Report: Wildlife of Lonar and Nagzira-Navegaon Tiger Reserve, November 2018

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

A mating pair of Tiger in Nagzira – good signs in a crucial, albeit somewhat troubled NNTR landscape

This report is based on a natural history oriented tour to the meteor-impact formed Lonar Lake and the Nagzira/Navegaon/Koka wildlife landscape – both lesser visited locations in the vast, central Indian state of Maharashtra. Follow links for map of tour locations and complete picture gallery

Dates: 11th to 17th November 2018

Highlights at Nagzira-Navegaon-Koka (NNTR) included a very private sighting of a (mating) pair of tigers, Indian Rock Python, Malabar Tree Shrew, Mottled Wood Owl, Indian Scops Owl, a Crested Hawk Eagle feeding on a Sambar carcass, good forest birdlife, and beautiful, relatively quiet (fewer tourists) mixed deciduous forests – with large parts seemingly, atypically, previously unexploited for timber. The overnight visit to Lonar, was somehow underwhelming, despite its unique geological history – but there were still interesting sights to be enjoyed such as the scenic birds eye view of the lake from the rim, waders around the alkaline edges of the lake, evidence of Leopard presence and various temples, both in ruins and otherwise, with mythological links to the landscape. It is always a pleasure visiting locations where tourist footfalls are minimal and both these locations were charmingly bereft (at least on weekdays) of large numbers of visitors, making for a more ‘organic’ travel experience.

Detailed Report

While the original plan was to somewhat elegantly combine a visit to Lonar with an exploration of the reputedly scenic Melghat Tiger Reserve (in the Satpura range west of Nagpur), due to lack of information/availability of accommodation at the latter location, I decided to visit the more distant NNTR landscape instead. Details below, as things panned out eventually: 

11th November, Lonar: 

We left Aurangabad early on a cool, wintery morning – first stop (post road side breakfast of Upma and Matki)  a brief visit to Ellora Caves – a UNESCO World Heritage Site of monastic-temple cave complex, dating back to the 600 CE (more information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellora_Caves). The caves are located among sparsely wooded Basalt hills of the Deccan Traps which can be incidentally interesting for wildlife (I saw several Five-striped Palm Squirrel, Common Langur, Blue Rock Thrush, Dusky Crag Martin, Common Woodshrike, Ruddy Shelduck among commoner birds, with very little effort). 

After the brief visit to Ellora, we were back on the (varied quality) road for a 3 hour drive East, through a scarred, agriculture dominated landscape. En-route we stopped for a lip-smacking, local style vegetarian lunch at the Rajput Highway Restaurant. We reached Lonar* late afternoon and after a brief rest at the MTDC resort on the edge of the crater lake, I walked down 150 vertical metres on stony, steep path to the lake at the bottom, with a guide in tow, on a warm afternoon. The crater walls were covered with rocky scrub, with a ring of deciduous woodland where the land flattens out towards the barren shores of the lake. While not especially productive, there was some bird activity, including Green Beeeater, Eurasian Collared, Laughing and Spotted Doves, Phylloscopus and Sylvia warblers, Indian Silverbill, Common Iora in the forest and Black-winged Slilt and Wood Sandpiper in the lake. Although the modest woodland around the lake is known to host Striped Hyena, Wild Boar and even Leopard, we did not see any mammals apart from a large roost of Indian Flying Fox, Northern Plains Langur and Five-striped Palm Squirrel The flat land surrounding the lake was peppered with temples at various stages of ruin. 

A birds-eye view of the bowl-shaped Lonar from the crater rim

A late evening exploration of the MTDC campus’s woodland and walk along the road, adjacent to the crater rim was not especially productive, barring for Spotted Owlet. Dinner was a muted affair and rather disappointing in quality – typical north Indian fare with a local touch, but obviously only catering to the chore of getting a meal under the belt! The night was reasonably restful in a comfortable, albeit in need of better maintenance, air-conditioned double room, at MTDC Lonar.  

