Tiger, tiger!

Three days in Corbett

Three days in Corbett National Park and Arun Menon returns with a bushel full of lifers… and the sighting of his life leaves us burning bright – with envy!

I had never thought I’d do this one, a trip to one of the best known national parks in India. The trip to Jim Corbett National Park actually happened thanks to friends of mine who were getting married in Dehradun. Two years before their wedding I had promised them that I would for sure attend their D-day. In April this year, I used this chance to head toward the national park after their wedding with two other friends. We had started planning for this trip while I was in US, months in advance. The only available accommodation inside Corbett Tiger Reserve are the government-owned forest guest houses which has to be booked online well in advance. The process, although very transparent, is tough as rooms get sold out within minutes of opening of the online bookings.  Luckily I had an ally in the form of Soumyajit Nandy to help me with all this as he was familiar with Corbett. He put me in touch with his friend Aadil who takes people on safaris in Corbett. Soumyajit runs a wildlife/ bird photography tour company by the name of Going Wild.

Corbett, situated around the Ramganga river, is a place of inexplicable beauty. It has thick forests, shrub country and wide open grasslands among other habitat types. We visited two zones of Corbett – Dhikala and and Bijrani. And, my dear friends, Dhikala is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen.

After a late night journey from Dehradun to Corbett in a taxi with  a suicidal driver and a road block due to a broken-down lorry, we reached Ramnagar (the nearest town) pretty late. We were then whisked away by our safari driver who was keen on reaching the deep interior of the park and hence we couldn’t spot a lot on our way. However, we did manage a few sightings. Among the first ones that we saw in the forested part of Dhikala were the amazing Kalij Pheasant and Barking Deer.

Kalij Pheasant
Kalij Pheasant – male
Kalij Pheasant - female
Kalij Pheasant – female
Now you know what camouflage does
Now you know what camouflage does – Did you spot the female Kalij at first look?

By 10 AM we reached the grassland of Dhikala. This was one of the largest grasslands I had ever seen. The grassland borders the Ramganga river and is actually formed after the river recedes during the dry season.

Dhikala Grasslands
Dhikala Grassland

Tigers are believed to hunt deer in these grasslands – something I had never imagined. Although we did not find any tigers here, we did find a Gharial half-basking. We also found a herd of Spotted Deer all bunched up together in the middle of the grassland, and some River Lapwings.

Gharial
Gharial
Spotted Deer
Spotted Deer
River Lapwing
River Lapwing

At 10 AM, we had to stop as the safaris were not allowed between 10 AM and 1:30 PM. We quickly grabbed a bite at the Dhikala canteen and headed to the watch tower where we had decided to wait till the safari restarted again in the afternoon. As a rule, visitors are not allowed to get off the watch tower while waiting. Once the safari starts again later in the afternoon, the jeeps would come back to pick up the visitors.

While the other two took rest, I continued to observe vultures flying around the watch tower. They were scavenging on a buffalo kill that was lying far away.  There were three species that I could identify – the Red-headed, Egyptian Vulture and the Himalayan Vulture.

Vultures at a buffalo kill
Vultures at a buffalo kill
Red-headed Vulture
Red-headed Vulture
Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian Vulture
Himalayan Vulture?
Himalayan Vulture

Close to the watch tower we also saw a Monitor Lizard foraging in the forest and a Banded Bay Cuckoo moving about in a nearby tree.

Monitor Lizard
Monitor Lizard
Banded Bay Cuckoo
Banded Bay Cuckoo

A couple of hours of waiting at the watch tower after a night journey without a minute of sleep (the driver was a maniac and I was in the passenger seat – you can imagine my plight) were draining me in the afternoon heat. I lay down on the floor of the watch tower, put my cap over my face, the camera over my lap and dozed for 30 minutes. By the time I woke up, my friends who had slept soon after they got to the watch tower, had woken up. We spotted a Pallas’ Fish Eagle doing a few fly-bys and some Black-necked Storks and Black Storks at a distance.

Fish Eagle
Pallas’ Fish Eagle
Black-necked Stork
Black-necked Storks
Black Stork
Black Storks on the bank of the Ramganga

At 1:30 in the afternoon our Maruti Gypsy arrived and we headed off to the grasslands again. We were lucky to spot a large herd of elephants returning from the river bank.

Elephant herd returning from the river bank
Elephant herd returning from the river bank
Elephants crossing the jeep track
Elephants crossing the jeep track
Mother and Calf
Elephas maximus, minimised by the landscape!
He didn't want his picture to be taken, what with all the online identity theft that is rampant nowdays
He didn’t want his photo taken, what with all the online identity theft that is rampant nowadays!

