Pench National Park, Part 1 – Searching for the elusive big cat in the land of Mowgli!

My interest in wildlife precedes my interest in photography by 2 and a half decades. So even though I have been to tiger reserves all over India ever since I was a kid &  have seen tigers quite a few times. The sad part is that most of those sightings came at a time when I didn’t have a camera or had a camcorder which has some great video footage of tigers that I haven’t seen for years.( Another reason I don’t do video nowadays!)

The last few years I have had some pretty bad luck at Tiger reserves. A visit to Kanha where I had some great sightings on a previous visit went tiger less. A visit to Ranthambore in January was rained out. The only saving grace was a visit to Gir where I got some great photos of the Asiatic Lion. (Gir – Last Bastion of the Asiatic Lion)

Moreover the interest shifted more to bird photography as I found it to be more challenging and fruitful than chasing tigers in crowded tiger reserves. The visit to tiger reserves became rarer and rarer in recent years. ( That there is no blog post on it means that I haven’t visited even one since 2015!) So when my friend suggested a visit to Pench National Park in May I jumped at the opportunity. I asked my Dad if he would like to join us, knowing that he enjoys this sort of stuff & he readily agreed.

Pench National parks straddles two states, Maharashtra & Madhya Pradesh. The Touria  Sector in Madhya Pradesh is better known for sightings as well as tourism facilities. ( Though Maharashtra & the Sillari gate has also become well known for sightings in the recent years.) MP Tourism has been an old favourite of mine I love their hotels for their location, facilities and delicious food. More importantly booking is easy online! So we booked a room at the Kipling Court for our stay in Pench.

In recent years the safari visits need to be booked online and there are limited vehicles allowed in a particular sector. So the first thing I did after confirming the dates was book the safaris at the which is the official site of the MP government and one of the better government run sites in India. Everything was set and soon it was time for us to leave.

We flew from Mumbai to Nagpur in the evening from where my friend had arranged for a car to take us to Pench which is 120 km away. The road however was under construction for much of the way, so it was a bumpy ride. 3 hours later we were at the Kipling court where we quickly checked in and slept off since we had an early morning safari the next day.

We were up and ready the next day when our jeep arrived to take us for our morning safari. Usually sightings in May are very good as the Tigers usually have to come to the lakes or waterholes for a drink. But as luck would have it we had unseasonal rains the previous evening with more predicted today. That meant that I lowered my already low expectations.

I am usually happy just to be in a forest. Add a good bird photo or two and I am set, the prospect of not sighting a cat doesn’t get to me like it does to most people on a safari. Its just the added cherry on a sundae if it happens.

The weather was dull and cloudy, not ideal for photography at all. We reached the gate and there were just a few vehicles ahead of us. We got our guide allowed and soon we were inside the National Park.

With Anna & Ankit on a dull morning at Pench National Park

We first sighted a peacock lazily sitting by a waterhole. In this dull light a peacock is the only thing that looks bright and good.

A peacock at dawn in Pench National Park

The guide then took us to the spots where the resident tigers of the sector were last spotted. After driving around for an hour without any great luck and the weather not improving we decided that this wasn’t our day and asked the guide to take us to a place with birds instead. So we went to another waterhole (names of these holes are too much for me to remember and frankly useless information since you won’t remember it by its name anyway!) There were the usual water birds enjoying their breakfast. So it was good practice for the camera and fun all the same.

Egrets with their catch as the stilts look on
An egret proudly displays its catch
A grey heron displays its plumage before taking off.

A lonely jackal came to the waterhole for a drink scattering the birds at that end of the waterhole. We got a few shots before it scooted off again into the brush.

A lonely Jackal at the Waterhole.

We decided that was the cue for us to move on to and we resumed our forest wanderings. Dad spotted a Rock agama on a nearby rock and we had some fun photographing the lizard. As it that thought it was well camouflaged it didn’t run away and we got some decent photos.

A rock agama at Pench National Park

It was then time for breakfast at the centre point inside the park. Kipling court had packed and handed us a substantial.We next came across an Indian Roller, a common but photogenic bird and always a pleasure to photograph. The light wasn’t doing us any favours but a screeching roller deserves a shot or two.

A screeching roller in horrible light

Soon the morning safari came to an end and we hoped that it could only get better from here on since we had three safaris left. We returned to the hotel for a hot bath and a hot lunch.

The weather became deceptively clear after lunch and we got our hopes up. After a quick afternoon nap we were back inside the national park with our driver and guide. We sighted our first Sambar of the trip. We had sighted many spotted deer in the morning. But the light was far too poor to get any good photos. It was better when we spotted this Sambar family and we got a decent photo of  the curious fawn.

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Spotted Deer in the dull  light
A young Sambar fawn stares at the intruders

It was sunny now and soon across another roller sitting right on a branch over the road. It was an opportunity to see the magnificent underwing colours from close quarters and we decided to wait for it to fly away for photos of the same.

A Indian Roller right over head

It seemed to have more patience than we did and it continued to sit there taunting us. Funnily enough it nodded off and nearly slipped off its perch that gave us the photo that we needed without it flying off.

The roller almost slips off and displays its beautiful colours

We then moved on and were in a patch of dense forest till our guide spotted something and asked the driver to stop. Hiding inside the trees was a young jungle owlet. It looked just like a tree leaf and it was amazing how the guide spotted it. It was waiting for its mother and we got a good view of  the cute little bird.

A Juvenile Jungle Owlet in Pench

We decided to leave it in peace after a few minutes and moved only a few metres ahead when we spotted the mother on the opposite side of the road with her eye constantly on her baby. So we got two for the price of one.

The mother jungle owlet has its eye on her baby

That put a smile on my face as these birds are usually difficult to spot unlike their cousins, the spotted owlet that I enjoy photographing every time I’m in Bharatpur.

As we moved on searching for the elusive cat another colourful bird made an appearance. This time it was the Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, another pretty little bird sitting around on a nearby branch. Needing no invitations we got a few photos.

A Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher in Pench

After this the weather turned for the worse rapidly. It went from sunny to cloudy to rainy in minutes. We decided to cut our safari short by a few minutes as it was not worth risking all the photography gear that we had. So we returned to the Kipling court disappointed at having our safari cut short.

Also heavy rains meant that the chances of sightings the next day at the waterholes decreased too. Nothing we could do about it though. So we mused about the day that went by and the day to come over a glass (or two!) of cold beer.

Having a cold beer after a bad weather day at Pench National Park

We all hoped and prayed that it would get better the next day. It would certainly get better on our second day, but not in the way we expected. But that is the story for another post , another day.

Till then.







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