We gathered around the jeep at 6.15 in the morning at Chitvan Lodge, with the air still very cold, so we were wrapped up in arctic gear. The proffering of a blanket and hot water bottle each wasn’t over-egging the temperatures, since both came in very useful during the first half hour of the excursion. Chitvan Lodge is very conveniently located only about 4km from the entrance to the park, leaving a short journey of around 10 minutes or so. We were greeted by the sight of a handful of jeeps lined up at the gate, all waiting for their allocated park guide. Our jeep now contained the driver, guide from the lodge, park guide, and two other guests from Chitvan Lodge. We entered the park with great expectations and cold faces, made even colder by the wind chill of the moving vehicle.
After 5-10 minutes, we came across the Central Point, where the jeeps tend to gather to find out if the early riding mahouts on their elephants had found any resting Tigers. By this time, we had passed some small herds of grazing Spotted Deer alongside the track. The light by this time was strengthening, and it was obvious that Common Mynas and Rufous Treepies were abundant throughout the forest, as well as vociferous Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. The presence of fire lines were pointed out to us – artificial cuts through the trees which act as fire breaks, but which are also used by a lot of the wildlife as artificial corridors. This was a poignant comment, since after stopping at the second or third power line for 5-10 minutes, we were ridiculously fortunate to spot a Tiger slowly padding its way towards us. It took a short cut through the trees as it approached, exiting on the track directly behind us. We had passed a couple of forest workers along this very track earlier, and the Tiger paused to eyeball them when she spotted them before deciding they were the wrong shape for brunch, following which she re-entered the forest.
The guides then took the correct decision that she was going to follow a predictable route along more fire lines, when we arched around her presumed route to try to intercept her progress. A short wait transpired before the alarm calls of a couple of Samba Deer indicated the likelihood of some good fieldwork, proving productive when the Tiger again emerged from the forest, eventually rounding the jeep to almost touching distance. And still she took no notice whatsoever of our presence. With this amount of luck, we drove further around the tracks, trying to intercept her for a third time, passing a group of 4 Spotted Deer on the way. The group contained a fawn, which may have been significant, since it didn’t take long for the same Tigress to show herself yet again, this time with a kill – a young Spotted Deer. As she slowly strolled into the forest, we tried to second guess her movements yet again, successfully watching her distant frame progress towards us along another fire line. She crossed the track just behind us this time, just after we had come across a group of 7 Gaur – the only ones we saw on the whole trip – again right next to the track, one of which was suckling a dependent calf.
With the mistaken belief that Tigers were perhaps a lot easier to see than earlier thought, our break at the Central Point found that no other jeep had seen a Tiger during the early part of the morning. Perhaps we should have guessed that we had been very fortunate with our experience by the delight that the experienced crew on our jeep had been showing – such a close animal and then with a kill are not everyday events! Once we were back on the tracks, a group of Barasinga, which are a rare speciality of the park, were easily spotted at one of the nearby watering holes, in the company of a small group of Spotted Deer. The latter were by far the most common mammal present, but we were surprised by the low numbers of Langurs so far. Shortly before exiting the park, we spotted a Jungle Cat on the track ahead of the jeep, although it disappeared into the forest before offering any prolonged views.
Birdlife was consistent throughout the morning, with Common Mynas and Jungle Babblers notably prevalent, often accompanied by Greater racket-tailed Drongos, Red Junglefowl were surprisingly easy to see, with 4-5 individuals seen throughout the morning, as well as a couple of pairs of Common Peafowl, which were startlingly glossy in the direct sunlight. A few water holes were passed, each seeming to possess its very own Little Cormorant and small group of wildfowl, usually consisting predominantly of Pintail and much lower numbers of Teal. One of the larger lagoons also held a quartet of Black Storks. 3 White-throated Kingfishers were sprinkled around the reserve. Smaller passerines were quite numerous but more often than not flyby’s. Those that could be identified included groups of Plain Prinias and Zitting Cisticolas near to the Barasinga site, and Siberian Stonechat in one of the open areas. 2 Crested Serpent Eagles were seen, one landing almost directly overhead while watching one of the lagoons. The second was circling the plains.
While we stopped for breakfast at the Central Point, one or two flitty birds were in the canopy, including Greenish Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Oriental White-eye and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. It appeared that a pair of Red-naped Ibis were in the process of constructing a nest. The temperature had soared as the morning progressed, rising to perhaps the mid twenties Celsius.
The afternoon session is a little shorter than the morning one at 3 hours (as compared with 5 hours), and it is also initially greeted by hot sunshine. The jeep was also lighter by 2 – the pair with us earlier had departed for Bandhavgarh. The resultant drive was very much different to that of the morning, but no less enjoyable. Since we had such stunning views of the Tiger, the guide tried to follow up promising signs of Leopard from earlier in the day (mainly in the form of pug marks). This is not an easy task, given the shy nature of this elusive cat, but we did stumble on our first Sambar Deer of the day. The birds continued to be dominated by Jungle Babblers and lesser numbers of Common Mynas, although we did find the first of 3 Jungle Owlets which were posing particularly well. Not to be outdone, we added a pair of Spotted Owlets to the list, both only feet apart from each other as we approached the Central Point, in what is likely to be a known stake out tree. Spotted Deer were here again, led by a bold and showy large stag.
Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was seeing a scurrying Ruddy Mongoose, which initially disappeared into the dense vegetation close to the jeep. We sat for some time and noticed what may have been the mongoose kill (appearing like the tail of a snake), after which the animal itself reappeared in the open directly in front of us, almost posing on a fallen tree trunk. The pool which had earlier held the Black Storks (still present) was even more active, with small numbers of Barasinga and playful Langurs. A group of 4 Wild Boar were nosing their way through the vegetation on the opposite side of the track at the margins of the smaller lagoon.
The air became decidedly colder again as the afternoon progressed, with the driver seeming to speed up somewhat to exit the park before the strict closing time. Once outside of the gate, and on the way back to the lodge, an Indian Hare bolted across the track in front of us.