This piece is not a regular nature photography picture story as with the other blogs of ours.  This one is on one of the most fascinating places, we have ever been to in our wanderlust adventures.  Travel along with us, as we tell you more about this place.

The History

Lake Toba, a crater lake said to have formed due to the Toba eruption about 67500 to 75500 years ago. Historic in nature, this is a site of the super-volcanic eruption and is generally described as Yellow Stone’s bigger sister. For the one’s interested in numbers this lake is about 100 km’s long, 30km’s wide and 505 mts at its deepest point with surface elevation of 505mt. With these dimensions no wonder Lake Toba comes in not only as the largest lake in Indonesia but also the largest volcanic lake in the world.

Toba lake from our resort

It’s said that the eruption here was the biggest climate changing event the world has ever seen. Just that the climate change was because of an event then, unlike the human led one that we are experiencing now.  According to the “Toba catastrophe theory” to which some anthropologists and archaeologists subscribe, this event had serious global consequences, killing most humans then alive and creating a population bottleneck in Central Eastern Africa & India, affecting the genetic inheritance of all humans today.

Having formed in a volcanic crater, the water in these volcanic lakes are often acidic, saturated with volcanic gases and cloudy with a strong greenish colour. Being a dormant or extinct volcano this particular lake tends to have fresh water, clarity of the which is exceptional due to the lack of inflowing streams and sediments. The clear fresh water make for a pleasing landscape photo.

Reaching Toba is not easy and one has to do multiple modes of transport. The first of them is a flight to Medan from Jakarta, following which a drive of 5 hours in non-existent roads to reach the lakeside town called Parapat.  This place is the jump off point for the ferry to Tomok and the other resorts in Samosir island. The ferry ride from Parapat to Tuktuk and Tamok is picturesque providing one with lots of landscape photo opportunities. The resorts are splattered around in various islands in this lake and the ferry goes around, dropping people off in their respective islands.  After all, we are dealing with a 100kms lake, having islands within it is normal.

Not so normal Tobaites

Large percentage of people who live around Lake Toba are ethnically Bataks. Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups from Toba, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola, and Mandailing found in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The Bataks are settlers who probably evolved from the Austronesian speakers who first reached Sumatra from Taiwan and Philippines through Borneo or Java about 2500 years ago.

The story now gets interesting, the group were ritual cannibals, yes you heard it right. In Marco Polo’s memoirs of his stay on the east coast of Sumatra from April to September of 1292, he mentions an encounter with hill folk whom he refers to as “man-eaters”. He passed on descriptions which were provided to him, in which a condemned man was eaten: “They suffocate him and when he is dead they have him cooked, and gather together all the dead man’s kin, and eat him. and I assure you they do suck the very bones till not a particle of marrow remains in them… and so they eat him up stump and rump.  And when they have thus eaten him they collect his bones and put them in fine chests, carry them away, place them in caverns among the mountains where no beast nor other creature can get at them. And you must know also that if they take prisoner, a man of another country, and he cannot pay a ransom in coin, they kill him and eat him straightway.”

Traditional Batak
Modern day Batak

So far so good, we get to experience a Ocean like Lake and dealing with people who have a history which is gory.  Come along, there is more to Toba than just these two.

Traditional Batak House
Rice barn

Samosir Island

This is a large volcanic island, besides it is the largest island within an island and the fifth largest lake island in the world. Do read the earlier line again, the tongue twister was conscious. This island offers fascinating history and panorama. Samsosir is the centre of Batak culture and the tourists resorts here are concentrated around the small town of Tuktuk.  Tuktuk is an hour ferry ride from Parapat. The island occupies nearly half the lake and is joined to its western shore by an isthmus, at which point is the island’s principal town, Pangururan. In the east, the island rises to 5,350 ft (1,630 m), but the level of the surrounding water is 2,989 ft. The mountain Dolok Pusubukit, on the isthmus joining Samosir to the mainland is believed to have been the home of the first Batak.

There are multiple villages in various islands which provides a peek into Batak history & culture.  We did move around quite a bit not to miss anything from this fascinating place.

Museum huta bolon simanindothat’s quite some name to remember

Huta bolon is a  small Batak village, Huta meaning village. It is a small square surrounded by ramparts on which tall bamboo trees grow. The community of Huta consists of three different groups.  Margas, the group from the founders, Boru, who take their wives from the Margas group and Hulahula the group of the founder’s wife.

There are row of houses situated at the lower side of the square facing the high mountain which is believed to be the residence of the communal God. Ruma bolon the largest house in town is the King’s abode. There is another row on the opposite side called Sapas, or rice barns. All these houses and rice bran’s make for good architecture photography.

Boratan, the pole right at the center of the village is considered to be the slaughter pole which brings us back to the man-eating historical past. The slaughter pole is decorated with various kinds of leaves representing the tree of life (life or death not sure). Near the pole there is a restored house of the Toba Batak king, which now has been turned into a museum, with a row of ancient Batak tombs of the ancient Simanindo Kings with Christian motifs on them. Next to the kings house is a replica of a traditional village where the Bataks perform their traditional dance Monday till Saturday. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUqxzv3ns40

“Gondang Siboru”, dance by the women who hope that during the performance, young men will propose to one of them. “Gundang Sidoli” is when the young man approaches the lady of his dreams and as a sign of his love he gives her some money.  Seeing this dance performance, bird watching in us got re-kindled because this is exactly how birds attract the mate, just that in the bird’s world its always the male wooing the female.

The traditional Batak music is Gondang. It’s an all occasion music (happy/sad) and is played using traditional instruments.

Ambarita Village

Stone chair in Ambarita village

The stone chairs is where the village elders held council. It is said the elders of the village invited even the rulers of the neighbouring villages to a conference when an enemy was captured to determine his fate.  The prisoner is held behind the bars under one of the houses as you can see from the brown colour structure to the right. If it was decided that the victim deserved death then he would be taken to the dining table where he is clobbered to death. The structure of dining table exist even now and this place is stone throw’s away from the stone chairs. There is a boulder where the victim is beheaded and chopped. His flesh is cooked with buffalo meat and served to the fellow tribal who complete the meal with a drink of the victim’s blood. On the hill above are the graves of the tribal elders. From the appearance of the monuments and graves, we guessed that the tribal elders had embraced Christianity.

Tomok village

Stone sacrophagus

As a mark of respect when you enter the Sidabutar tomb (Sidabutar is the ancient ruling clan in the Batak village of Tomor), one is provided with a sash to wear (sadly they are to be returned back after the visit). This place has rows of stone sarcophagi. Apparently when the king dies, he was never buried, but had a sacrophagus carved in stone to be placed at the centre of the village. Seven days later his descendants would plant a Hariara tree at his grave site.


Mount Belirang Hot Spring
White residues on the hill

Panguguran, the capital of Samosir is on the west coast and a small bridge connects this island to the mainland. The sulphurous gases and water of this hot-spring has killed the vegetation on the hillside leaving behind a white residue.  While this place does provide good opportunities for landscape photos we were handicapped by not having the right gear for the occasion.

Horasfrom this once in a lifetime experience

Horas is the traditional greeting of the Batak people, and the best-known word in their language. In addition to being a greeting, it can also be used to express ‘good health’ and ‘goodbye’.

