Welcome to what I hope will become a regular feature on The Afternoon Birder – interviews with interesting and inspiring birders and photographers from around the world.
To kick things off, I have the pleasure of introducing Rudraksha Chodankar of Whistling Trails I first came across Rudraksha and his wife Shraddha on Instagram when I was visiting Tennessee. I was drawn to their account not only for the great photographs, but also because they had an interesting story. They are from India, but were spending an extended period of time in the US and travelling in their free time.
The Afternoon Birder: I came across your Instagram account while I was travelling to Tennessee and you were also visiting the area. You’ve done a lot of traveling around the US. Can you tell us more about your trip? What were your favourite areas to visit?
That must be just after we did a trip to the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains during fall season. Shraddha has been working in the US since early 2016 and I did my 1st trip for around three weeks in November 2016. However in 2017, I took a sabbatical from my work (as an Information Security Analyst) for 6 months to spend time with Shraddha and to explore the US as much as we can. As I am responding, it’s just few days left before we both head back to India.
It’s tough to choose one as favourite since we enjoyed all our trips, be it the Yellowstone National Park or the recent trip to San Francisco and Monetary. We also enjoyed birding locally in Atlanta, especially at Murphey Candler Park and Dunwoody Nature Center.
What was your most interesting bird sighting in the US?
My most interesting bird sighting was the commonly seen Red-tailed Hawk – what makes it interesting is that I was able to spent almost an hour observing this raptor up-close as it took dips in a small stream at Dunwoody Nature Center.
Coming from India, I have to ask: how are you liking the North American winter? Have you had the opportunity to visit anywhere that’s really cold and snowy?
My experience with cold has been very short-lived, like for a maximum of 4-5 days and I loved it. We got some crazy snow in Grand Tetons, also at Smoky Mountains followed by couple of times in Atlanta as well. Having said that, I am sure spending couple of months in a place that is cold and snowy would be very different… yet to experience that.
I have never been to India, but it’s a place I would be interested in visiting one day. Can you tell us more about what it’s like? How does the birding there differ to the United States?
I can assure you that it will be one amazing experience when you visit India. India is around 1/3rd of the size of US, but experiences a variety of climatic zones – mountain, humid subtropical, tropical wet and dry, tropical wet, semi-arid and arid, which means a large variety of bird species across different habitats. We are based out of Pune that has a mix of scrub-lands, deciduous forests as well a bit of evergreen forests habitats. Birding as a hobby is not as big as it is in US, however the community is growing pretty fast.
Map of Pune, India
What is your favourite native bird?
Favourite native bird is the beautiful Indian Courser – a ground dwelling bird seen in semi arid areas. I also have a liking for the various Dove and Green Pigeon species found in India. I enjoy birding in all the different areas, as everything has something unique to offer.
How and when did you become interested in birding?
It all began in May 2014, when Shraddha and I planned a road trip with couple of friends to a place called Masinagudi in the eastern slopes of Western Ghats. For us, it was nothing but a holiday break in the quaint place nestled into nature. Birding stuck us when we decided to join our friends for an early morning walk with a local guide, and we were just blown away by the variety of avian species the guide showed us. I just had a Sony point and shoot camera (thankfully with a 50X zoom), which allowed me to get some decent images. We got so interested that as soon as we got back to home, we bought a field guide and headed to a place nearby for bird-watching. Since than there has been no looking back, birding happens almost every weekend.
Did you have a spark bird?
It was this place near our home where we came across our “spark” bird – the Pied Kingfisher. We spent quite a lot of time watching this species, especially the way it hovered and went for a kill.
What do you love most about birding?
That’s a tough one! It’s a feeling of getting completely lost in something I love to do. Be it just walking around and counting the number species, or the anticipation of rare bird I have dreamt about or even observing common birds from close quarters. I love all of it!
Your blog Whistling Trails includes both you and Shraddha. Are you both equally interested in birding? Which of you is the photographer (or both?).
I am totally ADDICTED to birding! Shraddha is interested although not as crazy as me. For example, I can spend hours at one place for glimpse of a rare bird to pop out from a bush whereas she will rather walk and hike a bit. I am the photographer but having said that, she has a knack of spotting lifers for me 😀
You do a lot of travelling, which I admire. What do you love most about traveling?
Travelling is what we both have enjoyed for a long time. A holiday for us is never about relaxation, rather we feel relaxed when we go out exploring, especially road tripping! I love driving and we totally love road trips. Trying out the local cuisine, exploring local parks, nature trails, historical architectures are something we love to do.
