing is the Bananaquit.
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The Violaceous Euphonia …I wonder who gave that name…Violaceous
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A Red rumped Cacique peers down at something interesting

And I haven’t yet come to the hummingbirds.

Or the toucans.

Or the toucanets.

By a rough estimate we would have seen at least 30 different types of birds ! 30 !!!

And, as if this embarrassment of riches wasn’t enough, we were blessed with some awesome weather over the first two days. A little rain, followed by mild sunshine which gave the most wonderful light for photography. And the slightly damp, cold weather also brought in the birds by the dozen to the feeders.

Ultimate bliss.

*****

“ How right is it to have feeders ? Would it not rob the birds of their natural ability to forage for food ?”

This is a point often made by those who are not comfortable with the concept of feeders and I posed this question to Supreet, from Tropical Tours who had organized this leg of our trip.

His answer was quite emphatic.

“ Its usually bananas that are placed here. Bananas are not their favorite food. If other food is easily available in the forests they won’t bother to turn up here, which is the case in summers, when the lodge too shuts down. In winters, its not so easy to find food in the forest and they turn up here. Its easier for them, their energy is conserved but if food is available in the forests that is where they will go”

Well, its always a bit of a debatable issue but the very next day turned out to be quite a hot one and ….the bird attendance at the feeders was quite disappointing.

So…

*****

The still damp grass crunched softly under our feet, sunlight filtered through the leaves above us and a narrow path lay ahead.

On the day when it was quite sunny and hot and the birds, we decided to leave the feeders and go for a walk around the sprawling premises. Good we did that. It was such a beautiful walk.

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‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep….”

There was a decent sized pond on one side and we went around it, down a narrow path with lightly dense foliage around it. A small stream ran parallel to this path till we reached a lovely little bridge over it.

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For some weird reason…I love bridges. Right from the scarier ones you see on your Himalayan treks to these quaint and far less riskier ones

It was a quiet walk. You could hear the distant chirping of the birds around you but not many popped into view. It had the quiet that woods tend to usually have. Occasionally you could see a kingfisher fly past. If you waited by the pond, you would see birds swoop down to nab a fish or other food. I sat down and enjoyed the shade, watching a few birds stay focused on  the waters for any sight of what could be a good meal and occasionally conducting a raid.

A little further away, was the hide. A perfect place to sit and watch birds come along completely unaware that behind that camouflaged cover, sat strange beings armed with strange objects. Many of the birds that came here weren’t the ones that came to the feeders so that was an added incentive.

We saw the cutely bulbous tinamou, doves, thrushes…the Uniform flycatcher came up quite often and so did the quail ( which I missed 😦 ).

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Presenting….the Brown Tinamou !
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A Ruby Crowned Tanager, the female which has a rather rich colour
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The Half Collared sparrow hops around…those dual coloured beaks really fascinated me !
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The Uniform finch made a late and a brief appearance too

Later in the day, Sergio from Tropical Tours, in the middle of a conversation, remarked that he never went for a walk around the place without wearing his boots, cos of the large number of snakes that live there.

Gulp.

Some of us were, shall we say, a lot more relaxed in the footwear we wore !

*****

There was a sudden whirring sound next to my ears as I stood looking intently at some of the recent pictures in the camera.

And I ignored it.

I knew it was a hummingbird.

Beat that. I had a hummingbird humming into my ears and I was shrugging it off !

They are interesting little birds and there were a lot of them around. Quite friendly and comfortable with humans, they would easily come upto you for a sip if you are holding their favourite potion.

There are some really interesting facts about hummingbirds…actually there are lots of interesting facts, but let me just pick on a few top ones :

  • Hummingbirds are called so cos of the humming sound they make. This sound is of the wings flapping
  • Their wings flap at an incredible speed…can go to almost 200 times a second ! That’s what allows them to be stationary in the air while feeding from the flowers
  • Talking of feeding…lets see how these guys drink. When their beaks touch the flower, its their tongue that licks the nectar off the surface. Hang on…their tongues dart in and out of their mouths 13 times a second !
  • They are incredibly light – most weigh less than a nickel and on an average are 3-6 inches long
  • They are the only birds that can fly backwards !