If you travelling to SE Asia, Lake Toba is a place to be seriously considered for its fascinating history and the surreal experience of seeing a 100km long Ocean Lake. For the photographers it’s wonderful place to visit for nature photography and for making unique landscape photos. The architecture photography is no less alluring in this place. While we couldn’t do justice to our photography thirst, being there and getting a first-hand knowledge of this historical place had been more than satisfying.




Digging into the goldmine – Indonesia, treasure trove for birding

Cibodas for birdwatching in Indonesia was a no brainer since the web had thrown up a large bird list there.  Our initial attempt of trying to fix this tour with a Jakarta local adventure tour organiser couldn’t materialise because of our need for good accommodation.  Finally, the web led us to a place named “Freddy Home Stay”.  We booked ourselves there for a weekend of birdwatching, least bothered about knowing the kind of place it was, excited with only the prospect of spotting some truly interesting species.

We left Jakarta by 14.00 hours on Friday from Kunningan and drove straight to Cibodas.  Thankfully, the drive was free of traffic. As we crossed Bogor and moved towards Puncak we got our first taste of the beautiful natural landscape of Indonesia.  The drive up the hill of Puncak got us to switch off our car air conditioner for the first time in Indonesia, real welcome relief.  We had a brief stopover at a roadside stall for Bandrek (local Ginger tea) and barbequed Corn. Bandrek, is a simple mixture of tea powder, ginger and brown sugar.  Add this mixture to a glass of hot water and you get a real refreshing drink.  Bandrek, became a regular in all our meals over the next few days.

After this brief stopover we drove to Cibodas straight and we were in town by 5 PM.  Freddy’s is on the street to the Gardens and we were hoping to see a large board or hoarding. But all that we got was a small name plate in-visible at first sight.  We didn’t want to believe that it would be such a small place tucked away inside a narrow lane.  Uma, Me and Samvit for the next few minutes didn’t know who will start the conversation first about our chosen place.  So here we are in a new country and in a truly backpackers place and unsure of what’s in store for the next couple of days. Not to mention our grasp of the language was extremely poor.

Indra met us about 30 minutes later and listening to him talk about birding in fluent English made us forget our disappointment of the stay.  After another round of Bandrek, the floor was set for Indra to tell us what’s in store for the next two days.  The bird list given by him in an assuring manner got us really excited.  As we were getting ready to retire for the day, without batting an eyelid Indra told us we can start the next day by 3am and bird till evening.  Birding so early in the morning in the hills was something we weren’t prepared for.

We are up at 2.00 in the morning and were pleasantly surprised to see our host give us piping hot Banana Pancakes and by now our truly favourite Bandrek.  After a good hearty breakfast (don’t know what else you call a meal at this point of time in the day) we set off in pursuit of the nocturnal birds.

After the initial walk through the market and golf course we reached the Gede Gunung Panoranga National Park.  First, we set off on the mountain trail path, heard calls of Javan Scops Owl and were hoping it will come closer to us.  That was not to be and after a little wait we moved to our next catch Javan Frogmouth.  There was a real faint call of the Frogmouth and Indra was quick to latch on to it and tracked it down to precision.  The Frogmouth was nicely perched right at the top of a tree giving us a fairly clear view and also allowed us to photograph him with a flash for our first wildlife photo of the trip.  After it flew off, we set out for our next nocturnal bird, the Salvadoris Nightjar.  We reached an open area to the other side of the National Park’s office.  After a good 20 minute wait as rightly predicted by Indra, the bird comes and sits on a small rock on the ground with its eyes glowing in the dark.  As we tried moving closer to him it flies out but to our pleasant surprise comes back and perches on the same rock.  Now with 2 out of 3 of the nocturnal birds seen, we head back to the trail in pursuit of Scops owl.  No luck here and the early morning light slowly creeps in.  Just as the light comes in, we see a group of Ebony Leaf Monkeys jumping around the treetops. We came expecting only birds but were treated to some animal photography too.

We now set out on the trail path, barely a few meters up the path we were greeted by Sunda Blue Robin.  For the next 15 minutes a couple of these Robins came and perched really close to us showing off their bright blue colours.  Next on the path were the loud calls of Horse Field Babbler.  After a long patient wait, we finally got to see the bird.

The next 15 minutes were absolute bliss.  We get a Pygmy Wren Babbler at a catching distance making noisy calls.  For such a small bird, it’s call was quite strong.  Nothing seemed to deter the Babbler not even our camera flash.  We realised what a real beauty he was only when we came back and saw our pictures on the big screen.

Pygmy Wren Babbler

By now the lights were out and there were quite a variety of calls which for novices like us was truly confusing.  Indra was able to cut through all this variety and move closer to the list that he discussed with us last evening.  One could clearly see the professional at work here.  As we set out to get the tougher species in the list – White Bibbed Warbler, the Lesser Shortwing kept us company regularly coming close to us.  The beautiful brown colour and white bibb of the warbler was a real treat, true to his shyness he just refused to come anywhere close to us but did give us enough of view.  Next on Indra’s schedule was the fruiting tree and as if he had fixed the appointment with Flame Fronted Barbet, he said the species would be there now.  He was again dead right the Barbet was there along with two more of his friends Indigo Flycatcher and Sunda Minivet.  As we were moving towards the fruiting tree, we were treated to real close up view of Pied Flycatcher (male and female) and Blue Nuthatch.  Pied Flycatcher did present itself to make a pleasing wildlife photo of a bird with clean green background. Indra was knocking off things from the bird list like a master.

Little Pied flycatcher

With the fruiting tree piece done the next on the agenda was an open space to look for the raptors.  The raptors in the list were Javan Hawk Eagle and Black Eagle.  As we moved towards the open space, we managed to see Blood Breasted Flowerpecker and Roosting Javan Frogmouth.  While we waited for the raptors, we get to see Orange Spotted Bulbul pecking away at fruits and Glossy Swiftlet flying all around us.  Both the raptors didn’t disappoint and we managed to catch them on flight at quite a distance though.

Blood Breasted Flowerpecker

With raptors done the next halt was to a stream which is the first stop point for us in the trek.  No birding here with the noise of weekend revellers around.   Didn’t realise that by this time, we had done 6 hours of birding non-stop and we were headed to the tougher climb to the hot water spring for Javan Kichoa and Javan Trogan.  On the way up the Little Spiderhunter call stopped us on our tracks and we spotted one very close.  30 more minutes into the trek we were way too tired to move ahead and decided to return back.  Kichoa and Trogan had to wait.  Had we not checked the time; we would have probably continued our birdwatching.  The mind gives up earlier than the body.

Spider Hunter

We stopped on the way back at Blue Lake for birding but with no luck.  After a quick lunch at the lake (packed food from the Freddy’s in the morning) we trekked back.  The trek on the way back was no short on birding.  We heard fairly loud calls of Javan Tesia but couldn’t spot one.  The highlight of the trek was Black Winged Flycatcher Shrike.  Kept hopping in the bushes hence no chance of pictures.  Further ahead from there we spotted White Flanked Sunbird and Rufous Tailed Fantail.

As we moved ahead, we were treated to groups of Ebony Leaf Monkeys and Javan Leaf Monkeys. Unlike the morning, now we got really close up view of both these extremely adorable primates.  After another 20 minutes of trek we spotted a Mountain Tailorbird.  It played hide and seek with us for the next half an hour refusing to come on camera.  Finally, he won and moved back to the bushes.

The birding didn’t stop even when got out of the Park, Indra again showed his skills by spotting the Collared Scops Owl in a completely camouflaged tree.

