Birding & Lion Photography @ Gir

“Ash Prinia, Asian Koel, Bay Backed Shrike, Black Drongo, Black Headed Ibis, Black Kite, Black Necked Grebe, Black Necked Stork, Black Tailed Godwit, Black Winger Stilt, Brown Shrike, Cattle Eeegret, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Collared Dove, Common Babbler, Common Coot, Common Crane, Common Crow, Common Green Shank, Common Moorhen, Common Pigeon, Common Red Shank, Common Red Start, Common Sand Piper, Common Teal, Coppersmith Barbet, Crab Plover, Crested Serpent Eagle, Curlew Sandpiper, Dalmation Pelicans, Demosil Crane, Dessert Wheatear, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Spoon Bill, Eurasian Wigeon, Flamingos, Flower Pecker, Gadwall, Great Egret, Great Tit, Great White Pelicans, Greater Coucal, Greater Crested Grebe, Greater Sandpiper, Green Bee Eater, Grey Heron, Grey Wag Tail, Gull Billed Tern, Indian Cormorant, Indian Peafowl, Indian Pond Heron, Indian Robin, Indian Scops Owl, Jungle Babbler, Knob-billed Duck, Laughing Dove, Lesser Flame-back Woodpecker, Little Cormorant, Little Grebe, Little Ringed Plover, Long Tail Shrike, Marsh Harrier, Northern Pintail, Oriental Magpie Robin, Osprey, Painted Stork, Pale Billed Flower Pecker, Pallas Gull, Paradise Fly Catcher, Perigrine Falcon, Pied Avocet, Pied King Fisher, Plain Prinia, Purple Heron, Purple Sun Bird, Red Naped Ibis, Red Vented Bulbul, Red Wattled Lapwing, River Tern, Rock Pigeon, Rose Ring Parakeet, Rosy Startling, Ruddy Turnstone, Ruff, Rufuous Tree Pie, Scaly Breasted Munia, Shikra, Short Toed Snake Eagle, Shoveler, Small Blue Kingfisher,  Small Green Bee Eater, Small Minvet, Spot Billed Duck, Spotted Owlette, Towny Pipit, Western Reef Egret, Whimbrel , Whiskered Tern, White Bellied Munia, White Broud Wagtail, White Eared Bulbul, White Throated Kingfisher, White Wag Tail, Wood Sandpiper, Yellow Footed Green Pigeon, Yellow Wagtail , Yellow Wattled Lapwing”.

What is common between over 100 birds listed above? They all can be spotted in Jamnagar, (which is almost at western tip of Gujarat) and Gir Forest.  Do note that some of these birds are found only during the winter, thanks to winter migration phenomenon.   Why am I talking about these birds? I happen to spot and identify them effortlessly (without having to refer a book on birds), thanks to hanging out with with seasoned amateur bird watcher gang (Dilan, Suchi, and Vineet).  I met Dilan for the first time when I attended Kalyan Varma photography course in Bangalore an year ago.  Since then, I am in his mailing list where he alerts about the trips that he arranges for photography enthusiasts.

However, getting my calendar aligned with Dilan’s calendar, Cigniti calendar, Radhika and Kid’s calendar is rare phenomenon.  However, I got lucky this time, and I got to join 7-day photography tour with Dilan around Jamnagar and Gir Forest.  When I proposed my travel plan to Radhika, she said, “Sure. Go ahead.  Fulfill your passion”.  It reminded me of last scene from “Spiderman 2” movie, where Mary Jane Watson says to Peter Parker (Spiderman), “Go get ‘em, tiger”, when their kiss is interrupted by police sirens, and Peter stands, conflicted on whether he should respond. Mary Jane, with an accepting smile, responds Go get ’em, tiger.  I am getting carried away, so I will stop. 🙂

Interested in more details of my experience, continue reading the last blog update of 2013 and also to view awesome pictures (ok, ok, not all pictures are awesome, I am human too) and multimedia visuals “behind the photos” (where we had to kneel, crawl, squat to get some great pictures) of my experience. I have also documented lessons learned/refreshed during this tour, in case someone out there on the net Googles for it. Be sure to comment on the blog though, if it manages to kindle something within you 🙂

