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Old 1st April 2021, 22:42   #1
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Default Organic Holi Colours of Neora Valley

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Holi 2021 was a special affair for us since it involved the most beautiful and 'safe' colors to play with friends and family. The plan was indeed a sudden one and it was an indirect result of a cancelled trip to Pakke Tiger Reserve which was scheduled way back in April 2020 (due to the looming pandemic).
While we were weighing our options for a short Holi getaway, we had to factor in two constraints. With the sudden surge in number of cases across states, we didn't want to cross any state borders and we only had 3 days in hand since there was no holiday for me on Friday. Needless to say this was going to be a birding trip and Neora Valley near Kalimpong in West Bengal seemed like a perfect fit. Due to the paucity of time, we took to the skies for a short 45 minutes flight to Bagdogra (Siliguri) airport from Kolkata. I'm pretty sure I heard a sigh of despair from our trusted 2.2L mHawk 140 powerplant as 'Silver Surfer' looked somberly at the Uber which had come to pick us up for the airport drop.

The final plan looked something like this :

26th March 2021 -
Late afternoon flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra and transfer to Neora valley Jungle Camp (NVCJ)

27th March 2021 -
Full day birding near the camp and nearby hotspots

28th March 2021 -
Full day birding inside Neora valley National Park & Lava outskirts

29th March 2021 -
Morning session near Kolakham village and late evening flight from Bagdogra to Kolkata

Day 1

We were flying exactly after one year and the whole experience seemed strange. Security clearance was completed without even having to remove our hiking shoes. They didn’t ask me to open my camera backpack which contained a particularly ‘sinister’ looking lens. During 99% of normal flights, they make me open the backpack and then examine the lens closely. Thankfully our flight was on time and very soon we heard the captain’s voice echo through the cabin - ‘We are preparing for descent’. It was a very short flight of about 45-50 minutes and just like that our regular 12 hour driving pilgrimage to the gateway of North Bengal with a ton of unpredictable traffic jams, road blockages and moon-sized crater laden roads seemed to vanish behind us.

As our pickup vehicle started dashing towards the outlines of the not-so-distant mountains in the horizon, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I was finally going back to my happy place, one where I truly belonged.

Google Maps showed that it would take us almost 3.5 hours to reach Neora Valley Jungle Camp, located just above the Kolakham village. The road took us through the Fulbari-Dabgram route crossing Teesta Barrage at Gajoldoba and then rushed past the lush green tea estates of Gorubathan and Oodlabari. I had already driven along this beautiful stretch multiple times and I was itching to sit behind the steering wheel ! We finally reached our destination at around 8:30pm and our hosts at NVCJ were waiting with warm smiles and delightful cups of coffee.

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Our guide was already present at the premises and we quickly sat with him to discuss and finalize the next day’s plan.

In a matter of 3 hours, the ambient temperature had taken a deep plunge from 36 degrees to 12 degrees celsius and the hot chicken soup bowl right before the main course seemed like a luxury to cherish for the hungry birders.

We were put up in the ‘Niltava’ cottage which came with an exclusive attic for savoring gorgeous views of the mountain-next-door, Mt. Kanchenjunga !
Needless to say it was going to be one of the most peaceful naps, deep down somewhere in the woods of the blue planet. Pure bliss, I must say.

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Niltava Cottage

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NVCJ Entrance




Day 2

The day began early at 5:30am with the mellifluous songs of the minstrels of Nature. A bright blue Verditer Flycatcher had come to wish us good morning and was singing to us from a nearby tree branch. Although it's very common in that region, it is still an extremely beautiful bird to photograph from close quarters.

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Verditer Flycatcher

Our guide was waiting for us near the parking area and we promptly joined him on a walk along the main road that led towards the village. The very first visitor on that list was a Himalayan Bluetail, a bird easily identifiable by a streak of light blue along its tail. It is a migrant from the higher altitude region, sighted mostly during the months of March-April.

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Himalayan Blue-tail

The second bird to show up was also a high altitude migrant, a rufous-breasted Accentor.

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Rufous-breasted Accentor

As we continued along the path, we were greeted by several other beautiful species that included the likes of Rufous Sibia, Himalayan Shrike Babbler, Red vented Yuhinas, Nepal Fulvetta, Streak-throated barwing , Rufous-bellied Niltavaetc. They seemed to have a jolly time playing and foraging for food as the first rays of the sun started penetrating through the lush green canopy above. Since it was very early in the morning, there was absolutely no other sounds apart from the birdies calling out in myriad tunes. We carried on in silence, occasionally halting to capture their playful moods and activities.