Day 1 of bird watching, we clocked 10 hours of field work, the most we had ever done.  An exhausting but satisfying day of nature photography.  Summarised bird list at the end of of the day made at Freddy’s home stay with Bandrek to refresh us.

  1. Oriental White Eye
  2. Javan Grey Throated White Eye
  3. Blood Breasted Flowerpecker
  4. Little Spiderhunter
  5. White Flanked Sunbird
  6. Rufous Tailed Fantail
  7. Little Pied Flycatcher
  8. Indigo Flycatcher
  9. Mountain Tailorbird
  10. Sunda Warbler
  11. Sunda Blue Robin
  12. Chestnut Fronted Shrike Babbler
  13. White Bibbed Babbler
  14. Crescent Chested Babbler
  15. Pygmy Wren Babbler
  16. Horse Fields Babbler
  17. Blue Nuthatch
  18. Lesser Shortwing
  19. Orange Spotted Bulbul
  20. Sunda Minivet
  21. Black Winged Flycatch Shrike
  22. Flame Fronted Barbet
  23. Glossy Swiftlet
  24. Javan Frogmouth
  25. Salvadoris Nightjar
  26. Collared Scops Owl
  27. Javan Hawk Eagle
  28. Black Eagle


  1. Ebony Leaf Monkey
  2. Javan Leaf Monkey
  3. Tree Shrew
  4. Giant Squirrel
  5. Ground Squirrel

Impressive bird list considering that we had done only half the trek, Indra managed to show us about 80% of the bird list done the previous day.

Day 2 – Birdwatching inside the garden with Indra’s brother Edwin

We started off with spotting the Spotted Kestrel right at the entrance and moved to the tree for our date with Yellow Throated Hanging Parrot.  As we waited for him Blood Breasted Flowerpecker kept us occupied with his antics.  Finally came our Parrot, not disappointing us.

Spotted Kestrel

After this we moved deeper into the garden.  As we approached the tree looking for the most wanted species of the place, Pygmy Tit we heard a huge flutter to the right and see the beautiful Chestnut Breasted Malkhao, flying away from the tree right above us thanks to our noise.  We spent the next few minutes kicking ourselves how we could have avoided the miss.  I kept looking back at the perch of the Malkhao and felt miserable about how close he really was.

Our disappointment didn’t last too long, just a little further we get to see Chestnut Headed Flycatcher and Orange Spotted Bulbul.  Done with them, we had to walk quite some distance and on reaching an open space we were instructed by Edwin to be silent and patiently wait.  However, without testing our patience, on the bark of a broken tree we catch White Flanked Sunbird, Great Tit, Indigo Flycatcher, Javan and Oriental White Eye.  All these and more in just one spot within 30 minutes.

As we moved back to our search for Pygmy Tit, Edwin spotted a Salvadoris Nightjar roosting.  Again, in a completely camouflaged environment.  After managing some pictures of Nightjar almost immediately we were treated to watching Pied Flycatcher hunt.

Blue Nuthatch, Pied Flycatcher and Long Billed Spider-hunter had almost made us forget the original pursuit: the Pygmy Tit.  Not for Edwin though, he was clear about the search and led us to the smallest bird in the park Pygmy Tit.  Not one but a large flock.  With this bird ticked off from the list we thought it was time for us to move ahead.

Little did we know that the spectacle is yet to start. Long Tailed Macaque group kept us enthralled, few jumping around and the mother caring for their the young ones.  In the midst of this a beautiful female Macaque also posed for a nice portrait.  A small walk from the Macaques we saw the hero fly in and perch.  The Javan Hawk Eagle, Edwin said, and we pinched ourselves to check if it was true.

The next 30 minutes must have been the only frustratingly long wait in the last two days of birdwatching, looking for Lesser Forktail in the path to the stream.  On a Sunday afternoon with so many people and noise around, will Forktail show up?   Our hope was waning, we were looking at one another as to who will decide to move on.  This lull in decision making proved to be providential, the Little Forktail not only showed up but came in really close to us looking for its feed oblivious to the noise.

Little Forktail

By now Uma was down with a severe headache, after Edwin’s trademark massage, in 15 minutes she is normal.  Contended we head back to our rooms to pack up and leave for Jakarta.  As we wait for the car to get back to Freddy’s, a Black Eagle flies in close to the hill wishing us goodbye.

Wonderful way to sign off our nature photography trip to Gede.

Lifer – just one is enough

Ultimate joy in birding – Adding more to species count, one at a time 

Hitherto not sighted, new species that gets added to a birders list is a Lifer for him/her.  As one starts the birding journey everything is a lifer, but as you progress, Lifers becomes rare and getting one is a big achievement.  Almost all of us at the start of the birdwatching journey, learn identification of birds from voluminous books with thousands of sketches in them. Because one gets to see these bird species in them so frequently, some species imprints in your memory and refuses to fade away.  Deep inside this one bird species keeps coming back to your mind every time you open the book or hit the field.  For me it’s Greater Hoopoe Lark.  I am unable to explain why this species of the many in the bird list kept me enthralled for all of 10 years. There are quite a few unique aspects about this species – name – a combination of two species the Hoopoe and the Lark, it’s uniquely shaped beak and the tough terrain in which you see them.  I feel apart from the above-mentioned uniqueness of the Hoopoe Lark there was this un-explainable bonding that connected me to this particular species.

The habitats one gets to see these species is quite restricted in India but luckily, we had been to all those habitats multiple number of times.  In decade long birding journey we had been to – Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), Greater Rann of Kutch (GRK) and Desert National Park (DNP) Jaisalmer, combined about 10 times and had never come anywhere close to seeing this bird.  Endless amount of time burning diesel in the large expanse of desert and not even a trace of it, so one can safely say it was never a near miss.  Hoopoe Lark never even gave me a chance.

So, in our bird list preparation for our Desert National Park (DNP) visit in Feb 2019, Hoopoe Lark found its place but my conviction on seeing it was low.  Even in my conversations with Musa Khan our guide to be, there was a mention of all the other species but only a reluctant mention of Hoopoe Lark.  I don’t even recall Musa’s reaction to the possibility of seeing this special bird because my mind was conditioned to not listening to any affirmatives on this particular species.

In our 4-day plan in DNP only a morning session was slotted for Hoopoe Lark.  In comparison to all the other earlier trips, this has been the lowest time that I have ever kept aside in pursuit of this species.  Day 1 at DNP was essentially spent on the highlight species there, Great Indian Bustard and Day 2 went off chasing the other important species. Both these days went off very well with some wonderful wildlife photos in divine light with Musa Khan skill-fully setting up every single encounter.  We were on a high with all our exploits in DNP till then and as we retired on the second day, we carried hope but were open to be disappointed again.

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Great Indian Bustard
Trumpeter Finch

Since drive to the spot for Hoopoe Lark is 30-40kms from our resort, we had to leave early to catch the golden light.  Cold morning in an open jeep, my mind kept seeing Hoopoe Lark pictures.  The confidence in Musa Khan was high with regards to this species, I was excited but this time quite muted.  On a normal day I would have been chatting up incessantly with my guide enquiring about the sightings of Hoppoe Lark and the kind of opportunities it had presented to other wildlife photographers.

