Republic Day for us began with a flight to Guwahati. We set off on a four-and-a-half-hour drive from there, on a nearly empty road, thanks to Republic Day! We drove through undulating hills, expansive fields, small towns and interestingly for a bit where one side of the road was Assam and the other Meghalaya. Along the way we came to a screeching halt! Incredibly sitting pretty on the stump of a tree was an Adjutant! On our wish list for Kaziranga were Greater and Lesser Adjutant. While Lesser Adjutant is more visible, it is harder to find the Greater Adjutant. We thought it was the Greater Adjutant, but it turns out it was Lesser. Nevertheless, it was a great sighting. The neck pouch was big and inflated. The bird is in a way both beautiful and strange looking.
As we entered the Kaziranga zone, we were pleasantly surprised to see a one-horned Rhinoceros grazing in a field some distance from the highway. It was our first sighting! We saw plenty of them later on in the park. There were also some Bar-headed Geese and Woolly-necked Storks. Shortly after that we reached the Diphlu River Lodge. The Lodge takes the name from the Diphlu river, which runs past the lodge. There is something calming about being next to a river and watching it flow by at an easy pace. The resort, besides providing great accommodation, has the most hospitable staff. They are extremely helpful and courteous.
After lunch we left for a safari in the western zone. The western zone gate is closest to the resort. At the very first turn into the zone, a Short-eared Owl flew past! We didn’t have to wait long to have our first close encounter with the jewel of Kaziranga, the One-horned Rhino! Kaziranga National Park has about two-thirds of the world population of One-horned Rhinos. As per our guide, a Rhino grazes in an area for about 10-15days and then moves onto another place.
While we were waiting, clicking pictures and admiring the sheer size of the Rhino, we were made familiar with another interesting fact. The guide advised us to be ready to photograph the Rhino as it would soon be coming out on the road. Mystified, we watched the Rhino saunter towards a mound of dung along the road and relieve himself of some dead weight!! Apparently, the Rhinos are very disciplined in this aspect and for the time that they are in an area, will always go to the same location to excrete!
There was a waterbody next to the road where we saw at least five Snipes along the farther bank. As they were quite a distance away, couldn’t get good images. In the best of times, find it hard to tell the difference between a Common and a Pin-tailed Snipe, so this was certainly a challenge! There was also a Northern Lapwing and a Spotted Redshank trotting about. Being an afternoon safari, we had less time to explore the area. We wanted to get to the larger waterbody at the end of this trail quickly but some birds had other ideas! We got a lifer! The Red-breasted Parakeet. There were two of them! A Brown Shrike flew in and perched on dry tree branch near-by. Then we spotted a Grey-backed Shrike.
Soon we heard the Oriole call. On the other side of the road two Black-hooded Orioles were dancing about. Since the light was fading, the photographs weren’t great.
The park has a number of waterbodies which attract birds and animals, thereby making it easy for the visitors to sight them. We finally made our way to the large waterbody. There were a couple of Spot-billed Pelicans and a Pallas’s Fish Eagle on the other side. There were two more birds which the guide thought were juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagles but we couldn’t be sure.
It gets dark early in the east so we had to start making our way back. On our return leg, we sighted a number of Asian Openbills on the Silk Cotton tree. This area has a sizeable number of Asian Openbills, they seemed to be everywhere! The guide pointed to a beautiful Gecko wedged in the folds of the tree.
Far Western Zone
On a chilly morning the next day we left for the far western zone of the park. This area was more wooded and considered good for birding. On the highway, we spotted a Lesser Adjutant quite close to the road. We excitedly took out our cameras but even before we could remove the lense caps, it took off! Shortly a family of Khalij Pheasants unexpectedly popped out on the side of the road! These birds are usually hard to photograph as they tend to quickly disappear into the shrubs. This time we were lucky though. They hung around for a while giving us enough time to take pictures. We saw another vehicle ahead of us stop. It was for the Indian Giant Squirrel lazily lounging on a branch!
Further ahead, the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets stopped us. We parked on the side of the road to watch the drama unfold in front of our eyes. While the Minivets were flying from one branch to another, suddenly we got another lifer! A flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings descended on a tree bereft of leaves. There was a Common Woodshrike too with them.
We noticed a slightly blackish bird with the group of Minivets. Later discovered it was the Black-winged Cuckooshrike. There was more chirping as a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo flew in to disturb the flock! A Bronzed Drongo soon joined the mayhem. We had hardly moved when a Greater Goldenback was seen busy pecking. All of a sudden we spotted a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. There was a tree full of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons. All this activity caused much excitement in our party…if these were the sightings on the road, what treasures lay inside the zone?!!
