Thursday, February 20, 2014

Birding at Garhi Mandu City Forest - Review

Most birdwatchers in Delhi generally visit the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary for birding, and not many people have heard of the Garhi Mandu City Forest in north-east Delhi. This weekend I had the opportunity of joining forest officials and conservationists on an amazing trek through this forest, and the sighting of many unseen-before local and migratory birds. This was my first birding watching experience, and here is my review.

Bird Watching in Delhi 

I started from home at about 7.15am and reached the Teesra Pushta red light at about 8.00am, to join the group of professional birders. While on the way, thick fog suddenly descended in the Delhi area, reducing the visibility to zero, and I became doubtful of sighting any birds. However, the team leader asked us to wait a bit for the fog to clear up, and treated us to tea and biscuits.

When the fog cleared up at about 8.45am, we went over to the pushta (mud bridge) and looked through our binoculars at the various birds in the water. We saw large comorants and little comorants perched on pillars sticking out of the water, as well as a variety of coloured ducks swimming in the water, and some smaller birds flitting about in the trash by the side of the bridge.

Trekking Through the Delhi Forest

We crossed the bridge and entered the Garhi Mendu City Forest through a gap in the fence. There was lush vegetation all around and puddles of water (as it had rained recently). We saw neelgai (blue bull – a kind of antelope) tracks in the wet mud, and vibrant butterflies flying over the wildflowers in the grass. The fresh morning air and slight cool breeze made for a heavenly walk through the forest.

Wish we had a botanist around to identify this plant.

The Garhi Mandu forest is divided into different habitats, each suitable for different types of birds. It has wetlands with ponds and shallow areas for aquatic birds like the comorants, storks and ducks. It has deciduous forests for arboreal birds like the owls, tree pies and parakeets. It has fields of long grass Savannah-like vegetation for terrestrial birds like the bulbul, as well as bushes for flycatchers and other small birds to live in.

The wooded area got thicker the deeper we went into the forest.
In total, we must have trekked about 5-6 kilometres, most of it through thick vegetation, marshy areas and pools of water. We saw about 50 species of birds, which included ducks like the pintail duck, northern shoveler, gallard and gadwal, as well as comorants, herons (white, grey and purple), egrets, kingfishers, yellow-bellied flycatchers, and various species of mynas and parakeets. The professional birders with us also kept a count of common birds like the crows, pigeons and kites, to check if their population has increased or decreased.

Reasons for Decline of Bird Numbers in Delhi

The birders and conservationists mentioned that the population of birds in such reserved wetland forests is much lower than before. I looked for reasons why this may be happening, and these are some of my thoughts on the issue:

  • Throwing of trash (mainly plastic bags) near the Yamuna area: There were some recycling sheds near the water’s edge, with stacks of trash piled outside them. While recycling may be cool, having the recycling units near the beautiful river bank certainly ain’t and spoiled the view. 
  • Less water in the ponds: The water level in the ponds was said to be much lower than before, maybe because of dams and less water being sent out to the Yamuna River.
  • Fishing: The villagers of the area had given a contract to some fishermen to do fishing near the Yamuna, and they had spread out their nets. Fishermen not only disturb the birds with their boats and casting of nets, they also take away all the fish (which is the staple diet of many aquatic birds). We even noticed fishermen fishing in a pond located inside the city forest.
  • Children playing cricket and gilly-danda: Birds would surely be frightened away by the incessant chatter of the local childen and teenagers, as they laughed, yelled and played various games. We found kids in a flat grassy area in one section of the Garhi Mendu bird sanctuary. The forest officials told them to clear off but they kept arguing back.
  • Animals grazing on saplings: Animals like the neelgai, cows and buffaloes routinely roam about the forest to graze, and eat the saplings planted by the forest department before they can grow into big trees that the birds can nest in.
  • Villagers chopping up branches of trees for firewood: Well, it gets very cold in Delhi, and poor people have to find some way of staying warm. We noticed branches chopped off from trees, as well as river grass cut from the base up. This may have been used by the locals either as firewood or for building huts.
  • Other birds and animals: Many common birds of prey were sighted in the area: mainly kites and crows. While they may have be attracted to the forest because of the rubbish dumps and trash recycling centres outside, they also prey on small birds. In fact, we actually saw a kite swooping down on a barn swallow and taking it back to its nest. In addition to this, we also found the half-eaten remains of a kite that seemed to have been killed by a small animal (maybe a dog or a jungle cat).
  • Other noises: There was a busy road going past, with large trucks and buses rumbling down it. We also heard the drum beats of a nearby celebration.  
I’m not sure how big a role air and water pollution play, but they are definitely reasons why birds may not be migrating and nesting in the Garhi Mendu Forest area, as much as they used to before. If a bird finds cleaner water and air about 20-30 kilometres further down the Yamuna in an area with less population density and industries, they would most certainly choose to live there.

