Tadoba Diaries – At work with Tiger Mother Choti Tara

In 2016 and 2017 Jamni grassland in Tadoba has been a celebration for tiger-watchers. Choti Tara, the tigress who rules these parts, is bringing up her yet unnamed male cubs. We saw Jamni abound with prey species such as wild boar (Sus scrofa cristatus), sambar (Cervus unicolor) and spotted deer (Axis axis). Birds included Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis), Chestnut-shouldered Petronia (Gymnoris xanthocollis), Black Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), and Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). Tourists made up a fair share of the transient population at Jamni everyday as Choti Tara and her cubs presented themselves as l’attraction principale. 

Choti Tara’s cubs were ten months old when we visited at the end of March. The untrained eye could be forgiven for mistaking the cubs for adult tigers as they already looked large. When we first set eyes upon this beautiful family, it was the mother we saw first. She was so well camouflaged in the grass that our patient and persevering guide must have thought of giving up his profession for a moment as he was frustrated by our inability to see what he could see clearly. Yet, when we set our eyes on Choti Tara, and her eyes met ours, we received the same acknowledgement from her that a spectator in the farthest stand in Wimbledon would receive from a finalist. When Choti Tara decided to give us an audience, albeit a fleeting one, she appeared to have been lying down on her side and the head that we saw was perhaps one that bobbed out of an oxymoron called bored interest, to see what the commotion was about.

We had at least ten safari jeeps ahead of us. And the reason we didn’t make it to the top ten was because we, unlike tiger tourists, had stopped to admire nature’s creations in all forms.  We had started the day from Telia lake, and we stopped to admire peafowl, Sirkeer Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus leschenaultii), rufous treepies (Dendrocitta vagabunda), a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) high on Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) fruits, that we saw on the way while the jeeps that entered the park after us raced ahead. We hounded our guide to tell us about the trees in the park. Our safari jeep driver, encouraged by our curiosity, chimed in. On the way to Jamni we stopped to watch spotted deer stags spar for mating rights. We saw two sparring matches twenty metres apart; the vanquished leapt away, while the winner stood his ground.

Our frequent interludes, looking at the sundry denizens and flora of the tiger reserve, must have worried our guide. He alluded that we should do a bit of tiger watching, after which we would have all the time to see everything else. I cannot forget the way he said it in Hindi, assuming the tone of a grandparent chiding a grandchild to finish the food on the plate, after which the child would get all the time to play. That is how we landed up at the rear of a convoy of safari jeeps at Jamni. We were joined by more safari jeeps,  and soon had a position at the middle of the queue — relatively speaking.

It was as though Jamni and its populace at that time were getting ready for a stage act. The audience had arrived, the star was backstage, peering through a screen of dry grass at a motley audience, secretly judging their ability to appreciate a class act. As the first act started, we were left stupefied as the presumed star walked off in a huff. Yes, Choti Tara got up and walked further away to where the grasslands and the wooded areas of Jamni merged near the mango tree-line. Looking at our disappointed looks, our guide consoled us, saying that Choti Tara would be back and that perhaps we might see her cubs as well.

Choti Tara makes a brief appearance at Jamni grassland in Tadoba
Choti Tara makes a brief appearance

The body language of visitors at the van of the convoy was starting to show signs of distress.  As anxious moments passed, the configuration of the convoy shifted with safari jeeps leaving and others occupying the positions of vantage vacated. Tiger safaris are classic examples of hope winning over rationale. We stayed, hoping that Choti Tara would return and that we would get to see the show. The body language by now had turned to that of spectators who had come to watch an exhibition chess match between two grandmasters, only to find out that the players weren’t going to turn up.

As the orange fireball in the background rose higher, it appeared some providential force was setting the chessboard of Jamni on fire. In a game of chess, often it takes just one move by a pawn to set the board on fire.

A wild boar that was foraging on the south side of Jamni at the rear end of the jeep column moved north. A head bobbed out of the patch of grass where Choti Tara lay resting a while ago. The nonchalant wild boar and its opportunistic companion, the cattle egret, continued moving towards the front of the column and further than the first safari jeep. A tiger cub was now out of the grass. The wild boar sensed the hungry eyes of the tiger looking at it. What appeared to be the a spark falling on munitions turned to be a damp squib as the wild boar continued its foraging, irking the novice tiger.