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Now the story of my ‘7-Day Photography Tour”

Day 1 – 14th December (Saturday)

Contrary to the original plan, this photography tour had only 3 participants (me, Suchi, and Vineet) and of course our photography coach Dilan Mandana.   Vineet appeared to be a Seasoned Amateur who seems to be living and breathing everything about birds out there.  Vineet said his interest into birds sparked after he saw Hollywood blockbuster movie “Jurassic Park”, given that it is too late to go after Dinosaurs :-). Suchi seemed little beginner compared to Dilan/Vineet, but still way pro compared to me, and proclaimed that she is still figuring out whether her passion is Bird Photography or Animal photography.  Dilan is a self-proclaimed naturalist and wild life photographer.  He regularly participates in film making related to wild life in India, and collaborates on small to big initiatives in this space.  He was part of the crew that filmed “Desert Lions” and recently “Monsoons of India” (which is yet to be released).

I met them on the first day afternoon, and instantly intimidated by size of their camera lenses, that they were flaunting. Vineet was carrying a 500mm lens (and clicked some awesome pics), and Suchi was flashing a 400mm lens (yet clicked some unbelievably awesome snaps of birds and lions ).   I felt little outsider on the day 1, with the speed at which they were spotting and identifying birds out there.  It was also quite charming, to see their comfort and fluency, especially Dilan and Vineet.  I would ask them, “Hey, What’s that bird”.   Within a fraction of a millisecond, one of them would say, “It is a male, relatively old, Eurasian Wigeon, commonly or rarely found in the XYZ region, and is 3-month pregnant or single female bird looking for mate”.  Ok, I am joking about the pregnancy and the mating part.

Our day 1 started in Jamnagar, which is well known for its incredible bird life that is easy to spot, observe, and also a favorite haunt of bird photographers. As this bird haven is strategically located on the flyway of the migratory route, in winter it turns into a prime area for the birds and the bird- watchers as well. Several migratory birds make Jamnagar their home during the winter months.   I arrived in the afternoon, so I missed the morning tour and opportunity to spot gulls (which were captured awesomely by Suchi)  After the Gujarati lunch at “Aram”, we visited multiple water bodies (lakes and reservoirs) around Jamnagar. We spotted two dozens of birds which included (Greater/Lesser Flamingos, pintails, Shovelers, Godwits, Stilts, Eegrets, etc.).

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Lessons Learned / Refreshed on Day 1:

  • Never use ‘Auto’ option.  Kalyan Varma mentioned in his class, “It’s an insult to my training, if anyone uses Auto option after attending my class”.   I got the quick refresher on how to use “Aperture” mode.  Since then, 90% of my snaps have been shot in this mode
  • Try to do the ‘Framing” while taking the snaps.  Leave the room based on the direction of the subject
  • Birding does involve some physical work/stamina. You need to kneel, squat, crawl, and do other yoga positions for extended period to get ‘awesome’ snap shot of your favorite bird
  • Oh yeah. It does require good sense of listening,  & spotting skills
  • Need for lots of patience is a no brainer.  Appreciation on respecting bird’s shy factor is a must.  I had to follow green bee eater for 45 minutes to get a good shot
  • If one is an hygiene freak, they can kiss ‘goodbye’ to this hobby of bird photography.   Often one is required to crawl/kneel/squat in ‘xhitty’ area and questionable hygiene conditions which involves the birder to cross/jump/step these ‘questionable’ areas to get to the bird and get that awesome shot
  • It’s a whole day or several days affair to get the best snap of the birds in given area.  Need to get up at 5AM, get to the spot before sunrise and prepared to hang around the place until sunset
  • Hire a local guide who has great appreciation for birding, and one can take you to birding spots

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Day 2 – 15th December (Sunday)

We woke up early morning, gulped hot chai (best compensation for waking up early), and started out to the Marine national park. The marine national park is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Kutch in the Jamnagar district. It is the first National Marine park of India and has 42 islands on the Jamnagar coast, most of which are surrounded by reefs. The best-known island is Narara and that’s where we spent most of our morning.  Here we spotted Crab Plover, lots of waders like Sand Plovers, Sandpipers, Black headed and Heuglin’s Gulls, Terns, Western Reef-herons, Eurasian Curlew and many more. We also got a chance to see some marine life. This is first time in my life, I saw some marine life outside an aquarium. We walked in shallow waters during the low tide, and were surrounded by interesting marine life (puffer fish was quite a cutie). Exploring the corals along with birding was a unique experience indeed.