After exiting the Garhi Mendu forest, we went into a special fenced trekking area set up by the government. This area was very fresh looking and there were a whole lot more birds here. There was also nobody fishing in the ponds. This area had a beaten track for walking and a generator that pumped water into the pond.

A multitude of birds in the Garhi Mendu bird sanctuary.

Well, all in all, it was a wonderful experience. We trekked a lot and were pretty tired by the time we left the forest at about 5.00pm. We saw many beautiful birds as well as animals like neelgai, wild boar, cows and buffaloes. The ponds were filled with fish, and we heard there were other animals like rabbits and wildcats in the area, as well as small reptiles like water monitors.

If you decide to visit the Garhi Mendu City Forest, remember to bring along your own snacks and lunch, as there is no restaurant or cafeteria inside. Also bring a plastic sheet for sitting on the wet grass. As there are no toilets, and you'll have to go behind the bushes and trees.

Have you been birding or bird watching in Delhi? Which is your favourite spot to sight birds and what has your experience been like?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Tiger Sighting at Sariska Tiger Reserve - Review

I hadn’t gone on a vacation for a long time as I was busy with work and other issues. As my casual leaves for the year would lapse on 31st December, I thought I’d take a few days off and do something special – not too much, maybe a day trip to a nearby town. First we thought of going to nearby Agra or Jaipur, but eventually decided to go on a Sariska safari and do some tiger spotting. No one I know has ever really seen a tiger at the Sariska Tiger Reserve, and I didn’t really hope to sight one either – I just thought it would be wonderful to look at the deer and birds in their natural surroundings and get a feel of the outdoors. I could also wear the new ‘Outdoor Performance Gear’ jacket I had recently bought from Woodland, which was rather expensive.

Planning the Delhi-Alwar-Sariska-Delhi Trip

Before setting off, I did some research on the kinds of animals and birds that we would be able to see at the Sariska National Park, from their website We also booked online tickets for the safari jeep, which was Rs.105 per person. We were asked to enter identification details on the website (passport, voters ID card numbers on the site) and carry these identification documents with us. It was also mentioned to print individual indemnity forms (park will not be held responsible if tiger eats you etc.), and hand it to the guide when you enter the park. On arrival at the park, we would have to pay an additional Rs.350 per person for the gypsy and Rs.50 per person for the guide.

Well, we hired a Toyota Innova car (at the rate of Rs.11 per kilometer + toll charges + taxes etc.) and set off from Delhi to Sariska at 6.30 am. We had booked the afternoon safari, which was scheduled to begin at 1.30 pm, so there would be plenty of time to reach there. Please note, the timings of the Sariska safari (morning and evening) vary from month to month, as the daylight increases/decreases. As we started out from Delhi, it began to drizzle, and kept raining intermittently as we drove to Alwar and the Sariska Tiger Reserve. It also became freezing cold.

The Drive To Sariska for Tiger-Spotting

At about 9.30 am we stopped at a roadside dhaba called ‘Hotel Haveli Midway’ and had some hot aloo paranthas and tea. The place was clean and we were served well – the toilets were also clean and there was a bucket of hot water to wash hands - which was wonderful in this cold weather. The aloo parathas were really tasty, and we had a good laugh looking at the spellings on the menu. Here is a photo of it:

Check out the spelling of Rasgulla and Custard, not to mention gravy!

