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So You Want to See Tigers (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 4

2/17/2024 - 2/27/2024


I am going to break this blog post into two parts. There is way too much to cover the trip in-depth. I am going to walk through the tour day-by-day, but I am going to highlight one or two experiences and then present some general photos. This post will cover our time in New Delhi and our first stop on the tour.


If you are just interested in the trip details, feel free to skip down below the bullet points.


I want to start with a bit of what our experience was like and what we learned, in the hopes that it will help anyone considering a similar tour in the future. The biggest thing was picking a tour company. There are a number of factors here, and I cannot really help other than to say who we toured with. We chose Natural Selections. James is the owner and was also our guide. He ran a good tour. The tour offered stops at three parks and covered some of the less visited parks. I cannot say whether this hurt or helped us, but we, personally, saw 18 different tigers (20 total sightings) during our time there. I have zero complaints, and would happily take this tour with James, again.


There were a lot of moving pieces to this trip. We had two internal flights that threw some curve balls. Each park had its own way of doing things, and this also complicated things a bit. Here is a quick list of things that I think are important.

  • Camera equipment - Things can be close, and things can be very far away. I am interested in shooting birds and tigers. What I took was a Canon 200-400 lens with a built-in 1.4 extender. I used a Canon R5 for my body. It worked well enough. There were plenty of times that I would have loved to have my 600, but the size and weight of that lens would have been an issue. Rarely was I inside the 200 range, and, even when I was, I just focused on portrait shots. Ideally, two cameras would have been great; one with a longer lens and the other with a shorter (70-200). One thing to keep in mind is that you are out before sunrise and out until sunset. You are in forested areas, and the lighting is low a lot of times. Faster lenses are going to work better. A camera body that handles low light well is even better.

  • Internal flights - These were an issue. Checked luggage is limited to something like 40lbs (this includes extra weight paid for as part of the tour). Carry-on is limited to a scant 14lbs. I will wait while you go weigh your camera equipment. The carry-on limit is not really enough. If possible, find out which airline is used for internal flights and see if you can purchase extra weight. By the time I put a laptop, my lens, and the camera body in my backpack, I was just shy of the weight limit. This was after I removed the foot from my camera. This presented a secondary problem. Airport security is very strict about what is and is not allowed on a flight. That allen wrench that I packed for reattaching my camera foot? That had to go into checked luggage; otherwise it would have been confiscated. Luckily, we had been warned ahead of time. You also need to take every electronic item (cords, batteries, chargers, phones, laptops, cameras, etc.) and place them in a single layer in the airport bins for X-ray. It is not uncommon to have three or more bins. You will want to keep this in mind. Plan carefully. Weigh things before you go. My local post office has a self-service scale for packages. I took my backpack and things that could potentially go into it to work out what I could pack for my carry-on. Wear something with lots of pockets. You can shunt batteries and things in pockets until you get to security. In the end, everything worked out. James and our local guide got us through any issues and did well at herding us through all the hoops of the airport. One final thing. If you are flying on your own anywhere (i.e. going home). Make sure you have a way of getting a boarding pass beforehand. You cannot enter the airports without an actual physical or digital boarding pass.

  • Conditions - It was winter in India during our visit. You could not tell. It was hot. It was also very, very dusty. Luckily, I had asked about this prior to the trip. Take a rain cover or something similar to put over your camera and lens. You will want a buff or some other method of covering your face. I wore a hat, long sleeves, and pants. Dust will get everywhere. If you are thinking about taking two lenses and swapping them out during a safari, you are mistaken. Your camera will fill up with dust. Take a small cleaning kit. After each safari, we were greeted at the lodge by a person with a warm, wet towel. Use this to clean up yourself and then your equipment. Mornings heading out and evenings coming back can be chilly. Wear layers. It warms up quickly.

  • A day - A typical day meant we were up and meeting by 5:30 in the morning. This allowed us to go and get in line for the morning portion. We would drive until around 10:00 and then stop for breakfast. We then had to be out of the park by 11:30. Afternoon safaris where a little shorter, and we would tour from 3:00 until 6:00 or 6:30. Hours shifted during our time there; so, these are a bit approximate. What all this means is that you have very little downtime for things like: backing up photos, resting, cleaning gear, eating, or even showering.

