Our plan to was to focus on the S D Singh waterhole area today and maximise the chances of spotting a tiger / tigress. Before heading out of Sathiyana we were taken by our driver Kismet to the Sati shrine deep inside the range in the Sathiyana grasslands. Sathiyana got its name from the legend of Rani Subhadra who had committed Sati for her husband Raja Ganga Ram Shah in 1844.
We had to get down from the jeep in the midst of dense grassland deep in the jungle to see this shrine. The early morning, the shrine, the grassland, the surrounding dense forest which we knew held a leopard somewhere, all together conjured up a magical unforgettable mood. At the moment the mystery of the Sati legend and the place captured our imagination.
At Dudhwa FRH a juveline monkey sat on a cottage roof at the Dudhwa FRH contemplating life!
We picked up our guide Sonu at the entrance and headed into the Dudhwa forest. He told us about a large herd of more than 40 wild elephants sighted by the forest guards in Banke Tal the day before. These had recently entered the park from Nepal. We were in luck and saw a large part of the herd busy grazing and slowly moving towards us close to S D Singh waterhole.
We cut the engine and prayed our presence did’nt spook them and drive them off. They stayed busy grazing, throwing sand on their backs and trumpeting and we could sense that the big matriarch and bulls were wary of crossing the road sensing our presence.
After a while they moved away toward the forest cover as another jeep noisily drove up and joined us. We moved on too, with a sense of tranquility at having spent close to half an hour in the early forest morning with these giants.
We drove on to the Sonaripur FRH area (where we had met the jackals) and immediately our tranquil musings were broken by a bold fresh print on the ground.
A large female had just made its way about an hour or so back walking towards Banke Tal. Sonu decided to head back toward the S D Singh waterhole and we were on a sharp lookout for more pug marks. A little ahead of S D Singh we took a right over a culvert and came upon another 2 sets of pug marks. Our excitement grew as we realized one was of a large adult female and another of a cub! We waited silently for a while at the spot, ears and eyes straining. After about 10 mns we decided to move towards the water hole again. The ‘wheet – tew’ whistle of the pitta attracted us to an Indian pitta calling on a branch.
We were rewarded with another melodious call and turned to see the female white rumped shama.
Wediscussed it would be best to be on the move and sweep the jungle across various beats and get a better picture of movement and location of tigers. Through the next hour we lapsed into silence and let the jungle take over as one beat of glorious Sal forests after another revealed themselves to us!
After a long drive and close to the Salukapur FRH, we sighted a Shikra perched in crook of a branch with a kill in its claws!
What we saw was one of the 1sts for me in the forest again, as the shikra flew over to a low branch and proceeded to rip the feathers from the chick it had killed and started to feed on it.
Heady with the hard edge of that experience, we headed back to the S D Singh waterhole for the last time, having failed to sight any more pug marks after the culvert ones. At the waterhole Sonu got down, broke off a leafy branch and proceeded to obliterate all tracks (jeep, deer, etc.) so that when we come back in the evening we would be able to make out fresh marks. Sonu repeated the brush act at the crossing of Banke Tal where we’d seen the 1st pug mark. On the way back sighted a crested serpent eagle again, perched patiently scanning the jungle ground.
Late afternoon at 4 pm in the scorching sun we set out for S D Singh again. A beautiful specimen of the male paradise flycatcher flitted in and out among the trees.
My friend Anirban (Basak) pointed our attention to a herd of chital staring at us while we were busy clicking birds. It was a pretty sight in the early evening light – we call this special light godhuli in bengali.
This is what we were trying to get a clear shot off while the chital were coming down the track and staring at us. A blue coloured bird with a black spot on its head which I could not identify. Request help in its id.
Reaching the Banke Tal crossing we could not see any new pug marks and neither along the S D Singh waterhole.
A male paradise flycatcher made its way from one tree to another while we waited silently beside the waterhole listening to the jungle sounds.
After about half an hour, a hog deer barked! It was some distance away and then 5 mns later another alarm call, this time from a cheetal closer to us. We froze, all senses alert. We waited and there was a lull for 15 mns. The sun was going down and light was falling fast. We decided to get up on the watchtower as it seemed likely that the tigress was coming this way for a drink. We drove up the short distance to the tower and clambered up to find a family in an agitated state. They had seen the tigress with two cubs for about 10 seconds 5 mns back. The tigress was just behind the waterhole in a clump of bushes. She had used a patch of dense forest behind the waterhole to come in unnoticed. We trained our cameras and could not make out anything in the fading light. Suddenly the top of the bushes swayed and we could make out a paw swinging up in the air. The tigress or one of the cubs had rolled over with its paws in the air! That was about all we saw of the tigress and the 2 cubs that evening!! We could however make out their presence through a faint presence of yellow and black stripes visible periodically whenever the cubs or the mother moved or rolled about I guess.
For me the initial disappointment of not being able to see them in the clear disappeared as their presence slowly worked its way into my consciousness. The darkening jungle seemed to take on a unique feel as I imagined the cubs gamboling away over their mother, while she rested on her haunches with eyes squinted, watching warily behind the bushes. I knew there was no chance of her coming out now as she was aware of human presence and would wait till we were gone. After a while I felt that it was better that we could not disturb her privacy. I have always gone into the jungles to connect with its spirit and could feel its connection with me snap into place, again, at that moment of realization. Perhaps since I could not see them in the clear and had no concerns of getting a good picture, my mind opened up to the uniqueness of the moment where the jungle crickets buzzed, the dark inkiness of the impending night blotted out shadows and the 3 of them unseen, seemed to make the forest hum with an incredible energy. I felt drained after an indescribable high of the feeling and did not feel like talking with anyone for quite some time. The jungle had entered my heart and soul.