What’s currently at the top of your travel wish-list for birding?
Too many places really but if I had to choose one, it would be Alaska! Places like Masai Mara and Costa Rica are also pretty high on the list.
You take great photographs and not just of birds – also landscapes, nature and street photography. What is your favourite style of photography?
Thanks for the compliment although I have a lot to improve upon. I feel nature photography just comes naturally if one is into wildlife photography as it takes you to some exquisite places, although landscape photography is very challenging. Street photography is something very new for me that I started few months back.
Favourite style of photography is wildlife photography. I do share a lot of portrait clicks of birds as well as mammals, however personally I love wide-angle wildlife images. I feel it’s much more challenging and requires a lot more planning as well as knowledge of the subject. From a photography perspective, that is something I am looking to explore in coming years.
I like those wide-angle shots too, but it’s not something I have much experience with. Do you have any tips for someone wanting to start taking more wide angles photographs of wildlife?
I am still very much in learning phase myself, but one thing I would like to point is to try out wide-angle shots with common species. e.g. here is one of my favourite wide-angle images (captured with a 24mm lens) of the Heermann’s Gull. A lot of these gull species, or herons on a beach are pretty bold and allow to close in.
What camera and lenses do you use?
I use a Canon 7d Mark II with a 400mm f/5.6 lens for wildlife photography, and a 24mm f/2.8 stm lens (plus the cellphone) for everything else.
You are a guide with Wild India Eco Tours. Tell us more about this organization.
Wild India Eco Tours is a wildlife touring company run by my friends – Sunil, Bhavesh and myself where we conduct wildlife photography tours to various wildlife hotspots in India. We specialize in helping tour members to observe wildlife and assisting them in photography without compromising on comfort, ensuring the tour is memorable experience in nature.
Some of the regular tours we conduct are birding tours to Mishmi Hills in the northeast, Chopta in the Himalayan foothills, Little Rann of Kutch and so on. We also conduct personalized wildlife tours designed as per client needs.
What’s Coming Up Next For Whistling Trails?
We are in process of separating out the wildlife and travel sections of our website. The wildlife section will focus exclusively on wildlife trip reports and wildlife hotspots, whereas the travel section will focus on our overall travel experience of a trip/or more information about a specific attraction and some basic tips/suggestions on planning.
We are also looking to share experiences of our short birding trips we do every weekend, which will give insights into how varied birding experiences are – from a whopping 70+ species in a day to a day where we hardly see 10 species.
Sounds like you have some interesting changes ahead for the website. Are you looking attract a more varied audience? e.g. not just bird-watchers and wildlife lovers, but also people who just enjoy travel?
Often while on a wildlife trip, we do come across stunning scenes – like landscapes, waterfalls, sunsets and so on. Also, there is a town or city where we mostly spend the night, so more of a walk around the town in evening and how it looks like. So as you rightly pointed out, these travel blogs will appeal to a larger audience who enjoys travel, although our focus will always be on wildlife.
Finally, I have to ask about the amazing Bengal Tiger photograph on your website! Can you tell us more about the experience of seeing and photographing a Tiger? I know many people visit India in hopes of seeing this beautiful species.
That has to be one of my best experiences with the Bengal Tiger I came across while leading a Tiger Safari tour at Pench National Park in June 2016. This tigress (locally nicknamed as Mataram) is one of the many famous tigers in India from the Pench Tiger Reserve and has set a record of sorts by giving birth to an estimated 26 cubs since 2008 after her seventh litter last year.
One can do Tiger Safaris in various parks across India. A single safari last for around 3-4 hours and is carried out in an open jeep vehicle that sits a maximum of 6 tourists along with the driver and a guide. As far as tiger sighting is concerned, no one can guarantee a tiger sighting. It also depends on which park you visit, in some parks like Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Bandhavgarh National Park the chances of sighting a tiger are pretty high. To give you an idea, on the tour to Pench National Park, we had scheduled a total of four safaris. We did not see any tiger in the 1st two safaris, got a far away glimpse of a tiger on 3rd safari and then came across this beautiful tigress in final safari.
As you said, many people visit India in hopes of seeing a tiger however the jungles of India do offer a lot more species of mammals, birds, reptiles along with beautiful landscapes. We always urge people to enjoy the nature as a whole, enjoying every bit of what nature offers.