We then continued on to Sariska and Alwar. We were a bit early, and thought we’d check out some tourist places in Alwar – I heard there is a magnificent fort there. We checked our phones, ran a Google search and dug up information about what to see and do in Alwar – which was not much. We decided to go to the Alwar Fort – also known as Bala Fort. The scenery around Alwar city in Rajasthan was magnificent, with the towering Aravalli hills, the yellow mustard fields and trees. With the low lying clouds and slight drizzle, it seemed we were driving around a hill station rather than a supposed ‘desert’ area of India.

The Royal City of Alwar

We reached Alwar at about 10.30 am. It was a sleepy town. Not many shops were open and we could not buy the famous ‘milk cake’ sweet that Alwar is famous for. We asked around and drove to the Alwar Fort. The road from the Fort Gate to the actual Fort is about 13 kilometres, and goes in circles around a few Aravalli mountains. We had to be careful while driving, because the place was filled with peacocks, langurs and sambar deer, all jumping around. My sister had packed some pudina chutney sandwiches and we had a nice time feeding the sambar deer. They ate from my hand and were really cute.

Feeding a stag in Alwar - my Kirsten Stewart 'Snowhite' moment 
The Fort was on top of one of the hills, from where you could see the whole town of Alwar below. It was not a very big fort, and had many cannons displayed inside.

Palace inside the Bala Fort in Alwar

People around town had told us that we required special police permission to go inside it, but when we reached there, we saw that the gate was open and no one was available so we just walked in. We also saw a nearby Hanuman temple and the ruins of another medieval monument.

The Sariska Tiger Reserve Safari

As soon as it turned 11.30 am, we ran back to the Toyota Innova and set off for Sariska. The scenery on the one-hour drive from Alwar to Sariska was even better than what we had seen before. We finally reached the Sariska Tiger Reserve at 12.30 pm, about one-hour before the evening safari was due to start. We waited in line outside the ticket counter – it opened at about 1.00 pm. We had to pay an additional amount of Rs.150 (paid at the ticket counter) + 2,300 for hiring the jeep and guide, which we were supposed to give to the guide later. We were given a paper with a zone marked on it – which was zone 1.

We took our bag of snacks to the jeep (the guide allowed us) – and sat in it. Soon the driver and guide joined us. The driver had information that a tiger was lazing about in zone 3 (the smallest zone) and changed the zone. We then entered the Sariska Tiger Reserve – all set for a nice safari adventure. My brother was sure that we would spot a tiger, but I was not really bothered as I hadn’t heard of anyone spotting a tiger at Sariska before. I thought it would be good just to have a long ride in the wilderness in the jeep – in fact I was a bit nervous about actually sighting a tiger.

Tiger Sighting in Sariska

The driver and guide told us to keep our eyes peeled for the tiger, as we drove through the thick bushes and vegetation. They stopped outside a small building to get a hint about the location of the tiger through the geo-tracking radio collar it was wearing. We then drove us into deeper forest, and I began feeling really scared. There was a lone black buffalo grazing in the middle of the path. Suddenly, the guide hissed and the driver stopped the jeep. He asked the driver to move the jeep back and pointed in the dense forest. There we saw the tiger – it was golden and black, fur shining in the sun, sitting majestically in the typical royal Bengal tiger pose.

Tiger sighting in Alwar - she looked so peaceful

The guide said this was a female tigress – T3, which came from Ranthambore forest. She was wearing a black tracking collar. The tiger yawned, and we saw her long fangs. My sister became terrified and weakly sat down in her seat. I kept watching the tiger, as my friends took photos and made a video. We saw another jeep coming down the path. I signaled to them that a tiger had been spotted, so that they could also get some photos - the tiger would also have some more 'attacking options' just in case she wanted a quick meal.

The ensuing noise disturbed the tigress, and she got up and walked away as if she wanted to come down from the brush and cross the road. We drove down the road a bit further, to check if we could spot her. The guide saw the tiger hiding in the bushes near the road, and told the driver to reverse the jeep a few metres. We reversed the jeep and waited. Soon we spotted the Sariska tiger again. She came out of the lush bushes, gave us a cursory glance, and began walking down the road.