Tadoba Tiger - Choti Tara cubs
A cub comes out of the tall grass on seeing a wild boar
Tadoba Tiger - Choti Tara cub
Predator and quarry face off
Choti Tara Tiger Mother cub at Tadoba
The cub continues to gain ground

Had there been two tigers, I imagined, this would have been like Asterix and Obelix going to to hunt boars. Within seconds ,the tiger cub was joined by its sibling. And the two started creeping stealthily up to the wild boar. They broke into a trot. The wild boar, startled by its pursuers, began to sprint, and the tiger cubs followed suit.

It was over in a matter of seconds as the wild boar crossed the dirt track in full view of the first jeep. The tiger cubs abandoned their pursuit well ahead of the dirt track, and retreated into the grass. Our wait had paid dividends. We moved ahead, following fresh pugmarks, but not seeing any more tigers on that safari. We wondered if Choti Tara had been secretly watching the bravado of her cubs from behind the cover of the grass.

Tadoba Tiger
The cubs break into a run
Tadoba tiger - Choti Tara cubs
A cub returns empty-jawed
Choti Tara cubs at Jamni, Tadoba
The cub looks back at the lost opportunity

We saw Choti Tara and her cubs again the next evening as they were resting under the shade of the trees at the bund on the south side of Jamni.  This time, a herd of spotted deer with fawns approached them, and while one of the cubs got up and approached the herd, we didn’t see the approach culminating in the showdown. The episode played out under the watchful eyes of Choti Tara and only one cub showed activity, while the other lay relaxing. The scene played out about half a kilometre away and binoculars were required to see the tigers clearly. Nevertheless, we were immersed in the show.

On our last safari, we wanted to go to Jamni again to see if we could get a picture of Choti Tara and her cubs in the same frame. About 200 metres before Jamni, we joined a party of six jeeps, right at the back. We heard a tiger call to our right: “Aurm… aurm!” Choti Tara appeared. She walked towards our jeep and crossed in front of the jeep ahead of us to the left. Then she continued along the natural path in the forest.

Choti Tara - Tadoba tiger with cubs
Choti Tara struts while marking her territory
Choti Tara yawns at the tourists
Choti Tara yawns at the tourists

Our guide interpreted the tigress’s call and behaviour,  stating that Choti Tara was warning her cubs not to follow her and stay concealed while she embarked on her weekly round to mark her territory. He further mentioned that tigresses with cubs embark on these weekly visits and leaving markings in their territory to prevent encroachment by other tigresses.  Marking territory is important for a tiger to keep out competition for the prey base in its territory. Dr Ullas Karanth, in his book The Way of the Tiger, observed that a tiger feeding its cubs must hunt at least 70 ungulate-size prey in a year to meets her and her cubs’ nutritional needs.  An adult tiger would otherwise hunt about 55 prey a year.

Dr Karanth also mentions that male cubs leave their mother’s protection when they turn two. One reason for this is to prevent inbreeding. After this, they spend years leading a life of transit, surviving in the buffer zones, hunting and getting stronger until they are in a position to challenge a dominant male and stake out a territory of their own. Considering the daunting challenges a tiger faces from being a cub to a sub-adult, all the way to adulthood, it is clear that the cubs would have to get better at their hunting skills as they grow.

While Choti Tara is the attraction at Jamni because of the handsome cubs she is bringing up, few might realize that being a tiger mother, as with all maternal responsibilities, is a full-time job. Hunting, teaching her cubs to hunt, protecting her cubs, protecting her prey base from competition — all of this packed into a day’s work. It’s easy to understand her reasons for denying the motley bunch of tourists an audience with her cubs.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Photographs and text: Andy

Posted from Moharli, Maharashtra, India.

In Borneo, we met the Colugo – the Flying Lemur that isn’t

Colugo or Sunda Flying Lemur in Bako National Park

My family was on an excruciatingly short visit to Borneo. We had three days in Kuching, the capital and the largest city of the southern Malaysian province of Sarawak, and all that we heard from the local people on our first rain-washed afternoon there was, “You also going Sabah?” And when we shook our heads, they responded likewise, clicking their tongues and muttering, “Nice forest, Sabah. Proboscis monkey. Orangutan. Rafflesia. Colugo…”

Sabah, to the north of Sarawak and bordered by the tiny, oil-rich monarchy of Brunei, is famous for Malaysia’s best-known UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Kinabalu, and its wealth of wildlife and nature. But we had no plans for Sabah. Three days in Sarawak seemed all too short once we landed on the island of Borneo, despite all the reading we had done before our arrival. On the day we landed, we strolled by the Sarawak River in Kuching and took shelter from a mid-morning downpour that came down in sheets for two hours. And this, we were told, was the dry season. After some quick, curated orangutan encounters in the rainforest fragments of Semenggoh on the day we landed, we made hurried plans, overpaying in desperation for our trip the next day to Bako National Park.