The long drive on well laid out roads was very comfortable and just as Musa, veered off the road un-announced the sun had come out in full glory bathing the ground golden.  Almost immediately after getting off-road we were directed to a small mound on which sat the majestic Hoopoe Lark.  It took me quite some time to come to terms with myself and I almost forgot that I have to start preparing to photograph.  I wanted to enjoy this moment and actually didn’t want the camera to come between us for some time.  We let the Hoopoe Lark bathe in the early morning sun and watched him from a distance. In the bargain also wanted him to get comfortable with us being around.

From the last two days of field work with Musa Khan, we realised the skill he possesses in not only getting closer to the target but also knowing when to let us get started with our photography.  So, even though my excitement was running sky high in picturing Hoopoe Lark, Uma kept me in check not to mess it up.  Musa was in charge and he moved his vehicle with utmost care to make sure that we don’t miss the opportunity.  Finally, he brings the vehicle to halt and let us have a go.

Getting to see Hoopoe Lark through my viewfinder in golden light was godsend and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and my fingers were frozen not in cold but with the excitement I was going through.  I get my first few shots and there is a huge sense of relief in me.

As with nature photography, expect the un-expected, this Hoppoe Lark lets us not only close to it but allows us to crawl even closer, as he kept looking for food on the ground. So off we went on the ground unmindful of the stones on it and we come back with handful of keeps of this special one.

Because of the emotion attached to Hoopoe Lark, Day 3 had dwarfed a much bigger sighting of Finch’s Wheatear (new record in India) on Day 2.  Having sighted and photographed, contended I left my special Lifer to continue with its feeding.  A 10-year long emotional wait for us ended in dramatic settings of golden hour.

Cheetah Chasing

Googled out – for wildlife photographers, trust in field expert works better than search expert…

Cheetah chase from Masai Mara

Visits to the jungle for making wildlife photos is always full of surprises, mostly pleasant ones. While surprises are abounding, to make it work for those great wildlife photos, one needs tons of patience and trust.

Patience as a trait is perennially challenged in a place like Masai Mara, as there is so much happening all over, every wildlife photographer you bump into, say there is something else bigger and better some distance away.  So one is always on the edge, worrying about letting go of a great wildlife image.

Trust in whom?

Being at best sporadic visitors to any particular jungle, we rely on expert online photographers to a large extent. However, there are these guys who are living the forest, are in know of the terrain and animals like back of their hand. I am referring to the person behind the wheels, your GUIDE. Trust him and you will make documentaries yourself, else you will only see all those great wildlife photos and films and keep cribbing that one can never see such stuff in the forest.

This photo story is a tribute to Raphael Mulei, our trusted partner in Masai Mara without whom we wouldn’t have witnessed the precision with which a Cheetah plans and executes it’s kill.

As wildlife photographers with some experience in the forests, little did we realise that when we first saw the Cheetah on a mound, we would be spending the whole morning session with her.

Because of abundance of wildlife and more specifically the BIG 5 at Masai Mara, sightings as you see above are given a pass, and we too were in the same mood. When she gets off the mound, runs across, Mulei announces that her next stop would be atop the jeep. In our excitement of wanting to see Cheetah on the jeep, we missed asking Mulei the reason for his prediction. He was dead right. She was soon seen on the roof of a jeep, which we were later told was the vantage point for zeroing in on her prey. We have one more thing ticked off from our “to see list” (Cheetah on jeep). As the Cheetah worked on her lunch, the occupants of the jeep had their best group photographs of their life.  Because Mulei’s instincts were bang on, our jeep had the best angle and light for making those satisfying wildlife images.

After spending considerable time on the jeep off she went with purpose.

Now the most athletic creature walks right into our jeep and our expectations run high, wanting our roof top to be the next. We were making grand plans to become “wild photographers” having selfies with Cheetah. The Cheetah disappoints and this tick mark would have to wait for an another day.

Little did we know at that point in time that Cheetah from the jeep vantage point view had zeroed in on her target and she now just have to wait to get it. She ambles past our jeep and stays put in the shade for a frustratingly long time.  Since we were so excited and engrossed in the sequence, we didn’t really notice the number of vehicles that had gathered for action.

This wait in the jeep with the Cheetah in the shade was for almost an hour, and in this time quite a few jeeps decided to move on, prodded by the occupants that there is no action. These are the times an Expert is to be trusted and not your Googled knowledge. The expert’s instincts work 9 out of 10 times because they observe animal behaviour and most importantly have archived experience of such situations. In that period of wait there was quite a few times we kept looking and gesturing Mulie, and his only reply WAIT. To keep our nerves calm he kept telling us that meal doesn’t come easy for these predators, they have to work hard for it.

As Mulei had rightly predicted a large herd of Wildebeest comes running across, we get excited that the wildlife photo action is about to start. The flock keeps moving in and across, however the Cheetah is still un-moved and she lets a fairly large section of the herd to move across. As the last section of the Wildebeest migration herd come in view, the Cheetah finally gets up and moves in the direction of the last few in the herd.

The Cheetah starts with an amble, then a jog, gathering momentum gradually but surely.

The final countdown of Cheetah chasing – After the initial preparation the fastest animal on the planet shows her skills. She goes full throttle direct at the Wildebeests herd and the wildebeest’s are frozen allowing us to manage the kind of wildlife image one always dreams off.

To our surprise at that great speed she does a turn and in our view finders we now see a Wildebeest calf running aimlessly, oblivious to the Cheetah chasing it.

Only then it strikes us that Cheetah’s mostly hunts calves, it had waited in the shade all the while to let the calf come in view for her to have a go at it.  The speed at which the Cheetah managed to get to her prey didn’t give any chance for the other frozen Wildebeest’s to help save the calf.

The cheetah brings the calf down and catches her breath as she takes the breath away from the prey.

So here it is, 120 minutes of planning the kill and exactly a few seconds of action if we exclude the sprint to the kill.  My Nikon D4 camera count says 40 odd frames after the initial sprint which means the actual action is in the range of 4 secs in all.  That’s the precision with which the Cheetah planned and executed the kill.

Polishing it off – While the cheetah is bestowed with speed, she lacks the strength of other large predators in protecting the kill for long. She has to polish off the kill as soon as possible since there are Hyena’s and Vultures who could scoop in on the kill.

The cheetah is at the job of digging on to the kill in a hurry un-concerned with our jeep next to her. She knows that the real vultures are, whom she should bother about with the kill.

So here we go content with our wildlife photos and the Cheetah with her kill.

This story wouldn’t have been possible without Mulei, who at every turn that morning had not only prepared us for the action but also positioned us perfectly for making those appealing wildlife photos.

Thanks Raphael Mulei for making our day and looking forward to be in the jungle with you soon.

Ema Datshi

West & central Bhutan birding trip report with Incredible birding

Ema Datshiwhat will get me to go back to Bhutan….

Let me start being very controversial by saying Bhutan is over promoted by everyone.  There is a reason why I say this, because the more I had talked to people about the Bhutan experience, the more un-relatable answers I got.

Even though we are on a birdwatching and wildlife photography trip, with so much in Bhutan it’s pardonable if one’s mind is veering off in all directions making a check list of answers to be had.  From all the research I did on Bhutan experience there was so much I had to tick off in two weeks, the student in me was at work to find answers for

  1. Buddhism and its resultant contentment in people
  2. Balancing materialism & modernity with tradition
  3. Monarchy and people’s welfare
  4. .blah..blah..