Once the herd had passed and as I sat wondering when I would ever get a chance to properly see a tusker in the wild, we were in for another treat – a tusker taking a nice relaxing bath in the river! He was not in a hurry, in fact he was very meticulous – after standing upright in shoulder-deep water and splashing water all over himself, he dived under face first, then went under by turning on his sides as well.

Tusker taking a bath
Tusker taking a bath

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He then got out of the river and proceeded to the next stage of his personal hygiene routine, the application of the body pack – the dust bath.

Getting out of the river
Getting out of the river
Tusker taking a dust bath
The dust bath after the bath
Underparts getting attention as well
Dust bath – Underparts getting attention as well

Once his baths — water and dust — were over, he started walking towards us confidently and steadily and that was the kind of scene I had always imagined. However, when he didn’t stop his advance or alter his course, we did get a little uneasy. But thanks to our experienced guide/driver, we were moved well out of harm’s way and the path of the tusker. It was only later in the evening when I met Soumyajit that he told me this tusker was actually in musth and hence there were no other tuskers in and around the grasslands for a while. We had failed to spot the secretion on the elephant’s temple as he was wet from his bath. Man! Was I happy that I was in one piece after that encounter!

Tusker - head on
Tusker – head on!

After the encounter with the elephants we decided to spend some time on the border of the forest and the grasslands. Here we spotted a few birds – a female Grey-headed Woodpecker, a Mottled Wood Owl and a male Red Jungle Fowl.

Grey-headed woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Red Jungle Fowl
Ever admired the colours on a chicken?  Red Jungle Fowl

By 4:30 we started heading to our accommodation (Gairal forest lodge) for the night, as it was a bit far away from Dhikala. On the way, close to our destination, in the dim 5:30 PM evening light we spotted a sambar resting and an orange-headed thrush (nominate race), foraging.

Sambar
Sambar
Orange-headed thrush
Orange-headed thrush

With that came to end our first day at Corbett and Dhikala. The second day was scheduled at Bijrani, where Rani Sharmeeli roamed. Who is Sharmeeli? You’ll get to know soon.

Next day was Vishu, a festival that signifies Hindu new year in Kerala. The important event on Vishu is the Vishukkani, which involves sighting of auspicious things in the morning. And by 6:30 AM or so, I spotted my Vishukkani – a tusker crossing a dry stream. Such streams with almost white boulders are very common  in photos of Corbett. I have always imagined seeing an elephant in such a setting. But before that, as soon as we left the forest lodge, we also spotted a very alert Brown Fish Owl. Have no doubt, I considered the owl as my Vishukkani too!

Brown Fish Owl
An alert Brown Fish Owl
Vishukani - Tusker crossing stream
Vishukani – Tusker crossing stream
Tusker crossing stream
Tusker crossing stream

Happy and content we continued on our way out. On the way there was a peacock ‘dancing’ with its train fully expanded. Unfortunately his back was turned towards me and all the amazing view was given to a van load of day visitors who were on their way inside Dhikala. After two full minutes the peacock started turning towards us, unfortunately, by then he had also started lowering this train.

Pricey Peacock - got only a side view
Missed show – I got only a side view with the train half down

It is a short drive from Dhikala to Bijrani and by the time we got there, it was a bit late in the morning. Nevertheless, we registered ourselves at the forest lodge and immediately continued on the safari. Soumyajit had told me that Bijrani was the best place to spot the striped carnivore for which Corbett is famous. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spot anything during our safari. My friends who were with me were a bit upset as they were desperate to catch a glimpse of the feline and that was one of the main reasons they came for the trip. I, on the other hand, was as usual prepared for not being able to see what I wanted; so I didn’t have any expectations. As we returned to the premises of the forest lodge at 10, it started raining.

Bijrani landscape
Bijrani landscape

After an early lunch I decided to snooze in my room as I had not yet recovered from the sleepless night a day ago. When I woke up after an hour or so, I heard the rain outside and thought to myself that the entire trip might turn out to be bad if had been continuously pouring for over an hour. Luckily, the scene outside was different as it was only a strong drizzle and watching some Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters doing their aerial sorties lifted my spirits. I took my camera and decided to go out in the rain to get a shot of one.

Brown-headed Bee-eater
Brown-headed Bee-eater

At 1:30, despite the drizzle, the safari restarted and off we went along with other Gypsies at a steady pace. But our experienced guide/driver made his progress slowly allowing other vehicles to overtake us and then, when we were the last vehicle, took a different route. Had we just finished going for about half a kilometer, he grabbed our attention with the magical word – “Tiger! Tiger!” As the three of us froze, we saw the striped form walking ahead of us nonchalantly on the jeep track.