12th November, Lonar-Amaravati-Nagpur:

Was woken up by eerie cackles on a cool, misty morning, imagining, in a half awake state that there might be Striped Hyena around. Peering out of the windows and a quick look around, however, did not reveal the source. Later the guide clarified that the ghastly sound was from a laughing club that meets in the vicinity – I though, rather out of place in this quaint little town of Lonar! At the 630 AM, sans morning wake-me-ups (the kitchen at the resort does not cater to early risers), we set out to the lake, retracing the path from the last evening. En-route, Spotted Owlet, juvenile Indian Hawk Cuckoo, Red-throated Flycatcher, Black Redstart, Laughing Dove, Sylvia sp., Laughing Dove, Iora, Oriental While-eye, Purple Sunbird, Bay-backed Shrike, Shikra and a birds-eye view of the lake from close to the crater rim. Along the shores  – the water so still, it was glasslike –  there were numerous Black-winged Stilt and Wood Sandpiper, among Northern Shoveler, Common and Green Sandpipers, Yellow and White Wagtails and Little and Common Ringed Plovers – an early winter representation of a more robust birdlife that the lake attracts during the season. The lake itself is known to be both saline and alkaline (as the guide demonstrated with a pH indicator). On the way back, close to the woodland, there was Leopard scat and pug marks, Northern Plains Langur, Jungle Babbler and Rose-ringed Parakeet. 

Black-winged stilt reflected against the glass-like stillness of the lake 

Later that morning, post breakfast of rather insipid Poha and Omelette at the MTDC Resort, we visited a couple of temples tied to the mythology of the location. This included a Hanuman temple close to the Amber lake, formed on hollow created by a splinter of the meteor that formed Lonar. It was a pre-lunch departure for a relaxed 5 hr drive to the Amaravati Railway Station to board a train to Nagpur. For naturalists travelling in this region, Amaravati is the closest big town to the Melghat Tiger Reserve, but could not visit this time due to some logistical issues.

13th November, Old Nagzira: 

Old Nagzira’s attractive mixed deciduous forest

A relaxed start to the morning towards Nagzira Nature Camp – my base to explore the NNTR landscape over the next 4 days. It took a drive of approximately 2.5 hours East of Nagpur, through largely agricultural landscape to reach the edge of the forest and about 15 mins from there to the accommodation. A brief rest and it was time for the first Safari, when the gates open at 2.40 PM. The entrance was somewhat crowded that afternoon (being a holiday associated with Diwali), but still not comparable to the popular tiger parks of Central India. The safari route towards Nagzira’s Centre Point is through strikingly tall trees and lush undergrowth (somewhat uncharacteristic for this region) in a mixed deciduous forest. It was a quiet evening for fauna, but perfect to hang back and appreciate this beautiful forest of Arjun, Mahua, Tendu, Terminalia sp., Ghera, Teak and patches of Bamboo in rocky areas, its sounds and other signs of its denizens (not so easy to appreciate when teeming crowds of tourists want you to get out the way in a frenzy to see Tigers as in more popular parks). The modest number of mammal sightings were mostly in the grasslands around the Central Point, and included just three larger species (Northern Plains Langur, Chital and Sambar Deers). Birdlife* included Indian Grey Hornbill, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Greater Racked-tailed Drongo and Jungle Owlet among commoner species of peninsular India. 

A chance sighting of the uncommon Indian Rock Python just after exiting the park late in the evening

14th November, Old Nagzira/Koka: 

An early start, on a cold morning, to arrive at the gate by 550 AM (opens 6 AM). The safari route was identical to the previous evening, bar an exploration of the so called “Tiger Trail” originating at the Centre Point. The highlight sighting of the morning was of a pair of, not so commonly seen, Southern Tree Shrew, busily feeding among trees – difficult subjects to photograph given how restless they were. Sightings also included Gaur (this landscape if known for large numbers), Sambar Deer, NP Langur, several pug marks of Leopard, of a Male Tiger and solitary Sloth Bear, on the safari roads around Centre Point. Birdlife was typical of peninsular forests and included a Changeable Hawk Eagle feeding on a Sambar Carcass, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle in a regular spot near the Centre Point and some winter visiting passerines.  When the sun was higher, on the return back, there were several butterflies (ID?), mud-puddling along the road. 