And many more….These are incredibly beautiful birds and of course, the main objective for us would always be to take a picture of them in action. And get their wings razor sharp in your picture.

Well…the bad news is that, that’s not possible. You cannot get razor sharp, noise free images of their wings by just playing around with your camera settings cos of the speed at which their wings flap.

That’s when someone came across the bright idea of using a mutli flash setting. Its too complicated to explain ( in other words, I haven’t  understood myself 🙂 ) but to put it simply, about 4-7 flashes are positioned around the flowers where you expect the hummingbird to come. These flashes, positioned right, will provide that millisecond of light to illuminate the bird completely. In this case, its not the shutter speed that freezes the wings ( it cannot ) but the light that captures the frozen image.

The camera settings are within a small range. And you just go click click click and you if it syncs with the flash light perfectly, you get a darned sharp image.

But I don’t enjoy it. There is no skill involved especially if someone else is setting up the multi flash arrangement for you. So, while I am posting a few  images from that setting below…I get no kicks out of it.

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Even if I don’t like this much…must say that you get some real sharp pics…
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…and some cute poses
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Paying homage before a meal ?

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But I did get a decent image through my camera settings :). This nice little one was descending on one of the flowers, the light was bright, I could go to a very high shutter speed without generating noise and most importantly, since it was just about to land, the wings were not flapping as fast.

Here goes :

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Not razor sharp, those wings…but not too bad

*****

While it was the birds that always demanded our time and attention, there was one animal that caught our fancy – the tayra. Had never heard of it before but what an interesting animal it is.

Sergio  walked in to announce that we need to move out to the front since he had seen a tayra poking its head out of the bushes

Soon it came. Dark, larger than a mongoose, belonging to the weasel family, with one crooked tooth jutting out from the side. It was incredibly shy and cautious. It would poke its head to see if the coast was clear and invariably run away, dart back in a minute later, to grab some of the stuff placed on the ground and then vanish into the undergrowth again.

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The tayra comes a little bravely forward…

Slowly, the lure of food got the better of its caution and the tayra advanced further into open patch, eyeing the stuff that was there on the ground and once climbed up a log looking for some titbits. The tayra initially stood up on its hind legs to reach out to the food but a little later clambered up the fallen log  eating everything along the way. Of course, in between all this, it would suddenly vanish before making another cautious entry.

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But is extremely cautious about what lies around him and easily alarmed into scampering back into the forest…loved that crooked tooth

On other occasions too, it would suddenly dart in to where we all are taking photographs and vanish with something captured in its mouth ! All in all, good fun both to see such an interesting animal and to observe its behavior.

*****

The bird that we were really looking forward to see, however was the toucanet and even more than that, the toucan.

The saffron toucanets put in a visit on the first day itself. A real odd shaped entity. With a prominent beak, a fairly funky head with prominently displayed eyes, it was an immediate hit and thankfully were both in a generous and patient mood.

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The Saffron Toucanet…love this shot, how the beak and the eyes get the prominence
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It does have a rather funky little head…ok, maybe not so little

They stayed at one of the feeders for a very long time allowing us to take as many pics as we wanted. And allowed me to try out some rimlit photography too. Good fun.

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I stumbled on this actually…overlooked changing my settings as I rushed to the rear from the far more well lit front, saw that I had underexposed a lot but the image gave me the idea that I could go for rimlit ones and…yes, looks rather cool
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And when these birds look straight at you…they do present an arresting image

Then there were the toucans. But, as I said, I shall save that for another time.

*****

The last day arrived and with it the mists. We woke up to a continuous drizzle and a very misty morning. The entire place looked absolutely surreal in its beauty.

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It rained almost continuously and the light didn’t make it very ideal for photography but you can get some excellent pictures in the rain should the light improve a little bit. It did occasionally.

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Rains, however, give you some beautiful images…here a maroon bellied parakeet looks like a whiskered old English gentleman from the 18th century ( go ahead, zoom in and see )
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The Rufus bellied Thrush…also Brazil’s national bird
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Whhirrrrrr…an Azure shouldered tanager shakes off the water

*****

Trilha dos Tucanos.

A lovely place indeed. The rooms are a little separated from the main lodge. Clean though compact and basic but since we generally come into the rooms only to sleep at night it was perfectly sufficient.

