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  • Asiatic Lion, Gir Forest, Gujarat. All images by Mike Watson

    1 Wild Images: India Wildlife Spectacular 2013

    INDIA WILDLIFE SPECTACULAR 13 FEBRUARY – 3 MARCH 2013

    GUIDE: MIKE WATSON

    THE FOURTH INDIA WILDLIFE SPECTACULAR WAS ANOTHER SUCCESS and we enjoyed some fabulous wildlife encounters on our journey across northern India. On the Pre-Tour Extension we made our way from the dusty and very dry deciduous teak forest of Gir and its Asiatic Lions to the wolves and herds of Blackbuck on the grasslands of Velavadar and then the delightful Wild Asses on the vast salt flats of the Little Rann of Kutch before driving north into the colourful state of Rajas- than where we paused to admire the golden city of Jaisalmer on our pilgrimage to Khichan and its unique gathering of Demoiselle Cranes. After a short flight east from Jodhpur the main tour proper started in Delhi with a train journey south to Agra and the incomparable Taj Mahal. Further south in Uttar Pradesh we visited the delightful National Chambal Sanctuary, the last unpolluted major river in northern India, where we enjoyed our most productive sessions of the whole tour with wonderful encounters with Gharials, Indian Skimmers, River Lapwings, Little Pratincoles and much more. Turn-

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    Nilgai or ‘Blue Bull’ (above). Next page: the Asiatic Lions of Gir Forest are a wonderful experience. Just think of all the thousands that once roamed from central India to the Balkans, these are the only ones left!

    ing our attention to India’s famous Kipling Country we visited the tiger reserves of Bandhavgarh and Kanha, where we managed several wonderful encounters with their main attraction, Bengal Tiger as well as Gaur, Sloth Bears and Leopards. India remains in my opinion the most fascinating country on earth to travel in. There are so many different aspects of this tour that make it my favourite, from the incredible and varied wildlife to the wonderful scenery and architecture not to mention India’s fascinating array of humanity and delicious home-cooked food!

    OUR LATEST INDIAN ADVENTURE STARTED AT AN EARLY HOUR IN SMOGGY MUMBAI with a short flight across the Gulf of Cambay to Rajkot on Gujarat’s Kathiawar Peninsular. After the first of many masala omelets and masala chai (India’s popular ginger-spiced tea), in a rather grand local hotel, we headed south to Sasan Gir, our base for the next two nights. The forests of Gir hold the last remaining population of Asiatic Lions, a subspecies of lion whose range once extended from Central India as far west as Macedonia. Whilst very similar to their African relatives Asiatic Lions have a dis- tinctive longitudinal fold of skin along their belly, generally thinner faces and the males have a shorter and more blackish mane. The lions of Gir are also renowned for their approachability, which usually makes them good photographic subjects. Despite Gujarat being in the grip of a serious drought fol- lowing the failure of the 2012 monsoon, which has resulted in the already dry deciduous teak forest of Gir being even drier than usual, and thanks to our very helpful local contacts, we still managed a couple of good encounters (we met several folks who did not see any lions in Gir this year).

    The first was with a trio of playful female lions ever so close to our jeeps and after a brief view of the slumbering new boss of the forest, ‘Raju’, we saw him again the following day at a Nilgai kill with his new lady friend. Birds were fewer at Gir this year and water-bodies were shockingly low, both as a result of the drought, however, we had a few good sightings that included: a very close view of a pair of lovely Mottled Wood Owls; White-eyed Buzzards and Crested Hawk Eagles of note. Mammals included many Spotted Deer (or ‘Chital’) as well as a few Nilgai (or ‘Blue Bull’ – the massive Indian antelope) and Sambar deer. Marsh Mugger crocodiles were much more in evidence than usual ow- ing to the low water levels and provided some good photo opportunities.