I kept watching her as she strolled along the road in front of us. I felt really peaceful and fortunate to see a tiger this close at the Sariska National Park. However, this was not all. The tigress saw the lone black buffalo grazing at the end of the path. She began crouching as if ready to pounce, and we thought we would actually see a kill. Suddenly, three other buffaloes came around the bend. They stared down at the tiger, and she ran back into the green forest. We moved the jeep ahead to where we had seen her, but the jungle was too thick, and she seemed to have run in too far.

Suddenly, other safari jeeps began pouring in, having got the message of the tiger sighting. We told them that there was no tiger here, and then turned back. The guide said that the tiger seemed hungry, so we yelled at him that we’d better get out of here immediately. The driver and guide seemed to be keener and more excited to see the tiger than we were. They took us to a clearing and said the tiger would most probably come out here - we should wait a few minutes. We waited a few minutes; there were many colourful birds to look at.

Other Animals in Sariska Tiger Reserve

However, I began to feel nervous, so we told the driver to move the jeep forward. We said we wanted to see the other animals in the Sariska Tiger Reserve – like the langur, which was also very cute. Other animals we saw at the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary were the cheetal deer (spotted deer), the sambar deer (favourite food of the tiger), the neelgai (or bluebull – which is an antelope), wild boars (jungli suar), peacocks, langurs, monkeys and jackals (they always roam about in pairs). There were also lots of colourful birds in the trees, like the jungle warbler (grey angry bird) and the tree pie (yellow/blue angry bird).

Birds are angry cause they are not getting any sandwiches

We tried out antlers at the small forest house museum of the Sariska National Park. They were really big and heavy. We also saw samples of the pugmarks (footprints) of various animals at the Sariska Tiger Reserve like the leopard and other wild cats. The drive around the park was very relaxing. The driver took the jeep through dense jungles and showed us where porcupines and hyenas lived. The safari jeep (which had four-wheel drive) climbed over steep inner roads and rocky paths. With the slight rain and fog, the experience was wonderful. We finished the safari about one-hour early, as we had already spotted the tiger and it was getting really cold.

Of course, the driver and guide asked us for a tip as they had helped us sight the tiger. We did not have that much money with us – so we could only give them a small tip. However, they told us to tell our friends about the tiger spotting in Sariska so that more people come here, and the villages get business. Well, I’ve told my friends and now I’ve told everyone on the Internet as well, so I hope the guides and the drivers do well, and the tigers of Sariska continue to remain protected. It is only when villages around the area realize they are making more money from the tigers living at the wildlife sanctuary, than they are from losing their livestock as prey/poaching, that they will work to protect the tigers and inform forest officials about poachers.

Crocodile infested lake - also a watering hole for the tigers.

We left Sariska and its tigers at about 5.00 pm for Delhi. We took another route back and saw some more beautiful scenery on the way as the light faded – majestic rock faces of the Aravalli cliffs, golden-yellow mustard fields, village scenes and low-lying clouds. On the way back, we spent about five hours on the road, as we were caught in a massive traffic jam near the Manesar area. We finally reached home at about 10.30 pm and ordered for food from outside. The cost for hiring the Toyota Innova came to Rs.5050. All in all, it was a marvelous outing.

Other Review Points 
  • Driver and Guide: They were very helpful and enthusiastic. They helped us spot the tiger and even took us up close. The guide gave us a lot of information about the tigers and other animals in the Sariska National Park, such as their eating habits, mating habits and other behaviour. This was equal to the kind of information I get from National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. They also drove us along the rocky interior paths of the jungle, where the other jeeps were not going. The canter cannot be taken through this area.
  • Food: There was a small canteen outside Sariska Park that was selling cold drinks and patties only. We had a small picnic basket (with sandwiches, chips and mango juice), which the guide allowed us to take inside. Feeding animals and birds is not allowed, and all waste paper should be taken back with you. Do not throw trash around the national park.
  • Toilets: There was one toilet outside the park which was very smelly, but we had no option and had to use it. The driver stopped at the small forest house museum, which he said had a toilet we could use. However, we did not need to try it.
  • Prices: It was expensive, but since we saw the tiger it was worth it. The price of the canter was lower, but canters do not take you down the interior highly-wooded paths of the forest where you have a better chance of sighting a tiger. Anyway, the prices were much lower than the prices charged at the Jim Corbett National Park.
Have you been to the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Alwar, Rajasthan? Did you sight any tigers there? What about other national parks and wildlife sanctuaries?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Dabangg 2 - Movie Review