Food was quite good. With more vegetarians in the group we were prepared for some challenges but each meal was a good one and we really didn’t have to struggle or take any of the ready-to-eat packets that we had got with us.

The couple that run the place are tremendously patient and I think from long experience, know the weird habits of photographers. But, on top of all that, they really are the welcoming kind. Praveen, loves to cook and is always willing to take up the chopping knife and light up the stove, and they happily gave up the kitchen for him to indulge in his culinary acts.

Lovely place. A must visit. A photographer’s delight…even if sometimes the birds put up unusual roadblocks 🙂

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“How exactly do I take a picture of you ? “

*****

This part of our trip was organized by Supreet Sahoo ( www.supreetsahoo.com ) who runs his outfit, Tropical Phototours from Miami and then there was Sergio (https://www.instagram.com/sergiogregoriophoto/ ) assisting him who was quite a marvel in setting up the perches and in his knowledge about the place and the birds. . Between the two of them they ensured that we had a really productive few days at the lodge.

What can one say about Supreet and Sergio ? They were absolutely wonderful, completely on the ball on all occasions. From creating the perches and giving us suggestions on what we should do and when, to ensuring that a multi flash set up was put up to take the hummingbird shots, they were always around to ensure that we had our photography fill. Everything that could be planned about the three days was planned perfectly.

The thing about such trips is that, not only should we have someone who knows the names of all the different birds that are around but we also need someone who really understands their behavior. Wildlife photography requires two attributes – the first is patience and the second is an intimate knowledge of wildlife behavior which allows us to be prepared for an opportunity that could come up and both of them knew that intimately.

The icing on the cake is the fact that both of them are real good photographers themselves. Always helps.

*****

This was the first time that I could really use my 600 mm lens. A little bit of an overkill on most occasions but what a lovely lens it is ! One just has to take the extra moment to consider the right position from where you can get a perfect shot and once you do that, life is perfect. And because of that, you are constantly looking for interesting angles to avoid a boring image of a bird that occupies 90% of the frame and that helps.

Its always good to have another lens along with you. I had my trusted 200-500 though if you ask me a 400, 2.8 or a 70-200 would have been better choices.

And, as I would keep saying… a second camera body will naturally make life easier.

It was a wonderful start to our trip to Brazil. In spite of knowing what to to expect, we were pretty much blown away by the beauty and splendour of nature around us.

And now…onwards to the Pantanal !!

 

 

 

Tigerrrrrrr…..a trip to Bandhavgarh

“ Shhhh….!!!”

“ Was that an alarm call ? “

All of us froze as our jeep crunched softly to a halt on the slightly damp trail.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was another call. From our left. A langur call. One of the more dependable guys sounding an alarm.

We waited. Silent amidst the forest sounds. The cicadas continued their singing incessantly. A particularly noisy lapwing cackled away in the meadows behind us. We could faintly hear peacock cries in the distance. In the middle of all these sounds, the forest felt deathly quiet. Still. Tense.

In the jeep, we were alert. We gripped our cameras a little tighter. Bodies tensed. Eyes scanned the trees trying to spot any movement, any play of the shadows indicating movement.

Another langur call !! This time a little further away.

A spotted deer looked up in alarm to its left and darted in to the forest away from the alarm calls.

The message was clear.

A tiger was on the move !!!

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Shhh…..There’s a tyger lurking around somewhere……

*****

I was finally in Bandhavgarh.

The last few months, the tiger sightings here had simply shot through the roof. Friends used to come back with some mind-blowing lines – ‘We did seven safaris and had 23 sightings, 11 different tigers”…” Three days, 21 sightings, 14 different tigers”.

Insane.

After our Kenya trip last year, I had mainly done birding trips. I was itching to photograph some of the larger cats which further intensified after two really disastrous trips, one to Jhalana in Jaipur for the leopards and the other to Bhadra in Karnataka ( to be fair, I went to Bhadra with very low expectations ).

These reports from Bandhavgarh made one thing very clear. I had to go there.

Easier said than done. April and May were booked out. I just wasn’t getting a date. Finally I got a couple of days in June, dangerously close to the monsoons, but I thought it was worth the risk. Not that I had much of an option.

And, I was finally in Bandhavgarh.