Imagine how difficult it is for your co-travellers, with such a confused man in their midst rattling off his questions when all that’s required is to enjoy birding.  All these heavy questions however disappeared in my mind after the first meal in Paro.  How did an innocuous meal answer all those complicated queries?

Ema Datshi, the Bhutanese national dish explains what Bhutan stands for – “simple, matter of fact, un-complicated and true”.  It may seem absurd that so much is revealed in just a dish, just google it, you will get where I am coming from. After this meal all that I focused on for the next fortnight was birds and food, not essentially in the same order all the time.

Day 1 – Eureka moment and a solid start

Native intelligence or that’s how we believe it, sees us through the check-in without being charged for the over-weight camera gear. In all this excitement we bungle up the mandatory seat requirement for flights to Paro.  Only one in our group of seven manages to get himself a window seat on the left side of the aircraft and all through his journey, he is shooting the mighty Himalayas in brilliant morning light.  With the Covid scare in the air we were welcomed with sanitisers and thermal scanners and I was firmly told by Uma not to cough, better still not even talk.  No fevers or sore throats and we swiftly get out of the airport into the welcoming gestures of our crew in their Bhutanese national dress.

We were told that our session starts at 2pm, prior to which our lunch would be at the riverbank.  You are not to be blamed if you are thinking of a fancy lunch setting overlooking the river, actually it was a lot more than that.  What you get in Bhutan is a crew which travels with you all along and pitches a tent wherever they feel right and serve you freshly cooked food.  That’s the best, you are birdwatching wherever, whenever, and your food follows.

Outdoor dining

With the food portion of the trip covered, we turn attention to the other need, Birding. Solitary snipe, Ibisbill and Black tailed crake were our targets.  We set out by the river and quite effortlessly saw an Ibisbill flying into the riverbank.  But that’s not what we jumped out for, because almost at the same time our birding champ Tshulthrim tells us that there is a Long-Billed plover in there.  The next hour went behind trying to get closer to it and we had to give up the chase because the bird never even gave us a chance for a record shot.  It was a great start nevertheless, and we moved on consoled by Tshulthrim (Bhutan birding expert) that there is another chance that we have with this Plover, little did we know then that it was just to get us moving.  The disappointment of not seeing the Plover didn’t last long since we sighted the next target almost immediately. We ironically spotted a pair of ‘Solitary’ Snipes but as we moved closer to it, in more than knee deep water only one of them chose to stay.  After playing hide and seek with us for an hour the Solitary Snipe finally gave in for a few seconds, that allowed us to make our first decent wildlife photo of the trip.

Solitary snipe
Black tailed crake

We had another hour at best to go before the light settles for the day, so off we went from the river to the other side of Paro for the Crake.  We stopped briefly when we spotted another Ibisbill, we were told firmly to move on since the Crake is waiting.  Just off the road, right outside a human settlement we see Black tailed Crake, but it refused to come out till the ISO moved up.  It was a brief but good sighting and before we headed back to the hotel Red crested Pochard also showed up.  A great start for the trip, but has Tshulthrim over delivered right at the start?

Day 2 – Zaow & nothing much at Chela la pass

Early morning leaving, driving up to the highest pass in this part of Bhutan, freezing cold and vehicle stuck in snow.  Pretty much sums up the day, but the breakfast on the edge of the mountain overlooking the valley made up for the missed bird sightings.  For the first time we had a go with Zaow – crunchy bhutanese puffed rice, an absolutely un-assuming delight. Our poor crew was made to serve this everyday from here-on.  Heavy snow on the road splutters our movement and with that goes our first tryst with the Blood pheasant. We were told by our Bhutan birding expert that Blood Pheasant seen in Chela la pass is different looking to the ones seen in other parts of Bhutan, so there is no other chance for this particular species this trip.  The learning out of the day is nothing new “in the wild take things as they come, celebrate if you get it, if you don’t get on with it.”

Hodgson’s treecreeper

Day 3 – pleasure of long drives & a “heronic” feat

Clean roads, scenic all long, good food for company: It looked like birding took a back seat until about sunset.

From Paro we get past Thimpu on the way to our first stop, Dochula pass, nothing much at this pass other than Stupas.  Little did we know then that this spot would eventually impact this trip in ways that was least expected.  More on this later, from this pass we get to our first birding point for the day – Royal Botanical Garden.  The moment we entered the park we were greeted by Blue fronted redstart and a steady drizzle.  To save our gear from the drizzle we move to a shed only to be teased by Scimmitar Babbler’s for the next two hours.  Both Slender billed and Streaked Scimmitar Babbler were seen and heard but they refused to come out in the open.  With drizzles turning to showers we needed to run. There is nothing better than having hot food in rains. The crew today got us into the covered tent and had dutifully made Momo’s that we had requested.  Bhutan = Momo’s, is a common train of thought, hence the request.  It was just another Momo, nothing special I should say, hot Momo’s in rains did work fine.  However, with the Momo experience, we decided against using our non-existent knowledge of actual Bhutanese food and decided not to request the crew to make these stereotypical food items.

Tent dining
Zaow – the one on the extreme left

“Ward’s Trogan”, Bhutan is where one has a fair chance of seeing it”, these words got us out from the cozy tent. Three hours and two different spots, no Trogan and we thought we are settling in for an un-eventful birdwatching day heading towards Punakha.  After a long drive to Punakha town and an another 30min drive along the river lead us to see one of the most threatened species, The White bellied Heron.  As luck would have it, the Heron flew in and showed up at the edge of river stream and this presented us with an un-believable opportunity to get closer to the bird.  By then the light had pretty much faded and the bird was in the hunting mode looking for fishes.  While we did go in search of this critically endangered White Bellied Heron, we never expected it to present itself close enough for us to make clean wildlife photos of the rarest of rare species. We get back to our vehicles after it got dark and almost exactly at that moment, clouds opened up to celebrate along with us.

White bellied heron

Day 4 – Ezay brings back the zing…

Excess of spice, sour & salty, but the amalgam is tasteful.  That’s Ezay.  Absolutely fiery stuff in the breakfast menu and I personally over did it using it like a jam in the bread and this is the kind of thing that lifts you up from slumber and gets you to move.

It was an action-packed day with a worthy number of lifers, however Ward’s Trogan stayed elusive.  The day started with a Eurasian tree sparrow, very common for our birding experts from Bhutan but a rarity for us.  After hour an hour with the Sparrow, Hodgson’s redstart teased us for quite some time never really getting close.  So, we move on only to be greeted by another Hodgson’s redstart but this time on a busy narrow lane near a school crossing.  While some of us were with the Redstart the others in the group were fascinated by the school children doing the cleaners job at their own school.  “You, dirt less when you know, you are one to clean it”, learnings that can put to use for huge societal impact.

Eurasian tree sparrow
Hodgson’s redstart

The next pit stop is on a highway close to Bajo town where the valley has just got their coral flowers blooming.  Here we see all the regulars – Fire breasted flowerpecker, three species of barbets – Blue throated Barbet, Golden throated Barbet and Great Barbet, Black bulbul and Rufous Sibia.  Because they were pecking on the just bloomed corals, we got the opportunity to keep company with them for long.  Complain we did, in spite of the time spent because the light was harsh and the angles we got weren’t to our liking.   “these wildlife photographers” is an understandable fuming of the birding guides.  The birding guides can only show you birds, can’t get them to dance to your tunes.  So, after having done their work and with still not so happy photographers the loud sound from the driver “keep pushing” got us to rush to our vehicles.  The next stop was to see the Yellow Rumped Honeyguide, a Himalayan specialty which we were told by Rahul shows up here with much less effort.  As we were driving towards the spot, Tshulthrim, made the vehicle come to a screeching halt.  In the thick canopy he had spotted Ashy wood pigeon, while it didn’t really come out of the canopy, it still lets us all have a clear view and allowed us to make satisfactory wildlife photos.