Bako National Park in Sarawak, East Malaysia, Borneo
The dense canopy of the coastal rainforest in Bako National Park reverberated with birdsong, and unseen birds
The beautifully variegated forest floor
The beautifully variegated forest floor and understory

It was a glorious morning — clear, warm and sunny — when we rode a motor launch from the jetty to the rainforest entry point. The speedboat took us along the turbid Sungai Tabo stream for a few kilometres past ramshackle fishing villages and stands of ancient forest, much of it hopelessly logged and denuded, then cut into a broad, choppy channel and docked us near a stand of lush coastal forest on the edge of a mangrove-lined estuary.

Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
The shore of the estuary in Bako National Park
Stingless bees in Bako National Park
Stingless bees swarm a nest in Bako National Park
A friendly freshwater terrapin flanked by catfish in a forest stream in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A friendly freshwater terrapin flanked by catfish in a forest stream in Bako National Park
In Bako National Park, on the trail of the Colugo
Pongo, our guide, leads us on a trail through Bako National Park in Sarawak, East Malaysia

Our guide Pongo took us on a short boardwalk trail through the coastal rainforest. It was lush, humid and beautiful. Trees rose high from the mulchy earth, shutting out the blazing forenoon sun. A Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) fed nonchalantly on roots and tubers. Another walked up to the guesthouse and sought its fortunes near the garbage bins, tempting tourists to amble over and photograph it. Near the restaurant, bright green Wagler’s Pit Vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri) sunned on tree limbs.

Wagler's Pit Viper
A Wagler’s Pit Viper basks in the sun
Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park
Bornean Bearded Pig in Bako National Park
The Bornean Bearded Pig solicits alms from tourists at Bako National Park
Plantain Squirrel in Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A startled Plantain Squirrel shrieks invective at us

We kept to the trail. A startled Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) scurried up a tree trunk, then shinnied up into the canopy from where it shrieked insults at us. The boardwalk was well maintained but parts of it were slippery with moss, so we walked cautiously. Tiny bridges led us over creeks patrolled by fiddler crabs brandishing their oversized claws. In a freshwater stream deep inside the forest, catfish nuzzled our fingers curiously. A little black terrapin came along to watch us, sticking its neck out with expectation. Pongo, to my horror, fished out some breadcrumbs from his pocket and fed the wild reptile. His trick was a hit with my little girl — and I had to give her a lesson later that evening when we got back to the hotel about the importance of keeping wild things wild. Along the stone walls of a cliff, little Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta) nested. There were bird calls aplenty, but most of the culprits behaved as they do in a rainforest — they made themselves scarce.

We began to look for Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus). There was one troop here, Pongo told us, that revealed itself to visitors whenever it pleased. After three hours of roaming the trails, sweat dribbling down our backs in the cool but humid forest, we realised today wasn’t going to be one of those days. Instead, a troop of about 50 inquisitive Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) showed up and gave us unwanted company as we navigated the trail. Back on the coastal forest trail, Pongo said that if we were lucky, we might see a colugo. That got my blood up.

A Glossy Swiftlet in its nest at Bako National Park, home of the Colugo
A Glossy Swiftlet in its nest
A large dragonfly calls out for attention
A large dragonfly calls out for attention
A Wood Spider mans the little skies of the forest
A Wood Spider stalks the little skies of the forest
A hermit crab on the beach at Bako National Park
A hermit crab on the beach at Bako National Park
Fiddler Crabs indulge in a spot of sabre-rattling in the brackish creeks
Fiddler Crabs indulge in a spot of sabre-rattling in the brackish creeks

The Colugo, quite erroneously known as the Flying Lemur, is an arboreal gliding mammal. It was thought to be related to flying squirrels, but it isn’t. Since they glide, it was thought that they shared a common ancestry with bats, but we know now that’s not true. It was then thought that its nearest kin were primates like the lemurs of Madagascar, but that contention is too simplistic and not entirely accurate either.  The Colugo, like the Tree Shrew, is classified by some taxonomists under the grand order Euarchonta.

