Situated at an altitude of 3000m, the Kartik Swami temple (dedicated to Kartikeya, the elder son of Lord Shiva) on the Kronch Parvat in Uttarakhand is more popular for the stupendous views that it offers of the Garhwal Himalayan peaks.
My first rendezvous with this beautiful haven was back in the year 2014 when I visited it during the rains. Ever since, as warned by the many who have visited before me, I have come back to visit over and over again, spending weeks together shooting and experiencing its majestic mountain ranges.
Not only does the temple offer uninterrupted views of the surrounding peaks, but the 3 km trek from the nearest road head also offers enough opportunities to photograph the region’s teeming wildlife. The forests, primarily Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboretum) and Oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), are home to an overabundance of Himalayan birds which include the Black-headed Jay, Hill Partridge, Koklass Pheasant, Rufous-naped Tit, White-throated Laughingthrush, Himalayan Vulture and a lot of other high altitude species. Himalayan Monal is also a winter visitor, however, recently the visits have grown less and less frequent due to lesser snowfall in the higher Himalayan ranges.
My interest in visiting the temple, which is protected under the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, has always been to shoot the diverse wildlife found in the region. But, of late, a certain species in particular has been the sole reason for my visits. Yellow-throated Martens, although found in huge numbers in the Himalayas, are an extremely difficult species to capture on camera. They tend to shy away from any sort of human contact, and though they can always be found in and around human settlements where they venture in search of easy prey, at the first sight of humans they scramble for the safety of dense thickets.
Interestingly, here at the temple, I chanced upon this peculiar richesse of martens that were exhibiting extremely bold behaviour. These martens would visit the temple and its premises every morning and evening, and feed on the offerings left behind by the devotees. I knew martens to be omnivores but was genuinely surprised to find them feeding on edibles left behind by humans. On inquiring with the pujari (priest) at the temple, I came to know that the martens have always been around. For as long as he can remember (his father and grandfather were pujari-s at the temple before him) he has seen these martens at the temple.
In recent years, the amount of plastic waste accumulating in the temple premises – in the form of incense stick packets and plastic water bottles have increased drastically. However, I have found the martens to be very smart when rummaging through the plastic waste for food. They clinically cut through polythene bottles and lick or eat whatever they can find. But, with help from the local villagers, the pujari is doing everything he can to keep the temple premises clean of plastics.
I mostly shoot alone, and from my experience, wildlife is best experienced when alone. The martens here at the temple have at times completely ignored my presence while scrounging for food in every nook and corner of the temple premises.
It was many visits before I figured out that there is a rock near the temple which these martens visit almost every day. Ever since, during my every visit I would position my camera on the rock and use a remote trigger to try and document their behaviour with the help of a wide-angle lens.
The trick to shooting any form of wildlife I think is to not approach them but to let them approach you. The more one tries to physically run after a particular subject, the further you chase them away, and sometimes they get so scared that they might not even approach the same spot for a fair amount of time. So, for shooting these martens, I always went well before sunrise to position my camera and would wait for them as and when they came to feed. From my experience, they are not really early-risers and come to feed only once there is sufficient daylight.
As far as the camera settings are concerned, my camera was always set to auto-focus, since at such a close distance even if the eye of the subject is off by a few inches it goes totally out of focus. For ample depth of field, I shot at around f/6.3 to f/9.0, and the camera was set to continuous tracking mode and configured to prioritise shooting over attaining focus.
However, the most important thing I have learned while shooting wildlife at such close distances is that the camera shutter really scares wildlife away. Even though it reduces the frames/second rate, I keep my camera in silent mode and I have seen wild birds and animals ignore these soft shutter sounds and continue doing whatever they are doing, thereby increasing my chances of getting multiple frames of the subject.
I think I am only beginning to scratch the surface of what these magnificent creatures are, and what they have to offer. But, if there is anything I have learned from travelling here, it is that humans and wild animals can exist together. The ease at which these martens roam the temple grounds, it seems as if they have been feeding these grounds forever.
Animals are excellent at adapting to humans and if we provide them with enough time and space, I believe they can even adapt to our disastrous encroaching nature.