  • Food - Everyone asks. Yes, you eat Indian food. If you do not like Indian food, this may not be your thing. By the time I got home, I feel I have had enough Indian food to last me for quite a while. If you are vegetarian, you will love it. If you are not, you will be eating a lot of some sort of meat (usually chicken) in a type of curry (various types of sauces) and rice. Quality was usually good. The places will bend over backwards to ensure you are happy, and they will fix special foods (even American dishes), upon request. I just ate what was on the buffet.

  • Tips - So, we thought we were prepared, but we were not. We had to hit an ATM a couple of times. Take a credit card that you know the PIN for. Take a backup, as well. These should not be your bank card. In short, we had our guide and knew there would be a local guide. We have not been on a lot of group trips, and this is what we normally plan for, while taking extra cash to cover various incidental things. Gifts/souvenirs are usually charged to the card. This trip had a plethora of additional drivers and rangers. These changed out nearly every safari. Our local guide covered tips for them and ran a tab that was paid up at the end of the trip. This was convenient, but it also presented a complete unknown. We just did not know how much we were going to need. We did ask for an approximation toward the end of the trip and were given one; so, we were able to get the cash on-hand. When planning for your trip, you will want to ask how this is handled and what you will want to plan for.

  • Jeeps - The jeeps also swapped out nearly every safari. The quality of the jeep, driver, and ranger ebbed and waned throughout the trip. Some were excellent. Some were not great. The main thing here is the number of people in your jeep and what your goals are. They jeeps are open air and somewhat stadium style seating. Two fit comfortably per row and there are two rows; not including the front seats. With a driver and a ranger, this leaves about four people that can sit in the jeep comfortably. We had three in our jeep, and even that could be problematic at times. Sometimes, you just were not in a position to shoot. This also had a lot to do with the driver, at times. Not all of them made the best decisions. If you have concerns about space, movement, or being restricted, it might be a good thing to talk about with the guide prior to the trip. The jeeps in your group also do not stick together. They have assigned sectors and routes. This means that everyone gets a different experience. Sometimes better - sometimes not.

  • Shooting - You are in the jeep. No getting out. You can swap around positions, but it is a chore. You are confined to the road. Light angle sucks? Sorry. Other jeeps pull in front of you? Sorry. Want to get lower? See the rule about getting out. Shooting is tough. When it all works out, it is highly rewarding. Otherwise, it can be a bit frustrating. Sometimes, you are just not going to be able to shoot or get the shot you want. You are also not going to be able to stop for everything you want. You just would not get anywhere. Finding a tiger or leopard relies on you being mobile. Stopping too much can be a detriment to finding them. It took us a while to figure this out. There is a balance to it that I am not sure we ever got quite right.


I think that covers everything. So, about our trip? This was a big trip. 23+ hours to fly there and 29+ hours to get back. It is a test of patience to even get to India from where we live. We tried to plan smartly. Our tour would not start until the morning of the 22nd. We flew out on the 17th and got into Delhi at 1:00 AM on the 19th. We planned for a few days of acclimation (time zone change) before our tour. The first day, we did nothing but catch up on sleep. The next two days we planned activities to keep us busy. Then, we would start the tour.


Our first planned activity was a city tour. Carmen found a company on Viator. Honestly, it was not great. She has usually had great luck with finding tours through them, but we got the son of the company owner, and he was a bit of a... well, he was not great. We got to see a number of temples and mosques. We somewhat got into the spice market area. We eventually got back, and I pretty much swore off city tours for the rest of my life.


2/21 -

The second day was my day. I had found my own tour on Viator. This was a bird photography tour down to Sultanpura NP. I knew that bird photography on safari was going to be a bit of a challenge, and I was hoping to score up a lot of shots here. Sultanpura is located about 40 minutes south of New Delhi, and it is a bird sanctuary. Our guide was Manish from Himalayan Vacations, and he picked us from from our hotel at 6:30 and drove us down. Unfortunately, we had a bit of bad luck here. The fog was so dense, you could not see 15 feet in front of you, at times. The fog lightened but held on all the way until around 11:00, which left me with some fairly harsh lighting. I managed a few photos, but the quality on most is pretty suspect. The park itself was great. So many birds. We had over 80 species that morning. In the end, I was kind of hoping we would get delayed a day when we got back to Delhi. I would have loved to go back in decent weather.