An early start to the evening safari to reach the gate to enter Koka WLS (a connected forest to NNTR). The drive through varied terrain took 1.5 hrs from the Nagzira Jungle Camp. The forest here was clearly more disturbed/sparser than at Nagzira, with seemingly younger monocultures of  Teak, Garadi and Palash, interspersed with a couple of large water bodies surrounded by grassland. While, reputedly a good zone for Sloth Bear, mammal sightings were poor here, with just a few langur, a solitary Chital and 2 Nilgai (we did see Leopard and Wild Dog spoor though). Birdlife was interesting with sightings of White-eyed Buzzard, Mottled Wood and Indian Scops Owl, White-browed Fantail,  Black-naped Monarch and Red-breased Flycatcher among commoner species. 

15th November, Navegaon: 

A very early (4 AM!), cold start, to spend the day at the distant Navegaon* – a good 2 hr drive southeast from NJC. First impressions on entering the forest – lovely, hilly, mixed forest, with patches of bamboo, some what reminiscent of the uplands in Kanha. A large reservoir forms one of the boundaries of the park, with numerous migratory waterfowl and swamp associated birdlife, such as Cotton Pygmy Goose, Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis and Lesser Whistling Teal among miscellaneous, too distant to identify, ducks. Mammal sightings were modest – with just Gaur, Langur and Rhesus Macaque – as has been the pattern in this entire landscape – and murmurs from the local guides suggest that much of this has to do with rampant hunting and disturbance from nearby villages in this human-dominated landscape. 

A 3 hour or so mid-day break to wait out the heat of the day and get some lunch in the process was productive for some delicious steamed-water chestnuts (locally singada) and the sour, fleshy ‘amraas’ fruit, by the lake side. Lunch, hoping for local fare, was at a highway Dhaba a few KM from the lake (we passed up on a joint selling Jowar Roti by the lake side and a few homely looking diners enroute, for this). For someone not too fussy about restaurant appearances, this one definitely jolted awake my sensibilities associated with fine dining. Here it was difficult to tell where the dining began and the kitchen ended, not to mention the pantry and washing areas, with the floor littered with stuff that could happily be at home in all of the above. Plodded on all the same, since the driver and guide swore by the anda curry, and ordered rotis and aloo gobi. Was served a dish with cauliflower florets floating in oil (suspect they misheard the order as oily gobi) – vegetarian (the anda curry was apparently quite good, possibly even better, if you can tune out the neighbourhood) food clearly not the forte of this joint.
Back to peace at Navegaon WLS, post lunch, for a safari until darkness – this time via the Koli Gate. Apart from seemingly healthy mixed forests, this route also followed promising grasslands (former villages), which looked like great habitat for herbivores if managed with that objective. However still only modest luck with sightings, but at least 3 herds of Gaur this time. As has been typical to Nagzira and here, the forests where filled with Giant Wood Spider – their webs (reputedly strong enough to capture small birds) spread between virtually, every available tree. 

*for those wishing to combine a visit here with Nagzira (like I did), I suggest that you find an accommodation closer to Navegaon (MTDC has a resort for example), due to the distances involved

16th November, Old/New Nagzira:

A foggy start to the morning – ours being the only vehicle at the Chorkamara gate (entrance to Old Nagzira) at opening time. There were undisturbed pug marks/spoor on the road this morning (Sloth Bear, Leopard, Jungle Cat), possibly from overnight or earlier, given the previous day was a weekly ‘no safari day’ in this zone. After a quiet ride, charmed by the early morning forest, blissfully sans other tourists, a Brown Fish Owl showed up around one of the overflow streams from the reservoir at Centre Point. Prompted by the driver, turning to the other side, just about 50 feet away, an adult tigress lying on the grass! The animal, stayed put in the open but was was obviously wary of our presence. Strange grunts emanated from the undergrowth, followed by the male – quite agitated apparently on having their privacy disturbed. A mating pair, wary (the male especially nervous) largely remaining in the vicinity, until more vehicles piled up noisily, chasing the pair away deep into the undergrowth, to culminate among the most personally satisfying tiger observations thus far. Further on, the safari continued off the beaten track onto a hilly, very scenic route (Satmudi towards Murpar Gate) from Circle Road. The aside complete, there was not much much luck barring commoner birds and mammals seen on earlier outings. 

