Gujarat Road Trip , Part 7 – Saying goodbye to Velavadar

This is the concluding post of a series documenting our travels to a small part of Gujarat in November 2021. We had just had a great day in Velavadar full of great sightings and equally good photos and were looking forward to another day of the same. (Gujarat Road trip, Part 6 – A glorious evening at Velavadar- Of Wolf and Cat! ) It was also our wedding anniversary on that day. We had originally planned to return to Africa for our 10th anniversary but the pandemic had laid waste to those plans. International travel still looks like a distant dream so there was no place better than a beautiful National Park like Velavadar to spend our special day.

We woke up early as is the norm at any national park and Haji was ready with piping hot tea for us to get us ready for the morning safari. I had booked an open gypsy that morning just for a change from taking our own vehicle into the park. We entered the wetlands part just as the sun was starting to rise in the slightly overcast skies. We have a penchant for attracting unseasonal rains wherever we go and I was certainly hoping that we wouldn’t be rained upon while in an open Jeep.

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A slightly overcast sunrise at Velavadar

We had just entered the park when we were greeted by a herd of blackbucks. One young buck stood out among them due to its pale colour. It was a foal with leucism (Not Albino as I have been taught by multiple people – albino animals have pink/red eyes due to absence of melanin, animals with leucism retain their normal eye colour). Needless to say it made a fine subject in the soft light of dawn.

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A blackbuck foal with leucism

After that great start we moved forward only to stop a few metres ahead. A male Montague’s Harrier was sitting on the ground waiting for the sun to rise to start soaring. I took a lot of photos inspite of the less than ideal light, since male harriers were in short supply the previous day and I wondered if this was the last male I would be seeing today. He got tired of the attention being showered on him and took off after a couple of minutes.

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A male Montague’s Harrier takes off

Early morning is the time when birds are most active and since we were the first vehicle into the park it was more likely to get the birds closer to the track before they get spooked by the vehicles and fly farther into the grassland. We were lucky enough to see a pair of common cranes and a painted stork just next to the track posing nicely for the camera.

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A pair of Common Cranes pose nicely in the golden light

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A painted stork poses in the golden sunlight

Thankfully that male Montague’s wasn’t the last one we spotted. That day it seemed like all the males had come to show me that they were indeed there and pose for me.I certainly wasn’t complaining and I filled up my cards giving me some great photos of a beautiful raptor.

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The Male Montague’s Harrier in all its glory

Velavadar isn’t just about the Raptors and the Wolves. There are small birds that are not that glamorous or colourful and hence get ignored by most people in the constant search for a predator. While I certainly am guilty of that on many occasions myself, I make sure that I stop and take photos of these birds especially when they pose and preen right in front of you. So that morning the stonechats, prinias, larks, rosy starlings and even pond herons got their due!

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A stone chat poses on its perch

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A plain prinia finds a spot on a thorny bush

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A crested lark poses on the track right in front of us

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A solitary Rosy Starling

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A pond heron waits patiently for its prey

The raptors were there too and even though I had good photos of most of them earlier, no opportunity for more was ignored. There is nothing like too many good bird photos, at least not to me!

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A marsh harrier close to the track

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A white eyed buzzard about to land on a perch

The same thing that happens to the small birds happens to the Nilgais. All the attention is on the Blackbucks jumping around looking all graceful, leaving the more bulkier Nilgai ignored.But when you have a Nilgai couple staring right at you or see a young female prancing in the grass it it very difficult to ignore.

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The Nilgai stares right at me

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A young Nilgai shows me that it can sprint too!

We returned to the Kaliyar Bhavan for a quick breakfast before returning to the park and making a beeline for the waterbodies. We got down from our vehicle as usual and took more photos of the usual customers. The Flamingos were there in full strength and glistening in the morning sunlight. The spot billed ducks were easily spooked though and flew off just as we emerged on the embankment.

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Spot billed Ducks don’t like our intrusion in their space

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Flamingos in all their pink glory

We were having fun watching a Drongo pester a marsh harrier when Vishal our guide showed us something that we had missed. On the far bank sitting in the sunlight was a lone Wolf. We waited to see where it would move but it appeared content to sit there. It was too far for photos so we just stood and watched it. A stray bull appeared to try to help us and get the wolf to move. The Wolf did get up but settled down a bit farther, safe just in the case the bull charged at it. This I had to take photos of! We had seen a Wolf on every Safari, one couldn’t ask for more.

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A Drongo pestering a Marsh Harrier

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A bull makes the Wolf move

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Both of them decide that the distance between them is safe enough – Social distancing in the Wild!

We then decided to go to the grassland side and see if we could spot ourselves a Jungle Cat since it was warm and sunny now and they have a habit of basking in the sun. We searched around for a long time and were about to end our morning Safari when we saw a Jungle Cat walking on the track right in front of us.

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A jungle cat walking on the track at Velavadar

It jumped into the grass as we approached. We slowed our vehicle and stopped short of where it had jumped inland waited. Sure enough after a few minutes the Jungle Cat stepped out and crossed the track right in front of us. The only thing missing was it looking right at us, but at least I had photos of the feline from close quarters.