My first tiger sighting!

Sharmilee

My friend got all excited and asked him, “Yeh Sharmilee hai kya?” To which he replied in the positive.

Do you recall the Sharmilee I had mentioned earlier in this post? Sharmilee is the name the guides have given this territorial tigress in Bijrani. Although Sharmilee by name, she was in no way shy of people. Least bothered by our presence and not even turning around once, she kept walking, keeping a steady pace. She then climbed a short bund and surveyed the place. As she did this, I got the first clear look of her face, and that too at eye level.

Sharmilee surveying the lunch options
Sharmilee surveying the lunch options

Realizing that she had been spotted by the Chital, she changed course and went into the bushes. Our guide, immediately turned the Gypsy around saying that she will cross the dry stream bed to the other side. We went to the bank of the stream and waited with bated breath scanning the bushes for the feline form. And, then I spotted the striped form far away, walking under the tall grass, crossing the stream bed. Our guide then positioned the vehicle on the jeep track on the stream bed so that we could get a good view, even though far away.

Crossing the dry stream bed
Crossing the dry stream bed

She crossed the first patch of grass, then continued crossing the boulder-strewn stream bed and onto another patch of  grass in the middle of the stream. She then came to the edge of this patch on the other side and sat down for a while.

Taking a break
Taking a break

She then continued crossing the stream and got to the jeep track on the other side where we were able to watch her more closely. Unfortunately for me, the guide kept moving the Gypsy too close for my lens’ fixed focal length of 300 mm. Hence it was too difficult for me to take pictures. However, I did manage a couple.

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As we were following her on the jeep track. She suddenly ducked low, immediately turned around, headed towards our Gypsy in a crouched trot and got off the jeep track about 6 feet away from me and disappeared into the undergrowth. That was the last we saw of Sharmilee. But those 15 minutes or so were one of the most exhilarating moments I have ever had.

Disappearing into the undergrowth
Disappearing into the undergrowth

Sometime later we moved a bit forward and realised why Sharmilee had acted the way she had. Some 30 – 40 meters ahead lay a heard of chital stags, resting from their browsing. This is what made the tigress crouch and take a roundabout path towards the deer so as to approach them from behind. Realising this, we too stayed put and decided to wait it out. But unfortunately for us, we did not have a chance to see the hunt. Eventually, as it was time to end the safari for the day, we had to head back to the forest lodge.

Chital
Chital – The one on the left had a very pale coat. There were many like this in Corbett.

The next morning saw us in good spirits after an evening of animated discussions regarding the first wild tiger of our lives. The morning proved another surprise for we saw Sharmilee’s sub-adult son who, along with his sisters, were apparently overstaying their lodging in the mother’s territory even after two years. Soumyajit and Aadil had described this male as having a huge round head. I got first-hand proof when I saw him myself.

Sub adult male
The sub-adult male regarding us

He spent most of his time in the waterhole that had been dug by the forest department, cooling off. The guides were joking saying that he was lazy and that his mother did all the hard work while he just enjoyed a spa. Also, unlike his mother, this guy was very shy. He moved into the bushes when he caught sight of people.

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Making his way into the bushes
Sub adult male
The stare

However, we did manage to see him twice that day as he came back to the waterhole from the nearby bushes when the safaris stopped for the afternoon break. This time he stayed put in the waterhole for quite sometime before moving back to the bushes. We waited in the Gypsy for the next hour or so waiting for him to show up again, but unfortunately that is the last we saw of him.

After a siesta in the waterhole
After a siesta in the waterhole

Before wrapping up our safari, we went around Bijrani just to see what more we could spot. We caught sight of a langur and some barking deer in the denser part of the zone. And when I heard a familiar sound I looked up and to my surprise found a Great Hornbill in flight. I also saw a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch.

Langur - lost in thought
Langur – lost in thought
Barking Deer - male
Barking Deer – male
Great Hornbill
Great Hornbill – male

As it was time to leave, we headed down the jeep track past the forest lodge towards the exit of Bijrani, which lay a few kilometers away. It was here that another Corbett resident decided to give us a show, one that we had missed earlier, to leave us a bunch of happy and satisfied souls. There was no need for it as we were happy beyond measure but we watched in awe all the same.

Final sight
Final sight

But, my dear friends, although I had amazing tiger sightings in Bijrani, do trust me when I say that if you have three days to spend in Corbett, make sure two days are in Dhikala for its beauty is beyond description! And if you have just one day to spend, I’d still say Dhikala!

Text and photos by Arun Menon

Photos of landscape and elephant herd: Anoop & Supriya

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