A year back Joyce, Anirban & I had spent an amazing 5 days in Dudhwa & Kishanpur. I had posted the trip log in my blog, it was a journey that we will cherish forever. However our original plan had also been to cover Katerniaghat, which we could not find time for. This year we headed back for a long pending date with this remarkable part of the Dudhwa reserve, which is also home to the critically endangered Gharial – Gavialis gangeticus.
The Katerniaghat Forest provides strategic connectivity between tiger habitats of Dudhwa and Kishanpur in India and the Bardia National Park in Nepal.
Its fragile Terai ecosystem comprise a mesmerizing mosaic of Sal and Teak forests, lush grasslands, numerous swamps and wetlands. We drove in from Lucknow, a 5 hour journey on a hot Saturday afternoon to the Tharu huts, deep in the core area of the national park, in the Forest rest house complex.
These were spacious and well maintained modern huts built on raised stilts, with the jungle right behind them. The Bandah range is right behind the huts and frequent tiger sightings had been recently reported in this range. The latest one was a couple of days before we came, about a kilometer from the huts. We headed out with our WWF friends – Sabeer & Stephen and almost immediately sighted a pair of paradise flycatchers, flitting about with their fairy like trains fluttering in their wake. We had the disadvantage of being in a covered vehicle (there are no open jeep safaris in Katerniaghat) and could not get a decent picture. We tailed them for a while on foot but they eventually disappeared into the gathering dusk.
The road was flanked by a narrow winding inlet of water from the river and we could see quite a few lesser adjutant storks perched on branches. These birds look quite gawky but are strong fliers.
Katerniaghat’s jungle is lush and tropical with a lot of undergrowth, creepers and secondary growth below the main forest canopy. Its quite a dense environment and sightings are difficult as a result. While walking along the main Bandah track, we saw mutliple species of dragonflies and damselflies. Joyce has been reading up about them and educated us on a number of species. It was a discovery for me seeing so many different varieties, each flamboyantly coloured, their wings a study in geometric perfection.
Pied Paddy Skimmer
Ground Skimmer…the fragile beauty of its wings against the green jungle background was breathtaking!
The flamboyant Scarlet Marsh Hawk…seen here feeding on a grass stalk. Discovered that these dragonflies eat grass, what else? These Dragonflies are born rulers of their domain and they prove it to just about every insect that thinks it can pull a fast one on this killing machine. The adult dragonfly uses the basket formed by its legs to catch insects while flying. The adult dragonfly likes to eat gnats, mayflies, flies, mosquitoes and other small flying insects. They sometimes eat butterflies, moths and bees too.
The Chalky Percher. As Joyce observed, someone needs to do a comprehensive job of documenting the dragonflies and damselflies found in Katerniaghat. The place is a treasure trove of them!
We saw this beautiful butterfly with what looked like pollen grains on its wings, but have not been able to identify it yet. If anyone knows the name, please let me know.
The Common Mormon…usually seen in and around rubbish dumps and muddy slushy spots, we saw this beauty in a slushy spot adjacent to a tea shop run by 2 women who seemed to have an infinitely worldly wise look in their eyes.
The Barasingha was once common here, living in large herds that numbered hundreds. A few large herds can still be seen in neighbouring Kishanpur and in the Mardhiya grasslands of Dudhwa. Habitat destruction due to over silting has led to degradation of the grasslands. Further pressures due to deforestation for agriculture, grazing by livestock and poaching have all contributed to their declining numbers. We were lucky to still see this lone barasingha in its natural habitat. Our WWF friends later told us that this sighting was quite rare and apparently after a long stretch of 10 years! Hopefully this sighting is a sign that these beautiful deer are finding safe refuge in these jungles and can make a comeback.
While walking along the Bandah track we heard the unearthly cry of a grey headed fish eagle nearby. After a while we spied it on the side of the track from a distance. It was clutching a large river carp in one of its talons and we came upon it as it was about to make a meal of it.
Seeing us approach it took off but the fish slipped from its grip on the road, a tad too large for it to carry. We waited for a long time hoping it would come back to feed, but its stayed put in the adjoining tree till we left.
It was perhaps alarmed at our presence, as we spied it through the foliage.
Its mate was somewhere nearby and still calling away. We crept a bit closer to get some close up shots of this magnificent bird. They are usually always to be found in pairs and have one of the most unearthly cries amongst raptors (listen to the call at http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Haliaeetus-ichthyaetus). They are classified as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List.
Anirban & I along with Stephen climbed down a steep slope beside the Bandah track to the banks in the hope of seeing waders and other acquatic species. Though we did not see anything more than a couple of egrets and grebes, we were moved by the stark beauty of a dead tree and its reflection, in the marshy landscape.