The place offered a lot of variety. With the water, there was plenty of ducks and shorebirds. We saw a lot of eagles of various species. Parrots and tiny owls like the Indian Scops Owl and the Spotted Owlet. We had a Bluethroat and a rare Brook's Leaf Warbler. Wagtails, Babblers, Shrikes, Drongo, Hoopoe and even a Paradise-Flycatcher. I got my best look at a Black-rumped Flameback here. As much as we saw, it is the birds we missed that always stick out. A Boobook had been roosting here for months prior to us arriving. It had moved on shortly before we arrived. Still, it was a great start to the trip; even if it was foggy.


We also had our first big mammal here. The Nilgai (or Blue Bull) is a large species of antelope. Somehow, I had looked at one and was like, "oh, that is odd" and then went back to shooting birds. It was not until Carmen asked what it was that it sunk in that it was something different and new. I can be a bit over-focused at times. We had a lot of females but no males.


2/22 -

This is the official start to our trip, and it started at 4:00 AM. We are up early because our internal flight to Jabalpur is leaving earlier than originally planned. The trade off is that they are squeezing in an extra safari in the afternoon. I was awake before the alarm went off anyway. A two hour flight and a four hour drive brought us to our lodge near Bandhavgarh NP. This is where we will be touring the next few days. We had about a half hour to get things together and grab a late lunch before heading our for our safari. Excitement levels were high.


Bandhavgarh has one of the highest densities of tigers of any parks in India. Not to say it has the most; just a large number for its size. The forest here is largely bamboo. This means thick undergrowth. Not ideal for shooting. But, it is a pretty place. Here are some phone shots that should give you an idea of what the place looks like. The tigers, of course, were not in the wide-open areas. These should also give you a good impression on what the dust was like.


Our safari started out really well immediately. By really well, I mean we had a cooperative raptor. We were greeted by an eye-level Crested Serpent-Eagle.

We stopped for everything: Spotted Deer, Langur, Rhesus Macaque, Sambar, and Asian Green Bee-eater (especially bee-eaters). Langur has to be the chillest monkey I have ever seen. They quickly moved to the top of Carmen's favorite monkey list. Yes, she has a list. A quick word about monkeys. The macaque is the exact opposite of the Langur. It is a calculating thief and cannot be trusted. They are opportunistic and will steal stuff in a heartbeat. We saw them take stuff out of people's rooms. One pounced into the middle of a table and grabbed snacks before racing off. Keep an eye on them. Enjoy the Langur though. They are cool.


From this afternoon, I had a couple of pictures that I liked. Nothing particularly special about them. I just liked the way they turned out; even if there is a lot technically wrong with the bird photo.

Asian Green Bee-eater holding tails.

Langur sitting on an old tree

The day was winding down, and the sun was getting low when we found our first tiger. One female Royal Bengal Tiger (the official subspecies) - check!

Of course, she was buried in tall grass. This would be a good quick introduction on what shooting here was going to be like. We joined a line of jeeps all jostling for position. The tiger was pretty comfortable where it was and was not leaving. Finally, a Sambar started giving an alert call nearby, and this roused her attention. She got up and walked through the grasses right toward us. Completely blocked a lot of the time. Relatively clear shots meant there was almost always a strand of grass over her face. She walked past us and then around behind the jeeps lined up behind us and disappeared across the road. Day 1 (a bonus day, even), and we had a tiger sighting! We were off to a great start.


2/23 -

We spent a lot of the morning tour trying to get views of a tiger family with cubs. They were deep in the bamboo, and you are seeing bits of the tiger and snatches of movement. Binocs helped a lot. There was a kill nearby, and the hope was that the tigers would leave to go get drinks after having fed. It never really worked out. We did, at least, start our morning with some Red Junglefowl. For those that do not know. This is the ancestor of the domestic chicken. It is quite spectacular to look at; even if it looks like just-a-chicken to a lot of people. I would constantly hope for better photos of this bird throughout the trip.


Our best shooting came around breakfast time. Breakfast was always at a central location that was fairly open. This one had an assortment of birds that were scrounging for crumbs. I would usually grab a small muffin or two for breakfast and then walk around to look for birds. Common Myna, Jungle Babbler, Rufous Treepie, Large-billed Crow, and Brahminy Starling all joined us this day. This would be the best breakfast spot of the trip.


My favorite photo of the morning came from here. A Jungle Babbler briefly perched up on a low stump and allowed me time to get positioned for a shot.


I did have a couple nice macaque photos from this morning. Sambar, Himalayan Griffon, Black-hooded Oriole, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (a shy but spectacular bird), and more bee-eaters rounded out the morning.


