Monday, November 14, 2011

Mind-blowing Corbett (28 February to March 2010)

Nature India's trip to Nainital, Pangot and Corbett National Park was my second outing to this wildlife paradise. Last year, however, we spent all our time in Dhikala, Kosi Barrage and Mohan Kumeria. The lure for me this time round was the 2½ days in Naintal, Pangot, Bhimtal and Sattal. According to the trip experiences of participants of this trip last year, they saw more than 80 species of birds, many of them lifers. I was literally salivating at the thought of seeing all those new birds. The trip before this, to Dandeli in October, was beyond belief, so my hopes were sky-high!
I had met only two members of the group previously and that too, briefly. They were Dominic, Katie and Renee. The others were also `lifers' in a way…Paresh, Nita, Shubhada, Hutoxi, Usha, Veera, Vidyanand, Pravin and Mandar's wife Pallavi. This was my daughter Sharada's second trip with NI. The first was to Dandeli. Her life's dream was to visit Uttaranchal and she jumped at the opportunity to come with me.
It was great fun interacting with everyone. Renee, Katie, Veera, Hutoxi and Shubhada are inveterate tree lovers who have formed the Save Rani Bagh committee and have managed to stay the modernising of the zoo. Usha was an inspiration to everyone with her never-say-die spirit and concern for those much younger than her. Dominic bore the brunt of all our teasing with good sporting spirit. He had an insatiable curiosity about everything and his questions were endless…he even `fell' head-over-heels in love with Corbett! As we were going out of the park on our way back to Ramnagar, we sighted a tiger. In the commotion, Dominic lost his footing and thudded to the ground from the jeep – a nasty shock for him and for us. Fortunately he did not sustain serious injuries…and did not become a tiger snack!!!
NI had changed the itinerary slightly. We went to Nainital directly from Ramnagar where we landed at 4.30 am by the Ranikhet Express instead of Dhikala. Our first stop was at a small resort run by a Mrs.Kapoor at Kaladhungi. It was lovely, with a few cottages amidst acres of greenery. Here we freshened up and had breakfast – piping hot paranthas and fresh cranberry juice. Our birding began immediately with sightings of gorgeous Purple and Crimson Sunbirds…The drive was in Innovas, otherwise we would have been icicles by the time we reached!
Nainital was breathtaking…absolutely marvellous scenery, invigorating weather and delicious food – could one have asked for a better combination? It was freezing cold in the mornings and evenings – we had ignored the instruction to bring gloves at our peril! But once inside the room we were toasty warm. We stayed at The Nest, a cluster of 4-5 rooms set around a restaurant. The rooms were built of stone and wood. Ours had an actual `nest' – a kind of elevated space inside the room which contained a mattress for two reached by a wooden ladder! Sharada was totally fascinated and immediately `booked' it! There was a fireplace with a chimney – ideal for a Santa Claus…At night there was such silence all around except for the mild chirping of crickets, that I could not get to sleep! I could hear the blood rushing in my ears – something we don't experience in Mumbai. The stars were like brilliant lamps in the night sky, again something we have lost in the big city.
In the two-and-a-half days we were in Nainital, we visited Bhimtal, Sattal and Pangot – areas located at various distances from the main Nainital town. Coming to the birding, I had a number of lifers including the Eurasian Jay and the Red-billed Blue Magpie, a splendorous bird with a long cobalt blue tail. I cannot actually remember whether we saw some birds in the first half of the trip or in the second half at Corbett but we managed a tally of over 250 species, inspite of not sighting as many woodpeckers as we did last year.
All five species of parakeet, including the plum-headed, red-breasted and slaty-headed. A number of raptors including the ubiquitous crested serpent eagle and black-shouldered kite (we sighted so many of these two, that towards the end of the trip it was like…oh another serpent eagle/black-shouldered kite!!). The lammergeir, himalayan griffon and red-headed vulture, the shikhra (Manoj Sharma said the shikhra was a villain in romantic Punjabi poetry and even quoted some lines for us!), the black eagle, steppe eagle, the lesser fishing eagle and the changeable hawk eagle. Of course, since we were in dense evergreen forest (sal, deodar, pine), many of the birds were more heard than seen. The tiny warblers and tits flitting among the leaves made us wish that we had the vision of the owl and the neck of a flamingo! Won't someone please invent binoculars that fit on the eyes like spectacles and which can be adjusted in a jiffy according to the kind of vision one wants?? Manoj made the remark that soon birdwatchers will evolve with longer, more flexible necks…
Tit-tilating – that perfectly describes the tits. The Great Tit, Black-lored Tit, Spot-winged Tit, Green-backed Tit…a glimpse only of the Small Niltava and the Green-tailed Sunbird, a lifer for many. One of the most fantastic sightings was of the Collared Owlet and the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl. The Collared Owlet has these false eyes on the back of its head…just like some butterflies and moths – totally out of this world. The Spot-bellied Eagle Owl was sitting on a bare twig right outside our camp at Dhikala. It was a lifer even for Manoj who could not stop smiling for a long time after that! Its great big yellow eyes, ear tufts and long beak – it was the size of a large house cat!
And the mammals! Gharials, muggers, otters (!), the yellow throated marten, the mongoose, jackal and all the species of deer found in Corbett – the chital, hog deer, barking deer, sambar…who can forget the elephants? A herd of matriarchs, calves and young tuskers…we watched them feeding for a long, long time in the grassland with only the whistling wind for company. For the first time, I noticed that the elephant digs out the grass with its foot in a forward motion and then picks it up with the trunk. Once it has collected enough, only then does it shovel the grass into its mouth! There was one old female with a broken hind leg…which the guide said it had had for six years.
That elusive animal of Corbett, the tiger…We almost spotted one on the first day. Missed it by ten seconds! What heartbreak, especially for Sharada who had nurtured this dream of seeing a wild tiger for a long time…On the last trail, again the tiger leaped across the road in front of us. Again, some of us including me, missed seeing it. Those in front saw it clearly at least for fleeting seconds. Maybe next time…Inshallah!
So we turned back, our hearts heavy because we were leaving such a beautiful place to go back to the concrete jungle and resume the rat race…In my heart I hoped that humans would have the sense to preserve these last remaining havens in their pristine wild state for at least a few decades more…it would be the ultimate cruelty to rob coming generations of this natural treasure.
Congratulations to Adesh and Mandar, as also Manoj Sharma, for awakening  appreciation and love for the wild in city slicker like me…

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