On entering the zone, we found some Hog Deers daintily crossing our path. An owl flew past us looking for a perch. Another lifer! It was an Asian Barred Owlet! Luckily for us, it sat not too far.
Further down the road, halfway up a large tree, visible through a small break in the leaves, we saw a Brown Fish Owl. We were all sighing at the fact that it was looking the other way, when suddenly one of us said, “He is looking at us!”. The rest said, “No!”. This ‘yes’ ‘no’ ensued for a while till we discovered there were two Owls!! There was another one a little lower down the tree facing us! We were thrilled to bits when a little later both were looking towards our side.
After our viewing session with the owls, we found a Blue Whistling Thrush near-by. Soon we reached a large water body. There were some Spot-billed Ducks, Wood Sandpipers, Common Teals, Eurasian Wigeon in the water and a Stork-billed Kingfisher in the distance. A beautiful Striated Grassbird came and parked itself on a tall reed. A Verditer Flycatcher and Common Stonechat joined to give company. It was a pretty picture with a number of butterflies on the shrubs close to the bank. We also had our first encounter with Wild Buffaloes in this zone.
The guide took us to a viewing tower that overlooks a tributary of the Brahmaputra river. The river basin was wide and we could see Egrets, Open-bill storks, Common Greenshank and Common Kingfisher. What took us by surprise was the sighting of around 15-20 Black Storks quite far away! We waited for a while in the hope that they may fly in closer but had to do with viewing with binoculars and taking full zoom images.
On our way back from this zone, our guide slowed down the vehicle, got off it with binoculars in hand and said he needed to check something. Our curiosity peaked. He crossed the road and signaled us to join him. Great Hornbills! The bird is stunning! The female was perched on the left on one tree and the male to the right on another. The male is larger with a huge yellow casque with black at each end and red iris. The female is smaller and has white iris. Vehicles were coming and going, while four happy people were soaking in their magnificence. It was quite amazing that we sighted so many birds along the highway. There was more in store – a Stork-billed Kingfisher and Greater Spotted Eagles in flight.
Brahmaputra Boat Ride
In the evening, we took a boat ride on the Brahmaputra. The calm surface of the river belies the speed with which it flows. It is huge and expansive. There are small islands of soft river sand in places along the river. We were hoping to see River Dolphins – they didn’t disappoint us! They were popping out of the water on both sides of the boat, some close to us and some a fair distance away. It was a challenge to photograph them as it all happens so quickly. After a while, we gave up and just enjoyed their escapades. There were quite a few Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Mallards, Cormorants on the little islands on the river. With a hot cup of tea in hand gently sailing on the river, flocks of birds flying past a golden setting sun – bliss!!
The next morning, it was the turn of the Eastern zone to be explored. At the entrance of the gate, while we waited for the guide to complete the formalities, we spotted two Taiga Flycatchers flying in to drink water from a small drain. Two Spotted Doves were also nestled on a branch nearby. As soon as we entered the gates, we saw a Pied Kingfisher looking for easy prey near the villagers’ fishing nets.
The Eastern zone has some wooded forest area and a large water body as well. The weather was not in our favour unfortunately. It was threatening to rain. Undeterred we moved on. On the tall trees we came across a Crested Serpent Eagle and a Changeable Hawk Eagle.
Near the waterbody, we got another lifer! The Grey-headed Lapwing. Infact, both the Grey-headed and Northern Lapwings were moving about. The Northern Lapwing is a beautiful bird. Regrettably due to the inclement light we couldn’t capture its’ bright green colour.
We saw our first Red Jungle Fowl of the trip. The water body had a number of Lesser Adjutants and other water birds. There were also two Black-necked Storks in the mix. As the clouds loomed over us and a few drops started to fall, the Lesser Adjutants decided to fly to the high perches of a tall tree in front of us! First one, then another, then another!
While we were clicking away, one of us turned to the other side and lo and behold, another lifer – two Pied Hornbills had arrived! All our heads and cameras quickly moved left to the other side! It seemed to be happening at the same time! However, we couldn’t delay any longer and had to take shelter. Luckily it was a very light drizzle but the sky remained overcast.
We waited under a viewing tower for the drizzle to subside. There was a huge water body conveniently in front of us! We watched Mallards, Egrets, Black-necked Storks, Lesser Adjutants, Northern Pintails, Ruddy Shelducks and other water birds.