Ashy wood pigeon

While the bus moved rapidly to the Honeyguide spot, Rahul and I made the SUV we were in to stop for a better picture of Golden throated barbet which was basking on a single stump.  The bird photo had it got clicked would have become a hugely liked picture on FB, but that was not to be.  Having wasted a good 30mins here we reached the Yellow Rumped Honeyguide spot only to see the other group members relaxing after their fill of Honeyguide in a dream perch.  The screen images of the wildlife photo shown to us only made us envy and both me and Rahul were silently hoping the others would allow us time to try our luck with this bird.  For us the Honeyguide did show up but never really came down in all our wait time and we reluctantly left for lunch.  At lunch, which was served closer to the stream, the other group members let us have another go with the Honeyguide.  Neither the lunch nor the Honeyguide disappointed and we finally got more than what we thought we will have of the bird.


Yellow rumped honeyguide

Another failed attempt with Ward’s trogan, we moved to Nobding after spending some time with the Wallcreeper.

Day 5 – Birds & snow, it’s a good combination after all

The stay at Nobding, the previous night was at a fairly new place with their employees still settling down and they make a big mistake of asking us to choose the menu.  As with all of us, we went ballistic forgetting to check if the person got what we meant.  The mealtime was chaos, and it was part of the fun if anything.

Birding started with another shot at Ward’s Trogan, and after a few hours of attempting, and no sign of the Trogan we head towards Pelala Pass.  We were welcomed to the pass by Spotted Laughing Thrush but after a warm welcome they go back into the bushes right under our nose never to come out.  Pelala Pass is where you shop for Yak made clothing and the women in the group alter priorities for some time.  White Browed Fulvetta and Rufous Breasted Accentor in brilliant breeding colours entertained us while our focus continued to be on the Laughing Thrush.  Red billed Chough kept hovering above us and would settle in a hillock above, unfortunately too far for any picture.

White Browed Fulvetta

Little ahead from the pass, the open ground was bursting with activity.  The trek down proved to be the very productive with Beautiful Rosefinch, Himalayan White Browed Finch, Dark sided Finch and Brown Parrotbill jumping around.  The Finches are tough customers to deal with, because they never perch for long and are always on the move. However, with lots of running around we did have our moments of success.  After we make some good wildlife photos, sky opens up with snow fall stopping our birding, making us to go back to our vehicles, not before we made customary selfies in the snow for our FB profiles.

Brown parrotbill

At lunch we were treated to another delicious dish, Semchu Datsi – spicy beans.  Again, a simple dish but the spice from the red-hot chilies get to you even before it’s in your mouth.  Spicy food in freezing cold is god send.  At lunch we were told that the highway repairs meant, we got to be crossing the road repair point before 3pm. We were back on the road with no stoppages on the way.  The lunch made sure we slept the distance only to be woken up well after the repair point.  This time the stop was for the Bhutan Laughing Thrush, the bird shows up without even an attempt and entertains us for the next 20 minutes.  The same spot produces two more beauties: The Fulvous Woodpecker and Chestnut Crowned Laughing Thrush.

Bhutan laughing thrush

Day 6 – Monk, Monal & Covid

We were flabbergasted witnessing this divine connect between Monks & Monal at Chhumey monastery.  You see them coming down only when the monks are around otherwise choosing to stay on the higher plains, and they seem to feel secure as long as the monks are there.  It’s not with all people in the monastery but just the few monks that Monal’s have this connection.  So, I won’t blame you if you are thinking “with this divine connect all that one needs to do, is be with the monks and you get your Himalayan Monal”. Sorry folks it ain’t as easy as you thought because the monks don’t like to be used for your pleasure.

We were treated to amazing sightings of Himalayan Monal right at the start of the day in brilliant golden light and signed off with Monal in a dreamy setting of fading light and heavy snowfall.  In between these two sessions of Monal we saw the White Winged Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White Browed Rosefinch and Alipne Accentor along with quite a few regulars which we had learned to ignore by now.  The Snow Pigeon was there all through the day but never came down from the hills.  So, it’s some other day for the Snow Pigeons profile shot.

Female Himalayan Monal in morning light
Snow Pigeons

The dampener for the day is the news of the 1st Corona patient in Bhutan and our birding crew post this news was not the same. Incidentally, the first case was in Dochula pass, the infected person had visited the day after we had been there. Too much tension around, as usual all kinds of stories being peddled, the crew is engrossed in catching the next story.  In the midst of this couple of our co-traveler’s were getting pushed by their families back in India to head back.  While the lunch was as usual good, the situation got our minds off it and we went through the eating ritual without even giving it any thought.  Of course, suddenly sanitizers were the most visible and talked about stuff.

While some of the fellow birders headed back to the hotel to prepare themselves for early departure, we continued to scale back to the monastery.  On the way up, the Himalayan Buzzard in the valley put up a show for us and then we signed off from the Monastery with our signature wildlife photo from the trip.

Himalayan Buzzard
Himalayan Monal Male

Day 7 – Blood thirsty gang

With the regular stream of Covid news being fed, we set out in pursuit of the species that left us in lurch at Chela La pass, and as a complete group this was our last chance to have him.  Blood Pheasant is the species we were going for.  Phrumsengla National Park is the place you get to see the exotics – Blood pheasant, Satyr Trogopan and Monal.  Tshulthrim had already punctured our hopes on Satyr Trogopan saying it’s seen only in April and we need to forget about it, so its only Blood Pheasant for now.

After a brief scenic drive from Chhumey we start ascending the mountains and in less than an hour we were in fully covered snow terrain.  The cold weather does make one to frequently relieve oneself and one such stop proved fortuitous to us, we had first sighting of White Throated Bluestart.  We were told about this species the previous day in the monastery, but this was the time we got to see it close.  A very restless species, it gives you only few seconds for taking pictures.  We did get our few seconds to experiment with high key pictures in nature photography and moved on in search of the Pheasant.

Rufous breasted accentor
White throated redstart

Breakfast time was fast approaching and before we could decide on when and where to stop, dead trees closer to the roads had come alive with Tits.  Rufous Vented Tit, Grey Tit and Coal Tit, all three of them moved in and kept us occupied for the next 45 minutes.  Only post this session with the Tits did we realise we were terribly hungry and decided to have our breakfast then and there.  Never before than now, the huge advantage of a food truck coming along was felt. In no time we are treated to hot cooked food in snow drenched terrain. Fiery Ezay is blissful in the freezing weather and so is our good old hot chai.

Coal tit
Grey crested tit

As it happens in all wildlife drives, we continuously hear stories of various Blood Pheasant sightings along the way, that makes you feel desperate.  So, we for now have to contend with only stories and no action.  By now we have moved up quite a bit and there is more snow and less roads now.   While our vehicle didn’t get stuck in snow, better sense prevailed on us that we abort the attempt to move up any further. With that decision goes the chance of seeing Parrotbills in an open ground which was another 10kms from where we were.