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Rufous-bellied Niltava (our cottage was named after him)

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Red-vented Yuhina

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Rufous Sibia

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Nepal Fulvetta

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Himalayan Shrike babbler

Photographing birds or even birdwatching for that matter is difficult inside a thick forest since the birds are extremely hard to spot. Grasslands and water bodies are much more friendlier when it comes to spotting and photographing birds. While you're walking along a jungle trail, there's a high chance of birds taking shelter in the upper branches of the trees which is not exactly the ideal position to take a picture. Capturing a bird at an eye level is one of the fundamental guidelines in bird photography and that can prove to be quite a challenge on such jungle trails.

Sharing a few of the common birds which are omnipresent in that region -

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Buff-barred Warbler (imo)

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Green-backed Tit

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Striated bulbul

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Rufous-bellied Niltava (F)

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Lemon-rumped warbler(imo)

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Gray-winged blackbird

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Redstart (F)



The morning hike lasted for about 3 hours and we were back at the camp for breakfast by 9 am. Post breakfast we decided to visit a local birding & tourist hotspot - Changey Waterfalls.

As our driver was busy parking the Bolero, I spotted a dash of red flying away from a nearby tree branch. To my utter disappointment, I realized that I had missed the beautiful Maroon Oriole in its breeding plumage. It was a short but a sharp descent to the actual falls and by the time we reached the base of the waterfall, it was almost noon. I was expecting a tiny trickle and was amazed to see a full fledged waterfall rushing down in all its glory ! Our search for the Forktails proved to be futile as we could only spot one solitary Plumbeous water redstart frolicking along the wet stones.

While hiking back to the main road, we were lucky to spot a couple of Orange bellied Leafbirds and a Himalayan Shrike Babbler (female).

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We drove back to the camp before lunch and noticed that the manager was waiting anxiously for our arrival. His face was extremely grim and he conveyed that the Neora Valley National Park was closed to tourists due to an ongoing Biodiversity camp.

We were crestfallen on hearing this news because it meant that we had to miss out on an opportunity to get a glimpse of the super elusive Satyr Tragopan, which ranked first on our targeted list for this trip. The manager explained that this was highly unusual and it has only occurred once or twice in the past.

This meant we had to make fresh plans for the next day and we decided that we will try to connect with one of our known forest guards in order to seek some kind of a permission from him.


The afternoon session was mostly conducted near the Kolakham village where we came across a Golden throated barbet resting on a tree top. A black faced warbler soon followed along with a black throated sunbird , and an Olive-backed pippit.

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The weather was a bit cloudy and the evening set in earlier than usual due to the grey clouds mopping up the last rays of the setting sun. The last photos for the day were reserved for couple shots of a male and female Verditer Flycatcher and Fan-tailed Flycatcher.

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My father also spotted and photographed this beautiful orange bellied squirrel near the jungle camp main gate.

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Back at the hotel we spoke to our guide and also the hotel manager and asked them for alternative birding hotspots. We decided that we will visit Ladam Road near Lava and then after completing the morning session we will stop by the forest office and seek permission.

Last edited by turboNath : 10th April 2021 at 23:54.
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Old 7th April 2021, 09:09   #2
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Day 3

We reached the entry to the Ladam road at 7am and started the hike through an unpaved road. It is commonly referred to as the ‘Suicide Point’ by the locals and a tall net runs long the right side of the path. Although we could spot a lot of activity along the edge of the forest floor, the pictures were hard to click thanks to the metal mesh.

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We observed a highly active Sikkim Treecreeper running up and down the trunk of a huge tree.
A couple of Brown winged fulvettas were playing nearby. A flock of Chestnut crowned laughingthrushes went about their business as usual, oblivious to the mechanical shutters firing away like crazy. A lone grey headed canary Flycatcher was busy planning for his breakfast.

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We were so much engrossed in their observing activities that we almost missed out a star attraction - the green tailed Sunbird. Thankfully it obliged us with multiple poses while jumping from one branch to another. The early morning sun cast its bright glow on the iridescent patch of feathers adorning the magnificent bird.

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As we continued on the hike, we could hear almost a continuous call of a large Hawk Cuckoo. These birds are extremely vocal but are incredibly hard to spot since they are mostly found perched on top of tall trees. We did manage a record shot though.