Tips:

  • Again access to local guide is important.  Someone who knows the tide patterns, one who can guide you on how closer you should go into the gulf, and when to step back
  • Water can recede quite fast.  We were knee deep into water within an hour.  It did require quite an effort to wade through the water and lots of slush, to get back to the ground
  • There is hardly any space or dry area or rocky terrain for you to perch or rest on, so it is quite an effort to stand in the effort, bend down, and get a good snap of the bird at the eye level
  • Under expose your snap by 2 notches, when you see good lights on the subject (and when the subject is extra white).   Resulting picture will look awesome, with white subject and dark background.  Picture appears as if it was taken in moon light

Almost all of our days ended at a roadside eatery, with pakoras (hot fritters), and garam masala chai (hot spicy tea).   Often Lunch was done at mom’n’pop type of places, good homely food at affordable prices.  I had hard time enjoying Gujarati dishes where sugar was added.  Otherwise, I loved all the places we dined during the trip.   With my usual gang, my conversations usually end-up discussing movies.  However this time, most of the conversation with the gang here was all about birds & mammals.  Most movies that were discussed were related to Planet Earth.   I did watch one of the Planet Earth movies after my return, and was awestruck.

Day 3 – 16th December (Monday)

We woke up again at 5AM, and started to Khijiadiya Bird Sanctuary (KBS) by 5:45AM. This place is less than an hour from the city. KBS represents the combination of seasonal freshwater shallow lake, inter-tidal mudflats, creeks, saltpans, saline land and mangrove scrub. The place is a known breeding ground of the Great Crested Grebe. Apart from it, Little Grebe, Purple Moorhen, Coot, Black-winged Stilt and Pheasant-tailed Jacana are also recorded breeding here. Raptors, including harriers, eagles, hawks and falcons are also spotted here. The sanctuary also shelters migratory birds such as swallows, martins, wagtails and various waterfowls. It is considered as an important site for ecological research and education.

Day started in a awesome fashion.  It almost felt like a scene from Lion King, except in our case, we watched flamingos landing into the lake with sunrise as their backdrop, and other birds swimming in the lake at the same time. Day ended watching flamingos landing in their rest areas, and flying in and out of sunset as their backdrop.  It was quite calming and pleasant to watch.   So glad that Gujarat has successfully kept several hectares of sanctuary for migratory birds to take haven here, without the nuisance of pollution and poaching

We spent entire day here, hiding between the bushes, kneeling/squatting near the swamps, and snapping and spotting dozens and dozens of birds.  It indeed was a meditative experience to see birds swimming, flying in and out of the water, sometimes taking deep dive, some times just skirting over the water, dipping their heads in and out of water.  We approached birds from so many different angles to get our best shots

Learned lots of techniques and tips related to framing, exposure,  ISO setting, and how to use focus lock

Day 4 – 17th December (Tuesday)

In the morning we spent final few hours around few water bodies or jamnagar and snapped away whatever we could found.  I took the checklist of the birds spotted and snapped with help of Vineet, Suchi, and Dilan.  I have snapped 70% of these, rest enjoyed from the distance as my lens focal length wasn’t enough or I was not quick enough J.  Here is the list: Great White Pelicans, Dalmation Pelicans,  Common Teal,  Eurasian Wigeon,  Spot Billed Duck,  Gadwall,  Knob-billed Duck,  Northern Pintail,   Greater Crested Grebe, Painted stork,  Black Necked Stork,  Greater / Lesser Flamingos,  Grey Heron,  Great Egret,  Western Reef Egret,  Little Cormorant,  Collared dove, Plain Prinia,  Little Grebe, Common Moorhen,  Common Coot, Small Green Bee Eater, Small Blue Kingfisher,  Common Babbler,  wood sand piper,  black winger stilt,  red Wattled lapwing, White Eared Bulbul, Rosy Startling,  Gull Billed Tern, Pallas Gull, River Tern,  Marsh Harrier.