The Colugo found in these parts, also known as the Sunda Flying Lemur (Galeopterus variegatus), is actually one of two species of animals in the order Dermoptera. They are completely arboreal and nocturnal, and feed entirely on fruits, flowers, leaves, tree sap and other vegetable matter. They have a large folded membrane of skin — called a patagium — that stretches between the forelegs and the hindlegs when the animal is in motion.

There’s something else about the Colugo that is interesting. Despite being a placental mammal, it raises its young in a behaviour closely resembling that of marsupials. The underdeveloped newborns spend their early life clinging to the mother’s belly, nursing. The mother curls its tail and creates a sheltering pouch within the folds of its patagium. We hoped to see a female colugo with its infant, but our luck seemed to be running out.

The forest had an abundance of fungi
The forest had an abundance of fungi
A striking maroon dragonfly holds a pose for a second
A striking maroon dragonfly holds a pose for a second
A Common Tree Nymph essays its sashaying love dance in the canopy
A Common Tree Nymph essays its sashaying love dance in the canopy

My eyes followed the dance-like flight of a Common Tree Nymph (Idea stolli) and I recalled how similar it looked — almost identical, in fact — to a pair of Malabar Tree Nymphs (Idea malabarica) that I had seen in the rainforest of Katlekan in Sharavathi Valley, Karnataka earlier that year. This species was easier to photograph, though, and the light rained on it beautifully. As I watched it, mesmerised, Pongo called excitedly from ahead on the trail.

“Colugo,” he said. I left my pursuit of the butterfly and followed his gaze to the trunk of a tree. I saw nothing. The rest of us took turns peering through the binoculars but saw nothing, too. “There,” he hissed, “there!” But I just saw the lichen-mottled bark of a tree.

“Look up,” he said. “No, look down!”

For five minutes each of us took turns scanning the canopy of the tree that Pongo said hosted the Colugo. We saw nothing.

Then I saw it. “Wow!” I said and handed the binoculars to my wife, who had no idea where to look.

Then she, too, said, “Wow!”

Colugo in Bako National Park, Sarawak, East Malaysia
That’s it – that’s a Colugo
Against the bark of the tree, the Colugo is neatly camouflaged
Against the bark of the tree, the Colugo is neatly camouflaged

My daughter had no clue what we were marvelling at. “Where, where?” is all she asked.

Finally, I took a very bad, shaky photograph and asked her to scan the tree trunk for it. Then she too said, “Wow!”

Pongo grinned with satisfaction.

The Colugo was a very strange creature indeed. At first glance we only saw a cryptic patch of variegated fur on the tree. We couldn’t tell which part of the animal was its head. The photograph helped fathom it better — two large, berry-like eyes on the sides of the head, a pointy snout, and the rest of the body folded up like an umbrella that had been wrung out by a particularly bad storm. The tail seemed to be wrapped around something — was it a baby? We never got to know.


Read more posts about encounters with nature

Posted from Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Tadoba Diaries – Taming the Tree Shrew, third time lucky

Indian Tree Shrew

It was yet another tiger safari, but it was back in December 2014. I can’t say if what I saw was the tail, or a leaf, or my eyes playing tricks to satiate my wish. But our naturalist and our driver at BR Hills told us that a Madras Tree Shrew had run across the dirt track. After a few desperate glances to get a better look at the tree shrew that our naturalist had mentioned, we got distracted by a Square-tailed Bulbul and an Asian Fairy Bluebird.

I had been eager to see the tree shrew on that trip. I had digested pages of information about tree shrews from the internet. Every time I’d think of the tree shrew, I’d be reminded of the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. I soon realized why — the Madras Tree Shrew goes by the name Anathana ellioti and the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai is called Elliot’s Beach. While the beach is named after Edward Elliot, a former chief magistrate of Madras in colonial India, the tree shrew is named after the noted ethnologist and naturalist Sir Walter Elliot; both had served notable stints in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

The vision that I used to see when I would think of the Madras Tree Shrew until I finally saw one

During the peak monsoon of 2016 we hosted a friend visiting Bengaluru and then headed off to Galibore, hoping to see the Kaveri (Cauvery) river in spate. As the monsoon was a weak one, there was no gushing river to walk along and we chose to explore the scrub. My vigilant spotter sensed a movement in a tamarind tree and said, “There is something furry in that tree and it is not a palm squirrel.”  Our naturalist homed in and declared, “Indian Tree Shrew — very rare sighting.”