Blood Pheasant is still a possibility as we were in their habitat and the discussion now moved on to “in which weather does the pheasant show up”.  There was hope because both Rahul and the Bhutanese birding experts kept saying it’s the fog that brings out the pheasant.  Another hour went by, our mind wanted nothing but the Pheasant, and our stomach was saying lunch.  As the vehicle was lazily getting downhill, we heard a shriek from inside the vehicle, the smile was back in Tshulthrim’s face and he triumphantly proclaimed Blood Pheasants and before he could finish, we were at the door all set for action.  Yes, they were (2 of them) in the thickets moving around showing signs of getting downhill to where we were.  After an hour wait all that we had to be contented with is a fleeting appearance of the Pheasant.

Lunch beckons and we were also having steady trickles of snowfall.  A confused state of lunch in which none of us spoke much because all of us were worried, whether even just the few hours left will be marred by persistent snowfall. With lunch done in a hurry and not paying much attention to the food, we get back to the vehicle to get the maximum of what’s left.  Almost immediately we get another chance with the Pheasant this time at eye level but well inside the thick growth, much closer than the pre-lunch one but still way too far.  After deliberating on whether to trek to get closer to the Pheasants, we dropped the idea because the terrain to which the flock moved had been covered fully with snow and it would have been a risky attempt.  Another miss…

Finally, it happens – At a bend the van’s driver caught the glimpse of Blood Pheasant jumping on to the cliff and moving up swiftly.  That’s it, without any major deliberation four of us in the group of seven with the help of the birding crew decided to trek up.  By now, snowfall had become quite heavy and it didn’t really matter to us.  The thick growths helped us to hide ourselves from the bird’s sight, but it also meant very few openings for all the four of us to shoot from.  So, we dispersed with each of us taking positions in different directions with pin hole openings through the bushes.  The Blood Pheasants, numbering 10 were in front of us, some moving laterally and most of them climbing up.  As the birds got in sight each of us were firing like there is no tomorrow and there were more misses than hits.  All of us were sure we will have some good hits but didn’t even care to check anything then.  The point where we had positioned ourselves had a water stream just ahead of us, the bushes at the edge of the stream separated us from the other side where the Pheasants were foraging. Considering the weather and the terrain ahead, that point would have been the maximum we could have gone to and we got lucky.  With our cameras loaded with whatever we could manage we come back down in heavy snowfall and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by others like warriors.  We huddle around our respective cameras and start checking out the screenshots.  As we start sharing our pictures with one another we realized every one of us had a distinct frame. For the next half an hour we celebrated like kids with high fives and thanking one another for the moment.  An absolutely wonderful finale for the complete group, cause from the next day it’s only to be just 4 out of the 7.

Blood Pheasant

Day 8 – Maximizing it.

Since the day earlier was spent pre-dominantly on the Blood pheasant, we had decided to go back to Phrumsengla National Park for everything else including another shot at Blood Pheasant.  Our first stop was in an open ground we had stopped by briefly the previous evening and we were welcomed by the teaser.  Beautiful Rosefinch, it seems to take its name a little too seriously because it will fly in, invite you and when you get there it will take flight.  It does this repeatedly and we kept falling for it for a very long time rather shamelessly. After many failed attempts getting the Rosefinch, finally managing one decent frame was very satisfying.  Getting the Eurasian Magpie with its glittering coloured tail in the same place was an added bonus.

Beautiful Rosefinch
Eurasian magpie

Few more stops for the regulars and we move up the mountain.  A solitary Monal makes a brief appearance and we actually get cheeky, ignore it and move on.  After a brief drive up we get to see a large flock of Blood Pheasants on the roadside and they swiftly jump down seeing us.   But they continued to forage closer to the road which enabled us to make few wildlife photos in good light.  An action-packed morning till then and it was time for breakfast.  Shamu Datshi makes its first appearance and it turns out to be another blockbuster hit.  Large mushrooms cooked in cheese, spiced with chilies, that’s Shamu Datshi.

Rest of the day was spent in bettering pictures made earlier.  The day ends with another shot at the White Throated Bluestart, Spotted Nutcracker up and close, Black Faced Laughing Thrush with berries and Red Billed Chough on the ground.  We retire back to our resort at Bhumtang, not before we see some stunning landscapes and rock formations.  Icicles, moss ridden stones, river cutting through the rocks, these mountains have so much to offer for a nature photographer.

Rock formation
Water cutting the rocks

Day 9 – Take it as it comes

The day didn’t start off well, the hotel we were to stay in the night refused to take us in for another night on account of Covid and the flight back to Delhi was cancelled.  First things first, we had to get our flight back re-organised and we chose the option of flying out a day earlier in place of 3 days later.  This meant we need to be heading back towards Paro and luckily being dumped off the hotel in Trongsa was a blessing in dis-guise.  The hotel in Bhumtang, where we had stayed the night post the White Bellied Heron sighting was willing to take us in.  So off we left in the direction to Bhumtang covering mostly the same places we had done earlier.

With no specific target species in mind we were actually relaxed and decided to enjoy and live the moment.  Since we had to cross the bridge, which was being repaired before 10, had no option but to drive fast and skip birding that morning.  But as luck would have it quite close to the bridge, Tshulthrim spotted a Crested serpent eagle very close to the road basking in the sun.  Suddenly the time limit was forgotten, and we get down to make full frames of the Eagle.  Even in that hurry our eyes didn’t miss the Blue Checked Bee-eater in bright colours.

Crested serpent eagle

We crossed the bridge at 9.45 and were quite relieved, but almost immediately were concerned if our food van had crossed.  Luckily, they weren’t too far from us and did cross in time, we were relieved that our lunch wasn’t in trouble.  Are we to be blamed for being so obsessed with food even in times like these? Not at all, after all this is the only binding force and so critical for our sanity.  Back to birding, we were told by the birding crew of a place where Nepal House Martin had built its nest, and this would have been the only way we could get to see these otherwise active birds.  We did see the nest and the bird leaving them, but they never came back to it for the next 45 minutes, flying all around us but not landing on the rocks.  Keeping them long from the nest wasn’t right and we decided to move on.

Pela La pass was our next hop and the open ground where we had seen all the finches and Parrotbill few days back is where we headed to.  It was mid-day by then and unlike our earlier experience this place had absolutely no birding activity.  Quite surprising considering just a few days back, around the same time the place was alive with so many birds.  It drives the point home that the beauty of nature is its unpredictability.

Having not learnt well from our earlier experience of trying to influence the menu, we get the rice noodles for lunch which turns out to be quite ordinary.  Bhutanese rice, their Datsi’s and Ezay is what we should be having, but we went around ordering things with no understanding on the Bhutanese version of it.  So, our lunch turns out to be more like Hakka noodles in Saravana Bhavan and we need to be squarely taking the blame for it.  Birding post lunch is near Bajo town, trying to catch birds on the freshly bloomed coral trees.  Another encounter with Wall Creeper and Nutcracker ensues on the way to Bajo.  The bright red coloured corals in evening light was a great setting and we hoped the birds don’t disappoint.

Wall creeper
Spotted nutcracker

To start with we only got the usual suspects: The Black Bulbul, Rufous Sibia and Barbets.  As the light muted, a pair of Orange Bellied Leafbirds moved in and for the rest of the evening kept us involved with them.  We were jumping around this time more than the birds, trying to get the right angles.  Other than Whiskered Yuhina there must have been more species coming to the corals and our focus on Orange Bellied Leafbird must have missed the others.