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A little bit further away, there was a leaking black water pipe that ran through a canopy. This could potentially attract a lot of birds because the whole setup was perfect for their BAU activities ! After waiting for five to ten minutes, we were rewarded with a group of Whiskered Yuhinas which were busy hopping from one flower to another. Near this place, we also spotted a Pied Bushchat and a female Redstart.

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Our hosts had packed our breakfast since we wanted to stretch this session till noon and the fresh sandwiches along with fruit juice, boiled eggs & bananas tasted heavenly. The second half of the morning session was mostly uneventful and we didn’t spot too many species barring a couple of crested serpent eagles and a few warblers. Right before noon, we decided to pack up and visit the forest department office. Much to our disappointment, a solitary guard informed us that the office was closed since the last 4 days. And with that, all our hopes of feasting our eyes on the super elusive Satyr Tragopan came crashing down.

While we were returning back, my father managed to call one forest guard (who doubles up as the one of the best birding guide in the area) and asked him whether we could venture into the forest even for a very short hike. He suggested that we could walk along the ‘Pipeline trail’ which is a lesser known entry point to the National Park (the primary being ‘Choudaferi Gate’) for a bit and then return as soon as we encounter a bridge along the path. While the main forest was still out of bounds for us, this at least came as a consolation for us.

Post lunch, we headed to the pipeline trail which was around 1.5kms from the NVCJ property. Our driver dropped us at the metal barrier and then proceeded onto a ‘safe zone’ to park. Our guide was a bit anxious since there are multiple trap cameras inside the jungle and there was a slight probability that someone could possibly intercept us midway.

The trail was indeed a beautiful one, kind of raw and unexplored since most tourists avail the Choudaferi Gate. As we walked on, I casually remarked that these Trap cameras have captured a Tiger few months back in the vicinity. That comment seemed to spike up the thrill of adventure for all the birders on board which directly translated into heightened auditory & optical senses.

We reached the bridge after 15 minutes of hiking and stopped to take in the beauty of an ancient forest. On our walk back, we were lucky to spot a rare bird - the White-tailed Robin looking at us curiously from a distance. A few yards away, we came across a Gray-cheeked warbler with its unmistakable spectacle shaped eyes. At the next corner, we heard a familiar call and noticed a dash of yellow performing non stop acrobatics. It was a dear old friend, a tiny bird with a gigantic name - the Yellow bellied Fairy Fantail Flycatcher.


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We were also lucky to spot a flock of gorgeous Red-tailed Minla, chestnut tailed Minla and a solitary male large Niltava near the forest boundary.

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Red-tailed Minla (clicked by my father)

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Chestnut-tailed Minla (clicked by my father)

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Large Niltava (clicked by my father)


As we trekked out of the forest, our hearts & minds still lingered on between the light & shadows that played a constant game with the trees which were perhaps as old as the planet itself.

Day 4

The last day of our trip unfortunately arrived and there was only a single morning session left. While most of our group members wanted to take it easy and explore the camp property, I planned to take a walk down to the village through a Cardamom plantation with our guide in search of a few more attractions of Nature. The very first bird that came up to greet us was a hyper active Golden babbler, followed closely by the Fire breasted Flowerpecker. It was extremely difficult to capture them from close quarters and hence I had to settle for a long distance habitat shot of the Golden babbler and a record shot of the Flowerpecker. Given a chance, I would have definitely loved to fill the frame with highly detailed close ups of these two amazing birds, but I guess I will have to attempt it later.

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As we hiked down the trail, we stumbled onto a brightly coloured house sitting at the edge of the plantation. Next to the house there was a bright orange colored flowering plant which attracted a black throated sunbird. The light conditions weren’t that great and I had to settle for low shutter speeds which weren’t enough to freeze the wings of the sunbird.

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A little bit further away, we took a detour through the village and came across a female Chestnut bellied Rock thrush (male & female),Tickell's Thrush ,a little pied Flycatcher, a female gray bush chat and a Himalayan black lored Tit.

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Chestnut-bellied Rock thrush(M)

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Chestnut-bellied Rock thrush(F)

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Tickell's thrush

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Little Pied Flycatcher

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Gray bush chat (F)

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Himalayan black-lored Tit

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Short-billed Minivet(imo)


While shooting birds(or any wildlife), it is extremely important to be as quiet as possible in your tread. This allows you to get close up shots of the subject without causing disturbance.
Here are some of the birds which were shot at close quarters during the hike.