The afternoon safari was much more successful. In some ways, at least. We had an early tiger. The experience got all screwed up, though. Again, we were toward the back of the line. Our driver, while an excellent bird guide and naturalist, was not a very aggressive driver. A tiger had distantly moved into some tall grasses. For some reason, I had pulled the zoom way back on my camera. Turns out, the tiger was stalking some Spotted Deer. At the instant it launched, our driver moved the jeep. Not that it would have mattered much. I was setup entirely wrong. Either way, we missed most the action and saw a jerky view of a lot of dust. When it cleared, the tiger had made a kill. I shot it all wrong.


We drove around looking for birds and listening for alarm calls from the deer. Each species has its own type of call. Spotted Deer have very high-pitched yelps. Sambar give a gruff, explosive call. Barking Deer actually bark. We are also listening for excited monkeys or even peacock. Everything, of course, has its own concerns, and a concerned peacock does not necessarily mean a tiger. It could be a hawk. It could just be a confused bird. They are a bit unreliable. Anyway, this is how we are searching for tigers. A cluster of jeeps is also a good sign.


The day pressed on, and the birds were starting to congregate in the fields. Peacock (okay, Peafowl) and Junglefowl come out to feed at dusk. We had a pretty successful day of seeing birds; just not photographing them. I did manage decent shots of Indian Robin and Indian Gray Hornbill. We had our first of many Golden Jackal, as well.


On the way out, we found a cluster of jeeps. Distantly, a large male tiger was pausing for a drink


2/24 -

My notes (Carmen taught me to journal my trips) say that it was a rather boring morning, but I have a number of photos. I guess the main thing is that we did not see a tiger. This was our first safari where we dipped. It would not be the last. We had been told that it was about a 60% chance of seeing a tiger in Bandhavgarh with a 3 night stay at the lodge. This means 8 safaris; counting one the day of your arrival and one the final morning prior to leaving. Frankly, I was wondering if anyone ever missed. We had had good luck so far. The answer became all too obvious this morning. We had heard tales about people spending a week and only seeing a tiger on their last day. Luckily, we were not on that tour. The morning, in spite of my notes, featured some not-so-boring moments.


First, it was a good morning for peafowl. We saw a number of them but were still missing a display shot.


We also had the angry football. This is better known as a Jungle Owlet. It was further off than I had hoped for, but I was happy to see one. I was looking forward to seeing this species.


Two of the better photos were probably the Long-tailed Shrike that Carmen spotted for me, and a somewhat cooperative Ruddy Mongoose that was nice enough to pause for a photo.

Ruddy Mongoose
Long-tailed Shrike

Finally, we had our first Gaur sightings this morning. Better known (and easier to pronounce) as Indian Buffalo. They are massive and have cute, white, knee-socks.


The rest of the morning was a blend of things: monkeys lounging and grooming, Spotted Deer drinking, Sambar, Alexandrine Parakeets, and a mix of other birds; including a Large Cuckoo-Shrike from the hotel grounds. Oh, and Asian Green Bee-eaters! Surely you are not tired of seeing them yet?


Our afternoon would be a much different experience. There would, strangely, be a lot less photos. Afternoons were always better for birding. Mornings were relatively cold, and activity was low. Afternoons, before the sun started to set, were always great for birds. This day - not so much. It stated well. The sector we were visiting has a family of Spotted Owlets that nest in a tree at the gate.


Other than that, it was a lot of usual suspects. We did have a couple domestic specialties for India. First, the cow. Also, our first domestic elephant.


Which begs the question of what made this afternoon so special. As we were driving, we ran across James and his jeep. The driver waved us to follow. We pulled in behind them and drove on without a word. This is not uncommon. A lot of times, the ranger and driver just talk between themselves without telling you what is going on. You just get places that have jeeps there. I will discuss this more in my next post. This afternoon, we got to a madhouse of jeeps lining a single-lane road winding up a hillside. Our timing was damn near perfect. Below us, a pair of sibling (male and female) tigers were sleeping on the hillside. We happened to have a spot along the road that was mostly unobstructed and provided great views of the male. Of course, initial views were not awesome.


Eventually, the male tiger started to wake up and stir - kinda.


Finally, he was woke up and started checking out all of his admirers. There were a lot of pictures taken here, but I think these probably comprise the best of them.







After a minute, he got up and walked over to his sister and woke her up. Unfortunately, this shot was blocked for me. There was only one spot in the jeep to shoot her from. She woke up and looked around for a bit as he wandered off into the forest. I managed one shot of her as she laid there.


