Birds hovered heavily on this highly productive Tour. But ultimately, it was the cats that crowned it.
In the outskirts of Ramnagar, Skipper Sachin Rai set out with his group on a mission for avian beauties, to kick-start the tour. Soon after commencing their drive, when they stopped near a dry riverbed to look for birds, they found a yellow-throated marten staring at them.
Following this serendipitous start, they were soon rewarded with splendid sights of brown dipper, white-crested laughingthrush, crimson sunbird and chestnut-headed tesia.
The morning’s catch had been handsome.
Afternoon arrived and it was time for a foray into the historic Corbett Tiger Reserve, through a maiden ride into the Bijrani range, an excursion that started on an auspicious note when a glorious tusker walked head-on on a vehicle track in terrific evening light. After auditioning for a brief while, he walked off the road and the sweeping sounds from his lumbering person rubbing against the undergrowth slowly faded away into a hushed silence.
Then the startling calls of a barking deer in alarm originating somewhere near the riverbank ricocheted off the woods and carried to the group a message to wait for the possible emergence of a predator. After waiting for a few minutes, Sachin decided to take a detour and arrive at the other side of the riverbed to pursue the case further. As though on cue, another round of alarm calls rang through the still air. The group listened, waited, watched, soaked up.
Five minutes later, a young male tiger emerged and walked right on the riverbed, his perfectly rotund form, massive limbs and luxuriant orange coat serving up a celestial feast.
In a gesture of festive generosity, he even stepped onto the road directly ahead of the vehicles and walked, leading them as it were to trail his tantalizing steps, but totally out of time, the audience had to turn their backs and drive back out of the park, just a touch wistful but more than a bit buoyed.
Early next morning, the group entered the park and headed northwest to check in to the delightful forest bungalow at Gairal.
The Gairal Forest House, nestled as it is in the lap of nature, is a first-rate place for birding by every standard. Several species you may dream about with the bird guide in hand are next-door neighbours here, so it was unsurprising that the Tour participants had plenty to target their focusing screens on.
Later, on the route to Dhikala, a pair of tawny fish owls, magnificent birds that find a haven in Corbett, peered calmly back at a bunch of excited photographers from upon a tree branch just off the road.
Day three dawned, and Sachin led the group through the jungle to the famous High Bank, a cerebrally famous vantage point, from where a spectacular view of quintessential Corbett country is to be had.
What came into view, though, was a Corbett countryman as well.
As the group were scanning the area, Vinayak, an ardent amateur photographer from Coimbatore, saw something unusual move in the landscape.
When the other excited participants looked carefully, they found it to be a big male leopard.
Having just come out of the woods, he headed straight to the river for a drink, climbed onto the rocks on the bank and soaked in the view for some time. And then the group got to work, making some beautiful habitat images of a fascinating cat in utterly breathtaking environs.
A rare, ephemeral sight had been given permanence with a set of memorable photographs that would remind the viewer of everything that makes them love forests and wildlife.
After the stupefying heights of the morning’s encounter, the group sat peacefully at a vantage point in a small area in Dhikala from where a large part of the riverbed could be seen. The target was birds but the honorarium was more than that.
A male tiger crossed the riverbed and walked towards the Khinanauli Guest House.
Swiftly, Sachin had the group transferred to near the guest house in anticipation that the tiger would cross a fire line opposite it, and sure enough, a few minutes later, that is exactly what he did, affording a truly stunning picture of him walking in the grass, lighting up the eyes and the hearts of everybody who enjoyed the good fortune of beholding the almighty sight.
Roaming around the Dhikala grasslands the next morning, Sachin and group made pictures of hog deer, saw a herd of elephants close to the road, and drove through Sambhar Road looking for birds, an effort that was amply rewarded with encounters with kalij pheasant, plumbeous redstart, lineated barbet, collared falconet, river lapwing and even an osprey!
In the evening, dark-throated thrush, green magpie and maroon oriole put in an appearance, and just to ensure a 100% cat-sighting record for the Tour hitherto, a pair of sub-adult tiger cubs flashed a clear view of themselves in the bush although the sight was too fleeting for worthwhile photographs.
The group enjoyed a bird-filled morning the next day, adding pictures of the rufous-gorgeted flycatcher, chestnut-bellied nuthatch, blue-winged minla, Himalayan bulbul and jungle owlet to the portable storage devices.
Then the recess between the safaris in the afternoon was spent entirely up in the machan and the exciting sight of a jackal carrying off its meal – a chital carcass – was received gratefully as a bonus to the relaxing time enjoyed watching birds up there.
In the afternoon Sachin marshaled the vehicles to the same place as the cubs had been seen the previous evening and as they were driving through, they saw Big Momma on the road instead – not a raw deal by any means. The hour of the day being a little late in the evening, the sight of the tiger especially contrasted with muted greens all around, highlighted the brilliance of its beauty and sent the group into a stunned tizzy – an entirely understandable reaction to an animal of extraordinary charm.
The last morning inevitably arrived and commenced exceedingly well, with yellow-bellied fantail flycatcher and rusty-cheeked scimitar babbler warming up the group’s hands and cameras to a wonderful day.
Later, on Thandi Sadak, alarm calls stopped the entourage in their tracks and prompted them to quickly clamber up the nearby watchtower. Ears peeled, they tried to pinpoint the direction of the calls. They failed.
So they started back for the exit, some already ruminating on the many wonderful moments Corbett had kindly bestowed upon them when a singular event awoke them from their retrospect.
A tigress suddenly crossed from left to right, merely 10 metres away from the vehicle.
And this made the group return to Ramnagar in a seemingly incessant state of excited wakefulness.