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After our lunch, we started to Gir National Park, which is almost 5 hours drive away.  Here is the description of Gir that I have found from Dilan’s brochure:

The 35,948 hectares of the Gir Forest National Park, with a rugged terrain of low hills and tracts of deciduous forest interspersed with areas of grassland, the national park supports a great diversity of mammals including Sambar, Chital, Nilgai, Chinkara, Four-horned antelope, Wild boar, Jungle cat and Golden Jackal. With such an abundance of prey it is little surprise that Leopards maintain good numbers in the forests and Striped Hyenas seek to scavenge any leftovers from the big cat’s meals. The Gir forest is, however most famed for its Lions.

Dilan did mention that our focus would be to find as many as possible during twice- daily excursions into their habitat. He also mentioned that these Asiatic Lions share the languid disposition of their African cousins, enjoying long periods of inactivity during the heat of the day, but such indolence is deceptive and the spectacle of a pride setting out on a purposeful search for prey would be an unforgettable down highlight of our time in this unique reserve

We have reached the Lion Safari Camp resort.  I fell in love with the resort as soon as I entered the camp.  Resort consists of 21 tents that are beautifully furnished with natural materials and have an extended deck. The deck is the ideal place to sit and relax sipping a cool drink while you enjoy the sounds and sights of nature.  However, I spent time doing some photograph sorting and editing J. Each tent boasts of a well-furnished large bedroom, large suite style bathroom with shower and hot and cold running water and Air-conditioner too, not that is required in winters.  So, in total, you would get a feel of living in a tent setup within forest region, while having access to all the luxuries.

We went to bed little early with lots of anxiety and eagerness in the heart, waiting to spot the lions next morning.  We had booked total 5 safaris.  Plan for next 2 full days, leave early morning and late in the evening for safari. Early and late in the day are always known best for wildlife viewing and the pattern of our stay at the Gir forest was to travel into the park at first light for several hours then return again at abut 3 pm. A total of five visits at the National Park was planned to ensure that we are rewarded by a great many wonderful encounters with wildlife and hopefully plenty of views of the resident Lions.

Day 5 & Day 6:  18th and 19th December (Wednesday and Thursday)

Our search for Asiatic lions started early in the morning at 6:30AM as the sun rose.  We spotted many birds and snapped away happily, on the way to encountering first lion.  Advantage of going to safari with birdwatchers is that you are not just looking for lions,   you are also always on look out for birds too.  Safari guide and driver also helped us spot the one we missed. I continue to baffle at the speed which Dilan used to identify a bird perched on top of tree (way up there), while our jeep is cruising at 25kmph.  Vineet was equally good.  I was tempted to get out of the jeep many times, to get closer to a bird.  But I was cautioned not to do.  We spotted half a dozen mammals on the way.  Our morning safari ended without spotting a lion.  We weren’t disappointed big time, as we knew we have got 4 more opportunities to spot one

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We started again at 3PM for second round of safari.  We were told that there is a male lion lazing around at one corner of the part.  We have reached the spot just before the sunset.  Big male lion was sleeping with his face other side of our camera.  We waited for an hour for the lion to getup and walk around, or at least turn his face to our side to all us to take a good snap.   Dilan’s familiarity with local safari guides, and park workforce was a big help.  Like I said earlier, Dilan had spent 2 weeks at the part as part of making of film “Desert Lion”.    So, guide and part workforce didn’t make a big deal in us getting extra time for lion photography.  Just around 6PM as the sun was setting,  lion briefly took a look at us.  It was an awe moment for us, and we clicked several dozens of photos within a minute or less.    Suchi wrote on her FB page, Meet with it for the first time in wild…. goose bumps and chill in the spine at the same time. the eye contact was just for a second and the spell was so strong, I lost everything in that one second. Today is a memorable day for me as I fall in love once again”

My first favorite photo of lion is here.  I was so enamored with my photo spammed all of my gangs on Whatsapp (Friends and Family), emailed to colleagues, and shared it on FB wall.