It was rare for two reasons: one — the race of tree shrew we had seen was rarely seen; two — within ten seconds of our spotting the tree shrew in the shadows of the tree, it slipped into a hollow and made itself sparse. The tree shrew made another fleeting appearance on another tree after we had moved a hundred feet. That was the last we saw of it.

“We saw the tail of the Madras Tree Shrew, but at least we got a glimpse of the Indian Tree Shrew!” I consoled myself.

I returned home and read about the Indian Tree Shrew. While doing so, I pictured the vivid imagery of Karl Schmidt’s memorial, that whitewashed relic on Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, Chennai. I re-read the zoological name of the Indian Tree Shrew — Anathana ellioti — only to realize that it was the same species of the tree shrew revealing its anatomy in installments: the tail at BR Hills, the torso at Galibore…

Cut to Tigerland, 2017. On our third safari, our guide wanted to go after the less-seen tiger in the Wagdoh area along the Andhari river. We saw pugmarks and waited for the tiger to show up. The tiger, it appears, knew game theory. It waited, too. It was we who blinked first and moved. Out of Wagdoh and we were on the asphalted road, heading towards Tadoba gate, when something scurried across the road, stopped, raised its furry tail, turned around, moved a few inches, turned around again, crossed the road, and settled atop a bamboo stump.

“Tree Shrew,” our guide and safari jeep driver declared in unison. The light was dull and we stopped far from our quarry. We had a twenty-second sighting but this time I saw the animal clearly, including the distinctive white shoulder stripe. And so, on the third installment we got a clear view of the tree shrew, from its pointed pink nose to the tip of its furry brown tail.

Indian Tree Shrew
On the third installment I got to see the tree shrew from the pointed pink nose to the tip of the furry brown tail

We were on the tail end of our trip to tigerland and on our last safari we had a close encounter with Choti Tara, the tigress of Jamni. After leaving Jamni, we had seen two other pug marks, a male and a female near the Kala Amba water hole. We were following the track when I saw movement in the the bamboo clumps on the right.

“Tree Shrew. Stop!” I called. Our driver stopped almost instantaneously. I got a sighting of two Indian Tree Shrews playing and squeaking. Their movements were swift. And there were those few seconds when they got intimately close to each other. I wondered if they were of the opposite genders and if this was some form of courtship. They frolicked with alacrity, and with alacrity they disappeared too. We waited for them to reappear, but they did not.

As we stopped for the tree shrews, the male among the two tigers we were tracking had crossed a few hundred meters ahead in the full few of a dozen and a half jeep and as we reached and settled for the third row of jeeps, the female tiger crossed the wide dirt track. We waited a lot longer for the tigers to show up again, but they did not. As we returned, it was the tree shrew our guide and safari jeep driver were talking about.

Indian Tree Shrew Pair
When two is company –  a bonus sighting where we saw the pair frolicking

We had fine sightings of the Indian Tree Shrew at Tadoba. And now, when I read the name of the Indian Tree Shrew, I see that vision of the two furry little creatures in the forest of Tadoba. At Tadoba, where the tiger rules, it was the tree shrew that stole the show that day.


Editor’s note: Although Tree Shrews may closely resemble palm squirrels in the field, they are not rodents. Neither are they insectivores, although they were once placed along with terrestrial shrews in the order Insectivora. The Indian Tree Shrew, also known as the Madras Tree Shrew, is classified under the order Scandentia, which includes some 20 species in four genera distributed in Southeast Asia. The order Scandentia is one of four orders of mammals grouped by some taxonomists under a super-order Euarchonta, which also includes colugos, primates and the extinct Plesiadapiformes.  

Text and photographs: Andy

Posted from Moharli, Maharashtra, India.

Dogwood Day Afternoon – A walk in the flowering woods

Flowering Dogwood

Come spring, the first thing you would notice in every pocket of woods in Raleigh, NC are dazzling white flowers that make an appearance all of a sudden. There would be small shrubs to medium sized trees, with all their branches dressed in white, and they are a sight demanding attention. These are Cornus florida or the Flowering Dogwood.