*****

It was an anxious jeep that made its way to the gate early in the morning. Day was just breaking as we started and through the journey we looked around us in alarm.

In the weeks leading to the trip, I was keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast. There was no cause for worry. There was absolutely no forecast of any pre monsoon showers.

We were further reassured when, as we got off the plane at Jabalpur we were greeted by a seriously strong blast of heat. 43 deg outside.

Our driver scoffed at my queries about rain.

One hour later it started to rain.

A light but persistent drizzle. Which continued through the rest of the drive.

“ If it doesn’t rain through the night, then it will be really hot and humid and the tigers will definitely come out” were the words we heard when we reached Bagh Tola where we were staying.

Not the most calming of statements but then there really wasn’t much we could do but pray.

It stopped raining around midnight, but as we made our way to the Magadhi zone we were scheduled to enter, all around us the impact was surprisingly heavy. A few trees had uprooted, branches had fallen. The rainfall here was definitely much more than the light drizzle we had experienced.

Which would mean only one thing – the chances of any animal coming out of the dense forests into the open would be low.

*****

As expected, most of the morning was a frustrating one. We saw a few birds, including the pretty little Indian Pitta but other than that….nada.

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I think, the serpent eagle is the first bird I have seen in most of my safaris. But this time, it was sitting on the ground and the background gelled beautifully with its lovely browns
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A pretty lil bird, is the Indian Pitta ! I saw it with a catch but sadly the background was very distracting. I got this beauty with a nice background but there was this twig in front…but I shall still take this one 🙂

Not even any alarm calls. We met other jeeps to exchange information which actually was precious little. Trained elephants along with their mahouts do a daily round of the jungles to check on the tigresses and their cubs. Our anxious queries to them received a bored shake of a head.

It was hot. It was extremely humid. But, obviously the overnight showers would have left enough puddles inside the forests for the animals to drink water from and few would want to venture out in this heat.

And then we took a turn to see a few jeeps parked with reasonably dense undergrowth on either side.

Yay !! Parked vehicles in a jungle could mean only one thing !

As we eased to a halt, we could see, through the undergrowth…stripes !!!

Dotty and her three cubs !

Apparently, she had had a kill the previous evening. A sambar.

For a fully grown mother and her sub adult cubs, a sambar would last around a day and a half. Which would mean that they will remain in the vicinity till the kill is completely disposed off.

We tried to squeeze in a few shots. Nothing great. The undergrowth was just too dense and the tigers were clearly too full and in no mood to go anywhere.

But.

But, we knew what we had to do in the afternoon safari. Just park ourselves here. The tigers will definitely move to their kill to keep feeding themselves.

Yay !!

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Dotty’s cub. It was lying in deep in the undergrowth and one of those moments when I got him with too many distractions in the foreground

*****

In a safari, in any safari, anywhere in the world there are two critical aspects. One, pure luck. And the second,  a good naturalist accompanying you who understands animal behavior very well.

On top of these two, we were additionally blessed to have with us, two naturalists, Zian and Akshay, who were also into photography ! Their understanding of what would be the right position to get a good shot, what angle would be best on top of knowing what the tiger would do was invaluable in us being in the best possible positions.

While most of the jeeps bunched around where the animals lay, we parked ourselves, a little further away, in between two separate thickets – one where the family was lying and the other where the kill was. There was a small clearing between these two thickets and the logic was that the tigers will have to pass through this gap and that will give us a wonderful opportunity to get clean shots, with no disturbing background. Being close to where they were lying won’t give us good photo opportunities.

Worked perfectly.

First, one cub emerged after having its fill of the kill. Timid, a  little intimidated with all the vehicles around it. A little anxious and keen to cover the clearing quickly and get to the safety of the thickets.

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One of the cubs was said to be quite a meek one, one that always stuck with the mother. This could be him….he comes after a mini feast, the blood still sticking to his whiskers

Then, the mother, Dotty, from the opposite side. And the difference was evident. Confident. Fearless. Emerging from the undergrowth onto the main track instead of just crossing the clearing, walking along the long line of jeeps. It sauntered past our jeep – just ten feet away from us !

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This was a lovely moment, indeed….calm, confident, unafraid, Dotty strode out

And then the second cub makes his appearance. A lot more confident than the first cub, but still choosing to come out of the thickets at the clearing and not on to the main path.