This Christmas, I watched Dabangg 2 at a PVR cinema in Delhi. I know my film review of the movie is a bit late, but I thought I'll post it anyway, for all those who may still wish to watch the movie. So, here is my film review of Dabangg 2....let me know what you thought of this movie too!

Movie Review of Dabangg 2

'Dabangg 2' is an Action Comedy film, and I'd give it a rating of 6.5/10 or about three stars. Dabangg 2 stars Salman Khan (Chulbul Pandey), Sonakshi Sinha (Rajjo), Arbaaz Khan (Makhi), Prakash Raj (Baccha Bhaiya) and Vinod Khanna. Here goes my film review of it:

Movie Poster of Dabangg 2

The movie is a sequel of Dabanng, which was released in 2010. I'd say the first Dabangg was better than Dabangg 2, mainly because of Sonu Sood's character Cheddi Singh. Prakash Raj is good as a villain, but I thought Sonu Sood was a more unique villain, with better acting and facial expressions.

In Dabanng 2, Salman Khan's character Chulbul Pandey takes a transfer to the larger city of Kanpur, and goes about tackling the goons and trouble-makers in that city. Baccha Bhaiya (Prakash Raj) is a local politician in the city, who with his two brothers (Gainda and Chunni) is involved in dirty deals. The movie is about Chulbul Pandey stopping them, and getting revenge for the hurt they have caused to members of his own family.

Salman Khan and Sonakshi Sinha in a still from Dabangg 2

All in all, Dabang 2 is an action-packed movie, with amazing fight scenes. The story and dialogues have a bit of humour in them, and the movie can be considered a paisa vasool film.

Positives of Dabangg 2:
  • Some social messages like getting yourself insured to protect your family. However, Salman should have recommended term insurance, rather than ULIPs, which rarely benefit people. 
  • Showing a village lady who is interested in doing courses and taking up a job, for supplementing her family's income (character of Nirmala, Chulbul's bhabhi).
  • The south-Indian style action sequences, and stunts. 
  • Salman Khan's cute peck-on-the-cheek kisses with Sonakshi Sinha. It was much better than Shahrukh Khan's flat lizard kiss with Katrina Kaif in Jab Tak He Jaan. 
  • Sonakshi's acting is better than that of most other new actresses, and Salman seems to have some chemistry with her (at least he seems to like her a bit). Salman usually acts in a very brash, uncaring way with his other female co-stars (and it shows), except for Preity Zinta, of course. 

Negatives of Dabangg 2: 
  • Too much violence and revenge. I don't like the idea of revenge, and this movie showed Chulbul Pandey as being far too aggressive than the situation warranted. 
  • Too many in-film advertisements. The Fevicol one was of-course very prominent in the song. It was obviously sponsored by Fevicol, unlike the Zandu Balm song of the first Dabang, for which Arbaaz Khan got sued. There were also in-film ads for a money transfer service and a mobile phone. 
  • Repeating scenes from Dabanng 1 in Dabangg 2, like the mobile phone scene, and repeated references to the first film (which I couldn't remember). I had to run a Google search, to find out that Tinu Anand's character was Nirmala's father. People who missed the first film would definitely not get any of these jokes. 
  • Recycled music. No song stands out, and all are similar to various songs in the first Dabaang movie. 
  • Showing Salman Khan visiting a prostitute (Kareena Kapoor) with his brother, when Rajjo is pregnant, and his brother's wife is in the village. 

Did you like this Dabanng film review? Have you watched Dabanng 2? What did you think of it? Does this movie review make you want to see Dabanng 2 or avoid it?