Here are a couple of more that bring out the starkness and magic of what we saw.
Thankfully very few people visit Katerniaghat and we had the place pretty much to ourselves as we immersed ourselves in it, walking along the tracks wherever we could. One worrisome observation was the complete lack of any forest guards patrolling, there were none to be seen anywhere!
This peacock stepped out into the middle of the track framed by the forest, making a pretty picture indeed!
Deep inside the core zone we came upon this ancient shrine of a Pir baba. This dates back to more than a couple of hundred years when a few villages were located in this area. This was an important shrine and villagers living in the forest came to offer prayers from near and far. With the relocation of these villages from the core area in the 80s all that remains are the wild flora & fauna of Katerniaghat with this shrine in the deep forest.
A large clearing lies in front of this shrine and deep jungle behind it. From a watchtower a bit ahead we trained our binocs across the marsh and saw pheasant tailed jacanas, some moorhens & white breasted kingfishers far in the distance. Back on the trail we walked along the track towards the shrine, with the melody of bird calls and the occasional odd noises of hidden jungle inhabitants all around us. We heard a curious tok-tok call repeatedly and tried to locate the bird, but with no luck. Anirban had got along his newly acquired Canon 100-400m L lens and was still figuring it out with Stephen (our friend in INW – he hails from Mizoram and is doing his internship here). Joyce trailed behind trying to locate some of the birds that were calling every now & then from the bank of the adjoining foliage.
I had walked ahead of them into the clearing in front of the shrine to be with myself a bit in such salubrious environs. As I neared the marsh bank I sighted this stork billed kingfisher using the stump of a dead tree to scout for prey.
Largest among kingfishers, it perches quietly whilst seeking food, and is often inconspicuous despite its size. It is territorial and will chase away eagles and other large predators. This species hunts fish, frogs, crabs, rodents and young birds. Stork-billed Kingfishers dig their nest in a river bank, decaying tree, or a tree termite nest. A clutch of two to five round white eggs is typical. As I crept close, it took flight with a distinctive call (listen to its call on http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Pelargopsis-capensis).
The Girwa river cuts through the national park and is one of the main nesting sites for the critically endangered gharial – Gavialis Gangeticus. This river is actually a tributary of the larger Karnali river, Nepal’s longest river. The forest department conducts boat rides on the Girwa. One has to book in advance once you are in Katerniaghat, and pay for the petrol in addition to the hire charge. At any given point of time Katerniaghat, like Dudhwa, has some or the other ‘Babu’, politician or police guy with his family. These public ‘servants’ treat the reserve as their private garden and take over the boat, or rooms, even though paying tourists may have booked these in advance. We had to face a similar situation when we kept waiting for the boat on our scheduled evening trip, only to find out after 4 repeated follow ups and 45 mns later, that some govt. guy with his family had gone for a joyride on it.
Next morning we finally managed to commandeer the boat and set off on the river.
The river at this point is about 2 kms wide and flanked by dense jungle on both sides. We could see king vultures nesting in the tree canopies on the far bank. One of these flew over us and joined a large flock on an island in the distance. They have quite an impressive powerful flight pattern
The cool early morning breeze makes boating on the river a treat and is a great way to observe the tree species and the forest stretching away. Very soon we came close to the sandbanks and saw this powerful Mugger basking in the sun.
It stayed still with a sly grin on its face while we gently floated past with our motor cut. This sighting whetted our appetite for the gharial and sure enough we came upon their nesting site, shortly.
We were disturbed to see one of them with a fishing net entangled in its snout. This indicates illegal fishing in the core forest and protected habitat of the critically endangered Gharials.
The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is a crocodilian that is native to the Indian subcontinent and also called gavial and the fish-eating crocodile. As the species has undergone both chronic long term and a rapid short-term declines it is listed as a Critically Endangered by IUCN. It is one of the longest of all living crocodilians. The gharial is characterised by its extremely long, thin jaws, regarded as an adaptation to a predominantly fish diet. Males reach up to 6 m (20 ft) with an average weight of around 160 kg . Males develop a hollow nasal protuberance at sexual maturity. This bulbous growth on the tip of their snout called ghara is used to modify and amplify “hisses” snorted through the underlying nostrils. The resultant sound can be heard for nearly a kilometer on a still day.
As we came closer for better shots, it dived inside the water for protection….splash!!
Evolution has led it along a path of specialization, a path that’s being cut by humans. Thumbs up to this fish eater from another!
Razorbacks in the water.