And, I realized the one disadvantage I had. I was trying out my newly acquired 600 mm prime lens and the tigers were far too close for this lens. I got some lovely headshots but they were just too close for a good head on shot, especially of Dotty as she walked down the track.

No complaints, though. I was thoroughly enjoying the lens.

*****

The most – absolutely the most – exhilarating part of a safari is the chase.

Personally, I enjoy it far more than an actual sighting. Of course, one needs a good sighting now and then, to make the whole trip worthwhile but it’s the chase that truly gets your pulse racing, that gives you a glimpse of how life would be inside those dense forests, how precarious life is for the prey and how they are living a life of constant, perpetual vigil.

This morning, we were doing all the chasing. Dotty had left her cubs – they were close to a year in age and no longer required her to be around all the time – and had gone off on a long stroll.

We followed her pug marks for a long time as she patrolled her territory. Tigers tend to patrol and mark their territory a lot more after the rains. Just in case their scent markings have got erased in the rains.

Her tracks left the main trail, went into the forest, came out from another place but despite us driving all over her territory we could not get any clear sign of her whereabouts. Most importantly, no alarm calls. She must have decided to rest somewhere.

We decided to leave her and go off in search of the other tigress nearby. It was a lovely part of the forest. Meadows on one side, forests on the other and a little further down, the tree line thinned out over an undulating landscape with knee length grass that swayed gently in the breeze. Would be just perfect to sight a tiger in this lovely landscape.

Alarm calls to our left. Alarm calls to our right. Deer darting around in alarm. We waited, not being able to get a precise idea about the direction in which the tiger could be moving in.

The calls are dying.

Then another call was heard to our far right. It sounded a little further away. We raced over to that side, hands tightly gripping the gear and available bars for support, our butts bouncing on the seats as the jeep sped over the bumpy track.

Fresh pug marks !

But, going into another thick forest cover. She had passed through some lovely open spaces while we were trying to figure out which direction she was headed to.

Tough luck. But, that’s how it often works.

*****

Patience.

You need bucketloads of it.  And then some.

Its easy to get frustrated, waiting at a spot and then decide to run off elsewhere, the notion of constant movement giving you the false confidence of a higher chance of a sighting. Doesn’t work that way.

You just need to trust the naturalist or the guide with you and wait. Of course, that long wait could also be in vain, but trusting them has definitely better chances of success.

We had been waiting next to the water body ( man made, sadly 🙂 ) for more than an hour. Or maybe longer. The logic was simple. It was extremely hot. And humid. The tigers, definitely the cubs since Dotty was away wandering, would have had their fill at the kill and would love to soak themselves in the water for some respite from the heat.

So far, nothing. Not a sign. Many vehicles came, waited and then sped off. We spent time taking pics of some unworried langurs that had come to the water body for a drink.

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The langurs didn’t seem to be overly concerned about any danger. We clearly had a long wait ahead of us

And then we heard a distant alarm call.

Not many had noticed it. We immediately started our jeep and went off in that direction. Just a couple of other jeeps also joined us.

Would we be lucky now ? Or would it be another chase in vain ?

*****

You could come across a tiger resting in clear view.

You could wait for a tiger to get up from its place of rest in a thicket and step out.

But there’s nothing to beat sighting a tiger when you are chasing it using the alarm calls as your guide.

Its fascinating to peer through the thick growth around you trying to see if you can detect any movement and then finally catching a glimpse of those elusive stripes in between the trees and the bushes. Or did you ? The light is constantly playing its tricks with the shadows and we wonder if we did really see that quick glimpse of those stripes or was it our overworked imagination at play ?

Quiet. Utterly noiseless. The stripes glide through the bushes. We briefly admire the natural camouflage this magnificent beast is gifted with.

And then, that heart-stopping moment when we can see it clearly between the trees. The sunlight throwing some glorious effects all around. That rich, golden yellow skin. Glowing. The focused look in its eyes as it takes in the surroundings. That open mouth as it breathes heavily.

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That first glimpse !
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A slightly cleared view as it comes out of its cover

It was one of the cubs. One confident cub this one was. Not at all intimidated by the long line of jeeps around it and he strode confidently to the pool ahead.