Our 3rd round of safari started next day morning, again ended without spotting a lion.  Again, we spent good amount of time doing some birding, and snapping mammals on the way.   Our best moment came at the end of the 4th round of safari.   We saw the second lion walking in the direction of our jeep.  Driver slowed the Jeep, and reversed it for about 50 meters, so that we will lion has about 1 minute to walk towards us, and we would get enough room to take the snaps.  Timing was perfect.  Sunlight was directly on its face, and we had about a minute to take the snaps of the lion coming towards the jeep, and walking by  us.  I was seated on the third row of the jeep on the passenger side, so position was perfect to take a reasonably perfect snap.  You see below the best snap of my 7-day trip.  All of us took great snaps.  Park team gave us extra 15 minutes to spend time with the lion (of course at some distance).   We took many more photos, as the lion took a spot to laze around.  We also took some great snaps of it’s yawning.  We were fully satisfied with our second encounter and returned to camp with lots of memories.

gir lion with signature

 

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Suchi’s emotional reaction to her second encounter with big one, on her FB wall “Met with another one today. Nowhere out of the bush he emerged and slowly walk towards me and made me flabbergasted and hypnotized. Passed through the vehicle and settled in one place. We followed him and I looked straight into his eyes.. He also looked at me at a higher intense, for a really long time, as if he is letting me read his eyes…. those 2 eyes are still following me everywhere. Some kind of strong fascination it has.. Helpless to break them.. I looked through my lens to photograph him. Suddenly everything was blurred.. Wondering what’s wrong with the Camera.. then found out its not the camera, my eyes were moist..”

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Day 7 –  20th December (Friday)

We forego the 5th safari planned for today’s morning, as we were happy previous day encounter, and snafu in the reservation for the 5th safari.  We would have loved to see pride of lions, young cubs, and female lions too.  I have learned that someone few days ago, have had a chance to see 10 lions.  I was personally content with what I have seen and experienced, and was eager to return home.

We rented a van to drive back to Ahmedabad, which is about 7-hrs away.  Stopped at a sari shop on the way to buy gifts for our loved ones, stopped at “Hotel Way Wait” for lunch.  Hotel name is weird, but food was great.

Came home to Hyderabad at 11AM.  Watched a movie on iTunes “The Big Year” which is about group of bird watchers competing for “The Big Year” award.  Movie is awesome, funny, and has subtle message worth taking home.

I am glad that I made it to this trip.  Learned about birds, spotted Lion up close and personal, made new friends,  visited part of India which I have never been, tasted some good food, experienced great stories that can be shared to my friend, colleagues, customers, and prospects too.

Am I going to take this as a fulltime hobby ?  Probably not, given my age and current phase of my life.  I would spend some of my time on it, but would not devote to it.  I would want to experience different “hatke” things in my life,  before I get too old to try them out.

Here are two videos that I have assembled, one on the birds, and other on the mammals.   Background score is sourced from the net, and I do not own rights to them.  Note that resolutions of snaps in the video will be lot lower than the actual resolution.  Scroll down for pics with better resolution

 

Different moods of Lions @ Gir

Here are the snaps outside the video, with better resolution;

 

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4 thoughts on “Birding & Lion Photography @ Gir

  1. Sai, really great photographs. Will come over sometime to see the rest of the bird photographs.
    The lion snaps were excellent.

    Regards
    Venkat

    Like

  2. Hi Sai,
    Just got a chance to read your blog.. its amazing.. the write-ups , the photographs and the movie composition are out of the world.. I am so privileged to be part of your blog.. Thanks a ton for that.. 🙂

    Regards
    -Suchi

    Like

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