That evening, in a quest to explore new parts of the park (and to avoid any potential crowds following the news of the morning’s tiger sightings), we visited the New Nagzira Range. The route took us through Gaipuri Water Springs towards the highpoint at Chandi Dibba, via exciting hill forests. The forests here were subtly different as well, with a lot more undergrowth, Teak domination (in the flats) and bamboo. Both mammal and bird sightings were subdued – despite the anticipation provided by the intimate forest and several instances of leopard spoor. Visitors to Old Nagzira – many of the here due to the buzz created by the AM tiger sighting – the same evening, were treated to views of the mating Tigers, a Leopard and Dhole hunting Sambar around the lake at Centre Point! 

Grey-headed Fish Eagle in a favourite perch near Centre Point

17th November, Old Nagzira:

The final safari largely exploring formerly trodden routes of Old Nagzira. There were fresh Tiger pug marks, a glimpse of the tiger pair in the vicinity of the previous sighting, several herds of Sambar, Nilgai, Indian Scops Owl, Orange-headed Thrush, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and Greenish Warbler (among other regular denizens) to see us off. An about average safari to culminate an interesting visit to a jungle landscape that holds many treasures, a crucial link in the tiger corridor connecting Kahna/Pench to the north and Tadoba to the south but in desperate need for better protection to reach its potential. 

List of Birds Seen

Ellora

Blue Rock Thrush
Dusky Crag Martin
Ruddy Shelduck
Common Woodshrike

Lonar

Green Beeeater
Eurasian Collared Dove
Spotted Dove
Laughing Dove
Common Pigeon
Phylloscopus sp.
Sylvia warbler sp
Indian Silverbill
Common Iora
Black-winged Slilt
Wood Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Spotted Owlet
Taiga Flycatcher
Common Hawk Cuckoo
Black Redstart
Jungle Prinia
Oriental White-eye
Purple Sunbird
Common Peafowl
Bay-backed Shrike
Shikra
Northern Shoveler
Indian Spot-billed Duck
Indian Pond Heron
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Oriental Darter
Indian Cormorant
Red-rumped Swallow
Great Tit
Indian Roller
Large Grey Babbler
Yellow Wagtail
White Wagtail
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover

Nagzira-Navegaon-Koka

Jungle Babbler
Red-vented Bulbul
Scaly-breasted Munia
White-rumped Munia’
House Sparrow
Common Pigeon
Spotted Dove
Oriental Whiteeye
Small Minivet
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
Black-naped Monarch
White-browed Fantail
Rufous Treepie
White-bellied Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Ashy Drongo
Plum-head Parakeet
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Alexandrine Parakeet
Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker
Yellow-crowned Woodpecker
Orange-headed Thrush
Yellow-footed Green Pigeon
Red-wattled Lapwing
Common Peafowl
Oriental Magpie Robin
Indian Grey Hornbill
Green Beeeater
Eurasian Hoopoe
Jungle Owlet
Mottled Wood Owl
Spotted Owlet
Indian Scops Owl
Brown Fish Owl
Crested Hawk Eagle
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
White-eyed Buzzard
Green Sandpiper
Sulphur-bellied Warbler
Greenish Warbler
Syke’s Warbler
Grey-breasted Prinia
Black Hooded Oriole
Indian Golden Oriole
Grey Junglefowl
Cattle Egret
Great Egret
Indian Pond Heron
Grey Heron
Indian Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Little Grebe
Bronze Winged Jacana
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Asian Openbill
Black-headed Ibis
Lesser Whistling Duck
Cottom Pygmy Goose
Brown-headed Barbet
Golden-fronted Leafbird
Wire-tailed Swallow
White-throated Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Oriental Darter
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Greater Coucal
Common Myna
Jungle Myna

Nomenclature as per Grimmet, R., Inskipp, P. & Inskipp, T., 2011, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Helm Field Guides. ISBN: 019565155-3

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