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Blue-tail (F)

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Niltava (F)

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Lemon-rumped Warbler(imo)


Last edited by turboNath : 11th April 2021 at 00:09. Reason: rovvv
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Old 10th April 2021, 17:05   #3
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We continued on our path till we reached a cute little homestay with a bright blue roof and a garden of exotic flowers. I took a chance by deciding to wait beside a particularly bright orange colored flowering plant and was soon rewarded with something incredible.


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It was Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird(male & female), one of the most beautiful members of the sunbird family. It was constantly flying around with his female counterpart and exploring different flowers. Just like humans taste different varieties of wine, these two went about in a spree of ‘nectar tasting’! This particular bird was on my target list for a long long time and I couldn’t wait to fill up my memory card with hundreds of shots. I think I was somewhere around my 300th shot when they decided to bid adieu and head towards the forest cover. Meanwhile, a black throated sunbird had also joined the party !

Shortly after the hurricane of shutters, we decided to head back to the camp.

In a span of 2.5 days, we had covered around 80+ species and it felt wonderful.
On a hindsight, Neora Valley is not just a collection of ancient trees and mysterious animals. It is more like a living & a breathing organism that can whisper to you, if you’re keen enough to listen. And all its words are spoken through the countless bird songs and occasional ‘whoosh’ of a gust of wind that ruffles feathers & leaves alike.
This was truly a breathtaking and humbling experience for all of us.

Last edited by turboNath : 10th April 2021 at 23:21.
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Old 11th April 2021, 08:01   #4
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Thread moved from Assembly Line to the Travelogues section. Thank you for sharing!
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Old 11th April 2021, 11:15   #5
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Allow me to be the first ones to congratulate you on such an astounding effort to document 80+ bird species. The patience and photographic preserverance it requires to document these magnificent creatures of nature is just mind numbing for mere mortals.

Sir, please take a bow for your effort and flawless photography.

The upper reaches of Bengal have a real treasure trove for birders. I Being a lover of these feathered friends am inspired by your log and will definitely endeavour to visit this land.
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Old 11th April 2021, 11:22   #6
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Woww, just wowww. What an amazing set of sightings, hats off to the hobby and your patience. My best pick from this lot would be the two sunbirds, gem of a capture. Well done and a truly 5 star thread.

Following your recommendation, last year I had ventured to Neora Valley National Park and while I am certain that the grunt of my 2.8 Turbo GD Motor scared all the natural inhabits away thereby not allowing us to spot any of them, yet the massive dense pines and the serenity of the place are still floating around in front of our eyes.

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Old 11th April 2021, 11:33   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dieseltuned View Post
Allow me to be the first ones to congratulate you on such an astounding effort to document 80+ bird species. The patience and photographic preserverance it requires to document these magnificent creatures of nature is just mind numbing for mere mortals.

Sir, please take a bow for your effort and flawless photography.

The upper reaches of Bengal have a real treasure trove for birders. I Being a lover of these feathered friends am inspired by your log and will definitely endeavour to visit this land.
Thank you so much Dieseltuned for the kind words ! You’re absolutely right - this part of West Bengal is indeed a treasure trove for birders. The fact that the Neora Valley is still far less explored when compared to other ‘traditional’ national parks makes it even more endearing. Please do plan for this amazing place. I am sure you will love every bit of it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by haisaikat View Post
Woww, just wowww. What an amazing set of sightings, hats off to the hobby and your patience. My best pick from this lot would be the two sunbirds, gem of a capture. Well done and a truly 5 star thread.

Following your recommendation, last year I had ventured to Neora Valley National Park and while I am certain that the grunt of my 2.8 Turbo GD Motor scared all the natural inhabits away thereby not allowing us to spot any of them, yet the massive dense pines and the serenity of the place are still floating around in front of our eyes.

https://Youtu.be/W-BFo2VJ3nk
Thanks a ton for the lovely words haisaikat ! Your amazing drive through the pine forests brought back so many memories. Loved the timelapse ! Now I am really yearning for another drive to this enchanting land real soon ! Thanks for sharing !