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Quite confident for a cub. It kept a wary eye on the line of jeeps but otherwise seemed unperturbed

We squeezed in a few quick shots as it moved through the trees and then sped away leaving the other jeeps behind. We needed to get into a good position to see the cub emerge from the tree line and make his way across the open space to the pool.

I briefly wonder if I should change my lens to a 200-500 which would give me greater flexibility if he does come too close. I give up the idea, unsure if I have those few minutes that would be required to change my lens ( Oh for that second camera body !!! )

Perfect position !

He makes an appearance. And once again, I realize the limitations of having a monster lens when this glorious animal is so close.

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Sigh…a 600 prime has its limitations when the animal gets so close but one does get lovely headshots

He reached the pool. Studied the pool carefully. Decided where to get in and then settled in with what I liked to imagine was a luxurious sigh of contentment.

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The blessed saucer 🙂

Now, there’s this thing about wildlife photography. There are numerous unwritten rules. Many of them. A tiger in a pool is a wonderful sighting, presents oh so lovely opportunities to take some unforgettable images. But.

But, the pool has to be a natural one. Not a man made one with a cemented surface that is visible. Across all forests, the forest departments build what is commonly called as saucers which the department fills with water in the hot summer days. Cemented sides. Nah, they won’t do.

The department of course, does it for the animals but we selfish photographers love to gripe on why they couldn’t have got a little creative and tried to at least hide the cement instead of painting it a bright white J.

I wasn’t too bothered. I clicked away.

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ARN_9398After a long and relaxed rest in the cool waters, he got up and climbed up the incline of the bund. It reached the top and then turned back to study us.

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Time to head back….this one would definitely grow up to be one massive, handsome beast…

And then stepped over and vanished.

*****

I simply cannot overstate the importance of having a good naturalist with you.

We were back at the saucer. The afternoon sun was harsh and a usual position which could give us the best line of sight to the saucer would have the sun staring directly into our camera. Far from ideal.

“Lets position ourselves there, under that tree”.

“ But this position gives a better view of the water, doesn’t it ?”

“ Yes, but the other cub is bound to join in, and we saw where it is resting, it will come from there and we will be perfectly positioned to watch it approach from that position. The sun will help us”

Ten on Ten.

Instead of having the sun facing us, we could get some neat shots of the sun hitting the cubs from one side, giving us some lovely shots.

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Exactly as our naturalists, Zian and Akshay said, soon the second cub appeared from the opposite side, the sun lighting him up brilliantly
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It hovered around for a while before deciding that the water was too tempting…that wall and the dark background adds much drama to the image, I felt
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After a while, the first cub decides its time to head back for a bite, taking one last look at the setting sun and giving me another lovely opportunity

*****

Our last safari.

It had to be a short one since we had to leave for the airport which was a good three hour drive. We wanted to get into the park early.

But, the best laid plans of men and mice and all that. Our guide from the Forest Department turned up late. Really late. We were almost the last jeep to get into the park.

Our plan was to avoid the area of ole Dotty and her family and spend time looking for some male tigers. There was news that a few males were on the move, marking their territory.

We avoided the usual turn that takes us to Dotty’s territory. And, in just a few minutes as we took a turn , changed gears to go up an incline and we noticed a large number of jeeps parked on the track.

We craned our necks to see where the tiger was, for nothing else will keep so many jeeps stationary.

And, right there, bang on the track was one of the most gorgeous male tigers sitting. By the way,  a male tiger can weigh almost 100 kgs more than the female. And this one was a true specimen that clearly showed its additional weight very powerfully.

A huge beast, sitting nonchalantly with his back to all of us. Least bothered to even turn around to check on us once in a while. Not that it would have been easy for him to do that…he had one of the thickest necks I have ever seen.

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Look at that THICK neck !!

We were amongst the last vehicles to reach the spot and as a result we struggled to get a good view. Our naturalist informed us that the tiger will get up and move to his left up an incline and if he did that, the other jeeps will completely obstruct the view. And right now, his back was to us so in that too didn’t really give us a good photo op. Guess just enjoy looking at the magnificence of the animal.

We were so close that a 600 was just completely useless. I quickly changed my lens to a 200-500. Just in case, I get a chance.

And then, the Gods smiled at us.