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A Jungle Cat crosses the track right in front of us

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The Cat gives us a half look before running off into the tall grass

It was the perfect end to our morning Safari and we returned to the Kaliyar Bhavan and rested for some time on the porch of our dormitory room. I was kept entertained by the drongos, wagtails and larks who went about searching for their meals as hours was being prepared by Haji and his Family.

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A lark forages for insects at the Kaliyar Bhavan

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A drongo with its locust meal

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A daring desert locust poses for the camera

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My friend the Wagtail at Velavadar – Always ready with a pose

A hot meal and a much needed nap later we were back in the park for our last safari at Velavadar. We had decided to go with our own Vehicle as Vishal had assured us that he would drive and give us the same photographic opportunities as a gypsy by manoeuvring the vehicle. We started off with a Montague’s Male greeting us on the track and Vishal turned the Innova perfectly to give me direct line of sight of the bird on the track.

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A Montague’s Harrier on the track

I had booked the gypsy in the morning to take photos of blackbucks jumping across the road but we hadn’t come across a major herd crossing that morning. I had asked Vishal to seek out a big herd near the track and just stop hoping for some good tracking shots. Vishal being amazingly good at his job did just that and parked the car in such a way that I had the best opportunity of catching the blackbucks jumping across the track. The D500 did the rest!

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Blackbuck herd crossing the track – My Favourite part of coming to Velavadar

It was great watching them prance across and one after the other most of the huge herd crossed the track leaving me with a huge smile. We moved forward and stopped again to take some backlit photos. The young blackbuck looking straight at me made it all worth it.

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A backlit photo of the herd crossing

We then went in search of the Eagle Owl that is usually found in a cluster of tall trees in the middle of the grassland. We weren’t in luck , Vishal said that the Owl had become less frequent after a new watch tower had been built right next to this cluster of trees. I wonder who makes these decisions! We still got some spectacular photos of the Crested Lark, the Bay Backed Shrike and a Black Shouldered Kite in those parts. So it wasn’t a total waste.

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A crested lark poses very close to the vehicle

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A Bay Backed Shrike amidst the thorny shrubs

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No Eagle Owl, but at least we got great photos of a Black Shouldered kite

We also got a great sighting of a Flock of Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse. These are extremely timid birds and they flew off the moment after they saw us approaching.

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A flock of Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse

The winter sun had begun to wane and we went to the wetlands part hoping that we would get some good sightings before saying goodbye to Velavadar. The golden sunlight of dusk is as magical as that of dawn and in the morning it was a Male Montague’s Harrier , in the evening it was a female. Perfect light, perfect perch, perfect photo!

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A female Montague’s Harrier in the Golden light at Dusk

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The winter sun starts to set at Velavadar

Then we got what we wanted, first a beautiful fully grown male Blackbuck posed for a portrait so close to the vehicle. I was so surprised that it didn’t run off that I almost missed the shot. Thankfully I recovered my wits in time to get a good photo.

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A male blackbuck poses close to the vehicle

Once more at dusk we saw the Jungle cat on the road. This time it was closer and Vishal moved the vehicle at a perfect speed not spooking it. The cat moved off the road but thankfully the patch was devoid of grass and we got close. Then it happened! The cat turned and looked right at us. Thankfully the D500 didn’t fail me and I had the photo that I will remember this trip by.

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The Jungle Cat walking on the track at Dusk

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The Jungle Cat turns and gives me the photo I had been hoping for

Velavadar still wasn’t done with us. It was almost dark now and we heard howling.It was a lone Wolf again. Though amidst the grass and in near darkness, it had come to say goodbye. At least that is how I perceive it. I took a few grainy record shots before exiting the park.

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The Lone Wolf comes to say goodbye

We returned to the Kaliyar Bhavan after stopping once again to say hi to the spotted owlets in the concrete pillars.

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The resident Owlet makes its customary appearance

We had an early dinner and walked around the compound, it had been a great anniversary spent in one of my favourite parts of our diverse country. I took the chance to try taking photos of the moon handheld and came away surprised. I made a mental note to try this again some full moon night.

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Handheld moon photos with the D500

We woke up the next morning ready to start our return journey back to Mumbai. We spent a few more minutes on what was now our regular bench at the edge of the park with an Indian Robin couple for company.

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A Male Indian Robin sings for us at dawn

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A Female Indian Robin gives us company

We had spent a magnificent 7 days on this road trip and enjoyed every minute of it. We said goodbye to Haji and his family after yet another tasty breakfast and thanked them for their hospitality. It is one of the reasons that make me return to Velavadar and I hope I will meet them again someday soon.

We set off on our 10 hour drive back.  I hadn’t stowed my camera away just yet and I was justified in that when I got a good photo from the road of two blackbucks standing in their kingdom saying goodbye.

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Blackbucks saying bye!

We returned home tired but with great memories of another road trip. The pandemic had made us change how we travelled but we had found a way to still have fun.

As I write this the pandemic is on the wane& I hope to start  travelling more often and return with a new series from a different place. Fingers and toes crossed!

Till then,

Bye.

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