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Old 12th April 2021, 11:04   #8
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Amazing clicks sir.
Getting away from the city hustle to the hills is itself a charm, and when you have the bonus of such beautiful avifauna, nothing like it.
I would take the liberty to request you to please keep me in mind when you are planning a birding trip. Would love to go if possible.
BTW, I also just finished a trip to Corbett and spotted 5 tigers in the 3rd week of March, but didn't manage time yet to pen down my trip yet. Birding wasn't that great though I did get a few good shots of the Crested Kingfisher!
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Old 12th April 2021, 17:32   #9
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Fantastic pics of the birds. The blue fly catcher especially caught my eye.
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Old 12th April 2021, 17:53   #10
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Beautiful set of captures, must say!
By the way, are you using camera with animal eye AF/tracking?
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Old 12th April 2021, 19:45   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SchrödingersCar View Post
Amazing clicks sir.
Getting away from the city hustle to the hills is itself a charm, and when you have the bonus of such beautiful avifauna, nothing like it.
I would take the liberty to request you to please keep me in mind when you are planning a birding trip. Would love to go if possible.
BTW, I also just finished a trip to Corbett and spotted 5 tigers in the 3rd week of March, but didn't manage time yet to pen down my trip yet. Birding wasn't that great though I did get a few good shots of the Crested Kingfisher!
Thanks SchrödingersCar ! I will surely inform you before we embark on the next quest.Corbett is a place that is extremely dear to me. It is always a beautiful experience to spot the big cat in Corbett ! Please do share some pictures. Kudos to you for getting such a brilliant specimen from the Kingfisher family !

Quote:
Originally Posted by AZT View Post
Fantastic pics of the birds. The blue fly catcher especially caught my eye.
Thanks AZT ! The Himalayan blue-tail allowed us to capture it from real close quarters!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rudra Sen View Post
Beautiful set of captures, must say!
By the way, are you using camera with animal eye AF/tracking?
Thanks Rudra Sen ! I use Nikon D7500 which relies on the age old phase detection AF. Sony's latest offerings especially with the Real Time Eye-AF look incredibly lucrative. I will wait for 2-3 years, hoping that Nikon can bring a decent mirrorless so that I get to keep my glasses. Else it will be a deep plunge into the Sony ecosystem

Last edited by turboNath : 12th April 2021 at 19:46. Reason: grammar
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Old 12th April 2021, 21:09   #12
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What a travelogue! You are a phenomenal photographer. Loved each and every frames you have shared over here. Going by the list of travelogue's you posted in the past few months, please add my name to your fan list.
Rated 5*.

Last edited by Samba : 12th April 2021 at 21:11.
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Old 12th April 2021, 21:18   #13
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Here I am still waiting for a decent sighting of the two sunbirds while you are nailing hovering shots! Jokes apart, looks like you had an amazing time and hauled in a boat load of keepers. I particularly loved the Striated bulbul, Rufous-vented yuhina, Himalayan black-lored tit, Short billed minivet and ofcourse the sunbirds. I see that you are using Denoise AI. Can you tell me how has you experience been?
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Old 12th April 2021, 23:10   #14
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Default Re: Organic Holi Colours of Neora Valley

Quote:
Originally Posted by Samba View Post
What a travelogue! You are a phenomenal photographer. Loved each and every frames you have shared over here. Going by the list of travelogue's you posted in the past few months, please add my name to your fan list.
Rated 5*.
Thank you so much Samba for these lovely words ! I feel birds rank extremely high in the list of most beautiful creatures and hence I am on this relentless pursuit to capture as many as I can. And every time I spot one in the wild, I try to bring it back with me in a photograph. Your words will definitely motivate me to go further on this journey. Thanks a ton !

Quote:
Originally Posted by nav2111 View Post
Here I am still waiting for a decent sighting of the two sunbirds while you are nailing hovering shots! Jokes apart, looks like you had an amazing time and hauled in a boat load of keepers. I particularly loved the Striated bulbul, Rufous-vented yuhina, Himalayan black-lored tit, Short billed minivet and ofcourse the sunbirds. I see that you are using Denoise AI. Can you tell me how has you experience been?
Thanks nav2111 ! Yes it was a real pleasure to observe them from close quarters and witness their activities amidst the peaceful backdrop of Neora Valley. As for image processing I do basic adjustments & noise reduction through lightroom. Recently I have started using Denoise AI and found that the low light setting seems to work for most of the bird shots taken in low light (early morning, late evening). I am too lazy to adjust it for every shot and hence end up loading them into a batch. So far, I am really pleased with the results (although it does soften the pictures sometimes). Hope this helps !

Last edited by turboNath : 12th April 2021 at 23:12.
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Old 13th April 2021, 13:18   #15
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Default Re: Organic Holi Colours of Neora Valley

Delightful pics. Birds are so tough to see in urban landscape. These pics are sheer delight for the eyes
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