While returning after the Gharial sighting, we saw another Mugger slinking its way into the river as we passed close to it.
Mugger is also known as the marsh crocodile. More powerfully built than the critically endangered gharial, it is able to walk in a semi upright stance while the gharial, being thoroughly adapted to an aquatic existence only, is unable to do so. On land the gharial can only push itself forward and slide on its belly. The mugger’s heavier more powerful body is built for capturing prey more from the edges of waterways while the gharial is primarily a fish eater, generally residents of flowing rivers with deep pools that have high sand banks and good fish stocks.
As we motored along the river we neared another sandbank and small island and were kicked to see a male black necked stork sitting on its hocks. As we neared, it got up and stood, alert to our presence.
This male made a fine sight in its habitat. These storks are fiercely territorial and live in pairs. The female has a yellow iris and the male has a black one. Growing to a height of 5 ft and with a sword like bill, they are not be trifled with. Apparently the Mir Shikaris (old tribal Bihari bird hunters) had a ritual of passage for their bridegrooms. They had to catch a Loh Sarang (black necked stork) alive before they could marry. The practice was stopped after 1920 when a youth was killed in such an encounter.
The wingspan of this stork grows to 7 to 7.5 ft. Here they beat down to generate enough lift for its approx 4 kg weight, as it took off and flew away in a soaring powerful flight.
There is a narrow inlet on the river called the ‘Maila Naala’ that looks like somewhere in the Amazon!. The jungle is closer on both sides here and quite dense, overgrown with vines and secondary growth. It’s a good place to see various bird species and the occasional Mugger from up close.
That’s us on the Naala, Anirban behind me on the left and Joyce on the right. While passing through we sighted this pretty yellow footed green pigeon.
Katerniaghat is an unique ecosystem because of the river and marshy area. Its forest is exceedingly beautiful and rich. The Nishangara range is particularly noteworthy and one can still enjoy the magic of the deep jungle there. We were however very disappointed to observe the ’empty forest’ syndrome here. Our friends told us that this range was rich in all kinds of fauna, and was home to 7 leopards till 8-9 months back. However excessive poaching pressure from the Nepalese side has depleted the wildlife drastically and altered animal & bird movement. We did not see any birds or even a chital for a very long time.
Anirban itching to click away but there were unfortunately little to see. We came back again on my last day here to stop by a beautiful wooded water hole. The place looked perfect for birding and for wildlife action. After a couple of hours of patiently sitting under a tree in complete silence, I started observing various bird species .
A flock of emerald doves slowly emerged from the forest to slake their thirst, while a black naped monarch darted every now and then to the water surface hunting for insects. A male paradise flycatcher flitted elusively around accompanied by its female, but I could not get a clean good shot. Moving in behind the water hole in the foliage, I could see a large eagle sitting in the upper branches of a large Sal tree, seemed like a marsh harrier.
A white cheeked bulbul about to fly.
Saw this beautiful flower in the jungle. Would appreciate if someone could help in identifying it.
Later that night we went into the Bichiya range to see if we could spot palm civets. We saw one coming down a tree and race off along the side of the road, its large eyes glowing like orbs in the dark. Bichiya is a small village in the core zone of the forest and also sports a petrol pump! It took a while to adjust to livestock, cycles, a maruti, electricity and squalor in the midst of the jungle. This chanawala seemed to reinforce the clash of the two worlds, living cheek by jowl with the tiger and the leopard. It felt oddly exhilarating to think that these big cats were on the prowl on their nightly hunt somewhere out there, right now!
All in all, it was a memorable trip again in the Terai, and our romance with this unique area in northern UP deepened.
Last but not the least we were lucky to sight a Asian pied hornbill, albiet from quite far, thanks to the sharp eyes of our friend Stephen from WWF. See if you can spot it in the uncropped image below.
No? See it below in the cropped image and then look for it again in the image above, you will see it for sure and realize how big it is!
I must thank Major Vinit Bajpai of INW who gave me some great advice and tips and has some amazing stories and experiences in this unforgettable forest (see his posts – http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=413870 or http://www.indianaturewatch.net/displayimage.php?id=414649).
If you go to Katerniaghat, below are the main ranges that you should cover:
(a) Bandah Road – Behind Katerniaghat Rest House.
(b) Road from Nishangadha Rest House to Banshakti Phata.
(c) Main road between Katerniaghat and Murtiha.
(d) Roads leading to Indo- Nepal Border from Murtiha.
All of us on the road that leads to the Girwa river – Stephen, Anirban, me, Joyce (L-R)
Stephen, Anirban & Joyce walking along the Bandah track.