Taking the winding path through tall trees we found minivets, Racket-tailed Drongo, Blue-throated Barbet, Grey-headed Woodpecker and another lifer, the Black-throated Thrush, along the way. There was a Grey-headed Fish Eagle sitting on a high branch. We got our fill of the pictures!
For some distance there was a water body along our path. We got our first good sighting of the Pallas’s Fish Eagle! As we moved along, we saw a black-necked stork not too far away, providing us a great opportunity to take pictures. The guide excitedly pointed to some activity further ahead.
Around five-six Smooth-coated Otters had just jumped out of the water onto the bank! We quickly sped forward to try and get a closer look. They were a bit far but in no hurry, tossing and turning in the sand. We also spotted the beautiful Green Imperial Pigeons. It was challenging to take their pictures against an overcast sky. Along the way we found a Grey-headed Woodpecker making a loud call and pecking on a tree branch. On our way back we came a Common Kestrel perched on a tree far away.
We were hoping the weather would clear up in the lunch break. In the afternoon, the plan was to cover the western zone again. The weather did improve. We took a slightly different route this time. At the very start a Mama Rhino with baby were there to greet us. There was a Changeable Hawk Eagle looking down on us. This time we were able to take better pictures.
I have always admired ‘action’ images taken by bird photographers. For that one needs to wait patiently for some action to happen! However, on the safaris one is driving around to cover an area. So when we chanced upon two Rose-ringed Parakeets vying for the attention of the female, we got lucky with the ‘action’ shots!!
Further up, a Greater Spotted Eagle flew in to sit on a high perch. As we moved along the way we found Red whiskered Bulbuls, Common Iora and Great Tit.
This zone has vast areas of elephant grass. We reached a clearing from where we could see a herd of elephants moving towards the water. There was a baby elephant in the group too! We watched them troop in.
While waiting we could hear loud calls of the Swamp Francolin but couldn’t see them in the tall grass. Suddenly one flew out and disappeared just as fast, much to our disappointment. The guide a little later asked me, “Madam aapko kitne swamp francolin dekhne hain?” (Madam, how many Swamp Francolins do you want to see?) I replied, “Ek bhi dikh jaye to kaphi hai.” (Even if we see one it’s enough). He pointed to the other side and said, “Madam, dekhiye paanch Francolin ghoom rahe hain.” (Madam, look there are five roaming about). True enough!! There were Swamp Francolins feeding on the flat bed next to the water on the other side!
We reached a clearing in the grassland. We could hear the alarm call of a deer. The guide suggested we wait in that area for some time as it was likely we might see a tiger crossing. While we waited patiently, a long stream of Cormorants started to fly away from the setting sun in the west, towards east. There was a lot of activity in that little clearing – Black Bulbuls were playing in the fading light, snipes busy foraging, a Greater Coucal made an appearance, wagtails darted about, a female Jungle Fowl crossed the road and a lone Spotted Redshank was pecking with single minded focus, but no tiger.
The Central Zone is the most popular with the tourists. This is also the place from where one can embark on the elephant safari. This zone has vast areas of elephant grassland interspersed with short wooded areas and waterbodies. At the very start of our morning safari, we spotted a Black-hooded Oriole, White Wagtail, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and another lifer – the Great Myna! On the trees further down we could see huge birds perched. A number of Griffon Vultures were basking in the morning sun! There had been a kill in the vicinity which had attracted these big birds.
On a tall tree quite a distance away, nestled on a big branch high up was the nest of a Dusky Eagle Owl. We could see two juveniles through the binoculars but the parents were missing. We crossed a small bridge and found a darter very close curving its long neck in elegant forms. There was a Crested Serpent Eagle perched right above our path. Soon we came across a water body which seemed to be the home of a number of turtles. After capturing flying subjects it was a relief to come across some still subjects too!!
Now we were in a wooded area. Suddenly a bird came and sat down quite close to the ground. On the first look we thought it was a Black Redstart. However, as the bird moved we realized it was the White-rumped Shama! There was a large water body where we found a number of lapwings. So far we had only seen the Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings. Here, we also spotted the River Lapwing! There were two River Terns too. Quite a few Barn Swallows were flying about.
A fantastic treat awaited us! As we moved along, we took a turn and approached another section of this water body, to see Spot-billed Pelicans!! Our sighting of them on the first day was from quite a far. This time they were much closer. We could see them from the gap in the trees and take some good pictures. Two Egrets, a Grey Heron, Wood Sandpiper and a Little-ringed Plover were close to them.
Towards the end of the drive we saw a Peregrine Falcon flying above us. On the way back the open grasslands were dotted with Rhinos and Deer, a befitting end to our adventures at Kaziranga!