de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). A Superfluity of Feathers. Living. May-June 2006. Page 106-107. Volume 01, Issue 05. ISSN 1800-0746.
Gehan’s catalogue of birds expands exponentially in northern India.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne finds there is more to Corbett Tiger Reserve than Tigers
Wire-tailed Swallows had been a nice bonus to finish off a visit to Northern India. They are extremely rare migrants to Sri Lanka with just a few records to date. The Sarus Cranes on the road near Justpur was even better. The birds were stately and walked around with a measured gait. We could have spent hours watching them but we had to make it to the famous Indian natural history writer and publisher’s house in Dehra Dun before nightfall. More exciting Northern Indian birds awaited us there. So reluctantly we pressed on, pausing only to identify some Himalayan Griffon vultures which were inscribing the air with large circles.
I was doing Northern India in two back to back visits with six of my colleagues from Eco Holidays. Increasingly birdwatchers and photographers from Europe and America are twinning India and Sri Lanka on their visits to Asia. With Mohit Aggarwal of Asian Adventures based in Delhi, we wanted to explore ways to develop this market. Mohit’s business partner in Ramnagar is Pavan Puri who owns the comfortable Tiger Camp. Besides being very comfortable, it is right across from one of the borders of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the state of Uttaranachal. It is also conveniently positioned, just a few kilometers away from a number of birding sites such as the Sitabani Reserve, the Kosi River Dam and the stands of Sal forest around the Garjia Temple. The core tourism zone of Dhikkala inside Corbett is only open between 15 November to 15 June. We had arrived at the end of September, as our naturalist guides would be busy over the winter. Pavan had arranged a little treat for us. As Dhikkala was closed, he had arranged us to stay overnight inside the reserve at the Jhirna Forest Rest House which is accessed via the Kara Gate, south of the Amadanga Gate and Dhangarhi Gates usually accessed by tourists. The Jhirna Forest Rest House is basic and not suitable for the average tourist. But for us, it was a wonderful opportunity to be inside the reserve at time when most tourists are kept out.
A loud bark rang out from a herd of Spotted Deer or Chital as they are called in India. ‘Ruku ruku” called out Pavan who was riding on the tail gate, asking the driver to stop. The deer may be alarming because of a predator like Golden Jackal. The Jackals here are very different to what we have in Sri Lanka. They lack the black backs of our sub-species. We were hoping it would be a Tiger. Barely had we entered Corbett, Pavan had shown us fresh Tiger tracks. We had crossed a nulla where on the mud there was evidence of the jungle people. Sloth Bear, Elephant, Tiger had all left their calling cards. The Tiger spoor there was fresh as well.
Dhanu Ram is Pavan’s Tour Manager and an able naturalist. He had told us that there was a fifty per cent chance of Tiger from Jhirna versus eighty to ninety percent from Dhikkala, for tourists who had a few days in the park. We were not too fussed about Tiger as we were equally keen on the rest of the wildlife. Soon after we had entered we had seen Muntjac and Hanuman Langurs who are very different to what we see in Sri Lanka. When we continued after Corbett to Nainital and Pangot, we noticed the Hanuman Langurs in the lowlands of Corbett were in turn different to what is there in the highlands. On one of the drives with Dhanu we had an Otter. It stood on its hind legs and looked at us before melting away into the tangled undergrowth. We had stopped at a Fig tree in fruit and had been treated to a mix of birds. Oriental Pied Hornbill’s Yellow-legged Green Pigeons, Black-crested Bulbuls, Lineated and Blue-throated Barbets foraged on the tree. Our bird list for Corbett and Nainital climbed to over two hundred species after just five days.
A diversity of mammals and birds had taken the focus off tiger. Not that we did not try. On one drive we parked beside a nulla and waited for the Big Striped One. A flock of hysterically calling birds came around. A flock of White-crested Laughingthrushes heralded their presence. But they kept to cover. Finally, they made a dash across the road. A Green-billed Malkoha could have been easily overlooked for the Red-faced Malkoha, the latter endemic to Sri Lanka. A pair of Great Pied Hornbills called. They flew away with the wind whistling through their wing feathers. A dry sandy riverbed had a swarm of Common Mormon butterflies mud sipping. Many of the butterflies, Great Eggflies, Tawny Costers, etc were familiar from Sri Lanka.
The forest had gone silent as if in great anticipation of something dramatic. On that first evening in Jhirna, we waited quietly, in case a Tiger was on the prowl, just a few hundred meters away from our accommodation. Light was fading away. The Spotted Deer crossed into dense cover. It had been a dramatic arrival to our first night inside Corbett.
Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.