Orange bellied leafbird
Whiskered Yuhina

Day 10 – Expect the un-expected

Cut short by a day we wanted to give ourselves another chance to get Ward’s Trogan and Woodcock.  We set out in the morning, birding in Bhumtang looking for the Slender Billed Oriole.  Driving toward Oriole spot, we saw a Lesser Coucal camouflaged in dry branches shimmering in golden light, but at a distance.  This is no normal bird since it has a reputation for being a skulker, a very tough one to get.  We set out in pursuit of the Coucal, however considering its reputation our confidence of getting him close was low.  As luck would have, not only did we manage to get close to Lesser Coucal but also did get few good bird photos with almost clear view of the bird.  As we turned back to return, Tshulthrim directed us towards Crested Buntings which was hopping around.  We spent fair amount of time to get good frames of the Buntings but failed miserably.

Lesser coucal

With no signs of the Oriole we decided to move to Trogan’s habitat.  We had two spots to try and hoped that we get lucky this time, after all it was our fifth attempt.  Our Ward’s Trogan story ended normally and in no Bollywood style of hard work pays.  We failed getting the Trogan this time too, as with other days the food alleviated the mood.  A proper Bhutanese meal made with home grown cheese, flavoured with just plain chilies and whole lot of beans thrown in.  Semchu Datshi, goes best with plain rice.

The evening session was to be in Thimpu with the target being Woodcock.  Thimpu, is not like any urban place, since in almost 10 minutes from the main town we hit the woods and from hereon it’s more like a thick green forest offering so much for nature photographers.  The city seems to have grown around the forest and not at the cost of it, something we urban guys don’t get.  We tend to think in binaries, “city and forests and not city in forests”.

The Bhutan birding expert crew reserved the best for the last and kept us on our toes for the last couple of hours.  We ran around like headless chickens, first in pursuit of Woodcock which however never allowed us to pin it down.  Next in line, was a very co-operative White Collared Black bird almost immediately followed up by the dainty Rufous Fronted Bush Tit.  Having encountered its counterpart Black Throated Bush Tit, we were expecting a gruelling session.  But it was not to be, the Rufous Fronted Bush Tit, gave in quite easily and we captured some interesting gestures which uniquely belongs to only this family of tits.  Done with the Tit, we were asked to position ourselves for the Darjeeling Woodpecker.  It flew in, the moment we were ready and didn’t waste too much of our time since we had to rush for our next appointment.  The Long-Billed Thrush was the next on our look, but it was evasive and instead we saw the Kalij Pheasant (lathami).  Lathami is a distinct sub-species of Kalij Phesant distinguished by a blue crest in place of whitish crest of the same species in Western Himalayas. The slog overs ended well, we returned to the pavilion pleased with the score.

White collared blackbird
Darjeeling woodpecker
Rufous bellied tit

Another one of our memorable Birding & Food travels draws to an end. Food has been the most important component of our birding journeys and its yet again proven that to a very large extent, stomach leads the mind.


Your skill and luck don’t matter.  It’s the local birding experts who create the moments which test your skills. We thank our capable crew Tshulthrim, Lekhi, Shrab and Sonam for it.  They had to not only get the birds but also put up with our idiosyncrasies and they did that with a smile. A final count of 45 lifers in our bird list and it’s pictures wouldn’t have been possible but for this wonderful team.  Looking forward to going back and troubling them more.

Planning a trip like this is no mean feat and getting it to work without hiccups is even harder.  Our sincere thanks to Rahul & Khushboo (Incredible birding) for getting this organised and being fleet footed in making those quick workarounds when Covid panic set-in.  Love you guys

Finally, our wonderful group Anil Kumar, Renu, Ruta and the smart one Kaustabh who was silently making pictures of our stupidity. In spite of knowing one another for such a short while, camaraderie in the group was more like lifelong friends.  Looking forward to our next trip Team.

The Group

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Flashback – going beyond nature photography

A ruined temple and series of homes

The first thought that we had when we reached this deserted area just outside Dhaka is a typical Bollywood movie starting. Black and white opening of a ruined place with melodramatic music and a coarse voice-over of “how a prosperous place with happy family images has been brought to dust and by whom”.

Panam Nagar, couple of hours drive from Gulshan, Dhaka referred to widely as “ the Lost city”, “Deserted city”, “Ghost city” has all the ingredients of a typical Bollywood flick.  It has this immediate effect on you, and you ask “what happened and who did it in”.  This impact will almost always lead you to google and find out more about this place.  Architecture photography which was our main visit purpose had transformed itself to weaving an imaginary story of this historic place.


The place did provide few opportunities for architecture photography


Before I get to the past glory of Panam Nagar there is a lot to talk about its photo art settings.  A narrow road is all that is there to Panam Nagar, with rows of houses (sorry you can’t call them houses because they are mansions) in dilapidated condition.  The mansions have been skinned down to the bricks literally, robbed of all its flesh.  Since we are wildlife photographers, a good metaphor of this opportunity is of making images of  Vultures pecking on the last bit of bones left off the kill.  Most of these mansions are locked, even if it were not locked, one would be scared to get into them, not for some “Stephen King” kind of stuff but the buildings could cave in any time.


Closed doors, skinned interiors

 The narrow road does lead to somewhere and we were told it leads to a school. We did see quite a few kids in their uniform walking on the road cheerfully to learn.  Will they learn the glorious past of the road they walked on, maybe not?  We are sure in its prime the lane must have ended with providing opportunity for nature photography with best scenic photos. Currently, the mansions on both sides of the road have nothing much to offer unless you are interested to shoot some closed doors in multiple colours.  Step behind these row of houses and the “beauty of destruction” is inviting.  Most homes down to bricks, moth filled, showing little semblance of past glory.


Lane to the school & the office

One of these homes which is converted to some kind of office did let us in to explore, we finally felt there is some chance at architecture photography. Like any one of our early day homes it had a small door, opening into the expanse of a courtyard with rooms lined up in the sides. This brought to mind a view that when this place was inhabited it must have been where all the kids should have been running around with the ladies of the home keeping watch on them from the side rooms leading to happy family images.  One of the side doors lead us to a staircase, thanks to those calf muscle wrenching staircases just a few steps felt like a huge hike.  Why would they need to make even staircases an exercise machine in those days?


The opulence inside the mansion

The occupants of these mansions must have lived a royal life in a self-contained township.  Music, dance floors, beautifully decorated ornamental homes providing for the right settings for photo art.  The typical Bollywood havelis, we have seen countless number of times is what you get to picture.  Carved pillars, colourful well decorated ceilings, etched glasses with sun seeping through making the dancing floors come alive. With so much of Bollywood in our blood enacting the actual scene when you lay foot in any such place isn’t tough.  Go up another level into the terrace and what was on display was a neighbour’s home which probably looked even more grand than this one giving us an opportunity to make the best scenic photo from this trip.

The grand neighbour’s home

Two hours walking around Panam Nagar gave us a real feel of nostalgia, and led us to discover some beautiful stories. For wildlife photographers who always like stories, it was not a bad day at work, since one was able to piece together a story with little strain.

With the present out of the way, I am to take you back to the actual scene in colour of Panam Nagar’s glorious past. Sorry I am going to disappoint you here. Google and you can find enough of that.

When in Dhaka do take time off to go here, it’s worth half a day of your time.