The tiger lumbered up and instead of turning left, it decided that there was a tree to its right that needed to be sprayed. As it moved, the jeeps ahead of us, roared in front to get a good view of the tiger in the assumption that the tiger might continue down that path beyond the trees.

We eased our vehicle into their vacated slot. Prime position.

The tiger went up to the tree, sprayed the tree liberally, scratched his neck on the tree ( that too leaves scent markings ), turned around to look at all of us, turned around to look straight into the sun. Perfect light.

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We were close. Real close. Even at 200 mm I could only get such tight shots
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Brilliantly lit up by the morning sun…would have been fantastic if I could have got a full body image

And all this so close that even at 200 mm I was struggling to get its entire body into the frame !!! As he finally stopped lavishing his attention on the tree and proceeded to go up the incline to our left ( exactly as our naturalist predicted J ) I just put down my camera and stared at it. What an animal !! And it was just three or four feet away from our vehicle !!

It found a gap between the vehicles, calmly threaded his way through that gap and went and once again sat down for a few minutes before deciding to up into the denser parts of the forest.

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Phew.

That was truly exhilarating.

*****

Bandhavgarh.

“Bandhav” meaning brother. “Garh” meaning a fort. Legend has it that Rama built the fort inside the forests here and gifted it to his brother for him to keep an eye on Lanka.

While multiple dynasties have ruled over the area, once the Baghels got their second chance to rule the area, the story takes an interesting turn. In the year 1617 AD, the Baghels decided to move their capital to Rewa. Once the royal family moved, the fort was not as frequently inhabited and the nearby villages also started moving out. As the human population decreased the forest flourished.

Its quite a beautiful forest. I had imagined it to be a very dry forest and was quite pleasantly surprised. Sal along with mixed deciduous forests with the occasional small meadow thrown in, made some parts look really lovely.

Of course, there are lots of other subjects for your camera. We once had a quick glimpse of a sloth bear with two cubs scurrying across the path ahead into the forests. I could get some lovely shots of the Indian Golden Jackal as it headed home after what I imagined was a hard days work.

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The Indian Golden Jackal was hurrying back after a long day when we saw it….we waited for it to come a little close and with a wide open background, got some lovely shots
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On our way back, that last morning, we saw this one a little away in between the trees, studying us

The last morning, we saw a glimpse of a jungle cat and stayed put, trying to get a better look and, yet again, patience and perseverance paid off !

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Gotcha !!! After missing quite a few shots, I nailed this one
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We really don’t give them any privacy 😦

And, of course there were the birds. The Pitta was to be seen quite frequently. On the first day, when we were rushing to see Dotty and her cubs, we saw a crested hawk rather close by in the water and we got some nice pics. But, Bandhavgarh is most famous for its tigers.

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This crested hawk eagle stayed put for a long time
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The wire tailed swallow, perched conveniently close to one of our breakfast halt points

We were a trifle unlucky that one of the zones that was really rocking, the Khatauli zone was closed since wild elephants from the nearby jungles of Chhatisgarh had wandered into that zone. There are no wild elephants usually in these parts and as a safety measure, the department had shut it down.

How we reached the place 

We flew into Jabalpur, which is the nearest airport and then drove down to Bandhavgarh. Would take a max of three hours and the roads are excellent. The place you stay will usually arrange for a pick up and drop. Charges : Rs. 5000-6000

Where did we stay ?

Bagh Tola. (http://www.baghtola.com )

What a lovely place !! Beautiful tented acco, really comfortable and excellently managed with very friendly and attentive staff. But a place to stay really has to be beyond just a place to stay. We loved returning to the resort and spending time at the brilliantly stocked library. Leafing through various books about the wildlife of India and overseas, I read about fascinating stories of tigers, leopards and other animals. I would specifically recommend a wonderful book on the African wildlife, where the watercolours in the book are simply mind-blowing. And another book called, I think, The Hunters.

And, as if these books were not enough, we had a nice time after each safari chatting up with Zian and Akshay who accompanied us on all our drives and without whom we definitely would’nt have got into the best positions for many of my pics.

All in all…all the challenges notwithstanding, a really lovely trip. Returned with a hard drive full of pictures that I will take ages to work on and some lovely memories.

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I just can’t wait to get back.