She got up and wandered off after the male. Chaos broke loose on the road. It is a one-lane road. Jeeps are facing both directions. Everyone is trying to get downhill to get ahead of the tigers. Our driver carefully and slowly backed down and then pulled off to the side. We could have been second in line. We ended up in the back. My dream shot was of a tiger walking up the road toward me. Instead, I got the exact opposite here.


The pair wondered along the road for a bit. Moving in and out of the grasses and view. We hit our time limit and had to start heading out of the park. It was getting late.


We made one last stop for a Crested Serpent Eagle. I shot this at ISO 12,800, and I never dreamed it would have cleaned up this well.


2/25 -

This was definitely not one of our better days. Morning was a complete wash. Afternoon was not much better. Bird activity was low. We just missed a possible tiger sighting because a bus (think really large jeep) had blocked the road while the driver got out to clear some bamboo next to the road. The guy parked the vehicle diagonally across the road and left it there while he messed around. We were only stuck there for minutes, but that is all it took. By the time we got to the tiger, it had just left the waterhole and moved on. Minutes was the difference between a sighting and a total zero day. A few shots of note from the day.


Oriental Magpie-Robin posed nicely beside the road.


We had a Changeable Hawk-Eagle in beautiful light.


An Indian Roller successfully hunted along the edge of the road. It chased and grabbed a small cricket of some sort.


Finally, the amazing looking Lesser Adjutant posed for a headshot. That blue eye!


The rest of the day had a mix of birds. Unfortunately, it ended on a bit of a sour note. We finally found the Brown Fish Owl, but we did not stop in a position where I could get a shot. I tried, but there were branches all over in front of the bird. I sat and watched. Other jeeps had us pinned, and there was not a chance to try for a clear shot. In spite of other sightings, I would not get a favorable shot of this bird. Hopefully another day on another trip.


When we got back to the lodge that evening, we had a special treat lined up for us. A local tribe had been brought in to perform. They are known as the Baigha or "sorcerers". Frankly, the performance was amazing, and I am sad that I did not capture more of it. There was one dance, in particular, where a group of men performed. They beat sticks together for the rhythm. Except they were not beating their own sticks together, they were swinging and hitting a stick held by another dancer, and they did this while moving through a complicated and increasingly fast pattern where they were bobbing, wheeling, and turning about. It was crazy. Anyway, here is a small video of one of the dances where everyone joined in. Yes, it is terrible quality, but it should give you an idea of what it was like.


2/26 -

We had one last morning in Bandhavgarh. After the morning safari, we would be driving to Kanha NP to start our time there. We had a decent morning with a number of birds; including a sighting of a pair of Oriental Pied-Hornbill. We heard a tiger growl and a number of deer alarms near a wetland area. We parked there and waited, but it never panned out. It did give us a little time to shoot some nearby birds.


We caught several birds on their morning commute; ubering about on the Spotted Deer. Ashy Drongo in one place.


Followed by some Black Drongo down the road.


There was a Common Mongoose doing its best meerkat impression.


A group of vultures were flying about and perching in trees. I would have loved to get some lower shots of these guys against a darker background. In general, I had hoped to see a lot more vultures during my time in India. They have a large variety, but their numbers are in decline, due to persecution and intentional poisoning.


We had a cooperative Crested Serpent-Eagle. He had spotted a nearby friend and went into this display.


A Bonelli's Eagle had flown in behind us, and our guide was astute enough to realize what was going on. We quickly backed up, and the eagle was standing in a creek. As I raised my camera, it took off. For once, I was quick enough to catch a few shots.


The morning was not a total washout for tigers. We did have this view of one. This is more characteristic of a typical sighting. Sightings in the open are not that common.


We also had another obstructed view. This time of a family of Asian Elephants. The rules are, if you see wild elephants, run! Our guide stopped for a few shots, but we quickly left. They are extremely temperamental and will charge without warning. A wild elephant had been killing villagers nearby for several days and was just captured while we were there on tour.


Remaining shots from the morning were of the usual suspects. Gotta squeeze in a bee-eater shot!


We got back to the lodge, packed up, and hit the road. It was a long drive (over 6 hours) to get to Kanha. We would have have dinner and then head to bed. Kanha safaris start just as early as Bandhavgarh.


Next up covers our time in Kanha and Pench National Parks. We would have our closest tiger encounter in Kanha, and Pench meant Indian Leopards. Of course, there would also be a lot more birds.


Thanks for reading,

Mike



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