The Flowering Dogwood, also known as White Dogwood, is one of thirty to sixty species of hardwood trees distributed in the the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern Hemisphere. North America is particularly abundant in Cornus species, many of which are planted as ornamental trees. The Flowering Dogwood happens to be the state flower of North Carolina.

The white ‘flowers’ are in fact bracts. The true flowers are clustered in the centre and they have tiny petals. The ethereal beauty of the Flowering Dogwood has inspired legions of nature photographer, not least the celebrated Ansel Adams, whose monochrome portraits of dogwood flowers in bloom appear like stars against a dark sky.

I missed photographing the blooming of the dogwoods in the last couple of years, due to weekends spent working, but this time I managed to spend an afternoon when they were in bloom. I was probably a week late, because the leaves too had started appearing.

Here’s a compilation from that little stroll.

Backlit in all glory
Backlit in all glory
The Riot!
The Riot!
Standing Proud
Standing Proud
Sun-kissed
Sun-kissed
A dogwood flower portrait
A dogwood flower portrait
Yellow fever!
Yellow fever!
The Angel’s Crown
Pure at heart
Pure at heart

Next year I promise better reaction to the spring, when I will bring to you the dogwoods in all their leaf-nude glory!


Text and photos by Sandeep Somasekharan

From The Green Ogre series on Flowering Trees, also read:

The Darling Buds of May

Rhododendron, sentinel of the highlands

The Cannonball Tree – An explosion of beauty


 

Posted from Raleigh, North Carolina, United States.

Tadoba Diaries – At Telia, the tiger’s yawn gave it away

The tiger yawned at Telia

“A tiger sees you a thousand times for every time you see the tiger,” goes a jungle saying. Those who have wandered in the jungles of India seeking a glimpse of the tiger know that however excited we may be about the efforts we put in to seek an audience with the king of the forest, the tigers treat our visits with nonchalance. Why else would they yawn so much when they see us? A tiger sighting doesn’t come easy, and not even statistics and probability theory can guarantee a tiger sighting. But at Telia, our luck took a different turn.

We visited Bhadra Tiger Reserve early this year, excited about our chance of sighting a big cat since the days prior to our visits had seen a spike in sightings by the safari goers. We did four safaris and on the last safari we did not even see the ubiquitous resident of tiger reserves – the Spotted Deer (Axis axis).

As we were trying to hide our disappointment, a friendly gentleman who was our companion on some of the safaris in Bhadra declared, “I am going to Tadoba in April.” I wondered aloud what makes it more likely to spot a tiger at Tadoba, when we hadn’t seen one in our eight safaris in a span of two years. His response was so persuasive that in twenty four hours I had my Nagpur itinerary ready.

We picked the Ugadi week for our visit to Tadoba. We landed in Nagpur on Gudi Padwa, which happens to be the Marathi New Year. As we proceeded by road from Nagpur to Tadoba, we could see the trees that had shed their leaves in fall were yet to gain them back, but the roadsides were painted a flaming orange by the Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) that had started to bloom. The cotton plantations wore a denuded look with spots of while still clinging to the deep brown remnants of the harvested crop. The medians on the highway had a wash of white with the downy cotton fibers blown away by the winds. A question to our chauffeur about orange plantations got him to show us a small orange farm by the road. He mentioned the orange season was over; however, there was a sweet variety that might still be available.

We moved into the Vidharba hinterland when we turned off the highway before Warora. The arid environs belied the presence of the nutrient-rich black soil for which this region is renowned. We passed hamlets, cotton farms and occasional paddy farms. The dust picked up, propelled by the noon convection currents. It was getting hot.  The few pools of water gave respite to the buffaloes from the heat. The vision of a tiger coming down to a waterhole seemed more probable as the parched surrounding begged for a rain drop. I looked up the azure sky which had no intention of heeding the plea.

We crossed the village of Sitarampet in the buffer zone of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve and reached our destination by the Irai lake. In the evening the lake and its banks played host to Asian Pied Starlings (Gracupica contra), Purple Swamp Hen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans), Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), Brahminy Starlings (Sturnia pagodarum), Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava), Red-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) and Rosy Starlings (Pastor roseus). Damselflies took up their last drinks of the day as the sun went down over the Irai. Frogs and crickets started their performances of contralto and soprano.

