Queuing up for entry to the park at 6.30am was a different experience to that at Kanha, partly because it was Saturday, and also due to the different operating of the parks. There did seem to be many more jeeps – at least 20 – all queuing in their respective ranks and looking to vie for the best entry slot. The half light was barely breaking and the first few Spotted Deer spotted, when the jeep in front of us stopped next to the stream to the right of the track (some jeeps had already taken off further into the park) due to the emergence of an impressive Tigress. This was the cue for a driving frenzy, with all the drivers striving for pole position. No track courtesy here then! We found ourselves in a fortunate position, due to the early quick departure of some of the jeeps, who by default then missed the Tiger, leaving ourselves and one other jeep at the head of the herd, with the Tiger crossing the track directly in front of us. This left the rest craning their necks for views, leading to at least one metallic thud as a pair of bumpers collided. With the light still struggling, we gorged on the animal as she slowly made her way into the bush.
We then spent a couple of hours combing the numerous different types of habitat that Bandhavgarh has to offer, encountering numerous small groups of Spotted Deer, and lower numbers of Sambar Deer. Primates at this time of the morning were few and far between. A particularly classy spot was an open meadow with the hills behind, catching the early morning light as it painted the open plains. Apart from an early Indian Grey Hornbill, birds outside of the usual plethora of Jungle Babblers and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos were hard to find. A few possible Asian Palm Swifts were over the open areas (although closer inspection may have revealed them as Crested Treeswifts), and the odd White-bellied Drongo was chanced upon. Parakeets were numerous, with those seen well mainly being Rose-ringed, with the odd Alexandrine.
After trying to sort out a medium sized raptor on an exposed dead tree, which was likely to be White-eyed Buzzard, we stopped for morning tea at a minor hub of commercialisation that is the Central Point, where the local villagers had set up a hot spot to sell tea and nibbles for a pittance of a price (eg 5 rupees for a tea) to the many jeeps parking up. Primates began to increase in numbers following our stop – all Langurs – and we did encounter one or two making alarm calls, which unfortunately didn’t result in Tiger sightings. After passing singles of Oriental Magpie Robin and Indian Robin, we stopped at a spot which had commanding views of the surrounding hills, one with accompanying temple at its peak, and Shikra circling above. We continued to pass regular groups of Spotted Deer scattered throughout the bush, and not too far from the exit to the park stumbled behind a Tiger jam of jeeps. The half a dozen or so vehicles were gorging on a magnificent male Tiger, which had selected its sunbathing spot well. We studied him for some time, albeit noting his main exercise was to flick his ears at the annoying flies. Almost at the exit, we stopped at a tree next to the track to eyeball a pair of Mottled Wood Owls, which no doubt have a regular entourage of jeeps doing exactly the same thing.
This turned out to be a tremendous session, centred around one male Tiger. After finally sifting out Plum-headed Parakeet while on the starting position at the main gate, we headed on to our allotted route, nodded cursorily at the pair of Mottled Wood Owls in their favoured roosting tree, notched up our first 5 Wild Boar for the park, then turned off in the direction of the morning view of the resting male Tiger. A Ruddy Mongoose provided a suitable distraction on this short track, as it crossed in front of us some distance away, to be then pinned down with half views in the undergrowth. As we passed the location where the Tiger had been lying, I made the comment that it would have been nice to see it stand up and walk away, when we were beckoned by another jeep metres ahead of us, watching the same impressive beast now lying in the middle of the track, totally unconcerned at our presence. He remained almost motionless for a short time, before standing up to demonstrate his bulk, before slowly meandering further down the track and into the forest. Not to be outwitted, the guides felt they could guess where it would come out of the trees again, so we made some pace to what was apparently an off limits part of the reserve. It only took a matter of minutes before we were treated to a second helping. After some indecision on his part, the Tiger decided to cross the track between the two jeeps and back into the forest once more.
We weren’t surprised when the guides again felt the confidence of predicting the Tiger’s intended route, so we made a loop to the double crossing of a dry river bed, picking up other jeeps on route. Our new positioning had been immaculate, since the driver had turned the jeep in the opposite direction to the half a dozen or so others in wait, and the Tiger reappeared from the dry river in our direction, at first parallel in the bush, and then in the centre of the track in front of us. The positioning meant that we were one of the two jeeps at the head of the cavalcade, in what turned out to be a free for all, with each individual driver trying to steam past into the pole viewing position. However, we somehow kept at the head of this as the Tiger progressed along the dusty track – stock car racing in the wild (not a pretty sight!). It was fortunate that the Tiger paid no attention to this grim spectacle, since there seemed to be scant respect in the other direction. I was pleased to see that our driver/guide combo kept a reasonable distance from the animal, until overtaken by more aggressive drivers, who cut off along the forest edges. The Tiger again re-entered the forest, after which we found ourselves and the group of jeeps in an open area again waiting for a re-appearance. Whilst here, an overflying Alexandrine Parakeet gave notice of a small group of circling Indian Vultures. This was a slightly surprising yet welcome sighting, bearing in mind the crash in vulture populations in the country following the use of antibiotics in cattle. After a short sojourn a little further along, we came back to this spot, to find the Tiger once again in the open for the fourth and last time.
We then started to appreciate the more common mammals of the park again, with an impressive view of a group of Spotted Deer and Langurs, collected under a tree in superb backlight, After a short diversion to marvel at some ancient caves and a statue of one of the Hindu gods, we stopped briefly to look on to a waterhole, where a few male Peafowl were strutting their stuff, and a Lesser Adjutant stalked around the rear. We had just enough time to admire a family trio of Sambar Deer next to the track, at a small pool taking in a drink in the fading afternoon light.