  • 3 Wild Images: India Wildlife Spectacular 2013

  • 4 Wild Images: India Wildlife Spectacular 2013

    OUR NEXT STOP WAS BLACKBUCK NATIONAL PARK at Velavadar, now growing in popularity thanks to its fine new lodge. This place was voted the second best lodge on the whole tour and we enjoyed some more great encounters here. Photographically the best were the numerous Black- buck, including some sparring males, followed by Nilgai against the lovely grassland landscape, however, this is also probably the most reliable place in the world to see wolves and again we were not disappointed. Photographing them is another matter and as usual they only allowed brief distant opportunities. A few birds in the mesquite-lined avenues included Brown and Bay-backed Shrikes and there were still a few harriers (Pallid and Montagu’s) floating around. Their numbers have also been much fewer than usual, probably owing to the drought? Unfortunately the Striped Hyenas had moved their den recently and were not co-operating with visitors yet. On the subject of unexpected visitors, the chalets at Blackbuck Lodge have open-air showers, in which a Black Drongo joined one of us. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from this fabulous place and head northwest to the vast salt flats of the Little Rann of Kutch.

    Sparring young male Blackbucks (above) and a pair of older males squa THE FOURTH INDIA WILDLIFE SPECTAC-

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    Wildlife wonders of Velavadar: Nilgai grassland landscape (above) and Blackbuck harem (below).

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    The tip of the ‘Nilgai-berg’ (above), an animal that looks like it is made from spare parts when it stands up.

  • 7 Wild Images: India Wildlife Spectacular 2013

    WHILE WE WERE AT VELAVADAR WE COULD SEE DARK STORM CLOUDS to the north of us and there was news of rain across northern India. This was said to be quite unusual for this time of year but is the second time we have experienced it on this tour so maybe not that unusual? The change in weather had caused a clear out of migrant birds from the Little Rann and once again we did not manage to find any bustards. There had also been five Pallid Scops Owls in the lodge gardens before our visit and now there was only one left and that bird was less obliging than usual. However, the Wild Asses were still plentiful and we were able to photograph several groups. As always they were surprisingly delightful to folks who had not seen them before. We had to take two night drives to secure the desired Sykes’s Nightjar, which was seen against a perfect background of a cracked bare earth monsson lake bed with absolutely no distractions. The Little Indian Night- jars were also co-operative but did not choose such nice backgrounds and a Jungle Cat was also seen, albeit mostly obscured in the dense mesquite. Apart from an Indian Stone-Curlew there was surprisingly little else on the night drives, probably a result of the cool weather recently. The wide, open spaces of the salt flats of the Little Rann present a surreal and barren landscape but they are still inhabited by few creatures. Our encounters here included Steppe Grey Shrike, Desert Wheatear and a Greater Hoopoe Lark, far out in the emptiness, where it had caught a stray locust, which it dismantled and ate in front of us. We also enjoyed an opportunity to shoot some people here, visiting some delightful local villagers (originating from Rajasthan), who presented some very nice fabrics.

    Minimalistic Asiatic Wild Ass, Little Rann of Kutch (above) and below: a more confident animal.

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    Pallid Scops Owl, a sought-after winter visitor to the Little Rann of Kutch from Central Asia (above) and the beautiful- ly-marked Sykes’s Nightjar - another winter visitor from countries you would not wish to visit at the moment (below).

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    Little Rann of Kutch village life.

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    Jaisalmer street life

    THEN FOLLOWED OUR BIG ROAD TRANSFER DAY, driving out of Gujarat and far to the north into the colourful desert state of Rajasthan, home of bright colours and impressive moustaches. Toyota Innovas have transformed road travel in India and this journey, albeit quite long at nine hours was ac- tually a pleasure instead of the 12 hours of torture the first time I did it. On the other hand, Jaisalmer is sadly not the evocative desert fortress that it was on my first visit in the 1990s, now that more than 2500 wind turbines surround it. In the evening we made a short visit to Bada Bagh (= ‘big garden’), a site of the cenotaphs of the Maharajahs of Jaisalmer, also unfortunately surrounded by wind tur- bines. Who on earth could have allowed this to happen to such a lovely place? Next morning we took the usual city tour of golden Jaisalmer, starting with the Jain temples in the old fort, then continuing on to a city view point, the old havelis (intricately decorated former merchants’ houses) and finally ending up at an excellent fabric shop where the ladies battered their plastic! The streets of Jaisalmer are packed with interesting people and things at which to point the camera and a few hours hardly do it justice but it was interesting that it was raining again here from time to time. The first time I came here I wandered the narrow streets and alleyways of the fort for several days in between birding excursions into