“Out of Stork” and Openbill returns to roost
“The Last Sipper” for this Damselfly

We were ushered into our dwelling by three chaperones by 6:15 PM. Our guides later revealed that the reason we had half a squad accompanying us for our evening walk with a cinderella clock was due to the presence of a tiger that had been spotted lurking in the buffer zone.

Encounter at Telia Lake

Telia Lake in the Moharli Range of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger reserve is home to the resident female tigress Sonam. Sonam, along with her sisters from the same litter – Mona, Geeta and Lara – had been featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “Tiger Sisters of Telia”. We were told that Sonam was sired by the erstwhile dominant male of the range, Waghdoh, who has been banished from his turf by the new dominant male Bajrang. Madhuri, the mother, has has been sent away from the Telia lake area by Sonam. As Sonam was used to safari jeeps with human visitors, a sighting was considered very likely, so our safari started from the Telia lake. Our jeep was among the first eight to get into the tourist zone of the core area and we rushed to Telia Lake.

We were told the lake got its name from the emulsion-like taste of the water. Interestingly the fauna seemed to relish this taste as we saw, Spotted Deer, Sambar (Cervus unicolor), Oriental Honey buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Asian Openbill, Darters (Anhinga melanogaster), Indian Cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis), Lesser Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna javanica), Cattle Egrets, Intermediate Egrets (Ardea intermedia), Indian Rollers (Coracias benghalensis), Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus), White-bellied Drongo (Dicrurus caerulescens), Black Naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Sirkeer Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus leschenaultii), Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) and Black Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa), thriving here during our many safaris.

We were shown the area in the grass near an Apta (Bauhinia racemosa) tree where Sonam would be found sunning herself late mornings and early afternoons. We moved on, for our guide felt the signs did not indicate the presence of a predator. We returned late morning to Telia as we had heard of a sighting of Sonam, which happened fifteen minutes after we had departed and the jeeps that got in late were treated to that sighting.

Sambar at Telia
I noticed the Sambars at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve were rather comfortable in human presence
Tiger pug marks at Telia
Several tell tale signs that kept us engaged during the hours of wait
Tiger scat at Telia
Scat corroborating Tiger activity

We found pug marks, we heard spotted deer calls and sambar calls, yet we found no tigers in Telia on our second and third safaris as well. We also saw an unidentified herp more than a meter long and very swift in climbing up a well-foliaged tree. On our fourth safari, our guide was determined to show us Sonam at Telia, so we waited excruciatingly long, hearing occasional alarm calls on the other side of the lake. The calls got close. We were told that the tiger was headed in our direction. And then the calls stopped. We waited longer as we trusted the experience of our guide and our safari jeep driver.

A Green Bee Eater (Merops orientalis) came and sat on a bush at eye level. These birds always provide wonderful portraits. I started to get pictures. Meanwhile our guide started to humour us with trivia and riddles about the forest. Our driver asked for the binoculars and in a nonchalant tone, mentioned that the tiger was right where we had been looking for him to make an appearance fifteen minutes before.

Oriental Honey Buzzard at Telia
Oriental Honey Buzzards were a common sight at the Telia lake, often coming down to the bank to sip water
Spotted deer stag at Telia
A Spotted Deer stag, wary of our presence makes the most of the Tiger’s absence at Telia

This almost seemed like a prank. But I knew our driver took his work too seriously to play with our emotions after we had waited patiently for forty-five minutes. He gave directions on where to look for the tiger in the grass, but with fading light it was an uphill task. Suddenly, the tiger yawned. The stripes that had so clearly blended with the grassland were not betrayed by the large canines and incisors that evoked awe. We were separated by less than two hundred meters from a tiger who had been watching us for the last fifteen minutes at least. This was a shy tiger who did not emerge from the grasslands and we were told that it was unlikely to be Sonam, and perhaps was one of her cubs. It didn’t matter because the experience was so overwhelming, for we experienced the tiger’s renowned stealth from close quarters. And while our foray to Tadoba yielded rich tiger sightings, this experience will always be close to my heart. The sun started to dip and we returned, yet that sighting of just the ear spots of the king of camouflage behind the dry standing grass continued to evoke goose bumps.

Tiger at Telia
Spot the tiger – There is a tiger in this photo and it is right at the center
Tiger yawns at Telia
The yawn that gave it away

Photographs and Text : Andy

Posted from Moharli, Maharashtra, India.

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